In this Spy Ships series, Holmes begins with the early days of naval espionage, In the Beginning, and continues with The Golden Age of Spy Ships, The US Navy Comes of Age, and Spy Ships in the Civil War. Today, he takes a look at the role of Spy Ships in the Spanish-American War and World War One, and the price of ignoring the intelligence they glean.
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Spy Ships in World War One and the Price of Ignoring Intelligence
After the US Civil War, interest in funding the US Navy declined, and the US entered another period of isolation. Pacific region nations offered no significant naval competition, and European countries were continuing their long-standing tradition of alternately allying with and invading each other. Congress and the public felt no compelling need for constructing a great navy.
image from shelledy.mesa.k12.co.us
The US remained focused on continental expansion and westward migration across the United states and territories. The central US military theme during this period was the Indian Wars carried out by the Army at the expense of Native American tribes.
From the US point of view, spy ship activity continued with a focus on the Caribbean and South America. European powers also maintained an interest in controlling South American nations, but Europe’s internal conflicts prevented it from effectively exercising imperial interests in Central and South America.
From the 1870s until 1898, the US conducted no major naval intelligence efforts beyond the normal diplomacy and observations carried out by US naval vessels on routine foreign port visits. However, European navies were more active in intelligence and supported the continuing European conflicts with aggressive spy ship activities.
In particular, the French and British Navies maintained organized naval intelligence efforts against each other, but Europe’s single greatest potential impact on the Americas during this period was the French effort to build a canal across Panama.
Panama Canal, image from constructionequipmentguide.com
The French canal building efforts in Panama helped to convince the US taxpayers and Congress to fund modernization of the US Navy on a moderate scale. The French were doomed to failure due to poor reconnaissance and planning, but their efforts still served as a wake up call to Congress.
After the assassination of President Garfield In 1881, Chester Arthur assumed the US Presidency and brought with him two strong visions to the White House. His first vision was for the reform of the US government and the implementation of the civil service test system. His second great vision involved recognizing the importance of international affairs and foreign trade.
Arthur was convinced that the safety of the US depended in large part on the revitalization of the US Navy. The American people agreed, and Congress authorized the construction of a few modern (and expensive) steel ships.
As revolutionary activity in Spain’s Caribbean and Philippine colonies increased, the US Navy took a growing interest in gathering intelligence from both areas. In 1882, in response to its new emphasis on foreign trade and international diplomacy, the US government openly funded formal intelligence work by founding the first independent intelligence service, the Office of Naval Intelligence.
During the first twelve years of its history, ONI was able to remain aloof of Washington politics and was wildly successful in gathering intelligence in Asia and South America. By 1893, the Navy was using ONI as a tool for supporting its funding requests and strategic debates.
In the years leading up to the Spanish American War, ONI was somewhat distracted by the politics in Washington, but by returning to the Civil War tactics of using Naval vessels for landing and retrieving agents at night, they managed to provide critical intelligence from the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
One of the most important pieces of information that Naval Intelligence was able to deliver to the US government was an accurate assessment of Spain’s large but declining navy. Naval Intelligence accurately predicted that, due to a lack of adequate colliers for replenishing coal, Spain would limit its fleet operations to essential areas in the Caribbean and the Philippines and would not risk an escalation of the war by attacking US cities. This allowed the US to concentrate its naval forces on blockading Cuba and, in support of amphibious operations in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
image from zpub.com
The US was able to take advantage of Spain’s economic problems and her inability to properly support long-range operations in distant waters. As a result, the US wrestled away Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain and established friendly relations and strong trade with a newly independent Cuba.
That was to be ONI’s last significant achievement for years to come. The civilian political forces controlling ONI would exercise such a strong influence over intelligence officers that ONI began to resemble a political propaganda agency rather than an independent intelligence service. ONI routinely subverted its own best officers in order to provide reports that were politically acceptable to the Secretary of the Navy, the White House and Congress.
As Europe spiraled toward the tragedy of World War One, intelligence officers aboard US ships and working from US consulates and embassies often produced good work, but they were mostly ignored by ONI leadership as ONI continued to produce intelligence reports that were little more than custom printing jobs ordered up by politicians in Washington.
A review of old intelligence reports submitted by US ships at that time reveals a lack of enthusiasm by about a third of the intelligence officers at sea. Reading the reports submitted by naval personnel at US consulates and embassies reveals a similar state of affairs.
One of the new weapons available to naval intelligence services was the submarine. In the absence of radar and sonar (both World War Two developments) submarines presented a marvelous opportunity for conducting intelligence operations on enemy shores. However, they were not employed in this role by the UK or the US.
One of the biggest failures of intelligence leading up to World War One was ONI’s failure to predict the risks posed by German submarines and surface commerce raiders (military ships that pursued merchant ships) to the economy of Great Britain. It’s not that intelligence officers couldn’t imagine the possibility, it’s that it didn’t matter when they did. Even the highly respected British Admiral of the Fleet 1st Earl John Jellicoe was ignored when he warned that Great Britain could lose the war at sea without ever fighting a major engagement if German submarines were not stopped from sinking British and allied shipping.
German U Boat, image from sjsapush.com
The US and Great Britain failed to prepare for these risks and paid dearly for the failure. Due to their lack of appreciation of the threats posed by German submarines and surface commerce raiders, the British Admiralty did not order the convoying of merchant ships until 1917, three years into the war.
In the two decades leading up to World War One, both the US and Great Britain had the ships and personnel necessary to conduct effective ship-based spying on Germany, but they lacked the administrative freedom to use the intelligence gained to provide meaningful independent reports.
The occasional brilliant, accurate reports that young intelligence officers dared to submit were routinely discarded. The spy ships were available, but the intelligence they were supplying was largely ignored in favor of political assumptions.
To understand this expensive failure of intelligence, one must consider the state of mind of the societies and governments involved in the conflict. The US and Great Britain were so focused on winning major naval engagements between capital ships (battleships and heavy cruisers) that it became too difficult to understand the threat posed by small “asymmetrical” weapons and tactics such as the German U Boat.
One of the most important intelligence questions can never be answered by intelligence services in any democratic society. How can a nation ensure that intelligence gathered by its services will be recognized, understood and responded to by the decision makers beyond the intelligence services?
Next week we will look at the evolution of spy ship operations prior to and during the Second World War.