Sea Power in the 20th Century
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 11 Nov 1976, p. 87-98
Place, Rear Admiral Godfrey, Speaker
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A brief history of the use of the sea, beginning at the end of the last century. The combination of wealth and sea power, peace and prosperity to follow. A review of the use of the sea in wartime. The costs of sea power. The importance of the sea in terms of international trade. The sea as a source of wealth. The role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to defence. The threat of Russia. A warning regarding the new dimensions in sea power today.
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11 Nov 1976
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NOVEMBER 11, 1976
Sea Power in the 20th Century
AN ADDRESS BY Rear Admiral Godfrey Place, V.C., C.B., D.S.C., R.N.
CHAIRMAN The President, William M. Karn


Reverend Sir, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: We of the Empire Club are highly honoured today in welcoming among our guests men of great distinction--men who in the armed services and in civilian life have performed feats of conspicuous bravery and gallantry in the interest of others, in circumstances of extreme danger.

As many of you know, the Victoria Cross was instituted on January 29th, 1856 by Queen Victoria's decree which proclaimed that it was to be awarded for conspicuous bravery. The medal was to be struck from the metal of guns captured by British forces at Sevastapol during the Crimean War, but since March 1942 when the total supply of Sevastapol metal had been consumed, gunmetal provided by the Royal Mint has been substituted.

On September 23rd, 1940, King George VI announced the creation of a new and very significant decoration which was to be called the George Cross. It was to rank next to the Victoria Cross and to be awarded to men and women in the British Commonwealth for acts of supreme gallantry and sacrifice not on the field of battle. It is intended primarily for civilians, and is made of silver. Provision was made in the royal warrant for living holders of the Empire Gallantry Medal, instituted in 1922 by King George V, and men and women who had won that award posthumously since 1939, to exchange that medal for the George Cross.

Our guest of honour, because of his great modesty, had to be coaxed by cable rather late in the day to reveal his biography for our advance notices. Included is one line which stated simply: "Commanded X Craft X7 1943 in attack on Tirpitz in North Norway (V.C. 1943)."

In anticipation of such reticence and of your interest, I visited the new public library in Birmingham, England one evening and from among other references copied the report by Brigadier the Rt. Hon. Sir John Smyth, B.T., V.C., M.C., of the attack September 22nd, 1943 on the Tirpitz, which was moored in the protected anchorage of Kaafiord, North Norway.

Kaafiord is fifty miles up narrow channels from the open sea and well within the Arctic Circle. It is an almost landlocked basin some four miles long by one and a half miles wide. The Germans had moored a double anti-submarine net across four-fifths of the 1,000-yard wide entrance and had provided within it three widely spaced berths for the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lutzow, each surrounded by a triple crinoline of anti-torpedo nets. To reach the anchorage necessitated the penetration of an enemy minefield and the passage up the fiord was known to be vigilantly patrolled by the enemy and guarded by gun defences and listening posts in addition to the antisubmarine net.

The X-class midget submarine was the Navy's answer to this form of defence. It was only about 53 feet long, was no more than thirty tons, and was manned by a crew of four. Her weapons were two large detachable explosive charges to be dropped on the sea-bed under the target ship with time fuses of long enough duration to give the attacker time to withdraw to a safe distance. The midget submarines were towed, submerged, by patrol submarines in the approach to the area of operations.

Of the six midgets in the overall plan of attack on the three battleships, only two, X-6 and X-7, reached their target, the Tirpitz, after a passage of at least one thousand miles from base.

Because they had been detected by the Tirpitz, they could not withdraw after successfully placing their charges. The commander and crew of X-6, which was scuttled, were picked up by the Tirpitz and were being questioned when the expected explosion occurred, causing complete panic on board the German battleship. Her gun crews blazed off indiscriminately, causing about a hundred casualties to their own shipping in the harbour.

Godfrey Place then surfaced X-7 and with his crew became prisoners of war. All were decorated. The Tirpitz, still in a crippled condition, was bombed and sunk by 29 Lancasters six months later.

Prior to this, our guest of honour had been awarded the D.S.C. in 1942 for his service in submarines in the Mediterranean. After that war he served on destroyers, then qualified as a naval pilot and flew with 801 Squadron from H.M.S. Glory during the Korean War, being made Commander in 1952.

He progressed through the service as Deputy Director Naval Air Warfare, being promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1968, and Admiral Commanding Reserves and Director-General, Naval Recruiting, 196870.

Upon his retirement in 1971, he became chairman of the Commonwealth Association of V.C. and G.C. Holders.

I am delighted to ask Rear Admiral Godfrey Place to give us his views on "Sea Power in the 20th Century".


Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen: It is a great honour to be invited to speak to The Empire Club of Canada, among past speakers of great distinction, a number of whose talks I have read in your year book of last year kindly sent to me by your former President. I have been impressed by the wide range of topics on which former speakers have talked and I hope that my subject, primarily the sea, is both of interest and of relevance to the City of Toronto.

In talking about sea power in the 20th century, I shall be concerned mostly with the part of this century that we live in now, but I think this century as a whole presents a fascinating history of the use of the sea: not only in the means of exercising that power, the ships and the weapons, but in the very purposes to which we put the seas and oceans of the world.

At the end of the last century, or thereabouts, the essential patterns in the use of the sea and the means of exercising control and influence at sea had not changed for many centuries, but were a logical outcome which the development of wealth and technical processes had imposed on the pattern that had changed only in scale over the centuries.

The sea was, and remains still, primarily a highway. Indeed, it is not only the most practical and economical highway between states and cities but in so many cases, the only highway capable of carrying the volume of goods on whose trade nations have developed their wealth. The latter part of the last century, and the beginning of this, saw an enormous increase in this trade as demand increased with prosperity and, in turn, engendered the search and development of more and greater variety of commodities and materials from sources of supply more distant and more remote.

Nearly three-quarters of this planet is sea. It is not by accident that most of the world's major cities are seaports; it is not by accident that many nations who have developed wealth have at the same time developed power at sea as the means of not only protecting but developing the wealth in wider and wider markets and spheres of influence. There is no essential difference between the Phoenicians carrying tin from Cornwall in the pre-Christian era, the Spanish carrying the gold from Central America in the 16th century, and the British wool and tea trade at the end of 19th century. This is the plain straightforward use of the sea: to carry the raw materials a nation needs for its wealth and industry.

It follows that such trade needs protection (piracy in some form or another has always been a hazard), and it follows that protection must be afforded both to the home country and to the distant source of raw material or market. The great demand for both volume and variety of goods had pushed forward the frontiers of the developing world, as it was pushing forward the frontiers of technical knowledge. Sail was replaced by steam at sea, and factory replaced craft industry ashore. But it followed quite logically that Britain should seek to deploy naval power wherever her markets or source of supply might be threatened and that, as speed of communication increased and the movement of ships depended less totally on the elements, that naval force could be moved rapidly from one place to another in sufficient strength to meet any real threat. Very often, the very display of such strength was a sufficient deterrent. With the submarine, the torpedo and the aeroplane as yet unrecognized in potential, at the turn of the century it was the surface warship that was the tangible representation of sea power on which British prosperity ultimately depended. Other nations felt the need for navies to protect trade, overseas colonies and their own home shores, and one sees the start of a United States strategy to exert an influence towards the farther shores of the great oceans, but Britain saw her need as a navy strong enough to defeat any alliance against her, to be seen anywhere in the world as a massive display of force. Wealth and sea power went hand in hand, peace and prosperity followed.

The differences in this pattern began to become apparent in the First World War. One might deduce that Sir Francis Drake, having learned of the greatly increased sailing ability and fire power of Nelson's ships, could have looked on at the Battle of Trafalgar with considerable understanding. One might similarly assume that Nelson, having assimilated the merits of steam power and the long range gun, would not find the Battle of Jutland totally incomprehensible nor, I venture to suggest, would he have been lacking in his own ideas for the conduct of the battle. But both Drake and Nelson would have looked at the submarine battles of the Atlantic in the First War as a new dimension in warfare. The vast armies in France were dependent for most of their supplies on the western ocean and Britain would starve in a few months if the Atlantic lifeline, as it came to be known, were cut. Britain, with her allies, had provided herself with apparently overwhelming force for the exercise of sea power but, so radical had been the changes in sea warfare, that in 1917 the question must have been anxiously asked is it adequate to keep the sea lanes open? As we know, it very nearly wasn't!

If we come closer to our present time, we would find Drake and Nelson, now comprehending the problems of the Atlantic struggle, and more in touch with the needs of a modern navy against submarines to which Britain had devoted considerable study between the wars, but both would look in some awe at the Battle of Midway and the whole vast deployment of ships and aeroplanes against an enemy many thousands of miles from the home country. For the allies, here was sea power to be used on the whole vast global scale.

In the Pacific, the enemy had provided themselves with the means of challenging the supremacy of the allies over a very considerable part of the Pacific, to achieve land conquests behind a screen of seaward defence. In the Atlantic, the other enemy had the means of interrupting and destroying not only the supplies to the armies in Europe and North Africa but to challenge the very means of survival of the nations who would act as advanced bases for the prosecution of the war.

It is an awesome thought, even today, how dependent were land forces deployed all over the world--in North Africa, the islands of the Pacific, in Russia, whose war industries were almost totally destroyed at the start of the German Advance, and later in Italy and France--how totally dependent were these massive armies on allied sea power stretched to its limit in every ocean of the world.

Fascinating as may be these thoughts of the past, my aim is more to look at sea power today and in the near future.

The development of atomic weapons since 1945 has' produced the obvious corollary that direct aggression on the scale of the last two world wars can no longer be considered as a possible means of achieving political aims. I do not think that anyone would dispute that warfare on this scale would spell the end of civilization as we know it on this planet.

In an age when inter-continental ballistic missiles can put massive destructive power with pin-point accuracy anywhere in the world, how does one see the relevance of navies and the maintenance of sea power, not only by the great powers of the United States and Russia but by those of lesser wealth who, in the western world, make their contribution through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

Sea power was never cheap. Whilst sea power has contributed to the prosperity of powerful and wealthy nations, those nations have also needed the wealth to support costly fleets: today, not only are ships and weapons enormously costly, but--unusual in the history of the sea--the sailors must be properly paid. In the past, ships could be held in reserve unmanned to be ready in emergency and further ships could be adapted from merchant vessels; today, the warship is too specialized for it to be effective from merchant ship conversion. It is too complex to remain in an unmaintained reserve, and it is so involved as to be slow to build. One simply cannot visualize any cheap way to have sea power, so to speak, at the ready and, although a reserve of trained or partially trained manpower is clearly a requirement, one must visualize that the ships in being and in commission, and deployed in their present positions, constitute the sea power of a nation or an alliance to meet an emergency.

There are two principal events, and, of course, a whole heap of lesser ones, which seem to me to have vindicated the western allies' policy of keeping powerful fleets in being in the past quarter of a century, when there have been times when criticism has been cast on the policies.

It was, to my mind, a most courageous decision for the United States and the western allies to go to the support of South Korea when that country was invaded in 1951. A reliance on overwhelming sea power to ensure the safety of the supply line from America and Western Europe made it possible--so undisputed, in fact, that the idea it might be at risk hardly entered anyone's mind. It was also, to my mind, one of the truly great decisions of the 20th century that at the same time President Truman decided to maintain and even re-inforce allied forces in Europe--again, an impossibility without the security of the Atlantic for maintenance and supply.

The lesson was not lost on Russia. However, much as she may have wanted to extend Communist influence in the Far East or extend her frontiers and satellites in Europe and, heaven knows, she had annexed a great deal since 1943 =she had no way of even threatening allied power at sea.

Had the Russian submarine building program been further advanced, or had there been more of tier cruisers (then under construction) capable of showing a presence at sea, the threat might or might not have had an influence on the future of both the Far East and Western Europe. We don't know. But to the Russians, it was clear that she lacked the means for exercising the options. To keep those open, she increased her submarine and cruiser building programs.

Russia had traditionally regarded her naval forces as an extension of the land battle. Indeed, as a land power with an empire adjacent to her land frontiers, although none the less an empire, she had not joined in the world scramble for overseas colonies in the late nineteenth century. She had wealth of untapped raw materials and undeveloped resources within and adjacent to her own frontiers. But the events of the 1950's showed her the value of being able to dispute on the high seas. It was also in the 1950's that we saw the policy of deterrence by the threat of nuclear retaliation to preserve the peace of the world exercised by the West, in terms of the striking power of atomic weapons directed from the United States and N.A.T.O. striking fleets. At that time, before the nuclear-missile-carrying submarine gave increased immunity to detection and before the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile made strike or retaliation possible from secure shore bases, Russia developed a fleet of ships still designed as an extension of the land forces, to protect Russia from western strike on the home country.

But, one suspects, Russia had never lost sight of a declared communist intention of seeking a world dominated by sympathetic communist governments and, as Russian industry recovered from the destruction of World War II, this intention became apparent in countries of Africa and the Middle East and, most noticeably, in Cuba in the early 1960's.

When the United States felt herself threatened by the establishment of missile firing bases in Cuba within the Western Hemisphere, her reaction was immediate and decisive. The United States had the sea power to dominate the local scene: Russia had neither the ships nor the training to make any show of force in the waters round Cuba and the world breathed again!

We do not know, again, whether Russia would have exercised a show of force at the time had she been able to do so, or what might have been the result. But clearly what Russia felt was that she lacked this option, and it is from that date that Russia decided that her fleets should no longer be simply an extension of the land battle but should be composed of ships capable of ranging the oceans of the world and have crews trained in a worldwide role for both peace and war. Today, we see that policy coming to fruition as the Russian navy approaches parity with that of the United States and as she admits to spending 121/z % of her gross national product on defence--and it may well be more--as opposed to 3 to 7% in western countries.

So, as we stand at the start of the last quarter of the 20th century, it is as well to take stock of the world in relation to its largest element--the sea!

International trade has become the basis of the wealth of western nations and no country in what we call the western world is entirely self-supporting; all would suffer in their present standard of living were they to stop trading with other nations. Some 80% of international trade is carried by sea, a greater volume than ever before, and no one can visualize the possibility of this international trade being carried by other means. The sea as an international highway is of vital interest to western countries for their whole way of life.

We have accepted a defence policy of deterrence: the principle of massive nuclear retaliation to deter any direct aggression. Clearly, it would make no sense to embark on nuclear war for a single small act of aggression, so the western powers maintain a sufficient force on the ground and supporting air bases to contain lesser violations. These forces stationed overseas rely on the sea for their supplies and could probably continue as effective forces for a few weeks only were that supply line denied to them.

The sea is becoming a source of mineral wealth. The past 25 years have seen the exploration of the sea bed for oil and we are now seeing the fruition of that work as increasing supplies of oil are coming from off-shore rigs. Whether other minerals will be extracted from the oceans or the ground below is hard to predict, but there is no doubt they are there.

Fish from the sea is an important food supply, and the fishing fleets of many countries range the oceans of the world, some further from their own shores than ever before. One looks at the possibilities of fishing deeper and more efficiently to back up the world food supplies and the prospects of fish farming on a sizeable commercial scale are more than fanciful dreams.

The sea, in fact, in this latter part of the 20th century is as important to our prosperity, to our national strategies in the maintenance of peace, and to our sources of power and food as it has ever been before, and it would be too idealistic to hope that individual national interests will not conflict in its use. The use of the sea needs protection as never before.

In this setting we see also nations developing in wealth and power as their political systems adjust to this century and as their peoples seek an equivalent standard of living to others. And one cannot but take note of an ideological conflict in the world and of the communist creed which links those countries adopting that ideology and political system with Soviet Russia. The vital strategic difference of the last quarter of this century is that Russia has now provided herself with the fleets capable of exercising sea power as both a show of force and a practical means of modern warfare anywhere in the oceans of the world. It is a circumstance, call it a threat if you wish, that no nation which values its peace and prosperity can afford to disregard.

We have established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to contain the direct expansion of communism into the western world at its most obvious point of contact, and there is no doubt that the contribution by the various nations to this treaty has preserved the world from major conflict for more than 25 years. But such is the versatility of sea power on a world-wide scale that ships today can deploy the striking power of modern weapons, or even ground forces if need be, so quickly that the immediate advantage of the aggressor can be decisive in circumstances that could not be allowed to escalate to major nuclear war. Indeed, the very threat can be decisive where there is little or no force available to counter it. If Russia has now provided herself with the means of exerting that threat whenever she chooses, the western nations must face this influence in all areas of our planet, however remote they may seem to us today.

The exercise of sea power, as I have said, is not cheap and God knows what sacrifices the Russian people have had to bear to build up so large a fleet in so short a time; but it is capable of bringing within Russian influence and within Russian ideology areas of the world which may directly influence our prosperity and our way of life and it is impossible to believe that this effort was made solely for reasons of prestige or keeping up with the Joneses. Its existence and capability, even its peaceful visits to other countries, are an evidence of the power of Russia and of a policy to extend that power whenever opportunity may offer.

It is not for me to put forward strategies for western nations to counter what seems to me a threat of world-wide domination, now in overt capability of sea power where, until recently, this threat has been more in subversive and covert means. But, so dependent are all our western countries on the sea and its peaceful uses that to disregard this new dimension in sea power today would be to our individual and collective peril--even to the loss of our whole way of life.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Colonel S. F. Andrunyk, O.M.M., C.D., a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Sea Power in the 20th Century

A brief history of the use of the sea, beginning at the end of the last century. The combination of wealth and sea power, peace and prosperity to follow. A review of the use of the sea in wartime. The costs of sea power. The importance of the sea in terms of international trade. The sea as a source of wealth. The role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to defence. The threat of Russia. A warning regarding the new dimensions in sea power today.