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The War in the Air and at Sea
Why was control of the sea so important?

HMS Dreadnought, 1906, © IWM

Britainís naval superiority and dominance of trade routes had allowed her to enjoy a position of great power and wealth. This came under threat in the lead up to the First World War when Germany began a policy of naval expansion under the command of Admiral Tirpitz. Both sides entered into a Naval arms race in an attempt to outnumber each otherís fleet. The development of the Dreadnought heightened the competition and, despite the large costs, Britain had built up a greater number than Germany by the outbreak of war.


The German High Seas Fleet realised that, despite its best attempts, the Royal British Navy was superior in both size and naval experience. In addition, neither side wanted to risk destroying their expensive battleships and instead used sea power to try and block supplies and force the other side to surrender.

The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare came close to achieving this aim in 1917 when Great Britain was almost starved out of the War. Although unrestricted submarine warfare was successful in sinking several tonnes of shipping destined for Britain, it was not foolproof. The British developed a highly successful convoy system to overcome this threat. It also damaged the German war effort. German U-Boats targeted merchant and civilian ships such as the Lusitania, as well as battleships. It was the sinking of this ship in 1915 that helped to bring the USA into the War against Germany.

The British Naval policy was to blockade Germany and its allies. By cutting Germany off from all supplies of food and raw materials by sea the Royal Navy inflicted serious damage on their war effort. By 1918, German forces were less well fed and equipped, and in Germany public support for the War dropped. In the end the German High Seas Fleet was ordered to break the blockade-- an impossible task-- mutiny and the abdication of the Kaiser followed.

Why do you think control of the Sea was so important to Britain?

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A - The wealth and power of the British Empire came from her control of trading routes and large merchant navy. Without control of the Sea this position would be in danger.

B - Churchill said Admiral Jellicoe was 'the only man who could lose the War in an afternoon'.

C - Getting men and supplies to the Front without obstruction.

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