The Washington Treaty

Throughout the new Victory at Sea rulebook (which is shaping up to be a handsome beast!), we are including a number of ‘articles’ that get into the nitty-gritty of naval warfare during World War II.  The following is a first draft of a piece on the all important Washington Treaty…


At school, we were all taught that the cause of the First World War was the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  This is not completely believable as, it has to be said, no one is that popular.

Once you start digging into the causes of the war, the reasons become twisted and complex (though Black Adder’s view that it was just too much trouble not to have a war does have some merit). The network of treaties and alliances that both bound Europe together and segregated it into two camps was certainly the vehicle by which war arrived, but there is more to it than that.

We are interested in the naval perspective and that had a strong part to play.  Britain was the dominant world power throughout the 19th Century, controlling the largest empire in history.  To do this, it needed an immense navy able to patrol the waters of every corner of the globe.  While other nations remained relatively weak in comparison, the status quo remained in check.  Towards the end of the 19th Century, this precarious balance began to topple as the rise of other industrial nations, such as Russia, America, France, Japan and, of course, Germany, threatened to close on Britain’s level.

This, in part, manifested itself in the navies these nations started to construct. After all, if you wanted to claim your nation was a serious power and a real presence on the world stage, the only way was to be able to at least give the Royal Navy a challenge.

Those in Britain could see what was happening, and the Two Power Policy was instituted, whereby a commitment was made to ensure the Royal Navy was at least as strong as the next two strongest navies combined.  This was to be achieved through raw industrial might, by producing twice as many battleships, and through technological innovation.  It was the latter that started the long spiral downwards.

It has to be remembered what battleships meant at the turn of the century.  They were the most complicated and powerful vehicles on the planet, and an outward projection of a nation’s status.  If you did not have a large fleet of battleships, you were a nobody.  In a way, they were viewed in the same way as nuclear weapons and carrier groups were during the Cold War, or how stealth and drone technology is viewed today.  They meant power and prestige.  They meant everything to an aspiring nation.

When the Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought in 1906, it took a huge leap forward.  This ship used steam turbines, making it the fastest battleship in the world and, eschewing the numerous secondary batteries of the era, carried ten main guns, literally making it two and a half times more powerful than any other ship afloat.  In one stroke, the Royal Navy had made every other battleship in the world obsolete – including its own.

The effect was to effectively ‘reset’ the clock.  Britain had Dreadnought but now the other industrial nations had a chance to catch up by producing their own ‘dreadnoughts.’  Thus began a dangerous arms race that led directly to the gap between Britain and other nations shrinking and culminating in the First World War.

Despite drawbacks of battleships that might not have been quite so obvious at the time, along with inconclusive results of the war at sea (arguments still rage today as to who really won the Battle of Jutland), when the armistice was signed and peace reigned once more, every industrial nation began a mad scramble to build more battleships, and to make them bigger.

Britain still had the world’s largest navy, but it was being closely followed by the USA and then by Japan. In 1920, the USA declared it would build a navy second to none, while Japan had already started its 8:8 programme (the building of 8 battleships and 8 battlecruisers). In 1921, Britain showed its determination to keep pace by ordering the construction of the G3 battlecruisers and N3 battleships.  This acceleration of capital ship construction quickly raised new fears of an escalation of arms, as the similarities to the Anglo-German dreadnought race leading up to the First World War were apparent for all to see.

Meanwhile, the strategic thinking in Britain was not aimed at Germany, Japan or even France (the Entente having been signed a few years earlier), but at the rising industrial power across the Atlantic, America.  For its part, America was beginning to assume its role as the leading economic power of the world and saw a confrontation (military or otherwise) with the leading trade power, Britain, as something of an inevitability.

What happened next is extremely important, as though it happened nearly twenty years before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was probably the most powerful factor in effecting how the war was to be fought at sea.  It changed everything.

The Washington Naval Conference took place from November 1921 to February 1922, at the behest of American politicians who started having second thoughts about engaging in a dangerous, expensive and unpredictable arms race. It was an unprecedented move.  The five leading naval powers (the USA, Britain, Japan, France and Italy – Germany was already under heavy restrictions from the Treaty of Versailles) attended, with the aim of reducing the number and power of battleships in the world. This was to be the first international arms treaty of its type.

Total tonnage limits were imposed on the signatories, along with a maximum limit of 35,000 tons for any single vessel and with no gun larger than 16”. It should be noted that this tonnage excluded fuel and boiler water, as the British claimed their global empire required higher fuel loads and thus they should not be penalised. It was something they got away with.

Also, only two carriers per nation could exceed 27,000 tons, and those two were limited to 33,000 tons, an exception made because existing battlecruisers under construction were being converted into carriers (such as the Kaga, Akagi and USS Lexington).  Guns on carriers were sharply limited, so nations could not side-step the treaty by putting a few aircraft on a battleship and calling it a carrier.

New ships could be built or replaced under the treaty, but the other signatories had to be notified of each new build. Fortifications and naval bases were untouched, though no new sites could be built, and many existing ones could not be improved, barring those on the mainlands of the signatory nations.

The navies of these nations started building ships in a new heavy cruiser class, but few new battleships were built.  Instead, conversions were made to existing vessels, resulting in fleets that had a lot of World War I era ships.

Every participating nation had their own reasons for signing the Washington Treaty, and every nation used their own methods to circumvent it.

Britain was the only nation forced to scrap large numbers of frontline ships to meet the treaty’s obligations, thus causing it to finally abandon the Two Power Policy (much to the relief of the Treasury). In all, 28 capital ships were scrapped, close to the combined strength of both the Japanese and American battle fleets.

So, why did Britain sign up to the treaty, if the cost were to be so heavy?

Well, by the turn of the century, America’s industrial capacity had grown significantly, finally overtaking that of Britain’s (Britain’s industrial production at the time was just under a fifth of the world’s total, the USA’s just under a quarter).  Therefore, Britain could not out produce the USA in the long term, as it had managed with Germany, and it certainly could not consider maintaining the Two Power Policy with Japan added into the mix. The treaty allowed Britain to maintain parity with the USA for two vital decades and avoid an arms race that could end in disaster, either financially or in outright war with America.

The first casualties were the scrapping of the G3 battlecruisers and N3 battleships. The latter were to be 48,000 ton vessels with reinforced deck armour and carry nine 18” guns, the largest weapons to be mounted on a British ship.

The need to increase armament and armour while keeping under the treaty limitations led to experimental designs, such as the Nelson and Rodney, which retained some key concepts from the G3 and N3 ships. These ships used boiler feed water tanks as part of their armour and had unusual gun arrangements designed to maximise firepower and limit weight. Ships were also designed that could have armour added to them after a war began.

The treaty immediately stalled the building of new battleships for America and, in fact, it would build no new battleships for nearly twenty years, until the USS North Carolina came about in 1937.

As overall ship length is a factor in its speed, and because greater length meant more weight, America developed high-strength boilers to gain higher speed in smaller ships.  Ships also adopted an ‘all or nothing’ approach to armour, heavily reinforcing the most critical areas such as engines and magazines, but having very little elsewhere. The reasoning was that thin armour would be of no use anyway in an engagement so the ship would be better off without its weight (which must have been a great comfort to the crew stationed in those areas).  However, these approaches allowed American ships to fit within their treaty obligations but retain heavy protection, spotty though it might be, and firepower.

The US Navy initially had a low opinion on the use of carriers, even after Billy Mitchell’s display of aircraft bombing the German battleship Ostfriesland.  To be fair to the brass, the demonstration demonstrated little, as it took the aircraft many runs to deliver a knock out blow on an ageing and stationary target. Still, they got their own back as Mitchell was court-martialled for insubordination a few years later (researching him, he does not sound like someone you would want round for dinner).

However, the treaty did force the conversion of the USS Lexington and Saratoga from battlecruisers to carriers, starting the US Navy on its path to having carriers at its core. The treaty was thus a major cause of the USA turning from battleships to carrier-based forces.  Pearl Harbour was the final nail in that coffin.

Joining in with experimental designs, such as the Dunkerque and Richelieu with their strange turret arrangements, France started to rebuild its navy.

As a nation, France was not happy with the treaty, as it put France on parity with Italy.  This was, first, something of an affront to its dignity as an imperial nation and second, from a more practical view, put France at a strategic disadvantage for while it had to cover both the Atlantic and Mediterranean with its fleet, Italy only needed to cover the latter. However, its close tie with Britain mollified French politicians somewhat. If France came under serious threat, Britain would be obliged to act (which worked out well, as the denial of aircraft during the German invasion and subsequent rout at Dunkirk proved).

While other nations used cunning engineering developments and carefully restructured the design of their battleships to circumvent the sprit of the treaty (which was, remember, to limit not just the numbers and size of battleships but their power as well), Italy took a far simpler approach.  It just flat out lied about the tonnage of the new ships it was building.

As with France, Italy had little interest in its navy fighting far from its own territory, and built no carriers until the Second World War was clearly going to happen.

Withdrawing from the treaty in 1936, Japan continued its original building programme, which included putting 18” guns on the Yamato, a massive violation of the treaty.

Japan was the wildcard.  Britain and America were both deliberately blocking Japanese trade in favour of their own and if Japan had any ambitions in the Pacific, then the extensive British colonies there hemmed her in.

The treaty was modified in 1930 during the London Naval Treaty, which limited the guns that could be put on cruisers, splitting the class between light and heavy cruisers.  It also limited the size and firepower of submersibles, ending the idea of the big gun submersible which both the British and French had already tried with the M Class and Surcouf respectively, effectively creating underwater cruisers (not that the idea was a good one, and both submersibles ended up at the bottom of the sea),

During a round of naval talks in London, Japan stunned everyone present by suggesting the abolition of the battleship in its entirety.  The argument put forward was persuasive but it fooled no one – the battleship was the only weapon that realistically threatened Japan and if Britain and America folded their fleets, Japan would be free to reign in the Pacific.  The proposal was refused, as Japan planned and expected, and they left the meeting, eventually terminating their part of the treaty.

This was a calculated move on Japan’s part, as they immediately started an aggressive ship building programme designed to steam ahead (pardon the pun) while their enemies were still confined by the Washington Treaty. Dedicating itself to technological superiority, knowing it could not beat Britain or America through industrial strength, Japan immediately started construction on two of what would become the largest and most powerful battleships the world would ever see – the Yamato and Musashi, each nearly twice the displacement of the next largest warships afloat.

The Second London Naval Treaty was signed in 1936, imposing further limits on tonnage and firepower but, tellingly, a number of clauses were built into it.  Japan had already walked out of the treaty and Italy had followed them, so Britain, France and the USA more or less agreed that if any nation, anywhere in the world, violated the terms of the treaty, then their own restrictions would also be allowed to relax.  What happened next was, perhaps, predictable.

Once one nation started building ships that violated the treaty (and Germany was certainly a factor here – though by no means the only guilty party – with its construction of first the pocket battleships then the Bismarck and Tirpitz), the others had to join in or risk being left behind in a field of military endeavour that decided which countries were actually empires and which were just countries. The result of all this as agreements broke down was an arms race, the very thing the Washington Treaty was designed to avoid.

The Washington Treaty had a powerful effect on the ships used in the Second World War and, to a large extent, how they came to be used.  It forced carriers upon navies before they had been properly proved in battle (though they would be fully embraced soon enough), and limited the ultimate size of most battleships that fought in the war as well as their weapons. Moreover, its breaking down made peace between some nations impossible.

All that said, the Washington Treaty has been much maligned in subsequent years as it obviously did nothing to stop the Second World War.

It is, however, entirely possible that it did stop the Anglo-American War of the 1930’s…


Comments on this post

  • Hi!

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    Comment by Kleinst on February 2, 2012 at 9:46 am

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