6. The Student Experience: Papers and Problems
Curator, Naval War College Museum
Naval History and Heritage Command
Starting in 1912, Naval War College students faced a new requirement, writing a final thesis paper. Combined with lectures, readings, and war games, the paper formed the core of a student's learning experience at the Naval War College.
Most classes in the interwar years were assigned three major games as part of their studies: a hypothetical war with Japan (ORANGE), a hypothetical war with Great Britain (RED), and a historical battle. Jutland and Trafalgar were the two most gamed historical battles and, more often than not, faculty and staff chose to game Jutland as the historical battle, especially in the decade following World War I. After studying the battle in the classroom, students replayed the action using war gaming models and debated with one another about which side maneuvered more effectively. Each student then wrote a paper, in which he presented his conclusions and attempted to identify lessons that the U.S. Navy should draw from the battle. Though the subjects of these papers changed over the years, the Naval Historical Collection today holds 86 student theses on “Tactics” written between the years 1919 and 1935 that contain substantive discussion on the Battle of Jutland.
To view the full selection of Naval War College Student Theses, visit Part I of the Naval Historical Collections' Battle of Jutland online exhibition, "Learning the Battle of Jutland at the U.S. Naval War College." The exhibit includes eighteen student thesis papers that deal with Jutland including those of Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and Harold Stark.
In general, the student papers covered the battle in comprehensive fashion for the first eight years after the battle, devoting most of their time to analyzing the tactics employed by both fleets. Beginning in 1925, the paper topics become narrower and more focused, presumably because the overall events of the battle had been so widely discussed by that point. General discussions also suffered from the fact that student research was necessarily confined to the same set of sources. The result was that from year to year, students reached similar conclusions and tended not to advance any truly new viewpoints for discussion.
The most common criticism offered by the students was that British Admiral Jellicoe acted too cautiously. Reflecting the idea of the decisive battle that featured prominently in the Naval War College curriculum, the consensus was that Jellicoe could have destroyed the High Seas Fleet if he had acted with an offensive rather than defensive mindset. Many students also questioned German Admiral Scheer’s decisions, especially his turn back towards the Grand Fleet after the first battle turn away, though in general they felt that the Germans exhibited more spirit in the attack than did the English.
In later years, focus shifted to the various components of the fleets and how they were used. Between 1925 and 1931, the actions of the destroyers on both sides received a good deal of scrutiny. Student opinion ran almost universally against the British on this subject, with most arguing that the Royal Navy wasted its destroyers in a defensive role and had no real doctrine governing their use. The Germans again received more favorable commentary for at least using their destroyers to attack, even more so because their attacks were coordinated to support Scheer’s battle turn away from the British line.
By the mid-1930s, naval technology had advanced to the point where the tactics employed at Jutland no longer held much relevance. Study at the tactical level began to drop, but interest in the strategic lessons to be learned remained high. Students writing during this period began to back away from the generally positive commentary that earlier classes offered on the German navy. Many argued that while individual German ships were technically superior to their British counterparts, the German high command never articulated a coherent strategy for the High Seas Fleet's use.
To see the additional student theses on Jutland, visit "Learning the Battle of Jutland at the U.S. Naval War College," Part I of the Naval Historical Collection's Battle of Jutland online exhibition.
Naval War College Student Theses, 1916-1945, Record Group 13 (Student Theses), Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College.