Fleet conferences

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As fleet conferences three major international conferences are maritime powers in the interwar period referred to with questions of naval armament employed: the Washington Conference 1921-22 the London Conference in 1930 and the London Conference 1935/36. Another unsuccessful conference was held in Geneva in 1927. The contracts concluded set upper limits for the number of ships in the participating countries as well as constructive restrictions on individual ship types in order to prevent an arms race . The treaties lost their effect with the Second World War .

Arms race 1919 to 1921

The Royal Navy had hardly started extensive naval armament during the First World War ; in most cases only the pre-war programs were completed. After this war another arms race loomed. This time the threat to Great Britain did not come from the German Reich , whose modern battle fleet had sunk itself in Scapa Flow , but from overseas: Both the USA and Japan had significantly increased their stocks of combat ships and were apparently willing to continue to catch up with the Royal Navy. Even the US construction program of 1916 with ten modern battleships and six battlecruisers would have put the British fleet in the shade, at least qualitatively, and in 1919 the US Congress approved Woodrow Wilson's request for six more battleships.

In Japan, the "8: 8 program" was approved in June 1920 (and corresponding construction contracts were issued), according to which two squadrons with 8 capital ships each were to be kept in service, the ships being replaced by newbuildings after 8 years. Great Britain responded in the summer of 1921 with a series of four newly developed battlecruisers, which were to be followed by four more battleships. A new arms race threatened to become as ruinous as the German-British one before 1914. The British Empire would probably no longer have been able to cope with this arms race after the bloodletting of the First World War.

The Washington, Geneva and London Conferences

The 1922 Washington Naval Conference

According to the contractual agreements, the USS Lexington was not allowed to be completed as a battle cruiser and was therefore redesigned as an aircraft carrier.
The first "Washington cruiser": the Japanese Kako

In this situation, the newly elected government under US President Harding sounded out the possibilities of a naval disarmament conference with the major naval powers. The governments of Great Britain , France and Italy agreed; The government of Japan hesitated only after some hesitation, as it feared that it would be taken advantage of by major Western powers.

On November 12, 1921, the Conference of the Five Great Sea Powers met. Many of the US proposals were incorporated into the treaty relatively quickly. Important points of the contract signed on February 6, 1922 read:

  • ten-year construction freeze for all capital ships;
  • Making a ratio of 5 (US): 5 (GB): 3 (J): 1.75 (F): 1.75 (I);
  • based on the current number in the individual fleets, the maximum number of capital ships is limited to 20 British, 18 US, 10 Japanese, 7 French and 6 Italian.
  • Limitation of the individual aircraft carriers to 27,000 ts and eight 8 8 inch guns;
  • Limitation of the number of new battleships to 35,000 ts and a maximum caliber of 40.6 cm;
  • Limitation of all other ship types to a maximum of 10,000 ts and 20.3 cm guns;
  • New builds of capital ships may only serve to replace obsolete units after 20 years at the earliest;
  • UK and US commitment not to expand their bases in the Pacific;
  • the contract was valid until 1946 (or up to two years after termination by one of the members).

(1 English long ton (ts) = 1.016 metric ton (t) = 1.016 kg)

Since the total tonnage of the capital ship fleet was also limited, not all ships could achieve the respective maximum value. The USA and Great Britain were allowed to own 500,000 ts of capital ships, Japan 300,000 ts and France and Italy 175,000 ts each. By setting 35,000 ts per ship, this would later lead to the upper limits of 525,000 ts and 315,000 ts respectively. The same applied to the aircraft carriers, for which the upper limits of 135,000 ts (US & GB), 81,000 ts (J) and 60,000 ts (F & I) applied. The qualitative limits for the other classes of ship led to the development of cruisers that were known under the term "Washington cruisers".

There were still certain exemptions that allowed Great Britain, for example, to build two new battleships ( Nelson and Rodney ) immediately , as well as France and Italy to begin replacing obsolete ships in 1927. The "non-fortification clause" was included in order to win Japan's approval to replace the British-Japanese alliance with a new " four-power pact " in the Pacific . Through this pact, the four powers USA, Great Britain, France and Japan guaranteed their possessions in this region.

The 1927 Geneva Conference

The Washington Naval Treaty was the first disarmament treaty in modern times. In the following years, however, it became clear that the individual sea powers were more or less distant from the "spirit of disarmament": In the smaller classes of ships, for which the total tonnage was not limited, a new arms race soon began - this time with the cruisers. The US President Calvin Coolidge therefore convened a new naval armament conference in Geneva in February 1927 . This was quite a failure: France and Italy didn't even take part because they didn't want to be restricted any further; and Great Britain, with reference to the extensive overseas areas of responsibility of the Royal Navy, demanded a number of cruisers which the US delegation was not willing to accept. The conference broke up with no result.

The 1930 London Conference

In order to get the problem with the arms race in the cruisers under control and to gain clarity as to how the fleet armament should continue after the end of the ten-year construction break agreed in Washington, delegations from Great Britain, the USA and Japan entered on January 22, 1930 London together. France and Italy only took part as observers; both felt unjustly set back in 1922. The April 22nd treaty stipulated:

  • Extension of the construction break until 1936; France and Italy only undertook to begin their two replacement buildings, which they had been entitled to since 1927;
  • Establishing the basic battleship ratio of 15: 15: 9 units by scrapping surplus ships;
  • Modification of the Washington ratio for cruisers in favor of Japan to 10 (US): 10 (GB): 7 (J);
  • Establishing an upper limit for cruisers, which have now been divided into two types:
Type Great Britain United States Japan
Caliber over 15.5 cm
" Heavy Cruiser "
maximum 15 ships
146,800 ts
a maximum of 18 ships
180,000 ts
maximum 12 ships
108,400 ts
Caliber under 15.5 cm
" light cruiser "
192,200 ts 143,500 ts 100,450 ts
All in all: 339,000 ts 323,500 ts 208,850 ts
  • Maximum limit for destroyer stocks at 150,000 ts (US & GB) and 105,000 ts (J);
  • Qualitative maximum limit for destroyers to 1,850 ts ( flotilla commander ) or 1,500 ts (normal) and 12.7 cm guns;
  • New buildings up to 600 ts were not subject to any quantitative restrictions;
  • Limitation of the number of submarines to 52,700 ts each, a maximum of 2,000 ts per boat;
  • Determination of the use of submarines within the framework of the price regulation for surface ships.
US battleship USS Florida in Kiel in 1930 before it had to be scrapped due to the London Treaty.

Great Britain, after the experiences of the First World War anxious to abolish the submarine weapon completely, was pleased that at least this last point was accepted by all five sea powers. However, British naval supremacy continued to crumble, as France and Italy did not succeed in setting a maximum limit for cruisers and smaller units. Instead, all naval powers went over to the increased construction of light cruisers. After all, the three great sea powers saw themselves freed from the financial burdens of capital shipbuilding for another six years; Japan was reluctant, however, as it was already preparing its expansionist policy in East Asia . Not least because of the refusal of France and Italy to impose further restrictions, the treaty contained clauses that made it possible to cross the Washington borders in the event of the armament of other states.

The London Conference of 1935/36

Great Britain called the next conference of the great sea powers in late 1935. It was not a lucky star right from the start: Japan left the League of Nations in 1933 and, with the invasion of Manchuria since 1931, left no doubt about its ambitions. At the end of 1934 Japan terminated the Washington and London treaties in due time for the end of 1936. Japan did send a delegation to the conference; However, this left prematurely when its demand for full parity with the Anglo-Saxon sea powers had been flatly rejected. Hitler had proclaimed military sovereignty on March 16, 1935 and armed all three branches of the armed forces . Mussolini refused to allow Italy to participate because of the League of Nations sanctions because of his actions in Abyssinia (see also Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936) ).

So while the third and fifth largest sea power was no longer to be expected at the conference, the maritime “have-nothing” Germany set out to blow up the international naval system - in view of the German armaments, it was unlikely that France would become more Would find contractual ties. In an effort to maintain a system of arms limitation at least in some way, the British government concluded the German-British Naval Agreement with Hitler on June 18, 1935 , which limited the German fleet of surface ships to 35% of the British. 35%, however, corresponded exactly to the proportion (ratio of 1.75 to 5) that had been set for France and Italy in 1922. The aspired integration of Germany into the international system of Washington and London consequently failed because of the objection from France.

The only three signatories to the contract agreed:

  • Reduction of the maximum caliber for battleships to 35.6 cm if Japan and Italy agree;
  • Reduction of aircraft carrier limits to 23,000 ts / 15.2 cm;
  • Reduction of the maximum tonnage for light cruisers to 8,000 ts;
  • Construction break for heavy cruisers and all ships that displaced between 8,000 ts and 17,500 ts and had a caliber over 8 inches until the end of 1942.

Some less important adjustments have also been made for small ships. The last point mentioned was directed directly against the German armored ships - no other navy owned ships with the specified specifications. Those in charge of the German Navy could be indifferent to this - they had no plans to build further ironclad ships of this type in any case - but they felt that the rejection of the international conference confirmed them.

In a series of bilateral treaties, Great Britain subsequently tried to bind smaller sea powers to the treaty, for example on July 17, 1937 with the Soviet Union and on the same day with Germany, which recognized the qualitative provisions. Italy also joined on April 16, 1938 (details here ). Since it was unclear what kind of building policy was practiced in Japan, the signatory states of the treaties agreed on June 30, 1938 to raise the maximum limit for battleships to 45,000 ts and 40.6 cm guns.

The collapse of the arms control system

When the last naval treaty was signed in June 1938, the Washington system was already in complete dissolution. France and Italy, competing in the Mediterranean , began an arms race that was intensified by the construction of the German fleet from 1935 onwards. Alarmed by the Japanese approach and the secrecy of the size of the newly laid down Japanese ships, the USA and Great Britain finally began to put new series of battleships and other combat ships under construction. The arms race had begun and buried a system that suffered from the start that there was no real will to disarm anywhere - no sooner had a limit been set for one type of ship or a construction freeze agreed, the next smaller was built in rows; Exceeding the tonnage limits for the individual ships was considered a peculiar offense anyway.


  • Helmuth KG Rönnefahrt, Heinrich Euler: Conferences and contracts. Contract Ploetz. A handbook of historically significant meetings and agreements. Part 2, Volume 4: Latest Time. 1914-1959. 2nd, expanded and changed edition. Ploetz, Würzburg u. a. 1959, p. 108f.
  • Elmar B. Potter, Chester W. Nimitz : Sea power. A history of naval warfare from antiquity to the present. German version published by Jürgen Rohwer on behalf of the Defense Research Working Group . Pawlak, Herrsching 1982, ISBN 3-88199-082-8 .
  • Siegfried Breyer: The heavy cruisers of the Admiral Hipper class (= naval arsenal. Vol. 16). Podzun-Pallas, Friedberg / H. 1991, ISBN 3-7909-0429-5 .
  • Siegfried Breyer: "The Washington Cruisers" as "Battleship Replacement". Origin and development of the heavy cruisers 1922–1939. Volume 1: Great Britain, USA, France (= naval arsenal. Vol. 18). Podzun-Pallas, Friedberg / H. 1992, ISBN 3-7909-0442-2 .
  • Siegfried Breyer: "The Washington Cruisers" as "Battleship Replacement". Origin and development of the heavy cruisers 1922–1939. Volume 2: Japan, Italy, Germany, Soviet Union, Spain, Argentina (= Marine-Arsenal. Vol. 23). Podzun-Pallas, Friedberg / H. 1993, ISBN 3-7909-0475-9 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Naval Bill of 1916
  2. ^ The Geneva Naval Conference, 1927
  3. ^ Proclamation of the Reich government to the German people regarding the introduction of general conscription . March 16, 1935. On: documentarchiv.de . See Deutsches Reichsgesetzblatt Part I 1867–1945, p. 375 ; at the Austrian National Library (ÖNB).