The Secretary of the Navy (Denby) to the Secretary of State

1. At the suggestion of The President I am writing this letter to inform you of the meaning and present status of the Gun-Elevation question in order that you may be in a position fully to advise The President regarding the rights and duties of the United States Government in the premises.

2. I desire first of all to state my very firm belief that a decision adverse to our right to increase the elevation of the turret guns of 13 of our present capital ships would permanently and irrevocably consign our present capital-ship fleet to a position of insuperable inferiority to the British capital-ship fleet. Such a position of inferiority was never contemplated by the terms or by the spirit of the Washington treaty. Equality in capital-ship strengths of the American and British fleets was the basis and backbone of that treaty. No other interpretation of the intent of the treaty is possible.

3. The following statement of the extreme ranges of British and American battleships and battle cruisers is official except as to the battleships Rodney and Nelson now building; these latter ships are expected to mount 16–inch guns; I assume they will have a maximum range equal to the range of the 16–inch guns on our Maryland class of ships:—

Name Maximum Range Name Maximum Range
Nelson 34,300 West Virginia 34,500
Rodney 34,300 Colorado 34,500
Hood 30,300 Maryland 34,300
Royal Sovereign 24,300 California 35,000
Royal Oak 24,300 Tennessee 35,700
Resolution 24,300 Idaho 24,000
Ramillies 24,300 Mississippi 24,000
Revenge 24,300 New Mexico 24,000
Queen Elizabeth 24,300 Pennsylvania 21,000
Warspite 24,300 Arizona 20,900
Valiant 24,300 Nevada 21,000
Barham 24,300 Oklahoma 21,000
Malaya 24,300 Texas 21,000
Reknown 23,800 New York 21,000
Repulse 23,800 Arkansas 24,350
Benbow 23,800 Wyoming 23,500
Emperor of India 23,800 Utah 21,600
Iron Duke 23,800 Florida 22,000
Marlborough 23,800
Tiger 23,800

4. From the above table it will be seen that the British capital-ship fleet enjoys a very marked superiority in the number of ships that may be brought into action at the moderate and decisive ranges [Page 10] between 21,000 and 24,000 yards. This superiority is shown in the following table:

Range in yards No. of British ships in action No. of American ships in action
24,000 13 10
23,000 20 10
22,000 20 12
21,000 20 18

I do not need to point out to you the very grave import of these comparisons.

5. I have been criticized in British papers for using the British navy for purposes of comparison. Such action is obviously unavoidable. Naval strengths are always relative, not absolute. We are strong or weak by comparison only. The friendly treaty that we made with Great Britain and other powers recognized our right to a parity in capital-ship strengths with Great Britain. We cannot determine if that parity is being attained or maintained unless definite comparisons are made. No criticism can justly lie against us or our motives if we strive towards a position definitely laid down in the treaty.

6. The table given in paragraph 4 above shows that at present there is no parity of the British and American fleets but rather a very great superiority of the British capital-ship fleet at vital and presumably decisive ranges. It is true that at ranges in excess of 25,000 yards advantage lies at present with American ships but the highest ranges are not decisive ranges. The consensus of present opinion is that decisive ranges in favorable weather are the very ranges where our inferiority is greatest, viz., between 20,000 and 25,000 yards. This fact makes the gun-elevation question one of commanding importance to the Navy.

7. Joined to the present British superiority of range of guns is a superiority in speed of their capital ships which enables the British fleet in comparison with our own to make full use of their superiority of range of guns. Nothing that we could do would bring our ships to an equality of speed with British ships so that should the unhappy event arise of the two fleets being engaged in battle under present conditions, the British fleet would by its superior speed be able to choose the range at which it would fight. Sound tactics would, of course, dictate the very ranges at which we are weakest, that is, the ranges between 20,000 and 25,000 yards. Illustration of the use of this advantage is to be had in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Admiral Sturdee had under his command ships of speed superior to the speed of the German squadron under Von Spee. Admiral Sturdee deliberately chose to fight the German squadron at so great a range that the German fire was ineffective against the British ships. These sound tactics on Admiral Sturdee’s part enabled him to achieve [Page 11] victory with practically no injury to the personnel or ships under his command. I do not desire that the American Navy should ever be placed in a position at all corresponding to that of the German squadron at Falkland Islands.

8. I might elaborate farther upon the disadvantages under which our fleet suffers at present but will not do so. Such further information as you may desire on this subject will be gladly furnished.

9. The question of the legality of increasing the elevation of our turret guns has already been discussed in my Annual Report,9 pages 75 and 76 and 114 to 117, to which reference is made above.10 The views therein expressed are carefully considered views to which I ask your attention without repeating them here.

10. Some suggestions have appeared in the press to the effect that the elevation of our turret guns should be increased just sufficiently to equal the elevation of the British guns. This is an impracticable suggestion, first, because there is no treaty arrangement by which there is an exchange of information between the British and American navies on the subject of the extreme range of their guns; second, because there would be no assurance that equality once having been established would not be upset by still further increases either by one power or another; and third, our relations under the treaty are not only with Great Britain but also with three other signatory powers. My opinion is that there is only one satisfactory solution to the question and that is for each power to feel itself free and unhampered as to the extent to which it may increase the elevation of its turret guns. If each power gives to its turret guns the maximum elevation which it considers suitable and advisable, no other power can make any complaint or criticism regarding that act. But if one power increases to meet the elevations of another power and then after completing the work is again confronted with further increases of elevation, the task of maintaining a parity would be too complicated and expensive for all parties.

11. I have noted in the British Press statements to the effect that the treaty does not forbid increasing the elevation of our turret guns. I also have reason to believe that the professional opinion both in France and Italy is in agreement with this position, although in the case of France and Italy their interest is academic, those two powers being permitted under the treaty to re-arm their vessels with guns not exceeding 16 inches in caliber and, presumably, giving to those guns whatever elevation they deem most desirable. In order to illustrate more precisely the advantage which would accrue to our ships if the elevation of our turret guns were increased, [Page 12] I caused to be prepared a memorandum in which our fleet as at present is compared with our fleet as it might be if the elevation of the turret guns were increased. That memorandum is attached to this letter.11

12. I hope that a resolution will be introduced in Congress authorizing the use of the appropriation made by the 67th Congress of $6,500,000 for increasing the elevation of the turret guns of 13 United States capital ships and I further hope that that resolution will receive the support of the State Department. I believe that our national interests require a navy second to no other and that no steps should ever be taken that will bind us either directly or by implication to any line of conduct that hampers development of such a Navy.

Edwin Denby
  1. For the fiscal year 1923.
  2. Annual report was listed on first page of letter as an enclosure.
  3. Not printed.