What Naval Experts Think

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

What Naval Experts Think is an article published in The Strand Magazine in july 1914, just after the Arthur Conan Doyle's short story Danger!.

In this article, 12 naval experts gave their opinion about Danger!. Half of these opinions were annotated by Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

What Naval Experts Think

The Strand Magazine (july 1914, p. 20)
The Strand Magazine (july 1914, p. 21)
The Strand Magazine (july 1914, p. 22)

Proofs of this striking piece of fiction were submitted to a number of naval experts, who were invited to state their views on the points raised in the story. As a result we are able to give the opinions of several well-known admirals, as well as a number of writers recognized as authorities on naval subjects, with notes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


We have done something to meet the dangers to our food supplies by arming some of our merchantmen, but we shall never be really secure until we have installed granaries in the country.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story will bring this important question well to the front.

Mr. FRANK T. BULLEN. the well-known writer of sea stories.

You ask me if this could come true. I should say certainly yes — not only could it, but it is eminently probable.


This story contains a very interesting but, as most would say, fantastic account of an imaginary war which, however improbable the result may appear, is deserving of close examination.

I have never wavered in my opinion that a sufficient land force and provision for maintaining a supply of food in war are absolutely necessary, and that, if these requirements are not provided, our existence as a nation remains at stake. Even Lord Haldane, when Secretary of State for War, stated that "All the foreigner had got to do was to cut off our food supply." Our position was rightly compared, by the late Sir John Colomb in Parliament, to that of "An unvictualled ocean citadel." In writing to the Press I have ever claimed the absolute importance of food supply, and I have repeatedly suggested one of the three following courses:—

  • (1.) The establishment of granaries to maintain always a three months' supply of grain.
  • (2.) The encouragement of farmers always to keep their harvest in rick for one year.
  • (3.) To induce at least double the present area of wheat cultivation by a tax on foreign supplies.

Failing provision of food for our people, we continue to run a deadly risk of ceasing to exist as an Empire and the loss of all our Colonies.


Having read with much interest Sir A. Conan Doyle's story, I am compelled to say that I think it most improbable, and more like one of Jules Verne's stories than any other author I know — that a sub-marine could keep the sea alone for that length of time without replenishing the oil fuel and other necessaries which are usually carried in a depot ship, whose presence would make these depredations impossible. Another point is that if we were engaged in a war with one of the Eastern Powers, the Thames would not be used for receiving supplies.

Ships from the west would probably use Milford Haven, a fortified port with narrow entrance, str tides, and dangerous rocks at the entrance which wo make submarine work more difficult ; and ships from the south would probably use Plymouth. As to keeping the railroad open through France and a tunnel, in order to feed the country, this would probably involve France in war. I have no doubt a tunnel could be more easily destroyed than the number of food-ships described in this story.

Submarines have no doubt been much improved in recent years, and their radius of action much greater than formerly, as was proved in the recent manoeuvres, but I am afraid they are not yet capable of the wonderful performances described in this article.*

* [The story deals with the submarine of the immediate future. — A.C.D.]


Sir A. Conan Doyle's clever story of the exploits of a few submarines in starving the British Isles into surrender may prove to be a useful argument in favour of a Channel Tunnel and of Tariff Reform, as the British public will not recognize the extreme improbability of the technicalities with which he deals.

I do not myself think that any civilized nation will torpedo unarmed and defenceless merchant ships.* I think the danger will be farther afield, and that it will arise from our short-sighted policy of failing to maintain enough cruisers — or anything like enough — to protect our great trade routes.

The food question is undoubtedly at the heart of the matter ; and anything that can rouse public opinion to deal with it be/ore war comes upon us, either by Tariff Reform, Channel Tunnel, or Government storage of foodstuffs, must be all to the good.

* [With all deference, I think that we must deal with what is possible, not with what we hope or think. — A.C.D.]


I agree with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that the development of the submarine has modified the aspects of naval warfare, and, though I do not think there will be opportunity or possibility of carrying out such operations aw he describes with large ones inside the estuary of the Thames, I conceive there will be nothing to prevent their doing so at the entrances to the Channel and the Irish Sea, which will provide a menace to our food supply which has not hitherto existed, and which, so far, there seems to be no means of preventing. I do not think that much, if any, damage can be done by a twelve-pounder — a ship has only to proceed at full speed to make the use of one by a submarine in chase impossible. Their only effective weapon is the torpedo.

Much greater numbers of submarines will be required to effect even a part of the destruction indicated. Big ships do not sink quickly. I do not think that territorial waters will be violated, or neutral vessels sunk. Such will be absolutely prohibited, and will only recoil on the heads of the perpetrators. No nation would permit it, and the officer who did it would be shot.

Although the losses may be greater, I do not think they will be sufficient to stop the food supply. Sub-marines are effective only in daylight. The menace of the submarine affects the commerce of all nations ; the antidote to it is the prohibition of capture at sea, except within the area of blockade.*

* [It is only to us that the commerce means life or death. — A.C.D.]

Mr. FRED. T. JANE, Editor of " Fighting Ships," etc., inventor of the Naval War Game.

The situation outlined by Sir A. Conan Doyle is more or less technically impossible at the present time. There is, however, every reason to believe that in a very few years (say four) submarines capable of performances such as he contemplates will exist. On the other hand, equal or greater developments in air-craft and wireless are also to be expected, and I have taken this into account in indicating how I think that the British Admiralty would meet the situation outlined in his dramatic story.

A disavowal of International Law by any Power is always possible, but "every bane has its antidote," and those who hit below the belt may expect to find their blows returned in kind. An outlaw has no rights, and personally, were I a British officer concerned and Captain Sirius and his crew fell into my hands, I should have no hesitation whatever in hanging them all without trial, pour encourager les autres! To save millions of Britishers from starvation anything likely to achieve that end would be justifiable.*

I am of opinion that the Admiralty, so soon as it heard that an inoffensive British merchant ship and many of its crew had been sunk without warning, would issue orders somewhat as follows:—

"All incoming merchant ships to be stopped by wireless and ordered to collect at a certain rendezvous, where all available light cruisers, torpedo craft, submarines, and aircraft will meet and convoy them — aircraft scouting ahead.

"On locating a hostile submarine an aircraft will inform convoy by wireless, so that its course can be diverted. The aircraft is to follow the enemy and endeavour to drag out his periscopes with grapnels, standing by to drop bombs should the submarine come to the surface.

"Should any of the convoy be torpedoed, immediate search for submarines is to be made in the vicinity — light craft using grapnels with mines attached. I No quarter to be given, and should any of the enemy be captured alive they are to be hanged immediately as pirates. This is to apply to any Norlander, whether in piracy or not.

"N.B. — This last paragraph to be communicated immediately to the Press, which is to be requested to emphasize it with heavy type and to repeat it in every edition published. The enemy is bound to try to obtain information from British newspapers, and constantly reading this is bound to tell on his morale.

"It is obvious that the enemy will not willingly waste torpedoes or ammunition in attacking outward-bound ships, so these will sail as usual, but in groups of three instead of singly. It is likely that small ships only will be stopped for information purposes. So far as possible, therefore, small detachments of troops will be put on board each such ship, with orders to lie hid and open fire without warning on anyone on the deck of any submarine pirate coming up and ordering the ship to heave to. As the submarine is practically certain to come close alongside it will also be easy to pick off any further members of the crew who come on deck, and in most cases it should be possible for one of the three ships to run down the pirate in the confusion.

"All available trawlers, yachts, tugs, and motor-boats are to patrol the estuaries of trade ports, towing grapnels. This also applies to British bays and harbours which might be used as temporary bases by the enemy.

"As the enemy will presumably lie by at night on the surface, the various units will probably attempt communication by wireless. Consequently all British wireless inside the area of operations is forbidden except in case of most extreme urgency, and no British submarine is to use wireless in any circumstances whatever. All destroyers and light cruisers are to listen and sweep in circles towards the spots any wireless messages appear to proceed from — impossible to-day; but fairly certain to be quite as possible as the Iota three or four years hence. Any submarine located with wireless mast up is to be sunk immediately by gunfire — inquiries afterwards. Airships to be on similar duty. Destroyers are generally to sweep for submarines on the surface at night — observing the general motto, Sink first — inquire afterwards.'

"The enemy probably has some secret base on his own shores. This must be located as quickly as possible. Since the enemy is piratical, the best means to achieve this end is the merciless destruction of every Norland building within range of our blockading force, along the entire coastline. In the event of the base being discovered by this means (a big fire and explosion), destroyers and light cruisers will approach the base each night after dark and use any means to destroy the hostile submarines which sooner or later will come there to replenish stores, etc.

"In the whole of these defensive operations it is to be remembered that the enemy has adopted piratical tactics and that Terror must be met by Terror. The destroyers of starving and defenceless British millions must be regarded as vermin and treated as such by the defenders of the Empire. Every latitude is allowed to all commanding officers — and no questions will be allowed as to the treatment and execution of Norlanders, no matter how severe. Those who disregard International Law must be taught that even Anarchy is a game at which two can play."

Roughly, I think that this is, somehow, how the case would be met by the British Admiralty. A strong Government would, of course, also clap any pro-Norlanders into prison or execute them offhand on the principle of "desperate diseases require desperate remedies." It would also probably render it a capital offence to raise the price of foodstuff and trust to its own measures to keep up supplies. But with things and fads and Party politics as they are, it is difficult to conceive of any Government being ready instantly to adopt the only safe course. And so, though I am convinced that the situation pictured by Sir A. Conan Doyle could easily be met and defeated were the right course taken, I am also firmly of opinion that the pseudo-humanitarianism of the present day, coupled with the Party-political spirit, would prevent the Admiralty from exercising a free hand.

Consequently the only safe defence against an attack in the near future such as depicted lies in the establishment of national granaries or Channel Tunnels.

What Sir A. Conan Doyle suggests as a possibility for the submarines of to-morrow is a possibility for the "tramps" of a certain Power to accomplish to-day — and perhaps a more difficult problem still.

With national granaries, etc., a Captain Sirius might do his worst and none of us bother much, if at all. There is not the least need to emulate Joseph in Egypt. A law whereby all foodstuff remained in bond from a period beginning with one day and ending with six months would easily meet the situation, and cost far less than Channel Tunnels or hypothetical submarine food-carriers. †

* [You have to catch them first. — A.C.D.]

† [Tunnels should cost nothing, but bring revenue. — A.C.D.]


I have read Sir A. Conan Doyle's brochure with interest and amusement.

The story is very ingeniously worked up, and, although I cannot believe that the whole import trade of Great Britain could be destroyed by so small a force, it is quite likely that a few submarines; commanded by daring men, might do a lot of damage before they were wiped out.

The writer assumes that our own submarines were doing nothing all the time.*

The moral of the story is, of course, that we should have vast stores of grain in this country, in which opinion I cordially concur.

The question of a Channel Tunnel is another thing about which there is considerable diversity of opinion. Having already expressed mine in the Times, I can only repeat what I then said — that, as "God made us an island, by all means let us remain so."

* [I don't see how a submarine can fight a submarine. — A.C.D.]


Sir A. Conan Doyle's story, in my opinion, will be of great value in vividly bringing to the minds of those who read it the paramount importance of our food supplies in time cf war. You ask me if I consider the danger as described in the story to be a real one. I think it is, but I also think that the submarines had phenomenal luck; secondly, one must realize that in sinking neutral ships out of hand the submarines were acting piratically, according to international law. This would certainly have brought many first-class Powers into direct conflict with our enemy, undeterred by the fear of engaging in operations against a powerful belligerent.

As regards meeting the danger, I believe the great majority of experts are of the opinion that, at present, air-craft are practically the only way of combating the submarine.

I am very glad that this question of food supplies is being ventilated, for it is a vital question for the peoples of Great Britain.

Mr. DOUGLAS OWEN, writer and lecturer on naval subjects.

Four-fifths of our daily bread and a large proportion of our other food is sea-borne. A small band, myself one of the number, have for years been calling attention to the potential danger of the fact. Over and over again, at public meetings and in the Press, have we urged that a scheme should be prepared in peace for the adequate supply of bread to the people on the out• break of war. The danger was very real a decade or two ago, when our naval predominance was greater than it is to-day, and when the potentialities of the submarine were comparatively small. In the interval, on the one hand, our naval predominance has diminished ; on the other, the submarine has evolved lino a wide-range weapon of the most deadly possibilities. Till now, all efforts to arouse the public to the danger of a food-shortage on the outbreak of war, and to the paramount necessity for providing against it, have fallen dead. Sir Conan Doyle's story is likely to effect results for which we have striven in vain.

By some it may be thought that for a popular writer to employ his talents in the creation of general alarm is to make ill use of them. If so, I think they will, on reflection, agree with those who hold, on the contrary, that a far-seeing citizen who places before his slumbering countrymen a graphic and awakening picture of a danger hanging over them is rendering them the highest service. But the author has painted his picture, this terrible picture, from outside. To have painted it from within — pained it depicting the country's markets swept bare of food owing to a panic rush on the part of the well-to-do, determined at all costs to provision themselves against the unknown possibilities of attack on our supplies; painted it to show an alarmed and hungry people's growing and clamorous demand for bread ; painted it to show the pressure thus created on a distracted Government — would have made it still more terrible.

The safeguarding of our sea-borne supplies must needs be entrusted to the Navy, and the resourcefulness of our naval men is great; but none the less must we ashore, at all costs, be prepared for the dire consequence of short supplies. If Sir Conan Doyle's story should at any rate awake us to the urgent need for such preparation he will have placed the nation under lasting obligation.


The story is like all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writings; full of go, and impressive. For us it is probably well we should be alarmists. The submarines are described as doing what no doubt with very good fortune they might do, and that is the view taken.

With regard to starving England out, it must be remembered that all our western coasts are open to the ocean, where the space to land at i, very extensive, and, as the open sea is less favourable to submarines than the Channel waters, home routes could be changed.*

* [I think Captain Sirius fairly provided against the latter contention. — A.C.D.]

Mr. ARNOLD WHITE, Author of "The Navy and Its Story," etc.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has placed his finger on the neuralgic nerve-centre of the British Empire — i.e., the precarious arrival of our food-supply since super-Dreadnoughts were superseded by super-submarines. The little Powers being friendly to England, the danger, when it comes, will probably come from a Great Power with oversea trade of its own to guard. By mining the Narrow Seas on both sides, submarine attack and defence will probably be transferred to deep water. There is no reason to doubt that our Admiralty is fully alive to the change in our position in respect to convoy and to submarine aggression on the trade routes of both Britain and her foe. But Sir Arthur's article gives furiously to think, and is a national service.