Maarten Tromp and the Foundation of Some Naval Traditions
Two very old naval traditions are said to have their origins in the campaigns of the great Dutch sea dog Maarten Tromp (1598-1653) during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654).
One is the custom that warships, and in modern times particularly submarines, coming home from successful missions display a broom at their masthead. The other is that, while in service warships always display a long narrow “commissioning pennant” from their mastheads.
The most often told tale has it that, after trouncing the English in the Battle of Dungeness, on Dec. 10, 1652 (Nov. 30 by the Julian calendar still used in Britain), Tromp is said to have put a broom atop his mast to signify that he had “swept the seas of the English,” thus initiating the tradition of the broom as a symbol of victory.
Supposedly, upon hearing of this, the equally great English sea dog Robert Blake (1598- 1657), who had lost at Dungeness, promptly put a coach whip at the top of his mast, to signify that he would “whip the Dutch from the seas,” which is said to have evolved into the long, narrow commissioning pennant that British, American, and other nations’ warships in active service still display.
In fact, neither story holds much water, and the origins of both traditions are less romantic.
A broom at the masthead once symbolized a ship for sale. Now Tromp captured several English ships at Dungeness, and selling them for the prize money would have been appropriate. So perhaps the tradition that ascribes the brooms as his invention may have arisen through a misinterpretation of their meaning.
As for commissioning pennants, during the Middle Ages warships were largely improvised at need out of merchantmen, and among the English it became customary to indicate a king’s ship by flying a royal pennant from the masts. Of course, Blake could still have put a coach whip at the masthead and said what he supposedly said, alongside the commissioning pennants.
So, while the origins of the two customs are clearly not tied to either admiral, we can see how the notion that they had created the traditions may have arisen, as the tale of their actions was told and retold.
Germany Loses a Wargame
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy’s strategic planning began to shift from the possibility of war with a Franco-Russian alliance to one against Germany.
By 1904, several senior British naval officers were proposing that in the event of war with Germany, the Royal Navy undertake to “Copenhagen” the High Sea Fleet, a subject that was freely discussed in the naval literature and even in the press. This was a reference to Britain’s surprise attacks in 1801 and again in 1807 that destroyed the Danish fleet in Copenhagen, without benefit of a declaration of war.
In 1904, one of the most vocal of the “Copenhageners,” Adm. John “Jacky” Fisher, a brilliant innovator, became First Sea Lord of the Admiralty (chief-of-naval operations). Fisher made no secret of his desire to do in the German fleet, arguing that it would not only improve the Royal Navy’s strategic situation, but would be a reasonable preliminary to seizing control of the Danish Straits, and thus securing entry to the Baltic. Fisher believed that the British Army was "a projectile to be fired by the Navy," and that the best target was the German fleet in its home ports, before the outbreak of a war.
Naturally, the Germans became aware of this proposal. In September of 1904 the High Sea Fleet conducted a wargame to study the problem. To their horror, the Germans realized that the idea of a surprise British attack on their fleet in its bases on the eve of a war, or even after its outbreak, was not only quite practical, but could cost them not only the fleet, but control of the Baltic.
In December of 1904, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the General Staff to develop plans for the occupation of Denmark in the event of war with Britain, to protect German control of the Baltic.
The following February Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen belatedly replied to the Emperor’s order by rejecting it, on the grounds that committing two army corps to the occupation of Denmark would weaken his beloved “Right Wing Sweep” through the Netherlands and Belgium that was going to win the coming war with France in precisely 39 days.