This was an impressive international conference, held once again at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. The flagship US Navy (USN) history symposium, held every two years, this year brought together a record number of scholars and participants, 400 in total, to present and learn from panels of world-class researchers and naval thinkers.
Dawn’s early light over an F/A-18 display.
The weather on September 19 and 20 was beautiful, the sky was summer blue and warm, as the scholars awoke with the dawn to bus over to the US Naval Academy (USNA) from their hotels. Future USN lieutenants were starting classes on Thursday morning. The fall term had began on 19 August, with the conclusion of Plebe Summer for the new class of 2023 freshmen.
After registering and picking up the conference booklet (which very helpfully included a small notebook, to be completely filled over the course of the following 48 hours), I headed down from the Hart Room reception and publishing exhibit at Sampson Hall (ie, the book store), making my way to the Mahan Hall Auditorium, to hear the symposium introductory remarks.
After a quick appraisal of the conference administrative details, we were on our way to the first panels. As usual with a conference of this size, one must selectively decide which panels to attend, and although it is certainly tempting to skitter in and out of rooms (as the midshipmen tend to do throughout the conference – preparing notes for assigned reports before heading to scheduled classes), I prefer to stick through with each panel and get a feel for the full discussion.
Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong covering conference administration and introductions
Although I was tempted to attend the session on the legacy of Jutland for the first panel, I decided instead to attend the panel on naval aviation and air power history, which I figured would complement my own research, to be presented in the afternoon on day two. As such, I was soon listening to Commander Andrew Moulis introduce the naval aviation panelists.
Panel One: Session A6, Commander Stan Fisher (commentator), John Orr, Jonathan Chavanne and Bruce Perry
Bruce presented first, summarizing the history of pre-1941 Anglo-Japanese naval cooperation, notably the 1921 mission of the proto-fascist Lord Sempill, who was focused on advancing Japanese naval aviation. Bruce highlighted the infamous Frederick Rutland (“of Jutland”) controversy, in which the legendary naval aviator became a Japanese double agent, comparable to the Cambridge Five who later spied for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Although much of this ground is covered by Arthur Marder’s now almost totally forgotten Old Friends, New Enemies, Bruce was able to take advantage of his impeccable pronunciation of Scottish names to enliven his paper, a strong opening to the conference proper.
Jonathan was up next, presenting on the interwar history of the USN’s rigid airship program. Although the surviving First World War Zeppelins were destroyed by their crews rather than face internment, vis-a-vis the High Sea Fleet at Scapa Flow, they had in fact been promised as war reparations to the Americans. Rear Admiral Moffett, in particular, was keen to acquire rigid airships for the USN to act as long-range fleet scouts in the Pacific, a theatre where a Zeppelin’s endurance and operational radius, prior to the invention of radar, could have been useful. Towards this end Moffett, together with Lt. Commander Charles Rosendahl, arranged for the purchase of rigid airships from the Zeppelin works in Germany, of which the first for American service, LZ126, was completed in 1924. This Zeppelin entered American service as USS Los Angeles. Although the debate about the ongoing utility of rigid airships continued into the 1930s, the death of Moffett in the USS Macon disaster of 5 February 1935, like the demise of Britain’s R101 on 5 October 1930, as with the death of Germany’s Peter Strasser in LZ112 in 1918, generally put an end to the rigid airship program.
Third, John presented on the US naval air station (NAS) based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for anti-submarine purposes during the First World War. Proposed with support from former Wing Commander J. T. Cull (RNAS and then RAF) in April 1918, the air station was activated in August 1918. Although not mentioned by John in his presentation, the USN had plenty of experience establishing stations in Ireland and at Dunkirk, the former in particular immensely important for Captain Hutch Cone (USN), who was leading the American naval aviation deployment to Europe for Admiral William Sims. By September 1918 Halifax was operating H12 flying boats, but this late in the submarine war, there was little activity in the area of operations
Lunch at the Alumni Hall was next, and as I had not formerly registered for the conference until a few days prior, my chances of making it into the assigned seating dining hall were slim. However, as luck would have it, a number of guests did not take their seats and thus I was thankfully ushered inside.
Alumni Hall on the waterfront, in front of Mahan Hall, with the somewhat triumphalist display “Winning The Cold War”.
The enormous model of USS Forrestal (CV59) outside the dining hall.
Inside the dining hall I quickly made my way to an open table and sat down to devour my salad entree and creamed chicken, followed by a satisfying carrot cake dessert. The sparse table I was sitting at turned out to be occupied by some of the ancient warfare presenters. This was in fact a significant bit of luck, as I had earlier sworn to Jesus, on Twitter, that I would attend more pre-1700 naval history panels at this years’ McMullen.
I soon found myself conversing with a group including Jorit Wintjes, and John Hyland amongst others. Our discourse ranged from Greco-Roman amphibious operations to flagrant historical inaccuracies in Hollywood cinema and New York broadway, notably in Zack Snyder’s tortuous quasi-pornographic adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, in the opening battle sequence of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (artillery accurately represented; cavalry and shouting Zulu warriors less correct), and the portrayal of Lafayette alongside an apparently sympathetic Aaron Burr in the pop-cultural adaptation of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.
Refreshed, it was time to attend the afternoon panels. Feeling an irrepressible desire to break-out from my specialization, and no doubt influenced by the classical conversation at lunch, I decided to attend what turned out to be a fascinating session chaired by Gene Smith on the War of 1812
Panel Two: Session B8, Samantha Cavell, Kevin McCranie and Kenneth “Kenny” Johnson.
Samantha presented on the distribution of Royal Navy forces during the 1812-13 phase of the American war, providing a useful update on Nicholas Rodger’s figures which unfortunately do not go beyond 1804 in The Command of the Ocean. Samantha demonstrated that Admiral Sir John Warren, C-in-C North American Station, based at Bermuda, was essentially conducting a holding operation: Warren’s tasks included carrying out a naval blockade, capturing American trade, and protecting the West Indies, while the war in Europe wound down. As soon as the threat from Napoleon was contained the British Admiralty shifted its focus from Europe to North America, and appointed the aggressive Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane in Warren’s place, resulting in the defeat of the United States through a lightning maritime campaign that included Rear Admiral George Cockburn’s burning of Washington DC in 1814.
Kevin followed up, employing the methodology of organizational and command analysis, eg, Roger Knight’s Britain Against Napoleon, to explore the administrative details at the Admiralty, where a minute staff of not much more than 30 individuals were running a global naval conflict. Kevin’s most interesting point was addressing the relative geospatial-time dynamic necessary when selecting commanders and drafting orders: the farther a naval station was from Whitehall, the more abstract the Admiralty orders by necessity had to be, and thus, the more discretion given to the local commander.
While I was listening to the panel I was struck by the similarity of Britain’s 1812 strategy with that of the William Pitt – George Anson theatre strategy of 1756-63: concentrate in the decisive theatre while securing command of the sea, fight containment actions elsewhere, before shifting focus and eliminating the enemy’s overseas bases.
Kenny concluded the panel with a brilliant narration of Napoleon’s post-Trafalgar naval strategy, really a kind of “anti-strategy” as I saw it, in which the central objective was to confuse the British as much as possible regarding the Emperor’s objectives. This included fantasy operations to capture the Channel Islands with 10,000 men, another non-campaign in Egypt with 30,000, combined with a violent but generally ephemeral guerre de course intent on burning British merchants supplying Wellington’s Peninsular army. The extent of Napoleon’s effort to tie down British warships with deception included the comical case of blank orders and a brief effort during the American war to pay the United States to fight the privateering campaign on Bonaparte’s behalf.
It was time to make my way to the next session, for which I knew I was going to have to make some tough choices. I was drawn to the Cold War Naval Strategy panel chaired by Nicholas Prime, but also to the US Naval Aviation during the Pacific War panel chaired by Randy Papadopoulous. Tempting as these sessions were, I ultimately decided I just could not miss the all-star panel on Leyte Gulf that was being chaired by Thomas Cutler.
Panel Three: Session C7, Thomas Cutler introduces Trent Hone, Paul Stillwell, and K. J. Delamer, with comments by Craig Symonds.
Trent Hone, Guadalcanal and USN doctrine specialist, presented first, establishing the narrative basis for the Philippines’ campaign, known as Campaign Plan Granite. Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s South Force was pulverized as it attempted to run the gauntlet at Surigao Strait, leaving only Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Central Force to operate against the American invasion force. A group of Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) carriers (without planes) are moving as a distraction north of USN Third Fleet, and although Task Force 38 under Admiral Mark Mitscher and his Chief of Staff Captain Arleigh Burke want to convince Admiral Halsey to concentrate against Kurita, Mitscher ultimately defers to Halsey and the entire force goes north after the Japanese decoy force. Trent argued that Halsey’s command process had become complacent, and when combined with fatigue and inexperience operating as a fleet commander, meant that Halsey’s subordinates did not feel confident to correct what they could see was clearly a mistake.
Trent Hone presenting on Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s (in)famous command decisions at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
“Halsey acted stupidly” – Tom Clancy’s Marko Ramius played by Sean Connery in John McTiernan’s Hunt For Red October.
Paul presented next, examining the question of Task Force 34 under Admiral Lee, who by all expectations should have fought a decisive action against Kurita at the San Bernadino Strait, but was instead committed north in the goose chase against the IJN decoy force. At this point in the panel the thought foremost in my mind was that this entire situation sounded so very similar to the Battle of Jutland and the confusion and command indecision that surrounded that battle, perhaps best described by Andrew Gordon in The Rules of the Game.
Iconic photograph of USS Iowa, as featured on the cover of Life magazine, 30 October 1944
K. J., at this point, did everyone a service by deconstructing an obscure statement from Samuel Eliot Morison, the legendary American naval historian appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to write a “fighting” history of the war. S. E. Morison’s otherwise brilliant front-line quasi-official history is certainly an easy target for revision, but K. J. raised an interesting case by examining Morison’s seemingly bizarre comparison of Leyte Gulf to the Athenian Syracuse expedition. The thrust of K. J.’s counter argument was that American victory in the Pacific was clearly guaranteed by the geostrategic situation in 1944, and thus the tactical and operational details of Leyte, while interesting, were unlikely to produce a strategically significant result regardless of the what-if variables. Craig Symonds’ comments built off this analysis, flipping the Morison analogy on its head, and detailing the core controversies in the Leyte Gulf scenario that to my way of thinking clearly make this the American Jutland.
S. E. Morison’s renowned multi-volume history of the US Navy in the Second World War, and Thomas Cutler’s introduction to Volume 12 of Morison’s history.
So ended the panels for day one, September 19, and the scholars retired to the US Naval Museum at Preble Hall for cocktails and decompression. After a few drinks and hors d’oeuvre we returned to Mahan Hall for the Symposium keynote. This year, unlike 2017’s conference, a roundtable event was arranged, the idea being to hear comparisons of King, Burke and Zumwalt, generally geared towards the freshmen plebes, some evidently more interested than others.
David Kohnen highlighted Admiral King’s comprehensive service experience and technological mastery, while emphasizing King’s role as a naval educator, having co-authored the famous Knox-King-Pye report and later in his career established the Naval War College Command Course. David Rosenberg emphasized Captain Arleigh Burke’s role as Mitscher’s Chief of Staff during the war, a foundation that served Burke throughout his career, including planning the Inchon landings during the Korean War, aiding in the negotiation of the eventual ceasefire, and advancing to CNO under the Eisenhower administration where he helped develop high-frontier concepts such as NASA and ARPA. Edward brought the narrative into the post-Vietnam era with his discussion of Elmo Zumwalt, whose Project 60 concept led to the development of Harpoon missiles, the Sea Control Ship and other technologies that collectively created the foundation for the US Navy as it exists today.
This was an interesting overview of three very different, but immensely influential, American naval leaders, that unfortunately had to be wrapped up during the Q&A as it had run overtime – clearly the discussion between these scholars could have continued indefinitely, but 8:30 pm on Thursday evening was late, and only a few lieutenants and fewer midshipmen remained. With that, I returned to the conference hotel to catch dinner and get some sleep in preparation for an event filled second day.
The conference restarted at 8 am sharp on Friday, 20 September (an hour earlier than on Thursday!) and, blurry eyed, I decided to attend the session that seemed to me to be thematically structured around the vastly important concept of maritime blockade. Little did I realize that, from my perspective, this would actually turn out to be the most interesting panel of the conference.
Panel Four: Session D4, Cori Convertito, Hans Christian Bjerg, Nicholas Prime, with comment by Sharika Crawford.
Cori introduced the history of Key West in the context of the American Civil War. Key West was a hugely important fortified naval base and federal district court that became a decisive base of operations for both executing the blockade against the Confederate States of America (CSA), and in 1862 under Admiral David Farragut, the staging ground for the capture of New Orleans. Heavily fortified beginning in 1845, Key West became known as the American Gibraltar, the controlling point for access to the greater Florida southern United States. General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan for strangling the CSA with riverine and coastal blockade relied on USN bases, including Boston and New York, with Key West playing a comparable role, the blockade forces there in fact responsible for capturing more Confederate blockade runners and merchants than either of the larger continental ports (although with cargos of less total value). Crucially, as the blockade forces seized Confederate supplies and ships, the Union’s merchants grew stronger – captured supplies could be put back into use during amphibious operations against the CSA.
Hans presented next, likewise examining the role of a small Caribbean island that loomed large in the history of the Monroe doctrine. The Danish Virgin Island of St. Thomas was of great interest to the reconstruction era United States as a possible naval base, and following the Alaska purchase of 1867, had been considered for purchase at the cost of $3 million in 1868, although not followed through. Renewed interest by the United States following consideration by the unified German Empire to purchase the island once again brought St. Thomas into American consideration, in particular after the Spanish-American War and then the decision to construct the Panama Canal in 1904. St. Thomas was finally purchased, at cost of $25 million in March 1917 – just prior to the US entry into the First World War – over concern that Germany might have acquired the island had Denmark been occupied during the war. This case study, like Cori’s presentation on Key West, highlighted the outsize significance of small but strategically located island bases which had the potential to provide sea-lane control, amidst frequent clashes between perceived strategic imperatives and political decision-making.
Nicholas brought the conversation into the nuclear era, presenting the findings from his research into Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie, later well known as a military strategist, who in fact played an important and indeed astonishing role in the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wylie was the naval planner who, as early as mid-September 1962, had first proposed the plan to blockade Cuba. Wylie’s intention was to prepare a means of pressuring Castro, but his plan was however coopted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, and Robert Kennedy’s Mongoose planning group, into an off the shelf invasion plan aimed at removing Castro from power altogether. Utilizing Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests, Nicholas gained access to the Wylie plan, and dissected the document to demonstrate that the Pentagon had certainly been aware of the blockade strategy well before it was proposed during the Excomm meetings in October 1962. Furthermore, like the previous papers, Nicholas encountered the interplay between strategic planners and the political and service priorities that actually shaped policy.
New York Times front page for 23 October 1962, recording JFK’s announcement of the Cuban quarantine, a watershed moment in the history of the Cuban Revolution and the first phase of the Cold War.
As the panel wrapped up I headed back upstairs to scour the publishing stalls for fresh material. Amongst the cornucopia of free coffee, pop, danish and fruit platters, I discovered that the proceedings for the 2013 conference had at last (!) been published and were now available, free of charge. I chatted with the people manning the booths, but I was beginning to realize that I was confronted with a dilemma: on the one hand I was having fun with these panels, and no historian can resist collecting free books, but on the other hand I was rapidly exhausting any plausible storage space for the flight home. Furthermore there were only two panels remaining that I would have a chance to attend, considering that my own presentation was scheduled to follow in a few hours.
With these deep thoughts on my mind, and my arms straining under the burden of dense volumes, I paced the halls of the history department, chugging coffee as my Oxfords clicked across the floor. The time between sessions was counting down, and I had to make a decision. Presentations were starting as I ducked into the session chaired by Mark Folse.
Panel Five: Session E2, Kelsey Power, Joy Carter, and Heather Haley, with comment by Lori Bogle.
Kelsey was presenting on the subject of how class shaped identity amongst POWs during the Napoleonic War. Officers captured during the war were sent to the Verdun Citadelle where they were treated relatively well, their class consciousness as gentlemen being generally respected. The overthrow of traditional 18th century European class norms during the French Revolution made Royal Navy officer POWs more liable for exploitation, and they were thereafter routinely subjected to search and seizure, including confiscation of their personal goods (and money). The prisoners in response utilized creative methods to hide their valuables, and were not unknown to have employed cross-dressing to orchestrate escape attempts.
Heather’s presentation focused on the case of Ensign Vernon Berg, who was discharged from the Navy over a homosexual scandal aboard USS Little Rock. Berg later successfully sued the Navy for unfair dismissal in a landmark legal case. Heather’s presentation focused on the Cold War cultural mentality in the navy during and after the Eisenhower era, when a particular version of masculinity was codified in which homosexuality was perceived as deviant and threatening. Perceptions of homosexuality changed over time, being perceived during the 1970s primarily as a psychiatric issue effecting the “character” of the naval officer in question. Modernization, manpower retention policies, and legal challenges such as those pursued by Ensign Berg eventually mandated greater tolerance for homosexuality towards the end of the Cold War.
Joy’s presentation surveyed her career as a civilian hydrographer, contracted by the navy to conduct spot hydrographic surveys in what were invariably future combat zones, including Somalia and Kuwait during the 1990s. This was a very revealing presentation that apparently did not involve the CIA, although it certainly could have, and demonstrated an immense blindspot in the land power approach to naval operations that often seems to dominate US Navy doctrine. The United States Hydrographic Office, originally a part of the Navy, was transferred to the Department of Defense in 1949, and then abolished and replaced by the Naval Oceanographic Office in July 1962. I was not entirely surprised that the USN had been terribly short-changed by these events, leaving Defence Department civilians to manage the essential hydrographic mapping functions, alongside competitor mapping agencies such as the National Geospatial Agency, formed out of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in November 2003. The result of this bureaucratic centralization was that the USN routinely encountered scenarios for which it was woefully unprepared, notably for example during the rushed planning of the 1983 Grenada operation (Urgent Fury), during which nobody knew how dangerous the condition of the shoals were around Grenada. The resulting “just in time” reliance on civilians proved inadequate during the numerous littoral and special operations forces missions that followed 2001 as part of the War on Terror. The lesson that Joy’s experience emphasized is that the unglamorous and often dangerous work of hydrographic study is critical to naval operations and good order at sea, and is ignored at the peril of land powers with significant navies.
It was time for lunch, and I had to check in with my panel prior to our session.
The weather was gorgeous and hot as we marched down to Dahlgren Hall, where a free pizza lunch was being provided in part by the International Maritime History Association. Comically, we started off eating the wrong free pizzas (which had been provided to a different group), an error we only discovered after having munched our way through at least several pizzas. After resolution of this SNAFU, I spent most of lunch discussing Admiral Jellicoe’s empire mission of 1919-21 with Tim Moots, the two American Barbary conflicts, 1802-05 and 1815 with Abby Mullen, and amphibious capabilities within the Royal Marines with John Bolt. I encouraged a USNA midshipman, and history major, to utilize his written work on social media, say, in a blog format similar to this one, so as to establish a good foundation with the historical research he was doing – being very interested, as he explained, in comparative combat cultures in the ancient world.
At last it was time for my panel, so I hurried back to Mahan Hall.
Panel Six, Session F7, Chaired by Tim Benbow, presenters Alex Howlett, David McMeekin and Nicolas Blackman.
I recorded my presentation on naval aviation development with the Grand Fleet, visible here, also available in long form. I was impressed to see the room packed with midshipmen, giving me the impression someone had instructed them to write a report on my presentation – a belief that was reinforced as most of the cadets excused themselves from the room immediately after I finished presenting. Unfortunately for them, this meant that they missed the excellent work of my colleagues.
David discussed the introduction of the escort carrier as a trade defense measure in Britain and the US, ultimately a wildly successful measure for convoy protection and anti-submarine warfare that is not as well recognized today as it really should be. David related the Royal Navy’s ongoing interest in naval aviation for a number of roles, citing the significant Holland report of September 1938. Ultimately, no surprise from my perspective, the Royal Navy fully endorsed naval aviation for trade protection, despite ministerial opposition criticizing the conversion of merchant ships to escort carriers – fallacies that had in fact been employed before, during the First World War.
Nick described the development of the helicopter, a slow evolution of the non-rigid airship and catapult amphibian aircraft utilized by the Navy from 1915 to the 1920s, and beyond. Surprisingly, the Spanish were ahead of the technological curve in terms of helicopter development, the Cierva C30 autogyro being licence built by a number of countries during the 1930s, including the Cierva Autogiro Company established by the British. Weir and Hafner models followed, eventually succeeded during the Second World War by the very successful American firm of Sikorsky.
There was only time for one more panel, and I knew I wanted to catch the powerhouse session on British naval technology, covering the hundred years between 1860 and 1960.
Panel Seven: Session G5, chaired by Jesse Tumblin, featuring John Beeler, Duncan Redford and Tim Benbow, with comment by Matthew Seligmann.
John’s paper focused on late 19th century Royal Navy strategy and the network interplay between senior Admiralty personnel, notably Sir John Fisher, and newspaper and literary critics including W. T. Stead and Spencer Wilkinson, who were collectively responsible for shaping public opinion and swaying Admiralty decision making. The Clausewitzian tripod was in full display, actually a recurring theme throughout the conference, I began to notice: strategic principles, once articulated, could be forgotten, obscured, or indeed reinforced in the minds of the public, by skillful use of media to create false realities, invasion scares, or jingoism.
Duncan’s presentation precisely addressed these themes, examining the air power mania that swept Britain after the creation of the Air Ministry in January 1918. Invasion rhetoric drummed up by the Daily Mail, combined with total war predictions about the utility of bombing within the Royal Air Force, stressed the future of the Empire as an aerial entity, with imperial defence increasingly the responsibility of a vast air establishment, sidelining the Royal Navy. After the Washington Treaty of 1923 the future of the Empire as a seapower was in question, with the RAF’s own bombing rhetoric – magnified by the Northcliffe and Beaverbrook press – coming to dominate predictions about the future war.
Press baron Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, perhaps the greatest exponent of air power in Britain until his death in 1922.
Tim Benbow had the honor of closing out the panel, tackling in his presentation the thorny question of the role of the battleship after the Second World War. Beyond simply weapons systems, battleships were forms of naval diplomacy, and also aspects of national prestige, important cultural aspects of naval power that were often overlooked in the functionalist nuclear age. Increasing skepticism about nuclear warfare after 1945 began to emphasize the need to fight “broken backed” warfare – that is, in the post-attack environment – wherein survivability would be the preeminent currency, something the battleship retained well into the second half of the 20th century. The belief that the Air Ministry had become the final imperial institution was challenged, if the Cold War remained cold, and in fact the limited war concept offered by the Royal Navy became more important during the nuclear stalemate, not less.
HMS Vanguard, the Royal Navy’s last battleship
Matthew Seligmann’s comments extrapolated the central questions of the panel and indeed the entire conference to a certain extent: what will the future of naval war be like? Can deterrence continue to function amidst increasing uncertainty? What will the technology of the future mean for naval strategy? Political and fiscal reality had to be matched with the proper technological timing, otherwise organizations trying to introduce revolutionary technology could very well end up fighting themselves, sister services, or their own governments (and treasuries), more than any foreign enemy. The only protection against misguided strategic theorization is careful study of the fundamentals, coupled with a resourceful but historically grounded imagination.
The conference wraps up, two years of hard work and preparation producing a compelling two days of insight.
Various British warships sunk by U-boats and mines, 1914 – 1915, three armoured cruisers, three pre-dreadnought battleships, two light cruisers and HMS Audacious a 28,000 ton super dreadnought, completed in 1913, which struck a mine.
For both the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), the First World War began with a flurry of surface and submarine activity. After the demise of Admiral von Spee at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, Admiral Souchen’s arrival in Istanbul, and the Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank engagements of August 1914 and January 1915, the surface threat, beyond a few isolated light cruisers and merchant raiders, had been broadly curtailed.[viii]
Germany’s U-boats, for their part, destroyed a series of high-profile targets early in the war, from the seaplane carrier HMS Hermes, to the scout cruiser HMS Pathfinder, and the three armoured cruisers: HMS Crecy, Hogue and Aboukir. The new dreadnought HMS Audacious was lost to a mine on 27 October 1914, and the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable was torpedoed by U24 on New Years Day 1915. To add insult to injury, HMS Majestic and Triumph were both torpedoed at the Dardanelles by U21 during the May crisis of 1915.
The submarine and mine threat had a significant impact on Britain’s strategic position. The Grand Fleet required not only a protected and submarine-proof anchorage from which to operate, but also a large force of destroyers to escort it while at sea. The submarine’s emergent role as a commerce destroyer caught the Allies off guard. The decision in January 1915 by the Kaiser to authorize the designation of a ‘War Zone’ around Britain, in which British merchant shipping would be destroyed as part of a counter-blockade strategy, seemed a barbaric example of German ‘frightfulness’.
The strategic situation in the North Sea, 1917 – 1918, Map 9 from Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1998), p. 248
Although shipping losses increased, Germany’s U-boats were not yet plentiful enough to seriously impact the war, and the embarrassing sinking of the liners Lusitania in May and Arabic in August 1915, both with loss of life for American and other neutral citizens, encouraged the Kaiser to restrain the anti-shipping war. The new doctrine of surface battle, promulgated by Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, necessitated the withdrawal of the U-boats during 1916 to combine with the Navy’s Zeppelins for fleet operations. The singular result of the Battle of Jutland on 31 May, followed by the aborted August sortie, convinced Scheer that the British blockade could not be cracked by the High Sea Fleet.[ix] The new German war leadership under Ludendorff and Hindenburg, as such, made the decision late in 1916 to gamble on the U-boats sinking enough British, Allied and neutral tonnage to cripple Britain’s war effort and thus tip the war in Germany’s favour.
On the Western Front, meanwhile, the Allied offensive in France was to be renewed under Generalissimo Joffre’s replacement, General Neville. This was to be an offensive the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would support at Arras, and included the plan to capture Vimy Ridge.[x] The Allies, to supply this offensive, required huge quantities of material. The cross-Channel coal trade in particular was crucial for fuelling the French war effort: 800 coal transports crossed the English Channel in November 1916 alone.[xi] Other seaborne trade, such as food, shells, and especially fodder for the BEF’s horses, likewise required transshipment across the Channel by merchant ships. Critical supplies of metal and ore were delivered across the North Sea from Scandinavia, goods and commodities were imported across the Atlantic from America and out of the Mediterranean through the Gibraltar Straits. This cornucopia of merchant shipping was exposed, defenceless, and ready-made prey for the unleashed U-boats.
Merchant shipping tonnage sinking by submarines and other means June 1916 to October 1918, from Duncan Redford and Philip Gove, The Royal Navy, A History Since 1900 (2014)
U-boat Offensive, January – March 1917
From the perspective of the German high command the clear weakness in the Western Allied armies was their exposed seaborne logistics. High Seas Fleet C-in-C Admiral Reinhard Scheer, in his 4 July 1916 report on the Jutland battle to the Kaiser, stated his belief that the only way to defeat Britain would be through economic means, meaning “setting the U-boats against the British trade routes.”[xii]
On 22 December Admiral Holtzendorff accepted this view and advocated, in a fateful paper, for the destruction of all shipping approaching Britain.[xiii] Holtzendorff was convinced that if 600,000 tons of merchant shipping could be sunk each month, and sustained for a period of five months, the British would give in.[xiv] The renewed unrestricted submarine campaign commenced at the Kaiser’s order on 1 February 1917.[xv]
Commodore Andreas Michelsen, author of the book Submarine Warfare, 1914-1918, CO North Sea U-boats, Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, June 1917 – November 1918. He replaced Fregattenkapitan Hermann Bauer.
Early in 1917 there were 111 U-boats available, 49 with the HSF at Wilhelmshaven, 33 at Zeebrugge and Ostend, with another 24 at Pola in the Mediterranean, two at Constantinople and three in the Baltic.[xvi] The Flanders Flotilla (coastal) U-boats alone had managed to sink enough shipping to reduce the cross-Channel coal trade by 39% during the final quarter of 1916.[xvii] This was enough of a threat to the French armaments industry that the Royal Navy’s Auxiliary Patrol, on 10 January 1917, commenced escorting large convoys of 45 ships across the Channel, 800 ships every month.[xviii]
April 1917: the catastrophic increase in Atlantic shipping losses, combined with a spike in Mediterranean losses, seemed to defy all of the Admiralty’s efforts. The potential for disaster seemed overwhelming. By this point, the French coal trade was being escorted across the English Channel, and the Dover barrage was being rebuilt with more effective mines. Despite this, nearly 100,000 tons of shipping had been lost in the Channel by the end of April. From Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. IV, p. 382-3
With the restrictions on neutral shipping lifted, the U-boats began the slaughter. 35 merchant ships were sunk in the Channel and Western approaches the first week of February 1917 alone.[xix] By the end of February the U-boats had accounted for half a million tons, making more than a million cumulative when another 560,000 tons were sunk in March. The campaign high point was reached in April when 860,000 tons of Allied, British and neutral ships were destroyed.
These figures represented the destruction of 1,118 Allied and neutrals in the first four months of 1917: 181 in January, 259 in February, 325 in March and 423 in April.[xx] Between 1 February and the end of April 1917, 781 British merchant ships had been attacked, another 374 torpedoed and sunk, plus 154 sunk specifically by U-boat cannons.[xxi] The United Kingdom exported 122,600,000 tons of goods in January, a value that fell to 93,200,000 in February.[xxii] Only nine U-boats, including accidents, were destroyed between February and April.[xxiii]
The Imperial War Cabinet, Jellicoe is standing at the back, second from left. First Lord of the Admiralty Edward Carson is third.
In Britain the new parliamentary coalition under former Munitions and then War Minister and now Prime Minister David Lloyd George was faced with an unprecedented crisis. In early December 1916 Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had been promoted out of the Grand Fleet and advanced to First Sea Lord (1SL), with the explicit objective of curtailing the submarine threat.[xxiv] There were many ideas about what to do, and it was not initially clear what the correct response was, and opinion in the Royal Navy was split. Captain Herbert Richmond believed convoy escort to be the obvious solution,[xxv] a subject he had studied in his historical work with Julian Corbett on 18th century naval warfare (published after the war as The Navy In The War of 1739-48).[xxvi] Both historians noted the importance of trade interdiction and convoy protection efforts in the Caribbean, and Corbett added the Korean peninsula experience in his staff history of the Russo-Japanese War.[xxvii]
Traditionally, Britain had indeed managed the threat from corsairs and privateers by convoying its merchant shipping. On 29 December Jellicoe, however, expressed his skepticism that convoy was the appropriate solution to the U-boat problem. The First Sea Lord’s position, in general, was that the historical analogy of convoy protection was no longer valid, given the vast increase in oceanic shipping, the supposed delays in loading, offloading, and assembling the convoys, coupled with limitations on available escorts.[xxviii] The reality was that the First Sea Lord perceived convoys as sitting targets, and was unable to transcend the tactical paradigm whereby the escorted convoy not only “reduced the number of targets” and thus increased the number of successful sailings, but also forced the U-boats to carry out attacks from positions where they would be exposed to destroyer counterattack.[xxix]
Furthermore, the figures the Admiralty estimated would be required for Atlantic merchant convoy escort were excessively high: 81 escorts for the homeward-bound Atlantic trade, and another 44 for the outward-bound trade.[xxx] Since the requirements of the western approaches had been minimized to increase destroyer numbers at Dover, Harwich, Rosyth and Scapa Flow, Jellicoe foresaw a situation in which the battle fleet’s escorts would be precariously reduced to endlessly feed requirement for merchant shipping escorts, as did in fact occur during Admiral Sir David Beatty’s second year as Grand Fleet C-in-C.
Photograph of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe as C-in-C Grand Fleet
When Jellicoe arrived, and until the April crisis, Britain’s trade defence policy was one of patrolling a series of shipping lanes, combined with aerial patrols over the coasts.[xxxi] The Admiralty had adopted an ‘approach route’ system, by which, rather than using its anti-submarine vessels as convoy escorts (convoys being believed to be large, slow moving, targets), the A/S vessels would patrol various approach ‘cones’ of which there were four, hoping to sweep them clean of enemy submarines.
Approach A: Apex at Falmouth, shipping from South Atlantic and Mediterranean, destined for London, English Channel, and East Coast Ports.
Approach B: Apex at Berehaven, shipping from North and South Atlantic, destined for Bristol Channel, London and English Channel and Mersey.
Approach C: Apex at Inishtrahull, shipping from North Atlantic for Clyde, Belfast, Irish Sea and Liverpool.
Approach D: Apex at Kirkwall, shipping from North Atlantic for North-East ports to the Humber.[xxxii]
In practice this system proved disastrous, effectively funnelling in and outbound shipping into dangerously crowded and exposed lanes. Although the actual lane utilized was random, the need for a great number of destroyers to patrol the approach area still made U-boat contact unlikely and trade defence precarious. The approach-lane program, as Henry Jones put it, had the effect of ‘concentrating great numbers of ships along the patrol routes off the south coast of Ireland and in the Bristol Channel.’[xxxiii]
The Western approaches were at first starved for resources: only 14 destroyers stationed at Devonport for use ‘escorting troopships and vessels carrying specially valuable cargoes through the submarine danger zone,’[xxxiv] in addition to 12 sloops at Queenstown.[xxxv] Jellicoe transferred an additional ten destroyers from Admiral Beatty to the Senior Naval Officer (SNO) Devonport, at least partly with the intention of increasing the number of escorts available for providing escort to troop or munitions ships.[xxxvi] Aircraft and airship bases had not yet been constructed to cover these approaches,[xxxvii] and the Dover Barrage, meant to prevent the Flanders U-boat flotillas from crossing the Channel, proved totally ineffective. Worse, there were only enough depth-charges to equip four per destroyer at the beginning of 1917, and as late as July, only 140 charges were being produced each month. By the end of 1917 this number had increased to 800, sufficient to equip destroyers with 30 to 40 charges.[xxxviii]
Although Jellicoe implemented strong reforms meant to improve all areas of the A/S patrols, from increased depth-charge production, to building new RNAS bases on the coast; the crisis continued to worsen. Shipping losses increased in March and by early April 1917 had reached an apex. The officers responsible for the particularly exposed Scandinavian sea route met at Longshope, in the Orkneys, on 3 April and determined in favour of implementing convoys to protect North Sea sailings.
As we have seen, convoys – or protected sailings – had already been implemented to cover the Channel crossing, and they were far from a novel concept. The War Cabinet secretary, Colonel Maurice Hankey, had in fact prepared a paper for David Lloyd George on the subject of ASW on 11 February 1917.[xxxix] This paper outlined the flaws in the current patrol system and unequivocally advocated the adoption of convoy and escort as the correct solution. Hankey’s observations regarding the benefits of convoys were particularly cogent:
The adoption of the convoy system would appear to offer great opportunities for mutual support by the merchant vessels themselves, apart from the defence provided by their escorts. Instead of meeting one small gun on board one ship the enemy might be under from from, say, ten guns, distributed among twenty ships. Each merchant ship might have depth charges, and explosive charges in addition might be towed between pairs of ships, to be exploded electrically. One or two ships with paravanes might save a line of a dozen ships from the mine danger. Special salvage ships… might accompany the convoy to salve those ships were mined of torpedoed without sinking immediately, and in any event save the crews. Perhaps the best commentary on the convoy [escort] system is that it is invariably adopted by our main fleet, and for our transports.[xl]
Two days later, at an early morning 10 Downing Street meeting, Lloyd George, Carson, Jellicoe and the Director of the Anti-Submarine Division (DASD) of the Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Alexander Duff, spent several hours during breakfast discussing Hankey’s convoy paper. Jellicoe objected on the grounds that the lightly escorted convoys would make vulnerable targets and that merchant captains would not be capable of the complex station keeping required, or indeed zig-zag maneuvering, objections that did not convince Lloyd George, as Hankey described in his diary.[xli]
The following week Jellicoe prepared a War Cabinet paper describing the progress of A/S measures so far taken by the Admiralty.[xlii] Jellicoe’s primary recommendation was merely to reduce the total maritime traffic, notably by abandoning supply for the Salonika front. This was a dismal situation, as Jellicoe put it, ‘the Admiralty can hold out little hope that there will be any reduction in the rate of loss until the number of patrol vessels is largely increased or unless new methods which have been and are in process of being adopted result in the destruction of enemy submarines at a greater rate than that which they are being constructed…’. At this time, Jellicoe illustrated mechanical thinking in his belief that an additional 60 destroyers, 60 sloops, and 240 trawlers would be needed for a patrol scheme of ultimately unspecified final scale, citing the case of the English Channel where auxiliary patrol vessels formed a complete lane through which traffic passed. His third recommendation was the destruction of the submarine bases themselves.[xliii]
The expansion of A/S measures was above all else the priority for Jellicoe as soon as the new Admiralty administration was settled. The new First Sea Lord immediately set about re-organizing the staff and mobilizing naval logistics to supply new bases, improve torpedoes and mines, and create a host of flotilla and auxiliary craft for A/S purposes. DASD Rear Admiral Duff soon recognized the need for aerial patrol over the western approaches. In December 1916 Duff had requested that Director Air Services Rear Admiral Vaughan Lee implement a patrol schemes at Falmouth, the Scillies, Queenstown, Milford Haven, Salcombe, and Berehaven, to cover the exposed approach lanes.[xliv] In February three H12 flying boats were flown out to the Scillies to patrol the Plymouth approach.[xlv]
The U-boats were not alone in their exertion during February. The Kaiserliche Marine’s Zeebrugge force conducted raids against the Dover straits as the U-boats worked up towards maximum effort. The destroyer situation in the Royal Navy at this time was scattered: there were nominally 99 destroyers available with the Grand Fleet, 28 deployed with the Harwich Force, 37 with the Dover Patrol, 11 attached to the Rosyth, Scapa, Cromarty area, 24 at the Humber and Tyne, 8 at the Nore, 32 at Portsmouth, 44 at Devonport and 8 at Queenstown, although this includes ships refitting or being repaired, and not therefore the true operational strength.[xlvi] This great dispersion of force meant it was possible for Germany’s high-speed torpedo boat destroyers to sortie and conduct night raids with good chances of success.
Map showing the simplified Channel Barrage, the main Folkestone – Gris Nez line and the outer Channel explosive mine net at the end of 1917, Dunn, Securing The Narrow Sea (2017)
To test the Channel defences, Admiral Scheer, early on 25 February, ordered the Zeebrugge destroyers to conduct a raid on the Dover coast with three groups, the first comprised of six boats of the First Half-Flotilla (G95, G96, V67, V68 and V47, Lieutenant Commander Albrecht in G95), the second comprised of four boats of the Sixth Flotilla (Lieutenant Commander Tillessen in S49, with V46, V45, G37, V44 and G86), plus a small diversion force of three boats from the Second Half-Flotilla.[xlvii] Albrecht was to target the Downs while Tillessen attacked the Barrage itself. HMS Laverock, a destroyer armed with three 4-inch guns under the command of Lieutenant Henry Binmore, encountered one of the approaching flotillas around 10:30 pm on the 25th.[xlviii]
After a brief encounter the two sides slipped into the darkness, contact was lost and Tillessen turned back to base. The diversion force found no targets near the Maas, while the First Half-Flotilla carried out a brief shore bombardment of North Foreland and Margate, with no military consequence. Admiral von Schroder, in command of the naval and marine forces in Flanders, considered the operation a success in so far as it was a worthwhile distraction, drawing RN assets away from submarine hunting.[xlix]
A second raid on the Dover defences was organized for the night of March 17-18, during which 16 Flanders destroyers sortied under Tillessen’s command. On this occasion, the Dover destroyer HMS Paragon was torpedoed and sank, with the loss of 75 members of the crew, by boats from Germany’s Sixth Flotilla.[l] HMS Llewellyn was badly damaged by a torpedo attack when it came to assist the sinking Paragon.[li] The Second Half-Flotilla, for its part, sank the anchored merchant ship Greypoint and damaged a drifter near Ramsgate, which they also shelled without effect. Another raid on 24 March, this time against Dunkirk, destroyed a another pair of merchant ships.[lii] While these surface raids kept pressure on the Dover Strait defences, the shipping crisis itself was spiralling out of control.
U-boat Crisis, April – June 1917
On Saturday 24 March 1917, the London Times reported on Mr. J. M. Henderson’s parliamentary speech. On Friday the MP from Aberdeenshire stated that, due to the hardships suffered by the poor during the harsh winter of 1916, it would be necessary that ‘the Government should issue regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act directing the local authorities throughout the country to establish depots for the sale and delivery of coal, sugar, and other necessaries.’[liii] The creeping realization amongst the commons that the supply situation was deteriorating was not lost on the Lloyd George government. Indeed, the War Cabinet had already recognized, notably in a series of meetings during the second half of February, that food stockpiling and public rationing were both imperative and imminent.[liv]
By 21 March the situation was so serious that Arthur Balfour, then the Foreign Secretary, had been forced to convey to the Netherlands that the UK was likely going to begin requisitioning their shipping.[lv] On 2 April the War Cabinet considered the situation ‘most serious’.[lvi] The desperate nature of the shipping losses, and the inability of the Admiralty to resolve the crisis, can be seen in the War Cabinet’s consideration that smaller merchant ships should be built, thus compelling ‘the enemy to expend as many torpedoes as possible in his submarine campaign.’ It was also considered at the 2 April meeting that compulsory mercantile service may be required due to the potential collapse of crew morale.[lvii] All this chaos was being caused by roughly 50 U-boats, an unsustainably high figure that dropped to 40 in May as a result of the exhausting operational tempo the preceding month.[lviii]
Jellicoe, as First Sea Lord, could imagine only material solutions: strengthening merchant ships with bulkheads, or building enormous 50,000 ton ‘unsinkable’ ships for transporting wheat – further indications of the desperate situation.[lix] Indeed, some of the measures recommended to reduce losses were so desperate that had they been implemented the result would have ultimately had a negative impact on the anti-submarine war, such as the War Cabinet suggestion that the Admiralty reduce construction of airship sheds to save steel (airships proved to be ideal platforms for escorting convoys).[lx]
UB III type costal submarine, 500 tons displacement, crewed by three officers and 31 men, armed with four bow and one stern firing torpedoes, plus a single 8.8 or 10.5 cm gun
By 4 April figures provided by Sir Leo Chiozza Money, the Shipping Controller, indicated that by February 1918 merchant shipping tonnage would increase by 850,000 tons from building in Britain, plus 312,000 tons abroad, to which could be added the 720,000 tons of German shipping then seized in American ports. At this time it was believed that this new construction, combined with other efficiencies, would be enough to see the United Kingdom through only until the end of the year.[lxi]
On 1 January 1917 the British Empire possessed 16,788,000 tons (gross) of shipping. By 1 May this figure had fallen to 15,467,000 tons, despite new construction.[lxii] At the height of the crisis in April it was expected that the total would likely fall to around 12,862,000 by the end of the year, in other words, that 3.9 million tons would be erased during 1917. In fact, a staggering 9,964,500 tons were destroyed, globally, during the year, of which 3,729,000 had been British, almost matching the Admiralty estimate in April 1917.
The British Army needed to import 428,000 tons a month. The Ministry of Munitions imported another 1,400,000 tons monthly. For comparison, Britain imported one million tons of cotton, 70,000 tons of tobacco and 400,000 tons of fertilizers on a monthly basis. It was believed that a minimum of 553,000 tons of goods were required every month to sustain the civilian population.[lxiii] According to Jellicoe’s calculations, 8,050,000 tons of shipping were required for the Navy and Army, and on 1 January 1917 there were 8,394,000 tons available for vital imports. By 31 December 1917 the latter figure would therefore have been reduced to 4,812,000 tons, or a loss of 2.78 million tons of civilian imports per month.[lxiv]
The degree of the crisis is told by these statistics, implying a monthly loss rate of between 300,000 and 500,000 tons for the remainder of 1917. The final, and potentially decisive, result was that civilian imports would fall from three million tons in January to 1.6 million tons by the end of the year. Certainly strong economy would be necessitated, in addition to rationing that if continued unchecked would result in the extinguishing of non-military trade by the summer of 1918.[lxv]
Top scoring U-boat ‘aces’ based on proven tonnage destroyed, from Michelsen, Submarine Warfare, p. 218
While the debate carried on at the Admiralty and in the War Cabinet, the district commanders and SNOs were beginning, on their own accord, to form proto-regional commands and implement convoys. As we have seen, the Scandinavian mineral trade and the Channel food and coal trade. had both been placed under convoy with good results.
Some relief occurred on 3 April when the United States joined the war, a momentous event that was welcomed by the War Cabinet three days later. Diplomatic efforts were crucial if the American and Allied war efforts were to be united for maximum impact. Balfour therefore traveled to the United States aboard RMS Olympic while Rear Admiral William Sims, USN, crossed over to Britain in exchange.[lxvi] When Sims, who had traveled across the Atlantic in civilian disguise – in fact, aboard a merchant ship that struck a mine during the voyage – arrived in London and met with Jellicoe, the message Jellicoe had to convey, as Prendergast and Gibson put it, was dire: ‘the German submarines were winning the war.’[lxvii] On Monday, 9 April, Jellicoe reported to the War Cabinet that Admiral Sims would make the utmost efforts to mobilize American support for the anti-submarine campaign.[lxviii]
US Ninth Battleship Division, showing USS New York & USS Texas off Rosyth by William Wyllie.
Close coordination with the Americans brought immediate returns as it would now be possible for American imports to Britain to be carried in American merchant ships, freeing British vessels for other duties.[lxix] Auxiliary ships in the form of the 10th Cruiser Squadron (25 armed merchant cruisers and 18 armed trawlers), that patrolled the Shetlands and Faeroes line intercepting American contraband, was no longer required and its ships were redirected to more fruitful purposes until the squadron itself was abolished on 29 November 1917, shortly prior to the arrival in European waters of the United States Navy’s Battleship Division Nine under Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman.[lxx]
Francis Dodd artwork from 1918 showing RN submarine L2 engaging aircraft with its deck cannon.
As part of Jellicoe’s material strategy, Royal Navy aircraft were expanded alongside A/S flotilla craft. Flying boats stationed at Yarmouth and Felixstowe were equipped to locate and attack submarines, making possible large-scale A/S patrols supported by surface vessels. As the patrol system evolved the U-boats adjusted their tactics.
By March 1917 Jellicoe could inform Beatty that the Staff believed between 11 and 21 U-boats had been destroyed so far that year.[lxxi] Three German torpedo boat flotillas, between 30 and 40 destroyers were deployed to support U-boat operations.[lxxii] German seaplanes were engaged in a significant battle with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) for control of the North Sea, as well as carrying out anti-shipping missions, occasionally with success. April was a particularly busy month for the east coast air stations, the Felixstowe H12 flying boats being assigned to conduct ‘spider web’ patrols off the Kentish coast.
H-12 type Felixstowe flying boats on patrol, from Theodore Douglas Hallam, The Spider Web (2009) & ‘Spider Web’ style octagonal patrol areas for NAS Felixstowe.
In fact, the situation at Dover, since the raids in February and March, had resolved into an intense destroyer and seaplane conflict in its own right. The War Cabinet was informed on 26 March that 30 German destroyers had been massed at Zeebrugge.[lxxiii] Another destroyer raid was shortly organized, taking place on 20 April. The Fifth Half-Flotilla (V71, V73, V81, S53, G85 and G42) under Korvettenkapitan Gautier was to conduct an attack against Dover, while boats from the Sixth and First Half-Flotilla (Commander Albrecht in V47, with G95, V68, G96, G91 and V70) raided Calais.[lxxiv] Although in the event little damage was caused, the raid alerted Dover forces which sortied to intercept the retiring German destroyers. About 12:45 am the 21st, HMS Swift, commanded by Commander Ambrose Peck, with HMS Broke in support, spotted an unknown torpedo boat to the port bow. Swift attacked the boat, torpedoing G85 and disabling it, while Broke, under Commander Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans, rammed G42 and disabled the torpedo boat in hand-to-hand action.[lxxv]Broke was damaged by S53’s 105 mm cannon, but still managed to sink G85 with a torpedo after the German flotilla retreated. 89 sailors were recovered from G42 and G85.[lxxvi]
The temporary defeat of the Flanders raiders, the introduction of the Felixstowe flying boats, and above all else, the introduction of the United States, made a powerful tonic for the Admiralty’s ailing morale. Jellicoe, however, still faced a mounting crisis. He turned to the Naval Staff for answers.
Organization of the Naval Staff, 1905 – 1917 (May), from Nicholas Black, The British Naval Staff In The First World War (2011)
In April 1917 the Anti-Submarine Division (ASD) of the staff was composed of 15 officers and two civilians, spread across seven offices located in the Admiralty Building, Block III.[lxxvii] The U-boat threat plot was kept in a Chart Room within the Convoy Section of the Naval Staff. The Chart Room was managed by Commander J. W. Carrington.[lxxviii] this room, known as the ‘X’ room, displayed a 6’ by 9’ map of all of the known information on submarines, convoys and their most recent locations or sightings.[lxxix] The ASD thus controlled a centralized hub for collecting from the Intelligence Division and disseminating to the Operations Division, U-boat data on the approaching Atlantic convoys. U-boat signal intercepts detected by the Direction Finding (D/F) stations along the coast alerted the Director of Intelligence to submarine activity. The cryptanalysts in Room 40 could then triangulate the location of a transmitting U-boat to within 50 or 20 miles and send this information, via pneumatic tube, instantly to the Chart Room.[lxxx]
It was imperative that Jellicoe be in the closest touch with the Staff, and in May 1917 he was promoted to Chief of the Naval Staff, uniting that position with the office of the First Sea Lord.[lxxxi] These reforms resulted in Admiral Duff’s promotion to Assistant Chief of the Staff, with Henry Oliver becoming the Deputy Chief.[lxxxii] By assigning duties to the assistant and deputy the Chief of Staff was, in Winston Churchill’s words, relieved of ‘a mass of work.’[lxxxiii] The Director of Operations, Captain Thomas Jackson and, after June 1917, Captain George W. Hope, were to prepare a weekly appraisals of the naval situation, with specific attention to submarines, for the First Sea Lord and the War Cabinet.[lxxxiv]
Organization of the Naval Staff and Admiralty Board, c. September 1917, from Jellicoe, Crisis of the Naval War (1920), p. 20
Captain William Fisher, playing a part in Jellicoe’s reforms, replaced Admiral Duff as DASD. Fisher took a direct interest in operational aspects, orchestrating Jellicoe’s broader mission to centralize methods and material; he would communicate directly with the district commanders, such as on 21 July when he wrote a letter to Plymouth commander Admiral Bethell, proposing the use of kite balloons as a screen for convoys in his Area of Responsibility (AOR).[lxxxv]
The Decision for Convoys
The First Sea Lord, as we have seen, was initially skeptical of the possibilities of convoys.[lxxxvi] Early interest in convoy formation, not only in the English Channel and across the North Sea, but also in the Mediterranean, was ignored.[lxxxvii] Jellicoe’s initial blindness to convoy adoption hinged primarily on the scale of the endeavour. As he pointed out in 1934, the convoy system as had evolved by November 1917 for the Atlantic and English Channel required 170 escort vessels of all kinds (of which, 37 were USN destroyers), plus another 32 escorts covering the northern crossing with Norway, and a another 30 escorts in the Mediterranean for a total of 232 vessels, with another 217 escorts working with the fleet units.[lxxxviii] In practice, assembling, directing and communicating with the convoys proved a strenuous task, atmospheric conditions, enemy jamming, battle damage to communications equipment, all had an impact on a convoy’s, or squadron’s, ability to communicate. An officer was assigned to each arrival/departure terminus to manage assembly and coordinate with the escorts and merchantmen. In any given convoy the convoy itself was under the command of the convoy Commodore, while supporting warships were under the authority of the Senior Officer, Escort.[lxxxix]
Jellicoe as First Sea Lord, attending the Inter-Allied Conference in Paris, 27 July 1917, Rear Admiral Alexander Duff, the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff to his right
In early April the Scandinavian trade began to be convoyed, and with success. This was done at the insistence of the Norwegian government, who urged that the Admiralty do more to protect Norwegian merchant ships in the North Sea, of which 27 were sunk during March, and another 27 in April, plus six Danish and two Swedish neutrals.[xc] Of these ships, as Steve Dunn observes, nine were torpedoed by a single U-boat, U30, over the period 10 to 15 April.[xci] Losses in the Lerwick – Bergan route, between the Shetland Islands and the Norwegian coast, were running at 25% per month since inception.
Although cross-Channel trade was by now routinely convoyed, the scale of crossing the North Sea, and the importance of the trade, including vitals such as ‘nitrates, carbide, timber, iron and steel,’ now necessitated new tactics.[xcii] Vice Admiral Frederick Brock, in command of the Orkneys and Shetlands, and on his own authority, was sharing destroyers for escort work with the C-in-C East Coast of England, and the C-in-C Rosyth: a plan they initiated on 3 March.[xciii]
Jellicoe could see that this was the best option, given the dismal results from all other efforts.[xciv] Still, the First Sea Lord was wary about depleting the Grand Fleet’s destroyer flotillas, and was skeptical the convoy system would succeed in the long run.[xcv] In April, however, with the success of the Channel coal trade, where ‘controlled sailings’ had been implemented since 10 February with correspondingly dramatic reduction in losses such that, between then and the end of August, only 16 of the 8,871 ships convoyed across the Channel had been sunk.[xcvi] Jellicoe was just beginning to come around to the implementation of Admiral Duff’s comprehensive recommendation for convoying ‘all vessels – British, Allied and Neutral – bound from North and South Atlantic to United Kingdom’.[xcvii]
The pivot, from the perspective of the War Cabinet, occurred on Monday 23 April, when Lloyd George decided upon an upcoming visit to the Admiralty. The PM’s objective was certainly to put pressure on the Admiralty, but also simply to discover the details of whatever trade protection schemes the Navy was working on. Jellicoe had so far not suggested arranging convoys as the solution, rather relying on a multitude of measures, some more effective than others. In this case, DASD Rear Admiral Duff was in agreement with Grand Fleet C-in-C Admiral Sir David Beatty, as well as Admiral Sims, that convoy should be universally adopted. Jellicoe was still skeptical, having been convinced, in the weeks following the 13 February debate with Hankey, by interviews with a number of merchant ship captains who testified that station-keeping and convoy assembling, in particular, of inbound traffic, would be exceedingly difficult if not impossible.[xcviii] Jellicoe also clung to the dearth of destroyers, as well as an apparently deficient convoy trial that Beatty had conducted as counter-arguments. Under pressure from the PM, however, Jellicoe stated that he would reconsider Duff’s convoy proposal.[xcix]
Duff produced his report three days later, suggesting a program for convoying all Atlantic trade. The DASD observed that, in fact, contrary to Jellicoe’s perspective that convoys were merely larger targets, ‘it would appear that the larger the convoy passing through any given danger zone, provided it is moderately protected, the less the loss to the Merchant Services; that is, for instance, were it feasible to escort the entire volume of trade which normally enters the United Kingdom per diem in one large group, the submarine as now working would be limited to one attack, which, with a Destroyer escort, would result in negligible losses compared with those new being experienced.’[c] Jellicoe approved the scheme the next day, 27 April 1917, that is, three days before the PM arrived at the Admiralty.[ci]
Under Duff’s scheme, the Atlantic trade would be assembled into convoys at four key depots, where they would be joined by escorts and then shuttled into British harbours. Every four days 18 vessels would depart Gibraltar, escorted by two vessels outward and inward bound (requiring six escorts altogether – the other two being spares). Every five days 18 merchants would depart Dakar, protected by three escorts out and in, (nine escorts total). Every three days between 16-20 vessels would leave Louisburg, escorted by four destroyers both ways (12 total), and lastly, every three days 18 ships would depart Newport News, to be escorted by six destroyers (18 total), for a total program of 45 escorts. A further 45 destroyers would provide protection for the final leg of the inbound convoys, with six destroyers meeting each incoming convoy and escorting it to one of the pre-arranged collection points, either St. Mary’s, the Scillies, Plymouth, Milford Haven or Brest.[cii]
130 ton armed lighter X222, one of the armada of light vessels constructed or converted during PM Asquith’s wartime ministries. Originally designed for amphibious landings, these support craft were in converted to A/S patrol and convoy escort duties in 1917
Lloyd George and Hankey did indeed visit the Admiralty on 30 April, and had lunch with Carson, Jellicoe and his family, plus Duff, Captain Webb of the Trade Division and several Assistant Directors from the Naval Staff.[ciii] Jellicoe, the pessimist, considered the Prime Minister ‘a hopeless optimist’ who could not be swayed from his opinions regardless of the 1SL’s cold calculations.[civ] As Hankey phrased it, the meeting ‘set the seal on the decision to adopt the convoy system’.[cv] As significant as the decision in favour of convoys had been, another important decision was made at the next War Cabinet meeting: Lloyd George and Jellicoe agreed that Eric Geddes should be appointed as a civilian naval controller to administer all shipbuilding and supply for naval purposes.[cvi] Geddes strong hand ensured the delivering of the mass of material needed for ASW, with vessels available for A/S duty ballooning from 64 destroyers, 11 sloops and 16 P-boats in July 1917 to 102 destroyers, 24 sloops and 44 P-boats by November, a standard that was maintained well into 1918 when in April there were 115 destroyers, 35 sloops and 45 P-boats available for ASW.[cvii]
It was still early in May when in Washington meanwhile, Sims and Balfour had convinced the Americans to supply 36 destroyers for RN use, a welcome development that would fill half of Jellicoe’s destroyer requirements.[cviii] Indeed, on the 22nd Jellicoe reported to the War Cabinet that the general situation was, ‘for the moment, more reassuring.’[cix] During May the loss rate fell significantly: 106,000 tons of shipping had been destroyed in the Mediterranean, with another 213,000 tons – 78 British ships – lost in all other theatres.[cx]
Furthermore, the RN and RNAS were conducting more frequent engagements with U-boats, suggesting that the A/S measures were having some impact, although as yet there were few concrete results. Of the seven U-boats destroyed during May, only three were attributable to RN efforts: U81, torpedoed by RN submarine E54, UC26, rammed by the destroyer HMS Milne, and UB39 which blew up on Dover Strait mines.[cxi] Significantly, the nature of the U-boat attacks had changed. In March, only 69 ships approaching Britain from the North or South Atlantic had been attacked, with only 32 ships attacked leaving British ports for the same destinations (this was in addition to 62 fishing vessels that were attacked, and another 60 ships in the Channel). By May the figure for import ships attacked had climbed to 100, while the export number had fallen to 20 (only 38 vessels in the Channel attacked, and only 20 fishing vessels).[cxii] Whereas 100,333 tons had been sunk in the Channel during May, only 32,000 tons were sunk in June 1917, a major success.[cxiii]
By the end of May 1917, as Henry Newbolt observed, it was the unescorted import trade that was now at the greatest risk of attack: ‘five times as vulnerable as the export trade’.[cxiv] Experimental Atlantic convoys were tested late in May and, by the end of July 1917, 21 Atlantic convoys had run successfully. Of the 354 ships escorted across that ocean, a mere two were sunk by U-boats. Of all convoys run during this period, of 8,894 ships convoyed, only 27 were destroyed by enemy submarines. The statistics demonstrated that convoys were the best method for protecting merchant shipping. Although ships traveling in convoys were relatively safe, there was still a great mass of unescorted traffic that was easy prey for the U-boats. During the May to July period, 910,133 tons of the total 1,868,555 tons sunk was destroyed by High Sea Fleet U-boats operating in the Atlantic.[cxv]
U-boats operating in 1917, and British tonnage sunk per submarine. Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. V, 1931, p. 195
Shipping losses were heavy and Jellicoe reported that, up to 20 May, 185 ships had been sunk by U-boats (105 British, 36 Allied and 44 neutrals), for 239,816 tons of British shipping lost: a cumulative total of 362,183 tons destroyed.[cxvi] Jellicoe estimated this number would likely climb to 500,000 tons before the end of the month. In the event, 616,316 tons (or 596,629)[cxvii] were indeed sunk by the end of May, 352,596 tons of which were British.[cxviii] There were 126 U-boats in Germany’s possession that May, with 47 the average number at sea on a daily basis that month. A month later the figure was 55, falling to 41 in July. 15 boats were lost during that three-month period, equating to 53 merchants ships (124,750 tons) sunk on average for each U-boat lost, which was down from the rate of 86 ships (194,524 tons) during the previous period, February to April.
In terms of U-boats lost or destroyed versus new commissions, September was the costliest month for the German submarine force. From Marder, FDSF, IV, p. 278
Unfortunately for the Allies, U-boat losses were more than made up for by the 24 new U-boats constructed during May and July.[cxix] In James Goldrick’s phrase ‘the navy admitted reality’ as more U-boats were urgently required, and an order for 95 boats, mainly UB and UC types but including ten U-cruisers, was placed in early June. At the peak of new construction, after another 220 boats were ordered in June 1918, some 300 U-boats of varying types were on order, 74 were completed in the ten months before the armistice, 1.85 per week.[cxx] Besides the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg, and three further light cruisers, these would be amongst the last warships completed for the Kaiserliche Marine.[cxxi]
Convoy Implementation, July to September 1917
The improvements in air support, war material, American destroyers, the rolling adoption of convoys, combined with fatigue amongst the U-boats and loss of some experienced crews, was having an impact on the spiralling shipping loss rate. Import trade, which was now generally convoyed, was well protected so once again the U-boats concentrated their efforts against outbound shipping, which so far had not been incorporated into the convoy system.[cxxii] Jellicoe was now convinced of the need to implement a total convoy system, and outward-bound ships began to be convoyed on 13 August, the needed escorts being removed from the Grand Fleet. The results were excellent: during August, only three of the 200 ships convoyed in outbound convoys were lost, a figure that increased to 789 ships convoyed with only two losses during September. Likewise, 1,306 ships were convoyed inbound across the Atlantic, with only 18 lost that month.[cxxiii]
When the system was fully operational, as Arthur Marder described, there were ‘on the average, sixteen homeward convoys at sea, of which three were in the Home Submarine Danger Zone (Western Approaches, Irish Sea, of English Channel), under destroyer escort. There was an average of seven outward convoys at sea, of which four to five were in the Home Danger Zone. It is worth emphasizing that the convoy system protected neutral as well as British and Allied shipping’.[cxxiv]
The effectiveness of the U-boats had been crippled by this comprehensive convoy system, although the Mediterranean, where convoys had not yet been implemented, remained fertile hunting grounds, albeit with too few submarines operating there to represent a serious impediment to Allied supplies. Regardless, between October and November 1917 a convoy system was arranged for those waters, and by the end of November 381 ships, or 40% of all the Mediterranean traffic, had been successfully convoyed with the loss of only nine vessels.[cxxv]
One of the key material improvements was in the quality and quantity of Britain’s undersea weapons, from torpedoes to depth charges and mines. During 1915 and 1916, 6,177 not very effective mines were laid in the Heligoland Bight. In 1917 the Allies reverse-engineered the more effective German mine, and production numbers increased significantly. Jellicoe was an aggressive advocate of mine operations and he championed the introduction of the German ‘horned’ type over the defective British ‘lever’ mines, specifically for the Dover Barrage,[cxxvi] while also advancing the technical and quantitative refinement of aerial bombs and escort depth-charges.[cxxvii] 12,450 mines were produced between October and December 1917,[cxxviii] with 10,389 laid in the Heligoland Bight and Dover Strait. Marder states that 20,000 mines were laid in the Dover Strait and Bight between July and December 1917, of which 15,686 were laid (in 76 fields) in the Bight during 1917.
British mine counter-measures also improved, with 726 vessels counted in the sweeping force, or paravane equipped, so that only ten British vessels, less than 20,000 tons, were sunk by mines during 1918, compared to more than 250,000 tons lost in the first ten months of 1917.[cxxix]
Six U-boats were in fact destroyed by mines between September and the end of the year.[cxxx] At the beginning of 1918 the increased lethality of the Dover, Bight and Zeebrugge minefields meant that U-boats wishing to reach the Atlantic approaches had to exit the North Sea via the Orkney’s passage, or risk running the Channel nets and minefields. A vast effort was decided upon to mine the North Sea exit (250 miles, requiring 100,000 special ‘antenna’ mines),[cxxxi] and plans were examined to block the U-boats’ bases at Zeebrugge, Ostend, and Kiel. Another 7,500 mines would cut-off the Danish strait.[cxxxii]
A scheme to deploy 21,000 mines from Wangeroog to Heligoland to Pellworm, thus attempting to block the base of operations for the High Sea Fleet’s U-boats, was also considered. Actually executing these plans once again raised problems exposed by the schemes of Winston Churchill (Borkum) and Sir John Fisher (Baltic), that had not been resolved in 1914-15. The operation would require a vast armament, success was not guaranteed, and the potential for a catastrophic defeat was real.[cxxxiii]
RNAS Million based Coastal airship C23Aescorting a convoy early in 1918 (C23A was wrecked on 10 May near Newbury)
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had not been neglected in this vast expansion of military hardware. Indeed, the coastal patrol and convoy escort roles supplied by the naval aviators were essential and had been significantly expanded, with 324 seaplanes, flying boats, and airplanes on duty, plus around 100 airships of various types.[cxxxiv]
During 1917 the majority of these aircraft were involved in air patrol missions, in June 1917 only 46 airplane and 46 airship convoy escort missions were flown, but the figure rose to 92 and 86 respectively in September before poor weather curtailed flying.[cxxxv] By April 1918 the figure was 176 and 184, jumping to 402 and 269 in May. Airships provided the convoy with a constant deterrent to submarine attack, except during night, while flying boats and airplanes could fly in advance of the convoy on look-out, or counter-attack any located U-boats with bombs, which increased in potency from 230 lb delayed-fuse bombs introduced in May 1917 to the 520 lb bombs in use by 1918.[cxxxvi]
RNAS and RAF coverage of the Atlantic approaches by the SNO Plymouth and Queenstown. The RNAS South West Group under Wing Captain E. L. Gerrard implemented sweeping ‘spider-web’ flying-boat patrols off the coast of England and Wales, while Vice Admiral Bayly at Queenstown worked with Captain Hutch Cone, United States Navy, to develop flying-boat bases in Ireland.
Although convoy escort and improved A/S methods and material reduced the potential for a starvation defeat, shortages were still a serious problem. Oil imports to the UK were falling drastically as tankers were destroyed. On 11 June Jellicoe reported that he intended to form weekly oil convoys to relieve the situation.[cxxxvii] Two days later Jellicoe reported to the War Cabinet that the implementation of the convoy system was ‘nearly complete.’[cxxxviii]
Effects of Ocean Convoys, with the losses vs successful convoy sailing ‘cross-over’ point at August – September 1917, from Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, p. 73
By the end of 1917 26,404 ships had sailed in organized merchant convoys: 4,484 across the Atlantic, 6,155 between Scotland and Scandinavia, and 15,684 in the French coal trade, with a total loss of only 147 vessels.[cxxxix] 32.5% and 42.5%, respectively, of those ships that were lost while being convoyed, were sunk while entering or leaving a convoy, when confusion was at its greatest.[cxl] These results were significant, as compared with June 1917 when 122 British merchant ships were sunk with a loss of 417,925 tons in a single month. Although loss rates dropped significantly by November, 85 ships were still lost to mines (8) and U-boats (76) at loss of 253,087 tons of British merchant shipping in December.[cxli] Allied tonnage losses, that is, non-British shipping losses, plummeted from 72 ships at 111,683 tons in July to only 46 ships at 86,981 tons in December.[cxlii]
By August 1917 the convoy system had been systematically implemented in all three maritime theatres, the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean
The Flanders UB and UC flotillas were, however, continually destroying Channel shipping at an average of 50,000 tons a month for the entire period and the Third Ypres offensive had failed to capture Passchendaele, and critically, the U-boat bases along the Belgian coast. Despite these set-backs there was room for hope. In the Atlantic the tonnage loss rate fell from 550,000 tons in April, to only 165,000 tons in November. 37 U-boats were destroyed during the second half of 1917, 16 by mines, the total equivalent to 7.4 boats a month, nearly matching the commission rate for new U-boats, 8.8 per month.[cxliii]
In September there were 139 submarines operating, the wartime peak, allowing for an increased daily average of 56 U-boats in October, more than the 39 at sea in November or the 48 in December.[cxliv] With nearly fifty U-boats continuously at sea every day, and new long-endurance U-boat cruisers plumbing the Atlantic to the tune of 52,000 tons per three month cruise, as U155 achieved in the fall of 1917 (10 steamers & seven sailing ships), the submarine war was far from over.[cxlv]
Daily average of U-boats at sea & total (Allied, Neutral & British) tonnage sunk on average per boat. The sinking rate was cut almost in half between March and December 1917. Furthermore the average daily number and size of vessels sunk was falling: whereas in March 889 tons of British shipping was on average destroyed each day, by August that number had fallen to 485 tons, & half again to 284 tons by December. In March – June the average size of each ship sunk was 5,084 tons gross, falling to 4,342 tons in July – October. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, p. 58
Convoy Battles, October – December 1917
From Jellicoe’s perspective, the Royal Navy was engaged in an unprecedented destroyer and submarine action with the German Navy, with the possibility for a High Sea Fleet sortie at any time. Early in the morning of October 17, German light cruisers raided a west-bound Scandinavian convoy of 12 (two British, one Belgian, one Danish, five Norwegian, three Swedish) that had departed Marstein in the company of two destroyers, HMS Strongbow and Mary Rose.[cxlvi] Just after 6 am on the 17th, Strongbow spotted two unidentified vessels on a converging course. In fact, these were the 3,800 ton German minelaying cruisers SMS Brummer and Bremse, with orders to mine the Scandinavian convoy routes.
The light cruisers proceeded to make short work of Strongbow and Mary Rose with their 15 cm guns.[cxlvii] The trawlers Elise and P. Fannon, armed with only one 6 pdr gun apiece, along with three unarmed steamers, managed to escape and retrieve Lieutenant Commander Brooke, CO of the Strongbow and others, from the water.[cxlviii] The enemy cruisers destroyed the remaining nine merchants in the convoy.[cxlix]
Locations of major minefields, Tarrant, The U-boat Offensive, p. 62 & The chaotic minefield situation in the Heligoland Bight, 17 November 1917, from Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. V, p. 168-9
On 17 November the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight took place when the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, under Rear Admiral Phillimore, a component of Admiral Pakenham’s Battle Cruiser Force, intercepted a group of High Sea Fleet minesweepers that were attempting to clear the edge of the Bight minefields.[cl] Rear Admiral Phillimore’s HMS Repulse group pursued the minesweepers, but the Germans deployed a large smoke screen that successfully covered their escape.[cli]
On 11 December Admiral Scheer ordered Commander Heinecke’s Second Flotilla (Torpedo Boat Flotilla II), comprising the largest and fastest destroyers in the fleet,[clii] to raid Britain’s merchant convoys. The Fourth Half-Flotilla was to attack shipping near Newcastle, while the Third Half-Flotilla raided the Scandinavian Bergen-Lerwick line. During the winter darkness early on 12 December, the Fourth Half-Flotilla destroyers (B97, B109, B110 & B112), moving north up the coast, encountered the stragglers from a southbound coastal convoy out of Lerwick, Shetlands, and torpedoed two transports, the Danish Peter Willemoes and the Swedish Nike and sank a third small coastal steamer shortly afterwards.[cliii] The Fourth Half-Flotilla then withdrew for its rendezvous with the light cruiser SMS Emden at 5:15 pm.[cliv]
German destroyers in formation, from Goldrick, After Jutland (2018), photo 9.1
The complexities of night-time communication in crowded sea-lanes meant that no clear indication of what was happening reached the Admiralty. Furthermore, the poor weather conditions and dearth of coastal lighting (suppressed except at specific times at Admiralty orders) resulted in the Third Half-Flotilla becoming lost and eventually approaching the Norwegian coast.[clv]
So it was with complete surprise that the daily convoy from Lerwick to the Marstein lighthouse, escorted by destroyers HMS Pellew and HMS Partridge, plus four armed trawlers, at 11:30 am south-west of Bjorne Fjord, encountered the German destroyers of the Third Half-Flotilla, under the command of Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant-Commander) Hans Kolbe, a powerful force composed of SMS G101, G103, G104 & V100.[clvi] Lieutenant-Commander J. R. C. Cavendish of the Pellew, when the unknown destroyers approaching the convoy did not answer his signals, transmitted a warning notice to Beatty informing the C-in-C of the expected enemy contact (a signal actually received by the armoured cruiser HMS Shannon and its group, about sixty miles away), and then ordered the convoy to scatter.[clvii]
The 12 December 1917 convoy action, from Scheer’s High Sea Fleet, p. 383
Pellew and Partridge placed themselves between the German destroyers and the convoy hoping to buy time.[clviii] Kolbe’s force destroyed Partridge with gunfire and torpedoes until it sank. Pellew, partially disabled by gunfire, was lost in a storm and LTC Cavendish was able to navigate the destroyer towards the Norwegian coast while Kolbe turned on the convoy (six merchants, four trawlers) and annihilated it.[clix] Although the Partridge distress report was received by HMS Rival and then transmitted to the HMS Birkenhead group (3rd Light Cruiser Squadron) south of Norway, Kolbe’s force managed to slip east past the picket line shortly after sunset.[clx]
Chart of 12 December 1917 destroyer raid on the Scandinavian convoy route, from Marder, FDSF, IV
While this example demonstrated that Germany’s surface assets were very much still a risk to the convoy system, another encounter a week later with U-boats operating near a convoy assembly point highlighted the multidimensional nature of the battle.
A convoy of 17 departed Falmouth in stormy weather at 11 am on 18 December, screened by several trawlers. When the convoy was clear of the Channel and off Prawle point at 1:30 pm, the SS Riversdale was torpedoed. At noon the C-in-C Devonport, receiving reports of sunk merchant ships, ordered all merchant traffic between Plymouth and Portland to be halted, a condition that remained in force until 8 pm, and then again from 5:15 am.[clxi]
The 7,046 ton Cunard liner SS Vinovia was the next to be torpedoed, off Wolf Rock an hour later, with nine lives lost.[clxii] The Rame Head wireless-telegraphy (W/T) station reported a sighting, and the C-in-C Devonport ordered the trawlers in F section to investigate. These were the Mewslade and Coulard Hill. These hydrophone equipped vessels established a hydrophone picket, but did not locate any submarines.[clxiii] Meanwhile, airship C23, which had been despatched to investigate the Rame Head W/T contact, discovered that the French steamer St. Andre had also been torpedoed, sometime around around midnight.[clxiv]
UC100, UCIII-type coastal minelayer submarine, from Tarrant, The U-boat Offensive (2000)
Lieutenant John Lawris RNR, in the sailing ship Mitchell, encountered a U-boat surfacing in windy weather off the north Devon coast. When, at 10:10 am, a submarine surfaced in front of the Mitchell Lt. Lawris opened fire, multiple shell hits causing the U-boat to dive. Although the trawler Sardius raced to support the Mitchell, the submarine was already gone.[clxv]Mitchell relayed this information to the Trevose Head W/T station at 10:25, and the report was broadcast around the region, where it was received at Penzance, Falmouth, Newlyn and elsewhere.[clxvi] The rush of W/T communication amidst the flurry of sighting reports caused communication delays. One Falmouth flotilla, carrying out hydrophone investigations of sightings, did not receive a sinking report until five and half hours after the event.[clxvii]
At 4:00 pm the Prince Charles de Belgique, a Belgian steamer, was attacked by a submarine eight miles from the Lizard. Luckily the torpedo missed, whence the U-boat was spotted by a Newlyn NAS seaplane cruising overhead at 500 ft. The seaplane carried out a bombing attack but was unsuccessful. Simultaneously at 4 pm, the trawler Take Care, while protecting the Brixham fishing fleet, spotted a submarine near Berry Head, although no further sightings were made. Several hours later trawler Lysander was picking up the survivors of the torpedoed Norwegian steamer Ingrid II, which had been enroute to Cardif for repairs.[clxviii] The Alice Marie was sunk next, sometime before midnight, then the Warsaw at 1:20 am, and then at 4 am the Eveline. The trawlers Rinaldo and Ulysses could do nothing to intervene, dashing between reports and unable to make firm detections with their hydrophones.[clxix]
A significant score of ships destroyed, and no submarine caught in the act. The impact of A/S measures continued to be essentially random, thus when UB56 crashed into a mine in the English Channel it became the only German casualty associated with the 18 December action.[clxx] Ten merchant ships of three nations had been lost, but the convoy, reduced to 16, still crossed successfully.
These battles and others like them demonstrate that as 1917 came to a close the Royal Navy had to strengthen and refine its procedures for convoy escort and ASW. Outside of the Mediterranean, the English Channel, Irish Sea and the Scandinavian corridor were all vulnerable to attack, especially near the as yet unescorted coastal routes.
Resolution: Attacks on the Belgian Submarine Bases & the Defeat of the U-boats in 1918
When 1918 opened the convoy system had been widely adopted and plentiful resources were being supplied to the regional commanders. The coastal space, however, had become highly contested. A German surface raid attack near Yarmouth on 14 January involved 50 vessels of various kinds, but was driven off by Commodore Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force.[clxxi] Despite the ongoing surface and submarine battle, crucially, merchant sinkings were well below crisis levels and falling.[clxxii] In December 1917 the German Admiralty made Vice Admiral Ritter von Mann-Tiechler head of a dedicated U-boat office, recognition of ad hoc nature of the previous year of unrestricted submarine warfare.[clxxiii]
Sir Eric Campbell Geddes as Vice Admiral and First Lord of the Admiralty, 1917, photograph by Walter Stoneman
Naval Staff reforms c. January 1918, from Nicholas Black, The British Naval Staff In The First World War (2011)
The Naval Staff as organized in January 1918 for the Geddes – Wemyss administration, from Jellicoe, Crisis of the Naval War (1920), p. 27
The Flanders U-boat bases were liberated during October 1918, a decisive event in the Allied Hundred Days offensive. The Germans evacuated Ostend on 17 October, and then Zeebrugge and Bruges two days later. On 21 October the U-boat command issued the order to cease attacks on passenger ships, followed by the recall of all U-boats to Wilhelmshaven, from which the expected final sortie of the High Sea Fleet was to take place.[ccv] The naval mutiny following the 28 October order for the suicidal final sortie, and resulting capture of the fleet bases at Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel by revolutionaries on 3 November, at last terminated the submarine threat.[ccvi]
Approximate locations of U-boats destroyed during the First World War, from Gibson & Prendergast
The RAF memorial, Victoria Embankment, c. 1923 by William Wyllie
As Stephen Roskill observed of the British experience with ASW during the Second World War, the immediate lesson was the complete failure of hunting groups, and the superior nature of escorted convoys, in particular with destroyer and air support. The old argument of offensive versus defensive measures masked the aggressive naval officer’s distaste for the rigors of convoy duty.[ccvii] The advantages of convoys were undeniable: the total space the convoy occupied was marginal when compared to the visibility of thousands of independently sailing vessels, which in effect acted as a screen for the convoys, until controls were tightened as losses continued into 1918.
Fast attack forces able to slip through the Royal Navy’s blockade, such as minelayers and destroyers, produced decisive results against convoys, as they were able to overwhelm the escorts. The U-boats, by concentrating against the coasts and the convoy dispersion points, and attacking the thinly escorted Atlantic and Norwegian convoy routes, were still able to inflict serious losses. The Admiralty did arrive at the essential formula for success – vastly improved A/S escorts, convoys, qualitative and quantitative improvements in material and technology from mines, depth-charges, bombs and shell, plus flying boats, airships, Q-ships, hydrophones, minesweepers and paravanes. So long as as the High Sea Fleet did not escalate the scale of its counter-blockade operations, the crucial merchant supplies would get through, while peripheral attacks, such as by the Zeppelins and Gothas against London and the coastal bases and arsenals, could not decide the outcome of the war.
The German naval command had gambled on an uncertain weapon, and come close to success. As the U-boat war evolved during 1917, both sides were forced to dramatically adjust their operations and tactics. For the Allies, restricting the movement of, and eventually counter-attacking the U-boats became the new paradigm, whereas Germany abandoned main fleet battle to focus completely on submarine construction and flotilla deployment. The historical parallel with 18th century convoy and the guerre de course was proven correct,[ccviii] and by the end of the war the tools to effectively locate and destroy U-boats had been invented, tested and operationalized. For the U-boats the lessons were clear: strength lay in numbers, and safety at night, far away from air patrols. The Second Battle of the Atlantic, twenty years later, would prove which side had truly grappled with the crisis, and mastered it.
After the War: UB77 in Portsmouth harbour with HMS Victory, from Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, p. 55
[i] Marc Milner, “The Atlantic War, 1939-1945: The Case for a New Paradigm,” in Decision in the Atlantic, ed. Marcus Faulkner and Christopher M. Bell (University of Kentucky: Andarta Books, 2019), 5–19.
[ii] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, Vol. I, Kindle ebook, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Arcole Publishing, 2017)., chapter 40, loc. 14420
[iv] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. V, 5 vols., History of the Great War Based on Official Documents (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 1931)., p. 195
[v] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Cassel & Co, 2000)., p. 50
[vi] Donald Macintyre, The Battle of the Atlantic (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2006)., p. 73-7
[vii] Nick lloyd, Hundred Days: The End of the Great War, Kindle ebook (New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2013)., Chapter 13, loc 4088
[viii] See for example, Nick Hewitt, The Kaiser’s Pirates, Hunting Germany’s Raiding Cruisers in World War I, Kindle ebook (New York: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2013)., also, Julian Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. I, V vols., History of the Great War Based on Official Documents (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 1920).
[ix] Nicolas Wolz, From Imperial Splendour to Internment: The German Navy in the First World War, trans. Geoffrey Brooks, Kindle ebook (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2015)., chapter 7, loc. 2730-5
[x] Gary Sheffield, “Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Arras: A British Perspective,” in Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment, ed. Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, and Mike Bechthold (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010), 15–30., p. 15-6
[xi] John Terraine, Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars, 1916-1945, Kindle ebook (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2009)., part I, chapter 3, loc. 1297
[xii] Wolz, From Imperial Splendour to Internment: The German Navy in the First World War., chapter 7, loc. 2735
[xiii] Holger Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918, Kindle ebook (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014)., p. 308
[xiv] Edwyn A. Gray, The U-Boat War, 1914-1918, Kindle ebook (London: Leo Cooper, 1994)., chapter 10, loc. 2443
[xxiv] Gray, The U-Boat War, 1914-1918., chapter 10, loc. 2443
[xxv] Arthur Marder, ed., Portrait of an Admiral, The Life And Papers Of Herbert Richmond. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952)., p. 228
[xxvi] Daniel A. Baugh, “Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and the Objects of Sea Power,” in Mahan Is Not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, ed. James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf, Naval War College Historical Monograph 10 (Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College Press, 1993), 13–49., p. 18 fn. See also in particular, Herbert Richmond, The Navy In The War of 1739-48, Volume III, vol. 3, 3 vols., Cambridge Naval and Military Series (London: Cambridge University Press, 1920)., p. 52 et seq
[xxvii] Julian Corbett, The Seven Years War, A Study in British Combined Strategy (London: The Folio Society, 2001)., p. 267-80; & Julian Corbett, Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, Volume I, Kindle ebook, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015)., p. 290, 359
[xxviii] Arthur Marder, From The Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Year of Crisis, vol. 4, 5 vols. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1969)., p. 120-1
[xxix] Terraine, Business in Great Waters., Part 1, Chapter 3, loc. 1314-21. See also, Winston Churchill, The World Crisis: Volume III, 1916 – 1918, Kindle ebook, vol. 3, 4 vols. (New York: RosettaBooks, LLC, 2013)., Chapter 15, loc. 5253-60
[xlii] War Cabinet paper by Jellicoe, 21 February 1917, ADM 1/8480, #33 in A. Temple Patterson, ed., The Jellicoe Papers, 1916-1935, vol. 2, 2 vols. (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co. Ltd., 1968)., p. 144-9
[xliii] War Cabinet paper by Jellicoe, 21 February 1917, ADM 1/8480, #33 in Temple Patterson., p. 146-8
[xlvii] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. IV, 5 vols., The Naval History of the Great War (Antony Rowe Ltd., Eastbourne: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 1928)., p. 353; James Goldrick, After Jutland: The Naval War in North European Waters, June 1916 – November 1918, Kindle ebook (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2018)., chapter 9, loc. 3018. Goldrick says Tilleson.
[xlviii] Steve Dunn, Securing The Narrow Sea: The Dover Patrol, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2017)., p. 134
[xlix] Goldrick, After Jutland., chapter 9, loc. 3036-45
[li] Dunn, Securing The Narrow Sea., p. 134; Goldrick, After Jutland., chapter 9, loc. 3126-41
[lii] Goldrick, After Jutland., chapter 9, loc. 3149-58
[liii] ‘Distribution of Coal and Sugar,’ 24 March 1917, London Times, p. 8
[liv] Paul Guinn, British Strategy and Politics, 1914 to 1918 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965)., p. 228; see also, Stephen Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, vol. I: 1877-1918, 3 vols. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1970). p. 359-60
[lv] War Cabinet meeting 100, 21 March 1917, CAB 23/2/18, p. 2
[lvi] War Cabinet meeting 110, 2 April 1917, CAB 23/2/28, p. 3
[lvii] War Cabinet meeting 110, 2 April 1917, CAB 23/2/28, p. 3
[lix] War Cabinet meeting 117, 11 April 1917, CAB 23/2/35, p. 4; see also, War Cabinet meeting 125, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/43, p. 4
[lx] War Cabinet meeting 125, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/43, p. 4
[lxi] War Cabinet meeting 113, 4 April 1917, CAB 23/2/31, p. 2-3
[lxii] War Cabinet meeting 125, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/43, p. 2
[lxiii] War Cabinet meeting 125, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/43, p. 3-5
[lxiv] War Cabinet meeting 125, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/43, p. 2
[lxv] War Cabinet meeting 125, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/43, Appendix II, p. 8-9
[lxvi] Jellicoe to Beatty, 12 April 1917, #42 in Temple Patterson, Jellicoe Papers, Vol. II., p. 156
[lxvii] Gibson and Prendergast, German Submarine War., p. 159
[lxviii] War Cabinet meeting 116, 9 April 1917, CAB 23/2/34, p. 5; War Cabinet meeting 117, 11 April 1917, CAB 23/2/35, p. 2-3; see also Jellicoe to Rear-Admiral W. S. Sims, 7 April 1917, #41 in Temple Patterson, Jellicoe Papers, Vol. II., p. 155.
[lxix] War Cabinet meeting 115, 6 April 1917, CAB 23/2/33, p. 1
[lxx] Marder, FDSF, IV, pp. 274-5. See also, William Sims, The Victory at Sea (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016)., p. 352-3
[lxxi] Jellicoe to Beatty, 17 March 1917, #36 in Temple Patterson, Jellicoe Papers, Vol. II., p. 153
[lxxii] Jellicoe to Beatty, 24 March 1917, #37 in Temple Patterson., p. 153
[lxxiii] War Cabinet minutes 104, 26 March 1917, CAB 23/2/22, p. 3
[lxxiv] Dunn, Securing The Narrow Sea., p. 135-41. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 1928., p. 373
[lxxv] Newbolt, Naval Operations, 1928., p. 377-8. Dunn, Securing The Narrow Sea., p. 137-8
[lxxvi] Goldrick, After Jutland., chapter 9, loc. 3221-50
[lxxvii]The Naval Who’s Who, 1917 (Polstead: J. B. Hayward & Son, 1981). p. 273
[lxxviii] Nicholas Black, The British Naval Staff In The First World War (Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Inc., 2011), p. 301
[lxxix] Marder, FDSF, IV, pp. 264. Patrick Beesly, Room 40: British Naval Intelligence 1914-1918 (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1982)., p. 254
[lxxx] Marder, FDSF, IV, pp. 264. Beesly., p. 254fn
[lxxxi] War Cabinet meeting 130, 2 May 1917, CAB 23/2/48, Appendix, p. 5
[xciv] Jellicoe to Beatty, 25 April 1917, #43 in Temple Patterson., p. 157 fn
[xcv] Jellicoe to Beatty, 25 April 1917, #43 in Temple Patterson., p. 157
[xcvi] Terraine, Business in Great Waters., Part 1, Chapter 3, loc. 1305
[xcvii] Duff to Jellicoe, 26 April 1917, #44 in Temple Patterson, Jellicoe Papers, Vol. II., p. 157
[xcviii] Report of Admiralty meeting 23 February 1917, #34 in Temple Patterson., p. 149-51 & Jellicoe to Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton, C-in-C Rosyth, 25 April 1917, #43 in Temple Patterson., p. 157
[xcix] War Cabinet meeting 124, 23 April 1917, CAB 23/2/42, p. 3; see also, Holger H. Herwig and Donald Trask, “The Failure of Imperial Germany’s Undersea Offensive Against World Shipping, February 1917 – October 1918,” The Historian 33, no. 4 (August 1971): 611–36., p. 614
[c] Rear-Admiral Duff to Jellicoe, 26 April 1917, #44 in Temple Patterson, Jellicoe Papers, Vol. II., vol. 2, p. 158
[cxx] Andreas Michelsen, Submarine Warfare, 1914-1918 (Miami: Trident Publishing, 2017)., p. 76, 78; see also, Herwig and Trask, “The Failure of Imperial Germany’s Undersea Offensive Against World Shipping, February 1917 – October 1918.”, p. 635
[cxxi] Goldrick, After Jutland., chapter 12, loc. 4190
[cxxxv] Howlett, “The Royal Naval Air Service and the Evolution of Naval Aviation in Britain, 1914 – 1918.”, p. 140; see also, John J. Abbatiello, Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats (New York: Routledge, 2006)., Appendix I, p. 174
[cxxxvi] Dwight Messimer, Find and Destroy: Antisubmarine Warfare in World War I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001)., p. 134; Howlett, “The Royal Naval Air Service and the Evolution of Naval Aviation in Britain, 1914 – 1918.”, p. 116; see also, H. A. Williamson, “Employment of aeroplanes of Anti-Submarine Work”, 14 August 1918, AIR 1/642, #267 in Stephen Roskill, ed., Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service. Volume I, 1908-1918 (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co. Ltd., 1969)., p. 703-4
[cxxxvii] War Cabinet minute 160, 11 June 1917, CAB 23/3/7, p. 2
[cxxxviii] War Cabinet minute 162, 13 June 1917, CAB 23/3/9, p. 4
[clxxxiii] Scheer., p. 387-8; see also, Dunn, Securing The Narrow Sea., p. 171-4, Goldrick, After Jutland., chapter 13, loc. 4879
[clxxxiv] Cecil Aspinall-Oglander, Roger Keyes (London: The Hogarth Press, 1951)., p. 222-53; see also, Lawrence Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2017)., p. 179-80
[ccvii] Stephen Roskill, War at Sea, 1939 – 1945, Volume II: The Period of Balance, Kindle ebook, vol. 2, 4 vols., History of the Second World War (London: HMSO, 1956)., chapter IV, loc. 2353-95
[ccviii] Richard Woodman, “The Problems of Convoys, 1914-1917,” in Dreadnought to Daring: 100 Years of Comment, Controversy and Debate in The Naval Review, ed. Peter Hore (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2012), 53–66., p. 55-6