The Royal Navy and the Convoy WWI Part I

Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool by Willy Stöwer

But by August 1916, when the greater part of the High Seas Fleet was ready fix sea again, nothing had occurred on either side that made a decisive battle more likely to take place. This was confirmed when, with a somewhat hollow show of bravado, Scheer ventured to demonstrate to the world that ‘the enemy must be on the watch for attacks by our Fleet’. On 19 August the High Seas Fleet with eighteen dreadnoughts and its only two serviceable battle-cruisers came out with the intention of effecting the aborted pre-Jutland raid on Sunderland in association with U-boat traps.

Again, Room 40 did not let down Jellicoe who was again at sea to meet Scheer before he had left harbour himself, this time well covered by scouting Zeppelins. The two Fleets were never in serious risk of making contact. Jellicoe flinched away when one of his light cruisers was torpedoed for fear that he might be entering a new minefield, and Scheer made a rapid retreat when one of his Zeppelins misreported the Harwich ships as ‘a strong enemy force of about 30 units’ including dreadnoughts.

The loss of two British light cruisers to U-boats on this sortie caused even greater reluctance to commit the Fleet to coming south when and if the German Fleet approached the cast coast unless ‘there is a really good chance of engaging it in daylight’. It appeared more and more unlikely that this would ever again happen, and senior officers began to face up to the reality of victory without battle.

By November 1916 the Admiralty was again in deep trouble. This was brought about by a number of factors, one of them stemming from the failure to destroy the High Seas Fleet six months earlier. But more important was the great increase in merchantmen losses from the newly intensified U-boat campaign, with tonnage sunk doubling to over 120,000 monthly by contrast with 56,000 earlier in the year. Two raids on the Channel by German light craft did not help the standing of the Admiralty either. The Navy itself escaped criticism; it was the men in Whitehall who had again lost the confidence of the nation.

‘The Navy has done wonders’, ran a leader in The Times on 21 November 1916. But confidence did not extend to members of the Board at Whitehall. ‘They have been a long time in office, and shore life for eighteen months tends to benumb a sailor’s sense of the sea … The feeling that they have become “stale” is almost universal.’ Jackson made no difficulties about quitting his post. ‘I think it is quite time I made way for a more energetic and more experienced Admiral than I can claim to be …, ‘ he announced with modesty and truth. Jellicoe was his natural successor, but he made a great show of reluctance to leave, and when at last Balfour persuaded him to come down to London from his northern fastness and he bade farewell to his beloved Grand Fleet, ‘there was not one completely dry eye on the quarterdeck’ of the Iron Duke, according to an eyewitness. Jellicoe not only enjoyed the affection and admiration of his men. He had indeed forged a fine weapon, and even if it was never fully unsheathed its keen edge had been a sufficient deterrent to preserve the nation from catastrophe.

Beatty was a less obvious successor as C.-in-C. There were eight vice-admirals senior to him, among them Sturdee who was greatly put out when he was passed m-er. The only other serious contender was Jellicoe’s Chief of Staff, Vice-Admiral Charles Madden. The rest were inadequate for one reason or another, and short of a surprise appointment from the pool of rear-admirals, there was really no one else hut the hero of Jutland and the people’s choice, David Beatty.

Balfour was not long in following Jackson out. Fleet Street had correctly surmised that he was also ineffective as the Navy’s professional head, and the term of office of the other half of this thoroughly weak partnership expired with that of the man who had appointed him, Herbert Asquith. In fact Lloyd George, the new Prime Minister, had made it clear to his predecessor that Balfour was to be ‘eliminated from the Admiralty’. In Balfour’s place carne Sir Edward Carson, ‘uncrowned King of Ulster’ and MP for Dublin University. He was a very considerable advocate, had been an able Attorney-General, possessed a mind as keen as Balfour’s, supplemented by a kindness and friendliness in stark contrast to his predecessor’s remoteness. Balfour had never gone near to the burly-burly of grease, noise, and movement of a naval base. Carson took the Fleet into his confidence and was soon rewarded with its affection. And, unlike Churchill, he had no intention of becoming ‘an amateur in naval strategy or tactics’. His presence boded well for the future.

By the end of 1916 it had become apparent that U-boat warfare against shipping would be the first threat and first preoccupation of the new Board. Germany had intensified her campaign in the autumn of 1916, but on a restricted basis. The failure of the German armies to break through on the Western Front, economic near-bankruptcy at home, and the increasing pressure of the British blockade introduced a note of desperation into Germany’s war plans.

‘A decision must be reached in the war before the end of 1917,’ wrote the German Chief of Naval Staff, von Trotha, on 22 December 1916, ‘if we can break England’s back the war will at once be decided in our favour. Now England’s mainstay is her shipping … ‘ Scheer himself put it thus: ‘Our aim was to break the power of mighty England vested in her sea trade in spite of the protection which her powerful Fleet could afford her … if we did not succeed in overcoming England’s will to destroy us then the war of exhaustion must end in Germany’s certain defeat.’

A renewal of unrestricted U-boat warfare proved complex and difficult to undertake. Von Trotha many years later recalled the political machinations: ‘Scheer and I both held the view that the first half-hearted attempts at submarine warfare were a profound mistake as they gave notice to the British Admiralty to prepare for future eventualities. We both felt this limited submarine war was a waste of both life and material as it could not be expected to achieve anything in the nature of a blockade of England.

We were however restrained by the Government on the representations of the Army from starting unrestricted submarine war. Nevertheless we pressed for authority to start it.

The characters of the Kaiser and of von Holtzendorf [head of the Admiralstab] had a great influence on the question. The Kaiser had vision but lacked nerve. In the building up of the Navy in the years before the war, Tirpitz faced crisis after crisis, and each one took more toll of the Emperor’s nerve … von Holtzendorf was a good staff officer but not a man to ride the storm … We never submitted the plan of an operation to Holtzendorf until it was too late for him to stop it. He was the class of man, rather like Ingenohl and Pohl, who stuck closely to the book.

It was with such men that Scheer and I were dealing and Scheer at last decided to send me straight to the Army Headquarters to urge our point of view. If the Army accepted, the politicians would follow. At last Ludendorff telegraphed for me to meet him at GHQ at Pless to discuss the U-boat campaign. I dined with him and Hindenburg very simply. It was my first meeting with Hindenburg. The Hindenburg-Ludendorff combination was a gift from heaven.

Ludendorff took me into his room and rang up the German Army Headquarters in France. The telephone had a loudspeaker and the Commander at the other end described the situation as very bad. The Somme battle had claimed all our efforts and we had put our last reserves in the line. Ludendorff then said to me that … the unrestricted U-boat war advocated by Scheer must be implemented.’

It was as a result of this lobbying for support by Scheer’s Chief of Staff that on 1 February 1917 Germany reopened unrestricted U -boat warfare in the North Sea, English Channel, the Mediterranean, Western Approaches, and soon the eastern seaboard of the United States. She could muster 154 craft of a radically more effective specification than those of 1914. In fact, there were never more than 70 at sea at any one time because of the need for refitting and repairing, and resting the crews. But that number turned out to be sufficient to bring Britain almost to her knees and the war to an end in Germany’s favour. Total losses of British shipping by U-boats alone rose from 35 ships in January 1917 (110,000 tons) to 86 in February, 103 in March, and 155 in April, or over 516,000 tons, in addition to another 30,000 tons from striking mines; while the grand total of shipping losses to Britain and her Allies, and neutral ships carrying Allied supplies, reached the catastrophic figure for April of 869,103 tons.

But even those figures do not tell the full story of the paralysis that was seizing up sea communications. In addition, many more ships were damaged and put out of action, were delayed in sailing due to real or false alarms, or did not sail at all, or were delayed by safety diversions. The real figure that counted, the figure that was beginning to paralyse war production (despite the rationing of raw materials and food for civilians and servicemen alike) and halt the movement of war material, was the fall from 1,149 ships entering British ports in February and March 1916 to under 300 a year later. And the U-boat campaign was only just getting into its stride.

By late 1916 the Admiralty would no doubt have given deeper thought to anti-U-boat defences and counter-attack if Germany’s offensive up until that time had been more consistent. But inter national political considerations and internal dispute led to a frequent change in policy from completely unrestricted commerce warfare to a very muted and strictly legal offensive which deceived the Admiralty into believing that existing protective methods were adequate.

The only major countermeasures introduced in the first two years of the war were patrols, the arming of merchantmen, and the laying of minefields. Patrols were enormously expensive in terms of manpower and ships required to cover the most vulnerable areas. No fewer than 3,000 vessels, from armed yachts and drifters, to torpedo boats and sloops, were in use at the end of 1916, although only fifteen U-boats were lost from all causes including accident during the second half of the year. Arming merchantmen was the most effective deterrent but thousands of guns were required for this to be effective and the demand for artillery for the various theatres of war was unremitting. Mining had no restricting effect on the movements of U-boats. Net barrages in association with mines proved useless in the Channel. The U-boats simply ducked under them.

Devices ranging from the eccentric to the practical and effectively destructive had been tried out from the early days of the war, and were discarded or introduced according to results. A towed sweep carrying explosive charges was used by small ships working together, sometimes at high speed. When the location of the U-boat was known a depth charge containing TNT or Amato was dropped or discharged carrying a hydrostatic pistol set to explode the charge at predetermined depths.

The most romantic, if hair-raising, method of hunting down U-boats was with ‘Q-ships’. These were innocent-looking merchantmen manned by volunteer naval crews with a powerful but carefully concealed armament. In the past, merchantmen had often been painted to look like men o’war with dummy wooden guns. This ruse which saved many a ship from pirates or its country’s enemies was effectively reversed in the Q-ship, which rapidly assumed a legendary wolf in-sheep’s-clothing reputation in the service. The formula for success with these vessels was to invite attack by proceeding- alone in danger areas. At least until 1917, the U-boat usually surfaced on sighting- its intended victim and then, with or without warning, opened fire and sank the ship by gunfire, reserving torpedoes for special occasions and targets, like ocean liners and warships. On sighting a surfaced U-boat, a ‘panic party’ would noisily take to the Q-ship’s boat, perhaps complete with a parrot cage, while the gun crews remained concealed awaiting their opportunity or giving the enemy a short, well-aimed, and fatal volley.

To lie in concealed waiting while the U-boat conducted a cautious examination from a distance, sometimes through its periscope, required nerves of’ steel, and after the Germans rumbled this ruse, U-boats were known to torpedo the Q-ship and depart with no more ado. However, early Q-ship successes were encouraging. The most famous Q-ship commander was Gordon Campbell, who earned a VC and DSO for his dangerous work. His first victim was U-68 which first fired a torpedo at the Q-ship. It just missed, and the carefully posed nonchalant crew on deck pretended not to have seen it. The U-boat then surfaced, subjected the vessel to an exhausting examination after firing a shot across her bows, and the ‘panic party” left the ‘deserted’ ship with a great deal of noise, while another shot was fired.

‘He was now about 800 yards off showing full length, and although the range was a little bit greater than I wished,’ Campbell wrote later, ‘the time had come to open fire before he might touch off our magazines. I therefore blew my whistle. At this signal the White Ensign flew at the masthead, the wheel-house and side ports came clown with a clatter, the hen coop collapsed; and in a matter of seconds three 12-pounder guns, the Maxim, and rifles were firing as hard as they could.  The U-boat submerged, badly clam aged, was forced to the surface with depth charges, when the coup de grâce was given at point-blank range. The effectiveness of the Q-ships waned as the Germans became more wily.

Death in a crippled U-Boat was a particularly distressing business, and if anything was worse than trench warfare it was the cruel war at sea in which thousands of’ merchant sailors were roasted or choked to death by oil, went clown in their ships, or were left to drown or freeze to death in the North Atlantic.

In answering a letter of protest from Fisher at his laying down of the Grand Fleet’s command, Jellicoe wrote to him, ‘It is because I agreed with you that the great danger now threatening us is the submarine menace that I have now left the Fleet to come to the Admiralty. I could do nothing with the Fleet to cope with that menace. I may be able to do something at Head Quarters. I may not succeed, but I am here to try. I know of course that all the criticism hitherto aimed at Jackson will now fall on me, but I am prepared to face that in the hope that I may, with the help of those coming with me, be able to cope with the submarines.’

Alas, the choice of Jellicoe was not a successful one, and before long the new Prime Minister recognized that he had made a mistake. This able, intelligent, likeable, and loyal sailor was less well equipped to deal with the problem of running the Navy at war from Whitehall, and in the depths of a life-and-death crisis at that, than he was at commanding a great fleet. Jellicoe’s two great weaknesses as a C.-in-C. Grand Fleet, his inability to delegate and his inflexibility of mind, were even more apparent and damaging in the First Sea Ford’s office. Beatty’s first shock at taking over from Jellicoe was the quantity of paperwork his predecessor had been prepared to cope with. He soon had it cut to the bone and handed most of what was left over to his Staff. But anyone with an appetite for paperwork and the minutiae of administration could have his fill in the First Sea Ford’s office where bureaucratic excesses had constantly to be held at bay.

There is no surer formula for stress leading to ill-health and a deterioration in performance than conscientiousness combined with a distrust of others to work to one’s own high standards, pressure from above and from all sides, and a fundamentally weak constitution. As an admirable, loyal, and thoroughly decent man, Jellicoe’s personal tragedy is one of the greatest of the war at sea.

The first step he took after arriving at the Admiralty was to set up an Anti-Submarine Division to co-ordinate existing measures and seek new weapons and policy. This was an excellent idea in principle and, after a chaotic start characteristic of reorganization at the Admiralty, it began to produce new ideas. The first difficulty to overcome was that of recognizing the nature of the threat. In its characteristics and its method of attack the submarine was something entirely novel in commerce warfare, and in the struggle for survival at sea the fact that the U-boat was only a raider in another guise was lost in a smoke-screen of new weaponry.

A glance back in history and a cold, hard look by an intelligent Staff committee, would have led to the simplest solution much earlier than it was reached. Like so many of his contemporaries, Jellicoe was a ‘numbers man’. In the Grand Fleet he fretted constantly about numbers – inadequate numbers of destroyers to protect the Fleet against the growing number of enemy submarines, inadequate numbers of dreadnoughts to face the supposedly huge increase in numbers of German dreadnoughts. In this new war against the U-boats he applied the same policy, the gospel of numbers. One officer described it as ‘the thousands scheme’ – thousands of nets, mines, depth charges, guns, patrol craft, thousands of every new development worthy of joining the vast arsenal of anti-U-boat weaponry. There was Jellicoe frequently proclaimed, no single way of defeating the U-boat. Victory could only come by suffocation, the smothering of the underwater threat by weight of numbers.

The convoy was as old as war at sea. The convoying of merchantmen protected by men o’war had been repeatedly resorted to from the thirteenth century to, most recently, the Napoleonic wars when, from 1798, it ceased to be a convenience for merchants and their merchantmen and became obligatory. Its efficacy was beyond doubt. Yet by 1914, when commerce was even more essential to the survival of the nation than it had been in 1814, the convoy was discredited in naval policy despite Churchill’s recent introduction of a Naval Staff.

The problem of protection of trade was under constant review. The first reason why the conoy principle had been discarded was the same reason which had led to the emphasis on offensive gunpower and speed rather than defensive armour and strength of construction in the Navy’s men o’war. In the end it came down to a state of mind in which the Nelsonian principle of attack (albeit distorted) was applied to the training of officers and men and the design and construction of the men o’wvar. In short, defence was an unacceptable principle, offense correct – right-minded, valorous, glorious, and correct. To protect merchantmen, to scurry about them like a sheepdog, was defensive. To send out hundreds of men o’war to hunt down and destroy commerce raiders was offensive. That such a policy was living in the face of reason was considered only by a small minority of ‘thinkers’ at the Admiralty.