The Royal Navy and the Convoy WWI Part II

When losses began to rise alarmingly and several voices were raised in favour of introducing the traditional convoy system, the opposition arguments were:

1. Convoys would require vast numbers of escort vessels better employed in search-and-kill patrol operations.

2. Convoys with the delays entailed in collecting the vessels in port, in organizing merchantmen skippers and crews untrained for station-keeping, in the imposition of slow speeds on !aster vessels, the alternating congestion and slackness in loading and discharging cargoes, would lead to a greater loss of trade than the U-boats could ever accomplish.

3. The greater the number of ships forming a convoy, the more vulnerable it must be to U-boat attack.

The administration of a convoy system was indeed mountainously complex and difficult. Trade had multiplied many times and destinations were more numerous since the French wars, but convoys had in fact already been instituted for the Channel coal trade with France, without which French industry would have ground to a halt. Convoys had also been resorted to for the Dardanelles operations and for the great troop movements from the far corners of the Empire in the opening weeks of war. When the success of these was cited, convoy opponents declared that there was a great difference between troop-ships manned by the cream of the merchant service and the vast quantity of ships on the Atlantic or Cape run and in the Mediterranean of diverse size, speed, and quality of manning.

As figures for U-boat construction and the sinking of merchantmen both rose out of all proportion to U-boat losses, and political and Press agitation became more clamorous, the Admiralty were forced to examine the problem and present counter-arguments to justify their stand. No voice condemning the convoy was more authoritative than Jellicoe’s, and it was his insistence more than anyone else’s in refusing to introduce the system that led to his eventual downfall. Jellicoe, whose own Grand Fleet Battle Squadrons had formed the biggest and safest (nil losses) convoy of all time since October 1914, remained inflexible in his opposition, as did Duff and Oliver and numerous less influential senior officers.

Richmond, now serving at sea with the Grand Fleet, observed Jellicoe’s inaction at the Admiralty with despair. ‘Having missed two chances of destroying the German Fleet,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘he is now busy ruining the country by not taking steps to defeat the submarines.’ Beatty was equally exasperated, and in a talk in the flagship with Richmond said that Jellicoe’s ignorance of war was astonishing. ‘Every proposal of Beatty’s for convoy has been opposed’, wrote Richmond. ‘It was “impossible”’. Everything was impossible. “It is like running your head against a brick wall – no, a wall of granite– to try & get any ideas through”, said B.’

The official and obdurate Admiralty opposition to the principle of convoy was cracked at last by three events. The Scandinavian trade had been operating fix some time at the unacceptable loss rate of 25 per cent. Beatty set up a committee to consider this crisis, and its first urgent recommendation was in favour of the convoy principle as a trial. It was difficult for the Admiralty to brush this aside, and on 20 April 1917 the OD, and the next day Jellicoe, agreed. The loss rate instantly fell to 0.24 per cent, or 120 times.

On 6 April America entered the war, and although the immediate impact was slight, the expected addition of numerous destroyers and other escort vessels for the Atlantic trade demolished all arguments about the lack of escorting numbers. The April loss figures provided the fatal blow against the convoy opponents. But the ship took a long time to sink, and Jellicoe was still expressing the gravest doubts about the practicality of the convoy system even on a limited scale as late as 23 April, at a War Cabinet meeting.

In the end, Lloyd George, increasingly disenchanted with his new First Sea Ford and his refusal even to listen to arguments, and fed with facts provided by dissidents within the Admiralty, decided to intervene. At another War Cabinet meeting two days later (25 April) Lloyd George announced that he would make a personal visit to the Admiralty on the 30th in order to investigate ‘all the means at present in use in regard to anti-submarine warfare’. Carson and Jellicoe and OD recognized the element of threat in this unprecedented decision, and, while the motives behind the actions of the days preceding Lloyd George’s visit, and the actual sequence of events, were to be disputed later, the fact remains that Jellicoe received from Duff, on 26 April, a memorandum on the subject of convoy. It suggested that there was now ‘sufficient reason for believing that we can accept the many disadvantages of large convoys with the certainty of a great reduction in our present losses’.

On the following day both Oliver and Jellicoe agreed that some sort of convoy scheme should be worked out ‘to judge how far it will be practical’. And on the very day of the Lloyd George visit, Jellicoe informed the newly appointed American commander, Rear-Admiral William Sims, that ‘there was every intention of giving [convoy] a thorough and fair trial’.

Lloyd George made himself exceedingly unpopular later by insisting that it was only the threat of his visit that ‘galvanised the Admiralty’ into re-examining their strategy in the anti-U-boat campaign and discovering ‘that protection for a convoy system was within the compass of their resources. Accordingly, ‘continued the ex-Prime Minister in his Memoirs, ‘when I arrived at the Admiralty I found the Board in a chastened mood.’ It was, claimed Lloyd George, his ‘peremptory action on the question of convoys’ which forced the Admiralty to introduce the system, and so save the country from certain strangulation. For this, Carson called him a ‘little popinjay’ who had told ‘the biggest lie ever told’.

It was the eighteenth-century military theorist Clausewitz who said, ‘Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.’ It had certainly been a difficult task to persuade the Navy’s high command to revert to a commerce protection policy which had proved itself time and again in the past and was the most effective and economical method of securing the nation’s trade. No single figure, and certainly not Lloyd George, can reasonably claim sole credit for the belated introduction of convoys. However, their inception could very well have been fatally delayed but for the heroic work of the Young Turks in the Navy- officers like the indefatigable if petulant Captain Richmond and Commander Reginald Henderson in the Admiralty. They risked their careers by advancing the convoy cause and preparing memoranda demolishing the anti-convoy case, then feeding information to the War Cabinet through the back door.

The introduction of convoys was by no means an overnight business, and the machine ground into action with the speed of a long-disused motor handled by mechanics who are not all well trained or enthusiastic. The United States Navy did not help matters by expressing its doubts. ‘The Navy Department’, reported the British Naval Attaché in Washington, ‘does not consider it advisable to attempt … convoy … In large groups of ships under convoy, fog, gales, inexperience of personnel, and general tension on merchant vessels make the hazards of the attempt great and the probability of a scattering of the convoy strong.’

The Americans can hardly be blamed for basing their policy on the powerful and much-reiterated arguments of the British Admiralty, but the Secretary of the Navy was soon listening to the arguments of Sims. ‘It would seem suicidal’, he wrote, ‘if the convoy system as proposed by the British Admiralty is not put into immediate operation and applied to all merchant vessels thus forcing submarines to encounter anti-submarine craft in order to attack shipping.’

Prejudices were slowly ground down, the complexities of mass assembly of heterogeneous merchantmen overcome, new skills acquired by British, Allied, and foreign skippers. From every convoy sailing, new lessons were learned, and confidence increased with the startling decrease in losses. Out of 80 vessels convoyed in July and August 1917, only five were lost. By the end of September, a mere five months after the Admiralty’s change of heart, the tide had turned so strongly that there could no longer be any question that the U-boat bad been mastered. With the destruction of ten U -boats in that month, for the first time sinkings exceeded new construction figures.

Moreover, it was naturally the bold and most successful U-Boat commanders who took the greatest risks and became the first casualties in convoy escort counter-attacks, so that by early 1918 the most daring commanders had almost all gone. Scheer cited ‘the loss of seasoned commanders’ as a primary cause for the steady decline in the success of the U-boat campaign.

For all U-boat commanders the introduction of convoy led to a sudden dearth of targets. As Admiral Karl Doenitz wrote in his Memoirs, ‘The oceans at once became hare and empty; for long periods at a time the U-boats, operating individually, would sec nothing at all.’  A convoy of twenty ships is only marginally more likely to be sighted by a single U-Boat than a single ship. The majority of convoys were never sighted at all. When they were, the attack was made much more hazardous by the presence of escorts with increasingly effective countermeasures, and it was a rare occurrence for a U-boat, after sighting and stalking a convoy and manoeuvring to within a range of a target, to get in a second shot.

During 1917 and early 19l8, with the introduction of airships, long-range flying boats, seaplanes, and towed kite balloons, more and more convoys enjoyed the additional protection of an air umbrella. The deterrent effect surprised the most enthusiastically air-minded naval officers. In 1918 there were only six attacks against air protected convoys, with a total score of just three ships.

Replacement of lost shipping was accelerated many times over by the arrival in the maritime world of a figure who instilled new life into the British shipbuilding industry. This remarkable man was Sir Eric Geddes, an authority on running railways and much else, who had been brought in to the Admiralty as a civilian controller. Lloyd George was a great admirer of Geddes, with good reason, and when Carson’s star began to wane with general disillusion in the naval administration’s conduct of the war at sea, he made him First Ford on 20 July 1917. It was the first time the Navy had had a straightforward businessman as its chief. Evan-Thomas described him as ‘a bullet-headed sort of a cove who anyway looks you straight in the face which is more than those confounded Politicians will do. So perhaps he will suit us quite well.’  He did, and presided over the affairs of the service with an intelligence and brisk efficiency which showed up all too clearly the shortcomings of his predecessors the overbearing-ness and egotism of Churchill, the languidness of Balfour, the stubbornness of Carson.

Carson’s tenure of office was one of the shortest on record. But he went without rancour and always said that his eight months in the Admiralty had been exceedingly happy. Jellicoe’s departure was a very different affair, stained by scandal and darkened by anger. The year 1917 was the most anxious and dismal of the war. The Western Front offered little but blood, tears, and disappointment. The war seemed interminable, with no end in sight. At home there were deprivations brought on by losses at sea and the cutting of inessential imports. As always, the public looked to the Navy for cheer and for glorious victories. But the senior service remained as silent as ever. The war against the U-boat was gradually being won. But it was an unsensational campaign and the shipping loss figures were still much higher than they had been before unrestricted U-boat warfare was introduced. As for the continuing blockade of Germany, as a negating campaign it attracted even less publicity. It had taken the nation a hundred years to appreciate, through the writings of Mahan, the war-winning achievement of the British blockade of France in the Napoleonic Wars by those ‘far distant storm-beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked’. But that lesson had been forgotten in the anxieties and aroused passions of war, and once again, towards the end of 1917, the man in the street, the voter, demanded action and sought a sacrificial victim. Among the numerous and often shrill voices of criticism was that of the naval correspondent of the Daily Mail: ‘No one can feel the smallest confidence in the present Admiralty. If it does not fall soon, it will bring down our country with it.’

From national hero, Jellicoe’s stock had fallen so low that, like Battenberg before him, his work began to reflect his depression and disillusion. Nor was his departure any more graceful than that of the Prince.

Jellicoe’s pessimism and complaints of bad health were increasingly irritating to everyone, especially to Geddes, who dismissed him with the peremptoriness of a managing director sacking an inadequate executive, on Christmas Eve at that. The King was ‘greatly surprised’, Churchill ‘greatly regretted the decision’. Asquith reassured Jellicoe that ‘when history comes to be written, you will have no reason to fear its verdict’. The Daily Telegraph’s naval man, Archibald Hurd, commented that ‘Jellicoe was dismissed with a discourtesy without parallel in the dealings of Ministers with distinguished sailors and soldiers.’ But the Press did not come out well with most of Jellicoe’s Navy admirers. ‘And so another great man goes down under the sea of Mud of the Gutter Press’, wrote one lieutenant-commander. Richmond, with no time for sentiment, merely noted that ‘one obstacle to a successful war is now out of the way’.

Although it is true that adverse comment of Jellicoe in the Press played its part in his removal, there can be no doubt that he was no longer up to a job for which he was not best suited in the first place. At the same time, Asquith was right in his verdict. The plain, unassuming figure did great things for the Navy and the nation; and, just as Fisher had successfully striven to drag the service into the twentieth century amidst cannonades of opposition and bad feeling, so his friend Jellicoe consolidated his achievements and, above all, regained for the service he loved the harmony and unity Jacky Fisher’s bloody revolution had destroyed.

On 1 January 1918 Jellicoe faced a year in which his chief activity would be the writing of his memoirs and the story of the Grand Fleet. The Navy faced a year, under an astute, efficient, and admired administration, which would sec the realization of all the achievements for which Jellicoe had laid the foundations, created the indestructible framework, and striven so hard to complete.

After the disappointment of Jutland in 1916 and the acrimony and desperation of 1917, the war at sea took on a more hopeful and certainly happier condition in 1918. The first reason for this was that at last there was relative harmony in Whitehall and a strong, united, and efficient administration established in the Admiralty; while in the Fleet the hard-won lessons of almost three and a half years had brought about dramatic reforms in every department, and there was real confidence in the new Board.

The new First Sea Ford, who was to sec the Navy through until victory was won, was Vice-Admiral Sir Rosslyn (‘Rosy’) Erskine Wemyss, an able and likeable officer who had been Deputy First Sea Lord since 7 August 1917, and had for long been the favourite to replace Jellicoe among the Young Turks at the Admiralty. He did so on 27 December.

The second reason for optimism was the arrival of the US Navy in substantial strength. The reinforcement of the Grand Fleet by, eventually, five dreadnoughts was as welcome in itself although there was a tendency in the Fleet at first to say, ‘We can beat ’em on our own.’ The light forces which began to arrive in great numbers towards the end of 1917, with the promise of many more from the unsurpassed shipbuilding resources of America, were even more valuable and took much of the burden of providing patrols and convoy escorts off the Royal Navy.

Best of all, and perhaps surprisingly considering the differences in background and temperament and the potential for dispute between the war-weary proud veterans of the British Fleet and the much younger and equally proud American service, the USN and the RN got on famously. There was good will on both sides, the British welcoming and anxious to teach, the Americans fresh and warm hearted and anxious to learn.

Much of the success lay in the choice of commanders. Sims was an officer of great experience and depth of character, one of the most remarkable figures produced by the USN. His frank and open dealings with Jellicoe and Beatty, Carson, and then Geddes, led to mutual confidence and the Admiral’s freedom to visit all departments at the Admiralty and sec anyone he wanted to sec, from Lloyd George down. Wemyss found Sims’s loyalty and co-operation ‘extraordinary’. His tribute continued, ‘I very much doubt whether any other United States Naval Officer would have achieved the same result as he has … The manner in which the United States Naval Forces co-operate with ours, the way in which their Officers consider themselves part of our forces, are facts which I believe to be mainly due to him.’

The commander of the American battle fleet was Rear-Admiral Hugh Rodman. He was almost as big a success at Scapa Flow and Rosyth as Sims in London. ‘Our friendship ripened into a fellowship and comradeship’, he wrote, ‘which in turn, became a brotherhood. I realized that the British Fleet had had three years of actual warfare and knew the game from the ground floor up; and while we might know it theoretically, there would be a great deal to learn practically.’

The most active seagoing co-operation was established in the Western Approaches where the difficult and curmudgeonly Admiral Sir Lewis ‘Old Frozen Face’ Bayly commanded the mixed AngloAmerican force of light craft, mainly destroyers and U-boat-chasers, responsible for the safety of the vital sea traffic in the western Atlantic. Allaying all fears of difficulties in relations, Bayly warmed to the American sailor, his style and cheerful cockiness, who responded by calling him ‘Uncle Lewis’. ‘Relations between the young Americans and the experienced Admiral became so close that they would sometimes go to him with their personal problems’, wrote Sims. ‘He became not only their commander, but their confidant and adviser.’  The successes scored by Bayly’s mixed command in the U-boat campaign were of vital importance in the closing stages of the war.

The introduction of convoy had resulted in all the benefits its proponents had predicted. But this sea war of attrition continued and the U-boat remained a menace to the end. The world total of merchant shipping losses (the vast majority from U-boat attack) had fallen from an April 1917 peak of about 881,000 tons to under 300,000 in November. But this scale of loss was still very serious, and in the early months of 1918 the figures began to rise again.

Convoy had made the defenders’ task simpler, as had been expected, by drawing the U-boats to them instead of patrol ships having to search the vast expanses of the ocean for their prey. A further method of countering the menace was to destroy the U-boats in their bases, where they spent at least as much of their time as they did at sea. This had been considered from the earliest days of the war, but the difficulties were immense against well-defended harbours behind minefields.