Category Archives: Naval Warfare

8 DECEMBER, 1918: Britannia’s B Team

From a Western European perspective, orthodox history and current affairs make it very clear that the Mediterranean Sea has always been a hub for international competition.  Some people west of the Rhine are also aware that the Black Sea is, similarly, an arena in which those countries it touches compete for control and resources.  Enclosed seas have that effect, for reasons that are pretty obvious, and the Caspian Sea is no exception – but its geopolitics are a mystery to most modern Westerners, much as they were in 1918.

Given our general ignorance, it would seem hardly surprising that the formative battles being fought in and around the Caspian Sea in the months after the Armistice were largely ignored by the victorious Allies at the time, or that we ignore them now.  Ah, but today is the centenary of a minor battle that left the Royal Navy as undisputed master of the Caspian Sea during the winter of 1918–19, and was the first action of a strange, largely forgotten naval campaign in the region.  I’d best explain, in case no one else does.

The geopolitical melting pot of the Caspian Sea began to boil into chaos after the 1917 revolutions in Russia removed the region from imperial control.  North of Persia, the territories around the west, north and east of the sea could be broadly divided along ethnic lines into Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with the latter category including several related peoples to the north and east.  Along political lines they split between restoration Tsarists, various liberal, left-leaning or socialist groups united only by their opposition to Tsarist rule, and Bolsheviks loyal to the Moscow government.

Good maps of the Caspian Sea are (unsurprisingly) hard to steal, but if you can be bothered to look closely at this 1910 map, it does the business.

By mid-1918, the fluctuating, violent miasma of alliances and rebellions between relatively small armed forces representing all these factions and sub-factions had coalesced, superficially and north of Persia, into three independent republics – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – each with a fragile anti-Bolshevik regime in place.  If that sounds reasonably clear, it wasn’t.

Azerbaijan as a whole was strongly anti-Bolshevik but its capital, Baku, was under the control of Armenian and Russian Bolsheviks. Further east, in what is now Turkmanistan, resident Turkomans and Russians were largely anti-Bolshevik but the only useful port, Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbaşy in Turkmanistan), was in Bolshevik hands until July 1918, when a non-Bolshevik socialist rebellion took control.  To the north, Bolshevik control of the of the coast was interrupted by a royalist Cossack enclave in the northeast, and to the south the Persian provinces close to the sea were feral badlands beyond central government control, with tribal warlords, ex-Imperial Russian troops and a small British contingent in tenuous charge of various enclaves.  Bolsheviks meanwhile controlled most remaining naval vessels of the Imperial Caspian Sea flotilla from a base at Astrakhan, about 100km from the sea.

The ill-fated advance into the region by ‘Dunsterforce’, a detachment from the British armies in Mesopotamia, was responsible for bringing the Royal Navy into the Caspian Sea (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!).  A small naval element arrived with Dunster’s infantry brigade to set up a base at Enzali and, in theory, work with the ‘Centro-Caspian’ flotilla, a few ex-Imperial gunboats supposedly under the command of the Baku government. The Baku regime had invited the British to intervene, but the soviet actually in charge of the flotilla refused to cooperate, so all the British were able to achieve was the hire of a few local merchant ships, which were fitted with 4-inch guns transported overland from the Mesopotamian Front, some 700 kilometres away.

When General Dunster’s expedition was forced to flee Baku in September 1918, the Royal Navy’s commandeered ships and their Russian or Azerbaijani crews remained at Enzali, charged with preventing Ottoman forces in the Caucasus from establishing a presence on the eastern coast.  By the end of October British flotilla commander Commodore Norris had converted five merchant ships and was awaiting overland transport of ammunition for their guns from Mesopotamia.

Unsatisfied with poor repair facilities at Enzali, Norris crossed to Krasnovodsk in the first ship armed, the small freighter (and subsequent flotilla flagship) SS Kruger, and moved his base there after accepting assurances of support from the social revolutionary local government then in place.  The Armistice changed his mind. Allied warships could now supply the Flotilla through the Black Sea, and on 17 November it steamed into Baku, where it was once again expected to cooperate with the Centro-Caspian flotilla and local ‘White’ ground forces.

Royal Navy forces in the Caspian Sea could have simply gone home after the Armistice – and only a few British personnel were anyway involved, for command, gunnery and radio duties – but imperial thinking kept them in place.  Given help and a modicum of collective organisation, anti-Bolshevik forces seemed to have a good chance of winning control over the region – as they did elsewhere in the former Russian Empire at that stage – and getting rid of Lenin’s regime was a high priority for all the world’s surviving major empires.  At the same time the British Empire was still very interested in securing oil supplies through Baku, and still determined to guard against any hostile exploitation of the Caspian ‘back door’ into India.

The principal duty of the combined RN and Centro-Caspian flotillas was to protect Baku from any attack by Bolsheviks to the north, with particular responsibility for the Bolshevik flotilla at Astrakhan, but it was also required to supply Cossack outposts to the northeast through the port of Guriev (now Atyrau in Kazakhstan).  In early December, while one RN ship performed the latter task another four went on patrol to the north, where the waters south of the Volga Delta were dangerously shallow, largely uncharted and frozen in winter.  The Centro-Caspian flotilla’s vessels again turned out to be allies in name only, and refused to take part.

The region’s rich intermingling of ethnic and political factions made any kind of secret difficult to keep, and the British were aware of Bolshevik plans to establish a warm-water naval base at the small port of Staro-Terechnaya, on the mainland near Chechen Island, at the southernmost limit of the winter freeze.  Two converted British ships, the Zoro-Aster and Alla Verdi, were waiting off Chechen Island when three Bolshevik armed merchantmen and three transports approached Staro-Terechnaya on 8 December.  The Bolshevik ships opened fire, and the British responded.  During the skirmish that followed the Zoro-Aster suffered minor damage and one Bolshevik ship caught fire before the rest withdrew, leaving the British short of ammunition but in undisputed control of ice-free Caspian waters for the winter.

The Bolsheviks made no further attempt to move south before northern waters froze in mid-January, when the RN Flotilla returned to Baku for repairs, leaving one ship to make occasional patrols just south of the ice.  While some very war-weary conscripts were finally sent home, additional British crews were transferred to the theatre from the Mediterranean and Home Fleets, and the facilities at Baku were upgraded.

Evidence that the Centro-Caspian flotilla and elements of the White ‘Volunteer Army’ in the city were (like much of the working population) in contact with Bolsheviks brought the pretence of cooperation to an end in March, when an Indian infantry division transferred from Mesopotamia expelled the Volunteer Army from Baku and Norris seized the Centro-Caspian flotilla.  From that point the RN flotilla underwent a significant growth spurt.

HMS Asia was typical of the local freighters requisitioned for the Caspian Flotilla.

Further British crews were transferred to the region, requisitioned ships were renamed ‘HMS’, the Zoro-Aster was designated a reserve vessel and the slow, unreliable Alla Verdi was paid off.  By late June the flotilla mustered eight frontline armed freighters, 12 coastal motor boats, a motor boat carrier, two seaplane carriers and four supporting transport ships, employing a total of about 1,100 RN officers and men along with more than 300 locally recruited personnel.  The RAF had also established a base on Chechen Island by late April, when the annual thaw enabled patrols to resume in the north.

RAF Airco DH4 bombers on the ground at Petrovosk. Royal Naval Air Service machines until the name change in 1918, they were used to bomb Bolshevik naval bases in and around the Volga Delta.

The Royal Navy would remain an important military presence in the Caspian Sea for much of that summer, and would fight what very nearly amounted to a battle against a much bigger Bolshevik force before its eventual withdrawal in early September.  I’ll give that moment of questionable glory its due when the centenary comes around, but for now this has been a nod to one of Britain’s least remembered military adventures and a reminder that, after all the lessons of the ‘war to end wars’, the British Empire was still acting as if Britannia ruled the waves.

30 NOVEMBER, 1918: Wh’appen?

I can’t help carping on about the worldwide turmoil in progress while the empires of the West were celebrating peace in November 1918, if only because nobody else seems to be mentioning it.  We seem to be living in wild and crazy times today, and no doubt expect them to be remembered as such, but try stripping away the sensationalism built into information overload and comparing modern madness with the everyday news hitting the streets a century ago.  With the grim exception of climate change, our apparently seismic social and political shifts can look pretty tame. Starting from where I left off in Germany, Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg, this is some more of what I mean.

On the day that Allied forces entered Luxembourg, 21 November, the German Navy surrendered to the Allies in the Firth of Forth, just off the Royal Navy base at Rosyth.  The surrender, and that of some 160 U-boats at Harwich (in batches through the second half of the month), put an end to the only threat to Great Britain’s home security since Napoleon, and was a hugely symbolic moment for the British, whose path to war had been mapped by the rapid rise of German sea power.  Given that the Kaiser hanging from a gibbet was off the menu, at least for now, the image of his feared warships tamed was most visible proof of victory available to the British public.  The nation rejoiced, but soon had other things on its collective mind.

HMS Cardiff leads the German High Seas Fleet to surrender in the Firth of Forth, 21 November 1918.  No known photograph can match this for pomp…

The following day saw the publication of election manifestos by the two main contenders in the British general election, the Coalition Liberals led by Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party.  Called within twenty-four hours of the Armistice and due to take place in mid-December, the election asked a greatly expanded franchise – including some women for the first time, and millions of men serving overseas – to choose a government fit to rebuild the nation and the world while the party political system in Britain was in a state of unprecedented flux.

Most Conservatives and the majority of Liberals committed to continuation of the wartime coalition stood as ‘Coupon’ candidates – because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s chosen candidate – and were opposed only by those against the coalition.  The latter included a large portion of the new force in British politics, the Labour Party, and a substantial rump of the Liberals, still led by former premier, Herbert Asquith.

Asquith had won the last general election, but that had been back in 1910 and since then his popular stock had fallen a long way, prompting predictions of electoral failure in 1918 from almost everyone but Asquith himself, whose campaign was already being described as complacent and lethargic.  Pundits assumed with equal certainty that the Labour Party, which produced its own manifesto on 27 November, would make substantial gains, not least because of the broader franchise, but how well it would do was anybody’s guess.  With the future shape and prosperity of the Empire manifestly in the balance, and given that I haven’t even mentioned that it was also an obviously pivotal moment for the future of Ireland, this was one of the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited public votes in British history… and I’ll get back to it.

This is William Adamson, the relatively unknown Scots trade unionist who was leader of the Labour Party in 1918, while more famous men like Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald waited in the wings.

While the British were all agog with triumph and trepidation, other victorious peoples were taking crucial steps towards nationhood or adherence to a chosen nation.  In Zagreb and Belgrade, late November saw urgent attempts to organise a united front of southern Slav peoples in time to make a bloc impact at the forthcoming peace negotiations.  The kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro had been unified in wartime, with the former far and away the more influential partner, but a separate National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had been established during the War’s last year at Zagreb, where it had proclaimed a Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in March 1918.  On 23 November, after hasty negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere, the National Council proclaimed full unification of Serbia and Montenegro into a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (ah, the wording).

A compromise reached under deadline pressure, created by a body that was self-appointed rather than representative, the new Kingdom was headed by the elderly King Peter of Serbia and came into being when his heir Prince Alexander accepted the Council’s declaration on 1 December – but it pleased neither pan-Slavic nor nationalist elements within its constituent nations and was largely ignored by Britain, France and Italy.  Allied troops continued to occupy parts of the territory claimed by the Kingdom (KSCS), occasionally becoming entangled in skirmishes with ragged local defence forces, and although the KSCS went on to send a delegation to Versailles, so did the Kingdom of Serbia.  The Big Four (France, Britain, Italy and the US) chose to negotiate with the latter, though the US eventually recognised the KSCS in February 1919, while Britain and France gave it reluctant recognition at the end of the peace process.  This was the only means of getting the KSCS to sign the treaty, and of passing responsibility for ongoing disputes about its legitimacy back to the Slavs themselves.

The Prince Regent, he say yes… Alexander gives the KSCS his approval, Belgrade, 1 December 1918.

Despite its universal unpopularity and an almost continuous history of instability – including a coup in 1929 by which the then King Alexander established autocratic rule and Serbian dominance of a renamed Yugoslavia – the state would survive until the 1990s, when its tensions would finally explode into bloody civil war, an outcome that was predicted with some confidence by British newspapers and politicians in November 1918.

Meanwhile the disintegration of Germany was unfolding on a daily basis.  A workers’ republic of northern German states, with Hamburg as its capital, was proclaimed on 24 November.  Three days later the newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria, a social democrat regime filling a power vacuum since the flight of King Ludwig III on 7 November, severed relations with Berlin, and on 28 November the Kaiser signed the deed that turned his own flight to the Netherlands into a formal abdication.

Further east, the area that would one day be controlled by the USSR was in a state of dramatic, often dangerous flux, as civil war gathered pace in Russia and regions formerly dominated by the Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian Empires sought to establish their political identity and geographical borders.

The Bukovina region announced its intention to join Romania on 24 November, and a week later King Ferdinand reoccupied Bucharest at the head of his army.  In between, on 28 November, Romanian troops retook the much-disputed Dobrudja province from Bulgaria, a move that forced the resignation of liberal Bulgarian premier Malinov.  The new Bulgarian premier, Teodor Teodorov, took power the same day and was tasked with simultaneously making clear Bulgaria’s condemnation of its alliance with the Central Powers (a crucial position in the run-up to peace negotiations), maintaining Tsar Boris III in power and appeasing the demands of both nationalists on the right and revolutionaries on the left (principally the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party).  He would last until the following October, when revolutionary forces would take control of government without overthrowing the Tsar.

In Poland, the personal prestige of independence campaigner Josef Piludski had helped him form a generally accepted and stable government in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, but it had territorial ambitions.  The first skirmishes of the nine-month Polish-Ukrainian War for control of Galicia’s mixed population were already taking place in November 1918, just as a revolutionary socialist Directorate was taking power in Kiev, while Polish disputes with Lithuania and Russia about the Vilnius region and Belarus would sputter briefly into open warfare before Poland’s Baltic frontiers were set by the 1919 peace treaty.

Lviv, November 1918: the city at the heart of the Polish-Ukrainian war.

Poland also sent forces into the northern Czechoslovakian provinces of Spis and Orava during November, and helped foster uprising to support its claims in Silesia, which was eventually partitioned between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia after a plebiscite imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.  Czechoslovakia was meanwhile engaged in border confrontations with Hungary that would spill over into warfare during 1919, and part of the Romanian Army had also entered Hungary in pursuit of territorial claims to Transylvania that culminated in the proclamation of a Romanian-Transylvanian union on 1 December.

This is a map of the situation in 1919, but it puts some shapes and places to the mess in Eastern Europe.

I could go on like this for hours, reeling off crisis reports from all corners of a confused world, and still leave out plenty of big news.  I won’t.  Instead I’ll make the small point that, as mass media commemoration of the Great War issues its last outraged squawks, an explosion of events with far more global significance than trench battles are passing their centenaries on a daily basis.  You won’t be hearing much about them from the mainstream, but they’re worth even this brief, partial examination, both as a perspective on the modern world and as a reassuring reminder that we have survived crazier times than these.

23 JULY, 1918: Tipping Points

By July 1918 the War’s big picture was getting clearer and something resembling a logical conclusion was slowly coming into focus for most observers on both sides, informed or propagandised. So I’m going for slight change of approach today, aimed at providing a few snapshots, and ideally a flavour, of the Great War’s last summer.

The Second Battle of the Marne may have begun as a German attack on 15 July, but within five days it was clearly turning into an Allied victory.  After four months of near-panic among the Allies, especially the British and French, as German offensives on the Western Front suddenly threatened to turn a fast tide against them, the battle was also emerging as the moment the world as a whole realised Germany wasn’t going to win.

No such clarity could be drawn from the other side of the big picture, the puzzling and potentially frightening spectacle of the Russian Empire collapsing into civil war.  Would Lenin’s soviets triumph and form a completely new kind of state, or would the multi-faceted, multi-headed forces of counter-revolution restore something resembling the old order?  Nobody, including Lenin and Trotsky, had much idea of the answers, and by no means everybody outside Russia was sure which side they wanted to win – but most of them were sure they wanted to see the Czech Legion get home.

By now a global cause célèbre and, with a total strength of around 100,000 troops, the single biggest coherent military force in the civil war zone, the Legion was strung out along the Siberian railway en route for Vladivostok.  Advanced Czech and Slovak forces took Irkutsk on 13 July and, far to the west, rear elements took Kazan the following day.   Both occupations were duly celebrated as victories in the Allied press, which also reported Japanese agreement, on 18 July, to US proposals for a joint intervention in Siberia, and the proclamation, five days later at Vladivostok, of a Siberian Government Council.  But the big story coming out of Russia that week was the news that Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and all his family at Ekaterinburg on 17 July, a measure apparently hurried through for fear that the Czech Legion was on its way.

There are more accurate images concerning the Tsar’s death – but this one has the best eye rolls.

One thing becoming clear about Russia’s meltdown was that it wasn’t going to end the War in a hurry.   Fears that Bolshevik success would spark immediate popular revolution in Europe’s other great powers had faded, and the theory that release of German troops from the Eastern Front would turn the battle in the West had been proved false, though only just.  By mid-1918 both sides also recognised that Germany’s submarine-led campaign against shipping lanes had failed to end the conflict, but that didn’t mean the global war on trade was over.

Adoption of convoy systems had reduced Allied merchant losses to manageable, sustainable levels, and U-boats had switched their priorities accordingly, targeting the ongoing transfer of US forces to Europe.  Submarines sank five Allied transports between 15 and 19 July – at the cost of one submarine sunk by a British destroyer – and a British armed merchant cruiser on 23 July.  The victims included the Cunard liner Carpathia, sent to the bottom on 17 July while sailing with an Atlantic convoy from Liverpool to Boston, and famous as the first rescuer on the scene after the Titanic went down in 1912.

The British meanwhile persisted with their own, more successful version of economic warfare, in place since the start of the War, which combined the Royal Navy’s blockade of enemy ports with some serious diplomatic bullying to prevent neutral countries from trading with the enemy.  Nobody needed more bullying than Germany’s close neighbours, particularly Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and all three countries spent the war years juggling the threat of invasion across the German frontier, the threat of starvation or conquest by the British, and the benefits of an economic boom generated by trade with both.

The Dutch juggling act almost came to grief during the spring and summer of 1918.  In March, just as the Allies were trying to requisition Dutch ships to address a critical shortage of transatlantic transports, Berlin demanded increased supplies of sand and gravel along the Rhine or the railway from Antwerp to the Ruhr. Agreements with the Allies allowed the Netherlands to export only certain, specifically non-military supplies along these routes, with some sand and gravel permitted for civilian road-building purposes, but German demands coincided with a need for materials to build new fortifications on the Western Front, and everybody knew it.

The German press responded to initial Dutch refusal with barely veiled threats of imminent invasion, and while the Dutch military braced for war the Allies considered a preemptive ‘friendly’ occupation of coastal provinces.  Fortunately for a Dutch government that could not agree to either side’s demands and remain neutral, Ludendorff’s plan to invade Zeeland was rejected (for once) by the rest of the Third Supreme Command, and Germany’s massive commitment to the Western Front offensive soon rendered a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands impossible.  The British, having already seized the Dutch ships in question (and paid compensation, of course), also needed every available body at the Western Front and advised the Hague to reach a compromise with Berlin, so the Dutch government accepted a reduced German sand and gravel demand, and agreement to restart trade was reached on 2 May.

Quite a lot harder than this made it look…

Reaction from right-wing editors and politicians in Britain was noisy and predictable, denouncing what they saw as Dutch collusion with Germany and becoming increasingly hysterical as the crisis on the Western Front deepened.  The British government finally responded to their outrage by issuing a formal protest about the sand and gravel arrangement on 15 July – just as the pivotal battle on the Marne was beginning – and the Dutch quickly agreed to talks aimed at arranging military cooperation in the event of German aggression. The talks began in August, proceeded in friendly, constructive fashion and continued until the Armistice, but by the time they got going much of the tension had gone out of diplomatic atmosphere in Europe because the German end of the neutrality tightrope had sagged.

Within few days of the British protest, the battle at the Marne had revealed the true weakness of Germany’s military position in France, and as Anglo-Dutch relations eased so did the sense of crisis that had gripped British and French society, military and civil, since the shocks of the spring.  A generalised fear of impending defeat gave way to an equally broad belief that victory was assured once the US was fully in the fight.  The change was both swift and obvious to contemporaries, as nicely illustrated by the immediate outbreak of labour trouble in Britain.

British trades union leaders had agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration in 1914, and the agreement had largely held. Strikes still took place throughout the War but were led by local union leaders or shop stewards, and usually concerned with local disputes over pay and conditions.  Even these tended to abate in times of national crisis, and Britain experienced almost no significant strike action amid the manpower shortages and military disasters that blighted the first half of 1918.  Victory at the Marne changed that.

On 23 July, as news of German withdrawal from the Marne was still coming in, engineering and munitions workers in Coventry took strike action, and their counterparts in Birmingham followed suit the next day.  The strike was, typically, called in response to a perceived infringement of workers’ rights by the government, in this case the ’embargo’, an official ban on the employment of additional skilled labour by certain firms.  It was also based on a misunderstanding, because the embargo was a far more trivial matter than shop stewards realised, and only applied to very few companies.

Munitions workers were crucial to the war effort and protected from conscription, so the strike came as a shock to the pubic and brought a punitive response from the government, which announced that all strikers would be liable to conscription if the action continued.  It ended after a week, but the shift it reflected in the British national mood, from relatively obedient pessimism to increasingly militant expectation, was destined to outlast the War.

Striking munitions workers didn’t get much sympathy from Punch magazine…

Major distractions have helped make this one of my clumsier efforts, but its vague purpose has been to commemorate a historical turning point that, if not exactly hidden, passed without the kind of totemic event that provides a passport to posterity.   During the summer of 1918, sometime after the middle of July and before the start of August, the planet as a whole decided that the result of the Great War was no longer in doubt, and that predictions of its imminent end – fanfared at the beginning of every campaigning season since 1914 – could finally be taken seriously.   After four years of fixation on survival, the minds of politicians, generals, ordinary fighters and civilians in every warring state could at last focus on the future peace and their places in it.  The battles between states were almost over, and the battles within states were just beginning.

24 FEBRUARY, 1918: The Snail That Roared

I feel like telling a simple tale today, so let’s raise a glass to the extraordinary voyage of the German commerce raider SMS Wolf. The Wolf made it home to Germany a hundred years ago today after some fifteen months at sea without putting into port, much of it spent playing cat and mouse with British naval forces, some of it spent taking the War to places other German warships couldn’t reach.

In service as an auxiliary cruiser, the Wolf had begun life as a commercial cargo ship, the Wachtfels, completed in 1913.  Although it was slow, with a maximum speed of only 11 knots, the ship was built for long voyages, with room for enough coal to give it a maximum range of almost 60,000km.  It was converted to carry six 15cm guns, three 5.2cm guns, four torpedo tubes and more than 400 mines, as well as removable false superstructure for disguise purposes, before being commissioned into the Imperial German Navy in May 1916.  Sometimes referred to as Wolf II because, somewhat confusingly and for no good reason I know about, the German Navy already had an auxiliary cruiser called Wolf, it was also one of very few auxiliaries equipped with a seaplane, a single-engine, two-seater Friedrichshafen FF33 reconnaissance biplane known as Wölfchen (wolf cub).

A propaganda shot of the Wölfchen at work.

The Wolf and its 348 strong crew sailed from Kiel on 30 November 1916.  A U-boat escort and foul weather helped it break through the British naval blockade to reach the open sea on 10 December.  Its first priority was mine laying, and it laid its first field off Dassen Island, some 80km north of Cape Town, on the night of 16/17 January.  Working its way east, it put down further minefields off Cape Agulhas, at South Africa’s southern tip, off Colombo and finally, on 19 February 1917, off Bombay, before switching to a hunt for Allied merchantmen.

The first Allied ship taken by the Wolf was its former sister ship with the civilian Hansa Line, since captured by the British and renamed the Turritella.  The manner of its taking illustrates the difference between the everyday realities of commerce warfare and the explosive stuff they like to show in movies.  A warning dropped from the seaplane about the Wolf’s guns was enough to persuade Turritella‘s captain out of fight or flight, and he accepted a boarding party from the German ship on 27 February.  In no position to deliver his victim to a German port,the Wolf‘s Captain Nerger put a prize crew aboard, renamed the captured vessel the Iltis, gave it a small 2-pounder gun and 25 mines, and sent it off to work for the German cause.  On 5 March, after laying its mines at the Red Sea port of Aden, the Iltis was scuttled when challenged by the Royal Navy sloop HMS Odin.

Nerger meanwhile steamed slowly for the Pacific, capturing three more ships during March and making a maintenance stop off Raoul Island, some 600km north of New Zealand, where the Wolf dropped anchor on 22 May and captured another passing merchantman on 1 June.  By late June the German raider had reached New Zealand, laying 25 mines off North Cape on 25 June and 35 more off Cape Farewell a couple of days later, before crossing the Tasman Sea to mine Gabo Island off the Australian coast.  Nerger then turned north, capturing three more Allied ships en route to another maintenance stop at the island of Waigeo, just off the northwest tip of Papua/New Guinea.

Captain Nerger: a good egg and still a national hero in Germany after the Second World War, which is why he died in a Soviet interment camp in 1947

Late August saw the Wolf steaming slowly west across the Pacific towards Singapore, where it laid the last of its mines on the night of 2/3 September.  That was mission accomplished.  With no more mines on board, and not enough fuel or supplies to reach Germany, the Wolf‘s obvious next move was to sail to a neutral port and accept internment.  Instead, the ship turned south into the Indian Ocean, and got lucky.

On 26 September Wolf captured a Japanese freighter, which carried a gun and put up a brief fight before surrendering, and on 29 September it hit the jackpot by intercepting a collier.  Hauling 5,500 tons of coal, the Igotz Mendi was Spanish and neutral, but under the circumstances the fact that it was headed for a British port – Colombo – made it at least arguably fair game.  With fuel supplies secured, Wolf and its latest prize steamed in tandem for the Atlantic and home.

Capturing coal wasn’t quite the same the same thing as using it, and the first attempt to transfer fuel to the Wolf, in rough seas on 26 December, left both ships damaged.  Once repairs at sea were completed they tried again, in even worse conditions on 10 January 1918, and after 21 hours of bumping and grinding enough coal had been redistributed for the two ships to proceed independently towards Germany.

The last stage of Wolf‘s epic tour of duty was the most arduous, partly because of major storms in late January but principally because it faced danger from both the British blockade and German defences, which could not be informed of the disguised ship’s true identity without breaking radio silence.  Reaching the coast of Norway on 14 February, it succeeded in entering the Baltic on 17 February and was then able to contact Kiel, only to be told to wait offshore while preparations were made for a gala welcome.  Replete with speeches and medal ceremonies, the welcome took place on 24 February, the same day that the less fortunate prize crew of the Igotz Mendi ran aground on the Skaw spit, at the top of Jutland, and was captured by a (neutral) Danish gunboat.

A very long journey on a very slow ship

The fate of the Wolf and its equally well-known seaplane had been the subject of worldwide rumour and speculation for months, although British authorities had suppressed evidence of that the ‘Black Raider’ had reached Australasia because they had no minesweepers in the region.  The ship’s safe return was therefore a gift to German propagandists, and to be fair they had plenty to brag about.

The Wolf had made the longest single voyage of any warship during the conflict, and had sunk or captured 27 Allied or neutral vessels, including two warships and, representing the farthest reach of the German Navy’s trade war, two ships sunk by mines laid off New Zealand.  The ship had arrived home not just intact, but carrying a lot of booty, including rubber, copper, zinc, brass, silk, copra and cocoa, all of it very valuable to Germany’s starved economy.

The Australian cargo steamer Wimmera, seen here at Wellington harbour, was sunk by a mine from the Wolf off Auckland on 26 June 1918. Twenty-six of 151 on board were killed.

Captain Nerger seems to have been a good egg.  Thanks to his determination to protect civilians, a total of 467 prisoners captured from Allied merchant ships were also on board when the ship arrived at Kiel.  According to the many accounts written by survivors of the voyage, the prisoners were both a cause of universal hardship during the latter stages of the journey and, because they included crew from dozens of countries, an extraordinary and at the time unprecedented social experiment.  It seems to have passed in remarkably harmonious style, considering the history of inter-racial relations ever since, but then threats to basic survival do have a tendency to put human prejudice in its place.

The rest of the Wolf’s story was more prosaic.  It ended the War back in service, in the Baltic with a new captain and crew, but became a French ship, the Antinous, as a tiny part of the massive bill charged to Germany by the post-War peace treaty.  It ended its career in its original role as a commercial cargo vessel, and was finally scrapped in 1931.

If you’re looking for a message from this particular post, you’ll struggle.  The Wolf‘s propaganda value was fleeting and its strategic impact on the War as a whole was minimal, though it has been argued that its mines did more than anything else to bring the concept of global war home to the people of New Zealand.  Its story does offer glimpses of the realities behind the concept of trade warfare, one of the First World War’s most important and unsung battlegrounds, but is essentially a family-friendly tale with moderate violence.  In the end my only excuses for making both of you read it are a personal weakness for naval derring-do, and the fact that it’s a German wartime epic, inevitably left out of posterity showreels written by the winners.

30 NOVEMBER, 1917: Active Service

There was plenty going on in the world at war a hundred years ago. Heavy fighting southwest of Cambrai on the Western Front, where the German Army was launching a counteroffensive; total chaos on the Eastern Front, where the Russian Army had quit the War; action in the Middle East, where British General Allenby was securing the approaches to Jerusalem; and important action on the Italian Front, where Austro-German forces menaced the outnumbered remnant of the Italian Army across the River Piave.

I’ve talked about all these places lately, and gateway anniversaries from more obscure areas are in short supply this week, so it’s back to basics.  On 30 November 1917, a Royal Navy monitor destroyed a floating bridge made of small boats at Passarella, on the Piave, about 8km upriver.  I’m not doing deep research today so that’s all I can tell you about the event itself, but it does offer me a way into naval matters I’ve been meaning to mention, and I’ll start with monitors.

A lot of warships performed a lot of operations in direct support of ground forces all through and all over the First World War, but the work doesn’t get a lot of attention from posterity.  This is understandable.  There was always a land campaign in progress to hog any limelight, and support work for ground troops was a fairly mechanical business, seldom offering much in the way of derring-do for a sensation-seeking heritage industry.

All the same, providing mobile artillery to back up troop landings, advances or defences was among the most tactically significant tasks allotted to warships throughout the conflict.  Coastal actions may have added little more than a few extra guns to the cacophony of artillery at the northern end of the Western Front, but they had a greater impact on the overall picture at the eastern edge of the Italian Front, were pivotal to some of the most important fighting in the Middle East and the Caucasus, and played a part in many other actions fought near coasts or around navigable rivers.

Bombardment operations of this kind were usually given to the biggest available surface ships that were considered expendable, so modern dreadnoughts and battlecruisers were kept at a safe distance while pre-dreadnought battleships and older cruisers got on with the support work.  Even these amounted to a very expensive way of bringing big guns to bear on a battlefield, and so the British Royal Navy – which was responsible for the vast majority of the world’s naval support actions during the War – revived an old idea to come up with something cheaper.

Monitors were light, shallow-draft warships, essentially gigantic rafts that provided stable platforms for naval artillery.  They had been used extensively for river work and coastal bombardment by colonial powers during the nineteenth century, and had played a significant role in the American Civil War (when the first of the type, the Monitor had made its appearance), but by the early twentieth most major navies had replaced them with faster, less heavily armed warships.  The exception was the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had to deal with less sea and more river frontiers than the services of other European empires.  It used monitors with its flotillas on the Drina and the Danube, and to guard the Austro-Hungarian Army’s retreat from the Kolubara River in December 1914, by which time the British had rediscovered the type.

This shot of HMS Humber, a monitor originally intended for Brazil, shows off its raft-like quality.

Three light monitors under construction in British shipyards for the Brazilian Navy – then engaged in a regional naval arms race with Chile and Argentina – were requisitioned in the autumn of 1914 by the Royal Navy, which went on to order 35 new monitors before production was stopped in 1916.  Nineteen were light monitors, numbered M-15 to M-33 and mounting 9.2-inch guns or smaller, and the sixteen heavy monitors carried 12- to 15-inch guns otherwise used by battleships – but they were all relatively cheap and easy to build, while most were armed with weapons from captured or redundant warships.

Monitors generally carried a single, two-gun turret, along with smaller weapons against attack from land or air, and were bigger than you’d expect.  The heavy monitor Erebus, for instance, displaced 8,000 tons, was almost 130 metres in length and 27 wide, required a crew of 223 and could raise a sedate top speed of 12 knots.  Monitor production was briefly revived in 1918, when two Norwegian coastal defence ships were converted for Royal Navy use, and three new Lord Clive Class ships were equipped with modern 18-inch guns.

The Erebus: the outsize turret, too big for its ship, was typical of monitor design.

Royal Navy monitors saw plenty of wartime action, bombarding coastal positions on the Western Front, protecting British ports, and taking part in the Italian, East African and Middle Eastern campaigns.  Although five were lost to enemy action, and another was sunk by accident in Dover harbour, it would be fair to call them a success – and bearing in mind that even the most expensive cost around £350,000 to build and equip, they certainly gave the British better value for money than dreadnoughts at ten times the price.

So that’s a quick look at a type of warship revived to meet the requirements of war in artillery’s heyday, and largely forgotten today.  I’ll follow up with an equally brief examination of a type designed to meet the changing requirements of late nineteenth-century naval warfare, produced in unprecedented numbers during the First World War and lodged firmly in the public mind ever since.

There’s no great mystery about the destroyer’s enduringly high popular profile.  Destroyers were and are versatile, fast and useful for almost any kind of naval warfare, including crowd-pleasers like fleet actions, battles between swarms of destroyers and anti-submarine operations.  Many of the destroyers churned out by the dozen during both world wars, above all by US and British shipyards, were surplus to immediate requirements in peacetime – but they had a longer shelf life than most other weapons in a similar position and were more expensive to replace.

Most old tanks and aircraft, for instance, could be and were scrapped after both world wars, but destroyers were worth keeping, either in mothballs for future emergencies or as general-purpose warships, so they hung around for decades.  Like the only twentieth-century aircraft to outlast its wartime application by any distance, the Douglas Dakota, they were therefore available to reprise their crowd-pleasing adventures for movie audiences.  Add in the sexy name and the fact that, despite seismic changes in the nature of naval warfare, destroyers are still being built today, and it’s no wonder they’re a celebrity class among warships.

Although their ubiquitous involvement in the First World War made destroyers famous, they had been introduced to major navies in the late nineteenth century to protect battle fleets from the new threat of light, fast torpedo craft.  Originally known as Torpedo Boat Destroyers, and at first designed as long-range torpedo boats, they became steadily bigger and more seaworthy during the century’s last decades.  By 1914 modern examples carried between four and 12 torpedoes for use against larger warships, along with sufficient surface or anti-aircraft armament to deter anything smaller, and generally displaced between 500 and 800 tons – still small enough to be built in quantity by major powers, and cheap enough to form the backbone of minor navies.

At the beginning of the War most destroyers were rugged vessels designed for ocean-going work, with speed sacrificed for structural durability and armoured protection against encounters with larger fleet units.  Those modern navies centred on Mediterranean operations – the Italian, the Austro-Hungarian and to a lesser extent the French – took a different line, stripping down armour to produce fast, light destroyers designed for short-range raiding in calm waters.

Both breeds were generally deployed in flotillas, which typically comprised between four and eight ships, but sometime as many as twenty, and were usually led by a light cruiser or a large ‘leader’ destroyer.  Fleet flotillas functioned as fast scouts, and as strike weapons sent en masse to deflect enemy fleets, but were principally intended as a screen around battleships and battlecruisers, masking them from torpedo attack wherever they went.  No ship larger or slower than a light cruiser was considered safe without a destroyer screen, but protecting the big boys was just the tip of their operational iceberg.

Destroyers played an active part in most surface actions and coastal support operations, functioned as fast-response coastal protection craft, worked as fast minelayers and led flotillas of smaller craft. They also became more and more crucial to the protection of trade routes from submarines, so that Allied naval commanders (especially in the Mediterranean) were engaged in a constant internal scramble for destroyers, above all the large modern ships capable of long-range convoy protection.  The importance of long-range work was reflected in wartime destroyer design, which saw the ships become steadily larger, stronger, more heavily armed and more expensive, so that new vessels displaced more than 1,100 tons by 1918.

HMS Swift and HMS Broke – British destroyers on the Dover Patrol.

By the time the War ended, the Royal Navy had used almost 450 destroyers during the conflict, the German Navy more than 230, and the US Navy more than a hundred.  Russia managed to build 58 news destroyers during the War, Japan embarked on a production programme that would expand into the 1940s, and even the beleaguered wartime shipyards of France and Italy produced a few. This outpouring left the post-War world was awash with destroyers, and left a so far indelible mark on naval warfare.  Modern destroyers may be hunting missiles rather than torpedo boats or submarines, and they look very different to the ‘battleships in miniature’ of a pre-electronic age, but they are still a basic unit of worldwide naval currency– and I hope that’s given you an idea of where they came from.

A modern British Daring Class destroyer weighs in at around 8,000 tons and only shoots at the sky.

14 AUGUST, 1917: Cruise Control

The day before Haig launched the second phase of his Ypres offensive on the Western Front was another quiet day by the standards of the First World War.  China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, but that had been coming for some time and has been covered in an earlier post (14 March, 1917: Breaking China).  Spain declared martial law as part of an internal crisis I’ll be talking about quite soon, and the row about sending Labour Party delegates to the Stockholm Peace Conference rumbled on in Britain (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).

Otherwise I have no particularly interesting anniversaries to commemorate, so I think I’ll spend a couple of hours chatting about cruisers.  And why not?  Cruisers were relevant to every day of the War and in action all over the world – but what exactly was a cruiser, and why?

The British developed the first cruisers in the 1880s.  Smaller and faster than battleships, but still capable of ocean-going operations, they were originally designed for two main roles.  Heavy ‘armoured’ cruisers, generally displacing more than 10,000 tons, carrying powerful main armament and fitted with strong side armour, were intended to act as the fast scouting force alongside battleships in confrontations with other fleets.   Less expensive ‘protected’ cruisers (anything from 2,000 to 14,000 tons) were equipped only with deck armour, and were tasked with protection of trade routes, troopships or imperial outposts.  In the days of sailing navies, all these jobs had been carried out by frigates, which had ceased to exist long before 1914 and were to be reinvented during the Second World War as something completely different.

 

A British armoured, or heavy cruiser, designed for fleet actions but destined to spend the War anywhere but…
HMS Challenger:  a fairly typical British protected cruiser, completed in 1904 and brought out of retirement in 1914.

Much cheaper and more versatile than battleships, and able to dominate any naval situation that didn’t involve battleships, cruisers were particularly crucial to the sprawling operations of the British Royal Navy, which built 42 armoured and 101 protected cruisers between 1885 and 1907.   In much the same way as they would render all their existing battleships obsolete by inventing dreadnoughts, the British then made armoured cruisers redundant as fleet components by coming up with the first battlecruisers in 1908.

With the speed of a cruiser and the striking power of a battleship, battlecruisers resembled the latter but with one less turret, less armour protection, more powerful engines and a longer hull.  Used as fast screens for battleships in fleet actions, as well as for long-range commerce duties, they were also adopted by the Japanese Navy, which spent the early twentieth century learning to copy the best European naval practices, and the German Navy, which would go on the use them for fleet actions and as commerce raiders.

Battlecruisers were the brainchild of forceful pre-War British First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, who pushed their construction in the face of strong opposition from many naval professionals.  Half greyhound, half Rottweiler, they would go on to play a major role in most North Sea naval actions, and several German ships had a major impact in other theatres, but on the whole the critics were proved right.  Though in theory able to outrun anything they couldn’t outgun, their lack of armour made them vulnerable, not just to enemy battlecruisers but also to the mines, submarines and other torpedo craft that were coming into widespread use in the early twentieth century.   The last battlecruisers ordered by the wartime Royal Navy, lighter designs for use in the shallow Baltic Sea but in fact deployed on North Sea patrols, were converted into aircraft carriers after the War, marking the end of the experiment.

Lean, mean and really quite vulnerable – the battlecruiser HMS Tiger

Meanwhile cruiser development focused on speed, and two types of light cruiser.   The larger variety, first developed by the German Navy and copied by the British (as the Town Class), were quick, lightly armoured and heavily armed to operate on fleet approaches or trade routes.  The British also designed smaller Scout Class cruisers with very little armour protection, intended for scouting, for long-range screening and as lead ships for destroyer flotillas.

Longer, obviously, and again just one among several profiles of the type, Town Class cruiser HMS Bristol.
Scout Class cruisers came in many styles, but HMS Active is as good an example as any.

Once replaced by newer designs, old British cruisers were transferred from the main battle fleets or the most dangerous trade routes to perform all sorts of secondary tasks.  They led submarine flotillas, they protected dozens of relatively minor ports at home and across the Empire, and (given the dubious value of old, pre-dreadnought battleships) they generally provided the most effective naval support for army operations in secondary theatres.   They also patrolled trade routes as protection against surface raiders at the start of the War, along with passenger liners converted as ‘armed merchant cruisers’, and from mid-1917 they led convoy protection squadrons.

I’ve been concentrating on British cruisers, because the Royal Navy needed a lot more cruisers than anyone else and used them for a lot more tasks, but they were central to the wartime operations of most major navies.

The German Navy, as mentioned, used battlecruisers and cruisers as the warhorses of fleet and commerce operations, while Austro-Hungarian, Italian and most French naval activity was confined to the Mediterranean, where dreadnoughts feared to leave port and cruisers were crucial.  All three fleets deployed very fast, modern cruisers, light on armour but heavy on armament, as their main naval strike weapons, and they were at the heart of all the major naval actions in the Mediterranean, apart from the Anglo-French shambles at the Dardanelles in 1915.

Although the feeble Ottoman Navy possessed only a few old cruisers, and they were particularly decrepit, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, both transferred from the German Navy, were by far its most important weapons in the war for control of the Black Sea (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships).  Meanwhile the Russian Navy possessed few modern cruisers but made extensive use of its older vessels in the Black Sea and the Baltic, outclassing its opposite numbers in the former (whenever the Goeben was out of action) and holding its own against relatively threadbare German naval forces in the latter.

That just left the USA, the world’s second biggest naval power in 1914 and the exception to the norm.  The US Navy possessed 12 armoured and 24 protected cruisers when war broke out, but then embarked on a massive naval expansion programme that completely ignored cruisers.  That may appear weird at first glance, but in fact it was wise.

Looking at (and supplying) the War from the outside until 1917, the USA was able to tailor its navy to its actual wartime requirements, where Europe’s navies had been built on pre-War predictions. Primarily concerned with protecting an expanding maritime trade network, and far from Europe, the USA had no expectation of needing cruisers for any kind of fleet battle, and once the British had removed any threat to merchant traffic from German surface raiders, cruisers were not the ideal weapon for coping with U-boats and minefields.  So although US yards did build six dreadnoughts – necessary statements of power at a time when even Brazil was investing in them – construction was otherwise dedicated to merchant ships, destroyers and other smaller craft.

This was the future.  Beginning with mines, submarines and aircraft, small but lethal long-range weapons were taking control of naval warfare by 1914, and though the cruiser would continue to serve fleets, protect trade and dominate small actions for decades to come, its day as a state-of-the-art weapon of war was done.

Unlike the conflict’s great white elephants – the costly, cosseted dreadnoughts – mere obsolescence didn’t leave cruisers watching from the sidelines.  Partly because years of total war demanded massive global commitment from navies, in particular the Royal Navy, and partly because older vessels were seen as relatively expendable, First World War cruisers were still enormously important, the basic currency of worldwide naval power in all but the most hotly contested patches of ocean.

That’s a small window on the panoramic impact of cruisers, and me out of time, so an equally nerdy look at another important new kid on the naval block since the 1880s – the destroyer – will have to wait for another quiet day.

1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets

Poor old Kaiser Bill. All he ever wanted was to be adored, to make an enormous impact on world history and to lead Germany towards its manifest destiny without interference from below. Things had looked so promising back in the 1890s, when he’d been a young monarch and Germany had been the economic and technological sensation of the age. Even through the first decade of the new century, despite distinct signs that Germany’s destiny was boiling down to expansion, revolution or decline, Wilhelm II dreamed grand dreams of naval power, colonial empire and European dominance.

The man who signed the order sending Germany to war in August 1914 was an altogether more nervous figure, desperately uncertain about the forces he was unleashing and in need of serious persuasion by his advisors. By that time, Wilhelm’s political strategists were clear that only war could prevent the nation’s surging dynamism from imploding and destroying the regime, and his generals were clear that, with Germany’s neighbours becoming ever stronger, war could only be won by striking quickly.

By early 1917, the strategic situation had worsened. Mired in a military deadlock that could only be maintained by stretching social cohesion beyond known limits, Germany now needed a quick victory as an alternative to inevitable defeat by economically superior enemies. Entirely dependent for his crown’s survival on the industrialists that kept the resources flowing, and on the military that deployed those resources, Wilhelm had become little more than a puppet emperor, without the will to seriously oppose the demands of a military-industrial dictatorship.

It was therefore in a spirit of resignation, his fear and uncertainty now closing in on utter despair, that the Kaiser signed the order, on 7 January 1917, authorising unrestricted submarine warfare by the German Navy. That order came into force a century ago today, the day after European newspapers reported that Constantinople’s Stamboul University (or to be precise its literary and legal faculties) had suggested Kaiser Wilhelm II for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Poor old Kaiser Bill…

The latter gesture was part of the ongoing propaganda battle over December’s peace offers, and the university’s citation of Wilhelm as the ‘forefighter for the peace idea’ has prompted predictable mirth ever since. On the other hand it can be argued that the Kaiser’s authorisation of unrestricted submarine warfare did make a considerable contribution to what would these days be called the peace process, because it was the first wartime act by either side that unpicked rather than tightened the deadlock. As such the first day of the new submarine campaign, 1 February 1917, has as good a claim as any single date to be remembered as the beginning of the end of the First World War.

Before I attempt to justify that punch line, a few words about unrestricted submarine warfare, starting with a definition. Under the prize rules that governed restricted submarine warfare, boats were required to surface, search the suspect vessel, issue a warning and allow time for those on board to escape before attacking non-military or neutral targets. The new policy allowed German submarines to attack without warning any vessel, including neutral civilian ships, found in any waters considered a war zone (as defined by the German Navy, and was a global game-changer on two levels.

First, it was bound to outrage neutrals, was equally likely to kill quite a lot of them, and was all but certain to bring the ‘great neutral’, the United States, into the War on the Allied side. US participation would be a disaster for Germany, turning a clear Allied advantage in available resources into an imbalance so vast it was sure to mean defeat for the Central Powers. Then again, and secondly, unleashing submarines gave Germany a chance of winning the War before the United States could mobilise its resources in Europe. History knows this as the gamble that sealed German defeat, and rightly sees it as a very long shot, but posterity knows a lot more about the limitations of submarine warfare, and how to defeat it, than anyone knew in January 1917. Without hindsight, both sides thought it might just work.

Under prize rules, crews were given time to escape before merchant ships were sent to the bottom.

In Germany, High Seas Fleet commander Admiral Scheer had been lobbying aggressively for a policy of all-out Handelskrieg, or trade warfare, since his appointment a year earlier (15 January, 1916: Beneath The Surface). After the failure of his surface ships at Jutland the previous summer, he had refused to detach U-boats from the High Seas Fleet for Atlantic patrols under prize rules, and he had been the driving force behind their switch, in October 1916, from operations with the surface fleet to a restricted campaign against British home waters (and the Bay of Biscay), and behind the Third Supreme Command’s simultaneous order for the construction of 89 new submarines.

The British campaign was a success, with Scheer’s U-boats sinking about 300,000 tons of shipping per month through the autumn, while a smaller force in the Mediterranean was also providing grounds for German optimism, sinking more than 660,000 tons of registered shipping (256 ships) during the second half of 1916. All this had been achieved with a total active force that had risen to 88 U-boats by the end of the year, and to 111 by 1 February (including 53 with the High Seas Fleet, 33 stationed on the Belgian coast to attack Western Front supply lines and 18 based in the Adriatic), of which about 40 could be active at any given time. New boats with superior range and speed were pouring out of the dockyards, and 80 were expected into service during 1917, while minimal losses suggested the Allies had no answer to the threat. Given the existential desperation that underpinned German strategic thinking, the idea that all-out submarine warfare could force the British (and thus the rest of the Allies) into ending the War within six months seemed both plausible and irresistible.

The idea certainly convinced the Third Supreme Command, which ordered a defensive posture on the Western Front to preserve resources for the Navy, and it went down a storm with the German public, providing the kind of boost to morale that Ludendorff and his backers hoped would counteract the slackness they perceived in the national war effort. It also scared the Allies.

In Britain, the losses of the autumn had caused genuine alarm and ignited a national debate about the best way to combat underwater trade warfare. Things got a lot worse after 1 February. Though the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany two days later, no immediate declaration of war followed, and meanwhile Allied losses soared. U-boats sank 230 registered vessels that month, fifty of them in Mediterranean, amounting to almost 465,000 tons of shipping, and another 300 neutral vessels refused to sail. March figures passed 500,000 tons, and as the weather improved another 400,000 tons were sunk in the first two weeks of April, forcing the British government to make plans for food shortages and forcing a decision on the convoy issue.

This was the turning point for Handelskrieg. March had seen the collapse of Russia’s Tsarist regime and the USA had finally entered the War on 6 April. Both events were vital to deconstruction of the deadlock, and they’ll both get a fair share of my attention another day, but their immediate effects on the war at sea were to distract the Third Supreme Command into ambitious plans for the Eastern Front, and to confirm that only a few months remained before American forces would tip the balance on the Western Front. These factors lengthened the odds against victory through U-boats, but convoys were the clincher.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had discovered that grouping merchant shipping into convoys and providing warship escorts provided protection against attacks on seaborne commerce – but by 1914 the British Admiralty had found several apparently good reasons to reject convoys as protection against submarine attacks.

Most convincingly, a service stretched to the limit by the demands of global multi-tasking couldn’t spare the destroyers and smaller craft needed to protect convoys, which were seen as requiring about one warship for every three merchantmen. Secondly, the Admiralty considered merchant crews incapable of maintaining convoy formations with any efficiency, and thirdly it believed that a convoy’s need to travel at the speed of its slowest vessel increased its vulnerability to attack. Both the latter arguments proved false, as did the widely held belief underpinning them that offensive patrols and barrages like those at Dover and Otranto were the best ways to end the threat from U-boats. In an echo of the land war in Europe, convoys were reinstated only when this offensive dogma had failed repeatedly and on almost every conceivable level, but once they arrived they transformed the battle.

Explains itself.

After a highly successful trial with cross-Channel traffic had seen all but nine of 4,000 ships reach their destinations in February, March and April 1917, the first long-range convoys set sail from Gibraltar and the US at the end of April. At that point, the Allies were losing one merchant ship of every four that sailed, but adoption of convoys for almost all transatlantic and most Mediterranean traffic had reduced losses to one percent by the end of the year. By then it was game over for Handelskrieg, and the deadlock of the European land war was finally unravelling. The magic bullet of convoy protection had done its job, and would maintain its dominance over submarines for the rest of the War, only to be forgotten again twenty years later… but that really is another story.

22 JANUARY, 1917: One Clanger, Two Bangers

It’s still January, the War is still quiet, and so I plan to spend the next hour or two telling three small tales about this week in 1917.   None of them are particularly obscure or neglected by posterity, but they’re all interesting in their way and there’s a dash of world-historical significance to spice things up.  They’re not really connected so let’s take them in chronological order, starting with the diplomatic black farce known as the Zimmermann Telegram or the Zimmermann Note.

Arthur Zimmermann was the German foreign minister in January 1917.  He had only been in the post since November, and in political terms he can be dismissed as a creature of the military-industrial dictatorship that controlled Germany as the Third Supreme Command (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint).  Zimmermann was thoroughly imbued with the gamblers’ optimism that characterised his masters, as demonstrated by his reaction to the decision, taken in mid-January, to adopt a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

For reasons often discussed in the past, the decision meant that war with the United States was all but inevitable, which in turn meant Germany either had to win the War before America’s vast resources made it to Europe or prevent the US Army from coming to Europe at all.  With the latter in mind, and encouraged by signs that collapse of the Russian war effort would release resources from the Eastern Front, Zimmermann wrote a note to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer an alliance to the Mexican government whenever war between Germany and the US became certain.  In return for declaring war against the US, Mexico would receive generous funding and military support from Germany, along with the former Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, once victory was secured.  By way of encouragement, Zimmermann suggested that Japan might be persuaded to join the alliance, thus keeping the US occupied on two fronts, neither of them anywhere near Germany.

Reality was not heavily involved here.  Even if Mexico wanted a full-scale war with its northern neighbour, it was in midst of a very long series of revolutions and in no fit state to fight one, and Japan had shown no signs of wanting to abandon its very profitable and useful alliance with Britain, let alone being ready to fight a war against its powerful Pacific trade rival.  The message could, on the other hand, have very real diplomatic effects if its contents were to reach Washington while Germany was at peace with the US.  Berlin took precautions against this possibility, but they never stood a chance.

One of the Royal Navy’s first wartime jobs had been to cut Germany’s transatlantic cables, so Berlin had been communicating with its ambassadors in the western hemisphere using US cables, an arrangement accepted by the Wilson administration on the grounds that it might facilitate the progress of peace talks.  Berlin considered the US cable system secure, and had agreed not to use it for coded messages, but cited security concerns to persuade the US embassy to accept the Zimmermann message in code.  The message was delivered to the embassy on 16 January, and transmitted to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington.  Washington also thought its transatlantic cables were secure, but all traffic passed through a node near Land’s End, at the western tip of mainland Britain, where it was being tapped and passed on to the Royal Navy’s codebreaking centre, known as Room 40.

The Royal Navy’s Room 40 broke this code. Feel free to have a go.

Room 40 was in possession of German diplomatic ciphers and had cracked the gist of the message within a day or so, but the codebreakers sat on the information for the next three weeks while they thought up ways to use it without their wire-tapping activities causing outrage in Washington.  They eventually passed the telegram’s contents to the British foreign office on 5 February, five days after Germany’s public declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had effectively ended the diplomatic battle for American support.

Another two weeks passed before the first US official read a transcript, by which time the British had made up a couple of plausible alternative sources for the intelligence.  It was shown to the US ambassador in London on 20 February, reached Wilson in Washington a few days later, and was released to the American press on 28 February, giving a predictable and enormous boost to anti-German sentiment in the States at a very important time.

There isn’t much need to elaborate on the connections between our modern world and a document that helped get the USA involved in European affairs, except perhaps to paraphrase the incomparable Barbara Tuchmann by pointing out an unhappy consistency in the fruits of Prussian diplomacy, so I’ll move on to that week’s most disastrous by-product of the British class system.

Silvertown, a poverty-raddled East London suburb, had a nasty recent history as the capital’s industrial hellhole, a place where really noxious factories just outside the city’s regulatory reach were surrounded by the homes of their workforces.  Among many chemicals companies operating in the area in the 1900s, Brunner, Mond & Co (a future original component of ICI) produced soda crystal and caustic soda until production of the latter ended in 1912, leaving half of the plant idle.  In mid-1915, when the British Army was facing potentially critical shell shortages, the War Office requisitioned the spare half of the factory for production of high-grade, ‘purified’ TNT, despite protests that the process was too dangerous to be carried out in crowded areas, a view shared by the Brunner, Mond chemists who had invented the process.

Handling TNT was bad for workers, who suffered from a variety of side effects, including skin discolouration and nausea, but that kind of war wound could be described as unavoidable, whereas the British government could and did site many TNT factories in lightly populated, rural areas, where their well recognised tendency to explode was less of a hazard to life and property.  These considerations didn’t spare poor, crowded Silvertown, neglected for the benefit of capital as a matter of passive government policy for the previous seventy years, and TNT production began in September 1915.  On 19 January 1917, Silvertown paid the price, when fire broke out and, at 6.52pm, ignited 50 tonnes of stored TNT.

It was the biggest explosion in the history of London (though bigger TNT explosions took place in other wartime factories).  The TNT factory and a number of surrounding buildings were wiped out at once, while debris destroyed goods and damaged property for miles around, fires raged all over Silvertown (and in a Greenwich gasometer hit by flying debris), and the sound of the blast, which shook buildings all over London, was heard as far away as Norfolk and the south coast.  Had it not been evening, when most factory personnel were off work, the total of 73 dead and more than 400 injured would have been much higher, as would the £4 million paid out by the government in compensation to individuals and businesses affected by the explosion.  Just so you sort of know, my laptop says £4 million in 1917 is the equivalent of between – wait for it – about £200 million and about £1.75 billion today.  Could be that’s the main reason the British government stopped opening TNT factories in urban areas.

Bombing raid? Heavy artillery attack? Nope, just Silvertown after a wild Friday night in 1917.

Lastly, and by way of getting up to date, the night of 22 January saw a burst of lethal derring-do in the North Sea.  Cruisers from the Royal Navy’s Harwich Force – a collection of destroyers, light cruisers and smaller craft dedicated to patrolling eastern and south-eastern approaches to British home waters – intercepted the ten ships of a German Navy destroyer flotilla around the Schouwen Bank, about 30km off the Rhine Delta.  In a brief exchange of fire between the cruisers’ guns and the destroyers’ torpedoes, two German destroyers were heavily damaged before the rest escaped, only to run into a flotilla of British destroyers, which inflicted serious damage on a third destroyer but lost one of its own, HMS Simoom, torpedoed and sunk at a cost of 47 lives.  Again the actual combat was fleeting, though undertaken at what an eyewitness described as ‘pistol range’, before both sides ran for home.

The doomed Simoom… if anyone asks, a simoom is a desert wind occurring in Arabia and the Sahara.

I mention this essentially insignificant scrap because I’ve been inclined to focus on the timidity with which expensive, prestigious major warships were used during the First World War.  The Schouwen Bank action is a reminder that battleships weren’t the only warships out there, and that the rather pointless war fought by the dreadnoughts doesn’t reflect either the experience of most serving warships or the (non-existent) generalised failure of wartime naval operations that is such a favourite heritage headline.  What’s more, timidity had very little to do with rapid retreat from a night action, which was a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse played almost blind, with every shadowy ship in the darkness a potential friend or enemy, and every manoeuvre in crowded areas a collision waiting to happen.  When enemy ships ran away in the dark, chasing around to find them in a crowded, active naval theatre was not a smart move before radar changed the game.

9 DECEMBER, 1916: Tourist Trouble

This can be a busy and potentially depressing time of year (ask any shopper), so we all understand why European minds turn to the warm, sunny Canary Islands.  A winter break in Tenerife wasn’t an option back in 1916, even for wealthy, leisured men like Asquith, Grey and other pre-War titans of the British political establishment who found themselves consigned to history from 6 December, when David Lloyd George took over leadership of the governing coalition.  Nor could the beleaguered population of Bucharest, which surrendered to German-led invasion forces on the same day, escape to the sun, though the country’s great and good, led by King Ferdinand, were already safe behind Russian lines in the northern province of Moldovia.

The change of tenant at 10, Downing Street signalled the climax to one of Britain’s greatest political careers, and was arguably the moment when British government joined the twentieth century, while the potential economic benefits from annexation of the Romanian heartlands fed the world-changing madness of the Third Supreme Command in Germany.   But Christmas is coming and I live in Norwich, so I can’t really help turning to the Canaries – and today marks the centenary of a complaint by Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands that the archipelago’s ports were being subjected to a ‘virtual blockade’ by German submarines.

The Canary Islands had been under Spanish colonial control since the fifteenth century, give or take a couple of years under British rule in the early nineteenth, and they shared Spanish neutrality in 1914.  Though it had close diplomatic and economic ties to the Entente, Spain’s neutrality was never really in question at the start of the War.  The Spanish royal government had signed pre-War agreements with the British, French and Portuguese that guaranteed the Iberian peninsula’s neutrality in the event of war – and though these proved meaningless when the Allies found a use for Portugal’s armed forces in 1916 (9 March, 1916: Pawn Sacrifice), everybody concerned recognised that Spain was in too much of a social and economic mess to restore any kind of military competence to its decrepit armed forces.

So long as Spanish interests didn’t coincide with any of the War’s battlefronts, all the Allies wanted from Spain was benevolent neutrality, unencumbered by the costs of financing a military ally. Britain in particular wanted Spanish benevolence expressed in maritime terms, as cooperation with Allied seagoing trade and obstruction of German or other enemy shipping (within the limits of international law).   In that context, nowhere administered by Spain mattered like the Canary Islands.

Peurto La Luz, Las Palmas, before the War. Times would get harder.
Peurto La Luz, Las Palmas, before the War. Times would get harder.

The Canaries were a vital crossroads and supply station for European trade with South America and Africa.  As such, they had long attracted attention from the British Royal Navy, which used warships from bases at Gibraltar and in West Africa to protect merchant shipping in the region.  The islands’ strategic importance mushroomed as everyone’s plans for a short war in 1914 matured into mobilisation for a prolonged, global economic conflict, but Allied trade via the Canaries carried on without too much trouble for the next couple of years.  Regular patrols of nearby sea lanes by British and French cruisers enforced the blockade against enemy trade and kept commerce-raiding German warships at bay, while fears that German agents in the Canaries were sending fuel and supply tenders to meet enemy shipping at sea were never substantiated.

The possibility that German naval units could be resupplied locally raised the greater fear – shared by British naval strategists, British officials on the islands and a population dependent on the free flow of trade – that U-boats were operating around the Canaries, and from the spring of 1915 the islands were alive with rumours of submarine sightings and submarine attacks.  Increased patrols and searches for German supply lines revealed no conclusive evidence of U-boat activity off the west coast of Africa, but in a world without radar or sonar the threat couldn’t be discounted.  In fact no German submarines operated anywhere near the Canaries, or took on fuel from the islands, before late 1916, when improved technology and altered strategic priorities finally persuaded the German Navy to send U-boats to the equatorial east Atlantic.

The disappointments of Jutland and appointment of the risk-taking Third Supreme Command had cemented German loss of faith in surface warships during the summer of 1916, while the development of bigger, more reliable submarines had made long-range operations feasible for the first time.  As part of a renewed commitment to limited submarine warfare against Allied trade, the first U-boat bound for the Canaries, the UC-20, left the Austrian Adriatic port of Pola in mid-October 1916, and arrived off Lanzarote on 12 November.  On 17 November it sank the Portuguese barque Emilia 15km east of Las Palmas, the first wartime loss to German submarines in Canary waters.

Survivors of the Emilia raised the alarm, and Spanish authorities followed British instructions to conduct yet another search of the archipelago’s remote harbours for German supply bases.  The few motor boats that constituted the islands’ anti-submarine defences were sent out on patrol, but the UC-20 escaped the area unmolested, and hopelessly overstretched Spanish defences had no more success with the next two submarines to arrive, the U-52 and U-47, which sank four ships in early December before shortage of fuel forced their withdrawal.

For the remainder of the War, the waters around the Canaries would remain easy pickings for U-boats, and their activities would intensify with the expansion of German commitment to unlimited submarine warfare and deployment of the giant ‘cruiser’ boats first seen when the Deutschland visited the USA (24 August, 1916: Deep Thinking). Spanish naval capacity was always hopelessly overstretched, colonial authorities were never able to effectively monitor the archipelago’s major ports, let alone its remote harbours, and the Allies were never prepared to compromise Spanish neutrality by sending state-of-the-art anti-submarine units to the islands.

Even so, U-boat attacks in the waters around the Canaries were never a strategic success, largely because the Allies, recognising the vulnerability of the Spanish islands, routed most neutral east Atlantic merchant traffic via Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands, which could receive direct protection because they belonged to a co-belligerent, Portugal.  The slump in the economy of the Canary Islands that followed from this change in trading patterns was exactly what the Spanish authorities feared when they issued their forlorn complaint against the arrival of U-boats in December 1916.

That was hardly an anniversary, more a glimpse at a corner of the First World War that, while neither blood-soaked nor world-changing, altered the history of a region familiar to millions of modern European tourists, and that is almost completely forgotten outside academia.  It’s also a reminder that, while it’s easy to condemn the many nations tempted into joining the First World War for gain, neutrality amid the flailing avarice of the warring Great Powers often came at a price.

27 OCTOBER, 1916: Net Loss

There were many wars within the War taking place in 1916, and during the night of 26–27 October a relatively minor naval engagement took place, known as the Battle of Dover Strait, that shone a light on one of them – the four-year struggle for control of the English Channel.  To be more precise, this was Britain’s struggle to maintain the overwhelming dominance of its southern coastal waters that enabled it to protect the English shoreline, supply the Western Front and prevent passage of German warships, in particular submarines, to and from the Atlantic.

The Royal Navy had begun the job of blocking the Channel to enemy shipping on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It transferred a dozen fairly modern destroyers to reinforce the elderly destroyers normally stationed at Dover, and they formed the heart of what was known as the Dover Patrol. The Patrol remained in position throughout the War, its strength steadily mounting with the addition of old cruisers, monitors (floating gun platforms), minesweepers, aircraft, airships, torpedo boats, other motor boats and various armed yachts, but it began the War by laying substantial minefields across the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and the Belgian coast.

In February 1915, the minefields were augmented with ‘indicator nets’ – light steel nets dropped from small fishing boats (drifters), which remained on watch for anything that became entangled – and with Dover Patrol ships assigned as support the whole operation became known as the ‘Dover Barrage’.

Unlike its big brother in the Adriatic, the Otranto Barrage, the Dover version appeared to succeed at first, largely because it was almost immediately responsible for sinking the submarine U-8, which went down after getting tangled in the nets on 4 March. The German Navy reacted by restricting its submarines to the northern route round Britain for Atlantic operations, the British began building and installing bigger nets, and for the next year or so both British and German authorities were inclined ascribe any unexplained losses to the Barrage.

In fact the Barrage was far from impenetrable.  British mines were hopelessly unreliable (and would stay that way until late 1917), even the bigger nets installed by October 1916 left large gaps, and insufficient support craft were deployed to monitor them.  Its weakness eventually became clear to the German Navy, which reinstated the Channel route for small U-boats from Ostend and Zeebrugge in April 1916, and by the autumn submarines were passing through at will, usually travelling on the surface at night.

Submarines aside, the Dover Patrol’s various craft had been fighting a continuous ‘mosquito’ war against raids by torpedo boats from the German Flanders Flotilla, which made regular attempts to slip past the Barrage at night for attacks on Allied merchant and supply shipping.  The Flanders Flotilla had been quiet throughout the summer of 1916, but in October it was reinforced with torpedo boats from the High Seas Fleet, and on the night of 26 October all 23 of its active boats attacked the Dover Barrage in five separate groups.

The British were expecting a night raid but had done little to prepare for it. The drifters watching the Barrage, each armed with precisely one rifle for defence purposes, were protected only by the elderly destroyer HMS Flirt, a naval trawler and an armed yacht.  Taken completely by surprise when the German boats attacked in five groups, the British lost six drifters during the night, and three more were damaged, while the naval trawler suffered heavy damage, an empty transport vessel was sunk in passing, and the Flirt went to the bottom after its captain failed to recognise the Flotilla’s boats as enemy craft and blundered into their torpedoes.

Six of the modern, Tribal Class destroyers from Dover were called up to track down the raiders, but the first on the scene of the Flirt‘s sinking, HMS Nubian, also failed to recognise the German boats as enemies and was left dead in the water after a torpedo took off its bow.  The rest of the British destroyer force caught up with some of the raiding groups, but came off worse, failing to sink any German boats while HMS Amazon and HMS Mohawk both suffered significant damage.  By the time further Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from Dunkirk, the Flanders Flotilla had escaped for home.

HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage
HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage

At the end of a shambolic night for the Royal Navy the British had lost eight ships sunk, seven more damaged, 45 dead, four wounded and ten prisoners, while the German Navy suffered no casualties and only minor damage to a single torpedo boat.

Small craft in the English Channel were constantly engaged in this kind of skirmish, as they were in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Black Sea and every other tightly contested naval theatre, but the first Battle of Dover Strait (a smaller action would be named as the second in 1917) was both bigger and more strategically significant than most.  Their undoubted victory encouraged German planners to dismiss the Dover Barrage as useless, so the Flanders Flotilla’s reinforcements were transferred back to the High Seas Fleet in November and large U-boats given permission to pass through the Channel in December, a decision that facilitated the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and as such helped draw the USA into the War.

The failure of October 1916, and the subsequent inability of the Barrage to stop big, commerce-raiding U-boats, also acted as a wake-up call for the British.  In late 1917 the Barrage was moved onto a line between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, and by the end of the year it had been equipped with new, more efficient mines. Minefields and numbers of support craft were steadily expanded, a new Barrage Committee established a system of night patrols using flares and searchlights, and by 1918 the Barrage was performing effectively enough to sink at least 12 U-boats before they stopped trying to breach it in August.

A good map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker
A good, uncomplicated map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker…

This was just a glimpse of yet another busy battlefront that was deadly by any standards less gruesome than those of the First World War, strategically important to both the Western and Atlantic Fronts, continuously in action for more than four years, and destined to be almost completely ignored by the modern heritage industry.   I mention it here by way of commemoration.