Wednesday, May 24, 2017

One Century Ago: We Got Ourselves a Convoy!

Now that we can look back upon the whole course of the campaign, we can usefully study why it was that the choice should have been so long in doubt, and at the time there were many, including among civilians, who were familiar with the idea of convoy, and inferred, from its success in former wars, that it was an obvious and infallible method whose value had been strangely overlooked.
Henry Newbolt, History of the Great War, Naval Operations, Vol. V., 2-3.
In this undated photograph, United States merchant vessels approach the coast of England during the First World War. The second experimental convoy, the first originating from the North American continent, to test this contested transatlantic shipping strategy left Hampton Roads for Ireland on May 24, 1917. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)    
The convoy system, originally known as "wafting," had been used sporadically by the English since the early-1500s.  The practice was still in place 350 years ago when groups of merchant vessels laden with tobacco left Hampton Roads on their way to England, hoping not to run afoul of what was then the scourge of the seas, the Dutch.  A century ago, however, the practice had long been out of favor, and for the first three years of the First World War, the British had been paying for it dearly in terms of tonnage, war material, and lives lost to their German adversaries. 

Smaller convoys had been instituted by the British practically before the war officially began, the first being, ironically enough, to the Dutch.  The so-called "Beef Trips" along the Hook of Holland route began in July, 1916.  Another convoy arrangement had also been put into place to protect colliers bound for France, yet the Admiralty insisted that the term "convoy" was inappropriate, calling the arrangement instead, "controlled sailing." First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, RN, had approved the arrangement in January 1917, yet he still strongly resisted any recommendation that the same strategy be used in transatlantic shipping.  Despite relenting to Norwegian demands to provide a similar measure of protection to their merchant vessels a couple of months later, no serious consideration was given to instituting the convoy system across the Atlantic, where U-boats inflicted most of the British losses.

Similar losses being incurred by American-flagged ships in no small part precipitated the U.S. entry into the war on April 6, 1917, but Americans too were reluctant to resurrect convoying from American ports.  President Woodrow Wilson was fond of saying that his Navy would hunt down the Kaiser's submarines on the open ocean and strike their bases, which he called "hornets' nests." The Royal Navy had followed this strategy, known as the patrol system, since the beginning of the war but had precious little to show for it.  

Rear Admiral William S. Sims, USN, who arrived in London on April 10 as a liaison officer to the British Admiralty, later wrote, "One of the astonishing things about this war was that many of the naval officers of all countries did not seem to understand until a very late date that it was utterly futile to send anti-submarine surface craft out into the wide ocean to attack or chase away submarines. The thing to do, of course, was to make the submarines come to the anti-submarine craft and fight in order to get merchantmen." Many mid-grade officers of the Royal Navy agreed with him, yet simple, even traditional, ideas can run afoul of a hidebound orthodoxy at the top, and that is what Sims encountered both within the Admiralty in London, and later from his superiors in Washington. 

Admiral Jellicoe's attitude reflected that of his predecessor, Adm. Sir Henry Jackson, and the chief of the Admiralty War Staff, Adm. Sir Henry Oliver.  Fixated on the Mahanian concept that decisive duels between dreadnoughts constituted the raison d'ĂȘtre of modern navies, they negated its role as a guarantor of maritime commerce.  As a consequence, the battleships of the Grand Fleet assembled together in Scapa Flow received the greatest protection from submarines, while the widely dispersed merchant vessels approaching Britain from around the world received little to none, and the nation began to starve.

Making matters worse for the merchantmen, the senior strategists of the Royal Navy operated under the assumption that a proper convoy would require a 1-1 ratio of escorts to merchant vessels, in which case, even if the entire U.S. Atlantic Fleet came to their aid after entering the war, it would not be enough to make the arrangement practicable.  And with its commander, Adm. Henry T. Mayo, just as convinced that he needed most of his ships at home to protect against a German onslaught against the eastern seaboard, Sims' proposal seemed a non-starter. 

The tide began to turn, however, when Jellicoe along with the Admiralty revised its estimates on how many ocean-going escort vessels might actually be needed to begin convoying vessels across the Atlantic, helped in no small measure by Destroyer Division 8's arrival in Ireland on May 4.  The day before that, Sims received word from Washington that 36 destroyers would be on their way.  Although the destroyers of Division 8 began their service in British waters on May 8, they were assigned only to patrol duties.  Under pressure from Parliament, however, reeling from the news that April had been the most successful month of the war for German submarines, the decision was made to assemble a trial convoy and sail it from Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, which departed for Britain on May 10.  A subsequent naval staff study concluded, "The trial had been an entire success, and from that moment it may be said that the submarine menace was conquered."

Despite such superlatives from officers typically given to understatement, the newly-converted Admiralty could not usher their new allies across the pond into their new way of thinking.  The U.S. Navy turned down a request to send a convoy of 16 to 20 ships from Hampton Roads with one of the three American destroyer divisions being sent to British waters after Division 8, so the British resolved to show their American cousins that it could be done.  Their second trial convoy, made up of 12 ships and escorted by the armored cruiser HMS Roxburgh, left Hampton Roads on May 24.  All the vessels of the convoy, with the exception of two that fell behind, reached their destinations safely by June 10.

Despite one of the stragglers being torpedoed and sunk, the vessels of this first transatlantic convoy of the war had a much better survival rate than they would have had alone.  Before the convoy system was finally instituted on the Atlantic crossings, a merchant vessel had a one in four chance of being attacked.  Although it would be a few months before convoying once again became a regular part of maritime commerce originating from Hampton Roads, it was clear that this centuries-old practice would bring the reign of terror spawned by the newest naval weapon to an end at last.

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