British naval convoy system introduced

British naval convoy system introduced


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On May 24, 1917, driven by the spectacular success of the German U-boat submarines and their attacks on Allied and neutral ships at sea, the British Royal Navy introduces a newly created convoy system, whereby all merchant ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean would travel in groups under the protection of the British navy.

For more than three years of World War I, Britain’s Royal Admiralty steadfastly resisted the creation of a convoy system, believing they could not afford to spare ships and other resources from its mighty fleet where they might be needed in battle. The effect of the German U-boat submarines, however, and their attacks on merchant ships—both belligerent and neutral—proved devastating. With the entrance of the United States into the war in April 1917, there was an even greater need for protection of Allied interests at sea, as large numbers of soldiers and arms would need to be transported from the Atlantic coast to Europe. In early May 1917, it was announced that the previous month had seen the highest shipping losses of the war so far for Allied and neutral countries: 373 ships, or a total weight of 873,754 tons.

Consequently, on May 24, 1917, Britain introduced its convoy system. Under the new arrangements, a convoy of 10 to 50 merchant ships—along with, possibly, a troopship carrying arms and soldiers—might be escorted by a cruiser, six destroyers, 11 armed trawlers and a pair of torpedo boats with aerial reconnaissance equipment that could detect the movement of underwater submarines. Convoy gathering points were established along the Atlantic coast of North and South America, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Hampton, Virginia, all the way down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to handle the transport not only of men and arms but also of foodstuffs and horses, the basic supplies of the Allied war effort.

The introduction of the convoy system finally marked the beginning of a sharp decline in the scale of German submarine damage and the death of German hopes to starve Britain into submission. Between May 1917 and November 1918, a total of 1,100,000 American troops were transported across the Atlantic in convoy, and only 637 of them were drowned as a result of German attacks.

READ MORE: How the Sinking of Lusitania Changed World War I


The Convoy System

The protection of food supply ships is always of paramount importance to a nation at war. The convoy system in various forms has been adopted for this purpose by almost every maritime nation since sea transport began

IN THE RED SEA transports were often compelled to break out of their convoy in a following wind if they were carrying horses. Parting from a convoy is normally a serious offence, but it was sometimes necessary. The Huntsman, for instance, illustrated above, carried an Indian Lancer regiment on board in 1914. To force enough air for the horses down into the holds it was necessary to turn about and steam head to wind for a time.

TO the average citizen, the duty of convoying is, perhaps, the primary duty of a Navy. Although the fear of invasion may some- times be distant, the possibility of starvation in a country that depends on overseas supplies for the greater part of its foodstuffs is always to be taken into account. The first duty of the Navy is considered to be the protection of commerce, especially the food ships. This can be done in two ways: firstly, by the maintenance of a large number of ships on station, which is beyond the strength of the Royal Navy at the present time and secondly by the protection of merchant ships through the danger areas by means of a system of convoys.

The origin of the convoy system is lost in the mists of history. It is certain that the Romans had some such system for bringing to Rome the fleets that carried tribute corn through the pirate- infested areas of the Mediterranean. It is probable that all the maritime Powers of that date worked on similar lines, although it is more difficult to discover the nature of their routine on account of the secrecy that they preserved. When the Cinque Ports fleet was the principal naval defence of England, convoying was one of its principal duties. This fleet had to guard English commerce not only against national enemies, but also against pirates of all kinds. English as well as foreign, and the early privateers. Privateering originated when the subject of a country complained to his ruler that he had suffered damage at the hands of an individual under a foreign flag. He was given a Letter of Marque to recompense himself from the goods of that individual, but as the aggressor usually took good care to keep out of the way of vengeance these letters were soon transferred from the individual to the country. The regulations were not strict and there was no check on the amount seized in reparation, so that privateers became little better than pirates. The ships of the Cinque Ports in England, of the Hanseatic League in Germany, and of various similar organizations in other parts of the Continent were given the task of convoying merchantmen.

The handicap to the use of the Cinque Ports’ ships was that they were only bound for a certain period every year. In 1372 Edward III was forced to order that ships convoying the wine fleet should be paid two shillings for every tun of wine that was brought safely to port. Any profit that the convoys had made by trading or by capturing enemy vessels was to be deducted from this. In that year the wine convoys consisted of five ships and one “barge” from Bayonne, France, to England and ten ships and four “barges” from England to Bayonne.

As warships began to develop apart from armed merchantmen, they undertook convoy duties and instituted a measure of control that was not always as acceptable to the merchants. There were, however, not nearly enough warships for the purpose, and the Navy was constantly forced to fall back on private ships hired and armed. In 1513 the owner of the Mawdelin of Hull received £55 (a large sum in those days) for escorting the fleet to Calais.

The duty of convoying and the task of keeping some sort of station in company were among the principal reasons for the introduction of the ship rig. For many years the largest vessels, although they were known as ships in contrast to the smaller vessels that were all called barques, were almost invariably barque- rigged with the after mast carrying lateen sails. The introduction of a square mizen topsail - for many years no other squaresail was carried on the mizen - permitted the speed of the ship to be regulated, as it could be backed when necessary. The improved station- keeping thus introduced into convoys permitted men- of- war to manoeuvre as squadrons, and naturally led to the development of tactics.

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell paid much more attention to the protection of British commerce than had been usual before his day. He also took strong measures to have the flag properly respected abroad, whether it was worn by merchantmen or men- of- war. So the convoy system was greatly improved both in peace and war. The Royalist fleet that had turned privateer under Prince Rupert became one of the Commonwealth’s greatest enemies but pirates and privateers under Continental flags, and the Barbary corsairs from the pirate states in Northern Africa, also had to be dealt with.

A large number of merchant ships were hired and armed by the Commonwealth Navy. The Admiralty also paid far greater attention to the design of the smaller types of warship. Although originally prompted largely for the protection of merchantmen, this move was later of the greatest benefit to the Navy itself.

After Cromwell’s day the French made the attack of British commerce the keystone of their naval policy. The British fleet was almost invariably superior to theirs, but they fully realized that the Merchant Service was the Achilles’ Heel of the country and could be attacked to our embarrassment and their profit. The great race of French privateers then started, and ships were specially designed for the purpose in all the principal French bases. High speeds were aimed at in a time when speed was considered of little importance at sea.

Although the French naval officers were jealous and contemptuous of these corsairs, the authorities fully realized their value. When there were any suitable men- of- war available, they did not hesitate to lend them to corsairs of reputation, being satisfied with the harm that the corsairs could do to Great Britain while earning their own profits.

This naturally caused more attention to be given to convoying. In 1695 and 1703 the shipping and marine insurance interests of Britain succeeded in forcing an unwilling government to establish special trade defence squadrons, consisting of ships that were practically taken out of the hands of the Admiralty and were not to be available for any other purpose. In 1742 it was complained in the House of Commons that vessels trading with Portugal had been detained in port for nearly twelve months for lack of escort. A Bill on the lines of the previous measures was thrown out only with great difficulty by the Admiralty. In 1743 a French fleet in the English Channel caused West Indian trade to be interrupted from April to November. While the Admiralty was fighting the demands of the majority of the better- class shipowners for proper protection, there were other owners who did all they could to avoid the convoy, maintaining that it was useless. They found that a fast ship contriving to slip through with her cargo at a time of shortage was sure of a large profit. When the convoy arrived there was inevitably a glut and prices fell. She ran the risk of capture, but it was the business of Lloyd’s underwriters to reimburse her owners for that. Other owners were definitely in league with the enemy and welcomed the capture of their property.

To check these practices, a number of convoy laws was passed. The most important of these convoy laws was passed in 1798. It was enacted that no ship was to leave a British port without convoy under penalty of a thousand pounds fine. To pay for the service extra Customs duties were levied on certain imports and exports and a variable tonnage duty was paid by all merchant ships, ranging from sixpence a ton burthen for the vessels going to Ireland to three shillings a ton on East Indiamen.

The convoy system was not generally popular, however, even among the most reputable shipowners. Delays in collecting ships at the terminal ports and in keeping station with the slowest sailers in the fleet meant an enormous waste of time and money. In addition, the average merchantman did not want to have any more to do with the Navy than was necessary because of the activities of the press gang. On many occasions when the king’s ships had seen the merchantmen free from the danger of enemy attack, they laid them open to danger from marine risk by robbing them of all their best men.


British naval convoy system introduced - May 24, 1917 - HISTORY.com

TSgt Joe C.

On this day in 1917, driven by the spectacular success of the German U-boat submarines and their attacks on Allied and neutral ships at sea, the British Royal Navy introduces a newly created convoy system, whereby all merchant ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean would travel in groups under the protection of the British navy.

For more than three years of World War I, Britain’s Royal Admiralty steadfastly resisted the creation of a convoy system, believing they could not afford to spare ships and other resources from its mighty fleet where they might be needed in battle. The effect of the German U-boat submarines, however, and their attacks on merchant ships—both belligerent and neutral—proved devastating. With the entrance of the United States into the war in April 1917, there was an even greater need for protection of Allied interests at sea, as large numbers of soldiers and arms would need to be transported from the Atlantic coast to Europe. In early May 1917, it was announced that the previous month had seen the highest shipping losses of the war so far for Allied and neutral countries: 373 ships, or a total weight of 873,754 tons.

Consequently, on May 24, 1917, Britain introduced its convoy system. Under the new arrangements, a convoy of 10 to 50 merchant ships—along with, possibly, a troopship carrying arms and soldiers—might be escorted by a cruiser, six destroyers, 11 armed trawlers and a pair of torpedo boats with aerial reconnaissance equipment that could detect the movement of underwater submarines. Convoy gathering points were established along the Atlantic coast of North and South America, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Hampton, Virginia, all the way down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to handle the transport not only of men and arms but also of foodstuffs and horses, the basic supplies of the Allied war effort.

The introduction of the convoy system finally marked the beginning of a sharp decline in the scale of German submarine damage and the death of German hopes to starve Britain into submission. Between May 1917 and November 1918, a total of 1,100,000 American troops were transported across the Atlantic in convoy, and only 637 of them were drowned as a result of German attacks.


The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918 Part II


There is substance in Lieutenant-Commander D. W. Waters’s assertion that ‘virtually every surface and air anti-submarine lesson of the first submarine war had to be, and ultimately was, re-learnt in the second at immense cost in blood, tears and treasure’. One would have thought that the entire Service knew that the most important lesson of the First War was that the U-boat attack on the merchant fleet was Britain’s most serious danger, and that it was only the introduction of convoy in 1917 that had saved the day. But the anti-submarine lessons of the war, which had never been fully understood anyway, were quickly forgotten after the war because there was no serious attempt to study the larger meaning of the U-boat campaign of 1917–18. During the interwar years, consequently, the convoy system was understood imperfectly at best. Although Captain Roskill was off the mark in stating that in 1919–39 there was not a single exercise in the protection of a mercantile convoy against air or submarine attack, the fact is that the Navy paid all too little attention to convoy work between the wars.

Ignorance was doubtless the chief explanation of the indifferent attitude towards convoy during much of the interwar period. The Admiralty’s German Navy expert, who was in charge of the captured German naval archives, has written:

A point that has emerged with startling clarity from all our researches into British and German records since the end of the Second World War is that no historian writing between the two wars (either British or German) drew the full and accurate conclusions from U-boat operations of 1917–18. The principal reason for this omission was that in those between-war years the full records of both sides were never available to any one historian, as they are available today. In this country the fact that we had eventually defeated the U-boats, and the advent of asdics shortly after the end of the First World War combined to produce in many officers an attitude of overconfidence in regard to any resurgence of the U-boat menace. In Germany, on the other hand, the researches of Admiral Spindler (the historian of the 1914–18 U-boat operations) were never completed. His work only went as far as 1917, and therefore did not include many of the lessons of U-boat operations against convoys.

Contributory causes of the failure to profit fully from war experience were (1) the old obsession with the battleship and fleet actions, which will be dealt with below (2) an over-confidence, particularly in the 1930s, in asdic, the device that had been developed since 1917 as the answer to the problem of locating submarines (3) the antipathy of many senior officers to what was falsely regarded as a defensive, to say nothing of a generally dull and monotonous, measure. Concerning the last, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John (among many others) bears out my contention: ‘You are very correct in writing that Convoy protection was regarded with martial antipathy by the Navy-it was too defensive in outlook for peacetime training–and, anyway, unlike battleships, there was never a visible convoy to “protect”.’ This attitude is borne out by the fact that in general the commands of fleet destroyers rather than of convoy escorts were regarded as the plums. Consequently, although, of course, there were some brilliant exceptions, the best officers were with the Fleet and the second team with the convoy escorts. Nor did it help that until the last prewar years it was the assumption that Japan would be Britain’s principal enemy in a war, not Germany, and the problem here was how to get at Japan across the world, not how to escort merchant ships across the Atlantic.

I do not want to leave the impression that progressive thought on convoy was entirely absent. The President of the Naval War College at Greenwich during 1934–7, when over a hundred officers went through the war course, recalled that ‘neither staff nor courses had any doubt on this subject. It was in fact Common Doctrine that convoy had rescued us in the first war and that it would be necessary in the future. So I cannot understand the Financial Secretary’s speech. It certainly had no effect on our teaching and as we were in close touch with the Admiralty we should have known if they thought differently.’ All that I maintain is that there was always a body of naval opinion which, through a failure to analyse the U-boat war of 1914–18, or for one or more of the other reasons mentioned above, preserved an anti-convoy outlook. The remarks of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary of the Admiralty, Lord Stanley, speaking in the House of Commons on 14 March 1935, sum up the views of the Board and the Naval Staff at that date and are a reiteration of all the standard objections of the anti-convoy school of thought (or prejudice):

I can assure the House that the convoy system would not be introduced at once on the outbreak of war. Even the right hon. member for Swindon [Dr. Addison] would admit that the convoy system has very great disadvantages, and it certainly would not be welcomed by the trading community until conditions had become so intolerable that they were prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. In the first place, you would get delay at each end. You would get delay while the ships assembled at the starting point to be taken up by their convoy. You would get delay by the ships arriving at the same port at the same time. You would also have the difficulty of the faster ship having to go at the same pace as the slower one. Therefore, the convoy system will only be introduced when the balance of advantage is in its favour and when sinkings are so great that the country no longer feels justified in allowing ships to sail by themselves but feels that for the protection of their crews the convoy system is necessary.

(Dr. Addison:) Am I to understand the Noble Lord to suggest that the Admiralty would wait before instituting the convoy system until so many ships had been sunk that the country would not stand it any longer? Surely, they are not going to wait until such conditions arise as occurred on 17th April, 1917, when 34 ships were sunk one night. Are they going to let us get to that pitch before they start the convoy system?

(Lord Stanley:) Certainly not, but it will not be introduced in the first place. You will not know in the first place whether the ships are going to be in any great danger. It may be that it will be safer for them to sail by themselves. They will be a smaller target. The enemy ships would not know where they were to be found. If raiders were about we should have to institute the convoy system at once. It is simply a matter of expediency. We should be ready to put the scheme into operation but we should wait until we thought that the proper moment had arrived. Having got to the point when it is considered that the ships ought not to sail by themselves but should be protected by an escort, we have to decide what is the best form of protection for the convoys, and I think it is agreed by everybody that what is known as the general convoy is the best system. That is the convoy which has an escort ready to protect its ships from surface attack, from submarines and possibly from the air….

Therefore, we must put the provision of sloops into its proper order of priority. In doing that, I would ask the House to remember two things, first, that our anti-submarine defences and devices for finding out exactly where submarines are are so very much better than they were during the War that we should want fewer protective vessels in the convoy. Secondly, that as convoys will not be needed immediately on the outbreak of war it will give us time to improvise protection by destroyers and trawlers whilst orders are given to build the sloops which we shall eventually require.

The Naval Staff did not realize that, due to the closure of dangerous routes for days at a time, independent sailings had entailed even longer delays in 1917–18, while convoys guarded by escorts steamed directly to their destinations. Although it is true that Naval Staff officers had by 1935 come to favour convoy in principle, they did not think that it would be needed, at first, anyway, since the enemy, afraid to alienate neutral opinion as in 1917, would not launch unrestricted air or U-boat attacks on shipping. I should also mention that Germany was a signatory to the Submarine Agreement of 1936, which prohibited unrestricted submarine attack. Of course, we now know that Hitler’s word was worth nothing, but that could not be assumed at the time, at least openly. To proclaim a convoy system would have been to imply that the treaty was being, or would be, deliberately broken! The Air Staff, on the other hand, opposed convoy, using the discredited argument of 1917 that the massing of ships in convoy would only invite air attack and heavy losses. Criticism forced a modification of policy. In 1937 the Naval and Air staffs came to an agreement that convoy should be instituted at the outbreak of war. In March 1938, to satisfy naval opinion, the Admiralty undertook to make all preparations for convoy (for instance, Naval Control Service Officers were dispatched to all shipping ports), but not necessarily to institute it in the event of restricted submarine warfare. As the Deputy Director of Plans observed early in the war: ‘Our pre-war A/S plan was to attack U-boats with hunting groups until it became necessary to go into convoy …’ Ships were to continue to sail independently, if the enemy confined himself to restricted warfare -that is, stopping prospective victims and giving them time to evacuate passengers and crew. Having made this decision, the Admiralty neglected to provide the necessary convoy escorts for unrestricted warfare, under which ships were sunk without warning. All doubts were cleared up almost immediately upon the outbreak of war: Athenia torpedoed (against Hitler’s orders) on the first day, 3 September 1939 first convoy sailing, 6 September.

However, despite Britain’s stronger navy, assisted by Canada and the United States, it took nearly four years (i.e. not until May 1943) to overcome the German submarine menace. There was an insufficiency of escorts, unsuitable types, and inadequately trained groups, a diversion of anti-submarine vessels in the early part of the war from escorting convoys to futile offensive action by ‘hunting groups’, and a lack of air power on the convoy routes, particularly very long-range aircraft and escort carriers. (It was 3½ years after the outbreak of war before there was a single true escort carrier on the North Atlantic convoy route.) All this was in part a reflection of the low esteem in which convoy was generally held between the wars and indeed into the early stages of the Second War. It should be pointed out that Western Approaches Command did a great job with the materiel and personnel available, and that its C-in-C (1941–2), Sir Percy Noble, was against the ‘hunting group’ concept.

As regards air power, forgotten in the interwar years was the highly successful role of naval aircraft as a convoy escort in 1917–18, when a mere five ships were sunk in convoys with a surface and air escort. There were virtually no aircraft available for convoy when war came, since the responsibilities of naval aircraft did not include the protection of merchant shipping. One cause of this deplorable state of affairs was the fact that the last volume of the official history of British airpower in World War I (The War in the Air), which clearly showed the importance of aircraft in commerce protection, only came out in 1937, much too late to influence policy. Similar results to the First War were obtained in the Second War once suitable aircraft were made available for use as convoy escorts and supports, but this was not until 1943. It can be argued, and has indeed been vociferously argued by the Navy ever since, that the RAF’s obsession with the ‘wasteful and largely discredited’ policy of bombing Germany indiscriminately deprived the Fleet of the aircraft required for convoy and other sea work, while achieving no significant reduction in Germany’s war potential. The issue is not of a black-and-white sort, however. The bomber offensive, the airmen have replied, was not always what it should have been (this was the first real air war and much had to be learned), yet, in the words of the Official Air Historians, ‘both cumulatively in largely indirect ways and eventually in a more immediate and direct manner, strategic bombing and, also in other roles strategic bombers, made a contribution to victory which was decisive’.

Valuable experience of 1914–18 was disregarded in other respects as concerns convoy. Until 1943, when Professor P. M. S. Blackett produced some interesting statistics about ocean convoys and changed the staff view on convoy escort, it was Admiralty gospel that ‘the larger the convoy the greater the risk’. Had the convoy statistics of 1917–18 been analysed after the war, and the printed results of the mathematical research on comparative escort strength by an acting commander, RNVR (Rollo Appleyard) early in 1918 been studied, the Admiralty would have been aware of ‘the law of convoy size’: ‘The escort strength requires to be measured, not in terms of the number of vessels in convoy, but in terms of the total area comprised within the boundary formed by lines connecting all outer vessels.’ Appleyard went on to prove mathematically that the ratio of the torpedo attack area around the convoy perimeter to the number of escorts directly watching it is ‘a more correct numerical measure of the escort strength of a convoy than is the ratio of the number of ships in convoy to the number of close escorts’. It is sad that operational research was not understood in the interwar years it needed someone of the standing of Blackett to show what could be done in this field.

Another instance of how the postwar failure to study with care the U-boat campaign of 1917–18 exacted a heavy penalty was the refusal of the Admiralty in the interwar period to believe the U-boats would make surface night attacks. Although by the end of the First War nearly two-thirds of all submarine attacks were being made at night and on the surface–to be sure, they proved unrewarding–the Second War found the Navy unprepared for a repetition of these tactics, this time successfully. The evidence was available, but it took the Admiralty a year (August 1940) to realize that the majority of the ships sunk by U-boats since the start of the war had been sunk at night–by, of course, surfaced U-boats. When, in 1940, the U-boats in the Atlantic, organized in ‘wolf packs’, attacked convoys at night while on the surface, the Admiralty had no immediate answer. It was, as a joint Admiralty-Air Ministry statement of 1946 misleadingly claimed, ‘a new and unheard of German tactic’. The problem was not mastered until 10-centimetre radar was fitted generally to convoy escorts. The turning of night into day with ‘snowflake’ flares and other pyrotechnics also played an important role in the defeat of surface attacks. There is no excuse for the Admiralty not having learned by 1939 that U-boats might attack on the surface at night. Whether the use of ‘wolf packs’ could have been foreseen from a study of the First War is another matter.


The Royal Navy and the Convoy WWI Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


British naval convoy system introduced - HISTORY

by Lt Cdr Geoffrey B Mason RN (Rtd) (c) 2006

HMS PUNCHER (D 79) - Ruler-class Escort Aircraft Carrier
including Convoy Escort Movements

RULER-Class Escort Aircraft Carrier obtained under US/UK Lend Lease Agreement. This mercantile with C3 Type hull was under construction by Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation at Seattle when requisitioned by the US Navy for use as an auxiliary aircraft carrier (CVE53). The ship was laid down on 21st May 1943 and launched as USS WILLAPA on 8th November that year. Build was completed 5th February 1944 and she was then transferred to the Royal Navy and commissioned as HMS PUNCHER. This name had not previously been used by the RN. US Navy radar outfits were fitted during build.

B a t t l e H o n o u r s

Badge: On a Field Blue, a dexter hand clenched couped at the wrist proper.

(Note: Introduced after WW2)

D e t a i l s o f W a r S e r v i c e

(for more ship information, go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search

Nominated for service manned by Royal Canadian Navy personnel except for Air Group provided by RN.

5th - Build completion and transfer and commissioned as HMS PUNCHER.

15th - On completion of Sea Trials took passage to Esquimalt. Taken in hand for modifications to suit RN deployment for convoy defence .

Under modification to suit Atlantic convoy defence with RN escorts.

9th - Took passage from Vancouver to New York. Transit of Panama Canal. (Note: Call at ports on west coast of North America to be confirmed.)

11th - Deployed at Norfolk, Va for repairs and maintenance.

22nd - Nominated for use as a Ferry carrier and to transport US aircraft to Casablanca Embarked US aircraft at Norfolk. Took passage to Hampton Roads, Va.

28th - Sailed from Hampton Roads with US military convoy UGF13. (Note: UGF12 sailed for Naples on 1st July, UGF13 sailed for Naples on 28th.).)

Detached from UGF convoy and took passage to unload aircraft at Casablanca. Passage to return to USA as part of US convoy. Detached from convoy and took passage to Norfolk.

30th - Embarked CORSAIR aircraft at Norfolk for transport to UK

8th - Joined US tanker Convoy CU38 for passage to UK.

18th - Landed aircraft in Belfast.

19th - Took passage to New York with US military convoy for further transport duty.

30th - Arrived in New York.

6th - Sailed from New York with US Convoy CU42. (Note: It may be assumed US aircraft were embarked for passage to UK) .

On arrival landed aircraft and took passage to Liverpool.

21st - Under modifications in Clyde shipyard. (Note: Petrol distribution system modification may have been carried out consequent on loss of HMS DASHER after arm explosion in March 1943.)

Embarked 12 BARRACUDA aircraft and personnel of 821 Squadron.

11th - Carried out trials with BARRACUDA aircraft. (Note: The were for use to carry out torpedo attacks prior to operational use.)

Sustained major damage in propulsion machinery. Passage to Clyde and disembarked aircraft.

27th - Taken in hand by Clyde shipyard for repair of main gearing.

Under repair. (Note: Repair was carried out by replacement of items from HM Escort Aircraft Carrier NABOB which had been taken out of service.)

Under repair. Nominated for service with Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow. On completion of refit embarked WILDCAT and BARRACUDA aircraft and personnel of 861 and 821 Squadrons. Worked up in Clyde for operational service in Home Fleet.

1st - Joined Home Fleet at Scapa Flow.

11th - Sailed as part of Force 2 with HM Escort Carrier PREMIER for attacks on coastal shipping off Norway as part of a joint aircraft minelay and anti-shipping strike off Bud (Operation SELENIUM I and II). (Note: Surface cover was provided by HM Cruiser DEVONSHIRE and HM Destroyers CAVENDISH, CAVALIER, SCOURGE and ZEBRA .) Ship provided fighter cover.

12th - Air search unsuccessful as no targets found. (For details see Naval Staff History (MINING) and CONVOY ! by P Kemp.)

13th - Returned to Scapa Flow with ships of Force 2.

21st - Sailed from Scapa Flow as part of Force 4 for air minelay in Kara Sound, Norway. (Note: Operation GROUNDSHEET. Part of Operation SHRED to clear a shorter passage through British minefield for Home Fleet ships to Norwegian coast. See Naval Staff History.)

22nd - Carried out air minelay for first time and aircraft came under shore fire causing loss of two BARRACUDA aircraft. (Note: Surface cover was provided by HM Cruiser DIDO screened by HM Destroyers SCORPION, MYNGS and CAVALIER .)

23rd - Returned to Scapa Flow with ships of Force 4.

24th - Ship dragged anchor at Scapa Flow during gale. No major damage was sustained.

Deployed at Scapa Flow with Home Fleet.

26th - Deployed with HM Escort Aircraft Carrier NAIRANA to carry out WILDCAT attacks on shipping in Alesund , Norway (Operation PREFIX. Note: The weather conditions were poor during this operation. No shipping was damaged but strikes made on shore targets.)

Embarked 825 Squadron WILDCAT aircraft and personnel.

6th - Deployed with HM Escort Aircraft Carriers QUEEN, SEARCHER and TRUMPETER for air operations off Norway.

Carried out air attack on U-Boat Depot Ships at Kilbotn after delay caused by bad weather conditions (Operation NEWMARKET).

21st - Under repair in Clyde shipyard.

Nominated for service as Training Carrier after VE Day. Under repair.

Transferred for trooping duties with reduced complement. Deployed for transport of personnel to US and completed one double crossing to Canada and USA.

HMS PUNCHER remained in service for trooping duties until December 1945. The ship was returned to he US Navy at Norfolk, Va on 1 6th January 1946 after de-storing and removal of British equipment. .She was sold for use as a mercantile in 194 and renamed MUNCASTER CASTLE. Nine years later she was resold and continued mercantile service named ss BARDIC until 1959 when again renamed ss BEN NEVIS. Sold for demolition in 1973 this ship arrived at Kaohsuing , Taiwan for demolition on 11th June that year. This name was re-introduced for RN us when given to HM LST3036 in 1947 and after her sale in 1961 was again used for a Patrol Craft completed by Vosper- Thornycroft in 1988. This craft is still in service and deployed for the training of Royal Naval Reserve personnel in London.


Convoy

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Convoy, vessels sailing under the protection of an armed escort. Originally, convoys of merchant ships were formed as a protection against pirates. Since the 17th century, neutral powers have claimed the “right of convoy”—that is, immunity from search for neutral merchant vessels sailing under the convoy of a warship of the neutral. England, the dominant naval power, refused to recognize this right. Among states recognizing the right of convoy were the United States, Austria, and France. Great Britain deviated from its position only during the Crimean War in order to harmonize its practice with that of its French ally.

In the Declaration of London, 1909, the principal powers, including Great Britain, recognized and formalized the right of neutral convoy. The London declaration failed to enter into force, however. During World War I the right of convoy was invoked on only one or two occasions.

Convoys were to serve a totally different purpose during World War I—the protection of British merchant shipping against German surface raiders and submarines. The German practice of proclaiming as war zones large areas of the high seas and waging unrestricted submarine war on belligerent and neutral commercial shipping left the British no alternative to the practice of consolidating merchant vessels into large, protected groups, or convoys. The advantage of using convoys was that defenseless merchant vessels no longer need traverse the high seas alone and unprotected, but could travel in groups large enough to justify the allocation of scarce destroyers and other patrol vessels to escort them across the Atlantic. These warships, whose guns, torpedoes, and depth charges were more than a match for any submarine, would form a protective screen or cordon around the central core of merchant vessels. In order to come within striking distance of the merchant ships, the German submarines would themselves come under the deadly guns of the escort ships. Although the convoy system was not adopted in World War I until losses of British merchant ships became catastrophic in 1917, it then quickly proved effective.


Protecting Allied Ships during WWI: The Convoy System Comes to Gibraltar

On August 17, 1917 the scout cruiser USS Birmingham arrived at Gibraltar with American Rear Adm. Henry B. Wilson aboard. His mission was to establish an American naval presence at Gibraltar, which is located at the southern tip of Spain less than 40 miles north of Morocco. Separated by the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa, this strategically important location is the entry point into the Mediterranean Sea. Allied forces understood that a strong naval presence in these waters could protect ships, and deter German U-boat attacks.

The straits proved a strategically critical center of Allied shipping. Supplies and troops from Asia and Australia sailed through the area on their way to France and Britain. Vital cargoes of food, raw materials, and troops from ports in Africa, South America and the Caribbean passed Gibraltar’s Atlantic side. Seagoing cargoes for Italy came chiefly to Naples via Gibraltar and the western Mediterranean.

The Imperial German submarines raided Mediterranean and adjacent sea-lanes in the unrestricted campaign of early 1917. Some of the most successful U-boat captains regularly patrolled the Sicilian Narrows south of Naples, the approaches to Marseille, the Southern coast of Spain, and down to Oran, Algeria. In the Atlantic, just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, conditions were the same. In March of 1917 alone, 25 percent of merchant ships headed to Britain were sunk. This caused England’s grain reserve to drop to a six week supply. The Allies had to change their naval strategy to overcome aggressive German tactics.

On April 25, 1917, shortly after the United States officially joined the war, American Adm. W. S. Sims urged the British War Cabinet to adopt a convoy system—groups of ships moving together while being escorted by warships. He made the same appeal to the French government. By May 1 st the British government agreed to a trial convoy. On the same day the U.S. Navy, anticipating a role in anti-submarine warfare, alerted 12 destroyers in New York and Boston to prepare to sail. On May 3 rd the Navy reported a need for 36 destroyers and 100 smaller anti-submarine vessels for Europe.

On May 10 th the first convoy of the war sailed for Britain from Gibraltar. It arrived in England on the 22 nd without loss and the Admiralty immediately mandated all ships bound for England arrive in convoy. In early June, the First Sea Lord Admiral John Jellicoe specifically requested more American anti-submarine ships for patrols around Europe. The U.S. Navy decided to establish “Base No. 9” at Gibraltar on July 5 th . The next day Adm. Sims, and Adm. Jellicoe specifically requested seven gunboats and an armed American yacht for Gibraltar. In response the U.S. Navy alerted 11 ships to prepare for “distant service” at Gibraltar under Rear Adm. Henry B. Wilson a week later. This force was augmented by six additional U.S. Coast Guard ships by the end of July. Adm. Sims officially established this command under Adm. Wilson on August 1 st .

The American vessels were placed on convoy duty almost as soon as they arrived. They assumed control of nearly all the convoys between England and Gibraltar, coordinating with American coastal forces off France and Ireland. Entering British home waters they turned over the convoy to the danger zone escort. Ships from Base No. 9 met inbound Atlantic convoys at 10 degrees west of Gibraltar, or southwest of Lisbon and west of Gibraltar, to strengthen the escort. At times coverage extended to 30 degrees west. Outbound convoys to the Americas received the same coverage.

Lighter units at Gibraltar formed patrols and convoy escorts in the confined waters of the straits. In their case they made aggressive patrols for submarines in all conditions, day and night. The crews suffered in rough conditions in the small ships.

Within the Mediterranean, U.S. Navy ships escorted local convoys, American supply convoys and military support landing in Marseilles, Italian ports, and the Balkan front at Salonika. Americans escorted French convoys between France and their North African colonies. Most other traffic across the Mediterranean was escorted by British and other allied escort ships based on Malta.

Adm. Sims and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels both wrote that Gibraltar was the gateway for more maritime traffic than any other port in the world. He estimated that approximately one quarter of all Allied merchant, supply, and troopship voyages passed through Gibraltar. The American force at Gibraltar would swell to 41 ships, including at least one maintenance ship. Almost 5,000 naval officers and men served at Base No. 9 at Gibraltar during World War I. This strategically important station competed for importance with the routes bringing troops into France and England. It was a focus of enemy submarine attacks up to the last days of the war. It is no coincidence that the first escorted convoy sailed from here, and no surprise that the U.S. Navy took such an important role in convoy duties through 1918.

The threat of unrestricted submarine warfare was met by American insistence on a strategy of escorted convoys backed by the commitment of many ships to the ensuing campaign. The American escorts from Gibraltar alone escorted 10,478 voyages. There is an American Naval Monument at Gibraltar to commemorate their efforts.

Suggested Reading

Josephus Daniels, Our Navy at War (Washington, Pictorial Bureau, 1922)

William Sims, The Victory at Sea (New York, Doubleday, Page and Co., 1920)

Frank A. Blazich Jr., United States Navy and World War I: 1914–1922, (An annotated timeline) Naval History and Heritage Command


Convoy System – WW1 and WW2 Comparisons

In World War I the convoy system was not instituted until May 1917, whilst in World War II convoys were quickly organised soon after war was declared in September 1939.

It is of interest to compare the number of British Merchant ships sunk by U Boats in both conflicts.

During 1914-18, losses of British ships over the 51 months amounted to 4,837 sinkings, with a tonnage of 11,135,000 and an average of 95 ships lost per month.

In contrast, during 1939-45, British ships sunk totalled 2775, with a tonnage of 14,500,000, and an average loss per month of 40 ships.

Although in World War I U Boats accounted for twice the number of Merchant ships sunk as their U Boat crews did in World War II, the average monthly losses in both wars was approximately the same, namely 215,000 tons.

This disparity is explained by the fact that in 1939-45, the average tonnage of ships sunk was 5,200, whilst in 1914-18 it was less than half, at 2,300 tons.

If one looks at the human cost to our Merchant Navy, enemy action in World War II accounted for 30,000 casualties, of this number the U Boats caused 23,000.

Britain’s lifeline was maintained by the Merchant Navy, operating in convoy, escorted by naval ships across the Atlantic, and it was in this area, particularly the North Atlantic between September 1939 to the end of May 1943, that the supreme struggle against the U-Boat menace took place. During World War II 75,000 ships were escorted in British controlled convoys across and in the Atlantic and Merchant ships in convoy in the Atlantic covered over 200 million miles a quite incredible statistic.

British naval escorts made 13,200 separate voyages, to escort the Merchant men, with a passage time from 20 to 26 days. The Atlantic often provided gales and foul weather, and when passing close to Iceland, and Greenland, floating ice became an additional hazard.


Fact File : Merchant Navy

A country's merchant navy is made up of its commercial and trading ships, and their crews. In 1939, Britain's merchant fleet was the largest in the world, with 33 per cent of the total tonnage. The country was dependent on merchant shipping for the import of food, equipment and raw materials in times of peace, but the shipping was also needed in wartime, to carry servicemen overseas to fight, and to carry the supplies to equip and sustain those fighting men.

When war broke out, the merchant fleet was put under the control of the Ministry of Shipping, later part of the Ministry of War Transport. The Ministry decided which ships would go where and what they would carry, making merchant shipping effectively another arm of the state. General control, including the crewing and provisioning of ships, continued to be exercised by the shipping industry itself. A convoy system was quickly introduced to try and prevent merchant ships being sunk by German submarines (or U-Boats). This provided groups of merchant ships with an escort of one or more warships for their journey, and built on the system that had proved successful in World War One.

All those who served in the Merchant Navy were civilians and volunteers. Like those who served in the Royal Navy, they faced not only the dangers of enemy attack but the hazards of the elements as well. Although some merchant ships were armed, they were not designed to withstand enemy attack and if his ship was sunk at sea, the merchant seaman's chances of survival were poor.

Approximately 185,000 seamen, including 40,000 men of Indian, Chinese and other nationalities, served in the Merchant Navy during the war. Their vessels ranged in size from large cargo and passenger ships to small tramp ships and coastal vessels. The sailors served on all the seas and oceans of the world, and in the hazardous Arctic convoys that took war supplies to the Soviet Union.

However, the most significant and crucial conflict in which merchant seamen were involved was the Battle of the Atlantic. In the longest campaign of the war, the British merchant fleet, with its naval escorts, struggled to bring food, fuel, equipment and raw materials from America and elsewhere across the Atlantic, while Germany mobilized U-boats, battleships, aircraft and mines against them in an attempt to sever Britain's supply lines. At the same time, British and later American shipyards attempted to produce enough ships to replace those that were sunk. It was not until May 1943 that the Battle of the Atlantic was won, although U-Boats continued to operate until the end of the war.

30,248 merchant seamen lost their lives during World War Two, a death rate that was higher proportionately than in any of the armed forces.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


The Battle That Had to Be Won

"It is unbelievable," Lieutenant Commander Reinhard Hardegen said quietly to one of his lookouts on U-123 in Rhode Island Sound on the evening of 14 January 1942. Lights around them blazed in all directions. "I have the feeling that the Americans are going to be very surprised." Moments later Hardegen sank the tanker Norness, and then four days later off Cape Hatteras—again against an illuminated coastline—he sank four more ships. In January 1942 the Battle of the Atlantic struck America, with catastrophic results for the Allies. But Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat) turned out to be just another phase in the longest and most complex campaign of World War II.

The Battle of the Atlantic started on 3 September 1939 when U-30 sank the small British liner Athenia west of Ireland, and it ended on 7 May 1945 when U-2336 sank two small steamers in the North Sea off Newcastle, England. Attacks on merchant shipping by German submarines remained the one constant in a struggle whose objective and methods varied enormously over those 5?? years. During the first ten months of the war at sea, Germany sought, in whatever way possible, simply to throw off Allied strategy while supporting their own. Raiders dispatched to the far corners of the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean achieved some notable feats. Modern, fast, and powerful German surface units could be—and were—enormously disruptive this was understood to be part of the strategy. But the overall impact of German attacks on Allied shipping in 1939-40 was minimal.

The war at sea began in earnest in the summer of 1940, after Western Europe fell to Germany. In a stroke, Britain was virtually surrounded by the Axis. In late September the Germans shifted from trying to win air supremacy over Britain to area bombing of its cities, as a strategy of attrition and blockade asserted itself. Britain, which imported about half of its food and most of the resources it needed to wage war, seemed uniquely vulnerable to such a strategy. It was also the hub of a vast empire and needed to move men and equipment around the globe. Over the winter of 1940-41, the Germans for the first time had a clear and perhaps obtainable strategic objective in the war at sea.

German control of Western Europe effectively shut down Britain's main seaports on her eastern and channel coasts, London in particular. Luftwaffe planes flying from bases in France, Norway, and the Low Countries made coastal routes untenable, while long-range Fw 200 Condors patrolled deep into the Atlantic. Britain was forced to reorient cargo-handling capacity to western ports, which in turn were devastated by German bombing over the winter.

Early Menaces to Allied Shipping

Large German warships were a key component of this comprehensive assault on British imports. In mid-December 1940 the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper sortied into the Atlantic, the first of a series of major deployments that would culminate in the famous and ill-fated voyage of the battleship Bismarck in May 1941. On Christmas Day the Admiral Hipper stumbled across the outbound troop convoy WS 5A, escorted by three cruisers and the old carrier HMS Furious. The Hipper beat a retreat, and then slipped briefly into Brest. By late January she was back to sea, this time north of the Azores, where coordinated surface, subsurface, and air attacks on shipping were planned. The coordination was effected by Admiral Karl Donitz, head of the U-boat service who in January 1943 would also become commander-in-chief of the German Navy, or Kriegsmarine.

The combined attacks peaked in February 1941, after the admiral had gained control of Luftwaffe Condor units, when convoys HG 53 and SL(S) 64 were attacked. HG 53 (homeward bound from Gibraltar) was found by U-37, which sank two ships. Homed onto the convoy, six Condors sank a further five vessels, while the Hipper sank a straggler. On 12 February, the cruiser set upon SL(S) 64, a slow convoy out of Sierra Leone, which lost seven of its 19 vessels to the warship's guns. Meanwhile, farther north the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau slipped into the Atlantic in late January 1941, starting a two-month cruise. Although they failed to attack a single convoy, the two raiders sank independently routed shipping, disrupted convoy sailings, and played cat and mouse with the Royal Navy before retiring to Brest.

The failure of the British to run any of these marauders to ground in early 1941 owed much to the vastness of the ocean, the vileness of North Atlantic weather, and the darkness of long winter nights. The Bismarck, however, was cornered and sunk on 27 May 1941. Although historians have paid little attention to these prolonged and disruptive patrols by German surface warships, they could not be treated lightly by the British and were the prime focus of Royal Navy operations over the winter of 1940-41.

The Wolf Pack: Key to U-boat Success

Even during this period, however, the smaller vessels—the U-boats—did the lion's share of sinking Allied tonnage. German submarine captains dubbed it their "Happy Time." The U-boat success derived from the adoption of new tactics and the exploitation of crucial weaknesses in the Allied convoy system. Through the first year of the war, aces like Otto Kretschmer, Gunter Prien, Joachim Schepke, and Fritz Lemp operated independently and averaged about 25 sinkings each per month. But Donitz believed that submarines could be used more aggressively, in groups against escorted convoys.

The idea was simple enough. There were three key problems associated with U-boats trying to attack a convoy in the broad ocean: initial location, assembly of the pack around the convoy, and the actual attack. Donitz's solution to locating convoys was to deploy U-boats in lines perpendicular to shipping routes and control their movements from his headquarters by radio. U-boat commanders had to transmit their noon positions daily, and weather reports when asked. In return, Donitz's headquarters, U-boat Command, shifted the positions of the lines based on the latest intelligence.

If all went right, a line would snag a convoy and report its position, course, and speed. Initial contact was usually visual, but U-boats could use their sonar to get a general fix on machinery noise, and as the war progressed, they could do much the same with the escorts' radar signals. In the evolving contest between convoy routers and German operational plotters, initial contact was often the most difficult task and many a convoy slipped around or through a patrol line undetected.

Once contact was established, the U-boat making the sighting was usually tasked as a shadower, sending regular position reports and transmitting a medium-frequency direction-finding (MF/DF) signal so the rest of the pack could home-in. The process of collapsing the pack on the convoy was directed from U-boat Command, which tracked and recorded each contact report as the submarines found the target. All of the extensive radio traffic associated with these first two phases of a pack operation was vulnerable to intercept and to plotting by direction-finding stations on shore. Donitz, however, was fully confident that the system was foolproof under operational conditions.

Intelligence the Allies gained by "DFing" signals sent by U-boats at sea was perhaps a greater concern. It was possible to accumulate important data from studying the pattern of operations and to obtain through land-based DF stations a rough estimate of the number and general location of U-boats at sea. This kind of plotting and traffic analysis was also unavoidable. Moreover, in 1939 shore-based stations could only estimate positions to within about 50 miles, and since no one had yet developed a direction-finding set small enough for a ship, Allied DFing could not produce tactical intelligence. In any event, U-boat attacks would reveal the boats' presence. So the reliance on radio communications was a trade off, and in 1940 the benefits were almost entirely on the German side.

U-boat radio signals were enciphered using highly sophisticated Enigma machines. Each employed a series of alphanumeric rotors connected to cables that were inserted into a socket board. The alignment of the rotors and the cable connections changed daily according to a codebook so that when the operator struck a number or letter on the machine's keyboard a totally different letter or number would light up on its display panel. The combination of three or four rotors and the cable connections produced tens of millions of possible permutations. Donitz understood that it was possible to decipher signals encrypted by Engima machines but believed it would never be done quickly enough or in sufficient volume to affect operations.

The final act of the pack operation was the attack—when U-boats were cut loose from their wireless "leashes" and the "sea wolves" earned their nickname. Ideally, Donitz assembled as many U-boats as possible around the convoy before turning them loose. There was no attempt to coordinate the pack attack at the tactical level it was just too impractical. Rather it developed in accordance with local conditions, coming at night and preferably from the convoy's dark side. That allowed the subs to approach against a totally black sky while the convoy lay silhouetted against moonlight. Attacks often came in waves, U-boats trimmed down so that only their conning towers remained above water, racing through the escort screen and into the columns of ships. The objective during the high-speed run was to fire all four bow torpedoes and, if possible, the two stern tubes. Once the "fish" were expended, the U-boats either escaped astern of the convoy or dove into the tangle of wakes left by the merchant ships.

In the fall of 1940, the new Wolf Pack strategy and tactics took full advantage of key weaknesses in the Allied system of trade defense. It was understood that coastal zones were primarily threatened by U-boats, typically operating alone and submerged. Antisubmarine escort was therefore provided inshore on both sides of the Atlantic. In the ocean's broad reaches, east-bound convoys were protected against raiders by cruisers, old battleships, and even submarines, and west-bound convoys were dispersed once beyond the designated submarine danger zone. Thus, transatlantic convoys were particularly vulnerable to U-boats beyond the range of their escorts, while the escorts themselves were never expected to deal with more than one or two submarines at a time.

Pack Successes and British Countermeasures

The Wolf Pack system was not entirely perfected when six U-boats intercepted Convoy SC 7 on 16 October 1940. The slow convoy of 34 ships from Canada had just been joined by its eastern antisubmarine escort of three vessels, with support from a long-range Royal Air Force S.25 Sunderland flying boat. In fact, U-48, which made the initial contact and immediately sank two ships, was driven off by the bomber. Donitz hurriedly assembled a pack, and the next night it attacked. What followed was something akin to a shark feeding frenzy even the Germans had trouble figuring out who did what as five U-boats roamed through the convoy at will. By the time it was over, 22 ships had gone down—the highest loss rate for any North Atlantic convoy during the war. On 20 October a new pack of five U-boats (some from the SC 7 battle) fell on Convoy HX 79, screened by no less than 11 escorts, including two destroyers and three corvettes, and sank a further 12 ships.

These pack attacks bedeviled the Allies all through the winter of 1940-41, but solutions were soon obvious. Among the most important were the development of radar for both aircraft and small vessels, especially the new 10-cm sets that could detect U-boats on the surface, and shipborne high-frequency direction-finding (HF/DF, or Huff/Duff) receivers. The Royal Navy's Western Approaches Command (WAC) was moved from southern England to Liverpool in February and given responsibility for defending trade in the North Atlantic, including operational control over RAF Coastal Command aircraft in their zone. Naval and air force bases were being constructed in Iceland to extend antisubmarine protection into the mid-Atlantic, and on 6 March 1941 Churchill declared his government's resolve to win this "Battle of the Atlantic," pouring further resources into the mix.

WAC, meanwhile, stabilized escort-group composition, leadership, and training, and developed standardized tactics and doctrine for antisubmarine operations. Its first major tactical pamphlet, "Western Approaches Convoys Instructions," promulgated in April 1941, made "safe and timely arrival" of the convoy the primary task of the escort sinking U-boats was a secondary responsibility.

Improving skills and weather, as well as radar, gave the British a major victory in mid-March, when two of Germany's great U-boat aces—Prien and Schepke—were killed at sea and a third, Kretchsmer, was captured. Their removal from the scene effectively ended the first Happy Time, and with the withdrawal of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to Brest, so too the immediate threat that the Kriegsmarine would cut off Britain. British anxiety was further eased by the United States' declaration of a larger neutrality zone in April 1941, one that included Iceland and much of the mid-Atlantic. American forces would now patrol half of the North Atlantic and openly broadcast the positions of Axis ships and aircraft.

The spring of 1941 also brought the completion of transatlantic antisubmarine escort of convoys. In June the burgeoning Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) established a base in Newfoundland to fill the final gap between local Canadian escorts and British forces then using Iceland as a relay point. The RCN's Newfoundland Escort Force was a ragtag assembly of new corvettes, a handful of ex-U.S. Navy four-stack destroyers, green crews, and a few first-rate destroyers, but as the WAC commander-in-chief observed, it "solved the problem of the North Atlantic convoys." Everyone hoped they would not have to fight and in the summer of 1941 British breakthroughs in decrypting Enigma-enciphered radio messages virtually ensured that convoys were generally routed clear of danger.

America Gradually Enters the Battle

The most important development in the Atlantic war in the late summer of 1941 was the increasing involvement of the U.S. Navy. Liaison between the Americans and the British Commonwealth on trade protection, facilitated through Ottawa, was already excellent. In fact, the Canadians ran a complete naval control of shipping (NCS) network throughout the continental United States. The U.S. Navy was drawn into this network during 1941. Canada provided training, confidential books and special publications related to trade, as well as an NCS specialist who was sent to Washington.

It was thus a short step, at least organizationally, to shift the American Navy from a neutral participant in the Atlantic war to an active one when Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Argentia, Newfoundland, in August 1941 for the Atlantic Conference. There, it was agreed, among many other things, that the United States would escort convoys inside its new strategic zone—basically from Iceland west—thus freeing Royal Navy ships for other duties. Warships of the the Atlantic Fleet's Support Force (later redesignated Task Force 24) would escort fast trade convoys between the limits of local Canadian escort and Iceland, for the time being leaving slow convoys in the area under Canadian escort. With this, the Royal Navy relinquished control of transatlantic convoy escort operations west of Iceland to the U.S. Navy. The move also placed Canadian naval and air combat operations under command of a quite-alien, and still-neutral, power. In August 1941 that did not seem like much of a problem, and getting the Americans into the campaign was clearly worth it.

By the time the U.S. Navy began escort operations in the northwest Atlantic on 16 September, the U-boat campaign had swung back into the mid-ocean. After a summer of success off the Azores, Donitz adopted a new deployment form for the North Atlantic in an attempt to cope with the success of Allied evasive routing. Instead of fixed patrol lines, his U-boats arrayed themselves in loose concentrations that drifted in accordance with intelligence estimates. One of these snared SC 42, a slow convoy escorted by a small Canadian group, in early September south of Greenland. In a three-day running battle, the convoy lost 15 ships before reinforcements arrived from Iceland. Weakly escorted convoys were no match for powerful Wolf Packs, and the Canadian Navy was obliged to increase the average size of Newfoundland Escort Force groups from four to six ships in an attempt to cope.

The fall of 1941 campaign in the North Atlantic drew the United States into a shooting war, much of which focused on the slow convoys. Escorted by poorly equipped and hastily trained Canadians, they were incapable of effective tactical evasion when under attack. Just four days after the Americans started escort duty, five U.S. Navy destroyers went to help Convoy SC 44 and its Canadian escorts, which were beset by a Wolf Pack. By the time the tin cans arrived, the battle was essentially over. Four merchant ships and the corvette Levis were sunk, but the Americans were now engaged. If there was any doubt about this the torpedoing of the USS Reuben James (DD-245) on 31 October by U-552 put it to rest.

The U.S. Navy also learned two lessons from its experience in the fall of 1941 campaign: Weakly escorted convoys were a disaster waiting to happen, and the real problem was the U-boats kill them and everyone was safe. These views played to the Navy's Mahanist predilections, and to a general North American view (shared by the Canadians, much to Britain's dismay) that the North Atlantic was a combat zone and the Allied navies' task was to fight the enemy. Not surprisingly then, when the U.S. Atlantic Fleet issued its first convoy escort instructions in November 1941, Lanflt 9A, safe and timely arrival of the convoy—the cardinal objective of British escort operations—came dead last on the list of tasks. The American escort's first task was to find and destroy the enemy. This proved remarkably hard to do, which was, of course, why the British had given up on it.

Ultimately, the recipe for defending a convoy against a Wolf Pack, and for sinking U-boats in the process, was worked out by the British in November and December 1941 west of Gibraltar, in the so-called Azores air gap. There, they combined modern 10-cm radar large, well-trained and well-lead escort groups, and carrier-based and very long range (VLR) airpower to exact a toll on German submarines. Before these methods and the newly developed shipborne Huff/Duff sets could be applied in the North Atlantic, however, Germany declared war on the United States and the assault on shipping in the western hemisphere began.

Carnage Along the East Coast

The 1942 campaign in the western Atlantic primarily involved the deployment of individual U-boats inshore. The Anglo-Canadian response to this type of threat was, in modern jargon, to shape the battle space to make the German task difficult if not impossible. This was done by operating coastal convoys under an air umbrella, which prevented packs from forming, kept U-boats down, and limited their search capacity. Under these circumstances, even a small naval escort for a convoy was sufficient. At best, a determined submariner might get in one successful attack against an inshore convoy, but no more. The system was particularly effective in areas where a wide stretch of open ocean allowed for a wide track of possible routes under a broad corridor of local air support.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy did not initially see it this way. Fearful of weakly escorted convoys, Americans refused to institute a coastal convoy system, while pressure from vacation spots kept the lights burning along the shoreline. Instead, the Navy established a series of patrols along designated routes and tried to move dispersed shipping along them. By 1 April, 80 small ships and some 160 aircraft between Maine and Florida were engaged in these operations. The results were disastrous. Routine patrols and dispersed shipping allowed U-boats to operate at leisure, confident that they would not be interrupted and assured that another target would come along like clockwork.

The Anglo-Canadians watched in stunned disbelief. Given the extent of British and Canadian control of shipping in the western hemisphere, they could have organized convoys in the American zones from the outset. In fact, the first convoys in the U.S. Eastern Sea Frontier were Canadian. The Halifax to Boston system began in late March. By May Canadian tanker convoys were running through the U.S. coastal zone to the Caribbean without loss despite attempts by the Germans to mount pack operations against them.

There were still no American coastal convoys in early May, as the U-boats spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and began wreaking havoc on American tanker traffic. Supported by a submarine tanker, which refueled and rearmed the submarines, 19 U-boats remained on station. In May alone they sank 115 ships in the western Atlantic, about half of which were in the Gulf. The toll for June was 122. In those two months, a million tons of shipping was lost in the American zone—half the previous year's total.

By mid-May the first American coastal convoy finally began, steaming between Hampton Roads and Key West. As the system spread, and the air support improved, losses diminished and U-boats moved on to greener pastures. In July and August the hunters drifted through the Caribbean, and by late summer to the South American coast. The convoy system followed and drove them out. But the Allies paid a very steep cost for this Pyrrhic victory: six million tons of shipping lost in 1942 to U-boats alone, three times more than the previous yearly averages.

The extension of the convoy system southward and the need to respond to unchecked Japanese expansion in the Pacific gradually weakened the transatlantic escort system between Newfoundland and Britain. By the summer, British, American, and Canadian forces were all spread thinly. But the U.S. decline in the mid-ocean was quickest and most pronounced.

U-boats Gain the Mid-Atlantic Upper Hand

By May the U.S. Navy's role was down to a few Coast Guard cutters and the occasional destroyer in nominally American escort group A3 (whose composition was largely Canadian corvettes). The Royal Navy again took over most of the fast convoys, while most of the forces now commanded by Task Force 24 were actually Canadian. With Iceland abandoned as a relay point, convoys now ran straight between Northern Ireland and Newfoundland. Corvettes and destroyers could just make it if they were not too active and the convoy routing was direct. All this created a unique opportunity that the Germans moved to exploit in the late summer of 1942.

When Admiral Donitz shifted the weight of his forces back into the mid-Atlantic he found convoys tied closely to the far-northern great circle route and escorted by much-reduced and weary groups. The Canadians still escorted the slow convoys and had not yet been fitted with modern equipment. Their first-generation radar could be DFed by the U-boats' new radar detectors they had too few destroyers, whose tactical speed was crucial and only one Royal Canadian Navy escort had been fitted the new Huff/Duff set. Moreover, since February the Allies had a hard time reading the U-boats' signal traffic. As the number of U-boats in the mid-ocean began to rise sharply, the crisis of the Atlantic war commenced.

The final confrontation began in the fall of 1942 with a series of battles that inflicted a tactical defeat on the Canadian Navy and drove its forces from the central Atlantic. Although only 30 percent of transatlantic convoys between July and the end of 1942 were Canadian escorted, virtually all of them were slow, and they suffered 80 percent of Allied losses in the mid-ocean over the period. The British were quick to blame Canadian incompetence, but without good radar and Huff/Duff to provide solid tactical intelligence, the RCN fought blindly.

Innovative attempts to overcome this problem, such as firing pre-emptive illumination rounds in an effort to catch the U-boats just before they attacked, were dismissed as crude and dangerous. In contrast, fast convoys escorted by well-equipped British ships fared much better. New HF/DF sets in their destroyers picked up shadowers' reports on the ground wave, allowing destroyers to force them below the surface and break contact. Meanwhile, British 10-cm radar established a solid barrier around their convoys at night. Armed with good kit and good tactical intelligence, the British broke up packs, pushed the U-boats back, and sank them.

After a particularly terrible Canadian battle around Convoy SC 106 in November in which 15 ships were lost, the British moved in early December to begin withdrawing the Canadians and the last remaining American escort group from the transatlantic convoys. Although A3's record was not as bad as that of the four Canadian Navy groups in the central Atlantic, its equipment was little better and its Secretary-class cutters were too slow. There were other reasons.

The British had never really been happy about giving the Americans command of half of the transatlantic route in late 1941 nor about leaving the Canadians under U.S. operational control. Moreover, by late November British eastern Atlantic convoys had been suspended to accommodate the Allied landings in North Africa. Britain was now down to one embattled link with the world, which passed through a mid-ocean rapidly filling with U-boats. Not surprisingly, the British moved to take charge. By January the Canadians were on their way out, A3 was slated to leave in due course, and the main burden along the key transatlantic route fell to the British.

When in early 1943, the Royal Navy assumed primary responsibility for the embattled North Atlantic convoys, mid-ocean was the only place left where the Germans could use their large fleet of Type VII U-boats with impunity and the Kriegsmarine could now hope to achieve some kind of strategic or operational victory. By early 1943, roughly 100 U-boats prowled the central-Atlantic gap that was beyond the range of conventional Allied land-based airpower. It proved impossible for convoys to avoid all of them. In January and February 1943, with improved access to the U-boats' operational codes, the Allies tried. But as the Canadians had learned the previous fall, slow convoys beset by packs of 20 to 30 U-boats beyond the range of friendly airpower were bound to suffer. In one of the hardest fought convoy battles, SC 118 lost 11 ships in January, while its Royal Navy escort sank four U-boats.

On 20 February in the gap, U-boats directed by superb intelligence intercepted the westbound slow convoy ONS 166. It was escorted by A3, composed the U.S. cutters Spencer (WPG-36) and Campbell (WPG-32) the Canadian corvettes Rosthern, Trillium, Dauphin, and Chilliwack the British corvette Dianthus and the Polish destroyer Burza. The first U-boat to make contact was driven off by a Huff/Duff-directed sweep, and the next day a VLR Liberator from the RAF's 120 Squadron sank a shadower. However, as the convoy reached the depth of the air gap the battle intensified, and on the night of the 21st attacks penetrated the escort screen. The Campbell sank a U-boat, but poor weather and waves of attackers made effective defense of ONS 166 all but impossible. Specially adapted Canadian PBY Catalinas with a virtual VLR capability arrived on 24 February to blunt the assault, driving off most of the shadowers and damaging two U-boats. But the battle spilled onto the fog shrouded Grand Banks and lasted two more grim days. When it was all over, ONS 166 had lost 14 ships.

The inability of even strong and heavily reinforced escorts to drive convoys safely across the mid-Atlantic was demonstrated even more graphically in a series of convoy battles during the third week of March. The Allies had used the U-boats' weather codes as the key to break the daily settings of German operational signals. But when a new code was introduced, Allied special intelligence faltered and convoy routing suddenly lacked the precision necessary to avoid the huge packs lurking in the middle of the ocean. In the first three weeks of March all transatlantic convoys were intercepted, half were attacked, and 22 percent of shipping in those convoys was sunk.

The pinnacle of German success was reached between 16 and 20 March during the battles for convoys SC 122 and HX 229. Forty U-boats were sent to attack them, the largest single Wolf Pack operation of the war. Over the course of four days they sank 21 ships despite the Allies' best efforts to reinforce and economize on the escort by combining the two convoys at sea. Only hurricane-force winds saved the next series of March convoys from serious attack. By the time the month was over, 71 Allied ships, including stragglers, had been sunk in the central Atlantic.

The Tide of Battle Turns

At the end of March, however, everything changed. The Allies agreed to return operation control of the North Atlantic convoys east of 47 degrees to the British, giving a single operational authority effective control over battles in the mid-ocean starting on 30 April. They also agreed to reinforce the North Atlantic with more VLR aircraft and to commit long-awaited escort carriers to eliminate the air gap. Support groups were established to provide powerful and timely reinforcement of the surface escorts, and Allied cryptanalysts once again broke the German operational codes. The latter restored effective routing. It also revealed that morale in the U-boat fleet was poor and ripe for crushing. Finally—and equally important—the weather moderated. As winter storms abated, Allied radar- and Huff/Duff-directed sweeps by destroyers were more successful. As all of these elements came together, British routing authorities began to choose their battles, steering some convoys wide of trouble while heavily reinforcing others and driving them deliberately at waiting U-boats. It was finally time to kill the Wolf Packs.

The strategy worked. In late April the mystique of the Wolf Pack was finally broken in the battle around ONS 5, a 46-ship westbound convoy under British escort. The first U-boats to gain contact were driven off south of Iceland by a U.S. Navy Catalina from VP-84 on 28 April and surface reinforcements. As ONS 5 shook off its pursuers, it needed all the help it could get, for a lapse in Ultra intelligence in late April meant that convoy routing was briefly a mixture of skill and educated guesswork. Meanwhile, German naval intelligence, which was reading the Allied convoy codes, was excellent and two packs totalling at least 40 U-boats were moved into position ahead of ONS 5. Aircraft from Iceland and Newfoundland provided intermittent support around the convoy through late April and the first days of May, while aircraft from Newfoundland attacked the packs in its path farther west, sinking one U-boat. Four destroyers of the British 3rd Support Group joined briefly on the 2nd and 3rd, before they had to leave to refuel.

Skillful routing and the efforts of airmen operating at long range in dreadful weather, however, were not enough to prevent the U-boats from regaining contact with ONS 5 on 4 May. With the escort now much reduced, six ships were sunk that night and four more the next day in submerged attacks delivered in poor weather. That same weather kept air support from finding the convoy during the day on the 5th, and as night fell 15 U-boats remained in contact with a convoy now guarded by only seven escorts.

But those seven, reinforced by the British 1st Escort Group in the early hours of 6 May, were enough. At dusk on 5 May ONS 5 steamed into a Grand Banks fog on a glassy sea—ideal conditions for the escort's 10-cm radar. While U-boats groped around trying to find targets, the surface ships hunted and killed them. By sunrise the next morning the warships had sunk five U-boats. Two others had collided and sunk trying to find the convoy, bringing the German losses to seven in one night of frantic action. Donitz called off the battle.

The carnage among U-boats continued through May, as the Allies abandoned evasive routing entirely and inflicted a crushing defeat on the U-boats. A massive Allied air assault on U-boat transit routes in the Bay of Biscay was matched by success around convoys in the mid-Atlantic, where 50 VLR aircraft now prowled. In May alone Allied forces sank 41 U-boats, while only seven ships were lost from convoys in the North Atlantic. On 24 May Admiral Donitz admitted defeat and called off his packs. For all intents and purposes, the Battle of the Atlantic was over. As shipping losses plummeted in 1943, new construction surged 14 million tons were completed that year alone.

Through the summer of 1943 the U-boat fleet attempted to maintain a presence in the southern portion of the North Atlantic, from the Caribbean across to North Africa, and to expand their operations through the use of tanker U-boats. U.S. Navy hunter-killer groups, which included escort carriers and were directed by intelligence gleaned from Enigma decryptions, tracked, hounded, and killed them, while the Allied air offensive in the Bay of Biscay exacted a punishing toll. The Kriegsmarine's attempt to renew the mid-ocean offensive in September by fitting U-boats with heavier antiaircraft armament and new acoustic-homing torpedoes ended in utter failure.

By the end of 1943 U-boats were living a fugitive existence in the Atlantic, operating independently and trying not to reveal their presence by transiting radio signals. With that, the U-boats were forced to operate like true submarines, a process which characterized the final 18 months of the war. However, they were never again a threat to Allied strategy.


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