Naval warfare in World War I was not plain sailing

In my last blog post I mentioned admiral John Jellicoe, who commanded the British Grand Fleet in World War I. Later he became 1st Sea Lord (basically, C-in-C of the whole navy: 1916-1917).

Since that war, historians have roundly criticised him for his resistance to the idea of convoys.

In 1916 the Germans began a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain’s merchant marine. Within a few months the sea lanes bringing food to our shores were being so badly disrupted, with millions of tons of merchant shipping (and their precious cargoes of food and other materials) being sunk, that the British people were facing the very real prospect of starvation. People started calling for convoys to be instituted. Jellicoe, however, stoutly resisted this idea. Convoys had been used to great effect in the Napoleonic Wars, 100 years before – why not use them now? Eventually Jellicoe was overruled by the prime minister, Lloyd George, and almost immediately the German submarines’ kill rate started falling off dramatically. By the end of the war convoys had proved themselves crucial in allowing Britain to avoid starvation and remain in the war.

Why then did Jellicoe resist the idea?

The answer, as so often in history, is that things did not seem nearly so clear before the event as after. The British naval high command were only too well aware that tactics which had worked in the days of sail would not necessarily work in their own day.

In Napoleonic times, the concentration of a lot of merchant ships into one area of ocean allowed a group of warships to effectively defend them from attack. The attackers, however, were surface vessels, whose approach could be seen from a long way off, allowing the defending warships to respond in (mostly) good time.

In 1916, however, the attackers were submarines, and by that date the British navy had developed no effective tactics against them. German submarines found it all too easy to evade detection by surface warships, so the idea of concentrating many merchant ships together seemed madness – all you were doing was making life easy for the enemy. It seemed more sensible to the admirals of the day to keep the merchant ships widely dispersed, so that the subs had to travel further and work harder to make their kills.

In the event, things didn’t turn out like that. Putting a lot of merchant ships together had the effect of making it harder, not easier, for submarines to pick their targets. The view from the periscope was too busy and confusing to make a single-minded focus on one ship possible. Also, once the submarine had fired its first torpedo, its position was known to the defending warships. They could then home in on that spot, and the slow-moving subs of that period had a hard time making good their escape. It was only in World War 2, with the development of larger, faster, longer-range submarines, and their deployment in “wolf packs”, which involved groups of submarines attacking convoys from multiple angles, that submarines were temporarily able to get the better of convoy defences.

This brings me back to a point I was making in my last post. It is easy for us to think that commanders and political leaders who make what in hindsight look like poor decisions are somehow not up to the job. Some of course are not; but others are having to face high stake dilemmas where there is very little to guide them. All they have to go on is judgement and experience, which, in a revolutionary situation like World War I, could very well mislead them. In fact, it sometimes seems almost a matter of chance as to which decisions were proved to be sound, and which not. Even in more predictable times, the same commanders can make excellent calls on some occasions, while at other times make tragic blunders. Admiral Nelson’s fighting spirit led him to the great victories of the Nile, Copenhagen and of course Trafalgar; exactly the same spirit led him to the disaster of Santa Cruz.


By Peter Britton