Adoption of Convoy in the Great War

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The Abandonment of Convoy

Nineteenth Century

In evidence before the Royal Commission on the Defence of British Possessions and Commerce Abroad, the First Naval Lord Sir Astley Cooper Key stated that fast merchant steamships "must look out for themselves," but that slower merchant steamships might be convoyed by cruisers of the Comus class. Cooper Key was then asked:

[Q.] I suppose the question of how to organise and handle a fleet under convoy under the altered conditions of modern naval warfare has been considered and forecasted as far as it was possible?

[A.] I doubt whether it has; I have never considered it myself; I do not know what they have done before I went to the Admiralty, but I have never seriously thought it out.

Shipowners giving evidence to the commission overwhelmingly considered that convoy of their ships would be an inconvenience, an anachronism, or even a hazard. Cooper Key opined that, "I should imagine that the ship-owners themselves would prefer, to a great extent, to be left to their own resources rather than suffer the inconvenience and delay of convoy." The crux of his argument was:

In the former wars if an enemy's vessels got in amongst the convoy they used to make great havoc, without the convoy or frigate knowing anything about it during the night. They found that they lost some of their ships during the night without knowing where or how they had gone. But an enterprising enemy would throw a convoy of merchant steamers into confusion with great ease even if they only attempted to ram and sink them; they could do it on a sudden at night-time and no doubt cause great trouble.

Twentieth Century

In a memorandum on trade protection of 21 August, 1913, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, devoted some twenty-nine paragraphs to the subject. Only one, the last, dealt with convoy:

In exceptional cases convoys will, if necessary, be organized under escort of Third Fleet vessels. It is hoped, however, that this cumbrous and inconvenient measure will not be required.[1]

Meeting of 23 February

Captain (Retired) Bertram H. Smith, who was present at the meeting, later gave his view of the procceedings in The British Legion Journal:

It was a meeting of professionals of the same service, that is—the sea. It was not an occasion for obtaining the opinions of amateurs, however distinguished or experienced they might be as shipowners or anything else. There was no need to utilize the services of the latter in the form of the Ministry of Shipping, in order to make the necessary contact. The Admiralty had their normal channels which were in daily and hourly use. There was no need to select whom they should meet nor for any elaborate arrangements to obtain their presence, all that had to be done was to ask the officers to come and to see that they were fully and truly representative. Sir John Jellicoe promised to call such a meeting and implemented his promise with the least possible delay. The Admiralty 'Shipping Intelligence Officer' in London was directed to invite the masters of the ships then in port to a meeting on the following day in sufficient numbers, with the only reservation that every class of ocean-going ship must be reepresented and that masters of purely coasting or short sea trip ships (who were unaffected by the question) were not required and need not be bothered. The orders passed through the present writer, who also attended the meeting and therefore speaks from personal knowledge. The meeting was fully representative and included captains of every class of ship from the large passenger liner through smaller passenger ships, the cargo liner and other intermediate types to the ordinary tramp. The First Sea Lord dispassionately and impartially stated the object of the meeting, namely, to get the unbiassed views of the Merchant Service; he pointed out how station was kept, what apparatus was required, and what was involved in zig-zagging in company. He then invited each officer's opinion in turn, beginning with those of the Merchant Service and following with those of Naval officers. Many of the former would have had personal experience of station-keeping when up for their Naval training as R.N.R. officers; they were unanimously of opinion that, as things were [Italics added], it could not be done. Those of the latter (i.e. the Naval officers) who dealt with the movements of merchant shipping, while generally considering that these opinions seemed sound and unanswerable, pointed out that experience had shown that the Merchant Service officers had carried out every task imposed on them by the Admiralty, however difficult, unreasonable or impossible it had appeared to be; therefore nothing could be said to be impossible for them![2]

In 1919 Commander (Retired) Hubert Wynn Kenrick, Royal Naval Reserve, an officer of the Trade Division intimately involved with the French Coal Trade sailings,[3] wrote to Paymaster Captain Eldon Manisty with a very different view of the meeting:

It may be said that the Meeting was not representative of the Merchant Marine in any way:

1) Five out of the Nine men were masters of Coasting Vessels - to whom the very idea of Convoy was anathema, even up to the summer of 1918.

2) Two of the remaining four were Masters of ocean-going vessels - both of which had only a few days previously been torpedoed - one the "Hadley", while under Escort of a Destroyer, and the other an "Admiralty Collier".

3) With the exception of one of the above and the Master of the "Minnesota", none of the Masters present represented the better and most intelligent type of British Master Mariners.

The reason for this was the small amount of time left available for getting together a representative number of British ship-masters owing to instructions as to intended Conference only being received only a day or two before the time fixed for holding it.

Had more notice been given the attendance could have been secured of a fair number of Masters of large Ocean-going liners and cargo steamers - the vital ships at the time to the Country. ... Their opinion at that stage of the war would, in all probability, have been the means of saving to the Country many hundred thousand tons of shipping.[4]

An amusing story of the possible confusion which convoy could create is mentioned in Merchantmen-at-Arms:

We left Malta, going east, and that night it was inky dark and we ran clean through a west-bound convoy. How there wasn't an accident, God only knows. We had to go full astern to clear one ship. She afterwards sidled up alongside of us and steamed east for an hour and a half. Then she hailed us through a megaphone: 'Steamer ahoy! Hallo! Where are you bound to?' 'Salonika,' we said. 'God Almighty,' he says. 'I'm bound to Gibraltar. Where the hell's my convoy?'[5]


  1. Quoted in Gilbert. Winston S. Churchill. Companion Volume II. Part 3. pp. 1771-1777.
  2. Smith. "The Introduction of the Convoy System". Quoted in Bacon. Earl Jellicoe. pp. 355-356.
  3. Black. The British Naval Staff in the First World War. p. 178.
  4. Kenrick to Manisty. 10 February, 1919. The National Archives. ADM 137/2753. Quoted in Black. The British Naval Staff in the First World War. p. 178.
  5. Bone. Merchantmen-at-Arms. pp. 182-183.