BOOK REVIEW – Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War

Faulkner, Marcus, and Christopher M. Bell. Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War. Lexington, KY: Andarta Books, 2019.

Review by CAPT John V. Clune, USMS, PhD
Department Head and Associate Professor, Humanities, United States Merchant Marine Academy

In their collection Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War, Marcus Faulkner and Christopher M. Bell add several new insights to the extensive historiography around the Second World War in the Atlantic. They challenge historians to readjust their scope to include more of the world’s oceans and to look deeper into the domestic political, economic, or cultural conditions that inspired the workers, and not just the sailors, who served the system of trade defense. Finally, their collection challenges historians to reevaluate the war’s great leaders, calling into question how competently they pursued larger strategic goals and whether familiar historical documents overstate leaders’ actual influence over daily wartime activity.

Decision in the Atlantic reconsiders the proper scope for the Battle of the Atlantic. The term, Faulkner and Bell argue, is geographically inaccurate: strategically, the battle was global. But it also included operational systems. Marc Milner’s opening chapter calls for a “new paradigm” that recognizes that the network of naval operational intelligence supported an entire system of trade defense in the Atlantic that was most successful when it avoided battle. “Sea power,” he argues, “was always about more than battles” (19). James Goldrick explains how, despite prewar attempts to develop antisubmarine doctrine and training, the Allies took several months to recognize that the old “master-apprentice” culture of learning was too slow and dangerous to continue. Instead, Goldrick describes how the Admiralty developed a sophisticated crew training and simulation system that became “one of the most significant but under-recognized elements of the Atlantic campaign” (167). Similarly, Ben Jones describes in detail the Fleet Air Arm’s limited resources, limited operational effectiveness, the slow adoption of fleet escort carriers, and distinctions between US and British tactics (and relative success). Jones suggests that the Allies failed to procure and employ those carriers aggressively enough to have a significant impact defending Atlantic convoys, as their limited results in 1943 seem to confirm. The Fleet Air Arm is a good case study of the limits of US/British cooperation in systems of procurement and employment of weapons—especially naval resources that required modification and additional resources like airplanes and aircrew to function. These three cases certainly deepen what we may consider the scope of that Atlantic theater.

Despite the historiographical consensus that the convoy battles of the North Atlantic were the campaign’s main event and that the U-boat war was effectively over (and “won”) by summer 1943, two other chapters suggest that there’s much left to learn. G. H. Bennett describes the Battle of the Atlantic that also took place in the Channel, where significant British merchant shipping to its southern and eastern coasts throughout the war supplemented Britain’s insufficient railroad capacity. The German response—Schnellbootes, or S-boats, sometimes with air support—was smaller than the U-boat campaign, but the Kriegsmarine still dedicated significant effort to disrupting this trade. Bennett argues that the coordinated “defense in depth” system British Coastal Command developed was a model of successful integration—so successful, in fact, that by 1944 German S-boat directives were to flee if they encountered opposition. David Kohnen’s chapter describes the somewhat bizarre cruise of the ill-fated Group Monsoon, a convoy of ten U-boats deployed to the Indian Ocean and East Asia in June 1943, after Admiral Donitz halted large-scale U-boat operations in the North Atlantic. The convoy’s ultimate failure, and the strange story of U-188 and its skipper Siegried Ludden, offer an interesting case study in the overlapping webs of intelligence and cryptography that allowed Allied submarine trackers to find and eventually destroy most of this convoy. To Kohnen, the story of U-188 and Group Monsoon illuminates how the US and British sometimes cooperated very well in employing the “Special Intelligence” obtained by decrypting German messages. This claim is significant; it contradicts the conventional wisdom that the Americans’ willingness to employ Special Intelligence for precision attacks horrified the Admiralty because it risked exposing the Allies’ ability to intercept communication. Marcus Faulkner’s chapter describing how seriously the Admiralty took the possibility of a functional German aircraft carrier (the Graf Zeppelin, which never actually entered service) provides another case in point. Just the threat of a German carrier in the North Atlantic forced the Admiralty to curtail the deployment of British carriers elsewhere and required support by another American carrier in summer 1943. In other words, even in drydock, the Graf Zeppelin disrupted Allied naval strategy. Therefore, the story of the Allies’ intelligence, their admittedly conservative estimate, and ultimate overestimation of the threat the Graf Zeppelin posed deserves more attention as a factor influencing the Allied naval effort. Clearly, there is more to learn about how American and British intelligence teams cooperated (or failed to cooperate) in small and large engagements throughout the war.

Decision in the Atlantic forges new paths examining the testy relationship between Coastal Command and the British Air Staff, who resisted calls to support the Atlantic theater with adequate air cover. Tim Benbow’s chapter excoriates Air Staff leaders for refusing to support convoys and clinging to strategic bombing doctrine as “something between ideology and theology, an article of faith that transcended reason” (90). When the Admiralty finally came around to recognizing that air support was absolutely essential to their success, the Air Staff ought to have been pleased. “Their bluff had been called” (101), Benbow argues. Instead, they stubbornly rejected requests for air support. Air Staff leaders’ exaggerated claims about the “offensive” potential of strategic bombing made them blind to the real possibility that diverting some air resources (especially Very Long-Range aircraft) would, paradoxically, have interdicted the maritime equivalent of a strategic bombing campaign against Britain. Finally, Benbow takes on Churchill. Despite Churchill’s later claim that the Battle of the Atlantic “was the dominating factor all through the war,” his actual policy and his dizzying inconsistency on the issue suggests that during the war he routinely forgot this reality (121). Here Benbow and Bell’s chapters agree: Despite Churchill’s famous assertion that “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” (20) either his short attention span, his excessive deference to the Air Staff, or a cavalier willingness to accept shipping losses made him unwilling to get serious about providing more air cover for the North Atlantic campaign until mid-1943.

Kevin Smith’s two chapters deliver Decision in the Atlantic’s other historiographical contribution. He describes two ways in which the Allies’ Atlantic strategy depended on conditions and actors far beyond the normal gaze of military historians. “Historians have been even less interested in British management of merchant shipping than Winston Churchill,” Smith writes (46). In Britain, prewar conflicts between management, the government, and workers in British shipyards that had festered for years did not improve during the battle despite the official memory of British laborers’ “all-out, round-the-clock effort” (49). In fact, Smith argues, far more shipping capacity was out of service undergoing repairs or reconfiguration in British shipyards than U-boats knocked out of service in any given month. This condition was not inevitable, Smith writes, but “the gap in attitudes and expectations” between workers, management, and the government ministries directing ship repair “was too wide to bridge, even in a national emergency” (60). Stateside, Smith describes how Claude Wickard, the only moderately successful Indiana farmer who happened to be a Democrat and who rose to become Secretary of Agriculture in 1940 (more than partly to offset the political appeal of Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate of questionable Hoosier authenticity) was thrust into the role of harnessing America’s vast agricultural production to the internationalist goal of feeding Great Britain and Russia. Wickard was not ideologically sympathetic with the task nor suited for the intense bureaucratic and diplomatic wrangling the job entailed. As a result, for several months, the US did not ship as much meat as it promised. More importantly, this article demonstrates the practical limits to the capacity to reorganize an economy for war despite charismatic leaders’ lofty rhetoric. In fact, the story of how relatively obscure bureaucrats succeeded (or failed) at their day-to-day administrative tasks deserves more attention than historians have given them, and hints at the existence of a whole new field of military history. Smith leaves some gaps (did dockworkers actually slow their work, as accused? Was Wickard really insufficiently internationalist, or was he just overwhelmed?), but his chapters complement one another in demonstrating that backstories have real military significance. They also supplement Benbow’s point that although Churchill (or, we may project, FDR) made bold claims publicly or in their memoirs, the leaders had less impact over the quotidian administration of the war effort than historians give them credit for.

Decision in the Atlantic raises some thorny questions for historians. If, as Benbow suggests, Churchill was “dizzyingly inconsistent” on the question of diverting air resources away from Bomber Command to Coastal Command despite his memoir’s hint that he was single-mindedly fixed on the Battle of the Atlantic, are not all of his public documents potentially subject to more scrutiny? Historians obviously take memoirs with a grain of salt, but it’s also possible that Churchill met competing claims for his attention and priorities elsewhere in equally inconsistent ways. If so, even Bell’s chapter, which mines Churchill’s papers extensively, has a potential methodological shortcoming. If nothing else, as Smith claims, far more minor officials had far more major influence over the conduct of actual operations than Churchill or Roosevelt, despite their public papers’ implication that they were responsible for every decision in the war. The ten chapters in Decision in the Atlantic open new avenues to explore “the Longest Campaign of the Second World War” while re-assessing some familiar ones. Faulkner and Bell prove that there’s still plenty left to learn.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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BOOK REVIEW – The New Battle for the Atlantic

Nordenman, Magnus Fredrik, The New Battle for the Atlantic. Annapolis: USNI, 2019. 272 pp.

Review by Lt Col Michael Epper,
Director of Operations and Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy

The focus of this book is to provide the reader with a brief overview of the current political and military developments of the Russian Navy for dominance in the North Atlantic Basin as it relates to NATO. The author, Magnus Nordenman is an expert on maritime affairs within NATO who previously served as the Director for the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Additionally, he has lectured at NATO’s Maritime Command, the US Naval War College and other military educational institutions. The book project began as a research project while Nordenman worked at the Atlantic Council. With the help of leading voices in the Naval Historical field it was developed into the product put into print in 2019.

The main focus of the book is what Nordenman calls “The fourth battle of the Atlantic.” As the current Russian Navy awakens from its post-Soviet slumber it is once again vying for dominance and potential control of the far North Atlantic and Kola Sea. The crux of Nordenman’s argument, is that in a post-Soviet Union/Cold War era the large infrastructure and national capital investments that NATO made to contain the perceived threat of the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet, was no longer needed. Based on this deduction, many NATO countries, the US included, allowed their naval surface fleets and maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) assets to atrophy over the past twenty years in the face of limited to no threats.

Over the last ten years, the Russian Navy has made large capital investments in the development of new classes of submarines and the associated port capabilities needed to support the fleet. Additionally, there has been a large change in the tenner of the Russian government, from one of past superpower, to an emerging regional power player. This change in attitude has reinvigorated the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet and presented new challenges to NATO that are not easily overcome in the short term. The changes NATO needs to make require a fundamental shift in the political and fiscal priorities of the alliance at a time when many member nations are facing austerity cuts domestically. While large capital investments can produce results relatively quickly the manpower and expertise needed by NATO countries to accurately use the power projection platforms will take significantly longer to replace.

Nordenman backs his argument up with an extensive works cited page that captures the geopolitical dialogue in a NATO alliance that is no longer focused on maritime threats but defending itself against a real land threat from Russia. While the book was researched in the year’s preceding its publication 2019, a search of the two main topics (MPA and Atlantic Fleet Command) shows that Nordenman’s discussion points and predicted directions for NATO countries are accurate and the alliance is making progress to achieving the stated goals.

The book is interesting and easy to follow. While it is not necessary to understand the previous “three” battles for control it is helpful. For the uneducated reader, Nordenman does devote approximately one third of the book to a historical overview of World War I, World War II and the Cold War with the predominance of the background focused on US led NATO operations during the Cold War. The remaining portion of the book focuses on the question at hand. The book is best suited to serve as a helpful starting point for an overview of the topic for a graduate student or for someone looking to expand their knowledge on the topic. The book’s focus on higher level problems is too much for an entry-level college student but not enough to justify serving as a solid source for a graduate-level courses.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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That document that piques your interest: The whole story behind Norfolk, Virginia’s U.S. District Clerk of Court Seth Foster

Karen J. Johnson
U.S. Courts Library

Libraries are wonderful places, as most are aware, but there are different kinds of libraries, and I would wager that a researcher of naval history would not necessarily think of a court library or a court librarian as a source for their research or a research topic, at least not initially. Me either, if truth be told.

It was by chance that our library, the U.S. Courts Library in Norfolk, Virginia, even became a small repository of archival items. The primary function of court libraries is to serve the research needs of the judges and their staff. However, many court librarians also become court historians. Not long after our library first opened, a local attorney donated his father’s copy of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a small book by comparison to today’s handbook. The small gift’s importance and special place in Norfolk’s court history remained unremarked for decades. We now know that the book is one of the first handbooks published after the standardization of the rules in 1932. This donation sparked an interest in early American legal and court history, that researcher’s Pandora’s box we all know so well. The more I researched, the more questions I had and paths to follow. My co-worker, Library Technician, Mary M. Russo, now retired, helped put some of my finds on paper including the story you will read below.

As time went on, as the role of the library was evolving into the repository for the court’s history, so too, more artifacts and files and records were donated, and some were even found by exploring forgotten cabinets, boxes, and rooms in the courthouse basement. It was so much fun!

Beautiful antique furniture, rare and unique books of the court, architectural models, lamps, an old pen and inkwell, and photographs are now part of our historical collection.

Library Interior (Karen Johnson)

Records and files that are now part of the collection include a variety of court-related documents. If you look through the material you’ll find resolutions from the 1930s and 1940s memorializing judges, lawyers, and others who held roles in the court – even a librarian who previously worked for a federal judge before going on to read law and becoming the bar library director. There are court papers from the early 1800s – from a case involving a ship seized by the Chesapeake that was smuggling slaves- and papers from a handful of admiralty prize cases.

In the file of one of the prize cases, I found a highly curious document. The file contained a letter dated February 20, 1823, with a copy of an order from the President of the United States, James Monroe, instructing the Deputy U.S. Marshal to “immediately discharge from his confinement” Seth Foster, U.S. District Court Clerk, for the court at Norfolk. Foster was the court’s first Clerk of Court and remains the court’s longest-serving Clerk of Court to date. His offense; money owed to the United States that had gone missing from the sale of the Brig Transfer. Despite the assessment of Foster’s responsibility for the missing funds and his obvious confinement, Foster remained court clerk, while in jail, and for another thirteen years afterwards. His story reflects the issues of the day and brings forward a time of great hardship in Norfolk.

Historical Items (Karen Johnson)

Seth Foster’s life story reads like an 18th-century novel, but instead of rags to riches, his story goes from riches to rags. Personalities in the story include Cyrus Griffin, first judge of the court-appointed by George Washington; another famous judge of the court, St. George Tucker; and even President of the United States James Monroe. Events range from an honored position to a hell-hole of prison, from misappropriation of funds to restoration of honor. And, I was obsessed to learn his story. It took several years of searching, contacting historians and archives to pull together Foster’s story and to bring to light a little-known case in our naval history, a story that really was not all that uncommon in the early days of our country.

According to his obituary, Foster was born in Boston around 1757. How and when he came to Norfolk is unknown, but he first appeared as an alderman for the borough and commissioner for the local court in 1795. In June of that year, he assumed the one-year term as mayor. When that term was finished, he returned to the council, then served again as mayor from June 1800 until May 1801, when he resigned to assume the position of the first Clerk of Court for the U.S. District Court in Norfolk at the request of Cyrus Griffin, the first federal judge commissioned in Virginia. Although federal courts were created by the first Judiciary Act in 1789, it was not until 1801 that the district court was moved from Williamsburg to Norfolk. District courts had limited jurisdiction at the time, but importantly, district courts heard admiralty cases. Norfolk was the Commonwealth’s primary port.

On August 7, 1785, records show that he was married to Ann Starke King, widow of John King, a merchant of Hampton, and the daughter of Bolling Starke, a wealthy landowner, politician and descendent of Pocahontas, and Elizabeth Belfield of Dinwiddie County.  Foster and Ann were the parents of three sons, William P. Foster, who became a deputy marshal of the court in Norfolk around 1813; Winslow Foster, who, in 1822, was commander of the revenue cutter Alabama; and Seth Belfield Foster, a doctor, who served as deputy court clerk for a few years before relocating to West Virginia.

How and where Foster received his education remains unknown, based on the sources at my disposal, but he was qualified to act as a lawyer before the court, and over his many years as clerk Foster served as an appraiser, a commissioner, a crier, and a registrar.

According to notations by Virginia biographer, S. Bassett French, Seth Foster was one of the wealthiest men in Norfolk. “He was a man of the old school of very refined and polished manners,” French wrote “… honored and cherished for his Virtues.” 1 He was a staunch Federalist, a trait he shared with Cyrus Griffin who chose him to be clerk in Norfolk. Foster’s elegant hand recorded court documents under five succeeding judges of the court. He was one of the last of the queues in Norfolk, wearing a long plait of hair down his back. 2

Foster’s troubles have their root in an admiralty prize case that comes into the court in June of 1805. Charles Stewart, naval hero of the Early American era, captured The Brig Transfer in March 1804 during the Barbary War. Commodore Edward Preble, in charge of the blockade of the harbor at Tripoli, added additional guns to the brig and used her to patrol the harbor. Valued at the time of her capture at $5,000, she apparently deteriorated quickly, and in 1805 U.S. Naval personnel, led by Lt. Ralph Izard, Jr. brought her in the Norfolk harbor. With the case pending in the district court, Judge Cyrus Griffin ordered the ship sold before further deterioration made her worthless. She was sold at auction, and in July 1805, Foster received $611.30, the amount remaining after deduction of all fees and charges related to the sale. He received the money from Cary Selden, deputy U. S. Marshal, with instructions to deposit it in the Bank of the United States. The historical record proves that Foster carried out the deposit.

The sale had no impact on the case at issue. Complicated legal issues in the awarding of this prize led the court judge to hold over the case. The last entry in the order book for 1805 states that the case is to be held over “due to reasons of great importance to the United States of America.” 3 The succeeding order book has been lost, and we do not see reference to the case again until 1809 when an order was entered for distribution of the proceeds to the crew who captured it. Despite the order, final awarding of the prize faced further delays and did not emerge until 1817 when the U.S. Congress awarded $2,500 to be shared by the estates of Preble, Stewart, and others in the crew.

The decision to place the money in the Bank of the United States proved problematic. The money received by Foster remained in the Bank of the United States until 1811, and, one would think would be secure. However, the Bank required Congress to renew the operating charter every 20 years. Congress refused to renew the bank’s charter and the bank closed. At this time, Foster wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy asking what he should do with the money. 4

Financial instability hit Foster personally around the same time. Jefferson’s embargo in 1809, followed by the War of 1812, merchants up and down the coast of the United States suffered losses. In May 1814, Foster wrote a letter to Moses Myers, a local merchant also in dire straits, apologizing for a past due account. 5 Foster and Myers joined thousands of others in the reversal of fortune they endured. One by one, many saw their fortunes vanish. The once busy wharves of Norfolk grew silent. One bleak Monday morning when District Attorney William Wirt was in town for the May 1817 term, he wrote a letter home to his wife about the changed city of Norfolk and her people:

There is an air of sadness over this place which depresses me extremely. It is no longer the animated, bustling place we knew in 1805-6. I thought it possible at first that it was … the knowledge of the fact that the society once so social and harmonious here had been chilled and seared [sic] by personal finds that imparted this changed and melancholy appearance to the place.  But I see very plainly that all that commercial prosperity which gave gaiety and spirit of good humor to the town is almost extinguished if not entirely gone.  The port is no longer crowded with ships, nor the wharves loaded with crates and bales of freshly landed goods, nor the market square and streets filled with drays, carts, wheelbarrows and noisy porters. The people of the town themselves confess the sad change and seem to think that Norfolk has received its death blow in the late war. Yet enough of their habits both of business and of hospitality remains to remind me of what the place was twelve years ago, and to make me feel the change affectingly. The merchants and the sailor wives still come down to the end of the street to look out for some expected ship. 6

On November 16, 1819, fourteen years after the sale of the Brig Transfer, the order book of the court recorded the case U.S. v. Seth Foster, a “rule to shew cause.” Foster was ordered to appear in court on the first day of the next term (May 1820) to explain what happened to the missing $611.30, equivalent to over $10,000 today. The following day, the court ordered Foster to supply the court with a list of all processes served by his son, William P. Foster, a former deputy marshal, to include the amount of fees not collected, and a list of the allowances made to William for the custody and safe keeping of vessels. 7 Was this order related to the missing money? No answer appeared and no connection became clear. A later court case showed that William had collected fees and assessments from local citizens, but he failed to account for and pay the amounts to the United States. 8 By 1819, William no longer resided in Norfolk. Seth Foster, the father, remained Norfolk to face the court.

The winter that passed was surely one of great anguish for Seth and Ann Foster. They had lost everything and been subjected to public disgrace. When the court convened on May 13, 1820, U.S. District Judge St. George Tucker, receiving no reasonable explanation from Foster, ordered that an attachment be issued against him for his contempt in not complying with the order on November 16, 1819. Two years passed. At the court session of May 6, 1822, Tucker noted that Foster had neither deposited the money nor issued the ordered attachment. A motion was filed by the United States Attorney, Robert Stanard, to enforce obedience by August 1.

On August 1, 1822, Deputy Marshal William Loyall took Foster into custody. He was to be held at the jail in Norfolk, “with the benefit of the prison rules.” 3 That meant that Foster would be allowed to leave the jail each morning to go to his work, but he had to return to the jail each night. Jails of that time period were foul and putrid places, where diseases ran rampant. Benefit of the prison rules meant that for at least part of the day, the prisoner enjoyed healthier surroundings. In early November of that year, the U.S. Attorney requested the court to withdraw the benefit of the prison rules, a harsh step that would restrict Foster to the jail with little hope of redemption. Tucker denied the motion, giving Foster one more chance to repay the money.

On November 23, 1822, Foster wrote a heart-rending petition to President James Monroe, the only person who could grant him clemency. Foster told Monroe that at the age of 65, he was elderly and had an elderly wife to support. He was penniless, and his assets consisted of nothing exceeding $30. He did not explain the lost money, but declared that in his long years of service to the United States he had accounted for every penny placed in his trust for the government of the United States – except for the $611.30 in question. 10 Through it all, Foster remained Clerk of the Court and recorded these events. In February 1823, an order of discharge came down from President Monroe, the same one in the court files today. He had investigated Foster’s claim, and finding no malice, Monroe used a law passed in 1817 for the relief of debtors to order that Seth Foster be released from prison. 11 On March 5, 1823, Foster walked out of the jail adjacent to the Borough of Norfolk Courthouse, the same courthouse where his federal district court met. He emerged as a free man, both free of prison and cleared of debt.

Seth Foster cover letter and pardon (Karen Johnson)

A chastened Foster returned to his work serving the court under Judge Tucker, the very person who put him in jail. His small fees from the clerk’s job appeared to be his only source of money. His beautiful calligraphic handwriting showed signs of tremor as the cases were recorded. In his final years, a young lawyer named George Conway helped him to fulfill his duties. He died on June 14, 1836. The following notice appeared in the local newspaper:

Died, Yesterday morning about sun-rise, in his 80th year, SETH FOSTER, Esq. Clerk of the U.S. Court of this district. Mr. F. was a native of the city of Boston, but had for many years resided in this town, and formerly filled the offices of an Alderman and Mayor.  He not only made a profession of religion, but, by his conduct in life, for the last sixteen or eighteen years, gave proof of his having been with Jesus. 12

Foster’s funeral was held the following morning at the Methodist Protestant Church on Fenchurch Street. His eulogy, likely presented by his longtime friend and benefactor, Rev. J. French. Foster died penniless and most probably was buried in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Norfolk established in 1825. Rev. French had a large plot in the cemetery, and it is known that there were eight more burials on that plot in addition to those of Rev. French and his stepdaughter, the only two recorded burials. Perhaps that was also the last resting place of Seth and Ann Foster. A fire destroyed cemetery records in the early 1900s, leaving researchers to make a best guess.

A final note to Foster’s story involves an unexpected visit to the U.S. Courts Library over 150 years after Foster’s death. I think as researchers we are connectors – we connect to the past, we connect with other researchers, we connect with people who have a shared interest; but to connect a man with his past, his ancestry, was not something I could have foreseen. I think that’s the real reason why Foster’s story came to the Library, why Foster presented himself to me over the years. It was my honor to have been a part, a connector. A few years ago, on my birthday, I received a call from the Slover Library’s Sargeant Memorial Room, a marvelous local history collection which I hope all of IJNH’s researchers take the time to investigate. The archivist said to me, “Karen, I’m sending a man over to see you. You will want to talk with him!” And what a gift to spend the day with Seth Foster’s great, great, great, great, great-grandson. He had come to Norfolk from Norway on a quest to find information about his family! I had a lot to share.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. S. Bassett French, Biographical Sketches. Library of Virginia.
  2. Hugh Blair Grigsby, Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell 38 (1860).
  3. U.S. District Court Order Book, 1819-1850, August 1, 1822.
  4.   Seth Foster to the Honorable Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy, January 29, 1811. Record Group 233, Records of the House Committee of Naval Affairs, 15th Congress, National Archives and Records Administration.
  5.   Seth Foster to Moses Myers, May 26, 1814. Chrysler Museum.
  6. William Wirt to Elizabeth Wirt, May 5, 1817. William Wirt Papers, Maryland Historical Society, MS1011, Reel #3, 1815-1820.
  7. U.S. District Court Order Book, 1811-1819, November 17, 1819.
  8. U.S. v. Moore, 26 Fed. Cas. 1301 (C.C.D. Va. 1828).
  9. U.S. District Court Order Book, 1819-1850, August 1, 1822.
  10. Petition of Seth Foster, November 23, 1822. Record Group 59, Petition for Pardons, File 651, National Archives and Records Administration.
  11. Act of March 3, 1817, ch. 114, 3 Stat. 399.
  12. American Beacon and Norfolk and Portsmouth Daily Advertiser, June 15, 1836, p. 3, c. 1.

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Researching World War I Virtually

Lynne M. O’Hara
National History Day

Many researchers and students of history have found themselves researching from home in the past year.

The challenges posed to students by the move to online learning and online research is something that the National History Day (NHD)organization decided to tackle directly. dedicated to improving the teaching and learning of history. We are best known for the NHD Contest, a program in which students in grades 6-12 select a topic, engage in historical research, and present their work as a paper, performance, exhibit, website, or documentary. Every year, thousands of students across the country get their first experience doing historical research, talking to library and archives professionals, interviewing historians and those who experienced the events they include in their projects.

Virginia teacher Stephanie Hammer at the grave of Private William D. Call at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France. Read his story at Photograph courtesy of Cathy Gorn.

In March 2020, like many other programs, we converted to a virtual format for affiliate (state) contests and our National Contest. For 2021 will be fully virtual again. Our students are operating in all types of school settings – live, virtual, and hybrid. We are very proud of the students and teachers working in challenging situations to complete and submit their projects to contests at the regional, affiliate, and the National Contest levels. This year’s theme, Communication in History speaks to the importance of technologies, language, and people in our nation.

While virtual research can present challenges, I would like to highlight the work that the NHD team has done to improve access and support virtual research. Our team focused on topics related to World War I and found that this topic offers students and researchers many opportunities to research virtually and engage with the large (and growing) number of digitized resources. From 2018 to 2020, National History Day partnered with the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, the Pritzker Military Foundation, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the National Cemetery Administration. We developed and published a series of resources and materials based on these resources to help students and grasp the war’s complexities and the legacies and impact that defined much of the following century. These resources (LINK), designed to inspire research and engage critical thinking skills in the classroom, are drawn from research conducted by dozens of teachers who worked with the program.

NHD staff, teachers, and educators have put together three online resources, some with their own independent research including Silent Heroes and others linked to publically available collections to assist students and their teachers on topics related to World War I.

Lesson Plan Book

NHD teachers developed a series of lesson plans for our lesson plan book, Great War, Flawed Peace, and the Lasting Legacy of World War I (LINK, click on “World War I Lesson Plans”). The digital book includes detailed information on the sources available for students and non-professional researchers interested in World War I

NHD developed its Silent Heroes program to tell the stories of service members who served and did not return home. We currently feature more than 200 men and women who served and died during WWI, WWII and the Korean War. (LINK) The research conducted by teachers as part of WWI centennial programs concluded with eulogies at the gravesites of these Silent Heroes. You can find the stories and the eulogies on the website.

The research has been an important contribution to knowledge about WWI veterans, for the teachers who participate in National History Day, and for the students who will use this research to create future NHD projects. Consider the story of U.S. Army Private Aaron Ray Griffin ( Indiana teacher Emily Lewellen researched his early life in Brown County, Indiana through his service with the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division in France. Following a family tradition of service, Griffin enlisted in May 1917 and sailed to France on the USS Havana in June. She traced his experiences training in France, enduring the cold winter of 1917-1918, and his eventual death in the Battle of Soissons. She completed the research using sources available online, including Indiana census records, the Brown County History Center, and the Indiana Historical Society.

New Jersey school librarian Kate Spann placing sand in the headstone of U.S. Marine Private William Rice Spann, Jr., at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, France. Read Private Spann’s story at Photograph courtesy of Cathy Gorn.

2020  led many people to look closely at their own family history. New Jersey school librarian Kate Spann researched U.S. Marine Corps Private William Rice Spann (LINK). She conducted her research using digitized resources available from the Library of Congress, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, as well as local newspapers, family records, and the American Battle Monuments Commission.

World War I Digital Resources, Archives, Museums, and Local History Resources

Cultural heritage institutions including archives, special collections, local history organizations and museums are increasingly bridging the divide to make more materials available to researchers who might never get to visit their facility. In doing so, they are reaching an even wider audience and sharing their collections with researchers far beyond their geographic scope.

One of the best starting points for any researcher is the National World War I Museum and Memorial (LINK). In Kansas City, Missouri, the museum houses a remarkable collection both on-site and in its digitized collections. The museum put many staffers to work digitizing and transcribing materials during COVID-closure in spring 2020. The online collections database (LINK) allows for various ways to search the collection. Are you looking for inspiration? Try a “random image” search on this website. You might be surprised by what you can find.

If a researcher wants to learn more about military history, the place to go is to the organizations that have the holdings of the U.S. military. In addition to materials housed by the National Archives, which has a new landing page for their military records (LINK), the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s World War I landing page (LINK) is an excellent source of published and archival materials. The new National Museum of the United States Army’s Nation Overseas online exhibit (LINK) is another valuable resource. The U.S. Army Heritage Center Foundation in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, offers a collection of Soldier Stories (LINK) including accounts from a World War I nurse, infantryman, and member of the “Polar Bear” expedition to Russia.

The Naval History and Heritage Command’s World War I page (LINK) includes links to documents, images, biographies, publications, and, of course, ships and aircraft used in the conflict. Researchers can also visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ World War I exhibit (LINK).

Wiliam Denison Call’s burial card from the National Archives and Records Administration (108999337).

Our teacher researchers found the following resources to be helpful for research on World War I Silent Heroes and veterans’ stories

  • Chronicling America (LINK): a database of American newspapers from 1777-1963, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. This resource includes millions of pages of newspapers (and counting). These newspapers are keyword searchable, and the advanced feature allows you to narrow them down to papers in a particular state (or even a specific newspaper). Many local newspapers printed coverage reported by family members, and sometimes even letters sent home to families.
  • World War I Burial Cards from the National Archives and Records Administration (LINK). These cards tell the stories of those killed during World War I. They contain information ranging from their assigned unit, cause of death, their next of kin, and the location where they are interred. These records are alphabetized but do require some searching. To learn more strategies to search the records, read Suzanne Zoumbardis’ blog post: LINK.
  • American Battle Monuments Commission (LINK). After World War I, the federal government established the American Battle Monuments Commission to build and maintain the American military cemeteries overseas. Their searchable database (LINK) is a starting point for any researcher. Their cemeteries and memorials page (LINK) helps researchers learn more about the sites they maintain.
  • World War I Images
    • The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) World War I photographs are a research starting point. As the repository for the permanently valuable records of the federal government, NARA holds thousands of World War I photographs, including Photographs of American Military Activities (LINK) and Historical Branch, War Plans Division Photographs (LINK). On each of these records, click “search within this series.” A NARA blog with search tips is very helpful: LINK.
    • The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division’s World War I holdings (LINK) include various interesting research pathways. The holdings include newspaper photographs, panoramic photographs, political cartoons, posters, and stereograph cards. The Library’s online exhibition, Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I (LINK) is another excellent research starting point, highlighting primary and secondary resources, exhibition items, and multimedia.
    • When researching the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps’ history in World War I, Naval History and Heritage Command (LINK) has searchable, high-quality images available to researchers. It is easy to search and contains an extensive (and growing) digitized collection.

In the research process, do not overlook state and local historical societies. While these organizations’ online presence varies greatly, many searched their collections for the centennial to display World War I artifacts for local and state exhibitions. Check it out – you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

In addition to local resources, think about expanding beyond American repositories.

  • The National Archives of the United Kingdom – First World War 100 (LINK) and Digitised First World War Records (LINK);
  • The British Library’s World War One Landing Page (LINK);
  • The Imperial War Museum’s (London) First World War Page (LINK);
  • The National Archives of Australia’s records (LINK); and
  • Archives New Zealand’s World War I Research Guide (LINK).

When you research digitally, remember to work with different search strategies. When an advanced search feature is available, use it! Try a variety of keywords, and stick with it. Often it takes several searches or a refined search to narrow down to results that you can use.

And let me add, if you have a passion for history, please consider connecting with your local NHD coordinator ( NHD contests at the regional, affiliate, and national level are always looking for judges. Judges ( do not need to be experts in any fields of history, but they need to be adults who are willing to evaluate student work and provide feedback to help them improve their research and presentation skills. You might be just the person who inspires a future historian or engaged citizen.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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British Bureaucra-sea: How Montagu’s Reforms Paved the Way for Nelson’s Victory

Patrick Maier
Independent Historian

During the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was far more than simply the seaborne arm of Britain’s military. It was the largest and most complex governmental and industrial organization of its time, spread out among numerous departments. Like any large organization, it was greatly hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency, lack of innovation, and inter-departmental strife. During his time at the Admiralty, John Montagu addressed many of the issues that had been limiting the Royal Navy’s potential for decades, thus allowing future leaders to develop Britain’s navy into the premier seagoing superpower of its time.

When considering major figures in popular history, it is usually the major war heroes or revered founders of nations that first come to mind. This tendency can certainly be understood and forgiven, since the exploits of figures such as George Washington, Horatio Nelson, and George Patton certainly make for fascinating and exciting stories. People remember the great warriors and generals, but not the great administrators and organizers who make military victories possible. It could be argued that the success and fortunes of entire empires were built upon the backs of such managers and administrators. Such is the case with John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and one of the most influential First Lords of the Admiralty in England’s history. While he did not have a record of great victories at sea as other figures (such as his colleague, Rear Admiral George Anson), he was instrumental in reforming the organizational quagmire that was England’s Admiralty and navy in the middle and late eighteenth century.

John Montagu was born in 1718 to Edward Montagu, Viscount of Hinchingbrooke, and Elizabeth Popham Montagu, the daughter of the Earl of Rochester. 1 John Montagu’s great-grandfather, also named Edward Montagu (the First Earl of Sandwich) reached the rank of Vice-Admiral of the Blue in 1672. Vice-Admiral Montagu died later that year during the Third Anglo-Dutch War at the Battle of Solebay, after Dutch fireships destroyed his heavily-damaged flagship. As a result of political support earlier in his career, Admiral Montague was granted a substantial amount of money by Charles II. By the time John Montagu reached adulthood as the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, however, much of the family fortune had been squandered. The stories and diaries of Vice-Admiral Montagu did instill a passionate interest in the navy in the young John Montagu. However, in 1740 at the age of twenty-two, Montagu began participating in the House of Lords. While Montague had a hereditary right to his seat, his relatively modest personal wealth made it difficult to exert the sort of political influence wealthier peers were able to put forth. Thus, Montagu joined a political faction led by John Russell, the Duke of Bedford (whose county neighbored Montagu’s own). After about four years, the ejection of John Carteret’s ministry in 1744 created an opportunity for Bedford and Montagu to begin ministerial positions on the Board of Admiralty.

Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich (Wikimedia Commons)

At the age of twenty-six, Lord Montagu entered the Admiralty as one of the Lords Commissioners under Bedford. The Admiralty in this period consisted of a complicated structural web. Officially, the members of the Board of Admiralty were equals, with some deference based on social rank. As a duke, Lord Bedford ranked first, followed by Lord Montagu, Lord Archibald Hamilton and Lord Vere Beauclerk (both younger sons of other dukes), the Irish baron Lord Baltimore, and finally two “civilians,” Rear Admiral George Anson and George Grenville, a Member of Parliament. 2 In practice, Lord Bedford’s interest in Admiralty administration quickly faded. In the first month of 1745, Bedford attended all thirty meetings of the Board of Admiralty. After that, however, he increasingly missed meetings until finally settling on a “consistent” work week in June. 3 The duke spent most of his time at his country estate in Woburn, only traveling into London on Wednesday morning and then returning Thursday afternoon. During his stays in the countryside, Bedford left instructions to keep him apprised of critical news and affairs related to patronage. Besides that, he was content to leave the overall operation of the Board of Admiralty to the other members, who divided up responsibilities based on circumstance and personal inclination. Lord Montagu and his colleagues were entering office already facing an uphill battle in regards to public opinion. After the disastrous Battle of Toulon in 1744, public opinion was inflamed against the condition of the navy. 4

At Toulon, the British fleet met a combined French and Spanish fleet in battle as part of the War of Austrian Succession. 5 While attempting to form a line of battle, the van and center squadrons of the British fleet grew separated from the rear group. Seeing the combined fleet beginning to slip away, the British admiral, Thomas Matthews, gave the signal to break formation and attack the mainly Spanish rear, inadvertently leaving the signal flags for forming a battle line still flying. The two signals spread confusion throughout the English fleet, leading to a disorganized English force attacking a well-formed Spanish group. Once the French ships circled back around to begin flanking the English ships, the English ships broke and began to flee. While the losses on both sides were relatively equal, the Franco-Spanish fleet did manage to escape and complete its mission of resupplying the Spanish armies in Italy. On top of being associated with a navy that many considered complacent and misled, Montagu and his associates also faced the daunting task of navigating the morass of jurisdictions and compartmentalization involved with running the military and civil aspects of the Board of Admiralty. When Montagu and his colleagues joined the Board of Admiralty, England’s naval forces were facing numerous issues. Poor communication and a lack of technical awareness were resulting in inefficiency and stagnation in innovation. The ships the English already had afloat were deteriorating quicker than they could be repaired, while newly commissioned ships continued to display the design shortcomings of previous generations.

On the naval side, the Board of Admiralty was primarily charged with matters of personnel management and routine ships’ movements. 6 Overall wartime strategy was dictated by the King and his Cabinet. In reality, however, the prime minister and the Cabinet handled strategy in the King’s name. When the Cabinet did issue orders for overall fleet movements, they were typically sent directly to the admiral concerned, with a second copy forwarded to the Board of Admiralty. While they could not order fleet movements directly, the Board of Admiralty was in charge of handling convoy escorts, patrol routes, and movements of ships within and between ports. The Board of Admiralty was able to advise the King and Cabinet through the First Lord, who also served as a Cabinet minister. 7 This distinction is worth noting since a similar dynamic resurfaces repeatedly in the Board of Admiralty’s dealings. The Board was able to offer professional advice but was not able to insist that its instructions be followed.

The Board of Admiralty’s civil responsibility was even more convoluted. The various dockyards, which designed, constructed, repaired, and fitted the ships themselves were not subject to the Board of Admiralty at all. Their management fell under the Navy Board, a separate but (theoretically) subordinate department. The Navy Board was also responsible for warranting lower officers (lieutenants, etc.), supplying most naval stores, and handling the peacetime disarming and storing of vessels, as well as construction and maintenance of dockyard buildings. 8 This plethora of responsibilities resulted in the Navy Board administrative staff requiring about four times as many employees as the Board of Admiralty, as well as thousands of dockyard staff. Alongside the Navy Board existed three other organizational boards, the Victualling Board, the Sick and Hurt Board, and the Ordinance Board.

While each of these three boards closely interacted with the Board of Admiralty, they were not officially under the command of the Board of Admiralty. Rather, these three boards existed alongside the Board of Admiralty. The Admiralty could issue official requests, requisitions, and advisements, but had little authority to directly enforce its will over these boards. Furthermore, the fact that each board dealt in extremely specific technical and logistical information meant that members of the Board of Admiralty often found themselves at a disadvantage when disputes formed between the various boards. The Board of Admiralty members often found themselves simply overruled because of an inability to argue specific details, which made enforcing suggestions for change or reform almost impossible. The Victualling Board was responsible for purchasing, packing, storing, and distributing the massive amounts of food and drink needed for the ships. It frequently placed notices in newspapers advertising open, long-term contracts for food brokers and suppliers. 9 The Sick and Hurt Board handled sick, wounded, and disabled sailors, as well as the care and exchange of officers taken as prisoners of war in both the navy and army. 10 Finally, the Board of Admiralty dealt with arranging guns, powder, ammunition, and other wartime material through the Ordinance Board. This department supplied both the navy and army and frequently advertised for contractors in a manner similar to that of the Victualling Board. 11 This web of departmental jurisdictions was complicated further by the fact that, while some of these departments were nominally subordinate to the Board of Admiralty, the individuals leading those boards frequently possessed significantly deeper understanding and technical expertise concerning their fields than the members of the Board of Admiralty. Thus, they were often able to stubbornly resist any attempts at change suggested by the Board of Admiralty.

The biggest area of reform that Montague pursued in his first period on the Board of Admiralty concerned the administrative and personnel issues between itself and the Navy Board. One of the major sources of tension between the Admiralty and the Navy Board was the inability of the Board of Admiralty to terminate commissioners within the Navy Board (although the Admiralty did have the ability to appoint them in the first place). Unless they were dismissed for gross misconduct or talked into retiring, officers and commissioners served on the Navy Board for life. 12 The Board of Admiralty had absolute control over appointing members to the Navy Board, but could only do so when vacancies opened. The end result of this inability to terminate Navy Board officials was that individuals serving in the upper reaches of the Navy Board were frequently well past their prime, immovably set in their ways, or an intractable combination of the two. Frequently, the Board of Admiralty had to find ways to cooperate with Navy Board officials who had been originally appointed by Board of Admiralty members long gone. Sir Jacob Acworth, for example, joined the Navy Board as senior surveyor in 1715 under King George I. 13 Despite being incredibly resistant to any changes and being almost too infirm to perform many of his day-to-day responsibilities, Sir Acworth could not be fired or forced into retirement. The inherent resistance to innovation and change in the Navy Board of that period would continually vex Lord Montagu and his associates.

In addition to struggling to work with officials they could not easily replace, the Board of Admiralty also attempted to acquire a greater understanding of how the Navy Board utilized the resources it received from Parliament (resources whose disbursement was supposed to be determined alongside with the Board of Admiralty). In an attempt to better understand the financial structure of the navy, the Board of Admiralty ordered a series of cost statements dating back to 1739 concerning the recruiting and training of sailors, as well as unpaid debts from the last five Treasurers of the Navy. In addition, they ordered detailed shipbuilding and repair lists dating back to Queen Anne’s War in 1710, as well as comparisons between navy debt during that war and the last five years of England’s involvement in the War of Austrian Succession. 14 Many of these requests were ignored, submitted incredibly late, or fulfilled only partially.

Even when the Board of Admiralty issued orders and advisements on more concrete issues, they encountered problems. For example, the Board of Admiralty requested studies on the feasibility of using prahm-style barges for amphibious naval use. 15   This idea came about due to reports that smaller, traditional boats could not effectively carry the large number of troops needed for coastal landings. The wider and flatter barges were expected to allow for easier deployment of larger groups of infantry. Rather than look into the matter, the Navy Board again chose to delay and ignore the request. The Navy Board also ignored a similar request for reports on the effectiveness of switching to heavier rigging and sails for ships, which might have allowed navy ships to operate more effectively in the harsh Atlantic seas. Again, the request was ignored with various excuses and explanations. 16

While the attempts at reforming departmental administration were frustrated, Lord Montagu and his colleagues experienced greater success in the military side of things. Specifically, Montagu was concerned with addressing a perceived lack of discipline and an attitude towards duty that was “too much relaxed.” 17 While Montagu was serving in the Admiralty under Lord Bedford, naval officers, on multiple occasions, conducted themselves incredibly poorly in full public view. For example, the disastrous Battle of Toulon (which cast a dark cloud over Bedford’s Board of Admiralty just as they were entering office) resulted in several courts-martial of captains and junior officers. 18 In retaliation, one of the junior officers proceeded to sue the presiding admiral in civil courts for damages and won. This victory in the courts kicked off a series of similar lawsuits by other officers that culminated in a resolution being submitted by the Board of Admiralty to the King himself asking for such suits to be prohibited. In the area of reinforcing and promoting naval discipline, Montagu worked alongside Vice-Admiral Anson, whose numerous naval victories before joining the Board of Admiralty had won him well-deserved respect. Lord Anson distributed his junior officers (who were noted for their strict professionalism) throughout the fleet in hopes of encouraging various crews to strive for improvement. Montagu, meanwhile, concerned himself with fostering a greater sense of duty within the navy, such as personally commissioning a series of paintings of every major English sea battle to be placed within Whitehall. These images were intended to promote a sense of pride and martial spirit within the officers who passed through the Admiralty building repeatedly throughout their careers. Montagu was also strongly opposed to favoritism and familial connections as a basis for promotion or awarding naval commands. In 1747, two captains serving under Anson attempted to use their familial connections to secure favorable cruising orders that would give them opportunities to hunt enemy merchant vessels and gain opportunities at winning prize money. 19 These captains were William Montagu, brother of John Montagu, and Thomas Grenville, brother of Board of Admiralty member George Grenville. While George Grenville was open to allowing limited nepotism, John Montagu insisted that the two captains be granted cruises if and when Vice-Admiral Anson thought it proper. Lord Montagu was particularly bothered by his own brother’s reputation for poor personal conduct, as he mentioned in a letter to Vice-Admiral Anson: “My brother’s general behavior and his particular conduct to me; affects me so much…. I find mild treatment will not save him, & indeed I think at the same time nothing will.” 20 Thus, Montague demonstrated that even where familial connection was involved, he would champion the prioritization of duty and the rights of admirals to handle their own orders.

In addition to preserving the authority of admirals, Montagu was also heavily concerned with the restructuring and clarification of naval rank structure. Before Montagu, the command structure around post-captains, master and commanders, and lieutenants was significantly more ambiguous than might be assumed. An individual reached the rank of post-captain only by being commissioned by the Board of Admiralty to a “post ship,” meaning one of the large ships ranging from first-rate to sixth-rate. This system of rating ships was based on the number of cannons and gun decks a vessel possessed. A “first-rate” ship possessed at least one hundred guns across three decks, while a “second-rate” was armed with ninety to ninety-eight guns. “Third-rate” ships carried between sixty-four and eighty guns, while “fourth-rate” ships carried fifty to sixty (both third- and fourth-rate ships had two gun decks). These first four “rates” were considered “ships-of-the-line”. Frigates were rated as either “fifth-rate” (carrying between thirty-two and forty-four cannons on one or two decks) or “sixth-rate” (with twenty to twenty-eight cannons on a single gun deck). Various sloops, brigs, and cutters were “unrated”. 21

The rank of master and commander, a semi-official rank, was lower than that of post-captain. A master and commander would be commissioned into an unrated ship. This was frequently the case when there were more candidates for promotion than available rated ships. It was also possible for a distinguished lieutenant to skip that rank entirely and be promoted directly to post-captain. 22 Thus it was unclear, for example, if a lieutenant serving as a master and commander was superior or subordinate to a lieutenant who did not hold that position but had chronological seniority. The distinction between the duties and hierarchy of the ranks was clarified when the Board of Admiralty secured an Order in Council. 23 This Order in Council also standardized officer uniforms and allowed officers to draw their pay annually rather than waiting for the end of a multi-year commission (as the rest of the crew had to do). While this change may seem like a small matter, it greatly reinforced both the prestige of officers and the idea of a permanent, cohesive service. The creation of standardized uniforms in particular helped foster a sense of unity among ships and squadrons throughout the navy.

Montague and the Board of Admiralty also had to deal with issues in the upper ranks. Unlike the progression from lieutenant to post-captain (ostensibly based purely on individual merit, although political connection occasionally played a role), the progression from post-captain through the various ranks of admiral was based strictly on seniority, specifically on the date when an individual was promoted to post-captain. 24 The rank of admiral was divided into three main groups: the Red, the White, and the Blue. These ranks were further divided into the Center, the Van, and the Rear, thus resulting in nine flag ranks. This structure was instituted in the late seventeenth century, and was woefully inadequate for the size of the English fleet in the 1740s. Montagu and the Board of Admiralty handled this issue through a series of particularly clever reforms. The Board of Admiralty received permission from the King and the Cabinet to create multiple flag officers of the same rank, which allowed it to create as many positions as were required. 25 This still left the risk of these positions (which could only be issued by strict adherence to commission seniority) being filled by captains who were either incompetent or far too elderly to be considered appropriate. The Admiralty solved this problem by the creation of a “fourth rank”, called “rear admiral without distinction of squadron.” The creation of this rank gave the Board of Admiralty a way to retire elderly post-captains in a way that granted them the half-pay and respect due a rear admiral. At the same time, this solution also allowed the Admiralty to work their way as far down the captains list as was necessary to find a candidate who merited promotion to admiral. For example, Horatio Nelson was made Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1797 after his victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, passing over other officers of greater seniority.

Montagu and the Board of Admiralty developed a critical strategic reform as well: the creation of the Western Squadron in 1746 and 1747. 26 The Western Squadron was a fleet of ships kept upwind in the western approaches to the English Channel. By remaining out at sea, the squadron allowed the Royal Navy to maintain a patrolling force along major trade routes, and the most likely sea passages for hostile forces. It also allowed for a squadron that was ready for action to quickly respond to threats against the English mainland in the channel, since prevailing winds favored a fleet sailing from the west. Finally, keeping a fleet at sea for prolonged periods allowed the sailors to reach a level of training and unit cohesion that was difficult (if not impossible) for fleets in port to maintain. While Vice-Admiral Anson (with his practical experience at sea) was strongly in favor of establishing the standing Western Squadron, Montagu was also strongly in favor of the idea. In one letter, Montagu stated that he had “always looked upon squadrons in Port, as neither a Defence for the Kingdom, nor a security for our Commerce…..the surest means for the preservation of Both, was Keeping strong Squadron in Soundings.” 27 This comment illustrates that, while Lord Montagu may not have had the at-sea experience of a naval hero like Anson, he did have a keen understanding of strategic flexibility and the ability to rapidly respond to foreign threats.

Some attempts at naval reform, outside of the dockyard issues, during Montagu’s first stretch in the Board of Admiralty failed, either entirely or in part. One of these was the attempt to revise and modernize the Articles of War in 1749. Originally issued in 1652, the Articles of War created the guidelines for naval discipline, particularly the specific grounds for a court-martial and the associated penalties. After almost a hundred years, the Articles of War needed revision. 28 Montagu and the Board of Admiralty proposed a new bill that called for two major changes. The first change allowed for courts-martial to alter or waive the punishments specified, many of which had been abused by previous courts, with Lord Bedford describing the abusers as “led away by their private prejudices or narrow principles, to the discredit of themselves, & to the ruin of their profession.” 29 The second aspect of the bill suggested making officers on half-pay subject to trials by court-martial. This measure was intended to prevent officers from resigning from the service in order to escape prosecution. This portion of the bill met with extremely hostile opposition from many naval officers, who feared that the provision would allow the Board of Admiralty to coerce captains into accepting assignments deemed too dangerous (or unlikely to bring wealth and glory). In theory, the Board of Admiralty could use the new provision to levy charges of cowardice or insubordination against half-pay captains who declined commands. The opposition of the navy captains (and their various political allies) was so strong that Parliament eventually removed the second provision in the final version of the bill.

Attempts at legislating solutions for England’s manpower shortage also proved an impossible challenge for Bedford’s Board of Admiralty. In the same year, Montagu and his associates proposed a solution to the issue of England’s slow mobilization during the opening stages of conflicts. With most sailors being discharged during peacetime, it was difficult for the English to man their ships when war approached. The French navies solved this problem by simply utilizing their absolutist governments to compel coastal citizens to fill their navies. The English, however, had a strong opposition to having such standing policies put into law. As a result, early mobilization in England frequently resulted in the haphazard use of press gangs. In April of 1749, the Board of Admiralty put forth a bill before Parliament calling for the creation of a 20,000 man “reserve” force, which would consist of able-bodied men making themselves available for service in exchange for a £10 annual retainer. This proposal met with vehement opposition in Parliament, which decried the bill as an attempt to set precedent for slavery and tyranny. 30 The initial opposition was so strong that the administration chose to simply withdraw the bill, leaving the issue of manpower shortages to be addressed at a later time. While the solution to the organizational and policy problems within the various boards continued to elude Montagu, the Board of Admiralty also sought to address the more concrete issue surrounding the design philosophies of England’s naval architects.

As the sluggish and unreliable performance of British ships in the Battle of Toulon demonstrated, British ship designers were facing difficulty keeping up with the more innovative continental warships. Vice-Admiral George Anson worked with Montagu to address the problems with England’s ships. British ships were considered to be too small and too heavily gunned to be reliably effective in battle. For example, English warships tended to sit too deep in the water. In relatively calm waters and light winds, English ships-of-the-line were able to capitalize on their multiple gun decks. In large swells or foul weather, however, the lower gunports frequently had to be shut in order to prevent water from pouring in, severely limiting their effectiveness. 31   It was also commonly believed by captains that the heavyweight cannons made their vessels slower and less maneuverable than their French and Spanish counterparts. 32 A significant part of the problem was the establishment of a “standardization” in 1719 and 1733 which set definitions on the dimensions and armament for each ship class. In theory, this change was intended to simplify logistics by standardizing material requests, particularly regarding spars, masts, and rigging. Standardized classes were also expected to allow fleet admirals to more easily organize and manage their naval groups, since the ships would presumably have predictable sailing qualities. In practice, the standardizations were frequently not entirely followed, but they did provide conservative shipbuilders convenient excuses to resist change and experimentation.

In order to address this issue, Lord Montagu and the Board of Admiralty ordered a halt to the building of all ships, as well as the revision and modification of some ships still in the early stages of construction. In addition, new designs incorporated advancements seen in continental ships. 33 This attempt at reform met with only partial success. The template for a new 74-gun ship-of–the-line was adopted, as well as various small changes to construction methods. In practice, however, most of the newly-designed ship archetypes continued to have the same strengths and weaknesses of the previous designs, resulting in little real gain. Sir Jacob Acworth, the Surveyor of the Navy since 1715 was particularly angered by and resistant to attempts at reform (and suggestions that he should retire). Lord Montagu voiced his frustration with Acworth in a letter to Anson, stating:

Sir Jacob should retire with every circumstance that can make his old age easy and happy, but retain no influence in Naval Architecture….It is high time Ships began to have bottoms to them…. As well as better Oeconomy [sic] prevail’d [sic] in the Dock Yards. This cannot happen whilst he has any influence, for whilst he has any he will have all. 34

The closest Montagu and his associates came to success in reforming the construction of ships-of–the-line was the appointment of Sir Joseph Allin as a joint surveyor alongside Acworth in 1746. 35 This wasn’t the victory Montagu had hoped for, since Allin proved to be only slightly less resistant to progress than Acworth. With the presence of Sir Allin, suggestions by the Board of Admiralty were at least discussed with the Navy Board rather than simply dismissed out of hand. The Board of Admiralty proved to have an easier time instituting reforms in frigate design. In addition to being smaller and more quickly built (therefore allowing changes to be more easily studied), English frigates had competitors in both privateers and in captured enemy prizes (enemy frigates being taken more often than full line of battleships). Since these ships were more plentiful and required less time to build than the multi-year ships-of-the-line, frigate designers were more open to innovation. For example, Vice-Admiral Anson personally selected the Plymouth Yard master shipwright Benjamin Slade to construct imitations of the French frigate Tigre, a captured enemy ship that had proven to have exceptional speed and maneuverability.

Writing to Lord Bedford, Anson stated: “I [Anson] intreat your Grace….to direct Mr Slade the Builder at Plymouth to take the Body of the French Tyger with utmost exactness and that two Frigates may be order’d; let Slade have the building of one of them.” 36 Clearly, there were some “middle managers” among the dockyard architects and builders who were open to at least considering innovation and progress.

In addition to trying to change administrative practices within the Navy and induce design innovation among ship architects, Montague and the Board of Admiralty also attempted to bring changes to the dockyards themselves, where ships were built, repaired, and kept in storage. Navy dockyards in Montagu’s time were commonly known to be poorly supervised, inefficient, and plagued with corruption and embezzlement. While both the government and the general public knew of these problems, numerous past administrations had tried and failed to bring about successful solutions. Part of the issue stemmed from the fact that neither the Board of Admiralty nor the Navy Board had a firm grasp on the intricacies of actual dockyard management or dockyard personnel. Each dockyard had a Commissioner, a navy captain on half-pay attached to the Navy board serving as the supposed senior office. However, each senior dockyard officer took orders directly from the Navy Board, rather than the Commissioner. The Commissioner could issue advice, warnings, and reports regarding the master shipwright, attendant, storekeeper, and clerk of the cheque, but had no authority to give them orders. 37 In essence, the Commissioner served as an intermediary between the dockyard and the captains and officers of ships. What was clear to Lord Montagu was that this system served to make imposing reforms incredibly convoluted and made properly assigning responsibility (and blame) practically impossible.

The core of this issue lay in the fact that the upper management of both boards had difficulty comprehending the technical and logistical complexity of the dockyards. The Board of Admiralty and even the officers within the Navy itself knew little of what managing and operating a dockyard required. Most navy captains simply requisitioned repairs or overhauls for their vessels, and the dockyard somehow made them happen (eventually). The Board of Admiralty, being at multiple levels removed from the yards themselves, had to rely on cooperative information-sharing from the Navy Board. Even the Navy Board did not have a clear understanding of their dockyards. With the vast majority of the administrative staff being located in London, the Navy Board relied upon the dockyard officers to keep them apprised of situations. As historian Nicholas Rodger explained, “It was easy to express dissatisfaction when things went wrong, more difficult to diagnose the problem, and very difficult to enforce a solution on reluctant subordinates whom it was impossible to dismiss and difficult to replace.” 38 With little direct authority where inter-departmental cooperation was not forthcoming and a lack of in-depth understanding of problems, the Admiralty Board under Bedford was finding reform of the dockyards to be much more challenging than Montagu and his associates initially thought.

While the problems within the dockyards may have been incredibly convoluted, it was clear to Montagu that relying on second and third-hand explanations and reports was not going to bring about solutions. With the death of Sir Jacob Acworth in 1748, it seemed plausible that his replacement would be more open to changes. Indeed, it would have been difficult for anyone to be less inclined than Acworth. Thus, the Board of Admiralty realized that simply replacing components within the existing mechanism was not going to work. By this time, Montagu was acutely aware that the lack of understanding of how the dockyards operated was going to continue to hamstring any Board of Admiralty efforts. In one letter, Montagu wrote: “I have always found that ‘til I understood the business thoroughly myself, I was liable to imposition…. I have ever made it my first Object to get free from these Shackles, as fast as I could, by making myself Master of what I was to undertake.” 39 Thus, in 1749, Montagu decided to tour all of England’s dockyards with several other associates from the Board of Admiralty. The Navy Board itself rarely did more than send one or two individuals to inspect the dockyards. This unprecedented move by the Board of Admiralty allowed Montagu to eliminate the advantage granted by the Navy Board’s “monopoly of information.” 40 In his visits, Montagu witnessed a plethora of organizational and managerial issues plaguing the dockyards, including idle workmen and the haphazard storage and cataloging of lumber. When inspecting ships that were laid up “in Ordinary” (meaning for reserve storage between wars), Montague wrote that he witnessed “in some of the Great Cabbins were Fires, anv Victuals cook’d in them, and not only Inhabited by the Officers, but Women and Children also, contrary to many Standing Orders.” 40 In other dockyards, Montagu and the Board representatives found victualling storehouses collapsing and the Storekeeper unable to fulfill his duty because of severe gout. At the same time, some dockyards such as Woolwich and Portsmouth were considered satisfactory.

In the course of the tours, Montagu witnessed workers in the Woolwich and Plymouth yards to be employed in “task work”, meaning that they were paid by the completed piece or task rather than the standard daily salary. After seeing the increased productivity of those laborers compared to traditional workers, Montagu took personal charge of issuing a series of orders to the Navy Board calling for the institution of task work, as well as other changes throughout the dockyards. The reaction in the dockyards among workers to the proposed changes was incredibly hostile, with dockyard officers fearing the loss of their privileges and control. The Navy Board enacted very few of the changes by 1751 and outright ignored many of the orders. 42 While this attempt at reform essentially failed, it did prove to Montague the critical need for personal understanding of an issue before problems could be addressed. Montagu’s further efforts to initiate change would have to be delayed, however. Over the previous years, Bedford had fallen increasingly out of favor with both his political colleagues and the King, in part due to his idle and unprofessional conduct. In particular, Bedford found himself the enemy of Thomas Holles, the Duke of Newcastle. In order to bait Bedford into resigning in protest, Newcastle and his allies dismissed Montagu.  It would not be until a near disaster in 1770 that Montagu would find himself once again in a position to reform naval affairs.

After being dismissed from the Board of Admiralty, Montague contented himself with travel, music, and some diplomatic dealings. A geopolitical development in 1770, however, would help facilitate his return to the Board of Admiralty. In that year, Spanish troops drove the British out of the Falkland Islands. As diplomatic talks began to break down over the issue, the Southern Secretary, Thomas Weymouth, resigned and was replaced by the Secretary of State, Lord North. North then brought Lord Montagu on as his replacement as Secretary of State as a way of showing respect to Weymouth (who suggested Montagu) and solidifying ties with political allies. While this political restructuring was occurring, the Navy was trying to mobilize for what might be the opening of a major war. What resulted was an incredibly slow and haphazard preparation that revealed that the difficulty of mustering sailors was exceeded only by the deteriorated condition of available ships. In one letter, Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Bradshaw, stated that “The Admiralty have already most miserably bungled the business, & they are not only tardy, but every step they mean to take… is already as well known as it will be… I not only pity the Country, but the Minister who is to work with such implements.” 43 Fortunately, peace negotiations between the English and French obliged Spain to agree to an accommodation, and a peace agreement was signed in January of 1771. With the war averted, North was interested in replacing Lord Hawke, the elderly admiral serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and the man many blamed for the navy’s deterioration. 44   After serving as Secretary of State for three weeks, Montagu (gladly) accepted the “demotion” to First Lord of the Admiralty. While the change involved not only a reduction in rank as well as a salary decrease, Montagu wrote to his son that “It is not I that have accommodated the administration but the administration that has gratified me in my request to change my department.” 43 Montagu would prove, however, to have learned from his previous term. Rather than attempting sweeping reforms of all problems facing England’s navy at once, Montagu would instead attempt to find solutions to the core causes of individual issues. In particular, he would attempt to increase the dockyards’ material capacity, improve the efficiency of dockyard workers, and find a creative solution to England’s problem with mobilization speed.

The “bungled” mobilization revealed a number of compounding issues throughout the navy. During times of peace, most of the navy’s officers and common sailors dispersed into fisheries or the merchant fleet. This dissolution of established crews naturally resulted in the disintegration of unit cohesion and discipline that had been created over the course of the previous war. Even the ships themselves were vulnerable to peace-time deterioration. With poor dockyard discipline, ships laid up in ordinary were frequently neglected and ignored until war appeared imminent. At that point, the combination of repairing neglected ships, fitting out others, and maintaining ships already active put an insurmountable strain on dockyard logistics, severely hampering any attempt to bring the navy up to full combat strength.

When Montagu resumed office within the Board of Admiralty, he quickly realized that the limitations of dockyards constituted one of the key components of the dilemma. At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, the English fleet reached a purported size of 150 ships-of-the-line, as well as the various smaller vessels. The dockyards, however, were at the same capacity as they were after some expansions during the late seventeenth century and the reign of Queen Anne. 46 The majority of these dockyards were located on the east coast of England, with only one on the west coast. The eastern yards were known to be particularly cramped, with several of them also infested with shipworm. 47 An increasingly deteriorated fleet was trying to make use of these undersized ports. Even keeping track of the condition of ships proved to be an incredible logistical challenge. Enormous wooden vessels could have severe decay in areas not frequently inspected or accessed that were not found until the ships were being prepared for war (or even until they were under way). Frequently, records indicated ships in ordinary to be in good condition when in fact they were barely seaworthy. The limited number of dockyards and building slips meant that only a small number of ships could be serviced at a time, meaning that many others continued to decay while waiting. Another factor complicating the management of repairs was the difficulty in keeping accurate financial records of repairs. For example, in the years between 1774 and 1783, Parliament approved fifty-two requests for repairs to 74-gun ships. Thirty-nine of those ships were actually repaired, and the remaining funds were instead diverted to the repair of eleven other ships not mentioned in the initial requisition. 48

Whereas Montagu attempted sweeping administrative reforms during his first period on the Board of Admiralty, his second term focused primarily on conditions and logistics within the dockyards themselves. Montague came to the conclusion that attempting to maintain the current fleet with the dockyard capacity and the financial support granted by Parliament was an impossible task. Instead, he sought to lessen the maintenance strain by increasing the lifespan of the ships themselves. In order to understand how to tackle that issue, Montagu resumed annual inspections of the dockyards by the Board of Admiralty in 1771. Such inspection tours had not taken place since Montagu’s previous term on the Board. His predecessor, Lord Hawke, had ordered the Navy board to make such inspections (and was ignored). 49 This time, however, Montagu took a significantly different approach. During his previous inspections in 1749 and 1750, those on the tours were only members from the Board of Admiralty. In 1771, however, Montague made certain to include representatives from both the Board of Admiralty and the Navy Board. 50 The inclusion of representatives from both boards demonstrated that Montagu understood that the adversarial mentality between the two boards only served to hamper both, while mutual participation would foster cooperation. During their tours, Montagu and the representatives not only inspected the physical conditions. Montagu paid particular attention to reports on the utility of worm rigging to prevent wear, the best methods of storing masts, and an experimental trial of anti-fouling compounds. Such information not only informed Montagu in regards to his quest for extending ship service life, but also provided him with a deeper understanding of the technical expertise involved with dockyard management.

Montagu also identified the critical issues of the shortage of seasoned reserve timber. Montagu sought to find a way to increase the dockyard reserve to an estimated three years’ worth. As he began to inspect the fleet left over from the previous administration, Montague realized just how dangerous the situation had been in 1770. With so few existing ships in good repair, the navy would have been forced to institute an emergency building program similar to that of the Seven Years’ War. During that conflict, the need for ships to be rapidly built resulted in a great number of them being built either partially or entirely out of unseasoned wood, which was particularly vulnerable to rot and decay in damp conditions. If war had come in 1770, Montagu believed that the Navy “could not have built fast enough to make up for the rapid decay with which we were threatened; and those ships would have been run up at immense expence [sic]…. Few of them would have lasted more than six years.” 51 Clearly, Montagu was not interested in continuing the process of building new ships with poor service lives. Increasing the seasoned timber reserves, however, resulted in a difficult paradox. Timber could only be seasoned by allowed it to sit for several years. Allowing cut timber to rest and season naturally required reducing the consumption of timber as the reserve stock aged. The suspension or delay of repairs, however, led to an increased rate of ship decay, thereby increasing the need for lumber. The problem of reducing consumption to allow for seasoning was compounded by the fact that the Navy was experiencing an overall lack of timber available for purchase.

Montagu began to address each part of the situation in turn. In order to increase the overall availability of lumber, Montagu ordered an increase in the amount of freight cost the Navy was willing to pay to acquire wood. This allowed the Navy to import lumber from farther away, even from abroad. The Navy Board quickly began contracting with additional lumber suppliers to fill their needs. 52 In addition, Montagu secured a legal limitation on the size of ships the East India Company was allowed to use. 53 With their enormous trading ships and enormous funds, the East India Company had previously been able to compete with the Navy for timber. While shipbuilders were initially incredibly reluctant to build using “foreign wood”, they quickly accepted the new reality (and a new source of income). By the middle of 1773, Montagu had managed to attain an average of three years’ worth of seasoned timber in the dockyards. While the raw material issue may have been solved, this still left Montagu with the dilemma of figuring out how to find enough yard capacity to build and season new ships while maintaining the ships already in service.

Montagu pursued another long-term endeavor of building up a seasoned-timber fleet. He realized that trying to reconcile the new fleet building with an old fleet maintenance system was impossible. While the dockyards were busy building up timber reserves and constructing new maintenance slips, Montagu canceled several contracts to have new ships constructed. Montagu and the Board of Admiralty also took the controversial step of outsourcing some frigate repairs to private shipyards. 54 As lumber supplies and maintenance facilities gradually increased, however, Montagu was faced with complications from a third angle: manpower. With the prolonged peace, the Board of Admiralty was under increasing pressure to lay off workers within the dockyards. When previously faced with an inability to keep vessels repaired, Montagu sought ways to reduce the number of repairs they needed. Here again, Montague attempted an indirect solution: if more men could not be kept in the dockyard, he would attempt to make those that were available more efficient. Thus, bringing their focus to administrative issues again, the Board of Admiralty once more attempted to introduce task work.

In the second attempt to bring in task work, the Board of Admiralty chose to make the adoption of task work voluntary for each shipyard while highlighting its potential for increasing the laborers’ nominal wages. Additionally, the Board of Admiralty was able to secure a cooperative reception from the Navy Board rather than the adversarial one twenty years previously. 55 Part of this change was due to the sense of teamwork and departmental camaraderie created by Montagu’s insistence that the Navy Board participate in the dockyard tours. Another contributing factor was the fact that Montagu had the good fortune of having most of the previous Navy Board leadership replaced in recent years with younger, more open-minded individuals. Regardless, the combined will of the Board of Admiralty and the Navy Board meant that the recommendation of task work carried significantly more weight during this second attempt. While some dockyards, such as Portsmouth and Plymouth resisted the changes, others such as the dockyard in Woolwich chose to try the new system. As rumors of increased pay began to spread, other dockyards gradually shifted to task work.

Finally, Montagu also pursued reforming England’s ships themselves. Rather than attempting serious overhauls of design philosophy as he did during his previous term, however, Montagu attempted to change how England made use of an existing but underutilized fleet. The near-war of 1770 had revealed the danger of mainland England finding itself in a war without a properly mobilized defense force. For this issue, Montagu pursued a policy that might be viewed as similar to the failed “navy reserve” scheme of his previous tenure. Specifically, Montagu argued in favor of growing the guardship force. 56 Under the previous administration, guardships (warships kept partially ready for action in ports along the channel) were haphazardly manned and supplied. While some were in good order, others were barely more combat worthy than ships entombed in ordinary. In regards to manpower, some guardships had a few dozen hands on standby while others possessed full wartime-level crews. Under Montagu, the organization of guardships was greatly standardized. The number of ships was increased from fourteen to twenty (enough for a standard squadron), and the ratios of standing crews were increased from one-quarter of the wartime standard to one-half (enough to safely maneuver the ship and perform training cruises). 57 Furthermore, the Board of Admiralty dictated that a hull-cleaning rotation be instituted, allowing guardships to be cleaned and inspected twice yearly instead of once per year, thereby ensuring the vessels remained seaworthy.

Part of the reason for Montague’s successes in his second term on the Board of Admiralty was his acquaintanceship with King George III. Under Lord Montagu’s influence, George III had developed an interest in naval affairs and naval technology, going so far as to attend a ship launching in Deptford with Montagu and making a royal visit to the dockyard in Portsmouth in 1773. 58 By including groups such as the Navy Board in his reforms as contributors rather than as subordinates, Montagu allowed for peaceful cooperation between branches and departments. By maintaining political connections, such as his friendship with George III, he also maintained a valuable weapon in case a more forceful approach was needed to institute changes.

Throughout his two periods in the Board of Admiralty, Lord John Montague demonstrated a unique ability to identify immediate problems and institute long term solutions. While this had the obvious benefit of rooting out systemic flaws in the organizational and logistical structure of the navy, it did have the downside of making Montague vulnerable to criticism by those who did not share his long-term vision. Such was the cause for Montagu being harshly criticized after the English loss of the American colonies. With public outrage at a high, blame for the poor condition of the navy during the war was placed upon Montagu and his Board of Admiralty. In reality, however, Montagu’s board was dealing with systemic issues caused by previous generations of naval administration. At the same time, Montagu laid the foundations that would allow the next generation of the Royal Navy to reach an unprecedented level of excellence and formidableness. Thus, by demonstrating the power of skilled administrative reform, Lord Montagu made the later glories of individuals such as Nelson and Cochrane possible, even if he himself was not a seaman.


Had Montagu and his colleagues simply tried brute force solutions to the navy’s problems during his tenures, he would either have failed outright or created only partial improvements that would most likely have fallen apart shortly after his departure. Montagu, however, was circumspect enough to realize that not only did he lack the political clout for such actions, but that addressing root causes was the more effective way to correct the navy’s myriad symptoms. By ensuring that he and his followers developed a detailed understanding of the industries and departments they were trying to change, Montagu demonstrated that small reforms and changes could add up to sweeping improvements. By the early nineteenth century, Montagu’s reforms had borne fruit: the ships and sailors of the Royal Navy had the resilience, organization, and resources to not only take the fight to the other seafaring powers of the world but to strike resounding victories.


“Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty,” The National Archives UK, August 12, 2009.

Baugh, Daniel A. British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Black, Jeremy. Britain as a Military Power, 1688-1815. London: Routledge, 2004.

“Board’s minutes” The National Archives, UK. August 12, 2009.

Duffy, Michael. “The establishment of the Western Squadron as the linchpin of British naval strategy,” In Naval History 1680-1850. pp. 95-116. London: Routledge, 2017.

Duffy, Michael. “Types of Naval Leadership in the Eighteenth Century.” In Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World, edited by R. Harding and A. Guimerá, pp. 49-57. London: University of Westminster Press, 2017. DOI: License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Fortescue, J.W. The Correspondence of King George the Third: from 1760 to December 1783: Printed from the Original Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. London: Frank Cass, 1967.

Knight, R. J. B. Portsmouth Dockyard Papers, 1774-1783. Portsmouth: City of Portsmouth, 1987.

Lavery, Brian. The Ship of the Line. London: Conway Maritime, 2003.

London Gazette, March 24, 1744, 8313 edition. LINK.

“Montagu, Edward Richard, Visct. Hinchingbrooke (1692-1722), of Hinchingbrooke, Hunts.” History of Parliament Online. Institute of Historical Research. Accessed November 26, 2019. LINK.

“Navy Board and Admiralty: Office of the Surveyor of the Navy,” The National Archives, UK. August 23, 2009.

Pool, Bernard. Navy Board Contracts. London: Archon Books, 1966.

“Records of Medical and Prisoner of War Departments” The National Archives UK, August 12, 2009. https://

Rodger, N. A. M. The Insatiable Earl: a Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792. New York: Norton, 1994.

Rodger, N. A. M., Articles of War: The Statues which Governed our Fighting Navies 1661, 1749, and 1886.. Homewell: Kenneth Mason, 1982.

Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. London: Penguin, in Association with National Maritime Museum, 2004.

Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. London: Folio Society, 2009.

Russell, John. Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, Vol. 1. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842.

Sandwich, John Montagu of. The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. I. London: Routledge, 2019.

Sandwich, John Montagu of. The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. III. London: Routledge, 2019.

Wilkinson, Clive. The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004.

“William Palmer, Clerk of the Cheque at Portsmouth, Navy Office. Lord Sandwich Has..” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1.   “Montagu, Edward Richard, Visct. Hinchingbrooke (1692-1722), of Hinchingbrooke, Hunts.” History of Parliament Online. Institute of Historical Research. Accessed November 26, 2019. LINK.
  2.   N. A. M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl: a Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792 (New York: Norton, 1994).
  3.   “Board’s minutes,” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  4.   London Gazette, March 24, 1744, 8313 edition. LINK.
  5.   Jeremy Black, Britain as a Military Power, 1688-1815 (London: Routledge, 2004).
  6.   Clive Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004).
  7.   Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 23.
  8.   London Gazette, May 14, 1763, 10313 edition. LINK.
  9.   London Gazette, February 4, 1745, 8508 edition. LINK
  10. “Records of Medical and Prisoner of War Departments” The National Archives UK, August 12, 2009. https://
  11.   London Gazette, November 18, 1749, 8903 edition. LINK
  12. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 23
  13. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 23
  14. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 28.
  15. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, in Association with National Maritime Museum, 2004).
  16. “Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty,” The UK National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  17. John Montagu of Sandwich, The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. I. (London: Routledge, 2019), 89.
  18. Daniel A. Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015), 54.
  19. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 32
  20. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. 1, 160.
  21. Rodger, Command, 220.
  22. Michael Duffy, “Types of Naval Leadership in the Eighteenth Century,” in Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World, ed. R. Harding and A. Guimerá, (London: University of Westminster Press, 2017), 49–57. DOI: License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
  23. Baugh, British Naval, 84.
  24. Duffy, “Types.”
  25. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (London: Folio Society, 2009), 200.
  26. Michael Duffy, “The establishment of the Western Squadron as the linchpin of British naval strategy,” in Naval History 1680-1850, ed. R. Harding, (London: Routledge, 2017), 95-116.
  27. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 36.
  28. N. A. M. Rodger, Articles of War (Homewell: Kenneth Mason, 1982).
  29. John Russell, Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, Vol. 1 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842), 112.
  30. Rodger, Wooden World, 145.
  31. Brian Lavery, The Ship of the Line (London: Conway Maritime, 2003), 75.
  32. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, in Association with National Maritime Museum, 2004), 419.
  33. “Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  34. John Montagu of Sandwich, The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty; 1771-1782 (London: Routledge, 2019).
  35. London Gazette, June 10, 1746, 10313 edition. LINK.
  36. John Russell, Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, Vol. 1 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 18420, 80.
  37. Baugh, British Naval, 21.
  38. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 29
  39. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. 1, 73.
  40. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 65.
  41. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 65.
  42. Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  43. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 129.
  44. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. III, 13.
  45. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 129.
  46. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 132.
  47. Baugh, British Naval, 530.
  48. “Navy Board and Admiralty: Office of the Surveyor of the Navy” The National Archives, UK, August 23, 2009.
  49. Rodger, Command, 449.
  50. “William Palmer, Clerk of the Cheque at Portsmouth, Navy Office. Lord Sandwich Has…” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  51. John Montagu of Sandwich, The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. III (London: Routledge, 2019), 81.
  52. London Gazette, March, 2, 1771, 11123 edition. LINK
  53. Sandwich, Private Papers, 15.
  54. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 147.
  55. R. J. B. Knight, Portsmouth Dockyard Papers, 1774-1783 (Portsmouth: City of Portsmouth, 1987).
  56. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. III, 26.
  57. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. III, 27.
  58. J.W. Fortescue, The Correspondence of King George the Third: from 1760 to December 1783: Printed from the Original Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle (London: Frank Cass, 1967), 384.

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The Might That Failed: Jutland and the Wages of Ceremonial Battle

Michael Vlahos
The Johns Hopkins University

“But there was the glory first.”
Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed

The Battle of Jutland ranks among Britains most bitter disappointments. What should have been another Glorious First of June was, in the end, worse than defeat. The Grand Fleet had somehow let victory slip from its grasp. German upstarts laid a beat down and got away with it.

British propaganda was the worlds best, yet could not cover the shock. Though twice as strong, in a stand-up fight the Grand Fleet failed to win, and highflying hopes turned to beet-red embarrassment. Britains celestial claim to naval mastery was lost. Worse, Jutland presaged Britain’s permanent naval demotion just five years later — at American hands.

Yet Britain had engineered its own fall, by embracing the ceremonial ideal of decisive battle.” The story arc of its pursuit, from 1805 to 1916, delivered instead a decisive failure of British sea power.

Navy ceremonial is well, yet narrowly, understood. Fleet ritual and symbol are things outside the central naval mission, which is, above all, battle. I argue here for a much broader understanding of naval battle itself: As being driven by ceremony as much as by strictly instrumental needs. At Jutland, at its core, the primary battle mission was ritual and symbolic.

The ceremonial mission of English sea battle was established in national identity during the Elizabethan era, and grew into a fully mature component of the British narrative by the mid-Georgian era. Horatio Nelson, however, took the story kernel much further. In a celebrated series of sea battles, culminating in Trafalgar, he crafted a model of decisive battle that bonded instantly to the populist British national community — a true United Kingdom” — then emerging. 1

Through the Victorian era, Trafalgar operated as an almost scriptural testament weaving together navy and nation. Alfred Thayer Mahan, however, transformed already mythic narrative into a more urgent teaching. If The Influence of Sea Power Upon History took the world by storm, the Battle of Tsushima made his teachings law. Sea power thus laid a geas (or magical obligation) on the Royal Navy. The next war was already being imagined as Grand Fleet vs. Höchseeflotte.

Hence, in 1914, England expects” another Trafalgar, another ringing paean to British national destiny. Failure at Jutland was not simply a tactical or strategic failure: It shamed the hopes of ancestors and of history.

This essay follows the story of a prefigured ceremonial battle, as it slowly builds toward Jutland and afterward, unravels: 1) How ceremonial battle evolved, 2) How decisive naval battle was invented, 3) How ceremony took full control, 4) How Admiralty, in the century before 1914, made strategy subordinate to ceremony, and 5) How Navy storytelling after the battle told a bald-faced tale of victory.

How Battle Became an Existential, yet Ceremonial Event

Military ceremony is central to battle, just as war is central to the life of society. In Modernity, war has been a collective rite, renewing national ties that bind” and the bonds between people and state. War ceremonial serves to reinvest national authority at home and reassert it abroad. Yet realizing all this requires reaching a kind of unitary, peak” emotion. Here, great battle becomes the experience that — through bloody ritual — creates a collective peak in sacred national narrative. Battle then serves as an icon representing the nations shared commitment and sacrifice. Battle is the banner of wars meaning in the life of the nation.

Peak emotion in war is always most powerfully stoked by the passionate ceremonials surrounding battle. Yet battle ceremony is a much bigger and more enduring franchise than the combat event itself. Battle ceremony extends into both past and future — the hopes and fears of war to come — and the commemoration of battles past. Thus, great battle is ritually celebrated before and after the event, becoming a permanent marker in the national story. Moreover, transforming a bloody clash into a timeless symbol is less like propaganda and more like sacred literature.

The ceremonial cycle surrounding battle in the age of nationalism can in fact be usefully compared to the sacred texts, liturgy, and iconography of religion.

Religious ceremony establishes and renews authority. From classical antiquity through the early modern era, political and ecclesiastical authority was intertwined. Ceremony was central to the authority of (co-dependent) state and church, in terms of its relationship with society. To do its job, ceremony had to be: 1) public, 2) collective 3) repeatable, 4) participatory, and 5) acclamatory.

Furthermore, and critical to its historical persistence, sacred ceremonies must live simultaneously in the past, present, and future. Miraculous, or peak” moments of the past come alive again, as they are memorialized in the present, and promise rebirth in the future as miracles yet to be.

The rites of modern politics can have all the resonant power of any religious rite: Where the people can publicly affirm their relationship to each other as a nation, thus renewing their sense of belonging, and loyalty to the national enterprise (and the state).

Ceremonials did not change in Modernity, but rather made war even more essential to people and state, and the new ideologies of religious nationalism. The French Revolution and Napoleon pioneered the very template for wars choreography of nationalism — of course to be realized through the ceremonial framing of decisive battle.” Today this all seems archaic, an antique term-of-art, narrowly applied as rapid, decisive operations” in Army doctrine during the 1990s. After all, how can a single engagement be decisive? What do we even mean by decisive?”

Traditional dogma variously conferred this title according to three criteria: Such a battle 1) terminates the war, 2) annihilates the enemy force (Vernichtungsschlacht), 2 or 3) alters the course of the war. Yet to imagine a great battle as creating heroic new iconography is to see battle as decisive only if it creates a catharsis in national identity and meaning. Here, battles iconic significance can be realized only if its sacrificial enactment and continuing celebration serves to renew the nation and bind it together more closely.

Yet what, precisely, is the ceremonial orchestration of battle necessary to make this happen? The ceremonial cycle of decisive battle” can be divided into three parts: 1) The before,” of stirring up collective hope and anticipation, 2) The moment of blood, sweat, and tears,” looking for intrinsic scripting and seamless stage direction, and 3) After-the-battle — as in ritual gatherings, memorials, cemeteries and ossuaries, painting and statuary, stage and screen pageants, and song — all the moveable feasts of memory. Consider these schoolboy examples:

Caesars conquest of Gaul was the most celebrated campaign of Antiquity. This status is due entirely to the Divine Julius’ unwavering focus on the organs of ceremonial: 1) The climactic (and exquisitely staged) decisive battle (Alesia), 2) The unforgettable ceremony of his triumph (a processional masque that Romans called a Triumph, and 3) His iron grip on the narrative of his victory and its political significance (De Bello Gallico). 3

In 1624 the Spanish Hapsburg Crown, beleaguered, sought to extricate itself from the quagmire of endless bloodletting in Flandres.” The solution, 1700 years after Caesar, was to duplicate his orchestration of battle ceremonial. The siege of Breda followed, almost precisely, Caesars victory script. At its successful conclusion, however, instead of a triumph and a book, Phillip IV tasked Diego Velasquez with a grand canvas of the surrender. The mastery of court painters brings us the ritual of victory not only as a decisive moment, but also as an icon of magnanimity, and thus, subtly, of Spains grandeur: Where the exquisite moment of triumph lives forever. 4

Closer to living memory, Comrade Stalin followed this playbook at Stalingrad: The man of steel would rescue the city of steel. Because the city of steel, the immovable object, stopped dead the unstoppable force (the Wehrmacht), the relief of the city was the prefiguration of salvation for the Soviet Union itself, while the wretched procession of the Sixth Army — 90,000 scarecrows staggering to their final Gulag — was the razor counterpoint to Spanish magnanimity at Breda.

Decisive battle as a template event has been in play for millennia. American history is a parade of such sacred happenings, culminating in D-Day, when the United States annually consecrates its liturgy to the world.

Naval battles too have transformed into a national mass: Tsushima and Operation AI for Japan, Midway for the U.S.A., Lepanto for Hapsburg dynasts and the Holy See, and above all, for Britain, Trafalgar.

Inventing Decisive Naval Battle   

The emergence of the capital ship in early modern Europe — especially the great three-decker ship of the line — created an instrument that could be collectively conceptualized as a distilled representation of the nations power, and then dramatically delivered on demand in the pursuit of national power and glory. Moreover, the biggest battleships were made to be painted en passant, as the living procession of power.

Grand, maritime canvases were the CGI cinema of the eighteenth century. The great ships onrush, in fiery pigment, released a sensation of power no longer dependent on battle. Rather, battle was now the dramatic stage for the great ship portrait, framing its impetus.

After 1789 all that changed. The capital ship became, for a brief era of revolutionary war (1794-1805), more like wrathful Achilles: The cutting tool of full ceremonial battle on behalf of the nation. Trafalgar, in its tightly choreographed stagecraft and its cathartic payoff, surely deserves the title of peak ceremonial battle.” It was the battle that made modern Britain.

Trafalgar was the creation of Horatio Nelson — and his immaculate child could not have come at a more propitious — or necessary — moment in British national life.

Napoleon had already roughed out the paradigm of land battle in Europe — a ritual ideal of peak victory that would curse Modernity through 1945. Nelson absorbed for England at sea the revolutionary zeitgeist Bonaparte realized on land.

Simply, Nelson appropriated Napoleons battle system 5 and re-mastered it for fighting ships. Just as Bonaparte overturned war on land — all at once — at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, so too did Nelson. Just as Napoleon, on the field, had to overcome eighteenth-century dogmas of engagement, so Nelson had to find a way to successfully abandon a similar dogma in sea fights.

The eighteenth-century solution for battle was to privilege formation over fire and shock in the pursuit of tactical control. Napoleon re-imagined combat formation so as to quickly intensify both fire and shock, and also bring rapid closure in engagement.

Naval combat in the eighteenth century was even more rigidly monitored. The line-of-battle insured the integrity and survival of ones own fleet — and that of the enemy as well! Hence battle inherently inclined to the ceremonial, like a ballet.

Thus, Nelsons complete lack of tactical inhibition at St. Vincent, the Nile, and Copenhagen echoes Napoleons heroic, world-shaking generalship at Rivoli or Marengo. There is even a closer resonance in terms of shared acts of sacrifice: Nelsons unforgettable, cinematic, double-seizure of San Nicolás de Bari and San José was prefigured by Napoleon’s seizing the battle standard and rallying his troops at the bridge of Arcole, three months earlier. Both Napoleon and Nelson knew that sincere, sacrificial demonstration was essential to bind identity in this new era of religious nationalism. Only Nelson made such sacrifice intrinsic to his life achievement.

Nelson’s life was the acme of iconic leadership. Yet how could even the most charismatic and creative man make a single battle the transcendental metaphor of modern British identity?

Nelson crafted a plan to fulfill both practical and ceremonial goals. Only his command of both could achieve this end. Trafalgar’s ritual script, below, was actually built on, and then transcended seventeenth and eighteenth-century battle art. It was extensible enough to easily embrace the iconography of Jutland.

Before the Battle:
The Gathering
The Grand Chase
The Night Before Battle
The Heroic Adjuration

The Battle:
The Grave Procession to Battle
The Rupture as Decisive Act
Peak Struggle of the Melee
The Sacrifice

After the Battle:
The Storm — The Cleansing
Lamentation on the Road Home
Homecoming and Glorious Funeral
Apotheosis and Memoria

People and elites arguably were already prepped emotionally — by Cape St. Vincent, the Nile, and Copenhagen — for his transcendental gift of Trafalgar — a metamorphosis of national identity consummated just ten years later, at Waterloo.

21 October was Britain’s national investiture. Going further, Nelson’s grand funeral bound the nation to the martyrs sacrifice. The funerary rites were like a Roman imperial triumph, a coronation, and an apotheosis combined. A new nation was celebrating itself, drawing strength from Nelson’s sacrifice, cementing a Britannic vision of “eternal victory.” 6

How Ceremonial Battle Took Control (1805-1914)

Trafalgar pulses with the raw power ceremonial battle can deliver — where raw power is the substance of historical memory. A great battle is never just a fighting event, and battle does not end with the coming of night. It lives on, to be reenacted forever in the collective mind of the nation. Reliving the battle itself becomes the rite itself. Thus, ceremonial battle is scripted in the actual performance — then to be re-enacted through ceremonial devotion, where with each reiteration it again becomes alive.

Think of Trafalgar as the liturgy of the British nation, for was not Nelson the father, and the Royal Navy the midwife in the birth of the British nation? Consider:

  • Was not the United Kingdom, truly cemented after 1797, now Navy-made?
  • Was not the Navy – and the nation – now the uncontested monarch of the seas”?

Nelson wrung from the world, for Britain, an entitlement ratified by natural law. Now its navy was immune, practically even inoculated, from straight-up battle challenge at sea. In practical terms, to maintain its exalted stature and station, all the navy needed was an occasional, ritual combat demonstration. For example, a) small ship, mostly gunboat engagements, b) stately, ceremonial bombardment of coastal forts, or c) the rare, actual sea fight against a parvenu (“oriental” foe like Muhammad Ali at Navarino Bay).

Free at last of existential threat, the Royal Navy relaxed itself into a military lifestyle enterprise. It was no longer bound by existential threat to seek extraordinary talent through social mobility. Gentleman mores — and Gentlemen rules — were now back in force.

She blinded me with Science!” 7 Andrew Gordon argues 8 that the Victorian ethos gave its full faith to the power of science, and the promise of ships and squadrons precisely controlled. Battle mastery was guaranteed by the march of science. Rules of the Game highlights the triumph of Victorian rules over unruly reality. Yet a return to order-of-battle, as unbending as the eighteenth century, was never recognized as spiritually contravening Nelson.

The mythic narrative forged by Nelson became so embellished it became a kind of scriptural narcissism. Victory was thus foretold, and fully merited. Early Victorian historians gave this entitled feeling full literary ratification, in Napier’s extravagantly fulsome chronicle of the Peninsular War 9 — then to be codified forever in Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of World History. 10

Mahan took the spirit of the late Victorian age to its logical end — by making decisive battle a Social Darwinian test of national worthiness to exist. If Nelson transformed battle into a ceremony of national apotheosis, Mahan appropriated Nelsons template and made it a make-or-break moment. In Mahans grand clash of battle fleets, the nation either rose to meet its destiny, or was cast into historical despair.  Mahan, divinity-schooled, brought the apocalyptic Prussian vision of Vernichtungsschlacht to war at sea.

Mahan had burdened every great power navy with an unobtainable prize. Like the Golden Fleece, guarded by the British Colchian Dragon, true sea power was always just out-of-reach. 11 Imperial Germany sought to claim the mantle, exclaiming that they would take it by main force (from Britain by right of decisive battle: Der Tag), or die trying. No one took Tirpitz’ “risk fleet” pretension seriously: Its boilerplate rhetoric only reinforced Mahanian zeitgeist: That all roads lead to decisive fleet battle. When deterrence fails, decisive battle rules.

Tsushima pushed decisive battle mania into overdrive. Togo was the new Nelson. Worse for Britain, the perfect battle of its time had been pulled off with ironclads actually built in Britain. Tsushima may have nodded to Nelson, 12 yet Togo had historically upstaged Britain, and the ceremonial grass crown was now Japans.

To sum up: 1) British identity was inseparable from naval supremacy, 2) The navy was unchallenged for a century, 3) It had become an upper class lifestyle club, 4) Its technology worship made it feel on top and untouchable, 5) National literary authority bolstered this natural superiority, 6) Yet the American, Mahan, had created a new and existential bar that the navy must meet and pass in its next test, 7) Aspiring great powers, especially Germany, Japan, and the United States, were all too eager to unseat the old lion.

Great Britain and her Royal Navy went to war in 1914 burdened by Trafalgar’s insurmountable bar, yet also by a public expectation 13 that it must whip the Kaiserliche Marine and put pay to German arrogance. Yet there was also the urge to show the world that the Grand Fleet could still teach arriviste allies and insouciant rivals — that Britain would stay on top, all trends notwithstanding.

How Admiralty Subordinated Strategy to Ceremony (1805-1914)

One-hundred-twelve years after Trafalgar, the Royal Navy was deeply invested in a strategic dilemma of its own making. Moreover, this was a grand Catch-22, driven by the naval programs of all the great powers. Yet this dilemma was also a paradox:

  1. Decisive (ceremonial) battle was believed to be the natural outcome of great wars at sea, and represented the culminating point of all naval strategy.
  2. Yet, as capital ships became ever more powerful and precious, and fewer in number, it was essential not to risk them until the moment of decision. So who would know for sure when the moment of decisive risk arrived?

Historical experience supported the judgment of paradox. A century of victory at sea, was not, in fact, secured by fleet action. Battle fleet blowouts, like Lissa and Tsushima, had little impact on wars’ outcome.

In contrast, victories that altered the course of war were almost all combined operations, with naval fire support and amphibious assault. Hence, the Royal Navy was a force of decision in a series of bombardments: St. Jean d’Acre, Taku, Pei-ho, Bomarsund, Kinburn, Shimonoseki, and Alexandria; just as were Federal squadrons at Mobile Bay and Fort Fisher. 14 “Ships only” fire assaults, like those at Algiers and Sebastopol, were in contrast inconclusive.

The ship tools of real decision were in combined operations, transporting armies, and guarding shipping. Yet national passion — and treasure — were invested in a grand fleet for a battle that would not be fought. Hence, when war came, the ships actually needed were often not there. They had to be cobbled together, desperately, in a rush. 15

Worse, a score of successful campaigns was presented to the public as show ship triumphs: Great battleships with “hearts of oak” lineage hearkening to the sea fights of centuries past.

Hence, in contemporary media presentations of combat at sea, battleships were always front and center: Implacable at Algiers, Asia at Navarino Bay, the screw battleships at Sebastopol, the regal white Alexandra and grim Inflexible at Alexandria. Indeed, comparing the ironclad line-up in battle action with ironclads in elegantly studied repose — say, the Mediterranean Fleet in Malta vs. that same fleet bombing Arabi Pasha’s forts — the emotional and aesthetic delivery is the same. 16

This was the dilemma: The capital ship in ceremonial mode had become coterminous with a world consciousness that had yielded to and embraced British naval authority. To a very great extent, capital ship ceremonial was Britains ticket to success, and thus big ships ritually employed gradually came to substitute for an actual fighting fleet that had not seen real action since 1814.

Yet this strategic formula rapidly eroded after 1900. New great powers — Germany, the United States, and Russia — were suddenly competing hard against a ceremonial British naval supremacy. 17 Britain vowed to keep up, and so it did. Yet it soon found it simply could not build quite enough capital ships. 18

In the 1850s, at the climax of the wooden steam navy, a 101-gun battleship cost .00013% of Britain’s GDP. 19 The big new ironclads, in contrast, cost .00050% in the 1870s. The new, standard battleship of the 1890s cost .00069%, while the big armored cruisers cost even more, at .00072% — plus so many more of them were needed. To preserve its precious ceremonial position, against rising powers with equal or greater economic output, Britain faced future bankruptcy.

Jackie Fisher stole a march on competing navies with Dreadnought, which for a moment allowed the Royal Navy to build a single, “all big gun” battleship that might lessen the strain on naval estimates. Yet as other powers, including France and Italy, and even South American navies, started clamoring for dreadnoughts, the race drove costs ever higher. By 1912, with Queen Elizabeth, each new “super dreadnought” claimed .00125% of UK GDP.

Dreadnought mania — 1907-1914 — distorted, and then tore apart, Britain’s comfortable lock on strategy-by-ceremony. The Admiralty response was reflexive: To build, build, build. 20 But all those dreadnoughts meant, equally, a relative dearth of all those other ships that let navies actually make war.

Battle Failure Saved by Storytelling

Britain and her navy went to war with a fleet steeped in sacred battle ceremonial. Yet the Admiralty announced that it would conduct a “distant blockade” of Germany, in contrast to Nelson’s intense, in-your-face sea investment of Brest from 1803-1805 — that guaranteed victory at Trafalgar. “Passive” may have been prudent, yet it was also the antithesis of Nelson. Still, the British public bought it: “We can’t risk the battle force, until the Grand Fleet is perfectly positioned to annihilate the Hun.”

After the war, Churchill gave us the famous final spin on Jutland, that the Grand Fleet Commander, John Jellicoe, was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

This studied quip is the summation of Britain’s entire after-action historical self-exculpation. In 1914, “England expects” the dream: For Jellicoe to fulfill the geas of Nelson. Before, he was the only man who could win the war in an afternoon — and its grass crown of destiny. After, somehow, Britain’s destiny is instead fulfilled by not losing.

If Trafalgar is your yardstick of victory, then “Not Trafalgar” simply won’t do. If, in contrast, the Grand Fleet achieves its decisive strategic effect simply preserving itself, then why risk battle at all? Here Churchill reveals the true wages of ceremonial battle. By promising a kind of national transcendence, then not delivering, stumbling badly in the event, and then saying, in lofty retrospect, that doing nothing was the plan all along — and by the way, “nothing” succeeded magnificently — is to risk Britains public confidence, and the worlds respect. 21

“After Jutland” — meaning, how the story would be retold in history — became a far tougher battle than the dreadnought clash itself. Although this after-battle narrative was finally won, it was a literary-strategic victory with dire consequences of its own.

Three “After Jutland” explanations were required. 22 The first assured that the technical things that went wrong would be fixed, first thing. Andrew Gordon more than adequately addresses the Royal Navy’s response — which was almost wholly successful. 23

The second argued — through leaks, gossip, and innuendo — that Jutlands outcome was a failure of command leadership. Jutland was no extravagant defeat demanding newsreel beheadings. Under rather less pressure, British leadership simply needed to suggest that poor judgment, perhaps, let things slip away. Navy and Nation were off the hook.

The Third explanation was a real challenge. Jutland betrayed prewar expectation. Hence, post-Jutland argued the obvious: That war is behind us. We need to be ready for decisive contests to come. Jutland helped make a better fleet, so that next time we will surely prevail. 24

Post-Jutland narrative was about massaging the neuralgia of regret. British propaganda triumphed over Germany.  In Culture of Defeat, Wolfgang Schivelbusch dissects how German Informationsspezialisten was out-foxed by British narrative. 25 Why not Britons too?

Yet there was also a fourth problem: How to turn strategic passivity into a virtue.

What the Allied coalition needed most in World War I was to work together. Urgently, this meant getting war goods to a Russian empire critically short of guns and ammo. Yet Germany had closed both the Baltic and Black Seas.

The great captains of the heroic age (1793-1815) were always more aggressive. This is exactly what the Admiralty ordered after Trafalgar. Saumarez in the Baltic forcefully supported the British money that drove the last, victorious coalitions against Bonaparte. 26

Even in Victorian times, battleships were used to strategic effect. Napier and Lyons in the Baltic were able to bring a distant war in Crimea right to the Czar’s doorstep in St. Petersburg. 27 These were real strategic effects, wrought by — or at least enabled by — capital ships.

In 1878, Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby aced the ultimate G.A. Henty boy’s exploit. 28 He forced his single-screw ironclads through the Dardanelles in the teeth of a blinding snowstorm on St. Valentine’s Day to anchor in the Golden Horn, halting the Russian onslaught in its tracks, saving the Ottoman state.

Thus, 1914 was a golden opportunity for Britain’s capital ships. Why not again? Why not assemble the enormous host of armored ships acquired in the frenzy of ceremonial competition, and use them to make something decisive” happen?

Yet the capital ships that delivered real, strategic agency were German. The daring flight of the Goeben to Constantinople brought the Ottoman Porte over to the Central Powers. Then, Operation Albion (1917) was the only time a capital ship fleet had real, strategic effect.

Ironically, Operation Albion mirrors of British Baltic operations during the Crimean War.  In August 1854, the allies took the fort at Bomasund, in the Åland Islands. By the end of 1855, the Franco-British fleet was ready to bombard and besiege the main fortress of Kronstadt, directly threatening St. Petersburg. 29 Russia was leveraged out of the war — with new ironclads as the fulcrum. In September 1917, Germany assaulted the West Estonian Archipelago, opening the way for a move on Petrograd: Still the imperial capital. This time, German dreadnoughts were the fulcrum of victory.

Britain tried this exactly once. It took the form of a battleship coup de main. On 18 March 1915 De Robuck’s fleet tried to force the Hellespont narrows “by ships alone.” 30 Perhaps de Roebuck was channeling Phipps Hornby. Britain’s forlorn attempt to force the Straits ended in shameful disaster.

More shameful still was its feckless indiscipline, its inattention to specialized auxiliary support, and its dismissal of combined arms. 31 If a strategic coup was beyond Royal Navy ability in 1915, it was certainly not beyond its means.

Yet failure at the Dardanelles was so breathtaking that it made capital ship caution — for the rest of the war — seem prudential. It would be folly to assault the Central Powers’ hold on the inner seas.  Risk had triumphed, and Grand Fleet passivity was the only reasonable option.

Yet Britain found a way to turn strategic passivity into strategic virtue through simple logic: Because the Grand Fleet was existentially irreplaceable, preserving its existence was the prime directive.  Hence, reducing risk was the only path to victory.  Never mind that an undisturbed German battle squadron set up Russian capitulation in 1917. That was out of sight, out of mind. It is easy to discard “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing,” into a forgotten war.” 32

The Wages of Ceremonial Battle: “A New Beginning” 33

By airbrushing out strategic naval alternatives, British narrative spinmeisters had rescued ceremonial battle. Washington Treaties made the serendipity complete, when world powers ratified capital ship status. International treaty declared dreadnought ownership alone to be the supreme yardstick of national power.

The real naval war of 1914-18 was decided, rather, in 10,000 battles: To-the-death fights between unkempt little ships like trawlers, sloops, gunboats, torpedo boats — and U-boats. The decisive weapons were torpedoes and mines and “depth bombs.”

Yet after the war, navies discarded their thousands of decisive little ships. During the next twenty years, the Royal Navy built a single minelayer. Admiralty ordered not a single naval exercise on the defense of a slow merchant convoy. 34 Asdic, the new wonder weapon, suddenly made the submarine yesterday’s threat. 35

Ironically, the Washington treaties streamlined command and control by severely reducing battle fleet numbers. Smaller squadrons meant smarter maneuvering during battle. Plus, computerized fire control and air spotting meant American battlewagons were consistently hitting out to 26,000 yards. 36 The battle line was reborn.

Fire control confidence renewed decisive battle. Jutland narrative spin now worked to perfection. “Unmanageable armadas meeting in North Sea mists on a dying afternoon could never be a recipe for decision,” postwar naval opinion seemed to say. American and Japanese mind’s eyes were in full agreement. What North Sea Britain could not achieve, America and Japan would surely, on the Pacific stage, fulfill.

Trafalgar still stalks the 1920s and 1930s. Every war game and every fleet exercise still hammered: Decisive battle. Hence, Britain’s propaganda save” was slowly lost.

What mollified British elites, former allies found cringe-worthy.

Commander Holloway Frost offered this damning epithet in his take on Jutland:

Personally, we believe that the whole attitude of the British Navy had changed since the days of Drake, Hawke, Jervis, Nelson, and Cornwallis. Then it was young; now it had grown old. In the old days, England was a small country fighting for its place in the sun. Its statesmen, soldiers, and sailors were willing to take their chances. When they won, they doubled the stakes and gambled again. Now, the British Empire covered the globe. Its task was not to get more, but to hold what it had. Its national policy was defensive, rather than offensive. That affected its naval strategy and tactics and turned the British Navy to thoughts of defense, rather than offense. 37

The tiled floor of Pringle Hall was the giant maneuver board for naval war games. 38 There are 318 game histories — from 1919-1941 — in the Naval War College archives. One-hundred-six were purely tactical, and seventy-one of these were battle line board  maneuvers. Fifty-two battle games were against the RED battle fleet, of which forty-eight called for decisive action, in which the battle “plan approximates the general plan and ideas followed by both fleets at Jutland.” 39

Destruction of HMS Queen Mary (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet the U.S. Navy was not even refighting forty-eight new and improved Jutlands. Instead, American officers sought their own Trafalgar: Their own, awaited destiny. These games were a kind of naval yearning made flesh. From a 1941 bestseller:

The American Fleet would cross the Pacific at about the speed of translation of a cyclone — between 10 and 15 knots. It would resemble a cyclone in a more significant phase, leveling everything in its path except a stronger fleet — and a stronger fleet does not at present exist. 40

Gorgeous battle force geometry, with its starburst patterns of supportive ships, came to permeate the calculations of battle itself. Fire controls ritual precision, combined with ship choreography, like a grand ballet, became battle’s  pristine vision: So precise that the decisive gunfire phase in the clash of battle lines might last for as little as twenty-seven to eighty-four minutes. 41

And battle victory was America’s by reason of its spiritual superiority. This was explicitly commanded in Naval War College fighting instructions:

  • The moral factor in battle is predominant. 42
  • Such must be the will to win that nothing short of complete victory will be accepted. 43
  • The moral factor to our benefit lay within the spiritual reaction with the enemy. 44

Here, the Nihon Kaigun was the U.S. Navys mirror, where an American grand fleet would meet an equally disadvantaged Japanese Höchseeflotte. Had not the Washington Treaties equally stacked the cards against Japan?

For Japan, German performance had a silver lining. Germany’s 60% fleet held off the British to advantage: Hence Japan concluded that Germany won the Battle of Jutland against heavy odds. Moreover, if Britain could not defeat an inferior fleet 500 miles away, how then could she beat one that lay 10,000 miles [away]?” 45 Furthermore, the imperial fleet concluded that even a 10% increment — along with an edge in technology superiority not unlike that enjoyed by the Höchseeflotte — could cinch victory against either the two top fleets. 46

Yet Japan, by 1936, was well on that way to qualitative equality with the U.S. Navy. 47 Moreover, this baroque, decisive battle-to-be keyed decisively off  German performance at Jutland. Japan had no doubt that Mahan’s sea power baton had now passed to them.

Japanese-American ceremonial battle became their mutual persona: 1) Both sides agreed on the need for a decisive contest, 2) The moment of decision occurs in a full, clear, and brilliant Pacific light, with a calm sea stage setting, 3) May the better man win.

An absurd premise, yet interwar literature fed easily on its assumptions. Hector Bywater’s 1927 bestseller, The Great Pacific War, set the tone. 48 Tōta Ishimaru’s Japan Must Fight Britain — published in 1935, when war was already a cloud bigger than a man’s hand 49 — was a savage portrait of a Royal Navy fall just like Russia’s at Tsushima; while Puleston’s identical battle fleet showdown in Navies of the Pacific was a sure U.S. win.

And what, at last were its remains of the day? Jutland was a cautionary tale. Yes, said the U.S. and Japan, to ceremonial decisive battle is still the way to go. As Britain failed, the Grail is now ours to seize. Paradoxically, post-Jutland spinmeisters salvaged victory from defeat after all — just not for Britain. It had become the strategic motivation of its biggest naval rivals.

British fire breathers might still rail to empty effect:

Because our Fleet, inspired by a great tradition and a great man, recognized that to win you must attack — go for, fall upon, fly at the throat of, hammer, pulverize, annihilate — your enemy. 50

Yet there was a bitter taste: The record of battles fought in the line is one long, practically unbroken story of indecisive results. 51

The evidence seemed inescapable: A no risk navy had lost its Nelson touch. In Jellicoe’s words:

… although the total destruction of the High Sea Fleet gives a greater sense of security, it is not wise to risk the heavy ships of the Grand Fleet in an attempt to hasten the end of the High Sea Fleet. … I do not think such risks should be run, seeing that any real disaster to our heavy ships lay the country open to invasion. 52

Or, as Herbert Richmond lamented, three months before Jutland:

The Navy has completely lost the spirit of the offensive: I cannot find a trace of it in any flag officer except Bacon. We shall have a shock one of these days, I am certain. 53

Cdr. H.R. Stark (future CNO) was less kind: The Grand Fleet at Jutland “lacked the fighting edge, the offensive spirit, the will to win.” 54

Another harsh consignment:

Looking back over the intervening twenty-three years, it is difficult to avoid, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Jellicoe’s tactics at Jutland, whether wise or unwise, constituted the first step-down from worldwide maritime supremacy. 55

Such are the wages of ceremonial battle. Yet such payment is shot through with exquisite irony.

Yes: Britons and their Grand Fleet could not deliver a second sacred battle. And yes: It is also true that, in the future, it would be America and Japan that brought the trophy home. Yet ceremonial demands meant that repeats risked failure for them too. Japan had its second Tsushima at Pearl Harbor: A victory of staggering proportions. Yet false pride, perhaps, tempted them to snatch a sequel at Midway. Instead America, shamed and humbled six months before, found its own transcendence.

Pearl Harbor and Midway perfectly fit the temple template of ceremonial battle. Japan scripted both Pearl Harbor and Midway to be perfect engagements. Yet while Operation AI was executed without the Rengō Kantai, the imperial high command wanted the entire line-of-battle present at Midway. Hence, the demands of ceremony trumped victory.

Sacred ceremony cannot be denied.

Why Work So Hard for the Wages of Ceremonial Battle?

Why did ceremonial battle — decisive fleet action — become central to Modernity, while in centuries before such combat outcomes were greeted more as a rare bonus?

  1. The cult of the nation state was fueled by the prospect of national transcendence. The comets trail of decisive battle could fulfill this need, igniting a collective feeling of unity, shared sacrifice, and a mythology of unmatchable national performance.
  2. Napoleons electric campaigns, one neon moment after another, showed it could be done — and Trafalgar showed it could be done at sea.
  3. Moreover, this sea passage — Britons’ preferred battle medium — highlighted the exertion of great ships, which, themselves, personified British identity and divine assurance, as with Rome, of “eternal victory.”
  4. Victorian era ideologies marked chosen tribes as “born to rule,” for whom decisive battle was the sign of destiny. Alfred Thayer Mahan made this prophecy of Sea Power, with Trafalgar its lodestar — resurrected in 1905 at Tsushima.
  5. With the dreadnought battleship, the Word was made flesh. The capital ship transformed in fifty years from a sailing, wooden ark rooted in centuries’ past, into a gleaming, steel ark with brooding great guns: The most powerful engine yet devised by Man.

Modernity’s vectors pushed an irresistible convergence of need and desire for both navy and nation: A proud American dreadnought on the two-dollar bill, Höchseeflotte steaming on the fifty-mark note. High analysis in Scientific American focused on new U.S. battlecruisers. America’s most popular weekly, LIFE® magazine, lovingly showcased our battleships — in color. In Depression movie matinees, say, in Springfield Ohio, audiences would burst into cheers when newsreels showed our battle fleet in the gleaming Pacific sun. 56

Such vignettes show how ceremonial battle trumped overwhelming recent war experience. Thus the Royal Navy after World War I pushed mine and submarine warfare to the margins, and downplayed the potential of aircraft at sea.

Celebrating their ships and fleets has been the nations naval mission for centuries. 57 Hence the magic story of decisive battle perfectly tantalized society in an age of religious nationalism.

Yet Tsushima — the last such perfectly transcendent battle — was a shocking reminder that decisive battle was also all-or-nothing and existential. Great powers — with their dreadnoughts — desperately desired the fruits, and yet were spooked by the terrible risks of the very event they sought.

An unspoken solution emerged: Replace battle (risk and chaos) with ceremony (order and control). Continually re-evoke decisive battle through fleet ceremonial — without ever having to recreate it — like Britain for a century after Trafalgar.

Nelson offered a ready-made mythology. Naval exercises, fleet reviews, port visits, and state occasion — regular sorts of ship ceremony — could thus be built out to include relatively “safe” ceremonial combat like shore bombardments or engagements with lesser naval foes.

Trafalgars shelf life lasted a whole century: Authority that just kept giving and giving. Other nations had so much less to work with. The United States had Farragut, the Austrians, Tegetthoff. The Russians thought they had Makarov until he blew up in 1904. Japan of course found its Nelson at Tsushima.

It is worth underscoring that Japan had its second decisive ceremonial battle, and the U.S. its first within six months of each other: Pearl Harbor and Midway. As it unfolded, Pearl Harbor was perhaps the most perfect of ceremonial battles. In pushing for its third, at Midway, Japan met terrible defeat; a tragedy set up, in large part, by Nihon Kaigun‘s insistence on a massive, coterminous, and entirely unnecessary trans-Pacific choreography involving most of the Combined Fleet.

America, not Japan, seized the “miracle of Midway.” Seventy-seven years later, the U.S. Navy is still channeling Midway as its sacred decisive victory. Although PACFLT brought little or no ceremony to the actual battle, Midway has become a ceremonial industry to rival Trafalgar’s. Midway has an equally imperishable shelf life. Midway remains the moment of destiny — to be re-consecrated again and again, like a liturgy.

A decisive battle navy will always seek ceremonial battle rather than the unknowable of the next war. Ceremony is certain, and gives back what uncertainty takes away. Yet no naval person will ever associate ceremonial” with battle.”

What are they afraid of? Are they afraid that linking ceremony to battle will undermine the serious business of the navy, or make the navy seem like some night club act — as just some smoke and mirror” entertainment?

The American ethos cannot see the bigger significance of ceremony, even as the nation indulges itself in sacred emotion: At an inauguration, a D-Day anniversary, the Fourth of July, or in commemorating 9-11. Navy ceremony — like the last hurrah of Enterprise, 58 or christening Gerald Ford 59 — marks outpouring emotions absent full self-awareness: Full recognition of what it means to be human. Ceremony, ultimately, is Mankinds true assertion of collective authority and meaning.

Hence, an historic U.S. Navy investment in nuclear carriers — even at the expense of the fleet overall — is here to stay. For is not the super carrier” still the embodiment of American identity? As Britons with Trafalgar, we will never weigh anchor on Midway.

Ceremony is not an accessory in navy ethos and navy life. Ceremony drives. Moreover, ceremony is intrinsic to battle. Trafalgar drove the passage to Jutland, as Tsushima to Pearl Harbor, and Pearl to Midway. We must better understand how this dynamic still shapes our passage to the navys battle future.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale, 2009).
  2. Yehudah Wallach, The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation: The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact on the German Conduct of Two World Wars (Praeger, 1986).
  3. The evolution of the Roman triumph, and its centrality in Roman imperial life, is stunningly uncovered by Michael MacCormick, Eternal Victory: Triumphal rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and the Early Medieval West (Cambridge, 1991); and Sabine MacCormick, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (University of California, 1981). Together, these two books show how necessary, even intrinsic, imperial ceremony was to the very substance of Roman authority, and how essential enactment of such ceremony was to ruling elite confidence and public trust.
  4. A ceremonial impact explicitly celebrated in, the film treatment of a famous cycle of novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and the second most expensive movie ever made in Spain.
  5. Exhaustively (yet perfectly) laid out in David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (Scribner, 1973).
  6. Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (Roger Knight, Basic Books, 2005).
  7. Thomas Dolby, Synth-pop, new wave single, 1982.
  8. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command  (Penguin, 1997).
  9. W.F.P. Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula and the South of France (John Murray, 1828), 40.
  10. Edward Creasy, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo (Hurst and Company, 1851).
  11. The tragic irony in the short and overheated Anglo-German naval competition was the tone-deaf Tirpitz. He whipped up bristled Brits with his talk of Der Tag, so that the dominant navy actually came to believe, for a moment, that Germany sought to destroy them in a decisive (ceremonial) battle. We know of course that Tirpitz was exaggerating for effect — yet he exaggerated poorly. His intent was to deter British intervention in a future European war, but his true impact was to tell all Britons that the Höchseeflotte was gunning for their identity, and aiming to take it clean away in their own, German North Sea Trafalgar. Tirpitz’ disastrous policy mistake was to give every British apologist after Jutland the perfect, airtight argument that the battle was a slam-dunk victory.
  12. Philip Towle and Nobuko Kasuge, Britain and Japan in the Twentieth Century (I.B.Taurus, 2007).
  13. A geas can be compared with a curse or, paradoxically, a gift. If someone under a geas violates the associated taboo, the infractor will suffer dishonor or even death. On the other hand, the observing of one’s geas is believed to bring power. Often it is women who place geasa upon men. In some cases the woman turns out to be a goddess or other sovereignty.
  14. To this list might be added, in terms of strategic effect, the anticipated British bombardment of Kronstadt by the five new Aetna ironclad batteries, which directly brought Russia to terms by 1856.
  15. This was an existential issue for Britain in both world wars, where the sudden, urgent, desperate call for anti-submarine escorts took the form of requisitioning fishing trawler fleets en masse, and then pleading with warship yards to crank out purpose-built ASW escorts. This they did, several years late. In the fullness of war, Canada and Britain produced 445 Flower Class corvettes and River Class frigates — yet they had to be designed and built de novo in the midst of crisis, in pure reaction to the German onslaught, with every imaginable delay.
  16. William Lionell Wyllie’s “Well Done Condor” might seem an exception from a persistent capital ship, front-and-center meme. His canvas celebrates the heroic action of a small ship, the gunboat Condor, yet the image defaults to a heavy visual background assertion, where the line of ironclads is clearly doing the heavy lifting in the sweltering, daylong bombardment. See it in the Royal Museums Greenwich collection,
  17. For example, the globe-griddling procession of Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” or the grand opening, and subsequent “Kiel Canal Days.”
  18. A dilemma exhaustively explored by Jon Tetsuro Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914 (Naval Institute, 1989).
  19. Data on British economic output is readily available, as well as ship construction costs. Calculating ship costs, as a percentage of GDP, is a better measure of both the true and “felt” cost of ever more expensive capital ships than, say, “constant dollars.” An alternative, percentage of parliamentary estimates, is more difficult to correlate, as ship expenditure is spread over several years.
  20. A reflex perfected captured by Churchill’s quip on the public and parliamentary dreadnought panic of 1909: “The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”
  21. Brave writers in the early 1920s reminded that a big victory might well have forestalled the German U-boat assault that almost brought Britain down in 1917. Plus, the overall Allied malaise at the end of 1916 would have been turned around by a real trophy win. Maybe winning “in an afternoon” was really important: Carlyon Bellairs, The Battle of Jutland: The Sowing and the Reaping (Holder and Stoughton, 1919), 265; C.C, Gill, What Happened At Jutland (Doran, 1921), 168: “And finally the unrestricted German submarine campaign would have been greatly hampered if not completely frustrated had the British fleet destroyed the German fleet at Jutland … On the whole, it should not appear an exaggeration to say that a second Trafalgar on the day of Jutland would have crushed Germany’s hope …”
  22. In my 1973 Yale History Senior Essay — “The Fishing Off the Jutland Bank: The Search for a Symbol of Victory” — I suggested that the public, political response to Jutland might be divided into five successive phases (to 1973). This was a chronological treatment. I believe now that there was a more subterranean response-set that was never publicly acknowledged, and most likely never really consciously enjoined; yet vigorously pursued, notwithstanding.
  23. Gordon, The Rules of the Game.
  24. Even the dominant naval historian of the 1960s confidently affirms the effectiveness of post-Jutland reforms: Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. iii, 212: “One can speculate that, had the Germans risked a pitched battle with the Grand Fleet six or eight months later, or, better, a year later, the outcome would never have been in doubt.”
  25. Wolfgang, Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (Picador, 2001), 218-225.
  26. David John Raymond, The Navy in the Baltic, 1807-1812 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Florida State University, 2010); A.N. Ryan (ed.), The Saumarez Papers, 1808-1812, Naval Records Society, Vol. 110, 1968; Tim Voelcker, Admiral Saumarez Against Napoleon: The Baltic, 1807-1812 (Boydell, 2008).
  27. D. Bonner-Smith, Russian War, Baltic and Black Sea, 1854, Official Correspondence, Naval Records Society, Vol. 83, 1943; D. Bonner-Smith, Russian War, Baltic: 1855, Naval Records Society, Vol. 84, 1944.
  28. I am thinking here of the master, G.A. Henty, war correspondent, Victorian trendsetter, and hero to all Empire-minded boys, who published 122 historical novels, and was a nearly exact contemporary of Hornby. All his novels save one (about Nelson, of course) were Army focused, yet it is easy to imagine a yarn such as With Hornby Through the Dardanelles.
  29. Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, The British Assault on Finland, 1854-1855: A Forgotten Naval War (Naval Institute Press, 1988); Michael Vlahos, “The British Assault on Finland” (review), Naval War College Review (45/1), Winter 1992.
  30. Jeffrey Wallin, By Ships Alone (Carolina Academic Press), 1981.
  31. Observations of a key participant convey the stratigraphy of hesitation and disorder, The Naval Memoirs of Admiral of the Fleet: The Narrow Seas to the Dardanelles (Thornton, Butterworth, 1934).
  32. Neville Chamberlain of course was referring to Czechoslovakia, a country in the heart of Europe, while “Forgotten War” is the sub-title of The British Assault on Finland, 1854-1855 (see above).
  33. Any good movie sequel properly alerts the audience; in this case, Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (Paramount Films).
  34. Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars: The Period of Anglo-Saxon Antagonism, 1919-1929 (Collins, 1968), 536.
  35. George Franklin, Britain’s Antisubmarine Capability, 1919-1939 (Frank Cass, 2014).
  36. Michael Vlahos, The BLUE Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941 (Government Printing Office, 1980).
  37. Holloway Frost, The Battle of Jutland (U.S. Naval Institute, 1936), 516.
  38. A contemporary image from the Naval War College Museum: LINK
  39. Rear Admiral Harris Laning, President, Naval War College, The Naval Battle, May 1933 (Naval War College Naval Historical Collection), 3.
  40. W.D. Puleston, The Navies of the Pacific (Yale, 1941), 242.
  41. Capt. J.M. Reeves, “A Tactical Study Based on the Fundamental Principles of War of the Employment of the Present BLUE Fleet in Battle, Showing the Vital Modification Demanded by Tactics,” 20 March 1924, plates 4-7, Record Group II, Naval Historical Collection.
  42. Department of Operations, “The Fire Action of the Battle Line,” 23 May 1932, p.2; “Cruisers and Destroyers in the General Action,” June 1936, p.1m, Record Group II, Naval Historical Collection.
  43. Laning, The Naval Battle, 55.
  44. Department of Operations, “The Fire Action of the Battle Line,” 45.
  45. Michael Vlahos, “The Fishing Off the Jutland Bank: The Search for a Symbol of Victory,” (Yale History Department, Senior Essay (prize), 1973), 88.
  46. James B. Crowley, Japan’s Quest for Autonomy (Princeton, 1966), 25.
  47. Stephen Pelz, Race to Pearl Harbor: The Failure of the Second London Naval Conference and the Onset of World War II (Harvard, 1974).
  48. Hector C. Bywater, The Great Pacific War: a history of the American-Japanese campaign of 1931-33 (Constable, 1925).
  49. Tōta Ishimaru, Japan Must Fight Britain (Hurst and Blackett, 1936).
  50. Arthur C. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. 1 (Oxford, 1967), 367.
  51. H.W. Richmond, “The Service Mind,” Nineteenth Century and After, Jan., 1933.
  52. A. Temple Patterson (ed.), The Jellicoe Papers, Vol. 1 (Navy Records Society, 1966), 232.
  53. Arthur C. Marder, Portrait of an Admiral (Harvard, 1952), 201.
  54. Commander H.R. Stark, Thesis on Policy, 32, Record Group XII, Naval Historical Collection.
  55. Edwin A. Falk, “British Sea Power Since Jutland,” Yale Review, June 1939, 695.
  56. In spite of the interwar tides of “isolationism” and “disarmament,” the Battle Fleet remained in the collective American imagination, the emotional symbol of security for this New World sanctuary. The writer’s father remembers audiences at movies cheering and throwing their hats into the air every time the U.S. Battle Fleet appeared at the end of the newsreel. This was the normal response to America’s strategic forces in the 1930s, Springfield, Ohio, the Heartland. As Adm. C.C. Bloch then CINCUS, wrote of a similar scene in California, 1939: “A friend of mine reports that his wife and child were in a movie house in Los Angeles, and had seen newsreels of a foreign navy in action, which left the audience wondering just how the United States Navy was. Immediately after the newsreel, your ‘Filming the Fleet’ came to the screen. During its showing and afterwards, the audience applauded with much gusto.” Adm. C.C. Bloch to Mr. Truman Talley, 7 November 1939, Bloch Papers, Naval Historical Collection, Library of Congress.
  57. Henry Grace à Dieu, it is said, inaugurated the English tradition of “showing the flag” in 1514.
  58. Retired from active service: LINK; Decommissioned: LINK
  59. LINK

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The Wrong Ship at the Right Time: The Technology of USS Monitor and its Impact on Naval Warfare

Larrie D. Ferreiro
George Mason University

Introduction: “Forty patentable contrivances”

Among the many myths that grew up around USS Monitor was that she not only represented a revolutionary concept in naval warfare, marrying steam, armor and a revolving turret, but that her inventor, John Ericsson, had stuffed the ship chock-full of new technologies. This legend started with John S.C. Abbott’s The History of the Civil War in America, first published in the spring of 1863 even as the battles of Vicksburg and Chancellorsville were raging, and Gettysburg was still a lively manufacturing town untouched by war.  Abbott described Monitor as not “merely an iron-clad vessel, with a turret; but there are, in fact, between thirty and forty patentable inventions upon her, and the turret is by no means the most important one. Very properly, what these inventions are, is not proclaimed to the public”.  A generation later, Ericsson’s biographer, William Conant Church, writing just a year after his subject’s death, attributed the statement to Monitor’s first assistant engineer Isaac Newton, who “estimated…that she contained at least forty patentable contrivances.  Ericsson was urged by Mr. Newton to secure patents for these, but he declined to do so”.  These statements were quickly picked up by journals and magazines around the country celebrating the life of John Ericsson, and have been uncritically quoted ever since. 1

These widely-believed statements about the novelty of USS Monitor and the selflessness of her designer are patently false. John Ericsson was far too experienced an engineer to laden his project with untried and untested technologies.  He knew that he could not deliver such a novel ship as Monitor in one hundred days while simultaneously creating forty new devices that other men would have to learn how to build and install.  Instead, Ericsson reached back to tried-and-tested technologies that he and others had developed over the previous quarter-century.  An account written just a few days after the Monitor-Virginia duel had it right: “The Monitor is no new invention of Mr. Ericsson’s, but that she is the result of 25 years’ study toward an invulnerable siege battery.” 2    

This was shown by the technologies both used and not used aboard Monitor.  The screw propeller used on the ironclad, which Ericsson pioneered back in 1838, was now standard equipment on both commercial and military ships.  Monitor’s engine, his patented, double-trunk design that was more compact than the more widespread, single-trunk engine, was installed on the frigate USS Minnesota back in 1855 and had been operating for over six years without difficulty.  “These engines were of what has ever since been called the ‘Monitor type’, and many have supposed that they were, like the vessel itself, of wholly novel and untried design,” as Charles MacCord, one of Ericsson’s most trusted draftsmen, explained.  “This, however, was not the case… this form of engine had already demonstrated its practical working qualities, otherwise the captain would probably have given the first trials at the dock his personal supervision.”  Ericsson, himself, reassured Monitor’s supervisor of contracts, Commodore Joseph Smith, “Nothing is attempted not already well tried, or of so strictly a mechanical a nature as to be susceptible of previous determination.” In keeping with his philosophy of using only tried-and-tested technologies on Monitor, Ericsson did not make use of his own patented fresh-water distiller, still unproven in operational use. 3          

John Ericsson (NHHC Photo # NH 305)

The claim that “the inventions are… not proclaimed to the public” was decidedly wrong.  Neither John Ericsson nor Isaac Newton were self-effacing when it came to publicizing the militarily-sensitive technologies and tactics employed by the ship.  Even as Monitor was under construction in January 1862, Newton gave a talk, printed in the Journal of the Franklin Institute a few weeks later, which detailed the armor scheme of the turret, decks, and hull.   A few days after the Battle of Hampton Roads, at a meeting of the New York Chamber of Commerce, that was soon reported in papers nationwide, Ericsson explained that Monitor’s cannon shot did not penetrate the armor of Virginia because the guns were slightly elevated, but at the next encounter “they will leave the guns level, and they won’t mind if the ball strikes the water, because the ricochet will take it where they want it.  The next time they go out, I predict the third round will sink the Merrimac [Virginia].” 4     All this strategic intelligence undoubtedly found its way almost immediately to the Confederate Navy.          

Ericsson was clearly not the selfless inventor that Church portrayed.  In addition to using many of his already-existing patents on Monitor, he made certain that the most important ideas for his new ship would be protected under patent law.  The most novel feature of Monitor was its revolving gun turret, the first operational one in the world.  However, as the US Commissioner of Patents explained in 1863, Ericsson’s turret by itself was not a unique idea: “the improvements in this respect propose no change of general principle or mode of structure; they have reference to the perfecting of the details of construction, to additional or different supports, to facilities of rotation and to greater conveniences in working the guns.   Port-hole stoppers have received much attention, and, apparently, with valuable results”.   Indeed, a year after Monitor’s loss, Ericsson went on to take out patents on improved designs for his unique gun-carriage (designed to limit recoil in a confined space) and port-hole stopper (which protected the gunports from cannon fire when not in use) based on battle experience at Hampton Roads and elsewhere. 5      

Perhaps Ericsson’s greatest “contrivance” with the respect to Monitor was the invention of the need for a slow, shallow-draft, mobile coastal battery.  That requirement had not existed prior to Monitor’s construction and subsequent duel with Virginia.  The US Navy had, from the start, been a blue-water force, capable of bringing the fight to distant shores.  That had been as true for John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard in 1779 as it was for the latest screw frigates and sloops launched just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War; indeed, the only concession that the US Navy made to shallow-draft requirements was that the ocean-going 1859 Hartford class sloops drew ten feet less water than the Merrimack class frigates, in order to enter southern ports. 6   In fact, at the onset of the Civil War, the House Chairman of Naval Affairs, Charles Sedgwick, suggested that “Gun Sloops [were] a class of vessel more needed in the Navy than any other.” 7   The Union Navy had to carry out a close blockade along almost 3,500 miles of coastline, from Virginia to Texas. In addition, it had to contend with the potential threat of British and French vessels breaking neutrality.  These conditions all pointed to the requirement for ocean-going vessels. In fact, the Union Navy’s original request for bids for ironclad ships, dated April 7, 1861, called for vessels “to be rigged…to navigate at sea.” 8    

Ericsson’s Monitor changed all that.  She was the wrong ship at the right time, a brown-water ship designed for a blue-water navy.  By confronting CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads just in the nick of time to avert a naval catastrophe, she changed the course of maritime strategy for a generation by shifting the focus to littoral defense, not just in the United States but around the world.   

International technology transfer and the origins of USS Monitor in the Crimean War

Like many of the advanced weapons used during the Civil War, the technology of USS Monitor was largely transferred from abroad.  International technology transfer during the war generally took two distinct forms: direct purchase or knowledge transfer.  In the South, which was short on industrial capability, direct purchase was the more common avenue for quickly obtaining major weapons.  Confederate officers were sent abroad to purchase ships from Britain and France, such as the steam sloop CSS Alabama from Laird in Birkenhead and the ironclad ram CSS Stonewall from Arman in Bordeaux.    In the North, knowledge transfer was more widely used, as when the concept and general plans for USS New Ironsides were derived from the French ironclad Gloire.

One of the primary sources of overseas knowledge transfer came from the large immigrant community in the North, particularly around the major cities of Philadelphia and New York.   The United States was always a nation of immigrants, and those immigrants often brought their skills and ideas into service for the US military. Ericsson’s younger countryman, John W. Nystrom, had emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1849, developing a novel screw propeller and various mathematical instruments.  During the Civil War, he served in Philadelphia as a naval engineer under Engineer-in-Chief, Benjamin Isherwood.

Ericsson, himself, had lived in Britain for many years and brought with him the concepts he had developed there while exposed to other similar inventions, including the screw propeller, revolving turret and forced draft-blowers. 9 He had conceived of Monitor long before the Civil War, not as a solution to the American needs for blockade and preventing overseas interference, but rather as the answer to a problem from a foreign conflict fought just a few years earlier: the Crimean War.

The Crimean War (1853-1856), between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France, and Turkey, was in many ways the first industrial war that presaged many of the technologies and tactics used during the American Civil War, including: telegraph and railroads; field hospitals; photography; trench warfare; steamships; and armored vessels.   In 1855, Secretary of War (later Confederate President), Jefferson Davis, sent observers to the Crimean War under the Delafield Commission, which included then-Captain George McClellan (later General-in-Chief of the Union Army), who returned with a deeper understanding and acceptance of how to use these new technologies on the battlefield and behind the lines.

The armies of both North and South adopted several weapons that were developed for, or saw service in, the Crimean War.  The Minié ball, originally invented by a French army officer, provided more reliable and had longer-range hitting power than previous bullets, and was used widely by French and British troops during the Crimean War.   It was brought to the United States in 1855, and within a few years an improved version became standard issue for all American soldiers just prior to, and during, the Civil War.  The 1853 British Enfield rifle-musket, which fired the Minié ball, also became standard American issue.  The French canon obusier de 12 cm, developed in 1853 and which could fire a wide range of ammunition, was adopted as the “12-pounder Napoleon” by both North and South.     

The Crimean War also provided the impetus for American naval developments in the Civil War.  In 1855, the Russian Navy approached the French inventor Brutus Villeroi to build a submarine that could destroy French and British warships. Villeroi had previously developed submarines for salvage work, but it is doubtful that he answered Russia’s call, as the following year he emigrated to Philadelphia where he continued his work on submarines.  In 1861, as the crisis with CSS Virginia loomed, he proposed his newly-built submarine Alligator to the Union Navy “to blow up one or more vessels of war at the Norfolk Navy Yard for a sum equivalent to the damage inflicted upon the enemy, to be paid… on the destruction of the property.”  Although the bids for three ironclad warships were already being prepared to accomplish exactly the same task, the Union Navy accepted his proposal as an alternate plan.  As it happened, Villeroi delivered his submarine two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, so the Union Navy found other uses for the vessel. 10          

The Crimean War was most notably the birthplace of the shallow-draft armored steam battery, which was the direct ancestor of Monitor. By 1854, both France and Britain had recognized that existing wooden warships were inadequate to attack heavily-defended Russian forts, as warships were too deep to closely approach the fortifications, and vulnerable to shore batteries.  The French Emperor Napoleon III, himself a student of artillery, prodded his naval constructors to develop a fleet of steam-powered, heavily-armored, shallow-draft ships that could closely approach Russian forts in the Baltic and the Black Sea.  Napoleon III wanted ten ships available for the 1855 campaign, but the French shipyards could build only five in that short a time. Undeterred, the French Navy contacted their British allies and provided drawings and specifications for British shipyards to build another five. In the event, only three French batteries were completed in time for the 1855 attack on the fortress at Kinburn on the Black Sea.

Bombardment of Kinburn (Weapons and Warfare)

Fort Kinburn guarded the entrance to the Bug and Dnieper rivers, and the access to the critical shipbuilding port of Nikolayev. In the summer of 1855, the three available French batteries were towed into position before the fort.  Enclosed by 4 inches of wrought iron plate, each battery could maneuver slowly at about 4 knots to deploy sixteen heavy broadside guns at their target.  During the battle on October 17, 1855, the three batteries fought at a range of about 800-1,000 yards, and unleashed over 3,000 shell and shot which, combined with the shelling from rest of the fleet, caused the Russians to surrender in less than eight hours.  In return, the ironclad batteries were struck repeatedly with little damage except for dents and furrows in the armor.  The French Navy attributed the prompt victory “to the fire of the floating batteries which… opened breaches in the ramparts and with remarkable precision was able to knock down the solidest walls.” 11          

At the same time the siege of Kinburn was being planned in 1855, a young naval lieutenant named Cowper Phipps Coles built an armed raft that bombarded a Russian town near the city of Rostov-on-Don.  Flush with success and aware of the recent action at Kinburn, Coles drew up plans for an armored raft fitted with a hemispherical cupola that could be used to attack other Russian forts. The great British civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, suggested to Coles some improvements regarding a revolving turntable, so that one would “turn the gun, not the ship.”  In 1859 and 1860, Coles drew up patents for a revolving, armored, cone-shaped cupola. In the autumn of 1861, just as Ericsson was designing Monitor, the British Navy built and tested a model of Cole’s cupola on the steam battery HMS Trusty.  Trusty successfully fired her 40-pound gun and received close-range shots from cannon ranging up to 100 pounds with few ill effects. 12 (April 5, 1862), p. 5; Stanley Sandler, The Emergence of the Modern Capital Ship (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1979), p. 179.  For the cupola trials on HMS Trusty, see Coles’ testimony in Report from the Select Committee on Ordnance (London: House of Commons, 1863), pp. 66-67.]

While the Crimean War was raging, Ericsson was making a comfortable living as an engineer in New York City, while also developing his caloric engine and testing it aboard his paddlewheel ship Ericsson.  Ever since the disastrous affair with USS Princeton in 1844 (where he was wrongly blamed for a gun explosion that killed the Secretaries of State and Navy) he had largely given up military work. 13   However, apparently intrigued by the nature of the Crimean War as the first industrial conflict, on September 26, 1854, he dashed off a proposal to Napoleon III that described “a new system of naval attack”: a short-range, steam-powered, iron-hulled vessel with curved decks and a hemispherical armored turret [that] would not show any right angle to an incoming shell, thus deflecting it away from the guns and machinery.  The turret would turn on a single, central spindle.  The hull was designed with a long overhang to protect the rudder and propeller.  The engines and internal compartments would be supplied with air by forced-draft blowers. 14   Although the French Navy never made use of this concept, it would turn out that Ericsson’s 1854 Crimean War proposal would become the template from which Monitor would be created.    

The Union Navy Department issues requirements for ocean-going ironclads, but John Ericsson and the Ironclad Board ignore them 

News that a Confederate ironclad was rising from the burned-out hulk of USS Merrimack was the spur for the construction of Monitor. Merrimack had been burned and sunk in April 1861 when Union troops abandoned the Gosport naval base.   By May, the Confederate Navy had raised the hulk and placed it in drydock, and in June, design work began on the conversion to the armored CSS Virginia.  The Union Navy received word of the new ironclad even before the work had actually commenced, and on July 4, Secretary of Navy, Gideon Welles, requested Congress to authorize construction of ironclad steamers.  Welles subsequently enlisted the help of Connecticut businessman Cornelius Bushnell to get a bill onto the floor and round up the votes. 15    

The Union already had one ironclad steamer on the ways, but it had lain unfinished in Hoboken, New Jersey since 1856 and could not be completed in any reasonable time.  The Stevens Battery had been ordered by the Navy in 1841 at the urging of two prominent railroad engineers, Edwin and Robert Stevens, who conceived of a fast, heavily armed and armored, semisubmersible, ocean-going steamer that could reinforce the Port of New York.  Over the course of fifteen years, the ship grew in size and complexity but without ever being launched, even as the brothers continued to receive navy funding.  By 1861, it was a 420-foot-long hull resting on open ground, having no decks, armor or guns fitted, with boilers and machinery in place but no propellers.  Naval experts who examined the ship in her unfinished state determined that she would be of “doubtful success,” and recommended against the “expenditure of important sums of money” to complete the work. 16

USS Monitor Plans (Wikimedia Commons)

On August 3, Congress authorized $1.5 million (the equivalent of $6 billion in 2018) to order “iron or steel-clad steamships or floating steam batteries” and an Ironclad Board to examine industry proposals. 17   Although the currently-building CSS Virginia had been the catalyst for the construction of ironclads, it was not, in the view of the Union Navy, their primary adversary. The Civil War was, to that point, primarily a conflict between two land powers, North and South, and therefore mainly under the Army’s purview.  The Union Navy, by contrast, had to plan against a spillover of the American conflict into a wider war with Britain and France, which had already demonstrated their preference for the Confederacy.  The Union Navy could only do this by exhibiting American naval strength on the high seas: “A foreign war must be waged almost exclusively upon the ocean…in view of the settled hostility of England and France, we ought to prepare ourselves to cope with their navies, through which alone they can strike us.” 18 With the French ironclad Gloire and the British ironclad Warrior already in the water, the Union Navy had to continue its time-honored blue-water posture in order to meet current and future threats.     

For this reason, the Union Navy Department issued the request for bids on August 7, 1861 – less than a week after Congress established the Ironclad Board — ignored Congress’ allowance for coastal “floating steam batteries” and specifically called for ocean-going ships: 19                


The Navy Department will receive offers from parties who are able to execute work of this kind, and who are engaged in it, of which they will furnish evidence with their offer, for the construction of one or more iron-clad steam vessels of war, either of iron or of wood and iron combined, for sea or river service, to be of not less than ten nor over sixteen feet draught of water; to carry an armament of from eighty to one hundred and twenty tons weight, with provisions and stores for from one hundred and sixty-five to three hundred persons, according to armament, for sixty days, with coal for eight days. The smaller draught of water, compatible with other requisites, will be preferred. The vessel to be rigged with two masts, with wire-rope standing rigging, to navigate at sea.    

The advertisement appeared in the New York Times, Boston Daily Journal, Philadelphia Evening Journal and many others across the Northeast, as well as being spread by word of mouth. 20   By the third week of September, the Navy Board had 16 proposals in hand, from which they selected three widely different concepts for construction that the Union Navy would then evaluate for further use. 21   In effect, the Union Navy was relying on the shipbuilding industry to perform, on its behalf, the experimentation (today we would call it research and development) for this new breed of vessel. This was, in fact, the normal course of action during the mid-nineteenth century.  At that time, the only navy-led experimentation was focused on gunnery, at John Dahlgren’s “Experimental Battery” in the Ordnance Establishment at the Washington Navy Yard. 22  

For hull and machinery developments, the US Navy, as with most European navies, looked to civilian manufacturers to take the lead. In the mid-1800s, commercial firms were quickly developing new types of engines and propellers, as well as improvements in iron shipbuilding, for a rapidly expanding transatlantic and global trade.  It was quite common for the US Navy to buy two or more competing technologies and compare them side-by-side.  For example, when Congress authorized the Navy to build six steam frigates in 1854, a special board was convened that decided the ships should be outfitted with different types of engines manufactured by several builders, in order to evaluate the varying engine types and to encourage competition. Four of the ships were fitted with single-trunk engines, one with a steeple engine and one, USS Minnesota, was built with Ericsson’s double-trunk engine. 23              

This pattern held true for the Union’s ironclad program. The first concept selected had been submitted by the Philadelphia firms of Merrick & Sons (engine manufactures) and William Cramp & Sons (shipbuilders) for a 4,000-ton, ocean-going, casemate (i.e., broadside battery) ironclad. The ship, later named New Ironsides, was roughly based on the new French ironclad frigate Gloire, though considerably smaller, slower and with fewer guns, but still the largest warship the United States had built to date. Her wooden hull, carrying 14 Dahlgren smoothbore guns and four others, would be protected by hammered iron plate 4.5 inches thick.  This type of ship, more than any of the other ironclad concepts selected, was closest to the concept of an ocean-going warship that could provide some deterrence against the ironclads now on the building ways in Britain and France. 24      

The second concept, later named Galena, was proposed by Cornelius Bushnell and his consortium of shipbuilders and designed by Samuel Hartt Pook. Much closer to the “gun sloops …more needed in the Navy than any other” advocated by Sedgwick, Galena was a small (950 tons), slow, narrow casemate ironclad with six guns and just 3 inches of side iron plating. The Ironclad Board worried that the ship “would not float her armor and load sufficiently high, and have sufficient stability for a sea vessel” so required a “guarantee that it could do these.” Bushnell, on the advice of his colleague, Cornelius Delamater, owner of the Delamater Iron Works in New York City, called on John Ericsson in order to help him provide this “guarantee.”  Ericsson, in addition to verifying Galena’s stability, showed Bushnell a copy of his own long-dormant “new system of naval attack” that he had sent to Napoleon III.  Bushnell, convinced of the utility of this novel ship, took Ericsson’s plans to Gideon Welles, and within a few days, the Ironclad Board approved this third concept for construction. Ericsson, who claimed he could finish the vessel in ninety days, began work on his vessel, which he later named Monitor, even before the contracts were signed. 25

Whereas the proposals for New Ironsides and Galena more or less hewed to the Navy’s request for ocean-going ships of long endurance, the third concept — Ericsson’s Monitor — met none of the Navy’s stipulated demands for weight of armament, number of crew, or seaworthiness.  He had simply ignored them in favor of presenting the small, shallow-draft battery that he had formulated seven years earlier for the Crimean War.  He later justified this total disregard for the Navy’s requirements by citing the more pressing need to stop CSS Virginia: 26        

  • The work on the Merrimac [sic, i.e., Virginia] had progressed so far that no structure of large dimensions could possibly be completed in time to meet her.
  • The well-matured plan of erecting a citadel of considerable dimensions on the ample deck of the razed Merrimac admitted of a battery of heavy ordnance so formidable that no vessel of the ordinary type, of small dimensions, could withstand its fire.
  • The shallow waters on the coast of the Southern States called for very light draught; hence the upper circumference of the propeller of the battery would be exposed to the enemy’s fire unless thoroughly protected against shot of heavy caliber. A difficulty was thus presented, which apparently could not be met by any device that would not seriously impair the efficiency of the propeller.

Ericsson’s argument for shallow draft was questionable; he certainly would have known that Virginia drew over 20 feet of water, so Monitor could have been just as deep and still operated successfully. On the other hand, his justification for building a small ship “in time to meet” the Confederate ironclad was completely correct. Even as the proposals were being read in September 1861, Virginia was already being refurbished in the Gosport dockyard, while the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond was busy rolling out its iron cladding.       

For its part, the Ironclad Board was complicit in overlooking the original requirements for an oceangoing vessel, albeit with some reservations: “we are somewhat apprehensive that her properties at sea are not such as a seagoing vessel should possess,” and could only be moved along the coast in smooth water. Nevertheless, given the urgent need to have a ship ready in just four months, the members recommended funding Ericsson’s “experiment,” as they dubbed it, and Welles agreed. 27   Nevertheless, the contract with Ericsson, signed on October 4, contained a clause calling for “masts, spars, sails and rigging” that could propel the vessel at six knots in a “fair breeze of wind.” 28   Thus, the Navy continued to maintain (as its August request for bids stipulated) that it still wanted an ocean-going vessel instead of a mobile, coastal battery designed for the littorals. Ericsson simply ignored this part of the contract, and it appears that he was never pressed on this matter. And for good reason; the Union Navy was now in a race to complete its ironclad before the Confederate Navy, already with a 3-month head start, could complete its own.   

Design, build and control mechanisms for USS Monitor

Ericsson claimed that he could build the vessel in 90 days, but the Navy gave him 100 days, and his contract held him to that schedule. In order to accomplish this, Ericsson had to ensure three things: his design had to be easily producible; he had to have reliable sources of manufacture for all armor, engines and equipment; and he required strong control mechanisms to be certain that each piece of equipment fit into place and worked as intended, without prototypes or testing.       

Ericsson quickly modified his 1854 proposal to make the ironclad easier to build. The hemispherical turret, with curves in three dimensions that would have had to be hand-crafted, was jettisoned in favor of a cylindrical turret whose armor could be machine-rolled in two dimensions from flat plates. Likewise, a flat the deck replaced the curved one. The hull itself divided in two sections, and unlike Ericsson’s 1854 all-iron concept, was a composite iron and wood structure.  The lower hull was essentially a 124-foot-long, 6-foot-deep iron bathtub divided in half by a main transverse bulkhead. Engines and machinery were aft of the bulkhead, accommodations forward, and the turret sat atop it. The flat upper “raft” was of standard warship oak-beam-and-pine-deck construction, to which iron plate was bolted on the deck and sides.  The upper raft fitted snugly over the lower bathtub, strengthened with heavy brackets and riveted together. 29   Ericsson chose standard thicknesses for the iron plating, typically 3/8-inch and 1/2-inch thick. Armor plates were limited to 1-inch thickness to ensure that existing mills and factories could quickly produce and bend them with no time-consuming modifications to the plants. As described earlier, all the machine technology was well-proven and known to manufacturers.    

The second necessity to meet the 100-day construction period was reliable manufacturers.  The signers on the Navy’s contract to build Monitor were Ericsson, Bushnell and two other individuals – John F. Winslow, co-owner of the Albany Iron Works, and John A. Griswold, owner of the Rensselaer Iron Works in Troy. These four men formed the core of a close-knit network of ironworks, foundries and machinery builders, based almost exclusively in New York State, which together would create the various parts that became Monitor. The mutual levels of trust that had already existed between these manufacturers allowed them to quickly dole out work and plan deliveries accordingly, without resorting to time-consuming contractual negotiations, and also ensured that the quality of work would be at the highest levels.    

The group contracted with the Continental Iron Works in Green Point, Brooklyn to actually assemble the vessel. Most of the individual parts were subcontracted out. It was already understood that the Delamater Iron Works, which had built many engines for Ericsson, would supply the main engines, boiler and propeller, while Albany Iron Works and Rensselaer Iron Works would supply the plate iron, angles, columns and brackets. Smaller companies in New York City and Green Point would supply additional material or furnish and install fittings and equipment, such as E.W Barstow for the anchor chain, H.R. Worthington for the bilge pumps, and the broker Holdane and Company for timber and angle iron. 30

Monitor Turret (Wikimedia Commons)

The turret, by far the most unique and complicated assembly on the ship, was further subcontracted.  The only Northern mill that was both within reasonable transport distance of New York City, and which could roll large sheets of 1-inch plate, was H. Abbott & Sons of Baltimore, Maryland.  These sheets were transported to Novelty Iron Works in New York City, which rolled the plates into semicircles and assembled them to form the turret. The steam engines that turned the turret, as well as the gun carriages inside, were manufactured by the Clute Brothers Foundry in Schenectady.  The iron “port stoppers,” which were 8-inch-thick slabs of hammered iron that swung like pendulums to protect the guns when not in use, were forged at the Niagara Steam Forge in Buffalo. 31   The Dahlgren guns themselves, which had been manufactured in 1859 at the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring, New York, were transferred from the sloop USS Dacotah.

By keeping almost all of the subcontracted iron work within New York State, the builders were making use of reliable transport by rail, barge, and canal to ensure rapid delivery of finished parts.  Another reason for “buying local” was that Monitor was not the only ironclad under construction at that time, and iron supplies were still relatively scarce. Indeed, the Albany Iron Works and Rensselaer Iron Works were already furnishing iron parts for both Monitor and the armor system for USS Galena, then on the ways in Mystic, Connecticut.  The William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Philadelphia was already building USS New Ironsides, whose armor (4.5 inches thick) was produced using the Pennsylvania network of forges in Pittsburgh and Bristol. 32   Meanwhile, forges in the West were supplying iron for the Union Army’s seven City class armored gunboats under construction in James B. Eads’ shipyards in St. Louis, Missouri (they were also known as “Pook’s Turtles” after their designer Samuel Moore Pook, the father of Galena’s designer).  This sudden rush of ironclad construction, coupled with the increased demand for such wartime materiel as railroad rolling stock and fixed stock, put a strain on the iron supply network.

The third necessity to deliver the ship in 100 days was a strong set of control mechanisms over the actual construction of the ship. Ericsson had the central role in this, for, by all accounts, the entire design – right down to the individual plates, girders, pumps and pipes – came from the drawing room he had specially built in the Continental Iron Works, where he could also oversee the assembly and construction.  His output was prodigious – he produced somewhere between 150 and 300 drawings over the space of 152 days, or between one and two complete drawings per day.  In addition to these drawings, Ericsson was also continuously calculating and recalculating bills of material, weight of equipment, transverse stability, etc. as the design evolved. 33    

The extensive subcontracting of individual equipment, and the short timeframe for construction, meant that the usual methods for ensuring proper fit between components — which usually meant creating full-sized templates from existing equipment and extensive rework – could not be used.  A pump manufacturer in Schenectady would never see the mounting bracket or pipe their pump was connected to, so each factory had to build each part exactly according to the drawings, and the drawings themselves could allow no room for error. Ericsson, having been an artillery officer and surveyor in Sweden and an engineer in Britain, was a consummate draftsman in his own right and expressed himself eloquently through his drawings. Machinists who built the engines of USS Princeton to his drawings recalled they were “marvels of neatness and accuracy to scale.” 34

Ericsson’s biographers (and indeed, Ericsson himself) often portrayed the building of Monitor as a one-man show, with himself overseeing every aspect of design and construction.  In fact, his original drawings had to be painstakingly reproduced with complete accuracy in order to be sent to the various subcontractors. Ericsson employed a number of draftsmen like Charles MacCord, whose job was to take the original drawings, usually ink on heavy drawing paper, and copy them in pencil to a linen tracing cloth that could be easily transported to other factories. Navy men on-site performed oversight of the contract and construction.  Navy oversight of the ironclads was not administered, as was normally the case for shipbuilding, through the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair – they had their hands full building and maintaining conventional wooden warships.  Instead, for Monitor, oversight was split between Commodore Joseph Smith of the Bureau of Yards and Docks for contracts, and Alban Stimers of the Engineer Corps (which was nominally in charge of all steam machinery) for construction. 35    

Thus, despite every appearance of being a rush job, the construction of USS Monitor was actually a carefully orchestrated affair that came about through long years of preparation. Ericsson had already thought about and planned the ship for seven years, so when the call came, it was more akin to filling in the details than starting afresh.  He made use of tried-and-tested engines, machinery and equipment, and simplified his design so the vessel could be quickly built of iron and wood using existing manufacturing processes. His long collaboration with a tightly-knit network of factories and foundries meant they could plan and deliver the required machinery and equipment in a steady stream. His own skill as a draftsman, and the skills of his subordinate draftsmen and Navy overseers, meant that each step of the design and build process went relatively smoothly. The one area of uncertainty, the performance of Monitor’s unique armor, was addressed in the contract by stipulating that the Navy would not have to accept the ship until “the impregnable battery” was tested “under the enemy’s fire”; Ericsson himself agreed that “if the structure cannot stand this test, then it is useless.” 36 Although the ship would be finished almost two months later than the promised 100 days, it turned out to be a “just-in-time” delivery.      

USS Monitor as an integrated weapon system avant la lettre

John Ericsson’s careful planning of Monitor’s construction was part and parcel of his ability to clearly envision the ship as a complete system.  He consciously used that word to describe his ship and its associated equipment, in an era when “system” more commonly described a philosophy of utility (“system of education”) than a collection of machinery. 37 Ericsson conceived of his turret ship as a “sub-aquatic system of naval warfare… an impregnable and partially submerged instrument for destroying ships of war.” 38   Every part of the ship’s design was bent to bringing its primary weapons, the guns, to close range with an enemy. The revolving turret allowed the ship to engage the enemy at almost any angle, not just broadsides, so it could fight even in confined waters. The small, heavily-armored turret would be just about the only thing enemy vessels could reliably fire upon except at close range, for the extremely low freeboard – Ericsson understood that the deck would frequently be awash – meant that the hull itself presented almost no target to long-range shells.  The “sub-aquatic” nature of the design demanded novel layouts and features for the machinery and crew, including forced ventilation for the engines and accommodations, a protected propeller, an anchor that could be raised and lowered from within the ship, and even toilets that could drain while underwater. USS Monitor was, in today’s terms, a fully integrated weapon system.   

The guns, however, which were the keystones in this integrated weapon system, were the only parts over which Ericsson had no control.  American naval guns on the eve of the Civil War were, in fact, state-of-the-art worldwide.  Although breech-loaders and rifled guns were in use at the time, navies still relied on smoothbore muzzle-loaders for larger caliber guns like those installed on Monitor. Developments by US Navy and Army artillery officers, notably John Dahlgren, Robert Parrott, and Thomas Rodman, had greatly increased both the safety and hitting power of American guns over their predecessors, so that they were comparable in performance to Britain’s Armstrong and France’s Paixhans guns. 39      

Ericsson had originally designed Monitor to carry two 12-inch guns, and his initial drawings showed the guns firing in opposite directions within the turret.  However, no 12-inch naval guns existed at the time in the United States.  The only comparable weapon was the Union Army’s single experimental 12-inch Rodman rifle gun, which at the time, was sitting idly at Fort Monroe in Virginia, at the entrance to Hampton Roads. Therefore, Ericsson was forced to employ the largest naval gun then in use, the XI-inch (11-inch) Dahlgren gun, a pair of which would be mounted side-by-side in the turret. Alban Stimers proposed a shortened version to more easily fit within the turret’s confined space, but there was no time to cast such a specialized weapon. Instead, Ericsson had to rely upon the 44-year-old Lieutenant John L. Worden, recently placed in command of Monitor, to secure its XI-inch guns.  The only ones available in New York were aboard the steam sloop USS Dacotah, which had just arrived from the East Indian Squadron patrolling off China.  Worden requested the Brooklyn Navy Yard to remove Dacotah’s guns and have them brought to the Continental Iron Works for installation aboard Monitor. 40    

Ericsson, meanwhile, had designed a pair of gun carriages that employed a unique braking system to check the recoil of the guns within the tight confines of the turret, although the basic concept was not very different from carriages then used aboard British warships.  The braking system used a friction gear (also called a compressor) tightened by a rotary hand-wheel. The guns themselves were run in and out using a block-and-tackle system. The braking system was sometimes ineffective or incorrectly used, for as archeological evidence would later show, the rear wall of Monitor’s recovered turret was dented by repeated strikes of the guns’ cascabels (the protruding knobs at the rear of the gun, used to tie off the tackle).  Although a similar carriage design was employed on the subsequent Passaic class monitors, Ericsson himself was apparently dissatisfied with this arrangement, for the following year he patented a newer, much different gun carriage that used a lever instead of a hand-wheel to tighten the friction gear, and employed a rack-and-pinion system instead of block and tackle to run the guns in and out. 41

In January and February 1862, with the ship now afloat, the guns and carriages were placed inside the most novel feature of the ship – the rotating armored turret.  The name of its builder, Novelty Iron Works, only underscored how unique it was. Just over 21 feet in diameter, it was built up of eight layers of 1-inch plate that had been carefully rolled at Novelty and assembled for fit.  Weighing almost 120 tons, it was too heavy to lift by crane, so it was disassembled for shipment across the East River to Continental Iron Works.  Once aboard ship, the turret was reassembled around the guns and carriages (the armor was bolted through) and the gunports carefully cut out. The two teardrop-shaped port stoppers were hinged at the top of the turret, normally covering the gunports, but would be swung inboard, out of the way when the guns were fired.  As it happened, the stoppers interfered with one another when swung open, so only one stopper could be opened at a time, halving the ship’s effective firepower. The outside structure of the turret normally rested on a brass ring embedded in the deck, which was intended to create a watertight seal when the turret was not in use. The turret was turned by a single 12-inch diameter central spindle connected at the base of the turret, which was rotated via gears by two small single-piston steam engines. To allow free rotation during battle, the entire turret was lifted off the deck by hand-screwing a wedge-shaped key under the spindle. 42          

Though Ericsson’s concept of mounting the guns inside a rotating structure dated to the Crimean War, other inventors had come up with similar ideas at about the same time.  Cowper Coles in Britain, as mentioned, had designed, patented, and tested a rotating cupola even while Monitor was under construction. Coles’ turret differed from Ericsson’s primarily in that, while Ericsson’s turret was supported on a central spindle, Cole’s was supported on roller bearings under the turret’s circumference.  (As it would turn out, all later turret designs, including those built by James B. Eads, would use Coles’ approach, which was more efficient and gave greater stability to the turret.)  Although Coles claimed paternity over the rotating turret, it presented no threat to Ericsson’s invention as Coles was in Britain.  In the United States, however, an inventor named Timothy Timby had submitted a patent caveat (similar to a provisional application, but short of a full patent) for a land-based rotating battery.  Although Timby’s two-story 100-foot diameter tower bore no resemblance to a sea-going turret, Ericsson’s partners –against Ericsson’s own wishes — decided pre-emptively to award Timby a royalty on Monitor’s turret to prevent further claims. 43

Compared with artillery developments, which were quite on par with those of Europe, American armor lagged significantly behind that of France and Britain. The Crimean War had convinced both nations of the utility of armored ships, but that first-hand experience was of course lacking in the United States.  Both France and Britain conducted extensive testing of armor against shell and shot, generally agreeing that about 4.5 inches solid plate was sufficient against the heaviest shells. Of perhaps equal importance was the finding that armor effectiveness varied as the square of the thickness.  Therefore, by the logic of the day, simply laminating two sheets of 2.25-inch plate would be half as effective as a single 4.5-inch plate (2.252 + 2.252 = 10, 4.52 = 20), while even five laminated 1-inch plates would be only a quarter as effective. 44            

Although Ericsson was well aware of these findings, it would have been impossible to build a ship in 100 days with such thick plates. As mentioned, H. Abbott & Sons of Baltimore, Maryland was the only East Coast factory that could roll even 1-inch plates; when queried about turning out 4-inch-thick plates, Abbott had replied that it would have required two additional months to alter the machinery, an unacceptable delay.  The other two factories that could turn out such plates, Bailey, Brown and Company of Pittsburgh and Bristol Forge of Bristol, Pennsylvania, were already fully engaged in producing armor for USS New Ironsides.  Ericsson used the 1-inch plate to build the turret and to cover the deck and sides for protection.  Reminded at regular intervals by Commodore Smith that the vessel “was much needed now,” Ericsson fretted about the freeboard and was continuously adjusting the thickness of the armor to ensure the ship floated properly at its design waterline. 45   He maintained the turret thickness at the original 8 inches, but reduced the deck armor from 2 inches to an inch, and side armor from 6 inches to 5, tapering to 3 inches below the waterline. 46

The ship’s boilers and propulsion machinery had to be adapted to their “sub-aquatic” existence, and suffered accordingly. The two double-furnace, horizontal-tube Martin boilers (named for their inventor Daniel B. Martin) were entirely below the waterline, so had to draw air through the engine room via a pair of steam-powered, centrifugal forced-draft blowers, known at the time as “air pumps.”  Forced-draft ventilation was already in wide use — Ericsson had employed it on USS Princeton almost twenty years earlier — but Monitor’s arrangements made its use particularly troublesome. Since the blowers were steam-driven, they could not operate until steam was raised, and this was a very slow process on Monitor because there was little natural air circulation through the boilers. Boilers in conventional steamships developed this circulation by drawing in air low, near the level of the boilers, and exhausting it through a high smokestack or funnel (called a “chimney” at that time). On Monitor, both the intakes and exhaust were at the same deck level, so there was little natural draw.  Worse, both the intakes and exhausts were simple grates through the deck, which were protected from flooding by short iron boxes.  These boxes were removed before battle, making the system certain to flood in all but the calmest water.  (In November 1862, when the ship was brought to the Washington Navy Yard for overhaul, it was fitted with a telescoping funnel that successfully addressed this problem.). 47

There were also problems with Ericsson’s patented horizontal double-trunk engine, also called a “vibrating lever” engine, as the piston rods oscillated in a semicircular motion instead of a fully circular rotation. He chose this design in order to fit within the protected below-deck space required for “sub-aquatic” warfare.  It was more compact than conventional engines and reasonably reliable, but as Engineer-in-Chief, Benjamin Isherwood, later determined, quite inefficient. The primary difficulty was excessive steam condensation inside the cylinders; with the two cylinders having an adjoining wall, they experienced large temperature changes, which caused steam to prematurely condense and rob the engines of power. Isherwood determined that Ericsson’s engine was about 12 percent less efficient than engines more commonly in use, which meant lower delivered horsepower and higher fuel consumption. 48

Monitor had a very standard machinery system, with several steam pumps and motors driven from the main boilers:  two blower motors, two turret motors, a bilge pump and a feed pump. Most navy and commercial ships, by 1861, had steam-driven bilge pumps, blowers and feed pumps. HMS Warrior, for example, had a single steam-driven blower, two boiler feed pumps, ash hoists and bilge pumps, while Cunard and Collins line passenger ships were fitted with various bilge pumps, blowers and feed pumps. 49 All other machinery was hand-driven.  The semi-balanced rudder, for example, was moved by a standard wheel-and-rope system from inside the pilot house forward. The four-fluked anchor, located in a well just aft of the bow, was raised and lowered from inside the ship by a hand-driven capstan.

Monitor’s propeller was a fairly standard 9 foot diameter, four-bladed model, quite different from the six-bladed propeller Ericsson installed on Princeton.  Given that the ship had a 10 foot draft and that Ericsson did not want the propeller protruding below the keel, the hull around the propeller had to be shaped to form a sort of upside-down well. This created serious impediments to the flow into the propeller, which undoubtedly contributed to later problems with speed (the ship could make only 6-7 knots, instead of the promised 9 knots) and maneuverability. Immediately above the propeller, the hull and deck opened to a removable iron grate which could be used to access the propeller for repair.         

Forward of the machinery were the accommodation spaces and the heavily-armored pilot house, which extended above the deck.  As mentioned previously, a single transverse bulkhead divided the ship into machinery spaces aft and accommodations forward.  Unlike previous naval and merchant ships which berthed crew forward and officers aft, on Monitor all officers and crew (generally between 58 and 63 men total) had to be squeezed into the forward section of the ship.  The accommodation spaces, entirely below the waterline, were supplied with air through the starboard, forced-draft ventilator, a situation that Joseph Smith found untenable: “Your plan of ventilation appears plausible,” he wrote Ericsson, “but sailors do not fancy living underwater.” 50   Yet underwater living is what Ericsson had in mind; even the toilets (four of them) had to be specially rigged with two valves and an air pump in order to flush while submerged. The operation was a bit tricky – the sea valve had to be closed when actually using the toilet, but to flush, the upper valve first had to be closed and the sea valve opened before engaging the (presumably hand-powered) air pump.  According to Ericsson’s biographer, William Church, a ship’s surgeon who had forgotten to close one valve, presumably while sitting on the toilet, “found himself suddenly projected into the air at the end of a column of water rushing up from the depths of the ocean and pouring into the ship.” 51    

Line engraving published in Harper’s Monthly, Volume 25, September 1862, page 433, depicting the launching of the ship at the Continental Iron Works, Greenpoint, New York, on 30 January 1862. (NHHC Photo # NH 604)

By mid-February the various pieces of the hull, turret, and machinery had been brought together and assembled at the Green Point shipyard. But before Monitor could be called an integrated weapon system, the crew had to bring those separate parts to life and make them work as one unit.   

Performance of USS Monitor during her ten-month service life    

Monitor was launched on January 30, 1862.  Construction of the turret and other fitting out took another two weeks. On February 19, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Worden, took possession of the ship for trials. That same day, Worden received orders from Gideon Welles to proceed with his ship, not even completed, to Hampton Roads. The haste was due to the fact that Welles received intelligence that two days earlier, Merrimack (sic, CSS Virginia, though Welles and most of the Union apparently did not learn of the name change until much later) had been launched and now threatened the Union port of Newport News.

The ship trials uncovered a number of teething problems inherent in almost any new design.  The first shakedown cruise, a 2-mile trip down the East River to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, did not go well.  The Delamater Iron Works, in its haste to get the engines finished, had made the serious but easily reparable mistake of setting the steam cutoff valves for backing instead of ahead, so that the ship only made 3.5 knots instead of its promised 9 knots.  On February 25, Worden put the ship into commission and promptly ran into different troubles.  The rudder was of a balanced design that was still fairly new to iron shipbuilding. Sailing ship rudders were typically attached directly to the sternpost and hinged at their forward edge, a practice still common in newer steamships. Like all balanced rudders, Monitor’s rudder was hinged some distance aft of the forward edge, so that it could be turned more easily. However, rudder theory was almost non-existent in 1861, so there was little guidance on how to do this effectively.  Ericsson had placed the hinge post too far aft, with the result that it was over-balanced and swung wildly at the slightest command.  Ericsson imperiously but correctly decided against drydocking the ship to fit a new or modified rudder, as this would take several days — an eternity given that Virginia was already afloat and posing a grave threat to the Union navy.  He instead devised a different arrangement of the steering cables and pulleys to increase the leverage of the helmsman over the rudder.  In a second trial run on March 3, the ship made 7 knots and handled reasonably well, but the gunnery trials were marred by a misunderstanding by Alban Stimers of how the friction gear worked (he turned the handwheel on each gun the wrong way, loosening instead of tightening the compressor), so that both guns recoiled violently and bounced off the rear of the turret. 52

Far worse problems befell the ship on its maiden sea voyage. On March 6, Monitor was taken under tow to Hampton Roads to meet CSS Virginia. Stimers rode as a passenger, while Isaac Newton filled the position of engineer.  In calm water on the first day, the ship rode smooth and dry.  By the following day, heavy seas were pouring over the deck and into the ship. The worst flooding came from the gap between the hull and turret.  While Ericsson had designed the base of the heavy turret to create a metal-to-metal seal with the embedded brass ring on the deck, Stimers had ordered the turret jacked up and the gap stuffed with oakum caulking (a wooden ship practice), much of which promptly washed away under the pounding of the waves. The pumps labored to dewater the ship, but their power source was also in danger of flooding.  Waves washed over the ventilation intakes and boiler funnel, so that the blowers became flooded and the leather drive belts slipped.  Starved of air, the boilers soon lost steam and acrid fumes filled the air throughout the ship.  The ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant Samuel Greene, signaled the tug to pull towards to shore. Five hours later, in calmer waters, Stimers, Newton and the engineering crew repaired the blowers and brought up steam to recommence the trip to Hampton Roads.  It was now apparent that the ship’s Achilles heels were the ventilation and funnel arrangements, but there was nothing to be done before the upcoming battle. 53

Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads the evening of March 8. Worden soon learned that Virginia had already destroyed the Union sail frigates Cumberland and Congress, while the steam frigate Minnesota ran aground early in the battle and remained stranded throughout. Virginia could not attack Minnesota before nightfall because of the tides, so withdrew shoreside to await the dawn and the chance to destroy Minnesota. In the middle of the night, however, Worden brought Monitor alongside the steam frigate to stand guard.  About 8:30 am the next morning, Sunday March 9, as CSS Virginia approached USS Minnesota, Worden brought USS Monitor to intercept and fired the first shots of the running duel. With political figures like Gustavus Fox (Assistant Secretary of the Union Navy) looking on, the two ships exchanged gunfire for almost four hours. Monitor fired solid shot while Virginia fired shells, though neither shot nor shell had much effect on either ship. Monitor was more maneuverable and avoided a ramming attack, while Worden was able to bring her guns to bear on Virginia’s vulnerable stern (but missed the screw and rudder).   

As a completely new, never-before-tried weapon system, Monitor and its crew performed reasonably well during battle. Operational command was hampered by the fact that the speaking tube between the pilot house and the turret was disabled early on, so runners had to carry messages back and forth, which took precious time. The turret itself was hard to control, its inertia making it slow to start turning and difficult to stop. Moreover, sighting the guns was made difficult by the enclosed arrangements with only a tiny line of sight through the gunports or a tiny viewing port. The gun crew lost its bearings and did not always know which way the turret was aimed. They could not point the guns directly forward or aft as the blast could disable the pilot house or ventilation intakes. The pendulated gunport stoppers were hard to manhandle and interfered with the guns, so that only one gun could be run out at a time.  Nevertheless, the crew quickly adapted to the circumstances, and after only a brief lull to resupply with ammunition, Monitor fought Virginia to a draw.  By noon, both ships had sustained minor damage, which forced their commanders to temporarily sheer off to assess the situation. Each commander then assumed the other ship had withdrawn from battle, and the fighting stopped. Worden was the only casualty, temporarily blinded from a shell that struck the pilothouse and exploded. Monitor herself was dented and scarred, but otherwise still battle-ready.  Although tactically a draw, the battle prevented the Confederate Navy from fully occupying Hampton Roads and the James River, and was generally seen as a strategic victory for the Union Navy. 54

Battle of Hampton Roads (NHHC Photo # 1053)

Both Virginia and Monitor remained in the Hampton Roads area, both sides itching for a rematch.  Neither side knew it at the time, but the March 9 battle would be the last ship-to-ship battle they ever fought.  On April 11, Virginia sortied into the roadstead, but Monitor stayed near Fort Monroe and the two simply exchanged a few desultory rounds.  On May 8, as part of a larger Union assault on the Confederate positions in Norfolk, Monitor and several other Union warships bombarded the Confederate battery at Sewell’s Point.  Virginia sortied to confront them, but the Union warships retreated.  Several days later, as Union troops occupied Norfolk, CSS Virginia was burned and sunk by its own crew to avoid falling into enemy hands.

The destruction of CSS Virginia and capture of Norfolk meant that Monitor could be released for other duties.  On May 15, a squadron of ships, including the ironclads USS Monitor, USS Galena (recently put into service) and USRC Naugatuck (originally built as a proof-of-concept ship for the Stevens Battery) steamed up the James River to test the defense of the Confederate capitol, Richmond.  At a bend in the river several miles outside the city, the fort at Drewry’s Bluff defended the river. The flotilla could not negotiate the turn, and anchored near the base while shot and rifle fire rained down upon them.  Monitor’s gun mounts, which were designed and built to aim at other ships and coastal batteries in near-flat trajectories, could not elevate sufficiently to hit the batteries on the bluffs 90 feet above the water.   When she backed off to decrease the angle of fire, the guns were unable to reach the batteries.  Monitor’s 1-inch deck armor protected it from damage, while Galena, with just .5-inch deck armor, suffered greatly from the falling shot.  After this, the flotilla retreated downriver. 55

For most of the summer of 1862, Monitor lay idle while defending the James River, its boiler continually making steam in case of a fight.  The combination of the boiler’s heat and the summer sun baking down upon the black iron hull made conditions inside unbearable, reaching 150 degrees Fahrenheit in some spaces.  In September, the ship was ordered to the Washington Navy Yard for an overhaul.  While in drydock, the hull was scraped and the engines repaired, after which (as noted earlier) Isherwood ran tests on their efficiency.  A permanent smokestack and taller ventilation boxes were fitted, which improved efficiency and reduced the potential for downflooding.  By November, the ship was back in Hampton Roads for guard duty.

Monitor’s final voyage began under tow on December 29, 1862 with the destination of Beaufort, North Carolina to assist in the blockade of Wilmington.  Lieutenant Samuel Greene, who had experienced the harrowing trip from New York to Hampton Roads back in March, was appalled at the idea of another ocean voyage: “I do not consider this steamer a seagoing vessel,” he said, complaining about its lack of horsepower and continued trouble with steering.  Those issues, however, would not be Monitor’s undoing.  Once again, the problems lay in the turret and ventilation arrangement. Although every opening was sealed, once again the turret was jacked up and oakum caulking stuffed underneath, where Ericsson specifically designed the turret / deck mating seal to be watertight.  On the second day, the ships were off the coast of Cape Hatteras when the seas began to rise. The ship yawed and rolled sickeningly, as waves swept over the deck and washed away portions of the oakum. Water poured into the gaps between the turret and hull, dampening the coal and furnaces.  The pumps could not keep up with the inrush, and water now entered the ventilation ducts, disabling the blowers as well. By midnight the boilers gave out, and the order was given to abandon ship. Around 1:00 am the morning of December 31, 1862, the ship foundered with sixteen men lost. 56   From commissioning to sinking, USS Monitor was in active service only ten months. During that short existence, Monitor and her crew had accomplished more than many warships achieve in ten or even thirty years. By stopping CSS Virginia’s attacks and holding her at bay through the spring and summer of 1862, USS Monitor also stopped the Confederate advance through Hampton Roads and made possible the Peninsular Campaign.  She also changed the face of naval warfare for a generation.    

The influence of Monitor on warship design and construction, 1862-1898

As stated earlier, Ericsson’s greatest “contrivance” with the respect to Monitor was the invention of the need for a slow, shallow-draft, mobile coastal battery in a previously blue-water navy.  That perceived need had not existed before Monitor demonstrated her performance at Hampton Roads; not only the original request for bids, but even the Union Navy’s contract with Ericsson, stipulated that the vessel should be rigged for ocean cruising.  After the battle with Virginia, that viewpoint completely changed.  Gideon Welles, Gustavus Fox, and the Union Navy’s political establishment, as well as the wider public, saw Monitor as “completely invincible,” believing that the victory at Hampton Roads was the decisive battle that pointed the way to the design of the future fleet.  Charles Cramp, builder of New Ironsides, bitterly referred to this as the “Monitor Craze” and argued that by fixating on the turreted shallow-draft monitor, it put a stop to any further developments in Union naval ship design. In the years 1862 and 1863, the Union Navy contracted for fifty-seven monitors, of which fewer than half actually served during the war. At the same time, the Union Navy constructed only a handful of casemate ironclads similar to New Ironsides and Galena. 57

Immediately after Hampton Roads, Gustavus Fox ordered Ericsson to design new classes of monitors.  The first was the Passaic class, whose lead ship was commissioned in November 1862.  Though most of the major systems were similar to those of Monitor (e.g., spindle turret, double-trunk engine), Ericsson incorporated lessons learned from the battle: larger-caliber guns (XV-inch vis XI-inch), pilot house atop the turret for easier communication with the gun crew, rotating vice pendulated gunport stoppers (which he patented), and better steering. However, Ericsson and the Union Navy did not fully recognize the downflooding problems until after Monitor sank, so it was not until Ericsson’s next designs, the Canonicus class (single turret) and Miantonomoh class (double turret), that improved ventilation and funnel arrangements were incorporated.  Meanwhile, Alban Stimers took charge of the shallow-draft Casco-class monitors, which were widely seen as failures. 58    

The rapid naval drawdown after the Civil War reduced the US Navy to a primarily coastal presence, in which monitors fit perfectly.  One of the few shipbuilding programs in the 1870s produced the Amphitrite class of breastwork (i.e., raised central deckhouse) monitors, whose ships still had muzzle loading guns and Ericsson’s central-spindle turrets, but which were equipped with the latest engines designed by Benjamin Isherwood.  By 1883, the widespread adoption of breech-loading guns put paid to Ericsson’s central-spindle turret, and all future American turrets were built along the Coles roller bearing design. 59   Just at this time, the new American fleet of steel cruisers (the ABCD ships) was being laid down in Philadelphia, which signaled the ended of the coastal fleet and the beginning of a more muscular ocean-going presence.  The last of the US coastal monitors, the Arkansas class, was built in 1898 for the Spanish American War.        

The “Monitor Craze” was not confined to the United States.  After the Battle of Hampton Roads, Monitor-type turreted ironclads were widely sought for coastal defense in European and Latin American nations.  Britain and France, the two major naval powers, weighed the merits of seagoing versus coastal ironclads.  In Parliament, the debates were fierce; advocates of the former pointed out that Monitor barely survived its maiden voyage, while devotees of the latter pointed out that Britain could build six Monitors for the price and schedule of one Warrior.  In the end, both Britain and France hedged their bets by continuing to build oceangoing armored warships, while also investing in coastal defense; in the twenty years after Hampton Roads, they constructed twenty-eight coastal defense vessels and rams, including ten monitors, compared with fifty-three oceangoing ships. For the smaller naval powers, Monitor proved the model for the relatively inexpensive, cost-effective alternative to the conventional battleship. 60

Most ironclad monitors built for smaller Europe and Latin America navies were constructed in Britain and France, and all had Coles-type turrets.  The first to enter service was the British-built ironclads Rolf Krake (to Denmark) in 1863 and Huáscar (to Peru) in 1865.  These were followed in 1868 by a pair of breastwork monitors (Cerberus class) for British colonies, and the Schorpioen and Buffel, both built in France for the Netherlands. Ironically, John Ericsson benefitted very little from the Monitor craze.  Only Russia and his mother country of Sweden ordered ships from him, both of which were versions of the Passaic class.  In Russia, the ship became known as the Uragan class.  In Sweden, they were named the John Ericsson class after their designer.  Ericsson supervised the designs while in the United States, and the plans were brought back to their nations by naval attachés who also oversaw their construction. 61

At the same time that Britain was building coastal monitors, the Royal Navy also launched the first ocean-going turreted warship, HMS Monarch (1868), which set the stage for the modern battleship.  The construction of Monarch did not sit well with Cowper Coles, as the Royal Navy had selected it over his own design.  Coles successfully lobbied Parliament to fund construction of his own low-freeboard turret monitor, which was commissioned as HMS Captain in April 1870.  Five months later, Captain foundered and sank in a storm due to inadequate stability, taking Coles and almost 500 other men with her.          

The Monitor craze did not of course end all at once after the sinking of HMS Captain, but the growing belief that long-range oceanic capability was imperative for both established and emerging naval powers led to the rise of the ocean-going battleship and pushed coastal monitors to eventual extinction.


During the desperate beginnings of the Civil War, USS Monitor was designed, built and delivered in less than six months, just in time to stop CSS Virginia, an existential threat to the Union Navy.  Ericsson had envisioned his ship for the Crimean War, yet he convinced the Washington establishment that it would be the right ship for the Hampton Roads campaign.  In fact, USS Monitor was, as stated, the wrong ship at the right time, a brown-water ship designed for a blue-water navy.

The fact that Ericsson had been thinking about this new system of naval warfare for so long meant that he had a clear vision of what it should be almost as soon as the request crossed his desk.  He conceived of the ship and its components as part of an integrated system, everything bent to the purpose of ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore warfare.  His great genius, however, was to understand that such a novel ship could be built only with tried-and-tested technology and a trusted network of collaborators. Contrary to legend, almost nothing aboard Monitor had not previously been built and tested in service. Ericsson limited the suppliers to men he knew or knew he could trust to obtain vital resources, notably iron, in a time of war-driven scarcity.    

Monitor’s success at Hampton Roads resonated across the globe, convincing not only the Americans but also many Europeans that turreted coastal ironclads were the ships of the future.  This mindset lasted almost a generation, before the battleship replaced the monitor in the popular and professional imagination.          

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. John S.C. Abbott.  The History of the Civil War in America, 2 vols. (Springfield, Massachusetts:  Gurdon Bill, 1863-1866), vol. 1 p. 340; William Conant Church, The Life of John Ericsson, 2 vols. (New York: Scribner’s, 1890), vol. 1 p. 261; and most recently Richard Snow, Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History (New York: Scribner, 2016), pp. 125-127.  For an early example of an uncritical citation of “forty patentable contrivances,” see Martha J. Lamb, “John Ericsson, the Builder of the Monitor 1803-1889,” Magazine of American History 25/1 (1891), pp. 1-17, at p. 12.
  2. “Ericsson Battery – Interesting Statement from the Inventor,” Chicago Tribune (March 17, 1862), p. 4.
  3. Donald L. Canney.  The Old Steam Navy, Volume One:  Frigates, Sloops and Gunboats, 1815-1885.  (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1990), p. 46; Quotes from Charles W. MacCord, “Ericsson and His Monitor,” The North American Review, 149/395 (1889), pp. 460-471, at p. 461; and Howard J. Fuller, Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2008) p. 61.  Ericsson’s patented inventions that found a home on USS Monitor include: Propelling Steam Vessels, US Patent 588 of 1838; Improvement in Propelling Ships, US Patent 3,869 of 1844; Screw Propeller, US Patent 4,181 of 1845; Steam Engine, US Patent 6,255 of 1849; and Improvement in Steam Engines, US Patent 20,782 of 1858. He did not use the Apparatus for Distilling Sea-Water, US Patent 6,815 of 1849.
  4. Isaac Newton, “Shot-Proof Vessels – Ericsson’s Battery,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 73 (3rd Series, vol. 43) (1862), pp. 73-82; “Ericsson Battery – Interesting Statement from the Inventor.”
  5. David P. Hollway, Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1863, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1866), vol. 1 p. 42.  Ericsson’s post-Monitor patents:  Improved Port-Stopper for Vessels of War, US Patent 40,830 of 1863; Operating Gun Carriage, US Patent 40,919 of 1863.
  6. Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger 2009), p. 7.
  7. Quoted in Fuller, Clad in Iron, p. 46.
  8. Quoted in Adolph A Hoehling, Thunder at Hampton Roads (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993), p. 41.
  9. For accounts of Ericsson’s inventions in Britain, see “Capt. John Ericsson, the Designer and Builder of the Iron-clad Battery Monitor,” New York Illustrated News (March 29, 1862), p. 329; Philip W. Bishop.  “John Ericsson (1803-89) in England,” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 48 (1977-78), pp. 41-52; and Andrew Lambert, “The Royal Navy, John Ericsson and the Challenges of New Technology,” International Journal of Naval History, 2/3, (2003), accessed November 2018. See also Albert E. Seaton, The screw propeller: and other competing instruments for marine propulsion (London: C. Griffin & company, 1909).
  10. Alligator was lost under tow off Cape Hatteras in March 1863, just months after Monitor was lost under tow in the same area. See Chuck Veit, Natural Genius: Brutus de Villeroi and the US Navy’s First Submarine (Morrisville, North Carolina:, 2018).
  11. On the naval technology employed during the Crimean War, in particular at the Battle of Kinburn, see James Phinney Baxter, The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 1933), ch. 5; Marine et technique au XIXe siècle (Vincennes: Service Historique de la Marine, 1987), parts 2 and 3; Robert Gardiner (ed.), Steam, Shell and Gunfire: The Steam Warship 1815-1905 (London: Conway, 1992), ch. 3; Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani, Ironclads at War: The Origin and Development of the Armored Warship, 1854-1891 (Conshohocken, Pennsylvania:  Combined Publishing, 1998), ch. 1, quote at p. 30.
  12. Cowper P. Coles, Apparatus for Defending Guns &c, UK Patent 798. March 30, 1859; Coles, Iron-Cased Ships of War, UK Patent 1,462.  June 15, 1860; Cowper P. Coles, “Cupola Ships,” The Times [of London
  13. See Lee M. Pearson, “The ‘Princeton’ and the ‘Peacemaker’: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Naval Research and Development Procedures,” Technology and Culture 7/2 (1966), pp. 163-183.
  14. Report of the Secretary of the Navy in Relation to Armored Vessels (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1864), p. 13; John Ericsson, Contributions to the Centennial Exhibition (New York: The Nation Press, 1876), pp. 410-416.  Ericsson was already well known to the French Navy, having supplied (under license) the engines and propeller of the frigate Pomone in 1847.  Ericsson stated that he received a gracious reply from Napoleon III”s aide-de-camp, Ildephonse Favé, who was also an artillery officer.  Researchers have found no surviving records of the reception and evaluation of Ericsson’s proposal (or Favé’s reply) in any French archives (Baxter, The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship, pp. 184-185, and archival searches by myself and French historian Alexandre Sheldon Duplaix). Given that Ericsson produced the memo only when there was some question of whether he or Cowper Coles had invented the revolving turret, it is possible that Ericsson back-dated his proposal to support his priority dispute.
  15. Jeffrey Remling, “Patterns of Procurement and Politics: Building Ships in the Civil War,” The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord 17/ 1 (2008), pp. 16-29.
  16. “Report of the Naval Board on the Stevens Battery,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 73 (3rd Series vol. 43) (1862), pp. 149-162.  The Stevens Battery was never completed, and was eventually scrapped in 1881.
  17. Report of the Secretary of the Navy in Relation to Armored Vessels, 1-2; Measuring Worth: Purchasing Power of Money in the United States from 1774 to Present,, accessed July 2018.  When comparing large government outlays for programs such as the Ironclad Board program, economists use the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) deflator instead of the CPI (Consumer Price Index) deflator.  That means the cost of the program is compared as a percentage of the nation’s GDP, instead of a CPI basket of goods like homes and bread.  Since GDP rises much faster than CPI, the figures appear more striking but are more accurate.
  18. Charles B. Boynton, The History of the Navy during the Rebellion, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1867-68), vol. 1 p. 21; and Fuller, Clad in Iron, passim.
  19. Report of the Secretary of the Navy in Relation to Armored Vessels, p. 2.
  20. Anna Gibson Holloway and Jonathan W. White, “Our Little Monitor“: The Greatest Invention of the Civil War (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2018), p. 25.
  21. Report of the Secretary of the Navy in Relation to Armored Vessels, pp. 3-7.  Among the rejected proposals was one for a quadruple-gun ironclad by Ericsson’s Swedish countryman, John W. Nystrom.
  22. Robert J. Schneller, Jr.  “The Battle of Hampton Roads, Origins of Ordnance Testing against Armor, and U.S. Navy Ordnance Development during the American Civil War,” International Journal of Naval History 2/3, (2003), accessed November 2018.
  23. Barbara B. Tomblin. From Sail to Steam: The Development of Steam Technology in the United States Navy 1838-1865, unpublished PhD dissertation (New Brunswick, New Jersey:  Rutgers University, 1988), pp. 224-225.
  24. See William H. Roberts, USS New Ironsides in the Civil War (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1999).
  25. James Tertius deKay, Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man whose Invention Changed the Course of History (New York: Walker, 1997); William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads:  The US Navy and Industrial Mobilization (Baltimore, Maryland:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.); and Remling, “Patterns of Procurement and Politics”; Quote: Report of the Secretary of the Navy in Relation to Armored Vessels, p. 7.
  26. John Ericsson, “The Building of the Monitor”, in Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel (eds.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 2 vols. (New York: The Century Company, 1887), vol. 1 pp. 731-744.
  27. Report of the Secretary of the Navy in Relation to Armored Vessels, p. 5, p. 8.
  28. The original USS Monitor Contract Specifications are in the National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA) RG 45 entry 502 (subject files 1775-1910) AD box 51 folder 10.  It is reprinted in William S. Wells (ed.), The Original United States Warship “Monitor” (New Haven, Connecticut: Cornelius S. Bushnell National Memorial Association, 1899), pp. 30-33.
  29. For descriptions of Monitor’s layout, see Donald L. Canney, The Old Steam Navy, Volume Two:  The Ironclads, 1842-1885 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1993), pp. 25-34; and deKay, Monitor, pp. 90-93.
  30. The manufacturing companies of Monitor are discussed in William N. Still, “Monitor Companies: A Study of the Major Firms that Built the USS Monitor,” American Neptune 48/2 (1988), pp. 106-130; Stephen C. Thompson, “The Design and Construction of USS Monitor,” Warship International 27/3 (1990), pp. 222-242; and Marcus R. Cimino, “The Construction of USS Monitor and its impact on the Upper-Hudson Valley” LINK.
  31. Years later, the city of Nashua, New Hampshire, erroneously laid claim to these port stoppers, even erecting a bronze marker at the former site of the Nashua Iron and Steel Works, stating that the Works forged the stoppers. This is not supported by the contemporary records, all of which clearly show Niagara Steam Forge as the manufacturer. The first mention of the Nashua myth is from the end of the 19th century. See Edward E. Parker, History of the City of Nashua, N. H.  (Nashua, New Hampshire: Telegraph Publishing, 1897), p. 440.
  32. Remling, “Patterns of Procurement and Politics”, p. 24; “The U.S.S Armored Frigate New Ironsides,”   Journal of the Franklin Institute 79 (3rd Series vol. 53/2) (1867), pp. 73-81.
  33. Ernest W. Peterkin, Drawings of the USS Monitor. A Catalog and Technical Analysis, U.S.S. Monitor, Historical Report Series 1/1 (Washington, DC: NOAA, 1985), p. 12.
  34. Dana M. Wegner, Alban B. Stimers and the Office of the General Inspector of Ironclads, 1862-1864, unpublished Master’s thesis (Oneonta, New York:  SUNY Oneonta, 1979), p. 22; Washington Jones, “Some Recollections of Machine Shops in the Early Forties,” The American Machinist 19/18 (1896), p. 452.  For early biographical information on Ericsson, see: Church, The Life of John Ericsson; and Lamb, “John Ericsson, the Builder of the Monitor”.
  35. On drawing practices of the era, see John K. Brown, “Design Plans, Working Drawings, National Styles: Engineering Practice in Great Britain and the United States, 1775-1945,” Technology and Culture 41/2 (2000), pp. 195-238. On Monitor’s contract oversight, see Alan P. Mayer-Sommer, “A Historical Case Study of Planning and Control Under Uncertainty: The Weapons Acquisition Process for the US Ironclad Monitor,” Journal of Accounting and Public Policy, 7/3 (1988), pp. 201-249. On its construction oversight, see Wegner, Alban B. Stimers.
  36. USS Monitor Contract Specifications, and Ericsson to Joseph Smith, October 2, 1861, both in NARA RG 45 entry 502 AD box 51 folder 10.  The Union Navy did not provide final acceptance until after the Battle of Hampton Roads, which is when Ericsson received his final payments (Holloway and White, “Our Little Monitor“, p. 44).
  37. David A. Mindell, War, Technology and Experience aboard the USS Monitor (Baltimore, Maryland:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 121.
  38. Church, The Life of John Ericsson, vol. 1 p. 240.
  39. Schneller Jr., “The Battle of Hampton Roads”.
  40. Peterkin, Drawings of the USS Monitor, pp. 46-49, pp. 500-509; deKay, Monitor, pp. 123-124.
  41. R.A.E. Scott, “Modern Carriages for Heavy Naval Ordinance”, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution 10/41 (1866), pp. 496-516; Peterkin, Drawings of the USS Monitor, pp. 510-531; Church, The Life of John Ericsson, vol. 2 p. 144;  personal correspondence from David Krop, Mariner’s Museum, September 2013; John Ericsson, Operating Gun Carriage, US Patent 40,919 of 1863.
  42. Canney, The Old Steam Navy, Volume Two: The Ironclads, p. 30; deKay, Monitor, p. 108.
  43. Cowper P. Coles, English versus American Cupolas: A Comparison Between Captain Coles’ and Captain Ericsson’s Turrets (Portsea, Portsmouth: J. Griffin, 1864); Arnold A. Putnam, “The Introduction of the Revolving Turret,” American Neptune 56/2 (1986), pp. 17-129; Putnam, “The Eads Steam-Powered Revolving Turret,” Warship International 42/3 (2005) pp. 303-317; Theodore R. Timby, Revolving Battery Tower, US Patent 35,846, July 8, 1862; deKay, Monitor, pp. 92-93.
  44. Marine et technique au XIXe siècle, 37; Norman S. Russell, “Iron Armour for Ships of War,” Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers 13/1 (1862), pp. 289-326.  See also John H. Morrison, “The Development of Armored War Vessels: Armor Plating in the United States,”  Scientific American Supplement 64 (July-Dec 1907), passim; and Roberts, USS New Ironsides in the Civil War, p. 21. Later tests (1868) by the British Ordnance Select Committee indicated that laminated armor was more effective than the simple “square of thickness” theory predicted so that five laminated 1-inch plates would be far more than ‘40 percent’ as effective as a single 4.5-inch plate and was in fact closer to 78 percent, or the equivalent of a solid 3.51-inch plate; thus the original Monitor’s eight 1-inch plates were closer in resistance to a solid 6.21-inch plate—though not also not counting the added strength of a curved turret-plate structure versus a flat slab of broadside armor (personal correspondence from Howard Fuller, November 2013).
  45. Correspondence between Ericsson and Joseph Smith, January-February 1862, NARA RG 45 entry 502 AD box 51 folder 10.
  46. Baxter, The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship, pp. 264-266; Fuller, Clad in Iron, p. 58.
  47. Benjamin Isherwood, Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering. 2 vols. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: William Hamilton, 1863-1865), vol. 1 pp. 330-340.
  48. Isherwood, Experimental Researches.
  49. Andrew Lambert, Warrior: Restoring the World’s First Ironclad (London: Conway, 1987), pp. 108-109; On the steam machinery of both naval vessels and passenger / mail steamers like the Collins Line, see Frank M. Bennett, The Steam Navy of the United States (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Nicholson, 1896).
  50. Smith to Ericsson, October 16, 1861, John Ericsson Collection, American Swedish Historical Foundation Microfilm Edition (Philadelphia, Pa), Reel 4.
  51. Peterkin, Drawings of the USS Monitor, p. 176; Church, The Life of John Ericsson, vol. 1 p. 261.
  52. deKay, Monitor, pp. 123-137. On modern rudder theory, see Edward V. Lewis (ed.), Principles of Naval Architecture, 3 vols. (Jersey City: SNAME, 1988), vol. 3 ch. 9.
  53. deKay, Monitor, pp. 138-149; Mindell, War, Technology and Experience aboard the USS Monitor, pp, 61-69.
  54. deKay, Monitor, pp, 173-198; Mindell, War, Technology and Experience aboard the USS Monitor, pp. 70-86; Howard J. Fuller, “John Ericsson, the Monitors and Union Naval Strategy,” International Journal of Naval History, 2/3, (2003) accessed November 2018.
  55. Mindell, War, Technology and Experience aboard the USS Monitor, pp. 95-98.
  56. deKay, Monitor, pp. 215-219.
  57. Tomblin, From Sail to Steam, p. 306; Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, p. 23.
  58. Wegner, Alban B. Stimers.
  59. Naval Advisory Board, Executive Documents for the Second Session of the Forty-Seventh Congress, (January 11, 1883), p. 33.
  60. Howard J. Fuller, Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston (London: Routledgem, 2013), pp. 229-230; Robert Gardiner (ed.), Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1860-1905 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1979), pp. 13-30, pp. 288-300; Carlos Alfaro Zaforteza, “The collapse of the Congress System, 1854–1870,” in Carlos Alfaro-Zaforteza, Alan James, Malcolm H Murfett, European Navies and the Conduct of War (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 113-129, at p. 124.
  61. Daniel G. Harris, “The Swedish Monitors“, in John Roberts (ed.), Warship 1994 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 22-34; Jan Glete, “John Ericsson and the Transformation of Swedish Naval Doctrine,” International Journal of Naval History, 2/3, (2003) accessed November 2018.

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New Editorial Board Members (2021)

Samantha Cavell Southeastern Louisiana University

Samantha Cavell is the Assistant Professor in Military History at Southeastern Louisiana University. She teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in American and Global Military History, including courses on the history of the U.S. Navy and sea power. Her publications include Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the British Navy 1771-1831; chapter contributions to The Battle of New Orleans Reconsidered; U.S. Naval Academy’s New Interpretations in Naval History; Biography and History in Film; From Across the Sea: North Americans in Nelson’s Navy, as well as numerous journal articles. A native of Australia, she received her MA from Louisiana State University, and her PhD from the University of Exeter, Center for Naval and Maritime Studies in the UK. She is currently working on a book project about the Royal Navy’s role in the final year of the War of 1812.

James Goldrick Royal Australian Navy

Rear Admiral James Goldrick had service around the world in the Royal Australian Navy and on exchange with the British Royal Navy. An anti-submarine specialist, he commanded HMA Ships Cessnock and Sydney (twice), the Australian Surface Task Group and the multinational maritime interception force in the Persian Gulf in 2002 and Australia’s inter-agency Border Protection Command in 2006-2008. Other commands included the Australian Defence Force Academy (twice – 2003-2006 and 2011-2012), and the Australian Defence College (2008-2011). Adjunct Professor at UNSW Canberra, he is also Adjunct in SDSC at the ANU and a Professorial Fellow of ANCORS at the University of Wollongong. He has published in many academic and professional journals and contributed chapters to more than 40 books. His books include: The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914 – February 1915. A much revised and extended edition Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, August 1914-February 1915 won the Anderson Medal of the Navy Records Society for 2015. It was followed by After Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters: June 1916-November 1918. Other books include No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and, with Jack McCaffrie, Navies of South-East Asia: A Comparative Study.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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Volume 16, Issue 1: About the Authors

Colin F. Baxter Torpex and the Atlantic Victory

Colin F. Baxter, Professor Emeritus of History, East Tennessee State University, was born in Harrow, England, earned a BSc at East Tennessee State University, an MA and PhD from the University of Georgia. His first teaching post was at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina, where he taught British and European history. He is the author of five books: The Normandy Campaign, 1944: A Selected Bibliography (1992); The War in North Africa, 1940-1943: A Selected Bibliography (1996); Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1887-1976: A Selected Bibliography (1999): Co-author and contributor to The American Military Tradition from Colonial Times to the Present. (2007). He wrote Montgomery’s entry in the online Oxford Military Bibliographies series.  His most recent book, The Secret History of RDX: The Super-Explosive that Helped Win World War II, was published in 2018 by the University Press of Kentucky.

Richard J. Danzig Our Insecure Futures: How Can We Prepare and Cope?

Richard J. Danzig served as the 71st Secretary of the Navy from November 1998 to January 2001. He was Undersecretary of the Navy, 1993-1997. He has also served as The Chairman of Board of The Center for a New American Security, Vice Chair of Rand, a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the Secretary of Defense’s Defense Policy Board. Born in New York City, he received a BA from Reed College, a JD from Yale Law School, and a  Bachelor of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Upon his graduation from Yale, Dr. Danzig served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White. He is co-author of the book, National Service: What Would it Mean? In May 2013 he delivered the Philip A. Crowl Memorial Lecture to the Naval War College in Washington, DC, published for the first time in the International Journal of Naval History.

Larrie D. Ferreiro The Wrong Ship at the Right Time: The Technology of USS Monitor and its Impact on Naval Warfare

Larrie D. Ferreiro is a naval architect and historian.  He is the 2017 Pulitzer finalist for History, for his book Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. He recently published Bridging the Seas: The Rise of Naval Architecture in the Industrial Age, 1800–2000 with MIT Press, following his 2006 book Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600–1800.  He received his PhD in the History of Science, Technology and Engineering from Imperial College London. He teaches history and engineering at George Mason University in Virginia and has served for over forty years in the US Navy, US Coast Guard and Department of Defense.

Karen Johnson The document that piques your interest: The whole story behind Norfolk, Virginia’s U.S. District Clerk of Court Seth Foster

Karen Johnson is the Librarian for the U.S. Courts Library in Norfolk, Virginia, and recently celebrated her 35th anniversary with the court.  She received her Masters of Information and Library Science from The Catholic University of America. She enjoys reading, puzzles, walking on the beach with her dog, Luna Pearl, and volunteering for the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles and the OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Network.


Patrick Maeier British Bureaucra-sea: How Montagu’s Reforms Paved the Way for Nelson’s Victory

Patrick Maier earned his BA in History at Depaul University and is currently working in Chicago. While mainly focused on military history, naval history has held a particular interest for him ever since finding a tattered copy of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander at a used bookstore. His paper regarding John Montagu’s contributions to the British Navy was written during his senior year at Depaul Universtiy with the guidance of Professor Thomas Mockaitis of the History Department.

Lynne M. O’Hara Researching World War I Virtually

Lynne M. O’Hara is Director of Programs for National History Day® (NHD). She joined NHD in 2013, after 12 years in the classroom at middle and high school level. She received the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award in Pennsylvania and was a national finalist. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (Adolescent and Young Adolescent Social Studies) and the 2003 James Madison Memorial Fellow from Pennsylvania. She is the project manager for Understanding Sacrifice, a teacher resource developed for the American Battle Monuments Commission and has managed contracts for the National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Legacy Project and the Library of Congress. She holds a BA in history from the Schreyer Honors College at Pennsylvania State University, where she earned inter-disciplinary honors in history and geography. Ms. O’hara also completed an MA in U.S. History at Villanova University.

Matthijs Ooms It’s a navy’s job, only no navy can do it! Understanding and Addressing Western Neglect of Maritime Trade Protection

Matthijs Ooms is a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Netherlands Navy. Currently he is conducting PhD research on maritime trade protection. As a surface warfare officer he served in a variety of billets at sea and on operational staffs, including the EU anti-piracy operation Atalanta, and has been teaching naval warfare tactics and maritime strategy. He is a graduate of the Netherlands Defence Academy and holds a master’s degree (cum laude) in military history at the University of Amsterdam and a master’s degree (cum laude) in international relations and diplomacy at the University of Antwerp.

Michael E. Vlahos The Might that Failed: Jutland and the Wages of Ceremonial Battle

Michael E. Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs. He has taught over 80 courses on war and strategy at the graduate level for Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), U.S. Naval War College, Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs, and Centro de Estudios Superiores Navales of Mexico. He served in the United States Navy, as a senior executive in the State Department, and as a Soviet naval analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency. He was a member of the Defense Science Board during the Global War on Terrorism. He is the author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change (2008), The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941 (1980), and numerous articles in professional journals. He received his AB from Yale and PhD from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University. Dr. Vlahos is the recipient of writing awards from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the US Naval Institute, and the Naval War College Review.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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Torpex and the Atlantic Victory

Colin F. Baxter
East Tennessee State University


For almost three years, from 1940 until the summer of 1943, German U-boats and Allied forces fought the greatest submarine campaign in history in the Battle of the Atlantic. During those desperate years, RAF Coastal Command suffered not only from a shortage of aircraft, but the aircraft that did seek out and find the enemy had no effective anti-submarine weapon to use against the U-boat. Only one U-boat “kill” is attributed to Coastal Command before 1942. It was commonly rumored in Coastal Command that its existing anti-submarine bomb could barely “rattle the wardroom crockery.” There were sound reasons for the Commander of the German submarine force, Admiral Karl Dönitz, to boast that an aircraft could no more sink a submarine than “a crow can catch and kill a mole.” And, while no single weapon, technology or tactic could replace the endurance of merchant seamen and sailors, the Torpex aerial depth charge finally provided RAF Coastal Command and Allied aircraft with a war-winning anti-submarine weapon.

Seven decades after World War II, the long, hard-fought see-saw campaign that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the Battle of the Atlantic,” continues to be a subject of major historical interest, controversy and debate. 1 Some recent writers have argued that while a few Allied convoys “suffered terribly,” most were “pretty safe” from U-boat (“U” being short for Untersee) attack. 2 The World War II generation, however, had little doubt about the gravity of the threat to the Atlantic lifeline. Britain’s survival depended on importing large quantities of food, raw materials, machinery, and all of her oil. In February 1941 alone, Britain lost 400,000 tons of shipping, a rate of loss – 10 percent per convoy – that was unsustainable.  Moreover, unless the German submarine campaign was defeated, there could be no build-up of United States and Canadian forces in Britain for an invasion of German occupied Europe from the West.

Before the outbreak of World War II, British naval concern was focused on Germany’s powerful surface raiders rather than its small force of 18 ocean-going submarines. 3 Should a serious submarine threat emerge, as happened in World War I, the Admiralty were confident that the convoy system protected by escort vessels equipped with Asdic, an underwater echo-location device developed by British and French scientists between the wars, would manage the German submarine problem. 4 Once a U-boat was “locked in asdic’s grip,” the Royal Navy was confident its destruction would follow quickly from a “few well-placed depth charges.” 5

Under the conditions of war at sea, however, asdic quickly displayed serious limitations: it gave an approximate location of a submarine, but not its depth, and its range was only 1,500 yards. Asdic’s most serious defect was its inability to detect a surfaced submarine. Commander of the U-boats, Admiral Karl Dönitz, adopted the simple counter measure of having his U-boats, concentrated in a “wolf pack” of several boats, attack British convoys at night on the surface, where they could neither be seen by the escort lookouts, nor detected by asdic. 6 Early in the war, the odds of a submerged U-boat being sunk were also remote; the Royal Navy’s 450 lb. depth charges were filled with Amatol, a combination of ammonium nitrate and TNT, and were essentially the same as that used in World War I, with a lethal radius of only about seven yards. 7

A U-boat had even less to fear from RAF Coastal Command aircraft, since their role was primarily that of naval reconnaissance. 8 The Royal Air Force had been divided into three Commands in 1936, and Coastal Command had to compete for scarce resources, first with Fighter, then Bomber Command. 9   In the inter-war years, no one wanted to repeat the trench-war bloodletting of World War I, and the bomber offered an offensive alternative to a major land war.  With the defeat of the French Army in 1940, and at the height of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill declared, “The Fighters are our salvation, but the Bombers alone provide the means of victory.” 10

Coastal Command’s main anti-submarine weapon in 1939 was the feeble 100 lb. bomb. 11 In December 1939, a Coastal Command aircraft mistakenly attacked HMS Snapper, which was on the surface. 12 The aircraft scored a direct hit on the base of Snapper’s conning tower, causing total devastation – to four of the electric light bulbs in Snapper’s control room. 13 Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert, who commanded RAF Coastal Command for 17 months during World War II, recalled in his memoir that the 100 lb. anti-submarine bomb was commonly reported to have broken nothing but the “ward-room crockery when one fell by accident on one of our own submarines!” 14 In the years 1941 until 1943, historian Correlli Barnett noted that RAF Coastal Command remained “a sea bird, weak on the wing, short of sight and blunt of beak.” 15

At a meeting of the Air Ministry Bombing Committee in December 1939, it was agreed that the explosive RDX, which had been developed at the Woolwich Arsenal, would make the anti-submarine bomb more powerful, but the supply of the new explosive was inadequate for this purpose. 16 Air Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, then Chief of RAF Coastal Command, made “vigorous demands” for more lethal weaponry, but a completely new weapon might take two years to perfect; that was far too long. 17 The only other British anti-submarine weapon available, however, was the drum-shaped naval 450-pound depth charge. 18 The normal brief of the First Lord of the Admiralty was to protect the budget and political interests of the Royal Navy; however, Winston Churchill, who would not become Prime Minister until 10 May 1940, wasted no time on turf battles in seeking to provide RAF Coastal Command with a naval depth charge. In a letter marked “Urgent,” the energetic First Lord asked Admiral Bruce Fraser, the Controller of the Navy: “One of the aeroplane Squadrons on the East Coast would like to have a depth charge in order to test effects on flight, speed and dropping. There is no need to supply a loaded depth charge. Will you kindly make available for Commander Anderson RAF sometime tomorrow a depth charge case, empty, together with a statement of the weight with which it should be filled, so that experiments can be made [with the depth charge] . . .  Commander Anderson will call for it and take it to his Squadron.” 19  

In August 1940 Coastal Command obtained 700 depth charges from the Admiralty.  These weapons, however, did not prove to be the solution to Coastal Command’s armament problem. Lacking an efficient bombsight, aircraft crews were forced to attack from such a low level that they risked damage from the explosion of their own depth charges. 20 When a smaller 250-pound Amatol filled anti-U-boat depth bomb was introduced, it was found to be “not powerful enough for its job.” 21                                                            

At sea, merchant ship losses were alarming; during 1940 over a thousand ships were sunk, totaling 4 million tons, a quarter of British merchant shipping.  At this rate, Germany could win the war by simply starving Britain of supplies. In 1939, those imports amounted to 68 million tons; by 1941, the figure had dropped to 26 million tons. Against these dangerous losses, few U-boats were being sunk. 22 In an effort to breathe new life into the floundering anti-U-boat campaign, on 6 March 1941, Prime Minister Churchill used a striking phrase to describe the naval campaign that threatened to sever the Britain’s Atlantic lifeline, naming it “the Battle of the Atlantic.” To promote increased inter-service cooperation, the Air Ministry and the Admiralty agreed that RAF Coastal Command would be under the operational control of the Admiralty. 23 The tug-of-war between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty over strategic priority, however, was never settled to the satisfaction of both sides.

In June 1941, Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert became head of Coastal Command for the second time; his own favorite post, if not his most successful command. 24 Prior to the appointment, Joubert had been Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Radio) at the Air Ministry, and it was hoped that he would improve the input of technology in the aerial maritime war. 25 RAF historian Denis Richards wrote that, “The new Coastal chief was determined not to rest until the aeroplane was thoroughly lethal to the submarine.” 26

On the initiative of Joubert, Professor Patrick Blackett was posted to Coastal Command, where he became Joubert’s scientific adviser. 27 Within a few months of joining Coastal Command, Blackett had collected a group of young civilian scientists to form an Operational Research Section (ORS), which used scientific analysis to recommend tactical changes. 28 One of the first scientists Blackett brought in to work with him at Coastal Command was Professor E. J. Williams who “jumped right away” into the question of why Coastal Command aircraft were sinking so few U-boats? 29 depth charges sank any U-boats.” (127).]

Williams’s analysis of Coastal Command attacks on U-boats up to May 1941 showed that out of the 215 attacks, only two enemy submarines were sunk, or a success rate of only 1 percent; that 2 ½ percent were “probably sunk,” and 15 percent suffered some damage. 30 Williams reported that a partially visible or just submerged U-boat was about ten times more vulnerable to aircraft attack than one that had been out of sight for 15 seconds, and that changing the existing depth charge setting from 100 feet to 25 feet or just below the surface, together with narrowing the stick spacing between bombs, would increase the percentage of U-boats “kills” by an “astonishing” factor of ten – from the current 1 or 2 percent to 10 to 20 percent. 31 Williams also noted that improved camouflage of aircraft on anti-submarine patrol would tend to reduce the proportion of U-boats that escaped detection by submerging. 32

At the first meeting of the Admiralty Anti-Submarine Warfare Committee, in the summer of 1941, Williams’s report was accepted, and as a first step, the depth charge setting was changed from 100 to 50 feet. 33 The ORS scientists believed that this was still too deep, and as new fuses became available the settings were changed to 25 feet. 34 Not until the summer of 1942 was the 25 feet depth setting in general service. Blackett would write after the war that, “Captured German U-boat crews thought that we had introduced a new and much more powerful explosive . . . Actually we had only turned a depth-setting adjuster from the 100-foot to the 25-foot mark.” 35 Blackett attributed the “spectacular results” to “a small and simple change in tactics.” 36 He believed that, “too much scientific effort has been expended hitherto in the production of new devices and too little in the proper use of what we have got.” 37 At the time, however, Blackett pressed for the adoption of the new explosive Torpex.     

The U-boat prisoners-of-war, however, were not mistaken in thinking that the British had introduced a new and more powerful explosive than amatol.  Torpex (short for TORPedo Explosive), a combination of RDX, TNT, and aluminum powder had replaced the amatol filling in the 250-pound aerial depth charge. The deadly cocktail increased the weapon’s underwater power by about 50 percent. 38 The ORS pressed for urgent action to be taken by Air Chief Marshal Joubert to obtain RDX, the critical ingredient of Torpex. 39 In September 1941, Joubert asked the Air Ministry for a supply of RDX. 39 Within a week, the Air Ministry replied that Minol, a lower grade explosive, could be supplied, but not RDX. 41 Air Chief Marshal Joubert replied to the Air Ministry offer in the strongest terms:

We are much exercised at the feebleness of the explosive in our depth charges.  The lethal distance is so small as to make kills practically unobtainable. I hear that there is a new explosive called “Torpex” (not repeat not Minol) which weight for weight is 50% better than our present explosives and volume for volume 75% better.  It seems to me therefore of the greatest importance to have our depth charges filled with Torpex since it would greatly increase our chance of getting kills. Will you, as a matter of urgency, look into this and see what can be done. 42

Air Commodore J. D. Breakey, at the Air Ministry, responded that “the advantage of Torpex over Minol would not, in fact, be large,” and that “RDX, which is the main ingredient of Torpex is, as you know, only available in small quantities.” 43 Breaky noted moreover that diverting RDX to Coastal Command for use in Torpex would necessitate taking RDX from other purposes, “such as the 500 lb. M.C. [medium capacity] bomb, which was specially designed for RDX filling.” 44 RAF Coastal Command’s request for RDX came at a time when RAF Bomber Command was anxious to replace their largely ineffective high explosive Amatol bombs with the new explosive, which was “obviously the best choice but was not readily available in 1941 in large quantities.” 45 “You will be glad to know,” wrote Breakey, “that everything possible is being done to increase the supply of RDX . . . We have also brought the maximum political pressure to bear on the U.S. authorities to adopt and manufacture this explosive. No substantial increase, however, is likely to be practicable for at least twelve months since the erection of a special plant is involved.” 46 Breakey noted in a postscript that Torpex had been discussed at an afternoon meeting of the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Committee, and “Nobody at this meeting had precise figures as to its [Torpex] efficacy.” However, he declared that “the Admiralty appear to have been sufficiently satisfied on this point to divert a sufficient quantity of their supply of RDX to fill 260 of the 250 lb. depth charges per month.” 44

Air Chief Marshal Joubert had also sent a copy of his letter requesting Torpex to Air Commodore Patrick Huskinson, the Director of Armament Development at the Ministry of Aircraft Production (M.A.P.). 48 Huskinson’s reply was noncommittal. 49 He agreed that “Torpex is the best filling available for the purpose,” but questioned the 50 percent superiority figure cited for Torpex, compared to the “35 percent improvement usually associated with Torpex.” 50 Huskinson doubted the accuracy of both figures, quoting information he had received from the Submarine Mine Division (S.M.D.): he stated that “S.M.D. has informed this Directorate that too much reliance should not be placed on these figures as they are based on a few small scale shots,” and that more tests were needed before a reliable figure was obtained. 50   “Unfortunately,” said Huskinson, he was “unable to arrange supply [of RDX],” adding, “I have no doubt that if they [the Admiralty] agree with the urgency of the requirement there will be no difficulty in arranging diversion of a portion of the present Admiralty supplies to [Coastal Command] depth charges.” 50

Joubert forwarded a copy of Huskinson’s reply to Patrick Blackett “to see & comment.” 50 In January 1942, Blackett had moved from RAF Coastal Command to the Admiralty, and started building up an operational research group to deal with naval matters.  Blackett’s comments were forthright and blunt: “The letter from D. Arm. D. [Huskinson] is rather misleading, I think.” 54 Citing data contained in Huskinson’s own letter, Blackett wrote that, “It follows that by refilling a 250-pound depth charge with Torpex one will get 75% more explosive energy. This will bring the equivalent TNT value of the charge to 288 lbs., i.e. very nearly up to that of the 450-pound depth charge.” 55 An outspoken critic of the bombing campaign against Germany, Blackett declared:

I rather suspect that D. Arm.s letter was actuated, possibly unconsciously, by the wish to write down the value of Torpex for A/S [anti-submarine] work, so as to avoid attempts to steal RDX from RAF bombs!

It was agreed by D. A/S.W.s [Director, Anti-Submarine Warfare] Committee on Wednesday that D.T.M. [Directorate of Torpedoes and Mining] shall start filling 250 lb. depth charges with Torpex almost immediately, but the Navy has only available enough Torpex to fill about 260 250 lb. depth charges per month.  This would keep Coastal Command going, but is quite inadequate to build up distributed stocks. It does seem very important to try and get some extra RDX released as a non-recurrent supply to enable reasonable stocks of Torpex filled depth charges to be built up. I feel very strongly that the Air Ministry ought to be pressed again and again to release some of their supply destined for their big and beautiful bombs. 56

Reinforced by Blackett’s comments, Joubert returned to the attack. He informed Huskinson, “I want to return to the charge on the subject of Torpex for A/S work.” 57 He told Huskinson that the Director of Technical Material had agreed to fill 250 lb. depth charges with Torpex almost immediately, but there was only enough available to fill about 260 250 lb. depth charges per month. 58 Since that number was about Coastal Command’s monthly consumption, Joubert declared that, “we shall never be able to build up a stock.” 58 If Huskinson could let Coastal Command have a two months’ supply of Torpex, wrote Joubert, “Once this is agreed we shall not be entrenching on Bomber Command’s requirements again.” 58

The Senior Air Staff Officer at RAF Coastal Command, Air-Vice Marshal G. B. A. Baker, also pressed the need for Torpex. In a letter to Air Commodore G. A. H, Pidcock, who had replaced Huskinson as Director of Armament Development at the M.A.P., Baker wrote that, “Submarine attack is perhaps one of the most difficult for obvious reasons. The target is small, fleeting and of great value. It is rarely chanced upon—once in the tour of duty of an anti-U-boat crew on the average.” 61 What they wanted, he wrote, was “(a) greater accuracy of aim (b) greater bomb effect.” 62 Baker had been told by Coastal Command’s ORS that the average bombing error from the point of attack was 60 to 80 yards. 63 As to greater bomb effect, “both the C-in-C [Joubert] unofficially and the Command officially have written stressing our claims for consideration for Torpex or even for submarine strafing, and D/A.S.W. [Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare on the Admiralty’s Naval Staff, Captain G. E. Creasy] is in full support.” 63 Baker extended an invitation to visit Coastal Command Headquarters at Northwood: “I wonder if you could find the time to come out to lunch here one day – it is only 40 minutes away.  I think it would interest you to see our problem and also to discuss with the R.A.F. and Naval Staff our present feelings as to what is required to solve it.” 65 “All congratulations on your new job,” Baker wrote to Pidcock.

The Northwood meeting took place on 13 February 1942, but Huskinson took the place of Pidcock. Huskinson had been appointed liaison officer between M.A.P. and the various RAF Commands. 66 Sir Ralph Sorley, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Technical), also attended the Northwood meeting, where Joubert again took the opportunity to press Coastal Command’s case for Torpex. 67 Sorley agreed to approach Bomber Command with regard to the release of RDX on the basis that Coastal Command’s requirements were very small, and the targets “both important and fleeting.” 67 Previously, Huskinson had earlier questioned the underwater effectiveness of Torpex, but at Northwood, “He strongly repudiated the suggestion that the under-water effect of Torpex was less than that in air.” 67 After discussing the anti-U-boat problem with the Naval Staff, Huskinson “undertook to impress on those concerned at the Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft Production the importance of this work and of having the best possible weapons to carry it out.” 70

In spite of these encouraging words spoken at the Northwood meeting, the Torpex supply was viewed as an Admiralty problem, and not an Air Ministry one, a point made clear in a letter that Huskinson wrote to Air Vice Marshal Baker at Coastal Command (Baker had continued to press for Torpex) only three days after the meeting. Huskinson wrote, “I have spoken to Sorley again today and asked him to expedite the Admiralty, as this is entirely a supply question.” 71 Huskinson emphasized that, “I want to stress that it is entirely A.C.A.S. (T)’s [Sorley’s] funeral to force the Admiralty into action.” 72

Captain George Creasy, the highly capable Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare at the Admiralty, was also kept informed of RAF Coastal Command’s efforts to obtain Torpex from the Air Ministry. 73 Creasy completely agreed with Baker, and replied that there was every prospect of getting enough Torpex to fill not only the “Hedgehog” for surface ships, but the 250-pound depth charges for aircraft. 74 Creasy wrote:

I know you will appreciate that I fully share your keenness to hot up the potency of the aircraft charge. I am absolutely convinced that had we had the 25 ft. setting and the higher efficiency explosive over the past six months we should have been able to count a large proportion of the Seriously DamagedU-boats as in the bag. 75

In the meantime, Coastal Command continued to lack a lethal anti-U-boat weapon. A frustrated Air Chief Marshal Joubert, in a letter to the Air Ministry, explained his Commands lack of an effective anti-U-boat weapon, and requested a new and bigger bomb to replace their existing weapon:

For the entire duration of the war, to date, we have been attempting to attack U-boats with two types of depth charges neither of which is capable of giving us satisfactory results. We started off with the standard Admiralty Mark VII depth charge, and we have made many attempts to make this a satisfactory aircraft weapon. Despite all attempts to improve it, it has now been found impossible to clear the Mark VII depth charge for dropping from heights about 150 feet and speeds above 150 knots . . . it was therefore found necessary to design a special small 250 lb. depth charge, the Mk. VIII.  This weapon has been satisfactory from the point of view of tactical use, since it is not restricted in height or speed; but recent experience of attacks upon U-boats have proved conclusively that its killing power [amatol filling] is quite inadequate, and that it is seriously impeding the effect of our anti-submarine warfare as a whole.

We therefore require that a special aircraft depth charge should be developed on the highest priority and to the following specifications. 76

Joubert went on describe what was required, namely a 500-pound, Torpex filled depth bomb that was capable of being dropped from heights up to 5,000 feet and speeds up to 200 knots. 77 The requested aerial depth bomb eventually became the 600-pound depth bomb.

Joubert’s decision to request a big anti-submarine bomb came a month before the first batch of 250-pound Torpex filled depth charges were delivered to RAF Coastal Command squadrons with the best attack records. 78 By June 1942, Coastal Command was receiving 150 a week, or 600 a month. Air-Vice Marshal Baker explained to Creasy, however, that Coastal Command had a “very difficult problem” keeping sufficient Torpex depth charges available at the Stations where they were needed most.” 79 “I hope you will not think that I am flogging a dead horse,” he told Creasy, “indeed I know it to be a live one although it is not galloping fast enough.” 80 In a follow-up to a telephone call, Creasy replied:

As you know we have had a long battle to obtain any RDX for Torpex filling for the Navy in the past.  The whole supply went to the RAF. We eventually obtained half the output.  This allowed us to fill Hedgehog projectiles for our ships, and Mark XI Torpedoes, and 600 Mark VIII depth charges per month for aircraft. 80    

Creasy told Baker that they had made such a strong case “at last Thursday’s meeting of the RDX Committee” that out of a total output of 260 tons per month, “210 tons had now been allocated to the Navy, 30 tons to the R.A.F., and 20 tons to the Army.” 80 As a result, they could increase the output of Torpex aerial depth charges to 3,000 per month. “Thus all your troubles with shortage-of Torpex depth charges should cease shortly,” promised Creasy. 80 He was confident that they could soon start supplying Torpex depth charges to the outlying stations, the Middle East, Far Eastern area, and West Africa. 80 Creasy said that Canadian output was expected to start soon, and that the Canadians would probably be able to fill their own Torpex aerial depth charges. 80

The good news concerning Torpex came too late for Joubert in whose eyes the weapon had been discredited by its failure to dramatically increase U-boat kills. His hopes were now placed in the development of a new and bigger anti-U-boat depth bomb. He acknowledged that the 250-pound weapon had brought “some improvement” in the lethality rate to 6 percent, but “it had been hoped confidently that at least 20 percent ‘kills’ would result.” 86 Joubert argued that the change in depth setting from 100 to 25 feet “was probably at least as effective [as Torpex], since the “majority of attacks were made when the target was only just below the surface.” 87

Joubert’s disappointment with the 250-pound Torpex aerial depth charge is apparent in his August letter to the Admiralty’s new Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare, Captain C.F. Clarke (Creasy had taken up a sea command): “I continue to be more and more disappointed with the results of the 250-pound Torpex aerial depth charge. Many attacks have been made during the last few months and very little indication has been seen of damage to the enemy.” 88   Joubert’s and the Air Staff’s skepticism of the 250-pound Torpex-filled depth charge was not without justification, since the overall lethality of air attacks on U-boats was still disappointingly low. At the end of 1942, the lethality rate was 7 percent, not the hoped for 20 percent.

In his letter to Captain Clarke, Joubert wrote that he had heard that one of their own submarines [HMS Talisman] while on the surface, had been attacked by one of their aircraft, “apparently quite accurately, and that the submarine was able to proceed to the Mediterranean quite undisturbed.” 89 Joubert continued, “It is obvious that the 250 lb. depth charge is a most unsatisfactory weapon, and that before we can achieve any real success against the submarines we must find the right answer.” 90 He told Captain Clarke that he had also seen the results of tests with the 35 lb. hollow-charge bomb – a weapon strongly supported by Lord Cherwell – and he was prepared to try it as an alternative weapon. 91 Nevertheless, he thought the weapon was “only really suitable for our smaller aircraft and that we should press on with the utmost vigor with the production of the 600 lb. A/S (Anti-Submarine) bomb, for which we have been asking these many months.” 89

The small “hollow-charge bomb” that Joubert referred to was the small A/S bomb advocated by Lord Cherwell, a weapon described by the Operational Research Scientist as    Lord Cherwell’s “baby” which he attempted “to sell to Coastal Command.” 93 Statistical data, however, did not support Cherwell’s proposal.

In his reply to Air Chief Marshal Joubert, Captain Clarke agreed that after some air attacks, the U-boat had apparently got away, but he had every reason to expect that considerable damage had been done to the submarine, and that “there have been some kills.” 94 Clarke believed that the Torpex depth charge, with 36 feet spacing, and a 25 feet depth setting, was lethal to a surfaced U-boat, provided the weapon fell accurately across the center of the target. 95 Regarding the attack on Talisman, Clarke reported that the submarine was at a depth of 47 feet, and that the Torpex aerial depth charges had fallen across the stern at right angles to the track.  As a result, wrote Clarke, “The damage, although not lethal, was by no means undisturbing . . . requiring at least 14 days to make good the repairs.” 95 Clarke did agree with Joubert that with increased bombing accuracy the 600-pound depth bomb should prove a good weapon.” 95

In early September, Joubert received word from the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Committee making it clear that Torpex was unavailable for a 600-pound depth bomb. 98 Joubert strongly protested the decision in a letter to Sir Henry Tizard who was scientific adviser to the Air Ministry. He explained that the new 600-pound depth bomb was required as a replacement for the Torpex depth charge, which he said “had proven to be ineffective unless practically a direct hit were obtained. 77 Joubert wrote to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, “almost despairingly, about the state of the anti-submarine war.” 100 “Unless some radical change in the rate of destruction takes place,” wrote Joubert, “we are faced with an ever increasing fleet of U-boats at sea.” 100

Joubert and the Air Staff argued that the 250-pound Torpex weapon “did not have a lethal radius of anything like the 19 feet claimed by the ORS, and pressed that priority be given to the 600-pound depth bomb.” 102 The 19 feet lethal radius of the Torpex weapon was a figure called in question at various times, but an assessment made in 1944, and based on photographic evidence, showed a possible lethal radius of 42 feet for two Torpex depth charges straddling a U-boat hull. But the Air Staff favored a larger bomb, and “bitterly accused” the scientists of paying no attention to the “big bang” of a larger bomb, even if it failed to damage the U-boat. 103 Was the 250-pound Torpex weapon at fault for the failure to score more U-boat kills or was the problem with the inaccuracy of the attacks, which depended on “pilot’s eye bombing”? ORS insisted that the “overwhelmingly most important problem” was to improve anti-U-boat bomb aiming. 104 The scientists further argued that in the excitement of an actual attack the accuracy of bomb release was likely to be well below that achieved under practice conditions. 105

“Faithful to their own kind,” Joubert and the Air Staff, accepted the aircraft crews’ figure of a bombing error of only about 20 yards. 106 For Joubert to have blamed poor pilot bomb aiming or inaccuracy would have reflected badly on his own air crews, and he may have genuinely believed in the accuracy of their reports.  Later reports showed that bomb aiming errors were far greater than expected by the Air Staff.  Most attacks were some 60 yards ahead of the conning tower. Development of a low level bombsight significantly reduced the bomb aiming error, thus increasing the lethality rate per attack. 107

Historian Christina Goulter has noted that no Operational Research Scientist was present at the meeting when the decision was made to proceed with the 600-pound depth bomb, and that Joubert “came close to sinking his Command’s anti-submarine effort” by advocating the [600-pound] bomb rather than the [250-pound Torpex] depth charge as the prime weapon. 108 Later analysis of photographic evidence supported the position of the ORS that most of the 250-pound Torpex depth charges were dropped, not on the U-boat’s conning tower as intended, but about 60 yards ahead of the target. 109 The accumulation of photographic evidence allowed the ORS to carry out more refined analysis of attacks, which led to improvements in stick (a group of bombs released to fall across the target in a straight row) length and stick spacing. 110 The Operational Research Scientists also made great efforts to develop an effective low level bomb-sight, which was finally introduced early in 1944. 111 C. H. Waddington concluded that the decision to proceed with the development of the “big bang,” 600-pound anti-submarine bomb was “almost certainly a mistake.” 112

Once it was recognized that bombing accuracy was not as high as the aircrew had thought, practice bombing on the training range became far more rigorous. On-the-job training was hardly possible for RAF Coastal Command crews when an attack on a U-boat was a rare event (typically one attack in 500 hours of flying time) in the life of an aircrew. 113 But with increased training, and yet more practice on the bombing range, together with improved tactics, the lethality of the Torpex aerial depth charge increased. Between July and December 1942, Coastal Command aircraft sank 15 U-boats – in the words of historian John Terraine, “it was definitely in the game.” 114 Monthly Coastal Command reports graphically confirmed the rising “kill” rate against the U-boat:

On 15 September 1942, a [Whitley] Coastal Command aircraft flying at 6,700 feet, sighted a U-boat at a distance of 7 miles. It was making ten knots.  The aircraft turned and broke cloud at 3,000 feet, then attack from the U-boat’s port quarter with five Torpex depth-charges released from 20 feet while the U-boat was fully surfaced.  The depth-charges straddled it; three fell short to port, one made a direct hit on the bridge, and one fell beyond to starboard . . . The aircraft turned to make another attack . . . The remaining Torpex depth charge exploded in the center of this oil and debris, 5 seconds after the bows had gone out of sight. . .

The crew of the Coastal Command aircraft reported that total destruction of the U-boat was “more than likely.” 115 They were correct: post-war investigation showed that the attack marked the end of U-261. 116 A pilot and armament expert who served in Coastal Command explained the difference made by Torpex: “By the time I arrived in Iceland we were using a Minol and then a Torpex filling, with much more shattering force than the other two [Amatol and Minol].  But for its [Torpex] presence in the 250-pound D/C [aerial depth charge], we could never have begun at long last to sink U-boats.” 117

In October 1942, Squadron Leader Terrence “Bull” Bulloch of No. 120 Squadron, flying a B-24 Liberator, sank U-597 south-west of Iceland. Bulloch dived to attack from the U-boat’s port quarter and dropped six Torpex depth charges from 75 feet while the submarine was still on the surface: “The U-boat was completely covered by the stick [of Torpex depth charges], both in line and range, from bows to stern.” 118

After 17 months as head of Coastal Command, many of them intensely frustrating – the only response to his requests to the Air Ministry seemed to be “No” – Joubert was succeeded by Air Marshal Sir John Slessor in February 1943. 119 The previous year, 1942, had been the worst year of the war for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Merchant ship sinkings in the Atlantic reached 5.4 million tons; total Allied losses reached 7.8 million tons, or 1,662 ships sunk. 120 Knowledge of U-boat movements had been lost in February 1942 when the Allies lost their newfound ability to read German Enigma signals (the decoded signals were called Ultra). This intelligence black-out lasted until the end of the year. Without Ultra decrypts of U-boat Command’s signals to its submarines in the Atlantic, routing convoys to avoid U-boats was extremely difficult.  Moreover, Dönitz now had enough U-boats spread across the Atlantic to allow several wolf-packs to attack many different convoy routes. The rate of loss was devastating to the British. 121 British imports dropped to one-third of their pre-war level; by January, 1943, the British navy had only two months’ supply of oil left. Small wonder that Prime Minister Churchill later wrote, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” 122

But before the Atlantic battle reached its climax in the spring of 1943, both sides had to endure another North Atlantic winter of gale force winds, mountainous icy seas, and driving blizzards that pounded both sides without mercy. Once the worst of the winter weather was past, the fiercest battles of the Atlantic campaign began. One of the biggest battles occurred in mid-March when 40 U-boats attacked two convoys, sinking 22 merchant ships totaling 141,000 tons for the loss of just one U-boat. 123 Admiral Dönitz, forewarned by the German Navy’s intelligence division, B-Dienst (which read British convoy cyphers), had stationed wolf-packs across the path of the two convoys. In a period of 20 days, no fewer than 70 Allied ships, or half-a-million tons had been sunk in the North Atlantic. Victory appeared to be within Dönitz’s grasp.

With seeming suddenness, however, the tide turned in favor of the Allies. With Ultra intelligence once again able to provide timely information, a considerable number of convoys had been steered clear of U-boats altogether. 124 And by 1943, the problem of accurately locating U-boats had been solved by fitting both aircraft and convoy escorts with centimetric radar that could detect surfaced submarines at ranges of four or more miles, day or night.  Many escorts were also equipped with HF/DF (High Frequency Direction Finding), nicknamed Huff-Duff, which could intercept short-wave radio transmissions to and from a U-boat, thus provide the bearing and range of the boat transmitting. B-24 Liberators, equipped with centimetric radar, could detect a surfaced U-boat at five miles. At night, as the aircraft flew closer to a U-boat and lost radar contact, the aircraft’s searchlight, known as the Leigh Light, was switched on trapping the U-boat in its glare. Once detected, U-boats now faced formidable attack from aircraft and escort vessels that were manned by better-trained air and naval personnel.

German submarine crews felt more and more helpless as Allied aircraft attacked without warning to smother their boat with “a devastating pattern of 250 lb. [Torpex] depth-charges.” 125 In May, 41 U-boats were sunk by aircraft, 16 of them by Coastal Command. 126 One U-boat was now lost for 10,000 tons of shipping, compared to one U-boat to 100,000 tons just a short time previously. By the end of the May, Admiral Dönitz had lost 30 percent of his U-boat force. Appalled by this catastrophic rate of loss, Dönitz reluctantly ordered withdrawal from the North Atlantic. It was intended to be temporary, but U-boats never again seriously threatened the Atlantic supply line. By June 1943, Allied shipping losses fell to the lowest figure since the United States had entered the war: 21,754 tons in the Atlantic.  Between June and December 1943, only 57 ships were sunk in the Atlantic for the loss of 141 U-boats. In 1944, the Allies lost only 31 ships in the Atlantic compared to 1,006 in 1942. At this stage of the war, such shipping losses were more than replaced by the prodigious production of American shipyards.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, extended his “admiration and warmest thanks” to Coastal Command for their “brilliant success,” which was the result of “tireless perseverance and devotion to duty.” 127 Fortunately, for both aircrews and aircraft, they now carried a weapon that could destroy more than a submarine’s light-bulbs or wardroom crockery.

A final opportunity for critics to replace the 250-pound Torpex depth charge with the 600-pound depth bomb came in the Bay of Biscay when Coastal Command aircraft again attacked the U-boats’ routes across the bay. Dönitz decided that it was best for his commanders to abandon the “crash-dive” tactic, and instead to stay on the surface and fight enemy aircraft with their anti-aircraft weapons. 127 In July and August, about 11 percent of Coastal Command aircraft were shot down. 129 At one point in the summer of 1943, the Command was losing an average of one aircraft a day in the Biscay area. 130 In his memoirs, Slessor recalled, “In Whitehall [the Air Ministry] there were long faces and prophets of gloom.” 131 The critics of low level attacks with the Torpex depth charge pointed out how British fishing trawlers, in the early days of the war, once they were armed, had driven-off the Luftwaffe. 131 It seemed quite possible that low level day attacks would become too expensive, and if that was the case, the obvious remedy was to attack from a high altitude using the 600-pound depth bomb. 133 These views met with “no sympathy from Slessor.” 134 In spite of RAF Coastal Command’s losses, there was a steady increase in the deadliness of their attacks on visible U-boats. Between July and October 1943, the lethality rate per attack was 30 percent. 134 For U-boat crews, each mission was more and more likely to be their last. 136

Coastal Command

By 1943, there was little or no doubt that Coastal Command possessed a lethal airborne weapon. Air Marshal Slessor described the Torpex depth charge in these terms:

The decisive weapon of the anti-submarine squadrons was the Mark XI Torpex depth charge, dropped in ‘sticks’ of four to eight from point-blank altitude, fifty to a hundred and fifty feet. There were others . . . There was the 600 lb. special anti-submarine bomb, designed to be dropped from higher altitudes . . . which only accounted for one U-boat in 1943 . . .  But they were none of them comparable as U-boat killers with the old Mark XI depth-charge.  It had its earlier critics; but if the depth-setting was right, if the distance between the depth-charges making up the ‘stick’ was properly spaced, above all if crews were well trained and laid their ‘sticks’ accurately, it was an exceedingly effective weapon, as the figures show. 137

By the end of 1943, RAF Coastal Command aircraft armed with the Torpex depth charge had sunk an impressive 84 U-boats, out of 219 U-boats that were destroyed in that decisive year. 130 The 600-pound depth bomb “only accounted” for one U-boat in 1943—U-462. 139 By the end of the war, Coastal Command had dropped 97 in 28 attacks compared with 5,790 of the Torpex depth charges in 1,170 attacks. 140 The lethality of Coastal Command attacks on visible U-boats had risen to over 45 percent. 141

Beginning World War II with the virtually useless 100-pound anti-submarine bomb, Coastal Command attacks on U-boats remained ineffective until the introduction of the Torpex aerial depth charge in the summer of 1942. By May 1943, all the pieces necessary for Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic were put into place. And, at long last, Coastal Command, possessed a vastly more powerful anti-U-boat weapon in the Torpex aerial depth charge.  At a decisive point in the Atlantic battle, Torpex helped ensure that 1943 would be a “bumper year” for the Allies in the six-year war against the U-boat.    

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. Essential studies include: Correlli Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991); Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War. Vol. II: Their Finest Hour (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 598-600; Eric J. Grove, The Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping, 1939-1945 (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1997); Samuel Eliot Morison, History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II.  Vols. I and X (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1947-56); Murray Williamson and Allan R. Millett, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000); Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995); Stephen W. Roskill, The War at Sea, 1939-1945.  Vol. II. (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1956); Stephen Howarth and Derek Law (eds), The Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945: The 50th Anniversary International Naval Conference (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994).  The author wishes to express a special debt of gratitude to Paul M. Sutcliffe, formerly of the British Ministry of Defense, for his advice and assistance in the research for this paper.
  2. James Holland, “10 Things you (probably) didn’t know about World War II,” History Extra,

    BBC History Magazine, 22 September 2014.  The U-boat threat is minimized in the following studies: Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Viking, 2007); Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  3. Andrew W.A. Hendrie, The Cinderella Service: Coastal Command 1939-1945 (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2006), 65.
  4. Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 45.  Asdic is now called “sonar.”
  5. Marc Milner, North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle of the Convoys (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 13.
  6. Overy, Why the Allies Won, 31;  ADM 234/578,  Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping, 1939-1945: A Study of Policy and Operations, Vol. 1A.  For detecting a U-boat on the surface, asdic was “practically useless.” (63).
  7. Grove, Defeat of the Enemy Attack, 65; John Campbell, Naval Weapons of World War II (Annapolis, Maryland.: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 88-89.
  8. Grove, Defeat of the Enemy Attack, 62.
  9. Andrew W. A. Hendrie, The Cinderella Service: Coastal Command 1939-1945 (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2006), 21.
  10. Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 711-712.
  11. Brian Johnson, The Secret War (New York: Methuen, 1978), 204.
  12. Johnson, The Secret War.
  13.   Johnson, The Secret War.
  14. Joubert, Birds and Fishes, 128.
  15. Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely, 201.
  16. Bombing Committee minutes, 21 December, 1939, Air Ministry, Blackett papers, D.51, the Royal Society Archives, London, UK.  Developed at the Woolwich Arsenal, RDX (short for Research Department Explosive) was almost twice as powerful as TNT. See Colin F. Baxter, The Secret History of RDX: The Super-Explosive that Helped Win World War II (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2018).
  17. ADM 234/578, Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping, 1939-1945: A Study of Policy and Operations, Vol. 1A (1957), 74.
  18. ADM 234/578.
  19. Winston Churchill to Admiral Bruce Fraser, 28 September 1939, cited in Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers. Volume 1: At the Admiralty September 1939-May 1940 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 166.
  20.   Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers.
  21.   “Review of the U-Boat War 1940-1943, 7 July 1943,” Tizard Papers, HTT 373, Imperial War Museum (IWM), London, UK.
  22. Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 598-600.
  23. Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 259; Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 136; Anthony Furse, Wilfred Freeman: The Genius behind Allied Survival and Air Supremacy 1939-1945 (Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2000).
  24. Christina J. M. Goulter, “Joubert de la Ferté, Sir Philip Bennett (1887-1965),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).  Joubert first held the post of Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Coastal Command in 1936.  His record was mixed. He initially opposed the Leigh Light, an airborne searchlight proposed by Squadron Leader H. de V. Leigh.  In 1942, Joubert concentrated some two-thirds of Coastal Command’s aircraft in an effort to destroy U-boats crossing the Bay of Biscay either leaving or returning to their bases on the French coast. The results of this first “Bay Offensive” were  disappointing. (Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 478).
  25.   Buckley, “Air Power and the Battle of the Atlantic,”148.
  26. Denis Richards, Royal Air Force 1939-1945. Volume 1 (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1953), 347.               
  27. P.M.S. Blackett, Studies of War: Nuclear and Conventional (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962), 214.  Blackett served at Coastal Command from March 1941 to January 1942, when he moved to the  Admiralty with the title of Chief Adviser on Operational Research. Blackett had served on the pre-war Air Ministry’s Air Defense Committee, where he and Sir Henry Tizard favored the development of radar, while Frederick Lindermann (later Lord Cherwell and Churchill’s scientific adviser) demanded that priority be given to other devices. During 1941-42, Blackett and Tizard argued that Britain should direct a smaller number of aircraft to bombing attacks on Germany, and a larger proportion to the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Mary Jo Nye, “Blackett, P.M.S, (1897-1974),” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), 947; Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War. Blackett shared Cherwell’s enthusiasm for “clever gadgets and wonder weapons.”
  28. Budiansky, Blackett’s War, 214.
  29. Budiansky, Blackett’s War, 141; F. L. Sawyer, et. al. “Reminiscences of Operational Research Society, Vol. 40, 1989, 115-36. Professor T. E. Easterfield, who joined the ORS in 1943, declared that before the arrival of Blackett and Williams, “Practically none of our [aircraft
  30. C. H. Waddington, O.R. in World War 2: Operational Research against the U-boat (London: Elek Science, reprint 1973; first printed, 1946), 174.  Waddington described ORS report No. 142 as “a classic of Operational Research Literature.” Waddington’s book is not a primary source or an official history; however, it was written immediately after the war by the author who had worked in the ORS for most of its wartime existence.  He ultimately headed ORS.  See Paul M. Sutcliffe, “Operational Research in the Battle of the Atlantic,” in Howarth and Law (eds), The Battle of the Atlantic, 419.
  31. Waddington, O.R., 143; “Memorandum on Anti-Submarine Measures,” September 1941, Blackett Papers, Royal Society Archives, 4/7/1/6.
  32. E. J. Williams, “Attacks on U-boats by Aircraft,” Tizard Papers, HTT 373, IWM.
  33. Waddington, O.R., 177.
  34. Waddington, O.R., 177.
  35. Waddington, O.R., 177.
  36. Blackett, Studies of War, 215.
  37. Budiansky, Blackett’s War, 140-45.  ORS tests also determined that painting the underside of Coastal Command aircraft white instead of black would make the aircraft less visible to a U-boat.  Williams calculated that a white aircraft would catch a U-boat on the surface on 30 percent more occasions than a black one would, and so should sink 30 percent more U-boats per sighting.
  38. James Phinney Baxter, 3rd., Scientists Against Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1952; first printed, 1946), 42.
  39. Waddington, O.R., 175.
  40. Waddington, O.R., 175.
  41. Waddington, O.R., 175-76.
  42. AIR 15/551, 37A, Joubert to Air Commodore J. D. Breakey, Air Ministry, 23 December 1941, TNA., Kew, U.K.
  43. Air 15/551, 39A, Breakey to Joubert, 31 December 1941.
  44. Air 15/551, 39A.
  45. Air Historical Branch, Armament, Volume 1. Bombs and Bombing Equipment, 147.   Early in World War II, British bombs were about half as effective as German bombs of the same weight, which had a thinner casing and more explosive.
  46. Air 15/551, 39A.
  47. Air 15/551, 39A.
  48. Air Commodore Patrick “Husky” Huskinson had been Vice President of the Ordnance Board, Woolwich Arsenal, 1939-40, and then Director of Armament Development, Ministry of Aircraft Production. He had been blinded by a bomb-burst during the Blitz of 1940-41. However, he soon returned to work.
  49. Air 15/551, 41A, Huskinson to Joubert, 30 December 1941.
  50. Air 15/551, 41A.
  51. Air 15/551, 41A.
  52. Air 15/551, 41A.
  53. Air 15/551, 41A.
  54. Air 15/551, 42A, Blackett to Joubert, 3 January 1942.
  55. Air 15/551, 42A.
  56. Air 15/551
  57. Air 15/551, 43A, Joubert to Huskinson, 6 January 1942.
  58. Air 15/551, 43A.
  59. Air 15/551, 43A.
  60. Air 15/551, 43A.
  61. Air 15/551, 47A, Baker to Pidcock, 27 January 1942.
  62.   Air 15/551, 47A, 2.
  63. Air 15/551, 47A.
  64. Air 15/551, 47A.
  65.   Air 15/551, 47A.
  66. Air 15/551, 51A. “Notes of a Meeting with A/Cdr. Huskinson on the 13 February, 1942,” by Air Marshal Baker.
  67. Air 15/551, 51A, 2.
  68. Air 15/551, 51A, 2.
  69. Air 15/551, 51A, 2.
  70. Air 15/551, 51A, 3.
  71. Air 15/551, 53A, Huskinson to Baker, 16 February 1942.
  72. Air 15/551, 53A.
  73. Air 15/551, 54A, Baker to Creasy, 19 February 1942.  After a long and distinguished naval Career, in 1951 Creasy was made a full Admiral of the Fleet, and died in 1972.
  74. Air 15/551, 57A, Creasy to Baker, 27 February 1942.  The “Hedgehog” was a new anti-submarine weapon for surface warships.  Attached to a destroyer’s deck, the “Hedgehog” fired 24 projectiles, weighing 65 pounds, with a 35-pound Torpex warhead, over the ship’s bow instead of the stern, which had caused the attacking vessel to lose sonar contact with a submarine.
  75. Air 15/551, 57A.
  76.   Air 41/81, Joubert to Air Ministry (Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (T), Sir Ralph Sorley), 31 March 1942, Air 41/81, Armament. Volume 1. Bombs and Bombing Equipment (Air Historical Branch, Air Ministry, 1952), 39.
  77. Air 41/81.
  78. Air 41/47, The R.A.F. in Maritime War, 80.  The Torpex depth charges arrived at the end of April 1942.
  79. Air 15/551, 81A, Baker to Creasy, D. A/SW., 24 June 1942.
  80. Air 15/551, 81A.
  81. Air 15/551, 81A.
  82. Air 15/551, 81A.
  83. Air 15/551, 81A.
  84. Air 15/551, 81A.
  85. Air 15/551, 81A.
  86. Air 41/47, The R.A.F. in Maritime War, 527.
  87. Joubert, Birds and Fishes, 209.
  88. Air 15/551, 92A, Joubert to Clarke, 15 August 1942.
  89. Air 15/551, 92A.
  90. Air 15/551, 92A
  91. Air 15/551, 92A. Copies of the letter were also sent to Lord Cherwell and Huskinson.  Cherwell believed that dropping clusters of small bombs offered a greater chance of a hit than dropping a few bigger bombs.
  92. Air 15/551, 92A.
  93. Waddington, O.R., 205.
  94. Air 15/551, 94A, Clarke to Joubert, 22 August 1942.
  95. Air 15/551, 94A.
  96. Air 15/551, 94A.
  97. Air 15/551, 94A.
  98. Air 41/81, Armament.  Vol. 1.  Bombs and Bombing Equipment.  Air Ministry (London: Air Historical Branch, 1952)
  99. Air 41/81.
  100. Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 470.
  101. Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 470.
  102. Air 41/47, The R.A.F. in Maritime War, 527.
  103. Waddington, O.R., 179-80.
  104. Waddington, O.R., 186.
  105. Air 41/47, 527.
  106. Air 41/47, 178.
  107. Waddington, O.R., 176.
  108. Christina J. M. Goulter, A Forgotten Offensive: Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s Anti- Shipping Campaign, 1940-1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 212;  Goulter, “Sir Philip Bennett Joubert de la Ferté (1887-1965),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  109. Sutcliffe, “Operational Research in the Battle of the Atlantic,” 421.
  110. Sutcliffe, “Operational Research in the Battle of the Atlantic,” 422.
  111. Sutcliffe, “Operational Research in the Battle of the Atlantic.” 422.
  112. Waddington, O.R., 14.
  113. Waddington, O.R., 422.
  114. John Terraine, The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 428.
  115. Coastal Command Review, No. 5, September 1942, 14.
  116. Terraine, Right of the Line, 429.
  117. Norman Franks, Search, Find, and Kill (London: Grub Street, 1995), x.
  118. Sir John Slessor, The Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956), 528.
  119. Christina J.M. Goulter, “Joubert de la Ferté, Sir Philip Bennett (1887-1965),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.  His relationship with the ORS was not as close as it might have been. His advocacy of the 600 pound depth bomb to replace Torpex depth charge is a case in point. He also clashed with Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command, who regarded Coastal Command as “merely an obstacle to victory.” (Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 419); Peter G. Dancey, Coastal Command vs. the U-boat: A Complete World War II ‘Coastal Command Review’ (Bromley, UK: Galago Books, 2002), 34; Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945.  Vol. I (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1961).
  120. Overy, Why the Allies Won, 48.
  121. Overy, Why the Allies Won, 48.
  122. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 598.
  123. Douglas Botting, The U-Boats (Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1979), 137.
  124. Overy, Why the Allies Won, 56.
  125. Barnett, Engage the Enemy, 602.
  126. Henry Probert, “Allied Land-Based Anti-Submarine Warfare,” 380, in Howarth and Law (eds), The Battle of the Atlantic (1994).
  127. Dancey, Coastal Command, 46.
  128. Dancey, Coastal Command, 46.
  129. Waddington, O.R., 198.
  130. Dancey, Coastal Command, 47.
  131. Saunders, Royal Air Force, 48.
  132. Saunders, Royal Air Force, 48.
  133. Waddington, O.R., 203.
  134. Saunders, Royal Air Force, 49.
  135. Saunders, Royal Air Force, 49.
  136. Overy, Why the Allies Won, 58.
  137. Slessor, The Central Blue, 466.
  138. Dancey, Coastal Command, 47.
  139. Slesssor, The Central Blue, 466.
  140.   Campbell, Naval Weapons, 94;
  141. Waddington, “Memorial Meeting for Lord Backett, at the Royal Society on 31 October 1974,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 29, No. 2 (March 1975), 135-162.

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Our Insecure Futures: How Can Prepare and Cope?

Richard J. Danzig
2013 Philip A. Crowl Memorial Lecture

At the Annual Naval War College Dinner in the Washington Navy Yard on May 9, 2013, Dr. Richard J. Danzig gave a Phillip A. Crowel Lecture, “Our Insecure Futures: How Can Prepare and Cope?”

Professor Philip A. Crowl served as the first Chairman of the Strategy Department of the
Naval War College from 1973 until his retirement in 1980. An acclaimed expert on military
history, he was the driving force of the Strategy Department throughout those years during
a time of major change and reinvigoration often called “The Turner Revolution.” As a result,
he made a monumental contribution to the development of strategic thinking at the Naval
War College. Retiring to Annapolis, he continued to teach for the Naval War College as an
Adjunct Professor in the College of Distance Education Fleet Seminar Program until his
death in 1991.

The Honorable Dr. Richard J. Danzig, is former Chairman of the Center for a New American Security, a Trustee of the RAND Corporation, a member of the Defense Policy Board and the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and a director of Saffron Hill Ventures (a European venture capital fund). In recent years his other activities have included service as the Chairman of the Board of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and as a member of the Boards of Public Agenda, the Partnership for Public Service, the National Semiconductor Corporation (a New York Stock Exchange Company sold to Texas Instruments in 2011) and Human Genome Sciences (a NASDAQ company sold to GlaxoSmithKline in 2012).

From the spring of 2007 through the presidential election of 2008, Dr. Danzig was a senior advisor to Senator Obama on national security issues. Dr. Danzig served as the 71st Secretary of the Navy from November 1998 to January 2001. He was the Under Secretary of the Navy between 1993 and 1997.

Dr. Danzig is a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. His primary activity is as a consultant to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security on terrorism.

Dr. Danzig was born in New York City in 1944. He received a B.A. degree from Reed College, a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and Bachelor of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Upon his graduation from Yale, Dr. Danzig served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

Between 1972 and 1977, Dr. Danzig was an Assistant and then Associate Professor of Law at Stanford University, a Prize Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. During this period, he wrote a book on contract law and articles on constitutional history, contracts, criminal procedure, and law and literature.

From 1977 to 1981, Dr. Danzig served in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, first as a Deputy Assistant Secretary and then as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Logistics. In these roles, he contributed particularly to the development of the Department’s ability to mobilize manpower and materiel for deployment abroad. In 1981, he was awarded the Defense Distinguished Public Service Award. He received that same honor—the highest Department of Defense civilian award—twice more in 1997 and 2001 for his work with the Navy and Marine Corps.

Between 1981 and 1993, Dr. Danzig was a partner in the law firm of Latham and Watkins. Resident in Washington, his unusually broad legal practice encompassed white-collar crime defense work, civil litigation, and corporate work, including heading the firm’s Japan practice. During this time he coauthored a book on national service, taught contracts at Georgetown Law School, and was a Director of the National Semiconductor Corporation, a Trustee of Reed College, and litigation director and then vice chair of the International Human Rights Group. In 1991, he was awarded that organization’s Tony Friedrich Memorial Award as pro-bono human rights lawyer of the year.

Dr. Danzig and his wife, Andrea, reside in Washington, DC, where Mrs. Danzig has an active
practice as a psychotherapist. They have two adult children, David and Lisa. Mr. Danzig’s recent publications include Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security and, as co-author, Aum Shinrikyo: Insights into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons, both published by the Center for a New American Security.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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It’s a navy’s job, only no navy can do it! Understanding and Addressing Western Neglect of Maritime Trade Protection

Lieutenant Comander Matthijs Ooms
Royal Netherlands Navy 1

The recent return of geostrategic state competition has brought an end to complacency about interstate war. In the maritime domain, this has increased the prospect of high-intensity maritime warfare. While many Western 2 navies now refocus their training on traditional warfare missions, an important aspect has largely been overlooked: the protection of merchant shipping in the context of a maritime trade war. Although historically, trade protection has been a fundamental task, Western navies and the shipping industry seem dangerously unprepared for it now. To understand and address this, this article will provide a model that explains how trade protection policy is influenced and how a comprehensive trade protection strategy can be formulated.

The COVID-19 crisis revealed the vulnerability of a globalized just-in-time economy. As many countries closed their borders, international air and land transport suffered delays and increased costs. Panic buying of food and other essentials caused empty shelves in supermarkets. While the lockdowns across the world hit the supply and demand side of international trade, that trade, the main artery of the world economy continued to operate. Merchant shipping, carrying ninety percent of the world’s trade, maintained the steady flow of vital energy, food, raw materials and goods, even though many seafarers were dismally confined to their vessels for a much longer time than anticipated. But what if, in a future crisis, an aggressor exploits the vulnerability of a globalized just-in-time economy by targeting merchant shipping? Are Western navies mentally, materially and doctrinally ready for a trade protection task on a grand scale?

The protection of maritime trade has always been a fundamental mission of many navies. Ever since merchantmen began to travel the seas, state and private opponents such as belligerent navies, corsairs and pirates have tried to seize or destroy ships carrying valuable cargo. Indeed, many predecessors of modern navies were founded primarily to protect trade. 3 In 1890, in search of fundamental principles of maritime strategy, Captain Alfred Mahan stated in his seminal work on seapower: “The necessity of a navy, […] springs, therefore, from the existence of a peaceful shipping, and disappears with it […]”. 4

Classical naval theorists naturally discussed the critical issues of the attack and the defense of maritime trade, but to a varying degree and with differing opinions. 5 John Colomb was one of the first theorists addressing trade protection in an article in 1867. 6 His brother Philip Colomb explored the usefulness of a convoy system under modern conditions in 1887, arguing that commerce protection was the navy’s primary object and reason for existence. 7 The French Jeune Ecole based their asymmetric strategy on severing Britain’s vital – and in their opinion undefendable – lines of communication. 8 Julian Corbett argued that the attack and defense of trade are two sides of the same coin and accordingly addressed both in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. 9 On the eve of World War I, Kenneth Dewar published a prize-winning essay on trade defense. 10 Referring to Sun Tzu, he urged his readers not only to study their enemy but also themselves, including the workings of the financial system. 11 In the interwar years, Herbert Richmond systematically analyzed trade defense methods and lamented the lack of escort vessels in European navies. 12 In France, Raoul Castex argued that operations to attack or defend trade should be integrated with operations to gain command of the sea. 13 During World War II, Bernard Brodie praised the role of “the lowly freighter” as an essential element of seapower. 14

Throughout history, countries have suffered from neglecting the defense of shipping. In both world wars, the United Kingdom felt the full importance of trade protection when it was nearly choked by a ferocious German U-boat campaign against merchant shipping. Likewise, Japan suffered heavily during World War II for not adequately addressing the threat to its merchant shipping. Having learned their lesson, Western navies prepared during the greater part of the Cold War for a “Third Battle of the Atlantic” to protect merchant ship convoys with vital food, energy and military reinforcements against a perceived Soviet naval and air threat. However, interest in trade protection against interstate conflict diminished after the Cold War ended.

Atlantic convoy in World War II (Collection: Netherlands Institute of Military History)

In the twenty-first century, maritime trade protection is still a vital priority, although it is not always clearly formulated. Strategic defense documents around the world stress the importance of concepts such as “freedom of the seas”, “flow security” and “maritime security”, which implicitly require a trade protection mission. 15, Den Haag, 14 Februari 2017, 22; US Navy, US Marine Corps, and US Coast Guard (2007). A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 37; Council of the European Union, European Union Maritime Security Strategy, (Brussels, 2014), 4-8.] Threats to merchant ships still exist in diverse forms. From 2008 onwards, governments from east to west have sent warships to Somali waters to protect merchant ships against pirate attacks. The same area has witnessed incidents involving terrorist attacks on commercial ships and hybrid state-sponsored threats. 16 In June 2019, violent incidents involving tankers near the Strait of Hormuz sent a political and economic shock wave around the world. 17 On a potentially higher level of warfare, Western militaries are becoming more worried by a resurgent Russian navy and a rapidly expanding Chinese navy, which could threaten Western sea lines of communication (SLOCs). 18 However, despite these developments, trade protection has not regained the level of attention it once had.

Maritime trade protection neglected

Many naval strategists have commented on the neglect in doctrine, training and operations of this historically important task. In Seapower: a Guide for the 21st Century, maritime strategist Geoffrey Till agrees that nowadays, the attack and protection of merchant shipping is receiving much less attention than before. Analyzing doctrines around the world, he concludes that trade warfare is rarely mentioned. 19 The US Navy’s latest Naval Doctrine Publication, NDP-1, supports Till’s observation. Although the NDP-1 stresses that ensuring “the safe seaborne movement of friendly commerce and military forces” ranks first among the reasons why naval forces exist, and explains sealift as a primary function, the document makes no further reference to the Merchant Marine, neither is trade warfare recognized as one of the six “primary warfare areas the Naval Service employs to achieve operational objectives”. 20 Likewise, the new US tri-service strategy Advantage at Sea fails to integrate or even mention the other important “service”: the Merchant Marine. 21 On the bright side, last year the US and its allies planned their first opposed cross-Atlantic convoy operation since 1986 as part of exercise DEFENDER Europe 20, although the actual movement was canceled due to COVID-19. 22

Various other authors have recognized the neglect of trade protection. Ian Speller likewise concludes that interest in the protection of shipping against threats other than piracy has waned. He sees a parallel between the traditional methods of trade protection and the methods employed against piracy. 23 Speller warns that it would be foolish to exclude the possibility of a sustained trade war in the future. 24 Maritime historian Andrew Lambert observes that modern navies are predominantly concerned with terrestrial issues. In his analysis, maritime trade protection has seldom been an issue since 1945, and many states rely on “a combination of international law and shared interest, rather than naval force” to protect merchant shipping. 25 British researcher Martin Murphy warns that, since the end of the Cold War, Western navies have been complacent about protecting maritime trade, while the rise of powers such as China requires a refocus on this task, which is intertwined with economic, financial and maritime warfare. 26

Milan Vego reaches a similar conclusion from an American perspective and calls for the development of “a theory of defense and protection of maritime trade”, which would form a basis for new doctrine. Furthermore, Vego argues, a cultural change is needed within the US Navy. Currently, naval culture tends to denounce trade protection missions as a lesser form of naval warfare, which explains the lack of focus and preparedness for this task. Vego warns that the US Navy will not be able to fight a high-intensity war at sea if it does not transform its current mindset on trade warfare. 27 Indeed, US military and merchant marine officers have repeatedly called for such cultural change, but apparently to no avail. 28 Most recently, Air National Guard officer David Alman called for a reevaluation of the US Navy’s strategy, as the Navy has neglected convoy defense. 29 On a final note, maritime strategist James Holmes reiterates Mahan’s focus on merchant shipping as an indispensable arm of seapower. Holmes warns that the US has neglected its merchant marine and should learn from its rivals, notably China, to better prepare its commercial shipping for a wartime role. 30

As the above survey of the maritime strategic literature indicates, the neglect of trade protection against state threats is widely recognized. However, many authors fail to explain the causes of this neglect, other than referring to the end of the Cold War and the subsequent demise of a serious threat to commercial shipping. This article aims to further explore the reasons for the lack of interest in maritime trade protection among Western navies. Do trends in globalization, the shipping industry, and navies justify this complacency and if not, what should be done? To answer these questions, academic literature and trends in the maritime domain will be analyzed.

The article is divided into three parts. In the first part, a definition of maritime trade protection is formulated and related concepts are described. Furthermore, it will investigate whether International Relations theory helps explain its neglect. In the second part, developments in globalization, the shipping industry and Western navies are analyzed to see whether the current complacency is justified. The third part will consider the question of what should be done to improve readiness for maritime trade protection, both at the grand strategic level and within the military domain. Finally, a model will be developed explaining the formulation of trade protection policy and identifying the questions that should be answered in order to develop a comprehensive trade protection strategy.



Maritime trade protection (also known as commerce protection, protection of shipping, or trade defense) is defined here as the protection of merchant vessels against violence at sea. Conventional threats to vessels include military platforms such as submarines, surface vessels, and aircraft, with lethal armaments including torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, mines, and guns. Unconventional threats include nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks, as well as cyber-attacks, the use of drones, jamming/spoofing (e.g. of GPS signals), and threats from non-state actors such as pirates and terrorists, armed with small boats, handheld weapons, and/or explosives. 31 Maritime trade protection is a significant element of two broader concepts: trade warfare, rooted in military thinking, and flow security, rooted in economic thinking. Both will be further explored.

Trade Warfare

Figure 1. Maritime Trade Warfare

Maritime trade protection is one side of a coin named trade warfare (Figure 1). 32 The other side is its offensive counterpart: the attack or interdiction of shipping, which includes commerce raiding and blockade as its two main methods. 33 The offensive side of economic warfare at sea has many historical examples and draws on a wide body of literature, such as the French school of “guerre de course”, sea denial, and blockade strategies. 34 In the age of sail, ships would be boarded, their cargo inspected and, in case of contraband, confiscated or sunk (the practice of “board and search”).  This internationally legalized mode of warfare was brought to highly destructive, morally abhorrent, and legally questionable levels in both world wars with the introduction of the submarine. This was because board and search was no longer practical for small submarine crews, and, more importantly, hazardous when merchantmen were armed. Accordingly, in the later stages of World War I, submarines sank merchant ships without warning. Furthermore, sea mines indiscriminately sank any vessel in their vicinity. Since 1945, the world has not seen an attack on maritime trade on such a scale, although during the Tanker War in the 1980s, 411 merchant vessels were attacked by Iraqi and Iranian forces. 35 As ships have grown in size since 1945, these Tanker War losses equal nearly half the tonnage lost in World War II. 36 On a much less violent scale, Western navies conducted various Maritime Interdiction Operations in the past decades, for example the NATO/WEU Operation Sharp Guard (1993-1996), which enforced an arms embargo upon former Yugoslavia. These operations had more in common with traditional board and search operations from the age of sail than with unrestricted submarine warfare. Such operations show that the attack and interdiction of shipping is a timeless strategy that comes in many forms. It is necessary to understand both the defensive and the offensive aspects of maritime trade warfare.

Interdiction of shipping: air defense frigate HNLMS Jacob van Heemskerck conducting a boarding of a merchant vessel during Operation Sharp Guard in 1993. (Collection: Netherlands Institute of Military History)

Flow Security

From a wider, systemic perspective, maritime trade protection is part of a concept known as “flow security”. 37 Merchant vessels operating between ports via SLOCs are part of a larger physical flow of commercial or military goods: from producer to consumer or from national military bases to overseas battlefields (Figure 2). Maintaining this flow means maintaining carrying capacity and this is an inherently economic process, which requires more than just the physical protection of merchant vessels. It involves the efficient planning and distribution of cargoes between the limited number of merchant vessels. Furthermore, port and hinterland infrastructure must be able to synchronize with variations in the maritime flow. For example, if a peacetime, continuous, just-in-time flow of goods changes in wartime to an intermittent flow with peaks when a convoy arrives, followed by long periods of inactivity, the port and hinterland infrastructure might become periodically clogged and drained, thereby strangling the flow. In this example, an action that positively affects merchant vessel protection at sea (adopting a convoy system) might actually jeopardize the overall flow. To complicate things further, various government bodies are often responsible for securing separate parts of the flow: in many countries the Department of Defense is responsible for the physical protection of ships in wartime, while the Department of Transport deals with the allocation of cargoes to shipping and with the further land distribution. That said, in many cases other than war, only a part of the flow is at risk at sea, for example when vessels pass areas of piracy or local conflict. In sum, maritime trade protection is part of the larger concept of flow security, and has various stakeholders; only rarely (in wartime) is the complete flow at risk of attack. In this article, the focus will be on the blue water part of physical flow security, thus ignoring aspects such as the security of port infrastructure or digital flow security in undersea cables.

Figure 2. Flow Security and Maritime Trade Protection

International relations theory and trade protection

With trade being such an important driver of prosperity and relations between states, what does international relations (IR) theory say about trade protection and the relationship between naval power and trade? Does trade follow the flag, or does the flag follow trade? In other words, is naval power a prerequisite or a consequence of merchant trade? Can trade replace naval power as an instrument to achieve national ends or does trade enhance peace and profit for all? 38 Scholars have debated such questions for centuries and many arguments have been put forward time and again. Three prominent IR theories, Liberalism, Realism, and Constructivism, provide valuable insights into why trade protection has repeatedly been neglected.

Liberal scholars, such as those in the nineteenth-century Manchester School, argue that shared interest and international law reduce the chances of war. If states refrain from power play and zero-sum thinking, but instead focus on cooperation and peaceful trade, a win-win situation occurs. Commercial Liberalism is based on the idea that free trade promotes peace, as nations will not attack their trading partners and certainly not the trade itself. 39 Liberals argue that in the current globalized world, with extensive economic interdependencies, a high-intensity war against commercial shipping is a lose-lose situation. 40 The economic repercussions would be considerable for belligerents and neutral parties. Furthermore, in their view, the sinking of unarmed civilian ships would be morally abhorrent. For these reasons, Liberals promote not only free trade and globalization, but also international law to regulate or abolish maritime trade warfare, in which they usually receive strong support from the commercial sector. Their historical successes include the ban on privateering and the agreed immunity of neutral trade (1856 Declaration of Paris). Their attempts to prohibit the use of submarines and naval mines were less successful. 41 In so far as Liberals are concerned about military trade protection, they focus more on cooperatively protecting the globalized system and the conditions for trade against irregular threats, at sea and ashore. Maintaining good order at sea, or maritime security, is their primary concern, and not the defense of shipping against other naval powers. 42

Realism is the dominant theory within military strategic studies. Realists diametrically oppose the Liberal ideas of peace through trade and international law. Instead, their world view is based upon anarchy between states, in which hard power and self-help prevail, while deterrence and the balance of power are the best strategies to guarantee international security. They argue that trade increases the chances of war, as dependency on vital foreign goods such as oil creates the risk of being cut off from those goods in times of tension; therefore states have an incentive to secure these goods by war. 43 Moreover, as political scientist John Mearsheimer argues, states value security over economic prosperity. 44 However, at the same time, many Realists downplay the need for maritime trade protection by military or legal means. Basically, their arguments are twofold: 1) the vulnerability of shipping enhances deterrence; 2) if deterrence fails, the best defense is a good offense. While nuclear weapons command attention as the ultimate means of deterrence, deterring an opponent by threatening commercial shipping is still considered an effective strategy. China’s so-called Malacca dilemma, in which its leaders fear that an adversary will block its oil and gas transports through the Straits of Malacca illustrates the point. 45

This can work both ways, of course. The notion that nations today are unable to protect their own shipping due to the sheer size of merchant fleets, but can sink other nation’s shipping easily with modern weapons, leads to a peaceful balance of “mutually assured economic destruction”, in the words of an Australian author. 46 This term may sound mad, but in fact, the idea of deterring an opponent with the capture or destruction of shipping lies at the heart of naval strategic thinking. Both Mahan and Corbett strongly opposed the immunity of peaceful shipping in wartime, because they considered firstly that the ability to target commercial shipping was the best preventive of war and, secondly, that navies would lose their reason for existence if that mode of warfare would be abolished. Mahan warned against such abolishment:

Assure the nations and the commercial community that their financial interests will suffer no more than the additional tax for maintaining active hostilities; that the operations of maritime commerce, foreign and coastwise, will undergo no hindrance, and you will have removed one of the most efficient preventatives of war. 47

Similarly, Corbett argued that “interference with the flow of private property at sea” represented the “great deterrent, the most powerful check on war”. 48 Like Mahan, he warned:

If commerce and finance stand to lose by war, their influence for a peaceful solution will be great; and so long as the right of private capture at sea exists, they stand to lose in every maritime war immediately and inevitably whatever the ultimate result may be. Abolish the right, and this deterrent disappears; 48

Corbett further argued that naval warfare would be almost inconceivable without trade warfare. 48

The maxim “the best defense is a good offense” also appeals to Realist thinkers. Translated to the maritime domain, this philosophy results in a focus on offensive battle fleet action. By decisively attacking your opponents’ naval forces, the argument goes, you win command of the sea, which indirectly leads to the protection of your own trade and the obstruction of your opponent’s trade. This mindset, however, has led to a focus on expensive capital ships, rather than larger numbers of escort vessels, and a view that trade protection operations, such as convoying, are too defensive, tedious, and indecisive; as a result, the more direct approach to trade protection has suffered.

Admittedly, most Realists also maintain that there is a positive relationship between naval power and commercial maritime power: national merchant fleets represent national interests that require naval power for protection, be it by offensive or defensive means. Nowadays, however, assessing the national interest involved in the average merchant vessel is difficult since many fly a flag of convenience, have a multinational crew, are operated and owned by companies situated in different countries, and make port calls in multiple continents. Thus, modern merchant vessels are not only the drivers, but also the products and symbols of globalization, rather than symbols of national power and prestige. While national merchant fleets still exist, the globalization of merchant shipping has been undermining the Realist arguments, as British scholar Michael Pugh observed twenty-five years ago. 51

Constructivism, a third and relatively new school of IR theory, opposes Realist and Liberal assumptions about both anarchy in the first case and the international system in the second. Instead, constructivism focuses on the construction of those ideas, norms, and values which influence behavior between actors. 52 How a nation views itself and remembers its history has more impact on its relations with other nations than Realists or Liberals, with their universal so-called rational-actor models, dare to admit. Although this theory is more conceptual, the maritime domain offers an enlightening example of a cultural construct that many can relate to. It is the dichotomy between seapower states and land power states. The idea that a seapower state or “thalassocracy” is different from a land power in forms of government, foreign policy, and culture finds its roots in ancient Greece, where sea power Athens opposed land power Sparta. Succeeding seapower states in history include Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and England. According to Andrew Lambert, “seapower” is a constructed national identity, in which the sea is central to its culture, economic life, and security. Among other characteristics, a sea power depends on maritime commerce and uses naval power predominantly to protect maritime trade. 53 Accordingly, states that lose their sea power identity tend to neglect maritime trade protection.

This maritime identity is not a given; it has to be nurtured. Whatever the factual connection to the sea in terms of the volume of maritime trade or the length of the coastline, a “sea power identity” is predominantly the consequence of a mental connection with the sea. Many maritime strategists, although not constructivists per se, have recognized this. Mahan identified the national character and the character of the government as essential elements of sea power, with the tendency to trade being the most beneficial characteristic for the development of seapower. 54 Similarly, Admiral Herbert Richmond argued that the dependence on seaborne trade discerned a “natural Sea Power” from an artificially created seapower. A natural sea power develops bottom-up, as an “expression of a national spirit, of the genius, character, and activity of the people themselves”. 55 From a continental perspective, German Vice Admiral Wolfgang Wegener qualified a nation’s “strategic will” towards the sea as crucial for seapower. 56 James Holmes concurs that culture matters and “policy can reinforce culture and be reinforced by it.” According to Holmes, seapower is a virtuous cycle between commerce, diplomacy and naval power that needs to be maintained by a conscious political choice supported by society. 57 Currently, some scholars argue that China is consciously changing its identity into a seapower state. 58 Western states, on the other hand, seem to be losing their maritime identity. An indication of this is “sea blindness” – the inability of politicians and citizens to understand the maritime domain and recognize the dependency on the sea for welfare and security. 59

In sum, the leading IR theories produce contrasting explanations as to why maritime trade protection, especially direct naval protection against a state threat, is often neglected. These theories are not just disinterested descriptions of the real world, but can actively buttress political ideologies. 60 In the minds of decision-makers, they shape policy and justify, for instance, the reliance on international law to protect mercantile interests at sea on the one hand or “offensive” capital ships to do so indirectly on the other. To what extent though, can such different arguments be spotted in current debates about trade protection and, more importantly, do world developments justify them and the subsequent neglect of trade protection?


Around 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea in the form of raw materials, manufactured goods, food and energy. 61 Since 1945, the world’s oceans have been more or less secure for the flow of trade. In these peaceful circumstances, the volume of maritime trade has skyrocketed in tandem with new technology, globalization and the promotion of free trade. Suffering sea blindness, most Western citizens are unaware of their dependency on this maritime flow. The freedom of the seas is taken for granted and sometimes the need for navies is questioned. However, this globalized system of maritime trade is more fragile than often assumed, since it faces a variety of economic and military risks.

The modern shipping industry and international policies of free trade have made countries worldwide more interdependent. Many products, food, and energy travel in a just-in-time schedule from port to port. Quayside warehouses filled with goods are a thing of the past and many national strategic energy reserves are kept to a two-or-three-month minimum. 62   Strategic food stocks are practically non-existent; the head of UK’s Countryside Agency warned in 2007 that civilization is only nine meals – three days – “away from anarchy”. 63 Stockpiles seemed unnecessary either commercially or from a governmental perspective since they cost money and the world supply system had never seemed in real danger. Until COVID-19 struck the world.

Globalization after COVID-19: from just-in-time to just-in-case

The COVID-19 pandemic has painfully revealed the vulnerabilities of a globalized just-in-time economy. It disrupted global supply chains, reduced world trade volumes and ignited a debate on the question of whether economic globalization itself will now be slowed, halted, or even reversed. 64 Now, it was argued, dependency on foreign suppliers should be reduced and strategic stockpiles maintained, in case of future shocks. 65 The Financial Times argued that global business should replace its “just in time” strategy for a “just in case” business model. 66 While a comprehensive outline of this ongoing debate is beyond the scope of this article, some views are worth mentioning. Many economists and shipping companies are quite optimistic and do not believe in the end of globalization. Instead, they expect globalization to transform and companies to diversify their supply chains. 67 Some go on to argue that this will result in the need for smaller container vessels that are not dependent on mega ports. 68 Between the extremes of complete self-sufficiency or increased economic interdependence, a more nuanced view on globalization acknowledges both the benefits of mutual trade, and the need to ensure that essential goods can be obtained nationally or regionally. 69 Whatever the future of globalization will look like, it is safe to assume that maritime trade will continue to play a vital role in the world economy and that this trade needs protection, not only against the effects of a virus, but especially against the more likely threat of human violence.

Critics may argue that attacks on trade in the past did not cause serious economic disruptions and certainly not on the scale as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 1980s Tanker War, less than 2% of shipping was actually attacked and the oil price rose barely 1%. 70 Similarly, during the 2010 peak of Somali pirate attacks on shipping, less than 1% of all ships transiting the Gulf of Aden were attacked. 71 The attacks on two tankers in June 2019 near the Strait of Hormuz caused a spike in the oil price of 2%, while the drone attack on Saudi Aramco oil installations in September 2019 caused a spike of 10%, but even this which was not a serious threat to the world economy. 72 Moreover, the 2020 oil price collapse dwarfed these figures.

While these facts might cause complacency about the risks of trade warfare, there are two reasons for caution. First of all, small percentages can mask significant sums of hard currency due to the high volume of trade and secondary costs. The estimated cost of Somali piracy was 7-12 billion dollars in 2010, 73 while a 1% increase in the oil price represents a yearly loss of 24 billion dollars (2019 average price level). 74 From this perspective, at any rate, a low-cost attack with small boats or drones and explosives is quite effective as an asymmetrical method of warfare.

Anti-piracy operations: HNLMS Evertsen escorting a World Food Programme vessel near Somalia in 2008. (Collection: Netherlands Institute of Military History)

A second reason for caution is that these recent historical cases do not represent full-scale trade warfare between powerful states with modern means and methods. Drawing the wrong lessons from history and underestimating modern trade warfare capabilities has happened before, with tragic consequences. Before World War I, some strategic thinkers, including Corbett, maintained that the risks of trade war were negligible. They argued that historical cases did not give rise to concern and because British trade was so vast, an opponent could at most inflict only a few percent losses in trade volume. 75 Fred Jane, the founder of the famous Jane’s Fighting Ships, strongly disagreed and urged Britain to be prepared against a commerce war, because “it is probably extremely dangerous to under-estimate its danger […] Always it must be remembered that […] the real guerre de course has never been attempted.” 76 Unfortunately, he was right but his warnings were in vain. Historian Bryan Ranft harshly criticized Corbett’s mistake:

By playing down the threat of commerce war he encouraged the already dangerous tendency in the navy not to give its problems adequate consideration. By not following Mahan’s example in emphasizing the permanent tactical advantages of the convoy system he made himself party to the most costly miscalculation in British naval thinking ever made. 77

Corbett not only downplayed the usefulness of the convoy system, economist and historian Nicholas Lambert argues that he also failed to comprehend the modern globalized economic system of the early twentieth century and its vulnerability to shocks such as an attack on shipping. Corbett had based his maritime theory on the age of sail and downplayed the impact of modern developments such as the steamship, the railroad, the cable telegraph network, and the international credit market. This made Corbett’s assumptions on economic warfare utterly obsolete. 78

So, in order to fully understand the implications of a full-scale trade war in the globalized twenty-first century, it is better to look at both world wars rather than recent low-intensity conflicts. Some historians argue that even in the world wars, trade warfare was not decisive by itself in the outcome. 79 But even if that were true and a nation decided to renounce offensive trade warfare on that basis, it would still have to be prepared for defensive trade warfare, since an opponent might draw other conclusions on the effectiveness of a war against commerce.

Naval and merchant shipping developments

To provide security at sea, naval vessels are a primary asset. The trend for the past decades in numbers of warships compared to the size of merchant fleets both in tonnage and numbers is worrisome. The world’s fleet of ocean-going cargo-carrying vessels has grown from over 17,000 vessels in 1960 to over 46,000 vessels in 2019. 80 In particular, container shipping (introduced in the late 1960s) has grown exponentially in gross tonnage, from 10 million tonnes in 1980 to 266 million tonnes in 2019. 81 In contrast, Western navies have shrunk dramatically in numbers of vessels. 82 The US Navy for example, still the world’s most powerful navy, has shrunk from 909 vessels in the 1966, to 590 in 1990, down to 275 in 2016, although new plans should increase the fleet back to 355 vessels in 2034 (Figure 3). 83

Figure 3. US Navy fleet size compared to the world’s commercial fleet (1960-2010) 84

In 2005, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen acknowledged the challenge for the US to provide security at sea around the globe and called for the formation of a multilateral naval force, the 1000-ship navy. In his vision, like-minded nations would cooperate with the US to secure sea lanes against the threats of piracy, terrorism, illegal trade and human trafficking. 85 However, these threats require a policing role, while the protection of shipping in a trade war against a peer competitor requires much more and was not foreseen in 2005. Besides, it is far easier to mobilize nations against a hostis humani generis, an enemy of all humanity, such as piracy, than against a nation-state threat, as illustrated in 2020 by the reluctance of NATO allies to join the US in patrolling the Strait of Hormuz. 86

Moreover, other NATO countries have shown even a worse decline in naval escort ships compared to their merchant fleets. On paper, the UK has nineteen destroyers and frigates to protect its 513 ocean going cargo-carrying vessels, while the Netherlands has six frigates for its 646 cargo-carrying vessels and Belgium has two frigates for its 64 merchantmen. 87 Even though the capability per platform has increased with new technology, a warship can only be at one place at a time to provide security and not all warships are operationally available at the same time. On top of that, a narrow focus on national flagged shipping is old thinking. Besides shared interests in shipping of partners in coalitions such as NATO, from a flow security perspective, every ship entering a national port constitutes a vital interest that justifies protection, regardless of its flag. In this case, the Netherlands has a security interest in the 30,000 ships annually entering Rotterdam, while Belgium has its interest in the 15,000 ships entering Antwerp annually. 88, LINK; LINK; Port of Antwerp, Statistisch Jaarboek 2018 [annual statistical report 2018], LINK] The approaches to these ports and other vital waterways (such as the Strait of Hormuz) can easily be blocked with sea mines. Unfortunately, Western naval mine countermeasure forces have declined even more than naval escort forces. 89 Complicating things further, the average size and economic value of a merchant vessel has increased dramatically. Container vessels of 22,000 TEU 90 and supertankers of 300,000 tonnes are not uncommon. Insurance company Allianz estimates that the loss of such a megaship could cost up to two billion dollars. 91 To sum up, while the strategic stakes at sea have increased, the means to protect them have decreased.

Admittedly, there is no golden rule that stipulates the ideal portion of national income generated by maritime trade that should be reinvested in the Navy, neither is there a preferred ratio of warships relative to commercial ships, let alone a formula that takes into account the different naval capabilities and the various levels of national interest within shipping. However, two arguments underscore the intuitive assessment that current Western warship-merchant ship ratios are inadequate. First of all, the Realist argument holds that throughout history there has been a link between naval power and commercial shipping. The larger a commercial fleet grows, the higher the interests that need to be protected, the more a nation is inclined to expand its navy to protect these interests, as already outlined in Mahan’s quote earlier on the link between a navy and peaceful shipping. That the Chinese navy has expanded in the past decades in tandem with its commercial fleet underlines the point even in today’s globalized world. 92

A second argument why current Western naval strength is inadequate has to do with the nature of a maritime commerce war, which can be characterized as a conflict with a cumulative strategy, as opposed to a strategy that is sequential. 93 Historically, defending shipping in a maritime trade war is resource-intensive, and defensive assets are usually spread over wide areas for long time periods. The outcome of a trade war is not decided by short decisive fleet battles or sequentially planned maneuvers, but over time after numerous encounters between attackers, defenders and shipping. An opponent could well conduct maritime trade war as a kind of guerrilla war at sea, by covertly laying mines or hiding within the maritime environment and suddenly hitting shipping when an opportunity presents, perhaps by submarines or small craft hiding in local seaborne traffic. In this regard, a navy optimized for trade defense should invest in quantity over quality and defensive over offensive capabilities, producing a large number of affordable escort ships, mine countermeasure vessels, and long-range patrol aircraft.

However, Mahan would disagree with such reasoning; he argued that the best way to (indirectly) defend shipping is to neutralize an opponent’s fleet in a decisive battle. In some cases this might indeed be an effective strategy, but an opponent has to agree to give battle, as Corbett warned:

Nor is it more profitable to declare that the only sound way to protect your commerce is to destroy the enemy’s fleet […] What are you to do if the enemy refuses to permit you to destroy his fleets? You cannot leave your trade exposed […] the more you concentrate your force and efforts to secure the desired decision, the more you will expose your trade to sporadic attack. 94

Moreover, the paramount question is what a modern decisive battle would look like. Does it have to be a symmetric battle between fleets of capital ships such as aircraft carriers, could it be fought asymmetrically with submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, or could the battle fleet consist of “dual role” platforms that are very effective either when concentrated for battle, or dispersed for escort tasks? The answer to this question has strategic consequences for fleet composition and flexibility. At any rate, Western navies, with their current size, composition, and offensive capabilities such as amphibious ships and aircraft carriers, are better suited for short offensive maritime operations in the spirit of maneuver warfare than for protracted and dispersed defensive trade warfare operations. Therefore, Western navies would be wise to invest in more balanced fleets.

Escort ships and capital ships: HNLMS Philips van Almonde refuelling from USS Wisconsin during the Gulf War in 1990-1991. (Collection: Netherlands Institute of Military History)

Military sealift

The globalization of the shipping industry poses another problem for Western governments and their militaries: their nation’s merchant marine can no longer fulfil its traditional role as the “fourth arm of defense”. In both World Wars, the sacrifices made by allied merchant mariners, while maintaining the flow of men, military equipment, food and energy across the oceans, contributed just as much to allied victory as the sacrifices made by naval, army and air force personnel. Merchant shipping plays a vital role in providing military sealift, either sailing armed in convoy under naval control, or sailing unarmed and independently in a more benign maritime environment. Since the end of the Cold War, preparing the merchant fleet for this role has not been a priority for Western governments; not to mention the fact that due to globalization and flagging out, many Western merchant fleets are only a shell of their former selves. Further, 90% of world shipbuilding takes place in Asia and most Western countries no longer have the shipbuilding industry to sustain a war effort. 95 A large proportion of the ships that are still owned by Western companies sail under a “flag of convenience”. Moreover, even nationally flagged ships have crew members of different nationalities. It is questionable if foreigners will serve in harm’s way for a national cause if it conflicts with their own beliefs and loyalties. 96

On top of the effects of globalization on national sealift, a wartime role for national or allied merchant ships is problematic because the material, training and procedures to execute this role have dwindled. Stocks of gun armament and protective systems such as degaussing for merchant vessels were disposed of during the last decades of the Cold War. Training between naval and commercial shipping, such as sailing in convoy, is seldom practiced. In fact, at the turn of the century, the NATO doctrine of Naval Control of Shipping (NCS) was replaced, without much organizational or academic debate, by a more “loose” doctrine of Naval Coordination and Guidance of Shipping (NCAGS). The traditional direct naval control of shipping is now considered less likely and instead a more voluntarily relationship of information sharing between navies and merchant shipping is advocated. Recently, an American Merchant Marine captain warned that he is not ready to perform a wartime role with his ship, as he has never been trained for such circumstances. 97 Indeed, in the US, many professionals from the Navy as well as the Merchant Marine have raised the alarm bell about the lack of sealift capacity in times of conflict. 98 In contrast, China is maintaining a large merchant fleet of nationally crewed vessels, which are built according to technical standards for wartime use. 99 These ships enhance China’s expeditionary warfare capabilities and they regularly exercise with naval vessels while performing amphibious roles or Replenishment At Sea (RAS). 100

Critics might say that the above mentioned is outdated Total War thinking. Of course, questions can be asked if convoying, guns and degaussing systems are the right ways and means for twenty-first-century threats. In like manner, just before World War I, Corbett questioned the value of convoys, because he judged all conditions for their effective use had changed dramatically since the age of sail:

Modern developments and changes in shipping and naval material have indeed so profoundly modified the whole conditions of commerce protection, that there is no part of the strategy where historical deduction is more difficult or more liable to error. 101

The world wars that followed showed that Corbett’s skepticism of the convoy system was utterly unfounded, although they also showed he was right about the inherent difficulty of drawing the right trade defense lessons from history.

No matter how difficult it is to distill an adequate commerce protection strategy from history, a discussion about modern ways and means is fruitless as long as the “ends”, the need for maritime trade protection, have not been properly recognized. Moreover, secure sealift is not only a total war requirement. Expeditionary operations cannot start without sealift and it is questionable if the commercial market will provide it, especially for high-risk Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environments. During the Falklands campaign in 1982 for example, the British Task Force to recapture the islands sailed with more merchant ships than warships. A maritime historian and former merchant naval officer neatly summarized this contribution in his book title: They couldn’t have done it without us. 102 The merchant ships in the Falklands campaign were almost exclusively British flagged and crewed. Furthermore, the Cold War context of 1982 made these merchant ships, their crewmembers and the Royal Navy technically and doctrinally more prepared for this wartime role than nowadays is the case, which makes a repetition of such an operation today impossible. 103 A similar dependence on sealift was seen in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war, in which transport vessels contributed to the war effort with respectively 459 and 155 shiploads. 104

Threats to merchant shipping

Summing up the above analysis: the world’s merchant fleet has grown in size and is highly globalized; there are fewer warships to protect them and merchant ships in the West are unfit for a wartime role. So the stakes at sea are higher, the means to protect them lower. Perhaps that is acceptable when there is no clear and present danger? After the end of the Cold War, for many the “end of history” seemed to have arrived, with the prospect of democracy, free trade and prosperity for all. While local conflicts around the globe soon tempered these expectations, the maritime domain seemed to fulfill the Liberal promise of a peaceful world dominated by trade and international cooperation, as there were no serious threats to shipping, save for pirates and terrorists in specific areas. In the past decade, however, anxiety for conflicts in the maritime domain has increased due to the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, the continued bellicose stance of Iran and North Korea, and local conflicts as in Yemen that have spilled over to nearby shipping routes.

But would a modern nation-state, in case of conventional war, attack its opponents’ shipping? Due to globalization, there are few truly national fleets to target. 105 Almost every cargo ship represents interests of different nations: those of the flag, the owner, the crewmembers, the charterer, producers and consumers. Therefore, the Liberal argument goes, an attack on modern merchant shipping is an attack against the world community, and probably also against the aggressor’s own interests. 106 However, in war, belligerents calculate risk, costs and benefits and proceed accordingly, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. 107 Neither in the age of sail nor the Iran-Iraq Tanker War did crews of mixed nationalities safeguard merchantmen from foreign attack.

But what about capabilities and intentions today? Currently no country seems to openly prepare for a full scale trade war comparable to both World Wars, although Iran still occasionally harasses shipping, Russia has recently conducted naval exercises to demonstrate a capacity to disrupt NATO cross-Atlantic reinforcements and in USNI Proceedings two American authors advocated that the US should revert to privateering to attack Chinese global trade. 108 Nevertheless, history shows that pre-war opinions and capabilities can change in wartime. For example, before both World Wars the German navy did not openly advocate unrestricted submarine warfare, nor did it have enough submarines to execute it effectively, but all that changed during wartime. Similarly, the US immediately reversed its stance opposing both “belligerent rights” and unrestricted submarine warfare after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 109

Law, technology and trade warfare

Besides the unpredictable developments in international relations, there are two other factors that increase the risk of escalating maritime trade warfare: law and technology. The international laws regarding trade warfare are in essence still the rules of board and search from the age of sail. 110 Inspecting the cargo of a nineteenth century sailing vessel is not comparable to inspecting 20,000 containers on board a modern container vessel. Even the containership’s captain does not know the exact details of each container, so boarding teams are confronted with an impossible task. If international law does not fit the real world, there is a risk that it will be thrown overboard completely, with dire consequences, as researcher Steven Haines warned in an International Red Cross report on modern war at sea. 111

Secondly, technology creates new risks. Modern vessels are more dependent than ever before on onboard computer systems and electronic navigation systems, which are vulnerable to hacking, spoofing and jamming. This enables a new, low cost form of offensive cyber trade warfare. 112 Finally, in the near future, unmanned vessels will sail the seas. Without human beings on board, the moral threshold in attacking shipping will be lowered, if the aggressor even had such moral qualms in the first place. Sinking a ship could thus be regarded as just destroying property, a purely economic action, although with collateral environmental effects. All in all, due to an increased risk in state competition, developments in technology and outdated international law, the threat to maritime trade is increasing rather than decreasing in the near future. So, how should Western governments and their militaries respond?


Unfortunately, maritime trade protection is not just a naval problem that can easily be solved by reshuffling naval priorities or allocating more defense budget to the Navy. Although a better balance between naval and commercial vessels would improve the ability to protect trade, as previously argued, there is more that needs to be done. The fundamental problem of maritime trade protection is its multi-domain nature: it crosses academic, political, governmental, commercial and military boundaries, as will be further explained.

Arguably, there is not a single academic discipline, political ideology, government agency, shipping company or naval branch that by itself takes up trade protection as its core focus, nor has the ability to singlehandedly address it. A diffusion of responsibilities inhibits action: trade protection seems to be everyone’s problem but nobody’s job. At the academic level, maritime trade warfare crosses the fields of economics, history, strategy, political theory, international relations, international law, military operational sciences, to name but a few. At the level of international politics, opposing ideas from different IR theories, based on experience processed as history, drive policy decisions; Liberals tend to rely on international law and mutual interest to protect trade, while Realists prefer deterrence and offensive naval power.

At the level of national politics, trade protection requires aspects of both left and right-wing thinking. Right-wing parties usually prefer to spend more on defense than left-wing parties. Left-wing parties, on the other hand, are generally more favorable to state intervention in economic affairs. In times of crisis such intervention is crucial. For example, historian Martin Doughty demonstrates in his analysis of British inter-war planning how the idea of minimum state intervention hampered Britain’s preparedness to manage wartime logistics, including administering the merchant fleet. 113 Similarly, the COVID-19 crisis urged many governments to intervene much more in economic and public affairs. 114 In other words, resilience in trade defence requires not just a strong military, but also a strong civil government, capable of coordinating economic affairs in times of crisis.

Next, maritime trade protection is a dual responsibility for shipowners and governments, as ship owners and merchant crews can take precautionary measures by themselves to either prevent becoming a victim of violence at sea or reducing the impact when it happens. 115 Within most Western governments, various departments are involved in aspects of trade protection, such as the Ministries of Transport, Economics, Foreign Affairs and Defense. Within the Department of Defense, the Army is often more concerned about sealift issues than the Navy, as a lack of sealift impairs the army’s ability to fight land wars on overseas battlefields, while it doesn’t necessarily affect the Navy’s ability to fight sea battles or project power ashore. Moreover, even though many navies claim maritime trade protection as their core responsibility, there is no naval branch that culturally fosters this task. In this aspect, there is a striking analogy between counterinsurgency and maritime trade warfare, as noted by the Australian scholar and Rear-Admiral (ret.) James Goldrick:

The truth is that economic warfare at sea […] is an extraordinarily complicated subject and one which navies generally do not have a good record in considering, preparing for, or initially conducting. There may here be an analogy with counterinsurgency and the emotional and cultural problems which this aspect of warfare presents for armies—such as the tendency for counterinsurgency doctrine and training to be relegated to the bookshelf as soon as circumstances allow a return to more “conventional” areas of warfare. As with armies and counterinsurgency, in time of peace navies often don’t think enough about, don’t plan enough for, and don’t have sufficient mastery of the ins-and-outs of economic warfare at sea. Which are considerable. 116

Indeed, many in the military resist missions that diverge from their supposed primary goal of fighting and winning conventional wars. This is not only the case for counterinsurgency, but also for peacekeeping operations, as UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s famous “paradox” suggests: “Peacekeeping is not a soldier’s job, but only a soldier can do it.” 117 Framed similarly, maritime trade protection is culturally not a job that navies prefer to conduct, but the important distinction is that it should be one of their prime responsibilities.

As a case in point, RAND Corporation analyst Carl Builder concluded in 1989 that the US Navy has a cultural preference for power projection missions and aircraft carriers, because “sea lane protection called for a different and less interesting navy”. 118 He argued that it was not the threat that drove the US Navy’s concept of war and the required naval forces, but it was the other way around: the culturally desired forces (capital ships) drove the concept of war and, hence, the interpretation of the threat. 119 Likewise, World War II veteran Capt. USN (ret.) Roland Bowling concluded in his dissertation that, during the greater part of the twentieth century, the cultural legacy and selective reading of Mahan resulted in a preference for capital ships and decisive battles at the expense of the protection of shipping. 120

The reluctance to focus on trade protection might also be explained on the basis that it is too complicated to adequately prepare for or execute. However, the analogy with counterinsurgency can be instructive: Western militaries have painstakingly learned to address the challenges of counterinsurgency with a comprehensive approach. 121 Similarly, maritime trade defense requires a whole-of-government approach at the grand strategic level and specific doctrine, training and organizational focus for the military domain. Therefore, a model will be provided to better understand the dynamics of trade protection policy. Based on this model, a comprehensive strategy can be formulated. The military instrument of power is the most prominent instrument for maritime trade protection. Thus, specific steps for military improvement will be provided here.

Trade Protection Policy Model

To understand what drives or hinders a government in pursuing trade protection policy, what options are available, and how each component influences each other, a model is provided, which integrates previous arguments and observations (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Trade Protection Policy Model

Trade protection policy is influenced by two external factors, main drivers for policy, and two internal factors, which can inhibit action or push for a certain selection of trade protection measures. Each element will be looked at in turn.

Threat and Shipping

The external factors are: a threat and merchant shipping that requires protection. Without either, there is no need to formulate trade protection policy. However, it is difficult for a country to analyze these two factors objectively. How a government perceives a threat and, secondly, the national interest in shipping are, in practice, what count. This perception is influenced by culture and ideology, as will become clear later. The threat to shipping can range from low level piracy to high intensity interstate commerce warfare. The shipping factor is that part of international shipping that requires protection. A primary factor determining this part is the national interest, which can be defined according to flag, ownership, crew nationality or other factors. Furthermore, trade protection policy can be focused on, or legally limited to, ships operating within a certain area, such as a high risk area, the NATO treaty area or international waters. Finally, trade protection policy can be focused on certain types of shipping, such as military sealift or humanitarian aid transports. The type of threat also dictates what type of shipping is most vulnerable and requires protection. 122


Turning now to the internal factors that direct policy, the complexity of trade protection, as previously explained, can inhibit effective trade protection policy. Historically, a recurring issue of internal debate is caused by a diffusion of responsibilities. Who is responsible for trade protection, and who pays for protection measures, depends on the circumstances, such as the nature of the threat and the type of shipping involved. Complexity is further increased when policy has to be coordinated with allies, especially when a stronger and influential ally has a different view on trade protection measures. Furthermore, cultural differences between civil government, shipping companies and the military add to complexity. Finally, complexity is increased by the variety of trade protection measures. In sum, a complex whole-of-government approach is required, in close cooperation with the commercial sector, to reach agreement on the severity of the threat, the shipping that requires protection and the protective measures to be taken. 123

Culture and ideology

Culture and ideology are internal factors that influence trade protection policy in three principal ways: they act as a filter towards the threat and shipping factor, they increase the complexity factor and they create a bias towards preferred trade protection measures. Culture and ideology are related concepts and therefore grouped as a single factor. Culture is formed by historical experience, education, institutional or national norms and values. Ideology, which can be influenced by culture, is a theoretical framework, a compelling world view that shapes policy. Ideology, as shown by the previous discussion of Liberal and Realist perspectives, frames political questions about the relationship between trade and war, about state intervention in economic affairs, about international cooperation and self-interest.  Constructivism on the other hand regards culture and self-image as prime factors in explaining state behavior. In this light, sea blindness is a cultural phenomenon: the less a society feels connected to the maritime domain, the less it will devote to maritime trade protection. But even consciousness about maritime trade might not always be a blessing. A negative attitude in society against free trade and globalization, as increasingly witnessed in the West these days, could negatively influence the willingness to protect (international) maritime trade. As a further example of the cultural factor, a common cause of misperceiving an enemy is mirror-imaging, which derives from a cultural bias. 124 Another manifestation of the cultural factor is the preferred solution to a threat, in other words, the selection of trade protection measures. A strategic culture influenced by Realism might prefer offensive military action, while a more Liberal culture would be inclined to choose diplomatic action and cooperative defensive measures.

The effects of culture and ideology on trade protection policy can be seen in the international reaction to Somali piracy. While the factors “threat” and “shipping” were similar to Western, Indo-Pacific and other states, the choice of protection measures differed. While China, India, South-Korea, Japan and Russia primarily focused on national convoys with naval escorts in the Gulf of Aden, Western nations under EU or NATO flag chose zone protection throughout the Gulf of Aden, indirectly protecting all shipping regardless of nationality. Furthermore, while the Indo-Pacific states remained on the defensive within the main shipping lanes, Western nations soon took the initiative, searching for pirates in the wider Somali Basin, blocking pirate camps with amphibious assault ships near the Somali coast or even conducting special forces raids against pirate equipment ashore. 125 Furthermore, among all nations, differences emerged in the allowance of private armed guards on merchant ships, due to ideological differences within government and society regarding the monopoly on violence. In short, the formulation of trade protection policy and the choice of trade protection measures is not a straightforward rational process that fits the threat and the shipping that needs protection. It is also influenced by the conscious and unconscious effects of evolving culture and ideology.    

Trade protection measures

Trade protection measures can be grouped according to the four instruments of national power: the diplomatic, information, military and economic instruments (DIME). 126 The military instrument is the most prominent. Scholarly works on maritime strategy and military doctrines provide an overview of time-tested concepts such as convoying or attacking the source of the threat (Figure 5). To understand the fundamental differences and similarities between these concepts, Figure 6 offers an insightful visualization. The military methods of trade protection can be differentiated in two relative dimensions. First, the distinction between “maritime shipping oriented” and “enemy oriented” methods relates to the differences between indirect/defensive measures and direct/offensive measures. Second, methods can be “static” (geography oriented) or “dynamic”. This relates to the enduring debate as to whether trade defense means either defending actual ships or defending the notional concept of a sea lane, focal area or SLOC. 127 It also relates to the operational differences in detecting and defeating a moving enemy fleet at sea or attacking or isolating an enemy fleet fixed in port.

Geoffrey Till


Ian Speller

Understanding Naval Warfare

AJP 3.1

  • Indirect and general fleet cover
  • Indirect general cover at focal points and on patrolled sea lanes
  • Attacking bases
  • Direct defence: convoy and escort
  • Other means of defence
  • Cover
  • Distant and close escort
  • Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping
  • Convoying
  • Hunting groups and patrolled zones
  • Attack at source
  • Sea Control
  • Distant and Close Escort
  • Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping
  • Convoying

Figure 5. Military measures to protect trade according to literature and doctrine

Figure 6. Military measures to protect trade differentiated in two relative dimensions: merchant shipping oriented versus enemy oriented and dynamic versus static.

Examples of using the other three instruments of national power for trade defense are as follows. A diplomatic measure might be promoting the reflagging of ships to a neutral flag or to a flag of a state with a strong navy, as well as upholding international law and instituting sanctions against lawbreakers. An example of the information instrument would be the use of intelligence to identify and mitigate threats, or the use of counter-narratives against state or non-state opponents. 128 Information can also be directed towards the domestic population to increase a nation’s sea-mindedness. Finally, economic measures can reduce vulnerability from a flow security perspective. Examples are fiscal stimulation for the national maritime sector, to maintain a pool of ships, crews and shipyards, which can secure national needs in times of conflict. 129 Next to protecting the maritime flow, (temporary) economic alternatives to maritime trade could be considered, such as strategic stocks, rationing, air and land transport, energy diversity and increasing output from domestic resources.

While trade protection measures should normally be the outcome of the policy formulation process, sometimes an instrument of national power can also be a push factor and influence the policy formulation process (hence the dashed upward arrow in the model, see Figure 4). For example, when a sudden threat to shipping arises, the current national toolbox limits the available options, while the Navy might press for the use of its assets as the solution to the problem. Furthermore, the selected measures influence the driving factors “threat” and “shipping”, as an opponent may change tactics in response, or a national shipping company might reflag its ships to a country that provides better protection (hence the dashed arrow between measures and threat/shipping).

Maritime trade protection questions

To formulate an effective trade protection policy, a comprehensive approach is required. Based on the Trade Protection Model, five questions should therefore be answered (Figure 7). 130, Militaire Spectator, 189.3 (2020), 126-143. The article argues that the first four questions repeatedly troubled Dutch policymakers when formulating trade protection policy during the Cold War (1949-1989) and during the peak of Somali piracy (2007-2013).]

Figure 7. Trade Protection Questions.

These apparently simple questions are seldom asked, let alone answered. The complexity factor is addressed by the first question which should be: who is responsible? 131 The responsibility for protecting merchant vessels could lie with the government, the shipping companies, or both. This also determines who pays for protective measures. For the government, the response could be a legal obligation or a political choice. Within the government, several bodies can be involved in maritime trade protection or the wider question of flow security. At an international level, cooperation can be required with allies and international organizations. This all adds up to challenging inter- and intra-governmental coordination.

The second question is: who should be protected? This addresses the shipping factor. The answer can be clear or ambiguous, based on factors such as nationality (of ship owner, crew or flag state), type of vessel (e.g., only with military cargo or all civilian shipping) or location (e.g., on the high seas, in port, or within a treaty area or a declared high-risk area).

The third question deals with the threat factor: against who or what is protection needed? 132 The nature of the threat determines which shipping is most vulnerable and which protection measures are most effective. Therefore, the third question links the second and fourth questions. The threat could originate from a state or a non-state actor, which results in different offensive ways and means. While there are obvious differences between the threat of a nuclear attack submarine and a pirate skiff, the possible trade protection measures can be, on a conceptual level, similar (Figures 5 and 6).

The fourth question is the most controversial one: what is the best method of protection? Geoffrey Till qualifies this question as “the most contentious of all issues of maritime strategy, not least because there was, and is, no single solution to the problem, and few simple answers.” 133 While works on maritime strategy and maritime doctrines provide possible military solutions, a wider lens should be used involving all instruments of power, as indicated in the Trade Protection Policy Model. Although this rather complicates than simplifies answering the question, a comprehensive strategy requires such broad analysis.

Finally, the fifth question acts as a self-reflection method to overcome a cultural or ideological bias. If other countries are facing a similar threat, but react with very different protection measures, then this could indicate that such a bias is overshadowing more effective measures.

Are current military ways and means adequate?

Are the traditional ways and means of naval warfare adequate to address the threat to shipping? From a Realist naval perspective, establishing command of the sea by defeating the maritime opponent in battle seems a logical method to eliminate any threat to merchant shipping. Such an offensive strategy might work against a symmetric opponent seeking decisive battle, but it is futile against a conventional enemy choosing a sea denial strategy, or against an unconventional opponent blending in local maritime traffic, or if a neutral stance is required in a local conflict. In these cases, sea control is required in the vicinity of merchant shipping, which could be practically everywhere. This is an impossible task for even the largest navy in the world, given today’s numbers of merchant ships and naval assets. Even so, a critic might argue that against threats such as submarines, small boats, mines and aircraft, current naval ways (doctrine) and means (platforms) are adequate, provided that sufficient numbers are available and the threat is confined to a limited area.

Certainly, platforms such as frigates, minehunters, patrol aircraft and submarines are important means to defend shipping. However, most current tactics and exercises focus on a unit’s self-defense or on the protection of a single, military, high-value unit such as an aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship. Defending dozens of large merchant ships like tankers and container vessels in a confined convoy or extended sea lane is a completely different situation. And that is only the naval side of the story. Even with adequate naval doctrine and training, most merchant ships lack sufficient manning, training, secure communications and flexible engine configurations to sail in close quarter convoys for an extended period. Moreover, merchant mariners have a different mindset. Where a navy sails in harm’s way for a political goal, merchants sail for economic gain, while avoiding danger when feasible. Peacetime training should be used to understand these cultural differences and establish the mutual trust needed to prevail in times of conflict.

Recognizing trade warfare as a distinct warfare area

Maritime trade warfare should be appreciated as a distinct part of naval warfare, like amphibious warfare. Both forms of warfare cross boundaries and are more than the sum of their parts (including Anti-Air Warfare, Anti-Submarine Warfare, Anti-Surface Warfare and Mine Countermeasures). They require understanding and coordination between different stakeholders, specific doctrine and organizational standing. While amphibious warfare crosses the physical, cultural and doctrinal border between land and water, trade warfare crosses a similar border between military and civilian shipping. In many Western militaries, a Marine Corps is responsible for amphibious doctrine, training, the bureaucratic struggle for dedicated resources and fostering a distinctive culture that attracts motivated and skilled personnel. Likewise, trade warfare needs its own warriors, component command, doctrine and resources. 134

To improve operational effectiveness and organizational standing, a Joint Force Maritime Trade Component (JFMTC) should be established within Western military organizations. 135 The primary aim of this organization would be to enhance command and control in directing multi-national joint forces, other governmental agencies and commercial actors for maritime trade protection. Though not a new idea, time is pressing to bring it to fruition. 136 The new component command should synthesize a mix of military and civilian professionals from different warfare areas (maritime, air, cyber), from different academic disciplines (strategy, policy, economics, law, history) and from different entities (government, shipping industry). The JFMTC should take the lead in formulating new trade warfare doctrine and practicing the doctrine in training. This new doctrine should build on trade warfare lessons from the past and table top exercises of future conflicts. Also, a much wider trade warfare lens should be used than, for example, in current NCAGS doctrine. It should also encompass experiences in Maritime Interdiction Operations and Counter-Piracy operations. Furthermore, the attack on shipping needs to be studied, and even be practiced in exercises, to be able to develop effective counter-tactics and strategies. Trade protection does not exist in isolation: it is a reaction to the prospects of attack. Ignoring the offensive aspects of trade warfare, especially the impact of current and future technology, is a recipe for failing trade protection when push comes to shove.


The English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh wrote: “Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade. Whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” 137 While Western ability to command the trade has dwindled, the secure flow of trade is still paramount for a free and prospering world in twenty-first century. This article has explored the causes of the Western neglect of maritime trade protection and shown that the trends in globalization, the shipping industry and navies do not justify this neglect. In fact, in the current, globalized world, the inability to protect maritime trade, a traditional core mission of almost every ocean-going navy, creates serious strategic risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the critical vulnerabilities of a globalized, just-in-time economy, as supply and demand shocks caused global panic and most likely set the stage for a severe economic depression. Maritime trade forms the vital link between supply and demand. Commercial shipping is not only the driver of worldwide prosperity, but also a prerequisite for many military operations by providing sealift. While merchant fleets have grown in size, Western naval fleets have diminished in hull numbers, thus weakening their ability to provide protection across the wide ocean commons. At the same time, the return of geostrategic state competition, new technology and outdated international law form a recipe for a potentially disastrous maritime trade war.

It appears that the causes of Western neglect of the protection of shipping run far deeper than the apparent end of the Cold War and the consequent demise of the Soviet threat to shipping. The neglect of formulating an effective trade protection policy can not only be explained by the misperception of potential threats and the indifference to the strategic importance of commercial shipping; its causes are also rooted in culture, ideology and the sheer complexity of the issue. Many civil and military actors, each with their own cultural and ideological biases, are involved in developing and executing trade protection policy. It seems to be everyone’s problem, but nobody’s job, although it should be a core responsibility for navies. IR theory further explains the different views on trade protection. While Liberals prefer international law and economic benefits to direct behavior of other states, Realists prefer deterrence and offensive naval means. History shows that multiple trade protection measures are usually needed, both offensive and defensive. Furthermore, Constructivism suggests that Western states should foster their seapower identity and address current sea blindness within their societies. Hopefully the theoretical Trade Protection Policy Model explains the dynamics that drive and shape the process of formulating trade protection policy. The five questions derived from it offer a concrete, step-by-step method to develop a comprehensive trade protection strategy, involving all instruments of power. Furthermore, for the military domain, a Joint Force Maritime Trade Component should be established to take up the responsibility of trade warfare issues. It’s time to stop neglecting maritime trade protection and relearn the lessons that in past conflicts were provided at heavy cost in lives and resources.

Biographical note

Lieutenant Commander W.M. (Matthijs) Ooms is a surface warfare officer in the Royal Netherlands Navy. Currently he is conducting PhD research on maritime trade protection policy in the Netherlands after 1945. He has served in a variety of billets at sea and on operational staffs, including EU anti-piracy operation Atalanta, and has been teaching naval warfare tactics and maritime strategy. He is a graduate of the Netherlands Defence Academy and holds a master’s degree (cum laude) in military history at the University of Amsterdam and a master’s degree (cum laude) in international relations and diplomacy at the University of Antwerp.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. The author wishes to thank prof. Geoffrey Till for his support and editorial advice. Special thanks also go to dr. Anselm van der Peet, dr. Amelie Theussen, dr. Allard Wagemaker, dr. Jaap Anten,  prof. Frans Osinga and prof. Wim Klinkert for their helpful comments on previous versions of this article.
  2. Western nations are defined here as NATO and EU member states, Australia and New Zealand.
  3. The predecessor of the current Dutch navy was founded in 1488, primarily to protect Dutch trade. Likewise, the foundations of the US Navy can be found in the Continental Navy, established in 1775 to protect vital trade against foreign warships and privateers. “The Birth of the Navy of the United States”, Naval History and Heritage Command, LINK.
  4. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, 12th edition (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1890), 26.
  5. For a recent publication on this subject, see: Bleddyn E. Bowen, “Neither a Silver Bullet nor a Distraction: Economic Warfare in Sea-Power Theory,” in David Morgan-Owen and Louis Halewood (eds.), Economic Warfare and the Sea: Grand Strategies for Maritime Powers, 1600-1945 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020).
  6. John Charles Ready Colomb, The Protection of Our Commerce and Distribution of Our Naval Forces Considered (Harrison, 1867).
  7. Philip Howard Colomb, “Convoys: Are They Any Longer Possible?,” Royal United Services Institution Journal 31, no. 139 (1887): 323.
  8. Arne Røksund, The Jeune Ecole: The Strategy of the Weak (Brill, 2007).
  9. Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Classics of Sea Power (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 261-79.
  10. KGB Dewar, “Influence of Oversea Commerce on the Operations of War – Gold Medal (Naval) Prize Essay for 1912,” Royal United Services Institution Journal 57, no. 422 (1913).
  11. Dewar, “Influence”, 455.
  12. Sir Herbert W. Richmond, Sea Power in the Modern World (London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1934), 236-37.
  13. Raoul Castex (ed.), Strategic Theories, First Naval Institute Press paperback edition (Annapolis, Maryland.: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 357-63.
  14. Bernard Brodie (ed.), A Guide to Naval Strategy, 3rd edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1944), 5.
  15. For example, see: Ministerie van Defensie, Houvast in een onzekere wereld, Lijnen van ontwikkeling in het meerjarig perspectief voor een duurzaam gerede en snel inzetbare krijgsmacht [Netherlands Defence White Paper 2017
  16. For example, the suicide attack on the oil tanker MV Limburg in 2002, and attacks on military shipping with remote-controlled drone craft and anti-ship missiles by Iranian sponsored Houthi’s. Jeremy Vaughan and Simon Henderson, ‘Bab al-Mandab Shipping Chokepoint Under Threat’, The Washington Institute, 1 March 2017, LINK.
  17. On 13 June 2019, the oil tankers Kokuka Courageous and Front Altair were attacked, allegedly by Iran. The oil price surged 2%. Collin Eaton, “Oil prices rise 2% after tanker attacks near Iran”, Reuters, 13 June 2019, LINK.
  18. See for example M. Nordenman, New Battle for the Atlantic: Emerging Naval Competition with Russia in the Far North (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2019); Toshi Yoshihara and James R Holmes, Red Star over the Pacific, Second Edition: China’s Rise and the Challenge to Us Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018); Bradford Dismukes, “The Return of Great-Power Competition—Cold War Lessons About Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Defense of Sea Lines of Communication,” Naval War College Review 73, no. 3 (2020).
  19. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2018), 245.
  20. US Navy, “Naval Doctrine Publication 1 Naval Warfare,” (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2020). Remarkably, the terms “maritime security operations (MSO)”, “interdiction” and “visit, board, search, and  seizure (VBSS)” are deleted from the glossary, compared to the 2010 edition.
  21. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing Withintegrated All-Domain Naval Power,” (Washington D.C.2020).
  22. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Drills Atlantic Convoy Ops for First Time Since Cold War in Defender-Europe 20”, USNI News, 28 February 2020, LINK; Christopher Woody, “For the first time since the Cold War, the Navy is practicing to lead a convoy across the Atlantic”, Business Insider, 29 February 2020, LINK.
  23. Ian Speller (ed.), Understanding Naval Warfare, Second edition (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018), 126.
  24. “Naval Warfare,” in David Jordan, et al (eds.), Understanding Modern Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 176.
  25. Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018), 328-29.
  26. Martin N. Murphy, “Triple Barrels: The Economic, Financial and Maritime Warfare Nexus in the Twenty-First Century,” RUSI Journal 160, no. 2 (2015).
  27. Milan Vego, “Trade Protection: The Navy’s Doctrine for Defending Vital Commercial Shipping Assets Fall Short,” Armed Forces Journal 43 (2008): 43; Milan Vero, Maritime Strategy and Sea Denial: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2018), 219.
  28. Paulette R Neshiem, “Protection of Merchant Shipping,” (thesis, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, 1990); Michael C Grubb, “Protection of Shipping: A Forgotten Mission with Many New Challenges,” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2006); Craig D Upton, “Lessons Lost: The Protection of American Merchant Shipping in Future Conflicts” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2010); Michael H Toth, “Maritime Trade Warfare in the 21st Century” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2011); Shane T Marchesi, “Maritime Trade Defense: Establishing the Joint Force Maritime Trade Component Commander” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2012); Jeffrey McGrady, “Maritime Shipping Protection: A Vital Mission Still Neglected and Underprepared to Execute by the United States” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2012); James B Howell, “Modern Maritime Trade Warfare” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2013); Christopher J.  McMahon, “Maritime Trade Warfare: A Strategy for the Twenty-First Century?,” Naval War College Review 70, no. 3 (2017).
  29. David Alman, “Convoy Escort: The Navy’s Forgotten (Purpose) Mission,”  (2020), LINK.
  30. James R. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 78; Yoshihara and Holmes, Red Star over the Pacific, Second Edition: China’s Rise and the Challenge to Us Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 171.
  31. This definition does not specify the aim of the attack on shipping, which could be to sink a ship, to hijack the ship/crew/cargo for ransom, to use the ship for smuggling or to use it as weapon against infrastructure or other ships, for example, see: Andrew  Forbes, “The Roles of Maritime Forces in Protecting Energy Flows ” Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs, no. 30 (2010): 98-99.
  32. Although in the literature “trade warfare” usually refers only to its offensive side, i.e. the attack on shipping, this author favors a neutral term, covering both offensive and defensive strategies related to maritime trade, analogue to concepts such as “maritime warfare” and “air warfare”.
  33. Another term is “attack on the sea lines of communication” or “anti-SLOC”, although this term is misleading as the attacks are not executed against imaginary lines but against actual shipping. Milan Vego favors the term “destroying the enemy’s military-economic potential at sea”, as the term “maritime trade warfare” is not entirely accurate because in wartime, most merchant ships would carry military cargo or support a war economy and not conduct traditional trade. Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Denial: Theory and Practice, 218-19.
  34. Arne Røksund, The Jeune Ecole: The Strategy of the Weak (Boston: Brill, 2007); Bruce A Elleman and Sarah CM Paine, Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805-2005, Vol. 34 (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006); Lance E Davis and Stanley L Engerman, Naval Blockades in Peace and War: An Economic History since 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Stephen Cobb, Preparing for Blockade 1885-1914: Naval Contingency for Economic Warfare (London: Routledge, 2016); Bruce A Elleman and SC Paine, Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009, Vol. 40, Newport Papers (Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College, 2013); Nicholas Tracy, Attack on Maritime Trade (New York: Springer, 1991).
  35. Till, Seapower, 245.
  36. Elleman and Paine, Commerce Raiding, 40, 282.
  37. Tim  Sweijs et al., “Flow Security and Dutch Defense and Security Policies,” (Den Haag: The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 2018); although not using the term flow security, Rubel’s flow description captures the same idea: Robert C Rubel, “Navies and Economic Prosperity–the New Logic of Sea Power,” Corbett Paper, no. 11 (2012): 8-9; Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, “Veiligheid in Een Wereld Van Verbindingen: Een Strategische Visie Op Het Defensiebeleid,” (Den Haag 2017), 33-34, 67-77.
  38. Till, Seapower, 232-36.
  39. The argument of Commercial Liberalism, based on the ideas of free trade as formulated by David Ricardo around 1815, was made popular in the 1850s by Richard Cobden, followed by Norman Angell prior to both World Wars. Dale C. Copeland,  “Economic Interdependence and War.” In: Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis (eds.), International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, 13th edition (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2016), 299-307.
  40. Rubel, “Navies and Economic Prosperity–the New Logic of Sea Power.”
  41. Steven Haines, “1907 Hague Convention Viii Relative to the Laying of Automatic Submarine Contact Mines,” International Law Studies 90, no. 1 (2014): 420; Steven  Haines, “War at Sea: Nineteenth-Century Laws for Twenty-First Century Wars?,” International Review of the Red Cross 98, no. 902 (2016).
  42. Till, Seapower, 49-50; 246-47; Basil Germond, The Maritime Dimension of European Security: Seapower and the European Union (New York: Springer, 2015), 8-10.
  43. Dale C. Copeland,  “Economic Interdependence and War.” In: Art and Jervis (eds.), International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, 299-307.
  44. John J. Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?” The National Interest, 25 October 2014, LINK.
  45. Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray, “No Oil for the Lamps of China,” Naval War College Review 61, no. 2 (2008); Marc Lanteigne, “China’s Maritime Security and the “Malacca Dilemma”,” Asian Security 4, no. 2 (2008); Thomas X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Military Strategy Magazine (2012).
  46. Aidan Morrison, ‘Protecting trade through deterrence’, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 13 May 2015, LINK.
  47. Letter to the Editor of New York Times, 15 Nov. 1898, in Robert Seager II and Doris D. Maguire (eds.) Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1975), ii. 611. As cited in: Lukas Milevski (ed.), The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought, First edition (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2016), 34-35.
  48. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 99.
  49. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 99.
  50. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 99.
  51. Michael  Pugh, “Is Mahan Still Alive? State Naval Power in the International System,” Journal of Conflict Studies 16, no. 2 (1996).
  52. Art and Jervis, International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, 379.
  53. Lambert, Seapower States, 4-7; 330-31. For constructivism, seapower and maritime strategic culture, see also: Germond, The Maritime Dimension of European Security: Seapower and the European Union, 22.
  54. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, 58-89.
  55. Richmond, Sea Power in the Modern World, 17.
  56. Wolfgang Wegener, The Naval Strategy of the World War, Classics of Sea Power (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 95-117; Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, 44-45; 91-92.
  57. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, 45 (quotation), 51, 92, 144.
  58. Jun J. Nohara, “Sea Power as a Dominant Paradigm: The Rise of China’s New Strategic Identity,” The Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies, 6, no. 2 (2017): 5-6; Yoshihara and Holmes, Red Star over the Pacific, Second Edition: China’s Rise and the Challenge to Us Maritime Strategy, 171; Rex Li, “China’s Sea Power Aspirations and Strategic Behaviour in the South China Sea from the Theoretical Perspective of Identity Construction,” Power politics in Asia’s contested waters: territorial disputes in the South China Sea (2016); Daniel Rocha E. Silva, “The Role of Sea Power in China’s Rise: Is Maritime Conflict Inevitable?,” Análise Social 50, no. 217 (2015): 713-14. Andrew Lambert disagrees and argues that neither the US nor China are true seapower states according to his definition and he remarks that “neither sees the defence of oceanic trade as a core mission.” Lambert, Seapower States, 313.
  59. Germond, The Maritime Dimension of European Security: Seapower and the European Union, 62; Speller, Understanding Naval Warfare, 8; Till, Seapower, 342, 404, 13; Elisabeth Braw, “The Risks of Failing to See the Sea,” The Wall Street Journal (2018); Seth Cropsey, Seablindness – How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It (New York: Encounter Books, 2017). Jasper Gerard, “Ministers accused of ‘sea blindness’ by Britain’s most senior Royal Navy figure”, The Telegraph, 12 June 2009.
  60. Stephen M. Walt, “The Relationship between Theory and Policy in International Relations,” Annual Review of  Political  Science,  8 (2005); Steve Smith, “Singing Our World into Existence: International Relations Theory and September 11,” International Studies Quarterly 48, no. 3 (2004).
  61. International Chamber of Shipping, “Shipping and World Trade”, LINK.
  62. EU countries must maintain emergency stocks of crude oil and/or petroleum products equal to at least ninety days of net imports or sixty-one days of consumption, European Commission, “EU oil stocks”, LINK.
  63. Evan D. G. Fraser, Alexander Legwegoh, and K. C. Krishna, “Food Stocks and Grain Reserves: Evaluating Whether Storing Food Creates Resilient Food Systems,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 5, no. 3 (2015): 446. However, some authors challenge the widespread notion that worldwide food reserves are shrinking: Francesco Laio, Luca Ridolfi, and Paolo  D’Odorico, “The Past and Future of Food Stocks,” Environmental Research Letters 11, no. 3 (2016).
  64. “COVID-19: Potential Implications for International Security Environment— Overview of Issues and Further Reading for Congress”, Congressional Research Service Report,  4 May 2020, LINK, 4.
  65. For example, see: Willy Shih, “Is It Time to Rethink Globalized Supply Chains?” MIT Sloan Management Review, 19 March 2020, LINK; “Chaguan: Globalisation under quarantine”, The Economist; London, Vol. 434, Iss. 9183, (Feb 29, 2020), 50. 
  66. “Companies should shift from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case,’” Editorial Board of Financial Times, 22 April 2020, LINK.
  67. Richard Fontaine, “Globalization Will Look Very Different After the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, 17 April 2020; Zachary Karabell, “Will the Coronavirus Bring the End of Globalization? Don’t Count on It.” The Wall Street Journal, 20 March 2020, LINK; Costas Paris, “Coronavirus Slows but Won’t Halt Shipping’s Focus on Global Trade”, The Wall Street Journal, 1 May 2020, LINK.
  68. Bill Mongelluzzo, “COVID-19 changes big ship, Asia focus for US ports”, Journal of Commerce, 22 April 2020, LINK.
  69. Anthea Roberts, “How Globalization Came to the Brink of Collapse”, Barron’s, 2 April 2020, LINK
  70. Geoffrey Till, “A Changing Focus for the Protection of Shipping,” Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs The Strategic Importance of Seaborne Trade and Shipping, no. 10 (2002): 14.
  71. Douglas Guilfoyle, Modern Piracy : Legal Challenges and Responses (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013), 44; Jacob E. Nelson, Ocean Piracy (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2010), 7; Bibi van Ginkel, Frans-Paul van der Putten, and Clingendael Nederlands Instituut voor Internationale Betrekkingen, The International Response to Somali Piracy: Challenges and Opportunities (Leiden, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2010), 115.
  72. Jeff Cox, “The spike in oil prices will have to get a lot worse before it wrecks the economy”, CNBC, 16 September 2019, LINK; Varsha Koduvayur, “The Saudi oil attacks won’t devastate the global economy. Here’s what could.” CNN Business, 20 September 2019, LINK.
  73. Anna Bowden, The Economic Costs of Maritime Piracy (One Earth Future Foundation, 2010).
  74. The average daily demand for oil was 100.3 million barrels per day in 2019, while the average oil price was 63.83 dollars per barrel. One percent per year adds up to 24.4 billion dollars per year. To put things in a military perspective, this equals twice the total defense budget of the Netherlands in 2019. “Daily demand for crude oil worldwide from 2006 to 2020”, Statista, LINK; “Average annual OPEC crude oil price from 1960 to 2019” Statista, LINK; North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, “Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2012-2019)”, LINK.
  75. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 275-76.
  76. Fred T. Jane, Heresies of Sea Power (New York: Longmans, Green and Co, 1906), 161.
  77. Quoted by Eric Grove in: Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, XXXIV.
  78. Nicholas A Lambert, “False Prophet? The Maritime Theory of Julian Corbett and Professional Military Education,” The Journal of Military History 77 (2013): 1070-75; Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Harvard University Press, 2014), 270-72. See also: Matthew Suarez, “Going to War with China? Ignore Corbett. Dust Off Mahan! ” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 12 (2020).
  79. Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Denial: Theory and Practice (Milton: Routledge, 2019), 8; Tracy, Attack on Maritime Trade, 235. Elleman and Paine, Commerce Raiding, 40, 271-74.
  80. Oceangoing self-propelled, cargo-carrying vessels of 1,000 Gross Tons and Above, US Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Number and Size of the U.S. Flag Merchant Fleet and Its Share of the World Fleet”, LINK; UNCTAD, “Merchant fleet by flag of registration and by type of ship, annual”, UNCTADstat, Measure: “number of ships”, LINK.
  81. UNCTAD, “Merchant fleet by flag of registration and by type of ship, annual”, UNCTADstat, Measure: “Dead weight tons in thousands”, LINK.
  82. This happened significantly in the past thirty years, following the end of the Cold War. In the same period, the Chinese navy has grown in tandem with its expanding merchant fleet. For case studies on the decline of Europe’s naval forces, see: Jeremy Stöhs, The Decline of European Naval Forces : Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018).
  83. “US Ship Force Levels, 1886 to Present,” Naval History and Heritage Command, LINK; Chief of Naval Operations, “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020,” March 2019, LINK.
  84. Andrew Davies, ‘Graph of the week – why (fleet) size matters’, LINK.
  85. Dan Uhls, “Realizing the 1000-Ship Navy,” (Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College, 2006).
  86. Leonid Bershidsky, “The Hormuz Crisis Shows U.S. Alliances Are Weak”,  Bloomberg, 31 July 2019, LINK.
  87. Oceangoing self-propelled, cargo-carrying vessels of 1,000 Gross Tons and Above, year of measurement 2019. Reality is even worse, as many warships are not operational due to maintenance or manning issues. Furthermore, some are dedicated to escorting high value naval ships, such as the new Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth class carriers, and are therefore unable to escort merchantmen. Furthermore, only merchant vessels under a national flag are counted here. If ships under national ownership are added (but under a flag of convenience), the numbers more than double. UNCTAD, “Merchant fleet by flag of registration and by type of ship, annual”, UNCTADstat, Measure: “number of ships”, LINK; the Royal Navy, LINK; Royal Netherlands Navy, LINK; Belgian Navy, LINK; Simon Williams, “Learning from History: British Global Trade and the Royal Navy,” 26 August 2013, LINK.
  88. Port of Rotterdam, Jaarverslag 2018 [annual report 2018
  89. The Dutch mine countermeasure (MCM) fleet, for example, has shrunk from over sixty vessels in the 1950s, to twenty-six in 1991, down to six in 2020. The US Navy has neglected MCM for years and maintains only eleven aging platforms. Jaime Karremann, “Koninklijke Marine in cijfers 1945 – 2018”, LINK; Ryan Hilger, “The Navy Needs Agile Mine Warfare”, US Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2019; Kyle Mizokami, “The U.S. Navy’s Minesweeper Fleet Is in Bad Shape”, Popular Mechanics, 6 August 2019, LINK.
  90. Twenty-foot equivalent unit, a measure used for capacity in container transportation.
  91. Greg Dobie, “‘Mega Ships’ Make Waves,” (Allianz, 2015); “Megaships”, Allianz, LINK.
  92. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), ‘How is China modernizing its navy?’, LINK; Cambiaso Risso Group,  ‘China-owned ships: fleet expansion accelerates’, LINK.
  93. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, 135-36; J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, Classics of Sea Power (Annapolis, Maryland.: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 22-27; Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting Jc Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 2 (2012); US Navy, “Naval Doctrine Publication 1 Naval Warfare,” 59.
  94. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 160.
  95. UNCTAD, “Building, ownership, registration and scrapping of ships, 2018”, LINK.
  96. In a Dutch professional naval journal, a discussion was raised about the loyalty of Russian captains on Dutch merchant vessels in times of conflict with Russia and the Dutch legal position in such a case. Peter van der Kruit, “Russen, Koopvaardij En Koninklijke Marine,” Marineblad 128, no. 6 (2018). In the US sealift operation during Desert Shield/Storm (1990-1991), thirteen times a foreign crew objected to sailing into the Persian Gulf.  Douglas R Kramer, “The Use of Foreign-Flagged or Foreign-Owned Shipping in US Military Sealift: Risks for the Combatant Commander” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2008), 13; Keith E Dominic, “Foreign Flag Shipping: A Weakness in the Sealift Trident” (thesis, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island), 2009), 11.
  97. John Konrad, “Admiral, I Am Not Ready for War,” Gcaptain  (2019).
  98. Upton, “Lessons Lost: The Protection of American Merchant Shipping in Future Conflicts.”; Patrick Bratton and Carl Schuster, “Sea Strangulation: How the United States Has Become Vulnerable to Chinese Maritime Coercion,” (Hawaii Pacific University, 2015); Christopher J. McMahon, “The US Merchant Marine: Back to the Future?,” Naval War College Review 69, no. 1 (2016); Tim Johnson, “The US Merchant Marine Fleet Is Dying — and It May Hurt America’s Ability to Wage War Abroad,”  (2018), LINK; David B.  Larter, “‘You’re on Your Own’: US Sealift Can’t Count on Navy Escorts in the Next Big War,”  LINK; David B. Larter, “The US Army Is Preparing to Fight in Europe, but Can It Even Get There?,”  LINK; Kenneth Wykle, “The US Armed Forces Have a Mobility Problem,”  LINK; Douglas R. Burnett and Christopher McMahon, “Losing the Great Pacific War for Lack of Ships and Marines,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 1 (2019); Hans Lynch and John Eady, “Can Sealift Deliver?,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 8 (2019); Elee Wakim, “Sealift Is America’s Achilles Heel in the Age of Great Power Competition,” War on the Rocks (2019); Salvatore R. Mercogliano, “Suppose There Was a War and the Merchant Marine Didn’t Come?,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 1 (2020).
  99. Shannon Tiezzi, “China Wants Its Civilian Ships to Be Ready for War,” The Diplomat (2015); Franz-Stefan Gady, “China Prepares Its 172,000 Civilian Ships for War,” The Diplomat (2015).
  100., “Ships Taken up from Trade (Stuft),” LINK.
  101. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 266.
  102. John  Johnson-Allen, They Couldn’t Have Done It without Us: The Merchant Navy in the Falklands War (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Seafarer Books, 2011).
  103. Johnson-Allen, They Couldn’t Have Done It without Us, 236-240.
  104. Salvatore Robert Mercogliano, “Sealift: The Evolution of American Military Sea Transportation” (University of Alabama, 2004), 434.
  105. As mentioned above, China is an exception, as it maintains a large fleet of Chinese flagged, owned and crewed merchant vessels, although it also has a large proportion of Chinese owned vessels sailing under a flag of convenience. In 2018, the merchant fleet under the flag of China (excluding Hong Kong and Macao) totaled 84 192 Thousands DWT, while the total fleet under Chinese ownership (excluding Hong Kong and Macao) totaled 183 094 Thousands DWT, UNCTAD STAT, Maritime Profile: China (2018), LINK.
  106. See for example: Rubel, “Navies and Economic Prosperity–the New Logic of Sea Power,” 5-6. Andrew Forbes and David Neumann, “Is There a Threat to Australia’s Seaborne Trade?,” in Royal Australian Navy Sea Power Conference (2012), 61.
  107. Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War (London: Macmillan, 1973), 54, 246; James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization (Print)  (1995): 391-92.
  108. David Axe, “The Russian Navy in Late 2019 Surged a Huge Number of Submarines Into the Atlantic”, The National Interest, 4 Dec 2019, LINK;  Andrew Metrick, “(Un)Mind the Gap”,  United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 145, no. 10 (2019); Mark Cancian and Brandon Schwartz, “Unleash the Privateers!” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 4 (2020); Brandon Schwartz, “U.S. Privateering Is Legal,” Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 4 (2020).
  109. Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute against Japan” : The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, 2009).
  110. Haines, “War at Sea: Nineteenth-Century Laws for Twenty-First Century Wars?.”
  111. Haines, “War at Sea”, 440.
  112. In 2017 for example, a container vessel was hacked: “Shipping must confront onboard systems’ cyber vulnerabilities”, Safety at Sea, 4 Dec 2017, LINK (accessed 15 June 2019).
  113. Martin Doughty, Merchant Shipping and War: A Study in Defence Planning in Twentieth-Century Britain, Royal Historical Society Studies in History Series; No. 31 (London, New Jersey: Royal Historical Society, Humanities Press, 1982), 180.
  114. James Muldoon, “Coronavirus Might Make Socialists Of Us All.” The Huffington Post, 18 March 2020, LINK; David Michael San Juan, “Responding to COVID-19 Through Socialist (ic) Measures: A Preliminary Review.” Social Science Research Network (2020), LINK.
  115. For example, against a piracy threat, shipowners and mariners are advised to implement “Best Management Practices”. EUNAVFOR, BMP5: Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy and Enhance Maritime Security in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, (Edinburgh: Witherby Publishing Group Ltd, 2018), LINK.
  116. James Goldrick, RADM (ret), RAN, “Mahan and Corbett: Concepts of economic Warfare”,  and Peter Dennis, “Armies and Maritime Strategy”, The 2013 Chief of Army History Conference (Newport, New South Wales: Big Sky Publishing, 2014). 19.
  117. Quoted from: Laura L. Miller, “Do soldiers hate peacekeeping? The case of preventive diplomacy operations in Macedonia.” Armed Forces & Society 23.3 (1997): 415-449.
  118. Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis, A Rand Corporation Research Study (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 76.
  119. Builder, The Masks of War, 135.
  120. Roland Alfred Bowling, “The Negative Influence of Mahan on the Protection of Shipping in Wartime: The Convoy Controversy in the Twentieth Century” (dissertation, University of Maine, 1980). See also: “The Negative Influence of Mahan on Anti-Submarine Warfare,” The RUSI Journal 122, no. 4 (1977); “Keeping Open the Sea-Lanes “ United States Naval Institute Proceedings 111, no. 12 (1985).
  121. Although winning a counterinsurgency is still a challenge, most Western militaries have realized that an offensive kinetic conventional approach is less successful than a comprehensive approach with a more defensive attitude to combat.
  122. For example, in a conventional war, ships carrying military cargo, food, raw materials and energy are a prime concern. With a piracy threat, slow ships with a low freeboard are more vulnerable, while a terrorist threat requires protection of prime targets such a cruise liners or ships with a destructive potential such a LNG tankers.
  123. Academically, the complexity factor addresses the debates on the concept of grand strategy, including a whole-of-government approach and the benefits of having a national security council. Peter Layton describes the differences between strategy and grand strategy as follows: “in grand strategy the means used are comprehensive, embracing a diverse array of instruments of national power rather than focusing on a single type of instrument, as strategy does. This national power is much wider than whole-of-government (also called interagency); it is whole-of-nation with external commercial and governmental sources also generally used in support.” Peter Layton, “The Idea of Grand Strategy,” The RUSI Journal 157, no. 4 (2012). See also: Grand Strategy (Brisbane, Australia: Peter Layton, 2018); Julian Lindley-French, “Who Does Uk Grand Strategy?” (2010).
  124. For examples of mirror-imaging and the subsequent perception of the Soviet naval threat during the Cold War, see: John B Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Us Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986, Vol. 19 (Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College, 2004), 23; Christopher A. Ford, David Alan Rosenberg, and Randy Carol Balano, The Admirals’ Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War (Annapolis, Maryland.: Naval Institute Press, 2005).
  125. EUNAVFOR, “EU NAVFOR warship HNLMS Johan de Witt block Pirate access to the sea”, 25 May 2010, LINK; BBC News, “Somali piracy: EU forces in first mainland raid”, 15 May 2012, LINK.
  126. Layton, Grand Strategy, 20; NATO, “Ajp-01 (E) Allied Joint Doctrine,” (2017), 1-3.
  127. According to some scholars (e.g. Jerker Widen) the difference between defending ships or lanes is a semantic discussion, as defending lanes implies defending the ships that sail them. Corbett, Castex and Richmond likewise argued that the essence of trade protection is protecting the communication line. If the safety of merchant ships would be the priority, they could best stay in port, but that would end all sea transport. However, opposing this view, various scholars (e.g. Colin Gray, Ian Speller, Milan Vego, Eric Grove and Peter Gretton) argue that using the notional concept of a sea lane is misleading, as one cannot attack or defend an imaginary line drawn on a chart. Jerker Widen, Theorist of Maritime Strategy: Sir Julian Corbett and His Contribution to Military and Naval Thought, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies Series (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 100; Castex, Strategic Theories, 361; Sir Herbert W.  Richmond, Naval Warfare (London: E. Benn, 1930), 16; Colin S. Gray, The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War (New York: Free Press, 1992), 9; Speller, Understanding Naval Warfare, 144; Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Denial: Theory and Practice, 218; Eric Grove, The Defeat of the Enemy Attack Upon Shipping, 1939-1945 : A Revised Edition of the Naval Staff History, 1st. edition, Vol. 1 online resource (London: Routledge, 2019), xxvii; Peter Sir Gretton, Maritime Strategy; a Study of Defense Problems (New York: Praeger, 1965), 23. See also: Geoffrey Till (ed.), Maritime Strategy and the Nuclear Age, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), 156.
  128. An historical example of the use of intelligence in WWII is ULTRA and the breaking of the Enigma code, which allowed Allied convoys to evade German U-boat positions. An example of the use of counter-narratives are EUNAVFOR efforts explaining the purpose of their anti-piracy missions to the Somali population. Brittany Gilmer, Political Geographies of Piracy: Constructing Threats and Containing Bodies in Somalia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 76-77.
  129. In WWII, Allied shipyards produced ships faster the Germans could sink them. Economic strength can thus contribute to success in a maritime attrition war.
  130. See also: Matthijs Ooms, “Maritieme Handelsbescherming: vier fundamentele vragen bij het beschermen van civiele scheepvaart” [Maritime Trade Protection: four fundamental questions for the protection of merchant shipping
  131. Ideally, the five questions should be addressed in the indicated sequence, but when a sudden threat appears, the process may start with an obvious answer to the third question.
  132. For a historical case study on this question, see Matthew S. Seligmann, The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914: Admiralty Plans to Protect British Trade in a War against Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Cobb, Preparing for Blockade 1885-1914: Naval Contingency for Economic Warfare.
  133. Till, Seapower, 241.
  134. While doctrine already exists in the form  of  NCAGS, trade warfare involves more than current NCAGS doctrine covers, such as offensive operations. Moreover, the NCAGS departments in many navies are lightly manned, with a high reliance on reservists. An NCAGS assignment is usually not a career booster, partly due to the fact that it is not an established warfare branch such as the submarine branch of surface warfare communities. This has to change.
  135. Within NATO and the EU, and/or within large national militaries, such as those of the US.
  136. Marchesi, “Maritime Trade Defense: Establishing the Joint Force Maritime Trade Component Commander.”
  137. Till, Seapower, 11.

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View from the Quarterdeck: December 2020


Like the grey-bearded sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798, the world today appears driven south by an il wind of the coronavirus into the icy waters of an ever-widening COVID-19 pandemic.  Writing just after the American election of November 2020, perhaps we are about to be delivered from this fearful, solitary voyage by an albatross in the form of a new vaccine, but yet may still have some “weary times” ahead of us before returning to a safe harbor.  As the poet wrote:

Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.

Some scholars believe Captain James Cook’s second voyage of exploration to the South Seas and the Pacific Ocean (1771-1775) was the poem’s inspiration.  The young Coleridge’s tutor, William Wales, after all, was an astronomer on Cook’s flagship.  Facing challenging conditions, Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle three times on this voyage.  Few, if any, of us have accomplished that feat.

However, in our troubling voyage, we have more advanced technology than our 18th-century seagoing cousins to help guide us through difficult days.  As Assistant Editor for Archives, Dara Baker, reminds us in her fascinating account, we have no choice but to rethink and retool how we go about practicing our profession as historians.  The isolation imposed by the pandemic has caused us to face the reality of new ways of completing historical research to unlock the past.

Ms. Baker observes that we are facing the challenge of having to adapt to “a new way to do research, online and distant’ from the musty archives and libraries we have all come to love.   But this somewhat isolated and digital era is also full of new opportunities to expand interest in naval history as Book Review Editor Chuck Steele reminds us in his description of the International Journal of Naval History Facebook Page.  Admiral Sonny Masso at the Naval Historical Foundation initiated a series of special historical webinars with his “Second Saturday” series.  These discussions bring together notable scholars and practitioners’ on panels to discuss topics of great interest to naval historians and buffs alike.  Examples include President Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812 (written when the future president was only 23) and another on a comparison of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower to Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey of Master and Commander. Here at IJNH, we can bring our readers in digital format the traditional academic journal style using all of this new technology.

In this robust issue, we open with an article from the age of battleships by Dr. Stanley Carpenter, Professor Emeritus at the U.S. Naval War College, and Historian General of the Naval Order of the United States.  Dr. Carpenter broadens our understanding of 19th and early 20th-century European naval history with his article on the Austro-Hungarian Navy’s rise and fall.  He reminds us that Germany, Great Britain, and the United States were not the only powers involved in naval arms races during the Dreadnought era.   Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a strong proponent of Austro-Hungarian navalism, and by 1914 Austria Hungary possessed a nascent blue-water Navy.  However, during World War I, that fleet was “singularly ineffective” for various reasons and turned out to be what Professor Carpenter calls a “wasted asset.” With the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the fleet ceased to exist.

Dr. Ulrilch van der Heyden also examines The Great War at sea with an exciting account of a British hospital ship sinking by a German U-boat.   This story continues, however, for another twenty-five years.  Dr. van der Hayden recounts how this incident had a complicated aftermath with ramifications that reach into the Second World War and Hitler’s submarine forces. In the Baltic.  Stepping back into the age of sail, CAPT John Rodgaard and Dr. Judy Pearson draw upon the recently published book  North American’s in Nelson’s Navy to point to the British Fleet’s international flavor and how those ships changed the course of world history at Trafalgar. 

We also include in this issue two articles about World War II, one drawn from an American perspective, the other Japanese.  Major Michael Anderson, a student at the USMC Command and Staff College, suggests in his piece on Kamikazes that the familiar image of Japanese zeroes crashing onto the decks of destroyers at Okinawa is too narrow.  He reminds us that Germany resorted to similar tactics towards the end of the war.  Also, there were other types of kamikazes, such as mini-subs or kaiten in the naval environment.

With her article “Neptune’s Commandments,” Heather Haley of Auburn University focuses on the experiences of a significant cohort of enlisted personnel from the USS ALABAMA (BB-60) as an example of how ships can form what she describes as an “imagined community.”  Her scholarship features oral histories from the ship’s veterans, highlighting enlisted personnel’s voices, all too often overlooked.  Her account is a fresh departure from the traditional officer-heavy narratives of the U.S. Navy. 

Part of this journal’s mission is to encourage and recognize scholarship by junior members of the historical profession.  Consequently, we include in this issue the first place paper from the 2020 Voices of Maritime History Competition at the U.S. Naval Academy written by MDN Joseph P. Bunyard (now ENS, USN.)   His article describes the historical precedent of Britain’s Chain Home Radar (the Dowding system) in World War II during the Battle of Britain to reinforce the importance of network survivability in current naval operations. 

And so, colleagues, as usual, we have much to share.  I welcome your comments and suggestions, but most of all, solicit potential articles for future issues.  There is much to learn from one another with such dialog, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

Dr. Charles C. Chadbourn, III
Editor, International Journal of Naval History
Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College

(Go to December 2020 Table of Contents)

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The Rise and Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, 1900-1918

Stanley D. M. Carpenter
Professor Emeritus, U.S. Naval War College

At 1645 on 31 October 1918, onboard the flagship of the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, the red-white-red ensign of the Habsburg Navy fluttered down from the jackstaff.  Rear-Admiral (Kontre-Admiral) Nicholas Horthy, Fleet Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), tucked the folded ensign under his arm and departed as the last official act of the Habsburg Navy. Had not World War I and the military defeat of the Central Powers unleashed the nationality tiger in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, might the Navy have become the dominant Mediterranean naval power?  Based on the pre-war building program in the new dreadnought era (post-1906) under the leadership of aggressive, politically astute commanders Admiral (Admiral) Count Rudolf Montecuccoli (1904-13) and Grand Admiral (Grosadmiral) Anton Haus (1913-18), Austria-Hungary embarked on a naval expansion program. The plan was reflective of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s doctrine of taking command of the sea through decisive battles fought by great battle fleets as advocated in his influential work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 to 1783. 1  Might the Navy have become the equal of the Italian service or even the French Mediterranean force? Indeed, by 1910, the technological means existed as did the prerequisite of reliable enemies in Serbia, Russia, and Italy.  The Austrian and Hungarian Delegations all possessed the political will, albeit often begrudgingly, to appropriate funds for naval building and development for the Austro-Hungarian Navy to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, Ionian, and Aegean Seas.  But, when the crucial test of war came in 1914, the Navy proved singularly ineffective in several critical areas of naval warfare and played a comparatively minor role in the fight against the Allied Powers in the Mediterranean Theatre.
The bombardment of the port city of Trieste by a French squadron during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1715) demonstrated to the Habsburg monarchy the need for a “blue water navy.” Before the eighteenth century, only a few river craft operated on the Danube.  However, the Navy waxed and waned throughout the century despite the efforts of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II through such schemes as forcing coastal cities to fund warships. In the Treaty of Campo Formio of 1797, Austria acquired Venetia along with its small fleet of ten ships-of-the-line and several lesser warships. With Venice came considerable maritime commerce and the concurrent need for naval defense, but confused and dilatory naval policy from Vienna dissipated the nascent force. 2   

SMS Tegetthoff (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Navy experienced a resurgence under Rear-Admiral Archduke Ferdinand Max. The 1866 war with Prussia went badly on land. Still, at sea, Austrian naval forces under Rear-Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff defeated a superior Italian squadron at the Battle of Lissa, 20 July 1866, the first general action between armored warships. Lissa preserved the gains of 1797 and imbued the fledgling naval service with the tradition of engaging despite low numbers. During Tegetthoff’s years as C-in-C (1868-1871), the Navy underwent positive material and doctrinal progress, which abated in the post-Tegetthoff years. Drift between a purely coastal defense mission and a blue-water, offensive orientation led to a confused naval strategy. Little modernization occurred. The changeover from sail to steam propulsion lagged as did the dramatic changes in propulsion, armament, and weaponry exhibited by other navies.  Expenditures as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product and population expansion also lagged.

The appointment of Admiral Count Rudolf Montecuccoli in 1904 as both operational and administrative C-in-C set in motion a dramatic sea change. Austria-Hungary entered the Dreadnought Era. Not only did the Empire embark on an extensive capital shipbuilding program, but the expansion of the Danube River Flotilla resulted by 1914 in a robust force of six monitors mounting 4.7-inch guns and multiple howitzers as well as several motorboat auxiliaries. 4   Following the lead of its Imperial German Dual Alliance partner, Austria-Hungary began its dramatic naval expansion in 1898 with a proposed ten-year building program calling for twelve battleships, twelve cruisers, twenty-four high seas torpedo boats, and twenty-four coastal defense craft.  The ambitious plan proved too costly to garner Hungarian Delegation support; however, it did result in the construction of three new battleships by 1902. Montecuccoli thus inherited the nucleus of a capital-ship based force to build upon on his appointment as C-in-C. 5 

The late nineteenth century proved exceptionally transformational for naval and maritime technology and the attendant revolution in naval theory.  Technological developments such as larger caliber rapid-firing rifled naval artillery, rotating gun turrets, armor plating, and more efficient steam propulsion systems allowed for the development of all-weather, long-range battle fleets no longer tied to cycles of weather, tides, and seasons. In terms of naval history and theory, numerous periodicals dedicated to naval service, tactics, strategy, doctrine, and professionalism such as the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, naval annuals edited by Thomas Brassey and Frederick T. Jane, The Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, the French Reuve Maritime, Germany’s Marine Rundschau and Italy’s Rivista Marittima all contributed to the new maritime revolution. Naval historians and theorists such as Sir Julian Stafford Corbett in his 1911 Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and A.T. Mahan captured the imagination of naval enthusiasts and, more importantly, the attention of governments. Mahanian doctrine advanced the concept that great empires are built and sustained by exercising command of the sea as determined by a decisive battle between great battle fleets. Corbettian theory acknowledged the importance of sea control but emphasized the criticality of the naval blockade, amphibious operations, naval support of operations ashore, and joint operations. The Habsburg Empire, as did Germany, Japan, and Italy, all nations that hitherto had not been great naval powers, joined the race to build the great battle fleets.

Technological developments and the Industrial Revolution made the battleship era possible. By the 1890s, warships displacing 14,000 tons of water, with steel armor up to fourteen inches thick, able to withstand the steel-capped armor-piercing shells of 12- and 13.5-inch naval guns, became the standard. Naval gunnery improved dramatically. Rapid and more accurate fire power made possible by such developments as “continuous aim” introduced by Captain Percy Scott, RN using gyroscope technology as well as the improved optics introduced in German capital ships for gun-laying, increased accuracy and destructive potential at greater standoff distances. 6  

 Austria-Hungary possessed the robust industrial potential for warship construction. The Skoda Works at Pilsen, Silesia, manufactured heavy caliber guns using the “jacket and hoop system,” which gave tremendous strength with high elasticity. The Poldihutte Works near Prague and the Witkowitzn Berghau und Eisenhutten-Generkschaft Works at Witkowitz in Moravia together produced over 9,000 tons of steel armor plate per annum. Five Dalmatian and Adriatic coast shipyards-built vessels ranging from small craft to massive warships; notably, the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino yard at Trieste for the battleships and the Cantiere Navale Triestino at Monfalcone for cruisers, destroyers, and small craft. The Hungarian Danubius yard by 1914 could construct all types, particularly the latest dreadnought type. The Whitehead Yards at Fiumi manufactured an improved gyroscope-guided Whitehead torpedo with much-improved accuracy. 7 

With an expanded navy, an extensive port and support facility infrastructure followed.  Pola, the primary operating base, and by 1914 a first-rate naval base, contained dry docks for major hull repair as well as an arsenal, graving docks, fuel storage, and intermediate-type maintenance facilities. Light forces operated out of Bocce di Cattaro. While not suitable as an anchorage for larger warships, Bocce provided excellent facilities for cruisers and submarines, as did Sebenico. Lussin served as the significant Command, Control, and Communications Center.

ADM Nicholas Horthy (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)

Imperial and public support proved vital to naval expansion. While the elderly Emperor Franz Josef cared little for naval affairs, the imperial heir, Franz Ferdinand, showed a genuine interest. As General Inspector of the Armed Forces and Rear-Admiral (1902), he participated in all aspects of naval affairs, providing a high degree of royal patronage. Determined to make the Navy a first-rate force, Franz Ferdinand insisted that it should be strong enough to conduct offensive operations as well as coastal defense. His objective was to reflect his Mahanian ideas of command of the sea, with the attendant missions of commerce interdiction and power projection. 8   Blessed with royal patronage, the Austrian Navy League (Ӧstereichisches Flottenverein), founded in 1904, flourished. Mainly a civilian organization to advance naval technology, armaments, and doctrine, the League exercised considerable lobbying influence in the Austrian Reichsrat. However, it enjoyed somewhat less power in the Hungarian Diet. Franz Ferdinand, as Protector of the League, appointed Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, a robust naval expansion proponent, as President. By 1914, over 44,000 members belonged to seventy-two worldwide branches.  The League’s fundraising practically paid for the nascent naval air arm.  The League organ, Die Flagge, published numerous articles and pamphlets in support of the expanding naval efforts.  Despite considerable royal patronage and growing public interest, the Austrian Navy League never reached the level of influence of its German cousin. Few non-Germans in the Empire supported naval expansion, and the Crown did not encourage civil servants to join as occurred elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Austrian Navy League expressed the rise of a naval consciousness within the Habsburg Empire. 9  

For the Austro-Hungarians, naval power went far beyond the Mahanian imperative that great nations required great battle fleets. Despite the naval victory at Lissa, in 1866, Austria lost Venice to a unified Italy, rife with nationalist “irredentist” sentiment to recover the ethnically Italian lands still under Habsburg control. Concern over Italian actions and territorial threats to the Adriatic coast prompted intense debate over the need for expanded naval power. For example, a pamphlet entitled Öesterreich-Ungarns Wacht sur see argued for the creation of a great battle fleet as well as positing that the need represented a life or death situation for the Dual Monarchy. The author asserted that without the battle fleet, the Italians could establish blockades, seize the Dalmatian Islands, range the coasts unimpeded, and seize Lissa. The pamphlet perhaps overstated the actual threat, but it reflected the growing public concern over the Italian rivalry. 10   The official opinion also ramped up the tension. For example, General Conrad von Hötzendorf, Chief of the General Staff, advocated a preventive war against Italy in 1907. 11, 152.)]   The Vienna press made its position known as well. The Neue Freie Presse, a highly influential newspaper not known for an aggressive attitude, asserted in 1908 that “on both sides the possibility of war is being seriously considered.” 12   Political proposals to deescalate the tension included combined Italio-Austrian naval cooperation against French aggression in North Africa, and, a Triple Alliance naval concentration under the command of the Austro-Hungarian C-in-C in case of war with the Triple Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia). 13 

The Russian rivalry centered not in the Adriatic, but on the Balkans, particularly those areas either still under the Ottoman Turkish Empire or the recently created independent states such as Bulgaria. The naval question for the Austro-Hungarians concerned the Straits issue (Bosporus, Sea of Marmora, and Dardanelles). Various treaties since 1856 closed the Straits to Russian warships, confining its naval power to the Black Sea and mitigating any existential Russian maritime threat. However, the various Balkan crises such as the 1908 Austro-Hungarian Bosnian annexation threatened to flash into a general war wherein the Russian Black Sea Fleet might break its confines and threaten the Adriatic coast. Nevertheless, Imperial war planners considered the Russian naval threat as minimal. Italy presented a far more likely threat scenario.

The histrionics against the Italians, primarily known colloquially as flottenparoxysmas,” had a positive effect on Austro-Hungarian naval expansion. More massive battleships of the Erzherzog class, funded and launched between 1902 and 1908, displaced 14,500 tons and mounted 12-inch guns in the main battery, as did the 14,200-ton Radetzky-class battleships.   Moreover, in a significant departure from previous practice, the new warship designs incorporated open ocean operational requirements as opposed to the earlier strictly coastal defense capabilities. 14   The years 1910-11 saw the building of the ultimate expression of Austro-Hungarian naval power – the four dreadnoughts of the Viribus Unitis class.  With coal bunkers for 2,900 tons of fuel giving an operational range of 4,200 nautical miles at ten knots on turbine engines, these ships of the dreadnought squadron could sail to the North Sea without coaling. The 12 x 12-inch main battery guns mounted in four turrets represented the first battleships to have triple gun turrets. 15   

Thus, by the war’s start, the Austro-Hungarian Navy had evolved from a coastal defense force to a real “blue water” navy.  But, as events demonstrated, that capability came to nothing more than a wasted asset.

Battleship construction illustrated the political and financial difficulties unique to the Empire caused by the Ausgleich or Compromise of 1867 that created the Austro-Hungarian state and the Dual Monarchy. The Ausgleich mandated that Army and Navy appropriations pass both the Austrian and Hungarian Delegations. Typically, naval appropriations passed reasonably quickly on the Austrian side, but not so for the Hungarians, who saw naval developments as favoring the Austrians. Compromise followed. In 1904, an agreement called for naval purchases and construction in proportion to each nation’s share of the common budget, typically 64% for Austria to Hungary’s 36%.  Although clumsy and inefficient, the arrangement did win over sufficient Hungarian support. 16   Squabbles over funding for the new dreadnoughts threatened to scuttle the program even after significant construction of the first two hulls by 1910. The Naval Section argued that the ships must be completed and operational by 1913, the expected date of the first Italian dreadnought, a feature that “increases the urgency of executing the naval programme with all possible despatch.” Ultimately, the Hungarians agreed to a regime whereby Austrian companies manufactured the hulls and armor, while Hungarian vendors produced the artillery, ammunition, and internal fittings.  In truth, Hungarians garnered nearly half the total contracts. 17   The compromise resulted in funding all four dreadnought battleships, two cruisers, six destroyers, and six submarines, all built at the Fiumi yards with at least 50% of the shells and a high proportion of the electrical work supplied by Hungarian vendors.  Based on this final agreement, the Delegations approved a multi-year building program for 1911 to 1917. 18   Arguments by two successive C-in-Cs, Montecuccoli and Haus, further convinced the Delegations to fund a second dreadnought squadron by 1919.

Inscribed in gold letters on a marble plaque at the main entrance to the Naval Academy at Fiume was the Navy’s motto – “Above Life Stands Duty” – a powerful statement. Every officer candidate entering the Academy saw the inscription as he entered the halls. 19  Naval personnel came from all parts of the Empire, but specific nationality patterns emerged. The majority of officers of all branches and specialties came from German Austria – roughly 1,000 commissioned officers (line, chaplains, lawyers, and surgeons) and 1,000 commissioned officials (engineers, paymasters, and supply) in 1914. Enlisted sailors originated predominately from the coastal regions, with approximately 31% Croatian, 20% Magyar (Hungarian), and 16% German-Austrian. By 1911, Jewish sailors, mainly from the Adriatic coastal area of Küstenland and Croatia, made up 1.7% of the other ranks, though Jewish officers averaged only about .1% of the officer corps. 20   For other positions, nationality played a role in rate determination. Due to better technical schooling, Germans and Czechs tended to become engineers, electricians, and heavy gunners, Magyars for medium caliber guns, and other nationalities for machine guns, stokers, deck, and boat hands. Despite the polyglot nature of the lower decks, ethnic relations remained cordial until the naval mutiny of 1918 when other factors influenced nationalistic fervor. Although German represented the language of command, every officer spoke four languages.  Despite its multi-national nature, the Navy exhibited a remarkable spirit of “monarchical patriotism” to the end of the Empire in 1918. 21 

A-H Navy Submarine (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)

The strategic situation in August 1914 hampered the Navy’s role in the four-year struggle.  Three overarching strategic dynamics determined the Navy’s dilemma. First, the correlation of forces in the Mediterranean, even excluding the Italian Navy, proved overwhelming. Against just the British Royal Navy and the French Mediterranean forces, the disparity in tonnage, total hulls, and gun caliber meant little in the Mediterranean for the surface ships. Second, the failure to secure and develop advanced operating bases in the Mediterranean or Ionian Seas dictated that all operations originated from either Pola or Cattaro. The limited operational range of the smaller ships meant that any operations external to the Adriatic lacked escort protection for the battle line. Submarines could and did operate in the Mediterranean when the Otranto blockade could be passed. Essentially, the Navy undertook only five limited missions: 1) defend the coast; 2) attack enemy Adriatic shipping; 3) support Army coastal operations; 4) protect its commercial trade; and, 5) influence neutral countries in favor of the Central Powers.
22   The River Flotillas did execute successful supporting operations against Serbia and Montenegro. Admiral Haus consolidated the fleet at Pola and refused to send forces to operate outside the Adriatic, stating that “his first obligation was to keep the fleet intact to meet the Italian threat.” 23   The Italian threat froze the Navy firmly in the Adriatic.

Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp, Austro-Hungarian Navy (Stanley D.M. Carpenter)

Austro-Hungarian submarines did have some successes. On 20 December 1914, the U-12 torpedoed the French battleship Jean Bart inducing the French to withdraw all heavy capital units from the Adriatic. On 27 April 1915, the U-5, under the command of Austrian naval hero Captain Georg von Trapp, sank the French armored cruiser Léon Gambetta in the Strait of Otranto with a loss of 684 men. Consequently, the French withdrew south to maintain the blockade from a discreet distance. Austro-Hungarian submarines did ultimately sink ninety-four vessels for a total of 190,000 tons. 24 

Only three significant surface actions occurred throughout the war. Within minutes of Italy’s declaration of war, Admiral Haus ordered the fleet to raise steam at Pola, resulting in a coastal raid with the desired strategic effect of delaying Italian mobilization along the vulnerable frontier. As a result of the heavy shelling of railways, rail centers, and communications facilities combined with an Italian fear of an amphibious landing at Ancona, Italy delayed troop movements northward towards the frontier. 25   The Otranto Barrage, running from Cape Santa Maria on the Italian Adriatic coast across the mouth of the Adriatic to the islands of Corfu and Fano, consisted of drift boats with suspended anti-submarine nets equipped with hydrophones and explosives. Attempts to disrupt the drifters led to the second and third major surface engagements, both commanded by Captain (Fregattenkapitän) Horthy of the SMS Novara on 22 December 1917 and as Fleet C-in-C in May 1918.  The first raid by cruisers and destroyers disabled twenty-seven Allied drifters, two destroyers, and two transports. The second and more massive raid utilized the dreadnought squadron and resulted in disaster. Although the escort ships did significant damage to the drifters, Szent István, while skirting the Dalmatian coast to avoid detection, was struck by two torpedoes from the Italian torpedo-boat MAS 15 (Motobara Armata Silurante). She capsized, killing four officers and eighty-five sailors. 26 

By late 1917, severe discontent gripped the sailors at Pola, stimulated mainly by frustration and inaction. On 1 February 1918, significant disturbances broke out on several ships. The mutineers demanded peace without annexation, as well as democracy and self-determination for all nationalities (an answer to President Woodrow Wilson’s peace proposals), and better living conditions. Admiral Horthy soon subdued the rising with forty mutineers tried and four executed; the Navy had become operationally crippled. 27

With the peace settlement, all that remained of the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy were eleven torpedo boats left to Yugoslavia and a few river monitors to Hungary. In judging the performance of the Navy in World War I, despite some small-scale successes, by and large, it proved a wasted asset. When put to the test of combat, the Navy failed to influence the war, despite great warships, well-trained professional crews, and excellent support infrastructure. Hemmed in by geography, cobbled by weak finances, severely outnumbered in the critical theatre, and finally, undercut by the unwillingness to commit capital assets to a general action by senior leaders, the Austro-Hungarian Navy came to naught.

(Return to December 2020 Table of Contents)


Primary Sources:

Brassey, Thomas A., ed. The Naval Annual, 1910. London: J. Griffin, 1910.

Horthy, Nicholas. Memoirs. 1957. Reprint. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), Multiple Editions, 1900-1918.

Leyland, John, ed. The Naval Annual, 1900. Portsmouth, England: J. Griffin, 1900.

________. Brassey’s Naval Annual, 1915, War Edition. London: William Clowes and Sons,

Times (London), Multiple Editions, 1900-1918.  

Weyer, B., ed. Taschenbuch der Kriegsflotten, VI. Jahrgang. 1905. Munich: J.F. Lehmann’s
Verlag, 1905.

________. Taschenbuch der Kriegsflotten, XV. Jahrgang. 1914. Munich: J.F. Lehmann’s Verlag, 1914.

Secondary Sources:

Breyer, Siegfried.  Battleships and Battle Cruisers, 1905-1910. Translated by Alfred Kurti, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Craig, Gordon R. Europe, 1815-1914. 3rd rev. ed. Fort Worth, Texas: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Corbett, Julian Stafford, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. London: Longmans, Green, 1911.

Deák István. Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Gebhard, Louis A., Jr. “Austria-Hungary’s Dreadnought Squadron; the Naval Outlay of 1911.” Austrian History Yearbook IV-V (1970): 246-58.

Gibson, R. H., and Maurice Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. London: Constable, 1931.

Halpern, Paul G. “French and Italian Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1898-1945.”  In Naval

 Strategy and Policy in the Mediterranean, Past, Present and Future, edited by John B. Hattendorf, 78-106.  London: Frank Cass, 2000.

________, The Mediterranean Naval Situation, 1908-1914. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.

________, The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914-1918. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1987.

________, ed. The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, 1915-1918. Trowbridge, England: Temple Smith for the Navy Records Society, 1987.

Hendrikson, Jon K., Crisis in the Mediterranean: Naval Competition and Great Power Politics, 1904-1914. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2014.

Jane, Fred T., The Heresies of Sea Power. London: Longmans, Green, 1906.

Jászi, Oscar, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1929.

Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1992.

Macarthy, C.A., The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918. New York: MacMillan, 1969.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Boston: Little, Brown, 1890.  

Maurer, John H., The Outbreak of the First World War: Strategic Planning, Crisis Decision Making, and Deterrence Failure.  Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1995.

May, Arthur J., The Habsburg Monarchy, 1867-1917. 1951. Reprint. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.

Mitchell, Mairin, The Maritime History of Russia, 1848-1948. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1949.

Modelski, George and William R. Thompson. Seapower in Global Politics, 1494-1993. London: MacMillan Press, 1988.

O’Hara, Vincent P. and David Dickson, To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2013.

Reynolds, Clark G., Command of the Sea: The History and Strategy of the Maritime Empires. Vol. 2. New York: William Morrow, 1974.

Rosen, Roman, Romanovitch, Forty Years of Diplomacy. Vols. 1 and 2. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922.

Rothenburg, Gunther E., The Army of Francis Joseph. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1976.

Salomone, A. William, Italy in the Giolitton Era: Italian Democracy in the Making, 1900-1914. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945.

Schmidl, Erwin A., Jews in the Habsburg Armed Forces, 1788-1918. Eisenstadt: Ӧsterreichisches Jüdisches Museum, 1989.

Seton-Watson, Christopher, Italy from Liberalism to Fascism, 1870-1925. London: Methuen, 1967.

Sokol, Anthony E., The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute  Press, 1968.

Sondhaus, Lawrence, The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

________, The Habsburg Empire and the Sea: Austrian Naval Policy, 1797-1866. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1989.

Speller, Ian, Understanding Naval Warfare. London: Routledge, 2014.

Szabo, Franz A.J., “Unwanted Navy: Habsburg Naval Armaments under Maria Theresa.” Austrian History Yearbook XVII-XVIII (1984): 29-53.

Taylor, A. J. P., The Habsburg Monarchy, 1815-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. London: MacMillan, 1942.

Vego, Milan N., Austro-Hungarian Naval Policy, 1904-1914. Ilford, Essex: Frank Cass, 1996.

Williamson, Samuel R., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. London: MacMillan, 1991.


  1. Alfred T.  Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890).
  2. Lawrence Sondhaus, The Habsburg Empire and the Sea: Austrian Naval Policy, 1797-1866 (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1989), 52.
  3. István Deák,  Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 64.
  4. Anthony Sokol, The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1968), 76.
  5. These represented the battleships (BB) of the Habsburg class – SMS Habsburg, SMS Arpad and SMS Babenburg.
  6. Clark G. Reynolds, Command of the Sea: The History and Strategy of Maritime Empires, Vol. 2 (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1974), 409.
  7. The Naval Annual, 1910, 346-7; Sokol, 61, 76-77.
  8. Nicholas Horthy, Memoirs (1957; reprint ed., Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978), 61.
  9. Paul Halpern, The Mediterranean Naval Situation, 1908-1914 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 156.
  10. Thomas A. Brassey. ed., The Naval Annual, 1910 (London: J. Griffin and Company, 1910), 146.
  11. From a Conrad memorandum of 6 April 1907: “We must strike at Italy the sooner the better…the best possible moment would be the spring of 1909.” (Quoted in Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph [West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1976
  12. Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), 28 August 1908, quoted in Rothenberg, p. 152.
  13. Horthy, Memoirs, 69.
  14. Naval Annual, 1910, 51.
  15. Siegfried Breyer, Battleships and Battle Cruisers, 1905-1970, trans. Alfred Kurti (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1973) 408.
  16. Louis A. Gebhard, Jr., “Austria-Hungary’s Dreadnought Squadron; the Naval Outlay of 1911,” Austrian History Yearbook IV-V (1970): Vol. 246, no 58, 248.
  17. Times (London), 12 April 1911, 5; Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), 22 December 1910, quoted in Times (London), 26 December 1910, 6.
  18. Gebhard, 255.
  19. Horthy, Memoirs, 13.
  20. Ibid,; Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 78-79; Erwin A Schmidl. Jews in the Habsburg Armed Forces, 1788-1918 (Eisenstadf: Ӧsterreichisches Jüdisches Museum, 1989), 121, 134-44.
  21. Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 76, 79; Halpern, Mediterranean Naval Situation, 150; Arthur J. May. The Habsburg Monarchy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1951), 492.
  22. Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 86.
  23. Quoted in Halpern, Mediterranean Naval Situation, 356-58.
  24. Sokol, Austro-Hungarian Navy, 121.
  25. Horthy, Memoirs, 71.
  26. Paul G. Halpern, The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914-1918 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 502-503.
  27. Ibid., 448-49.

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An Unatoned War Crime of the First World War: The Sinking of a Hospital Ship by U-86

Ulrich van der Heyden
University of South Africa, Pretoria

German War Crimes during the First World War? 

Even a hundred years after the beginning of the First World War, 1  some segments of the German media still glorify submarine warfare as having been the “seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century.” These accounts bluster about gross register tons sunk by German U-boats. They embed that force in a hagiographical narrative, 2  and by way of advancing counterarguments against various accusations, speculate about international law violations, especially by British naval forces against German citizens. 3 

At the same time, some popular history magazines and journals, wishing to draw on public interest, deny or play down German war crimes during the First World War. For all that, the German crimes contravening the international conventions of war cannot wholly be denied. Germans committed war crimes that are, for the most part, well documented. 

After the end of the First World War, the Allies put around 890 Germans on a war crime list, starting with the German Kaiser, to generals and admirals, right through to officers of various ranks and even to several ordinary soldiers. Wilhelm II escaped prosecution by fleeing and seeking asylum in the Netherlands; others, indeed the vast majority of the alleged war criminals, followed suit. By doing so, they tried to abdicate their responsibilities. However, one or two cases did reach the German public after the end of the war, primarily pushed by articles in the Allied press. Such reports generally elicited astonishment and skepticism among the population that had lost the war. The publicized crimes contradicted the noble image of German soldiers, who were said to have lost the war only because the “November Criminals” back home had stabbed them in the back.

A 1918 Canadian propaganda poster used the sinking of Llandovery Castle as a focal point for selling Victory Bonds
(Montreal, Montreal Litho. Co. Ltd., [1918]; Library of Congress)

The majority of the German people, at the beginning of a new century, did not believe that their military had committed acts of violence that violated international law during the First World War. 4  Their view was bolstered by the fact that, despite the gradually increasing awareness of war crimes committed by their soldiers and seamen, only a tiny number of those accused were prosecuted and tried before a court of justice. Still, the majority of the population sympathized with the military exploits of their heroes in the field.

War criminals of the Second World War were turned in by those who had lost the war. They were subsequently tried before Allied courts at Nuremberg and follow-up trials. Those accused of war crimes in the First World War suffered no such consequences. On the contrary, only a few had to stand trial before German judges; none before an Allied court.

One of the few sailors who were accused of war crimes was the commander of the German U-boat, U-86, Helmut Patzig. 5  He had, after the Treaty of Versailles, evaded punishment for his war crime by fleeing and assuming the surname of Brümmer. By changing his name, he hoped that he would not be tracked down and held accountable for his crime. 6 

The First World War – The Career of a Young Naval Officer

At the beginning of the First World War, when the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) joined the battle at sea with twenty-eight operational U-boats, its commanders generally adhered to the rules of naval warfare that were in place at that time. The U-boat force proved to be an effective instrument. When hostile warships were sighted, they were, if the situation allowed it, attacked without warning. The problem with merchant ships was different. Here the Rules of Prize Warfare applied, as laid down by international treaties. Conventions of the time meant that when a U-boat sighted an enemy merchant ship or a neutral vessel suspected of supplying the enemy with goods or military equipment, the U-boat could call the suspicious vessel to halt, search it, and, if necessary, sink it. This procedure proved to be increasingly risky for the Imperial German Navy, as other ships could meanwhile come to the assistance of the boarded vessel, or the purported merchant ship (Q Ship) turned out to be a U-boat trap. The Germans lost several submarines in this manner.

As a result, the German Admiralty proclaimed “unrestricted submarine warfare,” which meant that merchant vessels were treated as warships and attacked without prior warning. Doing so was a violation of international law, but the practice was probably obeyed by all German U-boat commanders. The German Navy High Command informed the “seafaring nations of the world in an insolent manner” that the waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the English Channel, were war zones. Starting 18 February 1915, they would destroy any enemy merchant vessel found in this area. Further, it would not be possible in each case to avert the dangers faced by the crew and passengers. Germany also warned that ships sailing under a neutral flag also ran the risk of being sunk. 7 

In May 1915, the German submarine U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania, during which 1,200 people lost their lives, including 128 American citizens. 8  This violation of maritime law led to increased calls in the USA to become actively involved in the war against Germany. 

The German Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg wanted to avoid the involvement of American troops in the hostilities in Europe at all costs. He, therefore, demanded that the German U-boat force should again engage in battle according to the Rules of Prize Warfare. Naval authorities widely criticized this action, as the Admiralty was confident that Great Britain would, amid a continued and unrestricted submarine warfare, capitulate within six months. The leading military officers on land (i.e., the Supreme Army Command, too), apparently still saw opportunities in bringing the deadlocked hostilities on the European continent to a victorious conclusion with an intensification of naval warfare. For this reason, the military commanders opposed Wilson’s demand. They could assert themselves at least to some extent. In some regions of the Atlantic, to wit, Germany continued to adhere to the practice of unrestricted or, as they called it, intensified, submarine warfare. Except for passenger liners, all enemy merchant ships in these areas could be attacked and sunk without warning.

As the literature has documented, the general war situation in late 1916 had deteriorated to such an extent for Germany that, on 1 February 1917, the German Navy resumed its all-out unrestricted submarine warfare, torpedoing Allied merchant ships without warning. 9  The outcome of this policy was that the USA declared war on Germany and its allies on 6 April 1917. American entry into the war brought about a decisive change in the balance of power, favoring the Entente.

At first, the German Navy sunk a record number of ships. By summer, however, reports of German U-boat successes had already began to dwindle. 10 

Many career-driven captains desired to earn their stripes by sinking more tonnage during the final year of the war, a fact which frequently remains undisclosed in naval history. “Patriotic sentiments and a spirit of solidarity” were to be encouraged through the “benefits of material nature.” 11  

However, this policy could not hinder the USA (apart from supplying a substantial amount of war materials) from entering the war at sea and, in a sustained manner from 1918 onwards, joining the Allies in land warfare. The German Navy could not prevent a single American troop carrier from shipping soldiers and military equipment onto Western Europe. Around 1.4 million US soldiers reached Western Europe, voyaging across the ocean unchecked.

A German Career in the Navy

During the First World War, Helmut Patzig, born 26 October 1890 in Danzig/Gdansk, served as executive officer, first on a submarine with the designation UA 12  and then on U-55. He had joined the Imperial Navy in April 1910 and served as acting sub-lieutenant (Leutnant z.S.) from 27 April 1913. At the start of the war, he was on board the battleship Pommern. Then he transferred to U-boats. He was promoted in March 1916 to first lieutenant (Oberleutnant z.S.). 

On 26 January 1918, Helmut Patzig took command of U-86. This submarine was a standard German U-boat of mid-range, which was to “earn the sad distinction,” 13  as stated in current work on the history of the First World War, of sinking the hospital ship Llandovery Castle in defiance of maritime law. 

HM Hospital Ship, Llandovery Castle (NS Archives).÷÷÷lko

What had happened? Helmut Patzig was regarded by his superiors as an ambitious officer and was popular among his subordinates. He had received the Iron Cross Second- and First class in May 1916 and March 1917. Decades later, “his” crew related stories of the cooperative interaction between them and “their” commander, who did not consider himself to be too good to lend a hand if, for instance, there was a technical problem with one of the U-boat’s engines. They believed he had saved the submarine and its crew by personally intervening with the repair of a faulty engine while being submerged. This story explains why so many crew members stuck to “their” commander, even after the war. Not one of them testified against him in court.

Under his command, U-86 successfully conducted ten documented operations against the enemy in the eastern North Atlantic around the British Isles. 14  Scholars cite thirty-two sunken merchant ships for U-86, with an overall tonnage of up to 119,000 gross register tons. 15  Among these ships were some who had sailed under a neutral flag. 

The War Crime

On 27 June 1918, when an erstwhile British passenger and mail ship, the Llandovery Castle (named after a Welsh castle ruin), clearly marked as a hospital ship, was heading towards the Irish coastline, the people on board were feeling entirely safe, for the British government had informed all countries engaged in warfare that it had commissioned the ship, previously also deployed as a troop carrier, into the medical service. Coming from Halifax, Canada, the ship had 164 crew members on board and an additional eighty Canadian medical doctors and orderlies, and fourteen Red Cross nurses. 

When the sun sat on the horizon that day, the sea was calm. Nobody feared any perilous surprises by German ships or U-boats. It was prohibited by international law to attack vessels and facilities with Red Cross identification. Several distinct red crosses were visible on the brightly lit ship. 

However, the sense of calm and safety was deceptive. For hours already, a German U-boat had been tracking the 622-berth hospital ship. The U-boat was U-86, the submarine under the command of First Lieutenant Helmut Patzig. During the previous night, the U-boat had torpedoed the British steamship Atlantia out of a convoy. Two shipwrecked crew members from the sunken ship were taken on board the U-boat as prisoners. 16  Why Patzig would track the Red Cross ship in the first place remains unknown. The lawyer and author Friedrich Karl Kaul, who was the first to examine the files, provides a plausible explanation. He puts it down to the character of the commander: 

At first, U-boat commander Patzig himself probably did not know why he was now tracking the ‘Llandovery Castle.’ The hospital ship could not really be considered as a quarry. Not really! But what if the Red-Cross-painted ship was carrying war equipment or relatives of combat units onboard? After all, German authorities were constantly alleging that, contrary to international law, the Yankees and Brits were camouflaging their war carrier vessels! If he, Imperial First Lieutenant Patzig, could succeed in providing the evidence for this violation of international law by hostile Allied forces – he would be sure of the ‘Pour le Mérite,’ the highest German war decoration, but at the very least the long-yearned-for appointment as Lieutenant-Commander (Kapitänleutnant). 17 

Even though Patzig could see that the ship in question was a hospital ship, he disregarded the misgivings voiced by his officers and attacked the Llandovery Castle.

Later, the officers and part of the crew would indeed use the excuse – spurred on by the German national press – that the ships of the Entente frequently camouflaged troop and ammunition transports as hospital ships. The vessel that had come into Patzig’s sights could, as he later offered by way of justification, also have adopted a Red Cross camouflage. He must have firmly believed this to be the case. Around 2130, the commander of U-86 ordered two torpedoes to be fired. One of the torpedoes missed its target. The other one hit the engine room on the port side. It took less than ten minutes for the ship to sink after it had broken in two. The torpedo had hit the ship’s boilers. According to credible testimonies, the officers and crew of the U-boat looked on in shock as the unarmed crew, together with the nurses and medical doctors, hurried to climb into one of the Llandovery Castle’s nineteen lifeboats. At least two lifeboats pitchpoled during evacuation. Most of them had either been destroyed by the explosion or capsized. Three lifeboats managed to get afloat. The ship’s captain, Edward Arthur Sylvestre, was in one of them. Those afloat now began pulling other survivors onto their lifeboats.

Llandovery Castle by George Wilkinson (Peace and War in the 20th Century Collection, McMaster University)

The German U-boat had meanwhile surfaced for rescue operations. Lieutenant-Commander Patzig ordered the rescue of the shipwrecked to be halted. The lifeboats had to go alongside. Patzig interrogated the surviving captain and several officers of the sunken ship. It now became unequivocally clear to him what he had done, of what crime against maritime law he had made himself guilty. For the time being, he let the lifeboats go on their way.

But then Patzig must have taken fright. It became clear to him that he had committed a war crime, to which there were witnesses. He ordered his boat to be turned around and went back to the scene of his crime. He ordered the helmsman to bear down on the lifeboats and to ram them. But they could narrowly escape the attacking iron monster, at which point Patzig gave the command, “clear to dive.” The crew subsequently went below deck. Only Patzig remained on deck, together with the two watch officers, John Dithmer and Ludwig Boldt, as well as Chief Petty Officer Meißner, who was the gunner in charge of the stern gun. 

Apart from the above mentioned individuals, Patzig did not wish to have any more witnesses to the heinous deed that was about to be committed. He was afraid that even his comrades – after knowledge of it had possibly become public – would deem it to be criminal. He ordered the gunner to fire at the lifeboats. They hit one, sinking it. The British and Canadian mariners and medical practitioners, just spared from drowning, now lost their lives after all. Only one lifeboat, containing Captain Sylvestre and twenty-three other survivors, could escape to the coast 116 miles away, despite the intense pursuit by the U-boat and its resumed ramming attempts. Two hundred thirty-four (234) people nevertheless fell victim to the war crime committed by the German U-boat commander Helmut Patzig.

Oberleutnant zur See Helmut Patzig

However, he was unaware of one fact that did not come to the knowledge of the investigators, prosecutors, appraisers, and judges: namely, that one of his devoted crewmembers, the helmsman, a simple seaman, had, contrary to his commander’s orders, opened a porthole in the conning tower and witnessed everything. Out of camaraderie or a certain reverence, he was reluctant to cause his superior any harm, and later also did not present himself as an eyewitness to the courts. The exact reasons for his behavior are not known. Was it only misplaced camaraderie or team spirit, or was it fear? After all, the gunner, himself, had died under mysterious circumstances after the war. 

No doubt, the eyewitnesses were reluctant to speak. The entire crew, officers and seamen alike, had to promise their captain to keep their silence about the sinking of the hospital ship and the lifeboats. What had happened, Patzig said, he only had to justify his actions before God and his conscience. He then tampered with the logbook, entering a route that his submarine ostensibly took, a long distance away from the scene of one of the worst war crimes of the First World War. As his crime remained hidden, for the time being, Commander Patzig, upon his return to Wilhelmshaven, received a congratulatory telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm II, which read: “Bravo to the valiant commander.”

An Attempt at Atonement

Shortly after arriving at the base, U-86 was taken to the dockyard as it had struck a mine. Patzig was transferred and became the captain of U-90, which he commanded until the end of the war. 19  At his request, the helmsman from his old crew was also transferred to the new U-boat. At the end of the war in 1919, both men were dismissed from the Navy. Even after his release from the service, Patzig was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, retired. It is highly unlikely that his superiors were unaware of his crime. After all, the lifeboat survivors had informed the public of their ordeal. The war crime had elicited a regular storm of outrage on a global scale. Friedrich Karl Kaul, who was a prominent lawyer in East as well as West Germany, assessed the situation in a rather detailed article on the subject: “A hospital ship, clearly marked as per regulations of the 10th Hague Agreement, had been torpedoed! Its shipwrecked passengers had been fired at in open lifeboats, killing all but twenty-four! That constituted an accumulation of international law infringements at a level the Imperial German Navy had hitherto not dared to carry out.” 20  The Allies put Patzig’s name on the war criminals’ list. 

According to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the victorious powers would bring German war crimes to trial. Amongst others, the British government wanted to put three U-boat commanders on trial who had allegedly sunk hospital ships. Upon receiving the knowledge of this development, Patzig fled Germany. His name headed the line-up on the so-called “probationary list” of punishable war crimes. The fact that he was hiding abroad indicates how profoundly conscious he was of his punishable deed. South America, Danzig/Gdansk, and the Baltic countries were suspected as being his possible whereabouts; others claimed to have seen him in Sweden or Denmark. It remained a mystery at that time as to where he actually was. Current research has established that he was hiding in the Baltic capital of Riga. 21 

Patzig’s possible whereabouts and fate even occupied the cabinet meetings of the Reich Chancellor Joseph Wirth. Thus, when a report surfaced in July 1921 that Patzig had allegedly been arrested in Denmark, it was decided “that, if the report was accurate, everything should be done to obtain the extradition.” 22 

The preoccupation of the highest German government offices with the Patzig case also gave cause to concentrate on an “inverse list,” which was raised in public to implicate the victorious Allies of violations of international law. Such public accusations were usually met by approval in the German press, thereby contributing towards strengthening of nationalistic tendencies in the political sphere and the population in general.

The victorious powers took careful note of these developments and threatened to litigate against those responsible for German war crimes themselves. The German minister of justice, Eugen Schiffer, was instructed by the cabinet to ensure that  the “inverse list,” advanced by certain politicians of the Weimar Republic as a vehicle for anti-British propaganda, would not be published. As a result, concurrently planned political actions got delayed. Minister Schiffer subsequently wrote a “private letter” to the president of Württemberg, Johannes Hieber, who was an essential supporter of those who wished to hold a mirror up to the Allies. In it, he said, “The government of the Reich shares the view that the one-sided condemnation of German war criminals is immoral, which is justifiably experienced by popular sentiment as being a brutal violation of any sense of justice. It is therefore determined, as soon as an appropriate time presents itself, to demand equal treatment of foreign war criminals, for which the inverse list shall be used as the basis. However, for the time being, it deems this moment not to have arrived.” 23 

Agitation within the German populace and its politicians had already begun by the time the representatives of the Entente abnegated their right to refrain from demanding the extradition of Germans accused of war crimes. The Allies were entitled to demand extradition according to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. The hope was that doing so would appease the anti-British and anti-French voices in German society. The condition set down by the Allies for the indictment and conviction of German war criminals by the German judiciary was that the Reichsgericht (Supreme Court) in Leipzig was to conduct these trials. The German government had pledged its compliance in this regard. Germans could thereby sit in judgment over Germans.

The victorious powers and Reich government were fully aware that, if the parties concerned had insisted on the arrest and transfer of those Germans who should be hunted down and convicted, the possibility of unrest or even an uprising could easily have led to civil war. 24  

It is fair to assume that extradition of Patzig to the Entente powers would have acutely and profoundly fueled the explosive atmosphere in Germany during the early years of the Weimar Republic. Public opinion was, to a large extent, informed by discussions of the “Erfüllungs” and “Katastrophen” politicians (‘appeasement’ and ‘catastrophe’ politicians) who rejected the conditions stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles. Petty bourgeois jingoism and chauvinism were characteristic features of Germany at that time. 

The possibility that an intensified discussion of war crimes committed by the Allied forces could equally have come up in the event of mutual recriminations may also have been a reason for the Allies to cede the punishment of crimes committed during the war to their former enemy. It is for this reason that the Allies refrained from prosecutions through their judicial institutions; thus, the trial took place before the German Reichsgericht in the Saxon city of Leipzig. The Constituent National Assembly, together with the Reichstag (Parliament of the Reich), had provided the legal basis. The specially drafted “Act for the Prosecution of War Crimes and War Offences” was unanimously adopted. And so the “Leipziger Prozesse” (Leipzig trials) began. During the upcoming proceedings and sentencing, the only law that was to be applied would be German criminal law.

Based on the new act, the chief Reich prosecutor issued a total of 1,803 lawsuits, of which only thirteen went to trial. The remaining cases did not advance beyond investigation proceedings. Of the thirteen trials, only nine reached the sentencing stage; of the twelve men accused, only six were convicted. 25 

Helmut Patzig was to be one of the first to stand trial, but he remained elusive, and only two U-86 officers were arrested. However, Dithmer and Boldt, were on none of the lists that the Allies had handed over to the German authorities. Nevertheless, the chief Reich prosecutor saw that they were put behind bars, and issued an arrest warrant Patzig. The German judicial authorities wished to demonstrate that they were serious about autonomously prosecuting the war crimes committed by citizens of the Reich. Based on the statements of several U-86 crew members, the chief Reich prosecutor concluded that both watch officers were under suspicion of having been complicit in the shelling of the lifeboats. 26  This reasoning was that after the sinking of the hospital ship, the main suspect had “intentionally killed quite a large number of British officers and crew members, as well as several members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps and several nurses, and had willfully executed the killings” (“…vorsätzlich eine größere Anzahl von englischen Offizieren und Mannschaften sowie eine Anzahl von Angehörigen des Canadian Army Medical Corps und mehrere Pflegerinnen vorsätzlich getötet und die Tötung mit Überlegung ausgeführt…“) 27 

The trial had attained top political priority. Friedrich Karl Kaul explained the background for the charges brought against the two navy officers: 

It was not possible to demonstrate their goodwill with the example of one of the prominent figures, nor was it in their (the Reich government’s – UvdH) interest. And so an understanding was reached between the Reich Ministry of Justice, headed at that time by the Social Democrat Radbruck, and the gentlemen in red robes to use the case of the two navy officers, both unknown to the public, to serve as an ‘example.’ Moreover, the criminal charge brought against them … was virtually without equal in the history of maritime warfare. 28 

The indictment, dated 11 June 1921, accused John Dithmer and Ludwig Boldt of having killed an unspecified number of shipwrecked passengers. It, therefore, called for an initial charge of murder. 29  After all, Patzig had also been charged with murder in absentia. The court questioned witnesses in great detail. The court established that the two officers had participated in the actions concerned in the hearing. The accused men were not charged with violating international law by having sunk a Red Cross ship. Firing on shipwrecked passengers was the accusation. This act did not constitute murder, according to the court. The court deemed it to be manslaughter based on consultations with “experts” who described many cases. The accused men remained mostly silent, complicating the matter. The trial commenced in Leipzig on 12 July 1921. During the proceedings, sixty-three witnesses were called – among them, four survivors of the sunken hospital ship. The evidence established that U-86 had torpedoed and sunk the Llandovery Castle on 27 June 1918. Crew members had fired on the lifeboats with an 8.8-cm stern gun to eliminate the eyewitnesses. During the main hearing, no evidence could be found, of course, of the direct participation of the accused watch officers in the murder of defenseless civilians. Not one of the questioned German crew members could confirm this fact, as they had all gone below deck by order of the commander. 30  

Besides the two accused officers, there remained the fugitive commander and the gunner. The latter, however, had died. Presumably, the chief petty officer did not die a natural death. 31  There were no other eyewitnesses who came forth to testify in court, as the helmsman had not revealed himself as such. 

The course of the trial, which was closely followed by journalists of a broad political spectrum from various countries, proved to be unsatisfactory for the surviving Allied witnesses to the heinous deed. The British, Italian and American press, in particular, criticized the fact that the accused U-boat commander evaded his responsibility by having absconded, and attacked the German authorities for not launching an intensive search for the main accused. Observers of the trial criticized, with equal intensity, the two officers for their silence. Both refused to make any statement. According to Walter Schwengler, who made an in-depth study of the trial, the remaining crew members of U-86 “were unable to give any evidence about the target that had been taken under fire, since they had, as per instruction, been ‘on the diving station;’ in other words, inside the submarine.”

Only the helmsman, who had somehow peered out of the conning tower, had been a mute observer of the deed. And he remained silent: probably out of fear of the aggressive noises made by the nationalist press, and most certainly also out of a spirit of camaraderie. It was only in his old age, and within his family circle, that he spoke out about what he had observed. He related, among other things, how Patzig pushed the gunner aside as he was firing on the lifeboat. The reason for this is not known: was it because the gunner intentionally missed the target, was the cannon intermittently malfunctioning, or did the gunner refuse to obey the firing order due to a crisis of conscience? Patzig tried to kill the shipwrecked passengers himself. 32  This incident eventually led the helmsman – albeit rather late and despite the veneration the seaman held for his commander – to a critical evaluation of his superior whom most crew members had held in high esteem 33 , and to speak about it to his family after more than forty years.

Another matter that never emerged in court was the other method employed by Patzig; namely his elimination of witnesses in the lifeboats by ramming them with his U-boat. Only the commander and the helmsman knew about this, as Patzig had ordered hands to clear the command center. This command-style complicity – or rather connivance – placed the seaman under psychological stress. The images of shelling and hunting the lifeboats remained with the helmsman for the rest of his life.

As he subsequently did not testify in the Reichsgericht, the helmsman’s observations were not part of the evidence for the trial. Since Patzig, the main accused, had not handed himself over to the courts, his account would have made little difference anyway. Thus, the two officers of U-86 were each sentenced to a prison term of four years as having been accessories to manslaughter, because they had safeguarded the artillery shelling of the lifeboats through their monitoring activity. The accused nevertheless admitted no culpability where their actions were concerned. They believed that they had only followed orders and had merely scanned the horizon for enemy ships. They were unwilling to testify on the “events themselves.” As the accused Boldt put it, he was “bound to his commander by a promise to remain silent;” a promise he still felt obliged to keep. 34 

Although the two officers refused to testify, prosecutors nevertheless claimed limited success. The prosecutors believed they had made a point of identifying those responsible for monitoring the horizon, thereby having aided and facilitated shelling of the lifeboats. The indictment charged, “…that they had, by being on the look-out, guarded against any threat to the U-boat from the enemy and, by doing so, had created the possibility for Patzig to proceed with his course of action against the lifeboats in the first place.” 35  The Reichsgericht furthermore ruled that Dithmer be dismissed from service and that the right of Boldt to wear his uniform be rescinded. 

The sentencing of the two officers of U-86 was greeted with a certain amount of satisfaction by the Foreign Office because Britain had meanwhile reacted with increasing distrust concerning the seriousness with which the Leipzig war crimes trials were conducted, especially in light of the Patzig case. Now the Foreign Office could present, if not the main accused, then at least the sentencing of two suspects, the identification and prosecution of whom had been due to German investigative activity, something which “was noted with quiet satisfaction as proof of judicial impartiality.”

Several other questions arise retrospectively. What would have happened if the silent eyewitness helmsman had testified in court? What if the lawyers had proved that Patzig operated the gun that was supposed to sink the lifeboats? Or that he had intended to ram the lifeboats with the U-boat, a matter never raised during proceedings? How would the Allies have reacted, had they been made aware of such blatant, verifiably multiple violations of maritime and international law? Would they have demanded Patzig’s extradition to prosecute him themselves? How would the German government have reacted? And the German public? The former enemies? Would the witness’s life been in danger from right-wing nationalist forces? Had the helmsman therefore prevented an international conflict by remaining silent? 36 

Reactions to and the Significance of the Trial and its Outcome. 

Examining the attempts at atonement for war crimes committed by the Germans during the First World War heard in court in the early 1920s leads one to agree with Frank Neubacher that the results were poor, 37  especially if one considers the ratio of initiated lawsuits to those that resulted in a conviction. The balance was, after all, 1803 to 6. 

A contributing factor was that, with time, the energies of the judges in Leipzig to prosecute such crimes began to lag, especially when the interest shown by the Allies in this regard also began to wane. The judges discontinued many proceedings. Only a few of those sentenced had their convictions enforced. 

When the chief Reich prosecutor, Dr. Ludwig Ebermeier, had to read out the bill of indictment against the officers of U-86, he gave eloquent testimony to the attitude of the German judiciary towards the war crime hearings. He began by saying: “Hardly ever during the nearly forty years that I have been serving as a state prosecutor and a judge, has the performing of my official duties been more difficult than today, where I am compelled, due to the outcome of the three days of hearings that lie behind us, to bring charges against two German ship officers … for the most serious crime listed in the German code of law.”

He then proceeded to give a relatively faithful rendition of the course of events. In his account, he did not, however, accuse Patzig of torpedoing a hospital ship, but merely of attempting and executing the killing of defenseless, shipwrecked passengers. According to the chief Reich prosecutor, the accused, Boldt and Dithmer, assisted in the killing of the shipwrecked passengers and had “acted with premeditation.”

Leading representatives of the German Naval Command, such as the Commander in Chief (Submarines), Vice Admiral Andreas Michelsen, for instance, challenged the legitimacy of the trial in publications and lectures on the topic. 38  Along with other high-ranking German military officers, Michelsen acknowledged how reprehensible Patzig’s actions and commands were. Michelsen recognized that in “removing” witnesses, Patzig had attempted to “conceal” his deed. Patzig wanted to “prevent news of this matter from reaching Britain,” as pointed out in the judgment of the court. 39  

It appears as though the judiciary acknowledged this argument as being some excuse for the killing of unarmed civilians. That is the only plausible explanation for the fact that the sinking of the Llandovery Castle was manifestly considered to be a violation of international law, but had not been made the actual subject matter of the trial. 40 

For the victims, the outcome of the legal proceedings was far from satisfactory. The significance of the trial lies not in the lenient sentences handed down for sinking the hospital ship or the cowardly attacks on the lifeboats. Nor is it significant for the small number of punishments meted out to those Germans who had committed crimes that violated international law. The real significance of the trial was that in the future, individuals would be held accountable for their actions in wartime by the standards of international law.  41  It was furthermore clarified for the first time in Germany that a military subordinate’s duty to obey, and recourse to its subjective viewpoint, is not unconditional but rather subject to objective evaluation. 42 

An essential lesson of the Leipzig trials was that proceedings against war crimes must in the future not reside in the hands of a national judiciary, but that they instead require an international criminal court. Thus, the formation of the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague grew out of the experiences acquired and lessons drawn from the Leipzig trials. 43 

From the viewpoint of legal history, the Leipzig trials, which were conducted solely on account of German war crimes committed during the First World War, led to necessary reforms concerning the conduct of war crimes trials subsequently held at Nuremberg and Tokyo after the Second World War. 

For this reason, in academic publications, the Leipzig trials are sometimes referred to as the “prologue to Nuremberg.” 44  At the Nuremberg trials, nobody wanted to repeat the same mistake made with the Leipzig trials, having resulted as they did from the Treaty of Versailles. The central aspect of this mistake was that terms of the treaty were dictated to and imposed upon a defeated Germany after the First World War. Subsequently, German authorities were left to prosecute and sit in judgment over their own war criminals. 

A Slapstick Farce instead of Punishing a Rare Crime

“Many things were not done strictly in accordance with the rule of law, back then in Leipzig,” the lawyer Harald Wiggenhorn, one of the most renowned experts in the events analyzed here, concluded. 45  In his book, he demonstrates that the Ministry of the Reichswehr (Army of the Reich) and the Reich Ministry of Justice were playing a double game. On the one hand, they investigated the crimes awaiting trial, but, on the other, they made funds, defense lawyers, and additional support available to the accused, to assist them and delay the proceedings.

For this reason, later experts on the subject classified the Leipzig trials as being a “parody, comedy and scandal” or, as Gerd Hankel, an expert in international law who also made a meticulous study of the Leipzig trials, rates them – and probably justifiably so –, as a “Schmierenkomödie” (slapstick farce) 46 .

An indication of the mood among the German people, mainly where the Patzig case was concerned, is that the courtroom erupted into turmoil when verdicts for the two officers, Boldt and Dithmer, were announced. After the sentencing, the two convicted men received written demonstrations of sympathy from various quarters, as high up as the Reichswehr and Navy Command.

And the two convicted men did not have to spend too much time in prison either. As early as 17 November 1921, Boldt escaped from a jail in Hamburg. On 29 January 1922, Dithmer was broken out of jail in Naumburg/Saale by several men who would later be part of the group that murdered Reich Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau. 47  Both absconded abroad. Dithmer worked in a bank in Barcelona, and Boldt founded a company for electrical systems in Cali (Colombia). Subsequently, German public interest in this “case” largely disappeared.

Even after the sentences, German politicians discouraged, as far as possible, any kind of public discussion of the matter. However, the war crime at sea, and the attempt to bring the culprits to justice, was not entirely swept under the carpet in the Allied press. In Britain, open criticism was publicly levelled at the verdict for months afterward. The sinking of a ship sailing under the banner of the Red Cross, together with attacks on the lifeboats, was considered a clear case of mass murder. 48  Conduct of the proceedings also elicited frequent criticism. It had been, as per a letter from the chief Reich prosecutor to the Reich Minister of Justice, rather difficult to appease the British government after the “escape of Boldt and Dithmer.” 49 

In 1925, a request for pardon for the two convicted men from U-86 was raised in the Weimar Republic. Authorities denied the request because such an action would spark criticism abroad. 50  A “deep concern” was expressed that an amnesty could “possibly bring about a revival in the abating propaganda of wartime atrocity in countries abroad.” 51 

However, in 1926, the arrest warrant for Helmut Patzig for committed war crimes was unexpectedly rescinded by order of the chief Reich prosecutor. The reason cited for this decision was that “pressing grounds for suspicion no longer exist;” that he had committed “the crimes he has been charged with.” 52  

The recorded files provide information about the struggle that went on behind the scenes in the Patzig case. The whereabouts of Helmut Patzig was still unknown to the German authorities. However, the political climate in the country had meanwhile produced a groundswell of nationalistic sentiment. Patzig no longer had to fear extradition or facing a lengthy prison sentence if he were to stand trial in Leipzig. The rescinding of his arrest warrant was proof of this.

The reason for this unexpected decision was a “statement of facts” and “explanation” dated 26 July 1926, which Helmut Patzig handed to his lawyer for the court. 53  In it, Patzig gave an account of his version of the incident and attempted to explain why he had torpedoed the Llandovery Castle and ordered his men to fire at the lifeboats. He argued that he had aimed to sink a troop carrier, because otherwise – such was his reasoning, dripping with self-conviction – he may have been “blamed for the outcome of the war itself.” 54  Besides, the lifeboats were, according to him, “filled with soldiers, who would go and stand among enemy ranks again.” 55 

The conclusion Patzig drew from his crime against maritime law is downright terrifying: “Today I am of the opinion that, if I should be faced with similar conflicts, I would be obliged to follow a similar course of action.” 56  After having taken note of Patzig’s statement, the Reichsgericht complied with the request of his defense counsel to reopen the proceedings. 

After receiving Patzig’s justification, the courts also granted a respite of the execution of sentence to Dithmer and Boldt, a search for whom had been ongoing since their escape from prison. The grounds for punishing their flight were thereby beyond judgment.

In 1928, after further expert evaluations – even one on Patzig’s “statement of facts” – had been issued, the non-public proceedings that followed this course of events recommenced before the Leipzig court. 57  The result was that, on 4 May 1928, the two officers were cleared of all charges, seeing that their commander, Helmut Patzig, who had emerged from the shadows, had generously taken sole responsibility for the incident. Upon reading the “statement of facts” of the commander of U-86, as well as an “explanation” drawn up by him on the same day, 58  one may discern the beginnings of doubt where his actions are concerned – provided that he was sincere. But then he went on to say: “There was no point in racking one’s brains over what happened.” 59 

The arrest warrant issued for Patzig was rescinded. Indicative of changing public attitudes in Germany, proceedings against the commander and the two officers from U-86 concluded after they responded to questions put to them by the Reichsgericht in Leipzig. 60  Further, the proceedings were placed on hold for a protracted period until, based on the so-called depenalisation laws of 1928 and 1930, their legal cessation took place. Boldt and Dithmer were even awarded financial compensation for the period spent on remand and for the partially enforced sentence. 61  

One may accept Walter Schwengler’s argument, which concludes that the responsible judges did “not observe their statutory obligation” in “pursuing Patzig’s arrest and sentencing.” With no judgment delivered against Patzig, however, the proceedings were, at least in strictly legal terms, concluded. Eventually, on 20 March 1931, the criminal division of the Reichsgericht closed the proceedings against Kapitänleutnant, retired, Helmut Patzig permanently.

This action, which made a mockery of the victims, did not create a great stir. An Allied commission to investigate the Leipzig trials did admittedly propose that those accused but not convicted of a war crime should be extradited to the countries on whose territory the crimes had occurred. The political situation had changed drastically by the late 1920s, and the courts would no longer act on considerations of this nature. Consequently, the death of 234 people remained unatoned. 

The War Criminal of the First, now in the Second World War 

Helmut Patzig joined the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the Nazi Party) 1 November 1933 62 , shortly after the party had come to power.  Although he still went by the name of Brümmer, he wished to change his name again, as he now no longer feared extradition to the Allies. He was engaged in commerce in Riga and, in 1937, was appointed training manager of the local NSDAP-branch of his hometown. 63 

Soon afterward, Patzig applied to the Reich and Prussian Ministry of the Interior to have his name changed. He informed resident officials in writing that, previously, he was obliged to change his name to Brümmer. Now, “after his return to the Reich and his redeployment in the navy,” his wish was “to be able to bear the name, at least in an ancillary fashion, under which he had become known during the World War.” The Navy High Command had given its endorsement to a corresponding application to the police commissioner in Berlin. 64  This action suggests that he had acquired a second home in the German capital. 

According to his statement, after the National Socialist assumption of power, Patzig had moved to Zoppot, to Baederweg 1. As a resident of Berlin, he was reactivated by the German Navy as Lieutenant-Commander of the Kriegsmarine and promoted to Commander (Korvettenkapitän) on 1 December 1939. It was, therefore, no problem for Patzig’s name change to be authorized. As evidenced by the records, that he was a “party comrade and an active officer” proved to be advantageous to him. 65

The Nazis were appreciative of Patzig’s attitude during the First World War and the Leipzig trials and knew how to utilize his naval expertise. From February to June 1940, he served in the German Navy in various submarine staff positions, in the French port of Lorient, for instance (June to September 1940), and in Königsberg (September to October 1940). From 28 January to 15 October 1941, he was the commander of a captured Dutch submarine, UD-4. He was primarily involved in training and was decorated with numerous military awards, such as the “Spange zum Eisernen Kreuz 2. Klasse” (Clasp of the Iron Cross 2nd class) and, in 1943, the “Kriegsverdienstkreuz II. Klasse mit Schwertern” (War Cross of Merit 2nd class with Swords). 

After being deployed as firing instructor of the 25th U-flotilla (November 1941 to March 1943), Brümmer-Patzig was put in charge of the 26th submarine flotilla – established in April 1941 – from April 1943 to 9 April 1945. This flotilla served as a training unit and was based in Pillau until 1945, and then, for a short period, in Warnemünde, a small harbor town on the Baltic Sea. His promotion to Fregattenkapitän came on 1 February 1944. 66  After the war, Brümmer-Patzig returned to his occupation in commerce. He was by now in a second marriage. After the Federal Republic of Germany had been established, and when the opportunity arose, he applied for compensation for the material losses he had suffered in Zoppot. He died on 11 March 1984. 67 

While he was head of the flotilla in the German Navy during the Second World War, Helmut Brümmer-Patzig encountered memories of his war crime during the First World War. His former helmsman, who knew more than he probably would have liked about him and his crime that had attracted worldwide attention in earlier days, paid him an unexpected visit. The former helmsman “asked” a favor for his son, who was doing service with the Navy on the Black Sea. He asked Brümmer-Patzig to take him into his division, if possible. Was it gratitude or even fear he felt for a witness who, had he testified, could have become very dangerous to him? Or was it a matter of genuine comradely empathy that induced Brümmer-Patzig to respond to the request of his former helmsman and to bring his son to Pillau and into his division? There the cadre seaman could survive the war years in relative safety, serving on an auxiliary cruiser.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the seaman received a confidential order from his commander. Brümmer-Patzig’s superiors should have been informed of the order but were not made aware. In the spring of 1945, with the war quickly drawing to a close, Brümmer-Patzig instructed two seamen from his division to take his private sailing yacht to a place of safety, ahead of the Red Army advancing from the east. The two seamen received explicit orders from Brümmer-Patzig not to take on board any of the civilian refugees who were fleeing East Prussia by the tens of thousands, hoping to be rescued by sea. The two seamen entrusted with carrying out this inexcusable and illegal order had to stand by and watch as women, children, and the elderly who were crowding at the harbor basin, flung themselves into the water, hoping to be rescued by the yacht. The helpless sailors could only watch. They could not do anything to assist the refugees on the exact order of Brümmer-Patzig, for whom the intactness of his private yacht was worth more than the lives of some German women, the elderly, and children.

Brümmer-Patzig’s order, under no circumstances, had anything to do with military necessity. Other German naval vessels, including U-boats, especially from Danzig/Gdansk and heading westward, took hundreds of refugees on board against official orders. For many years afterward, the son of the helmsman from U-86 felt tormented by the traumatic memories of not being in a position to rescue civilians who needed his help. He would share these memories with his father, albeit in a different context. Both father and son had become victims of the commander, who had been their superior in the two World Wars.

Years later, Brümmer-Patzig, living and working in North Rhine-Westphalia as a commercial employee, expressed gratitude towards his former helmsman for his silence. Brümmer-Patzig sent him half a pound of coffee twice a year, across the border into the eastern part of Germany. Then, about three decades later, by way of reciprocation for his gifts, he requested his former subordinate “colleague” in the Pillau division to supply him with a written declaration, stating that “the Russians” had “stolen” his private yacht. He presumably did this to be able to argue for compensation in a lawsuit. Because he never received any written statement from the son of his First World War shipmate, he was subsequently unable to include the yacht with his list of other material losses. Among the items for which he claimed compensation and provided documentary evidence, were things such as household goods, losses in savings, and the loss of a single-family house in Zoppot in which he had half ownership. 68  

With a declaration from his erstwhile subordinate in his pocket, he would presumably have attempted to apply for financial compensation, even if the relevant provisions of the Equalisation of Burden Act of 1962 would probably not have authorized monetary payment for the yacht. 
<With the request for a written confirmation attesting to the loss of the yacht, the memories of the events that occurred on the quay of the Pillau harbor came flooding back, which led to the father and son losing all previous feelings of gratitude towards their former commander. 69

(Return to December 2020 Table of Contents) 


  1. I thank Professor Holger Herwig for his valuable help in writing this article.
  2. Jörg-M. Hormann, “Erst verkannt und dann gefürchtet. Deutsche U-Boote im Ersten Weltkrieg 1914 – 1918,“ in: Schiff Classic: Magazin für Schifffahrts- und Marinegeschichte, no. 2, Munich 2014, 12 – 21.
  3. For instance Ulf Kaack, Tödliche Begegnungen, Schiff Classic: Magazine 2014, 23 – 25.
  4. John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven, Connecticut: 2001), especially 327 and 419.
  5. A first attempt at a reappraisal of this maritime war crime can be found in the popular science article by Ulrich van der Heyden, “HMHS Llandovery Castle. Ein ungesühntes Kriegsverbrechen 1918“, in Militärgeschichte. Zeitschrift für historische Bildung, no. 2, Potsdam 2016, 22 – 23.
  6. A document of the German Reich Interior Ministry states in this regard: “In order to evade being seized by the Entente, which had demanded his extradition, he fled in 1920 under the name of Brümmer.” – [„Um sich dem Zugriff der Entente zu entziehen, die seine Auslieferung gefordert hatte, flüchtete er im Jahre 1920 unter dem Namen Brümmer.“ – Federal Archives Berlin-Lichterfelde: BA, R 1501/127628: Namensänderung Patzig, sheet 208.
  7. Günter Krause, U-Boot und U-Jagd, 2nd ed., (East Berlin: 1986), 32.
  8. In this regard, the two most up-to-date, well-researched accounts (in German) are in Willi Jasper, Lusitania. Kulturgeschichte einer Katastrophe (Berlin: 2015); Erik Larson,  Der Untergang der Lusitania. Die größte Schiffstragödie des Ersten Weltkriegs (Hamburg: 2015). On the anti-German response elicited by the sinking of the Lusitania, even in South Africa, see. Tilman Dedering, “Avenge the Lusitania: The Anti-German Riots in South Africa in 1915,” in Immigrants & Minorities. Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora, no. 3, (London: 2013), 256 – 288.
  9. Wolfgang Krüger and Bodo Herzog, Der Entschluss zum uneingeschränkten U-Bootkrieg im Jahre 1917 und seine völkerrechtliche Rechtfertigung (Berlin/Frankfurt am Main: 1959).
  10. Richard Lakowski, U-Boote. Zur Geschichte einer Waffengattung der Seestreitkräfte (East Berlin: 1985), 116.
  11. Lakowski,  U-Boote, 121.
  12. Designation for non-series U-boats without numbering.
  13. Lutz Unterseher,  Der Erste Weltkrieg. Trauma des 20. Jahrhunderts (Heidelberg: 2014), 86.
  14. Bodo Herzog, Deutsche U-Boote 1906–1966 (Erlangen: 1993), 123.
  15. Herzog, Deutsch U-Boote, 68.
  16. Friedrich Karl Kaul, “Völkerrecht ist außer Kraft gesetzt. Der Fall Boldt/Dithmar 1918–1928“, in  Friedrich Karl Kaul, So wahr mir Gott helfe. Pitaval der Kaiserzeit (East Berlin: 1970), 296.
  17. Kaul, “Völkerrecht,“ 296.
  18. A well-researched depiction of this criminal act can be found in Harald Wiggenhorn, “Eine Schuld fast ohne Sühne”, in Zeit online, Dossier, 16.08.1996. This article is based on the book by Harald Wiggenhorn: Verliererjustiz: Die Leipziger Kriegsverbrecherprozesse nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Baden-Baden: 2005).
  19. Herzog, Deutsche U-Boote, 309.
  20. Kaul, “Völkerrecht,“ 301. – “Ein nach den Vorschriften des 10. Haager Abkommens gekennzeichnetes Lazarettschiff war torpediert worden! Seine Schiffbrüchigen hatte man in offenen Rettungsbooten beschossen und bis auf vierundzwanzig getötet! Das war eine Häufung von Völkerrechtsbrüchen, wie sie sich die kaiserlich-deutsche Marine bislang noch nicht zu leisten gewagt hatte.”
  21. Federal Archive Berlin-Lichterfelde: R 9361 II (Collection Berlin Document Centre), shelf number: 121765, sheet 1524.
  22. Files of the Reich Chancellery. Weimarer Republik, Vol. 1, cabinet meeting dated 22 July 1921, 148 (online edition). – “…daß im Falle der Richtigkeit der Meldung alles getan werden müsse, um die Auslieferung zu erreichen.“
  23. Files of Reich Chancellery 150. – “Die Reichsregierung teilt die Anschauungen, daß die einseitige Aburteilung deutscher Kriegsverbrecher unsittlich ist und von dem Volksempfinden mit Recht als eine brutale Vergewaltigung jedes Rechtsgefühls empfunden wird. Sie ist deshalb gewillt, sobald hierzu der geeignete Zeitpunkt sich darbietet, den Anspruch auf gleichmäßige Behandlung der fremden Kriegsverbrecher zu erheben und hierfür die Gegenliste als Grundlage zu benutzen. In diesem Augenblick aber scheint ihr dieser Zeitpunkt nicht gekommen zu sein.”
  24. Gerd Hankel, Die Leipziger Prozesse: Deutsche Kriegsverbrechen und ihre strafrechtliche Verfolgung nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Hamburg: 2003).
  25. Frank Neubacher, Kriminologische Grundlagen einer internationalen Strafgerichtsbarkeit. Politische Ideen- und Dogmengeschichte, kriminalwissenschaftliche Legitimation, strafrechtliche Perspektiven (Tübingen: 2005), 310.
  26. Walter Schwengler, Völkerrecht, Versailler Vertrag und Aus (Stuttgart: 1982),  348.
  27. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office: Rechtsabteilung, R IV: Kriegsbeschuldigte, Brief des Oberreichsanwalts an das Auswärtige Amt, 23.02.1921.
  28. Kaul,“Völkerrecht,“ 305. – “Ihren guten Willen an dem Exempel eines der Prominentesten zu statuieren war nicht möglich und lag nicht in ihrem (der Reichsregierung – UvdH) Interesse. So kam man im Reichsjustizministerium, dem zu dieser Zeit der Sozialdemokrat Radbruck vorstand, mit den Herren der roten Roben überein, den Fall der beiden in der Öffentlichkeit unbekannten Marineoffiziere als ‚Muster’ zu benutzen. Außerdem konnte der gegen sie erhobene strafrechtliche Vorwurf… in der Geschichte des Seekrieges wirklich seinesgleichen suchen.”
  29. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R IV: Kriegsbeschuldigte Nr. 2, Verhaftung und Auslieferung des Oblt. Dithmer.
  30. Schwengler, Völkerrecht, Versailler, 348.
  31. Mention is made in a letter to the Reich Minister of Justice to the Foreign Office, dated 18 May 1921, of a “meanwhile allegedly deceased Chief Petty Officer Second Class Meissner”. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R IV: Auswärtiges Amt, Friedensabteilung.
  32. Kaul, “Völkerrecht,” 308. One of the four seamen who operated and were close to the cannon had apparently injured his hand during firing. One of the other three took over.
  33. Hankel, Die Leipziger Prozesse, 457.
  34. Hankel, Die Leipziger Prozesse, 458.
  35. Schwengler, “Völkerrecht,” 148. Quoted from the bill of indictment – “ganz abgesehen davon, daß sie durch ihr Ausschauen einer Gefährdung des U-Boots von anderer Seite vorgebeugt und dadurch überhaupt erst für Patzig die Möglichkeit zu seinem Vorgehen gegen die Boote geschaffen.”
  36. These questions arise not only from the author of this essay, whose grandfather was the witness of the crime. The personal representations are based on many conversations with the grandfather.
  37. Neubacher, Kriminologische Grundlagen, 311.
  38. Andreas Michelsen, Das Urteil im Leipziger Uboots-Prozeß ein Fehlspruch? Juristische und militärische Gutachten (Berlin: 1922).
  39. Quoted in Michelson, Das Urteil, 56.
  40. Neubacher, Kriminologische Grundlagen, 312.
  41. Heiko Ahlbrecht, Geschichte der völkerrechtlichen Strafgerichtsbarkeit im 20. Jahrhundert. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der völkerrechtlichen Straftatbestände und der Bemühungen um einen Ständigen Internationalen Strafgerichtshof (Baden-Baden: 1999), 45.
  42. Hankel, Die Leipziger Prozesse, 463.
  43. Constanze Schulte, Compliance with Decisions in the International Court of Justice (Oxford: 2004).
  44. Dirk von Selle, “Prolog zu Nürnberg. Die Leipziger Kriegsverbrecherprozesse vor dem Reichsgericht,“ in: Zeitschrift für Neuere Rechtsgeschichte, no. 3/4, Vienna 1997, 192 – 209; James F. Willis, Prologue to Nuremberg: The Punishment of War Criminals of the First World War (Westport: 1982).
  45. Wiggenhorn, Verliererjustiz, “Eine Schuld fast ohne Sühne,“ “Es ging so einigs nicht ganz rechtsstaatlich zu, damals in Leipzig.”
  46. Hankel, Die Leipziger Prozesse, 500.
  47. A detailed description of the escapes is provided in Kaul, “Völkerrecht,” 310 – 316.
  48. Claud Mullins, The Leipzig Trials: An account of the war criminals’ trials and a study of German mentality (London: 1921), 108 and 134.
  49. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts), R 48433: Letter of the chief Reich prosecutor to the Reich Minister of Justice (with enclosures), 13.03.1928, (transcript) sheet 189.
  50. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Report of the Foreign Office, dated 12.04.1928, sheets 163–164.
  51. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Letter from the Foreign Office to the Reich Minister of Justice, 26.07.1926 (transcript), sheets 104–107. – “die einschlummernde Kriegsgreulpropaganda im Auslande zu neuem Leben erwecken…”
  52. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: R IV: Letter from the chief Reich prosecutor to the Foreign Office, 20.07.1926, sheet 100.
  53. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Sachdarstellung, im Ausland, d. 6. Mai 1926 (transcript), sheets 116–127.
  54. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: sheet 118.
  55. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Erklärung…, sheet 150. – „… mit Soldaten gefüllt, die sich wieder in die feindlichen Reihen einstellen würden.”
  56. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Sachdarstellung…, sheet 126. – “Heute bin ich der Ansicht, daß ich in ähnliche Konflikte gestellt, auch wieder ähnlich handeln müßte.”
  57. The chapter summarising the countervailing facts: “Die heimliche Wiederaufnahme des Falles, ‘Llandovery Castle’ von 1922–1931“, in: Katrin Hassel, Kriegsverbrechen vor Gericht. Die Kriegsverbrecherprozesse vor Militärgerichten in der britischen Besatzungszone unter dem Royal Warrant vom 18. Juni 1945 (1945–1949), (Baden-Baden: 2008), 63 – 67.
  58. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Erklärung, sheet 150f.
  59. Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, R 48433: Sachdarstellung…, sheet 124. – “Es hatte keinen Zweck, sich über das Geschehene zu zergrübeln.”
  60. Schwengler, Völkerrecht, Versailler, 358.
  61. Hankel, Die Leipziger Prozesse, 503f.
  62. Federal Archive: R 9361 II (Collection Berlin Document Centre), shelf no.: 121765, sheet 1524.
  63. Federal Archive: R 9361 II.
  64. Federal Archive Berlin-Lichterfelde: R 1501/127628, sheet 206–210.
  65. Federal Archive Berlin-Lichterfelde: In an administrative note, it states: “In 1931 he obtained permission in Danzig/Gdansk to use this name (Brümmer – UvdH). Since there no longer exist any grounds under current circumstances for him to conceal his name, Patzig, he requests that he may be called by this name again and, to wit, as an additional name to the one he currently holds. He will not relinquish the name Brümmer again, as he has, for the last nineteen years, been known under this name to an entire circle of individuals. He has furthermore gone through very difficult times under this name.” – “In view of the services rendered” by the applicant, councillor Lettner, who was dealing with the process, proposed a positive, free-of-charge outcome for the application, which subsequently happened. – [”Im Jahre 1931 hat er in Danzig die Genehmigung zur Führung dieses Namens erhalten. Da unter den heutigen Verhältnissen kein Grund mehr vorliegt, seinen Namen Patzig zu verschweigen, bittet er, ihn nunmehr wieder tragen zu dürfen, und zwar als Zusatzname zu seinem gegenwärtigen Namen. Den Namen Brümmer wird er nicht wieder ablegen, da er 19 Jahre lang unter diesem Namen einem ganzen Kreise von Menschen bekannt geworden sei. Ferner hatte er unter diesem Namen die allerschwersten Zeiten bestanden.“
  66. Hans-Joachim Busch, Rainer/Röll, Der U-Boot-Krieg 1939–1945: Die deutschen U-Boot-Kommandanten (Hamburg/Berlin/Bonn: 1996), 39.
  67. Kulturlexikon Langenberger. Immaterielles Kulturerbe der UNESCO,, 919.
  68. Federal Archive: Equalisation of Burden Authorities – “Brümmer-Patzig, Helmut”, shelf no.: ZLA 1/13395872.
  69. An upcoming book will deal with the subject in more detail: Ulrich van der Heyden, Helmut Patzig – U-Boot-Heroe oder Verbrecher?( Solivagus Verlag: Kiel, 2021).

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