NAVY NEWS, DECEMBER 2011
Singeing Uncle Sam’s beard
NEXT year sees the bicentenary of the outbreak of the War of 1812, the last major confl ict between Britain
and the USA. The
Americans plan major
commemorations which will no doubt emphasise their victories in single-ship actions early in the war, their successful battles on the lakes, the repulse of the attack on Baltimore – that gave them their national anthem – and the Battle of New Orleans celebrated in song and fi lm (which tend to omit the unfortunate fact that it was fought after the peace treaty had been signed).
It will be important to emphasise, however, that this was a war the Americans lost, writes Professor Eric Grove of the University of Salford.
They achieved none of their
objectives, notably their attempted conquest of Canada. They did not even force the British to give up their naval rights, whose assertion had helped lead to war. Britain succeeded in preserving the status quo that she was trying to defend. Her main means of doing so
was the imposition of a highly- effective blockade which totally undermined the US government’s fi nances,
a process reinforced
by the burning of Washington that caused a major run on the American banks.
This process has been admirably analysed by Dr Brian Arthur fi rst in his University of Greenwich PhD thesis and now in the resulting book, How Britain Won the War of 1812; The Royal
Revisiting the tragedy of Force K
WITH the 70th anniversary of one of the Navy’s worst – and perhaps most overlooked – WW2 tragedies upon us, how appropriate that a second, much- expanded tribute to the men of Force K has appeared. A few days before Christmas
1941, half a dozen ships, led by cruiser HMS Neptune, were dispatched to intercept a convoy carrying supplies for Rommel. The ships ran into an
The Grove Review
Navy’s Blockades of the United States 1812-1815 (Boydell Press £60, ISBN 978 1 84383 665 0). Dr Arthur clearly explains how Admirals Sir John Warren and Sir Alexander Cochrane put in place a highly-effective and escalating blockade that not only prevented the US government raising revenue but led to the threatened secession of the New England states whose economies had been ruined by the war. The great weakness of the
American position was the total dependence of the US government’s fi nances on customs duties. Although attempts to put pressure on Britain through trade embargoes had already seriously damaged American trade – in effect
cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face (or as it was said at the time cutting one’s toe nails by cutting off one’s toes!) – the effect of the blockade was cataclysmic. US imports fell in value from almost $80m in 1812 to $13m in 1814 and customs revenues from $13m to fewer than fi ve. The USA, with immature
fi nancial institutions, was faced with
which it could not cope and therefore the
a burgeoning defi cit with
forced to sue for peace. The extent as well as the
effectiveness of the British blockade was remarkable. Once the Royal Navy had made the
a remarkable exercise of
necessary dispositions, the US Navy – which had no ships of the line, was neutralised on the Eastern seaboard and British ships could move as they pleased, penetrating up the Delaware and into Chesapeake Bay. Bases were obtained ashore, notably in Maine where the inhabitants were effectively placed under British protection. Indeed many Americans up and down the coast had little compunction in helping supply the British with both provisions and even intelligence. This was clearly an unpopular war.
great care to prove his points by meticulous economic and fi nancial analysis.
copious appendices and endnotes that take up just over a third of the 328-page book and it cannot be faulted in basic
There are The author takes
British against both French and American shipping in this period. Guerres des courses generally do not work if suitable defensive precautions are taken; blockades do, if one commands the sea as the British did. The Americans hoped to attack British trade through a guerre de course and, as no less a luminary than Mahan pointed out over a century ago in his rather-neglected study of this war, the British convoy system successfully defended British trade from raiders while American ships were being trapped, destroyed and taken in massively large numbers by British cruisers and fl otilla backed by the presence of line of battleships. Britain soon controlled the seas off the American
methodology, indeed it is truly a major achievement of scholarship. There is, however, one very
damage as a result,
serious and surprising error that I am surprised neither Dr Arthur’s supervisor nor his examiners picked up. The author confuses blockade with guerre de course – very different concepts. Both involve operations against merchantmen but the guerre de course is, by defi nition, the ‘war of the chase’, usually waged by the weaker power, on the high seas It is certainly not the systematic interdiction of maritime trade by the dominant sea power such as that undertaken by the
defeat inevitable. It had been very ill-advised of the Madison administration to take on the global maritime super power whose naval strength was matched by its formidable fi nancial muscle. As the Americans celebrate ‘victories’ in 2012-15 we bear
their need to
truth in mind. The Americans were indeed able to prevent Britain fully exploiting its victory by containing the USA and expanding British infl uence in North America but that was not the primary British war aim which
and a United States still dependent on a maritime economy suffered decisive making
was merely to maintain things as they were. Indeed, the war should never
have taken place at all as the British had withdrawn their Orders in Council which had so alienated the Americans before news of this reached Washington. The author points out that much
of the criticism to which Admiral Warren has been subjected is based on misunderstanding. The limits
the British commander
placed on his early actions were a result of attempts to negotiate peace, not lack of effort.
Such an academically-sound book is perhaps bound to be expensive and this one is no exception. Such is its value, however, as a necessary antidote to American triumphalism and a necessary revision of earlier works on the subject that it ought to be published in a cheaper paperback edition as soon as possible, preferably amended with the above rather serious mistake expunged. The book is also important as it demonstrates that there is more to sea power and maritime strategy than just ships and battles, a point that Professor Andrew Lambert makes in his excellent introduction. There was also more to our
victory in this war than merely burning President Madison’s residence, forcing the Americans to paint it white to cover the scorch marks. ‘White House’
The resulting thus becomes
a rather ironic icon of the fundamental strength in depth of our maritime and economic power at the opening of what would be Britain’s century.
TODAY’S Senior Service likes to claim the Armada as its fi rst battle honour and take inspiration from Nelson and his ‘band of brothers’.
But really the modern Royal
Navy owes many of its defi ning characteristics to the days of steam and iron, as Brian Lavery shows in the second book of his history of the lower decks. His account of ratings began
uncharted minefield off Tripoli; Neptune hit four and sank while HMS Kandahar was fatally damaged by one as she moved in to pick up survivors.
with Royal Tars which took the story up to 1850… precisely where Able Seamen (Conway, £25 ISBN 978-1-84486-140-8) begins.
Mr Lavery is (a) prolifi c – Able
In all 837 men lost their lives (including five pairs of brothers) – only one man was rescued from HMS Neptune after several days on a liferaft, while his shipmates died one-by-one. The terrible fate of those 837
souls was told by Adrian St Clair back in 2005 in Mediterranean Minefield. Six years later, a wealth of
material has poured in the wake of the first edition permitting Mr St Clair – who lost his uncle in the disaster – to vastly revise the book (HMS Neptune Association, £20 ISBN 978-0-9550387-1-6). The result is a volume one and a half times the size of the first edition. Mediterranean Minefield is not a typical history of a naval engagement or of the ships, but a very human tribute to the men lost; there is a photograph (or photographs) of almost every man who died, plus often- harrowing tributes from their families or poignant last letters home.
biographies provide an excellent insight into the men of Force K, their lives and loves – and also dedication and bravery; LS ‘Tommy’ Turley, for example, had three times escaped from POW camps after the fall of France. He escaped via Spain and eventually reached Gibraltar.
He is one of just six Neptune men today buried in Tripoli.
Those vignettes and mini-
Seamen is one of half a dozen books he’s produced in the past two years alone – and, more importantly, (b) fi rst-rate. And Able Seamen, which spans nearly a century of lower deck life up to the outbreak of WW2, follows the same excellent vein as its predecessor. The fi rst couple of decades
covered by the book shaped not just the future RN, but many of the world’s navies: the square collar
and bell bottoms were
introduced, the petty offi cer and leading seaman ranks created, industrialisation led to the need for increasingly skilled technical sailors, physical training became a part of the daily routine, the Naval Salute, and the White Ensign was formally adopted as the Fleet’s standard fl ag.
Able Seamen covers every aspect of lower deck life you could possibly wish to dip into – life on board, pay,
recruitment, discipline, sex (one area of Chatham ‘enjoyed’ “a most remarkable history of sin known in most parts of Greater Britain”), and, lest we forget, battle. The post-Trafalgar/Waterloo era up to the Great War has come to be known as the age of Pax Britannica. In fact, in the 1860s the Navy was responding to around 20 pleas for intervention every year: gunboat diplomacy, tackling pirates or the slave trade. And there was little pax in
Africa throughout the latter half of the 19th Century – the Zulu
How the lower deck was born
wars, the Sudan, the Boer War – while the last major intervention by naval brigades occurred at the turn of the 20th Century in the Boxer Rebellion in China. By the time of the Boxer technology had
transformed the Royal Navy totally from a world of sail and wooden walls to one of steel battleships capable of 18kts and with 12in guns.
Technology brought with it the increasing specialisa- tion of the branches – which in turn meant growing differences. Rivalries and distinc- tions which persist today date back to the mid-Victorian era. Artifi cers in particular regarded themselves – and were regarded as – a different breed, stokers earned more than leading seamen, and the ship’s po- lice were universally
and a few anchorages. There was nowhere on board for lower decks to relax, no recreation room, just cramped and unhealthy mess desks. Ratings, the First Lord of the Admiralty observed, endured a life of “pitiable discomfort”. Conditions in the castles of steel were, at least, healthier than in the new submarines. The early boats did little more than day run out of Portsmouth, but it was a hard life – there was no chance to wash or keep warm, the smell was foul and water and diesel
unpopular (and often corrupt). “They lead useless, idle lives and seem to try to justify their exist- ence by reporting men for petty trifl es,” one sailor fumed in the late 1870s.
The author paints a grim picture of the life of a stoker (although they did receive better pay and promotion prospects). By 1910 they outnumbered seamen (to the latter’s chagrin), were generally looked down upon (there was the infamous ‘on the knee’ mutiny in Portsmouth’s new barracks in 1906) and were proving diffi cult to recruit as the Dreadnought age saw a massive demand for stokers. Enter George Falkner and Sons of Manchester who produced a colourful recruiting poster espousing the benefi ts of world travel with the Royal Navy – and depicting stokers in white uniforms striking dramatic poses in the boiler room. It seemed to do the trick… Life in the battleships of the Grand Fleet was very different from the recruitment posters, however,
acknowledged. Joining the Navy to see the world, instead the stokers and bluejackets saw nothing beyond the North Sea
as Winston Churchill
Century, there were huge social changes rocking the world of the ratings; it came to be known as the ‘lower deck movement’ with newspapers lobbying – with varying degrees of success – for improved pay and benefi ts.
social side of things appears to have been Churchill – not least expanding
The chief moderniser on the
for commissions from the lower deck; for nearly a century not a single rating was promoted to the exalted ranks of the offi cer corps which remained the preserve of “men trained in the traditions of the ‘gentry’”. All of which quickly became academic as the Navy faced its fi rst true test in 100 years when war broke out in 1914. For the men of the Grand Fleet, life at sea was hard, life in base at Scapa bleak and at Rosyth, home to the battle-cruisers, little better with only a couple of hours’
granted ashore. Such strict controls were soon
relaxed – the Admiralty was competing with the Army for manpower and so began to offer improved terms of service: better prospects of promotion, more pay, discounted rail
travel, duty-free the opportunities
immense technological changes sweeping through the Navy at the beginning of the 20th
business’ was carried to the upper deck on the surface, left on the casing, and a quick dive would swill it away… In
food. Worse still, on the fi rst boats there were no
heads. ‘Personal permeated the
Day by day Age by age Page by page
CERTAIN dates in the annals of the Royal Navy instantly spring to mind.
explanation, the Glorious First of June 1794 speaks for itself, May 31 1916 was the chastening experience of Jutland, and maybe for WAFUs it’s the Armistice Day attack in 1940 on Taranto. But you don’t need an exhaustive reference book for the big dates.
October 21 1805 needs no
The real pleasure of the latest edition of The Royal Navy Day by Day (The History Press, £50, ISBN 978-0-7524-6177-9), by Lt Cdr Lawrie Phillips RNR, lies as much in long-forgotten details of modest successes and moderate failures as in the stunning victories and crushing defeats. Take October 8, 1806, when
the Navy launched the fi rst known rocket bombardment in history, the port of Boulogne being the unhappy target. Or February 8 1805, when
the Curieux captured French privateer Dame Ernouf 60 miles off Barbados after “a sharp engagement.”
Or March 8 1856, when the launch of gunboats Drake and Janus from the same slip in Pembroke Dockyard almost ended in disaster; Janus dragged the VIP staging with her and sponsor Mrs Mathias, her daughters and dockyard offi cials were hurled onto the slipway (Mrs Mathias suffered a broken collarbone and a touch of delirium).
boats cut out French Providence with a rich cargo of gems and wood in Brittany. Or January 1 1653, when monthly pay for an able seaman was set at 24 shillings – where it remained for 144 years (now that’s a pay freeze…)
cigarettes at sea, more leave when alongside. If such
could lift morale, defeat in battle could rapidly dent spirits. Sailors returned in their scarred ships to Scapa Flow after Jutland unsure of the battle’s outcome yet “quite confi dent” the Hun had been sent to the bottom. Not so – the rumours going around the natural anchorage suggested otherwise – “that the honours were with the Germans and that we had suffered a moral defeat,” one rating wrote. “It was beyond belief and we concluded that the news was German- inspired – but it did have a somewhat chilling effect on our self-confi dence.”
Jutland, the Royal Navy would attain the greatest victory in its history with the surrender of the entire German Fleet in November 1918. The High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, where the ships were inspected by Royal Navy teams. The Germans, they found, were unrepentant. “Some of the crew seem to be quite prepared to start building another navy with the object of BEATING us in the future,” a perturbed Yeoman of Signals J E Attrill observed. And that is a story for the concluding volume of this trilogy, All Hands, due out next spring. It’s eagerly awaited in these offi ces.
Despite the disappointment of ‘creature comforts’ Or July 4 1803, when Naiad’s
Such vignettes are not the stuff of heroes, but they add the subtle colour and texture to the story of the Royal Navy, making the 800+ well-illustrated and unfussy pages of this much-revised and expanded tome the defi nitive account of fi ve centuries of RN activities.
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