Blockade: Cruiser Warfare and the Starvation of Germany in World War One

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Blockade: Cruiser Warfare and the Starvation of Germany in World War One. By Steve Dunn. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2016.
Reviewed by Tim Coyle

IN this centennial year of the Battle of Jutland much attention is rightly concentrated on the commemoration of this mighty engagement between the British and German battle fleets. The intervening century has seen many books published on the pre-war warship construction arms race between Britain and Germany and the clashes between the battle fleets and the U-boat campaign which did more to threaten Britain than the German High Seas Fleet. However, there was another war at sea; that of British efforts to run down and destroy German raiders preying on merchant shipping and the British-imposed blockade against ‘contraband’ aimed at crippling the German war effort and which effectively starved Germany of basic foodstuffs. Many of the ships engaged in the pursuit of German raiders were Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC); converted merchant ships including some famous liners. The Northern Patrol enforcing the blockade comprised largely merchant ships taken from trade and crewed by merchant seamen called up as reservists.

Many British and German liners and major merchant ships were designed with strengthened deck points for gun mountings in event of war. With war declared these ships were armed and commissioned as warships. British ships were crewed by merchant marine officers and sailors who were members of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). These were supplemented by naval pensioners and civilian mariners signed on under articles subjecting them to naval conditions of service. The captains were regular Royal Navy officers with the former merchant service masters, now RNR, as deputies.

Germany also converted merchant ships and these were sent to interdict British shipping on the world’s trade routes for, until 1917, merchant ships sailed independently and not in convoy. The German raider threat was largely removed by 1916, either by surface action or internment. The converted liners had enormous fuel consumption and Germany could not sustain these ships at sea.

The book describes the early battles between British and German AMCs which have been well covered in many previously published works. After discussing these early cruiser engagements the author turns to the Blockade; the main theme of the book. The Northern Patrol, comprising the Tenth Cruiser Squadron, was activated on 3 August, the day before the declaration of war. The Tenth was made up of obsolete cruisers and its patrol area was the gap between the Orkney Isles and Norway. Its mission was ‘to intercept German ships of war and German merchant ships and sink or capture them; also to stop all neutral merchant ships proceeding to German ports and to deny the anchorage of any harbour in the Shetlands or Orkneys to the enemy’. The sea conditions were mostly extreme with consequent discomforts to crews. The elderly cruisers proved unsuitable and were replaced by AMCs.

The author’s stated aim is to champion the human element exhibited by the officers and sailors of the Northern Patrol. He does this by backgrounding individuals ranging from senior officers to RNR ratings. He devotes one chapter to the makeup of the variegated crews and the system of manning the AMCs while another reviews various commanding officers, including their successes and failures. This emphasis on personnel and the hardships they faced, including battles – the action between HM ships Achilles and Dundee against the raider Leopard is an example – and shipwrecks which took many lives is the book’s strongpoint. Conditions of service, while harsh, had occasional rewards through the ancient system of prize money which was distributed in a strict hierarchy among captain, officers and sailors for neutral vessels seized and sent to a British port. The legality and effects of the blockade, including the tensions which arose between Britain and the US before the latter’s entry into the war, are well covered. The author argues that the distant blockade denied food to Germany which contributed as much to its defeat as the allied armies’ four year sacrifices on the Western Front. Germany prioritised industrial expansion pre-war at the expense of agricultural production and the author states that by 1914 over 40 percent of protein and 42 percent of fats were imported. Tariffs protected German agriculture with attendant inefficiencies and low output. Bread rationing began in 1915 and food quantities and qualities rapidly deteriorated from then.

The author states that the 10th Cruiser Squadron, in 41 months, intercepted 8905 ships, sent 1816 ship into port under guard and boarded 4520 vessels. Of the 65 AMCs, 17 were lost in the cruiser war and subsequently on the Northern Patrol. Twelve armed boarding steamers were lost from a total of 38.

Blockade provides a readable history of World War One cruiser (AMC) engagements and their use in the Northern Patrol enforcing the distant blockade against Germany. It explains the background to the blockade and why and how it affected Germany. It emphasises the essential reserve supplementation of permanent navy personnel which was critical to naval operations in both world wars.

While Blockade presents an adequate history of cruiser warfare and the Northern Patrol its major shortfall is the lack of citations for the material. Nowhere in the text is the material supported by references. This lack of intellectual rigour bespeaks laziness on the author’s part. While he provides a ‘Select Bibliography’, in which he states ‘the following secondary sources have been consulted and were helpful in the writing of this book’, he makes no effort to cite which material he has included. Of note is his listing of a 2012 University of Greenwich PhD thesis: ‘Operations of the tenth cruiser squadron; a challenge for the Royal Navy’. One might suspect that the author used material from this thesis; if so it is not credited. Finally, he rightly lauds the wonderful UK archives: ‘The historical writer in the UK is blessed that the country possesses some of the best archives (and archivists) in the world’. He then states ‘Primary sources consulted include those held at the institutions named below’. Again no indication or citations of which ‘primary sources’ he used in the book.

In summary, although Blockade competently tells the story of cruiser warfare and the Northern Patrol in World War One it disappoints for its lack of scholarship.

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