RN and Scandinavian trade in World War One

Southern Thunder: The Royal Navy and the Scandinavian Trade in World War One. By Steve R Dunn. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

DENMARK, NORWAY and SWEDEN were neutral in World War One, but their strategic geographical locations, valuable resources and trading strengths were vital to the British and German war economies. ‘Southern Thunder’ examines the three-cornered diplomatic and maritime campaigns that played out over the four-year war period.

Germany relied on the Scandinavian countries for food and raw materials, while Britain sought to restrict supplies to Germany while working to turn the trade towards its own interests.

The author, Steve R Dunn, took the book’s title from the first volume, entitled ‘Southern Thunder’, of a two-volume novel by a renowned Danish author, Jacob Daludan, published in the interwar period. Be that as it may, this ‘Southern Thunder’ competently presents the 1914-18 maritime war in Scandinavian waters from three facets: diplomacy, action at sea and the human-interest viewpoint of the naval and merchant marine personnel engaged in the campaign.

The Royal Navy imposed a distant blockade on Germany immediately war was  declared. At the same time the British and German governments pressured Denmark, Norway and Sweden to trade with them while working to restrict trade to the other. Britain held several trading advantages, not the least being coal and its naval blockade was reinforced by a comprehensive North Sea mining program. However, maritime trade was vulnerable to the new German U-boat threat against which the Royal Navy had few tactics or weapons to counter. Merchant ship losses to U-boats resulted in the Royal Navy reluctantly adopting convoy in early 1917 which had immediate beneficial results and foreshadowed the wider use of convoy in the Atlantic. 

The three Scandinavian countries were torn by circumstance; Sweden nearly joined Germany and the German navy planned to invade Norway, which leaned towards Britain. Denmark, with a land border to Germany, endured constant pressure from its powerful neighbour.

‘Southern Thunder’ is a well-presented treatise on this largely little-known aspect of the 1914-18 naval war. Dunn backgrounds the narrative with an overview of prize rules and the legal position of neutral shipping, most notably the attitude of the United States which was at variance to the British view in 1914. He follows this with the political and economic conditions of the three countries and the vulnerabilities of Britain and Germany for which Scandinavian products were needed. Dunn effectively interweaves British government and Admiralty debates and decisions with the tactical reality at sea. The reader is taken from the corridors of Whitehall to the bridges of plodding merchant coasters, flimsy destroyers and navalised trawlers as they battled the northern gales, U-boats and enemy surface forces.

The shipping routes were Lerwick-Bergen and an east coast route south from Lerwick with escorts to Immingham. Prior to the institution of convoy merchant losses were unsustainable – gross registered tonnage losses to U-boats and mines in Autumn 1916 was 1,180,668 tons. Norway requested Royal Navy protection; however, the navy opposed convoy, claiming among other things that escorts could not be spared from the main fleets. As a compromise, ‘protective sailing’ was instituted which comprised merchantmen assembling and sailing on pre-arranged days. This plan proved useless and Dunn describes the indecision and internal Admiralty arguments over convoy, and the events which led to acceptance of the inevitable, are the chapters covering 1916 up to Scandinavian convoy commencement in April 1917. Admiralty figures, quoted by Dunn in an appendix, show only 74 ships sunk of 7077 convoyed between Britain and Scandinavia from 28 April 1917 to 18 January 1918.

Two major surface actions, on 17 October and 12 December 1917 demonstrated continued convoy vulnerability despite success in mitigating U-boat attacks; surface attacks were to prove deadly and embarrassing for the Royal Navy. On 17 October the German light cruisers, BREMMER and BREMSE attacked a convoy, sinking the two-destroyer escort and nine merchantmen. Confusion and indecision at the Admiralty, and poor intelligence analysis resulted in no heavy ship distant support policy and the upshot was a severe press criticism of the Admiralty.

Stung by the negative press reaction to the October disaster, Admiral Beatty (C-in-C Grand Fleet) and Vice Admiral Brock (Admiral Commanding Orkneys and Shetlands) decided to reduce convoy frequency but increase their size. ‘Over the horizon’ support to vulnerable convoys was to come from a standing force of five cruisers at British east coast ports to be at 24 hours’ notice.

These arrangements were tested by another German convoy interdiction on 11/12 December. Two destroyer half-flotillas were dispatched to attack the British eastern costal route and the eastern end of the Lerwick-Bergen line. The attempt on the coastal convoy was thwarted by prevailing conditions; however, the German force came upon the Bergen convoy, sinking the escorts and six merchantmen. This was despite a British light cruiser force sweeping the mouth of the Skagerrak and two armoured cruisers patrolling the route as a ‘covering force’ to guard the west and eastbound convoys scheduled to sail that day. 

A court of enquiry into this second disaster found that there was ‘a continuation of a system of control of convoys which had previously proved ineffective’. These actions are vividly described, emphasising the personal heroics of the naval personnel and contrasting with the operational planning shortfalls by senior naval commanders. Dunn devotes the last portion of the book to the human-interest aspects of hard lying duty and how the naval and merchant sailors are remembered in memorials and cemeteries. This is an aspect often overlooked in military histories and it is an appropriate and poignant ending to this narrative.

Dunn states that ‘the story has been told from a largely British prospective (sic) and mainly (but not solely, see bibliography) using Anglophone sources. However, it is informed by wide reading of academic books on Scandinavia in the period…’ The bibliography cites six Scandinavian-related secondary sources; whether this constitutes ‘wide reading’ is questionable. The book may well have been strengthened had Dunn sought input from contemporary Scandinavian historians as they could have represented the ‘other side’ in this work.

These hopefully constructive comments aside, ‘Southern Thunder’ is a worthy treatment of this little-known, but intensely fought maritime campaign of a century passed.  It contributes to the study of Royal Navy command and control in World War One. 

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