Book: The World Crisis, Vol. 1: 1911 1914

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Written August 23, 1913, Revised April, 1914.

1. The first security for British merchant ships must be the superiority of the British Navy which should enable us to cover in peace, and hunt down and bring to battle in war, every enemy’s warship which attempts to keep the seas. A policy of vigorous offence against the enemy’s warships wherever stationed, will give immediately far greater protection to British traders than large numbers of vessels scattered sparsely about in an attitude of weak and defensive expectancy. This should be enjoined as the first duty of all British warships. Enemy’s cruisers cannot live in the oceans for any length of time. They cannot coal at sea with any certainty. They cannot make many prizes without much steaming; and in these days of W.T. their whereabouts will be constantly reported. If British cruisers of superior speed are hunting them, they cannot do much harm before they are brought to action. Very few German Town Class cruisers are assigned to foreign stations for this work. If others are detached from the North Sea, and get out safely, we shall be able to detach a larger proportion of the similar British cruisers which have been hitherto opposing them there. They cannot afford to send away many without crippling their battle fleet.

2. As for enemy’s armed merchantmen or merchantmen converted into cruisers for commerce destruction, the only answer to that is to have an equal number of British merchant vessels plying on the trade routes armed and commissioned to engage them when met with. The whole of this threat is very shadowy. Whether the German vessels have their guns on board is extremely doubtful. Not a scrap of evidence has been forthcoming during the last year and a half in spite of every effort to procure it. How are they to be converted on the high seas? Where are they to get rid of their passengers? Are they to take hundreds of non-combatants with them on what the stronger naval Power may well treat as a piratical enterprise? Where are they to coal? To say that we have to maintain a large cruiser fleet to deal with this danger appears extravagant in the highest degree. All that is needed is to arm a similar number of British merchant vessels of the right speed and make arrangements to commission these for their own defence and that of other British ships in their neighbourhood and on their route. The presence of these vessels plying always in considerable numbers along the regular trade routes will from the very outset of the war, and however suddenly it may begin, provide a constant and immediate counter to enemy armed merchantmen, and probably deter them from any injurious action.

3. But the best safeguard for the maintenance of British trade in war is the large number of merchant ships engaged in trading, and the immense number of harbours in the United Kingdom they can approach by ocean routes. This makes any serious interruption by enemy’s commerce destroyers impossible. We must rely on numbers and averages. Provided that we can induce all these ships to put to sea and carry on their business boldly, and provided that they are warned in time and encouraged to leave the regular trade routes and travel wide of them, very few captures will be made even in the early days of the war.

4. It is no use distributing isolated cruisers about the vast ocean spaces. To produce any result from such a method would require hundreds of cruisers. The ocean is itself the best protection. We must recognize that we cannot specifically protect trade routes; we can only protect confluences. The only safe trade routes in war are those which the enemy has not discovered and those upon which he has been exterminated. There are areas where the trade necessarily converges and narrow channels through which it must pass; and these defiles or terminals of the trade routes should be made too dangerous for enemy’s commerce destroyers to approach, by employing our older cruisers in adequate force so as to create an effective sanctuary, control or catchment for our trading ships. These areas should be judiciously selected so as to husband our resources, and not with a view to finding employment for as many old cruisers as possible. It may be taken for certain that no enemy’s armed merchantman unless possessed of exceptional speed will dare to approach the area where he may encounter a British cruiser. Many of our old cruisers steam 19 knots. The number of German merchantmen which steam more is not large. As for the enemy’s warships and his few exceptionally fast vessels, they must be marked down and hunted by fast modern vessels which are concerned with nothing else but to bring them to action.

5. British attacks on the German trade are a comparatively unimportant feature in our operations, and British cruisers should not engage in them to the prejudice of other duties. Economic pressure will be put on Germany by the distant blockade of her shores which will cut off her trade, both export and import, as a whole. If this is effectively done it is of very little consequence to us whether individual German vessels are captured as prizes, or whether they take refuge in neutral harbours till the end of the war. It is reasonable to suppose that German merchant ships, other than those armed and commissioned for warlike purposes, will run for neutral harbours as soon as war breaks out, and that very few will attempt under the German flag to return home running the gauntlet of the numerous British fleets operating in the North Sea.

6. Protection will be afforded to British seaborne trade in time of war by the following measures:—

A. Hunting down of enemy’s warships and armed vessels.

Every German cruiser stationed abroad should be covered in peace and brought to action in war by a superior vessel of superior speed, or alternatively by two equal vessels having speed advantage.

B. Organized warning of British merchant vessels.

All British armed merchantmen plying on the routes will, on receiving the warning telegram by wireless, open their secret instructions which direct them to steam along their regular route warning all unarmed British vessels met with to leave the trade route, and steam without lights at night, keeping well away from their usual course, avoiding company, and making their own way to their port of destination.

7. Similar warnings and directions adapted to each case and each route will be issued by British Consuls at all ports. These should be prepared beforehand in the fullest detail and according to a general scheme. For instance, the British Consul at Buenos Ayres should have separate instructions all ready prepared for every British ship leaving the port for the United Kingdom. These instructions will be regularly kept up to date by the Trade Division of the Admiralty War Staff. They will prescribe for each ship the general course she is to follow, the portions of the voyage she should endeavour to cover in darkness, and the areas within which she will find safety. A good wireless organization can, of course, deal at once with all vessels so fitted. Thus the unarmed trade will, in the first week of the war, be effectively scattered over immense areas of ocean.

The control and guidance of merchant traffic must, of course, vary with circumstances. There are two quite different situations to consider. The first is that which occurs at the moment of a sudden outbreak of war. We must assume that hostilities begin by surprise, and that the enemy’s commerce destroyers, whether warships or armed merchantmen, will begin their attacks within a very few hours of the first warning being given. None of our Third Fleet cruisers will be on their stations. The only vessels available will be the ordinary foreign squadrons and the fast cruisers shadowing individual German warships, and these will probably not be in positions which have any special relation to the trade routes. None of the British converted auxiliary merchant cruisers will be on the routes: the only thing that will be there and that can be there are the defensive armed merchantmen. In these circumstances it seems probable that the best course would be to scatter the trade; and it is in any case essential that we should have the power to do so, and that all arrangements should be made to that end.

8. When, however, the war has been in progress for some time, and in proportion as our available force increases and we pass from a peace to a war organization, it may well be that the scattering of the trade will no longer be necessary or even desirable, except perhaps locally between special points. Trading vessels would then be told to return to their regular trade routes; and this might easily lead to drawing such commerce destroyers as then remain into areas where they could be reported, located, and destroyed, by the British cruisers.

9. The organization for the control and guidance of the trade should therefore be of so complete a character that the trade may be either dispersed about the ocean or concentrated along particular routes; or in some places dispersed and in others concentrated; and that changes from one policy to the other can be made when necessary at any time.

10. The British armed merchantmen will only be employed on a strictly limited service, namely, that of carrying food supplies to the United Kingdom. They will be forbidden to engage enemy’s warships and are to surrender if overtaken by them. They will not molest or pursue unarmed ships of the enemy. They will only fire on enemy’s armed merchantmen if they are themselves attacked or pursued by them.

The result of these arrangements will be that the enemy’s armed merchantmen will either have to scatter in haphazard search for prizes, or run into a succession of armed British vessels plying the usual route, finding prizes few and far between on the first course, and nothing but kicks on the other.

11. C. As soon as possible after the outbreak of war a sufficient number of British merchant ships or liners of high speed, selected and prepared beforehand, will be converted into auxiliary cruisers and commissioned for the further policing of the trade routes, and incidentally or if desired to prey on enemy’s commerce. These vessels will be taken over on the same or similar basis as the Cunarders. They will differ from the armed merchantmen in ‘B,’ in that their duties will not be limited to self-defence and warning; they will be directly employed in limiting down enemy’s armed merchantmen; they may be used offensively against enemy’s trade; they will not carry on their ordinary business; they will be wholly taken over by and maintained by the Admiralty; they will be officered and manned by the Royal Navy, will fly the White Ensign, and execute the orders of the Admiralty.

12. D. While we have a large supply of older cruisers, they may be employed in protecting the approaches to the principal trade terminals, and at certain special points. These cruisers will be additional to any fast modern British vessels employed on the general service of hunting down individual German cruisers. They will neglect no opportunity of engaging enemy’s warships or armed merchantmen. They may be at any time withdrawn from their areas by the Admiralty for such a purpose. Only the older ships will be employed on this service; and as they wear out, control will be maintained by a smaller number of new, fast vessels employed on the general and primary service of hunting down the enemy’s warships.

13. E. The last but indispensable condition of maintaining British food supplies and British trade in time of war, is that British traders should send their ships to sea, and from the very beginning of the war press forward boldly on their regular business. The question of encouraging them to do this by means of a system of State Insurance under certain restrictions to guard against fraud, is now being considered by a Sub-Committee of the C.I.D. We have expressed on behalf of the Board of Admiralty the strongest opinion in favour of the adoption of such a system, it being essential to all our arrangements that very large numbers of British vessels, undeterred by a small proportion of captures, should continue to traverse the seas under the British flag.

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

April, 1914.

W. S. C.

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