CONVOYS: THE BRITISH STRUGGLE AGAINST NAPOLEONIC EUROPE AND AMERICA
I opened this book for the first time on 21st October and immediately became absorbed, not in another account of the ‘immortal memory’ (about whom Roger Knight has written) but in the lives of those whom Newbolt describes as the “obscurely great”, as well as the obscurely not so great. Men such as Peter Rye, whose persistence in seeking a command as he approached his 40th birthday was rewarded by his appointment to a brig sloop, His Majesty’s (hired) Armed Ship Providence, an ex-collier of 2,912 tons, armed with 14 carronades, and carrying a crew of 46. Rye joined her on 16 May 1804 and spent nine years in command operating out of Grimsby to escort convoys from England to Elsinore and back, and to challenge and pursue suspicious vessels be they warships, privateers or pirates. During this time only two men deserted and when the ship decommissioned in September 1812, 14 of the original crew were still on board; corporal punishment seems not to have ever been necessary. On one occasion he had his crew dig a 473-foot-long channel to re-float Providence, stranded on an island in the Elbe estuary, between opposing sides, and in danger of being captured. Yet, because he was commanding a hired ship, and despite him becoming Senior Naval Officer Humber, Rye was denied promotion from commander to post-captain. An exemplary officer.
For most of those involved in convoy duties the ever-present enemy was not foreign warships but collisions, groundings, founderings, storms and poor navigation. The book begins on 27 March 1804 with the story of 67 merchant ships bound for the West Indies whose escort HMS Apollo, because of a navigational error, led 27 of them onto the Portuguese shore. Remarkably, although John Harrison’s chronometer had, as early as 1771, improved immeasurably the ability to calculatelongitude, by 1802, only 7 per cent of British warships carried a chronometer onboard.
Storms also took their toll. In late December 1811, during two days of gales off Jutland, HMS Defence, HMS St Georgeand HMS Hero were stranded and battered by waves so destructive that 2,000 officers and men were drowned – more than the combined total of deaths at Trafalgar, Copenhagen and the Nile (940). The storms of 13-18 February 1807 saw 16 warships sink in just five days. Reading this book is a reminder of Kipling’s concept that;
“There’s never a flood goes shoreward now
But lifts a keel we manned;
There’s never an ebb goes seaward now
But drops our dead on the sand”
And, of course, convoys were attacked and ships seized by the enemy but in this war no incident arose like those in the 1780s when, in one attack, 55 merchant ships were captured, their escorts having fled, making August 1780 the blackest month in the history of Lloyds.
Overall, convoying was a success, whether it was the ferrying of troops to support Wellington’s Peninsula campaign, or the bringing of food and naval stores to Britain. The latter were vital. The royal forests could deliver insufficient timber to the dockyards, year-on-year, to build just a single second-rate ship. Russia was the sole supplier of hemp for sailcloth and rope; sulphur for gunpowder had to be shipped in from Sicily. These items, essential for the pursuit of an aggressive war, could only be brought to Britain by merchant ships convoyed by warships that were often elderly and in need of maintenance. The naval war against Napoleon was factored on three things; battle, blockade and convoy and, perhaps, the greatest of these was convoy. This is the story of these men and their ships and it is recounted brilliantly and deserves to be read as both a pleasure and a tribute.
“If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full”.