How the Navy Won the War

19 Jan 19
Posted by: Simon Bellamy

Author and film-maker Jim Ring’s first work of naval history, We Come Unseen, won the Mountbatten Prize for its account of Royal Navy Cold War submarine operations. His latest book reaches further back into Britain’s maritime past and, with its eye-catching title, is also likely to attract much attention.
A foreword by retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry sets the scene. He refers to the Royal Navy’s “decisive weakening” of the Central Powers’ fighting capacity and the will of their peoples, arguing that this book will restore balance to assessing how the Allies prevailed. His measured tone is also adopted by the author himself; the aim is to provide perspective by explaining the role of sea power in Allied victory, without denigrating the contribution and huge sacrifice of the armies (although Ring is unsparing in many of his judgments on the generals, as well as on some admirals).
The book is not a chronology, with the author instead selecting critical issues or events to tell his story. His informal style and vivid narrative will appeal to the general reader, but those more familiar with naval history should also learn much. For example, the Royal Navy’s unglamorous but demanding distant blockade in the northern North Sea receives deserved attention. Admiral de Chair’s Tenth Cruiser Squadron, also known as the Northern Patrol, suffered losses to mines, submarines and the weather, whilst the scale and hazards of boarding operations are well-described here. Accounts of activity at sea are supplemented with the author’s views. For instance, he observes that the twenty-year-old cruisers initially allocated to the blockade were inadequate for their tasks on account of their age; twenty years was a long time in an era of great technological change at sea.
Political and strategic developments are also covered in depth, making for a coherent and comprehensive narrative, linking these issues to the campaigns on land and at sea. For example, many readers might be unfamiliar with the Ministry of Blockade, established by the British in 1916 to coordinate efforts in this critical area. As the contemporary author John Buchan observed, the effects of blockade meant that the navy was winning without striking a blow. In two years, German imports and exports both fell by more than fifty per cent.
However, the actions of the battle fleets are not neglected. Despite public claims of victory at Jutland, we learn that Scheer wrote an appreciation for the Kaiser shortly after the battle, in which he acknowledged that only a trade war waged by submarines could defeat Britain. The debate among Germany’s leaders, which led to the introduction unrestricted submarine warfare, is described here, along with its significant role as a factor in her defeat. Mirroring these developments, Britain’s controversial journey towards the introduction of convoy is also explained.
Another rewarding feature of the book is the colourful pen portraits of the politicians and commanders on each side. Characters such as Lloyd George, Churchill and Fisher admittedly provide plenty of material, but the author has an eye for a good anecdote and a telling phrase. Fisher’s frequent question, “Can the army win the war before the navy loses it?”, appears more than once and illustrates the pressures created by Britain’s crippling losses of merchant shipping to the U-Boats.
Some readers might not agree with all the author’s judgments, but his concise and well-illustrated account is imaginative and thoughtfully structured, placing the naval war in its wider context. As well as engaging the general reader, it will offer new insights for those who are already predisposed to his central argument about the navy’s importance in securing Allied victory.