17 Oct 19
Posted by: Andy Field

I have the tendency to forget that between 1914 and 1918 the North Sea saw more than cruiser and battle fleet actions and was more than a “blockaded lake”, stopped up with minefields and the Dover Patrol, the Grand Fleet “holding the ring”. Steve Dunn’s book reminded me that the North Sea also witnessed anti-submarine operations and convoys, as the British imposed a distant blockade on Germany, stop contraband goods passing through Scandinavia to Germany and maintain their own trade with these countries.

In 22 chapters, separated into three sections, Steve Dunn makes a good job of telling this story, combining a coverage of the broad aspects of diplomacy and naval strategy, with detailed accounts of individual men and their ships, battling the weather and the enemy. Part One covers the Scandinavian trade and the associated diplomatic problems the neutral Scandinavian countries, essentially ‘between a rock and a hard place’, faced in trying to retain their neutrality and their trading rights in the face of external pressures from both belligerents. Part Two covers the four years of the Scandinavian convoys and their various actions in more detail, whilst Part Three focuses more on the lives of the sailors.

What quickly becomes apparent is how challenging this aspect of the war at sea was. Britain’s decision to conduct a distant blockade increasingly forced Germany’s diplomats to introduce unrestricted U-Boat warfare. In their turn, the British tightened the economic noose around Germany’s neck, stopping and searching shipping carrying cargoes to Scandinavian countries, from where it could be re-exported to Germany. As a consequence, Germany’s imports fell to 55% of pre-war levels, whilst the neutrals protested about the blockade’s legality, usually to little effect. Germany, in her turn, tried to exert pressure on the Scandinavian countries. Denmark, with her vital agricultural produce, could do little to resist and a pro-German Sweden was also susceptible to German pressure, although she continued her trade with Germany, re-exporting American (and as Dunn points out, some British and French) goods to Germany.

The British also had to tread the delicate line with America, a powerful neutral that sometimes seemed as near to war with the Entente Powers as with Germany. However, Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, refuted American claims that their trade was being crippled and pointed to a tripling of America’s trade with Scandinavia between 1913 and 1915. Evidently those who wanted to trade with Germany found it expedient to trade under the American flag. Nevertheless, Britain was at loggerheads with the Americans, despite the deaths of American citizens, until the US entry into the war in 1917.

I enjoyed reading Steve Dunn’s account of this aspect of the war at sea, although, as Steve Dunn concedes, it reflects a predominantly British perspective.  Despite this caveat, Steve Dunn has produced a highly readable and entertaining account of this crucial part of World War One at sea. For me, reading this book was (to borrow a phrase from Andrew Gordon in his The Rules of the Game) a “Glimpse of the Blindingly Obvious”. As I said at the start of this review, I have tended to think of the North Sea as the preserve of battle fleets and destroyers. Steve Dunn reminded me that it was also the focus of a war between submarines, merchant ships and their escorts, fighting to contest Britain’s economic blockade of Germany and her trade along her east coast and across to Scandinavia.

In short, Steve Dunn reminded me about an aspect of the war at sea that shouldn’t be ignored. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to any member wanting a well-written and readable account of this important part of the naval war between 1914-1918.