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The Baltic Cauldron: Two Navies and the Fight For Freedom

12 Sep 23


(Whittles Publishing – £30.00)

ISBN 978 1 84995 549 2

290 pages

Sweden’s imminent accession to NATO in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Britain’s leadership of the JEF, its long interest in Scandinavia and the Northern Flank, and indeed its security guarantee for Sweden before its NATO membership comes into effect, are only the current manifestations of the strong strategic connections there are, and have been,  between Britain and Sweden for hundreds of years. This very unusual and recommended book is a celebration of those connections.

It is obviously the result of an enjoyable collaboration between naval enthusiasts from both countries which include people like Admiral West, Peter Hore, John Hattendorf and others who will be very familiar to the readers of this journal. The book comprises 21 mostly very short individually written and often quite diverse chapters which together make a string of vignettes that nicely illustrate the grand themes of the book. It is lavishly illustrated in full colour and a particular delight are the many limpid paintings of warships in the age of sail produced by one of the authors, Captain Christer Hagg. These are quite splendid in a book full of such treats.

So what are the grand themes? Taking Britain first, the emphasis on the importance of the safety of trade with the Baltic region comes out loud and clear, particularly as it was so central to the maintenance of the country’s maritime power. It played a crucial role in Britain’s economy and so indirectly sustained the Royal Navy; more directly, it was a vital source of naval commodities like tar, hemp and ship-building timber especially for ship’s masts. The region was beset with a variety of strategic tensions any of which could threaten Britain’s trade and so required protective action.

As far as Sweden is concerned, threats to its sovereignty and its at one time extensive holdings all around the Baltic, and indeed beyond could come from any direction, from the East, the South and the West. These extensive holdings derived from the country’s expansionism in the early days. Since at least some of the Vikings came from Sweden (they were mostly Norwegian and Danish), Britain itself was the victim of this expansionism, even if this is rather passed over in the book! Sweden, under Gustavus Adolphus in the era of the Vasa ship-of-the-line (on glorious display in Stockholm today) was a major player in the Thirty Years War in Germany and in the following century, the Swedes followed their Varangian ancestors deep into what is now Ukraine. Since then, Sweden has been on a slowly losing defensive being threatened by a host of more powerful neighbours and near-neighbours, including sometimes the British. They have generally dealt with this by trying to stay out of trouble as much as possible with an emphasis on studied neutrality/non alignment and, most of the time, the maintenance of strong all-of-nation defences. The fact that they have now abandoned this centuries old tradition speaks strongly of the sense of threat there is in Stockholm these days. It is truly a major turning point in their affairs.

These issues are illustrated in most of the chapters, many of which tackle quite novel and nearly always naval issues and incidents in the relationship between the two countries that are likely to be unknown to the general reader, but all the more fascinating for all that. The collection concludes with an account of the Stena Impero affaire of four years ago in a manner which underlines the central theme of the need to defend trade and the freedom of navigation. Overall, the warmth of the relationship between the two countries tends to correlate with the perceived degree of threat of Russia, while not so much Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, France, Denmark or most combinations thereof. Particularly interesting are accounts of the carefully calibrated threatened use of both naval coercion and persuasion by a naval squadron under Lord Saumarez to dissuade the Swedes from joining in Napoleon’s Continental System too enthusiastically,  the Fleet Air Arm’s extraordinary plans to bomb the iron-pre exporting port of Lulea at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia in 1940 and the presumably ‘unofficial’ RN support for Swedish MTB operations in the early 1950s.

Overall, the editors and contributors seem to have enjoyed the process of producing the book, I enjoyed reading it and I think you would too. Recommended.