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The War for England’s Shores: S-Boats and the Fight Against British Coastal Convoys

10 May 24

273 pages

Chris O’Flaherty

The author sets out on his textual journey with three aims: to examine the east coast conflict in the context of the grander Battle of the Atlantic; to focus readers geographically on the waters between England and Europe, vice the more common historical focus on the space between England and America; and also as an epoch in coastal warfare. In pursuit of these aims, he then highlights, unusually, that he is writing this work from the perspective of the loser.

The timeline of examination accelerates the reader through the early stages of S-Boat development (and the British MTB/MGB response) such that by page 43 we are already entering 1942. The more detailed examination of context and conflict that then follows does indeed provide an informative look into the point of WWII German maritime inflection when surface warrior Admiral Raeder was replaced by submariner Admiral Dönitz, and the subsequent major adjustments in German maritime strategy.

Sporadic investment in Kriegsmarine Coastal Forces, absent of a coherent strategic plan, consequently saw the qualitatively inferior Royal Navy coastal forces achieve superiority over the German S-Boats through a combination of quantitative overmatch (delivered through British mass-production designs and techniques) as well as tactical dominance. The historical record duly shows that “Willingness to ram, and a constantly aggressive spirit on the part of the British, fostered a defensive mentality on the part of [German Admiral] Petersen and [his] S-Boat flotillas.”

The concurrent role played by intelligence is also examined, highlighting British bureaucratic efficiency when gathering and distributing key information from technical exploitation, interrogations and intercepts, delivering greater tactical effect than the parallel efforts of our German enemies.

The author eloquently unpicks the 1944 failure of Dönitz’s Kriegsmarine to adapt to a strategy of coastal defence, by prioritising the offensive Atlantic submarine campaign in a manner out of sync with the German High Command imperative to defend the northern European coastline. The consequence of this strategic misalignment became evident through the success of Operation NEPTUNE, and may provide a lesson in tri-service strategic coordination that remains applicable today.

Current debates regarding strategy and funding for our Armed Forces leads to one favourite quote for this reviewer. In an extract from a wartime account by a front line British coastal forces warrior, lamenting on the bravery of those at sea fighting during the initial years of conflict with the consequences of peacetime finance and procurement decisions, history recalls that:

“Someone started on the evergreen subject of our political leaders. These men knew something about the state of preparedness of this country at the time of Dunkirk. They remembered how, for a year and a half after Dunkirk, they were expected to seek out … and fight … [S-] boats with gun-boats armed only with .303s against [enemy] 20mm guns. They observed that, except for Mr Churchill, and a very few others, the same men were still in power … They have seen friends tabled, and others reprimanded and displaced for small failures in efficiency in difficult and dangerous work (as it must be) and they want to know why incompetence at the top goes unpunished.”

Viewing this book through the lens of current warfare, the author’s aim to refocus on littoral and coastal conflict is laudable. Recent events in the Black Sea, in which a country without a proper navy and with just a few coastal attack craft has been able to exert significant degrees of sea control (and denial) over one of the magisterial navies of the 20th century, exemplifies that coastal warfare is a vital maritime function. This work duly brings together many useful lessons from history that contemporary planners would do well to understand.