Some Reflections upon the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945 – II

Some Reflections upon the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945 – II

14 May 23
Message from the Editor

In this second instalment of his reflections on the Battle of the Atlantic [84/1, p. 68], former Naval Staff historian David Waters, wary of the pernicious abuses of language so frequent in military affairs, asked the difficult question of why the convoy lessons of the First World War were not learnt before the Second. Republished here as part of the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. A 20 minute read.

Mathematical Analysis

As Talleyrand is reputed to have said, “War is much too serious a business to be left to military men.” Which is, perhaps, why Mr. Lloyd George himself installed, in April, 1917, a railway statistician within the Admiralty in order to find out, because none of the admirals knew, what was actually happening to ships at sea. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Admiral Beatty (and the US Navy representative in London, Admiral Sims, who was expeditiously shelved after the war) few Flag Officers at that time appear to have been operationally numerate.

However, some of their subordinates were numerate. One of them, a Lt Cdr Appleyard, RNVR, in peacetime a civilian electrical engineer, turned his talents to a mathematical analysis of the problem of defending ships in convoy. This calculation, and its conclusion, although printed early in 1918, went unheeded. After the Second World War I unearthed it from the vaults of the Admiralty, where it had clearly lain since publication. It appears to have been the first – abortive – ‘professional’ naval attempt at what was to become known officially in the Second World War as ‘Naval Operational Research’ (an earlier mathematical study of warfare, by another civilian, of naval and of military tactics, past and present, had indeed been published in 1916, but the operational potential of its contents appears to have been lost in the fog of war…).

Why did another civilian scientist, then Professor P. M. S. Blackett, FRS (later Lord Blackett, PRS) succeed in this Second World War to establish (alas, not until it was into its third year) Naval Operational Research, whereas no one succeeded in the Frist? This is an important question in search of an answer when probing the past for guidance in the future, for history has repetitive patterns discernible by those with appropriate historical knowledge who are perceptive, and have the faculty (and the opportunity of leisure) to appreciate, and to interpret the significance of varied facts, and figures of warfare, and the course of events in war, and the ability to express them succinctly, lucidly.

In the First World War civilian scientists’ brains were called upon, by publicly voiced civilian demand in 1915, to assist the warriors at war. The scientists were employed to solve technological problems, at sea most notably, for example, those of the detection and attack of submerged submarines. (D. W. Waters, ‘ASW: The First 40 Years’ NR 74/2, p. 128). This was a civilian cerebral activity which in no way threatened the mystique of the executive sea officers’ task of ‘protecting the nation’s sea lines of communication’ by attempting to ‘blockade (in vain, as ever throughout history) the enemy within his bases’, and attempting ‘to seek out (too late), and destroy (too rarely) enemy forces at sea threatening the security of the sea routes’ (as the task of the Navy was misleadingly defined).

Misconceived Strategy

En passant, this brings to mind that, only since the Berlin Wall came down have I slept at ease in this sea-girt isle, that is, having no longer to fear the practical consequences of NATO’s widely and repeatedly proclaimed maritime strategy in the event of war with Russia, this being no less than, for example:

“…defense of the sea lines of communication (SLOCS)” by ASW surface, air, and submarine forces disposed in the vicinity of remote Soviet ‘choke points’. (Admiral Lee Baggett, Jr, US Navy, SACLANT, NATO’s Sixteen Nations, Feb/Mar 1988, vol. 3, no. 1, p. 17)

The cause of my fear I will explain, though it should be clear from what I have already written. I feared the inevitable devastating consequences, should war with the Soviets have come, of the misconception, of the unreality of the conception, voiced by the highest NATO Naval Commanders, of the actual shipping situation in the North Atlantic (and elsewhere at sea) at any given time (Figure 1); and I feared the consequences of their concomitantly misconceived sea strategy!

That it was misconceived I can state authoritatively, because it was precisely (rephrased) that of the British Admiralty from 1914-18 (of the First World War), as it had been that of the US Navy Office from April 1917 (when the United States joined the Allies), notwithstanding the unpalatable and inescapable fact that the disastrous ‘shipping situation’ – already prevailing in the ports as well as at sea by April 1917 – was its direct consequence! And that, indeed, the resultant disastrous shipping situation was, by then, threatening the Allies with humiliating defeat within six months!

Effect of the Convoy System in the First World War

However, defeat in 1917 was avoided. Victory, in 1918, was won. Miraculously, as it seemed to many then, and inexplicably to many Naval persons, then and since. How was imminent defeat turned, in the nick of time, into victory? Incredibly to many strategists, professional and civilian, the way, the answer, is simple (though the means complex), and is given in one word: convoy!

To a doubting Thomas who, even if illiterate, is numerate this truth can be expressed numerically, and shewn graphically, that is. in the elegant, unambiguous, and visually comprehensible language of science, as in the accompanying Figure 2.

I constructed it around 1950, having been appointed in January, 1946, to the Historical Section of the Training and Staff Duties Division of the Admiralty Naval Staff to assist Vice Admiral K. G. B. Dewar to write the Naval Staff History of the Battle of the Atlantic. Some months later Commander Freddy Barley, RNVR, had joined me. When Admiral Dewar retired, he left me to succeed him in writing the history with the assistance of Freddy Barley, and with the trenchant directive:

“Your object, Waters, is to find out what went wrong in the last war, and to explain why, and what went right, and why!”

Relevant Connections

In order to do this I had first to attempt to solve the problem of how in years rather than decades, two Naval Staff officers were to make historical sense out of the multitudinous, amorphous, sprawling Operational Records of five years of worldwide sea warfare, 1939- 1945, conducted by a myriad of sea and air officers, and, of necessity, make sense also of the records of the preparatory inter-war years.

An Admiralty stipulation had by now been made that on no account was any criticism to be made, neither directly nor by implication of any policy, individual, institution, or establishment involved in the Battle; and I had already quickly found out from the Director of Naval Intelligence himself that all the operational U-boat Tracking Room plots had been committed to the flames at Liverpool (the brain-centre of the Battle) on the night of celebration of VE Day! Moreover, I also found out quickly that on the outbreak of war all Commanders-in-Chief, both Naval and of Coastal Command, Royal Air Force, had been absolved from keeping War Diaries of their thoughts, decisions, and activities. How was I, with Freddy Barley’s help, to write a history of practical operational value to busy Staff officers, and future, if not presently serving Admirals and Air Marshals?

Having faith in the rationality of my belief that history has discernable repetitive patterns, and that, while numbers are anonymous, “mathematical science can exhibit connections between things that, apart from the agency of the human reason are extremely unobvious” (to paraphrase a noted mathematician) I decided to seek guidance by studying quantitatively the U-boat attack upon shipping during the relatively simpler World War of 1914-1918. Of this war a number of relevant naval, air, and mercantile shipping – but no Naval Staff – histories had been published before 1939.

To cut a long story short, in due course, with Freddy Barley’s help I was able to construct quarterly curves of various relevant published numerical operational data of, amongst much other, numbers of ships sunk, numbers of operational U-boats at sea daily, numbers of U-boats sunk periodically. Superimposed upon one another these seemed to me to be the most pertinent.

The result puzzled me. Why did the curve, ‘quarterly sinkings of ships by U-boats’ decline, from the middle of 1917, precipitously at the very time that ‘the daily average number of U-boats at sea’ increased rapidly up to a maximum, at the end of 1917? I sought for an answer first in warship, including anti-submarine aircraft, numbers, and weapon technology, without success.

From the published histories I knew that a civilian, the Premier, Mr. Lloyd George, had insisted in the teeth of Admiralty opposition, in April 1917, but in the face also of weekly catastrophic shipping losses, that the Admiralty institute convoy for ocean-going merchant ships (as it had at the start of the war for warships, naval supply vessels, and military transports). Frustrated, I now decided to investigate numerically the effects that the introduction of oceanic mercantile convoy had had upon shipping losses. I knew of no such study.

Admiralty compliance with the Premier’s will had come tardily, weeks, months later, although it had been running with negligible losses, since February 1917, on the instance of the French Navy, short sea-route cross-Channel collier convoys. However, in consideration of Prize Law, and in order to mislead the enemy concerning the presence of armed escorts to the ships, these convoys had been officially designated ‘Controlled Sailings’ – a term which had promptly misled the Admiralty also as to their nature!

It was not until July, 1917, that, slowly, resentfully, sceptically, and only partially, the Admiralty had reluctantly begun to institute a system of convoy for Homeward-bound ocean-going ships; convoy for Outward-bound ocean-going ships followed in mid-August, Mediterranean in October, and so on until, by November, 90% of ocean-going ships were sailed in convoy. However, the coastal convoy system was not completed until October 1918…!

As I abstracted, analysed, tabulated, and finally plotted the various numerical operational facts – numbers of ships sunk, and the numbers of convoyed ships sailed and sunk monthly in 1917, and in 1918, I began to realise that, despite all the impediments placed in its way to success by a sceptical Admiralty, and by antagonistic Commanders-in-Chief, it began to appear that it was this emasculated convoy system that had ‘pulled the chestnuts out of the fire’!

When, finally, I had tabulated ‘quarterly numbers of ships convoyed’, and had then plotted these numbers as a curve superimposed upon the hitherto meaningless curves of ‘U-boats at sea’, and of their ‘sinkings’ then, at once the hitherto missing clue sprang forth unmistakably! It was convoy – the progressive increase in the number of ships sailed in convoy – that had turned imminent defeat into Allied victory!

The Application of Principle

How so? Because a convoy system is fundamentally a – the only – scientific sea-strategy (though, as now, it was not recognised as such). It is scientific because it unites empirical fact with rational thought in a way that cannot be disentangled. In short, an efficiently organised convoy system incorporates scientifically all the Principles of War operationally, and commercially, the latter a fact seldom appreciated by professional naval, as distinct from maritime, strategists (Figure 3).

In time of war the beneficial effects to a combatant operating a convoy system of warfare upon merchant ships and warships at sea, and upon the efficient running of the inland transportation systems, which are tied inseparably to ships’ arrivals, and departures – the shipping situation – are calculable, and, of even greater operational importance at sea, its effects upon the activities of enemy forces, which convoy inherently dictates, are rationally predictable, and are calculable (Figure 4).

A convoy system dictates the movements of enemy forces because it predetermines the movements of the object of the enemy’s attack, the ships in convoy, whose position and movements are known to the operational authority on shore, and to the accompanying escort forces, and associated support forces, concentrated, disposed, and prepared to defeat any such attack; forces able, moreover, unlike the enemy, to re-arm, and to re-fuel from ships under escort in the convoys, thus enabling the escorts to maintain the momentum of constant aggressive opposition to any enemy forces threatening to attack the ships in convoy.

That is, the enemy forces can attack ships only in the face of alert, alerted, aggressive forces – submarine, surface, air – disposed constantly in the right place, at the right time, and armed with the right weapons with which to give themselves the highest probability of intercepting, and of destroying any opposing enemy forces before they can reach the object of their attack, the ships in convoy. As Monty is reputed to have observed: “Wars are not won on gusts of emotion!” Which is as true of warfare at sea as on land, and of ensuring the efficiency of island inland transportation systems.

Definition of Terms

Nor is sound, scientific maritime strategy formulated, let alone executed, on a basis of misconceptions. Thus Socrates (d. 399 BC), a man accounted wise in his generation, observed: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”; which is another way of saying, ‘call a spade a spade’, or, speaking as a seaman thinking strategically, ‘call a ship a ship’, not ‘a sea line of communication’ – not even if you shorten it to ‘SLOC’! Similarly, when preparing for war, define – call – one or more merchant ships at anchor, or under way, sailing singly or in a group, unambiguously, ‘independent/s’ not, as in NATO jargon, ‘an unescorted convoy’. Why not? Because the beginning of operational wisdom is the definition of terms. Again, why? Because accurate operational knowledge during a war (and at any time), which in itself is intelligence of the highest importance, depends upon accurate, unambiguous operational facts and figures. To speak or to write of an ‘unescorted convoy’ is not just bad English (it involves a confusing contradiction of terms), it forms false (confusing) pictures in a hearer’s as in a reader’s mind, as it has already in the user’s.

Sloppy speech at sea has ever been eschewed by bos’uns, prudent masters of the seaman’s craft, because of its dangers in a storm at sea. The consequences of sloppy speech – misleading terminology – in the storm of war are far greater than the hazards of sloppy speech in a sea-tempest. In fact, sloppy operational staff talk, jargon, misleading terminology about sea-affairs is, in effect, a subtle, deadly form of sabotage from within; it leads, will lead, as in past wars it has, as surely as night follows day, to self-propagated operational misinformation, falsification of operational facts and figures, to fatal error; in fact, to a repetition of grave operational errors made at hideous cost in human suffering at sea, in sunken ships, in drowned cargoes in the last two Battles of the Atlantic, 1914-1918, 1939- 1945.

To exemplify: sloppy operational terminology, falsification of the definition of ‘convoy’ in the statistics of ‘ships sailed in convoy sunk’. This was achieved by including ‘ex-convoy ships sunk’ in the statistics of ‘ships sailed in convoy sunk’. This falsified the shipping statistics by augmenting the number of ships sunk whilst in convoy during the Battles of the Atlantic of both wars. As a result convoy loss rates (percentage of the number of ships sailed in convoy that were sunk whilst in convoy, that is, whilst under armed escort) were falsely increased, whilst independent loss rates – of ships sailed without armed escort – were fatally diminished.

Independent Loss Rates

In fact independent loss rates were seldom less than twice the convoy loss rate, and frequently from ten to twenty-fold as high. The practical consequence of erroneously defined shipping statistics was an Allied self-inflicted cumulative reduction in shipping deliveries, and hence protraction of the war. How so? Because a ship delivers no cargo when sunk, and none thereafter during the rest of the war. Unlike delaying a ship (frequently erroneously associated with convoy), the adverse effect of sinking a ship is cumulative. This fundamental, indeed this vital fact about shipping deliveries was not understood in the Admiralty operationally until early in 1943… ! (Figure 5).

“Your convoy makes the dangerous way secure,” wrote the poet Dryden in the 17th century, meaning an armed escort accompanying on land, a person or persons, at sea a ship or ships. Convoy means the same today in plain English, viz. “Convoy, n. number of merchant ships sailing in company under escort.”

Yet, NATO jargon defines a group of ships sailed unescorted not plainly, and unambiguously ‘a group’, but ambiguously, ‘an unescorted convoy’, that is, by definition, ‘an unescorted group of ships under escort’! In time of war, when ships are sunk, sooner or later, ships sunk in such unescorted groups will be listed under ‘convoy’, that is, as being ‘under escort’, and an Allied falsification of statistics of both Battles of the Atlantic will be repeated yet again! And yet again with the gravest adverse long term consequences, this time upon the NATO war effort.

This fatal falsification of operational shipping statistics inherited from the First World War was, in fact, re-imposed upon the Naval Staff after Mr. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had queried in a docket, one of the erroneous, as it proved, weekly shipping statistics then being circulated by the Naval Staff of the Admiralty.

The First Lord had demanded the explanation for “the loss of a ship in a Gibraltar-bound convoy.” The explanation was that the ship had sailed from its Convoy Assembly Anchorage in convoy but, in accordance with standing orders, in Lat. 47ºN., (approximately the latitude of St. Nazaire) the escort had been withdrawn, the ships continuing their passage without an armed escort (in NATO parlance as ‘an unescorted convoy’). The First Lord minuted, tersely, “therefore the ship was not in convoy!” (It was, in operational statistical fact, ‘ex-convoy’). He then minuted, correctly, that as the purpose of the statistics was to show the value of convoying – sailing merchant ships under armed escort – in future, “statistics of ship sailings and losses” were to be compiled, “so as to show the value of sailing ships under armed escort”!

For some months the statistics were so compiled. Then a villain in the history of the ‘Statistics of Sailings and Losses of Ships in the Battle of the Atlantic’ appeared [Waters’ exact phraseology is more colourful – Ed]. Despite his ignorance of maritime warfare he exercised upon the Naval Staff his superior scientific authority. He re-imposed upon the Naval Staff (despite its vigorous opposition) the compilation of the previously erroneous shipping statistics! These statistics were, from their very nature, as already explained, of fundamental operational importance to the conduct, and to the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Misleading Analysis

The consequence was that, henceforth, the statistics of independent (unescorted) ship losses were diminished, convoy (escorted) ship losses correspondingly augmented – throughout the war! The inevitable, practical result was the avoidable cumulative diminution of Allied shipping deliveries throughout the war, from the exclusion of ships from convoy which should have been sailed in convoy, and consequential increased shipping losses, and a consequential cumulative short-fall in deliveries.

This ‘evil genius’ I identified, not without dust and heat, a year or so after the war had ended. He was the pretentious civilian Chief Scientific Adviser [Frederick Alexander Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell]. Rich, arrogant, overbearing, and clever, but not clever enough to fool his Fellows of the Royal Society, as they warned the Government, alas in vain. He was as ignorant of shipping and sea strategy as he was to prove to be also of the strategic use of aircraft – again at incalculable cost to the Allied naval and military campaigns.

If the fatal ‘definition of convoy’ docket survives somewhere in the Public Record Office [National Archives, Kew] it is, in fact, one of the key documents to understanding one of the grimmest aspects of the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945, the independently sailed ships’ losses, their crews drowned in thousands, the torments of any survivors in open boats… The unpalatable fact is that the disastrous shipping losses which crippled the Allied war effort to the very end of the war were caused in great part by bad Staff work, the compilation of misleading shipping statistics.

I have cited the two foregoing fruits of historical operational research in order to provide salutary examples of two important factors in war. One concerns the influence of human personality upon the conduct of human affairs; how destructively influential, even in a democracy, how malignant in effect human personality (especially when combined with worldly wealth, arrogance, and ruthless ambition) can be on the conduct of human affairs despite impartial, informed forewarning to high authority by knowledgeable colleagues.

The other example illustrates the fundamental importance of the first principle of war, “Define the object.” This is, rightly, also the first and fundamental principle of scientific, and of historical operational research, and of operational statistics. It has a corollary: “Define the object with precision, be accurate.” Principle and corollary were inculcated into me immediately I joined the Historical Section of the Training and Staff Duties Division of the Admiralty, in January, 1946, from an airfield in Lincolnshire, where I had been retraining to fly twin-engined aircraft. My mentor was the dour, formidable, Vice Admiral K. G. B. Dewar (KGB). He had, I consider, the most incisive naval mind that I have met. He was another wartime-wasted A1 naval brain; but that is another matter of both world wars (his papers are now in the National Maritime Museum: He was a founder of the Naval Review.