Convoys: The British Struggle Against Napoleonic Europe and America
Roger Knight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022. 292 pp. Maps. Illus. Appx. Timeline. Glossary. Notes. Biblio. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Frederick C. Leiner
Nothing was more important to Britain in her titanic struggle against France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) than
merchant ship convoys. The ships-of-the-line and frigates fighting the epic battles and controlling the seas have come down through history and, at the time, received the glory and prize money. Yet, convoys brought Britain food, cotton, raw materials, and luxury goods, as well as the naval stores and timber critical for building and maintaining ships; convoys sent manufactured goods and textiles overseas, critical to maintaining the home economy; and convoys carried and supported troops on foreign expeditions. The trade from convoys brought wealth to Britain that allowed “English gold” to support Britain’s allies. Surprisingly, the convoy system during the Napoleonic Wars has received scant attention. That gap has now been filled by Roger Knight, curator emeritus of the British National Maritime Museum and biographer of Admiral Horatio Nelson, with Convoys: The British Struggle Against Napoleonic Europe and America. It is a superb work of naval history.
Knight systematically covers the history of convoys before the Napoleonic Wars and then focuses on the challenges to the Royal Navy escorts and the merchantmen, going to the East and West Indies, the Baltic, and Western Europe, over the course of a dozen years. The escort commanders had difficult jobs keeping convoys together, bringing back strays, towing slowpokes, and protecting against enemy warships and privateers. Typically, escort commanders’ work was thankless, without glory or the chance for prize money that most Royal Navy captains craved.
Seamanship was at a premium. During the Napoleonic Wars, 250 warships escorting convoys were wrecked or foundered (including ten ships-of-the-line), many hundreds of merchant vessels were lost at sea or on the rocks, and at least 6,500 British soldiers drowned when their troopships went down. In a world before modern navigational aids and weather forecasting, in which ships relied on the wind, navigation was critical. Yet the Royal Navy did not require its officers to be able to calculate longitude with a sextant and mathematical equations, nor did it provide chronometers to ships; the expense (£100) made outfitting a warship with a chronometer dependent on the personal wealth of her captain. As a result, to plot their positions, commanders resorted to “dead reckoning,” which often was astonishingly wrong and resulted in catastrophes. Convoys is informed by Knight’s personal knowledge of sailing those waters, as when he notes that the North Sea is “fiercely tidal, shallow, and largely featureless.”
A symbiotic relationship existed between insurers in the City of London and the Admiralty. Lloyd’s of London provided intelligence and insured merchant ships (the rate assessed being an indication of perceived risk), and many financiers sat in Parliament; the Admiralty regulated the schedules of convoys and provided the force to protect them. Parliament passed laws requiring most overseas trade to go in convoys, a requirement shipowners and masters usually obeyed. Despite the heavy losses in warships, which Britain made good by building small escorts to standard designs, British trade increased steadily during the war. Knight reveals that the Achilles’ heel for Britain was a severe shortage of trained seamen, as losses to war, wreck, disease, and desertion mounted.
Of special interest to American readers, Knight addresses the convoy system in the War of 1812. Although convoys brought British soldiers safely to North America and kept them supplied, the American privateers’ strikes during the later stages of the war caused the convoy system to “unravel” in home and northern waters. Knight observes that in 20 weeks in 1814, the British lost 172 merchant vessels, primarily in the Western Approaches and Irish Sea, and insurance rates skyrocketed. Knight is the first British historian to acknowledge the damages wrought by the American guerre de course, concluding the American privateer war “was more damaging to trade than anything in the previous nine years” of warfare against the European powers.
Roger Knight is a master storyteller. Convoys is deeply researched, well written, and insightful. It belongs on the bookshelf of every historian of maritime warfare under sail, but it also is a great read about a neglected aspect of naval warfare during the Napoleonic Wars.
Mr. Leiner, a lawyer, is a regular contributor to Naval History. He has written three books about the early navy, including Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805 (Westholme, 2022).
Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II
Catherine Musemeche. New York: William Morrow, 2022. 318 pp. Photos. Map. Endnotes. Index. $28.99.
Reviewed by Howard Schneider
If you are skeptical about the mystique of the popularly termed “greatest generation”—the Americans who endured the Great Depression and helped win World War II—Lethal Tides might allay some of your doubts. Catherine Musemeche’s thought-provoking book chronicles the U.S. Navy’s World War II Oceanographic Unit, led by a woman and mostly staffed by women—a group whose dedication, research, poise under pressure, and patriotism supplied the military with invaluable intelligence.
Mary Sears was the unit’s redoubtable leader. Born in 1905 into a wealthy family, she attended Radcliffe, became enthralled by zoology, and eventually received a PhD in the subject, also at Radcliffe. By 1941 Sears had become “one of the leading planktonologists in the country,” taught at Wellesley, and also worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Nevertheless, it was a bad time to be a female scientist—sexism was rampant in the scientific community, and the country.
After the U.S. entry into World War II, the Navy realized it needed the special skills of oceanographers. Because there was a dearth of male oceanographers, the Navy was compelled to seek out qualified female marine scientists. And that’s how Lieutenant (junior grade) Sears became head of the Navy’s Oceanographic Unit of the Hydrographic Office in April 1943.
She was a splendid choice. Sears was a workaholic, an astute judge of character, “had a gift for collecting and organizing data,” and never missed a deadline. That last attribute is remarkable: The deadline constraints on Sears and her colleagues were incessant and brutal. The unit consisted of 12 to 15 people; the nucleus comprised Sears and three colleagues. The group was understaffed, but what they managed to produce is still admirable.
The main purview of Sears’ team was the Pacific Ocean; its clientele ranged from admirals to Marine Corps strategists to submarine commanders to pilots (they were provided waterproof maps to help them navigate in life rafts). The team furnished data on thermoclines—ocean layers “with the greatest temperature differentials”—invaluable knowledge to submariners, because layers of certain temperatures allowed undersea craft to evade enemy detection. Sears’ crew also supplied information on reefs, “measurement of landing approaches [to island invasion sites], dangers to navigation of landing areas, the character of bottom sediment, possible locations of underwater enemy defenses . . . beach areas, tides, currents, sea and swell, surf, sea surface temperature and salinity.”
The members of the Oceanographic Unit were bureaucrats, laboring at desks and in libraries. Other facets of that war, such as safeguarding and breaking codes, creating the atomic bomb, and wielding radar have already had books written about them. Lethal Tides is among the first books solely devoted to its subject; it does justice to Mary Sears and the women and men who indefatigably worked with her. The Navy did justice to Sears in 1999 when it named a new oceanographic survey ship the USNS Mary Sears (T-AGS-65).
Mr. Schneider has reviewed books on science, technology, and military history for the Wall Street Journal, Military History, Aviation History, American History, and other publications.
Blue Water War: The Maritime Struggle in the Mediterranean and Middle East, 1940–1945
Brian E. Walter. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2022. 352 pp. Maps. Appxs. Biblio. Endnotes. Index. $39.95.
Reviewed by Commander Graham Scarbro, U.S. Navy
Many years ago, I had the great fortune to be invited to a Taranto Night dinner by some British squadron mates. I previously had never heard of Taranto, and what followed was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. The festivities commemorate the November 1940 raid by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish bombers against the Italian fleet at Taranto (retold in the Naval Institute Press graphic novel The Stringbags). My wife and I enjoyed dinner surrounded by friends and colleagues, and our British hosts educated the assembled American naval aviators on the history of that pivotal aerial raid and its place in British naval aviation history. The evening moved between boisterous, somber, comedic, and sentimental, and opened my eyes to the campaign in the Mediterranean in the early years of the war.
Brian E. Walter’s Blue Water War takes a comprehensive look at the naval campaign in the Mediterranean and its underrated role in the conduct of World War II. Because of its flurry of early action in the years prior to U.S. entry to the war, and the focus of American navalists on the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in the Pacific, it is easy to overlook the Med’s impact.
Blue Water War is densely written history, so readers should be ready for long stretches of ship movements, discussions of tonnage, and a strict chronological style. That said, it does an admirable job of shining a spotlight on an area of the war that is frequently relegated to footnotes or disaggregated to a series of supporting roles in the land campaigns in North Africa and Europe.
What emerges is a picture of the strategic necessity of the Mediterranean to the British war effort. Written through a British lens (indeed the British were the only Allied navy in any force in the Med for several years), Blue Water War captures the fraught early nature of the Mediterranean conflict from 1939 to 1942 that ultimately led to unqualified Allied success in the theater by 1944.
The aforementioned raid on Taranto makes an appearance, as do important clashes over the supply of Malta, Axis efforts to interdict the Suez Canal, and the broader strategic goals of Great Britain. Walter manages to convey why a coup in Iraq, French ships in Madagascar, and Japan’s war in East Asia mattered to the war in the Med. He highlights the complexity faced by both Axis and Allies in supplying their far-flung forces across the Mediterranean theater, from the Middle East to North Africa to Crete and Malta.
Walter also covers the staggering array of naval missions that occurred in the Mediterranean as the Royal Navy and the Axis—first their navies and, increasingly, their air forces—played cat-and-mouse from Gibraltar to the Suez. The campaign in the Med was the broader war at sea on a condensed scale: aerial raids, shore bombardment, sea control, reconnaissance, amphibious landings, submarine warfare, interdiction, special operations, sabotage, classic surface engagements, and, above all, sealift and supply.
Walter highlights the British contribution to the war via its Mediterranean theater, while also placing it in the context of the strategic disagreements over campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and southern France. A strong piece of analysis, this book underscores why the Mediterranean was always more than just an Allied lake or secondary consideration to the war effort. Blue Water War is a good choice for those who, like myself after that Taranto Night dinner, are eager to learn more about World War II on the Mediterranean Sea.
Commander Scarbro is an active-duty naval aviator.