Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege

The epeiric sea gives

Claesz, Still Life with Silver Brandy Bowl, Wine Glass, Herring & Bread 1642. From  Bob Swain's Picasa  album, here.

and takes.
Watersnoodramp, 1953
The geologists get all the good words. An "epeiric" is a shelf, or shallow sea, and the North Sea is one. It's cold, thus oxygenated, flooded by the effluent of a wet continent, thus rich. More, the legacy of the 150 million years across which epeiric seas have persisted in this region gives its bottom an ancient history of geologic shaping. It's a maze of channels and banks, up and down, through which the fisherfolk have sought their prey, probably since Viking times. (Indeed, you may recall that that's my explanation for Viking times.) It's said that the Dutch herring fishery employed a hundred thousand men at the dawn of the Early Modern. (I think that it's in Boxer, Dutch Seaborne Empire, somewhere, but I'm too lazy to check carefully.)

I use the deadly "it's said" because it's a made-up number, inspired by envy at the thought of the excise a state could levy on so much fish. N. A. M. Rodger attacks these kinds of numbers lustily, as an exercise in demonstrating what isn't important to Early Modern naval history. The men weren't there in the numbers claimed, and couldn't be used if they were. You're not going to get very far at writing about war at sea, Rodger thinks, without first appreciating that trained naval manpower was scarce. Great power naval war in the North Sea casts its nets into a deep well of local knowledge and a wider floating proletariat for whom war is both curse and opportunity. If there is something universal in its conduct as well (I think that there is), then the North Sea is a world sea. 

When I took the hundred thousand men seriously, I tried to calculate how much wheat land the North Sea was equivalent to, and it was on that basis that I challenged my buddy, Gerry Lorentz, to take the east coast of Britain, rather than Bristol in the west, as the nursery of the British marine. It was a fatuous thing to think and say. The maritime acres of the North Sea were like the wheat lands of old Latium, the endless source of such men as were available to build great empires. But it's not quite wrong, either.

But I'm not talking about old times today, but the last great war. By that time, the bread and butter of the North Sea trade was, well, coal and iron and --Oh, Hell, who needs to quote Masefield when you can just link to him? (Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.) Grand Admiral Raeder thought that he could conquer Britain by siege; but it's a funny kind of siege that strikes hardest by cutting a place off Tyne from London, itself from itself.

At the outbreak of war, the navy's official historian tells us, the Royal Navy had 109,000 men and 10,000 officers. I suspect because he wants to minimise the numbers, in the tradition of an earlier generation of British military historians, he takes his time in letting us know that the reserves numbered another 80,000 and that 15,000 of those had already been called up, so the actual strength of the Silent Service* was 124,000, not counting Royal Marines. Hilariously, Stephen Roskill entitles the first book of his history, "The Defensive." You see, the world's largest navy and merchant marine had to put up with pinprick German raiding, because the cowardly Krauts refused to come out and get blown up all in one go.

So deadly was the German menace that it was fortunate that their deadliest weapon, the magnetic mine, was available in such small numbers:

"And, happily for ourselves, he was not in a position to exploit his success to the uttermost, because on the outbreak of war his stock of magnetic mines was small. Meanwhile in the Admiralty a special staff had been placed under Rear-Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker** to hasten the production of counter-measures in collaboration."

Having met Wake-Walker around here before, coaxing the best out of 50cm radars, I think you'll agree that dropping the name joins sailor to technocrat. I hate this way of writing about these things. As I've already somewhat facetiously noted, the Royal Navy was the biggest fleet in the world. The Germans, meanwhile, found themselves with 300 army battalions under canvas in the spring of 1939 because they couldn't afford enough barracks. (Tooze, 303ff.) Nothing that Roskill says is wrong, but the implication that the Germans could have had enough mines is misleading. They were short of everything. War is more than just fighting sailors.

Specifically, it is 2000 WWI-era guns in depots, available to arm merchant shipping in February 1939, in stark contrast to the crisis of 1917, when it was guns for convoys or for London AA defence or the BEF. It is a thousand ships  fitted to receive and 9000 officers of merchant navy that have completed convoy and gunnery courses before the Prime Minister offers his unilateral guarantee to Poland.

It is a world ready for war, and a very large floating proletariat, even if it falls short of old time cameralist fantasies. On 15 June, 1938, the UK mercantile marine is 159,000 crew, incl, 107,000 Br., 7000 foreigners and 45,000 lascars, plus 25,000, 3000, and 6000 ashore. Just to hammer the point home, the British merchant marine is almost a third "lascar" and 6000 of them are living ashore in Britain.(1) 

It is a military mobilisation rooted in the everyday economy. Two hundred trawlers, subsidised by an Admiralty fund set aside for the purpose, are ready for call up into a naval patrol. (The Royal Navy already has an Admiralty trawler in service, and will order another 200 built during the war. I wouldn't make so much of a deal about this except that the military assistance scheme specifically sets out to equip the trawlers with the latest technology: radio direction finders and echo depth sounders. If there is something charming about calling up trawlers for war, there is something technocratic about using trawler mobilisation schemes as a way of pushing the precursors of key high technology military systems into the civilian economy to ensure that the workforce that comes back to the navy will have maintenance and operational experience.(2) There were, by the way, a complete set of crude  sonar equipments in store for the trawler force, so that the fleet could be equipped at the outbreak of war. 

It is also worth noting that the scale of the subsidy is sufficient to warrant a specific mention as a source of company profits at the April 1939 British Marconi annual shareholder's meeting.(3)

Most people who write about trawlers do so in the context of the exciting antisubmarine war being waged in the west. This is not about that, just as it's not about "Coastal Forces" in their boats (wee-ee-ee) whizzing about and trying to shoot each other whenever they can pry a hand off a stanchion long enough to operate a machine gun. 

It's about a real siege weapon: mines."Weapons that wait," sometimes, with counting fuzes, through as many as seven sweeps before they go off under some poor sod. It's weapons with dangerously unpredictable effects --a battleship and the pride of the new cruiser force were both knocked out of the first two years of the war by mine explosions that shattered the cast-iron blocks on which their machinery was mounted in the hulls. 

So the war-making potential here is bound up in two kinds of mine: the traditional, horned, floating, contact mine, and the insidious influence mine, already mentioned, which is set off by magnetic, acoustic, or sonic induction. Contact mines are heavy, because of the cable and anchor, and so have to be laid by ships, which can only get to where ships can get to, but influence mines have their own problems. Precisely because they can't float free, they have to be laid at shallow depths in constrained shipping channels. (Probably all you're likely to want to know about the technology.) Practically, they have to be laid accurately and inshore. The work proved harder for submarines than expected, and in 1939, the task was left to the brave Küstenfliegeren, flying at low altitudes in poor visibility, trying to navigate exactly their way to channels and passes where their mines might have some effect. Defenders, keeping seas in bad weather, searched the familiar bottoms for mines in order to do --something-- with them before they could impeach London's supply of coal, iron and building materials.

It's a fisher's war, is what I'm saying.

Not surprisingly, some were soon captured by the enemies. Others descended on land targets and demonstrated the alternate meaning of a "mine" bomb. Like the mines of old siege warfare, they were very good at knocking down flats of buildings. (At least, that's my speculative answer to Brett Holman's question here.) They were called off, not because they'd run out of their exiguous supply of mines, but because the weather was getting too bad. (Here. Somewhere. To the best of my recollection.) In spite of being deeply and profoundly expected (the results of a series of machinery noise tests published after the war suggests that the Admiralty panicked and inspected the fleet's acoustic profile in late 1938, about the time that the submarine force got serious about self noise)(5), the influence mine campaign of 1939 was a bit of a fizzle.(4)

This is just the first year of the war. I began by linking to Commander Hardy's Minesweepers' Victory, a hard-to-find, practically self-published history of the British minesweeping forces during the Second World War. It's got all the vices that the description suggests: poor production values, lots of typos (it's kind of like a blog post that way!) small print run. It's not online, which is too bad, because my notes are not of the best, and I'm not getting back to the University of Toronto library system any time soon.

 And it's an example of one of those crying shames of history. Mine warfare is boring. When I think of our heroes of the Malta runs, or Admiral Wake-Walker today, the impression isn't one of boredom. It's of relentless tension, stress and excitement. That was what defusing mines was like for those who did it, but most of the minesweeper's war consisted of boring patrols down lanes that had to be kept clear of mines. The space was greater than the resources to be invested, notwithstanding a Royal Naval Protection Servicce that rose to 70,000 men and 6000 vessels by the end of the war. Hardy's title is somewhat ironic. "We never beat the mine," he concludes, and there were some shipping channels in the complex at the mouth of the Thames and Medway that were never made safe during the war. The best that the minesweepers could achieve with all of their devotion was to keep the congested wartime shipping channels clear enough that Britain's internal coastal traffic could keep up deliveries. 

In October of 1940, per a summary of Peter Elliot's Allied Minesweeping in World War II *** that has helpfully been placed online at the head of this interesting document, the Germans used their first acoustic mine. After that, things get awfully vague, and understandably so. Learning their lesson from the winter of 1939/40, the Germans held back the deadly "oyster" combined pressure/acoustic mine. The Allies anticipated this (it's not like they had much choice), and overcame the threat. (Although one of the sources that I've trawled this morning says that if they'd just laid the mines in sufficient quantities before the invasion, things might have been different. Poor OKM. Damned if you do, and damned if you don't.)  

I suspect that this Normandy Surprise is part of the reason that Hardy's book is so unusual and hard to find. It will be followed, after all, by an Inchon Surprise, and a whole Cold War after it in which the boldest plans of both sides were constrained by the knowledge that they wouldn't necessarily be able to get away with whatever they might be planning for inshore waters. It's not just that minesweeping is boring. It's that it's a silent service. There's not much reason to give away what you can do with mines or with minesweeping to potential enemies ahead of a war when so much depends on technological surprise.

Which leaves me feeling some mild surprise that the German siege didn't work. There was just so much room for technological surprise: multiple forms of influence mines, multiple complications even for plain, old-fashioned contact mines. If the Allies didn't beat the mine, how did they win the war? I guess that, at the end of the day, the point is that fishers are very good at winning things from the sea, or that the North Sea is just very good at teaching those skills.   

*No. Seriously. That's what they call themselves. They're, like, all understated and stuff.

**Wake-Walker entered World War II with a major screw-up on his record, and perhaps that's the reason that he persevered in such a brutal series of assignments --figuring out magnetic mines; the Dunkirk evacuation; shadowing the Bismarck; organising the landing craft fleet; and asked so little in return. Specifically, he died unexpectedly in 1945 just after making admiral. I suppose that, ideally, he could have cut the cost of his survivor's pension to the Treasury a little further by dying before his final promotion, but it looks like he was thinking about Human Resources to the end. Or that his cardiovascular system was. Fortunately, he got a CBE before it was too late. Modern counterparts waiting to "stroke out" should be so lucky.

***I've never seen this one. If iit is as good as his Allied Escorts of World War II, it is well worth looking at. It's probably not going to have knowing accounts of minesweeping in the Black Deep and Godwin Sands, the kind of local knowledge for which one lusts.

1. G.H. and R. Bennett, Survivors: British Merchant Seamen in the Second World War (London; Rio Grande, Oh.: Hambledon, 1999):19--20.

2.  Extracts of the Reports of the Fisheries Board of Scotland indicating the depth of penetration of WWI-era military technology into the trawler fleet, that is, of depth locators and radio direction finders
See “The Forty-Second Annual Report of the Fisheries Board of Scotland,” in United Kingdom, Sessional Papers, House of Commons, 1924, 9: 654-5; the 52nd report in Ibid, 1934–1935, 10: 17–18; the 54th report in Ibid, 1935–1936, 10:8; and the 57th report, in Ibid, 1938–1939, 11:11

3. Fairplay, 30 April 1939. Pagination missing.

4. A. J. Baggott, “Developments on Magnetic and Acoustic Mines at the Admiralty Mining Establishments,” Jour. Inst. Elec. Eng. 94 (1947): 509–26. Summary: there was an Admiralty mine research establishment even in WWI that had deployed the “M” mine with a fairly modern trigger but a concrete case by 1918. The Germans just copied it, initially. The establishment of the Mine School at HMS Vernon was awesome, because it gave me a job provided an institutional basis for research. By 1939 we had awesome designs that no-one would let us play with. Thank God for that Hitler bloke, even if when I say it I feel a little guilty about that whole WWII thing. Degaussing had been researched even before the war in both Germany (more so than in the UK), but even so the Krauts weren't very good at it. To summarise: the Germans were totally super-awesome, but despite the small size of the British developmental group, we ended up even being more awesomer. Hey! There's a Cold War. Moar money please. The post-NATO out-of-international-coffee-clatsches summary in Geoffery K. Hartmann's Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, [1979]) seems more likely to be accurate. It's especially telling that when Dr. Wood of HMS Vernon  inspected the beached mine on 23 November 1940, he grew excited at seeing that the fuze was covered by a rubber diaphragm. This seemed to mean acoustic firing (62), and he was disappointed (my interpretation, admittedly) upon inspection that it was just magnetic rubbish, well behind the technological curve. I think the moral of the story is that if you spend more money on research for longer, you get better results. Crazy, I know.

5. Commander (E) J. H. Joughlin, DSC, RN, AIME “Naval Gearing –War Experience and Recent Development,” in Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. 164 (1951): 157–77 including Discussion, 167–77. I note specifically the self-noise failures of ASW escorts Egret, Pelican, and Shearwater, registered in 1939. Speculative, I admit.



  1. Just wanted to say thanks for all your posting - reading it has been a really effective way to get a feel for different ways to think about history. The article I just submitted on the origins of Northern Songhay doesn't have a thing to do with anything you've posted about (and, since more than half of it involves deducing history from language, it might well horrify you), but I don't think I would have written it without having read your blog.

  2. Congratulations on the article! There's nothing more fun than being horrified.

  3. Well, if you enjoy being horrified, then drop me an email and I'll send you a copy... (my first name at gmail)