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Some of our submarines were also detailed to work in the vicinity of
convoy routes in order that they might take advantage of any opportunity
to attack enemy submarines if sighted; due precautions for their safety
were made.

Among the difficulties with which the very energetic and resourceful
Admiral Commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands had to contend in his
working of the convoys was the persistent mining of the approach to
Lerwick Harbour by German submarines; a second difficulty was the great
congestion that took place in that harbour as soon as bad weather set in
during the autumn of 1917. The weather during the latter part of 1917
was exceptionally bad, and great congestion and consequent delay to
shipping occurred both at Lerwick and in the Norwegian ports. As the
result of this congestion it became necessary to increase largely the
number of ships in each convoy, thereby enhancing the difficulty of
handling the convoy.

At the commencement it had been decided to limit the size of a
Scandinavian convoy to six or eight vessels, but as the congestion
increased it became necessary to exceed this number considerably,
occasional convoys composed of as many as thirty to forty ships being
formed. A contributory cause to the increase in the size of convoys was
due to the fact that the trade between Lerwick and the White Sea, which
had been proceeding direct between those places during the first half of
1917, became the target of persistent submarine attack during the
summer, and in order to afford them protection it was necessary in the
autumn to include these ships also in the Scandinavian convoy for the
passage across the North Sea. Between the coast of Norway and the White
Sea they proceeded independently, hugging territorial waters as far as

It will be realized that the institution of the convoy system of sailing
for the Scandinavian trade necessitated an extensive organization on the
Norwegian as well as on the British side of the North Sea. For this
reason Captain Arthur Halsey, R.N., was appointed in March, 1917, as
Naval Vice-Consul at Bergen, and the whole of the arrangements in regard
to the working of the convoys, the issue of orders, etc., from the
Norwegian side came under him and his staff, to which additions were
made from time to time. The position was peculiar in that British naval
officers were working in this manner in a neutral country, and it says
much for the discretion and tact of Captain Halsey and his staff and the
courtesy of the Norwegian Government officials that no difficulties

Steps were also taken to appoint officers at British ports for the work
of controlling the mercantile traffic, and as the organization became
perfected so the conditions gradually improved.

By the end of September the bad weather prevalent in the North Sea had
caused great dislocation in the convoy system. Ships composing convoys
became much scattered and arrived so late off Lerwick as to prevent them
proceeding on their passage without entering harbour. Owing to the
overcrowding of Lerwick Harbour the system of changing convoy escorts
without entering harbour had been introduced, and the delays due to bad
weather were causing great difficulties in this respect. The question of
substituting the Tyne for Lerwick as the collecting port was first
discussed at this period, but the objections to the Tyne as an assembly
port were so strong as to prevent the adoption of the proposal.

The system of convoy outlined above continued in force from April to
December, 1917, during which period some 6,000 vessels were convoyed
between Norway and the Humber with a total loss of about seventy ships.

There was always the danger that Germany would attack the convoys by
means of surface vessels. The safeguard against such attacks was the
constant presence of forces from the Grand Fleet in the North Sea. In
view of the fact, however, that the distance of the convoy routes from
the Horn Reef was only between 300 and 350 miles, and that on a winter
night this distance could almost be covered at a speed of 20 knots
during the fourteen or fifteen hours of darkness that prevailed, it will
be seen that unless the convoys were actually accompanied by a force
sufficient to protect them against operations by surface vessels, there
was undoubted risk of successful attack. It was not possible to forecast
the class of vessels by which such an attack might be carried out or the
strength of the attacking force. The German decision in this respect
would naturally be governed by the value of the objective and by the
risk to be run. Admiral Scheer in his book states that on one occasion,
in April, 1918, the German battle-cruisers, supported by the battleships
and the remainder of the High Sea Fleet, attempted such an attack, but
found no convoy. It was always realized by us that an attack in great
force might be made on the convoy, but such risk had to be accepted.

The movements of the ships of the Grand Fleet were a matter for the
Commander-in-Chief, provided always that no definite orders were issued
by the Admiralty or no warning of expected attack was given to the
Commander-in-Chief, and, prior to the first attack on the Scandinavian
convoy, no special force of cruisers or light cruisers accompanied the
convoy to guard it against attack by surface vessels, although a strong
deterrent to attack lay in the frequent presence of forces from the
Grand Fleet to the southward of the convoy routes, which forces would
seriously threaten the return of any raiding German vessels. As the
enemy would naturally make the northward passage by night we could
hardly expect to sight his ships on the outward trip.

The first attack took place at daylight on October 17. The convoy on
this occasion consisted of twelve ships, two British, one Belgian, one
Danish, five Norwegian and three Swedish, and was under the
anti-submarine escort of the destroyers _Mary Rose_ and _Strongbow_, and
two trawlers, the _Elsie_ and _P. Fannon_. At dawn, shortly after 6.0
A.M., two strange vessels were sighted to the southward, and were later
recognized as German light cruisers. They were challenged, but replied
by opening fire at about 6.15 A.M., disabling the _Strongbow_ with the
first salvo fired. The _Mary Rose_ steamed gallantly at the enemy with
the intention of attacking with torpedoes, but was sunk by gunfire
before she could achieve her object. The enemy vessels then attacked the
convoy, sinking all except the British and Belgian vessels, which
escaped undamaged. The _Strongbow_, shelled at close range, returned the
fire, using guns and torpedoes, but was completely overwhelmed by the
guns of the light cruisers and sank at about 9.30 A.M. The trawler
_Elsie_ effected very fine rescue work amongst the survivors both from
the _Strongbow_ and ships of the convoy, whilst under fire, and both
trawlers reached Lerwick. The enemy sheered off soon after 8.0 A.M. Most
unfortunately neither the _Strongbow_ nor the _Mary Rose_ succeeded in
getting a wireless signal through to our own vessels to report the
presence of enemy ships, otherwise there can be little doubt that they
would have been intercepted and sunk. We had in the North Sea, during
the night before the attack and during the day of the attack, a
particularly strong force of light cruisers comprising four or possibly
five squadrons (a total of not less than sixteen vessels), all to the
southward of the convoy route, and had the information of the attack
come through from the destroyers, these vessels would have been informed
at once and would have had an excellent chance of intercepting the
enemy. The extreme difficulty of preventing the egress of raiders from
the North Sea at night, even when so large a force is cruising, was well
illustrated by this incident, although a little reflection on the wide
area of water to be covered, together with a knowledge of the distance
that the eye can cover on a dark night (some 200 to 300 yards), would
show how very great are the chances in favour of evasion.

This disaster to the Scandinavian convoy was bound to bring into
prominence the question of affording to it protection against future
attacks by surface vessels, for necessarily the protection against
surface vessels differed from that against submarines, a point which was
sometimes overlooked by those who were unfamiliar with the demands of
the two wars which were being waged - the one on the surface and the
other under the surface. It was very difficult to furnish efficient
protection against the surface form of attack from the resources of the
Grand Fleet if the practice of running a daily convoy was continued,
because it was impossible to forecast the strength or exact
character - battle-cruisers, cruisers or destroyers - of the attack; and
the first step was to reduce the number of convoys and to increase
correspondingly the number of ships in each convoy. A telegram was sent
to the Admiral Commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands on October 26 asking
whether the convoys could be conveniently reduced to three per week. A
reply was received on the 29th to the effect that the convoy could be
run every third day under certain conditions; the important conditions
were the use of the Tyne instead of the Hurnber as a collecting port,
and the provision of eight extra trawlers and nine modern destroyers.
Sir Frederick Brock stated that he was assuming cruiser protection to
the convoys and that the details would need to be worked out before the
change could be made. He suggested a conference. He was requested on
October 31 to consult the Vice-Admiral Commanding East Coast of England
as to the practicability of using the Tyne as a convoy collecting port.
Meanwhile Sir F. Brock had prepared a scheme for giving effect to his
proposals, and on November 5 he sent copies of this scheme to the
Vice-Admiral Commanding East Coast of England and other officers
concerned for their consideration.

In forwarding proposals to the Admiralty on November 22, the
Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet stated that the destroyers asked
for could not be provided from the Grand Fleet. Amongst other reasons it
was pointed out that the destroyers required for screening the light
cruisers protecting the convoys would have to be supplied from that
source, thus bringing an additional strain on the Grand Fleet flotillas.
He suggested the provision of these vessels from other Commands, such as
the Mediterranean, and pointed out the manifest advantages that would
result from providing a force for this convoy work that would be
additional to the Grand Fleet flotillas. Consideration of the proposals
at the Admiralty showed once again the great difficulty of providing the
destroyers. It was impossible to spare any from the Mediterranean, where
large troop movements needing destroyer protection were in progress, and
other Commands were equally unable to furnish them. Indeed, the demands
for destroyers from all directions were as insistent as ever. The
unsuitability of the Tyne as a collecting port was remarked upon by the
Naval Staff, as well as other objections to the scheme as put forward
from Scapa. In order to decide upon a workable scheme, directions were
given that a conference was to assemble at Scapa on December 10. An
officer from the Naval Staff was detailed to attend the conference, to
point out the objections which had been raised and, amongst other
matters, to bring to notice the advantage of the Firth of Forth as a
collecting port instead of the Tyne.

Meanwhile steps had been taken to furnish as much protection as possible
from Grand Fleet resources to the convoys against attack by enemy
surface vessels.

The conference of December 10 came to the conclusion that the Firth of
Forth was the best assembly place, and that the port of Methil in that
locality would offer great advantages. The conference made
recommendations as to the provision of destroyers as soon as they were
available, and, amongst other matters, mentioned the necessity for an
increase in the minesweeping force at Rosyth to meet a possible
extension of enemy minelaying when the new system was in operation.

On December 12 a second attack on the convoy took place. In this
instance the attack was carried out by four German destroyers. Two
convoys were at sea, one east-bound and one west-bound, the east-bound
convoy being attacked. It was screened against submarine attack by two
destroyers - the _Pellew_ and _Partridge_ - and four armed trawlers, and
comprised six vessels, one being British and the remainder neutrals. The
attack took place in approximately Lat. 59.50 N., Long. 3.50 E., and the
action resulted in the _Partridge_, the four trawlers, and the whole of
the convoy being sunk, and the _Pellew_ was so severely damaged as to be
incapable of continuing the action. At the time of this attack a
west-bound convoy was at sea to the westward of the other convoy, and
two armoured cruisers - the _Shannon_ and _Minotaur_ - with four
destroyers were acting as a covering force for the convoys against
attack by surface vessels. A wireless signal from the _Partridge_ having
been intercepted, this force steamed at full speed for the scene of the
action, the destroyers arriving in time to pick up 100 survivors from
the convoy and trawlers, but not in time to save the convoy. The 3rd
Light Cruiser Squadron, also at sea, was some 85 miles to the southward
and eastward of the convoy when attacked, but neither this force nor the
_Shannon's_ force succeeded in intercepting the enemy before he reached
port. The short hours of daylight greatly facilitated his escape.

On receipt of the report of the meeting of December 10, and in view of
the attack of December 12, the question of the interval between convoys
was specially considered in its relation to the ability of the Grand
Fleet to furnish protection against surface attack. It was decided that
for this reason it would only be possible to sail convoys from Methil
every third day so as to avoid having two convoys at sea at a time, a
situation with which the Grand Fleet could not deal satisfactorily. The
organization then drawn up actually came into effect on January 20,
1918, after my departure from the Admiralty, and was continued with
certain modifications to the end of the war. The principal modification
was an increase of the interval between convoys, first, to four, and
later to five days in order to relieve the strain on the Grand Fleet
arising from the provision of covering forces; the disadvantage of the
resultant increased size of the convoys had to be accepted. Under the
new system the Commander-in-Chief Coast of Scotland at Rosyth - Admiral
Sir Cecil Burney - became responsible for the control of the Scandinavian
convoys, the Admiralty selecting the routes.

The introduction of the convoy system for the Atlantic trade dates from
the early days of May, 1917, when the prospect - for it was only then a
prospect - of increasing assistance from the U.S. Navy in regard to
destroyers and other small craft for escort duty as well as convoy
cruisers for ocean work, made the system possible. Action taken with the
U.S. authorities for the introduction of a system by which the trade
from that country in neutral shipping was controlled enabled the ships
of the 10th Cruiser Squadron to be gradually withdrawn from blockade
duties and utilized as ocean convoy cruisers. Even with assistance from
the U.S. Navy in the shape of old battleships and cruisers, the use of
the 10th Cruiser Squadron, the withdrawal of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of
five ships from the Grand Fleet, the use of the ships of the North
American and West Indies Squadron and of some of our older battleships
from the Mediterranean, there was still a shortage of convoy cruisers;
this deficiency was made up by arming a number of the faster cargo
vessels with 6-inch guns for duty as convoy cruisers. These vessels
usually carried cargo themselves, so that no great loss of tonnage was

On May 17 a committee was assembled at the Admiralty to draw up a
complete organization for a general convoy system. (The committee was
composed of the following officers: Captain H.W. Longden, R.N., Fleet
Paymaster H.W.E. Manisty, R.N., Commander J.S. Wilde, R.N., Lieutenant
G.E. Burton, R.N., and Mr. N.A. Leslie, of the Ministry of Shipping.)
This committee had before it the experience of an experimental convoy
which arrived from Gibraltar shortly after the commencement of the
committee's work, as well as the experience already gained in the
Scandinavian and French coal trade convoys, and the evidence of officers
such as Captain R.G. Henderson, R.N., who had made a close study of the
convoy question.

On June 6 the report was completed. This valuable report dealt with the
whole organization needed for the institution of a complete system of
convoy for homeward and outward trade in the Atlantic. In anticipation
of the report steps had already been taken to commence the system, the
first homeward bound Atlantic convoy starting on May 24. A necessary
preliminary for the successful working of the convoys was a central
organization at the Admiralty. This organization - termed the Convoy
Section of the Trade Division of the Naval Staff - worked directly under
Rear-Admiral A.L. Duff, who had recently been placed on the Board of
Admiralty with the title of Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff
(A.C.N.S.), and who was in immediate control of the Anti-Submarine,
Trade and Minesweeping Divisions of the Staff. Fleet Paymaster H.W.E.
Manisty was appointed as Organizing Manager of Convoys, and the Convoy
Section, comprising at first some ten officers, soon increased to a
total of fifteen, and was in immediate touch with the Ministry of
Shipping through a representative, Mr. Leslie. His function was to make
such arrangements as would ensure co-operation between the loading and
discharging of cargoes and convoy requirements, and generally to
coordinate shipping needs with convoy needs.

The organizing manager of the convoys and his staff controlled the
assembly, etc., of all convoys and vessels.

The routing of the convoys and their protection, both ocean and
anti-submarine, was arranged under the superintendence of the A.C.N.S.

In addition to the central Admiralty organization, an officer with the
necessary staff was appointed to each convoy port of assembly at home
and abroad. This officer's duties comprised the collection and
organization of the convoy and the issue of sailing orders and necessary
printed instructions to the masters of the vessels, seeing that they
were properly equipped for sailing in company, and forwarding
information to the Admiralty of the movements of the convoy.

An essential feature of the system was the appointment of a convoy
commodore. This officer was quite distinct from the commanding officer
of the vessel forming the ocean escort, but acted under his orders when
in company. The duty of the convoy commodore, whose broad pennant was
hoisted in one of the ships, was, subject to instructions from the
commanding officer of the escorting vessel, to take general charge of
the convoy.

The convoy commodores were either naval officers, admirals or captains
on the active or retired lists, or experienced merchant captains. The
duties were most arduous and responsible, but there was no lack of
volunteers for this work. Many of the convoy commodores had their ships
sunk under them. The country has every reason for much gratitude to
those who undertook this difficult and very responsible task.

By July we had succeeded in increasing the strength of the
anti-submarine convoy escorting force to thirty-three destroyers (eleven
of which belonged to the United States Navy) and ten sloops, with eleven
more destroyers for the screening of troop transports through the
submarine zone and for the protection of the convoys eastward from the
Lizard, the position in which the other screening force left them. We
had remaining twelve sloops, which, with trawlers, were engaged in
protecting that considerable portion of the trade making for the south
of Ireland, which we could not yet bring under convoy. It was intended
to absorb these sloops for convoy protection as soon as circumstances

At this stage it was considered that a total of thirty-three more
destroyers or sloops was needed to complete the homeward convoy system.
The Admiralty was pressed to weaken yet further the Grand Fleet
destroyer force in order to extend the convoy system, but did not
consider such a course justified in view of the general naval situation.

In arranging the organization of the Atlantic convoy system it was
necessary to take into consideration certain other important matters.
Amongst these were the following:

1. The selection of ports of assembly and frequency of sailing. During
the latter half of 1917 the general arrangements were as follows for the
homeward trade:

Port of Assembly. Frequency of Sailing. Destination.

Gibraltar Every 4 days. Alternately to
E. & W. c'ts.
Sierra Leone Every 8 days. Either coast.
Dakar Every 8 days. Either coast.
Hampton Roads (U.S.A.) Every 4 days. Alternately to
E. & W. c'ts.
New York Every 8 days. Alternately to
E. & W. c'ts.
Halifax, N.S. Every 8 days. West coast.
Sydney (Cape Breton) Every 8 days. Alternately to
E. & W. c'ts.

Each port served a certain area of trade, and vessels engaged in that
trade met at the port of assembly for convoy to the United Kingdom or to

The total number of merchant ships sailing thus in convoy every eight
days in September, 1917, was about 150, in convoys comprising from 12 to
30 ships, and the total escorting forces comprised:

50 ocean escort vessels (old battleships, cruisers, armed
merchant ships and armed escort ships),
90 sloops and destroyers,
15 vessels of the "P" class (small destroyers),
50 trawlers,

in addition to a considerable force for local escort near Gibraltar,
consisting of sloops, yachts, torpedo boats, U.S. revenue cruisers, U.S.
tugs, etc.

At this period (September, 1917) outward convoys were also in operation,
the arrangement being that the outward convoy was escorted by destroyers
or sloops to a position 300 to 400 miles from the coast clear of the
known submarine area, and there dispersed to proceed independently,
there being insufficient ocean escort vessels to take the convoy on;
about twelve more were needed for this work. The escorting vessels used
for the outward convoys were destroyers or sloops which were due to
proceed to sea to meet a homeward convoy, the routine being that the
outward convoy should sail at such a time as would ensure the homeward
convoy being met by the escort without undue delay at the rendezvous,
since any long period of waiting about at a rendezvous was impossible
for the escorting vessels as they would have run short of fuel. It was
also undesirable, as it revealed to any submarine in the neighbourhood
the approach of a convoy.

It will be realized by seamen that this procedure (which was forced upon
us by the shortage of escorting vessels) led to many difficulties. In
the first place the homeward convoys were frequently delayed by bad
weather, etc., on passage across the Atlantic, and, owing to the
insufficient range of the wireless installations, it was often not
possible for the commodore to acquaint the Admiralty of this delay in
time to stop the sailing of the outward convoys. Again, outward convoys
were often delayed by bad weather, resulting in the homeward convoy not
being met before entering the submarine zone. As the winter drew near
this was a source of constant anxiety, since so many of the vessels
outward bound were in ballast (empty), and their speed was consequently
quickly reduced in bad weather. The ships under these conditions became
in some cases almost unmanageable in a convoy, and the responsibilities
of the escorts were much intensified.

In September, 1917, the following was the position in respect to outward
bound convoys:

Port of Assembly. Frequency of Sailing. Destination.

Lamlash Every 4 days. Atlantic ports.
Milford Haven Every 4 days. Gibraltar.

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Online LibraryJohn Rushworth JellicoeThe Crisis of the Naval War → online text (page 10 of 20)