This book looks at the first battle of the Atlantic in the Western Approaches, a battle fought on the British side by the Coast of Ireland Command, led from July 1916 by Admiral Lewis Bayly, a controversial figure who had earlier been in command of the Channel Fleet when the battleship HMS Formidable was sunk by a U-boat, and whose front line career appeared to be over. In many ways he proved to be the right man for the Irish command, quickly winning over his officers, and proving to be exactly the right person to be in charge when the Americans entered the war. Their first major contribution was to provide an inceasingly sizeable force of destroyers under Admiral Sims to fight the U-boats, and they came on Bayly’s command. His attitude helped to merge his British and American crews into a single, effective force, by no means an easy task given the complex nature of the relationship between the two navies at the time!
This first battle of the Atlantic was very different to the more familiar one from the Second World War. Here there was no ASDIC, no escort carriers, no radar – no way of detecting a submerged submarine or terribly effective way of detecting a surfaced one. It was thus fundamentally imposible to go out and hunt submarines. Anti-submarine patrols were entirely ineffective. Bayly’s favourite option – the Q Ships – achieved a handful of successes, but at high cost. When convoys were finally adopted, they didn’t bring on the sort of convoy battles that we are familiar with – U-boats weren’t sunk in large numbers around convoys, but they were prevented from attacking the merchant ships so easily, thus dramatically reducing shipping losses.
The key command for this battle was based at Queenstown, near Cork (modern Cobh). Bayly thus had to cope with the hostile Irish nationalist movement (and at one point went as far as requesting that his time there should count as over-seas service!). For much of the time this was more of a nuisance than a threat, emerging as hostility to British and American sailors when they were onshore, but in 1916 the troubles erupted into the Easter uprising, which directly impacted on his command.
I would say that the author is overly sympathetic to Bayly. His achievements as a coalition commander were indeed impressive but in other ways he wasn’t so impressive. He was opposed to convoys, and a consistant supporter of anti-submarine patrols, despite their near total lack of success. He didn’t think that aircraft would be of much value. This fits with his earlier career, where his refusal to accept that submarines might be dangerous played a major role in the loss of the battleship HMS Formidable.
Apart from that this is an excellent book, looking at one of the key battles of the First World War, making it clear just how hard fought and costly it was, and how Bayly’s men helped win this difficult and dangerous campaign.
Part One - The Coast of Ireland Command until April 1917
1 - The Western Approaches and Queenstown
2 - War, 1914
3 - ‘It was just murder’, January-July 1915
4 - A New Broom, 1915
5 - New Ships, New Tactics, July and August 1915
6 - Bad Blood and First Blood, August and September 1915
7 - The U-boats Return: January-April 1916
8 - ‘A Terrible Beauty in Born’, April 1916
9 - The Calm before the Storm, May-December 1916
10 - Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 1917
11 - April in the Cruellest Month, 1917
Part Two: The Royal Navy and United States Navy under Bayly’s Command
12 - The Americans Arrive, 1917
13 - ‘Pull Together’: Joint Operations Commence, 1917
14 - U-Boot-Falle, 1917
15 - The Fight Continues, 1917
16 - The Americans are Blooded, 1917
17 - A Strange Sort of Life
18 - Difficult Times, December 1917
19 - The Turning Tide, January-June 1918
20 - The War from the Air
21 - A Hard Road, July-September 1918
22 - Victory, 1918
Part Three; Bayly’s Leaving and Achievements
23 - Pain and Pleasure: An Admiral Takes his Leave
24 - Considerations and Conclusions
25 - Envoi
Author: Steve R. Dunn