During the First World War the three Scandinavian countries managed to stay neutral (and avoid being invaded by either side, something that wasn’t the case for Denmark and Norway in the Second World War), but that doesn’t mean they weren’t serious affected by the war. Each of the three countries had a different set of problems – Norway was heavily dependent on British trade, Denmark was very vulnerable to invasion from the south and Sweden had a pro-German elite but still needed to keep the Allies happy.
I was only really aware of the later part of this story – the creation of convoys across the North Sea and the two attacks on those convoys by German surface vessels which led to the loss of several British destroyers and the merchant ships they were guarding. However this is only a tiny part of the story of those convoys, which in turn was only a small part of the story of the Scandinavian trade. However this book tells the entire story, looking at the long diplomatic efforts to reduce the Scandinavian trade with Germany, how things changed as the war dragged on, and the long term impact the war had on life in the countries involved.
The book covers two main themes –the diplomatic background and the resulting impact on the naval war. The two main weapons used by the Germans were the mine and the U-boat, with surface warships playing a much less important role for most of the time. On the British side this was a war fought largely by the smaller warships – destroyers and trawlers playing the main role, with larger ships making occasional appearances. Dunn covers this part of the war from two points of view – first that of the senior officers and policy makers attempting to find a way to deal with new problems and second that of the small ships, looking at the difficult time endured by many of them in the North Sea, where the weather could be just as deadly as the U-boats.
One of the major elements of this story is just unprepared the senior leadership of the Royal Navy was for the sort of war they had to fight in 1914-18. This was a generation of leaders who expected to fight Nelsonic battles to destroy the enemy fleet, and who generally held the belief that you couldn’t go wrong if you did the modern version of ‘engaging the enemy closely’. However technology had changed dramatically since Nelson’s time, and the end result of attacking a markedly superior enemy was generally the destruction of the weaker warship before it could inflict any damage on the stronger ones. This had been demonstrated at the battle of Coronel early in the war, but the message clearly hadn’t reached the commanders of some of the Royal Navy’s destroyers even in 1917, and led to the loss of HMS Mary Rose when she charged into battle against two German cruisers and was destroyed. We find a similar problem at higher levels, where some senior officers resisted the use of convoys because they were seen as a defensive tactic, and they saw the Royal Navy as an offensive force. Beatty actually emerges from this debate with a great deal of credit, having put a great of support behind the start of convoys to and from Norway (although even he was still willing to mount sizable ‘submarine hunting’ operations in 1917, even though they almost never actually achieved anything!).
This story also demonstrates why major policy decisions in warfare can’t be left to the military leadership. For many senior officers in the Royal Navy the willingness to allow some trade through to the Scandinavian neutrals was a mistake that greatly weakened the effectiveness of the blockade. However the political leaders were well aware that it wasn’t that simple – if they had imposed a total blockade on the Scandinavians then the Swedes could have blocked a key supply route to Russia across their territory and greatly increased the amount of iron ore they sold to Germany, and the Danes and Norwegians would also have had no reason not to increase trade levels with the Germans. We also see similar problems on the German side, where U-boat captains obsessed with total submarine warfare sank Scandinavian merchant ships heading home with cargoes that may well have been intended for Germany!
This is an excellent study of an important aspect of the war at sea during the First World War, successfully weaving together the diplomatic and military aspects of the story.
1 – Trade and Blockade
2 – The Outbreak of War and the Scandinavian States in 1914
3 – Opening Moves, 1914-1915
4 – U-Boats in the North Sea, 1915
5 – Political Dances
6 – Parliamentary Turmoil and a New Ministry
7 – Turning the Screw, 1916
8 – A Mounting Crisis, 1916-1917
9 – Blockade, Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and Food, 1917
10 – Convoy, 1917
11 – Scandinavian Problems and Diplomacy, 1917
12 – Labour and Loss, June-October 1917
13 – Surface Warfare and the Disaster of the Convoy of 17 October 1917
14 – Trouble at Sea and the Sinking of the Convoy of 12 December 1917
15 – A Change of Plan
16 – The Last Throw of the Dice and More Convoys
17 – Convoys and Convoy protection, 1918
18 – American Power, Mining and the Armistice, 1918
19 – A Hard Duty
20 – Death and Memorials
21 – Analysis and Conclusions
22 – Envoi
Author: Steve R Dunn