Introduction of Convoys

This discussion appeared on WW1-L in November 1998 (with an addendum from MARHST-L, August 1999). It is an excellent summary of the factors behind the so-called delay in introducting convoys into British shipping, which finally occurred in 1918. (all posts reproduced by permission of the author)
From: Andrew Wiest (

As regards convoy, the traditional picture of its acceptance is dead wrong. Lloyd George visited the Admiralty on April 30, 1917. His War Memoirs give the indication that he "forced" the idea of convoy on an unwilling Admiralty. As we all know DLG's War Memoirs are nearly as reliable as the Official History. DLG has a vested interest in making himself seem the savior of Britain. The remainder of the traditional view comes from AJP Taylor. His view of the April 30 meeting runs like this. DLG "took his seat at the head of the Admiralty Board. He gave the formal order that convoys must be instituted. The admirals belatedly discovered that they had been in favour of convoys all along." Dramatic but wrong.

The truth is rather different. The Admiralty, under the much maligned and underrated Jellicoe, had been considering convoy for quite some time. They had numerous objections to it, but the severity of the submarine war had forced them to change their minds. It is true, as stated earlier on the list, that the ADM had vastly overrated the number of ships that would need convoy due to counting the many visits of coastal ships. Jellicoe had the revised, correct numbers for shipping in hand in time for a cabinet meeting on April 23. The War Cabined debated the convoy issue with Jellicoe's new numbers on April 25. On the same day Jellicoe approved the idea of convoy in the form of a report from Rear Admiral Alexander Duff, Director of the Anti-submarine Division of the ADM.

Thus convoy had been debated and accepted, with some discussion by the War Cabinet, long before DLG made his"dramatic I am going to save Britain yet again" visit to the ADM. Supporting evidence that DLG fudged his story comes from Hankey. He was with DLG on the ADM visit and stated that DLG discussed convoy but already found it to have been accepted by Jellicoe. DLG then had a plesant lunch with Jellicoe and his four daughters, "Lloyd George having a great flirtation with a little girl of three." Hardly the dramatic visit that DLG painted.

More evidence comes from Lord Carson, the First Lord during most of 1917. He would not put up with DLG's fabrication published in his War Memoir. Carson felt compelled to publish a rebuttal in the Morning Post. Carson stated that the argument that Jellicoe was against convoy and that it was forced upon him by DLG was "the biggest lie ever told."

Here we have a good case for reading the memoirs of persons involved in history with a grain of salt. DLG simply lied in this case. A quick check of the documents would have saved AJP Taylor from making a lasting historical mistake. The paper trail that shows tha DLG is off the mark is strong. For documentation regarding the above material see my book entitled Passchendaele and the Royal Navy published by Greenwood Press in 1995. The material is in chapter 4 entitled "submarine menace and Flanders planning" p 85-88.

From: Geoffrey Miller (

... however the value of the convoy system should not be measured purely by a "body count" of submarine (or privateer) kills, but, more importantly, by a reduction in the merchant ships lost to the enemy, the very point that you have just made in your last sentence.

Thank you for the reference to Newbolt's Naval Operations Vol. 5, Page 133. The previous pages make fascinating reading as they give an account of proposals submitted to the Inter Allied Conference on Submarine Warfare in September 1917. I hope you will excuse my summarising them for the benefit of the list. The situation must have seemed very grim indeed, judging by the range of proposals made.

Jellicoe presented two remarkable plans to reduce the U boat menace. The first was to use a force of 40 old battleships and 43 old cruisers and endeavour to block the entrance to all of the German harbours (!)

The other plan, endorsed by the Conference, was to block the northern entrance to the North Sea by an immense minefield. The Conference made no objection to this second plan, but it was stated that the factories of the United States would have to assist in producing the 100.000 mines required as the British factories could not do so rapidly.

Jellicoe then reported on a proposal to combat German ocean going submarines by establishing a wireless and intelligence centre at the Azores and setting up an ocean patrol of decoy ships and submarines. However Admiral Sims' prescient views were that the convoy system was a genuinely offensive measure, in that it compelled the enemy submarine to fight at a disadvantage, but he made the point that the Germans may then attack the convoys, not with submarines, but with heavy Dreadnought battleships and that this would require Dreadnoughts as escort of the convoys. (shades of WW2)

The author, Newbolt, commented that it was easy, in hindsight, for us to realise that the convoy system was the answer, but that to "Admiral Sims must be given the credit of being the first naval expert in high position who had the insight to realise that the remedy for which the Allies were still seeking had actually been found."

It seems that the other naval experts were unable to see the wood for the trees.

(from MARHST-L, August 1999).

Having read a great mass of operational records of the era, it is difficult to believe that the senior officers of the RN would have taken any notice whatsoever of the USN. Admiral Sims may indeed have believed that he had a benenficial input in this, especially if he had links with Lloyd-George. But, Lloyd-George himself made a totally spurious claim in his memoirs, that it was he who banged heads together at the Admiralty in late May 1917 and forced them to adopt convoys. Although widely quoted by authors this side of the pond, this was simply untrue. The decision had been made just before Lloyd-George's visit and it seems that some within the Admiralty were slowly coming around to this themselves (though the catastrophic losses of April-May made some sort of action essential). Nevertheless, generally they remained opposed to the 'defensiveness' of convoys and it took far too long for a concerted approach to be instituted.

Merchant losses remained high until very late in the war, but with standard-ship production (especially in the USA) getting into gear there was no shortage of tonnage. The real problem was in rising casualty rates of merchant mariners, due to torpedo attacks. (Though percentages of shipping sunk dropped, numbers of men killed on these unfortunates increased dramatically).

Perhaps the perception from US sources is due to debate on the input of Mahan and company. One can replay the arguments of the 'blue-water' school versus the 'bolt from the blue' schools forever and still not resolve many issues. Over the last year, I have noticed in British academic circles an emphasis on Mahan, which I do not believe to have been the case at the time - from reading midshipmen's journals (who obviously discussed these matters amongst themselves) and paperwork generated by senior officers dealing with strategy and tactics. I have been rather bemused by the blind followers of either Mahan, or Sir Julian Corbett. I reckon that both of them got it partially right and partially wrong (though I have far more time for Corbett).

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Last Updated: 10 September, 1999