The Lessons of History in 2013: UK Maritime Security – the Battle of the Atlantic Commemorations (17-28 May) and the vote on the Government motion on Syria (29 August)

First published: 24th March 2012 | Prof. G. H. Bennett

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1. Introduction

2. The Battle of the Atlantic

3. Lessons Affirmed

4. Lessons Overlooked

5. Lessons Ignored

6. The Wrong Lessons

7. The Battle of the Atlantic 2013

8. Government Defeat in the Motion on Syria 29 August 2013

9. Conclusion

10. Footnotes



If you ignore history, fail to understand its lessons, or don’t continue to question the continuing relevance of those lessons then you are either condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past or to be channelled along lines that lead to fresh problems. This is perhaps especially true when National Security and Foreign Policy are concerned. In this short paper I want to look at two passages of history. The first involves the Battle of the Atlantic and how we think about it (what we get right, what we get wrong and what we just plain miss) in terms of lessons for maritime security. The second involves an example (government defeat in the House of Commons in the motion on Syria on 29 August) of the way in which some of these issues can combine with other factors in damaging and unexpected ways.


The Battle of the Atlantic

In May this year the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic was marked by academic conferences in London and Liverpool together with public events in other cities connected to the Battle. The commemorations were a reflection of the fact that the Battle of the Atlantic continues to play a significant role in shaping contemporary public, political and professional understandings of our reliance on the sea and the maritime security of the UK. The conferences at London and Liverpool, attended by academics and representatives of several navies, formed a landmark in the development of our understandings of the Battle of the Atlantic, and the extent to which we can continue to use it as a means to think about contemporary maritime security questions. Seventy years on the Battle of the Atlantic affirms some obvious points about UK maritime security, provides other points which mislead public and policy makers, and suggests others which public, professionals and politicians may refuse to recognise, prefer to ignore or to simply forget.


Lessons Affirmed

1) Most obviously the Battle of the Atlantic points to the salient fact that the UK is a maritime power with global interests. The Battle of the Atlantic resulted from the fact that with a large population, inadequate agricultural land and few other raw materials available in sufficient supply, the UK is almost completely reliant on overseas imports. That critical weakness was targeted by the German Navy in two world wars and remains the defining factor of UK national security. Indeed, in significant respects (a still larger population/decline of domestically mined coal/rise of oil and gas imports/the rise of “just in time” logistics), we are more vulnerable today to pressure on our supply lines than we were in 1939.

2) Success in the Battle of the Atlantic also highlights the dedication, inventiveness and bravery of a strong Royal Navy, and the sheer pugnacity of the people and companies that made up the Merchant Navy.

3) The defeat of the U-boats also points strongly to the importance of maritime airpower. The inability of the Kriegsmarine to bring the aircraft carrier Graf Zepplin to a state of operational readiness deprived the German Navy of the chance to send to sea the kind of task force capable of operating against the Royal Navy in the North Sea and Atlantic. Meanwhile Allied aircover closed down opportunities for U-boats operating against the North Atlantic convoy routes, and the aircraft of Coastal Command turned the Bay of Biscay into a particularly unhappy transit zone for German submarines deploying into the Atlantic. The Fleet Air Arm played a key role as a strike force capable of crippling the battleship Bismarck, attacking the Tirpitz, and providing protection for units of the Royal Navy.

4) Britain’s reliance on the United States was affirmed by the Battle of the Atlantic. Indeed, without the willingness of the United States to become the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ the battle would not have been begun. Similarly, without the willingness of the United States to become the great ‘moneylender of democracy’ with the Lend Lease Bill in 1941 the Battle could not have continued. The special relationship was created in the midst of the Battle of the Atlantic and consummated by signature of the Atlantic Charter in late 1941.


Lessons Overlooked

Of course, victory in the Atlantic was down to more that the dedication of the Royal Navy, the bloody mindedness of the Merchant Navy, and outstanding work on behalf of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF Coastal Command, and it is easy to overlook a number of other vital elements in the story. These include:-

1. The dedication, inventiveness and ultimate success of the Royal Navy was the product of a service adequately supported at the political and public level to ensure sufficient resources, good morale and a continuing flow of recruits through the training establishments who did not just see themselves as doing a job. Those men and women who joined the Royal Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic saw themselves as doing their patriotic duty to a country and empire which they loved. This sense of self-belief and mission was vital to eventual victory in the Atlantic. It is too easy to take these things for granted, and to imagine that the Royal Navy will (no matter what is done to it) always show the same level of performance that it did from 1939 to 1945.

2. If the efficiency of the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic depended on an adequate level of support from government in its various forms then so too did our merchant navy. The British shipping companies that plied the great waters of the world similarly needed government to pursue policies which promoted or at least defended their interests, maintaining the number of ships flying the red ensign, the quality of the British registry and the number of qualified British merchant seamen. In the 1940s a strong merchant navy was perceived to be vital to the national interest.

3. The role of maritime communities in continuing to send men and, in some cases, women to sea to crew the ships, the fishing fleet and auxiliary vessels. A successful maritime nation depends upon those communities and the skills and traditions which they encapsulate. Since 1945 there has been a dramatic decline in those communities with the consequent loss of skills. The idea of going to sea, except as part of some leisure activity, has dramatically declined since 1945.

4. The vital importance of ship building and ship repair. The record of British yards during the war was remarkable given the difficulties that they operated under, even if the productivity of American yards has overshadowed their achievements.

5. The success of UK ports. Given the extensive bombing of the majority, together with other difficulties, UK ports operated with remarkable efficiency during the war. This area of the economy continues to be a largely unrecognised success story for UK plc.


Lessons Ignored

While many of the reasons for success in the Battle of the Atlantic have been forgotten some parts of the story have perhaps been more deliberately overlooked:-

1. If America’s support for Britain allowed victory in the Atlantic then that support was not automatic and immediate. The USA joined the war in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, not in 1939 with Hitler’s attack on Poland. If the Churchillian rhetoric of ‘English-speaking peoples’ is stripped away, together with cultural assumptions that Americans are the English living on the other side of the Atlantic (viz John Cabot, Pilgrim Father’s, Roanoke etc etc), then we have to remind ourselves that America’s support for Britain in 1940 rested heavily on Roosevelt’s recognition that Britain as a maritime power was important to the security of the United States. The British fleet constituted a vital shield against the expansion of German power into the Western Hemisphere, and Britain was an important player in trying to contain Japanese ambitions in the Atlantic. Churchill, on more than one occasion in 1940, confronted Roosevelt with the vision of British defeat and a collaborationist British government placing the home fleet under the control of Hitler. The special relationship has rested on shared culture and history – and an appreciation that the military power of each side is boosted through remaining in tandem. British defence cuts in the 21st century, particularly with regard to the Royal Navy, have significantly reduced the potential usefulness of the UK to the US in the event of international trouble.

2. The second lesson to be ignored is that state of the art is not always needed. The Royal Navy of the Second World War was less than state of the art in a number of respects. Jutland-era warships such as HMSWarspite performed significantly better than some of the later designs. The obsolescent Fairey Swordfish served throughout the war, because it was just good enough and was reliable in ways that some more modern types were not. The Flower Class Corvette was a dog of a ship in many ways, but it was just good enough and could be turned out in substantial numbers. Billion pound assets such as Astute Class submarines and Type 45 destroyers may have all the “bells and whistles”, but as a nation we have been remiss in the early withdrawal of some of our older vessels. The scrapping of the four highly capable Batch 3 Type 22 Frigates (annual running cost around £16million), for which the UK exchequer received around £1million each scrap value, seems like very poor value in comparison. The Royal Navy of 1939 was a mix of state of the art and more dated, but still highly-reliable, weapons systems. One wonders whether the debate about modernity and capability versus numbers is not unduly influenced by a suspicion that to press the politicians for anything less is to invite on-going underfunding. If state of the art is required for the first two of what Geoffrey Till defines as the essential tasks of the Royal Navy (Fighting and winning wars: Staging distant expeditions) then less that state of the art can still have utility in terms of the remainder (Defending good order at sea: Preventing and deterring conflict).[1]

3. Lastly, victory in the Atlantic conveniently overshadowed the fact that Britain had not been able to command the narrow seas from Plymouth to the Wash. Britain’s coastal convoy traffic had been disrupted by German motor torpedo boats, and on occasion the Luftwaffe. While the Battle of the Atlantic has been the focus of considerable attention from publishers the bitter struggle in the narrow seas has received comparatively little attention.[2] The exercise Tiger tragedy of April 1944 demonstrates that even comparatively late in the war British coastal convoy traffic was highly vulnerable to motor torpedo boat attacks.[3] Operation Cerberus in 1942, the so-called Channel Dash, highlighted the extent to which the enemy was capable of controlling the sea approaches to the United Kingdom at least on a temporary basis. As late as the summer of 1944 Home Guard units in Cornwall were under instructions to watch out for spoiling raids and landings to disrupt the build up for the Second Front. The junior service’s victory in the Battle of Britain in 1940 gave no assurance of UK security from German landings, and the senior service could not guarantee that security even as late as 1944. With the development of offshore oil, gas, wind and wave assets our vulnerability in the narrow seas since 1945 has increased dramatically. The security of our shores never has been and is not a given.


The Wrong Lessons

There are two final points to be made about the contemporary relevance of the Battle of the Atlantic to our understanding of Maritime Security today, and these are the most important of the lot:

1) The Battle of the Atlantic was essentially a defensive struggle, albeit a vital one. In commemorating it, rather than other aspects of the war at sea, there are potential problems for the Royal Navy in the way that the public consciousness is shaped as a result. What opinions does the public form about the utility of contemporary seapower through an understanding of the Battle? Should we not also seek to champion those episodes of history which demonstrate the vital role that the Royal Navy played in power projection (airpower, amphibious and other)? Shouldn’t we emphasise the pivotal role that naval power played in Victory in Europe by threatening the German Empire from Norway to the Adriatic? How can we point out to the public that the turn of the tide for the Germans on the Eastern Front (the defeat of Operation Citadel in the Summer of 1943) was underpinned by Allied landings in the Mediterranean?

The commemorations for Battle of the Atlantic 2013 were in marked contrast with the next to invisible “official” celebration of the Falklands anniversary the previous years: the latter anniversary being a perfect example of the Royal Navy’s role in power projection, the extensive nature of Britain’s global interests and the importance of maritime trade from the role of the Merchant Navy in supporting Britain’s military forces.

2) The Battle of the Atlantic is a misnomer and our picture of it has some significant problems with it. As David Reynolds has demonstrated, in writing his Second World War (6 vols. 1948-1954) Churchill’s writing about the Battle of the Atlantic was highly selective.[4] Fully interested in events such as the sinking of the Bismarck he was much less engaged by the war of attrition that marked broad passages of the war at sea. On some key issues, involving technology and ultra, the need for secrecy placed severe limits on what the former Prime Minister could say. Meanwhile, in writing the Official History of the War at Sea (the first volume of which appeared in 1954), and with a view to defence policy in the light of the Soviet threat, Captain S.W. Roskill was only too happy to foster the image of a wartime Atlantic simply brimming with German submarines.[5] Roskill’s history is strikingly different in its approach to the subject from the Naval Staff’s own history Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping 1939-1945: A Study of Policy and Operations (Historical Section, Admiralty, 1957) which is a model of dispassionate writing and statistical analysis. Historical writing usually emphasises drama at the expense of quiet, professional efficiency which closes down an enemies attack options. The plain fact is that even at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941, as Professor Eric Grove has demonstrated, most convoys sailed and reached their destination without meeting the enemy.[6] With an Empire spread as far as the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, Britain’s survival was based upon a struggle to maintain her importing capacity across all her maritime networks. The Empire may largely have gone but in an age of globalisation those maritime trading networks remain and they remain vulnerable. The U-boat doesn’t trouble the Atlantic, and Pax Anglo-Americana has kept the Atlantic sealanes free since 1945, but there are plenty of other seaways where Britain’s maritime networks are highly vulnerable to piracy, terrorism, state agency and sabre rattling. An international crisis in the Persian Gulf, or Straits of Taiwan, could disrupt the UK economy just as effectively as Doenitz’s submarines. Recent video footage of Islamic militants firing rocket propelled grenades at a ship in the Suez Canal gives some pause for thought.


Battle of the Atlantic 2013

Commemorations of victory in the Battle of the Atlantic in 2013 were a kind of comfort blanket for a country that did not want to look at its vulnerabilities full in the face. The history of 70 years ago was not understood, let alone the lessons which an island nation needed to draw from it. We remain an island nation reliant on imports and exports for our daily existence. The Royal Navy cannot always be relied upon to pull through in the face of adversity, no matter how ill-equipped. The commercial maritime world cannot be expected to provide the shipping and infrastructure to meet a national emergency as they did in 1939-45 and with Operations Telic, Granby and Corporate. The rosy nostalgia of a Battle of Britain flypast or two cannot disguise the scrapping of our maritime air reconnaissance capability to the approval of the Kremlin and the Russian submarine fleet. The world is a very different place from what it was in 1939, but Britain’s position as an island nation dependent on the sea remains almost identical. Some geopolitical truths are unchangeable no matter how some might like to pretend otherwise.


Government Defeat in the Motion on Syria 29 August 2013

Some of the problems evident in the way in which the Battle of the Atlantic was commemorated were evident during the defeat of the Government motion on Syria in the House of Commons on 29 August 2013. It is suggestive that some of the chickens are coming home to roost:-

1. While in BoA 2013 the focus was on the wartime centre of gravity in the Atlantic and Europe the Syrian Crisis (Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean) reminds us of the UK’s global interests and the capacity for problems to occur almost anywhere in the world where a UK military response will be required.

2. In responding to the crisis the government followed an almost knee jerk response to the special relationship forged in the midst of the Battle of the Atlantic. It was taken virtually for granted that Britain and America would stand side-by-side and Parliament and People would fall into line. American responses to the failure to secure the motion on Syria emphasise the point that the special relationship is based on continuing mutual trust and has to rest on mutual utility and benefit.

3. Similarly it also seems to have been assumed by the Government responsible for SDSR 2010 that the UK could generate an appropriate and commensurate military response to the Assad regime. It was widely perceived by the public, and on the backbenches, that UK armed forces were unable to respond on anything other than a token basis (submarine launched cruise missiles). As Edward Leigh (Conservative, Gainsborough) put it :

our contribution to an attack on Syria would be infinitesimal. Have we not degraded our own armed forces in the past three years, contrary to repeated warnings from myself and others? Do we have an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean? In reality, we would simply be hanging on to the coat tails of President Obama.[7]



History governs our assumptions and assumption is frequently the mother of disaster. The United States Marine Corps put it rather more eloquently and forcefully. We don’t always draw the right lessons from something like the Battle of the Atlantic, and the lessons we do draw are frequently the wrong ones. In terms of UK maritime security we have to look well beyond the confines of the Atlantic – to the Mediterranean and Pacific and beyond. We cannot continue to rely on UK Maritime Security, and the effectiveness of our armed forces, because it has always worked out before. We cannot expect the public to understand vital issues of national security, and the maritime sphere, when they are not schooled in them. We also have to look at the way which government sends powerful social signals in what it does and what it does not do. Sending our military personnel and equipment to the scrap heap in line with SDSR 2010 has sent very damaging messages to the electorate about how our armed forces are viewed, and their capabilities in the event of a crisis. In celebrating the achievements of the Royal Navy and British merchant navy in the Battle of the Atlantic 70 years ago, and today’s realities of the vote on Syria, one recalls the old adage: ‘Envy the country that has heroes – pity the country that needs them’.



[1] Geoffrey Till, Britain Gambles with the Royal Navy, Naval War College Review (Winter 2010), Vol.63, No.1, pp.33-60.

[2] See for example, Nick Hewitt, Coastal Convoys 1939-1945: The Indestructible Highway (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2008); Bryan Cooper,The E-boat Threat (Oxford: Purnell, 1976); Alexander McKee, The Coal Scuttle Brigade (London: New English Library, 1973); Robert Jackson,Churchill’s Moat: The Channel War 1939-1945 (London: Airlife, 1995); J.P. Foynes, Battle of the East Coast (Isleworth: Self Published, 1994); Peter C. Smith, Hold the Narrow Sea: Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945 (Annapolis [MD]: Naval Institute Press, 1984). There is a larger volume of works dealing with coastal forces Lieutenant-Commander Peter Scott, The Battle of the Narrow Seas: A History of the Light Coastal Forces in the Channel and North Sea, 1939-1945 (London, Country Life Ltd, 1945); Gordon Williamson, E-Boat vs MTB: The English Channel 1941-45 (Oxford: Osprey, 2011); Gordon Williamson, Kriegsmarine Coastal Forces (Oxford: Osprey, 2009); Gordon Williamson, German E-boats 1939-45, (Oxford: Osprey, 2002); Harold Pickles, Untold Stories of Small Boats at War: Coastal Forces Veterans Remember (Edinburgh: The Pentland Press, 1994); Leonard C. Reynolds, Home Waters MTBs & MGBs at War 1939-1945 (Stroud: Sutton, 2000); Jean-Phillippe Dallies-Labourdette,Deutsche Schnellboote 1939-1945 (Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 2006); Hans Frank, Die Deutschen Schnellboote im Einsatz (Berlin: Verlag E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 2006).

[3] See for example Ken Small, The Forgotten Dead (London: Bloomsbury, 1988); D. And M. Murch, The American Forces at Salcombe and Slapton during WWII (Plymouth: P.D.S. Printers, n.d.); Nigel Lewis,Exercise Tiger (New York: Prentice Hall, 1990); Whiting, Charles, ‘Following a surprise attack by German E-boats, a D-day training exercise ended with the deaths of approximately 700 U.S. soldiers, accessed 1 August 2013; Charles B. MacDonald, ‘Slapton Sands: The “Cover-Up” That Never Was’, Army 38, No. 6 (June, 1988) pp. 64-67; Ralph C. Greene and Oliver E. Allen, ‘What Happened Off Devon’,American Heritage 36, No. 2 (February-March, 1985): 2635.

[4] David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London; Penguin, 2005), p.320.

[5] Captain S.W. Roskill,The War at Sea 1939-45, 3 vols ( London, HMSO, 1954-61).

[6] Professor Eric Grove Paper and Comments to the BoA 2013 Conferences at King’s College London and at HMS Eaglet Liverpool.

[7] Parliamentary Debates [Commons], 29 August 2013, Col.1521.

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