The lessons of history

UK maritime security and the Battle of the Atlantic

Roosevelt and Churchill aboard HMS Prince of Wales
Roosevelt and Churchill aboard HMS Prince of Wales, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

Harry Bennett PhD, naval historian and lecturer at Plymouth University, considers the contemporary relevance of the Battle of the Atlantic

In May 2013 the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic was marked by a number of academic conferences and public

events, reflecting the fact that the Atlantic campaign continues to play a significant role in framing contemporary public, political and professional understandings on UK maritime security. Seventy years on, the Battle affirms some obvious lessons about UK maritime security, provides others that turn out to be misleading, and suggests some that public, professionals and politicians may not want to recognise or prefer simply to forget.

Lessons affirmed

1. Most obviously the Atlantic struggle points to the salient fact that the UK is a maritime power with global interests. Indeed, in significant respects (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 Atlantic 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 points strongly to the importance of maritime (land and carrier-based) air power in providing cover for fleet operations and as a vital factor in anti- submarine warfare. Debates at the academic conferences about the impact of Coastal Command, and the operations of Fleet and Escort carriers in the Atlantic in the 1940s, contrasted with continuing uncertainties in 2013 over the future of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the F-35B aircraft intended to fly from them.

4. Britain’s reliance on the United States was affirmed by the Battle of the Atlantic. Indeed, without the willingness of the US to become the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ the battle would not have been begun. The special relationship which has been the defining feature of British foreign policy since 1945 was created in the midst of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Lessons overlooked

Of course, victory in the Atlantic was down to more than 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 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 who saw themselves as doing not just a job but their patriotic duty. 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, no matter what is done to it, will always show the same level of performance that it did from 1939 to 1945.

2..If the Royal Navy depended on an adequate level of support, 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.

3. Maritime communities played a key role 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.

4. Ship building and ship repair was of vital importance. The record of British yards during the war was remarkable, given the difficulties that they operated under.

5. Given the extensive bombing of the majority of UK ports, together with other difficulties, they 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 did not join the war until 1941, and 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. In forging the special relationship Churchill utilised this to the full. That 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 twenty-first century raise awkward questions about the future potential usefulness of the UK to the US in fields of defence and foreign policy.

2. The second lesson to be ignored is that state of the art is not always needed. Jutland-era warships such as HMS Warspite performed significantly better than some of the later designs. ‘Just good enough’ and ‘reliable’ also have value. In 2013 billion-pound assets 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 Royal Navy of 1939 was a mix of state-of-the-art and more dated, but still highly reliable, weapons systems. 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 than that can still have utility in terms of the remainder (defending good order at sea, preventing and deterring conflict).

3. Lastly, victory in the Atlantic conveniently overshadowed the fact that Britain had not been able to command the narrow seas. 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 to our understanding of maritime security, 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 sea power 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 (air power, amphibious and other)? Shouldn’t we also seek to emphasise that sea power has significant claims to the self- reliance, versatility, and adaptability of forces demanded in the twenty-first century?

2. The Battle of the Atlantic is a misnomer, and our picture of it has some significant problems. With an empire spread as far as the Pacific, Britain’s survival in World War II was based upon a struggle to maintain her importing capacity across all her maritime networks, not just across the Atlantic. The empire may largely have gone, but in an age of globalisation those maritime trading networks remain, and they remain vulnerable. The U-boat no longer troubles the Atlantic, and Pax Anglo-Americana has kept the Atlantic sea lanes free since 1945, but there are plenty of other seaways where Britain’s maritime networks are highly vulnerable to piracy, terrorism and state agency. An international crisis in the Persian Gulf, or the Straits of Taiwan, could disrupt the UK economy just as effectively as Dönitz’s submarines.

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 does not want to look its vulnerabilities full in the face. The history of seventy years ago is not fully understood by the public, let along the lessons which need to be drawn 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 in terms of UK maritime security we have to look well beyond the confines of the Atlantic, to the Mediterranean, the 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. In celebrating the achievements of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, one recalls the old adage: ‘Envy the country that has heroes – pity the country that needs them.’