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Originally published in Journal of Military History 72 (4): 1179-1212, October 2008

Ed. Note: This article is being published in two parts. Part I, in this issue, is an introduction and a literature review. It also includes a description of the RN system for multi-national naval cooperation. Part II will appear in the Ja11umy 2010 issue and cover the missions and forces and the operatio11s highlights of Submarine Flotilla 9. It will present the post-war departures from Dundee and some conclusions to be considered.

Mark C. Jones lives in Morristown, New Jersey and writes on the armed forces of the smaller European Allied countries of World War II that were operationally integrated i11to the British armed forces after being driven from the continent (Czechoslovakia. Poland, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece).


Multinational naval operations have been a common occurrence in naval affairs over the last quarter century, yet the origins of multinational naval cooperation are not well documented. Many members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began their military cooperation during World War II when the armed forces of the smaller European Allies (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Free France, Yugoslavia, and Greece) were driven from the continent and reconstituted with British assistance.

This article seeks to contribute to a greater understanding of how the post-World War II era of multinational naval cooperation grew out of British wartime collaboration with the Allied navies-in-exile of Poland, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Free France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Small numbers of exile naval units operated as part of Royal Navy (RN) formations virtually everywhere the RN deployed forces, including the Battle of the Atlantic, convoys to the Soviet Union, the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy and southern France, as well as part of operations of the Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean. These vessels were often British-built escort vessels such as destroyers and corvettes on loan to the Allied navies, but also included small craft such as trawlers converted to minesweepers or patrol craft as well as motor torpedo boats. One of the best examples of the naval relationship between Britain and the exile militaries is a little known submarine unit, the 9th Submarine Flotilla (hereafter S9). This submarine flotilla regularly included ships from the British, Polish, Free French, Norwegian and most commonly Dutch navies, and can be seen as a microcosm of the Allied naval cooperation system created by the RN.

This article begins with a review of the extant literature on the history of multinational naval operations, the British political and military relationship with the European exile militaries of World War II, and the RN submarine force during the war. It then turns to an examination of how the RN developed a system to integrate the exile navies into the British fleet. A short section describes the operational highlights (important sinkings, lost submarines) of this unit’s war record before turning to an analysis of S9 as an example of a smoothly working multinational naval unit. The article concludes with an analysis of why S9 proved to be a successful multinational naval unit, and suggestions about how the literature on the history of multinational naval operations might be more fully developed.

Literature Review

The literature on multinational naval operations is rather small, and much of it concerns specific examples of Cold War era operations under the sponsorship of NATO or more recently the two United States-led interventions in Iraq (1990-91 and 2003-present). These sources, generally articles in professional magazines such as the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, give a nuts and bolts description of a particular exercise or operation but do not treat the larger history of how it became possible for ships of many Western navies to operate together effectively. What is needed, but which apparently does not exist, is a major historical study of how the Western navies learned to gradually coordinate their defense policies, command and control systems, tactical procedures, and even hardware purchases to create the largely compatible standing and ad hoc naval forces deployed during the Cold War and various subsequent world crises.

The existing literature on multinational naval operations is a mix of short articles and monographs, mostly the former. These various sources are either contemporary accounts of multinational naval operations, or demonstrate the need for multinational naval operations given the political, economic, and environmental circumstances that navies operate in. Of the wars and crises where multinational naval operations have taken place, the Spanish Civil War(1936-39) and the first Gulf War(1991) account for the bulk of publications. One account even looks at the multinational naval effort taken to the level of combining men from several navies aboard the same ship.

There are a few sources that seek to provide an historical overview of how navies gradually began to work closely with each other. Multinational Naval Cooperation by Robert H. Thomas provides a brief historical review of the topic beginning with the post-World War I era and continuing through the mid-1990s. Thomas points out that prior to World War I, the major naval powers considered each other rivals, which consequently inhibited naval cooperation.~ Treatment of multinational naval operations during World War II is necessarily brief, but the author states that the first major attempt by the Allies to operate ships jointly led to a decisive defeat. A mixed squadron of Dutch, British, U.S., and Australian warships commanded by a Dutch admiral was shattered by the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942. While Allied forces under the ABDA Command (American, British, Dutch, Australian) had little chance of containing the powerful Japanese forces deployed in the invasion of the Netherlands East Indies, the ABDA naval striking force was handicapped by the ad hoc nature of the unit and the differing languages and communications systems used. This chapter does not contain any analysis of how the World War II experiences of the Allied navies influenced post-war collaboration. A second source, the article “Multinationality: the way ahead for Western maritime power” written by an Italian naval officer emphasizes the efforts of NATO to create standing multinational naval forces beginning in the mid-1960s. However, this article does not go beyond specifying what countries provided ships to specific standing commands for particular security purposes. It does not state what challenges had to be overcome to achieve a smoothly working multinational unit.

Only a few sources offer specific reasons why ships from various navies were or were not able to work together successfully, or attribute successful present day cooperation to World War II era ties. One author argued that the successful international cooperation demonstrated by foreign (British, French, American, German, Italian, etc.) warships during the Spanish Civil War was due to five reasons. These were l) the shared sense of confusion about conditions in Spanish coastal cities; 2) similar missions of humanitarian rescue; 3) hostile attitudes towards the Republican forces due to reports of atrocities committed against military officers; 4) the common dangers of submarine and air attack due to misidentification by Republican or Nationalist forces; 5) the desire of the German and Italian commanders to be treated as equals by their British and French counterparts. Thirty years later during the NA TO attempt to crew the American guided missile destroyer USS CLAUDE V. RICKETTS (DDG-5) using men from six different navies, initial difficulties were experienced due to differences in language, pay scales, operational procedures, training levels, religion, and discipline. Ultimately, the ship was able to surmount these challenges and performed as well or better than other U.S. warships of the same type. One author attributes successful present day multinational naval operations in the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf to World War II era ties. This author, a commodore in the Royal Australian Navy, commanded in 2002 a mixed nationality task force with headquarters on a U.S. Navy vessel during the blockade of Iraq. This officer wrote, “Six decades of alliance and close interaction with the U.S. Navy has born fruit in the way we can operate together so easily today. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Throughout the Pacific campaign, and in Korea, Vietnam, and the Arabian Gulf, the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Navy have operated alongside other allied navies.”

The literature on multinational naval cooperation is not sizeable in number of publications, and emphasizes naval operations of the past two decades as well as justifications for multinational operations due to political, economic, or environmental circumstances. There are few sources to provide an historical assessment for how the smoothly running multinational naval operations of today were achieved, or specify particular issues that complicate multinational naval efforts.

While there is not much of a literature on multinational naval operations, there is even less that documents how the British armed forces of World War II were able to incorporate the remnants of the various European Allied militaries. Most of the articles and books about the exile militaries are specific to the land, sea or air forces of a particular country. So while a source about the Polish Air Force in Britain, the Czechoslovak Army in Britain, or the Royal Netherlands Navy in Australia might contain a few observations about the military relationship between a particular European country and the British, these observations are included only as needed to tell the larger story of combat operations. What is needed is a study that combines the diplomacy between governments, the liaison between armed forces commanders, and the operational history of each country’s armed forces.

The sole published source to do this for more than one country is a study of the exile squadrons in the Royal Air Force (RAF), Airmen in Exile. The author first explains how the remnants of the various European armed forces arrived in Britain, and then demonstrates how the British came to change their attitude from displeasure at playing host to a ragtag polyglot army to serious attempts to incorporate these exile aviators into the RAF. Most of the chapters of this book are treatments of individual countries including Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, and France.

While Airmen in Exile does a fine job of describing and analyzing the exile air forces, there is no corresponding study of the ground or naval forces of the small European Allies. One wartime book on the European naval forces, Navies in Exile, published in 1944 and current through mid to late 1943, has chapters on the several exile navies, but the content is fairly general and no sources are given. There are brief descriptions of the major operational achievements and losses of each of the exile navies, but no attempt is made to explain how the RN incorporated the various Polish, Free French, Norwegian, Dutch or Greek ships into the larger Allied fleet. Likewise, there is no explanation of the efforts necessary for a foreign warship to operate primarily with British ships in mixed flotillas or task forces. Curiously, the only reference to S9 is to the Free French submarine MINERVE. “Early in the Spring of 1941 she was operating with that extraordinary ‘Flotilla of the United Nations’ which works from a northern base, a base where the notices are posted in five languages and the depot ships are polyglot.”

The British submarine service during World War II has been widely written about, either in the form of technical publications about specific classes of submarines, overviews of the entire submarine service, or the war memoirs of officers who commanded individual British submarines. Unfortunately, while there are numerous books and articles about the submarine service, few of these pertain to the 9th Submarine Flotilla. There are two likely reasons for this. First, the unit initially had quite a few British submarines but as more Allied boats were commissioned, British boats could be withdrawn and sent to other flotillas. By early 1945 there were very few British personnel assigned to S9, mostly officers with staff assignments. Second, many of the British submarine personnel who served with the unit at some point, particularly early in the war, were later killed in action either in the North Sea or the Mediterranean Sea. Losses of men and ships in the submarine service were extremely high. An officer who commanded or served in a British submarine assigned to S9 in 1940-41 thus may have perished before he had an opportunity to write his memoirs after the war.

One source that does provide operational details of S9 as well as lists of assigned submarines at various points during the war is the three-volume naval staff history of the submarine service during the war, written during the 1950s. However, this study concentrates on summarizing the operational history of individual boats and situating the British submarine campaign in the context of British naval operations as a whole. It does not explain much about individual flotillas, except to explain why they were shifted to particular ports as the war progressed or to state the patrol areas each was responsible for.

Studies of individual British submarine flotillas are also scarce. The best example appears to be a description of the famous 10th Submarine Flotilla (S10) stationed at Malta from 1941-44 The book combines the larger strategic role of Malta with the significant details of each boat’s patrols, the personal observations of officers and enlisted men who served on the individual boats, and the administrative side (command, supply, maintenance, communications, etc.) of the flotilla ashore. The author sought out contributions from the Polish, Dutch, and French veterans who crewed ‘U’ class boats on loan from the Royal Navy, but unfortunately there is minimal material on the Greek submarines that operated in the Mediterranean from Alexandria, Beirut, and Malta. This book is supplemented by the memoirs of the officer who commanded S10 for much of its time at Malta. One unpublished source is a study of the 6th Submarine Flotilla at Blyth, England. This study focuses on the first two years of the war when S6 was a combat unit, and makes extensive use of memoirs and interviews to paint a vivid picture of life aboard the submarines and ashore. Other than these two books and one manuscript, there seem to be no other studies of British submarine flotillas, including S9, during World War II.

It appears that none of the published memoirs of service in the British submarine force during the war were written by an officer who served for any length of time in S9. This includes the four officers who commanded S9 during the war in Europe. The first Captain S9, James G. Roper, was killed in an air crash in Australia in July 1945 while serving as a staff officer in the British Pacific Fleet’s supply train. His successor as Captain S9, Hugh V. King, died in 1947. The other two officers apparently did not write about their careers and left no known papers in government or university archives. An alternative to sources written by the commanding officers of S9 would be a memoir by one of the officers commanding the entire British submarine service. As with the Captains S9, none of these flag officers left memoirs or known paper collections that pertain to S9. As stated above, the lack of published accounts of experiences in S9 was likely due to the declining number of British submarines assigned to the unit and the high casualty rate among British submarine personnel during the first three years of the war.

The literature that relates to the topic of multinational naval operations during World War II is rather sparse, even less has been written on the British/exile government military relationship as a whole, and studies of the British submarine service do not provide much information about S9. The article draws upon primary sources from the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, National Archives, and Imperial War Museum, a wide variety of secondary sources published in English, Dutch, French or Norwegian, and letters and photographs from veterans of the 9th Submarine Flotilla from several countries. The next section of the article will explain how the RN integrated the exile navies into the British fleet.

The British Establish a System for Multinational Naval Cooperation

The first exile naval units arrived in Britain just as the German invasion of Poland began. Recognizing that German naval and air forces would quickly eliminate their small navy, the Poles sent three of their four destroyers (GROM, BL YSKA WICA, BURZA) out of the Baltic before the war started and the submarines ORZEL and WILK later escaped to Britain after further resistance in the Baltic became futile.

Following the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939, a large number of ground and aviation personnel from Poland (and a few from Czechoslovakia) arrived in France via Hungary and Romania, and operated from there until the collapse of France in June 1940. Limited numbers of Polish aviators, generally those trained for bombing squadrons, were transferred to Britain before the French collapse under an Anglo-French agreement about how to reconstitute the Polish Air Force. So prior to the German western offensives in Scandinavia (April 1940) and the Low Counties and France (May-June 1940), exile military personnel in Britain were limited to a handful of Polish naval vessels and several hundred Polish aviators being readied for service as bomber pilots and crews as part of the RAF.

With the success of the German western offensives, considerable numbers of military personnel from the land, air, and naval forces of Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, and France began to arrive in Britain. These forces were sometimes evacuated directly to Britain from their home countries, as was the case with a handful of Norwegian naval vessels and much larger numbers of Dutch and French ships. The evacuation of ground forces from Dunkirk in northern France resulted in substantial numbers of Belgian and French ground troops arriving, and many Polish ground and aviation personnel were disembarked from separate evacuations of French ports farther south than the Channel. In addition to the mass arrivals that occurred as the Germans reached the North Sea and English Channel, small but steady numbers of military personnel began to reach Britain, British territories in the Mediterranean, and several neutral countries. These escapees were determined to join their countrymen in exile in resisting the German occupation, and many were successful in joining the Allied forces though just as many failed in their escape attempts and were either imprisoned or executed for their efforts.

Britain was initially reluctant to host foreign military personnel due to legal, security, organizational and cultural complications as well as the financial burden it would impose. However, Britain very much needed the additional ships, squadrons, and battalions that the exile militaries could contribute to the Allied cause. As indicated in the above literature review, a prime motivation for multinational naval operations is the need to assemble forces greater than any one country can supply individually. In the case of the RN in 1940, losses of destroyers, submarines and escort vessels during the first nine months of the war had been severe, and the emergency ship building programs had not yet begun to produce the vast quantity of ships needed. So the arrival of foreign warships, while small in number and of varying degrees of utility, were a helpful reinforcement at a time of great need. Generally each exile government concluded a separate agreement with Britain about the nature of its military cooperation with the British armed forces.

In addition to purely military considerations, incorporating the exile militaries into the British armed forces and establishing close diplomatic ties to their respective governments now based in London would offer considerable political advantage to the British government. The struggle between Britain and Germany could now be portrayed as the free world versus Fascism, and not just a war between major powers.

The presence of naval attaches assigned to London by the several governments-in-exile formed the initial basis for communication between the RN and each exile navy. The Dutch, Greeks, Poles, and Norwegians had assigned an officer as naval attache before their countries were invaded. The Belgians had effectively abolished their navy between the wars, so no naval attache was present. As for the French, they had a large liaison office with the RN headed by a vice admiral to coordinate operations at sea, such as task forces seeking out German raiders and capital ships. The Greeks had a particularly strong relationship with the RN as the Greek government had asked for the establishment of a British Naval Mission to Greece in 1911. This advisory group of RN officers guided the development and training of the Royal Hellenic Navy until it was finally withdrawn in 1955. As the exile navies regrouped in Britain, they established headquarters in London. The exception to this was the Greeks who set up headquarters in Alexandria, Egypt, the main base of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

When the Germans turned their attention to the Balkans in 1941, the number of exile navies incorporated into the RN grew with the addition of Yugoslav and Greek ships. In the case of Yugoslavia, only two motor torpedo boats and an elderly submarine escaped the Italian blockade of the Adriatic Sea to reach Greece and subsequently a British port in the Mediterranean.27 Much larger numbers of Greek ships escaped the German air assault in April 1941 to reach first Crete and then Alexandria. Yugoslavia’s navy was too small to warrant much attention by the RN, particularly as that country was engulfed by a brutal civil war between different ethnic and political groups. However, the Royal Hellenic Navy was able to contribute significantly to the Allied war effort, especially once its antiquated ships were replaced with newly built British vessels.

For foreign ships to operate as part of the RN, the exile ships usually needed to rearm with British weapons as well as adopt British tactics and communications procedures. Foreign ships were trained as part of the units or commands they belonged to, and uniform communications procedures were guaranteed by assigning a liaison detachment to each ship. Generally the detachment assigned consisted of a junior officer with the rank of SubLieutenant or Lieutenant, often part of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), and several ratings for signals and radio communications purposes. “British Liaison Officers, Signalmen and Telegraphists were embarked in Allied boats not to assist in their operation, let alone give advice, but to ensure the security of British signal procedures and ensure that orders and signals in English were properly understood.” One retired Polish naval officer who served on destroyers in British waters for much of the war said that upon the arrival of the Polish Destroyer Division in Britain in September 1939 that British Naval Liaison Officers (hereafter BNLOs) in the rank of Lieutenant Commander were assigned to each Polish ship. These were regular navy officers with much professional experience. This Polish veteran is of the opinion that the initial BNLOs were assigned to the ship not just for communications reasons, but also to evaluate the ship’s technical characteristics, the armament, the crew’s fighting spirit, and most importantly the captains of each ship. These BNLOs were later replaced by more junior officers as the war progressed. Liaison detachments were shifted from ship to ship; as one ship began a refitting period, the detachment was reassigned to another ship finishing refit.

One detailed account of service as a BNLO was written by an officer who coincidentally served on a submarine assigned to S9. The late Ruari McLean was the BNLO on the Free French minelaying submarine RUBIS between August 1941 and mid-July 1942. McLean was a Sub-Lieutenant RNVR who earned his commission after a few months as an enlisted man on an old destroyer. His vision was poor in one eye, so he was in the Special Branch whose personnel could not stand watch. Many of these Special Branch officers served ashore, while McLean wanted to go to sea. Upon learning that BNLOs to Allied warships could be from the Special Branch, he applied and was accepted. Mclean was sent to submarine school and then posted to the RUBIS, which operated from Dundee as part of S9. He spoke French having studied the subject in school, though BNLOs were not expected to be able to speak the language of the ship they were assigned to. His duties were to make sure signals received in English were understood by the captain, and to transmit the captain’s patrol report to the Admiral (Submarines) immediately upon arriving in port. The rest of the liaison detachment consisted of a leading signalman and a leading telegraphist.

Much of what Mclean says about the duties and experiences of a BNLO on an Allied submarine is confirmed by another account. The late Douglas Sinclair was assigned as BNLO to the Dutch submarine O-21 in 1944. His description reads, “The duty of the liaison party was to assist the C.O. in all departments when in a British port; to organize the recognition signals, ciphers and codes. All S.B.s (secret books) were under the care of the B.N.L.O. We did not speak Dutch which did not seem to matter as they all spoke very good English.”

While very junior officers handled communications matters and no doubt answered questions about RN procedure and British culture to facilitate multinational naval operations at the individual ship level, a very senior officer was appointed to facilitate the broader relationship between the RN and the exile navies. Retired Vice Admiral Sir Gerald C. Dickens, RN (1879-1962) was appointed to the newly created position of Naval Assistant (Foreign) to the Second Sea Lord in early July 1940. This position was renamed Principal Naval Liaison Officer (hereafter PNLO) in March 1942. Information about the duties of the PNLO is scarce, as the records of this office are not filed in one consolidated group in the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) at Kew outside London. Admiral Dickens kept a diary during the war. The diary is not complete, and much of it concerns the admiral’s personal life. Still, there are some brief references to his PNLO duties such as accompanying the senior officers of the several Allied exile navies to social events and naval ceremonies. A few other bits of information about Admiral Dickens’ duties appear in an incomplete, unpublished memoir he was writing shortly before his death. The senior officers of the exile navies labored under heavy strain due to their duties. To help these officers deal with the stress of their positions, he arranged for them to take tours of important British cultural sites such as cathedrals, castles and universities.33 Dickens also apparently spent some time attempting to persuade British security authorities to release from prison foreign nationals who managed to reach Britain. These men, who risked death in order to join their country’s military forces in Britain, were often considered possible spies by British security.

Admiral Dickens was relieved in mid-January 1943 by Vice Admiral Edward L.S. King (1889-1971) who served as PNL from March 20, 1943 until March 1946. Unlike Admiral Dickens, Vice Admiral King left no known collection of papers. While the documentary record for these two senior officers is limited, and PNLO records do not have their own file numbers in the National Archives, it can be assumed that the PNLO was informed of all significant matters concerning the exile navies, from personnel shortages and awarding of decorations to transfers of newly built British ships and official inquiries seeking explanation of British diplomatic and naval policy. The office of PNLO did not make policy decisions which were handled by the appropriate office within the Admiralty. Instead, the PNLO was to be a point of contact for the exile navies in their dealings with the RN.

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