Captain Rifler is a retired submarine officer and currently teaches a course in the hist1y of submarine warfare for the Christopher Wren Association (the adult continuing education program at William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA). Captain O’Connell’s review of Gennan submarine operations during the First World War is particularly good in capturing the details of the sinking of ABOUKIR, CRESSY and HOGUE by U- 9 in September of 1914. The impact of this event and the Royal Navy’s reaction to it cannot be over emphasized. However, he then goes on to say, ”The reluctance of the Admiralty to adopt convoy on a wide-scale is very difficult to understand today.” No it’s not. There were three reasons. He captured one (listed as two); that was the too many eggs in one basket issue. The Royal Navy (RN) conclu,jed that convoys would be easier to detect and provide too many targets once detected. Captain O’Connell is correct in his analysis that the RN was wrong on this although it is important to remember that no one was sure just how dangerous submarines could be and the specter of ABOUKIR, CRESSY, and HOGUE hung over all RN decisions involving German submarines.
However, the RN did not convoy for two other very clear and unambiguous reasons. First was concern over shipping through put. When ships sail and arrive independently, they can be off- loaded as they arrive. Put them all in a large convoy of say 80 to 100 ships and when the convoy arrives, most ships have to anchor out or mill about waiting their turn. This greatly reduces the through put at ports in tenns of tons per unit time. The RN accurately estimated that convoying would reduce through put by at least 25%. In 1915 when this decision was first visited U-Boats were not having anything like the effect necessary to make convoying cost effective. The RN’s mistake was to not revisit this calculation in light of the serious increase in sinkings later in the war.
The second reason again goes back to ABOUKIR, CRESSY, and HOGUE. After losing these three cruisers, the RN made the decision to provide destroyer escorts for all major warships. However it did not have enough destroyers to escort RN warships and escort convoys. Deciding that the warships were the most important resource, they saw no way to escort convoys and therefore no reason to use them. The US Navy solved this problem by joining the war with a large force of combat ready destroyers. The US Navy had also run a number of tabletop exercises prior to entering the war that demonstrated that the too many eggs in one basket analogy was faulty and they made this clear to both RN and British political leadership. It was also obvious by the spring of 1917 that the U-Boats were sinking ships at a rate that made convoying effective and indeed necessary in terms of through put.
To his credit, Captain O’Connell does not make the claim that I have seen in a number of sources that the Americans came over and browbeat the stupid British into convoying against their will thereby saving the day. What the Americans actually did was set up the situation that allowed the British to convoy, something they inherently and historically knew they wanted to do.