Book Review

A Naval History of World War I

Paul G Halpern

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1994

Professor Halpern is an American academic historian who spent all his career working on the naval aspects of WWI. Unlike some British historians whose myopic view of the naval aspects of WWI is confined to the Battle of Jutland, maybe even stretching as far as other parts of the North Sea, Paul Halpern’s vision is truly global. I do not know of any other work which comes close to the breadth and authority of this book.

The Navies

The author deals with matters chronologically, as might be expected, starting off with the pre-war naval arms race, and goes rather further than the usual Royal Navy versus Germany account.

At the outbreak of the war, the Royal Navy was in the lead, worldwide, with 22 dreadnought battleships in service and a further 13 in construction. The equivalent figures for the German navy were 15 dreadnoughts in service and 5 being built. The RN crews were volunteer and tended to serve for long engagements, whereas the German crews were conscripts who served for only three years. The RN was involved in protecting the Empire, though much of that work could be done by the numerous older warships. Germany did, of course, have some colonies in this era but nothing as extensive as Britain’s colonial holdings. Germany also had to face off with the Russian fleet in the Baltic, and do not forget that the German coastline included much of what is today Poland and Kaliningrad. However, they could move even dreadnoughts through the Kiel canal, thus avoiding the journey round the north of Denmark.

The French were the pre-eminent force in the Mediterranean. They were concerned with the protection on their colonies in North Africa and the ability to transfer troops to France from North Africa in the event of a European war. In August 1914, the French navy had two dreadnoughts in service, with another two on sea trails, 84 destroyers and 67-75 submarines.

The Italian navy, the Regia Marina, was undergoing a shipbuilding programme and had three dreadnoughts at the start of WWI. The aim was to have 60% equivalence to the French and a 4:3 superiority over the Austrians.

The Austro-Hungarian navy is now long forgotten, but in 1914 it was a decent, middle-ranking navy based in ports along the Adriatic, with three dreadnoughts and three semi-dreadnoughts. One issue in 1914 was which side the Italians would be on in WWI, and therefore whether the Austrians and Italians would be on the same side, or opposite sides. The Mediterranean had a delicate balance of naval power between three navies resident there, and the RN based in Gibraltar and Malta, safeguarding the route to the Suez Canal and, ultimately, to India.

Matters further east were somewhat more on edge as the Greeks and Ottoman Turks had fought two Balkan Wars. Matters were pretty even, but the Ottomans “bought” two ships from Germany, the Goeben and Breslau. However, once the war was underway, much of the Entente interest was in the Greek small craft, which could be deployed against enemy submarines.

The Russian navy was still recovering from the catastrophe of the Russia-Japanese war of 1905. They also had to split their navy between the Baltic, the Far East and the Black Sea. There were plans to build new ships but the picture for the Russian navy was that it had a lot of potential, much of which failed to materialise.

The United States Navy was also in the “having potential” category but in this case, it would be fulfilled. Even so, in 1914 the US Navy had 10 dreadnoughts with a further 4 in construction. The US Navy was already a powerhouse, which the US army certainly was not at this stage. The US Navy would play a vital role, when the US entered the war, in protecting convoys from submarines and surface raiders.

The Japanese navy, which would do sterling work in the Mediterranean, started in 1914 with two dreadnoughts in service and another two in construction. The Japanese also started an ambitious programme for building new destroyers, which were to be invaluable later in the war. The Japanese saw action early in the war against the Germans in the Pacific.USS Texas red

The USS Texas - the only surviving WWI dreadnought

The Early Part of the War

The author explains that, at the outbreak of WWI, the naval generation that had experienced the naval arms races, read The Riddle of the Sands with its theme of a German seaborne invasion, and been observers of the Japanese attack on the Russian base at Port Arthur in 1905, fully expected a naval engagement or invasion attempt in the first 48 hours of the war. In fact, of course nothing major happened in the North Sea for two years.

Close coastal blockades were recognised as now being impracticable due to the developments with better mines, submarines, torpedoes, and long-range coastal artillery. So, blockades had to be set up some considerable distance from the coast, which increased the length of the picket line. In 1911, the British recognised that a future war would now involve, primarily, the army being sent to the continent, not an attack by the RN on the German coast or navy. This rather negated the 1914 German naval strategy, for there would be no enemy off the coast to attack. It is also often overlooked that the French had sizeable numbers of sub-dreadnought warships in the North Sea and the Channel.

The author goes on to deal with the Mediterranean theatre, a topic in which he is the expert. The French were anxious to maintain their dominant position, for they had to transport their troops from their North African colonies to France itself. Italy was neutral until 1915. It has a long and vulnerable coastline. In the Adriatic, the Austro-Hungarian navy was able to keep the French navy out by the use of submarines and mines. The Adriatic is more confined than the North Sea, and the various forces are closer together. The Germans reinforced the Austrian submarine force, initially by sending disassembled submarines by land but later sending better submarines by sea into the Mediterranean past Gibraltar. The British and French created a barrage in the Straits of Otranto to keep Austrian ships and submarines bottled up in the Adriatic, with success as regards surface ships but little against submarines.

The book then deals with the defence of allied trade throughout the world. This includes the somewhat romantic but ill-fated voyages of the Emden and von Spee’s fleet from Tsing Tao to the battles of Colonel, off Chile, and of the Falklands. There is mention of the Dresden meeting up with von Spee’s force at Easter Island, which does seem to be a bizarre event in a very remote corner of the Pacific. (If your geography is not up to it, Easter Island is 1,200 miles even from Pitcairn Island, which is itself pretty remote). There was no use of convoys for merchant ships at this stage of the war, but they were indeed used for troopships taking soldiers from Canada, India, New Zealand, Australia and India. In many ways, these convoys were the non-story, as no Allied ships or troops were lost due to enemy action at this stage of the war.

The author details the various madcap plans hatched by Churchill for attacks in the North Sea and the Baltic. Some of these involved taking Danish, Dutch, Swedish or Norwegian territory, all of which were neutral. Attacks on the German islands of Borkum and Helgoland were mooted but, in the end, planning for the Dardanelles attack in 1915 prevailed. This was the idea that warships could blast their way through to Constantinople and force the Ottomans to surrender. This did not succeed, and the campaign mutated into the Gallipoli landings. There, the German submarines played a key role in keeping the Entente ships at bay, though British counter measures by using small craft and boom defences were partially effective. The British and French did use their own submarines against Ottoman warships, with some success.

The Baltic had a fascination for the RN, though the realities of access through the narrow waters between Denmark and Sweden meant that there was a likelihood of severe losses for little return. However, two British submarines did manage to make it into the Baltic, where they operated with the Russian navy. The Russians had a lot of territory to defend, as Finland and the Baltic states, as they now are, were all part of the Russian Empire. Mine laying was a key feature of the naval operations in the Baltic.

The naval hostilities in the Black Sea, between Russia and the Ottomans petered out with the 1917 Russian revolutions, as indeed they did in the Baltic.

A truly forgotten campaign

However, perhaps the least remembered naval campaign of WWI is that on the Danube. This river flows from Germany and ends up in the Black Sea. It was navigable from there as far as Galatz in Romania. It was, and is, an important commercial route through central Europe. At the time of the Gallipoli campaign, the Danube was a potential supply route from Germany to Turkey.

The Austrians had six monitors in service at the start of the war, and added four more. There were also six small patrol boats and others were added during the war. Most of the contribution to the war effort of the Danube flotilla was in providing artillery support for the army. The anticipated battles with the Romanians or Russians never happened. However, three Austrian monitors fired the opening shots in WWI on July 28th 1914 when they shelled Serbian fortifications on the railway bridge on the Belgrade to Zemun line. The author writes:

It was, and remains, difficult to think of Belgrade and the Danube as more than a secondary front in a largely forgotten campaign of the Great War. But it had the potential to be far more important.

With the Entente blocking the Dardanelles and Romania being neutral, there was the possibility to transport supplies from Germany to Turkey. The Serbs still controlled Belgrade, so any attempt to do so had to run the gauntlet of their defences, at least until such time as they were pushed out of Belgrade. There was even a British naval mission to support the Serbs. A picket boat was transported by rail from Salonika to Belgrade. It was facetiously dubbed The Terror of the Danube. In its one operation, it seems to have fired torpedoes at two dummy craft that the Austrians had constructed.

The big show

In 1915-1916, the Germans were searching for a strategy to counter the Royal Navy. The ideal forum from the German viewpoint was those waters of the North Sea which they could reach in a day or a night, and where they could bring their maximum strength to bear. They would be much closer to their bases than the RN would be to theirs, and damaged German ships had a much better chance of making it home than the British ones would do. The approach of using maximum strength could lead to success, but also to heavy losses. However, the British did not have to engage in any such battle – they could maintain their distant blockade. The Germans would have to come to them if they wanted to break the blockade.

The success of the German submarines was something of a surprise to the German naval establishment who, like the British, initially regarded them as an adjunct to a high seas fleet, not as an independent force in their own right. However, the RN was so concerned about the danger of submarines that the Grand Fleet sheltered in Lough Swilly in NW Ireland and also in Loch Ewe in NW Scotland, until the defences at Scapa Flow could be improved.

The conquest of Flanders enabled submarine bases to be set up at Brugge, with outlets at Zeebrugge and Oostende.

The Germans expanded their targets for their submarines from warships, which they would struggle to locate, to merchant ships, in effect in retaliation for the RN blockade. A key issue was neutral ships, especially those sailing to or from British, or indeed American ports. There was also the situation that the over-hyped British “Q” ships had used neutral flags.

Inevitably, neutral ships were sunk and lives were lost. There was friction with the Netherlands over two of their ships which were sunk, going between neutral ports. The sinking of the Lusitania caused, of course, the major diplomatic incident with the United States. The Germans then managed to sink more Dutch ships, including passenger ones, to the anger of the Dutch government and press.

The intense internal discussions as to the future strategy of the U-boat campaign in the German political and naval elite are laid out in detail by the author.

The Battle of Jutland and its consequences are dealt with in detail in the book. One later consequence of the problems of Jutland, in the run up to WWII, was that the plan to name two new battleships Jellicoe and Beatty was changed in favour of the less controversial Anson and Howe. The common claim that the German High Seas Fleet did not emerge again after Jutland is quite simply wrong. For details, see chapter 10 of the book!HMS Caroline

The light cruiser HMS Caroline, the only survivor of the Battle of Jutland, now a museum


In October 1916, the restricted U-boat campaign restarted. Incidentally, the account of the sinking of the Arabia is incorrect. The correct version is given in Joachim Schroeder’s book The Kaiser’s U-boats, which was based on detailed analysis of the German naval archives but which, in fairness, would not have been available to Halpern when his book was written. In fact, the Arabia tried to ram a U-boat which was on the surface having stopped a merchant ship under cruiser rules. The U-boat turned through 1800, dived and fired a torpedo.

The author goes into the unrestricted U-boat campaign of 1917, pointing out that a major factor in the German success was, quite simply, more U-boats. However, not all were sitting in the North Sea and eastern Atlantic. Of the 105 U-boats available on the 1st February 1917, the High Seas Fleet had 46; Flanders bases 23; Mediterranean 23; Kurland (Baltic) 10; and Constantinople 3. More boats were ordered in the middle of 1917 but there was severe doubt as to when they would be built. The year 1917 was the peak of U-boat success. It did have the feared effect of bringing the United States into the war.

The counter measures thought up by the Entente included the rather inept Dover barrage which sought to keep U-boats from transiting the Channel, and the truly megalomanic North Sea minefield between Scotland and Norway (with acknowledgment to Alex Watson for his description of the latter device). The big success, however, was the convoy system. It had its enemies in the RN and merchant navy establishment, indeed for much of the war. The objections which the author describes include that: it made ships more vulnerable to attack because they were bunched together; there would not be enough escort ships; the ships could not zigzag; there would be congestion in the ports which would decrease the available tonnage of ships; and masters would not be able to keep station. An analysis by the RN after WWII concluded that none of the objections raised was valid. Consequently, use of the convoy system greatly reduced losses in WWI, and, as we know, convoys were used in WWII (which is Rob Thompson’s criterion of whether a WWI tactic worked or not).

There were still those in the RN, and indeed the US Navy, who thought they should be conducting “offensive” actions against U-boats. This manifested itself as operations to hunt enemy submarines using hydrophones. Neither the hydrophones nor the “hunts” worked. They only served to distract from the more important task of guarding convoys.

The role of the US Navy is well covered, not surprisingly for an American author (and indeed the Japanese naval contribution gets an honourable mention too – amongst other deployments, Japan sent 14 destroyers to the Mediterranean in 1917). Much of the US Navy focus would be on protecting the troop ships coming from the US to Europe. Admiral William Sims sailed incognito to the UK on 31st March 1917. He signalled back to Washington that the situation was much worse than they had believed and that urgent naval assistance was required to deal with U-boats. So, six US Navy destroyers left Boston on 24th April 1917 under the command of Commander Joseph Taussig to go to Queenstown (now Cobh, near Cork in SW Ireland). They arrived on 4th May, having had a pounding crossing the Atlantic, and consequently had a long list of defects. When asked by the C in C Ireland, Vice Admiral Lewis “Luigi” Bayley, how long he would need to get his destroyers ready for sea, Taussig replied:

“We are ready now, sir, that is as soon as we finish refuelling. Of course, you know how destroyers are – always wanting something done to them. But this is war, and we are ready to make the best of things and go to sea immediately.”

Bayley gave them four days. Sims was alarmed when he heard nothing about more destroyers being on their way and signalled Washington to that effect. He was relieved to hear that 36 more would be sent. By the end of August 1917, there were 35 US Navy destroyers based at Queenstown.

Being a bit late into the game, as it were, the US Navy Department were slow to catch on to the importance of convoys.

The convoys had major warships as ocean escorts, and then needed destroyers or smaller craft to meet them when they entered the danger zone for submarines, off the coasts of the UK (including, of course, Ireland). As well as the US Navy destroyer presence at Queenstown, there were RN escorts at Buncrana on Lough Swilly in NW Ireland. By 1918, there were convoys from the US to Brest in France, with French naval ships providing cover.

The U-boat commanders were hard pressed to find convoys, and the presence of major warships precluded surfacing and using their deckgun, which would still have been the predominant form of attack. The success of the convoy system led the German naval command in October 1917 to switch U-boats to coastal waters, where ships might still sail singly. The British instituted coastal convoys and ports of refuge in response. By the end of 1917, the Entente was getting on top of the U-boat problem.

Surface Raiders

German surface raiders had a sort of swashbuckling charm and caused a lot of Entente naval activity in trying to find and attack them. The Möwe, disguised as a Swedish steamer, left Kiel on 26th November 1916 for a four-month voyage. A subsequent WWII analysis of the damage she inflicted, and the Entente efforts to deal with her, concluded that both could have been improved considerably by an earlier introduction of the convoy system. Trying to locate surface raiders without air cover, as was the case in WWI, is looking for a needle in the vastness of the ocean. The Mȍwe and two other surface raiders roamed as far as the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. However, their efforts paled into insignificance when compared to the amount of shipping sunk by U-boats.


The author is an authority on the Mediterranean theatre in WWI. The first German submarines were sent there in 1915 in response to the Dardanelles campaign, and the fact that the Austrians lacked the modern submarines to operate that far from the bases in the Adriatic. One bonus of the theatre was that there was very little neutral shipping, so the chances of a diplomatic faut pas were lower than in the Atlantic. As well as Gallipoli, the Salonika campaign was starting in late 1915. All of this necessitated transportation of troops, both British and French, and consequent escorting of the troopships to deter U-boat attacks. There was a shortage of warships, so patrol zones, where there was a heightened likelihood of U-boat attack, were devised. The patrol zones were divided between the British, French and Italian navies. The Entente Otranto barrage, in reality a picket line, failed to keep enemy submarines bottled up in the Adriatic where they were based at Pola and Cattaro. Inevitably, convoys had to be introduced in the Mediterranean.

In 1917, the Japanese sent 14 destroyers to the Mediterranean. The convoy system was reorganised in late 1917. The US Navy sent ships to the Mediterannean in August 1917, including three light cruisers, six old destroyers which came from the Philippines and a variety of small craft. Another navy which joined the Entente effort in the closing days of the war was a squadron of the Brazilian navy. The Americans also deployed so-called “submarine chasers” which were 75 ton, 110 feet long, wooden hulled launches. Although they claimed 19 “kills” during their deployment, the truth was that they failed to achieve a single kill.

The end: the submarine threat contained

At the end of 1917, Beatty’s analysis of the situation was that a great danger was a break out by the German High Seas fleet, which made him fearful that the RN had the resources to deal with it. However, in December 1917 the US Navy sent a battleship division to Scapa Flow which included five dreadnoughts, further strengthening the Grand Fleet.

The Dover Straights patrols and picket line of small boats was reasonably successful in preventing the bigger U-boats from accessing the Channel. On 14th-15th February 1918, a German destroyer force attacked the Dover Patrol, as it was known, with fair success. One unbelievable incident was that two groups of RN and German destroyers sailed past each other in the dark without firing. The captain of the last British destroyer, who signalled the German destroyers but did not open fire when he had no reply, was later court martialled and relieved of his command.

The Zeebrugge and Oostende raids are dealt with in the book. There is a wonderful quote as to the reason why a naval bombardment was not used instead to attack the lockgates – in essence, it would have necessitated hitting a target that was ninety feet long and thirty feet high from a range of thirteen miles, whilst under bombardment by the German shore battery. Ultimately, the Flanders U-boat bases failed to live up to their potential throughout the war.

The last hurrah of the German High Sea Fleet

Although German operations in the first three months of 1918 centred around submarines or smaller ships, there was the constant concern on the part of the British that the German High Sea Fleet would break out, destroy the Dover Patrol, and disrupt shipping between Britain and France. The Royal Navy were able in April 1918 to move the Grand Fleet from Scapa Flow to a new base at Rosyth, outside Edinburgh, where it was better placed to deal with a southerly incursion of the German fleet.

In fact, the Germans planned to attack the Scandinavian convoys, as they had done previously in November 1917 with considerable success, which was a factor in Jellicoe’s sacking. This time the full might of their High Sea Fleet would be deployed to back up their cruisers and destroyers, and be able to deal with any threat from the dreadnoughts of the RN or US Navy. So, they set sail on 23rd April 1918 from the base at Schillig Roads, near Wilhelmshaven, observing radio silence. High winds prevented them using airship reconnaissance. The Germans headed for the coast of Norway to wait for a convoy. However, Scheer had acted on faulty intelligence, deduced from radio traffic and U-boat reports. In fact, there was no convoy off the coast of Norway for them to attack on that day, going either east or west. One battleship, the Moltke, had a major breakdown and the entire fleet then limped home. It was also the American – German engagement that did not happen, as the American battle group had been providing back up for the Scandinavian convoys during the previous week. This was the last time the German High Sea Fleet would go to sea in strength seeking battle.

As convoys were being used on the high seas, U-boats changed tactics and concentrated on coastal waters around GB and Ireland, eventually necessitating the formation of convoys even in coastal waters. This was not a glamorous aspect of the war at sea, but an important step nonetheless.

Air surveillance

Aircraft and airships were increasingly deployed on anti-submarine duties. By the end of the war, the British had 557 aircraft on anti-submarine work in coastal waters. The US Naval Air Service by that stage had 400 aircraft and 2,500 men in Europe. They operated a base at Killinghome on the Humber, had four airbases and a kite balloon station in Ireland, with more bases in France and on the Adriatic. The French also made extensive use of aircraft on coastal operations, mostly in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. The abilities of aircraft in WWI were limited to spotting U-boats on the surface. They did not have the lift capacity to carry any munitions that would “kill” a submarine.

Transportation from the US

The US used major ocean liners for troop transportation across the Atlantic. As well as huge capacity, they had a good turn of speed and could certainly outrun U-boats. The really large movements of US troops to Europe began in April 1918. There was concern about German surface raiders attacking the troop convoys. To afford protection, the US Navy sent a battleship division, which included three dreadnoughts, to Berehaven in SW Ireland, a RN naval base, to guard the Western Approaches. There was, thus, a huge, and now largely forgotten, US naval presence in SW Ireland in the last 18 months of the war.

So, the Atlantic Bridge was a major success, both in terms of material and men. Perhaps the most apt example of this success is a quotation in the book from an RN sub-lieutenant who was making his way home in October 1918 through France, from Gibralter:

The chief cause of our delays were the movements of huge numbers of Americans across France. In fact, we scarcely saw any Frenchmen in the country. All the soldiers were Americans, and more than half the rolling stock and Red Cross trains were also from America. The whole of France seemed to have been bought up by the Yank. He had built his own camps, railways, stores, everything. It was a pity some of the German submarine commanders could not see the stuff that was slipping by them.

As the author says, there could be no clearer testimony to the final failure of the U-boat offensive.

The final word

Overall, this book must be the bible of the naval aspects of WWI. It is truly a master work by a world expert. The downsides are, firstly, that there are no photos of any sort, which is a function of the era in which the book was published; and secondly that the maps are stuck at the end of the book. They would have benefitted from shading to make them more intelligible. As far as I can see, the book is still in print, but you may have to deal with Abe books, or whoever, to track down a copy. It is highly recommended.