OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




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Originally Published June 25, 2002

By Jim Werbaneth

Piracy is banditry transferred from land to water, and pirates were the most basic reason for building the first navies.  Even when piracy has been eradicated in a place or era, navies remain, as the states' means of projecting their power and enforcing their will on the seas.  

Throughout history navies have also taken on the function of pirates, preying upon enemy shipping.  Often this goes beyond the thievery of buccaneering to destruction in order to deny goods and vessels to the enemy, though the profit motive was, until very recently, highly important, and occasionally states have not waited until a formal state of war has been in place.  

Such commerce raiding is economic warfare, aimed at going beyond conventional operations and tactics to erode the other side's means and will to carry on hostilities, similar in function to strategic bombing, but anticipating it by centuries.  By contrast, piracy is an anarchic, stateless phenomenon lacking in grand strategy.  Also figuring in raiding's break from it, commerce destroying has been an engine of strategy's development, and at times has driven naval technology forward, especially at the birth of its modern history in the Renaissance.

At that time the New World was brought to Europe's attention by the voyages of Christopher Columbus and others, voyages made possible by advances in shipbuilding and navigation enabling the North Atlantic to be sailed as never before.  With the discovery of the Americas came reports of untold wealth, rumors that proved true in the cases of Mexico and Peru.  The Europeans, chiefly the Spaniards at first, thus had the means and motivation to cross the Atlantic on an increasingly regular basis.  Then as Spain appropriated the riches of the New World to enrich the Old there were other countries, principally England, willing, ready and able to tap into the imperial wealth, both by illicit trade and theft.

Starting in an environment of riches, cruising later became a method for countries poor in treasure and other resources needed to build a major navy to wage a credible naval war.  However, its usefulness was progressively more questionable as time went on, in no small part because the marine technology originally underwritten by commerce raiding became not only too sophisticated to dependably sustain it, but enabled its enemies to fight it in a more coordinated manner.  With that the high seas raiders passed from the scene or, more accurately, slipped beneath the waves, starting a new era of cruising by submarines.


Although commerce raiding is almost as old as the seafarer's art, in terms of modern state policy it really began in 1234, when France started arming private trading vessels to act against hostile shipping.  Here also starts the tradition of the privateer, the irregular profit-motivated cruiser that, along with the submarine much later was one of the two most potent weapons of commerce raiding, and was arguably the more threatening of the two.

The French termed this la guerre de course, later extended to include all state-sponsored commerce raiding, and from which comes the word corsair.  Initially the French raiders were independent, but from 1681 they were regarded as an irregular branch of the navy, and commissioned by the sovereign.  Lettres de marque sanctioning their activities were issued by the Minister of the Navy,and corsair vessels enjoyed the full status of warships.

But over a century previous, English mariners with a murkier sanction were operating, much to the chagrin of Spain and Portugal.  At first they were as much outlaws as any other form of pirate, but Queen Elizabeth I, who began her reign in 1558, saw them as a remedy to the decline in England's navy suffered since the death of Henry VIII, whose excellent fleet did not survive him.  The Royal Navy was weak, backward and reactionary when Elizabeth inherited it, and the free-lancers of the private sector offered to change that. 

Backed by the surge of prosperity pushed by the rising English wool industry, the new breed of traders liked to be called "merchant adventurers," a term that does a lot to define itself.  They dealt in whatever they thought would sell, wherever they expected a market.  This tended to irritate the Spaniards and Portuguese, whose colonies were called upon by these foreign interlopers, a situation exacerbated when the merchant adventurers dealt in slaves, until then an Iberian monopoly. 

That was not the end of it.  The English had a penchant for raucous and violent behavior that extended to battles between their ships and others in foreign harbors arising out of sailors' brawls and various insults.  Spain retaliated, in some cases with extreme brutality, turning captured English participants in such episodes to the tender mercies of the Inquisition for questioning and burning at the stake.  Others they sentenced to be galley slaves. 

The merchant adventurer's calling was a lucrative one, and illegal trade and piracy became common, even respectable, in some counties, especially Devon and Cornwall.  This created an interest bloc of merchant adventurers, who called upon the Queen to take action against Spain for its brutal treatment of captured colleagues, just as Spain protested the merchant adventurers' activities in increasingly harsh terms.  Thus was born a bitter cycle.  For her part Elizabeth did nothing to satisfy either side.  She did not feel that a war with Spain over national honor was in her realm's interest, coinciding with a reluctance to intervene in behalf of Dutch Protestant coreligionists rebelling against Madrid.  As for the Spaniards, she ignored their protests, as she was an investor in the merchant adventurers' voyages.

They were doing more than just making money and enraging Spain.  The merchant adventurers, especially John Hawkins, were learning valuable lessons from their traffic to the New World that would be valuable in resuscitating the Royal Navy.  Hawkins' experiences taught him that ships with cleaner lines were much better at keeping the sea than the high-castled vessels favored by the closed minds of the naval establishment.  His work called for greater endurance, and he found that smaller complements contributed to this by cutting down logistical requirements and losses to disease.

Dissenting from this view was his kinsman Francis Drake, who had the higher attrition rates to show for it.  But Drake demonstrated a bent for shore raids, which were demanding in manpower.

Smaller vessels with smaller crews and lower centers of gravity were less suited for the time-honored combat of melee than the ships embraced by the conservative powers of the crown's fleet.  However, they were ideal for battle by gunfire, pioneered by Henry VIII and since allowed to languish.  Thus the resurgence of the gunfire revolution owed much to the necessities of stamina, handling, and manpower.

Drake set off on a voyage that would take him around the world between December 1577 and September 1580.  When his Golden Hind put into port in England, loaded with ≠≠£750,000 in Spanish and Portuguese loot, Drake's first question ashore was: "Is the Queen alive and well?"  The following April she boarded the Golden Hind, there showing her support for the merchant adventurer movement and her feelings toward the Iberians by knighting him Sir Francis Drake on his own deck.

In the same year Drake commenced his circumnavigation she also named John Hawkins to the five-member Navy Board, the conservative bastion charged with maintaining the Royal Navy, a job it did none to well.  It did not come easily or quickly, but under Hawkins' prodding England got a new navy, one of which King Henry would have been proud.

Strategically, the Navy Board initially wanted the fleet to operate close to home, a dubious legacy from that fact that Henry's naval conflicts had been primarily local ones against France, and any new wars would be the same, and tactically based on melee.  By contrast Hawkins was the avatar of the firepower-oriented warship, and convinced that war with Spain was inevitable and better conducted far from home waters.  He saw Spain's economic dependence on American treasure to be a major liability, and that if the homeward-bound galleon fleets could be intercepted, the economy crippled.  By 1585 the new Royal Navy was in place and, no less important, so was a new and aggressive strategic vision.

The undeclared war with Spain escalated fatefully in April 1585.  King Philip II, bothered by a bad harvest at home, seized a number of grain-laden English ships in Spanish harbors. Elizabeth sent out Drake to retaliate.  In two voyages, the second and more damaging starting in April 1587, he raided Spain and its New World colonies, creating a major strategic diversion, sowing terror, and taking loot, including 240 bronze cannon that were highly useful to the new warfare favored by England.

Subsequently, Hawkins argued hard for a continuous blockade of the Spanish coast to cut it off from the Americas and the wealth there.  There were reasonable objections to it, however, starting with the fact that on neither of Drake's voyages nor Hawkins' own unsuccessful venture of 1586, the English had been able to catch a treasure fleet, or remain off Spain in fighting condition for as long as three months.  Furthermore, there were the limitations of sixteenth-century ships, communications and hygiene that had to be considered.  And finally, the Queen had a strong aversion to unnecessary risks, on this ground she vetoed it.

Still, the proposal was noteworthy in that it was seriously considered in the first place.  Without the cruising conducted by the merchant adventurers, and the lessons learned from it, it would have been seen as ridiculous and insane, and with good reason.

There is a certain irony that the decisive battle of the conflict, the Spanish Armada's run up the English Channel, was fought close to England's shore, conforming more to the expectations of the old Royal Navy than the one wrought through the merchant adventurer school of seafaring.  But the latter was more than vindicated in that the battle was between a lumbering Spanish fleet of ships built and crewed for melee and a nimble fleet dedicated to firepower, an English fleet that won.  The Spaniards prepared for the old war and the English for the new one, which they had, not incidentally, effectively invented.  With that one empire started its decline and the other to preeminence.

The Netherlands became a major maritime power in Europe and beyond, acquiring an overseas empire along the way before its independence was guaranteed.  Connected with this was commerce raiding, but with important differences from the English example.

First, Dutch efforts were undertaken by monopolistic public corporations, not enterprising individuals.  Second, it was less energetically practiced, and much less successful as an instrument of national power.  Finally, the primacy of the Netherlands was doomed in large part by hostile prosecution of la guerre de course.

Similar to their eventual English allies, the Dutch saw in the Iberian colonies a way to get rich at the expense of their enemies.  But the stress was overwhelmingly on the enrichment part of the proposition, with eroding the other side's military power and will to fight decidedly secondary.

In 1602 the States-General consolidated a number of smaller corporations trading with the East Indies into the Chartered East India Company [VOC], an entity with virtually sovereign powers, including those to wage war, conclude treaties, and recruit its own military forces.  It was granted a monopoly on all Dutch trade east of the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan for an initial period of twenty-five years, an area where Portugal claimed its own monopoly, based on a series of papal proclamations that were decidedly unimpressive to the Calvinist Dutch.

The kind of war envisioned for the VOC was defensive, in order to fight Portuguese countermeasures, and even this was regarded by some important investors who opted out of it as too aggressive.  The business of the Netherlands and the VOC was business, not engaging in dangerous overseas ventures of dubious profitability, and this governed VOC conduct as long as the company existed.  The Dutch might have been merchants, but they were by no means merchant adventurers.

More buccaneering its much less substantially capitalized counterpart, the West India Company [WIC], a corporation structurally based on the VOC.  It was formed with the intention of aggressively acting against the Spanish empire and its sea communications, with an area of monopoly covering West Africa and the Americas.

The West India Company was first intended to concentrate on the treasure of Spanish Peru and Mexico, but soon after its creation on 3 June 1621 its focus moved to Portugal's possessions, lured by Brazil and its sugar, and the gold, ivory and slaves of Africa.  Even after Portugal wrested its independence back from Spain in 1640, eight years before Dutch independence was finally recognized, the WIC persisted in its designs against what should have been an ally.  The only notable success against Spain was the 1628 capture of the Mexican silver fleet at Matanzas, Cuba by Admiral Piet Heyn.

But the WIC subordinated cruising to territorial aggrandizement just as it largely forsook war against Spain for conflict with Portugal.  That was a critical mistake.  It was able to establish tenuous control over Angola and the Pernambuco region of Brazil, but returns on these never outweighed the resources demanded to acquire them.  It was a classic case of throwing good money after bad, and in 1674 the West India Company, always a poor sister to the VOC, was dissolved, though it was reorganized later.

The Netherlands found out the hard way just how damaging cruising could be.  To a great extent the fortunes of the United Provinces rested on those of its fisheries, and these were severely eroded by foreign raiders.  The worst blows came from 1701 to 1713, when French corsairs virtually destroyed the herring industry, at the same time that they were savaging the English merchant marine, following which the Netherlands began the slide from great power status.

There were many factors in the Dutch decline, not least among them being an increasingly inward-looking economic orientation and the loss of the amorphous but very real national energy that made its climb to power so meteoric in the face of severe difficulties.  Nonetheless the effects of enemy cruising were very significant, the French adoption of it in the War of Spanish Succession was the most decisive case of la guerre de course before the dawn of the submarine.


The British colonies in North America were not little enclaves of European power projected onto a distant shore to facilitate the extraction of wealth from the ground, or "forts and factories" similar to VOC posts in the East.  They represented an extension of Europe to another continent.

At first the British effort to maintain the crucial sea links needed to maintain the colonies did not have to be a big one, with the Royal Navy's presence in North America limited to a handful of small vessels.  But by 1700 matters had changed for the worse, with piracy becoming more of a problem, partly due to a rash of renegade privateers, and the naval commitment grew.

During the eighteenth century the Americans made substantial but today under-recognized contributions to British naval power.  They were a source of recruits for the Royal Navy, with as many as 18,000 serving in the Seven Years War.

More valuable, however, were the colonial privateers that preyed upon French and Spanish shipping.  American private commerce destroyers were largely schooners, a type of ship suited for the task by speed and maneuverability.

When the Revolutionary War started, the protective umbrella of the Royal Navy became something more sinister entirely, and the Americans found themselves with little of the cash and ready ships to challenge it.  Since it did not require the investments in money, time and effort demanded by a real battlefleet strategy, the fledgling United States embarked on a strategy of la guerre de course.  The states built their little navies, and the Continental Congress constructed a Continental Navy, then sent them out against the enemy merchant fleet.

Though the Continental Navy's ships were of generally good quality, the quality of leadership and crews were basically quite inferior.  Though there might be an occasional success, its record was one of mediocrity.

More effective were the privateers, and over 2,000 of them were sanctioned by letters of marque issued by Congress and the states.  Filling out their crews was no problem, owing to the merchantmen and fishing boats idled by blockade, and other recruitment inducements included lax discipline and the prospect of prize money, and the privateers were able to consistently win the competition for skilled sailors against the navy.

Privateers consistently hampered British efforts to supply their army in the colonies, and helped alleviate rebel logistical shortages.  Early cruises favored the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the area off Halifax and the Caribbean, there causing some severe food shortages on British islands.  American privateers pursued enemy commerce right to European waters.

Losses compelled the British to sail most of their merchant ships in convoy, though some especially well-armed and fast vessels continued to sail alone.  This was an effective means of protecting commerce, but there was a price to be paid in time and flexibility, as well as in warships diverted to escort duties.  In addition, particularly aggressive and inventive American captains were able to take prizes out of convoys, and not all were stragglers.

Novel and very important to the American cruising war was that it was undertaken out of necessity, not choice.  Heretofore cruising was used to supplement a sea-control strategy, or to make money for countries that were already fairly well off.  At times the French opted for cruising without support by a battlefleet, but that was more out of a desire to save money than because they lacked it in the first place.  The United States did it because there were no other alternatives available.  La guerre de course was easy and inexpensive, especially in the case of privateers, which were paid for by private enterprise, requiring little more from the government than the ink on letters of marque.

After the Revolutionary War the United States had no navy, nor did it have the Royal Navy available to protect its shipping.  This situation was soon exploited by the Barbary States of North Africa, Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, which had long run a maritime protection racket that went way beyond anyone else's concept of legitimate cruising, and to which British protection had previously immune.  They were a very good reason to build a navy, and to adopt a central government worthy of the name, and capable of funding and maintaining naval vessels.

In 1797 the first ships of the United States Navy were finally launched.  Reflecting a commitment to cruising and anti-raider warfare they were frigates, the capital ships of la guerre de course.  Also, they were the finest sailing frigates ever built, combining range, size, speed and firepower as never before.

But before it could go to war against the Arabs, the US Navy was sidetracked into a conflict with America's former ally, France.  The French Revolution destroyed the old European order and plunged the continent into general war. Showing a spirit that would have been appreciated by the Dutchmen who founded the VOC and WIC, the United States attempted to profit by trading extensively with both sides.

The Americans reaped profits from both, as well as harassment from either for doing business with the other.  Britain subsequently recognized the importance of American imports and came to an agreement to facilitate trade.  This angered the French, and in 1798 the Directory issued an edict that any neutral ship caught carrying any British goods at all was forfeit without compensation, an outrageous redefinition of contraband.  Privateers sailed from the West Indies to the American coast to enforce it.  Since British merchantmen were convoyed they were basically ignored, but sailing alone, the Americans were not, and over 300 ships were taken in one year.

The undeclared war with France lasted from 1798 to 1800.  The US Navy, augmented by new construction and the commission of formerly private vessels, drove the corsairs from its home coast, then followed them to the Caribbean. There it operated out of British bases and in close cooperation with the Royal Navy, the best education for a new service in the age of sail, keeping up the pressure.  In 1800 a settlement was reached, with France rescinding its order off two years previous.

The next year the United States finally took on the Barbary States.  This was a war on a very distant station, and one far more of blockade and shore bombardment, with professional development continuing.  It ended in 1805 after American support for the Pasha of Tripoli's brother's claim to the throne put that ruler into a political crisis.  He dropped his demands for tribute, but demanded and got $60,000 in ransom for American naval prisoners taken early in the conflict with the loss of the USS Philadelphia.

America's next war was against Britain, once an enemy and later a tutor to the navy.  The Royal Navy was the dominant force on the waves, a supremacy won for a century by Lord Nelson's posthumous victory at Trafalgar in 1805.  It was also extremely proficient, and in its combination of size and quality only the Wehrmacht is its rival in the modern era.

But being the biggest meant having the biggest manpower demands, and this was a perpetual problem for the Admiralty.  One way to alleviate it was to energetically pursue deserters, as even if they never did serve again after capture they did serve as examples for others who be tempted to prematurely opt out of service to king and country.  Moreover the Royal Navy operated infamous press gangs to reel in unwilling recruits.  Both measures were aggressively implemented, taking alleged deserters and reluctant ratings off of American ships and souring relations with the United States.

Britain had some good reasons not to go to war with its former colonies.  It was already involved in the Napoleonic Wars, and was keeping the bulk of its army on the Iberian Peninsula under the Duke of Wellington.  Supporting Wellington entailed sailing 2,000 ships a year to Lisbon, a sea link that passed dangerously close to the French Biscay ports and could be hindered by privateering.  Also, the British had the largest merchant fleet in the world, which meant that they had the most to lose through la guerre de course.  The logical course would have been to retreat in regard to the Americans and not seek out another war.

C. S. Forester is better known as the novelist who wrote the Horatio Hornblower series of novels, but he also wrote a fine history of the War of 1812 that gives three reasons why the British were willing to hazard cruising war by the United States.  First there was the Royal Navy's concern with holding down desertion.  Then there was a wish, according to Forester, to secure the final dominance of the British merchant marine by sweeping away the last vestiges of neutral shipping.  Third, there was a widespread desire among officers for prize money.

Combining with greed was arrogance.  The Royal Navy was undeniably proficient, and unfortunately no one was more aware of that than the Royal Navy. With that came a complacency that induced it to both neglect meaningful training in favor of making sure that the ships looked good, and denigrate its potential enemies.

By contrast, the United States Navy had been absorbed since 1797 with offsetting its inferior size with superior quality, starting but hardly ending with ship design.  Because of the embargoes preceding the war there were large numbers of unemployed merchant seamen attracted to the navy by moderate discipline, relatively high pay of $15.00 per month, and a short, definite enlistment of two years.  Finally, the officer corps was dedicated to professional development, going so far as to run a tactical school in Tripoli prison during the Barbary War.

The Royal was unpleasantly surprised by the Americans' ability to defeat it consistently in evenly-matched single-ship duels.  The British were able win some, most shocking to the Americans in the battle off Boston between the HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake.  Still, American preparation showed.

Yet the US Navy did not put in an especially impressive performance when it came to commerce raiding.  Fortunately privateers proved as good at this as the regular navy was at fighting naval vessels.

Nobody was more aware of this than the Duke of Wellington.  He found his sea connection, always in jeopardy, seriously set upon by American privateers.  He, joined eventually by every Royal Navy officer with privateers in his area of responsibility, castigated Admiral Sir John Warren of the Halfifax and West India Stations for letting them through, despite an apparently overwhelming numerical advantage in Warren's command over the US Navy.  But the Atlantic Ocean is rather large, and with one large and one smaller war going on, British naval power was terribly overextended, and raw numbers did not tell the whole story.  Still, Warren's professional life was not a happy one.

Why were American privateer commanders so much better at commerce destroying than their extremely competent counterparts in the regular navy?  Naval officers were trained to fight, and that was their great strength in fighting warships. Privateer captains were not, and that was theirs against merchant ships.

Naval officers lacked detailed knowledge of trade routes, merchant behavior, and seasonal variations in them.  Because they themselves overwhelmingly came from merchant service, privateer captains were intimately familiar with them from long experience.

Privateers had some severe disadvantages.  Indiscipline was rife, with sailors taking a democratic stance in their ships' administration, dangerous at sea in any case and especially so in wartime.  Moreover, privateers were not above passing up prizes if it was thought they could not be readily taken into the French and Norwegian ports where prize money was normally collected.  On the other hand, naval officers seldom hesitated to take such vessels in order to deny them to the enemy, even if no extra pay was forthcoming.

At total of 526 American letters of marque were issued in the War of 1812, but far fewer than that were effective privateers.  Many were indifferently armed and constructed, and in this highly speculative business that was liable to mean financial ruin for the owners.  However, some were so strong and well-armed that they resembled minor warships, and could take on the packet ships and small warships that carried the most valuable cargoes.  Also, many letters of marque were issued to blockade runners so that they could legally take any British merchantmen that chance should send their way.

British privateers also cruised, operating effectively off New England.  But more potent was the Royal Navy's ability to impose a blockade which not only took a fearful number of American ships but closed ports to trade.The most decisive British naval move of the war was the insertion of a squadron into Chesapeake Bay.  Before the construction of canals and railroads intercoastal shipping was economically indispensable to the United States, and Chesapeake Bay was the most important route of them all.  Starting on 1 February 1813, it was closed by the Royal Navy, using not only conventional blockade but patrols and amphibious raids up the estuaries.

Other British naval units penetrated the Potomac, Delaware, Connecticut and Penobscot Rivers, and Long Island Sound, so Chesapeake Bay was not the only waterway so interdicted.  It was, however, the most important.

The war ended in 1815.  American will was sapped by the failure of the latest attempt at invading Canada, the British blockade in general, and the economic repercussions of the closure of Chesapeake Bay.  For their part the British were willing to end hostilities because of fear that the winning coalition of the Napoleonic Wars would fall into feuding and warfare, and the British wanted to be able to concentrate as many naval and army units as possible in Europe.  Other factors included the defeat on Lake Champlain, the nearly bloodless repulse at Baltimore, and the continued presence of American privateers in British waters.

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras were not only the formative era for the United States Navy, but marked the high point of surface commerce raiding.  Privateering, always prone to abuse, was especially abused in the Latin American wars of independence, and was subsequently prohibited by international convention in 1856.  With that what had been the most effective means of la guerre de course was eliminated.  Just as critical, technology was about to catch up with cruising.

The last conflict in which the United States was involved significantly with surface cruising was its own Civil War.  One of the earliest decisions made by the Union was to impose a blockade on the coast of the Confederacy to cut off its agrarian economy from the industrialized, munitions exporters of Europe.  This was not easy as the United States Navy, though still highly professional, had just a handful of ships available to do this, and to complicate its task further, for a blockade to be legal and legitimate it had to be effectively enforced.  For the Union this was virtually impossible at first.

In the naval sense the Confederate States of America had things even worse.  There was no navy of any sort, nor the potential for much of a seagoing one together in the immediate future.  Commerce raiding was the logical course, and the one eventually adopted, though this was viewed distastefully as war against civilians and hence a violation of the Southern military ethos, which abhorred anything approaching total war.

At first privateers were dispatched.  But its prohibition was permanent and binding, and the measure had a quick and inevitable death.

In an inversion of the War of 1812, effective cruising was instituted a short time later by formally commissioned naval vessels.  The first ship, the CSS Sumter, was a converted passenger liner originally named the Ciudad de Habana, formerly plying the New Orleans-Cuba trade.  Later ones would be purpose-built warships constructed in foreign yards.

They had two objectives; economic warfare against the North, and to force the diversion of ships from the blockade to chasing down raiders.  They failed on both counts.

The American merchant fleet had reached its apex around 1850, on a surge of clipper trade with California, and in 1861 it was a rival to Britain's. Confederate cruisers caused substantial psychological damage to Northern shipping, far out of proportion to actual destruction, which drove many owners to transfer their vessels' registration to neutral, raider-immune registration.  Nonetheless Union commerce continued, though now under foreign flags.

The cruisers did absolutely nothing to alleviate the blockade.  The US Navy took into service a large number new warships and converted civilian vessels, many of them of dubious quality, in to maintain the stranglehold over the Southern coast.  This freed a number of the better naval vessels to pursue the raiders, leaving the blockade to be enforced through quantity rather than quality.

The blockade was instrumental to the Union victory.  The Confederate commerce war had no such potential.  That the Union Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, tightened the grip on the Confederate coast despite cries for greater efforts to chase down cruisers, was the wisest long-term decision made by either side in the Civil War.

More ominous to the future of commerce raiding than its impotence to materially effect the outcome was the specter of technology.  Steam was taking over from wind as the motive power, and whereas sails are simple, dependable and do not need to be fueled, engines are complex, experience breakdown, wear out, and must be fed.  All this made the mission of the Confederate cruisers much more complicated than their counterparts in previous wars. The Confederates tried to cope with this by procuring ships that could cruise well under sail, but the liabilities of machinery could not be offset.

Communications were also improving dramatically with the invention of the telegraph, an instrument more frequently recognized for its effect on land warfare.  Although ship-to-ship communications were still limited to visual or aural means, the telegraph permitted intelligence to be disseminated quickly and easily between the land stations where ships would stop.  With Union diplomats serving as an intelligence network in neutral countries, the North had a major intelligence and communications advantage.

A good example of this concerns the CSS Alabama, the British-built raider commanded by Raphael Semmes, formerly captain of the Sumter, and all-around the most successful raider captain of the war.  With the Alabama's machinery in need of repair he took her into port at Cherbourg, France on 11 June 1864.  Word was quickly sent to the Union Minister in Paris, who in turn called in the USS Kearsarge, then at Flushing in the Netherlands.  The Kearsarge arrived only three days after the Alabama, sinking her in a duel on 19 June.


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, commerce raiding enjoyed an unprecedented doctrinal respectability.  This was crystalized in France in the theories of l'ecole jeune, or "Young School," which held that the battlefleet could be cost-effectively negated through a combination of gunboats and torpedo boats for coastal defense, and fast cruisers for commerce raiding.  It promised to allow secondary naval powers to compete effectively against Britain, and held a great attraction in its emphasis on doing so on the cheap.

The United States sadly neglected its navy after the Civil War, and when the first steel ships of the new navy were delivered in 1883 the Americans were now importers of European naval technology, and with European technology came European strategic thought, especially that of l'ecole jeune, which was consistent with the American raiding tradition as well as demands for fiscalrestraint.

Then Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Seapower upon History 1660-1783 in 1890.  Despite his heritage as an American naval officer, in this seminal work Mahan explicitly rejected commerce raiding as little more than a nuisance, albeit sometimes a severe one.  Rather, he argued, the only way for a navy to win wars and secure national power overseas was to assert control over the sea lanes for its own sake, and for that only a battlefleet would do.

After The Influence of Seapower upon History, neither l'ecole jeune nor commerce raiding as a whole bore their former force.  Even the United States was committed to constructing a sea control navy.

One place where Mahan's ideas fell on fertile ground was Germany.  Newly reunited under Prussian dominance, Germany was building both a blue-water navy and an overseas empire, and Mahan gave legitimacy to both, gaining the strong support of the Kaiser.

However, Kaiser Wilhelm II's understanding of naval issues was very superficial, limited for the most part in cruising the Baltic in the imperial yacht and dressing up in the imperial sailor's suit.  As the Kriegsmarine was built, the burden for devising strategy fell upon Alfred von Tirpitz, who envisioned a highly aggressive role for it.

As with so many other expectations, Tirpitz's came to nothing when the Great War arrived. Overwhelmingly, Germany's naval war was one of commerce destruction, first by overseas elements such as the light cruiser Emden and Graf von Spee's Far Eastern Squadron.  Within a few months this threat was ended by the Allies through the sinking or forced internment of German raiders.

Then came the real menace, the submarine.  Germany was hardly the only country to use this new weapon, but it was the only one to utilized it so effectively and destructively.

U-boats were notoriously hard to pin down.  Whereas a surface raider could evade pursuit by heading for the untraveled expanses of the ocean, a submarine had a much easier alternative in diving, particularly effective in an age of crude antisubmarine warfare hardware and technique.

Much of the U-boats' potency was because of their stealth, and exploiting it to the utmost called for breaking some of the most important tenets of the law of the sea, starting with the requirements that a raider warn an enemy merchantman before sinking her, and see to the safety of crew and passengers, something made even more difficult by submarines' cramped spaces.  In addition, radio made it possible for merchant ships to call for help immediately, so warning a vessel was the same as warning the enemy navy.  Furthermore, Germany made good on its announcement to attack all ships in the vicinity of the British Isles, belligerent and neutral alike, dispensing with the procedures for inspection and condemnation.

This came with a price, one that proved too high.  Unrestricted  submarine warfare was extremely provocative, and was the central issue when the United States intervened on the side of the Allies.

After World War I had been lost and even before the Nazi rise to power, Germany was preparing for the next war.  Impoverished, humiliated and shackled by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had no chance of building another dreadnought fleet with even a remote chance of challenging the Royal Navy for control of the seas, so it was expected that a renewed conflict would be one of commerce raiding, again a recourse to the poor man's naval war.

First, the Kriegsmarine began building up its surface raiding capability before acquiring the submarines banned by Versailles.  The clandestine organization that had supported the First World War cruisers was reestablished, and by 1931 the Secret Naval Supply Service was again in place.The next move was the construction of the "pocket battleships" Deutschland, Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee.  The letter of Versailles allowed Germany to replace its old warships with modern ones with similar specifications, and the Allied intent was for the Germans to build innocuous coast defense ships.  Instead, what the uncooperative Kriegsmarine built was a startlingly innovative class of vessel with heavy firepower, respectably speed, and a 10,000-mile cruising range.  On paper at least, the pocket battleships were ideal raiders.

In practice, however, they proved to be something less.  Their diesel engines were unreliable and subject to breakdown, a major liability for a task calling for the technical reliability.

Technology continued to work against the German surface raiders in other ways.  Radio took away their ability to hide, as all a merchantmen had to do to announce a raider attack was signal a simple "RRR" code.  It also permitted widely separated enemy forces to coordinate their hunting, in contrast to the not too distant past, when each element had been basically on its own.  Though radio gave the Kriegsmarine command in Germany excellent signals intelligence on Allied merchant traffic and naval deployment, and the means to relay it to far-flung units, wireless communications nonetheless was more beneficial to the other side. Procuring fuel and effecting repairs in neutral ports were sometimes necessary and always dangerous.  Again, radio allowed word to spread quickly of a raider's presence, drawing Allied naval vessels to the port's approaches, a fatal predicament faced by Captain Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee at Montevideo in 1939.

Raphael Semmes would have understood.

Sorties by other classes of surface vessels met with mixed success, reaching their peak in 1941.  In the second half of 1940, after the failure of the Battle of Britain, Hitler ordered the navy to starve out the British.  In this period 450,000 tons of Allied shipping failed to reach port, of which 60% was sunk by U- boats, with Focke Wulf 200C patrol bombers, flying out of France, claiming 12%, and the rest succumbing to surface raiders and mines.In the first six months of 1941 640,000 tons were sunk, 296,000 by Fw 200's and Heinkel 111's.  Now, however, surface raiders and submarines claimed the largest share of the kill, and on one sortie the new battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank 116,000 tons of merchant shipping.

This was the last hurrah of the traditional surface raiding.  In May the Bismarck was destroyed before accounting for a single enemy merchant vessel, and this kind of war died with her.  Even submarine activity declined, albeit temporarily.

If World War I was the advent of the submarine, World War II saw it come to maturity in two theaters.  In the Atlantic the U-boats prosecuted a devastating variation of la guerre de course, coming dangerously close to isolating Britain.  In the Pacific, the US Navy engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan, a major factor in the island empire's defeat.  The country willing to go to war a generation previous over unrestricted submarine warfare had become one of its two best practitioners, in the process returning to its heritage of commerce destruction.


Commerce raiding has been crucial to the development of naval warfare, and intimately tied to the development of strategy and technology.  In the end, however, it was technology that brought it down or, more accurately, drove it under the sea.

For all the resources and attention devoted to it, surface raiding was seldom a decisive weapon, with the only readily apparent case of it attaining such status being the destruction of the Netherlands as a great power at the dawn of the eighteenth century.  More often, as Mahan pointed out, a nuisance of varying intensity.  For instance, though the Confederate raiding effort had little potential to influence the course of the Civil War, it badly depleted the size of the American merchant marine long after the former Confederacy was reincorporated into the United States of America.

Maybe the greatest reason why la guerre de course was so indecisive was the nature of the economies against which it was targeted.  When raiding was most effective, that is around the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, economies were chiefly agrarian and therefore self-sufficient in foodstuffs, though this was obviously not the case in some outlying areas, such as Britain's Caribbean possessions.  Not having expansive industrial structures, they were likewise less dependent on the imported raw materials needed to fuel them.  Thus there was a built-in resilience against the worst effects of maritime interdiction.

As industry grew and agriculture correspondingly declined, this same technological advancement made for more sophisticated ships that, though tactically more flexible, reflected the economies that produced them in that they too needed to be fed and maintained.  With that the endurance and reliability that a raider needs to operate over long times and distances declined.  Nations were more vulnerable in theory to raiding, but the vessels attempting it were far less capable of achieving it.  Perhaps had privateering survived and private enterprise been able to dramatically increase the number of raiders at sea the situation would have been different, but the burden was placed solely on the shoulders of the regular navies, and commerce destroying as previously understood entered a terminal decline.

La guerre de course is now dead, at least on the surface.  Its only relatively recent appearance was in the Persian Gulf "Tanker War," in which Iran and Iraq employed short-ranged aircraft and, in the case of Iran, large numbers of technologically simple speed boats not even designed for naval use, as well as mines.  Again, the effect was more to nag the enemy than bring him to bay, and commerce destruction was far less vital to the outcome than the larger air and ground wars. Nor does the future look promising for commerce raiding.  Theoretically, the nuclear attack submarine is the most potent agent of la guerre de course since the privateer.  However, with the end of the Cold War, its employment appears increasingly less likely as time passes.  Indeed, the only time a nuclear attack submarine was known to have fired in anger at any surface vessel occurred twenty years ago, when HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano.

Technology has not loosened its grip either.  Antisubmarine warfare is a hotbed of advanced technology for the detection of targets, command and control of forces, and submarine destruction.  With the deployment of satellite systems, and ever more advanced computer wide-area networks [WANís], the first two aspects will be especially augmented.

The same submarines also carry enormous potential for killing regular naval units, including other submarines, and therefore fit into the battlefleet model at least as much as they do the one of commerce raiding.  Likewise, at present only the United States and its closest allies have both the advanced submarines and the technological capacity for the most sophisticated anti-submarine warfare, so the employment of truly effective unrestricted submarine warfare, or its negation, by anyone else, is probably moot.

Commerce raiding also is one of the few areas in which air power holds relatively little promise.  Miniaturization has produced the Stinger shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile which in some cases, such as the Soviet war in Afghanistan, enables even technologically backward forces to make the employment of low-altitude airpower dangerous.  One can expect the continuance of this trend to lead to weapons systems that likewise negate airpower advantages at higher altitudes and longer ranges.

Merchant raiding on the grand scale probably will never happen again.  But war and technology offer many surprises often, so the possibility still exists that some future development might change the rules and allow la guerre de course to flourish once again.


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