AN ANALYSIS OF NAVAL SURFACE COMMERCE RAIDING SINCE THE ELIZABETHAN ERA
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
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
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
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.
The merchant adventurer's calling was a lucrative one, and illegal trade
and piracy became common, even respectable, in some counties, especially
They were doing more than just making money and enraging
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
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
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
The undeclared war with
Subsequently, Hawkins argued hard for a continuous blockade of the
Spanish coast to cut it off from the
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
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
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
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
The West India Company was first intended to concentrate on the treasure
of Spanish Peru and
But the WIC subordinated cruising to territorial aggrandizement just as
it largely forsook war against
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 UNITED STATES: THE POOR MAN'S WAR
The British colonies in
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
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
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
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.
After the Revolutionary War the
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
The Americans reaped profits from both, as well as harassment from
either for doing business with the other.
The undeclared war with
The next year the
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
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
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
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
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
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
Other British naval units penetrated the
The war ended in 1815. American will was sapped by the failure of the
latest attempt at invading
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras were not only the formative era
for the United States Navy, but marked the
The last conflict in which the
In the naval sense the Confederate States of
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
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
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.
good example of this concerns the CSS
THE GERMAN EXPERIENCE
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, commerce raiding enjoyed an
unprecedented doctrinal respectability. This was crystalized in
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
One place where Mahan's ideas fell on fertile ground was
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,
Then came the real menace, the submarine.
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,
This came with a price, one that proved too high. Unrestricted
submarine warfare was extremely provocative, and was the central issue
After World War I had been lost and even before the Nazi rise to power,
First, the Kriegsmarine began building up its surface raiding
capability before acquiring the submarines banned by
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
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
If World War I was the advent of the submarine, World War II saw it come
to maturity in two theaters. In the
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
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
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
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 [WAN’s], 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
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
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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