Chapter VIII
The Sea Approaches and Coastal Waters
1st January-31st May, 1940

  The suitability of the entire coast of the British Isles for minelaying . . . imposes a gigantic task upon the minesweeping organisation and . . . there are never enough minesweepers to meet the various commitments.
    The Naval War Manual (1948).

WITH the start of the new year offensive operations by our minelaying destroyer flotilla were continued with the object of laying small fields of contact mines in the channels through the German mined area in the North Sea. Two such lays were carried out during the first half of January, but the destroyers were then required for other purposes and did not return to minelaying until the 3rd of March, when the Express, Esk, Icarus and Impulsive laid 240 mines in the enemy channel. The flotilla was then diverted to anti-submarine duties and its only employment on minelaying during the period now under discussion was the laying of mines in Norwegian territorial waters early in April.1 This formed part of the long conceived and frequently postponed plan to disrupt the enemy's flow of iron ore from northern Norway. It will be considered later when the events which led to the Norwegian campaign are reviewed. The period with which we are now dealing saw the start of a new form of offensive minelaying, that of mining the enemy's channels and estuaries from the air, in which Coastal Command, Bomber Command and naval aircraft all took part; this developed rapidly into an important factor in disputing the control of the enemy's coastal routes. It will be convenient at this stage to trace the growth of this campaign from its origins.

As far back as May 1936 the Admiralty had authorised the development of the Standard Magnetic Mine, and a trial order for a small number was placed in July 1939. A proportion of these was allocated to the Air Ministry for trials, and shortly after the outbreak of war the Admiralty announced that mines would be ready for use by the following summer. This estimate was, in fact, considerably


improved on. It appeared that the mines would be available before there were suitable aircraft to lay them, since only the torpedo-bombers of Coastal Command (Bothas and Beauforts) were then intended for minelaying. The Botha was an unsuccessful aircraft, and neither it nor the Beaufort could reach the waters to the east of the Kiel Canal. However, the Air Ministry hoped to have forty-two aircraft continuously available for minelaying by the time the mines were ready. Unfortunately the failure of the Botha necessitated a search for another type which could be adapted to minelaying, and experiments in the use of Hampdens of Bomber Command were therefore started. They had a longer range than the Beaufort and would be ready in some numbers from February 1940 onwards.

Operational factors were meanwhile being studied by the Naval and Air Staffs and by Coastal Command. The ideal conditions for minelaying, which demanded a high degree of navigational accuracy, were found only on moonlight nights; but this restricted possible operations to about seven nights in each month. The most promising area was in the Elbe estuary since traffic there was dense, but in Kiel the depth of water came closer to the optimum of thirty feet. The Ems and Jade-Weser estuaries were also good, though they carried less traffic than the Elbe or Kiel Canal.2

In February the Foreign Office agreed that forty-eight hours' notice should be given of our intention to mine certain areas, including some which, in fact, would not at first be mined. It will be remarked that, unlike the Germans, we intended only to lay the mines in Declared Areas.3

Meanwhile difficulties in finding enough aircraft for the concentrated effort required to obtain good results continued, since the Beauforts were only coming slowly into use in Coastal Command and the Bomber Command Hampdens needed further training in this new duty. By recalling Nos. 49 and 63 Hampden Squadrons, which had been on loan to Coastal Command as a striking force, the strength assigned to minelaying was increased, and on the 1st of April it was decided that six Hampden squadrons and one of Beau-forts should lay the 200 mines available for that month. Intensive training and reconnaissance flights by these squadrons continued, and on the 8th of April, coincident with the start of the Norwegian campaign, Bomber Command was authorised to lay thirty-eight mines in each of the Elbe, Lübeck and Kiel areas, while Coastal Command laid lesser numbers in the Jade-Weser and Ems estuaries. The first lay was carried out by Bomber Command on the night of the 13th--14th of April. Two nights later Coastal Command Beauforts followed suit, and very soon No. 815 naval air squadron, which was armed with


Swordfish aircraft and was then working under Coastal Command, joined the minelayers.

Heavy fog suspended air minelaying after the 25th of the month, but about 160 of the 200 mines allotted had been laid by that date--the majority by Bomber Command in the Elbe, Kattegat, Kiel Canal, the Belts and in the western Baltic. Early in May the Admiralty pressed for a greater number of aircraft to be turned over to minelaying; there were indications that it was producing good results, and the production of mines had been increased so rapidly that it was likely to outstrip the capacity of the aircraft so far made available to lay them. However, the start of the campaign in the Low Countries produced so many new problems for the Air Ministry and Bomber Command that it was some months before a greater effort could be devoted to minelaying.

It will be useful to summarise the results so far achieved. In April and May 263 mines were laid in 385 aircraft sorties. Ten aircraft were lost on these operations, but twenty-four enemy ships totalling some 33,635 tons were sunk by magnetic mines laid by aircraft and a further two ships of 4,114 tons were damaged. It will be seen that a considerable proportion of the aircraft sent out on minelaying sorties returned without laying their mines, but that the losses of aircraft so employed could be accepted. The ability of aircraft to carry offensive minelaying on to the enemy's short sea routes had been clearly demonstrated and as training improved and more aircraft became available more substantial results were plainly to be expected.

The defensive minelaying campaign continued during the phase now being considered. In January a start was made with the east coast mine barrier. Its purpose was to help protect the heavy flow of shipping passing up and down the length of our east coast. The Admiralty was particularly apprehensive about disguised merchant ships being used by the enemy to sow mines in those shallow waters; but raids by surface warships and submarine attacks were also possible. The mine barrier would give close control over our own shipping and make it easier to detect and deal with any enemy who might try to interfere with our traffic.4 The minelayer Princess Victoria laid the first 240 mines about fifty miles north-east of Spurn Point on the 24th of January; but thereafter progress was slow. Apart from placing dummy mines along the greater part of the length of the barrier between the 6th and 13th of February only one more lay was carried out in that month.

One reason for the slow progress made with the east coast mine barrier was that in January it was decided to lay deep minefields


off the Moray Firth to try to catch the U-boats which had been causing trouble there. One of our minelayers was diverted to this new duty. The deep minefields might have accomplished their purpose if we could have spared surface vessels to patrol them continuously, and so force the U-boats to dive. As it was the minefields were not patrolled and the U-boats, which had all along been working on the surface in those waters, continued to do so with impunity. It was also found that defensive minefields such as the east coast barrier produced another effect. They marked for the enemy the positions where our own shipping had to enter and leave the swept channels; nor was he slow to take advantage of the chances which these new focal points offered for attacks on our shipping.

In March progress with the east coast barrier was as slow as in the preceding month and only one line of mines was laid. It was not until the first week of May, by which time the enemy was possessed of most of the Norwegian coast and was about to launch his campaign in the west, so securing greatly increased opportunities to interfere with our east coast traffic from his newly acquired bases, that substantial progress was made towards the completion of the barrier. Extensions were then laid by the minelayers Princess Victoria, Teviot Bank and Hampton.

Meanwhile the enemy, whose offensive mining had, as has been seen, achieved considerable initial success, continued to lay both magnetic and contact mines, using surface vessels, submarines and aircraft.

In January his destroyers laid large minefields, mostly of contact mines, off Blyth and Cromer Knoll, and magnetic mines in the Thames approaches. His U- boats continued to lay magnetic mines in the approaches to our more important bases and ports such as Liverpool, Loch Ewe, Cromarty Firth and Falmouth. In all, the enemy laid 174 magnetic and 345 contact mines during the first month of the year. His surface minelayers showed enterprise and boldness; and they met no opposition because at this time we expected that he would use only U-boats or aircraft for minelaying. We had not yet introduced precautions against the use of surface minelayers. Our coastal traffic was greatly dislocated by this means and losses from mining during the month amounted to twenty-one ships of 77,116 tons. In February the enemy continued to exploit his success. On the night of the 9th--10th his destroyers laid 157 mines, mostly of contact type, off Cromer Knoll and Ito magnetic mines in the Orfordness--Shipwash area.5 This was carried out without interference though the enemy states that his ships sighted, but were not sighted by, our patrols while on passage. They were able accurately


Map 13. The East Coast of Britain Including the Thames Estuary
Map 13.
The East Coast of Britain Including the Thames Estuary

to fix the position of the minefields by the light vessels which were then still in position and showing their normal lights. The new field off Cromer caused the loss of six vessels, and a further six were lost during the same month on older minefields. U-boats also laid nearly a score of magnetic mines in February, but these were not discovered till later. Our losses for the month were fifteen ships of 54,740 tons. Clearance of the magnetic fields proceeded only very slowly for lack of effective sweeping devices. The mine destructor ships ('Borde') and also the minesweeping aircraft achieved some successes, but neither constituted a reliable and rapid antidote.

In March we lost fourteen ships of 35,501 tons to mines. No less than five of these were blown up on a new field laid to the east of the North Foreland by a small enemy merchant ship disguised as a neutral. She left Wilhelmshaven on the 7th of March and laid her mines two nights later without interference, because the gap between the Dover and east coast mine barrages was not patrolled effectively owing to the shortage of destroyers in the Nore and Dover Commands. This field was quickly discovered but proved of greater extent than was at first realised, and casualties continued. Moreover clearance was hampered by the enemy's use of explosive sweep destructors placed among the mines; not until the end of March was a channel cleared for large ships. The war of device and counter-device in minelaying and minesweeping had started in earnest. Meanwhile U-boats laid three small magnetic fields in the approaches to Liverpool, the Bristol Channel ports and Portsmouth.

Little progress was made with magnetic minesweeping until the end of March, and the losses and dislocation of shipping continued to cause serious anxiety. On the 28th of March, however, the first four of the 'LL Trawlers', whose sweeping device has already been mentioned, started work.6 They rapidly exploded four mines in the Thames estuary. The damage received by the minesweepers them- selves from these explosions was, however, serious and orders had to be given to strengthen all the seventy trawlers then fitting out for this duty. On the 31st the Borde, which had also been damaged, returned to duty and exploded two mines in the Sunk Channel. Eight more mine destructor ships were fitting out but were not yet ready. The minesweeping aircraft, which were now employed in threes flying in line abreast, contributed their quota by exploding nine mines in the Thames approaches. These successes, taken together, showed that the period of palliatives and of hasty improvisations was passing, and that the conquest of the magnetic mine was now in sight. But it was fortunate that the enemy possessed so few mines of this type during the early months of 1940, or our difficulties


might well have become critical. No magnetic mines were laid in the first half of April, but after the 17th of that month enemy aircraft carried out widely dispersed minelaying in the Downs, the Thames estuary and off the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk. These small fields caused us considerable embarrassment and the loss of seven ships, most of which were small coasting vessels.

A small German motor vessel, the Ulm, laid a contact field off Smith's Knoll on the 2nd of April. The mines were actually laid some distance outside the channel used by our shipping; but they caught and damaged one ship which had straggled from her convoy, and also sank a minesweeper. There is little doubt that the Ulm was sighted and chased by the submarine Sealion while on passage. But the latter never reported the incident until she reached her patrol area off the Skagerrak. Our total losses to mines in April were eleven ships of 19,799 tons sunk and two more damaged.

The pause in magnetic minelaying gave to the Nore Command, on whom the onus of dealing with the enemy's campaign and of keeping the east coast convoy routes and the Thames approaches open had chiefly fallen, a short breathing space in which to overtake the heavy accumulated arrears of magnetic minesweeping. When, however, we started to clear certain new fields the sweeps proved ineffective until it was realised that the enemy had now reversed the polarity of some of his mines, and had inserted delay-action devices in the mechanism of others.

There was little minelaying in our coastal waters during the month of May because the enemy was fully occupied with the campaign in Western Europe. Only three ships were sunk by mines off our own coasts. But losses off Norway, Holland, Belgium and France swelled the total of victims to twenty ships of 47,716 tons. Thus ended the second phase of the enemy's attempt to disrupt our coastal traffic by mine warfare. Although substantial losses had continued, there had been a steady decline from January onwards, and there were good grounds for believing that the critical period in November 1939, when all but one of the channels into the Port of London were closed, would never be repeated. Effective antidotes were now being supplied and experience in their use was being gained. Knowledge of the enemy's many ingenious devices was also improving.

The enemy's policy moved rapidly towards unrestricted submarine warfare during the last months of 1939, as has already been mentioned.7 The process was continued during the present phase by extending the areas within which any ship might be attacked without warning. American ships and those of the 'friendly neutral' countries were excluded from these orders, but, as the former were still prohibited from entering the war zone and the latter were unlikely to


Typical British Escort Vessels

Escort Destroyer, 'Hunt' Class, Type 1. H.M.S. Holderness
Escort Destroyer, 'Hunt' Class, Type 1. H.M.S. Holderness. Completed Aug. 1940. Displacement 900 tons. Armament 4 4-inch high angle. Maximum speed 25 knots.

Sloop, 'Black Swan' Class. H.M.S. Black Swan
Sloop, 'Black Swan' Class. H.M.S. Black Swan. Completed Jan. 1940. Displacement 1,250 tons. Armament 6 4-inch high angle. Maximum speed 19 knots.

Corvette, 'Flower' Class. H.M.S. Alisma
Corvette, 'Flower' Class. H.M.S. Alisma. Completed Feb. 1941. Displacement 865 tons. Armament 1 4-inch. Maximum speed 16 knots.

'The Wardroom and Mess Deck of an S-Class Submarine.' By Stephen Bone.
(National Maritime Museum)

'Eleven o'clock in the Fo'c's'le.' By Henry Lamb
'Eleven o'clock in the Fo'c's'le.' By Henry Lamb.
(National Maritime Museum)

be met on the British trade routes, this made little difference to the execution of German policy. In January and February the enemy widened the zones of unrestricted attack several times. Although the British Isles were not yet encircled by these zones, by the end of February they covered the whole of our east coast routes, the south-west approaches as far as 10°30' West, and the whole of the Irish Sea--including the approaches to the Clyde and Mersey. The ring through which every ocean convoy and every independently-routed ship had to break in order to reach its destination had become wider and more closely watched.

It will be remembered that the frequent sightings of U-boats by aircraft flying the standard North Sea reconnaissance patrols had, before the end of 1939, enabled the Air Force and Naval Staff Officers at Coastal Command Headquarters to calculate where they were most likely to be found. A system of harrying them from the air while on passage was then developed.8 It was now realised that, whatever might be the failings of these reconnaissance patrols in accomplishing their primary purpose of locating and shadowing enemy warships attempting to break out of the North Sea, a valuable secondary accomplishment had been discovered. Increased emphasis was being placed on this aspect of Coastal Command's duties, and, as more aircraft became available, a greater number was allocated to this purpose. By the beginning of the year No. 18 Group had worked out the tactical problem of where best to seek the U-boats on their north-about passage, while No. 15 Group was employed chiefly on ocean convoy escort duties. Unhappily an effective anti-submarine weapon was still lacking, and the purpose of all this careful planning and arduous flying was largely frustrated by the absence of the means to put it to good effect. More will be said on that score shortly.

The year opened quietly with no U-boats in the Western Approaches for the first half of January; but six arrived in that focal area during the last half of the month. One of these sank three neutral ships off Ushant while on passage south, and on the 30th of January another attacked the Thames section of Convoy O.A. 80 which had been thrown into some disorder by bad weather. Only one escort, the sloop Fowey, was with the convoy, but the sinking of two ships led to the hasty despatch to its assistance of two destroyers and a Sunderland of No. 228 Squadron. Together they scored the first joint air-sea success in the U-boat war. After being attacked by the surface escorts the U-boat would probably have got away but for the presence of the Sunderland. As it was, the pursuit was maintained and U.55 finally scuttled and surrendered.


Mention has already been made of the doubtful merits of defensive minefields in that they tend to create artificial focal areas at their ends. Such was the case with the east coast barrier, which caused concentrations of shipping off the Thames and between the Orkneys and Kinnaird Head. No less than ten coastal U- boats operated against these concentrations during the month of January. Although this had been expected we were slow in taking counter-measures; and when groups of anti-submarine trawlers were stationed at Scapa and Aberdeen they were employed to hunt and not to escort and achieved no success. The U- boats generally attacked by night and on the surface, in which circumstances the asdic was practically useless. They caused us many casualties. No less than fourteen unescorted ships, all neutrals, and also the destroyer-leader Exmouth, were sunk during January. The losses were at first attributed to mines and much fruitless sweeping was ordered until the sighting by aircraft of U-boats on the surface dispelled this illusion. Even then the application of the remedy of convoy and escort was slow. Instead the laying of the deep minefield off the Moray Firth, already mentioned, was started; but it was no hindrance to the U-boats because they continued to attack while on the surface. It is worth remarking that the escorted Norwegian convoys passed safely through this danger area during this period of heavy sinkings among unescorted ships.

One of the steps taken to reduce shipping delays had been to shift the northern terminal of the east coast convoy system south from Methil, in the Firth of Forth, to the Tyne. This meant that ships had to sail independently between those two ports, thus presenting easy targets to the enemy. Towards the end of January a U- boat sank two ships off Fame Island. Once again mines were suspected, traffic was stopped and the area vainly swept. When traffic was restarted two days later the same U-boat sank two more ships. A hunt was then organised, but the U-boat commander was wary and had withdrawn. One consequence of these sinkings was that the gap in the east coast convoy system was closed by the starting of convoys between Methil and the Tyne. It was, after all, anomalous that ships in Norwegian convoys should be escorted between Bergen and the Forth and between the Tyne and Thames, but should sail independently between the Forth and Tyne.

At the other end of the mine barrier, in the southern North Sea, three 250-ton U-boats sank three ships in January, but these losses were, at the time, also attributed to mines. There were no attacks on U-boats in these waters during the same period; and sweeps by destroyers of the Nore Command were ineffective. No U-boats worked in the Channel during this month and none attempted to pass through the Dover barrage. Experience had shown this route to be too dangerous.


The Atlantic was clear of U-boats for the first ten days of January, but on the 18th a Danish ship was sunk off Cape Finisterre and two days later a Greek ship suffered a similar fate off the coast of Portugal. The U-boat was damaged by the destroyer Douglas which was searching ahead of a Gibraltar-bound convoy, but she was able to remain at sea and attacked a French convoy a short time later. This incident is of interest because, when the French convoy was reported, Admiral Dönitz made an attempt to reinforce the attacking U-boat by sending two more to join her. Though the distance was too great for this concentration to be effected, it was a harbinger of the 'wolf-pack' tactics which were to cause us great trouble later.

The total losses attributed to U-boats in January were forty ships of 111,263 tons, but in the following month they rose sharply to forty-five ships of 169,566 tons--the greatest success so far achieved by that arm. In both these months, however, only a very small proportion of the ships sunk--four in January and three in February--were actually in convoy at the time. The U-boats' victims were nearly all independently-routed ships or stragglers from convoys; but the number of ships sunk by each U-boat at sea reached a very high figure.

At the beginning of February there was only one U-boat in the South-Western Approaches. She attacked convoy O.B. 84 on the 5th and sank one ship, but the destroyer Antelope, although the sole escort of the convoy, brought swift retribution and sank U.41. By the 10th of February three more U-boats had arrived in these waters and they sank nine independently-routed ships in the following week. Their primary object was to intercept the Ark Royal and Renown which were then returning from Freetown after the raider-hunting operations in the South Atlantic already described; but in this they failed.9 In the North-West Approaches to these islands U.53 sank four ships before being sunk herself by the destroyer Gurkha on the 23rd of February; and the minesweeper Gleaner sank U.33 while she was attempting to lay mines in the Clyde on the 12th of February. Admiral Raeder reported to Hitler, with regard to the latter loss, that so dangerous an attempt would not be repeated. The first U-boat attack on a Norwegian convoy took place on the 18th of February and, although the convoy escaped, the destroyer Daring, one of its escorts, was sunk. She was not long unavenged, however, since, when convoy H.N. 14 was attacked on the 25th, the submarine Narwhal, which formed part of its escort, sighted a U-boat on the surface; a hunt was promptly organised and U.63 finally surfaced and scuttled herself. The next attack on this shipping route was on the 1st of April, when one straggler was sunk; but the small results achieved by the enemy lent strong support to the belief that convoy


and escort still afforded the best protection against submarines. In the North Sea U-boats sank no less than twenty-two ships during February. All were sailing independently and twelve of them were lost in the focal area at the north end of the east coast mine barrier. As counter-measure the Commander-in-Chief, Rosyth, was given a new hunting group formed of destroyers removed from other commands; but once again no success was achieved by this means. In the southern part of the North Sea there was less activity, but three coasters were sunk off Yarmouth.

To return to the Atlantic: U.25, after fuelling from a tanker in Cadiz Bay, achieved some success. On the 3rd of February she sank the Armanistan to the west of the mouth of the Tagus. Her convoy was at the time unescorted because the escort had been detached, while in the Channel, to hunt for an imaginary U- boat, and the North Atlantic Command at Gibraltar did not send destroyers to meet this convoy until after it had been attacked. The enemy next gained intelligence of the sailing of convoy O.G. 18 and concentrated three U-boats off Cape Finisterre to lie in wait for it. On the 17th they attacked. Although only one ship of the convoy was sunk, the U-boats found several independently-routed targets in the same area.

March saw a substantial decline in sinkings by U-boats to twenty-three ships of 62,781 tons. Though the increase in convoys and reduction of independent sailings probably contributed to this, the primary cause undoubtedly was the withdrawal by the enemy of most of his submarines to prepare for the Norwegian campaign. In the South-Western Approaches three U-boats sank four ships and laid three minefields. The Western Approaches Command organised frequent hunts, but in every case the enemy had already left the area being searched and, by the 13th, all three were on passage to their home waters.

During March the enemy stationed a number of U-boats in the north with the object of intercepting major units of the Home Fleet. Although they failed in this object they sank four ships, all neutral, to the west of the Shetlands and one to the east of the same islands. But the destroyer Fortune, while acting as part of the Home Fleet's screen, sank one enemy (U.44) on the 10th.

In the southern North Sea three U-boats sank seven ships during the first ten days of the month and six of these were making the dangerously open passage to Dutch ports for which convoys could not be organised. The 11th of March saw the first success in the U-boat war obtained by Bomber Command aircraft, which sank U.31 in Schillig Roads. But she was soon raised and put into service again, only to be sunk a second time eight months later.

During March there was a decrease in activity off the Moray Firth, but on the 19th and 20th four Danish ships were sunk there. Most


ships were now convoyed through this focus, but the Danes, in order to preserve an appearance of strict neutrality, had declined to allow their ships to join our convoys, with unhappy results to themselves. The next month, April, saw the smallest losses of the whole campaign to date. Only seven ships of 32,467 tons were sunk by U-boats, but this was chiefly because almost all Admiral Dönitz's forces were then employed off the Norwegian coast. U.22 was lost, probably by mining, during the month and four other boats were sunk in the North Sea and off the Norwegian coast by various ships and aircraft supporting our forces in Norway. Further reference will be made to these sinkings when the operations of the Home Fleet are considered shortly. The enemy's losses in this month were the heaviest since October 1939.

In May there was little activity for the first ten days. Although two U-boats were working in the northern North Sea, our trade with Scandinavia had entirely stopped and this deprived them of merchant ship targets. U.13 was, however, sunk by the sloop Weston off Lowestoft on the last day of the month. About the middle of the month four U-boats sailed for the Western Approaches. On the 30th U.101 sank one ship and next day she obtained another success in an attack on an H.G. convoy. A counter-attack by the Arabis, one of the new corvettes, only caused slight damage. These little ships were now beginning to enter service in increasing numbers and were a very welcome addition to the strength of our convoy escorts. Their chief merit was that they could be built quickly. Their weakness lay in having insufficient speed to overtake a U-boat retiring on the surface and in the obsolescent type of asdic with which they were at this time fitted. Their small size (900 tons) and lively movements made them extremely uncomfortable and exhausting to their crews in the stormy Atlantic. Yet they crossed and recrossed that ocean escorting the slow convoys in all weathers and it is hard to see how Britain could have survived without them.

During March and April there had been no U-boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. One arrived off Cape Finisterre towards the end of May and promptly sank five ships in a like number of days. One of these was a well-armed British tanker which, although attacked from the surface and on a favourable bearing, failed to open fire until too late because the master believed that he had to hoist his colours before doing so. Actually quite a number of merchant ships had, by this time, used their defensive anti-submarine guns to good purpose. But the incident of the tanker showed the need to instruct masters carefully not only in the technical use of there armaments but in the legal aspects of the defensive arming of merchant ships. The sinkings achieved by U-boats in May were only thirteen ships of 55,580 tons.


The Admiralty's assessments of the losses inflicted on the enemy and also of his total submarine strength were, in fact, nearly correct throughout this period. For example, by the end of April 1940 the Assessment Committee considered that nineteen U-boats had been destroyed and that forty-three were in service. The actual figures, we now know, were twenty-two and fifty-two. The enemy's opera- tional strength had steadily declined since the beginning of the war and did not start to increase again until many months later. Yet the favourable trend of our shipping losses was suddenly reversed in February.10 The explanation is not far to seek. Too many ships were at this time still sailing independently and too many escort vessels were being used to hunt for U-boats instead of escorting the convoys. While most convoys in the Western Approaches were being escorted by only one destroyer or sloop, numbers of asdic-fitted vessels were fruitlessly scouring the waters for enemies. In some cases convoy escorts were even diverted to join hunting groups when passing through the danger areas, thus reducing the escort of the convoys to vanishing point. The persistence of the belief that to send out flotilla vessels and aircraft to hunt for the U-boats was to take the offensive against them, whereas to use them to escort the convoys was to act wholly defensively, is, indeed, a marked feature of our anti-submarine policy during the first year of the war. It has been seen that the intention, in certain circumstances, to use destroyers on hunting operations had a place in the Admiralty's War Plans.11 But the circumstances stated in the plans--namely the conduct of submarine warfare by the enemy in accordance with international law--can hardly be said to have prevailed after the first few weeks of war. That the First Lord himself was insistent that the U-boat should be searched for by hunting groups is shown by his minute to the First Sea Lord stating that 'nothing can be more important in the antisubmarine war than to try to obtain an independent flotilla which could work like a cavalry division on the approaches, without worrying about the traffic or the U-boat sinkings, but could search large areas over a wide front. In this way these areas would become untenable to U-boats. . . .'12 It is also clear that a similar conception of anti-submarine warfare prevailed in some sections of the Naval Staff and in the Western Approaches Command at this time.

In September 1939 the whole problem had been reviewed by a committee appointed to report to the Admiralty on various aspects of the maritime war; its Chairman, Vice-Admiral Sir T. H. Binney, expressed the view that 'the best position for anti-submarine vessels is in company with a convoy' and recommended 'that, for the present,


every anti-submarine vessel with sufficiently good sea-keeping qualities should be employed with convoys rather than dispersed in hunting units'. This report was endorsed by the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff, not only expressing his complete agreement but also stating that 'this is the principle adopted'. Yet a study of the anti-submarine operations by the flotillas of the Western Approaches Command in particular shows that at this time many flotilla vessels were employed on hunting for U-boats instead of escorting the convoys.

That there should have been so wide a difference of opinion on so fundamental a matter is surprising, as is the fact that no clear direction regarding the policy to be followed was issued by the Admiralty to the commands chiefly concerned. Not the least important lesson to be learnt from a study of the early months of the U-boat war is that the enemy would be most easily found in the vicinity of the quarry which he was seeking, that his purpose could best be frustrated by protecting the quarry as strongly as possible and that escorting convoys would therefore produce abundant opportunities for a vigorous tactical offensive against the enemy--once he had shown himself.


It has been told how the aircraft of Coastal Command were by this time playing an increasing part in protecting shipping and harrying the U-boats, especially while on passage around the north of Scotland. The naval and air authorities concerned were now fully alive to the possibilities of sea-air co- operation in this form of warfare and, had the most energetic steps been taken to replace the ineffective anti-submarine bomb by depth charges suitably adapted to use from the air, important results could undoubtedly have been achieved by this means far earlier. Proposals to use depth charges for this purpose had reached the Admiralty from commanding officers of aircraft carriers many months before the war; but no scientific investigation of the arguments for and against the bomb was ever undertaken and the proposals were shelved. Similar suggestions were also received in the Air Ministry, but they were as reluctant as the Admiralty to make the change. As late as the 17th of April 1940, by which time ample evidence of the ineffectiveness of the anti-submarine bomb was available, the Air Ministry decided not to pursue the development of the depth charge further--and that in spite of favourable reports on trials carried out in the preceding months. Fortunately the Commander-in-Chief, Coastal Command (Air Marshal Sir F. W. Bowhill) got this ruling relaxed far enough to permit the trials to continue. It was chiefly by his personal efforts that the use of depth charges was introduced in Coastal Command during the summer of 1940, though


at first on a trivially small scale. Not until the spring of 1941 was a satisfactorily modified depth charge brought into general use. This was to prove by far the most effective anti-submarine weapon placed in the hands of both naval and R.A.F. aircrews during the entire course of the war.

It would be tedious to try to follow this story through the labyrinth of arguments and counter-arguments with which it is entangled, but certain conclusions may be usefully remembered. The first of these is that the anti- submarine bomb was the first weapon designed specifically to deal from the air with what had been convincingly shown to be the most deadly method of attacking our merchant shipping. Yet no trials were ever carried out to test the bomb's behaviour beneath the surface of the element in which it was designed to work, or its effect on a submarine's structure. Moreover the rate of progress from its inception in 1925 until it came into service in 1931 was leisurely in the extreme; and even thereafter nothing was done to test its performance. The result was that the Navy and R.A.F. both entered a war in which the struggle at sea was certain to be a preponderant factor equipped only with anti-submarine bombs of doubtful quality, untried under action conditions but known to be unreliable in certain aspects and, furthermore, supplied with no suitable sight with which to aim them from low heights. That the small results achieved by our aircraft against U-boats during the early phases of the struggle stemmed largely from these causes is beyond dispute.

Before leaving the U-boat war, mention must be made of the attempt by the Admiralty to reintroduce decoy ships. They had achieved some spectacular successes in the first war, but the wisdom of expending a substantial effort on endeavouring to repeat a particular tactic--about which the enemy was certainly fully informed--appears open to question. However, plans had been prepared before the war, and between October 1939 and March 1940 eight decoy ships, which had been fitted out in the utmost secrecy, were commissioned. They were certainly a technical advance on the 'Q ships' of the first war, since they all had torpedo tubes and depth charges and some mounted as many as nine 4-inch guns.13 It was hoped that if they fell in with an armed merchant raider they might engage her with success. The first sailed in December 1939 and the remainder early in 1940. One cruised between these islands and Gibraltar and thence into the South Atlantic, two worked between Sierra Leone, Gibraltar and Bermuda, two more were in the North Atlantic, one generally in the Western Approaches and two small ones were employed


in home waters. None of them ever sighted a U-boat or accomplished any useful purpose at all; two of them were torpedoed and sunk in the Western Approaches in June. The enemy was far too wary to be caught by a ruse which had been so well advertised between the wars and, moreover, secrecy had been so great that the ships were often in considerable danger of being sunk by our own forces. The extreme security precautions enforced with regard to these ships made it difficult for the Flag Officers chiefly responsible for the actual conduct of the anti-submarine war to criticise the project effectively. It was for this reason that it was not until December 1940 that a thorough enquiry was ordered. Once all the facts were known, their operations were immediately stopped.

The depredations of Admiral Dönitz's U-boats and our countermeasures thereto have now been considered up to the end of May 1940. But, in the meanwhile, the enemy had started unrestricted air warfare on shipping. It will be remembered that in the pre-war staff discussions the naval view had been that such a campaign was unlikely because of its effect on neutrals; but that if it was launched the normal defensive measures of convoy and escort would prove ade- quate. The Air Staff, on the other hand, expected such attacks to start at an early stage and was sceptical about the possibility of providing adequate defence by mounting guns in the merchant ships and providing anti-aircraft escort vessels to the convoys.14 Experience was now to show that, although convoy formed a valuable, even essential, defence against air attack, and effective weapons mounted in either the merchantmen or their escorts could contribute substantially by keeping the enemy to a distance at which the likelihood of his hitting with bombs or torpedoes was reduced, only by fighter aircraft could complete command of the air over the convoys be assured. There was, in fact, some truth in the pre-war arguments presented by both the Naval and Air Staffs, and it was by putting the two--convoy and fighter protection--together that the air offensive against our shipping was finally defeated.

Though air attacks on merchant shipping, and particularly against our east coast convoys, had been expected since the start of the war, few had actually taken place during 1939, partly because of the restrictions on bombing imposed by Hitler and partly because of the unwillingness of the Luftwaffe to meet the German Navy's requests.

The Commander-in-Chief, Nore, had for some months been particularly anxious regarding the exposed state of the great mass of shipping, often totalling 100,000 tons, assembled off Southend to await convoy up the east coast, and the equally large mass, chiefly


of neutral shipping, assembled in the examination anchorage in the Downs. However, in spite of being offered these valuable and ill-defended targets, the enemy chose the entirely different, though scarcely less embarrassing, strategy of carrying out isolated but widespread attacks along the whole length of the east coast convoy route.

The new year was little more than a week old when these attacks started and between the 9th and 15th of January three ships were sunk and others damaged. A fortnight's lull followed, but on the 29th and 30th attacks were renewed on a much wider scale. Four ships were sunk and many others damaged. Light vessels were also repeatedly attacked. Not only had the Admiralty forborne to arm these, but Trinity House, which was responsible for their administration, had, in order to preserve their international and humanitarian character, declined to allow their use for any belligerent purpose, such as reporting enemy movements. But this altruism made no difference to the savagery of the Luftwaffe's onslaughts. Yet the German Navy, to whose minelaying operations they had been of some value, may well have been displeased by the extinction of their lights or the removal of the vessels, which were the natural consequences of the action by their comrades in the air.

By the end of January it was plain that these unrestricted air attacks might soon surpass the U-boat or the mines as the principal threat to our coastal shipping. Losses due to air attack had amounted to eleven ships of 23,693 tons during the month.

The counter-measures needed were obvious. Firstly came the protection of shipping by fighter aircraft, a duty for which Coastal Command had inadequate strength, nor had it suitable aircraft to deal with the Junkers 87 and Messerschmitt 109 types chiefly used by the enemy.15 In consequence it was on Fighter Command that the requirement largely fell.

The extension of the protecting shield of Fighter Command's nation-wide organisation to the coastal convoys was, however, of slow growth, and many difficulties had to be surmounted and many concessions made by both services before it became effective. In the early months of 1940 Nos. 11 and 12 Fighter Groups, which covered the Nore Command's area, and also the other groups stationed along the east coast, usually only sent out fighters in answer to a 'help' call from a convoy--which meant that an attack had already started and that they would almost certainly arrive too late. Moreover, Fighter Group Headquarters did not always know the exact whereabouts of the convoys. When the fighters did arrive they often approached too close to the ships, which sometimes opened fire on them. Complaints of inadequate naval training in aircraft recognition


were countered by reports of failure by aircraft to make the proper recognition signals and of many cases of unnecessarily low flying above the convoys. These problems were, indeed, inevitable and endemic to the whole problem of fighter protection of shipping. They could only be solved gradually as each service gained experience of the difficulties and problems of the other.

To meet the demand for constant fighter protection over the convoys it was arranged at the end of February that patrols should be maintained over the four convoys generally at sea at any one time, and a fifth over the Dogger Bank fishing fleet, which had also been subjected to air attacks. Fighter Command had been reluctant to institute such patrols chiefly because they entailed a great amount of--possibly abortive--flying, thus aggravating problems of main- tenance, and because they contravened the principle of controlling all aircraft from their Group or Sector Headquarters. But the seriousness of the threat demanded that exceptions should be made and experiments tried.

Second among defensive measures came the convoying of all shipping. This presented peculiar problems on the east coast, since the narrowness of the swept channels inside the mine barrier compelled convoys to steam in double, or even single line and so to string themselves out over a long distance. Moreover ships which did not officially belong to a convoy often joined up with one because they felt safer that way. These 'camp followers', as the escort commanders called them, complicated matters still more. Sometimes they brought a convoy up to a total of about sixty ships, strung out along about twenty miles of channel. Convoy control and discipline became very difficult since the senior officer of the escort at the head of the convoy might be far out of sight of the rear ships. From the earliest days the Rosyth Escort Force had been charged with this responsibility and its little ships had done, and were still doing, splendid work. But they could not possibly protect the entire length of a one- or two-column convoy of such size.

Arming the merchant ships themselves against air attack presented many difficulties, the greatest of which was the acute shortage of every type of automatic weapon suitable to such use. The Admiralty scoured its stores and depots for weapons, removed them from ships which were immobilised or stood in lesser need, tried to borrow from the Army but found that service even more destitute, and adopted many temporary and substitute devices. The need for a big increase in close-range anti-aircraft weapons for precisely this purpose had been foreseen well before the war, and after fairly prolonged trials and investigations the Naval Staff had decided, firstly, that it must go to a foreign country if supplies were to be augmented rapidly and, secondly, that the Swiss-made 20-mm. Oerlikon gun was the most


promising weapon then on the market. An initial order for 1,500 guns for our merchant ships was therefore authorised shortly before the outbreak of war. The first Swiss-made guns were actually received just before the start of the Norwegian campaign. But there were so many claims for these excellent little weapons that it was a very long time before any merchant ship received one. Only a trickle of them had flowed to us by the time that the fall of France and the entry of Italy into the war cut us off from the source of supply. Meanwhile steps were being taken to start manufacture in England and, at the same time, prolonged negotiations were entered upon with the company's representatives for manufacture in the United States. The first British-made guns were produced by the end of 1940 and thereafter an increasing flow gradually developed to a flood as the result of vast American production. But the relatively lavish armament which merchant ships received during the last two years of the war was very remote from the present period when search was being made for any weapon or, if none could be found, for temporary substitutes. In order to hasten the design and supply of such devices the Admiralty formed, early in 1940, a department for Anti-Aircraft Weapons and Devices. Many and varied were the improvisations which it produced. In April 1941, chiefly to improve the training of the Merchant Navy in the use of its ever-increasing defences, the Admiralty appointed Admiral Sir Frederick Dreyer, a very senior officer of long experience with weapons, with the title of 'Inspector of Merchant Navy Gunnery'.

Much ingenuity was shown in producing substitutes for weapons and equipment which we now had no time to make. Plastic armour was developed to protect ships' bridges; rockets were designed to carry a wire up into the path of an attacking aircraft; a compressed-air thrower lobbed hand grenades at the Luftwaffe; kites and balloons were flown by ships, and even totally innocuous fireworks were supplied in the hope that they would deter the aircraft from making a close approach.16 These, and many other similar experiments, served a purpose; but the crews of the merchant ships and fishing vessels knew that a light automatic gun like the Oerlikon, which fired an explosive shell, was the weapon they wanted and they felt that it was a long time coming into their hands.

A natural corollary of the immense demands for anti-aircraft weapons now coming from the Merchant Navy was that the Admiralty had somehow to find and train the men to fight them. The prewar strength of the guns' crews trained under the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship (D.E.M.S.) Organisation was completely inadequate to meet these new demands. The Admiralty appealed to


the War Office for help and very soon Army machine-gunners began to sail in the east coast convoys. Thus was born an organisation which finally gained the dignified title of the Maritime Regiment of Royal Artillery. It reached a strength of 14,000 men in 1944. The Admiralty's D.E.M.S. crews were also expanded as fast as possible and finally reached a total of 24,000. Sailors and soldiers charged with the same duties interchanged freely; as many as sixty were ultimately sent to large liners, a cargo ship would be given between seven and twelve, while a tug would have one solitary anti-aircraft gunner. The Army gunners would board an inward-bound ship, possibly bringing their weapons with them, before she entered the danger zone and would leave her after she had reached her destina- tion. They would then go to an outward-bound ship to see her safely through the first stage of her journey. The organisation was gradually extended to cover most of the world. In its final form a valuable refrigerator ship bound, for example, to New Zealand might have two 40-mm. Boförs guns and numerous light weapons, with the key members of their crews, placed on board in Liverpool, and be ordered to call at Kingston, Jamaica, on the outward voyage for their removal and transfer to an inbound ship. The organisation of this welcome and original addition to the anti-aircraft defence of shipping was worked out between the Admiralty's Trade Division and the Army's Anti-Aircraft Command. But the development of co-ordinated fighter and anti-aircraft defences for merchant shipping along our coastal routes was slow, and we must return to the early days of 1940, when all such measures were in their infancy and experience of the requirements was being gradually gained by all three services by a process of improvisation and of trial and error.

The acute difficulties of the months of January and February 1940 were aggravated by exceptionally severe weather. Conditions more normal to polar regions prevailed over the whole east coast during those months. For almost three weeks traffic in the Humber was suspended by ice. A ship specially strengthened for ice-breaking failed to force a passage out of Goole, and an attempt to break the ice with an empty collier of 1,500 tons resulted only in her riding up on the ice and remaining there. Floating pack ice reached a depth of 12 feet in the estuaries and swept away navigational marks. Fighter aircraft were sometimes immobilised for days on end on snow-bound and fog-bound airfields; and the guns and superstructures of merchant ships and escort vessels were permanently coated in ice and frozen spray. The same weather immobilised the German surface ships in their bases, but their aircraft appeared to be less affected than our own and attacks continued.

The difficulties of convoy organisation grew with the danger. The convoys became so large that they tended to become unmanageable


and, for a time, a complete breakdown of the system threatened. At the end of January the Admiralty decided to increase the number of convoys and prohibited independent sailing during daylight along the most dangerous stretch of coast, that between the Thames and Cromer Knoll. By February nearly all shipping sailed in groups which, even if unescorted, made fighter protection far easier. Our counter-measures now appeared to be beginning to produce results. On the 3rd of February attacks took place between Rattray Head and Cromer.17 The minesweeper Sphinx was sunk and six ships were damaged, but R.A.F. fighters destroyed three of the attackers.

On the 9th there were more attacks, stretching as far north as Aberdeen, where minesweeping trawlers were the target, and nine merchant ships were damaged. It was at this point that arrangements were agreed between the Admiralty and Air Ministry for standing patrols to fly over the convoys; on the 27th this step first proved its value when, off St Abb's Head, R.A.F. Spitfires drove off an attack and destroyed two enemy aircraft. Communications between ships and aircraft were, at this stage, very rudimentary and targets were often missed for lack of a ship-to- air fighter-direction system. But such difficulties were not confined to ourselves for, on the 22nd of this month, bombers of the Luftwaffe attacked and sank two of their own destroyers about 30 miles north of Terschelling. Owing to inadequate recognition signals they were mistaken for British destroyers from the Nore Command which, at this time, carried out numerous sweeps to seize enemy shipping creeping along the Dutch coast and to send neutral into the contraband control station in the Downs.

Our losses to air attack fell to only two ships of 853 tons in February. In March enemy air activity increased but there were fewer independent sailings and fighter protection had improved. On the 2nd took place the first attack on shipping in the Channel, when the liner Domala was bombed off the Isle of Wight by one aircraft, set on fire and seriously damaged with heavy loss of life. On the 20th more attacks took place off Havre and Beachy Head. Appropriate steps were taken by the Admiralty to reduce independent sailings in the eastern Channel; and ships from the Low Country ports were ordered to the Downs, to join outward- bound (O.A.) convoys there instead of at St Helen's (Isle of Wight). But the enemy's attention was still directed chiefly to the heavy, and for us vital, flow of shipping along the east coast. On the first day of the month convoys F.S. 9 and F.S. 10 were attacked off Flamborough Head and the Tyne respectively, and next day a Methil-Tyne convoy (M.T. 20) was bombed. Some ships were damaged but none lost in these attacks on convoys.


But ships sailing independently on the same routes suffered more seriously.

The month of March also saw the first extension of the enemy's air attacks to our Norwegian convoys. This had, however, been anticipated, and the Admiralty had already transferred the anti-aircraft cruisers Cairo and Calcutta to Admiral Forbes for the specific purpose of defending them. This action was soon justified, for, on the 20th of March, the enemy made air attacks on convoy H.N. 20, sinking one ship and damaging three others. Similar attacks were repeated during the next fortnight on almost every outward and homeward Norwegian convoy. However, the Hurricanes newly stationed in the north of Scotland, and sometimes naval fighters from the Orkneys as well, combined with the gunfire of the escorting anti-aircraft cruisers, drove off every one of these attacks. No more ships were lost or damaged in Norwegian convoys. The most interesting lesson derived from the successful defence of these convoys was that a combination of shore-based fighter aircraft and powerful anti-aircraft escort could provide a high degree of immunity for shipping. In fact the long-established practice of protecting shipping by convoy and escort, adapted and modified to meet modern conditions, was once again proved to be the best answer. During the whole of March losses from air attack amounted to only seven ships of 8,694 tons. The Admiralty and Air Ministry could therefore justifiably feel that the defensive measures taken were proving themselves effective. But it was none the less realised that optimism must be tempered with caution, since it was plain that the enemy had so far employed only a fraction of his bomber force for this purpose, and that should he choose to direct his full strength to it an acute crisis might yet arise. We now know that Admiral Raeder repeatedly pressed for this to be done but that Marshal Göring was reserving his bomber strength for more dramatic purposes in Norway, the Low Countries and France. Nevertheless, the menace could not be ignored and the possibility of diverting the main flow of shipping to west coast ports was again reviewed by the Admiralty. This had been considered by the Chiefs of Staff and the Cabinet before the war and again in the closing months of 1939. The difficulty of making any large-scale diversion was, however, acute because of the congestion and delays it would cause on the west coast. The policy decided on was, therefore, only to order such diversions when they were forced on us and, meanwhile, to press ahead with the improvement of discharge and loading facilities in the western ports, which might at any time be required to deal with a greatly increased quantity of shipping.

In April and May there was little enemy air activity against our coastal traffic because the main strength of the Luftwaffe was, as in the case of the U-boats, deployed against Norway. Only minelaying


operations were carried out against shipping by enemy aircraft during these months. The transfer of many flotilla vessels to the Norwegian operations left our coastal shipping almost unescorted at this time, and it was fortunate that the enemy was unable to take advantage of this. In April seven ships of 13,409 tons were lost by air attacks, but the following month, when the land campaign in the Low Countries started, saw a great increase to no less than forty-eight ships of 158,348 tons. For the first time the enemy's air attacks had overtaken the U-boat and the mine as the principal cause of our losses.

It has already been told how, during the present phase, the Royal Air Force began its offensive minelaying campaign in enemy-controlled waters.18 But it was now realised that air power afforded other means whereby the control of such waters could be disputed. Moreover, the great changes which took place on land between April and June brought into prominence the value to the enemy of the coastal shipping routes along much of the long North European seaboard. The iron ore traffic from Narvik to the south was still of great importance during the months when the Baltic ports were frozen and, to keep German industry supplied with fuel and raw materials the traffic between the north German ports and Rotterdam or Antwerp was scarcely less important. But throughout the greater part of this phase our air operations against enemy merchant shipping were severely restricted by the British Government's policy on air bombardment in general. By this policy only warships, troopships or 'auxiliaries in direct attendance on the enemy fleet' could be attacked, and they only if identified beyond doubt. Even if an enemy merchant ship opened fire with her defensive armament our aircraft were forbidden to retaliate. They had at all times to conform to rules similar to those which, under international law, governed the use of force by warships intercepting a merchantman. This was in accordance with the 'Draft Hague Rules of Air Warfare' of 1923, which the British Government took as the basis for its policy, even though they had never been formally adopted by any country and had not acquired the status of international law. It will readily be understood how far this policy made air action ineffective against all types of enemy merchant ships, including, for example, disguised merchant raiders. During the whole of 1940 only sixteen enemy merchant ships, totalling 22,472 tons, were sunk by air attack and seventeen were damaged.

Though the need to relax these severe restrictions had been discussed throughout the preceding winter, it was the end of March 1940 before revised instructions were issued. Even then the new rules did not give our aircraft much greater freedom. But they did at least


'The Atlantic.' By R. V. Pitchforth
'The Atlantic.' By R. V. Pitchforth.
(National Maritime Museum)

'Ship's Boat at Sea.' By Richard Enrich
'Ship's Boat at Sea.' By Richard Enrich.
(National Maritime Museum)

Escort Vessels on patrol
Escort Vessels on patrol, 1940. Left to right: H.M.S.'s Holderness, Vivacious, Guillemot and Puffin.

A destroyer in heavy weather. H.M.S. Kashmir, 1st September 1940
A destroyer in heavy weather. H.M.S. Kashmir, 1st September 1940.

enable them to deal with the anti-aircraft ships which had been particularly troublesome in the Heligoland Bight. Nor did the enemy's violent bombing attacks on our own east coast traffic lead to any retaliatory steps. It was the German attack on Norway which decided the British Government to relax the restrictions and, two days after that campaign started, unrestricted attacks were permitted off the south coast of Norway and in the Skagerrak. Shortly after this a free zone for attacks was established within ten miles of the whole Norwegian coast. The removal of the early restrictions did not, however, bring about any appreciable success in stopping the enemy's coastal traffic by air attack. In the first place such a requirement had not figured among the duties required of Coastal Command when they were formulated in 1937, nor in that Command's war plans.19 In consequence no special organisation existed for starting such an offensive; nor had Coastal Command's aircrews been trained to that end. Secondly the severe shortage of aircraft of all types and the policy of conserving our meagre bomber strength to attack land targets in Germany had left Coastal Command with virtually no striking power. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that only small results were achieved at this time against the enemy's coastal traffic. But the month of April 1940 is, none the less, important since it marks the beginning of the offensive. As the land campaign moved westward in May, the focus of air operations moved with it and we find a start being made to interfere with shipping moving along the north German and Dutch coasts and to deal with his minor war vessels, such as E-boats (motor torpedo-boats), which were operating in those waters. But in this case also successful attacks were extremely rare. It was not until after the close of the present phase that the air bombardment rules issued in March were amended and the Royal Air Force given greater freedom to attack enemy shipping.

Before leaving the story of the second phase of the enemy's attempt to dispute control of our short sea routes it must be mentioned that the early days of May saw the arrival of a new threat when, on the 9th, E-boats attacked a force of cruisers and destroyers from the Home Fleet which was searching for an enemy minelaying force. The destroyer Kelly was badly damaged but, after a tow lasting 91 hours, was got into the Tyne safely. That, however, was the only appearance on the east coast of these fast, well-armed enemy craft up to the end of May 1940. They had so far only sunk two small merchant ships totalling 845 tons. Although the losses which they caused were always small when compared with those inflicted by the U-boats, mines and the bombers, they were to cause us some trouble in the next phase of the offensive against our coastal shipping routes.


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