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Bayly's War by Steve R Dunn

Rating
4.5
This is four stories skilfully woven together. The backdrop is the story of RN antisubmarine warfare in the Western Approaches and Irish Sea during the First World War. Within this it is the biography of Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly who ran the campaign from Queenstown (now Cobh), consolidating under his hand from 1915 what had been a disparate gaggle of commands. It then documents two factors: the Q (decoy) ships which secured half of the only 14 successes against U-boats achieved by Bayly's forces in the whole war; and the amazingly seamless integration of US destroyers into Bayly's organisation, and their valued activities, once President Wilson belatedly realised where America's true interest lay.

The campaign itself consisted, for the first two and a half years, of almost entirely pointless steaming around in the vague hope a U-boat might turn up. Even if one did, the converted fishing vessels initially deployed were out-sped and out-gunned. Their most useful service, deterrence which cannot be measured apart, was rescuing the crews of the many merchant ships sunk in such disastrous numbers that we nearly lost the war, after Germany abandoned international law and set out on a campaign of murder instead. The Flower class sloops and P-boats (motor launches) eventually added to Bayly's fleet were faster and better armed but not much more successful, until some, with other merchant vessels, were adapted as Q-ships. Many of these were lost when U-boats with a greater torpedo fit, and wiser in their appreciations, declined to be lured into a close-quarter gun engagement and opened the action with a torpedo. British and US destroyers with their high speed and larger outfit of depth charges were later added and in 1917 airships and flying boats joined the armoury. Dunn gives us a large number of spirited accounts of actions. Some despicable German atrocities are also chronicled.

Bayly's apparent cold reserve was belied by numerous acts of care towards those who served him, and the warm encomia he earned from RN and USN subordinates alike. He comes across as an excellent delegator (once he trusted the person), and conscientious at seeking recognition and promotion for his people, and getting rid of deadwood. His fleet kept the sea in often appalling conditions and there were many exemplary acts of heroism. The catch was that Bayly's want of brain could not encompass (others were as bad) the fact that the 'offensive patrolling' his ships were doing was almost completely useless. He came into his own deploying their mobility and firepower, and the initiative of his officers, very successfully against the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 which much reduced the diversion of Army effort from its main tasks. This was the chiefest but not the only manifestation of Irish disruption undermining the war effort that Bayly had to deal with.

This is a fascinating narrative of a vital but too much neglected aspect of our fight for national survival - well researched, well ordered and well presented, with an interesting collection of contemporary photographs. We are also given a very clear picture of Bayly the man, and there are neat pen portraits of many key officers including the Q-ship COs. Dunn is particularly good at bringing out the limitations of both our own ships, and the U-boats, alike. My only gripe, apart from other occasional lapses, is that I wish he would stop writing 'hrs' after 24 hour times - it's not the Navy way. However this is a first class addition to the corpus of naval history relating to the First World War, to which Dunn has already made several excellent contributions.

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