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Blockade by Steve Dunn

Held in the West by vast Allied sacrifice on land, but with Russia collapsed in the East, what finally brought Germany to her knees in 1918, her navy to mutiny and her army to defeat was shortage and starvation resulting from four years of blockade by the Royal Navy’s Northern Patrol. This is that story but also, in the first quartile of its 200 pages, an illuminating and concise explanation of cruiser warfare and then Germany’s attempt to prosecute it with warships and Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs). This is well told with a crisp focus on individual ship actions as each raider in turn met her just deserts. Their success while they were at large, always holding the initiative against the large forces that had to be mobilised to deal with them and usually encountered through some stroke of luck, comes across well. After a sidelong glance at the much more effective U-boat warfare – wisely left outside the scope of this book – we move to our own efforts, the Northern Patrol under Admiral de Chair, whose wholly unsuitable elderly cruisers were rapidly augmented by our own AMCs, manned mostly by reservists of all sorts, ships whose greater endurance and better seaworthiness in the appalling weather from the Shetlands to Norway, delivered even greater success. However they had to be based in Liverpool and we are told how the Trades Unions impeded the war effort there and on the Clyde in spite of their members being on far higher wages than their own kin fighting the war. Meanwhile in Germany by mid 1916 the success of the Northern Patrol, backed up by diplomatic measures – although often frustratingly negated by contrary diplomatic considerations – was producing food riots.

While, as Dunn states, rationing was only introduced in Britain in 1918, the U-boat campaign had begun to bite earlier. My grandmother told me that she started smoking as an appetite suppressant in 1917 in order to give her share of food to her children, and she was living in Emsworth which would have had access to local farm produce.

The research that has gone into this book deserves hearty commendation and Dunn covers well and concisely the complicated political, strategic, diplomatic and legal aspects of the blockade. There are some slips regarding more intimate aspects of the RN. Re p.170, the London Gazette for 22nd (not 27th) June 1917 records A/Lt Lawson RNR being posthumously mentioned in Despatches. (the DSM is only awarded to ratings, not officers). The Royal Feet Reserve consisted only of ratings (p.85).

There is a good bibliography although I was surprised not to see Nigel Hawkins’ 2002 ‘The Starvation Blockades’ included. The interesting photographs might have been further enlivened by inclusion of pictures of the Moewe medals (I have found three different ones on the internet rather than the two mentioned in the text) and Norman Wilkinson’s painting of HMS Achilles pounding the raider AMC SMS Leopard into well-deserved destruction (see attached uploads). The IWM has an interesting picture of a slice of K-brot, the German adulterated bread.

This was a niche but highly successful war fought by a motley of ships and people under appalling difficulties of weather and in conditions of perpetual danger, away from the relative glamour of the Grand Fleet. What it was really like is well told via worked examples. It deserves the recognition that this book gives it.
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