Securing the Narrow Sea – the Dover Patrol 1914-1918 by Steve R. Dunn

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  • Royal Naval First World War history often throws up reference to the Dover Patrol, and it has become part of the background scenery to stories such as the attacks on Zeebrugge and Ostend in 1918. There is a sense that it was a well-established and going concern throughout the war from the commencement of hostilities, but this was not the case. Dunn’s work shows how much of the Patrol, like so many wartime endeavours, was a fairly hasty improvisation brought on by urgent wartime necessity. Regulars, reservists and civilians both volunteer and pressed man were brought together in a seaport lacking in most of the infrastructure enjoyed by the Royal Dockyards. Dover itself was - -and still is – a decidedly sticky wicket as ports go, its breakwaters providing little shelter from heavy weather and seas made far worse by its location at the narrowest point of the Channel.

    Dover’s weakness in a geographic sense was more than outweighed by its virtue in a strategic; effectively providing one of the key means by which the RN had early warning of any German High Seas Fleet activity, and, most importantly by enforcing the blockade on Germany and to force re-routing of its forces up the North Sea past the massed forces on the British east coast.

    The Patrol suffered from the RN’s desire to train and equip for the next Trafalgar, which left it light in the realms of Mine Warfare, Naval Gunfire Support, submarine and Anti-Submarine Warfare. Thus the Patrol would suffer steady losses to these weapons of war while hastily attempting to protect others from them. Fortunately, its first CO, Horace ‘the ‘onorable ‘orace’ Hood, had the intellect, drive and diplomacy to weld together a cohesive fighting force from the disparate elements at his disposal. In forging order from chaos, Hood was compelled to challenge the Admiralty on a range of matters, such as its insistence on fobbing off obsolete warships on to his command to provide naval gunfire. Hood challenged this as a waste of fighting sailors. Hood eventually fell foul of Churchill, joining the small but select band of officers who fell foul of Churchill owing to their tendency to speak truth to power.

    Hood was relieved by Reginald Bacon, a far more autocratic leader who found it hard initially to establish the rapport Hood had enjoyed with the Dover Patrol. Or perhaps Bacon didn’t feel that he needed this, as he was a supremely self-confident individual. His technical abilities were tested sorely by the attempt to string anti- U-boat nets across the Channel to deny the Kreigsmarine freedom of manoeuvre west. In hindsight, this was never going to work, but Bacon’s engineering skills and undoubted drive would get every last ounce out of existing technology. Unfortunately, this program was to be used against him by rivals within the Admiralty, including his nemesis and ultimate replacement, Roger Keyes.

    The Patrol soon came to realise what they had lost with Bacon’s departure. Keyes, with a well-earned reputation for personal courage earned during the Boxer Rebellion, was driven by fierce personal ambition and a burning desire for fame, and as such had become one of Churchill’s favourites. He seized on pre-existing plans to raid both Zeebrugge and Ostend, as the daily grind of patrol and deterrence of enemy activity did not appeal to his personality. Dunn shows how these raids achieved little in a military sense, but were seized upon by a Navy desperate for a definitive battle after the bloody but inconclusive affair at Jutland. Little was gained but incredible displays of gallantry. This may have been a resounding success by Keyes’ logic.

    The daily life of the patrol was mostly the antithesis of a Trafalgar fleet action. Mine clearance by trawlers (whose crews exchanged one wildly hazardous occupation at sea for another), Naval Control of Shipping, emergent anti-submarine warfare and the maintenance of a slowly-tightening blockade that ultimately reduced Germany to near-starvation all were the daily Patrol routines. In this sense, all the groundwork for similar activities in WW2 had been laid, but the ravages of the inter-war years and in particular the ‘Geddes Axe’ saw most of them forgotten, only to be re-learned at a painful cost from 1939 onwards.


    5/5 anchors for an outstanding piece of history that brings the Dover Patrol to life and paints a vivid picture of the flotilla of destroyers, submarines and other vessels that were called to the colours , as well as some of the fantastic characters that joined or rejoined to fight in them.

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