TE Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol, by John Johnson-Allen

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  • For those of you who only see Lawrence charging about the desert on a camel, here is a huge corrective.

    As Lawrence himself wrote (as cited by the author):
    "The Red Sea patrol-ships were the fairy-godmothers of the [Arab] Revolt. They carried our food, our arms, our ammunition, our stores, our animals. They built our piers, armed our defences, served as our coast artillery, lent us seaplanes, provided all our wireless communications, landed landing parties, mended and made everything. I couldn't spend the time writing down a tenth of their services."

    That’s what they did. This is the story of who they were and how they did it, researched and presented by an author who has himself used the sea and is familiar with the area. It is a particularly recondite piece of naval history - as Lawrence himself remarked, ‘a sideshow within a sideshow’. It is also a pocket guide to successful amphibious warfare.

    The first half of the book sets the scene, in terms of the ships, their officers and men, and the conflicting political aims of Cairo, London, Paris and New Delhi.

    The force itself was a rag-bag of three worn-out RN cruisers, five sloops (RN and Royal Indian Marine, the successor of the East India Company’s Bombay Marine and precursor of the modern Indian Navy), three armed troopships of the RIM used also as freighters for war stores, and three armed boarding steamers requisitioned from merchant service with the British India line and otherwise, supported part of the time by seaplane carriers and monitors. Command was vested in the largest cruiser, HMS Euryalus, Admiral Wemyss’ East Indies Station flagship whose particular story you can follow up at http://www.euryalus.org.uk/hist-4th.htm.

    Wemyss, along with Captain ‘Ginger’ Boyle, for most of the time the senior naval officer on the spot (and who, usefully, left an autobiography) and Bruce Fraser, rose to become an Admiral of the Fleet. Most of the subordinate officers were RNR and the crews were a variety of RN reservists (often ex-regular), British merchant seamen, and Asian seamen.

    Supported from Aden and Port Sudan and Suez, this motley fleet operated up and down the west coast of Arabia, from Aden to Jeddah, Kamaran island, Abu Zuneima and Akaba (aka Aqaba) to name but a few places where our ships might suddenly put in an appearance. Your reviewer was briefly acquainted with some of these places forty years later; their charms were lost on him.

    The Red Sea presented its own problems. Poor horizons and heat haze inhibited navigation and pilotage, the charts were poor, and buoyage and lights often absent, never mind that coral is a living thing and its reefs grow continually, something productive of a number of groundings and not only during the inshore work. The heat itself was intense - up to 55º C in summer and usually at least 40º C by day, and where that left conditions on the mess decks, lat alone in the coal-fired boiler rooms is almost beyond imagining. Gales and sandstorms add to the difficulties in these waters. Fortunately there was no enemy naval force, but interdicting dhows, and tip-and-run raids harassing harbours, via bombardment and the landing of raiding parties to tie down the Turks and keep them on the jump, exposed ships and men to return fire and casualties, starting with all available vessels being blooded repelling the Turkish attack on the Suez Canal in early 1915.

    The Revolt finally kicked off in June 1916. The book paints a bleak picture of the Arabs, who as allies come across as unreliable, fickle, unreasonable, amateurish and ill-disciplined, with a variety of factional and sectarian loyalties, and chiefly motivated by the cases of gold sovereigns the RN was freighting to Arabia. They are shown as inclined to watch rather than do; Egyptian labourers had to be shipped over to carry out construction work; the better-disciplined Egyptian troops who were used on the ground remain largely unsung. Without these and the naval support it is clear that the Revolt would have been (and in the event nearly was) crushed out of hand by the Turks. Religious sensibilities could obstruct naval operations, for instance preventing the landing of gunfire observers. At Wejh most of the Arabs failed to follow up the naval landing party which actually had to take the town, the Arabs coming in afterwards to loot. In July 1917 the Arabs took Aqaba and with that military operations by the RN at the northern end of the Red Sea came to an end, although the shipping of supplies by chartered transports continued, and operations also continued in the south.

    All of this and more about the Arabs can be read at one of the author’s principal sources, the Naval review for 1925 where an article on the Red Sea Patrol can be found at http://www.naval-review.com/showissue.asp?Year=1925&Iss=4 . This summarises what happened and some of the vicissitudes; although anonymous it is clearly informed work. Boyle, as AoF the Earl of Cork and Orrery, in his autobiography tells the author what it was like doing the job, supported by Admiral Wemyss’ collected letters; Lawrence in the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ [available free via Project Gutenburg at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100111h.html ] and elsewhere gives the author more narrative and the view of the RN’s grateful customer. Johnson-Hall also references and quotes from the logs of the ships involved as held in the National Archives.

    Relationships between professional naval officers and Lawrence, the archaeologist turned soldier who initially put their backs up, were not always easy but came good with Wemyss and Boyle which was what mattered.

    This campaign was a classic example of the ability and willingness of the RN to go anywhere and do anything, often in very difficult conditions and in this case with a fairly strange lash-up of a flotilla.

    The odd bit of repetition could usefully have been edited out. On the plus side the book is well-indexed, supported by a good (unavoidably short) bibliography, and the author has sourced some interesting and topical photographs, and there are pleasant sketches of the ships at the head of each chapter.

    The author has done a service to the men who sweated it out in the ships and made the Arab Revolt possible, and he has, a century later, redressed a situation where any public account of their work was at the time suppressed for political reasons.

    Four anchors
vince howard and Good CO like this.

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  1. vince howard
    First day on here ,I was looking for my father for a long time before getting a computer, and never had any luck, until the daughter of my friend who died 8 years ago, who I rediscovered a couple of months since, found a man in New zealand who I think is my brother. That said, following my nose I read this articulate article. ( and informative) Ps---I would have loved to have had his motorbike (Lawrence's)