BOOK REVIEW | The War for England's Shores: S-Boats and the Fight Against British Coastal Convoys

The War for England's Shores S-Boats and the Fight Against British Coastal Convoys

Small ships, coastal forces, narrow seas, shallow seas, littoral combat: call them what you will, but the oft-ignored subject of small naval vessels is more important now, yet less conspicuous, than it has probably ever been. That is what makes this fine history of Germany and Britain’s naval operations in the North Sea and English Channel during World War II so timely and important.

Even in these unsettled times, it still seems almost instinctive for full-time, professional senior naval officers and their bureaucratic masters to focus almost entirely on big, blue water warships and nuclear submarines. They arrogantly look down on reservists and small ship operators.

As the author shows so clearly, that is dangerously blinkered and historically ignorant thinking. They only need to look closely at an atlas to see why.

While the United States Navy has a useful fleet of small warships and trained crews to command and operate them, the navies of most other developed countries do not. That puts them at a considerable disadvantage should a "modern" war break out. Obviously, most such developed countries have significant resources in terms of fishing and workboats and motor yachts but, of course, none of them are armed and they rarely have naval trained crews.

Further, many such unprepared countries, such as, most obviously, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Australia, are strategically surrounded by narrow, shallow seas that are not conducive to the operations of large blue water warships and submarines. Unfortunately, the naval powers-that-be in such countries appear to be quite disinterested in preparing for the realities of such a "coastal seas" war.

While having a handful of capital ships that were very unwisely used, the Nazi Kreigsmarine’s leadership was generally obsessed with submarine warfare using its originally excellent U-boats. However, it also possessed some very useful coastal craft in the form of minesweepers, torpedo boats, small destroyers, and the excellent S-boats. The latter were fast, circa 40 knots, wooden-hulled, diesel-powered torpedo/gun boats. For the first 30 months of the war they did enormous damage to Britain’s all-important coastal cargo shipping.

Slowly, the Royal Navy turned the tables on the Nazis by recruiting and training effective "yachtsmen" officers and competent "hostilities only" crews and equipping them with steadily improving, economically produced, almost expendable fast craft. Their Coastal Forces’ motor torpedo boats, motor gunboats, and minesweepers were operated very aggressively and effectively, often in conjunction with RAF aircraft. They gradually wore down the S-boats and their generally first rate crews who, sadly for them, were let down and often ignored by the top-level Nazi leaders.

This very extensively researched book looks very closely at both sides from both human and technical angles. It clearly shows how and why the war turned out as it did for both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine. It is unfortunate that it is unlikely to be studied by those who would benefit most from it; they are the current senior leaders of the above-mentioned navies.

Author: G. H. Bennett

Available from Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, UK.


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