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How the British Blockade Works

Chivalrous England

How the British Blockade Works Pamphlet

Mr. Henry Suydam, London correspondent of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, has had the follow. ing interview with Rear-Admiral Sir. Dudley do Chair, K.C.]3., M.V.O. Admiral Dudley de Chair was Commander of the Tenth Cruiser (Blockade) Squadron in the North Sea from August 4th, 1914, to March 6th, 1916.

On August 4th, 1914, Admiral de Chair, who served as Naval Attaché to the British Embassy in Washington from 1902 to 1905, was appointed to command the Tenth Cruiser Squadron of the British Navy, a command designed to intercept and examine all overseas traffic whether Allied, neutral or belligerent-between the outside world and Germany. That the extremely important and hazardous work of blockading the enemy was detailed to Admiral de Chair -_as regarded in London as high tribute to a career which had begun with a midshipman's commission in 1878 and culminated in 1911 with an appointment as Naval Aide-dc-Camp to King George V. "The British blockade in the North Sea," declared Admiral de Chair, "is concentrated chiefly throughout an area to the east and north of Scotland, maintaining a guarded district which completely intercepts all traffic to and from the Scandinavian countries and Denmark. Immediately upon the declaration of war, on August 4th, 1914, I was assigned as commander of the naval patrols in the North Sea and hoisting my flag in H.M.S. 'Crescent,' shifting afterwards to H.M.S. 'Alsatian.' In these two ships I spent the first twenty months of war at sea.

Adequate to the Work. "When the blockade was instituted our organisation of patrolling squadrons was essentially small, but quite adequate to the nature of our work. "Gradually, however, the blockade was pulled very much tighter. The number of patrolling ships increased month by month. While I cannot make any definite statement regarding the comparative size of our blockading squadron to-day as compared with August, 1914, I may say that the British blockade in the North Sea has very materially grown until we now have a complicated network of cruisers scattered over the North Sea areas-a network through which it is impossible for any steamer, sailing ship, or trawler, flying either a neutral or enemy flag, to pass without coming under our direct observation. "The Allied navies, for it must be remembered that in this matter Great Britain is acting in the closest concert with the Allies-I had certain French ships with my squadron-are undertaking measures against German trade in various theatres of war, and it may be of some interest to describe in some detail how these operations are carried out.

Not a Ring of Ships. "A modem blockade is not a ring of ships steaming within sight of each other, forming a sort of fence across sea-tracks to enemy countries. Our North Sea blockade consists of the strategic placing of units of patrolling squadrons, all out of sight of each other but within easy steaming distance. Usually our cruisers are about twenty miles apart, and as each cruiser is afforded a clear view of fifteen miles to the horizon, no blockade runner can pass between them without being seen by one or both. "To maintain our blockade, we have chosen a type of warship known as an auxiliary armed cruiser, usually a converted passenger ship or merchant trader, covered with war-paint and mounting several guns of various calibers sufficient to their duties. "Such ships are not properly warships at all, for the superior fighting craft of the British Navy-superior in armament, ordnance and speed-are kept inviolate for the long-anticipated engagement which we hope to fill with the German Navy. Royal Naval Reserve.

"Although there is an adequate sprinkling of Royal Navy men in command, by far the majority of blockade officers are drawn from the Royal Naval Reserve. These men, many of whom have had splendid careers in the British Mercantile Marine, are peculiarly fitted for blockade work; they are accustomed to manifests and ships' papers; they know how to make a quick, comprehensive and judicial inspection of cargoes. "I shall describe for you exactly the procedure in the case of a typical blockading cruiser. You must imagine us steaming a beaten track up and down a bit of open sea: in total darkness at night, and during the day keeping - a sharp look-out for mines and submarines of the enemy. The weather in the North Atlantic in mid-winter is very severe, and most of our ships remain at seal continuously for fifty days before proceeding to port to re-coal and reprovision. "Sometimes nothing happens for days on end. At 11 o'clock every night, if our wireless is not too busy, we pick up the day's war bulletins from Poldhu and the Eiffel Tower, or some German station. "Finally, one day there is a blotch of smoke on the horizon. As we keep in touch with our neighboring units by wireless, we know that this cannot be from the funnels of one of our own cruisers. Word passes that a ship is sighted, perhaps attempting to elude our blockade. It is the duty of the patrolling cruiser to investigate. Overhauling the merchantman, the cruiser's guns fire two blank charges to draw attention to the line of signal flags which have been run up to the mast-head. This is a necessary step, for often there is but one man on the bridge of the merchantman and he might easily fail to observe us-unintentionally or otherwise.

The Cruiser's Signal. "The cruiser's signals announce that an officer will be sent aboard to examine the ship's manifests. Accompanied by an armed guard of five men, the boarding officer goes over the cruiser's side, and often at some peril to life and limb manages somehow to clamber up to the tramp's deck. I have often seen the cruiser's dory stove in, and the boarding party thrown into the water.

"Our boarding officer interviews the captain of the merchantman, who states his port of origin, his destination, his cargo, the length of his voyage, and whether or not he stands in need of any assistance. The crew is sometimes mustered in suspicious cases to determine whethcr any German subjects are aboard. Finally, the manifests are carefully examined.

"In many cases the neutral ship is quite innocent, and is allowed immediately to proceed; in fact, whenever there is fair doubt about the cargo, we are lenient in releasing our temporary capture. In the case of fishing trawlers, which swarm the North Sea, it is possible to examine the cargo immediately, and where ships are partly in ballast the examination may also be done quickly.

"But it is absolutely impossible to examine a large cargo in mid-ocean, and in heavy weather. I may enumerate some of the obvious drawbacks, even more dangerous to the trader than to our own cruisers: "(1) It is impossible to open hatches in rough weather without wetting the cargo and shipping heavy seas. "(2) To remain motionless for two hours, to say nothing of the two days required to sift the cargo to the bottom, would mean either torpedoing by German submarines, or drifting on the mines which Germany has thickly strewn in the open highways of international commerce. For this reason, even during the brief time required for the boarding officer to conduct his preliminary examination, we almost invariably allow the neutral to steam ahead at half-speed, while our patrolling cruiser slowly convoys her. Safer and More Humane. "I cannot emphasize too strongly that it is altogether safer and more humane for the neutral to be examined in a protected harbor. There seem to be two methods of dealing with a suspected blockade runner. Our method is to take the neutral to the nearest British port for examination. The German method is to torpedo at sight. Between these two extremes there should be the alternative of examination at sea, but it is obviously quite impossible to discharge an entire ship's cargo upon her own decks with heavy weather likely to develop at any moment. "My experience as commander of the North Sea blockade for twenty months is that all neutral captains invariably prefer to be sent into a British harbor. The delay is reduced to a minimum, and the inspection is accomplished with safety and dispatch. "Regarding German submarines in the North Sea, my experience is that they invariably sink at sight, or give the crew only three minutes to clear out before the ship is torpedoed. German submarine commanders within the North Sea areas have respected no flag; have adopted the same merciless attitude towards neutral and belligerent alike. The Admiralty Orders. "British Admiralty orders were issued at the very commencement of hostilities to the effect that all officers and men of the British Navy engaged in blockade work were to treat the captains and crews of suspected neutral ships with the greatest possible courtesy and consideration and to place the neutral in as little danger or inconvenience as was consistent with the proper maintenance of our blockade.

"Whenever a ship is discovered to be carrying contraband an officer and an armed guard of five men are put aboard to conduct the blockade runner into our nearest port, where examination usually takes from two to five days, according to the disposition of the cargo and the consequent difficulty of removing it. The weekly average of ships passing eastward through our patrols is fifty; in summer time about 8 per cent, of these are sailing vessels.

Devices Adopted. "Our blockade machinery took some time to get running smoothly. The British Customs officers did not slide easily into new grooves. Accustomed for years to board a ship and inquire merely for dutiable wines or spirits, they were perhaps too easily satisfied when the neutral captain produced a few bottles of whiskey and allowed the Customs to seal them, while all the time absolute contraband might be snugly hidden in the bottom of the hold.

"With regard to devices adopted by blockade runners to elude the vigilance of our examination, I may mention some of the chief ruses: "(1) Double bottoms, decks, and bulkheads, concealing guns, rifles, and other firearms or ammunition.

"(2) Copper keels and copper plates on sailing ships.

"(3) Hollow masts. "(4) Rubber onions. These were discovered when one of our officers dropped one on the deck. The onion bounced ten feet into the air.

"(5) Rubber concealed in coffee sacks. "(6) Cotton concealed in barrels of flour. "(7) Rubber honey, made in the form of honey-comb filled with a curious liquid mixture. "(8) False manifests. This is the most frequent form of faking. In several cases where the captain of the neutral realized that the 'game was up' he produced both the genuine and the false manifests for our boarding-officers to compare: a form of frankness quite amusing.

Neutral Ships Rescued. "On four distinct occasions which have come under my direct personal observation, our blockading patrols have rescued neutral ships from imminent destruction by German torpedoes in the North Sea. The merchantmen were lowering their boats, with the submarine standing off waiting to fire. A few well-directed shots from our guns soon disposed of the menace, and the neutrals were able to rehoist their boats and proceed safely about their business. "On another occasion we came upon a Scandinavian with masts broken off at the deck and the crew lashed to the bulwarks, while heavy seas swept her from bow to stern. Our men saved the crew at some risk to their own lives and stood by until the gale abated and then towed the wreck to a British port for assistance and repair. We towed one American ship, which had been drifting about helplessly for twelve days without coal or food, into a British port through the worst sort of a sea." "Which neutral nation has been the worst offender against the British blockade?" asked the Eagle correspondent.

Cannot Name Offender. "I could easily tell you that, but I shan't," replied Admiral de Chair. "The ships of one neutral have attempted to carry more contraband through our blockade than any other, but I can scarcely name the offender.

"Blockade work is unspectacular, uninspiring, but exceedingly dangerous. The work of officers and men under my command has been consistently faithful and effective, under conditions which have always held the possibility, for twenty-four hours a day, of destruction by German mines and German torpedoes. The basis of that blockade rests upon the ability and courage of reserve officers and men drawn from Great Britain's Mercantile Marine. Our effort has been purely to prevent goods from reaching the enemy, never to embarrass or inconvenience neutrals of whatever nationality, who are endeavouring, under conditions of extreme difficulty, to maintain legitimate trade relations necessary to their welfare and prosperity."