Convoys: the British struggle against Napoleonic Europe and America


Military success throughout time has been dependent on the orderly and safe supply of goods, food, fuel, ammunition, and personnel. Ancient mariners devised the convoy system to protect these vital supplies, and over the centuries little has fundamentally changed to the basic concept.

During the dozen years of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain fought, at various times, with France, Spain, Holland, Norway, Sweden, the North German states, Prussia, Denmark, Russia, and, after 1812, with the United States of America. The period from 1803 to 1815 was not an unusually warlike time, as over the preceding two centuries Britain was almost constantly waging war. What was different, however, was the way that the fighting at sea was undertaken.

A relatively modern misconception is that in the Napoleonic Wars, naval warfare was all about big naval battles pitting massed fleets of warships in broadside-filled slaughter. There were, of course, battles at the Nile and elsewhere but the majority of the Royal Navy’s time was spent protecting convoys and blockading enemy ports.

During the years leading up to the Napoleonic era, the Royal Navy was used as an instrument of colonial expansion and protection, frequently sailing with huge convoys of merchantmen around the globe defending, enforcing, and defining the contours and borders of the British Empire. Without the convoy system, the British Empire could never have been sustained militarily or economically.

This excellent new book graphically and academically charts the triumphs and disasters of the early British convoy system, including the disastrous sailing of a convoy of over 60 merchant ships in October 1795 escorted by the 74-gun HMS Fortitude, which was attacked off Cape St Vincent by a squadron of six French ships of the line, commanded by Rear-Admiral Joseph de Richery. The French destroyed HMS Censeur and took 33 merchant vessels as prizes into Cadiz.

It was a massive blow to British pride but also a huge catastrophe to the shipping and insurance companies, who lost millions of pounds. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, such attacks continued despite the British victory at Trafalgar, which effectively gave the United Kingdom command of the oceans for the next 200 years.

Convoys: the British struggle against Napoleonic Europe and America is an outstanding study of an element of the Napoleonic Wars that has largely been overlooked and highlights the inseparable partnership that bound the state, trade, the Royal Navy, and the insurance industry together. The author is the Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and has previously written authoritative works on Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars. Through spectacularly detailed research, he brings the period graphically to life in a book is that is complete with a useful appendix, ‘Losses of Small Warships by Station, 1803-1815’, a timeline of the war at sea and important historic moments, a glossary of terminology that has fallen out of common usage, and an exhaustive bibliography.

It is important to note that the lessons learnt between 1803 and 1815 were being used in the First and Second World Wars. Commander C D Howard Johnstone, Senior Naval Officer, B12 Escort Group in the summer of 1941, stated, ‘Our business is to bring home the merchantmen. The sinking of the enemy is only a secondary consideration at this stage.’

It was a lesson hard-won in battle but one that all too soon started to fade from memory. In 1963, Vice Admiral Sir Peter Greton, Convoy Escort Commander, commented that ‘many of the lessons learnt at such a cost in the last war are being forgotten, just as previously the same lessons were forgotten after 1918 and after the Napoleonic Wars.’ Are they being forgotten again in the early 21st century?

Convoys: The British struggle against Napoleonic Europe and America
Roger Knight
Yale University Press, hbk (£25)
ISBN 978-0300246971