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A convoy of merchant ships protected by airplanes en route to Cape Town during World War II
A convoy is a group of vehicles (of any type, but usually motor vehicles or ships) traveling together for mutual support and protection. Often, a convoy is organized with armed defensive support, though it may also be used in a non-military sense, for example when driving through remote areas.

Naval convoys

Age of Sail

Naval convoys have been used for hundreds of years, and examples of merchant ships traveling under naval protection have been traced back to the 12th Century. The use of organised naval convoys dates from when ships began to be separated into specialist classes and national navies were established.

By the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th century, effective naval convoy tactics had been developed to ward off pirates and privateers. Some convoy contained several hundred merchant ships. The most enduring system of convoys were the Spanish treasure fleets, that sailed from the 1520s until 1790.

When merchant ships sailed independently, a privateer could cruise a shipping lane and capture ships as they passed. Ships sailing in convoy presented a much smaller target: a convoy was no more likely to be found than a single ship. Even if the privateer found a convoy and the wind was favourable for an attack, it could hope to capture only a handful of ships before the rest managed to escape, and a small escort of warships could easily thwart it. As a result of the convoy system's effectiveness, wartime insurance premiums were consistently lower for ships which sailed in convoys.

Many naval battles in the age of sail were fought around convoys, including:

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy had in place a sophisticated convoy system to protect merchant ships. Losses of ships traveling out of convoy were so high that no merchant ship was allowed to sail unescorted.

World War I

In the early 20th century, the dreadnought changed the balance of power in convoy battles. Steaming faster than merchant ships and firing at long ranges, a single battleship could destroy many ships in a convoy before the others could scatter over the horizon. To protect a convoy against a capital ship required providing it with an escort of another capital ship; at very high cost.

Battleships were the main reason that the British Admiralty did not adopt convoy tactics at the start of the first Battle of the Atlantic in World War I. But the German capital ships had been bottled up in the North Sea, and the main threat to shipping came from U-boats. From a tactical point of view, World War I-era submarines were similar to privateers in the age of sail: only a little faster than the merchant ships they were attacking, and capable of sinking only a small number of vessels in a convoy because of their limited supply of torpedoes and shells. The Admiralty took a long time to respond to this change in the tactical position, and in April 1917 convoy was trialled, before being officially introduced in the Atlantic in September 1917.

Other arguments against convoy were raised. The primary issue was the loss of productivity, as merchant shipping in convoy has to travel at the speed of the slowest vessel in the convoy and spent a considerable amount of time in ports waiting for the next convoy to depart. Further, large convoys were thought to overload port resources.

Actual analysis of shipping losses in World War I disproved all these arguments, at least so far as they applied to transatlantic and other long-distance traffic. Ships sailing in convoys were far less likely to be sunk, even when not provided with any escort at all. The loss of productivity due to convoy delays was small compared with the loss of productivity due to ships being sunk. Ports could deal more easily with convoys because they tended to arrive on schedule and so loading and unloading could be planned.

In his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon suggested that the hostility towards convoys in the naval establishment were in part caused by a (sub-conscious) perception of convoys as effeminating, due to warships having to care for civilian merchant ships. Also, it should be noted that convoy duty exposes the escorting warships to the uncomfortable and sometimes outright hazardous conditions of the North Atlantic, but with only extremely rare occurrences of visible achievement (i.e. fending off a submarine assault).

World War II

Convoy Routes 1941
The British adopted a convoy system, initially voluntary and later compulsory for almost all merchant ships, the moment that World War II was declared. Each convoy consisted of between 30 and 70 mostly unarmed merchant ships.

Canadian, and later American, supplies were vital for Britain to continue its war effort. The course of the second Battle of the Atlantic was a long struggle as the Germans developed anti-convoy tactics and the British developed counter-tactics to thwart the Germans.

The power of a battleship against a convoy was dramatically illustrated by the fate of Convoy HX-84. On November 5, 1940, the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer encountered the convoy. Maiden, Trewellard, Kenbame Head, Beaverford, and Fresno were quickly sunk, and other ships were damaged. Only the sacrifice of the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Jervis Bay and failing light allowed the rest of the convoy to escape.

The power of a battleship in protecting a convoy was also dramatically illustrated when the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau came upon an eastbound British convoy of 41 ships, HX-106 in the North Atlantic on February 8, 1941. When they noticed the presence in the escort of the old battleship, HMS Ramillies, they fled the scene, rather than risk damage from her 15" guns.

The enormous number of vessels involved and the frequency of engagements meant that statistical techniques could be applied to evaluate tactics: an early use of operational research in war.

On the entry of the U.S. into World War II, the U.S. Navy decided not to instigate convoys on eastern seaboard of the U.S. Fleet Admiral Ernest King ignored advice on this subject from the British as he had formed a poor opinion of the Royal Navy early in his career. The result was what the U-boat crews called their second happy time, which did not end until convoys were introduced.

The German anti-convoy tactics included:
  • long-range surveillance aircraft to find convoys;
  • strings of U-boats (wolf packs) that could be directed onto a convoy by radio;
  • breaking the British naval codes;
  • improved anti-ship weapons, including magnetic detonators and sonic homing torpedoes.


The Allied responses included:

They were also aided by

During World War II, Japanesemarker vessels rarely traveled in convoys. As a result, their merchant fleet was largely destroyed by Allied submarines.

Many naval battles of World War II were fought around convoys, including:

The convoy prefix indicates the route of the convoy. For example, 'PQ' would be Iceland to Northern Russia and 'QP' the return route.

Analysis

The success of convoys as an anti-submarine tactic during the world wars can be ascribed to several reasons related to u-boat capabilities, the size of the ocean and convoy escorts.

In practice, Type VII and Type IX U-boat were limited in their capabilities. Submerged speed and endurance was limited and not suited for overhauling many ships. Even a surfaced U-boat could take several hours to gain an attack position. Torpedo capacity was also restricted to around fourteen (Type VII) or 24 (Type IX), thus limiting the number of attacks that could be made, particularly when multiple firings were necessary for a single target. There was a real problem for the U-boats and their adversaries in finding each other; with a tiny proportion of the ocean in sight, without intelligence or radar, warships and even aircraft would be fortunate in coming across a submarine. The Royal Navy and later the United States Navy each took time to learn this lesson. Conversely, a U-boat's radius of vision was even smaller and had to be supplemented by regular long-range reconnaissance flights.

For both major allied navies, it had been difficult to grasp that, however large a convoy, its " footprint" (the area within which it could be spotted) was far smaller than if the individual ships had travelled independently. In other words, a submarine had less chance of finding a single convoy than if it were scattered as single ships. Moreover, once an attack had been made, the submarine would need to regain an attack position on the convoy. If, however, an attack were thwarted by escorts, even if the submarine had escaped damage, it would have to remain submerged for its own safety and might only recover its position after many hours' hard work. U-boats patrolling areas with constant and predictable flows of sea traffic, such as the United States Atlantic coast in early 1942, could dismiss a missed opportunity in the certain knowledge that another would soon present itself.

The destruction of submarines required their discovery, an improbable occurrence on aggressive patrols, by chance alone. Convoys, however, presented irresistible targets and could not be ignored. For this reason, the U-boats presented themselves as targets to the escorts with increasing possibility of destruction. In this way, the Ubootwaffe suffered severe losses, for little gain, when pressing pack attacks on well-defended convoys.

Post-WWII

US Navy warships escort the tanker Gas King in 1987
The largest convoy effort since World War II was Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. Navy's 1987–88 escort of reflagged Kuwaitimarker tanker in the Persian Gulfmarker during the Iran–Iraq War.In the present day, convoys are used as a tactic by navies to deter pirates off the coast of Somalia from capturing unarmed civilian freighters who would otherwise pose easy targets.It seems that satellite surveillance, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles and modern submarines have turned the tactical advantage decidedly in favour of the attacker. See the modern naval tactics article for an idea of the problems facing the defender.

Humanitarian aid convoys

The word, "convoy" is also associated with groups of road vehicles being driven, mostly by volunteers, to deliver humanitarian aid, supplies, and – a stated objective in some cases – "solidarity".

In the 1990s these convoys became common travelling from Western Europe to countries of the former Yugoslavia, in particular Bosniamarker and Kosovomarker, to deal with the aftermath of the wars there. They also travel to countries where standards of care in institutions such as orphanages are considered low by Western European standards, such as Romaniamarker; and where other disasters have led to problems, such as around the Chernobyl disastermarker in Belarusmarker and Ukrainemarker.

The convoys are made possible partly by the relatively small geographic distances between the stable and affluent countries of Western Europe, and the areas of need in Eastern Europe and, in a few cases, North Africa and even Iraqmarker. They are often justified because although less directly cost-effective than mass freight transport, they emphasise the support of large numbers of small groups, and are quite distinct from multinational organisations such as United Nations humanitarian efforts.

Truckers' convoys

The film Convoy (inpsired by a 1975 song of the same name) explores the camaraderie between truck drivers, where the culture of the CB radio encourages truck drivers to travel in convoys.

Truckers' convoys were created as a byproduct of the 55 mph speed limit and 18-wheelers becoming the prime targets of speed traps. Most truckers had difficult schedules to keep and as a result had to maintain a speed above the posted speed limit in order to reach their destinations on time. Convoys were started so that multiple trucks could run together at a high speed with the thinking being that if they passed a speed trap the police would only be able to pull over one of the trucks in the convoy. The truckers convoy is more similar to the caravan than to the military convoy.

See also



Military convoys



Humanitarian convoys



References

  • Convoy, The Defense of Sea Trade 1890-1990, John Winton 1983. ISBN 0 7181 21635


External links




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