Bayly's War

Bayly's War

Author
Steve R Dunn
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
This is four stories skilfully woventogether. The backdrop is the story of RN antisubmarine warfare inthe Western Approaches and Irish Sea during the First World War.Within this it is the biography of Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly who ranthe campaign from Queenstown (now Cobh), consolidating under his handfrom 1915 what had been a disparate gaggle of commands. It thendocuments two factors: the Q (decoy) ships which secured half of theonly 14 successes against U-boats achieved by Bayly's forces in thewhole war; and the amazingly seamless integration of US destroyersinto Bayly's organisation, and their valued activities, oncePresident Wilson belatedly realised where America's true interestlay.

The campaign itself consisted, forthe first two and a half years, of almost entirely pointless steamingaround in the vague hope a U-boat might turn up. Even if one did, theconverted fishing vessels initially deployed were out-sped andout-gunned. Their most useful service, deterrence which cannot bemeasured apart, was rescuing the crews of the many merchant shipssunk in such disastrous numbers that we nearly lost the war, afterGermany abandoned international law and set out on a campaign ofmurder instead. The Flower class sloops and P-boats (motor launches)eventually added to Bayly's fleet were faster and better armed butnot much more successful, until some, with other merchant vessels,were adapted as Q-ships. Many of these were lost when U-boats with agreater torpedo fit, and wiser in their appreciations, declined to belured into a close-quarter gun engagement and opened the action witha torpedo. British and US destroyers with their high speed and largeroutfit of depth charges were later added and in 1917 airships andflying boats joined the armoury. Dunn gives us a large number ofspirited accounts of actions. Some despicable German atrocities arealso chronicled.

Bayly's apparent cold reserve wasbelied by numerous acts of care towards those who served him, and thewarm encomia he earned from RN and USN subordinates alike. He comesacross as an excellent delegator (once he trusted the person), andconscientious at seeking recognition and promotion for his people,and getting rid of deadwood. His fleet kept the sea in oftenappalling conditions and there were many exemplary acts of heroism.The catch was that Bayly's want of brain could not encompass (otherswere as bad) the fact that the 'offensive patrolling' his ships weredoing was almost completely useless. He came into his own deployingtheir mobility and firepower, and the initiative of his officers,very successfully against the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 which muchreduced the diversion of Army effort from its main tasks. This wasthe chiefest but not the only manifestation of Irish disruptionundermining the war effort that Bayly had to deal with.

This is a fascinating narrative of a vital but too much neglected aspect of our fight for national survival - well researched, well ordered and well presented, with an interesting collection of contemporary photographs. We are also given a very clear picture of Bayly the man, and there are neat pen portraits of many key officers including the Q-ship COs. Dunn is particularly good at bringing out the limitations of both our own ships, and the U-boats, alike. My only gripe, apart from other occasional lapses, is that I wish he would stop writing 'hrs' after 24 hour times - it's not the Navy way. However this is a first class addition to the corpus of naval history relating to the First World War, to which Dunn has already made several excellent contributions.

Author
seaweed
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  1. A coda to this review ..

    By a curious coincidence the great uncle I mentioned in my last review (of Battleship Warspite)...

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