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Commerce Raiding

In peacetime, the sea is a means for passage of commerce by all nations -- in effect all have command of the sea. In wartime, two strategies appear, those of sea denial and sea control. As an example, convoys provide moving havens across a more or less neutral sea, with the convoy escorts engaged in a duel with the sea denial forces, which were chiefly submarines in the two World Wars of the Industrial Age.

To guard against British naval forces, the French under Louis XIV moved from major fleet confrontations to "guerre de course" (or commerce-raiding), whereby combat ships and privateers licensed by France attacked only commercial vessels.

Overseas trade was a mainstay of the economies of the 13 English colonies for more than a century before the War of Independence. During that war, the Continental Navy, privateers and commerce raiding squadrons chartered by individual American states, and the navy of our French ally all played vital roles in our fight against the British. The Continental Navy's squadrons and individual ships attacked British sea lines of communications and seized transports laden with munitions, provisions and troops. Continental and state Navy ships and privateers also struck at enemy commerce, taking nearly 200 British ships as prizes, forcing them to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. During the American Revolution, Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham and John Paul Jones followed one another into European waters to bring the war home to the enemy by raiding in British waters.

Wickes led the way. As the trailblazer, he was the one who tested the possibilities of using French ports as bases for commerce raiding cruises, devised practical ways around legal and bureaucratic obstacles, and developed the model for disposing for captured ships. Wickes' main strategic goal was to embroil France and Great Britain in diplomatic disputes that would result in war between them.

Conyngham concentrated on cruising against British commerce. He and other American commerce raiders forced the British Admiralty to assign additional Royal Navy vessels to convoy duty, thus lessening the number of vessels available to enforce a blockade of the North American coast. The loss of ships to these raids increased the desire for peace among the British merchant community.

Jones cared little about commerce raiding for its own sake, viewing it principally as a means of obtaining the funds needed to sustain his operations, as well as of capturing British prisoners to use in exchange for captive American Sailors. He sought primarily to make the British feel the evils of the war they had brought to the shores of America. Therefore, he not only attacked their shipping, but also raided their shores.

Jones understood that Americans must fight a kind of guerilla war at sea. They could not engage the enemy fleet against fleet, nor was commerce raiding the answer. While the latter might be profitable for the captains and crews, it did not, in the end, significantly help the nation's interest. Striking the enemy where least expected would keep the British off-balance and dispersed, forcing them to redeploy some of their naval squadrons away from the American coast. Jones' ideas were "out of the box," and reflected a patriotism that was willing to sacrifice personal gain and advancement for a greater good. It was not, however, a strategy that appealed to his crew who saw commerce raiding and attendant prize money as their best chance to supplement meager wages. In Ranger and in his subsequent commands, Jones had problems with dissatisfied crews because of his reputation as a risk-taker and hard-fighter who eschewed commerce raiding for other, more perilous, missions.

Conflict with Revolutionary France in the so-called Quasi-War prompted the establishment of the permanent Navy Department in 1798. French attacks on US merchantmen led to intermittent hostilities between American and French warships through 1800. American warships captured more than 80 French vessels and defeated two French men-of-war in combat on the high seas, giving the world a convincing demonstration of both the new Navy's force and capability and US determination to protect its commerce.

In the history of commerce raiding, CSS Alabama was the most successful raider in terms of numbers of vessels prized. In her relatively short carrier, she captured and burned 55 ships, seized and bonded 10 more CSS Alabama, a 1050-ton screw steam sloop of war, was built at Liverpool, England, for the Confederate Navy. After leaving England in the guise of a merchant ship, she rendezvoused at sea with supply ships, was outfitted as a combatant and placed in commission on 24 August 1862. Commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama cruised in the North Atlantic and West Indies during the rest of 1862, capturing over two-dozen Union merchant ships, of which all but a few were burned. Among those released was the mail steamer Ariel, taken off Cuba on 7 December with hundreds of passengers on board.

Alabama began the new year by sinking USS Hatteras near Galveston, Texas, on 11 January 1863. She then moved into the South Atlantic, stopped at Cape Town in August, and went on to the East Indies, seizing nearly 40 more merchantmen during the year, destroying the majority and doing immense damage to the seaborne trade of the United States.

The Confederate cruiser called at Singapore in December 1863, but soon was back at sea to continue her commerce raiding. However, Alabama was increasingly in need of an overhaul and only captured a few ships in 1864. On 11 June of that year, Captain Semmes brought her to Cherbourg, France, for repairs. The Union steam sloop Kearsarge soon arrived off the port, and, on 19 June the Alabama steamed out to do battle. In an hour of intense combat, she was reduced to a sinking wreck by the Kearsarge's guns. As Alabama disappeared beneath the surface, her surviving crewmen were rescued by the victorious Federal warship and by the English yacht Deerhound. Her wreck was located by the French Navy in the 1980s.

Sea control means, fundamentally, the ability to carry commerce across the seas and to provide the means to project force upon a hostile, distant shore. A sea controller must limit the sea denial capabilities of the enemy. To quote Mahan, "... when a question arises of control over distant regions, ... it must ultimately be decided by naval power, ..., which represents the communications that form so prominent a feature in all strategy." The Industrial Revolution arrived in the US Navy until the 1880s. During this decade the Navy discarded the commerce raiding doctrine in favor of a sea control one and transformed itself into the sea control battle fleet.

Mahan recognized the value of "Sea Power" (which he defined as naval power and maritime economic power) and advocated the large fleet engagement as how strategically to exploit it in support of policy. Mahan argued that control of the seas, including maritime commerce, was essential to a nation's war effort. Mahan further argued that the only way for a nation to retain the use of the sea for itself and deny its use to its enemies was large concentrated battle fleets that could overwhelm an adversary's naval and/or maritime force.

Sea denial, or commerce-destroying, provides a means for harrying and tiring an enemy. It may be a means to avoid losing a war. It may cause "great individual injury and discontent" in Mahan's words. Mahan stated that "the guerre de course (i.e., commerce raiding) can never be by itself alone decisive of great issues. ..." based on his reading of the War of 1812. But when Mahan died in December 1914, the submarine was already at hand to suggest otherwise. But by itself, a sea denial strategy is not a war-winning one. Nor is it a particularly deterring strategy. John Paul Jones' mission in his encounter in Bonhomme Richard with HMS Serapis off the Scottish coast in 1779 was sea denial -- he was preying on commerce bound for England. At the tactical level, Serapis surrendered after a bloody fight -- the Americans won. At the operational level, however, the Royal Navy won -- Serapis' mission was convoy escort and her convoy made port unmolested. At the strategic level, the American purpose is being served because the requirements to escort convoys are drawing down the numbers of ships the Royal Navy can deploy to the western Atlantic theater. Mahan was completely wrong to insist that "It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys, be they few or many, that strikes down the money power of a nation; it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy's flag from it. ... This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies." Steam power enabled eight Confederate cruisers to wreak havoc on the Union merchant fleet. he devised them.

In the 17th and 18th Century merchant and naval sailing ships had been nearly identical in speed and protection. But by the middle of the 19th Century an armored, high-speed, shell-firing cruiser enjoyed decisive advantages over a merchant steamer, providing vast superiority as a commerce raider compared to its frigate predecessors.

Naval strategists have long acknowledged that winning control of the seas and exercising day-to-day control demand different types of ships. Winning control involves either defeating or threatening to defeat an enemy in a pitched battle. This demands large, powerful vessels - ships of the line, battleships, and carriers. On the other hand, exercising control demands smaller, more numerous forces, such as frigates and cruisers - ships able to both stop enemy shipping and defeat opposing commerce raiders, but not intended to take part in a fleet action.

In World War II the naval power of Germany challenged Allied maritime superiority by pursuing its new strategy of economic warfare, called cruiser warfare (Kreuzerkrieg). The prime agent for the execution of that transformation of naval warfare would be the German submarine force, its U-boats.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:22:06 Zulu