Monday, 16 July 2012

The 1939-45 Naval Blockade of Germany

Despite the well-documented effects of the Naval Blockade on Germany in WWI, plans were made in secret from the late 1930's onwards for the creation of  a "shadow" Ministry of Economic Warfare and the Admiralty Contraband Control Service that would be activated in the event of another war with Germany. Those involved knew the human ramifications of blockade since 1918 as between 400,000-700,000 fatalities and a in 1940 a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study estimated the number of German deaths from malnutrition in WWI at 600,000.

The Import Blockade was announced on 4 September 1939 as this Daily Telegraph reprint shows and was extended to German exports as well by Order in Council on 27 November 1939. Learning from WWI experience, neutral continental countries like Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway were soon presented with draft treaties forbidding any increase in exports to Germany over pre-war levels under threat of losing bunker facilities etc.

Many ships, yachts and trawlers were chartered by the Amiralty (trawlers for £366 per year) to augment Royal Navy destroyers and sloops on contraband control patrols. This was at a time when there was a shortage of escort vessels for merchant shipping convoys at risk of sinking from U-Boats.

The policy was popular with the British public because it involved little risk to the sailors and civil servants charged with implementing it. It fitted in well with the spirit of the "Phoney War". Newspaper articles describing the work of the Contraband Control Service in 1939 appeared in Picture Post and War Illustrated. Monthly totals of seized goods were published. The Powell and Pressburger film Contraband was released in  May 1940. Another, The Big Blockade, was released in 1942. Most interestingly, Life Magazine published an excellent and comprehensive seven page article on conraband control in January 1940 (pp44-51 in this googlebooks version). Note this section of the article:

"Few people know of the vast, carefully planned system that is not only blockading Germany but directingthe wealth of the British Empire against where it hurts most, attempting to choke the life out of the Third Reich. "Starving Germany out" is a phrase frowned on by London offialdom and is always deleted by the censor - in defence to the sensibilities of humanitarian neutrals. But that is the Ministry's job." 

And the effect of the naval blockade on Germany and Occupied Europe during WW2?  With the occupation of the Continent its worst effect was mainly felt by civilians in occupied countries as Germany grabbed the food it needed to feed its people. By December 1940, Belgium was already down to starvation rations - 960 calories per day. This is what wikipedia writes about the subject.

So, a policy to starve the enemy of all the means to fight a modern, Total War was implemented from day two onwards, months before a single bomb had fallen anywhere in the British Isles. It was very well publicised to boost domestic morale, something that opponents of Area Bombing use as another stick to beat the reputation of Sir Arthur Harris.

But anyone who knows the English/British way of war, ie we stop playing cricket when they stop bowling and start shooting instead, is comfortable with the use of overwhelming force against an enemy to get the war over with as quickly as possible. Doubtless the use of longbows at Agincourt was unfair because the French knights were only protected against blows from other knights.


Edward Spalton said...

If you go to

and look at the article "The EU's Evil Pedigree" you will find translated German
documents showing the policy they proposed to counter the blockade long term, dated 1942 . The translations are lengthy but the introduction sums them up.

The ironic thing is that it was virtually identical to the EEC Common Agricultural Policy which we joined on January 1 1973, a day which lives in infamy. The immediate effect on our family firm of animal feed millers was that we were cut off from our long established Commonwealth suppliers.

Brian said...

Many thanks for the link to the article here. Great website. I'll be reading it in detail over the next few days.