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Omar and Chris' Vietnam War Site

Convoy System
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A convoy is a group of vehicles or ships traveling together for mutual support. Often a convoy is organized with armed support for defensive support. During WWI, steaming at several times the speed of merchant ships and firing accurately at ranges of several miles, a single battleship encountering a convoy could destroy dozens of ships before the remaining ships of the convoy could scatter over the horizon. To protect a convoy against the enemy's capital ships would mean providing it with its own escort of battleships: an unsupportable cost.

The fear of battleships was the main reason for the British Admiralty not adopting convoy at the start of the first Battle of the Atlantic in World War I. But by the end of 1914, German capital ships had largely been cleared from the oceans 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 they could only carry a few torpedoes. The Admiralty took a long time to respond to this change in the tactical position, and only in 1917, at the urging of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, did they institute a convoy system. Losses to U-boats dropped to a small fraction of their former level.

Actual analysis of shipping losses in World War I conclusively 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, and ports could deal more easily with convoys because they tended to arrive on schedule and so loading and unloading could be planned.

After July, the newly introduced convoy system was extremely effective in neutralising the U-boat threat. Britain was safe from the threat of starvation. Even more importantly, April 1917 finally saw the formal entry of the United States into the war, in response to the U-boat attacks.


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