war on the rocks

A Forgotten Part of Fleets

October 27, 2017

Robert J. Moore & John Rodgaard, A Hard Fought Ship: The Story of HMS Venomous, 3rd Edition, (Holywell House Publishing, 2017).

The destroyer had just finished running a demolition team to Calais, the aft main gun deck covered with lashed-down explosives and equipment. Stacked there, entirely exposed, it made some of the crew a bit nervous. But the ship made it into Calais without incident and unloaded the unit of Royal Marines and Engineers that had been sent to destroy the locks, docks, cranes, and port facilities. Midway through offloading all the kit, though, German bombers rolled in on the port, targeting the destroyer that lay moored to the quay offloading the demolitions team. The captain shouted through the ship-wide public address system, encouraging his men to get the gear ashore, as the bombs missed their intended target. The task complete, she slipped back out to sea.

In May of 1940, as Germans began to overrun the coast of France, there was no rest for the crew of HMS Venomous and her flotilla of destroyers sailing out of Dover. Venomous and her sister ships of the V&W Class were sent to recover the troops that had just reinforced Boulogne, who had been sent comfortably aboard ferry boats, as the situation there deteriorated. German forces surrounded the town and began probing their way toward the port, and French destroyers bombarding from outside the harbor refused to enter with their Royal Navy counterparts, responding, “It is suicidal to go in there, we will continue to bombard.” Venomous and the other British destroyers moved into the harbor despite the risks.

The small ships took turns fighting their way into the port, loading troops, and fighting back out again. As the sun was setting, Venomous cast off her lines from the position deep in the harbor where she had moored to load the soldiers. Firing her 4.7-inch main guns at the Germans overrunning the town, her captain ordered the engines all-back full. The ship backed out of the harbor at 18 knots with 500 troops crammed aboard, both below and above decks. It all seemed smooth until the ship’s rudder jammed hard to starboard, the pressure of the water flowing backward keeping it stuck. Lieutenant Commander McBeath, skipper of the little ship, knew that if he stopped to fix the rudder he would both block the harbor channel and make a perfect target for the Stukas and approaching Panzers. Instead, he ran one engine backward full, and used the other engine at alternating forward speeds to steer his way past the final buoy. Clear of the channel, Venomous spun on a dime with her rudder already over and quickly recovered to speed out to sea. In a matter of days, the ship and crew would repeatedly accomplish similar feats in the harbor at Dunkirk.

A Hard Fought Ship: The Story of HMS Venomous, recently released in its third edition, is a biography of sorts, but not of a person, leading naval figure, or great maritime thinker. Rather, it is the biography of 1200 tons of steel, electronics, and steam turbines. HMS Venomous was a ship that we would likely never read about, without a book like this one. Built during World War I, small, with a junior crew, and never at the center of a decisive sea battle or the explicit target of an enemy task force, Venomous was the quintessential small combatant across two world wars and the tenuous peace between. She is one of a multitude of smaller vessels that get crowded out of our history by the big names and big hulls like Dreadnought, Bismarck, and Yorktown.

Ships like Venomous remain out of the limelight in modern discussions of the size and shape of the U.S. Navy. Our contemporary analysis focuses on the aircraft carriers at the center of the fleet, or the future role of expensive and high-capability submarines. While today the U.S. Navy has a fleet of roughly 280 ships (depending on how one counts), and a stated policy that aspires to a fleet of 355, some analysts have expressed doubts about its future size. Some point out that the political will necessary for a larger fleet just does not appear to be there. Others have questioned whether such a large and expensive building program is fiscally realistic. For the most part, naval strategists and writers continue to focus on what it would take to build a fleet of large ships, expensive ships, ships that would not be put at risk simply by the presence of a few Panzer tanks.

However, A Hard Fought Ship brings into stark relief the multitude of missions and capabilities that small combatants bring to a global navy and a balanced fleet. The book shows the importance of small combatants in the protection of supply ships and the vital logistics for war in both world wars. And she and her compatriots showed that even during a large-scale global war, there was a need for small ships to work close to shore for raiding, reconnaissance, and hit-and-run bombardment, on the coast of France early in World War II at places like Calais and Dunkirk, as well as in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Pacific Theaters. Throughout these diverse operations the destroyers of the world wars built the experience of junior commanders who learned the responsibilities of command at sea early in their careers. The bridge-wing of Venomous helped multiple future British admirals learn their craft, just as Americans like Chester Nimitz and Bull Halsey experienced command for the first time in small combatants.

Venomous was built toward the end of World War I. Both Great Britain, in the form of the V&W Class ships, and the United States, in the form of the “Four-Stackers” of the Wickes Class, ramped up war production to fill requirements for small combatants. They were desperately needed to protect convoys and hunt submarines even as the U-boat menace had begun to fade. These ships conducted similar missions in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in World War II, including harrowing incidents like Venomous’ running duel with a U-boat in the Mediterranean while rescuing of the crew of HMS Hecla in November of 1942.

But even during peace, in the interwar years, Venomous had no less interesting of a career. The ship and her crew spent a portion of a freezing winter in the Baltic as part of a surface action group patrolling in the aftermath of World War I. In combat conditions, she and her fellow destroyers served in flotillas commanded from a Cruiser, because larger capital ships were considered unsafe and too easy a target in the challenging littoral environment. The undeclared war in the Baltic that followed the Versailles Treaty’s technical cessation of hostilities created a gray area for European militaries. The Royal Navy sent the flotillas of cruisers and destroyers into the congested waters to re-establish the security of maritime trade and freedom of navigation while Russians and Germans continued to maneuver for position in the postwar confusion. After several years conducting these kinds of patrols and training, Venomous was placed on the reserve list, or into “mothballs” as it is colloquially known in the U.S. Navy.

When the Wehrmacht rolled into Prague in 1939, the Royal Navy began activation of its reserve fleet. Venomous and a group of her sister ships were remanned, and a series of captains and engineers learned the challenges of bringing a cold ship back to life. The steam engines that drove the ship had been a new design in 1917, but rehabilitating the inefficient systems resulted in continued problems with machinery breakdowns and maintenance. And returning the ship from a reserve status wasn’t the only challenge faced by Venomous and her crew. Once at sea, and in combat, the ship was damaged a number of times and took many casualties. In 1940 Venomous encountered German area denial weapons in the English Channel, activating a mine that exploded close aboard. Damaged and unable to get back underway as the crew shored up the bulging bulkheads and sides, she was taken under tow to Liverpool. The destroyer’s small size allowed her to be repaired and refitted quickly and she was in and out of the drydock and back at sea in less than two months.

A Hard Fought Ship itself has an unusual past and pedigree. Robert Moore wrote the first edition of the book, which was published in 1990 and was less than 140 pages long. But over the years, more veterans who had served aboard the ship told their stories and Moore gathered the source material for a second edition. But after he passed unexpectedly in 2007, John Rodgaard took the helm to update the work with an additional 200 pages. In 2010 the second edition was released, and now in 2017 comes the final third edition, which tops out at 480 pages. Published by a small private publishing house in the United Kingdom, the modern world of online international bookselling makes the book available to a wider audience. Hopefully the publishers will provide a paperback in the near future, which will be easier to ship to readers worldwide.

In form, the book is a chronicle of Venomous’ years at sea, as opposed to a more general history. Readers looking for wider discussion of the wars she participated in will likely be disappointed. At times, the authors revert to a more classical style of historical work that has sometimes been called the “cut-and-paste” model of history, in which whole sections of source documents are transcribed into the text. While some modern historians may find this unfortunate, it can also be a real joy to understand the participants’ experiences directly through their unpolished writing. Stretching out into the new realm of digital history, the authors and publisher have also shared much of their source material online in the form of oral history transcripts and crew memories.

In his essay “Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies,” Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote that a balanced fleet needs to include small craft to work the littorals and fill the multitude of reconnaissance, raiding, and escort roles that navies require. Sir Julian Corbett famously reminded readers that battleships alone were insufficient for a modern sea power. A wider view of the past can help us understand how to apply the wisdom of these past strategists. Historians like Sir Michael Howard and Professor Paul Kennedy teach that studying history like A Hard Fought Ship does not give us answers, but instead helps develop better questions for addressing our contemporary problems. Venomous spent time operating in the “gray zone” of the Baltic after the end of World War I, and its experience helps inform thinking about the Baltic and even the South China Sea today. The destroyer came out of the reserves, activated to rapidly grow the British Fleet just as is being suggested for American frigates today, but A Hard Fought Ship helps show the challenges this presented for the crew of a mothballed ship. And Venomous’ run-in with a mine, an anti-access weapon still feared today, and her quick and inexpensive repair and refit might help when considering the impact of damage to the U.S. Navy’s expensive high-end warships conducting relatively low-end patrols.

There are also, of course, questions that must be asked about the limits of the value of ships like the Venomous. Today small combatants are seen as being too limited in the combat capabilities they can bring to modern conflicts. There are also valid questions to be asked about survivability in the modern battle. And we must also recognize that because they do not fulfill the Navy’s self-image as a large ship, battlefleet force, some officers may not see their value.

Still, the low cost of small combatants relative to other warships and their ubiquitous use in the fleets of prior global naval powers remind us of their enduring value. It may be worth considering that for the price of one of today’s multi-mission destroyers (a destroyer in name but a modern capital ship in design, size, and cost), a flotilla of smaller ships could be built. And while only a very small number of shipyards build the ships of today’s U.S. Navy, a much wider number in the United States can, and do, build small combatants including the Coast Guard’s new patrol cutters and missile boats for foreign markets. The vast majority of the missions that are cited as the baseline for a 355-ship fleet, from freedom of navigation operations and naval diplomacy to littoral combat and broader patrols, are missions that small combatants have excelled at in the past.

The history of HMS Venomous’ decades of service to the British people suggests that smaller combatants might be helpful in filling a large number of naval requirements in the modern world, from hybrid wars, regional conflicts, and operations against non-state actors, to convoy operations and logistics force protection, to raiding and coastal operations in major nation-state wars. As the discussion over the size of the Navy continues, the history related in A Hard Fought Ship suggests it is worth considering how a larger number of small combatants could help provide the raw number of ships that will rapidly move the Navy toward the goal of 355. Taking observations from history, asking the hard questions, and gathering evidence about their application and validity in the modern day, can benefit how American naval thinkers and strategists conceive of the future fleet.

 

BJ Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of War Studies and Naval History and a U.S. Navy officer. He holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College, London and is the author and editor of numerous articles and books on naval history, strategy, and leadership. Opinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity, and do not reflect the positions of policies of the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of Defense, or any other agency.

Image: Imperial War Museum