Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, PhD

Peter Charles Horstead Smith is Professor of Health Policy at the Imperial College Business School and, since 1982, resides in the small Bedfordshire village of Riseley. He was both a book and a magazine editor but has been a full-time historian and author since 1968. Specializing in maritime and military history, he has written more than 85 books! The volume under review, Naval Warfare in the English Channel, 1939-1945, tabulates many of the titles: Naval history 22 volumes, dive bombers 23, aviation 9, and military 9 – many published by Pen & Sword in the UK. Details of all of Smith’s books are to be found at: www.dive-bombers.co.uk

When I undertook this review, I recognized that this book, published on December 30th, 2020, was not the first time I had seen this title. Indeed, Smith had published an earlier version concentrating, in the main, on surface warfare entitled Hold the Narrow Sea: Naval Warfare in the English Channel, 1939-1945 (Ashbourne: Moorehead Publishing; Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984; reprinted, 1996). It was revised and updated as a hardback Naval Warfare in the English Channel, 1939-1945 in 2007 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime). The 2020 edition is the unrevised paperback version of the latter. Readers will be hard pressed to find another author who provides the comprehensive treatment on the topic Smith does. If one seeks book-length assessments of the six-year war in the Channel, there are two other volumes written by Smith: Into the Minefields: British Destroyer Minelaying 1916-1960 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2005) on British (but not German) minelaying and, for air aspects, Impact!: The Dive Bomber Pilots Speak (London: William Kimber, 1981). Two other books, somewhat dated, also focus upon aspects of surface warfare in the Channel: Gordon Holman’s The Little Ships (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1943; reprinted, 2013) and Sir Peter Scott’s The Battle of the Narrow Seas: A History of the Light Coastal Forces in the Channel and North Sea, 1939-1945 (London: Country Life, 1945; reprinted Barnsley: Seaforth and Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009). Scott was a MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) commander, who saw action throughout World War II. Lastly, covering more than the Channel, is Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam’s Out sweeps!: The Story of the Minesweepers in World War II (London: New English Library, 1979).

Smith’s book relates how the Royal Navy defended the vital Narrow Sea – the English Channel — throughout the six years of war. World War I is only briefly mentioned so that the narrative spans the early days of the Dover Patrols, through the trauma of the Dunkirk evacuation, the battles of the Channel convoys, the war against the E-boats and a U-boats, the tragic raids at Dieppe and St Nazaire, the embarrassing escape of the German battle-fleet, and coastal convoys throughout the period. He discusses the extensive destroyer and E-boat and MTB battles that took place with significant British losses until new technologies and new tactics changed late in the war. Discussions of the cross-channel Normandy landings and the liberation of the Channel Islands are rather brief.

In the “Acknowledgments,” the author mentions “various [unnamed] archives,” writings by other authors (such as Scott), and attendance at numerous naval officer/ship reunions as his sources of information. Hence, Smith has become an acknowledged expert on these and related topics. He apologizes for the quality of the photographs inserted between pages 146-147, noting that most were taken during nighttime actions and that such images of these events are scare or nonexistent. The illustrations include eight maps, and images of 12 persons and 45 ships, the latter mostly in action. There are no lists of tables, maps, or images but there are appropriate captions for the photographs. Of significance is a “Glossary” (pp. viii-ix) with 60 entries. Eighteen very readable and well-organized chapters cover the six years, generally in chronological order, and the narrative is augmented by 17 tables and only 12 endnotes. There is an annotated “Select Bibliography” (pp. 274-275) with 21 entries including one HMSO government document (dated 1947); two from the current millennium (2002 and 2005) with all others predating 1993. References to published sources are wanting. A splendid 13-page “Index” of proper nouns includes both ships and persons discussed in the text. Readers will appreciate the lengthy quotations of British officers’ observations from logs at the time of the actual events.
The initial chapter indicates that the British entered the war in 1939 assuming that the general pattern of the naval war would resemble the conflict of 1914-1918. However, the Germans were bolder in their use of surface units and laid extensive minefields in the English Channel while both the Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force experienced combat difficulties. The Admiralty relied upon the convoy system in the Channel in the face of opposition by U-boats and subsequent air attacks and laid their own minefields. The Germans were able to mine the Thames estuary by both submarines and destroyers early in the war. In spite of the addition of Polish and French destroyers, the Royal Navy was unable to prevent the Germans from sinking numerous coasters (British merchantmen) and their escorting warships during February and March of 1940. The invasion of the Low Countries was accompanied by additional mining of the Dutch, Belgian, and French coasts, while J87 Stuka attacks were especially successful in destroying or damaging Dutch, French, and British destroyers. The evacuation by destroyers of troops at Boulogne and the fall of Calais included bombardments by British destroyers and the use of demolition teams at Belgian ports to deny the use of these facilities to the Germans.

Chapters 4 through 6 cover Operation Dynamo, the May 1940 evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk. These essays are especially valuable because Smith documents numerous naval actions not covered in many histories of the event and he focuses on individual ship actions – mostly destroyers, minesweepers, and motor torpedo boats (MTB) – and not Churchill’s “Little Ships. “Smith reviews the conditions of the harbor at the start of the operation, attacks by Ju87 dive bombers, and He111 and Do175 heavy bombers, and how the changing weather pattern favored the success of the operation. British surface craft suffered heavy losses at the East Mole and nearby beach evacuations which were extended by one day to May 31st. German attacks May 29-31 sunk or severely damaged eight destroyers, two corvettes, and one trawler. The author offers a sober criticism of the operation and recounts the assignments and exploits of specific ships, particularly destroyers HMS Basilisk and HMS Keith, and minesweepers HM Skipjack and HM Saltash. He notes that the Luftwaffe concentrated their efforts on the reeling French Army and not on British ships. Table 3 (pp. 69-71) details the 81 ships (destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers, and gunboats) involved in Operation Dynamo. The final Allied withdraw from Europe included the evacuation from Le Havre June 9-11 and partially successful use of block ships at Dieppe. The entrapment and loss of the British 51st Highland Division at St Valery by Panzers is also recounted. The emptying of Dover and evacuation of Biscay ports, June 15-18, was quickly followed with Luftwaffe bombing both night and day and the lack of RAF support resulting in continued losses of surface warships and operational shipping. Table 4 (pp. 84-84) tabulates the loss of 44 ships; the number of rescued troops is reported as 337,000. It is not clear if that figure includes just British or all Allied troops. Smith points out that the Royal Navy was also engaged in simultaneous rescues of troops from Narvik and Harstad, Norway at the same time as the Dunkirk evacuations – a fact that should be considered in critiquing Operation Dynamo. 

Following the rescues and withdrawal, there was a lull from June 19 to July 3 when the Germans then began assaults on British convoys in the Channel. The loss of merchantmen was due primarily to attacks by Ju87 dive bombers as there was little protection from the air, and British minefields limited the use of submarines by the Kriegsmarine. Smith also discusses the fates of Convoys OA.178, CW9, and CW10 and the losses of British destroyers—only one vessel was left “fit for duty”—and commando raids on the German-held Channel Islands. By July 10th, the Luftwaffe had effectively closed the Dover Strait and the Germans had installed artillery batteries along a 22-mile stretch of the coast to shell convoys. The British offensive reopened September 7-12 with the use of MTBs which were fast but smaller than German E-boats, while the Germans began assembling four large groups of landing craft at Dunkirk, Ostend, Calais, and Boulogne as a part of Operation Sea Lion for a cross-channel invasion. Convoys CW11 and CW12 are also discussed as benefitting from battleship and monitor bombardments.  

During the winter months of 1940-1941, the Luftwaffe shifted attacks from RAF Fighter Command airfields to London and other cities so that the British were able to initiate Operation Medusa, the bombardment of Cherbourg October 10-11 by battleships HMS Revenge and HMS Erebus. In response, the Germans sortied destroyers on October 16-17 and launched torpedo attacks, but the British deterred minelaying and the sorties against coastal shipping. Additional actions took place at Dover Strait with German destroyers intercepted by the British. Table 5 is a tabulation of 43 Royal Navy warship losses September-December 1940; interestingly, most were mined. Table 6 lists 23 German destroyer operations from September to August 1942, a period of additional German minelaying and successes by E-boats.

Chapter 12 is a summary of Operation Cerbeus, the escape of the German Battle Fleet south through the Channel: battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, six accompanying destroyers, and 14 torpedo boats. The British attacked with MTBs and destroyers using torpedoes. Smith provides eyewitness accounts of the activities of the British merchant marine and German Vice Admiral Ruge. The British were shocked (and likely embarrassed) by this turn of events. Except for destroyer patrols by both combatants, there was limited action for the remainder of 1942 except for occasional raids, the victory of E-boats at the Battle of Cawsand Bay in May and the “Disaster at Dieppe.” The latter was during Operation Jubilee on August 19th, when a convoy LCIs with 4,961 Canadian officers and men was devastated by German coastal batteries and torpedo boats. E-boats continued with successes through July 1943 when the initiative passed from Germany to the British, although the former continued minelaying. British Operation Tunnel and German countermeasures – British cruiser and destroyer vs. German destroyer actions are documented by first-hand observations by Commander Phipps.

British forces took the offensive against German supremacy in the Channel. Smith makes corrections to three statements published in the Official History regarding the attack on Convoy CW221 (p. 225) whereby the German 5th Flotilla was engaged by British long-range guns at Dover with “unexpected successes.” Further E-boat sorties occurred January-March 1944. The exploits of La Combattante, a British destroyer in the Free French Navy, are also reported, and E-boats were defeated in April 1944 off Isle de Bas. German destroyer T-29 was destroyed and T-24 and T-27 damaged (and later destroyed), with German retaliation resulting in the sinking of HMC Athabaskan. A small portion of Chapter 16 also covers D-Day, June 6, 1944 and provides a tabulation of the assignments of British forces: three battleships, 29 cruisers, and 25 destroyers, plus frigates, sloops, and corvettes. Eyewitness accounts document the naval bombardments and “muted” German response; however, E-boats were successfully deployed that day. Smith writes that “The great invasion was a wonderful achievement made possible only by overwhelming sea power” (p. 249).  The main naval concern at D-Day was possible German surface attack; Table 15 lists 18 British warships lost in the Channel in 1944, while Table 16 shows German losses in the Channel, 1940-1944, including 14 destroyers and 44 minesweepers. There was a “massacre” of German minesweepers on August 17, 1944. The author also mentions the use of German human torpedoes (pp. 254-255). A final chapter summarizes operations in the Channel following D-Day. The major events were the destruction of the German minesweeping flotilla and the defeat of German snorkel-equipped U-boats, July-August 1944, so that by November 1944 the whole English Channel had been cleared of enemy ships. Smith also recounts the liberation of the Channel Islands from the Germans on May 8, 1944 and final actions against E-boats in March 1945. A more comprehensive treatment on the topic is Charles Stephenson The Channel Islands 1941-45: Hitler’s Impregnable Fortress (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006, republished 2014).

A minor point—readers will note that the bulk of book’s narrative appear in the first 12 chapters (pp. 1-174) covering the period from 1939 through 1941, including Dunkirk, the withdrawal from Europe, convoys, and the escape of the German Battle Fleet. Chapters 13 through 18 (pp. 175-273) cover the period 1942 through 1945, when there would appear to be less activity, but includes Dieppe, the see-saw destroyer battles in the Channel, the D-Day invasion, and subsequent defeat of the German destroyers and other craft. It would seem that there is an imbalance in coverage and that these latter events receive lesser treatment and potentially provide less detail than in the first two-thirds of the book. However, there are no comparative book-length treatments of actions in the English Channel and Smith’s book stands at the pinnacle of works on this region and time frame. It appears that little additional material can be gleaned from the appropriate British government and military archives to further expand details on warfare in the Channel. German archives, should those documents have survived the war, might augment actions from the enemy’s point of view, such as the quotation from Vice Admiral Ruge about Dover Strait (p. 164).

In sum, a quite readable narrative for the general public about a significant geographical area of the war by an author who has obviously studied the topic in depth and has a command of the literature and incorporated interviews with individuals, mostly British naval officers who had first-hand knowledge of the events.


Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D., is a USNI Golden Life Member.

Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945 (Peter C. Smith, Pen & Sword, Havertown, PA, & Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2015)

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