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Naval and maritime history section.

The Battle of the Atlantic: Command of the Seas in a War of Attrition

This article originally featured in The Submarine Review and is republished with permission.

By Ryan Hilger

Captain Gallery picked up the radio: “Ride ’em cowboy.” Lieutenant David’s boarding party worked quickly to clear the submarine and make up Pillsbury‘s towline, despite the rudder being jammed hard over and the submarine still making ten knots. Chatelain and Jenks broke off to pick up survivors. Commander Trosino, Guadalcanal‘s Chief Engineer, and another boarding party made for the submarine to begin salvage efforts. Flooded compartments and potential booby traps slowed repair efforts. Pillsbury radioed back that the destroyer didn’t have the power to maintain the tow and keep the submarine afloat. Gallery ordered Guadalcanal into position, taking up the tow. After a challenging several days, U-505 was turned over to Naval Operating Base Bermuda for evaluation.1 The capture of U-505 on June 4th, 1944 was the zenith of Allied anti-submarine warfare efforts, indicating that German submarines would not play a decisive role in what became the final year of the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic spanned the entire duration of the war, stressing the endurance and resourcefulness of all involved, from fleet commanders to heads of state to cryptographers to ordinary seamen in anti-submarine trawlers and U-boats everywhere. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, worth quoting at length here, frames the issue:

“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. Invasion, I thought, even before the air battle, would fail. After the air victory it was a good battle for us. We could drown and kill this horrible foe in circumstances favourable to us, and, as he evidently realised, bad for him. It was the kind of battle which, in the cruel conditions of war, one ought to be content to fight. But now our life-line, even across the broad oceans, and especially in the entrances to the Island, was endangered. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.2           

This unforgiving war at sea challenged the conventions of Mahan and Corbett on the meaning of sea control and, in that philosophical struggle, informs strategic thought as we face asymmetric threats abroad. Several anecdotes from this long, grinding campaign provide insights as American naval forces grapple with the nascent possibility of a modern, protracted war of attrition at sea.

The Essentiality of War Games

Convoys HX-229 and SC-122 were eastbound for Britain. Their air cover had lapsed until the Liberator squadron in Iceland could reach them. The base courses of the convoys were continually altered around wolfpack locations revealed by Ultra, the Allied radio intercept and cryptanalysis program.3 But this time, the routings had placed them on a collision course with each other and three wolfpacks, the U-boats still high after battering SC-121 and HX-228 the day prior. On March 16th, 1943, they “hurled themselves like wolves first on the Halifax convoy, then on the Sydney convoy as soon as it was sighted, and finally on the great combined mass of ships.”4 38 U-boats exploited the next three days, relentlessly attacking day and night, sinking 21 of 61 ships.

The massacre of convoys SC-122 and HX-229 began twenty-five years prior to the coup de main, southeast of Sicily with then Lieutenant Commander Karl Doenitz in UB-68 and his near death at the hands of a British warship escorting a convoy just out of the Suez Canal. UB-68 was hit, but managed to blow her ballast tanks to the surface, where the submarine sank beneath him, the convoy continuing on to Britain unmolested. At that moment, floating in the warm Mediterranean waters with his lifejacket and a piece of salvaged cork, Doenitz recalls,

“That last night, however, had taught me a lesson as regards basic principles. A U-boat attacking a convoy on the surface and under cover of darkness, I realized, stood very good prospects of success. The greater number of U-boats that could be brought simultaneously into the attack, the more favorable would become the opportunities offered to each individual attacker.”5

The seed of wolfpack tactics had been planted. Several other German submariners would come to the same conclusion independently during the Great War, but none seemed to gain traction with the German High Command. Revolutions do not come about overnight.

Doenitz would rise slowly during the interwar years, eventually being selected to take over the first reformed U-Boat Flotilla in 1935. He found like-minded officers under his command and proceeded to develop cooperative tactics. In 1937, during the German Armed Forces Maneuvers, U-boats operated for the first time together, tasked to “locate, concentrate and attack an enemy formation and convoy somewhere on the high seas to the north of the coasts of Pomerania and West and East Prussia.”6 The operation was wildly successful, and U-Boat Command continued with large-scale exercises into 1939, including under the review of Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, until the Second World War started a few months later. The exercises provided Doenitz with the opportunity to further refine the span of control, communications, and tactics the U-boats would need in combat to bring wolfpacks to their highest potency.

Interestingly, Doenitz reveals that the British were caught largely unaware in the first year and a half of the war that the Germans were employing cooperative tactics against their convoys. Citing Captain Stephen Roskill, the eminent British naval historian, Doenitz writes,                       

“But as the numbers controlled by Admiral Doenitz increased, he was able to introduce attacks by several U-boats working together…The change caught us unawares…but the Development was, from the British point of view, full of the most serious implications since the enemy had adopted a form of attack which we had not foreseen and against which neither tactical nor technical countermeasures had been prepared.”7

This is shocking revelation for the preeminent Navy in the world at the outbreak of the war. The roots of this negligence, Roskill continues, are found in the interwar period:

“When British naval training and thinking in the years between the wars are reviewed, it seems that both were concentrated on the conduct of surface ships in action with similar enemy units and that the defence was also considered chiefly from the point of view of attack by enemy surface units.”8

Doenitz theorizes that the invention of active sonar lulled the British into thinking that oceans had been made transparent and that the submarine became instantly irrelevant.9 In conjunction with the technological advances, the development of wolfpack tactics also reveals the grave threat presented by sclerotic British thinking during peacetime. The bold and decentralized command of the Nelsonian navy had slowly devolved over a century into untested, theoretical doctrine, the fleet “[enjoying] a peace routine and that its title of Mistress of the Seas [not having been] seriously challenged.”10 Arthur Marder relates the state of the Royal Navy in 1897 prior to the reforms of Admiral Jackie Fisher: “the British Navy at the end of the nineteenth century, numerically a very imposing force, was a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organism.”11 The ramifications of stultified strategic thought and the unacknowledged strategic draw at Jutland in 1916 further ossified British tactical development for the next twenty years.12 Doenitz, on the other hand, presents a case for the importance of war games for tactical and operational developments, and the consequences for the navies that spend the peacetime steaming around the world to “show the flag,” fueled by achievements of past wars while the guns rust from lack of meaningful combat exercises. 

Tactical Innovation and Credulity in Technology

In the Clausewitzian sense, the nature of the Battle of the Atlantic changed little over the course of the war. The merchant ships plodded along the routes provided by the Allied convoy routing commands, ever in existential peril, while the U-boats prowled about the waves in search of prey. However, a closer examination of the operational level of war provides a plethora of examples of technical innovation—focusing on the development of active sonar here—the first applications of operations research, and a clear warning about immature faith in technological advancements without any corresponding evidence of efficacy beyond first principles or development of doctrinal employment.13

The first hydrophones were fitted to warships for submarine detection as early as 1915, but provided such inaccurate bearings, and without a suitable close attack weapon, to render then operationally irrelevant. In September 1918, the British formed a scientific committee, the Anti-Submarine Division International Committee (Asdic) to develop echo-ranging methods to fix a submarine’s position. The system was fielded shortly before the war ended in 1918 and continued to be developed during the interwar years, now able to provide both bearing and range.14 Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalls his experience with the refined Asdic sets:

“On June 15, 1938, the First Sea Lord took me down to Portland to show me the Asdics [italics original]… Standing on the bridge of the destroyer which was using the Asdic, with another destroyer half a mile away, in constant intercourse, I could see and hear the whole process, which was the Sacred Treasure of the Admiralty, and in the culture of which for a whole generation they had faithfully preserved.”15

The British began World War II with 220 sets installed on various small combatants and trawlers, with many more sets waiting for ships to install them on—Churchill’s maritime building program would take a year or two more to reach fruition.16 Of note, Churchill does not record the doctrinal development of anti-submarine warfare in the same way that Doenitz discussed the refinement of tactical and operational doctrine for submarine wolfpacks. Doenitz records in his Memoirs the seeming blind faith by the British that the new technology would render submarines useless as a weapon of war: “in 1937 the Admiralty reported to the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee that ‘the U-boat will never again be capable of confronting us with the problem with which we found ourselves faced in 1917.”17 Churchill, at the outbreak of the war, agreed:

“I had accepted too readily when out of office the Admiralty view of the extent to which the submarine had been mastered. Whilst the technical efficiency of the Asdic apparatus was proved in many early encounters with U-boats, our anti-U-boat resources were far too limited to prevent our suffering serious losses.”18

This failure to grasp the limitations of the new technology, both in technical performance and the employment of it, required a rapid development program and the founding of operations research.19

The British anti-submarine forces had dwindled in the interwar period to less than ten percent of the forces available to the Allies at the signing of the Armistice in Versailles.20 The shortage would cost them dearly in operational tempo and merchant shipping lost while waiting for the Americans to enter the war or for their own shipbuilding program to start delivering. Even with Asdics on their warships, merchant shipping losses totaled more than 900 ships and 4,000,000 tons by the end of 1940.21 Yet a significant inventory of Asdics still sat on shelves, waiting for ships to enter service, and in that lies another lesson for gaining superiority in the war of attrition—cooperation with allies.

Allies and the Fielding of Capabilities

In May 1940, Churchill first laid bare the British needs to President Roosevelt: “All I ask now is that you should proclaim non-belligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces. Immediate needs are, first of all, the loan of forty or fifty of your older destroyers to bridge the gap…”22 The use of mothballed destroyers seems a logical and prudent policy to pursue, but the American political scene then, records Samuel Eliot Morison, was still rooted in quasi-pacifism.23 It would take President Roosevelt a great deal of time and political capital to secure the Lend-Lease program.

Churchill pressed again several months later, indicating how their mutual, albeit still private, goals could be served: “We can fit [the older destroyers] very rapidly with our Asdics, and they will bridge the gap of six months before our war-time new construction comes into play.”24 This string of discussion would continue between Roosevelt and Churchill for the remainder of 1940, even with the offer of British crews to man and transport the destroyers across the Atlantic. President Roosevelt would eventually find a loophole in the Neutrality Act of 1939 and sign a bilateral agreement with Churchill on September 2, 1940, on the trade of fifty older American destroyers for 99-year leases for naval bases from Great Britain. British sailors would bring the American ships back to life and take the fight to their common enemy in a shining example of the importance of bringing capabilities rapidly to bear in a war of attrition to gain a tactical edge.

The Unbiased Tyranny of Geography

It is rare for terrain in war to be so unfavorable to the contesting parties. Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz speak of the ground as preferential to a particular side depending on the value accorded to it.26 The sea, however, retains the ability to be the great equalizer, especially in the modern, globalized era, while simultaneously being supremely cruel to those who lose their respect for it. The Atlantic Ocean and the martial contest for it offered different challenges for all involved—British, German, and American. For Britain, the sea was survival. For Germany, the sea presented the longest contiguous battlefront. For the Americans, the sea represented the lifeline to Britain, under constant threat which, for the majority of the war, they lacked the necessary escorts to fully protect. Not until the summer of 1943 did the Allies begin to achieve sea control. Corbett puts this battle into theoretical prospective:

“By general and permanent control [of the sea] we do not mean that the enemy can do nothing, but that he cannot interfere with out maritime trade and overseas operations so seriously as to affect the issue of the war, and that he cannot carry on his own trade and operations except at such risk and hazard as to remove them from the field of practical strategy.”27

Corbett, vice Mahan, defines the heart of the struggle: “By occupying her maritime in which they terminate we destroy the national life afloat, and thereby check the vitality of that life ashore so far as the one is dependent on the other.”28 Britain needed the sea for survival and Germany rightly discerned that the sea was the key to Britain’s destruction. Thus, the Battle of the Atlantic was not simply another battle on the road to victory, but rather an extended campaign at the operational level of war, and a matter of national strategic policy for all contestants.

Churchill, never shy at communicating the necessity of commerce to the survival of Britain, again indicates the British national policy to President Roosevelt: “North Atlantic transport remains the prime anxiety… I am sorry about [stopping food subsidies to Eire], but we must think of our own self-preservation, and use for vital purposes our own tonnage brought in through so many perils.”29 The American policy, still protected by pre-war isolationist policies, took more time to develop. Admiral Stark, then the Chief of Naval Operations, submitted his thoughts on American grand strategy to Navy Secretary Knox in late 1940: “Our major national objectives in the immediate future might be states as preservation of the territorial, economic, and ideological integrity of the United States…the preservation of the disruption of the British Empire with all that such consummation implies…”30 These views would be fully developed and codified in the American-British Conversation (ABC) agreements, first completed in March 1941.

In the years prior to the war, Germany began finalizing how they would structure the Navy to strangle the British islands. Admiral Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, saw the unfolding situation plainly: “Britain imported fifty million tons of goods annually and her very existence depended on the keeping open of her supply lines. An effective attack on Britain’s oversea supplies therefore had to be the main aim of any German naval building programme.”31 In contrast, Raeder believed that “[as] for our surface forces, they were so inferior to the enemy in strength and numbers that about all they could hope to do was go down fighting.”32 Raeder has grasped the four Clausewitizan factors of success in war.33 This attitude shaped the shipbuilding program in the final years of prior to the war, resulting in Germany beginning the war with near four times as many submarines as all surface ships combined.34 Geography shaped the battle, forcing widely distributed forces against a highly distributed threat.

For Germany, though, the execution of the maritime strategy would be anything but trivial.35 The development of wolfpack tactics and the technological advances added the efforts at the tactical and operational levels, but the distances involved pressed the strategy to its limits. Due to distance, geographic positioning, maintenance, and training cycles, only eight of the 57 U-boats in commission could be engaged in the Atlantic for the first year of the war. The early fall of France and capture of the French ports on the Bay of Biscay provided a significant improvement, both in geographic position as well as the addition of dockyards and repair facilities. Doenitz summed up the strategic value of this gain:

“Before July 1940 the U-boats had to make a voyage of 450 miles through the North Sea and round the north of Great Britain to reach the Atlantic. Now they were saving something like a week on each patrol and were thus able to stay considerably longer in the actual area of operations. This fact, in its turn, added to the total number of U-boats actively engaged against the enemy. It was thanks to these direct efforts of the possession of the Biscay bases….”36

The improvement in position, combined withe the building program, allowed Germany to eventually keep nearly one hundred U-boats at sea.

Control of the Sea

Captain Roskill records that the utter destruction of HX-229 and SC-122 “made a profound impression upon the British Admiralty, which later recorded that ‘the Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943.'”37  Yet the German euphoria and Allied dejection would decisively reverse in the subsequent two months as the Allies shifted the balance of power with the introduction of additional long-range aircraft. Roskill recalls,

“[A] sweeping victory was gained in April and May; and of the 56 U-boats sunk in those two months 36 were destroyed by ships and aircraft operating as convoy escorts or in support of convoys. Doenitz thereupon abandoned the battle of the convoy routes. The reason was, so he said, that his losses had increased to about one-third of all the submarines at sea— losses much too high.”38

Doenitz and his submarines would never again gain the upper hand.

The Allies would subsequently introduce greater measures to fight the U-boat menace, including the introduction of the hunter-killer groups like the one that captured U-505. The industrial machine in both Britain and the United States would pick up steam, churning out Liberty ships every 42 days and escorts even more rapidly, turning the tide of the battle through sheer numbers.39 Control of the sea in the Corbettian sense would be achieved, but that control did not mean that hostilities would cease—quite the contrary. Both sides would continue to feed grist to the millstone until the end of the war; each side would lose roughly 30,000 Sailors or airmen.40 Tenuous control at best.

The Battle of the Atlantic contains many more lessons for control of the sea in a war of attrition.41 But the essence of the battle should alert strategists to the necessity of exercises in merging revolutionary technologies into new doctrine and the need to deploy capabilities, not just platforms. Above all, strategists need to know that establishing and maintaining maritime superiority in today’s environment, as in the Battle of the Atlantic, is more than the capacity to destroy the enemy in a fleet action—the Battle of the Atlantic repudiated Mahan. Captain Wayne Hughes provides the simple summation: “Naval battle is attrition centered. Victory by maneuver warfare may work on land but it does not at sea. At sea, first effective attack is the aim of every tactical commander.”42 An enemy can fight a war of attrition at sea, a guerre de course in which he has many advantages and vulnerabilities. Force composition cannot be determined without due regard for the economic implications of the naval role in national strategy. Commanders must continue to innovate, experiment with new technologies, and evolve how they wage war at all levels. Failure to stay abreast of technology or properly incorporate it will engender strategic surprise on the battlefield, thus driving your forces from the sea, or to the bottom of it.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is an Engineering Duty Officer and former submariner. These views are presented in a personal capacity.


1. “Oral History-Battle of the Atlantic. Recollections of Captain Daniel V. Gallery, USN, commander of USS Guadalcanal Task Group concerning the capture of German submarine U-505 on 4 June 1944,” Naval History and Heritage Command, August 2, 2002,

2. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume II: Their Finest Hour. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1949, p. 529.

3. The Ultra program was the highly secretive cryptanalysis efforts to break German radio encryption. See also “Ultra and the Battle of the Atlantic.” National Security Agency. Accessed on February 6, 2017.

4. Doenitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Boston, MA: De Capo Press, 1997, p. 329.

5. Ibid, p. 4.

6. Ibid, p. 21.

7.  Ibid, p. 22.

8. Ibid, p. 23.

9.  Ibid.

10. Marder, Arthur. “Admiral Sir John Fisher: A Reappraisal.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1942,

11. Ibid. 

12. See also: Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013 and Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Chapters 2 and 3 of Hughes, in particular, have a concise discussion of this topic.

13. This essay focuses on the development of active sonar, but the list can certainly be expanded to include technological developments on both sides: radio direction finding, acoustic torpedoes, an air induction mast, or snorkel, the mathematically-based attack tactics for bombers and depth charging, and the prodigious industrial efforts of the American shipbuilding industry to churn out the Liberty ships and destroyer escorts. A myriad of resources provide greater information on these individual developments.

14. Sternhell, Charles M. and Alan M. Thorndike. “Antisubmarine Warfare in World War II.” Operations Evaluation Group, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington D.C., 1946, p. 2. 

15. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume I: The Gathering Storm. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1948, pp. 127-8.

16. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

17. Doenitz, p. 23.

18. Churchill, p. 325.

19. See Part II of Sternhell and Thorndike for an excellent exposition on the various scientific approaches to anti-submarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic. This section truly summarizes the first operational application of operations research, at the time a nascent field. See also: Koopman, B. O. Search and Screening: General Principles with Historical Applications. New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1980. Budiansky, Stephen. Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boat and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013.

20. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

21. Churchill, p. 569 and Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 639.

22. Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 23.

23. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume I:  The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 33.  

24. Churchill, p. 117.

25. Ibid, p. 361.

26. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Edited by Basil Liddell Hart, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 114-115.

 Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 345.

27. Corbett, Julian S. Principles of Maritime Strategy. Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2004. pp. 102-3.

28.  Ibid, p. 91.

29. Churchill, Volume I, pp. 535-6.

30. Morison, p. 42.

31. Raeder, Erich. Struggle for the Sea. London: William Kimber and Co. Ltd., 1959, p. 128.

32. Ibid, p. 136.

33. Clausewitz, p. 261.

34. Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015, p. 34.

35. See also: Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015. This collection comprises the surviving documents that Doenitz ordered preserved, not destroyed, when he headed the German government at the end of the war. The volume shows the difficulties that the German Navy faced in executing the naval component of German national strategy given Hitler’s general disposition toward ground forces and the influence of Hermann Goering and the German Air Force.

36. Doenitz, p. 112.

37. Ibid, p. 329.

38. Roskill, Stephen. “CAPROS not Convoy: Counterattack and Destroy!” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1956,

39. Winston, George. “The Amazing Achievement of Baltimore’s Shipyards: One Liberty Ship Every 42 Days.” War History Online. November 24, 2015.

40. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 363.

41. See also: Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, pp. 361-4. Here Morison draws conclusions about the American role in the battle, which he generally confines to the development and deployment escort carrier groups. He writes that the British and Canadian forces were on the whole more skilled and experienced than American forces, and that British and Canadian forces did more to contribute to victory in the Atlantic than did the United States. His full conclusions about the battle are worthy fodder for strategists to consider.

42. Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval

Featured Image: Colorized photo of German U-boats. (Public Domain)

British Amphibious Operations in Egypt, 1801: A JP 3-02 Perspective, Pt. 2

Read Part One of this two-part series here.

By Jason Lancaster


“The Action Phase is the period from the arrival of the amphibious force in the operational area, through the accomplishment of the mission and the termination of the amphibious operation.” JP 3-02

At 2 am, 5,500 troops climbed down into their boats to begin the assault on the French-held Aboukir Peninsula in 1801. Some of the boats had to row six miles to form up, delaying the assault from dawn until almost 9 am. As the boats approached the beach they could see the French troops and artillery in the sand dunes to their front, and artillery from the fort to their right started to fire. Embarked in one of the boats for the assault was Lieutenant Aeneas Anderson who stated, “Never was there a more trying moment.” As the troops crammed into the heavily loaded landing craft were vulnerable to fire the French managed to sink several craft. Some of the men in the boats were killed by round shot or drowning, while many were rescued from the water by boats tasked with SAR.1 Naval gunfire support was provided by Royal Navy bomb vessels Tartarus and Fury, two gunboats, and three armed launches.2 These vessels took station on the flanks and supported the landings by attacking Aboukir Castle on the right flank.

As the initial wave landed they formed up in the water. Soldiers of the 40th and 23rd Regiments charged ahead to capture the high sand dune in their front. On the left, 200 French cavalry charged the Coldstream Guard still forming up in knee-deep water, but the cavalry were repulsed by a well-timed volley fired by the 48th. The sharp action of twenty minutes secured a British beachhead at Aboukir. In a span of 5 minutes the British had landed 5,000 troops and formed for battle on a beach. After 15 minutes the British had driven off entrenched French forces and captured six cannons.3

British casualties had been heavy. Out of an initial landing force of 5,000, the Royal Navy had lost 97 officers and men killed or wounded, while the army had lost 625 killed, wounded, or missing and presumed drowned.4 Despite the heavy losses, British morale soared. General Menou had so doubted the ability of the British to establish a beachhead that he had only sent a detachment of 2,000 to defend against the landing instead of a larger force. French prisoners stated, “They had no fear that a landing could succeed.”5 General Menou expected the French army would have to fight on three fronts in Egypt. The army continued to fight a numerically superior yet qualitatively inferior Ottoman army east of Suez. The French expected this British force to land somewhere near Alexandria, and for another British force from India to land somewhere on the Red Sea coast. The British exploited Lake Aboukir and Aboukir Bay as a highway transporting water, supplies, and armed launches to provide naval gunfire support to the forward edge of battle. With the beachhead secured, General Abercromby’s forces advanced from Aboukir toward Alexandria.

 On the 13th of March, the French attacked the British at Mandara, but well-positioned British troops repulsed the French. After two British victories, the local Arabs began to sell provisions to the army, reducing the reliance on provisions provided from the ships.6

On the 21st of March the French attacked again. General Abercrombie, leader of the British expeditionary force, was mortally wounded in the battle and died aboard the flagship instructing his staff to return the soldier’s blanket he was carried to the ship in. The French retired into the city of Alexandria. The British then left a force to besiege the city while another force pressed up the Nile to capture Cairo and link up with soldiers from India. On 16 August, Captain Cochrane and General Coote executed a second landing west of Alexandria to completely surround the city. On 29 August, 1801, General Menou’s besieged army surrendered.    

Command and Control

Modern U.S. amphibious doctrine supports a Commander, Amphibious Task Force (CATF) and a Commander, Landing Force. Both commanders will draft an establishing directive to outline priorities and define who will be the supported and supporting commander throughout the phases of the operation. Throughout an amphibious operation the supported commander will change based on what is going on. For example, during an amphibious assault, the CATF will remain the supported commander until the CLF has established a defensible beachhead ashore.7 The CLF will then assume the role of supported commander and the CATF will continue to support, typically with logistics until relieved.

Throughout this campaign, there was less CATF/CLF coordination than desired. The first objective of the expedition was to capture the Spanish fleet at anchor in Cadiz. Despite both commanders’ amphibious experience the objective was not met. Lord Keith dithered over whether to support the landings or not, and he “could not be answerable for the winds.”8 If winds were from the southwest the fleet would be scattered. Unlike in modern doctrine where the CATF is the supported commander until the CLF has a defendable beachhead, Lord Keith felt his duty and responsibility done once the fleet was anchored in the correct operational area. This lack of interest meant that on the scheduled day of the landings there was both a shortage of landing craft and massive confusion when those craft did not go to the correct ships to pick up troops. Eventually, the decision was made to cancel those landings.9

The day after the landings were scheduled to happen, the southwest winds blew the fleet off Cadiz. If the landing force had been caught half ashore and half at sea, the landing force ashore would have been destroyed and the Egyptian campaign possibly never would have commenced. The lack of proper planning, of rehearsals, and Lord Keith’s continued unwillingness to make a decision about the landing created great tension between the army and the navy. Resentment among the army was so high that General Abercromby wrote to Secretary Dundas. Lord Keith received a letter from the First Sea Lord suggesting he remain in Gibraltar, and let another admiral oversee the Egyptian expedition.10 Good natured General Abercromby understood that part of his role as CLF was to calm the waters between the landing force and the naval force to ensure unity of effort. Today, the CATF and CLF embark aboard the same ship, however General Abercromby and Lord Keith were embarked on separate ships, and the First Sea Lord insinuated that this was the cause of tension between the two. Space aboard ship was the likely culprit in why the two commanders were embarked separately.

Lord Keith’s top priority was the location of the French fleet, and whether the French Navy would attempt to disrupt the landings. This question caused real problems for Lord Keith. The risk was real as Lord Nelson won the battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798 when a large portion of the French crews had been ashore. The army required over half the sailors in the fleet to support their operations ashore, and the transports would be so undermanned as to be unable to work the ships while the boat crews were away. 3,339 sailors served in Lord Keith’s fleet; 545 of those sailors were expected to serve ashore, and a further 820 were expected to serve in the boats ferrying supplies to the army.11 Aboukir Bay provided an anchorage, but it was no safe haven in a storm. Lack of sailors also increased the risk of shipwrecks in storms and defeat in battle if the French fleet appeared. With the ships half-manned, Lord Keith doubted that in a crisis those sailors could rejoin the fleet prior to an engagement with the French. Lord Keith wrote, “I am convinced that were I to withdraw a man, the troops would re-embark and charge the failure to me.” Despite Lord Keith’s misgivings, fleet support ashore enabled British victory.


This campaign provides an excellent study of the difficulties of planning an amphibious operation. One will never have all the intelligence desired and one will have to make decisions based off very incomplete or inaccurate data. In London, poor intelligence and an ill-defined mission risked the expedition before it even set sail. At sea and on land the British forces demonstrated their resolve and flexibility in overcoming adversity and the French to secure Egypt. The seven weeks spent training while waiting for Ottoman support demonstrated the importance of rehearsals in preparation for an amphibious assault. The confusion of the Cadiz expedition was replaced with calm, discipline, and order. The daily training in ship-to-shore movement and forming lines from landing craft enabled the landing force to conduct an opposed landing against entrenched infantry utilizing linear musket-age tactics.

Throughout the campaign the Royal Navy provided naval fire support and logistics support to the army. Fleet support enabled the execution of the campaign, but the most important asset the expedition had was General Abercromby. His attention to detail, emphasis on training, and tactful ability to work with Lord Keith, despite the Admiral’s foibles, ensured the successful execution of the campaign.

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.


[1] Anderson, pg 222.

[2] Thomas Walsh andW.W. Knollys, The Cockade in the Sand,(Leonaur, 2014), pg 62.

[3] Anderson, pg 223.

[4] Mackesy, 75

[5] Lowry, pg 72

[6] Anderson, pg 239.

[7] Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, pp II-3

[8] Moore, 375

[9] Ibid., pp 376-378.

[10] Creswell, pg 99.

[11] Mackesy, pg 46.


Anderson, Aeneas. Journal of the Forces which sailed from the Downs on a Secret Expedition. London: Wilson and Co. of the Oriental Press, 1802.

Bartlett, Merrill L., ed. Assault From the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

Faden, William. “A detail of a plan of the Operations of the British Forces in Egypt from the landing in Aboukir Bay on th 8th of March to the Battle of Alexandria March 21st inclusive.” Wikimedia Commons. London, 1801.

Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. Vol. IV. London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1915.

Glover, Richard. Peninsular Preparation 1795-1809. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations. Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2014.

Life of Sir R. Abercromby. Liverpool: J. Fowler, Market Place, Ormskirk, 1806.

Loutherbourg, Philip James de. “The landing of British troops at Aboukir, 8 March 1801.” Wikimedia Commons.,_8_March_1801.jpg. London, n.d.

Lowry, James. Fiddlers and Whores: The Candid Memoirs of a Surgeon in Nelson’s Fleet. Edited by John Millyard. London: Chatham Publishing, 2006.

Mackesy, Piers. British Victory in Egypt The End of Napoleon’s Conquest. London: Tauris Parke, 2010.

Moiret, Joseph-Marie. Memoirs of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition 1798-1801. Edited by Rosemary Brindle. Translated by Rosemary Brindle. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001.

Molyneaux, Thomas More. Conjunct expeditions: or expeditions that have been carried on jointly by the fleet and army. London: ECCO Print Editions, 1759.

Moore, John. The Diary of Sir John Moore. Edited by J.F. Maurice. II vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1904.

Porter, Robert Ker. A Correct Account of the Battle of Alexandria. New York: Southwick and Hardcastle, 1804.

Walsh, Thomas, and W. W. Knollys. The Cockade in the Sand: The Defeat of Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign. Leonaur, 2014.

Wilson, Sir Robert Thomas. Narrative of the British Expedition to Egypt. Dublin: W. Corbett, 1803.

Featured Image: Brigade of Guards Landing at Aboukir, March 8, 1801. Thomas Luny1759-1837.

The Decisive Fleet Engagement at the Battle of the Yalu River

By Aidan Clarke

When war broke out between Japan and China in 1894, few expected a Japanese victory. Qing China had undergone its period of self-strengthening and modernization for much longer than the Japanese Meiji modernization period, had invested more money in its naval  programs and platforms, and the Japanese Navy was supposedly outmatched both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, at the Battle off the Yalu River the Japanese defeated the Qing Northern Fleet in a decisive battle. So what went wrong in Qing self-strengthening? What left the Chinese so vastly unprepared for naval conflict?

Upon a close review of both primary and secondary sources, three key answers emerge. Firstly, the lack of a unified Chinese Navy under the Qing Empire proved fatal in the First Sino-Japanese War. Second, corruption and inefficiency in the institutions of the self-strengthening movement ensured poor commanders and a lack of equipment in the Beiyang Fleet. Finally, Japan’s unified command, professional officer corps, rigorous training, and use of French Jeune Ecole tactics won the day.

Naval Power and Combat in the Sino-Japanese War

Li Hongzhang, the Chinese scholar, diplomat, and military leader, remains a critical figure in understanding the self-strengthening movement in China. He led modernization efforts across the Qing Empire, setting an example through his own Huai Army and the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet. Regional armies and fleets like the Huai and Beiyang soon became the model on which the Qing Empire built its new armed forces in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. This practice would prove to have fatal consequences during both the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars as factional politics would override any sense of national duty in the Northern and Southern Qing Fleets.

On paper, the Qing Navy dwarfed that of the Japanese in 1894. The total size of the Chinese fleet at the time was “about 65 large ships and 43 torpedo boats.”1 By contrast the Japanese could boast just “32 warships and 23 torpedo boats.”2 These numbers bely the true strength of each fleet however, as “China’s navy still had a fourfold division in the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong Fleets.”3 This division was foolhardy for several reasons. For one, it meant that the Chinese were never able to apply overwhelming force or superiority in numbers during battle. Despite the fact that the Beiyang Fleet was the largest of the regional fleets, and technically could match the size of the Japanese Navy, during the decisive Battle off the Yalu River, the Japanese had an 11 to 10 numerical advantage.4

The biggest problem the division created was that each fleet was regionally loyal and lacked loyalty to a central command or state. During the Sino-French War, the Qing Southern Fleet was annihilated by a French surprise attack. The Beiyang Fleet did little to help the Southern Fleet in this predicament, as “Li Hongzhang only sent two of the ships requested from his Beiyang fleet, and he withdrew these from the battle by asserting that the Japanese threat in Korea mandated their return north.”5 While this may have seemed a prudent maneuver at the time, allowing Li to protect two of his modern ships from senseless destruction, it cost him in the future. Just as the Beiyang Fleet had protected its own ships during the Sino-French war, in the Sino-Japanese war “the Nanyang officers now got their revenge on the Northern Fleet by keeping the Southern Fleet out of war with Japan for the most part.”6 

Factionalism went beyond simply Northern versus Southern Fleet rivalries, as it even existed within the fleets themselves. Regional factions seem to have particularly irked Ding Ruchang, Li Hongzhang’s commander-in-chief of the Beiyang Fleet, where “there were many officers from Fukien in the navy, Ting Ju-ch’an (Ding Ruchang), being a Huai-chun man and being placed above them, found that his actions were constantly being circumscribed.”7 This reflects the latent issues of the regional army system as it created centers of power aside from the Emperor or the state. This in turn meant that there was a lack of loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the fleet, all flaws that were exposed in the Battle off the Yalu River.

Another major issue faced by the Beiyang Navy was the corruption rampant in the late Qing empire. This was a major disappointment, since to many observers, the institutions behind the Self-Strengthening movement were initially very successful. The Japanese only began producing large scale warships some 15 years after the Qing successfully did so at the Jiangnan Shipyard. Even then those ships produced in Japan could not compete with those produced at Jiangnan where “In terms of armaments, those manufactured at the Jiangnan Arsenal were by and large superior to Japan’s.”8 The Fuzhou Shipyard, located further south, was even bigger, and where Dr. Benjamin Elman even refers to it as “probably the leading industrial venture in late Qing.”9 However, this success was not to last. Chinese regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the fleet. They were wary of the naval board because, “its ineffectual Manchu director, Prince Chu’un, and his successor, Prince Ch’ing were unable to administer its funds properly and could not prevent the Empress Dowager from diverting the funds for other purposes.”10 Another observer commented that “the Admiralty has had big sums paid to it yearly the last ten years and ought to have a balance of 36,000,000 taels, and lo! It has not a penny, having allowed the Empress Dowager to draw on it for the many whims she has been indulging in.”11

Worse still was the impact the corruption within the Qing government had on the commanders of the Beiyang fleet, particularly those in command at the Battle off the Yalu. Even before the war this appeared to be a common concern amongst observers of Asian naval affairs, with one newspaper article commenting that the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Ding Ruchang, was not adequately trained for his role, “Ting (Ding), whose knowledge of naval matters does not fit him to do any of the real work.”12 Another article states that when compared to Japanese officers, the officers of the Beiyang fleet “labored and still labors under disadvantages arising out of birth, habit, and system.”13 The Qing Empire’s insistence on maintaining Chinese essence while embracing Western characteristics meant that soldiers and sailors remained undervalued in society, while Confucian scholars with little experience in war or tactics found themselves in positions of leadership. These ideas are reflected in secondary sources as well, with one going so far as to say that “Li Huang-Chang had characteristically staffed it (the Beiyang fleet) with ‘needy relatives and greedy henchmen.’”14 While the aforementioned article does seem to take a Japanese viewpoint, the author is correct in noting that Admiral Ding had no experience as a naval commander regardless of his past as an excellent cavalry commander under Li. In the end, the author’s label of Ding as “gallant but incompetent” seems to be fair.15

The ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang Fleet was Li Hongzhang’s son-in-law, Chang P’ei-lun, who Professor Wiliam Lockwood refered to as a “champion swindler.”16 He describes the cost of Chang’s corruption, whose ordnance department regularly filled shells with sand, and “When the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7,000-ton ironclads had only three shells in all for their 10-inch guns.”17 Benjamin Elman also notes that the Chinese were “hampered by woeful shortages of ammunition” at the Battle off the Yalu and that “Some were filled through the black market with cement rather than explosives.” Elman argues that this “suggests serious corruption problems in Li Hongzhang’s supply command.”18 Not only did this corruption limit the Chinese fleet’s ability to fire its guns during the battle, but having a limited number of shells also prevents effective live-fire gunnery training.

Japanese cruiser Matsushima pictured in 1896. Matsushima served as flagship of the Japanese Union Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

This lack of practice was certainly reflected in the opening exchanges of the battle, as the Chinese opened fire first, “The Chinese Admiral opened fire at a range of 6,000 meters (about three and three-quarters miles), the shot on both sides falling short, the effective range being around 5,000 meters.”19 The primary armaments of the main Chinese battleships fired 197 rounds, and scored just 10 hits.20 When they did hit, they knocked the Japanese flagship out of the battle, but they simply did not hit often enough to have a decisive impact. Overall, the Chinese fleet “scored about 10 percent of her tries. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their quick-firers scored about 15 percent of their tries.”21 While the Japanese ratio does not at first look overwhelmingly favorable, the Japanese guns had three times the rate of fire of their Chinese opponents, meaning that they were more accurate even as they fired many more shots.22

In perhaps the most staggering display of outright corruption, at the commencement of hostilities between China and Japan, Elman tells of an observer who noted that Chinese ships had about half their crews, while the salaries for the crews were still being paid in full.23 These gross indiscretions helped doom the Beiyang fleet at the Battle off the Yalu River. Underequipped, undertrained, understaffed, and with the wrong men at the helm, the battle could only go one way.

What is staggering is that for every institutional shortcoming suffered by the Chinese, the Japanese could point to an institutional success. While the Qing were unable to coordinate or consolidate their forces under a single command, the Japanese fleet was always unified, and trained extensively together as a single fighting force. This goes a long way to explaining the contrast in the conduct of the two fleets during the battle. While the Chinese opened fire from the extreme range of 6,000 meters, a Japanese account holds that the Japanese fleet held its fire until it had closed the distance to just 3,000 meters. Furthermore, the Japanese carefully coordinated their fire, “All the big guns on the Japanese vessels were directed towards the upper decks of the Ting Yuen (Dingyuan) and the Chen Yuen (Zhenyuan), the rest of the Chinese ships being fired at with guns of smaller caliber.”24 This tactical decision showed remarkable forethought on the part of Japanese commanders who knew their lighter weaponry could not hope to penetrate the armor belt of the two Chinese battleships. Although it is likely these sources were carefully checked by the Japanese government (who provided the authors with sources and documents), this tactic is borne out as fact by the reports which indicate that Admiral Ting was injured in the early stages in the battle, as Japanese fire crashed into the bridge of his ship and took out the signals mast, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the fleet.

Battle map of the fleet combat action at the Yalu River, 1894. By J. Hart, based on sketch by Philo N. McGiffin, 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese remained steadfastly disciplined throughout the battle while chaos reigned in the Chinese formations. This is due to the fact that while the Chinese had neither the funds nor the supplies for extensive training the Japanese prepared for war by “incessant training at sea. Special importance was devoted to gunnery, torpedo work, and steaming efficiency.”25 Another major failing of the Chinese fleet was the reluctance to create a true naval academy and professional officer corps. The Japanese did not hesitate to do so, forming a naval school in 1866. The Japanese naval academy had existed for nearly thirty years by the time the Sino-Japanese War began. Using graduates from the school Japan had built a professional officer corps, and could count on well-trained commanders throughout the fleet.

Chinese officers on the other hand, could boast of no such training. While some, like Captain Deng Shichang of the Zhiyuan, (who was recognized for his heroic conduct during the battle) had spent time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, they constituted a small minority, negating their impact in the chaos of battle. The vast majority of Chinese officers were trained in the Fuzhou arsenal, and “some observers described the Fuzhou-trained officers as cowards.”26

Chinese battleship Ting Yuen which participated in the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many naval scholars suggest the Chinese focused too heavily on building ships while neglecting the training of their sailors. “The material growth continued at a rate more impressive than that of the Japanese Navy, obscuring the fact that the Chinese were doing little right other than acquiring more warships.”27 In Power at Sea, Lisle Rose attacks the Chinese mindset more directly, “China had chosen to concentrate on material power, Japan on the intelligence of its men behind the guns and in the engine rooms.”28 Perhaps the Chinese determination to adopt Western technology but maintain a Chinese essence blinded their mindset in this instance. The Japanese had no such pretensions, and strove to learn as much as possible about French Jeune Ecole tactics. Designed to help smaller fleets confronting a numerically and technologically superior enemy, these tactics were perfect for the young Japanese Navy. The Battle off the Yalu should be viewed as a textbook example of the Jeune Ecole in use against a quantitatively superior fleet.


The picture which emerges after an examination of the two fleets on the day of the Battle off the Yalu River yields up a stark contrast. The Chinese had more ships, thicker armor, and bigger guns, but were led by corrupt and incompetent officers, faced a dire shortage of ammunition, and had no overall strategy or tactics. Against them was a far smaller Japanese navy, designed and built around a cutting edge strategy taught to them by French officers, with a professional officer corps and years of extensive training at sea under their belts.

During the period from 1850-1941 practically every naval officer and expert was writing about the “decisive battle” that would invariably occur on the high seas in the next great war, where one fleet’s massive battleships would meet the others, and the two would go toe to toe just as Nelson and Villeneuve had at Trafalgar. This “decisive battle” seldom occurred however, with opportunities missed at Jutland, Heligoland Bight, Doggers Bank, Leyte Gulf, and more. But this decisive meeting of capital ships did occur at the Battle of the Yalu River and the Battle of Tsushima. This makes the Battle of the Yalu River one of the most fascinating moments in naval history.

The question of why the Qing failed despite their extensive modernization efforts and why Japan was so much more successful has occupied the minds of many historians throughout the years. Perhaps we have an answer in the form of Chinese failure to consolidate their regional fleets, rampant corruption, poor training, and inadequate personnel. These deficiencies were all exposed by a superior Japanese Navy off the Yalu River in the final, decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.

The author would like to thank Dr. Lane Harris of the Furman University History Department for his assistance on the research and writing of this paper.


1. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Herbert, Hilary A. “The Fight off the Yalu River.” The North American Review, vol. 159, no. 456, Nov. 1894, pp. 513-28. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

5. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

6. Ibid.

7. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

8. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

11. Ibid.

12. “THE SOUTHERN CRUISE OP THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 6 June 1890. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

13.“THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 29 June 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

14. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s Response to the West: The Contrast with China.” World Politics, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1956, pp. 37-54. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.


20. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Eastlake, Frederick Warrington, and Yamada Yoshi-Aki. Heroic Japan: A History of the War between China and Japan. London, Sampson, Low, Marston, & Company, 1897.

25. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

26.  Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

27. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914. E-book, New York, Routledge, 2000. Warfare and History.

28. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

Featured Image: The Battle of the Yalu River by Kobayashi Kiyoshi. (Wikimedia Commons)

The New York Naval Militia in Operation Sandy

By CDR Art McCormick (ret.)

Super Storm Sandy

On 26 October, 2012, as Super Storm Sandy, the largest tropical storm in area ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean roared up the eastern seaboard of the eastern seaboard of the United States Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York.1 Preparations included the 24-hour activation of the state’s emergency operation center (EOC) with major participating components, including the Division of Military and Naval Affairs (DMNA), ready to respond. A Warning Order was issued by Major General Patrick Murphy, the Adjutant General (TAG), to all components of the DMNA which comprises the NY Army National Guard, the NY Air National Guard, the NY State Guard, and the NY Naval Militia (NYNM). A Warning Order for the Naval Militia had been issued by the NYNM Deputy Commander for Operations on 25 October 2012. Three days later Gov. Cuomo ordered the mobilization of NY Military Forces (NYMF). The mobilization included members of the Naval Militia.2

On the same day, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, with the consent of the Governor, authorized the appointment of a Dual Status Commander (DSC) for NY, thereby allowing a pre-certified National Guard officer to command both state and federal forces within the state.3 This command was executed at 1128 on 3 November, 2012. This was the first large-scale unplanned contingency utilizing a DSC since the concept was established in 2009.4

Establishing the NY Naval Militia

Article 1 Section 8 of the United States Constitution authorizes states to establish militias which can be called forth by Congress “to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” The states are reserved the right to appoint officers of their militias and authorize training “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” Title 10 of the U.S. Code (USC) Sec.311, established by Congress, defines the organized militia as the National Guard and the Naval Militia.5 NY State Military Law Article 1, Sec. 6 “authorizes the Governor in event of invasion, disaster, insurrection, riot, breach of peace, or imminent danger thereof, to order all or part of the organized militia into active service.”6

Article 1 Sec. 8 of the U.S. Constitution also directs the Congress to “provide and maintain a navy.” In the late nineteenth century states began reestablishing Naval Militias, originally created and then disbanded in the early 19th century, to support the mandated federal Navy. In times of national emergencies states provided their naval militias for federal service. New York Governor David Hill signed a bill creating the NY Naval Militia on June 14, 1889.7 The 1st Battalion stood up two years later.8 The Naval Militia Act (NMA) of February 1914 put the State Naval Militias under the supervision of the Secretary of the Navy.9 This preceded the launching of the Naval Reserves by two years.10 With the establishment of the Navy Reserves, and later the Marine Reserves, federal support of naval militias ended and most states abolished their organizations.11

New York is unique in continuously maintaining its federally recognized Naval Militia. Title 10 USC does not include the Naval Militia as a reserve component but does authorize the Secretary of the Navy to set standards that the Naval Militia must meet, including the requirement that 95 percent of unit members be U.S. Navy (USN) or U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) reservists, to qualify for federal material support.12 NY State Military Law also requires 95 percent of Naval Militia members to be federal reservists13 and that the organization parallels that of the Navy and Marine Corps Reserves.14 Additionally, Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) between the NYNM and the USN (1996),15 the USMC (1996)16 and the U.S. Coast Guard (1997) have been signed, reaffirming continued cooperation while also permitting Coast Guard Reservists to join the NYNM.  Federal responsibilities supersede NYNM activation. A January, 2007 Defense Department report, Critical Homeland Infrastructure Protection, discusses the benefits “of the Federal Government providing immediate access to Navy and Marine reservists during State and Local emergencies, at no cost to the DoD.”17

History of NY Naval Militia Disaster Response

The NYNM can trace its disaster response history back to when it was mobilized to “protect steam ship passengers during the 1892 cholera quarantine at Fire Island.”18 120 years later the NYNM would again be at Fire Island performing Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA) missions. A more recent operation includes the TWA 800 recovery in 1996. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) was the lead agency in the massive recovery operation with significant USN support. Over 30 NYNM members, mostly stevedores from the USN 6th Cargo Handling Battalion, along with Marines, were activated for three to four weeks to load, unload, and drive trucks. 

When the North Country Ice Storm of 1998 struck in January 15 NYNM members were on State Active Duty (SAD) for five weeks assisting primarily with logistics and supplying staff officers. Naval Militia Construction Battalion (SeaBees) members served under the NY National Guard 152nd Engineer Support Company and used National Guard heavy equipment.

The most significant NYNM state activation occurred immediately after the World Trade Center terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Naval Militia personnel were on site within hours and remained in Lower Manhattan for ten months. A total of 560 personnel were called to SAD. A decade later, nearly 200 NYNM members were mobilized when Hurricane Irene struck in August 2011. Non-disaster activations included assisting with maritime security for the 2004 Republican National Convention when NYNM SAD members served alongside National Guard Title 32 and Title 10 troops.

Joint Task Force Sandy       

As the NY community was still reeling from the ravaging effects of “Sandy,” a Nor’easter (named “Athena” by The Weather Channel) struck the NY metropolitan area on 8 November, delivering 7-13 inches of snow, a four-foot tide surge, high winds, and additional power outages. Although a relatively minor snow storm as far as Nor’easters are concerned, the timing could not have been more demoralizing with snow accumulations breaking records for this early date. At the peak of operations there were over 4000 military personnel under state control with the majority being on SAD, some under Title 32, which allows the governor to retain command and control (C2) while the federal government assumes the financial burden, and nearly 700 Federal Title 10 forces (federal active duty personnel under C2 of the Secretary of Defense/President of the U.S.). Brigadier General Mike Swezey, a pre-designated DSC, was the only individual in both Operation Sandy chains of command: one leading up to the president, who retained C2 of Title 10 forces, and down to the active duty troops serving within NY. The other lead up to the Governor of NY, who retained C2 of Title 32 and SAD troops, and down to the state forces responding.

Orders were accepted by over 200 NY Naval Militia members during the Operation Sandy response with 25 to 85 personnel on SAD at a time. Duration of activations ranged from 1 day to over 30 days from 29 October to 30 November, with the majority serving from five to nine days. Most of the NYNM members were integrated into the state’s military task forces whose missions included security, sheltering displace citizens, food and clothing distribution, and the evacuation of hospitals and nursing homes. Additionally, the NY Naval Militia Military Emergency Boat Service (MEBS) performed safety reconnaissance operations in Jamaica Bay to help identify maritime hazards along with security patrols around Fire Island at the request of local law enforcement agencies until emergency utilities could be restored and access roads made passable. Naval Militia members were also integrated into the DMNA Joint Task Forces Headquarters (JTFHQ) and the Operation Sandy Joint Operations Centers (JOC) respectively.

The NYNM warning order of 25 October 2012 directed the activation of the Personnel Action Team (PAT) to begin identifying and contacting members in preparation of expected activation. Liaison Officers were also advised to be ready to respond to anticipated mobilization execution order (EXORD). General NYNM activation directives require members recalled to DSCA SAD to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours if necessary. The EXORD was given on 28 October and the JTF Sandy Liason Officer (LNO) team reported the next day. A NYNM LNO would be present at the JTF Sandy JOC from 29 October until 19 November when liaison duties would be handled locally by the senior militiamen in the area of responsibility (AOR). NYNM LNOs would also be manning the JFHQs JOC in Latham, NY. Within a few days the JTF Sandy JOC would include representatives from the NY Army National Guard (NYARNG), the NY Air National Guard (NYANG), the exclusively state NY Guard (NYG) and the NYNM. In addition, representatives from the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), Army North, the National Guard Bureau, and the USS Wasp Amphibious Battle Group (ABG) would be occupying seats within the JOC. On 3 November, the USS Wasp (LHD-1), accompanied by the USS San Antonio (LPD-17) and the USS Carter Hall (LSD-50), arrived off the coast of New York and New Jersey with embarked Marines and Sailors from the 26th MEU along with detachments from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 366 and Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 467. They operated in support of Hurricane Sandy disaster relief efforts. Title 10 personnel from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines were among the responders:

  •  Air Force teams completed unwatering operations at Rockaway Wastewater Treatment facility, and East School in Long Beach, N.Y., and provided teams to support fire departments conducting unwatering operations in Breezy Point, N.Y.
  • Army divers repaired the pier system at Caven Point, N.J. Additionally, divers continue to assist the New York City Fire Department unwater the PATH tunnel at the World Trade Center and unwater the Long Beach High School and Recreation Center, N.Y.
  • Marines continued assessments with Army engineers in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and pumped 90,000 gallons of water from apartment buildings there. About 750,000 gallons were pumped from affected homes and parks in Breezy Point, N.Y.
  • Navy dive detachments continue to support the World Trade Center site and Marine Corps pump teams are assisting pumping operations at Breezy Point.

Helicopters from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were transporting and relocating generators in the area at the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Navy Seabees and Marine personnel restored the beach at Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook; and supporting debris clearance operations at locations in Bayonne, N.J. and the Battery, N.Y.19

Also, National Guardsmen from Florida, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia arrived in NY through Emergency Management Agreement Compacts. With such a diverse force responding to the disaster, the Governor, with input from the Adjutant General (TAG), and the Secretary of Defense  consented to the activation of a DSC to command Title 10, Title 32, and SAD forces within the state. The DSC was executed on 3 November and the NYNM was a part of this historic event.

Naval Militia members, after reporting to the Joint Reception Staging Onward Movement and Integration (JRSOI) site and being scanned into the system, were then put to work where needed according to their skillsets. Seven members arrived with air transportation provided by the 109AW and then proceeded with the Air Guard command down range to Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn which quickly became the main logistical point for supplies and equipment being used and distributed by the various responding agencies. The majority of the mobilized force was sent to the Lexington Avenue Armory where they were integrated into Task Force 69.

According to one Meritorious Commendation citation awarded during the period:

“The NY Naval Militia element of Task Force 69 was responsible for saving numerous lives at Belleview Hospital during Super-storm SANDY. On 30 October 2012, the NY Naval Militia contingent, part of the Task Force, completed a mission at Belleview Hospital to keep critical hospital functions operational. In conjunction with Officers of the New York Police Department, this element kept the hospital’s generators operating overnight. Utilizing a bucket-brigade and 5-gallon buckets they hauled 100 gallons of fuel per hour from a 1400 gallon fuel truck to generators on the 13th floor of the hospital. Additionally, Task Force 69 assisted hospital staff by keeping food and water supplied throughout the hospital. When it was determined that Bellevue Hospital should be evacuated, 4-5 man teams carried patients down multiple flights of stairs to awaiting ambulances.”20

Two young Marine NYNM members that were qualified Humvee drivers spent a month chauffeuring the TAG and DSC throughout the AOR. MEBS-qualified truck and trailer drivers along with boat teams were kept busy early in the operation ensuring the safety of the vessels and equipment from storm damage. Boats needed to be taken out of the water and brought to higher ground where feasible and if not, taken underway to safer anchorages. If not for the conscientious meritorious efforts of the MEBS teams significant damage would have resulted. This would have hampered the security patrols that were to follow.

On 5 November, a request from Suffolk County for maritime security patrols with local law enforcement officers off Fire Island was routed through the JFHQ. It was determined that the NYNM could accomplish this mission and two vessels, trucks, and trailers, along with 15 qualified boat personnel, were soon on their way. They would perform what was quickly labeled “Vampire Patrols” from 1600 until dawn for 14 days commencing on 8 November. Although the first patrol had to be cancelled due to dangerous seas, security patrols from Kismet to Davis Park were completed. This area was without electrical power and the roads were impassable due to the super storm making the homes vulnerable to looters and any remaining civilians without emergency assistance. These patrols greatly reduced the risks. Flexibility was key as fuel and anchorage had to be secured for the vessels along with berthing and messing facilities for the crews. Assistance from the local authorities, including the nearby U.S. Coast Guard station was critical to the mission’s success.

Immediately after the 11 September, 2001 attacks, JTF Empire Shield (JTFES) was stood up and has remained active since. Simultaneously, the NYNM MEBS command was established with resources committed to JTFES mission. At the time of Superstorm Sandy’s arrival, 2 MEBS vessels were assigned to Empire Shield. One vessel, with armed National Guard personnel onboard, assisted with security at the Indian Point nuclear power station just up the Hudson River from NYC. The other boat was utilized for safety and security checks of vessels entering NY Harbor with a U.S. Coast Guard inspection team embarked. This was done through a unique agreement between NY and the Coast Guard. When Sandy struck, both MEBS boats were taken off the Empire Shield mission and given over to JTF Sandy to be used by the DSC as needed. This allowed the boats to be available if conditions permitted while allowing them to be relocated to safer anchorage. Within a few days, when it was determined that sufficient MEBS resources could be mobilized for Operation Sandy, both boats were returned to Empire Shield to continue their normal missions.

The final mission assignment for members of the NYNM involved going door-to-door in the ravaged coastal areas of Rockaway, Brooklyn, and Staten Island to ascertain the well-being of citizens whose lives were devastated by this catastrophic event. This was accomplished through the Thanksgiving Holiday.

The Current Force    

As the federal maritime forces in NY have decreased, so has the NYNM membership. The recent Strength Report dated March 1, 2012, counts total enrollment at 2206, (compared to approximately 4500 on 9/11), with 209 officers, 22 warrants, and 1975 enlisted.21 The majority of members are selected reservists (SELRES) from the USN (1300), followed by USMC SELRES (655), and USCG SELRES (106). Retired reservists under 60 years of age on the Federal Component List (94) and 5-percenters on the State Active List (51) make up the rest of the force. NY State educational assistance entices recruitment.22 Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, all training was provided by the federal government through the reserve system.

A new Joint Operations Center (JOC) with direct communications with the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) was dedicated at DMNA Headquarters in 2008.23 The NYNM, along with the other components of the DMNA JTFHQ, mans a position at the JOC, continuing to stand the watch for not only New York, but all of America.

Arthur McCormick CDR (ret) NY Naval Militia is a US Navy veteran having served on active duty as a Radioman from 1966 to 1970 and then as a reserve Hospital Corpsman from 1987 to 1990. Shortly after 9/11/01 he was recalled to state active duty into the federally recognized NY Naval Militia in support of the World Trade Center disaster response. He served in lower Manhattan. He subsequently accepted a state commission in 2003. CDR McCormick served as Senior Joint Task Force 3 Liaison Officer on the staff of the Dual Status Commander for Hurricane Irene (DSC authorized but not activated) and Superstorm Sandy (DSC activated). CDR McCormick graduated from the US Naval War College with Joint Professional Military Education Phase 1 certification in 2008. CDR McCormick retired from the NY Naval Militia in 2016. On the civilian side Dr. McCormick is a retired veterinarian having graduated from the NY State College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University in 1979. He may be reached at


[1] Governor Cuomo Declares State of Emergency in New York in Preparation for Potential impact of Hurricane Sandy.  Oct 26, 2012.

[2] Governor Cuomo Directs New York Army and Air National Guard to Mobilize for Hurricane Sandy.  Oct 12, 2012

[3] Panetta Appoints ‘Dual’ Commanders for Hurricane Relief. American Forces Press Service. Oct 28, 2012

[4] Hurricane Sandy Puts New National Guard Command Mechanism to Work. National Defense Industrial Association. December 2012

[5] Title 10 Sec. 311 USC.

[6] NYS Military Law Art 1 Sec 6.

[7] NY Times. June 15, 1889.

[8] New York Naval Militia Turns 120 on June 23 2011.

[9] NYNM.  

[10] TNR. MAR 2010. History of the Navy Reserves, p. 18.

[11] National Archives. Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. 24.6.2 Records of the Division of Naval Militia Affairs.

[12] Title 10 Sec. 7854.—-000-.html

[13] NYS Mil Law.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Dept of Defense (DoD).


[17] Defense Science Board Task Force, p19.

[18] NYNM.

[19] US DoD News. Pentagon Provides Sandy Response Update. Nov 9, 2012.

[20] Meritorious Commendation Award citation. EO1 Thomas Gray. For meritorious service during the period 29 October 2012 – 8 November 2012.

[21] NYNM HQ. Latham, NY 12MAR2012.

[22] NYNM Education.

[23] NYNG Media Advisory.

Featured Image: Crews from the Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay, Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team Boston, Coast Guard Station New York, the New Jersey State Police and the New York City Police Department escort the Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) New York as the ship sails into New York Harbor. The nearest patrol boat is  NYNM PB 300 escorting the USS New York (LPD-21) into NY harbor for it’s commissioning ceremony in November 2009.