Jellicoe Approves First Convoy in the Atlantic
Jellicoe (left) pictured with the Chief of Staff of the French Navy later in 1917.
April 27 1917, London–The toll of the U-boat campaign continued to mount. In April, over 870,000 tons of Allied and neutral shipping were sunk by German (and Austrian) U-boats; this was the worst month for shipping in the 20th century. The pressure was on Jellicoe in the Admiralty to find a solution, but Jellicoe was a methodical man and progress had been slow. On a cabinet meeting on April 23, Lloyd George strongly urged the introduction of convoys. Independently, the head of the anti-submarine office at the Admiralty had come to the same conclusion, and gave a detailed memo to Jellicoe on the 26th.
The case for convoys is obvious to the modern reader. As Churchill would later put it:
The size of the sea is so vast that the difference between the size of a convoy and the size of a single ship shrinks in comparison almost to insignificance. There was in fact very nearly as good a chance of a convoy of forty ships in close order slipping unperceived between the patrolling U-boats as there was for a single ship; and each time this happened, forty ships escaped instead of one.
There were several objections offered to convoying, some specious and some more serious. First, the Royal Navy had a philosophical objection to convoying: gathering up targets in one place and waiting for submarines to attack was anathema to the offensively-minded navy. Of course, it was the only way, without attacking German ports, of ever reliably engaging in combat with the elusive U-boats in the first place. First, sailing in close formation was not trivial, especially in poor weather, and it was not something that civilian captains were trained to do.
Finally, and most practically, there was a severe shortage of escorts for convoys, which would be necessary to keep the convoy cohesive and to attack submarines once they appeared. American destroyers were on the way, but had yet to arrive.
As a result, on April 27, Jellicoe agreed to try out a single long-distance convoy, from Gibraltar to Britain, to add to the convoys that already existed across the English Channel and to Scandinavia. Lloyd George would attempt to take credit for the convoys (especially after they proved to be the correct course), though it is unclear if his pressure was a major impetus in the decision to adopt them.
Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel.