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Book Review, NRJ 59.2

May 15, 2014 12:00 PM | David Eddy

The Transformation of British Naval Strategy: Seapower and Supply in Northern Europe, 1808-1812

James Davey

The Napoleonic War after 1805 has traditionally been described as a conflict between the Tiger and the Shark, or the Elephant and the Whale. James Davey, Research Curator at the National Maritime Museum and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Greenwich, contends that Britain’s naval and maritime prowess reshaped the outcome of the war after 1805. In fact, lessons learned after decades of naval operations—fighting battles, blockading enemy ports and vessels, and convoying supplies, men, and trade—across the globe permitted the British navy to accomplish their national strategic goals.

During the war against Napoleon, the Navy served as the most important arm of British strategy. Yet the Navy’s role during the conflict is far more complicated than most acknowledge. Davey describes how after Trafalgar, Napoleon waged economic war with his Berlin (1806) and Milan (1807) decrees, trying to cripple Britain financially. Britain responded with a series of Orders in Council in an attempt to control all trade to and from the continent. After 1805 the British scored no dramatic victories against French fleets but rather faced the mundane task of blockading Napoleon’s ports, which meant constantly keeping ships supplied on distant stations. The British Navy redeployed from the Bay of Biscay to Portugal and the Mediterranean in the South and to the Baltic Sea in the North, stretching supply lines and making it even more difficult for the fleet to fulfill its mission. Between 1808 and 1812 the British fleet in the Baltic Sea under the command of Sir Admiral James Saumarez protected trade, organized convoys, and offered European merchants under France’s orbit the chance to renew illicit trade and commerce, which undermined Napoleon’s economic decrees. The presence of the British fleet in the Baltic also blockaded the Russian fleet in port, depriving Napoleon access to the second largest fleet in Europe after Trafalgar, and drove Russia away from its French alliance. 

Perhaps Davey’s most important contribution reveals how sweeping British administrative reforms enacted between 1808 and 1812 created a highly effective logistical system, which permitted British ships to remain on the Baltic Station for as long as necessary. By highlighting the provisioning and constant transport of supplies to the Baltic Squadron, Davey offers the first systematic study of these areas and proves how the success of the Royal Navy depended on government and administration as much as on the fighting capabilities of ships and fleets.

Effective logistics and ample supplies win wars; the British supply system that developed by the early nineteenth century transformed naval operations, permitting the navy to pursue crucial objectives of national importance, protect essential exports and imports and attack the economies of the Napoleonic Empire, ultimately contributing to the defeat of France. This proves that naval history also encompasses administrative, economic, and political influences, and Davey makes that clear. Military and naval historians will find this book very useful. 

  • Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, ix + 237 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, tables, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. $99.00
  • ISBN: 9781843837480

Reviewed by Gene Allen Smith, Texas Christian University

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