In their efforts to render the blockade ineffective, the Secret Elite faced two major obstacles, the Royal Navy and the Prize Courts. The officers and men of the blockading forces were absolutely determined to stop any supplies getting through to Germany, and risked life and limb to do so. ‘From August 1914 to the end of 1917, the 10th Cruiser Squadron intercepted 8,905 ships, sent 1,816 into port under armed guard and boarded 4,520 fishing craft.’ [1] Over the years of the blockade very few transatlantic steamers and merchant ships or fishing boats escaped their attention. The North Atlantic blockading force ordered thousands of vessels to heave to, no matter the mountainous seas or freezing temperatures, and sent crews in small open boats to examine the cargoes, inspect their permits and papers and ascertain their destinations. It was dangerous work. There was ‘a perilous interlude when engines had to be stopped before lowering away or picking up the boat with its boarding party; and these moments when the cruiser lay rolling in the swell were more than enough for a U-boat’s captain to send his torpedo straight for the cruiser’s side.’

HMS Hawke 10th Cruiser Squadron

As early as 15 October 1914, HMS Hawke of the 10th Cruiser squadron was torpedoed by a U-Boat in the North Sea, turned over and sank with the loss of 525 lives. [2] These men were the unsung heroes of war, living on the knife-edge of uncertainty in a daily battle to deny solace to the enemy. 10th Cruiser Squadron was permanently on the alert but was constrained both by its outdated ships and unbelievable decisions made deep in the heart of the Foreign Office.

Suspicious cargoes were immediately seized by the boarding party and taken for inspection to the Orkney or Shetland islands. Thereafter the process should have been straightforward. Had the blockade operated within the dictates of international law, a Prize Court would have examined the cargoes and prevented onward passage if anything was deemed to be ultimately bound for Germany by way of Scandinavia. This was known as the doctrine of ‘continuous voyage’. In other words, if the cargo was being shipped to Stockholm and unloaded there, only to be transported on to Germany, it would be confiscated. The integrity of British Prize Courts had never been questioned and if ‘cargoes were proved to be of enemy destination or origin, they would be condemned by the Prize Court and there would be no appeal except to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.’ [3] On paper this system was flawless and fair. Given the acknowledged zeal and professionalism of the Royal Navy’s blockading fleet, very little contraband should have reached Germany from August 1914 onwards. That is what the public, the press and parliament in general believed. Winston Churchill had promised that the blockade would bring Germany to her knees in months. Not a word of dissent was voiced, yet powers greater than government ensured that the Prize Courts were neutered.

Behind the backs of the British people, in blatant defiance of the will of the British Parliament and widely accepted international law, the Prize Courts were sidelined and a more sinister authority created to exercise the real power over the blockade. As the former Admiralty lawyer George Bowles wrote in sheer exasperation in 1926, ‘The process of stopping ships that were carrying contraband, bringing them before the Prize-Court judiciary so that international law could be applied and stripping them of illegal cargoes, was completely undermined by influences inside the British Foreign Office through an invention called the Contraband Committee.’ Bowles believed that lawful processes ‘from first to last were checked, tripped up, manipulated and prevented from working by a deliberate and considered removal of the whole essential conduct of the war at sea from the Fleets and Prize Courts to the Foreign Office.’ [4] Look at the language Bowles used. There was no question of error or misunderstanding. Lawful process was hi-jacked and deliberately sabotaged.

Conjured by Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office, a small, carefully selected Contraband Committee was set up in secret as a barrier between the Navy and the Prize Courts. While the Royal Navy stopped and searched every merchant ship in the North Sea and and sent all suspicious cargoes into Kirkwall, the Contraband Committee ensured that very few of these were ever taken before a Prize Court. Under the guise of ‘freeing neutral shipping from all avoidable delay and inconvenience’, the Contraband Committee made the final decision on virtually every ship stopped by the blockading squadron. This compact group of five or six shadowy figures made apparently arbitrary decisions as to what was considered contraband or not, and determined which cargoes should be allowed to proceed to their given destinations. [5] Their decisions were not arbitrary. They consistently rejected the Royal Navy’s actions and released millions of tons of vital supplies that were ultimately bound for the German war effort.

The fate of the American oil tanker, the SS Llama, provided a typical example. With some difficulty the 10th Cruiser Squadron chased and captured the fully loaded tanker and an armed guard escorted her into Kirkwall. ‘But by a mysterious mentality someone in authority had ordered her release and allowed her to proceed on her way to Germany. She duly arrived at Swinemunde, where her most welcome cargo fetched a high price.’ Admiral de Chair thought it ‘incredible that after a year’s war experience we should deliberately allow supplies to reach the enemy after the carrying-ships had been intercepted.’ [6] The Llama was at that time owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey and was part of J D Rockefeller’s fleet. He himself was closely linked to the Secret Elite in London and on Wall Street. [7] When the Llama repeated the voyage she was again stopped by the 10th Cruiser Squadron and sent to Kirkwall. Ironically, she hit a reef and sank.

The Contraband Committee’s action, like its very existence, was a complete abrogation of the law. The rules were clearly set and did not include interference from committees or any other parties. According to international law,

‘Every belligerent Power must appoint and submit to the jurisdiction of a Prize Court… which administers international as opposed to municipal law. Only if there should be a gross miscarriage of justice would there ever be need for political intervention. If the Prize Court were under the direction of the Foreign Office, it could not more than nominally administer the law of international obligation.’ [8]

Commander George Bowles’s angry broadside summed up the Foreign Office’s illegal Contraband Committee:

‘This hitherto unheard of jurisdiction consisted, not, of course, in any form of open Court, but in a strange and suddenly invented Committee of persons nominated for the purpose by the officials concerned … It acted, deliberated, and decided in secret. It was in continuous touch with Foreign Office opinion. It was bound by no law, custom, precedent, treaty, rules of evidence, rules of procedure, or legal restraint. It maintained upon the seas, against the rule of the Law of Nations, the rule of the Department; and it was used by that Department to ensure the prompt execution of its wishes in cases in which the Prize Courts of England could not be trusted to carry them out.’ [9]

Commander Bowles’s assessment of the deliberate disruption of the blockade was perfectly valid, but he had no knowledge of the Secret Elite or their control of the politicians and mandarins within the Foreign Office. The secret cabal had assumed absolute control of the Foreign Office in 1905 when Sir Edward Grey was installed as Foreign Secretary. His minders, Sir Eyre Crowe, Sir Charles Hardinge and Sir Arthur Nicolson were proven Establishment men closely associated with the Secret Elite. These were the powerful individuals who actually ran the Foreign Office while Grey fronted and deflected questions in Parliament. [10] They sat in Whitehall offices by day, and dined in their private London clubs of an evening. They and the Contraband Committee made a mockery of the tireless efforts of the brave men of the 10th Squadron out on the cruel, unforgiving seas of the freezing North Atlantic.

Northern Patrol - 10th Squadron in North Sea

Virtually every ship and cargo sent into port by the Royal Navy was kept out of the Prize Court by the Contraband Committee. According to the prolific maritime writer Commander Edward Keble Chatterton, the end result ‘allowed cargoes obviously intended for Germany to continue to their destination, whereas the blockaders had no sort of doubt, and the Prize Courts would certainly have condemned such cargoes… Today (he was writing in 1932) we know all too well how this misguided rule of allowing supplies to reach the enemy had the effect of prolonging the war.’ [11]

In December 1914 the worn-out warships of the 10th cruiser squadron were replaced by a mixed fleet of twenty-four armed merchant vessels ranging from 2,876 to 21,040 tons. Some were passenger ships from the major shipping lines, others were cargo vessels, and several had been used in the banana trade. All of their captains had been hand-picked by Admiral de Chair. The Executive Officer and Gunner on each ship also came from the Royal Navy, but the remainder of the officers and crews largely comprised merchant seamen. De Chair spoke of the outrageous conditions in which his men struggled to keep the nation safe. They faced blizzards of snow and hail and towering waves which made rest or sleep impossible. His praise for them was absolute. ‘It brought out the highest qualities of seamanship and navigation on the parts of the Captains, officers and seamen and there was no denying the remarkable discipline, devotion to duty, and firm resolve on the part of everyone.’ [12]

On 2 January two sailors of the blockading fleet were lost while attempting to rescue the crew of a Norwegian barque foundering in mountainous seas in a force 9 gale. A month later, on 3 February 1915, Clan MacNaughton of the blockade squadron went down with her entire 284 officers and crew. In those dangerous raging seas the cruisers of the Northern patrol intercepted dozens of vessels every week. Between March 1915 and December 1916 an average of 286 ships per month were stopped. [13] Ten ships per day; every day. All the while, despite their heroic attempts to prevent vital supplies reaching the enemy, Secret Elite agents in the Foreign Office and Contraband Committee continually released ships with cargoes bound for Germany which brave men had risked their lives to impound.

Was it any wonder that the blockaders felt indignation and resentment at the way in which the Foreign Office undid their very best efforts? And how did Commander Chatterton later see it? They were allowing supplies through to the enemy and so prolonging the war. Bear that in mind please. They were prolonging the war.

[1] E Keble Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 279.
[2] Ibid., pp. 43-46.
[3] Ibid., p. 25.
[4] George F S Bowles, The Strength of England, p. 173.
[5] Ibid., p. 176.
[6] Chatterton,The Big Blockade, p. 214.
[7] Docherty and Macgregor, Hidden History,The Secret Origins of the First World War pp. 215-217.
[8] Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 148.
[9] Bowles, The Strength of England, p. 176.
[10] Docherty and Macgregor, Hidden History, p. 114.
[11] Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 61.
[12] Ibid., p. 75.
[13] Arthur J Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol. 11, p. 373.