John D. Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic (Albright)

John D. Grainger

The British Navy in the Baltic

(Boydell, 2014) 304pp.  $115

The British Navy in the Baltic

Although the Baltic Sea is not the first area that would come to mind when one thinks of operational areas of great importance to the British Navy, naval historian John Grainger thoughtfully discusses the British naval history in this area in a way that joins military and diplomatic history, along with a thoughtful and nuanced view of naval and political strategy that should be of interest to astute readers of naval history with a personal or professional interest in Scandinavian history.  This book deals with British naval history as it related to other Baltic naval powers throughout history, including the Dutch, Danish, Swedes, Hansa/Prussians/Germans, and Russians, and examined both the power and the limitations of England and then Britain’s naval strength over a broad time span ranging from about 1000AD to the period after World War II.

The vast majority of the material in this book deals with the period after the 1640s when the Royal Navy began to take a much stronger role in the Baltic Sea as a way of operating against continmental foes and in defense of its trade routes.  That said, what the book does say about medieval naval history in the Baltic is of great worth to historians of the Middle Ages with an interest in the naval history of that period.  For example, about the merchantile origins of England’s naval strength, the author has the following to say:  “The trading involvement of British ships preceded the navy’s presence by centuries, and developed slowly, and, for Britain, in a typical pattern that can be paralleled in other seas; the combination of the threat of force and the exercise of trade was prefigured long before the Royal Navy came into existence in the actions of King Knut and in the accounts of two traders who visited King Alfred’s court (1).”  Likewise, the author presents the vulnerability of early English efforts to trade in the Baltic Sea during the period of Hanseatic dominance in a way that will likely be unfamiliar to many readers raised on the brave derring-do of naval commanders like Nelson and Saumarez, when he he tells us that “the record of British involvement in the Baltic in the Middle Ages is thus mainly commercial.  Without a powerful British military or naval presence in the region these visitors had to conform to local laws and customs.  Until after about 1500 it is clear that the merchants of the British Isles who chose to operate in the Baltic did so on local suffurance.  There was no possibility that the kings of England or Scotland would be able to come to their rescue if they got into trouble.  No big stick was available; soft talk meant diplomacy (11).”

Despite this book’s lack of focus on the Middle Ages directly, there are at least a couple of reasons why those who are fond of the history of the Middle Ages will appreciate this book nonetheless.  One of thease reasons is that when the book does speak of the Middle Ages, it does so with a focus on well-documented primary sources that historians of the time can examine for their own more narrowly focused studies of the period.  For example, the lengthy bibliography at the end of the book includes about half a dozen primary documents from the Middle Ages, including the Old English Orosius and a translsation of the account of two voyagers at the court of King Alfred by Niels Lund.  Those interested in the military history of the Middle Ages as they related to early experiences of merchants abroad and the relationship between trade, diplomacy, and power would find much to enjoy in examining this source material more closely.

Another area of likely interest for students or researchers of medieval military history is the way that Grainger integrates his interest in military history with broader questions of political and diplomatic history.  Indeed, it is in the nexus between the military capabilities of the various Baltic fleets, most of which left the theater every fall and returned every spring after the ice melted and the political aims of the British government, whichever one was in power at the time, makes for a fascinating study in finesse and delicacy.  Over and over again the author shows how the most savvy admirals in the Baltic Sea used naval power like a rapier rather than like a bludgeon, acting with diplomatic finesse and using the presence of srength combined with restraint in its use to achieve Britain’s goals without direct military effort.  Frequently in the context of discussing various activities of the British navy, including boarding neutral ships or bombarding cities or bases or engaging in various small squadron missions, the author notes that the evident power of the British navy tended to force opponents into hiding their ships behind powerful land bases or adopting a strategy of using small ships to raid and harry the larger but slower British ships, which, lacking the home bases of the small navies of the area, were often at a disadvantage in having year round military operations in the area or avoiding shoals or operating in the shallow parts of the sea.

Indeed, this is a book where the author helpfully gives his own conclusions at the end to reward those who stayed the course to finish this highly detailed text, when he writes at the close of this book, “It is therefore time to take a different view of naval power than that of the traditional naval historians, or even the more sociologically inclined modern ones. Real power is not displayed at sea by fighting or even winning battles.  This is hard on the sailors who are recruited with the implied promise of fighting and achieving glory.  But power is exercised by occupying seas and deterring enemies without fighting – ‘showing the flag’ – in the old phrase.  The Baltic Campaigns are almost pure examples of this.  The buldgeon of a Nelson was intelligently replaced by the diplomacy of Saumarez.  Even the supposed ‘fire-eater’ Admiral Cowan of 1919-1920 used his naval power with finesse, and oeprated even more as a diplomat and a cheerleader to encourage his friends and allies.  The subtle attack by the CMBs to cripple the Russian fleet was timely, and highly effective, a classic of its kind (262).”

So, although this book mostly focuses on the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and the peak of power of the British navy as it sought to show the flag all over the world, especially in the tense region of the Baltic Sea where so many of Britain’s naval stores came from in the age of wooden vessels, it has much to offer those whose view of naval power is broad and whose interest includes the political ends for which military means are sought.  Much of the book’s material only tangentially deals with the Middle Ages, but all the same, the author’s nuanced and thoughtful approach rewards those who are willing to read it for what it is and apply it to areas where the author discusses matters only briefly and in passing.  Likewise, the book is also worthwhile to those who want to seek out the sources it quotes for further reading about specific areas of interest that the author discusses.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

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