The British Empire Library

T. E. Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol: The Royal Navy's Role in Creating the Legend

by John Johnson Allen

One cannot help but feel that the title of this book should have been along the lines of The Red Sea Patrol, T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. The given title somewhat diminishes the focus of the book on the Royal Navy in this theatre and elevates the importance of T.E. Lawrence who is definitely a minor character compared to the Captains and Navy personnel detailed in the book. The large photograph of T.E.Lawrence and the prominence of his name in the title does the important actual subject of the book something of a disservice.

In many ways it was heartening to see that the Royal Navy could find some very good uses for ships that would have been hopefully obsolete taking on the modern German Navy in the North Sea at this point in time. With the Turkish fleet holed up in Constantinople, there was little naval danger whatsoever to the ageing flotilla. Also, the relatively benign climatic conditions made the seaplanes far more effective in this theatre than almost any other theatre as the calm seas and warm winds meant that they could be used extensively with little danger to the pilots when taking off or landing. The Red Sea was a vital communications conduit with merchant ships and troopships moving from the Empire and further afield to the Mediterranean on to the fronts in Europe. The Suez Canal turned the 1200 nautical mile length of the Red Sea from a backwater into a highway of communications and strategic importance in its own right even without using it as a launchpad to support the Arab Revolt and assault the Turks in the Hejaz and Islamic Holy Lands.

The Red Sea Patrol was made up of a motley crew of Royal Naval, Royal Indian Marine and repurposed Merchant Marine ships crewed by an even wider variety of Royal Navy, Reserve, Merchant and Indian Marine personnel. The book has some very nice line drawings of many of the ships at the head of each chapter. These add a nice touch and give an impression to the state of the ships. The top speeds of many of them were more than a little underwhelming - interestingly it was the Indian Troopships that were the most modern and the quickest of the ships on the Patrol. However, despite their age, the warships were generally fine for the jobs they were given. They had large crews which was not necessarily a bad thing when landing parties had to be hastily created. The 4 or 6 inch guns were more than large enough to be able to add significant artillery support to any bombardment of Turkish positions or port facilities and their armour made them all but invulnerable to any Turkish guns firing back. And as mentioned above, the Royal Naval Air Service offered reconnaissance and intimidated enemies who had never seen air power before. The author explains that quite a few engagements were determined by the presence of air power - not so much for any firepower or bombing but due to the awe that the planes inspired by their very existence over the battlefield.

To his credit, T.E. Lawrence never underestimated the importance of the Red Sea Patrol to the success of the Arab Revolt. He called it the 'Fairy-Godmother of the Revolt'. The Red Sea Patrol delivered supplies, provided gold to local warlords, blockaded any goods from getting to the Turks by sea, moved soldiers and diplomats, hosted important meetings with revolt leaders, carried religious artefacts, bombarded Turkish positions, captured or supported the capturing of all the ports along the coastline, supplied water and water facilities (critical in any desert campaign, ) and provided expertise and their own landing parties in conducting some of the fighting. The Patrol was also blessed with some impressive leaders in a war that was not always known for great leadership. Admiral Wemyss and Captain Boyle deserve the lion's share of praise in this respect, although many of the Captains did a highly professional job when called upon given the quality of the ships at their disposal. Again, Lawrence understood the importance and value of these leaders and did not underplay their helpfulness and resourcefulness in any way.

Given how important the taking of Aqaba was to the mystique of Lawrence of Arabia. It is almost comedic to read of how the Royal Navy would use the port as something of a punching bag.... literally using it to range in their guns and blow up anything of significance. It is hard to think that there was much left for Lawrence to capture when he did eventually turn up to take it! Likewise, the Royal Navy landing at Jeddah Port in the early stages of the Revolt and demasting all the dhows there and destroying all the Turkish positions showed the Arabs how impotent the Turks were in the face of determined Royal Naval action.

Books like this are also valuable for shedding light on unusual aspects or personnel in the campaign. I for one did not know the role played by Lieutenant Wedgewood-Benn - the father of Tony Benn - who was an observer on the seaplanes used. I also hadn't appreciated that the rifles and ammunition supplied to the Arab Revolt were manufactured by the Japanese as the British were so desperate for their own. The role of the British led Egyptian Army is also expanded upon. The Arabs were very reluctant to have non-Muslims near to their holy sights, so Muslim Egyptian soldiers were fine to use without offending anyone in the region. Oh and it was very amusing to discover that the Arab Sheikh directing the British fire on to Jeddah was no political leader but a local merchant who used the opportunity to have the Royal Navy destroy the warehouses and factories of all his rivals. It is little asides like these that help bring the story alive.

I do wish the book provided maps of the area and of the operations described. It is such a confined area that maps would have been relatively easy to add. I understand that these can be found online these days, but often I find myself reading books like this in the garden or the park and really want the book to be self-contained. The Arab Revolt involved quite a lot of movement and certainly ebbed and flowed. Likewise the Red Sea Patrol had a lot of coastline to patrol and the locations of the all important coaling stations and port facilities would have been useful to understand the strategic decision making.

The book makes it clear that it was not all one way traffic in this conflict. The Arab Revolt did stutter and stumble on a number of occasions and it was usually the Royal Navy that supplied the resources, personnel or equipment to rectify it at key times. Arab leadership was not exactly inspired and their timing could be hopeless which made coordinating attacks very challenging indeed. Reading between the lines, it is clear that many of the Naval personnel were more than a little underwhelmed by the calibre and certainly the integrity of their erstwhile comrades but still fulfilled their missions accordingly. When transporting Arab troops you get the feeling the crews were happy to see the back of them.

Fitting last words on the importance of the Red Sea Patrol were perhaps those proffered by General Botha of South Africa who himself had fought the British and lost in the Boer War. At the Versailles Peace Conference, he expressed astonishment to the Arab Revolt leader Emir Feisal at how the Arabs had succeeded in fighting for so long against such a tough Empire where the Boers themselves had failed in their own endeavour. The Emir replied: "That was because you had not Admiral Wemyss and his ships to help you". History has not been as kind to the achievements of the Red Sea Patrol as all those involved were willing to bestow upon the Patrol. John Johnson Allen has at least tried to tip the scales back towards the exploits and achievements of this 'sideshow of a sideshow'.

British Empire Book
John Johnson Allen
Pen & Sword Military


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