The book of sixteen case studies examining commerce raiding or guerre de course shows that this strategy has time after time proven itself a most efficient way for sea powers to exert pressure on an opponent, especially a lesser sea power or land power, but that land powers have had little success using this strategy against sea powers. Topics include international piracy, international trade and historical background for the American War of Independence, the Civil War, and both World Wars.
Commerce raiding or guerre de course is associated with major wars, such as the U.S. Civil War and the two World Wars, but has been used effectively in smaller conflicts as well. As a military tactic, commerce raiding has time after time proven itself a most efficient way to exert pressure on an opponent. This edited book of sixteen case studies examines how and why guerre de course strategies are adopted and conducted.
When re-examining examples from 18th, 19th, and 20th century, several factors become apparent. First, while dominant sea powers have frequently conducted commerce raiding—most notably, the American campaign against Japan in World War II—weak naval powers or continental powers have also attempted to cut off an opponent’s international trade, as the American revolutionaries did in the 1770s or as Napoleon tried to do unto Britain from 1803-1815, usually with much less success.
Second, guerre de course campaigns often protract, especially if the victim, particularly a continental country, opens alternate land lines of communications. When attacking sea powers, however, speed is essential, as shown by Germany’s failure to defeat Great Britain in either world war. The more time a sea power has to create the means to protect its sea trade, the less effective the guerre de course strategy will be.
Third, changes in technology greatly affected commerce raiding, for example, the transition from wood to copper-hulled ships in the early 19th century, the change from coal to oil combustion in the early 20th century, and the development airplanes and submarines. Most recently, Somali “pirates” used small fiberglass skiffs and hand-held GPS devices to capture enormous oil tankers, bringing low-level, but highly affordable and dependable, technology to the fore.
Conducting commerce raiding and protecting one’s own shipping from attack was a traditional mission for all major navies, and played a particularly important role in Western maritime history. Post-World War II, however, the international community has tended to band together whenever any country or regional war interfered with international trade. This was best shown during the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq Tanker War and the current piracy threat off Somalia.
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