German S-Boat
The fleet of vessels that set out across the English Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of allied personnel from the beaches of northern France has gone down in history as one of World War Two’s most celebrated acts of civilian heroism.
Significantly less well-known, however, are the coastal convoys that sailed every day through some of the war’s most dangerous waters to ensure the UK was able to keep functioning during the long years of conflict.
A new book, The War for England’s Shores, lifts the lid on the actions of these vessels and their owners, who carried food, fuel and the materials required for weapons around the UK, all while under constant threat from the German Navy’s S-Boats.
It also shines a light on the significant losses they sustained, with the wrecks of vessels that fell foul of the S-Boats littering the east coast and English Channel.
Those who went down with the boats form part of a roll call of around 3,500 sailors from 20 nations who lost their lives in British coastal waters between 1939 and 1945.
The War for England’s Shores, published by Pen & Sword Books, has been written by Dr Harry Bennett, Associate Professor in History at the University of Plymouth and a leading expert on maritime operations during World War Two.

When you think of civilian vessels and the roles they played during the war, what probably spring to mind are the rescues from Dunkirk or the battles encountered by merchant ships transporting goods across the Atlantic. But this is a battle that took place every day within sight of our coasts, and it is a story of outstanding bravery and heroism that has been significantly undertold. Every day, almost to a timetable, there were convoys of small ships travelling everywhere between the Firth of Forth and Milford Haven. That put them directly in harm’s way because they were not always operating under cover of darkness, and could not outrun – or fight back against – some of the fastest and deadliest elements of the German Navy. The fact they got through was critical to the war effort. Without them, war industries would have run out of power, stores of food and fuel around the country would have been depleted and people would have had even more of a struggle to survive the long years of war.

Harry BennettHarry Bennett
Associate Professor (Reader) in History

Dr Bennett’s research for the new book involved using an array of archival materials from the UK, Germany and the USA, as well as conversations with divers who have visited the wrecks.
In addition to highlighting the bravery and losses of those piloting the vessels, he also examines why the Germans failed to make the most of such an apparent opportunity to disrupt British infrastructure.
Through his research, Dr Bennett found that the threat was slowly countered by embracing new technologies and developing a system of sea control that gradually forced the S-Boats away from the offensive against Britain's coastal convoys.
As the war progressed, the S-Boats were also forced to act more defensively as the Allied forces mustered their strength for the large-scale invasion of France that ultimately began on D-Day in June 1944.
Almost 80 years after the war ended, Dr Bennett says the stories highlight the important struggles that faced these coastal convoys and also the need to remember our wartime maritime heritage.
He said:
“This is an aspect of World War Two that we have largely forgotten about, yet we can see the evidence of it every day. In cemeteries such as Penzance, for example, there are lines of graves where some of those lost during the coastal convoys are remembered. And if you stand on the coastlines at Plymouth, Lyme Bay, the Lizard and other places around the South West, you can see the final resting place of dozens of vessels.

“When we think about Britain’s maritime past, we largely talk about sea lines stretching around the world operated by vessels that were technically ahead of their times. What is hidden are the tales of the smaller vessels that are equally as vital closer to home, whether that is during wartime or in everyday life. These little ships may not be glamorous in their appearance, but the country couldn’t survive without them and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

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