Contraband During WW2

Taken from an original article in 1939.

Day and night the blockade of Germany goes on. Not by prowling submarine, but by the far more effective method of contraband control.  Not a ship can reach a German port by the North Sea unless she has passed through the thin grey line of the British navy.

Steaming up the Channel they come, ships flying the flags of many neutral nations. Arrived off Weymouth they anchor in the Bay and each hoists to her masthead a read and white blue bordered flag.  This is the flag which signifies that she is awaiting examination by the officers of the British Contraband Control; and the flag must remain hoisted until her cargo has been approved and the British Navy have granted her clearance papers.
Bound for ports all over Europe the neutral ships come to Weymouth or to the other two contraband bases in British waters – Kirkwell, in the Orkneys, and the Downs off Ramsgate, on the Kent Coast. In the first six weeks of the war the daily average of neutral ships arriving in Weymouth Bay for examination was twenty. Many of these were allowed to pass after a brief inspection of the ship’s papers, but out of a total of 74 vessels carrying 513,000 tons of cargo, 99,300 tons of cargo were seized as they embraced consignments of iron ore, fuel oil, petrol, manganese ore, and wheat.
The actual procedure may be illustrated by an account of what happens when a neutral ship put in at Weymouth. Her approach, whether by day or night, is signalled from Portland to the headquarters of the contraband base and a boarding party of two officers and six men sets out in a fishing drifter to board her. After apologizing to the captain for the delay and inconvenience, the boarding officer asks him to produce the ship’s papers, manifest, bills of lading and other documents. At the same time the wireless cabin is sealed, so that no signals can be made while the ship is in the control zone.
After satisfying themselves that the cargo corresponds with what it is stated to be in the ships’ papers, the boarding party goes ashore and a summary of the ship’s manifest, giving details of the cargo and the passengers carried, ports of origin and destination and so on , are sent by teleprinter to the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Usually in the course of a few hours the Ministry’s consent to the ship’s release is received and the boarding party goes out again to return the ship’s papers to the captain together with a certificate of naval clearance.

Contraband in ww2 Only if the boarding party find something suspicious does a search party go out to make a complete examination of the cargo. If the Ministry decides that the whole or contraband, the ship is directed to proceed to a more convenient port, where the suspected cargo is taken into the custody of the Admiralty Marshal, who holds it until the Prize Court sits and comes to its decision as to its ultimate destination.
Weymouth, as mentioned, is a voluntary base, but ships that do not call there of their own accord are intercepted by British warships, and taken to the next contraband base in the Down for examination. The third base, Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, is also a compulsory station. Thus no ship can enter the North Sea without first receiving the permission of the Royal Navy. There are also contraband bases outside British waters – for example the Haifa at one of the Mediterranean, and at Gibraltar at the other.
What constitutes ‘contraband of war’ was laid down in a Proclamation by the King issued on September 4th. The list of goods, the import of which into enemy countries is completely prohibited, consists of:

  • all kinds of arms, ammunition, explosives, chemicals or appliances suitable for us in chemical warfare
  • fuel for all kinds and all contrivances for or means of transportation on land, in the water, or air
  • all means of communication, tools, implements instruments, equipment, etc. necessary or convenient for carrying on hostile operations
  • coin, bullion, currency and evidence of debt. In addition to these articles constituting absolute contraband there is what is called conditional contraband, compromising all kinds of food, food stuffs, feed, forage, and clothing and articles and materials used in their production. These are seizable if they are obviously destined for an enemy country.

One Month’s Seizures
In a typical week, the first week of October 1939, the British Contraband Control detained 25,000 tons of contraband goods consigned to German ports, the cargoes included:

  • 13,800 tons petroleum products
  • 2,500 tons of sulphur
  • 1,500 tons of jute
  • 400 tons of other fibres
  • 1,500 tons of feeding stuffs
  • 1,300 tons of oils and fats
  • 1,200 tons of foodstuffs
  • 600 tons of oilseeds
  • 570 tons of copper
  • 430 tons of other ores and metals
  • 500 tons of phosphates
  • 320 tons of timber
  • quantities of other commodities were also detailed:
  • copra
  • chemicals
  • cotton
  • Wool
  • hides and Skins
  • rubber
  • silks
  • gums and resins
  • tanning material
  • ore-crushing machinery

The tonnage of petroleum products 13,800 is equivalent to about 3,600,00 gallons of petrol. This amount should be added to the 24,000,000 gallons of fuel captured by the British Contraband Control and the French Fleet in the four few weeks of war. The full effect of this seizure will be realised from the fact that a formation of fifty bombers would consume 4,000 gallons of petrol during an hour’s flight.
The suppression of traffic in contraband war must, of necessity, as Mr Chamberlain said in his speech in the House of Commons in September 21st, cause some inconvenience to reduce it to a minimum.
The Prime Minister went on to claim that Britain’s strict adherence to the rules of law is in striking contrast to the policy pursued by Germany. “No loss of life,” he said, “has been causes by the exercise of British sea power, and no neutral property has been unlawfully detained. Germany’s method of submarine warfare and the laying of mines on the high seas has already resulted in the death of many innocent victims regardless of nationality and in the unwarranted destruction of neutral property.”

Broadcasting on October 1st, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, stated that despite the large number of ships sunk in the first week of conflict, the imports into Great Britain, thanks for the blockades, were larger than there would have been had there been no war; in fact during the four weeks of which he spoke , 150,000 more tons of merchandise were imported than would have entered the country in peacetime.

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