What impact and role did smaller navy vessels (corvettes, frigates, torpedo boats etc.) have in the second world war? They seem to go almost completely unmentioned in most documentaries. Is it because they were relatively few in numbers, or were not of much use, or have they been simply sidelined by the flashier big ships?
I know that they lack the range to operate far from coastal waters, but to my knowledge they still had capabilities to perform a multitude of tasks, like minelaying, mine sweeping, submarine hunting, patroling and torpedo attacks.
Corvettes and frigates were the primary escort vessels for most of the North Atlantic convoys and also did duty on many other convoy routes, and there were a lot of them built (Wikipedia says 225 original design Flower-class corvettes and 69 modified). Most of the allied navies operated corvettes during the war except the Royal Australian Navy, I think. The later and more capable River class frigates numbered 151 and they were used by many allied navies (including the Aussies) but not as many as the Flowers had been.
Oh, so those classes were used as atlantic escorts, and actually had a very impressive range! Apparently one of their main selling point was that they could be built on smaller, civilian-oriented shipyards. Interesting.
There were a variety of such ships, many intended for “coastal waters” - minelayers, minesweepers, ocean-going tugs (for towing big ships through oceanic waters), and “anti-submarine trawlers” are some others.
(“Ocean” in this context is anywhere that may be subject to ocean storms – very high waves, very high winds – your average “deadliest catch” weather.)
It depends largely of the role of the ship and are where it is operated. They tend to be the ships that are not so commonly mentioned but they contribution was often critical. For example without minesweepers it is likely that Allied landings in the European theater would not have been as successful as the were. Without smaller craft guarding the flanks the operations in the Channel in 1944 would have been extremely hazardous.
Problem usually is that smaller ships need to sacrifice something (and often emphasize just a single element). Often such a quality is speed, seakeeping, armament, range, or some combination there-off. So they can be effective if used correctly but if misused they would suffer horribly. For example convoy escorts had the range for cross Atlantic journeys but did not have the speed (or armament) to stay with the fleet elements.
For example in the Atlantic the smaller ships like escorts (like armed trawlers, sloops, corvettes and frigates) were crucial in defending the convoys from submarines. On the other hand their effectiveness in other roles in the open sea was very limited. Near the coasts their importance was again greatly increased. Like near the Channel for example. On the other hand in the Baltic sea most of the action was limited to that of the smaller ships. Larger ships were very vulnerable there and rarely operated there.
All sides used plenty of various smaller vessels. Allies had large variety destroyer escorts, frigates, corvettes, sloops, armed trawlers, minesweepers, minelayers, motor torpedo boats, motor gun boats etc. the Germans for example had large numbers of M-boots (minelayers/minesweepers), R-boots (small minesweepers), S-boots (large motor torpedoboats), Vorpostenboots (heavy armed trawlers), SATs (Schwere Artillerie-Träger) etc. Apart from the coastal battleships Finland didn’t even have anything else than ‘smaller ships’ and still fought a naval campaign in the Baltic Sea.
Not just a main selling point but probably the main reason the design was adopted and put into (relatively) mass production both in the UK and in Canada. The original design that became the classic Flower class goes back to a WW1 proposal for a submarine-hunting ship based on the design of whaling ships. In 1936, Smiths Dock Company of Middlesbrough built the whaling ship Southern Pride (displacing 700 tons, with a top speed of 16 knots), and eventually the design was adapted into a naval escort that became the backbone of the convoy escort fleet. I’ve always been fascinated by the Flowers, as they originated in my home town and my maternal grandfather worked for Smiths Dock throughout the war as a plater (he very likely worked on several corvettes in that time).