What is a Blockade Runner?


A blockade runner is a merchant vessel used for evading a naval blockade of a port or strait. It is usually light and fast, using stealth and speed rather than confronting the blockaders in order to break the blockade. Blockade runners usually transport cargo, for example bringing food or arms to a blockaded city. They have also carried mail in an attempt to communicate with the outside world.

Blockade runners are often the fastest ships available, and come lightly armed and armoured. Their operations are quite risky since blockading fleets would not hesitate to fire on them. However, the potential profits (economically or militarily) from a successful blockade run are tremendous, so blockade-runners typically had excellent crews. Although having modus operandi similar to that of smugglers, blockade-runners are often operated by state’s navies as part of the regular fleet. Notable users of blockade runners include the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War, and Germany during the World Wars.

Brief History

Ancient Greece, Peloponnesian War

There were numerous blockades and attempts at blockade running during the Peloponnesian War.

With his fleet blockaded, Leon of Salamis dispatched blockade runners to seek reinforcements from Athens.

Ancient Rome, Punic Wars

During the Punic Wars, the Carthaginian Empire attempted to get around Roman blockades of its ports and strongholds. At one point, blockade runners brought in the only food reaching the city of Carthage.

American Revolutionary War

Blockade runners in the American Revolution eluded the British naval blockades in order to supply resources to the army. French naval aid was vital.

American Civil War

During the American Civil War, blockade running became a major enterprise for the Confederacy due to the Union’s Anaconda Plan, which sought to cut off all the Confederacy’s overseas trade. Twelve major ports and approximately 3,500 miles of coastline along the Confederate States were patrolled by some 500 ships that were commissioned by the Union government.

Great Britain played a major role on the blockade running business, as they had investments in the south and were suffering from the Lancashire Cotton Famine. Great Britain also controlled many of the neutral ports in the Caribbean, and in the Bahamas and Bermuda. To protect their interests British investors had engineered steamships that were longer, narrower and considerably faster than most of the conventional steamers guarding the American coastline, thus enabling them to outmanoeuvre and outrun blockaders. Among the more notable was the CSS Advance that completed more than 20 successful runs through the Union blockade before being captured. These vessels brought badly needed supplies, especially firearms, and mail. The blockade played a major role in the Union’s victory over the Confederate states. By the end of the Civil War the Union Navy had captured more than 1,100 blockade runners and had destroyed or run aground another 355 vessels.

Cretan Revolt (1866-1869)

Greek blockade runners supplied the Christians during the Cretan revolt (1866-1869). Names of the ships include: Arkadion (named after the Arkadi Monastery, sunk by the Ottoman sloop-of-war Izzedin in August 1867); Hydra; Panhellenion; and Enosis (Unification), which was detained in Syros by Hobart Pasha in December 1868, just about the time the rebellion collapsed.

World War I

During World War I the Central Powers, most notably Germany, were blockaded by the Entente Powers. In particular the North Sea blockade made it nearly impossible for surface ships to leave Germany for the then neutral United States and other locations.

The blockade was run with cargo submarines, also called merchant submarines, Deutschland and Bremen, which reached the then neutral United States.

The Marie successfully ran the British North Sea blockade and docked, heavily damaged, in Batavia, Dutch East Indies (now called Jakarta) on 13 May 1916.

In 1917 Germany tried unsuccessfully to supply their forces in Africa by sending Zeppelin LZ104.

World War II

Axis Blockade Runners

On the outbreak of war, the Royal Navy imposed a naval blockade against Germany. However, the fall of France provided the German occupying forces with access to the French Atlantic coast, and between 1940 and 1942, many blockade running trips succeeded in delivering cargoes of critical war supplies – especially crude rubber – through the port of Bordeaux; a trade that increased with the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941. Allied attempts to disrupt these operations initially had only a limited effect; as in Operation Frankton. From 1943, however, improved Allied air supremacy over the Bay of Biscay rendered blockade running by surface ships effectively impossible. By some counts, during the war Germans sent 32 (surface) blockade runners to Japan, only 16 of them reaching their destination. Later in the war, most of the trade between Germany and Japan was by cargo submarine.

A number of Italian units, interned in Spain after Italy entered in the war in June 1940, run from the Bay of Biscay to Bordeaux, and some of them, such as Fidelitas and Eugenio C, dashed through the English Channel bound for Germany and Norway.

In an attempt to transfer technology to Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany dispatched a submarine, U-234, to sail to Japan. Germany surrendered before the ship could arrive in Japan. The Japanese submarine I-8 completed a similar mission.

On 23 November 1942, the German ship Ramses attempted unsuccessfully to sail from Batavia (now called Jakarta), the ship being in the Pacific when the war started, to Bordeaux with a cargo of rubber. The hope was that maintaining a sharp 24-hour lookout they would be able to evade the Allied blockade.

A small number of planes succeeded in flying between the Axis-controlled Europe and the Japanese-controlled parts of Asia. The first known flight was by an Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 Marsupiale, which flew in July 1942, according to various sources, either from Zaporozhye to Baotou or from Rhodes Island to Rangoon. Later, German Junkers Ju 290-A aircraft prepared for (or, according to some sources, completed) similar flights.

Allied Blockade Runners

During World War II, trade between Sweden (which remained neutral throughout the war) and Britain was severely curtailed by the German blockade of the Skagerrak straits between Norway and the northern tip of Denmark. In order to import vital materiel from Sweden, such as ball bearings for the British aircraft industry, five Motor Gun Boats, such as the Gay Viking, were converted into blockade runners, using winter darkness and high speed to penetrate the German maritime blockade.

Modern Era

In modern times, tracking equipment such as radar, sonar, and reconnaissance satellites make evading a total blockade by a world power nearly impossible. Drug smugglers and groups like the Tamil Tigers are able to run blockades due to the partial nature of the blockade, or because the navy imposing the blockade is weak and under-equipped. Reminiscent of earlier German attempts, drug smugglers have used semi-submersibles (narco submarine) in their smuggling operations.


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