For the British, the Battle of the Atlantic was a fight for survival, as they depended entirely upon the safe transit of hundreds of convoys of merchant ships laden with food, raw materials and munitions from America to feed the country and to keep the war effort going. The ultimate success of these convoys is much more than the triumph of one side's naval technology over the other, or of the revelations of the enemy's encoded orders assiduously teased out by the brilliant young decrypters at Bletchley Park; it is more too than the simple assertion that victory went to the Allies because they built more ships and therefore shipped more cargoes, than the Germans could sink. A national decline had left Great Britain desperately vulnerable in 1939, when she had to mobilise her civilian ships and revive the notion of a 'merchant navy'. It was this disparate collection of private vessels which endured the onslaught of the German U-boat offensive until Allied superiority overwhelmed the enemy. In this important, moving and exciting book, drawing extensively on first-hand sources, acclaimed historian Richard Woodman establishes the importance of the British, and Allied merchant fleets to the war effort, elevating the heroic civilians who manned them to their rightful place in the history of the Second World War.
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Feedback from visitors
Feedback from K. W. Jenner on Thursday, 3 August 2006
Rates this book:
Having been an avid reader for the past 60 years, this must be the saddest but one of the most important books that I have ever read. It is a book that I think all people should read
at some time during their life - if for no other reason other thanto fully acquaint themselves with the sacrifice made by the common allied civilian merchant mariners, and their naval and airborne escorts. I have sailed the Atlantic myself many times as a merchant seaman but it is only now that I am truly aware of howmany sailors perished
in those same waters, and how unsung those same sailors' lives were. Read it. It is well
written but it won't make you happy, but you will learn a great deal whether you like what you read or not. And, as always, Richard Woodman's research and maritime knowledge appears unquestionable, and answers many questions that you may never even have thought to ask.
Feedback from Anonymous on Thursday, 11 September 2008
Rates this book:
Woodman's inclusion of stories of loss of merchant seamen at very personal level is never allowed to interfere with his clear-eyed narrative of developments in the convoy war. Very good.
Send us your feedback if you've read this book and have some thoughtful words to contribute about it.
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For the British, the Battle of the Atlantic was a fight for survival, as they depended entirely upon the safe transit of hundreds of convoys of merchant ships laden with food, raw materials and munitions from America to feed the country and to keepMore For the British, the Battle of the Atlantic was a fight for survival, as they depended entirely upon the safe transit of hundreds of convoys of merchant ships laden with food, raw materials and munitions from America to feed the country and to keep the war effort going. The ultimate success of these convoys is much more than the triumph of one side's naval technology over the other, or of the revelations of the enemy's encoded orders assiduously teased out by the brilliant young decrypters at Bletchley Park; it is more too than the simple assertion that victory went to the Allies because they built more ships and therefore shipped more cargoes, than the Germans could sink.
A national decline had left Great Britain desperately vulnerable in 1939, when she had to mobilise her civilian ships and revive the notion of a 'merchant navy'. It was this disparate collection of private vessels which endured the onslaught of the German U-boat offensive until Allied superiority overwhelmed the enemy.
In this important, moving and exciting book, drawing extensively on first-hand sources, acclaimed historian Richard Woodman establishes the importance of the British, and Allied merchant fleets to the war effort, elevating the heroic civilians who manned them to their rightful place in the history of the Second World War. LessGet a copy Friends’ Reviews
To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up .Community Reviews
Eric_W rated it really liked it
almost 6 years ago
The subtle factors behind decisions that are made during wartime are often hidden even though they may have a substantial impact on many lives. Richard Woodman, in The Real Cruel Sea, describes the economic disincentive to form convoys of ships during World War I, even th. Read full review
Ian Pattinson rated it liked it
over 2 years ago
This book was hard work in places, but very informative with it.
Listing almost every convoy- and every lost merchantman- in the North Atlantic, and some key losses in other theatres, the book brings home the harsh realities of the war at sea. Every sinking, and every tale. Read full review
David rated it it was amazing
about 4 years ago
Having read Nicholas Monsarrat's novel "The Cruel Sea" decades ago, I found the title of Woodman's book intriguing. The daunting size of the paperback notwithstanding, I gave it a go.
If you are interested in the convoy aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic from the British. Read full review
James Webster rated it it was ok
over 3 years ago
Well, finally got to the end of this nearly-700-page monster! I'm sure this would go down very well with the maritime branch of the military history society but, as an interested general reader, there was just too much there. Detail was loving but repetitive in the extrem. Read full review
John Gordon rated it it was amazing
almost 5 years ago
This is a long, detailed and fascinating account of the war in the Atlantic 1939-43. The research to put this together is astounding with individual U-boats, ships, and torpedoes accounted for. There is a lot of data, enough to bog down many a reader, but thankfully there. Read full review
Simon Graves rated it liked it
over 3 years ago
Very interesting but tended to become a long list of ships sunk. Worthy read as a historical record but I don't think it portrayed the personal stories - each of the named ships would be a tragedy in itself. Maybe I'm being harsh and the number of ships lost tends to redu. Read full review
Peter Roach rated it liked it
almost 6 years ago
A history book, with the cold hard facts. Must have a been huge task in researching this book. I'm glad that someone sat down and wrote it. This book would only interest those that are intensely interested in this subject, or perhaps those that had a father or grandfather. Read full review
Dave Lever rated it really liked it
over 2 years ago
A story worth telling and reading. This book is a must for history buffs and people with an interest in maritime affairs.
Peter rated it really liked it
almost 5 years ago
The story of the Allied Merchant Navy serving in the various theaters during WW2, can be told and retold many times, but this would still not be enough to allow us to really visualize that terrible reality. In writing this article, my main purpose is to provide a picture of the conditions under which Merchant Navy crews served in the Atlantic theater, and the sacrifices they made.
My interest stems from the fact that most of my father’s relatives in Liverpool were connected one way or another with the Merchant Service, be it on the docks or on the ships themselves.
The Merchant Navy is a demanding service that provides hard living conditions and a heavy workload, with very little glamour. What moves these persons to become a part of a service of this nature? This is a mystery I can’t answer, except to say that there seems to be a “family vocation” which runs through generations, with the result that whole families enlist and serve with dedication. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Britain is an island nation, these people seem to have salt water in their veins!Royal Liver Building, Liverpool
This historical building was fortunately saved from destruction in WW2Liverpool, my Father's Hometown
My information is sketchy, these merchantmen don’t leave records of themselves, but I can categorically state that my grandfather, Thomas Robertson from Liverpool, spent most of his working years either on the sea or on shore organizing seagoing ships from various ports, some of which were in Chile. He worked for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, a British concern that traded from Great Britain to the Pacific and back, and also along the Pacific coast of the Americas, both North and South. This Company had important offices in Chilean ports such as Puerto Montt, and Valparaiso. Thomas met and married his wife, Carmen, here in Chile (I have spoken about this in previous articles ) and in fact, his first four children were born in Valparaiso. My father, a fifth child, was actually the first to be born in Liverpool. My grandmother Carmen is reputed to have had sixteen children, of which ten reached an adult age, five sons and five daughters. At some period in their lives, all five sons continued to be connected to the sea, in fact to the same company, known as the P.S.N.C. The tradition continued amongst my cousins, although the male off-springs were not numerous. I have no information of their fortunes or misfortunes; we have no contact with each other now.
The fact that the whole family lived in Liverpool, involved them very closely with the various stages of WW2, as the dock installations and the reception and unloading of mercantile cargo became vital elements to the survival of Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic, especially in the crucial period from 1940 to 1942.Sefton Park Lake, Liverpool
One of Liverpool's many Parks, now looking very peaceful
A Convoy sailing in the North Atlantic, WW2. taken from a Sunderland plane.The Convoy System
This system can be described as a number of merchant ships sailing together, that in the best of cases are accompanied by naval escort, but that can also be found sailing without this protection.
The system itself is many centuries old and was used with some success during WW1.
During the first months of WW2, most of the losses in merchant shipping were due to surface raiders like the Graf Spee, which contrived to sink at least nine merchant ships in the few months between September, when war was declared, and December, when this battleship became involved in the Battle of the River Plate (see my previous article ). These results were not considered satisfactory to the German High Command, especially as their U-boats (submarines) faced some difficulties in reaching the Atlantic due to the Royal Navy presence in the waters surrounding Britain especially on the East coast and in the Channel.
This state of affairs changed drastically after the fall of France in June 1940. However, the immediate threat to Britain was the sustained bombing by the German Luftwaffe. in an attempt to “eliminate the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the skies”. This was the well known Battle of Britain.
After this assault failed, the Axis leaders then decided to submit Britain through starvation. To this purpose, the German Navy escalated the use of submarine warfare, principally in the Atlantic. The fall of France became an important factor in this activity, as the U-boats now had direct access to the Atlantic from bases on the Western coast of France. There were submarine pens installed at Brest, La Rochelle, La Pallice, St.Nazaire, Lorient and Bordeaux so the U-boats no longer had to run the gauntlet of the heavy defended Channel waters.
This situation made the Allied convoy system even more important for the survival of Britain, at that moment the only European nation left that was opposing the Nazi war machine. This was also the start of the most dangerous period for the Allies in all the long years of the Battle of the Atlantic, which did not conclude until the surrender of Germany in 1945.A tanker burning in mid Atlantic (A Painting)
A Painting of a tanker sinking and some of the survivors.The Wolf Packs
This strategy was masterminded by Admiral Karl Dönitz, an experienced submariner and an excellent tactician. The U-boats hunted in groups connected by radio. When one member caught sight of a convoy, the rest of the group received the information by radio and converged on the scene to carry out a concentrated assault on the merchant ships in the convoy and their naval escorts.
The U-boats were so low in the water when navigating on the surface that their capacity to identify a convoy was severely reduced, but they had help from an unexpected quarter: the Nazis had broken the Admiralty codes, and could follow the exchanges between the British mainland and the convoy, which gave them the necessary information for closing in on their targets.
On the other hand, the Allies were using an initial version of the ASDIC (sonar), a technology that enabled the escort ships to detect a submerged submarine by the sound echoes as the ASDIC was directed towards them. The technology was not very precise, but it did represent an advantage for the Allies. This technology was made known to the US in the early years of the War, and US scientists were able to perfect it by investing more resources than Britain had available at that time. ASDIC is now known as SONAR, which is the modern version of this breakthrough technology.Survivors floating in a lifeboat
Survivors from SS City of Benares, the ship was carrying evacuated children to Canada.The Losses of the Allied Merchant Navy
Regardless of the advances in warfare technology, the statistics of lost shipping from the initial months in 1939 through the peak year of 1942 to the end of the War in Europe in 1945 are appalling.
RCN Sackville, a restored corvette from WW2, now part of the Naval Museum in Halifax, CanadaThe Picking Up Ships
As the attacks on Merchant Navy vessels and the subsequent losses started to escalate, another element entered the picture: the Navy escort ships could not chase the U-boats, protect the convoy and also pick up survivors from the lifeboats and rafts. The escorts’ primary task was to safeguard the convoy, and the survivors in open lifeboats faced a slow death by cold, starvation and the rough weather. The survivors in the water didn't have a chance; they perished in less than five minutes due to the intense cold.
The drain on experienced merchant crews would soon become a major problem. With this reality in mind, at the end of September 1940 the Commander in Chief of Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Smith, VC, presented his views to the Admiralty, stating that it was essential to provide the convoys with “Picking Up Ships” to follow astern of the convoys, with an important role in the rescuing of survivors from the hungry waters of the North Atlantic and other hazardous routes followed by the convoys.
The Admiralty was quick to act, initially by enrolling a motley collection of existing coastal ships and similar vessels, most of them past their prime, but seaworthy (barely!). By all reports, they rolled very unpleasantly in the fierce Atlantic seas.
In addition, a new design for small Navy vessels was created, introducing the “corvette”.
Officially known as Rescue Ships, they had sides designed to facilitate the hauling of survivors to safety and a speed of about 12 knots; they were also equipped with rescue boats, floats, float nets, grab hooks, scrambling nets and various other equipment destined to pick up survivors from the waters. They were also equipped with a Sick Bay, an Operating Theater, a Medical Officer and an Attendant.
Some statistics that can be found relative to these Rescue Ships indicate that they sailed with more than 750 convoys and rescued over 5,000 survivors, a very impressive record for small vessels of about 1,500 tons.
I have personal reasons to be grateful for the commissioning of these Rescue Ships, as I will relate further on in this article.Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax in Nova Scotia CanadaCanadian Participation in the Battle of the Atlantic
When Britain stood alone after the fall of France, joint cooperation with Canada, Britain’s best geographically positioned ally in the struggle to come, was of paramount importance to the free world.
Canada rose to this challenge in the most magnificent way, especially considering that the Canadian Navy (RCN) was not highly developed at that time, nor did Canada have a particularly strong air force. Canada joined the War with 13 war ships and about 3,500 sailors, but by 1945 the RCN had become the world’s third largest navy with over 370 ships and more than 110,000 members.
The convoys that were fundamental in providing Britain with food, fuel and armaments, set off from Halifax or from Sidney, both of these ports on Nova Scotia. The escort ships from the RCN accompanied the convoys to a point in mid Atlantic, and from then on the Royal Navy took over. Both groups of escorts then turned round and took each other’s place, returning to their home ports while accompanying another convoy going that way. This is a very simplified version of what was actually happening, but it’s a good overall description of how the convoys worked during the 1940-1941 period. The main port of departure on Britain’s west coast was Liverpool, a situation which continued during all the years of the war, and which caused the Liverpudlians to suffer severe hardships due to this fact.Halifax, Nova Scotia - Canada The Tide Turns!
The statistics for 1942 are the worst ever with more than1600 ships sunk, but this trend shortly began to turn, due to several factors.
The sinking of U-175The Incredible Participation of the Allied Merchant Navy
This was a factor of such fundamental importance, that it merits a paragraph of its own. The Allied Merchant Navy was manned by representatives of many nations: Great Britain and the countries of the Commonwealth, the United States, Russia, China, Poland, Greece, Norway, the Philippines, and France, just to mention a sample.
These merchant seamen were civilians who faced the same dangers of war as the regular armed forces personnel but who have rarely received the recognition they deserve.
As to the amount of casualties suffered by the Allied Merchant Navy, the statistics vary according to the source, but a fair average sum would be about 40,000 lives lost, on the convoys themselves, and at the various docks while unloading their precious cargoes.
Albert Docks at night, on the River Mersey, Liverpool UKMy Personal Family Memories of the Convoys
As I've stated, many members of my family on my father’s side were either Merchant Navy volunteers or they worked on the Mersey-side docks (Liverpool UK).
Sydney was one of my father’s younger brothers; I have calculated that he was about 20 years old when WW2 started. He was either recently married or about to be married, but that did not stop him signing on in the Merchant Navy, to sail out of Liverpool, the family’s home town.
He was fortunate in that his ship was not sunk until after the introduction of the Rescue Ships, I've estimated he must have been torpedoed during the summer of 1942, at the ripe age of 23!
He was one of the few that survived after his ship went down. Nobody really knows what happened, but he was found by a passing Rescue Ship, floating on a raft, alone and just barely alive. He was picked up and as this particular ship was on convoy duty on its way to Canada, that’s where he was eventually disembarked and taken to hospital, still unconscious. He didn't have any identification on him, so he was registered as an “unidentified casualty”.
In the meantime, his wife received the famous telegram: “missing, believed dead”
When Sydney finally came out of his comma, he was suffering from loss of memory, and therefore could not give any particulars that would help identify him.
Six months or more would go by before Sydney was able to give an account of himself to the hospital authorities, and during all that time his wife, Claire, grieved for his death. Then, out of the blue, she received another telegram to inform her that Sydney had been located, was alive and was recuperating in Canada.
The shocks caused by these two telegrams, coming in relatively close succession, must have been horrific. Family legend has it that the color of Claire’s hair went from light brown to white within a couple of days after receiving the second telegram. I can’t answer to that as the one time that I met her, many years later, her hair was brown and beginning to show signs of grey like any middle aged person. Still, she was one of the lucky ones, when I visited Liverpool she and Sydney were a normal married couple, both of them alive and in good health. (They had no children).A German U-Boat on Display at Birkenhead, Liverpool
German U-Boat, Historic Ships Display, Birkenhead, LiverpoolMany Memories are Still Alive in Liverpool
There are numerous web pages and blogs dedicated to Merchant Navy stories and family remembrances related to the Battle of the Atlantic. I have read many of them while searching for some clues about my father’s relatives and their activities during this period of the War, which was especially hard on the city of Liverpool and its adjacent dock installations. Many of the stories are sad, but one in particular has caught in my mind.
An elderly lady posts her story on one of these blogs, telling how her husband was a merchant seaman out of Liverpool, home for a few days’ leave, whose leisure was rudely interrupted by the Luftwaffe. who decided to bomb Liverpool quite heavily just at that time. Her husband spent his leave helping to put out fires, clearing rubble from the streets and digging people out of broken houses. At the end of his home leave he announced that he would be quite glad to get back to his ship “to get a bit of rest”. Well, this lady continues to write that he got his wish, not far along the convoy route, his ship was torpedoed, and her husband "went to his eternal rest”.My Final Tribute to These Brave "Civilian Servicemen"
The thousands of merchantmen, who gave their lives to keeping the vital sea lanes open during WW2, are not buried in cemeteries with their tidy rows of white crosses, where wreaths of “red poppies” can be placed on Remembrance Day. Their only grave is the sea.
The following is a heartfelt tribute to all of them.
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)"Eternal Father Strong To Save"
You did a great job and published an informative and interesting hub. I really enjoyed reading this.
joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile Author
@gmarquardt, it is still such a pleasant surprise to me, when I finally publish a hub after a lot of effort, and just a few minutes later, I find a comment! And such positive ones, too, it makes all the effort worth while. Thanks for the visit and the comment, and have a good day!
Hi Pavlo, so nice to hear from you again! This was quite an effort, this very long Battle has so much documentation, I began to suffer from too much information! Still, it's done, and your comment makes it well worth the effort! Maybe I can take a deep breath now and relax! Thanks so much for your constant support, it is very motivating. Have a good day!
UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Very informative, joan. I finally know what a corvette is, among other things. And, as you probably know, the US merchant marine had the highest death rate of all the services (army, navy, air force, marines).
joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile Author
Hi UH, glad to have you visit! I'm happy you found this to your liking, it was a long process of digestion, there's just too much information all over the place. I probably have materials for several more on a similar topic. And yes, the merchant servicemen were always the hardest hit, their ships were usually slow and overloaded. Can you imagine sailing on a slow fat cow of a ship loaded with iron ore, for example? They couldn't even take evasive action with ease, they were just sitting targets! I'd better not get going on that subject, I would probably write all night long! So once again, thanks for the visit and the comment. I hope to make some time, I'm behind with reading your articles. Have a good day (or night)!
billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA
What a fascinating history! I knew very little about the merchant ships, and the number of losses is staggering. and still they kept sailing. Amazing stuff her Joan; bravo for the research and the excellent presentation.
joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile Author
Hi Billy, so glad you took the time to come and visit, I've been following the comments on your article with list number 20, and I can see you have been very busy keeping up with the comments! Wonderful reading!
As to the merchantmen, yes, without them there would have been no Britain facing the Axis, no armaments crossing the ocean, no build-up of troops, no D-Day invasion, etc. I lived all my life with a clear vision of this reality, but there are not many "outsiders" to the Merchant Navy family with this view. I felt the need to write a tribute.
So thanks again for the visit and the comment, and have a good day!
teaches12345 4 years ago
Another great historical moment well shared and written. These ships were amazing. Thanks for the lesson.
joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile Author
Hi teaches, your visit has been the start of this day for me, and a good one! Thank you for the visit and the comment, and I'm glad you liked this hub. It is a story I needed to write. Have a good day!
Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia
Voted up and interesting. A fascinating read and great pics and maps. Truly a great tribute. Passing this on.
joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile Author
Hi Gypsy! Your visit and comment are greatly appreciated, also thanks for the share! I'm so glad you liked it, it was a topic I really needed to write about. Thanks again, and have a good day!
jennifereve110 3 years ago from New York
This one is also best. Thanks for your information voted up.
Battle of the Atlantic (1939–1945)
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = Battle of the Atlantic
partof = World War II
caption = Officers on the bridge of an escorting British destroyer keep a sharp look out for enemy submarines, October 1941
date = September 3 1939 - May 7 1945
place = Atlantic Ocean. North Sea. Irish Sea. Labrador Sea. Gulf of St. Lawrence. Caribbean Sea. Gulf of Mexico. Arctic Ocean
result = Allied victory
flagicon|United Kingdom Sir Percy Noble flagicon|United Kingdom Sir Max K. Horton flagicon|Canada|1921 Percy W. Nelles flagicon|Canada|1921 Leonard W. Murray flagicon|United States|1912 Ernest J. King
flagicon|Nazi Germany Erich Raeder flagicon|Nazi Germany Karl Dönitz
casualties1 = 30,264 merchant sailors 3,500 merchant vessels 175 warships 119 aircraft "Introduction" "U-Boat Operations of the Second World War—Vol 1" by Wynn, Kenneth, 1998 p. 1 ]
casualties2 = 28,000 sailors 783 submarines|
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign [Dan van der Vat, frontispiece ] [Blair, p xiii ] [Woodman, p 1 ] of World War II. (though some say it was a series of naval military campaign s and offensives [p.1, p.86, Wegener ] ) running from 1939 through the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, and was at its height from mid-1940 through to the end of 1943.
The Battle of the Atlantic pitted U-boat s and other warships of the German Navy (" Kriegsmarine ") against Allied convoy s. The convoys, coming mainly from North America and the South Atlantic and going to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. were protected for the most part by the British and Canadian navies and air forces. These forces were aided by ships and aircraft of the United States from 13 September 1941. Carney, Robert B. ADM USN "Comment and Discussion" "United States Naval Institute Proceedings" January 1976 p.74 (Admiral Robert Carney was assistant chief of staff and operations officer to Admiral Arthur L. Bristol. commander of the support force of United States ships and planes providing North Atlantic trade convoy escort services. This support force was designated Task Force 24 after declaration of war.) ] The Germans were joined by submarine s of the Italian Royal Navy (" Regia Marina ") after Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 .
The name "Battle of the Atlantic", first coined by Winston Churchill in 1941, is a partial misnomer for a campaign that began on the first day of the European war and lasted for six years, involved thousands of ships and stretched over hundreds of miles of the vast ocean and seas in a succession of more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters. Tactical advantage switched back and forth over the six years as new weapons, tactics and counter-measures were developed by both sides. The British and their allies gradually gained the upper hand, driving the German surface raiders from the ocean by the middle of 1941 and decisively defeating the U-boats in a series of convoy battles between March and May 1943. New German submarines arrived in 1945, but they were too late to affect the course of the war.
As an island nation with an overseas empire. the United Kingdom was highly dependent on sea-going trade. Britain required more than a million tons of imported food and material per week in order to be able to survive and fight on against Germany. In essence, the Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war. the Allied struggle to maintain and the Axis struggle to cut off the shipping that enabled Britain to survive.
From 1942 onwards, the Germans also sought to prevent the build-up of Allied troops and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe and to destroy all Allied navies. The defeat of the German threat was a pre-requisite for the invasion.
Commodore Karl Dönitz. had advocated a system known as the " Rudeltaktik " or wolf pack. in which groups of U-boats would attack individual merchant ships or whole convoys in mid-ocean and overwhelm any defending warship s. In order to be effective, Dönitz calculated that he would need 300 of the latest "Atlantic Boats" (the Type VII), which would create enough havoc among British shipping that she would be knocked out of the war.
This was in stark contrast to the traditional view of submarine deployment up until then, in which the submarine was seen as a lone ambusher, waiting outside an enemy port to attack ships entering and leaving. This had been a very successful tactic used by British submarines in the Baltic and Bosporus during World War I. but it could not be successful if port approaches were well patrolled. There had also been naval theorists who held that the submarine should be attached to a main fleet and used in a similar way to a destroyer —this had been tried by the Germans at Jutland with poor results since underwater communications were in their infancy. The Japanese also adhered to the idea of a fleet submarine and never used their submarines either as port blockaders or for convoy interdiction. However, the submarine was still looked upon by much of the naval world as a poor-man’s weapon. This was true in the Kriegsmarine as well, and the Grand Admiral, Erich Raeder. successfully lobbied for the money to be spent on capital ship s instead.
The Royal Navy’s main anti-submarine weapon before the war was the inshore patrol craft, armed with hydrophones, a small gun and depth charges. The British Royal Navy. like most navies, had not considered anti-submarine warfare as a tactical subject during the 1920s and 1930s. Unrestricted submarine warfare had been outlawed by the Treaty of Versailles ; anti-submarine warfare was seen as ‘defensive’ rather than dashing; and many naval officers believed that anti-submarine work was drudgery similar to mine-sweeping. Though fast destroyers also carried depth charges, it was expected that these ships would be used in fleet actions rather than coastal patrol, so they were not extensively trained in their use.
The development of ASDIC, now known as active sonar. was as crucial to the Battle of the Atlantic as the development of radar was to the Battle of Britain. and in both cases it was the British who made the crucial breakthroughs. The fact that sound is transmitted effectively by water was well known during the First World War, and microphones placed in water (hydrophones) had been used to listen for submarines at that time. Natural noises and echoes had also been detected using this technique, but the British were the first to develop a working directional 'sound searchlight'. A crucial development was the integration of the ASDIC with a plotting table and weapon into a complete anti-submarine warfare system.
The acronym ASDIC is often thought to derive from the initials of the British Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee; this was given as the official explanation when the system became public knowledge, but it now appears that this was an explanation constructed after the event—no trace of this committee has ever been found. Instead the explanation seems to be that during the secret development of this weapon scientists were encouraged to speak in coded form to avoid spies gleaning the least bit of knowledge. Thus work on sound propagation (ultrasonics) became ASD-ics (anti-submarine detection-ics)
ASDIC comprised a transducer housed in a dome beneath the ship that sent out a narrow beam of sound in a series of pulses that would reflect back from a submerged object within a maximum range of about convert|3000|yd|m. The dome was open to the sea and was to ensure the water around the transducer was relatively still as fast moving water would destroy any signal. The echo produced an accurate range and bearing to the target. But differences in the temperatures at different depths could create false echoes, as could currents, eddies and schools of fish, so ASDIC needed experienced operators to be effective. ASDIC was only effective at low speeds. Above convert|15|kn|km/h or so, the noise of the ship going through the water drowned out the echoes.
The early wartime Royal Navy procedure was to sweep the ASDIC in an arc from one side of the ship's course to the other, stopping the transducer every few degrees to send out a signal. Several ships searching together would be used in a line, a mile or a mile and a half apart. If an echo was detected, and if the operator identified it as a submarine, the ship would be pointed towards the target and would close at a moderate speed, the submarine's range and bearing would be plotted over time to determine course and speed as the ship closed to within convert|1000|yd|m. Once it was decided to attack the ship would close more rapidly, using the target's course and speed data to adjust the course. The intention was for the ship to pass a little way ahead of the submarine, then depth charges would be rolled from chutes in the stern at even intervals and depth-charge throwers would fire further charges some forty meters out on either side. The intention was to lay a depth charge 'pattern' like an elongated diamond, hopefully with the submarine somewhere inside the pattern. But to effectively disable a submarine a depth charge would have to explode within about six meters, in depth as well as in plane. Since early ASDIC equipment was poor on determining depth it was usual to vary the depth settings on part of the pattern.
There were disadvantages to the early versions of this system. Exercises in anti-submarine warfare had been restricted to one or two destroyers hunting a single submarine whose starting position was known in daylight and calm weather, rather than stormy conditions. German U-boats could dive far deeper than British or American submarines, to well below the deepest setting on the British depth charges (A dive depth of over convert|700|ft|m against a maximum depth charge setting of 350 feet). More importantly, early ASDIC sets could not look directly down, so the operator lost 'sight' of the U-Boat during the final stages of the attack, a time when the submarine would certainly be manoeuvring rapidly. The explosion of a depth-charge also disturbed the water so that ASDIC contact was very difficult to regain if the first attack had failed.
The belief that ASDIC had solved the submarine problem, the acute budgetary pressures of the Great Depression and the pressing demands for many other types of re-armament meant that little was spent on anti-submarine ships or weapons. Most British naval spending, and many of the best officers, went into the battlefleet. And critically, the British expected that, like the First World War, German submarines would be coastal craft, and only threaten harbour approaches. As a result, the Royal Navy entered the Second World War in 1939 without enough long-distance escorts to protect ocean shipping, and there were no officers with experience of long-range anti-submarine warfare. The situation in the Royal Air Force ’s Coastal Command was even more dire, where patrol aircraft could typically only machine-gun the spot where they saw a submarine dive.
Early skirmishes (September 1939 – May 1940)
In 1939, the "Kriegsmarine" lacked the strength to challenge the combined British Royal Navy and French Navy (" Marine Nationale ") for command of the sea. Instead, German naval strategy relied on commerce raiding using capital ships, armed merchant cruiser s, submarines and aircraft. Many German warships were already at sea when war was declared, including most of the available U-boats and the ‘ pocket battleships ’ (or "Panzerschiff") "Deutschland " and the "Admiral Graf Spee " which had sailed out into the Atlantic in August. These ships began an immediate assault on British and French shipping. "U-30" sank the liner SS "Athenia" within hours of the declaration of war—in breach of her orders not to sink passenger ships. The U-boat fleet, which was to dominate so much of the Battle of the Atlantic, was small at the beginning of the war, and many of the 57 available U-boats were the small and short-range Type II U-boat s which were useful primarily for mine-laying and operations in British coastal waters. Much of the early German anti-shipping activity involved minelaying by destroyer s, aircraft and U-boats off British ports.
With the outbreak of war, the British and French immediately began a blockade of Germany, although this had little immediate effect on German industry. The Royal Navy quickly introduced a convoy system for the protection of trade that gradually extended out from the British Isles, eventually reaching as far as Panama. Bombay and Singapore. Convoys allowed the Royal Navy to concentrate its escorts near the one place the U-boats were guaranteed to be found — the convoys.
But some British naval officers, and particularly the First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston Churchill, sought a more ‘offensive’ strategy. The Royal Navy formed anti-submarine hunting groups based on aircraft carrier s to patrol the shipping lanes in the Western Approaches and hunt for German U-boats. But this strategy was deeply flawed because a U-boat, with its tiny silhouette, was always likely to spot the surface warships and submerge long before it was sighted. The carrier aircraft were little help. Although they could spot submarines on the surface, at this stage of the war they had no adequate weapons to attack them. Any submarine found by an aircraft was long gone by the time surface warships arrived. The hunting group strategy proved a disaster within days. On September 14 1939. Britain’s most modern carrier, HMS "Ark Royal". narrowly avoided being sunk when three torpedoes from "U 39" exploded prematurely. "U 39" was promptly sunk by the escorting destroyers, becoming the first U-boat loss of the war. Failing to learn the lesson, another carrier, HMS "Courageous". was sunk three days later by "U 29".
Escort destroyers hunting for U-boats continued to be a prominent, but misguided, feature of British anti-submarine strategy for the first year of the war. The U-boats nearly always proved elusive, and the convoys, denuded of cover, were put at even greater risk.
German success in sinking the "Courageous" was surpassed a month later when Günther Prien in "U-47" penetrated the British base at Scapa Flow and sank the old battleship HMS "Royal Oak" at anchor. Prien immediately became a war hero in Germany.
In the South Atlantic, British forces were stretched by the cruise of the "Pocket Battleship" "Admiral Graf Spee ", which sank nine merchant ships of 50,000 tons in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean s during the first three months of war. The British and French formed a series of hunting groups including 3 battlecruiser s, 3 aircraft carriers and 15 cruisers to seek the raider and her sister "Deutschland" which was operating in the North Atlantic. These hunting groups scoured the oceans for months with no success until the "Graf Spee" was caught off the mouth of the River Plate by an inferior British force. After suffering damage in the subsequent action, she took shelter in neutral Montevideo harbour and the ship was soon scuttled in December 1939.
After an initial burst of activity, the Atlantic campaign quieted down. Karl Dönitz had planned a maximum submarine effort for the first month of the war, with almost all the available U-boats out on patrol in September. That level of operations could not be sustained because the boats needed to return to harbour to refuel, re-stock and refit. The harsh winter of 1939-40, which froze over many of the Baltic ports, seriously hampered the German offensive by trapping several new U-boats in the ice. Finally, Hitler’s plans to invade Norway and Denmark in the spring of 1940 led to the withdrawal of the fleet’s surface warships and most of the ocean-going U-boats to prepare for fleet operations in Operation Weserübung .
The resulting Norwegian campaign revealed serious flaws in the U-boats’ principal weapon, the magnetic torpedo. Although the narrow fjords gave the U-boats little room for manoeuvre, the concentration of British warships, troopships and supply ships provided countless opportunities for the U-boats to attack. Time and again, U-boat captains tracked British targets and fired only to watch the ships sail on unharmed as the torpedoes exploded prematurely or not at all, or ran straight underneath the target. Not a single British warship was sunk by a U-boat in more than 20 attacks. As the news spread through the U-boat fleet, it began to undermine morale. But the director in charge of torpedo development continued to claim it was the crews' fault. In early 1942 the problems were determined to be magnetic problems from the high latitude and a slow leakage of high-pressure air from the submarine into the torpedo's depth regulation gear. Eventually the Kriegsmarine copied some captured British torpedoes which were much more reliable.
"Happy Time" (June 1940 – February 1941)
The German occupation of Norway in April 1940, the rapid conquest of the Low Countries and France in May and June and the Italian entry into the war on the Axis side in June transformed the war at sea in general and the Atlantic campaign in particular in three main ways:
# Britain lost her biggest ally. In 1940, the French Navy was the fourth-largest in the world. Only a handful of French ships joined the Free French Forces and fought against Germany, though these were later joined by a few Canadian-built corvette s which played a small but important role in the campaign. With the French fleet removed from the campaign, the Royal Navy was stretched even further. Italy's declaration of war in June meant that Britain also had to reinforce her Mediterranean Fleet and establish a new squadron at Gibraltar. known as Force H. to replace the French fleet in the Western Mediterranean.
# The U-boats gained direct access to the Atlantic. Since the English Channel was relatively shallow and blockaded with minefields by mid 1940, U-boats were ordered not to traverse it and instead travel around the British Isles to reach the most profitable hunting grounds. The French bases at Brest. Lorient. La Pallice and La Rochelle were about 450 miles (720 km) closer to the Atlantic than the German bases on the North Sea. This greatly extended the range of U-boats in the Atlantic, enabling them to attack convoys further west and letting them spend longer time on patrol, doubling the effective size of the U-boat force. The Germans later built huge fortified concrete bunkers for the U-boats known as U-boat pens in the French Atlantic bases, which were impervious to Allied bombing until the development of the Barnes-Wallis tallboy bomb. From early July, U-boats began returning to the new French bases when they completed their Atlantic patrols.
# British destroyers were diverted from the Atlantic. The Norwegian campaign and the German invasion of the Low Countries and France imposed a heavy strain on the Royal Navy’s destroyer flotillas. The Royal Navy withdrew many of its older destroyers from the convoy routes to support the Norwegian operations in April and May and then diverted them to the English Channel to support the withdrawal from Dunkirk. By the summer of 1940 Britain faced a serious threat of invasion. The destroyers were held in the channel where they would be ready to repel a German invasion fleet. The destroyers suffered heavily in these operations when they were exposed to air attack by the Luftwaffe. Seven destroyers were lost in the Norwegian campaign, another six at the Battle of Dunkirk and a further 10 in the Channel and North Sea between May and July, many of them to air attack because they lacked an adequate anti-aircraft armament. [Between April and July 1940, the Royal Navy lost 24 destroyers and the Royal Canadian Navy one. ] Dozens of other destroyers were damaged.
The completion of Hitler’s campaign in Western Europe meant that the U-boats that had been withdrawn for the Norwegian campaign were now released from fleet operations and returned to the war on trade. So at the very time that the number of U-boats on patrol in the Atlantic began to increase, the number of escorts available for the convoys was greatly reduced. The only consolation for the British was that the large merchant fleets of occupied countries like Norway and the Netherlands were under British control. Britain occupied Iceland and the Faeroe Islands to gain bases for themselves and prevent the countries from falling into enemy hands following the German occupation of Denmark and Norway.
It was in these circumstances that Winston Churchill, who had become Prime Minister on May 10. 1940. first wrote to the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to request the loan of 50 obsolete U.S. destroyer s. This eventually led to the loan (effectively a sale but painted as a loan for political reasons) of the 50 old destroyers under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement in exchange for 99-year leases on certain British bases in Newfoundland. Bermuda and the West Indies. a financially advantageous bargain for the United States, whose population was opposed to entering the war and whose politicians considered that Britain and her allies might actually lose. But the first of these destroyers was only taken over by their British and Canadian crews in September and all needed to be rearmed and fitted with ASDIC. It was to be many months before the relatively obsolete destroyers began to contribute to the campaign.
The Germans too began to get help from their allies. From August 1940, a flotilla of Italian submarines was based on Bordeaux to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic. The submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (" Regia Marina "), designed for fleet operations in the Mediterranean, were less well suited to Atlantic convoy operations than the smaller German U-boats. Even so, over the next few years, the 32 Italian submarines that operated in the Atlantic sank 109 ships of 593,864 tons. [Rohwer. ] The Italians were also successful with their use of 'human torpedo' miniature underwater chariots, which disabled several British ships at Gibraltar.
The early U-boat operations from the French bases were spectacularly successful. This was the heyday of the great U-boat aces like Günther Prien of "U-47", Otto Kretschmer of "U-99", Joachim Schepke of "U-100", Engelbert Endrass of "U-46", Viktor Oehrn of "U-37" and Heinrich Bleichrodt of "U-48". The U-boat crews became heroes at home in Germany. From June until October 1940, over 270 Allied ships were sunk: this period was referred to by U-boat crews as "Die Glückliche Zeit", the Happy Time [cite web |last=Purnell |first=Tom |authorlink= |title=The “Happy Time” |work=‘’Canonesa’’, Convoy HX72 & U-100 |publisher= |date=2003-04-11 |url=http://homepage.ntlworld.com/annemariepurnell/can3.html |format= |doi= |accessdate=2007-09-01 ] .
The biggest challenge for the U-boats was to find the convoys in the vastness of the ocean. The Germans had a handful of very long range Focke-Wulf 200 Condor aircraft based at Bordeaux and Stavanger which were used for reconnaissance, but being essentially a converted civilian airliner, this was a stop-gap solution. Due to ongoing friction between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, the primary source of convoy sightings was the U-boats themselves. Since a submarine's bridge is very close to the water, their range of visual detection was quite limited.
Instead of attacking the Allied convoys singly, the German U-boats were encouraged to work in packs coordinated centrally by radio. German codebreaking efforts had succeeded in decyphering the British Merchant Marine code book (B-Dienst), allowing the Germans to estimate where and when convoys could be expected. The boats spread out into a long patrol line that bisected the path of the Allied convoy routes. Once in position, the crew scanned the horizon with binoculars looking for ship's masts or smoke, or used hydrophones to pick up the propeller noises of the convoys. When one boat sighted a convoy, it would report the sighting to U-boat headquarters before tracking it and waiting for other boats to come up, typically at night. Instead of being faced by a single submarine, the convoy escorts had to cope with a group of up to half a dozen U-boats attacking simultaneously. The most daring commanders, like Otto Kretschmer. penetrated the convoy’s escort screen and attacked from within the columns of merchantmen in the convoy. The escort vessels, which were too few in number and often lacking in endurance, had no answer to multiple submarines attacking on the surface at night as their ASDIC detection apparatus only worked well against underwater targets. Early British marine radar, working in the metric bands, lacked target discrimination and range.
Pack tactics were first used successfully in September and October 1940, to devastating effect in a series of convoy battles. On September 21. Convoy HX-72 of 42 merchantmen was attacked by a pack of four U-boats, losing eleven ships sunk and two damaged over two nights. In October, the slow convoy SC-7. with a weak escort of two sloops and two corvettes, was overwhelmed, losing 59% of its ships. The battle for HX-79 in the following days was in many ways worse for the escorts than that for SC-7. The loss of a quarter of the convoy without any loss to the U-boats despite a strong escort of two destroyers, four corvettes, three trawlers and a minesweeper demonstrated the effectiveness of the German tactics against the inadequate British anti-submarine technology of the time. Finally on December 1. seven German U-boats and three Italian submarines caught Convoy HX-90. sinking 10 ships and damaging three others. The success of pack tactics against these convoys encouraged Admiral Dönitz to adopt the wolf pack as his primary tactic.
Nor were the U-boats the only threat to the convoys. Following some early experience in support of the war at sea during Operation Weserübung. the Luftwaffe contributed small numbers of aircraft to the Battle of the Atlantic from 1940 onwards. These were primarily long-range reconnaissance planes, first with Focke-Wulf 200. and later Junkers 290 maritime patrol aircraft. At first, the Focke-Wulf aircraft were very successful, claiming 365,000 tons of shipping in early 1941. These planes were few in number, however, and were also directly under Luftwaffe control; the pilots had little specialized training for anti-shipping warfare.
Great surface raiders
Despite these successes, the U-boat was still not recognized as the primary threat to the North Atlantic convoys. With the exception of men like Dönitz, most naval officers on both sides regarded surface warships as the ultimate commerce destroyers.
For the first half of 1940, there were no German surface raiders in the Atlantic because the German Fleet had been concentrated for the invasion of Norway, and the sole pocket battleship raider, the "Admiral Graf Spee". had been stopped at the Battle of the River Plate by an inferior and outgunned British squadron. But from the summer of 1940 a small steady stream of warships and armed merchant raider s set sail from Germany for the Atlantic.
The power of a battleship against a convoy was demonstrated by the fate of Convoy HX-84 which was found by the German pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" on 5 November 1940. The "Admiral Scheer" quickly sank five ships and damaged several others as the convoy scattered. Only the sacrifice of the escorting Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS "Jervis Bay" and failing light allowed the rest of the convoy to escape. The British now suspended the North Atlantic convoys and the Home Fleet put to sea to try to intercept the "Scheer". The search failed as the "Scheer" had disappeared into the South Atlantic. She reappeared in the Indian Ocean the following month.
Other German surface raiders now began to make their presence felt. On Christmas Day, 1940, the cruiser "Admiral Hipper" attacked the troop convoy WS-5A, but was driven off by the escorting cruisers. [Roskill, p. 291–292. ] "Hipper" had more success two months later, on February 12. 1941. when she found the unescorted Convoy SLS-64 of 19 ships and sank seven of them. [Roskill, p. 372. ] In January, 1941, the formidable (and fast) German battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau", which outgunned any Allied ship that could catch them, had put to sea from Germany to raid the shipping lanes in Operation Berlin. With so many German raiders at large in the Atlantic, the British were forced to provide battleship escorts to as many convoys as possible. This twice saved convoys from slaughter by the German battlecruisers. In February, the presence of the old battleship HMS "Ramillies" deterred an attack on Convoy HX-106. A month later, Convoy SL-67 was saved by the presence of the WW1 battleship HMS "Malaya" .
In May, the Germans mounted the most ambitious raid of all: Operation Rheinübung. The new battleship "Bismarck" and the cruiser "Prinz Eugen" put to sea to attack the convoys. Forewarned by intelligence, a British squadron intercepted the raiders off Iceland. The resulting Battle of the Denmark Strait was a propaganda disaster for the British, with the loss of the battlecruiser HMS "Hood". But, thanks to a disabling torpedo hit on her rudders from a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, the "Bismarck" was caught and sunk by the Home Fleet three days later. Her sinking marked the end of the warship raids.
The Channel Dash. the return of the "Scharnhorst", "Gneisenau" and "Prinz Eugen" to Germany in February 1942, although an embarrassment for the British, marked the end of the German surface threat in the Atlantic. The loss of the "Bismarck", Arctic convoys and the perceived invasion threat to Norway had persuaded Hitler to withdraw.
War had come too early for the German Plan Z naval expansion plan to be close to completion. The concept of battleships powerful enough to destroy any convoy escort, with accompanying ships able to annihilate the convoy, was never achieved. But although the number of ships the warship raiders sank was relatively small when compared with the losses to U-boats, mines and aircraft, their raids severely disrupted the Allied convoy system, seriously reducing British imports.
Escorts strike back (March 1941 – May 1941)
The disastrous convoy battles of October 1940 forced a change in British tactics. The most important of these was the introduction of permanent escort groups to improve the co-ordination and effectiveness of ships and men in battle. British efforts were helped by a gradual increase in the number of escort vessels available as the old ex-American destroyers and the new British- and Canadian-built Flower class corvette s were now coming into service in numbers. Many of these ships became part of the huge expansion of the Royal Canadian Navy. which grew from a handful of destroyers at the outbreak of war to take an increasing share of convoy escort duty. Others of the new ships were manned by Free French, Norwegian and Dutch crews, but these were a tiny minority of the total number, and directly under British command. By 1941 American public opinion had begun to swing against Germany, but the war was still essentially Great Britain and the Empire against Germany.
Initially, the new escort groups consisted of two or three destroyers and half a dozen corvettes. Since two or three of the group would usually be in dock repairing weather or battle damage, the groups typically sailed with about six ships. The training of the escorts also improved as the realities of the battle became obvious. A new base was set up at Tobermory in the Hebrides to prepare the new escort ships and their crews for the demands of battle under the strict regime of Vice Admiral Gilbert O. Stephenson. [Roskill, p. 358–359. ]
In February 1941, the Admiralty moved the headquarters of Western Approaches Command from Plymouth to Liverpool. where much closer contact with, and control of, the Atlantic convoys was possible. Greater co-operation with supporting aircraft was also achieved. In April, the Admiralty took over operational control of Coastal Command aircraft. At a tactical level, new short-wave radar sets that could detect surfaced U-boats and were suitable for both small ships and aircraft began to arrive during 1941.
The impact of these changes first began to be felt in the convoy battles during the spring of 1941. In early March, Prien in "U 47" failed to return from patrol. Two weeks later, in the battle of Convoy HX-112. the newly formed 3rd Escort Group of five destroyers and two corvettes held off the U-boat pack. "U 100" was detected by the primitive radar on the destroyer "Vanoc", rammed and sunk. Shortly afterwards the "U 99" was also caught and sunk, its crew captured. Dönitz had lost his three leading aces: Kretschmer, Prien and Schepke.
Dönitz now moved his wolf packs further west, in order to catch the convoys before the anti-submarine escort joined. This new strategy was rewarded at the beginning of April when the pack found Convoy SC-26 before its anti-submarine escort had joined. Ten ships were sunk, but another U-boat was lost.
On May 9. the British destroyer HMS "Bulldog" captured "U-110" and recovered a complete, intact Enigma Machine. Combined with a couple of other captures, this was a vital breakthrough for the Allied code-breaking efforts. The machine was taken to Bletchley Park. where it was used to help break the German codes. This, and the genius of men like Flowers and Turing would give Britain the ability to read German naval signals for much of the remainder of the campaign, and, incidentally, provide the impetus for the development of the first programmable electronic device, the Colossus computer .
Field of battle widens (June 1941 – December 1941)
In June 1941, the British decided to provide convoy escort for the full length of the North Atlantic crossing. To this end, the Admiralty on 23 May asked the Royal Canadian Navy to assume the responsibility for protecting convoys in the western zone and to establish the base for its escort force at St. John's, Newfoundland. On 13 June 1941 Commodore L.W. Murray. Royal Canadian Navy. assumed his post as Commodore Commanding Newfoundland Escort Force. under the overall authority of the Commander in Chief, Western Approaches. at Liverpool. Six Canadian destroyers and 17 corvettes, reinforced by seven destroyers, three sloops and five corvettes of the Royal Navy, were assembled for duty in the force, which escorted the convoys from Canadian ports to Newfoundland and then on to a meeting point south of Iceland, where the British escort groups took over.
By 1941 the United States was taking an increasing part in the war, despite its nominal neutrality. In April 1941 President Roosevelt extended the 'Pan-American Security Zone' east almost as far as Iceland. British forces had occupied Iceland when Denmark fell to the Germans in 1940, the US was persuaded to provide forces to relieve British troops on the island. American warships began escorting Allied convoys in the western Atlantic as far as Iceland, and had several hostile encounters with U-boats. A Mid-Ocean Escort Force of American, British and Canadian destroyers and corvettes was organized following declaration of war by the United States.
In June 1941 the US realized that the tropical Atlantic became dangerous for unescorted American merchant vessels as well. On 21 May. the SS "Robin Moor". an American vessel carrying no military supplies, had been stopped by U-69 convert|750|mi|km west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. After its passengers and crew were allowed thirty minutes to board lifeboats, U-69 torpedoed, shelled and sank the ship. The survivors then drifted without rescue or detection for up to eighteen days. When news of the sinking reached the US, few shipping companies felt truly safe anywhere. As " Time Magazine " noted in June 1941, "if such sinkings continue, U.S. ships bound for other places remote from fighting fronts, will be in danger. Henceforth the U.S. would either have to recall its ships from the ocean or enforce its right to the free use of the seas." ["On the High Seas," Time Magazine, 1941-06-23, at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,851128,00.html ]
At the same time, the British were working on a number of technical developments which would address the German submarine superiority. It is interesting to note that, though these were British inventions, the critical technology was provided freely to the US, who then re-named and manufactured them. In many cases this has resulted in the misconception that these were American developments.
Firstly, new depth charge s were developed that fired to the side of the destroyers rather than simply dropping them over the stern as the destroyer passed over. The asdic contact was lost directly underneath the boat, and the U-boats often used this to escape. In addition, depth charges were fired in patterns, to 'box' the enemy in with explosions. The shockwaves would then destroy the U-boat by crushing it in the middle of these explosions.
Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen
Aircraft ranges were also improving all the time, but the Atlantic was far too large to be covered completely at the time. A stop-gap measure was instituted by fitting ramps to the front of some of the cargo ships known as "Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen" ( CAM ship s), armed with a lone expendable Hurricane fighter aircraft. When a German plane approached, the fighter was fired off the end of the ramp with a large rocket to shoot down or drive off the German aircraft, the pilot ditching in the water and being picked up by one of the escort ships if land was too far away. Eight combat launches were made, resulting in the destruction of six Axis aircraft for the loss of one Allied pilot.
German aircraft had been gradually driven out of the campaign by the growing strength of RAF Coastal Command and the introduction of first CAM ship s.
One of the most important developments was that of ship-borne direction-finding radio equipment, known as HF/DF (High-Frequency Direction-Finding) or Huff-Duff. which was gradually fitted to the larger escort ships. HF/DF let an operator see the direction of a broadcast, even if the messages they were sending could not be read. Since the Wolf pack tactics relied on U-boats surfacing to report the position of a convoy, there was a steady stream of messages to intercept. A destroyer could then run down the direction of the signal to attack the U-boat, or at least force it to submerge, preventing a coherent attack on the convoy. When two ships fitted with HF/DF were present with a convoy, the exact position of the U-boat could be triangulated. The British also made extensive use of shore HF/DF stations, so they could keep convoys updated with positions of U-Boats around them at all times.
The radio technology behind HF/DF was well understood by both sides, but the common technology before the war used a manually rotated aerial to fix the direction of the transmitter. This was delicate work, took quite a time to do to any degree of accuracy, and could easily fix the reciprocal of the signal at 180 degrees away. Knowing this, the German U-Boat radio operators considered themselves fairly safe if they confined themselves to short messages. The British, however, developed an oscilloscope-based indicator which instantly fixed the position of the shortest message. With this there was hardly any need to triangulate - the escort could just run down the precise bearing provided and use radar for final positioning. Many U-Boats attacks were suppressed and submarines sunk in this way - a good example of the great difference minor aspects of technology could make in this battle.
A major factor in the success of the British during the second half of 1941, and throughout the rest of the campaign, was the cracking of the Naval Enigma machine cipher. The wolf pack tactics relied on radio communications, based on the assumption that the Enigma cipher could not be broken and that short signal messages could not be pinpointed with enough accuracy to endanger the signalling U-boat. Both assumptions were wrong. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1941, a combination of reading Enigma messages and radio direction finding enabled the British to plot the positions of the U-boat patrol lines, allowing the convoys to be routed to evade them.
But this infusion of strength to the Allied side had to be set against the growing numbers of U-boats now coming into service. The German Type VIIC submarine started reaching the Atlantic in large numbers in 1941; eventually 585 of them would be delivered. Although the Allies generally succeeded in defending the convoys through the summer and autumn of 1941, they were not sinking U-boats in anything like sufficient numbers. The Flower corvette escorts could detect and defend, but they were not fast enough to go on the attack.
In October 1941, Hitler ordered Dönitz to move many of the U-boats into the Mediterranean, to support German operations in that theatre. The resulting concentration near Gibraltar resulted in a series of battles around the Gibraltar and Sierra Leone convoys. In December 1941, Convoy HG-76 sailed, escorted by the 36th Escort Group of two sloops and six corvettes under Captain Frederic John Walker. reinforced by the first of the new escort carrier s HMS "Audacity" and three destroyers from Gibraltar. The convoy was immediately intercepted by the waiting U-boat pack, resulting in a brutal battle. Walker was a tactical innovator, his ships were highly trained and the presence of an escort carrier meant that the U-boats were frequently sighted and forced to dive before they could get close to the convoy. Over the next five days, five U-boats were sunk (four by Walker's group) despite the loss of the "Audacity" after two days. The British lost the "Audacity", a destroyer and just two merchant ship s. The battle was the first clear Allied convoy victory in the campaign.
Through dogged effort, the Allies slowly gained the upper hand through until the end of 1941. Although Allied warships failed to sink U-boats in large numbers, most convoys evaded attack completely. Shipping losses were high, but manageable.
Operation Drumbeat (January 1942 – June 1942)
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war on the United States had an immediate effect on the campaign. Dönitz promptly planned to attack shipping off the American East Coast. Dönitz had only 12 boats of the Type IX class that were able to make the long trip to the U.S. East Coast, and half of them had been removed by Hitler’s order to counter British forces in the Mediterranean. One of the remainder was under repair, leaving only five boats to set out for the U.S. on the so-called Operation Drumbeat ("Paukenschlag").
The U.S. having no direct experience of modern naval war on its own shores, did not employ shore-side black-outs. The U-boats simply stood off the shore of the eastern sea-board and picked off ships as they were silhouetted against the lights of the cities. The Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, Admiral Ernest King. who disliked the British, initially rejected the Royal Navy's calls for a coastal blackout or a convoy system. King has been criticized for this decision, but his defenders argue that the United States destroyer fleet was limited (partly because of the sale of 50 old destroyers to Britain earlier in the war), and King claimed that it was far more important that the destroyers protect Allied troop transports than shipping.Fact|date=February 2007 His ships were also busy convoying Lend-Lease material to Russia, as well as fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. This does not explain the refusal to require coastal black-outs, or to respond to any advice the Royal Navy provided. No troop transports were lost, but merchant ships sailing in U.S. waters were left exposed and suffered greatly. Britain eventually had to build coastal escorts and provide them for free to the U.S. in a 'reverse Lend Lease ', since King was unwilling (or unable) to make any provision himself.
The first boats started shooting on January 13. 1942. and by the time they left for France on February 6 they had sunk 156,939 tonnes of shipping without loss. The first batch of Type IXs had been replaced by Type VIIs and IXs refuelling at sea from Type XIV "Milk Cows" tankers and had sunk 397 ships totalling over 2 million tons (as mentioned previously, not a single troop transport was lost). In 1943, the United States launched over 11 million tons of merchant shipping; that number declined in the latter war years, as priorities moved elsewhere.
In May, King (by this time both Commander-in-Chief U. S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations) finally scraped together enough ships to institute a convoy system. This quickly led to the loss of seven U-boats. But the U.S. did not have enough ships to cover all the holes, and the U-boats continued to operate freely during the Battle of the Caribbean and throughout the Gulf of Mexico (where they effectively closed several U.S. ports) until July, when the British-loaned escorts began arriving. The institution of an interlocking convoy system on the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea in mid-1942 resulted in an immediate drop in attacks in those areas. Attention shifted back to the Atlantic convoys. For the Allies, the situation was serious but not critical throughout much of 1942.
Operation Drumbeat had one other effect. It was so successful that Dönitz’s policy of economic war was seen even by Hitler to be the only effective use of the U-boat, and he was given complete command to use them as he saw fit. Meanwhile, Dönitz’s commander Raeder was dismissed as a result of a disastrous Battle of the Barents Sea in which two German heavy cruisers were beaten off by half a dozen Royal Navy destroyers. Dönitz was eventually made Grand Admiral of the fleet, and all building priorities turned to the U-boats.
Battle returns to mid-Atlantic (July 1942 – February 1943)
With the U.S. quickly arranging convoys, ship losses to the U-boats quickly dropped, and Dönitz realized his boats were better used elsewhere. On July 19. 1942. he ordered the last U-boats to withdraw from the United States Atlantic coast, and by the end of July 1942 he shifted his attention back to the North Atlantic. Convoy SC-94 marked the return of the U-boats to the convoys from Canada to the British Isles.
There were enough U-boats spread across the Atlantic to allow several wolf packs to attack several different convoy routes. Often as many as 10 to 15 boats would attack in one or two waves, following convoys like SC-104 and SC-107 by day and attacking at night. Losses quickly increased, and in October 1942 56 ships of over 258,000 tonnes were sunk in the ‘air gap’ between Greenland and Iceland that was still free of the ever-increasing Allied air patrols.
On November 19 1942. Admiral Noble was replaced as Commander-in-Chief of Western Approaches Command by Admiral Sir Max Horton. Horton used the growing number of escorts that were becoming available to Western Approaches Command to organize "support groups" that were used to reinforce convoys that came under attack. Unlike the regular escort groups, the support groups were not directly responsible for the safety of any particular convoy. This lack of responsibility gave them much greater tactical flexibility, allowing the support groups to detach ships to hunt submarine s spotted by reconnaissance or picked up by high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF). In situations where the regular escorts would have had to return to their convoy, the support groups were able to persist in hunting a submarine for many hours. One tactic used by Captain Walker was to sit on top of a U-boat and wait until its air ran out and it was forced to the surface.
By late 1942, the British had developed a new weapon, and warships were being fitted with the "Hedgehog" anti-submarine mortar which fired twenty-four contact-fused bombs directly 'ahead' of the attacking ship. Unlike depth charges, which exploded at certain set depths 'behind' the attacking warship disturbing the water and making it hard to keep track of the target, Hedgehog charges only exploded if they hit a U-boat. This meant that a U-boat could be continuously tracked and attacked until it was sunk. The Hedgehog was a particularly effective weapon, raising the percentage of kills from 7% of attacks to nearer 25%. When one of the Hedgehog charges exploded, it set off the others which increased the weapon's effectiveness.
Detection by radar-equipped aircraft could suppress U-boat activity over a wide area, but an aircraft attack would only be successful with good visibility. U-boats were quite safe from aircraft at night, since the deployment of an illuminating flare gave adequate warning of an attack.The introduction by the British of the Leigh Light in June 1942 was a significant factor in the North Atlantic struggle. It was a powerful searchlight that was automatically aligned with the airborne radar to illuminate targets suddenly while in the final stages of an attack run. This let British aircraft attack U-boats recharging batteries on the surface at night, forcing German submarine skippers to switch to daytime recharges.
The U-Boat commanders who survived reported a particular fear of this weapon system since the hum of an aircraft was inaudible at night above the noise of the boat. The aircraft acquired the submarine using centimetric radar which was undetectable with the typical U-Boat equipment, then lined up on an attack run. When metric radar was used, the set would automatically lower the radar power during the approach so that the submarine would not think it was being tracked. With a mile or so to go the searchlight would automatically come on, immediately and accurately illuminating the target from the sky, which had about 5 seconds warning before it was hit with a stick of depth-charges. A drop in Allied shipping losses from 600,000 to 200,000 tonnes per month was attributed to this ingenious device.
By August 1942 U-boats were being fitted with radar detectors to enable them to avoid the sudden ambushes which a radar-equipped aircraft or corvette might spring. The first such receiver, named the Metox after its French developer, was capable of picking up the metric radar bands used by the early radars. This not only enabled U-boats to avoid detection by Canadian and US escorts, which were equipped with obsolete radar sets, but allowed them to track convoys where these sets were in use.
Climax of the campaign (March 1943 – May 1943, "Black May")
After Convoy ON-154. winter weather provided a brief respite from the fighting in January before convoys SC-118 and ON-166 in February 1943, but in the spring of 1943 convoy battles started up again with the same ferocity. By the spring of 1943, there were so many U-boats on patrol in the North Atlantic that it was difficult for the convoys to evade detection, resulting in a succession of vicious convoy battles. In March the escorts were heavily defeated in the battles of convoys HX-228. SC-121. SC-122 and HX-229. 120 ships were sunk worldwide, 82 ships of 476,000 tons in the Atlantic, and 12 U-boats were destroyed.
The supply situation in Britain was such that there was talk of being unable to continue the war effort, with supplies of fuel being particularly low. It appeared that Dönitz was winning the war. And yet the next two months would see a complete reversal of fortunes.
In April,losses of U-boats increased while their kills of ships fell dramatically. 39 ships of 235,000 tons were sunk in the Atlantic, and 15 U-boats were destroyed.
By May, wolf packs no longer had the advantage and that month was to become known as Black May for the U-Boat Arm ("U-Boot Waffe").The turning point was the battle centered around the slow Convoy ONS-5 (April–May 1943), when a convoy of 43 merchantmen escorted by 16 warships was attacked by a pack of 30 U-boats. Although 13 merchant ships were sunk, six U-boats were sunk by the escorts or Allied aircraft. Despite a storm which scattered the convoy, the merchantmen reached the protection of land-based air cover causing Admiral Dönitz to call off the attack.Two weeks later, SC 130 saw 5 U-boats destroyed for no losses. Faced with disaster, Donitz called off operations in the North Atlantic.In all, 43 U-boats were destroyed in May, 34 in the Atlantic. This was 25% of UbW’s total operational strength.The Allies lost 58 ships were sunk in May, 34 ships of 134,000 tons of these in the Atlantic.
Convergence of technologies
The Battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allies in two months. There was no single reason for this, but what had changed was a sudden convergence of technologies, combined with an increase in Allied resources.
The mid-Atlantic gap that had been unreachable by aircraft was closed by long-range B-24 Liberator aircraft. Effective employment of these aircraft required shift of operational control from the United States Army Antisubmarine Air Command to the United States Navy. At the May 1943 Trident conference, Admiral King requested General Henry H. Arnold to send a squadron of ASW-configured B-24s to Newfoundland to strengthen air escort of North Atlantic convoys. General Arnold ordered his squadron commander to engage only in "offensive" search and attack missions and not in escort-of-convoys. In June, General Arnold suggested the Navy assume responsibility for ASW operations. Admiral King requested the Army's ASW-configured B-24s in exchange for an equal number of unmodified Navy B-24's. Agreement was reached in July and the exchange was completed in September 1943. ["Bowling, December 1969, p. 52 ]
By spring 1943 the British had developed an effective sea-scanning centimetric radar small enough to be carried on patrol aircraft armed with airborne depth charges. Centimetric radar greatly improved detection and nullified the German Metox radar warning equipment. Further air cover was provided by the introduction of merchant aircraft carrier or MAC ships and later the growing numbers of American-built escort carriers. Flying Grumman Wildcat s primarily, they sailed in the convoys and provided the much needed air cover and patrols all the way across the Atlantic.
The larger numbers of escorts became available, both as a result of American building programmes and the release of escorts that had been tied up in the North African landings during November and December 1942. In particular, destroyer escort s (similar British ships were known as "frigates") were designed, which could be built more economically than expensive fleet destroyers and were also more seaworthy than corvettes. There would not only be sufficient numbers of escorts to securely protect convoys, they could also form hunter-killer groups (often centered around escort carriers) to aggressively hunt U-boats.
The continual breaking of the German naval Enigma enabled the Allied convoys to evade the wolf packs while British support groups and American hunter-killer groups were able to hunt U-boats that approached the convoys or whose positions were revealed by Enigma decrypts.
Donitz’s aim, in this Tonnage war was to sink Allied ships faster than they could be replaced; as losses fell, and production, particularly in the US, rose, this became increasingly unachieveable.
Allied air forces developed tactics and technology to make the Bay of Biscay. the main route for French based U-boats, very dangerous. The introduction of the Leigh Light enabled accurate attacks on U-boats re-charging their batteries on the surface at night. The Luftwaffe responded by providing fighter cover for U-boat s exiting into and returning from the Atlantic and for returning blockade runner s. Still, with intelligence coming from resistance personnel in the ports themselves, the last few miles to and from port proved hazardarous to many U-Boats.
Final years (June 1943 - May 1945)
Desperate to restart the battle, several attempts were made to re-coup and re-arm the U-boat force, while awaiting the next generation of U-boat designs (the Walter and the Elektroboot types). Notable among these attempts were the fitting of massively improved anti-aircraft batteries, radar detectors, torpedoes, and finally the addition of the "Schnorchel" (snorkel) device to allow them to run underwater off their diesel engines to avoid radar.
By September 1943 Donitz was ready to restart the offensive on the North Atlantic route. The return to the offensive in the North Atlantic saw initial success, with an attack on ONS18 and ON202; but a series of battles saw less success and more losses for UbW. After 4 months BdU again called off the offensive; 8 ships of 56,000 tons, and 6 warships had been sunk in the North Atlantic, but 39 U-boats destroyed, a catastrophic loss ratio.
The Luftwaffe also introduced the long-range He 177 bombers, and the Henschel Hs 293 guided glider bomb, which claimed a number of successes, but Allied air superiority prevented them being a major threat to the Royal Navy.
Tactical and Technical Fixes
To counter Allied air power, UbW increased the anti-aircraft armament of the U-boats, and introduced specially equipped "Flak Boats" so that they could fight back on the surface against air attack. Improvements in radar detection, such as the Wanze system, were also introduced.None of these were truly effective however, and by 1943 Allied air power was so strong that the U-boats were being attacked right in the Bay of Biscay as they left port.
Development of torpedoes also improved, such as FAT, which ran a pre-programmed course criss-crossing the convoy path, and the 'German Navy Acoustic Torpedo' ('GNAT'), which would home on the propeller noise of a target. This was very effective when first used, but the Allies quickly developed counter-measures, both tactical (“Step-Aside”) and technical (“Foxer”. CAT).
The Germans had lost the technological race. This was clear even to the Germans, whose actions were restricted to lone wolf attacks in British coastal waters, and preparing to resist the expected invasion of France. Over the next two years, large numbers of U-boats were sunk, usually with all hands. With the battle won, supplies started to pour into England for the eventual liberation of Europe.
Last Actions (May 1945)
Late in the war, the Germans introduced the " Elektroboot " series, the Type XXI U-boat and a short range Type XXIII U-boat. When underwater the Type XXI managed to run at convert|17|kn|km/h. faster than a Type VII running full out on the surface and almost as fast as the ships attacking her. Designs were finalized in January 1943 but mass production of the new types didn't start until 1944;By 1945 just 5 Type XXIII and 1 Type XXI boats were operational.These made 9 patrols, sinking 5 ships in the first 5 months of 1945; only one combat patrol was carried out by a Type XXI before the war ended, making no contact with the enemy.
As the Allied armies closed in on the U-boat bases in North Germany, many boats were scuttled to avoid capture; those that were of most value fled to Norway, resulting in a massacre by Allied Air Forces. 23 boats were sunk in the Baltic in the first week in May while attempting this journey; while in the same period over 200 boats were scuttled to avoid capture.
The last actions in American waters took place on 5/6 May 1945, which saw the sinking of SS "Black Point" and the destruction of "U-853" and "U-881" in separate incidents.
The last actions of the Battle of the Atlantic were on 7/8 May. "U-320", was the last U-boat sunk in action, credited to an RAF Catalina; while minesweeper "NYMS 382", and freighters "Sneland" and "Avondale Park" were torpedoed in separate incidents, just hours before the German surrender .
The remaining U-boats, at sea or in port, were surrendered to the Allies, 174 in total. Most of these were destroyed in " Operation Deadlight " after the war.
The Germans failed to strangle the flow of strategic supplies to Britain, and that failure resulted in the massive build-up of troops and supplies needed for the Normandy landings. The defeat of the U-boat campaign was a necessary precursor for the re-supply of Britain, and the build-up of a huge concentration of Allied forces that helped ensure Germany's defeat.
Victory was achieved at a huge cost: between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied ships were sunk (gross tonnage 14.5 million) at a cost of 783 German U-boats.
* Timeline of the Second Battle of the Atlantic
* Battle of the Atlantic (1914-1918) for the First World War submarine campaign
* Arctic Convoys of World War II for the convoys to Russia
* Aces of the Deep. the ten most successful U-boat commanders of the war
* The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission - Nortraship
* " Das Boot " - highly regarded for its realistic portrayal of World War II submarine warfareFact|date=July 2007
* Allied shipping losses during the Second Battle of the Atlantic
* Black May (1943) a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic (U-boats withdrawn)
* [http://uboat.net/boats/ U-Boat Fates 1945 ]
References and notes
* Blair, Clay. "Hitler's U-boat War".
* Rohwer, Jürgen, "Die italienischen U-Boote in der Schlacht im Atlantik 1940-43", (The Italian submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic 1940-43)
* Roskill, S.W. "The War at Sea", volumes I-III(part 2), HMSO, London, 1954-61
* van der Vat, Dan. "The Atlantic Campaign", 1988 ISBN 0340377518
* Woodman, Richard. "The Real Cruel Sea".
* Behrens, C.B.A. "Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War" London: HMSO)
* Morison, S.E. "The Two Ocean War" and "History of United States Naval Operation in World War II" in 15 Volumes. Volume I "The Battle of the Atlantic" and volume X "The Atlantic Battle Won" deal with the Battle of the Atlantic
* Schull, Joseph. "The Far Distant Ships"
* [http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-2Epi-t1-g1-t1.html Aircraft against U-Boats (New Zealand official history) ]
* Cremer, Peter. "U-333"
* Dönitz, Karl. "Ten Years And Twenty Days"
* Gretton, Peter. "Convoy Escort Commander" (London). Autobiography of a former escort group commander
* Macintyre, Donald. "U-boat Killer" (London). Autobiography of another former escort group commander (1956)
* Rayner, Denys. "Escort: The Battle of the Atlantic" (London: William Kimber 1955)
* Robertson, Terence. "The Golden Horseshoe" (London). Biography of the top German U-boat ace, Otto Kretschmer
* Robertson, Terence. "Walker R.N." (London 1955). Biography of the leading British escort group commander, Frederick John Walker
* Werner, Herbert A. "Iron Coffins": The account of a surviving U-boat captain with historical and technical details
General histories of the campaign
* Blair, Clay. "Hitler's U-boat War". Two volumes. ISBN 0 304 35260 8 Comprehensive history of the campaign
* Fairbank, David. "Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945"
* Gannon, Michael. "Operation Drumbeat" (Harper and Row)
* Keegan, John. "Atlas of World War II" (2006)
* Macintyre, Donald. "The Battle of the Atlantic" (London 1961). Excellent single volume history by one of the British Escort Group commanders
* Rohwer, Dr. Jürgen. "The Critical Convoy Battles of March 1943" (London: Ian Allan 1977). ISBN 0-7110-0749-7. A thorough and lucid analysis of the defeat of the U-boats
* van der Vat, Dan. "The Atlantic Campaign", 1988 ISBN 0340377518
* Williams, Andrew, "The Battle of the Atlantic: Hitler's Gray Wolves of the Sea and the Allies' Desperate Struggle to Defeat Them"
* Woodman, Richard. "The Real Cruel Sea; The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943" (London 2004) ISBN 0 7195 6403 4
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