The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, (though some say it was a series of naval military campaigns and offensives) 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-boats and other warships of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) against Allied convoys. 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. The Germans were joined by submarines 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.
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 warships. 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 ships 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 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 . 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 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 . 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 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.
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 cruisers, 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-boats which were useful primarily for mine-laying and operations in British coastal waters. Much of the early German anti-shipping activity involved minelaying by destroyers, 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 carriers 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 Oceans during the first three months of war. The British and French formed a series of hunting groups including 3 battlecruisers, 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.
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. destroyers. 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. 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.
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.
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 raiders 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 charges 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.
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.
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 carriers 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 ships. 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.
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. 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.
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 submarines 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.
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.
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.
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 Wildcats 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 escorts (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-boats exiting into and returning from the Atlantic and for returning blockade runners. 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.
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.
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.
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.
|Allies||Germans||30,248 merchant sailors||28,000 sailors||3,500 merchant vessels||783 submarines||175 warships|