Battle of the Atlantic / Schlacht am Atlantik

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign in World War II, running from 1939 to the defeat of Germany in 1945. It was a major part of the Naval History of World War II. At its core was the Allied naval blockade of Germany, announced the day after the declaration of war, and Germany’s subsequent counter-blockade. It 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 Kriegsmarine and aircraft of the Luftwaffe against the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Navy, United States Navy, and Allied merchant shipping. The convoys, coming mainly from North America and predominantly 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 beginning September 13, 1941. The Germans were joined by submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) after their Axis ally Italy entered the war on June 10, 1940.

As an island nation, the United Kingdom was highly dependent on imported goods. Britain required more than a million tons of imported material per week in order to be able to survive and fight. In essence, the Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war: the Allied struggle to supply Britain and the Axis attempt to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. From 1942 onward, the Axis also sought to prevent the build-up of Allied supplies and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The defeat of the U-boat threat was a prerequisite for pushing back the Axis. The outcome of the battle was a strategic victory for the Allies—the German blockade failed—but at great cost: 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk in the Atlantic for the loss of 783 U-boats with the majority being Type VII submarines and 47 German surface warships, including 4 battleships Scharnhorst, Bismarck, Gneisenau, and Tirpitz, 9 cruisers, 7 raiders, and 27 destroyers. Of the U-boats, 519 were sunk by British, Canadian, or other allied forces, while 175 were destroyed by American forces; 15 were destroyed by Soviets, and 73 were scuttled by their crews before the end of the war for various causes.

The Battle of the Atlantic has been called the “longest, largest, and most complex” naval battle in history. The campaign started immediately after the European war began, during the so-called Phoney War, and lasted six years, until the German Surrender in May 1945. It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theater covering millions of square miles of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining advantage, as participating countries surrendered, joined and even changed sides in the war, and as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures and equipment were developed by both sides. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, overcoming German surface raiders by the end of 1942 and defeating the U-boats by mid-1943, though losses due to U-boats continued until war’s end.

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Following the use of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany in the First World War, countries tried to limit, even abolish, submarines. The effort failed. Instead, the London Naval Treaty required submarines to abide by cruiser rules, which demanded they surface, search and place ship crews in a place of safety for which lifeboats did not qualify, except under particular circumstances before sinking them, unless the ship in question showed persistent refusal to stop…or active resistance to visit or search. These regulations did not prohibit arming merchantmen, but doing so, or having them report contact with submarines or raiders, made them de facto naval auxiliaries and removed the protection of the cruiser rules. This made restrictions on submarines effectively moot.

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 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” (Panzerschiffe) Deutschland and Admiral Graf Spee which had sortied into the Atlantic in August. These ships immediately attacked British and French shipping. U-30 sank the ocean 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; many of the 57 available U-boats were the small and short-range Type IIs, useful primarily for mine laying and operations in British coastal waters. Much of the early German anti-shipping activity involved mine laying 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. Each convoy consisted of between 30 and 70 mostly unarmed merchant ships.

Some British naval officials, 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. 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, and 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 14 September 1939, Britain’s most modern carrier, HMS Ark Royal, narrowly avoided being sunk when three torpedoes from U-39 exploded prematurely. U-39 was forced to surface and scuttle by the escorting destroyers, becoming the first U-boat loss of the war. The British failed to learn the lesson from this encounter: 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, technique of British anti-submarine strategy for the first year of the war. U-boats nearly always proved elusive, and the convoys, denuded of cover, were put at even greater risk.

German success in sinking 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, immediately becoming a hero in Germany.

Admiral Graf Spee shortly after her scuttling.

In the South Atlantic, British forces were stretched by the cruise of Admiral Graf Spee, which sank nine merchant ships of 50,000 GRT in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean during the first three months of war. The British and French formed a series of hunting groups including three battlecruisers, three aircraft carriers, and 15 cruisers to seek the raider and her sister Deutschland, which was operating in the North Atlantic. These hunting groups had no success until Admiral Graf Spee was caught off the mouth of the River Plate between Argentina and Uruguay by an inferior British force. After suffering damage in the subsequent action, she took shelter in neutral Montevideo harbour and was scuttled on 17 December 1939.

After this initial burst of activity, the Atlantic campaign quieted down. Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the U-boat fleet, 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 deployment could not be sustained; the boats needed to return to harbour to refuel, re-arm, re-stock supplies, 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. 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 for fleet operations in Operation Weserübung.

The resulting Norwegian campaign revealed serious flaws in the magnetic influence pistol (firing mechanism) of the U-boats’ principal weapon, the torpedo. Although the narrow fjords gave 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 due to the influence pistol, or hit and failed to explode because of a faulty contact pistol, or ran beneath the target without exploding due to the influence feature or depth control not working correctly. 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. The director in charge of torpedo development continued to claim it was the crews’ fault. In early 1941 the problems were determined to be due to differences in the earth’s magnetic fields at high latitudes and a slow leakage of high-pressure air from the submarine into the torpedo’s depth regulation gear. These problems were solved by about March 1941, making the torpedo a formidable weapon.

The German submarine base in Lorient, Brittany.

Submarine Warfare

Early in the war, Dönitz submitted a memorandum to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the German navy’s Commander-in-Chief, in which he estimated effective submarine warfare could bring Britain to its knees because of the country’s dependence on overseas commerce. He advocated a system known as the Rudeltaktik (the so-called wolf pack), in which U-boats would spread out in a long line across the projected course of a convoy. Upon sighting a target, they would come together to attack en masse and overwhelm any escorting warships. While escorts chased individual submarines, the rest of the “pack” would be able to attack the merchant ships with impunity. Dönitz calculated 300 of the latest Atlantic Boats (the Type VII), would create enough havoc among Allied shipping that Britain 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 submarines should be attached to a fleet and used like destroyers; this had been tried by the Germans at Jutland with poor results, since underwater communications were in their infancy. Interwar exercises had proven the idea faulty. The Japanese also adhered to the idea of a fleet submarine, following the doctrine of Mahan, and never used their submarines either for close blockade or convoy interdiction. The submarine was still looked upon by much of the naval world as dishonourable, compared to the prestige attached to capital ships. This was true in the Kriegsmarine as well; 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, which was fitted with hydrophones and armed with a small gun and depth charges. The Royal Navy, like most, had not considered anti-submarine warfare as a tactical subject during the 1920s and 1930s. Unrestricted submarine warfare had been outlawed by the London Naval Treaty; anti-submarine warfare was seen as ‘defensive’ rather than dashing; many naval officers believed anti-submarine work was drudgery similar to mine sweeping; and ASDIC was believed to have rendered submarines impotent. Although destroyers also carried depth charges, it was expected these ships would be used in fleet actions rather than coastal patrol, so they were not extensively trained in their use. The British, however, ignored the fact that arming merchantmen, as Britain did from the start of the war, removed them from the protection of the cruiser rules, and the fact that anti-submarine trials with ASDIC had been conducted in ideal conditions.

British Situation

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:





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