We all know how closely won was the Battle of Britain in 1940. Less well-known is how near the Allies came to defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Perhaps this is because our collective memory of the horrors of that battle is derived from Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea. The images of the 1953 film version with Jack Hawkins as Commander Ericson are ones that never leave you. Who can forget the echoes of the engineer’s sledgehammer as the crew of the motionless Compass Rose freeze in fear of a U-boat attack? Or Erickson pushing the dying men to keep singing when on the life raft?
This heroism and the fact that the battle finally turned in the Allies favour obscures a question that we rarely ask: how did Germany manage to lose the U-boat war?
I have been forced to think about this question when writing Atlantic Nightmare. The more I learnt about the German conduct of the U-boat war up to early 1943, the more I wondered why the Allies thought they could ever beat the U-boats.
One glance at the statistics is enough to justify my question. For the first four years of the war the number of merchant ships sunk rose every year from 221 in 1939, to 1662 in 1942. And, leaving aside the incomplete year of 1939, the rate of increase was itself increasing from 23% (1940 to 1941) to 28% (1941 to 1942).
I was well into work on Atlantic Nightmare before this puzzle began to trouble me more and more. I had to somehow tell a coherent story for my readers while the figures seemed incoherent. March 1943 was almost the worst month for sinkings in the whole war, yet the battle was near to won by the Allies six weeks later. How could I explain this?
The answer slowly came to me as I described how the incomparable Admiral Max Horton planned and delivered the Allied turn round. Put simply, the answer is that German naval policy was packed with strategic mistakes. In the early years of the war the paucity of Allied escort ships and the inexperienced Allied officers gave the U-boat commanders free rein to attack and sink. But once the Allies had the right ships, the right men, and the right technology (including aircraft), the U-boats became sitting ducks for Horton’s 1943 onslaught.
As I reflected further on this, I teased out seven strategic errors in the Kriegsmarine’s war on merchant shipping. These began even before war had been declared. During the late 1930s, Admiral Doenitz prioritised building huge warships such as Bismarck and Tirptiz and neglected U-boat construction, even though U-boats were trivially cheap in comparison with the large vessels. As a result, Germany found itself at war with only 21 ocean-going U-boats even though the High Command knew that they needed 300 boats. Another critical strategic error was Admiral Dönitz’s order to his commanders to avoid attacking the escort vessels. For the full six years of war, he prioritised sinking replaceable merchant tonnage rather than harder-to-replace destroyers.
This blog is not the place to work through all the strategic errors made by the Kriegsmarine, but I hope I have said enough to justify seeing the U-boat war in a new light. The Allies were totally unprepared for defending Britain’s massive merchant fleet. At the end of the First World War, the Admiralty possessed 1354 warships, of which 407 were destroyers. In September 1939 they had much the same burden of convoy work but had only 184 destroyers. The destroyer shortage worsened when ten ships were lost in the Norway campaign, followed by six lost and 19 damaged at Dunkirk. Only Kriegsmarine incompetence failed to win the battle, given that the Allies started from such a weak position.
Read more in Atlantic Nightmare, available HERE!