Monday, August 01, 2011

What We're Reading: Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic by Ed Offley

Some historical events are so large and multifaceted that the story cannot be told with any justice in a single book. Such is the case with World War II. The scale often defies an attempt even to do justice to any particular sustained action or theatre of the war. Every author who sits down to write a book on some aspect of the conflict, whether it be the Bataan Death March, the Battle of Britain, the naval war in the Pacific, the treaties that made alliances or those that concluded the war, or in this case, as Ed Offley has done, the Battle of the Atlantic, face the challenge of how to tell the story with comprehensiveness, narrative coherence, a point of view, and affect. You’ve still got to leave things out. In the art of telling the history of large and complex events, we have yet to find a substitute for the book. It is a format that disciplines in a positive and appropriately measured way the communication of information concerning large and complex subjects. It is still a necessary, viable medium for historical scholarship.

The Battle of the Atlantic is the name given to the sustained fight that occurred at sea over the shipping of food, fuel, and munitions, mostly from North American ports, which sustained Great Britain and allowed it to stay in the war. Protection of Atlantic shipping was also critical to the Allies when they launched and carried on an assault on the Axis in North Africa, and as they sought to amass the military supplies and troops in Britain that would allow them to eventually mount an assault on the German-held European continent. The object of the German u-boat fleet was to cut those lifelines by sinking merchant and military ocean-going transport. During the course of the war, German u-boats worldwide sank 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warships.

Until May of 1943, German u-boats were winning the battle of the Atlantic. They were seriously damaging Allied shipping and threatening the survival of Great Britain. In order to reduce losses, the Allies organized merchant ships into convoys and provided naval escorts to protect the groups. Offley tells the story of how the Allies changed the course of the battle. He does this by reconstructing and analyzing in great detail the story of the battle between u-boats and of a select number of ship convoys, looking first at the engagements in which the u-boats had wreaked major havoc on Allied convoys, and then looking at a number of subsequent encounters with Allied convoys in which the Allies were able to inflict major losses on the u-boat fleet while effectively protecting their ships. Offley uses these later engagements to demonstrate how the changes in Allied strategy and the advances in Allied code-breaking, radar, air cover, and armaments brought about the defeat of the u-boats. It proves an engaging and effective way to make the Allied success understandable to the common reader. For those seeking a more comprehensive accounting of the battles and losses, Offley has assembled an appendix of major convoys, their cargo, and their fate.

The victory in the Atlantic has to be accounted as one of the most remarkable reverses of WW II, one in which the hunter u-boats ended up becoming the hunted. Looking back on the history of the war, it becomes apparent that serving in the German u-boat fleet was nearly a suicidal mission. The fatality rate was an astonishing 70%. This was higher than any other sea-, air- or land-based service. It is but one more example of the vagaries of war, where the feared and predatory u-boat became in just a few years little more than an iron coffin.

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