Thursday, July 07, 2016

What We're Reading: The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic:
How the Allies Won the War,
by Jonathan Dimbleby

The “Battle of the Atlantic” is the term used to describe the war at sea that took place during World War II between Germany and the Allies. Great Britain’s economy, and thus its ability to continue the fight, depended on its access to food and commercial supplies from throughout the British Empire. Its need for oil imports and a supply of military manufacturing materials was critical to its industry and the replacement of weapons in its arsenal. The objective of the German naval war was to sink as much enemy commercial shipping in the Atlantic as possible, ships bound to Great Britain from North and South America and to the Soviet Union through the North Atlantic and Arctic seas. After Germany declared war on the United States in late 1941, a further German objective was to hinder the transport of American troops and supplies across the Atlantic to the theaters of war, to make difficult the Allied landing of forces in North Africa, and to prevent a channel crossing and launch of an invasion in France, the so-called “Second Front.”

German Admiral Karl Donitz reviewing one of his U-Boats
at the French port of Saint Nazaire.
In recent years, the Battle of the Atlantic has received more attention from historians. In retrospect, its critical importance seems apparent. What happened in the cold, dark and remote reaches of the Atlantic--the sinking of merchant ships alone at sea or travelling in protective convoys--was something that happened out of the public eye. And the losses were so staggering that the governments of Great Britain and the United States were not eager for these German successes to become public knowledge, fearing their effect on civilian morale. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 3.500 merchant ships were sunk (14.5 million gross tons of shipping) and 175 Allied warships. More than 36,000 merchant seamen and 36,200 Allied sailors lost their lives. In the end, the Germans ended up losing 783 U-boats. Of 38,000 young German men who served on these boats, 30,000 lost their lives, the highest mortality rate of any branch of service that took part in the second world war. The Battle of the Atlantic was the most continuous action of the war against Germany. It took place largely out of sight, and while the Normandy Landings, the Soviet repulse of the German invasion at Stalingrad, and the Allied victories in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy are more well known, it is hard to argue against those that maintain that the Battle of the Atlantic was determinative. It can be argued that it did not guarantee an Allied victory, but losing it would have made an Allied victory impossible.

Coast Guardsmen on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer
watch the explosion of a depth charge, which drove the
German submarine U-175 to the surface on 17 April, 1943.

Rescued German crew members of U-175
This is one of the best contemporary books written on the conduct of the Battle of the Atlantic to date. A few years ago, a book was published that focused on the pivotal months of the battle in 1943 in which the Allies finally began to win the war against the U-boats: Turning the Tide: How A Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic, by Edward Offley. The accounts in this book of the dramatic action at sea are well written and engaging, and Offley is good at explaining the intelligence, tactical, and technological changes that were responsible for defeating the U-boat assault. But  Jonathan Dimbleby’s book is a much more comprehensive overview of the Battle of the Atlantic. In this book, two interrelated narratives unfold, one about the military encounters at sea--and the tactical and technological changes that made the difference for the Allies--and another about the changing strategic context in which those engagements took place. The latter is the important achievement of The Battle of the Atlantic: its remarkable reconstruction of the internal strategic arguments that took place regarding conduct of that conflict within the German, British, and American commands as well as the tensions between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin over the war at sea. The personal and diplomatic notes between these principals over the Battle of the Atlantic (and related issues that impacted the conduct of that battle) provide some of the most interesting reading in this book.

Dimbleby also has an interesting analysis of the intelligence war, one that provides a somewhat different perspective on the relative value of breaking the German Enigma code to the Battle of the Atlantic (something readers may find at odds with contemporary book and movie accounts of the heroics of the wunderkinds at Bletchley Park). And readers may find surprising the revelations about how careless--indeed, irresponsible--the British were when it came to protecting their own codes. The Germans may arguably, given this lapse, have had better intelligence about the shipping they were trying to sink and the movement of British warships than the British had about U-boat movements.

The Pennsylvania Sun, torpedoed by U-571 125 miles
west of  Key West, 1942.
Perhaps what will be most shocking to American readers in this book is Dimbleby’s account of the German’s “Operation Drumbeat.” It was not a proud moment in American naval history, and it doesn’t receive a lot of historical attention. Most Americans know little or nothing about it. After the declaration of war on the United States, from January through August of 1942, German U-boats began a remarkable period of successful predation on American eastern seaboard merchant shipping and on shipping in the Caribbean. The U.S. Navy was unprepared and slow to respond. Blackouts were not ordered for American coastal cities, and merchant ships were silhouetted against the lights of the shore, making them easy targets for German U-boats. Six hundred and nine merchant vessels were sunk, thousands of lives lost, and 3.1 million tons of goods went to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was a remarkable lapse in American preparedness and defense. The loss took place over a number of months, but the destruction ranks with the spectacular catastrophe at Pearl Harbor.

Crew of U-boat 73. It was sunk by the Allies in 1943.

We tend to think that, in a situation of gravity and high stakes, the judgement of individual leaders and the wisdom of a collective circle of advisers will rise to the occasion, that there is better or more careful decision-making because so many lives are at stake. The Battle of the Atlantic will disabuse you of this notion. The author is careful to point out the strategic errors in judgement, both of the winners and the losers, as they made mistakes that lost lives pointlessly and with a shameful profligacy.

Allied sailors mark the sinking of their first U-boat.
More would follow as the Allies began to get the
upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic.
In World War II, so much happened on so many fronts in such a short period of time that it is impossible to write any single book that can be comprehensive. The amount of consequential and simultaneous activity defies our usual tools of distillation, summation, and comprehension. Even an account of a single theater of the war such as the Battle of the Atlantic poses challenges. This book is circumspect in what it includes, while remaining impressive in scope, and will likely become an enduring historical account.

The selection of historical photos included in this book is superb.

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