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Today’s feature title is Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War. The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of the Second World War. This volume highlights the scale and complexity of this bitterly contested campaign that encompassed far more than just attacks by German U-boats on Allied shipping. The team of leading scholars assembled in this study situates the German assault on seaborne trade within the wider Allied war effort and provides a new understanding of its place within the Second World War.
When we have to choose which essay collections to read, we usually skim the introduction. So we cut the first few pages out and stuck them on our blog for your perusal. Enjoy!
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Winston Churchill coined the term “Battle of the Atlantic” in March 1941. He explained in his memoirs that this measure, “like featuring ‘the Battle of Britain’ nine months earlier, was a signal intended to concentrate all minds and all departments concerned upon the U-boat war.” Churchill often used evocative terms like “battle” not only to focus minds and actions at the time, but also to instill drama into his accounts. This is underlined by the often-quoted statement after the war that it was only the threat of U-boats that had kept him awake at night. Contemporaries understood that when Churchill wrote and spoke of a Battle of the Atlantic, he was referring to the German attack on Britain’s imports and maritime communications. In many respects, however, the term is misleading. To begin with, the Battle of the Atlantic was not a “battle” in the conventional sense. It was actually a protracted campaign—the longest of the Second World War—that ran from 3 September 1939 until Nazi Germany finally collapsed in May 1945. Within hours of the Anglo-French declarations of war on Germany, the British passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by U-30, evoking memories of Germany’s devastating unrestricted U-boat campaign of 1917–18. The last operational U-boats were taken out of action in May 1945 only hours before the German surrender came into effect.
The so-called “battle” also involved little in the way of actual fighting. There is a natural tendency to focus on the dramatic clashes between U-boats and convoy escorts, but this is only part of the tale. Britain and its allies were always happy to destroy U-boats, but the main objective was to ensure the “safe and timely arrival” of convoys and unescorted merchant ships in British ports. Avoiding U-boats was the most practical means to achieve this. Convoy escorts only saw action if all other measures to protect the convoy had failed. The vast majority of trans-Atlantic convoys completed their voyages without making contact with enemy forces, and even at times of crisis most merchant vessels reached their destinations unharmed.
The term “Battle of the Atlantic” is also geographically inaccurate. When Churchill devised the label, the Atlantic Ocean was indeed the main area of operations, but as the war progressed and Allied defenses improved, this theater became increasingly perilous for the Germans. The Kriegsmarine’s surface raiders, followed later by U-boats, were increasingly compelled to seek easier targets in other seas. The campaign gradually spilled over into the Indian Ocean, the Arctic, and the Pacific. Dönitz’s favored strategy of Tonnagekrieg (tonnage warfare) dictated only that Allied ships be sunk—it did not matter where or how this was accomplished. The war on shipping therefore became a struggle of global dimensions. Merchant vessels passed through the Atlantic on to other destinations, while British factories consumed raw materials from around the globe. Naval forces constantly moved between theaters, and escorts were pulled periodically from the convoy routes for other tasks, such as protecting Britain from invasion in the summer of 1940 or covering the landing of expeditionary forces later in the war.
Popular understanding of the Battle of the Atlantic has been distorted by the tendency to focus on the activities of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s U-boats. Submarines were undeniably Germany’s most effective commerce raiders, accounting for approximately sixty-nine percent of British, Allied, and neutral merchant ship losses in 1940–1944. But Allied shipping was also constantly at risk from aircraft, mines, and surface ships of all sizes, including fast torpedo boats, auxiliary cruisers, battle cruisers, “pocket battleships,” and, most famously, the battleship Bismarck. Nor could the British afford to ignore the potential danger to shipping posed by the formidable battleship Tirpitz or, more remotely, by the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin. The modest assistance provided by the Italian Navy is usually overlooked, too. However, it was the interaction of these different methods of attack that made the conduct of the campaign such a complex undertaking for the Allies. Across the war, fifty-five percent of all Allied merchant ship tonnage was lost in the North Atlantic. The Allies had no choice but to adopt a wide range of measures to reduce the impact of the Axis attack on shipping. When Churchill declared the “Battle of the Atlantic” in March 1941, he did not expect to secure a complete victory over the U-boats in the short-term. His most pressing need at the time was to reduce shipping losses and increase the capacity of the merchant fleet in order to maintain British imports at levels necessary to sustain the war effort. The “Battle” of 1941 might more accurately have been termed the “Battle of the Imports” had Churchill not intuitively opted for the more inspiring label. But for all its imperfections, the term Battle of the Atlantic stuck. It quickly became a convenient shorthand for Germany’s attempt to starve Britain of essential supplies and Allied efforts to safeguard shipping.
The complexity of the Allied response to the Axis attack on shipping has not always been appreciated. At the tactical level, of course, convoys had to be protected. This required a substantial force of well-trained and well-equipped escort vessels and aircraft. Ideally, these would destroy the U-boats and other commerce raiders they encountered, although this was not essential. At the operational level, good intelligence was necessary to route convoys and shipping away from danger. As the war progressed, it also enabled the Allies to concentrate hunter-killer forces where they could inflict the greatest damage on the enemy. But there was also a range of problems stemming from what historian Kevin Smith calls the “managerial” aspects of the campaign—the organizational, industrial, and diplomatic measures that could be employed to ensure that Britain’s imports did not drop to critical levels even when shipping losses were at their highest. At the top level of decision-making, British and Allied leaders had a variety of tools at their disposal to alleviate the effects of the German attack on shipping. Tactical and operational failures at sea could be offset, if necessary, by building new ships faster than the enemy could sink them. Import levels could be boosted by expedients like the faster loading and unloading of ships in ports. The amount of shipping available could be increased by speeding up the repair of damaged merchant vessels in British shipyards. However, these measures required the commitment of scarce resources that were always urgently needed for other elements of the Allied war effort. As vital as the Atlantic was to the Allies, its needs had to be balanced against the requirements of other theaters. From Britain’s perspective in particular, the allocation of resources for the defense of shipping was always at tension with the desire to take offensive action against the Axis powers. It was also the subject of frequent, and sometimes intense, inter-service and intra-Allied conflict. Thus, events and factors far removed from the North Atlantic could and did influence the campaign.
Curiously, given the length and complexity of the campaign, historians have often been content with simple explanations for the Allied victory. A dominant feature within the historiography is the idea that the spring of 1943 was the moment when the Battle of the Atlantic was decisively won. And in hindsight, we can see that May 1943 was a turning point. A seemingly-imminent Allied defeat in March gave way to a dramatic collapse of the U-boat campaign in “Black May,” which resulted in Dönitz’s temporary withdrawal of his boats from the North Atlantic trade routes. Operations did not cease though, and U-boats continued to be deployed in other areas. This reversal was not the product of short-term operational or technological factors, but rather the culmination of numerous developments. In reality, the course of the campaign ebbed and flowed on both sides throughout the war.
Although the spring of 1943 was a crucial moment in the campaign, the Allies were apprehensive of a resurgent German assault on maritime trade when newer U-boat designs became available. This finally occurred in late 1944, and the Germans switched to inshore operations around the British Isles. Allied anti-submarine warfare superiority was soon called into question and the new operational challenges were not fully mastered before the end of the war. The Ultra revelations of the 1970s focused attention on the impact of signals intelligence on the campaign, and for a time it was widely accepted that this had been the decisive factor in the Allied victory. However, as W. J. R. Gardner has argued, the linking cause and effect is a far more multifaceted affair, and the impact of signals intelligence, while important, needs to be seen in a wider context.
This volume seeks to highlight the complexity of the Battle of the Atlantic by reassessing its place within Allied grand strategy and by examining some of its lesser-known aspects. While the general narrative of the campaign and many of its facets are well known, much remains to be addressed. The volume begins with chapters by Marc Milner and Christopher Bell that explore the campaign’s role in the context of the wider Allied war effort and provide a new understanding of its place within the Second World War. Kevin Smith’s and Tim Benbow’s chapters illustrate the choices and tensions concerning the allocation of scarce resources the British faced in waging the campaign. Far from being a concentrated effort, the multitude of actors and changing priorities had at times as much impact as German action. James Goldrick, Ben Jones, Harry Bennett, and Marcus Faulkner address a range of operational issues that have hitherto been sidelined or left unexplored. These contributors show that the campaign was far less about convoy battles in the mid-Atlantic than has been portrayed. Furthermore, the scale of the German assault required the development of new organizations and approaches to waging the campaign. David Kohnen and Kevin Smith’s second chapter show how the Battle of the Atlantic spread beyond the ocean itself both in military and economic terms
Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, 6 vols. (London: Cassell, 1948–53), Vol. III, p. 106.
Eric J. Grove, ed., The Defeat of the Enemy Attack upon Shipping, 1939‒1945: A Revised Edition of the Naval Staff History (Aldershot: Ashgate/Navy Records Society, 1997), plan 14.
S. W. Roskill, The War at Sea, 1939–1945, Vol. II, Part III (Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2004), p. 479.
Kevin Smith, “Maritime War: Combat, Management, and Memory,” in Thomas W. Zeiler, ed., A Companion to World War II, 2 vols. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), Vol. 1.
Malcolm Llewellyn-Jones, The Royal Navy and Anti-Submarine Warfare, 1917–1949 (New York: Routledge, 2006).
Jürgen Rohwer and Eberhard Jäckel, eds., Die Funkaufklärung und ihre Rolle im 2. Weltkrieg (Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 1979); David Syrett, The Defeat of the German U-Boats: The Battle of the Atlantic (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).
W. J. Gardner, Decoding History: The Battle of the Atlantic and Ultra (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999).