Could the Germans have won the Battle of the Atlantic?

The longest campaign of history’s most horrendous war was over. Although convoys and Coastal Command patrols continued for several weeks after VE Day, the danger was past. It had been one of the worst dangers Britain had ever faced with Churchill describing the U-boat menace as his greatest fear. He summarized the campaign:

The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, on sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with hope or apprehension.

In contrast to Churchill’s assessment, American historian Blair asserts that ‘Contrary to the accepted wisdom or mythology, U-boats never even came close at any time to cutting the vital North Atlantic lifeline to the British Isles’. Such an assessment can be made only in the light of hindsight and ignores the many factors that faced Churchill and those at the highest levels of command. There can be no doubt that Churchill’s analysis that ‘the Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor’ is correct. The U-boat threat was very real and the toll in blood, steel and treasure was high. However, Blair’s comment that the U-boatmen were sent out on suicidal missions is accurate, especially after May 1943.

Could the Germans have won the Battle of the Atlantic? The answer has to be ‘yes’ but with conditions. Those conditions include the element of luck, which no commander can ignore, as well as the vision of those involved. Had Hitler possessed a strategic maritime vision to match that of Dönitz, then Germany would have had a greater chance of victory. Even so, Germany’s greatest chance of victory could only come from Allied, and especially British, errors or failures. In reviewing the conduct of the campaign, it may be seen that major errors were made by the Allies. While Churchill could claim that the U-boat menace worried him more than anything else, it seemed to take time to do so, as evidenced by his comment that ‘Nothing of major importance occurred in the first year of the U-boat warfare’. Perhaps this explains why it was February 1941 before he established the Battle of the Atlantic Committee. His failure to see immediately the importance of VLR aircraft for Coastal Command, as shown by his procrastination in what Pound called the ‘Battle of the Air’, is further evidence of an opportunity for Germany. Only Churchill could have ensured that sufficient VLR aircraft were available for Coastal Command and the fact that he delayed making a decision until the new year is not to his credit. Remember that Roskill comments that had Britain lost the campaign, ‘history would have judged that the main cause had been the lack of two more squadrons of very long range aircraft for convoy escort duties’.

Other factors ensuring Allied victory included the industrial muscle of the United States, muscle that had been honed by British money from 1938 onwards. A critical element of American industry was the ability of shipyards to produce speedily great numbers of both warships and merchantmen. The classic example is the Liberty ship, built to a British design on a prefabricated basis for final assembly in shipyards: 2,710 were produced, of which over 200 were lost, some due to failures in the original design. The capacity of American yards to produce ships in such numbers – they also produced 694 tankers, and almost another 1,000 general cargo ships, in addition to warships and landing craft – meant that, once they were in top gear, Dönitz could never sink enough merchantmen to win the war. At one stage three Liberty ships per day were being launched; the record assembly time was that of the Robert E. Peary, which took only 111 hours to complete from the laying down of her keel.

It is possible that the U-boat campaign might have damaged morale in the Merchant Navy so badly as to help the Germans to victory. Worse, in some ways, than the sinking of ships were the owners’ practices of stopping seamen’s pay when a ship went down, and of not paying merchant seamen between voyages. The latter practice, known as ‘paying off’, was not peculiar to wartime but owners chose to interpret the loss of a ship for whatever reason, including enemy action, as meaning the crew had been ‘paid off’. This affected families since seamen could allot part of their pay to their next-of-kin at home to be paid on a monthly basis. On occasion the first a family knew that a father, husband or son’s ship had been lost was the cessation of the allotment.

Since 15 September 1939 merchant seamen had been awarded a ‘war risk payment’ of £10 per month to those over eighteen and £5 to those under that age. This was intended to compensate for the risks the men took and encourage them to stay at sea. However, in May 1941, the government introduced the Essential Work Order for the Merchant Navy (EWOMN) making it illegal for a merchant seaman to leave the sea but guaranteeing that he would not be paid off between voyages and nor would his pay stop should his ship be sunk. While this book has concentrated on the fighting services, it should not be forgotten that the Merchant Navy was pivotal to victory and that the men, women and boys of the service bore a heavy burden; of 185,000 merchant sailors who served during the war, almost 32,000 died.

More than anything else, it was the recognition by the British government of the importance of the Merchant Navy and the convoys that ensured that sufficient resources were allocated to the Battle of the Atlantic. Those resources took the form, as we have seen, of more escort ships, of specialized small aircraft carriers, whether escort carriers or MAC-ships, and new and improved weapons systems for them, as well as detection systems, such as centimetric radar and HF/DF. In the air, more and better aircraft, ASV, airdropped depth charges, acoustic torpedoes, and improved communications between ships and air support all played their part. In the background were the scientists and the intelligence experts, working on new weapons or communications or breaking the enemy’s codes and reading his messages. Also behind the scenes were the men who trained the crews manning the escort ships, who developed tactics to beat the U-boats and who controlled the Submarine Tracking Room and the Trade Plot. In May 1943 all their efforts coalesced to force Dönitz to realize that his campaign had failed. Although Dönitz never accepted defeat, he was never to regain any advantage before the war ended. None of his innovations, whether new U-boats, schnorkels, new weapons, or detection systems, would turn the war to his advantage. The Type XXI boat was not going to change anything. Those who argue that it could have been a ‘game changer’ ignore the development of 3-centimetre ASV that could detect a schnorkel or a periscope and the advent of new Allied weaponry. From 1943 on it became impossible for U-boats to operate in packs or on the surface at night. To claim that they could still wage war effectively is akin to saying that individual soldiers, albeit skilled marksmen, constitute an effective army. The Battle of the Atlantic had spurred research and development in many ways and the equipment and weaponry that would be familiar to NATO personnel involved in shadowing the Soviet submarine fleet can be seen to have originated in what was developed for the Battle of the Atlantic; MAD, sonobuoys, homing torpedoes all had their operational birth in the Atlantic.

A clear indicator of how the battle had turned may be seen in the request by the Ministry of Food in May 1943 to send a whaling expedition to the South Atlantic. A previous expedition, in January 1941, had been captured by a German raider and it had been decided that no more expeditions should take place until ‘the end of the war’. However, it was considered that the situation had changed so much that ‘escort through U-boat waters en route to the whaling grounds can be provided’ as well as anti-raider cover. That thoughts could turn to such mundane matters was surely proof that the Allies knew they had regained control of the seas.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Battle of the Atlantic is that Dönitz continued to believe that he could wrest victory from the arms of defeat and persisted with a campaign that doomed many thousands, mainly young men, on both sides. While he is seen as an honourable leader and opponent, there can be no doubt that his fanaticism blinded him to reality and that he must bear the burden of guilt for the deaths of so many.

More than any other aspect of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic showed the lack of vision of political leaders in the inter-war years. The threat of Hitler’s Germany was obvious and yet it took so long for the UK government to provide the Royal Navy with ships and weapons to protect trade convoys. While A. V. Alexander may have warned that the maritime travails of the war years should be a lesson to governments in the future and to service chiefs, it seems that nothing has changed. The UK has a small Navy, a merchant fleet that is a shadow of what it once was and a prime minister who can tell the House of Commons that the Royal Air Force can take a ‘capability holiday’ from the anti-submarine warfare role.

1 thought on “Could the Germans have won the Battle of the Atlantic?

  1. It seems to me the German Navy suffered from the same issues are the army/air forces, they only prepared for a tactical war. In this respect, they were far ahead of the rest of world, but in order to win a war, you must have a longer term strategic concept and weapons to provide that long term counterpunch.

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