Hitler’s U-boat War:
Volume I The Bunters, 1939-1942
volume II The Hunted, 1942-1945
New York: Random House, 1996, 1998
Vol. I: 809 pp; Vol. II, 909 pp.
Appendices, maps, photos, separate indexes of U-boats and ships.
Each volume $40.00
Clay Blair’s massive two-volume history of the World War II U-boat war effectively demolishes what remains of The U-boat myth: that the Allied victory over the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic was a near-run thing. Not so, says Blair; the U-boats never came close to strangling vital seaborne traffic to the British Isles, and what is more, had they introduced snorkels and the fast Type XXI and XXIII “electro boats” earlier in the war it would have made no difference.
The German Unterseebootwaffe started WWII with 57 U-boats, too few to do the job, and they never caught up, despite building 1,052 more. They had faulty operational doctrine, bad torpedoes and sonar, no radar, boats that were poorly designed for their assigned missions, and they never tumbled to the Allies decrypting their Enigma codes, HF/OF-equipped escorts homing on their radio signals, aircraft using centimetric-band radar, escorts decoying their T-5 homing torpedoes, or that Allied shipbuilding was replacing ships much faster than they could sink them. The question naturally arises: “How were they able to pose such a threat, sink 2,919 ships of 14.6 million tons, and tie up huge ASW forces, with such a sorry start and poor equipment?”
Blair answers this question but the reader has to do much of the work in digging it out. Therein lies the job of reading Hitler’s Uboat War, for it is this digging that reveals insights that have relevance for today’s submariners.
Clay Blair died in December, just after the second volume of Hitler’s U-boat War was published. Bringing this volume out was the consuming interest of the last year of his life, and the meticulous checking involved was delayed by the heart trouble that eventually felled him. American submariners should be grateful for his painful diligence, because Hider’s U-boat War is a comprehensive history of that disastrous campaign told from an American viewpoint.
Blair’s New York Times obituary identified him as a Navy veteran and an expert on submarines, and indeed submarines provided the bookends of his life. He started his adult life as a 20 year old quartermaster in USS GUARDFISH on its last two war patrols. He studied journalism at Tulane and Columbia and became a national security correspondent for Time magazine. After leaving journalism in 1964, his affection for submarines inspired him to undertake the painstaking research that resulted in Silent. Victory: The US. Submarine War Against Japan, generally considered the definitive history of that campaign. And after a career as a freelance writer in which he wrote more than 20 books, in his last effort-literally-he came out with Hitler’s U-baar War.
Blair’s task this time was much harder than his 1975 history of U.S. submarines in the Pacific. The WWII U-boat campaign lasted longer (69 vs. 45 months), it was fought by more submarines (859 vs. 227), it saw more tonnage sunk (14.6 vs. 5.3 million tons), and it was contested by stronger and far more numerous anti-submarine forces than the Pacific campaign.
Blair applies the same attention to detail that made Silent Victory such a favorite among submariners. All the important actions involving U-boats are mentioned, skippers are identified, attacks made and damage and sinkings are assessed in the light of the latest analysis. He gives equal battle time to the U-boat hunters, naming pilots of attacking aircraft or surface warship skippers when data are available, and provides details of combat encounters from the ASW units, as well as from the U-boat’s viewpoint.
The result is huge, and has been brought out by Random House in two volumes. Volume I- The Hunters tovers the first three years of the war (September 1939 through August 1942) and has two parts: Book One-The U-boar War Against the British Empirecovers the period September 1939-December 1941 when the war was primarily Germany against Great Britain; Book Two-The Uboat War Against the Americas covers the period January-August 1942 after the U.S. formally entered the war, and focuses on the U-boat onslaught against shipping in American waters. Volume IL· The Hunted covers the third phase of the campaign, from September 1942 to the end of the war.
All this may cause non-naval readers’ eyes to glaze over. I urge them not to. Blair’s style is spare and plain. He disdains lofty rhetoric and has a fondness for the clich6, but he does not dwell overly much on any one event, even when the historian in one wishes he would. The narrative fairly zips along.
Blair’s objective in writing the work was to de-mythologize the U-boat war. He felt that since the war’s end the reality of the Uboat campaign has been distorted by various historians, politicians, propagandists, journalists, and U-boat enthusiasts. The most flagrant of these distortions is that the defeat of the U-boats was a near-run thing, a close squeak for Great Britain. Blair makes it clear that Donitz was playing a losing hand from the beginning.
He makes a strong defense of (U.S. Fleet Commander) Admiral Ernest J. King’s actions in the face of the January-August 1942 Uboat offensive in American waters. Blair feels that King has been savaged by historians-mostly British-for resisting convoy and scorning British hard-won advice on fighting submarines. These historians focus on King’s anglophobia-implying it colored his visiorrand claim he was preoccupied by the Pacific when it should have been obvious that the war would be won or lost in the Atlantic! Blair also shoots these arguments down.
King-and all the relevant American commanders (Stark, Ingersoll, Andrews)-believed a poorly escorted convoy was worse than none at all, a conviction they had come by after hard and close examination of British experience to that date. Blair points out that the British never have given King credit for his insistence that convoys of troopships should be heavily escorted and that this policy was a genuine success, although it did consume precious escorts. He notes that British policy often resulted in inadequate escort for troopships, sometimes leading to massive tragedy.
As for the argument that King was preoccupied by the Pacific, Blair notes that much of this stems from a scheduled high level meeting with First Sea Lord Pound in April 1942 that King summarily deserted to meet with Nimitz in San Francisco. At this meeting King and Nimitz hammered out the strategy that led to American success at Coral Sea and Midway. It seems to this reader that King was fully justified in his apparent display of discourtesy. Hooray for Blair talcing an American view of the war!
The principal criticism of the work is that it Jacks a summarizing focus. Blair does sununarize each volume, but in Volume II he seems in a rush to cover all the ground with his characteristic thoroughness, and his summarizing suffers. It may have been a race against the clock of his own mortality that left him insufficient time to completely sum up his conclusions about a conflict that had already consumed 1, 700 pages.
One wishes he had had the stamina to round out the work with a sweeping analysis of the entire U-boat war, rather than treat each volume as if it were a stand-alone document. This leaves the reader with a good deal of work to do: Despite 35 appendices in the two volumes covering each patrol and various other items of interest, there is no overall summary of the U-boat order-of-battle for the entire war, nor a single summary of merchant ship losses.
I couldn’t help comparing the disastrous German U-boat campaign with America’s successful submarine war against Japan. What did we do right that Donitz and his gang did wrong? What did DOnitz do right that Allied ASW forces effectively countered? And are there lessons in this campaign that submariners of all navies can take to heart, even today? Some observations:
- German WWII torpedoes were worse than in 1918. Their torpedo troubles were eerily similar to those experienced by American submariners. Despite a much speedier response on the part of the German high command once a torpedo crisis was recognized, solutions were slow to enter the fleet and in some cases never did.
- German U-boats lacked radar and sonar, and their fire control and listening gear was only so-so. DOnitz expected a patrol line of these little, radarless boats to be his principal surveillance sensors to detect oncoming convoys; the discovering boat would trail and vector the rest of the wolfpack in for the kill. That they didn’t do so very well explains a great deal of the failure of the wolfpack tactic.
- While the Allies continued to improve their weapons, sensors, tactics, and competence, the German posture stayed essentially the same as in 1939, or deteriorated.
- Despite the affection the Type VII U-boat seems to engender among today’s naval buffs, it was a failure at its assigned mission in the North Atlantic. Its sea-keeping ability, range, torpedo load, electronics, habitability, and durability were all inadequate. In contrast, the American fleet submarine proved admirably suited to conditions encountered on long patrols in the tropical Pacific.
- In addition to having lousy boats, torpedoes, and electronics, Donitz was obsessed with the wolfpack idea, and pursued it long after its ineffectiveness had been demonstrated.
- German Navy failure to obtain long range air reconnaissance or protection over the Bay of Biscay was a significant failure of vision, as well as a telling example of serious interservice rivalries in the Third Reich and its endemic limited resources.
- The technological ignorance of the German high command is astonishing. They correctly guessed that the Allies had some kind of new detection gear that enabled them to attack a surfaced U-boat at night and in bad visibility. Their scientists didn’t believe the Allies could mount 10 cm band radar on aircraft or HF/DF equipment on escorts, so the boats continued to be devastated by air attacks without warning and chattered away on their radios while escorts DF-ed them. When a captured Allied pilot said the Allies were really tracking U-boats by radiation given off by their Metox radar detectors, they believed him and cautioned Uboats to use care in deploying Metox.
- Technological ignorance was an institutional flaw in the German Navy, where line officers were not expected to be technically inclined. Contrast this to the American submarine community where technical solutions to critical problems, e.g., with torpedoes, were routinely generated in the fleet.
- The German Navy did not enlist the nation’s vaunted technical community to solve urgent combat problems to the extent Americans and British did; again, this was symptomatic of an institutional flaw in Germany. The idea of a German Admiral Lockwood taking time to pester academics to hurry up FM sonar development because it was needed to penetrate a mined enemy sanctuary is too fantastic to contemplate.
- Despite technical and operational failures, such was the competence of the U-boat skippers and crews, that they continued to mount a credible threat until the last days of the war. Things got incredibly harder for the U-boats as the war went on, yet their morale did not seem to flag despite enduring the highest casualty rate of any arm of any belligerent in the war .
Donitz has been much maligned in his own country for continuing to send his crews to near-certain doom after the Allies clearly had beaten the U-boats in May 1943. The picture that emerges from Blair is more complex. Donitz agonized over this question continuously, and always came up with the same answer: the U-boats must continue to take the offensive. Allied forces tied down were much greater than the U-boat effort, forcing them to convoy complicated their logistics, and when compared to the sacrifices of other German forces on other fronts, including the home front, it was not too much to ask.
How did a force of dedicated and competent sailors such as the Unterseebootwaffe ultimately fail on a massive scale, and with such appalling casualties? How did they pose such a threat and sink so much tonnage if they were such a flawed force?
The answer is complex. For one thing, the U-boats never were so serious a threat as they seemed at the time and for many years thereafter. The key words here are “as they seemed at the time”. One must understand that the U-boat war was fought over a huge ocean by small units; integration of data from this vast complex was difficult at best and slowly achieved, by both sides. At the time what was really happening was difficult or impossible to discern.
The biggest Allied alarm came during March 1943 when a couple of successful wolfpack convoy attacks and an unusually high worldwide monthly tonnage loss seemed to threaten the lifeline to Britain. It was a case of looking at a glass 10 percent empty vs. 90 percent full. In fact, 91.5 percent of all merchant ships bound for Great Britain got through to their destination in March 1943, but the Admiralty focused only on the 84 ships sunk on the North Atlantic run, noticing that U-boats seemed to be returning to these waters in record numbers, and with good summer weather coming things would only get worse.
In April and May 1943 worldwide sinkings were down to 52 vessels of 207 ,000 tons (vs. 635,000 tons in March) against the operational loss of 58 U-boatsl So much for extrapolating a couple of data points when parameters are changing rapidly (e.g., the coincident arrival of jeep carrier escort groups and closing the midAtlantic air gap in this same time frame). At that point Donitz figuratively threw in the towel, but this hard won Allied victory could not be acknowledged by either side.
Germany continued to pour vast resources into the U-boat war, sending nearly four times as many boats on patrol as America did in the Pacific. And the force remained potent until the end: 396 Uboats were still in service when Germany surrendered. The strategy had its effect: no Allied escort could afford to let down its guard.
The failure of the U-boat campaign of 1939-45 should be of great interest to submariners of any nation. It should be studied and analyzed and dissected objectively. If one does this, some home truths emerge:
- A submarine’s principal characteristic is stealth. Compromise this and the submarine is worthless. Allied radar destroyed the U-boat’s stealth on the surface. If they dived, Allied sonar or sonobuoys or the FIDO homing torpedo detected them.
- A technologically dependent arm, such as a submarine force, must maintain close relations with its technical support community.
- One should not start vast projects with half vast ideas. Hitler went to war in 1939 with a U-boat arm that was just four years old, had inadequate materiel and numbers, and a strategy that was profoundly flawed.
- One must not assume the enemy’s order-of-battle, training, equipment, tactics, and competence will stand still while one marshals one’s forces.
- Submarines are not very good at defending against a major assault from the sea (e.g. German failure at Norway, Normandy, and North Africa; U.S. failure in the Philippines and at Midway).
Clay Blair has written a book that ought to become a standard reference work for the German U-boat war, if not the definitive history. Despite its length, submariners around the world will find something of value on just about every page, and a caution they should heed: if such a disaster could happen to Hitler’s submarines, it could happen to anyone’s!