In the continuing debate between Norman Polmar and Captain Enos/Clay Blair over the effectiveness of Hitler’s U-Boats (July 2000 THE SUBMARINE REVIEW,
p. 142-43), Polmar has by far the better of it historically. Although Clay Blair did a masterful job of gathering documents and data-for which current and future historians will be eternally grateful-his conclusion that the U-boat peril in the Atlantic in World War II has been “vastly overblown” and that the epic struggle was “somewhat misleadingly called the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ “is not historically supported by the events as they occur”ed and the perceptions of the individuals involved at the time.
It is apparent that such a conclusion depends too heavily upon hindsight: the undeniable fact that the peril was defeated. However, a more accurate historical perspective can be gained by studying events in the context of conditions at the times they transpired and the estimates of the situation-arguably perceptions, but right or wrong-through the eyes of individuals at those times who faced the threat on a day-to-day basis and made decisions accordingly that directly affected the outcome of the war or at least its duration.
For example, let us travel back to July 1940. Hitler’s war machine had subjugated Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, most of France with a subservient Vichy government in the south, and had driven the remnants of the Allied ground forces, primarily British, at Dunkirk to a stirring but inglorious withdrawal from the continent. Britain stood alone, defiant but ill-prepared on land, in the air and on the sea for the inevitable next blow. And it was on the sea, Britannica’s self-proclaimed realm, that it fell, not unexpected by Churchill who was imploring Roosevelt to provide destroyers to protect shipping that was still sailing independently or in convoys with too few or no escorts at all because of a lack of British escort.
Against this largely unprotected British merchant shipping the western approaches to the British Isles, Doenitz struck. With the Norwegian campaign over-in which U-boats were extensively used over Doenitz’s strong dissent-and torpedo problems resolved (Yes, they had them too), Doenitz launched an all out “tonnage war” from recently acquired Atlantic bases in France. By July 1940 it was in full-swing. Thus began what the U-boat men referred to as the [First] Happy Time. And by early fall it was at a crescendo. On the night of 21-22 September 1940, five U-boats sank eleven merchantmen and damaged another out of a convoy of fifteen fully laden vessels. And on the night of 18-19 October, six U-boats out of a wolf-pack of eight sank seventeen merchantmen from one convoy and on the following night of 19-20, five of the same eight sank fourteen from one convoy and seven from another. Thus, in less than three days and two nights, eight U-boats, operating in different combinations and attacking almost exclusively on the surface at night in wolf-packs-Doenitz’s Die Rudeltaktikhad destroyed 38 merchant vessels from three different convoys. No U-boats were lost. 2 Without question, under the circumstances at the time, Churchill was absolutely justified for being “really frightened”. As we should have been but weren’t.
Fast forward to 12 December 1941. On that date, Doenitz initially deployed five U-boats, with more to follow-Operijan Paukenschlag or “Operation Drumbeat”-to the east coast of America and Canada. America was completely unprepared for the merry massacre that followed despite the fact that the British Admiralty had provided the American Navy virtually all of its knowledge and experience, accumulated in over two years of war, regarding the U-boat peril and how to best counter it. The first blow fell on 14 January 1942 when Kapitiileutnant Richard Hardegen, U-123, sank the Norwegian (Panamanian registry) tanker NORNESS, 9,577 tons, 40 miles west of Nantucket Lightship. Thus began what U-boat men referred to as the Second Happy Time. Between then and April 1942, U-boat sank 198 merchantmen, more than half tankers, for 1,200,00 tons, off the east coast of the United States. During which time there were never more than 10-12 U-boats deployed along the entire east coast.
S.E. Morison, the unofficial historian for the history of the Navy in World War II, concluded: ” … the United States Navy was woefully unprepared, materially and mentally, for the U-boat blitz on the Atlantic Coast that began in January 1942 … this unpreparedness was largely the Navy’s own fault. Blame cannot be imputed to Congress … or to President Roosevelt. ”
By mid-June the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Anny, and senior military advisor to the President-essentially equivalent to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff today-addressed a letter of concern on 19 June to Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief United States Navy (Coming 12/20/41) and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO 3/26/42), as follows:
“The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort [emphasis added] … I am fearful [emphasis added] that another month or two of this will so cripple our means of transportation that we will be unable to bring sufficient men and planes to bear against the enemy in critical theaters to exercise a determining influence on the war. ”
It is difficult to envision a man of General Marshall’s stature-senior military advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman during all of World War II and later Secretary of State who oversaw the reconstruction of a war-ravaged Europe-being “fearful” of anything without justifiable cause. King responded on 21 June in a secret memorandum that agreed with Marshall’s assessment:
“I have long been aware … of the implications of the submarine situation …It is obvious that the German effort is expanding more rapidly than our defenses, and if we are to avoid disaster [emphasis added] not only the Navy but also all other agencies concerned must continue to intensify the anti-submarine effort. ”
Similarly, it is difficult to envision King-characterized as “adamant” by Churchill-as ever contemplating much less predicting “disaster” without justifiable cause.
King also outlined plans for the convoying of all shipping along the east coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. By August 1942 those plans bore fruition with the introduction of the Atlantic Interlocking Convoy System. As a result, there was an immediate sharp drop in shipping losses and a rise in U-boat losses. Considering the meager results not worth the U-boat losses, Doenitz essentially abandoned the once-lucrative theater and redeployed his boats once again along the North Atlantic shipping lanes where Uboat transit times were shorter and therefore time-on-station greater. Thus ended the U-boat Second Happy Time by the adoption in the theater of an universal convoy system in general and the effectiveness of escorts in particular, not only as deterrents to attack but also as very effective U-boat killers in the counter-attack mode-the latter result being somewhat disconcerting to the Search, Sight, Sink advocates of only offensive ASW measures as opposed to allegedly defensive convoying.
By October 1942 Churchill had become a convert to convoying and sent a personal telegram to FDR stressing the dire need of the RN for escorts to meet the U-boat menace and reiterating that ” … the problem of the U-boat menace, still without doubt the outstanding problem of the war. ” His assessment was officially confirmed on 19 January 1943 at the Casablanca Conference when the Combined [Allied] Chiefs of Staff, together with President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, agreed that the “defeat of the U-boat must remain a first charge on the resources of the United Nations.” That policy was affirmed at the Atlantic Convoy Conference, 1-12 March 1943, in Washington and personally endorsed by Admiral King. But as with many such policy declarations in the earlier years of the war, the U-boat offensive was way out ahead.
By February 1943 Doenitz had redeployed about 100 U-boats to the North Atlantic, of which 37 were concentrated in the Black Pit area south of Greenland, not as yet covered by any air protection. In the face of this renewed blitz, allied merchantmen losses that month increased sharply to sixty-three vessels, fully laden with war supplies. But the worst was yet to come. March 1943 saw the Battle of the Atlantic rage to a pitch of intensity and delicacy of balance which came as close to disrupting communications between America and her European Allies as had the U-boat campaign in April 1917. In the first twenty days of March the Allies lost 97 ships, more than a total of 500,000 tons. Two convoys, HX.229 consisting of forty and SC.122 sixty ships, were opposed by 40 U-boats and were particularly badly mauled. They lost a combined total of twenty-one ships. Such shipping losses and-equally or more importantly-their cargoes of critical war materials could not be sustained indefinitely even by the combined industrial might of America and her allies. Only one U-boat, U-384, was sunk.
This toll from escorted convoys caused the British Admiralty to seriously consider some strong arguments for discarding the convoy system in favor of allegedly more effective offensive schemes. But cooler heads prevailed and the Allies clung to their convoy strategy through the crisis. Their faith was rewarded when long-range plans to bolster and modernize convoy defenses began to materialize. By the end of March 1943 five surface support groups, with their prosecute-to-kill capability, and escort carriers, with their continuous air umbrellas, together with additional very long range (VLR) land-based aircraft, to close the Black Pit gap, all made their appearance. Unknowingly at the time, the corner had been time.
This increased support for the convoy system resulted in a sharp decrease in merchantmen losses and a dramatic increase in U-boat losses. During April and May 1943, fifty-six U-boats were lost in all areas; forty-one in the North Atlantic in May, thirty-three of which were sunk in the first twenty-three days of that month. Such appalling losses, even for the bitter no-quarter battle being waged in the frigid, stormy wastes of the North Atlantic, could not be sustained for long without destroying the U-boat arm as a viable fighting force. Accordingly, Doenitz made the agonizing decision to withdraw-temporarily-his U-boats from the North Atlantic convoy lanes. In his memoirs he stated:
“Wolf-pack operations against convoys in the North Atlantic … were no longer possible … I withdrew the boats from the North Atlantic on May 24 … We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic (emphasis added]. ”
But that was not the end of the U-boat threat. Doenitz continued to send U-boats to sea to prey on merchantmen and warships alike right up to the cessation of hostilities when going to sea in a U-boat was virtually embarking on a suicide mission. His rationale, after admitting defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic, was that as long as U-boats presented a viable threat to the Allies, their presence would require the Allies to maintain a formidable ASW organization of ships, aircraft, personnel and industrial resources to contain the threat and prevent its resurrection which, at least, would prolong the war. His reasoning was sound. For their continued depredations forced the Allies to maintain such an ASW force-progressively increasing in size and technology-the resources of which otherwise could have militarily and materially contributed to an earlier defeat of both Germany and Japan.
That continued attack and its earlier crippling successes lead Churchill to conclude that, “The U-boat attack was our worst evil. It would have been wise for the Germans to stake all upon it.” The historical record supports his opinion. After the 1938-1939 winter war games, then Captain Karl Doenitz, C-in-C of the resurrected U-boat service, concluded and so recommended to Admiral Erich Raeder, C-in-C, German Navy, that a total force of 300 U-boats would be required to be decisive if Britain again adopted a convoy system. No action was taken until 28 September 1939-after the war began-when Hitler visited U-boat headquarters at Wilhelmshaven. Doenitz again recommended a force of 300 U-boats and convinced Hitler to approve an increased priority for U-boat construction to achieve that goal. However, full implementation of Doenitz’s recommendation was impeded by Raeder’s insistence on continuing construction of 2 battleships, 2 cruisers, an aircraft carrier, plus destroyers and miscellaneous coast defense craft in accordance with the original Z-Plan. In addition, Field Marshall Herman Goering and the Chief of Staff, Armed Force both opposed the increased priority on national resources to rapidly expand the U-boat arm. Hitler refused to intervene to overrule Goring and the Chief of Staff. As a result of this lack of priority in U-boat construction, Germany began the war with only 57 Uboats, of which only 39 were ready for action. And of those, only 22 were Type Vlls or Type IXs, the only types suitable for Atlantic operations from German bases. Not until 1943 did Hitler realize that the U-boat arm offered the best chance of victory and personally assigned top industrial priority for a vast expansion of the U-boat fleet. 14 But it was too late, for America by then had had the time to marshal its industrial strength not only to produce the necessary massive quantities of war munitions, but also to organize an effective convoy system and an ASW organization capable of defeating any U-boat fleet that Germany was then capable of producing.
Was it a “Battle”? There can be no doubt but that it fulfills the accepted definition of “a prolonged general conflict pursued to a definite decision.” It certainly was a prolonged general conflict that lasted, at minimum, for over 44 months from the first day of the war on 3 September 1939 with the sinking of the British liner ATHENA by Kapitiinleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, U-30, to Doenitz’s withdrawal of U boats from the Nonh Atlantic convoy lanes on 24 May 1943. The definite decision was provided in Doenitz’s own words: “We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic.” Naval historian Stephen Roskill spoke for the participants and an overwhelming majority of historians since when he classified it as a decisive battle:
“Because convoy battles are marked only by latitude and longitude, and have no names that ring in memory like Matapan [or Midway], the victory of May, 1943, is scarcely remembered. Yet it was in its own way as decisive as the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. “”
The foregoing are but clippings from a vast historical record replete with similar documentation attesting to the gravity of the Uboat threat to Allied victory in World War II and the validity of the assessments made by Allied leaders such as Churchill, Roosevelt General Marshall and Admiral King that all could be lost unless it was met and defeated. The historical lesson to be learned is not whether the U boats lost the tonnage war, but rather how close they came for the second time in the 2Q’I’ century to severing the sea lanes of communication between America and its European Allies. Which leads to the sobering conclusion that contrary to Mahan that a war on shipping gue”e de course-is “secondary” and “inconclusive” by nature”, it can be a primary and potentially decisive method of naval warfare in a modern, industrial, logistics dependent world. A lesson that all nations, particularly those dependent upon sea lanes of communication for industrial viability or projection of power, should take seriously to bean; and be prepared to meet the threat before the outset of hostilities.
In our particular case, with naval and seaborne logistics commitments worldwide in several crisis areas, there should be no need for a logistics support vessel or warship flaming datum reminder-torpedoed by “a young diesel submarine commanding officer with one eye on his periscope and other on visions of The Order of the Crescent or the Red Star for Gallantry.”
Samuel E. Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. I, The Battle of the Atlantic (Boston: Little,
Brown, 1947), pp. 33-36.
Stephen W. Roskill, The War at Sea, 1939-1945, vol. I, The Defensive (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1954), pp. 350-51.
Morison, vol. X (1956), The Atlantic Bartle Won, May 1943-May 1945, p. 7; Morison, vol. I, pp. 12, 127; Roskill, War al Sea, vol. II, p. 95; Karl Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1959), p. 216.
Morison, vol. I, pp. 200-201; Robert G. Albion and Roben H. Connery, Fo” estate and th~ Navy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), pp.86-87
King Papers, Ser. XI, “Review of the Marshall-Arnold-King Correspondence” (Box 13), Naval Historical Center [NHC], Operational Archives Division, Wash., D.C.; R.A. Bowling, “The Negative Influence of Mahan on the Protection of Shipping in Wartime” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maine, 1980)., Appendix L.
“The Inauguration and Carrying Out of Convoy Operations and Its Effects”, December 7, 1942, LCDR Ames, File: “Coastal Convoy System, General Information,” RADM Samuel E. Morison Office Files, Series ill, Vol. I (19), NHC, Wash., D.C.; Morison, vol X, [chans] 14, 15, 66; Roskill, War at Sea, vol. II, pp. 376-77, vol. III, Pt. 1, p. 265.
Great Britain, PRO, ADM 1112130, PO 18049/42, Memo. 111 SL to l 11 L, Oct. 27, 1942. 1″Repon of Conference [Atlantic Convoy Conference, 1-12 Mar. 1943, Wash., D.C.] VOPNAV (Op 12), A14-1, Doc. 76822″, NHC, Wash., D.C.
Roskill, White Ensign, p. 271; Roskill, War at Sea, vol. II, pp. 365-67; Morison, vol. I, p. 320; Doenitz, Memoirs, pp.182, 329- 30; Jurgen Rohwer, Critical Convoy Battles of World War II (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1977); Rohwer, “The U-Boat War Against Allied Supply Lines,” Decisive Battles of World War II: The German View, eds H.A. Jacobsen and J. Rohwer (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1965), pp. 295-315.
Morison, vol. X, pp. 67-76.
Morison, vol. X, pp. 79-84; Roskill, White Ensign, p. 276, 276 n.l.
Doenitz, Memoirs, pp. 332, 341; Roskill, War at Sea, vol. II, p. 377.
Churchill, Hinge of Fate, p. 125
Doenitz, Memoirs, pp. 33, 39, 46-47; Erich Raeder, My Life (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1960), pp. 273, 279; Friedrich Ruge, DerSeekrieg: The German Navy’s Story, 1939· 1945 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1957), pp. 34-35, 37, 49-51; Cajus Becker [Hans D. Berenbrok]. Hitler’s Naval War, trans. Frank Ziegler (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 235-36, 302.
Roskill, White Ensign, p. 277.
VADM B.M. Kauderer, USN (Ret.), C&D, “The ASW Shift”, U.S. Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS, Aug. 2000, p.18