SUBMARINE REVIEW readers who are fascinated by VADM . James A. Sagerholm’s, The Battle of the Atlantic 1939- 1945. the first part of which appeared in the January, 2009 issue of the Review with parts II and III following in the April and July issues, will find a new, exciting television mini-series equally powerful. The four-part video presentation will premier on the Smithsonian Channel and National Geographic Channel in the fall of 2009.
Through exhaustive research and personal interviews with U- Boat skippers such as Reinhard Hardegen and merchant ship survivors such as Ken Ramsden, Convoy will be an important contribution to an understanding of the crucial battle of the Atlantic. What sets Convoy apart from prior television portrayals of the battle is its balanced approach to the contest of submarine vs. merchant ship and escort. In Convov we see sailors on both sides of the conflict doing their jobs as best they can. There are neither good guys nor bad guys, just men fighting for what they believed was right. Nor is it a pure British effort to defeat the U- boat, but rather the combined effort of merchant seamen, and Canadian, American and British military. Under the sea were the Germans who pushed their boats beyond design limits as they initially enjoyed great success, then experienced ever-increasing odds as the strength of Allied A.S.W. improved.
Utilizing advanced computer imaging and actual footage, the Type VII and IX German submarines and their weapons are explained in detail. The viewer sees from a computerized aerial perspective how a German wolf-pack was able to out-maneuver a convoy. With computer generated diagrams of U-boats, Corvettes and Destroyers we gain a clear understanding of what it was like to attack and be attacked. Many of the scenes taken from Canadian archival footage have never before been seen. The grim reality of what it was like to be torpedoed comes to life as computer enhanced footage becomes vivid. Using modern techniques, we are able to see for the first time the Battle of the Atlantic as it was really fought.
Critical to the series is the exhaustive research spearheaded by the noted historian and expert on the Battle of the Atlantic, Dr. Mark Milner of the University of New Brunswick. He and other experts on the battle carry us along the path of research with interviews of officers and seamen on both sides. The story is told in four episodes, starting with the dark days of 1939 and 1940, through the initial Allied effort to protect ships using escorted convoys, through the German attacks on American ships after Pearl Harbor and finally into the days when the Allies gain the upper hand through increased numbers and improved technology.
Episode One tells the story of the opening days of the Second World War when the U-boat was thought to be indomitable. From the sinking of the liner A TH ENA to the daring mission into Scapa Flow, the U-Boat seemed to be everywhere. In reality, Admiral Karl Donitz was forced to fight Nazi complacency as he struggled to build his submarine fleet. Hitler had promised him 800 submarines, but Donitz was able to put less than 50 boats to sea as the war picked up speed. Protection of ships was minimal with few escorts and out-dated detection equipment. Aiding the U-boat fleet was the capture of Brest and Lorient on France’s west coast. This dramatically cut transit time prolonging the U-boats time on station. With too few submarines, Donitz was able to squeeze Britain’s life line to a trickle.
Episode Two begins at the end of 1940 when Britain stood alone against Germany. Hitler ordered the battleships SCHARNHOSRT and BISMARK to sea. Britain was able to sink BISMARK, but SCHARNHORST attacked with impunity convoys leaving Newfoundland. Sinking 22 ships in Canada’s backyard, the battleship diverted critical effort away from the anti U-boat campaign.
Prior to the war, British intelligence had been able to heist a Gennan enigma machine from Poland. Later, when Allied sailors were able to board a German submarine and retrieve its code manuals, the Bletchley Park code-breakers obtained the key to deciphering U-boat communications. This was a boon to the British A.S.W. campaign. U-boat commanders were shocked to find destroyers when they surfaced to recharge batteries. But when SC-42 lost 16 ships to torpedoes, it was clear that Ultra would not be enough. Insufficient escorts and ineffective procedures over- shadowed Britain’s intelligence breakthrough.
Episode Three sees the second era of U-boat easy-pickings. After Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war against America, Gennan U-boats transited the Atlantic to devastate coastal shipping along America’s eastern seaboard. Daily sinkings took place within eye-sight of coastal inhabitants who witnessed oil and debris being swept onto American beaches. Only after Admiral King was persuaded by a Royal Navy delegation did America adopt a convoy system.
Retired sonar operator Geoff Smith describes his frustration in trying to locate German U-boats in the waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. With salinity and temperature inversion layers the U-boats were able to evade Canadian Corvettes and Destroyers. The episode traces U-517’s 1942 rampage in Canada’s home waters.
By then, Donitz had been able to double his fleet and wolf- packs roamed at will in the area of mid-Atlantic beyond the range of land-based aircraft. The year 1942 ended with losses topping 1,500,000 tons. Using extensive computer generated imaging sequences and eyewitness accounts, the bloody November, 1942 struggle for SC 107 is recreated. We watch as U-boats set up for the attack, then coordinate their movements to keep punching away at the merchant ships. Simultaneously, we witness the frantic Allied effort to disrupt the attack as merchant seamen tight lo survive.
Episode Four describes events that portend the changing tide of battle. While the Germans were maintaining over 100 U-boats on station, the Allies prepared for the invasion of Europe through northern France. For the preparation effort to continue, the U-boat menace had to be eliminated. Three technical innovations were pivotal in reducing the effectiveness of the U-boats: Advances in radar and sonar equipment allowed escorting vessels to detect submarines at much longer ranges. The air gap in mid Atlantic was closed by the use of jeep carriers from which search aircraft could be launched. And the development of ahead-throwing Hedgehog volleys allowed destroyer crews to envelope a submarine with multiple depth charges. The Gennans took terrible losses, but they too developed new weapons. Their noise-seeking torpedo homed on propeller cavitation so that merchant ship evasion became much more difficult.
The pendulum swung irrevocably in favor of the Allies when hunter-killer groups became the operational standard. U-boats were kept submerged and even the snorkel was not enough to stem the over-powering Allied presence. In combination with V ADM Sagerholm’s excellent written series the illuminating mini-series Convoy will bring us a clear appreciation of the desperate struggle in the Atlantic during the Second World War. Watch for Convoy in the fall of 2009.