Republished with permission from Air Power History Summer 2012-Volume 59, Number 2.
The Battle of the Atlantic, fought primarily between Great Britain and Germany, from 1940 through May 1943, was principally won by strategic air power. The term strategic air power does not normally include antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. However, a very few ASW configured, very long range (VLR) aircraft carried out vital strategic offensive and defensive duties during the Atlantic battle.
If Great Britain lost the battle, she might be forced out of the war with unknowable consequences. However, with Great Britain eliminated and only the Eastern front to concern it, Germany might have defeated the USSR and established hegemony in Eurasia.
If Great Britain won the battle, she could serve as a huge marshalling yard for armor, artillery, and infantry formations, gathered for the invasion of France sometime in early 1944. The Atlantic battle pitted massed German submarines (U-boats) against Allied merchant convoys carrying supplies to the British Isles. The following table shows the actual losses of ships and tonnage in the North Atlantic, as well as the number of U-boats sunk each year:
The table shows clearly that 1943 marked a significant change in ship and tonnage losses and in the number of U-boats sunk. After 1943, U-boats represented a lesser strategic threat to Great Britain. This article deals with the role of very long-range aircraft, specifically the Consolidated B- 24 Liberator, which enabled the British to win the Atlantic Battle. The article also suggests that British could have won the Atlantic Battle a full year earlier-if the American B- 24 Liberators delivered to the Royal Air Force had been properly allocated to the battle. Instead of 1,006 ships/5,471,222 tons being lost during 1942, those losses might have been reduced to only 28 ships/150,377 tons.
The safe arrival of convoys was necessary to the United Kingdom’ s survival and to the buildup in the United Kingdom of sufficient quantities of equipment and troops to conduct an invasion of occupied France, scheduled for 1944. The aviation gasoline that allowed U.S. Eighth Air Force and Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command to operate from the United Kingdom against Germany and occupied Europe had to be imported into the UK by sea.
The German strategy was simple: sink enough ships to fatally weaken England. The tool the German Navy used was its U-boat arm, commanded by Admiral Karl Doenitz. Doenitz saw the problem very clearly. His solution was to employ U-boats in massed formations, he called wolf packs, at night on the surface to defeat the merchant convoys. Convoys had the advantage of removing the many vulnerable independent merchant ships from the ocean and bunching them together where armed escorts could hinder a surfaced submarine from disturbing them with gun or torpedo. If a submarine attacked while submerged, it might sink a ship or two, but the escorts would harry it with depth charges, keeping it deep while the convoy sailed out of reach. Most ships in convoy would arrive safely-the whole point of the convoy scheme.
During the late 1930s, Doenitz made the massed U-boat night surface attack his signature tactic in a number of exercises in the Baltic and Atlantic. By staying on the surface, the value of Asdic (active sonar) used to detect submerged submarines was negated. The Type VII U-boat that comprised most of the German U-boat Ann was designed specifically to reduce its visibility when surfaced, and to enhance the ability of U-boat watch officers and lookouts to detect surface ships before they could spot the U-boat. Doenitz understood the basic theory behind the Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop many years before Colonel John Boyd, USAF first articulated it in the 1950s:’ In his U-Boat Commander’ s Handbook, Doenitz includes the exhortation “He who sees first has won.”
The Type VII U-boat-using its twin diesel engines-had a surface speed of about seventeen knots at a time when most convoys were limited to eight or nine knots. The speed advantage allowed the U-boat to overtake a convoy. The surfaced speed advantage was entirely dependent upon a lack of enemy air coverage in the U-boat operating area. At first sighting of an aircraft, the U-boat watch officer dived the boat to avoid attack, thus losing the ability to move rapidly on the surface. Once submerged the U-boat was limited to low speeds on the battery, perhaps three to five knots, too slow to keep up with even a slow convoy. In the presence of aircraft in daylight, or radar equipped aircraft during darkness, the U-boat was forced below the surface where it was no longer a threat to ships.
It was not possible to concentrate U-boats to form wolf packs when enemy aircraft were present. Adequate air cover ensured the safe arrival of ships even if no U-boats were sunk. This last point seemed to be difficult to comprehend for a number of prominent figures on the Allied side. To some, the defeat of the U-boat could only be measured by the number of U-boats sunk. A very few realized that the defeat of the U-boat was better measured by the number of convoys that escaped attack, or by the number of ships that made port in the UK with their cargoes-whether or not the opposing U-boats were sunk.
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister and supreme British war-lord, at one time remarked that the only thing that really bothered him was the U-boat threat.6 However, some of his actions at key points during the Battle of the Atlantic seemed to indicate that his focus got blurry from time to time, when he directed activity that effectively hindered the extension of air cover over vital areas of the North Atlantic. The basic problem concerned the allocation of very long-range (VLR) aircraft within the RAF, and even within Coastal Command itself.
Within the RAF two commands contended for long range and very long-range aircraft. They were Bomber Command, led by Air Marshall Arthur Harris, which wanted them reserved for night area bombing attacks on German cities. The other contender was Coastal Command, tasked with supporting the Royal Navy, with air antisubmarine warfare.
Coastal Command started the war with a collection of antique aircraft. The RAF acquired Lockheed Hudson patrol bombers and Consolidated Catalina flying boats from the U.S. to help stock its squadrons with modem aircraft. It also put in orders for the Consolidated B- 24, a long-range aircraft. Bomber Command quickly rejected the B- 24 as unsuitable for night area bombing of Germany because of the high visibility of its engine exhaust flames.8 Those flames would have made it easy for German night fighters to intercept even without air intercept radar.
Despite rejection by Bomber Command, the British Air Minis-try sent a number of B- 24s to the Middle East Air Command, where they were used in attacks against enemy targets in the Mediterranean area. The Air Ministry also allocated a number of B-24s to transport duties, under Air Ferry Command or British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) control. A very few B-24s were allocated to 120 Squadron, Coastal Command for antisubmarine warfare (ASW).
British historian John Terraine noted that the “convoy battles of October 1940 could be fairly classed as catastrophic.” Thirty-eight merchant ships were sunk in three nights of surface attacks by wolf packs. These victims came from convoys SC 7 and HX 79A, bound for the UK from Canadian ports. The losses represented roughly 45 percent of the total number of ships involved. A Defense Committee meeting on October 21, 1940, approved reinforcement of Coastal Command with a third long-range squadron fitted with Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radar. After November 1940, there was a temporary decline in ships sunk by U-boats. Many of the boats were back in port for refit and crew rest. Furthermore, British air ASW patrolling had increased, particularly that by long range Sunder lands. As a result, Doenitz shifted his U-boat operating areas to west of 15 degrees west longitude to clear them away from Sunderland patrol areas.
However, a critical air gap existed in the North Atlantic be-tween Iceland and Newfoundland south of Cape Farewell, a stretch some 600-700 nautical miles long. Within that area U-boats were free to move around on the surface by day or night. The only protection provided each convoy were a very few escort ships. The typical convoy consisted of forty to fifty ships, and the escort was usually a mixed bag of a destroyer or two, and some corvettes, totaling five or six escort ships. Some escorts were from Allied navies, introducing language and doctrinal complications. Early in the war, escort groups were assigned at the last minute and had no workup period to learn to work together.
Doenitz’s orders to his U-boat commanding officers were simple: the first U-boat to spot a convoy trailed it, while sending off radio signals to U-boat headquarters and other U-boats in the general vicinity. Each U-boat within range closed on the convoy whose position, course and speed were reported. After dark, on the first night after a wolf pack formed, the U-boats attacked. Their attacks were individual, on the surface. Their low surfaced silhouettes usually enabled them to evade the escorts in darkness and get into firing positions. After firing, they would exit the convoy and reload their tubes before closing in to re-attack.
Hitler’s War Directive Number 23 of February 6, 1941, noted that the “heaviest effort of German war-operations against the English war-economy has lain in the high losses in merchant shipping inflicted by sea and air warfare.” One month later Winston Churchill focused attention on the battle by issuing his Battle of the Atlantic directive. He noted that his “greatest fear was the submarine campaign against Britain’s lifeline.”
By May 1941, some nine Catalinas had been transferred from the U.S. Navy to the RAF under the Lend Lease program. In June 1941, Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte took over Coastal Command from Sir Frederick Bowhill. Consolidated Liberators
were beginning delivery from the U.S. About 50 percent of aircraft were fitted with ASV II radar. The patrol endurance and radius of action for the various ASW aircraft were as follows:
Whitley and Wellington 2 hours at 500 miles
Sunderland 2 hours at 600 miles
Catalina 2 hours at 800 miles
By August 1941, some sixty-seven Catalinas were in service with Coastal Command. However long-range Halifax bombers were reserved for Bomber Command.
Joubert soon noted that ASV radar was being used almost entirely for navigation, and not to detect U-boats. He instituted a training program to correct that deficiency, but it took almost a year to accomplish his goal.
In June 1941, the first deliveries of its B- 24 Liberators were made to the RAF. A few went to Coastal Command, but others were reserved for top-priority trans-Atlantic air transportation. The first Coastal Command squadron equipped with B- 24s with ASW adaptations and extra fuel tanks was established in September. However, one month later, half of those aircraft were withdrawn from Coastal Command for other purposes.
Coastal Command’s 120 Squadron at Nutts Corner, Northern Ireland, took delivery of the first B- 24s fitted with ASV radar in June 1941.15 Operating under 15 Group, its responsibilities were to cover the Atlantic area from the UK westward to near the east coast of Canada and the U.S.
Throughout the summer of 1941, Joubert’s requests for more long-range aircraft for ASW were rejected. All new bombers were reserved for Bomber Command. Bomber Command even tried to get some earlier deliveries back from Coastal Command. Winston Churchill, the Air Staff, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the senior RAF officer, were all in league in supporting Bomber Command requirements for long range aircraft for strategic bombing of German cities over Coastal Command’s requirements for long range ASW.
Between October 194 l and January 1942, Joubert was forced to send 166 aircrews overseas, including some complete Catalina squadrons, because of the Japanese threat. By December 1941, some sixty-five LB 30s (Mk II Liberators) were in British hands.16 However, 120 Squadron (1S Group) of Coastal Command had only one squadron of sixteen Liberators. In February 1942 Joubert complained to the Secretary of State for Air, the head of the Air Ministry, about his lack of aircraft.
During December 1941, noted surface Escort Group commander Cdr. Johnny Walker, RN, reported a Liberator arriving over convoy HG 76 (from Gibraltar to UK), some 700 miles south of the UK. It patrolled for some hours until relieved by another Liberator. Vander Vat uses this example to point out that the North Atlantic air gap could have been closed much earlier if Liberators had been in place to operate from Iceland and Newfoundland. In Incidentally Admiral Doenitz called off wolf pack attacks on that convoy when the first Liberator was reported overhead.
Joubert noted the deterrent effect the presence of land-based aircraft had on U-boat operations. He recorded that U-boat attacks on ships had almost ceased within 300 nautical miles of Coastal Command air bases. British historian Vander Vat states that Coastal Command had only one squadron (sixteen aircraft) of Liberators by May 1942. That is probably incorrect. The Liberator sighted by Walker in December 1941, had to have come from 19 Group, based in southern England, whose responsibilities included convoys to and from African ports and the Mediterranean Sea. Assuming a notional sixteen B- 24s per squadron (twelve active and four reserves) and at least one B-24 squadron assigned to 19 Group that meant that Coastal Command had a total of twenty-four B-24s available for ASW. Whether 19 Group should have had any when 1S Group was stretched so thinly in the North Atlantic is another matter entirely.
In January 1942, Coastal Command had twenty-nine Sunder-lands in the Atlantic, plus nineteen Wellingtons and seventeen Whitleys. Coastal Command had only forty-eight very long range aircraft (thirty-eight Catalinas and ten Liberators). On June 23, 1942, the Admiralty addressed a paper to the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, noting that “we had lost a measure of control over sea communications of the world … [and that] … ships alone were unable to maintain command at sea.”
On July 12, 1942, Sierra Leone convoy OS 33 was attacked. U-boats sank five ships but lost one U-boat. U-202 sighted convoy OS 34, and sank two ships but also encountered Liberators operating 800 miles from their base in southern England. Doenitz was greatly disturbed by that report.25 He knew that the ability of the U-boats to form wolf packs depended upon an absence of air cover. In mid-August SL 118 (another Sierra Leone convoy) lost three ships before a Liberator from Cornwall arrived on scene and drove the U-boats underwater.26 Here again is clear evidence of Liberators from 19 Group operating well to the south of the North Atlantic scene, more indication of their dispersion rather than concentration in the area that mattered most. On August 21, 1942, Doenitz noted an increase in enemy nights using an excellent locating device (ASV radar). U-boat operations in the eastern Atlantic were more difficult as a result. Allied aerial reconnaissance reached almost as far west as 20 degrees west longitude, forcing U-boats into the mid-Atlantic where they could still operate freely.
The TORCH landings in North Africa took place in November 1942. Support for the invasion stripped the North Atlantic convoys of most of their surface escorts. Two squadrons of U.S. Navy Liberators were soon based in Morocco to support the invasion and its shipping. Vander Vat, a British historian, states baldly “It was the second time that the obdurate Admiral King almost lost the war single-handed”, referring to the USN Liberators use off North Africa rather than in the North Atlantic air gap.
On December 6, 1942, convoy HX 217 was attacked by twenty-two U-boats as it entered the air gap. The next day, seven U-boats were in contact with the convoy when a Liberator from a 120 Squadron detachment at Iceland arrived, some 800 miles from its airbase. There were eight U-boat sightings by the aircraft and seven attacks with depth charges. The Liberator spent 7.5 hours with the convoy, out of a 16 hour 25 minute mission. There were no successful U-boat attacks on ships of that convoy.
The Germans had determined the frequency of the British radar locating set (ASV II) which was being used so effectively in conjunction with the Leigh-light to detect, illuminate and attack U-boats crossing the Bay of Biscay at night on the surface. They developed an ESM set, called Metox after the name of the French firm which manufactured it. The British answer was the development of 9. 7 cm radar (ASV III) whose signal lay outside the Metox frequency detection range.
In December 1942, the question of which RAF command would have priority for delivery of the new airborne radar came up for decision. Coastal Command used it (as ASV III) for ASW. Bomber Command used it (as H2S) for blind bombing of targets in Germany. Churchill ruled in favor of Bomber Command. The first forty ASV III sets that arrived at Coastal Command in January 1943 were assigned to the Leigh-light equipped Wellingtons being used in the Bay of Biscay battle against transiting U-Boats. That decision reflected a bias within Coastal Command itself in favor of its use in an offensive battle vice a defensive battle over and around the convoys.
From January 1942 through January 1943, four RAF squadrons attached to the Middle East Air Command, operated Liberators in a bomber role: 108, 159, 160, and 178. Assuming the normal twelve active aircraft per squadron, that totals forty-eight Liberators used as bombers by Middle East Air Command. This was at a time when U-boats were sinking vital ships in the North Atlantic, particularly in the air gap which could only be covered by VLR aircraft.
In January 1943, U-514 sighted an all-tanker convoy headed north from Trinidad. U-514 sank one tanker and then lost contact. The convoy consisted of nine tankers headed for Gibraltar carrying fuel for U.S. forces in North Africa. On January 8, the convoy steamed into the Delphin U-boat patrol line. Its escort consisted of one destroyer and three corvettes. U-boats sank six more of the tankers. On January 23, a Combined Chiefs of Staff report of a plenary meeting noted “The defeat of the U-boat remains a first charge on the resources of the United Nations.”
During the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 the British stated new ASW requirements: sixty-five more surface escorts, twelve escort carriers (CVEs), and as many very long range (VLR) Liberators as possible-with some to be based in Newfoundland to close the air gap. Terraine notes that the matter of VLR aircraft priorities was still unresolved and was not advanced at Casa-blanca.
The Coastal Command order of battle for February 1943 shows the assignment of Liberators to the following Groups and subordinate Squadrons:
15 Group (North Atlantic) – 120 Squadron
AHQ Iceland (North Atlantic) – 120 Squadron (det)
16 Group (Channel) – 86 Squadron
19 Group (Bay of Biscay) – 224 Squadron
Once again, assuming twelve active aircraft per squadron, we find perhaps twelve Liberators providing vital ASW protection to the North Atlantic convoys, while another twelve are engaged in operations over the English Channel, and a third set of twelve are pursuing the ongoing campaign against transiting U-boats in the Bay of Biscay. This misassignment lay completely on Coastal Command’s own doorstep. Air Officer in Command Joubert could have had thirty-six VLR Liberators in action over the North Atlantic but apparently chose not to do so. Nesbit indicates that the Coastal Command order of battle on February 5, 1943, when Sir John Slessor took over from Joubert, included four squadrons of Liberators. If that was true then it would have been possible to have had forty-eight VLR Liberators in action over the North Atlantic.
However Terraine states that there were ” … still only two squadrons of Liberators in Coastal Command” in February 1943.33 Later Terraine states that in March 1943, Coastal Command ” … now had two squadrons of B- 24Ds-Liberator IIIs.” Conversion of the B 240 to a maritime version called for stripping out fuel tank self-sealing features, removing additional annor in the bomber version as well as the bottom power turret.
The conversion could then take off with 2,000 gallons of fuel plus a load of eight 250-pound depth charges. On March 17, one of these converted Liberators flew eight hours fifty minutes from Aldergrove in Northern Ireland to rendezvous with convoy SC 122. On return it had been in the air eighteen hours and twenty minutes. Another of these conversions carried out a twenty-hour, thirty-minute mission.
In June 1943, Coastal Command had forty-eight Liberators including those engaged in convoy protection, according to Sir John Slessor, Air Officer Commanding Coastal Command. He goes on to state the USAAF (East Coast) had seventy-two Liberators and the U.S. Navy some forty-eight. His words are self-damning because they reveal that not all Coastal Command Liberators were engaged in convoy protection as they should have been. We have seen earlier that a number were involved in the Bay of Biscay offensive against transiting U-boats. His remarks about USAAF and USN Liberators then implicitly shift the blame for the absence of an adequate number of Liberators over the North Atlantic to Great Britain’s ally rather than his own Coastal Command and the RAF.
Great Britain purchased 139 Model LB-30 Liberators (serials AL 503 through AL 641) from the United States. These had originally been ordered by France, but after the fall of France in June 1940, the order was taken over by the British. The first aircraft, serial AL 503, crashed into San Diego Bay on June 2, 1941. Some fifty-four Liberators were retained by the U.S. Army Air Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The remaining eighty-four Liberators were delivered to Great Britain.36 What duties they were assigned makes for interesting reading. Some forty-four Liberators were assigned to duty in Middle East Air Command. Some of these wound up in the Indian Ocean Theater of Operations. Another twenty-six were assigned to British Overseas Aircraft Company (BOAC) or to Ferry Command or for transport duties.
The Admiralty Staff Review of 1943 noted that “The Germans never came so near to disrupting communications between the New World and the Old World as in the first twenty days of March 1943.” It appeared possible that we should not be able to continue convoy as an effective system of defense.37 It referred to the fact that four convoys (SC 121, HX 228, SC 122 and HX 229) consisting of 202 ships total suffered the losses of thirty-nine ships sunk by U-boats (19.3 percent).
Six Liberators (serials AM 258 through AM 263) were deliv-ered between January and May 1941. These were purchased by the British government. They were considered Mk I Liberators. All were assigned to BOAC or the Return Ferry service. The assignment of a limited number of Liberator long-range aircraft to ferry duties is quite understandable. Ferrying of aircraft from Canada to the UK began in 1940. The ferry aircrews had to return to Canada to continue their duties. Until a return air ferry service was available they went westward by ship, taking ten to fourteen days for the return.
By August 1941, delivery of the 139 Liberators originally destined for the French Air Force but taken over by the British government after the fall of France, began. By December 1941 some 65 had been delivered.
Between April and August 1941, another twenty Liberators were delivered to the UK, serials AM 920-through AM 929. These were LB-308 models (B- 24As). Of the twenty some fifteen were assigned to 120 Squadron in Coastal Command. However, only nine were permanently assigned. Another six were temporarily assigned to 120 Squadron for use in training their aircrews. After that four went off to transport duties elsewhere and two went to Middle East duties.
During 1942, some twenty-three USAAF Liberators were returned to British control; bringing the RAF LB- 30 total to eighty-seven aircraft.
Van der Vat notes that in March 1943, Coastal Command had only three squadrons of Liberators (fifty-two aircraft on paper), while all U.S. Liberators were in the Pacific, bombing Germany, or in North Africa (two squadrons). Van der Vat goes on to say “(Admiral) King was effectively subverting Casablanca and the Allied Agreement on ‘Germany First’ by giving priority to his Pacific front in vital VLR (aircraft) resources.”
Subsequently, the March 1943 Convoy Conference agreed on twenty Liberators to be provided to the Royal Canadian Air Force. President Roosevelt intervened later in the month and directed that the U.S. Navy provide sixty Liberators to the North Atlantic Theater, and the U.S. Anny Air Forces seventy-five Liberators. The RAF was directed to provide 120 Liberators. The last number is fascinating to contemplate. At a time when Coastal Command’s 120 Squadron had only a few VLR Liberators to contest the Battle of the Atlantic, the RAF as a whole apparently had a number of Liberators up its sleeve doing other things than ASW in the North Atlantic. Allied shipping losses in March were 693,000 tons, of which 627,000 tons were lost to U-boats.
During the Casablanca Conference, a study estimated re-quirements for eighty VLR aircraft for convoy cover in the North Atlantic. Allocation of incoming Liberators (under Lend Lease) was modified to reduce Coastal Command’s allotment in order to reequip an RCAF squadron in Newfoundland with Liberators.
During March 1943, some seventeen convoys were attacked and eighty-two ships were sunk. Three days of attacks, mostly in the gap cost convoys HS 229 and SC 122 twenty-one ships.
In February 1943, Coastal Command had eighteen Liberators available for convoy protection in the Atlantic. Nine were in Iceland ( 120 Squadron) while another nine were attached to 19 Group, which was responsible for convoys between the UK and African ports. 19 Group also ran Bay of Biscay operations against U-boats in transit to and from their French bases.
The air gap was essentially closed by VLR aircraft at the end of March 1943 according to Van der Vat. Actually it was a combination of airborne radar carried by VLR aircraft, well trained surface escort groups with HFIDF to localize U-boat radio transmissions, CVEs that were just entering effective operational service-all underlain by Bletchley Park’s interception and breaking of Enigma transmissions that allowed a victory in the Battle of the Atlantic in April-May 1943. But the key element was an adequate number of VLR aircraft operating over the North Atlantic vastness. As discussed in detail earlier the key to wolf pack tactics was the ability of U-boats to operate at high speed on the surface to close convoys. Take that ability away and convoys were relatively safe.
In April 1943, convoy ONS 4 was supported by the first escort carrier to operate in the North Atlantic, HMS Biter (BA VG-3).
Perhaps the precise turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic took place on May 19-20, when convoy SC 130 was attacked by a wolf pack of thirty-three U-boats. No ships were lost and five U-boats were sunk. On May 22, 1943, USS BOGUE’s (CVE-9) aircraft sank a U-boat 600 miles southeast of Greenland. On May 23 HMS Archer (BAVG-1) aircraft sank another 670 miles southeast of Greenland. By the end of May 1943, some forty-one U-boats4R had been lost. Admiral Doenitz admitted that he had lost the Battle of the Atlantic.
Sir John Slessor, Air Officer in Command of Coastal Com-mand, appeared to understand the real point of the Atlantic Battle when he noted that “Our object in the Battle of the Atlantic was to ensure the safe and timely arrival of convoys, or, in more simple terms, to prevent our ships from being sunk.” However, he then displayed rather muddled thinking when he went on to state, “the only sure way of ensuring the safe and timely arrival of shipping, was to kill U-boats at sea.’749 He seemingly missed the point that the mere presence of ASW aircraft in the air in the vicinity of the convoys drove the U-boats underwater where they were relatively harmless.
Regarding the air gap, Slessor went on to note that there was not a single VLR aircraft west of Iceland and only a handful east of it, although the U.S. Navy had taken delivery of full fifty Liberators by the end of 1942. He went on to state that some fifty Liberators defeated the U-boat campaign by mid-summer 1943. Turning once again to savage the Americans, he stated “(Admiral) King’s obsession with the Pacific and the Battle of Washington cost us dear in the Battle of the Atlantic.”
It is clear from the information available in various source documents that the RAF actually had enough Liberators available to it to close the air gap sometime during 1942, rather than a year later. A careful examination of Liberator delivery dates to the RAF indicates that from June 1941 to the end of April 1942, at least 113 Liberators were handed over. The failure of the RAF to prioritize the assignment of long range (1,800 miles) and very long-range (2,400 miles) Liberators to Coastal Command is difficult to understand today. It is also difficult to comprehend why within Coastal Command, 120 Squadron and other squadrons covering the North Atlantic Theater were not afforded absolute priority in the distribution of those Liberators that were allocated to Coastal Command.
The assignment of Liberators to Middle East Air Command for bomber duty took place at a time when U-boat sinking’s were threatening the UK’s very existence. Although they may have played an important operational role in the Middle East Theater, the North Atlantic Theater was the only theater of operations where Great Britain could have been defeated-in a national sense. If she lost the Battle of the Atlantic she would lose the war. The Admiralty clearly recognized this point.
The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Lord Alan-brooke, was chairman of the British Chiefs of Staff Committee, and as such Winston Churchill’s chief adviser on the conduct of the war. There is little evidence that Alanbrooke recognized the importance of the Battle of the Atlantic or tried in any way to recommend action to ensure that the air gap was closed in 1942 or later.
Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal was Chief of the Air Staff from 1940 to 1945. He was in a position to take an overall view of the RAF and the responsibilities assigned to its major commands: Bomber, Fighter and Coastal; and the assignment of resources to support them. He bears direct responsibility for diverting a large number of Liberators to the Middle East Air Command, as well as to transport roles at a time when Coastal Command desperately needed them for the North Atlantic battle.
Another diversion of Liberators took place in mid-1942. Winston Churchill was concerned that the Eighth Army in the Western Desert lacked enough armor-piercing tracer ammunition so that every field piece could serve as an anti-tank weapon. Ferry Command of RAF was directed to lay on a massive airlift. To meet the demand, ” . .. fourteen Liberator bombers were taken off the delivery Line … and … delegated (for transport duties) for the emergency.” This is another example of Churchill’ s meddling in military affairs at the tactical-operational level, while neglecting the overall strategic problem of getting ships safely across the North Atlantic. Those fourteen Liberators represented almost a full squadron, which might have been of immense help in Coastal Command over the North Atlantic.
Arthur Pearcy goes on to state, “Records indicate that as late as August 1942 RAF Coastal Command was allocated just five Consolidated Liberator aircraft to protect the Atlantic convoys.
Given that the Atlantic Battle was finally won in April-May 1943, with a total force of perhaps four squadrons of VLR Liberators, one can look at the number of Liberators in the RAF inventory and their delivery dates, and reasonably conjecture that the same battle might have been fought and won in April-May 1942. Chapter 6 Individual Aircraft Histories of Oughton’s The Liberator in Royal Air Force and Commonwealth Service provides details about each aircraft and when it was delivered to the RAF (see pp. 97-123). By April 20, 1942, the RAF had taken 011 charge a total of 113 Liberators.
From May 1942 through April 1943, 918 ships of 5,012,571 tons were lost in the North Atlantic. Taking Terraine’s data from Appendix D of Business in Great Waters, in which he lists shipping losses by month throughout the war, we can compare the actual North Atlantic losses for 1942 and 1944. They were:
|Year||Ships sunk||Tonnage lost|
Since 1942 represented unrestricted U-boat operations in the air gap and 1944 the period in which the air gap no longer existed, we can credibly use the ratio of the re lative ship and tonnage losses to see what the losses for the period from May 1942 to April 1943 might have been if the RAF had concentrated its B-24s in the North Atlantic in 1942.
Applying that ratio shows that the notional sinkings during that lost year would have amounted to only twenty-eight ships and 150,377 tons. Failure to achieve ASW air superiority over the North Atlantic region cost the Allies some 890 ships and 4,862, 194 tons of cargo, as well as a significant number of merchant seamen’s lives.
It is clear that the RAF had more than enough B- 24s available to it to have handily won the Battle of the Atlantic in early 1942. The ships, cargoes, and merchant seaman lost during the following year are a tragic monument to shortsightedness and lack of an adequate strategic grasp by a number of prominent figures in the British government and the Royal Air Force.
If an adequate number of B-24s had been made available to Coastal Command, and allocated properly to 15 Group, the Battle of the Atlantic would have ended in a British victory a full year earlier, in April-May 1942. Since escort carriers and dedicated supporting surface Escort Groups were not available until the following year, the toll of sunken U-boats would have been fewer-but the battle won nevertheless.