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The Atlantic Campaign Essay, Research Paper
The Battle of the Atlantic was the most prolonged struggle of World War II. This struggle was easily the one that came the closest to ending the war in Germany s favor. It was a battle that was extremely costly in terms of men s lives as well in terms of resources that affected virtually every continent in the world. It would determine whether England could continue to fight Hitler and whether Hitler would succeed in starving out the island nation.
Britain needed to import 55,000,000 tons of goods by sea in 1939. Included in this figure are one hundred percent of Britain s oil, most of its raw materials and half its food. And every day Germany s U-boats were gnawing at England s lifeline.
The battle officially began on September 3, 1939, the day Britain and France declared war against Germany. On that day the German submarine U-30 sank the British liner Athenia, which was carrying more than 1,100 passengers. One hundred and eighteen people died, 28 of them Americans. The terror increased when the U-boat surfaced in the moonlit water and fired its deck gun at the sinking ship. Only then did the U-boat commander realize that he had attacked an unarmed liner allegedly against specific orders.
Germany denied sinking the Athenia and claimed that the British themselves had sunk her so that they could get American sympathy. Their claim was that Winston Churchill had ordered a bomb to be placed on board this vessel to further aggravate German-American relations. A poll showed that 40 percent of Americans believed the Germans. Those had to be Americans without a sense of history. For in World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, by a German submarine had helped to propel America into war on the side of the Allies. The Lusitania toll was higher, 1,195 people died, 128 of them U.S. citizens. Now, with the sinking of the Athenia, Germany had done it again.
The commander of U-30 was sworn to secrecy; the submarine s log was destroyed, and a new one, with no torpedoing of the Athenia mentioned, was substituted. On Hitler s orders, the U-boats were to follow the protocols, at least for a time. On September 11, to demonstrate that Germany was really following the rules of so-called civilized warfare, the U-48 sank a merchantship and radioed London the exact location of the lifeboats.
Germany had only 26 seaworthy U-boats operating at the beginning of the war. Few as they were, German submarines badly hurt British shipping and naval forces. Two weeks after the war began the U-29 sank the carrier Courageous, which was on anti-submarine patrol; 519 officers and men went down with the ship including the captain. The carrier Ark Royal had a close escape from a U-boat s torpedoes, and the Royal Navy was forced to realize that using carriers and the few available destroyers in U-boat hunting groups was both useless and dangerous. Rather, the grouping of merchant ships in convoys was quickly adopted as the best means of protecting merchant ships. Still, by the end of the first month of the war the U-boats had sunk 41 merchant ships.
The following month was worse, although the average number of U-boats at sea declined to ten as the boats on patrol when the war began had to return to port for supplies and torpedoes. But in October the U-29 sank the battleship Royal Oak within the British base of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. The ship went down with her admiral and a crew of over 800.
The destruction of merchant shipping grew during the rest of 1939 and into 1940. The ships were unprotected targets through most of their voyages. The Royal Navy did not have enough destroyers to escort convoys all the way across the Atlantic. The destroyers provided protection to the merchantmen to a point about 300 miles off Ireland, after that, they were on there own. Britain bound convoys similarly crossed the Atlantic unescorted until they reached that 300-mile rally point. All this changed in the spring of 1940, when the fall of France gave the Germans U-boat bases along the western coast of France. U-boats could now easily reach the unprotected stretches of the convoys courses, and the sinking of merchantmen escalated.
The German Navy started using a “wolf pack” tactic, sending U-boats out in groups that put serious stranglehold to shipping lanes. Often the U-boats knew where the convoys were because German code-breakers had cracked British merchant shipping codes and used intercepted messages to set up wolf pack ambushes. This German intelligence led to happy times aboard Germany s U-boats.
Under a U.S. Neutrality Act dating to 1935, American companies could not export arms. Isolationists considered the legislation as the best way to keep the United States from involvement in the European war. But two days after the torpedoing of the Athenia, President Roosevelt put a sharp edge on U.S. neutrality, declaring that the United States would consider any hostile operations in U.S. territorial waters as offensive. U.S. Navy ships and aircraft began Atlantic “Neutrality Patrols” to watch for foreign warships.
The German Navy and the Luftwaffe sought to deny the Atlantic Ocean to the Allies. The German Navy had planned to primarily use surface ships to attack Allied convoys; however, the heavy German naval losses in the Denmark and Norway Campaign in 1940 put the burden of the war at sea on submarines. The sinking of the battleship Bismarck in May 1941 marked the end of German surface-ship operations in the Atlantic. To quote Admiral Donitz, The sinking of the Bismarck had shown that the enemy had improved his system of patrolling the Atlantic to such a degree that our own surface vessels could obviously no longer operate in these sea areas. Therefore, the U-boat would be the principal German weapon used in the battle.
As losses mounted, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill began working on a plan to get American aid. At the same time, Roosevelt was using all his political persuasion on Congress to get the neutrality laws eased so that U.S. help could be sent to England.
The President had already succeeded in getting Congress to revise the Neutrality Act by specifically repealing the embargo on the sale of munitions, but the deal had to be strictly cash-and-carry. In June 1940, in Britain s darkest hour, when more than 330,000 troops had been withdrawn from France in the epic evacuation of Dunkirk and her army was short on ammunition. The United States sent England so-called “surplus” ammunitions, worth about $43 million but technically not sold. Of the 39 destroyers that served in the Dunkirk evacuation, six had been sunk and 19 damaged. Britain was in desperate need of destroyers. In 1940 in an agreement between Great Britain and the United States, 50 old American destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy.
On May 29 Germany warned all shipping that unrestricted U-boat warfare was about to begin in waters around the British Isles. There was little that a battered Royal Navy could do about it. The U-boat commanders called this “the Happy Time,” as they encountered vulnerable convoys. The Luftwaffe had its own happy time, bombing ships that passed within range. From July to October 1940, U-boats sank more than one million tons of shipping.
The people of Britain were living on sharply rationed food. The British people were learning to adapt to tighter belts. The nation thought they could get by on no less than 43 million tons, and yet they learned to manage to get by about three-quarters that amount.
Churchill, meanwhile, was planning to ask Roosevelt for the loan of 50 older U.S. destroyers in exchange for the establishment of U.S. naval and air bases on British possessions in the Western Hemisphere. By the spring of 1940 Churchill knew his nation was in great peril. U-boats were cutting Britain s Atlantic lifeline and Germany was preparing to invade England in the summer of 1940. In a letter to Roosevelt, Churchill wrote: “Mr. President, with great respect I must tell you that in the long history of the world this is a thing to do now.”
Eager to shore up the British against a common threat, Roosevelt was nevertheless fearful of isolationist opposition. To avoid congressional debate, he used the destroyers Churchill wanted via an executive order that not only ignored the neutrality law but also disregarded the U.S. Constitution, which puts war-making power and treaty-ratifying power in the Congress.
The first eight destroyers were given over to British crews at Halifax on September 9. The month before, the Luftwaffe was pounding England with all-out air attacks designed to wipe out the Royal Air Force and clear the way for the planned invasion. The Battle of Britain had begun with the relentless bombing of London.
The U.S. destroyers arrived in England crammed with provisions, including many items no longer seen on Royal Navy ships in wartime such as: china, silver, and tablecloths. Another prominent difference foreign to British sailors, included bunks instead of hammocks. The destroyers were given new names that were common to both countries, such as Broadway. The destroyers would prove their worth. Of the 27 U-boats sunk by surface ships during the war, former U.S. destroyers played a part in the sinking of five.
Overwhelmingly re-elected to his third term in November 1940, Roosevelt continued to whittle away at American neutrality. He pushed through Congress a law that became known as Lend-Lease. The law, which went into effect in March 1941, gave the President the power to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of” articles to any country which the President determined was vital to US security. The Lend-Lease Act provided aid to 38 countries by wars end, amounting to an estimated 48 billion dollars, of that, Britain is estimated to have received at 13.5 billion and possibly as much as 20 billion dollars.
Churchill called Lend-Lease “Hitler’s death warrant,” for now Britain did not stand alone. U.S. aid could pour through the Atlantic lifeline and save Britain. There was no neutrality in the Atlantic now.
On September 4, 1941, the U.S. destroyer Greer was steaming alone toward Iceland when a British aircraft alerted the destroyer to a U-boat some ten miles ahead. The destroyer went to general quarters and caught up with the submarine, the U-652. For several hours, with the help of the British aircraft, the destroyer maintained sonar contact with the U-boat and dropped depth charges. The U-boat responded by firing two torpedoes at the Greer. Both ships then broke off contact. From that date, U.S. naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later wrote, “the United States was engaged in a de facto naval war with Germany on the Atlantic Ocean.”
Little more than a month later, on October.17, a U-boat torpedoed the U.S. destroyer Kearny, which was helping to protect a British convoy. With 11 killed and 24 wounded, the Kearny was able to reach Iceland under her own power.
The next U-boat attack against an American destroyer was fatal. The Reuben James was escorting a British convoy on October 31, and was some 600 miles west of Ireland when a U-boat torpedo struck her, blowing up her magazine and breaking her in half. Her bow section sank immediately; her rear remained afloat for five minutes. Many of the crewmen who survived the blast and sinking were killed by the concussion of depth charges exploding far below them. Of her 160-man crew, only 45 were saved. Roosevelt reacted by warning that German or Italian warships entering U.S.-patrolled waters would “do so at their own risk.”
War for the United States would begin in another ocean five weeks later, on that date that lives in infamy, December 7, 1941. Americans would remember Pearl Harbor and the previously popular policy of neutrality became a thing of the past.
U-boat commanders, frustrated by the complications of U.S. armed neutrality and orders from Berlin to keep America neutral, had refrained from attacking U.S. merchantmen. But, when Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, all American ships became fair game. The first few months of 1942 became known as Operation Drumroll. The U-123 opened Drumroll with the sinking of a British ship 300 miles off Cape Cod. A few days later the U-130 sank a tanker within sight of the Nantucket lightship. Then came sinkings off Cape Hatteras and New York City. A U-boat commander joked that through his binoculars he could see dancers on top of the Empire State Building. In fact, the lights of New York and the rest of the East Coast did provide the U-boats with silhouetted targets.
Incredibly, the East Coast was not blacked out for the first four months of the war, well into Operation Drumroll. This enabled the German U-boat Captains to take easy shots at merchant ships as they stood out like perfect silhouettes against the lit up East coast.
The prime targets of the U-boats were tankers carrying vitally needed gasoline and oil. In January alone, 62 ships, totaling 327,357 GRT had been sunk. The losses were staggering, thousands of tanks, millions of tons of ammunition, millions of gallons of high-octane aviation fuel and other petroleum products. Historian S. W. Roskill wrote in his book, When one considers the devastation wrought in the first days of 1942 off the coast of the American coast, it is one of the most surprising facts that never more than about 12 U-boats were operating at the same time.
U-boats attacked U.S. merchant shipping off the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean with immunity. U.S. anti-submarine efforts were ineffective, convoys were non-existent, and Navy and Army Air Corps leaders fought over the allocation of long-range aircraft needed for hunting submarines.
By mid-1942 the U-boat command was approaching its goal of severing Britain from the United States. In June alone the Allies lost a total of 173 ships to U-boats, most of them in the western Atlantic. But, miraculously, the Germans completely missed several convoys sailing from the United States and Britain for the North African invasion in November 1942. A total of 1,065 Allied ships made passages from Britain and the United States to North Africa, many entering the western Mediterranean; U-boats sank only 23 of those ships.
By March 1, 1943 Germany had 400 U-boats in service, of which 222 were front-line, ocean-going submarines, and 116 of them were in the Atlantic, sinking ship after ship. The Germans never came so close to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as they did in the first days of March 1943.
By the end of that month, U-boats had sunk 95 ships in the North Atlantic. With such losses there could not be a material buildup in England for a cross-Channel invasion and the liberation of Europe. And if the losses remained at this level, there would be no England to launch an invasion from; Hitler s U-boat siege of Britain was succeeding. Nearly two-thirds of the ships sunk had been in convoys, and Allied naval strategists wondered if the convoy system could any longer be considered an effective system of defense against U-boats.
Then, suddenly, almost miraculously, merchant ship losses declined and U-boat sinkings increased. A convoy sailing in mid-May 1943, for example, was attacked by a total of 33 U-boats. But not a single merchant ship was lost, while five submarines succumbed to anti-submarine attacks. From May 1943 on, U-boat losses regularly exceeded merchant ships sunk.
New Allied anti-submarine weapons long in production were coming into the battle in decisive numbers. Large numbers of convoy escorts were at sea and they had highly effective radar that picked up the image of a surfaced U-boat, a very small difficult target, at a range of four miles or more. U-boats had to spend more time submerged. And when they surfaced to recharge their batteries, there was more chance than ever that they would be spotted, even in darkness or fog.
Long-range bombers, especially the B-24 Liberator, were on patrol in ever-growing numbers, and they, too, had improved, sub-spotting radar. New escort carriers closed a gap in an ocean area where German submarines could often move freely on the surface, outrunning convoys to gain attack positions. The gap was beyond the reach of land-based British and American anti-submarine aircraft. Escort carriers sailed into the gap, adding their aircraft to the web of Allied sub hunters. When Allied armies liberated France, Germany lost its submarine bases on the French coast and long-range U-boat operations virtually halted. By September 1944, four British and nine U.S. escort carriers had sunk 33 submarines and shared credit with surface ships or land-based aircraft for 12 others in the Atlantic.
One of the smaller carriers, the Guadalcanal, captured a submarine. The Guadalcanal was part of an escort carrier group commanded by the carrier s commanding officer, Capt. Daniel V. Gallery. He had drilled the crews of the ships in his group on what to do if a damaged U-boat were forced to the surface. Their mission was to both remove code machines and documents or, if possible, to salvage the entire submarine. On the morning of June 4, 1944, the U.S. destroyer escort Pillsbury, guided by a secret Allied direction-finding system, tracked the U-505 about 150 miles west off the coast of French West Africa. The system used the submarine s own radio transmissions to locate and track it.
After the Pillsbury pounded the U-505 with depth charges, the U-boat’s captain, thinking that his submarine had been mortally stricken, brought her to the surface and ordered his men to abandon ship. The well trained Pillsbury crew immediately launched a whaleboat and drew alongside the abandoned submarine. While two sailors raced to the U-boat s radio room to remove cryptographic equipment, other sailors disconnected the demolition charges that the Germans had set and, fighting a torrent of seawater, shut off a scuttling valve.
The U-boat was taken in tow and brought to Bermuda. All sailors of the escort group were sworn to secrecy in the hope of keeping the Germans unaware of the U-boat s capture. The U-505 booty contributed greatly to the Allies reading of German Enigma communications. The Enigma was a complex code machine that provided the Allies phenomenal insight into German strategy. The Germans believed, through the entire war, that the Enigma produced messages that could not be decrypted. In fact, the Allies had been able to read Enigma messages throughout the war, thanks to Allied code-breakers, who were aided by the capture of machines.
After the war the U-505 was taken on tour of U.S. ports and then put on permanent exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Science.
After the heavy losses of May 1943 Admiral Karl Donitz, commander and chief of the German Navy, withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic convoy routes. He acknowledged that Germany had suffered a serious defeat. But he was confident that the withdrawal was only temporary and that German technology would soon provide countermeasures against the Allied hunt-and-kill tactics.
U-boats now had acoustic homing torpedoes that could home on the sounds of an escort ship s propellers. But, alerted to the developing of the homing torpedo by intelligence sources, mostly interviews with German prisoners of war, the Allies countered with devices code-named Foxer. The Foxer was a towed noisemaker that attracted the torpedoes away from propellers.
When U-boats leaving French ports were regularly located on the surface at night by radar-equipped aircraft, Donitz had his submarines travel on the surface in daylight and gave them a heavy anti-aircraft armament to shoot down those planes. But Allied warplanes, some firing rockets, were soon able to outgun the U-boats. By then Donitz had outfitted several of his U-boats with snorkels that permitted his submarines to remain submerged indefinitely but impeded their speed. When Donitz attempted to keep his submarines away from port by refueling and respelling them with food and torpedoes at sea, Allied code breakers led sub killers to the transmitted rendezvous site where they were successful in preventing this practice.
At every turn the U-boat effort was frustrated. A new type of U-boat extended the submarine s range, but the new U-boats arrived too late to play a role. Allied bombers had also contributed to the U-boat campaign by damaging shipyards and blasting submarines at their bases. RAF fighter aircraft, attacking with rockets and bombs and laying mines, made it impossible for new U-boats to carry out trials and training in the Baltic.
The war in Europe ended in early May 1945, the Battle of the Atlantic had been won, but at great cost. U-boats sank more than 3,500 merchant ships, including 2,572 ships in the Atlantic. U-boats also sunk 175 naval warships and armed auxiliaries. More than 30,000 merchant seamen and sailors had died in those burning and sinking ships. Added to the toll were thousands of Allied sailors and airmen. The Germans lost 784 U-boats and, of the 40,900 men recruited for submarine service, 28,000 died and 5,000 were taken prisoner. Both of Donitz sons died, one in a U-boat, the other on a torpedo boat.
The Battle of the Atlantic, the only campaign to extend throughout the entire war, was always seesawing between victory and defeat for the Allies. “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril…” wrote Prime Minister Churchill, “I was even more anxious about this battle that I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.”
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