The Battle Of The Atlantic War
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Published: Wed, 03 May 2017
The North Atlantic Ocean was the vital link that brought supplies from Canada and the United States to Britain. Without it, this lifeline Britain could not have carried on the war. The United States did not join the war until December 1941 but it played an important role before that. In November 1940 the United States supplied vast amounts of food, fuel and equipment to help the British war effort. Once the United States did join the War, it would supply Europe with equipment and millions of troops but this would be worthless if they could not cross the Atlantic to fight the Axis. It was this that made the Atlantic such an important battle ground. (Walsh, 2007)
With the fall of France in 1941 this allowed U-Boats to operate far into the Atlantic from French ports. Nazi shipyards produced about 20 new U-boats a month and British merchant shipping losses grew. Four months into the war, German U-boats combined with mines and air support destroyed more than 215 merchant ships and two of Britain’s largest warships. During this time over 1,500 people had lost their lives. Hitler’s plan to defeat the Allies with U-boats was looking very good. While Hitler was in control, it looked like the Axis powers were going to defeat the Allies and win the Battle of the Atlantic. With Britain trying to hold the Germans off, the United States decides to send war aid to Britain. The United States exchanged with the British fifty old American destroyers for Atlantic naval bases near Canada. Britain could not produce enough food to feed its population and also the raw materials needed to run its industries. So, Britain was provided with these from abroad. If the merchant Navy could not bring these things into Britain by sea, the war would be lost.
There is no doubt that in the early years the Allied ships could not defend against the German U-boats and in 1940 Germany sank over 1,000 ships of Britain’s navy which was a quarter. This was due to Germany having a lot of U-boats at the time and the allied ships did not have the technology to be effective to defend against them. However a lot of Allied ships did get through, but this was due to good luck rather than tactics. The Allies needed to come up with an effective strategy and from 1941 Britain began to be more effective. Organizing their cargo ships into convoys, or groups for mutual protection was the Allies plan of action; this was called the convoy system. Air patrols helped protect convoys by covering much of their routes. (Walsh, 2007)
This strategy would be problematic because the Allied ships where in a convoy; the German U-boats could sink them much easier and quicker. A new strategy that Hitler developed to help in the attack of the Allies convoy called “Wolf Packs.” The idea was to form a pack of U-boats, and to delay an attack until all boats were in position to conduct a massed organized attack. This would overwhelm the escorts as the sheer number and surprise of the attacking boats would throw the defence into disarray. With this tactic the Germans would attack the Allied ships in different directions using several U-boats. This tactic was effective, the U-boats sank about 217 between July and October 1940. An average of eight ships per month where sunk by each German U-boat; this was called “the Happy Time”. In 1939 the Germans launched their most powerful battleship, the Bismarck. The Bismarck was nearly the most unsinkable ship of the Battle of the Atlantic. The British with its planes dropping ton after ton of shells and torpedoes into her, could not even sink her. In May of 1941 the Bismarck was hit with three torpedoes by the cruiser Dortcheshire and it finally sank. This attack was the turning point for the German forces in the Atlantic. In short, it was the beginning of the end for them.
For the Battle of the Atlantic technology was a very important factor in the outcome of the battle. One of these technologies was narrow beam radar, which aided in hunting the U-boats, which could find the smallest submarine on the surface. There was also a high frequency direction finder which could determine a U-boat’s position from the radio signals it sent. As well as new technology, air attacks where just as important, the Allies realized the importance of air attack in 1941 so to make it more difficult for the enemies to see the planes when flying in the sky, they painted the bottom side of the planes white. (Humble, 1979)
With many planes equipped with radar they became very effective against the U-boats. Britain’s most effective aerial weapons were three planes called the Sunderland amphibian, which carried bombs and depth chargers, the Swordfish biplane, which laid mines, and attacked with torpedoes; also the Hurricane fighter that strafed U-boats and ships and attacked German aircraft. In fact, the number of sunken ships by U-boats in the Atlantic in 1942 had risen alarmingly. German submarines sank a total of six hundred and eighty-one Allied ships in the first seven months of 1942 American radar and American planes came to the rescue. Sonar radar was installed in the battleships to improve tracking of the U-boats. “It worked by emitting an underwater ping which sends back an echo if a submarine is detected” (Humble, 1979).
During the second half of 1941 a major factor in the success of the British, and the rest of the campaign, was the decoding of the Naval Enigma machine cipher. The wolf pack tactics which Hitler came up with himself relied on radio communications, the Germans believed that the Enigma cipher could not be decoded because of the short signal messages that where sent could not be intercepted with enough accuracy to endanger the signalling U-boat. With the Germans confident in believing that the cipher could not be broken, they were wrong. Through the most of 1941, a combination of reading the Enigma messages and radio direction finding enabled the British to find the German U-boat patrols, allowing the convoys to be re-directed. But even with this knowledge the Allied side still had to come up against the already large and growing numbers of U-boats now coming into the Atlantic. The German submarines started reaching the Atlantic in large numbers in 1941, eventually about 585 of the submarines would be put into service. Although the Allies mostly succeeded in defending the convoys through the most of 1941, they were not sinking that many U-boat that was large enough to make an impact. Some escorts could detect and defend from the U-boats, but they were not fast enough to go on the attack.
In October 1941, Hitler ordered Dönitz to move many of the U-boats into the Mediterranean, to support German operations in that theatre. Through dogged effort, the Allies slowly gained the upper hand through until the end of 1941. Although Allied warships failed to sink U-boats in large numbers, most convoys evaded attack completely. Shipping losses were high, but manageable. (Kozaczuk, W.1984).
The Battle of the Atlantic reached its climax in the spring of 1943. During this time the Germans had been producing U-boats at a very quick pace. Since the war began there hadn’t been more U-boats at sea than at any other time. In October of 1940 the Germans only had 27 U-boats ready for sea and by March 1943 there were 240 U-boats fit for sea (Humble 1979)
What Germany lacked were trained submariners. With the U-boats Germany had produced, they thought they would win the Battle of the Atlantic. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, “Our escorts are everywhere too thin, and the strain upon the British Navy is becoming intolerable”. For this the toughest part of the war for the Allies was the month of March 1943 was the most difficult month of the U-boat war. U-boats sank 82 merchant ships in this month. (Humble 1979).
Finally, the Allies brought together all their methods and knowledge over the past years in fighting the U-boats in the Atlantic. Even though the American Navy was stretched with the war in the Pacific, they had few ships to spare for the Battle against the U-boats. The Allies now had groups of new escort warships hunting for U-boats. These new escorts where trained to work as a team in searching and destroying the U-boats and they also had aircrafts to cover the passage of convoys across the Atlantic. In the first five months of 1943 ninety-six U-boats were lost. The Germans ordered their surviving U-boats to withdraw from the Atlantic in May 1943. (www.bbc.co.uk/History)
With the help of new technology and the decoding of the Enigma Cipher as well as new and improved tactics, strategies and equipment, the Allies were able to come away victorious against Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic was one of the most important fights ever fought in all the annals of war. Plus with Churchill giving top priority to fighting the U-boat threat. The Allies sank 41 U-boats in May 1943 and in July 1943 over 1600 ships crossed the Atlantic without being attacked. Between June and December 1943 the Allies sank 141 U-boats, losing 57 ships whilst doing this. During the whole of the battle Germany lost 28,542 of its 41,300 submarines and 753 of its 863 U-boats. All in all the U-boats were being sunk at a faster rate than they were sinking enemy ships and in 1944, Admiral Donitz called off the U-boat campaign. The Battle of the Atlantic had been won for the Allies.
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