Kate Tildesley is the Curator at the Naval Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence. Her work reflects her background of degrees in English and German, and Museology. Here she considers the experience of the Battle of the Atlantic from an appropriately wide perspective.

This article is the copyright of Kate Tildesley of the Naval Historical Branch.

I am going to proclaim the “Battle of the Atlantic”…1

Naval Message
Following received from Commodore HX 216 in SS Eros. Lady Cunningham passenger from USA very worried about landing of her dog.
“Please give this Priority2

As an ordinary seaman, you didn’t know what the hell was going on and nobody else did. Your job was to do what you were told, which was a very small cog in the machine.3

Kate Tildesley

Kate Tildesley

After sixty years it is an almost impossible task to re-assert the primacy of the individual into the amorphous mass that represents our collective awareness of the Battle of the Atlantic. The six-year “battle” should be better understood as a series of campaigns against, and in defence of, Allied merchant shipping, artificially constructed as “The Battle of the Atlantic” by Churchill eighteen months after the war at sea had commenced. It was a strategic battle that could have cost the Allies victory, but individual sailors would have little knowledge of the decisions being made at Cabinet level to bring the Allies to triumph. Although ‘it is always necessary to recall that in the last analysis, wars are as much won or lost by people as by the blind forces of history’4, we ought to acknowledge the importance of Bletchley Park‘s decryption analysts, Operational Research teams, the scientific geniuses working to invent new weapons, and the dockyard workers creating the means to win the Battle, as much as the men at sea.

Our perception of the Battle of the Atlantic is also one lacking in individual stories. After the brief, initial phase of the Battle, in which individual U-boats targeted independent merchant ships, and which allowed the Axis to create media heroes, and the Allies to create icons of the victims, the fighting of the Battle slipped into a fundamental anonymity. The advent of the Rudeltaktik meant that U-boats were sent out as “packs”, and, while convoys grew ever larger, groups of anti-submarine vessels helped to underline the anonymous nature of this battle. Even the survivors of individual ships picked off from convoys were ‘obliged to acknowledge that their very existence was predicated upon mutual support’5. Individual narratives were lost in the struggle against the greater enemy, the single anthropomorphised personality of “the cruel sea”.

Oral histories of the Battle of the Atlantic have been written – Andrew Williams’s The Battle of the Atlantic for the BBC, and the late Chris Howard-Bailey’s Battle of the Atlantic. The Corvettes and their Crews among the most notable – but, as most of the participants would acknowledge, these narratives are coloured by the succeeding years. Many of the contemporary accounts are little more reliable. Reports by survivors were not clear-cut narratives, but were structured according to the questions being asked by the interviewing body, whether the Naval Intelligence Division, or the Shipping Casualties Section of the Trade Division. Both departments were more interested in learning how an action unfolded, and how the survivors coped, than experiencing the feelings of those involved. Even contemporary letters, fed by the desire to do and say the right thing in time of war, tend to reflect a bright, almost cheerful, stiff-upper-lipped attitude to the Battle of the Atlantic. Stress and trauma would not be expressed until later.

Yet, whilst it may not be possible to re-assert the primacy of the individual in the Battle of the Atlantic, by acknowledging these issues we can at least lend an ear to some of the narratives that have survived to inform our understanding of how the Battle was waged. Within a chronological framework, and using other contemporary sources, we can appreciate some of the voices that have survived from the Battle of the Atlantic.

Phase I: September 1939 to June 1940

One thought it was going to be bloody, but one had the feeling that we’d been pretty good on the sea for many, many years, and somehow we’d get through 6

There were very many bodies lying about here: they were all completely blackened – clothes, faces, everything. I made sure that they were dead.7

I have to thank you and the others who came back (although against my orders as I had waved the boat to get loose and get away before all hands got dragged under when she sank) for the fact that I am here today.8

There was no “phoney war” for the ships of the Royal Navy and the British Merchant Fleet. At 1940 on 3 September 1939, just under four hours after Dönitz had instructed his U-boats to open hostilities against Britain, U30 torpedoed the liner, SS Athenia. The sinking of the Athenia was an horrendous mistake, impetuously made by CO Fritz-Julius Lemp in the belief that he was attacking an auxiliary cruiser. The first sinking of the war had, in fact, broken the 1930 Submarine Protocol, which Hitler and Dönitz were initially determined to enforce, and which dictated that ships were not to be sunk without warning unless they were in convoy, conveying troops and war matériel, or directly supporting enemy actions. The loss of life from the Athenia was not as appalling as it might have been, but the death of 118 civilians, including 28 Americans, on the first evening of the war was a dreadful gift to British propagandists, which seemed to parallel the Lusitania sinking of 1915, and ‘a terrible blot on the honour of the Kriegsmarine9. Berlin denied that a German submarine had been anywhere near Rockall, and, when Lemp returned to base, he was told to amend his War Diary. As Georg Högel later recalled, ‘He altered the first page, which dealt with the Athenia – he drafted it and I retyped it. Then it was put back with the rest of the diary10. German U-boat records, scrupulously kept, were not altered again, Athenia did not become a second Lusitania, and six months after the sinking the Naval Intelligence Division was prepared to believe that Kapitänleutnant Hans von Dresky, the unfortunate CO of U33, might have sunk the Athenia because ‘he was very short-sighted’11. But the sinking meant that within hours of the commencement of hostilities the ‘U-boat had once again established itself as a terror weapon’12. It also had the additional effect, detrimental as far as Dönitz was concerned, of forcing the immediate introduction of a convoy system.

SS Athenia

SS Athenia

After this tragically inauspicious start, the Battle of the Atlantic was characterized in its initial phase by single U-boat operations against independent shipping, combined with a minelaying campaign that brought German submarines into major British estuaries. In the period up to June 1940 the U-boat Arm sank 215 merchant ships and 2 warships, with a loss of 23 U-boats. Of those sinkings 195 were independent ships 13. The number of U-boats lost represented almost half of the number available to Dönitz at the start of the conflict, although German shipyards were busy building more. Not all of the sinkings ran counter to the Submarine Protocol. Lemp himself stopped the SS Fanad Head according to form on 14 September, offering to tow the lifeboats clear before he sank the ship and apologising for the necessity of doing so 14. Two days after the sinking of the Athenia the British freighter, Royal Sceptre, was attacked by U48, commanded by Herbert Schultze. Schultze not only waited until the crew abandoned ship before firing his torpedoes, but ordered one of the lifeboats to return to pick up the Wireless Operator. Chief Officer Norman Hartley later reported, ‘After looking at us for quite a while he asked if I had any food. I said “Yes, plenty thank you“. Then he said “Have you water?” I again replied “Yes, plenty thank you“. Then he went away from us again. He was away some time, and returned again and said “Have you any wounded?”. I said “We are all quite well here thank you“‘15. Schultze went on to hail the SS Browning and instructed the crew to rescue their compatriots. The fact that the Browning took the men to Brazil led to a belief that the crew of the Royal Sceptre had been abandoned to die by U48, and allowed Churchill to publicize the sinking as ‘an odious act of bestial piracy on the high seas16. The exchange between Schultze and Hartley would suggest otherwise.


SS Royal Sceptre

SS Royal Sceptre

While Dönitz’s handful of submarines roamed the seas seeking legitimate victims, Britain was preparing for a possibly protracted war in the Atlantic. Although the ‘RN that entered World War II was, doctrinally, equipped for a fleet encounter’ and the ‘U-boat threat was seen as minor compared with the threat of surface raiders’ 17, particularly at a time when there were few U-boats at sea, plans were underway to equip Liverpool as the strategic focus for Atlantic convoys. Paymaster Lieutenant Richard Eltonhead Rankin RNR arrived to join the Naval Control Service at HMS Eaglet in September 1939. His unique position in assisting the ocean commodores also allowed him to support some of the families who had taken the momentous decision to evacuate their children across the Atlantic to Canada and America. Rankin’s papers reveal how he ‘made all the difference to the awful moment of letting…go’ 18 by enabling distraught parents to see their children on board ship. For such an angst-filled experience, the letters he received from the parents are surprisingly positive – ‘I hope they will have a very nice trip & manage to elude raiders of all kinds. Even with blacked out portholes, the café run must be a very nice one’ remarked Julian Hutchings 19. Understanding that Dönitz intended to wage ‘a war against the merchant tonnage of the Allies’ 20, the British Government also began to enable its people to “fight” the Battle of the Atlantic, and the tonnage war, from their own homes. ‘In November 1939 people were ordered to register with the shops of their choice – butcher, grocer and dairy – and the housewife was thus introduced to what became the way of life for the next fifteen years’ 21. The first limitations on consumption were introduced early in 1940.

Despite Dönitz’s intention to wage a tonnage war, the preliminary phase of his U-boat campaign provided two significant military targets. The carrier, HMS Courageous, was sunk during anti-submarine operations on 17 September 1939 with the loss of 514 lives, and in October Dönitz ordered one of his “aces” to slip unseen into Scapa Flow. Günther Prien found the Royal Oak at anchor, and he swiftly despatched her to the bottom. Over 800 lives were lost and many of the survivors suffered horrific injuries. Leading Seaman Joe Instance recalled ‘floating around for at least half an hour. Then along came this little raft out of nowhere and I heard somebody say, ‘Oh, there’s one over here’, and they tried to get hold of my hands and to drag me on and of course my hands had been badly burnt so I screamed out, ‘No, no, no.’ And the officer on the raft said, ‘Pull him in by his hair.’ Well, I didn’t have any hair either – that had gone. And finally they got me under the armpits and they slid me on to this raft like a wet seal.’ 22 Prien’s exploit was unique, but the sinking was also a dreadful foretaste of the power of the U-boats. As the news of his success filtered back to Germany the men employed by BdU 23 sensed that ‘the essence of the U-Bootwaffe had changed’ 24. How fundamental this change was would be expressed in the next phase of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Phase II: July 1940 to March 1941

There was a feeling “We’re on our own – well, thank God for that! We can depend on ourselves; we couldn’t depend on the French. There was nobody else except the Empire. It would help us. We’re on our own – let’s go.” After that, when one began to think soberly about the realities, it was a grim outlook. 25

But then the second engineer said, ‘Knock that off, will you? There’s a U-boat on the surface.’ I was short sighted, but I could hear the engines racing and I could hear them shouting out in German. They were excited. They were in the chase, these U-boat men. 26

When France fell the tenor of the U-boat war altered completely. The Battle for the Atlantic had been relatively quiet during the months preceding June 1940, with U-boats diverted to assist with the invasion of Norway, where they had suffered four losses and found their confidence eroded. In an attempt to alleviate the ‘sense of despair’27 that threatened to overwhelm the service, Victor Oehrn had been ordered by Dönitz in May ‘to jump-start the Battle of the Atlantic’ 28 with a patrol that sank 10 ships, a total of 41,000 GRT 29. But with the loss of France, Britain was not only left isolated in Europe, she also became almost entirely reliant on supplies from across the Atlantic, and more vulnerable to attacks by U-boats that now had access to French ports, within easy range of the British convoys. This was a contingency for which there had been no planning by any of the Services. In May Britain had lost 63,000 GRT of shipping. By October, during a period referred to as the “happy time” by the U-boat men, merchant ship losses had reached 350,000 GRT. Dönitz made his first use of his Rudeltaktik, or “wolfpack” strategy, and sent his growing number of U-boats out to operate with devastating effect. British and Dominion forces, yet to find the anti-submarine skills, or develop the technology, that would eventually see them victorious, floundered against a tide of German successes. They managed to sink only three U-boats between September 1940 and March 1941.

It was during October that Britain experienced her “Night of the Long Knives”, with Convoys SC 7 and HX 79 losing 34 ships in the space of 48 hours 30. Frank Holding, Assistant Steward on the SS Beatus, recalls the moment that his ship was struck: ‘The next thing I heard was this explosion and a sound like breaking glass from down near the engine room. The ship stood still. When I went to the boat deck one of the lifeboats was already in the water, full of water…We knew we were sinking31. The escort for Convoy SC 7 consisted of only one sloop until the night of 18-19 October, when that ship was joined by two corvettes and two further sloops. It was clearly an inadequate escort for a convoy of 34 slow ships, and no match for the massed strength of seven attacking U-boats, including those commanded by “aces” Otto Kretschmer and Heinrich Liebe. Don Kirton remembers vividly that the escorts had difficulty in coping with the survivors from SC 7: ‘You could see the red bulbs on their lifejackets showing in the water. We put scrambling nets over the side. Two of the lads would get over to help them up and over the gunwhales, and there were eager hands to take them forward where there was shelter. Many of them were violently sick from the fuel oil that they’d swallowed. Some were completely naked’32. In a short space of time his ship, HMS Bluebell, was ‘soon heaving with wet, frozen seamen: Lascars from India, Jamaicans, Frenchmen, Norwegians and Swedes. Every square inch of deck was filled, every available blanket and piece of clothing used’ 33. Kirton’s account serves as a reminder of the multi-nationalism of the Battle of the Atlantic, even at a time when Britain felt herself alone with her Dominions.

HMS Snowflake, flower class corvette

HMS Snowflake, flower class corvette

Those U-boat officers attacking Convoys SC 7 and HX 79 continued to erode British shipping tonnage, and British morale, throughout this period. In September 1940 Heinrich Bleichrodt in U48 torpedoed the SS City of Benares in heavy weather, some 500 miles from land. Contemporary reports revealed that there ‘was ample room in the lifeboats and there were rafts as well. The high death rate was due entirely to shock and exposure’ 34. What was not known by Bleichrodt 35 was that the liner he was attacking carried 90 children, evacuees travelling to Canada under the CORB scheme 36. Only 13 of the children survived, and the understanding that Bleichrodt could not have known which passengers were on board the liner made little difference to his perceived culpability. Britain was shocked. Otto Kretschmer undertook eight patrols between June 1940 and March 1941 in U99, sinking 39 merchant ships of over 200,000 GRT, as well as the Armed Merchant Cruisers Laurentic, Patroclus and Forfar 37. The German press trumpeted his every move, describing in December 1940 how the sinking of Forfar made ‘a wonderful impression even in the darkness’38. In Britain, further restrictions were made to the diet of the average citizen in order the reduce imports. While the privations of rationing in no way compare to the desperate attrition of the Battle of the Atlantic during the Winter of 1940 and the Spring of 1941, it must have been hard to remain stiff-upper-lipped in the face of such devastating news – and all without the means to brew a pot of the national beverage 39. The phlegmatic British might have ‘tended to see Atlantic events as plateaux of concern punctuated by periodic crises’ 40, but by the end of the second phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, the nation remained geographically alone and sunk in the depths of one of these crises.

Phase III: March to December 1941

We have got to lift this business to the highest plane, over everything else41

They opened fire on us with tracer shell. It was like a New Year’s Eve party at two o’clock in the afternoon.42

When the Battle of the Atlantic was raging it was up to each one of us to preserve every ounce of home grown fruit and vegetables we could43

In March 1941 Churchill was ‘anxious about the Atlantic’44, but, even as he proclaimed the Battle, events at sea, and on land, were changing its nature. The average sailor on an escort might confess that ‘most of the time it was very boring, most of the time you were just waiting and watching and not ever letting up on your concentration’45, but those in command had learnt from the painful losses of the last eighteen months.

Page from autograph book belonging to Paymaster Commander Richard Rankin RNR, in which he recorded the careers, and passing, of many of the Convoy Commodores. Captain Kelly OBE DSO RD RNR was lost with the MV Adda in June 1941. Naval Historical Branch Rankin collection T5513

Page from autograph book belonging to Paymaster Commander Richard Rankin RNR, in which he recorded the careers, and passing, of many of the Convoy Commodores. Captain Kelly OBE DSO RD RNR was lost with the MV Adda in June 1941. Naval Historical Branch Rankin collection T5513

In the absence of a comprehensive manual of anti-submarine warfare, new tactics were improvised and rehearsed by individual escort commanders, and these, together with some luck, brought astonishing successes in the very month that Churchill made his declaration. On 17 March 1941 HM Ships Walker and Vanoc, escorting Convoy HX 112, made contact with a submarine, depth charged her to the surface, and then rammed her. The boat, U100, sank with the loss of all but six of her crew, her losses included her CO, Joachim Schepke, a debonair and charismatic media darling. By an incredible chance, U99 surfaced only 1,000 yards from the sinking, just as Vanoc was manoeuvring to pick up the remaining survivors. Volkmar König recalls, ‘we hit exactly the spot where the two destroyers were attacking U100. Just imagine: this big Atlantic, it’s like a needle in a haystack’ 46. Walker and Vanoc turned their concentrated fire on U99, causing her to begin to sink within two minutes47. The news of these losses would have been serious enough, but U47, commanded still by the “Bull of Scapa Flow”, Günther Prien, went missing just prior to the sinking of U99 and U100, probably the victim of an operational accident 48.


Convoy conference in Liverpool

Convoy conference in Liverpool

If the sinkings failed to boost British confidence, they certainly bruised German morale. The public refused to believe that Prien was gone, conspiracists insisting that he was still alive years after the German defeat 49, but worse was yet to come. On 9 May 1941 HMS Broadway inflicted ‘a further blow not only to the strength of the U-boat branch of the German Navy, but also to the morale of U-boat crews’50 when she depth charged U110 to the surface, rammed her, and caused her crew to abandon ship. Yet another “ace” had been lost in the unfortunate Fritz-Julius Lemp, the man who had begun the war with his sinking of the Athenia, and who is remembered as the man who ‘would have liked to have taken his dog to sea with him’ 51. Once the survivors had been picked up by HMS Aubretia, David Balme, a young Sub-Lieutenant from HMS Bulldog, led a group of men in a search of the U-boat, still afloat on a sea that was comparatively calm for the Atlantic. Carrying a revolver (and a packet of sandwiches) Balme tentatively entered the boat and began sorting through the masses of documents and equipment left behind by the crew. He recalled in 1959 that ‘of course I knew nothing about the use that was later made of what we seized…from my own personal point of view the greatest find was about ten pairs of Super Zeiss binoculars’ 52. In fact the real prize taken from U110 was the current Enigma settings, which would help the cryptanalysts at that surreally ‘distorted fantasy of a venerable English manor house’ 53, Bletchley Park, to decipher German U-boat signals for most of the rest of the war. Jürgen Rohwer estimates that the ability to read the Enigma codes saved between 1.5 and 2 million tons of shipping during the second half of 1941 54.

Coastal Command Sunderland, from CB 04050/41(9) Monthly Anti-Submarine Report September 1941

Coastal Command Sunderland, from CB 04050/41(9) Monthly Anti-Submarine Report September 1941

These were not the only successes for Britain and her Allies, however, and many would argue that Ultra was not as decisive an advance as has been assumed since the Ultra secret was revealed in the 1970s. Anti-submarine warfare was becoming both more organized and more sophisticated. Convoy escorts were increased, and the gap in escort coverage, which had formerly existed between Newfoundland and Iceland, was closed. Western Approaches Command was wholly transferred to Liverpool, and, on 17 February 1941, Admiral Sir Percy Noble arrived at Derby House to take up the position of Commander in Chief.

This was also the beginning of the ‘intimate and continuous inter-Service co-operation’55 with Coastal Command of the RAF, which would create a productive submarine killing force in the years that followed. In the Battle of the Atlantic Coastal Command pioneered the use of Operational Research in their work, and ‘by summer 1941 a team of eight scientists and mathematicians, led by the distinguished physicist Professor Patrick Blackett, was delving into every aspect of Coastal Command’s operations with the aim of improving efficiency’ 56. Blackett moved to the Admiralty in January 1942 to continue the groundbreaking studies he had begun with the RAF.

In addition to the measures brought in to increase the operational effectiveness of the Allied forces fighting the Battle of the Atlantic, the British Government was succeeding in its own “war” on wastage in the economy. It had been calculated in 1939 that Britain imported ‘about 60 million tons of goods per year, but really required only about 47 million tons per year to survive’. By 1941 it was understood that ‘Britain could live and fight – just – on about 26 million tons, less than half of prewar imports’ 57. Nutrition had been balanced by patriotism in the minds of most housewives since 1940. By 1941 ‘deadly statistics were published in women’s magazines of how many merchant seamen would perish if each person wasted a crust of bread each day’ 58, and the population was continually reminded that “food is a munition of war”. The Government may have made the calculations that Britain could survive on less, but it was down to the people to bear the rigorous enforcing of rationing, and they did so with a patriotic vengeance. It was reported that ‘one woman in Northern Ireland typified the patriotic fervour of millions of others when she made 4,897lbs of jam in three months on two primus stoves in the bedroom of her bungalow’ 59. Learning from the mistakes made in the first two years of war, port organization was greatly improved, resulting in ‘reductions in port congestion, and a rationalisation of the import and shipping programmes’ 60. Ships in convoy were simply loaded more efficiently. And a combination of the lend-lease agreement reached with the Americans in early 1941, and an increase in shipbuilding production, particularly in Britain and Canada, helped to ease the tonnage crisis. Here, too, women would give their all. After women without children were called up for war service in December 1941 some were given work in the shipyards. Bella Keyzer found welding ‘the most exciting and creative work [she] had ever done’ and recalled ‘out of this place of rough raw men, they built a thing of beauty, a ship, a wonderful thing…the skill, the knowledge, to me it was beautiful’61. Though the Ministry of Labour might explain that ‘the average woman takes to welding as readily as she takes to knitting once she has overcome any initial nervousness due to sparks’62, a laughable comment now, the female contribution to the shipbuilding industry was by no means trivial. By 1943 the Ministry of Information was able to report that one of six women employed on the electric welding section of a shipbuilding firm produced ‘thirty feet more than a man on similar work’63.

Photograph taken during the attack on a U-boat in the Bay of Biscay by Sunderland U/10 Squadron RAAF, June 1942. Taken from CB 04050/42(6) Monthly Anti-Submarine Report June 1942

Photograph taken during the attack on a U-boat in the Bay of Biscay by Sunderland U/10 Squadron RAAF, June 1942. Taken from CB 04050/42(6) Monthly Anti-Submarine Report June 1942

British losses at sea continued throughout the third phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, and the war against the U-boats was by no means close to a conclusion. While the Allies improved their anti-submarine tactics, Dönitz enjoyed the fruits of an increase in the number of submarines available for operations. His Rudeltaktik strategy was honed, and the spring of 1941 saw him able to operate several attacking groups in various traffic areas to great effect 64. The advent of the wolfpack may have changed ‘the image of the U-boat commander from a man with a name and a face to a nameless synthesis of many different men’65, but Germany was still producing “aces”, and the ‘convoy lanes were just as dangerous without Prien or Kretschmer hunting in them…the ships continued to sink just as before’ 66. What changed during this period was that Britain began to equip herself for the ultimate victory. The changes were not before time. In December 1941 the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic turned once again.



Phase IV: January to July 1942

What a nuisance Herr Schickelgruber is, but he cant [sic] be feeling very happy about the USA, I should think... 67.

In the virgin waters of the American theatre we expected success on a scale that would repay the long voyages involved 68

The amount of debris was just unbelievable. This lumber was just everywhere, and you had to be careful you didn’t get any in the propeller. The captain didn’t like steaming through it but you had to, to get close enough to the survivors 69

If France had changed the tenor of the Battle of the Atlantic in June 1940, it changed again with the entry of the United States into the conflict in December 1941. It is now understood that Hitler’s declaration of war on America made it impossible for the Axis powers to win, but the initial consequence was carnage for American – and Allied – shipping. Dönitz had been planning a pre-emptive strike in the event of America’s entry into the war since September 1941. The result was Operation “Paukenschlag“, or “Drumbeat”, so called ‘because the sudden strike it described would reverberate around the country with the percussive effect of ships exploding’ 70. America was certainly caught unawares. The War Diary of Reinhard Hardegen‘s U123 is testimony to her unreadiness. He returned from patrol having sunk a total of nine ships. In stark contrast to British towns, Hardegen states that the towns along the East Coast are bright with lights 71. The initial “strike of the drum” was not isolated. Another three boats were sent to the American coast as the first group of five was returning. Realizing that U-boats could operate successfully at this distance Dönitz also sent boats to operate in the Caribbean and off Newfoundland. Both areas were profitable in terms of sinkings, but the men no doubt preferred the balmy waters of the Caribbean. Erich Topp recalls that off Canada, ‘we entered these icy waters and a number of the crew ended up with frozen feet, limbs, we weren’t dressed warmly enough. People were standing on the bridges with icicles hanging off their caps; everything was under ice. The water that came on deck froze immediately; the temperature was minus 10 degrees; the balance of the boat was threatened, and every two hours we had to dive to melt away the ice. That was a bad time’ 72.

America was forced swiftly to learn the lessons that Britain had already learned from the Battle of the Atlantic: ‘there was considerable ‘”fat” in the American management system and the cycle of rationalization and regulation tackled by the British in 1941 had begun anew in 1942’ 73. The Americans seemed initially willing to learn from the British model – ‘You people have been at this for two years. You know the business, and we’ve got to learn and learn fast. I am under your orders’ 74 – but they were also willing to allow the overstretched Royal Canadian Navy to escort most of the convoys around the Eastern seaboard, preferring to carry out offensive A/S sweeps and undertake the independent routeing of shipping ‘until they had sufficient escorts’ 75. Since the U-boats continued to wreak havoc on independent shipping along the East Coast of America until the summer of 1942, when they once more returned to pack operations in the mid-Atlantic, the British and Canadians, who had created escorts from anything they could find in 1939 ‘could only wring their hands and grind their teeth as shipping escorted safely to Halifax was lost to the south’ 76.

American controlled shipping did not suffer the devastation alone. The MV British Splendour was torpedoed by U552 off Hatteras Buoy on 6 April 1942. Captain Hall’s dramatic account described how his ‘ship sank so rapidly and the inrush of water was so great that the Assistant Stewards were trapped in their accommodation and never had a chance to escape. The 2nd Cook was apparently washed from his room to the bottom of the exit and owes his life to this fact. The only survivors from the engine room staff was the 3rd Engineer. He was sleeping on his settee and can only remember being blown into the water on the floor of his room…’ 77. The Empire Spring, carrying Commodore Arthur Dibben, was similarly sunk by U576 on 14 February after the dispersal of Convoy ON 63. His wife Elizabeth later wrote to the Naval Control Service, desperate for news: ‘It is now over 6 months since death was presumed, so is it so absurd to hope for further news now, but if it is allowed for security reasons, can you tell me anything about what happened?…I dared not ask before, I have no wish now to ask questions I shouldn’t, so I shall expect to hear nothing...’ 78.

By June 1942 Allied losses had reached 615,000 GRT of shipping, and Dönitz had unleashed a new wolfpack operation in the Atlantic. Gruppe Hecht, the “pike” group, preyed on Convoys ONS 92, 94, 96, 100, and 102 between 11 May and 21 June. Contact was made with all five convoys, although the operations against ONS 94 and 96 were broken off due to the vagaries of the “other” presence in the Atlantic, the weather. The escorts – a truly Allied mix of British, Canadian, American and Free French – successfully drove the submarines away on several occasions, but the Hecht group still managed to sink 12 ships of 138, a total of 61,464 tons, as well as the Free French corvette Mimose. None of the submarines was damaged. The losses were followed in July 1942 by the disastrous Arctic Convoy, PQ 17. With ever greater numbers of U-boats at his disposal, Dönitz must have seemed close to winning his tonnage war. American entry into the war brought the vast resources of that country into the hands of the Allies, but, while the Americans were still essentially preparing for the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany was dominant throughout Europe, and the U-boat was pre-eminent at sea, ‘the prospect…arose of the war becoming so long and the shipping haemorrhage so great that Britain might bleed to death’ 79.

Phase V: July 1942 to May 1943

I have to just sit down and scribble this note to you for once again I must thank you, this time for putting me in the charge of such a topping crowd of officers; they have all been simply marvellous to me…and great fun. Captain D is the life and soul of the party 80

The U-boats moved in, but so did we…then it was our turn, and as I say we put down…I think we put seven U-boats down in the end between us, and that was it. Old Dönitz didn’t like that a bit. He’d decided he’d had enough. 81

"Guns and Butter", from Chapter V of the Admiralty Merchant Shipping Instructions 1944-45

“Guns and Butter”, from Chapter V of the Admiralty Merchant Shipping Instructions 1944-45

The fifth phase of the Battle of the Atlantic was the one in which, we can now acknowledge, the Allies gained dominance over the U-boats. But this was also one of the longest phases of the Battle, and there was much to be endured at sea before the U-boats’ “Black May”. One of the most infamous incidents of the Battle occurred on 12 September 1942, when the SS Laconia was torpedoed by U156 to the north east of Ascension. The CO, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein surfaced to discover to his horror that the decks were crowded with women, children, and around 1,800 Italian prisoners. Hartenstein began to pick up survivors, rescuing 90 before signalling Dönitz in Paris. Dönitz ordered three other U-boats to assist with the rescue, encouraging Italian and Vichy French units to join the Germans. On his own initiative, and without Dönitz’s approval, Hartenstein issued a signal announcing that he would not attack any ship coming to the aid of the Laconia survivors. Over the succeeding days, the survivors were gathered together, either huddled on the submarines, or under tow in lifeboats. At 1232 on 16 September, in spite of a large, improvised, Red Cross flag that Hartenstein had draped over his forward gun, an American Liberator dived and bombed the German submarine. Hartenstein was forced to order his passengers over the side. They were left to swim for their lives, whilst the submarine dived. Dönitz ordered Hartenstein to cease his rescue operation, and on 17 September, issued the “Laconia Order”, forbidding any U-boat to come to the assistance of the victims of their torpedo attacks: ‘Rescue runs counter to the rudimentary demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews…Rescue the shipwrecked only if their statements will be of importance to your boat’ 82.

The infamy of the “Laconia Order” did much to explain the length of Dönitz’s sentence at Nürnberg. Yet Hitler is alleged to have issued an order ‘that stated henceforth surviving crewmen of sunken ships were to be killed’ 83, which Dönitz had refused point blank to implement. Had Dönitz acceded to Hitler’s wishes, the Battle of the Atlantic might have descended into the ferocity that typified the Pacific battles between Japanese ships and American submarines 84. As it was, the “Laconia Order” did relatively little to change the face of war in the Atlantic. The cramped submarines had never been able to rescue large numbers of survivors, and the fear of counter-attack, or the ferocity of the weather, had made polite encounters between U-boat captains and sinking victims relatively uncommon. Pack operations also precluded any personal contact between the two enemies. Most of the casualties of torpedoed ships would henceforth be caused, as they always had been, by the sea. The figure remained high throughout this period not because Dönitz had issued the “Laconia Order”, but because ‘by the winter of 1942 the weight of the U-boat assault on the convoy routes was falling in the mid-Atlantic air gap many hundreds of miles from land’ 85 where there was little hope of rescue, even by convoy escorts. As William Hallam recalls, ‘all around for as far as you could see, there were little lights and voices calling out, ‘Here I am. Here I am.’ But you could do little. You couldn’t stop; you couldn’t pick ’em up. And so that was it, and maybe some of them were looking next morning, but no way could we pick ’em up at night at all, although we saw all these red lights’ 86.

In October 1942 the Allies lost 585,000 GRT of shipping. In November 1942 the total rose to almost 750,000 GRT. But the tenor of the Battle was in the process of changing once again. The tonnage sunk represented the zenith of German U-boat achievement, but this was also partially caused by American involvement in the Second World War. The shipping crossing the Atlantic was no longer employed solely in supplying Britain with the resources to survive. A substantial number of the ships in convoy were now bringing American troops and equipment to Britain to prepare for Operation “Torch”, the invasion of North Africa, and also for the eventual invasion of North West Europe. The submarines had richer pickings simply because there were more ships at sea. It should also be remembered that, at the same time that the submarines appeared to be succeeding in the Atlantic, British submarines and RAF units were decimating the German and Italian supply lines in the Mediterranean, contributing substantially to the Allied victories at El Alamein and during “Torch”. And as high as the figure for tonnage lost during November might seem, at some time during autumn 1942 Dönitz lost the “tonnage war”, the lynchpin of his strategy. With British, Canadian and American shipyards at peak production, the numbers of Allied merchant ships now being built exceeded the numbers being lost. German U-boat victories were, moreover, attained at great price. In October 1940 three boats were lost for every million tons of shipping sunk. By November 1942 this had risen to 17 boats per million. What 18 boats had achieved in October 1940 took 55 boats by November 1942 87.

While Blackett’s operational researchers pored over statistics like these back at the Admiralty, they mattered little to the men at sea, for whom the winter of 1942-3 was the fourth plying the Atlantic waters. Frank Richmond later remembered ‘only…the tedious running backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. And the weather, particularly the gales, the movement of the boat, the exhaustion of working four hours on and four hours off, without getting a continuous night’s sleep, and the relief of, when eventually hitting port, to be able to go to sleep and recuperate’ 88. During this winter, as in all the others, if ‘You heard the clang of a torpedo striking the hull of the vessel and exploding…you knew that your little war had started somewhere very close by’ 89. And over a hundred “little wars” were begun during March 1943 when, with Bletchley Park “blind” for ten days and the German B-Dienst interpreting Allied signals, the Allies lost 105 ships. A total of 21 ships of those ships, or 140,842 tons, were sunk as a series of wolfpacks preyed on Convoys SC 121, HX 228, SC 122 and HX 229. The Second Engineer of the SS Nailsea Court, torpedoed by U229 at 2145 on 9 March, described the frantic melee of the pack action: ‘about the same time as we were torpedoed, the Commodore’s ship Bonneville and the SS Coulmore were also torpedoed and I should think that the attacks occurred at intervals of between 3/4 minutes’ 90. He joined 37 comrades in a water-logged lifeboat, which capsized, and clung on for 3½ hours before he could be rescued by HMCS Dauphin. Only two other men survived the exposure. The losses from four convoys constituted 20% of the participating ships and led ‘to fears in Britain that the convoy system, the backbone of the Allied strategy against “Fortress Europe”, might have to be abandoned’ 91. Yet, in spite of the ferocity of the onslaught, the Allied defences had not entirely crumbled. The long-range aircraft from 120 Squadron RAF proved themselves particularly useful in forcing the contact-keeping U-boats to submerge and lose the convoys. Elsewhere in the Atlantic on 13 March, the attempts by Gruppe Raubgraf to attack Convoy ON 170 were foiled by the ‘exemplary’ 92 use of HF/DF by Lieutenant Commander Moore in the Whimbrel.

The growing confidence of the Allied escorts led two months later to “Black May” for the U-boat Arm, and the losses of March became ‘a blip in an other wise smooth downward curve’ 93. For the Allies, Convoy ONS 5 was ‘probably the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic, and probably the termination of the Battle of the Atlantic, in so far as we hammered the Germans so hard on that trip, and they did so poorly in sinking our ships, that history records that Dönitz realized that we’d got too good for him’ 94. The convoy survived appalling weather and mountainous seas, but ‘towards the end of the convoy….The wind just dropped; the sea flattened out; the fog came down. The U-boats moved in, but so did we’ 95. Four years of technological innovation had provided the escorts of ONS 5 with both Type 271 radar and Hedgehog projectiles, which were used to great effect. In the fog the submarines were blind, but their attackers could still “see”, and sank, or contributed to the sinking of, seven boats from the attacking packs 96. Stephen Roskill, the official historian for the Royal Navy wrote later that the battle ‘has no name by which it will be remembered; but it was, in its own way, as decisive as Quiberon Bay or the Nile97. Not only had he lost seven of his boats, and their crews, but Dönitz also lost his son Peter when U954 was sunk on 19 May by HM Ships Jed and Sennen. Germany had just experienced her “Stalingrad at Sea” 98.

Phase VI: May to September 1943

It was said that a superstition existed among U-boat men that if a boat was sunk, all of her company who had been awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, were bound to drown 99

The second aircraft came towards us, and we thought this is really it. It turned out to be the Sunderland. Four men were actually standing there…looking down at us. Suddenly they threw something down…a dinghy…I thought it was a depth charge and wanted to dive out of the way, but of course I couldn’t with the lifejacket on. 100

The enemy’s claims for his new torpedoes were unusually extravagant 101

May 1943 is generally seen as the “end” of the Battle of the Atlantic, but Germany’s campaigns in the Atlantic were not over yet, and the U-boat Arm was far from finished. Robert Atkinson, one of the escort commanders, recalled that ‘HX 231, which followed ONS 5, would probably be one of our most brilliant successes. And although that convoy was attacked and attacked and attacked, I don’t think any U-boats were sunk, but no merchant ship was sunk’ 102. In actual fact, three merchant ships were lost, and two U-boats were sunk, one by HMS Tay, the other by an RAF Liberator, which shows how deceptive memory, and the Battle of the Atlantic itself, can be. Even in defeat the U-boats still had bite. Dönitz, who had ‘had grave doubts about the prospects of victory’ 103 even in 1939, must have come to understand during this period that the Battle of the Atlantic was no longer sustainable, but, in Churchill’s own words ‘there is no reason to suppose that the German submarines would have fought a losing campaign, if the defeat of the German army had not brought collapse and surrender. Their morale was unimpaired to the bitter end’ 104. Between May and September 1943 Dönitz sent his boats back out into the Caribbean, and essayed a further wolfpack campaign in the Atlantic, this time armed with the latest in German technology.

Although Lieutenant Commander Harold Chesterman would argue, amongst others, that the Allies had the advantage because ‘We had boffins allocated to us. They were useful people…whereas the Germans, the scientists weren’t allowed near them’ 105, German scientists had also been experimenting with weapon technology. They produced an acoustic homing torpedo, the T5 or Zaunkönig, which was designed specifically to target escorts, and the Lage-Unabhängige Torpedo or LUT, which could be manually programmed to follow a preset course. Herbert Werner, CO of U230, and later author of Iron Coffins, wrote ‘for the first time in months I believed we were beginning to get the weapons to survive and to risk our lives intelligently. We might yet be around to see the turn of the tide’ 106. In the first combat use of the T5, a pack attack on Convoys ON 202 and ONS 18 in September 1943, the Allies lost the escorts HMCS St. Croix, HMS Polyanthus and HMS Itchen along with six of the merchant ships they were protecting, while HMS Lagan was damaged and never repaired. HMS Escapade was also damaged, by the misfiring of her own Hedgehog. Yet the attacking Leuthen Gruppe lost U338 to a Liberator of 120 Squadron RAF and U229 to HMS Keppel, returned with U386 and U584 badly damaged, and conceived a seriously inflated belief in the capabilities of their new weapon. As the Monthly Anti-Submarine Report dryly commented, ‘it is interesting to note that the enemy claimed twelve escorts sunk and three damaged’ 107. The new “miracle weapon” was not as good as the U-boat Arm needed it to be, and the passage of the convoys had also allowed the Allies to bring one of the newer weapons in their arsenal into play – the Empire Macalpine, a Merchant Aircraft Carrier flying off naval Swordfish aircraft, and filling the air gap where long-range aircraft could not.

U-boat Survivors, Midshipman (E) Reimar Lüst (U528), Oberleutnant zur See Georg von Rabenau (CO, U528), Leutnant (Ing.) Karl-Heinz Förtsch (U659), Leutnant zur See Werner Opolka (U528), Oberleutnant (Ing.) Erwin Goerlich (U528). Taken from CB 04051(71) U528 Interrogation of Survivors

U-boat Survivors, Midshipman (E) Reimar Lüst (U528), Oberleutnant zur See Georg von Rabenau (CO, U528), Leutnant (Ing.) Karl-Heinz Förtsch (U659), Leutnant zur See Werner Opolka (U528), Oberleutnant (Ing.) Erwin Goerlich (U528). Taken from CB 04051(71) U528 Interrogation of Survivors

Away from the shifting fortunes of the Atlantic, during the summer of 1943 Coastal Command undertook a campaign to destroy U-boats transiting the Bay of Biscay on their way to or from the Atlantic. Although ‘many a good flight crew flew for hundreds of hours, month after month, by day and night in all weathers over the grey, desolate wastes of the Atlantic, without ever having the excitement of so much as seeing a U-boat’ 108, the Biscay Campaign was highly effective, with 218 U-boats attacked, 27 “kills”, and 31 boats damaged. The submarines were additionally forced to remain submerged at night as well as by day, which was bad for morale, and reduced operation time by 5 days. On 30 July, in one of the most dramatic encounters of the Biscay Campaign, the outbound submarines U461, U462, and U504 were sighted and sunk. U461 by Sunderland “U” of 461 Squadron RAAF, U462 by Halifax “S” of 502 Squadron RAF, and U504 by the sloops of Captain Walker’s legendary 2nd Escort Group. Not only had three U-boats been sunk in one action, but U461 and U462 were both “Milchkuh”, “milk cow”, submarine tankers, badly needed to maintain the long-distance operations the U-boat Arm now wished to expand.

Phase VII: September 1943 to May 1944

Ours was a happy ship, a very happy ship…We were a small, closely knit unit that only used discipline that was actually necessary. A lot depended on the captain. I had two good captains and you were all chums together and you were all doing the same sort of job and everyone looked after one another 109

He was equally unpopular with the officers, who rounded off a merry party one night by cornering him in a narrow alley-way and beating him up soundly 110

When we were going to Newfoundland, that was a bit of a bonus…because when we got over there we could buy lots of tinned fruits 111

Photograph taken during a patrol by the Second Support Group, February 1944. Taken from CB 04050/44(2) Monthly Anti-Submarine Report February 1944

Photograph taken during a patrol by the Second Support Group, February 1944. Taken from CB 04050/44(2) Monthly Anti-Submarine Report February 1944

Whilst the Allies prepared for the invasion of Europe, the Axis struggled to maintain the Battle of the Atlantic, and life at sea continued for thousands of seamen, whose unremitting task was to cross and re-cross the ocean. In an attempt to defeat the Biscay bombers ‘German shipyards began fitting boats with huge batteries of anti-aircraft guns so that the boats could remain on the surface when attacked from the air and fight it out’ 112. Freshly equipped, the boats were sent out, still in packs, to hunt the convoys, but ‘time and again wolfpacks were thrown against convoys with heavy escorts and stifling air coverage; time and again the boats were hunted down and the convoys escaped unscathed’ 113. In January 1944 Dönitz gave up on Rudeltaktik, sending his boats out on independent operations, and by February the Naval Staff could comment ‘it is indeed satisfactory that the number of U-boat sinkings rose for the second month in succession…our convoys can pass through concentrations of U-boats, inflicting loss and suffering little or none themselves’114. The interrogators of the crews captured by escorts noticed somewhat self-righteously how their loss of fortune was changing the U-boat Arm. Not only was morale low, but the days of the respected and charismatic “Old Man” seemed well and truly over. Commanding Officers were described variously as ‘elegant, selfish, stern and unpopular’ 115, ‘vacillating and even cowardly’ 116 and with a mind ‘which had succumbed to Nazi doctrines, and through consequent lack of use, had become vague and unreliable’ 117.

"The Quick and the Dead", from Chapter II of the Admiralty Merchant Shipping Instructions 1944-45

“The Quick and the Dead”, from Chapter II of the Admiralty Merchant Shipping Instructions 1944-45

Not everyone at the Admiralty felt so openly triumphant. The Naval Staff sounded a note of caution in February when they commented, ‘the ascendancy which we have established over the enemy in ocean waters may perhaps be challenged in the not far distant future under very different conditions, which will test to the uttermost the training of our anti-submarine forces’ 118. There was still a risk that Dönitz would produce an exceptional weapon or strategy, undetected by Allied intelligence, which would change the balance of the Battle once more. While the vast majority of Atlantic crossings might be described as ‘an average corvette passage with good companions and more up and down than forward motion…’ 119, and the average seaman might comment ‘if you see…a batch of seagulls, circling round something, you report that. Because it could be something in the water there you know…You’d just report anything. It gets boring after a while, but at night you’re looking out, you can’t see a thing you know, but you’re still looking out just the same, just looking into black’ 120, until it was known that there were no more U-boats in the Atlantic, both merchant ships and Royal Navy would have to remain vigilant.

Phase VIII: May 1944 to May 1945

You thought “Well, this ship’s looked after me through three years of heavy seas, calm seas, rough seas, snow, the lot. And we’ve come through together 121

Hitherto only a very meagre oil slick stretching down tide had been brought to the surface…after Rowley had stirred up the target but failed to raise conclusive evidence, Duckworth closed to deal out “tin-opening” attacks with depth charges. By dusk much debris had been brought to the surface 122

All the Commodores will bear me out when I say that the convoy system would not have been so successful but for the fact that we had you taking care of our interests when we were absent on the high seas 123

The Naval Staff had been right to sound a note of caution. During the final phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, the U-boats kept going out on patrol, no matter how bleak their situation, and the Battle changed completely once again. The switch to independent operations had been made in January 1944. Dönitz now instituted an inshore campaign, a return to US coastal waters, and patrols that penetrated along the north western approaches of the UK and the English Channel. The inshore campaign had been originally intended, as described in an interrogation from May 1944, as ‘a diversion…with the intention of drawing off some of the escort groups from the Atlantic and so ease the pressure on the U-boats operating there’ 124, but the D-Day landings altered the war at sea. For a U-boat that could survive the hazards, there would now be plenty of targets in the Channel, and around the western coastline of the UK, as smaller convoys sought to supply the invasion forces with troops and equipment. Dönitz lost dozens of submarines as the French ports were targeted by heavy bombers, and then lost his access route across the Bay of Biscay in the wake of the invasion, but submarines could still battle their way round from the Norwegian ports to wreck havoc in the shipping lanes.

Hans-Joachim Förster in U 480 and Helmut Graf von Matuschka in U482 left their respective ports to patrol the UK in August 1944, Förster in the Channel, Matuschka in the North Channel. The U-boats’ “Happy Times” had ceased long before either of them made command, but their patrols in August 1944 are representative of the continuing power of the U-boat. Förster sank four ships, including HMCS Alberni and HMS Loyalty, and damaged one; Matuschka sank five ships and damaged two. U-boat Command gratefully awarded them with the Knights Cross in Gold on the same day 125. Gerhard Meyer in U486, venturing from Bergen in late November 1944, only sank three ships, damaging one other, but they included the SS Leopoldville, an 11,000 ton troopship packed with American soldiers, and the frigate, HMS Capel. The sinkings took place on 24 and 26 December, a terrible seasonal reminder, even after the beginning of the Ardennes offensive, that the war was not over yet. The War Diaries of these boats also record that, with the technology of T5 and LUT torpedoes, attacks could now be made at a range of 2-3,000 metres, with a higher success rate than in the Atlantic. And in the spring of 1945 the first patrols were made with the revolutionary new Type XXI and Type XXIII boats. They were ‘the miracle boats for which the U-Bootwaffe had been waiting so long’ 126, and it was a Type XXIII that caused the final casualty of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Avondale Park, sunk as late as 7 May 1945 by U2336.

However, the majority of the sinkings during this final period were caused by the same Type VII boats that were familiar enemies from the Atlantic, and the escort groups were well able to cope with them. ‘More than one hundred boats were lost in the first four months of 1945, most of them with their entire crews, for negligible returns in tonnage and no strategic benefit whatsoever’ 127. U480, U482 and U486 were all sent back out to patrol, only to be sunk with all hands 128, and the seas around the UK were filled with escorts groups making attacks with depth charges, Hedgehog, and the Allies’ newest deadly weapon, Squid. Personal contact between the enemies had become extremely rare, and confirmation of sinking relied more often on analysis of diesel fuel than interrogation. Since it was far too dangerous to send signals back to BdU most of the boats simply disappeared and remained unaccounted for when Dönitz surrendered, a quiet, impersonal, end to one of the most ferocious and protracted campaigns in naval history.

The Battle of the Atlantic meant many things to many people. While it is an almost impossible task to re-assert the primacy of the individual into our collective awareness of this period, there is little doubt that ‘the Battle of the Atlantic was a searing experience for everyone who participated in it, and there are still many questions to be asked about it, simply as a human experience’ 129. Retrospective accounts of the Battle may conflict with the official, contemporary-sourced, histories, or even, more often than not, with each other. But they bring an immediacy to our knowledge of how the war at sea was waged. And what emerges from studies of personal accounts of the Battle of the Atlantic is both an overwhelming contemporary respect for the enemy – the fact that neither side ‘had the desire to kill…we did not think of our task as killing people, just of sinking ships’ 130 – and an understanding that people emerged from the “anonymous” battle with a sense of community. The War might have left them as battle-scarred individuals, but they had lived as part of family units, and that would always remain with them. For those who survived it, the Battle of the Atlantic meant simply ‘every one of you have shared the same experiences, the same feelings. And you have the same feelings when you bring survivors on board who can’t stand up or are completely unconscious because of their time in the water…it was a family affair’ 131.

References – Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic

  1. Winston Churchill to Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord, March 1941, quoted by Andrew Williams, The Battle of the Atlantic, London, BBC Worldwide, 2002, p114.
  2. Message received and acted on by Naval Control Service, Liver Building, 3 December 1942. Naval Historical Branch collections, T5682
  3. John Arthur, HMS Anemone, quoted by Chris Howard-Bailey, The Royal Naval Museum Book of The Battle of the Atlantic : The Corvettes and their Crews : An Oral History, Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p37.
  4. Geoffrey Till, ‘The Battle of the Atlantic as History‘, The Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945 : The 50th Anniversary International Naval Conference, ed. Stephen Howarth and Derek Law, London, Greenhill Books, 1994, p587.
  5. Tony Lane, ‘The Human Economy of the British Merchant Navy’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p49.
  6. Admiral John Adams, quoted Williams, op. cit., p37.
  7. The first victims of the Battle of the Atlantic, report of an interview with Mr. Copeland, Chief Officer of the SS Athenia 23rd November 1939, ADM 199/2130
  8. Extract of a letter from the Captain of SS Goodwood to the 2nd Officer, enclosed with the report of a interview with Mr Robert Alberto Black 2nd Officer of the SS Goodwood 13th October 1939, ADM 199/2130
  9. Clay Blair, Hitler’s U-boat War. The Hunters 1939-42, London, Cassell & Co., 2001, p68.
  10. Georg Högel, Radio Operator in U 30, quoted in Williams, op. cit., p18.
  11. ‘it has been suggested that it may have been “U 33” that made the error of sinking the “Athenia” on 4th September, the short-sighted Commander mistaking her for a British destroyer’, Monthly Anti-Submarine Report March and April 1940, CB 04050/40 (3&4), Anti-Submarine Warfare Division of the Naval Staff, p18.
  12. Williams, op. cit., p 18.
  13. The Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping 1939-1945: A Study of Policy and Operations, Volume 1A, Naval Staff History, Historical Section, Admiralty, 1957, p55-56.
  14. ‘The Commander of the U-boat gave me the British Naval salute, and said “Good morning Captain” and I replied “Good Morning”. He said “I am sorry to rush you this morning, but I am just too fast for you”…We gave him the painter and he towed my boat about 1½ miles clear of the ship. He then said “Now I am going back to sink your ship, and I will come along and have a yarn with you afterwards”.’, Report of an interview with Mr G Pinkerton Master of the SS Fanad Head, 4th October 1939, ADM 199/2130.
  15. Report of an interview with Mr Norman Hartley, Chief Officer of the SS Royal Sceptre, 1st November 1939 ADM 199/2130. The Royal Sceptre was sunk by shellfire and torpedo by on 5 September 1939 on passage from Buenos Aires to Belfast.
  16. Blair, op. cit., p81.
  17. David Hobbs, ‘Ship-borne Air Anti-Submarine Warfare’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p388.
  18. Letter from Dorothea Urmson to Richard Rankin dated 26 June 1940, Naval Historical Branch collections, T5537.
  19. Letter from Julian Hutchings to Richard Rankin dated 26 July 1940, Naval Historical Branch collections, T5528.
  20. Werner Rahn, ‘The Campaign: The German Perspective’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p539.
  21. Raynes Minns, Bombers and Mash : The Domestic Front 1939-45, London, Virago Press, 1980, p86.
  22. Williams, op. cit., p36.
  23. Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, Commander in Chief Submarines or U-boat Command
  24. Jordan Vause, Wolf: U-boat Commanders in World War II, Shrewsbury, Airlife Publishing, 1997, p49.
  25. Sir Peter Smithers, Naval Intelligence Officer, Williams, op. cit., p66.
  26. Frank Holding, Assistant Steward of the SS Beatus, sunk by U 123 (Kapitänleutnant Karl-Heinz Moehle) on 18 October 1940, Williams, op. cit., p93-94.
  27. Vause, op. cit., p57.
  28. Vause, op. cit., p57.
  29. Vause, op. cit., p60.
  30. See Jürgen Rohwer and Gerhard Hümmelchen, Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945. The Naval History of World War Two, London, Greenhill Books, 1992, p36-38.
  31. Williams, op. cit., p93-94. The Beatus was part of Convoy SC 7.
  32. Don Kirton, Leading Supply Assistant, HMS Bluebell, Williams, op. cit., p 98.
  33. Williams, op. cit., p98.
  34. Official report on the sinking of the City of Benares, as given to the contemporary press, Naval Historical Branch collections, C693.
  35. See U 48’s Kriegstagebuch, Admiralty reference PG 30045b, Naval Historical Branch collections.
  36. The Childrens Overseas Reception Board. The CORB scheme was suspended following the sinking of the City of Benares.
  37. See ‘The Ebb and Flow of the Battle: The U-boat Aces’, paper by David Brown, Naval Historical Branch collections FDS 444.
  38. Hans Kreis, ‘How the Auxiliary Cruiser “Forfar” Sank in Three Minutes’, translation of an article from the Kieler Neueste Nachrichten of 17 December 1940, reprinted in U 99: Interrogation of Survivors, CB 4051(20), Public Record Office ADM 186/806.
  39. ‘By July 1940 the tea ration was reduced to a meagre 2oz a week, and Lord Woolton advised “None for the pot”‘, Minns, op. cit., p86.
  40. W J R Gardner, ‘An Allied Perspective’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p517.
  41. Winston Churchill to Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, quoted by Williams, op. cit., p114.
  42. Helmut Ecke, PK (Propaganda Kompanie) Man on board U 110 at the time of her sinking, Williams, op. cit., p133.
  43. Marguerite Patten, We’ll Eat Again: A collection of recipes from the war years selected by Marguerite Patten, in association with the Imperial War Museum, London, Hamlyn, 1985.
  44. ‘I’m not afraid of the Air, I’m not afraid of invasion, I’m less afraid of the Balkans – but – I’m anxious about the Atlantic’, Churchill’s comments to the War Cabinet, 20 March 1941, Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill. Volume VI. Finest Hour 1939-1941, London, Heinemann, 1983, p1040.
  45. John Arthur, HMS Anemone, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p7.
  46. Volkmar König, Midshipman, U 99, Williams, op. cit., p123.
  47. 3 men were killed in the attack, but 40 survived, including Otto Kretschmer himself, to be taken into captivity. Kretschmer survived the war in prison camps in the UK and Canada, proving himself to be as controversial a prisoner as he had been an effective captain. See Vause, op. cit., p215-216.
  48. It was assumed for many years that U 47 had been sunk by HMS Wolverine. The sinking was re-assessed by the Foreign Documents Section of the Naval Historical Branch in June 1991, when it was proved that Wolverine’s attacks had been unsuccessfully carried out on U A. The cause for U 47’s sinking was given as “unknown”. U A was under construction in Germany as the Turkish submarine Batiray when war broke out, and was subsequently commissioned as a German submarine. She was given the name “U A” to distinguish her from the other U-boats in commission.
  49. Vause, op. cit., p90.
  50. U 110 Interrogation of Survivors CB 4051(23), Public Record Office ADM 186/806.
  51. Monthly Anti-Submarine Report for June 1941, CB 04050/41(6), Anti-Submarine Warfare Division of the Naval Staff, p34. In the absence of his dog Lemp had the device of a terrier puppy painted on the conning tower of both U 30 and U 110.
  52. Captain S W Roskill DSC RN (Retd.), The Secret Capture, London, Collins, 1959, p119.
  53. Stephen Budiansky, Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II, London, Penguin, 2001, p119-120.
  54. See Jürgen Rohwer, ‘The Wireless War’, Howarth and Law, op. cit. p411. Other writers have suggested that Rohwer’s calculations may be exaggerated. See also W J R Gardner, Decoding History: The Battle of the Atlantic and Ultra, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1999.
  55. John Terraine, The U-boat Wars, quoted by Henry Probert, ‘Allied Land-Based Anti-Submarine Warfare’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p373.
  56. Williams, op. cit., p201.
  57. Marc Milner, ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 13, 1990, p48.
  58. Minns, op. cit., p91.
  59. Minns, op. cit., p98-99.
  60. Milner, op. cit., p48.
  61. Angela Holdsworth, Out of the Dolls House: The Story of Women in the Twentieth Century, London, BBC Books, 1988, p75-76.
  62. Holdsworth, op. cit., p75-76.
  63. Minns, op. cit., p34. Men working in shipyards earned three times more than the women (see Holdsworth, p75), but as the woman quoted was employed on piecework, her achievements earned her £9 18s in one week.
  64. Jan G. Heitmann, ‘The Front Line: Convoy HG 76 – The Offence’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p490.
  65. Vause, op. cit., p71.
  66. Vause, op. cit., p93.
  67. Letter from Admiral Richard Hill to Richard Rankin, January 1942, Naval Historical Branch collections T5715
  68. Karl Dönitz, Memoirs, translated by R H Stevens, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959, p197.
  69. James Keachie, Sub-Lieutenant, HMS Bluebell, Williams, op. cit., p91.
  70. Vause, op. cit., p127.
  71. ’17. Januar Voraus in Richtung Cap Henlopen. Städte an der Küste hell erleuchtet’. Kriegstagebuch, U 123, Admiralty reference PG 30113, Naval Historical Branch collections.
  72. Williams, op. cit., p169-170.
  73. Milner, op. cit., p52.
  74. Comment made by the Captain of American destroyer to Lieutenant Colin Warwick RNR, Williams, op. cit., p184. Warwick had told the Captain that, as the senior officer, he ought to command the escorts of the first convoy from New York to Norfolk, Virginia. The British Naval Liaison Officer backed the American’s decision.
  75. Milner, op. cit., p52.
  76. Milner, op. cit., p53.
  77. Report of an interview with the Master, Captain J Hall, of the MV British Splendour, 5th June 1942, Public Record Office ADM 199/2140.
  78. Letter from Elizabeth Dibben to Richard Rankin dated 13 September 1942, Naval Historical Branch collections T5667. The fate of Commodore Dibben was not realized until captured German documents fell into Allied hands at the close of the war.
  79. Philip Pugh, ‘Military Need and Civil Necessity’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p39.
  80. Letter from Daphne Higgins to Richard Rankin, Naval Historical Branch collections T5508. The letter is not dated, but must have been written around September – October 1942 when Mrs Higgins was on passage from Liverpool to Durban. She wrote again in January 1943 announcing the birth of baby girl on Christmas Day 1942. She had arrived in Durban ‘carrying all before’ and made the rest of her journey across Africa in an aircraft.
  81. Howard O. Goldsmith, Sick Berth Attendant, HMS Snowflake, describing Convoy ONS 5, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p32-33.
  82. Dönitz’s “Laconia Order”, quoted by Tony Bridgland, Waves of Hate. Naval Atrocities of the Second World War, Barnsley, Leo Cooper, 2002, p85.
  83. Vause, op. cit., p183.
  84. See Bridgland, as above.
  85. Williams, op. cit., p225.
  86. William Hallam, HMS Campanula, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p79.
  87. See Vause, op. cit., p169
  88. Frank G. Richmond, HMS Clematis, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p144.
  89. Don Kirton, Leading Supply Assistant, HMS Bluebell, Williams, op. cit., p91.
  90. Report of an Interview with the 2nd Engineer of the SS Nailsea Court, Mr H C C Bette, 23rd March 1943, Public Record Office, ADM 199/2144.
  91. Rohwer and Hümmelchen, op. cit., p201.
  92. Rohwer and Hümmelchen, op. cit., p199. Rohwer mistakenly refers to MacIntyre as Commander of the Whimbrel.
  93. Vause, op. cit., p174.
  94. Howard O. Goldsmith, Sick Berth Attendant, HMS Snowflake, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p32-33
  95. Howard Goldsmith, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p32-33.
  96. The fates of two of the boats is not entirely clear, but it is considered that their sinking during the attacks on ONS 5 remains the most likely explanation for their sinking. See reassessment report by Foreign Documents Section of NHB, Naval Historical Branch collections FDS 435 from October 1991.
  97. See Williams, op. cit., p263.
  98. Vause, op. cit., p175.
  99. Interrogation of Survivors of U 459, September 1943, CB 04051(79), Public Record Office, ADM 186/808.
  100. Recollections of Able Seaman Alex Franz, U 461, written in 1996, taken from an unpublished manuscript by Günther Paas, translation by Kate Tildesley, Naval Historical Branch collections FDSN/1998.
  101. Monthly Anti-Submarine Report for September 1943, CB 04050/43(9), Anti U-boat Division of the Naval Staff.
  102. Sir Robert Atkinson DSC**, HMS Pink, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p41.
  103. Vause, op. cit., p34.
  104. Quoted by Erich Topp, ‘Manning and Training the U-boat Fleet’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p216.
  105. Harold G. Chesterman, HMS Zinnia, HMS Snowflake, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p54.
  106. Vause, op. cit., p176.
  107. Monthly Anti-Submarine Report for October 1943, CB 04050/43(10), Anti-U-Boat division of the Naval Staff.
  108. Sir John Slessor, The Central Blue, p468, quoted by Henry Probert, ‘Allied Land-Based Anti-Submarine Warfare’, Howarth and Law, op. cit., p 381.
  109. Richard K. Grant, HMS Polyanthus, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p18.
  110. British comments on Oberassistenarzt Wolfgang Junghans of U 264, who ‘had distinguished himself by introducing a Spartan health routine for the luckless crew’, expecting them to take ice-cold baths at 6 in the morning, U 406, U 386 and U 264 Interrogation of Survivors, CB 04051(99), May 1944, Public Record Office Reference ADM 186/809.
  111. Richard K Grant, HMS Polyanthus, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p101
  112. Vause, op. cit., p193.
  113. Vause, op. cit., p193.
  114. Monthly Anti-Submarine Report for February 1944, CB04050/44(2), Anti-U-boat Division of the Naval Staff.
  115. Kapitänleutnant Horst Dieterichs of U 406, U 406, U 386 and U 264 Interrogation of Survivors, op. cit.
  116. Both Dieterichs and Fritz Albrecht of U 264, U 406, U 386 and U 264 Interrogation of Survivors, op. cit.
  117. Kapitänleutnant Heinz Hungerhausen of U 91, U 257, U 91, U 358 &U 744 Interrogation of Survivors, June 1944, Public Record Office reference ADM 186/809.
  118. Monthly Anti-Submarine Report for February 1944, op. cit.
  119. Letter from Ted Watt (Commander Frederick Watt RCNVR, Canadian poet) to Richard Rankin dated 24 June 1944, Naval Historical Branch collections T5621.
  120. Dennis Jolly, Seaman, HMS Crocus, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p23.
  121. Cyril J. Stephens, HMS Orchis, Howard-Bailey, op. cit., p145.
  122. Précis of Attack by the 3rd Escort Group 24 February 1945, Naval Historical Branch collections. This attack was always believed to have been on U 480. This attack is still undergoing investigation, but was probably on U 327.
  123. Letter from Commodore Gerald N Jones RNR to Richard Rankin, dated 11 July 1945, Naval Historical Branch collections T5512.
  124. Comments made by the crew of U 386, U 406, U 386 and U 264 Interrogation of Survivors, op. cit.
  125. U 480 Kriegstagebuch 12 September 1944, Admiralty reference PG 30529, Naval Historical Branch collections.
  126. Vause, op. cit., p202.
  127. Vause, op. cit., p202.
  128. U480 and U482 were thought to have been sunk by escort groups, but were both, in fact, sunk on deep trap minefields in February 1945 and December 1944, see reports reference FDSN1/1998 and FDS 450, Naval Historical Branch. U 486 was sunk by HM Submarine Tapir on 12 April 1945.
  129. Geoffrey Till, op. cit., p587.
  130. Horst Elfe, U 99, Williams, op. cit., p95.
  131. Roy F. ‘Dick’ Dykes, Sub-Lieutenant and Lieutenant RNVR, HMS Honeysuckle, Howard-Bailey, p20-21.