World War II Naval Campaign: The Atlantic

German sailor
Figure 1.--Perhaps the most critical battle of the War was fought in the North Ataltic by the Americans and British, and Canadians with the Germans. This young receruit for the Kriegs Marine was named Alfred. He was killed in the War, although we do not know in what circumstance. On the back the family has written, "In remeberance of Alfred." Note the streamers on his cap.

Hitler still supremely confident of victoty spoke to the German people, but with words aimed at America, "Anyone who thinks he can help England, let him be aware of one certain thing. Each and every ship that appears before our torpedo tubes, escorted or not, will be torpedoed."

-- Adolf Hitler, January 1941

The naval campaigns are often given superficial coverage in assessments of World War II in Europe. In fact, the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. Churchill was to write after the War that it was the the loss Battle of the Atlantic that was the only thing he feared. Battles could be lost or won, but the cutting of Britain's life lines to the Dominions and especially America would have made it impossible for Britain to have continued the War. It was no accident that Anglo-American military cooperation began in the North Atlantic well before America entered the War. Hitler on the other hnd gave lttle attention to the U-boat fleet until after the War began. Hitler and approved Plan-Z, a secret plan to prepare the Kriegsmarine for war with Britain by 1944. It involved the construction of seizemassive capital ships and two aircraft carriers. The Germans with U-boats, surface fleet, and long range aircraft hope to cut off Britain from its Empire and supply from the United States. Although neutral in the early years of the War, President Roosevelt was determine to support the Allies. A few days after the fall of France in 1940, a sjocked American Congress approvd the Naval Construction Act. The immediate impact of the fall of France in 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. The Royal Navy had ben strongly depleted during the inter-war era by naval limitations traties. After France fell, the Royal Navy stood alone againt the German ans Italian navies. The Germans had a growing surface fleet and the Italian a fast modrn fleet that threatened to seize control of the Mediterannean. The the German u-boat operations proved highly effective, despite the fact that Hitler launched the War years beore the Kriegsmarine was prepared. Even before America entered the War, the U.S. Navy was deployed in the North Atlantic to protect British convoys. Anglo-American naval and scientific cooperaion resulted in the defeat of the u-boat campain by 1943. Combined with American construction of liberty ships, not only was Britain kept supplied, but America assembled a massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

Significance

The naval campaigns are often given superficial coverage in assessments of World War II in Europe. In fact, the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. It was the central camaign upon which the entire war effort of the western Allies hinged. (Because of Lend Lease supplies for the Russians it also had a major impact on the crucial campaign in the East.) Churchill was to write after the War that it was the the loss Battle of the Atlantic that was the only thing he really feared. Battles could be lost or won, but the cutting of Britain's life lines to the Dominions and especially America would have made it impossible for Britain to have continued the War. And it would have made it impossible for America to have entered the European fughting. It was no accident that Anglo-American military cooperation began in the North Atlantic well before America entered the War. Once America entered the War, the only way that Amerucan military force and industrial power could be brought to bear upon NAZI Germany was to cross the North Atlantic. The Battle of the North Atlantic because of its significance was the longest and most costly battle of the War. Churchill was convinced that whoever won the struggle in the North Atlantic would win the War.

Background

The Treaty of Versilles required that all German U-boats be turned over to the Allies and that the German Navy not build or deploy any U-boats in the future. This was in addition to turning over the major battleships of the highseas fleet. The Highseas fleet saled to Scappa Flow, but instead of rurning over the vesselss to the British scuttled much of the fleet. The Royal Navy had been strongly depleted during the inter-war era by naval limitations treaties. The Depression which began in 1929 affected appropriations. Although the Royal Navy had been weakened by the inter-war naval limitations treaties, it still outclassed the German Kriegsmarine which operated under the limitations of the Versailles Treaty. Even so the Kriegsmarine conducted secret reserarchh. They also helped secure cobntracts for German shipyards to build submarines for other countries. The construction of U-boats was not outlawed by the treaty. This mean that Germany even before the NAZI take over was developing U-boat technology during the 1920s. Hitler unilaterally abrogated the Versailles Treay (1935). This could have resulted in war, but neither Britain and France had any desire for a new war. The British response was to negotiate a naval agreement with the NAZI Germany (1935). The agreement allowed the NAZIs begin a naval armaments program at their weakest point. Britain in the agreement ceeded the right of Germany to build U-boats. NAZI Germany's new U-boat fleet was put in the hands of Admiral Karl Doenitz, a fervant NAZI supporter. Doenitz was a decorated World War I U-boat commander who like many other naval commanders had been humiliated by Germany's defeat in World War I. He began to aggressivey build a new German submarine force. Resources were at first limited. Hitler's priorities were his Panzers and the Luftwaffe. Even within the Kriegsmarine resources were focused on surface ships. Yes the NAZI armaments program was so extensive that Doenitz was able to build a sunstantial number of modern U-boats. He worked aggressively on developing improved technology, including saftey measures, and tactics. Hitler gave lttle attention to the U-boat fleet until after the War began. Hitler approved Plan-Z, a secret plan to prepare the Kriegsmarine for war with Britain by 1944. It involved the construction of massive capital ships and two aircraft carriers. Hitler's inclination was to focus on large overwealming weapons. Thus he was attracted to large battleships like Bismarck and Tripitz rather than small U-boats.

Nature of the Campaign

Unlike the Pacific, the critical campasign in the Atlantiv would not be between powerful surface forces. Hitler promissed Grand Admiral Raeder a poweful surface fleet with massive battleships and aircraft carriers. In fact, he lunched the War before building a sizeable fleet. Thus for the Kriegsmarine as Raeder would phrase it after the War was to "go down fighting:" and demonstrate that they knew how to die galantly". [Raeder] OKM was left with only one option--commerce raiding. And to wage a guerre de course against Britain. Germany had to again fall back on its U-boats. This was not what Reader has planned. Hitker had time and again promised him a huge surface and assured him that there would not be another campaign against Britain and the Royal Navy. And in the effort to blockade Britain, the campaign became a cold mathematical calculation. Admiral Dönitz calculated that to win the Battle of the Atlantic, he woul need a force of 300 medium Type VII U-boats. (OKM favored the larger types.) This would enable him to keep 100 on station in the Atlantic shipping lanes. OKM had in the years leading up to the War, dreaming of a powerful surface fleet, repeatedly refused to focus resources on Dönitz's U-boats. This of course changed after the War began. Nased on World War I operatioins, he calculaed that his force of 300 Type VIIs could sink a million tons of shipping monthly. The British merchant marine at te onset of the War was large, about 3,000 cargo ships and tankers totaling 17.5 million tons. Döntitz thus reasoned that Britain, dependant as it was on imports for daw material and food could very rapidly be forced to make peace. [Blair, p. 39.] The issue this became how rapidly Döntiz could build his 300 U-boat fleet. The German victories in Norway and France (1940) would greatly increase the U-boat threat, making it impossible to bottle them up in the North Sea. For the Btitish it became how rapidly theu could build escorts and new merchant ships and develop effective ASW tactics and weapond. Here Canada would play a key role. The great unknown was the United States. Would America enter the War before Germany had forced Britain to make peace.

World War II (September 1939)

Hitler launched World War II with the Bliztkrieg on Poland (September 1, 1939). German planning had originally seen a later ate for the War. Britis and French weakness at Munich had apparently convinved Hitler that they would not risk war over Poland. Ironically the first shots of the War were fired by the aging battle ship Schleswig-Holstein at Polish instalations at Danzig. Poland was defeated within weeks, but the Kriegsmarine was unprepared for the War. Military stratigists argue whether Hitler should have waited. In many ways Germany was not yet ready for war. This was especially true for the Kriergsmarine. Both Britain and France by 1939 had begun to rearm and in partricular build airplanes and but nore for America. Thus war in 1939 came at a time before Britain and France has rearmed. Another factor was economics. Germany as a result of its armaament program was virtually bankrupt. Germany needed war booty to help pay for the high cost of its military armament program.

First Phase (1939-41)

The Germans with U-boats, surface fleet, and long range aircraft hoped to cut off Britain from its Empire and supply from the United States. The U-boat was a particularly attractive weapon, because a U-boat could be built in 6 months at a fraction of the cost of a surface unit. The Germans conceived of using their available force as commerce raiders, to prevent supplies from America and the Dominions from reaching Britian and France. Doenitz had 30 U-boats at sea when the War began. Plan Z had called for having 100 U-boats at sea, but Hitler had begun the War before the Kriegsmarine was ready. Doenitz at the time had 46 U-boats, but only 22 capable of long range operations. The success of the U-boats soon Karl Donietz and established the U-boat fleet as the darlings of the German War effort. There has always been a strong isolationist streak in American political life. Americans separated by two great oceans have since the Revolution seen ourselves as different and apart from the rest of the World. President Roosevelt begun a campaign to rearm America. A few days after the fall of France in 1940, a shocked American Congress approved the Naval Construction Act. Isolationist leaders opposed any war. The German invasion of Norway was another stunning success. It gave the Germans control of Norwegian resources, especially iron ore. It also made it impossible for the Royal Navy to bottle up the U-boats in the North Sea. This success, however, came at a hight cost to the Keiegsmarine. Virtually its entire destrooyer force was sunk landing troops and supplies The fall of France in June 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. After France fell, the Royal Navy stood alone againt the German and Italian navies. The immediate naval concern was the French fleet. Churchill's most difficult decission after France fell was the order he gave to neutralize the French fleet. The British needed deliveries of about 1,000 merchant ships monthly to stay in the war. Based on their World War I experience the British armed their merchant men and introduced a new convoy system. The NAZI defeat of France proved to be a major advantage for the Kreiegsmarine. Dönitz now had access to the French Atlantic ports. his mean that the U-boats no longer had to expose themselves to the British North Sea defenses based around Scappa Flow. It also mean that the U-boats could spend more time on combat missions in the Atlantic as less time was needed tomove back and fort from home bases. In additon the Germans could use their long-range Condor bombers for reconisance flights to help locate the convoys. The summer of 1940 became known by the U-boaters as "The Happy Time". One British convoy sailing in October with 35 merchantmen from Newfoundland was savaged by the U-boats, 19 merchantmen were sunk. Almost from the beginning of war in Europe, President Roosevelt began what was to become an undeclared war with Germany in the North Atlantic. The first tenative step was naval patrols to to prevent belligerent ships from U.S. waters. At first the American role was limited, but as the situation worsend and the German's expanded the U-boat fleet, the American role expanded. The Royal Navy was ill prepared for the war. Losses to the u-boats were severe, despite the fact the Keiegsmarine began the War with only a small force. Months before American entered the War, the U.S. Navy was involved in a full-scale shooting war to protect the convoys needed to keep Britin in the War. A great deal has been written about the British cracking of the German enigma codes and the the impact on the War, especially the campaign against the U-boats in the North Atlantic. Less well knon is that the Germans suceeded in breaking the British naval convoy code. The the German u-boat operations proved highly effective, despite the fact that Hitler launched the War years before the Kriegsmarine was prepared. Donietz began the War with only 57 U-boats. he was convinced that with enough U-boats he could knock Britain out of the War by cutting her off from her overseas Dominions and America. The strenhth of the U-boat fleet steadily grew. The threat was so severe that President Roosevelt at considerable political danger confronted the isolationists while America was still neuratl and provide assisstance even destroyers to protect convoys. The German u-boat campaign suceeded in sinking substantial numbers of Allied shipping. For a time the u-boats were even winning a war of attrition. Despite those losses, the Allies ended the War with a larger merchant fleet than at the onset of wat. The reason was a revolution in ship building, one of the most significant developments in the War--the Liberty Ship.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) brought America into the War. It was a stunning success for the Japanese and perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in the history of warfare. It came at the same time that the Red Armny launched an offensive against the Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow. The Axis alliance was a defensive alliance which would have required Germany to go to war against a country which attacked Japan, but not with a country which Japan attcked. Even so, Hitler declared war on the United States. This solved a problem Roosevelt faced, how to bring America inti the European War when America had been attacked by the Japanese. No one knows why Hitler declared war on America. Certainly the American attacks on U-boats had angered him. Perhaps he thought that Roosevelt was about to declare war and he wanted to beat him to this step. We suspect that Hitler, stunned by the reversals in Russia, felt compeled to take some offensive action to regain control of events. The action, however, was a huge strategic blunder. One wonders how having failed to subdue Britain and now mired in a punishing winter campaign in Russia, he could have decided to declare war on the greatest industrial power in the world. Roosevelt may well have engineered a declaration of war, but it would have been a difficult measure and he would have brought along a less unfied American public.

Second Phase (1942-45)

Donitez after the declaration of War dispatched a U-boat force to the coast of America (December 1941). The U.S. Navy was unprepared and coastal shiping was devestated. The success of Germany's U-boat camapign was in large measure due to tactics developed by Donenitz who conceived of the wolf pack. Donenitz was a master technician, but he was often dismissive of technology. After Operation Drumbeat, Doenitz moved the U-boat campaign into the mid-Atlantic beyound the reach of aerial patrols. Given the success of the U-boats, the Germans stepped up production. The principal German tacic was the Wolf pack, Even before America entered the War, the U.S. Navy was deployed in the North Atlantic to protect British convoys. Anglo-American naval and scientific cooperaion resulted in the defeat of the u-boat campain by 1943. German U-boats in early 1943 continued sinking substantial numbers of merchant vessels. The British food supply in early 1943 was down to a few months. The U-boats sank about 100 merchant vessels in 1943. That was a rate that could not be replaced even by the Liberty Ships. U-boat sinkings were also increasing. A major engagement was fout im March involving 80 merchants, 20 escort vessels, 44 U-bots and numerous aircraft. The engagements on the North Atlantic were no longer one-sided. The Allied sank 15 U-boats in April 1943. More than in the past, but still not enough to deter the Germans. World War II turned against the NAZIs during late 1942 and early 1943. The war at sea turned in May 1943--known as Black May by the U-boat men. In that month, the building Allied naval strength in the Atlantic and widening technical superiority succeeded in sinking 41 U-boats. The U-boats were no longer the hunters, but the hunted. Increasingly after May there was less and less a chance of a U-boat returning from a cruise. Doenitz had to break off the campaign in the North Atlantic. The Germans by the end of 1943 had built 442 Uboats, had lost 245 U-boats. More than any other factor, it was the expanding Allied air cover which doomed the NAZI U-boat campaign. The United States built more than 100 aircraft carriers during World War II. The Anglo-American victory in the Battle of the Atlantic not only allowed Britain to survive but allowed it to actively persue the War. It also allowed America to assembleda massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall. In the end, surving on U-boats was one of the most dangerous assignments of the War. Three-quarters of the U-boat fleet was sunk at sea and about 70 percent of the U-boat crews killed. In all the Allies sank 785 U-boats. To this day, 68 U-boats are unaccounted for. The Germans were working on a vastly improved U-boat. The new u-boats were great improvements and after the war became the nucleus of the Soviet naval submarine fleet.

Individual Ships

Thousands of ships participated in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. Some of these ships and the men who served on them became legends. The U-9 at the beginning of the War slipped into the British ancorage at Scappl Flow and sank a British battle ship (September 1939). An early naval battle was fought off Argentina in the South Atlantic. Three British cruisers engaged the German pocket battleship Graff Spee involved in commerce raiding. As a result, the German ship was firced into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay where the captain blew his ship up (1939). Perhaps the best known ship in the Royal Navy was HMS Hood, a battle cruiser. Thus new that she was sunk by Bismarck was especially shocking (March 1941) and lead to a massive effort to sink Bismarck. The carrier USS Wasp would help to get a tanker through to Malta, preventing a British surrender. The fast tanker SS Ohio was destroyed, but made it through lased to destroyers and deccks awash becoming the most famous tanker of the War. The U-boat fleet was devestated by the Allies, but two U-boats became famous at the end of the War. The U-234 surrenderd to the U.S. Navy with a cargo of enriched uranium intended for the Japanese atomic bomb program. The U-977 managed a notable escape to Argentina. The Japanese were not involved in the Battle of the Atlantic, but they did participate in efforts to exchange material and technology with the Germans. The Japanese submarine I-52 tried to get to France to pick up enriched uranium. Perhaps

Losses

The Nattle of the Atlantic was the longest fought Battle of World War II. Tt began with the German and Soviet invasion of Poland (September 1939). Britin and France initiated a naval blockade of Germany as they had dome in Wotld War I. German U-boats began sinking British shipping. British losses increased steadily as the Germans expanded their U-boat fleet. Losses peaked in 1942, but were havey in early 1943 until Allied ASW efforts finall begann to sink U-boats in substantial numbers. Hitler ordered Adm. Dönitz to avoid sinking American shipping even after President Roosevelt ordered an undeclared naval war (September 1941). The U-boats did not begin sinlking American shipping until Hitler declared War (December 1941), especially after Adm. Dönitz laubched Operatiomn Drumbeat along the American coast (February 1942). The Battle was essentially won by the Allies in Battles like ONS-5 (May 1943). At this point Allied losses fell off and U-boat sonking increased. They would have been higher, but Adm. Dönutz with drew the wolf packs from major action in the Atlantic. He did not end the battle, calculating that maintaining limited effort tied up substantial Allied forces. German effort in the Atlantic was further reduced by the D-Day Normandy invasion and the loss of French ports. U-boats contginued operationd, however, until theFermnt surrendered (May 1945). Statistical estimates vary. A good overal assessment is that The Allies lost over 2,600 merchant ships, totaling over 13.5 million tons and 175 naval vessels. [Hughes and Costello] Over 72,000 Allied seamen perished, evenly divided among navy sailors and merchant seamen. [White, p. 2.] In the end, serving on U-boats was one of the most dangerous assignments of the War. Three-quarters of the U-boat fleet was sunk at sea and about 70 percent of the U-boat crews killed--about 30,000 men. [Bennett, p. 301] The Allies sank or destroyed 783 of the 842 U-boats Germany built. To this day, 68 U-boats are unaccounted for. [Bowyer, p. 158.]

Outcome

The Anglo-American victory in the Battle of the Atlantic not only allowed Britain to survive but allowed it to actively persue the War. It also allowed America to assembleda massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

The Soviet Navy

Hitler launched his long coveted invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). Operations were primarily conducted by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. The Kriegsmarine played a minor supportive role. The success of the German operations and the participation of the Finns forced the Soviet Navy to withdraw to Lenningrad and Kronstadt. This left the Baltic a German lake so that mineral ores and other goods could continue to fuel the NAZI-war effort. This situation in the Baltic continued unchanged until the Finns withdrew from the war (July 1944) and the Red Army approasched the Baltics and East Prussia. Then the mission of the Kriegsmarine changed. The Germans carried out a massive sea-rescue operation, transporting an estimated 2.5 million west to Germany (1944-45). Soviet naval operations were more successful in operations to protect the Arctic convoys. This operation was aided by esort cradt provided by the United States.

Sources

Bennett, William J. America: The Last Best Hope Volume 2, rom a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom 1914–1989. (Nelson Current: 2007)..

Blair, Clay. Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 19839-1942 (Random House: New York, 1996), 809p.

Bowyer, Chaz. Coastal Command at War (Shepperton, Surrey: Ian Allan Ltd, 1979).

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Hughes, Terry and John Costello. The Battle of the Atlantic ((New York: Dial Press, 1977).

Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941 (1976).

Raeder, Erich. Grand Admiral

White, David (2008). Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).






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Created: May 5, 2003
Last updated: 1:44 AM 6/17/2017