Tag Archives: America

China pays the price for Pearl Harbor

As I wrote in my last article, the Japanese attack on the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor precipitated the entry of the US into the Second World War. The population of the United States was understandable angry and eager for revenge; but Japan was so far away and America not yet fully prepared for war so what, if anything, could they do to build morale?

Courtesy USA Government @ IWM (OEM 3605)

Within a month of the attack, in January 1942, an audacious plot was hatched by the Americans: why not raid the Japanese mainland? In one blow they could inflict damage on Japanese industrial sites as well as to the psyche of the civilian Japanese population who believed that their homeland could never be attacked by a force coming all the way from America. At the same time, an attack on Japan would also improve America’s relationships with her other allies in the war and boost the morale of the American people.

The initial plan was to launch a bombing raid from aircraft carriers, recover the planes and head back home; but whilst the B-25 could take off from a carrier it soon became obvious that landing on a ship was going to be much more difficult. It was therefore decided to launch the attack from ships positioned east of Tokyo, but instead of turning round and heading back to the aircraft carriers the planes would fly on to either China or Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. When approached about this Stalin was not keen on the plan as he was afraid that it might provoke Japan to attack Russia and so the Americans decided that all of the planes were to head for China. (For an overview of US/China relations at this time please see my article about Pearl Harbor).

James H Doolittle with some of his Raiders

The raid was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel James H Doolittle; the planes to be used were prepared for the mission by adding extra fuel tanks and stripping out all non-essential equipment to lighten the aircraft. The volunteer crews began their training in early March 1942 with a focus on night flying, cross-country flying, low altitude approaches, and evasive manouvers.

The Japanese knew that the Americans would not let the attack on Pearl Harbor go unpunished and so were monitoring US naval radio. From this they knew that an attack was planned for some time in April but had no radar so their early warning system was poor, relying on converted fishing trawlers positioned in parallel lines offshore to act as pickets. Surprisingly, one of these pickets detected the approaching US ships on 18th April, 650 miles from Japan, and whilst the plan had been to launch at closer to 400 miles from land the Americans could not risk losing more ships after Pearl Harbor and so launched immediately. This attack by long-range bombers took Japan completely by surprise as targets were hit in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokosuka and Kobe where the American planes met very little opposition before flying on; one plane eventually landed in Vladivostok (where its crew were interned) whilst the other fifteen continued to China.

B-25 taking off from USS Hornet on the Doolittle Raid

The damage inflicted on Japan by the ‘Doolittle Raiders’ was minimal, but its effect on the enemy was enormous. As a consequence of the raid the Japanese decided that it was imperative to meet the US advance in the Pacific head-on (which led to the Battle Of Midway), whilst for civilians the belief in the invulnerability of their homeland was now gone. For the Americans the raid did a lot to restore their self-belief and pride after Pearl Harbor – their first major strike of the war had been an attack on the enemy capital and they now had the confidence that they would eventually be the victors.

But the story of The Doolittle Raid did not end with the American bombers reaching safety in China, and the consequences were far more wide-ranging than anyone could ever have anticipated. Unable to hit back directly at the Americans it was the Chinese who bore the brunt of the brutal revenge meted out by the Japanese.

Doolittle and his crew after crash landing in China

In early 1942 Manchuria as well as some industrial and commercial centers and key ports in China were occupied by Japan who was determined that she would hold on to these as well as prevent the Chinese from helping the Allied war effort. The American planners of the raid were aware of the situation before they set out, and they knew that the Chinese would suffer for the actions of the US but they went ahead regardless. The eighty volunteers who flew the Doolittle Raid knew before they set out that it was a one-way trip and so were prepared to bail out or crash-land in China when their fuel ran out; when this happened local guerrillas, missionaries and villagers willingly helped and cared for the downed airmen. Japan was quick to retaliate.

Individuals who had helped the Americans were identified by the little thank you gifts which the airmen had given them – maybe a cigarette packet, or a glove, or badge – these people were then tortured and murdered as punishment for the help they had given. But retaliation was not limited to individuals who had helped. One report by a Canadian missionary records how the Japanese flew 1,131 bombing raids against Chuchow (where the Doolittle Raiders first landed) in which 10,246 people were killed and another 27,500 left destitute when over 62,000 homes were destroyed, over 7,500 head of cattle killed and 30% of the local crops burned. Altogether there were twenty-eight market towns in the region, of which only three were not destroyed.

American airmen with some of their Chinese rescuers

The town of Ihwang was one of those where the civilian population helped the airmen, and one of the missionaries who worked there (Father Dunker) later described the Japanese retaliation – they raped all women aged 10 to 65, then shot everyone (men, women and children) as well as all the livestock they could find, the town was looted and then burned to the ground. The bodies of the civilians were left to rot.

The Japanese also took the town of Nancheng where they remained for a month. 800 women were rounded up and kept in a storehouse where they were repeatedly raped, the men were killed. Nancheng had a population of 50,000 when the Japanese arrived, when they left the town had been completely destroyed, hospitals looted, railway lines pulled up and the iron shipped back to Japan. The town burned for three days.

In the summer of 1942 the Japanese razed an estimated 20,000 square miles of China – livestock was slaughtered, irrigation systems wrecked beyond repair, crops burned, bridges and roads and airfields totally destroyed. But that was not the end. When the Japanese finally withdrew they contaminated rivers, wells and fields with plague, cholera, anthrax and typhoid; they left behind food rations contaminated with these diseases knowing that the hungry locals would eat them and so spread the sickness further. This part of China had been prone to such diseases before the Japanese action so it is not possible to know quite how many died as a direct result, but it was in the many thousands.

A US raid which had been designed to lift the spirits of the American people after Pearl Harbor led to a three-month campaign across the Kiangsi and Chekiang provinces of China in which it is estimated that 250,000 Chinese died, with the Japanese retaliation being likened to the Rape of Nanking in 1937-38. America honours the men who took part in the raid, but I hope they will also never forget the unsung, unnamed tens of thousands of Chinese heroes who will for ever be a part of this story.

Pearl Harbor 7th December 1941 – a date which will live in infamy

According to President Franklin D Roosevelt 7th December 1941 was a “a date which will live in infamy”. On that day the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii, was attacked by Japanese forces. Many people think that this attack came completely out of the blue but it was, in fact, culmination of more than a decade of steadily worsening relations between the United States and Japan.

American foreign policy in the Pacific in the late 1930’s was to support China against an increasingly aggressive Japan which had taken control of the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, although open warfare did not break out between Japan and China until July 1937. America continued to support China by giving the country a loan in 1938, and terminating their 1911 treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan in July 1939. By 1940 America was restricting exports to Japan which could be used in the war, and tensions between the two countries continued to mount. Matters were not helped when the Japanese allied themselves with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy). This caused America to sever all relations with Japan, freeze her assets and place an embargo on Japanese shipments carrying materials of war.

Admiral Yamamoto

Many of the hierarchy in the Japanese military resented the fact that America was supporting China and wanted to end their interference. They also saw the German invasion of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for Japan to extend her reach in the Far East without the intervention of Russia. Even so, there were attempts by some to smooth things over between America and Japan right through the autumn of 1941, although the Japanese Prime Minister had already privately decided that war was the only way forwards – his theory was that if the Japanese could destroy the American Pacific Fleet it would leave them able to conquer all of South East Asia unopposed. The attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet of Japan, Admiral Yamamoto, with the fleet coming together in the Kuril Islands on 16th November, although Yamamoto was prepared to be recalled if negotiations with the Americans proved successful. Admiral Nagano, the Chief of the Naval General Staff did not want to risk the fleet so far from home, particularly as that would limit the forces they could use for other actions in the Far East, but Yamamoto threatened to resign if his plan was axed so all opposition was ignored.

On 26th November 1941 the American Secretary of State wrote to the Japanese to try to smooth things over, however his requirement that Japanese troops should be withdrawn from China and Indochina did not go down well. The note was seen as irrelevant by the Japanese anyway as their forces had already set sail to attack Pearl Harbor on the same day.

Admiral Kimmel

The US Pacific Fleet along with military and naval forces were stationed at Pearl Harbor as the tensions between the two nations steadily mounted. Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short were warned three times (16th October, 24th November, and 27th November) that war was possible and they should take appropriate defensive measures. Short ordered his forces to be on the alert for sabotage, and moved all of his planes to Wheeler Airfield to protect them, as well as ordering that radar should be monitored from 4 – 7am (the most likely time of day for an attack). Kimmel was equally relaxed in his preparations – although he was not able to locate the main parts of the Japanese Fleet he did not send his reconnaissance north-west (which would  have been the logical direction for an attack to come from); he also allowed personnel on shore leave after mooring the entire fleet in the harbour.

On the US mainland the Japanese Ambassador had asked for a meeting with the American Secretary of State in Washington at 1pm on 7th December (7.30am Pearl Harbor). General Marshall, the American Army Chief-of -Staff sent a telegram to Kimmel to say that war was imminent, but it did not arrive in Pearl Harbor until after the attack began. There were other signs, however, that Kimmel should have realised could be fore-runners of an attack. The first happened four hours before the attack when a Japanese submarine was sighted near the Harbor, it was later fired upon by the USS Ward. Then at 7am, when the radar should have been switched off, Private George Elliott decided to get in some more practise; he noticed a large group of planes on the screen but was told to ignore them as a flight of bombers was expected to arrive that morning. Kimmell was still awaiting confirmation of the submarine encroachment when the air attack began. (Kimmel and Short were later blamed for mistakes and errors of judgement at Pearl Harbor and were dismissed.)

The Japanese had already landed forces in Malaya and Thailand a couple of hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor began (for them, Pearl Harbor was seen as a supporting operation). The attack against America was, however, incredibly well planned with an entire fleet including six air craft carriers, two battleships and three cruisers travelling 3,700 miles across the North Pacific undetected. It was necessary to refuel on the way which could not be done in rough weather and so the Americans did not think an attack could come from that direction. However, they were wrong, and at 7.55am on the morning of 7th December 1941 the attack began with 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attempting to damage or destroy as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible.

Kanohoe naval air station, strewn with damaged aircraft and wreckage, 7 December 1941. © IWM (OEM 21469)

In the first attack the planes and hangers on the island’s airfields were targeted by bombers as torpedo planes attacked the warships at anchor. Four battleships were hit in the first five minutes, followed minutes later by the sinking of the USS Arizona when her gunpowder supplies took a direct hit, killing 1,177 of her crew. The attack was devastating, but it was not the end as less than two hours later a second wave of 170 aircraft arrived. The Americans fought back but were completely unprepared (only 6 planes managed to get into the air) and in just two hours 18 American warships had been either damaged or sunk, almost 200 aircraft destroyed and over 2,400 American service men and women killed. The Americans were lucky that the three aircraft carriers, seven heavy cruisers and a division of destroyers attached to the Pacific Fleet were not in harbour and so escaped without damage. The Japanese in contrast lost less than 60 planes, 5 midget submarines, possibly 2 fleet submarines, and less than 100 men; the main fleet returned to Japan without being attacked.

USS Arizona. © US National Archives and Records Administration

The attack on Pearl Harbor had an immediate impact on the course of the Second World War. Up until that time the Americans had been supporting the Allies through the Lend-Lease Agreement by supplying war supplies, but most Americans did not want to get actively involved in the fighting. However, they were outraged by the Japanese attack and the next day the US declared war on Japan, finally entering the conflict on the side of the Allies.

The Tripartite Pact signed by Japan, Italy and Germany in September 1940 meant that Germany was obliged to go to war if America attacked Japan but not if Japan attacked America. Roosevelt did not want to be seen as the one to declare war on Hitler but knew that such a conflict would be inevitable if the US declared war on Japan. As he had foreseen, Hitler declared war on  American in support of Japan on 11th December and the President was able to get the full support of Congress to declare war on Germany.

Roosevelt signs declaration of war. © IWM (HU 56120)

The Japanesse attack was devastating, but six of America’s eight battleships (excluding the Arizona and Oklahoma) were repaired and returned to service whilst the strategically important oil storage facilities on the island remained intact. The most important result of the attack, however, was it’s impact on the American public – the deaths of thousands of Americans in a surprise attack early on a Sunday morning without any formal declaration of war could only have one outcome – a uniting of public opinion behind the war effort, and the beginning of the end for Germany.

Courtesy USA Government @ IWM (OEM 3605)
Arizona Memorial © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, Mainz

The worst journey in the world – the Arctic Convoys of World War 2

On 23rd August 1939, just days before Germany invaded Poland in the opening moves of the Second World War, the world was surprised to see two sworn enemies – Germany and Russia – sign a Non-aggression Pact in which they agreed not to go to war against each other for the next ten years. For Stalin the treaty meant that Russia could stay on peaceful terms with Germany whilst building up her own military strength; for Hitler it meant that he would be able to invade Poland unopposed. In September Hitler attacked Poland and the country was soon under Nazi control, this meant that Hitler had got what he wanted from the Pact so in June 1941, much to the anger of Stalin, Germany invade Russia with more than 3 million troops. This was the largest invasion in history (in comparison the D Day landings in Normandy saw 156,000 Allied soldiers come ashore). Operation Barbarossa (the attack on Russia) was initially a success with the Russians losing 4,500 planes in just nine days, a number which constituted half of their air force, within six months the Russian army had lost 20,000 tanks. By the end of the year the Germans were within 15 miles of Red Square in the centre of Moscow and a desperate Stalin begged Churchill to send Russia tanks, planes and guns to halt the German progress.

Operation Barbarossa © IWM (HU 111387)

Churchill didn’t like either communism or Stalin, but he knew that Britain would not be able to defeat Hitler alone. So far America was only sending supplies to Europe not troops and so Churchill had no real alternative but to help Stalin in an effort to keep a large part of Germany’s troops occupied in the east rather than freeing them up for an invasion of the British Isles. Churchill knew that to defeat Hitler in Russia would be a colossal undertaking and so he promised Stalin that there would be deliveries of supplies every 10 days. But how would they get there? They could be sent across the Pacific from America and then by train across Russia, or they could go around Africa and then overland from India, but both of these routes would take weeks, if not months. The only realistic route to deliver supplies quickly and regularly would be to go the north of Norway to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel; the problem with that route was that Germany already held Norway so the convoys would have to run the gauntlet of German ships, submarines and planes as well as struggling with the treacherous conditions of the Arctic Ocean. As Churchill said, it should take about 10 days but it would be the worst journey in the world.

ARCTIC CONVOY. ON BOARD HMS INGLEFIELD , 14 FEBRUARY TO 13 MARCH 1943, DURING CONVOY DUTY IN ARCTIC WATERS. © IWM (A 15400)

The Merchant Navy was delegated to man the convoys. Before the war merchant vessels had brought trade goods to Britain from all parts of the world, but the experienced sailors who served in the Merchant Navy had never signed up for active service during a war. As a non-military fighting force these men – aged from 14 to 70 – were ill-equipped with little more than a long coat, leather boots and balaclava. One of their main jobs whilst the ships were on the arctic run was to clear the ice from the decks so that it didn’t jam up the winches and guns, or build up until the ship became so top-heavy that it would capsize. Most of the ships in the Merchant Navy were old and slow, many dating from the First World War, and they had certainly not been designed for the harsh Arctic Ocean. The brave merchant seamen who took on this task were paid as little as £10 a month, and it was the rule that a sailor’s pay would be stopped the moment his ship sank!

Ice forms on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield while she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia

Only 1 of the 103 ships which sailed in the first 12 convoys to Russia was lost and so huge numbers of supplies reached their destination, so much so that in the Battle of Moscow at the end of 1941 75% of the tanks used by the Russians were British made and had arrived via the convoys. As well as tanks the ships cargos included fighter planes, fuel, ammunition, raw materials, and food. Ships would return to Britain either with ballast or some passengers who were mainly survivors of sunken merchant ships, British servicemen and Russian diplomats.

The convoys were co-ordinated by a control centre in Liverpool. At the heart of the convoy were the merchant ships with the supplies, usually travelling in rows eight abreast. Surrounding these were the warships which offered close protection – destroyers, armed trawlers and anti-aircraft ships. The distant protection was provided by heavy cruisers which would be 30 or 40 miles further out to combat any threat from German surface ships – the German ship Tirptz in particular was in Norwegian waters and considered a constant threat. Sometimes there were also one or two submarines offering protection to the convoy. In the summer months as the ice retreated the convoys would take the route from Iceland (usually off Hvalfjörður) north of Jan Mayen Island to Archangel, but as winter approached and the pack ice increased the convoys would take a more southerly route to Murmansk. From February1942 convoys also assembled and sailed from Loch Ewe* in Scotland.

Loch Ewe during the war

As if the threat of German attacks wasn’t enough the merchant convoys also had to contend with the severe weather conditions of the Arctic Ocean – fog, freezing temperatures which went down to -60, gales with winds of up to 100mph, mountainous waves, strong currents, drift ice, and the difficulties of navigating so close to the North Pole all meant that the loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route. The journey meant days of heightened tension for the sailors, a particular fear was that your ship might sink because if it did there was little hope of rescue as you would only be able to survive for minutes in the freezing waters and the other ships in the convoy needed to keep moving as a unit and so often couldn’t stop to help.

The most infamous convoy was PQ17 which had the distinction of being the first significant joint Anglo-American operation of the war, was the largest arctic convoy to sail, and was also one of the biggest naval disasters of the 20th century.

The convoy of 35 ships in PQ17 assembled at Hvalfjord, Iceland, at the end of June 1942.  One ship grounded when leaving harbour and another was damaged by floating ice and had to withdraw, but the remaining 33 merchant ships headed east for Russia on 27th June. The 33 British and American merchant ships were carrying enough tanks and munitions to equip an army of 50,000 men. By this time Germany had realised that the convoys had to be stopped if they were ever to defeat Russia and so Hitler had increased the number of planes, ships and submarines in Norway. British command recognised the danger and gave PQ17 a massive armed escort – a close escort of 19 ships and a cruiser force of 7 further out. The British were also put in charge of this joint Anglo-American force as they were the only ones with the experience of Arctic convoys. The ships set out at their top speed on a voyage that was expected to take about 10 days, and for the first 7 days there were no major incidents as any U-boats that came close were driven away by the destroyers, and the anti-aircraft ships saw off any German planes. (Film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr served onboard one of the escort ships for PQ17).

USS Wainright

But the massive convoy’s luck did not hold out and disaster struck on 4th July at 8.20 pm when the Germans launched a full assault. The first wave of the attack came from a flight of Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers. The USS Wainright broke ranks, turned away from the convoy and headed off alone to try to shoot down the planes; the heavy fire they gave caused most of the German planes to drop their torpedoes too early or turn back. After this initial success another more persistent wave of bombers came and within a short time 3 merchant ships had been hit with a loss of just 3 German planes. At the same time Naval HQ in London received news from Swedish intelligence that German surface ships had left Norway and were heading for PQ17, they reported that the Tirpitz was with them. The Tirpitz was the most advanced warship in the world with massive armour yet it was fast and had a huge number of colossal guns. The ships protecting the convoy could fire their shells a distance of 16 miles, but the Tirpitz’s guns could hit them from 22 miles away. The convoy stood no chance against such a ship.

Tirpitz

First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound (who was suffering with a brain tumour) had to make a decision – should he order PQ17 to turn back? If he did so it was possible that without the supplies Russia could lose the war, but if he ordered the convoy to continue it was likely to be destroyed and Russia could still lose the war. Pound decided that the Cruiser escort should turn around and return to Britain because they couldn’t take on the Tirpitz and the British could not afford to lose so many ships. The convoy itself should be ordered to disperse and head for Russian ports on their own. His theory was that if the merchantmen remained together the Tirpitz would be able to sink them all, but if they scattered at least some of them should get through. The messages from London created a sense of panic amongst the convoy who were not sure what to do. When the cruiser escort turned around Captain Broome was left in charge of the close escort and took overall control of the convoy, but with the merchant ships scattering in all directions he believed that it would be impossible to protect them so he turned around too, thinking that he could perhaps help the cruisers fight the Tirpitz. The merchant ships were left alone with no protection and 800 miles still to go.

Sir Dudley Pound

The Germans began their main attack on PQ17 with a force of 133 bombers, 12 torpedo planes and 12 U-boats; the unprotected ships were sitting ducks and it was a disaster for the convoy. The attack continued for 2 days with 12 merchant ships lost in the first 24 hours; and during that time there was still no sign of the Tirpitz. First Sea Lord Pound was eventually informed that the Tirpitz was still at anchor in Norwegian waters, there had been no need to abandon the convoy after all.** This is when the most puzzling decision of all was made, rather than bring the convoy back together Pound, for some unknown reason, said it must remain scattered. That order meant the effective end of PQ17.

It was at this point that the hero of Convoy PQ17 appeared. Captain Gradwell was a volunteer sailor who had been a barrister before the war but was now in command of a trawler which had been converted with a couple of guns and depth charges, and whose crew was mainly fishermen. Gradwell decided that the order to abandon the convoy was so bad that he would disobey it and stay with the scattered merchant ships. He found 3 US merchantmen whose officers agreed to follow his trawler as he led them as far north as possible, intending to hide amongst the ice until the attack was over and then head for Archangel. Gradwell didn’t have the charts he needed for the area and so was using a Times Handy Atlas! And he only had a certificate to captain a leisure cruiser in coastal waters! Gradwell took the ships as far north as he could, only stopping when the ice was too thick to go further, then he ordered the crews to paint the ships white and cover the decks with white sheets and tablecloths. At least one German plane flew over but didn’t see the camouflaged ships against the ice. Gradwell then ordered the tanks on deck to be loaded and pointed south to where any enemy would come from. And there the ships waited whilst chaos reigned in the south. When a fog came down Gradwell decided that it was time to try to escape and led the ships back south. On the morning of 25th July, two weeks overdue, Gradwell and the three ships he was escorting arrived in Archangel. Only 11 out of 33 of the convoy’s ships reached the Soviet Union, and 153 men lost their lives on those that were sunk. Captain Gradwell was awarded the DSC for his actions on Convoy PQ17.

Arctic convoys continued to the end of the war and the mistake of scattering the ships in the face of a German attack was never made again; but PQ17 was not the only one of the 78 arctic convoy missions to suffer losses. A total of 104 Allied merchant ships and 18 warships were sunk with the arctic convoys; over 3,000 personnel were killed. Russia also lost 30 merchant ships and an unknown number of personnel. Germany lost 5 surface warships, 31 submarines, and an unknown number of aircraft in her attacks on the convoys.
Over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians by the Arctic convoys including tanks, aircraft, trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines, sheet metal, food, and boots. The supplies were not as vital towards the end of the war but the convoys continued as a symbolic show of unity amongst the Allies.

The role which the convoys played in keeping Russia in the war cannot be overstated, but because they were Merchant Navy those who crewed the merchant ships did not receive a medal at the end of the war. It wasn’t until March 2013 that the role they played was finally recognised and they were awarded the Arctic Star.

*RUSSIAN ARCTIC CONVOY MUSEUM  near Loch Ewe in Scotland. Please take a look at their website, and call in if you are ever in the area – it is a fascinating museum.   There is some interesting video of Loch Ewe here (filmed in 2012 so some information about the museum and medal is out of date).

**Aside from an abortive attempt to intercept PQ12 in March 1942 and a raid on Spitsbergen in September 1943, the Tirpitz spent most of the war in the Norwegian fjords. She was repeatedly attacked by Allied forces and was finally sunk in Tromsø fjord on 12th November 1944 by the RAF.

 

The only thing that ever really frightened Churchill – The Battle of the Atlantic

What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.

A German U-Boat commander tracking a British merchant ship through his periscope during an attack on a convoy, 10-20 June 1942. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194304

The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).

Shipping losses: HMS BARHAM listing to port after being torpedoed by U 331. HMS VALIANT is in the background. Photograph taken from HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194526

The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.

A seaman on watch at sea. Copyright: © IWM. object/205139887

Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.

Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Mk VII depth charge being loaded onto a Mk IV depth charge thrower on board HMS DIANTHUS. Copyright: © IWM.
object/205194536

It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.

On board a destroyer on escort duty Copyright: © IWM. object/205139891

The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.

28 NOVEMBER TO 10 DECEMBER 1941, ON BOARD THE DESTROYER HMS VANOC. (A 6633) The officer of the watch dressed for the weather during an Atlantic winter. Copyright: © IWM. object/205140741

Allied losses during the Battle of the Atlantic

36,200 sailors killed
36,000 merchant seamen killed
3,500 merchant vessels sunk
175 warships sunk
741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost in anti-submarine sorties

1943 (AX 44A) The Dutch tug ZWARTE ZEE tows back to harbour a blazing American freighter, probably the SS FLORA MACDONALD which had been torpedoed by a U-boat in the Atlantic during a convoy from Marshall, Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 May 1943. Copyright: © IWM. object/205133324

Bibliography

The Battle of the Atlantic by Andrew Williams

Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-boat School by Mark Williams

In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic by Spencer Dunmore

The Battle of the Atlantic by Macintyre, Donald.