From 1939 to 1943 the fierce, relentless Battle of the Atlantic between the Allies and Nazi Germany was one of the most crucial confrontations in modern military history.
According to writer and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, if the Atlantic lifeline, which enabled the United States to deliver food, oil and industrial and military materials to England, was severed, then all of Europe — and eventually, perhaps, North America — would have come under Hitler's domination.
Dimbleby, author of Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People (2010) and Destiny in the Desert: The Road to El Alamein (2013), focuses in his new work, The Battle of the Atlantic, mainly upon the deadly German U-boat threat in the first half of World War II. By war's end, an appalling 3,000 Allied vessels had been sunk and 30,000 Allied seamen had perished. Germany too paid a terribly high price: 75 percent of all its officers and men — 27,000 souls — in action in the Atlantic died.
However, while the U-boats severely jeopardized England's very survival, at the war's start in 1939 the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, took few steps to directly counter the onslaught. German battleships and destroyers were his chief concern, and in the following year, as prime minister, he came to believe that the aggressive use of air power — the bombing of German industrial centers and civilian populations — was the key to winning the war.
Dimbleby carefully examines the German side of the Battle of the Atlantic. He informs us that it was Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who was the chief proponent of the U-boat war of attrition, which, he believed, would eventually starve out Britain.
Using diaries and letters from participants, the author vividly describes the Battle of the Atlantic in harrowing human terms. We meet Barbara Bailey, the 34-year-old daughter of a London lawyer and a passenger aboard the SS Athenia when it was torpedoed on Sept. 3, 1939, by U-30 just hours after the declaration of war. She was present as 118 people died — some "hysterical," some "too stunned to move," according to a witness — as the Athenia reared up and slid under the waves.
We observe the British battleship HMS Royal Oak as, on Oct. 14, 1939, it is torpedoed by U-47 in the Shetland Islands' Scapa Flow. Within moments Surgeon-Lieutenant Dick Caldwell found himself clinging to the hull, then falling into the water where "I gulped … filthy … black oil that smarted my eyes. I … floundered … heard cries round me, saw black heads bobbing." Eight hundred and thirty-three of his comrades on the Royal Oak drowned.
Through Dimbleby's highly detailed account of the battle we also learn what it was like to be in a submerged U-boat while it experienced a prolonged enemy depth charge bombardment. After attacking four Allied vessels in June 1940, Commander Otto Kretschmer was forced to submerge his U-99 to 700 feet — 150 feet below the ship's maximum depth — because of a passing Allied convoy above.
Over and over, Dimbleby tells us the depth charges continued to assault the shuddering ship — for 14 hours. At the bottom of the sea, with U-99's power batteries almost drained and fearing the crushing outside pressure, the captain tensely wrote "Each noise was strange, and every roll and crack inside the U-boat seemed to herald the end."
And there are horrific lifeboat tales, such as the one of the survivors of the September 1940 City of Benares sinking, in which six young boys spent eight days in the Atlantic. Or the terrible Arctic Sea survival tale involving a lifeboat from the British warship Hartlebury, sunk by U-355 in July 1942. Languishing for 25 days on a frigid sea, 20 men slowly froze to death in their boat.
The Battle of the Atlantic eventually would be won through President Franklin Roosevelt's March 1941 Lend-Lease Program, in which the United States "loaned" warships and bases to England, and through the use of navy warships as protective escorts for merchant vessels in convoys. Also, in the spring of 1943, Churchill and Royal Air Force chiefs finally embraced the idea of using bombers to defend Allied shipping. These actions would not only win the Atlantic battle, but would pave the way for the June 6, 1944, invasion of Europe (D-day) and ultimate victory in Europe in May 1945.
Definitive and filled with human drama, The Battle of the Atlantic is "must read" military history.