BMMHS Afternoon Zoom Talk: The Battle of the Atlantic; The Turning Point

The Battle of the Atlantic; The turning point

Speaker: Robin Brodhurst

Zoom Meeting 14th Dec 2021

Tuesday 14th December 2021; 2:00pm

The Battle of the Atlantic; The Turning point

The importance of the Battle of the Atlantic was summarised by the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, when he said (on more than one occasion)

“If we lose the war at sea, we lose the war”.

Without victory in the Atlantic there could have been no invasion of mainland Europe. The crisis of the battle came in the spring of 1943 when merchant shipping losses reached a peak of 538,000 tons in March.

Yet within 3 months that had been reduced to 28,000 tons, and in May and June 57 U-boats had been sunk. What had caused this dramatic turn around?

This paper offers a number of causes, all of which came ‘on stream’ at about the same time. This victory was very much an Allied one, and deserves to be celebrated.

General view showing the convoy gathering at the anchorage. © IWM (A 7219)
Convoy gathering at the anchorage. © IWM (A 7219)

‘… the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’.

Winston Churchill

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was  “longest, largest, and most complex”  naval battle in history, lasting 2074 days: from 3 September 1939, the day war was declared, to 7 May 1945, the day Germany surrendered. Allied ships were sunk with loss of life in the Atlantic on both those days, and on nearly every day in between.

The Scale of the Battle

It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theatre covering millions of square miles of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining advantage as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures and equipment were developed by both sides. 

Atlantic Convoy Crisis

The crisis of the Battle of the Atlantic came in early 1943. Dönitz, by this time commander of the German Navy, now had 200 operational U-boats. British supplies, especially of oil, were running out, and it became a question of whether Allied shipyards could build merchant ships fast enough to replace the tonnage that was being sunk. 

Convoy Operations

Savoia Marchetti SM 79 during an attack on a convoy bound for Malta. © IWM (IWM FLM 3795)
An ammunition ship exploding. 19 OCTOBER 1942. © IWM (A 12273)

The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, overcoming German surface raiders by the end of 1942 and defeating the U-boats by mid-1943, though losses due to U-boats continued until the war’s end.

Western Approaches Command

The Battle of the Atlantic: The Turning Point
The Western Approaches Command Operations Room at Derby House, in Liverpool, with its large map on which small symbols and flags show every move in the Battle of the Atlantic. © IWM (A 4527)
The Battle of the Atlantic; The turning point
The steel door bearing the words "Secret, No Admittance", through which the staff directing the Battle of the Atlantic operations go down to the Operations Room in Derby House, in Liverpool. © IWM (A 4525)

Defeating the U-boats

U 673 being hunted with depth charges in April 1944, Depth 240m. Source Lara Winkelsdork @winkelsdorf

Photos from the U-Boat War

Biographical notes – Robin Brodhurst

Robin Brodhurst

Robin Brodhurst was educated at Marlborough College, RMA Sandhurst, Goldsmiths’ College, London and Cambridge Universities. He served for 6 years as an officer in the Royal Green Jackets, and then, after university as a mature student, became a History teacher, ending as Head of History for 22 years at Pangbourne College.

He has published Churchill’s Anchor, a biography of Dudley Pound, and edited The Bramall Papers. He is working on editing a collection of his grandfather’s correspondence with Sir Donald Bradman as well as a volume of documents on Anglo-American Naval Relations between 1939 and 1941. He is a keen cricketer and jazz enthusiast and lives in Newbury.

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