Articles, History

A Battle for Supplies: The Battle of the Atlantic

Supplies, Resources, and Materiel

War is fought in many ways.  It can be fought in a meeting room in an argument, a shouting match, or a passionate speech in which one side argues with another.  It can be fought on a front line, where steel coffin tanks line a battlefield, and men cross swords, bullets, and wits.  However, what is often not considered is the war of resources, materiel, logistics, and commerce.  So goes the largely forgotten Battle of the Atlantic During World War II.

HMS Courageous moments after being struck by U-29. She will sink soon after this photo is taken.

The U-boat Peril

Much like their former incarnation, the German Kriegsmarine was composed largely of U-boats (submarines).  These U-boats were tasked with the duty of carrying out warfare against the Allies in an attempt to disrupt their war producing power.  On the opening day of World War II, Hitler himself directed Erich Raeder to avoid contact with passenger ships to avoid civilian casualties.  As the war progressed, however, this quickly became inconsequential to the Kriegsmarine.   The opening shot of the Battle of the Atlantic was heard 17 September 1939, when the HMS Courage, flying the British flag, was struck and sunk by the German U-boat U-29.

A relentless onslaught of U-boat fleets, termed "wolf-pack's", began to menace British shipping immediately after this.  Ships were targeted with almost indiscriminate means as a method to strangle British (and early on, French) shipping.  Other Ally shipping industries were also threatened, including the Soviet's, the Polish, and the Brazilian's.  By mid-1940, Italian submarines had joined in the fray in the Atlantic, assisting their German comrades. This combination led to a grave situation in the war for supply and materiel.  Winston Churchill classified as the U-boat as the number one threat to the Allies, describing them as a "peril" that stalked the dark waters of the Atlantic.

Allied convoy sailing for Casablanca in 1942. This convoy included supplies for Operation Torch - the North African Campaign.

The Convoy's of the Atlantic

An intermediate method of protecting ships, supplies, and materiel, was to establish a convoy system.  The benefits of a convoy system are many, including: additional vessels to pick up survivors (if need be), increased chances for supplies to reach their disembarkation point, a natural deterrent against U-boats, and an easier means to protect more important cargo.  However, early convoys were not as well protected as they were later.  These early convoys were only defended within the air defense network of the land.  Sometimes they'd be within deployment range of naval-borne carrier fighters.  Outside of this, the convoy was largely left unprotected.  In an ocean as vast as the Atlantic, as few as only 600 miles may include protection by the Royal Navy or Air Force.

The German's enjoyed this early success and poor planning from the British, particularly when it came to their surface raiders.  The aptly named "First Happy Time", included the sinking of many cargo transports.  The German Navy at the time was centered primarily on two Bismarck class battleships.  Of the entire Kriegsmarine, only these two ships were considered flagships - a fatal flaw in the German's vying for superiority.  The First Happy Time included many U-boat accomplishments, including engagements in the Atlantic and the Arctic.

By 1941, however, the British had begun to enforce better protection of their convoys.  This included adding warships to convoys.  The British discovered quickly that the mere presence of a battleship lowered U-boat engagements on convoys.  Naval aerial reconnaissance also aided the British, scouting for submarines near the surface of the water.  All of this brought a marginal, yet noticeable, decline in ships being lost to the U-boat's.

Dixie Arrow, burning and sinking after being torpedoed by U-71. She sinks near the North Carolina coast in March 1942.

Enter: The United States

In a previous article, I wrote about how Winston Churchill was relieved at the Pearl Harbor attacks.  His reasoning for this was that he knew that the United States was to enter the war as an ally to the British, and with it came a wealth of resources that was not previously available.  There was just one significant problem with breathing that last sigh of relief: the Atlantic Ocean.

Shipping cargo from the United States to Europe was not an easy task.  Logistically speaking, shipping materiel by boat was much more feasible than airlift.  After all, stuffing M4  Sherman tanks, P-38  Lightning aircraft, and other heavy field artillery and ordnance was not something you do aboard a C-47 transport aircraft.  Not only would the quantity of transport aircraft be insurmountable, but the weight of materiel did not make such a feat possible.  As a result, cargo ships were the main go-to.  This proved difficult, as the German's almost immediately began to target American shipping.  Many American boats were sunk within sight of the coastline, in fact.

The majority of U-boat attacks on American shipping in American waters occurred at night, when the silhouette of ships and vessels crossed the lights from American coastal cities.  It was not until mid-late 1942 that the Americans began to implement a blackout for these cities.  German U-boats would come up to the surface, being well beneath the deck of a regular ship, and then shell the ship until it was rendered dead-in-the-water.  Few U-boats torpedoed ships that were near the coast.  The Germans, for this reason were able to claim early victories in their operation's Neuland and Drumbeat.  This cultivated the Second German Happy Time, as loss in Allied shipping reached its peak in 1942 and 1943.  However, the luck that the German's were enjoying was about to come to an end.

Bismarck as she appeared in 1940. The Tirpitz featured an identical design and is the only other ship in the class.

The Shortcoming of the Germans

The Kriegsmarine, the naval wing of the Third Reich's power, was arguably the most underfunded and least considered by Hitler.  The operations in the Atlantic were primarily comprised of Italian and German U-boats, with arguably a handful of surface raiders.  The flagship and pride of the Kriegsmarine were the two Bismarck class battleships.  This included the battleship of the same name.

Battleship Bismarck was destined for damnation early in the Atlantic theater, when the British struck the ship and subsequently sank her in May of 1941.  Her sister ship Tirpitz survived, operating on the high seas in the Atlantic, Arctic, and the Indian Oceans until her fate was sealed in November of 1944.

However, the German's had invested more in their U-boat operations than with their surface raiders.  The Type XXI and XXIII Elektroboot submarines were able to dive faster and cruise faster than their predecessors.  These two revelations represented the crux of German ingenuity in the Kriegsmarine.  Throughout the war, the Germans never applied full efforts to aircraft carriers nor a means to project force into the Atlantic beyond their battleships.  The U-boat was designed to be the superior firepower in the seas to deter the Allies.  Thus, the Kriegsmarine represents a major weak point in the German military structure.

A Hawker Hurricane with rockets ignited aboard a CAM Ship. Of 9 deployments of CAM aircraft, only 1 pilot was lost. 9 German aircraft were defeated.

Allied Defenses

The Allied methods of defense were improvised as situations changed.  This evolved from and was built on the convoy system.  Initially, warships were included in convoys as a means to act as a deterrent.  Later on, this included modifications of merchant ships to include military technology such as aircraft catapults (CAM ships), and Sonar (Q-Ships).  These ships were usually disguised as simple merchant ships, but were capable of launching their own defensive countermeasures against scouting aircraft and U-boats alike.

There were two major breakthroughs that ultimately put the last two nails in the coffin for the German fleet of U-boats: the deciphering of the German naval code, and the introduction of the ASDIC visual representation system for Sonar.

The breaking of this code allowed the Allies to better coordinate U-boat movements, location, armaments, and fuel level.  This put the Allies on the offensive against the U-boats in the Atlantic.  In addition, better visual displays for Sonar in the ASDIC system allowed for better threat recognition.  It also allowed Sonar to be applied in other vessels that previously were not designed with such a feature.  Ships were able to better prepare for contingency operations and, in some cases, avoid contact with U-boat wolf-pack's entirely.

U-2540, the only remaining Type XXIII U-boat. The remaining Type XXIII's were used for target practice in Operation Deadlight.

German Decline

Unlike their adversaries, the German's were faced with the issue of having limited available resources.  Most of their resources and war materiel were being tapped to the maximum extent.  Others were being brought in by railroad car.  The pressure being mounted by the Allies in North Africa, and later southern Europe resulted in the pinching of these commerce channels.  Shipping on the seas posed almost just as great of threat for the German's as it did for the Allies.

After the landing at Normandy, they faced another issue: the dwindling resources available for U-boat production and resupply.  As the Allies began to advance across France, they were overtaking U-boat bases and cutting off the lifelines of these seafaring vessels.  Incidentally, during the Normandy operation, no U-boats opened fire on any Allied vessels.  In fact, only one ship was sunk by the Kriegsmarine.  The superior firepower of the Allied air force, combined with the intense vessel numbers and deception practices, left the U-boats effectively stunned.

By 1944, U-boat losses almost completed closed to Allied shipping losses.  By 1945, more U-boats were sent to the deep than Allied ships - in combat.  Prior to the German surrender, the Germans scuttled many of their own U-boats to prevent capture.  Whatever was left was confiscated by the Allies - mainly the British.  Most of these ships were used for target practice in the 1946 Operation Deadlight.  Only about ten of those U-boats were retained for research or preservation purposes.

British seamen raise the British colors over a surrendered German U-boat U-190 in 1945 - a common sight through the end of May.

The Battle Ends

With the German surrender, the Battle of the Atlantic concluded in May of 1945.  Over 500,000 tons of Allied shipping had been lost, with over 1,000 U-boats sunk or scuttled.  3,700 Allied ships fell prey to German wolf-packs.  The Battle of the Atlantic was not a costly battle by way of casualty by comparison in World War II, with a total of around 100,000 men lost, but was costly in respects to the amount of materiel lost.

In the instance of the German U-boats, many crew went down with their ship.  Scarcely did the Germans have a chance to abandon ship.  Conversely, many times the Allied ships that were lost were able to at least partially abandon ship.  Nearby vessels allowed survivors to quickly be rescued.  As a result, when considering casualty numbers, the rate of loss was far more significant for the Germans than the Allies.  The production capabilities of the Allies, especially when the Americans entered the war, is also a factor when considering losses.  The Americans were capable of putting out one ship in less than a month per crew.  If one considered the number of shipyards, and the number of docks within those shipyards, output was greater than fifty ships per month.  The Germans were unable to meet the Allies in this feat.

Coupled with the German reluctance to embrace naval warfare, Germany's ability to project force into the Atlantic was a ticking timebomb.  The Germans would have eventually succumbed to strangulation at sea by the Allies simply due to the overwhelming production capabilities.  Some historians find themselves at odds with this, however.  In some instances, it is argued that had the Germans continued to wage war in the wolf-pack design, shipping would have eventually died out.  However, at that point, it becomes a war purely fought in the war production plants and shipyards.  Who can outproduce who, and who can do it faster.  In the annals of history the answer was and is: the Allies.

So goes The Battle of the Atlantic.