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Battle for the Atlantic

Battle for the Atlantic
By Dr Gary Sheffield

The Battle of the Atlantic was a fight for Britain's very survival. Winston Churchill, wartime prime minister, claimed that the 'U-boat peril' was the only thing that ever really frightened him during World War Two. Here, Gary Sheffield explains why.

The U-boat peril

Winston Churchill once wrote that, '... the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril'. In saying this, he correctly identified the importance of the threat posed during World War Two by German submarines (the 'Unterseeboot') to the Atlantic lifeline. This lifeline was Britain's centre of gravity'- the loss of which would probably have led to wholesale defeat in the war.

If Germany's U-boats had closed the Atlantic to Allied shipping, the Allies could have lost the entire war [ Photo Above ]

If Germany had prevented merchant ships from carrying food, raw materials, troops and their equipment from North America to Britain, the outcome of World War Two could have been radically different. Britain might have been starved into submission, and her armies would not have been equipped with American-built tanks and vehicles.
Moreover, if the Allies had not been able to move ships about the North Atlantic, it would have been impossible to project British and American land forces ashore in the Mediterranean theatres or on D-Day. Germany's best hope of defeating Britain lay in winning what Churchill christened the 'Battle of the Atlantic'.
Germany had waged a similar campaign in World War One, and in 1917 had come close to defeating Britain. But in spite of this experience neither side was well prepared in 1939. Germany had underestimated the impact of U-boats, and was fighting with only 46 operational vessels, using mostly surface vessels - rather than submarines - to prowl the Atlantic. However, on 3 September 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, the British liner, Athenia was torpedoed by a U-boat. This marked the beginning of the second Battle of the Atlantic.

The menace grows

In the early stages of World War Two, the Royal Navy placed much faith in ASDIC (an early form of sonar) to detect submerged U-boats. The British were largely able to master the surface threat posed by Germany, sinking the pocket battleship Graf Spee in December 1939 and the battleship Bismarck in 1941, but from the summer of 1940 the U-boat menace grew.
This was in part because the conquest by Germany of Norway and France gave the Germans forward bases, which increased the range of the U-boats and also allowed Focke-Wulf FW200 'Kondor' long-range aircraft to patrol over the Atlantic, carrying out reconnaissance for the U-boats and attacking Allied shipping.
The British were consequently forced to divert their own shipping away from vulnerable. U-123, led by Reinhard Hardegan, took part in the highly successful 'Operation Drumbeat'
UK ports, and were faced with the need to provide convoys with naval escorts for greater stretches of the journey to North America. The Royal Navy was critically short of escort vessels, although this problem was eased somewhat by the arrival of 50 old American destroyers that President Roosevelt gave in return for bases in British territory in the West Indies

U-boats, supplemented by mines, aircraft and surface ships, succeeded in sinking three million tons of Allied shipping between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year. Admiral, Donitz the commander of the U-boat arm, introduced the 'wolfpack' tactic at the end of 1940, whereby a group of submarines would surface and attack at night, thus greatly reducing the effectiveness of ASDIC
Not surprisingly, the German submariners called this phase of the war the 'happy time'. This remorseless attrition of merchant shipping was a far greater threat to Britain's survival than the remote possibility of the Kriegsmarine landing German troops on the English coast.

Learning to fight back - with ships

The British survived this period through a number of factors, including the development of improved tactics. Corvettes, small warships of less than 1000 tons, helped to plug the gaps in the Royal Navy's escort capability, and the Allied occupation of Iceland, which belonged to German-occupied Denmark, gave Britain some valuable Atlantic bases
The emergence of powerful allies was also vital. The Royal Canadian Navy, which was tiny in 1939, began an amazing period of growth that eventually made it capable of bearing a substantial part of the fighting in the North Atlantic. Even more importantly, the United States, although neutral, began to behave in a most un-neutral fashion.
From May 1941 the US Navy became a British ally in the struggle in the Atlantic. By taking over escort duties in the western Atlantic,

U-boat crews could be away from port for many weeks at a time

It became a shooting war with Germany, and on Halloween 1941, the inevitable happened. While escorting a British convoy, an American warship, the destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine U-562
This was at a time when Roosevelt still faced fierce opposition from isolationists within the USA, and escort duties in the Battle of the Atlantic had so far been the most that the President could do to bring the USA into the war on the British side. However, eventually this undeclared German-American naval war probably played a role in Hitler's decision to declare war on the USA - in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

The role of aeroplanes

Apart from ships, two other factors played a vital role in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic. The first was the aeroplane. One of the major problems faced by the Allies in the early years of the war was the existence of a 'mid-Atlantic gap', an area that could not be reached by friendly aircraft.
It was crucial to find a way of reaching this area, as simply by flying over the sea, aeroplanes could force submarines to submerge and cease activity, and they could, of course, counter the Kondor. Early in the war, fighter aircraft such as the 'Hurricane' could be carried to the mid-Atlantic, and catapulted from the decks of specially adapted ships (known as Catapult Aircraft Merchant ships, or CAMs), although these were 'one-shot weapons', the planes having to ditch in the sea afterwards. Light escort carriers, also capable of carrying aircraft, entered service in September 1941, and these were a major step forward.
The role of long-range aircraft such as the American 'Catalina' flying boat was also crucial for the battle in the mid-Atlantic area, although there is a big question mark over whether the Allies made the best use of their available aircraft.
The B-24D 'Liberator', a very-long-range aircraft, was the victim of a power struggle within the RAF. At first it was used only for the strategic bombing of Germany, the dominant strategy within the RAF at that time, and was only released to Coastal Command towards the end of 1942.
The argument of 'Bomber' Harris had been that the RAF's most useful contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic was to bomb the U-boat pens and production facilities on land - a view that was, and remains, deeply controversial. By the second half of 1943, however, as these longer-range aircraft were released for the sea battle, the mid-Atlantic gap was at last being satisfactorily covered.
The role of intelligence
Intelligence was the other major factor in this second Battle of the Atlantic. Both sides at various times were able to read the signal traffic of the other. Britain's ability to break the Enigma codes, and the resulting 'Ultra' intelligence was a priceless advantage, particularly after the Royal Navy (not, as a recent Hollywood movie would have one believe, the Americans) seized an Enigma machine from a captured U-boat in May 1941. Armed with information about where U-boats were patrolling, the British were able to move convoys in safe areas, away from the wolfpacks.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill re-introduced the convoy system in 1939,

However, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park had a constant battle to keep their information current. German changes to the naval Enigma code at the beginning of 1942 led to a rise in Allied sinkings, as the flow of Ultra intelligence temporarily ceased.
This problem was compounded by the fact that although the USA had entered the war, it did not immediately put into place some protective measures - such as introducing convoys, and 'blacking out' coastal towns. A handful of U-boats operating on the North American and Caribbean seaboards area in the first half of 1942 accounted for nearly 500 Allied ships. The period of this campaign, called Operation Drumbeat, was the second 'happy time' for the German submariners.

The crisis

The crisis of the Battle of the Atlantic came in early 1943. Donitz 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. Mass production of Liberty Ships in US shipyards, however, helped to ensure that the Allies would win this race.
At sea, the situation was saved by aggressive anti-submarine tactics, by new technology - better weapons and radio, the long-range aircraft Liberator being equipped with centimetric radar - and, eventually, by a revived Ultra intelligence.
By April the U-boats were clearly struggling to make an impact. Even worse, from Hitler's point of view, was the fact that Allied sinkings of German submarines began to escalate, with 45 being destroyed in the months of April and May. Donitz recognising that the U-boat's moment had passed, called off the battle on 23 May 1943.
This was not the end of the threat in the Atlantic, but thereafter it was greatly diminished. After his withdrawal, Hitler insisted on keeping troops on the Baltic coastline, even after they had been cut off by advancing Soviet troops, in order to maintain possession of a testing ground for new types of U-boats. By the end of the war, the Germans had indeed produced new types of 'super-submarines', the Types XXI and XXIII, and these would have been very dangerous had they been introduced earlier.
The Battle of the Atlantic was one of the longest campaigns of World War Two, and it was proportionally among the most costly. Between 75,000 and 85,000 Allied seamen were killed.
About 28,000 - out of 41,000 - U-boat crew were killed during World War Two, and some two-thirds of these died in the course of the Battle of the Atlantic. The stakes could not have been higher. If the U-boats had prevailed, the western Allies could not have been successful in the war against Germany.


'Germany's best hope of defeating Britain lay in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.'

'U-boats succeeded in sinking three million tons of Allied shipping ...

The United States, although neutral, began to behave in a most un-neutral fashion.'

There is a big question mark over whether the Allies made the best use of their available aircraft.'

'A handful of U-boats ... accounted for nearly 500 Allied ships.'

'By April the U-boats were clearly struggling to make an impact.'

Find out more

The Battle of the Atlanticby Andrew Williams (BBC Worldwide, 2002)
Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-boat School by Mark Williams (Cassell, 1979)
In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic by Spencer Dunmore (McClelland & Stewart, 2000

Bombers Sink Troopship Lancastria

The 'Lancastria' - a Secret Sacrifice in World War Two

By Raye Dancocks

When the British troop ship 'Lancastria' was sunk in June 1940, some 5,000 people died - but news of the disaster was kept from the British public. Raye Dancocks explains how this has meant that the sacrifice of the ship's crew has not been fully recognised


In June 1922 the Tyrrenhia took her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Canada. She was an elegant vessel with two masts and a single funnel, and throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s was a ship of peaceful pleasure. No one liked her name - she quickly became known as the 'Soup Tureen' - and in early February 1924 she changed it to the Lancastria. What the fates made of the change, only time would tell - it is supposed to be very unlucky to change a God-given name, and sailors feel that the naming of a ship is as good as a christening.

This is an account of what befell the ship that changed its name, seen partly through the eyes of two survivors of the bombing raid which would sink the Lancastria, taking an estimated 5,000 people to their deaths.

The eyewitness accounts are taken from the BBC South documentary 'Lancastria - a Secret Sacrifice'. The programme includes War Office archive film of the wounded returning home, which was top secret at the time of the disaster.

RMS Lancastria became HMT Lancastria when she was commandeered for war, and her sleek Cunard lines were lost under a coat of battleship grey. During the first few months of war she was busily engaged in cargo and transport duties in the North Atlantic, her massive cargo capacity proving ideal for the task. When the Norwegian campaign began, the Lancastria was set aside for troop-carrying but was kept back until needed to evacuate troops from Harstaad. She returned to Britain with her public rooms crammed with dejected weary soldiers. En route, she was spotted by a high-flying German aircraft and, although they attacked, the bombs missed and she sailed safely home. Was she a lucky ship after all? The troops disembarked at Glasgow and, after transporting men to Iceland, the Lancastria returned to her home port of Liverpool for a much needed refit.

Red Alert

The crew had already been paid off when the telegram came ordering the Lancastria to be ready to sail with Operation Aerial and, together with other vessels, she made for Plymouth where the vessel was given orders to sail for western France. She was guided into the sea lanes of the Loire estuary, and anchored some 10 miles off St Nazaire at about 06.00 hrs on Monday 17 June. It was a beautiful misty summer morning.

Almost immediately, exhausted troops and some civilians began to arrive and were given little tickets, like bus tickets, with their cabin and deck number. Some were given spaces in the vast holds of the ship, where they laid down to rest and were asleep in just a few minutes. Throughout the morning troops arrived and seemed to fill every available space. Some had their first hot meal in weeks; some remained on deck watching still more people come aboard. There were units from the Army and RAF as well as civilians - men, women and young children.

At about 13.00 hrs the red alert sounded and a dive bomber was seen to attack the Oronsay which was some distance off. The bomber scored a direct hit on the bridge area, but it did not render the ship unseaworthy. Those on the deck of the Lancastria feared the worst: the enemy was sure to return. By this time the ship had taken some 6,000 people on board and more kept coming. At around 15.00 hrs Captain Sharp decided that enough was enough, but that to sail straight away would court disaster - he would rather wait for an escort.

The final moments

At about 15.50 hrs the enemy returned. Bombs were seen to straddle the ship, one bomb exploding close to the port side, rupturing her almost full fuel tanks. The black oil oozed into the sea, creating a dark, deathly cloud.

Immediately, the ship began a perilous roll from port to starboard and back again, further bombs struck home, one penetrating the holds that were crammed with troops. Of the RAF personnel aboard - from 73 Squadron and 98 Squadron - very few survived. The ship rolled onto her port side, down by the bow. Those who could, took to the water to try and swim though the black cloud of oil that here and there showed licks of flame.

Non-swimmers took to the water with whatever seemed to be able to keep them afloat. Some lifeboats were lowered but, on many, the davits could not be released because of the angle of the ship. Those still on board what was now an upturned hull watched as the enemy returned to strafe both those struggling for life on the hull and those in the sea. They sang in defiance at the tops of their voices 'Roll out the Barrel' and 'There'll always be an England'. The ship's siren wailed and by 16.10 hrs, in just 20 minutes, the Lancastria slipped beneath the waves.

News blackout

Then there was the silence, a silence louder than the clamour of exploding bombs and guns. So ended the life of a beautiful ship and the lives of thousands of men, women and children. No one will ever know the exact number who died that day - some say there were as many as 9,000 on board by the time the Lancastria was bombed, others estimate 7,000. All we do know is that around 6,000 were on board by 13.00 hrs, and that many more arrived after that. Only 2,447 arrived home.

The rescue began with all kinds of vessels - from small fishing boats to destroyers of the Royal Navy - picking up survivors, more like oily flotsam than people. The bodies of those who died that day were washed up along the French coast during the coming months and were given Christian burials by the French people, who bravely ignored the German presence and cared for the victims as their own.

Churchill immediately hid the news from the public. In 1940, after Dunkirk, to reveal the truth would have been too damaging for civilian morale. He said, 'The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today, at least.' Since that time the disaster has never been recognised for what it was - the greatest maritime disaster in Britain's history. More people were killed on the Lancastria than on the Titanic and Lusitania put together.


In many ways the survivors feel that their sacrifice and the ultimate sacrifice of those that share the Lancastria as their final resting place is not valued, simply because it is not recognised. Slowly but surely that sacrifice is becoming known and more widely recognised.

Harry Pettit from Hampshire, who was then a 24-year-old private, and Welshman Henry Harding, who was 19 at the time of the disaster, both survived the catastrophe.

Henry, who still has the watch he was wearing as the bombs fell, which stopped at five minutes past four (the time he decided to jump into the water), talks emotionally about his memories of the ship sinking

He describes seeing thousands of men cling desperately to the hull of the ship which sank in just 20 minutes, saying: 'I remember there were thousands of voices singing "Roll Out The Barrel" and "There'll Always Be An England", and for years afterwards I could not stand the sound of those two songs. I was turned around in the water and the next that I saw, nothing. Thousands had gone to a watery grave and I will always remember it, I can't ever forget it.'

The struggle for recognition

Although some photographs appeared in the American press late in the summer of 1940, and were then published in the UK, the full story of the Lancastria never came out.

Harry Pettit and Henry Harding, who both served in the Royal Army Service Corps, are angry that there has never been any official recognition of the sacrifice and bravery of their comrades.

Harry says: 'What I feel strongly about is that hundred and hundreds, possibly thousands, of people lost close relatives in that tragedy and nobody told them what had happened. It shouldn't have been left to someone like me to go out and help these people in this way. It's a bad show.'

Harry has worked hard to publicise the story, and has been successful in filling in the gaps for up to 200 people about the fate of their loved ones.

In the summer of 2000, Harry and Henry, 24 other survivors and many more relatives of victims made a last pilgrimage to St Nazaire and back to the site of the wreck, which is now an official war grave.

Remembering those lost on the Lancastria

Memories of the 'Lancastria' are still painful to those involved in the catastrophe Of the 2,477 men rescued from the Lancastria, about 100 are still alive today. There are many families in England who never knew of the fate of their loved ones in western France in June 1940, only that they died with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

The original HMT Lancastria Association was founded by a survivor, Major C V Petit. After his death, the Association was later renewed in its current form by some of the other survivors, and children of survivors. Today, it continues under the leadership of a Committee with the aim of remembering and honouring all those who lost their lives in the Lancastria disaster, and helping those survivors who did return.The Association has in some cases been able to confirm to some families that their family member was indeed on the Lancastria, and has accompanied that family to a grave in western France, so that at last they are able to say their farewell. On the first Sunday after 17 June, each year, an annual remembrance service takes place in St Katharine Cree church, in Leadenhall Street, London.

This article is based on an account of the sinking, by Raye Dancocks, Chairman of the HMT Lancastria Association.

Books on this disaster

The Last Voyage of the 'Lusitania' by AA Hoehling and Mary Hoehling (1996)

Wartime Disasters at Sea by David Williams (1997)