Control of the Atlantic shipping lanes was key to both an Allied and an Axis victory - luckily for the Allies, victory smiled upon them.
It is easy to overlook the Atlantic Theater of War when considering the major battlefronts of the Second World War. But it becomes no less important to the student when he/she realizes the importance of the men and women that fought for control of these vital shipping lanes between North America and Europe.The U-boat scourge was one of the more deadly components of the German war machine, a component utilized in the First World War as well, and became the greatest fear of merchant captains traversing the long causeways of the Atlantic Ocean.
Germany understood the important of resupply to Great Britain. As an island nation, Britain would be under intense pressure to capitulate would it not be able to keep its fighting forces, fed, clothes, supplied with ammunition and parts. Equally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood the vital nature of the lanes between the UK and its American brethren. The New World, it seems, would be largely responsible for keeping the Old one afloat.
Similarly, the Soviet Union would soon come to depend on the shipping lanes for equally vital supplies and war-making implements such as fighters and tanks coming from America - this of course after Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union through Operation Barbarossa came to pass.
Nevertheless, as it stood, German Admiral Karl Donitz took command of the of the U-boat fleet in 1935. He fully understood the implications of Atlantic control and forged his fleet into a cohesive fighting force bent on annihilating the support structure to Europe. His directives included the tactic of "Wolf Packs" in which multiple German submarines would engage an enemy ship or convoy in unison, causing all sorts of calculated havoc and - ultimately - victory. Additionally, merchant ships of the time were unarmed, making them juicy targets to those lying in wait.
However, German blunders prevailed in developing a substantial undersea force for Donitz by September of 1939. Authorities placed an emphasis on the construction of surface vessels instead, forcing the U-boat fleet to number just 56 completed ships instead of the 300 or so envisioned by this time. Additionally, only about 22 of these submarines were actually built for the rough life of deep ocean diving - the rest being nothing more than coastal patrol vessels with limited capability.
The British liner Athenia became the first U-boat casualty, en route from Glasgow to Montreal, and resulted in the loss of 112 souls on September 3rd, 1939. Two days later, the Bosnia became the first merchant ship to fall to the U-boats. The "convoy system" was devised by the Allies and enacted the next day. Merchant vessels were now armed for the task and given orders to ram German warships if the situation presented itself. These actions, in Donitz's eyes, constituted an open-attack policy on any merchant vessel operating in the Atlantic.
Though still operating in limited numbers, the U-boats made their presence felt. Targets of opportunity initially became single ships and then graduated to unprotected convoys. As the plunder grew, so too did the German's area of operations west of Ireland.
1940 and the Fall of France added all-new origination ports for the German Kriegsmarine. Now U-boats could operate from these locations closer to the Atlantic Theater. Additionally, the German Luftwaffe was upgraded with longer-ranged maritime reconnaissance aircraft that could not only mark targets for the U-boats, but also tackle them through their own anti-ship measures. U-boats now had unprecedented reach throughout the vast ocean lanes, forcing the Allies to restructure their travel plans and put old battleships into service for interim protection. The signing of the Lend-Lease Act by the United States allowed for military assistance to Britain and the Soviet Union, helping matters somewhat. Despite this, U-boat "aces" were being born and thousands of tons of goods were lost to the ocean.
The Allies turned to ingenuity and developed several systems of note. Powerful searchlights, anti-ship patrol aircraft on escort carriers and radio transmission interceptors all began working against the U-boat fleet. While 1941 saw nearly 500 Allied ships and over 2.4 million tons of goods lost, 1942 was even worse with over 1,000 ships and nearly 5.5 million tons of goods lost.
However, by March of 1943, the golden age of the German U-boat - and any advantage they held - was undone. Allied tactics improved thanks to technology, experience and execution. U-boats were increasingly targeted as were their all-important bases of origination. The RAF succeeded in disrupting such operations along the coast of France and the successful June 1943 D-Day invasions removed these German Navy bases from contention altogether. The commission-to-loss rate of the U-boat fleet became unsupportable - with 98 new boats placed online to try and replace the 123 or so lost.
Despite the fleet numbering some 400-strong, the U-boat scourge was all but over. As Allied forces made headway throughout Africa, Italy and France, the tide had turned on the Germans in more ways than one. The U-boat capacity was one such casualty for the Germans and a major (as well as critical) victory for the Allied cause.
Arguably the most important battle of World War 2 had now come to a close.
October 18th - October 19th
January 1st - March 1st
June 1st - June 30th
May 1st - May 31st
April 1st - April 30th
• Sink the Bismarck!
• The Invasion of Crete
• Operation Barbarossa
• The Arctic Convoys
• The Siege of Leningrad
• The Battle of Sevastopol
• Soviet Offensive - Battle for Russia
• The Attack on Pearl Harbor
• Japanese Conquest of the Pacific
• Operation Blue
• The Battle of Coral Sea
• From Gazala to Tobruk
• The Battle of Midway
• Operation Jubilee
• The Battle of El Alamein
• The Solomon Islands
• Operation Torch
• Kokoda Trail
• The Landings at Anzio
• Monte Cassino
• "Big Week"
• D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy
• The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot
• Operation Bagration
• Beyond Normandy
• The Warsaw Uprising
• Operation Market Garden
• The Battle of the Bulge
EVENTS BY WAR YEAR:
EVENTS BY DAY OF THE WEEK:
• New Zealand
• South Africa
• Soviet Union
• United States
©2014 www.SecondWorldWarHistory.com • Content ©2006-2014 SecondWorldWarHistory.com • All Rights Reserved • Site Contact Email: secondworldwarhistory at gmail dot com (replace "at" with "@" and "dot" with ".")
Most photographic images appearing on this site are courtesy of the public domain. Digital art work courtesy of Dan Alex. Material presented throughout this website is for historical and entertainment value.