The Battle of the Atlantic is one of the most overlooked battlegrounds of World War 2 but it proved no less important for control of vital shipping lanes between North America and Europe.The German U-boat scourge was one of the more deadlier components of the German war machine, a component utilized in World War 1 as well. The U-boat became the greatest threat to merchantmen traversing the long, open causeways of the Atlantic Ocean for most of the war.
Germany understood the important of resupply to the island nation of Great Britain. If Britain were to lose its importing, she would under intense pressure and unable to keep fresh its fighting forces through food, clothing, supplies, ammunition and automotive parts. Equally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood the vital nature of the lanes between the UK and its American allies for The New World - it seems - would play an important role in keeping The Old World afloat.
Similarly, the Soviet Union would come to depend on the Atlantic shipping lanes for the vital supplies and various war-making implements such as fighters and tanks incoming from America - this of course after Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union through "Operation Barbarossa" in June of 1941.
As it stood, German Admiral Karl Donitz took command of the of the U-boat fleet in 1935. He fully took to heart the value of Atlantic control and forged his fleet into a cohesive fighting force bent on annihilating the support structure that resupplied Europe. His directives included the tactic known as "Wolf Packs" in which multiple German submarines would engage an enemy ship or convoy in concert, causing all sorts of calculated havoc and - ultimately - victory. Additionally, merchant ships of the time were unarmed, making them rather juicy targets to those submarines 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 and combat - 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 then devised by the Allies and put into effect the next day. Merchant vessels were also now armed for the task and given orders to ram German warships if the scenario presented itself. These decisions, in Donitz's eyes, allowed for an " open-attack" policy on any Allied 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 1944 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 battlefront of World War 2 was now contained in favor of the Allies. ©www.SecondWorldWarHistory.com
There are a total of (27) entries in the Timeline of the Battle of the Atlantic (September 3rd, 1939 - May 7th, 1945). Entries are listed below by earliest date to latest date.