The Battle of the Atlantic played a very significant part in World War Two. In World War Two, after the escape at Dunkirk and the inspiration of the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was Britain’s next nightmare.
As an island Britain needed to bring in a vast amount of food and military equipment to survive the war.
The German submarine force (U-boats) severely damaged our ability to survive the war – hence Churchill’s quote above when he feared we would be starved out of the war.
A great deal of our raw materials came from America and therefore had to cross the Atlantic. In normal times this journey could be hazardous because of the weather but in the war the German submarines lead by Admiral Raeder proved a very real threat. Nazi Germany estimated that they needed to sink 150 merchant ships each month to starve us out.
German submarines hunted in what were called wolf-packs. British supply ships crossed in convoys and the ships that brought in our food etc. were slow and they could barely protect themselves. After leaving America they were reasonably safe while in American water and they were also more safe when they approached British waters as we could give the ships fighter plane cover. It was in the mid-Atlantic that we were at our most vulnerable and where to start with the U-boats could run riot.
German submarines had direct access to the Atlantic once France had fallen in the spring of 1940. Massive submarine pens were built near Bordeaux and the impact they had can be seen from the following figures :
So how did Britain survive this onslaught?
1) New ships were developed called corvettes which were very lightly armoured which made them much faster but very heavily armed with depth charges and also with ASDIC which enabled all corvettes to hear submarines underwater.
2) Ironically bad weather helped us as submarines could not shoot torpedoes when there was a heavy swell and thus the merchant ships were safer during storms.
3) The invention of new ‘planes such as the Short Sunderland helped as it gave convoys valuable air cover and a submarine has to be near the surface to use torpedoes and as such becomes a sitting target for ‘planes guarding a convoy.
What was it like to serve on a convoy ?
“There was a stir about 7:15 a.m. when the first person climbed from his hammock. There was no need to dress, as we slept in our clothes. The first one to rise made the tea. The bread, biscuits and jam was a help-yourself arrangement. The bread had to be vigorously shaken to be rid of the cockroaches.
During the morning those on duty went on watch, other cleaned the mess (living area) and prepared the midday meal. Into a large pot was put tinned stewing steak, peas, beans and fresh potatoes and water. Those who were off duty caught up on lost sleep, as we very seldom had more than four hours at a stretch. Others sat around talking in undertones. If the weather was fine it was time to get some fresh air on the upper deck. This was also the time for washing – there were no baths or showers.
Supper was taken at 6:00 p.m. This was usually herrings or baked beans and bread.”
R.T. Brown who served on the “Volunteer”.
“It was sheer unmitigated Hell (being in a storm). Even getting food from the galley (kitchen) to the forecastle (at the front of the ship) was a tremendous job. The mess-decks were usually a shambles and the wear and tear on the bodies and tempers was something I shall never forget.”
An officer on the “New Westminster”
“Narvia” was torpedoed with an ear-shattering roar and the deck bucked and heaved violently under my feet. A huge tower of black smoke, tons of water and debris was flung into the air just forward of the bridge.
The ship was taking water fast, the deck soon awash. The order was given to abandon ship and the lifeboats were launched.
We pulled away from the ship, but then saw another lifeboat released with a splash into the water and several men jump after it, where they clung desperately and shouted for help. We saw the raft drift slowly forward along the ship’s side, and, to our horror, we watched helplessly as a great in-rush of water sucked the raft and its occupants into the hole blasted into the ship’s side by the torpedo. Even now I can still hear the screams of the men inside the hull. But then they were swept out again, by which time we were much closer and could drag men to safety in our boat. One of them, as if in gratitude, became violently sick all over me.”
An officer who was on duty on the “Narvia” when she was hit and sank.