The Battle of the Atlantic was, according to Sir Winston Churchill, the most important campaign of the entire Second World War.
“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” is the quote from the wartime premier which opens ‘Churchill’s Greatest Fear: The Battle of the Atlantic’, the compelling new work by Londonderry historian Richard Doherty, published this week.
The Battle of Britain, the D-Day landings and, of course, the Dambusters, may be the campaigns which have captured the imagination of filmmakers over the years, but Doherty makes a strong case for the failure of the German High Command to win the war at sea as the fundamental reason for the Allies’ ultimate victory.
It is a highly researched and extremely detailed argument which covers the conflict in the Atlantic which the author dates from 3 September 1939 to 7 May 1945 - in other words, the entire length of the Second World War.
The reason Doherty believes the Battle of the Atlantic was so significant was the failure of the German High Command to comprehend just how vulnerable the island nation Britain was in the build-up to the conflict.
“Hitler’s Germany should have appreciated the potential of submarines, but other than a few naval officers, the high command was blind to the strategic possibilities of submarine warfare,” he writes in his introduction.
“Hitler failed to see that the U-bootwaffe could be a war-winning weapon.
“Thus, in 1939, Germany had only a small U-boat fleet and a maritime policy that places more importance on surface ships, a shortsightedness that deprived the Third Reich of its best chance of defeating Britain since most of what Britain needed for basic survival was imported.
“Germany entered the war with fewer than fifty U-boats, including short-range coastal boats unable to operate in the Atlantic. But even that small fleet inflicted severe damage on Britain’s merchant shipping - and on the Royal Navy - and held the advantage until May 1943 when the balance swung against them through the conflation of several factors - tactics, escort ships, air cover, weaponry, detection systems, plus the courage and dedication of merchant seamen and the crews of the Allied navies.
“May 1943 was not the end. The Battle of the Atlantic raged until the final days of the war and the U-bootwaffe’s final victim, Avondale Park, was sunk by U-2336 on 7 May 1945, the day before VE Day.”
As with any World War Two history ‘Churchill’s Greatest Fear’ has its roots in the 1914-18 conflict and Doherty begins his chronological examination of the conflict with the development of submarine technology by both British and the Germans at the start of the 20th Century.
The villain of the piece, Admiral Karl Donitz, looms large throughout, from his entry into the Kaiser’s navy as a cadet in 1910 to his order to cease hostilities to all U-boat commanders on May 4 1945.
Doherty reprints that message in full:
“My U-boat men!
“Six years of U-boat war lie behind us. You have fought like lions.
“A crushing material superiority has forced us into a narrow area. A continuation of our fight from the remaining bases is no longer possible.
“U-boat men! Undefeated and spotless you lay down your arms after a heroic battle without equal. We remember in deep respect our fallen comrades, who have sealed with death their loyalty to the Fuhrer and Fatherland.
“Comrades! Preserve your U-boat spirit, with which you have fought courageously, stubbornly and imperturbably though the years for the good of the Fatherland.
“Long live Germany!”
Doherty notes, though: “Donitz’s assertion that his men had been undefeated was countered by Admiral Sir Max Horton who ordered a formal surrender of the U-boat fleet at the Royal Navy’s most important escort base, Londonderry in Northern Ireland.
“On Monday 14 May a small flotilla of eight U-boats, flying White Ensigns, with skeleton crews under Royal Navy guard, escorted by HMS Hesperus, HMCS Thetford Mines and USS Paine, sailed up Lough Foyle into the river Foyle and the jetty at Lisahally where their commanding officers stepped ashore to surrender to Horton.
“The Germans were then taken to the nearby railway halt at Lisahally to board a train that would take them to a prisoner of war camp.”
Doherty’s interest in the Battle of the Atlantic goes back to his childhood in Londonderry and although he has published 27 works, mainly on the Second World War, this is the first time he has turned his attention to the historic naval campaign in a major work.
“I had the advantage of growing up in the Londonderry of the 1950s and 60s when the city’s port was often busy with visiting warships from many nations taking part in NATO exercies,” he says.
“The nearby HMS Gannet, the Royal Navy station at Eglinton, was the training facility for the Fleet Air Arm’s shipboard anti-submarine airmen - and where the re-formed German navy’s air arm, the Marineflieger, trained and worked up on the Fairy Gannet, less than a dozen years after the war ended.
“Eglinton also hosted an annual open day with spellbinding air displays and , of course, an emphasis on naval and maritime reconnaissance aircraft.”
n ‘Churchill’s Greatest Fear: The Battle of the Atlantic’ is published by Pen & Sword Books, priced £25.