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Books by John Barratt


Armada 1588


The Battle of Marston Moor


The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646


The First Battle of Newbury: 1643



Cavalier Generals


The Great Siege of Chester



The Battle for York: Marston Moor 1644


Cavalier Generals

The Bitter End, The U-boat War, 1943-1945
The Bitter End, The U-boat War, 1943-1945
by John Barratt

On 31st May, a week after calling off the U-boat offensive in the North Atlantic, Donitz reported on the situation to Hitler. After listing all the current allied advantages, the head of the Kriegsmarine outlined the various technological developments which he hoped would tilt the war once more in the U-boat waffe's favour. Already being tested was the "Naxos" short-wave radar detector. Improved acoustic and homing torpedoes were under development, as was the "schnorkel" breathing apparatus which could be fitted to existing U-boats so that they would no longer need to surface in order to recharge their batteries. Further in the future, among Germany's promised array of "wonder weapons", were the revolutionary new Type XXI and XXIII U-boats. In the more immediate term, Donitz was hoping to counteract at least the growing Allied threat from the air by fitting his U-boats with quadruple AA guns.

Even so, immediate prospects were grim, but both Hitler and Donitz were adamant that that the U-boat war should continue in some form. On all fronts the war was turning against Germany, and at least the U-boats could make a contribution to the defence of the Reich by tying down Allied resources which might otherwise be used elsewhere. Thinking in particular of the growing devastation being inflicted upon German cities by Allied bombing, Donitz asked: "Could the submariner stand aside as a spectator, saying there was nothing he could do or would do, and telling the women and children they must put up with it? …A continuation of the U-boat campaign would involve certain and deliberate self-sacrifice. I finally came to the bitter conclusion that we had no option but to fight on."

From June 1943 the U-boats faced the additional disadvantage that their cryptologists could no longer break Royal Navy codes, whilst "Triton" or "Shark" was decoded virtually without a break until December 1944. In September Donitz attempted to renew the Atlantic campaign. But although his U-boats were now equipped with the new short-wave radar detector and acoustic torpedoes, the outcome was ignominious and costly failure. Convoys continued either to evade the U-boats, or strong escorts beat off the attackers at a heavy cost to the wolf-packs. Those U-boats, which, usually in groups, attempted to fight on the surface with their improved AA defences against Allied aircraft, were generally sunk.

On 12th November, noting gloomily that "The enemy holds every trump card… knows all our secrets and we know none of his", Donitz abandoned wolf-pack tactics in the North Atlantic. For the next six months U-boat commanders would operate individually on their own initiative, a tactic which could never be more than a nuisance to Allied shipping in convoy. During this period, in all theatres, a total of 107 Allied ships (600,000 tons) , only eight of them in convoy, would be sunk, whilst 136 U-boats were lost- a, for the Germans, truly miserable ratio of 0.78 merchant ships sunk for each U-boat destroyed.

Sacrifice

From early 1944 all German intentions were focused on the imminent Allied invasion of Europe. The U-boat force was still numerically impressive, with a total of 449 submarines in commission. Of these, 287 were still undergoing trials or crew training, and 162 were operational, with an average of 43 at sea on any one day. But all were effectively obsolete, and increasingly viewed by their crews as "iron coffins".

During the spring about 73 U-boats were deployed in the French Biscay ports or the Norwegian bases to combat Allied invasion attempts. But when the Normandy landings began in June, U-boat attempts to intervene proved to be another costly failure. Their movements betrayed by "Ultra" intercepts and improved detection equipment, subject to ferocious air attack and highly effective surface hunters, the U-boats were chased, harried, and in many cases sunk. Though they continued their heroic and sacrificial efforts in the English Channel and North Sea well into the summer, the final balance sheet for the U-boats' attempt to disrupt the Allied invasion provided further grim reading. By the end of August, when the U-boat campaign was abandoned, they had sunk 21 Allied ships, including 5 warships, for a loss of 19 U-boats and 1000 officers and men.

At the end of August, with the Biscay bases threatened by capture or siege, all seaworthy U-boats there were withdrawn to Norway. From here they would mount Germany's last forlorn attempt to disrupt Allied by shipping by operating in British coastal waters. Here they would be able to make more effective use of the "schnorkel", and thus be more difficult to detect. But even so, results proved meagre, and operational effectiveness was reduced by lack of major repair facilities in the Norwegian bases, which often forced U-boats to run the gauntlet of Allied air power when returning to Germany for maintainance. The most that could be said was that the loss ratio was slightly more favourable to the Germans than it had been for some time. Between August 1944 and the end of the year, 8 merchant ships, two warships and a tug were sunk for the loss of 8 U-boats, a ratio of 1.5. But such results were insignificant in the scale of Allied resources.

Even so, the U-boat command did not finally abandon hope. Its senior officers attempted to gain comfort from the fact that the "schnorkel" and the new radar search detector made U-boats less vulnerable to discovery. But this advantage largely disappeared once they revealed their location by attempting an attack. Another apparent advantage seemed to be presented to the Germans in December, when a change in "Enigma" procedures once more prevented the Allies from reading the U-boat codes, whilst a situation in which the majority of U-boats were now operating singly meant that were far fewer radio signals to aid in pinpointing submarines' locations.

However the Allies were devoting massive resources to the war against the U-boat. During December 1944 they concentrated 426 escort vessels and 420 RAF Coastal Command aircraft in home waters. The result was further disappointment for the Kriegsmarine. In November they had sunk one escort carrier and six merchant ships for the loss of seven U-boats; in December the exchange was seven merchant ships for three U-boats.

Right up until the end of the war a few U-boats continued to operate in the North Atlantic, including an ill-fated attempt to revive wolf-pack tactics off the US coast. Results were meager; by the end of the war U-boats in the Atlantic had sunk 11 merchant ships, one frigate and one minesweeper, whilst three U-boats had been lost out of the 22 sent to operate in this area. At least, however, they had managed to occupy the attentions of 17 escort groups.

The final months of the war saw no upturn in U-boat fortunes. They managed to sink 63 merchant ships, but the ever-increasing Allied onslaught, particularly from the air, accounted for 152 U-boats.

Only in the final days of the war did the first of the new types of U-boat begin to become operational. A Type XXIII, U2336, had the distinction of sinking the last two merchant ships of the war, on May 8th, when, unbeknown to her commander, hostilities had actually ceased. The only Type XXI actually to become operational, U2511, sailed from Bergen , and was off the Faroe Islands when she received the signal to cease hostilities, and ended active operations by making an undetected dummy attack on a Royal Navy cruiser. At the end of the war, The Kriegsmarine still possessed 393 U-boats, of which 126 were operational, and 43 at sea.

The U-boats at sea responded to the order to surrender in various ways. About 23 came into British ports to surrender, three to Canada and four to the USA. Others returned home or scuttled themselves . Two eventually fetched up in the River Plate in Argentina, creating almost certainly unfounded reports that they had carried into hiding various high-ranking Nazis. About 154 U-boats were surrendered intact in German or Norwegian naval bases, and 218, including 82 Type XXI and 29 Type XXIII, scuttled themselves rather than surrender.

Final Reckoning

Depending on the means of calculation, estimates of total U-boats lost from all causes during the war vary between 777 and 821. There are similar variations in estimates of the number of their victims. So far as the Battle of the Atlantic proper is concerned, an accepted figure is 2603 merchant ships with the loss of 30,000 Allied seamen. The toll exacted on Donitz's U-boat crews rated with those of Allied bomber crews as the highest in any branch of any armed services in World War II. Of a total of 40,900 men who served in U-boats, 28,000, or 70%, were lost, including a son of Grand Admiral Donitz.

Churchill later wrote that the U-boat threat had been the only thing which had really worried him during the war, but more recent studies tend to suggest that Donitz never came within measurable distance of achieving victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. The failure to build up an adequate U-boat force prior to the outbreak of war was critical in this, as well as the enormous shipbuilding capacity of the Allies following the entry of the US into the war. But, certainly to those who fought and died in it, the Battle of the Atlantic was one of the grimmest and most bitterly contested campaigns of World War II.
 
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Copyright © 2002 John Barratt.

Written by John Barratt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact John Barratt at:
johnbarratt46@johnbarratt46.plus.com.

About the author:
John Barratt has authored many books to include: Armada 1588,  The Battle of Marston Moor, The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646, and Cavalier Generals.

Published online: 12/15/2002.
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