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  The U-Boat War, 1939-42 <<<
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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 U-boat War, 1939-42
The U-boat War, 1939-42
by John Barratt

Opening Shots

On the outbreak of war in September 1939, Donitz had 39 U-boats stationed near the main British shipping lanes. On the first day of hostilities, the liner Athenia , was sunk by a U-boat commanded by Kapitan Franz-Julius Lemp. The German commander had mistaken her for a troop-transport, but the deaths of a large number of civilians, including Americans caused an immediate widespread outcry. Hitler had in fact forbidden unrestricted submarine warfare of the kind which had helped bring the USA into World War I, in the hope that Britain might, after the fall of Poland, agree to a compromise peace. 

Within a few weeks however, the Fuhrer accepted that there was no immediate prospect of such an end to the war, and began lifting the restrictions on submarine warfare. Britain responded by arming merchant ships and ordering them to fire on U-boats on sight. In response Donitz authorised his commanders to attack without warning any ship in convoy, or behaving in "a suspicious manner", and within a designated zone around the British Isles unrestricted submarine warfare was permitted, although neutral vessels, in theory, were not supposed to be attacked.

During the first few months of the war there were rarely more than six or seven U-boats at sea at any one time, and they mainly operated in the North East Atlantic. The main concentration was in the Western Approaches to the English Channel, where shipping lanes converged and the concentration of targets was heaviest. Donitz was not as yet able to mount the kind of assault he had ideally envisaged, for the demands of the other armed forces meant that far fewer than the planned 29 new U-boats a month were being constructed. British mining in the Channel forced U-boats to make their way to the operational zone via a long detour around the British Isles, which greatly reduced the length of time they could spend on station. The net result of all this was that Donitz rarely had more than 20 boats available for Atlantic operations at any one time, of which only about half a dozen would actually be on station.

Although such a small force could hardly bring Britain to her knees, they had a number of individual successes. The British responded to the U-boat threat by forming "hunter-killer" groups, sometimes built around an aircraft carrier, but this policy went into sharp reverse when on September 19th 1939, the U-9 sank the carrier "Courageous" in the Western Approaches, with the loss of 518 men. This was followed quickly by another sharp blow, when on October 14th, Gunther Prien, in U-47 , penetrated the supposedly impregnable defences of the British Home Fleet's principal base at Scapa Flow, and sank the battleship Royal Oak .

Learning from their experiences in World war I, the British had introduced a limited convoy system from the outbreak of war, but both the fastest and slowest ships were excluded, and left to sail independently. It was among these "independents" that the U-boats scored their greatest success. By the end of 1939, only four ships out of a total of 5,756 sailing in convoy had been lost, compared with the sinking of 102 "independents".

Even so, the shortage of convoy escorts, and the small number and limited range of aircraft available to RAF Coastal Command made it fortunate that Donitz had not, initially, enough U-boats to exploit his opponent's weakness. He would be further frustrated in April 1940, when Hitler diverted the U-boats to take part in "Operation Weserubung", the invasion of Norway, where the submarines' lack of success was compounded by failings in the firing mechanism of their magnetic torpedoes. In June these began to be replaced by a new type of contact percussion torpedo.

The "Happy Time", 1940-41

Despite all obstacles, the U-boats had sunk 224 ships totaling 1.3 million tons between September 1939 and June 1940. And now the Fall of France improved their prospects considerably, as the Germans took possession of French naval bases along the Atlantic coast. The first French U-boat base was established in July 1940 at Lorient on the Bay of Biscay, and quickly was followed by bases at Brest, St Nazaire and La Palice in Brittany. Use of these bases not only gave the U-boats direct access to the Atlantic, but also shortened their journey to the operational area by over 1,000 miles. This allowed a greater number of U-boats to be at sea at any one time, and also to push their range much further out into the Atlantic. A further impetus to German operations came with the basing in Western France of long-range Focke-Wulfe 200 Kondor bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft, with a range of 2,200 miles, could not only bomb Allied merchant ships, but more importantly, track their course for waiting U-boats.

The British were facing other problems. The threat of a German invasion of Britain during the summer of 1940 resulted in many destroyers being withdrawn from convoy escort duties to wait in the Channel for Hitler's armada. The fall of France, whilst easing matters for the U-boats, forced Britain, in order to reduce attacks by the Luftwaffe, to shift her main convoy routes from the Western Approaches and the English Channel to the North West Approaches and the port of Liverpool. This not only imposed a great strain on Britain's western ports, but also increased convoy journey times by up to 40%. Until new air bases were eventually developed in Northern Ireland, and later in Iceland, the lack of naval bases in now independent Eire, which had been available to the Royal Navy in World War I, caused further problems.

On August 17th, Hitler, confident in the advantages which his U-boats now had, declared a total blockade of Britain. The following months would later be remembered by U-boat men as "the happy time". Though total merchant tonnage lost in the autumn of 1940 was less than that of two years later, at 2,373,070 tons for the year it was still bad enough, and to make matters worse for the Allies, it was achieved by an average of only 21 U-boats at sea at any one time. During the year a total of 26 U-boats were lost.

The autumn of 1940 saw Donitz beginning to transfer the focus of his activities to the mid-Atlantic, where he could attack weakly-escorted convoys beyond the range of air support. September saw the first wolf-pack operation, when ten U-boats intercepted two convoys off the west coast of Ireland, and sank 16 ships. The following month saw what would prove to be the single most successful U-boat operation of the war, when a pack of 12 boats, in a four -night operation, sank 32 merchant ships of a total 154,661 tons.

Donitz was not however satisfied with the rate of success being achieved. Despite the somewhat unco-ordinated assistance provided by the Kondors , Goring was unwilling to give much Luftwaffe support to Donitz, whom he saw as a rival, and there were still insufficient U-boats available to approach the rate of sinkings at which U-Boat Command was aiming. During 1940 German shipyards were only producing U-boats at an average of four and a half vessels a month. In 1941 this would be stepped up to a monthly average of 17 U-boats , but lengthy training needed for their crews meant that most would not be in action until 1942. 

In an effort to fill the gap, Donitz turned to Germany's Italian ally. Italian submarines had proved less than impressive during the Spanish Civil War, and they proved hardly more successful in Atlantic operations. Their commanders were unfamiliar with German tactics and the wolf-pack concept, and from December 1940, despairing of overcoming these problems, Donitz assigned the Italians their own sector of the Atlantic and left them to their own devices. Between September 1940 and July 1943 about 30 Italian submarines operated at different times in the Atlantic, and sank a total of 105 Allied merchant ships for the loss of 16 of their own vessels.

So far as the German U-boat effort was concerned, Donitz received an encouraging boost early in 1941, when the first of the new longer-ranged Type IX U-boats came into service, and commenced operations on the South Atlantic trade routes.

The British were suffering severely from shortages of escort vessels. New construction from British shipyards would not start to become available much before 1942, and the 50 "Destroyers for Bases" supplied by the United States in the summer of 1940 did not adequately bridge the gap. In the spring of 1941 the United States agreed to assume responsibility for the protection of convoys West of 26 degrees west Longitude. In July 1941, at British request, US troops took over the garrisoning of Iceland, which was becoming an increasingly vital naval and air base in the Battle of the Atlantic.

This increased American involvement in the Atlantic struggle could serve only to make actual hostilities between the United States and Germany sooner or later inevitable. Indeed such a situation, though unacknowledged, existed from about September 1941, when the USS "Greer", came into conflict with a U-boat. In October, The USS "Kearney" was torpedoed and damaged whilst on convoy duty, and soon afterwards the USS "Reuben James", was sunk by a U-boat with the loss of 115 lives. The actual declaration of war, in December, thus only formalised a situation which was fast becoming reality in any case.

Operation Drum Roll

Donitz had long been eager to turn his sea wolves loose against the vulnerable shipping lanes of the American East Coast. Hitler, fearful of bringing the USA into the war prematurely, had resisted his U-boat supremo's pleas to initiate action there. Instead he had ordered that a third of operational U-boats be deployed to the Mediterranean, where they achieved relatively little of value against the limited numbers of Allied merchant ships operating there.

At last, in January 1942, Donitz was given the long-for permission to strike at the USA. "Operation Paukenschlag" ("Drum Roll") began in the middle of the month, and initially involved only five U-boats, manned by veteran crews, operating off the North American coast between the Gulf of St Lawrence and Cape Hatteras. In the space of two weeks the five U-boats sank 20 merchant ships totaling 150,000 tons. This was merely a foretaste of the massacre to come.

Though a hell for the crews of so many merchant ships, the eastern US seaboard in the spring of 1942 was a paradise for U-boat men. There was as yet no convoy system ; vessels sailed individually, making free use of their radios, fully lit at night, against the brilliantly illuminated backdrop of coastal cities where a blackout would not be fully in operation for another five months. During daylight hours the U-boats remained submerged, and surfaced at nightfall to wreak havoc with guns and torpedoes. On an average night, a U-boat might hope to claim three victims, with resulting immense losses in supplies and munitions.

For the U-boat men, these six months in what they termed the "golden west" were the high point of the submarine campaign. In May 1942 the number of U-boats operating on the Eastern seaboard reached a high point of 30 vessels, for the first time supplied by U-tankers (Type X and supply U-boats or "milch cows", (Type XIV).  Each of these could keep a flotilla of a dozen Type VII's at sea for an additional month. 

But by now the crest of success for "Operation Drumbeat" had peaked. In April 1942 the USA began to implement a convoy system for its coastal convoys, and this fully operational by August. The great slaughter, which had cost 360 merchant ships totaling about 2,250,000 tons, for a loss of only eight U-boats, was over. 

But out in the Atlantic, the climax of the U-boat war was only just beginning.
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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:

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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