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A Very Narrow Area


Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic

By Ed Offley
Basic Books, 2011

In 1942 Nicholas Monsarrat wrote a serialized account for the Daily Telegraph of his time spent aboard Royal Navy corvettes serving in the North Atlantic as escorts for convoys on the open ocean:

… for good or ill we are on our way, for the nth time challenging the sea and the malice of the enemy: the convoy to make the journey against all hazards, and we to see that it does not fail for want of a show of teeth. When land fades astern the party is on once again, the ring is formed.

The challenge of the sea – the storms of the North Atlantic must be seen to be believed – was manifest. “Roiling oceans and shrieking winds, towering waves and stinging salt spray,” were standard dangers, terribly augmented by a man-made one:

The North Atlantic raged around the battered ships and exhausted merchant sailors, escort crews, and civilian passengers in Convoy ONS5 and Escort Group B-7. For six days and nights, the formation had clawed its way up from the North Channel on a generally northwest course track. Aware that more than fifty U-boats were operating in the Greenland air gap … the formation steered north to avoid the U-boats, [even though] there was a real chance the convoy might find itself at risk in the Greenland ice pack, with its drifting icebergs.

That second passage isn’t from Monsarrat’s memoir, however, nor is it from his monumental bestseller about convoy duty, The Cruel Sea. Nor, for that matter, is it from Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s equally huge bestseller Das Boot. Rather, it’s from the only version of the epic, six-year Battle of the Atlantic that could possibly excel those great fictional accounts – a great historical account: Ed Offley’s disturbing, fantastic new book Turning the Tide. Offley has sifted through a towering heap of official records, read a library’s worth of histories, even interviewed surviving U-boat sailors. He’s brought all that formidable research together, crafted it with a very considerable degree of narrative skill, and produced a volume worthy to stand with Gunter Hessler’s The U-Boat War in the Atlantic: 1939-1945 or Clay Blair’s magnificent 2-volume Hitler’s U-Boat War. In passage after passage, he brings the submarine experience – Allied and Axis alike – vividly to life:

U-boats were violently tossed during storms like this, with crewmen hurled to the deck, tossed into the overhead, and sent sprawling into the metal pipes and fittings that nearly filled their space. Each time a wave crashed into the conning tower, tons of seawater would cascade down through the open bridge hatch to drench the watch-standers in the control room two levels down. They worked in a deafening bellow from the boat’s two supercharged Germaniawerft diesel engines, in a foul miasma of every possible stench that dozens of men living in a solid steel tube could create: diesel fumes, unwashed bodies, rotting food, mold, human waste, and the sweet musk of cologne everyone wore to ward off the reek. But they carried out their wartime tasks with stoicism and resolve despite the hellish conditions in which they lived and worked.

The term that cropped up earlier is crucial to understanding the early part of this particular side of the Second World War: the Greenland air gap was the vast and freezing expanse of open ocean in the North Atlantic southwest of Iceland that was too broad and too far from fueling stations to permit Allied air cover – ships venturing into that area would have no air support, and air support was by far the most effective deterrent to submarine attacks. Ships traveling between North America and England were vulnerable, so they tended to move in convoys, and the convoys, from 1939 to 1943, relied for their protection on Royal Navy corvettes fitted out (at first with roughshod and sometimes improvised equipment) specifically to combat the roving ‘wolf-packs’ of German U-boats patrolling the area. U-boats were dedicated to the task of destroying those convoys, because tiny, sea-locked England was wholly dependent on the importation of food and material; stop the convoys, choke off the imports, and you force England’s capitulation and remove her from the war.

After 1943, the Allies developed planes capable of covering the Greenland air gap, and life became very much more difficult for German U-boats. There’s still a story to tell after that date, but it’s a story of grinding, inevitable defeat for the Axis side, since a U-boat surfacing to fire on an Allied vessel becomes completely vulnerable to aerial bombardment. But before 1943, for one open window delineated by limited technology and immovable need, an epic battle raged in the North Atlantic and more often than not seemed to favor the Germans.

In the earliest days, those corvettes had a limited arsenal, mainly consisting of Asdic, a primitive kind of sonar, and the Mark VII depth charge, which weighed 600 pounds and carried 300 pounds of high explosive. Asdic could be reluctant to divulge its secrets, and depth charges were often easily avoided; at first, convoy losses were staggering. Hundreds of ships and thousand of lives were lost, counter-measures seemed ineffective, and even Winston Churchill’s bulldog tenacity was shaken. The inherent drama of those heroic underdog corvettes is not lost on Offley, who seldom misses an opportunity to flesh out the annals with gripping details:

… Lieutenant-Commander Rodney A. Price on the Beverley spotted two more U-boats on the surface out in front of the convoy. Rushing out ahead of the merchantmen, the former American “four-stack” destroyer forced both U-boats to crash-dive and pounced on one of them. For the next two and a half hours, the Beverley pounded the Type IXC40 U-530 with a series of deliberate depth-charge attacks. Kapitanleutnant Kurt Lange and his fifty-one-man crew clung to the bulkheads and equipment as the explosives detonated close by. The blasts knocked out the U-boat’s lighting, caused flooding in the torpedo compartment, and ruptured storage containers between the pressure hull and the outer deck. The weight from the inrushing seawater caused the U-boat to plunge to nearly 780 feet, perilously close to crush depth…

Since the (you’ll pardon the expression) depth of his research is so extensive (his lengthy end-notes are micro-typed and packed with interesting clarifications; “Since the Hedgehog mortar shells only detonated upon impact with a U-boat, Gretton’s eye-witness account led the Admiralty to credit the Duncan and Snowflake with the sinking of U-381,” we’re told, “However, a later analysis indicated that the two escorts had attacked two different U-boats – most likely U-304 and U-636 – causing fatal damage to neither”), it’s only natural that Offley at times gets lost in his notes. If Turning the Tide has a narrative flaw, it’s the too-frequent appearance of impenetrable passages like this:

News that SC122 had aerial cover had rocketed across the Atlantic, from British authorities in Liverpool to the COMINCH Combat Intelligence Center at Main Navy in Washington, D. C., but the Germans got the word nearly as fast. B-dienst code breakers failed to intercept M/86′s report of the attack on U-439 transmitted at 0935, but when Burcher and his crew attacked U-338 forty-one minutes later, the German naval code breakers intercepted and decrypted the contact message from M/86 in less than two hours, immediately routing the clear text to BdU Operations in Berlin. There, Grossadmiral Donitz and Konteradmiral Godt, along with Kapitan zur See Bonatz, the chief of B-dienst code breakers, doubtlessly read the signal with dismay:

And just in case you were wondering if the signal itself was dramatic, sorry:

17/1035 [0935 GMT] 52:23N 045W. Submerging U-boat [Course] 200 [Speed] 8 knots.

But fortunately, such indigestible kernels of data are rare, and there’s ample compensation elsewhere. Offley is keenly attuned to the give and take of the Battle of the Atlantic (in a neatly counter-intuitive simile, he tells us that its fortunes shifted like the boundaries of a raging forest fire), and he’s adept at painting quick portraits of determination – and bravery – on both sides of that battle:

After destroying the Harvester, U-432 remained at periscope depth, but [Kapitanleutnant Hermann] Eckhardt inexplicably dismissed his crew from battle stations to celebrate the sinking of an enemy warship. While the forty-six-man crew enjoyed lunch, the Aconit‘s Asdic operator got a firm contact on the submerged U-boat. [Lieutenant Jean] Levasseur plastered U-432 with two salvos of depth charges apiece, which drove the U-boat into an uncontrollable dive that soon reached 1,000 feet, well beyond its crush depth of 960 feet. Eckhardt managed to get the boat under control and ordered an emergency blow of the ballast tanks. The Aconit was waiting. When U-432 popped up on the surface, the corvette was less than half a mile away. Levasseur’s gunners sprayed the conning tower with four-inch gunfire, killing Eckhardt and a number of other crewmen.

In fact, it’s that very equality of treatment that makes this book so disturbing. The immense and unforgiving nature of the sea itself has encouraged a certain romanticizing of naval warfare since the days of the Phoenicians; even in extremely bitter conflicts like the Second World War, sailors on both sides – and many a historian who’s followed after them – have found it tempting to characterize themselves are more detached, less invidious, than other branches of the military. In many time periods and cultures, the so-called ‘law of the sea’ has dictated that sailors – even sailors at war – adhere to a code of conduct parallel to, even superior to, those imposed by their land-lubber governments. It can all sound very gallant, and Offley reinforces the tendency by reporting the severe losses suffered by the Germans during the Battle of the Atlantic. U-boat forces suffered far greater percentage of losses than any other military arm during the war (on either side). Fatality rates for U-boat groups at the height of hostilities could reach sixty, seventy, even eighty percent. Such losses are of course appalling, but there’s something just a little macabre about the lengths to which Offley goes to extol them:

Of the 11,510 crewmen who survived, some 5,000 ended the war in Allied POW camps. Just 6,510 of the elite sailors who had volunteered to serve on the U-boats would end the war alive and with their freedom. The others would be rewarded for their bravery with imprisonment or death.

The quick response to such sentiments would be unkind (the ‘reward’ being meted out there wasn’t for bravery, it was for naked aggression against the free world) – and who knows, perhaps even a bit inaccurate. Perhaps it would be nice to think of at least the possibility of disinterested German valor. Certainly that possibility clings to the rather noble figure of Grossadmiral Karl Donitz, who became Hitler’s successor after the dictator’s suicide in April 1945 and immediately began negotiating with the Allies to bring the war to an end. Much of the Battle of the Atlantic had been designed by Donitz, and when the end came, he saluted the sailors who had made it possible, the crews of the 396 operational U-boats still in his command:

My U-boat men! Six years of U-boat warfare lie behind us. You have fought like lions. A crushing material superiority has compressed us into a very narrow area. A continuation of the struggle is impossible from the bases that remain.

And it must be remembered that an at-times excessive sympathy for his subjects is not the worst fault possible in a historian. Offley has this fault, if fault it is, in traces only – and his strengths are enormous. He’s written a couple of other naval-themed books, but this is the first one to reach such a monumental pitch of scope and insight, a feeling for the human side of war that’s pleasingly reminiscent of Samuel Eliot Morison. Readers of serious, well-done history shouldn’t miss it.

____
A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.

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