Book Review: Battle of the Atlantic
by Jonathan Dimbleby
Oxford University Press, 2016
Fans of The Cruel Sea, the great novel by Nicholas Monsarrat about a heroic, beleaguered British corvette escorting North Atlantic convoys against seemingly impossible odds of German U-boats will have come out of the novel buying entirely into its world-view, which is that the entire war was fought and won in the cold, ferocious waters of the North Atlantic. Africa? What about it? France? Where’s that? Russia? Never heard of it.
It’s a view that’s been strongly challenged by a generation of historians, many of whom have argued that although Allied shipping was certainly hurt by German ‘wolf packs,’ it was never seriously imperiled, that especially after America’s entrance into the war, Allied control of the Atlantic was firmly established – and that in any case the war had many theaters, many bottlenecks, and many turning points.
In his fantastic new book, The Battle of the Atlantic, British writer and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby sets out both to reclaim the centrality of the Atlantic in the war’s narrative and to tell its dramatic story. Terry Hughes and John Costello did this nearly 50 years ago in a book likewise called The Battle of the Atlantic, and there’ve been other retellings in the intervening decades. Dimbleby’s account distinguishes itself from the others mainly in its tremendous storytelling energy and its dramatist’s eye for capturing personalities. Of Arthur “Bomber” Harris, for instance, he writes:
Sir Arthur Harris, as he had now become, was guided by a moral compass set on what he regarded as the only true course, from which he would not be diverted either by imaginative humanity or the quality of mercy. Nor did he conceal this from those about him: his biographer reports one of his squadron commanders saying, ‘We all love him; he’s so bloody inhuman.’
And of German Admiral Donitz, he writes, “He cared greatly for the psychological and material well-being of those who served under him but he inspired more awe than affection. Though he rarely lost his temper, he was as quick to rebuke as he was to praise.” And of Winston Churchill’s unwavering and bloodthirsty insistence on carpet-bombing German cities, Dimbleby’s assessment is refreshingly sharp:
Neither a steady accumulation of evidence to the contrary nor the competing claims on a precious resource were allowed to permeate the carapace of conviction which had led him to believe that the bomber was Britain’s best available means of pulverizing the Nazi enemy. From time to time he wavered, but never for long enough to modify a strategic priority which had a profoundly damaging impact on the Battle of the Atlantic.
Regardless of where the verdict comes out on how pivotal the Battle of the Atlantic was in the overall scheme of the war, the fierce bravery with which it was fought on both sides is undeniable, and it’s the pole star by which Dimbleby’s narrative finds its way. Between 1939 and 1945, 781 U-boats were lost, taking with them 30,000 out of the 38,000 men who went to sea – a ratio of four out of five, as Dimbleby observes, “the highest rate of attrition for any branch of any armed service on either side of the Second World War.” The Allied numbers were almost equally appalling, and much of the action took place in the teeth of the North Atlantic’s famously unearthly storms, featuring screaming winds, crevasse-deep swells, and green-water waves capable of bending iron plating. The Battle of the Atlantic thrillingly and insightfully recounts all this and puts Monsarrat right back in the center ring.