Military history

“THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC”

In early March, Churchill met with First Sea Lord Dudley Pound to discuss merchant-shipping losses in the Atlantic. In order to “concentrate all minds and all departments concerned” on the U-boat war, Churchill told Pound he was going to proclaim a “Battle of the Atlantic,” just as he had proclaimed the “Battle of Britain” during the Luftwaffe assault the previous August.

Forthwith Churchill established a Battle of the Atlantic Committee and named himself (in his capacity as Minister of Defense) chairman. Composed of ministers and “high functionaires concerned,” the body met once a week for several hours or more. On March 6, Churchill distributed a Directive for the Committee, which listed thirteen steps he believed were necessary to win the Battle of the Atlantic. In part:

• Hunt and kill U-boats and Condors at sea. Bomb U-boats in building yards and naval bases and Condors on Luftwaffe airfields.

• Give “extreme priority” to fitting out 200 merchant ships (later reduced to 35) with catapults to launch fighters against Condors, so that every convoy could sail with four such ships.

• Concentrate the bulk of the air strength of Coastal Command over the main convoy routes in the Northwest Approaches.

• On a trial basis, allow all merchant ships that could make 12 knots or faster (rather than 13 knots or faster) to sail unescorted—outside the convoys.

• Give “first claim” (priority) to arming merchant ships with short-range antiaircraft guns to ward off Condors.

• Provide British seaports (e.g., Mersey, Clyde, Bristol Channel) with “maximum” antiaircraft defense to counter the ongoing Luftwaffe Blitz, which had reached as far as the Liverpool docks.

• Within four months, reduce by at least 400,000 gross tons the 2.6 million gross tons of merchant shipping idled in British ports with storm, battle, or other damage, even at the expense of new construction.*

• Speed up by every conceivable means the “terrible slowness” of the turnaround time of merchant ships in British ports and ports abroad.

An important factor underlying Churchill’s resounding proclamation was the abysmal (but concealed) failure of the British military to kill U-boats. In all of 1940, British forces had positively destroyed only twelve oceangoing German submarines. In the six months between September 1, 1940, and March 1, 1941, British forces had sunk only three confirmed German U-boats—none at all in December, January, and February. Given that poor performance, U-boat production was far outpacing U-boat losses.

Under the impetus provided by the Battle of the Atlantic Committee, the British took several further important measures to increase the U-boat kill rate. These were:

First, improvements in U-boat tracking by exploiting secret intelligence from old—and new—sources.

Up to the outbreak of the war, the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Royal Navy had atrophied. Since then a newcomer to the job—and the arcane world of intelligence as well—John H. Godfrey, had revived the branch by dint of his own innate talent and by an infusion of outside help from academe, the legal profession, and Fleet Street. One of his reserve lieutenants, Patrick Beesly, wrote that Godfrey was “a man of wide interests, great energy and determination, an innovator and original thinker” as well as “a practical and successful seaman.”

Inasmuch as the Admiralty was an operating command as well as a policymaking, administrative, and procurement agency, like RAF Fighter and Bomber Commands, it had a central “war room.” It was located in a new, low-ceilinged, bombproofed concrete structure, jokingly called “Lenin’s Tomb” or “The Citadel,” but officially, the Operational Intelligence Center (OIC). It was manned twenty-four hours a day by personnel of Godfrey’s intelligence division, under the leadership of a called-up admiral, J. W. (Jock) Clayton, described by Beesly as “a man of unruffled calmness, impossible to rattle and with very shrewd judgment” and close friends in high places.

One of the main tasks of the OIC was to keep track of Axis naval forces. For this purpose there were four sections: German Surface Ship Plot (Patrick Barrow-Green); Italian-Japanese Surface Ship Plot (Norman Denning, later vice admiral); Axis Submarine Plot; all supported by the DF Section (Peter Kemp, a journalist, later a popular naval historian).

Of these sections, the Axis Submarine Plot, or U-boat Tracking Room, was the busiest. At the outset of the war it was commanded by an old hand from Room 40, Ernest W. C. Thring, a regular naval officer. He was fortunate early on to have gained the services of a thirty-seven-year-old lawyer, Rodger Winn, a called-up reservist. Crippled as a young boy by poliomyelitis, Winn was left with a twisted back and a limp, but by a “tremendous triumph of willpower,” as Beesly put it, he had overcome these physical disabilities and created a successful legal practice. In OIC he demonstrated an uncanny—even eerie—ability to read German minds and predict the behavior of U-boats.

After observing Winn at close quarters for a year, the commander of OIC, Jock Clayton, recommended to John Godfrey that Winn replace Thring as head of the U-boat Tracking Room. Clayton’s recommendation to appoint a “civilian” rather than a career officer to lead this vital section was so “revolutionary” and “unprecedented,” Beesly remembered, it had to be bucked all the way up to First Sea Lord Dudley Pound. He approved the recommendation and at the beginning of 1941 Winn assumed the post, “a stroke of singular good fortune,” Beesly judged.

Soon after Winn took over the U-boat Tracking Room, the British captured Enigma materials from the trawler Krebs and broke the hand cipher Werft. David Kahn wrote that on March 12, Bletchley Park teletyped the first ten decrypted naval Enigma messages to Winn, the next day thirty-four, and subsequently many more. Indeed, there was soon a virtual flood. These first decrypts were dated and of no immediate tactical value to Winn, but they greatly enhanced his knowledge of the U-boat arm, its strategy, and its tactics.

The next important measure to increase U-boat kills was the shift of Western Approaches Command from Plymouth to Derby House in Liverpool. This took place on February 7, 1941, at which time a new commander, Percy Noble, age fifty, replaced Martin Dunbar-Nasmith, who remained at Plymouth.

Noble and his chief of staff, J. M. Mansfield, soon built up a naval contingent at Derby House of about one thousand men and women. They created a huge “war room” with a wall map of the North Atlantic Ocean over two stories high. This operations center was linked twenty-four hours a day by secure teletype and telephone to the OIC in London, so that at all times the former was as up-to-the-minute on enemy naval operations as the latter.

At this same time, in response to Churchill’s directive, RAF Coastal Command concentrated its main air strength in the Northwest Approaches. Its 15 Group, commanded by J. M. Robb (later by Leonard H. Slatter), also moved from Plymouth to Derby House, Liverpool. There its staff virtually merged with that of Western Approaches and utilized the same “war room,” insuring the closest possible air-navy coordination and cooperation. In his memoir,* the RAF’s John C. Slessor, then serving in Bomber Command, wrote that as a further result of Churchill’s March 6 directive, no less than seventeen squadrons of aircraft were transferred from Bomber Command to Coastal Command in 1941 and 1942, and that a “critical proportion of the effort of Bomber Command itself was devoted to the war at sea.”

The notorious neglect of Coastal Command had led to a proposal that it be transferred from the Air Ministry to the Admiralty. Churchill was not in favor of this drastic proposal, but he had ordered a full investigation which brought to light in shocking detail the shortcomings of the command. The upshot was a far-reaching decision (to take effect April 15, 1941) to leave Coastal Command in the Air Ministry for administrative purposes, but to transfer operational control of the organization to the Admiralty. Thereafter naval requirements—U-boat hunting in particular—were to take precedence over all other missions.

One of Percy Noble’s first and most vigorous initiatives was to provide unstinting support for the training of convoy escorts. This important activity had been concentrated at Tobermory on the island of Mull in the Inner Hebrides the previous July. The headquarters ashore, like other British naval schools, was named as though it were a ship—in this case, H.M.S. Western Isles. The school was commanded by a notoriously tough and smart called-up vice admiral, G. O. Stephenson. Every new escort vessel had to spend a month under Stephenson’s lash, an ordeal well depicted by Nicholas Monsarrat in his famous novel of life aboard the fictional wartime corvette Compass Rose.

Up to this time, British and Canadian convoy escorts had been assigned to duty in a helter-skelter fashion, based on availability and combat readiness. With the influx of new destroyers, sloops, and corvettes, and the sixty ex-American destroyers and sloops in early 1941, it became possible to commence a long-sought goal: the formation of British and Canadian “Escort Groups.” These groups were to be composed of ships, more or less permanently teamed up and assigned as a single entity to convoys. The Admiralty believed that when so permanently organized and trained, the groups could better protect convoys—and kill U-boats—than randomly assigned single vessels. Fostered by Percy Noble and trained by Stephenson, there were soon a dozen such groups, each consisting on paper of ten destroyers, sloops, or corvettes, of which six to eight were maintained at readiness to sail. The performance of the groups, manned almost solely by wartime conscripts or volunteers, was ragged at first and never perfect, but gradually became quite proficient.

All Americans who visited British military agencies in 1941 were impressed by the degree of unification that had been achieved in the Battle of the Atlantic. From the War Cabinet to the Battle of the Atlantic Committee to the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, to Bletchley Park and the OIC and Derby House, all hands worked with an extraordinary singleness of purpose. The tight control and the canalization of the growing body of intelligence on U-boat operations and the shrewd exploitation of that intelligence at all levels were in a sense unheralded and unquatifiable weapons of the highest order, and they were to make a very big difference in the naval war.

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