Part V


21 The Battle of the Seas

22 The Victory of the USSR

23 Mass Bombing

24 The Western Fronts

25 Disintegration


The Battle of the Seas

GREAT BRITAIN’s survival in 1940 did not remove the danger of defeat. The U-boat might still succeed where the Luftwaffe had failed. The crisis of 1940 was followed by the crises of 1941 and 1942, when Great Britain’s imports of food, weapons and materials for industry dropped to within sight of a war-losing level.

The essence of the crisis was shortage of shipping. Ships were needed for many purposes and all over the world. Supplies had to be brought to Great Britain across the Atlantic and from many distant sources of vital raw materials; troops and their equipment had to be moved to different battle-fronts, including the Middle East, East Africa and the Far East; the blockade of Germany had to be maintained around the coasts of Europe, a task which was magnified every time the Germans won control of a fresh country; and there were special obligations like the dispatch of aid to the Russians by convoys which gathered in Scotland and Iceland to make the passage to Murmansk or Archangel. The fulfilling of these tasks against the U-boats, the German high seas fleet and the Luftwaffe entailed a battle which lasted several years and cost many lives.

The idea of a shipping shortage did not come naturally to the British. It seemed almost as absurd to suppose that Great Britain would lack ships as to suppose that it might run short of coal. In fact it did both and the reasons were similar. The neglect and mismanagement of the coalfields by their owners had become proverbial and had created so much ill will that it smouldered on and produced strikes even in the all-forgiving and all-compelling atmosphere of war. The shipyards were in not much better case. They were antiquated and inefficient, but such is the force of habit that the government did not wake up to the consequent dangers until some time after the war began. The provision of ships seemed to be one thing that Great Britain did not need to worry about. This complacency was fostered by the months of phoney war which were nowhere more deceptive than at sea. Great Britain lost 150 dry cargo ships in the first nine months of war and made good the loss by new building or capture. But this simple sum told only part of the story. Imports were affected by many factors: few foreign ships ventured to British ports; British ships had to take roundabout routes which delayed them (carrying capacity cannot be measured simply in numbers of vessels); at home, when the east coast ports had to be closed, unloading facilities elsewhere became overburdened; there was a shortage of hard currency to buy goods with; the fall of France increased voyage times by 30–40 per cent; the convoy system reduced the speed of all but the slower ships.

Imports began to sink rapidly. In 1941 they were 30.5 million tons of dry cargo against a peacetime norm of about 50 million. This was only very slightly more than in 1917 when population and industry were appreciably smaller, and yet the ports which were still working had difficulty in handling even this limited volume. 1942 was worse again – 22.9 million tons. Throughout this period cargo space declined. But in 1942 consumption at home was exceeding imports by the alarming amount of 2.45 million tons and half the imported raw materials consumed by industry had had to be drawn from stocks. Running down stocks at this rate was potentially catastrophic because stocks had not been built up before the war (wheat stocks at the beginning of the war were for three weeks, for example) owing to a facile and false view in the Admiralty that the invention of radar had put paid to the U-boat. The exploding of this view turned complacency into something like panic, aggravated by gross exaggerations of needs by the Ministries of Supply and Food and by the absence of any reliable statistics. Consumption was screwed down so that, until 1942, it was even lower than imports, but the corollary of this rigour was that rations could hardly be further reduced, or imported raw materials economized, without direct danger to the war effort, the creation of unemployment and a possibly lethal blow to morale.

In 1943 the decline was checked and stocks were replenished as imports topped consumption by 2.8 million tons. The balance swung into deficit once more in 1944 when imports fell by 1.3 million tons and consumption rose by 3.4 million, but by this date the U-boat had been beaten, the pattern of imports had been altered by Lend-Lease which enabled goods to be imported manufactured or semi-manufactured instead of in bulkier raw forms, and the government had learned by experience at what point it need get alarmed. But these figures tell the gravity of a situation which gave Germany its one chance of a substantial victory after the failure of its air forces over Great Britain and its armies before Moscow. For three years Great Britain was closely beleaguered and Hitler could entertain some hope of reconverting the war to a war on one front. Great Britain’s survival at sea, which could never be confidently predicted in these years, saved the United States from the predicament posed for Great Britain by the collapse of France in 1940: whether to carry on or call it defeat.

There were two critical phases in this battle. The first followed the conquest of western Europe by Hitler and the second followed Pearl Harbor. Both events made Great Britain’s position worse. The first cut Great Britain off from sources of supply, especially food. It put the Germans in possession of bases for submarines and long-range reconnaissance aircraft on the Atlantic coasts of Norway and France; U-boats took up new stations in concrete pens in Atlantic harbours and the long-range F.W. 200s began making wide sweeps over the ocean, flying from Bordeaux to Trondhjem one day and back another. From this time all traffic to London had to go north of Scotland (the trip round Scotland to London and back took more than half the time required to cross the Atlantic) and many ships were routed into ports unaccustomed to handling the cargoes they were carrying; there was much confusion in these ports. Finally, by closing the Mediterranean, Hitler’s continental victories doubled the distance between Great Britain and Bombay and more than quadrupled the distance to Suez. Great Britain obtained some compensation in the muster of European shipping which took refuge in British ports and took service alongside the British merchant navy as one European country after another was overrun. Largely as a result of appeals and veiled threats put out by the BBC no ship at sea at the time of the conquest of its home port returned there, although not all of them went to British ports. Neutral shipping too carried goods for Great Britain. More than four fifths of Sweden’s dry cargo shipping outside the Baltic did so. Not all of this can be ascribed to sentiment. Great Britain invented a warrant scheme and refused to issue warrants to ships sailing in conditions or under contracts which were damaging to the allies. Ships sailing without such warrants were denied facilities in ports under British control and in American and some other neutral ports, and found it almost impossible to get insurance.

Pearl Harbor inaugurated a second crisis by multiplying the calls on American shipping and unleashing a successful U-boat campaign against it. South African ports became so crowded with ships in search of asylum or in need of repair or on their way to the Middle East that by mid-1942 nearly eighty vessels at a time could be found waiting to berth or go into dry dock. The advance of the Japanese overland and at sea disrupted the economies of southern Asia by stopping the export of Burma’s rice, oil and rubber and Bengal’s coal: India’s east coast ports were closed, the feeding of India, Ceylon and parts of east Africa became an allied responsibility, and countries round the Indian Ocean faced starvation and a general breakdown of public services. In Bengal in the summer of 1943 1.5 million people died of hunger. Thus commitments increased as carrying capacity was once more drastically reduced. It was at sea, much more than on land, that the several wars which together made a world war interacted.

The British government, besides welcoming the merchant fleets of its continental friends, bought second-hand vessels in any part of the world where they could be found, but this source was exhausted by the end of 1940. There remained the United States. But the American shipbuilding industry was in no better shape than the British. It had been allowed to atrophy after the First World War and in the years 1921–36 it constructed, tankers apart, only two ocean-going freighters. In 1941 total construction was under 1 million tons (lower than Great Britain’s) as against an assessed need of 8 million tons for the war in Europe, excluding tankers and troopships and quite apart from whatever the United States might want for itself elsewhere. In May Roosevelt ordered 2 million dry weight tons, including tankers, to be found for Great Britain and other democracies at war. The British had hoped that it would be 2 million gross tons, excluding tankers, and all of it for Great Britain alone. (Two million d.w. tons equal 1.3 million gross tons.) So there was some disappointment as well as relief. Later in the year Roosevelt gave more help by sanctioning American escorts for allied vessels, by opening American ports to allied ships in need of repair and by Lend-Lease; but substantially Great Britain had to get through 1941 on its own. Rations were severely cut and some foods, including fresh vegetables and fruit, were deleted from overseas cargoes. The government budgeted on imports of 30 million tons, half in food and half in arms and industrial raw materials, and Churchill ruled that any reduction below 30 million tons must be borne by the Ministries of Supply and Food in the proportion of two to one. In the same year shipping was also needed to move an average of 29,000 men by sea per month, and it was estimated that the figure would rise to 70,000 a month in 1942. (The latter figure was almost reached. It included the transport of 16,500 men a month to the Far East in January–March 1942. The situation was eased by commandeering six large passenger liners which sailed fast enough to dispense with escorts and were refashioned to carry up to 15,000 men at a time.)

At the end of 1941 Pearl Harbor dashed hopes of increased American assistance. American construction was immensely increased in 1942 – to the 8 million tons prescribed a year earlier and then to 13.5 million in the following years, tankers and naval construction excluded – but these astonishing achievements hardly sufficed to keep pace with the American need. The ships sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor had to be replaced, while on the east coast the German U-boats, whose successes against British shipping were doubled in the first months of the new year, sailed zestfully into American territorial waters where the Americans, disdaining Great Britain’s experiences in two wars, refused for several months to introduce a convoy system and lost in consequence a disabling number of vessels. In response to the crisis in the Pacific the great bulk of civil shipping requisitioned by the Administration after Pearl Harbor was committed to the Pacific theatre, and when the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa took place at the end of the year, Great Britain had to lend the United States troopships, dry cargo ships and practically all the tankers used in that operation.

Moreover, the estimates of the number of ships needed, and the time for which they would be needed, were both misjudged. For four months North Africa absorbed 106 ships a month in place of an anticipated sixty-six, and instead of going over to a maintenance basis in February 1943 the armies had to be kept supplied on a fully operational basis until May – the most serious consequence of the decision not to attempt any landing east of Algiers. These operations coincided with the U-boats’ record month – 729,160 tons sunk in November 1942. In the second half of 1942 the United States was lending shipping to Great Britain but only on a modest scale, on a short-term basis and in smaller quantity than reverse British lendings to the United States: each American vessel was made available for a single voyage at a time. American aid increased Great Britain’s carrying capacity by 7.5 per cent to 10 per cent in the second half of 1942, but British loans to the United States over the period of the North African campaign ran at the rate of 17 per cent of all the dry cargo tonnage sailing on British account (net of American loaned shipping) during the seven months October 1942 to April 1943. Great Britain’s total dry tonnage cargo committed wholly or primarily to the needs of the armed services was greater than the total of American shipping committed in the same way – 8.5 million tons against 6 million. British requirements were at this time also greater since British troops overseas were more than twice as many as American troops overseas, British theatres of war were about twice as distant from their principal bases as American theatres, and the concurrent British civilian needs had no American counterpart since the United States did not have to import food or, to the same extent, raw materials. During 1942 Great Britain lost on balance 1.4 million gross tons while the United States merchant fleet rose by 2.7 million gross tons. By and large Great Britain’s basic problem was its inability to match sinkings with new building. The United States built in most periods more than it lost, but the net increase in its fleet did not keep pace with the increase in its needs, so that there was a continuing conflict between satisfying the expanding needs of the US armed services and helping Great Britain and other allies.

The turning point in the Battle of the Seas came in the winter of 1942–3. In that period the U-boat was defeated. The Luftwaffe had been eliminated from this battle in 1942. Its anti-shipping force, though skilled, was always small. Its torpedo-carriers were a neglected and minor branch of the service; its long-range F.W. 200s were reduced by bombing of the Bremen factory where they were made; it was too deeply absorbed by prior commitments on the eastern front and in the Mediterranean. The U-boat was the weapon which threatened to turn the allied shipping shortage into an allied defeat, for the U-boat accounted for two thirds of all British, allied and neutral shipping losses during the war – 14.7 million gross tons out of a total of 21.6 million. Aircraft accounted for 13.4 per cent. Surface raiders came third. Of the tonnage sunk by U-boats nearly half – 6.3 million tons – went to the bottom in the year 1942. Over half of all these sinkings were in the North Atlantic.

The U-boats of the First World War had come so close to victory that Great Britain tried after the war to get submarines abolished by international agreement. Yet Germany began the second war with very few. Admiral Karl Doenitz, the commander of the U-boats, had argued in the thirties against the building of capital ships on the grounds that they would not be ready in time and that the space and effort could more profitably be used to build the fleet of 300 submarines with which he reckoned that he could starve Great Britain into surrender. Essentially Doenitz’s argument was the same as that used by the champions of strategic bombing (whom we shall come to in a later chapter): he said that his weapon was a war-winning one on its own. It is not clear whether the verdict of history is that no single weapon can ever do the trick or that no government can ever be persuaded that it will. In any case Doenitz failed to convince Hitler and Germany began the war with fifty-seven submarines, of which thirty-nine were operational when war broke out but only twenty-three were capable of ocean-going operations. With such small numbers Doenitz could not essay the pack tactics which he had been elaborating and the first months of the war produced, as we saw in Part II of this book, no sensational results at sea. Then for eighteen months Germany’s operational submarine force declined and it was not until the summer of 1941 that new construction so far outpaced losses as to give the force a real boost.

The task of defeating Doenitz and assuring Great Britain’s sea-borne supplies fell first and foremost on the Royal Navy. But this was not its only task. It had also to secure its own bases, not one of which at home or overseas – even Scapa Flow – was adequately defended against air and submarine attack at the outbreak of war. It had, until 1940, to be ready to foil an invasion of the British Isles and it had to maintain – and, when lost, re-establish – important strategic routes in the Mediterranean. It had to nullify the German surface fleet. It possessed an impressive number of battleships: Iron Duke, a solitary survivor of the days before the First World War which spent the second war at anchor; ten survivors of the First World War of the Queen Elizabeth and Royal Sovereignclasses; and Nelson and Rodney, both launched in 1925. The tally of capital ships was raised to sixteen by three battle cruisers, also survivors of the First World War. In addition a new class of battleships – King George V and her four sister-ships – had been laid down and the first of these were about to be commissioned. The decision to build these ships has been criticized as an obtuse failure to see that the battleship had had its day and that the money could more profitably have been spent on aircraft carriers, but it has also been pertinently argued that it was impossible in the radarless mid-thirties to foresee that an aircraft carrier and its aircraft could be any use except by day and when there was no fog.

From cruisers downwards the Royal Navy was uncomfortably short of modern vessels. It had sixty-one cruisers, but a third of them had been launched in 1919 or earlier. It had to obtain fifty old destroyers from the United States. Six of its ten aircraft carriers were old or converted, and it lost three soon after the war began. It was primarily designed to fight big fleet actions in which heavy capital ships would be ranged against each other and would prevail through the weight and accuracy of their gunnery; but so far as fleet actions were fought at all in the Second World War they were won by aircraft. It had paid too little attention to the design of aircraft suited for operations at sea – partly because it did not secure full control of its own air arm until 1937 – and it could call on very few long-range reconnaissance aircraft. The weakness in both these categories was not cured until the Americans remedied it. Between the wars it had, unlike the German navy, neglected the magnetic mine which both sides had used successfully in the First World War. It found that the Germans could lay mines faster than it could sweep them. During the crucial years to 1943 it was short of torpedoes, although the torpedo was the most destructive of all the weapons used at sea in the second war. But in spite of this backlog of deficiencies it prevailed because it was a highly professional and valiant force, because its adversaries had even more serious deficiencies and because it was seconded in its tasks by the RAF.

The lesson of the First World War on the protection of merchant shipping was clear: convoys and close escorts. This lesson had, however, been learned late in the war and after Churchill had left the cabinet. The problem was debated again intermittently during the thirties and the convoy system was adopted, hesitantly and conditionally, shortly before the second war broke out. But Churchill did not like close escort work. His conception of the war at sea was a series of sweeps, which he likened to cavalry sweeps. He believed that the emphasis should be at least as much on seeking out and destroying the enemy as on guarding the merchant ships. So the escort vessels available were split between close escort and wide forays. These tactics consumed fuel and wasted bombs and depth charges for comparatively little return, while the merchantmen plied their course at unnecessary risk. They were based on two false assumptions: first, that a convoy was more easily spotted by enemy forces and so more vulnerable than single ships and, secondly, that single ships could fight back successfully if attacked. Not until 1942 did the figures and arguments of operational research convince Churchill that he was wrong, as the British cabinet had been wrong at the beginning of the first war and the Americans continued to be wrong in the second even later than the British.

The risks run by the merchant ships were accentuated by two other factors. Up to mid-1943 the Germans were able to read British naval ciphers which gave them the positions of British surface and submarine vessels and convoys. Secondly, the Royal Navy had been unable before the war to come to any arrangement with the RAF for operational control over the squadrons of Coastal Command, and even when it did so in 1941 that Command was still kept short of modern long-range aircraft which were allotted in priority to Bomber Command. Bomber Command undertook (among its many missions) bombing raids on U-boat bases and building-yards but the effects of these raids were disappointment and some of the aircraft employed in them could have been used to better purpose on Atlantic patrol.

The Battle of the Seas began in earnest after the fall of France. To defend their precious merchantmen the allies had insufficient escort vessels, insufficient reconnaissance aircraft, inadequate intelligence and inadequate gear for detecting submarines and destroying them. The German occupation of French and Norwegian Atlantic ports laid shipping under an aerial surveillance which forced it to take long and devious routes: an average crossing of the north Atlantic took fifteen days, a southerly crossing by way of Freetown in Sierra Leone twenty-one days. Great Britain lacked not only enough escorts to cover the convoys constantly at sea for this length of time but also escorts with enough range to accompany the merchantmen the whole way. At first close escorts accompanied convoys only as far as 15° west longitude – about 200 miles beyond the west coast of Ireland. This limit was gradually extended during 1940 to 19° west. At this point the escorts halted and made rendezvous with an eastbound convoy, which had been escorted by Canadian destroyers for the first 300–400 miles of its journey. But there was a gap in the middle and after the fall of France even short-range German surface forces could operate as far as 25° west. This gap could only be closed by providing escort vessels with a wider radius of action and by routing convoys farther north and giving air cover from Iceland and refuelling facilities there. The sloop, the only escort vessel which could go all the way across the Atlantic, eventually provided continuous protection but sloops were few when war began. Iceland, although occupied in 1940 when Hitler invaded Denmark, was not brought into the Battle of the Atlantic until 1941. Coastal Command was kept busy looking for invasion barges in the North Sea throughout most of 1940, and a request by the Admiralty for a reconnaissance squadron to be stationed in Iceland was not granted until early the next year.

From this date, however, things began to improve. Close escorts were provided up to 35° west, more than half-way from east to west, and from July 1941 convoys were given continuous protection in three stages, covered by groups based in the Western Approaches, Iceland and Newfoundland. But the cover, though continuous, was still thin. Up to the end of 1941 the average number of escorts per convoy was only two. At the same time the continuing lack of long-range reconnaissance aircraft enabled U-boats to patrol on the surface with fair immunity. The older boats took the risk of being spotted, and the newer ones which came into service in 1941 were able to operate beyond the range of British aircraft.

Losses at sea in 1941 of ships sailing on British account totalled 4.3 million gross tons (1,299 vessels). Losses of this order were not replaceable. In 1942 they were much worse: 7.8 million tons (1,664 vessels). The share of the U-boats in the latter year rose to four fifths and the U-boat fleet was growing. A force of ninety-one boats at the beginning of 1942 had grown to 212 by the end of the year despite the loss of eighty-seven boats during the year. In one battle in March 1942 U-boats caught two convoys at once and sank twenty-one out of ninety-eight vessels with the loss of only one U-boat. An action of this kind, which sent over 140,000 tons of shipping to the bottom, went a long way towards giving Doenitz the 800,000 tons a month which he was aiming at. A few months later, when American escort vessels were almost completely withdrawn from the regular Atlantic convoy service for tasks in the Pacific or to support the coming landings in North Africa, the U-boats scored heavily and consistently. They developed new tactics whereby one boat acted as a tracker which signalled the position of a convoy to other boats which then assembled for a surface attack by night. The weakness of these tactics was the need to break wireless silence and so reveal the position of the tracker to the allied listening services, but the risks proved worthwhile and Doenitz was not far wrong when he concluded that he was achieving his monthly target and his Führer’s aim. But the sinkings of March 1942 – 273 ships totalling 834,164 tons – were only once exceeded – in June when 173 ships totalling 834,196 tons were lost. These were sinkings from all causes. In November exceptional successes by U-boats pushed the total above 800,000 once more and for the last time.

The Atlantic was the one place where Great Britain could still lose the war. The U-boats might starve Britain of food and weapons of war and prevent the Americans from assembling in Great Britain the vast strengths needed to force a re-entry into France and so beat Hitler. In London an anti-U-boat committee was formed, consisting of British and American brass and boffins under the chairmanship of Churchill himself. During 1942 new radar detectors and new offensive weapons, such as new kinds of depth charge, were introduced; at the end of the year the strategic bombers of both nations were directed to attack, as first priority, U-boat construction yards in Germany and U-boat bases in France; and in December the Ultra cryptographers delivered a critical blow by breaking the new U-boat Enigma key.

Bletchley had been reading the German navy’s principal cipher from March 1941. This cipher was used by the Atlantic U-boats until early in 1942, when these boats were given a new cipher of their own, thus blotting out for an unforeseeable period the British Admiralty’s chief source of information about the movements and intentions of the U-boats. Naval Enigma was always more difficult to break than other keys because the machines used by the German navy were the most complex. Nevertheless the new key was broken in December and the U-boat threat began immediately to fade. In March 1943 the boats scored their last major victory when they sank thirty-two vessels for the loss of only one boat (they had at this time over one hundred boats at sea at a time) but a few weeks later they broke off an engagement in which they had lost six boats, and after further defeats of this kind they completely withdrew for a time from the Atlantic. New boats continued to be commissioned, but the rate of sinkings began to catch up with the rate of production and by 1944, when the Atlantic became a highway crowded with men and munitions making for France and Germany itself, U-boat sinkings exceeded in tonnage the allies, losses in merchant shipping. Altogether 1,162 U-boats were built and commissioned during the war and 941 of them were sunk or surrendered in the course of it. One of these was captured by an aircraft.


The latter phase of the war against the U-boats was waged simultaneously with the battle in Arctic waters in which the German surface fleet and the Luftwaffe joined to prevent the dispatch of allied aid to the Russians and to sink the allied vessels carrying it. After the loss of Bismarck in 1941 Hitler had little use for his capital ships but during 1942 he concentrated them in Norway, chiefly because he was afraid that the allies intended to invade that country. Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz was moved to Trondhjem in January. The battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Prinz Eugen were recalled in February from Brest on Hitler’s direct order (once again he had to override his professional advisers, Raeder considering the order so crazy that he refused to take responsibility for it). They succeeded in running the gauntlet of the English Channel by day to reach home ports, whence Prinz Eugen was directed to Norway. She was damaged by a torpedo on her way and had to turn back but Germany’s strength in northern waters was further increased by the dispatch of the cruiser Admiral Hipper and the two battleships Scheer and Lützowand, in the following winter, two more cruisers and Scharnhorst and – once again – Prinz Eugen. Although Lützow ran aground and was out of action for several months, this build-up was alarming for the British Admiralty, the more so since attempts to cripple ships by air attack in harbour had proved disappointing. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had survived a winter’s battering in Brest before making their successful dash up the Channel and it was proving impossible to do any real damage to Tirpitz in her narrow anchorage up the Trondhjem fjord.

Tirpitz, like Bismarck before her, was the most powerful vessel on either side in the Atlantic war. Yet she took part in no battle. Launched in April 1939, she did her trials in the Baltic during 1941 and was dispatched to Norwegian waters at the beginning of 1942. The British Admiralty feared another sortie into the Atlantic, like Bismarck’s the year before, and these fears gave rise to one of the most brilliantly daring ventures of the war. If Tirpitz made for the Atlantic, she would probably sooner or later need to put in at St Nazaire. An old American destroyer, Campbeltown, disguised as a German ship and filled with explosives, was sailed up the Loire estuary to St Nazaire, deceiving the German gunners defending the harbour until the last few minutes. Her captain and crew sailed her straight at the dock gates and rammed them, while commandos landed to destroy other selected installations. The next day Campbeltown blew up. The dock at St Nazaire was never repaired by the Germans.


But although Tirpitz never attempted a foray like Bismarck’s she indirectly inflicted grievous losses on allied shipping in Arctic waters. Churchill’s response to Stalin’s request for help in 1941 had been not merely generous in spirit but incautious in degree. He promised a convoy every ten days, to the dismay of the Admiralty which was thinking in terms of one every forty days – if it had to run any at all against such suicidal odds. The run of 1,500–2,000 miles lay through seas made dangerous by icebergs, tempests, fogs and interference to radar by natural causes. It was almost entirely within the range of the Luftwaffe, to which the interminable daylight of the summer months was an extra boon. The convoys could not sail eastward beyond a certain point without courting the risks of attack by shore-based German bombers and of a major fleet action should German capital ships put to sea. It was therefore necessary to consider in advance which mattered more, the merchantmen or the escorts. If the merchantmen, then the escorts must be committed to the risk of heavy losses. If the escorts, then the merchantmen must in a crisis be abandoned. The Admiralty, faced with this predicament by Churchill’s insistence on the overriding need to get supplies to the USSR by this route, decided that if and when a choice had to be made the merchantmen would be abandoned.

The first convoy sailed from Iceland in September 1941 and was followed by others at the rate of one about every two weeks. Their destination was Archangel or Murmansk, the former being seasonally, and the latter permanently, ice free. Murmansk’s more temperate clime was offset by the fact that in 1941 it was only thirty miles from the front, and the Russians therefore preferred Archangel and undertook to keep it open with eight to ten icebreakers. But only two of these materialized and after one had been hit by a bomb in January 1942 five British ships were frozen into the ice for the rest of the winter. The principal problems of these early convoys were the shortage of escort vessels, the natural hazards of the journey, the inadequacy of ice-breaking and unloading facilities at the Russian end and the failure of the Russians to provide coal, ballast, stores or fresh water for the return journeys. The ships employed on this task, which were among Great Britain’s newest and best, had to be specially fitted to withstand the climate. Once so equipped they were virtually restricted to the Arctic run, and the tying up of six or seven merchant ships a month was an appreciable drain on Great Britain’s hard-pressed merchant fleet.

German opposition did not at first make itself felt. Twelve convoys reached their destinations intact. But PQ 12 was the last to do so. Goods were piling up in Iceland and with the knowledge of this situation Stalin was pressing for the fulfilment of the ten-day pledge. Early in 1942 Churchill, against the advice of the Admiralty, promised three convoys of twenty-five to thirty-five ships every two months. In June AQ 17, consisting of thirty-five merchantmen and one tanker, set sail for Archangel.


The British Admiralty was not only a Department of State and a General Staff but also an operational headquarters. It conducted battles. There was therefore a division of authority between the Admiralty and – in this case – the Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-American covering force, Admiral Sir John Tovey, who was flying his flag in the newly commissioned battleship Duke of York. The Admiralty, fearful of the powers of Tirpitz and mindful of the dilemma posed by each PQ convoy in turn, had decided that if a German surface force appeared the cruiser and destroyer escort force was to be ordered to withdraw and the convoy to scatter, each merchant vessel being left to make its way to its destination as best it could on its own; the convoy was to be dissolved upon any threat of hostile surface action; an attack by Tirpitz on the allied navies was not to be faced.

The convoy was spotted by the Germans on 1 July and air attacks began on the 4th, when four ships were sunk. Before this attack Admiralty intelligence gave strong indications that Tirpitz had put to sea. The order to scatter was given and the naval escort was withdrawn westward. Tirpitzhad not in fact left Trondhjem (although she did so later). Thus the convoy was left exposed to air and U-boat attack. The result was a massacre. Twenty-four of the thirty-five ships went to the bottom. The German surface forces did not need to join in the action. They had achieved their object without doing so.

This catastrophe dictated a pause. PQ 18, sailing in September, was escorted by an aircraft carrier and lost no more than thirteen of its forty ships, and PQ 19 was not dispatched until December. Between-whiles thirteen ships attempted the passage singly. Only five of them made it. During 1943 no convoys sailed in the light months. But the pressures on the Russians had been eased by the victories of their own arms. The northern convoys caused hard feelings and produced bitter words between the allies so long as allied aid seemed a matter of life and death to the Russians, while the carrying of it was not only a severe strain on specially strained shipping resources but also peculiarly dangerous to the men engaged in it. These convoys lost 7.5 per cent of their cargoes, as compared with losses of 0.7 per cent in the Atlantic. Forty convoys in all sailed east, thirty-seven back; 811 merchantmen set out on the passage east, 715 back; 100 ships were sunk, 2,800 men died.

Not all aid to the USSR went this way. In fact rather less than a quarter of it did, the principal route being through Iran. After the war the Russian economist N. A. Voznesenski estimated allied aid at 4 per cent of the USSR’s own production; western estimates range a little higher. In figures the United States delivered supplies to the value of $11.3 billion, Great Britain £428 millions’ worth. In retrospect the lists are long, dry sets of figures which are difficult to take in: 22,000 aircraft, 13,000 tanks, 2.7 million tons of petrol, 15 million pairs of boots, 2,000 telephones and a million miles of field telephone cable; but while the war was being fought these shipments were very much more than sets of figures, especially in 1941–2 when the Russians were recovering from the first shocks and, as we shall see in the next chapter, struggling to salvage and move factories and get industrial production going again. One tenth (in value) of American supplies consisted of food and this, together with the miscellaneous deliveries of vehicles, chemicals, clothing, tents, blankets, leather goods, radio equipment and medicine were probably even more welcome than the tanks and aircraft which the Russians soon began to turn out for themselves, of excellent quality and in huge numbers.


The harassing of the northern convoys was the last exploit of the German high seas fleet. In September 1943 British midget submarines – craft of fifty feet manned by specially intrepid crews of four – attacked Tirpitz at her anchorage up Trondhjem fjord and put her out of action for six months. But the British Admiralty dared not let this powerful vessel remain in being. Her very existence was a threat, even though she remained inactive. Aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, flying off aircraft carriers, inflicted further blows on her in April 1944 but the damage was comparatively light and further attacks failed. Then Bomber Command was called upon. A first attack by Lancasters operating with 12,000 lb. bombs from Russian airfields crippled her in September but left her afloat. A second attack by Lancasters in November sank her. Scharnhorst had been sunk a year earlier and the German surface fleet had long since ceased to play the role which Grand Admiral Raeder had looked forward to. He had resigned his command at the beginning of 1943 when his fleet was already crippled by fuel shortages and the loss of the Führer’s confidence. Hitler felt that the men could be better used in other ways and talked of de-commissioning all capital ships. Above and below the waters the command of the seas was no longer disputed anywhere except between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific.

The high seas and the ships sailing upon them had been used to ensure or interdict supplies, not to stage major naval battles. There was nothing like the Battle of Jutland, let alone Trafalgar. The vital issues in the Battle of the Seas were, first, whether the British people should get enough to eat, British factories get enough to keep going and the British armed services get enough to fight on; and secondly, the movement of troops across the seas. The worst months of the blockade were also the months in which command of the seas was an issue all over the world – in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as the Atlantic – and all the active theatres of war depended on the movement of tens of thousands of men and their equipment every month. The Americans, unaided, were fully committed in the Pacific, so that the armies which they had promised to send eastward in fulfilment of their pledge to put Europe first had to be transported largely in non-American vessels. The major role in keeping the routes open was played by the British with material help from some of their European allies. The British merchant service was maintained throughout the war at a strength of about 145,000 men. Volunteers could and did enter it at the age of sixteen. Employment was traditionally by the voyage, that is to say, any seaman could leave his ship upon his return from any voyage; but none did so. After March 1941 the government had the power to prevent seamen from leaving the service and to direct former seamen back to it, but the flow of volunteers was such that it never had to worry about the manning of the ships. Thirty-two thousand died directly or indirectly through enemy action and many more were disabled.

The defeat of the U-boat was, like the Battle of Waterloo, a ‘damned nice thing – the nearest run thing’. The Germans came closer to victory at sea than anywhere else after 1941, and at the time of their defeat in 1943 they had not exhausted their capabilities. They lost, not because they had no more cards to play, but because they played them just too late. They had a new long-range torpedo which could be fired from ranges outside the scanning range of the victim’s detecting apparatus; with this torpedo they could strike before being seen. They also had a faster U-boat equipped with the new device called Schnorkel. Thanks to its speed this boat could overtake and then outdistance vessels previously immune and thanks to its Schnorkel, a tube which just broke surface and enabled it to breathe without surfacing, it could remain virtually concealed from sight and from radar. These innovations did not have the chance to take effect in the battle because allied skills had beaten the U-boat back to a position of no recovery.

The U-boat had started the war in a theoretically winning position because it was too difficult to detect and destroy. Sailing faster and deeper than the submarines of the First World War and more strongly built it was almost out of sight and, except when directly hit, it was impervious to depth charges which had improved little over twenty years. Yet, fortunately for Great Britain, it was still essentially what it had been in the First World War – a submersible surface craft and not one which could live permanently beneath the waters. It had to surface to live and it was therefore still vulnerable to detection and destruction by an enemy who knew where it was and had good enough weapons. Its main weaknesses were its inescapable need to surface to recharge its batteries and the practice, enforced by the German High Command, of maintaining contact with home and so betraying its position from time to time by breaking wireless silence. These weaknesses, coupled with the small number of available U-boats in the first two years of war, enabled the allies to turn the tables. As in the air, Great Britain’s lead in radar was crucial. Radar was used to find the U-boats when they were forced to surface and a variant of radar – asdic or sonar, developed in both Great Britain and the United States – probed beneath the seas to find submerged boats. The Ultra breakthrough robbed the unwitting U-boat of its invisibility, and as Coastal Command acquired aircraft which could fly farther, detect at great ranges and with greater accuracy and carry more lethal weapons than the pre-war depth charges, so the U-boat was forced from the offensive to the defensive. It did not recover in time to stage another round. Its reverses in 1943 added up to final defeat.

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