IN 1917, GERMANY HAD very nearly brought Great Britain to defeat and starvation by the use of submarines. She never came quite that close in World War II. There were periods when the Germans were actually winning, but in the longest and most crucial battle of the war, to keep the sea lanes to the United Kingdom open, the Royal Navy mastered the challenge. The Battle of the Atlantic was a super-scale Battle of Britain, spread out over five years.
There were several different aspects to it. The longest and most dangerous was between the escort vessels and the German submarines, and it started with the declaration of war and did not end definitively until the last German U-boat surrendered in May of 1945. This campaign passed through several phases, dictated both by geographical shifts of emphasis, and by the introduction of new tactics and techniques. When people speak of “the Battle of the Atlantic,” it is the submarine campaign they are usually thinking of.
Besides that, the Germans also had a respectable surface fleet. They did not hope to challenge the Royal Navy for overall control of the sea; their own fleet was not that strong. Instead, they used their battleships and pocket-battleships as raiders, sending them out on sorties designed to catch and destroy the occasional convoy. This was expensive for the British, for it meant that many of their large fleet units had to be employed as convoy escorts, in case a German battleship should suddenly loom over the horizon. But it was also expensive for the Germans, because the British eventually caught or ran to earth almost all of their major units. Some naval authorities argue that the whole surface effort on the part of the Germans was a vast and costly diversion, and that if the money, men, and material that were put into battleships had gone into submarines instead, Germany would have won the Battle of the Atlantic—and possibly the war.
This argument, which is central enough to the course of the war to explore for a moment, goes essentially back to the American naval theorist Alfred T. Mahan. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Mahan analyzed how Britain had gained her supremacy at sea and held it. His conclusion was that the dominant element in sea power was a large battle fleet able to destroy an enemy fleet, or blockade it in its harbors, so that one kept the seas open for one’s own use. Mere commerce raiding, he said, had never been decisive, and had always been a second-class alternative for a second-class power.
Just before he wrote, there was a French school of naval thought known as the Jeune école; its writers maintained that commerce raiding could indeed be decisive, especially against a state such as Great Britain that depended increasingly upon imports for its livelihood. Most writers and naval leaders, however, agreed with Mahan, and at the opening of the twentieth century all the navies of the world were busily building battleships. It was this race that produced the German High Seas Fleet which challenged the Royal Navy, and lost, in World War I.
The irony of Mahan’s writings was that at the very time when they were uncritically accepted, technology was producing weapons that challenged their validity. Steam and oil made close blockade increasingly difficult and the development of the submarine provided a commerce raider that was so effective that perhaps commerce raiding could win wars after all. The submarine in its early days, however, was not seen as a raider—Europe was too civilized for that—but rather as a weapon against enemy warships. Only as World War I progressed in nastiness did the submarine achieve its true role as a killer of merchant ships. When it did, the Germans very nearly won the war with it. Had they had more subs and fewer battleships, they probably would have won.
In 1939, both sides went to war with the experience of World War I fresh in their minds. The junior officers of the first war were the senior officers of the second. The Germans therefore immediately began submarine warfare, and the British immediately instituted their countermeasures, foremost among them the convoy system. Both sides enjoyed advantages, and suffered disadvantages, that they had not had in the last war.
First among these was geography. The advantage in this lay definitely with the Germans. At the start of the war, things were much as they had been before, with one exception: the independence of Ireland. In 1914-18, the British had operated large escort forces out of their base at Queenstown on the southern coast of Ireland. When the Irish Free State gained its independence the British lost the base. This pushed their escort forces back at least a hundred miles to the east, which meant two hundred miles coming and going; that in turn made the mid-Atlantic operational gap wider, and many British sailors would die in the waters off Iceland because of Irish neutrality.
After the 1940 campaigns, geography took another turn against the Royal Navy. The Germans occupied Norway and were able to operate out through the Norwegian Sea into the northern waters. When Russia came into the war the British convoys to North Russia were harassed all the way by attacks from Norwegian bases, and the convoys to Murmansk and Archangel had to run the gauntlet of U-boats, air attacks, surface ships, and even small motor torpedo boats. A sailor abandoning ship or a pilot shot down from the sky was dead in less than a minute in the waters off northern Norway, and the casualty toll on the Russian runs ran ten times higher than on the North Atlantic run.
The Germans also occupied the entire Atlantic coast of France, and were able to base their U-boats at Cherbourg, Brest, and Lorient as well as the smaller ports on the Bay of Biscay. From Brest and Lorient they were as far west as the British themselves, so geography was definitely on their side, compared with what it had been in the last war.
The British enjoyed some advantages, too. In World War I it took them three years to bring in a convoy system, because they thought the complexity of loading, marshaling, sailing, and unloading steamships would make it impossible. They found when they finally tried it that they had been wrong, and the convoy system, passive defense though it was, became the major anti-U-boat instrument. Now, in 1939, they resorted to it immediately. The Admiralty had the plans all worked out, and the whole mechanism began with the very declaration of war.
An underlying assumption of the convoy idea is that it is as difficult to find a block of fifty ships in the immensity of the ocean as it is to find one ship. Therefore, if you concentrate the ships in such a block, you have immediately reduced by fifty times the odds of their being spotted by an enemy. Further, if they are concentrated, it becomes possible to provide an armed naval escort for them. The enemy has to come to the convoy to destroy it, and that brings him to the escort as well, and it can destroy him. So you have fewer—if slightly larger—needles in the haystack, and you have some protection against the man looking for them.
The British problem was that they had few escorts, and the German problem was that they had few submarines. In fact, the Germans had only about thirty-nine U-boats at the outbreak of war, and that included several short-range training boats for the Baltic. Out of roughly thirty, a third would be on overhaul and a third in transit to operating areas at any given time. That left them only about ten boats actually on station to sink ships.
But the Royal Navy was almost as short of escort vessels. Destroyers were too expensive, and they were critically short of them anyway. They hoped at first to escort convoys with armed tugs and fishing trawlers, but these simply could not stand up to the North Atlantic. The answer eventually was found in the slower-speed escort vessel known as the corvette—the Americans called it a frigate—and these uncomfortable little ships finally bore the brunt of the Battle of the Atlantic. There were not too many of them to begin with, but the lull from 1939 to the end of the Battle of France gave the British just enough time to bring numbers of them into service. Both sides were slow to get started, but on balance, the British profited more by the breathing space.
The first ten months of the war, until the fall of France, was a period in which the contestants groped their way toward some conception of what was actually going to happen. Prior to war, the Germans had signed agreements restricting the use of submarines against merchant shipping, but these soon went by the board. The British expected that they would, and even before war began they were making plans to arm their merchant vessels. After 1945, both sides threw charges against the other of the “he-did-it-first” variety, but these are largely retrospective rationalizations. The U-boat was just too good a weapons system, and the merchant ship too crucial a target, for either side to be unduly concerned with the niceties of behavior. It is difficult to think of an instance in history when a weapon that was available and effective—gas was not—has not been used by the state possessing it.
On the day war was declared, the German U-30 torpedoed and sank the passenger liner Athenia with no warning and with large loss of life. The British made capital out of this, and the Germans did their best to deny the matter; in fact the U-boat commander either acted against his orders or misread them, but the damage had been done. After that beginning the campaign slowed down, and until June of 1940, the Allies were ahead on points, sinking more U-boats than the Germans commissioned, for their own loss of 222 ships, about 100,000 tons a month. The Germans calculated that they would have to sink about three-quarters of a million tons a month to defeat Britain, so 100,000 a month, whatever agony it meant for those involved, was not an unacceptable loss. More serious in this period were the German air strikes against convoys along the vulnerable east coast of Britain, for which the Royal Air Force had made no provision.
Equally important right from the start was the influence of new techniques and new technology. The British found, for example, that their Coastal Command air patrols were an effective anti-submarine device, and this element would increase in importance until the U-boat was mastered. The Germans introduced a new wrinkle by sowing magnetic mines in the Channel, and the British were for a while at a loss to counter them. The magnetic mine sat on the sea floor, and when a ship passed over it, it was detonated by the magnetic field generated by the ship. The whole British minesweeping service was set up to deal with moored contact mines, which float just below the surface of the water, and are moored to the bottom by a long cable. To defeat these the minesweeper cuts the cable, the mine floats to the surface, and the sweeper destroys it with small arms fire. With no vulnerable cable to be cut, the magnetic mine was for a while unbeatable. Fortunately, in November a mine was dropped on a tidal flat, the British retrieved and examined it, and were able to develop countermeasures. One of these was a device known as degaussing, in which an electric cable was run around a ship’s hull. A current activated through this cable counteracted the magnetic field of the ship itself, so that there would be no disturbance to detonate the mine.
Throughout the war, there was a constant battle by the scientists to invent new weapons, and to counter them, so that the war had two incongruous aspects: on the one hand, the completely objective and scientific search for improvement, on the other, the physical, dangerous business of putting those weapons to use. The war produced its own schizophrenia.
In October, the Germans scored another striking material, and even greater propaganda, success when U-47 worked its way inside the northern British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, and torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak; she took more than 800 men to the bottom with her, and the whole matter was a severe blow to British pride.
The U-boat campaign began to increase in intensity after the fall of France. Norwegian and French bases were now available, and the Germans were putting more effort into submarine construction. The British had lost heavily in their destroyer and escort forces in the Norwegian campaign and at Dunkirk; the new corvettes were not ready until late in the summer and early in the fall, and the services of the French Navy were also lost. Late 1940 saw the American destroyers-for-bases deal, but in spite of extensive news coverage, the fifty old American ships needed a great deal of work, and had no more than a marginal effect on British needs.
Losses mounted steadily. From June of 1940 till the end of the year, the British lost 638 ships, almost a threefold increase over the previous period. In the first six months of 1941, they lost more than seven hundred. They tried various expedients; Coastal Command was strengthened, and attacking the U-boats got equal priority with reconnaissance. The arming of merchant ships continued, and the use of the Q-ship was increased. This was a heavily armed vessel disguised as a merchant ship; the idea was to fool the submarine into thinking that it had an easy target, so that it would surface to finish it off with gunfire. Then the decoy ship would let down false partitions and stagings and sink the U-boat with its hidden guns. It was a pretty hazardous business, and in a sense it was self-defeating, for if the Q-ships succeeded often enough, the Germans would soon learn not to surface, but to rely on torpedoes instead.
The British discovered that aircraft were among the most effective means of countering the submarines, but not until the production of the small escort carrier, with a flight deck built on a merchant ship hull, did they have enough ships to provide most convoys with air escort outside the range of land-based planes. As an interim measure they introduced the catapult fighter. They put steam catapults on some merchant ships, and mounted a Hurricane on them. When a German reconnaissance plane was sighted, or a submarine on the surface, the Hurricane would be shot off from the catapult and do its bit. The obvious limitation on this was that the Hurricane was not a seaplane. Once in the air, if it could not make it to land, it had to ditch, hopefully alongside an escort which would then pick up the pilot. It was a pretty desperate business, but 1941 and 1942 called for pretty desperate measures.
The Germans responded by producing bigger and better U-boats that could range farther into the Atlantic, to the areas beyond the effective reach of the short-range escorts or the land-based planes. The British then had to develop means of refueling their escorts at sea, so they could go all the way across to Halifax in Nova Scotia, or St. John’s in Newfoundland. That eventually got rid of the mid-ocean gap, but it increased the strain and the wear and tear on men and ships. The German shift to mid-Atlantic brought increasing conflict with the United States, but that did not unduly hinder the submarine operations, though there was some falling off of sinkings in the second six months of 1941.
Hitler’s U-boat commanders introduced new tactics, too. They had originally operated independently, and like successful trout fishermen, the leading aces had their own private fishing grounds. Now they brought in group tactics; the first U-boat to spot a convoy would surface and radio a report to U-boat headquarters, which would then signal other U-boats in the area. Or German long-range reconnaissance planes, the famous Focke-Wulf Condors, would radio back reports. The subs would home in on the convoy, form a “wolf-pack,” and systematically attack it and whittle it down. The British intercepted the radio signals, and in their turn warned their escorts what to expect. Each night the submarines would make their attacks; in the morning they would meet behind the convoy, figure out what to do next, and sail on the surface to get ahead of their victim. The U-boats were generally faster on the surface than were the convoys, zigzagging and tied to the speed of the slowest merchantman. Night would come and the subs would close in again, sometimes with spectacular results. A tanker would burn for hours, unless it were loaded with gas, in which case it would go in one huge flash. A ship loaded with iron ore would sink in less than a minute. The escorts would churn about frantically dropping depth charges and trying to keep the subs away from their victims, and in the morning, the convoy would close up its empty spaces and plod doggedly along.
Sailors developed a grim appreciation of their chances, measured in how you slept: if you carried iron ore, you slept on deck, for if hit by a torpedo, there were only seconds to get clear. If you carried general cargo, you could sleep below decks, but had to leave your door open, and sleep with your clothes on so you would have time to get out. If you were on a tanker carrying aviation gas, you could undress, close your cabin door, and have a good night’s sleep, because if you were hit, it wasn’t going to make any difference at all; you’d never get out anyway.
Eventually, to deal with the wolf-packs, the British introduced the hunter-killer group. This was an escort group that was unattached, a sort of fire-brigade free to come to the rescue of convoys under attack; once it found a wolf-pack, it could harry the U-boats just as they had harried the convoy. But this came only later, when the Allies had sufficient material to afford such luxuries.
In early 1942, with the entry of the United States into the war, the U-boat campaign hit its stride. For the Germans the first six months went down in legend as “the happy time” or “the American hunting season.” The Americans were by no means fully organized for war, and U-boat operations shifted to the eastern seaboard. Large replenishment submarines known as “milch cows” brought fuel, torpedoes, and supplies over to submarines which remained on station off New York, Boston, Charleston, and Gulf Coast ports. The American cities were in many cases not even blacked out, and the Germans had a field day sinking ships silhouetted against the lights as they moved along the coast. It got so bad for a while that there was a “reverse Lend-Lease” with British and Canadian corvettes turned over to the Americans and Royal Navy ships escorting American merchantmen up and down the Atlantic coast. In two weeks the Germans sank twenty-five ships—200,000 tons—off the coast of Florida. The Florida towns refused to turn their lights off at night because it would damage their tourist trade. In February, 432,000 tons went down, 80 percent of it in American coastal waters. By spring the Germans were winning the war.
The crisis continued through the summer, but both the British and Americans rallied to it. Massive shipbuilding programs in the United States began to catch up with the losses; increased numbers of air patrols kept watch over the convoy lanes. At sea there was a deadly equilibrium, with the escorts and the U-boats locked in a death grapple. But between the new escorting tactics and the accelerating production, the situation began to stabilize. November of 1942 was the last month in which shipping losses outpaced construction. By the end of the year, though it was hard to be certain, the Allies had turned the corner.
Through 1943 the Allies tried to retain the advantage, and the Germans strove desperately to recapture it. Both sides were, now fully aware of the importance of the Atlantic, both knew that whoever won that battle would eventually win the war. When they met at Casablanca in January of 1943, the Allied leaders decided the U-boat was their absolutely first priority. They diverted their strategic bombing campaign to U-boat bases and building yards, they increased their production of ships, escorts, escort carriers, and anti-submarine patrol aircraft, and through 1943 they brought these new weapons and their new tactics into use.
The Germans too increased their efforts. They built bigger and better submarines, armed them with more anti-aircraft weapons, laid more mines and developed better ones. The search for new weapons continued. The Allies produced the hedgehog, a multiple projectile that would fire ahead of the escort while it still had sonar contact with the sub; it was several times more efficient than the old World War I–style depth charge. The Germans riposted with the acoustic torpedo, which would home in on the noise of the ship’s propeller, follow the wake of the ship, and hit in the stern. The Allies answered that with a towed box that imitated a propeller’s noise and caused the torpedo to detonate prematurely. The Germans, just too late, introduced the snorkel breathing tube, similar to that used by skindivers today, so that a sub could get air and recharge its batteries without surfacing. At the end of the war, one German submarine went from Norway to Argentina on its snorkel; the crew turned green, but they made it.
Through 1943 and after, things went downhill for the Germans. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand; finally, in 1944, as the ring closed in on Germany, the U-boats’ Atlantic bases were lost one by one; all the old aces disappeared—bombed, depth-charged, rammed, or sunk by gunfire. New replacements drafted out of the surface navy went to sea and never came back. U-boat sailors who survived one patrol became veterans, those who survived two were old men at twenty. The happy days were gone, and gone forever. The seas calmed, the wreckage disappeared, the sinkings stopped.
The statistics of the Battle of the Atlantic defy the imagination. More than 2,600 ships were sunk, totaling over 15,000,000 tons. The British alone lost about 30,000 sailors of the Royal Navy, and 30,000 of the merchant service. The Germans built 1,162 U-boats during the course of the war; 785 of them were sunk, 156 surrendered at the end of the war, and the rest were either scuttled or otherwise destroyed. Almost 41,000 men served in the U-boats; 5,000 were taken prisoner, and 28,000 were killed. In balance the campaign was more costly for the Allies than for the Germans, but they could afford the losses better—they had no choice in the matter.
The merchant ships, corvettes, and submarines were always there. They hit the headlines only when there was some spectacular disaster, such as befell the famous Convoy PQ17, a north Russian convoy, in midsummer of 1942, when it lost twenty-two out of thirty-three ships. But for the most part the battle of the convoys went on almost unheralded. It was when the big ships clashed that excitement peaked.
The major surface units of the German fleet, all of them new, were qualitatively among the best in the world. Ship for ship they were superior to the equivalent units of the Royal Navy, most of which were older and designed to meet a wider variety of needs. The Germans, for example, did not have the imperial responsibilities that required British ships to sail all over the world; with fewer habitability problems, they were able to provide better damage control facilities, and such factors counted heavily in battle. But there were not enough German ships to make an open challenge, and therefore they reverted to the classic role of the inferior power, the guerre de course, the attempt to destroy the enemy’s maritime trade. Their super battleships became powerful but expensive commerce raiders.
Some of the Kriegsmarine’s ships were at sea when war was declared. One of them, the Deutschland, managed to sink only two merchant ships before coming home through the Denmark Strait; afraid of the propaganda effect if a ship with such a name were sunk, Hitler rechristened her Luetzow, after a cruiser given to Russia. Far more spectacular was what happened to the other pocket-battleship at sea, the Graf Spee.
Under Captain Hans Langsdorf, Graf Spee was at large in the mid-Atlantic in early September. For two months she ranged the south Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, sinking 50,000 tons of shipping. She then returned to try the rich hunting off the South American coast, and it was there, early on the morning of December 13, that she was run to earth by a British squadron of one heavy and two light cruisers, Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles. Someone on Graf Spee made a costly recognition mistake, and assessed the enemy as a light cruiser and two destroyers rather than what they really were. The Germans bore on to attack. The British split into two divisions, forcing Graf Spee to divide her fire; Exeter was very badly hurt, but so was the German, and though Langsdorf could probably have finished off his opponents, he broke away instead and took refuge in Montevideo. While the Germans hastily made all the repairs they were allowed in a neutral port the British mustered the watchdogs around the lair. On the evening of the 17th, huge crowds watched as the battered German raider steamed out to sea for her last fight. Then, to everyone’s surprise, instead of going down in a blaze of glory, the Germans set off charges and scuttled the ship in the Plate Estuary. Three hours later, the minuscule British squadron that Graf Spee dared not face sailed triumphantly into the harbor. Poor Langsdorf shot himself to refute any charge of cowardice, but the world drew its own conclusions about how long it takes to build a naval tradition and how Britannia still ruled the waves.
There were already examples of that. In November, the Germans had shaken loose two more raiders, the beautiful battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, at the time the finest ships in commission in the German Navy. On the 23rd, they sighted an armed merchant cruiser on the Northern Patrol; H. M. S. Rawalpindi signaled “Enemy battle cruisers in sight” and took her six-inch guns into battle against the Germans’ eleven-inch guns. They finished her off in sixteen minutes, but then they scurried back home, successfully evading the pursuing British main fleet units.
The spring and summer of 1940 were busy with the Norwegian affair, the fall of France, and the unhappy episodes of British ships attacking the French fleet. Not until October of 1940 did the big ships clash again. The pocket-battleship Scheer got out then, and on November 5 she ambushed an eastbound convoy of thirty-seven merchantmen, escorted only by another armed merchant cruiser, H. M. S. Jervis Bay. Captain Fogarty Fegen of Jervis Bay steamed straight for the giant, and though the old merchantman never had a chance, her destruction took long enough for the convoy to scatter. Scheer caught only five of them. The German cruiser Hipper broke loose in early December; on Christmas morning she attacked a troop convoy, but the heavy escort drove her off, and she eventually went to Brest.
In January of 1941, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Hipper all went to sea together; they were at large for sixty days and sank twenty-two ships before they returned to French ports. That was just a warm-up for the main event, however. In May, the mightiest ship in the world, the brand-new Bismarck, sailed from Gotenhavn in company with the cruiser Prinz Eugen.
The ensuing chase was the high point of the naval war in the Atlantic. The Germans went far north of Iceland, then came south through the Denmark Strait, close to the ice ringing Greenland. Five days out, they were sighted by H. M. S. Suffolk, a cruiser on the Northern Patrol. Suffolk shadowed them while heavy British units closed in to contact. The first to meet them were the Hood and the Prince of Wales, one long the pride of the Royal Navy, the other brand-new and still carrying dockyard workers who were caught aboard the ship as she hastily put to sea.
The giants opened fire at each other in the long Arctic dawn on the 24th, Empire Day, at a range of about twelve and a half miles. The ships were positioned in such a way that only the forward British guns could fire, while all the Germans’ bore on target. They concentrated on Hood, and at 0600 Bismarck’s fourth salvo hit her four-inch-gun magazine, aft of the mainmast. The explosion flashed into the main after-magazine for the fifteen-inch guns. There was a huge pillar of fire that soared a thousand feet into the air, a horrendous explosion, and Hood broke in half; her bow and stern reared up out of the water, and within ninety seconds she was gone. She took 1,418 men with her; three members of the crew survived. The Germans raced on south, and the badly hurt Prince of Wales turned away, after hitting one of Bismarck’s fuel tanks.
The Admiralty now concentrated every effort on closing a ring around the Germans; their net eventually included five battleships, two aircraft carriers, nine cruisers, and eighteen destroyers. For some of these, such as the old battleship Ramilles, detached from duty as a convoy escort, meeting the Germans would have been little short of suicide, but there was no way they would allow Bismarck to get away.
Yet the sea was wide, and Admiral Gunther Lutjens, flying his flag in Bismarck, might well survive his foray. To the south of him there remained huge gaps. German U-boats were concentrating below Greenland to provide a cordon for him, and if he turned east and managed to shake off pursuit, he might get under the air umbrella from the French coast. At dark on the 24th, he detached Prinz Eugen, and she eventually got home safely. The British cruisers were still successfully shadowing Bismarck, though, and at midnight she was attacked by Swordfish torpedo planes; they scored one hit, but it was right on her main armor belt and did no damage. Soon after that, Lutjens turned southeast, and the British lost contact.
For the next thirty-six hours the Germans had the sea to themselves. The British net was gradually tightening, but they were not totally sure the quarry was inside it. They assumed Lutjens was making for the French coast, but they could not be certain. Then at mid-morning of the 26th, a Catalina flying boat sighted Bismarck, only 690 miles from Brest. By now the ships in the British ring were getting low on fuel, but if they moved properly, they would still catch her.
Soon after the Catalina sighting, aircraft from the carrier Ark Royal, operating hitherto in the Mediterranean, picked up the German, and the cruiser Sheffield got her on radar and took up the role of shadower. Ark Royal sent off fourteen Swordfish to make a torpedo strike; in the heavy weather and poor visibility they attacked Sheffield instead; fortunately, all the torpedoes missed, but the language on Sheffield’s bridge qualified this as one of the hottest actions of the war.
A second strike fared better. There was another hit on the armor belt, and more important, a hit aft that jammed Bismarck’s rudder. During the night the British moved in for the kill. A destroyer attack achieved little, but at daylight two battleships, Rodney and King George V, closed in from the north. In two hours the great Bismarck was a silent, flaming hulk. The British finished her off with torpedoes and rescued 110 survivors of her crew of more than 2,000.
From that high point—or low point, depending on where one stood—the German surface campaign gradually deteriorated. They were forced increasingly into a defensive posture. The British torpedoed Luetzow as she steamed into northern waters, and bombing raids damaged Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, and Prinz Eugen in their French shelters. They hunted down supply ships and converted merchantmen acting as raiders, and slowly the surface threat receded.
The Germans still kept a few tricks up their sleeve. One place from which they could operate surface vessels was Norway, where their ships could make short-range dashes out against the North Russian convoys. As 1942 came in, that presented a problem. Opportunity lay in the north, but most of the major ships remaining were in French Biscay ports. In February, the Germans carried off a daring coup, when Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen made a dash up through the Channel to German ports under heavy air escort. Both the Royal Navy and the R. A. F. were caught napping; they mustered everything they had available and launched torpedo aircraft, bombers, motor torpedo boats, and a destroyer attack. Gneisenau hit a mine, and Scharnhorst hit two, but the ships made it home, to the considerable embarrassment of the British.
Still the attrition went on. Gneisenau was bombed in port and made useless. Scharnhorst made one more significant appearance; she came out against a North Russian convoy over Christmas of 1943. On December 26 the British caught her up in the Barents Sea, and in the icy waters off the North Cape, they pounded her to death. Only thirty-six of a crew of nearly 2,000 survived.
That left only one threat, the new Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck. Her career was far less spectacular than that of her older twin. She spent most of her life operating out of Norway, constantly hounded by the Royal Navy and the R. A. F. They bombed her several times, and in September of 1942 they got at her with midget submarines and planted mines under her hull that immobilized her for six months. From 1943 on, the British launched increasingly heavy bombing attacks, eventually hitting her with 10,000-pound “blockbuster” bombs. At last, reduced to the ignominy of a floating battery in Tromso harbor, she was hit hard and capsized.
That was late in 1944. Germany’s proud fleet was gone. Bombed, mined, depth-charged, torpedoed, sunk by gunfire, U-boats and battleships alike disappeared. Victory for the Royal Navy was a costly, near-run, tedious affair. There was no sudden ray of light at the end, just a gradual clearing of the atmosphere. Slowly the enemy’s presence was less obvious, and it all ended in May of 1945 when the last survivors of the U-boats came sullenly to the surface and hoisted black flags of surrender. Once again the Royal Navy had mastered all the challenges a brave, daring, and vicious enemy could throw against it.