Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945

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9780743229296: Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945
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An authoritative chronicle of the lesser-known World War II Battle of the Atlantic documents the costly battles fought by U.S., Canadian, British, and German forces for control over the Atlantic sea lanes, in an account that draws on archival research and veteran interviews to tally the casualties suffered on both sides of the conflict. 40,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

David Fairbank White has been a reporter for The New York Times and The Journal of Commerce, where he worked on the maritime desk. He is the author of the novel True Bearing. He lives with his family in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

WINTER, NORTH ATLANTIC

Out here only weather exists, and the immense field of the sea, wide as a wilderness all its own, white-flecked, deep blue, marked by the endless waves that march away in perfect, receding uniformity. The spot at latitude 42° 80' north, longitude 37° 20' west on the Atlantic Ocean is vacant, blank, chilly, grooved by the layers and furrows of the mid-ocean currents, precisely identical to every other mile around it. Beneath these waters lie the countless graves of navy sailors and merchant seamen who perished at the hands of German U-boats to keep the supplies flowing to feed World War II. There are no headstones out here, no markers, no monuments. For sailors lost at sea, there are no tablets. There is only this place, the wind-whipped, empty, anonymous ocean. A modern containership passing by in 2002 hustles past the froth, and the waves turn to marbled swirls of aqua, blue, white, mingling and turning and folding into frigid pinwheels of color.

More than 36,200 Allied sailors, airmen, and servicemen and women went to their death on this ocean, or in the contest centered around it, between 1939 and 1945, in Lightning Class destroyers, tiny corvettes, and B-24 Liberator aircraft, or at land installations ashore.

Alongside these, some 36,000 merchant ship sailors were lost, many dying terrible deaths, plunging to the bottom of the Atlantic in ships which disappeared from the surface with all hands in less than twenty seconds, many others succumbing to isolation, exposure, or starvation in open lifeboats or on rafts.

The Germans paid a high price, too. One thousand one hundred seventy-one U-boats went to war between 1939 and 1945. Six hundred sixty, almost 57 percent, were lost. The loss in men was far greater; the casualty rate for the German U-boat service is the highest for any military unit since the time of the Romans. Forty thousand German officers and men went to war in U-boats. Only 7,000 came home.

The Battle of the Atlantic was fought all across the 32 million square miles of the pitching, heaving Atlantic Ocean, in the frigid, green wastes up by Iceland, in the empty waters off the Azores, in the gray, quick approaches to the English coast. It saw lone, knifelike U-boats surface in the pit of night on heaving seas to set, aim, and slam torpedoes into aging merchant ships; it saw wolfpacks of ten or more U-boats gather to maul convoys of forty or fifty merchant ships in battles that stretched over three or four days; it saw the development of advanced, futuristic Type XXI U-boats which could race along underwater at phenomenal speeds. The conflict was Hitler's ambitious bid to win the war on the Atlantic with his U-boats, long, tapered, bristling with guns.

The battle -- it was not really a battle but a struggle that lasted the entire war -- was a six-year effort of fundamental importance to every other engagement of World War II. On this battle hinged the effort to bring massive convoys of merchant ships across the Atlantic, carrying the provisions, food, raw materials, and oil to keep solitary England alive during the years she stood alone against the Germans until 1941, and later every tank, gun, tent, helmet, bomb, all the troops, gasoline, coffee, wheat, rations to feed, fuel to supply the Allied armies sprawled across Europe. Without the men and ordnance on the ships, no battle, on any front, in any country overseas could be fought. The Battle of the Atlantic was the confrontation upon which the rest of World War II depended.

The convoys -- eastbound formations were designated HX, for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and SC for Slow Convoy; westbound formations were dubbed ON, for Outward Bound North, and ONS for Outward Bound North Slow -- originated in the East Coast ports of Canada and America, formed up in Nova Scotia, and then followed the great circle route, up across the top of the globe, then came into the North Channel above Ireland after a crossing of about two weeks.

On the side of the Nazis, Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the German submarine service, meticulous, possessed of a punctilious memory, presided over the flotillas of low, dark subs which hurried everywhere across the Atlantic. An accomplished submariner himself in World War I, Dönitz had been given the task of rebuilding Germany's submarine arm in the aftermath of the crippling terms of the Versailles Treaty. Above Dönitz was Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the entire German navy. Raeder had come up through the ranks in heavy surface ships. These two men spearheaded the German submarine war.

From the catacombs of his headquarters, secreted in a bunker in a villa in Lorient, Occupied France, Admiral Dönitz oversaw his worldwide fleet of U-boats chiefly by means of an advanced radio network that carried as many as seventy messages a day to his U-boats at sea. Almost alone among the German High Command, Dönitz, convinced of the supremacy of his submarine weapon, grasped that if his subs could sever the Atlantic convoy chain, the Allies would be crippled.

By November 1940 the war in Europe had grown to frightening dimensions. Germany had overrun France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Low Countries, and now threatened to roll over all of Europe. The British now stood alone.

Then, too, there was the peculiar darkness of Nazi Germany, which made the conflict so important and desperate. Adolf Hitler, appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, had risen to power on the fanatic appeal of his National Socialist German Workers Party and its weird proselytizing on the ideas of extremist nationalism, Aryan supremacy and a German master race, and absolute, authoritarian power. Later, after Hitler's rise, the Nazi Party had developed the plan for the war to advance and perpetuate the Thousand Year Reich. From this had grown the militant and bizarre specter of Nazi Germany, a state in which fervid, warped totalitarianism prevailed and the doctrine and figure of Hitler held complete sway. Under the Nazi state, the systems of society -- art, culture, media, education, every social institution down to the Hitler Youth and the League of German Maidens -- all these were manipulated and controlled by the state. Under the rule of the Third Reich, life by the tether was the law. The vision of Hitler and the Nazis was to export this horror by war.

Eventually, of course, came the midnight event of the Holocaust. In an attempt to eliminate Jews and Judaism, more than six million people -- nearly two thirds of the Jews in the countries overrun by Hitler's armies -- were shot in mass graves or marched into gas chambers and exterminated with Zyklon B gas in an act that was not only genocide, but also religiocide, an attempt to kill a people, a faith.

To counter Nazi Germany's attempt to propagate the Third Reich, the Allies had to go to war against the Reich at sea.

The endless, pitching, rolling, unforgiving conflict called the Battle of the Atlantic was waged on a vast scale -- across the void, windswept, yawing wastes of 2,500 miles of open Atlantic Ocean. It unrolled on huge dimensions -- some 1,000 warships belonging to numerous navies marshaled to decide the outcome of the war. Its significance was enormous, determining the fate not only of Britain but of Europe and the Western world. It was won almost entirely by the British Royal Navy, 300 years old, the blade of Jervis, Nelson, and Jellicoe, England's "Wooden Wall," which had defended her throughout her history. Until 1943, the United States, for the most part, was tied up in the Pacific winning an equally stunning triumph over the Japanese. After 1943, when the U.S. Navy took up a significant role in the engagement, most action and battles took place in the British sector of the Atlantic. The cost of the effort was staggering; British Commonwealth forces suffered more than 33,600 casualties on the sea and in the air; by comparison, the U.S. Navy and Army Air Force, alongside the British, lost roughly 2,600 servicemen. The British, to all intents and purposes, were the overwhelming factor in the immense contest that unfolded across the wide, vacant wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean.

The names of Trafalgar, Jutland, Omdurman, are names which rise from the gorge of time and stand as monuments to British military achievement. At these places, Englishmen won great battles which were not only victories, often against far superior odds, but also displayed ingenious strategies. So, too, the Atlantic victory should stand alongside them. In substance and stroke, the Atlantic victory was British, Royal Navy, Union Jack.

In terms of almost every phase of the war's prosecution -- the makeup of the enormous fleet which fought the struggle, the officer and rating corps which manned the ships, the celebrated aces who racked up the top tallies, Captain F. J. "Johnnie" Walker; the crisp, ever-correct Captain Donald Macintyre; the superbly talented Commander Peter Gretton and his fabled B-7 Escort Group; in terms of the tactical thinking and strategic planning which underlay the triumph; combat victories; the command apparatus overseeing the effort -- the victory on the Atlantic was overwhelmingly Britain's, with great assistance from its stout cousin, the Royal Canadian Navy. Up to 1943, virtually all confirmed combat victories in the Atlantic conflict were scored by British and Canadians. After 1943, when America took on responsibility for the South Atlantic, roughly 75 percent of the combat victories were still British Commonwealth.

But Britain did not win the Battle of the Atlantic alone. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard units did join in the war, fighting straight across the ocean alongside the British. Beyond the naval battle, U.S. shipbuilding pumped out a boggling total of some 27 million tons of shipping and in the end flooded the Atlantic with ships faster, literally, than the Germans could sink them, helping to swing the outcome of the war. American ad...

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