Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s Prime Minister throughout most of World War II, once wrote that “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” He referred to Nazi Germany’s fleet of submarines – Unterseeboot – used by Admiral Karl Donitz in an attempt to cut the Atlantic sea links between the British Isles and the Americas. Recalling how Kaiser Wilhelm II’s navy had nearly achieved this goal with its own U-boats in 1917, Donitz – a former submariner himself – promised Adolf Hitler that with a larger fleet of boats and the use of “wolf-pack” tactics, Germany could win the Battle of Atlantic and force an isolated and food-deprived Britain to seek a negotiated end to the war in Europe.
Though the Battle of the Atlantic is often overshadowed by the campaigns in North Africa and the Mediterranean, the aerial war against Germany, the battles on the Eastern front, the Normandy invasion, and the final drive to Berlin, it was the crucial fight that determined the outcome of World War II in Europe. Had the German Navy achieved its objectives in its mission to destroy Britain’s merchant fleet and deny passage across the Atlantic to the Allies, the consequences would have been dire. U.S. forces would not have been able to deploy in the United Kingdom. The vast amount of war materiel needed for the air and land wars against the Third Reich would have ended up on the bottom of the ocean or remained in American territory, far from the shores of Morocco, Sicily, Italy, and Northern France. If Britain had capitulated, then Hitler and Soviet leader Josef Stalin may have called off their war in the East and divided Europe between the Reich and the Soviet Union.
In his 2015 book “The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War,” author Jonathan Dimbleby examines World War II’s longest campaign from both the Allied and German perspectives. With a fine sense of narrative and an eye for detail, Dimbleby takes readers on a journey that begins with the sinking of the liner Athenia on September 3, 1939 and ends on May 4, 1945. On that date, Admiral Donitz – commander of the German Navy and Hitler’s chosen successor as Fuhrer after the dictator’s suicide – issued this communique:
“U-boat men! Undefeated and spotless you lay down your arms after a heroic battle without equal. We remember in deep respect our fallen comrades, who have sealed with death their loyalty to Fuhrer and Fatherland. Comrades! Preserve your U-boat spirit, with which you have fought courageously, stubbornly, and imperturbably through the years for the good of the Fatherland. Long live Germany! Your Gr. Admiral.”
As Dimbleby points out, the Battle of the Atlantic was the most destructive naval campaign in history. More than 3,000 Allied ships were sunk by German submarines, surface ships, and aircraft, and more than 30,000 seamen died. “On the Axis side, in a macabre equivalence, some 27,000 officers and crew – or 75% of those who went to war in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats – lost their lives; a higher death rate than that of any branch of the armed forces on any side of the conflict between 1939 and 1945.”
“The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War” covers every aspect of this life-or-death struggle, from the strategies and tactics employed by both sides to the high-power politics in Berlin, London, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. Using a wide array of sources that range from official records to eyewitness accounts taken from letters, interviews, and personal diaries, Dimbleby gives readers a close-up look at the war at sea from every perspective. From the bridge of a destroyer plowing through heavy seas, the nearly claustrophobic confines of a U-boat on the prowl for Allied merchant ships, and the conference rooms in the various Axis and Allied headquarters where plans were made and orders were issued, readers will see frighteningly vivid glimpses of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Dimbleby, a respected television presenter for the BBC and author of such books as “Destiny in the Desert: The Road to Alamein” (2012) and “Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People,” (2008) is a masterful storyteller. With clear, crisp prose that is reader-friendly, he tackles a complex topic and makes it a compelling account full of wartime triumphs, blunders, and tragedies. It is meticulously researched and delves into such topics as the development of sonar, the adoption of the convoy system by a reluctant Britain, and the evolution of Nazi Germany’s policy regarding the treatment of shipwrecked Allied seamen during World War II. (Contrary to World War II mythology, Hitler did not declare unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1939. Believing that Britain would accept a negotiated settlement of the European war, Germany’s dictator did not order Donitz to let the U-boats loose against Britain’s merchant marine for several weeks after the start of hostilities.)
- Hardcover: 560 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0190495855
- ISBN-13: 978-0190495855