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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Turning the Tide’

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TURNING THE TIDE: HOW A SMALL BAND OF ALLIED SAILORS DEFEATED THE U-BOATS AND WON THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC
By Ed Offley
Basic Books, $28.99,512 pages

Given that books on the deadly submarine contest known as the Battle of the Atlantic stretch for several lineal furlongs along thenation's bookshelves, one could justifiably ask, "Why another?" Scrap your skepticism: Ed Offley presents us with masterly military writing in describing what he terms "the deadliest naval clash of arms in history."

Any person familiar with World War II history knows the basic story in a nutshell: how Britain was totally dependent on the United States for food and war supplies in the early part of the war and how "Wolf Packs" of German submarines feasted on convoys of merchant ships. Britain neared collapse through the early months of 1943. Mr. Offley, in careful detail that shows his knowledge of the subject, tells how Allied strategists and tacticians devised ways of leveling the playing field.

His overview ranges from the highest levels of the admiralty in London, where officers had to cope with both the Germans and the hectoring counsel of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to the young crewmen on German subs who lived "in a foul miasma of every possible stench that dozens of men living in a steel tube could create: diesel fumes, unwashed bodies, rotting food, mold, human waste, and the sweet musk of cologne everyone wore to ward off the reek." They wore the same set of clothes for the four weeks under the sea. They received one cup of fresh water a day: "The choice was to drink it or use it for dental hygiene."

Mr. Offley begins with the disastrous voyages of four convoys across the wintry North Atlantic in the early months of 1943. In four encounters, U-boats sank 38 Allied merchant ships and a Royal Navy destroyer, with 1,120 people killed - 43 percent of all hands aboard the stricken ships. Most damage occurred in the so-called "Greenland air gap," a 600- to 800-mile swath of sea southwest of Iceland that was beyond the reach of escort aircraft.

In a post-action war game, officers replayed the actions, adding more escort craft and making greater use of aircraft. Losses were cut considerably. But where could extra escorts be found? Churchill "was sure to catch hell" if he diverted vessels from Russia-bound convoys. But without fuel to keep Britain in the war, the Russian convoys would end anyway. So he ordered extra vessels to convoy duty. So, too, did President Franklin D. Roosevelt after a fierce Navy-Army Air Forces argument over control of planes. Within months, carrier aircraft helped bridge the Greenland gap.

The change in tactics also enabled the Allies to exploit three technological innovations that ultimately were the tipping point. Perhaps the most important was the high-frequency direction-finder receiver - HF/DF, "Huff-Duff" to its users. HF/DF could detect U-boat transmissions, even if encrypted, and give a line of origin to its location up to 20 miles. Intercepts by sister ships gave a cross-bearing fix on the sub's exact location.

Huff-Duff's value was enhanced by German blunders. In his obsession with tight control of the Wolf Packs, the submarine commander, Fleet Adm. Karl Donitz, insisted that each U-boat skipper follow "an ironclad set of instructions" and radio a daily report of his position, fuel state and other mission information. Messages from headquarters required confirmation of receipt. As Mr. Offley writes, "Using signals gleaned from multiple detectors, the allied HF/DF network could triangle each U-boat transmission as it went out." Even when German intelligence intercepted Allied messages discussing HF-DF information, neither Donitz "nor German naval intelligence ever realized that [it] was providing critical tactical intelligence on the U-boats."

Other technological advantages enjoyed by the Allies were TBS, or Talk Begin Ships, a very-high-frequency radiotelephone that permitted escort ship commanders to coordinate their movements quickly, without relying on signal flags or lights. Finally, radar played a major role in the last months of the campaign, enabling pilots to "see through the clouds" and find submarines. (Also vital for victory was ULTRA, the decrypting of German military code traffic. ULTRA enabled many convoys to steer around lurking Wolf Packs. Mr. Offley gives relatively little attention to the code-breakers, whose story has been told often and well.)

The result was that between mid-March and late May 1943, the U-boat threat essentially was broken. Any submarine operations after May "amounted to an orchestrated exercise in mass suicide."

Nonetheless, the Battle of the Atlantic cost both sides an enormous number of lives. More than 71,000 Allied navy personnel and merchant seamen died. Of the 39,000 Germans who served on submarines, 27,400 died - a 70 percent casualty rate that was the highest of any fighting force in the war.

But the Allied personnel, from admirals to seamen, knew the price of failure: a German victory and a horrid reshaping of the world. Despite the suffering, "their bravery and morale held out until the end."

Joseph C. Goulden's updated edition of "The Dictionary of Espionage: SpySpeak Into English," will be published by Dover in the fall.

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