- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

Winston Churchill wrote after World War II, “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

The prime minister´s anxiety was fully justified. During the war, Britain was dependent on imports for half of its food, to say nothing of munitions and industrial materiel. At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, U-boats were sinking Allied merchantmen faster than they could be replaced.

The outbreak of World War II had caught the German Navy by surprise. Its surface ships were no match for the Royal Navy, and its submarine arm - despite impressive service in World War I - had been neglected. In September 1939, Germany had just 57 submarines, of which fewer than half were long-range boats.

One man was determined to change this. Adm. Karl Donitz, commander of the U-boat service, was a veteran submariner who was convinced that his submarines were capable of strangling Britain. A dedicated Nazi, Donitz was able to sell Adolf Hitler on his underwater campaign, and by July 1942, Donitz had a fleet of 300 boats.

For a time, everything broke in Donitz´s favor. His new U-boats proved exceptionally rugged, often surviving dives well below their test depth. The fall of France gave Donitz access to French ports such as Brest, Saint-Nazaire and Lorient, access that sharply reduced the transit time to Britain´s sea lanes. Notwithstanding devastating losses, morale among the elite German submariners remained high throughout the war.

Once Germany had declared war against the United States in December 1941, Donitz carried the war to the East Coast of the United States, where his boats sank hundreds of thousands of tons of coastal shipping. The raiders were aided by America´s refusal to black out coastal cities at night and by the U.S. Navy´s inexplicable disdain for convoys.

A brilliant tactician, Donitz developed the concept of “wolf packs” to inflict maximum damage. He would deploy a chain of U-boats across the western approaches to Britain. When a submarine sighted a convoy, it did not attack immediately but passed the word to the others in the pack, and the boats attacked together, often overwhelming the escorts.

The Battle of the Atlantic reached its climax in the winter of 1942-43. In November 1942, total sinkings in the North Atlantic exceeded 600,000 tons for just the second time in the war. Losses for the first three months of 1943 were almost as high but then dropped precipitously. In only one of the remaining nine months of the year would losses exceed 300,000 tons.

The tide had turned. With the United States in the war, the number of escort vessels available increased dramatically. This development was critical, for if U-boats could be kept submerged, they lacked the speed to keep up with most convoys.

In a major intelligence coup, British code breakers captured one of the Germans’ Enigma coding machines. They had been reading some naval messages all along, but possession of the complex Enigma machine vastly increased the success rate.

Finally, Allied air power became a major factor. Long-range B-24 bombers closed the Atlantic “gap” that hitherto had represented a safe operating area for U-boats. The introduction of escort carriers and more sophisticated weaponry made life hellacious for U-boats and made service in submarines tantamount to a death sentence. Donitz drowned thousands of sailors and doubtless delayed the Allied invasion of France but could not starve out Britain.

Probably no campaign in World War II has been dealt with more successfully in fiction than the Battle of the Atlantic. Nicholas Monsarrat was a Cambridge-educated lawyer when the war broke out. Mr. Monsarrat, who had decided on a writing career, found himself serving on escort duty in the North Atlantic. After the war, he served for a time in the British Civil Service while working on a novel based in part on his war experience.

“The Cruel Sea” appeared in 1951 to wide acclaim. It was unabashedly a story of heroes - notably, the intrepid skipper George Ericson and his first lieutenant, Keith Lockhart, who closely resembled Mr. Monsarrat himself. The author wrote in a foreword that “the only villain [is] the cruel sea itself.” However, this is not entirely true, for the sea is only occasionally villainous; it is the war that is cruel.

Commanded by Ericson, the corvette Compass Rose begins life as “an untidy grey ship, mottled with red lead, noisy with riveting, dirty with an accumulation of wood shavings, cotton waster, and empty paint-drums.” Mr. Monsarrat tells how her disparate group of officers, drawn from all walks of life, turns the vessel into an effective fighting unit until the disastrous day when Compass Rose falls victim to a German torpedo.

The Cruel Sea” had the makings of a great movie, and that hope was realized with a film starring Jack Hawkins. Viewed today, it seems antique. Not only is it in black-and-white, but smoking appears to take the place of sex, and women have only cameo roles. However, for a gripping tale of steel ships and iron men, it is hard to beat.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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