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THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC 

A MODEL HISTORY

 
 

   
  Based on a talk given to the Gloucester branch of the World Ship Society by Mr Fred Jones on 9 November 2009 and partly illustrated by aircraft from the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection.
 
 

   
  "This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England"
 
 

   
When William Shakespeare wrote in his play Richard II, first performed in 1601:

"This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England"

England was one of the planet's great maritime powers .  Sir Francis Drake had circumnavigated the globe and an attempt at invasion by Spain had been rebuffed in 1688. England, later to be politically united with Scotland and Ireland , was to create a world wide empire that would bring food and raw materials across the sea to the factories and mills that it had also created as the foremost nation of the Industrial Revolution.


Under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the Royal Navy further defeated the potentially invasive seabourne forces of Napoleon Bonaparte at Trafalgar in 1805 and for more than a century afterwards Britannia truly ruled the waves.


Then in 1909, just as the Royal Naval Air Service was set up, Louis Bleriot arrived at Dover by aeroplane and as newspaper proprieter and aviation enthusiast Lord Northcliffe commented, "Britain is no longer an island."


Then in 1909, just as the Royal Naval Air Service was set up, Louis Bleriot (pictured above) arrived at Dover by aeroplane and as newspaper proprieter and aviation enthusiast Lord Northcliffe commented, "Britain is no longer an island."

Indeed Britain by now had rivals as the "Workshop of the World" in the United States of America and the new European empire of Germany - two nations that would twice become its ally and enemy respectively in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

However, less well publicised some seven years earlier was the acquisition by the Royal Navy of its first submarine.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the giant battleships of the Royal Navy played a vital role in defending the British Empire and its admirals laughed at the idea that a submarine could be a serious threat to their "grand fleet".

Nevertheless they kept an eye on developments in other countries and in 1900 The Admiralty struck a deal with the American Electric Boat Company to build five Holland design submarines under license at the Vickers Maxim shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness at a cost of 35,000 each. Electric Boat supplied drawings and components for an improved design that was bigger and more powerful than the US Navy's first submarine, the Holland Type 6. They also agreed to send some experienced submariners to train the first British crew. Eight months later Britain's first submarine was unceremoniously pushed out of Yacht Shed No. 1 and down the slip way.

In September 1902 the First Submarine Flotilla, commanded by Captain Reginald Bacon arrived in Portsmouth. It consisted of two completed Holland boats and the gunboat H.M.S. Hazard that served as a floating submarine base. Despite the dangers of the new technology, in just a few months later Captain Bacon reported that:


"Even these Little Boats would be a terror to any ship attempting to remain or pass near a harbour holding them".

And as aircraft and submarine technology grew apace in Britain, America and Germany battleships, liners and merchantmen alike could be threatened from both above and below.

Shakespeare's "silver sea" could still be a moat defensive to the house of Great Britain - it proved to be the best
anti-tank ditch in the World against Nazi Germany's panzer divisions in 1940.  But as well as serving in the office of a wall to keep invaders out it also now formed a battleground for the food, munitions, raw materials, fuel and other supplies that needed to be shipped across the Atlantic from North America for Britain to survive and finally prevail victorious.

After its U-boats had both almost strangled Britain's economy and brought America into the 1914-1918 war, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to own aircraft, submarines and large fleets of naval vessels.  By 1935 however all these conditions had been overturned by the regime of Adolf Hitler, with Nazi air power playing a decisive role in the 1936 - 1939 Spanish Civil War.

However, the revived Kriegsmarine under Admiral Raeder still focussed on battleships to destroy the merchant navy of Britain and its allies with U-boats being relegated to "mopping up" the ships missed by the big guns in coastal waters.

Indeed, Britain's declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939 found the Nazi capital ship building programme incomplete and the Kriegsmarine suffered the further loss of the pocket battleship "Graf Spee" at the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939.  


However, the new addition to the Royal Navy had seriously damaged the Bismarck with three 14-inch shells. On 26 May the Bismarck was torpedoed and crippled by Fairey Swordfish  biplanes (pictured above)  from the British carrier HMS "Ark Royal" and a day later the German battleship was scuttled after being wrecked by gunfire from the battleships "King George V" (Prince of Wales' sister ship) and HMS "Rodney".


British capital ships - and aircraft - combined victoriously once again during Battle of the Denmark Strait. On 24 May 1941 HMS "Prince of Wales" and the World War One battlecruiser HMS "Hood" engaged the German battleship "Bismarck" and the heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" who had left port in what is now Gdynia in Poland with the intention of intercepting Allied transatlantic convoys. HMS Hood was hit by a German shell in an ammunition store, exploded and sank within a few minutes while HMS Prince of Wales was badly damaged and forced to break off the action.

However, the new addition to the Royal Navy had seriously damaged the Bismarck with three 14-inch shells. On 26 May the Bismarck was torpedoed and crippled by Fairey Swordfish  biplanes (pictured above)  from the British carrier HMS "Ark Royal" and a day later the German battleship was scuttled after being wrecked by gunfire from the battleships "King George V" (Prince of Wales' sister ship) and HMS "Rodney" as well as torpedoes fired by HMS "Dorsetshire".

The German battleship "Scharnhorst" was similarly destroyed by Royal Navy surface vessels on Boxing Day 1943 while attempting to disrupt two Arctic convoys bound for Russia, after which her sister ship Gneisenau - which had been constantly attacked by the RAF while under repair since 1942 - was decommissioned and abandoned.

Despite these losses, the sister ship of the "Bismarck" - "Tirpitz" - tied up considerable Allied forces despite spending most of her career moored in Norwegian Fijords.  However, so great was her potential for venturing forth and sinking Allied ships that on 27 June 1942 Arctic Convoy PQ-17 was disastrously scattered at the mere detection of the Tirpitz moving.


On 28 March 1942 meanwhile the only dry dock in France capable of holding Tirpitz had been destroyed by a Royal Navy raid on St Nazaire while in September 1943 Tirpitz itself was crippled by explosive charges laid by British midget submarines.  On 3 April 1944 repairs to the damage thus caused were further set back by air attacks from waves of Fairey Barracuda bombers of the Fleet Air Arm but it was not until 12 November 1944 that Tirpitz was finally sunk by Avro Lancaster bombers of RAF Bomber Command using the Tallboy bombs designed by Barnes Wallis.


On 28 March 1942 meanwhile the only dry dock in France capable of holding Tirpitz had been destroyed by a Royal Navy raid on St Nazaire while in September 1943 Tirpitz itself was crippled by explosive charges laid by British midget submarines.  On 3 April 1944 repairs to the damage thus caused were further set back by air attacks from waves of Fairey Barracuda bombers (pictured above) of the Fleet Air Arm but it was not until 12 November 1944 that Tirpitz was finally sunk by Avro Lancaster bombers of RAF Bomber Command using the Tallboy bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. 

The last of the famous Nazi battleships - "Prinz Eugen" - also had a very limited offensive career, was damaged in port by Allied bombing and was finally called home to Germany when an invasion of German occupied Norway seemed likely.  Still largely complete in 1945, she became American war booty and was used as a target during the Operation Crossroads atomic tests in the Pacific in 1946.  Just as HMS "Royal Oak" had been sunk by a U-boat in Scapa Flow in 1939 and Force Z lost to Japanese aircraft in 1941, so another development in armaments was to supplant the might of the battleship.      


From the fall of France in 1940 however, U-boats moved to the captured bases at Brest, St Nazaire La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Lorient on the Atlantic coast: much closer to the convoys that they were attacking.  Similarly, airfields in western France became home to four engined Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor aircraft with a range of 1000 miles and the ability not only to spot convoys and radio their position to listening U-boats but to attack convoys themselves.  At one point early in the Battle of the Atlantic Kondors sank 30 ships in 2 months while the late War Fw 200-6   - pictured above - sported FuG 203b Hohentwiel radio aerials on its nose to control Henschel Hs 293A air to surface missiles mounted under each outer engine nacelle.


As a result the Kriegsmarine had to rely on relatively cheap U-boats manned by conscripts, much as it had done in the service of Kaiser Wilhelm II from 1914 to 1918. Once again the German U-boat fleet aimed to destroy British and Allied merchant ships, large or small, full or empty, with the least risk to their own submarines, so fast that the merchantmen could not be replaced and Allied fleets would be too small to stop Britain starving or at least failing to prosecute the war effectively.

Indeed, in the nine months from September 1939 to June 1940 U-boats sank 2 300 000 tons of Allied merchant shipping despite there being only 57 U-boats available at the start of hostilities.  Of these, only 19 would be patrolling  the North Atlantic at any one time.  The rest would be either making their way to their stations from Germany's northern ports via the north of Scotland or returning.

From the fall of France in 1940 however, U-boats moved to the captured bases at Brest, St Nazaire La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Lorient on the Atlantic coast: much closer to the convoys that they were attacking.  In August 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt "The Germans have the whole French coastline from which to launch attacks upon our trade and food."

Similarly, airfields in western France became home to four engined Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor aircraft with a range of 1000 miles and the ability not only to spot convoys and radio their position to listening U-boats but to attack convoys themselves.  At one point early in the Battle of the Atlantic Kondors sank 30 ships in 2 months while the late War Fw 200-6   - pictured above - sported FuG 203b Hohentwiel radio aerials on its nose to control Henschel Hs 293A air to surface missiles mounted under each outer engine nacelle.


As well as the ability to transmit and receive radio messages scrambled with Enigma machines, the U-boats of 1939 - although slow under water - were faster than any merchant ship when surfaced and could attack with a deck gun as well as torpedoes.  Their low silhouette also made them difficult to detect - especially at night when their prey were outlined against the stars.

Also in their favour was the head of the Kriegsmarine's U-boat section, Admiral Karl Doenitz. Just as Sir Arthur Harris became convinced that mass strategic bombing could defeat Germany, so Doenitz - a U-boat commander himself in 1918 - believed that enough submarines could starve Britain into submission : especially if his U-boats hunted not in so-called Wolf Packs.

The first real use of a Wolf Pack came on 17 October 1940 against Convoy SC7 which was approaching Britain from America.  Unsure of its exact location, Doenitz ordered seven of his U-boats west of Ireland to form a line from north to south near Rockall and listen for the 34 merchant ships and four escort vessels with their hydrophones.  Once contact had been made in this way, each submarine was free to attack on the surface and Kapitain Otto Kretschmer - who was to personally account for  2 500 000 tons of Allied shipping before being captured - managed to get among the lanes of ships and seek out the most valuable targets for his 12 torpedoes. In all 17 ships - half the convoy - were lost in what the submariners called "The Night of the Long Knives".

In the six months from July to December 1940 U-boats sank  2 300 000 tons of Allied shipping in what their crews would refer to as "The Happy Time".  Not only were the countermeasures of their opponents ineffective and Wolf Packs organised by Enigma coded radio signals between U-boats but German Naval Intelligence had cracked the Royal Navy code.


This gave U-boat planning staff the times of convoy departure and the numbers of merchant ships and escorts involved, such as Convoy SC122 leaving New York City on 5 March 1943 with 52 ships.  Three days later - in bad weather - the faster ships of Convoys HX 229 and HX 229A  caught up with SC122 and as the convoys merged two more Wolf Packs in addition to the 38 U-boats already waiting were called in to the attack by radio.  In the confusion 22 merchant ships were sunk with only one U-boat destroyed although several more were so badly damaged that they had to terminate their patrols.   

By March 1943 however, the U-boats had suffered a reversal of fortune after a second "Happy Time" following Germany's declaration of war on the United States in December 1941.  Although a belligerent, America had not blacked out the city lights along its east coast and the United States Navy - understandably distracted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941- had not enough ships to escort Atlantic convoys.  As a result many ships survived the ocean crossing only to be torpedoed in American coastal waters.

By the end of 1941 German shipyards were building 5 new U-boats for every one sunk by the Allies and by the end of 1942 20 U-boats were being launched per month.

Although 2 900 000 tons of Allied shipping had been sunk in January to June 1941 and the figure reduced to 1 400 000 tons in July to December, losses were an alarming 4 100 000 tons ( 1 000 ships ) from January to June 1942 and 3 600 000  tons ( 675 ships )  - still an unsustainably high figure from the Allied perspective - from July to December 1942.


By the start of 1943, America had established convoys on the British pattern and the last hunting ground for U-boats seeking isolated ships was the Caribbean where 78 ships - more than half of them oil tankers -  had been sent to the bottom in two months in 1942.


However, 14-24 January 1943 also saw British Prime Minister Winston Churchill  and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt meet at Casablanca, Morocco, and decide that defeating the Nazi U-boat menace must be their top priority if an invasion of Europe from Britain was to be successful. Churchill was already under pressure from Roosevelt and Stalin to open a second front in Europe as the Russo-German battle for Stalingrad raged. And had what became known as the D-Day landings - for which Allied aircraft were painted with invasion stripes like those on Beaufighter MB-T above - been further postponed to 1945 the Allies would have in all likelihood faced a Germany equipped with improved jet aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles and perhaps even crude radiation bombs.


However, 14-24 January 1943 also saw Churchill  and Roosevelt meet at Casablanca, Morocco, and decide that defeating the Nazi U-boat menace must be their top priority if an invasion of Europe from Britain was to be successful. Churchill was already under pressure from Roosevelt and Stalin to open a second front in Europe as the Russo-German battle for Stalingrad raged. And had what became known as the D-Day landings - for which Allied aircraft were painted with invasion stripes like those on Bristol Beaufighter MB-T above - been further postponed to 1945 the Allies would have in all likelihood faced a Germany equipped with improved jet aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles and perhaps even crude radiation bombs.

 In the same month Admiral Doenitz was given control of the entire Kriegsmarine, paid off its capital ships so that former surface vessel sailors could become submariners and ordered the mass production of U-boats.  As a result 17 U-boats were being commissioned each month and by early spring 1943 three hundred examples were in service.  Of these 50 were on station among the North Atlantic convoys and 100 more were either coming off or going on patrol.

However, against the new Grossadmiral's wishes, many U-boats were tied up in the Mediterranean or defending the iron ore supply lines from occupied Norway. And 8 out of every 10 submariners would die as Allied technical and logistical advances finally tamed the threat from below the waves.

 
In March 1943  82 Allied merchant ships were lost but this figure was more than halved in April with the added destruction of 12 U-boats. In May 1943 meanwhile 33 U- boats were sunk and only 4 merchantmen lost.
 
Just as German technical brilliance threw up the Tiger tank and Messerschmidt 262 jet fighter towards the end of the Second World War though, so a number of innovations were applied to undersea warfare.  However, Nazi scientists did not seem to have the same operational experience as their Allied counterparts.   

As Allied radar grew more precise, U-boats were forced to submerge and travel underwater to escape detection. When submerged, a U-boat ran on electric motors with very limited range and speed eventually had to surface to run its diesels in order to recharge its batteries.                                                                                                                                                                

The Snorkel - standing proud of the submarine's fin - comprised one pipe to take in fresh air and the other to vent fumes from the diesel engines while a U-boat was submerged and travelling at 6 knots.  However, due to the provision of a shutoff valve to prevent the ingress of water, snorkels were often blocked when waves crashed over them, leading to diesel engines taking oxygen from within the U- boat.  If this was not spotted and the diesels shut off, men turned blue and then immediately vomited when fresh air was available.  Some commanders refused to use the snorkel and were late on station and the noise made by running the diesels underwater also rendered a U-boat 's hydrophones useless while making the submarine more noticeable to the hydrophones of the enemy.  Similarly, the engine vibrations made using the periscope difficult.    

In the 1930s, Professor Hellmuth Walter began experimenting with hydrogen peroxide as a possible power source.  By 1943, a Walter hydrogen peroxide turbine had been used to power an unarmed test U-Boat to a submerged speed of 26 knots. This was some 18 knots faster than the fastest conventional submarine of the period, and about 5 knots faster than the most common Allied escort vessels. As 21 knots was about the upper speed limit at which ASDIC echo location could be used, and few merchant vessels were faster than about 15 knots, it wasn't thought necessary to build faster escorts.                               

Walter achieved his remarkable results by using Perhydrol, a nearly pure hydrogen-peroxide solution, as an oxydizer. This was run through a catalysing system, which broke down the hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) into hydrogen and oxygen, in the process producing high pressure steam and oxygen at a very high temperature. The creation of the steam used up both of the hydrogen atoms and one of the oxygen atoms, leaving a free oxygen atom in the mixture. Since the temperature of the gases was hot enough to sustain combustion, diesel fuel was injected, which used the free oxygen atom. This increased both the heat and pressure of the steam. The steam was then used to power a turbine, which combined elements of both gas and steam turbine technology.

Unfortunately for the Kriegsmarine's submarine service—but fortunately for the Allies—the Walter system had nearly as many problems as benefits. The Perhydrol fuel was extremely corrosive, requiring the use of special fuel lines without any right angle turns. Otherwise the Perhydrol would sometimes "pile up" in the bends of such lines and spontaneously combust, with the obviously disastrous results. The Walter system was extremely thirsty and as a result none of the 700 Walter boats ordered were ever built.

Propulsion systems aside, U-boat torpedoes could only be launched from periscope depth or on the surface and until later in the war they were unguided - going in straight lines, until they hit an object or ran out of power. They were fitted with two types of fuses, one which detonated the warhead on impact with a solid object and the other magnetically sensing a large metal object.

To use magnetic torpedoes the U-boat commander would have know the targets ships draft and set the torpedo depth just underneath. The resulting explosion would then create a  gas bubble underneath the unsupported keel which would then crack. However, in reality magnetic fuses and depth-keeping equipment were both very unreliable in the early stages of the war.
Torpedoes would run at wrong depths, detonate early, or bounce harmless off the targets hull.

Nazi scientists later developed an acoustic homing torpedo which ran to an arming distance of 400 metres and then zeroed in on the loudest noise. On at least two occasions this was made by the atttacking U-boat itself! U-boats also had torpedoes that ran to pre-set distances and then moved in either a circular or ladder like pattern to increase the chances of hitting a second ship in case of missing the main target.

Despite all this ingenuity however, U-boats were ordered to evacuate their French bases after June 1944 and set out for Norway on a six week voyage around Ireland and Scotland.
However, 1000 more ships were to be sunk by U-boats from May 1943 to May 1945.  


Three days out from Gibraltar, Grumman Wildcat fighters ( like the one pictured above in pre Pearl Harbor American markings ) from HMS Audacity spotted U 131 which was then sunk by the other warships guarding HG76 - and despite 5 more U-boats being ordered towards the convoy U-434 and U-567 were also sunk, with U-574 being rammed and sunk by Walker's own ship.  Before HMS Audacity along with two merchantmen and one escort were sunk,  its Grumman Wildcat fighters also shot down one Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor that was harassing HG76 and damaged several other four-engined Nazi raiders.


Against the U-boat menace the Royal Navy had an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) division left over from the 1914-1918 conflict and the echo locating ASDIC system of submarine detection had been perfected by 1932.  But ASW was seen as the Cinderella service and a career graveyard by the Lords of the Admiralty still obsessed with battleships.  One such "Battleship Admiral" - Dudley Pound - was in charge of ASW when war broke out.

Although the World War One system of moving ships in convoy was soon revived only a few old destroyers were sent to escort the merchant ships, most with a range of no more than 300 miles out from either side of the Atlantic and often with crews of Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officers and inexperienced crews.

As a result a crash programme of building Flower Class corvettes began on Tyneside with 700 launched during the War and as many assembled in US and Canadian shipyards. The Royal Canadian Navy also expanded to fifty times its peacetime size and eventually took on half of all North Atlantic convoy protection duties.

In 1940 meanwhile Admiral Gilbert Stephenson set up HMS Western Isles, the Royal Navy's Anti-Submarine Warfare School train crews of reservists manning the new corvettes.  Known as the "Terror of Tobermory", Stephenson sent his students on months of training and manoevres with little sleep and only passed out those he thought fit enough.  Some crews had to do the training course twice.

Convoys could take as much as two weeks to cross the Atlantic, often with no hot food available for the crews.  One out of every three merchant seamen were lost during World War II yet without their cargoes Britain could have lasted no more than a few months.

In 1941 Admiral Dudley Pound was promoted and Admiral Percy Noble appointed as Chief of a new Western Approaches Command, based at Derby House, Liverpool which was able to better co-ordinate the work of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Merchant Navy in defeating the U-boats.   As a result, Convoy HX 129  - which left Halifax, Nova Scotia on 27 May 1941 - was the first to be escorted all the way across the Atlantic with Newfoundland and Iceland based warships in turn handing over to their British opposite numbers.

Then, in August 1941, HMS Prince of Wales took  Winston Churchill to Placentia Bay in the Canadian province of Newfoundland to meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt as United States President for the first time. Roosevelt also promised to commit the United States to even greater involvement in the European war, including supplying aid to the Soviet Union - invaded by Germany in June 1941 - "on a gigantic scale", more merchant ships to transport tanks and bomber aircraft to Britain, and five destroyers for each convoy sailing the North Atlantic run. Roosevelt also pledged that the United States Navy would protect all merchant ships between the eastern USA and Iceland.

Although the Placentia Bay talks brought America no closer to joining the conflict, Roosevelt confided in Churchill that a big dramatic incident would instantly clear all isolationist doubts and propel the United States to war on a wave of national outrage
.  Such an incident was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

 Following America's entry as a belligerent, a Mid-Ocean Escort Force organization of fourteen Escort Groups was set up in February 1942. American-led Escort Groups were prefixed with the letter "A"; while "B" indicated British-led Escort Groups and "C" designated Canadian-led Escort Groups. Fifteen United States destroyers, fifteen Royal Navy destroyers and twelve Canadian destroyers were to provide the striking power of these escort groups while fifty-two British and forty-nine Canadian Flower Class corvettes were to perform the patrolling role. 

Each MOEF escort Group worked in a 33-day cycle allowing nine and one-half days with a westbound ON convoy, six days in St Johns, Newfoundland, nine and one-half days with an eastbound HX or SC convoy, and 8 days refit in Derry, Northern Ireland.The shorter routing away from Iceland eliminated the need for most escorts to attempt maintenance in Iceland's poorly equipped Hvalfijorour anchorage; but the United States was required to maintain an additional force of five destroyers in Iceland to escort ships between trans-Atlantic convoys and United States military occupation bases.


In 1942 Admiral Percy Noble was replaced as Commander in Chief Western Approaches by Admiral Sir Max Horton.  Much as Admiral Noble had been enterprising and ready to embrace new ideas his mild manner had made it difficult for him to stand up to RAF top brass.

Admiral Sir Max Horton was much more forceful, and almost as soon as he was appointed Churchill, horrified at growing losses of shipping, convened a new Anti Submarine Committe of Britain's top military brains.  With Horton chairing, ASW was now top of the political agenda and air cover - especially from Consolidated Liberators - was vastly expanded as a result.

Horton was both feared and admired by those worked for him.  He would retire to bed at 2000 and return to the plotroom at 0100 in his pyjamas for the rest of the night, analysing the situation and redirecting convoy escort groups and aircraft.

Horton never left Derby House except for two afternoons a week to play golf and if a round had to be cancelled not even the prettiest WREN dared say a word to him.  Escort group commanders had to report to him on arriving at Liverpool and did not look forward to the prospect.

Horton further developed the role of escort groups by allowing them to train and fight together so that they knew instinctively what their next move should be.  This  espirit de corps also fitted well with the tactics evolved by  ASW specialist Captain Frederick John "Johnnie" Walker who had been given the command of the Royal Navy's 36th Escort Group - comprising two sloops and 6 corvettes - in March 1941.

Captain Walker proved his theory of escort vessels searching as a methodical team for a marauding U-boat in the days from 14 December 1941 when Convoy HG76 - comprising 36 merchantmen - assembled at Gibraltar to travel to Liverpool.  Among the 17 warships accompanying HG76 was, for the first time, an auxilliary aircraft carrier - HMS Audacity, converted from the captured German merchantman "Hannover".  Royal Naval intelligence had also picked up signals intelligence that indicated that six U-boats were present on the route of HG76

Three days out from Gibraltar, Grumman Wildcat fighters ( like the one pictured above in pre Pearl Harbor American markings ) from HMS Audacity spotted U 131 which was then sunk by the other warships guarding HG76 - and despite 5 more U-boats being ordered towards the convoy U-434 and U-567 were also sunk, with U-574 being rammed and sunk by Walker's own ship.  Before HMS Audacity along with two merchantmen and one escort were sunk,  its Grumman Wildcat fighters also shot down one Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor that was harassing HG76 and damaged several other four-engined Nazi raiders.

Finally, as HG76 approached Britain, it was overflown by a Consolidated B-24 Liberator - one of the long range patrol aircraft that were the key to filling the "air gap" between North America, Iceland and Britain.

The passage of Convoy HG76 is considered by many historians to be the first real escort victory of the Second World War, combining the tactics of "Johnnie" Walker - who sank more U-boats than anyone else before his death in 1944 - with the provision of air cover.

Into 1942 and beyond greater quantities of more up-to-date escort vesels became available and allowed the Allies to go on the attack.  Radio Direction Finder sets aboard escort vessels allowed them to locate U-boats transmitting radio signals and short wave radar often allowed them to detect U-boats before the U-boats could spot their adversaries.  Similarly, improvements in ASDIC allowed Allied surface vessels to track a U-boat as it tried to escape at low underwater speed.  Once located, a U-boat could be attacked both with both large drum-like depth charges or "Hedgehog"  anti-submarine mortars fired in a pattern ahead of the escort vessel.                                       


This process was assisted by a number of discoveries made from captured items, such as the set of spare Enigma rotors and codes for land forces and weather stations captured by a commando raid on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands on 4 March 1941.  Then, on 9 May 1941  U-110 captained by U-boat ace Julius Lemp was captured by HMS Bulldog along with a 3 rotor enigma machine and more code books.   27 August 1941 saw U-570 surrender to an Iceland based Lockheed Hudson and alhough the crew managed to destroy their Enigma machine and code books U-570 itself was salvaged to become HMS Graph and yielded many secrets of U-boat technology.


As has been discussed earlier in this article, B-Dienst - the German Naval code breaking organisation  -  breached the Royal Navy code system quite early in the Second World War, although this fact was not immediately recognised by the Allies who believed that much of the accuracy of Wolf Pack attacks came from their practice of lining up U-boats at 90 degrees to a possible approaching convoy and listening with particularly sensitive hydrophones.

However, confirmation of the Royal Navy codes being broken came when US submarines heading home after repair in UK were given a new course nearer to Greenland.  The Germans deciphered this and signalled U-boats to the area by Enigma message - subsequently decoded at Bletchley Park through the tireless efforts of brilliant men and women gathered there to breach Doenitz's supposedly uncrackable Enigma system. 

This process was assisted by a number of discoveries made from captured items, such as the set of spare Enigma rotors and codes for land forces and weather stations captured by a commando raid on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands on 4 March 1941.  Then, on 9 May 1941  U-110 captained by U-boat ace Julius Lemp was captured by HMS Bulldog along with a 3 rotor enigma machine and more code books.   27 August 1941 saw U-570 surrender to an Iceland based Lockheed Hudson and alhough the crew managed to destroy their Enigma machine and code books U-570 itself was salvaged to become HMS Graph and yielded many secrets of U-boat technology.

More seriously though, the addition of a fourth rotor arm to German Enigma machines in February 1942 mystified Allied codebreakers for ten months and contributed to the heavy losses of merchant shipping in 1942 mentioned above.  However, enlightenment was to come to Bletchley Park from documents captured by HMS Petard from U-559 near Port Said on 30 October 1942.

In October 1942 meanwhile special tracking stations all round British Isles began to collate all German morse messages for Bletchley Park and from December 1942 - apart form 4 week gap in March 1943 - all German messages were available to British Naval Intelligence by 0900 the day after transmission.



Also the first RAF aircraft with a retractable undercarriage, the Anson had a range of just 450 miles and could carry only 100 lb or 60 lb anti-submarine bombs.  Indeed, on 5 September 1939 a Coastal Command Anson mistakenly bombed the British submarine HMS Seahorse and only managed to break a few lightbulbs with the blast of its bombs!


In September 1939 RAF Coastal Command was equipped with just over 190 anti-submarine aircraft of which 163 were twin engined Avro Ansons - similar to the model pictured above - and 34 Short Sunderlands, as seen below and at the top of this feature.

Also the first RAF aircraft with a retractable undercarriage, the Anson had a range of just 450 miles and could carry only 100 lb or 60 lb anti-submarine bombs.  Indeed, on 5 September 1939 a Coastal Command Anson mistakenly bombed the British submarine HMS Seahorse and only managed to break a few lightbulbs with the blast of its bombs!

Apart from the Avro Anson and Short Sunderland flying boats which were designed for ocean patrol, Coastal Command also had to make do with types not really suitable for the role in the early years of the conflict.  At this time too navigation relied on dead reckoning rather than electronic aids and many inexperienced navigators found it difficult to compensate for wind and sea conditions.  As a result many air patrols failed to meet their designated convoys in the vast North Atlantic.


Considered a large aircraft at the time of its introduction, the Short Sunderland had a deep hull in relation to its width with a single step to break up the water on take-off and wings set high on the fuselage to keep the engines away from any water spray.


The Avro Anson was already being relegated to training and communications duties by the more capable Hudson in 1939 and until the entry of America into World War II the latter aircraft were purchased from Lockheed on a cash and carry basis.  They would then be flown to the Canadian border and dragged across by teams of horses as American neutrality laws prevented the Hudsons being flown to Canada directly.

While the Lockheed Hudson would be developed into the larger but underpowered Ventura bomber, RAF Coastal Command's Short Sunderland flying boats would evolve throughout the Second World War and not leave RAF service until 1959.  

To meet requirement R.2/33 of the Air Ministry for a general reconnaissance flying boat, Short developed the S.25 Sunderland from their famous S.23 "Empire" or "C-class" flying boat, the flagship of Imperial Airways. The S.25 first flew on 16 October 1937.

Considered a large aircraft at the time of its introduction, the Short Sunderland had a deep hull in relation to its width with a single step to break up the water on take-off and wings set high on the fuselage to keep the engines away from any water spray. 

The distinctive blunt nose contained a two-gun turret while four guns were housed in the tail. To correct a problem with the centre of gravity the 112' 9 1/2" wingspan was given a four degree sweepback, slightly toeing out the engine nacelles. This cost some engine efficiency but  improved controllability with one engine out of use and feathered. On the water the aircraft was steered by canvas drogues, which were deployed through the galley windows.

The Sunderland was a pure flying boat and so had to be brought on shore with special beaching wheels fitted and a trolley used to support the tail. More usually though the Sunderlands were moored to a buoy by a chain stored behind the bomb aiming position under the retractable front turret, although an anchor was also carried.

 It was not uncommon for crews to live in their Sunderland between flights, as if the aircraft was moored two men were required to be on board during the night, and during gales a pilot had to be on board because the engines were used to turn the aircraft in the wind. The bilges had to be pumped out, either manually or by a pump driven by an Auxiliary Power Unit.

The Sunderland Mk.II was powered by four Bristol Pegasus XVIII engines with constant-speed airscrews, and later production variants ( like the one pictured )  featured a dorsal gun turret to replace upper fuselage hatches. The Mk.II also carried Mark II Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radar  

The Pegasus engines and the dorsal turret were retained by the Mk.III, which also had a more streamlined hull with a faired step. This reduced drag, but could cause porpoising during take-off and landing. The Mk.IV was redesigned for operations in the Pacific and later renamed Seaford but only six Seafords were built before the project was cancelled.

The Short Sunderland Mk.V had American Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90B engines of 1200hp each and fully-feathering propellers, increasing the chance of a Sunderland to stay airborne with one or two dead engines. The Mk.V also had four fixed, forward-firing guns to counter flak-equipped U-boats, and two hatches in the aft fuselage for additional guns. The late production Mk.IIIs and the Mk.Vs had more precise centimetric ASV radar. Over 700 Sunderlands were built in all.

The fuselage of the Sunderland was roomy enough to give the crew of ten or more men some comfort during a 13 hour patrol flights to the edge of its 2 110 mile range -slightly but significantly less than the 2 300 mile range of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator which was to finally close the mid North Atlantic "air gap".

The Short Sunderland forward fuselage upper deck contained the two pilot cockpit and stations for the flight engineer,  wireless operator and navigator as well as gun turret and bomb aiming access and a flare compartment. 

On the lower deck, bombs or depth charges were stored on movable racks, which were slid out under the wing before an attack through large rectangular doors in the upper fuselage sides.  This cumbersome system was at a disadvantage compared to the more conventional bomb bay of a land based bomber like the Liberator but the Short Sunderland had been designed with reconnaissance as its primary task: cruising over low over the sea at 210 mph looking for enemy ships and submarines.

The Sunderland's lower deck also had such luxuries as a wardroom, a galley with two primus stoves and an oven, two bunks for off-duty crew members, a flush lavatory, a wash basin, and a shaving mirror. Crews would often collect their own set of dishes and cutlery, add curtains to the small wardroom, and install  portable radios.

Sunderlands also flew search-and-rescue missions but from 1942 onwards, landings on open seas as opposed to sheltered coastal waters were expressly forbidden, except in special circumstances and with permission.

The slow, lonely Sunderland was well-armed, with nose, dorsal and tail turrets, gun hatches in the aft fuselage, and often some additional guns added by the crews. On 2 June 1943 for example a Sunderland survived an attack by eight Ju 88s, shooting down three of them, although it was riddled with holes, lost an engine, and several crew members were wounded. Such exploits earned Sunderlands the German nickname of "Fliegendes Stachelschwein" (Flying Porcupine)

The first Coastal Command Liberators became operational with 120 Squadron at Nutts Corner, Northern Ireland, in June 1941 and the US Navy followed the success of auxilliary aircraft carriers like HMS Audacity with "jeep" carriers throwing Grumman Wildcat and Avenger warplanes agains the U-boats.  

However, despite pleas by the Admiralty, no RAF Avro Lancasters - with a 2 500 mile range - were spared from the job of area bombing German cities, although 6 squadrons of less capable aircraft were eventually moved from Bomber to Coastal Command.  

It should also be pointed out that more Liberator aircraft would have been spared for North Atlantic duties had they not been so highly valued in attacking Japanese held islands in the Pacific. However, Coastal Command did benefit from the decision made in the summer of 1943 by the neutral Portugese government to allow RAF Liberators with centimetric ASV to operate from the Azores.  

The first two U-boats to be destroyed by these aircraft were sunk in October 1943 and long range Coastal Command patrols that had started with Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and Vickers Wellingtons were now augmented with ASV fitted Bristol Beaufighters and De Havilland Mosquitos with rocket projectiles and even - in some cases - a 57mm Molins gun.


One such valiant Flying Officer was Aberdonian John Cruickshank.  FO Cruickshank and his crew were on anti-submarine patrol - his 48th -  on the night of 17 July to 18 July 1944, flying their Consolidated Catalina twin engined flying boat ( like the one pictured above ) over the North Atlantic, north west of the Lofoten Islands near the Arctic Circle. U-347, which they attacked, returned fire. The Catalina was hit and the aircraft's depth charges failed to drop. The navigator - who was also the bomb aimer - was killed instantly and the second pilot, Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett, and two other members of the crew sustained wounds.


However, although the Bay of Biscay was much less of a lethal environment for Allied shipping once Grossadmiral Doenitz withdrew his U-boats from the French Atlantic ports the Nazi submarines were fitted with flak guns and ordered not to submerge when attacked by aircraft but to stay on the surface and fight.

Replacing earlier 20mm deck guns, the new 38mm guns of the U-boats could fire 55 rounds a minute which exploded in aircraft like hand grenades with steel swarf cutting through control wires, hydraulic lines and human flesh.  
As a result Coastal Command lost men and aircraft but also gained 3 Victoria Crosses.

One such valiant Flying Officer was Aberdonian John Cruickshank.  FO Cruickshank and his crew were on anti-submarine patrol - his 48th -  on the night of 17 July to 18 July 1944, flying their Consolidated Catalina twin engined flying boat ( like the one pictured above ) over the North Atlantic, north west of the Lofoten Islands near the Arctic Circle. U-347, which they attacked, returned fire. The Catalina was hit and the aircraft's depth charges failed to drop. The navigator - who was also the bomb aimer - was killed instantly and the second pilot, Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett, and two other members of the crew sustained wounds.

Flying Officer Cruickshank was also injured but he fought his injuries and went in to attack the U-boat again and released the depth charges which resulted in the sinking of the enemy submarine. However FO John Cruickshank was seriously injured, being hit 72 times and sustained 12 wounds: two large wounds to his lungs and ten penetrating wounds to his lower limbs.

The co-pilot took over the controls because FO Cruickshank went in and out of consciousness but refused any pain killing drugs like morphine because he was needed to help the surviving aircrew to make the dangerous 5 1/2 hour flight home to the Shetland Islands.

Cruickshank took back control of the craft and would only relinquish command and receive first aid when he knew that the course home had been plotted and set and that the signals had been sent. He knew that the crew were not experienced enough and too badly injured to land the plane though and had to be carried back to the second pilot's seat where despite great pain he landed the plane when the weather, sea and light conditions were right. He landed the plane safely onto the water and directed the plane to taxi and beach so that it could be salvaged. He was bleeding heavily during the flight home and needed an immediate blood transfusion when the Medical Officer went aboard the plane to administer treatment to the crew. He was then transferred to the hospital.


By December 1944 Flying Officer Cruickshank had recovered from his wounds so that he could perform administrative duties, but could not return to active duty or flying command. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and stayed in the Royal Air Force until September 1946 where upon discharge he returned to his pre war career in banking which included working in the Calcutta branch of Grindlays Bank. He retired in 1977.

Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Coastal Command during WWII and the other three were awarded posthumously. Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM).




However, just as the depression of the years immediately after 1918 and that following the 1929 Wall Street Crash created the right conditions for the Nazis to assume absolute power in Germany, so a mixture of hard times and the memory of the Kaiser's U-boat campaign  drove the heirs to a Wearside shipbuilding firm to create the Liberty Ships which were to fill the merchant shipping gap of 1939 to 1945


Despite the best efforts of both naval and air forces on the Allied side against the U-boat menace however, millions of tons of merchant shipping needed to be rapidly replaced if supplies were to continue to reach Britain from North America.  In 1942 British shipyards produced 2 million tons of shipping and American yards 5 million tons.  However, in the same year American industry produced enough war material and supplies to fill the holds of 15 convoys every month but lost 100 shiploads in five months.  General Marshall - later of Marshall Aid fame - warned that these losses were threatening the entire war effort of the USA in liberating Europe.

However, just as the depression of the years immediately after 1918 and that following the 1929 Wall Street Crash created the right conditions for the Nazis to assume absolute power in Germany, so a mixture of hard times and the memory of the Kaiser's U-boat campaign  drove the heirs to a Wearside shipbuilding firm to create the Liberty Ships which were to help fill the merchant shipping gap of 1939 to 1945

In the mid 1930s after years of enforced idleness, Major Robert Norman Thompson and his son Robert Cyril Thompson decided that cheaper and better production methods and improved ship performance represented the way back to prosperity for the family yard.    
After experimenting with models at the National Physical Laboratories at Teddington, Middlesex - later to be used by Barnes Wallis for his bouncing Dambuster bombs -  "Embassage" - the Thompson's  first pre-fabricated ship was built in a slightly shorter time than usual for 100 000.  Embassage created "exceptional interest" among ship owners and a second vessel took just 6 months from laying down to launch.  Four more were built and the Lords of the Admiralty were impressed.

A third prototype variant - named the "Empire Liberty"- was laid down after hostilities began. This was larger than the previous prefabs at 7 100 Gross Registered Tonnage with the capacity to carry 10 000 tons of Dead weight cargo.  With a 17 ton fuel capacity and 10 knots speed the Empire Liberty took only 8 months to build.

While the Empire Liberty was being assembled in September 1940 Cyril Thompson was invited to the Admiralty to see the Controller of Merchant Shipping and asked to head a shipbuilding mission to the still-neutral USA with a Foreign Office representative, Treasury representative and a marine engineering expert of his own choice.

The shipbuilding mission crossed the Atlantic on the SS Scythia - alone with no escort - and was scheduled to meet the boards of 5 shipbuilding companies on the East Coast and 5 on the West.

One by one they all refused to help except Henry Kaiser of Portland, Oregon, a big public works contractor who was an expert in mass production in buildings.  Kaiser had only one slipway and an expanse of mud flats but said "Sure, why not?"

A deal was struck and after 6 months Kaiser had built 6 more slipways and all the sheds necessary for mass production.  Kaiser then called Cyril Thompson back to discuss the design of new fabricated ships.

Liberty Ship design evolved with all crew accommodation centralised rather than being spread out as on pre-War ships .  British misgivings about different ranks living so close together were overcome by provision of twin cabins, washbasins and hot and cold running water with decent showers. The Admiralty also  trusted Cyril's judgement of the use of welded hulls rather than the more traditional rivetted although traditional triple expansion engines were used rather than steam turbines favoured by Americans.

The first of 2710 liberty ships ( drawn above) were built in 4 months, delivered in October 1941 and given the prefix Ocean.  These vessels were also known as SAM ships - the acronym standing for "superstructure aft of midships". As the USA entered war after December 1941 more shipyards were built or extended and Liberty Ships could be built in a time frame ranging from 6 weeks to 19 days. Workers from the American Mid West were trained as crews and sent to sea after only a few weeks in sea school.

Canadian shipyards also turned out 1000 of Cyril Thompson's first prefabricated vessels, 500 for Canadian Government called Fort boats and 50 for UK Government called Park boats which were more popular with British companies after the War.