History of the Second World War, Volume 4

NORTH ATLANTIC, JANUARY 1941/JUNE 1943 By the end of 1942, the future course of Allied strategy —every hope and every plan — hung in the balance of a long, bitter, groping battle fought out between U-boat and convoy escort in the grey battlefield of the Atlantic. Throughout, the Allies were hampered by their inability to concentrate all their naval resources on this one battle. But when victory came to them it was with astonishing speed and complete­ ness, only weeks after one of their most disastrous reverses at sea L it utvnunt-( oimmindci I’fhrK.hcmp i n — I I : ' | : ... Jgjl ¦ ill i| li 1 ¦ ............ , m m By the beginning of 1941 the difficulties and complexities of the Battle of the Atlantic were really starting to make themselves felt. The severe merchant ship losses in 1940 — 2,186,158 tons were sunk by the U-boats alone —had in part been met by wartime redeployment of peacetime shipping, but from 1941 on there was no hope of meeting further losses by this means. By this time merchant shipping had been stretched to its limit, and future losses could be made good only by new construction. There were several factors which were to single out 1941 and 1942 as the years of special peril in that swaying, groping battle against the U-boats. The most immediate of them was the rapid build-up in numbers of the U-boats themselves, for the increased building programme put in hand by Ger­ many at the outbreak, of war was, by 1941, beginning to take effect. From the beginning of 1941 to the middle of 1943, the rate of building far exceeded the rate of loss, so that each succeeding month saw more and more U-boats in the Atlantic. There were other factors in this battle which also came to the aid of the U-boats. An important one was the length of time a convoy took to cross the Atlantic. Allowing for diversions, weather, and other delays, the average time of passage of an Atlantic convoy throughout the whole of the war was just over 15 days; convoys to and from Free­ town took four days longer. These long passages in effect presented the U-boats with more targets as the merchant ships made their laborious voyages across the ocean. Another important factor was the short sea endurance of British escort vessels. At the outbreak of war, escort for convoys could only be provided up to a distance of about 500 miles from the British coast; beyond that the merchant ships were on their own. The occupation of Iceland after the disastrous land campaign of 1940 provided the oppor­ tunity of increasing the range of escort by the provision of a refuelling base on the island, but it was not until April 1941 that the first base there was fully in commission. Simultaneously, the Canadian navy de­ veloped bases in Newfoundland and eastern g Canada, and by the use of these bases the° range of surface escort was pushed even* farther out into the Atlantic. By April 1941 £ it was as far as 35 W, a little more than half-way; two months later the first convoy with end-to-end surface anti-submarine escort sailed across the Atlantic. But be­ cause of the shortage of escort vessels, the average strength of escort was, in 1941, no more than two ships per convoy. It was not until the new long-range escorts, laid down just before the war, began to join the fleet that the strength of escort could be increased, in 1942 and 1943, to more adequate numbers. As important as the surface escorts were those of the air, for of all the enemies of the U-boat the one most feared was the air­ craft. Their range of vision and speed of attack were both vastly superior to those of the surface escorts, and an aircraft circling a convoy would force every U-boat within attacking range to submerge, thus condemn­ ing them to their low underwater speed and a much reduced range of vision. But here 1345
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