The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War

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Release Date: 
September 30, 2018
Oxford University Press
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Should one be inclined to search, there is a plethora of titles published on this subject since the end of World War II. To be sure, some may be better than others, keeping in mind that it is not possible to include every possible fact and detail covering what was the longest campaign of the war.

As this is a reprint issued by a new publisher, Jonathan Dimbleby’s take on the topic remains as viable and well written as any other. Although the Atlantic War was virtually won by the second half of 1943, with the Germans continuing to resist until the end, the author has covered as many highlights of the struggle as possible all while weaving them into the story of the strategy, tactics, logistics, technology, and the behind-the-scenes decisions by the principals on both sides.

This was a war of shipping and the emphasis, as it should be. It was primarily a matter of whether the Germans could sink ships faster than the Allies could produce them or avoid having them sunk altogether, as was mostly the case in the last 18 to 24 months of the war.

Indeed, without effectively overcoming the U-boat menace in 1943, it is entirely possible that there would not have been a D-Day invasion of Western Europe, at least not in 1944 as the buildup of troops and supplies necessary for such an operation would have certainly taken longer to accumulate.

As Winston Churchill said, the U-boat menace was what gave him the most concern during the war. It was not only a matter of supplying Great Britain with weapons, equipment, and munitions for survival but also the necessities of food and fuel for the military as well as civilian sectors of society. More than once did a lack of food and fuel nearly cause a crisis for the British.

Exacerbating this was attempting to supply the same to the Soviet Union over long land and sea transit routes so as to keep the Soviets in the fight, tying down as many German forces as possible until the Second Front could be established. Sometimes this necessitated breaking support commitments, what Josef Stalin considered promises, due to merchant ship losses and a concomitant lack of shipping as a result of being overextended in terms of other offensive operations.

For the Allies, many times as a result of shipping losses, there were disagreements and disappointments between and among FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. On the German side, Admirals Doenitz and Raeder clashed over emphasis on U-boats or surface ships when it came to winning the so-called tonnage war. Indeed, both had their problems with Adolf Hitler and the priority for scarce resources for the war effort, with Raeder eventually dismissed as head of the German Navy.

Meanwhile, the Allies were reading the Germans’ “mail,” having captured a complete Enigma coding machine and cracked their intelligence codes, giving them a leg up in re-routing convoys away from U-boat wolf packs. Closing the “air gap” in the North Atlantic with long range aircraft and the advent of hunter-killer task forces dedicated to the pursuit of U-boats, among other things, combined to finally overcome German resistance with technological advances.

Accompanying the text are maps of the maritime battlefield: The Home Waters around Britain and France, the Mediterranean Sea, the Western Atlantic, and the deadly convoy routes through the Arctic Sea to the Soviet Union. There are also three separate sections of photographs highlighting relevant ships, personalities, and technology.

Dimbleby’s analysis points out the mistakes made on both sides, including the fact that the allies could have won sooner, and saved men, ships and material, by instituting the convoy system and dedicating long range aircraft as escorting eyes in the sky from the beginning and concentrating on the destruction of the U-boat pens, prior to their construction, in France following its capitulation in 1940.

Of course, the Germans could have won had they provided Doenitz with his desired 300 boat fleet from the beginning of the war, instead of emphasizing a surface force that envisioned an ultimate clash with the Royal Navy, but that fortunately did not happen and the rest, as they say, is history.

In spite of the surfeit of titles on this subject, it is as good as any, providing the key actions, decisions, and sacrifices of the war’s longest campaign.