Battle for the North Atlantic – Book Review
One of the most dynamic, dangerous, and deadly campaigns of World War II took place in the Atlantic Ocean, as the British (and the Americans, following Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war in December 1941) fought to keep their warships and merchant ships safe from the rampaging U-boat submarine fleet of Nazi Germany. In the oversized Battle for the North Atlantic, John R. Bruning sets out to not only write about the well-known aspects of the campaign, but also to shed light on the lesser-known aspects and, to Bruning, the lesser-known heroes: the men who captained and crewed the thousands of unarmed merchant ships.
The battle for the Atlantic spanned a relatively short time period within the larger war between the Allies and Germany. Beginning in 1939, the U-boats started seeking out targets in a limited manner, trying to keep to the rules of prize warfare, where the U-boats had to attack from the surface and secure the safety of the ship’s crew. The Germans abandoned that type of warfare by 1940 and launched unrestricted war against British merchant ships and military vessels. For every move the British made to secure their supply lines across the waters, the Germans adapted and made a countermove, moving from isolated attacks by lone submarines to the tactic of the “wolfpack” where a whole host of subs attacked the merchant convoys. The U-boats had their fill during 1941, but thanks to losses and the slow pace of construction, the main deployment of U-boats in 1942 came on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. By the end of 1943, the war for the Atlantic was all but over. Overlapping air cover from the United States, Great Britain, and Iceland allowed the Allies the ability to uncover U-boats from the air, and new radar technologies allowed surface ships the ability to see them at sea. New depth-charge technologies gave ships protecting convoys greater ability to sink or cripple U-boats, and Allied code breakers continually read Germany’s secret transmissions.
Bruning also gives plenty of space to the surface war between the Royal Navy and Germany’s small fleet of surface ships. Like the U-boats, the German surface ships did a lot of damage, raiding along the coast of South America, protecting the landing of German troops in Norway, and harassing merchant ships around Northern Europe and Great Britain. Like the U-boats, however, German surface ships eventually suffered irreplaceable losses. One by one, Germany lost her surface fleet, most famously in the chase—and destruction—of the massive battleship Bismark.
Informative and chock full of photographs, the layout of Battle for the North Atlantic takes a little getting used to. Photographs and sidebars continually break up the flow of the text, but once the reader adapts to the layout the stories become completely absorbing. The easiest way to take the book is to read through the text and return to the photographs to support the written information.
Battle for the North Atlantic is a great read and makes clear the massive importance the U-boat war had on the overall war between the Allies and Nazi Germany. Unchecked, the Germans caused untold damage, sending millions of tons of shipping and thousands of men to a watery grave. Without countermeasures by the Allies, Soviet Russia and Great Britain would’ve starved and faced materiel shortages so great that continued resistance against the Germans would’ve been nearly impossible. But Britain and Russia endured, the United States helped tip the balance, and the U-boat threat disappeared—and with it the last hope for Nazi Germany.
Adam Koeth graduated from Norwich University in 2012 with a Master’s of Arts in Military History. He also holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in History from Ohio University. A native Ohioan, Adam lives with his wife and two children near Columbus, and enjoys reading everything he can get his hands on, writing, and watching sports – even the roller-coaster-like Columbus Blue Jackets.