Free to view

Duel in the Deep: The Hunters, The Hunted, and a High Seas Fight to the Finish

13 Feb 24

376 pages

Capt. Andrew Welch (retd.)

This is a fascinating book – it’s really three books in one, but the ‘other two’ end in mid-saga when USS Borie sinks having rammed U-405 – the Duel in the title.  However, this book covers much more than just the wartime years of USSBorie (a ‘four-stacker’, as were many of the old destroyers that were ‘lent’ to the RN) & her end. The ‘other two’ are the WWII development of ASW convoy protection in the USN & the USA’s progress in breaking the German codes. Whilst much of these two stories is probably well known to members from our side of the Atlantic, the Americans did not always share our point of view or now, our version of the history.  This book is widely sourced from US and German records, and unsurprisingly, takes the American view. There is no doubt also that there was considerable personal animosity at a high level between the RN and the USN, with the RN often viewed as being arrogant.[1]

In many ways, I found the USN’s progress in the U-boat war the most interesting aspect of this book. There is a lot of detail about Doenitz’s, very hands-on, management of his U-boats – even after he became head of the whole Kriegsmarine.    The help given by the British – in the provision of radar sets , even of ships – several Flower-class corvettes served in the USN – is well documented. On the Enigma front, the USN decided to go it alone & built a decoding centre within NCR’s HQ in Dayton, Ohio. Alan Turing, having fallen out with the management at Bletchley Park, was sent there in December 1942 to assist or assess (viewpoints inevitably varied) the USN’s progress. It is clear that his ability and status was not really understood – he ended up sleeping on someone’s floor – which may have influenced his ‘condescending’ report when he returned home. Trans-Atlantic cooperation was very difficult to achieve because of the extremely restricted access to raw Ultra traffic in the UK and the unwillingness to share Bletchley’s product with an ally who might not be as careful as we were with the source. The USN’s efforts to go it alone on cracking Enigma did bear some fruit, but much more was achieved once there was genuine cooperation. Both the story of the USN’s anti-U-boat campaign & their pursuit of Enigma end abruptly, and prematurely, with Borie’s final engagement.

The main thread of this book follows Borie & her crew from 1940 until she was sunk in November 1943. There are detailed accounts of the family and wider backgrounds of many of the crew members – all WWII wartime volunteers. These sometimes go on for half a page & do disrupt the flow of the story. I suspect, however, that this is a British point of view that would not be shared by the target audience. The final engagement is well told in great detail. This was truly a duel & both participants sank as a result of it.

Overall, I found this book worth reading – a bit disjointed in places, but it certainly fills a gap in my understanding of WWII in the North Atlantic, & the story of Borie & her crew shows well the great contribution made by ‘hostilities only’ sailors.

[1] Perhaps, in our defence, one needs to remember that the USN only overtook the RN in size in 1944-5.