FROM HUNTER TO HUNTED THE U-BOAT WAR IN THE ATLANTIC 1939-1943

Reviewed by: Richard Sharpe

It is pointless to try and create a pecking order, but from a British point of view, probably the two most memorable campaigns of the Second World War in Europe were the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1943 and the Normandy Invasion of France and Germany 1944-1945.  Following closely behind are the Battle of Britain and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Because it went on much longer than the others and was described by Winston Churchill as the greatest threat the nation faced, the Atlantic battle has attracted large numbers of historical accounts, and the books keep on coming even 80 years after the event.

This latest record analyses the reversal of fortunes when the ‘indestructible’ U-boat wolf packs were finally defeated by the courage of merchant seamen who, time and again, voluntarily crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic in spite of horrific loss of life.  By mid-1943 the U-boat turkey shoot was over and German losses became unsustainable.  Hence the title of the book: From Hunter to Hunted.

Bernard Edwards is a retired Merchant ship Captain who has become a prolific writer about the war at sea and the conditions faced by convoys of elderly merchant ships in the gales and icy conditions of the North Atlantic.  Few convoys exceeded 10 knots, navigation aids were primitive, and radars initially were fitted only in escorting warships.  Risks of collision by night and in fog were an ever-present hazard.  When surfaced, the U-boats were much faster than the speed of the convoy, which was generally that of ‘the slowest ship.’  The submarines could therefore repeat their attacks until they ran out of weapons.

This epic maritime battle has been covered in scores of excellent books, and one wonders if there is anything new to say.  Nonetheless, the sheer magnitude of the destruction and loss of life never ceases to catch public attention, no matter how often the story is told. Some U-boats were already in position at sea when war was declared.  A few merchant ships were fitted early on with obsolete guns, mostly mounted aft, and any chivalry shown to survivors by the submarines in the early stages of the war was quickly abandoned once they came under counter-attack, however primitive and ineffective the defences.

After 1941, the developing convoy system, the increasing numbers of warship escorts and, not least, maritime air power, particularly that provided by aircraft carriers, proved decisive, and by late 1943 the German Submarine Commander, Admiral Doenitz, was forced to abandon his wolf pack tactics and admit defeat. The main part of the narrative covers that period in 1943 when the tide was turning against the U-boat.  The breaking of German wireless codes also helped, but not to the extent that is often claimed.  Men and weapons win wars.  Intelligence merely helps.

We have now reached the stage when WWII survivors on both sides have nearly all died, but new books like this are a reminder of the scale of the indiscriminate horror of the attempted destruction of sea-going trade during our ‘darkest hours’.