31 Aug 22

Lawrence Paterson’s The U Boat War: A Global history 1939-45 makes a persuasive case that Germany’s U-Boat campaign has hitherto been unnecessarily restricted to a focus on the Atlantic and that it took place largely between 1941-43. In a deliberate choice to try to not re-tell the story of the German U-Boat effort as one only confined to the Atlantic, Paterson has illustrated that U-Boat activity should be seen within the wider context of the war. He demonstrates that Admiral Karl Doenitz was eager to influence and execute a more unified and unrestricted naval ambition for Germany; he saw gain for Germany in seeking to pursue an asymmetric strategy against superior maritime forces and their status as global trading nations. In this, Paterson recounts examples such as ambitious attempts to disrupt oil flows in Venezuela, attack shipping from Africa and in the Indian Ocean.

Ultimately, Paterson attempts to show the reader that U-Boats were used in every theatre of operation and that it was a global campaign. While he achieves this, the point never quite seems as novel or as ground-breaking as proclaimed largely because despite this, much of the book does inevitably concentrate on more familiar operations in the Atlantic. This allows Paterson to make the other large point of the book, namely that Germany was never able to make its efforts count there, and that Germany was therefore never really in any danger of winning the Battle of the Atlantic. Indeed, despite the book’s title, one cannot escape the mere fact that it was in the Atlantic that the Allies prevailed and where the maritime effort of the democracies proved decisive. Furthermore, and as the author describes, Doenitz and Germany lost on every front: in operational design; in capability development, in harnessing technology; in its use of tactics and its ability to make intelligence count decisively. Ultimately, Germany was never capable of directing enough resources to either concentrate enough force where it would count or in finding a battle winning technology. The author tellingly brings these points out starkly. As such, the U-Boat campaign of the Second World War was never, contrary to some thought, the existential threat that the unrestricted warfare campaign was in the First World War.

Paterson brings this all to life with energy, and although some of the chapters lost a little focus and continuity occasionally, this makes for an entertaining, action packed read. By the time Doenitz was able to bring more forces to bear, his war was already lost, largely due to Germany’s wider strategic failure and the entry into the war of the US military -industrial complex which made the tonnage war and numbers game in the Atlantic simply unwinnable.

It is on this last point, that Paterson alludes to but doesn’t quite make the wider strategic point that applied history teaches us so apparently; that maritime forces and executing naval strategy rarely attract scarce resources or gain priority within the hierarchy of the security needs of Continental powers, and they are never able to achieve the maritime success that democracies do when they are driven by merchant imperatives. This is what distinguishes them as maritime powers. Culture, economic power, industrial prioritisation are hugely important here. Even the fall of France, and the opening up of easy access to the Atlantic didn’t really alter this dynamic for Germany.

Overall though, this is an enjoyable read, and a welcome addition to the history of the U Boat campaign, and a good reminder to continue to challenge our understanding on accepted narratives.