Some Reflections upon the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945 and Historical Maritime Operational Research (I)

Some Reflections upon the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945 and Historical Maritime Operational Research (I)

06 May 23
Message from the Editor

In 1995 staff historian David Waters began publishing in the NR [83/4, p. 349] a series of commentaries on the Battle of the Atlantic, a subject he had mastered while working on The Defeat of the Enemy Attack upon Shipping (1957). He was inspired in this case by the renewed naval history discourse, evident in a review of S. Howarth and D. Law, eds., The Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945 (1994), the International Naval Conference on the battle held in Liverpool in 1993, and related writings in the NR [83/1, p. 84 & 83/2, p. 159]. Republished here as part of the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. A 15 minute read.

Throughout the Second World War (1939-1945) of this century, as throughout the First (1914-1918), the decisive theatre of the whole war was the North Atlantic Ocean. For the soldiers fighting on land worldwide, as for the airmen fighting from and in the air anywhere over the land, no less than for the seamen and airmen fighting in the seven seas of the world, the North Atlantic Ocean was the decisive theatre of war. Furthermore, the North Atlantic Ocean was the decisive theatre from the very beginning until the very end of each of these great wars.

The International Naval Conference, 1993

John Winton’s review of the Proceedings of the Battle of the Atlantic Conference held in this country, in 1993, was unfortunate in its lack of perspective, and uncharitable towards the devoted editors, and to the authors of the variety of papers delivered at this wholly admirably organised, presented, and conducted International Naval Conference (the first ever that I know of held in this country), attended by a numerous, attentive, appreciative, deeply interested, and, as I judged at the time, largely non-academic international nautical audience.

The Conference was held, appropriately, at Liverpool and, appropriately likewise, within the enviably furnished and equipped, newly sited Maritime Museum, again, appropriately, in a former dockside warehouse of massive construction, and stately proportions. Here, the fascinating, and instructively labelled, as well as beautifully and skilfully presented exhibits illustrated virtually every aspect of the titanic Battle of the Atlantic.

Both the conduct and the content of the Conference itself, and the mounting of the Museum presentation ‘reflected great credit on all concerned’, to use the favoured phrase of commendation of my first Captain – of HMS Britannia, as the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, was then officially designated – addressing awestruck but appreciative Naval Cadets, still in their first’teens.

As Captain (later Admiral Sir Martin) Dunbar-Nasmith, VC could then speak with authority from wartime sea experience, so can I now write with authority on the mounting of this International Maritime Conference, having been both a ‘salt horse’ seaman, and a ‘birdman’ in both the Royal Navy and in the Royal Air Force, and a National Maritime Museum officer responsible for mounting historical maritime displays, and International Maritime Conferences.

An aim of this impeccably organised Conference was to commemorate the toils, and the terrors, and the innumerable, often unrecorded efforts and sacrifices made by all those who, during the Second World War of the 20th century, ‘went down to the sea in ships, and occupied their business in great waters’, in particular in the North Atlantic ocean; another aim was to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Allied victory won in that ocean on 23 May 1943.

A further aim, I thought, was to present ‘operational lessons learnt’, for the guidance in the future of the brotherhood and of the sisterhood of the sea, by publishing the Conference Proceedings in order that they might be an Everyman to every studious seaman and airmen saying silently:

‘I will go with Thee, and be thy guide. In thy most need to go by thy side.’

In my judgment the Conference achieved all of its various aims: not least to provide a public platform on which to review, and in the process record – witness its published Proceedings – many of the multitudinous operational aspects, Allied and Axis, of this still very imperfectly understood maritimenot naval – war.

That the Battle of the Atlantic is widely and, by some of the highest naval and air authorities, gravely misunderstood, has been made manifest throughout the Berlin Wall Era by published strategic pronouncements made by USN, in particular, and other NATO Naval and Air operational Commanders on NATO maritime strategy.

At the Conference, amongst the subjects discussed was the decisive defeat, on 23 May 1943, of the four-year-long campaign of the Axis U-Boats, and of the Axis Air Forces against Allied ‘merchant’ ships traversing the Atlantic Ocean between Britain, and the world beyond: South, to and from North Africa, and from far beyond Africa – Arabia, India, Asia, and Australasia; West to, and East from, the New World – Canada, the Americas, North and South; each and everyone the lands from whence came in ships only the means, the women, and the men, to wage war – ultimately, finally decisively in Europe – on land, and from the air.

‘It is upon the Navy under the Providence of God that the safety, honour, and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend.’

So, in 1652, declared the Commonwealth Government with characteristic robustness. But the reality of this fact of English life was known, and already embedded in our history more than two centuries before Cromwell and his Roundheads gave it expression so succinctly; moreover, to these hard-headed Englishmen, in war and in trade, ‘Navy’ in their thoughts, as in those of earlier and of later times into the 19th century, as in my thoughts to-day, encompassed all the ships (and aircraft) of the realm, in times of peace as well as in times of war, times in which what ‘Navy’, and ‘maritime warfare’ mean become perilously self-evident to ‘the inhabitants of our Island’.

Thus, all those who participated in the Conference commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the winning, by the Allied maritime forces, of that primary sea victory which was fundamental to winning the war on land, first, in the West, in Europe, only after that, in the Far East, Japan.

This was the victory which we now call ‘the Battle of the Atlantic’; the victory above all other victories which, for the sea-divided, ship-knit warring Allies was necessarily the decisive victory of the whole of the 1939 to 1945 world-wide ‘Second’ World War.

As for the speakers, discussers, and audience in general my impression was that of an assembly of a variety of war-seasoned seamen and airmen of all callings, some venerable, women as well as men, of students, young and old, of both sexes, and of various nationalities; likewise of scholars, and scientists of and from various disciplines, and countries, more or less connected with the sea, ships, aircraft, and their affairs.

Some participants, male and female, were clearly distinguished by learning, or by sea experience, in more than one discipline or profession relevant to sea affairs, or had taken part in the Conference in some capacity or other as landsmen or women with enquiring minds, in order to satisfy their curiosity about various aspects of this campaign, waged so relentlessly, by far distant ships and aircraft, amidst ‘the dangers of the sea’, the cruel sea, so ‘terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect’, to say nothing of ‘the violence of the enemy’; of all the campaigns the longest, the most unrelenting, ceaseless – from the very beginning of the war up to its very end; and, of all the many campaigns, the one most critical.

Reflections prompted by the Conference of 1993

What a contrast to 60 years ago! This convening in Britain of an International Naval Conference! Then the very concept of any conference on ‘naval history’, let alone one to be attended by anyone, of any calling, civil or ‘military’, not even Naval, to say nothing of nationality, was completely inconceivable! As inconceivable was a conference which even hinted at the infallibility of the Admiralty, or of the Air Ministry, even in the past, let alone the present, to say nothing of the future! The merest suggestion would have been Lese-majeste!

Indeed, even a Conference which proposed to involve more than one of the Fighting Services, let alone the Merchant Marine, or, worse still, Officers below Flag Rank was unthinkable! As for mere civilians… Irrelevant impertinence! Anyone rash enough in the Service to have made such a proposal would have been viewed (and probably treated) as subversive, or insubordinate, or, just as bad in the long run, presumptuous beyond the bounds of professional propriety – to dare to think above his subordinate rank! Any serving Officer expressing such thoughts would have been self-evidently determined not to rise in his Service. Even writing a book about sea warfare would put an end to his career; as Commander Russell Grenfell, Royal Navy, assessed by all I knew to be the brightest brain in the Navy due for promotion, found to his cost (and the Navy’s) when he rashly wrote such a book, and published it in 1937 entitled – in order to be etymologically correct, as he carefully explained in his Foreword, (misguided no doubt by his publisher, for Forewords, if read, are seldom read first) – The Art of the Admiral! He was duly retired.

I first knew Commander Grenfell by reputation, when I was a Midshipman on the China Station, in 1930, and he Commander of the Flagship, clearly destined for promotion. He impressed himself upon my memory then by his Gunroom reputation, true or false I cannot now recall, of being the last Commander in the Navy to ‘masthead’ an errant Midshipman! I first conversed with the by then Captain Russell Grenfell late in 1939, after the start of the war. He had been recalled from the Retired List to be a Captain on the Staff of the neighbouring Combined Maritime HQ, who shared our Wardroom Mess. Here, he informed me one day, with the quiet despondency of foresight ignored, the fate of his proposal to ease the critical destroyer shortage. This was that Britain should ask the Americans for 50 of their laid-up in reserve four-stacker destroyers of World War I, in exchange for their use of our bases in the West Indies. These craft, though aged, had the irreplaceable virtue, he had pointed out in a Memo to his Chief of Staff, of being potentially available at short notice to supplement our desperately few A/S destroyers. ‘Preposterous!’ had been the response of this Flag Officer, adding to it, as he tore the Memo up, and threw the rubbish into the waste-paper basket, ‘I shan’t waste the Admiralty’s time by forwarding it!’

After the war I often wondered how, months later – but better late than never – Captain Grenfell had got his rejected proposal, made when Mr. Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, through to the Premier – Mr. Winston Churchill!

However, this is to anticipate events as they occurred. It was Captain Grenfell’s answer, in essence numerical and interrogatory, to an ignorant, speculative query by me, made earlier to him over a congenial glass of gin in the Wardroom, that started me thinking about convoy. Up to that moment I had never given convoy a thought. Indeed, I had no knowledge of convoy at all, in neither the ‘First’ World War, nor earlier ones. On convoy my professional education had been silent, of convoy my experience nil. That is, except that, as a child playing on Plymouth Hoe I had seen, I now recalled, dazzle-painted merchant ships assembling in Plymouth Sound, kite-balloons in tow, for some voyage over the far horizon in the company of grey-painted warships gathering, evidently, to proceed with them…

It was a BBC lunchtime news bulletin, heard over the Wardroom radio, gin and tonic in hand, that had prompted my query: the wisdom of convoying merchant ships off the East Coast as a counter to air attack? (Which was why it was instituted here promptly). Captain Grenfell had countered my query by asking me what percentage of the sea-area of a convoy merchant ships occupied? After due thought, picturing vaguely ships in convoy, I hazarded: ‘1%?’.

‘About’, was the reply, followed by: ‘And your chances of hitting one of these ships with bombs?’ – one of the ways in which to attack ships with aircraft that my shrewd interrogator knew I was then training FAA pilots to attempt to do efficiently.

After some time, occupied by more thought, more conjuring up of visual imagery, and mental calculation I – we both – decided that, on this mathematical basis, my chances were very slim! I had been introduced involuntarily, and cunningly, by one of the best but wartime wasted brains in the Navy, to the mathematics of sea tactics! But also, and far, far, more important to me intellectually, indirectly to the mathematics of sea strategy! Far more important because, if a strategy be wrong, no tactics, no matter how brilliantly executed, can win a war…

This is a fact of war about which, before many months had passed, I was to ponder over for the best part of five years… In various Axis prisoner-of-war camps… And, for lack of the requisite detailed historical facts, begin to think – having ‘the opportunity of leisure’ – about maritime strategy, past and present, very tentatively (not being a mathematician by aptitude) mathematically… But, to return to – some of – my present reflections upon the Conference of 1993 about the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945, and upon the preceding inter-war years – the preparatory years for the Battle, as in fact they were. A Naval Staff Course (and a Senior Officers’ War Course) had been established in 1920 (there had been none before), two years after the end of the First (1914-1918) World War, but, in the years before the Second World War (1939-1945) it was quite out of the question that anyone would be so presumptuous as to convene an International Naval Conference – in Britain, of all places!

Consider the prevailing professional intellectual, and the political and international climates, consider the social stratification, nautical as well as civilian, of those times… At the height of the shipping crisis of the ‘First’ World War, the evidence of which, as a child, I saw daily washed up upon the sands of a South Devon shore, a dubious Mr. Lloyd George had been assured in all seriousness by the First Sea Lord, early in 1917, that he had no need, as the Premier had suggested to him, to create a Naval Staff Plans Division to enable the Admiralty to anticipate enemy activities – as was then not happening – as ‘he thought of everything’! (Perhaps I should explain that the Naval Staff had been created – in part – in 1912 – two years before the outbreak of that war – by the young First Lord of the Admiralty (the then) Mr. Winston Churchill, the resignation of the incumbent First Sea Lord, in protest against having junior officers appointed to assist him in discharging his world-wide operational responsibilities, notwithstanding).

So, in contrast to the reviewer of the Proceedings of this Conference, I am rejuvenated, not wearied by the evidence that, at last, belatedly, but (again) better late than never, there is now within this island, ‘…set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house…’ a lay intelligentsia of sea affairs clearly competent to comprehend, and to articulate matters which, too often for the security of the realm in the past, bluff sea-dogs, when not muzzled by Official Secrets Acts, have failed to express, or to expound upon convincingly; as when called upon, or prompted to explain how the Navy was ‘to be a safeguard unto’ the Realm, and its peoples, and ‘a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions’, as they prayed ‘daily at Sea’ that they, ‘and the Fleet in which we serve’, might be.