The War at Sea

By Francis E. McMurtrie.
The War Illustrated, Volume 7, No. 162, Page 200, September 3, 1943.

The latest results of the war against the U-boats, announced in a joint statement by the Prime Minister and President Roosevelt on August 14, are the equivalent of a great sea victory.

Over a period of three months enemy submarines have not only failed to inflict any serious losses on our convoys, but have themselves been incurring casualties at the record rate of one U-boat sunk every day. During the first seven months of 1943 Allied shipping was increased by 3,000,000 tons, losses notwithstanding.

These figures eclipse anything accomplished in 1917-18. During those years the worst period for the U-boats was the month of May 1918, when 16 were destroyed. In no other month were so many accounted for, the next most successful being September 1918, when we destroyed 10, and following November, when the total was nine. Thus there was no continuous run of heavy losses for the enemy to face, such as has been revealed recently. Nor was the shipbuilding output of this country and the United States in 1917-18 comparable with that of the present war.

Already it is evident that the Germans are at a loss to meet the situation which confronts them. Their first reaction was to alter the tactics of the U-boat flotillas, which found that the wolf-pack system of preying upon convoys had ceased to pay them. Instead, as indicated by the reference in the official announcement to recent sinkings having taken place in distant areas, enemy submarines have had to seek targets in remote seas, where there is a chance of finding merchantmen unescorted. This policy is not going to yield any rich returns, such as might have been expected when a heavy attack was launched on a inadequately escorted convoy.

No secret has been made of the fact that the defeat of the U-boats is mainly due to a more abundant supply of escorts. From such accounts of convoy actions in the past three months as have appeared, it would seem that 10 to 12 warships, comprising destroyers, sloops, frigates and corvettes, is no unusual total for a convoy escort. In addition, the mid-Atlantic gap between the extreme operating ranges of shore-based aircraft on either side has been bridged by the employment of carriers of the escort type, whose planes are able to patrol the waters around the convoy routes and drive beneath the surface any submarines encountered. Not infrequently the patrolling aircraft are able to drop depth-charges which damage the U-boats and leave them an easier quarry for the warships that are immediately directed to the spot by signal.

Though no figures of shipping losses have been released since the middle of 1941, an indication of the improvement during the present year is contained in the official statement that in the first six months of 1943 the number of ships sunk per U-boat was only half that in the second half of 1942, and only a quarter of that in the first half of 1942.

An excellent opportunity appeared to be offered to the U-boats when the Allies invaded Sicily. Over 2,500 vessels were involved in the operation of invading the island and landing reinforcements and supplies, yet the total losses the enemy succeeded in inflicting were only about 80,000 tons, and that at heavy cost to the attacking submarines.

Germany Faces a Dearth of Experienced U-boat Crews

In spite of these discouraging results the Nazi propaganda agencies are working manfully to keep up the courage of the German people, who are regaled at frequent intervals with imaginary figures of the tonnage which is claimed to have been destroyed, even while it is admitted that the submarines' task is becoming harder.

However many U-boats remain in service, they cannot continue operating freely in the face of such severe losses as have been incurred in the past three months. Doubtless there are sufficient submarines in reserve or completing to make good the casualties, but the training of crews will need to be accelerated to man them all. An even greater difficulty will be to provide experienced captains, since it is usually the daring and the enterprising ones whose submarines run into trouble. The slower and more cautious captains do not as a rule accomplish very much destruction, as analysis of the results of the last war's submarine campaign showed plainly enough.

In these circumstances the Germans are obviously batting on a losing wicket. They are endeavouring to retrieve the situation by increasing the force of air attacks on shipping, but the area within which their aircraft can operate effectively is less than it was earlier in the war. For the Luftwaffe to be required to provide fresh squadrons for war against seaborne commerce may well prove the last straw.

How is the morale of U-boat personnel likely to stand the severe losses inflicted upon it? Judging from the last war's experience, it is improbable that it will be affected to any serious extent, though more hurried training may result in some loss of efficiency. In 1918, it will be recalled, it was the crews of the German heavy surface ships, and not those of the destroyers and submarines, which became discontented and ultimately broke out into mutiny. There are far fewer big ships in the German Navy today, and their influence on the situation is correspondingly less.

At the same time, the fact that those ships are mostly in Norwegian waters, and that their crews must be feeling acute anxiety for their homes and families in the Reich as the Allies' bombing programme continues to extend, is a factor whose importance must not be overlooked. The less friendly attitude which is now being adopted by Sweden must also have a depressing effect on their spirits.

In connexion with the evacuation of German troops from Sicily across the Straits of Messina, I was recently asked; “What is the Navy doing to prevent this?”

Those who raise such questions would do well first to examine the geographical position. The Straits of Messina are narrow and tortuous, as a glance at a large-scale map will show. There are strong currents and whirlpools, to two of which the ancients gave the names of Scylla and Charybdis. To cross in power-driven boats at night is a simple matter, as the distance to be covered is not more than two or three miles.

For heavy warships to venture into such narrow waters would be to risk destruction by mines, to say nothing of heavy guns in coastal batteries on either side of the Straits. Light draught vessels such as motor torpedo-boats and and motor gunboats have more than once, under cover of darkness, delivered attacks upon enemy vessels sheltering there.

Even aircraft found it difficult to interfere effectually with the traffic across the Straits, as the Germans had assembled there a mass of anti-aircraft artillery whose incessant fire made it extremely hard to hit small craft in motion.

Articles in the The War at Sea category