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News: November 2018

The Battle of the Atlantic


Commemorating the Battle of the Atlantic

In May 2013 the Royal Navy commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic with a series of events in Liverpool, London and Derry~Londonderry.


What was the Battle of the Atlantic?

It is difficult to fully define the Battle of the Atlantic. It was the longest continuous campaign in World War II and effectively ran for the duration of the war from 1939 to 1945. However, it reached its height from mid-1940 to the end of 1943. After the fall of Europe in 1940, Britain and the Empire stood alone, divided by the Atlantic Ocean from their chief friendly power, the United States, in a period when transatlantic flight was still in its infancy.

As Britain required more than a million tons of imported material each week for the war effort, the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) attempted to stem the flow of men and materials to Britain by sea. The Battle was thus fought to keep the North Atlantic open for convoys from the US and Canada transporting raw materials, munitions and troops for the mutual benefit of  maintain the Allied war effort, an effort which intensified following the entry of the US into the war as a direct ally in December 1941.

These vital convoys faced an almost continuous threat of being sunk by German submarines (U-boats) operating throughout the Atlantic. Ships were at their most vulnerable in mid-Atlantic, out of the range of coastal air cover on either side, even today a six- or seven-day voyage. Even when air escort could be provided, U-boats often torpedoed and sank vessels at night when aircraft were less effective.

Fighting the U-boat menace

The Allies hit back to protect their convoys, with one of the most notable parts being played by an inland site. The Government Code and Cypher School was located at Bletchley Park, whose highly effective Enigma decrypt teams worked in newly-built huts in the Park’s grounds. Hut 8, led by the brilliant cryptanalyst Alan Turing, widely regarded as the father of computer science, decoded messages from the Kriegsmarine, while a team in Hut 4 turned the deciphered messages into intelligence reports. Both are listed in their own right at Grade II.

Front elevation of Bletchley Park House, first built in 1860, and headquarters of the wartime Government Code and Cypher School. Churchill was among the wartime visitors to Bletchley Park House. © Mr Nick Jarvis

Airfields such as Dunkeswell in east Devon acted on these reports, and were themselves a symbol of the transatlantic alliance in action. The Operations Block and Crew Briefing Room at Dunkeswell airfield was the nerve centre for the United States Navy Fleet Air Wing and is thus of great historical importance for its associations with the Battle of the Atlantic. Dunkeswell is the best-preserved of all the sites in the west of Britain associated with the Battle of the Atlantic and is listed Grade II.

1943 view of Dunkeswell airfield. © English Heritage Archives

Allied Air Cover

From Dunkeswell the Fleet Air Wing patrolled the U-boat routes between their bases in France and their hunting sites in the North Atlantic. By May 1945, 6,424 anti-submarine missions, principally in B24 Liberator bombers (which had the greatest range over the Atlantic of any aircraft), had been flown from Dunkeswell. The cover provided by shore-based aircraft of all Allied Commands proved to be a decisive factor within the Battle, aided, of course, by the decryption of Ultra and the development of radar.

Just as the frontiers of the Battle of the Atlantic extended beyond the sea to the sky and to secret inland establishments, so the Battle bled into other home waters: the English Channel, Bristol Channel, and Irish Sea. All were necessary feeder routes to reach the Atlantic from Britain, and all were likewise important onward routes to the destinations of occupied Europe. There was no arbitrary frontier where the Battle of the Atlantic ended and other theatres of war began: it was vital to win the Battle on this front in order to successfully prosecute the war elsewhere.

On England’s Atlantic Coasts

Similarly, methods of attack were also varied: air attack, surface attack by warships and E-boats, and underwater torpedoes fired from U-boats. Losses are therefore diverse by both type of ship lost and by cause of loss. HM Submarine Swordfish was sunk by a mine off St. Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight, in November 1940, en route for patrol duty off Brest. The British destroyer HMS Warwick was torpedoed off Trevose Head, North Cornwall, in February 1944 on escort and patrol duty. HMS Kurd was a former trawler, which, like so many other fishing vessels, was converted into a minesweeper, a dangerous job which resulted in her loss to a mine off the Lizard, Cornwall, in July 1945. Losses were not all one way: U1018 was depth-charged, again off the Lizard, in February 1945. All these vessels are designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Location map showing an international heritage of wrecks clustered off the Lizard: the American Liberty ship John R Park, the British armed trawler Kurd, and the German U-boat U1018. © Crown Copyright and database right 2013.  All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900

The Liberty Ship

The characteristic ship of the Battle of the Atlantic, however, could be considered to be the innovative Liberty ship, ordered by Britain from the US.  New prefabrication and welding techniques were used to cut the building time to keep ship numbers high in the face of mounting shipping losses. Orders increased after the implementation of the Lease-Lend programme, which underpinned the US-British war effort. Later models were built specifically for the harsh Atlantic conditions which had led to hull failures in some earlier versions. Liberty ship after Liberty ship sailed out in convoy to keep up the flow of Lease-Lend war materials to Britain, and later to Europe following the Allied re-invasion of Europe. The Liberty ships were both part of, and came to symbolise, the Lease-Lend programme and the transatlantic alliance.

Also off the Lizard, which could be said to be one of the focal points of the Battle of the Atlantic in English waters, lie the remains of the John R Park, a Liberty ship which was torpedoed in March 1945, en route from Southampton for the US in ballast.

Perhaps the most famous of all the lost Liberty ships is the Richard Montgomery, although she was lost neither to the Atlantic nor to war causes. She made her way safely from New York in August 1944 with explosives and munitions to support the continuing invasion of France. Arriving in the Thames, she was ordered to anchor off Sheerness Middle Sand, where she stranded on the sand and broke her back. Approximately half her cargo was recovered before she started to sink into the mud of the Thames Estuary, where she has remained ever since. She is designated as a dangerous wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, and kept under 24-hour observation.

Richard Montgomery: laser scanning and multibeam sonar data 2009
© Maritime and Coastguard Agency

Outcome of the Battle

The outcome of the Battle was a strategic victory for the Allies in breaking the German blockade, but at great cost in ships and lives. Within English territorial waters up to the limit of 12 nautical miles, over 1,000 wreck sites date from the Second World War. Whether in the Western Approaches, in the Bristol Channel, or the English Channel, many of these ships are tangible remains of the Battle of the Atlantic, a legacy of the largest battlefield and the longest battle in the history of warfare.

This article is a modified version of a two-part article which appeared in English Heritage’s Heritage Calling blog: