Added 12 November 2010.


John Terraine: Business in Great Waters

The title of this book is taken from Psalm 107 which talks of those who "go down to do business in great waters", taken in this context to refer to the British maritime commerce of the twentieth century which formed the nation's lifelines. The book is the history of the U-boat wars from 1914 to 1945, which in both conflicts aimed to eliminate Britain as an opponent by cutting these lifelines and forcing her into surrender.

At first glance it may seem strange to place both wars within the same book - after all the ideological underpinnings of the two conflicts were rather different, as were other aspects (in 1914-18, for example, Britain maintained a continental army throughout, whereas in 1939-45 it took some years to return to mainland Europe). Yet as Terraine illustrates in his history, all the basic lessons of submarine warfare - attacks on commerce, the use of torpedoes and convoys and the development of airpower, depth charges, hydrophones and ASDIC - were all to be learnt, albeit at a painful cost, in 1914-1918, although sad to relate some of these lessons had to be relearnt in 1939-45.

Ironically the submarine warfare of WWI, so often neglected in the light of the better known "second round" (Terraine's own description) of WWII, came closer to cutting Britain's lifelines, and at a far lower cost to the Germans, than in WWII. In 1917 the situation appeared desperate, and even a doughty fighter such as Admiral Jellicoe was reduced to despair. It was largely the introduction of the convoy system, together with improved detection methods and the introduction of the depth charge, which turned the tide, although at the war's end the German U-boat crews still felt themselves to be unbeaten and were one section of the Imperial Navy which refused to mutiny. On the other hand Terraine also explodes some myths, such as the idea that the German Flanders bases contributed a great deal to the submarine campaign (they did not). Also some ideas were tried that proved to be inefficient or even detrimental to the Allied cause, such as mine barrages in vast numbers or, worse, the belief that Allied fighting ships should charge off chasing down U-boats even if it meant leaving the convoy. This idea, unhappily, was revived in the Second World War and not laid to rest until 1942-43 - as one authority pointed out in 1914-18, the number of submarines sunk was inconsequential as long as the merchant ships arrived safely into harbour. Terraine also reminds us that despite their titles, these early submarines prior to 1945 were in fact not true submarines in the modern sense, but rather submersible boats which (like marine reptiles and mammals) had to surface periodically for air and the recharging of batteries, not to mention their inability to travel underwater at much more than a few knots.

The interwar years are covered only briefly and focus, as does much of the book, on the career of Karl Dönitz, the submarine officer of WWI who spent a couple of years in British captivity before returning to his naval career in Germany. Dönitz, a dedicated professional who appeared (like many Germans) to welcome Hitler for the restoration of national prestige and who kept his eyes focused outward to avoid seeing or hearing the unpalatable, was to rise from former captain to commander of the entire German fleet and ultimately the last leader of the German Reich. In the thirties however he spent much of his energy rising through the officer corps and attempting to persuade Hitler and his naval commander Raeder of the possibilities offered by the U-boats. Dönitz believed that an availability of 300 boats at the beginning of the war would seal Britain's fate - in the event he was to have just 50, so wedded were Raeder and his fellows (like many senior officers in other great nations) to the idea that the battleship would still be queen of the seas. Fantasy thinking in Germany such as the "Z Plan" (a plan to create a huge "balanced" fleet that would have taken years to complete and probably more resources than were readily available) was unfortunately matched to some degree in the Allied nations by unfortunate notions such as that the submarine had already been mastered, an idea belied by the rather bare cupboard available to RAF Coastal Command whose job was to provide the air component of anti-submarine measures, or that convoy sailing would no longer be necessary. War in fact caught Dönitz by surprise, and despite some telling successes he had to make do with a fairly bare hand until the end of 1941.

On the Allied side the British and Canadians who had to bear the brunt of the U-boat offensive were similarly depauperate in vessels, in this case ships suitable for fighting submarines. The Canadians were arguably in worse case since a Royal Canadian Navy had to be more or less built up from a nominal strength, but the British were by 1941 also overstretched with commitments not just in the Atlantic but in the Middle and Far East. The old US destroyers lend-leased to the UK were loathed by their crews but nevertheless a welcome addition to naval strength, as were the corvettes which were hideously uncomfortable vessels which would even "roll on wet grass" according to one veteran but which gave sterling service until improved ships could come along, mostly from US shipyards. The RAF likewise had to make do with biplane flying boats and short-ranged and relatively inoffensive planes such as the Avro Anson until more potent machines became available.

The war of the sailors and submariners took part against an impersonal backdrop of industrialisation and technological advances, and of course the shadow world of intelligence. As regards the first, Terraine points out that despite the normal German reputation for efficiency, the nature of Hitler's regime meant that the Third Reich was far from efficient in its use of resources, notably under Goering's economic overlordship which saw the Germans fall behind in several important areas. Goering, in fact, comes in for considerable criticism in the book, since also his jealous guardianship of the Luftwaffe meant that the U-boats were often without air cover or air reconnaissance. On the other hand the British, despite a lamentable habit of clinging to old shipbuilding traditions that were to cause her long-term decline in later years, did manage affairs better by liaison between the services and an effective use of committees. Concerning intelligence, the coup handed to the Allies by the cracking of the Enigma coding machines and the use of ULTRA was an indispensable ace in the hand that allowed rerouting of many convoys away from Dönitz's wolf packs, and although the Germans felt that something was amiss somewhere their unshakeable faith in Enigma was to prove their downfall. However the German B-Dienst naval intelligence also had considerable success (far more so than much German intelligence elsewhere) and was able to intercept convoy routing instructions that were to bring sorrow on many ships.

In 1942 and the first months of 1943 the rising tide of Allied shipping sunk against the number of U-boats destroyed reached critical levels as more and more German submarines left the slips. However the desperate convoy battles of spring 1943 such as HX229 were to prove the darkness before the dawn, as in fact new Allied countermeasures, greater number of ASW vessels and above all the increase in air cover would turn the tables within two months. Thereafter U-boats found it almost impossible to concentrate against a convoy without attack, in particular from Allied aircraft, and Dönitz was forced to concede operations in the Atlantic for several months. Thereafter the pace of the story quickens as the U-boats became the hunted rather than the hunters, the nadir of their fortunes being reached in June 1944 when despite heroic efforts they failed to make any impression on the D-Day landings, and those not fortunate enough to be equipped with the new "Schnorchel" that allowed them to travel submerged were destroyed or heavily damaged. Although new German weapons such as the acoustic torpedo and midget submarines came belatedly into play, Dönitz's last hopes rested with the revolutionary new Type XXI and XXIII boats which began to be produced in large numbers to replace the sturdy but obsolete Type VIIs. However, although a handful of Type XXIIIs operated in British waters in 1945 their attacks, like those of the German jets, were to prove pinpricks, and the only Type XXI to enter the theatre received the surrender signal before it could go through with a live attack on Allied warships (the Captain nevertheless succeeded in making a dummy attack and escaping undetected). Dönitz, as Terraine says, had finally entered the "nadir and pinnacle" of his career, that of Führer of the Third Reich, a position he was to occupy for twenty days before being arrested, tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to ten years. His funeral in 1981 was attended by a large number of U-boat veterans, many wearing their medals - Terraine quotes Lothar-Günther Buchheim, "no other service of the German armed forces had such blind faith in their commander".

Terraine, although certainly no pacifist, throughout the book constantly reminds the reader of the human cost in lives, suffering and material, to both sides. In addition to the fear of being torpedoed and suffering death by drowning, freezing, burning or starvation, Allied sailors also had to endure the horrendous weather conditions of the north Atlantic and often the violent motions of their own confined vessels. Ships were even known to founder in bad weather and under the weight of accumulated ice. For their part, German submariners faced a usually violent but sudden death if caught by depth charges or other weapons, but if the batteries on the submarine started emitting chlorine gas then death could be slow and horrendous. In sum some xxxx,000 Allied sailors lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic, while xxx,000 German U-boat men were casualties, of whom only 5,000 were taken prisoner - a staggering loss rate of 85%.

Although not a short book, Terraine's account of the U-boat wars is very readable and well indexed, with several appendices and a separate index for ships, submarines and aircraft. It can be profitably read in conjunction with another of his works, The Right of the Line, that covers the RAF, including of course the work of Coastal Command.

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