Early skirmishes (September 1939 – May 1940)
In 1939, the Kriegsmarine lacked the strength to challenge the combined British Royal Navy and French Navy (Marine Nationale) for command of the sea. Instead, German naval strategy relied on commerce raiding using capital ships, armed merchant cruisers, submarines and aircraft. Many German warships were already at sea when war was declared, including most of the available U-boats and the “pocket battleships” (Panzerschiffe) Deutschland and Admiral Graf Spee which had sortied into the Atlantic in August. These ships immediately attacked British and French shipping. U-30 sank the liner SS Athenia within hours of the declaration of war—in breach of her orders not to sink passenger ships. The U-boat fleet, which was to dominate so much of the Battle of the Atlantic, was small at the beginning of the war; many of the 57 available U-boats were the small and short-range Type IIs, useful primarily for minelaying and operations in British coastal waters. Much of the early German anti-shipping activity involved minelaying by destroyers, aircraft and U-boats off British ports.
With the outbreak of war, the British and French immediately began a blockade of Germany, although this had little immediate effect on German industry. The Royal Navy quickly introduced a convoy system for the protection of trade that gradually extended out from the British Isles, eventually reaching as far as Panama, Bombay and Singapore. Convoys allowed the Royal Navy to concentrate its escorts near the one place the U-boats were guaranteed to be found, the convoys. Each convoy consisted of between 30 and 70 mostly unarmed merchant ships.
Some British naval officials, particularly the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, sought a more ‘offensive’ strategy. The Royal Navy formed anti-submarine hunting groups based on aircraft carriers to patrol the shipping lanes in the Western Approaches and hunt for German U-boats. This strategy was deeply flawed because a U-boat, with its tiny silhouette, was always likely to spot the surface warships and submerge long before it was sighted. The carrier aircraft were little help; although they could spot submarines on the surface, at this stage of the war they had no adequate weapons to attack them, and any submarine found by an aircraft was long gone by the time surface warships arrived. The hunting group strategy proved a disaster within days. On September 14, 1939, Britain’s most modern carrier, HMS Ark Royal, narrowly avoided being sunk when three torpedoes from U-39 exploded prematurely. U-39 was forced to surface and scuttle by the escorting destroyers, becoming the first U-boat loss of the war. The British failed to learn the lesson from this encounter: another carrier, HMS Courageous, was sunk three days later by U-29.
Escort destroyers hunting for U-boats continued to be a prominent, but misguided, technique of British anti-submarine strategy for the first year of the war. U-boats nearly always proved elusive, and the convoys, denuded of cover, were put at even greater risk.
German success in sinking Courageous was surpassed a month later when Günther Prien in U-47 penetrated the British base at Scapa Flow and sank the old battleship HMS Royal Oak at anchor, immediately becoming a hero in Germany.
In the South Atlantic, British forces were stretched by the cruise of Admiral Graf Spee, which sank nine merchant ships of 50,000 GRT in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans during the first three months of war. The British and French formed a series of hunting groups including three battlecruisers, three aircraft carriers, and 15 cruisers to seek the raider and her sister Deutschland, which was operating in the North Atlantic. These hunting groups had no success until Admiral Graf Spee was caught off the mouth of the River Plate by an inferior British force. After suffering damage in the subsequent action, she took shelter in neutral Montevideo harbour and was scuttled on December 17, 1939.
After this initial burst of activity, the Atlantic campaign quieted down. Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the U-boat fleet, had planned a maximum submarine effort for the first month of the war, with almost all the available U-boats out on patrol in September. That level of deployment could not be sustained; the boats needed to return to harbour to refuel, re-arm, re-stock supplies, and refit. The harsh winter of 1939–40, which froze over many of the Baltic ports, seriously hampered the German offensive by trapping several new U-boats in the ice. Hitler’s plans to invade Norway and Denmark in the spring of 1940 led to the withdrawal of the fleet’s surface warships and most of the ocean-going U-boats for fleet operations in Operation Weserübung.
The resulting Norwegian campaign revealed serious flaws in the magnetic influence pistol (firing mechanism) of the U-boats’ principal weapon, the torpedo. Although the narrow fjords gave U-boats little room for manoeuvre, the concentration of British warships, troopships and supply ships provided countless opportunities for the U-boats to attack. Time and again, U-boat captains tracked British targets and fired, only to watch the ships sail on unharmed as the torpedoes exploded prematurely (due to the influence pistol), or hit and failed to explode (because of a faulty contact pistol), or ran beneath the target without exploding (due to the influence feature or depth control not working correctly). Not a single British warship was sunk by a U-boat in more than 20 attacks. As the news spread through the U-boat fleet, it began to undermine morale. The director in charge of torpedo development continued to claim it was the crews’ fault. In early 1941 the problems were determined to be due to differences in the earth’s magnetic fields at high latitudes[page needed] and a slow leakage of high-pressure air from the submarine into the torpedo’s depth regulation gear. These problems were solved by about March 1941, making the torpedo a formidable weapon.
I have yet to ask any questions concerning one of the most important campaigns of World War II. The Battle of the Atlantic has been raging for one year now. Who has the advantage at this time and why and if you wish, please explain what you do at this time if you are the Axis or Allies?