WWII–-75th ANNIVERSARY POLLS--#19--FEBRUARY 1941 PART 2
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‘The Happy Time’ (June 1940 � February 1941)
See also: First Happy Time
The early U-boat operations from the French bases were spectacularly successful. This was the heyday of the great U-boat aces like G�nther Prien of U-47, Otto Kretschmer (U-99), Joachim Schepke (U-100), Engelbert Endrass (U-46), Victor Oehrn (U-37) and Heinrich Bleichrodt (U-48). U-boat crews became heroes in Germany. From June until October 1940, over 270 Allied ships were sunk: this period was referred to by U-boat crews as “the Happy Time” (“Die Gl�ckliche Zeit”). Churchill would later write: “…the only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.
The biggest challenge for the U-boats was to find the convoys in the vastness of the ocean. The Germans had a handful of very long-range Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor aircraft based at Bordeaux and Stavanger which were used for reconnaissance. The Condor being a converted civilian airliner, this was a stop-gap solution for Fliegerf�hrer Atlantik. Due to ongoing friction between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, the primary source of convoy sightings was the U-boats themselves. Since a submarine’s bridge was very close to the water, their range of visual detection was quite limited. The best source proved to be the codebreakers of B-Dienst.
In response, the British applied the techniques of operations research to the problem and came up with some counter-intuitive solutions to the problem of protecting convoys. It was realised the area of a convoy increased by the square of its perimeter, meaning the same number of ships, using the same number of escorts, was better protected in one convoy than in two. A large convoy was as difficult to locate as a small one. Moreover, reduced frequency (fewer large convoys carry the same cargo, and large convoys take longer to assemble) also reduced the chances of detection. Therefore, a few large convoys with apparently few escorts were safer than many small convoys with a higher ratio of escorts to merchantmen.
Instead of attacking the Allied convoys singly, U-boats were directed to work in wolf packs (Rudel) coordinated by radio. German codebreaking efforts at B-Dienst had succeeded in deciphering the British Naval Cypher No. 3, allowing the Germans to estimate where and when convoys could be expected. The boats spread out into a long patrol line that bisected the path of the Allied convoy routes. Once in position, the crew studied the horizon through binoculars looking for masts or smoke, or used hydrophones to pick up propeller noises. When one boat sighted a convoy, it would report the sighting to U-boat headquarters, shadowing and continuing to report as needed until other boats arrived, typically at night. Instead of being faced by single submarines, the convoy escorts then had to cope with groups of up to half a dozen U-boats attacking simultaneously. The most daring commanders, such as Kretschmer, penetrated the escort screen and attacked from within the columns of merchantmen. The escort vessels, which were too few in number and often lacking in endurance, had no answer to multiple submarines attacking on the surface at night as their ASDIC only worked well against underwater targets. Early British marine radar, working in the metric bands, lacked target discrimination and range. Moreover, corvettes were too slow to catch a surfaced U-boat.
Pack tactics were first used successfully in September and October 1940, to devastating effect, in a series of convoy battles. On September 21, convoy HX 72 of 42 merchantmen was attacked by a pack of four U-boats, losing eleven ships sunk and two damaged over two nights. In October, the slow convoy SC 7, with an escort of two sloops and two corvettes, was overwhelmed, losing 59% of its ships. The battle for HX 79 in the following days was in many ways worse for the escorts than for SC 7. The loss of a quarter of the convoy without any loss to the U-boats, despite very strong escort (two destroyers, four corvettes, three trawlers, and a minesweeper) demonstrated the effectiveness of the German tactics against the inadequate British anti-submarine methods. On December 1, seven German and three Italian submarines caught HX 90, sinking 10 ships and damaging three others. The success of pack tactics against these convoys encouraged Admiral D�nitz to adopt the wolf pack as his primary tactic.
Nor were the U-boats the only threat. Following some early experience in support of the war at sea during Operation Weser�bung, Fliegerf�hrer Atlantik contributed small numbers of aircraft to the Battle of the Atlantic from 1940 onwards. These were primarily Fw 200 Condors and (later) Junkers Ju 290s, used for long-range reconnaissance. The Condors also bombed convoys that were beyond land-based fighter cover and thus defenceless. Initially, the Condors were very successful, claiming 365,000 tons of shipping in early 1941. These aircraft were few in number, however, and directly under Luftwaffe control; in addition, the pilots had little specialized training for anti-shipping warfare, limiting their effectiveness.
The First Happy Time has come to an end.
The Allies are still losing merchant ships at terrible speed.
Germany is sinking merchant shipping and escorts right and left, and we all know it got worse as we go further into 1941.
In your opinions, do you follow along with the historical plan of the Allies to defeat the U-Boats?
Or do you come up with a different alternative that might change the fortunes of the Atlantic Campaign sooner than what really happened?
The Allies didn’t have “a” plan to wage the Battle of the Atlantic, and neither did the Germans. The Battle of the Atlantic was a complex battle of attrition on a gigantic scale which lasted all the way from September 1939 to May 1945, and it was characterized by constant changes of plans and tactics and weaponry on both sides as it progressed, with each side trying to overcome every new enemy development with a suitable counter-development. The campaign see-sawed several times, with one side or the other gaining the advantage at various points; some methods of waging the campaign became ineffectual as time progressed, but were highly effective in earlier stages and therefore were entirely correct to use at those points.