The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of the Second World War. It was not a single battle, but rather a long and protracted struggle, that ranged for the entirety of the War.

Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had later observed that it was the “dominating factor of all the war.”

As well as being the longest campaigns of the war, it was also, proportionally one of the costliest. Between 75,000 to 85,000 Allied seamen were killed. On the enemy side, approximately 28,000 were killed.

The Battle between the Allied and Axis forces was to gain control of the sea routes that crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean.  The Atlantic Ocean provided Great Britain with supply routes for the transport of troops, food, medicine and equipment.  If Germany had prevented merchant ships from carrying food, raw materials, troops and equipment from North America to Europe, Britain could have been starved and strangled into submission. Without a successful battle for sea control, historians agree, that from the Allied perspective, the loss of Battle of the Atlantic would have meant the loss of the war.

This evening I will focus on the perils inflicted on the Allies by German, in particular, German U-boats; the role of Allied sea and air power and the critical importance of intelligence.

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The Battle of the Atlantic presented many challenges for the Allies, not least of which was the dreaded German U-boat.

 

The U-boat, or German submarine, was the scourge of Allied shipping. It was a formidable offensive weapon. Indeed, Winston Churchill once wrote that ...”the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.   

 

 

So important was the marginalising of the U-boats that the world’s largest amphibious invasion (D Day) would not have been possible.

During the Battle of the Atlantic naval convoys became vital to the safe passage of shipping and a number of Australian naval ships served in the Atlantic on escort duties.

Many RAN and Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) personnel served with the British Royal Navy during the long Battle of the Atlantic, along with merchant seamen, assisting with the transport of troops, equipment, food and fuel supplies across the waves.   

In the air, Australian airmen from the RAAF served in large numbers, supporting the Royal Air Force Coastal Command squadrons.  The Catalina flying boat, in particular, served as a positive contribution to the campaign and established a remarkable combat record for the Allies.  Originally designed as a patrol bomber with a long operational range, Catalina’s also had the advantage of not requiring runways, in effect leaving the entire ocean available for landing if weather permitted.

Additionally, the B-24D Liberator bomber played a significant role in facilitating the Allied victory. With a high cruise speed, long range and ability to carry a heavy bomber load, the early RAF Liberators were the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean as a matter of routine.    

In addition to the sea and air aspects involved in the Battle of the Atlantic, teams of code breakers, based at Britain’s Bletchley Park, were determined to break Germany’s Enigma encrypted communications. This proved crucial.

Germany believed their Enigma –Encrypted communications were impenetrable to the Allies. They were sadly mistaken.

Following the capture of an Enigma machine in May 1941 and subsequent capture of codebooks, Britain finally succeeded in breaking into the daily communications of the German, revealing the positions of the submarines and thereby enabling ships to avoid contact.

This breakthrough is credited with shortening the war by at least 2 years and saving an estimated 12 million people.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of the Second World War and the effort and courage displayed by so many as outlined in this speech this evening, deserve our acknowledgement and utmost respect today.