Black Company is the story of the United States Navy's PC 1264 in the Second World War. First published in 1972, it is not only the history of a ship but of a social and naval experiment, its title coming from the colour of the crew. PC 1264 and the frigate USS Mason were the first ships of the United States Navy to employ African American sailors. Eric Purdon, the author, volunteered to be the first captain of this ship and served in that capacity for most of its career.
Prior to 1944, African Americans could only serve in the US Navy as messmen. The Selective Service and Training Act of 1940, however, stipulated that the armed forces would not discriminate against any person on the basis of race or colour. The US Navy was slow to respond to this edict. The naval brass believed that blacks were not suited to life at sea and that white sailors would not accept blacks in a position of authority over them. Pressure from the NAACP and the rhetoric of a democratic war against tyranny made this position untenable as the war progressed. Eventually, the Bureau of Personnel agreed to test its assumptions about African Americans in uniform by manning two ships with black crews. Out of necessity, the ships would have white officers and petty officers. The plan called for the white petty officers to train their replacements so that ultimately the entire crew would be African American.
Purdon describes the selection of the crew and the officers (all of whom were given the option of refusing the posting) through to the commissioning of PC 1264. The ship excelled at its shakedown training at the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami and the Fleet Sound School in Key West. Predictably, the officers and crew experienced more difficulty in overcoming the prejudices of naval establishments and civilians ashore than they did in performing their duties at sea. After the completion of training, PC 1264 was assigned to the Eastern Sea Frontier escorting merchant convoys between New York, Key West and Guantanamo. By this stage of the Atlantic war, the U-boats posed little threat in coastal waters and the ship only carried out one depth charge attack in earnest. Like any escort vessel, its greatest enemies at sea were the weather, boredom and the monotonous routine of convoy duty.
In November 1944, Purdon recommended that the white petty officers be replaced with promising black sailors who had been identified from among the crew and groomed to fill these posts. The Bureau of Personnel agreed and promoted the men to petty officer rank. The experiment was considered a success and a fierce pride had developed among the officers and crew in their ship. Towards the end of the war, the ship took the next step with the assignment of Ensign Samuel L. Gravely, USNR, a black officer. Gravely (who wrote the foreword to the book) later became the first African American Rear Admiral in the US Navy. In fact, his arrival precipitated the worst racially-motivated crisis experienced by PC 1264. An altercation between some enlisted men at a restaurant in Miami had resulted in a call to the shore patrol to restore order. With the ruckus over, the shore patrol spotted Gravely sitting at a table, apparently uninvolved, and charged him with impersonating an officer, a federal offence. Gravely established his identity at the shore patrol office and received an apology. The affair was seemingly over. Purdon received a summons to the Commandant of the Naval District the next day, however, who demanded that he immediately introduce court martial proceedings against Gravely for "conduct unbecoming an officer" for associating with enlisted men in the restaurant. Purdon refused, as was within his rights as captain of the ship, and the Admiral retaliated by confining the officers and crew to the ship for the duration of their stay in Miami. It was with relief that ship sailed for Key West in a few days with its reputation and Gravely's career preserved.
Black Company succeeds most as a ship's history; it is a briskly paced and highly readable account of the late war experiences of an anti-submarine escort. Purdon has a shrewd eye for detail and tells lively anecdotes of the crew's experiences ashore and at sea. It is less successful as a portrayal of the black wartime experience in the United States Navy because of his own colour and his remoteness as commanding officer. Often one wishes to hear the voices of the "black company" that would complement the top-down perspective of the captain. Still, that is a subject for another book, and the Naval Institute Press is to be commended for making this valuable work of naval and social history available to another generation of readers in an affordable and attractive edition.
Patrick Beesly's Very Special Intelligence first appeared in 1977, a few years after the Ultra secret was revealed publicly, and has played a key role in shaping our understanding of the intelligence organization of the British Admiralty during the Second World War. As a former officer who served in the Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC) during the Second World War, Beesly combined inside knowledge with solid research to produce a compelling and authoritative narrative of the OIC's role in the war at sea. This reprint edition is largely unchanged from the original text but it includes a new introduction by W.J.R. Gardner and after word by Ralph Erskine, the two leading British scholars on intelligence in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Beesly charts the emergence of the OIC in the late 1930s from the remnants of the intelligence apparatus of the First World War. The inadequate integration of naval intelligence and operations in that conflict had made it essential to have a central unit to act as a "clearing house" for the collation of intelligence from all sources into a form that could readily support operational decisions. Integral to this approach was the separation of code breaking from the interpretation of intelligence. Unlike Room 40 in the previous war, the OIC was not a cryptographic unit; the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park handled that task. Through painstaking analysis of decrypted signals, shore-based High Frequency/Direction Finding intercepts, aerial photographic reconnaissance, reports of agents, sightings by Allied units, and other forms of intelligence, the OIC built up a composite picture of the enemy. Beesly, with his personal knowledge, reveals how this process unfolded in intimate detail.
Very Special Intelligence makes it clear that in the early days of the war senior officers in the Royal Navy did not accept uncritically the OIC's estimates. Its success in predicting enemy movements, however, gradually inspired confidence in its judgment. Beesly demonstrates the vital role played by Commander Norman Denning, head of the German surface ships section, and Commander Rodger Winn, head of the Submarine Tracking Room, in gaining acceptance by the naval brass. Indeed, he has done much to promote the reputation of Winn whose frequent mentions in the literature of the Battle of the Atlantic are usually accompanied by a footnote to Very Special Intelligence. One suspects that Beesly, as Winn's deputy, has downplayed his own part in this success.
The story moves in chronological fashion from the U-boat war to the surface ship campaign and back as the fortunes of war shifted. Specific actions such as the sinkings of the Bismarck and the Scharnhorst, the "Channel Dash" and Arctic convoy PQ 17 illustrate the use of operational intelligence in the Admiralty direction of forces at sea. In the two latter cases, the failure of senior officers to heed the appreciation of the OIC contributed to British defeat. With respect to the Bismarck and Scharnhorst, the OIC provided timely and valuable information to the naval staff. At all times, the availability or absence of special intelligence was a crucial factor in its performance. Beesly discusses the relative effectiveness of the Submarine Tracking Room during the Triton black-out of 1942 in developing a "working fiction" of U-boat dispositions and continuing to route convoys based upon its estimates. He is not an unquestioning advocate of operational intelligence, however, and is careful to emphasize its limitations. Ultimately, men and ships had to win battles at sea.
One of the unexpected bonuses of this edition of Very Special Intelligence is the inclusion of the introduction by Gardner and after word by Erskine. Gardner admirably situates Beesly in the historiography of the Battle of the Atlantic and discusses the changing perception of Allied code breaking over the last twenty-five years, from a decisive war-winning secret to a much more limited but still very valuable asset in the war at sea. Erskine complements the text by describing the relative cryptographic efforts of Bletchley Park, the United States Navy and the Kriegsmarine.
Though not the last word on the subject, Beesly's classic account of the Operational Intelligence Centre still holds up after twenty years in spite of the intervening historiographical development of this field. Greenhill Books is to be commended for making Very Special Intelligence available to another generation of scholars in a reasonably-priced volume that will be a welcome addition to many a naval bookshelf.
This is the second and final volume of the late Clay Blair's massive history of the German U-boat campaign in the Second World War, covering the last three years of the war. Blair served in submarines with the United States Navy and has written several books, including Silent Victory, an account of the US submarine war against Japan in the Pacific Ocean.
Like its predecessor (reviewed in The Northern Mariner, vol. 8, no. 1), this volume aims at both a scholarly and a popular audience and, as a result, shares many of its virtues and faults. It is based on an extraordinary amount of research and contains a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources but does not have footnotes. As with the first volume, the level of detail is overwhelming; virtually every U-boat patrol is described in depth. The narrative frequently deteriorates into a repetitive recounting of seemingly indistinguishable actions between German U-boats and Allied escorts and merchant ships. When Blair pauses to provide analysis or context, he is generally insightful especially on the German side of the campaign.
His underlying thesis is that German U-boats never came close to severing the vital Atlantic lifeline between North America and Great Britain. In his view, the tonnage war against Allied merchant ships was a colossal failure and naval historians have inflated the threat posed by the U-boat fleet. Blair marshals an impressive array of statistics to show that most of the merchant ships in convoy reached their destinations safely even in the worst months of the Atlantic war and that Allied shipbuilding made good the losses. But historians have never doubted the numbers. It is difficult ultimately to accept Blair's claim that the loss of 596 merchant ships of 3.5 million tons to enemy action between September 1942 and March 1943 was not a crisis simply because most ships in convoy arrived safely and Allied shipbuilding replaced those lost. In order to win the tonnage war, the Allies had to divert an extraordinary amount of resources away from the production of tanks, landing craft, aircraft and other armaments necessary for the invasion of Europe toward the production of merchant ships and escorts. Indeed, the argument that the tonnage war was a misguided strategy from the outset pre-supposes both the entry of the United States into the war and the presence of a viable alternative to it for Germany.
Blair debunks some other myths, arguing convincingly that special intelligence from Enigma decrypts did not play a major role in the destruction of the German U-tanker fleet in the summer of 1943 as often claimed. In addition, he illustrates the seldom-described difficulties that British codebreakers experienced after initially cracking the four-rotor Enigma in late 1942, and how the United States Navy had to take over this responsibility from late 1943 on. He is less convincing when he argues that the Tenth Fleet-created by the US Navy in May 1943 to co-ordinate its anti-submarine forces--could not have been created earlier because the United States lacked the tools to do the job. His US Navy bias-so prevalent in the first volume-is on display here but generally is much more restrained in this book. Still, he is at pains to paint all German defeats or setbacks as "humiliating" failures with little regard for the difficulties faced by U-boat Command or the imbalance of resources between the combatants.
Blair devotes considerable attention to the oft-neglected period that followed the decisive defeat of the wolf packs in the spring and summer of 1943. He argues that historians again have overstated the threat posed by the snorkel-equipped U-boats in the last year of the war, emphasizing that German submariners hated the new device, used it for only a few hours a day to charge the batteries, and that it was vulnerable to the latest Allied radar. From his account of the actions between U-boats and Allied air and surface escorts during this period, however, it is clear that snorkels provided a large degree of protection from air attack and radar was not very effective at detecting them. Some U-boats began to achieve modest successes for the first time in many months. Considering these factors, his contention that the snorkel was an "abject failure" seems excessive.
A brief review such as this cannot do full justice to the subtleties of Blair's challenge to existing interpretations of the Battle of the Atlantic. Despite its shortcomings, Hitler's U-boat War is a thoroughly researched and at times provocative account of the U-boat campaign that is sure to stimulate debate. Specialists will ignore it at their peril. Its length, price, and excessive detail, however, make it unsuitable for the more casual reader.
Allied forces destroyed forty-one German U-boats and damaged thirty-seven others during May 1943, leading German submariners to call the month "Black May". It marked a turning point in the Second World War, for by the end of the month Germany conceded defeat in the North Atlantic and withdrew its U-boat fleet from the main convoy routes. As such, it figures prominently in the literature of the Battle of the Atlantic but this is the first full length study devoted to this fateful month. Michael Gannon is well-qualified to write this story, having previously authored Operation Drumbeat, a groundbreaking and controversial account of the 1942 U-boat campaign in U.S. inshore waters.
Gannon's approach is both thematic and chronological. Black May begins with an extensive discussion of the course of the Atlantic campaign leading up to May 1943, including technological and tactical developments and introducing the leading personalities. He addresses the German successes of March 1943 and describes the incredible feat of U-515 in sinking seven merchant ships on the night of 30 April/1 May 1943. Almost one-half of the book is devoted to the battle for convoy ONS 5 from 29 April-7 May which lost thirteen ships to a large wolf pack before, in a stunning reversal of fortune, the surface escort destroyed four U-boats on the final night of the battle. Shorter chapters review the role of Coastal Command's air campaign in the Bay of Biscay and German failures to mount attacks on convoys HX 237, SC 129, and SC 130. An interesting chapter reproduces transcripts of secretly recorded conversations of German POW's in British hands in an effort to get inside the minds of the U-boat men in the spring of 1943. Finally, he reviews the U-boat kills not mentioned in the previous chapters and assesses the reasons for Allied success.
Gannon realizes that the story of the defeat of the U-boats has been told before and that his approach cannot be conventional. He challenges official historian Stephen Roskill's claim that the Allied convoy defeats of March 1943 caused despair within the Royal Navy, arguing Roskill based this claim on a single source. Instead, Gannon contends that cautious optimism prevailed at the end of March in Western Approaches Command and the anti-submarine establishment of the Admiralty. He downplays the role of code-breaking in the victory of May suggesting that while special intelligence was valuable it was not decisive. In addition, he pokes a few holes in the reputation of Sir John Slessor, head of Coastal Command. In general, however, there is no radical re-interpretation of the events of May 1943 here: Black May will not spark the controversy of Operation Drumbeat.
Gannon is at his best when describing the chaotic action around ONS 5, skilfully weaving together disparate German and Allied sources to produce an authoritative and compelling narrative. Although Marc Milner has written that the Royal Canadian Navy watched the events of May from the sidelines, Canadian surface escorts do make an appearance in Gannon's text as the close escorts of threatened convoys. Unfortunately, in a rare error HMCS Drumheller becomes HMS Drumheller, thereby robbing the RCN of its only U-boat kill of the month! No evidence is produced to refute or support Milner's speculation that Canadian-escorted convoys were reinforced with American or British support groups deliberately because of their suspect RCN close escorts.
Gannon's conclusion of the reasons for Allied victory is also conventional, stressing that it was a team effort and that a wide variety of factors--Allied scientific and technological superiority, the proper application of air power, tactical developments, the obsolescence of the U-boat as a weapons platform, among others--contributed to the German defeat. Though reluctant to point to a single factor that was responsible for the defeat of the wolf packs, he does in one passage assert that it was due to the quality--largely technological--rather than the quantity of Allied forces arrayed against them. In his conclusion, however, he quotes an estimate that it required 100 Allied persons engaged in anti-submarine warfare to match every U-boat man and twenty-five warships and 100 aircraft to match every U-boat! Reconciling this apparent discrepancy is a challenge for another naval historian and shows that there is still much room for debate about "Black May" and the defeat of the U-boats. Still, Gannon has produced a well-researched and highly readable account of this decisive month.
German submarines paid a terrible price in the two World Wars: 178 were lost in the First World War and 784 were lost in the Second World War. Paul Kemp's U-Boats Destroyed provides details of the loss of every U-boat sunk during the two World Wars, arranged in chronological order based on the date of loss. For each U-boat it includes the name of its commanding officer, the date, location, and cause of its loss, number of casualties, and a narrative description of its destruction. It does not include the losses of Germany's wartime allies. The book fills a void in naval historiography: existing reference works on U-boat losses are incomplete or long out of date. Naval historians have revised the record of the loss of many U-boats in recent years and Kemp has brought the latest research together in one well-organized volume.
The book is particularly valuable for the First World War because it provides the names of warships or aircraft responsible for sinking U-boats which were not provided by earlier authorities for that war. A reading of the accounts of submarine losses from the 1914-1918 war holds some surprises. The cause of loss of a high proportion of U-boats is not known. Many disappeared at sea without trace, claimed by mechanical failure, bad drill, drifting mines, or other marine accidents. Some patterns also become apparent: during the early years heavily-gunned decoy merchant vessels (known as Q-ships) were effective U-boat killers but in the last two years of the war their successes tapered off when U-boat tactics changed. On the other hand, the first U-boat sunk by an aircraft occurred in September 1917. Some of the famous commanders who lost submarines in the First World War included Otto Weddigen, who had torpedoed and sank three British cruisers in one day, and Karl Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of German U-boats in the Second World War.
For that war, the loss of the U-boat of one of the most famous commanders has been revised. U-47, which had, under the command of Günther Prien, sunk HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, was formerly thought to have been destroyed in an attack by HMS Wolverine. It is now known that the destroyer had attacked another U-boat which survived to record the encounter in its war diary. In the absence of reliable evidence, Kemp speculates that an accident or a drifting mine claimed Prien's boat. From a reading of U-Boats Destroyed, the trend appears to be to attribute more U-boat losses to marine accident or mechanical failure than was previously thought the case. When there was not firm evidence of a kill, assessments in the immediate post-war period tended to credit U-boat losses to promising attacks carried out in the area at the right time by Allied units. Recent research has shown that often another U-boat was in fact the target of these attacks or the supposed victim radioed base sometime after the attack, forcing a revision of the record.
Two recent revisions of Canadian interest include credit for the sinking of U-484 which has been taken away from HMCS Dunver and Hespeler and awarded to two British warships. Conversely, it is now considered that HMCS Drumheller played a role in the sinking of U-338 which was formerly attributed to the Royal Air Force. In the preface, Kemp acknowledges that his book is not the last word on the subject and that research will continue to lead to revised assessments. Since the publication of the book, German research has cast doubt on RCAF claims for the sinking of U-669 and U-420 in 1943; their cause of loss is now listed as unknown. Similarly, Kemp was not aware that U-184 radioed base a few hours after the attack by a Norwegian corvette in November 1942 which has been credited with its destruction; its cause of loss is now uncertain.
Some additions would have improved the volume. Statistical tables on rates of loss by month and year and percentages of losses to different causes would have enhanced the value of the book to researchers. Sometimes a notable event like the first U-boat sunk by American forces in the Second World War will go unremarked. Still, U-Boats Destroyed is an important addition to the naval bookshelf and will take its place along side Jürgen Rohwer's Axis Submarine Successes as one of the indispensable references for the study of German submarine warfare.
Clay Blair, a former United States Navy submariner, is best known as the author of Silent Victory, an account of the American submarine war against Japan in the Pacific. In this book and a forthcoming second volume covering the last three years of the Second World War, he tells the story of the German U-boat war in the Atlantic in a style aimed at both a scholarly and a popular audience. Unfortunately the lack of footnotes seriously undermines its claim of being an authoritative and definitive history (the bibliography will appear in the second volume but until then is available on Random House's web-site).
It is impossible to do justice to the scope of this book in a brief review, it is clearly the product of a massive amount of research. Blair describes the U-boat war in a level of detail as yet unattempted by historians: virtually every U-boat patrol is included and the more notable patrols and convoy battles are described in depth. The roles of air power, shipbuilding, code-breaking, and technological advances are thoroughly discussed; the descriptions of German torpedo defects and Allied radar development are particularly well done. Though the detail is sometimes overwhelming, even specialists will find something new here. Continuing the trend of recent historiography of the Battle of the Atlantic, Blair has made an effort to accord the Royal Canadian Navy its proper place in the story and is familiar with the work of Canadian historians. For example, this is one of the few accounts that acknowledges that the main blow of Operation Drumbeat fell in Canadian not American waters. Most historians have treated Drumbeat, the surprise U-boat attack in the western hemisphere in January 1942, as an exclusive attack on American shipping. On the other hand, repeated references to Canadian escorts as "green" or "inexperienced" leave the reader sometimes wondering whether he is really just painting all Canadian warships with the same brush.
If there is an underlying thesis in the book, it is that the threat posed by German U-boats has been overemphasized by German propagandists and Allied historians--hardly an original argument. In making it he sometimes goes too far, claiming that the U-boat war was a draw until the end of 1941. The numbers, however, suggest a German victory to that date: forty-nine U-boats lost in exchange for twenty-eight Allied warships and 1,124 merchant ships of 5.3 million tons.
Blair is not without his share of axes to grind. National and service perspectives have shaped the historiography of the Battle of the Atlantic and this is no exception. The author is particularly harsh in his condemnation of British historians and others who have criticized Admiral Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy, for being unprepared to convoy merchant ships in American waters in early 1942. In the weakest part of the book, Blair denounces Churchill, Roosevelt, George Marshall (Chief of Staff of the US Army), and anyone else critical of King. Defending the US Navy against charges of inactivity, he argues that King took early steps to set up coastal convoys between Halifax and Boston and Halifax and Trinidad, although both of these routes used Canadian escorts and were not really American initiatives. Much of what is becoming known as "the convoy controversy" revolves around the allocation of US escorts. King's critics allege that he withdrew destroyers from the North Atlantic theatre in the spring of 1942 (reducing the US contribution from five of fourteen escort groups to one of eleven) for the Japanese war. In King's defence, Blair proves that many of the destroyers went to the US Atlantic Fleet and not the Pacific Ocean, where they served with the fleet or escorted troop convoys, a task which absorbed scores of destroyers. He argues that troop escort was as vital as the protection of merchant shipping and that British historians have not understood the US Navy policy of providing massive escort for troop convoys. One might argue, however, that the limited surface speed of the U-boats posed little risk to fast troop convoys which as a result required only a token escort (which was all the Royal Navy was willing to provide). Still, Blair has put the often overlooked troop convoys back into the Atlantic story and provided valuable data about the numbers and deployment of US destroyers.
Despite these shortcomings, specialists will find Hitler's U-boat War a valuable and thoroughly researched reference work, making the lack of footnotes all the more regrettable. For price and size, however, those with a more casual interest in the Battle of the Atlantic will be better served by John Terraine's one-volume survey.
Stalin's Silver is the story of the sinking of the SS John Barry by a German U-boat in August 1944 in the Arabian Sea and the deep-sea salvage of its cargo of silver coins fifty years later. Beasant served as press liaison for the Ocean Group which conducted the salvage. The salvage was notable because pioneering technology was used to overcome the great depth of the wreck (over 8,500 feet) but Beasant devotes much of the book to speculation about the nature and purpose of the cargo of silver.
SS John Barry loaded a general cargo of raw materials, industrial supplies, and military hardware in New York and Philadelphia in March 1944. In addition, it carried three million silver coins minted in the United States for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The John Barry sailed in convoy from Norfolk to Port Said in the Mediterranean but after passing through the Suez Canal proceeded independently for the Persian Gulf port of Ras Tanurah. En route it was torpedoed by U-859 off the coast of Oman. The U-boat's success was short-lived because it was sunk by a British submarine, HMS Trenchant, shortly afterwards while entering Penang harbour. The liberty ship rested undisturbed on the ocean floor for almost fifty years until the Ocean Group led by Sheik Ahmed Farid acquired the rights to its cargo. Beasant is at his best when describing the four-year salvage operation conducted by the Ocean Group's multi-national team. An American firm located and surveyed the wreck with sonar and a remote-operated vehicle. Ifremer, the French company which had located the Titanic, was then brought in to set controlled explosions to open the wreck up. They then developed a special giant "grab" to tear away debris and retrieve the silver. In the end they recovered 1.4 million, or almost fifty per cent, of the silver coins.
The book's title comes from Beasant's speculation, based on research and rumour, that the John Barry carried, in addition to the general cargo and silver coins, a secret cargo of silver bullion destined for Russia to undermine British influence in the Middle East. The story of the silver bullion has fired the imaginations of treasure hunters since it was first told by John Ghorley Bunker in his book on the liberty ships. Beasant's research did not turn up cargo lists that revealed any silver but the Saudi coins although the official statements of survivors referred to $26 million worth of silver bullion, a figure in excess of the value of the coins.
His efforts to prove that the John Barry carried silver bullion are sometimes compromised by his mishandling of naval sources. For example, he interprets the Mediterranean convoy's "special" designation as a reference to the supposed secret cargo. In fact, there were many "special" convoys during the war and the term generally referred to a convoy that was not part of a regular schedule. Beasant determined that the tonnage shown in the cargo manifests was less than the carrying capacity of the ship's holds, yet the ship carried deck cargo. From this, he inferred that the holds were fully loaded--with the silver bullion left off the manifest making up the difference. However, deck cargo generally consisted of material which did not stow easily in the holds and cannot be taken as evidence that they were full. In addition, he interprets the phrase "urgently required equipment" in a lend-lease agreement to refer to the secret shipment of silver to Russia when the same document enumerates specific quantities of zinc, nickel, copper, cobalt, aluminum, and industrial diamonds with no apparent need for secrecy.
The survivor reports that referred to the silver bullion did not mention the silver coins and, ultimately, it seems more plausible that the rumours of the bullion arose from the very real presence of the Saudi coins. Still, in spite of these problems, those interested in deep-sea salvage or sunken treasure will enjoy this book.
No weapon in the two World Wars was more controversial than the U-boat. Germany twice staked its fate upon it as the war-winning weapon capable of bringing Great Britain to its knees. As such, the U-boat has cast an enduring spell over the minds of Germans and inspired over 250 novels, memoirs, and films. Through these works, Michael Hadley's Count Not the Dead traces the changing popular image of the submarine in Germany from the First World War to the 1990s. He is concerned more with the collective impact of this literature than with its aesthetic merits.
The success of German submarines early in the 1914-1918 war stunned the world. U-9 torpedoed three British cruisers within an hour on 22 September 1914, a feat that spawned an outpouring of propaganda that idolized captain Otto Weddigen and emphasized the romance and gallantry of the undersea war. Hero worship set the pattern for U-boat books for decades to come. The defeat of Germany in 1918 did little to stop the flood of literature. New themes arose in the interwar years such as the need to address the distortions of Allied wartime propaganda and the desire for retribution. However, the genre was largely unchanged at the outbreak of the Second World War, when the U-boat again emerged as Germany's most potent maritime weapon. Propagandists breathed new life into the cult of the hero. Günther Prien followed in the footsteps of Weddigen by sinking the battleship Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in October 1939. His memoirs appeared in 1940 and were soon followed by the stories of other "aces".
German fascination with the U-boat continued in the post war era. Hadley argues that in 1952 Harald Busch's So War der U-Boot-Krieg broke with the past. Busch freely confessed German failures and recognized Allied successes while introducing the theme of tragedy. German submariners were honourable men doing their duty, betrayed by the immoral political leadership of the Nazis. During the 1950s and 1960s, the image of the U-boat continued to be presented to the public largely through a steady flow of novels and veterans' memoirs, rather than the works of professional historians. Although several titles followed Busch in putting a more human face on the experience, the image of "steel sharks" or "grey wolves" persisted. Then in 1969 Herbert Werner, a former submarine officer, demythologized the U-boat in his autobiography Iron Coffins. The German submarine was now the hunted not the hunter, an iron coffin for tens of thousands of deceived German youths. The book was a tremendous popular success but, as Hadley demonstrates, it was riddled with factual errors and fabrications.
Lothar-Günther Buchheim carried this image further with Das Boot in 1973, the most popular U-boat novel ever. The book and the film based upon it that appeared in 1981 ignited fierce controversy in Germany by appealing to the anti-war sentiment of the 1970s and 1980s. As Hadley shows, the debate took on a life of its own independent of the book and the film and polarized around the political right and left. Buchheim offended many veterans by arguing that the glorification of war and naval traditions seduced German submariners as much as the Nazis. Veterans considered that they had served the fatherland honourably and had been above, or at least divorced from, politics. Their critics, often journalists, contended they could not remove themselves from moral responsibility. Hadley reveals that while this debate remained unresolved many naval officers, such as Erich Topp whose memoirs appeared in 1990, have come to terms with the past and accepted new values.
Hadley has rescued a century of German language literature on the U-boat for English readers and distilled it with thoughtful commentary. He concludes that this writing, if often engaged in myth-making, has reflected the changing nature of German society in the twentieth century. With the exception of Das Boot, the books have mirrored social change rather than caused it. In this light Count Not the Dead is almost as much a work of social and intellectual history as of naval history. Still, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Germans have thought and felt about the U-boat. In addition, it has a superb bibliography of German sources which will be invaluable for all scholars interested in submarine warfare.
The Caribbean may seem very far from Canada but German U-boats sank twelve Canadian merchant ships there and damaged two others during the Second World War. Gaylord Kelshall's The U-Boat War in the Caribbean tells the story of this often neglected theatre of the war which accounted for fifteen per cent of all merchant ships sunk by enemy submarines. The book was originally published in 1988 in limited numbers in the author's native Trinidad. It has been reprinted by the Naval Institute Press without full editorial treatment because of economic constraints. Kelshall is a museum curator with considerable military service who brings a local perspective to the story. He has included in the Caribbean theatre the Gulf of Mexico, the waters around the Bahamas, and the eastern approaches to Trinidad because U-Boat Command considered these areas part of the same campaign.
The Caribbean produced vital supplies of oil and bauxite but American planners, preoccupied by the threat of an air attack on the Panama Canal, gave no thought to the vulnerability of merchant shipping in the region. Five U-boats, designated Group Neuland, arrived in February 1942 and found almost no anti-submarine forces to oppose them. They devastated Allied shipping although attempts to bombard oil refineries were largely unsuccessful. Every merchant ship sinking is recounted in chronological order but the most emphasis is given to the exploits of the aces such as Achilles and Hartenstein who carried out daring attacks in the harbours of Trinidad, St. Lucia, and Aruba. The Germans enjoyed success in the Caribbean much longer than they did off the US eastern seaboard and the rate of sinkings remained high until November. By the end of 1942 enemy submarines had sunk 337 ships of 1.87 million tons in the Caribbean theatre, or one-third of the total for 1942; in return they lost only seven submarines.
The growing might of the United States in the region tipped the balance against the U-boats in late 1942 with the expansion of the convoy system and an influx of aircraft. The Germans renewed their efforts in June 1943 after they had been decisively defeated in the North Atlantic. This time, however, most of the battles were between U-boats and aircraft. In July alone there were almost forty such battles in the Caribbean resulting in the loss of five submarines and, because German tactics at the time were to remain on the surface and fight back with automatic cannon, damage to nearly all of the aircraft involved. Twenty-four anti-submarine air squadrons operated between the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of French Guiana. By the time the Germans began to scale down their effort in September 1943 in the face of crushing American defences, U-boats had destroyed only five merchant ships and two schooners in return for the loss of seven of their own. In addition, Allied forces destroyed eleven of the thirty-two boats devoted to the campaign in transit to and from the Caribbean. From late 1943, U-Boat Command sent only one or two boats there at a time to tie down Allied resources.
The course of events in the Caribbean in 1943 is much less well known than in 1942 and Kelshall's biggest contribution is bringing the scale of the second U-boat campaign to light. His local knowledge and emphasis of the role of Trinidad, perhaps the most important military centre south of the United States, is also valuable. That being said, the book is not always reliable on factual details. Two Canadian corvettes were not permanently assigned to Trinidad as the author states but occasionally Canadian escorts stopped there while waiting for convoys to turn around. He has relied on the work of Jürgen Rohwer, an excellent source, but to the extent that many errors have been repeated verbatim. For example, SS Uniwaleco was South African not Canadian, and SS Troisdoc was Canadian not British. The first U-boat campaign in the Caribbean is referred to repeatedly as Operation Neuland. In fact, it was designated Operation Westindien and the U-boats involved were called Group Neuland. The lack of professional editing in the book is apparent. Ship names are not italicized or underlined, an annoying feature in a work that mentions over 700 ships and U-boats. Still, the book is the product of considerable research and the Naval Institute Press is to be commended for bringing it to a wider audience.
Erich Topp gained fame as a German U-boat ace in the Second World War, and later attained the rank of Rear Admiral in the Bundesmarine. In total, he sank 34 Allied ships of 185,430 tons and ranks fourth among U-boat aces. His memoirs have been translated into English by Eric Rust, a noted historian of the Kriegsmarine, and constitute an important addition to the growing body of literature on the U-boat service.
Those hoping for a blow-by-blow account of Topp's wartime experiences will be disappointed as only one-third of the book covers 1939-1945. Still the war's shadow looms heavily over the postwar chapters concerning his career as an architect and, subsequently, a senior officer with the Bundesmarine. The text is a mixture of diaries and letters, written before, during, and after the war, and interpretation and amplification of those primary sources. This structure provides an authentic glimpse of Topp's experiences and world-view but has the drawback of making the book seem disjointed in places.
Topp does not dwell on his successes, providing only a few descriptions of torpedo-attacks. The sinking of the US destroyer Reuben James before the United States had entered the war is discussed in the greatest depth. After learning the identity of his victim, he was well aware of the political and historical implications of his action. Topp had an outstanding style of leadership and once returned to port simply because his chief navigator had forgotten his lucky talisman, determined to ensure a happy crew. He considered two wartime incidents remarkable, a counter-attack by the famous Commander F.J. Walker's Stork during the battle for convoy HG-84 from which he sank five merchant ships, and a surprise attack in the fog off Newfoundland by HMCS Sackville commanded by Lieutenant Alan Easton (somewhat less famous, though well known to The Northern Mariner's readers as the author of 50 North). In both cases the escort captains claimed to have sunk the U-boat which narrowly escaped thanks to her captain's keen instincts. Unlike better-known aces such as Otto Kretschmer and Günther Prien, Topp's successes came in a later phase of the war and a more thorough discussion of his exploits could have shed light on the submarine war in the period when Allied counter-measures were improving. Nevertheless, colourful U-boat personalities such as Engelbert Endrass, Reinhard Suhren, and Werner Hartenstein come to life in these pages.
The most controversial passages of the book are his heavy criticism of Dönitz's decision to continue the U-boat war in spite of horrendous losses after May 1943. The German admiral justified it on the grounds that it tied down vast numbers of Allied aircraft and escorts which could otherwise be used to bomb German cities or attack coastal shipping. Topp argues that the specialized Allied maritime forces could not have been readily converted to these other missions, and that the continued deployment of obsolete U-boats was a needless sacrifice. His career ended in controversy as well. After a stint as Deputy Inspector of the Navy in the late 1960s he was slated for a senior NATO command in Norway until his nomination ignited a diplomatic crisis because he had sunk several Norwegian ships. Topp stepped aside and was replaced by another former submariner who had the good fortune to have not torpedoed any Norwegian ships!
This collective biography of the 318 men who joined the Reichsmarine in 1934 as officer cadets traces their lives from their upbringing during the Weimar Republic through their naval training, wartime experiences, and postwar careers. Special emphasis is placed on their psychological outlook. The book sheds light on the German naval officer corps as an institution and fills a void in naval historiography.
Rust chose Crew 34 because of its age and size. Previous crews were too small to be representative while following crews were too large too survey easily. Most members of Crew 34 served during the war in the ranks between Lieutenant and Commander, being junior enough to serve at sea but senior enough to achieve command. Rust relied upon personal interviews, questionnaires, crew newsletters, and archival documents but official personnel records remain closed. The confidentiality of his sources has been protected by the use of a code. This has perhaps ensured more honest responses but prevents the reader from getting much of a feel for the personalities of individual officers.
The family background of Crew 34 was primarily upper middle class, reflecting the fact the Reichsmarine considered lower middle class applicants undesirable but failed to attract nobles. Most of the crew came from North Germany and consequently Protestants greatly outnumbered Catholics. The political views of their parents were overwhelmingly deutsch-national, that is, the conservative, monarchist, authoritarian, and anti-democratic beliefs expressed by the German National People's Party. Rust's survey revealed "amazing unanimity" on this score. If the respondents can be trusted, only one father joined the Nazi party early on.
The most controversial conclusions regard the political sympathies of the crew, and the Kriegsmarine's relationship to Hitler and the Nazi party. Rust argues that the naval officer corps was insulated from political influences and remained steadfastly apolitical. The Navy's disastrous political intervention between 1917-20 had created an ethic of strict obedience to civilian authority. Though Hitler's rearmament and foreign policy triumphs received widespread support from the crew, only a handful of the men, perhaps as few as ten, could be described as hard-core Nazis. In many instances, crew members resisted intrusions from the Nazi party during the war and were supported by their superiors in these efforts, notwithstanding Dönitz's collusion with Hitler.
Crew 34 compiled an impressive record of wartime service. Thirty-nine members received the coveted Knight's Cross. The ace was Erich Topp who stood fourth among German submarine commanders in terms of tonnage sunk and was the most highly decorated member of the crew, as well as the only one to attain the rank of captain during the war. In contrast, Heinz Eck was the only submarine commander to be executed by the Allies for war crimes, the machine gunning of survivors. Slightly over 40 per cent of the crew died during the war, three-fifths of them were submarine officers. Thirty-eight crew members ended the war in captivity, mostly in camps in the United States and Canada. Two of the latter group later settled in Canada.
After the turmoil of the immediate postwar years most of Crew 34 had taken up rewarding civilian careers when the Bundesmarine was created in 1955. One-third opted to return to the Navy. The imprisonment of Dönitz and Raeder steeled the will of many, especially former submariners, not to serve with the western allies. Curiously, many of those who rejoined later complained that promotion depended upon membership in the proper political party.
Naval Officers Under Hitler makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the beliefs, motivations, and experiences of the German naval officer corps, and is a valuable addition to the naval library.
Sharks of Steel is the companion volume to the Discovery Channel four-part documentary on submarines, but stands on its own as a richly illustrated coffee-table book. Although claiming to tell the story of the submarine, in fact, the focus is primarily upon the American experience with only passing reference to the German U-boats of the two world wars and the contemporary Russian Typhoon-class submarine. The gap between the chapters on the Second World War and the present-day is bridged only by a brief tribute to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy. Thus, the book really treats two stages in the evolution of the submarine rather than the full story.
The text was written by Yogi Kaufman, a retired US Navy admiral and former submariner, and Paul Stillwell, a naval historian. Like the mini-series, the book is divided into four parts: the manning of Second World War submarines, wartime operations in the Pacific, the 688 or Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine, and the nuclear missile submarine. Stillwell and Kaufman have created a hypothetical boat to represent each of the three types and then take the reader along on a typical patrol, devoting considerable attention to the daily routine of the ordinary submariner, as well as to the duties of the captain and officers. This technique effectively depicts life at sea, but is less convincing in the manning chapter which explores the motivations of those who volunteered for submarine duty.
The photographs are the real strength of Sharks of Steels. Kaufman and his son shot the modern submarines, ensuring a close relationship between the text and the illustrations. In addition to spectacular photographs of submarines at sea, their cameras take the reader inside the living compartments, and operational and machinery spaces of US attack and missile submarines. Crew training, maintenance, and the loading and storing of missiles and torpedoes are also featured. Some photographs of a massive Russian Typhoon, the world's largest submarine, are included but unfortunately none of her interior, even though the co-author toured one and was allowed to take some pictures. Full captions do justice to the photography.
The mix of photographs and art that illustrate the Second World War chapters have been drawn primarily from the US Naval Historical Center, Navy Combat Art Collection, and National Archives. The selection presented is limited by an almost exclusive reliance upon early colour photographs; there is only one black-and-white photo in the volume. However, these rare colour shots and the art do succeed in conveying a sense of the primitive and cramped conditions of wartime submarine life. Within the limitations of the US-centred coverage, Sharks of Steel is highly readable and superbly illustrated.
J. Gordon Vaeth's Blimps and U-Boats describes the role of US Navy airships in anti-submarine warfare during the Second World War. Ten squadrons of blimps patrolled the Western Atlantic from Nova Scotia south to Brazil and another squadron was stationed in North Africa from 1944. Vaeth is well qualified to tell their story. Having served as air intelligence officer for the Atlantic airship fleet, he drafted many of the papers that now form the archives of US Navy blimp operations.
The book traces the origins of US Navy interest in airships from the First World War to the eclipse of the rigid airship by the non-rigid blimp in the aftermath of the Hindenburg disaster. At the outbreak of war in December 1941 the US Navy had four operational blimps at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The blimps were active during the German U-boat blitz in American waters but recorded no successes. Although they made many attacks on suspected U-boats Vaeth concludes, on the basis of careful study of German records, that they were rarely actually in contact with a submarine. The first, and only, action between a U-boat and an airship occurred in July 1943 off Florida when K-74 surprised U-134 on the surface. When the bomb releases jammed, a running gun fight ensued that resulted in the destruction of the blimp. Airships would have to wait until May 1945 before they could strike at the enemy again when two blimps assisted US Navy warships in the sinking of U-853.
But if blimps were ill-suited to anti-submarine warfare, they found a real niche in search and rescue operations where many of their drawbacks became attributes. Their slow speed, large size, long endurance, and ability to hover and operate at low altitude made them ideal for this purpose. Vaeth describes the vital services provided by blimps in rescuing the survivors of torpedoed merchant ships, German U-boats, and downed aircraft--both at sea and on land. In this role their use foreshadowed the employment of the helicopter in postwar years.
Crashes and accidents of the blimps themselves form a spectacular, if tragic, part of the story of airship operations. In the southern climates thunderstorms were an ever present danger with vertical air currents that could lift a blimp to 10,000 feet or plunge it into the sea in a matter of minutes. More often, human error was the cause of crashes.
Vaeth has made little attempt to evaluate the performance of airships as anti-submarine escorts. Nor does he address the criticism that they endangered convoys by giving away their positions to the enemy. It seems, however, that most U-boats preferred to submerge rather than risk detection by a blimp which may, or may not, have been in the company of merchant vessels and which could direct surface escorts to the U-boat. In this manner airships may have provided valuable service by discouraging enemy attack. German evidence is needed to settle this debate. Vaeth does not tackle the cosy relationship between Goodyear, the sole producer of blimps, and the US Navy. Some critics have argued that political influence may have determined the extent of the US Navy's commitment to airships.
The photographs are excellent and the appendices offer additional information ranging from technical details to an account of Pacific coast operations. Canadians may be disappointed that there is only scant reference to blimp operations at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, but Blimps and U-Boats will appeal to those interested in the US Navy's anti-submarine effort and lighter-than-air flight buffs.
Submariner, Captain John Coote's memoirs of his life in the Royal Navy from 1939-1960, is really two books. The early chapters were written in 1946 and describe the wartime operations of HMS Untiring in the Mediterranean Sea. The closing chapters cover Coote's postwar career, and are spiced with humorous anecdotes and portraits of controversial naval figures such as Rickover and Mountbatten.
Coote transferred to the submarine branch in 1942 to avoid conscription into the Fleet Air Arm. As a Sublieutenant he was assigned to Untiring, under the command of Robert Boyd. Untiring operated with the tenth flotilla in Malta against Axis shipping off the coast of France and Italy. Vivid accounts of torpedo attacks on German warships and their depth charge counter-attacks bring home the intensity of submarine warfare in the Mediterranean. The climax, in April 1944, was the high speed pursuit, based on late-breaking intelligence, of the blockade runner Jerez. Untiring ultimately caught and torpedoed the vessel just as she slowed to enter the safety of Port Vendres. Routine patrols and shore life at La Maddelena - the barren submarine outpost off of Sardinia - are also depicted; sailors depended upon their sense of humour to survive in a hostile environment. In one of the few references to the RCN, Coote recalls that the Canadian MTB crews at La Maddalena were renowned for their high-stakes crap games.
After the war he served in HMS Amphion for three years. Following a stint ashore he received his first command, HMS Totem, with John Fieldhouse, later First Sea Lord, as First Lieutenant. During a surveillance mission against the Combined Fleets in the Mediterranean, Coote demonstrated that submarines could move undetected amongst the Strike Carriers, even in excellent sonar conditions. Shortly after USS Nautilus was launched, Coote was appointed Assistant Attaché to the British Joint Services Mission in Washington. Later, he sailed in Nautilus as an observer during exercises with the Home Fleet. Declining British resources and Soviet backwardness in ASW convinced Coote that nuclear submarines were the future of the Royal Navy. But the commitment to costly Strike Carriers doomed this vision and contributed to Coote's resignation in 1960, when he took up a successful career in journalism.
There are some lapses in chronology and inconsistencies of style in the opening chapters. For example, a signalman introduced as a key figure in the first chapter is never mentioned again. But these are minor flaws and do not seriously detract from this entertaining story of a British submariner's life.
Despite its subtitle, this book is not a definitive history of the Canadian Navy, nor does it presume to be. Instead, it combines a brief summary of RCN history with lavish illustrations - both artwork and photographs. The bulk of the book is devoted to the Second World War and the lengthiest chapter covers the Battle of the Atlantic. Much briefer chapters discuss the invasion of Europe and fleet destroyer surface actions. In addition there are introductory and concluding chapters on 1910-1939 and the post-war era.
Drawing on interviews with veterans and on recent secondary literature, Ready, Aye, Ready describes the rise of the Canadian Navy from humble origins before the Great War of 1914-18 to its rapid expansion, and growing pains, during the 1939-45 war. The tribulations of life on board a North Atlantic escort are ably recounted by Macbeth, who served on corvettes, frigates, and MTBs. Though usually reliable, some minor errors creep in. For example, "Drumbeat" was the codename for the U-boat operation along the American coast, not in the Gulf of St.Lawrence. The theme of political neglect runs throughout the book. The fate of the RCN has swayed with the whims of its political masters. Rather than developing such broad interpretations, however, Macbeth emphasizes dramatic incidents. Colourful anecdotes, inserted separate from the narrative, complement the text. Commendably, he has taken the effort to confirm many of these tales with official records.
Most readers who turn to Ready, Aye, Ready will do so for the illustrations, not the supporting text. And here Macbeth does not disappoint. He has culled the holdings of the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Forces Photo Unit, the National Archives of Canada, and private collections to provide a broad and intelligent selection of photographs, posters, and art. The paintings of Arthur Lismer, Harold Beament, Leonard Brooks, Donald Mackay, and Alex Colville are featured prominently. "Gun's Crew" by Tom Wood is my favourite, though I would liked to have seen more work by Jack Nichols included. Although many photographs are simply of ships, others effectively portray life at sea and action with the enemy. Most of the captions are detailed and accurate. The high quality of the illustrations should attract those interested in the history of the RCN to Ready, Aye, Ready.