The Battle of the Atlantic
How the Allies Won the War
Oxford University Press, 2016, 560 pages
Book Review published on: October 15, 2021
In Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War, the reader is afforded both a very detailed and a very personal account of what would be the longest—and ultimately, the most important—campaign of the entire Second World War. In many ways, the Battle of the Atlantic has not received the coverage it deserves relative to the significance of what hung in the balance, particularly from 1939 through 1943. In short, if the Battle of the Atlantic had been lost by the Allies, so too would be any hope for their victory in the wider war. Consider for a moment the ramifications of a starved and isolated Britain, wherein a lack of resources compelled it to sign an armistice with Nazi Germany because it could no longer feed or defend itself. With Britain out of the fight, would there ever have been a D-Day operation when there was no British isle from which to launch it? And what of the Soviet Union’s titanic struggle with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front? Adolf Hitler’s tanks rolled to within forty miles of Moscow. To what extent did the supplies and equipment coming from the United States via the fierce and forbidding Arctic routes and menacingly patrolled by Kriegsmarine Adm. Karl Dönitz’s U-boats, sway the outcome on that front? In the end, so many outcomes rested on the continued flow of resources from the New World to the Old World.
Within a few short months after declaring war on Germany for its invasion of Poland, the British nation faced a most dire situation. A whopping 70 percent of its food supply, and an astounding 95 percent of the country’s fuel oil, was imported, and their loss would strangulate British industry and its capacity to produce armaments.1 These stark dependencies, and the not-too-distant experience of German unrestricted submarine warfare in the First World War, make one wonder why Britain was so unprepared for a likely German effort to replicate that experience, which had come so close to bringing Britain to its knees only two decades earlier. The answer is multifaceted, and Dimbleby explores each facet in agonizing detail. It is agonizing not in terms of the writing but in terms of the stubbornness, ignorance, greed, and/or naiveté repeatedly demonstrated by so many leaders. One would expect they would have known better, especially given the recent history they had all lived through. That unpreparedness stemmed from
- a distressingly slow embrace of the convoy system, due in large measure to the pressures put upon governments by cynical shipping magnates predominately focused on maximizing profits—safety be damned;
- a lack of escorts;
- a lack of airpower devoted to the defense of shipping;
- an excessive focus on enemy commerce raiders and the potential destructive capacity of those assets that, in turn, resulted in a distressing under appreciation for the submarine threat lurking below the surface, despite all the evidence from World War I;
- a widespread romanticism of capital ships—the battle fleet—and the “offensive spirit” that dominated naval thinking in many leading military circles;
- a gullibility on the part of far too many that rules codified at the Washington Naval Conference (and other similar venues) during the interwar period, aimed at controlling the threat posed by these relatively new and devilish submarines, would be adhered to going forward; and
- a pervasive aversion to employing warships defensively to escort convoys when they could be preferably deployed in an offensive posture, “operating aggressively—and exhilaratingly—as ‘hunting patrols’ to confront the enemy in open battle.”2
One of the many laudable aspects of Dimbleby’s work is his writing style and approach to the storytelling. His writing is crisp and compelling. He seamlessly transports the reader from grand strategic issues at play (so the reader can appreciate the gravity and complexity involved) to very personal accounts of sailors, merchantmen, and submariners (on both sides) locked in a death struggle on the high seas—often a terribly forbidding environment—before thrusting readers back to a broader tableau. This pattern is repeated throughout the work and allows the reader to appreciate not only the rationale behind many strategic choices but also the gritty and very deadly reality experienced by those executing said strategies. One might think this would be a distraction, but actually, Dimbleby pulls it off with surprising ease—probably because he is also a broadcaster and filmmaker, attuned to what makes for good storytelling. The tempo of the book is riveting, and the interlacing of harrowing personal tales within an overarching wartime narrative conveys the danger in a most palpable way, linking crucial political decisions to those whose lives hung in the balance as a result. In doing so, he offers us haunting glimpses inside the heroic and tragic events that were hallmarks of this vicious and crucial game of hunter and hunted. He forges such intense imagery by interspersing the raw, anguished suffering of those battling the sea, the elements, and the enemy with the heated exchanges and nuanced struggle for influence and power at the highest levels of governments and militaries into one coherent narrative that stitches together so many diverse aspects of this multiyear battle, creating at once a lucid and enthralling story that is quite persuasive in terms of his thesis.
Dimbleby does a superb job of using his canvas to depict many of the key players involved in this Herculean melee. One of the most interesting was certainly Dönitz, whose zeal for unrestricted submarine warfare and his absolute conviction that the “tonnage war” should trump all other considerations if Germany was to win the war, put him at odds with both his naval superior, Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, commander in chief of the Kriegsmarine, and his political leader, Adolf Hitler. Raeder, unlike Dönitz, was more interested in building a surface fleet to challenge the Royal Navy and routinely advanced his agenda within the inner circle of Nazi leadership, but he lacked the clout and savviness to effectively compete for resources against the likes of Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe. Ultimately, Raeder was ushered out and Dönitz, due to his ideological solidarity with Hitler and success to date, replaced him as head of the Kriegsmarine.3 Yet despite his promotion and unyielding advocacy for the criticality of the tonnage war and the resources to win it, he was continually frustrated by foes within the Third Reich, foes facing off against his U-boats, and the increasingly mercurial Hitler. In short, Dönitz was focused on the right target—Allied shipping—but was never given adequate resources to defeat Britain by starving people of food and resources. He got close (March 1943), despite a lack of adequate resources, but once the tide turned, due to an Allied epiphany of sorts (May 1943) in the wake of an epic series of convoy disasters, he found it impossible to reverse the trend moving in favor of the Allies.4 Had Hitler been less distracted by Operation Barbarossa, the North African campaign, and/or the ongoing strategic air campaign against Britain, to name but a few, it is not hard to imagine a German victory in the Atlantic, taking Britain out of the conflict and forever changing the course of the war and subsequent world history. Britain’s survival really was that tenuous. This was not always fully appreciated. As Dimbleby bluntly exclaims, “The Allies were fortunate [mighty fortunate] that Adolf Hitler was the final arbiter of German strategy for the Battle of the Atlantic and not Admiral Dönitz.”5
Another fascinating battle Dimbleby examines was the “Battle of the Air,” as Royal Navy Adm. Dudley Pound termed it. The Battle of the Air erupted between the admiralty and the Air Ministry over the allocation of very long-range bombers to their respective services. Despite Winston Churchill’s insistence that he quaked at the prospect of the submarine war strangulating Britain, “his impetuous nature led him to embrace a false dichotomy” whereby “he invariably favored the ‘offensive’ initiatives hatched in the Air Ministry over the ‘defensive’ role assigned to the Admiralty” guarding and protecting convoys.6 Dimbleby vigorously prosecutes Churchill for this slanted perception that Dimbleby contends needlessly extended the bloodbath at sea and came dangerously close to bringing about Britain’s capitulation at the hands of Dönitz’s U-boats. As the Second Sea Lord, Adm. William Whitworth, put it, this parochial interdepartmental brawl, which had been going on for years, was “much more savage … than our war with the Huns, which is very unsatisfactory and such a waste of effort.”7
Dimbleby is to be applauded for producing such a fine, scholarly work, giving new, deserved light to the often-unsung toil and suffering of those who fought and died in the yearslong Battle of the Atlantic. The book is painstakingly researched, beautifully crafted, and captivates the reader with its gripping accounts of the hardships and ever-present nearness of death for those afloat or undersea amidst the raging conflict. It is a very worthy addition to any library or personal collection.
- Jonathan Dimbleby, The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 25.
- Ibid., 8.
- Karl Dönitz was such a favorite of Adolf Hitler that upon the Führer’s death, Dönitz succeeded him as Nazi leader, albeit for little more than a week. The Nazi ship, as it were, had been hurtling toward the breakers for years, but Dönitz would be at the helm when it, at last, crashed into the rocks.
- This epiphany was really the belated acknowledgement by the Air Ministry (Britain) that more airpower did, indeed, need to be transferred to the antisubmarine effort versus the continuing strategic air campaign against Germany, since losing the battle at sea would cause all other efforts to collapse. Adding octane to this realization was the increase in convoy escorts, new technological innovations, and intelligence efforts. But it was the diversion of more very long-range bomber aircraft to the antisubmarine effort that was critical in turning the tide against the U-boat slaughter.
- Dimbleby, The Battle of the Atlantic, xxix.
- Ibid., xxv.
- Ibid., 359.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas