Atlantic, Battle of the

views updated May 08 2018


ATLANTIC, BATTLE OF THE, the 1939–1945 struggle between Allied shipping and German submarines and Luftwaffe. Although the United States was officially neutral in World War II before November 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's pledge of "all aid short of war" to the Allies had antagonized the Germans, obligating U.S. naval patrols to protect pro-Allied merchantmen plying the broad neutrality zone. After several inclusive skirmishes, a German torpedo sank the American destroyer Reuben James into the waters south of Iceland on 31 October 1941. Before the American declaration of war, the Axis had sunk 2,162 ships totaling 7,751,000 tons. One month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a damaging U-boat attack in American waters convinced U.S. military planners to organize the Tenth Fleet to bring all antisubmarine activities under a single command. An interlocking convoy system gradually developed across the Atlantic, forcing German Admiral Karl Dönitz to withdraw his U-boats to mid-ocean. U-boats had great success against Russian convoys. Most destructive was the concerted air and U-boat attack on Convoy PQ-17, which lost two-thirds of its thirty-three ships in July 1942.

However, burgeoning U.S. naval strength, as well as scientific advances, operations analysis, and improved radar, soon began to thwart U-boats. The development of support groups to aid endangered convoys was decisive. Shaken, Dönitz largely abandoned attacks on convoys. U.S. hunter-killer groups using "jeep" aircraft carriers had increasing success also. U-boats could never regain the initiative. Overall, U-boats destroyed 2,775 ships, at a loss of 781 of the 1,175 completed U-boats. By the last months of the war, the U-boats were nearly impotent.


Blair, Clay. Hitler's U-Boat War. New York: Random House, 1996–1998.

Macintyre, Donald G. F. W. The Battle of the Atlantic. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Morison, Samuel E. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Volume 1: The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939–May 1943. Volume 10: The Atlantic Battle Won, May 1943–May 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1962.

Syrett, David. The Defeat of the German U-Boats: The Battle of the Atlantic. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Henry H.Adams/a. r.

See alsoTorpedo Warfare ; World War II, Navy in .

Atlantic, battle of the

views updated Jun 11 2018

Atlantic, battle of the, 1939–45. A decisive Second World War battle, the struggle diverged from pre-war expectations. Before the war British naval experts thought ‘Asdic’ countered submarines and, like the highest German authorities, considered surface warships the best means of interrupting transport to Britain of food, munitions, and troops. Hitler allotted priority to submarines only after the fall of France, which gave German submarines greater range from Bay of Biscay harbours. In the first half of 1941 the Germans began to win, using ‘wolf-packs’ of submarines to overwhelm convoys. Ships sunk exceeded new building. In June, however, the British began to decode orders, generated by German ‘Enigma’ machines, giving U-boat assembly areas in the Atlantic. In July 1941, shipping losses from submarine attack fell to less than one-third of those in June in spite of more U-boats. Early in 1942, the Germans recovered; they began to read allied convoy orders and again made their own orders indecipherable. Losses to allied ships exceeded combined British and American building. In 1943, however, at twelve times the volume of 1941, US construction far exceeded losses. Greater numbers and better weapons now gave victory to the British, Canadians, and Americans. ‘Very long-range’ aircraft and small escort aircraft carriers improved allied reconnaissance and attack, as did airborne and shipborne short-wave radar, together with high-frequency direction finding, which enabled warships to locate U-boats as soon as they made radio signals. Depth charges, to destroy submerged U-boats, were improved. The allies won the battle of the Atlantic for good in summer 1943. Victory, first over German surface vessels—most dramatically the defeat of the pocket-battleship Graf Spee in 1939 and of the Bismarck in 1941—and then over German submarines enabled British survival and the build-up of American forces in Britain for the liberation of France in 1944 and the defeat of the Germans in 1945.

R. A. C. Parker

Atlantic, Battle of the

views updated May 23 2018

Atlantic, Battle of the (1939–43) Campaign for control of the Atlantic sea routes waged by air and naval forces during World War II. The Germans hoped to starve Britain into submission by U-boat attacks on merchant shipping, and later to prevent US reinforcements reaching the Mediterranean and Europe. More than 14 million tonnes of shipping were destroyed.

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