Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic by Kate Tildesley

History: Key Aspects
Home Page > History > Key Aspects > Battle of the Atlantic
TO PRINT THIS ARTICLE ... ... click on print-friendly pdf which opens in a new tab/window. To open PDFs you will need Acrobat Reader. Most computers will already have the Reader but if not there is a free download here
Kate Tildesley
Kate Tildesley
Kate Tildesley is the Curator at the Naval Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence. Her work reflects her background of degrees in English and German, and Museology. Here she considers the experience of the Battle of the Atlantic from an appropriately wide perspective. This article is the copyright of Kate Tildesley of the Naval Historical Branch.

I am going to proclaim the "Battle of the Atlantic"...1

Naval Message
Following received from Commodore HX 216 in SS Eros. Lady Cunningham passenger from USA very worried about landing of her dog.
"Please give this Priority"

As an ordinary seaman, you didn't know what the hell was going on and nobody else did. Your job was to do what you were told, which was a very small cog in the machine.3

After sixty years it is an almost impossible task to re-assert the primacy of the individual into the amorphous mass that represents our collective awareness of the Battle of the Atlantic. The six-year "battle" should be better understood as a series of campaigns against, and in defence of, Allied merchant shipping, artificially constructed as "The Battle of the Atlantic" by Churchill eighteen months after the war at sea had commenced. It was a strategic battle that could have cost the Allies victory, but individual sailors would have little knowledge of the decisions being made at Cabinet level to bring the Allies to triumph. Although 'it is always necessary to recall that in the last analysis, wars are as much won or lost by people as by the blind forces of history'4, we ought to acknowledge the importance of Bletchley Park's decryption analysts, Operational Research teams, the scientific geniuses working to invent new weapons, and the dockyard workers creating the means to win the Battle, as much as the men at sea.

Our perception of the Battle of the Atlantic is also one lacking in individual stories. After the brief, initial phase of the Battle, in which individual U-boats targeted independent merchant ships, and which allowed the Axis to create media heroes, and the Allies to create icons of the victims, the fighting of the Battle slipped into a fundamental anonymity. The advent of the Rudeltaktik meant that U-boats were sent out as "packs", and, while convoys grew ever larger, groups of anti-submarine vessels helped to underline the anonymous nature of this battle. Even the survivors of individual ships picked off from convoys were 'obliged to acknowledge that their very existence was predicated upon mutual support'5. Individual narratives were lost in the struggle against the greater enemy, the single anthropomorphised personality of "the cruel sea".

Oral histories of the Battle of the Atlantic have been written - Andrew Williams's The Battle of the Atlantic for the BBC, and the late Chris Howard-Bailey's Battle of the Atlantic. The Corvettes and their Crews among the most notable - but, as most of the participants would acknowledge, these narratives are coloured by the succeeding years. Many of the contemporary accounts are little more reliable. Reports by survivors were not clear-cut narratives, but were structured according to the questions being asked by the interviewing body, whether the Naval Intelligence Division, or the Shipping Casualties Section of the Trade Division. Both departments were more interested in learning how an action unfolded, and how the survivors coped, than experiencing the feelings of those involved. Even contemporary letters, fed by the desire to do and say the right thing in time of war, tend to reflect a bright, almost cheerful, stiff-upper-lipped attitude to the Battle of the Atlantic. Stress and trauma would not be expressed until later.

Yet, whilst it may not be possible to re-assert the primacy of the individual in the Battle of the Atlantic, by acknowledging these issues we can at least lend an ear to some of the narratives that have survived to inform our understanding of how the Battle was waged. Within a chronological framework, and using other contemporary sources, we can appreciate some of the voices that have survived from the Battle of the Atlantic.

Phase I: September 1939 to June 1940

One thought it was going to be bloody, but one had the feeling that we'd been pretty good on the sea for many, many years, and somehow we'd get through6

There were very many bodies lying about here: they were all completely blackened - clothes, faces, everything. I made sure that they were dead.7

I have to thank you and the others who came back (although against my orders as I had waved the boat to get loose and get away before all hands got dragged under when she sank) for the fact that I am here today.8

There was no "phoney war" for the ships of the Royal Navy and the British Merchant Fleet. At 1940 on 3 September 1939, just under four hours after Dönitz had instructed his U-boats to open hostilities against Britain, U 30 torpedoed the liner, SS Athenia. The sinking of the Athenia was an horrendous mistake, impetuously made by CO Fritz-Julius Lemp in the belief that he was attacking an auxiliary cruiser. The first sinking of the war had, in fact, broken the 1930 Submarine Protocol, which Hitler and Dönitz were initially determined to enforce, and which dictated that ships were not to be sunk without warning unless they were in convoy, conveying troops and war matériel, or directly supporting enemy actions. The loss of life from the Athenia was not as appalling as it might have been, but the death of 118 civilians, including 28 Americans, on the first evening of the war was a dreadful gift to British propagandists, which seemed to parallel the Lusitania sinking of 1915, and 'a terrible blot on the honour of the Kriegsmarine'9. Berlin denied that a German submarine had been anywhere near Rockall, and, when Lemp returned to base, he was told to amend his War Diary. As Georg Högel later recalled, 'He altered the first page, which dealt with the Athenia - he drafted it and I retyped it. Then it was put back with the rest of the diary'10. German U-boat records, scrupulously kept, were not altered again, Athenia did not become a second Lusitania, and six months after the sinking the Naval Intelligence Division was prepared to believe that Kapitänleutnant Hans von Dresky, the unfortunate CO of U 33, might have sunk the Athenia because 'he was very short-sighted'11. But the sinking meant that within hours of the commencement of hostilities the 'U-boat had once again established itself as a terror weapon'12. It also had the additional effect, detrimental as far as Dönitz was concerned, of forcing the immediate introduction of a convoy system.

SS Athenia
SS Athenia

After this tragically inauspicious start, the Battle of the Atlantic was characterized in its initial phase by single U-boat operations against independent shipping, combined with a minelaying campaign that brought German submarines into major British estuaries. In the period up to June 1940 the U-boat Arm sank 215 merchant ships and 2 warships, with a loss of 23 U-boats. Of those sinkings 195 were independent ships13. The number of U-boats lost represented almost half of the number available to Dönitz at the start of the conflict, although German shipyards were busy building more. Not all of the sinkings ran counter to the Submarine Protocol. Lemp himself stopped the SS Fanad Head according to form on 14 September, offering to tow the lifeboats clear before he sank the ship and apologising for the necessity of doing so14. Two days after the sinking of the Athenia the British freighter, Royal Sceptre, was attacked by U 48, commanded by Herbert Schultze. Schultze not only waited until the crew abandoned ship before firing his torpedoes, but ordered one of the lifeboats to return to pick up the Wireless Operator. Chief Officer Norman Hartley later reported, 'After looking at us for quite a while he asked if I had any food. I said "Yes, plenty thank you". Then he said "Have you water?" I again replied "Yes, plenty thank you". Then he went away from us again. He was away some time, and returned again and said "Have you any wounded?". I said "We are all quite well here thank you"'15. Schultze went on to hail the SS Browning and instructed the crew to rescue their compatriots. The fact that the Browning took the men to Brazil led to a belief that the crew of the Royal Sceptre had been abandoned to die by U 48, and allowed Churchill to publicize the sinking as 'an odious act of bestial piracy on the high seas'16. The exchange between Schultze and Hartley would suggest otherwise.

SS Royal Sceptre
SS Royal Sceptre

While Dönitz's handful of submarines roamed the seas seeking legitimate victims, Britain was preparing for a possibly protracted war in the Atlantic. Although the 'RN that entered World War II was, doctrinally, equipped for a fleet encounter' and the 'U-boat threat was seen as minor compared with the threat of surface raiders'17, particularly at a time when there were few U-boats at sea, plans were underway to equip Liverpool as the strategic focus for Atlantic convoys. Paymaster Lieutenant Richard Eltonhead Rankin RNR arrived to join the Naval Control Service at HMS Eaglet in September 1939. His unique position in assisting the ocean commodores also allowed him to support some of the families who had taken the momentous decision to evacuate their children across the Atlantic to Canada and America. Rankin's papers reveal how he 'made all the difference to the awful moment of letting...go'18 by enabling distraught parents to see their children on board ship. For such an angst-filled experience, the letters he received from the parents are surprisingly positive - 'I hope they will have a very nice trip & manage to elude raiders of all kinds. Even with blacked out portholes, the café run must be a very nice one' remarked Julian Hutchings19. Understanding that Dönitz intended to wage 'a war against the merchant tonnage of the Allies'20, the British Government also began to enable its people to "fight" the Battle of the Atlantic, and the tonnage war, from their own homes. 'In November 1939 people were ordered to register with the shops of their choice - butcher, grocer and dairy - and the housewife was thus introduced to what became the way of life for the next fifteen years'21. The first limitations on consumption were introduced early in 1940.

Despite Dönitz's intention to wage a tonnage war, the preliminary phase of his U-boat campaign provided two significant military targets. The carrier, HMS Courageous, was sunk during anti-submarine operations on 17 September 1939 with the loss of 514 lives, and in October Dönitz ordered one of his "aces" to slip unseen into Scapa Flow. Günther Prien found the Royal Oak at anchor, and he swiftly despatched her to the bottom. Over 800 lives were lost and many of the survivors suffered horrific injuries. Leading Seaman Joe Instance recalled 'floating around for at least half an hour. Then along came this little raft out of nowhere and I heard somebody say, 'Oh, there's one over here', and they tried to get hold of my hands and to drag me on and of course my hands had been badly burnt so I screamed out, 'No, no, no.' And the officer on the raft said, 'Pull him in by his hair.' Well, I didn't have any hair either - that had gone. And finally they got me under the armpits and they slid me on to this raft like a wet seal.'22 Prien's exploit was unique, but the sinking was also a dreadful foretaste of the power of the U-boats. As the news of his success filtered back to Germany the men employed by BdU23 sensed that 'the essence of the U-Bootwaffe had changed'24. How fundamental this change was would be expressed in the next phase of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Phase II: July 1940 to March 1941

There was a feeling "We're on our own - well, thank God for that! We can depend on ourselves; we couldn't depend on the French. There was nobody else except the Empire. It would help us. We're on our own - let's go." After that, when one began to think soberly about the realities, it was a grim outlook.25

But then the second engineer said, 'Knock that off, will you? There's a U-boat on the surface.' I was short sighted, but I could hear the engines racing and I could hear them shouting out in German. They were excited. They were in the chase, these U-boat men.26

When France fell the tenor of the U-boat war altered completely. The Battle for the Atlantic had been relatively quiet during the months preceding June 1940, with U-boats diverted to assist with the invasion of Norway, where they had suffered four losses and found their confidence eroded. In an attempt to alleviate the 'sense of despair'27 that threatened to overwhelm the service, Victor Oehrn had been ordered by Dönitz in May 'to jump-start the Battle of the Atlantic'28 with a patrol that sank 10 ships, a total of 41,000 GRT29. But with the loss of France, Britain was not only left isolated in Europe, she also became almost entirely reliant on supplies from across the Atlantic, and more vulnerable to attacks by U-boats that now had access to French ports, within easy range of the British convoys. This was a contingency for which there had been no planning by any of the Services. In May Britain had lost 63,000 GRT of shipping. By October, during a period referred to as the "happy time" by the U-boat men, merchant ship losses had reached 350,000 GRT. Dönitz made his first use of his Rudeltaktik, or "wolfpack" strategy, and sent his growing number of U-boats out to operate with devastating effect. British and Dominion forces, yet to find the anti-submarine skills, or develop the technology, that would eventually see them victorious, floundered against a tide of German successes. They managed to sink only three U-boats between September 1940 and March 1941.

It was during October that Britain experienced her "Night of the Long Knives", with Convoys SC 7 and HX 79 losing 34 ships in the space of 48 hours30. Frank Holding, Assistant Steward on the SS Beatus, recalls the moment that his ship was struck: 'The next thing I heard was this explosion and a sound like breaking glass from down near the engine room. The ship stood still. When I went to the boat deck one of the lifeboats was already in the water, full of water...We knew we were sinking'31. The escort for Convoy SC 7 consisted of only one sloop until the night of 18-19 October, when that ship was joined by two corvettes and two further sloops. It was clearly an inadequate escort for a convoy of 34 slow ships, and no match for the massed strength of seven attacking U-boats, including those commanded by "aces" Otto Kretschmer and Heinrich Liebe. Don Kirton remembers vividly that the escorts had difficulty in coping with the survivors from SC 7: 'You could see the red bulbs on their lifejackets showing in the water. We put scrambling nets over the side. Two of the lads would get over to help them up and over the gunwhales, and there were eager hands to take them forward where there was shelter. Many of them were violently sick from the fuel oil that they'd swallowed. Some were completely naked'32. In a short space of time his ship, HMS Bluebell, was 'soon heaving with wet, frozen seamen: Lascars from India, Jamaicans, Frenchmen, Norwegians and Swedes. Every square inch of deck was filled, every available blanket and piece of clothing used'33. Kirton's account serves as a reminder of the multi-nationalism of the Battle of the Atlantic, even at a time when Britain felt herself alone with her Dominions.

HMS Snowflake, flower class corvette
HMS Snowflake, flower class corvette

Those U-boat officers attacking Convoys SC 7 and HX 79 continued to erode British shipping tonnage, and British morale, throughout this period. In September 1940 Heinrich Bleichrodt in U 48 torpedoed the SS City of Benares in heavy weather, some 500 miles from land. Contemporary reports revealed that there 'was ample room in the lifeboats and there were rafts as well. The high death rate was due entirely to shock and exposure'34. What was not known by Bleichrodt35 was that the liner he was attacking carried 90 children, evacuees travelling to Canada under the CORB scheme36. Only 13 of the children survived, and the understanding that Bleichrodt could not have known which passengers were on board the liner made little difference to his perceived culpability. Britain was shocked. Otto Kretschmer undertook eight patrols between June 1940 and March 1941 in U 99, sinking 39 merchant ships of over 200,000 GRT, as well as the Armed Merchant Cruisers Laurentic, Patroclus and Forfar37. The German press trumpeted his every move, describing in December 1940 how the sinking Forfar made 'a wonderful impression even in the darkness'38. In Britain, further restrictions were made to the diet of the average citizen in order the reduce imports. While the privations of rationing in no way compare to the desperate attrition of the Battle of the Atlantic during the Winter of 1940 and the Spring of 1941, it must have been hard to remain stiff-upper-lipped in the face of such devastating news - and all without the means to brew a pot of the national beverage39. The phlegmatic British might have 'tended to see Atlantic events as plateaux of concern punctuated by periodic crises'40, but, by the end of the second phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, the nation remained geographically alone and sunk in the depths of one of these crises.


  1. Winston Churchill to Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord, March 1941, quoted by Andrew Williams, The Battle of the Atlantic, London, BBC Worldwide, 2002, p114.
  2. Message received and acted on by Naval Control Service, Liver Building, 3 December 1942. Naval Historical Branch collections, T5682
  3. John Arthur, HMS Anemone, quoted by Chris Howard-Bailey, The Royal Naval Museum Book of The Battle of the Atlantic : The Corvettes and their Crews : An Oral History, Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p37.
  4. Geoffrey Till, 'The Battle of the Atlantic as History', The Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945 : The 50th Anniversary International Naval Conference, ed. Stephen Howarth and Derek Law, London, Greenhill Books, 1994, p587.
  5. Tony Lane, 'The Human Economy of the British Merchant Navy', Howarth and Law, op. cit., p49.
  6. Admiral John Adams, quoted Williams, op. cit., p37.
  7. The first victims of the Battle of the Atlantic, report of an interview with Mr. Copeland, Chief Officer of the SS Athenia 23rd November 1939, ADM 199/2130
  8. Extract of a letter from the Captain of SS Goodwood to the 2nd Officer, enclosed with the report of a interview with Mr Robert Alberto Black 2nd Officer of the SS Goodwood 13th October 1939, ADM 199/2130
  9. Clay Blair, Hitler's U-boat War. The Hunters 1939-42, London, Cassell & Co., 2001, p68.
  10. Georg Högel, Radio Operator in U 30, quoted in Williams, op. cit., p18.
  11. 'it has been suggested that it may have been "U 33" that made the error of sinking the "Athenia" on 4th September, the short-sighted Commander mistaking her for a British destroyer', Monthly Anti-Submarine Report March and April 1940, CB 04050/40 (3&4), Anti-Submarine Warfare Division of the Naval Staff, p18.
  12. Williams, op. cit., p 18.
  13. The Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping 1939-1945: A Study of Policy and Operations, Volume 1A, Naval Staff History, Historical Section, Admiralty, 1957, p55-56.
  14. 'The Commander of the U-boat gave me the British Naval salute, and said "Good morning Captain" and I replied "Good Morning". He said "I am sorry to rush you this morning, but I am just too fast for you"...We gave him the painter and he towed my boat about 1½ miles clear of the ship. He then said "Now I am going back to sink your ship, and I will come along and have a yarn with you afterwards".', Report of an interview with Mr G Pinkerton Master of the SS Fanad Head, 4th October 1939, ADM 199/2130.
  15. Report of an interview with Mr Norman Hartley, Chief Officer of the SS Royal Sceptre, 1st November 1939 ADM 199/2130. The Royal Sceptre was sunk by shellfire and torpedo by on 5 September 1939 on passage from Buenos Aires to Belfast.
  16. Blair, op. cit., p81.
  17. David Hobbs, 'Ship-borne Air Anti-Submarine Warfare', Howarth and Law, op. cit., p388.
  18. Letter from Dorothea Urmson to Richard Rankin dated 26 June 1940, Naval Historical Branch collections, T5537.
  19. Letter from Julian Hutchings to Richard Rankin dated 26 July 1940, Naval Historical Branch collections, T5528.
  20. Werner Rahn, 'The Campaign: The German Perspective', Howarth and Law, op. cit., p539.
  21. Raynes Minns, Bombers and Mash : The Domestic Front 1939-45, London, Virago Press, 1980, p86.
  22. Williams, op. cit., p36.
  23. Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, Commander in Chief Submarines or U-boat Command
  24. Jordan Vause, Wolf: U-boat Commanders in World War II, Shrewsbury, Airlife Publishing, 1997, p49.
  25. Sir Peter Smithers, Naval Intelligence Officer, Williams, op. cit., p66.
  26. Frank Holding, Assistant Steward of the SS Beatus, sunk by U 123 (Kapitänleutnant Karl-Heinz Moehle) on 18 October 1940, Williams, op. cit., p93-94.
  27. Vause, op. cit., p57.
  28. Vause, op. cit., p57.
  29. Vause, op. cit., p60.
  30. See Jürgen Rohwer and Gerhard Hümmelchen, Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945. The Naval History of World War Two, London, Greenhill Books, 1992, p36-38.
  31. Williams, op. cit., p93-94. The Beatus was part of Convoy SC 7.
  32. Don Kirton, Leading Supply Assistant, HMS Bluebell, Williams, op. cit., p 98.
  33. Williams, op. cit., p98.
  34. Official report on the sinking of the City of Benares, as given to the contemporary press, Naval Historical Branch collections, C693.
  35. See U 48's Kriegstagebuch, Admiralty reference PG 30045b, Naval Historical Branch collections.
  36. The Childrens Overseas Reception Board. The CORB scheme was suspended following the sinking of the City of Benares.
  37. See 'The Ebb and Flow of the Battle: The U-boat Aces', paper by David Brown, Naval Historical Branch collections FDS 444.
  38. Hans Kreis, 'How the Auxiliary Cruiser "Forfar" Sank in Three Minutes', translation of an article from the Kieler Neueste Nachrichten of 17 December 1940, reprinted in U 99: Interrogation of Survivors, CB 4051(20), Public Record Office ADM 186/806.
  39. 'By July 1940 the tea ration was reduced to a meagre 2oz a week, and Lord Woolton advised "None for the pot"', Minns, op. cit., p86.
  40. W J R Gardner, 'An Allied Perspective', Howarth and Law, op. cit., p517.
Article by Kate Tildesley