The Battle of the Atlantic
How the Allies won the War
Viking (Penguin) London 2016
Paperback 584pp RRP: $24.99
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, January 2019
The Battle of the Atlantic began on 3 September 1939, the first day of the Second World War, when SS Athenia was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland and continued until Admiral Dönitz ordered his U-boats to surrender on 4 May 1945. As well as being the longest, this was also the most important battle of the Second World War. The objective of the German heavy surface ships, the disguised merchant ship raiders and especially the U-boats, was to sink so many Allied merchant ships that Britain would starve or be forced to seek peace terms with Hitler. Without control of the Atlantic, the arrival in Britain of the American forces essential to invade the continent of Europe would have been impossible, and without the convoys to North Russia, the Red Army might not have defeated the invading German Army. The Allies had to win the Battle of the Atlantic, which they came close to losing, in order to win the war.
Jonathan Dimbleby has taken a broad view of the Battle of the Atlantic. Rather than concentrating on the tactics of the convoy battles – although several of the critical battles are described in some detail – he has emphasized the political and strategic aspects. The author describes how President Roosevelt carefully manoeuvred the United States into the Battle of the Atlantic, how Prime Minister Churchill made his case with the President for helping Britain survive and how they both did their best to placate Stalin, who demanded an early Second Front and summer convoys to North Russia, when 24 hours of Arctic daylight rendered them suicidal.
Anyone with an interest in the Second World War should read this book: Jonathan Dimbleby is a superb writer who follows the course of the battle – not only in the North Atlantic, but in other theatres that affected the convoy battles by withdrawing essential sea and air assets. Escorts were withdrawn to protect the American troop convoys for Operation Torch, as they were for the convoys to North Russia and even for Operation Pedestal in the Mediterranean, which – at great cost – saved Malta and led to a critical shortage of supplies for the Afrika Corps.
Churchill’s preference for ‘offensive’ strategic bombing over ‘defensive’ battles with the U-boats, which almost lost the Allies the War, the code breakers’ war (handily won by the Germans) and the effect of 50 very long range Liberator bombers in closing the ‘Black Pit’ during early 1943 are all related in a style that makes the book hard to put down.
There are several maps, a comprehensive bibliography, endnotes and an index. Absorbing and informative, this is one of the best books on the Battle of the Atlantic.
The RUSI – Vic thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.