Blockade of Britain file photo [223]

Start of the Battle of the Atlantic

3 Sep 1939 - 30 Jun 1940


ww2dbaseThe United Kingdom had always been dependent on the seas for its economy, importing vital food and other supplies for its own survival. Germany knew this well. Too weak to directly challenge the British and French fleets, the German Navy adopted a strategy of using surface ships, submarines, and aircraft to raid Allied commerce shipping.

ww2dbaseOn 3 Sep 1939, within hours of the British declaration of war on Germany, German submarine U-30 attacked what the submarine captain thought was a British auxiliary cruiser; the ship had turned out to be the passenger liner Athenia, the very type of ship that the German Navy ordered its submarines to avoid. The death of 112 civilians aboard Athenia started what Winston Churchill would christen the Battle of the Atlantic.

ww2dbaseThe British and the French immediately responded with a blockade on German ports. This interfered with raw materials coming into Germany from Northern Europe, but overall it did not affect the course of the battle much. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy set anti-submarine hunting groups out to sea. On 14 Sep 1939, while one of these hunting groups was out in search of German submarines, U-39 spotted the group first and launched torpedoes at carrier HMS Ark Royal; the carrier narrowly escaped harm as the torpedoes detonated prematurely. Three days later, HMS Courageous of another hunting group was less fortunate, discovered and sunk by U-29. While the British considered alternatives in dealing with German submarines, German submarine U-47 scored an even greater victory by sneaking into the British naval base at Scapa Flow, Scotland, United Kingdom and sank the old battleship HMS Royal Oak at anchor, killing 833. Two weeks later, in an attempt to follow up on the success at Scapa Flow, two torpedoes from U-56 struck HMS Nelson; her crew was lucky that the torpedoes failed to detonate.

ww2dbaseWhile the Kriegsmarine hunted for British targets, a major strategy change took place in Germany. On 16 Oct 1939, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder announced Adolf Hitler's orders that "all merchant ships definitely recognized as enemy can be torpedoed without warning." It was further explained that all ships, even those flying flags of neutral nations, could be targeted based on the German captain's discretion if the ships were bound for British ports. "Neutral shipping had been sunk before, inadvertently or by reckless commanders. Now it was Kriegsmarine policy."

ww2dbaseBeginning in late 1940, German submarines attacked in the Rudel, or wolfpack, in a tactic that German Admiral Karl Dönitz devised before the war. With the wolfpack tactic, some of the submarines in the wolfpack would keep the convoy escorts occupied while one or two of the submarines would sneak by into the center of the formation and attack the transports.

ww2dbaseAlthough submarines had scored the first victories in the Battle of the Atlantic, the German submarine fleet was small at the start of the war; there were only 57 in operational status, some of which were in use as minelayers rather than raiders. The responsibility of the early attacks on Allied shipping was shared by surface ships as well. Ships ranging from battleships to armed merchant cruisers were dispatched into the Atlantic Ocean to threaten merchant shipping coming in and out of Britain and France. Although many surface merchant raids were extremely successful, this branch of the German plan of war to blockade Britain was limited by the policy that surface ships should avoid escorted convoys to minimize potential losses.

ww2dbaseGerman naval vessels were in the center of public attention in this opening stage of the battle; nevertheless, naval mines were another principle weapon against Allied shipping. While contact mines were laid just below the waves on the British coast just deep enough for ships to make contact, German magnetic mines were also used, which could be laid in deeper waters, detonating when a ship neared and causing damage with the shock wave of the explosion. On the night of 22 Nov 1939, a German plane was observed dropping something via parachute into the River Thames in southern England, United Kingdom. Upon investigation, the package delivered was a magnetic mine, and it landed in the mud off Shoeburyness instead of the river. Two Royal Navy officers retrieved the mine and turned it to scientists, who reverse engineered it. The magnetic principles were discovered, and the technique of degaussing, the process of demagnetizing with electric coils, was developed to prevent ships from triggering off enemy magnetic mines when sailing nearby. The Germans also had in their arsenal a pressure-activated naval mine, but did not deploy them until it had become apparent that the British had devised methods to defeat the magnetic mines.

ww2dbaseJust as the submarines were proving themselves worthy in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder reallocated funding from submarine construction to that of capital ships. Although Dönitz would later reverse this decision, the delay in the expansion of the German submarine fleet gave the United Kingdom the little bit of breathing room that it desperately needed in this early stage of the war.

ww2dbaseAlthough German attacks continued through the winter months of 1939 to 1940, many of the German ports in the Baltic Sea became frozen, thus significantly slowing the German naval efforts. The German campaign in Norway in Apr 1940 also drew away many warships that were on raiding duties at the start of the war. It would not be until after the fall of France in Jun 1940 when the German Navy would escalate the actions in the Atlantic Ocean.

William Manchester, The Last Lion

Start of the Battle of the Atlantic Interactive Map

Start of the Battle of the Atlantic Timeline

16 May 1939 Admiral Erich Raeder presented to Adolf Hitler German Navy's plan for conducting war against Poland in the Baltic Sea and against Britain and France in the Atlantic Ocean.
19 Aug 1939 The German Navy ordered 21 submarines and two capital ships to prepare for sailing at any given time. The captains of Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland received orders to go to Brazilian and North Atlantic waters, respectively.
3 Sep 1939 German submarine U-30 torpedoed British passenger liner Athenia in the Atlantic Ocean.
4 Sep 1939 Adolf Hitler forbade any further attacks on passenger ships.
7 Sep 1939 Adolf Hitler ordered Erich Raeder to hold back German Navy from attacking British and French vessels.
10 Sep 1939 The Battle of the Atlantic officially began. On the very same day, the British Admiralty began organizing a convoy system.
13 Sep 1939 U-27 sank British trawler Davara 39 kilometers (24 miles or 21 nautical miles) northwest of Tory Island, Ireland at 0255 hours. The 12 survivors were rescued by merchant ship Willowpool.
14 Sep 1939 German submarine U-39 attacked HMS Ark Royal; the torpedoes swam straight at the carrier but they prematurely detonated.
16 Sep 1939 In the first German submarine attack on an Atlantic convoy the merchantman Aviemore was sunk off Land's End, England, United Kingdom.
16 Sep 1939 U-27 attacked British trawler Rudyard Kipling 190 kilometers (120 miles or 100 nautical miles) west of Ireland at 0353 hours. The crew of U-27 boarded Rudyard Kipling and destroyed the ship with scuttling charges. U-27 rescued the survivors, gave them food and warm clothing, and sent them off in lifeboats.
17 Sep 1939 German submarine U-29 torpedoed British carrier HMS Courageous off Ireland. Courageous sank in 20 minutes, taking down 518 of the crew of 1,200, including the captain.
20 Sep 1939 U-27 was sunk by British destroyers HMS Fortune and HMS Faulknor west of Scotland, United Kingdom.
3 Oct 1939 The Declaration of Panama, signed by the United States and several countries in the Americas, was established. It established a zone of neutrality within 300 to 1,000 nautical miles of the coast of the Americas.
12 Oct 1939 German submarine U-48 sank French tanker Emile Miguet and British freighter Heronspool.
13 Oct 1939 German pocket battleship Deutschland sank Norwegian freighter Lorentz W. Hansen 420 miles east of Newfoundland.
16 Oct 1939 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder announced Adolf Hitler's orders that "all merchant ships definitely recognized as enemy can be torpedoed without warning."
18 Oct 1939 Dutch liner Simon Bolivar struck a German magnetic mine in the English Channel 10 miles east of Harwich, England, United Kingdom at 1030 hours; the mine was laid in this shipping lane without warning on the previous day; 86 were killed. The Netherlands made an official protest to Germany regarding this violation in international shipping law.
21 Oct 1939 British light cruiser HMS Orion and Canadian destroyer HMCS Saguenay located German tanker Emmy Friedrich in the Yucatán Channel, and began to move to intercept.
23 Oct 1939 British light cruiser HMS Orion and Canadian destroyer HMCS Saguenay intercepted German tanker Emmy Friedrich; Emmy Friedrich's crew scuttled the ship to avoid capture.
24 Oct 1939 German submarine U-37 sank British steamships Menin Ridge by torpedoes and Ledbury by gunfire off Gibraltar.
12 Nov 1939 German submarine U-41 sank British trawler Cresswell by gunfire off the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, United Kingdom at 0700 hours; 6 were killed, 8 survived and rescued by U-41. At 1000 hours, U-41 struck agin, sinking Norwegian tanker Arne Kjřde; 34 survived in 2 lifeboats, but one of them would soon capsize, killing 5.
20 Nov 1939 German submarine U-33 sank three small British trawlers (Thomas Hankins at 1030 hours, Delphine at 1600 hours, and Sea Sweeper at 1700 hours) off Tory Island, Ireland.
22 Nov 1939 Overnight, German aircraft dropped magnetic mines in River Thames in southern England, United Kingdom, but at least one fell in nearby mud and was observed by the British.
23 Nov 1939 Britain recovered a magnetic mine from muddy fields near River Thames in southern England, United Kingdom.
25 Nov 1939 German submarine U-28 sank British merchant ship Royston Grange of Allied convoy SL-8B 50 miles southwest of Land's End, England, United Kingdom at 1319 hours. Between 2200 hours and midnight, German submarine U-43 attacked and sank British ship Uskmouth 120 miles northwest of Cape Finisterre, Spain with gunfire and torpedoes; 2 were killed, 22 survived and rescued by Italian merchant ship Juventus.
27 Nov 1939 German submarine U-48 damaged Swedish tanker Gustaf E. Reuter near Fair Isle northwest of Scotland, United Kingdom; 1 was killed, 32 survived. An attempt to tow Gustaf E. Reuter to port failed overnight, causing her to finally sink.
28 Nov 1939 British Royal Navy trawler HMS Kingston Beryl scuttled the stern section of Swedish tanker Gustaf E. Reuter in the North Sea. Gustaf E. Reuter had been attacked by German submarine U-48 on the previous day, and the bow section had sunk overnight during an unsuccessful towing attempt.
29 Nov 1939 British destroyers HMS Kingston, HMS Icarus, and HMS Kashmir forced German submarine U-35 to surface and surrender in the North Sea with depth charges. U-35's crew scuttled the submarine to prevent capture.
8 Dec 1939 Belgian ship Louis Scheid ran aground and broke up in front of the Thurlestone Golf Club, Warren Point, Devon, England, United Kingdom before dawn. During the day, German submarine U-48 sank the ship Brandon of Allied convoy OB-48 at 1155 hours.
11 May 1940 British troops landed on Dutch islands of Aruba and Curaçao in the Caribbean Sea. US President Roosevelt announced that these actions were not contrary to the Monroe Doctrine.
16 May 1940 US President Roosevelt responded to British Prime Minister Churchill's telegraph from the previous day, noting that any military aid to Britain must have the authorization from the US Congress, and that the US fleet would remain concentrated at Hawaii in the Central Pacific for the time being.
24 May 1940 The President of Panama expressed support for the Dominican Republic in terms of the 8 Mar 1940 incident where a Canadian destroyer attacked German freighter Hannover in Dominic Republic's territorial waters. He called for the Chairman of the Inter-American Neutrality Committee in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to investigate this violation of the Pan-American Neutrality Zone.


HMS Courageous sunk by torpedoes, 17 Sep 1939An Allied merchant ship being shelled by a German submarine, date unknownTexas in North Atlantic on convoy duty, summer 1941

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Commenter identity confirmed Bill says:
17 Feb 2009 09:13:44 AM

The longest battle of the second world war, was the Battle of the Atlantic.
2. camcdn says:
15 Jul 2010 02:50:30 PM

yea, no duh.
3. rachel ann says:
11 Feb 2011 10:39:03 AM

thi is a very intresting pice of historey! do you think so?
4. Anonymous says:
27 Feb 2011 06:32:45 PM

no, im just reading for a papre in social stidies. not very interesting at all.
5. Anonymous1234 says:
1 Mar 2011 09:49:58 PM

Hey ! do you guys know any other websites, where I could get good info about this ? I really need it for my studies
6. Anonymous says:
17 Jan 2012 08:22:07 PM

good work
7. Anonymous says:
3 Mar 2012 11:09:39 AM

Is there anyone that is an expert on this subject cause I got a paper due on monday
8. Shiny says:
21 Oct 2012 06:25:55 AM

Its all very interesting, but could they not be a section with, say the 20 most important facts, cause that story is an overload of info?
9. Anonymous says:
5 Jun 2013 01:36:40 AM

what were hitlers plans
10. Anonymous says:
25 Oct 2013 03:41:35 AM

no mention of engagement between Graf Spee and H.M.S.s Ajax,Achilles and Exeter in December 1939 resulting ultimately in scuttling of Graf Spee ?!!
11. Commenter identity confirmed C. Peter Chen says:
25 Oct 2013 11:48:27 AM

For the battle that resulted in Graf Spee's scuttling, please see a separate article for the Battle of the River Plate:
12. Anonymous says:
20 Oct 2014 01:31:17 PM

I wouldn't use this article as a source for your papers, especially if you are in high school or higher.

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More on Start of the Battle of the Atlantic
» Dönitz, Karl
» Prien, Günther
» Raeder, Erich

» Atlantic Ocean

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Start of the Battle of the Atlantic Photo Gallery
HMS Courageous sunk by torpedoes, 17 Sep 1939
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Famous WW2 Quote
"With Germany arming at breakneck speed, England lost in a pacifist dream, France corrupt and torn by dissension, America remote and indifferent... do you not tremble for your children?"

Winston Churchill, 1935