Start of the Battle of the Atlantic
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
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
Last Major Update: Aug 2007
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.|
|29 Oct 1939||The 7,976-ton British merchant steamer Malabar was on the return trip from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to London, England, United Kingdom full of general cargo, including lumber and tobacco when torpedoed by German submarine U-34, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Rollmann at 0150 hours. Rollmann had fired two torpedoes and claimed to hit the Malabar and an escorting destroyer, however only Malabar was hit. Malabar was the ship of the convoy commodore, five crew were killed in the explosion, the remaining 66 crew and the master, Henry Herbert, the commodore Rear Admiral G. W. Taylor and his two staff members all got away in lifeboats and were clear when the vessel sunk 180 miles south of Land’s End, Cornwall, England. They were all picked up by the G- and H-class destroyer HMS Grafton (H 89) and taken to Plymouth on the south coast.|
|30 Oct 1939||British anti-submarine Trawler HMS Northern Rover out from Grimbsy, north-east Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom, was sunk with a torpedo fired from German submarine U-59 (Oberleutnant zur See Harald Jürst) at 2335 hours. The trawler had been requisitioned by the Admiralty to be used against German submarines, as an armed boarding vessel and to be used as contraband hunters. U-59 attacked as the Northern Rover was patrolling the Kirkwall area, 100 miles west of Sumburgh Head in the Shetland Islands. The Commander, Lieutenant H. M. Macpherson RN and the 25-man crew were lost.|
|30 Oct 1939||The 4,666-ton steam merchant Cairnmona was making her way to Newcastle, England, United Kingdom with a cargo of copper and grain and 3 miles off Rattray Head, Aberdeenshire, northeast Scotland, United Kingdom when she was torpedoed by German submarine U-13 (Kapitänleutnant Karl Daublebsky von Eichhain) at 2250 hours. The Cairnmona had been dispersed from convoy HX-5 and would be the only ship sunk from it. Three crew were killed in the explosion, the master, Fred Wilkinson Fairley and 41 crew members took to lifeboats and were later picked up by the British drifter HMS River Lossie.|
|31 Oct 1939||At 0525 hours the 5,874-ton French merchant steamer Baoulé was heading to Bordeaux, France with a cargo of palm kernels, rubber, cocoa, and coffee in convoy K-20. The ships had just passed 45 miles west-northwest of A Coru?a, northwest Spain when Baoulé was torpedoed by German submarine U-25 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Viktor Schütze. Two torpedoes hit the ship which sank quickly, 13 crewmembers lost their lives.|
|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 Kjøde; 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.|
|9 Jan 1940||Carrying a cargo of coal from West Hartlepool on the eastern coast of England, United Kingdom to Drammen, Buskerud in Norway, the Norwegian 1,334-ton steam merchant Manx was torpedoed at 0221 hours as she cleared Kinnaird Head in north Scotland by U-19 (Joachim Schepke). Eight of the crew managed to get to an upturned lifeboat but four died of exposure in the cold water. Four men endured eight hours on the boat until rescued by the Norwegian freighter Leka, the other 2 who had got on a raft were seen by Isis, another Norwegian ship. Originally it was thought that the Manx had hit a mine however, records show that U-19 had indeed claimed a merchant ship on this date, Schepke made no mention of the ship being Norwegian therefore neutral.|
|11 Jan 1940||The Fredville, a 1,150-ton Norwegian steam merchant, was attacked and sunk approximately 100 miles east of the Orkney Isles at 1632 hours. There had been two explosions in the hold, the first seemed to cause little damage but 10 minutes later a much larger explosion broke the ship in two. The ship in ballast was on her way to Methil, Scotland, United Kingdom. 5 of the crew found time to get into a lifeboat and made repeated attempts to find any more survivors from the after part of the ship that remained afloat but none were found. The 5 men were picked up by a Swedish ship and taken to Kopervik, Karmøy Island, Norway. It was probable that the ship was sunk by German submarine U-23 (Otto Kretschmer), though at the enquiry held later the crew said that they thought there could have been bombs put into the coal bunkers by the Wollweber Group who were a group of Communist saboteurs who were responsible for the loss of several Scandinavian ships; they also stated that the ship was marked with the Norwegian flag and had navigation lights on.|
|17 Jan 1940||The Norwegian 1,140-ton steam merchant Enid carrying wood pulp to Dublin, Ireland was one of two ships sunk 7 miles north of Muckle Flugga, Shetland Islands, Scotland, United Kingdom. The other vessel was the 4,751-ton British freighter Polzella. The Enid went to the assistance of the British ship which sank quickly after the torpedo fired by U-25 (Viktor Schütze) struck (all crew members aboard Polzella would be lost), but the submarine surfaced and fired a shot across the bow to stop her. Enid turned away, fired three shots from her deck gun, and then was abandoned by her crew, who took to two lifeboats. The Germans then fired 21 rounds from the deck gun and hit Enid seven times, setting her on fire. At 1410 hours, a coup de grâce was fired that broke the ship in two. The forepart sank immediately while the burning stern remained afloat and was later scuttled by the destroyer HMS Firedrake (H 79), which had been sent to the area to hunt for the submarine together with HMS Fortune (H 70) and several anti-submarine trawlers. Eight survivors in one lifeboat made landfall after 3 hours at Burra Firth on Unst, one of the northern Shetland Islands. The master and 7 crew members were picked up by the Danish motor merchant Kina.|
|22 Jan 1940||The unescorted Norwegian 2,589-ton merchant steamer Songa was stopped by German submarine U-25 in calm seas 200 miles west of the Scilly Islands. Viktor Schütze ordered the Songa's crew to abandon the ship after he declared her cargo of copper, tin and foodstuffs to be contraband. A single torpedo then sent the vessel to the bottom; the submarine's crew supplied the Norwegians with rum and gave them a course to steer the two lifeboats towards the shipping lanes.|
|10 Feb 1940||The 1,259-ton Norwegian merchant steamer Silja had been requisitioned by the Norwegian authorities in the autumn of 1939 and had left from Trapani in Sicily, Italy on 26 Jan 1940 with a cargo of salt for Bergen, Norway via Gibraltar where she departed on 5 Feb 1940. At 2059 hours, German submarine U-37 (Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartmann) reported firing a single torpedo at an unescorted steamer about 75 miles west of Cape Clear, Ireland. The vessel broke in two after being hit aft. The stern part sank immediately, and the fore part followed a few minutes later. There were no survivors of the 15-man crew.|
|11 Feb 1940||At 2230 hours the 8,022-ton tanker Imperial Transport was struck on her port side at the empty #6 tank by a torpedo from U-53 (Korvettenkapitän Harald Grosse). The ship started to break in two 200 miles northwest of the Butt of Lewis. Members of the crew got into two lifeboats but lost two men in the dark night. Later the ship was reboarded after it appeared that the stern section was not going to sink. They were unable to radio for help but managed to sail the stern 130 miles at 4 knots before meeting 4 British destroyers. Attempts were made to tow the half over the next two days with tugs but the weather got worse and the crew had to be taken off again. The section was beached on the Isle of Bute in Kilchatten Bay. The stern section of Imperial Transport was later salvaged and docked in Elderslie Dockyard, Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom. The battered bulkhead and all distorted material cut away and fitted with a new fore part that was built to the original plans by William Hamilton & Co Ltd, and was launched bow first with deckhouse, mast, derricks and auxiliary equipment complete. The ship returned to service in June 1941.|
|11 Feb 1940||The 1,854-ton neutral Swedish merchant steamer Orania was carrying maize and bran from Brazil to Malmö, Sweden when she was struck by a single torpedo from German submarine U-50 (Kapitänleutnant Max-Hermann Bauer) in the Norwegian Sea at 2354 hours. The ship sank within three minutes of the explosion 65 miles north-northeast of the Flugga Lightship, Shetland Islands. U-50 had spotted the ship and although she was lit up, Bauer reported that he could not confirm that the ship was Swedish. All the crew got away in two lifeboats but one with 14 men was never seen again. The others were picked up by the destroyer HMS Faulknor, transferred to HMS Foxhound, another destroyer that took them to Lerwick, Shetland.|
|16 Feb 1940||At the start of the day, 20 miles north of Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom, German submarine U-14 (Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Wohlfarth) sank Danish ships Rhone (killing 9) and Sleipner (killing 13) shortly after midnight; 41 survivors were later picked up by Swedish trawler Standard and HMS Kipling. Toward the end of the day, at 2125 hours, 10 miles north of Kinnaird Head, U-14 struck again, sinking the 1,526-ton neutral Swedish coal ship Osmed, which sank by the bow 2 minutes after the torpedo struck, 10 of the crew were lost, the remaining 7 were picked up by the British trawler Loch Hope and taken to Scrabster, a small harbour in Thurso Bay Caithness, Scotland. 10 minutes later, at 2135 hours, U-14 sank the 1,646-ton neutral Swedish coal ship Liana carrying coal from Blyth to Halmstad, Sweden. She went down within a minute, 10 crew members managed to get off the vessel and these too were picked up by the trawler. Eight of these later boarded the Santos to return to Sweden but the ship was sunk on the 24 Feb 1940 and 6 of them were drowned.|
|17 Feb 1940||At 0200 hours, the 1,819-ton Norwegian freighter Kvernaas sailing unescorted was hit by a single torpedo from German submarine U-10 (Oberleutnant zur See Joachim Preuss) and sank after just 5 minutes 4 miles north-west of Schouwen Bank, Netherlands. The crew got off in 2 lifeboats and were picked up by a Dutch steamer Oranjepolder on her way to London, ENgland, United Kingdom, but turned back and took the survivors to the pilot station at Hoek van Holland the following day. Various sources say that the Kvernaas struck a mine.|
|18 Feb 1940||British Royal Navy D-class destroyer HMS Daring (H16; Commander Sydney Alan Cooper), whilst escorting Allied convoy HN-12 from Norway, was attacked by German submarine U-23 (Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer) at 0354 hours. Two torpedoes struck the 1,375-ton ship and she sank immediately about 40 miles east of the Pentland Firth, Orkney Islands, Scotland, United Kingdom. 147 officers and men were lost. 1 officer and 3 ratings were picked up from a float by HMS Ingleield (D02) and taken to Scapa Flow, Scotland and another rating was found amidst the debris and rescued by the submarine HMS Thistle (N24) assisted by HMS Ilex (D61) and taken to Rosyth, Scotland.|
|22 Mar 1940||The first boats of the French 10th Submarine Flotilla, Sibylle, Antiope, and Amazone, arrived at Harwich on the east coast of England, United Kingdom together with their depot ship Jules Verne. The boats would reinforce the British Home Fleet. 5 more boats would arrive during the next 10 days plus some boats of the 2nd Submarine Flotilla. The Sibylle would be the first to go out on active war patrol.|
|4 May 1940||The 5,995-ton British steam tanker San Tiburcio owned by the Eagle Oil & Shipping Co Limited of London was carrying 2,193 tons on fuel and a dozen Sunderland aircraft floats when she struck a mine at 2010 hours; the mine had been laid on 10 Feb 1940 by German submarine U-9. This occurred four miles from Tarbett Ness in the Moray Firth in northern Scotland, United Kingdom. A tug and a destroyer, HMS Codrington (65) were sent out to give assistance, but the tanker broke in half after 45 minutes. The Master, Walter Fredrick Flynn and 39 of the crew were picked up by her escort HMS Leicester City (FY 223) and the anti-submarine trawler took them to Invergordon, in the Cromarty Firth north of Inverness, Scotland. Walter Flynn would lose his life on 31 Jan 1942 when his new command, the San Arcado was torpedoed and sunk by U-107 north of Burmuda.|
|9 May 1940||German submarine U-9 (Wolfgang Lüth) fired two torpedoes at French submarine Doris 40 miles off of the Dutch coast at 0014 hours. One struck amidships, blowing the boat in half and killing 42 French and 3 British men.|
|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.|
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George Patton, 31 May 1944