Discover the campaign presented in the next Hollywood film Doggy style, with Tom Hanks and based on The 1955 novel by C S Forester The good shepherd
Discover the campaign presented in the next Hollywood film Doggy style, with Tom Hanks and based on The 1955 novel by C S Forester The good shepherd
In March 1941, Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Battle of the Atlantic” to describe a campaign that began on September 3, 1939. This battle would not end until the last day of the war. It was the longest, and perhaps strangest, shock of World War II – one that saw British merchant seamen use kites and rockets carrying cables to defend their ships.
In a fight for control of the sea lanes from Britain to the Americas, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy are said to be opposed to the German Kriegsmarine. Against the seaways, on which Great Britain’s ability to feed and maintain itself during the war depended, Germany would deploy U-boat submarines, surface looters, mines and planes.
Convoys of merchant ships would be defended by a variety of armed escort vessels ranging from makeshift ships like armed merchant cruisers and trawlers to purpose-built corvettes, frigates and destroyers. It was a war of technological innovation – Enigma decryption, radar, sonar and high frequency direction finding. From 1940 to 1943, the fighting in the Atlantic was at stake. However, thanks in part to the fact that they were able to better exploit these technical innovations than the enemy, from the middle of 1943, the Allies slowly took the above.
The success and failure of the battle would be measured in tonnage: tonnage of sunken ships and tonnage of cargo delivered safely to the port. Civilians would play an important role in the battle. Campaigns like “Dig for Victory” and “Make do and Mend” were ancillary elements of the Battle of the Atlantic – programs aimed at minimizing civilian demand on North American cargoes. But the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic depended mainly on a particular group of civilians: the men and, in some cases, the women who made up the British merchant navy.
At the start of hostilities in 1939, the British merchant navy represented almost a third of the world’s total merchant navy. Its strength testified to the generations of owners of British shipping companies who, over the past 100 years, had adopted the technological shift from steam to oil to steam and were ready to respond to new emerging routes carrying everything from salted beef guano.
The navigation fleet in 1939 was as diverse as it was large, including ocean liners (easily convertible to troopships or armed merchant cruisers), fast vessels such as refrigerated freighters, oil and tankers, ocean liners, ocean liners, coasters and collars.
A typical ship: MV Olivebank
The MV Olivebank was one of 18 identical 5,000 gross registered tonnage freighters built for Andrew Weir and Company in the mid-1920s. In its five catches, Olivebank could transport everything from agricultural goods to weapons of war. Although she survived the war, eight of her sister ships were unfortunately not so fortunate.
Olivebank was the British Empire in the microcosm. She had a crew of 57 people (30% Europeans and 70% lads – sailors from the Indian subcontinent). The ship’s senior staff were European (captain, officers and engineers, including apprentice deck officers who could be as young as 16). In addition, the ship was carrying 8-10 gunners from the Royal Artillery and the Royal Navy. The accommodation for Europeans was in two sets of cabins amidships, while the lads lived in narrowness under the bridge under the arches.
The Asian crew members, recruited from Bengal, were almost all Muslims. They were organized into three departments: bridge, engine room and catering. The bridge service was headed by the “serang” (or bosun), the “tindal” (his assistant) and the “cassab” (trader). Four other men were classified as “seacunnies”. They steered the ship, broadcast messages and acted as gatekeepers in the harbor. Below them, in the hierarchy, came the “calassies” (qualified and ordinary sailors). They were to clean the decks, rig the cargo handling equipment and serve as lookouts.
In the engine room, a similar hierarchy existed. Under the engine room serang and tindal, there was a “donkey” to take care of the auxiliary machines and “greasers” for the maintenance of the main engines.
The catering service, headed by the chief shop steward, was mainly responsible for taking care of the European officers. Under the chief, there were three stewards, two of whom served meals in the lounge and one in the engineer’s mess hall. They also cleaned the officers’ cabins. The office was occupied by three cooks, one of whom was still a Christian to cook pork products for Europeans.
At the end of the bridge, the engine room and the catering services were three “topass”, low caste Hindus employed to do work or manipulate materials that were taboo for Muslims.
The men of the British merchant navy were also diverse. By the end of the war in 1945, more than 30,000 British merchant seamen had died. However, not all of them were British nationals. In fact, merchant ships had sailors from across the British Empire and from occupied European countries such as Norway, Greece and Denmark. Some 25% came from India and China, while 5% came from the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa. The survival of Great Britain in the dark days of 1941 and beyond would depend on the continued desire of this multinational group to take to the sea.
Watch: Doggy style trailer with Tom Hanks
The task of protecting the merchant navy fell to the Allied naval and air forces. During the war, the two would become increasingly efficient due to the introduction of more lethal depth charges, planes equipped with longer-range radars and escort aircraft carriers to cover these sections of the ocean outside the range of planes ashore.
However, perhaps nothing saved more Allied ships than the decision, made in 1939, to begin grouping individual ships in convoys, escorted across the Atlantic by destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and more large ships. Each convoy was controlled by one of the largest merchant ships, while the British Admiralty organized routes and course changes in the light of new information.
On the defensive side, convoys made a lot of sense, as unescorted ships were relatively easy choices for the enemy. However, the conveyance reduced the efficiency of each vessel. It took time to train 40 or more ships in a convoy and coordinating such a large and diverse force was difficult – especially in the midst of enemy action, mechanical breakdowns, constant zigzags and course changes intended to repel potential attacks. Some ships have found it almost impossible to keep up with the speed of the rest of the convoy, becoming a “laggard” or a “romper” smoking in front of the main body.
Yet merchant ships were not only dependent on the Royal Navy for protection: while the strength of the German threat became fully apparent in 1940, an increasing number of merchant ships were equipped to act for their own defense. During the first six months of the Second World War, 1,900 ships were equipped with defensive armament ranging from light machine guns to 4-inch deck guns. By the end of 1940 that number had grown to 3,400. The men were drawn from the Royal Navy and the Royal Artillery to equip the heaviest weapons.
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Merchant ships were also equipped with less conventional weapons: the Parachute and Cable Rocket (PAC) could be fired from the deck of a merchant ship. The device was designed to be fired when an enemy aircraft launched a bombardment against the ship. The rocket would carry a cable in the air which would then be supported by a parachute. The cable would force the attacking aircraft to detach or catch the bomber’s wing, causing it to crash. The cable transport box kites have been designed to achieve a similar result.
With equipment that was often more “Heath Robinson” than lethally effective, in the face of the dangers posed by enemy bombs, torpedoes and surface ships required some bloody attention from merchant crews. Fortunately, life at sea and the owners of pinches in the hungry days of depression have spawned just that kind of mindset. The merchant navy has become known for its reluctance to back away from the enemy – or anyone else for that matter.
In the ports of origin, merchant seamen, without recognized uniforms, were sometimes victims of ill-treatment by other civilians who took them for “shirkers” refusing to do their duty to enlist in the armed forces. The introduction of a “MN” lapel badge (merchant marine) solved the problem. But what mattered most in 1940 and beyond was growing national recognition of the work and heroism of the merchant navy. This duly happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, as the press began to give the Atlantic wrestling increasing coverage.
Chronology: Germany and the Atlantic allies
In preparation for hostilities, the fleet of German submarines deploys to the North Sea, sinking its first ship a few hours after the start of the war with Great Britain
Capture of French Atlantic ports allows Germany easy access to the North and South Atlantic
First “happy moment” of the submarine arm while the convoys are sailing with weak escort forces
German submarines very successful off the east coast of the United States
German submarines threaten to overwhelm escort warships in series of convoy battles
Allies resume initiative in Atlantic, sinking more U-boats and losing fewer merchant ships
Long decline of the German submarine campaign
The heroism of the Royal Navy and the stoicism of the merchant navy in the face of the enemy, or following the destruction of their ships, were common themes in newspapers and radio reports. Quotes for medals awarded to merchant seamen could sum up the grim drama of the Battle of the Atlantic in a personal story that only lasts a handful of sentences:
“The boat [en route Milford Haven to London on 24 June 1940] was torpedoed overnight, and put to port, settling by the head. The master assembled his crew and ordered that the harbor lifeboat be lowered. It was known that a man had been killed by the explosion, but no other man was found. Although the ship’s decks were flooded, the second engineer, taking a torch from the lifeboat, volunteered to search for him. Forcing his way to the front of the bridge, he found the man badly cut in the head and unconscious in his berth. He took him out safely, the two men going straight from the rail to the lifeboat. The ship sank as it moved away. The rescued man owed his life to the gallant act of the second engineer. “
– Lloyd’s War Medal and British Empire Medal awarded to MV W Pybus second engineer Kingfisher
Public attention to the role of the merchant navy and the need to maintain a constant flow of recruits into the service, led to a number of government initiatives between 1939 and 1945. The surviving member of each crew sank as a result of hostile action was questioned by a Royal Navy officer to ensure lessons were learned about enemy attacks and the survival prospects of sailors when their ships sank. The Chamber of Commerce, Shipowners and the Medical Research Council have done their best to improve the chances of survival for merchant seamen by developing new rations for lifeboats and survival gadgets, from portable wireless transmitters to flashlights. life jacket and flame retardant lifeboats particularly useful on tankers. .
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information (MOI) celebrated the role of merchant seamen in posters and publications, and used the press, public displays and films to highlight efforts to improve the chances of survival. of the merchant crew.
San Demetrio, London (1943) recounted the heroic efforts of a crew of the merchant navy which managed to treat its seriously damaged tanker in the port after the attack of a convoy by a German surface stiffness. The film was a reasonably accurate representation of actual events in the Atlantic in 1940 after the German pocket battleship attacked the HX-84 convoy. Admiral Scheer. Fire San demetrio, carrying 12,000 tonnes of aviation fuel, was abandoned by its crew during the attack. Part of the crew then boarded the vessel, extinguished the fire and brought it home despite damage to the steering gear and the absence of a working compass.
Although fictional, Western approaches (1944) was a revolutionary film in several respects. It was the first color foreground of the Crown Film Unit and it used real merchant sailors rather than professional actors. Commendable efforts at authenticity, however, have not prevented an account in which a submarine is triumphantly sent to the bottom by merchant seamen loaded with the cannon from the deck of their ship.
Western approaches was broadcast at the end of the Second World War and the Battle of the Atlantic. The submarine campaign had gone wrong for the Germans since a critical series of convoy battles in March 1943. In May of the same year, it was obvious that the German navy was going to have a hard time winning the tonnage war, thanks to the efficient use of air power, the greater availability of Allied escort ships and the productivity of American shipyards capable of transforming a large number of merchant ships according to standard designs.
The growing obsolescence of standard German Type VII and IX submarines became apparent in 1943 and 1944. This, despite the fact that the Germans placed considerable hopes on the introduction of innovations like a snorkel, which meant that boats could stay submerged instead of having to surface regularly to recharge their batteries using their diesel engines.
However, the Battle of the Atlantic almost had one last bite in the tail. During the last weeks of the war, the German navy prepared to renew the conflict in the Atlantic with a new generation of submarines: the XXI type and the XXIII type. Capable of staying under the waves out of sight of Allied aircraft, and capable of traveling faster underwater than the top speed of most escort ships, this new generation of U-boats threatened to give the Kriegsmarine technological advantage over its allied enemies.
Unfortunately for the Kriegsmarine – and fortunately for the merchant navy crews who would have been their main target – the new generation of submarines did not reach operational deployment until the war in Europe was coming to an end.
What is remarkable is that after six years of fighting in the Atlantic, the morale of the merchant navy and its German adversaries has remained intact despite the differences in composition between the two forces and the fact that the two sides lost around 30,000 men.
GH Bennett is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Plymouth. He is co-author of Survivors: British merchant seamen at the Battle of the Atlantic, (Continuum, 2007)
This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine