The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ in World War II is a noble tale that has empathy with the proud seafaring traditions of the Cayman Islands people – indeed over 200 Caymanian men served in both the merchant navies and in war duties focused around Trinidad in the southern Caribbean since that island was then the only source of oil for the British forces. Many died, including two of my mother-in-law’s brothers – Albert and Austin Scott. The names of those who died are remembered on the Seaman’s Memorial near Fort George in George Town. A very few Caymanians who served in the war are still alive today and ALL the money donated to the Poppy Appeal on the islands goes to the support of veterans of the islands.
So what was the Battle of the Atlantic?
Great Britain depended for her survival upon maritime trading routes. Britain required more than 1 million tons of imported material per week in order to survive and fight. Between September 1939 and May 1943 she faced the prospect of defeat almost daily as German submarines (U-boats), warships, merchant raiders and aircraft tried to sever such routes, particularly those across the North Atlantic. If they had succeeded, Britain would have been forced to surrender to avoid starvation and the Allies would have lost the base from which to mount a land campaign in Western Europe. Winston Churchill recalled that the ‘Battle of the Atlantic was the only thing, which really worried me during the war’, and it is not difficult to see why.
The threat became apparent as early as 3 September, 1939, when the passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by a U-boat. And during the next few days a further 27 merchant ships suffered the same fate. ‘Conveys’ were introduced by the Admiralty on 7 September, but with only 28 escort warships available and a lack of air cover beyond the range of shore based aircraft, they were not particularly effective. Although the Germans could deploy only 22 ocean-going submarines when war broke out, they soon exploited British weaknesses. Nor did the situation improve in 1940 since the British losses exceeded the numbers of new ships being built. A deal with the United States in September produced 50 aged destroyers in exchange for the leasing of British bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean, including a US sea-plane base in George Town on Grand Cayman. However, with the Germans occupying ports in Europe which were closer to the Atlantic sea-lanes by some 450 miles than the German home ports, the U-boats enjoyed their ‘Happy Time’ from June 1940 to February 1943. By the end of 1940 over 1,200 merchant ships, equivalent to more than a quarter of Britain’s pre-war mercantile marine, had been destroyed.
But the U-boats were not the only menace, for during the same period German warships regularly prowled the oceans. The first were the Graf Spee and the Deutschland, already at sea when war was declared. Deutschland enjoyed little success, returning to Germany on 1 November, but Graf Spee spread fear and confusion throughout the South Atlantic. On 13 December she was caught and damaged by three British cruisers off the River Plate in South America and forced to retire to the neutral port of Montevideo for repairs. Fours days later, unable to abuse neutrality any longer and unwilling to face a British fleet offshore, her captain scuttled her. My late father, who served in the Royal Navy during the war, was with this fleet. Although a welcome boost for morale, the deployment of the powerful German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Admiral Scheer during 1939 and early 1943 forced the Royal Navy to disperse its defence effort leaving merchant ships poorly protected against the U-boats who now attacked in concentrated ‘Rudeltaktik’ or ‘Wolf Packs’.
What success the British did enjoy came slowly and at some cost. The warship threat was gradually contained, with the destruction of the battleship Bismarck on 27 May, 1941, after a chase in which the battle cruiser HMS Hood was lost. At the same time, convoy protection improved, based upon the advances in sonar, radio intercepts and more effective depth-charges, although U-boats remained elusive, with only 24 being destroyed in 1941. The deployment of long-range aircraft to bases in Canada, Greenland and Iceland began to plug the ‘air gap’ in the mid Atlantic. In December 1941 with the introduction of specially-built escort aircraft carriers, air protection became available all the way across the Atlantic. Finally, the entry of America into the war provided an immediate reinforcement to the escort fleet and promised a virtually unlimited ship-building capacity, although to begin with the U-boats enjoyed another ‘Happy Time’ among the unprotected coastal shipping of the US eastern seaboard.
Meanwhile the British faced yet another crisis, this time in the Arctic as they delivered Lend-Lease supplies to Russia. As the Germans moved warships, aircraft and U-boats against the ‘PQ’ convoys, merchant losses increased, culminating in July 1942 with the disaster that befell convoy PQ17, when 22 supply ships were sunk. PQ18 in September fared little better losing 13 ships. Improved tactics and stronger escorts gradually gained the upper hand, although it took the crippling of the battleship Tirpitz by X-craft (mini-submarines) in September 1943 and the sinking of the Scharnhorst in December before victory could be assured and the supply-lines to the Soviet Union maintained on a regular basis.
By then the crisis in the Atlantic had been reached. Despite a steady rise in U-boat losses (87 in 1942), the pressure on the convoys continued, culminating in March 1943 when 82 ships were sunk in the Atlantic alone. Britain stood perilously close to starvation and, as U-boat deployment reached 240 in April 1943, it was clear that a decisive confrontation was imminent. It came in May 1943 when in a series of hard-fought convoy battles, 41 U-boats were destroyed for the loss of only 34 merchant ships. A combination of effective escort tactics, improved radar and air cover had given the Allies a crucial advantage and, as American shipbuilding began outpacing losses the Atlantic sea-lanes became less dangerous. Attacks on convoys continued, although with U-boats losses of 237 in 1943 and 242 in 1944, Allied victory was undeniable. The cost had been high – by 1945 Britain had lost over 5,000 merchant ships (and many thousands of seamen) – but the results were decisive. Victory in the Atlantic was an essential prelude to victory in Europe.
About the author
Larry Rotchell served in the British Army from 1971 to 2008 in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. REME’s role is to maintain the vast majority of the British Army’s equipment and Larry’s specialty was in aviation engineering. During his service he served in the UK, Germany, Canada and Cyprus. Larry served operational tours with the United Nations in Cyprus, the British Army in Northern Ireland and served with the Royal Marines in the Falkland’s War.
He is married to Nurleen (nee Brown) and they have three adult children in the UK. On retiring from the British Army they decided to return to Nurleen’s home of the Cayman Islands. He is a member of the Cayman Islands Veteran’s Association.
Larry’s late father served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War including service in the southern Caribbean on HMS Black Bear which, being decommissioned after the war, was bought by Kirks and named SS Caymania. By an unbelievable coincidence Larry’s future father-in-law, Lester Brown, served on SS Caymania.