History of War

HITLER’S WOLFPACKS

IN MAY 1945, THE FINAL MONTH OF WWII IN EUROPE, U-BOATS SANK 11,439 TONS OF ALLIED MERCHANT SHIPPING. 35 U-BOATS WERE DESTROYED.

“OF THE 1,162 U-BOATS THAT WERE CONSTRUCTED DURING WORLD WAR II 785 WERE LOST. SERVICE WITH THE UBOOTWAFFE, THE SUBMARINE ARM, WAS FRAUGHT WITH PERIL”

Following the Allied victory in 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill admitted in his multi-volume history of the conflict that “the only thing that ever really frightened me was the U-boat peril.”

Through the lens of history it is easy to understand his concern as the Battle of the Atlantic unfolded and the island nation fought for its life against marauding German U-boats that relentlessly attacked Allied merchant shipping. From the day that Britain declared war on Nazi Germany through to 1945, the submarines of the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, under the capable but sometimes questionable command of Admiral Karl Dönitz, sank approximately 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships, sending 14 million tons of vital shipping to the bottom of the sea.

The U-boats’ heavy toll on Allied merchant shipping was punctuated by remarkable successes against Royal Navy warships, providing a surge of propaganda for the Nazis. Even so, of the 1,162 U-boats that were constructed during World War II 785 were lost. Service with the Ubootwaffe, the submarine arm, was fraught with peril. By the time the war ended an estimated 32,000 German sailors, 30 per cent of those who served aboard U-boats, had been killed – the highest percentage of casualties among German combat forces during the conflict.

An early angst

Despite advice from Admiral Dönitz and his direct superior, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, that the Kriegsmarine would not be ready to go to war until 1944, Adolf Hitler launched the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, plunging the navy into a conflict for which it was ill-prepared. At the time Dönitz had only 56 operational U-boats – eight of which were only suitable for coastal operations or training. In the run-up to war he had pleaded for a building programme that would yield 1,000 ocean-going submarines with which to strangle the British Isles, but production was slow to gather pace.

Dönitz was a U-boat veteran of World War I and had commanded his own boat and been taken prisoner, so he understood the rigors of U-boat service. Blockade had been unsuccessful during 1914-18 due to Allied employment of the convoy system, a lack of efficient radio communications

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