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Old November 14th, 2012, 11:15 AM   #1
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How effective was the gGerman U-boat campaign?


I know the germans finally lost both atlantic campaigns during ww1 and ww2, but I don't know to what extent were the british/french forces able to recover the losses of the Royal navy/merchant fleet during the war.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 12:02 PM   #2

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In WWI, the submarine campaign was ineffective. The U-boats didn't have that great a range, and the coordination needed to deal with convoys didn't exist. The U-boat threat in WWI was negated when convoys were used as the ships, as a group could either fail to be detected or deliver an armed defense. Much of this was due to how "new" the submarine was. The weapon itself wasn't all that new, as there are sources of the "first" submarines being used in the American Revolution and the famous Confederate submarine from the American Civil War... but prior to WWI, submarines were largely considered coastal craft as far as I know. To employ them in the open ocean as Germany did, was new.

In addition, during WWI, Germany found itself hamstrung by the protests of the US over the indiscriminate sinking of ships carrying American civilians. And facing a tough war in Europe, the Germans didn't want to risk war with America... at least not until 1917.

In WWII, the U-boat campaign was much more effective, but was largely hamstrung by Hitler's interference in terms of production and other aspects of the war. By this time, Donitz had perfected the type of tactics needed to hunt British convoys, and armed with U-boats with a far greater range then the WWI boats, and with torpedos that were far more accurate, the U-boats were poised to make WWII their great victory...

But, Hitler interfered frequently, both in the years leading up to the war and during it. Prior to WWII, Hitler had invisioned a grand surface fleet, too small to challenge the Royal Navy directly, but armed with new ships intended to be far more powerful then any other ships around, the German Navy would be able to at least deter the British from mounting a starvation blockade of Germany, as they had in WWI. This fleet would be built around mostly battleships and cruisers and would also include two aircraft carriers.

In theory the plan was a good one, but Germany rushed to war before its navy was ready. The principle weapons that were ready were Germany's "pocket battleships" which were not strong enough to challenge the Royal Navy in an open duel. They proved stronger then the British cruisers sent against them, but not strong enough to win the fight outright. Without a major surface fleet, Germany would need large numbers of U-boats to make up for the lack of surface ships. However, because of the programe to build battleships, the U-boat program was largely neglected. The boats were bigger and better, but Germany didn't have enough of them in 1939 to have a major impact on the war. And it would not be until 1941 that the U-boats were given full support over the surface fleet. As a result, while the U-boats won some spectacular victories early in the war, the biggest at Scapa Flow, there simply weren't enough of them to break Britain's economy.

The Germans gained help from the defeat of France in 1940, which enabled the Germans to cut down the travelling time between station in the North Atlantic and a supply base, which negated some of the problems of having fewer then needed U-boats overall. But, the biggest successes came because of better tactics and coordination, and the assumption by the British that sonar and the convoy system would automatically succeed. The coordination of U-boats by Admiral Donitz in WW2 enabled the Germans to ambush convoys and inflict heavy casualties on them.

As German war production began to produce more and more submarines for service, the situation in Britain grew more and more desperate. The losses were heavy and it was feared that the submarines would starve them out of the war, particularly as more and more began to take up station in the Atlantic. However, as Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and fought in North Africa, he from time to time diverted U-boats away from the Atlantic to areas where they could contribute to localized campaigns. This reduced the number of U-boats in the Atlantic, which helped the convoys to a certain extent. And given that Germany was trying to get more U-boats at the same time, means that the overall numbers remained critical. Germany simply didn't have enough U-boats to knock Britain out of the war.

At the same time, the Allies were trying to change or improve their own tactics to counter the activities of the U-boats. The most important efforts were in creating "Escort Groups" of destroyers that would sail with the convoys and actively hunt U-boats as they went. The sonar technology was tinkered with to improve its ability to work near the surface. Long range bombers were used to try and provide convoys with air protection. And some of the biggest efforts were in code breaking. While the British were able to read most German messages with ease, this was largely helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe and the Army rarely changed their enigma codes, and so once the British broke one, they could then read them all. The German Navy, however, frequently changed their naval codes for security reasons and made deciphering them much more difficult. When the Naval codes were broken, they could reroute convoys around U-boat positions.

These Allied efforts all came together by 1943 when in May, the Allied navies, now using the convoys as bait destroyed a massive number of German U-boats and ended the real U-boat threat.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 12:37 PM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sam-Nary View Post
In WWI, the submarine campaign was ineffective. The U-boats didn't have that great a range, and the coordination needed to deal with convoys didn't exist. The U-boat threat in WWI was negated when convoys were used as the ships, as a group could either fail to be detected or deliver an armed defense. Much of this was due to how "new" the submarine was. The weapon itself wasn't all that new, as there are sources of the "first" submarines being used in the American Revolution and the famous Confederate submarine from the American Civil War... but prior to WWI, submarines were largely considered coastal craft as far as I know. To employ them in the open ocean as Germany did, was new.

In addition, during WWI, Germany found itself hamstrung by the protests of the US over the indiscriminate sinking of ships carrying American civilians. And facing a tough war in Europe, the Germans didn't want to risk war with America... at least not until 1917.

In WWII, the U-boat campaign was much more effective, but was largely hamstrung by Hitler's interference in terms of production and other aspects of the war. By this time, Donitz had perfected the type of tactics needed to hunt British convoys, and armed with U-boats with a far greater range then the WWI boats, and with torpedos that were far more accurate, the U-boats were poised to make WWII their great victory...

But, Hitler interfered frequently, both in the years leading up to the war and during it. Prior to WWII, Hitler had invisioned a grand surface fleet, too small to challenge the Royal Navy directly, but armed with new ships intended to be far more powerful then any other ships around, the German Navy would be able to at least deter the British from mounting a starvation blockade of Germany, as they had in WWI. This fleet would be built around mostly battleships and cruisers and would also include two aircraft carriers.

In theory the plan was a good one, but Germany rushed to war before its navy was ready. The principle weapons that were ready were Germany's "pocket battleships" which were not strong enough to challenge the Royal Navy in an open duel. They proved stronger then the British cruisers sent against them, but not strong enough to win the fight outright. Without a major surface fleet, Germany would need large numbers of U-boats to make up for the lack of surface ships. However, because of the programe to build battleships, the U-boat program was largely neglected. The boats were bigger and better, but Germany didn't have enough of them in 1939 to have a major impact on the war. And it would not be until 1941 that the U-boats were given full support over the surface fleet. As a result, while the U-boats won some spectacular victories early in the war, the biggest at Scapa Flow, there simply weren't enough of them to break Britain's economy.

The Germans gained help from the defeat of France in 1940, which enabled the Germans to cut down the travelling time between station in the North Atlantic and a supply base, which negated some of the problems of having fewer then needed U-boats overall. But, the biggest successes came because of better tactics and coordination, and the assumption by the British that sonar and the convoy system would automatically succeed. The coordination of U-boats by Admiral Donitz in WW2 enabled the Germans to ambush convoys and inflict heavy casualties on them.

As German war production began to produce more and more submarines for service, the situation in Britain grew more and more desperate. The losses were heavy and it was feared that the submarines would starve them out of the war, particularly as more and more began to take up station in the Atlantic. However, as Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and fought in North Africa, he from time to time diverted U-boats away from the Atlantic to areas where they could contribute to localized campaigns. This reduced the number of U-boats in the Atlantic, which helped the convoys to a certain extent. And given that Germany was trying to get more U-boats at the same time, means that the overall numbers remained critical. Germany simply didn't have enough U-boats to knock Britain out of the war.

At the same time, the Allies were trying to change or improve their own tactics to counter the activities of the U-boats. The most important efforts were in creating "Escort Groups" of destroyers that would sail with the convoys and actively hunt U-boats as they went. The sonar technology was tinkered with to improve its ability to work near the surface. Long range bombers were used to try and provide convoys with air protection. And some of the biggest efforts were in code breaking. While the British were able to read most German messages with ease, this was largely helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe and the Army rarely changed their enigma codes, and so once the British broke one, they could then read them all. The German Navy, however, frequently changed their naval codes for security reasons and made deciphering them much more difficult. When the Naval codes were broken, they could reroute convoys around U-boat positions.

These Allied efforts all came together by 1943 when in May, the Allied navies, now using the convoys as bait destroyed a massive number of German U-boats and ended the real U-boat threat.
Nice post!

The only thing with which I would disagree a bit is May, 1943 as "ending" the U-boat threat. May is indeed symbolic of the change in fortunes between the allied navies and Kriegsmarine in the 2nd Battle of the Atlantic. But the reality is that the shift in the naval war was more of an evolution. While May 43 can claim the high water point for the U-boats, their losses began to climb in the middle of 42.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 12:46 PM   #4

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Some nice juicy facts and figures for you to get your teeth into. Enjoy

Merchant Navy Losses WWII
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Old November 14th, 2012, 12:56 PM   #5

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Originally Posted by diddyriddick View Post
Nice post!

The only thing with which I would disagree a bit is May, 1943 as "ending" the U-boat threat. May is indeed symbolic of the change in fortunes between the allied navies and Kriegsmarine in the 2nd Battle of the Atlantic. But the reality is that the shift in the naval war was more of an evolution. While May 43 can claim the high water point for the U-boats, their losses began to climb in the middle of 42.
I've generally considered May of 43 the end of the real threat because the Germans had no real "happy time" after that month. Their losses in that month were so significant that Donitz actually abandoned the Atlantic, but would never again get a shot like what he had at the beginning of the war.

I've seen some sources that would indicate that some of the later German subs might have been able to turn the tide, but they came in far too late to have any real effect on the war.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 01:05 PM   #6

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Originally Posted by diddyriddick View Post
Nice post!

The only thing with which I would disagree a bit is May, 1943 as "ending" the U-boat threat. May is indeed symbolic of the change in fortunes between the allied navies and Kriegsmarine in the 2nd Battle of the Atlantic. But the reality is that the shift in the naval war was more of an evolution. While May 43 can claim the high water point for the U-boats, their losses began to climb in the middle of 42.
While you are correct, May 1943 was the month Donitz ordered the withdrawal of his submarine forces from the mid-Atlantic, effectively admitting defeat.
While the U-boats would later return to the mid-Atlantic, they were never to pose a serious threat to the Allied Atlantic convoy routes again.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 01:14 PM   #7

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Originally Posted by Sam-Nary View Post
Quote:
In WWI, the submarine campaign was ineffective.
In WWII, the U-boat campaign was much more effective,
While U-Boats sank far more tonnage in WW2, the U-Boats came closer in WW1 to bringing Britain to her knees, sinking over 6,000,000 tons in less than a year in 1917, reducing food stocks in Britain to a far lower level than the U-Boats ever managed in WW2.
However the introduction of the convoy system quickly reduced losses and the crisis passed.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 02:15 PM   #8

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I do know that during WW II German submarines were active in the Caribbean. Some Caribbean islands had shortages of certain items if a German submarine sank cargo ships bound for there respective islands.

This on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia which was under UK. control back then. St. Lucia use to be a major naval port for the Royal navy. When the US gave the UK. 51 old Naval ships during WW II, the UK. gave the US the right to lease for 99 years bases all over UK. territory in the Caribbean and South America.
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A number of St. Lucian men and women joined the armed forces during the Second World War - some of whom even lost their lives in the line of duty - but the island itself never saw much active battle. The closest it came to Nazi attack was on March 9th, 1942, when a German submarine slipped through the defense lines and entered the harbour of Castries. At 10.52 pm, it fired torpedos at two ships moored there: the CNS Lady Nelson (the principal carrier of the Caribbean Fruit Trade) and the Umtata from Calcutta. Twenty people were killed and nineteen others injured. According to one historian, far greater damage to life and property was miraculously prevented. "A third torpedo was fired at an Alcoa ship which was berthed in the cove-like area near the Peninsula. [But] because of its peculiar position in that cove the torpedo was lodged in the ground and the ship escaped being hit. This was a very lucky escape because the ship in question was carrying a full cargo of T.N.T. to be used at the Vieux-Fort base, and had it been touched the whole of Castries may have been blown away."
A second battle in the Castries harbour took place on May 26th, 1942, this time between a German submarine and US destroyer Blakeley. The Blakeley had been torpedoed off Martinique and sought refuge in St. Lucia, but must have been followed there by the Nazi submarine. A skirmish ensued, and thousands "of townsfolk gathered to witness the spectacle". Although the submarine eventually got away, she was believed to have suffered some damage in the exchange.
The two fully-prepared US military bases at Vieux Fort and Gros Islet did not come into play during either one of these conflicts. They essentially continued to act as watchdogs monitoring the movement of fascist forces in the Middle American region.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 05:47 PM   #9

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While U-Boats sank far more tonnage in WW2, the U-Boats came closer in WW1 to bringing Britain to her knees, sinking over 6,000,000 tons in less than a year in 1917, reducing food stocks in Britain to a far lower level than the U-Boats ever managed in WW2.
However the introduction of the convoy system quickly reduced losses and the crisis passed.
Interesting. I'd never really thought of the U-boat campaign in WWI to be as effective as the Germans backed out of it...

They found that U-boats could easily sink British warships with less risk then German warships would have to take (surface warships that is) and responding to British efforts to blockade Germany decided to unleash their U-boats on British trade in unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking any ship bound for Britain without warning. However, in the early years, this got them in trouble as the US protested these actions after the loss of American lives.

The sinking of the Lusitania, and other British ships carrying American passangers helped turn the tide in the US with regards to supporting the Central Powers or the Allies in the Allies' favor. And since the German Army still looked reasonably strong in 1915, the German government backed off and withdrew its U-boats rather then risk American entry into the war.

The return to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 came because the situation for Germany had become desperate and they were looking for rapid ways out. And once the convoy system was introduced, the German effort was broken.

That's why I consider the WWI campaign to be ineffective. The Germans didn't have the will to sustain it early, and once the lone U-boat attacks were thwarted by the convoy system the damage the U-boats did was repared. Tactics born of desperation generally do not work. Even if the U-boats had knocked Britain out in 1917, the return to this warfare likely would have brought the US into the war, and the Germans would trade the British Empire for the United States of America, a nation they couldn't starve into submission. And so long as the French didn't completely collapse, there would still be ports to come into.

In WWII, given that the German U-boat campaign was far more determined and far better organized, and Germany didn't back off until May 1943 (and mostly due to Allied success at sinking U-boats rather then from a neutral protesting), it's surprising that there wasn't any massive food reduction. Did Britain improve its home methods of farming between the wars? Secure trade deals with Ireland? Or do you think the Germans simply weren't lucky enough to get the ships carrying food... Because I remember in a documentary on the Battle of the Atlantic saying that right before "Black May 1943" that Britain had only a few months supply of fuel oil left... and if that fuel oil was a referance to gasoline/petrolium/diseal fuel a shortage of that would be dangerous.
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Old November 14th, 2012, 07:12 PM   #10
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Although Churchill is often quoted as saying ''Nothing quite worried me like the U-Boat campaign did..'' Or words to that effect, in fact at no time did the U-Boats force bread rationing in Great Britain -which was standard practice in Nazi Occupied Europe between 1940-45.
In fact, ironically, bread rationing was introduced in post-war Britain in 1946-47 to help feed starving West German children in the Occupied zones in Germany.
Redcoat is aslo right abut the U-Boats coming closer to starving Brits out in World War One than the Second World War.
Again, the Second World War U-Boat campaign began and ended with a strong Scottish connection.
The first U-Boat sinking of W.W.2 was the sinking of the Glasgow, Scotland, owned and crewed Donaldson Line liner ''Athenia'' on September 3 1939 off the Irish coast by Kapitan Lempe
The last U-Boat sinking of W.W. 2 was on May 8, 1945 in the Firth of Forth in eastern Scotland just 8 hours before the war ended when U3223 sank the Canadian freighter ''Avondale Park'' and the Norwegian 'Sneland''.
Despite Doenitz ordering all U-boat attacks to cease on May 4 1945.The U-Boat's Captain clamed that he had never received the radio message of May 4 by Doenitz hence his attack.
Incidentally, the very first British warship sunk by a U-boat torpedo in World War One was HMS ''Pathfinder '' sunk with heavy loss of life(400 men perished) in September 1914 also in Scottish waters south of the Firth of Forth.
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