The Wolf Packs
The submarine menace that Hitler aimed at the artillery of Britain.
1. Beginnings – The Great War
The British War effort in World War 1 (The Great War) depended upon our merchant Navy bringing in goods across the Atlantic to our home ports from our overseas territories including our colonies and Dominions and also neutral countries. We had a big tonnage in our merchant Navy but we were suffering serious losses as the German U boats, submarines hunting in Wolf Packs picked off and sunk ship after ship in our merchant Navy. These supplies were not reaching Britain and our War effort was being gradually asphyxiated. Britain could not feed herself or supply her own raw materials in the required quantities to fight a full on conventional War in France with massed British land forces numbering over one million men and the necessary artillery and munitions from 1915 onwards.
We had the capacity to manufacture finished goods on our shores but we fundamentally lacked the raw materials to do so. The Germans were winning the Atlantic War North and South through its U Boat offensive.
2. Convoys in The Great War
Churchill put into effect the convoy policy which saved the day for Britain. He insisted our merchantmen were escorted by destroyers cruisers and frigates to protect them from the U Boats. Thus a selection of merchant ships would sail in convoys escorted by Royal Navy warships and they would stick together in a spread out pattern but not far apart and clearly visible to each other. The same would apply to our troop ships, hospital ships and passenger ships. Any ship sailing outside a convoy was a sitting duck. The wolf packs roamed free and you would be picked up sooner or later. With the convoy policy and depth charges aimed at German U Boats our losses came tumbling down and whilst ships were still torpedoed up until the Armistice in 1918 the Atlantic Battle swung Britain’s way. We shut down Germany herself through the maritime blockade 1914 – 1918.
3. The Second World War
The same problem all over again but we were wise to the requirement for convoys. The U Boat pens were at places such as Brest North West France and Kiel Germany and Zeebrugge Belgium. It was now the advent of Bomber Command and these pens were heavily targeted by Bomber Harris. Despite this aerial bombardment and offensive the U Boat menace was not extinguished until close of hostilities on VE day in early May 1945. The U Boats remained a threat to the very end (Admiral Doenitz their Commander).
4. The Reality of the U Boat Threat in the Atlantic – World War 2
When a wolf pack was in the vicinity of a convoy the Naval officers considered the danger imminent. They could pick the U Boats up on their sonar at which point the danger had become immediate i.e. the wolf pack had penetrated or were on the verge of the outer ring of escorts and were about to sink merchantmen. The danger was then actual and torpedoes had been fired. The British destroyers were able to use depth charges against German submarines picked up on sonar and disable them forcing them to come to the surface. When our warships would engage these surfaced enemy submarines. They would be quickly outgunned by our destroyers. Depth charges were under water explosives primed to explode near a German U Boat when submerged. I have it from the testimony of a non combatant that when the U Boat danger went immediate then actual this particular passenger carrying ship in the Atlantic began to zig zag in a last and final attempt to evade impact by the incoming torpedo. Another testimony relates that a chaplain serviceman was decorated with the George cross posthumously for remaining on his hospital/troop ship after it had been hit amidships by a torpedo and was sinking fast. He ministered to the wounded on the lower decks and went down with these men and the ship in mid Atlantic. The story goes he could have saved himself but gave up his life to be with his flock.
5. Naval Discipline – World War 2
This was always unbending in the Royal Navy as being an island nation we depended on our Navy to protect our sealanes and defend our shores. We still do to this day. Hitler could not have invaded Britain as our Royal Navy controlled the English Channel and North Sea and he lack air superiority. More over the War in the Atlantic against the Wolf Packs would have been lost without our Royal Navy in fighting fit shape. Thus Naval discipline was fundamentally tough and harsh there was so much at stake namely the outcome of the last World War. Everything pivoted on the senior service. The Royal Navy often could not pick up survivors from a U Boat attack in the mid Atlantic due to the imminence of another U Boat attack on any ship collecting survivors in the convoy. Moreover the convoy had to sail on at full speed to protect all its ships – escorts and merchantmen. There was no time to rescue survivors. It was the Cruel Sea and that required iron discipline by the naval officers of the White Ensign. They did not slacken their grip.
6. The Arctic Convoys – World War 2
These were supplying our allies the Russians in the 1940’s through their Arctic ports and Archangel and Murmansk with vital War material for the Eastern Front which convoys began before even the USA joined the War against Nazi Germany and before the Red Army won at Stalingrad. The Arctic waters were sub zero in temperature and you were dead in less than a couple of minutes after hitting the water. The Arctic convoys of our Navy were even in range of Luftwaffe bombers based on occupied Norwegian airfields near Spitzbergen. The main danger to our ships was as usual the wolf packs who when they hit the target meant death to all on board on account of the very cold waters. The Germans were determined to prevent our supplies getting to Russia. I have spoken to a Royal Navy veteran of Arctic Convoys – a rating – who described seeing the terrible fate of his comrades in this ultra cruel sea. They had to be left to die very quickly. They had no chance of being picked up alive by Royal Navy ships or surviving in the sea. For these men who served on these Arctic Convoys be they Royal Navy or merchant marine, there was no proper recognition until very recently. Too little too late for consummate bravery endurance and unsung like the best.
At least on dry land there was a good chance of rescue for an injured soldier namely stretcher bearers in years gone by. Even for an airman shot down help may be found in the Second World War. The sea can be cruel and we are all taught to respect its power over us. These sailors who served on the Atlantic Convoys in both Wars and the Arctic Convoys put their countrymen before themselves. Truly many paid the price and made the ultimate sacrifice undaunted.