Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_Battle of the Atl

Was Churchill really worried about the Battle of the Atlantic? And if so, why?

15 November 1941: A large convoy of ships seen from a US Navy flying boat patrolling the North Atlantic. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images. Credit: Keystone/stringer)

The Battle of the Atlantic began on 3 September 1939 when the German submarine (or U-boat) U-30 sank the passenger liner ‘Athenia’ in the Atlantic with the loss of 117 lives, mostly of civilians. It continued through until 7 May 1945 when U-2336 sank the freighters ‘Avondale Park’ and ‘Sneland’ off the Firth of Forth, Scotland.

In between, thousands of ships were sunk. It’s difficult to get accurate figures but most historians accept that around 30,000 seamen from Britain and all over the British Empire lost their lives. It was the single most costly area of the war for Britain. You can see memorials to the fallen in most ports, like the one in Liverpool which was one of three main command centres during the Battle of the Atlantic. There’s also a memorial at Tower Hill near the Tower of London that commemorates men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in both World Wars and who have no known grave. There’s a similar memorial dedicated to the memory of all U-boat men of German Navies who lost their life at sea. The U-Boat memorial is located at Möltenort at the east shore of the Kiel Bay in Germany.

The campaign was simple. German U-boats, surface ships, mines and aircraft tried to cut off food and essential war supplies to Britain. Britain needed over a million tons of supplies every week in order to survive and, from 1942 onwards, when preparations were being made to invade Europe and Africa, needed much more. The war could only be won, or lost, in the Atlantic.

Soldiers of the German navy on the deck of a U-boat on 7 December 1939, in the Second World War.
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images. Credit: Keystone-France / contributor)

Like all battles, the initiative ebbed and flowed throughout the war. Initially, the advantage was with the U-Boats, but Germany didn’t have enough of them to secure victory. The fall of France and Norway in 1940 gave the U-Boats new bases to attack Allied shipping. At one stage Germany had over two hundred submarines at sea attacking Allied convoys and independent ships. In 1942 the ‘Wolf Pack’ tactics adopted by Doenitz (in which U-boats attacked convoys in groups) had great success.

However, over time the tide turned in favour of the Allies. They came up with advances in radar and sonar technology. They had the advantage of breaking German codes. Once the US entered the war the Allies could put more and more merchant and military ships into the Battle. Gradually convoy escorts became more skilled and finally air power covering the whole Atlantic managed to mitigate the threat. The role of Canada and the US was crucial in providing escort vessels and air cover.

 Investigation page

 The sources

 Notes for teachers

Find out more

 Naval History webpage
 History Learning Site brief introduction and overview
 BBC History
 Liverpool Museum’s website – the role of Liverpool in the Battle
 British Pathe News clips of the battle