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?

Source 1

Statement by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons February 1943


 CHAR 9/159 (extract)

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

The greatest concern to us is the U-boat threat. Our first priority is overcoming them. The U-boats are causing us great losses and prevent us from gathering our full strength together.

We’re making progress. With the entry of the US into the war, we’ve got more resources and more ships sending supplies to Britain. We’re sending supplies to our Russian allies. However, this has meant more convoys and so more targets for the U-boats and so our losses have gone up.

We have many more ships, thanks to American and Canadian production of ships. We have many more weapons we can use against the U-boats. Our losses are heavy and very sad, but we can survive the losses we are suffering at the moment. However, a ship not sunk is better than a new ship to replace a sunken ship.

Our rate of killing U-boats has steadily improved. Provided we keep up our efforts I believe I can promise that we’ll win this campaign.

Original Transcript

… it is because of this that the U-Boat warfare takes the first place in our thoughts. There is no need to exaggerate the danger of the U-Boats or to worry our merchant seamen by harping upon it unduly, because the British and American governments have known for some time past that there were these U-Boats about, and have given the task of overcoming them the first priority in all their plans. This was reaffirmed most explicitly by the Combined Staffs at Casablanca.

The losses we suffer at sea are very heavy and they hamper us and delay our operations. They prevent us from coming in to action at our full strength and thus prolonging the war with its certain waste and loss and all its unknown hazards.

Progress is being made in the war against the U-Boats. We are holding our own and more than holding our own. Before the U.S. came into the war we made our calculations on the basis of British building and guaranteed Lease-Lend, which assured us of a steady and moderate improvement in our position by the end of 1943 [on a very large scale plans]

There never was a moment in which we did not see our way through, provided what the U.S. promised us was made good.

Since then various things have happened. The U.S. have entered the war and her shipbuilding has been stepped up to the present prodigious levels, accounting for the year 1943 to over 13 million tons. When the U.S. entered the war she brought with her a Mercantile Marine, American and American-controlled, of perhaps 10 million gross tons, as compared with our then existing tonnage, British and British-controlled – I am purposely not being precise – of about twice as much.

We have had hardly any losses at sea in our heavily-escorted troop convoys. Out of about 3 million soldiers who have been moved under the protection of the British navy to and fro across the oceans, only 1348 have been killed or drowned including missing. In fact it is about 2200 to one against you being drowned if you travel in a British troop convoy. Even if the U-boats increase in numbers there is no doubt that a superior proportionate increase in naval and Air escort will be a remedy. A ship not sunk is better than a new ship built.

On the offensive side, the rate of killing U-boats has steadily improved. From January to October inclusive, a period of ten months, the rate of sinkings certain and probable was the best we have seen in this war, but from November to the present date, a period of three months, that rate has improved more than half as much again. At the same time the destructive power of the U-boat has undergone a steady diminution since the beginning of the war. In the first year of the war each operational U-boat accounted for an average of 19 ships, in the second year for 12, and in the third year for 71/2.

These figures are in themselves a tribute to the Admiralty and all others concerned ...

Provided the present intense efforts are kept up here and in the United States and that anti-U-boat warfare continues to hold the first place in our thoughts and energies, I take the responsibility of assuring the House and I have not misled them hitherto that we shall be definitely better off so far as shipping is concerned at the end of 1943 than we are now ...

What is this source?

These are the notes for a speech Churchill gave in the House of Commons, 11 February 1943, with his annotations and corrections. It is just a part of the whole speech. The speech notes are written on small pieces of paper, chosen so they’d fit easily in his pocket and be held easily in his hand. When he was a young man, he used to rely on his memory when giving speeches and on one occasion lost his thread, much to his embarrassment. From that point on, Churchill always relied on full notes. The speech notes are written in ‘psalm’ style, as his secretaries called it, to help aid delivery.

Background to this source

Churchill has just returned from the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 where he and US President Roosevelt had met to plan out the future strategy of the war. The tide of war was just beginning to turn in favour of the Allies against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). The Soviet leader Stalin had declined to attend, remaining at home in Russia. The conference pronounced the Allied war aims were to give top priority to the war against the U-boats in the Atlantic and the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the Axis Powers.

1942 had been a difficult year in the Battle of the Atlantic, despite the Allies halting the Axis Powers at Stalingrad, El Alamein and Midway. Losses were high, and ‘wolf-pack’ attacks (in which groups of U-boats attacked convoys at the same time) on convoys seemed to be succeeding. Fuel was particularly short in Britain. If the Allies were to invade Europe, then the submarine threat had to be defeated.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember, we’re hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating why Winston Churchill was so worried about the Battle of the Atlantic. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. According to Churchill, who was winning the Battle of the Atlantic?
  2. What does he mean when he says there’s no need to exaggerate the danger of the U-boats?
  3. What is happening to the war effort, according to Churchill, as a result of very heavy losses?
  4. Which other parts of the world have seen heavy losses?
  5. What part are America and Canada playing in the Battle?
  6. What, according to Churchill, is the key to defeating the U-boat?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill believes the Battle of the Atlantic is being won.

Churchill believes that technology provides the answer to defeating U-boats.

Churchill believes the US has an absolutely crucial role to play in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

Churchill was speaking to the House of commons but he wanted his message to be heard more widely than just Britain’s MPs.

This speech is propaganda, not fact.

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Britain depended on imports of food, raw materials and weaponry.
  • Churchill, as Prime Minister, had a duty to report to the House of Commons.
  • Churchill couldn’t be too specific as it would help the German commanders fight the war
  • These are notes made before the speech, not the actual speech. How does that affect our trust in the document?
  • How much of the content is fact, and how much assertion and/or opinion?

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 Source 2

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