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 5

A Directive issued by the Prime Minister, dated 6 March 1941


 CHAR 23/9 (images 5 and 6)

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

Simplified Transcript

Message from the Minister of Defence

The Battle of the Atlantic has clearly begun. In the next few months we must defeat the Germans’ effort to strangle us and cut us off from the USA. To achieve this aim:

1 Attack German U-boats and aircraft whenever we can.

2 Put catapults on ships which can launch specially adapted aeroplanes.

3 Concentrate our Coastal Command aircraft on the North West approaches to Britain.

4 We have some old American destroyers and they need modernising in docks, but perhaps we should wait to do this because we’re short of ships to protect against U-boats.

5 We’ll experiment with letting faster ships travel without convoys to see whether this makes them safer from U-boats.

6 The Navy has first claim on all the Anti-Aircraft and similar guns being produced at the moment. We’ve placed orders.

Original Transcript





IN view of various German statements, we must assume that the Battle of the Atlantic has begun.

The next four months should enable us to defeat the attempt to strangle our food supplies and our connections with the United States. For this purpose-

1. We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Fokke Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Fokke Wulf, and other bombers employed against our shipping, must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

2. Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult, or otherwise launch, fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week.

3. All the measures approved and now in train for the concentrations of the main strength of the Coastal Command upon the North-Western Approaches, and their assistance on the east coast by Fighter and Bomber Commands, will be pressed forward. It may be hoped that, with the growing daylight and the new routes to be followed, the U-boat menace will soon be reduced. All the more important is it that the Fokke Wulf, and, if it comes, the Ju.88, should be effectively grappled with.

4. In view of the great need for larger numbers of escorting destroyers, it is for consideration whether the American destroyers now in service should go into dock for their second scale of improvements until the critical period of this new battle has been passed.

5. The Admiralty will re-examine, in conjunction with the Ministry of Shipping, the question of liberating from convoy ships between 13 and 12 knots, and also whether this might not be tried experimentally for a while.

6. The Admiralty will have the first claim on all the short-range A.A guns, U.P. weapons and P.A.Cs. that they can mount upon suitable merchant ships plying in the danger zone. Already 200 Bofors or their equivalents have been ordered to be made available by A.D.G.B. and the factories. But these should be


followed by a constant flow of guns, together with crews, or nucleus crews, as and when they can be taken over by the Admiralty. A programme for three months should be made .

What is this source?

A directive [official instruction] from the Prime Minister (who also held the position of the Minister of Defence)] - giving orders, in this case, on the Battle of the Atlantic.

Background to this source

Between January and March 1941 German battleships ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’ attempted to attack convoys in the Atlantic. Heavy losses were caused by U-boats in the so-called ‘happy time’ against poorly-defended convoys. Government concerns about losses were increasing.

In this relatively early stage of the war the British government was short of equipment. Much heavy equipment had been left by the army at Dunkirk. Replacement material was shipped in from the US and Canada but of course it was targeted by U-boats. At this stage the US hadn’t entered the war, and President Roosevelt passed the Lend-Lease Act to allow the US to help Britain in the war against Germany by providing military and defence equipment. The US also gave Britain fifty destroyers in return for naval bases in various parts of the world.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

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

Surface level

  1. What does Churchill order be done to counter the U-boats?
  2. What was the Fokke Wulf and what was the Ju.88?
  3. Compile a list of all the measures Churchill demands be taken against German actions in the Atlantic.
  4. What is the dilemma facing the British over the American destroyers?

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 is really worried about losses to U-boats.

Churchill is confident that the losses can be stopped.

Churchill puts most emphasis in this plan of action on letting faster ships travel without convoys.

These measures enabled ‘us to defeat the attempt to strangle our food supplies and our connections with the United States’.

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Churchill was Prime Minister at this time but he also adopted the title of Minister of Defence.
  • Fokke Wulf and Ju.88 were types of German aircraft. Do you get the impression the minister (Churchill) was more concerned with these or with U-boats?
  • ‘ADGB’ stands for ‘Air Defence of Great Britain’. Essentially the navy was taking anti-aircraft weapons to protect ships.
  • The North Western Approaches refers to the part of the Atlantic to the North West of Britain and Ireland. This was the main route for shipping from North America to Britain.
  • The issue of the American destroyers presents an interesting issue for historians. Is this strong evidence about how serious the U-boat threat was?

Source 6

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