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 6

Personal telegram from Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt, 4 April 1941


 CHAR 20/37/25 and CHAR 20/37/91

Simplified Transcript

Churchill to Roosevelt

In the last few weeks we’ve increased our forces in the North Western Approaches and as a result we’ve been able to hit the U-boats hard. Beating the U-boats is possible but we don’t have enough ships. If we could get your cutters [US Coastguard ships] working from bases in Iceland they could protect merchant ships until they were in range of British-based escort ships. Another important factor is long distance aircraft which are now coming in. I hope there’ll be less danger from enemy aircraft once we get some Hurricane fighters flying off adapted merchant ships.

Original Transcript

SERIAL No. T. 31

Personal and Secret

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 4.4.41 [handwritten]

1. I am most grateful for your message just received from the Ambassador about the shipping.

2. During the last few weeks we have been able to strengthen our escorts in Home North Western Approaches and in consequence have hit the U-Boats hard (Stop) They have now moved further west and this morning sunk four ships on the 29th Meridian one day before our escort could meet them (Stop) Beating the U-Boats is simply a question of destroyers and escorts but we are so strained that to fill one gap is to open another (Stop) If we could get your ten cutters taken over and manned we would base them on Iceland where their good radius would give protection to convoys right up to where they meet our British based escorts (Stop) Another important factor in North Western Approaches is long distance aircraft (Stop) These are now coming in (Stop) Meanwhile though our


losses are increasingly serious I hope we shall lessen the Air menace when in a month or six weeks time we have a good number of Hurricane fighters flying off merchant ships patrolling or escorting in the danger zone (Ends)

What is this source?

This is a personal official telegram from Britain’s Prime Minister, Churchill (calling himself ‘Former Naval Person), to the President of the US, Roosevelt. Churchill called himself ‘Former Naval Person’ because he’d been in charge of the Admiralty (the government department which ran the Royal Navy) in the First World War and it was a link he had with Roosevelt who had served in the US Navy.

Background to this source

The US was, at this stage, still neutral and not technically involved in the war. Nevertheless, US President Roosevelt was keen to support Britain in her fight alone against the Axis Powers.

Despite being neutral, the US aided Britain in numerous ways. Under a scheme called Lend-Lease the US supplied arms and equipment to Britain and her allies as well as loans and other financial help . The US also protected shipping entering and leaving the US. Churchill was extremely anxious to involve the US in the war as fully as possible. However, public opinion in the US was divided but mostly unhappy about the idea of involvement in the war so Roosevelt had to tread carefully.

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. Where has the Royal Navy had success against the U-boats?
  2. What, according to Churchill, has happened as a result?
  3. What steps are being taken by Britain to reduce losses?
  4. What is Churchill asking Roosevelt to do? Why?

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 pessimistic about the Battle.

Churchill would appreciate American help but he is not desperate.

Iceland is important in the plans to fight the U-boats.

This source seems to suggest that Britain is losing in the Atlantic.

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Churchill has taken care with the labelling of this document- classifying it as a ‘personal’ telegram. He was keen to build on his relationship with President Roosevelt and the US and used his codename (‘Former Naval Person’ which emphasised their shared experience of naval matters) for the same reason. Churchill would later christen the relationship between the UK and the US the ‘special relationship’.
  • The source illustrates the fact that the US was notionally neutral at this stage of the war but is clearly more than a bystander. This was one reason why Churchill used his codename in telegrams to Roosevelt.
  • There were really two key issues, closely related. The first was the gap in the Atlantic when the merchant ships were too far from the US and too far from Britain to be fully protected by ships and aircraft. A related issue was the number of ships and aircraft available.

Explore the guide to interpreting telegrams

 Source 7

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