September 3rd 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic. It was the single biggest and longest battle of the Second World War, lasting five years eight months and five days. It involved the Royal and Merchant Navies and eight other allied powers in a unique effort requiring an unparalleled level of co-operation between military and civilian authorities on land and sea. Then, as now, Britain was dependent on keeping the sea lanes open and ensuring a steady flow of food and materials into the country in order to feed her people and provide the raw materials necessary for the war effort.
At its heart the campaign involved the formidable threat constituted by the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine on the one side and the allies ability to keep the sea lanes open on the other. It was a fearsome as well as a gruelling dual fought out in the unforgiving waters of the Atlantic. On the Allied side over 72,000 naval and merchant sailors were killed, 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships sunk or damaged, and 741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost. On the German and Italian side 35,000 sailors killed, 800 submarines and 47 other warships lost. It the single most epic battle of the war, the largest and most complicated campaign ever waged by the Royal Navy, and really any navy has ever conducted – and certainly the single most important engagement the Royal Navy has ever engaged in in its history.
The headquarters of the battle was most famously located in Liverpool but that was only after it had effectively been bombed out of Plymouth, its first location. Liverpool and Plymouth, heroic naval cities, are forever linked by being the home cities of this greatest of undertakings. Unrestricted war on the civilian merchant navy had been pioneered in World War One and was refined to devastating effect in World War Two. Both sides new that Britain could all too easily be blockaded into submission.
New techniques and technologies were developed throughout the campaign. The system of convoys, grouping merchant ships together so they could be more easily protected, was pioneered in the Battle of the Atlantic. Eighty years on we are using exactly the same technique in the Gulf to protect civilian shipping.
The battle stretched the length and breadth of the world. In the South Atlantic the first victory of the War was recorded when a squadron under the command of Commodore Harwood cornered the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in Montivideo Harbour. Up in the north Atlantic it took most of the Home Fleet to sink the Bismark. The scope and scale of the battle has never been seen before or since in any conflict.
Today though curiously the Battle of the Atlantic is curiously not marked in perhaps the way it should be. Commemorated it certainly should be but as time passes and those remaining who were directly involved grow fewer in number it is for the lessons it teaches us that remembering the Battle of the Atlantic is increasingly important. These lessons include:
Britain, as an island nation, remains completely dependent on the import and export of goods and food by sea. Keeping the sea lanes open is not a romantic notion but a vital strategic necessity. This demands a well resourced Royal Navy with enough suitable ships to do the task, working co-operatively and effectively with the Royal Air Force. The North and the South Atlantic provide a unique theatre of operation, and it is a maritime theatre.
Co-operation is key. The Battle of the Atlantic required an extraordinary level of integration and co-operation between allies and between military and civilian authorities. The lessons learned then remain relevant to today.
Guarding the sea lanes and patrolling vast areas of ocean requires resilience, endurance and persistence – the same qualities that were required then are needed now. The Atlantic has not become a kinder and gentler place in the last 80 years.
We must always remember we are a maritime seafaring nation, with the risks and opportunities that presents. We need to build merchant as well as Royal Navy ships. We need to ensure our industrial establishment is capable and competent in its ability to deliver the shipping we need for our own survival.
The Battle of the Atlantic should be commemorated, like all great battles. Even more importantly it should be firmly marked in the nation’s calendar for what it can continue to teach and inform us about the challenges we continue to face today.