The view from the conning tower towards the stern of a Type VIIC U-boat, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The photographer has taken a break from watching for ships and enemy airplanes. Three or four other members of the crew are scanning the horizon. The rest of the crew, some 45 men, are down in the narrow hull, savoring any whiff of fresh sea air. A patrol could consist of weeks of boredom, and then frantic action as a ship or even a whole convoy was encountered. At the same time, enemy warships scoured the ocean, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the U-boats.
The name “Battle of the Atlantic” was coined by Winston Churchill in February 1941. It has been called the “longest, largest and most complex” naval battle in history. The campaign started immediately after the British and French declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, and lasted until the German surrender in May 1945. It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theatre of war covering millions of square kilometers of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining the advantage, as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures and equipment were developed by both sides. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, though losses due to U-boats continued until war’s end.
While the loss of life was relatively small compared to the land war, it still claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. Between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 Allied warships were sunk, and some 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives. The Germans lost 783 U-boats and approximately 30,000 sailors killed, 75 % of Germany’s 40,000-man U-boat fleet. The German plan to starve Great Britain and stop the flow of supplies to the UK and the Soviet Union failed.