X: 4. Uboote Heraus! Unrestricted Submarine Warfare February - July 1942
Call Kenny Loggins, you're in the DANGER ZONE...
- Dec 5, 2008
4. Uboote Heraus!
Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
February - July 1942
King George V of the eponymous class at anchor in 1942. The decision to
alter the armament from the originally planned 14” to a 15” gun cost years
of production and almost the loss of the four additional members of the class.
Experience in the Great War had formed the bedrock of the Royal Navy’s planning for the next war: they knew that submarines were a threat to the British Isles, but worked to either ignore the threat or make assumptions that the merchant navy would abide by what made their victory possible in the last war: the convoy system. Technologically speaking, the Royal Navy had ASDIC (the precursor to a proper sonar system), but seemed content with it as it stood. The Royal Navy had a multitude of issues throughout the interbellum period in wresting sufficient funds from Parliament in order to fund their building priorities. While large construction projects were consistently put off or drawn out, funding was transferred to cheaper destroyers as well as experiments in amphibious vessels. Indeed, between 1936 and the outbreak of war in 1942, the Royal Navy only added one fleet carrier (Ark Royal) and was about to commission one new battleship (King George V), but managed to double their numbers of destroyers (from 34 destroyer groups to 68) and create a massive fleet of amphibious vessels (from none to 15 squadrons). While spectacular, these numbers presupposed that they were employed gainfully, which it could be said was unlikely given the conservative and yet sometimes unabashedly reckless handling of the Royal Navy.
The Tribal-class destroyers formed the backbone of the advanced
destroyers laid down between the wars. Their employment left much
to be desired.
As noted in previous chapters, the Kriegsmarine was planning a war of kreuzerkrieg (Cruiser Warfare) from the outset. With the AGNA rendered moot by 1939, the Kriegsmarines’ submarine flotillas soared from a paltry four composed only of Type Is and IIs of all variants to a height of 21, mostly of the Type IXDs and with more of the Type XXIEs coming off the slipways. Combined with the surface fleet, Raeder intended to utilize his surface fleet assets to create the space for Doenitz’ submarines to work. While that plan had been in the works for years, issues between the chiefs of Seekriegsleitung (SKL), Vice Admiral Gunther Guse, and the Unterseekriegsleitung (USKL) Vice Admiral Karl Doenitz, led to a delay in the deployment of the submarine force’s true strength.
Type XXIE u-boats of the Kriegsmarine. These are from 13 UbG,
only one of which would survive the first six months of the war to
be transferred to 20 UbG.
For much of the early months of the war, only Kommando u-Boot Ausbildung (KuBA, Types I and IIA) and U boot Flotille I (Uboot Geschwader (UbG) 1 - 3, Types IIBs and VIICs) were prowling the Baltic, with crews rotating through for a sort of “live fire” refresher training. During the course of the campaign against Poland and through the end of February, the Germans sank nineteen merchantmen and four escort vessels, while only suffering the loss of one of their own merchants. This was followed by another quiet month in March during a sort of mutual pause of all naval activity in the North and Baltic Seas, during which four of the German’s merchant fleet’s vessels were sunk, joined by one of the Kriegsmarine’s ten F1 frigates; Australia only suffered the loss of two merchantmen during the course of the month. The relative quiet continued for the first two weeks of April, with Australia losing three merchant vessels and two escorts, mostly around the Baltic, but at the mid-month, Raeder finally relented after Guse had been mollified with the performance of his battlecruisers and allowed Doenitz to sortie almost his entire stock of available boats, especially those of the most advanced types.
A tanker sinking after being torpedoed by a u-boat, early in the war.
The sortie of the u-boats led to not only significant losses to the British merchant marine, but also led to fairly significant losses in the German u-boat-waffe. Within three days of their deployment on 15 April, 8 and 13 UbG had suffered such significant losses that they were decommissioned. Losses would continue: by the beginning of July, 8 whole geschwader were decommissioned due to losses (5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16 and 17 UbG), and with their losses, most of their flotillas were also struck from the lists, almost a third of the entire register, and even some of the most advanced types. The Kriegsmarine learned a valuable lesson: airpower from carrier decks could prove most problematic, as almost all of these losses were the result of one carrier in particular: HMS Ark Royal, the most advanced vessel in the Royal Navy.
U-118 caught on the surface and strafed by aircraft from the Ark Royal.
The bright side for Doenitz was that 45 Allied merchant vessels and escorts were sunk in April, 98 in May, 78 in June, and a whopping 132 in July. These losses were unsustainable, and brought a massive cost in national morale, treasure, and blood to the populations of Great Britain and her Dominions. Doenitz, of course, didn’t have to worry about the reverse of the issues: that while the u-boats were enjoying their increasing effective command over the Western Approaches and the Baltic, the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy were preying upon the hapless German merchant marine struggling to bring in materials purchased in the United States. In April, Germany would see their merchants reduced by six, and another of their frigates sunk. Eleven were lost in May, fifteen in June and another eleven in July. These losses were sharp for Germany, but did not sting nearly as badly, and there was worse to come for the Allies.