“South Pacific” is a musical set in the naval war in the Pacific during World War II. There were no musicals about the naval war in the Atlantic. Richard Snow, in his book, “A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II” (Scribner), points out the difference. “The Pacific was the picturesque war, the one where naval victories took the form we think they should: battleships hammering it out gun to gun, aircraft carriers deciding in a morning the fate of nations … Conquer an island; then conquer another island; then sink some battleships.”
The war in the Pacific was to destroy an enemy; the war in the Atlantic was to keep supplies delivered to Europe. It was a vital battle; if it had been lost, the war would have been lost. It was not at all like the one in the Pacific: it was “… strange and diffuse, week upon week of boredom endured in constant discomfort, fires on the sea at night and yet nothing there in the morning, eventually the unheroic sight of Halifax through the fog if you were lucky.” It was not only a long battle, starting on the first day of the war and ending on the last, but it was harsh, with maybe 80,000 lives lost. It was a battle we were losing badly at the start of the war, but gradually because of new ships, new technology, and continued confidence and courage, we were able to bring out a victory. If it is a neglected battle, Snow”s book, full of anecdotes and personal stories from the engineering rooms up to the White House, nicely puts it back into perspective.
The great enemy in the battle was the “Unterseeboote,” the U-boat, of the Nazi navy. Admiral Karl Doenitz had been a U-boat captain, and became the commander of the U-boat fleet, and then commander of the navy. (He wound up being Hitler”s successor as Nazism crumbled; he surrendered, was captured and got a 10-year sentence from Nuremberg.) He called the battle a “tonnage war” — his goal was to destroy the freight meant to replenish Europe and to sink forever the ships that did the job. The U-boat was the sole tool to achieve those aims, and it was in the beginning fiendishly successful. Hitler never wavered in his support of Doenitz”s U-boats, providing nearly 1,200 of them before the war ended. Snow describes a hellish life on a U-boat. There were a total of two toilets, for instance, and only one of them could be used during the first half of the voyage, because the valuable space of the second one was used for storage of food. Food got stored everywhere else, too, with, say, clusters of sausages dangling from the overheads, “… the curious combined atmosphere of a luxury grocery store doing business inside a gargantuan automobile engine.”
One crewman said, “The food was good — as long as you liked the taste of diesel.” The environment, since the sub had to loiter underwater for long periods of time, was dreary: “Everything dripped, everything stank. Clothing was always damp and soon dirty. The men wore what they called ”whores undies,” boxer shorts dyed black to make less evident their increasing filthiness.” The dedicated submariners, however, were more highly regarded in the Fatherland than even Luftwaffe pilots.
The U-boats came frighteningly close to the urban areas of the eastern seaboard. The big cities on the coast helped them. One U-boat commander remembered that he came close enough that at least one of his officers worried that someone would hear the engine or smell the diesel exhaust and call the Coast Guard. He was amazed to see cars with their headlights on, and streetlights shining above. He could see even the Ferris wheel at Coney Island. “I cannot describe the feeling in words,” he wrote, “but it was unbelievably beautiful and great.”
The subs were glad to have the backlighting; any freighter would show up as a shadow before the lights. Blackouts were eventually declared, but under protest. Atlantic City wanted to avoid any blackout, and in Miami the town fathers “indignantly stated that it would discourage tourists and be bad for business.” Miami went dark only eight months after Pearl Harbor.
Snow shows that winning the battle against the U-boats involved learning new tactics to deal with them. Or relearning tactics. Convoys, armed ships accompanying merchant freighters, had helped Julius Caesar and all the way through to their use in the first World War, but the lesson had been forgotten by the time U-boats were active in the Second. Warships were to take the offense, went the thinking, and defending merchantmen was not really war, and the merchantmen themselves thought it would be too difficult and too slow to try to stick together in a convoy. Once the lesson was relearned, though, the tonnage battle began to be won. Also the Enigma code machine was cracked, the Allies had a good idea where the U-boats were lurking.
The Navy even had to send airplanes over the areas where the U-boats were expected to be, so that the Germans would think that the planes had spotted them rather than that Enigma was unsecure. Primitive radar, too, helped locate the subs when they were at the surface. The great technological blow against the U-boats, however, was simpler: the destroyer escort. It was cheaper than a destroyer, smaller, slower, and weaker. A destroyer escort was no match against a real destroyer, but real destroyers were needed in the Pacific; German destroyers had been wiped out. Destroyer escorts were specifically designed to fight U-boats. They formed “hunter killer” groups that would pursue the wolf packs, applying depth charges with lethal effect. U-boats were doomed; at the end of the war, one U-boat sailor returned for every four sent out. Snow carefully charts the process by which the allies changed technology and tactics to bring a victory over a real threat, the one Churchill called “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war.” (Churchill also called the U-boat campaign by the phrase that gives this book its title.)
Snow”s anecdote-filled history is partially a tribute to his father, a lieutenant aboard a destroyer escort who had been an architect before the war but could not resist the urge to sign up and take part in the great American effort. “Five years earlier these warriors had no more thought of joining the military than of joining the circus.” The father”s letters back home are quoted here to good effect, and there are plenty of other colorful personalities within the work. Take Admiral Ernest J. King, who was one of those leaders who got results by always being temperamental, angry, and bullying. “He is the most even-tempered man in the Navy,” his daughter said. “He is always in a rage.”
One of King”s requirements before taking the job of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet was that he would not take a job whose abbreviation was CINCUS. It was a bad idea to have a command that sounded like “sink us.” COMINCH, into which it was turned, was no more euphonious but was less subversive. Snow”s wonderfully entertaining history, full of big events and small ones, inspiring and grueling, brings a deserved appreciation to the efforts of those who brought to an end the U-boat menace.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.