THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC – Review by John Henry Phillips

This book was first published in 1961, making it, inrecent years, a frequent sight at auctions and boot fairs. That much was always inevitable. However, to consider this bookoutdated would be to do it an injustice, as there are some books that peoplewill keep going back to for advanced reference, for a starting point or simply for leisure. The Battle Of The Atlantic has, and presumably will, stand the test of time in that treasured spot. Thankfully then, Pen & Sword have decided to republish Donald Macintyre’s classic effort, making it available fora new generation of enthusiasts thirty-three years after the author’s passing.

It isn’t non-existent, but compared to a personal memoir, to read a generaloverview of a battle written by one of its veterans is relatively less common. Donald Macintyre, as well as being a vastly celebrated naval veteran, oncementioned in dispatches and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order; became an established author in his post-military life. It can be said that The Battle of the Atlantic was his literary shining glory. While his books covered the naval battles of the Pacific, the Mediterranean and even Nelson’s victory atTrafalgar, Macintyre’s stomping ground was the Atlantic. Keeping this in mind while reading this book makes it all themore enjoyable, akin to listening to a veteran pass down his gripping tales of a battle. Though not quite as personal as Macintyre’s autobiography, with six U-Boat kills under his belt you can rest easy knowing you are getting the bigger picture from a man who was there, who saw it all – not an hobby historian writing from his armchair.

A much-over looked element of the Second World War that has always intrigued me isthe vastly global spread of the battles. Though in hindsight, such a situation seems obvious in a ‘world’ war, in the 1940s it seems hard to accept that anyone knew what on earth the situation was. Naval battles in the Atlantic and the Arctic, tank battles in Italy and Africa, fighting on the Eastern and Western front. There were planes in the sky, paratroopers in the air, and submarines at the bottom of the ocean. My Grandfather was in North Africa, my Great-Uncle building the Death Railway in Siam and a distant cousin pathfinding on D-Day. To the public, the parents or the average soldier it must have seemed impossible to understand the connection between operations in different locations and how defeating U-Boats would tie in with Bomber Command, how the landings at Sicily would help the fighting in Norway and so on and so forth. Ofcourse, that didn’t change the fact that each man had a job to do, and theBattle of the Atlantic was no different.

There can be no doubt however, in the importance of the naval presence in the Atlantic. Though peaking mid-war, this was a battle that had the rare accoladeof going the whole nine yards. A battle fought from 1939 until 1945.  The need to control the Atlantic has always been fairly black and white. To win a war you need supplies: fuel, food,equipment and munitions, to name a few, and to ensure these supplies have a secure path to where they’re needed. Great Britainis an island nation – it has been said that one million tons of material was needed a week to keep the war in motion. That has to come from somewhere, andin the case of the Second World War that somewhere was an ocean away in North America. This of course, makes the merchant supply ships prime and easy targets for German U-Boats, and from 40-42; the Italians. Alongside the Allied naval blockade of Germany: a show of strength in the ocean, alongside the purchasing of neutral war materials to stop them falling into German hands, the Battle of the Atlantic was born in order to protect the supply ships that kept Britain’s hungry war machine fed.

Macintyre takes the reader through the war-long battle with precise detail and logicalsections. An easy to follow introduction on why ships would travel in convoy, highlighting the absurd reasoning and military wording that allowed the naval ships to step back and let the merchant navy fend for themselves in the early days of the war. The ease at which U-Boats would pick off ships emotively conjures up images of a thirsty shiver of sharks trawling the sea for its prey,the vessels helplessly surrounded with no where to go but the ocean floor. The horror and naivety shown by the Allies as the Germans realised how to vanish from detection simply by travelling on the surface. At one point a U-Boat ‘ace’ describes simply moving between the convoy and picking ships off like rats witha BB Gun. The author excellently combines the personal accounts of the men hesailed with, alongside the log books of both German and Allied ships, allowingthe reader to enjoy a vastly detailed account while understanding what it meant to the lives and minds of those onboard.

As we now know, the battle eventually turned in favour of the allies and Britainwas not starved into defeat. It is easy to forget just how critical the Merchant Navy was to the winning of the war.

Anyone that has visited the memorial at Tower Hill, London, will have been confronted with endless namesand the inscription engraved on the beautifully intricate walls: THE TWENTY-FOUR THOUSAND OF THE MERCHANT NAVY WHOSE NAMES ARE HONOURED ON THE WALLS OF THIS GARDEN GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR COUNTRY AND HAVE NO GRAVE BUT THE SEA.

The Battle of the Atlantic was won, but at a cost of 36,200 sailors and 36,000 merchant seamen.Figures that are hard to grasp for a battle fought under the principal of merely protecting unarmed supply ships.  Winston Churchill famously said that ‘…theonly thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril’,and with the tales told in The Battle Of The Atlantic it is incredibly easy to understand why. Lucky for us then, that Donald Macintyre’s name is not writtenon a wall at Tower Hill, that he survived the war and was able to give such a gripping and detailed account of a hell at sea only a handful of men can still remember.

Reviewed by John Henry Phillips for War History Online

By Donald Macintyre
Pen & Sword Military Classics
ISBN 978 1 47382 287 0

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.