John Terraine has long been one of Britain’s heavyweight Military Historians. With extensive writings on the First World War under his belt, and an authoritive volume on the RAF in the Second World, in this book he turns his attention to one of the new aspects of twentieth century naval warfare: the submarine, or in German parlance, the U-Boat.
The conventional wisdom of the Battle of the Atlantic perceives the Germans as starting the war with a huge fleet of advanced submarines, crewed by salty sea dogs, and the big-gun Royal Navy being crewed by amateurs who struggled to counter this new sinister threat, but eventually prevailed.
That the Battle of the Atlantic threatened to strangle Britain – during the Second World War in particular – few would dispute. What does come as a surprise is how threadbare the German U-boat arm was. Often Donitz was down to a handful of vessels, and had to contend with Hitlers constant meddling, based on nothing other than misguided intuition. IF Donitz had been able to deploy more U-Boats, and allowed to focus on the Schwerpunkt of cutting Britain’s lifeline, the second world war may have ran very differently.
Although Britain led in developing anti-submarine technology and weapons: sonar, the hedgehog, as well as the codebreaking work going on at Bletchley Park. The real problem, according to Terraine, seems to have been the attitudes high-up in the Royal Navy, where senior officers – fixated on Battleships – struggled to come to terms with the Submarine as a weapon. Odd, given that the Royal Navy had largely developed it.
This book sees Terraine at his best. Well researched, he pulls out trends, makes convincing conclusions and overturns some lingering myths. This is perhaps not a leisurely read, but it sure is an authoritative one. A lesson of how perilous the risks can be if senior officers struggle to come to terms with new forms of warfare.