One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 5

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Rayner writes about his war with classic British understatement about combat with the Germans. His various ships were often under sustained air attack by the Germans while trying to prevent freighters from being torpedoed. At one point, Rayner’s own warship was torpedoed, the after third of the ship was blown off and the ship turned turtle shortly thereafter. Less than 1/4 of the crew survived.

Rayner himself almost died. After swimming away from the sinking ship (he was the last to leave) in the very cold water for thirty minutes or more, he wrote:

I was not as interested in going places as I had been. I could only see waves and more waves and I wished that they would stop coming. I did not really care anymore. Then I felt hands grasp my shoulders and a voice say, “Christ, it’s the skipper.”

His men pulled him aboard a raft and he survived.

Of all the books written by those who participated in the Battle of the North Atlantic, this is by far the best. It’s a little known gem and hard to find because the publisher, the US Naval Institute Press, constantly lets it go out of print. But if you can find a copy, you will do yourself a favor by reading it.

HMS Warwick, the Royal Navy destroyer under the command of D.A. Rayner, sunk by a U-Boat on 20 January 1944.

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of Wrecksite.]

One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 4

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The comfort of the crew aboard escorts vessels wasn’t a priority because it couldn’t be. Comfort was impossible. There was barely enough space to even house the crew since the ships were manned way beyond their design limits with dozens of extra ratings assigned to work the sonar, communications equipment, and later radar. Finding a space to sling one’s hammock was catch as catch can. During heavy weather, which was often, hot food wasn’t available because the galley had to shut down. It wasn’t possible to cook anything when the ship was being bounced around like a rubber ball. Constipation was rampant.

Heavy wool garments worn by the sailors got soaked when they were on watch above decks and there was no place to dry them so they gave off a damp odor. Because the weather was usually so terrible, the portholes were bolted down and the ventilators closed off because water would come through them. Therefore the atmosphere on the mess decks was stale breathe, combined with the odor of sweat, unwashed men, wet woolen clothing, puke, and stale food.

Bathing facilities were primitive so the men were usually unwashed. Royal Navy medical officers made constant reports to senior officers about the unhealthy conditions aboard the escort ships but there wasn’t much to be done.

HMCS Sackville, the only “Flower Class” corvette still in existence. She is a s museum ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was built under license in Canada and named for the town of Sackville in New Brunswick. The Canadian Navy did not follow the naming convention of the Royal Navy so these ships are “Flower Class corvettes” but not named after flowers. HMCS stands for “His Majesty’s Canadian Ship”.

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Re-Thinking the Battle of the Atlantic – Part 2

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At the Symbol Conference in Casablanca between January 14–24, 1943, with both Churchill and Roosevelt present, it was decided that the absolute first priority of the Allies was defeating the German U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. But if it was the first priority, not many commanders seemed to pay any attention since they didn’t change allocations of men and material and ships and planes very quickly. All of this took time, I know. Immense forces were involved and just because a conference had been held and FDR and Churchill had agreed on something, it took the Allied military secretariat known as COSSAC, (Combined Chiefs of Staff), with its headquarters in Washington, to translate strategic decisions into specific orders for specific commands.

It wasn’t that the Allies lacked the equipment. It was prying it away from the different services and different commands. Sir Max Horton, Commander in Chief, Western Approaches, the largest operational command in the Royal Navy which was responsible for escorting North Atlantic convoys, repeatedly asked the Admiralty and the War Cabinet for some of the larger and newer destroyers assigned to the Home Fleet. Occasionally the fleet loaned him a few but not often. This could have changed with one order. Home Fleet had a lot of destroyers. And they spent a fair amount of time in port since Home Fleet was the last line of defense for Great Britain and it didn’t put to sea unless there was a specific reason, such as the breakout of the Bismarck. But Home Fleet didn’t like to let them go. This resulted in North Atlantic escorts often spending less than a day or two in port before being turned around and sent back out no matter if all their equipment was working or not. And usually it was not because of the storm damage caused to the ships in the Winter North Atlantic.

But it wasn’t just the Royal Navy which held back equipment from the U-Boat war. The US Navy had a large number of the specially built Very Long Range (VLR) four engine Liberator patrol bombers because of the extremely long distances planes had to fly in the Pacific Theater where the US Navy was primarily engaged. Yet statistics at that time showed that very few merchant ships were sunk in convoys with continuous air cover. But prying some of these VLR Liberators away from Ernie King finally took a direct order from Roosevelt at the Quadrant Conference in Quebec between August 17–24, 1943. Once these aircraft were made available, the “air gap” in the Atlantic was closed and German U-Boats no longer had any respite.

It is also worth noting that neither RAF Bomber Command under Arthur Harris or the USAAF Bomber under Hap Arnold, showed any interest in providing long range aircraft to either Western Approaches Command (although technically air units would actually be under 15 Group RAF Coastal Command) or US Navy 10th Fleet which was an administrative command coordinating all US anti-submarine efforts outside the Pacific theater.

There is no reason this did not happen excepting sheer inter-service rivalry and intense rivalry between commands in the same services. The very sad result of this squabbling was the needless deaths of thousands of men.

Re-Thinking the Battle of the Atlantic – Part 1

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As you might imagine, I read a lot about this battle which lasted the entire war; the final U-Boat to be sunk in the war was sunk 6 May 1945, two days before Germany surrendered.

In the last month or so I have started to question the widely accepted idea that the German U-Boats came within three weeks of cutting off Great Britain from the US which would have forced Great Britain to surrender. This theory is beloved of historians, blog writers, novelists like me, and just about everyone else. While it is written in many places that England was down to three weeks of food, I can’t be certain if I’ve ever seen this footnoted and traced to a top-secret report “eyes only” for the British War Cabinet. Until I can verify this, I’ll question whether its true. Who came up with that figure? What did it include? Just food for civilians? Military rations. Food delivered to restaurants and canteens and cafeterias but not yet consumed? This is a slippery historical reference and very hard to get a hand on.

I also think that even had German U-Boats caused a delay in American shipments of food and war material to Great Britain for a brief period, there was no way the U-Bootwaffe could have maintained this blockade. Thousands of ships were sliding down the ways in the US, hundreds of thousands of sailors and aviators already trained or being trained. We could have increased the number of convoy escorts very quickly. We also could have held back new carriers on their way to the Pacific and used them to provide air cover for convoys while the smaller escort carriers for the North Atlantic were being commissioned. Some were already in service and by the end of May 1943, most North Atlantic convoys had continuous air cover but not all.