Whilst the RAF were commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the legendary Dambuster raids this year, the Royal Navy were also organising an important series of events to remember the largely forgotten efforts of the sailors and airmen who served in the Atlantic theatre. Without their sacrifice, vital supply routes from the USA to Europe would have been severed and the Allies would not have stood a chance against the overwhelming forces of Nazi Germany.
Since the turning point in the battle was May 1943, 2013 was chosen to remember this vitally important theatre, and so a number of events were held around the country to allow surviving veterans and later generations to remember the men who were lost on both sides of the conflict. These events culminated in 4 days of displays and services held in Liverpool; the destination for the majority of the Atlantic convoys.
The Atlantic Campaign
The Atlantic Ocean was always considered a key strategic asset from the outbreak of war in 1939. In order to fight effective campaigns in Europe on land and in the air, both the Allies and the Axis powers needed to source supplies from further afield. The only practical means of transporting these goods was by sea, and so both sides spent the whole War attempting to gain control of vital supply routes. The German forces utilised a significant fleet of submarines, or U-boats, led by Vice-Admiral Karl Dönitz, whilst the allied supply ships, often routing from America to the west coast of Britain or the Soviet Union formed large convoys of 30-70 ships protected by Royal Navy destroyers and aircraft carriers.
After the fall of France in 1940, German U-boats could now be stationed on the Atlantic coast and had a free reign of the seas. The submarines were complimented by small raiding battleships such as the Admiral Graf Spee and larger German assets including cruisers and Bismarck class destroyers. To counter these threats the Allies at first attempted to hunt down the submarines: A tactic that usually resulted in convoys losing their protection and being easy targets for a German attack. The Allies were further hindered by losses sustained at the evacuation of Dunkirk, the penetration of Scapa Flow and during the Norwegian Campaign. Many British destroyers were also held in the channel to repel a German invasion attempt, leaving the Atlantic convoys woefully under-defended.
By the end of 1940 the allies had lost 1059 ships to the German Navy and Air Force. The loss rate remained high throughout 1941 which saw one of the most famous battles of the campaign: In May 1941 the German Navy put the new battleship Bismarck to sea and it was tasked with intercepting Allied convoys. The Bismarck was tracked off the coast of Iceland by a British fleet led by HMS Hood and a skirmish ensued. Hood was sunk, but Bismarckwas badly damaged and forced to return to France. British ships trailed her, and with the help of a 209 SQN RAF Coastal Command Catalina managed to locate the stricken warship. Its position was passed on to Royal Navy Force H; a battle group commanded by Admiral James Somerville that was being repositioned north from Gibraltar. The flagship of Force H was HMS Ark Royal, equipped with aging Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers that were tasked with sinking the Bismarck. Just before sunset on 26th May 1941 fifteen Swordfish aircraft attacked the Bismarck, scoring three direct torpedo hits, one of which, fired by the aircraft flown by John Moffat, disabled the rudder. TheBismarck was left sailing in circles and the British fleet quickly caught up with her and sunk her on the morning of 27th May. The loss of Bismarck combined with the Allied use of long range patrol aircraft such as the PBY Catalina and Short Sunderland resulted in Germany withdrawing surface raiders from the Atlantic.
1941 also saw two more key developments in the battle. Firstly, American supply ships were being sunk regularly by U-boats, forcing the US Navy to begin providing protection to Atlantic convoys. Secondly, a team of code breakers at Bletchley Park led by Alan Turing were provided with a captured German Enigma machine. Until this point the Allies had no way of deciphering the coded messages sent between submarines and the German Navy headquarters. Once this code had been cracked it was possible to predict the movements of all enemy submarines and notify convoys that were the potential targets of U-boat attacks.
America’s entry into the War in 1942 led to U-boats deploying as far west as the American coastline, but after a number of American losses, convoy protection was increased and the submarines were withdrawn. Throughout 1942 and 1943 the U-boat wolfpacks would hunt convoys in the mid-Atlantic with as many as 10-15 submarines attacking the same convoy in waves. For the first six months of 1942 the loss rate was roughly one to sixty. However, German losses began to increase and by the summer of 1942 a U-boat was sunk for every 10 merchant ships lost. By the end of 1942, the Western Approaches were now under the command of Admiral Sir Max Hortonwho utilised the growing number of available escort ships to form support groups which were not attached to particular convoys. This allowed the convoy assigned ships to remain on station whilst the support group tracked down and sank any attacking submarines. Free from the time constraints of convoy protection, these groups could force U-boats to the surface for air over the course of three or four days.
In 1943 the situation was dire for the Allies. Whilst German losses were increasing the convoys were still being decimated by the Atlantic wolfpacks. The Germans also regularly updated Enigma keys that would blind British forces for days at a time whilst the codes were solved. In March 1943 alone 120 Allied ships were sunk, whilst only 12 U-boats were destroyed. Britain was running low on supplies and was almost unable to continue the war. However, the tables were turned in May 1943, which would become known as ‘Black May’ in the U-boat force. On the 5th May, convoy ONS-5, consisting of 43 supply ships escorted by 16 warships was attacked by 30 submarines. Whilst 13 ships were lost, six U-boats were destroyed and the rest of the convoy reached the protection of Coastal Command’s area of operations. Two weeks later convoy SC-130 was also attacked and 5 U-boats were destroyed for no losses. In all 43 German submarines were lost in May 1943, roughly 25% of the U-boat force. Dönitz was forced to call off all North Atlantic operations.
Throughout the rest of the war the German U-boat force experienced mixed success, but the blockade had been unsuccessful and the convoys continued to get through. The price of an Allied victory was high: Over 70,000 Allied sailors were killed as a result of 3,500 supply ships and 175 warships that were sunk. On the German side over 30,000 men were killed with the loss of 783 submarines.
Without the sacrifice and service of the men of the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, Fleet Air Arm and RAF as well as the contributions made by other Allied countries, the D-Day landings and subsequent liberation of Europe could not have taken place. For this reason it is imperative that their memories are never forgotten.
70th Anniversary Events
Throughout May services and parades were held throughout the country including a flypast over central London and talks and lectures in Cardiff and Londonderry; two cities that were vital to the Operation of the Atlantic Convoys. The main event took place over the May bank holiday weekend in Liverpool where a number of visiting ships representing the countries involved were present. Liverpool was an important port during the war and was the destination of the majority of the convoys. The city is still very proud of its maritime history as can be seen when Royal Navy ships regularly visit the city and are opened to the public. Many of the ships that took part in the battle were also built on Merseyside, including at the Cammell Laird shipyard on the Wirral that still operates today.
The first ships to arrive were the royal navy patrol vessels HMS Archer, Pursuer, Smiter, Example, Trumpeter, Blazer and Ranger that moored in the Albert Dock and Seaforth on Tuesday 21st. The real excitement came later in the week when the foreign ships began to arrive, along with a variety of exotic rotorcraft. On Thursday 23rd the Belgian frigate BNS Louise Marie arrived along with Royal Navy minesweeper HMS Pembroke and German Frankenthal class minesweeper Grömitz. Friday saw the arrival of the larger ships that would be open to the public over the weekend. The first to arrive was the Canadian destroyer HMCS Iroquios that was also carrying a Seaking on its heli-deck. Moored up alongside was the Polish frigate ORP Generał Tadeusz Kościuszko which was carrying a Kaman SH-2 Seasprite. Completing the line-up at the Pierhead was the Trinity House Vessel Patricia and, most interesting of all, the Russian Navy destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov. This dark grey Udaloy class destroyer cast a menacing silhouette over the waterfront, but to the delight of many visitors, displayed one of its two KA-27 Helix helicopters on the deck throughout the weekend. The final visiting ship was Type 42 destroyer HMS Edinburghmaking its final visit to the shipyard in which it was built, complete with a deployed Lynx HMA8.
Whilst many of the visiting ships were open to the public, the magnitude of support for the event meant that the queues were very long, approaching 3 hours at one point on the Sunday afternoon. A variety of other attractions were positioned on the waterfront including static Lynx, Seaking and Gazelle helicopters, a Sea Harrier cockpit section as well as the ghastly chinook and typhoon plastic mock ups. It was a pleasure to wander around the displays on Sunday seeing young families talking to serving personnel and veterans of the campaign.
On Friday evening a sunset ceremony was held on HMS Bulwark moored upriver at Seaforth. This was accompanied by a flypast by the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Swordfish MkII LS326, appropriately named ‘City of Liverpool’. She currently wears the colours that she wore on wartime Atlantic convoy duties and so was the perfect aeroplane for this event. Saturday saw a flypast from a Hurricane and Spitfire of the BBMF to commemorate the men of RAF Coastal Command who provided a vital service to keep the Atlantic convoys safe.
Sunday saw the main service of remembrance held at Liverpool cathedral. This was followed by a parade through the city that was overflown by a formation of naval aircraft. Leading this formation was the Swordfish, followed by a Lynx, two Seakings and a Merlin. A second Lynx positioned alongside the formation to assist with spacing and to take photographs. After overflying the city and cathedral the formation turned over Liverpool Airport and began a run down the Mersey towards the waiting crowds on the waterfront. Initial estimates place the attendance near the hundred thousand mark each day; a superb figure no doubt boosted by the glorious weather experienced all weekend. Following the flypast, a solo Lynx from the Black Cats demonstration team ran in for a very low and tight display over the Mersey, performing impressive wing-overs in front of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The crowd on the Liverpool side was 6 or 7 deep at the waterfront during the display and the performance was greatly appreciated.
After an hour’s break the second helicopter display of the day took place. On every day of the weekend, a Royal Navy role demonstration entitled Battle of the Mersey was displayed, in which Pirates captured a civilian vessel which was then stormed by patrol vessels, landing craft, and an assault team that fast roped in from a Seaking helicopter. The airframe used for the display was in the rather fetching arctic camo scheme painted up in 2009. The sight of a Seaking flying just feet above the Mersey against such an iconic backdrop was breathtaking, even more so for the passengers of the Mersey ferry that continued to operate during the display! After inserting the troops the helicopter circled the boat at low altitude making some impressive turns in front of the Liver building, before winching the soldiers back on board and departing back towards Woodvale at ultra low level. The display lasted thirty minutes and was very well received by people both sides of the water.
This will be the last time this battle is remembered on such a scale, and the Royal Navy, RAF and numerous foreign Navies did an absolutely superb job. The people of Liverpool and the wider area made the event a huge success, and thousands of people now have a better understanding of the sacrifices made by the sailors who braved the Atlantic throughout World War 2.