Winston Churchill once claimed that the threat posed by U-boats to Britain's Atlantic lifeline was the only thing that really frightened him during the Second World War. He was right to be worried. The Battle of the Atlantic - Germany's attempt to halt the flow of ships carrying precious food, munitions and troops from the New World - probably represented Hitler's best chance of defeating Britain.
This "battle" was a series of deadly games of cat and mouse, where submarines hunted merchant ships and were hunted by Allied warships and aircraft. This was attritional warfare at its rawest. If merchant vessels could be sunk faster than shipyards could replace them, Britain would starve. Deaths among sea- and airmen were a by-product of this attrition. One chilling statistic quoted by Canadian historian Marc Milner is that the German U-boat crew had a fatality rate of 63 per cent, the "highest of any service during the war".
People, however, are not the primary focus of Milner's history. We learn little about the personalities of Admiral Dönitz, or U-boat ace Gunther Prien, or Captain Johnny Walker, the leading U-boat killer. Given that this book is aimed at a general market, I wonder whether this was entirely wise. There is still scope for a book on the Atlantic à la Band of Brothers.
For all that, Milner writes well and has some interesting things to say. He gently but firmly pushes Bletchley Park into the background. Instead of Enigma, he emphasises the role of radar and sheer hard fighting. He also, quite rightly, gives prominence to the Royal Canadian Navy. Canada's creation of a wartime citizen navy, virtually from scratch, played a significant role in the Allied victory.
In 1943, the battle seemed a close-run thing. Milner argues that, with hindsight, Nazi Germany could only have emerged victorious in the Atlantic if the Allies had "committed such colossal errors as to defeat themselves". The Germans never had enough submarines, and only began an emergency building programme when it was far too late. In 1945, the German navy was receiving powerful new U-boats that, if they had been available earlier, might have tipped the balance.
Luckily, Hitler began the Second World War about six years before his navy was ready. The Allies made a lot of mistakes, but building on sound British pre-war planning, they avoided the sort of blunders that might have cost them the battle.
Milner makes a powerful case, and is likely to keep historians arguing for years. However, he leaves some areas relatively untouched. The relationship between the British air effort over the Atlantic and the strategic bombing of Germany, which involved a fierce and potentially damaging internecine struggle, is a case in point.
Sadly, the Battle of the Atlantic has largely dropped off the radar of popular memory. Next June will see blanket coverage of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. By comparison, in 2003, the anniversary of the crisis of the Battle of the Atlantic was marked in a low key way. Milner's fine book should do something to redress the balance.
The reviewer is senior lecturer in defence studies at King's College LondonReuse content