Britain's battle of attrition fought on a cruel sea: Celebrations begin today to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. Stephen Ward talked to Ian Ball, a veteran who kept a photographic record of his war

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The resilience of merchant seamen is no less impressive 50 years on. 'Some of them were torpedoed four times,' Ian Ball recalls. He is 78 now, and spent much of the 2,073-day Battle of the Atlantic on escort against marauding U-boats.

'I don't imagine if I'd been in a lifeboat in that sea I'd have wanted to go back again,' he freely admits. Yet, even when Britain was losing 700,000 tonnes of merchant vessels in a month, as the historian Liddell Hart writes in his History of the Second World War: 'It was remarkable that sailors were not deterred from manning them, and there was never a shortage of crews.'

Today sees the beginning of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle when the Duke of Edinburgh reviews a fleet of Royal Navy and merchant vessels assembled off Anglesey, north Wales. On Friday, he and the Queen will meet campaign veterans.

Seamen who served during the conflict were not allowed to keep diaries in case they fell into enemy hands (although many did, covertly). But cameras, an expensive rarity then, were allowed, and Mr Ball kept a record of his part in the struggle as Germany tried to cut the lifeline supplying Britain with fuel, food and raw materials.

Mr Ball, who joined the naval reserve in 1938, began the war on board a light cruiser on patrol off the Faroes and Iceland. From May 1940, he served on board a trawler converted for anti-submarine duties, and he says a small ship was his preference as death would have been instantaneous in the event of being hit by enemy fire. 'We had 75 depth charges on board,' he recalls. 'If a torpedo hit, we would go up.'

In late 1940, he served on anti- submarine patrols from Gibraltar for two years, then spent a year in command of another converted trawler escorting convoys off the west coast of Africa.

None of his pictures capture the heat of battle - there was no time for taking pictures then - but they provide an equally valuable record, of the aftermath of engagements, and the humanity and mundanity of the hours on board ship between incidents, waiting for the sight or sign of a submarine which could come at any time of day or night. Seamen had to be constantly ready, even sleeping in their clothes.

'You couldn't worry all the time about what was about to happen, because you all had to do your jobs efficiently, and you couldn't do that if you were constantly worrying.'

His photographs on board or across the sea were taken with simple cameras, without the modern aids of automatic focusing and interchangeable lenses. He had learnt the craft in peacetime on a correspondence course while working in a life insurance office. He developed and printed his own films on board.

When the Battle of the Atlantic finally swung in the Allies' favour 50 years ago this month, it was not, like Trafalgar or Waterloo, an overnight victory. But the securing of Britain's lifeline was still one of those turning points in a war which are recognised not just with hindsight but as soon as they happen.

Mr Ball recalls: 'We used to get the monthly figures (for tonnages lost). In early 1943 we jolly nearly lost the war. May 1943 was the turning point.'

Improvements in technology or tactics or numbers on either side would sway the conflict first one way then the other, but from May 1943 the flow was irrevocably in one direction.

In the opening month of the war, September 1939, 41 allied and neutral ships amounting to 154,000 tons were sunk. U-boats were the chief menace, but mines, aircraft and surface ships also contributed.

In June 1940, after the fall of France, 58 ships (284,000 tons) were sunk, and 250,000 tons a month were lost for several months.

By 1941, U-boats were hunting as 'wolf packs', and attacking more effectively on the surface at night. In May, U-boat sinkings reached 310,000 tons - 61 ships, equivalent to a large convoy. That autumn, US ships began helping to defend British convoys, and U-boat sinkings fell to 156,000 tons by October.

By February 1942, however, sinkings had risen to nearly 500,000 tons, by May it was 600,000 tons, and by June 700,000 tons. By now there were 150 operational U-boats, three times the strength at the start of the war. U-boats were being built faster than they were being sunk.

Allied losses fell during the summer, but in November 119 ships (729,000 tons) were lost. By the start of 1943, the effect of a gradually reducing merchant fleet was alarming: stocks of commercial fuel in Britain were down to little more than two months' supply. In March, 108 ships (627,000 tons) were sunk, nearly two-thirds in convoys, but from then on the crisis had passed.

A concentrated counter-attack on U-boats, helped by radar, the deciphering of the German code, and other new weapons, began to take effect. The number of merchant fleet sinkings dropped steeply, and after a series of heavy losses, the German Admiral, Karl Donitz, withdrew temporarily from the North Atlantic on 23 May. By July, more Allied merchant ships were being built than were being lost.

Fifty years later, Mr Ball is still conscious of how nearly he could have become one of the 120,000 people who died in the battle. On one occasion a U-boat penetrated Scapa Flow naval base and sank the Royal Oak, which had an adjacent berth. He says, however, that he was in 'nothing like the danger of the merchant boats', and above all he is aware of the frightening rate of attrition on U-boats. Half the crew were killed in the course of the war. 'By the end of the war, there was an 80 per cent chance of a German submariner getting killed on a single mission. Think of that.'

Diary of week's events

MERSEYSIDE is expecting 2 million visitors to its events commemorating the Battle of the Atlantic. The main events are:

Today, 10.30am: Battle of the Atlantic Gallery opens, Maritime Museum, Mersey Dock.

Noon-1.30pm: Duke of Edinburgh reviews the Fleet.

Tomorrow, 10.30-11.10am: Duke of Edinburgh visits HMS Plymouth and HMS Onyx.

10am: British Shipping exhibition (until 31 May) Albert Dock.

Friday, 11.15am: The Queen meets veterans and inspects guard of honour, Albert Dock.

Saturday: Historic warships on permanent display, Wallasey Docks.

2.30pm: Flypast of historic and modern aircraft, best view from docks.

Sunday, 10.30: Service, Anglican cathedral, attended by Prince and Princess of Wales.

(Photograph omitted)

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