Fifty years ago tomorrow, Admiral Karl Doenitz, the German U-boat commander, halted attacks against Allied transatlantic merchant convoys. Later this week, military historians and former naval chiefs from both sides will convene in Liverpool - the home port of many of the merchant ships - for a three-day conference on the battle.
The U-boats sank 2,828 Allied merchant ships with the loss of 30,000 seamen. Escorting Royal Navy and Commonwealth patrols lost 76 ships and 10,000 men. Until the Allies cracked the Enigma code, U-boat casualties were slight. Eventually, however, out of 750 U-boats, 510 were lost with the lives of 20,000 men.
According to one of the speakers, Dr Tony Lane of Liverpool University, this week's conference is likely to reopen old sores about the battle - in particular the lack of acclaim shown by Royal Navy officers to their merchant counterparts.
The conference, said Dr Lane, is biased towards the role of strategists at Navy headquarters, with little credit being paid to those who ran the gauntlet of enemy torpedoes and bombers, and suffered the heaviest losses. Of the gathering's 12 sessions, only one will be devoted specifically to the merchant navy. The rest concentrate on the military campaign.
Dr Lane, who served in the merchant navy from 1954 to 1963, is the author of The Merchant Seaman's War, which looks at the conflict through the eyes of ordinary men and is being republished to coincide with the anniversary.
He claims that former Navy officers and historians behind the conference planned no papers on the men who lived and died through enemy air and torpedo attacks. Nor, he believes, were they planning to pay much attention to the experiences of sailors forced to drift for days on rafts and upturned lifeboats.
'The 'boys with toys' were going to discuss the whole thing as if it were simply a struggle between war leaders, the industrial powers and their warships,' he said. This is reminiscent of the way the Royal Navy treated the merchant navy during the war. My dispute with the Navy concerns the way that credit is taken for skills and sacrifices which should by rights go to the merchant navy.'
In particular, he claimed the men on the corvettes which accompanied the merchant vessels were often Royal Navy reservists drawn from the merchant navy who 'consistently out-navigated the Royal Navy men'.
At the Ministry of Defence, the head of the naval history branch, David Brown, hotly defended the Royal Navy and the conference organisers. 'It is quite wrong to suggest that merchant navy affairs are not being tackled. I do not accept the idea that if you want to find out what was really happening in a battle fought 50 years ago you need to hear all the evidence from survivors. The survivors were simply in the dark.'
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