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ANTONY PRESTON, JOHN BATCHELOR
The aircraft had shown itself to be a dangerous enemy to submarines during the First World War, and the increased range of aircraft in 1939 made them far more dangerous. It was not foreseen that the ordinary aircraft bomb would be ineffective against submarines, and the lack of sufficient numbers would also prevent aircraft from making a full contribution at first, but ultimately they proved the submarine's worst enemy. Another less-publicised weapon which was available was the mine. In 1917/18 mines had accounted for 49 U-Boats, over a quarter of the total sunk, but for some reason the value of offensive mining against submarines was still disputed in 1939. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy had developed the magnetic mine which it had used in 1918, and had large stocks of an anti-submarine pattern in hand.
When war broke out between Britain, France and Germany on 3 September 1939, the German Navy had 56 U-Boats in commission, with five more nearing completion. Some 40 of these were already at their war stations around the British Isles, and despite the fact that Hitler's instructions forbade "unrestricted" warfare against merchant shipping, one of them sank the liner Athenia without warning on the first day of the war. Hitler's instructions were based on his reluctance to antagonise neutral opinion, but as early as 1937 the Admiralty had assumed that these restrictions would not be obeyed.
British Thrasher. The famous "T" Class were designed for overseas operations, and so size had to be increased to approximately 1,100 tons. They had the heavy armament of ten torpedo-tubes, eight in the bow and two aft. The two upper tubes were externally fitted, and could not be reloaded at sea. Displacement: 1,321 tons (full load, surfaced. Armament: Ten 21-in torpedo-tubes; one 4-in gun
The Athenia sinking was a genuine mistake, as the commander of U30 mistook her for a troop transport; other U-Boats behaved in a humane manner towards their victims in this early period of the war. It was known to the journalists as the "Phoney War", and some people talked of a sinister plot between the Allies and Hitler, but there was nothing phoney about the 199 merchant ships sunk by the end of March 1940. Nor had the U-Boats escaped lightly, as 18 had been sunk in the same period.
The U-Boats had also scored some notable successes against warships. Two weeks after the outbreak of war the aircraft carrier Ark Royal was attacked by U39, but the carrier's escorting destroyers pounced and sank her. Three days later, however, another carrier, HMS Courageous, was sunk by U29, and on 14 October U47 brought off a brilliant coup by sinking the battleship Royal Oak in her supposedly secure base at Scapa Flow. Kapitän-Leutnant Prien took his U-Boat in through the tortuous channels past the rusting blockships which had lain there since 1914, and finally found the battleship at anchor. After one salvo of torpedoes missed, Prien reloaded and fired a spread of three which detonated under the Royal Oak's keel; she capsized and sank with 833 of her crew.
The Royal Oak was an elderly second-line unit whose loss could hardly rank with that of the carrier Courageous in military value, but U47's exploit had far more impact. The realisation that Scapa Flow could be penetrated by a submarine forced the British to remove their entire Home Fleet to a series of temporary anchorages, just as the Grand Fleet had gone a-wandering in 1914 after a submarine scare. At a crucial moment the whole British strategy for penning the German Navy's surface warships in the North Sea, had been drastically changed, all by one submariner and his crew's determination and courage.
British Thunderbolt. This member of the "T" Class was far better known as the Thetis after being lost in a tragic accident in Liverpool Bay in June 1939. To avoid any suggestion of a jinx on the boat the Admiralty put her into service under a new name, but this did not stop her from being sunk by an Italian corvette north of Sicily in 1943. Despite the Thetis disaster, the "T" Class had a high reputation for reliability, and fifty-five were built between 1937 and 1945
Only 38 British submarines were available in September 1939, and although the British blockade of the North Sea denied them any big opportunities for attacking German shipping, they had an important role to play. They were immediately deployed to extend air patrol lines, in order to give warning of enemy naval movements, and to harass U-Boats and surface warships in their home waters. What was not realised for some time, however, was that a policy of sending submarines to lie off enemy bases would expose the submarines to a high loss rate. This is because a base acts like a convoy - in fact a convoy with a reduced perimeter - and thus the advantage swings to the enemy's anti-submarine forces.
In April and May 1940 there was a sudden lull in U-Boat activity, and only 20 ships were sunk; this was because Admiral Dönitz had recalled most of his boats to regroup for the invasion of Norway. The British also had plans for Norway, as they wanted to lay minefields to interrupt the iron-ore traffic from Narvik to Germany. After the end of the campaign only submarine minelayers could be used, and to strengthen the effort the Admiralty persuaded the French Government to lend them the Rubis. This famous submarine laid her first mines off Christiansand on 10 May 1940. the first episode in a career which lasted until 1944 and accounted for 15 merchant ships and seven warships sunk, and a merchant ship and a U-Boat damaged.