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ANTONY PRESTON, JOHN BATCHELOR
German Type IXB. These ocean-going boats were developed from the UEII Type of the First-World War, and had more endurance than the Type VII series. They proved less suitable for the Western Approaches and were used in distant waters, but their average of tonnage sunk was as high as any other group of U-Boats. Their main drawback was that they took too long to build, and only 14 were built. Displacement: 1,051 tons (surfaced). Armament: Six 21-in torpedo-tubes; 22 torpedoes carried; one 105-mm gun; one 37-mm gun; one 20-mm gun Speed: 18¼ knots (surfaced), 7¼ knots (submerged)
The collapse of France brought about a tremendous change in the naval situation, quite apart from the threat posed by German hopes of invading the British Isles. For a start, the loss or immobilisation of almost the entire French Fleet threw the whole burden of protecting shipping on the Royal Navy. Then the entry of Italy into the war as a partner of Germany meant that British ship-movements in the Mediterranean would be menaced by over 100 Italian submarines, in addition to whatever number of U-Boats could be spared from the Atlantic. A third factor was the greatly increased number of U-Boat bases available.
Once more, Germany was attempting to strangle Britain's supply lines with an all-out submarine campaign. But while the outcome was never certain, time was against the U-Boats. Experienced commanders could not be replaced, and the manpower and materials shortage affected the U-Boats as much as any other branch of Germany's armed forces. For the second time they would come within sight of victory, and for the second time they would be denied it
A Mosquito bomber armed with rockets attacks a diving submarine
By the end of 1940 many U-Boats had been moved to the French Atlantic ports, with 12 flotillas based on Brest, La Rochelle, La Pallice, St Nazaire, Lorient and Bordeaux. Being so much nearer to the Western Approaches and the North Atlantic gave them greater operating time, and so made them far more effective than before. For the same reason, when the Italian Navy offered some of its submarines to the Germans for use in the Atlantic it was decided to base them on Bordeaux rat her than make them travel all the way from the Mediterranean.
The first Italian submarines to make a passage of the Straits of Gibraltar were the Giuseppe Finzi and Pietro Calvi in June 1940. After further attempts had shown how difficult it could be, owing to the currents in the Straits, the Italian Naval Staff decided to embark on the expense of setting up a permanent base at Bordeaux, and this was begun in August 1940. It came to be known as BETASOM, from Beta (= "B" for Bordeaux), and Som (= Sommergibili), and by January 1941 the base was able to cater for 27 submarines. This massive effort would have been very helpful to the Germans, but for the fact that the design of the Italian submarines proved so poor. They had prodigiously large conning towers, some of which were equipped with a galley and a lavatory for the comfort of watchkeepers, but had only modest surface speed.
BETASOM did its best to remedy the defects, and many desirable features of the German U-Boats were incorporated when possible. The main patrol area was off the Azores, and in the 2,5 years in which Italian submarines operated they sank almost 1 million tons of Allied shipping, or an average of some 31,000 tons sunk by the 32 boats involved. When the Italians tried to make a separate peace in 1943, two of the surviving boats at Bordeaux were seized by the Germans and taken into the Kriegsmarine as UIT21 and 22 (UIT stood for U-Italian).
As soon as the German base facilities were ready Admiral Dönitz switched to the attack once more. In August 1940 Hitler declared a total blockade of the British Isles, thus freeing the U-Boats from the restrictions that had been in force since the beginning of the war. Success did not come easily, for the growing skill of British escorts made coastal waters too dangerous for the U-Boats, and so they had to move out westwards. Here they found the going easier, and between June and November 1910 losses of shipping rose to nearly 1,600,000 tons. Fortunately the United States replaced its "Cash and Carry" legislation with an agreement to "lend" war equipment, particularly 50 old but useful destroyers, in exchange for a 99-year lease on various bases throughout the British Empire.
The "bases for equipment" exchange had little immediate effect on the U-Boat war as the destroyers took some time to be refitted as anti-submarine vessels, but it put heart into the British when they most needed it. It also depressed the Germans, who felt that America was once more trying to rob Germany of her rightful victory, and many senior Nazis urged Hitler to declare war on the United States before she could re-arm and rescue' the British. But the Germans had their own problems, particularly in maintaining an adequate number of U-Boats at sea. Surprisingly little equipment from the navies of Europe had fallen into German hands, despite the swift collapse of resistance in May and June; dockyards were wrecked and although some captured submarine hulls were salvageable it would take months before they could be put back into service. The building programme had been stepped up, but like other branches of the armed services, the U-Boat Arm had been equipped for a short war, and pre-war planning for expansion had been unrealistic.
Only four U-Boats were launched between the outbreak of war and the end of 1939, and a further 60 followed in 1940. But in the same period British air and surface forces had sunk 32, and accidents had increased the total to 34. This was a much heavier loss rate than the U-Boats had sustained in the early years of the First World War, and proved that the British convoy escorts were skilled opponents. The withdrawal of destroyers from escort duties to meet the threat of German invasion after Dunkirk had denuded the convoys to a dangerous extent, and although the U-Boats scored more kills than ever before, there were only about thirty at sea at any moment, too few to exploit their enemy's weakness. This was the period of the great U-Boat aces, like Prien and Kretschmer, and some of them sank the staggering total of 200,000 tons of shipping apiece, an achievement which earned them the award of the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves.