The Beginning – Loss of the SS Athenia,
3 Sptember 1939
Huddled in a lifeboat, oil-soaked and cold, they’d spent all night rowing, trying to keep close to the other boats, afraid of drifting into the darkness and away from rescue. Only hours before a torpedo had shattered their ship, sparing them but killing 118 others as she sank. Only two days old, the new war claimed its first victims at sea, not warriors, but innocent passengers and crew from the ocean liner Athenia. It was a grim beginning to the Battle of the Atlantic.
Imagine driving down a crowded, rolling, rutted six-lane highway on a foggy night when, suddenly, someone starts shooting at you. You don’t know where the shots are coming from, you can’t shoot back, fireworks start going off over head, and all the cars around you are trying to change direction. Add to this the possibility of freezing to death if you leave your car, being burned alive if your car is hit, or abandoned and left to starve to death by the other drivers. Compound this with aching fatigue, numbing cold, wet clothing and little food for the previous week. This is just an inkling of what life was like in a convoy.
The North Atlantic breeds the worst weather in the world. With the prevailing westerly winds, the seas build to monstrous size. Fog is a constant threat south of the Canadian Maritime Provinces where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current. In winter, the Greenland Low adds its force to this turbulent corner of the oceans. Finally, in the Spring icebergs push south from the coasts of Greenland adding their silent, deadly beauty to the gray-green seascape. Into this, the antagonists sailed and fought for almost six years.
Going to sea in normal times is hazardous. Storms, collisions, break downs, and crippling or fatal injuries are the penalties of a moment’s inattention. Ice in winter builds up on the superstructure and can capsize a ship. Seas are so large and relentless they crush boats, bend stanchions, and stove in hatch covers. Wind and sleet tear at exposed flesh. Survival time in the winter waters of the North Atlantic is measured in minutes. All of this is multiplied exponentially when you take a large number of ships, place them in a few square miles of ocean, and send a highly trained and motivated force out to sink them.
When a ship is torpedoed, steam pipes burst flaying men alive, the barnacle encrusted hull is exposed tearing at you as you slide over the side, hatches jam closing escape routes and trapping people below. Fuel bunkers rupture spreading oil on the surface to be breathed and swallowed destroying lungs, burning eyes, and making almost impossible to pull free of the sinking ship. And God help the tanker sailor whose cargo of fuel catches fire engulfing everything in an inescapable sea of flames.
Life in a U-boat was no better with 50 men jammed into a cramped, moisture laden steel tube for weeks at a time. Hot racking, moldy food, clothing that is always wet and standing 4-hour watches constantly beaten by the freezing sea, torn at by the wind, and praying your safety harness holds. The monotony is interspersed with the nerve-wrenching stalking of the enemy through a darken seascape, the violent explosions of your torpedoes smashing through the sides of ships, the savage beauty of star shells and tracers arcing through the night searching for you as your boat weaves through the wounded convoy in a deadly ballet. And, finally, listening to the depth charges rain down, gasping for breath in the oxygen starved air, wondering which charge will crack the hull open plunging you to a crushing death a 1000 fathoms below.
The End – 8 May 1945
696 U-boats and 25,870 men of their crews were lost. More than 2,800 merchant ships, 175 warships, 1,777 aircraft and 33,000 Allied sailors and airmen died and an uncounted number of women and children were lost in the Atlantic from September 1939 to May 1945.
The Sea is not cruel, only indifferent.
It was the men and what they brought with them that created the cruelty.