Bitter Ocean is a masterful, authoritative account of perhaps the least-known major battle of World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic. British, Canadian, and American air and sea forces fought the German U-boats in this desperate battle, and prevailed -- at a terrible cost.
Between 1939 and 1945, over 36,000 Allied sailors and navy airmen and 36,000 merchant seamen lost their lives in the Atlantic Ocean. They were attempting to deliver the weapons, food, and supplies essential to keeping Britain alive, as well as the supplies vital to the armies fighting in Europe. In addition to the troops themselves, every tank, plane, and bomb crossed the Atlantic aboard ship. As dreadful as the loss of life was for the Allies, the Germans fared even worse. More than 80 percent of German U-boat crewmen never made it home, the highest casualty rate of any branch of the military on either side. Bitterly contested and nearly lost, the Allies' battle for control of the Atlantic shipping lanes remains perhaps the least understood chapter of World War II -- until now.
Drawing on a wealth of archival research as well as interviews with veterans on both sides of the ocean campaign, author and maritime journalist David Fairbank White takes us aboard ship and beneath the waves as he reconstructs this epic clash from both sides. With captivating immediacy, Bitter Ocean evokes the grim years 1940-42 when Admiral Karl Donitz's U-boats -- "tough wolves, stubby, 761 tons of driven, overcharged Nazi attack power" -- succeeded in sinking more tonnage than Allied shipyards could replace. He shows us the technological breakthroughs that reversed the course of the battle in 1943, including improved radar, machines that cracked the German naval code, and very long-range bombers. As the hunters became the hunted, the tide turned, but the German fleet continued to fight despite the increasingly terrible odds.
As he tells the powerful, wrenching stories of individual convoys that suffered from the German submarine attacks, White displays a novelist's flair. Vividly written, Bitter Ocean is scrupulously factual, a triumph of scholarship that will enthrall every student of history.
This superior history of the longest-running battle of WWII by White (a former New York Times reporter and author of the novel True Bearing) opens with winter on the North Atlantic and Adm. Karl Donitz's U-boats hunting Allied merchant ships. The question was whether Britain could be starved into surrender or at least made incapable of launching offensives. Against the Royal Navy, with its American and Canadian allies, were pitted the "wolfpacks" of submarines that decimated whole convoys and sank merchant ships faster than the Allies could build them. In the end, Allied training, code breaking, long-range aircraft, escort carriers and the sheer output of American shipyards turned the tide. Along with the overview, White provides excellent focused passages, such as the ordeal of the tanker San Demetrio, as well as portraits of individual combatants--the colorful British destroyer expert Donald Macintyre and the superbly professional U-boat captain Otto Kretschmer. A better starting place for the general reader to begin learning about this epic portion of WWII would be hard to imagine, and one that gives the British their well-deserved lion's share of the credit for victory has not been written lately. 16 pages of photos, maps. (May 8)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
May 14, 2007
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Excerpt from Bitter Ocean by David Fairbank White
WINTER, NORTH ATLANTIC
Out here only weather exists, and the immense field of the sea, wide as a wilderness all its own, white-flecked, deep blue, marked by the endless waves that march away in perfect, receding uniformity. The spot at latitude 42 degree 80' north, longitude 37degree 20' west on the Atlantic Ocean is vacant, blank, chilly, grooved by the layers and furrows of the mid-ocean currents, precisely identical to every other mile around it. Beneath these waters lie the countless graves of navy sailors and merchant seamen who perished at the hands of German U-boats to keep the supplies flowing to feed World War II. There are no headstones out here, no markers, no monuments. For sailors lost at sea, there are no tablets. There is only this place, the wind-whipped, empty, anonymous ocean. A modern containership passing by in 2002 hustles past the froth, and the waves turn to marbled swirls of aqua, blue, white, mingling and turning and folding into frigid pinwheels of color.
More than 36,200 Allied sailors, airmen, and servicemen and women went to their death on this ocean, or in the contest centered around it, between 1939 and 1945, in Lightning Class destroyers, tiny corvettes, and B-24 Liberator aircraft, or at land installations ashore.
Alongside these, some 36,000 merchant ship sailors were lost, many dying terrible deaths, plunging to the bottom of the Atlantic in ships which disappeared from the surface with all hands in less than twenty seconds, many others succumbing to isolation, exposure, or starvation in open lifeboats or on rafts.
The Germans paid a high price, too. One thousand one hundred seventy-one U-boats went to war between 1939 and 1945. Six hundred sixty, almost 57 percent, were lost. The loss in men was far greater; the casualty rate for the German U-boat service is the highest for any military unit since the time of the Romans. Forty thousand German officers and men went to war in U-boats. Only 7,000 came home.
The Battle of the Atlantic was fought all across the 32 million square miles of the pitching, heaving Atlantic Ocean, in the frigid, green wastes up by Iceland, in the empty waters off the Azores, in the gray, quick approaches to the English coast. It saw lone, knifelike U-boats surface in the pit of night on heaving seas to set, aim, and slam torpedoes into aging merchant ships; it saw wolfpacks of ten or more U-boats gather to maul convoys of forty or fifty merchant ships in battles that stretched over three or four days; it saw the development of advanced, futuristic Type XXI U-boats which could race along underwater at phenomenal speeds. The conflict was Hitler's ambitious bid to win the war on the Atlantic with his U-boats, long, tapered, bristling with guns.
The battle -- it was not really a battle but a struggle that lasted the entire war -- was a six-year effort of fundamental importance to every other engagement of World War II. On this battle hinged the effort to bring massive convoys of merchant ships across the Atlantic, carrying the provisions, food, raw materials, and oil to keep solitary England alive during the years she stood alone against the Germans until 1941, and later every tank, gun, tent, helmet, bomb, all the troops, gasoline, coffee, wheat, rations to feed, fuel to supply the Allied armies sprawled across Europe. Without the men and ordnance on the ships, no battle, on any front, in any country overseas could be fought. The Battle of the Atlantic was the confrontation upon which the rest of World War II depended.
The convoys -- eastbound formations were designated HX, for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and SC for Slow Convoy; westbound formations were dubbed ON, for Outward Bound North, and ONS for Outward Bound North Slow --