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The Battle of the Atlantic - longest lasting battle ever

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The Battle of the Atlantic - longest lasting battle ever

“The only villain was the sea, itself” From The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monserrat.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest lasting battle ever fought.  It began in 1939 and lasted until the final surrender of the Axis forces.  Even in the final days there were rumors that Japanese submarines were attempting to move into the great ocean between the Americas and Europe.

The site of the battle is broad and long.  It begins in the Arctic reaches around Canada, Greenland and Iceland, extends over to the shores of northern Europe, streams down along the North American natural boundaries into the Gulf of Mexico to South America and across to Africa. It is correct in the quote above, “The only villain was the sea itself”.  Both sides fought each other, and both sides fought the bad weather, the Arctic storms and the Atlantic hurricanes.

The northern waters saw the heaviest action.  The few face-to-face sea fights were just that, few in number, and mostly in the early days.  Then it settled down to the moving of war material from the United States to Great Britain, North Africa, and Russia, with Germany’s preponderance of U boats against the merchant ships, an unequal situation if ever there was one in warfare.

Early on, Germany realized that its battleships, the Tirpitz, the Graf Spee, the Scharnhorst were no match for England’s fleet on the open seas.  They were sunk, interned or brought back into the fold of Fortress Europa.  The emphasis changed to U boats, those silent, undersea raiders that were soon formed into wolfpacks, four or five craft that would await convoys bringing war materiel purchased in the neutral (in name only) United States and transported in merchant bottoms.  

Against the U boats the ships were truly sitting ducks.   Often in the sight of spectators on the beaches the deadly undersea warships would torpedo single merchant ships, or, as an alternative to a costly torpedo, would surface and blast the defenseless cargo carrier to pieces with its deck gun.  This writer’s uncle, Charles Atwater, told of sitting on his porch at Fort Lauderdale and observing the sinking of an American ship within a few miles. The Civil Air Patrol was formed for a beginning defense against the enemy, and they exist today, but now in the peacetime role of saving lives.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend Lease Treaty in March 0f 1941.  Until then the United States had provided war materials to Great Britain, but only for cash. Under the treaty the flow of material continued, but it was exchanged for the right for the U. S. to use United Kingdom bases abroad.  The American warships, though, were already bearing the much of the brunt of ocean warfare.  

Close to home, in Chattahoochee, two families were affected heavily.  The Mosely family lost their only son while he was ferrying bombers into Canada.  Warren Mayo, himself an Army veteran of The Great War, saw his oldest son, Melborn, off to sea. Soon the family got word that his ship was wrecked on rocks near Newfoundland while performing convoy duty. The American Legion Post there is named for the two young men.

The typical convoy would load in New York or some other seaport and begin moving out, escorted at first by airships, including dirigibles, then by destroyers and later destroyer escorts.  Our Navy ships would turn back when they reached the half way mark, and British ships would assume the guard.  Moving only at the speed of the slowest ship, they were vulnerable to the U boats. Often fewer than half of the ships in a convoy would arrive in port; the others were torpedoed, bombed or lost to storms.

On some of the merchant ships were Naval Armed Guards, small detachments of sailors under the command of a junior officer.  They were meant for defense, and they suffered the same as the merchant crews:  bombers when they neared Europe, frigid seas that would kill a man overboard within three minutes, and the U boats that preyed on the slow moving targets.  The writer’s cousin, Ed Williamson, was one of the officers on the infamous Murmansk run into that northernmost Russian seaport.  He survived, and after the war was Florida State University’s first football coach.

American Navy ships got more skillful at defending the convoys, and, gradually, the Battle of the Atlantic was being won.  Britain survived, and our troops in North Africa and on D Day were kept in food, fuel and ammunition.  But the Battle of the Atlantic continued until the last of the feared U boats received the final word that the longest battle ever fought was over, and all could go home.

(If you have more interest in The Battle of the Atlantic, read “The Cruel Sea” by Monserrat, watch the movie “The Enemy Below” or look up the U. S. Naval Armed Guard)

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