Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies' Defeat of the German U-Boats in May 1943

Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies' Defeat of the German U-Boats in May 1943

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by Michael Gannon

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In May 1943, Allied sea and air forces won a stunning, dramatic, and vital victory over the largest and most powerful submarine force ever sent to sea, sinking forty-one German U-boats and damaging thirty-seven others. It was the forty-fifth month of World War II, and by the end of May the Germans were forced to acknowledge defeat and recall almost all of their


In May 1943, Allied sea and air forces won a stunning, dramatic, and vital victory over the largest and most powerful submarine force ever sent to sea, sinking forty-one German U-boats and damaging thirty-seven others. It was the forty-fifth month of World War II, and by the end of May the Germans were forced to acknowledge defeat and recall almost all of their remaining U-boats from the major traffic lanes of the North Atlantic. At U-Boat Headquarters in Berlin, despondent naval officers spoke of "Black May." It was a defeat from which the German U-boat fleet never recovered.

Black May is a triumph of scholarship and narrative, an important work of history, and a great sea story. Acclaimed historian Michael Gannon, author of Operation Drumbeat, has done enormous research and produced the most thoroughly documented study ever done of these battles. In his compelling historical saga, the people are as significant as the technical information.

Given the strategic importance of the events of May 1943, it is natural to ask, How did Black May happen and why? Who or what was responsible? Were new Allied tactics adopted or new weapons employed?

This book answers those questions and many others. Drawing on original documents in German, British, U.S., and Canadian archives, as well as interviews with surviving participants, Gannon describes the exciting sea and air battles, frequently taking the reader inside the U-boats themselves, aboard British warships, onto the decks of torpedoed merchant ships, and into the cockpits of British and U.S. aircraft.

Throughout, Gannon tells the Black May story from both the German and Allied perspectives, often using the actual words of captains and crews. Finally, he allows the reader to "listen in" on secretly recorded conversations of captured U-boat men in POW quarters during that same incredible month, giving intimate and moving access to the thoughts and emotions of seamen that is unparalleled in naval literature. Rarely, if ever, has the U-boat war been presented so accurately, so graphically, and so personally as in Black May.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Combining scholarship, storytelling and analysis, Gannon (Operation Drumbeat) delivers a compelling, comprehensive account of the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic in May 1943. Gannon integrates coverage of the North Atlantic convoy battles with the Bay of Biscay offensive simultaneously mounted by RAF Coastal Command. The book's focal point is the epic story of Convoy ONS 5, which included 43 merchantmen (ships used in commerce) and a half dozen escorts. ONS 5 was sailing to Halifax, and most of its ships were in ballast. But cargoes were less important than tonnage for German Admiral Karl Dnitz's U-boat wolf packs. Gannon takes readers from the decks of merchantmen to the bridges of warships, to the conning towers of U-boats in a kaleidoscope whose final pattern was as much a function of skill and determination as of weapons systems. Thirteen merchantmen were sunk. But a half-dozen U-boats went down as well, and seven more were so crippled they had to return to base. U-boat captains were like fighter pilots: a relatively small number scored a disproportionate number of victories. By May 1943, many of the original "aces" were dead. Their successors were generally less willing to push attacks against escorts whose crews, techniques and tactics had exponentially improved since 1940. Meanwhile, civilian analysts had developed an operational model indicating that by concentrating on the choke point provided by the Bay of Biscay, RAF Coastal Command would be in a position to paralyze the U-boat offensive. When implemented, the plan's verifiable figures matched the projected numbers. Few men fought better in an evil cause than did the U-boat crews. But, as Gannon shows in his excellent book, none performed better in a good one than those who defeated them. 40 b&w photos. (June)

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May Day

Not only must every opportunity to attack be resolutely seized, but it would also be a grave error to depart from the principles which have been hammered into U-boat crews so hard and so frequently: "get to your position ahead just as quickly as you can, launch your attack just as soon as you can, exploit your opportunities at once and as fully as you can."
Karl Doenitz

Enemy submarines are to be called U-boats. The term "submarine" is to be reserved for Allied underwater vessels. U-boats are those dastardly villains who sink our ships, while submarines are those gallant and noble craft which sink theirs.
Winston S. Churchill

The U-515 was on her third operational patrol since the long-range Type IXC boat emerged from the yards of Deutsche Werft at Hamburg-Finkenwerder and Werner Henke raised the national flag and his Commander's pennant above her conning tower at the Indienststellung, or formal commissioning, on 21 February 1942. After six months of workup and tactical exercises, she had made her maiden war patrol, and Henke's first as a Kommandant, on 12 August-14 October 1942 off Trinidad and Tobago in the southeast Caribbean, netting ten Allied ships sunk, for a total of 52,807 GRT; a not-inconsiderable tally for a single cruise, even given the fact that Henke was operating against mostly independently routed ships in a weakly defended area. It was a score outdone by only a handful of German boats during the war, and matched by only one U.S. Navy submarine in the Pacific (U.S.S. Tang in June-July 1944).
The U-515's second cruise, on 7 November 1942-6 January 1943, off Gibraltar and the Azores, resulted inonly two sinkings, but one vessel was a Royal Navy destroyer depot ship, H.M.S. Hecla (10,850 tons), and the other a passenger liner-troopship, Ceramic (18,713 GRT). The loss of life from the two ships had been dreadful: 279 lost from 847 ranks and ratings on the former; all but one of 656 on the latter. By 30 April 1943, U-515's third patrol, begun on 21 February, was already one of the longest of the war, and due to grow longer still. Operating off first the Azores and then Dakar in Senegal, on the bulge of West Africa, U-515's third cruise, like the second, had been mostly a run of bad luck, with only two merchant trophies of 10,657 GRT to show for sixty-nine days of steaming--a poor individual tonnage rate per sea-day of 154 GRT.
The first sinking had come on the evening of 4 March while U-515 was northwest of the Azores. On a calm sea with little wind and good visibility, Henke sighted a large freighter proceeding independently at 15 knots on a course of 050* (degrees). He advanced on the surface toward the target. What happened next he described in his war diary (Kriegstagebuch, hereafter KTB):
Double fan launch [Faecher] from [torpedo] Tubes II and IV. [Torpedo] speed 14 knots, range [to target] 1,200 meters. [Target's] bows on right, bearing 80 degrees, [torpedo] depth 5 meters, running times 37 and 38 seconds. Two hits amidship and forward [but] the steamer doesn't sink. Coup de grace [Fangschuss] from [stern] Tube VI, depth [set to run below the keel of the target] 9 meters, [torpedo warhead equipped] with Pi 2 [Pistole-2: a detonator designed to be activated by the magnetic field of a ship's steel keel], running time 36 seconds. Hit toward the stern, in the engine room--a powerful explosion. The steamer sinks slowly on an even keel, transmits wireless signal. [Another] coup de grace, this time from Tube I. Depth 10 [meters] with Pi 2, running time 25 seconds. Hit forward--great explosion. Ship goes down after about 10 minutes. It's the California Star at 8,300 GRT, [which was sailing] from New Zealand to England with butter, cheese, lard, and meat. The Second Officer was taken prisoner. The Captain and First Officer probably went down with their ship.
The California Star, which carried general cargo as well as food, was a motor ship of British registry. Fifty of her seventy-four men on board were killed, fatally wounded, or drowned. The sinking took place at latitude and longitude coordinates 42*32'N, 37*20'W. On 21 March and 1 April U-515 rendezvoused with two returning boats, U-106 (Kptlt. Hermann Rasch) and U-67 (Kptlt. Guenther Mueller-Stockheim), to take on fuel, provisions, and spare parts. Henke's second success on this patrol came thirty-six days after the first, on 9 April, at night, while steaming off Dakar. This victim, the French motor ship Bamako, was a smallish 2,357 GRT, slightly overestimated by Henke:
Advanced on a freighter of 3,500 GRT. Double fan launch from [stern] Tubes V and VI. [Target's] speed 8.5 knots. [Torpedo] depths set to 3 and 4 meters. [Target's] bows on right bearing 80 degrees. Range 800 meters. [Torpedo] running times 60 and 61 seconds. Hits fore and aft. Ship capsizes and sinks very quickly.
Twenty of the ship's thirty-seven crew and passengers went to watery graves at position 14*57'N, 17*15'W.
The wages of war were not only bottoms and cargoes--a reminder, if one were needed by affronted humanity, that the fragile tissue of men was no equal to the violent and deadly instruments that roamed the spring Atlantic seeking whom they might devour. In that connection, it bears mention that if there has been a general fault with histories of the Atlantic war it has been their tendency to concentrate on the uniformed fighting services of sea and air, while giving scant notice to the civilian British, American, and other Allied merchant seamen who experienced the most danger of U-boat attack at sea and suffered by far the most human casualties.

What People are saying about this

Thomas Fleming
"Black May is another amazing job of research and writing, a more than worthy successor to OPERATION DRUMBEAT. Who would imagine at this late date, fifty years after the war, that anyone could fine so much new material about the Battle for the Atlantic? The monitored conversations of the prisoners are especially fascinating. I can't think of another book that tells both sides of the story with such depth and drama."
Fred Milford
"What is impressive to me about BLACK MAY is that even after a hundred or sobooks have been written about the Battle of the Alantic, Mike Gannon hasbeen able to uncover new material and use it to develop new perspectives andnew insights into how the battle was won and lost. He has done this byfocussing on May 1943. In that most interestingmonth it became obvious that experience, new tactics, new weapons, newanalyses and more ASW ships and aircraft had turned the tide. BLACK MAY isa solid history of the month and its antecedants skillfully based on thebest archival sources. Gannon's felicitous style and keen appreciation ofthe human aspects make it a pleasure to read."
Len Deighton
"Michael Gannon possesses an extremely rare talent. He combines the skeptical eye of the historian, the fastidious care of the researcher and the dash and enthusiasm of the popular writer. He recreates for us the nightmare conditions of the German U-boat crews, and the harsh and hazardous lives of the men hunting them. He also probes, in a fair but critical way, the decisions of the top brass on both sides. BLACK MAY is a serious military study but its narrative power beats any fiction I have read in years."
Brian McCue
"In BLACK MAY, the author of OPERATION DRUMBEAT has outdone himself."
Tallahassee Democrat
"Gannon is at his best, describing the men and women who used those new weapons of war to reduce U-boats to victims rather than predators."
Carlo D'Este
"A splendid book...BLACK MAY is a gripping tale of the undersea (or U-Boat) war by oneof our finest naval historians. Highly recommended."
Captain Edward L. Beach
BLACK MAY, like everything Michael Gannon has written, bears the hallmarks of his careful scholarship and thorough research. He has come up with long-buried documents that most of us never knew existed and has combined them all into what by all odds will have to be recognized as the final word on that critical period of the Battle of the Atlantic when the U-boats were vanquished. From then on, though they continued to fight desperately, the U-boats were doomed. They carpeted the Atlantic floor with their iron coffins, losing in sum three-quarters of all the submarines they sent to sea. They were brave and honorable men, despite the terrible cause for which they fought.
"Based on careful research in the archives of Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Germany, the author describes the operational background and the technical developments on both sides including the most important intelligence evaluations....For the first time the fateful decisions at the top and the developments at sea are told in a balanced and lively way."
Vice Admiral James F. Calvert
"BLACK MAY does the best job I have seen yet of describing in detail why the U-boats lost the Battle of the Atlantic.....It is a significant addition to the history of World War II."

Meet the Author

Michael Gannon is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida, where he taught the history of World War II. He resides in Gainesville and is the author of seven books. In the l950s he wrote on military subjects from Europe. In 1968 he served as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Also a scholar in the field of Spanish colonial history, he has received numerous awards and honors, including Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel la Catolica from King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

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Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies' Defeat of the German U-Boats in May 1943 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In-Quest More than 1 year ago
I do not take to this kind of book. Took me six months to read. It has way too much descriptions of convoy attachs and not enough higher level strategy.