Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies' Defeat of the German U-Boats in May 1943by Michael Gannon
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… See more details below
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.
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Read an Excerpt
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."
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.
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