Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

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by Clay Blair

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"His monumental work...is the most thorough study of the U-boat campaign available."    —Library Journal

Hitler's U-boat War is an epic sea story about the most arduous and prolonged naval battle in history. For a period of nearly six years, the German U-boat force attempted to blockade and isolate the British


"His monumental work...is the most thorough study of the U-boat campaign available."    —Library Journal

Hitler's U-boat War is an epic sea story about the most arduous and prolonged naval battle in history. For a period of nearly six years, the German U-boat force attempted to blockade and isolate the British Isles in hopes of forcing the British out of the war, thereby thwarting both the Allied strategic air assault on German cities and Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Occupied France. Fortunately for the Allies, the U-boat force failed to achieve either of these objectives, but in the attempt they sank 2,800 Allied merchant ships, while the Allies sank nearly 800 U-boats. On both sides, tens of thousands of sailors perished.
For decades, an authoritative and definitive history of the Battle of the Atlantic could not be attempted, since London and Washington agreed to withhold all official code-breaking and U-boat records in order to safeguard the secrets of code breaking in the postwar years. The accounts that did appear were incomplete and full of false conclusions and errors of fact, often leaving the entirely wrong impression that the German U-boats came within a whisker of defeating the Allies, a myth that is finally laid to rest in this account.
Clay Blair, acclaimed author of the bestselling naval classic Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, has drawn from the official records as well as the work of German, British, American, and Canadian naval scholars. Never before has Hitler's U-boat war been chronicled with such authority, fidelity, objectivity, and detail. The result is this magnificent and monumental work, crammed with vivid and dramatic scenes of naval actions and dispassionate but startling new revelations, interpretations, and conclusions about all aspects of the Battle of the Atlantic.  

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Military history of a surpassingly high order, which...could become the standard reference on U-boats."                                                              —Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Everything about this book is big: its page count, its thesis and its shortcomings.

Blair is a respected authority on submarine warfare whose Silent Victory, a history of the U.S. submarine service, remains a widely cited work. He is also a master of operational narrative, a writer who can put readers in a destroyer's bridge or a U-boat's conning tower as convincingly as many novelists. Here, in the first of two projected volumes, Blair employs a comprehensive mix of German, British and U.S. sources to argue that the German U-boats have been mythologized, their successes overstated and their threat to the Allied war effort exaggerated. While U-boats delayed and diminished the arrival of supplies to Europe, 99% of all ships in transatlantic convoys reached their destinations. For Blair, that is a sizable margin of acceptable loss. He even stands foursquare behind Admiral Ernest King's reluctance to organize merchant convoys after Pearl Harbor. German U-boats operating off the Atlantic Coast and in the Caribbean accounted for about a quarter of all tonnage sunk during the war, but even these losses could be replaced. Blair compares by implication German failures in the U-boat war to the U.S. submarine campaign in the Pacific, which succeeded in strangling Japan by mid-1945. But to assert, as he does, that the U-boats never had a chance seems to fly in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that cannot be dismissed as retrospective mythmaking. Even before the climactic convoy battles of 1943, the Allied navies were morally and materially stretched to near breaking point.

Though richly informed and a pleasure to read, this volume ultimately provokes without convincing.

Library Journal
"The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril," Winston Churchill said. Almost every historian agrees that the German submarine force nearly won the war for Hitler. Some 2400 Allied merchant ships and 145 naval vessels totaling 13.5 million tons were sunk. Thousands of sailors perished. Yet, distinguished naval-military historian Blair argues, the U-Boat menace has been greatly overstated. His extensive research reveals that only five percent of all Allied shipping was sunk by German submarines. There were grievous losses of men and ships, but Blair argues that the vast majority of ships arrived safely. The author feels that this fact has been overlooked by pro-British historians. His monumental work (Volume 2 is scheduled for 1997) is the most thorough study of the U-Boat campaign available; it includes a massive amount of detailed statistics. Not for the casual reader, but for specialists in World War II naval history; only libraries with exhaustive World War II collections will need this work.
-- Stanley Itkin, Hillside Public Library, New Hyde Park, New York
Kirkus Reviews
The first of two volumes recounting in sweeping (almost too sweeping) detail the true impact of Nazi Germany's storied U-boats on the course of WW II.

On the basis of his painstaking research, Blair (Ridgway's Paratroopers, 1985, etc.) concludes that this impact has been greatly exaggerated. Noting that 99 percent of the Allied merchant ships in transatlantic convoys reached their destination, he suggests that the principal achievement of the U-boats may have been obliging Anglo-American forces to commit substantive resources to anti-submarine warfare. Without ever suggesting that the Battle of the Atlantic was other than a bitter, to-the-death struggle on both sides, the author (who saw action aboard a US sub in the Pacific theater) makes a persuasive case for his revisionist thesis. In doing so, moreover, he offers gripping, hell-and-high- water accounts of submarine warfare. Blair provides background on the postWW I revival of the German Kriegsmarine, and on the command structure and aspirations of the Third Reich's silent service. The author then reckons the havoc wreaked by their skippers before and after the US was drawn into the global conflict. Covered as well are the exploits of legendary aces, the logistical problems attendant to deploying a flotilla of U-boats, rules of engagement, the invariably inflated tonnage claims, and code-breaking programs. For all the terror U-boats inspired among mariners and upper-echelon commanders, Blair argues that they never proved a decisive strategic weapon; in fact, these craft were doomed early on by a ruinously unfavorable exchange rate (the number of ships sunk per subs lost) without ever posing a serious threat to Allied supply lines.

Military history of a surpassingly high order, which (assuming no letdown in the concluding volume) could become the standard reference on U-boats.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Hitler's U-Boat War Series
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6.08(w) x 9.19(h) x 1.49(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

"To Die Gallantly"

On August 15, 1939, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, chief of the Kriegsmarine, directed his staff, the OKM, to send a war alert to Karl Donitz, commander of the German submarine force. The message stated that all senior submarine staff officers and U-boat commanders were to report for a "reunion" on August 19 at Donitz's headquarters on the submarine tender Hecht, moored at a naval pier in Kiel. The word "reunion" was a coded order to deploy the German submarine force fore war—merely four days hence.

Donitz rushed back from leave the following day. Others concerned reported on board Hecht that day or the next in high excitement. When all had gathered, Donitz outlined the complicated geopolitical situation that had developed, the perils entailed, and the submarine war plans.

The Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, had definitely made up his mind to invade Poland. The date had been moved forward from September 1 to August 26. Great Britain and France had pledged to come to Poland's aid. Although Hitler did not believe the British or French would fight, Donitz thought otherwise: War with those nations was not only possible, but probable. There was a further complication. To avoid the prospect of a two-front war, Hitler was attempting to negotiate a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. But, so far, Joseph Stalin was foot-dragging. Conceivably, Moscow might reject Hitler's overtures and align with London and Paris and pledge support for Warsaw. The Kriegsmarine therefore had to be prepared for numerous, dizzying contingencies: war with Poland alone; war with Poland assisted by Great Britain and France; war with Poland assisted by Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union; war with Poland assisted only by the Soviet Union.

The Kriegsmarine was by no means prepared for a naval war with Great Britain and France. Notwithstanding the naval arms-limitations treaties of the 1920s and 1930s, those nations combined had an awesome array of surface ships: twenty-two battleships and battle cruisers, seven aircraft carriers, eighty-three cruisers, and countless destroyers, plus seven new battleships and eight carriers under construction. Against that the Kriegsmarine had two battleships (Bismarck, Tirpitz), and one carrier (Graf Zeppelin) under construction, two battle cruisers (Gneisenau, Scharnhorst) in commission but not combat-ready, three "pocket" battleships (Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee, Admiral Scheer), of which only two were combat-ready, eight conventional cruisers, and about twenty destroyers in various stages of readiness. Altogether the Allies enjoyed a superiority of ten-to-one in surface ships.

Great Britain and France likewise enjoyed a superiority in numbers of ocean-going submarines. Great Britain had about fifty in commission, France about seventy, for a total of about 120. Against that the Kriegsmarine had twenty-seven. Not all the Allied submarines were of good quality or combat-ready, but the same was true of the German submarines. Of the twenty-seven oceangoing German boats in commission, two large ones, U-25 and U-26, were experimental and not really suitable for combat and five were brand new or in shipyards for extended refit or overhaul, leaving only twenty fully (or nearly) ready for war on August 19.

In addition, the Germans had commissioned thirty pint-sized, 250-ton submarines—the so-called ducks. The ducks were used principally for basic or advanced training purposes, but they had three torpedo tubes and could carry six torpedoes or nine mines. Therefore all but one duck (U-11), which had been permanently detached for experimental work, could be assigned to limited combat roles in the North Sea or Baltic Sea. About eighteen of the twenty-nine ducks were fully (or nearly) ready for combat on August 19.

The Kriegsmarine war plan was designed to make the best of the several contingencies. The two combat-ready "pocket" battleships, Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland, each with one supply ship, were to slip secretly to sea and take up waiting positions in the North and South Atlantic. Sixteen of the twenty combat-ready oceangoing submarines were to occupy waiting positions off the Atlantic coasts of Great Britain and France and off the Strait of Gibraltar. Seven ducks were to take up waiting positions in the North Sea. Should Great Britain and France declare war, the "pocket" battleships and submarines in the Atlantic were to operate offensively against the maritime forces of those nations; the submarines in the North Sea, offensively and defensively. The remaining combat-ready naval forces, including four oceangoing submarines and eleven ducks, were to operate offensively in the Baltic Sea against the tiny Polish Navy (five submarines, two destroyers, several minelayers) or, if necessary, the more formidable Soviet Navy.

That was the plan. Should Great Britain and France declare war, Raeder had no illusions about the outcome. The best that the men of the Kriegsmarine could do, he wrote in his memoir, was to "go down fighting" and "show that they knew how to die gallantly."

The "pocket" battleships and submarines deployed in secrecy per plan, August 19 to August 23. The Admiral of Graf Spee, her supply ship Altmark, and fourteen oceangoing U-boats loaded with torpedoes sailed on the night of the 19th. Two other oceangoing U-boats, delayed in the shipyards, sailed on the nights of August 22 and 23. The Deutschland and her supply ship Westerwald sailed on the night of the 23rd. That same night the North Sea U-boat force (seven ducks) and the Baltic Sea U-boat force (three oceangoing boats and eleven ducks) sailed to waiting positions. In total, thirty-four of the fifty-seven commissioned U-boats (65 percent) deployed: sixteen to the Atlantic, seven to the North Sea, and eleven to the Baltic Sea.

Hitler's negotiations with Stalin, meanwhile, proceeded at a maddeningly slow pace. On August 20 Stalin agreed to a preliminary trade agreement, but this hardly satisfied Hitler. That day Hitler intervened directly, cabling Stalin to suggest that he receive the German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, who would have full powers to sign a treaty on behalf of Germany. Stalin agreed to see von Ribbentrop on August 23 and that same night, to Hitler's immense relift, Stalin signed the pact. The published treaty (binding for twenty years) specified that neither Germany nor Russia would attack the other or support a third party, or a coalition, in an attack on one of the other. The unpublished protocols and agreements doomed Poland and the Baltic States. Germany and the Soviet Union would invade Poland and divide that nation roughly in half at the Vistual River. The Soviet Union was to exercise "influence" over Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, while Germany was to exercise "influence" over Lithuania.

D day for the invasion of Poland remained fixed for August 26. But on the day before, Hitler received several pieces of news that gave him pause. The British announced ratification of a formal mutual assistance pact with Poland, which iterated in no uncertain terms Britain's determination to fight for Poland. The French ambassador called on Hitler to make it crystal clear that France would do likewise. A letter arrived from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, stating that Italy was not prepared for war and could not immediately go to war against Great Britain and France unless Hitler provided Italy with enormous quantities of military supplies. As a result of these developments, Hilter postponed the invasion from August 26 to its original date, September 1, gaining time for another attempt to negotiate Great Britain and France into neutrality.

What People are saying about this

John Keegan
There is no doubt that this is a magnificent piece of naval history, not only exhaustive, but also very well-written, wiith strong appeal to the reader as well as to the specialist . . . a real heavyweight.

Meet the Author

Clay Blair is the author of two dozen books that have created a permanent place in the telling of our history. These include Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan; biographies of Admiral H. G. Rickover; Generals Douglas MacArthur, Matthew B. Ridgway, and Omar N. Bradley; and John F. Kennedy; and, most recently, The Forgotten War, about Korea. He died in 1998.        

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Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Blair cuts through the mysticism that surrounds much of the Nazi war machine with cold fact and figures. He shows respect for a submarine service service that had the potential to bring about utter devistation but never did. A very interesting read for anyone with an interest in submarines. A real eye-opener was the recounting of the not just the failures of torpedos and engines, but the mechanical breakdowns in general. In reading this book it becomes obvious that mythology surrounding the U-Boats of WWII is far more indicative of what could have been achieved, rather then what actually was accomplished.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Blair made some very brave statements and bscked them up with fact.
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Whitie More than 1 year ago
have not read the book yet
Anonymous More than 1 year ago