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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Battle to control the seas

File photo
A Short Sunderland flying boat sits on a ramp during WWII.

File photo A Short Sunderland flying boat sits on a ramp during WWII.

Winston Churchill called it the Battle of the Atlantic, and later confessed that “... the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

The Germans had thrown a vast belt of submarines, long-range airplanes and surface raiders around Great Britain in an attempt to cut off vital supplies of food, weapons and fuel needed for the war effort — and it very nearly succeeded.

In 1940, ’41 and ’42, hundreds of cargo vessels, as well as the warships trying to protect them, went to the bottom — and took many of their crews with them. The numbers are staggering: In the years between 1939 and 1945, there were 36,200 Allied naval sailors aboard 175 warships killed, as well as 36,000 merchant seamen aboard 3,500 merchant vessels.

At one point, vacationers on U.S. beaches could see the smoke from burning vessels offshore and debris from the doomed ships washed ashore.

Organized and directed from headquarters on land, U-boats roamed the Atlantic in “wolf packs,” homing in on convoys from Canada, the U.S., South America and South Africa. Once in contact, they torpedoed the ships in daylight, then ran in on the surface at night using both guns and torpedoes to destroy ship after ship.

In defense, British, American, Canadian and other nations’ escort ships tried to track them down and kill them while they were submerged.

The best defense was in the air — aerial depth charges are deadly — but Britain simply didn’t have enough long-range aircraft to cover the middle of the ocean.

One they did have was the Short Sunderland, a heavily armed flying boat.

It was one of those that was discovered unexpectedly recently off Wales. A deep sea diver discovered the ghostly wreck by chance after a lobster-pot became snagged on the plane 65 feet below the waves.

It’s the world’s only surviving Mark I Sunderland flying-boat, it’s very well preserved, and plans are being made to recover it.

The last pilot to fly the aircraft, 93-year-old Wing Commander Derek Martin, OBE, explained why it was found sitting on the bottom off Pembroke Dock.

“I flew it on a routine flight around the dock (in 1940) and then moored it up. There was a gale during the night and it must have been holed by some floating debris and down it went. In the morning it wasn’t there — it was at the bottom of the sea.”

As the war went on, the U.S. sent the RAF’s Coastal Command PBY “Catalina” flying boats and B-24 bombers, which they called “Liberators” to supplement the Sunderlands. Special very long-range B-24s were able to span the dead zone in the middle of the Atlantic, providing air cover for the beleaguered convoys.

But it was a dangerous job — bad weather, engine problems, interceptions by shore-based fighters and submarines equipped to wage a gunfight took their toll.

More than 6,000 RAF aircrew were killed during the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Axis navies lost 783 submarines, crewed by some 30,000 submariners. But that last number doesn’t really tell the story. Look at it this way: some 75 percent of all German submarine crews were killed at sea ... that means only one out of four survived.

There were many factors in the eventual Allied victory in the Atlantic battle: better detection systems, both above and below the surface, increased air protection, better methods of “killing” submarines, “hunter-killer” units organized around small aircraft carriers, and the decryption of German naval codes, which allowed interception of the wolf packs.

One interesting development was the U.S. Navy’s blimp force, which boasted that no convoy escorted by a blimp ever lost a ship to an enemy submarine. One blimp, however, was shot down by a sub off the U.S. coast when it got too close and was riddled by the U-Boat’s guns.

That seaweed-shrouded flying boat still sitting on the ocean bottom off Wales represents a nearly forgotten, but enormously vital, chapter from World War II.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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