Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Battle of the Convoys

Churchill wrote that the only thing that really worried him was the submarine menace. The Battle of the Atlantic reached its crescendo in 1943, when operations in North Africa drew escorts away from the Atlantic, and Britain depended utterly on the main North Atlantic convoy routes at the very time that German submarines, concentrated in “wolf packs,” redoubled their efforts, paying particular attention to the narrowing gap in mid-Atlantic left uncovered by land-based aircraft. ULTRA proved decisive, enabling escorts to find submarines with accuracy: the Germans lost 47 in May alone. Sinkings continued, but the battle was won by the end of the month.

Above, the Torch convoy at sea, November 1942. The convoy was kept under an air umbrella that reduced the risk of attack, but demands imposed on convoy escorts by the demands of North Africa were to influence the Battle of the Atlantic.

Arctic convoys ferried supplies to Russia. Here the cruiser HMS Belfast is at sea in northern waters, March 1943.

Most British warships relied on multi-barrelled automatic “pom-poms” for close defence against aircraft. This air spotter, binoculars at the ready, watches for hostile aircraft.

The cruiser HMS Sheffield, on the same convoy as the Belfast, has both forward turrets trained to the beam to avoid damage to their canvas blast screens. Nevertheless, one turret roof was torn right off by a wave.

Depth-charges dropped by a Canadian corvette ship. The Canadians, short of modern equipment and adequate destroyers, had a particularly hard war in the Atlantic.

A U-Boat commander at his periscope. German submarine crews had a horrifyingly high casualty rate: 40,900 men served in submarines during the war, and 28,000 perished. Admiral Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of the German navy, lost both his sailor sons, one in a submarine.

The last moments of a freighter, seen from a submarine. From January to May 1943 Allied shipping loses averaged 450,000 tons per month.

U625 sinking after depth-charge attack by a Sunderland of 422 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, March 10, 1944.

This U-Boat, attacked at periscope depth by a Sunderland, was brought to the surface by depth charges and then sunk.

Merchant seamen scramble aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

Firemen “Bonny” Bartell and “Snowy” Foster, both of Canning Town in East London, come up for a breather on a North African Convoy, July 1943.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

North Africa — 1943

The North African campaign had a sting in its tail. In January 1943, Arnim mounted an offensive, catching ill-equipped French divisions off guard and going on to shake the Americans. Rommel, forced steadily westwards by Montgomery's advance, put in an attack of his own, inflicting a sharp defeat on the Americans at the Kasserine Pass in February. The Allies then reorganized their chain of command, forming the 18th Army Group, comprising both armies (Anderson's 1st and Montgomery's 8th) fighting in Tunisia. Axis forces were gradually compressed into a pocket round Tunis, and the last of them surrendered in mid-May, leaving 238,000 prisoners in Allied hands.

The Mareth Line, based on prewar French defenses in southern Tunisia, was held by Rommel's old army, now renamed the 1st Italian army under General Giovanni Messe. Montgomery's first attack, on March 19, failed, but a hook round the desert flank forced Messe to pull back. Here (above) a 4.5-inch medium gun bombards the line.

On March 6, Rommel turned on Montgomery at Medenine, but, using information from ULTRA, Montgomery was ready for him and the attack was easily repulsed. These Gurkhas are using their distinctive weapon, the kukri, near Medenine, but this shot comes from a sequence that suggests that it was staged for the camera.

This, in contrast, is a real photograph of the Medenine battle, showing a German Mk III Special knocked out by 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery, part of the anti-tank screen deployed by Montgomery as a result of ULTRA.

The end in Tunisia. An American intelligence officer interrogates two prisoners. Two French soldiers, once more on the Allied side, are in the background.

Roosevelt, in North Africa for the Casablanca conference, took the opportunity to visit troops in the field, the first President since Lincoln to do so.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Operation Torch

Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, was launched in November under the command of the unknown U.S. Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Allies tried to ensure French co-operation, and in the event resistance was patchy in quality and quantity. Fortuitously, Admiral Darlan, Marshal Petain's deputy, was visiting his sick son in Algiers, and was persuaded to order a ceasefire. The Germans swiftly sent troops to Tunisia, and the Allied advance bogged down with the rains of early winter.

Although the Vichy government repudiated Darlan's ceasefire, Hitler was furious and invaded the Unoccupied Zone of France. A German force had orders to seize the French fleet at Toulon, but the French activated a well-prepared plan and the fleet was scuttled by its crews in the nick of time. Here damaged and sunk cruisers and destroyers can be seen (above) through the smoke of burning heavy cruisers.

American troops, part of the Central Task Force, on their way ashore by landing craft at Oran. It was thought that the French would be less likely to engage the Americans than the British, still mistrusted because of the attack on Mers-el-Kebir and the fighting in the Levant.

With Allied convoys at sea, sailors could be told their destination. Here Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough explains forthcoming operations to officers and men aboard his flagship.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Strategic Air Offensive

In 1942 the strategic bombing offensive against Germany was substantially increased. The 1941 Butt report, which showed just how inaccurate night bombing actually was, encouraged the introduction of area bombing of German cities. Sir Arthur Harris took over as Commander-in-Chief of the RAF's Bomber Command in February. He quickly ordered fire-storm raids on Rostock and Lübeck, and then, in May, mobilized his second line and training aircraft to mount the first thousand-bomber raid, on Cologne. RAF armourers are seen fusing bombs (above) prior to loading them aboard a Short Stirling at RAF Waterbeach, near Cambridge, April 30, 1942.

The caption to this German photograph of the gutted Lübeck cathedral described the raid on the city as “a new crime against civilization.” It helped inspire the German Baedeker raids, so called because the official announcing them declared that the Germans would attack all building marked with three stars in the Baedeker guidebook.

On the night of May 30, the first thousand-bomber raid was launched on Cologne. The top picture shows a rubber factory at Deutz, on the east bank of the Rhine, before the raid, and the lower picture shows it afterwards.

The four-engined Avro Lancaster came into service in early 1942. Although it was generally used at night, this
photograph shows a low-level daylight raid on the Schneider armament works at Le Creusot on October 17.

Another daylight attack, this by Lockheed Venturas, Douglas Bostons and de Havilland Mosquitos on the Philips radio valve works in the Dutch town of Eindhoven, December 6.

German flak and fighters imposed a steady toll on bombers. Here a Vickers Wellington of the Polish 301 (Pomeranian) Squadron, lies in the mud of a Dutch estuary.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Malta Convoys

The island of Malta possessed the only British-held harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria and was crucial to convoys bringing supplies to forces in the Western desert. The Axis hoped to neutralize it by air attack, and Malta was besieged from 1940 until the Axis surrender in North Africa in May 1943. It owed its survival to fighter squadrons based on its airfields and fast convoys that ran the gauntlet to reach the island. In March-April 1942 Malta received twice the tonnage of bombs dropped on London during the Blitz, and in all 1,493 of her citizens were killed and 3,764 wounded.

The aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable (above) almost hidden by near misses from air attack as she helps escort the vital Pedestal convoy to Malta, August 1942.

Tugs bustle round the American tanker Ohio, crippled but still full of fuel, as she enters Valetta harbour, August 1942.

The crew of a pom-pom multiple antiaircraft gun aboard a destroyer escorting the Pedestal convoy enjoying a smoke break between air attacks. The photographer had already been sunk aboard the cruiser HMS Manchester, and transferred to a destroyer “with his camera intact.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


In mid-1942, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized “Operation Watchtower,” an attack on Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands, where the Japanese had begun to construct an airfield. The initial American landing, carried out by the U.S. 1st Marine Division, was successful, but the Japanese reacted swiftly, and both sides reinforced, leading to vicious fighting on land, in the air and at sea. The Americans completed the unfinished airfield on Guadalcanal (Henderson Field), and its possession gave them a decisive edge. In mid-November, the three-day naval battle of Guadalcanal, a costly victory for the Americans, marked the climax of the struggle. Japanese survivors were evacuated in January 1943.

Above, U.S. Marines landing on Guadalcanal, August 7. Initial lack of opposition encouraged the original caption to describe a “successful attack against the occupying Japanese.”

In what became known as the Battle of the Tenaru River in late August, a 900-strong Japanese force was literally wiped out.