In Great Waters:
The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic

328 pages,
ISBN: 0771029292

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Greater than the tread of mighty armies
by Ken Stickney

Why, you ask, are they publishing yet another book on the Battle of the Atlantic? Have not its weaponry, its strategies, and its outcome been done a hundred times before? But with In Great Waters, aviation novelist Spencer Dunmore has succeeded in shining a Leigh Searchlight on this well-trodden subject, illuminating the darker corners of the battle.

The book should probably be subtitled "A History of Aviation in the Battle of the Atlantic". The naval veteran may be disappointed, but the flyer will find it instructive. And while Dunmore's slant may irritate those looking for a broader treatment of the history, he cannot be faulted for regarding aviation as a crucial factor, and he is certainly strong on charting both the strategy and the technical developments that led to its dominating the anti-submarine war.

Take, for example, his account of the pursuit of the Bismarck. Where other historians concentrate on the gun battles, Dunmore goes for the flights-from the first observation plane signalling that the Bismarck had left the Norwegian fjord, to the final crippling torpedo strike. Dunmore not only concludes that the air arm was decisive in sinking the Bismarck, but he also uses, as his next chapter heading, Victor Hugo's booming words, "Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come."

Dunmore is an expert on aircraft types and the developments in radar and aerial weapons; he is less expert on naval tactics and sonar. To the modern reader used to missile guidance systems that can out-think any pilot, and hand-held GPS's that can give one's location in seconds, it is amusing to learn of the clumsy origins of these devices: "Radar (still often referred to as radio location) was yet severely limited. The original versions of ASV (air to surface vessel) radar provided little more than a bewildering array of trembling dots on operators' screens, when the sets were functioning, which they frequently weren't. Operators required the skill of scientists at laboratory microscopes to interpret them."

Dunmore's novelist background comes in handy when he describes individual convoy actions. Few accounts of the Battle of the Atlantic have been as vividly written as this, and he has interleaved survivors' accounts with great skill. You can, indeed, smell the cordite and the burning fuel oil. However, he always keeps the strategic goal in mind and always tells you what a torpedoed ship was carrying (sugar). In focusing on the technology, he has not overlooked the fact that most of the equipment, both naval and air, was trying to kill its users. After describing the entire political lead-up to the transfer of the fifty old American destroyers to Britain in 1940, and pointing out its importance to Britain at the time, he then goes on to quote veterans' accounts of what life aboard those destroyers was like: "We had an inclinometer on the back end of the bridge, and everyone up there kept looking at it, each roll we made, to see how far we'd gone. I think the biggest was fifty-seven and a half degrees. At forty-five, you have a choice of whether you stand on the wall or the deck."

There are an equal number of eyewitness accounts from the German side. We can match the Allied account with Peter Cremer's description of a submarine rolling sixty degrees on the surface during a hurricane. Canadians only come into the book when their historical role requires it: Dunmore describes the Canadian navy's problem as a poor sister of the RN and USN, lagging behind in equipment and training, and sometimes taken off front-line duties because of it. He talks a lot about the strategy of the battle, from both the German and Allied sides, and discusses the increase in U-boats and the decline of the German surface fleet as both a real and a perceived threat. He gives good personality sketches of leading figures, such as Doenitz, Horton, and King, and explains the sometimes confusing national and interservice rivalries. For example, in 1942, an American rear admiral in Newfoundland gave "orders" to all naval personnel, "requests" to the USAAF, and "proposals" to the RCAF. The author certainly notes how the rivalries interfered with the anti-submarine effort. The modern reader is more impressed that it succeeded in spite of them.

While the book is devoted to a specific campaign, the author does see some of its larger consequences. In describing the American Lend-Lease program, he writes: "So on one hand, America committed itself to extraordinarily generous help to Britain; on the other, to what seemed a deliberate undermining of British commercial and political power. Did the Americans want to reduce Britain-the most powerful nation on Earth half a century earlier-to a mere protectorate of the United States?"

Dunmore concludes his account in May 1943, by which time the battle had swung decisively in the Allies' favour. The combination of strong escorts, independent hunter-killer groups, escort aircraft carriers, and long-range patrol aircraft turned the last two years of the war into a one-sided massacre of the German submarines.

In Great Waters is neither encyclopaedic nor centrally-focused; it is a lively account that certainly makes readers taste brine, and carries them back to a struggle whose desperation is often overlooked. As Churchill said: "The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boats." 

Ken Stickney is a writer who lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.


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