As Richard Snow rightly suggests in the subtitle to his compelling book, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and certainly one of the most consequential campaigns of the Second World War, if not in world history. To use a definition offered by a historian in the British Ministry of Defence, it was “the German war-long attack on Allied (and neutral) shipping, principally by submarines, and the Allied response to that attack.”
It began within hours of the outbreak of war in September 1939 and ended only when the U-boats surfaced to surrender at the orders of their wholly defeated government in May 1945. The determination of both sides was astounding and, at least for those serving the democracies, deeply moving: “Morale has so far not been affected,” wrote a high official for the British merchant marine, of which perhaps 50,000 died. The stakes matched the courage and devotion. Without the Atlantic sea bridge, there would be no way of supplying Britain and, to a considerable degree, Russia, the latter double the distance and more by the Pacific route. Without access to Britain, there would be no way for the U.S. Air Forces, much less the Army, to grapple with the Third Reich.
Previous books about this desperate struggle have generally been burdened with the grim statistical tables of monthly losses, charts showing the shifting of hunting grounds, and even mathematical formulas depicting the ratios of loss to ship construction, all of which bleed the day-to-day human drama out of one of the true epics of industrial society. Not so in this readable, sometimes lyrical, history by a former editor of American Heritage.
Snow tells a story in which the central feature is not the tonnage sunk or the rate of American shipbuilding but the men and boys who manned both the surface ships struggling to get through and the submarines lurking to destroy them. Some of these characters are well known, such as the passionate German champion of U-boat warfare, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz. Most are not, such as the author’s own father, a lieutenant on the destroyer escort USS Neunzer, whose wartime letters home drew the author to this topic.
Snow has an artist’s eye for the perfect anecdote, and he draws freely on memoirs, letters, and even wartime novels. The result is a word mural of the Atlantic war that is vivid enough to make us feel the sting of the salt spray and smell the burning oil (and flesh). In a U-boat, “everything dripped, everything stank.” When one set out on patrol, “clusters of sausages dangled the length of the boat,” which gave it “the curious combined atmosphere of a luxury grocery store doing business inside a gargantuan automobile engine.” On the American side, the brand-new destroyer escorts being built in a score of coastal sites were “cocooned in electrical cables and acetylene hoses, comic with banana-yellow priming paint, simmering in the smell of creosote rising from the dock and the coal smoke exhaled by the self-important little yard locomotives fretting their way along the tracks just ten feet inshore.” But against this quiet amusement, Snow’s descriptions of the fatal torpedoing of the British passenger steamer Athena—the first of the war—leaves quite a different mark.
This is very much an American story. Snow uses the pronouns “we” and “us” to describe the American side and, as one of several personal notes, occasionally quotes from his father’s letters. One chapter, entitled “How Lieutenant Snow Got to Sea,” is unusually gripping.
Snow does not ignore the larger picture but integrates into it the poignant tapestry of innumerable individual ordeals. He describes America’s remarkable mobilization, a steel front of Liberty ships welded together by the hundreds—some of them in a matter of days—and destroyer escorts built as “forty-ton LEGO blocks” by men and women in places such as Denver, to be floated downriver to ports 800 or 1,000 miles away and only there assembled into warships. He also weaves in thoughtful descriptions of the prevailing social culture of the 1940s, ranging from racial tensions to Lieutenant Snow’s reaction to seeing Mickey Rooney (“the little squirt”) in an Andy Hardy movie.
A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II
by Richard Snow
(Scribner, 368 pages, $27)