BOOK REVIEW – Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War

Faulkner, Marcus, and Christopher M. Bell. Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War. Lexington, KY: Andarta Books, 2019.

Review by CAPT John V. Clune, USMS, PhD
Department Head and Associate Professor, Humanities, United States Merchant Marine Academy

In their collection Decision in the Atlantic: The Allies and the Longest Campaign of the Second World War, Marcus Faulkner and Christopher M. Bell add several new insights to the extensive historiography around the Second World War in the Atlantic. They challenge historians to readjust their scope to include more of the world’s oceans and to look deeper into the domestic political, economic, or cultural conditions that inspired the workers, and not just the sailors, who served the system of trade defense. Finally, their collection challenges historians to reevaluate the war’s great leaders, calling into question how competently they pursued larger strategic goals and whether familiar historical documents overstate leaders’ actual influence over daily wartime activity.

Decision in the Atlantic reconsiders the proper scope for the Battle of the Atlantic. The term, Faulkner and Bell argue, is geographically inaccurate: strategically, the battle was global. But it also included operational systems. Marc Milner’s opening chapter calls for a “new paradigm” that recognizes that the network of naval operational intelligence supported an entire system of trade defense in the Atlantic that was most successful when it avoided battle. “Sea power,” he argues, “was always about more than battles” (19). James Goldrick explains how, despite prewar attempts to develop antisubmarine doctrine and training, the Allies took several months to recognize that the old “master-apprentice” culture of learning was too slow and dangerous to continue. Instead, Goldrick describes how the Admiralty developed a sophisticated crew training and simulation system that became “one of the most significant but under-recognized elements of the Atlantic campaign” (167). Similarly, Ben Jones describes in detail the Fleet Air Arm’s limited resources, limited operational effectiveness, the slow adoption of fleet escort carriers, and distinctions between US and British tactics (and relative success). Jones suggests that the Allies failed to procure and employ those carriers aggressively enough to have a significant impact defending Atlantic convoys, as their limited results in 1943 seem to confirm. The Fleet Air Arm is a good case study of the limits of US/British cooperation in systems of procurement and employment of weapons—especially naval resources that required modification and additional resources like airplanes and aircrew to function. These three cases certainly deepen what we may consider the scope of that Atlantic theater.

Despite the historiographical consensus that the convoy battles of the North Atlantic were the campaign’s main event and that the U-boat war was effectively over (and “won”) by summer 1943, two other chapters suggest that there’s much left to learn. G. H. Bennett describes the Battle of the Atlantic that also took place in the Channel, where significant British merchant shipping to its southern and eastern coasts throughout the war supplemented Britain’s insufficient railroad capacity. The German response—Schnellbootes, or S-boats, sometimes with air support—was smaller than the U-boat campaign, but the Kriegsmarine still dedicated significant effort to disrupting this trade. Bennett argues that the coordinated “defense in depth” system British Coastal Command developed was a model of successful integration—so successful, in fact, that by 1944 German S-boat directives were to flee if they encountered opposition. David Kohnen’s chapter describes the somewhat bizarre cruise of the ill-fated Group Monsoon, a convoy of ten U-boats deployed to the Indian Ocean and East Asia in June 1943, after Admiral Donitz halted large-scale U-boat operations in the North Atlantic. The convoy’s ultimate failure, and the strange story of U-188 and its skipper Siegried Ludden, offer an interesting case study in the overlapping webs of intelligence and cryptography that allowed Allied submarine trackers to find and eventually destroy most of this convoy. To Kohnen, the story of U-188 and Group Monsoon illuminates how the US and British sometimes cooperated very well in employing the “Special Intelligence” obtained by decrypting German messages. This claim is significant; it contradicts the conventional wisdom that the Americans’ willingness to employ Special Intelligence for precision attacks horrified the Admiralty because it risked exposing the Allies’ ability to intercept communication. Marcus Faulkner’s chapter describing how seriously the Admiralty took the possibility of a functional German aircraft carrier (the Graf Zeppelin, which never actually entered service) provides another case in point. Just the threat of a German carrier in the North Atlantic forced the Admiralty to curtail the deployment of British carriers elsewhere and required support by another American carrier in summer 1943. In other words, even in drydock, the Graf Zeppelin disrupted Allied naval strategy. Therefore, the story of the Allies’ intelligence, their admittedly conservative estimate, and ultimate overestimation of the threat the Graf Zeppelin posed deserves more attention as a factor influencing the Allied naval effort. Clearly, there is more to learn about how American and British intelligence teams cooperated (or failed to cooperate) in small and large engagements throughout the war.

Decision in the Atlantic forges new paths examining the testy relationship between Coastal Command and the British Air Staff, who resisted calls to support the Atlantic theater with adequate air cover. Tim Benbow’s chapter excoriates Air Staff leaders for refusing to support convoys and clinging to strategic bombing doctrine as “something between ideology and theology, an article of faith that transcended reason” (90). When the Admiralty finally came around to recognizing that air support was absolutely essential to their success, the Air Staff ought to have been pleased. “Their bluff had been called” (101), Benbow argues. Instead, they stubbornly rejected requests for air support. Air Staff leaders’ exaggerated claims about the “offensive” potential of strategic bombing made them blind to the real possibility that diverting some air resources (especially Very Long-Range aircraft) would, paradoxically, have interdicted the maritime equivalent of a strategic bombing campaign against Britain. Finally, Benbow takes on Churchill. Despite Churchill’s later claim that the Battle of the Atlantic “was the dominating factor all through the war,” his actual policy and his dizzying inconsistency on the issue suggests that during the war he routinely forgot this reality (121). Here Benbow and Bell’s chapters agree: Despite Churchill’s famous assertion that “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” (20) either his short attention span, his excessive deference to the Air Staff, or a cavalier willingness to accept shipping losses made him unwilling to get serious about providing more air cover for the North Atlantic campaign until mid-1943.

Kevin Smith’s two chapters deliver Decision in the Atlantic’s other historiographical contribution. He describes two ways in which the Allies’ Atlantic strategy depended on conditions and actors far beyond the normal gaze of military historians. “Historians have been even less interested in British management of merchant shipping than Winston Churchill,” Smith writes (46). In Britain, prewar conflicts between management, the government, and workers in British shipyards that had festered for years did not improve during the battle despite the official memory of British laborers’ “all-out, round-the-clock effort” (49). In fact, Smith argues, far more shipping capacity was out of service undergoing repairs or reconfiguration in British shipyards than U-boats knocked out of service in any given month. This condition was not inevitable, Smith writes, but “the gap in attitudes and expectations” between workers, management, and the government ministries directing ship repair “was too wide to bridge, even in a national emergency” (60). Stateside, Smith describes how Claude Wickard, the only moderately successful Indiana farmer who happened to be a Democrat and who rose to become Secretary of Agriculture in 1940 (more than partly to offset the political appeal of Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate of questionable Hoosier authenticity) was thrust into the role of harnessing America’s vast agricultural production to the internationalist goal of feeding Great Britain and Russia. Wickard was not ideologically sympathetic with the task nor suited for the intense bureaucratic and diplomatic wrangling the job entailed. As a result, for several months, the US did not ship as much meat as it promised. More importantly, this article demonstrates the practical limits to the capacity to reorganize an economy for war despite charismatic leaders’ lofty rhetoric. In fact, the story of how relatively obscure bureaucrats succeeded (or failed) at their day-to-day administrative tasks deserves more attention than historians have given them, and hints at the existence of a whole new field of military history. Smith leaves some gaps (did dockworkers actually slow their work, as accused? Was Wickard really insufficiently internationalist, or was he just overwhelmed?), but his chapters complement one another in demonstrating that backstories have real military significance. They also supplement Benbow’s point that although Churchill (or, we may project, FDR) made bold claims publicly or in their memoirs, the leaders had less impact over the quotidian administration of the war effort than historians give them credit for.

Decision in the Atlantic raises some thorny questions for historians. If, as Benbow suggests, Churchill was “dizzyingly inconsistent” on the question of diverting air resources away from Bomber Command to Coastal Command despite his memoir’s hint that he was single-mindedly fixed on the Battle of the Atlantic, are not all of his public documents potentially subject to more scrutiny? Historians obviously take memoirs with a grain of salt, but it’s also possible that Churchill met competing claims for his attention and priorities elsewhere in equally inconsistent ways. If so, even Bell’s chapter, which mines Churchill’s papers extensively, has a potential methodological shortcoming. If nothing else, as Smith claims, far more minor officials had far more major influence over the conduct of actual operations than Churchill or Roosevelt, despite their public papers’ implication that they were responsible for every decision in the war. The ten chapters in Decision in the Atlantic open new avenues to explore “the Longest Campaign of the Second World War” while re-assessing some familiar ones. Faulkner and Bell prove that there’s still plenty left to learn.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 

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