Book Reviews

Bitter Ocean

The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945

by David Fairbank White

Review by Richard Sheppard


How many theaters were there in World War Two? Scores? “Europe,” “the Mediterranean,” “North Africa,” “China/Burma/India – CBI”, “the Pacific” (and its various island group sub-theaters), “the Eastern Front,” “the Balkans.” Individual arenas with distinct military challenges and commanders but all encompassing of the face-to-face showdown of warrior vs. warrior until enough die to determine a “winner.” Each theater merging to comprise an entire planet at war, a World War that ripped asunder nations and killed tens upon tens of millions. Shot and bleeding in some dark European wood, gassed in a packed Nazi death chamber, falling from a glorious summer sky in a stricken aircraft. Or burned, trapped and drowning in sinking ships at sea. War in the abstract is a chess game, on the front lines it’s gruesome death dealt wholesale and indiscriminately.

Each theater can be considered individually, but many were tangibly and critically related, whereby a bad outcome in one theater would spill over into disaster in another. Allied success in North Africa versus Rommel depended on control of the Mediterranean. Success in Normandy after D-Day relied on continued Russian pressure in the East, and the vital ocean convoy lifeline that carried the gargantuan output of America’s Arsenal of Democracy to the front lines.

North Atlantic Theater

That “North Atlantic” theater held so much in balance in the overall European war from 1939, on through the end of the war in 1945. The countless thousands of square miles of rolling empty ocean across which numberless ships heaved and tossed, dodging the remorseless Nazi U-boat assault. The menacing and seemingly unstoppable U-boats claimed hundreds upon hundreds of ships -- and altogether 140,000 lives were lost by both sides during he battle. Think about that number, the death toll of one single theater of the planetary conflagration that was WW2. Envision a packed modern football stadium that holds 70,000. Multiply that by two and you get a sense of staggering counting of lives lost. Many not even having reached full-fledged manhood. Instead, drowning in the flooding engine room of a tramp steamer, or being instantly crushed as a submarine reached the point at which its structural strength no longer keeps back the deep ocean pressures and implodes. The untamed sea favors none.

Stories of Individual Freighters & Convoys vs U-Boats

Bitter Ocean offers stories of individual freighters and warships, and entire convoys that battled the U-boat wolf-pack. The U-boats dominated the early years, the “Happy Time” when they held the deadly advantages of surprise and superior tactics. From mid-1943 onwards, the Allies, as in every WW2 theater, turned the tide and triumphed. As in the summer of 1940, when Britain’s Fighter Command nearly relented the skies over Britain, the Atlantic Ocean lifeline nearly snapped, leaving England isolated and under-supplied to face Nazi predations alone. Yet the sheer tenacity of the Merchant Marine and the ever-adapting convoy escorts were turning the tables on the U-boat menace. Using the decrypted Enigma intercepts of German communications, better weapons and tactics, and America’s gargantuan industrial output of Liberty ships by the thousand, eventually the hunter U-boats became the hunted, and began ending up at the bottom of the merciless sea themselves. Their human losses adding to the lives lost out in the lonely sea that stretch hundreds of square miles from horizon to horizon. America could churn out Liberty ships in a week from scores of shipyards around the nation. It was a pace U-boat builders couldn’t match though their U-boat designs evolved throughout the war, these superior designs came too late.

An enjoyable aspect of Bitter Ocean is author Fairbank White’s obvious love for and experience on the ocean waters. His adjective-laden descriptions of the sea, the ships, and their masters and crews are vivid, pleasurably enhancing what is otherwise a forlorn tale of vast loss of life and suffering. And while most consider the Battle of the Atlantic a strictly American and British victory, Fairbank White reminds us that many navies, including especially the Royal Canadian Navy, added critical punch to the “Victory at Sea.”