By C. David Gordon
President, Fort Devens Museum
DEVENS -- An audience listened enthralled as Maritime Historian Michael G. Walling told the story of the U.S. Coast Guard's heroic involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic at Fort Devens Museum.
The longest battle of World War II, it actually began in early September 1939, about the time Hitler invaded Poland but over two years before our country declared war on the Axis powers.
It started as two Coast Guard cutters met in mid-Atlantic to help an American freighter that had picked up 238 survivors of a British ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat. First victims of the battle included women and children.
The Battle of the Atlantic ended the day before V-E Day, May 7, 1945, when the Coast Guard sank a U-boat four miles off the Rhode Island coast. (That was close to 69 years ago.)
Walling explained that in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established a "Neutrality Zone" extending out into the ocean along our country's Atlantic coast. At first, the intent was to keep German, French and British ships-of-war from sinking merchant ships each nation considered its enemies' shipping. Over time, Roosevelt expanded these zones significantly.
While the U.S. Navy was expected to enforce the rule of neutrality within the vast ocean expanses involved, the Coast Guard was brought in early as a major player.
Funding for the Navy had not been nearly enough in prewar years to provide adequate numbers of ships able to carry out the patrolling required in such a huge area. Besides, the Coast Guard, more substantially outfitted with seaworthy ships before the war. These ships could travel beyond the zone's limits to protect shipping and rescue innocent survivors of torpedoed unarmed vessels. And they could do so without incurring the furor that could result from the Navy's being perceived as being involved.
The system of sending convoys of merchant vessels back and forth across the Atlantic soon began. At first, convoy ships brought to Great Britain mainly what we might now call "humanitarian aid." Then they carried military supplies and troops, too.
Typical-sized convoys contained 48 largely unarmed freighters, oil tankers and troop ships traveling at variable speeds. They could take up a section of ocean measuring 36 square miles or more. While one convoy would travel toward England, another would be returning to North America. Protecting these ships from German attack would be a small number of nimble armed escort vessels from the U.S. as well as Canada and Great Britain. Escorts would hand off east-moving and west-moving convoys in mid-ocean.
Escort ships had to drive off German U-boats and capital ships as well as enemy aircraft. Walling spoke of how rescuing survivors from sinking ships involved seamen climbing down to water level on safety nets cast over the vessels' sides to extend their free arms or use ropes to pluck men to safety who were swimming in the freezing water or clinging to floating objects.
Should a menacing sub or sub-pack close in to destroy other merchant ships, the escort would have to break off helping survivors and chase off the menace. The sailors were haunted by memories of the times they returned as quickly as possible to a spot to continue rescuing survivors only to find that no trace of those they had hoped to help.
The escorts had to withstand terrible storms and cold at sea. Seas could become "big enough to break a ship to death," Walling said, "beating off a vessel's screws" or encasing everything in thick ice.
Walling spoke, too, of having conducted research and of talking with men involved in providing escort for convoys bringing lend-lease to Russia. He has written a separate book about these Arctic convoys in World War II. He explained the route these convoys took: North into the Norwegian Sea and along the Barents Sea to land supplies at Murmansk, Russia's only ice-free port. This passage brought convoys through a more confined stretch of water, one bristling with Nazi bases along the Norwegian coast.
As for the Battle of the Atlantic, disasters at sea peaked during 14 days in March 1943. In one incident, a 110-ship convoy with 13 escorts encountered 41 U-boats. Lost were 21 merchant ships and three U-boats.
From then on, the battle shifted in favor of the Allies. Improved means of detecting the approach of enemy subs and aircraft had been developed as well as more potent means of attacking them. Throughout the entire battle, Walling noted, "The Merchant Marine did an incredible job."
Convoy hardships took their toll, he said: The loss of about 3,000 merchant ships, 200 warships and 2,000 aircraft while 700 U-boats were lost. In all, Walling reported, over 60,000 men, women and children died.
In the excitement, horror and ultimate victory of the war in Europe, this Battle of the Atlantic, the longest-running battle of all, merits remembrance.