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Battle of the Atlantic

by Cristiano D'Adamo

The Battle of the Atlantic describes the prolonged struggles between the British Empire, and later American forces, for the maintenance of supply routes to and from Great Britain and its possessions. On reverse, the Italians fought a similar battle in the Mediterranean where they found themselves on the other side, having to defend their freighters and tankers from British attacks. This epic, involving thousands of ships and submarines, started as early as 1939 and ended in early 1945. Many historians have divided this battle into distinct phases. The author Clay Blair, in his two-volume, 1,800-page book “Hitler’s U-Boat War”, defines two major phases: “The Hunters ”, from 1939 to 1942, and “The Hunted ”, from 1942 to the end of the conflict in 1945. Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, the head of the German submarine forces during this struggle, and author of “Memoirs, ten years and twenty days”, uses a more detailed timeline in which the struggle between tactics, technology, and strategies becomes clearer.

A copious bibliography, both works of authors who directly participated in the conflict and those who just made a career studying it, has created much information, but at the same time blurred some of the historical accuracy. In this cacophony of voices, often as loud and erroneous as Clay Blair, the work of Jurgen Rohwer remains one of the foundations for accurate historical research. He is, amongst some American and Italian historians, one of the few who has cited the Italian participation, this lesser know, but important aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The predominant role of the German U-Boats is unquestionable. Still, at the end of summer 1940, when the number of operational U-Boats in the Atlantic was getting close to single digits, the arrival of the larger, slower, and less maneuverable Italian submarine boosted German confidence and allowed for the construction of new boats and the formation of new crews. While the Italians had started the conflict with older, but more experienced officers, not fully capable of withstanding the hardship of long patrols in the confinement of these relatively small boats, Germans had a large number of young and highly motivated officers. Eventually, younger Italian officers, having acquired the necessary experience under more senior officers, led the few remaining Italian boats to excellent success, while the hundreds of new German U-Boats had to be manned with less experienced officers and crew, causing a staggering number of losses especially during their maiden patrols.

Considering that Italy entered the battle almost a year after the Germans, and exited in 1943 following the Italian capitulation, the analysis of military operations will focus mostly on this period. In essence, the Italian submarine forces experienced several distinct phases:
The transfer from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic (from June to December 1940)
The early wolf-pack operations (from October to December 1940)
The collaboration with the German forces (from October 1940 to May 1941)
The cessation of joint operations and the transfer of operations from the northern to the central Atlantic (from December 1940 to January 1942)
Operations along the American coast (from February to August 1942)
Operations in the southern Atlantic (from September 1942 to May 1943)
The re-purposing of the remaining Italian submarines for transport missions to Japan (from mid 1943 onward); and some special operations.

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