Atlantic warfare finds an eloquent chronicler

  • By Norman N. Brown / Associated Press
  • Saturday, June 17, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Of the library of books that have been written about World War II, many have focused on the Battle of the Atlantic, which was waged throughout the six-year war.

So what would justify the appearance of yet another book on the battle – as important as it was – and how would such a book attract a reader’s attention?

In “Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945,” the answer lies in the extraordinarily high quality of the writing by David Fairbank White, a former maritime affairs journalist with The New York Times and The Journal of Commerce.

The reader does not have to be a naval historian, a military scholar or even an armchair sailor to enjoy “Bitter Ocean.” White’s superb command of the language is apparent in the opening sentences and should be enough to rivet the reader’s attention to this aspect of the war that Churchill acknowledged had caused him the deepest concern and most anxiety.

Although the eventual defeat of Great Britain was forecast because of Nazi Germany’s early military successes on the European continent, England’s island geography and the hardiness of its people combined to create an insurmountable obstacle for the German juggernaut.

The only feasible alternative was to starve Great Britain into submission, depriving it of essential supplies for its people and raw materials for its military machine. From this came the Battle of the Atlantic, the bloodthirsty and relentless effort by the German submarine fleet to completely cut off the trans-Atlantic traffic of goods destined to keep Great Britain in the war.

Initially, it seemed quite possible that German U-boats would achieve their goal of sinking more Allied ships than could be built to replace them. From September 1939 to May 1943, the Germans held the upper hand. Gradually, though, the tide turned, due to the anti-submarine war experience gained by the Royal Navy and the availability of more ships and weapons after the U.S. entered the war.

The descriptions of the Battle of the Atlantic in official accounts and works of fiction (Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea,” for one) underscore the ceaseless panorama of frigid North Atlantic weather and towering seas.

Ships were attacked and sunk, their crews perishing after only a few minutes in the water. Yet, the U-boats were counterattacked persistently and tirelessly, and lost in the end.

White’s remarkable accomplishment is to have re-created the gloomy and desolate atmosphere of the battle with poetic flair.

But not only is “Bitter Ocean” worthy and elegant literature, it is the fruit of diligent and intelligent research. All the data needed for an understanding of the subject is found in appendixes at the end of the book.

“Bitter Ocean” may be the definitive book on the subject and may also preclude the need for any other book to be written about it.

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