Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 35

Clay Blair, Hitler's U-boat war: the hunted, 1942-1945, Random House, New York, 2000, xxviii + 909 pp., illustrations, maps, appendixes, index, soft cover, rrp US$18.95.

Reviewed by: BEN EVANS, Australian Customs Service, Canberra

The hunted is the second volume of the late Clay Blair's monumental work on the German submarine war of 1939-45, and very appropriately titled. This volume covers the failure of the U-boat arm of the Kriegsmarine to affect the outcome of the Second World War, and its ultimate destruction at the hands of ever improving Allied anti-submarine forces.

The hunted is arranged as a month by month chronicle. At the beginning of each chapter, Blair plots the major developments in the course of the Second World War, describes new technologies and outlines planned U-boat and Allied naval operations. These summaries are arranged as dot points, an effective way to cover such wide-ranging topics. The remainder of each chapter is a straightforward chronological narrative, describing sinkings, U-boat losses and convoy battles. The intelligence war is covered, as are Allied and German administrative and political developments that affected naval operations. Footnotes are frequent, and generally used to expand upon points raised in the text. The volume's index, appendices and source notes are comprehensive.

The adherence to a strict chronological framework occasionally causes some confusion. Sections dealing with U-boat operations in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and off the Americas are sprinkled through the text, rather than, say, as a chapter dealing with just the Mediterranean. While this approach has been adopted to place these seemingly more exotic U-boat operations in their chronological context, it has the effect of making it troublesome to follow anything other than the course of the Battle of the Atlantic. This gives the Atlantic its due priority, but makes it more difficult to understand the British feeling of the time that the Mediterranean was just as important. Blair's approach, however, does have the advantage that when a U-boat is sunk it stays sunk, rather than popping up elsewhere in the world in a later chapter.

The main theme of The hunted is the argument that the U-boats never came close to strangling Britain. Blair reinforces this contention throughout the text by judicious use of statistics, and arrives at the conclusion that during the period September 1942 to May 1945 over 99 per cent of Allied shipping crossing the Atlantic in either direction arrived safely. It is apparent from this that the British-US Atlantic link was never truly threatened.

Although Blair's evidence is incontrovertible, he fails to explain the contrary belief held at the time. British and US concerns about the Battle of the Atlantic were most clearly expressed during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, at which the defeat of the U-boats at sea and in port through the strategic bombing campaign, and the construction of more merchant ships, were matters given priority. Blair addresses only briefly the role of U-boats as a "force in being" that diverted the British and US war effort from other objectives. For example, he describes the failure of the Eighth Air Force (USAAF) raids on the U-boat pens at Lorient, St Nazaire, La Pallice and Brest in the second half of 1942, but offers no explanation as to why these raids continued despite their evident lack of success.

Blair is more analytically-minded when it comes to operational history. He is highly critical of Dönitz's command, but reserves some equally penetrating comments for the US Navy. For example, Blair has a kind word for the Cuban cutter SC13, which attacked U-176 east of Havanna on 15 May 1943, expending just five depth charges. SC13 rejoined her convoy after less than an hour had passed, leading the US Navy to demand the Cuban skipper be censured for his lack of tenacity. There were no survivors from U-176, but SC13 was never credited with its destruction. The hunted consistently provides this level of operational detail, even for the major convoy battles. The reader can track the torpedoes fired and count the depth charges going over the side.

Blair's even-handed treatment of the bitter war in the Atlantic extends beyond operational matters. In dealing with Dönitz's trial for war crimes, Blair is frank in his opinion that the war waged by the U-boats was no more reprehensible than that of US Navy submarines against Japanese merchant shipping. Blair's service on a submarine in the Pacific during the Second World War lends weight to this argument.

The strength of The hunted lies in its immensely detailed chronological narrative of operational history. It is apparent that every known occasion on which U-boat and merchantman or Allied warship or aircraft came into contact has been documented. Better yet, the author has described the little-known operations of German surface blockade-runners as well. The only weaknesses in this account are the author's tendency to give Allied sources priority over German documents, which leads to some minor factual errors, and a lack of detailed historical analysis. Despite this, The hunted is highly recommended as a reference source.