Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942 / Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted, 1942-1945

Article excerpt

Blair, Clay. Hitler's U boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942. New York: Random House, 1996. 809pp. $40

Blair, Clay. Hitler's U boat War: The Hunted, 1942-1945. New York: Random House, 1998. 909pp. $45

The late Clay Blair, author of more than a dozen books, including Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine Campaign against Japan (1975), has produced an encyclopedic, two-volume history of the German submarine campaign during World War II. The first volume covers the "happy time" from August 1939 to August 1942; the second covers the denouement of the "gray sharks" from the fall and winter of 1942 down to the bitter end in 1945. Indeed, not since the German scholar Jurgen Rohwer produced his magisterial trilogy (Chronology of the War at Sea [1974], The Critical Convoy Battles of March 1943 [1977], and Axis Submarine Successes, 19391945 [1983]) has any historian labored so long and so hard on this subject. Blair's opus will be the yardstick by which all future accounts of the German U-boats in particular, and of the Battle of the Atlantic in general, will be measured.

The sheer bulk of the work is daunting. There are almost two thousand pages augmented by fourteen maps and thirty-eight appendices (each with its own set of notes). Blair details the sorties of more than a thousand U-boats as well as the Allied convoys against which they sailed, the Allied ships they sunk or were destroyed by, and the ever-increasing interaction between the U-boats and Allied aircraft. The wartime activities of Karl Donitz's undersea raiders are further subdivided into theaters: the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, the Americas, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean Sea. The second volume also offers more than forty pages of acknowledgments and sources.

Blair states his purpose clearly and forcefully: to dispel once and for all the widespread "myth," especially in the Anglo-Saxon literature, to the effect that Donitz's "gray sharks" came within a hair's breadth of defeating the Allies in the Atlantic. Furthermore, he rejects the equally accepted arguments that the Germans built the best submarines of World War II and that the German U-boat "aces" dominated the war at sea. Blair states unequivocally that the German submarine campaign failed and that Donitz's commanders sank but 1 percent of Allied merchant ships in the transatlantic convoys.

However, Blair is not one-sided in doling out criticism. In the first volume, he roundly castigates Britain for its failure to produce sufficient surface and air escorts or adequate antisubmarine weaponry. Coastal Command remained the "scandalously neglected stepchild" of the Royal Air Force, which concentrated instead on terror attacks against German cities. Nor was London generous in sharing its ENIGMAbreaking secrets with the Americans.

Blair saves his heavy artillery for scholars who have denounced Admiral Ernest J. King and his aides as "fools or knaves or worse" for their reaction-or failure to react-to the first German assault against America, Operation DRUMROLL Without directly citing Samuel Eliot Morison, Blair suggests that historians have failed to appreciate that the U. …