May 27, 2012


While battles raged throughout Europe on land and in the air, the greatest military campaign of World War Two was being fought on the high seas. It was the Battle of the Atlantic - the longest series of battles which lasted for the entire six years of the war - from September 1st, 1939 to May 8, 1945.  Thousands of allied ships made perilous journeys sailing through treacherous routes across the Atlantic and back again. Ships criss-crossed the vast expanse of seas - from the North Sea, the Irish Sea to the Labrador Sea, the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Outer Banks and the Arctic Ocean. Vessels from the United States, Canada, Norway, Poland, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, the Netherlands, just to name few, took part in massive allied convoys. By the end of the war there had been more than one hundred battles asea and as many as one thousand encounters with enemy vessels. The losses of ships and men was disastrous.

Just three days after the start of the war, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany and launched an immediate blockade.  But it was too late. Ships of the Kriegsmarine had already mobilized during the previous month and were asea ready to launch attacks against the British and French fleets.

Naval Message from Commander in Chief of British Home Fleet-WW2 Battle of Atlantic
Naval Message from Commander in Chief of British Home Fleet

SS Athenia begins to go down  - Battle of the Atlantic WW2
SS Athenia begins to go down
The very first casualty of WW2 was the British SS Athenia. She departed Liverpool on September 2nd, 1939 at 13:00 hours carrying 1,103 passengers and 315 crew.  The next day she was spotted 61 miles (97 km) northwest of Inishtrahull, Ireland by the German submarine U-30 and tracked for several hours.  At precisely 19:40 hours Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, the commander of U-30 ordered an attack.

Fritz-Julius Lemp Commander of U-30 Torpedoed SS Athenia WW2
Fritz-Julius Lemp

Two torpedoes were launched - the first struck the Athenia while the second misfired. By the next morning at 10:40 hours, the Athenia had sunk. Of the people aboard 98 passengers and 19 crew perished.  The news of the attack provoked worldwide public outrage. The Athenia was an unarmed passenger ship. The German attack upon her was in violation of the Hague Convention and London Naval Treaty which forbade the sinking of any vessel, unless she carried contraband or was conducting military operations.  German propaganda went into full swing in an effort to evade responsibility and accused Churchill for having ordered the heinous attack as an elaborate plot to demonize Germany, as well as an attempt to pressure the United States to enter the war. (NB. It was not until 1946, that German Admiral Donitz finally confessed that their U-30 was indeed responsible.)

Churchill depended upon American assistance and desperately needed the US to join the war. It would be two years before the US entered the war, in response to the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese air force. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the 353 Japanese fighter planes launched a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, damaging eight US battleships and sinking four others. Also attacked and destroyed were three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, one minelayer, and 188 US aircraft: 2,402 Americans were killed - 1,282 wounded.

In the meantime, Britain had no choice but to face the Nazi threat alone. During the month of September 1939 German U-boats sunk a total of 50 ships (200,728 tons) and damaged 2 ships (16,916 tons). Most were British vessels such as steam merchants, steam trawlers, steam tugs, and motor tankers. About a dozen vessels were of other nationalities including Danish, Finnish, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, and French.

On September 14, 1939 the HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier, miraculously escaped an attack by a German U-39. Three torpedoes had been launched but detonated prematurely. Within the span of a few moments the U-39 was sunk by escort British destroyers. (But on November 13, 1941 she was hit by a torpedo from U-81 and sank the next day.  She had survived many "near misses" and was until then considered a "Lucky Ship". )

HMS Ark Royal WW2 Battle of Atlantic
HMS Ark Royal

On September 17, 1939 the HMS Courageous was patrolling the coast of Ireland when she was torpedoed by a U-29 and sank in twenty minutes. Five hundred and nineteen men, and the captain lost their lives. She was a carrier which served during World War I, and was present when the German Fleet surrendered. She was recommissioned during WW2 and reverted to her original role of patrolling the North Sea.

The numerous losses of the first month and those that were to follow virtually destroyed British morale. But the most shocking event was the cold-blooded and daring attack by a German U-boat on Scapa Flow, a vital British base located at Orkney Islands, in Scotland. On October 14, 1939 at 01:16 hours, the commander of the U-47, Gunther Prien, successfully infiltrated the naval base and launched two torpedoes on the HMS Royal Oak, a British battleship that had served during WW1, and which was laying at anchor. At first the U-47 fired only one torpedo and turned to make a quick get-away. But upon noticing there was no immediate threat from British warships, the U Boat returned and launched a second torpedo which ripped a 9 meter (30 ft) gash in the Royal Oak. She capsized with 833 men aboard.

U-47 departing Kiel for Scapa Flow - WW2 Battle of the Atlantic
U-47 departing Kiel for Scapa Flow

The Kriegsmarine planned the attack in retaliation for the humiliation that Germany suffered in its surrender after WW1. The attack was also meant to demonstrate just how easily U-Boats could breach British security.  The length of Scapa Flow measures approximately 312 square kilometres (120 sq mi), with a shallow bottom roughly 60 metres (200 ft) in depth, but most areas no deeper than 30 metres (or 98 feet).

WW2 Battle of Atlantic - Route taken by U-47 into Scapa Flow to attack and out again
Route taken by U-47 into Scapa Flow to attack and out again

It was an impressive feat on the part of Prien to navigate this waterway so skillfully amid tight British security, to launch the attack and then silently retreat. It set British authorities into a panic.  German Command conferred Prien with high praise for his success and he decorated a war hero.  This was just the beginning of a long and deadly battle.

Incidentally, Scapa Flow is one of the great natural harbours of the world equipped with enough space to contain several navies. More than 1000 years ago, Viking ships used to anchor there. But it is known for being the chief British naval base during WW1 and WW2. (The base was closed in 1956.)

: WW2 in Colour 1941 U-Boat Campaign against the US (00:10:00)

For the next three months, the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee and her sister ship the Deutschland prowled the North Atlantic working in tandem to track and destroy British vessels.  Together they sunk nine merchant ships totalling over 50,000 tons.  British and French navies combined forces to track down the enemy ship.  An allied fleet of 3 battle cruisers, 3 aircraft carriers and 15 cruisers were immediately set asea and eventually spotted the Admiral Graf Spee near the mouth of the River Plate.  Battle ensued but the enemy escaped towards shelter in Montevideo harbor, where in December 1939,  it was scuttled by the crew.

Kriegsmarine vessel Admiral Graf Spee-WW2-Battle of Atlantic

Kriegsmarine vessel Admiral Graf Spee


Allied ships and merchant ships were virtual sitting ducks asea while German submarines prowled beneath the waves laying in wait for the opportunity to torpedo the vessels and sink their valuable cargo.  Despite the numerical superiority of the British Royal Navy they continuously suffered disastrous losses; a total of 175 warships, 3,500 merchant vessels, and 30,264 merchant sailors were lost by the British, as compared to the loss of 783 German U-boats and 30,000 German sailors.

Any semblance of hope that the British had in gaining a military advantage over Germany had vanished when France, her biggest ally was conquered by German forces in June 1940.  The Battle of Britain which ensued had fortunately ended with a decisive British victory.  But throughout it England stood alone.  Despite British numerical superiority on the seas, she still relied on the scant number of French ships which joined the Free French forces and a few Canadian built corvettes to make up the shortfall.  British naval forces were strained beyond the breaking point in a desperate attempt to meet with all contingencies.

British ships that had already been allocated to positions in the Atlantic had to be re-assigned elsewhere to meet the immediate threats:  Italy had just declared war and was bent on raiding British and French colonies in the Mediterranean; British forces were deployed in the Norwegian Campaign and the Low Countries, and hundreds of British vessels were dispatched to Dunkirk in the largest naval rescue mission in history - to evacuate allied soldiers from the beaches and harbours.  Churchill called it "a colossal military disaster" and that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" was stranded in Dunkirk on the brink of annihilation.

British Dunkirk Evacuation Footage- Operation Dynamo 1940 (00:03:57)

In a desperate attempt to minimize Allied losses, British Command implemented a convoy system which at first was voluntary, but quickly became mandatory for all ships. Each convoy consisted of up to 70 unarmed merchant ships carrying goods to Britain - war materiel and supplies that were vital for the continuation of the war effort. Flanking each convoy were one or more escort destroyers, whose mere visible presence was sufficient to deter enemy attack. It so happened that when the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered an eastbound British convoy of 41 ships (HX-106), they spotted the escort, an old battleship HMS Ramillies and immediately fled the scene. No doubt they considered it better to avoid a battle than risk damaging their 15" guns.

Initially the Kriegsmarine were caught by surprise by the sight of escorted convoys but it did not deter them from continuing their terror tactics at sea.  Enemy attacks continued unabated and British losses continued to rise. British Command realized that the convoy defenses were not as secure as originally expected. However as the war progressed the Allies began to gain the advantage.

Aerial view of Convoy escorted by Allied Battleship April 1941 Battle of Atlantic
Aerial view of Convoy escorted by Allied Battleship April 1941


On November 5, 1940, in one of the most dramatic and powerful attacks of the Kriegsmarine, the Admiral Scheer fired upon Convoy HX-84 and in the process very quickly sunk five allied ships and damaged several others. The remainder of the convoy was able to escape only because of the sacrifice of the escorting Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Jervis Bay, and the failing light. British Command temporarily suspended all convoys and dispatched the Home Fleet to hunt down the Scheer. They couldn't pin her down. The Scheer virtually disappeared in the South Atlantic area, then reappeared in the Indian Ocean a month later.

The German Cruiser, Admiral Hipper launched an attack on Convoy WS 5A, on Christmas Day 1940.  however were driven off by escorting cruisers. Two months later, on February 12 1941, Hipper encountered Convoy SLS 64 and sank seven of its nineteen ships.

Operation Berlin was launched in January 1941 when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, two infamous and impenetrable battlecruishers that could outgun any Allied ship, was put out to sea in hunt and destroy missions.  With so many German battleships in the Atlantic the British Navy had to scramble to provide battleship escorts to its allied convoys.  It was a prudent move and was directly responsible for saving convoys on two occasions.  The following month, the HMS Ramillies deterred an attack on Convoy HX 106.  In March, the HMS Malaya was able to protect Convoy SL 67.

In the most infamous raid on Allied Convoys, the Germans launched Operation Rheinubung.  A new and powerful German battleship, the Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen were set out to sea to attack convoys but were intercepted by a British fleet off the coast of Iceland.  In the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the British battlecruiser HMS Hood was torpedoed and sunk. The Bismarck was damaged and headed towards France but was bombed by PBY Catalinas, from the carrier Ark Royal. Three days later the Bismarck was sunk by Home Fleet.  It marked the end of the warship raids.


The Polish Navy was an integral part of the Allied forces in the Battle of the Atlantic. Though they possessed far fewer ships than Britain or the US they nonetheless made enormous contributions in the allied war effort.  Polish ships took part in the Battle of Narvik, shelling shore batteries, and engaging Nazi raiders. They also participated in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, shelling the coast around Dunkirk. The Polish ship Blyskawica boldly entered the Dunkirk canal amid heavy enemy bombing and gun fire.

ORP Blyskawica  Polish distroyer- WW2 Battle of Atlantic
ORP Blyskawica  Polish distroyer- WW2
WW2 Battle of Atlantic - Crew cleaning  4-inch anti-aircraft gun-ORP Błyskawica 12 September 1940
Crew cleaning  4-inch anti-aircraft gun-ORP Błyskawica 12 September 1940

Piorun (Thunderbolt), Blyskawica (Lightning), Orkan (Windstorm),  Burza (Thunderstorm), and Garland, were the Polish destroyers which protected the English Channel. They also escorted convoys in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, took part in naval operations at Tobruk, Dieppe, Lefoten, Murmansk, Malta, and Normandy, carried valuable cargo to Murmansk and Africa, participated in massive allied landings in North Africa, Salerno, and the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.

The ORP GROM (Thunder) was sunk on May 4, 1940 during the Norwegian Campaign by a German He111. There were 154 survivors,59 KIA, 30 WIA. But before being hit GROM was able to bomb German troops around the Narvik area, and delivered equipment to the HMS Enterprise.

WW2 Battle of Atlantic ORP GROM

The ORP Piorun (Thunderbolt) became famous and celebrated for its role in the hunt for the Bismark. (story in Part 3).  She was originally commissioned for the Royal Navy and christened HMS Nerissa, but after the ORP GROM had been sunk, she was transferred to the Polish Navy as a replacement vessel.

WW2 Battle of Atlantic Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun
ORP Piorun

WW2 Battle of Atlantic - Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound
Sir Dudley Pound, the British First Sea Lord decorated several Polish sailors in 1942 for their valor. He made the following statement.

"Last night I asked my Chief of Staff to give me a list of all Polish warships fighting alongside the Royal Navy. I was shocked to learn how few they are because in all dispatches of naval operations and major engagements I almost always find a name of a Polish ship that distinguished itself."  

Among the materiel resources available to the Polish Navy were 8 Submarines, 7 Destroyers, 6 Minesweepers, 3 Escort Destroyers, 2 Gun Boats, 2 Light Cruisers, 1 Torpedo Boat, and 1 Minelayer.  As a matter of fact the command of several British ships were temporarily given to the Poles, including the famous submarine ORP Sokol (formerly HMS Urchin). The Urchin was supposed to have been commissioned to the Royal Navy, but because of the the lack of trained personnel was given to the Polish. The ORP Sokol teamed up with her sister sub the ORP Dzik and earned a reputation for being the "Terrible Twins".   Sokol patrolled the Bay of Biscay off the port of Brest, escorted numerous convoys in the Mediterranean, and took part in naval runs on the port of Taranto and Naples.

In October 1941 ORP Sokol scored her first victory, damaging the Italian cruiser Citta di Palermo. A few days later she was able to sink the 2,469 ton transport ship Balila.  In November she succeeded in breaking through the anti-submarine nets, entered the port of Navarino and damaged the Italian destroyer Aviere but was attacked by Italian torpedo boats and destroyers.  They all missed the target.  Sokol was able to escape and in the process was able to launch another three salvos and succeeded in sinking another Italian vessel - a transport steamer of 5,600 ton.

In April 1942, Sokol was heavily damaged by a German air raid and had no recourse but to return to the shipyards at Blyth for repairs.  Within weeks she was back in the Mediterranean harassing enemy ships up and down the coast of Italy, and North Africa. Throughout the war, ORP Sokol sank or damaged about 19 enemy ships totalling 55,000 tons.  All the crew and officers were decorated with Poland's highest medal, the Virtuti Militari.  The records of their bravery are stored in the National Record Office located in Kew, England.

WW2 Battle of Atlantic - Polish Submarine Sokol with flags
ORP Sokol

In 1939 Polish ships were fewer than 1,000, but by the end of the war had increased to well over 4,000 vessels. Of the total number of men and ships, 404 Polish sailors were KIA, and 5 Polish warships sunk, the largest casualties having occured with the sinking of the ORP Orkan.  Four Polish midshipmen were among the casualties of HMS Hood when the Nazis torpedoed and sunk her.

Though little mention is made of the Polish Navy today, their role during WW2 was nothing short of astonishing. Of the numerous missions for the Royal Navy, Polish ships sailed a total of 1,213,000 nautical miles, escorted 787 convoys, carried out 1,162 combat patrols, sank 2 U-boats and 11 probably damaged, sank 39 Nazi transports and 20 aircraft.  

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ORP Sokol Flag


The Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war. Throughout the war the allies struggled desperately to maintain a steady flow of vital supplies from North America to Britain; supplies, without which Britain would have surely lost the war.  Convoys of up to 70 unarmed merchant ships, under the protection of British, Canadian, Polish, and later American, air and naval forces, brought food, war materiel and supplies to Britain. There were over 200 convoy routes charted. Over a million tons of goods were required by Britain each week just to survive and to continue the war effort and most particularly to supply weapons and equipment necessary in preparation for the massive D-Day invasion. The United States provided ship and air force escorts in September 1941 based on the Lend-Lease program which came into effect earlier that year. Through this program the US will have shipped over $31 billion of supplies to Britain.

With the rise of Hitler to power, Germany embarked on a massive remilitarization, coded "Plan Z". It not only disregarded all the restrictions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 but superceded its limits to an alarming degree. The German navy had been forced to limit its materiel assets;  no more than 15,000 men, 6 battleships of a maximum displacement of 10,000 tons each; 6 cruisers with maximum displacement of 6,000 tons each; 12 destroyers with a maximum displacement of 800 tons each; and 12 torpedo boats with a maximum displacement of 200 tons each.  Submarines were expressly prohibited.

Hitler earmarked 1938 as the year in which the Kriegsmarine would have achieved its monumental objective of assembling a fleet of 800 ships in addition to 10 battleships and battlecruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, 5 heavy cruisers, 44 light cruisers, 158 destroyers and torpedo boats, various smaller vessels, and 249 submarines.  Quite an ambitious undertaking, but one which had to be shelved virtually on the eve of World War II.  In its stead, Germany reallocated all its available resources towards the construction of U-boats, which together with existing capital ships, armed merchant cruisers and aircraft were more than sufficient to make up for any weaknesses of the Kriegsmarine.

At the very beginning of the war, the Kriegsmarine had only 57 Type II U-boats in her fleet, primarily relegated to the tasks of mine-laying.  The temporary shortfall was quickly remedied and soon massive hordes of German U-boats were prowling the North Atlantic and leaving a trail of destruction in every wake.  Its most effective strategy has often been referred to as the "Wolf Pack",  a technique suggested by Karl Donitz, Commander of German U-boats.  In a memo to Grand Admiral Eric Raeder, he recommended that "effective submarine warfare could bring Britain to her knees."  It almost did.

WW2 Battle of Atlantic - Churchill- Without Ships we Cannot Live
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
"Without ships, we cannot live." Churchill uttered these words as a dire warning that unless Britain win the Battle of the Atlantic, the consequences would be catastrophic. Fortunately, the tide began to turn in 1943. While the U boat menace persisted throughout the rest of the war, the Kriegsmarine no longer wielded the same degree of threat. A variety of factors contributed to the change of Allied fortunes including an increase in resources and technological developments. First and foremost was their ability to intercept and decipher German Enigma messages, thanks to the efforts of the Polish Underground who cracked the Enigma code before the war even started. The Germans did not suspect a thing!


(please click on the following link for Part 2)


  1. Thank you again. Your blog is a great find.

    I had not read this before:

    "Last night I asked my Chief of Staff to give me a list of all Polish warships fighting alongside the Royal Navy. I was shocked to learn how few they are because in all dispatches of naval operations and major engagements I almost always find a name of a Polish ship that distinguished itself."

    Polak potrafi (The Pole can do it).

  2. My grandfather Jan Lewandowski served on the Grom then on the Piorun.

    Very proud!!