Monday, April 20, 2015

The End of the Year: 1939

Leichter Kreuzer "Nürnberg" auf See

While much of the Admiralty’s attention had been taken up with the chase of the Graf Spee in the months of November and December, the OKM had used the opportunity to engage in offensive minelaying operations using some of its Uboats, destroyers and even seaplanes in a wide swathe of the North Sea. These mining activities claimed twenty-two merchant victims at a cost of 37,075 tons in December alone. Sometimes the ships engaged upon these mining operations also chanced upon other Allied ships and could resort to the use of conventional methods to try and dispose of them too.43 Most of the U-boats in British coastal waters were not engaged in mining activities but in mounting regular patrols designed to ensnare as many enemy ships of all types as possible. Twenty ships at a cost of 34,948 tons were to succumb to these missions in December 1939.

It is not an exaggeration to state that during the early months of the war British results in these fields paled in comparison to the German effort, being neither as dramatic nor as numerous as their enemy counterparts. It took until 20 November before the British submarine crews were able to register their first success of the war when Sturgeon sank the patrol vessel V209 in the Heligoland Bight. Occasional sorties in this region did eventually yield more fruit, but Salmon’s fine feat of sinking U36 on 4 December and her torpedoing of both the light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg on 13 December was distinctly unusual and earned lavish praise, the DSO and promotion to commander for her captain Edward Bickford.

Nonetheless, the one area that brought quiet satisfaction to the Allies was the astounding success of their on-going convoy operations. Only three vessels had been lost out of 431 ships that had sailed in twenty-two convoys from Halifax, Nova Scotia to ports in the UK from September to December 1939 (a loss rate of 0.70%). Three more had been lost in the fourteen convoys that had brought 473 ships from Gibraltar to the UK (0.63%), and two out of 302 ships had been sunk from twenty-one convoys that had made the passage from Sierra Leone to the UK (0.66%). Of the 131 outward bound convoys from the UK, only eight had been lost out of 2,516 ships sailing on those routes (0.32%). This phenomenal rate of success proved beyond all reasonable doubt how effective convoy was and made Dönitz even more determined to disrupt the process if the attack on trade was to succeed.

As the year reached its end, however, a noticeable new trend was emerging – the use of aircraft to prosecute the naval war – whether by conducting reconnaissance flights, aerial mining, bombing operations against seaplane and fleet bases, or intentional seek and destroy missions directed against warships underway at sea. Clearly coordination between the two arms of the military was becoming an increasingly utilised feature of the overall war scene. As yet, though, whatever these aerial operations may have been touted as achieving, the simple fact was that after three months of war they had not proved to be wildly successful affairs and if one was to assess their impact on the war on a strictly cost–benefit basis they had shown a substantial deficit.

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