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Battle for the North Atlantic — remarkable

10 July 2013

Battle for the North Atlantic — remarkable

Battle for the North Atlantic: the strategic naval campaign that won World War II in Europe, John R. Bruning, 2013, ISBN 978-0-7603-3991-6, 300 pp.

Battle for the North Atlantic: the strategic naval campaign that won World War II in Europe by John R. Bruning with front cover photo by the U.S. Coast Guard and Shutterstock

Battle for the North Atlantic: the strategic naval campaign that won World War II in Europe by John R. Bruning with front cover photo by the U.S. Coast Guard and Shutterstock, design by Simon Larkin — image courtesy of Zenith Press

This is a beautiful book for the mind as well as the eye. Bruning — an adept historian and agile writer — has wonderfully addressed the vast and complex combat which took place in the North Atlantic during World War II. This battle nearly brought Britain to its knees as German Navy (Kriegsmarine) surface raiders and submarines (U-boats) were sinking cargo vessels thus denying war material, food, fuel and the thousands of other things a modern society requires.

John Bruning is an historian with a gift for research and for writing. No simple history buff with knowledge, instead he brings wisdom and oversight (what historians do) delving into significant but little known aspects of the battle. He also provides the context the decision makers were experiencing so the reader can better understand the good as well as unfortunate choices made by the leaders of the day. Major aspects are also dealt with, of course. Bruning has, in 300 pages, brought the  gamut of the desperate battle fought on, and under as well as over, the waves of some of the most inhospitable area of the planet. The background texture of the pages, illustrations, photos and maps work in concert with Bruning’s writing to make this book a primary reference as well as a book which should be left out for spontaneous examination. The index is a researcher’s dream as it is organized into logical subcategories.

The book addresses what most readers of the Allied nations will likely be familiar, such as: SONAR (Asdic), the sea routes, convoy strategies, what the German Navy called “Happy Times” when cargo ships were being sunk in record numbers, as well as the impact of air power and naval strategies. He also objectively addresses what the reader might have to read from German and Italian sources which illustrates the value of Bruning’s historian training, bringing an even analysis to a comprehensive subject that is explained clearly.

Revelations for the reader may be:

  • Knowing U.S. magnate Henry Kaiser helped win the war by building cargo ships faster than the U-boats could sink them but Bruning also makes us aware of the usually forgotten but heroic merchant seamen and in the telling of how Norway (the nation with the greatest tonnage of cargo shipping vessels before WW II broke out) bought the Allies a strategic amount if of time in the critical early years by donating 3000 cargo vessels (of which 1000 were sunk).
  • Another revelation is how, in the early war, the Altmark Incident had Norway more concerned about invasion from Great Britain and ignored the German invasion threat. Reading how the Royal Navy rescued 303 British merchant men was inspiring — Churchill was not allowing Britain to play safe though in dire straits.
  • It is generally known how the U.S. Navy entered the war with faulty torpedoes — Bruning explains how Germany did, as well.
  • Readers likely know the United States formed the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) to provide patrolling duties the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard were unable to perform, in regard to coastal patrols and coastal sub hunting, at the entry of the U.S. into World War II. It is a glorious history often repeated, as well it should be, yet Bruning illustrates how, although Britain had been fighting subs for two years, we ignored Great Britain’s war time experience. The U.S. did not institute convoys going up and down the Eastern Seaboard but sent ships singly to be easily hunted for no less than six months — which the German Navy exploited during Operation Drumroll (Operation Paukenschlag). Incredibly, and inexcusably, coastal cities (especially in Florida) did not blackout their lights which would then place the cargo vessels in silhouette — since blackouts might detract from tourism revenue. Six months in war time is an eternity and no amount of aerial patrol could make up for that judgement.
  • He also covers Italian Navy submarines. Who knew? John Bruning does.
  • More is explained about the Ultra secret and how it began far in advance of Bletchley Park (a too often unsung aspect of this fantastic story).
  • The German B-Dienst program had broken Allied codes and was used to favorably position assets to intercept convoys.

The aviation dimension is also thoroughly addressed — especially how radar and longer ranged patrol aircraft both made detection of submarines beyond visual range possible as well as the closing of the gap in mid Atlantic. Impacts of the air war component are nicely summarized, including the effectiveness of Axis as well as Allied aircraft ranging from raider based floatplanes and the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor (which was highly effective though not often discussed in other texts) to Short Bros. Sunderlands and Consolidated B-24 Liberators.

This book will give the reader a comprehensive knowledge of the Battle for the North Atlantic beyond simple numbers and dates, addresses all aspects of the years long battle, transgresses national bias and gives an excellent understanding of the events as they unfolded.

John Bruning has written a remarkable book.


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press has provided a copy of this book to read for the writing of an objective review — no compensation has been offered, expected or requested.

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