Causes and effects of U Boat war

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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Andy H » 27 Feb 2011 02:11

Clio13 wrote:None of the above arguments persuade me to change my initial assertion, namely that the conditions and underlying tensions in Britain which persisted in early 1917, could theoretically have been replicated in 1941. However I am well enough versed in realpolitik to realise that the necessary investments were unlikely to be made. Blair's observations are a welcome strand of the debate but his view is far from hegemonic in British academic circles at least.

As for the British response, the lesson of WWI was that intelligence, convoy, minefields and destroyers were the only riposte to the U-boat threat. In the later 1930s when Britain was rearming, there was still no emphasis on destroyers and corvettes. There was a lingering fondness for big showy warships - which looked great on newsreels and made people feel good - but could not depth-charge a U-boat or shepherd a convoy. I am not suggesting that these ships were useless, not by any means. What I am saying is that the perception of the U-boat threat did not necessarily result in a commensurate increase in means to combat it, ie destroyer output.

Finally, it ought to be pointed out that the French Atlantic bases, while immeasurably useful, were not essential to fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. The comparatively feeble U-boote of the KDM had managed the norweg quite nicely in WWI.

Deep down inside I know its just my idle speculation though !
Hi Clio13
In the theme of JonG’s recent post I will add the following for the record.

Though Blairs thoughts may not be widely supported in British academic circles, it is no reason to discount them completely, as every appraisal and re-appraisal has to start somewhere with somebody.

You have rightly identified the failings of the Admiralty/RN in terms of some of the lessons learnt and then lost after WW1, however you fail (at least in that specific post) to give any context to those failings. The plethora of Naval Treaties, a harsh budget climate, the Governments appeasement policy and the slavish adhesion to the 10yr rule, all affected the ability of the Admiralty/RN to achieve the fleet it truly desired.

In relation to destroyers (DD) and the above paragraph, we can see the RN lose some 433 DD’s and for only some 130 replacements built. These DD’s were the bigger types as JonG mentioned, and by time the clouds of war gathered, the Admiralty were in a position that some 60 DD’s were under construction come the wars start.

The lingering fondness for the big glory ships was still there but given the global challenges the RN faced, it required a large cruiser force, modern BB’s etc to combat those of its potential rivals.

The loss of the French coastline for the RN had a huge influence on its whole strategy. The RN strategy for merchant shipping was based around that escort protection for the convoys had only been envisaged in the waters approaching the UK. Thus with the placing of the U-Boats on the French coast, the RN had to move its strategy from escorting along the western approaches, to escorting from the mid-Atlantic and eventually escorting all the way across the Atlantic.
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Clio13 » 27 Feb 2011 11:31

'it is no reason to discount them completely, as every appraisal and re-appraisal has to start somewhere with somebody'
I would never do that. I don't know about you but if I seek an overview of a given incident, the first book I turn to is always Blair. I am in awe of this magisterial book and I think we all should be. Truth is, I have no absolute views on this matter. I give his conclusions weight - but there are other contentions that I find equally convincing. I just see them as complimentary strands in a sophisticated, multi-faceted discussion which, lets face it will run and run and run long after we are dead and gone...

To be honest I am just trying to broaden out this fascinating debate in the hope of making people question received wisdom by asking, 'what if ?' If I am saying anything of note it is just that we should be wary of taking an absolute position on a subject as complex and as delicately nuanced as this one.

'The loss of the French coastline for the RN had a huge influence on its whole strategy'.

Indeed it did. This is not in disupute.

My (whimsical) contention is that for Germany, the ability to wage unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic was not conditional upon possession of the French Atlantic ports. Now quite how effective that campaign of attrition might have been is rather more open to critical dissection.

I would observe that the fall of the French ports placed an immense strain upon Britain's capacity to escort the critical OB (later ON) convoys. The re-routing of the OB(ON) convoy closer to Iceland forced the introduction of the Freetown OS convoys, which in turn added to the burden - a burden which would have been significantly less, had Admiralty digested the lessons of unrestricted submarine warfare 1917/18 and opted for building cheap little destroyers in the pivotal years 1933-1939.
I fully accept, and agree with, the caveats you introduce to the discussion re the pressures and priorities of the inter-war years and I feel I should add another.
Within Admiralty circles 1935-39 I suspect there was a prevailing spirit of,
'Whoohoo. We have invented ASDIC. We no longer have to fear smelly little German submarines !'

What I am really trying to say here is that the ASDIC sets available in 1939 may have inculcated an inappropriate sense of overconfidence amongst the movers and shakers of Whitehall. And the heavy price for this overconfidence was paid by our international Merchant Navies and Servicemen.
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Polar bear » 27 Feb 2011 17:29

Clio13 wrote: As for the British response, the lesson of WWI was that intelligence, convoy, minefields and destroyers were the only riposte to the U-boat threat.
two more ...
a lesson well learned and applied (and interestingly, not vice-versa, really) was that submarines themselves were effective against u-boats, especially in the narrows of the "travelling routes",
a lesson less well learned (possibly being to "new" and hampered by inter-service-rivalry) was that airborne help was effective, two kills by destroyers in the Fall of 1918 (I don´t remember which) being supported by airships.

greetings, the pb
Peace hath her victories no less renowned than War
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Clio13 » 27 Feb 2011 19:53

'...two kills by destroyers in the Fall of 1918 (I don´t remember which) being supported by airships..'

An airship certainly assisted in the destruction of UB 115 by directing a couple of destroyers on 29 September 1918
UC 70 was bombed by an aircraft on 28 August 1918.
Last edited by Clio13 on 27 Feb 2011 21:15, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Polar bear » 27 Feb 2011 21:07

hi, Clio,

yes, thanks, I found that out in between myself, but was irritated by the fact that the otherwise very reliable u.boat.net did not mention the airborne assistance.

greetings, the pb
Peace hath her victories no less renowned than War
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by RichTO90 » 28 Feb 2011 00:10

hagen wrote:Indeed. Then again to answer the question you must have a what if something was done differently.
Which question needs a "what if" to answer it? The thread title is not a question and "what ifs" do nothing to identify the actual causes and effects of the real U-Boat war.

Otherwise the only questions that might apply appear to be the three (well, actually one, the other two a really just rhetorical polemics) that appear as part of the justification of this split, which wasn't into a "what if" thread, but remains history.
(i) Why is two years too long for Germany? They have signed a 10-year peace treaty with the Soviet Union (with what value is a moot point) so why not take a few years to grind down the British. When you want war with the Soviets you will not face a two-front war. Stalin was waiting for the other powers to exhaust each other first.
(ii) The British are going to put everything into winning the war at sea but the Germans are going to start putting a lot in too. Air and sea war is all about capital equipment and there is no reason to suppose that the British are going to stay ahead technological as well as beat the Germans in building rates.
(iii) Submarine warfare might bring the Americans into the war but it is not clear that it will. Sinking rates may have been poor but then we are going to concentrate resources so as to improve that.
In any case the answers have been given, numerous times.
You will be familiar with the use and abuse of statistics. I suggest that such shipping data needs to be used with caution.
I'm not sure how I can put this delicately, but in my experience everytime someone decides to haul out the hoary old chestnuts about "abuse of statistics" they usually have no data to submit for statistical analysis.
Magic? Hand waving? I think that was Hitler's approach, was it not? :lol: :idea:
Chuckle...care to answer the question now? :lol:
The lag time between decison and effect is quite significant. It means taking the long view and I doubt Hitler had the patience or inclination for it. He did not want to destroy Britain; the Soviet Union was his real enemy. It is quite telling that there was never any well developed plan to defeat Britain. A serious plan would have shifted resources towards sea & air systems and taken some years to bring to fruition when the next generation of weapon systems could be in place with which to defeat the SU.
Instead of hand waving again? You've been asked a question about just how you think such can be acheived. What Hitler's "patience or inclination" has to do with it is irrelevent. You've been arguing there was such a way, so just what is the "serious plan" you have in mind? If resources are going to be shifted how does that work? Where does the additional aluminium for aircraft come from and, better still, where do the engines come from (the big bottleneck). Does a switch get turned and suddenly Maybach is turning out aero engines instead of tank engines? Who starts turning out all those extra diesels? Better still, where do the addditional shipyards and aircraft assembly plants come from? Again, it's not like you flip a switch, stick a different widget on at the end of the assembly line and suddenly U-Boats instead of tanks are being extruded. :D

So let's build a new U-Boat yard. Call it Howaldtswerke AG, Kiel. Let's purchase that company's existing yard on 1 April 1939 and contract it to build U-Boats. The first four of which are contracted on 23 September 1939 and laid down in November. But because the company had never built U-Boats before it takes a while before they get any launched. Like January 1941. Or, even better, how about another newbie...call it Vulcan Stettiner Maschinenbau AG? Contracted in early 1941 to produced six boats a year with the first four let on 10 April 1941. With the first one laid down on 1 January 1942 and launched on 9 October 1943 and commissioned 29 April 1944 and the second - and last - launched on 24 December 1943 (but never commissioned). Merry Christmas Adolf! :D

Given that the actual expansion of the U-Boat construction industry had such checkered results, how is a "serious plan" supposed to fix that?
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Andy H » 28 Feb 2011 01:36

Hi Clio

You wrote:-
If I am saying anything of note it is just that we should be wary of taking an absolute position on a subject as complex and as delicately nuanced as this one.
Hi I would say that most knowledgeable members rarely take an absolute position devoid of being able to assimilate new information/ideas, whilst those that have absolute ideas are the exact opposite.
My (whimsical) contention is that for Germany, the ability to wage unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic was not conditional upon possession of the French Atlantic ports. Now quite how effective that campaign of attrition might have been is rather more open to critical dissection.
I would agree that unrestricted submarine warfare wasn’t conditional on of possession of the Atlantic ports, but I would argue that effective unrestricted submarine warfare was very conditional on possession of the Atlantic ports, and also but less so on the possession of the Morwegian coastline.
had Admiralty digested the lessons of unrestricted submarine warfare 1917/18 and opted for building cheap little destroyers in the pivotal years 1933-1939.
Well with hindsight and a looking class, then I think the Admiralty/RN would agree with you 100%. However given multiple threats and strains, some of which we have both mentioned, and others not yet touched upon, I fear its wishful thinking.
Within Admiralty circles 1935-39 I suspect there was a prevailing spirit of,
'Whoohoo. We have invented ASDIC. We no longer have to fear smelly little German submarines !
Well to a point I agree with that statement. What I will say again is that the various issues surrounding the Admiralty/RN, such as the hope of having submarines outlawed come the 1930 Naval treaty, the latter policy of building ASDIC equipped ships in ratio to TSDS ships, the rise of the German threat after 1934 (against the plans & ships that had been laid down with Japan as the main adversary) all played varying parts in why the RN was in state it was ref ASW.

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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Clio13 » 28 Feb 2011 07:15

'Well with hindsight and a looking class, then I think the Admiralty/RN would agree with you 100%'.

I'm not sure about the 'hindsight' bit. 1917 the U-boote had very nearly brought Britain to her knees. While appreciating the conflicting demands, the lessons were there for anyone minded to look at Board of Trade returns 1917-1918 - with or without a looking glass. Destroyers, convoys, intelligence and mines (and if possible, aircraft). Above all, destroyers.

I have reason to believe that 'big ship' advocates tended to worm more easily into positions of responsibility within the Inter-War Admiralty and tended to be both more vociferous/influential and be afforded newspaper columns to advance their views. There was a perception that destroyer and submarine branches languished as the cinderellas of the Thirties RN.

As for ASDIC, I have the results of anti submarine exercises carried out in 1934/38 at Portland. It was evident to the British 'clockwork mouse' submarine crews, if not to the ASDIC operators on the warships, that while ASDIC equipped ships were able to detect submarines (in favourable conditions) they were not able to maintain sufficient contact to execute accurate depth-charge attacks.

The letters columns of the Times and other august newspapers 1934-38 signify that the confidence of Admiralty that the U-boat had been licked, had spread to the patrician classes. There was therefore little pressure to further invest/develop ASDIC. Pity.
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by hagen » 28 Feb 2011 13:26

RichTO90 wrote:Which question needs a "what if" to answer it? The thread title is not a question and "what ifs" do nothing to identify the actual causes and effects of the real U-Boat war.
The bifucaration of the topic has clouded the discussion.
RichTO90 wrote:I'm not sure how I can put this delicately, but in my experience everytime someone decides to haul out the hoary old chestnuts about "abuse of statistics" they usually have no data to submit for statistical analysis.
Put it anyway you like but the real answer is indifference. As you yourself observed prewar tonnage achievement was 10m yet the war seemed to have been fought on 4.5 million so you are going to need more information. What was the tonnage used for? How do you factor in servicing the Americans? What was really needed to run the war? How do we account for tonnage shipped directly to France? What about the needs to service the empire lifelines and support troops around the world? Adding in 1944 and 1945 details are not relevant as the U-boat war was effectively lost in 1943.

The statistics I have seen most often used is the comparison between sinkings and new builds. The implicit savings from using the Med route for convoys rather then the Cape was one reason given for Sicily and the Italian campaign but perhaps the CIGS was just scoring political points.
Instead of hand waving again? You've been asked a question about just how you think such can be acheived. What Hitler's "patience or inclination" has to do with it is irrelevent. You've been arguing there was such a way, so just what is the "serious plan" you have in mind? If resources are going to be shifted how does that work? Where does the additional aluminium for aircraft come from and, better still, where do the engines come from (the big bottleneck).

So let's build a new U-Boat yard. Call it Howaldtswerke AG, Kiel. Let's purchase that company's existing yard on 1 April 1939 and contract it to build U-Boats. The first four of which are contracted on 23 September 1939 and laid down in November. But because the company had never built U-Boats before it takes a while before they get any launched. Like January 1941. Or, even better, how about another newbie...call it Vulcan Stettiner Maschinenbau AG? Contracted in early 1941 to produced six boats a year with the first four let on 10 April 1941. With the first one laid down on 1 January 1942 and launched on 9 October 1943 and commissioned 29 April 1944 and the second - and last - launched on 24 December 1943 (but never commissioned).

Given that the actual expansion of the U-Boat construction industry had such checkered results, how is a "serious plan" supposed to fix that?
Well the Americans and British had shadow factories as I recall so why don't we build two rather than one? As there is no war on the Eastfront at this point the materials can be shipped in thanks to the SU [topic bifucaration strikes again, one of the major issues of starting the Eastfront and a two-front war is the inability to 'beat' the blockade so you need to deal with your enemies sequentially; it worked well for Napoleon with the Austrians and Prussians]. Go to a total war footing and introduce Speer-style reforms. Once you have started the war in the east then you have reduced your access to materials and pushed the U-boat war down the agenda so winning it is going to be a whole lot more difficult.

Germany has a bigger population and access to the 'slave' labour and resources of much of Europe. It has problems bringing these advantages to bear but on what basis do you think they are going to lose? I think they lost because they maximised operational success without taking into account due strategic considerations and that latter failing is what I am seeking to correct. Then again Adolf was the man that he was. :(

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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Clio13 » 28 Feb 2011 14:22

bifucaration ?
Now there's really something to think about... 8O
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by RichTO90 » 28 Feb 2011 14:29

Clio13 wrote:bifucaration ?
Now there's really something to think about... 8O
No kidding... :lol: that little neologism conjures up so many possible meanings that I think my head might explode. :lol: Does it take a bisexual to bifucate? 8-)

BTW, Hagen, I hope you realize, we're laughing with you not at you... :lol: :lol: :lol:

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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by Clio13 » 28 Feb 2011 14:35

Seriously now, in a previous post, Hagen you judiciously observed, '..I suggest there is good evidence that a different set of choices would have improved the German chances of winning the war'.

All I have been doing is exploring this central assertion.
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by RichTO90 » 28 Feb 2011 15:23

hagen wrote:The bifucaration of the topic has clouded the discussion.
Um, the bifurcation has not clouded anything, but the continued desire by some apparently to take a dicussion about cause and effect off the rails into what if territory has. 8-)
RichTO90 wrote:Put it anyway you like but the real answer is indifference.


Indeed, indifference to cause and effect relationships, aanalysis of data, and reality seems to be the norm for inveterate what iffers. :lol:
As you yourself observed prewar tonnage achievement was 10m yet the war seemed to have been fought on 4.5 million so you are going to need more information. What was the tonnage used for? How do you factor in servicing the Americans? What was really needed to run the war? How do we account for tonnage shipped directly to France? What about the needs to service the empire lifelines and support troops around the world? Adding in 1944 and 1945 details are not relevant as the U-boat war was effectively lost in 1943.
Sigh. Sure, but acting like that information is unknowable and not subject to analysis because it involves what everyone is knows about "the use and abuse of statistics" - wink, wink, nudge, nudge :roll: - is simply silly. For example, the loss of tonnage was not the sole driver for decreased imports into the UK. Another, as I alluded to, was the convoy system itself - convoying creates inefficiencies in the transportation system. Another was the lost of the East Coast ports, especially London, which had just been renovated and expanded in the 1930's, to normal traffic. That placed a strain on the West Coast ports because so much traffic was coming in - it created bottlenecks, especially when British labor got into the act, at the docks and thence onto the rail system. Yet another was the loss of Continental coasting traffic, later partly replaced by traffic from Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, since a decrease to about one-quarter of the prewar totals were enough to sustain Britain, dissecting those imports and comparing them to afterwards should tell us something (which I hope to do later when I can access my sources).

Further, "servicing the Americans" actually tells us a bit more, since the OVERLORD buildup was primarily through the U.S. Army Transportation Corps and is extremely well documented...along with the problems they encountered. That is one major reason that looking at "1944 and 1945 details" is so important; it's what didn't change or didn't change as much as we would expect that is revealing. British imports after the "defeat of the U-Boat" did not return to postwar levels, they returned to what they were early wartime.
The statistics I have seen most often used is the comparison between sinkings and new builds. The implicit savings from using the Med route for convoys rather then the Cape was one reason given for Sicily and the Italian campaign but perhaps the CIGS was just scoring political points.
Um, what you may have seen, as I have said before, are two datapoints in a rather more complex equation. So, just what is the starting point? What was the tonnage on hand and what was acquired from Allies and Neutrals as the war expanded? Yes, if you take the prewar British long-haul merchant marine bottoms on hand and add new construction in the UK and subtract the losses you find that the British merchant service will disappear in 1941. Vanish. Poof! But add in the Allied Merchants acquired by the British (Norwegian, French, Greek, Dutch, and Danish ships that were either in British or neutral ports, at sea, or successfully fled German seizure), Axis vessels seized in British ports, and the neutral merchant navies, and the sustainability is rather longer...then of course add in the consturction capability of the US and Canada.

BTW, the Med route was a red herring by Winston to get what he wanted at Casablanca. There is little evidence that through Med routes ever were important.
Well the Americans and British had shadow factories as I recall so why don't we build two rather than one? As there is no war on the Eastfront at this point the materials can be shipped in thanks to the SU [topic bifucaration strikes again, one of the major issues of starting the Eastfront and a two-front war is the inability to 'beat' the blockade so you need to deal with your enemies sequentially; it worked well for Napoleon with the Austrians and Prussians]. Go to a total war footing and introduce Speer-style reforms. Once you have started the war in the east then you have reduced your access to materials and pushed the U-boat war down the agenda so winning it is going to be a whole lot more difficult.
Huh? Are you serious? "Shadow factories"? America had idle factory capacity because, unlike most of Europe, in the period 1938-1939 it was recovering from the disatrous recession of 1937. If you think the Germans could build British-style "shadow factories" then I suggest you consult Postan's British War Production and Hancock's British War Economy to see how and why they were built and compare them to the German capacility. And, even in the the British case, the "shadow factories" were not a panacea; the construction of "shadow" aero engine factories in the North did not mean they were immediately capable of production immediately as war broke out...engine shortages continued into 1942 and were only releived by the arrival fo American production.

In any case, the German experience with attempting to expand their U-Boat building capacity is real world again and not a what if. Why in the world would you think that a "what if the Germans built shadow U-Boat factories" is more realistic an analysis that looking at what actually happened when they did attempt to expand that capacity? And, yes, of course the number of U-Boats built increased, but not uniformly or predictably as yards, money, and resources allocated to them did.
Germany has a bigger population and access to the 'slave' labour and resources of much of Europe. It has problems bringing these advantages to bear but on what basis do you think they are going to lose? I think they lost because they maximised operational success without taking into account due strategic considerations and that latter failing is what I am seeking to correct. Then again Adolf was the man that he was. :(
Population doesn't neccessarily equal industrial output. The major German bottleneck, after critical resources, was labor, and "slave labor" did not solve that problem, it merely alleviated it, and that took time. But other bottlenecks were simply capacity...they simply did not have as many navy yards available as did the British or the skilled yardworkers idled during the 1930s in Britain...Germany was near full employment prewar and effectively fully mobilized except for converting civilian capacity to military use, which they were slow to do (but only marginally slower than Britain and everyone were snails in that respect compared to the Soviets).

Nor did they make efficient use of the captured capacity in France and the Benelux, but it is unclear given their imperatives that they could have. German industry simply took the stockpiled resources and machine tools that they wished and moved them to Germany...why should they want the French to be building military equipment when they could do it themselves?

BTW, yes, I agree that a large part of the German problem was simple strategic myopia, but that doesn't mean that they neccessarily had better solutions they could have picked.

Cheers!
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by mescal » 28 Feb 2011 16:16

Clio13 wrote: In the later 1930s when Britain was rearming, there was still no emphasis on destroyers and corvettes.[...]
What I am saying is that the perception of the U-boat threat did not necessarily result in a commensurate increase in means to combat it, ie destroyer output.
There are many reasons to criticize the Admiralty's handling of ASW (biaised tests which led to overestimation of ASDIC, no night practice, training in too shallow waters ...).
Yet the lack of ASW ships, as previously stated, came in good part from the tight defense budgets of the period.

And one may add an oft-overlooked point : there was no submarine threat against UK until late in the 30s.

The countries which had subs were either friendly (USA, France), had their fleets bottled in narrow seas (USSR, Italy) or had doctrine incompatible with commerce warfare (JApan - according to Brown, this doctrine was known by UK at that time).
And Germany had no subs or next to no subs until very late in the 1930's.
And it was clear that, whatever their prowess, 50-odd German subs could not blockade UK - the number is simply too small when compared to the number of ships which had to be sunk to fulfill the objective. Dönitz knew it, but the Admiralty also knew it.

And it is to be noted that in this context of very small or remote threat (late 20's-1937), the RN nonetheless commissionned or ordered many sloops (8 Shoreham, 8+5 Grimsby, 3 Bittern, 3 Egret, Black Swan).
Even though the numbers were not overwhelming, the permanent building of successive classes over the years enabled the RN to maintain skills in escort warships building (well, except for the Hunt fiasco) and develop the Black Swans which were IMHO one of the best prewar escort designs).
And when the threat of war increased after Munich (but at a time when there were still few U-boats), the Hunt-class destroyers (initially supposed to act as ocean escorts) and the Flower-class corvettes were ordered.

So in the end, I feel that the effort of ASW was not so much decorrelated from the level of the perceived threat and U-boat construction that it may appear at first glance.

Clio13 wrote: Seriously now, in a previous post, Hagen you judiciously observed, '..I suggest there is good evidence that a different set of choices would have improved the German chances of winning the war'.

All I have been doing is exploring this central assertion.
Well, there is no denying that the Germans, with different choices, could have fared better - one cannot theoretically prove the contrary, and after all they did loose.
However, I'm still unsure those 'different choices' are easy to find or could have been implemented.
And it's also dubious that any 'improvement' of the U-boatwaffe could have been significant relative to the actual situation.
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Re: Causes and effects of U Boat war

Post by LWD » 28 Feb 2011 17:55

mescal wrote: ... Well, there is no denying that the Germans, with different choices, could have fared better - one cannot theoretically prove the contrary, and after all they did loose.
However, I'm still unsure those 'different choices' are easy to find or could have been implemented.
And it's also dubious that any 'improvement' of the U-boatwaffe could have been significant relative to the actual situation.
There's also a corallary that they could have done worse. Furthermore I suspect such "solutions" would be both easier to find and easier to implement.

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