Category Archives: Battle of the Atlantic

Weekend Watching: The Little Ships of England

This fun contemporary documentary details the effort put into the construction of a fleet of wooden vessels – from small civilian boats to minesweepers – for the defense of Britain in World War II.

Among other things, it’s a fascinating look at the total war in which Britain was engaged that was unknown in the US. All of the nations resources were put into the effort, from forests to high schoolers. The young teenager showing up to serve as a learner (he couldn’t have been more than 15) was sobering, as was a look at how the ships were built of timber, oakum, and tar. That the Royal Navy was sending men to sea in wooden ships in an age of steel is a tribute both to the skill of her shipwrights and the courage of her men.

The film is also an oblique reminder that we have, for whatever reason, given up on wood for fiberglass in our small ships, and that it may be time for a reconsideration of the value of wooden vessels in modern war.

Finally, it is a reminder that great is ever the enemy of good enough. Britain needed hulls, and it understood that getting ships to sea trumped any compunctions about looking like a second-rate force.

The film is about 15 minutes long. Enjoy.

Eastern Approaches: Task Force 24

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjord before...

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjord before the sailing of Convoy PQ 17 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As much as the U.S. Army’s role in the Pacific War somewhat unjustly fades behind that of the Navy and Marines, the Navy’s role in the victory in Europe is too-often overlooked. Samuel Eliot Morrison tried to rectify that somewhat in his multivolume histories of the U.S. Navy in World War II, but there is precious little grist available to us amateur historians to learn more about the US Navy’s Atlantic fight.

One of the most critical of those fights was the Battle of the Atlantic, the six year effort to thwart Germany’s plan to win the European war by severing the Allies’ transatlantic supply line. Our hindsight makes it easy to forget that the matter was often in doubt, especially after German U-Boats were organized in Wolf Packs, began operating off the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and shredded convoys like the infamous PQ-17. Indeed, the U.S. applied the same strategy to Japan with huge success.

Navy Task Force 24 was the U.S. unit charged with the safe conduct of merchant convoys from U.S. ports to a point where British escorts could assume escort duties. The official account of the Admirals who commanded that unit, Commander Task Force 24, is thus a critical primary source for anyone with an interest in that period.

As with many such government-produced documents, the narrative can be a bit dry, more of a chronology than a thematically-organized work, and it is focused heavily on administrative matters rather than operations themselves. Nonetheless, this is essential background, and anyone familiar with or interested in the conduct of the war in the Atlantic will find the work enlightening.