During 1942 and 1943, the Allies were shipping cargo and troops to England to supply the English war effort and to prepare for the invasion of the continent; and German U-boats operating from French ports such as Brest and Lorient were targeting those ships. Historians estimate that the U-boats sunk so many ships that they delayed the Normandy invasion by a full year. Winston Churchill named this battle for control of the shipping lanes the ‘Battle of the Atlantic.’
In this interview, Roger Huguen, a historian living on the northern coast of Brittany, in Saint Brieuc, tells Dominique Chapron that Lorient, on the southern coast of Brittany, played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic : it served as the headquarters of Admiral Dönitz, head of the U-boat fleet. The huge submarine base is still standing, but the rest of the city was razed by Allied bombardments.
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Tourists visiting Lorient, in Southern Brittany, are often surprised that nothing is left of the old town. That is because, during World War II, it was razed by allied bombers in an attempt to destroy the city’s U-boat base. In this interview Roger Huguen tells Dominique Chapron about Brittany’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic.
So what is the Battle of the Atlantic?
The problems for Brittany started with German surface vessels in harbor at the port of Brest. Allied bombers hit the city hard.
Tell us about the submarine base at Lorient.
At first, of course, the Nazis commandeered the Lorient fishing port and camouflaged the U-boats with tarps and netting. The Todt organization, in charge of building the ‘Wall of the Atlantic,’ started construction of concrete bunkers for the U-boats in January 1941. The base was run by Admiral Karl Dönitz (1891 – 1980). Dönitz ran Germany in the last days of the war: as the Soviets closed in on Berlin, before committing suicide, Hitler chose Admiral Dönitz as his successor.
So, how did we end up with a submarine base that could not be destroyed? Why didn’t the English bomb it at the beginning of the construction?
English agents were on site and knew that a base was being built. However, from what we understand, the thinking of the Royal Air Force was that there was no need to bomb the base during the construction phase – they would just wait until it was built and bomb it then. Unfortunately, they RAF didn’t foresee that construction techniques were going to get ahead of bombing technology. Once the base was completed, it was too late.
The US enters the war. The German U-boats cross the Atlantic and sink ships along the East Coast. The US has no way to defend its oil tankers and other ships of commerce.
The first US bombing raid targeting the Lorient U-boat base gives meager results, because it was carried out from a high altitude. Why? Because the ports of Brest and Lorient were well-protected from areal attack. To set the record straight, the Germans did have a type of radar helping them guide their anti-aircraft guns.
The strategy of carpet bombing, decided at the Casablanca conference in January 1943, was tested and refined on Lorient and Brest before being used later on German cities. So you have Lorient erased from the map while the U-boat continues to function in isolation from the surrounding city ruins. It had its own power generators and remained sheltered from attack by its ‘bomb-catching’ double-roof.
Right up through April 1943, the English feel powerless on the seas, with certain Royal Navy officers saying that the Battle of the Atlantic had been lost to the U-boots.
But in May there occurs a sort of tipping point resulting from all of the small gains of the previous months: the breaking of the secret codes used the German navy, progresses in convoy escort techniques, greater power of underwater depth charges, sonar improvements, the triangulation of radio communications to localize the U-boats… From all of this, you saw, in May 1943, a sudden increase in U-boat sinkings.
So, six months later, by the end of 1943, the U-boats have lost the Battle of the Atlantic, a battle that affected the course of the war as a whole, right?
Correct, because you had to move all of those troops and supplies to the British Isles to prepare for the invasion of the continent. And U-boats sunk so many of these merchant ships that the Normandy Invasion was delayed by a year. So, when you think about a year lost, you immediately think of all of the people who suffered, those who were deported to the camps… So the U-boats really caused a lot of problems for the Allies.
Finally, on June 6, 1944, Operation Overload is launched. The Normandy Invasion has started. The U-boats will enter into battle, but the Allies are ready for them.
Right. Well, the English Channel is shallow. So, the U-boats have the problem of not having the depth they need to be able to dive and escape depth charges. We know that Admiral Dönitz was very worried about this factor. And, indeed, though the U-boats were able to harass the allied ships flowing from England to the coast of France, many were sunk in the English Channel.