The Origins of the Royal Navy’s Vulnerability to Surfaced Night U-Boat Attack 1939-40

By G. D. Franklin, published February 2004


The paper revisits and seeks to overturn the broadly accepted belief that during World War II the Royal Navy and imperial merchant shipping were vulnerable to surfaced night U-boat attacks as result of oversight on the part of planners and tacticians. The article discusses how this view arose to become dominant and challenges the five allegations that arose from it: ASDIC was useless against surfaced U-boats; the interwar navy was unaware of its shortcomings; study of possible enemy tactics did not consider surfaced night attacks; the navy failed to practice surfaced night attacks; when war came, these oversights made the navy vulnerable to surfaced night attacks.  He discusses literature supporting the belief that this vulnerability resulted from neglect by planners and over confidence in Asdic, and shows them invalid by using primary pre-war sources, e.g. research reports into behaviour of sound waves underwater; trial results; figures on likely detection ranges; reports on conduct of surfaced submarines in night exercises; references in Convoy Instructions to night attack by surfaced submarines. Refers to difficulty of gathering intelligence of German intentions.   Concludes that vulnerability not due to negligence but to there being no counter measure until development of radar.

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Filed under: Atlantic | WW2 | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Battles & Tactics | Submarines

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