The Battle of the Atlantic - Part 1 -Tim Hickson

Living where we do, it is difficult to think of an area in Britain that is further from the sea. However, in World War 2, RAF Defford, with its scientists at Malvern, had a major effect on the conflict in the North Atlantic.

In both World Wars, Great Britain had needed ships to bring essential supplies from the Americas. These included oil (to be turned into fuel for our vehicles, ships and aircraft), war materials and food. Without them, the UK could not continue to fight.In the first World War, German submarines, which they called U-boats, had been a growing threat until the system of convoys was introduced. Here, the transport ships sailed in a large group protected by warships.

When WW2 began, within a few hours of its announcement by Britain and France, a U-boat torpedoed and sunk a liner sailing from Scotland to Canada with over 1 000 passengers on board. Fortunately most were saved but 118 men, women and children were drowned.

The convoy system would have to be used again.Worse, after the collapse of French resistance in 1940, the Germans were able to operate from ports on the Atlantic coast in the Bay of Biscay. As U-boats were propelled by diesel engines, which breathe air, they could spend most of their time on the surface, only submerging and using battery-driven electric motors when attacked or about to fire their torpedoes. To locate them before they dived meant that Royal Navy warships needed to be fitted with radar. The early RN radar had a wavelength of seven metres. As the large aerials could only be fitted on very big ships, a shorter wavelength version was needed for the convoy escort vessels. It was the Royal Navy that had commissioned Birmingham University to do the work that produced the resonant cavity magnetrons that produced such a big improvement in radar. By January 1941, the aircraft of Coastal Command hunting Uboats had 1.5 metre radar. This, of course, worked even in darkness but it was not accurate enough to allow an attack at night. Also, the aircrew needed to see the target to be sure the echo was actually from a Uboat. That, together with the fact that there were not many aircraft flying meant the U-boats were still pretty free to operate. In the first seven months of 1942, 681 merchant ships were torpedoed. Wing Commander Leigh, an RAF officer heard, of this problem and realised that the solution was a powerful searchlight mounted on the aircraft. Knowing nothing about searchlights, he set about finding what he needed to know and then designed a light that would do the job. Yet again, just like Frank Whittle with his jet engine, when he submitted his ideas to the relevant authorities, he met with opposition. He, too, persevered and managed to get the device made and fitted to a spare aircraft. Then, when again told by a senior officer that his idea would not work, he could take him to see the finished product.

Thus by June 1942, the Leigh Light was adopted and was very effective. Before the advent of radar and Leigh Lights, the U-boats were safe on the surface at night. Submerged, they were much slower and had a limited range before the batteries were exhausted. Now the convoys started losing many fewer ships. Unfortunately, this did not last as the Germans were building Uboats faster than the sunk merchant ships and their precious cargoes could be replaced. Also the German scientists produced a simple device called Metox that enabled U-boats to detect the radar of approaching aircraft so they could dive before the attacker reached them. Thus, in early 1943 the convoy losses started to rise ominously again. So what happened next?

The Battle of the Atlantic 2 in next months Pershore Times