This book had been a pet project of mine for years. I wanted to write about the U-boat war as it pertained to the Russian Front. There are several excellent books that tell of the U-boat battle against the Arctic convoys and – though of course they would feature quite heavily here – I wanted to try and tell the story particularly as it pertained to the war between the Germans and the Soviet Union. I hope I succeeded.
The U-boat war that raged between 1939 and 1945 has been a subject of intensive study almost since the end of hostilities. The famously titled ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ is seen as one of the seminal campaigns upon which hinged the Western Allies’ attempt to defeat Nazi Germany. While the actual effectiveness of Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz’s U-boats within the Atlantic remains debated to this day, there is no denying that the U-boats’ primary directive was the sinking of Allied merchant ships — a so-called ‘Tonnage War’ in which Germany attempted to outpace the available collective transport power of the Allied mercantile convoys by destroying ships. It was a matter of simple maths: if more shipping tonnage could be sunk than was required to keep Great Britain functioning, then Germany would prevail.
However, there were other arenas of U-boat combat. These have gone largely ignored; seen as peripheral to the primary Atlantic battle, even by Dönitz himself. Among these ‘forgotten campaigns’ are the ones fought at sea against the Soviet Union.
There were three primary areas in which U-boats were pitched into combat against Russia; the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Arctic Ocean. The latter has gone down in history as the U-boat campaign against the ‘Arctic convoys’, though Hitler’s perpetual fear of Anglo-American landings in Norway also kept the Kriegsmarine pinned to the area for the task of invasion defence; something to which U-boats were completely unsuited. These western convoys provided the Soviet Union with the weapons and material needed to keep the nation battling against the Axis invasion, ‘Operation Barbarossa’, in June 1941. Statistical history shows us that the actual Soviet import of materials through the Arctic route was far from a deciding factor in the Red Army’s ability to eventually prevail over the Wehrmacht; but nor was it insignificant. Moreover, the terrible conditions endured by those people of all nations that fought through an incredibly inhospitable geographical area deserve immediate recognition as an example of both human tragedy and triumph. Although not strictly a battle fought against the Russians — the majority of Allied combatants being western merchants and warships —it was a war fought by U-boats in direct support of Axis forces fighting within the expanse of the Soviet Union and so I regard it as a battle against the Russians, as much as it was against other Allied nations.
The Baltic Sea provided a corridor from Germany into Soviet satellite states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as deep into the Soviet Union itself. Oddly, it was never fully utilised by either side during the years of war; the Russian Baltic fleet vastly outnumbering their opponents and the Kriegsmarine failing to grasp the potential strategic advantage provided by sea lanes that could have allowed direct attack behind a fiercely contested frontline. This was a U-boat war primarily fought against warships; generally small vessels used for patrolling and minelaying.
So too was the campaign within the Black Sea. The Kriegsmarine was employed in direct support of the forces ashore, probably the clearest example of U-boats used to influence fighting on land. Although tasked with the interdiction of military vessels, the six small boats despatched to fight off the Caucasian and Crimean coast were initially envisioned as able to stop the supply and reinforcement convoys needed for the Red Army.
Peripheral theatres of action they may have been, but the bitter battles fought in the blazing heat of a Crimean summer and the darkness and ferocious cold of Arctic winter remain among the fiercest conducted by Dönitz’s ‘Grey Wolves’. This is their story.
Originally published by The History Press, 2016.
ISBN: 978 0 7509 6363 3
100 black and white photos; 14 colour photos.
Available from The History Press website and other book outlets.
29 June 2017
Review by Steven D. Mercatante, Brighton, MI
Steel and Ice: The U-Boat Battle in the Arctic and Black Sea,
By Lawrence Paterson
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2016. Pp. 256. ISBN 978–1–59114–258–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2017, 20th Century, World War II, Naval Warfare Print Version
Steel and Ice is a tidy, engaging summary of a mostly neglected aspect of the Second World War—submarine warfare outside the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Author Lawrence Paterson has written ten previous books on naval warfare and has worked at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport (UK). The present volume contains nine succinct chapters that move from the period of Germany’s non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union through its use of U-boats in the Baltic during Operation Barbarossa, beginning in June 1941, and especially in the Arctic and Black Seas. The text is buttressed by many photographs, some of them rarely reproduced.
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Chapters 1–2 concern Germany’s strained prewar relations with the USSR during Hitler’s rise to power and the alliance begun in August 1939. Paterson describes the initial deployments of submarines in the Baltic during the Third Reich’s invasion of Poland beginning on 1 September 1939. He criticizes both sides’ lack of imagination in the use of sea power later, in the opening months of Barbarossa. The Germans failed to conduct amphibious operations along the coast to expedite their drive through the Baltic States, and the Soviets acted with similar timidity. Thus, eight U-boats in the Baltic and four to six more in the Arctic achieved very little at a time when they were desperately needed in the Atlantic (26–27).
Steel and Ice gives particular and very welcome attention to Soviet naval operations throughout. Chapter 3 focuses on naval actions in the Arctic during Barbarossa: the Red Navy conducted amphibious operations behind German lines that stalled the Wehrmacht’s drive on Murmansk in summer 1941. Again, the half-dozen German subs stationed off the Kola Peninsula were badly missed during the convoy battles in the Atlantic. Moreover, U-boat operations in the Arctic were hamstrung by a lack of naval and aerial assets and horrific weather:
The arctic night is unfavorable for submarines as it renders it difficult to locate targets. Winter weather, with blizzards, storms, and fog, has an adverse effect. Air reconnaissance is lacking. It is difficult to attack ships assembled in Iokanga Bay because of the powerful defenses and the prevailing currents. It is impossible to penetrate the west channel because of navigational difficulties, currents and depths, defenses, and the aerial mine situation. Coastal traffic is carried on with very small vessels, making attack more difficult. (53)
German submarines initially had little effect on Allied supply convoys to Murmansk. But, as Paterson shows in chapter 4, the Germans became much more adept at harrying Allied convoys. So much so as to force the Allies for a time to shut down the flow of war material into the USSR via this northern route. The most dramatic part of Paterson’s narrative centers on the epic battle leading to the destruction of Allied convoy PQ17: only eleven of thirty-four vessels survived the Axis gauntlet to deliver their cargo in Murmansk. This pinnacle of Germany’s success in the Arctic did not, however, come without costs. For the effort in the Arctic required the diversion of too many U-boats from the Atlantic, where they had been wreaking havoc off the US Eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean. In addition, the Luftwaffe had assembled a large air fleet to support submarine operations, while the Kriegsmarine had moved most of its heavy surface units to Norway. Adm. Karl Dönitz astutely assessed the price of these miscalculations.
I had personally asked the C-in-C once more on December 8, 1942, to release the Arctic boats for operations in the Atlantic. Between January 1 and November 30, 1942, these boats had sunk 262,614 tons in their own operations area. An equal number of boats in the Atlantic, however, had sunk approximately 910,000 tons during the same period. By employing these boats in the Arctic we had, therefore, sunk something like 650,000 tons less than we might have done—a development that was foreseen, when in January 1942 U-boat Command had protested against the sending of boats to Norwegian waters. (118–19)
Chapters 5–6 shift to the U-boat war in the Black Sea in 1942–43. It required tremendous technical skill and logistical expertise to break down Type II submarines for transport by canals, roads, and the Danube to Romania, where they had to be rebuilt before joining offensive operations. Paterson clarifies the political and military considerations that prevented the Germans from simply sailing submarines through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus from the Aegean Sea. In the end, the naval war in the Black Sea was a back and forth affair, in which the Soviet Navy again showed ingenuity in supporting the Red Army on land.
Chapter 7 covers the war in the Arctic Sea during 1943–1945, when the U-boats had little effect on the USSR’s northern flank. The chapter is filled with interesting discussions of the difficulty of operating submarines in such a harsh climate. Ice, for instance, could damage their outer torpedo doors rendering the vessels combat-ineffective. We also learn the pros and cons of various torpedo types in the Arctic environment. Chapter 8 describes German submarine offensive measures and Allied countermeasures, as well as operations in the Polar Seas during 1944-45. Chapter 9 returns to the Baltic, highlighting the U-boats’ final role in the war—shepherding German refugees to relative safety as the Red Army drove into East Prussia and Pomerania.
In Steel and Ice, Lawrence Paterson vividly conveys the sheer effort of conducting naval operations on the far-flung fringes of Europe, in part by enlivening his narrative and analyses with first-person quotations of the men who fought in such hostile venues. He also makes one wonder what the Germans might have accomplished by more judiciously concentrating their naval resources in the decisive theaters of battle in the critical years of 1941–43.