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.