- factually rich book and a valuable reference guide Review by Jon Wise
What is commonly referred to as ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’ was in fact a series of large and small engagements which lasted for practically the duration of the Second World War. In common with many naval battles or campaigns it was ultimately about control of the sea. If Britain and its allies could maintain the supply ‘bridge’ between the American and European continents it would leave the Axis westward advance crucially exposed. If the Axis powers succeeded in starving Britain into submission, a major Allied power would be lost and with it practically the entire continent of Europe.
That, in a nutshell, is the basis of Brian Walter’s claim that the Battle of the Atlantic was ‘the premier maritime contest of the war’ despite the counter-claims of the Pacific Campaign and its major fleet encounters such as Midway and Leyte Gulf. Each of the ten main chapters of the book is devoted to a particular phase of the ‘battle’ which was waged principally across the vast expanses of the North Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean and the North-Western European littoral. Walter describes not only a large number of individual clashes between surface vessels and submarines but also the crucial contributions made by increasingly sophisticated aircraft, both shore and carrier based. In each case, the gains and losses are carefully annotated and conclusions are reached based principally on precise statistical outcomes.
The bibliography reveals that Walter has been scrupulous in his research and has derived his data from a range of recognized publications together with the UK government archives at Kew. Interestingly, he very rarely strays into the realms of criticism or conjecture regarding decision-making by politicians at home or commanders on the spot. Even major setbacks or defeats for the Allies such as the Norwegian Campaign of 1940, Convoy PQ17 and the so-called ‘happy time’ for the German U-Boats in June 1940 to February 1941 are only commented on within the context of the wider progress of the war itself. Only once does Walter properly deliver his opprobrium, his victim being the command of the US-titled North Atlantic Naval Coastal Frontier for their failure to react more quickly to the U-Boat threat to unaccompanied shipping along its eastern shoreline.
A glance at the author’s biography reveals that Brian Walter is a retired US professional soldier with a particular interest in British military history. If one is ready to forgive occasional lapses in naval terminology, ships do not ‘weigh in’ like boxers for instance, this is a factually rich book and a valuable reference guide for researchers who might lack the time or resources to seek out reliable information elsewhere. The Longest Campaign does not carry any startling revelations but it does provide a balanced and dispassionate account for any newcomer of this all-important campaign which the author regards as the apogee of Britain’s long and proud naval history.
(Posted on 25/11/2020)