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What You Need To Know About The Battle Of The Atlantic

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Britain depended on vital supplies from North America and the Empire in the Second World War. These had to be transported in merchant ships across the Atlantic Ocean, where they could be attacked by German submarines (U-boats) and warships.

To combat this threat, the merchant ships were grouped into convoys escorted by warships and, if possible, aircraft. The first Atlantic convoy sailed on 2 September 1939. 

At first, many merchant ships were lost. The fall of France in June 1940 gave the U-boats bases on the Atlantic coast, and U-boat production increased during spring 1941, giving the Germans enough submarines to deploy groups or 'wolf packs'.

Winston Churchill coined the phrase 'Battle of the Atlantic' on 6 March 1941, deliberately echoing the Battle of Britain to emphasise its importance.

In May 1941, the loss of the German battleship Bismarck ended surface raids, and the Allies extended the convoy system right across the Atlantic. Intelligence successes allowed the Allies to route convoys away from danger, and losses finally fell.

After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the Germans sank nearly 500 un-escorted ships off the US east coast in early 1942 until the Americans introduced convoys.

The wolf packs returned to the mid-Atlantic. A temporary Allied inability to read their signals meant that by the end of 1942, Allied shipping was in crisis. The introduction of aircraft carriers, Very Long Range aircraft and roving 'support groups' of warships eventually defeated the U-boats at the end of May 1943.