Edinburgh Book Festival: Jonathan Dimbleby, "Where World War Two Was Won", Review

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Jonathan Dimbleby with Magnus Linklater in the chair.
Running time

Jonathan Dimbleby had Magnus Linklater in the chair for this Experian event looking at 'Where World War Two was Won'. Linklater introduced Dimbleby as a television journalist who had been involved with a number of programmes after 'The World at One' and 'The World this Weekend'; he is currently the presenter of 'Any Questions' on BBC Radio 4. In addition, he is the author of several of books, his formidable biography of his father Richard Dimbleby, another biography of The Prince of Wales, 'The Road to El Alamein' and last year he completed his book, 'The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War'.

Dimbleby began by describing the scene aboard the SS Athenia, a passenger liner which was on its way from Glasgow to Montreal when it was torpedoed by the German U-Boat, U 30. This was contrary to the instructions that had been given to all U-Boats that they should not attack passenger ships. However, at 7.43pm there was suddenly a massive explosion and all the lights went out. Passengers struggled to find their bearings and make their way to the lifeboats. Although a distress signal was sent out and a number of ships helped to save the passengers, some 128 people lost their lives in the attack.

There is no way that the importance of the Battle of the Atlantic can be stressed other than by saying that if we had been cut off from the supplies and the food which came from North America, that we would have lost the war. The German Admiral Donitz firmly believed that the outcome of the war would be decided at sea and in the Atlantic, but Hitler held a contrary view. But the U-Boat crews did not have an easy time and only one in four survived the war. Of the 38,000 who took part in the campaign some 30,000 perished. It was possibly the greatest naval battle of all time and it was fought in all sea areas, the Atlantic, the North Sea and the Mediterranean. The land battles in North Africa depended on the success of the logistic chain and this was absolutely vital.

The eastern sea-board of the United States at this stage of the war had all the lights on and any submarine could make out the shape and size of any vessel, so it was basically a question of 'help yourself'. There was great resentment that any lights should be put out lest this interfered with people making money from the tourists! But even worse were the convoys to Russia who braved the Arctic weather and the terrible conditions . Several convoys had torrid journeys, but the worst was convoy PQ 17 which lost twenty four ships out of thirty five - only eleven vessels got to their destination.

There was courage and endurance on both sides. The struggle is at the epicentre of the obsession that Hitler had with the Russian front and the pressure that he put on Admiral Raeder. Possibly the Germans did not know how close they came to winning the battle of the Atlantic.

At the time Grand Admiral Raeder had fallen out with Admiral Donitz; the latter wanted to airbrush Raeder out of all the pictures of them taken together! Unfortunately similar problems existed with the American Navy and Admiral King, who was the US Navy Chief of Staff, had an attitude problem. President Roosevelt was heard to say that life would be a lot easier if someone would just shoot Admiral King! At the time there were several voices who advocated a concentration on the Pacific only and to disregard the demands of Churchill. It is as well that Roosevelt took little notice of these voices.

In Britain, the arguments between the Admiralty and Bomber Command continued to rage on. One senior officer, Admiral Cunningham, said that the fight he had with Bomber Command was worse than the one he had with the Germans!

The Royal Navy used Scapa Flow as a harbour for the fleet, however, Gunther Prien and his U-Boat, U-47, managed to breach the defences and fired two torpedoes to sink the WW 1 battleship, HMS Royal Oak. Some 833 men died within an hour. The water was covered with oil and few were able to survive. Prien was flown to Berlin where he was given the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by Hitler in person for the sinking.

During the war Prien sank over thirty merchant ships before being himself killed at the age of thirty three. Of the other U-Boat commanders one of the most successful was Otto Kretschmer, who sank some thirty eight merchant ships. The U-Boat had fired the last of its torpedoes when it was attacked by HMS Walker and HMS Vanic and was so badly damaged that it was forced to surface. Kretschmer made an appeal to Donald Macintyre, the captain of HMS Walker to save his crew which they did. When captured Macintyre saw that Kretschmer had some special binoculars which were made for him by Zeiss which he took initially as a souvenir and then used for the rest of the war.

For the Atlantic and for the convoys to Murmansk the weather was simply dreadful. Men wrote about there being, "six days of searing winds which tears at the throat". There were instances where guns were ripped from their emplacements. For those who had to suffer this brutality of the weather there was a strong dislike of the black market. In the ships people talked about some person getting rich on the sweat and tears of those who manned the merchantmen; this caused real resentment and people felt that perhaps they were wasting their lives so that some spiv could get rich.

But even in calmer seas there was danger, the Laconia for instance was in the South Atlantic and midway between Liberia and the Ascension Island, bound for Britain, when she was attacked by U-156 commanded by Werner Hartenstein. The ship began to list and U-156 surfaced and made her way to the scene in order to pick up senior officers. On approaching the boat he found that of the 2,732 passengers, most were Italian prisoners of war.

Hartenstein then appealed for help on an open radio frequency and other U Boats appeared to help with the rescue. This was all relayed to Admiral Donitz who gave the operation his tacit approval. All went well until a US bomber attacked and all the submarines dived and escaped. Although Vichy French warships arrived and picked up the remaining survivors there were some 1,621 deaths in the incident. Dimbleby mentioned one particular incident where a lifeboat with 55 men which decided to head for land, which they reached after a month, but 51 of the men were dead.

Dimbleby said that while not wishing to in any way denigrate the splendid work at Bletchley Park with Enigma, the German High Command was also able to clearly read all the signals that came out of the Admiralty. So we should be prepared for some sobering truths about our own security. The Germans were able to deploy to catch convoys and were aware of changes to routes as these were sent out. At the same time the Germans themselves were alarmed and astonished by the seeming ease with which the British appeared to anticipate their moves and deployment, they were convinced of the security of Enigma and believed that their codes could not be broken.

In conclusion Dimbleby touched on the disagreements between Air Marshal (Bomber) Harris and Admiral Dudley Pound over the deployment of aircraft to the Atlantic. The Admiral was adamant that Britain could not survive if we lost the war at sea and we needed air cover to destroy the German submarines. However, Harris considered that "terror bombing" was much more important and could achieve better results for the war. Eventually this cover was provided and our convoys were more successful in getting through.

This was a brilliant session with Jonathan Dimbleby.

The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War(May, 2016) by Jonathan Dimbleby