Bernard Edwards, From Hunter to Hunted The U-Boat War in the Atlantic 1939-1943 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In August 1939, Kommodore Karl Dönitz dispatched his U-boats out into the Atlantic in anticipation of a war just over the horizon. The U-38 sank the British merchant ship Manmar on 6 September with gunfire and torpedoes. Already, however, U-48, the most successful U-boat of the war, had opened her account, sinking the Royal Sceptre. Thus begins Bernard Edwards’ narrative of U-boat encounters from 1939 to May 1943 told from both sides as separate but connected case studies.
Combat in the early days of the war was very much cat-and-mouse between submarine and ship, as with the U-48 and the Heronspool. Heronspool lost that one, but her sister ship Stonepool became a mouse that roared, helping take out U-42 – Stonepool would later fall victim to a U-boat torpedo. In those opening engagements, ships were challenged with gunfire from the U-boat’ deck-gun then raked if they failed to stop. The crews were then allowed to abandon ship before a torpedo sent it to the bottom. Hitler’s directive to take the shackles off the U-boats in October 1939, however, ended any notions of further chivalry. As the fighting intensified, the convoy system evolved for merchant ships, but that was met with the ‘wolf pack’ tactics of the U-boats.
By the end of 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic was reaching its zenith, argues Edwards, with the Germans ascendant. In March 1943, U-boats straddled the shipping lanes like spiders waiting for sluggish flies. Convoy SC 122 with two other convoys sailed that month into the teeth of two storms, one from the weather, the other caused by U-boats: twenty-two ships were lost. The tide began to turn in April 1943, however, with the battle for convoy ONS5 that rolled across the Atlantic in a desperate struggle of ships, warships, warplanes, and U-boats. The Germans came off much worse in the long run, so that when ONS5 docked in Halifax on 12 May, the Germans had lost six U-boats and another seven severely damaged, 345 valuable crewmen had also been killed. The Germans never recovered from what they called Black May.
From Hunter to Hunted is an illuminating read for a theatre of World War II that is too often described in statistics and technical jargon. Edwards has the story-telling flourishes of a man well used to being at sea. He describes the actions in detail, while adding just enough background information to humanize the conflict without disrupting the narrative, though a final polish might have removed some unfortunate repetition. This book works well as a gateway book into the world of the U-boats for those with a passing interest or are daunted by bigger and more technical works. Those already familiar with U-boats will enjoy the stories in From Hunter to Hunted, and sometimes that is all you need from a book.