A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II - Richard Snow Richard Snow’s father served as a lieutenant aboard a destroyer escort in the Atlantic during WW II. Using letters and other papers of his father, he has recreated the battles against German subs. About two-thirds of the book consists of a collection of short, but interesting, chapters, essays, almost, that provide an introduction to naval development between the wars before we meet his dad.

Snow begins with a brief summary of the development of the German submarine force. One interesting detail is that most of the military construction was done by “Organisation Todt” named after its creator Fritz Todt who built the Autobahn and the submarine pens in France, pens that still stand. They used 14 million tons of concrete in their construction (the Hoover dam used 4.4 million) and the allies were never able to penetrate the twenty-five-foot thick walls and roof. There were barracks for over one-thousand men and several U-Boats in addition to full repair facilities. Refits could be done in total safety. He begins by setting the stage very sympathetically, noting how many subs Doenitz was lacking at the beginning (he wanted 300 but began with barely a tenth of that), Hitler being in such a rush to get things started.

Lots of interesting detail related to the functioning of a German sub. I had no idea of the maintenance required to keep the torpedoes in good working order. Every few days they had to be checked (and they were very heavy and required much moving about by hand not to mention at the beginning of a cruise they were stored in companionways with only a plywood floor over them leaving very little space for the crew to move about.) And each required handling as if it was a raw egg.

In the meantime, FDR was building a team of extremely competent subordinates including Henry Stimson as Secretary of War (he had also been Secretary of War until 1911 under Taft, not to mention Secretary of State under Hoover.) Stimson was a vigorous hawk, a position FDR wanted in order to build up the military in preparation for the certain conflict with Germany. Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, had written a detailed examinations of the options for distributing forces should war arrive. The fourth option, Item D, which he recommended, was to maintain a holding operation in the Pacific (even thought eh Navy preferred to carry on the fight there, and concentrate on beating Germany first, the idea being that if Britain fell all bets were off. This option became known as Plan Dog.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of amateurism initially. Yacht owners were anxious to join the anti-submarine effort but usually just provided inconsequential target practice for the subs. Known as the Picket Patrol, they produced more false sightings than real contacts. In one infamous incident, the crew of a cabin cruiser watched in astonishment as the sea boiled up around them. A German sub surfaced rigfht next to them. The German captain yelled at them in “excellent Americanese, “Get the hell out of here. Do you want to get hurt? Now scram.” Captain Peter Cremer loved the Picket Patrol the value of which “was precisely nil” by creating “complete chaos by seeing U-boats everywhere and sending the few destroyers chasing hither and thither and find nothing.”

Project LQ, an attempt to disguise old freighters and turn them into mini-warships that would pretend to be in mechanical distress to sucker German subs into attacking from the surface where they could be picked off, was likewise a dismal failure, resulting in a loss of 25% of the American sailors and one German crewman. A British historian called it the most “self-destructive operation undertaken by the U.S. Navy during the war. On the other hand, Doenitz had had years to build a well-trained Navy; Admiral King had just a few months.

Cities along the east coast didn’t help either. The mayor of Miami, worried about the loss of tourism, refused to black out the city thus silhouetting American shipping and making them perfect targets for marauding U-boats. Despite pleas from Admiral Andrews it turned out no one had the authority to order them to do anything. It was only the ridicule of a local journalist that finally persuaded him to engage in a blackout. Doenitz had had years to build a well-trained Navy; Admiral King had just a few months. He settled on the time-tested method of convoying, a task that was of little fun.

“"In a way, the people protecting the convoys lived the life of the very, very old. The simplest tasks were daunting in prospect, dangerous in performance. Everything was exhausting: going from the wardroom to the bridge was to navigate a hellish fun house where the floor might drop forty feet, and steel door frames swivel sixty degrees in a deft, prankish attempt to break your spine. The seasick made themselves choke down food since vomiting on an empty stomach was so much more painful.”

While King did an admirable job at organizing what he had, he was quite resistant to new forms of technology. Secretary of War Stimson had forced General Marshall and Hap Arnold to look into the new 10 centimeter radar which used the British invented magnetron that increased transmitting power one thousand fold making it very practical for airplanes. King remained a staunch advocate of the convoy system. “Admiral King has a terrible blind spot for new things, about as rugged a case of stubbornness as has been cultivated by a human being,” said Vannevar Bush who was instrumental in getting FDR on board (pun intended.) The adoption of this radar was to be instrumental in U-boat destruction. No longer could they anticipate the approach of aircraft since they had no way of receiving 10-centimeter radar.

Several reviewers have complained that Snow should have focused more on his father’s personal experiences as portrayed in the letters to his mother and less on the larger view of the war in the Atlantic. I suspect for many of us who have read a great deal about the Battle for the Atlantic, that criticism might be valid. I thought his examination of the German U-Boat side, coupled with examples of their devastation and linked to his father’s experiences provided an excellent introduction for those who many be less familiar with events.

I enjoyed the detail specific to Snow's father's experience. For example,

One rnidwinter day lookouts aboard the destroyer escort Sims spotted a dozen life rafts with four or five men on each, some waving to the ship. The captain, Lewis M. Andrews J r., wrote, “I instinctively gave the order to bear down on them and, at the same time, heard the commodore telling us not to waste too much time.” Andrews was surprised by this callous order, but the commodore had been at sea longer than he had, and “when we came alongside, I could see the gray of death in the faces of men frozen from life, still lashed together in sitting positions, some of the lifeless frozen arms still waving. It was the same with the rest of the rafts. The animation was caused by the rolling rafts in the sea. Our commodore knew this from prior experience but let us learn for ourselves lest we fret that we had abandoned castaways.” The Sims left them to their long voyage.

Or the recounting of their escort of six Italian subs to the Bahamas after Italy changed sides; the professionalism of the Italian sub commanders from whom they learned several evasive tactics the Germans were using they would not have know of otherwise, and the poor condition of the subs. In one case his DE manufactured a part for an engine from brass shell casings because the Italians had no brass nor a workshop on board. It's those kinds of personal details that make a narration fascinating.

Highly recommended.