The cost of the battle
The cost of the Battle of the Atlantic was extremely high for both sides. By May 1945, in the Atlantic alone, over 2,200 British and Allied merchant ships had been sunk, totalling well over 13 million tons, as well as 100 Allied naval vessels and 600 RAF Coastal Command aircraft. Of these ships, no less than 2003 had been sunk by U-boats. Over 30,000 merchant seamen had died, as well as thousands of men from Allied navies and air forces. Many civilian passengers had also died.
On the German side, of the 830 operational U-boats, at least 750 saw service in the Atlantic and in UK waters outside the North Sea. Of these, 510 (or 2 out of 3) were lost. Most were sunk by aircraft and escort ships in the last two years of the war. Of some 27,000 U-boat men who served in the Atlantic, over 18000 (or 2 out of 3) died in action. Hundreds more German sailors died while serving on surface warships.
The human toll
The large number of people killed and maimed in the Battle do not tell the whole story of the suffering which it caused. The Atlantic can be a terrifying place for the most experienced sailors, even without the torpedo, the shell, the bomb or the depth charge. Countless men, women and children experienced the further horror of trying to evacuate a sinking ship in mid-ocean, often at night. Many spent grim days and weeks in open lifeboats or on makeshift rafts, clinging on in desperate hope of rescue. As the years of war went by, such pitiful scenes became commonplace in the Atlantic.
‘TSS Arandora Star’, 1927-1941
The cruise liner ‘Arandora Star’ was taken over by the British Government in early 1940 for conversion into a troopship. At 6.15am on 2nd July 140 she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-47 (under the command of Gunther Prien) some 75 miles west of the Bloody Foreland, County Donegal, while carrying nearly 1200 German and Italian prisoners and their guards from Liverpool to Canada. Of the 1608 persons on board, 77 officers and crew, 93 British soldiers and 592 enemy prisoners died.
At the time the torpedo struck, most on board were asleep. In panic, many prisoners made a wild rush for the lifeboats, which seriously hampered the rescue efforts. The death toll of this horrific incident would have been far higher had it not been for the courage and discipline shown by the ship’s company and the soldiers guarding the prisoners.
Allied shipping/U-Boat losses
Allied merchant shipping losses (all causes) in the North Atlantic, 1939-1945
- 1939: 47
- 1940: 349
- 1941: 496
- 1942: 1,006
- 1943: 284
- 1944: 31
- Total: 2,232
U-Boats destroyed (all theatres and causes*)
- 1939: 9
- 1940: 23
- 1941: 35
- 1942: 87
- 1943: 237
- 1944: 242
- 1945: 151
- Total: 784
*excluding 221 which were scuttled after the German surrender. Most destroyed during the war were sunk in or near the North Atlantic.
Allied Naval losses (all causes) in the North Atlantic, 1939-1945
The Royal and Commonwealth Navies lost 76 ships, ranging in size from Fleet minesweepers to the battle cruiser ‘HMS Hood’. In addition, the US Navy and Allied navies lost a further 24 warships. Most naval losses were caused by U-boats.
(Sources: Captain S W Roskill, The War at Sea, 3 vols. (1960); Naval Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence)
Merchant navy prisoners of war
Many British and Allied merchant seamen became prisoners of war as a result of the Battle of the Atlantic. This was due mainly to the activities of German warships and ’armed auxiliary cruisers’ in the central and south Atlantic.
Most of these prisoners were held at the Milag Nord and Marlag internment camps near Bremen, in north-west Germany.
"No grave but the sea"
It is probable that at least one quarter of the men who were in the British Merchant Navy at the outbreak of war did not survive until the end. This was a higher death rate than that suffered by any of the British armed services, taken as a whole.
Over 6,000 Royal Navy sailors of Western Approaches Command, and perhaps some 4,000 others, died in the Atlantic battle. Many men of RAF Costal Command also died.
"No roses on a sailor’s grave" (Auf einem Seemansgrab, da Bluhen Keine Rosen)
On a sailor’s grave there are no roses, on a seamen’s grave there blooms no Edelweiss
The only ornaments are the white gulls
And the many tears a girl is weeping.
German Folk Song, sung by German seamen during the war.
Few armed services in the world could have suffered such grievous losses as the men of the German U-boat arm and yet retain their morale and discipline until the end, as they did. Every man in a U-boat knew that he would die a horrible death if his submarine was destroyed underwater.
Liverpool shipping losses
By 1945 Liverpool ship owners had lost more than 3 million tons of shipping, mostly in the Atlantic. This was equivalent to over 630 ships of 5,000 tons each, and amounted to a quarter of all British merchant shipping losses (12.5 million tons) during the war.
Liverpool ship owners alone lost three quarters of the total merchant ship tonnage lost (all causes, worldwide) by the whole of the US merchant marine (4 million tons) during the war. They lost more than the entire merchant navies of Norway (2 million tons), the Netherlands (1.5 million tons) and Greece (1.1 million tons)
Battle of the Atlantic 70th anniversary
2013 is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. Find out more about this turning point of the Second World War in Merseyside Maritime Museum's Battle of the Atlantic gallery and our online features.