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Back from the brink

A large ship riding a wave

A Liberty ship in heavy weather.
Image copyright Imperial War Museum, reference IWM A27519

'In the U-boat war we have England by the throat...'
- Joseph Goebbels Nazi Minister of Propaganda, April 1943

The United States entered the war in December 1941. The U-boat offensive moved to America's east coast. Within weeks the huge losses they suffered threatened the whole Allied war effort. It was six months before both a coastal blackout and coastal patrols were introduced. By then, what the U-boat crews called their 'American turkey shoot' had cost 149 ships. These included many vital oil tankers and totalled over 2 million tons.

However, America began a massive shipbuilding programme. Ships were built in sections and assembled on production lines. An average of three new ships were built every day. By the end of 1942 these 'Liberty ships' were being built faster than the Germans could sink them.

The Battle of the Atlantic reached its ferocious peak in 1943. In March of that year nearly 100 ships were sunk by larger and more effective 'wolf packs'. The introduction of a more complex Enigma machine in 1942 had also led to a serious 'intelligence blackout'.

Nearly a third of the crew members of all British ships sunk died. In 1942 alone, 8,400 British and Commonwealth merchant sailors lost their lives. Iron ore-carrying ships were often known to 'sink like a stone' once torpedoed. Oil tanker crews knew they could be burned alive if their ship was attacked.

The spirit and courage displayed by Allied merchant seafarers of all nations was truly remarkable. Even their German adversaries admired their determination. Most of the people involved, however, felt that they were just doing their jobs, like millions of others.