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The cost of the battle

men on an upturned wooden boat

Shipwrecked sailors. Image copyright Imperial War Museum

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.

  • By May 1945 at least 30,000 merchant seamen had died. Hundreds of men from Allied navies and air forces, as well as many civilian passengers, also died.
  • In the North Atlantic alone, over 2,200 British and Allied merchant ships were sunk. Of these, no less than 2,003 had been sunk by U-boats. 100 Allied naval vessels and over 600 RAF Coastal Command aircraft were also lost in the Atlantic.
  • Of the 830 operational U-boats, at least 750 saw service in the Atlantic or British coastal waters. Of these, 510, or two out of three, were lost.
  • Over 18,000 U-boat men died in action. Hundreds more German sailors died while serving on surface warships.

Liverpool ship-owners lost over 3 million tons of shipping. This was more than the entire merchant navies of Norway (2 million tons), the Netherlands (1.5 million tons) and Greece (1.1 million tons).

The large number of people killed or maimed in the battle is, sadly, only a part of the battle's cost. Those not receiving physical injuries often suffered mental and emotional distress because of their experiences. The Atlantic can be a terrifying place for the most experienced sailors. Add to this the torpedo, bomb or depth charge and it can become the stuff of nightmares.

Countless men, women and children suffered the horror of evacuating a sinking ship in mid-ocean, often at night. Convoys were often unable to stop for people who were shipwrecked. Many spent days and weeks in open lifeboats or on makeshift rafts.

The Battle of the Atlantic gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum is dedicated to the men and women of all nations who worked, fought and died at sea during the Second World War. Neither the gallery, nor these pages, pretends to tell the whole story.

U-426 (a type VIIC submarine) sinks after attack from the air, 8 January 1944. Almost two-thirds of all U-boat men died during the Battle of the Atlantic. Image copyright Imperial War Museum, reference IWM C4081

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