In the 1950s it was very easy to pick up army and navy surplus and I had a friend who was ace at recycling equipment into working gizmos. One that amazed me was a private telephone line between two of our houses. Looking back I’m convinced he used parts of a Huffduff to make these contraptions.
When the United States entered the war in December 1941, the German U-boat submarine offensive entered a new phase which led to the underwater menaces losing the initiative and then the battle.
First the Americans had to learn a hard lesson. U-boat captains were ordered to move to the US east coast and immediately created mayhem. Within weeks the huge losses of ships and supplies suffered by the Americans threatened the whole Allied war effort.
It was six months before the United States finally introduced its own coastal convoy system. This quickly ended what the U-boat crews called their “American turkey shoot” which had cost 149 ships, including many vital oil tankers, totalling well over two million tons.
From mid-1942 more British, Canadian and American naval escorts became available. Some 150 corvettes were in service along with new sloops and frigates. However, many Atlantic escorts were diverted at this time to support Arctic convoys and the Allied landings in north Africa. The escorts themselves were much better equipped than their predecessors.
Examples of equipment and weapons used to beat the U-boats are on display in the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery. A large blue metal box with dials and knobs was known among crews as a Huffduff – a HF/DF or High Frequency Direction Finder. These were used alongside radar and the improved Asdic equipment to more efficiently detect U-boats.
A small bomb (pictured) was one of 24 which bristled in an anti-submarine mortar appropriately known as a Hedgehog. These were all fired at once and plunged into the sea over a wide area, with great effect.
At the end of May 1943 there was an uneasy underwater peace when all U-boats were withdrawn from the north Atlantic convoy routes for six months. U-boat command had decided to regroup and concentrate on developing new submarines and weapons. Although still a menace to Allied shipping, especially in British and European coastal waters until the very last days of the war, the U-boats were never to regain the upper hand in the Atlantic.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).