Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of the Second World War, beginning in September 1939 and concluding almost six years later with the surrender of Germany on 8 May 1945.

31 January 2020

The Battle was crucial to an Allied victory in the Second World War, as supply routes in the Atlantic Ocean were vital in allowing the Allies to accelerate the build-up of air forces, the transport of troops, food, medicine and equipment for the invasion of continental Europe in 1944.

The Battle began in earnest following the fall of France in 1940 when Germany gained bases at the Bay of Biscay, which was much closer to Britain’s trade routes.

The Battle reached its climax in early 1943, as the Allies managed to sink nearly 100 German U-boats in the first five months of the year, blowing a hole in the German blockade. This was not the end of the Battle of the Atlantic, but was the decisive moment. Although German U-boats returned to the Atlantic, they never again posed the same threat, and Atlantic supply routes were secured by the Allies.

During the war, around 5,000 British and Allied ships were sunk and some 65,000 Allied and merchant seaman were lost.

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

Australian airmen served in large numbers with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Coastal Command squadrons, including RAAF squadrons, No. 10, No. 455 and No. 461.

Coastal Command undertook anti-submarine warfare, convoy escort, shipping strikes, photographic reconnaissance and air and sea rescues, in long patrols and missions up and down the coast of occupied Europe and far out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Some of the RAF’s highest losses were in Coastal Command—more than 230 members of No. 10 and 461 Squadrons alone died during the Second World War.

Royal Australian Navy (RAN)

At least seven Australian naval ships served in the Atlantic in some capacity during the Second World War. HMA Ships that served included: Australia, Napier, Nestor, Nizam, Quickmatch, Perth and Quiberon.

British Royal Navy

Many RAN and Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) personnel served with the British Royal Navy.

Merchant Navy

Merchant seaman also served in the Atlantic risking their lives against the German U-boat threat, just as much as RAN warships. Merchant mariners were a mix of defence force personnel and civilian shipmen travelling across the sea to transport troops, deliver equipment, food and fuel supplies.

Many Australian seaman serving on both British and Australian ships lost their lives as the German U-boats sank thousands of ships on the Atlantic.

Fast Facts

Australians who served

  • Some 5,000 Australians were awarded the Atlantic Star for service in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Major units

  • HMA Ships Australia, Napier, Nestor, Nizam, Quickmatch, Perth and Quiberon.
  • RAAF Squadrons No. 10, No. 455 and No. 461.

Casualties

  • Around 35,000 Allied sailors lost
  • Around 30,000 Merchant seaman lost
  • Around 6,000 RAF aircrew killed

Cemeteries

  • The Battle of the Atlantic endured for all of the Second World War and identified casualties are buried in war cemeteries throughout the world. It is not possible to attribute burials in a particular cemetery to the Battle.
  • Royal Australian Navy, Australian Merchant Navy and Royal Australian Air Force casualties who have no identified grave are respectively commemorated on the Plymouth (1,782), Tower Hill (47) and Runnymede (1,382) Memorials to the Missing.

Specific medals

  • Atlantic Star – Australian campaign medal awarded for six months service afloat or two months with an operational air squadron.