Lasting 5½ years, the Battle of the Atlantic was World War II’s longest struggle. While the Royal Navy shouldered most of the burden of organizing and waging the prolonged campaign, Atlantic antisubmarine operations were of extreme importance to the U.S. Navy, which in March 1943 added aircraft carriers to its arsenal of weapons deployed against U-boats.
But enormous, fast, and powerful fleet carriers these were not. In the Atlantic, the Navy made due with much smaller and slower auxiliary, or escort, carriers—nicknamed “baby flattops” and “jeep” carriers. Unlike the purpose-built Casablanca escort carriers, several of which gained fame at the Battle off Samar in the Pacific, the ungainly Bogue-class carriers active in the Atlantic were improvised warships, cheaply and quickly constructed by adding a flight deck to a merchant hull. The American escort carrier groups nevertheless played a valuable role in the Battle of the Atlantic, and, according to Samuel Eliot Morison, “were probably the greatest single contribution of the United States Navy to victory over enemy submarines.”
In “The Navy’s Escort Carrier Offensive,” Naval History and Heritage Command historian Jeffrey Barlow explains the genesis of the carrier program, the efforts of Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King to organize the United States’ Atlantic ASW campaign, and escort aviators’ early successes against U-boats. A key issue Barlow discusses is how best to employ the carriers—defensively to protect convoys, or offensively to track down and destroy U-boats. While the Royal Navy, which had begun deploying Atlantic escort carriers in 1942, strongly favored the former, the U.S. Navy proved that, with the aid of communications intelligence, baby flattops were effective “Hunter-Killers.” The article’s sidebar, “How to Sink Subs,” recounts the lessons learned by the aviators of the Bogue’s Composite Squadron 9.
This issue’s other Battle of the Atlantic article, The Life and Death of U-67, by Naval History Senior Editor Eric Mills, tells the story of a U-boat through the recollections and photographs of one of her sailors, Hans Burck. Earlier this year, the U.S. Naval Institute received a treasure-trove of well-organized U-boat material from historian Melanie Wiggins, who had gathered it—four boxes full—for her book U-boat Adventures: Firsthand Accounts from World War II (Naval Institute Press, 1999).
The core of Mills’ article is drawn from the collection’s thick folder on Burck, which includes letters he exchanged with Wiggins, a copy of the diary he kept during a war cruise, and his collection of photos taken on board U-67—many of which are previously unpublished. The German petty officer was one of three survivors when a U.S. escort carrier’s Avenger bomber sank his U-boat on 16 July 1943, and an excerpt from a report by one of Burck’s U.S. Navy interrogators rounds out the story.
A third World War II article commemorates the 70th anniversary of one of the Pacific conflict’s most ferocious, albeit relatively short, battles—the 76-hour fight for Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Island. “Taking Charge on Red Beach Two” by Douglas Porcher recounts how Marine Staff Sergeant William Bordelon’s heroism and sacrifice helped save the lives of fellow Marines coming ashore and earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor. The article’s sidebar, “Scenes from the Storm,” is excerpted from a wartime narrative by Captain Earl J. Wilson. It picks up later in the battle and describes the sights and sounds the author experienced after coming ashore.