The Battle of the Atlantic was an epic contest between the combined navies of Britain, Canada and the United States versus the Kriegsmarine’s (Nazi German Navy) U-boat squadrons. Described as the as the “longest, largest, and most complex” naval battle in history, it technically lasted the entire duration of World War II, although its most intense period spanned from the spring of 1940 until mid-1943. The chart was issued for the ‘Oberkommando der Marine’ (Nazi German Navy High Command), near the beginning of this period, when the Germans held the upper hand and threatened to cut Britain off from its North American lifeline, so potentially ending the war. The present example of the chart was issued, with important recent updates, in July 1940, and is significantly a ‘headquarters copy’ from the map library of the Oberkommando, such that it would have been used by senior officers during strategic planning sessions.
The map shows the entire North Atlantic Ocean, extending from 70°N to 5°S, and embracing all of the Atlantic coastlines in the Americans between these parameters, and extending in Europe to the North Sea, just beyond Britain. The coastlines are precisely delineated, all major ports are marked, while the seas feature innumerable bathymetric soundings and the marking of major hazards, as well as isolines. Notably, the lines of furthest extend of the ‘Eisenfelder’ (Icefields) off the Newfoundland’s Grand Banks between March and July are marked, as are the lines of the maximum extent of icebergs off the North American coasts, in both the spring and summer. Indeed, the Titanic’s fate showed, sea ice was the greatest natural hazard to trans-Atlantic shipping in the modern era. The inset chart in the lower-left details magnetic declination.
For the first three years of World War II, Germany maintained a deadly advantage over Britain and her allies on the high seas. The German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) submarine programme, with its famous U-boats (from the German U-Boot, short for Unterseebooten, literally ‘Undersea Boat’), was lightyears ahead of that of the opposition. Britain was utterly dependent upon supplies and troops shipped in from overseas, and required, on average, the receipt 1 million tonnes of food and war material per day in order to sustain itself. During the early part of the war, the U-boats were able to stealthily approach and torpedo Allied shipping with impunity.
The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ technically lasted from the beginning until the end of World War II, but its height spanned from the spring of 1940 until mid-1943. During this period, U-boats seemed to be able to appear almost anywhere and at any time, from the Falklands, to the English Channel, to Sierra Leone, and the St. Lawrence River, to the seas just of New York City’s Coney Island, suddenly sinking unsuspecting vessels, before disappearing into the deep. Moreover, the U-boats were able to drop spies and equipment upon Allied shores without being detected.
Germany upped the stakes when they started pursuing ‘Unrestricted Submarine Warfare’, whereby they targeted all Allied shipping (both military and civilian) without following the legally agreed protocols (it was not permitted to sink civilian vessels without warning or caring for their crews and passengers). The U-boats also communicated through the Enigma code system, that remained safe from decryption for some time. The losses and security risks due to the German submarine onslaught were so great that Sir Winston Churchill recalled “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.
However, the British eventually developed new technologies that turned the tables on the U-boats. They developed Sonar (called ASDIC in Britain), that could detect submerged U-Boats in many circumstances (while also allowing the U-boats to detect the British vessels that were monitoring them). The British also developed radar that allowed them to trace U-boats that were sailing on the surface; in turn, the Germans could use radar detectors to trace their opposition, resulting in many dramatic cat-and-mouse showdowns. The German Navy partially negated the British technological advances by deploying their U-boats in groups, or “wolfpacks”. While the British could often detect the wolfpacks approaching, they were generally helpless the defend themselves from simultaneous attacks form multiple submarines. For a time, crossing the Atlantic by ship, even as part of large, heavy armed convoy, was considered exceedingly dangerous; the U-Boats proved to be a massive drag upon the Allied war effort and their attacks were serious blows to Anglo-Canadian morale.
The year 1942 marked the turning point in the submarine war and the Battle of the Atlantic. The entry of the United States into the war on the British side resulted in a dramatic increase in Allied shipping and military support. The submarines found that no matter how many ships they sank, they could barely contain the massive flow of troops and supplies sent to Europe to fuel the Allied effort. In addition, the sharp increase in the number of Allied ships and aircraft chasing the submarines took a massive toll.
In 1943, the Allies began using a centimetric radar that could detect submarines while secretly avoiding detection in response to German technology. This left the submarines as “sitting ducks”, giving the Allies an overwhelming advantage. As the war dragged on and Germany lost ground, it was increasingly unable to use submarines to their advantage. The age of ‘Unrestricted Submarine Warfare’ ended long before the fall of the Third Reich.
At the conclusion of the Battle of the Atlantic, at the end of World War II, the Allies had lost almost 75,000 military personnel and merchant seamen, 3,500 merchant vessels, 175 warships and 741 aircraft. The Germans had lost over 30,000 seamen (mostly U-boat crews), 783 submarines and 47 ships.
The legacy of the Battle of the Atlantic was the birth of truly modern naval warfare, where advances in cutting edge technology were often more important than quantitative factories. On a human level, the stories of daring and survival on the high seas, under the most extreme circumstances, are some of the most gripping wartime accounts from any time in history.
The Present Chart’s Issue and an Intriguing Provenance
The template for the present map was first issued by the Imperial German Navy in 1911, but was heavily revised and reissued by the new Nazi regime in 1938, while the note in lower left margin reads that the chart was updated with ‘Kleine Berichtigung’ (small corrections) on various given dates, with the most recent incorporated on the present chart added on ‘1939.10.VI.’ (June 10, 1939).
However, the present example of the chart was actually issued in July 1940, right at the beginning of the intense period of the Battle of the Atlantic. In the lower left margin is a handstamp from the publisher Dietrich Reimer, reading ‘Berichtigt bis N.f.S. / Ausgabe 29 vom 4. Jul. 1940’, meaning that the chart was updated to that time.
The present example of the map possesses a very interesting and important provenance. In the upper left margin appears the stamp ‘Oberkommando der Marine / Juli 1940’, meaning that it was entered into the official libraries of the German Navy’s High Command shortly after it was printed. Thus, this chart was ‘headquarters copy’ that would have been consulted by senior naval officers while planning U-boats deployments.
It is worth noting that most Nazi charts featured (often numerous) handstamps, a result of the Third Reich’s obsession with classification and order.
In 1945, following the end of World War II, the contents of the official libraries of the Kreigsmarine were moved and merged into the archive of the newly formed Deutsches Hydrographisches Institut (German Hydrographical Institute), in Hamburg. The Institut was the successor of the Norddeutsche Seewarte (North German Naval Observatory), and henceforth became the main library of the West German Navy. The present chart features the handstamp of the Institut, near the title, as well as, in the bottom margin, an ‘Archiv D.H.I.’ handstamp over-stamped with the word ‘Erledigt’ (meaning ‘Deaccessioned’), and well as another handstamp reading ‘Unverkäuflich / Nur zum Dientsgebrauch oder nur für Lehrzwecke’ (‘Not for Sale / Only for Service Use or Only for Teaching Purposes’), although this stamp seems to have be countermanded by the previous ‘Erledigt’ stamp.
The DHI likely deaccessioned the present chart form its collections when, in the wake of German reunification, in 1990, the BHI was reorganized as the Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie (BSH, Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany), which had premises in both Hamburg and Rostock. The BHI/BSH decided to officially release many (usually duplicate) items from its archives.
A Note on Rarity
All issues of sea charts published by the Nazi German Navy are very rare, being much more uncommon than comparable British or American charts. This had a great deal to do with the fact that the Nazis were far more secretive with their charts; they were considered ‘highly classified’ and were produced in only very small print runs for restricted use by senior naval officers. For instance, access to all of the Kriegsmarine libraries were tightly controlled. Moreover, most of the examples of the charts which did circulate would have been exposed to wear during headquarters strategy sessions or onboard vessels, leading to a very low survival rate.
We can trace only a single example of a WWII edition of the chart, being a nearly identical issue (date-stamped ‘October 1939’), held by the American Geographical Society Collection at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There is also presumably an example held by the library of the Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie, at their Hamburg or Rostock premises, although we have not been able to trace the appropriate catalogue entry.
All editions of the chart seem to be extremely rare; beyond those mentioned, the only other exampls of any of the issues is a 1928 edition, likewise held by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Moreover, we cannot trace any sales records for any editions of the chart.
References: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (American Geographical Society Collection): German Chart 383 1939.