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WORLD WAR II U-BOAT ATLAS MOROCCO / WEST AFRICA INNOVATIVE SPACE VISUALIZATION: Atlas der Bodenbeschaffenheit des Meeres. 9. Lieferung. Westküste Afrikas zwischen 7° und 34° Nord-Breite. Bearbeitet von der Deutschen Seewarte.



A very rare, large-format atlas of the sea floor off the western and northwestern coasts of Africa, from Morocco down to Sierra Leone, made by the German Navy during the height of World War II expressly for the use of U-Boats; with 24 plates of highly sophisticated and brightly coloured sea charts predicated upon novel, recent intelligence, it was a vital tool used by German submarines to avoid Allied sonar in a vital maritime corridor – one of the most technically impressive cartographic works made by either side during the entire conflict.


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Oblong Folio (38.5 x 55 cm / 15 x 21.5 inches): [i, title], [2 pp.], 2 key charts, [2 pp.], 24 polychrome plates featuring 32 charts (some plates with 2 charts per plate); bound in original green half-cloth boards bearing printed titles with original string ties; with stamped production numbers in upper right corner of front cover and contemporary handstamp of the ‘Kriegsmarinewerft Kiel’ to centre of front cover (Good, internally overall clean and bright with lovely colours, just a few small spots, some plates with light wear in upper-right blank margins; covers a little sunned with marginal wear and damage to outer upper corner; old cancelled handstamps of the ‘Marine-Unterwasser-Waffenschule’ to inside of front cover).


This impressive and unusual atlas was made on the orders of the Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (the High Command of the German Navy) during the height of World War II to assist U-boat captain with navigating off the shores of West and Northwest Africa.  The atlas contains 24 plates (featuring 32 charts) of an incredibly innovative design that used bright colour-coding and shading to describe the varied nature of the sea floor off the African coast from Morocco to Sierra Leone.

Understanding and the seabed was critical to allowing submerged U-boats to avoid detection from Allied sonar, as they patrolled this strategically critical stretch of coastline, attacking enemy convoys, collecting intelligence and deploying spies.  The atlas was compiled and published by the Deutsche Seewarte, the special office based in Hamburg that collected and analysed meteorological and hydrological data for the German Navy.  The atlas’s charts are predicated upon fresh intelligence gathered by German U-boats, combined with the best established information.  The atlas is the first sophisticated rendering of the sea floor off the coasts of West and northwestern Africa and is one of the most technically advanced works of maritime cartography made during the war.  The atlas appeared in 1942, when U-boats were still a lethal threat Allied shipping, and while the Nazis (through their Vichy French collaborators) still controlled much of West and North Africa.

The atlas features a series of adjoining charts covering the coasts of West Africa from Rabat, Morocco, down to Sherbo Island, Sierra Leone, running from 34 to 7 Degrees of Latitude North.  This great stretch incudes the key ports and headlands of Casablanca, Agadir, Essaouira, Cape Blanco, St. Louis, Dakar, Banjul, Conakry, and Freetown; covering the coasts of the much of Morocco, Spanish Western Sahara, all of the coasts of French Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Portuguese Guinea (Guinea-Bissau), French Guinea (Guinea), and most of the littoral of Sierra Leone.  These coastlines were strategically important during World War II as they lay along the main Allied shipping lanes running from South Africa (and India) and South America to Britain.

The design of the atlases’ charts is novel and ingenious, with the nature of the sea floor colour coded as explained on the ‘Legende’ page (and summarized in the bottom margin of each chart).  The first category, ‘Bodenart und Bodenhärte’ [Soil Type and Soil Hardness] features ‘Fels; sehr hart (bzw. Felsiger Boden)’ [Rock; very hard (or rocky ground) – coloured Pink]; ‘Einzelne große Steine’ [Single large stones – with pink crossed Xs]; with the following three categories classified as ‘hart (fest)’ [hard (firmly)]; ‘Sand (von unbestimmer Korngröße)‘ [Sand (of undetermined grain size) – coloured Yellow]; ‘Feiner Sand’ [Fine Sand – coloured Light Orange]; ‘Grober Sand und Kies’ [Coarse sand and gravel – coloured Dark Orange]; and finally, ‘Sandliger Schlick’ (bzw. schlickiger Sand); etwas weich [Sandy silt (or silty sand); somewhat soft – coloured Grey]; ‘Schlick; weich’ [Silt; soft – coloured Green]; and ‘Farbige Flächen mit gewellten Rändern: Begrenzung unsicher’ [Colored areas with wavy edges: boundary uncertain – blank with rippled top edge].  The next category is ‘Steinvorkommen’ [Stone Deposits], which includes ‘Stein auf größerer Fläche bekannt’ [large area with observed Stones – with grey crossed-hashed lines] and ‘Steine möglich’ [Possible Stones – with grey vertical lines].

Additionally, the charts also feature a great wealth of conventional information, such as numerous bathymetric soundings and the locations of reefs, shoals, underwater mountains and other navigational features, much of its gleaned from the most recent British Admiralty charts (some of which are cited on the atlas’ charts).

This detailed and accurate analysis contained in the atlas was critical to allowing U-boats contain to avoid detection from Allied sonar while submerged.  This was vital, as almost all of U-boat operations utterly depended on stealth.  While the technical aspects are too complex to fully elaborate upon here, to simplify matters, soft seabeds (such as silt) absorb sound well, providing good cover for submarines, while hard surfaces cause noise refraction that can be easily detected by sonar.  Skilled U-boat captains had an almost uncanny way of using the nature of the sea floor to their advantage, in combination with other factors.  Moreover, while submerged submarines could often not use their own sonar to navigate, as that would allow them to be detected by the enemy, the conventional hydrographic information contained on the present charts would have been vital for course-setting while blind.  The present atlas reveals that the coast of West Africa hosted many ideal hiding places for U-boats, as well as many perilous areas of high sound refraction – understanding this was often a matter of success or failure, life or death.

The present atlas was a separately issued, stand-alone publication in and of itself.  However, it was part of a 13-part series of atlases (issued in 12 volumes; with 11 ‘Lieferungen’ [Serial Issues], plus 2 additional issues; Lieferungen 5 and 6 were published together in single book) covering the sea floor variously off the coasts of all of Europe and North and West Africa.  The geographically-classified issues were published in Hamburg serially between 1940 and 1944.  The present volume was the 9th issue of the series and is, in many respects, the most interesting, as more than the other volumes, it features a vast amount of new information recently discovered by U-boats, as opposed to being derivative.

The present atlas is very rare.  While several examples are held by institutions (mostly in German libraries), we cannot trace a record of another example as appearing on the market during the last generation.


Submarine Warfare and the Fight for West Africa

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 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 during the early part of the war, the U-boats were able to stealthily approach and torpedo Allied shipping with impunity.  In what became known as the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’, U-boats seemed to be able to appear almost anywhere from the Falklands, to the English Channel, to Sierra Leone, and the St. Lawrence River, suddenly sinking unsuspecting vessels, before disappearing into the deep.  Moreover, the U-boats were able to drop spies and equipment upon Allied shores without ever 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.

Turning to West and Northwest Africa, the region played a more important roll in World War II than is commonly recognized today.  The region guarded vital Allied shipping lanes that ran from South Africa (and by extension India) and South America to Europe, routes that were vital to supplying Britain with manpower and materials.

Worryingly for the Allies, in 1940, French Morocco and most of the massive colonial entity of French West Africa (which consisted of the territories of modern Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Benin) went over the Vichy (Nazi collaborate) cause.  As many today know only from the film Casablanca (1942), French Morocco and French West Africa was then more or less part of the Third Reich.  For the first half of the war, German submarines had many ports in which to shelter and revictual, in between preying upon Allied shipping plying the lanes offshore.

On the other side, Britain used Freetown, Sierra Leone as its main shipping waypoint in West Africa.  Thousands of ships were obligated to stop there to take on fuel and supplies following legs of long-haul voyages (ex. Cape Town to Southampton).  The U-boats thus focussed their energies heavily upon the coasts of Sierra Leone.  Notably, on September 24, 1941, U-107, commanded by Günter Hessler (the son in law of the German Chief Admiral Karl Dönitz), scored in an especially deadly attack against a British convoy off Sierra Leone. 

The Allies spent much resources in an effort to secure the shipping lanes off West Africa.  The Britain and the Free French forces mounted a botched effort to take Dakar in September 1940, the failure of which left that port as a deadly menace to Allied shipping.

The year 1942, when the present atlas was issued, marked the turning point in the submarine war and the conflict in West and northwestern Africa.  The United States’ entry into the conflict on Britain’s side caused a dramatic increase in Allied shipping and military support.  The U-boats found that no matter how many ships they sank, they were barely able to dent the massive flow of troops and supplies being sent to Europe to fuel the Allied war effort.  Moreover, the vastly increased number of Allied vessels and planes hunting the U-boats drew a massive toll.

In a transformative development, the Allies moved to evict the Vichy-Nazi regime from West and northwestern Africa.  In Operation Torch (November 8-16, 1942), American, British and Free French forces took Casablanca and soon fanned out to assume control of all French Morocco, and eventually the Sahel.  Around the same time, another Allied force took Dakar.  The tables had turned in the region, and the new reality was solidified upon the holding of the Casablanca Conference (January 14-24, 1943), a summit between Sir Winston Churchill, F.D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle in that city.  The change in climate dramatically reduced U-boat operations off West and northwestern Africa.

In 1943, the Allies commenced the use of centimetric radar which could detect U-boats, while stealthily avoiding detection in response by German technology.  This left the U-boats as ‘sitting ducks’, giving the Allies an overwhelming advantage.  As the war dragged on, and Germany lost ground it was increasingly unable to deploy U-boats which were themselves heavily outmatched; the age of ‘Unrestricted submarine warfare’ ended long before the fall of the Third Reich.


References: OCLC: 256526754 / 311420084; A List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress, vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1958), p. 70.


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