Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Battle of the Atlantic and Signals Intelligence

U-boat Situations and Trends, 1941-1945

Syrett, David

1999, Published by Ashgate for the Navy Records Society, Brookfield VT
ISBN 1840142952
628 pages

Type. Compilation of British Intelligence documents
Pros. Fascinating primary source
Cons. Editor's notes are not always correct

This massive book is an edited compilation of British intelligence documents. The Situations are weekly reports, which were produced from 15 December, 1941 to May, 1945. Each of these reports begins with a table showing the number of U-boats thought to be present in each operational area (e.g., the Arctic, various sectors of the North Atlantic, Central Atlantic, Mediterranean, etc.) at quite a detailed level and often comprising several dozen sea and coastal areas. The table is followed by an up-to-the-minute summary of the activities of both U-boats and Allied ASW forces, providing a snapshot of current engagements as well as an overview of events of the past week. The Trends were initiated in an attempt to summarize technological developments and trends in strategy and tactics, and appeared from 2 November, 1942 irregularly until 21 May, 1945. Not all of the Trends were preserved for posterity, and thus many do not appear in this book.

Obviously this book is a useful resource for those who wish to learn just what the British knew, and when they knew it. However, it was pleasantly surprising to find that this book is also good, often fascinating, reading. Steeling myself for a dry and cryptic summary of intercepted transmissions, and planning merely to look up a few key dates and names, I found instead a series of well-written narratives, and in the end read this book from cover to cover. Its interest lies not only in the chilling revelation of how comprehensively the British were able to follow the movements of individual U-boats, but also in the writers' clear, interesting, and often entertaining style. The excerpts below provide examples of the various types of information - relating to special operations, sabotage, and morale, in addition to location - gathered about the U-boats; and in some cases the personal observations, opinions, and even smug remarks on the part of the authors which appear periodically throughout the book.

The Situations and Trends were written by Rear Admiral J.W. Clayton, RN, head of the Operational Intelligence Centre, until August 1943, when responsibility for Situations was transferred to Commander Rodger Winn, RNVR, head of the submarine tracking room. However, no change in writing style can be detected.

The editor has performed the valuable service of inserting notes identifying the U-boats as well as the submarines and warships of all nations (although not merchant ships) discussed in the text. The index references these notes as well as the main documents. However, although the author includes a selected bibliography, it is not clear where he has obtained the data he includes in the notes. Some of his notes identifying U-boat fates and successes do not match the data we have amassed on In some cases these discrepancies might be chalked up to typographical error, since at least one such case was noted (U-486 is mistyped as U-864 in the note and thus in the index). Others clearly result from reliance on old data, but nothing listed in the bibliography is a plausible source.

Even so, the main value of the book is as a historical document, revealing the amazing knowledge the British had - from their observation of the buildup to Operation Drumbeat, through their pinpointing of the supply U-boats, the recognition of the turn in the tide in May 1943 and the resumption of attacks months later which they seemed to regard as an anticipated event, to their detailed knowledge of the new U-boat types and technologies. Even though anyone familiar with the U-boat war knows that British Intelligence often literally knew more about the dispositions of individual U-boats than the Germans themselves did, reading the hundreds of pages of these documents adds a whole new dimension to that understanding.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 8 Jul 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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