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Maritime Tales – Human Toll

8 April 2011 by stepheng

Map of sea routes

Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

 

Until I studied this map (pictured) I was unaware of some of the great distances German U-boats travelled in search of prey.

 

I had heard stories of people taking pot shots at surfaced submarines coming up for air in Caribbean palm-fringed lagoons. This creates amazing pictures in the mind far from a conventional view of subs as oil-soaked tin cans.

 

Towards the end of the war there were U-boats capable of travelling from Germany to South America without refuelling and there are rumours top Nazis escaped this way.

 

The cost of the Battle of the Atlantic, when Britain fought to protect convoys bringing vital supplies, was extremely high for both sides.

 

For example, by May 1945 more than 2,200 British and Allied ships totalling well over 13 million tons had been sunk in the North Atlantic.

 

At least 2,003 had been sent to the bottom by U-boats. One hundred Allied naval vessels and more than 600 coastal command aircraft had also been lost in the same arena of war.

 

At least 30,000 merchant seamen died as well as hundreds of men from Allied navies and air forces. Many civilian passengers also died.

 

At least 750 of the 830 operational U-boats saw service in the Atlantic and in UK waters outside the North Sea.

 

Of these 510 – or two thirds – were lost, mostly sunk by aircraft and escort ships in the closing two years of the war. A similar proportion of U-boat crewmen died in action – 18,000 out of 27,000. Hundreds more German sailors died while serving on warships.

 

The Atlantic can be a terrifying place for the most experienced sailors even without torpedoes, shells, bombs and depth charges. Countless men, women and children suffered the further horror of shipwreck. Many spent grim days and weeks in open lifeboats or on makeshift rafts, clinging on in desperate hope of being rescued.

 

A map in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery shows the routes taken by merchant ships. It was included in a Government publication called Merchantmen at War (1944).

 

It graphically depicts where U-boats lurked along with surface raiders and aircraft. U-boats were present from Cape Town in South Africa to Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro in South America and off the US and Canadian coasts – anywhere convoys travelled.

 

News cuttings tell their own stories: GIRL TENDED 51 MEN IN BOAT OF DEATH – A 21-year-old English girl, a bride of a few months, played Florence Nightingale to 51 men and two women drifting in an open boat after their ship had been torpedoed …

 

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents and bookshops.

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