- After Germany
invaded Poland on the 1st,
Britain and France demanded the withdrawal of German forces. The
ultimatum expired and at 11.15am on the 3rd, Prime
Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to announce that Britain
was at war with Germany. He formed a War Cabinet with Winston Churchill
as First Lord of the Admiralty. France, Australia,
New Zealand and India (through the
Viceroy) declared war the same day. 6th - South Africa
declared war. 10th - Canada declared war.
ATLANTIC - SEPTEMBER 1939
of the Atlantic - The six-year long Battle
started on the 3rd with the sinking of
liner "Athenia" by "U-30" (Lt Lemp) northwest of Ireland. She was
mistaken for an armed merchant cruiser, and her destruction led the
Admiralty to believe unrestricted submarine warfare had been launched.
Full convoy plans were put into operation, but in fact Hitler had
ordered the U-boats to adhere to international law and after the
"Athenia" incident, tightened controls for a while. Liverpool-out
convoy OB4 was the first group of ships to be attacked, with "U-31"
sinking one ship on the 16th September. Convoys actually suffered
little harm over the next seven months, and most of the losses due to
U-boats were among the independently routed and neutral merchantmen. In
the period to March 1940 they sank 222 British, Allied and neutral
ships in the Western Approaches to the British Isles, the North Sea and
around the coasts of Britain. In the same time they lost 18 of their
number, a third of all in commission in September 1939 and more than
the number of new boats entering service.
- After an unsuccessful attack on carrier Ark Royal
off the Hebrides, NW Scotland, German "U-39" was
depth-charged and sunk by screening destroyers "Faulknor", "Firedrake"
and "Foxhound". 17th - Three days later, fleet
carrier COURAGEOUS was sent to the bottom to the
southwest of Ireland by "U-29" with heavy loss of life. Carriers were
withdrawn from anti-U-boat patrols as it became accepted that the best
chance of sinking U-boats was to attract them to well-defended convoys
where the escorts could hunt them down. 20th - After
sinking trawlers off the northern Hebrides, German "U-27" was located
and sunk by destroyers "Fortune" and "Forester".
Heavy Warships - Pocket battleship "Admiral Graf Spee" sank
her first ship in the Atlantic off Brazil on the 30th September.
Loss Summary: 20 British, Allied and neutral ships of 110,000 tons in
the Atlantic from all causes; 1 fleet carrier; 2 German U-boats.
EUROPE - SEPTEMBER 1939
Front - Advance units of the British Expeditionary Force were
carried by destroyers from Portsmouth to Cherbourg on the 4th
September. A week later the main force started landing in France. By
June 1940 half a million men had been carried in both directions
Codes - The British Code & Cipher School moved to
Bletchley Park, England, the site of its magnificent successes breaking
the German Enigma codes through the 'Ultra' programme. The School built
on the work of Polish and later French code-breakers. By April 1940 the
first low level Luftwaffe codes were being deciphered. Many months
followed before comparable progress was made with Naval codes.
- Aircraft of RAF Bomber Command made their first attack on German
warships in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel. Cruiser "Emden" was slightly
damaged by a crashing aircraft.
- Home Fleet submarines on patrol off southwest Norway
suffered their first casualty in tragic circumstances. OXLEY was torpedoed in error by
"Triton" and went down off Obrestad.
Campaign - As the Germans advanced into Poland, Russia
invaded from the east on the 17th September. Warsaw surrendered to the
German Army on the 28th and next day the country was partitioned in
accordance with the Soviet-German Pact.
Loss Summary: 33 British, Allied and neutral ships of 85,000 tons in UK
ATLANTIC - OCTOBER 1939
- The Pan-American Conference established a 300-mile plus security zone
off the coasts of the Americas within which all hostile action by the
belligerent powers was forbidden.
Heavy Warships - Pocket battleship "Graf Spee" claimed four
more merchant ships in the South Atlantic before heading into the
southern Indian Ocean. Seven Allied hunting groups were formed in the
Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean to search for her. In total the
Royal and French Navies deployed three capital ships, four aircraft
carriers and 16 cruisers. Meanwhile sister ship "Deutschland", after
accounting for two ships in the North Atlantic was ordered home. She
reached Germany in November and was renamed "Lutzow".
- Two U-boats attacking convoys to the southwest of Ireland
were sunk by escorting destroyers. On the 13th, "U-42" was sent to the
bottom by "Imogen" and "llex" sailing with Liverpool-out convoy OB17. 14th
- Next day "Icarus", "Inglefield", "Intrepid" and "Ivanhoe"
escorting Kingston, Jamaica/UK convoy KJ3 accounted for "U-45"
of the Atlantic - The first UK/Gibraltar convoy, OG1, sailed
in October. Partly because of the loss of "U-42" and "U-45", only three
of the intended nine U-boats were available for the first U-boat group
attack on a convoy using an on-board tactical commander. Three ships
out of the 27 in unescorted convoy HG3 were sunk, but the experiment
was repeated only a few times. The first wolf-pack attacks conducted
personally by Adm Doenitz from onshore did not start for another year.
Loss Summary: 22 British, Allied and neutral ships of 133,000 tons in
the Atlantic from all causes; 2 German U-boats.
EUROPE - OCTOBER 1939
Campaign, Conclusion - With Poland partitioned between
Germany and Russian, the last of the Polish Army surrendered on 5th
October. Poland entered its long dark years of brutality and oppression.
Front - Most of the British Expeditionary Force was now in
France, just as Hitler ordered preparation of the first plans for the
invasion of France and the Low Countries.
Heavy Warships - Battlecruiser "Gneisenau" and other ships
of the German Navy sortied on the 8th off Norway to
draw the Home Fleet within U-boat and aircraft range. Capital ships Hood, Nelson, Repulse, Rodney and Royal Oak
together with carrier Furious,
cruisers and destroyers sailed for various positions, but no contact
- The anti-U-boat mine barrage in the Strait of Dover was
completed and accounted for three U-boats, starting with "U-12" on the
8th. 13th - "U-40" was mined. 24th - The
third U-boat was "U-16". No more attempts were made to pass through the
English Channel and U-boats were forced to sail around the north of
Scotland to reach the Atlantic.
- Returning to Scapa Flow after guarding the Fair Isle
passage during "Gneisenau's" recent sortie, anchored battleship ROYAL OAK
(right - Maritime Quest) was
torpedoed and sunk by "U-47" (Lt-Cdr Prien) in the early hours of the
14th with the loss of 833 men. The Home Fleet moved to Loch Ewe on the
W Scottish coast
Sea and Air Attacks - These were stepped up against merchant
shipping and warships in British waters. In their first attack on
British territory, Ju.88's bombed ships in the Firth of Forth, Scotland
on the 16th October and slightly damaged
and destroyer "Mohawk". Next day more Ju.88's struck at Scapa Flow and
the old gunnery training battleship Iron Duke
was bomb-damaged and had to be beached. German destroyers and later
other surface vessels started laying mines off the British East Coast.
Aircraft also attacked the East Coast convoy routes, but initially
without success. In defence, it took some months for RAF Fighter
Command to arrange effective sweeps, but there were too few AA guns to
Loss Summary: 24 British, Allied and neutral ships of 63,000 tons in UK
waters; 3 German U-boats
ATLANTIC - NOVEMBER 1939
States - The Neutrality Act was amended to allow the supply
of arms to belligerents on a 'cash and carry' basis. At the same time
American shipping was banned from the war zones.
Heavy Warships - Pocket battleship "Graf Spee" sank a small
tanker southwest of Madagascar and headed back for the South Atlantic.
More Allied hunting groups were formed.
- Armed merchant cruiser "RAWALPINDI" (Capt E. C Kennedy) on
Northern Patrol was sunk by the 11in battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" as she
and sister ship "Gneisenau" tried to break out into the Atlantic. After
the action to the southwest of Iceland, they turned back and returned
to Germany after avoiding searching ships of the British Home Fleet.
- On patrol to the north of Scotland to support the German
battlecruiser's attempted breakout, "U-35" was found east of the
Shetland Islands and sunk by destroyers "Kashmir", "Kingston" and
of the Atlantic - RAF Coastal Command continued to patrol
for U-boats on passage into the Atlantic. Equal priority was now given
to attacks, but the crews were not trained and lacked effective
anti-submarine bombs. The first success was a joint action with the
Royal Navy at the end of January 1940.
Loss Summary: 6 British, Allied and neutral ships of 18,000 tons in the
Atlantic from all causes, 1 armed merchant cruiser; 1 German U-boat.
EUROPE - NOVEMBER 1939
- As U-boat and surface ship-laid mines continued to inflict
heavy losses on merchant ships and warships alike, cruiser minelayer Adventure and
accompanying destroyer BLANCHE were mined in the Thames
Estuary. "Blanche" was a total loss. More serious casualties followed a
week later. 21st - Recently
completed light cruiser Belfast
was badly damaged in the Firth of Forth on a magnetic mine laid by
"U-21". With her back broken and machinery mountings shattered she was
out of action for three years. 21st - Destroyer
GIPSY was also lost on mines laid by
destroyers off the British east coast port of Harwich.
- British Home Fleet submarines gained their first success
in the Heligoland Bight when "Sturgeon" sank German patrol ship "V-209".
Mines - German seaplanes also laid the first magnetic mines
off the East Coast and dropped one on tidal flats at Shoeburyness in
the Thames Estuary. It was defused on the 23rd November and recovered
by Lt-Cdr Ouvry, a vital step in the battle against a weapon which was
causing heavy losses and long shipping delays. In November alone, 27
ships of 121,000 tons were sunk and for a time the Thames Estuary was
virtually closed to shipping.
War - Negotiations on border changes and control of islands
in the Gulf of Finland broke down and Russia invaded on the 30th.
Fiercely resisted by the small Finnish army, the war dragged on to
Shipping War - The first HN/ON convoys sailed between the
Firth of Forth and Norway in November covered by the Home Fleet. The
convoys were discontinued in April 1940.
Loss Summary: 43 British, Allied and neutral ships of 156,000 tons in
ATLANTIC - DECEMBER
- The first Canadian troop convoy TC1,
sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Britain, heavily escorted and
accompanied part of the way by Canadian destroyers.
13th, Battle of River Plate
(see map above) - Now back
in the South Atlantic, “Graf Spee” (right - Maritime Quest)claimed
three more victims to bring the total to nine ships of 50,000 tons,
before heading for the South American shipping lanes off the River
Plate. Cdre Harwood with Hunting Group G - 8in-gunned cruisers Exeter and Cumberland
and 6in light cruisers Ajax
and New Zealand Achilles
- correctly anticipated her destination. Unfortunately “Cumberland” was
by now in the Falklands. At 06.14 on the 13th, 150
miles east of the Plate Estuary, “Graf Spee” (Capt Langsdorff) was
reported to the northwest of the three cruisers [1 - see map]. Faced
with “Graf Spee's" heavier armament, Cdre Harwood decided to split his
force in two and try to divide her main guns. “Exeter” closed to the
south  while the two light cruisers worked around to the north ,
all firing as they manoeuvred.
Spee” concentrated her two 11in turrets on “Exeter” which was badly hit
. By 06.50 all ships were heading west , "Exeter” with only one
turret in action and on fire. “Ajax” and “Achilles” continued to harry
the pocket battleship from the north , but at 07.25 "Ajax" lost her
two after turrets to an 11in hit  and “Achilles” already had
splinter damage. HMS Exeter was forced to break off and head south for
the Falklands , but "Graf Spee" failed to press home her advantage.
By 08.00, still with only superficial damage, she headed for the
neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo, the cruisers shadowing . “GRAF
SPEE” entered port at midnight. As other Allied hunting groups headed
for the area, much diplomatic manoeuvring took place to hold her there.
Finally, on the 17th, Capt Langsdorff edged his ship
out into the estuary where she was scuttled and blown up. Only
“Cumberland” had arrived by this time. Langsdorff then committed
Loss Summary: 7 British, Allied and Neutral ships
of 38,000 tons in the Atlantic from all causes; 1 German pocket
EUROPE - DECEMBER 1939
- Returning from the hunt for the German battle-cruisers after the
sinking of "Rawalpindi" on the 23rd November, battleship "Nelson" was
damaged by a mine laid by "U-31" off Loch Ewe, northwest Scotland.
- On patrol off the Heligoland Bight, submarine "Salmon" (Lt Cdr
Bickford) sank outward bound "U-36". She was successful again nine days
later. 13th - "Salmon" torpedoed and damaged German
cruisers "Leipzig" and "Nurnberg" in the North Sea as they covered a
destroyer mine laying operation off the Tyne Estuary, north east
- Battleship Barham
was involved in two incidents. On the 12th in the North Channel
separating Northern Ireland and Scotland, she collided with and sank
one of the screening destroyers DUCHESS. 28th - Two
weeks later, "Barham" was torpedoed and damaged off the Hebrides by
"U-30" (Lt Cdr Lemp)
Shipping War - Trawlers were the main victims of the first
successful attacks by German aircraft off the East Coast. By the end of
March they had accounted for 30 vessels of 37,000 tons. Losses from
mines remained high - 33 ships of 83,000 tons in December.
Loss Summary: 66 British, Allied and Neutral ships of 152,000 tons in
ATLANTIC - JANUARY 1940
- Attacking Thames-out convoy 0A80 to the west of the English Channel,
“U-55” was destroyed in a joint action by an RAF Sunderland of No 228
Squadron, sloop “Fowey“ and destroyer “Whitshed”. This was the first
successful air/sea attack, not to be repeated for another five months.
Loss Summary: - 9 British, Allied and neutral ships of 36,000 tons in
the Atlantic from all causes; 1 German U-boat.
EUROPE - JANUARY 1940
Europe - German plans for a Western offensive (Operation
'Gelb') were postponed. Planning went ahead for the invasion of Norway
under codename 'Weserubung'.
- AA cruiser Coventry was
damaged in an air raid on the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland.
- Home Fleet submarines suffered heavy losses in the Heligoland area at
the hands of minesweeper patrols, starting with SEAHORSE. On the same day
UNDINE was sunk. 9th
- Two days later STARFISH was also lost. British
submarine operations in the Heligoland Bight were abandoned.
- As destroyer GRENVILLE returned from contraband
control off the Dutch coast she was lost on a destroyer-laid mine off
the Thames Estuary.
- Searching for a reported U-boat off the Moray Firth, destroyer
EXMOUTH was torpedoed by “U-22” and
lost with all hands.
Shipping War - U-boats were particularly active in the Moray
Firth area off the Scottish coast and in the rest of the North Sea
through until March 1940. In January alone they sank 14 ships - all
Loss Summary: 64 British, Allied and neutral ships of 179,000 tons in
ATLANTIC - FEBRUARY 1940
- “U-41” sank one ship from Liverpool-out convoy OB84 south of Ireland,
but was then sent to the bottom by the lone escort, destroyer
“Antelope”. 23rd - Destroyer “Gurkha” on passage
south of the Faeroe Islands encountered and sank “U-53” returning from
patrol in the Western Approaches.
Loss Summary: 17 British, Allied and neutral ships of 75,000 tons from
all causes; 2 German U-boats.
EUROPE - FEBRUARY 1940
- “U-33” on a minelaying operation in the Firth of Clyde, western
Scotland was sunk by minesweeper “Gleaner”.
16th, The “Altmark” Incident - "Altmark"
was “Graf Spee's” supply ship with Merchant Navy prisoners onboard. She
was located off Norway and took refuge in Jossingfiord, within
territorial waters. That evening destroyer “Cossack” (Capt Vian) went
alongside with a boarding party and after a short struggle released the
prisoners with the cry 'The Navy's here!'
- In an attack on Norway/UK convoy HN12,
destroyer DARING was sunk by “U-23” in the
northern North Sea, east of the Pentland Firth. 25th
- A week later, Norway/UK convoy HN14 was attacked. German “U-63” was
sighted by escorting submarine “Narwhal” and sent to the bottom by
destroyers “Escort”, “lmogen” and “lnglefield”.
- German destroyers were attacked in error by their own aircraft in the
North Sea and ran into a minefield laid by Royal Navy destroyers.
“LEBERECHT MAASS” and “MAX SCHULTZ” were lost northwest of the German
Frisian Islands. “U-54” was presumed lost in the same field.
War - Britain and France planned to send aid to Finland, and
thus allow them to occupy Narvik in northern Norway to cut back Swedish
iron ore supplies to Germany.
Loss Summary: 46 British, Allied and neutral ships of 152,000 tons in
UK waters; 3 German U-boats
ATLANTIC - MARCH 1940
- William MacKenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada was re-elected by a
massive majority in support of the government's war policies.
Raiders - Converted from a merchantman and heavily armed,
auxiliary cruiser “Atlantis” sailed for the Indian Ocean round the Cape
of Good Hope. In 1941 she moved into the South Atlantic, and operations
lasted for a total of 20 months until her loss in November 1941. She
was the first of nine active raiders, seven of which went out in 1940.
Only one ever broke out for a second cruise. Their success was not so
much due to their sinkings and captures - a creditable average of 15
ships of 90,000 tons for each raider, but the disruption they caused in
every ocean. At a time when the Royal Navy was short of ships, convoys
had to be organised and patrols instituted in many areas. In 1940
raiders accounted for 54 ships of 370,000 tons. The first German raider
was not caught until May 1941 - 14 months on.
- Home Fleet battlecruisers to the north of the Shetlands covered a
cruiser sweep into the Skagerrak. German U-boat “U-44” was
sighted and sunk by escorting destroyer “Fortune”.
of the Atlantic - U-boats started withdrawing from the
Western Approaches to prepare for the German invasion of Norway. In
preparation for the vital transport role she, sister "Queen Mary" and
other fast liners played in the Allies strategic moves, the nearly
completed "Queen Elizabeth" sailed independently on her maiden voyage
from Scotland to New York for conversion to a troopship.
Loss Summary: 2 British, Allied and neutral ships
of 11,000 tons from all causes; 1 U-boat.
EUROPE - MARCH 1940
War, Conclusion - A peace treaty on the 13th brought the war
to a close, with Finland ceding the disputed territory to the Soviet
- “U-31” was bombed and sunk by a RAF Blenheim of Bomber Command in the
Heligoland Bight. She was salvaged and recommissioned, but finally lost
eight months later.
- Home Fleet was bombed in Scapa Flow and heavy cruiser Norfolk
- Later in the month, and in spite of
abandoning plans to help Finland, Britain and France decided to disrupt
Swedish iron ore traffic to Germany by mining Norwegian waters
(Operation 'Wilfred'). Plans were also made to land troops - from south
to north, at Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik to forestall any
German retaliation (Operation 'R4). The entire operation was timed for
Shipping War - Since September 1939, 430,000 tons of
shipping had been sent to the bottom by mines around the coasts of
Britain - a loss rate only second to U-boats. Now the Royal Navy slowly
countered magnetic mines with the introduction of ship-degaussing and
'LL' minesweeping gear. Although mines - contact, magnetic and later
acoustic remained a threat throughout the war, they never again
represented the danger of the first few months.
Loss Summary: 43 British, Allied and neutral ships of 96,000 tons in UK
waters; 1 German U-boat
DEFENCE OF TRADE -
FIRST SEVEN MONTHS
the period September 1939 to the end of March 1940, much of the Royal
Navy's efforts had been directed to organising the protection of trade
both to and from Britain as well as around the British Isles. The small
number of U-boats operating out in the Atlantic in the South Western
Approaches as well as in the North Sea had their successes, but mainly
against independently-routed shipping. Losses in UK waters were high
from both U-boats and mines, but from now on enemy submarines
disappeared from UK coastal areas for more than four years until
mid-1944. The struggle to keep Britain in the war moved further and
further out into the Atlantic and even further afield over the years to
Total Losses = 402
British, Allied and neutral ships of 1,303,000 tons (186,000 tons per
Number of British, Allied,
Total Gross Registered Tonnage
Causes* in order of tonnage sunk
Number of British, Allied,
Total Gross Registered Tonnage
* The identifying numbers for each cause e.g. "1.
Submarines" is retained for all Trade War summaries, and added to as
new weapon types appear e.g. "6. Raiders". The trends in losses due to
the different causes can thus be followed
Europe was about to erupt. There was a lull in the Battle of the
Atlantic as U-boats were withdrawn for the Norwegian campaign, and
before surface raiders started operations and long-range aircraft and
U-boats emerged from bases in France and Norway. Around the British
Isles, aircraft and mines continued to account for merchant ships of
all sizes, especially during the confused months of May, June and July
1940. During this time German E-boats commenced attacks in coastal
waters. (Enemy or E-boat was the English term for German motor torpedo
boats or S-boats, not to be confused with the heavily armed torpedo
boats or small destroyers with their 'T' designation.) The
comparatively low monthly average of 186,000 tons of merchant shipping
lost in the first seven months was not seen for any more than a month
or two for three long and deadly dangerous years - until mid 1943.