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Battles of the Atlantic, 1914 and 1943

Battles of the Atlantic, 1914 and 1943

The Atlantic was a key theatre in both world wars. The German aims were the same in 1914 and 1939: to sever Britain’s supply lines from North America without bringing a neutral United States into the war. These propaganda maps cover the two campaigns, from a German and British perspective. In 1914 submarine warfare had been a potential menace for half a century (really - C.S.S. H.L. Hunley, 1864), but was still untried on a large-scale. The new weapon was greatly feared and the notion of civilian merchantmen and liners being sunk without warning by an unseen enemy was widely regarded as barbaric. The Germans had to tread carefully, but British countermeasures (such as Q-Ships) made surfacing, and allowing passengers and crew to take to the boats before sinking their vessel, extremely hazardous. The first foray into unrestricted submarine warfare culminated in the sinking of the Lusitania - a propaganda disaster - and the Germans reverted to cruiser rules. In 1915 their calculations were correct: there simply weren’t enough U-boats to enforce a blockade and starve Britain into submission before the U.S. could enter the war. Campaigns such as this one, encouraging soldiers of the German Third Army to buy war bonds to expand the U-boat fleet, sought to change the balance:

The poster is by German artist F.W. Kleurs (1878-1956), published in Mainz, and it’s a simple but powerful image. An impenetrable ring of U-boats strangles the British Isles. I like the way that the white cliffs of Dover have been extended around the whole coastline, and the star-shaped fortifications surrounding the British cities makes them look suitably militaristic and menacing. By 1917 the U-boat fleet had more than doubled; Germany was starving, and the German High Command calucated that if they acted quickly they could knock Britain out of the war before U.S. intervention could be decisive, even if America did choose to enter the war. Unrestricted submarine warfare resumed in January 1917. The German gamble failed: as predicted the U-boat campaign was a decisive factor in drawing America into the war, but (eventually) the convoy system provided adequate protection and the supply lines held up. There was no swift knockout blow. The German Kriegsmarine of the Second World War wrestled with similar problems a generation later. This 1943 British propaganda poster, The Battle of the Atlantic, by Frederick Donald Blake (1908-97) is a reasonably well known image, but one generally encounters the 1943/44 editions with English text. However, Blake’s posters were part of a series produced for distribution abroad in various languages including French, Dutch, Arabic and - as here - Portuguese, bringing the Allied message to the widest possible audience.

Like Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s right-wing Estado NovoPortugal remained neutral (although Lisbon was a hotbed of intrigue and espionage). Blake’s message for any wavering Portuguese is pretty forthright, the very antithesis of the first poster we looked at. Britain is, effectively, Orwell’s Airstrip One: nothing but factories, shipyards and gigantic concrete runways. Far from being enclosed by a U-boat ring of steel, waves of Allied aircraft radiate out, and with air supremacy comes protection for the convoys steaming in from North America and those steaming out, the Arctic Convoys bound for the USSR, and convoys bound for the Mediterranean. In the mid Atlantic U-boats are scattered and destroyed:

And Fortress Europe is under constant attack, with aircraft and parachute mines battering the strategic targets such as railways, docks and submarine pens:

As propaganda, Blake’s 1943 poster isn’t necessarily constrained by reality, but successful propaganda often manipulates a perceived truth, and the Battle of the Atlantic really had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour in the Spring of that year. In March 1943 the U-boat wolf packs came as close as they ever did to cutting Britain’s Atlantic lifeline, and supplies of fuel and other vital resources reached critical levels. The situation was reversed within two months: Allied resources were freed from other theatres, and new long-range aircraft - which could now be fitted with a new sea-scanning radar and airborne depth-charges - closed the mid-Atlantic gap. The wolf packs were harried out of existence, and losses to Allied shipping were negligible in comparison with what had gone before. In May (dubbed ‘Black May’ by the U-boat crews) the Germans lost 34 U-Boats in the Atlantic - an unsustainable one submarine for each Allied ship sunk. One lucky convoy (SC 130) escaped entirely unscathed, while five of the attacking U-boats were destroyed. Dönitz conceded defeat. One-sided as Blake’s vision is, it reflects the changed strategic situation. The artist, Blake, trained at Camberwell School of Art but had been working as an architectural draughtsman. His stint as a war artist for the Ministry of Information opened new doors for him postwar, as a successful commercial artist and respected painter. The first of these maps was a recent purchase from my friend Ken Fuller of Marchpane (he specialises in children’s and illustrated books but - like most of us - he has a much broader range of interests which are reflected in his stock). The map by Blake came from Portugal, and presumably it had been there since the 1940s. I’ve yet to see any of the series with Arabic or Persian text, but the Portuguese climate (actual and political) has probably been more conducive to preservation.

Edited to add (11/12): Recently purchased the version with Arabic text:

My thanks to Ali Ansari and colleagues at St Andrews. I wondered if the text varied from the original, or was slanted in an particular direction, but it is apparently a faithful rendition of the English: "A ceaseless battle is raging in the Atlantic. The Axis U-boats’ intention is too isolate and starve Britain. But as the U-boat offensive mounts so too to Britain’s protective measures. More and more vessels are safeguarding convoys. The U-boat’s Atlantic Bases are being pounded by the Allied Air Forces and the entrances to their harbours are being mined from the air. The factories where they are built are being crippled by bombs. All these measures enabled Mr Churchill to say, when reviewing the U-boat campaign in May 1943: "Our killings of the U-boats … greatly exceeded all previous experience and the last three months, and particularly the last three weeks, have yielded record results".

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