Geography and Technology

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachussets

The Battle of the Atlantic was a battle greatly influenced by geography and technology. It was so critical a battle, one fought from the first day to the day of surrender, that both sides engaged in a race for technological and tactical supremacy, as they knew that success was dependant upon these two components. Bravery of crews was a given, but enabling those crews to address the military challenges, as well as those geographic challenges of ocean and climate, was a prerequisite for success.

Not the least challenging aspect of this Theatre of War was the vast area in which all combatants had to operate. The defined area of the Atlantic Ocean occupies roughly 20% of the Earth's surface. Both north and South regions cover over 100 million square kilometers. This includes the bays, gulfs and seas that may be considered part of the great basin. Over and under this vast ocean expanse, operated the navies and merchant marine of the allies and their adversaries, the Germans.

Compounding the tremendous expanses of open ocean, the Atlantic stretches from Northern polar to Southern polar reaches. This geographic extent ensures that the vessels using the Atlantic also experience every type of climatic condition from equatorial squalls and tropical hurricanes to horrendous arctic storms.

In this setting, therefore, it was essential that combatants became familiar with the physical realm—distance, climate, currents, and oceanic depths. These important modifying factors had to be faced and considered when planners entered into the development of strategies essential to the success of their mission. It was this overriding geographic element that drove and determined the need for changes in the technological development of ships, aircraft, weaponry and surveillance.

Ships, in particular allied warships, had a need for speed and maneuverability. They also needed increased operational range capability. Along with this was a need for more effective anti-submarine weapons and detection technology.

Allied Aircraft also faced the need for improved range, anti-submarine weapons and detection technology. This challenge also impacted on the Luftwaffe, though the full potential of airpower in this Atlantic theatre was never given much credence by the German High Command.

The U-boats, at the start of the war, were limited in size and range. They also suffered from defective torpedoes. With the fall of France and Norway, and with Ireland's neutrality, they were able to advance their range and their threat further into the Atlantic shipping lanes. The need for more powerful and reliable torpedoes, greater range, speed and more efficient self contained environmental technology, were some of the important needs that the Atlantic imposed on the Kriegsmarine.

Over all of these geographically driven requirements, was the control of communication technology, and by definition, the need to 'break' the codes of adversaries. Both Britain and Germany succeeded in this realm but it was Britain that captured the crown with the capture and breaking of the German Navy's Enigma machine.

Mathematicians, aero-engineers, marine engineers, oceanographers, climatologists, munitions experts, and many other 'dry' land experts in a wide range of endeavours, came together with naval strategists to overcome the obstacles placed by ocean and adversary in this, the longest battle of World War II.