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First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill said that German submarines “rapidly undermined” the life of the British Isles in World War I. By 1918, he observed, the danger of Allied collapse began to look “black and imminent.” The sinking of Allied merchant shipping in the Atlantic during World War I was said to have brought the British to within three weeks of starvation.

The great threat posed by German U-boats resurfaced in World War II, and Churchill, by then British prime minister, said that U-boats were what worried him most during the conflict. But in Hitler’s U-boat War: The Hunters, 1939-­1942 (Random House, New York, 1996, $40), Clay Blair says that German submarine warfare against the Allies in the six-year Battle of the Atlantic was less of a threat than originally perceived. German propagandists, pulp-fiction writers and others created a U-boat mythology in World War I that persisted in 1939­45.

The common perception was that German submarines were technical marvels manned by captains and crews who were supermen–brilliant, heroic and invincible. While Blair in no way downplays the skill and dedication of the German submariners in the Atlantic, nor their effectiveness, he asserts that the U-boat peril in WWII was vastly overblown. The crews were not supermen, he says, and their boats and torpedoes were inferior and unsuited for the Battle of the Atlantic.

During the Pacific War, 250 U.S. submarines sank 1,341 Japanese ships totaling 5.3 million gross tons. In comparison, the German force failed against the Allies in the Atlantic, says Blair. The U-boats sank 2,800 Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic, but that was only a tiny percentage of the entire Allied merchant fleet.

Strategically, the German submarine force failed to achieve its objective: to blockade and isolate the British Isles in the hopes of forcing the British out of the war, thereby thwarting both the Allied strategic air assault on Nazi Germany and the invasion of France. Meanwhile, Allied destroyers, corvettes and planes sank almost 800 U-boats. Ninety-nine percent of Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic convoys reached their assigned destinations. In 1942, Blair writes, British, American and Canadian shipyards produced about 7.1 million gross tons, a million more gross tons than were lost to U-boats during the same year. The sinkings failed to significantly dent the Allied merchant ship pool of about 30 million gross tons.

Vivid, highly detailed and infinitely revealing, this book and its subsequent companion volume will become the definitive chronicle of the U-boat war in World War II. Blair is both a meticulous researcher (he worked on this volume for nine years) and a master historian, and he strives for objectivity. This work is a sweeping panorama of the long, arduous campaign in the Atlantic.

After an introductory chapter about World War I in the Atlantic and the North Sea, the author covers every campaign and action between 1939 and 1942 that involved U-boats, from Scapa Flow and the first wolf pack to the ill-fated convoy PQ-17 and the German withdrawal from the Caribbean. His narrative deals with all aspects of the U-boat wars: U-boat patrols, minelaying, U-boat countermeasures, code breaking, German failures in Norway, epic convoy battles in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, critical losses of tankers (143 in the first eight months of 1942), strengthening Anglo-American relations, the U-boat menace on the East Coast in the first six months of 1942 (and the U.S. Navy’s failure to address it), U-boat forays to Canada and the West Indies, sinkings in the Gulf of Mexico, the British raid on St. Nazaire, strategic views of the Royal and U.S. navies, and astonishing shipbuilding programs that enabled the Allies to outpace losses.

The author presents an immense amount of detail on both the assets and flaws of the U-boats themselves. The advanced Type XXI “electro boat,” for instance, impressed Allied evaluators with her submerged speed, snorkel system, periscope optics, sonar, torpedo-handling gear, “automatic pilot” for precise depth keeping, and pressure hull thickness and strength. But, the author points out, she had serious flaws. The boat was hurriedly prefabricated in 32 factories, and the eight major hull sections were crudely made and did not fit together properly. The 6-cylinder diesel engines were underpowered. The hydraulic system was located outside the pressure hull and subject to saltwater leakage, corrosion and enemy weaponry. The mast dunked often, and saltwater poured into the boat’s bilge. The diesels sucked air from inside the boat, and deadly exhaust gas backed up.

Blair concludes that the main contribution the U-boat force made to the war was as a terror weapon–a “threat in being”–which forced the Allies to convoy, delaying the arrival of men, equipment and supplies, and to deploy extensive anti-submarine forces.

After serving on a submarine in the Pacific, Blair became a correspondent for Time, Life and Saturday Evening Post magazines and then the editor of Saturday Evening Post. Besides his best-selling classic, Silent War, about U.S. submarine operations in the Pacific theater, he has written The Forgotten War, an acclaimed history of the Korean War, and several biographies.