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A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II

by Richard Snow, Scribner, New York, 2010, $27.

From September 1939 through May 1945, war raged on, above and below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Ships, planes, cargo and corpses slipped beneath waves marred by seemingly innumerable oil slicks. Long after those 68 months ran their course, rusting hulks and the bones of lost mariners, aviators and unlucky passengers still litter the Atlantic’s seabed, while the detritus of World War II’s longest continuous battle occasionally enlivens the stroll of a beachcomber. It was, however, another, less obvious relic of war—a stack of yellowing letters—that inspired Richard Snow to research and write a fascinating narrative of nations in a shifting battle to dominate vital sea-lanes.

Successful architect Richard B. Snow pulled strings to join the Naval Reserve at age 36 in a visceral response to Pearl Harbor. To mollify his wife, he promised (and, apparently, came close to keeping that promise) to write daily while in the service. She saved the letters, which traced his naval career from shipyard inspector through Sub Chaser School and a stint at the Consolidated Steel yard in Orange, Texas, to the deck of the destroyer escort Weimer E. Neunzer. Then, Emma Snow lived through the changes war wrought upon her husband, as much a victim of the stresses of the Battle of the Atlantic as USS Frederick C. Davis and Germany’s U-546, both sunk in the last engagement fought by Neunzer. Snow’s recovery and the unexpected birth of a son, also named Richard, when both husband and wife had abandoned hope of ever having a child, speak to the hope and resiliency of Americans in a decade sundered by war.

That son, Richard Snow— former editor in chief of American Heritage, writer of histories, novels and scripts and frequent consultant for historical motion pictures—embeds his father’s tale among many others that collectively provide an enlightening view of the Battle of the Atlantic. Though his story is primarily that of the Americans, he offers well-researched chapters on German naval philosophy, the strategy and tactics of Admiral Karl Dönitz and life aboard the U-boats. The British, Winston Churchill in particular, are given less space. Snow correctly identifies the teeter-totter nature of the Battle of the Atlantic, which ultimately hinged on the research and development race eventually won by the Allies. He also argues, successfully, that quantity coupled with good timing frequently outweighed quality, allowing the United States to become a true “arsenal of democracy.”

But the strength of Snow’s study are the vignettes of individual struggles scattered throughout the book. These provide a glimpse of the horrors (lifeboats filled with the frozen bodies of men, the rocking of the boats seeming to make them wave at would-be rescuers), the stresses (maneuvering in pitch dark amid the unlit ships of a convoy), the heroism (an officer-cadet standing to his gun as his ship dies around him) and the tragedy (a generation of productive individuals thinned by the thousands) of the Battle of the Atlantic. Snow adds the human element to his study of history, creating a narrative fit for either historian or layperson.

This is not a story of attack carriers, battleships, cruisers or even destroyers. Rather, Snow focuses on the small boys: the volunteer yachtsmen and yachts of the Hooligan Navy, the abortive (and deadly—to their own crewmen) Q-ship program, the pocket-size destroyer escorts, and the freighters converted to escort carriers— CVEs, in naval parlance, though their crews read that as “Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable.” The latter two vessels provided invaluable service in the struggle against the U-boats; in fact, CVEs swung the American strategy from convoy defense to hunter-killer task forces actively seeking and destroying the elusive enemy.

From The Cook Book of the United States Navy (1940 and 1944 editions) to Samuel Eliot Morrison’s study of the Navy during World War II, Snow’s bibliography features the key printed works dealing with the struggle for the Atlantic sea-lanes. Additionally, he found unprinted sources at the National Archives and the excellent Oral History Collection of the U.S. Navy during World War II in the Special Collections of J.Y. Joyner Library at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C. From these, Snow produced an often moving, always eye-opening and highly recommended book.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here