Battle of the Atlantic Memorial Planned for Liverpool


Published Jan 8, 2018 10:18 AM by The Maritime Executive

A fundraising campaign to build a memorial dedicated to the estimated 100,000 people who lost their lives during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War Two, as well as those who served and survived, was launched on Monday in Liverpool, U.K.

The Battle of the Atlantic Memorial (BOAM), the charity leading the campaign, plans to build the 28 meter monument in the shape of a merchant ship split in two. Each half of the two-piece structure is likely to weigh between 10 and 15 tons. They will be hollow with a stainless-steel armature and bronze cladding. The design is the brainchild of acclaimed sculptor Paul Day whose works include the Battle of Britain Monument and the Iraq-Afghanistan memorial, both in London.

BOAM chairman Vice-Admiral Mike Gretton, whose father Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Gretton served during the battle as an Atlantic Escort Group commander, said the campaign is seeking to raise £2.5million ($3.4 million) to build the memorial on Liverpool’s Pier Head, which will incorporate the existing statue of U-Boat hunter Johnnie Walker. 

The campaign is aiming to unveil the monument in 2019, the 80th Anniversary of the start of the battle and the beginning of World War Two.

Gretton says the memorial is best situated in Liverpool where the campaign headquarters was based, and where so many of the merchant and navy ships were built, based and repaired and from where so many of the seafarers came. 

“We believe that as the Battle of the Atlantic veterans leave us it is vital that we create a fitting memorial to the lionhearted men and women who served. The memorial will recognize all the nations who took part and will act as a permanent reminder of the incalculable value of peace for future generations,” he said.

The memorial will recognize the efforts of British and Allied Merchant Navies and Armed Forces including the U.S., Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Poland, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and Russia. In addition, the monument will also commemorate the thousands of seafarers from around the world who served in Allied Armed Forces and Merchant Navies including India and China.  Former adversaries Germany and Italy will be recognized,  underlining the importance of peace.

Merseyside Maritime Museum and National Museums Liverpool will develop educational projects about the Battle, and the memorial will also be sited on National Museums Liverpool’s land, between the River Mersey and the Museum of Liverpool.

The Battle

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of World War Two. It began on September 3, 1939 and lasted until VE Day May 8 in 1945, in total five years eight months and five days. The cost of the battle was extremely high for both sides. It is impossible to be sure how many died but an estimated 26,500 British merchant seamen were killed while the Royal Navy lost more than 23,000 seamen. The allied war dead of naval and merchant seaman is estimated at more than 20,000 from Canada, the U.S., India, China, Poland, Norway, Holland, Greece, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Russia. In total around 3,500 merchant ships were sunk and 15 million tons of allied shipping was lost. 

Many thousands of civilians were also caught in bombing raids at ports and shipyards on both sides of the Atlantic. In Liverpool, for example, the ‘May blitz’ of 1941 saw 1,746 Merseysiders killed and 1,154 injured in eight nights of bombing. Meanwhile, the U-Boat memorial near Kiel has the names of 28,000 crewmen who died, more than 60 percent of those who served. Of the 859 U-boats 648 were lost, across all seas in which U-Boats operated. 

The Battle of the Atlantic’s core was the Allied naval blockade of Germany, announced the day after the declaration of war, and Germany's subsequent counter-blockade. It was at its height from mid-1940 through to the end of 1943. The Battle of the Atlantic pitted U-boats and other warships of the Kriegsmarine  (German navy) and aircraft of the Luftwaffe (German air force) against the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, United States Navy and Allied merchant shipping. 

The convoys, coming mainly from North America and predominantly going to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, were protected for the most part by the British and Canadian navies and air forces. These forces were aided by ships and aircraft of the U.S. beginning September 13, 1941. The Germans were joined by submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) after their Axis ally Italy entered the war on June 10, 1940.

As an island nation, the United Kingdom was highly dependent on imported goods. Britain required more than a million tons of imported material per week in order to be able to survive and fight. In essence, the Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war: the Allied struggle to supply Britain and the Axis attempt to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. 

From 1942 onwards, the Axis also sought to prevent the build-up of Allied supplies and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The defeat of the U-boat threat was a pre-requisite for pushing back the Axis. The outcome of the campaign was a strategic victory for the Allies - the German blockade failed - but at great cost: 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk for the loss of hundreds of U-boats.

The name "Battle of the Atlantic" was coined by Winston Churchill in February 1941. It has been called the "longest, largest and most complex" naval battle in history. It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theater covering millions of square miles of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining advantage, as participating countries surrendered, joined and even changed sides in the war, and as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures and equipment were developed by both sides. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, overcoming German surface raiders by the end of 1942 and defeating the U-boats by mid-1943, though losses due to U-boats continued until war's end.

The final victory in the Atlantic was assured by the American entry to the war. The U.S. was able to bring overwhelming military and industrial muscle to the campaign with formidable contributions from the US Navy and its Hunter Killer Task Groups. Furthermore, the rapid production of merchant ships in the U.S., mainly Liberty ships, was a key factor in the balance between those sunk and new replacements. 

Canada too played a key role, by the end of the war it had more than 400 ships, almost half the North Atlantic escort force, an extraordinary contribution from a country that could only boast six warships in 1939. In total, 1,600 Merchant Navy personnel from Canada and Newfoundland were killed; one out of every seven Merchant Navy sailors who served was killed or wounded. The RCN and RCAF  paid a high toll in the Battle of the Atlantic. Most of the 2,000 RCN officers and men who died during the war were killed during the Battle of the Atlantic, as were 752 members of the RCAF


L-R: Jim Rainsford, Mike Gretton, Graeme Cubbin

The BOAM spoke to the following veterans in December 2017 about the campaign and their experiences:

Jim Rainsford, aged 92, of Eastham in the Wirral, served as a radar operator on Navy minesweepers during the Battle of the Atlantic. He was later involved in the Normandy Landings for which he received a Legion of Honour medal from the French consulate last year. “The Germans used to drop mines in the approaches to the Lizard targeting ships coming to London across the Atlantic. We used to sweep the Lizard every day, and the Germans would put mines down each night. We also used to sweep approaches to the Mediterranean. 

“On one occasion we were homeward bound for Gladstone Dock in Seaforth after setting off from Nova Scotia in Canada with a U.S. convoy. We came across a Danish ship which had been sunk. It must have been a tanker because it was on fire. We picked two up from a crew of 50, the rest perished. One was so badly burn I think he died later. We were just passing the Clyde and a British Destroyer came alongside us with two survivors, so we put them aboard. They were two German U-Boat men. We only had one mess deck so we all lived together. When the Danish survivor saw the Germans he flew at them. He tried to strangle one because he had just lost 50 shipmates. 

“The radar technology is very sophisticated now, but it wasn’t back then. If there were any floating mines or periscopes we could pick them up. On another occasion between Iceland and the Faroe Islands one of our crew sighted some men in the water, we think from a vessel sunk the night before. We put scrambling nets down the starboard side. We got three men but the others were too weak to climb. We then went down the scrambling nets with a line round us, but we couldn’t hold them because they were covered in oil. They just slid out of our hands. I remember one of them had a Liverpool accent and he was cursing at us not to leave them. But we couldn’t stop. We weren’t allowed to stop, because we were on this zig zag course and you could cause a collision. 

“I turned 18-years-old on June 6, 1944, the day we landed in Normandy. We were minesweeping because the ships couldn’t get through, we stopped at Juno beach with the Canadians. There were so many people killed on the beach that day it was dreadful. Around 800 I think. We were told to bring walking wounded back to the U.K. The hospital ships were absolutely full within hours. We brought about 20 to Weymouth, and we went back again and rescued another 20. 

“After the war my number wasn’t up so I was sent to the Far East, I spent two years in South East Asia looking after the French getting kicked out of Cambodia and Vietnam, then looking after the Dutch getting kicked out of Dutch East Indies. After that the British were getting kicked out of Penang in Malaysia so it carried on.”

Graeme Cubbin, aged 94, of Greasby in the Wirral, was awarded a Battle of the Atlantic medal. Cubbin, who went to sea in 1940 aged 16, survived ship wrecking, capture and a prisoner of war camp in North Africa. He later became a captain for Harrison’s Shipping Company in Liverpool where he remained for his entire career and wrote a book about the company and his experiences in the war. 

“I was on cargo liners transporting material including ammunition from America back to the U.K. Not long after joining I was captured on a ship called The Scientist and was a prisoner of war for around 12 months. We were in the South Atlantic and sunk by a German raider. We were picked up as prisoners and eventually finished up in Italian Somali land – Mogadishu. Troops from Kenya including British, African, South African and Rhodesian advanced up through the western desert and swept us up on the way. We were eventually repatriated in 1941. 

“I had a fortnight’s leave and then went back to sea. It was part of my job and my career. I went to all battle fronts in North Africa and the Indian Ocean and I served on many different ships. I served on the Barrister which was wrecked off the coast of Ireland in 1942. There was no radar for our ships and we had no positions after we left Gibraltar. We didn’t really know where we were, so we hit the rocks off the coast of Connemara. 

“After that I was on The Director. She escaped from Bari in Italy where 16 ships were sunk by German bombers. We left with slight damage, but we saw the others loaded with ammunition blown up. A voyage across the Atlantic and back would often take as long as six months. We sometimes went around the Caribbean loading sugar for home use. The next voyage may take us to South Africa or Calcutta. 

“I was a cadet and finished up as a captain in 1986. I was at sea for 33 years before I moved to the office as a superintendent. I would encourage people to support this fundraising campaign for a dedicated Battle of the Atlantic Memorial.”

Alec Owen, aged 93, of Moreton in the Wirral, served as a Navy Seaman escorting Arctic convoys across the Barents Sea during the Battle of the Atlantic. “I joined the Navy at 18 and served on a Destroyer. We escorted merchant ships between Iceland and Murmansk and Archangel in Russia. On my first trip in 1942 the war was raging, and we were losing everything. On my first mission we didn’t have any warm clothes and we really struggled with the cold. I loaded ammunition into the guns, we saw ships sunk everywhere and picked up many survivors. 

“One rescue mission involved an American merchant vessel called the SS Penelope Barker which was torpedoed by a U-boat near the North Cape. The ship sank within ten minutes with 70 people on board into freezing arctic water. We managed to save many of the crew but had to leave some because the U-boats were patrolling. I can still see those people we left in the water. It’s difficult to explain what we went through and for people to truly understand the atrocity of the Battle of the Atlantic. I can remember once looking down and seeing a torpedo skimming the side of our ship. 

“I feel a memorial must be created to help us communicate what happened, so that our stories are not forgotten. The memorial will also help to communicate the massive role our merchant navy played alongside the Royal Naval forces.”