An Alternative Explanation: Why Britain succeeded in defending itself against Germany’s most dangerous attacks in World War II – while the United States lagged behind.

The sun is beginning to set on a beautiful May afternoon in 1945. At the end of a nice, eventless May 5, the Coast Guard at Point Judith, Rhode Island looks up and sees the SS Black Point, an Allied ship that has been serving the country since 1918, pass by the lighthouse, carrying 7,500 tons of coal en route to Boston, Massachusetts. The ship, which left Newport News, Virginia a few weeks earlier, is nearing the completion of its long route, was sailing unescorted with 41 seamen, five United States Navy Armed Guards, and captain Charles Prior.

A German U-boat from World War II

The Coast Guard peers down at his notebook, the rays of the sun shining on his face, as he notes what he has just seen. Suddenly, he hears a massive explosion, and looks up to see a 40-foot gash in the ship’s stern, and water gushing into the hull within fractions of a second. Just before he looked down at his notebook, German U-boat captain Helmut Fromsdorf, commander of U-853, spotted the 396-foot SS Black Point and released a torpedo, which slammed directly into the targeted spot, at the back of the enormous ship.

The engines of the SS Black were immediately shut down, and within 60 seconds, water was up to the crew’s waists in the engine room. Captain Prior gave the “Abandon Ship” order, and the remaining crew members jumped into the lifeboats, with Prior the last to enter at 6:05 PM, just 20 minutes after the torpedo hit. Minutes later, the SS Black Point flipped over and collapsed, sinking deep into the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where it remains today. Eleven crew members and one Armed Guard were killed in the attack – including four from the initial explosion. Thirty-four crew members survived the ordeal.

Just over an hour later, two Navy destroyer escorts sped onto the scene, in an attempt to find the U-boat that they knew sank the SS Black Point. Joined by a Coast Guard frigate, the ships immediately began searching the area. Understanding that a U-boat can only travel so fast and can only shoot a torpedo so far while submerged underwater, they knew it had to be close by. Most likely, they guessed, it would be hiding near East Ground, a steep sandbar located around nine miles from the original attack point. After just minutes passed, seven other ships arrived to surround the area where they assumed the U-boat would be.

At 11:43 PM, six hours after the torpedo first struck the SS Black Point, and almost four-and-a-half hours after the Navy arrived at the scene, the two destroyers’ sonar connected with the U-boat, which was moving quickly under the ocean, 100 feet below the surface. Depth charges were immediately dropped and subsequently made contact with and damaged the German vessel, bringing up air bubbles, large amounts of oil, wood, and even some life jackets. However, the U-boat was still moving across the ocean, according to the Navy’s sonar equipment. Additional depth charges were dropped, making contact with the U-boat and slowing its speed to just two knots (about 2.3 miles per hour).

They continued to monitor its movement through the night, and by morning, they noticed more oil rising to the surface. A last amount of depth charges and rocket bombs were dropped to try and crack the hull of the U-boat. At 10:45 AM that morning, the commander of the Navy destroyer Ericsson declared U-853 sunk. When divers were sent to examine the wreck, they discovered holes throughout the vessel, in addition to 55 dead bodies dispersed throughout.

The next day, Germany surrendered to the Allies, and World War II was over. The SS Black Point was the last Allied ship sunk in the war.


A U-boat is the English word for the German “U-Boot,” which is an abbreviation of the word Unterseeboot (undersea boat). It refers to the military submarines used by Germany in World War I and World War II. Although they had great effect in commerce raiding, many were used against Allied ships in the vicinity of the United States and Great Britain, sinking merchant convoys that transferred supplies from the U.S. to Britain and back.

The U-boats’ weapon of choice was the torpedo – although the submarines also carried mines, and while surfaced, deck guns could be operated to fire at enemy ships. But the torpedoes used at the beginning of the war were straight runners, meaning when they were fired, they traveled in a straight line, directly where they were pointed. These were different than the homing and pattern-running torpedoes used at the end of the war by submarines from both sides, which were even more effective in making contact with and sinking enemy ships.

The torpedoes were armed with one of two types of triggers – either an impact trigger or a magnetic trigger. Impact triggers detonated the torpedo when it made contact with another object. Magnetic triggers, on the other hand, detonated when the magnetic field around it changed, such as the sudden presence of a large, metal ship. This magnetic explosion, when positioned just underneath the target ship, created a shockwave that was powerful enough to split a warship into two pieces – ultimately sinking it within minutes. Although they weren’t completely reliable, the U-boats were so difficult to locate in a short amount of time that numerous torpedoes could be launched within an hour of each other, easily sinking enemy ships before the U-boat could be disabled.

This inability to defend against the U-boats was apparent in the early 1940s, when German U-boats sank thousands of U.S. warships and merchant ships in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic. In fact, throughout the entirety of World War II, almost 75 percent of the ships sunk were done so in the Northern Atlantic, on the route between the United States and Great Britain. The incident became so dangerous that even Winston Churchill, in his book The Second World War, said, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

During the Battle of the Atlantic, German U-boats sought to destroy Allied merchant ships faster than they could be rebuilt – and until 1942, they were successful at it. Between 1939 and 1945, U-boats destroyed about 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, killing over 30,000 sailors and sinking over 14.5 million tons of metal to the bottom of the ocean.

The biggest range of Allied ship destruction occurred between September 1940 and May 1942, known to the Germans as “Happy Time.” This was a time in which the U-boats traveled around the Atlantic Ocean in “wolf packs,” searching for large groups of Allied ships that they could attack. The Germans began the war with 46 U-boats, each of them acting individually by attacking one or two Allied ships at a time. They ended the war with 863, most of which traveled around in these wolf packs. After U-boats had sunk just about 100 ships in the first year of the war, the U.S. decided to begin moving their merchant ships in convoys, surrounded by military escorts. By doing this, if one of their ships were hit, they would be able to surround the area and destroy the U-boat within hours. When this strategy became successful (relative to the lack of success they were having originally against U-boats), the Germans wised up and began attacking in wolf packs, so the convoys could not tell where the next attack would come from. This caused some of the bloodiest and unfathomable battles in the history of American submarine warfare.

In 1942, Germans enjoyed their most successful year, statistically, in U-boat warfare. They sunk about 1,200 Allied ships, according to one source (1,664 according to a second source), with about 1,097 of them located in the North Atlantic. From December 1941 to May 1942, the United States sank just two U-boats. They did this by finding a convoy of American ships, intercepting radio signals between them, and calling for backup. The submarines would then line up 15 miles apart across the route the convoy was headed. The first to come in contact with the convoy would send a signal to the others in the wolf pack, who would then fall in every few miles and begin simultaneous attacks from all directions. One final member of the pack would wait for the military escorts to pass overhead, then pop up in the middle of the convoy and attack from behind when they were not expecting it.

The Germans’ success in these wolf packs culminated in arguably the greatest convoy battle in submarine warfare history. In March 1943, a convoy compiled of 88 merchant ships and 15 escorts were en route to Europe from New York, running on parallel courses through the Atlantic Ocean. Halfway across the ocean, however, 45 U-boats, with many working individually and others working in various wolf packs, fired 90 torpedoes simultaneously, sinking 22 ships and killing 372 members of the allied forces. The British and U.S. escorts in the area used 298 depth charges in an attempt to destroy the U-boats in the area, but just one was sunk.

Between July 4 and July 14 1942, 34 merchant ships attempted to cross the ocean. Only 11 made it.


U-boat captains were constantly amazed at how simple it was to locate and sink the Allied merchant ships. “Before this sea of light,” one commander wrote, “Against this footlight glare of a carefree new world were passing the silhouettes of ships recognizable in every detail and sharp as the outlines in a sales catalogue. All we had to do was press the button.”

Fortunately for one of the “good guys,” the U-boat attacks were not quite as devastating. Great Britain, from early on, was able to counter the U-boats fairly effectively, and did not lose nearly as many ships or men as their American counterparts. They also passed on all of their knowledge and intelligence on the German submarines to their allies on the other side of the Atlantic, but to no avail. The Germans were still able to cripple the Americans’ ships with ease.

They spent weeks going down their checklist to determine why the Germans were having such great success with their ships, but not with the Brits’. They go through their information on anti-submarine warfare and determine that it is indeed adequate – all of the information they had matched exactly what Great Britain was using to successfully defend their own ships. They ask if they need to spend more money, and realize they have spent an enormous amount of money on their defense forces. They look at their leader and ask if he is good enough to lead the troops – and he was!

In fact, the United States’ leader was fairly new, having recently pushed out Admiral Harold R. Stark as the Chief of Naval Operations, and they replaced him with Ernest Joseph King. “He was a supreme realist with the arrogance of genius,” wrote Ladislas Farago in The Tenth Fleet. “He had unbounded faith in himself, in his vast knowledge of naval matters and in the soundness of his ideas. Unlike Stark, who tolerated incompetence all around him, King had no patience with fools.”

However, after putting King in charge, the Navy still failed at detecting these U-boats and preventing U.S. ships from being destroyed on a regular basis. The military was stumped. They simply couldn’t figure out why they were having so much difficulty while their British counterparts were sitting pretty in the fight against the German submarines.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, What the Dog Saw, he writes about Enron and the way their company was structured. He explains, “companies don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.” In the case of Britain’s success against the U-boats, the same principle applied. It wasn’t so much the talent of the people involved or the strategies utilized against the Germans – it was the way the system was structured that determined the success rate of the two allies against the German U-boats.

Dr. Eliot A. Cohen, a Johns Hopkins military scholar, wrote in his book, Military Misfortunes in the Atlantic:

“To wage the antisubmarine war well, analysts had to bring together fragments of information, direction-finding fixes, visual sightings, decrypts, and the ‘flaming datum’ of a U-boat attack – for use by a commander to coordinate the efforts of warships, aircraft, and convoy commanders. Such synthesis had to occur in near ‘real time’ – within hours, even minutes in some cases.”

Britain was able to succeed in this aspect because of their centralized operational system. The British military controlled all of their ships as if it were a giant game of Stratego – navigating the seas based on where they believed the wolf packs of the German U-boats would be searching. The Americans, on the other hand, did not utilize this strategy. Admiral King did not believe the higher-ups in the military should be telling the ships’ captains what to do or how to navigate their vessels. They believed in allowing their captains to remain independent and make their own decisions. However, this strategy is not effective in fighting U-boats. This strategy works perhaps when navigating your way through a business deal on Wall Street, or when managing a sports team.

Throughout the Battle of the Atlantic, the Americans continued to rely on their technical capabilities to fight the U-boat problem – and it failed to say the least. Although they had the same information as the British, they refused to heed the suggestions of their friends across the ocean regarding their organizational structure, at first. But once the situation became out of control, the United States finally decided to establish Tenth Fleet, an organization within the Navy that was created solely to fight the German U-boats. In May 1943, Tenth Fleet garnered complete control of the U.S. Navy’s fight against U-boats. Having no ships of their own, the organization had the power to control every U.S. ship that would be battling in anti-submarine warfare. The purpose was to remain small and simple, while still working to dismantle the Germans’ submarines. Very quickly, they enjoyed tremendous success compared to the failure of the country’s clash in the early stages of the war.

In the 18 months before Tenth Fleet was formed, the United States sank 36 U-boats. In six months after its establishment, a whopping 75 U-boats plummeted to the bottom of the sea. “The creation of the Tenth Fleet did not bring more talented individuals into the field of…anti-submarine warfare than had previous organizations,” Cohen continued in his book. “What Tenth Fleet did allow, by virtue of its organization and mandate, was for these individuals to become far more effective than previously.”

“When they finally realized their problem was social, they solved the problem, almost immediately,” Gladwell concluded. “The solution wasn’t in getting smarter. The solution was in understanding that there was a critical social component to performing more effectively. More important than that, they realized that the solution was in building a better institution, that if you build the right institution, people will flourish, and if you don’t, they won’t, regardless of how smart they are.”

The entire incident taught the United States – and the rest of the world – the power of organizational structure and the fact that the first, most logical explanation is not always the answer. The principle of Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation or the hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions is the most effective. Often used in situations ranging from military battle to psychological studies, it had no place in this fatal U-boat dilemma the country struggled with during a crucial point of World War II. The simplest explanation would indeed have been to spend more money, or fire their leader, or even just continue to do what they did, assuming the problem would fix itself.

The answer to their problems was to tear down the structure they had and completely rebuild, starting at the top. Keeping the same leader, spending the same amount of money, and utilizing the exact same information they gathered to begin with, the Navy succeeded in defending their country up to the German surrender, just by the creation of a small department that was ultimately shut down when the war ended two years later. The simplest and most logical explanation just might not be the right one. Sometimes it takes a second, third, or even fourth glance at the problem to reach the ultimate goal.

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