TRAWLERS TO THE RESCUE: THE ROLE OF MINOR WAR VESSELS" IN SECURING THE EASTERN SEA FRONTIER, 1942.
(Under the direction of Dr. Michael A. Palmer, Director) Department of History, November 2003.
In 1942 German U-boats brought the Battle of the Atlantic to American waters with Operation Paukensckzlag-.-a submarine offensive along the United States' seacoast. This period accounted for a loss equal to about one-quarter of all Allied shipping sunk by German submarines in the Second World War. The Eastern Sea Frontier experienced particularly high losses in the Fifth Naval District off North Carolina’s Outer Banks . A severe shortage in both the quantity and quality of warships and aircraft delayed the initiation of convoys--the traditional bane of the U-boat.
In March 1942 Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the 22nd British NS Strike Force to reinforce the Eastern Sea Frontier. These twenty-four coal-fired fishing trawlers were from the Royal Naval Patrol Services "minor war vessels" based at the "Sparrow's Nest” in Lowestoft, England. Manned by a combination of Royal Navy officers and civilian fishermen, they had been converted with deck guns, depth charges, machine guns, and ASDIC for antisubmarine warfare. They resembled a cruder version of the Flower class corvettes, deemed "Cheap and Nasty” by Churchill, but did the jobs needed. From March though October the trawlers conducted a variety of missions: escorting convoys, hunting submarines, towing disabled vessels, and rescuing wreck survivors. Their record illuminates the importance of small craft in naval operations.
This thesis argues that trawlers helped secure the Eastern Sea Frontier by forcing U-boats to submerge which disrupted their operations and sent them searching for easier prey elsewhere. It challenges military paradigms that presuppose only one correct solution by showing how trawlers filled a niche traditionally reserved for destroyers, patrol craft, or subchasers. Trawlers were effective antisubmarine escorts despite being fishing vessels converted for naval operations amidst the marvels of Second World War technology. This reinterpretation of antisubmarine warfare contends that a warship of minimal characteristics could suffice, after that numbers were more important. Moreover, it reveals the vulnerability in Admiral Karl Donitz's tonnageschlact strategy that could be defeated by trawlers. Finally, it emphasizes multiple factors in winning the Battle of the Atlantic: intelligence, convoys, aircraft, and warships.