The Battle of the Atlantic, a six-year battle for control of the titular ocean, is sometimes overshadowed by other battles in the European and Pacific theatres.
According to Frank Blazich, chief curator of military history at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History,
“The Battle of the Atlantic is chilly, grey, repetitive, and miserable,” he says.
Tom Hanks’s latest film, Greyhound, focuses on this little-known naval history chapter, expanding on his past credits (most notably, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific) to dramatize the war between Allied ships and German submarines, or U-boats.
Here’s what you need to know before the movie’s July 10 premiere on Apple TV+.
Is Greyhound Based on Fact?
No. Greyhound is “inspired by” rather than “based on” true events, according to the teaser. The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester, was adapted for the cinema by Tom Hanks (not to be confused with the 2006 film The Good Shepherd about the founding of the CIA). The Forester book is a fictional account of naval warfare that is highly researched.
In Greyhound, Hanks plays a newly promoted officer tasked with directing his first transatlantic convoy through a region of sea known as the “Black Pit.” Krause must defend his fleet from Nazi U-boats for five days without air cover. The captain faces not only a military foe, but also his own psychological problems and self-doubt.
“What you did yesterday brought us here,” a crew member tells Krause.
“Not enough,” says the skipper. “Not enough.”
Hanks plays a freshly promoted captain charged with leading an Atlantic convoy. SONY PIC
What does Greyhound depict?
The Battle of the Atlantic, which began in September 1939 and finished on May 8, 1945, is depicted in Greyhound. For an island nation like the UK, a continual stream of imported commodities and raw resources was essential, many of which came from the US. The Soviet Union, besieged by the Nazis’ Operation Barbarossa, needed food, oil, and other supplies, which arrived via Arctic seaports.
For History Extra, “Britain would have been lost if the Atlantic had been lost.” If not, there would have been no VE or VJ Days. That global supply system would have been broken and with it the lifeblood for the Allies.”
By emulating the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill emphasized the importance of the Battle of the Atlantic. “The only thing that ever genuinely worried me throughout the war was the U-boat peril,” he said later in life. (Modern historians have questioned Churchill’s handling of the Atlantic campaign.)
To ensure cargo safety in Europe, the Allies sent merchant ships in convoys, or groups, accompanied by warships and, if necessary, aircraft. The logistical headache of transporting 40 ships as a unit hampered individual unit efficiency, leaving them exposed to U-boat hunting squads known as wolf packs.
Crossing the Atlantic in November 1942. U.S. Navy via Commons
Initially, Germany had the naval advantage, easily capturing weakly defended commerce ships despite suffering huge losses.
From December 1941, U-boats had a tremendous deal of success off the East Coast: Between January and July 1942, 90 ships (including four U-boats) perished off the North Carolina coast, killing over 1100 merchant seafarers.
“The only thing more hazardous than the front lines was the fight to get there,” says the trailer for Greyhound.
The Good Shepherd’s submarine-versus-destroyer battle is based on a real-life battle between the USS Borie and the U-405. This “lethal embrace” occurred on November 1, 1943, when an American destroyer was trying to hit a German submarine.
unable to properly aim the destroyer’s guns at such close range, crew members barraged the U-boat with “every rifle, submachine gun, and machine-gun they could locate,” Blazich says. That night, U-405 sank, and the next day, Borie was scuttled.
During the Battle of the Atlantic, close encounters with torpedoes and depth charges were unusual. “There were a few rare situations where the hunter and the hunted were so close they could virtually see each other,” says Blazich.
Allied technological advances, coupled with the “increasing obsolescence” of typical U-boat designs, turned the tide of war, and by May 1943, victory was all but assured.
German U-boat Attacked
American B-25 Mitchell and B-24 Liberator bombers attack a German U-boat / Getty
Despite losing the Battle of the Atlantic, the Germans managed to block a large number of supplies from reaching the Allies. “At least it buys Hitler time,” he adds.
Essentially, the Germans battle the Soviet Union first, then the Americans and British soldiers.
80,000 Allied sailors, merchant mariners, and airmen died in the six-year struggle. Between 28,000 and 30,000 U-boat crewmen perished, about 70% of the 41,000 German sailors who engaged in the operation.
Aside from the human toll, both sides suffered material losses. An estimated 2,700 merchant ships and 800 of Germany’s 1,100 U-boats sank between 1939 and 1945.
Blazich believes the Battle of the Atlantic wasn’t the most “glamorous.” A “complex battle” necessitated “massive coordination, the creation of new weaponry systems, tactics, and science.” Crew members worked on improving radar and sonar, fine-tuning explosives, and intercepting enemy intelligence.
“Logistics are a fundamental component of war,” says the curator.
How Was Life at Sea During the Atlantic War?
Allied and Axis sailors had very different sea experiences, with the latter in particular peril. U-boats were not very comfortable. In most cases, there were just two restrooms, one of which was virtually always stocked with extra food and supplies.
The submarines lacked cooling, heating, sanitation, and even refrigeration.
“It’s incredibly tedious work,” Blazich admits. In a patrol, U-boats may not observe another ship.”
“These men who have gone through months and months, maybe years of training, their first try to go to sea, they’ll get sunk practically within sight of shore in some cases, maybe not more than a day out of port,” he said.
Because Forester’s story is recounted from the protagonist’s perspective, readers never witness life from the other side. Consider viewing Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film Das Boot, which conveys the “boredom, filth, and pure terror” of U-boat personnel.
U-boat Cramped Quarters
However, Blazich claims that destroyer duty was “equally chilly, damp and nauseating” for both sides. Crew members had to combine boredom with constant alertness.
In a convoy, for example, abrupt instructions to reverse direction required 40 ships to cooperate simultaneously. Leading a fleet to safety required captains like Hanks’ fictional Krause to evaluate fragmentary data swiftly and make judgments in seconds.
The enemy could strike at any time, so sailors lived in fear. U-boats survived by submerging during the day and surface at night. Allied ships sought to cross the ocean while aggressively tracking and destroying hostile submarines.
An unharmed U-boat may broadcast the location of the convoy to headquarters or work with a “wolf pack of colleagues to intercept and conduct a mass attack,” writes Krause in The Good Shepherd.
“If she were merely kept down for an hour or two while the convoy made good its escape, the process of finding the convoy would be rendered much more difficult, possibly impossible for the Germans.”
“It’s stressful,” admits Blazich. The cold, salt spray, bouncing destroyer, and everything else makes for a less than ideal experience.”
“As a merchant sailor, you never know when your ship will explode,” he says. You don’t know if it’s hit, so you jump in. … A survivor prays to God to get into a lifeboat and then to be picked up. You’re done if…”: Greyhound premiered on Apple TV+ on June 12. Apple announced the release date on June 11.