Commemorating the Battle of the Atlantic

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The 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic is a reminder of the important role of Australians in the Second World War. This battle was critical to an Allied victory – had it been lost the war might have taken a very different course.

Supply routes across the Atlantic Ocean were vital to the Allies, as Britain relied on shipping for almost everything she needed to survive, including war material, food, fuel and reinforcements. Germany sought to isolate Britain by severing the Atlantic shipping lanes, waging a deadly campaign which proved to be the longest of the Second World War.

In the words of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, “everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome”. 

The Battle reached its climax in early 1943, as the Allies managed to sink some 100 German U-boats in the first five months of the year, rendering the German blockade ineffective. This was not the end of the Battle of Atlantic but it was the decisive moment.

Four RAAF pilots pictured looking at a map in front of two airplanes

Four of the original Sunderland Aircraft Captains of No. 10 Squadron, RAAF in 1939 at Pembroke Dock, Wales (AWM 128163).

Veteran Dudley Marrows was an aircraft pilot during the Battle of Atlantic.

“Unfortunately for us France became fully controlled by the Germans,” Mr Marrows said.

“They were able, from the French coast, the French west coast, to put out their fighter aircraft to meet with us and shoot us down.

“They did shoot many of us down. And I still have memories of some of the finest men I have ever known. Talking to them one day, next day gone.”

He remembers vividly the day he navigated his Sunderland through an almost 14-hour patrol, engaging four German submarines and sinking one of them. Remarkably its number was U-461, the same number as Dudley’s own aircraft.

“Here was a group of Germans in the water shaking their fists at us…We dropped a dinghy to them and it saved them,” Mr Marrows said.

Years later, Dudley Marrows had the opportunity to meet the commander of the submarine he had sunk, Wolf Stiebler.

A historical and current photo of a veteran next to each other

Dudley Marrows pictured both left and right (historical and current).

“Wolf Stiebler was one of the men who we saved and we got to know him after the war in Germany and he visited Australia and the point that I am making is that they are no different from you and I.

“My wife who was very fluent in language, in particular German, she went over there and met up with a group of the Germans that we saved by dropping the dinghy.

“One of the wives of the Germans drew her aside, and this is lovely in the circumstances, she just said to Sylvia, when you go back you tell Dudley, that he gave me, he is giving me, many more years of life with my husband. There are some good sides.”

Dudley Marrows was one of thousands of Australians to risk his life in this campaign.

Three German warships pictured under attack from Beaufighters

A German convoy off the Frisian Islands under attack from Beaufighter aircraft of No. 455 Squadron RAAF (AWM SUK12224).

Thomas-John Kirkham joined the Merchant Navy in Sydney in 1941 and recalls celebrating his 16th birthday in the Red Sea. He was later posted to Orcades in which he sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the first of four fast convoy crossings of the Atlantic.

“The under 16s association is what the name says, most of us were under 16 when we went away, there was 47 of us,” Mr Kirkham said.

The award of some 5000 Atlantic Stars to Australian service personnel and merchant mariners provides a sense of how many men served in this campaign.

The service and sacrifice of tens of thousands of sailors and airmen and intelligence personnel ensured England’s survival and paved the way to an eventual Allied victory.

A historical and current photo of a veteran next to each other

Thomas-John Kirkham pictured both left and right (historical and current).

For more information on how to attend the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic commemoration in Canberra on Tuesday, 1 May 2018 visit the Anzac Centenary Commemorations page.