The Battle of the Atlantic, by Jonathan Dimbleby

 There was no “phony war” at sea. The Battle of the Atlantic started on the first day of the Second World War, 3 Sept 1939, with the sinking of SS Athenia by a German U-boat. It continued until the last day of the war and so was the longest campaign of the Second World War and the most destructive naval conflict in history.
Dimbleby’s account of this campaign is an elegantly written horror story, alternating between accounts of the ghastly fighting at sea, and the operational and strategic planning of the Allies and the Axis that guided the slaughter.

Churchill famously said that the U-boat menace was the one thing that gave him sleepless nights during the war. However it would be fair to say he brought many of the nightmares that afflicted him on himself. Most damningly Churchill prioritised the militarily pointless and morally indefensible bombing of German cities by the psychopathic head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, over the vital defence of the convoys across the North Atlantic. Hence Coastal Command was denied the relatively few aircraft that could have turned the tide of the battle months earlier.

Dimbleby asserts that Churchill was possessed of a great strategic vision. But this seems rather at odds with the account presented which suggests a certain strategic fickleness on Churchill’s part. It is true he did have a vast and complex set of problems on his mind. But one does get the impression of a man easily given to temporary military enthusiasms to little useful purpose but to the detriment of some truly vital endeavours. Dimbleby puts this into sharpest focus on some of Churchill’s choices around the Battle of the Atlantic. But one sees this in many other places such as his failure to finish the defeat of the Italians in North Africa before, wholly ineffectually, attempting to arrest the invasion of Greece.

Rather than military strategy Churchill’s genius was of the political variety. His forging of the trans-Atlantic alliance with Roosevelt was perhaps his finest hour. This resulted ultimately in the Allied victory, not least by bringing the true strategic genius of the US General George Marshall to bear on the situation. This inexorably refashioned Allied strategy away from Churchill’s fanciful Mediterranean focus – which arose more from his desire to keep some semblance of unity on the British Empire rather than to pose a lethal threat to the Axis – and towards an altogether more effective intent to mount an invasion of France to swiftly strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

In spite of these strategic failings a combination of increasing effectiveness of convoy tactics, and improved technology ultimately, and with dramatic suddenness in May 1943, turned the tide of the Battle in the Allies’ favour. Thereafter, with victory in the North Atlantic, victory in the overall war was assured. Convincingly Dimbleby argues that the code-breaking of Bletchley Park was only marginally a factor in this victory, not least because the Germans had also cracked the Royal Navy code and the advantages that Bletchley provided were somewhat cancelled out in the war at sea.

The Battle of the Atlantic was to any imagining horrendous and Dimbleby conveys this well – from the account of Italian prisoners weeping in terror as they drowned imprisoned in the holds of the torpedoed Laconia, to the massacre of the Arctic Convoy PQ 17, condemned to its doom by incompetence in the Admiralty for which, of course, no one was ever held to account: That the lives and heroism of merchant seamen were held cheap by the Establishment is a recurring theme in this book.

The Battle of the Atlantic is a gripping and generous-spirited book, drawing on the accounts of German as well as Allied participants recognising the courage and humanity of all the participants in the Battle, while also recognising the horrendous things that many of these ordinary human beings did to each other.

The Dark Side of the Force: Human agency and human belief

 Much of the Star Wars universe is brilliantly executed fantasy. Some of it – think ewoks and bleeding Jar Jar fecking Binks – is execrable. But in the midst of all of this there is at least one important philosophical point: Obi Wan and Vader follow the same religion. The only difference is that Vader’s path is on the “Dark Side”.

Many belief systems have similar “Dark” and “Light” sides. An atheist, for example, can follow the “Light Side” by viewing life as something she had better do right because she will only get one shot at this. Or she can decide that she can do what she likes, given that there are no immortal consequences for even the worst of actions.

Similarly a Christian could follow the “Light” by seeing each of us a human beings in the image of God in spite of our flaws and differences. Or he could take to judging how poorly everyone else appears against his subjective standards and inflicting his notion of righteous vengeance at every opportunity.

Martha Nussbaum, in The Fragility of Goodness, argues that humans often do evil not because they transgress a moral system, but because they privilege one moral system, or perhaps a particular interpretation of a moral system, over another. Christopher Browning demonstrates the depth of depravity that can emerge from such thinking when one group of “Ordinary Men” in Eastern Poland during the Second World War decided to uphold their perceived duties to their Furher over their more fundamental human duties not to butcher unarmed children, women and men in cold blood.

But, in spite of the power of well demonstrated social pressures in such circumstances, human agency, the choices we make based on our beliefs and values, is still at the core of human action. A person can still choose to be a decent person in spite of the social pressures to the contrary. Or, indeed in spite of their underlying belief system: two of the great “rescuers” of the Second World War, Oskar Schindler and John Rabe, were both card-carrying Nazis. So decency, even heroism, does not depend simply on the belief system that we choose. It also depends on how we choose to interpret it.

I have known great and humane atheists. I have known great and humane Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddists. I have also known one person who used their noisy public commitment to vital human rights issues as a cloak to disguise the immense depth of their moral cowardice and venality. And then there are the murderous Crusaders of history, the Nazis, the Maoists and Stalinists, the Klan and their ideological cousins in Islamic State – those who use their beliefs as excuses to choose the darkest and bloodiest paths through life.

the light side

The “Light Side”

Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers like to blame religion for so many of the world’s ills. But the sprawling silliness of Star Wars, and the mythical universe that it has created, has hit upon a much wiser understanding of human nature. As Shakespeare, the great chronicler of human folly and human evil, also understood: the faults are in ourselves.