The real history that inspired WW2 film Greyhound

Set in 1942, at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, a new World War Two film Greyhound starring Tom Hanks tells the story of a newly-appointed naval captain heading to the front for the first time, tasked with commanding a convoy of 37 Allied ships across the treacherous North Atlantic while being hotly pursued by wolf packs of Nazi U-boats

Tom Hanks in 'Greyhound' (2020)

Here, ahead of the film’s release on Apple TV+ on 10 July, historian James Holland explores the real history that inspired Greyhound – based on C S Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd – and explains why the Battle of the Atlantic was the most vital campaign of the Second World War…

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The mid-Atlantic, sometime in the winter of 1942. Commander George Krause has been on the bridge of his destroyer, the USS Keeling, for nearly 24 hours, locked in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a wolf pack of German U-boats – exactly how many is not clear. One U-boat was destroyed in the grey afternoon of the day before, and since then, Keeling and one other of Krause’s four-ship escort team – a Polish destroyer, the Viktor – have been pursuing another enemy sub without success, despite unleashing some 50 depth charges between them.

It is freezing cold, the ice covering the surfaces and rails of the destroyer’s deck. Krause, having eaten barely half a sandwich and drunk only a couple of cups of coffee in that time, is utterly exhausted, cold, hungry and thirsty, but keenly aware he must keep going until they push through this screen of U-boats and get back within the range of Allied air cover. It means another long day ahead of them and already six ships in the convoy have been hit and destroyed.

The responsibilities on the shoulders of this devout 42-year-old man are immense and he repeatedly has to make heart-wrenching choices. Should he pick up men in the freezing water or plough on and potentially save more? Every decision, calculation and educated guess regarding the enemy’s next move has potentially fatal consequences, not just for his own ship but for the entire convoy it is his task to protect.

To add to the weight of his responsibility, this is his first transatlantic convoy. Yet by stint of his seniority of rank and age he is the ‘Comescort’ – the overall commander of the four-ship escort of a Canadian corvette, British and Polish destroyers, and his own in the United States Navy.

It is at dawn, having been up all night, that Commander Krause conjures up a picture in his mind of an ideal convoy escort force: “With eight escort vessels and four destroyers a good job could be done,” he thinks, “and air cover.” But this was still 1942 and such forces were not yet available; he would have to make do with what he had.

C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd

The depiction is fictional, but it is brilliantly conveyed by the legendary historical thriller writer C S Forester. Although The Good Shepherd was published in 1955, some 10 years after the Second World War ended, Forester certainly did his research. The evocation of this one 48-hour moment in the Battle of the Atlantic is powerfully done, while the enormity of the decisions and the complexity of commanding a convoy escort is written with a nod to historical accuracy and detail that is second-to-none.

It’s something of a forgotten classic – or rather, it has been, although not one passed over by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, a self-confessed Second World War nut, who has used Forester’s book to write and star in a new film based on the novel called Greyhound. Hanks plays Commander Krause (in the film he is named Ernest, not George).

The Battle of the Atlantic was the most vital of all campaigns in the Second World War

It’s certainly a great subject for a movie and one that has been ignored for far too long by Hollywood, because the Battle of the Atlantic was an epic of drama and of strategic importance. In fact, it can be argued pretty convincingly that it was the most vital of all campaigns in the Second World War.

Why? All shipping in and out of Britain went through the Atlantic. Had the Atlantic been lost, so too would have Britain. There would have been no Mediterranean campaign, no D-Day, no VE or VJ Days. The vast, global supply chain upon which the Allies depended – the Soviet Union included – would have been cut, and with it the lifeline.

What was the Battle of the Atlantic?

In March 1941 Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ to describe a six-year series of battles that opened on 3 September 1939 and did not conclude until the last day of the war.

In a struggle for control of the sea lanes from Britain to the Americas, the Royal Navy and United States Navy were pitted against the German Kriegsmarine. Against the sea lanes, upon which depended Britain’s ability to feed and maintain itself in the war, Germany deployed U-boat submarines, surface raiders, mines and aircraft, says historian GH Bennett.

The convoys of merchant ships were defended by a variety of armed escort vessels from makeshift ships like armed merchant cruisers and trawlers through to purpose-built corvettes, frigates and destroyers.

From 1940 until 1943 the combat in the Atlantic hung in the balance. Yet, due in part to the fact that they were able to make better use of technical innovations than the enemy, from the middle of 1943 the Allies slowly gained the upper hand.

The Battle of the Atlantic “was the longest, and perhaps strangest, clash of the Second World War” says GH Bennett, “one that would see British merchant seamen using kites and wire-carrying rockets in defence of their ships.” The campaign was a brutal one in which nearly 38,000 British sailors alone lost their lives, while a staggering 79 per cent of U-boat crewmen died.

The Battle of the Atlantic was vital to the outcome of the Second World War. “The Atlantic was the route by which all resources came to Britain, without which the country would have collapsed,” says Jonathan Dimbleby. “Had we lost the battle, we wouldn’t have had enough weapons – nor the industrial capacity to make weapons – and American troops would not have been able to get across for D-Day. In fact, there wouldn’t have been a D-Day.”

Read more about the Battle of the Atlantic

It was why, from the outset, Britain devoted so much of its energy to winning this most critical of battlegrounds. New inventions came thick and fast, from the development of the cavity magnetron – which enabled the reduction in size of radar so that instead of vast masts it could be fitted onto a ship or aircraft – to rapid improvements in radio technology, stunning intelligence successes, and superbly orchestrated organisation.

In fact, by the end of May 1941, Britain had reached a point where already it could no longer lose the battle, even though another two long years would follow before the U-boat threat in the Atlantic was defeated. Fortunately, before the war, Hitler favoured creating a large surface fleet rather than a sizeable submarine force, even though his warships could never hope to compete with the Royal Navy let alone the French or US navies, and despite the almost war-changing effect U-boats previously had in the First World War.

As a result, the U-boat arm was just 3,000-men strong on the frontline when war broke out, and throughout 1940, when Britain was at its most vulnerable, there were never more than 13 U-boats operating in the Atlantic at any one time. In January 1941, there had been just six. It wasn’t nearly enough in so vast an ocean.

Timeline: Germany and the Allies in the Atlantic

August 1939

In preparation for hostilities, the German submarine fleet deploys into the North Sea, sinking its first ship a few hours after the outbreak of war with Britain

June 1940

Capture of the French Atlantic ports gives Germany easy access to the North and South Atlantic

Late 1940–1941

First ‘happy time’ of the U-boat arm as convoys sail with weak escorting forces

January–June 1942

German submarines enjoy great success off the east coast of the United States

March 1943

In a series of convoy battles German submarines threaten to overwhelm the escorting warships

April–May 1943

Allies regain the initiative in the Atlantic, sinking more U-boats and losing fewer merchant ships

Late 1943–1945

Long decline of the German submarine campaign

From September 1941, the US Navy had joined the battle in the Atlantic despite having not yet declared war, although after the Japanese entry into the war that December, the mantle was for the most part handed back to the Royal Navy and the rapidly growing Royal Canadian Navy, while the US Navy focussed on the Pacific. Meanwhile, the U-boat fleet grew in number but suffered from faltering experience and equipment that had flat-lined. In contrast, the Allies continued to improve detection techniques and weaponry with a combination of ships and long-range aircraft operating from North America, Iceland and Britain.

By early 1942, the U-boats had been pushed to the east coast of North and South America where there was no convoy system yet in place. A slaughter followed until convoys began to be introduced and the U-boats were pushed back into the mid-Atlantic.

A scene from 'Greyhound'
A scene from the © Sony Pictures new movie ‘Greyhound’ (2020). (Photo by LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo)

From ‘the hunters’ to ‘the hunted’

U-boats were more effective at night, when detection was harder, as they were also more efficient and faster when operating on the surface. This meant winter, when the nights were longer, provided richer pickings. Yet despite the incredibly vivid depiction of the convoy in the winter of 1942 in The Good Shepherd, U-boats were increasingly becoming the hunted rather than the hunters by this time. Although horrific battles were fought when convoys were successfully intercepted, in all more than 80 per cent of Allied convoys crossed the Atlantic entirely unscathed, and after a renewed effort in the first half of 1943, the Allies were able to finally defeat the u-boats by May 1943. That month, some 41 U-boats were sunk – a totally unsustainable number that led to their withdrawal.

The Battle of the Atlantic was a brutal one in which nearly 38,000 British sailors alone lost their lives, while a staggering 79 per cent of U-boat crewmen died – the worst of any part of the German armed services. Incredible deeds of heroism were carried out in the battle by both sides, and one that was often fought against a further enemy – the cruel Atlantic Ocean itself.

The importance of this immense battle, and the extraordinary human drama carried out, deserves its time on the big screen – and if any man can deliver this to a wider audience, it is Tom Hanks. Hopes for Greyhound are high…

James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster who has presented and written programmes for the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic, History and Discovery, and is co-founder of Chalke Valley History Festival

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Greyhound will premiere on Apple TV+ on 10 July 2020