Johnnie Walker: U-boat hunter in the Second World War
In 1943 Britain's fortunes in the Battle of the Atlantic were dramatically revived by an unlikely figure. Ben Wilson tells his story
On the defensive
The Royal Navy’s happy hunting ground
The Western Approaches were key to British naval success for 200 years
“The Boche… must be made to realise that the Royal Navy considers the Bay of Biscay a happy hunting ground and will stamp out any attempt to restrict the free and rightful passage of Allied shipping.”
With these words Johnnie Walker connected the Battle of the Atlantic with the history of the Royal Navy. The most vital waters for the fortunes of Britain were the Western Approaches, the area of sea from the northern coast of Spain to the western seaboard of the British Isles. Naval mastery depended on controlling this zone. It was Britain’s gateway to the world.
Anson and Hawke – two of Britain’s greatest admirals – brought the Western Approaches under the navy’s sway in the mid-18th century. They battled against scurvy, problems of supply and hazardous shores. Hawke’s ruthless blockade of the entire French Atlantic coast from 1758 was a triumph of leadership and organisation. It prevented invasion, crippled the French navy and gave the British the freedom to range the world.
The loss of control of these waters in the late 1770s brought the threat of invasion from a Franco-Spanish fleet and contributed to the loss of the American colonies. The spirit of Anson and Hawke was revived in the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France by a series of admirals who maintained gruelling blockades of the Biscayan coast that proved decisive in achieving victory and transforming the navy into an unassailable force.
Campaigning in the Western Approaches tested seamanship and discipline to the limits. With groups led by officers such as Walker at large in the Western Approaches, German U-boats leaving La Rochelle had to hug the French coast and enter the Atlantic off the coast of Spain. Gaining the upper hand here was essential to achieving ultimate victory.