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Adm. Sir Max Horton and Western Approaches Command

Turning the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic

Of all the battles fought in World War II, none was more critical than the Battle of the Atlantic. For the United States, responsibility fell on the shoulders of Commander in Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet Adm. Royal E. Ingersoll. In Great Britain it was Adm. Sir Max K. Horton, commander of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command.

Swordfish taking off from HMS Tracker 1943

A Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish aircraft of 816 Naval Air Squadron taking-off from the flight deck of HMS Tracker (D24) for an anti-submarine sweep in the North Atlantic between September 1943 and October 1943. Imperial War Museum photo

A highly decorated submarine commander in World War I, in the interwar years Horton steadily rose through the ranks. In 1937, Vice Adm. Horton was appointed commander of the Royal Navy’s Reserve Fleet, long regarded as a career-ending post. Horton transformed the backwater command and its collection of elderly and obsolete ships manned by skeleton maintenance crews and reservists. When it was mobilized in August 1939, expectations were it would take a month to achieve readiness. Thanks to Horton, the 133 ships in the Reserve Fleet were ready within a week. When King George VI conducted an inspection, he praised Horton and his command for “efficiency and smartness obtained in such a short time.”

On Nov. 19, 1942, his first day on the job, Horton wrote, “The urgent need for ‘support groups’ to reinforce convoy escorts has been stressed by my predecessor. Unless a reasonable number of long-endurance destroyers and long-range aircraft come shortly a very serious situation will develop on the Atlantic lifeline.”

When war broke out, Horton was appointed Vice Admiral Northern Patrol, responsible for enforcing a blockade between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Scotland. From there he was appointed Vice Admiral, later Admiral, Submarines, a command he loved. During that period he advanced the development of the “X” craft mini-sub used to successfully damage the Tirpitz in September 1943. But by then Horton had moved on to Western Approaches Command.

On Nov. 19, 1942, his first day on the job, Horton wrote, “The urgent need for ‘support groups’ to reinforce convoy escorts has been stressed by my predecessor. Unless a reasonable number of long-endurance destroyers and long-range aircraft come shortly a very serious situation will develop on the Atlantic lifeline.”

Horton moved his command to the Derby House, a command center in Liverpool, to both be closer to the action and away from interference from London. Horton wanted more ships in order to create roving hunter-killer groups to search for U-boats. But the Admiralty’s response was, “No.” Ships were more urgently needed elsewhere. His breakthrough came in March 1943, when three wolf packs totaling at least 42 U-boats attacked convoys HX229 (50 ships protected by 5 escorts) and SC122 (60 ships protected by 8 escorts) in the largest convoy battle of World War II. When it was over, 21 merchant ships totaling 147,196 tons had been sunk, against one U-boat lost.

Shortly after the two convoys had left North America, Capt. Neville Lake, one of Horton’s duty captains and a stickler for realistic details in war games the command regularly conducted, prepared a war game based on the situation now unfolding. Thanks to ULTRA, Lake had accurate information about the U-boat threat. The only fictional element he added were three additional escort support groups, maximum five escorts each. Upon its conclusion, Lake determined that the additional escorts would have dramatically cut shipping losses; on the night of March 16 alone, it would have prevented the loss of eight ships in HX229.

“The heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy have greatly affected his morale and will prove to be a turning point in the battle of the Atlantic.”

—Adm. Sir Max K. Horton

Several days later Horton was summoned to London for a meeting of the Anti-U-boat Committee, an interagency group formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Horton arrived armed with the findings from the war game.

Adm. Sir Max Horton

Adm. Sir Max Horton, commander of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command stands in his office at Derby House, Liverpool. © Imperial War Museum photo

It was a moment of great crisis, acknowledged in a later Royal Navy report that stated, “The Germans never came so near to disrupting communications between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days in March 1943.” Churchill opened the meeting by ominously stating that the U-boats threatened Britain’s prosecution of the war and asked Horton what he was going to do about it. Horton replied, “Give me fifteen destroyers and we shall beat the U-boats.” A furious Churchill banged the table with his fist and shouted, “You admirals are always asking for more and more ships and when you get them things get no better.” Horton handed Churchill the war game report. The meeting was adjourned so that Churchill and Adm. Harold Stark (Commander in Chief U.S. Naval Forces Europe) could study it. When the meeting resumed, Churchill said to Horton, “You can have your fifteen destroyers; we shall have to stop the Russian convoys for the present.” Not only did Horton receive the destroyers, he also got escort carriers and long-range antisubmarine aircraft.

Horton had the crews of the new ships trained in the new U-boat hunting tactics, and in May 1943 they were released to hunt the enemy. The results were dramatic. Thirty-four ships totaling 163,507 tons were sunk, the lowest total since December 1941. U-boat losses were 41, including 37 in the North Atlantic. Finally, the course of the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the Allies’ favor.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...