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Liveblogging World War II: March 31, 1941


World War: BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC: Conflict in Three Dimensions - TIME: One day last week London's Anglo-American society, The Pilgrims, sat eating Lord Woolton pie, a pottage of vegetables named for the Food Minister. They stopped clattering their forks as the red-coated toastmaster called for order and gave the floor to Winston Churchill.

The Prime Minister raised his glass and turned to the guest of honor, a man with a face gaunt and ascetic enough to be Bunyan's pilgrim—John G. Winant, the newly arrived U. S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Winston Churchill aimed his toast at the Ambassador, but he drank from his heart not to any man, not to any nation, but to the good issue of a three-dimensional battle: on, over, under the Atlantic waves.

"Anyone can see," he said, "how bitter is the need of Hitler and his gang to cut sea roads between Great Britain and the United States and, having divided these mighty powers, to destroy them one by one. We must regard this Battle of the Atlantic as one of the most momentous ever fought in the annals of war. ..."

Then came the surprise—one of those studied slips of inside dope, those discreet indiscretions, which so delight the Prime Minister: "Not only German U-boats but German battle cruisers have crossed to the American side of the Atlantic and have already sunk some of our independently routed ships not sailing in convoy. They have sunk ships as far west as the 42nd meridian of longitude."

Without bothering to find out just where 42° West lay, U. S. editors dusted off their scare type. They hauled out foggy old pictures of the merchant U-boat Deutschland nosing into Baltimore harbor in July 1916, with its cargo of dyestuffs; remembered the story of the U-53, Lieut. Hans Rose commander, putting right into Newport, R. I. in October of the same year, dropping anchor smack alongside the U. S. submarine D-2 long enough for Lieut. Rose to go ashore and mail a letter to the German Ambassador in Washington; echoed the panic of May 1918, when two of the newest German submarines appeared off the U. S. coast and in a month sank 13 ships of American registry.

Pleased with the scare, the British gave a further nip to American adrenals by announcing that Germany's two powerful battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (each 26,000 tons, each faster and better-armed than the late pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spec), were indeed at large and as far west as the 42nd meridian. Displeased with the scare, the Axis press nevertheless aggravated it by jubilating at the alleged sinking of the first shipload of U. S. armaments bound for Britain under the Lend-Lease Act.

At week's end the scare blew up—but not the need for it. No one believes German claims—especially claims of sinkings, which the sinker can seldom confirm. But when the German High Command announced at week's end that 224,000 tons had been sunk on, over, and under the sea, and that of them 22 ships of 116,000 tons had been sunk by "a battleship unit" in the North Atlantic, it was obvious that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were up to dirty work.

There is a very rough index for scaling down German claims. The Germans claim that since the war began Britain has lost 9,000,000 tons of shipping. Last week the British admitted they and their Allies had lost 5,000,000 by sinking. Therefore five-ninths of German claims should be roughly accurate. Applying this to last week's claim, the British lost perhaps 124,000 tons. The most optimistic estimates of combined U. S. and British ability to produce new shipping: 40,000 tons a week. There was good reason for the fervency of Winston Churchill's toast.

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