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Admirals two former merchant sailors Alec Owens (left) and Albert Owings (right)
Rear Admiral Hockley chats with Dutch and German members of the NATO minehunting force
HMS Echo

BOA70 Liverpool Launch Event

Published: 10 Apr 2013

In May this year, the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic (BOA 70) will be commemorated with a series of events in Liverpool. The city was home to the Western Approaches Command in the Second World War – it was from here that the struggle against the German U-boat was successfully directed.

The Atlantic campaign was the longest continuous struggle of the War, waged from the first day of the war in September 1939 to the surrender of Germany in May 1945. It reached its climax in the spring of 1943 when the Germans were forced to withdraw their U-boats temporarily from the battle, after suffering crippling losses in what became known as 'Black May'.

Although German submarines rejoined battle later that year, and fought to the bitter end, they never again posed such a threat to Britain's maritime life-lines. But the cost of keeping the nation's supply routes open was fearful: over 36,000 merchant seamen lost their lives and 5000 ships were sunk.

BOA70 is to help commemorate the victory and the UK’s maritime heritage: to highlight the ingenuity, innovation and developments that changed the balance in the campaign. After the fall of Europe, the main supply route for the prosecution of the Second World War was between the United States and Canada and the UK – essentially, the North Atlantic. 

Battle of the Atlantic veterans joined HMS Echo to help the Royal Navy launch this spring’s commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the U-boat. Echo sailed into Liverpool, which will host five days of events at the end of May, the climax of a month of commemorations around the UK.

Veterans of the longest and most bitter battle the nation has waged at sea joined HMS Echo in Liverpool to start the countdown for Battle of the Atlantic 70th anniversary commemorations. Fresh from gathering data in the Irish Sea, the survey ship sailed up the Mersey into the heart of the great maritime city to help launch a month of events later this spring. Liverpool will be the focal point of five days of events – the final of three cities to host national commemorations in May. 

Guests of honour at the launch were merchant sailors Alec Owens and Albert Owings, both 89, who described their awful experiences to underscore the terrible nature of the struggle.

 “It was a dangerous time and I was lucky, very lucky,” said Mr Owings. “U-boats were sinking ships faster than we could build them. The Battle of the Atlantic was of vital importance as so many of our supplies came from America, including many thousands of soldiers. If we hadn’t won, I think we’d be speaking German now.” 

Such sentiments were echoed by Rear Admiral Chris Hockley, Flag Officer Regional Forces, who is overseeing this May’s commemorative events.

“The message that the Royal Navy is keen to make sure everyone understands is that the sea is our fundamental and strategic lifeline – as it was so important in the Battle of the Atlantic,” he said. Although there are no specific figures for the Royal Navy’s casualties in the Atlantic battle, its ratio of losses was less than half that suffered by the Merchant Navy. Keeping Britain’s sea lanes open cost it 188 escort vessels during WW2, the majority in the Atlantic theatre. In 1943, with the struggle at its climax, 12 escorts were sunk by U-boat. 

In response, the Allies destroyed more than 750 German submarines; two in every three U-boat crewmen never returned from the war. The battle against the U-boat was directed from Western Approaches Command, based in Derby House in Liverpool, a short distance from the Liver Building. The city was also the base for numerous destroyer escorts, such as HMS Starling under the legendary Capt ‘Johnnie’ Walker, and the starting point or destination of many Atlantic convoys.

“Liverpool is absolutely the right place to hold these commemorations – the city was fundamental to the success of the battle,” Rear Admiral Hockley said. "It received over 1,000 convoys, looked after ships’ crews, the ships themselves, carried out repairs, built ships – and was the headquarters of the battle.” 

Events in Liverpool take place over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend (May 24-28), where up to 25 Royal Navy and international warships will gather. The main day of commemoration will be Sunday May 26, with a Cathedral service, a march through the city by current Naval and Merchant naval personnel as well as veterans, and a flypast from a Royal Navy Historic Flight Fairey Swordfish – one of the aircraft which was the mainstays in the struggle against the U-boat.

Cllr Wendy Simon, Liverpool City Council cabinet member for culture and tourism, said the port was looking forward to playing a full part in next month’s events.

“We have a great maritime tradition and this final commemoration will be a memorable and moving event which will honour those who took part in the longest campaign of World War 2,” she added.

The launch coincided with six NATO warships departing the Mersey after a short break; the mine counter-measures group, led by Polish led by Commander Piotr Sikora in his flagship ORP Czernicki, was taking a break between training off Zeebrugge and the latest Joint Warrior exercise off Western Scotland which begins this weekend.


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