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Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945 Hardcover – May 2, 2006

3.2 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This superior history of the longest-running battle of WWII by White (a former New York Times reporter and author of the novel True Bearing) opens with winter on the North Atlantic and Adm. Karl Dönitz's U-boats hunting Allied merchant ships. The question was whether Britain could be starved into surrender or at least made incapable of launching offensives. Against the Royal Navy, with its American and Canadian allies, were pitted the "wolfpacks" of submarines that decimated whole convoys and sank merchant ships faster than the Allies could build them. In the end, Allied training, code breaking, long-range aircraft, escort carriers and the sheer output of American shipyards turned the tide. Along with the overview, White provides excellent focused passages, such as the ordeal of the tanker San Demetrio, as well as portraits of individual combatants—the colorful British destroyer expert Donald Macintyre and the superbly professional U-boat captain Otto Kretschmer. A better starting place for the general reader to begin learning about this epic portion of WWII would be hard to imagine, and one that gives the British their well-deserved lion's share of the credit for victory has not been written lately. 16 pages of photos, maps. (May 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In chronicling the balance of attrition--between the Allies' convoys and the German U-boats--that was World War II's Battle of the Atlantic, White confronts a vast bibliography. In the interest of popular appeal, he emphasizes particular captains of ships and subs whose immediate clashes translated into the sunken vessels and drowned sailors that expressed victory or defeat. White accords due space to the intelligence and technological aspects of the battle, and to the strategic battle commanders, but his writer's heart is decidedly with the man at the periscope or on the bridge. Some were publicized during the war, such as Germany's Otto Kretschmer, but most were obscure then and have become even more so with time. White's narrative tracks their individual torpedo and depth-charge attacks with tactical detail, stylistically straining to evoke the cold and fright of being sunk at sea. More successful in the data department, White, aided by a good set of maps, will draw readers interested in the shape taken over time by this protracted turning point of WWII. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (May 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743229290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743229296
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,118,831 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bill Howard on August 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating subject. The sacrifices made by the merchant marines in WWII deserve to be remembered and honored. David Fairbank White does this.

However, I found his writting style to be choppy. Many times he revisits topics with almost the same wording he used in previous chapters. The flow of the narrative was inconsistent and at times when describing incidents or battles he takes off on tangents describing the future careers of the naval officers invovled that disrupt the flow and also clearly reveals the outcome of the battle before the narrative gets there.

I would expect better writing and story telling from someone with Mr. White's credentials.
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Format: Paperback
This book relentlessly pummels the reader with powerful uppercuts of adjectives and vicious jabs backed by adverbial power. The author, a former NY Times reporter, seems to have felt constrained for years by the drab objectivity required of print journalists, and here he is relishing in his new freedom to express himself in an overwhelming outburst of descriptive clauses.

Consider two paragraphs on page 7 devoted to the merchant ship SS San Demetrio. In just a handful of sentences, the vessel alternates between plodding, pushing, nudging, chugging, and drifting. It only lacked the ability to lunge, which ships frequently do in this narrative. Pretty much, Mr. White employs the "more cowbell" theory of writing. One can picture him agonizing over a sentence such as "The sea was vast, cold, surging, a bleak expanse of empty slate-grey, pitiless in its epic expanse", and wondering how to cram in more words such as giant, frigid, remorseless, wind-whipped, and perhaps ineffable.

For all its flights of lyricism, the book sadly suffers from a significant degree of repetition, as if the various chapters and sometimes individual paragraphs had to repeatedly carry the entire weight of the story and recapitulate its hight points again and again. Sometimes the same point is made three times on the same page, and we almost reach the level of "The Germans were determined to destroy the convoys. Determination was perhaps the key attribute of the Germans in their battle against the convoys. Determined, those Germans were, in their efforts to sink the convoys. Were the Germans determined to annihilate the convoys? Many suspect the answer was yes."

As to strong points, the author supplies a wealth of information and provides an excellent bibliography, set of chapter notes, and index.
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Format: Hardcover
Took "Bitter Ocean" out of its package and read it straight through. Unputdownable. Puts the reader alternatively at the helm of Nazi U-boats torpedoing Allied convoys, on the ships under attack, and in the cockpit of sub killing Sunderlands and Catalinas. Combines the technical clarity of Tom Clancy with the vivid style of Capote's In Cold Blood, while weaving in the political and social currents of the day in the UK and US and illuminating brilliantly the strategic importance of the Battle of the Atlantic. First rate.
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Format: Hardcover
The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945, was fought across 32 million square miles of the pitching heaving, Atlantic Ocean, in the frigid, green wastes up by Iceland, in the empty waters off the Azores, and in the gray, quick approaches to the English coast.

This epic struggle saw lone, knifelike German U-boats surface in the pit of night on heaving seas to set, aim, and slam torpedoes into aging merchant ships; it saw wolfpacks of ten or more U-boats maul convoys of forty or fifty merchant ships in desperate battles that stretched over three or four days.

As the war progressed, the Germans developed advanced, futuristic Type XXI U-boats which could race along underwater at phenomenal speeds. Hitler's ambitious bid was to win the war on the Atlantic with his U-boats, long, tapered, bristling with guns.

"The battle, it was not really a battle but a struggle that lasted the entire war," writes White, "was a six-year effort of fundamental importance to every other engagement of World War II. On this battle hinged the efforts to bring massive convoys of merchant ships across the Atlantic, carrying the provisions, food, raw materials, and oil to keep solitary England alive during the years she stood alone against the Germans until 1941, and later every tank, gun, tent, helmet, bomb, all the troops, gasoline, coffee, wheat, rations to feed, fuel to supply the Allied armies sprawled across Europe. Without the men and ordinance on the ships, no battle, on any front, in any country overseas could be fought. The Battle of the Atlantic was the confrontation upon which the rest of World War II depended."

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke words to the same effect, namely, that the Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war.
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Format: Hardcover
No WWII buff, no naval history aficionado should miss this superb and exciting history of the battle for the Atlantic. As riveting and intimate as Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember," "Bitter Ocean" places you on the bridge of merchantships hunted by wolfpacks and in the CIC of German U-boats as they hunt down their prey. Don't miss this excellent history.
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