Radar Recollections - A Bournemouth University / CHiDE / HLF project


A.P.Rowe & his Sunday Soviets - Submarine Detection

The first major allied loss of the second
world war was the sinking of the aircraft
carrier, HMS Courageous. She was sunk
by U-boat U-29 in the Bristol Channel two
weeks after war was declared. In the first
month alone, 41 ships were lost.
The sinking of HMS Courageous
The sinking of HMS Courageous
The U-boat menace had been totally underestimated.

The few anti-submarine destroyers fitted with underwater sound detection gear (ASDIC) that existed were rapidly deployed to convoy protection but their successes were few. The mathematics of convoy deployment showed that bigger and faster convoys suffered some 1.7% losses whereas slower or smaller convoys suffered 3% losses. Both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy seemed to be at the mercy of the U-Boat.

The situation in the air was little better; the Sunderland long-range flying boat was ideal for sea patrols but the RAF only had a few because production had been switched to the Stirling bomber. By the end of 1940, Coastal Command had lost 300 aircraft without sinking one U-Boat.


They, in the meantime had sunk over 600 ships. By 1941, the U-boats were able to operate directly from the Bay of Biscay (because France had fallen) and this meant easier refueling and faster 'turn around times'. They hunted convoys in 'Wolf Packs' with terrifying success. The allied losses were now a quarter of a million tons of shipping per month plus the sad loss of many men and their precious cargoes.

'Taffy' Bowen's display of AI /ASV equipment in September 1937 had demonstrated that radar could detect surface vessels but in November 1939, Admiral Somerville asked him if his system could detect something as small as a submarine. Bowen rapidly set up a demonstration in the Solent and demonstrated that his 1.5 m ASV equipment could detect a submarine from 5000 feet at a distance of 6 miles but actual operational results were inconclusive due to a number of factors including poor crew training. The equipment did not seem to be reliable and so all through 1940 and most of 1941 the carnage continued….