My essay is on the role of Ultra in the Allied victory in Europe, during World War II. I chose this topic because two years ago I did a project on the mechanics of code breaking. While doing that project I stumbled onto information on Ultra and its usage during World War II. I was very interested in this topic, and although I could not ensue it before, have always wanted to learn more about it. I took this essay as an opportunity for me to go in depth on the issue of Ultra, and try to figure out if it was decisive to the Allies.
I have chosen to investigate my research question by comparing the views of the expert historians in this field. Specifically, I will be taking each battle individually, and analyzing Ultra’s significance to the battle, by comparing the different points of view. Each battle that I analyze will be split up into three parts. In the first I will introduce the battle, and then explain one view of historians, using specific evidence to back up their claims.
In the second part I will explain the alternative view of historians, using again specific evidence to back up their claims. Then finally in the third part I will analyze all of the evidence that was presented beforehand, and through the analysis I will conclude on Ultra’s significance to the specific battle. Read about achievements of Africa before European arrival
By analyzing the various arguments in this manor, I will be able to come to an accurate conclusion on the role of Ultra in the Allied victory in Europe.
On the battlefields, intelligence has always played a crucial role, affecting how the commanders planned their next action. It was best said in The Art of War by Sun Tzu, that “spies are the most important asset, because on them depends an army’s ability to march.”
This was no different in World War II, where an advantage in intelligence gave the Allies a strategic upper hand. This advantage was known as Ultra. Ultra was the code word that British authorities attached to the operation of intercepting enemy signals that had been mechanically enciphered, decrypting them, and then distributing the translated texts to the appropriate headquarters.
The chief enciphering device the Germans used was known as the Enigma, and there were different types of Enigma for each branch of the German military.
In May 1940, the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) Enigma was broken, although, at this time the ability to utilize Ultra was not yet fully developed.
Ultra was completely dependent on three things. The first, radio, because without it, there would not be any signals to be intercepted. Luckily, radio was the preferred source for communication since it was convenient, and communication over land lines was usually not an option. The second, without the decoding team in Bletchley Park, the codes would not have been broken so quickly, and the messages translated with such ease. Bletchley Park was the mansion in Britain where all the code breaking during the war was done. Lastly, if Britain could not keep Ultra a secret, then the Germans would have known that their codes had been broken, and the entire Ultra operation would have been terminated. With the help of Ultra, the Allied generals were able to rethink their plans, and modify them according to their knowledge of the enemy. However, was the role of Ultra a decisive factor in the Allied victory in Europe in WWII? Did Ultra make a large enough contribution to the war effort to be considered a significant factor?
Historians have suggested a broad range of answers to whether Ultra was decisive. A large reason for this is because information on the existence of Ultra had not yet been released up until 1974 with field officer F.W. Winterbotham’s book, The Ultra Secret. This was the first published account of Ultra and its affect on the war, and because its release was so recent, there is not much information on Ultra. This lack of information leads to many historians making false inferences, and thus false arguments. Historian Ronald Lewin, and F.W. Winterbotham argue that Ultra was a key advantage for the Allies that allowed for flawless planning, which led to victory. Conversely, historians Thomas Parrish and David Johnson, suggest that Ultra played only a small role, and you cannot win a war based on intelligence alone. However, historians Stephen Bungay and Joseph Sramek support the middle argument, that Ultra was one piece of the many elements of war that contributed to an Allied victory.
During World War II, after Hitler had captured the majority of France, there were four main battles that turned the war around, eventually leading to victory in Europe for the Allies. The Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, the North African Campaign, and the Normandy Campaign all were significant accomplishments, if not the four most significant. In each one of these battles Hitler’s plans were thwarted, and in each case Ultra intelligence was available to the Allied generals. The purpose of this essay is to asses the role of Ultra in the Allied victory in Europe in WWII by examining its role in the four specific battles. Bringing us to the conclusion that although Ultra information was always available to the Allied generals, knowledge of the enemy’s weaknesses is of no practical value unless you have the capability to exploit it. For this reason Ultra only played a supplementary role in the Allied victory in Europe.
In the Battle of Britain, July 1940 to May 1942, the Germans were looking to exterminate the British Air Force in order to gain the air superiority needed to invade Britain. Ultra’s importance in the fight against the Luftwaffe, and the protection of the British people has been argued by numerous historians. Ultra can be considered valuable because in the case of communicating with airplanes, the radio was essential; which is why at the height of the battle, between August and October 1940, Ultra was in high the figures of approximately 300 a day. 10 This priceless information was able to supply the Allies with an accurate depiction about the strength of the German force and they were soon aware that they were “facing an enemy with perhaps a three to one balance in their favor”.11 Additionally, Ultra “gave an invaluable overall picture of the enemy offensive and the strategy behind it.”12 The generals had the advantage of learning the speed, direction, height, and size of enemy formations before these formations had even been made in the air. This allowed the British fighters to be sent up to meet the Germans before they had even arrived halfway over the English Channel.13 The largest of contributions Ultra made was supplying the information on when and where each German attack would take place. This allowed them to prepare by evacuating the targets, alerting firefighters, and preparing defensively.14 An example where Ultra proved itself was when information was received that the Germans were practicing landing on narrow runways to simulate roads. The generals then took this information and were able to generate a solution to the problem by constructing barriers along some of the long straight roads.15
On the other hand, many historians agree that “the role of Ultra in the Battle has been overrated.”16 They argue that Ultra was by no means the only factor that was keeping the Luftwaffe from succeeding in the Battle of Britain. In the early days of Ultra, it could take a long time for the information to make an impact, since it had to be decoded, translated, and then given to the generals. Historians such as David Johnson have gone to the point of saying that the Allied generals “did not actually begin receiving Ultra signals until… the battle was almost over.”
The British development of the radar enabled the generals to get an instant idea of the whereabouts of the enemy aircrafts as well as giving very early warnings of Luftwaffe attacks. This can be considered a major edge over the time-consuming Ultra. As well, the British had developed several countermeasures to the many German systems for guiding bombers at night, known as “beam systems”. For example, “jammers”, were used to create interference with the navigation system, also decoy fires were used to lure away mass bombers. “By March 1941 all beam systems had been rendered ineffective and Royal Air Force night fighters, equipped with airborne radar were downing bombers in significant numbers.”
Both sides of the argument present very conflicting views on the significance of Ultra during the Battle of Britain. On one side Ultra is presented as providing the Allied generals with valuable information on the enemy, as well as an early warning system to any attacks. In contrast, The Battle of Britain is thought to have been won by other developments that contributed more that the lethargic Ultra. Taking into consideration both points of view, it can be seen that although Ultra did provide the generals with intelligence on the enemy, this was not sufficient involvement to be considered a decisive roll in winning of The Battle of Britain. There had been other developments in the radar, and other countermeasures that were able to provide a better defense system to Britain. As well, Ultra could not have compensated for the extremely unbalanced British to German aircraft ratio. Instead, it was the courageous British pilots that fought against the odds and won the battle. “The battle was not won by Ultra. It was won, primarily, by the 900 pilots killed and wounded.”
Britain was not only under the threat of the German fighter pilots, but as well the German U-boats were making a large impact during the early parts of the Battle of the Atlantic, July 1940 to May 1943. The convoys and independent ships were unable to get their supplies to the desperate British coast because they were being sunk at will. Many authors have made a good case that Ultra was responsible for decreasing the amount of Allied shipping losses. As the naval Ultra developed, they were able to get accurate knowledge of the U-boat positions. This information was then passed onto the Naval Intelligence Division, who were able to warn their ships of the U-boats location and could therefore avoid them. As well, the information of the U-boat positions was passed onto the battleships so that they could destroy the subs. From the table it can be seen that between November 1940 and May 1941, the Allies were loosing a considerable amount of shipping each year. It was during this time period when the British were having no luck in solving the German naval codes.