The Calculus of War: Tactics, Technology, and the Battle of the Atlantic

Guiding Question:

How did changes in technology and tactics allow the Allies to win the Battle of the Atlantic?


Using interactive technology from the American Battle Monuments Commission, maps, and primary and secondary sources, students will determine which technologies and tactics were most important in helping the Allies win the Battle of the Atlantic.


Historical Context

Many historians identify the Battle of the Atlantic as one of the deciding engagements of the European Theater of World War II. The deadly game of cat-and-mouse with German submarines threatened to cut off American men and materiel from the European Allies. Allied success in the North Atlantic was a precondition for any other Allied success in the European Theater of Operations. The United States Coast Guard had an unsung, and to many, unknown role in the successes in the Battle of the Atlantic. Seaman First Class Edwin Ward Frazier’s name appears on the Walls of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, with many others who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe the role the U.S. Coast Guard played in the Battle of the Atlantic; and
  • Evaluate the importance of new technologies and tactics in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.3 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.Geo.11.9-12 Evaluate how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.
D2.His.1.9-12 Evaluate how historic events and developments were shaped by unique circumstance of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.


Lesson Preparation

  • Make one copy of the Mission Dossier packet for each student.
  • Set up classroom technology, if necessary.
  • Test all online resources before class.


Activity One (45 minutes)

  • Project the Map of the World, 1942 in the front of the room. Ask students to identify the U.S. and Great Britain on the map. Have them identify the Port of New York, the Port of Liverpool, and the Port of Belfast. If the teacher does not have projection capabilities, use the map in the Mission Dossier workbook.
    • Ask the students to identify what they believe is the shortest, safest route between New York and the British ports.
    • Ask the students: What would alter the route you chose? Are there things that would make you want to go closer to, or further away from, the islands and landmasses nearby?
    • Ask the students: In the grand scheme of a war in Europe, how important do you think moving men and equipment to battle would be?
    • Teacher Tip: Push students to understand that without the men or equipment, it would be impossible to carry out any battles.
  • Go to the Battle of the Atlantic Interactive and watch the first clip that sets up the major navies in World War II. Have students individually, or in groups, use this resource to complete the page on the seven major navies in the Mission Dossier.
    • Discuss their evaluations: Which navy was in the best shape to wage the Battle of the Atlantic? Which navy was in the worst shape to wage war? Where did the U.S. fall in this ranking? What about Germany?
  • Have students read or listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat from February 23, 1942 and answer the analysis questions in small groups or as a whole class.

Activity Two (45 minutes)

  • Recap the previous day’s activities: Which navies were at an advantage in the North Atlantic in 1941-1942? Which were at a disadvantage? Why was it so important to maintain control of the North Atlantic? What was Roosevelt’s message to the American people about how to take the battle to the enemy?
  • Introduce today’s topic: The technology and tactics of the Battle of the Atlantic.
  • Go to the Battle of the Atlantic Interactive. Click on “3 Sept 1939 – 9 April 1940” and watch introductory video.
    • Have students use the “Briefing: 3 Sept 1939 – 9 April 1940” pop up window after the video. The selection box on the right side of the pop up window can be scrolled up and down to find the following topics. Students will complete a chart in the Mission Dossier on each identified technology, tactic, or organization that shaped the Battle of the Atlantic.
    • Ask students to synthesize this information using the discussion questions in the Mission Dossier.
    • Watch the introductory videos in the Battle of the Atlantic Interactive for 7 Dec 41 – 31 July 42, 1 Aug 42 – 21 May 43, and 22 May 43 – 31 Dec 1943. After watching these videos, close out of the dialogue box and look at the map in the background with your class. Ask if they notice a trend in what is represented on the map.
    • Teacher Tip: You are trying to elicit the idea that Allied shipping losses peak in the middle period, and German U-boat losses increase in the last period.

Activity Three (45 minutes)

  • Introduce the day’s lesson: Today, we will learn what a day in the life of a typical Coast Guardsman like Edwin Frazier was like on a destroyer escort.
  • Project a photograph of an Edsall-class destroyer escort, ask students to describe the vessel. Draw their attention to the size of the ship, the armament of the ship, the height of the ship.
  • Have students open the Mission Dossier to the pages of information about the USS Leopold. Ask them to breeze through the page titled: Leopold: Specifications and see if anything draws their attention. Try to find a size comparison between the Leopold and your hallway, your school, width of your classroom, etc. Draw their attention to the fact that the Leopold was manned by an entirely Coast Guard crew. Ask them what they think living quarters would have been like for junior enlisted men like Frazier. Explain that the Coast Guard served vital roles as guardians of the East Coast ports, and as guardians of the convoys.
  • Instruct students to read excerpts from the reports of the sinking of the Leopold, then answer questions about the disaster in the Dossier.
  • Lead a discussion on the sinking of the Leopold. Prompts can include:
    • What do you think could have been done differently to save a ship like the Leopold.
    • Looking at the date of the sinking of the Leopold, and the dates we looked at yesterday , what do these indicate about the ebb and flow of the Battle of the Atlantic?
    • At age 18, do you think you could have served as Frazier and the other young men of the Leopold did?
  • Lead a discussion on the cost of war. Prompts can include:
    • When men died on the beaches at Normandy, it was clear to all that their deaths had purpose and meaning, and the American public lauded them as heroes. Were the deaths of the men in the convoys worth the price paid?

Assessment Materials

  • Assign the final piece of the lesson from the Mission Dossier.
  • The Writing Assessment Rubric can be used to score the essay.

Methods for Extension

  • Students with more interest in the role of the United States Coast Guard may research their role in protecting the homeland, which included Auxiliary patrols and beach patrols. They can also research the incredible, and obscure, role of the Coast Guard in the Greenland Patrol and weather patrols, which helped ensure the success of Allied operations in Europe.
  • Much of this lesson could be used as homework with a more advanced group of students, who could then compare and contrast the Coast Guard’s role in World War II to its role in the Global War on Terrorism
  • The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas. These cemeteries are permanent memorials to the fallen, but it is important that students know the stories of those who rest here. To learn more about the stories of some of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, visit the Understanding Sacrifice Interactive Map.


  • Teachers can adapt the project to younger learners by changing the focus of the last activity to a shorter essay. It could also be adapted to English Language Learners in a similar way. Younger learners could also do a smaller project comparing the roles of each of the uniformed services of the United States in less detail.
  • Students can explore Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat as an audio source. This might be a particularly good starting point for younger students or English language learners since it automatically gives the ability to both read and hear the primary source text.
  • Teachers can group students in several ways. One grouping strategy would be to have groups of heterogeneous ability work their way through the entire project. Another grouping strategy could assign each of the three major parts of the project to three heterogeneous groups, who could then teach it back to the other two groups.


Return to Activity

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Other Sources