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Hitler vs. the Navy: America and Nazi Germany Waged War Far Sooner than 1941

Hitler vs. the Navy: America and Nazi Germany Waged War Far Sooner than 1941

The U.S. Navy engaged in a shooting war with the Kriegsmarine before official U.S. entry into World War II.

Although the German Foreign Office concluded that the “American Closed Zone” was a disadvantage to Germany, it assumed the British and the French would reject it and therefore did nothing about it. The Germans did not know that the zone, in fact, screened a pooling of Anglo-American naval resources and that the British government informed the Americans that the zone was acceptable. The next day, September 6, Roosevelt directed that 110 destroyers be recalled and recommissioned into the Navy. Eventually, 50 of them would be traded to the British. In addition, Coast Guard cutters worked side by side with the U.S. Navy in the Patrol Zone.

On October 2, 1939, the Act of Panama was announced in which the North and South American nations recognized a joint defense of the Western Hemisphere. This legalized any American military action in the Western Atlantic. A week later, Roosevelt ordered the Navy to broadcast in “plain English” the position of belligerent ships. In fact, this was designed only to report the locations of German submarines and to be overheard by British ships escorting convoys. British violations were ignored. For example, on December 14, 1939, the British destroyer HMS Hyperion fired on the German luxury liner Columbus only 350 miles off the coast of New Jersey.

The Lone Battleship Division of the Atlantic Squadron

The condition of the Atlantic Squadron and the U.S. Navy must be examined. Almost 20 years of isolationism and pacifism had resulted in a weakened fleet. The United States Fleet was unprepared to implement the orders, had very little experience, and was shorthanded. The Atlantic Squadron consisted of only a battleship division, with the USS New York, USS Texas, USS Arkansas; one cruiser division; a single destroyer squadron; a patrol wing; and the lone carrier, USS Ranger. In the early months of the war, the Navy relied more on aircraft than ships.

The U.S. Navy gradually affected German U-boat operations. American ships shadowed German merchantmen, U-boats, and raiders, reporting their positions. The U.S. Zone excluded U-boats from areas west of Bermuda. Grand Admiral Raeder protested to Hitler that the zone covered so wide an area—half the Atlantic between South America and Africa—that it severely limited the capabilities of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer as a commerce raider. Although it hindered the Germans and helped the British, the impact on the American Navy was negative. Training and drills, notably gunnery practice and maneuvers, were all but impossible in the rough seas and bitter cold of the North Atlantic. The duty was dangerous and exhausting; the men thought the patrols pointless and inefficient. A morale problem was building and would eventually have to be confronted.

Despite an occasional foray of German surface vessels into the neutral zone, the Germans made no serious attempt to enter until April 1940, after the occupation of Denmark, when they landed weather teams on the Danish possession of Greenland. In May, the Greenland Council, meeting at Godhaven, adopted a resolution requesting that the United States provide protection for Greenland. Before the United States could quickly or officially act, the Phony War ended and the Germans invaded the Low Countries and France. The neutrality patrol performed one final mission under the old conditions. It was a secret mission. On June 10, the day the French government evacuated Paris, the cruiser USS Vincennes arrived at Casablanca, even though her logs read Lisbon, and took on board 660 cases of gold ingots and 3,129 bags of coins valued at more than $241 million that France wanted to keep out of Nazi hands. The American cruiser carried them to the United States.

Between September 1939 and June 1940, the Royal Navy kept the sealanes open. The Royal Navy focused on protecting the convoys close to the British Isles, knowing that only limited resources were necessary in the Western Atlantic because the U.S. Navy was active there. With the fall of France and the entrance of Italy into the war, the entire situation changed.

98 Ships Lost Per Month

The Battle of the Atlantic began after the fall of France. The German conquest of French ports changed the strategic pattern of the war at sea; possession of the French Atlantic naval bases gave the German U-boats direct access to the Atlantic. It also forced the British to divert shipping from the southwest approaches to Britain to the northwest. Stationed on the French Atlantic coast, the U-boats’ cruising radius was now doubled. This provided the Kriegsmarine with a clear and simple strategic objective with war-winning potential: the defeat of Britain by severing her maritime communications and supply lines.

 

Although he had only 27 operational U-boats, Admiral Dönitz was ready to unleash his new wolf pack tactic. For the Royal Navy it meant a two-front naval war with the Mediterranean now threatened by the Italians. British escort capabilities were on the ropes. The British, short of escorts, reduced the average escort strength to 1.8 per convoy during the summer of 1940. As a result, between June and September 1940, the U-boats sank 274 ships with the loss of only two submarines. The monthly average of Allied merchant ships sunk jumped from the pre-June 1940 count of 60 per month to 98 per month.

The French surrender, however, directly affected the other side of the Atlantic. On June 13, 1940, Roosevelt presented a fresh defense policy to his military commanders, stating that the United States would be active in the war but with naval and air forces only. This “short of war” memo began the direct path to the shooting war of 1941.

 

Roosevelt’s Third Term: Expanding the U.S. Navy’s Role in the Atlantic

The fall of France convinced Roosevelt to run for a third term. Cordull Hull wrote in 1948, “The third term was an immediate consequence of Hitler’s conquest of France and the specter of Britain standing alone between conquerors and ourselves. Our dangerous position induced President Roosevelt to run for a third term.”

Roosevelt believed he alone could carry out his undeclared war policy. Running for reelection while carrying out the “short of war” policy required secrecy and deviousness. To carry it off, he and Hull both felt they would have to drop their policy of being frank with the American people.

Thereafter, Roosevelt moved fast. In July, he sent Admiral Robert Ghormley to London to met secretly with the British Admiralty to coordinate U.S. Navy and Royal Navy antisubmarine operations. In August, the United States sent weapons, arms, and the Coast Guard to Greenland to defend its cryolite mines. At the same time, the United States and Canada, a nation at war with the Axis, signed the U.S.-Canadian Mutual Defense Pact. In September, further secret, high-level, military-liaison staff conversations were held in Washington and London.

Roosevelt also announced the “Destroyers-For-Bases Deal,” calling it “the most important action in the reinforcement of our national defense that has been taken since the Louisiana Purchase. Then as now, considerations of safety from overseas attack were fundamental.”

Roosevelt also expanded the neutrality patrol to the longitude 60 degrees east of Greenwich. Roosevelt’s new policy committed America deeper into the war. Chief of Naval Operation Admiral Harold Stark crafted a new war plan in October 1940 based on the premises that Europe was vital to U.S. security and the United States must support Britain to stop Germany.

After his election to a third term, Roosevelt, secure in his leadership, moved the United States closer to participation in war in the Atlantic. No longer encumbered by fear of losing the election of 1940, substantial forms of aid were devised. Lend-Lease was announced early the next year.

Ernest King’s Four Orders

Roosevelt did not feel secure enough to order direct convoy protection, but Admiral Stark, sensitively attuned to Roosevelt’s thinking on naval matters, already had planners blueprinting a “British Isles detachment” to operate out of Northern Ireland and Scotland. On November 12, Stark recommended to the president secret talks with the British, which Roosevelt authorized and commenced in January 1941. As the undeclared war shifted into high gear, Admiral Stark dealt with the Atlantic Fleet’s morale problem by placing Admiral Ernest J. King in command of the Atlantic Patrol.

King began his work by making clear what he wanted through a series of orders to the fleet. The first order, December 20, 1940, dealt with the measures necessary to place ships on a war emergency basis; the second focused on daily exercises at general quarters and damage control while at sea as well as “close attention to orders and instructions.” It may have been an undeclared war, but King saw to it that the Navy was fighting a real war. The third order was devoted to the exercise of command by officers in this period of wartime. The fourth was titled “Making the Best of What We Have.”