Military history


On the evening of September 3, while Lemp was torpedoing Athenia, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain invited the sixty-five-year-old hawk and political exile Winston Churchill back into the government. The job: First Lord of the Admiralty, a post Churchill had held from 1911 to 1915. The Admiralty signaled his arrival with a message to all forces: “Winston is back.”

Churchill’s appointment came as a tonic to the British. The Admiralty was in need of vigorous leadership. The senior admiral, First Sea Lord A. Dudley P. R. Pound, appointed the previous June, was not physically fit and not viewed as an inspiring leader. He suffered painfully from arthritis of the left hip. The official naval historian Stephen Roskill wrote, he had “no intellectual interest or social graces,” was “too addicted to extreme centralization,” and “loved schedules and Courts of Inquiry.” A senior Army general noted in his diary that during meetings of the chiefs of staff, Pound was “asleep 90 percent of the time” and “the remaining 10 percent” was “none too sure of what he is arguing about.” However, Churchill liked Pound and had confidence in him. Pound was a good balance wheel.

Back in government harness and confronting Hitler, Churchill was a phenomenon: a tireless, pugnacious, mesmerizing genius with immense knowledge of military affairs. Working man-killing hours, he shook the staid Admiralty from top to bottom. From his office gushed a torrent of ideas (some of them harebrained) and memos demanding prominently “Action This Day.” He demanded prompt, incisive reports on every conceivable aspect of the Royal Navy. Nothing, it seemed, escaped his notice. His memos, which usually began, “Pray tell me …,” were facetiously called “The Lord’s Prayers.”

Restricted for fifteen years by naval treaties, pinch-penny budgets, and the antiwar mood in England, the Royal Navy Churchill inherited was far superior to the Kriegsmarine but a pale reflection of its former self. Its main striking power consisted of twelve battleships, three battle cruisers, and six aircraft carriers. Ten of the battleships and two of the battle cruisers were of World War I vintage; two battleships (Rodney, Nelson) dated from 1927. The other battle cruiser (Hood, a huge 42,000 tons) dated from 1920. Three battleships (Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, Valiant) and two battle cruisers (Renown, Repulse) had been extensively modernized in 1936-1939. But Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, and Renown were back in the yards for major refits. Only one of the six carriers, Ark Royal, commissioned in 1938, had been built as such from the keel up; the other five were conversions dating from the 1920s.*

The capital ships of the Royal Navy were divided between two fleets: Home and Mediterranean. The Home Fleet, commanded by Charles M. Forbes, consisted of seven battleships, two battle cruisers, and four aircraft carriers. The Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by Andrew B. Cunningham, based in Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt, consisted of three battleships and one aircraft carrier. The Home Fleet was supported by about twenty heavy and light cruisers; the Mediterranean Fleet by about six. Other heavy and light cruiser squadrons were scattered all over the globe. All forces were further reinforced by scores of fleet destroyers.

The Home Fleet had three principal missions. The first and overriding task was to contain, neutralize, and destroy the surface forces of the Kriegsmarine and thereby deny it an opportunity to raid British shipping or attack England by shore bombardment. That task was to be accomplished in a replication of World War I naval strategy, by bottling up the Kriegsmarine in the North Sea—blocking a sortie into the Atlantic—and by whittling it down if it dared leave its home bases and offer battle. The main obstacle to carrying out this mission was the Luftwaffe. Its perceived threat to the Home Fleet precluded an offensive naval strike at the Kriegsmarine in the lower North Sea and compelled the main British naval strength to base in Scapa Flow, believed to be beyond German bomber range, but also ideally located to blockade the North Sea.

The second task was to impose a maritime or economic blockade of Germany, another replication of World War I strategy. Because of the presence of the Luftwaffe the blockade could not be mounted in the lower North Sea as in World War I, but had to be much farther north. The blockade line ran west from the Orkney Islands to Iceland and east from the Orkneys to Norway. To enforce the blockade between the Orkneys and Iceland, the Admiralty had established a Northern Patrol, composed initially of eight aging light cruisers. Ships of the blockade were to observe “cruiser rales,” a stop-and-search procedure similar to the Submarine Protocol, allowing neutrals not carrying contraband to pass.

Few believed the maritime blockade would have any appreciable impact on Germany. The blockade of World War I had been deadly effective in part because Czarist Russia had been Germany’s enemy. Now the Soviet Union was Germany’s military ally and trading partner. Whatever food, oil, and other imports Germany required could be brought by rail and truck overland from Russia. Germany’s high-grade iron ore for weaponry came from neutral Sweden. In mild weather it was sent by ships in the Baltic Sea directly to Germany. In cold weather, when the Baltic was frozen, it was sent by rail to Narvik, Norway, then by ship in Norwegian waters through the Skagerrak and Kattegat to Germany. The Royal Navy was not able to force its way into the Baltic Sea; it could not legally impose a blockade in neutral Norwegian waters. Hence the maritime “blockade” of Germany was to amount to little more than psychological harassment.

The third task of the Home Fleet was to protect British maritime assets from German submarines. Inasmuch as Germany had no submarine force until 1935, the Admiralty had not pursued ASW vigorously. Not until December 1938, when the Germans advised Great Britain that they would build to submarine parity, did the Admiralty begin serious planning for the possibility of U-boat war. All ASW plans were influenced by the belief that British sonar, developed in the last days of World War I and improved in the 1920s and 1930s, had virtually rendered submarines obsolete. Sonar, Churchill (for one) judged, was a “remarkable” device. With sonar, Churchill wrote, two destroyers were as effective as ten destroyers in World War I.

The Admiralty plans for confronting the U-boat threat derived from the experience of World War I. The Admiralty assumed that unlike the case in World War I, Germany would wage unrestricted submarine war from the first day. The Royal Navy was to combat U-boats by the following measures:

MINES. It was not forgotten that mines were the greatest killer of U-boats in World War I. Defensive minefields were to be planted along the east coast of the British Isles and in the English Channel, to close off that passage. Offensive minefields were to be planted in the lower North Sea, west of Helgoland. A plan to recreate the North Sea Barrage between the Orkneys and Norway was in hand, but more serious consideration was given to planting fields between the Orkney and Faeroe islands, between the Faeroes and Iceland, and between Iceland and Greenland.

HUNTER-KILLER GROUPS. Offensive patrolling by surface ships had produced small returns in World War I. However, since that time the aircraft carrier had come into service. It was believed that a carrier, escorted by a flotilla of six or eight modern, sonar-equipped destroyers, would be a formidable ASW weapons system. The carrier aircraft could patrol an enormous area in a day’s time. Upon spotting a U-boat, aircraft were to attack and, if possible, sink the U-boat or at least drive it under and hold it down until the destroyers could be brought up to attack.

There were several weaknesses in this concept. The Royal Navy had only four carriers in the Home Fleet and just one of these (Ark Royal) was first-rate. Navy carrier pilots, trained to attack big enemy capital ships, had not drilled in searching for small U-boats. Moreover, Britain had slighted development of carrier aircraft and weaponry, giving priority to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber and Fighter commands. In September 1939, the Royal Navy had only 175 carrier aircraft: 150 old wire-and-fabric biplanes (Swordfish) and 25 new monoplanes (Skuas); the former for torpedo launching, the latter for dive bombing. The aviators believed that the few planes available should be husbanded for attacks on German capital ships, not be worn out on ASW patrols.

Alternate ideas for sea-basing ASW aircraft at less cost had been proposed. One scheme was to build a number of what the Americans were to call “jeep carriers,” capable of handling about a dozen aircraft. These miniature aircraft carriers could be created quickly, it was believed, by mounting a flight deck and a catapult on existing tankers or other suitable merchant-ship hulls of about 12,000 tons. The Admiralty had approved an experimental conversion of the seaplane tender Pegasus to explore this concept. Another scheme was to equip ordinary merchant ships with catapults (like those on cruisers and battleships) that could launch a recoverable seaplane or wheeled aircraft, which could land ashore.

LAND-BASED AIR PATROL. The RAF had established a Coastal Command to support the Royal Navy. Its primary mission was to provide the Navy reconnaissance on German capital ship movements in the North Sea and elsewhere. Although land-based aircraft had positively sunk only one U-boat in all of World War I, it was believed that Coastal Command could serve effectively in an ASW role. But Coastal Command pilots had not drilled in submarine spotting, and the hardware had also been neglected. In September 1939, Coastal Command had 300 aircraft in its inventory, most of them obsolete, and only about half the pilots were fully trained. Only three squadrons were equipped with modern aircraft: two with long-range four-engine flying boats (Sunderlands); one with medium-range twin-engine American-designed, British-built wheeled aircraft (Hudsons). The Hudsons (replacing obsolete Ansons) were not yet fully operational.

CONVOYS. This time around there was to be no agonizing debate over convoying. With the onset of war, all British merchant ships were to be placed under operational control of the British government. All Commonwealth* vessels except those which could exceed 15 knots or were slower than 9 knots were to travel by escorted convoy. In preparation for this massive undertaking, the government had created on paper a convoy control organization and had indoctrinated thousands of merchant marine officers in convoy tactics and procedure, such as station keeping, zigzagging, and communications. A list of retired Royal Navy officers who were to be recalled to serve in the convoy control organization, and at sea as convoy commanders, was on file.

The weakness—a big weakness—in the convoy plan was the acute shortage of escort vessels. Great Britain had about 175 fleet destroyers worldwide, of which about 100 were modern (1926-1939), the rest World War I vintage. Fifteen of the latter (V and Wclass) had been designated convoy “escort destroyers.” In addition, there were about thirty so-called sloops—smaller, slower warships, yet in some ways (range, habitability) superior vessels to destroyers for convoy escort. Most of the modern destroyers were required as screens for capital ships, for scouting, port protection, and other tasks. That left only a very few for ocean-convoy escort: the old destroyers and sloops. The old destroyers earmarked for that task required constant maintenance, and only a few were equipped with sonar. For inshore, or coastal, escort in the British Isles, the Navy had some 170-foot coal-burning trawlers, fitted with 3” guns and depth charges. Some had older sonar sets, but the trawlers were too slow (11 knots) to chase a U-boat.

To help fill the gap, the Royal Navy had developed two new vessels: a Hunt-class, small (280 feet; 900 tons), fast (26 knots), heavily armed (four 4” guns) destroyer for ocean escort, and a Flower-class corvette to augment the trawlers for inshore escort. The 205-foot, oil-fired steam engine, single-screw corvette, based on a whale-catcher design built for Norway, was slow (16 knots) and miserably wet, but it was a hardy sea boat that could be built cheaply and quickly. The February 1939 ship-building program of the Royal Navy included twenty Hunt-class destroyers, and fifty-six Flower-class corvettes (as well as twenty Tree-class trawlers), but in September 1939, these vessels were a long way from completion.*


SHIP DEFENSE. Since it was assumed the Germans would not observe the Submarine Protocol—that any and all British merchant ships were to be sunk without warning—the Admiralty had drawn plans to arm British merchant ships for self-defense as rapidly as possible after the commencement of hostilities. For this purpose, the Admiralty had stockpiled hundreds of guns and thousands of shells. It also had plans to equip some merchant ships with depth charges. These were to be rolled over the side to deter (rather than to kill) U-boats. The Admiralty had indoctrinated thousands of merchant-ship captains and officers in gunnery and depth-charge use, and had encouraged the captains to ram U-boats whenever the opportunity presented itself. Without exception, all British merchant ships were to report immediately all contacts of any kind with a U-boat (SSS), another means of gathering intelligence on U-boat positions.

SUBMARINES. In World War I, British submarines had proved to be efficient U-boat killers. Since it was assumed that the British blockade would empty the seas of German merchant ships and that the Kriegsmarine would not often venture from its home bases, the Admiralty planned to commit most of the British submarine force to ASW.

Commanded by Bertram C. Watson (Rear Admiral, Submarines) from headquarters on the Firth of Forth, the Royal Navy submarine force was a deplorable hodgepodge. Long the victim of an indifferent and frequently hostile Admiralty, it consisted of fifty-eight boats of ten different types. More than half (thirty-three) were old and dangerous duds: eighteen big O-, P-, and R-class ocean boats; twelve small World War I H- and L-class boats; three huge River-class fleet boats. Only twenty-four of the fifty-eight boats could be ranked as first-rate: twelve relatively new medium (700-ton) Swordfish- or S-class attack boats; six large (1,800-ton) minelayers; three new large (1,300-ton) Triton- or T-class attack boats; and three new small (600-ton) Unity- or U-class attack boats, ideal for North Sea or Mediterranean operations.*

In late August 1939, there were forty-five British submarines ready for war: eighteen were based at North Sea ports, nine at Malta, two in the South Atlantic, and sixteen in the Far East. In the tense last week of August, Watson had sent eleven of the eighteen home-based boats on patrol in the North Sea to scout Kriegsmarine capital ships. These boats got off to a wobbly start. British aircraft mistakenly bombed Sturgeon and Seahorse. Sturgeon fired torpedoes at Swordfish in error, but fortunately, they all missed. The new Triton fired torpedoes at the old Oxley in error, but unfortunately, Triton’s missiles hit. There were two survivors. Oxley was the first submarine to be sunk by any of the belligerents in the war. Her loss to a sister ship cast a pall in the British submarine force and raised questions in the Admiralty about competence.

The French had invested heavily in submarines. When the war commenced, the French Navy had seventy-seven submarines: thirty-eight large (1,300- to 1,500-ton) ocean boats; thirty-two medium (600-ton) boats; six minelayers (750-ton); and the monstrous (3,000-ton) white elephant Surcouf. About twenty of the large and medium boats, dating from the 1920s, had been modernized in the late 1930s. Nonetheless, only forty-one of the seventy-seven boats could be ranked as first-rate: twenty-nine 1,500-ton ocean boats, all built in the 1930s; six Saphir-class minelayers; and six new mediums of the Minerve class.

French submariners took great pride in their heritage as European submarine pioneers. Morale in the force was high and much was expected. But there existed serious organizational and technical weaknesses. There was no centralized, single submarine commander; moat of the submarines were scattered between Atlantic and Mediterranean bases, assigned to operate with subordinate fleet commands. Some of the technical weaknesses were daunting. Owing to unreliable gyros, French torpedoes could not be fired at sharp angles. To compensate for this deficiency, many boats were fitted with complicated, ungainly torpedo-tube arrangements, such as multiple traversing external mounts of the type found on destroyers. Some boats carried torpedoes of two different sizes (21” and 15”), which led to logistical headaches.

Since Italy had not entered the war and Germany offered few targets for French submarines, it would have been advantageous had French submarines merged with British submarines in a joint ASW mission. A combined force of about 120 British and French submarines, directed by a single commander—a la Dönitz—from a centralized submarine headquarters, doubtless would have posed a formidable counterforce to the fifty-six combat-capable German U-boats. But no merger was attempted and the French submarine force was to be wasted in a variety of nonproductive missions, such as escorting convoys.

RADIO INTELLIGENCE. In World War I, Great Britain had thoroughly penetrated German naval communications by establishing a network of direction-finding (DF) stations and by breaking codes. Between the wars, the Germans had learned about these electronic intelligence coups and had taken vigorous steps to prevent a repetition. The Kriegsmarine had prescribed certain radio procedures to minimize the effectiveness of enemy DFing (silence or encoded “short signals”) and utilized an interior code in messages for position reporting to eliminate frequently used, possibly recognizable latitudes and longitudes.* Like the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine had also adopted an ingenious encoding machine, Enigma, which was believed to be unbreakable.

German naval Enigma was more complicated than Wehrmacht or Luftwaffe Enigma. Moreover, Kriegsmarine signals security was tighter and the traffic less dense. For these reasons many British codebreakers—including some senior holdovers from the famous Room 40 of World War I—were not too hopeful of penetrating naval Enigma. Nonetheless, the assistance of some brilliant Polish codebreakers (discussed in chapter 2), a special team of British codebreakers, located in a remote countryside mansion, Bletchley Park, had tackled the job and believed it might be done, especially if the keys and other material for naval Enigma could somehow be captured.

In the meantime, the British focused on three other avenues of radio intelligence:

DIRECTION FINDING (DFing). From the opening days of the war, the British sought to improve this method of detecting enemy radio transmissions at sea. They established a new network of sophisticated land-based listening posts in the British Isles and in Canada, Bermuda, and the British West Indies. These posts were linked by a special communication system to London and manned by technicians who soon began to master this difficult technology. When, as Dönitz required, a U-boat made a “passage” report upon entering the Atlantic proper and a sinking and situation report upon leaving its patrol area, the British DFed this traffic from a growing number of widely spaced listening posts with far greater accuracy than the Germans credited.

TRAFFIC ANALYSIS (TA). The U-boat radio traffic, like the Wehrmacht or Luftwaffe Enigma traffic, was stylized. Therefore after study, British radio intelligence technicians were able to distinguish U-boat traffic (Dönitz or a flotilla commander to a U-boat or vice versa) by its often repeated, unique characteristics or by the prefatory call-ups to “short signals,” such as a “passage report.”

RADIO FINGERPRINTING (RFP) and TINA. Radio technicians had long known that every radio transmitter gave off a unique electronic “signature” and that individual telegraphers likewise had a unique “style” or “fist.” It was soon possible to record the “electronic signature” of individual U-boats on strips of photographic paper, a process known as “radio fingerprinting” or RFR Then as now, an experienced listener could distinguish the “fist” of a particular telegrapher, but the British enhanced this identifying process, TINA, with tapes and mathematical analysis. The aim was to track the comings and goings of particular U-boats and identify them again and again by these methods, but the effort was only marginally successful.

When the British technicians combined the results of DFing, TA, RFR and TINA, and the reported U-boat sinkings and sightings from all sources, it became possible to formulate a fair picture of U-boat activity and predict probable threatened areas without the benefit of codebreaking. Hence, as in World War I, the British were able to route convoys away from known or probable U-boat positions with considerable success, thus reducing shipping losses.

RADAR. The British had been last after the United States, France, and Germany, to develop radar—a technique of sending out and receiving controlled radio pulses to determine the range to an object in the air or on the sea. But fear of the growing power of the Luftwaffe spurred the Air Ministry and British scientists into high gear in the mid-1930s. By September 1939 Great Britain led the world in radar technology. It had girded the east and south coasts of the British Isles (facing Germany) with an elaborate overlapping network of radar stations (called Chain Home) to give early warning of German bombers. The British had also developed a small, crude radar set that could be fitted in aircraft, and a no less crude set for warships, to provide gunners accurate ranges in inclement weather and at night.

The Admiralty believed that airborne radar (known as Air to Surface Vessel, or ASV) and shipborne radar had potential to be wondrous ASW weapons. When brought to a practical stage, radar in aircraft and ships would enable the British to detect U-boats on the surface at night and in foul weather. But in September 1939, airborne and shipborne radar was virtually useless because it was not powerful or reliable enough to consistently and accurately pinpoint a small target, such as a U-boat conning tower. A scientific breakthrough of some kind was required—but nobody knew what kind. Meanwhile, the highest priority was given to perfecting an airborne set for night fighters so that the RAF Fighter Command could find and shoot down the anticipated waves of Luftwaffe bombers in the dark.

Winston Churchill knew full well that the naval threat to Great Britain was to be posed not by Kriegsmarine surface ships but by U-boats. Shortly after taking office, he told Neville Chamberlain and the War Cabinet that within nine months—by the summer of 1940—Britain “may have to face an attack by 200 or 300 U-boats.” Perhaps Churchill believed that to be so or perhaps he deliberately inflated the threat to spur the War Cabinet and Admiralty into greater ASW measures. Whatever the case, his numbers were wildly off the mark. There was not to be that number of U-boats in combat-ready status for at least three years.

Meanwhile, in view of the very small number of oceangoing U-boats in the Atlantic, the inexperience of the crews, and the complicated rules of engagement imposed by Hitler, the decision of the British to initiate convoying in the Atlantic in September may well have been premature. Convoying in the Atlantic brought much vital British trade to a temporary standstill and in the months ahead, reduced imports (in Churchill’s estimate) by “about one-third.” Most official and unofficial British naval historians argue that it was correct to rush to convoying, but the arguments are not based on scientific analysis of U-boat weaknesses and limitations (fuel, torpedoes) or numbers, positions, weather, and so on. A case can be made that had convoying not been initiated so precipitously, British imports would not have decreased by “one-third” in these first critical months and the hard wear and tear on the convoy escorts (battleships, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, etc.), which led to extended yard upkeep and overhauls, could have been avoided.

The First Lord did, in fact, have second thoughts about the wisdom of convoying, according to Churchill’s biographer, Martin Gilbert. He reports that at the end of ten weeks of war, November 9, Churchill was “deeply disturbed” by the “immense slowing down of trade” which convoying caused. After convening a high-level meeting on this subject, Churchill drafted a memo in which he advocated that Britain “secretly loosen up the convoy system (while boasting about it publicly), especially on the outer routes” and he commissioned two of his prewar advisers, Frederick Lindemann and Desmond Morton, to make an intricate study of the shipping problem. Gilbert did not, however, record the results of the study.

On one issue Churchill was absolutely correct in his judgment. As in World War I, he believed that Great Britain would require enormous and unstinting help from the United States to defeat Germany. He therefore welcomed an invitation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which arrived only a few days after Churchill returned to the Admiralty, to carry on a private correspondence. This secret correspondence provided Churchill with an unprecedented avenue for encouraging Roosevelt to support Great Britain and for enticing Roosevelt ever closer to war. Churchill was to use this avenue to the fullest.

His first thoughts, of course, turned to how Roosevelt might help the Royal Navy. In particular, Churchill thought Roosevelt might be persuaded to sell Britain fleet destroyers to fill the urgent need for open-ocean escorts for convoys. Owing to the decision to build five King George V-class battleships and half a dozen fleet carriers as well as Hunt-class destroyers and many corvettes, British shipyards were programmed to produce only nine fleet destroyers in the first eighteen months of the war. The idea of buying destroyers from America gradually gained momentum in the Admiralty but owing to the unfavorable political climate in America and to Roosevelt’s insistence that the United States get full value in return, a full year was to elapse before a mutually satisfactory destroyer deal could be struck.

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