Military history

GREAT BRITAIN AT RISK

France ingloriously collapsed. On June 10, as German forces closed on Paris, Hitler’s ally, Benito Mussolini, seeking easy spoils, declared war on France and Great Britain. A doddery, eighty-four-year-old French military hero, Marshal Henri Pétain, who replaced Paul Reynaud as chief of state, entered into armistice negotiations with Hitler. The terms of the treaty left France divided: the northern half occupied by Germany; the southern half, or “Vichy France,” unoccupied. Fiercely loyal Frenchmen who escaped to England rallied to General Charles de Gaulle, who proclaimed himself head of Free French forces.

The surrender of France and the entry of Italy into the war posed grave new naval threats to Great Britain. Under one clause of the treaty, Germany gained uncontested access to all French naval bases and seaports on the English Channel and on the Atlantic coastline (Bay of Biscay) as far south as Bordeaux, flanking the British Isles as well as her sea-lanes from the Mediterranean. Under another clause, Hitler gave his solemn word that the French fleet, neutralized in nonoccupied (or “Free Zone”) bases in France and North Africa, would not be seized by Germany. But Churchill judged Hitler’s word to be worthless. At any time the Führer might order the Vichy government to launch the entire French fleet against Britain. Moreover, in the absence of France as an ally, the hostile Italian fleet in the Mediterranean had to be met by a substantial diversion of British naval power to that theater.

The commander of the French Navy, Admiral Frančois Darlan, assured Churchill privately that the French Navy would never fall into Hitler’s hands; Darlan had, in fact, secretly issued orders to all French naval commanders that should Hitler go back on his word and attempt to seize the Navy, all French ships were to be instantly scuttled. But Churchill did not trust Darlan any more than he trusted Hitler: Darlan had all too eagerly joined the traitorous Vichy government in the high post of Minister of Marine. If Hitler so decreed, Darlan might well order the French fleet to attack the Royal Navy and/or to reinforce the Kriegsmarine for what was assumed to be Hitler’s next step, an invasion of the British Isles.

Churchill therefore insisted to the War Cabinet that the French fleet had to be destroyed. It was the most “hateful” and “unnatural and painful” course of action he had ever recommended, he wrote later. The War Cabinet approved and the Admiralty issued orders for a surprise strike to be carried out on the morning of July 3. The senior British admirals entrusted with the task greeted the orders with a mixture of disbelief, dismay, and distaste. Nonetheless, they complied. At the French anchorage Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, Algeria, British naval forces sank the old French battleship Bretagne and severely damaged another old battleship, Provence, as well as the modern battle cruiser Dunkerque and a super-destroyer, killing a total of 1,297 French sailors. At the British naval base in Alexandria, Egypt, British naval forces disarmed and immobilized the old battleship Lorraine, four cruisers, and three destroyers without a fight. At the French naval base at Dakar, British forces damaged the gunned but uncompleted battleship Richelieu. In the British Isles, Royal Marines and other infantry boarded and captured about 200 French ships, including two old battleships, Paris and Courbet, eight destroyers, the monster-submarine Surcouf, and six other submarines, then “interned” about 12,000 French sailors in miserable concentration camps.

French naval personnel were justifiably outraged and embittered. As a consequence, the Free French Navy (Forces Navales Frančaises Libres), which was formed in the British Isles, grew only slowly. Many of the French sailors seized by the British were eventually repatriated and reported to the Vichy French Navy (the damaged battle cruiser Dunkerque, her undamaged sister ship Strasbourg, numerous cruisers, destroyers, and submarines), which had escaped to Toulon, in southern France.

With the French Navy gutted and/or neutralized in Toulon, the Royal Navy still had to confront the Italian Navy. It consisted of four small (23,000-ton) older battleships, nineteen cruisers, fifty-nine destroyers, and 115 submarines. Only two of the four battleships, Cavour and Cesare, were war-ready; the other two were undergoing modernization.*

On paper, the Italian submarine force, consisting of 115 commissioned boats, represented a great threat to the Royal Navy. It was then twice the size of the German U-boat arm. Of the 115 boats, thirty-nine were big “oceangoing” boats (900 to 1,500 tons), and sixty-nine were “Mediterranean boats” (600 to 900 tons). When Italy declared war, about eighty-four of the boats were war-ready; fifty-four of these deployed to war stations in the Atlantic and Indian oceans and Mediterranean and Red seas.

This first combat sortie of the Italian submarine force was a fiasco. Within three days over half (twenty-eight) of the fifty-four boats were forced to abort. Fieramosca suffered a battery explosion. Guglielmotti and Macalle ran aground; the former was salvaged, the latter scuttled. The engines on Ferraris failed. British air and surface forces promptly sank seven boats (Diamante, Liuzzi, Uebi Scebeli, Rubino, Argonauta, Torricelli, Galvani) and captured another, Galileo, which yielded valuable intelligence documents. The Free French sloop Curieuse sank another, Provana.

Italian submariners returned to their bases thoroughly shaken. In all, ten of the fifty-four submarines and about 400 men were lost in the first twenty days of operations. Part of the loss could be attributed to the poor design and quality of Italian submarines; part to unrealistic peacetime training; part to reckless bravado. These heavy losses induced a. caution in the Italian submarine force which, with few exceptions, was to characterize all its future operations.

The submarine disaster led in part to a decision in Rome to change the naval’ codes. On July 5 and July 17, respectively, the Italians introduced entirely new submarine and surface-ship codes. These changes, together with previously directed changes in the Italian Army and Air Force codes, came as a “great shock” to British codebreakers at Bletchley Park, who, until then, had been reading Italian military codes currently and fluently. Thereafter, except for a brief period in 1941, the British were unable to break Italian naval codes.

The sudden and inglorious collapse of France plus Italy’s entry into the war, leaving Britain standing alone, stunned most Americans. Notwithstanding Churchill’s stirring rhetoric and the strength of the RAF and Royal Navy, the defeat of Great Britain seemed inevitable and unavoidable. A widespread fear arose that Hitler’s next step after the assumed invasion and conquest of the British Isles would be the conquest of Latin America by diplomacy, trickery, or force of arms, posing a dire strategic threat to the United States. The defense of the Western Hemisphere thus became an overriding concern in Washington.

That concern, as much as the fate of Great Britain, spurred a drive for increased military mobilization in the United States in the early summer of 1940. As the Roosevelt administration viewed the situation, the most urgent military requirement was to accumulate massive new naval and air power. Should Great Britain go the way of France—oust Churchill and other hawks and reappoint an appeasing and pro-German government—the Royal Navy, like the French Navy, might fall under Hitler’s control. A combined and refurbished German, Italian, French, and British Navy*would give Hitler incontestable mastery of the oceans. Against that superiority in sea power, the United States would be hard-pressed to prevent a military occupation of Latin America or, later, an invasion of its own shores.

A further complication and grave threat to America’s strategic interests was posed by Japan. More aggressively expansionist than ever and rapidly growing in naval strength, with the connivance of the new Vichy government Japan had established a military foothold in French Indochina. This bold and arrogant thrust flanked and imperiled the Philippine Islands, a key United States military base in the Far East, which was an essential asset in the Navy’s plan to defeat Japan in the event of war. To help deter further Japanese expansion, President Roosevelt had based the bulk of the Navy’s fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, leaving the Atlantic area very weak in naval power.

Upon the expiration of the London Naval Treaty in 1937, the U.S. Navy had embarked upon a substantial buildup (660,000 new tons) in capital ships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other vessels. When the war in Europe erupted, Roosevelt had proposed an increase of 25 percent in carrier, cruiser, and submarine tonnage. On the day Paris fell, June 14, Congress approved this increase. However, in view of the possible naval threat Hitler could pose to the Americas and that posed by Japan in the Far East, and a further threat posed by a possible alliance of German-controlled and Japanese naval forces, on June 17 Roosevelt proposed that Congress approve a $4 billion appropriation for the purpose of creating a “Two Ocean Navy,” an increase in naval construction by 1,325,000 tons over that already approved. Congress passed the bill with scant debate and Roosevelt signed it into law, launching the United States on a warship-building program of awesome scope.

At this time, domestic politics dominated Washington. The big question was whether President Roosevelt would seek an unprecedented third term, running against the Republican favorite, Wendell L. Willkie. The answer, which came at the Democratic Party’s Chicago convention in July 1940, was yes. Partly to undermine Willkie’s growing support and partly to infuse his cabinet with internationalists who favored support for the British, Roosevelt named two distinguished Republicans to head America’s military forces. Millionaire newspaper publisher Frank Knox (Alf Landon’s running mate in 1936) replaced the inventor’s son, Charles Edison, as Secretary of the Navy; Henry L. Stimson replaced Henry H. Woodring as Secretary of War.

The growing concern over hemispheric defense led Roosevelt to reconsider a long-standing request from Churchill for the “loan” of “forty or fifty old destroyers.” Roosevelt secretly wrote Churchill that he would attempt to gain public and congressional approval for this transaction, provided Churchill would guarantee that no part of the Royal Navy would ever be turned over to Germany or scuttled; and that Britain would sell or lease to the United States for 99 years military base rights in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad, and British Guiana (Guyana), to be used to deter “an attack on the American hemisphere by any non-American nation.”

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