Military history


During the air Battle of Britain, Churchill made a bold and far-reaching decision, one that was to profoundly influence the course of World War II. Great Britain was to fight no less defiantly to deny the Axis control of the Mediterranean Sea, the continent of Africa, and the Middle East. After Britain had gathered sufficient military power, she was to employ the Mediterranean Basin as a staging area to counterattack the Axis, first crushing Italy, then Germany, by attacking Germany’s “soft underbelly” through Italy and the Balkans.

It was a complicated and controversial strategy, fraught with immense risk. In Africa, Benito Mussolini’s forces controlled Libya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Striking out from Ethiopia in several directions during July and August, Italian troops had punched into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the British colony of Kenya, and had overrun the whole of British Somaliland on the Gulf of Aden. Mussolini was then poised in eastern Libya to attack Egypt and he appeared to be massing troops in Albania for an attack on Greece. With the addition of two new 35,000-ton battleships, Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, and the older, smaller but modernized battleship Dulio, the Italian Navy had dramatically increased in strength: five battleships, plus numerous modern heavy and light cruisers and destroyers.

Almost unnoticed during the toughest days of the Battle of Britain, the British proceeded to implement the Mediterranean strategy. In August the Admiralty powerfully reinforced its two naval squadrons, Force H at Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria, and drew plans to reinforce the island of Malta. The War Office beefed up the slim British ground force in Egypt, grandiosely named “The Army of the Nile.” In collaboration with Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, Churchill designed schemes to persuade the French leaders of Vichy colonies in Africa and the Middle East to come over to the Allied side.

The Italian Army in Libya, comprised of 200,000 men, launched its offensive against Egypt on September 13. The Army of the Nile, merely 63,000 men, was unable to hold and it fell back sixty miles to Sidi Barrani, fighting a well-executed rear-guard action. With one added surge the Italians might have pushed on to Cairo, Alexandria, and the Suez Canal, but they ran out of steam and sat down.

Since the Italian Navy and Italian land-based air posed a formidable threat in the central Mediterranean, the British were hard-pressed to reinforce and resupply the Army of the Nile. Everything from England had to be sent by convoy the long way around the southern tip of Africa (the Cape of Good Hope), thence north into the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, a tedious and inefficient route. In order to eliminate the Italian threat and open the Mediterranean to British convoys, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Andrew Cunningham, repeatedly sought to lure the Italian Navy into battle, but the Italian admirals shrewdly prolonged the naval threat by avoiding a major confrontation.

Meanwhile, Churchill and de Gaulle pressed ahead with their schemes to persuade the Vichy French in Africa to come over to the Allied side. The first of these (Operation Menace) was directed at the Vichy colony of Senegal, on the African west coast. The hope was that if a joint Anglo-Free French expedition made a show of force off Senegal’s chief seaport, Dakar, where the gunned but unfinished battleship Richelieu had taken refuge, the Vichy French would rally to de Gaulle and deliver not only Senegal, which could provide a staging base for mounting further intrigue in Vichy French West Africa, but also Richelieu.

A substantial British naval force was committed to this scheme: the carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Resolution from Force H, the battleship Barham and several cruisers, including Fiji, torpedoed by Jenisch in U-32 while leaving England. Contrary to the hope, the British warships met a hot reception at Dakar: heavy gunfire from Vichy shore batteries, the Richelieu, and some Vichy French cruisers and super-destroyers, which had raced down from Toulon. During the exchange of fire, the Dakar-based Vichy submarine Beveziers torpedoed the Resolution, causing “serious damage.” Chastened, the British were compelled to withdraw and cancel that scheme, but it was not a total failure. The show of force emboldened the leader of Vichy Cameroon, Jacques Philippe Leclerc, to come over to the Allied side, creating a domino effect in the Vichy colonies of Chad and French Congo. On October 12, French forces of those three colonies, together with some defecting Senegalese troops, invaded and occupied Vichy Gabon.

Not entirely unexpectedly, an Italian Army, staging from Albania, invaded Greece on October 28. Since Greece was an ally of Britain and an Italian conquest of Greece would flank Egypt on the north, imperiling the Army of the Nile and the British naval base at Alexandria, Churchill and the War Cabinet took immediate steps to assist the Greeks. British ground forces from Egypt occupied the islands of Crete and Lemnos. RAF fighter and bomber squadrons moved up to bases near Athens to support the Greek Army.

With the sudden expansion of British responsibilities and operations in the eastern Mediterranean, it became imperative that British naval forces open a direct convoy route from Gibraltar to Alexandria. Toward that end, on November 11, Cunningham staged a surprise attack on the Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto, located in the “heel” of Italy. Flying off the new carrier Illustrious, twenty-one old Swordfish biplanes torpedoed three of the five Italian battleships: the big, new Lit-torio and the smaller, but modernized Dulio and Cavour. Littorio and Dulio were knocked out of action for five and seven months, respectively; Cavour, severely damaged and beached, did not return to active service. The two undamaged battleships, Vittorio Veneto and Cesare, hurriedly withdrew to Naples.

This victory opened a British convoy route in the Mediterranean, but only temporarily. Humiliated, Mussolini requested help from Berlin. In response, Hitler sent about 400 Luftwaffe planes to the island of Sicily to assist the Italians in attacking the British convoys and the covering naval forces. Although the Luftwaffe wrought absolute havoc on the convoys, it was soon clear to Hitler that he would have to send additional ground and air forces to the Mediterranean Basin to reinforce the lackluster Italian armies, which bogged down in both Egypt and Greece.

The decision to fight to the utmost in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East placed immense demands on British military assets. The Admiralty committed a large portion of the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean: the carriers Illustrious, Ark Royal, and Eagle; the battleships Warspite, Royal Sovereign, Malaya, Ramillies, Valiant, Barham, and Renown; numerous cruisers; scores of destroyers and auxiliaries; and nearly two dozen submarines.*

Washington never fully understood or approved of this diversion of resources to the Mediterranean Basin. As Washington viewed it, the British strategy amounted to wasteful and inefficient “pecking at the periphery.” Washington believed that the full resources and military power of Britain should have been brought directly to bear on Germany itself.

The British decision to fight vigorously for the Mediterranean Basin, at a time when it appeared that the Germans might invade the British Isles, in effect embroiled the Royal Navy in a “two-front war.” Owing to the loss of or severe damage to destroyers in the Norway operations and Dunkirk, and to the decision to deploy a large number of destroyers in ports on the English Channel to counter a possible invasion, and to the transfer of numerous destroyers to the Mediterranean, there were only a few left for convoy escort in the North Atlantic and Northwest Approaches, and most of these were old ships in need of upgrading and requiring much upkeep.

Adding to the Admiralty’s problems, the first of the twenty new 280-foot, 1,000-ton Hunt-class destroyers, designed specifically for open-ocean convoy escort, failed to meet Royal Navy standards for that role. Hurriedly designed, they were top-heavy, dangerously unstable in heavy seas, overgunned for the size (four 4”), lacked fuel capacity for extended voyages, and despite the elimination of torpedo tubes, did not have space topside to carry more than fifty depth charges, not really enough for convoy escorting. As a consequence of that and the loss and shortage of other destroyers, the Admiralty had to send the corvettes, which had been selected for inshore escort, to blue-water escort duties. By and large the Hunts had to be relegated to missions on short-legged routes in home waters and the Mediterranean Sea, a terrible setback.

In those darkest of days, Churchill intensified his secret pleas to Roosevelt for help in supplying destroyers. The President was willing but the renewed requests came at a politically awkward time. He was engaged in a tough run for an unprecedented third term against the popular Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie. He had pledged to keep the United States out of the war in Europe; he dared not alienate the large bloc of isolationist voters.

Pending the election, Roosevelt walked a tightrope. He publicly pushed through the transfer of fifty “flush-deck,” or “four-stack,” destroyers to Great Britain in early September, justifying that measure as a good deal for the United States since the rights to British bases obtained in the exchange enhanced the security of the Western Hemisphere.

The fifty destroyers for Great Britain came from a fleet of 273 American vessels that had been built in the latter years of World War I. Originally named after American naval heroes, most were renamed for towns common to Britain and the United States (e.g., Annapolis, Georgetown, Richmond, etc.); hence they were known as Town-class vessels. They were 315 feet in length, displaced 1,200 tons, and had a top speed of about 29 knots. The main armament consisted of four 4” guns, one 3” gun, and twelve torpedo tubes. Forty-three of these ships went to the Royal Navy and seven to the Royal Canadian Navy, named for Canadian rivers. The Royal Navy manned three vessels (Bath, Lincoln, Mansfield) with Norwegian crews; one ship, Cameron, was damaged in an air raid on Portland and never became operational.*

Much nonsense has been written about these vessels, such as dubbing them “fifty ships that saved the world.” In fact, these ships required a great deal of work, modification, and upgrading. About four months passed before most of the ships reached England and by the time they were fully operational, the dire emergencies that prompted their acquisition had passed. While the symbolic value of the transfer was great for the British, the Town-class historian, Arnold Hague, wrote, “The tactical effect of the ships themselves was, however, small …” and they “passed quite quickly from the operational scene.”

Privately and secretly Roosevelt did much more to assist the British. Among his most important steps was to send a military mission, headed by Rear Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, to London in August, ostensibly to assess British chances for survival, but in reality to begin long-term, Anglo-American joint planning for the defeat of the Axis.

In reaction to the U-boat slaughter of British-controlled shipping, at about this same time (August 1940), Roosevelt approved a proposal from Admiral Jerry Land of the U.S. Maritime Commission to greatly increase construction of merchant ships. Since the half-dozen major shipyards in the United States were already burdened with contracts for the huge expansion of the Navy, Land established seven new shipyards (three on the Gulf Coast, four on the West Coast) to build the new merchant ships. The modified Maritime Commission program envisioned letting contracts for two hundred new ships by July 1941, but that was merely a small, first step in what was to grow into the greatest merchant-ship building program in the history of the world.

Seeking new sources for merchant ships, Churchill sent a secret mission to Washington and Ottawa. The mission members brought along blueprints for what was wanted: a simple, welded, 440-foot coal-burning cargo vessel of 10,000 gross tons, capable of cruising at 11 knots on a single shaft. Although the Maritime Commission was already overburdened, Washington agreed to build sixty such ships for the British. Ottawa, in turn, agreed to build twenty-six more, relying mostly on riveted construction rather than welding. The British designated those sixty ships Ocean-class; the twenty-six Canadian versions, Fort-class.

Provided some refinements were incorporated, the Maritime Commission decreed that the British Ocean-class cargo vessel should be adopted for the 200 cargo vessels already on order. The chief change was in propulsion: oil-fired boilers rather than the coal-fired “Scotch boilers” in the British ships. The Americans designated this type of vessel the EC-2 Emergency Cargo Ship, but they became popularly known as the “Liberty” ships, or facetiously, “The Ugly Duckling.”*

As the web of friendship between Great Britain and the United States knitted ever tighter, Churchill and the War Cabinet decided to share Britain’s most closely held scientific and technical achievements with the United States. Led by the scientist Henry Tizard, another secret mission, which included the radar expert Taffy Bowen, left for Washington in late August on the liner Duchess of Richmond. The mission carried along a 450-pound Mark VII aerial depth charge and plans and specifications for the Mark VIII 250-pound aerial depth charge; the formula for RDX, an explosive 50 percent more powerful than TNT, to be produced in America as Torpex; a Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine; a Swedish-built Bofors automatic antiaircraft cannon; a proximity fuse for large-caliber antiaircraft guns; a power-driven gun turret for heavy bombers; the latest model of British sonar; plans and specifications for an ahead-throwing antisubmarine mortar called the Hedgehog; plans and specifications for a miniaturized shipborne high frequency direction finder (HF/DF or Huff Duff); plans and specifications for an “escort,” or “jeep,” aircraft carrier; plans and specifications of the Chain Home British antiaircraft radar net, together with data on the latest models of airborne radar, the antibomber A-I and antiship ASV; and three models of the latest version of the Randall and Boot cavity magnetron, much improved since the first test in February.

All of these items were of intense interest to the American military and the scientists and engineers, and some of them were of great value. But none excited the scientists and engineers more than the Randall and Boot cavity magnetron. It was, an American scientist later wrote, “the most valuable treasure ever brought to these shores.” Somewhat chagrined to discover it had been inspired by a forgotten American invention (Hull’s magnetron), Washington assigned the task of its full development to the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which in turn farmed out various technical chores to laboratories at General Electric, Westinghouse, the Radio Corporation of America, and Bell Telephone.

At this time, Great Britain and the United States also entered into an agreement to exchange codebreaking information. Both nations had a great deal to share: Sensational new breakthroughs had occurred. In Washington, Army and Navy code-breaking teams, working independently, cracked through difficult Japanese codes in September 1940. The Army team, led by William F. Friedman, broke the Japanese diplomatic machine code, Purple, which had been introduced eighteen months earlier, in February 1939. Within the same week, the Navy team, led by Laurence F. Safford and Agnes Driscoll, broke the Japanese naval code, JN-25, which had been introduced in June 1939.

Friedman’s Purple machine, which utilized stepping switches rather than rotors, enabled American codebreakers to “read,” on a continuous basis, all high-level diplomatic traffic between Tokyo and Japanese embassies in Washington, London, Berlin, and elsewhere around the globe. Laurence Safford later characterized Friedman’s break into Purple as “the masterpiece of cryptanalysis in the war era.” The Navy team’s break into JN-25 gave it complete and current access to the Japanese Imperial Navy’s operational traffic, but it required compilation, by hand, of huge “code books,” together with thousands of English translations, a tedious task that took the Navy team another year to complete.

At about this same time, September 1940, the British Tabulating Machine Company delivered the first two prototypes of the Turing-Welchman bombes to Bletchley Park. These wondrous machines, in effect, automated the hunt for five-rotor Enigma keys. The bombes were not a panacea. They had to be prompted with cribs; without cribs they were useless. But after a full year of intense work on various German Enigma nets, Bletchley Park had plenty of cribs on file and its personnel had developed an uncanny sense for spotting new cribs.

Fed a daily dose of cribs, the bombes enabled Welchman and his codebreaking group to break Luftwaffe Red—but no other Enigma nets—consistently, currently, and accurately. A distinguished British scholar-historian at Bletchley Park, Peter Calvocoressi, remembered: “We were never again to lose Red. It became the constant staple … it was broken daily, usually on the day in question and early in the day.”

The military historian Bradley F. Smith has documented the background of the Anglo-American cryptographic agreement.* He wrote that the initial proposal came from a U.S. Army representative in London, Brigadier General George Strong, and that thereafter senior American officials pressed for an exchange, apparently with President Roosevelt’s blessing. On the other hand, British and American codebreakers, traditionally suspicious and secretive, were actively opposed to the agreement and delayed it as long as possible. Largely at the urging of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the deal was finally struck in mid-December 1940, in a one-page document that has not yet been released to the public.

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