Military history


In a secret speech to the House of Commons on June 25, Prime Minister Churchill expressed satisfaction at the changing fortunes of the British in the Battle of the Atlantic. His decision to establish the Battle of the Atlantic Committee to focus utmost attention on that struggle had paid dividends. In spite of the increase in the size of the U-boat force, merchant-ship losses in the vital North Atlantic convoys had actually declined, as had shipping losses to enemy aircraft. Moreover, British shipyards were making astonishing progress in clearing out the backlog of ships idled with damage; the German air raids on the docks at Bristol Channel, Liverpool, Firth of Clyde, and elsewhere had tapered off to nearly zero; a new organization, the Ministry of War Transport, presided over by the business tycoon Frederick Leathers, had already developed more efficient methods of handling shipping and rail traffic.

There were two other big reasons for Churchill’s optimism in his secret appraisal to the House on June 25. These were:

• Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, launched three days before on June 22. Although the British believed the Germans would defeat the ragged Soviet Army within several months, the military effort put into Barbarossa appeared to preclude any German invasion of the British Isles in 1941. If indeed this proved to be the case, the destroyers and other light ships of the Home Fleet on anti-invasion duty could be reassigned to convoy escort and also, possibly, to hunter-killer groups. This added commitment of naval power to the North Atlantic would doubtless bring about the long-sought and necessary increase in U-boat kills.

• Indigo, the American occupation of Iceland. Even as Churchill spoke to the House, a powerful American task force was about to set sail for that purpose.

President Roosevelt had set Indigo in motion on June 6. A momentous American enterprise, its main purpose was to absolutely secure air and naval bases for the American forces that were to assume responsibility for escorting convoys between Canada and Iceland, and for British escort forces working on the middle and eastern legs of the route. London also expected that the arrival of the Americans in Iceland would free up the British occupation forces there for duty in North Africa.

Admiral Stark in Washington ordered Atlantic Fleet commander Admiral King to carry out Indigo on June 16. This was the first large-scale American military operation of World War II and, of course, the first major American expeditionary force to embark for overseas duty. It was carried out with dispatch and with naval professionalism, a credit to King and all concerned. Doubtless this new feather in King’s cap was a factor in his selection to lead the U.S. Navy throughout World War II.

Inasmuch as Washington and London had to guard against an angry Axis reaction to Indigo, the American amphibious force was very strong and the troops designated for occupation duty were well-trained regular U.S. Marines rather than Army draftees. Proud of the Navy’s remarkably successful achievement in moving troops overseas in World War I, Admiral King was absolutely determined to repeat that success in World War II. Therefore he had ruled that whenever it fell to the Navy to move troops at sea (whether U.S. Marines, U.S. Army forces, or foreign), the troopships were to be massively guarded by American battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.

The importance and rigidity of the American troopship convoy policy cannot be overstated. Neither at the time nor later did the British appear to understand—or accept—the policy. This led to many misunderstandings between the British and American naval authorities and to unintentional—or intentional—distortions and misstatements in most British and many American accounts of the Battle of the Atlantic: for example, the outright falsehood that King was oblivious to or disdainful of the U-boat threat and therefore transferred most American destroyers to the Pacific.

The American troopship escort policy was initiated with the occupation of Iceland. In late June about four thousand Marines boarded four Navy troopships (APs). Their impedimenta filled two attack cargo ships (AKs). Admiral King directed seventeen warships to protect the force: old battleships Arkansas and New York; light cruisers Brooklyn and Nashville; and thirteen destroyers* of Squadron 7, of which nine were new (1940) and four were aged four-stacks.

Designated Task Force 19, the convoy sailed from the United States on July 1. En route, one of the new destroyers, Charles F. Hughes, came upon one of the two Greenland-bound lifeboats from the Norwegian freighter Vigrid, sunk from convoy Halifax 133 by U-371. The Hughes rescued the fourteen survivors of that boat, who included four of the ten American Red Cross nurses, who had been in the boat for twelve miserable days.

The convoy arrived in Reykjavik harbor on the evening of July 7. Ironically, the debarking American Marines—the First Provisional Marine Brigade—were greeted by the surviving American Marines of the 12th Provisional Company who were torpedoed by U-564 while on the Dutch freighter Maasdam, also in convoy Halifax 133.

The Americans promptly set about building bases on Iceland. The next important contingent to arrive, on August 6, was the U.S. Navy’s Patrol Wing 7, consisting of a squadron (VP 73) of Consolidated Catalinas and a squadron (VP 74) of Martin Mariners, a newer, more powerful, and heavily armed twin-engine flying boat. These three dozen aircraft were supported by two aviation destroyer tenders (AVDs), George E. Badger and Goldsborough.

At that time there were three squadrons of RAF Coastal Command aircraft based in Iceland. These squadrons flew about fifty American-built aircraft: nine Catalinas in Squadron 209, twenty-six Hudsons in the (overstrength) Squadron 269, and eighteen Northrop scout bombers in Squadron 330, manned by Norwegian pilots. In addition, the RAF had provided about ten Hurricanes to counter possible German air strikes.

Two weeks after the arrival of the Marines, Admiral King further reinforced the Iceland force by the creation of Task Force 1 and, on September 1, by the creation of the Denmark Strait Patrol. The first was composed of the old battleships Arkansas, New York, and Texas; the Denmark Patrol by the newer first-line battleships recently transferred from the Pacific fleet: Idaho, Mississippi, and New Mexico, plus Atlantic Fleet Destroyer Squadron 2, composed of nine new vessels.§ These warships moored in the anchorage at Hvalfjord or in Reykjavik. Should Tirpitz and/or the “pocket” battleships Lützow and Scheer or the heavy cruiser Hipper attempt to break into the Atlantic via the Denmark Strait, or Prinz Eugen, Gneisenau, and Scharnhorst attempt to return from Brest to Germany by that route, the American warships were to operate in a “reconnaissance” role under direction of the British Home Fleet. The presence of these big American ships in Iceland enabled the British to dilute the strength of the Home Fleet and send a big-ship force to the Far East to deter possible Japanese advances on Hong Kong, Singapore, and other British outposts.*

The unprecedented peacetime American Selective Training and Service Act, passed in September 1940, limited draftees to one year’s service in the United States only. At Roosevelt’s request, in August 1941, Congress revised and extended it, removing the restriction on overseas assignments and lengthening the term of service to eighteen months. Roosevelt thereupon directed the War Department to send about 5,000 Army troops to Iceland to reinforce the Marines and the British forces.

Admiral King organized a second large Navy Task Force, 15, to carry out this mission. Guarded by the battleship Mississippi, four light cruisers (Quincy, Tuscaloosa, Vincennes, Wichita), and fifteen destroyers, the twenty-one-ship convoy sailed September 5. The new carrier Wasp (1940) ferried the 33rd Pursuit Squadron of the Army Air Forces to Iceland. On September 25, the American Army commander assumed responsibility for the defense of Iceland, but the Marine brigade and all but a handful of the British ground forces remained for the time being.

In very short order the Americans turned Iceland into a virtually impregnable military fortress. As a base for the Denmark Patrol, for air and surface-ship escorts for convoys and, later, for offensive air and surface-ship ASW patrols, as well as a way station for transoceanic military air transports, Iceland was to become the most vital of Allied outposts in the Atlantic Ocean area.

German naval authorities were incensed. Believing this latest American move in the Atlantic was a provocation too brazen to ignore, Dönitz proposed to Admiral Raeder and the OKM that it be countered by a U-boat assault. He found willing ears in Berlin, and Raeder set off at once to petition Hitler to lift the restrictions against attacking American warships and merchant ships (and British warships smaller than cruisers) in Icelandic waters.

Raeder met with Hitler on July 9, the eighteenth day of the offensive against Russia, Barbarossa. The American occupation of Iceland, Raeder insisted, “greatly affects our U-boats as well as surface vessels in the execution of the war in the Atlantic.” But Hitler refused to lift the restrictions. The stenographer recorded his views thus:

The Führer explains that everything depends on the U.S.A.’s entry into the war being delayed another month or two. First, because the Eastern Campaign must be carried out with all the aircraft allotted for that purpose, and the Führer does not wish to deplete their numbers; secondly, because the effects of the victorious Eastern Campaign on the whole situation, even on the attitude of the U.S.A., would be tremendous. For the present, therefore, he desires that no alteration be made in the instructions, and that all incidents should be avoided.

The American occupation of Iceland thus drew scant naval reaction from Germany.

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