Military history


The fifteen U-boats bound for American waters encountered hideous weather: brutal cold and mountainous seas. Horst Degen in the new Type VII U-701 reported that his first watch officer, who rashly went topside without a safety belt, was washed overboard and lost. Despite the hostile weather, Degen and two other new skippers of VIIs found—and attacked—shipping along the way. Between January 2 and 7, Degen fired eleven internal torpedoes at “a group” of ships and at two ships sailing alone. Nine torpedoes missed or failed, but two hit, sinking the 3,700-ton British freighter Baron Erskine. Joachim Berger in U-87 sank the 8,200-ton British tanker Cardita. Peter Cremer in U-333 fired four torpedoes at a 10,800-ton American tanker, but missed. None of the boats could down-load torpedoes from deck canisters in such weather. Degen made the entire Atlantic crossing with no internal torpedoes and was therefore compelled to evade two other ships he encountered.

On January 8 Degen, Berger, and Cremer—and other boats—ran headlong into a winter hurricane. Cremer remembered:

The waves were as high as houses. They struck the deck like an avalanche and swept away the few things they could seize on. Fenders and lines under the outer casing disappeared, supports cracked like matchwood. The boat listed up to 60 degrees—as the pendulum in the control room showed—so that it seemed one could plunge one’s bare hands in the water, then righted itself like a self-righting doll, owing to its low center of gravity, only to tip over immediately to the other side…. The U-boat literally climbed the mountainous seas, plunged through the wave crests, hung for a moment with its stem in the empty air and plunged down the other side into the trough of the waves. When it buried its nose, the screws in the stern seemed to be revolving in the air. The stern dropped down, the screws disappeared in the maelstrom and the exhaust broke off with a gurgle. In the hard thumps, U-333 shuddered in every frame member like a steel spring….

Degen wrote that he attempted to maintain a topside watch, but when a gigantic wave tore loose a bridge gun, which swiveled around and severely injured his second watch officer, he gave up the effort. Like Cremer, he dogged the conning-tower hatch shut and sat out the storm. For nearly a full week U-701 ran submerged, making twenty or thirty miles a day, coming up once or twice daily for brief periods to ventilate the boat and to recharge batteries. Finally the storm abated and Degen was able to repost a bridge watch, down-load torpedoes, and obtain a celestial fix, his first in ten days.

These violent storms also caused grief in the Allied camp. They utterly scattered six westbound convoys: Outbound North 51 to 56. In the escort group of Outbound North 55, the American destroyer Mayo and the British destroyer Douglas collided, and both ships had to abort with heavy damage. Iceland reported winds of 100 miles an hour, “the worst storm in fifteen years.” The high winds drove the American cruiser Wichita and six other vessels aground, destroyed five American Catalinas, and wrecked minefields and antisubmarine booms, DF stations, and military barracks. In addition, Iceland reported that the American “escort for [convoy] ON 56 [was] unable to sail.” Storms badly damaged Broome and Dickerson, two of the five destroyers of that group.

As the U-boats of the first wave drew close to the North American coast, B-dienst picked up the distress call of a Greek vessel that had dropped out of a convoy 180 miles east of Newfoundland with a broken rudder. Dönitz notified Reinhard Hardegen in U-123and authorized him to investigate if he was no more than 150 miles away. Although Hardegen was over twice that distance from the stricken ship, he ignored the restriction and closed on the position, eager for a kill. But when he found the Greek, she was surrounded by a tug and two “destroyers,” an enemy force that cooled Hardegen’s ardor. He aborted the attack and resumed his slow, one-engine journey to New York, regretting this brash and useless expenditure of fuel.

As a ruse de guerre to conceal the westward movement of these boats, Dönitz had assigned a new Type VII from Germany, U-653, commanded by Gerhard Feiler, age thirty-two, to broadcast dummy radio signals, simulating a heavy concentration of U-boats in the Northwest Approaches. The British, however, were not fooled. By January 2, Rodger Winn had developed enough data to enable Washington to notify the Atlantic Fleet that “Information indicates that five or six [U-boats] are proceeding west to Newfoundland area” and that “activity [was] expected there shortly.” Two days later Washington told the Atlantic Fleet: “Positions are not definite but six [U-boats] are thought to be moving west.” In his weekly summary of January 5 for the Admiralty, Winn noted the deception tactics of U-653 and speculated that her purpose was in part to conceal the “concentration” of “six U-boats off Newfoundland.” The next day, January 6, Washington told the Atlantic Fleet: “The westward movement of U-boats which was suspected is now confirmed but the number operating seems to be larger than was at first suspected. There are several [U-boats] probably already in the western Atlantic in the vicinity of Newfoundland” and “seven more” westbound.

The reports from Winn remained equally vague until about January 12. In his weekly report to the Admiralty of that date, he stated:

The general situation is now somewhat clearer and the most striking feature is a heavy concentration off the North American seaboard from New York to Cape Race.

Two groups have so far been formed. One, of six boats, is already in position off Cape Race and St. John’s and a second, of five boats, is apparently approaching the American coast between New York and Portland. It is known that these five U-boats will reach their attacking areas by 13th January.

Five other U-boats are between 30 degrees and 50 degrees west, proceeding towards one or the other of the above areas, and may later be reinforced by another five westbound boats, making a total of twenty-one boats.

This report was nearly accurate. By January 12, the first boats had reached North American waters and were presumably to open hostilities, simultaneously, on January 13. However, not “five” but only three were headed for the “American coast between New York and Portland”: Zapp in U-66, Hardegen in U-123, and Folkers in U-125. The other westbound boats that Winn reported (making a total of twenty-one) were the lead boats of the “second wave.”

While still in Canadian waters that same day—January 12—Hardegen in U-123 reached a point about 110 miles southeast of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. There he came upon the 9,100-ton British freighter Cyclops, sailing alone. Although he was behind his scheduled arrival off New York and was not authorized to sink any ship under 10,000 tons before January 13, Hardegen could not let a tempting target such as Cyclops get away. He closed and fired two torpedoes, and both hit. Radioing SSS (submarine attack), Cyclops went down with the loss of 100 of her 181-man crew. Without pausing to help the survivors, Hardegen resumed his course to New York, having tapped out the first beat on the drum.

The Arcadia conference in Washington was still in session when Winn’s appreciation of January 12 circulated. First Sea Lord Dudley Pound expressed the deepest concern. Except for the Canada-Iceland leg of the North Atlantic run, shipping in North American waters was not organized into convoys. Ships of convoys westbound from the British Isles normally dispersed well to the east of the North American coast (at about longitude 55 degrees west), sailing onward to destinations unescorted. Ships en route from the Caribbean or the United States East Coast to join eastbound convoys in Sydney and Halifax also sailed alone. Unless immediate measures were taken, this traffic, as well as the heavy local American coastal traffic, lay wide open to U-boat attack.

Obviously all this shipping would benefit from an extension of the convoy network to the East and Gulf coasts of the United States and to the Caribbean Sea. No naval authority in the Allied camp contested that view, but the hows and whens generated enormous heat. In dealing with this issue, most historians—especially British historians—have gone badly astray, depicting the Americans as dumb and inept or even criminally neglectful country cousins. Relying consistently on biased sources, historians have wildly distorted in particular the capabilities and views of Admiral King, distortions that have been allowed to stand for all too long.

The wildest of the distortions is that Admiral King had learned nothing from the British experience in fighting U-boats, or that he was so narrowly focused on the Pacific theater that he failed to appreciate, or deliberately ignored, the extent of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic. For these reasons, it was charged, King “refused” to initiate convoying or even “opposed” convoying.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For a full year, December 1940 to December 1941, first as commander of the Atlantic Fleet and then as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, King had had closer contact with German U-boat operations than any other senior officer in the U.S. Navy. He had established the naval bases in Argentia, Bermuda, and elsewhere to fight U-boats, and directed the occupation of Iceland and the formation of the naval and air bases there. He had deployed the Atlantic destroyer force and naval-air patrol squadrons in Argentia and Iceland to escort North Atlantic convoys. One of his destroyers, Niblack, had been the first American warship to attack a U-boat with depth charges. Another, Greer, had been the first to exchange close fire with a U-boat. Yet another, Kearny, had been the first American warship to be hit by a U-boat torpedo and also the first to incur battle casualties. Still another, Reuben James, had been the first American warship to be sunk by a U-boat. From this firsthand combat experience, and from his direct contacts with the Royal Navy, and from the flood of reports from Admiral Ghormley’s mission and the American naval attachés in London, King had an unusually firm grasp of the menace to merchant shipping posed by U-boats.

In his capacity as Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, King not only organized and supported convoying on the North Atlantic run, but he also urged shore-based naval authorities to prepare to initiate convoying on the United States East Coast. Three weeks before Pearl Harbor, King wrote a high-ranking naval authority:

It seems to me that the time is near at hand when we shall have to begin to make up our own convoys at Boston, New York, Hampton Roads [Norfolk]…. Each of these posts requires an organization to deal with the make-up of convoys, such as that now in force at Halifax and at Sydney, Nova Scotia, when ice permits.

I am told that organizations of the necessary scope and size and readiness do not exist. May I therefore suggest that steps be taken at once—if not already underway—to get the indicated convoy ports organized, to which end it would be well to have first-hand knowledge of how Halifax is organized—and managed.*

At this same time, King proposed to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Stark, several important changes to improve the North Atlantic convoy system. These proposals were designed to eliminate the Allied dependence on Iceland as an interim escort layover base because the weather was so hostile, the R&R accommodations were so inadequate, and handovers of convoys between escort groups were so uncertain, especially in winter weather.

The King plan would also release American destroyers for convoy duty on the United States East Coast. These ships would help overcome the “weakness of our coastal defense force,” King wrote, and prepare for the “imminent probability of a [Axis] submarine attack.”

It should not be necessary to stress that these documents portray King as a senior officer very much concerned with convoying, one doing his utmost to improve the existing system and urging all to prepare for convoying in United States coastal waters. And yet, in view of the lingering and absurd charges that Admiral King was ignorant of or hostile to convoying, the repetition is justified.

Inasmuch as many historians denigrate or ignore altogether the role of the Canadian Navy in the protection of Allied merchant shipping, it is also appropriate at this point to restate its substantial contribution. Of the escort vessels required to implement the King proposal, nearly 40 percent were to be Canadian. In addition, Ottawa was to manage the North Atlantic convoy escort and routing until the American Navy was in position to assume that duty.

The naval staffs in Washington and London offered several modifications to the King convoy plan, but the basic outline remained intact and was the subject of much discussion at the Arcadia conference. In these sessions, Churchill and Pound argued that there should be a single overall commander of all convoy escorts in the North Atlantic rather than three separate commands, as King proposed, and that the single commander should be the admiral at Western Approaches, Percy Noble. Under the existing plan, King commanded all American and Canadian escorts in the western Atlantic. He did not wish to relinquish “strategic control” and put the American ships under a British commander for logistical and other reasons, among them the possibility that when established, convoys on the United States East Coast might be commanded by Canadian or British officers.

King’s adamant stand on this command-and-control issue vastly irritated the British. Although it was by then obvious that the Royal Navy was wearing out and was to be massively overshadowed by the American Navy in all waters, including the Atlantic, the British did not gladly surrender naval first place to the Americans. They continued to press hard for strategic control of all North Atlantic convoy escorts. Some American historians have suggested that the British falsely, deliberately, and continuously criticized King and the American performance in ASW to strengthen the case for British control, and that British historians, wittingly or unwittingly, have passed along these calculated criticisms as fact.

The King convoy plan was the subject of further intense discussions at a “Convoy conference” in Washington on January 22, following the Arcadia conference. The British again pressed for a single North Atlantic escort commander and urged the formation of convoys on the United States East Coast. Toward that end, they confirmed an offer by the Admiralty to lend the United States “upon completion” ten Royal Navy corvettes that were “in refit” or “under construction” to speed up the formation of convoys. King continued to oppose the idea of a single commander of escorts but gladly accepted the offer of ten corvettes inasmuch as he was doing everything possible to amass sufficient escorts for a convoy system in the Eastern Seaboard.*

Within forty-eight hours—by January 24—the conferees at the Convoy conference had hammered out and agreed to and distributed a modified version of the King plan. It preserved the existing multinational command structure, eliminated Iceland as an escort base, and adopted the “straight through” Great Circle route farther southward, thereby forswearing the ability to reroute convoys on evasion courses in the extreme northern latitudes. Under the plan, 200 warships (seventy destroyers, 130 corvettes) were to participate in the escorting of Halifax, Slow, Outbound North, and Outbound North (Slow) convoys. The Americans were to provide about thirty destroyers; the British about twenty-eight destroyers and sixty-one corvettes; and the Canadians thirteen destroyers and seventy corvettes or minesweepers.

In addition to the North Atlantic convoy escort, the King plan was designed to provide about twenty-four destroyers for other important escort duty. Fourteen destroyers (ten Royal Navy, four American) were to be reserved for escorting troop convoys. The other ten destroyers (all American) were to cadre the new convoy network on the United States East Coast.

When he received a copy of the foregoing convoy escort agreement, Dudley Pound was not pleased. Five days later, January 29, he cabled Washington to say he had “personally” examined the plan and had strong reservations in several areas. His grumpy comments, paraphrased:

• He was “seriously disturbed” at the length of time the plan had been under discussion and the “resulting delay in putting our combined available escort forces to the most economical use.

• There should be a convoy system on the United States Eastern Seaboard and it was “important to lose no time in finding a scheme which will release the necessary forces for this purpose.”

• The present system of “divided control” of escorts was “wasteful of our resources” and he urged “most strongly” that Western Approaches should exercise “strategic direction” at “the earliest possible moment.” He stressed that such “strategic direction” in no way implied “unified control of Atlantic by British.”

To this time the Admiralty was under the impression—or professed to be—that the United States had committed fifty-one destroyers to escort duty on the North Atlantic run. Thus, under the new King plan, it appeared that in proposing a total contribution of about thirty American destroyers, Washington was freeing up twenty-one destroyers that the Admiralty believed could be used to cadre a convoy network on the Eastern Seaboard, not merely the ten destroyers King had promised for that purpose. Thus Pound proposed in his message to Washington a different arithmetic distribution of vessels that would make available “twenty-one destroyers” for “U.S. East Coast convoys” of which “roughly twelve U.S. destroyers” should possibly become “immediately available for work on the American seaboard.

It should be stressed that in these exchanges at no time did King agree to the British assumption (or proffered assumption) that “twenty-one” American destroyers would be released to cadre East Coast convoys. To the contrary, King repeatedly stated that only ten American destroyers were to be allocated for that purpose. Nonetheless, ensuing official Admiralty accounts of the convoy agreement stated that, in fact, only ten American destroyers became available for the East Coast and the “discrepancy” (i.e., nonappearance of eleven American destroyers) “can only be explained on the assumption that the balance were employed elsewhere.”*

The upshot of these prolonged and testy discussions was a modified King plan, which included these chief features:

• That for North American waters, the Canadians were to provide six escort groups for the purpose of escorting North Atlantic convoys to and from Halifax and latitude 45 degrees west (West Ocean Meeting Point, or WESTOMP), which was about 1,100 miles one-way. To be designated the Western Local Escort Force (WLEF), this force (to supersede the Newfoundland Escort Force) was to consist of forty-seven ships: five Canadian destroyers, twelve Royal Navy destroyers “on loan,” and thirty corvettes, mostly Canadian.

• That for waters of the British Isles, the Royal Navy was to provide a similar but smaller group to escort North Atlantic convoys to and from Northern Ireland and Scotland and 22 degrees west (East Ocean Meeting Point, or EASTOMP), eliminating the British layovers in Iceland. To be designated the Eastern Local Escort Force (ELEF), this group was to be composed of eighteen British destroyers.

• That for the long (1,800-mile) intervening space between WESTOMP and EASTOMP, the Allies were to create a multinational force, composed of fourteen close-escort groups, five American, five British, and four Canadian. To be designated Mid-Ocean Escort Force (MOEF), it was to be comprised of 143 ships: fifteen American destroyers; fifteen British destroyers; twelve Canadian destroyers, and 101 corvettes, fifty-two British, forty-nine Canadian. In addition, the Americans were to provide one Iceland-based group (five destroyers) to “shuttle” east-bound and westbound Iceland traffic (much of it bound to or from Murmansk) to and from the passing Slow Convoys and Outbound North (Slow) convoys.

The MOEF groups were to travel “straight across” the Atlantic from WESTOMP to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and oppositely from EASTOMP to St. John’s, Newfoundland. If granted the authority to go at best cruising speed (12-14 knots) from meeting points to bases and vice versa, by strictly following a Great Circle route, the MOEF forces could save sufficient fuel to make it “straight across” the ocean. American destroyers of the MOEF were to make one round-trip west-east to Londonderry and east-west to Canada, then return to Boston or Portland for maintenance and repairs and crew R&R.

After further discussions between Washington and London, and some minor modifications, King and Pound approved the King convoy plan on February 3 and 4, respectively. In his declaration of acceptance, King iterated that a single commander with “strategic control” of transatlantic convoys was “not acceptable” inasmuch as the existing setup of American control (over American and Canadian forces) in the western Atlantic was “working satisfactorily.” In his declaration of acceptance, Pound expressed “considerable reluctance” on that point because “it perpetuates a system of dual control with all its proved disadvantages and delays.” The British “will do all we can to make scheme work,” Pound went on, “but I must be free to reopen question should I consider our [merchant-ship] trade is suffering.”

As one measure to expedite the transfer of American destroyers from the North Atlantic run, at this time Admiral King directed that the six Atlantic-based 327-foot Treasury-class Coast Guard cutters be assigned formally and permanently to convoy-escort duty in that sector. In due course, five of these six big, roomy vessels (Bibb, Campbell, Duane, Ingham, Spencer) were to become workhorses on that convoy route, incomparably superior to the American, British, and Canadian four-stackers and in many ways more suitable for this task than modern American fleet destroyers.

Owing to the necessary transfer of eleven modern destroyers of the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Fleet in December and January and to a sudden and unforeseen heavy demand for destroyers to escort individual troopships and troopship convoys in the Atlantic, Admiral King was unable to provide the promised fifteen American destroyers for the MOEF plus five in Iceland. In fact, little by little, almost all American destroyers on the North Atlantic run had to be withdrawn to escort troopship convoys in the Atlantic, and for other urgent tasks, including assistance to the British Home Fleet.

British and Canadian historians, displaying no knowledge or understanding of the American policy of providing massive destroyer escort for troopships, have criticized King for leaving the escort of cargo or nontroopship convoys on the North Atlantic run to the Canadians and British. Typically, Canadian historian W.D.G. Lund wrote that “[w]hen the United States entered the war, all of the American destroyers were withdrawn immediately for service in other theaters, and by February 1942 there were only two United States Coast Guard cutters available for duty as convoy escorts.”*

This assertion utterly ignores the fact that the strength of the Atlantic Fleet destroyer force actually remained fairly constant in 1942 and was ever-present in that theater, engaged mostly in escort of troopships convoys and capital ships, many working in behalf of the British. The issue boils down to this: In view of the scant resources, when faced with the challenge of escorting cargo or troopships, King chose to escort the latter, reflecting the American view that military lives were more precious than military cargo. One result, the American naval historian Robert W. Love, Jr., wrote, was that “[t]he Navy’s defense of American troop shipping was one of the unalloyed victories of World War II.”

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