Military history


The slaughter off Cape Hatteras by Mohr in U-124 and the other February boats infuriated London. Where were the American destroyers which had been released from the North Atlantic run to form coastal convoys? Could not coastal convoys be initiated with the British ASW trawlers that had just arrived? Why not transfer some American destroyers from the Pacific to the Atlantic?

Most British officials apparently refused to understand the American problem: the density of the ship traffic, the immensely long coastline, the shortage of proper escorts owing to other urgent tasks. The British obtuseness and ignorance are perfectly reflected in a private diary entry of Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Cadogan, of March 16, in which he quite wrongly assumes that the ten British corvettes and twenty-four British ASW trawlers had already arrived in the United States: “Not much news, except of fearful sinkings—nearly all on American coast. Americans do certainly seem to be terrifyingly inefficient. And we have lent them about forty naval vessels!”*

Needlessly drawing attention to the “immense” tanker losses, on March 12 Churchill cabled President Roosevelt’s troubleshooter, Harry Hopkins, demanding “drastic action” to expand the convoy network. Unless it were done—and done quickly—Churchill insisted, the British would be compelled to halt tanker sailings and to take other drastic steps which would reduce vital British imports, already well below absolute minimum requirements.

Roosevelt replied on March 16 that under the new King escort plan for the North Atlantic run, “we had hoped that ten United States destroyers would … be made available for work on the Atlantic seaboard,” but that “this has not worked out completely,” in part because:

• The British had not yet provided a full quota of MOEF escorts and owing to that, “it has been necessary to reinforce eastbound British midocean escorts” with American vessels.

• The Canadians likewise had not yet provided a full quota of escorts for WLEF and owing to “the weakness of the Canadian western local escorts” American vessels had to stay with westbound convoys about 300 extra miles “westward of the agreed limit,” WESTOMP.

• The unforeseen decision to deploy Task Force 39 (renamed 99) to Scapa Flow to reinforce the British Home Fleet was to cause a further drain of American destroyers.

• The British ASW trawlers “have only recently arrived or are approaching” and those that had arrived were undergoing “essential voyage repairs.

Roosevelt expressed the hope that Churchill could have a talk with First Sea Lord Dudley Pound “to see if we can’t get the complete revision of the transatlantic escort working so that the ten destroyers can get on to the patrol along our Atlantic seaboard….” He went on to say that “I feel sure we are going to get on top of this but it requires some help from you during the next few weeks.”

In the meantime, for the “next few weeks” Roosevelt had two suggestions for Churchill which would “more effectively deal with the submarine”:

• Open out the cycle of transatlantic convoys to sailings every “eight days”* until July 1, at which time “our mounting production of small escort vessels [SCs, PCs] and planes will come into full play.”

• Direct Western Approaches personally to order British merchant vessels operating in the western Atlantic “to conform to routes prescribed by the [U.S.] Navy” and to douse running lights at night.

The opening out of the cargo-convoy cycle on the North Atlantic run would, of course, further reduce vital British imports. However, Roosevelt thought that preferable to the “unwise” Admiralty alternative proposal to reduce the number of escorts per North Atlantic cargo convoy. In any case, Roosevelt hastened to add, with the American merchant-shipbuilding program going so well, he was “sure” that any decline in vital British imports caused by opening out the convoy cycle could be made up “in the second half of the year.”

Perhaps regretting the asperity of his March 16 communication, on March 18 Roosevelt again wrote Churchill to say, in part, that he expected by May 1 to get “a pretty good coastal patrol working from Newfoundland to Florida and through the West Indies.” To do so, Roosevelt went on, he had “begged, borrowed and stolen every vessel of every description over eighty feet long….” Roosevelt then took a gratuitous and wholly unjustified swipe at admirals King and Stark and others, which has been exploited by King’s critics:

My Navy has been definitely slack in preparing for this submarine war off our coast. As I need not tell you, most Naval officers have declined in the past to think in terms of any vessel of less than two thousand tons. You learned that lesson two years ago. We still have to learn it.

What Roosevelt intended to convey was that “his” Navy insisted that anything less than a fleet destroyer was inadequate to serve as a convoy escort. Of course, this was not true. As related, the Navy’s General Board in 1939, on which King served, recommended the construction of a 1,200-ton destroyer escort (or British frigate) for convoy escort, and in early 1941, the Bureau of Ships had produced plans for such a vessel. In spite of repeated recommendations from Stark and Navy secretaries Edison and Knox, Roosevelt had at first disapproved this vessel, then relegated it to tenth priority while granting the inadequate little SCs and PCs highest priority. The General Board’s recommendation in 1939 that the Navy acquire 2,200-ton Treasury-class Coast Guard cutters was merely an emergency measure, which the Navy itself had disapproved.*

Doubtless smarting from Roosevelt’s swipe at the Navy and what could be viewed as groveling to the British, Admiral King jumped into this high-level exchange with both feet. Over Roosevelt’s signature, he sent Churchill a testy and taunting cable on March 19, which Churchill thought showed “a touch of strain”:

Your interest in steps to be taken to combat the Atlantic submarine menace … impels me to request your particular consideration of heavy attacks on submarine bases and building and repair yards thus checking submarine activities at their source and where submarines perforce congregate.

In response, Churchill replied the next day, March 20:

The highest importance is attached by us to bombing U-boat construction yards and bases and they will play a leading part in our spring bombing offensive. All is in readiness for this, including a vastly improved method of finding our way to the target…. We have been only held back by weather, which is the worst experienced for bombing purposes in fifteen years…. No chance will be lost. We are also studying the attack by long range aircraft upon U-boats coming from Bordeaux to the Caribbean. It is a question of competing claims.

In a communication to Roosevelt on March 29, Churchill expanded on British bombing plans. The RAF was now “emphasizing” attacks on “U-boat nests” in order to “cope with future U-boat hatchings.” Two hundred and fifty RAF bombers had struck Lüibeck the previous night, with “best ever” results. Coastal Command was gearing up to mount “a day and night patrol” over the Bay of Biscay to harass and delay and kill U-boats outbound from and inbound to the bases in France, thereby reducing pressure on the American seaboard. For that purpose Churchill favored an Admiralty request that four (and later six) squadrons of twin-engine Wellington and Whitley bombers be transferred from Bomber Command to Coastal Command. In recompense, Churchill pleaded for an increase in the buildup of American bomber forces in the British Isles, “even a hundred American heavy bombers” to augment Bomber Command.

In most accounts of Drumbeat and the continuing U-boat campaign in American waters, the impression is given that King would not—or could not—initiate coastal convoying until about May 15. This is not the case. On March 20, King or-dered that several coastal-convoy routes be initiated “at once” even though “escort for a time will be meager.” These were:

• A three-legged ocean network from Trinidad to a MOMP near Bermuda, thence to Halifax. The ships were to sail every fourteen days. A few American destroyers and Canadian corvettes were to serve as escorts.

• An inshore-coastal network from Boston to Halifax and vice versa.* A few American destroyers and Canadian corvettes were to serve as escorts. When this had been established, ships of Outbound North convoys were no longer to disperse offshore but were to continue in convoy to Halifax, thence in the new coastal convoys to Boston, New York, and southward.

When he received these orders, Ingersoll must have blinked. The following day, March 21, he tactfully reminded King of the many tasks to which his existing overworked destroyers had already been assigned. These still included: escort of cargo convoys on the North Atlantic run; escort of AT and NA troopship and AS high-priority cargo convoys; escort of monthly convoys from New Orleans to the Caribbean and Charleston to Bermuda. In addition, there were a number of “special tasks” right at hand or just ahead in April:

• Escort of the repaired British fleet carrier Furious and new “jeep” carriers Archer and Avenger (in transit) from American ports to EASTOMP.

• Escort of combined troop convoys AT 14 and NA 7, April 7 to April 18. This was comprised of seven troopships guarded by Task Force 37: the cruiser Philadelphia and ten American destroyers.

• Escort of Pacific-bound convoy BT 202, from East Coast ports to Panama, April 10 to April 17. This was comprised of seventeen troopships guarded by Task Force 38: the battleship Texas, cruiser Brooklyn, and eleven American destroyers.

• Escort of Task Force 36, Ranger on an aircraft-ferry mission to Ghana, for which five American destroyers were required.

• Deployment for an indefinite period at Argentia on April 23 of a special “heavy strike force” to counter a possible sortie of Tirpitz, et al., into the Atlantic. This force was to consist of one new battleship (North Carolina, later South Dakota), one fleet carrier (Ranger, later Wasp), two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four or five American destroyers.

• Escort of combined troop convoys AT 15 and NA 8, April 30 to May 12. This was comprised of thirteen troopships guarded by Task Force 38: the battleship New York, cruiser Brooklyn, and fourteen American destroyers.

To meet all these and other commitments, Ingersoll urged:

• That the layover in Londonderry of American destroyers assigned to AT and the returning TA convoys, then working on a five- to six-week cycle, be shortened.

• That the escorts to be released for other tasks by opening out the North Atlantic convoy cycle to seven days be American ships.

• That the British and Canadians provide their “agreed quota” of vessels for each of the five American MOEF groups.

At about this same time, King and Andrews also initiated an informal system of coastal convoying between Florida and Norfolk and between Norfolk and New York-Boston. Under this makeshift system, known as the “Bucket Brigade,” ships zigzagged north and south in lanes very close along the coast only in daylight on prescribed legs. At night they put into ports or man-made anchorages, protected by antisubmarine nets and mines. Wherever necessary—and possible—Andrews provided local escort from his slowly growing forces, which on April 1 consisted of the following:


SCs, PCs, etc. (93’ to 173’)


Coast Guard cutters (75’ to 165’)


British trawlers (170’)


Navy aircraft (14 Catalinas)*



89 to 100

Army aircraft

As the Bucket Brigade evolved, a northbound ship hugging the coast might travel in four daylight legs as follows:

Key West to Jacksonville, thence

Jacksonville to Charleston, thence

Charleston to Cape Fear or Cape Lookout, thence

Cape Fear or Cape Lookout to Norfolk.

Andrews deployed the bulk of his ASW forces in the dangerous Cape Hatteras area on the leg between Cape Lookout and Norfolk. Northbound ships usually gathered at Cape Lookout. From there, they sailed in informal convoys in daytime around Cape Hatteras, usually escorted by four small warships as well as aircraft. One (slow) warship led the convoy; three (fast) escorts patrolled to seaward and to the rear of the formation. Navy aircraft, such as scout planes, patrolled over the formation.

At Norfolk—or more precisely, Hampton Roads—northbound ships could choose to proceed via the safe “inland” Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and other ports. Remaining on this inland route, those ships could go farther north yet via the nineteen-mile Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to Delaware Bay, thence to Wilmington and Philadelphia and Camden. Alternatively, a northbound ship might take the shallow-water “outside” lanes close to shore from Norfolk to Delaware Bay and/or to New Jersey ports and New York. From New York, northbound ships might cruise the “inland” route via Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, and Rhode Island Sound to Buzzard’s Bay, thence through the eight-mile Cape Cod Canal to Cape Cod Bay and Boston, Portland (Maine), and other points north.

While the American Navy was putting into place these measures to protect merchant shipping, Admiral King continued to insist that highest priority be given to the protection of troopship convoys. By April, the sailings of AT convoys from the States and NA convoys from Canada (often merged) had been regularized. However, King was still concerned over what he viewed as the inadequate protection provided AT and NA convoys by the Royal Navy from EASTOMP to the British Isles. In response to King’s complaints about inadequacy, on April 4 the Admiralty suggested that the American Navy assume full responsibility for the escort of the AT and NA troopship convoys all the way across the Atlantic. On April 9, King agreed to this suggestion.* As a result, fewer American destroyers became available for coastal-convoy duty on the Eastern Seaboard than originally foreseen, further delaying the initiation of that network.

Throughout the convoy controversy in February and March, Admiral King vigorously sought to rectify the absurd policy whereby the Army Air Forces retained primary responsibility for providing land-based air patrols against U-boats. On March 26, King won a partial victory. In a dense, legalistic document, signed by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the latter agreed to transfer temporarily operational control of the 1st Bomber Command, now commanded by Westside T. Larson, to Admiral Andrews of the Eastern Sea Frontier. By April 1, Andrews directly controlled and coordinated 170 fixed-wing aircraft (eighty-two Navy, eighty-eight Army), based at eighteen East Coast fields, plus four blimps and a small but growing—and dedicated—volunteer Civil Air Patrol, flying unarmed spotter aircraft out of two airfields in New Jersey and Delaware.

The agreement did not, however, foreclose the Army’s role in ASW. To the contrary, the Army Air Forces specifically and explicitly retained long-term overall responsibility for carrying out land-based air attacks on U-boats. Despite the British experience—the poor kill-rates of Coastal Command aircraft in hunterkiller roles—the airmen were convinced that the best way to succeed in that mission was by offensive air patrols. Accordingly, at Langley Field, Virginia, the airmen activated a Sea Search Attack Group, reinforced by an R&D outfit, the Search Attack Development Unit. Commanded by William C. Dolan and equipped with Douglas B-18 Bolo bombers fitted with hand-built centimetric-wavelength radar sets and other ASW devices (floating flares, sonobuoys, etc.), the Sea Search Attack Group commenced experimental offensive ASW patrols on the East Coast, independent of and overlapping the patrols of the 1st Bomber Command.

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