Military history

THE ARGONAUT CONFERENCE

The Allied shipping situation, which governed all plans, together with the need to clarify and coordinate global strategy, war production programs, and other matters, persuaded Churchill to suggest a second meeting with Roosevelt in Washington. Roosevelt approved the conference, designated Argonaut, and not a minute too soon.

By that time—June 1942—Hitler’s vast mechanized armies were surging out of the Ukraine toward the Caucasus Mountains and the rich oil fields at Baku on the Caspian Sea and southeast toward Stalingrad on the Volga River. Anticipating a renewed German attack on Moscow, Stalin had concentrated his forces in the center. As a consequence Red armies on the south and southeastern fronts were hard-pressed to resist the German advance. Personally directing this massive offensive, Hitler moved his command post to a site in the Ukraine.

German successes in the Mediterranean Basin provided additional impetus for this third round of Roosevelt-Churchill talks. Near Tobruk, on June 12-13, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps delivered the British Eighth Army what appeared to be a decisive blow, setting the stage for the capture of Tobruk and possibly the whole of Egypt. At about the same time, June 13-16, the Luftwaffe—and some Italian naval units—decisively repulsed an all-out British attempt to reinforce Malta by simultaneously sailing heavily escorted convoys east from Gibraltar and west from Alexandria. Only two out of the seventeen supply ships in the two convoys got through; the rest were sunk or turned back. In the aftermath of these British setbacks on land and sea, the Royal Navy abandoned its major base at Alexandria, withdrawing eastward to Haifa, Palestine, and Beirut, Lebanon.

Worse yet was a disturbing forecast from Rodger Winn in the Admiralty’s U-boat Tracking Room. On June 1, Winn estimated that the Germans had built 355 U-boats to then, of which only seventy-five were positively known to have been sunk. That left a net force of about 280 to 285 commissioned U-boats on June 1.* Furthermore, Winn estimated, the Germans were building new U-boats at the rate of “15-25 per month.” If the forecast proved accurate, it meant the net force was to grow to at least 400 U-boats by January 1, 1943.

Many responsible American officials believed that disturbing forecast to be greatly understated, among them Adolphus Andrews, commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier. Analyzing the Winn paper, his diarist wrote in June that the number of surviving U-boats might be not 280 or 285 but as many as 325, of which not 125 but as many as 140 were assigned to the Atlantic force. Doubtless reflecting the views of Andrews, the diarist went on to predict:

At the present rate of building the Germans will have over 500 submarines by January 1, 1943. It is probable that most of the new construction will ultimately be used against us in the Atlantic. When it is remembered that in the first six months of the war [i.e., war with the United States] an average of 100 submarines available to operate in the Atlantic have caused very large losses, doubling or tripling of this number presents a problem of great seriousness, particularly when it is also remembered that sinkings of U-boats [by the Allies] have been so small as to be almost negligible during the same period. U-boat crews which were green in March are now hardened veterans [and] will form the working nucleus of the larger fleet to be at sea six months from now.

The solution of this problem lies primarily in developing the means to destroy submarines and not so much in their location and detection (where most of our research endeavor has been placed to date). Though attack, capture and holding of the Bay of Biscay coast would be a dangerous and costly operation, it may be more costly to permit the enemy to use and expand activities from these bases.

Amid great secrecy, Churchill left the British Isles June 17 in a Boeing Flying Clipper. Twenty-six and a half hours later, the huge flying boat landed on the Potomac River in Washington. There Churchill transferred to a smaller aircraft and flew to the President’s home in Hyde Park, New York, where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Harry Hopkins commenced strategy talks. Churchill stressed these points:

• The “heavy sinkings” of merchant ships by U-boats in American waters constituted the “greatest and most immediate danger” to the Allies. He urged Roosevelt to do everything possible to hasten the extension of the convoy network into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

• If mounted in early September 1942, as planned, Sledgehammer was “certain to lead to disaster.” No responsible British military authority favored it.

• Rather than Sledgehammer, the Allies should reconsider Gymnast, the postponed Allied invasion of French Northwest Africa, and Jupiter, an Allied occupation of extreme northern Norway to provide land-based flank protection for Murmansk convoys.

• British scientists had made substantial (paper) progress on an atomic bomb, disguised in the British Isles for security reasons as R&D on “Tube Alloys.” The British and Americans should “at once pool all our information, work together on equal terms, and share the results.”

In Washington at this time, June 19, the normally cool and reserved Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall, blasted King with a memo that has served King’s critics well. The intent and timing of this memo, the content of which King knew as well as or better than Marshall, is not at all clear. Listing the heavy Allied shipping losses in four categories, Marshall wrote:

The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort…. We are all aware of the limited number of escort craft available, but has every conceivable improvised means been brought to bear on this situation? I am fearful that another month or two of this [loss rate] will so cripple our means of transport that we will be unable to bring sufficient men and planes to bear against the enemy in critical theaters to exercise a determining influence in the war.

Marshall’s memo drew from King on June 21 a remarkably calm and lengthy review of the steps already taken to combat the U-boat, together with King’s views on what was required for the future. “Though we are still suffering heavy losses outside the east convoy zone,” King wrote, “the situation is not hopeless.” He stressed these points:

• The U-boat threat could only be eliminated completely by “wiping out the German building yards and bases” with heavy bomber attacks. This was a matter which King had been “pressing with the British, so far with only moderate success.”

• Meanwhile, if all shipping could be brought under defensive escort and air cover, “our losses will be reduced to an acceptable figure.” King went on to emphasize his unwavering view that “escort is not just one way of handling the submarine menace; it is the only way that gives any promise of success.”* Hence, “we must get every ship that sails the seas under constant close protection.”

• Alluding to the Army Air Forces’ doctrine of offensive “hunter-killer” air patrols to the exclusion of defensive convoy escort, King again threw cold water on that approach. “The so-called patrol and hunting operations have time and again proved futile,” he wrote. The only efficient way to kill U-boats at sea was to attack “continuously and relentlessly” those U-boats that had been drawn to the convoys. However, this was a doctrine that required enormous numbers of radar-equipped, well-trained surface escorts and land- and carrier-based aircraft, not yet in sight, let alone in hand.

King concluded his memo by asking Marshall for assistance in five categories:

• Build up, “as soon as practicable,” a force of about 1,000 radar-equipped Army aircraft to patrol the projected 7,000 miles of convoy lanes in the Eastern, Gulf, Caribbean, and Panama Sea Frontiers. This airpower was not to be “a temporary measure pending augmentation” of naval surface forces but rather “a permanent arrangement” to “protect our shipping properly.”

• Reduce requests for “special convoys” to rush Army troops to “the Caribbean and other local danger zones” until such time as surface escorts were plentiful. The protection provided for “special convoys” diminished the protection available for “shipping in general.”

• Reduce unescorted cargo-ship movements, and insist that such ships travel in established convoys.

• Reduce the growing requirements for the protection of important coastal structures, such as oil refineries, from U-boat gun bombardments, which were “not formidable,” only “occasional,” and easily thwarted.

• Examine every “new project with respect to its effect on our antisubmarine effort.” Any such military proposal or operation that “retards the output of antisubmarine vessels or involves the diversion of vessels engaged in protection of merchant shipping will unduly aggravate the present bad situation.”

President Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hopkins left Hyde Park for Washington via presidential train on the evening of June 20. Upon arrival at the White House the next day, they confronted shocking news: Some 33,000 seasoned British and Commonwealth troops had surrendered Tobruk to an Axis force of about half that number. Churchill wrote later: “This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war.”

The American and British delegations that assembled for the Argonaut conference in Washington met off and on from June 21 to June 27. The shipping crisis and the military setback in North Africa dominated all else.

Under relentless pressure from Churchill and his advisers, as well as from Stimson, Marshall, and others in Washington, President Roosevelt again chastised Admiral King for the delays in initiating convoys. Reviewing the heavy losses of unescorted shipping in North American waters for the period May 17 to June 27, Roosevelt wrote King privately:

One hundred and eighteen ships sailing independently were lost as against twenty under escort. I realize the problem of making up escorts for convoys but about three months have elapsed since we undertook it. I also realize that strict observance of convoy rules will slow up voyages of many ships but, frankly, I think it has taken an unconscionable time to get things going, and further, I do not think that we are utilizing a large number of escort vessels which could be used, especially in the Summer time. We must speed things up and we must use the available tools even though they are not just what we would like to have.

Apart from ignoring the delays in his emergency SC program (“Sixty Ships in Sixty Days”) and the PC program, and the low priority granted to destroyer escort construction, this memo reflected Roosevelt’s wrongheaded notion that small, cheap, mass-produced vessels such as SCs, private fishing trawlers, and yachts could do the convoy escort job in American waters. It drew from King a prompt and remarkably restrained reply, which stressed tactfully the impracticably of Roosevelt’s obsession with small-boat escorts.

“I am in entire accord with your view as to the advantages of escorted convoys,” King wrote Roosevelt. “I have established convoy systems, beginning with the most dangerous areas, as acquisition of escort vessels permitted. I have used vessels of every type and size that can keep up with the ships they guard. I have accepted the smallest escorts that give promise of a reasonable degree of protection.”

After listing the various convoy systems in place. King wrote that “these convoys are a step in the right direction” but that the Allies “are still at a disadvantage”:

• Escorts are unduly weak, consisting of too large a proportion of small craft with little fighting power.

• Only medium-speed (nominally 10-knot) convoys are at present possible. Fifteen-knot and faster ships normally proceed independently. Very slow ships are, where possible, moved from port to port in daylight with a token escort of small craft.

• There are no regular convoys at present to Gulf of Mexico ports, but it is expected that 83-foot Coast Guard cutters will become available in the near future for this service.

• Small craft now used in the Caribbean frequently cannot keep up with convoys against the trade winds.

• A dangerous concentration of unprotected shipping exists in the open sea beyond Trinidad.

• The smaller craft now extensively used in escort service will not stand winter weather in the North Atlantic.

King concluded:

My goal—and I believe yours also—is to get every ship under escort. For this purpose we (the United States and Great Britain) need a very large number—roughly 1,000—sea-going escort vessels of DE [destroyer escort] or corvette type. I am doing my best to get them quickly.

The military setback in North Africa was of great concern to the delegates at the Argonaut conference. To prevent a rout of the British Eighth Army, the loss of Egypt and the Suez Canal, and a possible linkup of German forces in the Middle East, the Americans offered the following emergency forces:

• The American 2nd Armored Division, commanded by George S. Patton, Jr., which was training in a California desert. In response to a summons from Marshall, Patton arrived in Washington on June 22 to draw plans for the movement. After several days of study, Patton recommended that it would be more appropriate to send two American divisions to North Africa. In any case, the scheme died aborning owing to the lack of shipping and other factors.

• Three hundred new American Sherman tanks, right off the assembly line, as well as 100 new 105mm (antitank) howitzers. The tanks, less engines, were loaded into fast cargo ships. The 300 tank engines were loaded into a single ship, the 6,200-ton American Fairport. This special fast military convoy, AS 4, sailed hurriedly from New York on July 13, escorted by two cruisers and seven destroyers.

As related, while homebound, a Type IX of the April group, U-161, commanded by Albrecht Achilles, came upon this important special convoy on July 16. Achilles boldly set up on and shot at two of the nine cargo ships. As Churchill recalled in his war memoir, the torpedoes hit the Fairport, which sank with all the tank engines. Two modern destroyers, Kearny and Wilkes, jumped on U-161 and depth-charged and hunted her for nine hours. They claimed a kill, but it was not so. Achilles reported that the U-161incurred “considerable damage,” but neither he nor Dönitz was aware of the vital cargo in the holds of the Fairport.

Upon learning of the loss of the Fairport, Churchill wrote in his memoir, Roosevelt directed immediately that 300 more engines for the Shermans be loaded and sent to North Africa. This “fast ship” actually overtook the convoy. The first ships of the convoy, Churchill continued, reached Port Said on September 2 with 193 Shermans and twenty-eight 105mm (antitank) howitzers. The rest of the ships arrived September 5. The actual number of weapons delivered to Port Said was 317 Sherman tanks and ninety-four 105mm antitank guns.

• Six American Army Air Forces groups: three fighter, one medium bomber, and one heavy bomber (B-24s). One fighter group, the 57th, composed of seventy P-40s, was rushed overseas on the aircraft carrier Ranger. Departing the States on July 1, she was escorted by Task Force 22: the heavy cruiser Augusta, the brand-new light cruiser Juneau, and six destroyers. As before, Ranger launched these planes while at sea off the Gold Coast (on July 19). They flew to Accra, Ghana, thence to Egypt.

The rest of these air groups plus 4,000 Army Air Forces ground personnel began moving to North Africa by ship or other means in July. In addition, Roosevelt diverted to North Africa forty A-20 medium bombers, which had been en route to the Soviet Union, plus a special group of twenty-five B-24s en route to China* and transferred the twenty-four heavy bombers of the Tenth Air Force from India to Egypt.

Churchill boarded a Boeing Flying Clipper at Baltimore on June 25 for the return trip to the British Isles. Fortunately for Britain, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps ran low on gasoline, ammunition, and other supplies, and could not advance into Egypt beyond El Alamein. In subsequent weeks, Churchill swept a broom through the top echelons of his Middle East forces, appointing Harold Alexander as Commander in Chief, and Bernard Law Montgomery as commanding general of the Eighth Army. These new generals were to benefit spectacularly from the arrival in North Africa of the American Sherman tanks, 105mm (antitank) howitzers, and airpower, and by new breaks into German Army Enigma.

Notwithstanding the Argonaut talks, American and British global war planners were still at sixes and sevens. In view of the German advances in the Soviet Union, Marshall still wanted to carry out Sledgehammer in 1942. Contrarily, the British still opposed Sledgehammer and because of the threat Rommel posed to Egypt and the Middle East, urged Gymnast (renamed Torch), the invasion of Vichy French Algeria and Morocco.

To resolve this impasse, Roosevelt, who favored Torch, sent King and Marshall, who did not, to London to confer with Churchill, Harry Hopkins, and Dwight Eisenhower, who had only just arrived to command all American forces in Europe. King and Marshall departed by air on July 16 and arrived in London the next day. The upshot of these talks was that at British insistence, Sledgehammer was finally abandoned and Torch took its place. It was to be staged when the shipping situation permitted, hopefully in October.

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