An American Blunder: Navy, Part 43

February 12, 2011 by Marc Milner
Destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers are among these ships ready for duty out of Halifax, May 1942. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105897]

Destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers are among these ships ready for duty out of Halifax, May 1942.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105897

On the night of Jan. 11-12, 1942, the war at sea reached the Western Hemisphere when U-123 torpedoed and sank the British steamer SS Cyclops southeast of Cape Sable, N.S. Kapitainleutant Reinhard Hardegen’s U-boat was the first of a wave of five submarines ordered into the west 10 days earlier by Admiral Karl Donitz. They were to operate between Newfoundland and Cape Hatteras, N.C., and, if conditions allowed, move further south.

Hardegen did not linger off Nova Scotia, in fact he was on track for New England and what he found astonished him. Compared to the grim blackout conditions of Europe in winter, the brilliantly lit American shoreline looked like a carnival: even the navigation lights were on. As U-123 approached her first inshore target in Rhode Island Sound, Hardegen commented to one of his lookouts, “It is unbelievable. I have a feeling the Americans are going to be very surprised….” After sinking the tanker and another ship off New York, U-123 arrived off Cape Hatteras on Jan. 18 where Hardegen immediately sank four ships at leisure. “It is a pity there were not…10 or 20 submarines instead of just one,” he lamented at the time. “I am sure they would find targets in plenty.”

The U-boats would arrive in number soon enough, and when they did, there were still plenty of easy targets. Through the first half of 1942, Donitz kept an average of 12 U-boats on station along the American coast: by March they were slipping into the Gulf of Mexico. They took a deadly toll, and were so little challenged that they often used deck guns to sink their targets, saving torpedoes for high-value tankers. Ships were easily spotted in daylight, and at night they travelled along the coast silhouetted against the blaze of city lights. It was simple to shoot at them from seaward, although not all U-boat captains did. One considerate submariner even moved inshore of his victim, so the fire from his gun would not skip inadvertently into the revellers watching the action from the beach. In February 1942, more ships were sunk by U-boats off the American east coast than had been sunk globally in any previous month of war: the first of a grim string of record setting by the U-boat fleet. The Germans called it, rightly enough, the second Happy Time.

There was no reason why the Americans should have been surprised, or indeed so unprepared. U-boats had already probed west of Cape Race, Nfld., and the departure of the first wave of U-boats for the western Atlantic was tracked by the Allies. On the day the Cyclops was sunk, British naval intelligence warned that one group of six U-boats was operating around Cape Race, five more were tasked to operate as far south as Cape Hatteras (Hardegen’s group), and that 10 more were en route around 30 degrees west. The most “striking feature” of the current U-boat deployments, the British warned, “is a heavy concentration off the North American seaboard from New York to Cape Race.”

Fortunately, the Royal Canadian Navy was ready to deal with an inshore U-boat threat, although as we will see, it was not always up to the challenge. Most importantly, the RCN subscribed to the British belief that the bedrock of trade defence in the Atlantic was the combination of convoys, naval intelligence and evasive routing. Since 1939 the RCN had developed a modern and highly efficient naval control of shipping (NCS) and naval intelligence organization at Naval Service Headquarters. The co-ordination, tracking and routing of all Allied shipping in the Western Hemisphere north of the Caribbean had been done in Ottawa since the start of the war, and that continued into early 1942—until July, in fact, when the routing office in Washington was ready to assume the role for the Western Hemisphere. Naval intelligence from intercepts and direction finding stations was collected and forwarded to London, while the intelligence summaries needed to route shipping and conduct operations came back to Ottawa along secure lines. Based on this system, the RCN was able to introduce an informal convoy system between St. John’s, Nfld., and Halifax as early as Jan. 16. It was “imperative,” senior RCN officers believed, “that coastal shipping should be escorted.”

Unfortunately for the Allies, and thousands of Allied merchant seamen, the Americans felt otherwise. This was not because the Anglo-Canadians had failed to share their hard won experience and expertise. Throughout 1941, the Ottawa NCS and naval intelligence staff had fostered links with the developing American system, providing publications and liaison officers, and generally serving as the British Commonwealth’s lead agency in the integration of the Americans into the global NCS system. All this was facilitated by the fact that the British Commonwealth already ran an effective NCS network throughout the United States. A network of British Consular Shipping Agents (CSAs) was run from Ottawa, and Kingston, Jamaica, (for the Gulf of Mexico coast) which effectively controlled British and other Allied shipping from American ports. During 1941 these officers—and they were invariably retired Royal Navy officers in civilian dress who drew their pay from the Commander-in-Chief (CinC) America and West Indies station in Bermuda—helped develop the American Port Director’s system, and through them the United States Navy was provided with the latest confidential books and special publications related to NCS.

The Operations Plotting Room at Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa, November 1943. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134337]

The Operations Plotting Room at Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa, November 1943.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134337

On Dec. 7, 1941, or perhaps more properly on Jan. 14, 1942, when Hardegen sank the 9,577-ton tanker Norness in Rhode Island Sound, there was no good reason why the USN should not institute a coastal convoy system. This, after all, had been the RCN’s reaction to the westward movement of U-boats. Canadian skill and success at this side of the war stood the RCN in good stead later in 1943, when an independent Canadian command was finally established in the northwest Atlantic.

Since an efficient NCS network was already in place throughout the U.S., the only thing needed to make a convoy system work along the American coast in early 1942 were enough small ships to run the convoys and some help from the locals. It was the system, not the quality of escorts that was crucial. The RCN’s postwar critics, among them many senior RN veterans of the Atlantic war, forgot that vital fact when they sharply criticized the navy’s struggles for operational efficiency in 1941. The escorts, after all, were the last line of defence: they only fought if intelligence, convoy, air cover and evasive routing failed to keep shipping clear of the enemy.

However, ‘British’ lessons and the presence of an effective British Commonwealth NCS system in the Western Hemisphere apparently made little impression on the USN, especially on its acerbic, anglophobic chief, Admiral Ernie King. King’s distrust of the British—indeed anything British—was legendary: he hated them even more than he hated the U.S. Army. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who rose rapidly through the ranks to become Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces in 1944, endured many a high-level Allied meeting with King, and saw first-hand how his dislike of the British poisoned Anglo-American relations. “The war might have ended sooner,” Eisenhower once opined, “if someone had shot King!”

In 1942, King became Chief of Naval Operations, but he retained personal responsibility for the anti-submarine war in the Atlantic. King, and much of the USN at the time, wanted nothing to do with inshore convoys unless they were heavily escorted. During the first months of 1942, even as U-boat attacks grew steadily off their coast, the Americans steadfastly refused to adopt a coastal convoy system. The carnage that was subsequently inflicted on Allied shipping travelling in the American zone in 1942—some 6.1 million tons of shipping, nearly three times the previous yearly averages since 1939—makes this failure one of the great military blunders in history, and one of the greatest Allied catastrophes of the war.

Anglo-American historians are frankly baffled by why the Americans were so reluctant to—or incapable of—establishing a convoy system that would have made their coastal shipping routes safe. They would do well to read a little Canadian naval history.

Three elements of the Canadian story in the North Atlantic shed important light on the fiasco off the American coast. The first, as mentioned, is that there was no organizational reason why a system of convoys could not have been instigated immediately in American and Caribbean waters. The Anglo-Canadian NCS system already operating in American ports could have formed the basis of an effective convoy organization with a little help from the locals. This is particularly true along the eastern seaboard, where attacks by U-boats commenced at the end of January 1942. In fact, as we shall see, the first convoys systems in the U.S. “Eastern Sea Frontier” (Maine to Florida) were organized and operated by the RCN.

Second, when attacks began inshore in Canadian waters, the combination of NCS, naval intelligence, air cover and convoys contained the U-boat offensive. This has largely been ignored by Anglo-American historians, who seem to assume that Canadian waters carried little shipping. U-boat war diaries often say as much because they seldom saw it: but it was there. Both Halifax and Sydney were busy convoy assembly ports—virtually every ship trading between the Western Hemisphere and Great Britain either passed through a Canadian port or through adjacent waters. Saint John, N.B.,—Canada’s busiest east coast commercial port in the winter months—cleared 60 or 70 ocean-going vessels a month in the winter of 1942. Most were routed to Halifax or Sydney for convoys. Little of this was attacked inshore in 1942 because much of it moved in convoy, including rudimentary convoys between Saint John and Halifax as early as March.

This does not mean that losses were not sustained in the Canadian zone. But the bulk of losses off Nova Scotia came from either independently routed shipping or from westbound convoys which, until May 1942, were often dispersed on the Grand Banks. So there were targets aplenty, they were just hard to find. The bitter winter weather off Canada’s east coast—the worst of any theatre of war except the Murmansk convoys—added to the frustration of the U-boats trolling the area, and encouraged them to move south.

The third perspective which the Canadian story provides for the perplexing question of why the Americans failed to establish convoys may have to do with the poor performance of the Newfoundland Escort Force in the fall of 1941. Certainly, the USN as an institution had ample opportunity to watch the struggling RCN’s attempts to defend convoys which were heavily attacked in the northwest Atlantic. This included Admiral Ernie King who, until Dec. 30, 1941, was CinC of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. The experience of watching poorly escorted slow convoys overwhelmed by marauding U-boat packs may have been enough to convince the USN of the danger of weakly escorted shipping. But the experience also confirmed their own prejudice for operating heavily escorted convoys, and their view that the main task of the escort was sinking the enemy. The words of the USN’s Board on the Organization of East Coast Convoys, which reported in March 1942, are suggestive. “It should always be borne in mind,” it observed, “that effective convoying depends upon the escort being in sufficient strength to permit their taking offensive action against attacking submarines… And protection less than this simply results in the convoy becoming a convenient target.”

Anglo-Canadian officers engaged in trade defence in the North Atlantic would have disagreed with this. They understood that the primary defence against the U-boat was structural: convoys, good intelligence and evasive routing—and that the objective was not sinking the enemy, but getting the trade through. It was true that a weakly escorted convoy, far from naval or air reinforcement, beset by a pack of U-boats, was in danger of suffering serious losses. But packs could not operate inshore, as a rule, because of the presence of air patrols. The ability of lone U-boats to find targets operating at sea, but inside the range of land-based airpower, was minimal. Lone hunters typically had to operate where targets came to them—like off Cape Hatteras or in the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. Inshore convoys covered by airpower, therefore, posed a daunting challenge for individual submariners.

Modern NATO planners would call this organizational or structural approach to the U-boat problem “shaping the battle space,” creating an environment that forces the enemy to fight at a disadvantage. Inshore convoys did that even if they were weakly escorted. The Americans failed to see this in 1942, and refused to establish inshore convoys until they had powerful forces, like destroyers, to escort them. The Anglo-Canadians made do with a hodge-podge of trawlers, armed yachts, motor launches—anything with a gun and a few depth charges. It was never perfect, never ideal, but it was generally effective. The Americans would learn this in time, but not before millions of tonnage of valuable shipping were lost.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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