Military history


By New Year’s Day 1941, Winston Churchill had made good progress on what he viewed as the most important measure necessary to defeat the Germans: to draw the United States, spiritually and physically, deeper into the war on Britain’s side.

After winning election to an unprecedented third term in November 1940, President Roosevelt declared that the United States must become an “Arsenal of Democracy,” guaranteeing freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from fear and want, to all peoples. In response to Roosevelt’s request, and to another from Churchill (“Give us the tools and we will finish the job”), Congress debated, then overwhelmingly approved a radical scheme called “Lend-Lease.” In effect, the Lend-Lease Act rescinded the “Cash and Carry” policy of the amended Neutrality Act and gave Roosevelt sweeping powers to “transfer title to, exchange, lease or lend or otherwise dispose of military supplies to any nation whose “defense was vital to the defense of the United States.”*

In public Roosevelt continued to insist the United States would not go to war. The “Destroyer Deal,” Lend-Lease, and other measures were merely helping hands to a friend—like lending a fire hose to a neighbor whose house was burning down—or prudent defensive measures to insure the security of the United States. Behind the scenes, however, Roosevelt was nudging the United States ever closer to direct military intervention. During a visit to the British Isles in January 1941, Roosevelt’s most trusted and influential White House advisor, Harry L. Hopkins, told Churchill: “The President is determined that we shall win the war together.” The top-secret joint military war planning begun in August 1940 by the Ghormley Mission in London resumed in earnest in Washington in February 1941, resulting in a detailed joint plan (ABC-1) for waging war against the Axis, which, with the signing of the Tripartite Pact on September 27, 1940, included Japan.

In essence, ABC-1 specified that should the United States be drawn into the war, the Allies were to defeat Germany and Italy first, Japan second. In the meantime, or “short of war,” the United States was to assume as soon as practicable certain large military responsibilities in the Atlantic Ocean area, the most important of which was convoy escort between Canada and Iceland, which the British had occupied after the fall of Denmark and were developing into a halfway station for surface-ship escorts and a base for Coastal Command aircraft. In preparation for taking on that and other tasks, on February 1, 1941, Roosevelt established the Atlantic Fleet, commanded by Ernest J. King; authorized construction of a naval base at Argentia, Newfoundland, and several in the British Isles; and approved the transfer to the Atlantic Fleet of three battleships (Idaho, Mississippi, New Mexico), a carrier (Yorktown), four light cruisers, and Destroyer Squadrons 8 and 9 from the Pacific Fleet, which was still based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to deter Japanese aggression in the Pacific.

The Chief of Naval Operations, Harold Stark, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Ernest King, chose the best and the brightest of the young officers to formulate plans for the escorting of Atlantic convoys. These officers included three who became heads of the uniformed Navy in the postwar years: Robert B. Carney, Louis E. Denfeld, and Forrest P. Sherman. On February 15, 1941, Stark approved the plans and named one of the most competent of the senior naval officers, Arthur Leroy Bristol, Jr., to command the convoy organization they had proposed: Support Force, Atlantic Fleet,* which reported to King.

Soon after the creation of the Support Force, President Roosevelt ruled that American naval vessels should not escort eastbound North Atlantic convoys from United States soil nor should they go beyond Iceland. Accordingly, Bristol established his headquarters on the magnificent new 16,500-ton destroyer tender Prairie and moved her to Argentia, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, where, under terms of the “Destroyer Deal,” hundreds of American workers were feverishly building ship and aircraft bases for the U.S. Navy. Soon thereafter, Washington executed a deal with the exiled Danish government in which the Americans agreed to protect Greenland and Iceland from Axis forces. In return, the Danes gave the Americans the right to develop air and ship bases on Greenland and Iceland, the eastern terminus of the proposed new convoy-escort scheme.

Stark and King assigned substantial combat forces to Bristol’s support force. These included, in addition to the tender Prairie, a destroyer flotilla (twenty-seven ships), a patrol wing (forty-eight Catalina flying boats*), a submarine squadron (fifteen tf-class boats), two new 8,700-ton seaplane tenders (Albemarle, Curtiss), and two destroyers that had been converted to seaplane tenders (Belknap, George E. Badger). Bristol also controlled the American naval vessels assigned to the Northern Patrol off Greenland waters. Most of his forces were based at the new facilities at Argentia, but some ventured to Iceland to begin the development of an Anglo-American anchorage at Hvalfjord, near Reykjavik in the Denmark Strait.

From the beginning of the war, the Prime Minister of Canada, W. L. Mackenzie King, had willingly placed Canada’s seven British-built destroyers under absolute control of the British Royal Navy. The Canadian destroyers had served as convoy escorts and with the anti-invasion naval forces. By the end of 1940, Canada had also placed at the disposal of the Royal Navy her seven ex-American Town-class four-stack destroyers and the sixteen Canadian-built Flower-class corvettes which had been commissioned by that time. In all, thirty Canadian ships (fourteen destroyers) were placed under the command of the Royal Navy.

Although Canada was a vibrantly growing nation of the Commonwealth, the British ruling establishment continued to view Canadians as crude “country cousins” in a Third World nation. This was especially the case in the high circles of the Royal Navy. When Anglo-American war planners secretly convened in early 1941 to work out war plan ABC-1, no one bothered to include the chief of the Canadian Navy, Percy W. Nelles. Under terms of the ABC-1 agreement, the Atlantic Ocean was divided into two spheres of responsibility, a British one in the east and an American one in the west. The British, who regarded the Canadian Navy as merely another subordinate command of the Royal Navy (and not a very good one at that), casually pledged that when America came into the war, covertly or overtly, Canadian naval forces would automatically come under American command.

The failure of the war planners to even consult the Canadians outraged Percy Nelles and other Canadian naval authorities. When Bristol and staff actually arrived in Argentia on Prairie to take over North Atlantic convoy escort in the western zone, the Canadians quietly boiled. Bristol added insult to injury by assuming emperor-like status in Newfoundland, even “relocating” about two hundred families from the Argentia area. Inasmuch as Newfoundland had not yet formally joined the Canadian government and the British had leased it to the Americans for bases in the “Destroyer Deal,” Bristol was perfectly within his rights and he exercised them as he saw fit, apparently without due regard for Canadian sensitivities.


For various reasons the American convoy-escort service to be provided by Bristol and staff was delayed from April to September 1941. When it finally came into being, the Americans presented the Canadians with a fait accompli and took virtual command of most Canadian naval elements in the western Atlantic, in accordance with the terms the British had offered. Seniors in the swelling Canadian Navy were naturally Furious at this blatant and arrogant assumption of authority in their home waters and launched a bureaucratic campaign to right what they saw as an egregious wrong. However, they failed, and this command inequity remained in place for a long time to come.

In due course, the slowly maturing Canadian Navy was to play a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic, contributing scores of warships and escorting about half of all the convoys on the North Atlantic run. Most histories of this naval struggle fail to stress the important Canadian role; some do not mention it at all; a few even ridicule the Canadians.*

From this planning and activity, it can be seen that the Americans well understood that convoying was a vital measure in countering the U-boat threat and by early 1941 had placed convoying requirements at the very top of Atlantic Fleet priorities. However, as will be seen, the “loan” (gift) of fifty four-stack destroyers to the British and Canadians gutted the available American escort forces severely in the Atlantic—so severely that for the next two years (1941-1942) in return for their generosity, the Americans were to pay a heavy price in lost seamen and ships.

That was only the beginning of President Roosevelt’s generosity to the British on the Atlantic naval front. The increasingly sympathetic attitude in America for the British, who were enduring the horrors of The Blitz in the winter of 1940-1941, and the enactment of Lend-Lease relaxed many political constraints on the President. In the early weeks of 1941, he further assisted the British in the following specific ways:

• The transfer of ten Lake-class United States Coast Guard cutters to the Royal Navy. Commissioned in the years 1928-1932, these beamy, long-range vessels were 250 feet in length, displaced about 2,000 tons, and had a top speed of 17 knots, about the same as that of a Type VII U-boat and slightly faster than a corvette. At the time of transfer, the main armament consisted of two 3” guns and depth-charge throwers and tracks. Most of these Coast Guard vessels were in good condition. The British designated them sloops and put them into immediate service as convoy escorts on the routes between Sierra Leone and the British Isles. The gift of these warships was also to be costly to the Americans.

• The allotment of about fifty first-class American tankers to the British maritime “shuttle,” which transported oil and petroleum products from the Caribbean to ports on America’s East Coast for onward shipment to the British Isles in armed British tankers. This measure freed up a like number of British tankers which were used for the Atlantic crossing. In effect, this Lend-Lease gift made good the forty-two British tanker losses to U-boats since the onset of war. To replace the American tankers, a few weeks later Congress authorized Roosevelt to “requisition” (i.e., seize) “refugee tankers” of French, Danish, and other flags that were in American ports.

• The gradual transfer to British charter of about seventy-five Norwegian and Panamanian tankers then under charter by oil companies in the Americas. Counting the “shuttle” and these chartered vessels, the British tanker fleet in effect exceeded its size at the beginning of the war. Washington paid the whole of the charter costs in Lend-Lease dollars, a currency the Norwegians prized above all others.

• Construction of a 13,000-ton “escort” aircraft carrier, Archer, for the Royal Navy. Conceived originally to provide convoys air cover against enemy aircraft, the “escort” or “jeep” carriers had a flight deck about 500 feet long and could carry fifteen to twenty fighter aircraft. Prodded by President Roosevelt, in early 1941 the Maritime Commission converted two new sister ships of the Moore Macormack line to prototype “jeep” carriers, H.M.S. Archer for the British and U.S.S. Long Island for the U.S. Navy.*

• In an especially broad interpretation of the Lend-Lease Act, President Roosevelt authorized British warships to put into American naval shipyards for repairs and upgrading. This gesture helped ease the pressures in British naval shipyards, already jammed with ships awaiting attention. The British battleships Malaya and Resolution, which incurred battle damage, were the first capital ships to take advantage of this gift.

• In addition to all kinds of aircraft and ships and weaponry, President Roosevelt promised the British that among the “tools” to be provided in quantity by the Arsenal of Democracy was centimetric-wavelength radar for aircraft and ships. In anticipation, some quarters of the vast American electronics industry were retooling.

Scientists at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory were vigorously pushing R&D on all radar but especially centimetric-wavelength radar, employing the Randall and Boot cavity magnetron, paralleling the work of British scientists. By January 1941, the lab and its many subcontractors had produced an experimental model for ships with a revolving antenna and a single cathode-ray display screen (PPI), which produced lingering “blips.” By March 1941, when the British mounted the first experimental centimetric-wavelength radar in a Fighter Command Beaufighter night interceptor, American engineers mounted a similar experimental version in a B-18 bomber. When the first British warship, the corvette Orchis, put to sea with Type 271M centimetric radar in March 1941, the American destroyer Semmes was similarly fitted with an American-made model, Type SG.*

In addition to the foregoing, Roosevelt directed the Maritime Commission to provide the British with a substantial number of newly built tankers in addition to the sixty Ocean-class dry-cargo ships already under construction for the British. Jerry Land estimated that he could deliver to the British about twenty-one new tankers in 1941, most of them toward the end of the year. The need to provide these tankers as well as the sixty Ocean-class ships as soon as possible infused the Maritime Commission with a sense of urgency that was to benefit not only the British but also the Americans.

Furthermore, in late winter and early spring of 1941, Land proposed two new merchant-ship building programs, which President Roosevelt promptly approved. Under the first, of March 1941, in addition to the sixty Ocean-class ships and twenty-one tankers earmarked for Britain and 200 Liberty ships in the works for the American merchant marine, Land added 200 more ships for the American merchant marine, half of them Liberty ships. Under the second program, of April 1941, Land added yet another 306 merchant ships, bringing the total of approved new merchant-ship orders to about 800. This was over and above the 2,000 ships under contract for the U.S. Navy and other American military forces.

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