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Polish Blitzkrieg to Pearl Harbor, September 1939 to December 1941

USS Houston, heavy cruiser (US Naval Historical Center, click to enlarge)  




Strict Neutrality


Armed Neutrality

Just Short of War

(to be concluded)





Many years ago I started to work on a UNITED STATES NAVY version of the first book I wrote which appears in Naval-History.Net under the title ROYAL, DOMINION & ALLIED NAVIES in WORLD WAR 2,  Month-by-Month across all Theatres.

I hope the first (unfinished) part, covering the period from September 1939 to Pearl Harbor will be of interest.

The ROYAL NAVY book was partly designed to help readers appreciate the crucial role of the US Navy after Pearl, especially in the Pacific. In the same way, I thought it important to help American readers gain a better appreciation of the period September 1939 to December 1941, for a number of reasons:

1. The world, when America entered the war in December 1941 was mainly shaped by German aggression and Allied reaction, first British and then Russian in the more than two years leading to Pearl Harbor. All Europe and much of Russia and North Africa were occupied, and the Middle East threatened. In the Far East, Japan as one of three Axis powers with Germany and Italy, and aware of Britain's weakness, was taking an increasingly threatening stance.

2. The war at sea was already worldwide - fought with great savagery in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and with German raiders lose in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Since 1939, maritime power had changed - on one hand by the exercise of German and to a lesser extent Italian naval power, and on the other and in response, by the rapid development of Royal Navy operations, tactics, technology and weapons.

All this experience, made freely available by a grateful Winston Churchill influenced US Navy operations especially in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Meanwhile lack of Royal Navy strength in the Indian Ocean and South East Asia helped account for Japan's formidable successes and the terrible losses suffered by the Allies and the United States.

3. Politically and historically, it is as important for U.S. readers to share in the exploits of the Royal Navy in World War 2, as it is for British readers to share in those of the United States Navy. Both people's might then recognise that the two maritime powers, one then old and soon to decline and other young and taking over from Britain as the world's largest Navy, both fought bravely and successfully as the English-speaking Allies.

The American reader may therefore understand why quite a few pages were needed before the tragedy of Pearl Harbor was reached and the US Navy could at last get on with the war it was already preparing to enter.





September 1939 - May 1940


Starting Conditions - Strategic and Maritime Situation

Areas under direct Allied control of Britain and France included Canada, Bermuda, many of the West Indies, British and French Guiana, islands in the South Atlantic, much of the Atlantic seaboard of Africa, and the fortress of Gibraltar. The one major defensive gap was the lack of bases in Eire to cover the Western Approaches to Britain. In contrast Germany was restricted to short North Sea and Baltic coastlines, and its exits to the Atlantic passed through the North Sea and the Allied controlled English Channel, which American ships and troops would come to know so well four and a half years later. However Britain's survival, and ultimately Allied success in Europe, depended on the Atlantic trade routes. Germany's did not.

The primary maritime tasks of the Allies were based on the assumption that Britain and France would face the European Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The British Navy was responsible for the North Sea and most of the Atlantic, and both Allies shared in the defence of the Mediterranean. Mussolini did not go to war for another nine months.

Declaration of War - Following the German invasion of Poland on the 1st September, Britain and France demanded the withdrawal of German forces. The ultimatum was rejected, and the Allies together with Australia, New Zealand and India declared war on the 3rd. South Africa followed on the 6th and Canada on the 10th. Italy announced her neutrality.


Neutrality Announced - On the 5th, President Roosevelt declared the neutrality of the United States in accordance with the 1937 Neutrality Act. This included a ban on the sale of arms and munitions to all belligerents.

Military Strength - On the 8th, he proclaimed a "limited national emergency" and increased the strength of the armed forces. This included Naval enlisted men from 110,000 to 145,000 and Marine Corps from 18,000 to 25,000. Retired Navy and Marine officers and men could also be recalled to active duty as needed.

Neutrality Patrol - The President also ordered the organisation of a Neutrality Patrol to protect the neutrality of the Americas and report any movement of belligerent forces towards the coasts of the United States or the West Indies. The Neutrality Patrol was formed on the 12th under the command of Commander Atlantic Squadron (Rear-Adm A W Johnson). Organised into eight groups consisting mainly of cruisers and destroyers, some with patrol aircraft support, it covered the coast from Canada down to the Caribbean. Battleships and a carrier were held in reserve.


Battle of the Atlantic - The six year long Battle started the day war was declared by Britain, when the British liner "Athenia" was sunk as a suspected armed merchant cruiser by a German U-boat northwest of Ireland. Survivors were rescued by a number of ships including the American "City of Flint" which was again in the news in October, but the 112 dead included a number of US citizens. Hitler initially ordered a tightening of controls on U-boat warfare, but this did not prevent the British Admiralty immediately putting convoy plans into operation. By the end of September 1939 convoys were sailing (1) from Britain out into the Atlantic, (2) to Britain from Gibraltar and West Africa, and (3) from Halifax, Nova Scotia in the HX convoys. One of these latter convoys saw the loss of USS "Reuben James" with HX156 two years later. Although only limited protection was possible, convoys suffered little harm over the next nine months and most losses due to U-boats were among independently routed and neutral merchantmen.

The first U-boat lost was "U-39", sunk by British destroyers north of the British Isles on the 14th, but three days later to the south west of Ireland, British fleet carrier "Courageous" on anti-U-boat patrol was torpedoed and went to the bottom with heavy loss of life. Far to the south, off Brazil on the last day of the month, German pocket battleship "Admiral Graf Spee" sank her first Allied merchantman.

Losses For September in the Atlantic:
20 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 110,000 tons and 1 British fleet carrier
2 German U-boats sunk by British destroyers off the British Isles.


Western Front - The first units of the eventually half a million strong British Expeditionary Force crossed the English Channel to join the French Army.

Air War - RAF aircraft made their first attacks on German warships in their bases.

German Code Breaking - An important step was taken towards the eventual successful conclusion of the war when the British Code and Cipher School in England moved to Bletchley Park. From here, through the "Ultra" programme, the German "Enigma" codes were eventually broken. Working on earlier Polish and French successes, this led to the Allies penetrating to the very heart of Axis planning and operations.  "Ultra" also contributed significantly to the defeat of the U-boat, probably the greatest threat faced by the Western Allies throughout the war. Early signs of the U-boat danger were not only evident in the North Atlantic, but in the attacks with torpedo and magnetic mine that immediately started around British coasts.

Poland - The German advance into Poland continued and on the 17th September, Russia invaded from the east. Warsaw surrendered to the German Army on the 28th, and next day the country was partitioned in accordance with the Soviet-German Pact. The last of the Polish Army surrendered on the 5th October and Poland entered its long dark years of brutal oppression.



Atomic Bomb - In an act that would eventually bring about the end of World War 2, President Roosevelt on the advice of Albert Einstein established an Advisory Committee on Uranium that led to the development of the atomic bomb. Six months later, just as the "phoney war" ended and Europe exploded, the British government sets up its own organisation to oversee nuclear research.

Neutrality Zone - On the 2nd October by the Act of Panama, a Pan-American Conference of Foreign Ministers established a 300-mile wide neutrality zone off the coasts of the Americas, but excluding Canada. This was policed at least as far south as Trinidad by the eight US Navy groups of the Neutrality Patrol. All hostile action or military operations by the belligerent powers were forbidden in this area.


German Warships - As German pocket battleship "Graf Spee" claimed more victims in the South Atlantic, the British and French Navies formed hunting groups in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. By now the Allies were blockading Germany, and Germany had announced its own counter-blockade, both steps leading to incidents with a protesting United States. In the North Atlantic, the second pocket battleship "Deutchland" captured the US freighter "City of Flint" as a contraband carrier while on passage from New York to Britain. After accounting for two more ships, "Deutschland" was ordered home, reaching Germany in November to be renamed "Lutzow".

Losses For October in the Atlantic:
22 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 133,000 tons
2 German U-boats by British destroyers off Ireland.


Western Front -  Hitler ordered planning to begin for the invasion of France and the Low Countries.

War at Sea - The German Air Force launched its first attacks on British warships and merchantmen. The Royal Navy suffered a tragic loss when anchored battleship "Royal Oak" was sunk by "U-47" in the major base of Scapa Flow, north of Scotland. Three U-boats were lost on Allied mines in the Straits of Dover.



Neutrality Act - The Neutrality Act was amended on the 4th November to allow the supply of arms to belligerents on a "cash and carry" basis. In practical terms, this meant supplying the British and French only. American shipping and citizens were banned from entering defined war zones, including the seas around the British Isles.

U.S. Navy -  "Benson/Gleaves" class destroyer "Benson" (1,800t, 5-5in, 10tt) was launched by Bethlehem, Quincy. A total of 96 of these pre-war-designed destroyers were in the water by early 1943. The numerous ships of the "Fletcher" class, first launched in 1942, the "Allen M Sumner's" from 1943, and the "Gearing's" from 1945 followed. 


German Warships - For most of the war, the few powerful German capital ships exercised a great influence on British Navy operations in the Atlantic, and to a lesser extent those of the U.S. Navy. As a foretaste, battlecruisers "Gneisenau" and "Scharnhorst" on a short sortie into the waters near Iceland sank a British armed merchant cruiser.

Losses For November in the Atlantic:
6 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 18,000 tons
1 German U-boat by British destroyers north of Scotland. 


Mine Warfare - Magnetic mines laid by U-boats, surface ships and aircraft continued to be a serious threat around British coasts, and in November 1939 accounted for 27 merchant ships of 121,000 tons, two British destroyers sunk and a cruiser seriously damaged. However, such countermeasures as ship-degaussing and the LL sweep became possible when a mine was recovered in the Thames Estuary leading up to London.  

Russo-Finnish War - Europe moved steadily towards all-out war. Negotiations between Russia and Finland on border changes and the control of islands in the Gulf of Finland broke down. On the 30th November, Russia invaded. The Finns resisted fiercely and the war dragged on into March 1940



Allied Blockade - As the German liner "Columbus" of 32,000 tons broke out into the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico, she was intercepted by a British destroyer to the east of Cape May, New Jersey on the 19th and scuttled. The British blockade of Germany continued to cause difficulties and the US protested about the seizure of mail bound for Europe.

U.S. Navy - Light cruisers "St Louis" (CL49) and "Helena" (CL50) - both 9,800t, 15-6in guns - the last of nine "Brooklyn" class ships were commissioned at Newport News and New York respectively. 


War at Sea - On the 13th December, east of Uruguay in the South Atlantic, a British heavy and two light cruisers encountered and damaged the 11 inch gunned "Graf Spee" in the running "Battle of the River Plate". Putting into Montevideo for repairs, the pocket battleship was scuttled on the 17th on Hitler's orders. The heavy cruiser that took part was HMS Exeter, destined to share the fate of the USS Houston half a world away in early 1942.  

Losses For December in the Atlantic:
7 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 38,000 tons
1 German pocket battleship and 1 outward bound U-boat by British submarine in the North Sea



U.S. Navy - Two of the most senior appointments in the US Navy were made at this time - one civilian, the other naval. Assistant Secretary Charles Edison who had been Acting Secretary since the death of Claude Swanson in July 1939 was confirmed as Secretary of the Navy. Adm James O Richardson relieved Adm Claude C Bloch as Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet.

United States/Japanese Affairs and the Pacific - Even before the European war began, Japan had manoeuvred to complete the conquest of China. By the end of 1938, north east China as far south as Shanghai together with all the major ports were in their hands, and in February 1939, the large island of Hainan in the South China Sea was occupied. These and subsequent events continued to sour US/Japanese relations, and led inexorably towards total world war. For example, on the 26th January 1940, the US-Japanese Trade Treaty of 1911 was allowed to expire because of Japan's position in China.


U-boat War - In the hard fought battle against the U-boat, comparatively few of the 780 German submarines lost were destroyed in the first two years of the war, and of these, most fall victim to the surface ships of the British Navy. However the first indication of the eventual part played by aircraft was when an RAF Sunderland flying boat shared in the sinking of "U-55" at the end of the month off the southwest coast of Britain. Allied aircraft went on to sink around 290 U-boats.

Losses For January in the Atlantic:
9 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 36,000 tons in the North and South Atlantic
1 German U-boat by British escorts and RAF aircraft off southwest Britain.


Western Front & Norway - German plans for a Western Offensive into Europe involving attacks on Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France were postponed. Instead, planning went ahead for the invasion of Denmark and Norway.



Losses For February in the Atlantic:
17 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 75,000 tons
2 German U-boats by British destroyers off the Faeroes and Ireland. 


Russo-Finnish War - Britain and France decided to send aid to Finland. This would allow them to occupy Narvik in northern Norway, and partly cut off Swedish iron ore supplies to Germany.

War at Sea - British warships off Scotland sank two more German U-boats.


MARCH 1940


U.S. Navy -  Eleven "Atlanta" class light cruisers were completed through to 1946, half by the end of 1942. The name ship "Atlanta" (6,700t, 16-5in) was laid down in March 1940 and launched in September 1941.

United States/Japanese Affairs and the Pacific - Japan established a Chinese puppet-government in Nanking.


German Raiders - The German Navy added heavily armed merchant ship to its armoury of U-boats and surface warships ranged against Allied and especially British shipping. The first German raider or auxiliary cruiser to leave was "Atlantis", one of nine that eventually broke out to create havoc not only in the Atlantic but also across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Their success was not so much due to their sinkings and captures - an average of 15 ships of 90,000 tons for each raider - but to the widespread disruption they caused. Convoys had to be organised and patrols instituted in many parts of the world. In 1942, by which time they had nearly been swept from the oceans, the US liberty ship "Stephen Hopkins" in one of the few single ship actions of the war, put paid to the "Stier".

Troopships - In another aspect of the war at sea, the newly completed giant liner "Queen Elizabeth" sailed from Britain for New York, later to be converted into a troopship. Used for transporting British and Dominion troops at first, she, sister "Queen Mary" and other fast liners came to play a major part in the build-up of American forces for the eventual invasion of Europe.

Battle of the Atlantic - German U-boats started withdrawing from the Atlantic in preparation for the invasion of Norway.

Losses For March in the Atlantic:
2 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 11,000 tons
1 German U-boat by British destroyer off the Shetlands. 


Russo-Finnish War - A peace treaty on the 13th March ended the war, with the transfer of Finnish territory to the victor.

Norway - Later in the month, and having abandoned plans to help Finland, Britain and France decided to disrupt Swedish iron ore traffic by mining Norwegian waters. Troops would also be landed if necessary to forestall German retaliation.

Mine Warfare - Magnetic mines continued to take a heavy toll of Allied and neutral shipping in British waters, but were now countered by ship degaussing and the use of LL minesweeping gear. The first acoustic mines were also used in British waters from August 1940, and their main counter was the towed hammer box. Mines remained a threat throughout the war, but were never again the danger they represented in the first few months.

APRIL 1940


U.S. Navy - Large carrier "Wasp" (14,700t, 76 aircraft) was commissioned at Bethlehem, Quincy, the only one of her class. The next class to enter service was the numerous and successful "Essex" carriers.

United States/Japanese Affairs and the Pacific - The United States Fleet commanded by the C-in-C, Adm James Richardson left the West Coast for exercises in Hawaiian waters. 


Losses For April in the Atlantic:
4 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 25,000 tons
1 German U-boat by British destroyer off the Shetlands. 


Invasion of Denmark and Norway - German forces including most of the Navy took part in the 9th April invasion of Denmark and Norway. Copenhagen was soon occupied and Denmark surrendered on the day of invasion. German troops landed at a number of points in Norway. Soon in control of the south and centre, they were pushing north by the end of the month to relieve the forces landed at Narvik in the north

The British Home Fleet sailed too late to intercept, but the German landings led to heavy German naval losses. Heavy cruiser "Blücher" was sunk by Norwegian shore defences near Oslo, cruiser "Karlsrühe" by a British submarine, and in the first such successful attack of the war, sister ship "Königsberg" by British Navy dive-bombers at Bergen. All ten German destroyers taking part in the occupation of Narvik were also lost in the two Battles of Narvik. In the first battle, on the 10th, five British destroyers went in to attack supply ships and sank two of the Germans for the loss of two of their own. Three days later a battleship and more destroyers entered the fiords and sank a U-boat and the remaining eight destroyers.

In the middle of the month, British and French troops landed in central Norway to hold the Germans around Trondheim, and also in the north to prepare for a ground attack on Narvik itself. But the Germans were well established with control of the air, and by month's end the Allied forces in central Norway were being evacuated. 

Allied Evacuations - Norway marked the start of nearly two years of Allied evacuations from north and south Europe and later Asia, during which the British Navy in particular suffered heavy losses, usually to air attack. Norway was no exception. During the campaign one cruiser was sunk, three damaged, and four destroyers including one French and one Polish were lost, all to German aircraft. The days of carrier-based air cover and powerful AA defences were some years in the future, but fortunately for the Allies, the U-boats at this time suffered major torpedo defect and their many attacks caused few losses.

MAY 1940


Military Strength - With the German invasion of Western Europe, Pres. Roosevelt asked Congress for funds totalling $1 billion to significantly increase US military strength, and equip the Navy and Army with 50,000 aircraft each year.  He also announced plans to re-commission more destroyers.

United States/Japanese Relations and the Far East - Japan proclaimed a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" over much of Asia.  The President ordered the US Fleet to remain in the Pacific, based at Pearl Harbor as a deterrent force for the foreseeable future. 


Iceland, Dutch West Indies, Greenland - As events unfolded in Western Europe, the Allies took steps to protect their strategic position. British troops landed in Iceland to start setting up the air and sea bases that become vital to the defence of the sea lanes between North America and Britain. Soon after the German invasion of Holland, the Allies went ashore on the Dutch West Indies islands of Aruba and Curacoa to protect the oil installations. Greenland also asked the United States for protection.

Losses For April in the Atlantic:
10 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 55,000 tons 


Norwegian Campaign - British, French and Polish forces prepared to attack Narvik as the Germans continued to push north themselves.   As they did, a British troop-carrying cruiser ran aground near Bodo becoming a total loss, and only now were the first modern RAF fighters flown ashore from Royal Navy carriers. Narvik was captured on the 28th but only to allow the installations to be destroyed. With the invasion of France, the decision had already been taken to abandon Norway.

United Kingdom - The Allies failures in Norway led to one of the most important political developments of the war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill took his place on the 10th May.

Invasion of Holland, Belgium and France - Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg on the day Churchill came to power. Anglo-French troops moved into Belgium but the main German thrust was further south in the centre through the Ardennes. By the 13th May they had crossed into France at Sedan, and the German Panzers were breaking through towards the Channel coast to trap the Allied armies in Belgium and northern France. Rotterdam was blitzed on the 14th and the Dutch army surrendered the next day. As the Allies retreated from Belgium, German forces entered Brussels on the 17th.

As in Norway, the Germans usually had air superiority and the British and French Navies suffered heavily, especially in destroyers. Even before the Dunkirk evacuation started, three British and four French destroyers were lost off the coasts of France and the Low Countries.  

On the 20th, German armour reachesd the Channel near Abbeville and pushed north as the British and French fall back on Dunkirk.  

The British decide to evacuate their Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and hoped to lift off 45,000 men in two days starting from the 26th. Under heavy attack by air, sea and from the shore, Operation "Dynamo" was endangered by the collapse of the Belgium Army and its surrender on the 28th, but continued into early June. Three more British and two French destroyers went down off the evacuation beaches before May was out.  



June 1940 - April 1941


JUNE 1940


Preparations for War - The fall of France was a great shock as the French Army and the British Navy between them were expected to defeat Hitler. Now there was fear that Nazi governments would be set up in South America, and the French and Dutch West Indies taken over. President Roosevelt developed his "short of war" policy with the aim of:

(1) Keeping Britain in the fight in Europe; 

(2) Giving the United States time to re-arm; and 

(3) Keeping Japan in check in the Far East by diplomacy and the deterrence of the US Fleet.

Various measures were taken in support of these policies while maintaining American neutrality:

U.S. Navy - The President declared the Mediterranean area and the Red Sea a war zone. In mid-month, he signed the "11% Naval Expansion Act" increasing carrier, cruiser and submarine tonnage by 167,000 tons and auxiliary shipping by 75,000, tons and also approved an increase in naval aviation up to a level of 10,000 aircraft. Civilian scientists were appointed to a new National Defense Research Committee from which stemmed most of the armed forces research in the pre-Pearl Harbor period. Continuing the expansion of the Navy, Adm Stark as Chief of Naval Operations asked for £4,000 million for the construction of a "Two-Ocean Navy", and further changes took place at the top. The post of Under-Secretary of the Navy was created, and Charles Edison was forced to resign as Secretary of the Navy. Appointments to these vital positions were made over the next few weeks.

Major new warships also entered the scene. The first of the powerful "Iowa" class battleships (48,000t, 9-16in), "Iowa", was laid down at New York, followed in September by "New Jersey" at Philadelphia. Both were launched in 1942 for commissioning in 1943. Sister-ships "Missouri" and "Wisconsin" followed later and entered service in 1944. Also in June 1940, the two "North Carolina" class battleships were launched and the four "South Dakota's" continued under construction. All ten of these new battleships would see extensive service in the coming World War, but the even larger "Montana" class (60,000t, 12-16in) was never laid down. With the launch of the "North Carolina" class "Washington" at Philadelphia on the 1st June, the first new US battleship was in the water since the "West Virginia" in 1921.

US Naval forces currently consisted of 1,100 vessels of all types and 161,000 Navy personnel, 28,000 Marine Corps and 14,000 Coast Guard totalling 203,000.

United States/Japanese Relations and the Pacific - With its possession of the Chinese ports, Japan wanted to close the remaining entry points into the country. Pressure was put on France to stop the flow of supplies through Indo-China and to allow the Japanese into the north of the country, and also on Britain to close the Burma Road. Both complied, but Britain only until October when the road was re-opened. In Japan itself a non-aggression pact with Thailand was announced.


Battle of the Atlantic - The loss of Norway brought German warships and U-boats many hundreds of miles closer to the Atlantic convoy routes, and within close range of the later Arctic convoys to Russia. Britain's blockade line from the Orkneys to southern Norway was outflanked, and a new one had to be established between the Shetlands and Iceland, along which the Royal Navy started the massive task of laying a mine barrage. Within a matter of days the first U-boats were sailing from Bergen in Norway, while others were sent on patrol as far south as the Canary and Cape Verde Islands off northwest Africa. Italian submarines joined them in this area but without any initial successes.

However it was the North Western Approaches to the British Isles, including the waters between Ireland and Iceland, where the U-boats enjoyed their first "Happy Time" until early 1941. With never more than 15 boats on patrol at any one time, by the end of the year they had accounted for most of the 315 ships of 1.6 million tons lost in the Atlantic in the period. Many of these losses were from the stragglers and independently routed ships or the many still unescorted convoys, but even with the escorted convoys, U-boat tactics were particularly worrying. Instead of attacking submerged where the British Asdic (or Sonar) could detect them, they operated on the surface at night as 18-knot torpedo boats, often faster than the few escorting warships. Effective radar was vital. Until it became available, Snowflake flares were devised to illuminate the boats and drive them under the surface.

Losses For June in the Atlantic:
53 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 297,000 tons and 3 British armed merchant cruisers
2 German U-boats in the North Western Approaches to Britain, cause of loss unknown


End of the Norwegian Campaign - By the 8th June, 25,000 Allied fighting men had been evacuated from the Narvik area, and Norwegian King Haakon VII sailed to Britain and into exile. The Norwegian Army surrendered next day.

Still on the 8th, the British fleet carrier "Glorious", also sailing for Britain, was sunk by German battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau". Naval losses on both sides had been high - for the Allies (mainly Britain), one carrier, two cruisers, nine destroyers and five submarines. For the Germans, a total of 17 surface ships sunk or damaged of the 23 of destroyer size and over that took part. These included three cruisers and ten destroyers sunk, plus four U-boats.

Battle for France - The evacuation of Dunkirk was over by the 4th, by which time another three British and one French destroyer had been lost to heavy air attack. By then a total of 340,000 men had been saved, including the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force as well French troops.

As Britain took steps to meet the threat of a cross-Channel invasion, the Germans completed the conquest of France. The battle for France started on the 5th with a German advance south from the line River Somme to Sedan. On the 14th, Paris was entered. The government of Marshal Pétain asked for armistice terms on the 17th, and five days later, a Franco-German Armistice was signed.

Its provisions included the German occupation of the entire Channel and Biscay coast and the demilitarisation of the large French fleet under Axis control. By the 25th, a further 215,000 Allied servicemen and civilians had been evacuated from French ports, and on the 30th, the Germans started to occupy the Channel Islands belonging to Britain.

Eastern Europe - Russia occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and in July formally re-incorporated them into the USSR - a step never recognised by the United States. Russia also took over Bessarabia and northern Bukovina in Rumania.


Starting Conditions - Strategic and Maritime Situation

The Mediterranean area can be conveniently split into three main theatres:

(1) Mediterranean and bordering countries;

(2) Oil production centres of the Middle or Near East; and

(3) Red Sea, East Africa and nearby Indian Ocean.

In the space of just two weeks, from the entry of Italy into the war until the surrender of France, the situation for Britain changed drastically. The country's isolation soon become evident, as will the flexibility of her naval power.

Before this point was reached and starting with the Mediterranean - in the west, Britain controlled Gibraltar at the entrance to the Atlantic. Close to southern France was French Corsica and the North African colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Malta in the centre was British, and in the east, Britain maintained a hold on Egypt and the Suez Canal, Palestine and Cyprus. In the Levant, Lebanon and Syria were French colonies. Italy stood astride the central Mediterranean, with Sardinia and Sicily to the north and Libya to the south, and also controlled Albania in the Adriatic and the Dodecanese Islands in the southern Aegean. The only neutral countries were Fascist Spain to the west, Yugoslavia in the centre, and Greece, Crete and Turkey in the east.

In the Near East, Iraq, Persia (or Iran) and the Persian Gulf area were all within the British sphere of influence and surrounded by Allied or neutral countries. To the east of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia had close ties with Britain and Aden was a British colony. On the west were Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and further south, French and British Somaliland. In between were the linked Italian colonies of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland and bordering them to the south, Kenya in British East Africa.

Even assuming France's continued involvement in the war, the Allies position in the Mediterranean could not be guaranteed. Gibraltar was vital, but its security depended on Spain's neutrality, and Malta was considered indefensible with the Italian Air Force based in nearby Sicily. Egypt and the Suez Canal was threatened by a large Italian army in Libya, and from bases in Italian East Africa, Allied Red Sea shipping could be attacked, and British and French Somaliland, Sudan and Kenya invaded. However Italian forces in this area could only be supplied by air.

These threats, at least to British territory, depended on Italy taking and holding the initiative, especially with her large Navy. This she failed to do. Malta became a thorn in the side of Axis supply routes to Libya, and Libya and Italian East Africa became endangered by comparatively small British and Dominion forces in the area. Over the next three years, Malta, above all, became the pivot about which the whole Mediterranean campaign revolved - both the problem of its supply in which the US carrier "Wasp" played a part, and its effectiveness as an offensive base. Various Axis plans to invade the island never come to anything.

Maritime - The Western Mediterranean was primarily the responsibility of the French Navy and the Eastern end was in the hands of a British Fleet based at Alexandria supported by a small French squadron. Apart from submarines, the Allies had numerical superiority and the only aircraft carriers were British.

Declarations of War and the French Surrender - On the 10th June, and in a step condemned by President Roosevelt in scathing terms, Benito Mussolini declared war on Britain and France as they reeled before the German attacks. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa also declared against Italy. Later in the month Italian forces invaded the south of France, but with little success. Italian aircraft carried out their first raids on Malta, the island destined to become the most heavily bombed target of the war, and the RAF raided mainland Italy.

On the 24th, the Franco-Italian Armistice was signed, which included provision for the demilitarisation of French naval bases in the Mediterranean.

War at Sea - Warships on both sides were soon lost. On a sweep for Italian shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean, an old British light cruiser fell victim to an Italian submarine, and submarines on both sides suffered heavily. Three British boats were sunk off Italian bases by effective anti-submarine forces. In return, four Italians were lost from the eight strong Red Sea flotilla, and six more in the Mediterranean itself. Throughout the war, comparatively little Allied shipping was sunk in the Mediterranean as most supplies to and from the Middle East were diverted around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

JULY 1940


U.S. Navy - Two major naval developments took place in July. On the 11th, Frank Knox, a prominent Republican entered office as Secretary of the Navy. (Another Republican, Henry L Stimson also became Secretary of War). And on the 19th, the President signed the "Naval Expansion" or "Two-Ocean Navy Act" allowing for a massive extra 1,325,000 tons of warships, 100,000 tons of auxiliary shipping and 15,000 aircraft. This would double the size of the existing Navy, but take valuable time.

Nearly 30 "Cleveland" class light cruisers (11,700t, 12-6in) were eventually completed, some not until after the end of the war. "Cleveland" herself was laid down in July 1940 at New York, followed by three more in 1940. Five ships were commissioned in 1942, five in 1943, and ten in 1944.

United States/Japanese Relations and the Pacific - Prince Konoye formed a new and more aggressive Japanese cabinet that included Gen Hideki Tojo as Minister of War. To hold back Japanese war plans, President Roosevelt invoked the new Export Control Act to stop the export of iron, steel, oil and other strategic and military materials and equipment to Japan.


Strategic and Maritime Situation - The defeat of France transformed the circumstances for Britain and her remaining Allies. From North Cape in Norway down to the Pyrenees at the Spanish border, the coast of Western Europe was in German hands. With the occupation of the Low Countries and northern France, the south and east coasts of England were in the front line, and from the French Biscay ports, German forces dominated the south western approaches to the British Isles. With the Germans also in Norway, the British occupation of Iceland took on a new and vital importance, but the lack of bases in Eire became a more evident problem. To add to this, the majority of French possessions on the Atlantic seaboards of Africa and the Americas were under the control of Vichy France and thus not available to Allied forces. Worse still was the danger of their occupation by the Axis powers.

Maritime - The Naval situation was similarly transformed. Not only was the French Fleet denied to the Allies, but the fear was that its considerable strength would be added to the German and Italian Navies and totally alter the naval balance of power. Rather than make for British ports, most of the modern ships, including two uncompleted battleships sailed for French North and West Africa.

Battle of the Atlantic - In the Atlantic Ocean, convoys to and from the British Isles were now re-routed through the North Western Approaches of Britain, instead of south of Ireland and through the Irish Sea. The escort limits of the few ships available (many were retained on anti-invasion duties) were only now pushed out from 15°W to 17°W, but as U-boats were patrolling well beyond this area, many sinkings took place amongst unescorted convoys or after the ships have dispersed.

Losses For July in the Atlantic:
34 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 173,000 tons and 1 British destroyer
1 German U-boat by British escort and RAF aircraft southwest of Ireland.


French Fleet - Britain was desperate to ensure the French Fleet stayed out of Axis hands. Starting on the 3rd July, the old battleships "Courbet" and "Paris", and several smaller warships including the large submarine "Surcouf" were seized in British ports. On the 8th, British naval attacks were made on the uncompleted battleship "Richelieu" laying off Dakar in West Africa, but to little effect. Further north at Casablanca in Morocco, no action was taken against sister ship "Jean Bart". In the West Indies, carrier "Bearn" and two cruisers were immobilised by mainly diplomatic means. In August, the US and France reached an understanding on the status of French warships and aircraft in the French West Indies.

Battle of Britain - Having decided to invade Britain, Hitler ordered preliminary air attacks to start on English Channel shipping and ports. Preparations for the landings - Operation "Sealion" - started in mid-month, and were scheduled to take place in mid-August. On the 19th, Hitler made peace overtures to Britain, but these were rejected.

War at Sea - Amongst the losses inflicted by the Germans were four Royal Navy destroyers sunk off the south and east coasts of Britain, and eight out of 21 ships in a single Channel convoy to Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers and E-boats.  


Strategic and Maritime Situation - With the fall of France, Italy continued to dominate the central basin and only Gibraltar was left to Britain at the western end. Malta in the middle was even more indefensible than before. And southern France, Corsica, Morocco, Algeria and Tunis to the west became Vichy French, together with Lebanon and Syria at the east end. At this stage, Greece and Crete were fortunately neutral, otherwise Axis aircraft would dominate the British Mediterranean Fleet as soon as it left Egyptian waters.

Maritime - The comparatively healthy naval position also changed for the worst. In all except capital ships, the Royal Navy was distinctly inferior in numbers to the Italians, except for its two near-priceless fleet carriers. These enabled the British to virtually dominate the Mediterranean over the next six months. This was helped by the eventual French commitment to stay neutral and keep its fleet out of Axis hands.

French Fleet - At this time, still fearing for the fate of the French Navy, units of the Royal Navy arrived off the French Algerian base of Mers-el-Kebir near Oran. French Admiral Gensoul was offered a number of choices to ensure his fleet, including four capital ships stayed out of Axis hands. All were turned down, and on a tragic day for Anglo-French relations, fire was opened at the start of the "Action at Oran", or Operation "Catapult". Old battleship "Bretagne" blew up, two more capital ships were badly damaged and the fourth escaped to Toulon. A happier solution was found at Alexandria, where British Admiral Andrew Cunningham persuaded the French to demilitarise their one old battleship and other ships. No action was taken against French warships at Algiers and Toulon.

War a Sea - In the "Action off Calabria" or "Battle of Punto Stilo" which took place on the 9th July, British and Italian battlefleets covering respectively, convoys between Malta and Egypt, and Italy and Libya, clashed in the Ionian Sea. High-level bombing damaged one British cruiser and one Italian battleship was hit by a 15in shell before the Italians turned back. Ten days later off Crete, in the "Action off Cape Spada", an Australian cruiser and British destroyers sank one of two intercepted Italian cruisers.

East Africa - Italian forces from bases in Ethiopia occupied British border posts in Kenya and the Sudan.



US-Canada Relations - The United States made further preparations for war including greater involvement with the Allies. At the highest level, Pres. Roosevelt met with Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King leading to a US-Canada Mutual Defense Pact.

U.S. Navy - Back home, James Forrestal of New York was appointed the first under-secretary of the Navy, and the President started calling up National Guardsmen into Federal Service. Rear-Adm Ghormley, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations and other senior US military officers arrived in London to hold early informal discussions with the British. Naval topics covered with the Admiralty included anti-submarine warfare.

British Scientific Developments - A British mission arrived in the United States with a number of vitally important scientific developments including the newly-invented cavity magnetron, needed for the introduction of short wavelength radar and the eventual defeat of the U-boats. This device also led to the proximity AA fuse, so important in the later battle against Japanese kamikaze aircraft.


Battle of the Atlantic - German long range Focke Wulf Kondors started operations off the coasts of Ireland from bases near Bordeaux, France. As well as spotting for U-boats, they attacked and sank many merchantmen, and remained a major threat until the introduction of ship-borne aircraft.

Losses For August in the Atlantic:
39 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 190,000 tons, 2 British armed merchant cruisers and 1 escort
1 German U-boat by British submarine in the Bay of Biscay.


Battle of Britain - The Luftwaffe switched its attacks from Channel ports and shipping to RAF Fighter Command, and on the 13th August launched a major offensive - "Adlertag" - especially against airfields. Damage to installations and losses in aircraft on both sides were heavy. Then bombs dropped inadvertently on London led to RAF Bomber Command raiding Berlin, and the Germans shortly changed their tactics to Britain's advantage.

Eastern Europe - Germany started planning for the invasion of Russia.


Malta - Britain decided to reinforce and hold Malta, and Hurricane fighters were flown off to the island from a Royal Navy carrier to the southwest of Sardinia. This was the first of many such supply operations, often bitterly fought, to keep Malta in the fight against the Axis' own supply routes to their armies in North Africa.

East Africa - From Ethiopia, Italian forces invaded British Somaliland and against strong resistance, entered the capital of Berbera on the 19th. By then the Royal Navy had evacuated the surviving garrison. At the same time, a British mission entered Ethiopia to help organise uprisings against the occupying Italians.



"Destroyers-for-Bases" - On the 3rd, the President announced the deal with Britain. After months of negotiations with Winston Churchill, and to help Britain stay in the war, 50 old US flushdeck destroyers were exchanged for bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the West Indies and British Guiana. The first eight destroyers were soon transferred.

U.S. Navy - As the Navy prepared for a war in two oceans, contracts were awarded for 210 major warships including 12 aircraft carriers and seven battleships.

Conscription - In mid-month, Pres. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, the first US compulsory military training in peacetime. A month later, 16 million men were registering for the draft.  

United States/Japanese Relations and the Pacific - Vichy France was forced to agree to the Japanese occupying ports, airfields and railways in northern Indochina. Steps were now taken to build-up US defences in the Pacific. A Fleet Marine Force detachment arrived on Midway Island to start work.


Dakar, West Africa - Because of its strategic importance in French West Africa, the "Dakar Expedition" was mounted from Britain to take the port for Allied use. Free French troops led by Gen de Gaulle were transported in warships of the Royal Navy. Vichy French forces included the unfinished battleship "Richelieu" and two cruisers recently arrived from Toulon in southern France. Attempts to negotiate on the 23rd soon broke down, and in two days of fighting two Vichy French submarines and a destroyer were lost in exchange for damage to a Royal Navy battleship. Unable to land, the operation was abandoned and the Anglo-Free French forces withdrew.  

Battle of the Atlantic - September 1940 saw the first German wolfpack attacks directed by Admiral Doenitz against British convoys in the North Atlantic. The U-boats taking part included those commanded by such aces as Kretschmer, Prien and Schepke, and in just one night, Schepke's "U-100" sank seven of the eleven ships lost from Halifax/UK convoy HX72. Directed to the convoys by German Navy code-breakers of the B-Service, the U-boats held the advantage as they manoeuvred on the surface between the merchantmen and escorts. Radar was urgently needed to detect and drive them under, so the escorts could gain the advantage of speed and use their Asdic (or Sonar).

Losses For June in the Atlantic:
53 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 272,000 tons, 2 British escorts
No U-boats were lost in the Atlantic.


Battle of Britain - The "Blitz" on Britain got underway on the 7th when major raids were launched on London. The attack on the 15th led to heavy Luftwaffe losses. Although nowhere near the 185 aircraft claimed, 60 valuable machines and their crews were lost in exchange for 26 RAF fighters. Operation "Sealion" was shortly postponed until further notice and German invasion shipping started to disperse. There was no let up in the blitz.

Axis Powers - In Berlin on the 27th, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, and agreed to oppose any country joining the Allies at war. The main purpose was to keep the United States out by threatening a two-front war in the Atlantic and the Pacific.


North Africa - From bases in Libya, Italy invaded Egypt on the 13th. Sollum, just over the border was occupied and Sidi Barrani reached on the 16th. There the Italian advance stopped and neither side made a move until December 1940.



U.S. Navy - The Secretary of the Navy ordered Naval reserves to prepare for active duty at short notice.

United States/Japanese Relations and the Pacific - As Japan protested against the American embargo on petroleum products and scrap metal, the US advised its citizens to leave the Far East.


Battle of the Atlantic - Flying from France and now Norway, German Kondors continued to hunt the waters off Ireland, one of them setting ablaze the 42,000 ton British liner "Empress of Britain". Fortunately, inter-service rivalry between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine meant they were never fully integrated into German naval operations.

British escort limits were only now pushed out to 19°W, and in a series of wolfpack attacks on two lightly defended convoys sailing between Canada and Britain, 30 merchantmen were sunk, a rate of loss impossible for Britain to sustain. However, a number of measures were being taken that would contribute to the eventual defeat of the U-boats:

(1) The ex-US flushdeckers were coming into service and the British building programme was delivering new escorts;

(2) Permanent escort groups were being developed and trained intensively in anti-submarine (A/S) warfare;

(3) Co-operation between the Royal Navy and RAF Coastal Command was improving, although vast areas of the Atlantic remained without A/S cover.

German Surface Raiders and Warships - The first auxiliary raider returned to France after six months in the Central Atlantic after sinking or capturing ten ships of 59,000 tons. Pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" with her 11in guns, sailed from Germany at the start of six month's successful operations in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Losses For October in the Atlantic:
56 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 287,000 tons, 1 Canadian destroyer
1 German U-boat by British destroyers northwest of Ireland.


Battle of Britain - As the blitz continued, other British cities joined London as targets for German bombers. On the 12th, Hitler postponed the planned invasion of Britain until the spring of 1941.

Eastern Europe - German troops occupied the Rumanian oilfields, including Ploesti, a name soon to become familiar to USAAF crews.


U.S. Navy - U.S. Naval Squadron 40-T (Rear-Adm D M LeBreton), operating in the western Mediterranean, was disbanded on the 22nd.

Balkans - On the 28th, Italian forces invaded Greece from points within Albania, but were soon driven back. Fighting continued on Albanian soil until April 1941.



President Franklin D Roosevelt - was elected to an unprecedented third term of office. In another political move, Adm W D Leahy USN (Rtd) was appointed Ambassador to Vichy France.

U.S. Navy - In the Atlantic, the relatively small Atlantic Squadron of the US Navy was renamed Patrol Force, US Fleet. Naval flying boats started flying from Bermuda on reconnaissance flights.

Merchant Shipping Loss - Much further afield in the Bass Straits between Australia and Tasmania, the United States lost its first merchant vessel sunk in the war. On the 8th, the SS "City of Rayville" went down after hitting a mine laid by a German raider.


Battle of the Atlantic - Transatlantic convoys were continuing to lose heavily from U-boat attacks (two convoys in the North Western Approaches to the British Isles lost 15 merchantmen, including seven in one night to "U-100"), but important progress was made in the air war against them. An RAF Sunderland flying boat located a U-boat using 1.5m wavelength radar in the first success of its kind, but because of sea "clutter", the system was only effective by day. When later linked to the airborne "Leigh-light", it became a powerful night-time weapon for the Allies. But at present they were a long way from gaining the upper hand.

From December 1940 to March 1941, not one German U-boat was sunk in the North Atlantic, although the Italian flotillas suffered losses. By the end of the month, 26 of their submarines were operating out of Bordeaux, but never with the success enjoyed by the Germans.  

Losses For November in the Atlantic:
38 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 201,000 tons, 3 British armed merchant cruisers
2 German and 1 Italian U-boats by British escorts in the North Atlantic.


Battle of Britain - As night-time attacks continued on London and other British ports and cities through to May 1941, a particularly damaging raid was made on Coventry in mid-month.

Air War - German cities also increasingly became targets for the RAF.

Eastern Europe - Hungary on the 20th and Rumania three days later joined the Axis Tripartite Pact. Only Yugoslavia and Bulgaria held out against German pressure to become members. They remained the only countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans not completely dominated by the Axis or Russia


War at Sea - As the Royal Navy built up strength and wrested control of the Mediterranean from the Italians, mainly through the use of carrier airpower, there were warship losses on both side, mainly in destroyers and submarines. But now the Italians lost half of their battlefleet in one of the classic actions of the war, and one in which the Japanese showed great interest. On the night of the 11th, as part of supply operations to Malta and Crete, carrier "Illustrious" launched 20 old Swordfish biplanes for the "Attack on Taranto". Three battleships were sunk and disabled by torpedoes, the "Conte di Cavour" permanently, for the loss of two aircraft.

Towards the end of the month, in the "Action off Cape Spartivento", Sardinia, British and Italian battlefleets were again in action, but with only limited damage to each side before the Italians turned away.

Balkans - As the Greek Army forced back the Italians in Albania, RAF squadrons were sent from Egypt to Greece and the first British Empire troops were carried across by warships.



U.S. Navy - A future architect of Allied victory, Rear-Adm Ernest J King was appointed Commander Patrol Force, US Fleet in the Atlantic in succession to Rear-Adm Ellis. He hoisted his flag in battleship "Texas" at Norfolk, Virginia.


German Warships - Apart from the U-boats on Atlantic patrol, German raiders were in action in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the 8in cruiser "Admiral Hipper" was operating to the west of Cape Finisterre before heading for France. From here, she and later battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and Gneisenau" posed a major threat to Atlantic convoys until February 1942.

Losses For December in the Atlantic:
42 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 239,000 tons, 1 British armed merchant cruiser
1 Italian U-boat by British submarine in the Bay of Biscay.


Eastern Europe - Hitler ordered detailed planning for Operation "Barbarossa", the invasion of Russia


North Africa - On the 9th December, the British launched their first major attack against Italian forces in Egypt. Sidi Barrani was captured on the 10th, and by the end of the month, British Empire troops had crossed into Libya for the first time. The offensive continued into February, by which time El Agheila, well on the way to the capital of Tripoli, had been reached. Italian losses in men and material were considerable.

War at Sea - Units of the Royal Navy, including an Australian destroyer flotilla played an important part supporting and supplying the land campaign.

Mediterranean Theatres - Strategic Situation - By the end of 1940 and in spite of the loss of French naval power, the Royal Navy had more than held the Italians in check at sea, Malta had been supplied and reinforced, and the British offensive in North Africa was well underway. The Greeks were driving back the Italians into Albania, and much further south, a start was made on winding-up the Italian East African Empire. But it was now only a matter of months and even weeks before the German Luftwaffe appeared in Sicily, General Rommel arrived in North Africa, and the German army invaded Greece, followed by paratroop landings on Crete.



Preparations for War - American preparations accelerated as the President asked Congress to agree funding for the construction of 200 merchant ships. Even more significantly US and British staff officers started secret discussions in Washington to agree on a joint strategy in the event of America being brought into the conflict. U.S. Navy members included Rear Adm's Robert Ghormley and Richmond Kelly Turner.

US/Japanese Relations and the Pacific - The Japanese also started contingency planning but of a different nature. Under Adm Yamamoto, the Imperial Navy worked on the problems of attacking by air the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor.


Battle of the Atlantic - For the next few months, the U-boat "Happy Time" continued against the poorly defended convoys in the North Western Approaches to the British Isles, although bad weather in January and February kept sinkings down. Approximately 22 U-boats were operational out of the 90 in commission, and long-range aircraft still roamed the waters off Ireland sinking ships and spotting for U-boats. In the case of German surface ships, pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" stayed at sea until late March, and battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau", and separately, a heavy cruiser prepared to sail for the Atlantic and successful operations starting in February. Of the seven original surface raiders, six remained at large in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Allied losses to surface raiders were high through until June 1941, after which the threat diminished as world-wide convoys were organised and the German supply ships were sunk.

Losses For January in the Atlantic:
59 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 273,000 tons
1 Italian U-boat by British escort in the NW approaches to the British Isles


Malta - Another complex series of convoy movements around Malta from both ends of the Mediterranean, including Gibraltar/Malta convoy Operation "Excess", together with the recent arrival of the German Luftwaffe in Sicily led to the Royal Navy losing its comparative freedom of operation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Carrier "Illustrious" was singled out and badly damaged by Ju87 and Ju88 divebombers to the west of Malta on the 10th January, and a cruiser was sunk next day. All merchantmen reached their destinations, but for the loss of the carrier's vital airpower.

North Africa - As the British continued to advance into Libya, Bardia was taken on the 5th, Australian troops captured Tobruk on the 22nd and Derna by the end of the month.

East Africa - The British campaign to oust the Italians from East Africa started. Eritrea in the north was invaded from the Sudan by largely Indian forces, and in the south, Italian Somaliland was attacked from Kenya by African and South African troops.



U.S. Navy - On the 1st of the month, the Navy Department announced a re-organisation of the United States Fleet. The US Fleet in the Pacific was to be revived as the Pacific Fleet with Adm Richardson being relieved as C-in-C by Adm Husband E Kimmel, who also had the additional duty of C-in-C United States Fleet. The Atlantic Patrol Force was reactivated as the Atlantic Fleet with Adm Ernest J King as Cinclant. And the smaller Asiatic Fleet, with no ships larger than cruisers, continued to be based at Manila Bay in the Philippines with Adm Thomas C Hart in command.  

The main task of the Pacific Fleet remained the execution of Plan "Orange" (now Rainbow 5), the capture by U.S. Marines of the Marshalls and Caroline Islands on the way to the relief of the Philippines. It lacked the ships and capability to do this.


Losses For February in the Atlantic:
69 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 317,000 tons
1 Italian U-boat by British escorts in the NW approaches to the British Isles


North Africa - British armoured forces crossed the Libyan desert to a point south of Benghazi and cut off the retreating Italians on the 5th in the Battle of Beda Fomm. Australians captured the important port of Benghazi itself, and by the 9th February, El Agheila was reached where the advance stopped. Just as the first units of the German Army under Gen Rommel arrived in Tripoli, large numbers of British and Dominion troops were withdrawn and transferred to Greece.

East Africa - To the north, the Indian advance into Eritrea was held up for most of February and March in the Battle for Keren. In the south, the Italian Somaliland capital of Mogadishu was captured on the 25th, after which British forces advanced northwest into Ethiopia.

MARCH 1941


Preparations for War - More steps, major and minor, took the United States further into the Allied camp. Britain was rapidly losing the ability to wage war by having to pay cash for American munitions and supplies and then transport them in her own ships. As the US moved into large-scale rearmament, President Roosevelt introduced "Lend-lease" to allow the Allies to have all that could be spared without immediate payment. Congress passed this vital Act on the 11th.

Meanwhile US-British Staff discussions had been held in Washington and concluded with the issue of the "ABC-1 Staff Agreement" covering the direction of the war if America came in. Whether war with Japan was avoided or not, the defeat of Germany would be given first priority. It was also agreed that the US Joint and British Chiefs of Staff would meet as the Combined Chiefs of Staff to thrash out the Allies strategic plans. Thus even before war began, the blueprint for eventual victory had been prepared - (1) An agreed strategy supported by (2) a unified command and control structure for the vast military forces that would be needed.

U.S. Navy - One immediate effect of the ABC Agreement was that the US Navy was to take over some of the responsibility for escorting trans-Atlantic convoys so that lend-lease supplies got through. Before then, at the beginning of the month a Support Force, Atlantic Fleet (Rear-Adm A L Bristol) was established with destroyer flotillas and patrol plane squadrons for convoy protection. Then right at the end of March, German, Italian and Danish merchantmen laying in US ports were seized.

Greenland - Further afield a US expedition arrived at Godthaab in Greenland to identify suitable military and naval bases, and in April 1941 the US signed an agreement with Denmark for the defence of this barren land.

U.S./Japanese Relations and the Far East - Japan mediated in the undeclared war between Vichy France and Thailand with France ceding Indochina territory and Japan gaining further rights over the colony.


Battle of the Atlantic - With Britain fighting for its very survival, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued on the 6th March his "Battle of the Atlantic" directive aimed at combating the German submarine and aircraft offensive:

Catapult armed merchantmen (CAM-ships) were to be fitted out,
Merchant ships given AA weapons as a first priority,
More radar-equipped, RAF Coastal Command squadrons formed,
Port and dockyard congestion tackled with the defence of ports greatly improved.

Better weather in the North Atlantic now meant an increase in U-boat attacks, but for the first time since November 1940 the enemy suffered losses - five boats including those commanded by the top-scoring Kretschmer, Prien and Schepke were sunk in a matter of days by Royal Navy escorts. From then on, convoy escort/wolfpack battles predominated in the North Atlantic.

German Warships - Battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" returned from their successful Atlantic raiding to Brest in France, where they were subject to frequent, heavy raids by the RAF until February 1942.

Losses For March in the Atlantic:
63 Allied and neutral merchant ships of 365,000 tons
5 German U-boats by British escorts to the south of Iceland.


Eastern Europe - Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact on the 1st March and German troops entered the country. In the Balkans, only Yugoslavia stayed outside, but only until the 25th, when she too joined. Two days later an anti-Nazi coup toppled the government.


North Africa - Gen Rommel opened his first offensive with German and Italian troops by taking El Agheila on the 24th. Within three weeks, the British were back to Sollum on the Egyptian side of the border.

War at Sea - As the British Mediterranean Fleet sailed from Alexandria to cover troop and supply movements to Greece, an Italian force including one battleship, sortied to attack the convoy routes. Using "Ultra" intelligence, Adm Andrew Cunningham with a fleet carrier and three old battleships prepared to engage them to the south and west of Crete in the "Battle of Cape Matapan". Following a daytime action on the 28th between the Italians and a British cruiser force, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk that night by battleship gunfire. British losses were one aircraft. However the Crete area in the month did see the loss of one British heavy cruiser to Italian explosive motor boats and a light cruiser to submarine attack.

East Africa - British forces sailed from Aden to land at Berbera in British Somaliland on the 16th, followed by an advance southwest into Ethiopia. In the north, Keren fell to the attacking Indian troops and the road was opened to the Eritrean capital of Asmara and Red Sea port of Massawa.

APRIL 1941


U.S. Navy - As the authorized enlisted strength of the Navy increased further, battleship "North Carolina" (37,000t, 9-16in), the first US capital ship for nearly 20 years, was commissioned at New York. And now the first of 24 completed "Essex" class carriers (27,000t, 90 aircraft), the "Essex", was laid down at Newport News, launched in July 1942 and commissioned in December the same year. Six more were commissioned in 1943, seven in 1944 and ten through until as late as 1950.

U.S./Japanese Relations and the Pacific - A five-year Neutrality Pact between Japan and Russia benefited both powers. Russia was able to free troops for the European theatre, and Japan could concentrate on expansion southwards. Reflecting the tension in the Far East, an American-Dutch-British-Australian (ABDA) conference was held at Singapore in an attempt to agree on plans for local defence in the event of war with Japan. Little resulted from this with the British wanting to concentrate the future Allied strength at Singapore and the United States disagreeing.


Battle of the Atlantic - Early in the month, a German wolf pack sank 10 ships in a slow UK-bound convoy. Aware that without further help at sea, Allied lease-lend supplies would just not get through, Adm Stark started transferring warships from the Pacific to the Atlantic Fleets, including the new carrier "Yorktown", three battleships, four light cruisers and two destroyer squadrons. Other moves towards war involving the U.S. Navy came when:

(1) Denmark invited the US to take over the defence of Greenland,

(2) Adm King ordered that any Axis forces coming within 25 miles of the Western Hemisphere including Greenland, would be treated as hostile, and

(3) The Neutrality Patrol was extended eastward to 26°W and southward to 20°S.

More directly, on the 10th, the first possible action took place between US and German warships. As destroyer "Niblack" rescued survivors from a torpedoed Dutch freighter off Iceland, she depth-charged a suspected U-boat. Then on the 17th April, Egyptian passenger ships "Zamzam" was sunk by raider "Atlantis" in the South Atlantic and 150 Americans were among those rescued.

Over the next few months, the Royal Navy started to introduce a number of long-awaited ship-types and weapons into the crucial Battle of the Atlantic:

(1) The first Royal Navy fighter catapult ships, equipped with a single "one-way" Hurricane were ready in April and shot down their first Kondor in August.

(2) Soon to join them were catapult-armed merchantmen (CAM), which were eventually superseded in 1943 by merchant aircraft carriers (MAC) - civilian-manned merchantmen carrying oil or grain and constructed with full-length flight decks.

(3 )The final step in the introduction of ship-borne aircraft came in June when escort carrier HMS "Audacity" entered service after conversion from a German prize. Her life was short, but proved the great value of these vessels.

New scientific and engineering developments also started to play their part:

(4) In May, the first high-definition, 10cm wavelength radar was installed in a British corvette.

(5) Later still, high frequency, direction finding (HF/DF) was introduced afloat to add to the efforts of shore stations. It was many months before either system was widely in service, and not until 1942 did they claim their first U-boats.

(6) British inter-service co-ordination was further improved when RAF Coastal Command was placed under the operational control of the Royal Navy.

Of equal importance were major improvements in the efficient operation of new and existing weapons through the work of multi-disciplinary "operational or operations research" (OR) teams. Even simple statistical and mathematical techniques applied to depth-charge settings, aircraft search patterns, and convoy sizes etc led to significant benefits. But the German successes and heavy Allied losses continued.

Losses For April in the Atlantic:
48 Allied and neutral ships of 282,000 tons, 3 British armed merchant cruisers
2 German U-boats by British escorts south of Iceland. 


North Africa - Germans entered Benghazi on the 4th, and by mid-month had surrounded Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border. Attacks on the British and Australian troops defending Tobruk were unsuccessful, and an eight month siege began.

War at Sea - In the "Action off Sfax", Tunisia on the 16th April, a German Afrika Korps convoy of five transports and three Italian destroyers was wiped out by four British destroyers, for the loss of one of destroyer.

Balkans - German forces invaded Yugoslavia and Greece on the 6th, and by the 12th, were entering the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade. The Yugoslav army surrendered five days later. Greek forces in Albania and Greece followed suit, and starting on the 24th, 50,000 British and Dominion troops were evacuated to Crete and Egypt under heavy air attack. Athens was occupied on the 27th.

Near East - A pro-German coup in Iraq threatened Allied oil supplies. By the middle of the month, British and Indian units were entering the country through the Persian Gulf.

East Africa - The capture of Eritrea was completed when the capital of Asmara was occupied on the 1st and the port of Massawa on the 8th. Two days earlier, Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia was taken, after which Italian resistance continued mainly in the north of the country.

United States Affairs - On the 10th, President Roosevelt announced that the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden were no longer combat areas, and were open to US shipping.




May - December 1941


to be concluded



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