US and German Atlantic Strategy 1939-1941

Us German Atlantic Strategy 1939 1941

US and German Atlantic Strategy 1939-1941

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKiW2rQz29w

Intro

Time to take a look at the overall Strategy in early World War 2 concerning the Atlantic. This video will cover the views, actions and development of the German and American side from the time of the outbreak of the war to the situation just before the German declaration of war against the United States. So let’s get started.

The Initial Situation in 1939

Hitler’s first directive for the war concerning the German Navy was a focus on a trade war against the United Kingdom. Similarly, the Commander of the German Navy Admiral Raeder wanted to break the British economy by cutting it off from the supply lines. Yet, a prerequisite for this would have been a clear focus on the production of the necessary weapon system to achieve this, namely submarines and air planes. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 275)

Yet, Hitler’s view was different. He was focusing on a short land war in Europe and a peace with the United Kingdom and thus wanted to limit an extensive attack on the British economy. Whereas the German Navy Command realized quite early that a long war with the United Kingdom was very possible and that an entry of the United States into the war was quite certain. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 275-276)

Raeder tried several times to convince Hitler of the “Atlantic nature” of the war. After all, Great Britain was dependent on imports and those came to a large degree from the United States, which was likely to intervene if the United Kingdom was under serious threat.

The Situation in 1940

These assumption of the German Navy command were mostly correct. In July 1940 US congress approved of the “Two-Ocean-Navy-Act”, which called for a major expansion of the US Navy by around 70 %. The following decision in September 1940 was to provide the British with 50 older destroyers in exchange for 8 bases. This act was interpreted as quite hostile by the German Navy. To give you some reference at the outbreak of the war Germany had 21 destroyers. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 276 & S. 398)

Of course, the US build up would take time, the German Navy assumed that the US Navy’s expansion would begin to be an important factor from 1942 onwards, thus a crucial success or at least determined stance against the United Kingdom was necessary before the US would enter the war or provide further assistance to the British. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 276)
Although Hitler made some concessions to the Navy, there was no general shift in the strategy in late 1940/early 1941, after all Hitler considered the United Kingdom as a potential ally and not the main enemy, furthermore the preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union were already in motion. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 277)

1941 – Lend Lease and Beyond – The Continuous Escalation

On the other side of the Atlantic the situation was quite different, in November 1940 Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected, this guaranteed the further continuation of the close cooperation between the US and British politics. In December 1940 Churchill noted that the British ability to pay properly for the arms trade couldn’t be sustained much longer. Soon thereafter in March 1941 Roosevelt announced “An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States”, you probably didn’t heard that one before, because it is commonly known as Lend-Lease. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 278-280) This act allowed the support with equipment “of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” (Source )

The British and American cooperation was continuously more formalized and got a unified strategy. This also included agreements on cooperation for the Asian-Pacific area. And probably most importantly, there was an agreement that Germany was the major threat and that the control of the Atlantic was crucial in winning the war in Europe. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 278-280) The US Navy began preparations for escorting convoys in the Western Atlantic, but Roosevelt couldn’t allow the protection of convoys yet, due to the political factors in the United States. Nevertheless, the British were allowed to repair their war ships in US ship yards, which took off quite some pressure from the British ship yards .(Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 280-281)
Nevertheless, the British situation was quite problematic, the monthly losses from January to April 1941 grew from 320 000 Gross Register Tonnage to 688 000. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 282)

German Reaction to Lend-Lease and Occupation of Greenland

In order to counter the Lend-Lease agreement Admiral Raeder called for several actions, yet, Hitler only agreed on expanding the operational areas. As a reaction Roosevelt confiscated all German, Danish and Italian ships in US harbors. Furthermore in April 1941 the US occupied Greenland and expanded the security zone. Additionally, the US-Navy transferred several ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. In total by June 1941 3 battleships, 1 carrier, 4 cruisers and 18 destroyers were transferred. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 281)

Yet, these transfers made it clear that the US Navy wasn’t yet ready for a war. It lacked the number of ships and personnel to provide proper convoy escort missions in the Atlantic, furthermore there was only a limited backing by congress, and hence no escort operations were conducted. Yet, the patrol activity within the expanded security zones was extended and the zone also clashed with the German operational areas, thus the foundations for future incidents were laid. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 281-282)

German’s Navy View on the US

The German Navy interpreted Roosevelt’s actions as hostile, but was also aware of his political limitations regarding the congress and the public opinion. Basically, there were two approaches in the German Navy. The first one, which was favored by Admiral Reader, was to take determined stance against any further initiative by the United States. The second one, was to try to keep the United States in check by giving no reason for change in the American public opinion. Hitler wanted to prevent a conflict with the United States before the Soviet Union wasn’t defeated, after all he assumed that it would only take several months to defeat Soviet Army. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 282-283)

1941 – The Incidents & Actions – Short of War

In May and June 1941 there were two incidents, in May the US ship “Robin Moor” was sunk by a German submarine and in June a German submarine tried several times to get a proper firing angle on the battleship USS Texas. In the first case Roosevelt didn’t order the direct protection of convoys yet, but expanded the protection zone and also patrols into German operation areas. In the second case, the USS Texas was operating in an area that was clearly known as a warzone. The German Navy informed Hitler, and he decided that before Operation Barbarossa any incident with the United States should be avoided. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 284-285)

Occupation of Iceland

Another major step by the US in 1941 was the occupation of Iceland. Originally Iceland was part of Denmark, after the capitulation in 1940 the British occupied Iceland and in Summer 1940 the US took over. Now, this was done by US Marines, because they were volunteers and thus Roosevelt could act without the approval of the US Congress. Now, at first this seems to be a move with limited consequences, but once you have a base somewhere you need to supply it. So US convoys that were protected by US warships were used to supply Iceland and British merchant ships were welcome to join these convoys. These joint convoy operation also served as a foundation for the future cooperation between the US and Royal Navy. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 284-286)

The USS Greer Incident – Rattlesnakes

So basically, everything was set and in September 1941 there was an incident about 200 nautical miles south-west of Iceland. The Destroyer USS Greer and the German submarine U-652 attacked each other, although both missed. Both sides assumed they were attacked by the other. Originally, a British recon plane attacked the submarine with depth charges and the captain assumed it was the destroyer. Unbeknownst to the Germans the British plane was exchanging information with the US destroyer. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 291)
Roosevelt used this incident and called the German attacks piracy and this is origin for his rattlesnake quote:
“But when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.“ – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Fireside Chat to the Nation, September 11, 1941

Yet, besides this rhetoric the speech also contained a new escalation:
“That means, very simply, very clearly, that our patrolling vessels and planes will protect all merchant ships — not only American ships but ships of any flag — engaged in commerce in our defensive waters.” – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Fireside Chat to the Nation, September 11, 1941
Both Churchill and the German Navy Command interpreted this message basically the same way, either Germany would lose the battle in the Atlantic or it had to risk to be engaged by US Forces every time. Admiral Raeder called it a localized declaration of war, yet Hitler was still hoping for a successful operation Barbarossa and ordered to prevent any incidents with the United States. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 292)

USS Kearny and USS Reuben James Incidents

In October 1941 there were two further incidents. First, the destroyer USS Kearny was hit by a German torpedo, which resulted in first US casualties in World War II. Roosevelt declared the intention to revise the neutrality acts, including the armament of US merchant ships and delivering goods directly into the harbors of warfaring countries. Yet, the Germans didn’t react to this escalation. Second, in the end of October 1941 the destroyer USS Reuben James was sunk, which strengthened Roosevelts position in Congress for revising the neutrality acts. Nevertheless the final vote on changing the neutrality acts was still a close call with only a majority of 18 votes. This clearly showed Roosevelt that the congress was clearly not willing to support a declaration of war anytime soon. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 293-294)

Mediterranean

For Germany the situation in October 1941 was quite difficult, the Army was still heavily engaged with the Soviet Union, the incidents with the United States further increased the support for the British and the situation in the Mediterranean was endangering the Alliance with Italy. In order to solve the crisis German submarines were ordered there. After all the loss of North Africa would expose Italy. This showed already how over-stretched the Axis capabilities were in late 1941. Hitler still believed he could beat the Soviet Union and that the Mediterranean was central for stabilization of continental Europe. He assumed that Italy could easily collapse, thus he focused on improving German naval and air units in the Mediterranean.
The low numbers on the German navy units in the Atlantic in the end of 1941 is obvious, if one considers that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war against the United States, yet only 6 submarines were ordered against the US coast. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 294-297)

Summary

Germany

To summarize, Hitler and the High Command of the Navy had quite different views. Whereas the Navy considered the Battle of the Atlantic as crucial from the get go, Hitler considered it more important to eliminate all continental enemies first. Furthermore, the main enemy for the Navy were the British, whereas Hitler wanted a peace with the British even in late 1941, although it was clear to him that Churchill wouldn’t budge. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 294-296)
Naturally, the Navy and Hitler had a different approach, the Navy wanted to take clear stance against the escalation by the United States early on, whereas Hitler tried to deescalate as long as possible, in order to prevent a three front war before defeating the Soviet Union.

British

Now, the British didn’t got mentioned a lot in this video, mainly due to the fact they became the junior partner of the United States and most of the initiative on a strategic level was either determined or dependent from the United States. Of course the British still did most of the fighting in this period, but this will be part of another video or probably video series.

United States

Finally, the United States with Roosevelt was a constant escalation course which is usually called “short of war“-policy. Roosevelt was mainly held back by three factors, the relatively unprepared US forces, public opinion and of course the US congress. Yet, by Mid October 1941 the public opinion was already in 70 % in favor of defeating Hitler than keeping out of the war. Still, congress wasn’t willing to support a declaration of war. (Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 293-295) The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and the following declaration of war from Hitler against the United States clearly changed this situation, the Second World War was set in full motion by the end of 1941.

Sources

Main source

Rahn, Werner: Der Seekrieg im Atlantik und Nordmeer, Kapitel I: Der Atlantik in der deutschen und alliierten Strategie, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg – Band 6 – Der Globale Krieg. S. 275-298

Supplementary sources – mainly used for translation, quotes and correct titles

“Lend Lease” Act

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Fireside Chat to the Nation, September 11, 1941

Two Ocean Navy Act

Lend Lease

Destroyers for Bases Argreement

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