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In September, 1940, Britain traded a number of its New World naval base sites for 50 "overaged' (old) destroyers in the so-called "Destroyer Deal." That doesn't seem like a large number of destroyers, except that it was "large" relative to the existing British destroyer fleet.
Why did Britain have so few destroyers, even after its World War I experience with submarine warfare that they needed to trade for old ones?
This source provides a complete list of the RN's vessels in service in September 1939. It lists 113 Modern Destroyers, 68 Old Destroyers, and 54 Corvette Escorts (including 4 Australian and 2 Indian), for a total of 181 destroyers and 54 Escorts. An additional 24 Modern Destroyers were under construction.
Additionally, the Royal Canadian Navy included 7 River-Class destroyers in 1939, and commissioned 1 additional River-Class and 8 Town-Class destroyers in September 1940 as pat of the WWII building program that would make it the Allies' third-largest navy, by number of vessels, in 1945. The Royal Australian Navy had the destroyers Stewart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyageur and Waterhen in service in September 1939.
The most frequent RN organization of destroyers appears to be this:
Eight destroyers, each in the charge of a commander, plus a specially fitted leader commander (sic) by a captain, usually comprised a flotilla.
Additionally, between the wars the importance of airpower in deciding naval battles was increasingly recognized as of importance. Older destroyers without the capability of mounting A_A guns, and other modern armament, were often retired rather than moth-balled as not worth the expense of the latter. It was the surprisingly effective role of airpower in sinking the Bismarck that finally convinced the sceptics on both sides that the North Atlantic would be a battle of submarines against ASW vessels, rather than of surface fleet raiders eluding chasers.
Update comparison of Royal Navy between October 1918 and September 1939:
1918 1939 change Battleships 34 15 -18 -54% Cruisers 64 56 -8 -12% Aircraft Carriers 0 7 +7 NA B & C & AC combined 98 78 -20 -19% Destroyers 233 181 -52 -21% Escorts 0 54 +54 NA D & E combined 233 235 +2 +1% (ignoring specialty ships like minelayers, minesweepers, AA cruisers, etc.)
Contrary to the claim made in another answer, the large ships were disproportionally decommissioned in comparison to the smaller vessels.
Note also that the German submarines in World War 2 were fr the first 2 or 3 years much more effective than in World War 1, at least partially due to having broken the British and American maritime codes.
It was less about the number of destroyers available in 1939-40, as the much greater effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine in sinking them than was anticpated. In one letter to Roosevelt inquiring after the destroyers, Churchill noted that in the preceding ten days the Royal navy had had 11 destroyers sunk in the English Channel, and then precedes to list them.
The double whammy of losing the French Navy as an ally in the Mediterranean, and of the German U-boats being able to base in the Bay of Biscay and Brittany area, was completely unexpected. No pre-war planning in the Admiralty could have been expected to foresee such a rapid fall of France.
- The main idea of the deal from the British POV was to drag the US further into the war, not just increase RN's power.
- The emergency need for destroyers was due to heavy losses from convoy duties; which was not anticipated before the war.
(The source is the Churchill's WW2 book).
Perhaps there's a clue in this snippet from the wikpedia Battle of the Atlantic page:
Despite their success, U-boats were still not recognized as the foremost threat to the North Atlantic convoys. With the exception of men like Dönitz, most naval officers on both sides regarded surface warships as the ultimate commerce destroyers.
A destroyer is almost no help whatsoever against a full-blown battleship, as its guns will not be able to penetrate the larger ship's armor. So if the naval officers making shipbuilding requests before the war thought that the bigger ships were more important, they would natrurally prioritize the building of those ships, to the detriment of small ships that cannot be effective against them.
It should also be noted that the British, while getting some use out of those 50 transferred destroyers, didn't really find them as useful as one might think. In fact, they were of the opinion that the US was getting much the better of the deal, and were mostly going along to try to keep the relationship between the two countries close.
Britain had no choice but to accept the deal, but it was so much more advantageous to America than Britain that Churchill's aide John Colville compared it to the USSR's relationship with Finland. The destroyers were in reserve from the massive US World War I shipbuilding program, and many of the vessels required extensive overhaul due to the fact that many were not preserved properly when inactivated; one British admiral called them the "worst destroyers I had ever seen", and only 30 were in service by May 1941.
As stated by Pieter Geerkens in his answer, the Royal Navy had 181 destroyers available to it in 1939 (including any that were in refit). I'm posting this in order to expand on the other answers.
In 1939 the Royal Navy maintained a large number of fleets and stations including (but not limited to):
- Home Fleet (Admiral Sir Charles Forbes) - Mediterranean Fleet (Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham) - Cape of Good Hope Station [Covered the South Atlantic] (Vice Admiral Sir George Lyon) - North America and West Indies Station (Vice Admiral Sir Sidney Meyrick) - East Indies Station (Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham) - China Station (Admiral Sir Percy Noble) - New Zealand Station [Pre-cursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy] (Commodore Henry Horan)
The Royal Navy was faced with a need to maintain, and in some cases increase, deployments to these stations.
The Mediterranean Fleet had to fight/guard against the German and Italian navies.
The Home Fleet had to protect the UK itself and associated shipping.
The East Indies Station and China Station (alongside the Royal Australian Navy) had to guard against increased Japanese aggression.
Granted, not all of these formations contained destroyers but the extent of the deployments maintained by the Royal Navy is important in this case.
I wouldn't say the Royal navy has 'so few' they had a very large number, it just turned out they could have done with quite a lot more. The main reason they felt themselves so short of destroyers is they underestimated the submarine/u boat threat and the need for convoy escorts.
There was limited Royal Navy investigation of submarine and anti-submarine warfare in the interwar period, they really should have developed some of the anti submarine weapons and methods during the interwar period. The dismissing of the the need to convoy merchant vessels was fairly blind in the light of WW1 experience
Destroyers and Transports are those unexciting little necessities that Peacetime admirals cut back on in favor of big shiny Battleships or Aircraft carriers. No dignitary gets excited about breaking a beer bottle over a destroyer's bow.
When serious fighting breaks out, suddenly you need these vital support vessels and you feel the pinch until your industry kicks in.
Why did the British have so few destroyers going into World War II? - History
There are many different cause for World War II. To Japanese militarism, to Political takeover from Hitler here are some of the reasons for World war II. The Treaty of Versailles was a complete and almost a total failure due to the distaste of many of the allied powers. Here we have Japanese militarism. Japanese militarism spread rapidly throughout Japan, being it is that Japan has an emperor but at this time the military had more of a say than the crowned emperor. Next the politacal takeover of Hitler, because we all know that the takeover of Hitler in Germany contributed greatly to the war.
The Failure of Peace Efforts
During the 1920s, attempts were made to achieve a stable peace. The first was the establishment (1920) of the League of Nations as a forum in which nations could settle their disputes. The League’s powers were limited to persuasion and various levels of moral and economic sanctions that the members were free to carry out as they saw fit. At the Washington Conference of 1921-2, the principal naval powers agreed to limit their navies according to a fixed ratio. The Locarno Conference (1925) produced a treaty guarantee of the German-French boundary and an arbitration agreement between Germany and Poland. In the Kellogg-Briande Pact (1928), 63 countries including all the Great Powers except the USSR, renounced war as an instrument of national policy and pledged to resolve all disputes among them “by pacific means.” The signatories had agreed beforehand to exempt wars of “self-defense.”
The Rise of Fascism
One of the victors’ stated aims in World War I had been “to make the world safe for democracy,” and postwar Germany adopted a democratic constitution, as did most of the other states restored or created after the war. In the 1920s, however, the wave of the future appeared to be a form of nationalistic, militaristic totalitarianism known by its Italian name, fascism. It promised to minister to peoples’ wants more effectively than democracy and presented itself as the one sure defense against communism. Benito Mussolini established the first Fascist, European dictatorship during the inter war period in Italy in 1922.
Formation of the Axis Coalition
Adolf Hitler, the Leader of the German National Socialist (Nazi) party, preached a racist brand of fascism. Hitler promised to overturn the Versailles Treaty and secure additional Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German people, who he contended deserve more as members of a superior race. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression hit Germany. The moderate parties could not agree on what to do about it, and large numbers of voters turned to the Nazis and Communists. In 1933 Hitler became the German Chancellor, and in a series of subsequent moves established himself as dictator. Japan did not formally adopt fascism, but the armed forces’ powerful position in government enabled them to impose a similar type of totalitarianism. As dismantlers of the world status quo, the Japanese were well ahead of Hitler. They used a minor clash with Chinese troops near Mukden, also known as the Mukden or Manchurian crisis, in 1931 as a pretext for taking over all of Manchuria, where they proclaimed the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. In 1937-8 they occupied the main Chinese ports. Having denounced the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty, created a new air force, and reintroduced conscription, Hitler tried out his new weapons on the side of right-wing military rebels in the Spanish civil war (1936-9). This venture brought him into collaboration with Mussolini who was also supporting the Spanish revolt after having seized (1935-6) Ethiopia in a small war. Treaties between Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1936-7 brought into being the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. For example, Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern pact in 1936 and then Italy joined in 1937. This pact denounced communism and it showed their unity in the matter. The Axis thereafter became the collective term for those countries and their allies.
German Aggression in Europe
Hitler launched his own expansionist drive with the annexation of Austria in March 1938. The way was clear: Mussolini supported him and the British and French, overawed by German rearmament, accepted Hitler’s claim that the status of Austria was an internal German affair. The U.S. had impaired its ability to act against aggression by passing a neutrality law that prohibited material assistance to all parties in foreign conflicts. In September 1938 Hitler threatened war to annex the western border area of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland and its 3.5. million ethnic Germans. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain initiated talks that culminated at the end of the month in the Munich Pact, by which the Czechs, on British and French urging, relinquished the Sudetenland in return for Hitler’s promise not to take any more Czech territory. Chamberlain believed he had achieved “peace for our time,” but the word Munich soon implied abject and futile appeasement. Less than six months later, in March 1939, Hitler seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Alarmed by this new aggression and by Hitler’s threats against Poland, the British government pledged to aid that country if Germany threatened its independence. A popular joke ran at the time: “A guarantee a day keeps Hitler away”. France already had a mutual defense treaty with Poland. The turn away from appeasement brought the Soviet Union to the fore. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, had offered military help to Czechoslovakia during the 1938 crisis, but had been ignored by all the parties to the Munich Agreement. Now that war threatened, he was courted by both sides, but Hitler made the more attractive offer. Allied with Britain and France, the Soviet Union might well have had to fight, but all Germany asked for was its neutrality. In Moscow, on the night of August 23, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed. In the part published the next day, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed not to go to war against each other. A secret protocol gave Stalin a free hand in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and eastern Romania.
The Worldwide Great Depression
The costs of carrying out World War I, as well as the costs to rebuild Western Europe after years of fighting, resulted in enormous debts on the part of the Western European powers to the United States. The enormous reparations put on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles also increased the debts. Coupled with ineffective governments in many of these European States (notably the Weinmar Republic, pre-Mussolini Italy and Socialist France) led to slow reconstruction and poor economic growth.
With the crash of the New York Stock Market on 29 October, 1929, the United States recalled all foreign loans in the following days. Unable to repay these loans, the economies of the West collapsed, beginning the Great Depression.
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Lusitania, British ocean liner, the sinking of which by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, contributed indirectly to the entry of the United States into World War I.
What was the Lusitania?
The Lusitania was a British passenger ship that was owned by the Cunard Line and was first launched in 1906. Built for the transatlantic passenger trade, it was luxurious and noted for its speed. During World War I the Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo, resulting in great loss of life.
What happened to the Lusitania?
In May 1915 the British ocean liner was sailing from New York City to Liverpool, England. Following reports of German U-boat activity along the Irish coast, the Lusitania was warned to avoid the area and to adopt the evasive tactic of zigzagging. The captain ignored these recommendations, and the ship was sunk by a torpedo on May 7. Nearly 1,200 people were killed.
Why did the Lusitania sink so fast?
The ship sank within 20 minutes of being hit by a German torpedo. There has been much speculation about its quick demise, many pointing to the second explosion that occurred after the initial torpedo strike. Some believe damage to the steam room and pipes caused the latter blast, hastening the Lusitania’s sinking. Others have posited that the ship’s cargo of ammunition exploded.
Why was the Lusitania important?
The British ocean liner’s demise contributed indirectly to the United States’ entry into World War I. In 1915 it was sunk by a German U-boat, resulting in the death of 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. Despite outrage over the incident, the U.S. government continued to pursue a policy of neutrality for another two years. However, German submarine warfare was cited when the United States declared war in 1917.
The Lusitania, which was owned by the Cunard Line, was built to compete for the highly lucrative transatlantic passenger trade. Construction began in 1904, and, after completion of the hull and main superstructure, the Lusitania was launched on June 7, 1906. The liner was completed the following year, at which time it was the largest ship in the world, measuring some 787 feet (240 metres) in length and weighing approximately 31,550 tons it was surpassed the following year by its sister ship, the Mauretania. Although luxurious, the Lusitania was noted more for its speed. On September 7, 1907, the ship made its maiden voyage, sailing from Liverpool, England, to New York City. The following month it won the Blue Riband for fastest Atlantic crossing, averaging nearly 24 knots. The Mauretania would later claim the Blue Riband, and the two ships regularly vied for the honour.
World War II: a people's war? - Howard Zinn
Historian Howard Zinn critically analyses the conception that World War II was really a "people's war" against fascism, as opposed to yet another inter-imperialist conflict with nothing to offer working people.
"We, the governments of Great Britain and the United States, in the name of India, Burma, Malaya, Australia, British East Africa, British Guiana, Hong Kong, Siam, Singapore, Egypt, Palestine, Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands, hereby declare most emphatically, that this is not an imperialist war." Thus went a skit put on in the United States in the year 1939 by the Communist party.
Two years later, Germany invaded Soviet Russia, and the American Communist party, which had repeatedly described the war between the Axis Powers and the Allied Powers as an imperialist war, now called it a "people's war" against Fascism. Indeed almost all Americans were now in agreement-capitalists, Communists, Democrats, Republicans, poor, rich, and middle class-that this was indeed a people's war.
By certain evidence, it was the most popular war the United States had ever fought. Never had a greater proportion of the country participated in a war: 18 million served in the armed forces, 10 million overseas 25 million workers gave of their pay envelope regularly for war bonds. But could this be considered a manufactured support, since all the power of the nation-not only of the government, but the press, the church, and even the chief radical organizations-was behind the calls for all-out war? Was there an undercurrent of reluctance were there unpublicized signs of resistance?
It was a war against an enemy of unspeakable evil. Hitler's Germany was extending totalitarianism, racism, militarism, and overt aggressive warfare beyond what an already cynical world had experienced. And yet, did the governments conducting this war-England, the United States, the Soviet Union-represent something significantly different, so that their victory would be a blow to imperialism, racism, totalitarianism, militarism, in the world?
Would the behavior of the United States during the war-in military action abroad, in treatment of minorities at home-be in keeping with a "people's war"? Would the country's wartime policies respect the rights of ordinary people everywhere to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And would postwar America, in its policies at home and overseas, exemplify the values for which the war was supposed to have been fought?
These questions deserve thought. At the time of World War II, the atmosphere was too dense with war fervor to permit them to be aired.
For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It bad pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had "opened" Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years.
While demanding an Open Door in China, it had insisted (with the Monroe Doctrine and many military interventions) on a Closed Door in Latin America-that is, closed to everyone but the United States. It had engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the "independent" state of Panama in order to build and control the Canal. It sent five thousand marines to Nicaragua in 1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for seven years. It intervened in the Dominican Republic for the fourth time in 1916 and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for nineteen years. Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty Latin American states were being directed to some extent by the United States. By 1935, over half of U.S. steel and cotton exports were being sold in Latin America.
Just before World War I ended, in 1918, an American force of seven thousand landed at Vladivostok as part of an Allied intervention in Russia, and remained until early 1920. Five thousand more troops were landed at Archangel, another Russian port, also as part of an Allied expeditionary force, and stayed for almost a year. The State Department told Congress: "All these operations were to offset effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia."
In short, if the entrance of the United States into World War II was (as so many Americans believed at the time, observing the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, the nation's record cast doubt on its ability to uphold that principle.
What seemed clear at the time was that the United States was a democracy with certain liberties, while Germany was a dictatorship persecuting its Jewish minority, imprisoning dissidents, whatever their religion, while proclaiming the supremacy of the Nordic "race." However, blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different. And the United States had done little about Hitler's policies of persecution. Indeed, it had joined England and France in appeasing Hitler throughout the thirties. Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, were hesitant to criticize publicly Hitler's anti-Semitic policies when a resolution was introduced in the Senate in January 1934 asking the Senate and the President to express "surprise and pain" at what the Germans were doing to the Jews, and to ask restoration of Jewish rights, the State Department "caused this resolution to be buried in committee," according to Arnold Offner (American Appeasement).
When Mussolini's Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S. declared an embargo on munitions but let American businesses send oil to Italy in huge quantities, which was essential to Italy's carrying on the war. When a Fascist rebellion took place in Spain in 1936 against the elected socialist-liberal government, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act that had the effect of shutting off help to the Spanish government while Hitler and Mussolini gave critical aid to Franco. Offner says:
Was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable. Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion for victims of persecution) was not minority rights, but national power.
It was not Hitler's attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861. Italy's attack on Ethiopia, Hitler's invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland-none of those events caused the United States to enter the war, although Roosevelt did begin to give important aid to England. What brought the United States fully into the war was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane concern for Japan's bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt's outraged call for war-Japan's attack on China in 1937, her bombing of civilians at Nan king, had not provoked the United States to war. It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it.
So long as Japan remained a well-behaved member of that imperial club of Great Powers who-in keeping with the Open Door Policy- were sharing the exploitation of China, the United States did not object. It had exchanged notes with Japan in 1917 saving "the Government of the United States recognizes that Japan has special interests in China." In 1928, according to Akira Iriye (After Imperialism,), American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese troops. It was when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States became alarmed and took those measures which led to the Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron, a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.
As Bruce Russet says (No Clear and Present Danger): "Throughout the 1930s the United States government had done little to resist the Japanese advance on the Asian continent," But: "The Southwest Pacific area was of undeniable economic importance to the United States-at the time most of America's tin and rubber came from there, as did substantial quantities of other raw materials."
Pearl Harbor was presented to the American public as a sudden, shocking, immoral act. Immoral it was, like any bombing-but not really sudden or shocking to the American government. Russett says: "Japan's strike against the American naval base climaxed a long series of mutually antagonistic acts. In initiating economic sanctions against Japan the United States undertook actions that were widely recognized in Washington as carrying grave risks of war."
Putting aside the wild accusations against Roosevelt (that he knew about Pearl Harbor and didn't tell, or that he deliberately provoked the Pearl Harbor raid—these are without evidence), it does seem clear that he did as James Polk had done before him in the Mexican war and Lyndon Johnson after him in the Vietnam war-he lied to the public for what he thought was a right cause. In September and October 1941, he misstated the facts in two incidents involving German submarines and American destroyers. A historian sympathetic to Roosevelt, Thomas A. Bailey, has written:
One of the judges in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial after World War II, Radhabinod Pal, dissented from the general verdicts against Japanese officials and argued that the United States had clearly provoked the war with Japan and expected Japan to act. Richard Minear (Victors' Justice) sums up Pal's view of the embargoes on scrap iron and oil, that "these measures were a clear and potent threat to Japan's very existence." The records show that a White House conference two weeks before Pearl Harbor anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified.
A State Department memorandum on Japanese expansion, a year before Pearl Harbor, did not talk of the independence of China or the principle of self-determination. It said:
Once joined with England and Russia in the war (Germany and Italy declared war on the United States right after Pearl Harbor), did the behavior of the United States show that her war aims were humanitarian, or centered on power and profit? Was she fighting the war to end the control by some nations over others or to make sure the controlling nations were friends of the United States? In August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland and released to the world the Atlantic Charter, setting forth noble goals for the postwar world, saying their countries "seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other," and that they respected "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live." The Charter was celebrated as declaring the right of nations to self-determination.
Two weeks before the Atlantic Charter, however, the U.S. Acting Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, had assured the French government that they could keep their empire intact after the end of the war: "This Government, mindful of its traditional friendship for France, has deeply sympathized with the desire of the French people to maintain their territories and to preserve them intact." The Department of Defense history of Vietnam (The Pentagon Papers) itself pointed to what it called an "ambivalent" policy toward Indochina, noting that "in the Atlantic Charter and other pronouncements, the U.S. proclaimed support for national self-determination and independence" but also "early in the war repeatedly expressed or implied to the French an intention to restore to France its overseas empire after the war."
In late 1942, Roosevelt's personal representative assured French General Henri Giraud: "It is thoroughly understood that French sovereignty will be re-established as soon as possible throughout all the territory, metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the French flag in 1939." (These pages, like the others in the Pentagon Papers, are marked "TOP SECRET-Sensitive.") By 1945 the "ambivalent" attitude was gone. In May, Truman assured the French he did not question her "sovereignty over Indochina." That fall, the United States urged Nationalist China, put temporarily in charge of the northern part of Indochina by the Potsdam Conference, to turn it over to the French, despite the obvious desire of the Vietnamese for independence.
That was a favor for the French government. But what about the United States' own imperial ambitions during the war? What about the "aggrandizement, territorial or other" that Roosevelt had renounced in the Atlantic Charter?
In the headlines were the battles and troop movements: the invasion of North Africa in 1942, Italy in 1943, the massive, dramatic cross-Channel invasion of German -occupied France in 1944, the bitter battles as Germany was pushed back toward and over her frontiers, the increasing bombardment by the British and American air forces. And, at the same time, the Russian victories over the Nazi armies (the Russians, by the time of the cross-Channel invasion, had driven the Germans out of Russia, and were engaging 80 percent of the German troops). In the Pacific, in 1943 and 1944, there was the island-by-island move of American forces toward Japan, finding closer and closer bases for the thunderous bombardment of Japanese cities.
Quietly, behind the headlines in battles and bombings, American diplomats and businessmen worked hard to make sure that when the war ended, American economic power would be second to none in the world. United States business would penetrate areas that up to this time had been dominated by England. The Open Door Policy of equal access would be extended from Asia to Europe, meaning that the United States intended to push England aside and move in.
That is what happened to the Middle East and its oil. In August 1945 a State Department officer said that "a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years will show that petroleum has historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity." Saudi Arabia was the largest oil pool in the Middle East. The ARAMCO oil corporation, through Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, got Roosevelt to agree to Lend Lease aid to Saudi Arabia, which would involve the U.S. government there and create a shield for the interests of ARAMCO. In 1944 Britain and the U.S. signed a pact on oil agreeing on "the principle of equal opportunity," and Lloyd Gardner concludes (Economic Aspects of New Deal Diplomacy) that "the Open Door Policy was triumphant throughout the Middle East."
Historian Gabriel Kolko, after a close study of American wartime policy (The Politics of War), concludes that "the American economic war aim was to save capitalism at home and abroad." In April 1944 a State Department official said: "As you know, we've got to plan on enormously increased production in this country after the war, and the American domestic market can't absorb all that production indefinitely. There won't be any question about our needing greatly increased foreign markets."
Anthony Sampson, in his study of the international oil business (The Seven Sisters), says:
Roosevelt then wrote to Ibn Sand, promising the United States would not change its Palestine policy without consulting the Arabs. In later years, the concern for oil would constantly compete with political concern for the Jewish state in the Middle East, but at this point, oil seemed more important.
With British imperial power collapsing during World War IT, the United States was ready to move in. Hull said early in the war:
Before the war was over, the administration was planning the outlines of the new international economic order, based on partnership between government and big business. Lloyd Gardner says of Roosevelt's chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, who had organized the relief programs of the New Deal: "No conservative outdid Ilopkins in championing foreign investment, and its protection."
The poet Archibald MacLeish, then an Assistant Secretary of State, spoke critically of what he saw in the postwar world: "As things are now going, the peace we will make, the peace we seem to be making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping, a peace, in brief . . . without moral purpose or human interest . . ."
During the war, England and the United States set up the International Monetary Fund to regulate international exchanges of currency voting would be proportional to capital contributed, so American dominance would be assured. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development was set up, supposedly to help reconstruct war-destroyed areas, but one of its first objectives was, in its own words, "to promote foreign investment."
The economic aid countries would need after the war was already seen in political terms: Averell Harriman, ambassador to Russia, said in early 1944: "Economic assistance is one of the most effective weapons at our disposal to influence European political events in the direction we desire. ."
The creation of the United Nations during the war was presented to the world as international cooperation to prevent future wars. But the U.N. was dominated by the Western imperial countries- the United States, England, and France-and a new imperial power, with military bases and powerful influence in Eastern Europe-the Soviet Union. An important conservative Republican Senator, Arthur Vandenburg, wrote in his diary about the United Nations Charter:
The plight of Jews in German-occupied Europe, which many people thought was at the heart of the war against the Axis, was not a chief concern of Roosevelt. Henry Feingold's research (The Politics of Rescue) shows that, while the Jews were being put in camps and the process of annihilation was beginning that would end in the horrifying extermination of 6 million Jews and millions of non- Jews, Roosevelt failed to take steps that might have saved thousands of lives. lie did not see it as a high priority he left it to the State Department, and in the State Department anti-Semitism and a cold bureaucracy became obstacles to action.
Was the war being fought to establish that Hitler was wrong in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over "inferior" races? The United States' armed forces were segregated by race. When troops were jammed onto the Queen Mary in early 1945 to go to combat duty in the European theater, the blacks were stowed down in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as possible from the fresh air of the deck, in a bizarre reminder of the slave voyages of old.
The Red Cross, with government approval, separated the blood donations of black and white. It was, ironically, a black physician named Charles Drew who developed the blood bank system. He was put in charge of the wartime donations, and then fired when he tried to end blood segregation. Despite the urgent need for wartime labor, blacks were still being discriminated against for jobs. A spokesman for a West Coast aviation plant said: "The Negro will be considered only as janitors and in other similar capacities. . .. Regardless of their training as aircraft workers, we will not employ them." Roosevelt never did anything to enforce the orders of the Eair Employment Practices Commission he had set up.
The Fascist nations were notorious in their insistence that the woman's place was in the home. Yet, the war against Fascism, although it utilized women in defense industries where they were desperately needed, took no special steps to change the subordinate role of women. The War Manpower Commission, despite the large numbers of women in war work, kept women off its policymaking bodies. A report of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, by its director, Mary Anderson, said the War Manpower Commission had "doubts and uneasiness" about "what was then regarded as a developing attitude of militancy or a crusading spirit on the part of women leaders.. .."
In one of its policies, the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism. This was in its treatment of the Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. After the Pearl Harbor attack, anti- Japanese hysteria spread in the government. One Congressman said: "I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps. . Damn them! Let's get rid of them!"
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast-110,000 men, women, and children-to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions. Three-fourths of these were Nisei-children horn in the United States of Japanese parents and therefore American citizens. The other fourth-the Issei, born in Japan-were barred by law from becoming citizens. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on the grounds of military necessity. The Japanese remained in those camps for over three years.
Michi Weglyn was a young girl when her family experienced evacuation and detention. She tells (Years of Infamy) of bungling in the evacuation, of misery, confusion, anger, but also of Japanese-American dignity and fighting back. There were strikes, petitions, mass meetings, refusal to sign loyalty oaths, riots against the camp authorities. The Japanese resisted to the end.
Not until after the war did the story of the Japanese-Americans begin to be known to the general public. The month the war ended in Asia, September 1945, an article appeared in Harper's Magazine by Yale Law Professor Eugene V. Rostow, calling the Japanese evacuation "our worst wartime mistake." Was it a "mistake"-or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental elements of the American system?
It was a war waged by a government whose chief beneficiary- despite volumes of reforms-was a wealthy elite. The alliance between big business and the government went back to the very first proposals of Alexander Hamilton to Congress after the Revolutionary War. By World War II that partnership had developed and intensified. During the Depression, Roosevelt had once denounced the "economic royalists," but he always had the support of certain important business leaders. During the war, as Bruce Catton saw it from his post in the War Production Board: "The economic royalists, denounced and derided . . . had a part to play now. . "
Catton (The War Lords of Washington) described the process of industrial mobilization to carry on the war, and how in this process wealth became more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer large corporations. In 1940 the United States had begun sending large amounts of war supplies to England and France. By 1941 three-fourths of the value of military contracts were handled by fifty- six large corporations. A Senate report, "Economic Concentration and World War II," noted that the government contracted for scientific research in industry during the war, and although two thousand corporations were involved, of $1 billion spent, $400 million went to ten large corporations.
Management remained firmly in charge of decision making during the war, and although 12 million workers were organized in the CIO and AFL, labor was in a subordinate position. Labor- management committees were set up in five thousand factories, as a gesture toward industrial democracy, but they acted mostly as disciplinary groups for absentee workers, and devices for increasing production. Catton writes: "The big operators who made the working decisions had decided that nothing very substantial was going to be changed."
Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of patriotism and total dedication to winning the war, despite the no-strike pledges of the AFL and CIO, many of the nation's workers, frustrated by the freezing of wages while business profits rocketed skyward, went on strike. During the war, there were fourteen thousand strikes, involving 6,770,000 workers, more than in any comparable period in American history. In 1944 alone, a million workers were on strike, in the mines, in the steel mills, in the auto and transportation equipment industries.
When the war ended, the strikes continued in record numbers- 3 million on strike in the first half of 1946. According to Jeremy Brecher (Strike!), if not for the disciplinary hand of the unions there might have been "a general confrontation between the workers of a great many industries, and the government, supporting the employers."
In Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, according to an unpublished manuscript by Marc Miller ("The Irony of Victory: Lowell During World War II"), there were as many strikes in 1943 and 1944 as in 1937. It may have been a "people's war," but here was dissatisfaction at the fact that the textile mill profits grew 600 percent from 1940 to 1946, while wage increases in cotton goods industries went up 36 percent. How little the war changed the difficult condition of women workers is shown by the fact that in Lowell, among women war workers with children, only 5 percent could have their children taken care of by nursery schools the others had to make their own arrangements.
Beneath the noise of enthusiastic patriotism, there were many people who thought war was wrong, even in the circumstances of Fascist aggression. Out of 10 million drafted for the armed forces during World War II, only 43,000 refused to fight. But this was three times the proportion of C.O.'s (conscientious objectors) in World War 1. Of these 43,000, about 6,000 went to prison, which was, proportionately, four times the number of C.O.'s who went to prison during World War I. Of every six men in federal prison, one was there as a C.O.
Many more than 43,000 refusers did not show up for the draft at all. The government lists about 350,000 cases of draft evasion, including technical violations as well as actual desertion, so it is hard to tell the true number, but it may be that the number of men who either did not show up or claimed C.O. status was in the hundreds of thousands-not a small number. And this in the face of an American community almost unanimously for the war.
Among those soldiers who were not conscientious objectors, who seemed willing fighters, it is hard to know how much resentment there was against authority, against having to fight in a war whose aims were unclear, inside a military machine whose lack of democracy was very clear. No one recorded the bitterness of enlisted men against the special privileges of officers in the army of a country known as a democracy. To give just one instance: combat crews in the air force in the European theater, going to the base movies between bombing missions, found two lines-an officers' line (short), and an enlisted men's line (very long). There were two mess halls, even as they prepared to go into combat: the enlisted men's food was different-worse-than the officers1.
The literature that followed World War II, James Jones's From Here to Eternity, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead captured this GI anger against the army "brass." In The Naked and the Dead, the soldiers talk in battle, and one of them says: "The only thing wrong with this Army is it never lost a war."
Toglio was shocked. "You think we ought to lose this one?"
Red found himself carried away. "What have I against the goddam Japs? You think I care if they keep this fuggin jungle? What's it to me if Cummings gets another star?"
"General Cummings, he's a good man," Martinez said.
"There ain't a good officer in the world," Red stated.
There seemed to be widespread indifference, even hostility, on the part of the Negro community to the war despite the attempts of Negro newspapers and Negro leaders to mobilize black sentiment. Lawrence Wittner (Rebels Against War) quotes a black journalist: "The Negro . . . is angry, resentful, and utterly apathetic about the war. 'Fight for what?' he is asking. 'This war doesn't mean a thing to me. If we win I lose, so what?'" A black army officer, home on furlough, told friends in Harlem he had been in hundreds of bull sessions with Negro soldiers and found no interest in the war.
A student at a Negro college told his teacher: "The Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?" NAACP leader Walter White repeated this to a black audience of several thousand people in the Midwest, thinking they would disapprove, but instead, as he recalled: "16 my surprise and dismay the audience burst into such applause that it took me some thirty or forty seconds to quiet it."
In January 1943, there appeared in a Negro newspaper this "Draftee's Prayer":
But there was no organized Negro opposition to the war. In fact, there was little organized opposition from any source. The Communist party was enthusiastically in support. The Socialist party was divided, unable to make a clear statement one way or the other.
A few small anarchist and pacifist groups refused to back the war. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom said: ".. . war between nations or classes or races cannot permanently settle conflicts or heal the wounds that brought them into being." The Catholic Worker wrote: "We are still pacifists. ."
The difficulty of merely calling for "peace" in a world of capitalism, Fascism, Communism- dynamic ideologies, aggressive actions-troubled some pacifists. They began to speak of "revolutionary nonviolence." A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation said in later years: "I was not impressed with the sentimental, easygoing pacifism of the earlier part of the century. People then felt that if they sat and talked pleasantly of peace and love, they would solve the problems of the world." The world was in the midst of a revolution, Muste realized, and those against violence must take revolutionary action, but without violence. A movement of revolutionary pacifism would have to "make effective contacts with oppressed and minority groups such as Negroes, share-croppers, industrial workers."
Only one organized socialist group opposed the war unequivocally. This was the Socialist Workers Party. The Espionage Act of 1917 , still on the books, applied to wartime statements. But in 1940, with the United States not yet at war, Congress passed the Smith Act. This took Espionage Act prohibitions against talk or writing that would lead to refusal of duty in the armed forces and applied them to peacetime. The Smith Act also made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence, or to join any group that advocated this, or to publish anything with such ideas. In Minneapolis in 1943, eighteen members of the Socialist Workers party were convicted for belonging to a party whose ideas, expressed in its Declaration of Principles, and in the Communist Manifesto, were said to violate the Smith Act. They were sentenced to prison terms, and the Supreme Court refused to review their case.
A few voices continued to insist that the real war was inside each nation: Dwight Macdonald's wartime magazine Politics presented, in early 1945, an article by the French worker-philosopher Simone Weil:
Still, the vast bulk of the American population was mobilized, in the army, and in civilian life, to fight the war, and the atmosphere of war enveloped more and more Americans. Public opinion polls show large majorities of soldiers favoring the draft for the postwar period. Hatred against the enemy, against the Japanese particularly, became widespread. Racism was clearly at work. Time magazine, reporting the battle of Iwo Jima, said: "The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing .. . indicates it."
So, there was a mass base of support for what became the heaviest bombardment of civilians ever undertaken in any war: the aerial attacks on German and Japanese cities. One might argue that this popular support made it a "people's war." But if "people's war" means a war of people against attack, a defensive war-if it means a war fought for humane reasons instead of for the privileges of an elite, a war against the few, not the many-then the tactics of all-out aerial assault against the populations of Germany and Japan destroy that notion.
Italy had bombed cities in the Ethiopian war Italy and Germany had bombed civilians in the Spanish Civil War at the start of World War II German planes dropped bombs on Rotterdam in Holland, Coventry in England, and elsewhere. Roosevelt had described these as "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity."
These German bombings were very small compared with the British and American bombings of German cities. In January 1943 the Allies met at Casablanca and agreed on large-scale air attacks to achieve "the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened." And so, the saturation bombing of German cities began-with thousand -plane raids on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg. The English flew at night with no pretense of aiming at "military" targets the Americans flew in the daytime and pretended precision, but bombing from high altitudes made that impossible. The climax of this terror bombing was the bombing of Dresden in early 1945, in which the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum into which fire leaped swiftly in a great firestorm through the city. More than 100,000 died in Dresden. (Winston Churchill, in his wartime memoirs, confined himself to this account of the incident: "We made a heavy raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre of communication of Germany's Eastern Front")
The bombing of Japanese cities continued the strategy of saturation bombing to destroy civilian morale one nighttime fire-bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. And then, on August 6, 1945, came the lone American plane in the sky over Hiroshima, dropping the first atomic bomb, leaving perhaps 100,000 Japanese dead, and tens of thousands more slowly dying from radiation poisoning. Twelve U.S. navy fliers in the Hiroshima city jail were killed in the bombing, a fact that the U.S. government has never officially acknowledged, according to historian Martin Sherwin (A World Destroyed). Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, with perhaps 50,000 killed.
The justification for these atrocities was that this would end the war quickly, making unnecessary an invasion of Japan. Such an invasion would cost a huge number of lives, the government said-a million, according to Secretary of State Byrnes half a million, Truman claimed was the figure given him by General George Marshall. (When the papers of the Manhattan Project-the project to build the atom bomb- were released years later, they showed that Marshall urged a warning to the Japanese about the bomb, so people could be removed and only military targets hit.) These estimates of invasion losses were not realistic, and seem to have been pulled out of the air to justify bombings which, as their effects became known, horrified more and more people. Japan, by August 1945, was in desperate shape and ready to surrender. New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote, shortly after the war:
The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position by the time the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender was made on July 26.
Such then, was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Need we have done it? No one can, of course, be positive, but the answer is almost certainly negative.
But could American leaders have known this in August 1945? The answer is, clearly, yes. The Japanese code had been broken, and Japan's messages were being intercepted. It was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had begun talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting to the end be considered. On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: "Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.. .." Martin Sherwin, after an exhaustive study of the relevant historical documents, concludes: "Having broken the Japanese code before the war, American Intelligence was able to-and did-relay this message to the President, but it had no effect whatever on efforts to bring the war to a conclusion."
If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender- that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place-the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.
Why did the United States not take that small step to save both American and Japanese lives? Was it because too much money and effort had been invested in the atomic bomb not to drop it? General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described Truman as a man on a toboggan, the momentum too great to stop it. Or was it, as British scientist P. M. S. Blackett suggested (Fear, War, and the Bomb), that the United States was anxious to drop the bomb before the Russians entered the war against Japan?
The Russians had secretly agreed (they were officially not at war with Japan) they would come into the war ninety days after the end of the European war. That turned out to be May 8, and so, on August 8, the Russians were due to declare war on Japan, But by then the big bomb had been dropped, and the next day a second one would be dropped on Nagasaki the Japanese would surrender to the United States, not the Russians, and the United States would be the occupier of postwar Japan. In other words, Blackett says, the dropping of the bomb was "the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.. .." Blackett is supported by American historian Gar Alperovitz (Atomic Diplomacy), who notes a diary entry for July 28, 1945, by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, describing Secretary of State James F. Byrnes as "most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in."
Truman had said, "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." It was a preposterous statement. Those 100,000 killed in Hiroshima were almost all civilians. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said in its official report: "Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population."
The dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki seems to have been scheduled in advance, and no one has ever been able to explain why it was dropped. Was it because this was a plutonium bomb whereas the Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb? Were the dead and irradiated of Nagasaki victims of a scientific experiment? Martin Shenvin says that among the Nagasaki dead were probably American prisoners of war. He notes a message of July 31 from Headquarters, U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces, Guam, to the War Department:
The reply: "Targets previously assigned for Centerboard remain unchanged."
True, the war then ended quickly. Italy had been defeated a year earlier. Germany had recently surrendered, crushed primarily by the armies of the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, aided by the Allied armies on the West. Now Japan surrendered. The Fascist powers were destroyed.
But what about fascism-as idea, as reality? Were its essential elements-militarism, racism, imperialism-now gone? Or were they absorbed into the already poisoned bones of the victors? A. J. Muste, the revolutionary pacifist, had predicted in 1941: "The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?"
The victors were the Soviet Union and the United States (also England, France and Nationalist China, but they were weak). Both these countries now went to work—without swastikas, goose-stepping, or officially declared racism, but under the cover of "socialism" on one side, and "democracy" on the other, to carve out their own empires of influence. They proceeded to share and contest with one another the domination of the world, to build military machines far greater than the Fascist countries had built, to control the destinies of more countries than Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan had been able to do. They also acted to control their own populations, each country with its own techniques-crude in the Soviet Union, sophisticated in the United States—to make their rule secure.
The war not only put the United States in a position to dominate much of the world it created conditions for effective control at home. The unemployment, the economic distress, and the consequent turmoil that had marked the thirties, only partly relieved by New Deal measures, had been pacified, overcome by the greater turmoil of the war. The war brought higher prices for farmers, higher wages, enough prosperity for enough of the population to assure against the rebellions that so threatened the thirties. As Lawrence Wittner writes, "The war rejuvenated American capitalism." The biggest gains were in corporate profits, which rose from $6.4 billion in 1940 to $10.8 billion in 1944. But enough went to workers and farmers to make them feel the system was doing well for them.
It was an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for "a permanent war economy."
That is what happened. When, right after the war, the American public, war-weary, seemed to favor demobilization and disarmament, the Truman administration (Roosevelt had died in April 1945) worked to create an atmosphere of crisis and cold war.
The Battle of Britain
With France conquered, Hitler could now turn his forces on Germany’s sole remaining enemy: Great Britain, which was protected from the formidable German Army by the waters of the English Channel. On July 16, 1940, Hitler issued a directive ordering the preparation and, if necessary, the execution of a plan for the invasion of Great Britain. But an amphibious invasion of Britain would only be possible, given Britain’s large navy, if Germany could establish control of the air in the battle zone. To this end, the Luftwaffe chief, Göring, on August 2 issued the “ Eagle Day” directive, laying down a plan of attack in which a few massive blows from the air were to destroy British air power and so open the way for the amphibious invasion, termed Operation “ Sea Lion.” Victory in the air battle for the Luftwaffe would indeed have exposed Great Britain to invasion and occupation. The victory by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command blocked this possibility and, in fact, created the conditions for Great Britain’s survival, for the extension of the war, and for the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.
The forces engaged in the battle were relatively small. The British disposed some 600 frontline fighters to defend the country. The Germans made available about 1,300 bombers and dive bombers, and about 900 single-engined and 300 twin-engined fighters. These were based in an arc around England from Norway to the Cherbourg Peninsula in northern coastal France. The preliminaries of the Battle of Britain occupied June and July 1940, the climax August and September, and the aftermath—the so-called Blitz—the winter of 1940–41. In the campaign, the Luftwaffe had no systematic or consistent plan of action: sometimes it tried to establish a blockade by the destruction of British shipping and ports sometimes, to destroy Britain’s Fighter Command by combat and by the bombing of ground installations and sometimes, to seek direct strategic results by attacks on London and other populous centres of industrial or political significance. The British, on the other hand, had prepared themselves for the kind of battle that in fact took place. Their radar early warning, the most advanced and the most operationally adapted system in the world, gave Fighter Command adequate notice of where and when to direct their fighter forces to repel German bombing raids. The Spitfire, moreover, though still in short supply, was unsurpassed as an interceptor by any fighter in any other air force.
The British fought not only with the advantage—unusual for them—of superior equipment and undivided aim but also against an enemy divided in object and condemned by circumstance and by lack of forethought to fight at a tactical disadvantage. The German bombers lacked the bomb-load capacity to strike permanently devastating blows and also proved, in daylight, to be easily vulnerable to the Spitfires and Hurricanes. Britain’s radar, moreover, largely prevented them from exploiting the element of surprise. The German dive bombers were even more vulnerable to being shot down by British fighters, and long-range fighter cover was only partially available from German fighter aircraft, since the latter were operating at the limit of their flying range.
The German air attacks began on ports and airfields along the English Channel, where convoys were bombed and the air battle was joined. In June and July 1940, as the Germans gradually redeployed their forces, the air battle moved inland over the interior of Britain. On August 8 the intensive phase began, when the Germans launched bombing raids involving up to nearly 1,500 aircraft a day and directed them against the British fighter airfields and radar stations. In four actions, on August 8, 11, 12, and 13, the Germans lost 145 aircraft as against the British loss of 88. By late August the Germans had lost more than 600 aircraft, the RAF only 260, but the RAF was losing badly needed fighters and experienced pilots at too great a rate, and its effectiveness was further hampered by bombing damage done to the radar stations. At the beginning of September the British retaliated by unexpectedly launching a bombing raid on Berlin, which so infuriated Hitler that he ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from Fighter Command installations to London and other cities. These assaults on London, Coventry, Liverpool, and other cities went on unabated for several months. But already, by September 15, on which day the British believed, albeit incorrectly, that they had scored their greatest success by destroying 185 German aircraft, Fighter Command had demonstrated to the Luftwaffe that it could not gain air ascendancy over Britain. This was because British fighters were simply shooting down German bombers faster than German industry could produce them. The Battle of Britain was thus won, and the invasion of England was postponed indefinitely by Hitler. The British had lost more than 900 fighters but had shot down about 1,700 German aircraft.
During the following winter, the Luftwaffe maintained a bombing offensive, carrying out night-bombing attacks on Britain’s larger cities. By February 1941 the offensive had declined, but in March and April there was a revival, and nearly 10,000 sorties were flown, with heavy attacks made on London. Thereafter German strategic air operations over England withered.
Way Before Pearl Harbor, America and Nazi Germany Were Locked Into a Naval War
The undeclared naval war between the United States and Germany was coming to an end. Four days after the Sagadahoc was sunk, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
America was not at war, but American sailors were dying when American-owned ships were torpedoed by German submarines. In 1941, few Americans knew of the destroyers USS Niblack, USS Greer, USS Kearny, and USS Reuben James, but these and other American warships were fighting a grim naval war months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
American warships fought this undeclared war in the bitterly cold waters of the North Atlantic. They often struggled through brutal sub-zero temperatures and rapid, violent weather changes. Heavy storms were common storms developed so quickly that it was often impossible to predict them. In the winter, ice sometimes almost a yard thick covered the convoy ships and threatened to capsize them. Ships sank and sailors died within minutes in the icy water.
On November 5, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term as president of the United States. This victory gave him the political clout to openly support Great Britain in her struggle against Germany, but by the spring of 1941, the British were in desperate straits both economically and militarily. Under Roosevelt’s order, the United States began using its warships to provide limited escort to merchant ships sailing for Britain, especially ships carrying weapons that America supplied through the Lend-Lease Act, which Roosevelt signed into law on March 11, 1941.
“We are not Yielding”
The first skirmish in what became the undeclared naval war between the United States and Germany took place on April 10, 1941, when the destroyer USS Niblack, on patrol in the North Atlantic, intercepted an SOS from the Dutch freighter SS Saleier. The SOS reported the Saleier was torpedoed and sinking rapidly. The freighter’s latitude and longitude placed her 441 nautical miles from Reykjavik, Iceland. The Niblack, ordered to her assistance, sailed all night. The next morning her lookouts spotted three small lifeboats. Before attempting to pick up survivors, the Niblack circled the lifeboats while conducting a sound search for German submarines. The crew of the Saleier, nine officers and 51 men, survived, but at 8:40 am, as the last of them were taken aboard the Niblack, sound contact was made with an “undersea object.”
D.L. Ryan, commander of Destroyer Division 13, with which the Niblack served, described in his report what happened next: “This contact was about two points abaft the starboard beam and if it were a submarine, it was rapidly approaching a position for attack. With safety of ship, crew, and survivors in mind, decision was made to attack instantly … Accordingly … the ship went ahead … at full speed and turned to an intercepting course. When it was estimated the ship should be over the submarine (if one were present) time depth charges were dropped at ten second intervals, and then the ship proceeded to clear the area at 28 knots on course North without further investigation.”
The Niblack arrived at Reykjavik on April 12. The Saleier’s crew was handed over to British authorities. It was later learned that the German submarine, U-52, was not hurt by the depth charges, if indeed the object was the U-52, which later proved extremely unlikely. The Niblack was the first U.S. Navy warship to use its weapons against Germany since World War I.
On May 21, 1941, the unarmed and clearly marked 5,000-ton American freighter Robin Moor, sailing from New York to various African ports, was stopped by the German submarine U-69 about 700 miles off the west coast of Africa. The ship carried a 38-man crew and eight passengers, four men, three women, and one child, all of whom were ordered to abandon the freighter, which was then sunk by the U-69. The Robin Moor was the first American merchant ship sunk by German submarines prior to U.S. entry into World War II. The other American-owned merchant ships sunk had been under Panamanian registry and, thus, flew the Panamanian flag.
A full-scale war between the United States and Germany loomed closer when, on June 14, Roosevelt froze Axis funds in the United States and, on June 16, he ordered German consulates closed and all German diplomats expelled. Branding Germany an “outlaw nation,” he told the U.S. Congress on June 20: “I am … bringing to the attention of the Congress the ruthless sinking … of an American ship, the Robin Moor, in the … Atlantic Ocean…”
Roosevelt climaxed his report with: “We are not yielding and we do not propose to yield.”
The American War Effort Increases
On the same day Roosevelt was reporting on the Robin Moor, the battleship USS Texas, the last coal-fired American battleship, which was launched May 18, 1912, and which served in World War I, was stalked by the German submarine U-203, a state-of-the art Type VIIc submarine almost 29 years younger than the battleship she was chasing. No exchange of hostile fire took place, but the submarine was apparently unable to catch the zigzagging battleship, which was southwest of Iceland.
In June 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Roosevelt to send American troops to Iceland to replace the British garrison there, thus freeing the British soldiers to fight elsewhere. Roosevelt agreed, and on July 1, 1941, the United States and Iceland reached an agreement allowing U.S. Marines to enter Iceland in order to prevent a German invasion. Four thousand Marines were ready for duty in Iceland, which was then a sovereign state under the government of Denmark. It was critical to beleaguered Britain that Iceland not be occupied by Germany. Because of this, Britain had occupied Iceland over a year earlier, on May 10, 1940. Roosevelt’s decision to send Marines to Iceland heightened the risk of war with Germany. The convoy carrying the Marines anchored in Reykjavik harbor on July 7.
The support of the American people for Roosevelt’s action remained steady throughout the year. Historian Richard R. Lingeman points out: “The country was overwhelmingly in favor of aiding England in late 1941. Asked [by a Gallup poll] which was more important: that the United States stay out of the war or that Germany be defeated, sixty-eight percent said it was more important … Germany be defeated.”
While no one died when the Robin Moor sank, this was not true on August 18, when two torpedoes from the submarine U-38 slammed into the Iceland-bound U.S.-Panamanian freighter SS Longtaker. The unescorted and unarmed ship sank within a minute of being torpedoed. Twenty-four of the freighter’s 27-man crew perished.
On September 4, 1941, the destroyer USS Greer was about 175 miles southwest of Iceland when a British patrol plane reported a submarine, later identified as the U-652. The submarine was 10 miles dead ahead. The Greer made sound contact with the U-boat and followed it. The British plane dropped four depth charges, then, for whatever reason, turned away. For more than three hours, the Greer tracked the submarine, repeatedly radioing its position to the British, but there was no British attack. Suddenly, the U-652 changed course and closed on the Greer. Every man on the destroyer was at his battle station when the lookouts sighted an impulse bubble—a big globule of air that was raised when a submarine fired a torpedo. The U-652 had fired without raising her periscope, aiming with her sound equipment.
Within a minute, Greer lookouts sighted the bubbling wake of the first of two torpedoes it was about 100 yards astern. By then, the destroyer had begun to wheel and was steaming toward the spot where the lookouts observed the impulse bubble. Once the Greer was over the position, the destroyer dropped eight depth charges, but its sound man heard the submarine apparently moving away. Two minutes after the Greer dropped her depth charges, the second torpedo was sighted 500 yards off her starboard bow. It did not strike the Greer. After this, the destroyer lost contact with the submarine but continued searching. She picked up the submarine again that afternoon, closed, then attacked with depth charges, dropping 11. Nevertheless, the U-652 survived. By late afternoon, Greerlost contact with the submarine after a three-hour search, and then continued to Iceland. The USS Greer was the first American warship to be attacked in the undeclared naval war.
The next day, September 5, a German plane bombed and sank the American merchant ship Steel Seafarer in the Red Sea during its voyage from New York through the Suez Canal. A U.S. flag had been prominently painted on the side of the ship.
U-Boats: “Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic”
During Roosevelt’s September 11, 1941, radio speech to the American public, his 18th fireside chat with the nation, he called the attack on the Greer an act of piracy and then continued: “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 …”
Was there really a Pearl Harbor ghost plane?
A year after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, locals were frightened to hear another odd plane approaching the area. As History Collection relates, it was Dec. 8, 1942, when Navy radar spotted a single plane on a course from Japan. They quickly scrambled two planes to intercept the newcomer. Navy pilots reported seeing a P-40 fighter, an American craft that was riddled with bullet holes and had ruined landing gear. The pilot waved at them but appeared to be covered in fresh blood. The plane crashed on land soon thereafter, but inspection of the wreckage showed no evidence of a pilot.
Where did the plane come from? Who was its pilot? And, most importantly, can the story be believed?
Skeptoid reports that this gripping story is very likely fictional. It shares strong links with a story written by Robert Lee Scott, Jr., a writer who also served as a pilot during World War II. He later said that he and a fellow pilot had come up with the story to stay entertained during the long days of the war but would have never said anything if they knew it would grow into an urban legend.
Operation Catapult: Naval Destruction at Mers-el-Kebir
On July 3, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to make one of the most momentous decisions of his career. Early that morning, he ordered a British fleet to arrive off the naval base of Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa and demand the surrender of the French vessels there. The British were to offer the French admiral four alternatives intended to prevent the French fleet’s falling into the hands of the Germans. If the French commander refused the terms, his ships would be sunk by the British force. If the British were compelled to open fire, it would be the first time in 125 years that the two navies were arrayed against one another in hostility.
In order to prevent an Anglo-French showdown, Churchill and the British War Cabinet worked feverishly throughout the month of June to arrive at a diplomatic settlement of the problem. Efforts to gain valid assurances from the French that their ships would be denied to the enemy did not produce satisfactory results. Ultimately, negotiations failed and Churchill had to resort to force in order to protect Britain from the ‘mortal danger that Axis possession of the French vessels threatened. Although an attack would certainly incur the enmity of France, the urgency of the situation left Churchill with no option but to turn the guns of the Royal Navy against his recent ally.
In June 1940, Great Britain was in a precarious strategic position. With the collapse of French resistance imminent and the sudden entry of Italy into World War II, Britain suddenly found herself standing alone against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Almost overnight, all of Europe was either at war with England or under the control of her enemies. The situation that now confronted Britain was far worse than the one she had faced in 1917.
Within a fortnight of Italy’s entry into the conflict, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean shifted against the British. With France out of the war, Britain had to assume naval responsibilities throughout the whole of the Mediterranean. Stretched dangerously thin, Britain might have to abandon her considerable interests in the eastern Mediterranean and concentrate her naval strength at Gibraltar. Facing the prospect that the Royal Navy might have to confront the combined German-Italian fleet alone, Churchill ordered substantial reinforcements to the Mediterranean from other trouble spots throughout the empire.
While these reinforcements temporarily redressed the balance in Britain’s favor, the question of what was to become of the vessels of the French fleet was a source of intense anxiety for the War Cabinet in London. In 1940, the French fleet was the fourth largest naval force in the world after Britain, the United States and Japan. Its strength included seven battleships, 19 cruisers, 71 destroyers and 76 submarines. Shortly after the Germans attacked France on May 10, 1940, most of the vessels in French ports sailed to other harbors. A powerful French naval force was anchored at Mers-el-Kebir, just to the west of the French Algerian port of Oran.
Churchill knew that the French warships could not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Axis. If Germany and Italy could add these units to their existing naval force, Britain would face an overwhelming threat that it could not adequately meet. With Britain’s command of the seas in jeopardy, the British Isles could be cut off from the rest of the empire and the vital Atlantic supply routes irrevocably closed. In addition, the waters around the British Isles could become an unobstructed avenue for a German invasion force.
In dealing with the French fleet issue, Churchill at first used tactful diplomacy and friendly persuasion. Despite Churchill’s numerous requests that the French immediately sail their ships to the safety of British ports, the government of French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, and later the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Petain, refused.
Britain’s general distrust of French intentions was heightened on June 20, when Petain violated a no separate peace agreement with Britain and concluded an armistice with Germany. The terms of the treaty dealt a serious blow to British interests. One clause in particular, Article Eight, appeared to be most threatening. This stipulated that all vessels outside of home waters were to immediately return to France. In North Africa, the French fleet was at least a few hundred miles from the nearest German-controlled territory. If compelled to sail to occupied France, the vessels would come within Germany’s grasp.
On June 24, with no clear solution to the French problem in sight, the War Cabinet met in three extraordinary sessions. While no final course of action was agreed upon, the consensus was that something must be done to gain immediate control of the French warships or to permanently put them out of action. The next day, the War Cabinet instructed Vice Adm. Dudley North to proceed to Oran and meet with the French naval commander there, in order to gauge his views on the situation. The admiral flatly refused to hand over his ships to the British under any circumstances.
The realities of the British military situation necessitated an urgent settlement of the French problem. As Churchill pondered, Germany was poised in the Low Countries and along the coast of France, ready to intensify its attack on the convoys carrying vital supplies to Britain. German bombing raids were already a frequent occurrence in many of Britain’s southeastern cities. In Berlin, Hitler was completing plans for the invasion of Britain–Operation Sea Lion.
To meet the invasion threat, the overriding concern for Churchill and his advisers was to concentrate the maximum possible naval strength in home waters. The uncertainty regarding the French fleet had to be dissipated as soon as possible in order for the British warships now shadowing the French to be released for operations elsewhere.
Because Britain was militarily inferior to her enemies, her only hope of survival during a protracted war was persuading outside powers to intervene on her behalf. Unfortunately, the predominant world opinion was that Britain would soon collapse.
Something had to be done to counter this pessimistic appraisal of Britain’s chances and to enable the country to break out of its state of diplomatic isolation. Churchill felt that since many people throughout the world believed Britain was about to surrender, a bold stroke in British foreign policy was needed to impress upon the world Britain’s determination to continue the war and fight to the end. With one audacious move, he believed all doubts could be swept aside by deeds.
On June 27 the War Cabinet met to plan that decisive action. With the very life of the state at stake, Churchill set July 3 as the day on which all French naval warships within Britain’s grasp would either be seized or destroyed. For the next six days, the War Cabinet and naval staff worked on the details of Operation Catapult.
In choosing primary targets, the planners felt that little was to be feared from the French ships that had taken refuge in Britain’s home ports. The planners figured that they could seize these ships–which included the powerful old battleships Courbet and Paris, the large destroyers Leopard and Le Triomphant, the smaller destroyers Mistral and Ouragan, and the huge submarine Surcouf–at their convenience. Likewise, there was no immediate concern about seizing formidable French battleship Jean Bart at Casablanca or Richelieu at Dakar, West Africa. Both vessels were being kept under close surveillance by an adequate number of British warships. Similarly, the three older battleships and one light cruiser at Alexandria, Egypt, could easily be neutralized by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s force stationed there.
The real concern of the War Cabinet was what to do about the French ships at or near Oran. There the situation was very different. The large port in northwestern Algeria was home to a modest force of seven destroyers, four submarines and a handful of torpedo boats, and at the nearby base of Mers-el-Kebir, under the protection of powerful shore batteries on the cliffs above, lay anchored the strongest concentration of French warships in the world. These ships were from the mighty Atlantic fleet (Force de Raid) and had moved to Mers-el-Kebir from Brest, France, in early June. The force included the battleships Bretagne and Provence, six destroyers, one seaplane carrier and two modern battle cruisers, Dunkerque and Strasbourg. In 1940 naval power was reckoned on the basis of capital ship strength, and these two Dunkerque-class battle cruisers were a major concern for the British Admiralty. Dunkerque, which had been launched in 1937, was one of the most modern ships afloat. She was armed with eight 13-inch guns and capable of cruising at 291Ž2 knots. Strasbourg had been commissioned in 1938 and possessed similar assets. Both vessels were more powerful than the German Scharnhorst and Gneisnau and faster than anything the British possessed except the battle cruiser Hood. Provence and Bretagne were each capable of 20 knots and carried 10 13.4-inch guns.
Commanding the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir was a highly disciplined and efficient admiral, Marcel Gensoul. In British Captain Cedric Holland’s assessment, Gensoul was completely service. He was fervently loyal to the French naval commander, Admiral of the Fleet Jean François Darlan, and to the Vichy government. According to Holland, Gensoul was known to be somewhat pigheaded and difficult to deal with. In addition, the admiral’s bitter anglophobia was well-known in British naval circles. The prospects for obtaining his cooperation through verbal persuasion did not seem to be encouraging.
On June 27, the War Cabinet discussed the best way to eliminate the menace posed by the vessels at Mers-el-Kebir. Churchill’s main concern was that the ships be contained within the harbor and then neutralized within a short space of time. As a means of accomplishing this, he planned to have a British force arrive off Mers-el-Kebir and offer Gensoul four alternatives–have the French fleet join the Roayl Navy, take the fleet to British ports with reduced crews, take the fleet to a French West Indian port or a U.S. port and be decommissioned, or sink the fleet right there in Mers-el-Kebir’s harbor. If none of those options were accepted within three hours, the British admiral on the scene would be instructed to sink the French fleet by naval gunfire.
Later that day, the War Cabinet informed Vice Adm. Sir James Somerville that he was to command Force H, a flotilla that had been hastily formed to monitor the situation in the Mediterranean. Now it was to be the main instrument in a large-scale operation that would effectively place the French fleet permanently beyond the enemy’s reach. The British had assembled an impressive array of firepower. At Somerville’s disposal were the battle cruiser Hood, the battleships Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the smaller cruisers Arethusa and Enterprise and 11 destroyers.
At 3:30 p.m. on June 29, Somerville was briefed on his task. He was to endeavor to secure the transfer, surrender, or destruction of the French warships at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir by any means possible, and no concessions were to be given to the French. They were either to accept the British terms or face the consequences.
On July 2, Somerville received his final instructions and held a conference aboard his flagship in which he briefed his staff on Operation Catapult. Persuasion and threats were to be employed first, in an attempt to get Gensoul to comply. If he refused to accept any of the alternatives, the British were to fire a few rounds close to the French ships. If Gensoul still remained intransigent, Force H was to destroy the French fleet as efficiently and with as little loss of life as possible.
At 5:30 a.m. on July 3, Somerville’s task force arrived off Mers-el-Kebir. The British commander had been instructed to complete the operation during daylight. At 6:30 a.m., the destroyer Foxhound steamed toward the harbor entrance with Captain Holland on board. Holland had been instructed to meet with Gensoul and personally explain the British terms to him.
At 8:10, Gensoul sent Flag Lt. Antoine Dufay in a launch to confer with Holland. Holland told the lieutenant that it was of the utmost importance that he speak directly with Gensoul about his mission. Dufay replied that Gensoul had refused to see the British captain.
Meanwhile, Gensoul, surveying the scene before him, grasped the significance of Force H and became indignant at what he felt was likely to be British diplomacy at gunpoint. At 8:47, he ordered Foxhound to leave the harbor at once.
Holland, knowing what would happen if negotiations failed, tried once again to see Gensoul. Pretending to exit the harbor, the determined Briton instead boarded a fast launch and sped toward Gensoul’s flagship. Before he could get there, he was intercepted by Dufay in another craft. Dufay again explained that Gensoul would not see him. In desperation, Holland handed the flag lieutenant a briefcase containing the text of the British terms. The British had planned to communicate these demands orally, but Gensoul’s stubbornness precluded that option. Since Force H was to take action before sundown, Holland felt it was imperative to deliver the terms by any means possible.
Gensoul had read the British demands, he became incensed. At 9:45 he signaled the French Admiralty in Toulon, informing them that a British force was off Oran and that he had been given an ultimatum to sink his ships within six hours. Gensoul transmitted his intention to reply to force with force.
While Holland was awaiting a reply aboard Foxhound, he reported observing the French vessels beginning to unfurl their awnings and raise steam. It was clear that the French were preparing to leave the harbor. First Sea Lord Sir Alfred Dudley Pound ordered Somerville to have the harbor entrance sown with mines in order to prevent the fleet from leaving.
At 10 a.m., Somerville received a message from Gensoul that, in view of what amounted to a veritable ultimatum, the French warships would resist any forcible British attempt to gain control of the fleet. Gensoul informed Somerville that The first shot fired at us will result in immediately ranging the entire French Fleet against Britain. Since Gensoul had refused the terms and was apparently preparing to fight, Somerville told the British Admiralty that he would begin firing at 1:30 p.m. Still undaunted, Holland was convinced that a peaceable settlement could be found, and he implored the Admiralty for more time to negotiate. As a result, there was delay after delay during the next three hours, and a new deadline was set for opening hostilities:30 p.m.
At first this approach seemed to pay off. At 4:15, Gensoul relented and agreed to parley with Holland. While this appeared to be an encouraging development, the mood of optimism was soon dampened. Gensoul told Holland that so long as Germany and Italy abided by the armistice terms and allowed the French fleet to remain in French metropolitan ports with reduced crews, he would also remain. While the meeting was taking place, the harbor was mined. The French admiral viewed this as a hostile act, and it added to the tension of the interview. At times it seemed to Holland that an agreement was in sight, but it was becoming painfully clear to the British that Gensoul was merely stalling for time.
In the meantime, the situation was becoming more and more hazardous. The misleading signal that Gensoul had sent at 9:45 had reached the French Admiralty. In the absence of Darlan, who could not be located, the French chief of staff, Admiral Le Luc, issued a response in his name. He told Gensoul to stand firm and ordered all French naval and air forces in the western Mediterranean to prepare for battle and proceed with the utmost haste to Oran.
Before Gensoul could inform Holland of the orders he had received, the British Admiralty intercepted Le Luc’s order and passed it on to Somerville. The naval chiefs added, Settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with. As a result, Somerville sent a signal to Gensoul, stating that: If none of the British proposals are accepted by 5:30 p.m., it will be necessary to sink your ships. That message–received aboard Dunkerque at 5:15 p.m.–put an end to all discussion. In view of the irreconcilable position of each side, further negotiation was fruitless. A disappointed Holland somberly departed the French flagship at 5:25. A few minutes later, before he had even cleared the harbor, Force H opened fire on the French ships. The first Anglo-French naval exchange since Trafalgar and the Nile had begun.
It was not much of a duel, for most of the gunfire came from the British. According to French Admiral Auphan, the British gunfire was very heavy, very accurate and short of duration. One of the first salvoes struck the battleship Bretagne, which blew up. Another shell tore off the stern of the destroyer Mogador. Dunkerque received several hits but managed to fire about 40 rounds at Hood before being put out of action. Heavily damaged, Provence was forced to run aground. Before the smoke cleared, the bulk of French naval power at Mers-el-Kebir was either aflame or at the bottom of the sea, and more than 1,297 French sailors had been killed.
In response to a signal from the shore begging the British to cease fire, Somerville ordered his guns silent. He gave the French an opportunity to abandon their ships in order to avoid further loss of life. But the French used the reprieve to make a break out from the harbor with the few undamaged ships remaining. As Force H moved westward to avoid exposure to the shore batteries, Strasbourg, the seaplane carrier Commandant Teste and five destroyers avoided the mines and escaped into open water. Somerville ordered three airstrikes against Strasbourg from Ark Royal. The British pilots scored a direct hit on the beleaguered Strasbourg, but the vessel managed to continue her escape. On July 4, the meager force that had escaped Mers-el-Kebir arrived in Toulon. Doubts about the extent of damage to Dunkerque led to a dawn torpedo attack by British Fairey Swordfish bombers the next day, which effectively put Dunkerque out of action.
There can be little doubt that the effect of the attack on Anglo-French relations was entirely negative. On July 3, the French chargé d’affaires formally protested the British action. For a while it seemed possible that the French might have been provoked to the point of declaring war. Immediately after the attack, Admiral of the Fleet Darlan ordered all French warships to engage the British enemy wherever they were encountered. On July 5, a small squadron of French aircraft appeared over Gibraltar and dropped some bombs on British installations there, causing minor damage. On July 8, the Vichy government officially severed all diplomatic ties with London.
While the goodwill of France had been sacrificed, the material results of the operation were considerable and seemed in themselves to justify Churchill’s use of force. Strasbourg and five destroyers had eluded the British efforts to sink them, but the bulk of France’s capital ship strength had been effectively neutralized. In the space of a few hours, the world’s fourth largest fleet had lost 84 percent of its operational battleship strength and had been reduced to a token force of light craft and submarines. As a result of the action at Mers-el-Kebir and seizures elsewhere, Britain had successfully eliminated the danger of an augmented Axis fleet, while reaffirming its own naval supremacy.
Perhaps an even more important consequence of Churchill’s action was the favorable impression it created on world opinion. Catapult was a striking example of Britain’s determination to continue the war at all costs and despite the odds. While the aggressive ruthlessness of the Royal Navy proved crucial in gaining the confidence of many of the neutral powers and the respect of the enemy, it was the new position of the United States that was the most significant.
President Franklin Roosevelt lauded Churchill’s action and welcomed it as a service to American defense. To other American officials as well, Catapult eradicated all doubts of Britain’s ability to repel an enemy invasion. This newfound confidence translated into material benefits for Britain as FDR pressured Congress to step up support through Lend-Lease and the Destroyers for Bases arrangement.
The British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir was a major turning point in World War II. As Britain braced herself for the upcoming duel with Germany in the skies and on the sea, the vital commitment of the United States would weigh heavily in the balance. Without the moral and materiel benefits that were gained from Churchill’s bold stroke at Oran, the Axis domination that had descended upon the free world by 1940 might never have been broken.
This article was written by Robert J. Brown and originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
Dunkirk evacuation, (1940) in World War II, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops from the French seaport of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to England. When it ended on June 4, about 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops had been saved.
Gibson is a French soldier who masquerades as English in the hopes of escaping from Dunkirk on an English destroyer. He is helpful to his fellow soldiers, even though he is met with skepticism by Alex. He dies when his foot gets caught in the sinking grounded trawler.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain laid out the argument for ending the appeasement strategy in a Sept. 4 radio address aimed at the German people: “He gave his word that he would respect the Locarno Treaty he broke it. He gave his word that he neither wished nor intended to annex Austria he broke it. He declared that he would not incorporate the Czechs in the Reich he did so. He gave his word after Munich that he had no further territorial demands in Europe he broke it. He has sworn for years that he was the mortal enemy of Bolshevism he is now its ally.”
Hitler’s propaganda endorsed the theory of Lebensraum (often translated as “living space”), his idea that the Germany needed more room. Citino points out that Poland was geographically the logical next step after Czechoslovakia, in terms of the application of that theory. In addition, the dictator believed that the Polish population was racially inferior to Germans, and thus would be easily overrun and enslaved. (On Sept. 17, the Soviet Union also invaded Poland, in accord with a non-aggression agreement Hitler and Stalin had come to that summer that agreement would end on June 22, 1941, when the Nazis invaded Soviet territory.)
“It seems Hitler can no longer be appeased [in 1939], but attempting to appease him was wrong all along,” Citino says. “He would just continue to make demands and threaten his neighbors ad infinitum.”
Here’s how TIME described the Nazi invasion of Poland in its Sept. 11, 1939, issue:
World War II began last week at 5:20 a. m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula. At 5:45 a. m. the German training ship Schleswig-Holstein lying off Danzig fired what was believed to be the first shell: a direct hit on the Polish underground ammunition dump at Westerplatte. It was a grey day, with gentle rain.
In the War’s first five days, hundreds of Nazi bombing planes dumped ton after ton of explosive on every city of any importance the length & breadth of Poland. They aimed at air bases, fortifications, bridges, railroad lines and stations, but in the process they killed upward of 1,500 noncombatants. The Nazi ships were mostly big Heinkels, unaccompanied by pursuit escorts. Germany admitted losing 21 planes to Polish counterattack by pursuits and antiaircraft. They claimed to have massacred more than half of a 47-plane Polish squadron which tried to bomb Berlin.
Out of a welter of sketchy bulletins, counter-claims and unpronounceable names flowing from Poland, the broad outlines of Germany’s assault began to take shape. Recapture of what was Germany in 1914 was the first objective: Danzig, the Corridor, and a hump of Upper Silesia. It is believed that Adolf Hitler, if allowed to take and keep this much, might have checked his juggernaut at these lines for the time being. When Britain & France insisted that he withdraw entirely from Polish soil or consider himself at war with them, he determined on the complete shattering and subjugation of Poland…
Heroes this week were a handful of Polish soldiers left in charge of the Westerplatte munitions dump. Under steady bombing and shell fire, they held out as a suicide squad in the thick-walled fortress, replying from its depths with machine gun fire, resolved to blow up the dump and themselves with it before surrendering.
Another small band of Poles took and held the Danzig post office until artillery was drawn up to blow away the building’s face, gasoline poured on from above and set afire.
On “Black Sunday”&mdashthe day Britain and France declared War&mdashthe President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt announced, “This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience.”
As TIME pointed out, the sentence was “the most striking sentence in the broadcast” because of the contrast with President Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 edict that Americans must remain “impartial in thought as well as action” in the early years of World War I. The Roosevelt version suggested to the magazine that the president might be priming Americans to get ready to take up arms&mdashand after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, they did.
The lead-up to World War II, Bouverie says, was about “what bad people are able to do when they think that the good people aren&rsquot prepared to fight.” The fighting, however, would come in the end.
Legacy [ edit | edit source ]
After the war, many United States military personnel returned home and demobilized, and Air Transport Command shut down operations of many of these wartime airfields and civil airports. The airports were returned to civil control, with the improvements made by the Americans making them more valuable than they were prior to the war. Almost all were utilized by the governments of the nations where they were located as civil or international airports of their country. The routes established were used by international airlines. As aircraft were developed with jet engines, longer ranges and higher capacity, some of the airports became secondary. Today most remain in existence, even six decades later showing clear evidence of their wartime past.