Author's web-page introduction to NAVAL HISTORY
February 2004 cover feature:
Unknown to Congress and the American people, months
before Pearl Harbor the U.S. Navy secretly hunted Axis warships in
the North Atlantic. Six
decades later, that simple but unassailable fact continues to elude the public,
decades of written scholarship, and almost all historians. Declassified by the National Archives, the once secret
documents - including operational plans and orders originating with
the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-chief-Atlantic Fleet - confirms
that the U.S. Navy throughout most of 1941, was clearly belligerent.
But does this new knowledge make FDR complicit in a plot to bring America into World War Two through the disaster at Pearl Harbor? Readers may draw their own conclusions, but because of another infamous day – September 11, 2001- it is again evident that the first duty of the people's President is to protect the American people. Thus, contemporary readers may draw analogies between the events leading to December 7, 1941 with those of September 11, 2001, and conclude that this lesson from the past is as instructive now as it was then.
Jerome M. O’Connor
History magazine (U.S. Naval Institute) February 2004
the day of the 29 December 1940 "fireside chat," the world waited in
anticipation of what the President of the United States would say about national
security. Unknown to the public was
that months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was
secretly hunting German and Italian warships in the North Atlantic.
The “arsenal of democracy”
FDR had already made 15 'Fireside Chats' since 1933. Speaking as a father to his 132-million member family, he easily mastered the new medium of radio. The 16th chat may have been the most important.
In the White House at 2130 on 29 December 1940, an audience of twenty sits expectantly on wobbly, gilt wooden chairs before a desk drilled with holes for the wires of seven microphones. On the desk are two sharpened pencils, a blank notepad, two glasses of water and an opened pack of Camels. Among the invited guests are matinee idol Clark Gable with his wife, blonde Carole Lombard. She wears a “simple black afternoon dress” and a funnel-shaped black hat and veil. Sixty-nine year-old Secretary of State Cordell Hull, fingers his pince-nez ribbon. Print and broadcast reporters casually smoke. And in the first row, dressed in a gray-blue evening gown, Sara Roosevelt awaits her son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States.
All over the country, unnecessary activity comes to a halt as millions of families gather in their living rooms next to bulky, polished-wood Philco, RCA, and Emerson radio consoles. Five minutes before the broadcast, attired in a dark blue serge suit and black bow tie, the President glides into the oval Diplomatic Reception Room on the rubber tires of a small wheelchair, amiably greets guests and clears his throat. Ready to deliver one of the most important speeches in his political career and in the lives of 132 million fellow citizens, FDR begins his 16th fireside chat, entitled “On National Security.” “Never before…has our American civilization been in such danger as now,” he says in the familiar rolling resonance. “By an agreement signed in Berlin, three powerful nations, two in Europe and one in Asia, joined themselves together…that if the United States of America interfered with or blocked the expansion program of these three nations – a program aimed at world control – they would unite in ultimate action against the United States.”
And why, he asks like a schoolteacher, does the European war concern the United States?
“If Great Britain goes down, all of us in the Americas
would be living at the point of a gun.” There
are those who say that the Axis powers have no desire to attack the Western
Hemisphere. That is the same sort
of wishful thinking which has destroyed the powers of resistance of so many
conquered peoples…the vast resources and wealth of this American Hemisphere
constitute the most tempting loot in all of the round world.”
Wiping his broad forehead with a handkerchief, the fire crackling in the
white marble fireplace in front to his right, Roosevelt finishes the
thirty-seven minute talk with a ringing plea to arm faster, to build more planes
and ships. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”
FDR’s call to arms has unwaveringly committed America to save Britain
from defeat, no matter the cost and regardless of the risk.
"The threshold for war has been set”
Thus, on 1 February 1941, the Atlantic Squadron, the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic neutrality patrol received a new name, the Atlantic Fleet. And hence, it was soon to have a new offensive mission. Appointed by the President to head the fleet was sixty-three year-old 1901 Naval Academy graduate, Admiral Ernest J. King. The hard-driven, hot-tempered admiral, a convinced Anglo-phobe, is staunchly opposed to the “Germany first” policy, a November 1940 Executive decision making Germany the principle opposition. Blends of rumor and fact cling to the salty Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet like wet snow to a windshield. He was profane, arrogant, humorless – no one remembered him ever smiling – and reputedly a serial womanizer and known hard drinker. His own daughter said (although not within his hearing): "He is the most even-tempered man in the Navy; he's always in a rage." In liberty bars from East Main Street in Norfolk to drafty cabins in barren Newfoundland, fleet sailors spun legends that increased with each shot thrown-back. With as much awe as hyperbole, they avowed the admiral didn’t think he was God, but God thought he was Admiral King. “He shaves with a blowtorch,” said an admiring President.
Conspicuous in almost every naval field, Admiral King’s
service jacket overflowed with accomplishments in ordnance, engineering,
logistics, destroyers, submarines and naval aviation.
Adding even more luster to his reputation - or maybe out of bad-tempered
stubbornness - he earned naval wings at age forty-eight, and then commanded
aircraft carrier Lexington for two years.
Upon learning of his appointment, King characteristically had the last word about himself: "When they get into trouble they send for the sons of bitches.” FDR has picked a sailor’s sailor – and the U.S. military’s premier strategist - to wage the coming undeclared war on the high seas.
On 11 March 1941, Congress passed Lend-Lease, ending the fiction of American neutrality in the war. Military and economic aid streamed to Britain and other nations fighting the Axis. But the British war effort at sea was in crisis. In April, pushing ever westward from five new, impregnable bunker and air bases in France, U-boats and German aircraft sank 195 Allied freighters carrying 700,000 tons of crucial war materiel. The number of U-boats on station increased monthly. And the sighting of even one German raider in the North Atlantic enormously altered convoy routing, time in transit, and escort requirements.
On 4 April, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral H. R. Stark wrote to the President. “The situation is obviously critical in the Atlantic. In my opinion it is hopeless except as we take strong measures to save it.” Three days later, major elements of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and San Diego were ordered to new Atlantic homeports. Their hull numbers painted over and the ships darkened at night, in April, May and June, twenty-five percent of the Pacific Fleet transited the Panama Canal. Carrier Yorktown joined BATDIV 3s Idaho, Mississippi and New Mexico. CRUDIV 8s light cruisers Philadelphia, Savannah, Brooklyn, and Nashville, with two destroyer squadrons, also sailed from blue to steel gray waters. A few staff officers at OPNAV in Washington and at Pearl Harbor fleet headquarters grumbled that dividing the Navy’s fighting ships at a time of growing Far East tensions could embolden Japan. But the 27 March 1941 ABC-1 Staff Agreement, a use of forces understanding between Britain and America, recommended otherwise. Echoing conclusions reached by Roosevelt and his service chiefs in November 1940, the staff affirmed the most dangerous threat to be from Germany, and its defeat was to come first.
Implementing FDR’s promise to give Churchill “all aid short of war,” on 18 April Admiral King issued OPERATION PLAN 3-41. The warships of any belligerent – except for powers having West Indian possessions – coming within twenty-five miles of a vastly expanded Western Hemisphere, will be considered trespassers and dealt-with as pirates. “Entrance into the Western Hemisphere by naval ships or aircraft of belligerents…is to be viewed as possibly actuated by an unfriendly interest toward shipping or territory in the Western Hemisphere.”
In this daring re-drawing or “bending” of the Western Hemisphere’s accepted lines of demarcation, the meridians now covered enormous ocean areas. They extended west to the International Date Line beyond Iceland, including Greenland, the Azores, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and all of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The West Indian powers allowed access to their possessions - already defeated France and the vestiges of her fleet, and Great Britain’s warships - continued to enjoy unimpeded passage to their holdings, or to American ports or shipyards for replenishment or repair. By warning that Axis incursions into Allied waters represented an act of war, OPPLAN 3-41 placed the Atlantic Fleet directly in the way of opportunistic German and Italian surface raiders and U-boats.
Admiral King fleet was to implement much more than a standard defensive doctrine. He underlined the operative words in OPPLAN 3-41. “If any such naval vessels or aircraft are encountered within twenty-five miles of Western Hemisphere territory, except the Azores, warn them to move twenty-five miles from such territory and, in case of failure to heed such warning, attack them.”
The threshold for war had been set. With Admiral King’s issuance of OPPLAN 3-41, and needing only targets to come within U.S. Navy view, America's entry into World War II could have started as much by intention in the Atlantic as by surprise eight months later in the Pacific. As confirmed by declassified operational orders, throughout 1941 the U.S. Navy set the bar ever lower for all-out war at sea with Germany.
“Dollars will not buy yesterday”
|Aboard the new but doomed Prince of Wales in August 1941 (described in author's Secret Mission to Singapore), Roosevelt and Churchill set the course to victory. In the second row, Adm. King talks to Gen. George Marshall with Adm. Stark on the far right.|
21 May in the South Atlantic, U 69 sank the US freighter Robin Moor.
Bound from New York to Cape Town with general cargo, eight passengers
and a crew of thirty-five, the little tramp steamer had neither contraband nor
intentions to stop in a war zone. But
with no loss of life her sinking had insufficient provocation to be the casus
week later, 27 May, the same day that the Royal Navy sank the feared Bismarck,
the President declared an “unlimited national emergency.” The
super-battleship’s one and only failed foray toward the North Atlantic
shipping lanes heralded a new wave of surface raider and U-boat attacks.
Bismarck’s breakout attempt shuddered deep into Admiral King’s
cluttered domain on the third deck at Main Navy – Navy Department
headquarters on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Navy had no modern capital ships capable of surviving salvoes
with the eight-fifteen inch guns of Tirpitz, Bismarck’s 30- knot
At a time when battleships were the final authority in the exercise of sea power, the twenty-one knot, eighteen-year old West Virginia, a ponderous product of Warren Harding’s administration, had the doubtful distinction of being America’s newest dreadnought. On the eve of war, most of the Navy’s battleships first sailed little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. And only a few barely achieved 21-knots. The first of the U.S. Navy’s 35,000-ton new battleships, Washington (BB-55) and North Carolina (BB- 66),
As they evaluated an impressive list of German raider successes, anxiety rising like a springtime river, OPNAV strategists readied for the next Axis sortie. The previous fall, pocket battleship Admiral Scheer sank seventeen merchantmen in a five-month cruise extending deep into the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. In December 1940, heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper slipped unobserved through the Denmark Strait into the North Atlantic. On Christmas Day, encountering three British cruisers and two aircraft carriers escorting a twenty-ship troop convoy, Hipper damaged HMS Berwick and three transports, before withdrawing untouched to Brest for engine repairs.
In a further taunt to the British Home Fleet, Admiral Hipper struck again a few weeks later. In early February in the North Atlantic, she trapped an unescorted convoy, sinking or damaging ten merchant ships before returning unscathed to Brest. Then, cruising together in February and March 1941, battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau disrupted an entire convoy cycle by sinking sixteen ships. Eager to hunt from Brest and Wilhelmshaven, or from Baltic ports and Norwegian fjords, Tirpitz, Gneisenau, Prinz Eugen, Admiral Scheer, Koln and Nurnberg could outrace, or so OPNAV believed, any Allied adversary they were not able to outgun. In a further test for Admiral King’s planners, and representing an entirely different strategic threat if true, were persistent reports of one or two German aircraft carriers nearing completion.
Facing a severing of the essential convoy system linking North America with embattled Britain, the officially non-combatant U.S. Navy confronted a bleak assessment of its capabilities. In 1941, the mightiest fleet the world had yet to see navigated design offices and shipyards. BUSHIPS (the Bureau of Ships) overflowed with plans for new types of auxiliary ships, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers and battleships. Construction quickened on faster ships with new main propulsion systems and greatly improved range. Laboratories tested new guns and improved gunpowder, mines, torpedoes, radar and sonar. But the battle-line to be could not change the melancholy fact that on September 1, 1939, the day World War Two began, the Atlantic Squadron had no Fleet auxiliaries, and the entire U.S. Navy had in commission only one ammunition ship and two troop transports. After appraising his slender assets with the nascent Navy of the future, CNO Admiral H.R. Stark said it concisely; “dollars will not buy yesterday.”
As America rearmed and the Navy rebuilt, in mid-1941 the Atlantic Fleet went on a war footing. Reserves were summoned. One of them, the President’s middle son, Ens. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr, was billeted to destroyer Mayrant. Ship’s flammables were removed, ammunition lockers topped-off, and the fleet got full wartime crew complements. Three aircraft carriers now patrolled the Atlantic. Anticipating the war to come, the Naval Academy graduated its 1941 class in January instead of June. Thousands of recruits swarmed boot camps in Newport, Norfolk, Great Lakes and San Diego. Only a month after Bismarck's sinking, U-203, seeking a favorable bow-angle, chased a zigzagging and unaware battleship Texas for 140 miles between Newfoundland and Greenland. A furious Hitler ordered Grand Admiral Raeder to rein-in U-boat commandant Doenitz and his impatient young captains. War seemed inevitable; it would come, however, on Hitler’s and not Roosevelt’s timetable. But as the standoff escalated, how could U-boat skippers continue to discern, even with silhouette identification, which ship belonged to whose navy?
‘Eliminate the threat of attack’
By early July German and American naval forces were poised like title contenders jabbing in the middle rounds. In each corner, basing their moves on the others assumed intentions, the fighters received cautious orders. Test, irritate, provoke, thrust here and there, even deliver a few uppercuts if opportunity presents. Above all, learn quickly, but no knockout punch – at least not yet.
In early July, six months after the President’s “arsenal of democracy” speech, it was time to ratchet up the standoff at sea. FDR wrote to Admiral Stark. “It is necessary under the conditions of modern warfare to recognize that the words ‘threat of attack’ may extend reasonably long distances away from a convoyed ship or ships. It thus seems clear that the very presence of a German submarine or raider on or near the line of communications constitutes ‘threat of attack.’ Therefore, the presence of any German submarine or raider should be dealt with by action looking to the elimination of such ‘threat of attack’ on the lines of communication, or close to it.”
The President’s syntax may have been muddy, but not his intent. Six months before Pearl Harbor, lacking a declaration of war and without the knowledge of Congress or the American people, the Commander-in-Chief gave the Atlantic Fleet approval to change from defensive to offensive operations.
On September 1, in OPERATION PLAN 7-41, Admiral King set down in upper case his interpretation of the President’s letter to Admiral Stark. Stamped SECRET, King’s analysis went to ten Navy task forces and four patrols - Northern, Gulf, Caribbean and Panama.
“MY INTERPRETATION OF THREAT TO UNITED STATES OR ICELAND FLAG SHIPPING WHETHER ESCORTED OR NOT, IS THAT THREAT EXISTS WHEN:
1) POTENTIALLY HOSTILE VESSELS ARE ACTUALLY WITHIN SIGHT OR SOUND CONTACT OF SUCH SHIPPING OR ITS ESCORT.
2) POTENTIALLY HOSTILE SURFACE RAIDERS APPROACH WITHIN 100 MILES OF SUCH SHIPPING, ALONG THE SEA LANES BETWEEN NORTH AMERICA AND ICELAND.
3) POTENTIALLY HOSTILE SURFACE RAIDERS OR SUBMARINES EITHER APPROACH WITHIN 100 MILES OF SUCH SHIPPING TRAVERSING ROUTES DEFINED IN PARAGRAPH 3 (W) (5) BELOW, OR ENTER THE PROCLAIMED NEUTRALITY ZONE.
4) ANY POTENTIALLY HOSTILE FORCES
APPROACH TO WITHIN FIFTY MILES OF ICELAND."
The OpPlan had an unconditional order to U.S. Navy warships encountering Axis vessels: "DESTROY HOSTILE FORCES THAT THREATEN SHIPPING NAMED IN (B) AND (C) ABOVE."
Four days later came the “incident” long sought by the President and the Navy. Two hundred miles southwest of Reykavik, the old “four-piper” destroyer Greer barely escaped a torpedo from U-552, and then unsuccessfully attacked with depth charges. The next day on radio a determined President spoke directly to Nazi Germany: “You shall go no further… If German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters…necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.” The New York Daily News said it all with a black headline: SHOOT, FDR TELLS NAVY.
“Whether the country knows it or not, we are at
On 10 September, Admiral King ordered the Atlantic Fleet to escort convoys all the way from Halifax to Britain, making it possible to begin offensive operations across all of the North Atlantic. Anticipating the combat to come, Admiral Stark wrote the President: “Whatever we do I am anxious that our first real shooting contact with the enemy be successful. Particularly would I like to get Tirpitz if opportunity comes our way. Early victory would breed confidence and be a wonderful stimulant.” On 22 September, further lowering the already dynamic combat flashpoint set in his 1 September OPPLAN 7-41, Admiral King’s revised OPPLAN 7B-41 had blunt orders for the Atlantic Fleet:
“MEETING WITH A GERMAN OR ITALIAN VESSEL
The vessel may not be stopped and boarded.
If there is conclusive evidence that she is a combatant naval vessel,
either merchant type raider or a regular naval vessel, she shall be destroyed.
Operate as under war conditions, including complete darkening of ships
when at sea East of longitude 60 degrees West.”
The steady move to unrestricted war at sea barely affected the legal and political barriers confronting FDR at home. The Neutrality Act provisions annoyed Roosevelt even more than the anti-administration Hearst and Chicago Tribune editorials. The Act’s draconian requirements limited both his actions and obligations as Commander -in-Chief. Ever the deft politician, FDR carefully weighed public support as measured by the new polling techniques of George Gallup and Elmo Roper. The polls showed wide yaws in public opinion. Some said that up to 80% wanted no U.S. involvement in the European war. Others supported intervention, or favored increased aid to Britain. The course was clear to the one-time Assistant Secretary of the Navy. To prevent or at least delay a British collapse while America frantically rearmed, the Neutrality Act had to be circumvented. To keep the 3,000-mile sea highway open, the U.S. Navy needed to enlarge its still secret but thus far unreciprocated war in the North Atlantic. It would not be unanswered for long.
On October 15 the new five million dollar destroyer Kearney took two torpedoes from U56, limping into port in Iceland with eleven dead, the first American casualties of the war. “Whether the country knows it or not,” Admiral Stark said, “we are at war.” America was beginning to know it; Gallup registered 65% approval for U.S. intervention.
|On the eve of war most of the U.S. Navy's capital ships were better suited for Jutland than war with Japan and Germany. Pictured above, the 1918 USS New Mexico was typical of America's obsolete fleet in 1941.|
weeks later in mid-ocean, RADM H.K
Hewitt’s Task Group 14.3 met nine rusty and tired British troopships in Convoy
WS12X. Carrying 18,000 seasick
Tommies, the convoy had orders for the Middle East via Halifax.
Evading the Neutrality Act, an 18-ship U.S. Navy task force, with the
British troops transferred in Halifax to six U.S. Navy troop transports, had
orders to take the troops to the Persian Gulf.
But after December 7 the orders changed. For one in three Tommies on the three remaining troop ships,
it would be a one- way cruise to Singapore in its last, dying days. (See author’s Secret
Mission to Singapore, July 2002 Proceedings, pp 70-74)
All neutrality uncertainties vanished with the mission to protect Convoy WS12X. Admiral Hewitt drafted new orders and had them dropped by scout plane to carrier Yorktown, battleship New Mexico, light cruisers Philadelphia and Savannah, and the eight destroyers in DESRON Two. “The task of this Group is to safeguard the convoy. The three general Courses of Action for accomplishing this Task are: (1) to destroy, (2) to repel, and (3) to cripple threatening raiders. The Group Commander desires and requires that his subordinate unit commanders and captains exercise to the fullest the initiative of the subordinate. In the absence of detailed instructions in a situation requiring immediate action, act promptly and energetically in the manner best to contribute to the accomplishment of the Group’s Task, coordinating with and supporting the other components of this Group. Whether “destroying,” “repelling,” or “crippling,” retain and exercise the “offensive spirit.” Be alert and beat the enemy “to the draw.”
|Germany had few warships, but they were all outstanding, especially the 30 knot, 54,000 ton Tirpitz. A pre Pearl Harbor Atlantic encounter with a small, slow U.S. Navy battleship could have triggered premature war with Germany and averted the Pearl Harbor disaster.|
In Annex B to COMTASKGRP 14.3 Admiral Hewitt anticipated battle scenarios if
specific German capital ships were encountered.
Named are Koln, Eugen, Admiral Scheer, Scharnhorst,
Gneisenau and Tirpitz. “Tirpitz:
CONVOY turns away and evades. Should
the ocean escort be overcome and there be danger of attack by strong raiders,
scatter upon signal of the senior commander in the vicinity.
OCEAN ESCORT: With nearest four destroyers interpose between Convoy and
Tirpitz. Avoid close action
until Tirpitz is crippled by bombs, torpedoes or extreme range gunfire, or until
Convoy is endangered by Tirpitz gunfire, whereupon close and inflict
The soon to be legendary Yorktown also had a mission. “Carrier: Keep clear of Tirpitz. Aircraft attack with torpedoes and bombs to effect speed reduction and to assist in destruction. Should Zeppelin be in company, aircraft attack both carrier and battleship, selecting as the primary objective the one which presents the greater threat to convoy.”
contacts merited Admiral Hewitt's special regard. “…attack immediately with all weapons, closing to point
blank ranges, while Convoy and Carrier get clear.
This would be a “Captain’s battle,” where the task of each Captain
is to get maximum numbers of shells and torpedoes into the enemy as quickly as
For the eager pre-war U.S. Navy, there was no “Captain’s battle” or any fleet actions in the Atlantic before or during World War II. Hitler started the war too soon. The German “Z Plan” – the mostly blueprints and blue-sky proposal to build a massive, world dominating navy by 1947 - failed of its own impossibility. Germany began the war in 1939 with only 3 “pocket” battleships, 8 cruisers, 17 destroyers, and 57 U-boats, against a combined British and French fleet totaling 22 battleships, 83 cruisers, and scores of destroyers and submarines. Only the U-boat branch made it a real battle at sea.
As to the mysterious Zeppelin mentioned in RADM Hewitt’s Annex B orders, the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, one of two the Germans intended, never reached completion, although a galley and many fittings were installed. Surviving the war at anchor, she was then towed to the Soviet Union to become a target for new weapons.
Conspiracy theorists may sense opportunity by linking the U.S.Navy's aggressive prewar posture with the long running revisionist intrigues connecting President Roosevelt with the Pearl Harbor attack.
In 1941, Britain hovered over the abyss of defeat. If it required active U.S. Navy belligerence to prevent its surrender, FDR had no regrets. A major high-seas "incident" could be the tipping point for war. But FDR preferred provocation to active belligerence. The former Assistant Secretary of the Navy would never have sacrificed his beloved fleet on the high altar of war expedience in the Pacific. It was the Navy that may have been ahead of the President's caution.
But would premature war with Germany have prevented the disaster at Pearl Harbor? Consider a fall 1941 Atlantic engagement between the 30-knot, 54,000 ton highly advanced Tirpitz and the Norfolk-based, 21-knot, 32,000-ton USS New Mexico. The unequal contest could have resulted in many U.S. casualties. Echoing the outcome of the 1898 USS Maine sinking, a declaration of war against Germany could have linked Japan with its Axis brethren, thereby precluding the Pearl Harbor attack.
But try as it did repeatedly, the U.S. Navy could neither manufacture a pretext nor discover an opportunity to "eliminate the threat of attack" in the Atlantic, thus forestalling that date with infamy in the Pacific.
A Chicago historian and U.S. Navy veteran, Mr. O'Connor was the 2,000 Naval History Author of the Year. This article results from investigation of the U.S. Navy's declassified 1941 operational orders at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.