U-Boat Assault on American - Why the US Was Unprepared for War in the Atlantic, Ken Brown

U-Boat Assault on American - Why the US Was Unprepared for War in the Atlantic, Ken Brown

One of the most unexpected results of the American entry into the Second World War was a near disasterous loss of merchant shipping along the US East Coast. A relative handful of U-boats were sent west to take part in Operation Drumbeat, taking advantage of the end of American neutrality and the inept performance of the US defenders to sink over 600 boats, or 3 million tons of shipping, about one quarter of all U-boat victories during the entire war. This period of about six months becamse known as the ‘Second Happy Time’, and threatened to disrupt all Allied plans.

The key question here has to be what went wrong with the American defences? At this point the US Navy was expanding rapidly, and had recommissioned large numbers of destroyers. The Navy had been increasingly involved in the Battle of the Atlantic throughout 1941, so had gained some experience of the battle against the U-boats.  The Royal Navy was two years into the war, and had a great deal of experience of anti-submarine warfare. At the start of the year the British codebreakers were reading German naval codes, so the Americans had good intelligence to work with. Despite this the initial American reaction was frankly woeful.

Brown works through the reasons for this, starting with a look at how the US Navy developed its doctrines, the split between Line officers and Engineering officers which meant that the most technically able officers had to choice between using their skills in engineering or having the chance to command ships, the First World War experience, the inter-war discussions on submarine warfare etc. He also looks at the individuals involved, focusing on Admiral King, who was both Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, and Rear-Admiral Adolphus Andrews, commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier, both of whom he feels have to share the blame for the disaster.

Ironically on the West Coast there appears to have been much more willingness to impose blackouts, in the mistaken belief that the Japanese might be planning a direct assault on the US mainland (or at least major raids). As a result the coast that wasn’t under attack acted as if it was, and the coast that was under attack acted as if it wasn’t! Most books on the battle of the Atlantic blame the civilian population for this, mentioning things like an unwillingness to jeopardise the tourist industry, but a far more significant factor was the US Navy and Governments decision to hide the scale of the losses being suffered along the East Coast – when people were being told that hardly any ships were being lost, and dozens of U-boats had been sunk, they had every reason to continue with business as ususual!

Another key factor was the inter-service dispute about how should have control over ASW aircraft operating along the US coast – the Navy or the USAAC/ USAAF. In the end the Air Force won the argument, claiming that any aircraft based on land should be under their control, but then failed to put any real effort into that role. As a result only a handful of aircraft were in position, and no real thought had been put into how to coordinate between Air Force and Navy anti-submarine efforts. As a result on the few occasions that aircraft spotted U-boats, the news didn’t reach the Navy in time for them to do anything about it.

Some of the arguments are depressingly similar to those used by British opponents of the convoy system in the First World War. Convoys were seen as passive, and thus against the attacking ethos of the navy (as a result some of the limited resources available were used on ‘hunter killer’ groups, which were generally only effective if they actually accompanied convoys, otherwise tended to wander around the ocean failing to find U-boats in any numbers). Any ship being used as a convoy escort wouldn’t be available to operate with the main Atlantic Fleet, which was still seen as the most important force in the Atlantic (repeating arguments used about the Grand Fleet in the First World War). 

This is a very useful study of this key battle, which is often dealt with fairly briefly in accounts of the battle of the Atlantic, or with a focus on the day-to-day events early in 1942. As a result the longer term background to the battle is rarely covered in any detail, so this is an excellent addition to the literature on this key battle.

1 - Navy Bureaucracy and the Development of Doctrine
2 - Atlantic War Mobilisation
3 - Rearmament: The Navy and Public Relief
4 - Submarine Warfare in the First World War
5 - Diplomacy and Submarine Development Between the Wars
6 - New York City Enters the War
7 - Replacing the Losses to the Merchant Marine
8 - The Kriegsmarine at War
9 - Operation Drumbeat

Author: Ken Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2017

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