It is customary for college football teams to engage in spring practice to prepare for the coming fall season. During this time fundamentals are stressed. The players perfect their knowledge of blocking, tackling, passing, and running with the ball. Basic plays are run over and over again until they become routine. Techniques of offensive and defensive action are studied on the field, through skull sessions, and blackboard talks.
The Navy had its preliminary practice period for World War II, the Neutrality Patrol, from September, 1939, to December, 1941. The analogy, of course, does not hold true in all respects. The Navy did not carry out its practice behind a high board fence on its own practice fields. It secured its training on a field on which a bitter struggle was already in progress. On the wide sweeps of the Atlantic, the Allied navies were making a desperate attempt to cut down the serious inroads that Nazi submarines and raiders were making on Allied supply lines. There was the constant possibility that the United States might be drawn into the fray as a combatant, and there were times when the practice seemed dangerously like the real thing.
On the last day of August, 1939, word flashed across the Atlantic that the German military juggernaut had rolled into Poland, and war, so long feared and expected, became an actuality. Declaration of war by Britain and France two days later made it clear that the conflict would engulf most of Europe. The scene was set for a re‑enactment, on a grander scale, of the great World War of 1914‑1918.
p28 Many factors were similar, if not identical. England, an insular nation, unprepared for war, would depend heavily upon supplies and munitions which could reach her only by way of the shipping lanes of the Atlantic. Most of these goods would have to come from the United States. Germany, lacking a surface navy large enough to challenge the British on the seas, would send out hundreds of U‑boats in an attempt to send all shipping bound for the Allies to the bottom of the Atlantic. Surface raiders would add to the destruction, and the Atlantic would again become a crucial battleground. The United States, as in 1914, was neutral.
That fighting in the Atlantic would endanger our neutrality became evident, not only from our experience in World War I, but also from reliable information immediately at hand. On the very first day of the war, the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington informed our forces afloat that German submarines were set to operate on Atlantic trade routes and that a dozen German merchant vessels would operate as armed raiders. The dispatch further stated that neutral merchantmen might expect Great Britain to institute similar practices as in the last war. It became the duty of this nation, as a neutral, to see to it that none of these activities was carried on within our territorial waters, and that none should interfere with our rights on the high seas.
Even before this edict was given to the world, the United States Navy, upon which most of the burden of enforcing our neutrality would inescapably fall, had swung into action. On 4 September 1939, the Chief of Naval Operations sent a dispatch to Rear Admiral A. W. Jackson, commander of the Atlantic Squadron, ordering him to establish as soon as possible a combined air and ship outer patrol for the purpose of p29 observing and reporting in cipher the movements of warships of the warring nations. The patrol was to extend east from Boston to latitude 42‑30, longitude 65, then south to latitude 19, then around the seaward outline of Windward and Leeward islands to the British island of Trinidad, near the shore of South America.
The following day a second dispatch ordered the patrol "to observe and report in a confidential system the movement of all foreign men-of‑war approaching or leaving the east coast of this country or approaching or leaving the east coast of the Caribbean." The limits of the patrol were set •about three hundred miles off the eastern coast line of the United States and along the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea. On the same day a surface patrol of destroyers and Coast Guard craft was ordered established to patrol across the steamer lanes to the southward of Grand Banks, operating directly under the Chief of Naval Operations.
Thus was envisioned a sentry line of ships and planes along our Atlantic frontier from the northernmost approaches southward to and around the islands bridging the entrances to the Caribbean, ending at the island of Trinidad off the northeast coast of South America.
That such a line would be thin was evident in view of the forces at that time assigned to the Atlantic squadron. Most of our naval strength, undersea, surface, and air, was in the Pacific. Forces available were, briefly, as follows: Battleship Division 5, composed of USS Texas, USS New York, USS Arkansas and USS Wyoming, together with their air unit, Observation Squadron 5 (this nine-plane squadron was not commissioned, however, until 16 October 1939); Cruiser Division 7, composed of USS San Francisco, USS Tuscaloosa, USS Vincennes, USS Quincy, and USS Wichita, together with their air unit, the sixteen planes of Scouting Squadron 7 (Wichita did not report until 25 September); the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, at that time engaged in training its own air group and that of USS Wasp, which had not yet been commissioned; approximately forty destroyers of all types and ages in commission; an undetermined number of old destroyers to be recommissioned; about fifteen old submarines; and five squadrons of patrol planes, totaling about fifty-four. This was exclusive of the small force assigned to the Panama Canal Zone.
The patrol planes mentioned were Patrol Squadrons 51 (12 PBY‑1 p30 planes), 52 (6 P2Y‑2 planes), 53 (12 P2Y‑2 planes), and 54 (12 PBY‑2 planes), all in Patrol Wing 5 and Patrol Squadron 33 (12 PBY‑3 planes) of Patrol Wing 3. Four seaplane tenders were attached to the wings.
Immediately upon receipt of the orders from Washington, Rear Admiral Johnson put his forces in action. Cruisers, destroyers, and seaplane tenders put to sea from Norfolk and other Atlantic ports. Lumbering patrol seaplanes churned the waters of eastern bays taking off for assigned bases or patrol stations. On September 6, Admiral Johnson informed the Chief of Naval Operations that the patrol was beginning to function, and by 20 September, when Commander, Atlantic Squadron's Operations Order No. 20‑39 became effective, our Atlantic coastal waters from Nova Scotia in the north to the southern tip of the Lesser Antilles were under daily surface and air surveillance.
A brief summary of the patrols indicates the close co‑operation between navy sea and air forces. Four destroyers together with Coast Guard units patrolled the steamer lanes south of Grand Banks, and two destroyers worked out of Boston. Patrol Squadron 54 flew daily air searches from Newport, Rhode Island, in connection with a destroyer surface patrol. Patrol Squadrons 52 and 53 teamed up with destroyers to cover the waters adjacent to Norfolk. Two destroyers based at Key West, Florida, patrolled the Florida Straits, Yucatan Channel, and neighboring waters. The Guantanamo‑San Juan area was covered by surface forces consisting of destroyers and the two cruisers USS Tuscaloosa and USS San Francisco, together with air patrol composed of Patrol Squadron 33 based at Guantanamo and Patrol Squadron 51 based at San Juan. Two cruisers, USS Quincy and USS Vincennes patrolled the general sea approaches between Newport and Norfolk. Battleship Division 5 and USS Ranger, together with shore-based air detachments made up a reserve group based at Norfolk and engaged in training and outfitting.
This, then, was the original deployment of forces for the Atlantic patrol. Within a month it had begun the expansion which was to continue until the United States entered the war. In October, Patrol Squadron 52 moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and a detachment of Patrol Squadron 33 moved to Key West to fill gaps in the coverage of our southern Atlantic coast line. USS Ranger joined the ships of Cruiser Division 7 to form a striking group capable of long-range p31 searches. In November, 1939, a surface patrol of destroyers was established in the Gulf of Mexico to watch suspicious craft in that area. The U. S. Coast Guard conducted inshore patrol operations with both surface and air craft, and co‑operated fully with the Navy by consultation and exchange of information.
Whatever the Neutrality Patrol became in the months immediately preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was not, in the beginning, a warlike or offensive project. Its original mission was purely one of observation and reporting, and every precaution was taken to minimize hazards to personnel, planes, and ships in this peacetime patrol. At the same time, every effort was made to avoid performing unneutral acts or giving the appearance of performing such acts, and ships and planes were instructed to exercise care, when approaching foreign vessels, to avoid any action which might be interpreted as being of hostile intent.
Early over‑all orders to the patrol were necessarily general and lacking in clear detail, due to the speed with which operations were set up and the lack of experience upon which definite procedure could be based. In the beginning, only foreign men-of‑war were to be reported, and no orders were issued for trailing ships observed by our forces. Commander, Atlantic Squadron's Operation Order No. 20‑39 directed the units of the patrol to investigate reports of submarine operations, perform missions of mercy on the contiguous high seas, prevent engagements between hostile belligerents within territorial waters of the United States (fortunately no such engagements occurred), exchange such information among task groups as became necessary for co‑ordination, train and indoctrinate personnel in the requirements of neutrality patrols, and conduct gunnery and other training as conditions permitted. Operations were to be modified during approach of bad weather to insure safety of personnel and material, and normally not more than one‑third of air units and one‑half of surface units were to be employed on patrol at a time.
These instructions were soon expanded. The commander of the Atlantic Squadron, on 16 October 1939, issued another order (No. 24‑39) that expanded patrol activity. Not only were foreign men-of‑war to be reported, but "suspicious" vessels were to be noted, and both types of vessels were to be trailed until their actions were satisfactorily accounted for. As time went on the patrol expanded and increased p32 the extent and intensity of its activities, but the basic method remained the same, and the purpose did not change until the months immediately preceding the entry of the United States into the war.
All units of the Atlantic Squadron were included in the patrol task organization, but the destroyers and patrol planes bore the major part of the actual patrol operations. The battleships were not placed on the patrol line at any time, and while Cruiser Division 7 actually began the period by patrolling between Newport and Norfolk, it was soon withdrawn, the San Francisco going to the Pacific and the other cruisers going to duty in the San Juan-Guantanamo area. What patrolling it did subsequently was broken up by Naval Reserve cruises, fleet practice exercises, and special missions. Battleship Division 5 was occupied for the most part with Reserve cruises and intensive training.
In general (except in areas where no aerial patrol existed, such as Grand Banks and West Gulf), patrol planes were used for observation and search, while destroyers patrolled centrally in areas or sub‑areas prepared to develop fully any air contacts.
The year 1940 was a year of steady operation, training, and expansion in the Atlantic Neutrality Patrol. Assigned areas were covered constantly, but due to our position as a neutral, and the restriction of the patrol to the waters near our coast, little of excitement occurred. For the most part it was dull, arduous duty for seamen and aviators.
This is not to say that the patrol did not perform a vital function. Its mission was an essential one, and it was performed with fidelity and skill. Extended overwater flights day after day and month after month, and long stretches at sea without rest were exhausting to our men, but they kept the war at a distance and protected our shipping.
Moreover, the patrol trained our forces for the struggle to come. Concurrently with the patrol, the intensive training program advanced our readiness for war, the best training being obtained on the flight tracks and patrol lines. When war finally came to us, our patrol organization had the advantage of more than two years of intense activity under conditions closely paralleling those of war.
During 1940, the patrol was augmented as rapidly as practicable. Old destroyers were recommissioned and new patrol plane squadrons were added. On 1 August 1940, Patrol Squadron 55 was commissioned at Naval Air Station, Norfolk, and on 1 October 1940, Patrol Squadron p33 56 was commissioned at the same station. Both began intensive training preparatory to joining the patrol.
On 1 November 1940, Atlantic Squadron became Patrol Force, U. S. Fleet, and an additional division of cruisers was assigned. On 17 December 1940, Rear Admiral (now Fleet Admiral) E. J. King relieved Rear Admiral Hayne Ellis as Commander, Patrol Force. (Rear Admiral Ellis had relieved Rear Admiral Johnson as Commander, Atlantic Squadron on 30 September 1939.)
New duties loomed ahead. Events in Europe during 1940 had altered the whole war outlook for the United States. The fall of France in June, followed by the aerial blitz on London and other English cities reduced British fortunes to such an ebb that her defeat and the surrender of her fleet to Germany became distinct possibilities. Dangers to America inherent in such an event were too apparent to be ignored. Our concern in the Atlantic became not only the preservation of a precarious neutrality, but self-protection against possible aggression.
In September, 1940, the famous destroyers-for‑bases transaction was made between the United States and Britain, by which the United States obtained long-term leases on eight bases in the Atlantic and Caribbean areas in exchange for fifty old destroyers. Included in the bases thus obtained were Argentia (Newfoundland) and Bermuda, both destined to play major parts in Atlantic Patrol activities in 1941.
On 1 February 1941, the United States Atlantic fleet was established under command of Admiral E. J. King, USN. It was composed of patrol force units greatly augmented and completely reorganized. With these forces the patrol of the Atlantic was extended greatly to give more complete protection to the supplies which were flowing in ever-increasing quantities from our eastern and southern ports to the United Kingdom. In addition to the coastal patrols which had been in operation since late 1939, long-range patrols and convoy escorts were set up.
For purposes of these operations the Atlantic was divided into three sectors. The trade routes to northern Europe were patrolled by Task Force 1, composed of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Task Force 2, composed of cruisers, aircraft carriers and destroyers covered the central North Atlantic. Task Force 3 composed of cruisers, destroyers, and mine vessels based at San Juan and Guantanamo patrolled the South Atlantic, pushing ever farther south as trade and war operations moved in that direction, until, by the time the United States entered p34 the war, this force was patrolling South American waters, basing at Recife.
One of the most important developments in the new organization of Atlantic forces was the creation, on 1 March 1941, of Support Force, U. S. Atlantic Fleet under command of Rear Admiral A. L. Bristol, USN. Support Force (designated Task Force 4) was composed of destroyers of Support Force, and Patrol Wing of Support Force, the latter initially under command of Commander (later Rear Admiral) H. M. Mullinix. Patrol Wing of Support Force consisted originally of Patrol Squadrons 51, 52, 55, and 56, and the tenders USS Albemarle and USS Geo. E. Badger. On 5 April 1941, Patrol Squadron 53 was added.
The original directive ordering establishment of Support Force stated in part: "It is desired the Force be prepared for distant service in high latitudes and that it be given intensive training in anti-submarine warfare, the protection of shipping, and self-defense against submarine, air, and raider attack." Support Force was intended to be developed into a powerful, well-trained, highly mobile force to operate from bases in the North Atlantic to prevent Germany from cutting communications between the United States and Great Britain.
The original offshore patrol, now extended to include air surface forces operating from Coco Solo, Canal Zone, was regrouped as Task Force 6, and that portion of it based at points north of the Caribbean and Gulf areas was designated Northern Patrol. The mission of the Northern Patrol was to "investigate reports of potential enemy vessels and movements and of other non‑American activities in the North Atlantic. Operating bases at Norfolk, Bermuda, Narragansett Bay, and, in due course, Argentia (Newfoundland)."
Support Force, Atlantic Fleet, was assigned as a part of this Northern Patrol, and it was in this assignment that Patrol Wing, Support Force spearheaded the advance of naval aviation to the strategic islands to the north and east, and helped insure the safe passage of materials of war to Britain.
The advance northward did not begin at once, however. The early months after the creation of the wing were devoted to intensive training in co‑operation with other units of Support Force. This training involved convoy and escort operations under conditions simulating war, and it involved periods of arduous duty with routine patrols along the Atlantic coast. Patrol Squadron 51 was established at Naval Air Station, New York (Floyd Bennett Field) on 8 April 1941. Patrol Squadrons p35 52 and 53 were established at Naval Air Station, Quonset Point, R. I., on 3 April 1941 and 24 May 1941, respectively.
Next came the movement to Newfoundland, to the strategically located base of Argentia, recently obtained from Britain in the destroyer-for‑bases agreement. With this movement began a series of advances more important, perhaps, than any other development in the Atlantic prior to Pearl Harbor. From Newfoundland our planes could patrol farther out over the major Atlantic shipping lanes than from any continental base; and, later, from Iceland, to which Newfoundland was a steppingstone, aerial patrols could, if necessary, reach the British Isles.
On 15 May 1941 the wing flagship, USS Albemarle, arrived at Argentia, laid thirteen heavy plane moorings, obtained weather analyses, and prepared for the commencement of seaplane operations. Three days later, on 18 May 1941, planes of Patrol Squadron 52 arrived at Argentia and commenced air operations. Argentia remained the principal base of the wing until July 1943, when operations were largely transferred to bases in the United Kingdom.
Operations at Newfoundland were rendered difficult and hazardous by the rugged contour of the island, rudimentary local communications, bleak and severe climate characterized, according to the season, by severe storms, gales, high winds and/or dense fog. Icebergs, in season, and local sheet ice which forms in winter on all quiet bodies of water, presented additional hazards. Land base facilities were in early stages of construction, and the wing was, therefore, largely dependent upon equipment which USS Albemarle brought with her. It was rough, hazardous duty, lacking entirely the glamour of open combat, but calling for skill, courage, and stamina in the constant battle with the elements.
On 24 May 1941 came a dramatic assignment. The German battleship Bismarck had engaged and sunk HMS Hood in the Strait of Denmark. In the general search which followed, planes at Argentia were ordered to make immediate aerial reconnaissance over a sector •five hundred miles southwest of Cape Farewell, Greenland. Despite foul weather and extremely bad flying conditions, the search was flown. Neither the Bismarck nor any other vessel was found, however. It was learned later that the Bismarck had turned southeast after her engagement with the British and did not pass through the area covered by the patrol.
In the meantime, the eleven PBY‑5's of the patrol came to grief. Buffeted about and thrown off course by the rough weather, the planes p36 became separated and lost, and none made it back directly to Argentia. After extensive flights, the planes came down separately in various bays in Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec, and adjoining islands. None was destroyed or seriously damaged, and all were ultimately flown back to base.
On 1 July 1941, in a general reorganization of patrol planes, Patrol Wing, Support Force became Patrol Wing 7 (remaining a unit of Support Force), and its squadrons 51, 52, 53, and 55 became Patrol Squadrons 71, 72, 73, and 74, respectively. Squadrons 71, 72, and 73 had 12 PBY planes each, and Squadron 74, after receiving three planes transferred from former Squadron 56, had 12 PBM‑1's. Remaining planes of former Squadron 56 became a training unit under Commander, Patrol Wings, Atlantic Fleet.
At the same time, Patrol Wing 8 was formed, composed of redesignated squadrons and new squadrons yet to be commissioned. Patrol Wing 8 was initially attached to Support Force, but saw little actual duty, other than training, with that organization. With the outbreak of war with Japan the new wing was ordered west for Pacific duty.
The summer of 1941 was a busy period for the planes stationed in Newfoundland. In addition to routine patrol and escort missions, our fliers conducted long-range reconnaissance flights, surveys of Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador, ocean rescue operations, and various flights for other forces, services, and governments.
In August, 1941, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill held their historic six‑day conference at Argentia aboard USS Augusta, from which emerged the Atlantic Charter. Before, during, and after this meeting the planes of Patrol Wing 7 flew a very heavy reconnaissance schedule guarding Argentia and its sea approaches to the limits of plane endurance. No enemy vessels were sighted.
From 6 August to 20 August 1941 a three-seaplane detachment of Patrol Squadron 71, in conjunction with U. S. Army representatives, carried on aerial surveys of Greenland, basing on the USS Lapwing in Tungdliafik Fjord on the west coast.
In this month came another long step in the advance of our patrol forces to the north and east. On 6 August 1941, six PBY‑5's of Patrol Squadron 73 and five PBM‑1's of Patrol Squadron 74 landed and came to rest on the waters of Skerja Fjord, near Reykjavik, Iceland. Moorings were borrowed from the Royal Air Force, which also operated seaplanes there, and operations were begun at once, the planes basing initially on USS Goldsborough. Convoys were covered as far as •five p37 hundred miles from base, and air patrols were maintained in the Denmark Strait to Greenland.
If conditions at Argentia had been bad, those in Iceland in this pioneer period were infinitely worse. Living accommodations and other base facilities were practically nonexistent. At the outset as many as possible of the squadron personnel crowded aboard the Goldsborough for berthing, while the balance slept in the planes, in tents ashore, and a few in huts loaned by the Royal Air Force. Base construction was begun at once, but was kept at a slow pace by lack of material. Iceland itself afforded practically nothing in the way of building supplies, and harbor congestion at Reykjavik was such that ships bringing vital material from the States frequently were forced to lie offshore for over a month awaiting their turn to unload.
Flight operations, while pressed energetically, were hampered by this same lack of supplies and made hazardous by "the worst weather in the world," characterized, even in the less severe seasons, by high, frequently shifting winds and quick, unpredictable changes.
By this time the functions of the Neutrality Patrol had expanded greatly, and the United States was drawing near the "shooting war" soon to be upon us. For several reasons this was especially true in the northern Atlantic.
In the first place, the vast bulk of lend-lease material going from America to Britain was transported by the northern route. Our policy of defending America through lend-lease and other support to Britain and the other nations fighting Germany could be effective only if most of these supplies reached their destination. Expansion of the patrol activities of the United States forces helped to assure safe delivery of goods and eased the burden on British forces protecting Atlantic sea lanes.
In the second place, development of sea and air bases in Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland, together with maintenance of air and sea patrols therefrom, were intended to prevent the Germans from developing a strong position in the North Atlantic or seizing any part of the strategic islands on the northwest approaches to the United States. Attacks on these islands without warning or declaration of war were within the realm of probability, in the light of German activities of the past. The fall of Denmark underlined this danger and made the islands of Iceland and Greenland potential springboards for a grand invasion of America.
These and other considerations, although we were technically not p38 at war and were ostensibly protecting our neutrality, led, in 1941, to great expansion of the geographical limits of our patrols and sharp intensification of their missions.
An operation plan issued by Commander, Argentia Air Detachment on 12 September 1941 and revised 23 October 1941 defined the western Atlantic area in which the planes of the force were to operate as "that area bounded on the east by a line from the north along 10 degrees west as far south as latitude 53 degrees north, thence by rhumb line to latitude 53 degrees north, longitude 26 degrees west, thence south, and extending as far west as the continental land areas but excluding Naval Coast Frontier and Naval District land and water areas and Canadian coastal zones, and the territorial waters of Latin-American countries."
The mission of the force was, within this area, to
"(a) Protect United States and foreign flag shipping other than German and Italian against hostile attack by:
(1) Escorting, covering, and patrolling for the defense of convoys, and by
(2) Destroying German and Italian naval, land, and air forces encountered.
(b) Insure the safety of sea communications with U. S. strategic outposts.
(c) Support the defense of U. S. territory and bases, Iceland, and Greenland.
(d) Trail merchant vessels suspected of supplying or otherwise assisting the operations of German or Italian naval vessels or aircraft.
Maintain constant and immediate readiness to repel hostile attack. Operate as under war conditions, including complete darkening of planes when on escort duty during darkness, varying plane altitudes as necessary."
On 1 October 1941, four PBY‑5 planes of Patrol Squadron 71 arrived at Kungnait Bay, Greenland, based on USS Gannet (on temporary duty from Patrol Wing 5) for patrols of the Greenland coasts. Due to the uncertainties and violence of the Greenland weather, regular convoy escort patrols were not feasible and the detachment returned to Argentia on 18 October 1941.
Such was the story of our Neutrality Patrol, convoy coverage, and preparation for war in the North Atlantic.
At the same time ships and planes assigned to other areas of the Atlantic were equally vigilant and active. From bases extending down p39 our Atlantic and Gulf coasts to the Canal Zone, and from West Indian bases as far south as Trinidad, surface craft and patrol planes of the Navy and Coast Guard were combing our coastal waters daily. Suspicious ships were being searched out, trailed, and prevented from fueling or tending submarines. Bermuda, one of the bases obtained from the British, had become a highly strategic outpost and trans-Atlantic steppingstone. From it our planes were flying daily patrols in co‑operation with surface forces. Long-range patrols of heavy units were roaming the high seas, observing and gathering information.
Thus, by the time we were called upon for full participation in the war, the western Atlantic was, in effect, an American ocean. The Neutrality Patrol was an operation devoid of the glamour of combat, but in its twenty‑six months of existence it had developed into a vast co‑ordinated project which exerted a profound immediate and long-range effect on the war. In the early days it safeguarded our neutrality and guaranteed the sanctity of our home waters. Later it safeguarded our northern and southern flanks from encroachments of a potential enemy and assured delivery of supplies which kept our future ally in the war. Throughout, it advanced our state of readiness by training personnel and making ever-increasing demands for procurement and improvement of ships, planes, and other matériel.
In the Neutrality Patrol, from beginning to end, naval aviation played a major role. Without land-based patrol planes, carrier planes, and the scouting and observation planes aboard our cruisers and battleships, such an effective patrol could not have been developed. On the other hand, without the stimulation and training of Neutrality Patrol activity, naval aviation in the Atlantic would not have been in a state of readiness when war came.
The Jap attack on Pearl Harbor ended the Neutrality Patrol as such. But only the name died. The forces of the patrol, unhampered by the word "neutrality" entered into a new, more dangerous task — the final defeat of the German submarines.
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