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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p40  Chapter 5

From Neutrality Patrol
to Anti-Submarine Warfare

The Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic from 1939 to 1941 had given considerable training in certain basic techniques of air war. Unfortunately, this training was available only to the comparatively small forces we had during that period. When war actually came and Neutrality Patrol became anti-submarine warfare in earnest, our forces, experienced though they were becoming, were forced on the defensive by virtue of their small numbers. Consequently, anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic fell into two main phases. From December, 1941, to December, 1942, we were without question on the defensive. During this period our shipping losses on the average exceeded our construction figures. The second phases, extending roughly from December, 1942, to December, 1943, will be taken up later and was a period of gradually mounting offensive.

There was no doubt which opponent was better prepared for the struggle in December, 1941. Within five weeks after Pearl Harbor, German submarines moved into American coastal waters and sank an American tanker 150 miles south of Montauk Point, Long Island. In the ferocity of the opening attack, in the month of January, 14 ships were sunk off the east coast and 12 in Canadian waters.

Unfortunately, in spite of the training afforded by the Neutrality Patrol, the United States was ill prepared to counter the first blow. There was nothing to do but extemporize and try to hold out until the huge training program and production schedules could get under way, and start an adequate flow of men and materials to the field.

The American northern air defense consisted of Catalinas of Patrol Wing 7 based at Argentia, Newfoundland, and Reykjavik, Iceland. The pilots braved the terrible North Atlantic winter for hours on end to try, with their inadequate anti-submarine tools and techniques, to protect shipping on the northern convoy route.

To the south, Commander, Patrol Wing 3, based at Coco Solo, Canal  p41 Zone, sent his patrol planes sweeping over both eastern and western approaches to the Panama Canal in search of enemy surface raiders, invasion forces, aircraft, and submarines.

In the center of the line, planes of Patrol Wing 5, based at Norfolk, Virginia, attempted the overwhelming task of trying to cover from various hastily arranged advanced bases the whole eastern coast line of the continental United States.

As can be imagined, the mad scrambling of helpless merchant vessels and the blind punching of the piti­fully few air and surface craft had little deterring effect upon the German U‑boat commanders who sent seventeen merchant vessels in continental waters to the bottom. By February, a large-scale U‑boat assault, which saturated the defenses of the Eastern Sea Frontier, carried into the Caribbean and Gulf and resulted in the destruction of forty‑two merchantmen with practically no damage inflicted on the enemy.

In March, the main weight of the U‑boat attack shifted north off the continental United States, and despite all that navy planes of Patrol Wing 5 could do, twenty-eight merchant vessels were sent to the bottom. These attacks were marked by cool, deliberate ferocity on the part of U‑boat commanders. Submarines, apparently completely without fear of reprisal, surfaced and sank ships by shellfire even within sight of the coasts.

Two moves were instituted by the Navy in April in an attempt to stem the wave of almost unrestricted sinkings in American waters: the system of convoying coastal shipping, and the establishment of the sea frontier commands. Every available type of patrol vessel, including converted yachts and civilian craft, was pressed into service. Likewise, the numerically small Anti-Submarine Air Squadrons composed of navy Kingfishers and Catalinas of Patrol Wings 3, 5, and 7 were augmented by Coast Guard, civilian, and army aircraft. The I Bomber Command, whose squadrons flew high-speed, land-based Liberator bombers, was assigned to anti-submarine duty in co‑ordination with the Navy.

Eastern Sea Frontier, Panama Sea Frontier, Caribbean Sea Frontier, and Gulf Sea Frontier commands were set up to co‑ordinate the efforts of these diverse branches of the service. Theirs was the task of directing the flow of men and materials, soon to come, into channels where they could best be employed to drive back the U‑boat and win the crucial Battle of the Atlantic.

The effect of these two moves was not, of course, immediately  p42 apparent. Sinkings continued at a high rate in the coastal and Caribbean areas, but the U‑boat was beginning to pay a price for its successes. Nineteen attacks, resulting in three U‑boats damaged and one sunk, were made by navy, Coast Guard, and army aircraft in U. S. coastal waters from Newfoundland to Florida.

By May, new anti-submarine measures and killer teams of air‑surface forces made it so difficult for U‑boats to operate off the east coast that the enemy once again shifted his attention to the lightly defended southern approaches to the United States. In that month, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were turned into a flaming hell of burning tankers and merchantmen shattered by U‑boat torpedoes and gunfire. In all, seventy‑two American and Allied ships were destroyed in that theater by U‑boats which suffered negligible damage themselves.

Following up their success of May, Hitler's U‑boat fleet moved deeper into the Gulf and sank thirteen merchant vessels in the eastern approaches to the Canal Zone. This region was being patrolled at the time by Catalinas and Kingfishers of Patrol Wing 3 and by Mitchells of the Panama Army Command. These aircraft made a few sightings but were unable to attack the enemy or to prevent him from torpedoing (mostly at night) the helpless merchant vessels.

At the same time, squadrons operating on the Caribbean and Gulf Frontier regions were again unable to cope with the aggressive U‑boat campaign which resulted in the sinking of forty-eight merchantmen and tankers bound for New Orleans, Galveston, and the Canal Zone. Air opposition continued light; only seventeen attacks were made by United States aircraft resulting in four U‑boats damaged.

As time passed, however, and as the production of air and surface craft increased, it became possible, after convoy requirements for transatlantic shipping were met, to discover more and more attention to the protection of coastwise sea lanes which could be continuously swept by air and surface craft.

By the middle of July, convoying of merchant vessels in the Caribbean and Gulf, as well as in east coast waters, was instituted. This move was followed by a considerable decrease in shipping losses in southern waters.

No sooner had pressure been released from this part of the defense line, however, than the enemy struck the northern convoy routes between Iceland and Newfoundland. In this windy, fogbound region where planes of Patrol Wing 7 were flying their interminable patrols, seven merchantmen were torpedoed and sunk. At least one submarine  p43 responsible for this activity was discovered, however, by a Catalina of VP‑73 and sunk under rather unusual circumstances. One of the PBY's depth charges landed on the U‑boat's deck and stuck in the grating. The bomb, of course, would have been harmless until it reached a fixed depth under water, but instead of attempting to disarm it or float it off on a raft, the charge was rolled over the side by an inexperienced seaman and promptly blew up the U‑boat. Prisoners picked up later by a surface craft evinced our first definite U‑boat "kill" of the war.

In August, the enemy who had pulled back to regroup his forces in the preceding month lashed out viciously with the greatest offensive yet mounted in the West Indies area. Availing themselves of the innumerable bays, inlets, and harbors of the Caribbean for concealment, and the rather localized channels through which Allied convoys passed for points of attack, Nazi U‑boats succeeded in sending thirty-three merchant vessels to the bottom. Most of these attacks were made by surfaced U‑boats against merchant ships proceeding unescorted.

An American countermove, which had been some time in the making, was the establishment of Patrol Wing 11 under the jurisdiction of the Caribbean Sea From Command at San Juan, Puerto Rico. The purpose of this step was to intensify the war against the U‑boat in the area from Cuba to Natal, Brazil, and to afford greater protection to convoys passing through the islands.

Six days after the arrival of navy patrol squadrons at San Juan, the first attack on a U‑boat was made. This was followed by other attacks from time to time, though few were assessed as damaged and none as sunk or probably sunk. To make these contacts with the enemy, navy planes with the supporting army units had to fly patrols to the coast of South America and far to the east of the Windward and Leeward islands.

At approximately the same time, a detachment of Patrol Wing 11 was sent to Trinidad to deal with a group of submarines attacking shipping off the coast of northern Brazil. Before the air patrols could be effectively set up, seven ships had been sunk.

On 16 September 1943, in order to provide closer supervision of anti-submarine air coverage under the operational control of Gulf Sea Frontier, Patrol Wing 12 was commissioned. Administrative headquarters of the wing was set up at Key West. Elaborate block patrols of the Florida Straits, Bahama Channel, and the Yucatan Channel were flown by aircraft of the wing from Key West and San Julian, Cuba bases, to prevent enemy U‑boats from using southern coastal waters for their depredations.

 p44  September saw a great decline in U‑boat activity in American waters, the only regions under attack being the northern and southern approaches to the United States. This happy state of affairs continued throughout October when little if any U‑boat effort was exerted in the American theater. Except for a sudden offensive against shipping in the lightly defended Brazilian coastal zone, out of range of planes of Patrol Wing 11, in November and December, 1942, no enemy U‑boat fleets ever thereafter successfully invaded American waters, patrolled by aircraft of the patrol wings (later called fleet air wings) 3, 5, 9, 11, and 12.

This securing of the approaches to the Western Hemisphere from the deadly menace of the German U‑boat did not satisfy the American government. Plans which called for the reconquest of Africa and operations in the Mediterranean required the establishment of land bases for American aircraft farther afield. The blow was to fall early in November.

Through waters infested by German U‑boats, as we shall see later in more detail, a huge American invasion fleet pushed its way, and on 8 November, in spite of all the enemy could do, our troops poured ashore at Mehdia, Fedala, and Safi in French Morocco. As soon as hostilities ceased three days later, two navy patrol squadrons, VP‑92 and VP‑73, began anti-submarine operations out of Casablanca and Port Lyautey. These operations entailed close‑in patrols off the three beachheads in order to frustrate desperate German attempts to disrupt the landing and supplying activities of the fleet. Actually, the invading forces encountered relatively light opposition from French shore establishments and German submarines. During the whole operation, 9 ships and 2 escort vessels were sunk and 5 merchant vessels damaged by U‑boats. The worst loss occurred on the night of 11 November when 4 merchant vessels and 1 destroyer were torpedoed off Fedala. Counterattacking American surface, and British air forces in the invasion period sank 2 U‑boats and made seven damaging attacks.

During December, after the urgency of the invasion began to give way to a consideration of more long-range anti-submarine problems, the U. S. Navy squadrons based at Casablanca and Port Lyautey instituted a series of "canned" patrols designed to cover thoroughly the area within three hundred miles of Casablanca. Six attacks were made before the end of the year. These anti-submarine activities were soon to be directed and administered by Commander, Fleet Air Wing 15, whose unit was commissioned in Norfolk on 1 December 1942.

 p45  Thus, as 1942 came to an end, what at first had seemed a picture of utter chaos gradually took on a semblance of shape and order and the outlines of a definite plan of campaign began to appear. An umbrella of aerial protection, spread over the western Atlantic from Brazil to Iceland, had effectively driven the U‑boats far out to sea. Wherever a land base could be established, the United States Navy put up an aerial barrier impenetrable to more than an occasional undersea raider. This cover now stretched from Iceland to Newfoundland, down the Atlantic coast, through the West Indies, and along the coast of South America from Panama to Brazil. Thence it leapt the South Atlantic, pausing at Ascension Island, and passed up the West African coast to the Straits of Gibraltar.

This changed U‑boat situation was due in part to rapidly completed production schedules of ships and planes and to an accelerated pilot training program. But more important were the improved anti-submarine weapons and techniques which had been developed since the hectic days of the spring of 1942. Doctrine for attacks on U‑boats by aircraft was gradually evolving as a result of the successes and failures of army, navy, Coast Guard, RAF, and British Coastal Command aircraft in more than two years of anti-submarine warfare. New and improved aircraft were coming into operation: powerfully armed and long range PB4Y's, fast maneuverable PV‑1's, very long-range Mariner flying boats, and navy blimps. Moreover, the Navy was beginning to use each anti-submarine aircraft in a specialized capacity designed to wreak the maximum damage on the enemy. Also, these planes were going into action armed with far more efficient U‑boat detection devices and more power­ful weapons than had been available a few months earlier.

Land-based aircraft, however, did not supply the whole answer to the problem, effective as it was within its limitations. Though the enemy was driven offshore, he was not forced off the seas. He still sat astride the mid‑Atlantic sea lanes, out of range of land-based aircraft, and by operating in wolf packs he succeeded in exacting a heavy toll of merchant ships, even in convoys. The answer to this was the escort carrier — small aircraft carriers converted from former merchant hulls or built from the keel up. They were designed to carry enough planes, generally Wildcat fighters and Avenger bombers, to afford protection for the convoys passing through the U‑boat hunting grounds. In addition, CVE's with a supporting group of destroyers or destroyer escorts were to be used eventually as hunter-killer teams to root out and destroy enemy submarines wherever they might be. By the end of 1942, United States  p46 shipyards were beginning to turn out escort carriers in sufficient numbers to bode ill for future enemy operations in the Atlantic theater.

The Aircraft Carriers Ranger and Wasp
in the Atlantic

With two notable exceptions, United States aircraft carrier operations in the Atlantic, European waters, and the Mediterranean were the exclusive responsibility of small escort carriers. The exceptions were the first USS Wasp which was later sunk off Guadalcanal in September, 1942, and the USS Ranger. Both ships made their important contributions to victory over the European end of the Axis by a series of aircraft ferrying missions in addition to anti-submarine patrols and offensive strikes against the enemy.

The stories of Great Britain's battles against a vastly superior enemy from the fall of France to the entrance of the United States into the war are legion. But none are more impressive than those of the little island of Malta and the convoys sent to its relief. Malta's importance in preventing complete Axis control of the Mediterranean cannot be overemphasized. With pitifully few obsolete planes for its defense, the problem of keeping the island supplied with food, munitions, fuel and aircraft was acute. There were no British bases within range of Malta from which fighter aircraft replacements could be sent, while Graziani and Rommel controlled the nearest points on the North African coast. The only way fighter planes could be delivered was by ship. But the fact that every Malta convoy was subjected to severe submarine, surface, and air attacks made shipment by cargo vessel too tenuous a thread upon which to hang the island's defense. Aircraft carriers which could launch Malta-bound planes equipped to defend themselves against enemy air attack, were the only solution. Because Britain's few carriers were desperately needed elsewhere to support a fleet already spread thin by operations in waters all over the world, the United States Navy lent its support by sending the Wasp together with other naval vessels to join the British Fleet for a time.

The Wasp left Casco Bay, Maine, on 26 March 1942 and arrived at Scapa Flow, Scotland, on 4 April. After receiving Royal Air Force Spitfires and personnel aboard at Glasgow, she departed for the Mediterranean accompanied by the American destroyers Madison and Lang and other screening British warships, on 14 April, and cleared the Straits of Gibraltar five days later. Early in the morning of the twentieth the  p47 Wasp launched Fighter Squadron 71 for combat air patrol and then launched forty-seven Spitfires which proceeded to Malta. The Wasp and her escort immediately began the return trip to Scapa Flow where they arrived on April 26. On May 2 she again left Scotland on a similar ferrying mission and on the ninth launched another forty-seven Spitfires in the Mediterranean for Malta, returning to Scapa Flow a week later en route to the United States. Not every British plane delivered by this carrier to within range of Malta reached its destination safely. But enough got through to insure considerable strengthening of that base which ultimately withstood its grim siege by enemy bombs until the Axis was finally driven from the Mediterranean.

In a report on Malta to the House of Commons on 2 July 1942, Prime Minister Churchill said, "Fighter aircraft have been flown in from aircraft carriers by the Royal Navy and we were assisted by the United States Navy whose carrier Wasp rendered notable service on more than one occasion enabling me to send them the message of thanks, 'Who says a Wasp cannot sting twice?' "

The Ranger, the first United States naval vessel designed and constructed, from the keel up, as an aircraft carrier, was also given important ferrying duties in the early phases of the war when she took United States Army Air Forces fighter planes and pilots to West Africa. The first of these trips was begun on 22 April 1942 when sixty-eight P‑40's (Warhawks) destined for the Tenth Army Air Force in India were carried to the African Gold Coast where they were launched and flown to Accra. These planes and their pilots all landed safely at Accra on May 10 and in a series of hops finally reached Karachi, India. A second P‑40 cruise to the Gold Coast was made in June, after which the Ranger returned to the United States in time to pick up its air group and take part in the Casablanca landings where that group performed so capably. Again loaded with P‑40's and pilots, she left Norfolk on 8 January 1943 and launched her cargo off the coast of French Morocco. The planes landed at Casablanca on January 19. An identical cruise with Casablanca-bound P‑40's was made in February, 1943, with the planes landing on the twenty-third.

Her ferrying duties completed for a time, the Ranger provided air escort for the SS Queen Mary carrying Prime Minister Churchill to the Quebec Conference with President Roosevelt, after which she joined the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow. During this tour with the Home Fleet she operated in Norwegian waters for several months guarding the northern convoy routes to Russia against attacks by larger German  p48 surface raiders and the Luftwaffe. It was here that the Ranger, commanded by Captain Gordon Rowe, USN, made the first American naval air strike against German forces in Norway. On 4 October, Ranger aircraft made two strikes against German shipping — one in and around Bodo Harbor, the second from Alter Fjord to Kunna Head, Norway. Thirty‑one thousand pounds of bombs were dropped during these attacks, resulting in the destruction of at least six enemy ships including a 14,000‑ton tanker. In addition, two other ships were damaged by bombs or strafing and the Ranger's Combat Air Patrol shot down two enemy aircraft.

The Ranger was detached from British command in November, 1943, and returned to the United States. She made a final Atlantic ferrying cruise leaving New York on 24 April 1944. This time the cargo was P‑38 Lightnings, the Army's famous twin-engined fighters, plus Allied military personnel which were delivered to Casablanca in the first week of May. On the return voyage, she carried battle-worn army aircraft and Allied personnel. In July, 1944 the Ranger was transferred to the Pacific where she was operating at the time of the Japanese surrender.

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