Most people associate the World War II Era Navy and Marine Corps with the Pacific War — which is certainly accurate; the U. S. Navy was unquestionably the dominant force in the Pacific. But the Allied powers could not have won the European war without superior naval power, as well. Victory at sea was a keystone for allied triumph over the Axis power in all World War II theaters.
- Pacific-Asian fronts
- Europe (Nordic, Western, Eastern fronts)
- Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East
Victory at sea involved the formidable task of keeping sea lanes open for the movement of troop transports, combat equipment, raw materials, and food stores — in massive quantities earmarked for the United Kingdom, nearly isolated by hostile German forces.
Complicating the Navy’s Atlantic mission was the fact that theater area commanders had to compete for limited naval resources. There were only so many aircraft carriers, only so many landing craft, only so many carrier-based aircraft — only so many men. It was up to theater area commanders to find the best way of distributing these limited assets where they would do the most good. As one can imagine, the Navy’s mission to protect ships, men, and material over vast areas of the world’s major oceans was no small undertaking — and neither was denying access to them by the Axis powers.
Within 15 years from the end of World War I, Germany began rebuilding its military and naval forces. Between 1933 and 1939, without opposition and emboldened by European politicians who sought to avoid war at any cost, Germany seized and annexed Alsace-Loraine, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. When Adolph Hitler discovered that the “free world’s” only response to this aggression was appeasement, and in concert with the Soviet Union, he launched a lightning invasion of Poland. Allied powers responded to the invasion by declaring war on Germany, prompting Germany’s invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — and then began its assault on the United Kingdom through aerial bombing and naval blockades. Once Germany believed that it had neutralized the United Kingdom, Hitler foolishly invaded the Soviet Union.
Following the First World War, the United Kingdom decided to place all of its military aircraft under the Royal Air Force, completely neglecting its naval arm vis-à-vis sea-launched aircraft. As a result of this poor thinking, the United Kingdom lost its maritime superiority.
In the years leading up to World War II, Royal Navy Aviation competed with the RAF for scant resources. The decision taken by Britain’s war policy board was that strategic bombing must occupy a higher priority than seaborne attack aircraft — and did so even after the United States proved that long-range bomber aircraft were only marginally effective against moving ships at sea. The use of B-24 Liberator aircraft against Japanese ships of war during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942-43 reinforced the American’s earlier conclusion.
In 1939, the Royal Navy had a substantial base structure at both ends of the Mediterranean, at Alexandria, Egypt, Gibraltar, and Malta. The French Navy had naval bases at Toulon and Mers-el-Kébir and deluded themselves into believing that the Mediterranean was “their sea.”
In September 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, there were only seven aircraft carriers in the British fleet. These were capital ships highly vulnerable to German submarines, battleships, and land-based aircraft. Because the British had no carriers in the First World War, there was no battle-tested procedure for protecting aircraft carriers.
Substantial loses during the UK’s initial carrier operations underscored weaknesses of command decisions and employment doctrine. HMS Courageous was lost in the second week of the war, sunk by the German submarine U-29. HMS Ark Royal might have been lost in the following week were it not for defective torpedoes fired by U-39. From these two incidents, the British Admiralty decided that carriers were too vulnerable for use as a submarine screening force. In early June 1940, HMS Glorious was lost to German battleships off the coast of Norway [Note 1].
At the beginning of 1942, the U. S. Atlantic Fleet operated Carrier Division Three, which included the fleet attack carriers (CVA) USS Ranger, USS Hornet, and USS Wasp, and the escort carrier (CVE) USS Long Island. Over the course of the war, American and British carriers became increasingly effective in a number of operational assignments — from providing air cover during amphibious operations to patrolling in search of enemy ships.
Unlike the Pacific war, where naval and ground commanders planned and implemented combat strategies and operations, European heads of government were the decision-makers in the Atlantic war. Both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler directly involved themselves in the details of operational planning; in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt left the details of fighting to his military commanders.
The Battle of the Atlantic
The Battle of the Atlantic was a contest of strategies between the Allied and Axis powers. Both sides attempted to deny use of oceanic shipping. British and American navies sought to blockade German shipments of raw materials from Norway; the Germans attempted to block American shipments of food and vital supplies to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.
Germany relied principally on its submarines, merchant raiders, battle cruisers, and land-based aircraft to destroy American shipping — of those, submarines were by far the most effective [Note 2]. Allied use of aircraft carriers contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Battle of the Atlantic — used not only to protect convoys, but to locate and destroy German submarines, as well. This success was the direct result of the Allied capture and deciphering German code machines.
In September 1939, Germany had fifty-seven submarines; twenty-two were suitable for combat operations in the Atlantic and only eight or nine could operate “on station” because of the time it took to return to their base for fuel, refit, and replenishment. By March 1940, this small submarine force accounted for the sinking of 222 Allied ships — including two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers. Germany’s application of underwater naval assault was “unrestricted,” evidenced by Germany’s sinking of the civilian passenger ship Athenia.
On land, it took Germany only six weeks to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (10May-24 June 1940). With the fall of France, Germany was able to establish a submarine base along the French coast, which brought their U-boats 1,000 miles closer to Allied convoy routes.
Within the space of two years, the production of German U-boats was sufficient to allow Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz to begin employing submarines in groups (from eight to twenty) (the wolf pack). In April 1941, German submarines destroyed half the convoy ships transiting from Halifax to Liverpool. The action was significant enough to cause President Roosevelt to order the transfer of USS Yorktown, three battleships, and six destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet. In September 1941, Roosevelt transferred 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy [Note 3]. It was at this time that the United States Navy began escorting Britain-bound convoys as far as Iceland. Despite these efforts, by the time the United States entered the war, German U-boats had destroyed 1,200 cargo ships.
American Attitudes, 1939-41
The American people well-remembered the terrible loss of life during World War I and they wanted nothing whatever to do with another European War. Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection with the promise of neutrality [Note 4]. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared American neutrality — but he also established a “neutral zone” in the Atlantic within which the United States would protect shipping. The Navy assigned USS Ranger to patrol this “neutral” zone.
Even before 1939, Roosevelt’s opposition party in Congress watched developing world events and the president with growing concerns. Members of Congress were well aware that Roosevelt was itching to involve himself in the European war, so in the 1930s, the congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939) that reflected the mood of the American people. Americans had become isolationist and non-interventionist. Whether these were carefully thought-out restrictions may not matter today, but the Acts made no distinction between victim or aggressor.
As Congress pushed back against Roosevelt’s apparent desire to engage in the emerging world war, Mr. Roosevelt crafted clever ways around congressional restrictions. The so-called Lend-Lease program was enacted in early March 1941; it permitted President Roosevelt to provide Great Britain, Free France, the Republic of China, and Soviet Union with food, oil, and war materials [Note 5]. Congress earmarked more than $50-billion for this purpose (about 17% of the USA’s total war expenditure) (in modern dollars, around $600-billion), most of which went to the United Kingdom. Under this agreement, nations receiving war materials could use them until returned to the United States (or were destroyed). Very little war material was returned to US control [Note 6]. The net-effect of Lend-Lease was that it removed any pretense of neutrality by the United States.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. Mr. Roosevelt had his war.
Carriers and Their Functions
Large areas of the Atlantic were beyond the range of land-based aircraft in Canada, Iceland, and Great Britain. The UK, with insufficient fleet resources, initiated programs to enhance convoy protection. In 1940-41, Britain converted three ocean-going vessels, a seaplane tender, and an auxiliary cruiser [Note 7] to help extend the protective range of land-based aircraft. They called these vessels Fight Catapult Ships (FACs), Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships (CAMs), and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs). Germany sank three of these ships in 1941 — the same year the British converted thirty-five additional merchant ships into catapult ships.
In January 1941, the United Kingdom began converting captured German merchant ships to escort carriers (CVEs). While CVEs were slow and lightly armored, they did provide platforms for dispatching and retrieving land-based aircraft. Britain’s first CVE was christened HMS Audacity. The ship carried six operational aircraft with room for an additional eight, but because there was no hanger deck or elevator, aircraft were maintained on the flight desk.
In April 1941, the United States began converting merchant hulls to CVEs. The first American CVE was christened USS Long Island. A second American CVE was transferred to the UK, who christened her HMS Archer. Archer was capable of operating 15 aircraft. The Americans constructed five additional CVEs, (transferring four to the Royal Navy): HMS Avenger, HMS Biter, HMS Dasher, HMS Tracker, and the USS Charger.
Lessons learned from USS Long Island led to substantial improvements to forty-four successive CVEs. The new constructs were capable of carrying between 19-24 aircraft. Thirty-three of these went to the United Kingdom. Additional CVEs were constructed from tanker hulls, which were longer and faster than the merchant hull ships.
Aircraft carriers operating in both oceans had similar functions. They supported amphibious landings, raided enemy ports, searched for enemy submarines, escorted merchant convoys, transported aircraft, troops, vital supplies, and served as training platforms for carrier-rated pilots.
The Turning Point
In the spring of 1943, German submarines assaulted 133 Allied ships, a major decline from previous periods. The Battle for the Atlantic had taken an abrupt turn. On 21 April, Germany sent 51 U-boats to attack a 42-ship convoy transiting from Liverpool to Halifax. Designated Convoy ONS-5, the shipments were protected by nine naval escorts. U-boats sunk thirteen ships; escort vessels and Catalina flying boats sunk seven U-boats and badly damaged seven more. In total, for that month, Allied forces destroyed 43 German submarines. For the next six months, beginning in May 1943, the Allies dispatched 64 North Atlantic convoys with 3,546 ships to Great Britain. Not a single ship was sunk en route.
Faced with such massive losses, Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered his submarines into the Central Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. These were the areas used by the United States to transport men and materiel to the Mediterranean to support operations in Sicily and the India-Burma campaign. To counter Dönitz’ strategy, the U. S. Navy authorized anti-submarine groups, which included destroyers and CVEs, to operate apart from convoys. Between June – December 1943, Allied hunter-killer groups [Note 8] destroyed 31 German U-boats, including ten of the so-called resupply submarines. Admiral Dönitz’ strategy in the Central and South Atlantic fared no better than his North Atlantic scheme.
Hunter-killer battle groups were a team effort. CVEs used the F4F Wildcat fighter to look for submarines, and when spotted (either by air or radar), dispatched TBF Avengers with bombs, depth charges, and torpedoes. Allied destroyers and destroyer escorts served to screen the CVE hunter-killer groups [Note 9].
By the end of 1944, the Allied powers dominated the Atlantic. Dönitz moved his submarine force around, but the US & UK were reading the admiral’s mail. He ordered 58 U-boats to counter Allied landings at Normandy. German U-boats sank four Allied ships at the cost of 13 U-boats. After Normandy, Dönitz withdrew his submarines to Norwegian waters, which drew the Allies’ attention to the German battleship Tirpitz (a sister ship to Bismarck), which lay at anchor in Norway. Tirpitz did very little during World War II, but the ship did offer a potential threat to Allied navies. In early 1944, the Allies’ focus on Tirpitz deceived the German high command into believing that an Allied invasion of Norway was imminent. Once Tirpitz was sunk in November 1944, the Royal Navy felt comfortable sending the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indefatigable to the far east to join the British Pacific Fleet.
At the beginning of 1945, HMS Implacable was the only Allied fleet carrier in the Atlantic, supported by 12 British and 10 American CVEs. All other fleet carriers were sent to the Pacific Theater to finish the war with Japan even as the war with Germany continued. Thirty German U-boats attacked a 26-ship convoy in February 1945, supported by German Torpedo-Bombers, but aircraft from CVEs Campania and Nairana drove the U-boats away with no loss of merchantmen. Convoys bound for Russia continued through May 1945 [Note 10].
Marines in the Atlantic
We seldom read or hear about Marines who served in the Atlantic War. This is very likely because fewer than six-thousand Marines participated in Atlantic, North African, and European campaigns during World War II. Of course, before the war, US Marines served at various U. S. Embassies.
In 1941, about four-thousand Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade served in Iceland through February 1942. But given the expertise of U. S. Marines in amphibious warfare, the Navy Department assigned several senior Marine officers to serve as planners/advisors for invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. For example, Colonel Harold D. Campbell [Note 11], an aviator, was responsible for planning air support for the 6,000 man raid on Dieppe [Note 12]. Marines were also responsible for training four U. S. Army combat divisions in preparation for their amphibious assault of North Africa. In North Africa, Marines from ship’s detachments executed two raids in advance of the main invasion: one operation involved seizure of the old Spanish Fort at the Port of Oran; a second raid secured the airfield at Safi, Morocco. Both operations took place on 10 November 1942, the Marine Corps’ 167th birthday.
Fifty-one Marines served with the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), participating in behind the lines operations in Albania, Austria, Corsica, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, Sardinia, and Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945. See also: Marines and Operation Torch, Behind the Lines, and Every Climb and Place.
At sea, Marines assigned to detachments aboard battleships and heavy cruisers served as naval gun crews during the North African, Sicily, and Normandy invasions [Note 13]. Reminiscent of the olden days of sailing ships, Navy ship commanders sent their Marine sharpshooters aloft to explode German mines during Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) [Note 14]. On 29 August 1944, Marines from USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia participated in the Allied acceptance of the surrender of Marseilles and 700 German defenders.
When General Eisenhower assumed the mantle of Supreme Allied Commander, his staff consisted of 489 officers. Of these, 215 were American officers, including Colonel Robert O. Bare, who served on the staff of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Allied Naval Commander. Bare worked on the plan for the Normandy invasion. While serving with the British Assault Force, Bare was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. At the completion of his tour in Europe, Bare participated in the Palau and Okinawa campaigns. During the Korean War, Bare served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division.
Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk served Eisenhower as Commander, Western Naval Task Force. Assigned to Kirk’s staff was Marine Colonel Richard H. Jeschke [Note 15]. Jeschke served Kirk as an assistant planning officer in the operations staff. Of the total 1.5 million Americans serving in Europe, 124,000 were naval personnel. Fifteen-thousand of those served on combat ships, 87,000 assigned to landing craft, 22,000 assigned to various naval stations in the UK, and Marine Security Forces, United Kingdom. On 6 June 1944, Rear Admiral Don P. Moon (Commander, Force Uniform), frustrated with delays in landing operations, dispatched Colonel Kerr ashore to “get things moving.” Kerr diverted troops scheduled to land at Green Beach to Red Beach, which expedited the operation. Colonel Kerr credited the low casualty rates during the landing to the accuracy and rate of fire of naval artillery.
The landing at Omaha Beach was a different story. German defenses inflicted 2,000 casualties on a landing force of 34,000 men. Rear Admiral John L. Hall dispatched Colonel Jeschke and First Lieutenant Weldon James ashore at Omaha Beach to observe and report back to him the effectiveness of naval gunfire support from USS Texas.
Colonel John H. Magruder II, USMC served as the naval liaison officer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Many Marine officers were assigned to various posts because of their fluency in foreign languages. Magruder was fluent in Dutch. Major Francis M. Rogers served as an interpreter for General Edouard de Larminent, Commander, II French Corps. Rogers was fluent in both French and Portuguese.
- Allen, H. C. Britain and the United States. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955.
- Dawson, R. H. The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
- DeChant, J. A. Marine Corps Aviation Operations in Africa and Europe. Washington: Marine Corps Gazette, 1946.
- Donovan, J. A. Outpost in the North Atlantic. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1992.
- Edwards, H. W. A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa. Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994.
- Eisenhower Foundation. D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971.
- Morrison, S. E. The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
- Menges, C. A. History of U. S. Marine Corps Counter-intelligence. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1991.
- Roskill, S. The Navy at War, 1939-1945. Chatham, Kent, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham, 1960.
 Glorious was ordered to help evacuate aircraft during the UK’s withdrawal from Norway. The ship left the main body of the fleet when discovered by the German battleships. German 11-inch guns literally ripped Glorious apart. Alone, without aircraft aloft, and only 4-inch protective guns, Glorious had no chance of survival in a hostile sea. Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commanding Glorious, was a former submarine skipper. He decided to set out alone so that he could, once at sea, court-martial Wing Commander J. B. Heath, RN, and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Slessor, RN, who had refused to obey an order to attack shore targets. Heath admitted his refusal, but argued that his mission was ill-defined and his aircraft unsuited to the task.
 German submarines accounted for 70% of world-wide allied shipping losses.
 The agreement was also known as the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement.
 In a joint statement issued on 14 August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced their joint goals for the world following World War II. Later dubbed The Atlantic Charter, it established an outline of objectives that included dismantling the British Empire, the formation of NATO, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade. An American-British alliance was formed in 1939 with Roosevelt and Churchill secretly meeting eleven times. The Atlantic Charter made clear Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain, but in order to achieve the charter’s objectives, the United States would have to become a participant in the war. This could not happen, politically, unless there was first of all a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States into the war. From 1939 forward, Roosevelt did everything he could to cause the Japanese to attack the United States —which they did on 7 December 1941.
 Canada had a similar program they referred to as “Mutual Aid.”
 The Lend-Lease arrangement with China (suggested in 1940) involved a plan for 500 modern aircraft and enough war materials to supply thirty divisions of ground troops. With the Chinese civil war “on hold” until the defeat of China’s common enemy (Japan), Roosevelt dealt independently with both sides through General Joseph Stilwell. Neither Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong ever intended to return Lend-Lease equipment to the United States; rather, both sides intended to use these armaments on each other after war with Japan was settled. As it turned out, American Marines died from weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States when turned against them by Mao’s communist forces in 1945.
 OBVs were merchant ships pressed into service by the Royal Navy and converted into auxiliary carriers.
 The hunter-killer groups included US CVEs Card, Bogue, Core, Block Island, Santee, and HMS Tracker and Biter. USS Block Island was the only American CVE sunk in the Atlantic War.
 At a time when the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922) limited the construction of large battleships, the United States began building replacement ships for obsolete World War II destroyers. The Navy produced 175 Fletcher-Class destroyers (DD), designed as torpedo attack ships with a secondary mission of anti-submarine warfare and screening for capital ships. Destroyer Escorts (DE) were a smaller variant ship with specialized armaments capable of a smaller turning radius. Both ships were referred to as “tin cans” because they were lightly armored. They relied more on their speed for self-defense. During World War II, the U. S. Navy lost 97 destroyers and 15 destroyer-escorts.
 Convoys to Russia during the war involved 740 ships in 40 convoys, which provided 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft. German U-boats destroyed 97 of these merchantmen and 18 escorting warships. Germany lost three destroyers and 38 U-boats.
 Harold Denny Campbell (1895-1955) served in both the First and Second World War. On 6 December 1941, Colonel Campbell assumed command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Quantico, Virginia. In May 1942, he was personally selected by Lord Mountbatten to serve as a Marine Aviation advisor to the British Combined Staff. After promotion to Brigadier General in 1943, Campbell assumed command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Samoa and in 1944 commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in the Peleliu campaign.
 The raid was conducted by British and Canadian commandos. Tagged as Operation Jubilee, the purpose of the amphibious raid to test the feasibility of lightening raids for intelligence gathering and boosting the morale of “folks back home.” It was a much-needed learning experience because aerial and naval support was inadequate, the tanks were too heavy for a “lightening raid” and the Allies under-estimated the strength of German defenses. Within ten hours of the landing, the German army killed, wounded, or captured 3,623 British/Canadian commandos. The British also lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer. Operation Jubilee became a textbook lesson on what not to do in an amphibious operation.
 U. S. Navy battleships usually included a detachment of two-hundred Marines; battle cruisers usually had a detachment of around 80 Marines.
 I am trying to imagine a Marine sharpshooter 200 feet in the air on a pitching ship, shooting German anti-ship mines with any degree of accuracy. Damn.
 Colonel (later, Brigadier General) Jeschke (1894-1957) served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns: on Guadalcanal, and during the invasions of Sicily and Normandy.