This is another relatively recent (2012) Naval Institute Press book by prolific naval author Robert Stern. It explores the little-explored aspect of the Navy’s contribution to victory in World War II which was the Atlantic theater, and in so doing clarifies why it is little-explored.
The Navy’s role in the Atlantic war was a limited one initially, although not as limited as it should have been under principles of international law applying to neutral nations. The book explains why FDR drew the lines differently prior to U.S. entry in the war, and the practical effect that this had. It also explains the cooperation between the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy in beginning protecting shipping from U-boat attack.
One thing this book shows that none other I have read does is the extremely secondary nature of the theater in U.S. naval planning. The Atlantic only got the assets that the Navy could spare from the Pacific, and those assets started being raided after December 7, making this the first book I’ve read that make the Pacific Fleet in WW II look well-taken care of by comparison. The carrier Yorktown left immediately after the attack, and the three relatively modern New Mexico class battleships (they were WW I vintage but had been modernized during the interwar period) followed soon after, effectively making good the battleship losses sustained in the attack – a little-known fact. The Navy had eight battleships at Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred (with one refitting on the West Coast). Several weeks later it still had eight battleships in fighting trim in the Pacific, but they were stuck on the West Coast for lack of tankers and air cover.
After the U.S. began losing carriers at Coral Sea and Midway the Wasp – which had been making runs into the Mediterranean to deliver Spitfires and otherwise making herself useful – was also pulled out. The only carrier to remain – Ranger – was left because, as Stern points out – she wasn’t wanted in the Pacific. FDR himself apologized for her condition to Churchill on 16 April 1942 saying that she was best suited for use as a “ferry boat” for aircraft because “we are not proud” of her compartmentation and structural strength. Stern later identifies another problem – due to her hull shape she could only operate aircraft in a mild swell, which would have made her unsuited for operations in the Pacific. Nor was that all – due to her slow top speed she could not launch fully loaded aircraft without help from the wind. At one point in late 1943 an entire task force sat drumming its hands for 20 minutes off the Norwegian coast waiting for her to find a couple of knots of wind so she could launch her CAP and then strike aircraft. All this reminds me that someone needs to write on how the Navy learned enough from 1934 to 1940 that it could build an effective carrier (Wasp) using the same tonnage as the ineffective Ranger. Wasp was slightly slower and less well-protected that her Yorktown-class half-sisters, but she could and did operate with them effectively in August and September of 1942 off Guadalcanal. Ranger could not have, apparently.
The story of the Atlantic war that Stern tells is largely one of small engagements between destroyers, submarines and merchant shipping, where small U.S. ships sustained frequent losses due to German attacks. The surface engagements are there, but they are rare, usually small, and often between unevenly matched combatants.
Oddly, Stern does not cover at all a couple of significant U.S. Navy operations in the Atlantic. There is no mention of the new battleship Iowa carrying FDR to the conferences in Cairo and Teheran in late 1943. It was specifically forbidden by Admiral King from going out and looking for trouble while waiting on FDR’s return, but still – it was a major fleet unit and should have been noted.
And most significantly, while he covers the damage suffered by Navy vessels, especially destroyers, in great detail throughout the book, including at D-Day, he leaves out completely the major role played by the destroyers during the June 6 landings in battling shore emplacements at extreme risk to themselves. Stephen Ambrose addresses these incidents extensively in his D-Day book, but they are completely absent here, despite the high drama they represent. In many ways they were the high point of the Navy’s contribution to the shooting war in the theater, and their omission in a book largely missing high drama is an odd one.
Another omission is showing the increasing strength of the Atlantic fleet as the war went on. Stern makes clear at the beginning just how phenomenally weak the Navy’s forces in the Atlantic were, which is helpful, but doesn’t note quantitatively how that changed as the war went on. It would be something like telling the war in the Pacific beginning by noting the Navy’s limited supply of carriers in 1942, and then never noting that they were replaced four or five-fold with new construction. Having those additional assets changed the picture of what the U.S. could do, and there’s nothing comparable in this book with respect to the Atlantic theater. He does make mention of new construction, but not in a way that shows how the Navy’s ability to fight the war in the Atlantic changed between 1941 and 1945, and when the shortages in warships were remedied. Or whether they were remedied effectively or resulted in unnecessary units in some areas which excess construction occurred in others.
Overall an interesting book, but a highly specialized one, which tells a fairly small slice of the story. Other books provide a more comprehensive analysis of the Battle of the Atlantic (I don’t have a recommendation on this one), the Mediterranean campaigns (the first two Atkinson books) and the naval side of D-Day (Symonds’ Neptune). But if you want the ship by ship engagements that the Navy’s destroyers fought, with damage accounts, this is your source. The sources at the end are also going to be very valuable to you if you’re interested in this subject, since Stern identifies all the good books, references and cites for this area.