Chapter 12: The Antisubmarine Command
While the AAF was preparing its major air offensive against Hitler’s European stronghold, it was also engaged effectively, if somewhat anomalously, in hunting submarines. This enterprise, on which the newly activated Army Air Forces Antisubmarine Command (AAFAC) embarked in October 1942, * formed an integral part of the air effort in the west, for until the summer of 1943 the U-boats remained the gravest threat to that buildup of forces, both air and surface, on which the long-range air plans depended. Moreover, the aircraft on antisubmarine duty operated during that same period in a campaign calculated to complement exactly the bombing of the European bases by the RAF and the Eighth Air Force.† But the story of the AAFAC reaches beyond the strategic situation in the Atlantic. It involves a controversy concerning the control and use of long-range, land-based aircraft which raised certain fundamental issues of American military organization and which culminated in one of the key decisions made in that regard during the war. In this debate the AAFAC became a test case, with the result that its exploits, though by no means inconsiderable, are overshadowed by the larger issues of policy.
The new command faced large and complex problems of organization and build-up. Not only did it have to increase its effective strength as rapidly as possible but to meet its enlarged obligations it had also to inaugurate an entirely new training program, new supply procedures,
* The beginning of AAF antisubmarine operations and the steps leading up to the organization of this command have been discussed in Volume I, chap. 15.
† See above, pp. 246–54,311–17.
and a new administrative machinery for coordinating research in the tactics and techniques of antisubmarine warfare. The efforts of its predecessor and parent, the I Bomber Command, had been handicapped by the fact that the task allocated to it was presumably a temporary one.1 Now, as an officially constituted antisubmarine unit, the AAFAC was able to attack its problems with undivided energy, free at least from any immediate uncertainty as to its mission.
The command began operations with substantially the same units and equipment as had been employed against the U-boats by the I Bomber Command. Its squadrons were, on 20 November 1942, organized into two wings (the 25th and 26th Antisubmarine Wings) with headquarters at New York and Miami and operating in the Eastern and Gulf sea frontiers, respectively. Command headquarters remained in New York City. Equipment at first available proved seriously limited in the critical category of long-range bombardment. But steps were at once taken to remedy that situation. By the end of the following summer the command consisted of twenty-five squadrons, most of which were equipped with B-24’s modified for antisubmarine work.2
Immediately after its activation the AAFAC began to extend the range of its activities beyond the western Atlantic. In November 1942, two of its squadrons, flying radar-equipped B-24’s, moved to England. Later on, other units were sent overseas. In all, six squadrons served at one time or another in the eastern Atlantic areas – in the Bay of Biscay and Moroccan areas to be specific. Still other units operated in 1943 off Newfoundland and in the Caribbean.
This extension of AAF antisubmarine operations was dictated by a fundamental change in German strategy in the Atlantic, a change which took place at about the same time as the activation of the new command. Since May 1942 the Germans had been gradually withdrawing their U-boats from the U.S. coastal waters. By September they had abandoned the policy of attacking merchant shipping wherever it might be found in profitable lots and had begun to concentrate their forces in the Atlantic convoy lanes, which by the fall of that year were obviously carrying the materiel for a major offensive. Little enemy activity remained in the western Atlantic except in the still vulnerable Trinidad area and except for a few nuisance raiders sent to keep as large antisubmarine forces as possible tied down to patrolling the U.S. coast line.3 This shift of enemy strategy called for a similar shift in Allied
strategy; and since it was on the enemy’s part essentially a shift from offense to defense, it pointed toward a corresponding change in American policy from defense to a vigorous offense. During these late summer and fall months, moreover, the Allies were preparing for the TORCH invasion. That enterprise, it was clear, would need all possible protection against submarine attacks, not only in the convoy lanes from the United States to the United Kingdom but eventually in the waters off Gibraltar and northwestern Africa.
A review of antisubmarine measures was thus in order. Old questions regarding the strategy and organization of the antisubmarine campaign, never satisfactorily settled, began again to render unstable the relationship between the services and to imperil a vital sector of the Allied war effort. It again became a crucial question whether the extended antisubmarine war should proceed on essentially offensive lines, carrying the battle to the enemy as briskly as resources would permit, or whether it should consist primarily of extended convoy coverage. And it again became a subject for protracted debate whether the long-range, land-based aviation engaged in the campaign should be controlled ultimately by the Army or the Navy.
Although the AAFAC had been conceived originally as a unit whose permanent field of operations should be the U.S. Atlantic coast, the Gulf, and the Caribbean, it did not take the War Department long to recognize the need for extending its activities beyond the western Atlantic. Influenced no doubt by the impending African invasion, General Marshall and the rest of the U.S. Army command who were concerned in the matter had come to this conclusion as early as August 1942. In December the scope of AAFAC operations was officially broadened to include the destruction of submarines “wherever they may be operating in opposition to our war effort.”4
But it was clear that a mission thus enlarged would require a correspondingly enlarged force. Brig. Gen. Westside T. Larson, commanding general of AAFAC, felt that his force was quite inadequate. By January 1943 it consisted of 19 squadrons operating a total of 209 planes, of which only 20 were B-24’s, the type already recognized as the best weapon then available for the purpose.5 Steps, though not such long ones as Larson had anticipated, were accordingly taken to provide the necessary force. AAF Headquarters made it clear that the AAFAC was intended to be “a highly mobile striking force” which at no time would “become confined to a stabilized effort, “but would
operate “where operation is most profitable.” In view of these considerations its immediate objective had been limited to 228 B-24’s. In the absence of fully adequate forces, those that were available had to be utilized to the utmost, a process which would involve rapid movement from one threatened area to another. In other words, mobility was considered essential not only to the tactical and strategic situations but to the logistical as well.6
Implicit in these plans for expansion lay a doctrine of the offensive which had characterized AAF thinking ever since it had been turned in the direction of the war.7 The AAF was not, however, alone in its opinion. From the Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group (a subsidiary of the National Defense Research Council) and from the Joint U.S. Committee on New Weapons and Equipment came, at the turn of the year, opinions strongly in favor of an aerial offensive launched against the U-boats at sea in their areas of greatest concentration, a concept founded upon the remarkable searching and striking power of long-range, land-based aircraft. The Joint Committee advocated the creation of special groups organized for the specific purpose of killing submarines. Both agencies criticized the Navy policy of employing AAF antisubmarine aircraft defensively in convoy escort and in patrol of the home waters in which few if any submarines were still active.8
Certain other sources – Army sources – expressed qualified approval of the “killer-hunt” idea. For example, on the basis of a study made during the fall of 1942, Brig. Gen. C. W. Russell, Army liaison officer for antisubmarine warfare, pointed out some facts which he felt were inescapable. Defensive methods currently employed against the U-boats were obviously inadequate. It was equally obvious that “the more submarines there are operating, the more merchant vessels will be sunk.” All of which pointed to the adoption of “persistent offensive measures.” But he was not at all sure that action in the open sea was the type of offensive required. Many attacks had been made at sea, both by air and surface craft, but few had met with success. Equipment, he thought, fell short as yet of the lethal requirement for destroying s. Rather he advocated a project which enjoyed a considerable vogue during the latter part of 1942 and the early months of 1943 among both Army and Navy planners, namely, an attack on the submarines
in the yards where they were built and the bases at which they were serviced. In January he was able to cite in support of his estimate of the situation what he believed to be the very effective bombing of French submarine bases by the Eighth Air Force. Without specifically discrediting the air offensive at sea, he stressed first of all the bombing of yards and bases and secondarily the extension of long-range air cover for the vital North Atlantic convoy route.9
This seems also to have been the general tone of official AAF policy during the early weeks of 1943.10 But headquarters offices were admittedly groping in the dark. It was hard to tell just how effective the bombing of bases had been. And it was even harder to estimate exactly the effectiveness of the campaign against the at sea. Furthermore, the American forces had not as yet gained enough experience to serve as a basis for anything more than a reasoned conjecture. The British were able to draw on longer experience; yet even their experience seemed at the turn of the year to be still far from conclusive.
In February, however, the offensive against concentrations in the Bay of Biscay, in which the RAF Coastal Command had been engaged for some months, began to yield certain results the implications of which encouraged the exponents of an offensive at sea. The fact that two squadrons detached from the AAFAC took part in the February action in that area gave it added meaning to American observers. By the beginning of 1943 this offensive had become the pivotal point for the British air effort against the submarine. The theory upon which it was based was simple and logical. It had been known for a long time that most of the U-boats operating in the Atlantic were based on the west coast of France. In order to leave these ports for operations against Atlantic shipping and to return for repair and servicing, practically the entire enemy submarine fleet would, it was believed, have to pass through the Bay of Biscay. Thus there would always be a high concentration of U-boats in that relatively restricted area. Moreover, in crossing this transit area the U-boats would be obliged to spend an appreciable portion of their time on the surface in order to recharge their batteries. The bay, in other words, formed a bottleneck through which most submarines had to pass and in which they could not, as in the open sea, choose the time and place of their appearance on the surface. It therefore appeared to RAF Coastal Command that a sufficient air force properly and consistently employed in these waters would be
enough eventually to strangle the enemy submarine campaign, for the Germans could not abandon the bay ports for bases in Norway without running the risks of a similar air concentration in a similar transit area off Scotland and Ireland.11
The chief problem was to secure the necessary long-range force and to balance it so that the area could be effectively patrolled both by day and by night. It did not have to be a large force. One British analyst estimated that forty long-range aircraft adequately equipped with a radar device which the Germans could not detect would be enough to cause the enemy to abandon the bay ports. It was in this category of long-range, radar-equipped planes that the two AAFAC squadrons made their initial contribution12
Originally earmarked for service with the Twelfth Air Force in connection with TORCH and in the fall and winter dispatched to England to be trained in Coastal Command methods, the 1st and 2nd Antisubmarine Squadrons* soon found their plans altered. To carry on the bay offensive the British needed long-range aircraft, for only long-range flying could break the endurance of the and with any certainty catch the submarine on the surface. And it needed the ASV-10 radar with which the American planes were equipped, for the British ASV-2 equipment had been seriously compromised by German detecting devices. It had accordingly been decided to use the two American B-24 squadrons to supplement the few available long-range British planes13 A plan was evolved early in 1943 according to which an area in the bay, through which it was estimated the enemy would have to pass, would for a limited period be subjected to concentrated and systematic air patrol. The long-range aircraft were given the more distant part of this area, thus allowing the medium equipment to be concentrated in the inner area14
In view of the then chronic shortage of aircraft and the necessarily intense effort of this operation, the patrol had been planned to continue for only nine days. And it had been timed to coincide with an anticipated influx of U-boats returning from two convoy battles. The period of actual action was 6 to 15 February 1943. Results confirmed the wisdom of the plan. Fourteen sightings resulted in nine attacks in the outer area. Only four sightings and one attack were made in the inner area. Of special interest to American observers was the fact that of the
* These units were subsequently organized into the 480th Antisubmarine Group under the command of Col. Jack Roberts.
contacts made in the outer area, 90 per cent were by American aircraft, a record which elicited a hearty commendation from the British command under whose control they had operated.15
This brief campaign had given some indication of what an organized offensive against the U-boats at sea might do when judiciously directed. It had also given some indication of the way in which the B-24’s could be employed in such an action. The evidence in both instances pointed to the wisdom of using the Army planes in just such an offensive. Further encouragement for emphasis on an aggressive sea-search attack policy came from an exhaustive study of the submarine situation prepared early in March by AC/AS, Intelligence. This report pointed out that the effect of air patrol could not be measured entirely in terms of U-boats sunk, that, in fact, it was quite possible to limit submarine action simply by such harrying tactics as had been employed in the Bay of Biscay, where air antisubmarine forces, although they sank relatively few of the submarines they attacked, had nonetheless managed to give the enemy craft such a bad time in the transit area that their effectiveness in the critical convoy lanes was thought to have been sharply reduced.16
By March, then, AAF antisubmarine policy had become relatively clear. It advocated an increased air effort in which the bombing of submarine bases, air cover for convoys, and an independent air offensive each had its own peculiar function, but a function not to be emphasized at the expense of the others. But if the AAF planners had reached some agreement as to the employment of the Army antisubmarine aircraft, the same could not be said of the higher echelons. By March the chronic disagreement on this point between Army and Navy was, in fact, nearing a climax.
During February the Germans had launched their spring offensive. Merchant vessel sinkings, after having decreased materially during December and January, took a sudden upward turn, especially along the North Atlantic convoy route. The situation called for drastic measures, but there remained a radical disagreement regarding the nature of such measures. The AAF continued to advance its doctrine of the independent air offensive. Naval authorities, in particular Admiral King, who remained unimpressed by the Biscay offensive and by the idea of “killer groups” in general, continued to invest their hopes in defensive measures and stressed the need for more Army B-24’s to operate from Newfoundland in order to cover that heretofore especially
dangerous leg of the journey from American ports to Europe17 Given unlimited supplies of trained men and specialized equipment, both sides might easily have justified their plans, each as part of a coordinated campaign. The disagreement was not absolute. Rather it was a matter of emphasis. But given strictly limited resources, the plan to which primary emphasis was given would, it was clear, be implemented only at the expense of the other. And so, lacking the seeds of compromise, the discussion promised little in the way of a settlement satisfactory to both sides.18
The Debate over Control
Parallel with the debate over doctrine ran a discussion of organization. The doctrinal issue as it unfolded suggested that some reorganization of command would be needed. The nature of the antisubmarine war remained such as to demand as nearly absolute cooperation between the commands and services involved as was humanly possible. It was the old story over again, reminiscent of the days before the AAFAC was activated.19 The German submarine fleet, under a single commander and deployed within a large strategic plan, possessed the great advantage of flexibility; and, being flexible, it was able to retain a considerable degree of initiative in the Atlantic even after it had been forced by considerations beyond its control to concentrate its efforts defensively against the “invasion” convoys. In contrast, the antisubmarine forces suffered from complicated and divided command and from a wasteful duplication of effort.20
Little attempt had been made to standardize communications, intelligence reporting, training, or tactical doctrine, either among the nations concerned or between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. As a consequence, each agency felt that, in order to discharge its obligation, it would have to plan a much larger program than would have been required in a strictly integrated plan. Finally, no single commander existed, either for all Allied forces or for those of the United States in particular, whose sole responsibility it was to prosecute antisubmarine warfare and to move antisubmarine forces as the tactical situation indicated. Within the U.S. forces, this problem presented itself in especially aggravated form. Although the Navy exercised operational control over all American antisubmarine operations, it had as yet no integrated system for exercising that control. As in the spring of 1942, the job still fell largely to the various sea frontier commanders, who had other
responsibilities and who served under the over-all control of the commander in chief, U.S. Fleet, whose office had also many other things to do.21
Furthermore, the U.S. Navy tended to define the “operational control” it exercised over Army air units in terms of detailed supervision through lower-echelon commands rather than of broad policy which would leave day-to-day operations largely up to the air commanders as was the practice governing RAF Coastal Command under operational control of the Royal Navy. Ever since it had become evident in the summer of 1942 that the AAF was likely to be engaged in antisubmarine warfare on a more than temporary basis, those in charge of its antisubmarine activities had pointed to Coastal Command as the shining example of inter-service cooperation. Under the general control of the Royal Navy, Coastal Command enjoyed all the freedom it required in developing its tactics and techniques and in coordinating its daily operations. To the U.S. Navy the AAF units remained temporary additions to its forces, operating “in lieu of”† Navy squadrons; and it consequently treated them as it would its own units, with perhaps a slight difference in that it continued to doubt the ability of Army aviation to navigate over water.
The AAFAC complained bitterly of the maladjustments it felt resulted from the existing system of operational control. Organized, trained, and equipped under the administration of the AAF, and indoctrinated with the bias of the parent headquarters in favor of the independent air offensive, it failed to fit into the Navy system. Its flyers resented having to work with naval commanders who, they felt, did not always understand their training, equipment, or tactical doctrine. Most of the AAFAC squadrons, moreover, remained in the western Atlantic areas long after the U-boats had for all practical purposes left those waters; and their crews, flying thousands of hours without sight of a submarine, felt their morale sink lower by the month as they heard with envy of the action their fellows were seeing in the eastern Atlantic. As for the two squadrons in England, their position was anomalous. Without wing organization in which they might have found some degree of
* See Vol. I, pp. 540–41. Cf. S.E. Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. I, The Battle of the Atlantic pp. 237–47.
† See Vol. I, p. 540, for a discussion of the agreement known as “Joint Action of the Army and Navy, 1935“ in which appears this principle of employing the forces of one service “in lieu of” those of the other.
autonomy, they had to operate on a detached service status under a foreign (though basically very congenial) command; and when in March 1943 they moved to North Africa they had to cope with a bitterly disputed area jurisdiction. Any attempt to move the AAFAC units involved slow liaison between War and Navy departments, or even between the Allied commands.22
All agencies concerned recognized the need for some sort of reorganization of the antisubmarine effort; and in January the subject became the object of joint study in the War and Navy departments.23 The plan presented by the AAF planners involved an increased emphasis on organizational and technical developments which would increase the effectiveness of action against the submarines at sea. Each of the major Allied nations concerned in the antisubmarine war, it was suggested, should create a task force under a single commander who would control all national anti- operations. All national air and surface forces (the latter including carriers) should be placed under an air and a surface commander, respectively. All Allied antisubmarine forces in the Atlantic should be placed under one commander who would have no other responsibility; and this over-all commander should be given a deputy for the air and one for the surface forces operating in the Atlantic.24
This official AAF position, although less radical than some (including the recommendation made in January by the Joint U.S. Committee on New Weapons and Equipment),25 met consistent opposition from the Navy planners, who maintained their position in regard both to organization and to underlying strategic concepts and who appeared especially concerned to avoid any sort of agreement which would restrict the right of the Navy to reorganize the forces within its responsibility according to its own principles. The result was a compromise paper which, in order to keep off the toes of either party, lacked specific recommendations and was therefore of little practical value.26 On 30 April 1943, after nearly four months of discussion, this inconclusive paper was approved by the Joint and Combined Chiefs of Staff “in principle” and passed on to the interested agencies for “guidance” and “appropriate action.” More positive action had been forestalled by Admiral King, who feared that the effect would be to restrict rather than to improve antisubmarine operations.27
During the spring of 1943, then, the problem of organization was being weighed without more result than an uneasy agreement that
some reform, in the direction of closer integration of authority, would be desirable. Meanwhile, the rugged logic of events was fast outrunning the more academic thinking that prevailed in the conferences. By March the situation in the North Atlantic had become so grave that President Roosevelt, on the 18th, wrote as follows to General Marshall and Admiral King: “Since the rate of sinking of our merchant ships in the North Atlantic during the past week has increased at a rate that threatens seriously the security of Great Britain, and therefore both ‘Husky’ and ‘Bolero, ‘ it seems evident that every available weapon must be used at once to counteract the enemy submarine campaign.”28
Both Army and Navy high commands had come to about the same conclusion, and every effort was made during the spring of 1943 to strengthen the antisubmarine striking force. In accordance with the recommendations of the Atlantic Convoy Conference (a meeting early in March of British, Canadian, and American authorities concerned with the antisubmarine war), the Combined Chiefs of Staff undertook to provide extended air coverage for the critical leg of the northern convoy route that lay some hundreds of miles to the east of Newfoundland.29 Specifically, they committed their respective countries to supply by 1 July 1943 the necessary VLR aircraft according to the following:–
This was generally admitted to be a minimum effort, calculated to do little more than strengthen the defensive system along the North Atlantic convoy route. Extended offensive operations would obviously, require a still larger force of VLR planes. In particular the Bay of Biscay offensive, if pressed to the extent urged since March by the British, would require 160 VLR, ASV-equipped aircraft over and above the 100 planes being used in April by RAF Coastal Command in that campaign.30 Such offensive operations had always received much support within the AAF, especially by the AAFAC, and through April and May it was receiving increasing support from the U.S. Navy.31 The problem was to secure the aircraft. Any increase in VLR forces would, as the British pointed out, have to come from American production of B-24’s; it was also clear that additional B-24’s for antisubmarine
activity would have to come primarily from AAF allocations. Although the Navy had by 1 April 1943 received 112 B-24’s from Army contracts, * it had employed them primarily in the Pacific, and the decision to use 60 to reinforce the Atlantic convoy routes appeared to be the maximum diversion the Navy could make from its Pacific operations. The AAF also had commitments elsewhere. The bomber offensive against Germany had by 1943 been given an unassailable and vital place in Allied strategy, and its success depended entirely on the provision of sufficient heavy bomber forces to the Eighth Air Force. By midsummer the build-up of the Eighth was already over 200 heavy bombers behind schedule,32 and General Arnold was inclined to examine any further diversion from this priority campaign with an extremely critical eye.33 By April of 1943, however, the submarine situation had become so critical that General Arnold, under some pressure from Secretary Stimson and the War Department, took action not only to reinforce the North Atlantic route by sending additional B-24’s to Newfoundland but to secure such increased allocation of B-24’s for the AAFAC as to give that organization by the end of the year a total of 405 planes.†34
There remained the problem of making the antisubmarine machinery, thus fueled, operate both effectively and economically. And that meant, in circumstances then existing, some radical reorganization, a prospect which discussions at the highest level had rendered discouraging in the extreme. Nevertheless, General Marshall sought in the middle of April to revive the flagging effort to reform the antisubmarine campaign.35
In this effort he enjoyed the strong support of Secretary Stimson36 and Dr. Edward L. Bowles. The latter, who had worked in the closest cooperation with Mr. Stimson as special consultant and remained throughout its history the sage of the Army antisubmarine program, had in March stated what might be termed the strictly logical Army policy with regard to the control of VLR aircraft engaged in the anti-war. Dr. Bowles’ recommendations arose from four fundamental assumptions: (1) that the problem of antisubmarine warfare, since on it depended the Army mission in Europe, was essentially an
* For full figures on B-24 deliveries to the Navy see Volume I, p. 551.
† This would mean twelve B-24’s for each of the twenty-five combat squadrons and for the two OTU squadrons, plus an additional 25 per cent reserve.
Army problem; (2) that offensive tactics, both against the submarine breeding grounds and on the open sea, could alone reduce the fleet and therefore the mounting menace to vital Allied shipping; (3) that the long-range, land-based bomber was the most useful weapon then available in this offensive strategy; and (4) that an effective use of this weapon depended on a closely coordinated and independent antisubmarine command. Together, these assumptions led to certain conclusions concerning organization. First of all, antisubmarine forces, whether surface craft or aircraft, Army or Navy, should be consolidated under one head who should have the freedom of action and the status of a theater commander. Secondly, the man to whom the responsibility would be entrusted for the safety of supply to the overseas troops ought to be an Army man, for “the is primarily a weapon against supply, not against naval fleets.” Finally, since “past difficulties have in no small measure stemmed from a failure to realize the effectiveness of air attack on the , “the new commander and the new organization should be such as to give to the air arm “the greatest possible mobility and freedom of initiative.”37 Secretary Stimson gave this analysis by Dr. Bowles his hearty endorsement and declared himself against any compromise arrangement which would not allow “full operational freedom to the Army in the command of killer planes.”38 General Marshall appears, however, to have recognized the futility of proposing a plan of organization as favorable to direct Army control as that toward which Bowles’ argument would have led. In a memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dated 19 April 1943, he declared himself strongly of the opinion that the ultimate solution for the employment of the air arm in antisubmarine operations “particularly, and possibly exclusively as applied to VLR aircraft” could only be found in a unified command responsible for that type of operation. If such an authority could be set up, the result would be to override the limiting effect of the system of naval districts and sea frontiers under which the air arm had been forced to operate. If such authority could not be determined, he felt “we will tend to limp along under unavoidable difficulties that always exist when a new procedure has to develop under normal staff routine and operational organization.” He therefore proposed that the U.S. shore-based air forces on antisubmarine duty in the Atlantic be organized to provide “highly mobile striking forces” for offensive action in addition to convoy coverage “in certain critical
areas”* and that this command operate directly under the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a manner similar to that of a theater commander. Moreover, in view of the urgency of the situation, General Marshall added that the Army and Navy should each provide VLR B-24’s for this command at the rate of twelve per month during May, June, and July – this in addition to the seventy-five Army and sixty Navy VLR aircraft currently allocated to the antisubmarine campaign.39
By this proposal General Marshall hoped to place the joint air force above questions of rival jurisdiction. By vesting the control of his proposed command in the JCS themselves, with COMINCH as their executive,40 he left the way open for the appointment by the JCS of an immediate commander most suitable for the job. According to policy then in the process of formulation41 command of any joint force would be settled on the basis of the nature of the mission to be performed and the single commander would be designated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now it did not take abnormal insight to see that in view of this policy a very strong argument could and would be made for an Army Air Forces officer as commander of the VLR aircraft on antisubmarine duty. For the moment, General Marshall was apparently willing to leave that point unstated, hoping that, as soon as the policy governing joint commands was approved, the problem would resolve itself.
Navy authorities no doubt arrived at this conclusion themselves, for action on General Marshall’s proposal was deferred pending the receipt of a report being prepared by the Navy Department and bearing on the same issue.42 On 1 May, Admiral King presented an alternative plan.43 He proposed to set up at once in the Navy Department an antisubmarine command to be known as the Tenth Fleet and to have jurisdiction over “all existing antisubmarine activities of the U.S. Fleet.” The commander of the Tenth Fleet would have direct command over all sea frontiers, using frontier commanders as task force commanders, and he would exercise control over all LR and VLR aircraft engaged in the work. In order to avoid duplication, initial training in Army antisubmarine aviation would be given by the AAFAC under guiding directives prepared by the commander of the Tenth Fleet. Maintenance of Army antisubmarine aviation would also appropriately remain a
* A similar proposal made a fortnight earlier by Secretary Stimson had been vetoed by Secretary Knox and Admiral King as tactically unsound. (Ltr., Stimson to Knox, 1 April 1943; memo for CS from OC/S, in JCS 268.)
function of the commanding general of the AAF. A logistical plan would be evolved to permit the greatest possible mobility on the part of the air units.
This proposed coordinating agency, this novel “fleet without a ship, “provided only a partial answer to the problem. It vested responsibility for antisubmarine and related operations in a commander who did not have competing claims to his attention. That at least was a step in the right direction. But it did not in any way meet General Marshall’s recommendations. It placed shore-based air power under the control of the Navy rather than of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and it left the system of sea frontier commands as the basic machinery for the employment of the air arm. Indeed, to AAF observers, it seemed that the only real change involved in Admiral King’s plan was that COMINCH would emerge with increased control over AAF antisubmarine forces and the right to use Army bases.44 It also appeared that Admiral King envisaged the possible expansion of the Tenth Fleet’s jurisdiction beyond the Atlantic to include the South and Southwest Pacific. This jurisdiction would actually involve the authority to allocate antisubmarine aircraft and vessels between Atlantic and Pacific areas, a prerogative hitherto resting strictly with the Joint Chiefs.45
Although the plan failed to meet his full approval, General Marshall was willing to compromise. He recognized that, according to the pending decision on command of joint forces (JCS 263/2/0, dated 20 April 1943) which would determine such matters on the basis of the nature of the mission to be performed, the Navy had prior interest in antisubmarine warfare in general. He was therefore willing to accept the Tenth Fleet even at the expense of removing antisubmarine operations from the province of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to that of the Navy Department. And since the air component would be a joint force it should be operated within the Tenth Fleet. But the same policy regarding joint forces would also govern the command of the joint land-based air force. Not only was the antisubmarine mission of special importance to the Army but the problems of bases, air transport, maintenance, and supply were all essentially Army problems. Moreover, with a majority of the VLR bombers actually employed against the submarines and with some 400 VLR bombers scheduled for this mission by the end of the year, the Army could claim a certain priority of interest in the problem of organization.* General Marshall therefore requested that
* See above, pp. 387–88, and below, pp. 392–93.
an Army air officer be given command of the VLR and LR aircraft engaged in antisubmarine warfare.46 This proposal, touching as it did the very heart of the controversy, continued to be the subject of lively discussion. Meanwhile, on 19 May, Admiral King proclaimed the existence of the Tenth Fleet, operating under his direct command for the purpose of exercising unity of control over U.S. antisubmarine operations in that part of the Atlantic under U.S. strategic control.47
The AAF against the U-Boat
While the organization of the antisubmarine campaign was being discussed at the higher levels, the AAFAC was busily engaged in gathering strength and using it to the best of its ability against the enemy. By the latter part of May the command was able to report 114 operational planes in the VLR and VLR (E) categories. Of these, 104 were radar-equipped, and of this number 72 were described as B-24 VLR (E). Only one squadron of the ten long-range units by that time in operation was equipped with B-17’s. The rest of the twenty-five antisubmarine squadrons were equipped with B-25’s and other medium bombardment types.48 It was a source of some bitterness to the AAFAC personnel that only two of its long-range squadrons had as yet been given the opportunity to serve overseas.
Meanwhile, also, the Battle of the Atlantic had reached a crisis. The Allied invasion of North Africa and the increasingly effective convoys that shepherded American forces to the British Isles had thrown the German fleet on the strategic defensive. Admiral Doenitz, now in complete command of the German navy, recognized the critical importance of the North Atlantic convoy route and prepared during the fall and winter of 1942 to make a decisive counterattack in that area. His hope lay in the gap in mid-ocean, amounting to a few hundred miles, which lay beyond the reach of shore-based aircraft as they were then deployed. Toward this gap, early in 1943, he directed the bulk of the fleet currently operating in the Atlantic. As many as seventy to eighty submarines operated at one time in that area, organized in wolf-packs, a tactic which constituted the enemy’s most effective countermeasure to the convoy system. Working systematically and in concert, these North Atlantic wolf-packs launched a desperate attack on Allied shipping; and so successful were they that shipping losses mounted to 750, 000 tons during the first three weeks of March.49
The situation called for immediate action. In particular it called for
more VLR aircraft and additional aircraft carriers to operate over the middle portion of the convoy route. The critical nature of that route had been recognized long before the spring offensive of 1943. But by the middle of March the situation remained serious in the extreme. Only a handful of medium-range planes were being employed from Greenland and Iceland, and a squadron (the 20th) of AAFAC B-17’s, although limited in their range as compared with the B-24, had for some time been flying long-range patrols from Newfoundland. The Navy had only one aircraft carrier in the area as yet. Although Army, Navy, and Canadian air bases were believed capable of supporting B-24’s at the rate of seventy-five in Newfoundland, forty in Iceland, and six (for limited operation only) in Greenland, existing plans provided for no such numbers. For Newfoundland the AAF planned eighteen B-24’s by 1 June, and the U.S. Navy hoped to have twelve in that area by the same date. The Navy did, however, expect to employ two additional escort carriers (CVE’s) in April. Early in March the Atlantic Convoy Conference had proposed that the Army’s antisubmarine command operate three squadrons of B-24’s from Newfoundland. General Arnold was concerned to implement the proposal fully and as soon as possible.50
Finally, after months of negotiations, involving Army, Navy, British, and Canadian representatives51 a detachment of the 25th Antisubmarine Wing of the AAFAC left New York, under the command of Col. Howard Moore, to establish a headquarters at St. John’s, Newfoundland. On 3 April this detachment began operations, using the control room of the combined Royal Canadian Air Force headquarters. The 19th Antisubmarine Squadron also arrived in March, and the 6th Antisubmarine Squadron a few weeks later. Both were stationed at Gander Lake with the 20th Squadron. Both became operational during April.52 By that time the battle in the North Atlantic was already reaching its peak of intensity. All three squadrons saw brisk action during April, both on convoy missions and during offensive sweeps in the broad areas ahead of convoys. But after the concerted attack on a convoy known as ONS-5 (28 April to 5 May) in which the U-boats sank twelve Allied merchant vessels at a considerable cost to themselves, the Germans began to withdraw their forces from the North Atlantic.53 During May the waters off Newfoundland provided ever poorer hunting for the antisubmarine aircraft. Late in June 1943, their services no longer required in Newfoundland, the three Army squadrons
(the 4th had replaced the 20th early in that month) were ordered to England, where they were organized into the 479th Antisubmarine Group, still under the command of Colonel Moore.54
By June 1943 convoys were passing safely through lanes where a few weeks previously they had undergone the severest punishment. On 30 June, Prime Minister Churchill announced publicly that hardly a single Allied ship was sunk in the North Atlantic between 17 May and the end of June. To this spectacular victory the specially equipped VLR Liberators employed by the British, American, and Canadian air forces had contributed decisively. In March and April they had been reinforced by carrier aircraft from the new escort carriers. Despite the slowness with which the Allied force had become operational, its combined strength together with its microwave radar equipment again forced the enemy to change his tactics. Of assistance, to be sure, had been the increased scale of Allied operations in the Mediterranean.55
The withdrawal of the U-boats from the North Atlantic once more pointed to the strategic importance of the Bay of Biscay transit areas. There alone, the British felt, could the enemy be located with any degree of certainty after this change in his strategic plan. They accordingly urged the launching of an Allied offensive on an unprecedented scale in the bay and its approaches.56 The AAF was reluctant to increase its commitment to the antisubmarine campaign since it was evident that any such increase would have to be made at the expense of the ETO heavy bombing operations. But by June it was also becoming clear that the AAFAC squadrons operating in Newfoundland could now be released for operations in the Bay of Biscay.57 Support for this solution came from Admiral King, who had hitherto opposed the use of VLR aircraft in a purely offensive campaign.58 In July the 479th Antisubmarine Group began its operations from the United Kingdom under the operational control of RAF Coastal Command.59
The British meanwhile had gone ahead with plans for a concentrated offensive in the Bay of Biscay. It was decided early in June to concentrate in the area all available aircraft not required for close escort of convoys, and to reinforce the air forces by surface support groups withdrawn from the convoy routes. The resulting joint striking force was deployed in two new areas in the bay. Reinforcement in the extreme southern waters came from the Allied forces at Gibraltar and the Moroccan Sea Frontier. This newly intensified offensive met with early success. The enemy attempted to counter it by sending the
U-boats through the bay in close groups of two, three, or more and by instructing them to fight back with antiaircraft fire when attacked. This policy of fighting back rather than submerging when attacked by patrol planes had been in use since the Germans began their desperate attempt in 1943 to regain the ascendancy which had been theirs in the fall of 1942. It undoubtedly made air attack more hazardous than it had been, but it did not prevent attacks; and, in fact, it presented a target which the steady-nerved aircrew knew how to exploit.60
This was the campaign in which the 479th Group became engaged in July. On the 13th it flew its first operational missions.61 Not long afterward (29 July) Air Marshal Slessor spoke of the “most welcome reinforcement” provided by the group.62 The 479th had, indeed, taken an extremely active part in that campaign. During the period from 13 July to 2 August, aircraft of the group sighted twelve submarines and attacked seven of them. Of those attacked, three are known to have been sunk, one with the aid of RAF aircraft. The missions of the 479th Group were for the most part executed in the face of determined countermeasures. The U-boats struck back with a degree of intensity that is believed to have caused the loss of one B-24. More serious was the opposition offered by enemy aircraft – and equally indicative of the desperate plight of the submarine fleet. The American flyers encountered the twin-engine Ju-88’s throughout the period of operations, often in relatively large groups. The average number of enemy aircraft per encounter amounted to upwards of six. Considering the fact that the B-24’s normally flew singly, it is surprising that no more than two were lost as a result of air engagements. Even so, of course, the strain on the crews was great. They were instructed to avoid air combat whenever possible, but in many instances the enemy pressed the attack too vigorously to be avoided.63
In July, 26 per cent of all attacks made on U-boats were made in the bay, and the B-24’s of AAFAC operating in that area had to fly an average of only fifty-four hours per sighting. The situation altered radically in August. Only seven damaging or destructive attacks were made in that month, as compared to twenty-nine for July. Sightings fell off proportionately. The 479th Antisubmarine Group spent most of its time in August combating enemy aircraft rather than in attacking s. Yet throughout the month of August, plotting boards regularly carried from ten to twenty U-boats in the area, which was approximately the same concentration as characterized the previous month.
Nor can the lack of sightings be charged to any relaxation of the offensive effort. The failure to sight the enemy in August may be explained in part as the result of the installation of radar by the Germans in their submarines. Increasingly, the aircraft on antisubmarine patrol found that the “blips” disappeared from their radar screens at average distances of eight or nine miles, indicating that the enemy was detecting patrol aircraft at safe distances. The Germans also altered their tactics considerably in order to cut down the heavy losses sustained by them in July. They abandoned the disastrous practice of remaining surfaced and fighting back during air attacks and resorted again to an over-all policy of evasion, hugging the Spanish coast line so as to confuse radar contact and surfacing only at night in that farthest-south part of the bay which lay at the extreme limit of the English Wellingtons equipped with Leigh-lights for night flying.64
Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the tactics to which the Germans resorted – fighting back in July, hugging the Spanish coast in August, and using extremely heavy air cover in both months – are themselves eloquent evidence of the effectiveness of the bay offensive. Moreover, the effect of antisubmarine activity cannot be determined entirely by the amount of damage directly inflicted on the enemy. The constant patrolling of the bay forced the submarines to proceed so slowly through the transit area that their efficiency in the open sea was greatly reduced and the morale of their crews seriously impaired. Yet even in terms of submarines sunk, the bay campaign inflicted heavy loss on the enemy. During the thirty-day period from 3 July to 2 August all Allied antisubmarine forces sank sixteen U-boats in the Bay of Biscay and its approaches, or over 39 per cent of all Axis submarines sunk by Allied effort during that period. Of these sixteen, all but one were accounted for by aircraft. Of these successful air attacks three are credited to the B-24’s of the 479th Antisubmarine Group. The rest were the result of British action.65
Closely related to the Bay of Biscay offensive was the action in the Moroccan Sea Frontier. In fact, the two at times overlapped, aircraft from the latter reinforcing the campaign in the transit area, at least in its most southerly reaches. In any event, the antisubmarine warfare in the approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar was always likely to be affected by strategy in the Bay of Biscay, probably even more than other Atlantic areas, all of which were affected in one way or another. As the summer bay offensive reached its climax in late June and early
July, outbound U-boats tended more and more to skirt the Spanish coast to Cape Finisterre and from there to deploy in a southwesterly direction toward the waters between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. The result was a concentration, during the first two weeks of July, of enemy submarines in that area.66 The object of this maneuver, in addition to avoiding patrolling forces in the bay, was apparently to create a screen off the coast of Portugal to intercept supplies and reinforcements for the Allied campaign then being developed in the Mediterranean. It was a bold move for it brought the U-boats within range of antisubmarine aircraft operating from Northwest Africa and Gibraltar, and it coincided with the brief and desperate attempt of the submarines in the bay to counter the air offensive by antiaircraft fire. The enemy also relied on the relative ease with which air protection could be provided in the form of Ju-88’s and the longer-range FW 200s.67
It was in these waters that the 480th Group became engaged during the month of July 1943 in a brief but very effective campaign. After arriving at Port Lyautey in March 1943, where it flew under the operational control of the Moroccan Sea Frontier, it found in the approaches to Gibraltar a field well suited to its capabilities.68 Since the Allied invasion of Africa in November 1942, the German submarine fleet had made every effort to harry Allied convoys heading for Northwest Africa. At first they had met with some success. Soon, however, Allied aircraft made hunting near Casablanca too costly for the U-boats to continue, and they were forced to retire to positions 400 miles or more from the strategic shore area. After January 1943 all merchant vessel sinkings occurred more than 600 miles from the nearest aircraft base. From January until March the U-boats stayed beyond the range of the medium-range, land-based aircraft then available to the Allies. Although the latter flew thousands of hours, they made few if any sightings. Shortly after the arrival of the Army B-24’s in March several sightings were made by those long-range planes, mostly in the outer waters beyond the normal coverage provided by the U.S. Navy’s two PBY squadrons.
Thus it became the special task of the 480th Group to carryon long distance patrols, making maximum use of its SCR-517 radar equipment. Normally it sent out three planes a day on patrol missions extending west and north often to the prudent limit of endurance which was set in the neighborhood of 1,050 nautical miles. During the months of its stay at Port Lyautey the 480th Group made roughly ten times as many
sightings per hour of flying time as the Navy PBY’s operating from the same bases at the same time. This record resulted in large part from the extra range possessed by the B-24’s. But it also stemmed in part from the superior efficiency of their radar equipment which accounted for over half the sightings made. Moreover, upwards of 90 per cent of these sightings were made within eighty miles of a submarine position, as plotted by the local control room; and no unthreatened convoy (defined as one having no plotted U-boats within 100 miles, or within 100 miles of its course for the ensuing twenty-four hours) was attacked. Both these facts, the AAFAC believed, vindicated its preference for a systematic program of independent search and attack as against the use of B-24’s for the essentially defensive work of convoy coverage.69 At first Colonel Roberts of the 480th Group had been seriously concerned lest the Navy’s emphasis on convoy should vitiate the usefulness of his VLR striking force. However, rather by informal agreement with understanding naval commands than according to official Navy direction, the group was given increasingly substantial freedom in planning its missions.70
So it was, then, that the 480th Group was able, by virtue of its training, equipment, and tactical doctrine, to take an effective part in the antisubmarine campaign of early July. Flying sometimes as far north as Cape Finisterre, its B-24’s supplemented the antisubmarine campaign then at its peak in the Bay of Biscay. During the ten days from the 5th to the 15th of July they made fifteen sightings and thirteen attacks which resulted in the destruction of three submarines and in damage to several more. In a number of instances the U-boats fought back as they were currently in the habit of doing in the bay. After this decisive, if local, defeat in the waters off Portugal, they abandoned their policy of active defense and resorted once more to diving whenever they became aware of an approaching aircraft, which in part accounts for the lack of sightings made by the 480th Group during the remainder of the summer.71
It was also after this brisk offensive that the Germans began to patrol the area with heavily armed multiengine planes. As in the bay campaign it was this resistance in the air that proved more disturbing to the antisubmarine aircraft than that from the U-boats themselves. Here, however, it was not alone the relatively short-range Ju-88 that opposed the Americans but the powerful, four-engine FW 200 which, in many ways, was comparable to the B-24 itself. These big planes began to
appear in August, and from that point on the crews of the 480th Group found their missions to be increasingly hazardous. On 17 August one B-24 encountered two of the German FW 200s and there ensued at minimum altitude a fantastic dogfight between the giants, in the course of which the Liberator had two of its engines knocked out and its wing set afire. Before ditching, however, its crew was able to shoot down one of the enemy and to damage the other so badly that it very probably failed to regain its base. Seven of the American crew survived and were rescued. In combat with the FW 200s the 480th lost, in all, three of its planes and accounted for five of the enemy.72
Antisubmarine action in the Moroccan Sea Frontier, to which the 480th Group contributed probably more than any other unit present, proved of decisive importance in protecting the logistical life lines of the Allied campaign in Sicily. In July, when Allied convoys were sailing toward Gibraltar, they were able to pass through waters heavily patrolled by U-boats practically without loss from submarine activity.73 This result was a triumph for the air arm, as employed both in convoy escort and offensive sweeps, and it vindicated the principles underlying both methods.
Operations in the eastern Atlantic gave the AAFAC a chance to test its strategic and tactical doctrine in an area where operations had to be carried out against an ever-present and often dangerous enemy. They taught the Army crews many things – the use of cloud cover as a means of surprising the crew, for example, and the effective use of radar. A dramatic example of the use of radar occurred during the July offensive. A B-24 of the 1st Antisubmarine Squadron, patrolling about 200 miles northwest of Lisbon and flying at 5, 600 feet over solid clouds, picked up a radar contact about thirteen miles dead astern. The pilot turned and descended through the overcast on instruments at 240 miles per hour, constantly receiving headings from the radar operator. The B-24 finally broke through at 200 feet and its crew sighted a surfaced on the starboard bow, only one mile away. The attack, executed immediately, resulted in the swift and certain destruction of the submarine.74 As a result of these operations in the eastern Atlantic, the AAFAC was able to say with some assurance that the offensive strategy had worked. If not the be-all and end-all of antisubmarine activity, it had at least to be considered an essential element.
In contrast to the intensive, if sporadic, activity of the squadrons operating from Newfoundland, the United Kingdom, and the Moroccan
Sea Frontier, the story of those which remained within the continental United States (a majority of the units assigned to the AAFAC) is one of endless patrols, few sightings, and still fewer attacks. While units of the 479th and 480th Groups were enjoying brisk hunting, flying at times considerably less than 100 hours per contact, squadrons operating in the Eastern and Gulf sea frontiers had to fly many thousands of hours for a single sighting. For in those waters almost no enemy activity had been encountered since September 1942. Nor was the hunting in the Caribbean much better. Since the winter of 1942–43, two squadrons had normally been stationed there, one in Cuba and one at Trinidad. Yet their arrival coincided roughly with that shift of German strategy which drew the fleet away from the U.S. strategic area in an effort to cut off the invasion convoys. Although a few nuisance raiders remained, especially in the Trinidad area, neither submarine nor antisubmarine activity was at all brisk even in that one-time happy hunting ground for the fleet.75
The Navy, however, felt obliged to patrol not only the more or less threatened shipping lanes in the Caribbean but the relatively safe waters of the Eastern and Gulf sea frontiers with as many aircraft as might be spared from more urgent projects. The enemy, it was argued and with some justification, had withdrawn, but he might return. He was not too preoccupied to overlook a rich and unprotected merchant shipping lane. Accordingly, an “irreducible minimum” of aircraft would, COMINCH felt, have to be maintained in the U.S. coastal waters despite the meager returns obtained.76 This position was generally appreciated. The only question was how small that minimum had to be before it became truly irreducible. Was it necessary to provide such heavy air coverage in the Eastern and Gulf sea frontiers – in July 1943 amounting to fifteen out of twenty-five AAFAC squadrons? Was it an economical way of using units specially trained in the work of destroying submarines to deploy them in areas where there were few if any submarines to destroy?
These were debatable questions, the debate (prior to July 1943 at any rate) resolving itself usually into a conflict between the AAFAC ideal of a mobile offensive force and the Navy’s doctrine of the relatively fixed defense. The result was that many of the fully trained and equipped antisubmarine crews could say of their operations as one squadron historian said, somewhat wistfully, of his entire squadron: “The tactical achievement of the squadron cannot be elaborated on by
enumerating the number of submarines sunk. It has been our misfortune never to have had the opportunity of sighting a submarine.” When he added sturdily that “this fact has never reduced the crews’ efficiency and patrol missions have been conducted in an alert manner, “he epitomized the combat story of most of these units.77
If this were the whole story of operations in the Eastern and Gulf sea frontiers, it would be a disproportionately slight one in view of the number of squadrons involved. Happily the story is much larger, for it includes also a prodigious program of technical development and crew training. When the AAFAC was activated, a beginning only had been made in the task of securing the proper weapons and auxiliary devices for antisubmarine warfare and of training personnel in their use. Gradually B-24’s replaced the medium-range aircraft originally employed by the command, and crews were given transitional training in the operational training unit at Langley Field. By August it was possible to report seventy-five B-24’s among nine of the squadrons based in the continental United States. Much of the responsibility for training fell also on these home units, because the need for operational planes made it necessary to carryon training to a considerable extent in conjunction with patrol operations – which, of course, did not in these areas involve unduly hazardous flying. Training thus became the principal function of the domestic squadrons.78
Research in antisubmarine devices and techniques within the AAF had been made the special responsibility of the Sea-Search Attack Development Unit (SADU) operating at Langley Field under the direct control of Headquarters, AAF.* This unit maintained liaison with the other agencies similarly engaged – the Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group and the Navy research unit known as the Air Antisubmarine Development Detachment, Atlantic Fleet. The AAFAC itself found it necessary, however, to insure through its research coordinator that the program of technical development was as nearly as possible in accord with the experience and the requirements of its own operating units. Radar naturally received a major share of the research effort, and the AAF units as a result were able greatly to extend the efficiency of their operations. Other devices were being developed by all the research agencies – the magnetic airborne detector and the radio sonic buoy to supplement radar in detecting submerged craft, the retro-bombing devices and forward-firing rocket equipment
* See Volume I, pp. 550–51.
to improve the effectiveness of the air attack – but they had barely emerged from the experimental stage when the AAFAC went out of business in August 1943.79
Dissolution of AAFAC
During the summer of 1943, while the AAFAC was developing into a powerful and unique striking force, the debate over the organization of the American antisubmarine forces was entering a new and climactic phase. The Tenth Fleet, though a step in the right direction, failed to solve the problem of organization. The situation remained in a state of extremely unstable equilibrium. In fact, it may be that by the latter part of May 1943 a compromise settlement of the antisubmarine question was no longer possible. By that time, an issue much larger than that of the land-based antisubmarine air force and its control had been raised, and a solution of the lesser problem had to wait until the larger, of which it constituted a part, could be satisfactorily settled. In other words, control of land-based antisubmarine aircraft raised the question of the control of all land-based, long-range aircraft employed on overwater missions.
The Navy had steadfastly resisted the notion that land-based aviation constituted a virtually separate arm which no longer fitted into the traditional pattern of the two primary services. In a perfectly natural effort to make its forces self-contained and to be as free as possible from the cramping necessity of coordinating with forces of another service over which it could exercise only a shared authority, the Navy had striven to build up an air force of its own. This effort became especially vigorous when the long-range and very long-range land-based bombing planes demonstrated their preeminence in long-distance patrol.
The Navy had quickly recognized the value of the B-24 and secured considerable allocations of that type.* According to the Bureau of Aeronautics, this program for an increase in land-based aircraft arose in part from a shift of emphasis from seaplanes to long-and medium range land planes both for antisubmarine operations in the Atlantic and sea search, reconnaissance, and patrol work in the Pacific.80 And Admiral King had intimated that he hoped his system of unified antisubmarine command might be extended to include operations in the Pacific.81
To keep all of the elements necessary to its operations under its
* See above, p. 388.
direct control was an understandable policy on the part of a service which had traditionally maintained a purity of organization quite impossible in the Army. As General Marshall pointed out in a letter to the admiral, the problem of control of long-range aircraft operating with the Navy on antisubmarine patrol bore a marked similarity to the Army problem of divisional organization. A divisional commander knows that he can handle the artillery and engineers more efficiently if they are all organic parts of the division and do not include elements attached only for a particular operation. But without forces almost unlimited in numbers, such a policy would result in a duplication which, however efficient for the particular project, would be ruinously wasteful to the war effort as a whole. This was a problem which the Army had been forced to face since 1917; except for the creation of virtually a second army in the Marine Corps, the problem had not presented itself to the Navy until the question of air striking forces had arisen. The trend, Marshall felt, if carried to its logical conclusion, would mean the eventual consolidation of the Army and Navy, for it would remove the essential distinction between them.82
It is clear that the Navy had no such consolidation in mind. But for some time, in fact since the first allocation of B-24 aircraft to the Navy, Army observers had been concerned about the Navy’s plans for utilizing these aircraft; and the problem of duplication had remained inherent in all antisubmarine planning since the creation in October 1942 of an Army antisubmarine command. Now, in the summer of 1943, it began to appear to Army observers that the Navy intended not only to build up a large force of long-range, land-based bombers for patrol purposes and convoy cover but was prepared as well to employ them in an offensive along lines already being pursued by the RAF and the AAFAC. This, if true, would bring the question of duplication clearly into the open. And indications there were which pointed in that direction. In April 1943, Admiral Leahy had stated in a joint conference that the only reason for the delay in offensive action by the Navy had been lack of adequate forces. In May the Navy’s antisubmarine aircraft carriers had been a decisive factor in the defeat of the in the North Atlantic. When that Allied victory reduced the need for convoy cover off Newfoundland, Admiral King, who at the Atlantic Convoy Conference in March of that year had set himself positively against a Navy offensive for the rest of the calendar year, seemed inclined to reconsider his position and to urge the reinforcement of the Bay of Biscay
campaign with as many VLR planes as could be spared over and above that “irreducible minimum” he felt obliged to keep in the western Atlantic.83
Whether or not the situation warranted it, the fact remains that Army observers regarded Navy plans relative to land-based aircraft with some suspicion. It appeared that the Navy was intent either on duplicating the function of the AAFAC within its own organization by the increased allocation of B-24’s to be deployed on offensive operations, which would be patently wasteful, or on securing complete control of all antisubmarine aircraft, including the VLR planes of the AAFAC, which would merely remove the danger of duplication to a much higher level. The destiny of the AAFAC as a long-range air striking force thus became inextricably tied up with the question of land-based air striking forces in general, a question which all but involved the separate existence of the Army Air Forces itself.
So it was that the situation even after the establishment of the Tenth Fleet remained extremely acute. Indeed, it rapidly deteriorated. For the issues were now clearer, and it had become evident that control of the long-range antisubmarine air force could be disposed of in two ways only: it could be given to the Army Air Forces, with or without the over-all operational supervision of the Navy, or it could be given completely to the naval authority. The AAFAC, acting merely as the AAF’s contribution to the total antisubmarine air force, no longer occupied a tenable position. Logically speaking, there was plenty of middle ground. If, as General Larson suggested (making use of concepts then taking shape within the AAF), the AAFAC were considered the “strategic” antisubmarine air force and deployed exclusively as a long-range, mobile striking force, then the Navy air arm engaged in antisubmarine patrol could be left the job of close support of the fleet in the peculiarly naval mission of protecting shipping and thus become the “tactical” antisubmarine air force – a division of command into two independent organizations, based on a natural division of function.84 But the force of circumstances continued greatly to outweigh the force of logic, and General Larson’s conception of his antisubmarine command and its place in the military scheme bore little relation to the larger conflict of interests in which that organization had become involved.
Meanwhile, discussion continued regarding the command arrangements for the VLR and LR aircraft engaged in antisubmarine warfare.
Both General Marshall and General Arnold were willing to recognize that, according to the principle of unity of command in joint operations,85 the Tenth Fleet should exercise jurisdiction over all antisubmarine forces, including the air arm. But they were convinced that the VLR and LR air units should operate also as a joint force under a single air commander who, according to the same principle, should be an Army air officer, for this air component would be predominantly Army in its make-up. They nominated for the position Maj. Gen. Willis H. Hale, then air chief in Hawaii and considered to be familiar with overwater operations and naval procedures.86 This officer would be stationed at Headquarters, Tenth Fleet, and would have charge of all Army and Navy shore-based aircraft, except such short-range types as were assigned to frontiers for inshore work. He would have under him in each sea frontier an air commander, either an Army or Navy officer according to the predominant interest in the local situation. The sea frontier commander would assign missions to the air commander under him, but the air commander would be left full discretion as to how the mission should be carried out with the aircraft available. For such tactical and technical matters he would be responsible to the overall air commander, General Hale.87
Admiral King objected vigorously to this Army plan on two grounds: first, it would place all VLR and LR aviation under an Army officer and, second, it would shift responsibility for tactical and technical employment of such land-based aircraft from naval officers “who had become familiar with the problem by experience” to an Army air commander who “might be expected to modify all that the Navy has so far done in organizing, developing, and training its air forces for antisubmarine warfare.” Any such scheme, he declared, involved disunity between air and surface forces, whereas “all experience points to the need for the closest coordination between them.” “I recognize,” he added, “that the Army Air concept of command differs from the naval idea of close integration of aviation with other arms throughout all echelons.”88
In short, Admiral King would not accept a joint air command operating under his unified command, nor would he entrust the operation of naval air units to any air commander, Army or Navy.89 General Marshall, to whom it was a matter of secondary importance whether the unified air command be under a Navy or Army officer, felt the crux of the matter lay in the definition of unified command over joint forces.
According to JCS 263/2/D, “Normally in operations, this will consist of the assignment of their respective missions. In carrying out its mission the tactics and technique of the force concerned are the responsibility of that force.” It was essentially the old problem of operational control restated: granted that the Navy should exercise such control over antisubmarine air operations, should it be, as in the case of the Admiralty’s control over the RAF Coastal Command, a jurisdiction principally concerned with the mission to be performed, or should it involve direct control over the tactics and techniques to be employed by the air arm in the performance of that mission? In order to clear up the situation Marshall was prepared, if necessary, to take the matter to the President.90
Pending a final settlement with regard to the control of all air units engaged in antisubmarine warfare, there arose a grave danger that the air campaign itself might suffer. Fortunately, by June, the situation in the North Atlantic no longer threatened the very life of the American forces in the European theater. But the situation in the Mediterranean depended on the still doubtful ability of ocean convoys to reach African and Mediterranean ports. It was to make safe the passage of these convoys that the Navy urged participation in the British offensive in the Bay of Biscay. The War Department, although well aware of the value of offensive action in this key area, was still reluctant to commit
U.S. air units to the project until the question of their control could finally be settled. The project was given War Department and AAF endorsement before any serious delay was experienced. But the fact remained that the AAFAC and those agencies having to do with its mission were handicapped by the impossibility of reconciling long-term obligations with an immediately precarious status which necessitated planning on a short-term, emergency basis.91
Final deliberations had already begun. On 10 June 1943, Rear Adm. John S. McCain met with General Arnold and Lt. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney to draw up an agreement which would settle the question once and for all. The resulting agreement followed substantially these lines: (1) The Army was prepared to withdraw the AAF from antisubmarine operations at such a time as the Navy would be ready to take over those duties completely. (2) Army antisubmarine aircraft would continue to operate as long as the Navy had need for them. (3) Army antisubmarine B-24’s would be turned over to the Navy in such numbers as could be replaced by Navy combat B-24’s. (4) The fleet air
wings which the Navy proposed to station along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts would comprise only those types of aircraft whose primary functions were those of offshore patrol and reconnaissance and the protection of shipping. (5) It was primarily the responsibility of the Army to provide long-range bombing forces (termed “strategic air forces” ) for operations from shore bases in defense of the Western Hemisphere and for “appropriate operations” in other theaters. (6) Long-range patrol planes assigned to fleet air wings were to be used for the primary purpose of conducting offshore patrol and reconnaissance and the protection of shipping, thus relieving Army long-range bombing forces from such duties. (7) Nothing in the above provisions were to be so interpreted as to limit or restrict a commander in the field, whether Army or Navy, in his use of all available aircraft as weapons of opportunity or necessity.92
In effect this Arnold–McNarne –McCain agreement constituted a radical division of responsibility in the employment of long-range aircraft. In return for unquestioned control of all forces employed in reconnaissance, offshore patrol, and for the protection of shipping, the Navy agreed to relinquish all claims to control of long-range striking forces operating from shore bases. The control of these “strategic air forces” would thus remain unequivocally an Army Air Forces responsibility. Although conceived in the spirit of earlier agreements and in a sense merely a restatement of an old principle, this agreement had far reaching implications. The problem of strategic striking forces, if not essentially different from prewar days, had, especially with the promise that the B-29 would soon be ready, developed proportions and ramifications which no doubt required redefinition.
It was one thing to reach an agreement in committee, however, and quite another to secure its approval. Neither Secretary Stimson nor Admiral King was willing to give up without a struggle. Admiral King accepted with alacrity the proposal that the Army hand over its antisubmarine responsibilities to the Navy. It was, he said, a solution he was himself preparing to propose.93 But he gave no indication of turning over to the Army the quid pro quo by which the concession was to be obtained, preferring to leave undefined as a matter not germane to the antisubmarine issue the Army’s right to conduct other long-range striking operations by land-based planes.94 To Secretary Stimson this failure of Admiral King to indorse both halves of the Arnold–McNarney–McCain agreement promised only to perpetuate trouble between Army
and Navy. Furthermore, he was by no means convinced that the agreement itself augured any improvement in the war effort. He granted the wisdom of clarifying the over-all jurisdiction, provided the result was clear enough to eliminate friction between Army and Navy. But he seriously doubted if the antisubmarine campaign would profit by the elimination of an AAF organization staffed by young, air-minded men who were trained in the use of long-range bombers and who possessed the initiative and inventiveness necessary to develop antisubmarine offensive measures to the utmost. The AAFAC had, he felt, embarked on a policy entirely foreign to anything the Navy hitherto had proposed. It still possessed the equipment, personnel, and doctrine uniquely adapted to the purpose of destroying the submarines at sea.95
Faced with the threat of a continued impasse in a matter so close to the heart of the war effort, General Marshall opened his mind with extreme frankness to Admiral King in a memorandum dated 28 June 1943:
The question of responsibility for offensive operations against submarines and that of responsibility for long-range air striking forces are so closely related that a proper solution of one, in my opinion, involves consideration of the other. The tentative Arnold–McNarney–McCain agreement appeared to offer an acceptable solution to both of these issues and solely on that basis I stated to you in my memorandum of June 15 that your proposal to take over antisubmarine air operations appeared to offer a practical solution to a vexing problem which has adversely affected the efficiency of our aerial war effort.
I should state here that in all of these Army and Navy air discussions I have tried very carefully to hold myself to a position from which I could consider the problems from a somewhat detached and, I hope, purely logical basis. As I remarked in the meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the other day I feel that the present state of procedure between the Army and Navy is neither economical nor highly efficient and would inevitably meet with public condemnation were all the facts known. I have been hopeful that during the actual war effort we could manage our business in such a manner as to be spared the destructive effects of reorganizational procedure. But I am becoming more and more convinced that we must put our own house in order, and quickly, in order to justify our obligation to the country. I feel this very strongly because it is plain to me, however it may appear to others, that our present procedure is not at all what it should be.96
Accordingly, he reiterated his opinion that the Arnold–McNarney–McCain agreement promised the earliest and most satisfactory solution for the problem.
On 9 July 1943, approximately one month after the Arnold–McNarney–McCain committee convened, its agreement was accepted by both War and Navy departments. A schedule was subsequently
established whereby seventy-seven Army antisubmarine-equipped B-24’s would be transferred with related equipment to the Navy, in return for an equal number of combat-equipped B-24’s from Navy allocations. The transfer was to take place gradually from the latter part of July to the end of September.97 Some difficulty arose over the relief of the squadrons on duty in the United Kingdom and in Northwest Africa. Finally it was decided to keep them in their current duty status until such time as they could be relieved by similarly equipped Navy squadrons.98 On 6 October 1943, AAF Headquarters was able to report that the seventy-seven planes in the original Army-Navy agreement had been transferred. In October, too, the Navy Liberators arrived at Dunkeswell, Devonshire, to relieve the 479th Group. By the middle of November, the 480th Group had been relieved and was on its way back to the United States.99
The AAFAC officially passed out of the picture before the complicated mechanism of transfer could be completed. By an order dated 3rd August from Headquarters, Eastern Defense Command and First Air Force, its headquarters was redesignated Headquarters, I Bomber Command and assigned once more to the First Air Force, effective 24 August 1943.100 The 25th and 26th Wings were inactivated and their personnel, together with all excess personnel left over from the earlier expansion made necessary by the increase in antisubmarine activity, were made available to AC/AS, Personnel for reassignment. The domestic squadrons, at that date numbering seventeen of the twenty-five separate squadrons of the command, were redesignated as heavy bombardment units and assigned to the Second Air Force. The 8th Squadron, which had operated as an OTU at Langley Field, was assigned to the 1st Sea-Search Attack Group of the First Air Force for the purpose of conducting replacement crew training on radar equipment. The 23rd Squadron continued temporarily to serve as a special task unit on special duty with the Navy in the Caribbean for the purpose of experimenting with 75-mm. armament in B-25 aircraft, after which it went, with the bulk of the other squadrons, to the Second Air Force. The 479th Group, by that time consisting of four squadrons stationed in the United Kingdom, was inactivated and its personnel and equipment (the latter not a part of the seventy-seven-plane agreement) assigned to the Eighth Air Force, its personnel to be used as a nucleus in forming a pathfinder group. Similarly, the 480th Group returned intact to the United States, whereupon the bulk of its personnel was
assigned to the Second Air Force, a few of the officers remaining on duty with Headquarters, AAF. Its aircraft were made available for use in the American and Pacific theaters.101
As this slow process neared completion and the Army Air Forces prepared to bow finally from the stage of antisubmarine operations, the work of its deceased antisubmarine command became the subject of numerous laudatory statements, in which Admirals King and Andrews joined with General Arnold and others who were in like position to know whereof they spoke in pronouncing it a job well done.102
The story of the Army Air Forces Antisubmarine Command is one of great promise only partially fulfilled. It is a study in anticlimax. As a result of administrative confusion and imperfect planning the AAF found itself hunting submarines with land-based striking forces and sharing in the function, generally conceded to be a naval one, of protecting shipping. Into this work the personnel of its antisubmarine command put the energy and ingenuity of an organization manned by young, air-minded men and geared to the requirements of offensive warfare. But just as this organization was nearing the peak of its development in training and equipment it was dissolved – and through no fault of its own. For, if there is one fact that stands out above another in this study, it is that the fate of the AAFAC depended not at all on its doctrine of antisubmarine warfare or its ability to meet the demands of its mission.
Events have demonstrated the validity of its doctrine of the air offensive against the at sea. Of its operational record the command had reason to be proud. Although it had not been permitted to engage as fully as it would have liked in offensive operations against the , it had nevertheless contributed its share to the defeat of the enemy in 1943, a defeat from which the submarine fleet never really recovered. Four of its specially equipped B-24 squadrons which were allowed to hunt for limited periods in submarine-infested waters accounted alone for eight U-boats sunk (one destroyed in cooperation with the RAF). Of its potential ability, moreover, the command had reason to be confident. Only a fraction of its strength in trained B-24 units had, by August of 1943, seen action. And the new devices and techniques which it had helped develop were, with the exception of the microwave radar equipment, only beginning to emerge from the experimental stage by that date.
The same, of course, could be said of the entire American antisubmarine
effort. The had suffered its great initial defeat before either the U.S. Navy or the AAFAC had been able to bring to bear on the battle the special air weapons their research agencies were in the process of developing. Indeed, it was only in the spring and summer of 1943, when the Battle of the Atlantic had already reached its decisive phase, that the existing antisubmarine air weapons were used to anything like their destructive capacity. Then only were the Navy’s carrier-based planes103 (probably the most deadly single weapon) and the long-range, land-based bombers of both services (second only to the CVE as a submarine killer) thrown aggressively into the fight. Then only did the Navy adopt an offensive strategy involving carrier aircraft, land-based bombers, and surface forces. Perhaps no such offensive was possible at an earlier date when the task of protecting convoys may have outweighed in immediate importance that of destroying the submarine itself. Perhaps, also, the submarine enemy might have been defeated at an earlier date had the American antisubmarine effort been less subject to jurisdictional conflicts which prevented the most effective and economical use of all available forces.
Be that as it may, it was on a question of jurisdiction – the control of long-range air striking forces – that the fate of the AAFAC was decided. In relation to this more comprehensive problem, that of the AAFAC and its control constituted little more than a test case. But the importance of a test case is determined by the importance of the issue being tested, and thus the case of the AAFAC becomes one of the most significant to have arisen in the history of American military policy during World War II.