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‘It appears unfortunate to me…’ Squaring a circle in the Atlantic war of words

Posted by David Craddock, on July 25th, 2023

A flurry of letters, minutes and memoranda between the C-in-C United States Fleet (COMINCH), Admiral Ernest J. King and Admiral Sir Percy Noble, head of the British Admiralty Delegation (BAD) and other senior officers in Washington in the autumn of 1943 reveal some of the underlying tensions between the Atlantic Allies at this critical period. At the heart of it were two issues: one a question of authority within the framework of international cooperation; the other of strategic priorities.

By the early summer of 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic had reached a turning point, with the deployment very long range (VLR) anti-submarine aircraft in sufficient numbers to close the Atlantic Gap. Admiral Dönitz knew that he had lost the so-called ‘tonnage war’ – he could no longer hope to sink transatlantic merchant shipping at a faster rate than it could be replaced. But, as Michael Simpson points out in the Introduction to Section II: ‘The Anti-Submarine War’, though his U-boats would have to suffer heavy casualties for little reward, he would continue the campaign ‘…compelling the Allies to divert considerable air and naval forces to anti-submarine warfare … [and] relieve the pressure on Germany.’[1] Among those air forces were British and American anti-submarine aircraft allocated to the Bay Offensive that since the spring of 1941 had been attempting, with variable success, to interdict U-boats in transit across the Bay of Biscay from their bases in occupied France. Broadly championed by British naval and air command, it was a strategy, about the continued value of which Admiral King had serious doubts. These he had made clear in a letter to Vice Admiral Sir Edward Syfret (Vice Chief of the Naval Staff) on 9th October, announcing the withdrawal of four Liberator squadrons and one Catalina squadron from the Bay Offensive.

In the first of the letters reproduced here, dated 16 October 1943, Admiral Noble picks his way carefully through the implications of Admiral King’s opening salvo. He had, he tells King, been in touch with the Admiralty, who ‘…view your decision with considerable concern.’[2] He continued with an acknowledgement that ‘… results during the past few months have been less profitable than we hoped’ but went on with a reassurance that with an increased effort by night ‘…we can force the U-boats again to surface by day’. One problem, he suggested in his defence, was ‘… the shortage of Leigh Lights in your Squadrons.’ But in the sixth of eight numbered paragraphs he returns to the assertion that in the Bay ‘…the hardest blow of our combined A/S war effort can be struck … but without the help of American squadrons it cannot be decisive.’ Noble’s plea sits at odds with RAF Coastal Command’s own despatches that claimed ‘a decisive victory’ for the Bay Offensive, avoiding mention of a US contribution.[3] He ends his letter with a request to withhold action ‘…until consideration of our views is possible.’

With unfortunate timing, on the same date as Admiral Noble’s reply to King came a memorandum to the C-in-C on the effectiveness of the Bay Offensive from Rear Admiral Francis Low USN. Low was Chief of Staff of the US 10th Fleet, a shore-based organisation formed in May 1943 under the direction of Ernest King to co-ordinate anti-submarine warfare between the US Navy, The Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy.[4] Low’s assessment is not encouraging, though he was selective in his choice of statistics. He starts with the original justification for the offensive which suggested with wild optimism, though without naming the source, ‘…at the rate of 40 flying hours per sighting, 260 planes could kill 25 U-boats per month and cripple more than that number additional.’[5] He follows that with the curious observation that with the U-Boats using radar ‘…they have proceeded through the Bay almost unmolested by aircraft.’ At best, U-boats had been using the Metox radar detector with good effect over the winter months of 1942/43 against the 1.5m ASV Mark II, but the introduction of the centimetric Mark III radars in March 1943 denied them that protection. He went on to claim that no U-Boats had been sunk since 2 August and that there were 317 flying hours per sighting during August and September with 30 aircraft lost. The tragic number of aircraft lost is accurate but though the ratio of sightings to flying hours for the period June to August is in line with the figure he quotes, for the three months from September to November, it was much worse and had risen to 948 hours per sighting in the Bay. This figure should be set against an average of 149 hours per sighting for aircraft operating directly with or in close support of convoys. Without making any reference to centimetric radar, Low concludes that until technology or tactical counter measure can render air attack effective again ‘… it isn’t even good hunting in the Bay.’ His clear preference is to re-direct their VLR aircraft to where they could be more effective protecting US supply lines to North Africa in support of the land offensive on the Italian mainland.

Within three days of receiving Admiral Noble’s letter, King replied with some concessions on aircraft but not before making his views clear. He begins ‘I feel I must draw attention to those matters on which we do not appear to see eye-to-eye.’[6] He lists three things which are summarised as follows: (a) US participation in the Bay Offensive was always intended to be of limited duration, an expectation apparently confirmed by Air Marshal (Sir Philip) Slessor (Air Officer C-in-C Coastal Command) – if the Admiralty saw it otherwise, he regretted with the words from which this article takes its title ‘…that this was not made clear from the outset.’; (b) as for the absence of Leigh Lights, he cites a communication from the Admiralty of May 1943 (not included) in which Coastal Command indicated that they would adapt sufficient additional British aircraft ‘… to provide the night component of combined forces in the Bay.’; (c) on the question of anti-aircraft radar fitted to U-Boats he claims ‘We have some unmistakeable evidence of the existence of such a radar.’, though he does not disclose its origin. He passed this on ‘…because of the serious implications [if] this fact is not appreciated by those who are conducting the Bay Offensive.’

It is worth noting here that an Admiralty minute to BAD in Washington dated 7 October appears to accept and acknowledge the time-limited nature of the offer of aircraft ‘…contingent on our acquiescence on the removal of the US squadrons in the Bay on the orders of COMINCH in the event of [changes?] in US strategic requirements.’[7] This was seen as reasonable ‘if somewhat peremptory’ and the First Sea Lord, Sir Andrew Cunningham, Noble’s immediate predecessor in Washington, was perhaps reflecting on this at a Chiefs of Staff Meeting on 3 November. He suggested that the question of the withdrawal of US VLR aircraft was better dealt with by Noble in Washington, remarking ‘Our case is not a strong one, since we had raised no objections at the time the squadrons were provided…’.[8] Nevertheless, King did partially accede to Admiral Noble’s request, agreeing to retain one Catalina squadron and two Liberator squadrons in UK until 1 January 1944 ‘… on the understanding that the Admiralty will make every possible effort to provide relief for these squadrons…’.[9]

Extract from Michael Simpson (ed.) Anglo-American-Canadian Naval Relations 1943-1945,  Navy Records Society, Vol.168, (2021), pp116-133.

Noble to King16 October 1943May I refer to your 082213 of 9 October [not reproduced], in which you informed Admiral Syfret of your decision to move four Naval Liberator and one Naval Catalina Squadrons from the Bay Offensive.
2. I have been in communication with the Admiralty, who view your decision with considerable concern.
3. While agreeing that the results during the past two months have been less profitable than we hoped, we are confident that by increasing the flying effort by night we can force the U-boats again to surface by day.
4. Among the many factors which have militated against complete success is the shortage of Leigh Lights in your Squadrons, but the situation will greatly improve by the end of this month.
5. We are unaware of assurances that winter weather would reduce the Bay Offensive and since the record of last winter shows no marked decrease in flying effort due to weather, we had hoped to maintain a vigorous offensive.
6. We are positive that in the Bay the hardest blow of our combined A/S war effort can be struck, as all operational U-boats must pass this area, but without the help of American Squadrons it cannot be decisive.

8. We therefore request that you leave these Squadrons where they are, at least until the end of the year, by which time our increased night offensive should have proved its effectiveness, and in any case I request you to withhold action until consideration of our views is possible.

[1] Michael Simpson (ed.), Anglo – American – Canadian Naval Relations 1943-1945 (Abingdon, Routledge for Navy Records Society, Vol.168, 2021), p.106

[2] Document 67, Noble to King (US National Archive RG 38) 16 October 1943, ibid. p.116 ff

[3] See NRS Members Blog The Bay Offensive, May 2023

[4] A re-activated US 10th Fleet operates in a new role today as the US Fleet Cyber Command.

[5] Document 68, Rear Admiral FS Low USN to King (US National Archive RG38 16 October 1943, in Simpson (ed.), Anglo – American – Canadian Naval Relations 1943-1945, p.117 ff. It should be noted that on only one occasion between August 1942 and November 1943 did the number of hours per sighting fall below 100 and that was for aircraft engaged directly in convoy escort. (See endnote 9 in The Bay Offensive, op.cit.)

[6] Document 69, King to Noble (Operational Archives, King 4, Navy Yard Washington DC) 19 October 1943, ibid. p.118 ff.

[7] Document 65, Admiralty to BAD (National Archives, CAB 122/1510) 7 October 1943, ibid. p.113

[8] Document 72, Chiefs of Staff 268th Meeting (CAB 122/1510) 3 November 1943, ibid. p.121

[9] Document 69, op.cit.

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About David Craddock

David Craddock began his working life in the Merchant Navy as a cadet with P&O. He came ashore to study graphic design and later a BA in History with the Open University. Over five decades he has combined both interests with a career in exhibition and graphic design specialising in historic interpretation. He is a Trustee of the Britannia Museum at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth and now devotes most of his time to writing. His first book What Ship, Where Bound? A History of Visual Communication at Sea was published by Seaforth in February 2021 and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic.