Back to WWII...

I’m watching “Victory at Sea” (, a 1950’s documentary on naval engagements during, and leading up to, WWII. We’re currently covering German U-Boats and their uncanny ability to sink supply ships going from the US to England.

  1. So these wolf packs are sinking dozens of ***our ***ships with ***our ***men aboard them. Even if the US was reluctant to declare war against Germany at that point, what good is claiming neutrality when you’re supplying one side of a conflict and your ships are being sunk on a daily basis?

  2. Was the US strategy at the time to provide aid to our allies in hopes that we would not be dragged into the war? With the memory of WWI still fresh in our minds were we afraid of yet another war with Germany?

  3. As I understand it there were U-Boats actively patrolling the waters off of the east coast of the US with almost impunity. Didn’t the US have it’s own submarines or anti-submarine aircraft for defense at the time?

  4. How could we keep our closest ally (Britain) hanging while Germany was bombing them at will?

The US president at the time wanted to be in the war on the allied side, but the idea was deeply unpopular with a large part of the US population.

Luckily Germany declared war on the US, so the president got what was needed anyway.

It’s amazing to me that Germany was sinking our supply ships at will, killing our sailors, and we were blowing up their U-Boats, killing their sailors, yet the American public didn’t want to be at war.

Most of those people thought that if we stopped supplying Germany’s enemies, our ships going to other destinations would be unmolested. As was true with most other countries’ shipping and most US shipping not going to Britain.

For one thing, before US entry into the war U-boats did try to avoid sinking US-flagged ships if they weren’t in convoys. But ships that were in the convoys were obviously hauling war supplies and there was a long-established precedent that you were allowed to interdict neutral shipping if it was hauling war supplies for your enemy.

As for them patrolling off the east coast with impunity, this was only the case for a the first part of 1942. The U-Boats were battle-hardened from two full years of full-scale war and the US was slow to implement a convoy system and hadn’t organized ASW units on the east coast. But the amount of damage the U-boats were able to do was severely limited by range-- they only had a handful of the type IX boats that were easily capable of reaching the east coast. Most of the U-boats were Type VII’s, which were coastal boats that were already overextended in the North Atlantic and had to limp at a snail’s pace to reach the eastern seaboard.

Questions 2 and 4 sort of answer themselves-- the US involvement in WWI was very unpopular among a lot of the US partly because the war was seen by many as just another in a long string of pointless European wars with inconsequential causes and a great many people saw no particular reason why we should have sided with the Brits over the Germans in that war. Certainly in 1939 and 1940 a great many Americans viewed the second world war the same way. Roosevelt was a bit of an Anglophile to be sure, but he also recognized that there was more at stake in this war. So though getting directly involved was politically untenable all the way up to December '41, Roosevelt was constantly pushing how much aid could be given the allies without open war.

Thanks GreasyJack. I am surprised to hear that there was ambiguity about who the US should back in WWI… but I assumed that our relationship with Britain was similar to what it was during WWII, which is probably a bad assumption.

That Roosevelt couldn’t ‘sell’ the war to the general public until Pearl Harbor happened begs the question of what would have happened if the Japanese hadn’t decided to attack? Would we have let Britain fall under German control?

Re 3), yes it had, but for one thing the US Silent Service was mostly deployed in the Pacific (where they did a number of their own on Japanese merchantmen), and for another in that day submarines were not the answer to submarines. Destroyers were. The primary weapons of submarines were torpedoes and their deck guns, both of which were ill suited to destroy targets that were low on the water, manoeuvrable and with small surface under the water. Remember, they didn’t have today’s homing torpedoes, what they had were (malfunctioning) dumb fire motors with a bomb strapped to it.
Nor were submarines any better than surface ships at finding other subs: today subs are indeed better because they’re submerged 24/7 where they have good acoustic conditions for their passive sonars. In WW2, submarines spent most of their time on the surface, submerging only when they were about to blow something out of the water or when they were being attacked.

As for anti-sub aircraft, before the advent of radar they weren’t very effective either: too much ground to cover with a Mk1 eyeball, too little warning of attacks and not enough boom on board either. Basically their only chance was to surprise a sub on the surface and bomb it before it could dive. Which essentially meant one hasted bombing run on a small target where the pilots were as surprised as the sub crew (not to mention, U-boots also had AAA guns of their own to disrupt straight bombing runs).

As for why the US didn’t deploy swarms of destroyers on its coasts, well, they didn’t really have time to, nor did they need to in the end: yes, Germany deployed a handful of U-Boats right off the US coast at one time (Operation Paukenschlag/Drumbeat - the US had already declared war by then), but they didn’t repeat the experience and the offensive didn’t last long because resupplying the subs all the way out there proved to be just as much of a headache for the Germans as finding them was for the other side.

It was worth it as a surprise operation, but once the US figured it out they did deploy anti-sub measures and the operation was canned. U-boot captains got a couple months of happy, uninterrupted hunting and that was that. Back to prowling the Atlantic.

It wasn’t so much that there was any question of supporting Germany (our trade and cultural ties with Britain made siding with them obvious), just that it didn’t seem like the US had any stake in the war. In WWII, it was obviously the forces of democracy (oh, and the USSR) against the forces of fascism. In WWI, there wasn’t that much difference between the two sides politically, ideologically or even really culturally. The causes of the war were essentially esoteric European power politics, which the US had no direct stake in-- had the Germans not antagonized the US with the U-boats and clumsy diplomatic blunders I think there’s a chance the US might have stayed out entirely.

In World War II, by late 1941 public opinion was definitely starting to swing away from isolationism. I think it was already to the point that direct US involvement was inevitable, although maybe without Pearl Harbor it wouldn’t have been with such enthusiasm.

Air patrols are effective even if they don’t spot subs. British scientists determined that the patrols over the Bay of Biscay forced the u-boats to travel underwater for so long that it greatly reduced their effective range of operations.

As for US opinion, the Brits worked long and hard to convince the average american that helping the UK was an imperative. From open propaganda to “black” operations to discredit isolationists, the British engaged in a great deal of persuasive initiatives aimed at the hearts and minds of the US population.

And this has always amazed me: Japan attacked us without Germany’s knowledge or consent. In fact, Hitler was not eager to get us into the war at that point or, if he had his way, ever. I know about the treaty between Germany and Japan but since when was Hitler excessively bound by pieces of paper?

The US gave the Uk a huge amount of help even when not openly engaged in the war, lease lend etc really stretching it neutrality in Germans eyes to breaking point.

As for the idea that if Pearl Harbour had not happened Britain would have “Fallen to Germany” that is not necessarily true. With out US involvement Britain had largely gained air superiority (winning the "battle Of Britain) over its own skys. A war game (after the war but using real commanders and assets on both sides) staged at Sandhurst (Officer training collage) Concluded that Operation Sea Lion (the German invasion of UK) was a fairly doomed enterprise ending in huge casualtys to Germany and eventual withdrawal. Britain at that time was riven with “Stop lines” traps and brave and near suicidal Home Guard posts to gain the time for the Navy to steam down from the North (ordered to stop for nothing, not mine fields or anything) which would have cut any cross channel links after six days.

One might argue that the US involvement in the war was greatly helped by Hollywood, films made about the war largely made by Jewish studio owners, who seemed to know more about what was going on that the general population.

The treaty did not oblidge Germany to declare war. In fact, Hitler’s decision to declare war against the US (against the unanimous opinion of his military advisors) was, put simply, a massive folly on his part.

There is simply no rational explanation for it. Nor, for that matter, for Hitler discouraging Japan from pursuing the “northern option”, that is, to attack the Soviets rather than the US/British/Dutch.

Forgive my ignorance; did Hitler still have a treaty with the Soviets at that point?

They did … up until the very moment of Barbarossa (that is, the Nazi sneak attack on the Soviets). Allegedly, Soviet shipments of supplies were crossing over to Germany as per treaty obligations right up to the day of the attack.

The Japanese were discouraged by Hitler from attacking the Soviets both before and after Barbarossa - a senseless attitude, because the Japanese decision to choose the “southern option” freed Stalin from facing a two-front war, enabling him to move the (large) army facing the Kwantung army in Manchuria to confront the Germans with it (ultimately driving them from the very gates of Moscow).

This German posture has never been explained in terms that made strategic sense. Combined with the German declaration of war on the US (again, not required by the purely defensive treaty with Japan), it seems that German grand strategy in WW2 was decided in a positively whimsical manner. It would have suited the Germans far better to (a) involve the Japanese against the Soviets; or, failing that, assuming the Japanese wished to attack the US: (b) encourage the US to pulverise Japan, thus distracting them into staying out of the european war.

Yes, the Molotiv-Ribbentrop treaty was still in force, and the USSR was scrupulously abiding by its obligations,
although Germany was not.

For example there is a famous story of the last USSR freight train crossing the frontier into German-held territory
right on time at approx. 3:00am 6/22/41 with a load of some material or another that the Germans needed.
In contrast the Germans would not even supply the Soviets with mere warship blueprints as they had agreed
under the terms of the treaty.

I thought the decision by the Japanese to head South versus North had to do with their urgent need for resources such as oil and rubber. Is that an oversimplification?

Heh, that’s the example I was thinking of.

Citation please. I doubt very much that Germany discouraged Japan from taking action against the USSR.

Incidentally, Japan had already taken action agains tthe USSR in 1938 in a little known campaign in Mongolia
known as Nomonhan of Khalkin Gol. The much more highly mechanized Soviet army inflicted a crushing defeat
on the Japanese. That plus the better developed resources of SE Asia probably induced Japan to leave the USSR
alone for the duration.

I read a book about this a few years ago. Ah yes, here it is.

The economic reasons were certainly a big motivator. But there was a cause-and-effect relationship here - the main reason why the Japanese were so hot on autarky was that the US was getting increasingly ansy about Japan’s threatening actions in China, and other moves to the “south” like the take-over of Indochina - and so threatened to cut supplies of materials it supplied that Japan needed.

The ultimate motivator was for Japan to grap a big empire, created by internal political reasons (essentially, ultra-nationalists assassinated anybody in Japan who opposed the “seize big empire” plan, and the military tolerated this because it gave them greater power) . Initially, it was indifferent to exactly where this empire was located; it tried the Soviets on for size and was decisively whipped, prior to WW2 (Zukov’s first major battle). China proved, at least initially, a far softer target.

Point here is that if the Japanese had attacked the Soviets instead of moving south, it is possible that the US would not have been as keen to blockade them; plus, many of the resourses Japan needed could have been seized if the Soviets were swiftly defeated.