War and Social Upheaval: World War II Naval Campaigns (1939-45)


Figure 1.--From the very beginning of the World War II, the daring exploits of German U-boat commanders and men made them heros in Germany. Many German boys were entralled with their achievements. This image is undated, but almost certainly was taken during World War II. German boys when sailor suits were more common usally had their Landen (state) on their cap tallies. This boy has the number of a specific U-boat, the U9. The U9 was one of the most fabeled U-boat of World WarI. In the opening months of World War I, the U9 sank three Royal Navy cruisers, "Aboukir", "Hogue", and "Cressy".

The naval campaigns are often given superficial coverage in assessments of World War II in Europe. In fact, the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. Churchill was to write after the War that it was the the loss Battle of the Atlantic that was the only thing he feared. Battles could be lost or won, but the cutting of Britain's life lines to the Dominions and especially America would have made it impossible for Britain to have continued the War. It was no accident that Anglo-American military cooperation began in the North Atlantic well before America entered the War. Hitler on the other hnd gave lttle attention to the U-boat fleet until after the War began. The Germans with U-boats, surface fleet, and long range aircraft hope to cut off Britain from its Empire and supply from the United States. Although neutral in the early years of the War, President Roosevelt was determine to support the Allies. The fall of France in 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. German u-boat operations proved highly effective, despite the fact that Hitler launched the War years beore the Kriegsmarine was prepared. Even before America entered the War, the U.S. Navy was deployed in the North Atlantic to protect British convoys. It was a Japanese carrier attack that brought America into the War. The Japanese Imperial Fleet was a superbly trained force with modern, well designed vessels. Many did not fully appreciate the effectivness of the Imperial Navy. The lack of radar, however, proved a huge disadvantage. While Pearl Harbor was a stunning tactical victory, it was a strategic blunder by the Japanese of incaluable proportions. American industrial capacity soon created a naval force with which Japan could not cope. Anglo-American naval and scientific cooperaion resulted in the defeat of the u-boat campain by 1943. Combined with American construction of liberty ships, not only was Britain kept supplied, but America assembled a massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall. While the German submarine campaign in the North Atlantic failed, the American submarine campaign in the Pacific proved spectacularly successful. The Japanese merchant marine was almost completely destroying, cutting the country's war industries off from supplies and bringing the country close to starvation.

Arms Limitations

Arms limitations is a modern concept. Until the 20th century there had never been a significant arms liberations treaty. The only real limitation was economic capacity to sustain military spending. World War I was of such enormous proportions that thart the nations of the wirld considered arms limitations for the first time. Another factor was that the Germans after their defeat and the Treaty of Versailles were no longer a factor. The subject arose concerning naval limiitations because building big-gun battle ships was enormously expensive. Here America led the way. No country, even the British, had the capacity or economic power to compete with the United States. The result was the Washington Naval Talks (1921-22). Here American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes shocked the participants by not only proposing limits on new construction, but the scrapping of other ships. The resulting agreemnents significantly affected the naval forces which existed at the outset of World War II. Subsequent efforts to extend the Washington Agreements into the 1930s failed (1930 and 35). Another agreement of importance a decade later was the Anglo German Naval Agteement (1935) by which Britain unsucessfully attempted to limit German naval construction.

Grand Strategy

World War II was launched by German Führer Adolf Hitler and his Soviet ally when they invaded Poland (September 1939). Hitler had no planned to launch another world war, he had convinced himself that the British and French as at Munich would not fight. He seems to have been oblivious to how his invasion of Czechoslovakia (March 1939) in total violation of the pledges made at Munich would mean that the Allies would never again consider negitiation with him. Hitler did not seriously consider naval warfare when he invaded Poland. He still thought that he could arrange an understanding with Britain. And he thought that a victory in the East would provide Germany the resources needed to fight a protracted war if necessary. And the resources of the East could not be ibterdicted by a naval blockade. Only after the British proved intracrible and the U-boats unexpectedly proved a foirmidable weapon did Hitler warm to naval warfare. For the British, after the fall of France, the naval war became not just important, but a matter of national survival. Only if th sealanes to Ameica and the Dominions could be kept open could Britain avoid defeat. And only through these sealanes could America bring its enormous industrial power to bear on NAZI Germany. For Japan it was aifferent matter. Japan had been fighting aand war in China for several years. America was increasing its fiplomsatic and material support for Chima, nuch to the outrage of Japanese militarists. Japan joined the Axis (1940) to discourage the Americans. The impact was the exact opposite. Japanese expansion in China and Indochina (Vietnam) prompted increasingly severe leading to an oil embargo, The result was the Japanese wjho had been considering striking north against the Sioviet Union decided on striking south abd war with America and Britain. This meant a naval war aimed at securingthe oil and others resources of Southeast Asia needed fight a war. Like the Germans, the Japanse were gambling that they could gain crippling early victories before America could mobilize ad bring its enormous industrial strength to bear. And to this the Japanese had ammassed a powerful carrier force which unbeboghst to the United States was superbly trained and equipped.

National Naval Forces

Several countries had important navies at the outset of Wotld War II. The two largest navies were the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. Since Trafalgar (1805), the Royal Navy had dominated the seas with anaval force more than powerful than any other two coutries. Britain, after World War I, unable to win a naval armns race with America, decided to accept parity. Efforts at naval arms limitations have American and Britain the right to build the largest navies because of their need for a two-oceaan navy. Both countries retired ships, but built a naval air arm. Japan objected to these limitations, although it actually beneditted from them. Eventually Japan withdrew from the limitation efforts. Japan was the only other country to build a carrier force. Neither Anerica or Britain fully appreciatee the quality of the Japanese air arm, especially the training and the effectiveness of new Mitsubishi Zero and Long Lance torpedo. The Japanese did not, however, have radar even though their German allies had developed it. One of many examples of the failure of the Axis alliance. Both France and Italy had powerful, but smaller navies. The French had a powerful fleet. Both the French and Italian were renowned for the speed of their cruisers. The Italian vessels, however, were lightly armored and had no carriers. And despite the Axis alliance had no radar. This was in sharp contrast to the Americabsitish who cooperated closely in tchnology like radar and sonar. The French fleet was a counter to the Italian fleet in the Medityerranean, but we sorely test the Royal Navy. The Anglo-German Naval Treaty (1935) relieved Germany from many of the naval restrctions of the Versailles Treaty. The German naval high command wanted an impressive surface fleet, but Germany's limited industrial capacity made that impossible. As a result, only minor resources were allocated to U-bpat construction before the War. This changed after the War began and the U-boat proved toi be Germany's most potent naval weapon. It was not the Germans, however, that conducted the only successful commerce war. It was the American submarine force which virtually destroyed the Japanese merchant marine and cut Japan off from the resources it won in its Southern Resource Zone. Southeast Asia. Canada had almost no nacy t the beginning of te War, but built a massive navy to escort Atlantic convoys.

Shipbuilding Capacity

Shipbuilding capacity was not a factor that weighed very heavily with Hitler who launched the European War and the Japanese who launched the Pacific War. Hitler in his personal assessment gave no real consideratiuin to naval warfare, let alone shipbuilding capacity. As war approached, the vBritish began expanding naval consruction, but could not meet the enormous needs of either the Royal Navy or merchant marine. Japan's war with America, the Pacific War, was from the beginning to be a naval war. The range of aircraft at the beginning of the War caused the Japanese to think almost entirely of naval operations. The Japanese realized that Ameica had a much larger industrial capacity, but they believed that their naval offensive would be so oiverwealming that America would not be willing to wage a costly and bloody offensive to expel Japan from its newly one empire. And thus in a short war, shipbuilding capacity would not be important. When the German and Japanese plans to win the War in a short early campaign, ship building became one of the nost important factors in the War. Germany began building improved U-boats, but almost entirely at shipyards in the Reich and not occupied countries. The Italians had alimited capoasbility to buold ships and their yards were vulbnerable to British strikes. The Japanese set about expanding ship consruction, but could not possible match the capacity of American yards. It was in America that naval construction became a major factor in winning the War. America had the world's largest ship building csapsacity. But it also had enormous needs. And it need the Japanese carrier attack on Pear Harbor (December 1941), it and its allies needed the new ships immediately, not a year or two later. America speeded up the productioin of war ships. New carriers began reaching the fleet in lsarge nunbers a year after Pearl. American industrialist Henry Kaiser revolutionalized the construction of merchant shipping. This was \critical because a huge new fkleet was needed to get Lend Lease supplies to America's allies as well as to supply American soldu\iers and airmen in far flung locations. Soon American yards including some brand new ones were routely turrning out ships in a few weeks. This was beyond the expectations of the noist optimistic Allied planners. And cetanly the wildest expectations of Axis leaders. In addition, Canadian yards beganb tuning out the escort vessels that would play a key role in the North Atlantic.

Ocean Areas

World War II began in Europe with the NAZI and Soviuet invasion of Poland (September 1939). German U-boats immediatedly opened the Battle of the Atlantic, arguably the most important campaign of the War. Neither the British Royal Navy or the German Kreigsmarine were prepared for the War. Neither had expected the U-boat to bevso effective, but the Germans quickly realized they possessed a formidable weapon and expanded production of improied types. The fall of France provided Atalnic bases that made the U-bosats even more deadly. For Britain, defeating the the U-boats was more than a matter if winning the War, it was a matter of national survival. And the U.S. Navy would join the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic even before America entered the War. Failure here woukld have cut iff Britain from America abd the Dominions. With the fall of France some British leaders counceled evacuating Malta and withdrawing from the Meditrranean. Churchill and the War cadinebt decided toi fight it out with the Italians in a series of epic sea battles. Malta became the nosdt bombed place in the War. It survived in part because of an American carrier (badly needed in the POacific) delivered fighters and American tanker running the gauntlett of Axis airpower. The Japanese carrier attack opened the Pacific War. It would be the most titanic naval wae in history fought out in the virtusally limitless expnse of ocean. And the carrier would revolutionize naval warfare. The magnificent Japanse First Air Fleet was decimasted at Midway obly 6 months after Pear Harbor. The Americans and British decided at the onset to give primority to the fight asgainst Germany. Even so, shipos and supplies from America arrived at a level that the Japanese could not match. The Allies launched two Paciic campasi\ns. One by the Army in the South Pcific and the other by the Navy in the Central Pacific. The conquest of the Matinas (June 1944) brought the Japanese Home Islands in the range of American bombers. A few months late the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944) fought the lasrgest battle in the history of naval warfare, virtully destroying what was left of the Imperial Navy.

Ship Types

Naval warfare changed fundamentally durfung World War II. Some naval visionaries like Yamaoto and Halsey had seen this change coming, but the naval establishments until Pearl Harbor had seen big-gun battleships as the backbone of a naval force and the ships that would settle major fleet engagements. This concept which held since the days of the Spanish Armada began to change with the British carrier attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto (November 1940) and the sinking of the massive Bismarck (March 1941). The Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor changes this concept in two hours by sinking or destroying the eight battleships of the American Pacific Fleet (December 1941). The United States Navy, even the big gun battleship devotees, had no option, but to base naval operations on the Pacific fleet carriers which survived the attack. And the success of the attack convinced the Japanese that the carrier had become the new capital ships. Most of the Japanese carriers execuring the Pearl Harbor attack were sunk at Midway. The American carrier Enterprise was involved in the Midway victory and the major Pacific campaigns. Despite the emergence of the carrier, the Japanese devoted huge resources to build two super battleships--Yamato and Musashi. The Imperial Navy planned to build 13 of these massive ships. The Pacific War, the largest naval conflict in history, would be dominated by the carriers and their air compliments. The new fast battleships and smaller ships were assigned the role of protecting the carriers. Older battleships were relegated to softening up invasion beaches. Important battles were fought by the traditional ship types primarily because carriers were not available. This proved to be the case in the Solomoms becauise the existing carriers were sunk or put out of action. Cruisers and destroyers were left to slug it out in the restricted waters of the Solomons. This was also the case in the Mediterranean because the British had so few carriers. Submarines became key players in both the Pacific and Atlantic. Several navies, including the Germans and Japanese had major submarine forces. The only successful submarine campasign, however, was fought by the Naval warfare changed fundamentally durfung World War II. Some naval visionaries like Yamaoto and Halsey had seen this change coming, but the naval establishments until Pearl Harbor had seen big-gun battleships as the backbone of a naval force and the ships that would settle major fleet engagements. This concept which held since the days of the Spanish Armada began to change with the British carrier attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto (November 1940) and the sinking of the massive Bismarck (March 1941). The Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor changes this concept in two hours by sinking or destroying the eight battleships of the American Pacific Fleet (December 1941). The United States Navy, even the big gun battleship devotees, had no option, but to base naval operations on the Pacific fleet carriers which survived the attack. And the success of the attack convinced the Japanese that the carrier had become the new capital ships. Most of the Japanese carriers execuring the Pearl Harbor attack were sunk at Midway. The American carrier Enterprise was involved in the Midway victory and the major Pacific campaigns. Despite the emergence of the carrier, the Japanese devoted huge resources to build two super battleships--Yamato and Musashi. The Imperial Navy planned to build 13 of these massive ships. The Pacific War, the largest naval conflict in history, would be dominated by the carriers and their air compliments. The new fast battleships and smaller ships were assigned the role of protecting the carriers. Older battleships were relegated to softening up invasion beaches. Important battles were fought by the traditional ship types primarily because carriers were not available. This proved to be the case in the Solomoms becauise the existing carriers were sunk or put out of action. Cruisers and destroyers were left to slug it out in the restricted waters of the Solomons. This was also the case in the Mediterranean because the British had so few carriers. Submarines became key players in both the Pacific and Atlantic. Several navies, including the Germans and Japanese had major submarine forces. The only successful submarine campasign, however, was fought by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. The most important naval campaign of the War was fought in the North Atlantic against the German U-boats which were defeated by a combined effort of the U.S. Navy , the British Royal Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy. Destroyer esorts were developed for convoy duty and jeep carriers provuide air cover in the mid-ocean gap. Many new vessel types emerged during the War, including PT-boats and a variety of landing craft. Ships like the Landing Ship Tant (LST), better known as Large Slow Targets revolutionized amphibious operations.








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Created: August 20, 2002
Last updated: 5:55 AM 2/19/2011