U.S. Navy: Undeclared Naval War--The Shooting War (1941)

Figure 1.--.

Escorting convoys meant that America was entering an undecalred naval war with Germany in the North Atlantic. The first U.S. freighter, the Robin Moor was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk May 21. The lifeboats were found June 10. Hitler was still intent on keeping America out of the War, especially as he was about to invade the Soviet Union, and ordered Doenitz's U-boats to avoid all U.S. warships. The U.S. destroyer Greer on September 4 attacked the U-652, eluded 2 torpedos. FDR on September 11 declared Greer attack was "piracy" as was the August 17 sinking of U.S.-Panamanian freighter Sessa killing 24 of 27 crew. Little discussed in the press was the fact that the United States and helped set of flag of convenience registrations in Panama to circuvent provisions of the Neutrality Acts. FDR also protested the September 5 sinking of U.S. freighter Steel Seafarer clearly flying U.S. flag. He gave the Navy orders to "shoot-on-sight". A Gallup poll showed 62 percent of Americans approved the deeping involvement in the War. The U.S. freighter Montana on September 11 was sunk en route to Iceland, but no one was killed. The armed U.S.-Panamanian freighter Pink Star sunk en route to Iceland carrying food. U.S.-Panamanian oil tanker I.C. White was sunk on September 27 en route to South Africa, three people were killed. U.S. tanker W.C. Teagle was sunk and U.S.-Panamanian freighter Bold Venture were sunk sunk on October 16. The U.S. destroyer Kearny on October 17 was torpedoed and damaged with 11 killed inside the Security Zone. The U.S. freighter Lehigh on October 19 was sunk in South Atlantic. Oct. 30 - U.S.-Panamanian armed tanker Salinas on October 30 was torpedoed and damaged. The U.S. destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed abd sunk inside the Security Zone on October 31, 115 crew members were killed. It was first U.S. warship lost to the U-boats. America well before Pearl Harbor was involved in an undeclared naval war with Germany. Hitler's frustration with this war, was one reason he declared war on America after Pearl Harbor.

Lend Lease (March 1941)

With the outbreak of the War in Europe President Roosevelt sought to support the Allies (September 1939), although he was constrained by the Neutrality Acts. The Fall of France brought the question of support for Britain to the fore. Here President Roosevelt had to consider if Britain could or would defy the NAZIs. Once the British made it clear they could and would, President Roosevelt initiated a rangeof effors including the shipment of needed war material nd the Bases for Dstroyers deal. This culminated in Lend Lease with essentially commited the United States to financing the British war effort. But obtining war material in America was only important if it could be transported to Britain. Thus passage of Lend Lease set in motion another step in American support for Britain, to what extent will the United States protect the trans-Atlantic convoys to Britain.

Reparing British Vessels

Changes in the Neutrality Acts and passage of Lend Lease opened new areas of cooperation with Britain. The British began repairing ships in American shipyards. This included capital ships like battleships. Repairing and refitting a battleship was a huge undertaking. Two World War I battleships were worked on by American shipyards before America actually entered the War. Like other actions undertaken by America, they were not the actiins of a neutral country and could be considered by Germany acts of War. Hitler wanted, however, to keep America out of the ar until he defeated the Red Army in ashort summer offensive. HMS Malaya was launched in 1915. She participated in the Battle of Jutland during which she sustained eightwhich took 8 weeks to repair. She was deployed to the Mediterranean during World War II (1940) and was involved in actions afainst the Italian Navy. She was also used for convoy escort along the coast of West Africa. U-106 torpedi\oed her there (March 1941). Sge was repaired in the United States. HMS Resolution was laid down in 1915 and launched in 1916. She was deployed to the 1st battle squadron of the Grand Fleet. After the War she joined the 2nd battle squadron Atlantic Fleet and became Flagship of the 1st battle squadron in The Mediterranean (1919). With the out break of World War II she was used in the Home Fleet on Atlantic Convoy duties (1939-40). She was then refitted in theUnited States (1941). Two more battleships were repaired after Ameruca entered the War.

United States Western Hemisphere Security Zone (April 1941)

The 300-mile Western Hemisphere Security Zone on April 10, 1941. was extended to 26°W longitude including Greenland and the Azores April 10, 1941). This extended the area east in which the U.S. Navy was authorized to escort convoys to Britain. Escorting convoys meant that America was entering an undecalred naval war with Germany in the North Atlantic. The Red Sea was also removed from list of forbidden combat zones, allowing lend-lease supplies to reach the British in North Africa.

Niblank Incident (April 1941)

The U.S. destroyer Niblack on April 11 fired 3 depth charges at a German U-boat, the first such action by a U.S. Navy vessel, beginning an undeclared naval war. Notably there was no surge in war sentiment among the American public as a result of this and subsequent incidents. This was afact that President Roosevelt who closely watched the public opinion polls.

Observation Patrols (April 1941)

The U.S. Navy was ordered to begin "observation patrols" in the Security Zone (April 24).

Robin Moor Sunk (May 1941)

A German U-boat sunk The first U.S. freighter, the Robin Moor (May 21). The lifeboats were found (June 10). There was no great public reaction in the United States.

Hitler's Orders (June 21, 1941)

Hitler was intent on keeping America out of the War, especially as he was about to invade the Soviet Union. He ordered Dönitz's U-boats to avoid all U.S. warships. After an incident with the USS Texas (June 20), Admiral Dönitz signaled the U-boat fleet, "Führer orders avoidance any incident with USA during next few weeks. Order will be rigidly obeyed in all circumstances. In addition attacks till further orders will be restricted to cruisers, battleshiops, and air craft carriers and then only when identifued beyond doubt as hostile. Fact that warship is sailing without lights will not be regarded as proof of enemy identity." [Dönitz, pp. 189-190.] This greatly complicated U-boat operations. It was not always possible to identify the nationality of the vessels targtted. Another problem was that with American and British/Canadian vessels intermingled, the U-boats were not always sure how to respond to the escorts. The restrictins according to Admiral Dönitz "... meant that the U-boats could no longer attack their most dangerous enemies, the destroyers, frigates and corvettes, whether British or of any other nationality. With this intermingling of British and American naval forces the U-boats found themselves in a situation which was unique in the history of war. All the British employed on anti-submarine duties pursued the U-boats with every means they possessed, while the latter had passively to suffer all their attacks without trying to defend themselves or strike a counter-blow." [Dönitz, p. 190.] It is interesting to read these NAZI accounts. Dönitz complained bitterly that Roosevelt frustrated "all the efforts made by Germany to prevent a deterioration of relations". He explains that "Roosevelt wanted war". [Dönitz, p. 190.] This from a leader of a country that had just invaded and occupied 13 countries. Dönitz and other NAZIs were outraged when countries actually resisted

Occupying Iceland (July 1941)

Britain had occupied Iceland at the time that the Germans launced their Western offensive (May 1940). Churchill ws not prepared to risk a posible German invasion, however, remote. Iceland provided important air bases to protect Atlantic convoys. Churchill was anxious for the Americans to replace British forces. Not only did he want to redeploy the units, but American occupation of Iceland would be one more step in drawing America into the War. Iceland was located well east of the American Western Hemisphere Security Zone. It also would put American forces in the middle of waters where U-boats wee actively attacking convoys. American and British military staff in joint discussions agreed that if America entered the War that they woud assume responsibility for Iceland. Admiral Stark advised the President that the United States should replace the British forces. He convinced the President who by this time had concluded that the America public would coutence such steps as long as they were short of war. The President insisted that the Icelandic Government formally invite American intervention. The Icelandic Government did so (July 1). The President then announced that the United States would supplement or replace the British forces on the island (July 7). The President ordered the Marines to Iceland. The Mries were chosen because the Army forces being ofrmed as aresult of the Selective Serive Act at the time could not be deployed outsde he Western Hemisphere. The Marines were all volunteers without this legal restriction on their deployment. Hitler had kept his U-boats out of the American Western Hemisphere Security Zone. Now President Roosevelt had moved American forces further east in the middle of the area where he Royal Navy was batteling U-boats. Incidents between the U,S. Naby and German U-bots were inevitable.

Atlantic Charter (August 1941)

President Roosevelted suggested a meeting which Prime-Minister Churchill quickly afreed to. The two had for nearly 2 years been cmmunicating with private letters. Churchill repportedly assumed that the Roosevelt had a major announcement concerning Ameican involvement in the war. He was to be disappointed with this. Roosevelt and Churchill met aboard American and British warships at Placencia Bay, Canada. There were extended private discussions. There is no record of these discussions, but Churchill reported to the Cabinent that the President told him that America would enter the War as a result of incidents with U-boats in the North Atlntic. There is no reason to believe that this is not what the President told him. That this did not come about is probably the result that the American public did not react as Roosevelt expected to thecincidents that did occur. They supported the OPresident's actions in the North Alantic, but continued to oppose any declaratin of war on Germany. While the meeting and resulting Atlantic Charter is today seen as an important step in establishing Allied war aims and the Allied commitment to democracy, it was not seen as a major event at the time by either the American or British press. The major importance as regards the War was cementing the personal relationship between thectwo leaders. The joint church service under the big guns of Prince of Wales which had batteled Bismarck was a moving experienced for both Rosevelt and Churchill as well as the military prsonel involved.

Sessa Sinking (August 1941)

U-boats sank the U.S.-Panamanian freighter Sessa killing 24 of 27 crew (August 17). Little discussed in the press was the fact that the Roosevelt Administration and helped set of flag-of-convenience registrations in Panama to circumvent provisions of the Neutrality Acts concerning American shipping. The Acts were designed specifically to prevent America to be dragged into war through U-boat attacks as had occurred in World War I. The flag-of-convenience registrations enabled the Admistration to use American-owned ships to get American war material to Britain.

Steel Seafarer Sinking (September 1941)

A U-boat sank the U.S. freighter Steel Seafarer clearly flying U.S. flag (September 5). The Roosevelt Administration protested the snking, but there was still no public outrage.

Greer Incident (September 1941)

The U.S. destroyer Greer provided the turning point for the developing war in the North Atlantic. The action the Greer was in fact muddeled. It was a direct result of the American occupation of Iceland (September 4). A British bomber flying an air patrol very early in the morning spotted the U-652 about 165 miles south of Iceland. The nearest ship was the Greer which was carryng mail and a small number of military passengers to Iceland. Under the terms of engagement operating at the time, the Greer as it was not escoring a convoy did not have the authority to engage the U-boat. The Greer's captain decided to follow the U-boat for more than an hour. It signaled the British bomber with sonar readings which allpwed the bomber to drop depth charges without result. The bomber retrned to base. Greer continued the pursuit allowing another Britush bomber to drop depth charges, again without result. After 4 hours the U-boat captain smarting from the depth charges and fearing his btteries might run out, forcing him to the surface, fired two torpedoes at Greer. It is unclear if he knew he was firing at an American ship or if he was aware who had dropped the depth charges. Both torpedoes missed. The Greer responded with a depth charge attack, but inflicting only minor damage. An hour and a half later, a Royal Navy destroyer finally reached the area had comenced a depth charge attack, but without result. The Greer later in the afternoon launched another depth charge attack, but by this time did not have agood fix on the U-652. Finally with the approach of evening the Greer broke off the action and proceeded to Iceland. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 168-73.] This was, however, just the beginning of the affair which proved to be the turning point in the American commitment to escort Atlantic convoys.

Shoot on Site Order (September 11)

President Roosevelt declared that the U-boat attack on the Greer was "piracy" (September 11). As a result of the Greer incident, the President ordered the U.S. Navy to "shoot-on-sight" any German or Italian ships found in rotected zones. Mussolini had brought Italy into the War (June 1940). He explained this order to the Anerican people in one of his fire-side chats, "The Greer was flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable. She was then and there attacked by a submarine. Germany admits that it was a German submarine. The submarine deliberately fired a torpedo at the Greer, followed by another torpedo attack. In spite of what Hitler's propaganda bureau has invented, and in spite of what any American obstructionist organization may prefer to believe, I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with the deliberate design to sink her." The President described the German action as 'an act of piracy'. He then spelled out the 'shoot on sight' order. He explained that the "... very presence in any waters which America deems vital to its defense constitutes an attack. In the waters which we deem necessary for our defense, American naval vessels and American planes will no longer wait until Axis submarines lurking under the water, or Axis raiders on the surface of the sea, strike their deadly blow—first." He then concluded, "The aggression is not ours. [Our concern] is solely defense. But let this warning be clear. From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril. . . . The sole responsibility rests upon Germany. There will be no shooting unless Germany continues to seek it." A Gallup poll subsequently showed 62 percent of Americans approved the President's action.

Continued Sinkings (September-October 1941)

The U.S. freighter Montana was sunk en route to Iceland, but no one was killed (September 11). A U-boat sank the armed U.S.-Panamanian freighter Pink Star en route to Iceland carrying food (September 19). The Pink Star was a Danish ship registered in Panama. After the German invasiin of Denmark it had bee reuisitioned by the U.S. Maritime Commission. A U-boat sank the U.S.-Panamanian oil tanker I.C. White en route to South Africa, three people were killed (September 27). U-boats sank the U.S. tanker W.C. Teagle and U.S.-Panamanian freighter Bold Venture (October 16). The most notable aspect of these sinkings was the absence of any great public outcry. There was nothig like the public outrage resulting from the Lusitania sinking during World War I. It is unclear why the public reaction was so muted. Isolationists like Lindbrg hd charged that the President wasattempting to drag the country into the war in Europe. The most likely explanation is the deep desire of the American people to sry out of the War. A U-boat sank the U.S. freighter Lehigh in the South Atlantic (October 19). A U-boat torpedoed and damaged the U.S.-Panamanian armed tanker Salinas (October 30). The sinkings did, however, raise the issue of the need to revise the Neutality Acts, especially regarding the arming of merchant shipping.

Kearny Incident (October 1941)

The USS Kearny (DD-432), was a brand new Gleaves-class destroyer launched (1940) as part of America's military build-up program. Kearny was deployed for patrols around San Juan, Puerto Rico, and escorted ships in the Norfolk, Virginia area. Then she was ordered to Naval Station Argentia (Newfoundland) (August 1941). It is here that the British formed convoys for North Atlantic convoys. Kearney was ordered to assist in escort duties. A German Wolf Pack torpedoed three merchant ships in a Canadian-escorted convoy (October 16). The night-long attack took place south of Iceland within the U.S. Security Zone. Kearney responded to distress calls and acquired a U-boat on its sonar. It began dropping depth charges and continued the attack throughout the night. At the onset of the midwatch, U-568 hit Kearney amidships on the starboard side with a torpedo (October 17). Kearney's crew managed to confine flooding to the forward fire room and with partial power get clear of the fire zone and evebntually make it to Iceland (October 19). There were 11 crewmen killed and 22 others injured. [Kershaw, p. 324-25.] Tese wre the first American servicemen killed by theGermans in the War. President Roosevelt seized on the incident. He dlivered an incerary speech on Navy and Total Defense Day (October 27). It was his most aggressive speech in te period before Pearl Harbor. He began by telling the audience, "We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded wjo fired the first shot. America has been attacked." The actual circumstances were rather more ambiguous. The U-boats had fired the first shots, but at the Canadian convoy. It was Kearney that had fired first at the U-boat. The President proclaimed, "hItler's torpedo was directed at every American." He claimed that Hitler was attempting "to frighten the American people off the High Seas -- to force us to make a tembling retreat." He referred to secret maps and NAZI plans to eraducate religion which subseuently proved to be British plants. The President confirmed his previous orders to shoot on sight and the need to arm American merchant men. It sounded to many as if the present was close to asking for a declaration of war. This was, however, not the case. Even at this stage he was not at all sure he could get Congressional approval and even if he did it would be a narrow vote exposing a deeply divide nation.

Ruben James (October 1941)

A U-boat sank the U.S. destroyer Reuben James inside the Security Zone (October 31). There were 115 members of the crew killed. It was first U.S. warship lost to the U-boats. This occurred only 4 days after his firey speech. Surprisingly the President did not respond with another incendiary speech even though this time a U.S. Navy ship had been sunk. Some of his advisers were surprised by his lack of action. As the President left no memoirs, historians can only speculate as to his thought process. He seems to have concluded that public opinion could not be aroused to war by these incidents in the North Atlantic. He appears to have decided to focus on the revisions of the Neutrality Acts and await events. He was not going to take a deeply divided country into the War.

Arming Merchantmen (November 1941)

The President asked the Congress to arm merchantmen and for permission for them to make deliveries to beligerent ports (October 9, 1941). This meant Britain and now the Soviet Union. It was also the final end of the Neutrality Acts. The President wrote, "We will not let Hitler prescribe the waters of the world on which our ships may travel. We cannot permit the affirmative defense of our rights to be annulled and diluted by sections of the Neutrality Act which have no realism in the light of unscrupulous ambitions of madmen. .... We intend to maintain ... the freedom of the seas against the domination by any foreign power which had become crazed with a desire to control the world."

Final Revisions of the Neutrality Act (November 1941)

President Roosevelt as a result of the U-boat attcks on American shipping proposed revision of the 1939 Neutrality Act so that U.S. merchant ships could be armed (October 9). The President at his Navy Day speech claimed "America has been attacked" and that he had a German map of Americas (October 27). After the sinking of the Ruben James, a Gallup poll on November 5 showed 81 percent of Americans favored arming merchant ships and 61 percent favored American ships entering the war zones. The Senate approved revision of the Neutrality Act 50-37 (November 7). It was the closest vote since 1939. The House of Representives approved revision by an even closer vote 212-194. This allowed the arming of merchant vessels and it permitted U.S. ships to enter both combat zones abd belligerent ports.

Hitler Declares War (December 1941)

The "incident" that President Roosevelt expected to come in the North Atlantic. Public opinion polls showed that while the American people were willing tofollow the President in "all acts short of war", tey were clearly not disposed to go to warcagainst Germany as aresult of attacks on American shipping. President Roosevelt was reaching the conclusion that only an actual attack on American territory would create support for American entry into the War. This was not something that Hitler would order, nor did he have the capability of doing this. Japan did and it was in the Pacific that the attack came. Hitler in the end decided to declare war on America. Hiler like Roosevelt left no memoirs explaining his actios. Historians still debate why he took this action. It was not required under the Axis Tripartate Treaty which was a defensive alliance. Having failed to defeat first Britain and now the Soviet Union as anticipated, declaring war on America seems an insane act. It defies his basuic strategy of conquering Europe and only then turning on America. Some historians believe that by joining Japan in the war with America that he expected the Japanese to reciprocate by entering the war against the Soviet Union. This is not unlikely. It is also likely that the cat-and-mouse game in the North Atlantic had weigned heavily on Hitler'psyche. His mind set was to strike out at his enemies. The failure of Barbarossa must have been a huge blow to him. Hitler's frustration with being forced to restrict his U-boats was one reason he declared war on America after Pearl Harbor. We suspect that he coould no longer restrain his desire to strike out at Roosevelt and the Americans. It was an emotional rather than a reasoned action. Whatever the reason, it relieved Roosevelt of the need to convince the Congress to declare war on NAZI Germany which would not have been a simple matter. .


Bailey, Thomas A. and Paul B. Ryan. Hitler vs. Roosevelt: The Undecalared Naval War ((New York, 1979).

Dönitz, Karl. Memoirs.

Kershaw, Ian. Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941 (Penguin Press: New York, 2007), 624p.


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Created: 6:04 AM 1/1/2009
Last updated: 2:18 AM 2/21/2013