3-609 Editorial Note on Air Operations in the Antisubmarine Effort, 1943

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on Air Operations in the Antisubmarine Effort

March-April 1943

During the first three weeks of March 1943 German submarines sank over three-quarters of a million tons of shipping in the North Atlantic southeast of Greenland “in an area not yet covered by air search.” Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson later wrote, “The President sent a sharp note of inquiry to Marshall and King as to the air dispositions planned to meet this threat.” (Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948], p. 512.) The strategic American response to the submarine threat depended upon the proper employment of aircraft resources, which remained controversial partly because of long-standing army-navy rivalries. The Army Appropriations Act of 1920 had assigned all land-based aircraft to the army, while the navy controlled all sea-based aviation. The army and navy disagreed over the proper tactics to employ against the submarine. The army wished to use aircraft to respond only when submarines were reported in contact with surface craft, while the navy wished to maintain constant aviation presence over naval convoys. (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939-May 1943, a volume in the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947], pp. 237-43; Craven and Cate, eds., Europe: TORCH to POINTBLANK, pp. 380-83.)

Secretary of War Stimson had suggested to President Roosevelt in late March that more effective use could be made of land-based aircraft in the campaign against the German U-boat fleet. The president directed Stimson to discuss the matter with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox; Stimson formally communicated with Knox on April 1, after discussions with Generals Marshall and Arnold. (Stimson to Roosevelt, April 1, 1943, NA/RG 107 [SW Safe, 74A].)

Since May 1942 the Army Air Forces had been successfully experimenting with a variety of electronic antisubmarine devices under naval operational control. “The present Army Air Forces Anti-Submarine Command which was a product of that experimental unit,” wrote Stimson, “has been doing good service under Naval operational control. I now feel that the ever increasing submarine menace justifies a reorganization of the existing Army Air Forces Anti-Submarine Command, creating within it a Special Anti-Submarine Task Force to conduct air offensives against hostile submarines.” The secretary of war proposed establishing an independent army antisubmarine air task force equipped with the latest material, which would be mobile enough to move to sectors with current priority and thus increase protection over vital sea lanes. Stimson suggested that the army task force commander would coordinate his activities with naval command, proceeding to areas recommended by the navy. Since mobility was most important to this proposal, he suggested that the task force commander be able to use army or navy bases as the situation dictated. (Stimson to the Secretary of Navy, April 1, 1943, ibid.) Knox replied to Stimson that Allied naval representatives had decided to divert VLR aircraft from other missions to antisubmarine duties, which should be completed by early July 1943. Allocation of VLR aircraft for the antisubmarine campaign had been agreed to by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and he suggested that the allocation of additional VLR aircraft to form the task force proposed by Stimson should be approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Knox had referred Stimson’s letter to Admiral Ernest J. King for comment, and he enclosed King’s response, with which he agreed. (Knox to the Secretary of War, April 5, 1943, ibid.)

Admiral King was opposed to the formation of an independent army air task force consisting of VLR aircraft. Detection of individual submarines by air was almost an impossibility, he insisted, and even in areas such as the Bay of Biscay where U-boats must congregate in transit, Royal Air Force experience had demonstrated only one contact in 250 flying hours. Submarines were definitely locatable and subject to sustained attack in building yards, submarine bases, and in the vicinity of convoys. He intended to increase formation of “killer” groups operating in the convoy areas, coordinating aircraft and naval surface craft. Admiral King declared that all efforts directed against the U-boat should be under a unified command system, a naval command system. In the British military the Admiralty exercised operational control of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command, and King stated that the British experience demonstrated this to be the only reasonable course. He pointed out that currently Army Air Forces antisubmarine forces were under the operational command of the navy and when additional VLR aircraft became available “every consideration of unity of effort and efficiency requires that they should be under the operational control of the Headquarters, Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet.” (King Memorandum for the Secretary of the Navy, April 5, 1943, ibid.)

Concerned with air operations in the antisubmarine effort, General Marshall submitted the following proposal to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #3-610 [3: 651-52].)

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 3, “The Right Man for the Job,” December 7, 1941-May 31, 1943 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 649-650.

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