Just watching Midway, and in the scene of Raymond Spruance taking command of the Midway Task Force, I remembered an old question that nagged me. Apparently, the US Navy equipped task forces and fleets with whole divisions of cruisers and destroyers as escorts. These divisions had their own commanders and staff carried on some division flagship.

Given that a division has typically consisted of 4 ships each, that seems like an awful lot of staff per task force. At the battle of Midway, that would imply 2 cruiser divisions and 4 destroyer division staffs. So why did the navy keep this organization in war time (or did it do so only in exceptional cases)? What was the purpose of e.g. a cruiser division staff attached to a carrier task force (which would probably never send her cruisers on a detached mission)?

edit: To add some more precision to my question: I understand the general concept of a chain-of-command that splits larger forces (armies, fleets) downwards into smaller pieces (corps, divisions, regiments/brigades, battalions, companies, platoons). However, in the army, if one of these formations has its own staff (e.g. a division or regiment), that staff has a clear operational role, e.g. a particular area of the front to defend. A task force is inherently a combination of different ships specialized in different roles (e.g. a destroyer squadron might be attached for air defence or ASW purposes). So when a cruiser division is attached, would the division's staff be handed over the task to deal with that division's role?

E.g. "Adm. Spruance, take your division and protect us from enemy cruisers! Adm. Foo, your destroyer division handles air defense for us and the cruisers! Adm. Bar your destroyers catch all submarines that might interfere with us, Adm. Spruance or Adm. Bar! Oh Admiral Baz, I forgot you command all the destroyers since coincidentally, they form a squadron. Sorry, but I have no task for you."?

Sorry for the ludicrous example, but I really have a hard time understanding how such a command structure would work during a real operation. Since different roles need to supplement each other, every staff would have to reconcile its plans with the all the others in the task force. That seems to imply a lot of friction. Why not task one (sufficiently equipped) staff aboard the flagship with all that?

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    Ideally a staff acts as a bridge between the commander and the final execution of orders, knowing the details he needs to make a decision and isolating him from others. So in your example, Admiral Foo gets an order to work on air defense. Part of the staff would go figure out where to get the ammo and fuel needed to do this and get it from the fleet staff, others would figure out plans with the commander and send out orders to ship captains and explain them...
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 0:22

4 Answers 4


There was always the possibility of a division or squadron acting independently. For example, the Americans learned, the hard way, that their destroyer squadrons were best allowed to attack independently in night surface actions. The squadron staff would prepare plans for this.

The staff were not large below the task force level. An added four or five officers out of a force that already had a hundred officers was not terribly great overhead.

The staff also had a lot of routine administrative duties, such as tracking fuel, ammunition, and stores consumption.


Cruisers, and other ships, were organized into groups, or divisions, that fought as a unit. Here was a U.S. naval Order of Battle.

This had little to do with sending such ships on "detached duty." These ships fought as units, or divisions with a given fleet (as they would in an "army,") and had division staffs administering them.

  • Do you have any in-depth information about this "fight as a unit"-thing? It seems like a waste of resources to have one operational staff for e.g. TF 11 that would in turn give orders to one CV, one DesRon and one CruDiv. From an operational PoV it seems to make more sense to mix cruisers and destroyers in that TF (e.g. for Air defense duty). I would really appreciate any insight into the operational command structure.
    – choeger
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 23:20
  • @choeger: One objective in creating units was to have groups of ships with similar speeds, capabilities, etc. That's why they tended to be uniform in kind, rather than "mixed." Some ships with "odd" characteristics were used for special tasks and formed "units" on their own.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 23:26

It is important to remember that much of the routine work in every military unit is deliberate, and quite sensible, make-work. This is necessary to provide both the training and the command and control redundancy required to cover casualties once combat starts in earnest.

Military forces that neglect this, such as the Austro-Hungarian Infantry in 1866, rapidly deteriorate under even the mildest of combat stresses:

Prussian conscript service was one of continuous training and drilling, in contrast to the Austrian army, where some commanders routinely dismissed infantry conscripts to their homes on permanent leave, soon after their induction into the army, retaining only a cadre of long-term soldiers for formal parades and routine duties. Austrian conscripts had to be trained almost from scratch, when they were recalled to their units on the outbreak of war.

Of course, one of the primary responsibilities of every commanding officer is to somehow make the make-work feel both real and important so that the expected benefits are actually achieved. Basing promotions, increased responsibility, and medals on the results and accomplishments of that work are part of that process.


A typical early war CV Task Force would have a carrier, a Division of cruisers (nominally a Division was usually 4, although they often had less than full strength) and a Squadron of Destroyers, made up of 2 Divisions of Destroyers, and a Squadron Leader. The DESRON (Destroyer Squadron) 'Commodore' was a Captain (Bird O-6) with a half dozen staff. The DESDIV (Destroyer Division) was no additional staff, usually just one of the ships captains (Silver Leaf O-5) of the group of ships. The CRUDIV (Cruiser Division) Rear Admiral was in charge of the Screen, and commanded any surface and anti submarine warfare. He also had a small staff, no sure of exact make up, but smaller than the Task Force Commander Staff. On the Carrier, their was a Carrier Air Group Commander who lead the Air Warfare aspects, a carrier Ships Captain, and a Task Force Commander (Rear Admiral O-8 typically.

Later in the war, when Task Forces 38 or 58 was full strength, a considerably larger command was in place with the TF Commander in charge of 4-5 Task Groups made up of 2-4 carriers each, several BATDIV (Battleship DIvisions), and multiple CRUDIV and DESRONs making up the force.

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