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In the fall of 1940, the U.S. and Great Britain made the so-called "destroyer deal," of 50 old American destroyers in exchange for the use of British bases ranging from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. That made sense because it would be more a year before the Americans got into World War II.

When America got into the war, the German U-boats enjoyed their "Second Happy Time" from January to midsummer 1942. That's because few American ships sailed in convoys, and the ones that did had few escort vessels. Only by late summer/early fall did the Americans even begin to take countermeasures such as establishing escorted convoys.

How many (or few) destroyers or other escort vessels did the Americans deploy between January-July 1942 in the Atlantic? How did they compare in efficiency with the destroyers that had been exchanged? What role did the acquired bases play in anti-submarine warfare in the same period?

  • Even if they "needed the destroyers" there is also the issue if they had the crews to man them. – SJuan76 Jul 28 at 22:47
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    "Need"? Obviously not. Look at how the war turned out ... – only_pro Jul 29 at 20:35
  • @only_pro: We were LOSING the war in January-July 1942. Things turned out well "later." So the supposed period of "need" was January-July 1942. – Tom Au Jul 29 at 21:57
  • @TomAu Right. And we obviously didn't "need" it. Because of how the war turned out. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but it's accurate nonetheless. – only_pro Jul 30 at 16:17
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No.

It is true the US Coastal Command found itself with a lack of ASW assets in Dec 1941. According to uboat.net the Eastern Sea Frontier had...

However, the 50 old destroyers would not have made a significant difference. More assets would be brought in from other commands. The US's failure was more about organization and tactics than material.

Operation Paukenschlag ("Drumbeat") was initially conducted by just 5 long range U-Boats with 16 more to follow, a threat even a small but well coordinated ASW fleet could contain. Only later would shorter range U-Boats be able to operate and the numbers of U-Boats operating in US waters rose above 100.

The loaned destroyers were old, poorly maintained, WW1 surplus vessels poorly suited to submarine work. It took the British months to bring some into service. The resulting Town class destroyers were not well received by the British. For the British it was less about the destroyers, and more about opening the Anglo-American military partnership. The US would have to defend their newly leased bases on British territory allowing the British to transfer assets elsewhere.

While the US was severely lacking in modern ASW assets, the 2nd Happy Time came about because the US was slow to organize proper anti-submarine defenses. During their massive shipbuilding program they neglected dedicated ASW assets instead concentrating on fast fleet destroyers. Despite British intelligence that an attack was imminent, the US failed to prepare for the attack. This was all despite being actively involved in ASW warfare in the Atlantic for some time.

They failed to enact known successful anti-submarine tactics like convoys and blackouts and radio discipline. U-Boats could navigate using brightly lit cities, lighthouses, and civilian radio stations. Ships passing in front of brightly lit coastal cities were easy night targets.

The coordination between the US Navy and USAAF (US Army Air Force) was poor making many potential long range patrol aircraft unavailable out of inter-service spite, this was not worked out until March 1942. It wasn't until March 1942 that convoys were discussed, and it took until May to get them going.

Escort units were transferred away from Atlantic convoy duty to help coastal command, but due to the lack of coordination they often sat in port. The US was acting on the outdated assumption that convoys just concentrated targets, and that aggressive hunter-killer groups were the way to go. The British had learned the hard way this was wrong; the ocean is big and active hunting was futile. Reacting to radio reports of ships being attacked was also futile, by the time a warship was on the scene the attack was over and the U-Boat safely away.

50 more old destroyers would have just been 50 more ships to waste charging around the Atlantic.

No matter how many forces were available, convoys would have improved their effectiveness. Convoys are more difficult to spot than individual ships. At the vast scale of the ocean a convoy of many ships is as difficult to spot as one ship. With many ships concentrated into few convoys U-Boats find the ocean emptied of targets.

Some try to explain the lack of US coastal convoys on a lack of escorts, but the opposite is true. Convoys force the U-Boats to come to you. Instead of dispersing in a futile effort to find the U-Boats, convoys allow concentrating of limited ASW assets. Even a small submarine chaster is a threat to a U-Boat and would force it to dive where it's slow and blind. The limited US ASW fleet would have been better off protecting convoys than individual ships.

The sluggish American response finally produced the Tenth Fleet in May 1943. Having no ships of its own, it coordinated all Allied ASW operations, research, and intelligence.

Summary

While the US Eastern Sea Frontier command was severely lacking in ASW assets at the outbreak of the war, the 50 old destroyers were poor ASW ships. The lack of ships was initially made up for by transferring units from other commands. Instead the Second Happy Time was because the US allowed themselves to be caught flat-footed and had a sluggish response.

The US had ample lead time and vast shipyards and resources to develop and build ASW assets prior to 1942 and more than make up for 50 old destroyers. They had ASW experience from their Atlantic neutrality patrols and from the British. They had time to learn from the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic to prepare contingency plans and coordinated commands, but did not. Once engaged, the US was slow to enact basic countermeasures on their east coast such as radio discipline, blackouts, and convoys instead choosing to scatter what little assets they had in ineffective hunter-killer. It took months or years to develop a coordinated, effective coastal ASW system, a system that should have already existed when war broke out.

Sources

  • @T.E.D. I wasn't happy with that wording either. Better now? – Schwern Jul 29 at 19:47
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    Yes. However, now the previous sentence is sticking out at me. I'm pretty sure I know (and agree) with your point, but a single convoy is not tougher to locate than a single ship. However, a single convoy is tougher to locate than one or more of the same number of ships spread out widely. It would be like playing the game Battleship, if each ship only took up one square, there was a fairly short time limit, the most hits wins, and you are allowed to stack them all in one spot. – T.E.D. Jul 29 at 20:10
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    @T.E.D.: You both seem to be neglecting that the Germans broke the U.K. marine code in 1937 - and thus knew in advance the routes of every convoy. This means that using convoys was more dangerous because the known itineraries could be intercepted more efficiently by U-Boats. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 30 at 16:35
  • @PieterGeerkens I read up on this. The cipher was broken, but its value is weighed against "general information such as convoy departures, cycles, and other related matters could scarcely be kept from an industrious enemy. Furthermore, Allied North Atlantic convoys observed no such thing as radio silence.". A convoy, even if you know when it sails and where its going, is still hard to find because "the ocean is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is." And there's the escorts. – Schwern Jul 30 at 19:11
  • @Schwern: That's my line! I have driven from Toronto to Edmonton, across the top of Lake Superior - two thirds of the way there and still in "effing Ontario". I get how big the ocean is. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 30 at 19:34

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