Commanders, Organizations, and Strategies For The Atlantic Naval War
Contributor: Bob Bryant
Unlike in the Pacific Theater, where naval commanders such as Admirals Yamamoto and King exerted the principal influence on operations, the naval war in the Atlantic Theater was closely directed by the heads of government, namely Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt. The first three frequently involved themselves in operational details, while Roosevelt was more inclined to leave such details to his military commanders.
In Germany, Hitler assumed multiple political and military roles. He unilaterally developed strategic military initiatives and exercised increasingly greater control over operational details, including movement of troops, units to be involved and commanders to be in charge. Insisting he knew more than his generals, he disregarded and humiliated his professional military planners and commanders, relying instead upon himself and political allies such as Heinrich Himmler and Hermann GÃ¶ring. For the Navy, Hitler vacillated between emphasis upon building capital ships to rival Britain on the oceans' surfaces and upon building submarines with which to strangle Britain from below. One of Germany's principal strategies during the war was to blockade Britain, forcing her to capitulate for lack of food and military supplies. On the surface, warship raiders such as the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and merchant raiders such as the Atlantis had some limited success. But it was German submarines that almost succeeded in bringing Britain to her knees. Emphasis on submarine production and "wolfpack" tactics to cripple Britain were the focus of Admiral Donitz, the Supreme Commander of the German Navy. In addition to seeking to blockade sea lanes to Britain, his submarines were also used to prevent blockades of sea lanes needed to transport iron ore to Germany from Scandinavia and to transport critical supplies across the Mediterranean to German forces in North Africa.
In Britain, Churchill also exercised considerable control for the overview and details regarding the course of the naval war. Unlike Hitler, however, he did respect and take advice from his military advisors. He also had to negotiate with American political and military leaders, whom he wanted to enter the war and who ultimately commanded more men and controlled more resources than Britain could bring to bear. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill had served as Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty both during World War I and the opening months of World War II. He was fully aware of the danger that German surface raiders and submarines represented to Britain's survival. He ultimately convinced the Americans to approach Germany by invading North Africa and Italy before invading Normandy. He was unsuccessful later in the war in convincing the Americans to push toward Germany through the Balkans instead of southern France.
Admiral Bertram Ramsay oversaw the evacuation from Dunkirk and had command roles for naval forces during the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. Admiral James Somerville commanded Force H in the Mediterranean and later the Far East Fleet. Admiral John Cunningham was Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet. Eisenhower and Cunningham planned and executed operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.
In Russia, Stalin remained suspicious of his generals, as he had been when he executed tens of thousands of experienced military officers during his purges of the late 1930s. He was, however, more like Churchill and less like Hitler and inclined to listen to the advise from military professionals even if he issued contrary orders. Russian naval activities during the war were mostly defensive, protecting shore installations and convoys.
In America, Roosevelt typically relied on his military advisors. As the war progressed, Chief of Staff Admiral Leahy and General of the Army General Marshall had direct access to Roosevelt and came to have strong influence if not almost complete control over military matters in Europe. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's closest advisor, also had strong influence. Virtually all the important American decisions of the war were made by Roosevelt, Hopkins, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Roosevelt was instrumental before the US formally entered the war in strengthening the US Navy by building a two-ocean navy and in passing the Lend-Lease Act to support Britain. He agreed with Churchill on the "Germany First" strategy. Also like Churchill, his naval priority for the Atlantic Theater was to keep sea lanes open to support Britain and to get US troops and equipment to Britain, North Africa and Continental Europe.
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Morison, Samuel Eliot (1963). The Two-Ocean War- A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
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Last Major Update: Aug 2021
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Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, at Guadalcanal