As Americans from coast to coast scratch their heads and wonder about US troops being deployed to Uganda, it’s a good time to remember when brinksmanship really took a nation to the brink.
It was 70 years ago today that the destroyer USS Kearny was torpedoed.
In the wake of the Battle of Britain – mainly, with the strong indication that the United Kingdom would survive – Franklin D Roosevelt ordered the beginning of “Lend Lease” shipments to the British. He also traded fifty World-War-1-era destroyers to the British in exchange for bases in the Azores and Canada.
Which was just diplomatic business, really; it meant the US was taking sides, to be sure, but it didn’t put any Americans into harms way.
Now, October of 1941 was pretty close to the nadir of the Battle of the Atlantic, as far as the UK was concerned.
German U-Boats were sinking British and allied merchant ships far faster than they could be replaced – and killing about half of the even harder-to-replace merchant marine crews with each ship that sank. And beyond that, the supply of “escort” ships – the destroyers, frigates, corvettes and sloops that tried to protect the merchant ships from the submarines’ depredations – was getting destroyed as well; Britain’s destroyer fleet had suffered grievous casualties at Dunkirk, in the Mediterranean, and defending Norway, as well as to the U-boats. And the emergency building programs to replace them weren’t close to breaking even with the loss rate, much less making up for lost ground.
Churchill later confessed that of all the situations he faced during the war – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Siege of Malta, the titanic battles in the Western Desert – only the Battle of the Atlantic genuinely frightened him. Britain was within a hair’s breath of being starved into submission.
So what did put Americans into harm’s way was FDR’s concord with Churchill that, to help the British focus their endangered fleets of escort ships until the huge wartime shipbuilding programs could take effect – hopefully before Britain was starved to the negotiating table – American ships would escort Britain-bound convoys into the mid-Atlantic, to a hand-off point where British and Canadian forces would take over. Roosevelt made it known that US ships would attack any U-Boats that crossed their paths.
This act – escorting war materiel to a belligerent power, and threatening to take military action against any interference – abrogated, practically and legally, any claim America had to its “neutrality”. Which didn’t stop Roosevelt from waging the propaganda war to claim neutrality; he called the escort efforts “Neutrality Patrols”.
It was while on “Neutrality Patrol” that the Kearny and three other American destroyers were sent on a very un-neutral mission. A Britain-bound convoy was being overwhelmed by a U-boat “Wolf Pack”, taking terrible losses; the four American ships were sent to assist in the convoy’s defense.
Which is not what “neutral” powers are supposed to do.
And it was at about 4AM on the morning of October 17 that the German submarine U-568 fired a spread of torpedoes, one of which hit the Kearny in its forward boiler room. It was later speculated that the commander mistook Kearny for a British destoyer.No matter – eleven US sailors were killed.
There really were two stories here.
One would be reflected in the nation’s slow slide into war. FDR had been setting the nation up for war for years; the National Guard and the nation’s industry had been mobilizing for over a year. The “Neutrality Patrols” were essentially daring Hitler to hit first. And he would; in two weeks’ time, another American destroyer, the USS Reuben James, would be sunk by another U-boat in another similar incident, this time with much greater loss of American life. And the “Neutrality Patrols” would become, in all but name, combat missions. In many ways, at least as regards the battle in the Atlantic Ocean, Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war was just this side of a formality.
One other story – not nearly as famous – would be reflected in the fact that “only” 11 American sailors died in the incident, and the Kearny survived, afloat, and was repaired to serve out the rest of the war (to be mothballed in 1946, and to be finally scrapped in the early seventies). It was the resolution of an engineering issue that had been roiling naval architects for a generation.
The Kearny, like all fast warships of the day, was steam-powered (gas turbine power was a generation in the future, and diesel engines don’t have nearly the power output per ton of power plant for ships this size). Now, it’s more efficient to put the steam turbines (which drive the propellors) together near the rear of the ship, and the boilers together as close as possible near the boilers – more efficient in terms of space, engine efficiency, and cost.
But that also means that a bomb or shell or torpedo hit in the boiler room, or engine room, will knock out either all steam power or all engine power. And so US naval architects started separating boilers and engines. Now, destroyers are long, narrow ships – with a length to “beam” (width) ratio of 10:1 (your cruise ship may be more like 6:1) – so that meant half of the ships’ lengths were eaten up by a boiler room, an engine room (for the left propellor), and then another boiler room and the engine for the right prop. It meant that a ship could – as the Kearny did – take a hit that would knock out one engine unit, but still allow it to steam to safety. Now, a “destroyer meets torpedo” encounter usually ended with a sunken destroyer, and it usually did, throughout the war; life on destroyers was the second most dangerous one in the floating Navy, after submariners. But this design redundancy made American destroyers, and the British and other foreign ships that copied it, able to survive damage that would have acrippled and sunk similar ships, and often did.
Beyond that, the Kearny incident first displayed what would become one of the US Navy’s great strengths during the war; damage control. The US Navy stressed damage control in a way that no other navy did – allowing US Navy ships to survive damage that frequently did leave other nations’ ships crippled or sunk.
More on that later next year.