Americans and the Bismarck
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2022

It upsets some of our British friends when American entertainment media insert American heroes where they weren’t present. But in one of the Royal Navy’s finest achievements of World War II, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were definitely present and doing their best to stretch “neutrality” past the breaking point.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt correctly saw Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime as a grave threat to civilization. In the fall of 1940, Roosevelt ordered 50 elderly destroyers given to the Royal Navy in exchange for basing rights in various British colonies. In March 1941 came the Lend-Lease Act, which provided huge quantities of military equipment to Britain. But getting those goods and plus supplies of food and fuel across the Atlantic required naval escort.

On 7 April 1941, the U.S. Navy took bold steps to intervene in the war zone. Neutrality patrols had been undertaken along the Eastern Seaboard starting in September 1939, but these had not gone very far out to sea. On the 7th, the U.S. Navy took formal possession of its new base at Bermuda and based a carrier task force built around Ranger there. These forces had instructions to patrol the “Western Hemisphere,” and on the 18th that definition was stretched out to 30 Degrees West longitude — about halfway across the North Atlantic, almost to Iceland or the Azores. In addition to the forces stationed at Bermuda, starting on 5 May American battleships based at Portland, Maine, and stopping at Argentia, Newfoundland, for refueling probed into the Atlantic south of Iceland — well past the new line of demarcation.

Even battleships have a hard time in the North Atlantic. USS New York pounds through heavy seas.

Also on 7 April, reinforcements were ordered dispatched from the Pacific Fleet. Over the next six weeks the carrier Yorktown, battleships New Mexico, Idaho and Mississippi, four cruisers and 18 destroyers departed Pearl Harbor and San Diego. And from the U.S. East Coast, a carrier task force built around Wasp moved to Bermuda on 15 May.

These forces would “mark” German raiders if they located them: provide scouting reports to the Royal Navy and, if possible, shadow the German ships. Just how far their captains’ verbal orders went is disputed today, but if the Americans were not looking for a fight, they were certainly not going to back away from one, either.

While the Royal Navy had a substantial edge over the Germans in fighting power, at least on paper, there were some other factors that Roosevelt hoped to mitigate with this assistance. First, the North Atlantic is very large. With bases in Norway and France, the Germans had several routes to infiltrate raiders into this large open body of water. Once through the “choke points” between Greenland and Iceland or between Iceland and Scotland, a German cruiser coming from Norway could disappear fairly easily. Once away from the Bay of Biscay, one based in France also had a great gray vastness before her.

Neutral air cover: the carrier Ranger.

Second, the Royal Navy was fairly old and the North Atlantic is very rough. Germany’s raiders had been laid down in the 1930s; most of the British battleships expected to destroy them had been laid down in the years before World War One. Hard service wears on a warship, especially when it’s called on to steam at high speeds through rough water. Out of every three battleships or battle cruisers the Royal Navy had available on paper, at least one of them would be in dockyard hands at any particular moment as leaks were patched and worn-out machinery repaired.

The American probes deep into the Atlantic to “enforce neutrality” would help mitigate this somewhat. By September 1941, American battleships would be stationed in Iceland with orders to find and fight the German battleship Tirpitz should she attempt to burst into the Atlantic. But when Bismarck made her famous raid in May 1941, American intentions were not yet so explicit.

Near the southern exit of the Denmark Straits (the stretch of water between Greenland and Iceland), the Coast Guard cutter Modoc encountered Bismarck on 24 May as the German battleship steamed quickly past after having destroyed the battle cruiser Hood. Modoc challenged and received no reply. Shortly afterward, eight Swordfish torpedo planes from the carrier Victorious located Modoc, circled her, and then veered off straight to Bismarck to make an unsuccessful torpedo attack.

Did Modoc provide target data to the British planes? The cutter’s log does not say, the British account merely mentions that the planes spotted Modoc. Given that the planes circled Modoc and then headed directly for their target, it seems very likely that the Americans stretched their neutrality.

USS Texas in the North Atlantic, summer 1941.

About 300 miles to the southeast, the battleship Texas and three destroyers had completed their neutrality patrol and exercises well east of the “Western Hemisphere” demarcation line and would soon turn back. Heading out of Norfolk, Virginia, her sister ship New York and three destroyers were on their way to relieve her. Both had orders to report any German warship to the Royal Navy. However, the Atlantic Fleet’s third battleship, Arkansas, was undergoing a refit and not available to keep a battleship constantly on station south of Iceland. Texas, on her way back to Newport, Rhode Island, crossed Bismarck’s southerly track a day or two before the German battleship entered the Atlantic. The New York task group only reached its patrol zone after the action had moved on, but almost blundered into Bismarck’s consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

Had either American battleship encountered Bismarck, it’s impossible 67 years later to predict how their commanders would have reacted. A surprise sighting at night would likely have caused the Germans to open fire immediately. On paper, the American battleships did not match up to Bismarck. The two American ships displaced 27,000 tons each against 42,000 for Bismarck. They matched up well in primary armament but were not nearly as well protected — the German battleship would prove that she could absorb enormous punishment. New York never faced that sort of damage, though she survived the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll after the war. She would not have been likely to sink Bismarck, but could probably have made sure she never reached home. Excellent crew quality and short range would give the American battleship a slight chance to cripple the much more modern Bismarck: despite their elderly equipment, the gun crews of Texas and New York actually achieved a higher rate of fire than did their counterparts on the German “super” battleship. And the loss of an American battleship in a surface action with a German warship could easily have brought American public opinion around to supporting war with Germany.

In Second World War at Sea: Bismarck, both American battleship task forces are present as well as the cutter Modoc. The Allied player may use them to search for German warships (and tankers) but under a number of restrictions on initiating combat. The Central Atlantic Neutrality Patrol carrier task groups are there, too. The two American battleship task groups were present on the battlefield, and so they are an integral part of the game.

You can order Bismarck Second Edition right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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