Shipping was a major aspect of World War II. In no other War in history has the shipping challenge been so immense. This was because the War spanned the globe. The War in Europe could be fought without shipping. Only Britain was dependent on shipping. For Britain shipping was vital. And for America to save Britain, shipping was vital. And this was just the beginning. America would go on to not only liberate Western Europe, but to smash the Japanese aggression in the vast reaches of the Pacific. The enormity of the challenge was part of the German strategic calculation. They didn't believe that it was a challenge even America's vaunted industrial genius could master, at least within a time frame that would prevent them from mastering Europe. For the Japanese, preoccupied with naval construction, they simply failed to calculate the shipping requirements for a Pacific war. The role of American industry, the Arsenal of Democracy, is commonly addressed in World War II histories. The War was, however, not fought in America. And all those tanks, trucks, artillery, machine guns, ammunition, electronic equipment, oil, food, and other supplies was of no use unless it could be delived to the front lines. And this primarily meant shipping--shipping on a vast scale. Merchant mariners from German occupied countries joined the British war effort, but the game changer was the Henry Kaiser and his war-winning Liberty Ships. The Germans assumed that the Americans needed 9 months to build a ship. That was how long they took to build a merchant ship and they considered themselves highly efficient. When reports surfaced of the Americans building merchant ships in 10 days, the incedulous Germans dismissed the reports as absurd propaganda. But they were all too true. Even before the Allies defeated Adm. Dönitz's U-boat wolf packs (July 1943), the United States was building merchant ships much faster than the Germans could sink them. And American shipyards also produced needed merchant shipping in large quantiyties for the Pacific. While the U-boats get a huge smount of attention by historians and Hollywood. It is the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Service that waged the only successful commerce campaign of the War--obliterating the Japanese Maru fleet. This cut the Home Islands off from their recently conquered Southern Resource Zone--the reason the Japanese went to war in the first place.
Shipping was a major aspect of World War II. In no other War in history has the shipping challenge been so immense. This was because the War spanned the globe. The War in Europe could have been fought out without shipping. Only Britain was dependent on shipping. For Britain shipping was vital. And for America to save Britain, shipping was vital. And this was just the beginning. America would go on to not only liberate Western Europe, but to smash the Japanese aggression in the vast reaches of the Pacific.
The two major Axis countries were Germany and Japan. Ironically it was Germany and not naval-minded Japan that seriously considered the shipping issue. The enormity of the challenge to the Allies, especially America, that was part of the German strategic calculation. The Germans didn't believe that it was a challenge even America's vaunted industrial genius could master, at least within a time frame that would prevent them from mastering Europe. Göring when asked about the American shipbuilding capability, which could influence the European campaign, answered, "It was our opinion that it was on a very large scale. Roosevelt spoke of bridges of ships across the Atlantic and a constant stream of planes. We fully believed him and were convinced that it was true. We also had this opinion from reports by observers in the United States. We understood your potential. On the other hand, the tempo of your shipbuilding, for example, Henry Kaiser’s program, surprised and upset us. We had rather minimized the apparently exaggerated claims in this field. One spoke of these floating coffins, Kaisersärge, that would be finished by a single torpedo. We believed most of your published production figures, but not all of them, as some seem inflated. However, since the United States had all the necessary raw materials except rubber, and many technical experts, our engineers could estimate United States production quite accurately. At first, however, we could not believe the speed with which your Merchant Marine was growing. Claims of eight to 10 days to launch a ship seemed fantastic. Even when we realized it referred to the assembly of prefabricated parts, a mere 10 days to put it together was still unthinkable. Our shipbuilding industry was very thorough and painstaking, but very slow, disturbingly slow, in comparison. It took nine months to build a Danube vessel. [Mean a relative small river bsarge.] [Göring] For the Japanese, preoccupied with naval construction, they simply failed to calculate the shipping requirements for a Pacific war.
The role of American industry, the Arsenal of Democracy, is commonly addressed in World War II histories. The War was, however, not fought in America. And all those tanks, trucks, artillery, machine guns, ammunition, electronic equipment, oil, food, and other supplies was of no use unless it could be delived to the front lines. And this primarily meant shipping--shipping on a vast scale. President Roosevelt first used the term "Arsenal of Denocracy" on December 29, 1940 in one of his Fireside Chats, radio boradcasts, to the American people. He expalined the importance of supplying the people of Europe, at the time primarily Britain with the "implements of war". He said that the United States "must be the great arsenal of democracy". The very day he spoke, a Luftwaffe raid on London severly damaged famous buildings and churches in the city center and engulfed St. Paul's Cathedral in flames. [Gilbert, p. 356.] Hitler feared America more than any other country, but was convinced that Britain could be defeated before America could be mobilized or American industry could be effevtiverly harnassed for the war effort. Neither the NAZIs or the Japanese had any idea just how effectibely American production could be converted to war production. Air Marshall Goering sneared. "The Americans only know how to make razor blades." Four years later with the Luftwaffe in tatters, Goering said he knew that the War was lost when American P-51 Mustangs appeared over Berlin escoring waves of bombers. The record of American war production is staggering and in large measure determined the outcome of the War.
The merchant mariners of the Allied countries were in many ways the unsung heros of World War II. Merchant seamen crewed the merchant ships of the British Merchant Navy flying the famed Red Ensign were in the War from the start. In honor of their role in World War I, the British with Royal Navy approval, began calling their merchant marine the merchabt navy. They kept Britain supplied with raw materials, food, and oil during the desperate months before America entered the War. Without their sacrifuce, Britain would have neen incapitated during the first year of the War. They were not Royal Navy sailors but had to battle it out against U-bosts with only a few deck guns. They sustained a higher casualty rate than the Royal Navy, Army, or Air Force. And many suffered great hardship even if they survived torpedo attacks. Unlike the military there were virtually no age limjitations. Merchant seament ranged from 14-year olds to men in their 70s. At the outbreak of the War, Britain had the largest merchant marine in the world. They would need it. From the beginning, Adm. Dönitz's U-boats began widdling away ar the fleet, sinking more ships than the Germans could replace. Some 185,000 men and women served in the Merchant Navy during the War. [Slader, p.16.] Nearly 37,000 were lost due to enemy action, mostly from U-boat attacks. Adding those taken prisoner and injured, the casualty rate eceeded 25 percent. The death rate was 20 percent. Some estimates were higher. As the German Wehrmacht rampaged across Europe, nany merchant mariners from German occupied countries joined the British war effort.
The naval campaigns are often given superficial coverage in assessments of World War II in Europe. In fact, the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. Churchill was to write after the War that it was the the loss Battle of the Atlantic that was the only thing he feared. Battles could be lost or won, but the cutting of Britain's life lines to the Dominions and especially America would have made it impossible for Britain to have continued the War. It was no accident that Anglo-American military cooperation began in the North Atlantic well before America entered the War. Hitler on the other hnd gave lttle attention to the U-boat fleet until after the War began. Hitler and approved Plan-Z, a secret plan to prepare the Kriegsmarine for war with Britain by 1944. It involved the construction of seizemassive capital ships and two aircraft carriers. The Germans with U-boats, surface fleet, and long range aircraft hope to cut off Britain from its Empire and supply from the United States. Although neutral in the early years of the War, President Roosevelt was determine to support the Allies. A few days after the fall of France in 1940, a sjocked American Congress approvd the Naval Construction Act. The immediate impact of the fall of France in 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. The Royal Navy had ben strongly depleted during the inter-war era by naval limitations traties. After France fell, the Royal Navy stood alone againt the German ans Italian navies. The Germans had a growing surface fleet and the Italian a fast modrn fleet that threatened to seize control of the Mediterannean. The the German u-boat operations proved highly effective, despite the fact that Hitler launched the War years beore the Kriegsmarine was prepared. Even before America entered the War, the U.S. Navy was deployed in the North Atlantic to protect British convoys. Anglo-American naval and scientific cooperaion resulted in the defeat of the u-boat campain by 1943. Combined with American construction of liberty ships, not only was Britain kept supplied, but America assembled a massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall.
Armies in World War II had to be supplied by rail and sea. Air supply could be used to supply surrounded units on an emergency basis, but could not deliver heavy equipment or the supplied needed for major forces over an extended period. Italy was the major Axis player in the Mediterranean area and even after the German took over the bulk of the North African campaign, it was the Italian navy supported by the air force that had the major responsibility of delivering supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. [Sadkovich] The Royal Italian Navy organized and protected the convoys that supplied Rommel and the Afrika Korps. They faced formibable attacks by British aircraft, submarine, and surface units. And unknown to the Axis, Admiral Cunningham was getting Ultra intercepts, allowing him to effective use his limited forces to devestate the Italian convoys. The Italians proved unable to deliver adequate supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. To preserve the Ultra secret, the British allowed some supplies to get through. They were so limited, however, that Rommel was force to take up a defensive position at El Alemaine and gradually Montgomery with extensive American support built up a far superior force.
The British because of their colonial empire had the world's largest empire has the largest merchant marine. As a result the small number of German U-boats at the onset of the War made only a small contribution. Losses mounted, however, as the Germans began U-boats in large numbers. The British mariners were joined as the war progressed by the merchant mariners of countries overrun by the Germans. Many of the ships were at sea when the Germans invaded. Others set sail whenb the Germans neared the ports. These included several small countries that has fairly sizeable merchant maruines (Greece, Nether, and and Norway). While each country made only a limited cintribution, combinbed the ships and men made anb importanht contribution. Many French merchant sailors chose to stay in occupied France. The United States had a large fleet which was significantly expanded by the Liberty Ships. The Soviet Union had only a small merchant fleet because of its autarkic ecniomic policy. This was significantly bolstered by ghe United States turing ships over to the Soviets. This enabled Lend Lease supplies to reach the Soviets throughout the Pacific War. Much to Hitler's displeasure, his Japanese ally did not block these shipments in Pacific waters. Italy had a substantial merchant fleet which was used to supply the Afrika Corps. It was decimated by the Royal Navy. The Germans had a substantial merchant fleet. Many ships were interned in fioreign ports at the outbreak of the War. Its primary function during the War was to deliver Swedish iron ore to the Reich. Most had go be tied up in German where they were sunk by Allied bombing. The Japanese had a substantial merchant marine, adequate for peace time needs. The militarist oplanning the War did no calculate that far greater tonnage wiukd be needed for the War..
The game changer in the shipping wars was the Henry Kaiser and his war-winning Liberty Ships. The Germans assumed that the Americans needed 9 months to build a ship. That was how long they took to build a merchant ship and they considered themselves highly efficient. When reports surfaced of the Americans building merchant ships in 10 days, the incedulous Germans dismissed the reports as absurd propaganda. But they were all too true. Even before the Allies defeated Adm. Dönitz's U-boat wolf packs (July 1943), the United States was building merchant ships much faster than the Germans could sink them. And American shipyards also produced needed merchant shipping in large quantiyties for the Pacific. It is said with ionly a little exageration that the major problems with Libery Ship construction was that the mericans were running out of names for the ships.
Building the needed war equipment was only part of the task. With the Soviet Union, the more difficult task was getting it to the Soviets. Aiding the British involved a straight shoot across the Atlantic. Although the U-boats posed a threat, most of the dhipments reached Britain and the turn around for the ships was realitively quick given the relatively short distance involved. Getting Lend Lead aid to the Soviets proved to be a much more difficult undertaking. The Germans early in the War closed off or occupied the Soviet Union's principal ports. The United States and the British opened up three routes to the Soviets. First, was the northern Arctic route to Murmansk and Arkangel. This route at times proved almost suisidal. Convoys were attacked by U-boats as well as German surface ships and aircraft based in Norway. Second was the western or Pacific route. This route extended from American west coast ports to Soviet Pacific ports. This proved to be the most important. About half of Lend Lease shipments took the Soviets were shipped over this route. Some of this was done by air. American aircraft were flown from Alaska to the Soviets. Large quantities of supplied were also shipped by cargo vessels. It is surprising because these shipments took place through Japanese controlled waters. Third, was the southern route. This involved a long trip around the Cape of Good Hope and then overland through Iran. This route was limited because the length of the voyage tied up shipping and the Iranian port and transportation infrastructure was limited. In addition during much of 1942 the Indian Ocean was threatened by the Japanese Navy.
American submariners often do not get the appreciation due. As Admiral Nimitz explained, it was the submarine force that held the line while America rebuilt its fleet. American submarines, however, were hampered by poor strategic and tactical concepts and ineffective torpedoes in 1942. The American submarines by 1943, however, began to significantly affect the delivery of raw materials to Japan. The American submarines targeted the Japanese merchant marine (maru) fleet. While the big fleet carriers got the headlines. The American submarines sunk over 50 percent of all Jpanee vessels destroyed during the War. The Japanese merchant marine was almost completely destroyed, cutting the country's war industries off from supplies and bringing the country close to starvation by 1945. The American submarines did to Japan what the German u-boats tried to do to Britain. Surprisingly the Japanese submarine fleet had little impact on the Pacific campaign. Unlike the Americans, the Japanese began the War with the effective Type 93 Long-Lance Torpedo. The Japanese Navy never used their submarines to interdict American supply vessels. Rather they were used to target fighting ships with only limited success because of their tactical deployment. The Japanese used theor submarines as scouts and to targer warships. As the American offensive moved toward the Home Islands, the Japanese used their submarines to supply bypassed island garisons, some of which were near starvation. They were also used to supply bypassed islasnd bases where garrisons were close to starvation. They also managed to get some secret German military technology to Japan late in the war (1944).
Göring, Herman. In Gilberto Villahermosa. World War II Magazine (September 2006). Göring was interogated immeduiately after the War in Prisoner of War Camp No. 32 (July 25, 1945). Major Kenneth W. Hechler of the U.S. Army Europe’s Historical Division asked the questions. Captain Herbert R. Sensenig served as the translator.
Sadkovich, James J. The Italian Navy in World War II (Contributions in Military Studies).
Slader, John. The Red Duster at War: William Kimber (1988)..
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