Repair Work and Naval Musical Chairs: Conflict and Cooperation in Anglo-American Naval Relations in 1941

Contents:

Background: Infrastructure Changes
Early Discussions on Anglo-American Pacific Policy
Pacific Policy Differences
ABC-1 Talks
The Repair Requests
The Rest of the Story
Conclusion

Corbin Williamson
Ohio State University

David Reynolds has described the years 1940 and 1941 as the “fulcrum” of the twentieth century for their long-lasting impact and influence. 1  The period from Germany’s conquest of France in June 1940 to the start of the Japanese offensive in the Pacific in early December 1941 witnessed some of the most iconic events in modern history: the Battle of Britain, the Lend-Lease Act, and Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. Decisions taken in these 18 months established the broad framework within which the Second World would be fought.

For Winston Churchill this period also represented the start of the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom, a relationship embodied by his budding friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Churchill’s perspective was challenged by historians such as David Reynolds and Christopher Thorne in the 1970s and 1980s who emphasized the disagreements between the two wartime allies due to diverging national interests. 2  Later scholars such as Waldo Heinrichs and Mark Stoler incorporated this revisionist critique while concluding that the relationship was unique in comparison to other wartime alliances. 3  More recently historians such as Phyllis Soybel, Steve Weiss, and Alan Bath have examined the day to day interaction between the two nations on a variety of levels. 4  Theodore Wilson characterizes their work as the “fourth wave” of scholarship on Anglo-American relations. 5

This paper seeks to highlight an intersection of cooperation and suspicion in Anglo-American naval relations in the spring of 1941 by examining debates over warship deployments and repair work that occurred as part of the ABC-1 military staff talks in Washington. Historians have not given sufficient attention to the role of industrial facilities such as shipyards and dry docks in shaping the development of Anglo-American relations during the Second World War, an oversight this paper attempts to address.

At the ABC-1 talks that began on January 29th, 1941, negotiations over British and American defense policy in the Pacific intersected with preparations being made to repair British warships in the United States under the Lend-Lease Act. The interaction between the two navies during these talks illustrates spheres of shared interest, such as the security of Atlantic shipping lanes, as well as spheres of conflict, such as the role of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. As a result of these dichotomous elements, the ABC-1 staff talks produced an agreement designed to reinforce the British naval position in the Far East through rather roundabout methods. The U.S. Navy would send ships from Pearl Harbor to the Atlantic to take over duties from British warships in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. This movement would free up British warships in the Atlantic to be sent as reinforcements to the naval base at Singapore. The combination of cooperation and competition between the two navies resulted in a program similar to a game of naval “musical chairs”, played out on a global scale. The debates that prosduced this agreement are best understood in the context of the industrial infrastructure available to the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The status of fleet maintenance facilities at various bases throughout the world would repeatedly shape the development of Anglo-American naval relations in 1940 and 1941.

Background: Infrastructure Challenges

After achieving prodigious feats of production in the First World War, shipbuilding facilities in the United States and Britain found naval contracts for new construction scarce after the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. At the same time, the growth in warship size since the turn of the 20th century left many overseas naval bases incapable of docking or servicing the largest warships. The switch from coal to oil as fuel as well as the increase in warship length and displacement meant that by 1920 Singapore was the only British naval base in the Far East with a capital ship dock. In the United States in 1919 the only docking facilities for capital ships were at Norfolk and New York. 6  Throughout the interwar period, both navies sought to develop bases capable of servicing large fleets in the Pacific, but financial constraints combined with the Washington Naval Treaty’s ban on fortifications prevented either from accomplishing this goal. 7  Expansion of Singapore’s facilities was also delayed by the Ten Year Rule, the assumption in British defense policy that no major conflict would occur for the next ten years which was adopted in 1919. 8  These limitations of American and British bases in the Pacific would shape debates over deterrence policy in 1940 and 1941.

Beginning in 1936, British naval rearmament began to restore vitality to an industry that had been in stark decline during the 1920s and early 1930s. Rearmament emphasized warships construction and did not significantly expand Britain’s capacity for fleet maintenance, either at home or overseas. The Royal Navy filled private shipyards with warship construction, leaving little capacity for ship repair and forcing repair and maintenance work into the Royal Dockyards, concentrated in southern England. The industry also suffered from structural weaknesses such as labor difficulties, managerial resistance to adopting new techniques such as arc welding, physical and geographic constraints, and low levels of government financial support compared to the United States. As a result, by the fall of 1940 the British shipbuilding industry proved incapable of meeting wartime demands for repair and refit work. German air attacks on the critically important southern Royal Dockyards exacerbated the problem by reducing the Royal Navy’s repair capacity just as demand was increasing. The result of all these factors was a growing backlog of damaged warships awaiting repair and refit work, creating a repair crisis in the winter of 1940-1941. In search of additional repair capacity, Britain would turn to the United States in the spring of 1941.

American naval rearmament began slowly in 1933 when the National Industrial Recovery Act authorized limited warship construction. Incremental increases followed throughout the 1930s, especially the Vinson-Trammel Act of 1934. After the fall of France in June 1940, the Two Ocean Navy Act authorized a 70% increase in the size of the U.S. fleet. By 1941 the U.S. Navy’s naval rearmament program had reached its peak. Investments made in the shore establishment throughout the 1930s had expanded the industrial facilities in U.S Navy Yards on both coasts, increasing their repair capacity. Although these upgrades and expansions in public shipyards were intended to meet the maintenance needs of the U.S. Navy, the additional repair capacity would be put to use in 1941 to return damaged British warships to service.

Early Discussions on Anglo-American Pacific Policy

As international tensions grew in Europe in the late 1930s, British planners were forced to reevaluate their plans for defending the Far East. The ever expanding war between Japan and China combined with German rearmament presented serious challenges to Britain.  The Admiralty clearly understood that the Royal Navy lacked the strength to operate simultaneously against Germany, Italy, and Japan. From their perspective the obvious solution was to persuade the United States to make a naval contribution to the defense of the Far East. British efforts to obtain such an American guarantee date back to the naval staff talks held in Washington in January 1938 when the two nations considered and ultimately rejected a plan to blockade Japan after the Panay incident. 9  The British hoped that the Americans could be persuaded to send a squadron of heavy warships from the Pacific Fleet, but recognized that the commitment of the smaller Asiatic Fleet to the defense of Singapore would also provide meaningful cooperation. As part of these efforts in April and May 1940, the British repeatedly promised the Americans that the repair facilities at Singapore would be open to any U.S. Navy squadron assigned to the base. 10  For their part, the Americans already had access to docks and repair facilities in the Philippines, so the Singapore offer held little attraction from a maintenance perspective.

Admiralty IX Floating Dry Dock at Singapore, March 1941 (Image #6159, Courtesy Australian War Memorial)

Admiralty IX Floating Dry Dock at Singapore, March 1941 (Image #6159, Courtesy Australian War Memorial)


The subject of American ships operating from Singapore rose again in the late summer of 1940 when Rear Admiral Robert Ghormley’s mission arrived in London for a series of talks with British commanders and planners. The combination of France’s surrender, Italian belligerence, and the ongoing German threat to the Atlantic shipping lines occupied the bulk of the Royal Navy’s resources, leaving only a small force of cruisers and destroyers for the Far East. As a result, the Admiralty entered the Ghormley talks with the goal of obtaining assurances form the Americans that the U.S. fleet in the Pacific could be counted on to protect British interests. 11  The American Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, was open to the idea of basing light forces from the U.S. Asiatic Fleet at Singapore as part of a delaying strategy against Japan. However, Ghormley lacked the authority to make political commitments and the ensuing talks focused on technical matters such as standardizing fleet to fleet communication. 12  Ghormley did ask if the Royal Navy would be able to reinforce Singapore if American battleships were transferred from Pearl Harbor to the Atlantic. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, explained that any British reinforcements for Singapore would have to come from forces stationed at Gibraltar and that if American battleships operated from Gibraltar, then reinforcements could be sent to Singapore. 13  While no commitments on such movements emerged from this meeting, the ABC-1 agreement would later incorporate Ghormley’s proposal for indirectly reinforcing Singapore. Ghormley’s proposal reflected both American domestic politics (Washington did not want to be seen guarding the British Empire) and the pressures of the war in Europe (the Royal Navy would only release ships for the Pacific after the American reinforcements arrived in the Atlantic). What it did not reflect was any sense of urgency about reinforcing Singapore.

As the United States slowly expanded its aid to Britain with the Destroyers for Bases Deal in September 1940 and the announcement of Lend-Lease in December 1940 by President Roosevelt, the Royal Navy worked diligently to get the U.S. Navy to Singapore. When the Admiralty proposed staff talks to Ghormley in October 1940, the British assumed that the U.S. Navy would reinforce Singapore in the event of a war with Japan. 14  On January 7th, 1941, Ghormley sent Stark a proposal from Pound calling for nine American battleships to operate from Singapore until Germany was defeated. 15  British efforts during the ABC-1 talks to get the Americans to commit to Singapore represented a continuation of these propositions.

Pacific Policy Differences

In the winter of 1940-1941, President Roosevelt agreed to hold secret staff talks in Washington between British and American military delegations. As British and American representatives prepared for these staff talks in Washington, stark differences in their Pacific defense policies hung over their preparations. The two sides disagreed in their assessment of threat from Japan, the regions to be defended, and the concept of operations to be employed. The U.S. Navy viewed Hawaii, Alaska, and West Coast as sufficiently vulnerable to require the protection of the bulk of the fleet, while the British felt the threat to Hawaii and the West Coast was minimal. As a result, the Royal Navy concluded that the concentration of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor was unnecessary while elements in Washington, especially the State Department, viewed the fleet’s presence as an indispensable deterrent to Japanese aggression. In the face of a potential Japanese advance south towards the Dutch East Indies, British plans called for reinforcing and holding existing bases and territorial possessions. In contrast, American planners took a longer view, concluding that preparations should focus on recapturing bases in the Pacific, such as the Philippines and Singapore, after they fell to the Japanese. 16  Finally, the British concept of deterrence involved basing elements of the U.S. fleet at Singapore and the active defense of key installations while the American concept centered on the threat of interdiction posed by the fleet at Pearl Harbor to any Japanese advance to the south. This American position was laid out by Admiral Stark in his November 1940 ‘Plan Dog’ memo. The memo also specifically stated: “it is out of the question to consider sending our entire Fleet at once to Singapore” in the event of war with Japan in part because of the limited repair and maintenance facilities available. 17

Furthermore, the British and Americans held divergent opinions about what could be expected from the other side. The U.S. Navy entered the staff talks determined to avoid American interests being subordinated to British ones, as was thought to have occurred during the First World War. Furthermore the U.S. delegates were suspicious that the British intended to achieve precisely this outcome. Admiral Stark and other American commanders were convinced that since the U.S. Navy would provide the bulk of Allied forces for the Pacific, the American conception of Pacific strategy must prevail. 18  A comment on the impact of superior American naval strength on NATO’s maritime strategy seems applicable to Pacific policy in 1941:“The little boy who owns the baseball usually gets to pitch.” 19  The American position was complicated by the fact that U.S. planners viewed assistance to Britain and assistance to the British Empire as entirely separate propositions. 20  On the British side, divisions regarding the position to be taken over Pacific strategy with the Americans were stark. Pound and the Royal Navy demanded for reinforcements from Singapore, from the Americans if necessary, while Churchill preferred to retain the status quo in the Pacific if asking the Americans to defend Singapore would delay American entry into the war.

ABC-1 Talks

The ABC-1 talks began on January 29th and continued until March 29th under great secrecy. British and American officers discussed joint strategy against Germany while just down Pennsylvania Avenue, administration officials promised Congress in hearings that the Lend-Lease Act would not bring the United States into the war. The most significant outcome of the talks was the American commitment to a Germany First strategy in the event that the United States became involved in the war. However, the talks also dealt extensively with naval dispositions in the Pacific and efforts to deter Japan.

As the talks opened, the Americans pressed the British to reinforce their position in the Far East as a deterrent to Japan. The British responded that their current naval requirements left them little or no strategic reserve and again urged the U.S. Navy to assist in the defense of British possessions, particularly Singapore. 21  The British either wanted large portions of the Pacific Fleet to move from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines or Singapore or for the Asiatic Fleet to receive strong reinforcements. American naval commanders proved unwilling to, as they saw the situation, do the Royal Navy’s job of defending British interests. The Americans rejected the British proposal, arguing that it would create two understrength American fleets in the Pacific. At most, the Americans were willing to allow that the Asiatic Fleet might withdraw to Singapore since the Philippines might not hold out against a Japanese assault, a view shared by President Roosevelt. 22

In reply to the British call for American ships to defend Singapore, the Americans resurrected Admiral Ghormley’s proposal during his mission to London in August 1940, namely that the U.S. Navy would reinforce British forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, freeing up sufficient Royal Navy warships to allow the British to reinforce the Far East. 23  This compromise approach, suggested by the U.S. Army, called for American battleships, carriers, and cruisers to protect convoys in the Atlantic from attacks by German raiders, particularly troops convoys. 24  The Americans supported their proposal by noting that British lines of communication to Singapore were much more secure than would be American connections from the West Coast to Singapore. While this was certainly true, the American proposal also served two long-standing American goals and reflected American attitudes about British strength. The U.S. avoided being saddled with the unilateral defense of British colonies and the British would be forced to make a significant contribution to deterring Japan. 25  Furthermore, American willingness to reinforce the Atlantic was at least in part based on a less optimistic view of Britain’s chances for survival than was held in London. 26  The British themselves had helped to create this perception by repeatedly highlighting their need for American aid.

The British delegation worked to counter the resurrected Ghormley proposal in early February on several fronts. They noted that any American reinforcement of the Atlantic might embolden Japan, an attitude shared by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The British also repeated their calls for the Americans to reinforce the Asiatic Fleet, preferably with heavy warships such as battleships or an aircraft carrier. 27  Rear Admiral Kelly Turner responded for the Americans. Turner argued that the U.S. fleet’s concentration at Pearl Harbor made reinforcing the Atlantic, not the Asiatic Fleet, easier. He also repeated the American concern about extending long supply lines across the Pacific to Singapore were any U.S. ships to be based there. Finally, Turner noted that American facilities in the Philippines could not service heavy warships, implicitly casting doubt on the ability of the British base at Singapore to support the heavy ships the British wanted the Americans to commit. 28  Turner benefited from intelligence the British lacked about naval facilities in the Western Pacific. In November 1940 and again in January 1941, U.S. naval officers visiting Singapore sent detailed reports to Washington analyzing the incomplete naval base. 29  Their reports noted that the repair and docking facilities were incapable of meeting the maintenance needs of a large fleet and highlighted the base’s vulnerability to attack from the landward side. 30  In contrast, the Admiralty remained in the dark about the material deficiencies that plagued the American bases at both Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Turner’s arguments proved unanswerable to the British delegation. 31

By mid-February, reports of the ongoing argument over Pacific strategy had reached London. Prime Minister Churchill forcefully entered the fray on the 17th, furious over the Royal Navy’s efforts to persuade the U.S. Navy to defend Singapore. Churchill wrote to Pound:

“Anyone could have seen that the United States would not base a battle-fleet at Singapore and divide their naval forces….They said so weeks ago, and I particularly deprecated the raising of this controversy. Our object is to get the Americans into the war, and the proper strategic dispositions will soon emerge when they are up against reality.” 32

Churchill privileged political considerations, namely enhancing Anglo-American cooperation, over the Royal Navy’s commitment to obtain American support for the British concept of Far Eastern deterrence. Churchill’s insistence on not unnecessarily antagonizing the other side was not reciprocated by the American delegation, which chose to use a British request for help as an opportunity to further disparage British deterrence policy in the Pacific.

The Repair Requests

In mid-February, the Admiralty asked the U.S. Navy for help in repairing HMS Illustrious, an aircraft carrier recently damaged in operations in the Mediterranean by German air attacks. 33  Although the Admiralty had begun preparations for a large program of warship repairs in the United States as early as January 1941, the British thought it preferable to only ask for help with a single repair job instead of presenting the U.S. Navy with a whole slew of damaged ships. If the Royal Navy sought help repairing large numbers of damaged warships, this could reinforce the American perception that Britain’s military outlook was poor, a perception of which the British were keenly aware. 34

The request to repair the Illustrious in the United States gave the U.S. Navy delegates at ABC-1 an opportunity to strengthen their arguments against the Royal Navy’s call for American warships to defend Singapore. 35  The Navy Department did not respond directly to the repair request, but asked why the Illustrious could not be repaired at Singapore. 36  When told that Singapore lacked the parts or facilities to perform the work, Admiral Royal Ingersoll concluded that the British request demonstrated that “Singapore is not considered as a suitable place by the British for the repair and upkeep of aircraft carriers or large cruisers and shows the difficulty that we might have if we sent aircraft carriers or large cruisers to base in Singapore.” 37  The Americans left the Illustrious request unanswered for the time being, but the request for repair work in the U.S. and the subsequent admission of Singapore’s deficiencies as a repair facility ended whatever fleeting possibility remained of a large U.S. fleet operating from Singapore.

The political response by the U.S. Navy to the Illustrious request created an air of uncertainty between American and British naval leaders in February and March 1941 on the subject of repairs. The American response caused the Admiralty doubt the U.S. Navy’s willingness to aid the Royal Navy. In particular, the British questioned whether the United States would actually perform the repair work on British warships authorized by the Lend-Lease bill under consideration in Congress. 38  While the Lend-Lease Act is best known for providing equipment and supplies to Britain without requiring payment in cash, in the spring of 1941 the Royal Navy was more interested in the access to American repair facilities granted by the Act.

The Admiralty decided to test the waters in Washington regarding repair work in American shipyards with the highest authority in the United States. 39  After the unexpected American reaction to the Illustrious request, the British sought to obtain assurances from President Roosevelt that he would authorize the repair work under Lend-Lease. On February 26th the Admiralty asked the ambassador in Washington, Viscount Halifax, to determine if Roosevelt in fact planned on authorizing British repairs after the passage of the Lend-Lease Act. 40  Halifax was told to ask for repairs to three specific ships, the carriers Illustrious and Furious and the cruiser Liverpool. In all likelihood the Admiralty once again limited its repair requests to avoid giving ammunition to those elements of the U.S. military who viewed Britain as near defeat. After conversations with Harry Hopkins, the President’s special advisor, and the President himself, Halifax confirmed to the Admiralty in early March that the Americans would take these three ships. 41  The list of ships Halifax took to Roosevelt diverged significantly from the planning underway with the U.S. Navy, which presumed a larger program of continual repair and refit work. The Admiralty did not know of the growing awareness in the Navy Department about the repair challenges facing the Royal Navy and the conviction that the U.S. Navy should provide repair assistance. 42

The British concern about verifying their access American shipyards extended into late March. When the Admiralty decided to ask the Americans to repair HMS Malaya in mid-March, the request was not sent through naval channels like the Illustrious request. Instead, Churchill directly asked Roosevelt on March 23rd if the Malaya could be repaired in the United States. 43  The British officer responsible for coordinating the repair work in Washington, Admiral Wilfred French, also exercised caution. Before sending a formal repair request for the Malaya, French met informally with Stark on March 24th to gauge the U.S. Navy’s willingness to respond favorably. 44

These lingering British concerns proved to be unfounded as attitudes in the Navy Department had shifted since February, in part due to greater involvement of civilian leaders, namely Roosevelt and pro-British Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The President responded in the affirmative to Churchill’s request on March 25th, saying that he would be “delighted” and promising to “expedite the work”. 45  Secretary Knox had informed the President the previous day that he had already told the Admiralty that U.S. shipyards would be used to repair British warships. 46  In fact, as early as March 14th Knox had directed Admiral Stark to cooperate with the British in performing repair work on damaged British warships. 47  Stark met with his subordinates on the 18th to prepare for repairing British warships. 48  Knox also had one of his special assistants, Joseph Powell, investigate the repair capacity available in American shipyards for British warship repair. 49  Despite Roosevelt’s approval, the Admiralty understood that the Navy Department’s buy-in would be critical if the British were to receive maximum use of American shipyards.

These two episode illustrates the state of Anglo-American naval relations in 1941. The British became uncertain about the U.S. Navy’s commitment to provide aid due to the American response to the Illustrious request and sought reassurance from the President, whose attitudes toward Britain were better known. Within the U.S. Navy, Secretary Knox took the lead on the repair program and aid to Britain, using his position as Secretary to get the bureaucratic wheels turning.

The Rest of the Story

By the end of March 1941, the U.S. and Royal Navies had reached agreement on their naval dispositions and access to repair facilities. The British accepted the American’s proposal at the ABC-1 talks for an American reinforcement of the Atlantic followed by a British reinforcement of the Far East, a naval version of the game “musical chairs” played out on a global scale. 50  Furthermore, the repair program for British warships in the United States expanded rapidly. By the end of March the U.S. Navy had arranged for repairs or refits to eight British warships and had allocated almost all of the $200 million provided by Congress for repair work under Lend-Lease. 51

While the repair program expanded rapidly to meet the Royal Navy’s requirements, the ABC-1 agreement proved to take longer to implement. In accordance with the ABC-1 agreement, President Roosevelt agreed on April 3rd to transfer three battleships, an aircraft carrier, and escorting vessels from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet for the purpose of freeing up British warships for service in the Indian Ocean. However, growing tensions with Japan led the President to limit the transfer to a single carrier and escorts on April 18th. The ensuing Cabinet discussions perfectly illustrate the political, strategic, and diplomatic forces governing American naval deployments in 1941. Secretary of State Cordell Hull argued against any transfer of strength away from the Pacific, concerned that this would send the wrong signal to Japan. Knox and Secretary of War Henry Stimson viewed aid to Britain as a higher priority and pressed Roosevelt to implement the original transfer agreement. 52  The two went so far as to enlist Prime Minister Churchill’s aid, arranging for messages of support from the British Defense Committee and the British Chiefs of Staff. 53  Eventually, on May 13th, Roosevelt relented and authorized the full transfer, paving the way for British reinforcement of the Eastern Fleet. However, this reinforcement could not take place until American shipyards repaired sufficient numbers of British warships for service in the Far East.

The British began to slowly but steadily reinforce their position in the Far East throughout 1941 as a part of the ABC-1 agreement. For the Royal Navy, the actual reinforcement did not begin until December 1941 and the Eastern Fleet did not reach full strength until March 1942. The delay between the policy decision and the operational change highlights the critical role played by American shipyards in allowing the British to recreate the Eastern Fleet. Scholars have previously attributed the British ability to reinforce the Eastern Fleet to the relief provided by the U.S. Navy when Roosevelt authorized the ABC-1 transfer of American warships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. 54  However, this focus does not explain the timing of British naval reinforcements arriving in the Indian Ocean. While U.S. naval assistance did provide some relief in the Atlantic, the British ability to reinforce the Eastern Fleet in spring 1942 depended heavily on U.S. Navy Yards returning British warships to service. The repair program in America provided the Royal Navy with the additional warship capacity to implement the ABC-1 transfer agreement and reinforce the Far East, albeit nine months late.

The Royal Navy’s inability to reinforce the Eastern Fleet immediately after the ABC-1 agreement stemmed from the damage suffered by the British capital ship force throughout 1941. This hard fact shaped British policy throughout the summer and fall of 1941 and played a central role in the ill-advised decision to dispatch the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to Singapore without adequate air cover. In August 1941, eight of fifteen British capital ships were non-operational due to repair or refit needs, severely constraining British options. 55  Accordingly, the Admiralty determined that the plan to reinforce the Eastern Fleet in the fall of 1941 must be postponed to the spring of 1942. 56  A War Cabinet paper in September 1941 listed the naval forces needed to defend the Far East as seven battleships, two aircraft carriers, and fifteen cruisers, forces simply unavailable to the Royal Navy until the spring of 1942, and even then only due to the American repair program. 57  In response to Australian complaints about this delay, Churchill proposed sending a smaller force of capital ships to threaten Japanese convoys. 58  Operationally, the Prime Minister’s reasoning made little sense. 59  The objective of any naval reinforcements sent to the Far East would be to defend British possessions and British convoys in the Indian Ocean, not threaten Japanese convoys in the Pacific, a view expressed by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound. However, from a diplomatic perspective this small force, Prince of Wales and Repulse, would help assuage Australian dissatisfaction with British naval deployments through the long-standing practice of using warships to illustrate Foreign Office policy. 60  In addition, Churchill hoped that these ships would serve as a deterrent against Japanese aggression, strengthening Anglo-American cooperation in a theater previously marked by differences between Washington and London. 61

Conclusion

Soon after arriving at Singapore, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft not at all deterred by the presence of these warships in the Far East. The Japanese offensive into the Pacific caught the Anglo-Americans in the midst of their global naval reinforcement plan. While the Americans had supplemented their forces in the Atlantic, the British were still in the process of reinforcing their forces in the Far East. The British concept of actively defending British possessions in the Pacific proved ineffective with the forces allocated to the theater. Ultimately the American plan to recapture bases taken by the Japanese would shape the course of the Pacific War.

The debates and discussions between the U.S. and Royal Navies in early 1941 over naval deployments and fleet maintenance illustrate a transition period in Anglo-Americans relations. The two sides’ views of one another were colored by suspicions and doubts left over from the First World War. Washington saw British schemes to get the U.S. military to defend the Empire at every turn while London did not share the overriding American concern with securing the Western Hemisphere. These suspicions were balanced by cooperation in arenas of interest to both the U.S. and the U.K., namely the security of the United Kingdom and the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Disparities in national strength also shaped each side’s willingness to cooperate and compromise. The Royal Navy benefited from the ongoing growth in American industrial capacity, the same capacity that would propel the U.S. Navy into position as the world’s premier naval power by 1945. The ABC-1 agreement represented one of the first instances in Anglo-American military relations where American strength (naval strength in this case) played a significant role in shaping the outcome. However in 1941, the U.S. Navy still viewed the Royal Navy as the fleet to be emulated and was keenly aware of its junior partner status. With respect to roles and relationships, the spring of 1941 truly was a “fulcrum” in Anglo-American naval relations.

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)


Me in Suit

Corbin Williamson is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Ohio State University. His dissertation examines relations between the American, Australian, British, and Canadian navies from 1945-1953. He holds an M.A. from Texas Tech University and has published an article on warship repair under Lend-Lease in Diplomatic History. He currently works as a contract historian in the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and will be joining the faculty of the College of Distance Education at the Naval War College as a Fleet Professor this fall.


  1. David Reynolds, From Munich to Pearl Harbor: Roosevelt’s America and the Origins of the Second World War, The American Way Series (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 10.
  2. David Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-1941: A Study in Competitive Co-Operation (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Christopher G. Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). See also James Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977).
  3. Waldo Heinrichs, Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Mark Stoler, Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and U.S. Strategy in World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Mark Stoler, Allies in War: Britain and America against the Axis Powers, 1940-1945 (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005).
  4. Phyllis L. Soybel, A Necessary Relationship: The Development of Anglo-American Cooperation in Naval Intelligence (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2005); Alan Harris Bath, Tracking the Axis Enemy: The Triumph of Anglo-American Intelligence (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Steve Weiss, Allies in Conflict: Anglo-American Strategic Negotiations, 1938-1944 (London: Macmillan Press, 1996).
  5. Theodore Wilson, “Review of ‘Allies in Conflict: Anglo-American Strategic Negotiations, 1938-1944 by Steve Weiss,’” Journal of Military History 62, no. 4 (October 1998): 943–44.
  6. Ian Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941 (Oxford, UK: Berg, 1996), 61–63.
  7. Ibid., 96.
  8. Duncan Redford and Philip D. Grove, The Royal Navy: A History Since 1900 (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 104–106.
  9. Lawrence Pratt, “The Anglo-American Naval Conversations on the Far East of January 1938,” International Affairs 44, no. 4 (October 1971): 752, 756–757.
  10. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941, 129–130.
  11. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 170–171.
  12. Ibid., 179.
  13. Mark Watson, Chief of Staff: Prewar Plans and Preparations, United States Army in World War II (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950), 113–115; J.R.M. Butler, Grand Strategy, Volume II: September 1939 – June 1941, History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957), 341–345.
  14. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941, 173.
  15. Ibid., 212–213.
  16. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 97–98.
  17. Admiral Harold Stark to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, November 12, 1940, 16, Box 4, President’s Secretary’s File, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York, http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/psf/box4/a48b01.html.
  18. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 190.
  19. Peter Swartz, “The U.S. Navy and Europe in the First Postwar Decade or ‘The Little Boy Who Owns the Baseball Usually Gets to Pitch,’” in Inter-Allied Naval Relations and the Birth of NATO (Naval Historical Center Colloquium on Contemporary History No. 8, Washington, D.C.: Naval History & Heritage Command, 1993), http://www.history.navy.mil/colloquia/cch8.html.
  20. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 196.
  21. Maurice Matloff and Edwin M. Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-1942, United States Army in World War II: The War Department (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1999), 34–36.
  22. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941, 226; Watson, Chief of Staff: Prewar Plans and Preparations, 124–125.
  23. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 194; Arthur Marder, Old Friends, New Enemies: The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, Volume I: Strategic Illusions, 1936-1941 (New York: Clarendon Press, 1981), 191.
  24. Rear Admiral Robert Ghormley to Fleet Admiral Dudley Pound, “Serial 00264,” August 23, 1941, ADM 205/9, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office; “Exhibit No. 106, Admiral H.R. Stark’s Letters to Admiral H.E. Kimmell, Ocean Escort in the Western Atlantic”, Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Report of the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, vol. 19, Pearl Harbor Attack Hearings (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946), 2162; Stephen Roskill, The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1954), 551; Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-1941: A Study in Competitive Co-Operation, 226.
  25. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941, 194.
  26. Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-1941: A Study in Competitive Co-Operation, 226–228.
  27. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941, 228; Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 194–195.
  28. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941, 231.
  29. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 190, 204.
  30. The Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Denys W. Knoll, 110, U.S. Naval Institute Library, Annapolis, MD.
  31. Arthur Marder, Mark Jacobsen, and John Horsfield, Old Friends, New Enemies: The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, Volume II: The Pacific War, 1942-1945 (New York: Clarendon Press, 1990), 191.
  32. Minute, Churchill to First Sea Lord, 17 February 1941, ADM 116/4877, The National Archives of the United Kingdom.
  33. Admiral Royal Ingersoll, Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations to Captain Callaghan, February 21, 1941, Folder Navy: Callaghan, Daniel J.; Box 61; Departmental File; PSF, FDRL.
  34. John Slessor, The Central Blue: The Autobiography of Sir John Slessor, Marshal of the RAF (London: Frederick Praeger, 1957), 348. Slessor recalls that “We fully recognize (though it was an odd feeling) that they had to take into account the possibility of a British defeat and hence the requirements of their own unaided defence…But we felt they were overdoing it a bit and perhaps even making our defeat less improbable by allocating too much effort to long-term measures at the expense of those necessary to defeat Germany soon.” Ibid.
  35. Heinrichs says that the Illustrious request was simply “shelved” during the Lend-Lease debate. However, according to Admiralty records it appears the Americans did respond to the British request and that their response caused the Admiralty to become concerned about future repair work in the U.S. See Heinrichs, Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II, 48.
  36. Admiral Royal Ingersoll, Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations to Captain Callaghan, February 21, 1941.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Head of Military Branch, “Memorandum, ‘Repair of H.M. Ships in US Dockyards under Lend-Lease Bill’” February 14, 1941, ADM 199/1234, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office; C.H.M. Waldock, Military Branch, Admiralty to J.V. Perowne, Foreign Office, “M.02388/41,” February 23, 1941, ADM 199/1234, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office.
  39. F.A. Munn, Civil Secretary, BARM, “Memorandum, ‘Refits’, History of the British Admiralty Delegation, March 1941 to September 1945” July 1946, 95, ADM 199/1236, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office.
  40. Admiralty to Viscount Halifax (Washington), “No. 1080,” February 26, 1941, ADM 199/1234, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office.
  41. Viscount Halifax (Washington) to Prime Minister, “No. 962,” March 3, 1941, ADM 199/1234, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office; Viscount Halifax (Washington) to Admiralty, “No. 1017,” March 5, 1941, ADM 199/1234, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office; Viscount Halifax (Washington) to Admiralty, “No. 1048,” March 7, 1941, ADM 199/1234, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office.
  42. Naval Attaché to CNO, Alusna 251650 January 1941, Folder 6 of 9, “Section IV: Preparation of American – British War Plans, Part B (Chapter 15): United States-British Naval Cooperation, January – May 1941”, Tracy B. Kittredge, “Historical Monograph U.S. – British Naval Cooperation, 1940-1945,” n.d., 403–404, Papers of Tracy B. Kittredge, World War II Command File, Operational Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC; John J. McCloy to Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, February 12, 1941, Folder Navy: Knox, Frank: 1939-1941; Box 62; Departmental File; President’s Secretary File, 1933-1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York.
  43. “C-70x, Mar. 23, 1941”, Warren Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, Volume 1: Alliance Emerging, October 1933-November 1942 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 150–151.
  44. Admiral Wilfred French, British Advisory Repair Mission to Chief of Naval Operations, “‘H.M.S. Malaya,’” March 25, 1941, Folder L9-3/QS15 (March to April 1941); Box 257; 1940-1941 Subseries, Secret; Formerly Security-Classified General Correspondence of the CNO/Secretary of the Navy,1940-1947; General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1940-1947; Record Group 80, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD; Admiral Harold Stark, “Diary Entry, Monday” March 24, 1941, Fiscal Year 1941, Box 4, Diary – Chief of Naval Operations, 1939-1942, Series II: Diaries & Journals, Papers of Admiral Harold Stark, 1916-1970, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.
  45. “R-28x, 25 Mar. 1941”, Kimball, Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, Volume 1: Alliance Emerging, October 1933-November 1942, 151.
  46. Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy to President Franklin Roosevelt, “Serial 0910,” March 24, 1941, Folder L9-3/QS15 (March to April 1941); Box 257; 1940-1941 Subseries, Secret; Formerly Security-Classified General Correspondence of the CNO/Secretary of the Navy,1940-1947; General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1940-1947; Record Group 80, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
  47. “Administrative History No. 20: ‘Chief of Naval Operations: The Logistics of Fleet Readiness – The Fleet Maintenance Division in World War II’” n.d., U.S. Naval Administrative History of World War II, Navy Department Library, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.
  48. Admiral Harold Stark, “Diary Entry, Tuesday” March 18, 1941, Fiscal Year 1941, Box 4, Diary – Chief of Naval Operations, 1939-1942, Series II: Diaries & Journals, Papers of Admiral Harold Stark, 1916-1970, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC; Stark, “Diary Entry, Monday.”
  49. Viscount Halifax (Washington) to Arthur Purvis, “No. 216,” March 26, 1941, FO 371/28960, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office.
  50. “Exhibit No. 49: United States – British Staff Conversations Report, 27 March 1941”, Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Report of the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, vol. 15, Pearl Harbor Attack Hearings (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946), 1492. The text of the agreement stated: “The United States intends so to augment its forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean areas that the British Commonwealth will be in a position to release the necessary forces for the Far East.”
  51. Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy to President Franklin Roosevelt, “Serial 0910”; Arthur Salter to Director of Merchant Shipbuilding and Repairs, “No. 251,” April 5, 1941, FO 371/28960, National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office.
  52. Stetson Conn, The Framework of Hemisphere Defense, The US Army in World War II: The Western Hemisphere (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), 109. Joint Secretariat, “Movement of Units of the U.S. Pacific Fleet”, June 11, 1941, ‘Pacific-Far East-British Joint Staff Correspondence’, Strategic Planning in the U.S. Navy: Its Evolution and Execution, 1891-1945 (microfilm), Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1977. Reel 6.
  53. Robert J. Quinlan, “The United States Fleet: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the Allocation of Ships (1940-1941),” in American Civil-Military Decisions, ed. Harold Stein (Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1963), 182–183.
  54. Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-1941: A Study in Competitive Co-Operation, 185; Quinlan, “The United States Fleet: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the Allocation of Ships (1940-1941),” 191; Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 207, 233; Christopher Bell, “The ‘Singapore Strategy’ and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty, and the Dispatch of Force Z,” English Historical Review 116, no. 467 (June 2001): 614; Christopher Bell, The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy Between the Wars (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 90–91; Butler, Grand Strategy, Volume II: September 1939 – June 1941, 503.
  55. Cowman, Dominion or Decline: Anglo-American Naval Relations in the Pacific, 1937-1941, 235; “War Cabinet minutes, 21 July 1941”, Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill War Papers, Volume III: The Ever-Widening War, 1941 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 967.
  56. Quinlan, “The United States Fleet: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the Allocation of Ships (1940-1941),” 191; J.M.A. Gwyer, Grand Strategy, Volume III: June 1941 – August 1942, Part I, History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1964), 317. An official British history notes “the need of the older British ships to refit…made the maintenance of adequate naval strength at the vital points a matter of delicate timing.” It would be more accurate to replace “delicate timing” with “musical chairs.” See J.R.M. Butler, Grand Strategy, Volume III: June 1941 – August 1942, Part II, History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1964), 503.
  57. War Cabinet, “Memorandum, ‘Conference on British-United States Production’” September 17, 1941, Folder L11-7/EF61 to L11-7/EF73; Box 259; 1940-1941 Subseries, Secret; Formerly Security-Classified General Correspondence of the CNO/Secretary of the Navy,1940-1947; General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1940-1947; Record Group 80, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
  58. Marder, Old Friends, New Enemies: The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, Volume I: Strategic Illusions, 1936-1941, 220.
  59. To be fair, the British Chiefs of Staff were also complicit in this decision. One historian concludes, “Like Churchill, the Chiefs of Staff were content with token forces for the Far East. Unlike him, they wanted the tokens in place.” See Raymond Callahan, The Worst Disaster: The Fall of Singapore (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1977), 80.
  60. Marder, Old Friends, New Enemies: The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, Volume I: Strategic Illusions, 1936-1941, 215–216; Bell, The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy Between the Wars, 145.
  61. “Document 80: Churchill to Roosevelt, 2 November 1941”, Kimball, Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, Volume 1: Alliance Emerging, October 1933-November 1942, 163; Bell, “The ‘Singapore Strategy’ and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty, and the Dispatch of Force Z,” 627; Douglas Ford, “Planning for an Unpredictable War: British Intelligence Assessments and the War Against Japan, 1937-1945,” Journal of Strategic Studies 27, no. 1 (March 2004): 142.

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One Response to Repair Work and Naval Musical Chairs: Conflict and Cooperation in Anglo-American Naval Relations in 1941

  1. Michael West says:

    We probably had resistors on those ships. Nice article

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