U. S. Navy’s Surface Fleet after Operation Torch in European Waters

The USS Endicott underway while serving in the Mediterranean

Battle damage to the United States Navy destroyer USS Endicott after the Battle of La Ciotat in 1944.

After the Battle of Casablanca in November 1942 the U. S. Navy’s surface fleet did not engage an Axis warship larger than a destroyer in European waters during the balance of the Second World War. A U. S. task group that included the Washington assisted in protecting the convoys to Murmansk during the summer of 1942, opening the remote possibility of a clash with the German battleship Tirpitz, and the Iowa spent several weeks guarding the North Atlantic in September 1943, lest the German battle fleet emerge from its Norwegian fjords while the British concentrated their battleships in the Mediterranean for the invasion of Italy. Otherwise, the principal tasks of U. S. surface forces in European waters were to escort shipping, conduct antisubmarine operations, interdict Axis supplies, and conduct amphibious operations. These duties reflected the state of the enemy they faced. When Italy announced its armistice with the Allies on 8 September 1943, the Axis lost its most significant surface force in the European theater.

Despite their decided disadvantage, German warships did tangle with U. S. warships in five engagements. The U. S. Navy’s surface fleet made its major effort in European waters in support of amphibious attacks in the Mediterranean and then during the ambitious and risky cross-channel attack on Normandy. Germany’s remaining surface assets-destroyers, torpedo boats, and MTBs-made strenuous efforts to interfere but lacked the strength to make a difference. German submarines accomplished even less. Following the Normandy landings and the subsequent Allied breakout into France’s countryside, Germany retained enclaves in the Channel Islands and at other French ports throughout the war. The Allies, applying lessons learned in the Pacific, contentedly quarantined these pockets of resistance.

The U. S. Navy held responsibility for security in the Gulf of St. Malo and the Channel Islands. During the first weeks of August 1944, while Patton’s armies motored into Brittany, the U. S. Navy patrolled the waters of the gulf every night with PT boats supported by destroyers or destroyer escorts, experiencing the vicious coastal war the British had been fighting for four years. The Americans’ opposition consisted of German M-class minesweepers-capable vessels used as corvettes-and a flotilla of armed trawlers.

On 11-12 August the American destroyer escort Borum supporting PT500 and PT502 engaged two ships of the 24th German Minesweeper Flotilla off La Corbiere on the southwest coast of Jersey. Following an unsuccessful torpedo attack, heavy gunfire chased the Americans off and damaged two boats. On the night of 13-14 August the Borum, the British destroyers Onslaught and Saumarez, PT505, PT498, and two British MTBs engaged the large minesweepers M412, M432, M442, and M452 (all 776 tons, 17 knots, one 4.1-inch gun), which were escorting a merchant vessel off St. Peter Port, Guernsey. Borum vectored the PTs toward the German ships. Under heavy fire, the PTs each launched two torpedoes from 1,500 yards, but they missed and the PTs retired undamaged. St. Malo fell to the American Army on 18 August. After that, the German navy kept largely to port, and the U. S. Navy discontinued offensive operations, although patrols using smaller warships like sub chasers and patrol boats continued.

In the Mediterranean Germany held the coastline from the Franco-Spanish border to the stalemated Italian front line south of Rome from October 1943 to June 1944. The German navy’s “capital ships” in the area consisted of captured torpedo boats and destroyers, which, combined with a fleet of corvettes, MTBs, barges, gunboats, and armed trawlers, protected a brisk coastal convoy traffic and engaged in offensive missions such as shore bombardment and mining. In general the Allies relied on MTBs, motor gunboats (MGBs), and armed landing craft to harass this traffic and used their larger warships to guard the beachheads and escort shipping. Between June 1944 and August 1944 the German-held shoreline contracted drastically when the Allies finally broke through central Italy to the Gothic Line in the north and invaded southern France. During this summertime operation, U. S. destroyers tangled with German surface units larger than coastal craft.

Early on the morning of 15 August the American destroyer Somers, skippered by Cdr. W. C. Hughes, patrolled south of Ile du Levant in support of a raiding group on the left flank of the Anvil invasion of southern France, which was scheduled to begin at 0830 that morning. At 0347 two pips appeared on Somers’s radar screen. Hughes tracked these contacts until it seemed their course would threaten the transports. At 0440, after the ships ignored his challenge, Hughes passed astern and opened fire from 4,750 yards. The intruders were German warships: the UJ6081 (728 tons, 18 knots, one 3.9-inch gun, two 17.7-inch torpedoes), which was formerly the Italian corvette Camoscio, and the SG21 (917 tons, 20 knots, two 4.1-inch guns) a former French aviso.

The Somers belted the SG21 with her opening salvos and left her ablaze with “numerous explosions forward and aft as ammunition began exploding.”2 The American destroyer then chased down the outgunned UJ6081 and left her dead in the water by 0520. The UJ6081 rolled over and sank at 0722. The SG21 burned and periodically erupted with small explosions until after dawn. The Somers expended only 270 rounds and suffered no casualties during this brief, conclusive, and well-fought action.

Two nights later a Naval Special Operations Force consisting of the American destroyer Endicott, two British river gunboats, the Aphis and Scarab, two PT boats, and four motor launches appeared off La Ciotat, halfway between Marseilles and Toulon, to feint a landing. During this operation the corvette UJ6082, the ex-Italian Antilope and sister to the UJ6081, and the large sub chaser UJ6073 (1,710 GRT, one 3.5-inch gun), formerly the Khedive of Egypt’s motor yacht Nimet Allah, attacked a small craft at 0545, prompting urgent calls for help. The British gunboats arrived at 0555 to find themselves outmatched and were chased southeast by the aggressive corvettes.

The Endicott, skippered by the PT veteran Cdr. John D. Bulkley came on the scene at 0620. She engaged the UJ6073, which was the much larger of the two available targets, even though jammed breech blocks had disabled three of the Endicott’s four mounts. In the first minutes 2 five-inch shells detonated in the exyacht’s engine room, and the UJ6073 quickly lost way. The Germans return fire fell close. One shell penetrated the Endicott and caused minor flooding but failed to explode. Using leather mallets to open and close the breech blocks, the Endicott continued to close range; at no time was she able to fire a full broadside using all four guns.

The UJ6073, listing heavily to port, began to explode at 0648, but the UJ6082 launched two torpedoes, forcing the Endicott to evade. The destroyer replied with two torpedoes of her own. When the UJ6082 combed the America torpedoes’ tracks, she masked her main battery. This allowed the Endicott to close to 1,500 yards. At 0702 Bulkey’s 20-mm and 40-mm guns raked the corvette’s deck. The UJ6082 gamely returned fire for a few minutes until five-inch rounds exploded near her stack and bridge. The UJ6082’s crew started abandoning ship at 0717, and the Endicott ceased firing. The UJ6073 sank at 0709. The UJ6082 finally capsized at 0830.

In the following weeks the Allies overran southern France, but their resources did not permit an offensive over the Alpine passes into the Italian Po Valley. For this reason, the front line froze east of Monaco along the Franco-Italian border, preserving Germany’s enclave on the Ligurian Sea for another eight months. In October the Allies established a naval Flank Force, Mediterranean that was made up largely of French units and under French command to guard the western portions of this enclave. British and American destroyers and coastal craft based out of Livorno patrolled the eastern flank. These naval forces supported Allied ground units, attacked German shipping, and were harassed in their turn by German coastal and small battle units. Throughout this campaign, German torpedo boats remained remarkably active, as when they shelled Allied positions near the Arno estuary on the night of 30-31 August.

USS Gleaves laying a smoke screen off Southern France, August 18, 1944. HMS Dido can be seen behind her.

On the evening of 1 October 1944, as the American destroyer Gleaves skippered by Cdr. W. M. Klee patrolled off San Remo, Italy, news arrived that Allied aircraft had bombed three vessels off Porta Maurizio further up the coast. Klee decided to head toward Imperia to investigate.

That same evening the TA24 and TA29 (both 1,110 tons, 28 knots, two 3.9-inch guns, six 17.7-inch torpedoes), and TA32 (2,000 tons, 31 knots, four 4.1-inch guns, three 21-inch torpedoes) sailed from Genoa toward San Remo to lay a minefield. The TA29 and TA32 were loaded with ninety-eight mines. The German force had just passed Imperia when, at 2313, lookouts spotted a large warship about 11,000 yards southwest. This was the Gleaves, which was also tracking the Germans. At 2319 the American destroyer turned parallel, rang up twenty knots, and opened fire.

The first salvo fell only fifty yards from the TA24. The Germans maneuvered as the next American salvo sent geysers spouting near the TA29. At 2324 the German commander ordered a simultaneous turn to starboard. The TA29, her rudder control affected by her cargo of mines, rammed the TA24. The German ships managed to separate and retreated toward Genoa, opening fire against the American destroyer at 0235. Klee assumed shore batteries were engaging, and when his radar detected two aircraft only three miles away at 2339, Klee had the Gleaves make smoke and head west. The gunfire continued until 2345. At 2348 the Gleaves secured from general quarters after expending eighty rounds and eight star shells.

The German torpedo boats made port by 0315. They thought they had fought a French light cruiser. In his report Klee concluded he had attacked three merchant ships. He observed two of them explode while under fire and believed them sunk or seriously damaged. Much more exciting was the encounter later that night with Axis small battle units. The big destroyer had some narrow escapes, sank several boats, and captured an enemy vessel. For this, the commanders of Cruiser Division 8 and the Eight Fleet recommended a slew of medals for the Gleaves’s crew.

The German navy retained a sting. In the most unlikely of combat zones, far behind the front line, the final surface action of the war involving the German and U. S. navies occurred on the night of March 8, 1945, when a small German force consisting of the M412, M432, M442, M452 (all 776 tons, 17 knots, one 4.1-inch gun), and nine other vessels sailed from St. Hélier in the Channel Islands to conduct a commando strike against the mainland port of Granville. En route they encountered the U. S. sub chaser PC564 (463 tons, 19 knots, one 3-inch gun, one 40-mm gun, two 20-mm guns) and severely damaged her, killing fourteen men and wounding eleven. With this defeat, the product of complacency, the U. S. Navy heightened its vigilance but the Germans did not venture out again before the European war ended two months later.

1 thought on “U. S. Navy’s Surface Fleet after Operation Torch in European Waters

  1. Pingback: U. S. Navy’s Surface Fleet after Operation Torch in European Waters – faujibratsden

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