To bolster its forces in the Atlantic, especially in the escort of merchant shipping, the Royal Navy enjoyed the cooperation of the Royal Canadian Navy, which began the war with only 21 ships but ended the conflict with 300–400 vessels and 31,000 officers. In September 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy numbered 1 heavy cruiser, 2 light cruisers, 11 destroyers, 4 submarines, 4 minesweepers, and 1 auxiliary schooner.
The outbreak of war in September 1939 caught the German navy in transition. Chancellor Adolf Hitler had told German navy commander Grand Admiral Erich Raeder that war would not occur before 1943 or 1945, so in the Z Plan, Raeder had been building a balanced fleet to include aircraft carriers. He hoped that in the future, the fleet might challenge Britain for naval mastery. In September 1939, the German navy consisted of the 2 battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (powerful battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz were under construction); 3 pocket battleships ( Admiral Scheer, Admiral Graf Spee, and Deutschland, soon renamed Lützow); 1 heavy cruiser ( Admiral Hipper, with 4 additional heavy cruisers under construction); 6 light cruisers, 34 destroyers and torpedo boats, and 56 submarines. Admiral Herman Boehm commanded Naval Group West (North Sea operations), and Admiral Conrad Albrecht had charge of Naval Group East (Baltic operations). Rear Admiral Karl Dönitz commanded Germany's submarines.
Dönitz had wanted 300 U-boats to begin the war, but at the start of hostilities, Germany had only 56 submarines in commission, of which 46 were ready for action. Of these, only 26 were suitable for Atlantic operations. This meant that the German navy would be able to have on station at any one time only 8 or 9 submarines.
In 1939, the French navy, led by Admiral Jean L. F. Darlan, was the fourth largest and most modern in the world. France possessed 5 older battleships (powerful new battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu were in the final stages of construction), 1 aircraft carrier, 2 modern battle cruisers ( Strasbourg and Dunkerque), 19 cruisers, 64 destroyers, and 77 submarines. In September 1939, much of this naval strength was deployed in the Mediterranean, West Indies, and Indochina.
Poland had only a small navy in September 1939. It consisted of 4 destroyers, 5 submarines, and some smaller units. Italy, neutral until 1940, had an impressive navy of 6 battleships (only 2 of which were ready for service in September 1939), 7 heavy cruisers, 12 light cruisers, 90 destroyers, and 97 submarines.
In September 1939, the U.S. Navy may have been the world's most powerful. It maintained 15 battleships, 5 fleet carriers, 1 light carrier, 37 cruisers, 149 destroyers, and 71 submarines. Although officially neutral when the war in Europe began, the United States lent unofficial support to the Allies. Admiral Harold R. Stark was chief of naval operations (CNO). The United States divided its ships between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and it was the latter—and specifically the threat posed by Japan—which on the outbreak of war in Europe was receiving the most attention. In September 1939, U.S. forces in the Atlantic, commanded by Rear Admiral Alfred W. Johnson, consisted of 3 old battleships ( New York, Arkansas, Texas; battleship Wyoming was a training ship), the aircraft carrier Ranger, 8 cruisers, 43 destroyers, and 21 submarines. The United States had significant naval building programs under way that were centered on fast battleships and Essex-class aircraft carriers. In addition, Washington ordered 110 decommissioned World War I–vintage destroyers refurbished for service.
Admiral Johnson developed an offshore neutrality patrol zone out to 300 miles from the U.S. coastline. Maintained by destroyers, Coast Guard vessels, and aircraft, it protected British and American merchant vessels from German raiders. This policy would lead to an undeclared war in the Atlantic.
David M. Beehler
Dönitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Trans. R. H. Stevens. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1958.; Morison, Samuel E. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, 10, and 11. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1952.; Raeder, Erich. Struggle for the Sea. London: William Kimber, 1959.; Roskill, S. W. The War at Sea, 1939–1945. Vol.1. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1954.; Ruge, Friedrich. Der Seekrieg: The German Navy's Story, 1939–1945. Trans. M. G. Saunders. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957.