The United States Forces’ Role in the Arctic Convoys:
The Brotherhood of the F.B.I.
Michael G. Walling
After Germany defeated Norway and Denmark in the spring of 1940, the Icelandic Government was unsure of England's ability to survive. In July 1940, representatives approached the U.S. Department of State concerning the possibility of Iceland's coming under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine. The U.S. had already agreed to protect Greenland at the behest of the Danish government.
The request was not acted upon until July 1, 1941, when the government of Iceland formally invited the U.S. to replace Britain as the guarantor of the island’s safety. It was thought that the presence of a “neutral” force would be less provocative to Germany.
Early in the morning of July 7, a US Navy convoy carrying the 1st Brigade, USMC (Reinforced) approached Iceland and the capital city of Reykjavik. Only one ship at a time could enter or leave the only entrance to Reykjavik harbor in June 1941. U.S. Navy PBYs of Patrol Squadron VP-72 and the seaplane tender (destroyer) Goldsborough (AVD-5) which had been stationed in Argentia, Newfoundland preceded the Marines, arriving on July 4.
The Marines were reinforced by the First Echelon, Task Force 4, which sailed on July 27 in two elements; the ground component, from New York Port of Embarkation; and Task Force 16 which included Army Air Corps planes and pilots from the 33d Pursuit Squadron on the newly commissioned carrier Wasp. After meeting at sea in the evening of 28 July, they were formed into one convoy and arrived without incident off Reykjavík on the morning of August 6.
As the convoy approached the coast of Iceland, the Army Air Force pilots flew their P-40 Warharks off the deck of the carrier Wasp. The same day VP-73, another squadron of six PBYs as well as VP-74, a squadron of long rang five PBM Mariners arrived at Skerjafjördur (Camp SNAFU) from Argentia. The primary mission of the Navy air craft was to patrol the Denmark Strait and cover transatlantic convoys up to 500 miles from base during the last months of the neutrality patrol.
On August 12, a secret conference concluded between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill on board the heavy cruiser Augusta (CA-31) in Argentia, Newfoundland. It was in Argentia that Roosevelt privately reassured Churchill that when the United States entered the war, it would accord the defeat of Germany first priority.
Out of this conference came a joint statement of principles called the Atlantic Charter. It endorsed the rights of all people to choose their own leaders, regain lands lost to them through force, trade freely with on another, have access to raw materials on equal terms, improve the lot of backward countries, disarm aggressors, freedom from want, freedom from fear, and “such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” This last phrase was directed at Hitler’s U-boat campaign and served as justification for the U.S. to take part in the battle. Roosevelt also pledged that U.S. warships would escort British merchant ships between the United States and Iceland.
Following the conference, a directive from US General Headquarters established the joint Army and Navy tasks and specifically interpreted the approach of Axis forces within fifty miles of Iceland to be "conclusive evidence of hostile intent" which would "justify" attack by the defending United States forces. President Roosevelt expressed his views as follows: ". . . I think it should be made clear that the joint Task . . . requires attack on Axis planes approaching or flying over Iceland for reconnaissance purposes." Simply stated, it was a "shoot on sight" order six days before the Greer incident took place on September 4.
It was on September 4 the USS Greer (DD-145), while tracking U-652 175 miles southwest of Iceland, was attacked but not damaged. Soon thereafter, Greer counter attacked with depth charges. Although no damage was done to either ship, the shots blew away the last vestiges of U.S. neutrality in the North Atlantic.
As of September 1, the U.S. Navy assumed the responsibility for trans-Atlantic convoys from a point off Argentia to meridian off Iceland on September 1. Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet also designated a task group as a Denmark Strait Patrol to operate in waters between Iceland and Greenland.
President Roosevelt’s approval to search for and destroy German warships carried consequences that were not long in coming. USS Kearny was one of five destroyers escorting westbound convoy ON-24 when the group was diverted to help a Canadian and British force defend the fully laden fifty-two ship eastbound convoy SC-48. Two ships had been torpedoed on the 14th and a thirteen boat wolf pack surrounded the convoy. On the night of October 16th/17th, in the midst of the battle around that convoy, U-568 laced a torpedo into Kearny’s starboard side, killing eleven men and injuring twenty-two. Surviving crewmembers stopped the flooding, regained power, and Kearny limped to Iceland. Vulcan provided timely and effective assistance to the destroyer. Since permanent repair facilities were not available, Kearny pulled up alongside the repair vessel, and her port side was flooded to raise the torpedo hole above water level. Vulcan's repair force cut away the damaged plating and had fixed a patch. By Christmas 1941, Kearny could sail for the east coast and permanent repairs at Boston.
On November 8 the Naval Operating Base was established at Hvalfjördhur (or Valley Forge as the American’s called it) and in mid January 1942, Army Engineers began construction of an airfield in the vicinity of Keflavik suitable for heavy bombers.
By February 1942, organization of the ocean escorts had been formalized into American, British, and Canadian groups with each national group designated alpha-numerically. The British Royal Navy primarily covered the western approaches to England; the United States Navy protected the mid-Atlantic from its bases in Newfoundland and Iceland, while the Royal Canadian Navy protected the convoys as they departed or arrived off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
In Iceland the U.S. Navy escort force primarily consisted of three 327-foot Secretary Class Coast Guard cutters [USS Bibb (WPG-31), USS Duane (WPG-33), and USS Ingham (WPG-35)] and four older Navy destroyers [USS Babbitt (DD-128) USS Badger (DD-126), USS Leary (DD-158), and USS Schenck (DD-159)]. These ships ran shuttle service, escorting empty merchant ship to the Mid Ocean Meeting Point, picking up fully loaded ones from an eastbound convoy and returning to Iceland. If all went well, the round trip took about seven days. They were also called to reinforce besieged convoys fighting their way through Torpedo Junction, conduct search and rescue missions, assist in resupplying out-lying garrisons, and conducting Weather Patrols. Despite their extensive operations, none of the escorts sank a U-boat.
Other U.S. Navy warships stationed in Iceland were part of the escort force for three Russian PQ convoys (PQ-15, PQ-16, and PQ-17) and conducted patrols in the Denmark Straits. Although part of the fateful PQ-17, none of the ships was heavily engaged with German forces in any of the three convoys.
In August, 1942, USS Tuscaloosa, accompanied by three destroyers (two American and one British), carried supplies to Kola Inlet. There she embarked 243 passengers, many of whom were survivors from PQ-17. Tuscaloosa cleared Kola Inlet on 24 August and reached Seidisfjord on the 28th. This was the last U.S. sortie to Russia by Iceland-based ships.
While the surface ship attacks on U-boats weren’t successful, the patrol planes had better hunting. Between August 1942 and October 1943, the squadrons are credited with sinking eight U-boats. There are no records indicating the VPs’ successes in thwarting U-boat attacks on convoys, but German records indicate the long range patrols were effective deterrents.
The Army Air Force wasn’t idle either. Tasked with preventing Luftwaffe reconnaissance and land-based attacks, Army fliers proved effective, shooting down Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor in August 1942. Although not tallying a significant number of kills, the pilots did prevent the Germans from obtaining accurate information on shipping.
Following Iceland's inclusion as part of the European Theater of Operations in June 1942, the American forces were enlarged. By the end of 1942 the garrison in Iceland consisted of approximately 38,000 men stationed at nearly 300 camps and posts. Eventually peak strength of the Iceland garrison reached approximately 41,000.
During the bitter, bloody winter of 1942-1943 the Allies almost lost the Battle of the Atlantic. After devastating losses in convoyed ships in March, the British Admiralty considered abandoning the convoy system since it appeared indefensible with the number of escort ship available. Without supplies from the U.S. and Canada, England would have been starved into submission and the Allied troops in Africa would have been isolated.
However, after their victories in March, most U-boats were on the end of their patrol endurance and had to return to base for supplies and/or repairs giving the Allies a chance to regroup, rearm and bring new weapons to the fight. Hence, with fewer U-boats at sea and reinforced convoy escorts Allied loses in April had dropped by half. At the end of the month, most of the U-boats put out to sea again and, together with the new boats arriving directly from Germany, U-boat strength on the North Atlantic convoy routes reached a new peak of 154 on April 30, 1943. But, they no longer dominated the battle.
By mid-April 1943, Allied navies gained supremacy over the U-boats, ending forty-one months of slaughter in the North Atlantic. And, at the end of April 1943, North Atlantic escort duties were assumed by Canadian and British groups. The U.S. escorts moved to the mid-Atlantic convoy routes and special convoy routes were established for high speed oil tankers sailing directly from the oil refineries in the Caribbean to England. These changes entailed the redeployment of the Iceland-based escorts and the majority of the Navy patrol aircraft to other areas.
Concurrent with power shift in the North Atlantic were the Soviet victory at Stalingrad on February 2 and, on May 16, the Allied victory in North Africa. These three events forced Germany into a defensive role which obviated the need for a strong military presence in Iceland.
So, without the fanfare that accompanied their arrival, U.S. ground forces where quietly withdrawn, most going to England.
The Army garrisons, Army Air Force transport squadron personnel, and a few Navy patrol planes remained in Iceland until the end of the war. By the end of 1945 little remained of the U.S. presence except the Navy patrol planes operating out of Keflavík.
Brotherhood of the F.B.I.
For the men, Iceland was a bleak and often inhospitable place to be. Army and Marine Garrison troops had little to do and there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment. The Navy air crews endured seemingly endless flights over thousands of square miles of barren ocean often under appalling weather conditions.
As hard as it was for the troops and flight crews, the escort sailors had it worse. The frequent shuttle runs strained the ships to the breaking point. Particularly hard hit were the destroyers which literally began falling apart. Even the tough 327s weren’t immune. Joe Matte on Ingham reported in a two week period the boot on the underwater sound gear was stove in by heavy weather, making that necessary equipment almost useless, the ship was battered by various misadventures in coming alongside tankers in gale force winds, No. 1 boat was slightly damaged; No. 2 boat was stove in; and the port gun sponson (aft) was partially broken; the starboard gun sponson was completely smashed by a wave, broke adrift and fell into the sea.
Hvalfjordur proved as dangerous as the open ocean. On January 15, 1942, a storm with wind velocity of more than 80 knots and gusts of over 100 knots struck; heavy cruiser Wichita (CA-45) was damaged in collisions with U.S. freighter West Nohno and British trawler HMS Ebor Wyke, and grounded near Hrafneyri light. Storm conditions lasted until 19 January and caused heavy damage among patrol planes based there and tended by seaplane tender Albemarle (AV-5).
And, there was no peace on earth Christmas Day 1942, for Duane, Ingham, and Campbell. At noon a 100 knot gale struck from the mountains. Duane had both anchors down, but the wind blew so hard they dragged across the bottom. The harbor was in chaos as ships tried to save themselves, at times fouling each others anchor chains, a move that hamstrung their chances of survival. Ingham and Campbell fought for their lives as winds blew them towards the rocks, powerful engines and low slung hulls straining to hold clear, the crews on deck working the anchor windlasses, braced against the blow.
In-port time, usually anchored in the harbor in Hvalfjordur, was spent refueling, re-arming, repairing equipment, chipping and painting, standing Anchor and Radio watches. The rare Shore Liberty for the escorts’ officers was in Reykjavik, which offered little in the way of night life, or for enlisted men, at the Base Canteen which was limited to a few hours and two cans of beer per man. The Coast Guard crews held Boat Drills each morning regardless of the weather. Pulling boats were launched and the men rowed for an hour or more before breakfast. On board there wasn’t any privacy and even the rare quiet times were haunted by the knowledge that they would soon have to go out again.
Somehow through all this the air crews and escort sailors kept their sense of humor. No one remembers how or when it started, but by the spring of 1943, they began to refer to themselves as members of the Brotherhood of the F.B.I. This, in that more refined period of time, was a nice way of saying “the Forgotten Bastards of Iceland.”