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Early Operations in the Atlantic

Any treatise on fleet oilers would be sorely lacking if it did not include something of the operational histories of these vessels and their employment with the fleet. Before proceeding along this course, we need to step back in time to the months preceding America's entry into the Second World War--a period when the focus of U.S. naval strategy was shifting from the Pacific to the Atlantic. During this era, the navy, after years of unrelenting planning, was forced to abandon ORANGE as a formal war policy in favor of the RAINBOW series of war plans.

Toward the end of January 1941, representatives of the chief of naval operations, the army's chief of staff, and the British chiefs of staff began a series of secret discussions concerning a joint strategy if and when the United States became involved in the war being waged in Europe. By now the Germans had completely overrun the continent and there was much concern for Great Britain's ability to weather the storm of U-boats attacking her supply lines in the Atlantic. Out of this conference emerged an accord for Anglo-American cooperation known as the ABC-1 Staff Agreement. One of its tenets was that the principal task of the United States naval forces in the Atlantic would be the protection of shipping. This meant that the United States Navy would assume primary responsibility for protecting transatlantic merchant convoys as soon as the Atlantic Fleet was in a position to do so.1

The Navy Department initiated a number of administrative changes in preparation for this task culminating in the creation of the Atlantic Fleet on 1 February 1941. On that date, Rear Adm. Ernest J. King was promoted to the rank of admiral and designated commander in chief Atlantic Fleet (CinCLant). By March, a support force of twenty-seven destroyers and four squadrons of twelve Catalina flying boats had been established for escort duty and was undergoing extensive training in antisubmarine warfare at Norfolk. Then on 9 April, the United States signed an agreement with the Danish government in exile permitting


the establishment of U.S. military bases and meteorological stations in Greenland, thus making the United States protector of that strategically important island. President Roosevelt had previously declared U.S. responsibility for defending the Western Hemisphere. Now King, acting in his capacity as commander in chief Atlantic Fleet, proceeded, like "Pope Alexander VI in 1493 to draw a line of demarcation between [the] hemispheres."2

Two months later, in June, Admiral King was directed to relieve the British garrison on Iceland to free up British troops there for other service. King responded to the challenge by establishing Task Force 19 centered around six navy transports assigned to carrying the First Brigade of the United States Marine Corps. Twelve destroyers escorted the convoy on its journey from Argentia, Newfoundland, to Reykjavik, Iceland. The force contained a total of twenty-five ships, among them the new fleet oiler Salamonie (AO-26), which had only been in commission since April. The Salamonie was needed to refuel the destroyers when the force reached Reykjavik. Even at this early date, the Atlantic Fleet was short of destroyers, necessitating the use of four 1,200-tonners, the old "four stackers" assigned for use in the outer screen. The round-trip voyage of some three thousand nautical miles was well beyond the normal steaming radius of these World War I vintage ships requiring the Salamonie's services. While the troops were disembarking from the transports, the spanking new oiler functioned as a station tanker in Reykjavik roadstead doling out the "navy special" needed by the thirsty four stackers.3

Fuel Consumption and Escort Duty

Providing destroyer screens with enough fuel for aggressive escort operations conducted over long expanses of open ocean proved to be one of the problems unforeseen by prewar planners. Fortunately, the navy had perfected the technique of fueling destroyers at sea in the 1920s and had routinely included such operations in practice exercises conducted throughout the 1930s--and we now know that these drills were rehearsals for War Plan ORANGE.

All destroyers built for the U.S. Navy after the First World War were designed with a cruising radius of at least 5,500 nautical miles--a characteristic dictated largely by the needs of War Plan ORANGE. Cruising radius was determined by extrapolating fuel consumption data obtained during a straight run in fair weather while maintaining a specified speed of about 15 knots, then considered the most economical speed for minimizing the risk of submarine attack and crossing the Pacific in a reasonable time.4 The operational range for destroyers engaged in wartime screening activities proved significantly less than that projected for normal cruising. Screening activities that involved investigating underwater contacts and submarine sightings, attacking the target if possible, and then trying to catch up with the convoy,


were all tasks that required high operating speeds, which placed high demands on the ship's engineering plant.

As recalled from the discussion of ship speed in chapter 6, horsepower increases exponentially as speed goes up. Since fuel usage varies directly with power, fuel consumption rises to prodigious heights at maximum or near-maximum power. At 25 knots, for example, a typical prewar destroyer used more than twice as much fuel as did when cruising at 15 knots. While at 30 knots, a speed that was not uncommon for destroyers engaged in screening a fast military convoy, the amount of fuel consumed every minute was 300 percent that required for normal cruising!

When engaged in screening combatants or other fast-moving convoys, it was not uncommon for destroyers to have to maintain an average steaming speed of 20 knots during the course of a twenty-four-hour day. At this speed--not unreasonable considering the demands placed upon these ships--a destroyer's radius of operation would fall to less than three-fourths of its normal cruising range. The fuel problem was further exacerbated by the tactic of steaming in zigzags, implemented as a means of thwarting underwater attack. While this strategy complicated the firing solution for any submarine sighting the convoy, it added considerably to the steaming distance covered by the convoy.

The navy became acutely aware of this problem when it agreed to take responsibility for moving a division of British troops, consisting of some twenty-thousand men, from Halifax to Africa in the fall of 1941. To accomplish this task in safety, King assembled a force consisting of the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4), the cruisers Quincy (CA-39) and Vincennes (CA-44), six large troop transports, and a screen of eight modern destroyers. Designated Task Force 14.4, the formation sailed from Halifax on 10 November 1941 for Capetown, South Africa, a distance of 8,132 miles. Although the task force refueled at Trinidad, the destroyers, all built within the last five years, did not have sufficient fuel to escort the convoy for the long, six-thousand-mile voyage across the South Atlantic. Though some of these destroyers had sufficient range to make the voyage without refueling, they could not do so and provide an active antisubmarine screen (see table 15). In a situation

Destroyers Assigned to Task Force 14.4, Cruising Range

Name and no. Range
(naut. miles)
      Name and no. Range
(naut. miles)

McDougal DD-358 6,140   Mayrant DD-402 5,220
Winslow DD-359 6,140   Trippe DD-403 5,220
Moffet DD-362 6,140   Rhind DD-404 5,220
Wainwright DD-419 5,420   Rowan DD-405 5,220


reminiscent of the First World War when the Maumee was called upon to refuel some of the first destroyers to cross the Atlantic, the Cimarron (AO-22) was called upon to provide a similar function. She joined the convoy on 19 November and refueled the destroyers twice on the outward passage and twice on the return route from Capetown.5

What arrangements might have been made if the navy had not acquired Cimarron-class oilers prior to this date is uncertain. Of course, the navy may have been able to charter commercial tankers for this purpose assuming such vessels were available, but this would have certainly complicated the arrangements and increased the difficulties of planning. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether tankers of sufficient speed would have been available at this time, since only the newest commercial tankers could make the speed needed by the navy.6

Carrier Conversions

By 1941, Britain's wartime experience during the Battle of the Atlantic had convinced the U.S. Navy of the need to provide convoys with air

As in the First World War, refueling destroyers at sea was essential for operations conducted across the Atlantic. Here, an unidentified oiler refuels Patterson, one of the prewar destroyers similar to the Craven-class escorts of Operation Torch. (National Archives)
As in the First World War, refueling destroyers at sea was essential for operations conducted across the Atlantic. Here, an unidentified oiler refuels Patterson, one of the prewar destroyers similar to the Craven-class escorts of Operation Torch. (National Archives)


cover in order to protect them from both air and submarine attack. Early in the year, the navy initiated a program to convert a number of fast merchant ships to aircraft carriers. The C3 cargo ships were selected after studies had shown that they could be converted into auxiliary aircraft carriers.7 By the time war was declared in December, a number of these vessels had been converted into carriers under the type designation of "AVG," signifying them as auxiliary aircraft transports. After Pearl Harbor, the need to provide additional carriers became critical, and a plan was immediately drawn up to convert twenty-four more C3s into escort carriers during the coming year. Although the initial plan called for twenty-four carriers, only twenty C3 types could be located. The only other hulls suitable in size and speed for conversion to escort carriers were the fleet oilers of the Cimarron class. Although there was also scarcity of oilers, a decision was made to convert four of the original high-speed tankers commissioned by the navy into the higher priority escort carriers. The first to be converted, the Sangamon (AO-28), was redesignated CVE-26 and became the lead ship of the class. The others were the Suwanee (CVE-27), Chenango (CVE-28), and Santee (CVE-29).8

The selection of the Cimarron type for conversion to escort carriers proved a fortuitous choice. The T3-S2-A1 design was ideally suited for this purpose: it was larger than the C3s, had twin screws that provided better maneuverability, and was able to carry fuel for escorts. The Sangamons were considered so successful that they formed the design basis for the Commencement Bay-class escort carriers, the last such vessels built during the war.9

Operation TORCH

Shortly after war was declared, Britain's prime minister Sir Winston Churchill journeyed to Washington, D.C., to confer with President Roosevelt regarding future military actions. The two men agreed that a major military operation against Germany must be attempted in 1942 and left it to the combined (American and British) chiefs of staff to determine how and where this should be achieved. Although Roosevelt urged simultaneous landings in Morocco and Algeria, his suggestion was initially rejected by the joint (American) chiefs, who favored an invasion of northern France at the earliest opportunity. Various other options were investigated and discussed throughout the spring without resolving the issue. A consensus was not reached until 25 July when the decision was finally made to mount a joint Anglo-American invasion in North Africa with assaults planned for French Morocco, Algeria, and possibly Tunisia as Roosevelt had originally urged. Planning for the operation, code-named TORCH, began immediately and resulted in an operational plan involving three separate task forces:


Housatonic (AO-35) approaches Ranger (CV-4) enroute to North Africa during Operation TORCH. (National Archives)
Housatonic (AO-35) approaches Ranger (CV-4) enroute to North Africa during Operation TORCH.
(National Archives)

  1. Western Naval Task Force (Task Force 34), with 35,000 U.S. Army troops to be embarked in the United States, destined for the Atlantic coast of French Morocco to capture Casablanca and Port Lyautey.

  2. Center Naval Task Force, with 39,000 U.S. Army troops, embarked in the United Kingdom to capture Oran.

  3. Eastern Naval Task Force, with 23,000 British and 10,000 American troops, embarked in the United Kingdom to capture Algiers.

The Western Task Force was to be an entirely American affair centered around Task Force 34. This task force, consisting of 105 warships, transports, auxiliaries, and submarines, sortied from a number of ports in late October for a rendezvous in mid-Atlantic. Included in this force were five of the navy's newest fleet oilers: Chemung (AO-30), Housatonic (AO-35), Kennebec (AO-36), Merrimack (AO-37), and Winooski (AO-38).


National Defense Features Tankers Participating in Operation TORCH

Original name Date launched Hull no. Navy name

Esso New Orleans 9-Sep-39 AO-30 Chemung
Corsicana 19-Apr-41 AO-36 Kennebec
Caddo 1-Jul-41 AO-37 Merrimack
Calusa 12-Nov-41 AO-38 Winooski
Esso Trenton 11-Apr-39 ACV-26 Sangamon
Markay 1-Apr-39 ACV-27 Suwanee
Esso New Orleans 1-Apr-39 ACV-28 Chenango
Seakay 3-Apr-39 ACV-29 Santee

SOURCE: Morison, History, vol. 3, 111.

These vessels fueled various elements of the fleet under way while at sea on 30 and 31 October, and again on 6 November, just two days before the landings. In addition to the fuel, Kennebec, Winooski, and Chemung also carried "Higgins" crash boats as deck cargo, which were off loaded on D day and used to support the beach assault.

Air support for the operation was provided by the Ranger, considered unsuitable for the Pacific, and the four new Sangamon-class escort carriers: Sangamon (ACV-26), Suwanee (ACV-27), Chenango (ACV-28), and Santee (ACV-29). All were converted Cimarron-class tankers acquired by the navy in 1941 as previously described. The air cover provided by these ships was so important that their shakedown training was conducted in one-half the normal time so that they would be available for the operation. Their inclusion in the carrier force also eased the fuel problem since they retained an enormous oil capacity even after conversion. Originally designated as "Auxiliary Aircraft Carriers," they were later redesignated as "Escort Carriers," or CVEs.

Operation TORCH was the first large-scale assault conducted across an entire ocean. Later assaults conducted in the Mediterranean would be staged from advance bases in North Africa relatively close to their objectives. This negated the need for fueling at sea, which freed the oilers for duty in the Pacific. Nevertheless, the important contribution of the ships constructed as national defense tankers (see table 16) to the success of Operation TORCH should not be taken for granted. Moreover, the program provided the oilers necessary for fueling en-route, and the payments for increased speed--once questioned as to its legality--proved a godsend when the need arose for vessels that could be converted into escort carriers. It is doubtful that Operation TORCH could have been conducted without the initiative of Emory S. Land, the man most responsible for establishing the fast-tanker program. His contribution to the naval effort of World War II remains largely unrecognized.


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Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation