740.0011 European War 1939/37284/6: Telegram

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Kennedy) to the Secretary of State

1677. Secret and personal for the President from Former Naval Person:

“I am grateful to you for your telegram64 and I have reported its operative passages to Reynaud64a to whom I had imparted a rather more sanguine view. He will, I am sure, be disappointed at non publication. I understand all your difficulties with American public opinion and Congress, but events are moving downward at a pace where they will pass beyond the control of American public opinion when at last it is ripened. Have you considered what offers Hitler may choose to make to France. He may say, ‘Surrender the fleet intact and I will leave you Alsace-Lorraine’, or alternatively ‘If you do not give me your ships I will destroy your towns’. I am personally convinced that America will in the end go to all lengths but this moment is supremely critical for France. A declaration that the United States will, if necessary, enter the war might save France. Failing that in a few days French resistance may have crumbled and we shall be left alone.

Although the present Government and I personally would never fail to send the fleet across the Atlantic if resistance was beaten down here, a point may be reached in the struggle where the present Ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British islands by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler empire. A pro-German government would certainly be called into being to make peace and might present to a shattered or a starving nation an almost irresistible case for entire submission to the Nazi will. The fate of the British Fleet as I have already mentioned to you would be decisive on the future of the United States because if it were joined to the fleets of Japan, France, and Italy and the great resources of German industry, overwhelming sea power would be in Hitler’s hands. He might, of course, use it with a merciful moderation. On the other hand he might not. This revolution in sea power might happen very quickly and certainly long before the United States would be able to prepare against it. If we go [down] you may have a United States of Europe under the Nazi command far more numerous, far stronger, far better armed than the New [World].

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I know well, Mr. President, that your eye will already have searched these depths but I feel I have the right to place on record the vital manner in which American interests are at state [stake] in our battle and that of France.

I am sending you through Ambassador Kennedy a paper on destroyer strength prepared by the naval staff for your information. If we have to keep as we shall, the bulk of our destroyers on the east coast to guard against invasion, how shall we be able to cope with a German-Italian attack on the food and trade by which we live? The sending of the 35 destroyers as I have already described will bridge the gap until our new construction comes in at the end of the year. Here is a definite practical and possible decisive step which can be taken at once and I urge most earnestly that you will weigh my words.

Since beginning of war Britain and France have lost 32 destroyers with displacement of 47,380 tons which were complete losses. Out of these 25, with displacement of 37,637 tons, were lost since 1st February.

There is always a large number of destroyers out of action for repairs to damages caused by enemy action and hard service. From outbreak of war up to Norwegian invasion approximately 30% of British destroyers in home waters were in this condition but since then the percentage has greatly increased and for instance, out of 133 destroyers in commission in home waters today, only 68 are fit for service, which is lowest level since war started. In 1918 some 433 destroyers were in service.

The critical situation which has arisen in land operations has unfortunately made less apparent the grave difficulties with which we are faced on the sea.

The seizure of the Channel ports by the enemy has provided him both with convenient bases and stepping off ground for descents on our coast. This means that our east coast and Channel ports will become much more open to attack and in consequence more shipping will have to be concentrated on west coast ports. This will enable the enemy to concentrate their submarine attacks on this more limited area, the shipping lanes of which will have to carry the heavy concentration of shipping.

This alone is a serious enough problem at a time when we know that the enemy intend to carry out the bitter and concentrated attack on our trade routes, but added to our difficulties is the fact that Italy’s entry into the war has brought into the seas another 100 submarines many of which may be added to those already in the German U–boat fleet, which at a conservative estimate numbers 55.

The changed strategical situation brought about by the possession by the enemy of the whole coast of Europe from Norway to the Channel [Page 55]has faced us with a prospect of invasion which has more hopes of success than we had ever conceived possible. While we must concentrate our destroyers on protecting the vital trade, we must also dispose our naval forces to meet this threat.

If this invasion does take place, it will almost certainly be in the form of dispersed landings from a large number of small craft and the only effective counter to such a move is to maintain numerous and effective destroyer patrols.

To meet this double threat we have only the 68 destroyers mentioned above. Only 10 small type new construction destroyers are due to complete in next 4 months.

The position becomes still worse when we have to contemplate diverting further destroyer forces to the Mediterranean as we may be forced to do when the sea war there is intensified.

We are now faced with the imminent collapse of French resistance and if this occurs the successful defense of this island will be the only hope of averting the collapse of civilization as we define it.

We must ask therefore as a matter of life or death to be reinforced with these destroyers. We will carry out the struggle whatever the odds but it may well be beyond our resources unless we receive every reinforcement and particularly do we need this reinforcement on the sea.”

  1. See telegram No. 1, June 13, 1 p.m., to the First Secretary of Embassy in France, vol. i, p. 247.
  2. Paul Reynaud, French Premier, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Minister for Defense.