The Right Honourable Arnold Hiller, M.P
By Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first ten chapters of this series we traced Arnold Hiller’s rise to power; his crushing of domestic opposition; his 1936 occupation of Ireland; his alliance with Mussolini; his invasion of France at the start of the Second World War; his takeover of the French colonial empires in North Africa and the Middle East; the "Day of Broken Glass" in Ireland; the official US entry into World War II; the outbreak of the Anglo-American naval war in the Atlantic; the collapse of Spain’s Republican regime; and Japanese preparations for war against the United States in the Pacific. In this episode we’ll look at American strategic planning for the liberation of Iceland after Hiller’s occupation of the country in the summer of 1939 as well as US strategic air strikes against British-occupied Bermuda.
Like Germany, Denmark was officially neutral in the Anglo-American war; unofficially, also like Germany, it tended to look the other way when one of its citizens acted to aid the United States in defending herself against the British Empire. The Danish government feared that Hiller, having already conquered Ireland and France and assisted the Falangist takeover of Spain, might turn his guns on Denmark next, and they were trying to make sure that didn’t happen. In May of 1939, as the terror campaign against suspected anti-Falangist conspirators by General Franco’s grupos del accion was reaching its gruesome peak, the Danish cut a secret deal with the White House to let US naval patrols pass through the waters off the Danish colony of Greenland; in return the US would license Danish industry to manufacture certain types of American combat aircraft for Denmark’s defense.
While the Danes did have a right to be concerned about Hiller’s intentions toward their country, his real next target was Iceland; the British prime minister knew that if the tiny island could be occupied it would make a useful staging area for an invasion of North America. Although he didn’t yet have a complete picture of American plans for Europe, he knew that Roosevelt’s military advisors were themselves contemplating the deployment of troops to Iceland to use it as a base for operations against the British Isles, and Hiller wanted to take that option away from the American president as quickly as possible.
On June 2nd, 1939 Hiller summoned Bernard Montgomery, Irwin Ramsdell, and J.F.C. Fuller to a meeting at 10 Downing Street to discuss strategy for seizing Iceland. The result of their conference was the battle plan for Operation Fury, a lightning assault in which Royal Marines backed up by two Royal Army brigades would mount an amphibious landing on the island just before dawn, set up a beachhead and neutralize the Icelanders’ paltry defense forces to clear the way way for the Royal Army to deploy additional troops to complete the British takeover of the island. To make doubly sure nothing stopped his forces from gaining control of Iceland, Hiller directed the Royal Navy’s battleship contingent to bombard the capital city Rekjyavik right before the first wave of British troops came ashore on Iceland’s eastern coast.
Three weeks later, Hiller’s troops descended on Iceland like a swarm of locusts. It was still dark in Rekjyavik when the first salvos from the RN battleships’ 15-inch guns hit the Icelandic capital; in spite of heroic efforts the city’s defenders could do very little to to stop the British battlewagons from inflicting serious damage on the city. By the time the first platoons of Royal Marines hit the beaches than an hour later, half of Rekjyavik was in flames-- and additional Royal Navy salvos would pound much of the rest into rubble before the Icelanders capitulated less than ten hours after the invasion began. The few casualties the British sustained in their occupation of the island came mostly from drownings that happened as the landing craft were passing through the choppy Icelandic waters; Joseph Gable saw to it that these men were canonized as martyrs by the domestic newsreels.
In the rest of the English-speaking world, however, the British troops who took part in the invasion and occupation of Iceland were seen as little more than thugs. Hiller’s aggression against the small island enhanced Roosevelt’s determination to crush the BNSP regime; in July of 1939 he issued directives to the US War and Navy Departments to present to the White House within 60 days a final draft for battle plans to mount an amphibious landing on the Icelandic coast. The end product of their labors was Operation Torch, a three-pronged assault that called for US troops to make a precarious trans-Atlantic journey along a zigzag route intended to keep the Royal Navy’s submarines off balance.
First, however, the US Atlantic fleet would have to wrest control of the North Atlantic sea lanes from the RN, which not only had submarines patrolling those lanes but also deployed a rather formidable surface fleet to stalk all the possible maritime approaches to the Icelandic coast. US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King, realizing that the British surface fleet still had the edge when it came to battleships and carriers, decided he would have to use on his submarine force-- such as it was --to strike at Britain’s merchant marine.
And even this strategy was somewhat risky, to say the least. The Royal Navy’s dominance of the North Atlantic meant that American subs could only patrol for a week or two before having to flee back to the safety of their home bases on the East Coast; even then they faced an enormous amount of hazard, because many of them had to pass British- occupied Bermuda on their way home-- and Bermuda was home to a rather substantial anti-submarine task force.
Bermuda also had its own sub bases from which the Royal Navy could strike forth against US naval and merchant vessels. Then there was the matter of fuel supplies: British submarines could on average carry larger fuel stores than their American counterparts and had more places to refuel than American subs, thus they could afford to stay on patrol for longer periods of time. Still, a slim chance was better than none, Roosevelt thought, and so in early September of 1939 he gave the US Navy the green light to commence its submarine warfare campaign against British naval and merchant warships in the Atlantic.
The American submarine armada’s initial forays against British ships in the Atlantic didn’t go all that well. At least half of the torpedoes fired by American subs in those first attacks went well wide of their intended targets; often as not, those torpedoes that did hit their mark either only inflicted minor damage or failed to detonate at all. Joseph Gable gleefully trumpeted every setback the US Navy sub fleet endured, and on more than one occasion displayed an unexploded American torpedo for the world press.
But on October 1st an event happened that shook the BNSP regime to its core: the battleship HMS Royal Oak, one of the most powerful warships in the RN’s Atlantic fleet, was sunk by American submarines off St. George’s Island in Bermuda while refueling in preparation for another round of attacks on US and Canadian sea lanes. Hiller ordered a three-day national mourning period for Royal Oak’s crew and berated Admiral Eric Raye for what the British prime minister considered an intolerable lapse of judgement by Raye’s counterintelligence officers.1 Raye, in turn, entrusted Charles Dornett with making sure the American attack didn’t go unavenged.
Accordingly, within five days after Royal Oak perished, the Royal Navy’s own submarines deployed to the New England coastline to mount a gun and torpedo attack on Boston Harbor. Not that they were going to be so reckless as to try and enter the harbor itself; that would have been a gold-engraved invitation for American anti-submarine patrols to hunt them down, possibly even destroy them. Rather, they would lay in ambush at a short but safe distance from the mouth of the harbor and fire on whatever naval or merchant vessels were either brave enough or foolhardy enough to venture out of the harbor and into open sea.
At 5:10 AM on the morning of October 6th, 1939 the British subs began their murderous assault. Three naval vessels and ten merchant ships were sunk and eight more vessels damaged before US naval patrols guarding Boston Harbor could fire back; in the chaos that engulfed the harbor following the first torpedo salvos, most of the submarines were able to escape unhindered. When the carnage was over, eleven American warships and twenty-six merchant craft had been sent to the bottom of the Atlantic in exchange for the loss of just two RN submarines.
On the dash back to their home ports in Bermuda, the British subs took out another American merchant ship and a Canadian fuel tanker, brining the subs’ kill total of merchant vessels on the Boston Harbor mission to 28. Duly impressed with the results of the attack, Prime Minister Hiller showered medals and commendations on the crews of the participating submarines; one sub captain was even promoted to the rank of commodore. Dozens of Allied sailors were brought back to Great Britain as prisoners of war and paraded before BBC propaganda cameras as a deliberate thumb in the eye of the Roosevelt Administration.
This jolted FDR into the realization that even before he could think about ejecting Hiller’s troops from Iceland, he would first have to retake Bermuda from British control. Accordingly, he ordered the initial phase of Operation Torch, the assault on Bermuda, moved from its originally scheduled starting date of April 1940 to mid-January. Although he was well aware that this would shorten the time that US forces would have to prepare for commencing the campaign, Roosevelt was also aware that to delay much further in taking action against British occupation forces in Bermuda would make Washington’s already precarious strategic situation that much more dangerous.
The top priorities in mapping out the battle plan for Torch were 1)eliminating Bermuda’s RAF fighter and bomber squadrons as a threat to the invasion force; 2)neutralizing the Royal Navy’s Atlantic fleet and 3)knocking out the massive shore batteries that defended Bermuda’s coastline. Of these three broad arms, knocking out the airbases was deemed to be of particular importance, and with good reason-- the RAF not only constituted a grave menace to any projected American effort to liberate Bermuda but was also a potential danger to US East Coast cities and industrial plants. From the day the Second World War began, Roosevelt had been haunted by the nightmare scenario of "clouds of RAF bombers"2 darkening the skies of Boston, New York, Washington, Newark, and Baltimore and reducing whole blocks of those cities to rubble.
And to be sure, Hiller had no objection to inflicting massive losses on American civilian populations; in one of his first speeches to the House of Commons following the US declaration of war on Great Britain, he had said "Bomb will be met by bomb"-- an implied threat to send bombers to attack major American cities, or at least those cities within flight range of the RAF bomber squadrons in Bermuda. To get at those cities further within the American interior, the British prime minister had commissioned his country’s major military aircraft design bureaus to create long-range bombers that could penetrate far into the American heartland and hit the factories and cities of the Midwest, the Deep South, and New England. At least two of those designs would be combat-ready and a third in the testing stages before the summer of 1940 according to US Army Air Corps intelligence estimates, and FDR wanted to wrest control of Bermuda from the British before Hiller made good on his threat.
The primary long-range bomber in the American arsenal at the time was the Boeing B-17; nicknamed "Flying Fortress" because it bristled with defensive armaments, the B-17 had more than enough flight range to hit targets on Bermuda’s shores. What it didn’t have was adequate fighter escort; consequently, casualties for the first B-17 raids on Bermuda were appallingly high. But the RAF squadrons stationed on the island didn’t emerge unscathed either-- on those occasions when the B-17s managed to get through the British air defenses, a few bombs did catch British planes napping on the ground, and two Hurricane squadron leaders fell victim to B-17 gunners.
In December of 1939 the B-17s finally got proper fighter cover with the introduction of the Grumman F4F Wildcat into active service. The Wildcat, a carrier plane originally conceived for service in the Pacific, was the first combat aircraft capable of holding its own with the Hurricane in a dogfight. However, it had one rather unfortunate drawback: because of fuel limitations, it could only operate for about 10-15 minutes in British airspace before it had to return to its home airfields on the US east coast. RAF air defense commanders in Bermuda exploited this flaw at every opportunity.
The attack squadrons posted to the US Navy Atlantic fleet’s carriers could have made a devastating complement to the B-17 raids on Bermuda but for two thorny problems: (1)there simply weren’t enough attack planes in the Navy’s arsenal for the job and (2)the attack aircraft the US Atlantic fleet did have were needed mainly to combat the British submarines stalking merchant convoys traveling to and from the continental United States. US aircraft manufacturers were doing all they could to remedy the situation, but it would be months or even years before the US Atlantic carrier fleet’s attack squadrons could start to match the strength of their British counterparts. And things weren’t much easier for their brethren in the US Pacific fleet; with the Imperial Japanese Navy to back it up, the Royal Navy’s own Pacific carrier force would prove a formidable weapon when the war between the United States and the Rome-London-Tokyo Axis finally expanded to the Far East...
To Be Continued
Raye’s intelligence chief had gotten a cable message warning about the possibility of an American sub attack on the Royal Oak, but because of a clerical error on the part of Raye’s communications staff it wasn’t delivered to the Royal Navy C-in-C until twelve hours after the battleship had been sunk.
 Quoted from Roosevelt’s 1939 State of the Union Address.