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VADM Helfrich & his discontents-- Part One

June 8 2010 at 5:12 AM
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Melmoth theW  (no login)

Response to Let's Go THIS Direction!


Re VADM Helfrich and his discontents...Americans have pretty limited means for getting an inside picture on his reputation, but we CAN examine the record as concerns the performance of submarines, both U.S. and non-U.S. In the case of U.s. subs, the wartime cruise books are now online & make for fascinating and illuminating reading.

It's also interesting to note that the Dutch had agreed in the April, 1941 A.D.B. Conversations with the U.S. and Great Britain, to place some of their boats under Royal Navy control...Although never signed off on by the U.S., in the event Dutch subs did operate under British control. And I believe did pretty well, or certainly better than their U.S. counterparts.

Here's the section from ADB:

"Submarine Operations.

50. Co-ordinated direction of the operations of allied submarines is of great importance since these working in conjunction with our air forces, constitute our most powerful weapon for attacking Japanese seaborne forces.

51. United States submarines, so long as they operate in defence of the Philippines, will operate under the orders of Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet. Upon being released by Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, they will pass under the control of Commander in Chief, China, who will be responsible for co-ordinating their operations with those of the Dutch submarines.

52. The Dutch submarines will principally operate under the orders of Commander in Chief, Netherlands East Indies, for defence of the channels through the Netherlands East Indies to the Indian Ocean and to meet any enemy action in Netherlands East Indies waters, but as described in para. 49, two initially, and possibly others at a later stage, will be allotted to general tasks at the direction of the Commander in Chief, China. These Dutch submarines will operate in the South China Sea south of the line joining Cape Padran and Kudat, all United States submarines keeping north of this line until both forces operate under Commander in Chief, China."

[Note: The Asiatic Fleet striking force of HOUSTON, MARBLEHEAD, and DesRon 29 was to operate out of Singapore under British control as well, according to this scheme...something the USN was very much against.]

Offhand one would have expected the RNN subs to have possessed better familiarity with the waters of SE Asia, or at least those of the NEI.
Additionally American commanders in some--tho' not all--instances were hamstrung by the cautious, Depression-era navy mindset, as well as by very poor prewar combat training. These men were not bad leaders in peacetime, yet they were rather helpless once war broke out.

However, the two major things that leap out at me from the U.S. submarine force cruise books in the Philippines/NEI campaign are 1) the atrocious mechanical unreliability of our boats, and 2) the disruptive frequency of communication problems which made getting our subs into position to strike the enemy a parlous business at best. In numerous instances we find a boat that should have been well-placed to interdict this or that convoy or task group completely out of touch with ComSubFor in Surabaya (or later, Australia) and precious opportunites were lost.

Based upon Helfrich's memoirs, it does not appear that Comint breakthroughs at that time were the determining factor in placing submarines. [If this is an erroneous impression, I'd be glad to learn more about it.]
I know the Dutch had excellent Comint capabilities, but have not yet seen any evidence that they were able to direct their submarines according to the kind of codebreaking we did later in the war.
Helfrich complains long & loud about this in his memoirs, and although it is impossible to say with any certainty what results he might have achieved with these boats under his control, it's hard to imagine them doing much worse than they did. To that extent at least, one may grudgingly accept Helfrich's assessment of their performance.
By the same token I find it somewhat hard to fault Tommy Hart entirely for this either. Hart was a veteran submariner himself, and would have had enough experience & sense to know how his boats should have operated. (It is instructive, too, to see in the cruise books that U.S. sub commanders often disliked the newer fleet boats as opposed to the elderly little 'pigboats'...Something I would not have anticipated before reading the logs.)

In sum, one still must ask: 1) Is it possible to quantify British & Dutch success v. USN failure in the first four months of the war? and 2) What were the Dutch and the British doing better than the Americans in their submarine operations at this stage of the war?

Part Two: Helfrich's handling of surface forces in the second half of February, 1942.



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  • Re: VADM Helfrich & his discontents-- Part One - Jan Visser on Jun 14, 2010, 8:58 PM
  • Why use VADM? - Felix on Jul 29, 2010, 2:26 PM
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