Neutrality Patrol

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U.S. Navy Vought SBU-1 dive bombers of scouting squadron VS-42 flying the Neutrality Patrol in 1940

On September 3, 1939, the British and French declarations of war on Germany initiated the Battle of the Atlantic. The United States Navy Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) established a combined air and ship patrol of the United States Atlantic coast, including the Caribbean, on September 4. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the United States' neutrality on September 5, and declared the naval patrol a Neutrality Patrol.[1] Roosevelt's initiation of the Neutrality Patrol, which in fact also escorted British ships, as well as orders to U.S. Navy destroyers first to actively report U-boats, then "shoot on sight", meant American neutrality was honored more in the breach than observance.[2]

Neutrality Zone[edit]

Map of the maritime security zone created by the Declaration of Panama in October 1939, based on straight lines between points about 300 nautical miles offshore.

On September 4, 1939, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) ordered the Atlantic Squadron[3] to establish a combined air and ship patrol to observe and report the movements of ships of warring nations within a line extending east from Boston to 65 degrees west and thence south to the 19th parallel and seaward around the Leeward and Windward Islands.[1] The concept of a naval Neutrality Patrol within that zone was presented to a Conference of Foreign Ministers of the American Republics convened in Panama on September 25. After considerable debate, the conference agreed the Declaration of Panama on October 2, 1939, to extend the neutrality zone southwesterly parallel to the northeastern coast of South America approximately 300 miles (480 km) offshore.[3][4]


Battleships USS Arkansas, Texas, and New York with the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (with aircraft squadrons VB-4, VF-4, VS-41, and VS-42 embarked)[5] formed a reserve force at Hampton Roads to support the following patrols:[6]


The CNO orders of September 4 directed the patrols to report the movements of ships of warring nations in cipher. U.S. Navy ships were initially instructed to avoid making any report while in the vicinity of such ships to avoid performance of unneutral radio direction finding service or the impression that an unneutral service was being performed.[7] On October 9, President Roosevelt instructed the navy to transmit reports promptly in plain English; and the Neutrality Patrol was instructed on October 20 to report contacts with plain-language radio transmissions.[8]

New bases[edit]

Neutrality Patrols began operating from Bermuda following the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. The base was commissioned on April 7, 1941; and Carrier Division 3 (USS Ranger, Wasp, and Yorktown) began using the base the following day. By mid-June cruisers USS Memphis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Omaha were patrolling from Trinidad south along the coast of Brazil.[9]

Convoy escort[edit]

At the beginning of 1941, President Roosevelt secretly organized a protection-of-shipping task force 24, given the designation of Support Force, United States Atlantic Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Arthur L. Bristol. Ships, planes, funding, and personnel were assigned in January and February, and operations began in March. Admiral Bristol remained in Washington, but material for the various bases was assembled and shipped from Naval Air Station Quonset Point. Admiral Bristol insisted that all records be destroyed when an operation was completed. His staff believed he was following Presidential instructions to avoid revealing operations which might not have public-opinion approval. Efforts to document Support Force operations after the war were discouraged to avoid damaging world opinion as to the integrity of United States' neutrality.[10]

To augment the fleet units already engaged in the Neutrality Patrol which President Roosevelt had placed around the eastern seaboard and Gulf ports, the United States Navy recommissioned 77 destroyers and light minelayers which had lain in reserve at either Philadelphia or San Diego. In Newfoundland on August 9, 1941, President Roosevelt agreed to provide American destroyers as escorts for the Canada to Iceland portion of HX convoys and westbound ON convoys.[11] USS Greer ineffectively engaged U-652 on September 4; and on September 11 President Roosevelt declared Axis ships entered the neutrality zone at their own risk, and ordered the U.S. Navy to attack any vessel threatening ships under American escort.[12] HX 150 sailed September 16, 1941, as the first convoy with American escort.[13] ON 18 sailed September 24 as the first westbound convoy with American escort.[14] The Gleaves-class destroyer Kearny was torpedoed while escorting Convoy SC 48 on October 17, 1941.[15] The destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk on October 31, 1941, while escorting Convoy HX 156 with a loss of 100 lives.[16]


The Neutrality Patrol was a major focus of one of the world's largest navies for the first third of the Second World War. The Atlantic Squadron in that period consisted of three battleships, four heavy cruisers, 29 destroyers, and one aircraft carrier; and their primary mission was confirmed by its being redesignated the Patrol Squadron on 1 November 1940. The Neutrality Patrol enhanced effectiveness of Allied patrols within the declared neutrality zone. On 12 July 1940, Assistant CNO Robert L. Ghormley was ordered to Britain to standardize shipboard communications between British and American warships.[17]


  1. ^ a b Cressman, p. 2
  2. ^ The History Place
  3. ^ a b Morison, pp.14&15
  4. ^ Foreign Relations, 1939, Volume V (PDF) (Report). U.S. Department of State. 1939. p. 35-37. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  5. ^ Cressman, p.5
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Morison, p.15
  7. ^ a b Cressman, p.3
  8. ^ Cressman, pp.8&9
  9. ^ Morison, p.83
  10. ^ Carney, Robert B. (1970). "Escort-of-Convoy, Still the Only Way". Proceedings Magazine. United States Naval Institute. 96 (6): 112.
  11. ^ van der Vat, p.205
  12. ^ Cressman, p.50&51
  13. ^ Morison, p.86
  14. ^ Morison, p.90
  15. ^ Morison, p. 93
  16. ^ Morison, p.94
  17. ^ Hussey, Brian F., Jr. "THE U.S. NAVY, THE NEUTRALITY PATROL, AND ATLANTIC FLEET ESCORT OPERATIONS 1939-1941" (PDF). United States Naval Academy. Retrieved 19 June 2017.


  • Cressman, Robert J. (2000). The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-149-1.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1975). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Potter, E.B.; Nimitz, Chester W. (1960). Sea Power. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • van der Vat, Dan (1988). The Atlantic Campaign. Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-015967-7.

Further reading[edit]