May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Virginia Capes, 1781. Could any action have a higher rating than that which sealed the fate of British North America? But did it? Certainly area sea control was decisive. Lord Cornwallis had marched his troops to Yorktown, where the York River broadens into Chesapeake Bay, in order to open communications by sea with the British main base, New York. Gen. George Washington, marching south with his French ally, Rochambeau, would need to cross the wide waters of the bay to reach Yorktown—plainly impossible if opposed by hostile naval forces. Meanwhile, a French squadron of eight ships of the line was sailing south from Newport, Rhode Island, with Washington’s siege guns.
This was the situation at the end of August, when the French fleet from the West Indies under the Comte de Grasse arrived and anchored close inside Cape Henry at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. De Grasse sent four of the line farther in to blockade the mouths of the York and James Rivers but still had twenty-four with him when a British fleet of nineteen of the line appeared on September 5. De Grasse rightly weighed and beat out to sea. The British commander, Rear Adm. Thomas Graves, rightly formed an orderly line of battle before commencing what proved an indecisive engagement. Too many historians have accepted the postbattle critique of Graves’s second-in-command, Rear Adm. Sir Samuel Hood. “Yesterday the British fleet had a rich and most plentiful harvest of glory in view, but the means to gather it were omitted in more instances than one,” was Hood’s comment.
All precedents suggest that equal fleets could never gain decisive victory, let alone such a numerically inferior fleet as that of the unfortunate Graves. This in turn suggests that it was not the battle but the strategic massing of force beforehand that decided the destiny of North America. De Grasse achieved this masterstroke by unexpectedly attaching his entire fleet when he sailed north from the West Indies, eventually commanding an unassailably superior force of thirtysix of the line. Any failures lay with his former opponents in the Caribbean, Adm. Sir George Rodney and Samuel Hood himself, who had equal forces but neither reduced the French nor kept them under close surveillance. The fate of colonial North America was decided partly by their lack of attention but mainly by the remarkable conjunction of two strategists of genius, a French admiral and an American general who later served as the first President of the United States. Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on October 19.
The U.S. submarine battle of the Pacific. The battle conducted by Adm. Karl D’nitz’s U-boat wolf packs against Allied shipping in the North Atlantic is recognized as a decisive chapter in the Second World War. Yet the battle conducted by the rather more flamboyantly named U.S. submarine packs in the Pacific and China Seas (Park’s Pirates, Wilkins’ Wildcats, and Blair’s Blasters were some of the packs) tends to be overshadowed by the feats of U.S. carrier groups and Marines. While no supporter of counterfactual history, I believe it could be demonstrated from the monthly figures of Japanese shipping sunk by U.S. submarines—after the initial scandal of the “dud” torpedoes had been rectified—that if these magnificent “fleet” boats had been concentrated as single-mindedly against ships supplying Japan with oil, raw materials, and food as the U-boats were deployed against Allied transatlantic supply lines, they could have throttled that island empire in shorter time and with less sacrifice of blood and treasure than resulted from the “two-roads” island-hopping strategy actually adopted, and that means before any atomic bombs were ready for use.
Be that as it may, the results achieved by U.S. submarines in 1944 were sufficiently impressive: Despite being , deployed in fleet actions and against warships—and sinking one battleship, no fewer than seven carriers, two heavy cruisers, and more than forty other fighting units—they destroyed well over two million tons of supply shipping, halving the tonnage available to Japan, terrifying Japanese sailors, and exerting an effective blockade that would have forced a rational government to the peace table.
Their spirit might be encapsulated in the report of Comdr. Samuel Dealey of the U.S. submarine Harder , who was nicknamed the Destroyer Killer, after his first “kill”: “Range 900 yards. Commenced firing. Expended four torpedoes and one Jap destroyer.”