London, England May 15, 1940

On this date, just five days after assuming the top leadership position in Great Britain, Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill sent a tele­gram to U.S. President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt. It was also five days since the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) had flooded over the borders of the Low Countries and France, Britain’s war­time ally since Septem­ber 1, 1939, the date Adolf Hitler chose to begin the destruc­tion of his eastern neigh­bor, Poland. The fortunes of the four demo­cracies in the West rapidly imploded: the Dutch army surrendered on May 15, Belgium’s on May 28, and the French signed an armi­stice with their tradi­tional enemy on June 22, 1940, after German troops had entered their capital eight days earlier.

In his telegram Churchill asked Roosevelt, who on May 11, 1940, had declared America neu­tral in the suddenly enlarged Euro­pean con­flict, for a “gift” of “forty or fifty of your older destroyers” to aug­ment the 60-some destroyers then serving in the Royal Navy. (Britain had entered the war with 200 destroyers, down from the 433 she had at the end of World War I. Some were now sitting at the bottom of the ocean and some were so badly damaged that their future as fighting ships was ques­tion­able.) America had plenty of over­aged, moth­balled World War I-type “four-pipers” (aka “four-stackers” for the four smoke stacks common to Amer­i­can destroyers at the time). Of the 170 Amer­i­can destroyers that had been in dry dock or other­wise idle in Septem­ber 1939, 68 had been returned to active duty. That left 102 the­o­reti­cally avail­able as fighting ships. Perhaps as many as half that number could see convoy duty with the Royal Navy, pro­tecting the fragile trans-Atlantic life­line between North America and the British Isles. At the end of July 1940 a desper­ate Churc­hill, having lost 4 destroyers and incurring damage to 7 others within the last 10 days, implored the presi­dent: “Ensure that 50 or 60 of your oldest destroyers are sent to me at once.”

Roosevelt was in a quandary given the hugely isola­tionist senti­ment in the coun­try and the U.S. Con­gress. The month before, Con­gress had enacted a naval appro­pri­ations bill, forbidding the sale of “surplus mili­tary material” unless the chief of naval opera­tions certi­fied that the sale did not threaten the nation’s defense. To side­step Con­gress, the Roose­velt adminis­tration hastily drafted a legal rationale to aid Britain that involved trans­ferring 50 anti­quated U.S. destroyers to Great Britain in return for 99-year rent-free leases to estab­lish naval and air bases in British posses­sions (Newfound­land and the British West Indies) that were vital to trans­oceanic trade, avia­tion, and the Battle of the Atlantic (1939–1945). On Septem­ber 2, 1940, Roosevelt informed Congress of the Destroyers for Bases Agree­ment, which raised a huge hullabaloo from antiwar political elements.

Although 50 old warships scarcely made a differ­ence in Britain’s con­duct of war in the Atlantic, the execu­tive agree­ment itself led to further mea­sures to aid coun­tries battling Germany and her Axis allies. Of special note was Lend-Lease, a pro­gram that Roose­velt floated in a fire­side chat to the nation in late Decem­ber 1940. Shrewdly titled “An Act to Pro­mote the Defense of the United States,” it became law on March 11, 1941. Initial recip­ients of food, oil, war­ships, war­planes, and similar mate­rial were the British, the Nation­alist Chi­nese, and the Free French. The pro­gram was later expanded to include the Soviet Union and other Allied nations. In return the U.S. was given leases on army and naval bases in Allied coun­tries. Supplies worth $50.1 bil­lion in 1945 (equi­va­lent to over $850 bil­lion today adjusted for infla­tion) were trans­ferred to Amer­i­ca’s allies, repre­senting 17 per­cent of all U.S. war expenditures between 1941 and 1945.

Roosevelt’s Defense Initiative: Destroyers for Bases in Western Hemisphere

Destroyers for Bases Agreement: USS "Buchanan" (DD-131), renamed HMS "Campbeltown"Destroyers for Bases Agreement: Royal Navy and U.S. Navy sailors inspect depth charges aboard "Wickes"-class destroyers, 1940

Left: U.S. destroyers involved in the exchange were built between 1917 and 1922. The U.S. and British navies had begun prepa­rations for their trans­fer in mid-August 1940. The vintage ships were rehabili­tated, pro­visioned, and sent to Halifax, capital and port city in the Cana­dian pro­vince of Nova Scotia, where British crews boarded them and lifted anchor for England. Exem­plifying the speed of the hand­over, the first six war­ships left for England on Septem­ber 6, 1940, just days after Presi­dent Roose­velt had announced the trade, and 40 of the 50 vessels arrived in England before the end of the year. There the ships were refitted to rectify defects, stan­dardized with British equip­ment, and fitted with Royal Navy anti­sub­marine detec­tion and wea­pons systems. This process took several months; thus the majority of what became known as Town-class ships did not become operational until early 1941.

Right: Royal Navy and U.S. Navy sailors inspect depth charges aboard U.S. Wickes-class destroyers. In the back­ground are the USS Buchanan (DD‑131) (recommis­sioned as the HMS Campbel­town; see below) and the USS Crown­inshield (DD‑134) (recommis­sioned as the HMS Chel­sea). On Septem­ber 9, 1940, both war­ships were trans­ferred to the Royal Navy. Between 1941 and 1943 Town-class ships, despite their age, partici­pated in the sinking of 10 German U‑boats and one Itali­an sub­marine while on patrol or as con­voy escorts. Some of these well-used Towns saw ser­vice in the navies of four dif­fer­ent nations, among them Canada and the Soviet Union. They also provided escort during the Allied invasion of North Africa, Oper­a­tion Torch.

German photo of HMS "Campbeltown" wedged into Normandie dry dock south gate

Above: Minutes after midnight on May 28, 1942, HMS Campbel­town, an obso­lete U.S.-built Lend-Lease destroyer (DD‑131 in photo above), modi­fied to resemble a one-smoke­stack German tor­pedo boat, steamed boldly up the estu­ary of the Loire River in German-occupied France heading toward the large Nor­man­die dry dock near the town of St. Nazaire. She was on a sui­cide mis­sion. Beneath false bulk­heads the amphib­ious party of British com­man­dos and spe­cial­ized naval person­nel had hidden 3 tons of high explo­sives. The objec­tive of Oper­a­tion Chariot (aka St. Nazaire Raid) was to neu­tra­lize the only French docking facil­ity capa­ble of ser­vicing German war­ships the size of the 823‑ft, 42,900‑ton Tirpitz, sister ship to the naval battle-damaged Bis­marck, which was en route to St. Nazaire for repairs when its cap­tain scuttled the battle­ship the day before. Neu­tra­lize the Norman­die dry dock the “chario­teers” did by wedging the Campbel­town 33 ft/­10 m into the dock’s south gate. When the delayed-action explo­sion deto­nated later in the morning it destroyed the faux torpe­do boat, com­pletely wrecked the dock’s gate, severely damaged sur­rounding faci­l­ities, and in the pro­cess killed nearly 360 enemy sol­diers swarming over the boat. The German occu­piers never repaired the Norman­die Dock and the facility stayed shut until 1948.

Destroyers for Bases Agreement of September 2, 1940