Notes on U.S. Fleet Organisation and Disposition, 1898-1941

by Keith Allen (

I can't yet provide a detailed OOB for this period, except for the Pacific Squadron/Fleet to some extent, but can give some notes on fleet structure and disposition. I'm afraid this will go well beyond the period that you asked for, as your query prodded me into collecting some scattered notes and sources on the subject of USN disposition. This changed frequently during the period, in light of the U.S. Navy's requirements to cover both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and the ongoing controversy between those who wanted fleets on both coasts, and the Mahanians who believed in concentration of the battle fleet in a single unit; the latter for the most part had the upper hand.

I would also note in passing that it is very unlikely that anyone in the U.S. Navy gave much thought to attacking New Zealand or Australia in this period. It is true that there was a nascent Anglo-American naval race just after World War I, fortunately nipped by the unjustly maligned Washington Treaty. It is also true that the United States had contingency war plans against the UK as late as 1930 or so. But in 1908-1910 the White House and the Navy were largely in the hands of Mahanian admirers of Britain, among them President Roosevelt himself. Even then Germany and Japan were seen as the main naval threats--although one interesting question, which might bear looking at, is whether Americans feared that tensions with Japan could lead to conflict with Britain via the Anglo-Japanese Treaty.

At the time of the Spanish-American War the United States did not have a concentrated battle fleet, but a number of scattered squadrons. The most important of these was the North Atlantic Squadron, under Sampson; a Flying Squadron under Schley was also created during the war, and these two fought the Battle of Santiago (and Sampson and Schley began a bitter conflict that shook the Navy for several years). The Asiatic Squadron, under Dewey, fought the Battle of Manila Bay. At this time there was also a small Pacific Squadron on the West Coast, and also forces in the South Atlantic and Europe. At the outset of war all U.S. battleships were on the East Coast except Oregon, which made a famous transit around the Horn in time to fight at Santiago.

A few years after the war the U.S. Navy began moving toward a more concentrated battle fleet. On 29 December 1902 the North Atlantic Squadron was re-designated the North Atlantic fleet. In early 1903 the Asiatic Squadron was upgraded to the Asiatic Fleet. The Caribbean Squadron was created; in wartime its cruisers would form the cruiser squadron of the main fleet. Most battleships were in the North Atlantic Squadron, but there was a battleship squadron in the Asiatic Fleet; Wisconsin was one of the Asiatic Fleet ships, but I don't know yet how many other battleships were in the Far East. The Pacific Squadron at this time had no battleships; Iowa and Wisconsin had been in the Pacific Squadron but were both gone.

The Pacific Squadron in 1903 consisted of armoured cruiser New York, cruisers Boston and Marblehead, and the ancient (c. 1876) gunboat Ranger. [From the annual OOB listing in Robert Erwin Johnson, Thence Round Cape Horn: The
Story of United States Naval Forces on Pacific Station, 1818-1923
. I will give a few representative listings from this OOB and can provide more on request.]

The Mahanians, among them President Roosevelt, were determined to concentrate the U.S. battle fleet in the Atlantic. Japan was a more likely enemy than Germany, perhaps, but Germany was seen as more potent. In retrospect it is remarkable how seriously U.S. navalists took the prospect of battle with the German main fleet both in the Western Hemisphere and in the Far East. In 1905 the European and South Atlantic Squadrons were abolished and absorbed into the North Atlantic Fleet.

On 1 January 1906 this became the Atlantic Fleet, and at about this time all battleships were concentrated in the Atlantic (probably excepting Oregon, which seems to have remained in the Pacific, in and out of reserve, for most of her career).

The Atlantic Fleet consisted of sixteen battleships and a cruiser squadron, the latter including one division of armoured and protected cruisers and one of "peace cruisers" (small old cruisers used mostly for showing the flag on distant stations). I am not sure whether the Caribbean Squadron remained in existence. Asiatic Fleet lost its battleships; its most powerful component now was an armoured cruiser division, probably of about six armoured and protected cruisers (I don't have exact details).. The Pacific Squadron remained weak. It 1906 it included cruisers small cruisers Charleston (flag), Chicago, and Boston, the relatively large and modern semi-armoured cruiser Milwaukee, and gunboats Princeton and Yorktown.

As part of the general move toward fleet concentration, in early 1907 all U.S. forces in the Pacific and Far East were combined in a new Pacific Fleet. It still had no battleships, although the question of a battle fleet for the Pacific remained open, especially in light of recurrent tensions with Japan. The Pacific Fleet's greatest strength consisted of the armoured cruisers of the former Asiatic Fleet, which moved to the West Coast and now formed the First Squadron of the Pacific Fleet. The former Pacific Squadron became the Second Squadron of the Pacific Fleet. The Third Squadron consisted of gunboats operating in Chinese and Philippine waters, with headquarters at Cavite; in practice it remained largely independent. Five destroyers of the First Torpedo Flotilla also remained in Asiatic waters.

Composition of the Pacific Fleet in 1908 was:

First Squadron (former Asiatic Fleet units, now on West Coast)
--First Division: Armoured cruisers West Virginia, Colorado, Maryland,

--Second Division: Armoured cruisers Tennessee, California, Washington

Second Squadron (the units that had made up the original Pacific Fleet):
--Third Division: Cruiser Charleston; semi-armoured cruisers Milwaukee and St. Louis
--Fourth Division: Old cruiser Albany; gunboat Yorktown

Fourth Torpedo Flotilla: Perry and Preble

In Asiatic waters: Third Squadron and First Torpedo Flotilla (I don't have their composition)

The listing for 1 January 1909 reflects these changes since the 1908 listing: Armoured cruiser South Dakota added to the Second Division; Charleston no longer listed; Fourth Division no longer listed. Pacific Torpedo Fleet is described as an independent command.

By 1910 it was apparent that the Pacific was too big for a single commander. The Third Squadron, the former Asiatic Fleet, had in practice operated independently of the Pacific Fleet anyway. This was now formalized, and the Asiatic Fleet was reestablished on 28 January 1910. But it did not return to its former stature. Whereas before 1907 the Asiatic Fleet had been a fairly formidable cruiser force and the Pacific Squadron relatively weak, now the most powerful units remained n the Pacific Fleet, and the Asiatic Fleet consisted of only a few old cruisers and gunboats.

As of 1 January 1911 the Pacific Fleet consisted of:
--First Division: armoured cruisers Tennessee, California, South Dakota,

--Second Division: armoured cruisers W est Virgnia, Colorado, Maryland,
; storeship Glacier.
Presumably there were also some torpedo boats and submarines as well, but Johnson does not list them.

Status of the fleet in 1913: All of the battleships were in the Atlantic except Oregon, which was in reserve in Puget Sound. The Pacific Fleet had four armoured cruisers in active service and two in reserve. It had some smaller cruisers, monitors, and light craft. The Asiatic Fleet included three cruisers (which ones I don't know), a half dozen each of destroyers and submarines, and eight gunboats.

Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration (which came into office in March 1913) was sensitive to political appeals for naval protection on both coasts. He stated the intention to establish parity in battleships on the two coasts after the completion of the Panama Canal. Many in the Navy opposed the division of the battle fleet, among them Daniels's own Undersecretary, one Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this FDR had the support of Cousin Theodore and of Admiral Mahan, all of whom fervently believed that the battle fleet must not be divided. FDR proposed to keep all the battleships on one coast and the armoured cruisers on the other.

After the United States entered the war nearly all of the major units of the Pacific Fleet, including the armoured cruisers, were transferred to the Atlantic, largely operating from South American bases.

At the end of the First World War the threat of Germany was seemingly gone, and Daniels finally got his wish. The United States battle fleet was divided, over the protests of the Mahanians. In the summer of 1919 the first dreadnoughts arrived in San Pedro. The battle fleet was split roughly evenly, both in dreadnought and pre-dreadnought categories; I can't find a precise list of ships, though. Most of the armoured cruisers went to the Far East or Europe.

In 1920 the Special Service Squadron was created, to protect the Canal and American interests both in the Caribbean and on the Pacific coast of Central America. It consisted mostly of small, old ships. It was finally abolished in 1940.

When Wilson and Daniels left office, the Navy was able to reestablish a unified battle fleet, based in the Pacific, where the main threat--Japan--lay. In 1921-1922 it gradually effected a major reorganization, which was formalized in a General Order of 6 December 1922. This put most of the major fighting forces of the Navy under a new organization, the United States Fleet. This would consist of: 1) the Battle Fleet, based in the Pacific and encompassing most of the battleships, including all of the more modern ones; 2) the Scouting Fleet, consisting of older battleships and other units, based in the Atlantic; 3) the Control Force, based in the Atlantic, consisting of light forces assigned to protection of the sealanes and defence against amphibious attack; and 4) Fleet Base Force. Not included in the United States Fleet, and remaining independent, were the Asiatic Fleet; Naval Forces, Europe; 3) the Special Service Squadron in the Caribbean; and 4) the submarines.

In subsequent years the Scouting Fleet seems to have been used largely for training duties--midshipmen cruises and the like--which became the major function of the older battleships on the East Coast (at some point a Training Squadron was established; I'm not sure whether it was part of the Scouting Fleet). The exact disposition of battleships fluctuated, but at the beginning of the new organization the Scouting Fleet got five of the older dreadnoughts. Some of these were soon decommissioned, and through the twenties there were only a few dreadnoughts on the East Coast, apart from those in modernization. Although one might think the carriers would be in the Scouting Force, they were generally assigned to the Battle Fleet, in what eventually became Aircraft, Battle Force-- langley went to the Pacific in 1924; Lexington and Saratoga were based in the Pacific after their trials; Ranger was in the Pacific in 1935-1939; Yorktown and Enterprise went there in 1939. I would like to know more about the obscure Control Force, which is seldom mentioned. It is an interesting concept--a naval force devoted to direct protection of the sealanes--and seemingly rather out of step with the battle fleet focus of U.S. naval thinking in the era; perhaps it was a remnant of the convoy escort forces of the Great War.

A few more organizational changes were made in the early thirties. On 10 December 1930 the U.S. Fleet was organized to create more of a type-command structure within the forces. The main components of the U.S. Fleet were the Battle Force (no longer Battle Fleet, not that it really matters), Scouting Force, Submarine Force (apparently the subs were now under U.S. Fleet), and Base Force. The Control Force was abolished in 1931. The Asiatic Fleet and Special Service Squadron were retained, both still apparently independent of the U.S. Fleet.

In early 1932 the Scouting Force came to the Pacific for manoeuvres. It was decided to retain the force in the Pacific, in the wake of the Manchurian crisis. For most of the thirties, then, U.S. naval strength in the Atlantic and Caribbean was reduced to the Training Squadron on the East Coast, including a few older battleships, and the Special Service Squadron in the Caribbean.

The Scouting Force at one time consisted largely of destroyers. Admiral Richardson's autobiography gives its composition as 38 destroyers and a light cruiser flagship. In 1937, though, changes were made in the composition of the Scouting Force. By 1939 it consisted of an incongruous combination of twelve heavy cruisers, one light cruisers, and all of the land-based patrol aircraft. This of course was an administrative, paper organization. In practice the fleet was increasingly experimenting with task forces, including tactical combinations of aircraft carriers (administratively, Aircraft, Battle Force) and heavy cruisers (administratively under the Scouting Force).

The Atlantic presence was slowly upgraded again. In January 1939 the Atlantic Squadron, United States Fleet, was formed. In 1939 carrier Ranger was transferred to the Atlantic, to join the three old battleships. On 1 November 1940 the Atlantic Squadron was renamed the Patrol Force, in keeping with its duties of wartime hemispheric defence.

In 1939 the main components of the United States Fleet were:
--Battle Force: five carriers, 12 battleships, 14 light cruisers, 68 destroyers.
--Scouting Force: 12 heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, 4 VCS squadrons (I forget
what these were), and five land-based patrol wings.
--Submarine Force (by late 1940 these apparently had been incorporated into the
Scouting Force, logically enough)
--Fleet Marine Force.
--Atlantic Squadron: 3 battleships ( Arkansas, New York, and Texas) and
nine destroyers.
The Asiatic Fleet apparently remained independent. But in 1940, as noted, the Special Service Squadron was abolished.

On 1 February 1941 another significant reorganization was effected. The Atlantic and Pacific Fleets were reestablished, under the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet (CINCUS). The Asiatic Fleet was brought under the control of CINCUS. At around this time the Atlantic Fleet was significantly strengthened by the transfer of carrier Yorktown, all three New Mexico-class battleships, and other units.

Last Updated: 30 September, 2001.

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