In the aftermath of World War I with the rise of American global status, a colonial power in the Carribean and Pacific and a component of a European alliance with Great Britain and France, the United States Navy began to take their theories of fleet actions and developed them in practical real world exercises. These practical exercises were known as the Fleet Problems conducted between 1923 and 1941. The Fleet Problems were number I to XXI and there was a XXII Problem planned for January 1941, but it was cancelled. These records were microfilmed into National Archives Publication M964: Records Relating to United States Navy Fleet Problems I to XXII, 1923-1941.
The records contained in this series come from three different record groups: Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations, Record Group 80: Records of the Department of the Navy, and Record Group 313: Records of Naval Operating Forces. In Record Group 38, these series are from Division Fleet Training, Confidential Correspondence, 1927-1941 and Confidential Reports, 1917-1941. In Record Group 80, there are documents from the Secretary of the Navy’s Secret and Confidential Correspondence, 1919-1926 and the Secretary of the Navy’s Confidential Correspondence, 1927-1939. And in Record Group 313, there is the Commander-in-Chief, US Fleet Confidential Correspondence, 1939-1940.
The Fleet components involved in the exercises were the Battle Force and Scouting Force. The Battle Force and Scouting Force were sub-divisions of the US Fleet that was reorganized in 1922. The Battle Force later was reorganized into the Pacific Fleet and the Scouting Force was reorganized into the Atlantic Fleet in 1941.
Each of the exercises were designed to address a specific component or scenario within the context of a “colored” war plan. The opponents in the exercises were described as “Blue” forces, the United States, and aggressor forces “Black”, Germany, and “Orange”, Japan. The locations of the exercises do not necessarily reflect the hostile forces being tested in that there are a few Fleet Problems staged in the Caribbean simulating fleet actions around Hawaii. In some of the Fleet Problems, the Battle Force and the Scouting Force were pitted against one another, and in other cases a single force was divided into both opponents.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Fleet Problems is how the US Navy was preparing for the next war and how new equipment would be used like aircraft and submarines as well as new tactics like amphibious landings. Another factor that the US Navy was contending with is the possibility of a two-ocean war with a limited fleet that was constricted by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1920-1921.
Many naval historians look to the Fleet Problems as evidence to the axiom of “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war” or in this case “Admirals.” The general consensus is that the Fleet Problems reinforced the notion that the next naval war would have the battleship as the centerpiece of a fleet at the exclusion of other vessels. Other vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines were auxiliary to the fleet and would be only used in reconnaissance roles rather than a major projection of naval power. Although, carrier-based aircraft proved to be very useful in turning the tide in a battle during the Fleet Problems. In the 1930s as a result of the Fleet Problems, the Navy elected to construct more aircraft carriers and expand naval aviation. But the true potential of aircraft carriers within a battle group had yet to be proven and would not until the Second World War.
On aircraft carriers, there were several tests of carrier based aircraft against naval bases such as the Panama Canal and more famously, Fleet Problem XIII in 1932 where the USS Saratoga (CV 3) successfully attacked the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, HI in a test of the base’s defenses.
For submarines, their potential as a weapon continued to be misunderstood and mired in world opinion, being compared to German U-boats. and being anchored to fleet reconnaissance. The term “Fleet Submarine” comes from this period when the Navy was trying to have submarines operate with the surface fleet and not be perceived as the lone wolves of the First World War preying on commercial shipping. But because of the dramatic shift in speed on the surface compared to a submarine’s speed underwater, it was hard for the surface fleet to interact with submarines without planning submarine positions far in advance of the fleet. Another aspect of the Fleet Problems that showed bias against submarines was the criteria during exercises where submarines attacked escorted convoys. Detection amounted to being successfully attacked and this bred a cautious submariner in the early days of World War II.
There are many related records to this series at the National Archives in Washington, DC and at the National Archives in College Park.
The National Archives at Washington, DC - Textual Reference (RDT1), which you can email at firstname.lastname@example.org, has custody of series in Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations, Record Group 80: Records of the Department of the Navy and Record Group 313: Records of Naval Operating Forces.
Specifically in RG 38, there are the correspondence series of the Chief of Naval Operations, arranged by the Navy Filing Manual, that include discussions of fleet development and training as well as war planning prior to 1941.
In RG 80, there are three series of interest: the 1930-42 General Correspondence of the Secretary of the Navy, (the index is on the Catalog), the Records of the General Board, and the Records of the Joint Army-Navy Board. The General Board was an advisory board of retired Fleet Admirals, and the series pertained to innovations in new ships, new tactics, and new strategies. These series have their own filing scheme based on a topic that is different from the Navy Filing Manual. The Joint Board records reviewed war planning and the development of base defense for Army and Navy installations, both domestic and abroad.
In RG 313, there are series of records relating to the individual forces: Battle Force and Scouting Force, and some of their subordinate commands such as commander, submarines and commander, aircraft.
The National Archives at College Park - Textual Reference (RDT2) has custody of only a few series in Record Group 38: Records of the Chief of Naval Operations and Record Group 313: Records of Naval Operating Forces that would relate to the Fleet Problems because the majority of the pre-World War II Navy Records are in the custody of the National Archives at Washington, DC - Textual Reference.
In RG 38, there is a collection of records relating to the Fleet Problems in the records of the Strategic War Plans Division in Entry A1 355. The date range of these records is from 1912 to 1946 and divided up into 12 sub-series. In particular, Series II: Naval War College Instructional Materials, 1914-1941 and Series IX: Plans, Strategic Studies and Related Correspondence, 1939-1945 have materials related to the Fleet Problems. In Series II, there are continuations on the fleet exercises and analysis of each of the opponents’ situations. In Series IX is a set of copies of the historical development of the war plans arranged chronologically.
In RG 313, there is a series of files covering 1940 to 1942 and the transition of Commander-in-Chief, US Fleet (1940), combined with Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (February 1941), and the two commands being separated in December 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The series is the General Files and Serials of Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, 1940-1942. This series fills the gap between the CINCUS files located at the National Archives in Washington, DC and the Commander-in-Chief, US Fleet (renamed COMINCH) Formerly Security-Classified Correspondence, 1942-1945 at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
To inquire about the availability of related records that were suggested, please contact the National Archives at College Park - Textual Reference (RDT2) via email email@example.com, If you are interested in ordering a copy, please provide your mailing address and phone number in your request since both are required for the reproduction order form.