April: 80 years of service for Naval Forces Europe

“The only real reason for the existence of my office is to assist the United States fighting in Europe.” Navy Admiral Harold R. Stark used those words to describe his new mission to Army General Dwight Eisenhower on 1 April 1942. On that occasion, Admiral Stark had just moved into his new headquarters at No. 20 Grosvenor Square in London, England, and was marking the beginning of his leadership of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe. 

Building on precedent set during World War I, the title and staff of Commander, Naval Forces, Europe (COMNAVEUR) was established to maintain American naval bases in the United Kingdom and to report intelligence and research data being provided by Allied intelligence organizations. Numerous liaison channels were opened with the British Government and with Allied governments in exile. The command also assisted in the planning and preparation of the invasions of North Africa and France. After he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces in June 1942, General Eisenhower maintained his headquarters at 20 Grosvenor Square alongside Admiral Stark. Following his appointment as COMNAVEUR, Admiral Stark was also given an additional responsibility as Commander, Twelfth Fleet, which operated naval forces in western European waters.

In November 1942, the western Allies launched their first major combined effort during the invasion of North Africa. That operation’s success was largely credited to the constant stream of hydrographic and weather intelligence the Allied Forces received from commands working at the COMNAVEUR headquarters in London. American Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley also worked in the headquarters building prior to the June 1944 invasion of France, and much of the planning and preparations for the cross-channel invasion of Normandy originated from commands co-located in the building. 

Among these commands was Task force 122, headed by Rear Admiral Alan Kirk, a former Naval Attaché to the British government. Kirk's task force was responsible for landing troops on D-Day and providing fire support during the Normandy Campaign. The contributions of COMNAVEUR and the Twelfth Fleet were instrumental to victory in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). Their efforts were mirrored by the U.S. Eighth Fleet, which supported combined efforts in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO), starting with the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and lasting through the end of the war. 

By the end of 1945, the chief function of the U.S. Navy in the occupied European countries was completed. Enemy naval forces had been disarmed, war material had been located and accounted for satisfactorily, and harbors had been reopened and were in operation. The remaining task entailed keeping the peace in occupied areas by representing U.S. Navy interests in Europe and the Mediterranean, and by supporting American foreign policy. As operational emphasis shifted, the command's title was changed to more specifically define the Navy's role in theater. In November 1946, COMNAVEUR became Commander, Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, and six months later, in April 1947, the title changed once again, this time to Commander-in-Chief, Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean (CINCNELM).

The small post-war fleet maintained by CINCNELM was primarily focused in the Mediterranean and known as Naval Forces Mediterranean. Its first flagship was the destroyer tender U.S.S. SHENANDOAH anchored at Naples, Italy. The cruiser U.S.S. DAYTON soon relieved the tender as flagship and began operating with the fleet. Naval Forces Mediterranean was later renamed Sixth Task Fleet, and subsequently as Sixth Fleet. It was a key fighting force immediately available to General Eisenhower when he became the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in December 1950.

That same month Admiral Robert B. Carney became CINCNELM and assumed an additional NATO responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces, Southern Europe (CINCSOUTH). As such, the CINCNELM headquarters was moved from London to Naples not long afterwards. But in June 1952, the two commands were separated. The CINCNELM headquarters returned to London, where Admiral Jerauld Wright assumed command, and Admiral Carney remained in Naples as CINCSOUTH. Later, when U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) was established in August 1952, CINCNELM became its maritime component. In September 1958, Admiral James Holloway, Jr., as CINCNELM, was assigned additional duty as U.S. Commander Eastern Atlantic (USCOMEASTLANT), which provided intelligence and logistic support for Norfolk-based U.S. Atlantic Fleet units deployed in the North Atlantic and northern European waters to counter the Soviet Navy.

Another revision was made in February 1960, when the title was changed to Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe (CINCUSNAVEUR), and the CINCNELM title was retained for command in the Middle East spanning from Turkey and Egypt to the middle of the Indian Ocean. Although these were separate commands, they were placed under the control of one commander. The CINCNELM command was later disestablished on 1 February 1964. During most of the intervening Cold War years, CINCUSNAVEUR exercised direct command over four subordinate commanders: Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet (COMSIXTHFLT); Commander, Fleet Air Mediterranean (COMFAIRMED); Commander, Middle East Force (COMIDEASTFOR; until 1983); and Commander, U.S. Naval Activities, United Kingdom (COMNAVACT UK).

More command changes took place in the years to come. CINCSOUTH and CINCUSNAVEUR were once again vested in a single flag officer when Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr, who was serving as CINCSOUTH also took the title of CINCUSNAVEUR on 1 January 1983. Admiral Crowe retained his NATO command and headquarters in Naples, Italy. Vice Admiral Ronald J. Hays, in London, became Deputy CINCUSNAVEUR and retained the title of USCOMEASTLANT. Because of the increased sensitivity of the Arabian Gulf area, COMIDEASTFOR’s responsibilities were assigned to a new COMUSNAVCENT (Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command) on 1 October 1983.

After the end of the Cold War, further refinements to maritime command in the theater were made. In 2000, USEUCOM’s maritime reach around Europe and Africa expanded to include areas beyond their coastal waters, which NAVEUR was responsible for patrolling. Two years later, the commands received formal responsibility for Iceland, Greenland, and eastern portions of both South and North Atlantic Ocean areas, which included waters in the Arctic. Changes in NATO were taking place as well. In 2004, CINCSOUTH evolved into a new NATO Joint Force Command-Naples (JFC-Naples), and in the next year, the NAVEUR headquarters closed its doors in London at 20 Grosvenor and moved to Naples as well. The command picked up more responsibility in October 2008 when it became the maritime component to the newly established U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) and has since been known as Naval Forces Europe and Africa (NAVEUR-AF).

Mr. Bill Butler has served as the USEUCOM Command Historian since August 2019. He has over 25 years of experience as a Department of Defense historian.