THE CARIBBEAN FRONT IN WORLD WAR II: THE UNTOLD STORY OF U-BOATS, SPIES, AND ECONOMIC WARFARE

February 18, 2022
Posted by: ADMIRAL SIR NIGEL ESSENHIGH

Based on an exceptionally wide range of research, this book covers a broad spectrum of relatively unremembered facets of WWII as they impacted on the Caribbean region. The author, a professor in a Puerto Rican institute and a prolific writer on Caribbean affairs, has filled this work with exceptional detail covering the strategic aspects of the region’s part in the conflict, the role of the United States in the area, the very serious impact of the German U-Boat campaign there and the sheer scale of US investment in facilities and infrastructure in the islands.  Indeed, the extent of detail can, in places, mask the central theme. In the light of developing instability in Europe, American concerns from 1939 onwards centred on ensuring absolute security of routes to and from the Panama Canal and the Gulf ports.

The U-Boats had an almost free run in the area during 1942 and the early months of 1943, sinking almost 400 ships and putting at serious risk supplies of oil and minerals to both the US and the UK. Some interesting quotes from Admiral Doenitz’s journals and memoirs make the point that it was only when the US Navy and Army resorted to convoying merchant ships and supporting them with long range heavy bombers, that he was forced to reallocate his boats to open-ocean Wolf Pack tactics in the wider Atlantic rather than the singleton patrols that had wreaked such havoc. That the submarines were able to operate at such long range from their base in Lorient was not, as was believed, due to them being supported from shore by suspect regimes such as that in the Dominican Republic. The reason for the success was the presence of the so-called ‘Milch Cow’ submarines that kept the U-Boats fuelled and victualled.

We also hear a lot about the underlying regional tensions with the French Vichy authorities in Martinique and Guadeloupe where significant units of the French Navy were based having converged on the islands in June 1940 after the fall of France. The fear was that they might become active in support of Axis aims.  In particular, the author closely examines the activities the French Admiral Georges Robert, an ardent Vichy supporter and Governor of those colonies.

Of note is the belated but enormous programme of US infrastructure work across much of the region, often putting them at odds with local populations. The projects included airfields, naval bases, accommodation, workshops, repair facilities and even dry docks. A combination of factors including shipping losses, blockading and the general friction of war led to severe food shortages in some of the islands, particularly those under Vichy French control, the civilian populations of which which were very hard hit. Even American Puerto Rico was hit by rampant escalation in food prices. There are some uncomfortable accounts of imported racial prejudices and segregationist practices that accompanied the large influx of US military personnel. The book ends with an epilogue which outlines the longer-term Impact that the war years brought to the region and the progressive withdrawal of forces as islands moved to independence.

Although a very interesting and informative study, it is not the easiest of reads and would have benefited from a more rigorous editing and proof reading. However, it is likely that no other historian has brought together in one place such a wealth of information on what, in the greater scheme of WWII events, was probably a side show, but an important one, nonetheless. NR readers who have experienced West Indies Guardship duties would find it to be of special interest.