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Let's talk History, The battle of the Caribbean.


Some time back, after requesting suggestions on an article, I was approached by a player asking me if I could write something on the battle of the Caribbean as it happened from 1941 to 1945. Researching into this aspect of world war two, I found myself digging ever deeper, looking for information.

 

Information was little coming.  In fact, it has taken me to now to even piece together enough of the history of the series of battles to even post an article in regards to it.  The sad state of things, is that most history books never talk about this interesting and hard fought time.  It is my hope, that this article does justice the tale that those men fought for four years.  Maybe, just maybe, they can rest easy knowing that their story is told.

 

Probably the most intriguing aspect of the battle (well, series of battles) were the combatants involved.  Though hostilities began in 1941, well before the United States entered world war two, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean islands, they were at war; facing off against German and Italian naval forces.  Now, these weren't great huge naval battles with battleships and such.  Instead the most common vessel type fielded there were small gunboats.

 

lossy-page1-800px-Erie_%28Gunboat_PG50%2USS Erie.  Laid down in 1936, served in the Caribbean until 1942 when it was sunk by a German U boat.

 

Germany and Italy on the other hand fielded a number of submarines, with a very specific mission.  Interdict and sink American and Allied shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as ships entering the Panama Canal.   

 

In Feb,1942,  under the command of Commander Werner Hartenstein, seven German and Italian submarines a coordinated attack against the Lago Refinery Company, on the occupied Aruba. Aruba was a Dutch protectorate and when the Germans marched into Holland Aruba was left undefended.  There was a large American Refinery on the island but America was neutral and had not officially entered the war. The Lago Refinery was producing high octane gasoline for the British war effort so it was decided to send the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders to Aruba to defend the island and the refinery in the event of an attack by German troops. The attack on the Lago Refinery by the German U-Boat 156 began at 0121 hours on February 16, 1942 when Captain Hartenstein ordered: "Fire Torpedo" and 48 seconds later the lake tanker Pedernales was hit in the side and exploded into a fire ball. Two minutes later Captain Hartenstein ordered a second torpedo launched.  The second torpedo hit the lake tanker Oranjestad and it too became an inferno. 

 

The German High Command had changed the original orders under which Captain Hartenstein had sailed.  The original orders were to surface and shell the refinery with its 10.5 cm deck cannon.  On February 15, 1942 new orders were radioed to U-156 which read as follows:

 

1. The principal assignment is to attack shipping targets.
 
2. If attacks on shipping were successful, then the U-Boat could commence  with artillery attack against the land target.
 
After sinking the two lake tankers the U-Boat surfaced, it was now three-quarters of a mile off the reef in front of the Lago Refinery.  The artillery attack on the well lit refinery would be over in minutes.  The Captain and crew were ecstatic, the U-Boat had made its first kills and now they were to destroy the world's largest refinery. Hatches were opened, men were on deck, the cannon was loaded and the order was given to fire.  As soon as the order was given there was an explosion on deck, the deck gunner was killed instantly, the seaman assisting the gunner was thrown against the conning tower, his leg shredded by the explosion.  In the excitement, the over-eager gunner had failed to remove the plug from the end of the cannon barrel, and the muzzle of the 10.5 cm deck cannon had exploded when the shell was fired. In 1941 at the time of the attack the Lago Refinery employed forty-seven hundred men and refined two hundred twenty eight thousand barrels of crude a day.  By the end of World War II the Lago Refinery employment had reached over seven thousand and the refinery was processing three hundred thousand barrels of crude a day.  This works out to half a million gallons of fuel an hour, twenty-four hours a day.  The Lago Refinery maintained this production without any down time for over five years. 
 
The only effect the raid had on the refinery, was to pass on an order that for the remainder of the war, the refinery would be "blacked out" at night.  
 
 Allied oil tankers were also attacked in the region. The Axis sunk using the wolf pack tactic, six tankers, while several more were severely damaged. A subsequent raid damaged a large fuel storage tank, prompting a greater defense on the island to stop further attacks.  That defense involved sending a number of troops, as well as stationing one of the Patrol Gunboats similar to the Erie, around the island for anti submarine warfare.
 
On March third, 1942, a German U-boat attacked the cargo ship USS Mona Island, about 60 km west of Puerto Rico, though the torpedoes missed. The U-boat quickly submerged and was harried by an escort vessel, though it was never determined if it was sunk, or had escaped.
 
Later, in April, U 130 under command of Ernst Kals, undertook an attack on Curaçao targeting the  Bullen Baai Company petroleum storage facility. The commander surfaced his vessel, and began bombardment with his deck gun. However after firing five to seven shots (the history is not clear on the number) Dutch shore batteries opened up on the U-130, forcing it to break off the attack and submerge.  A few days later, another U boat attempted a surface attack against a Dutch merchant vessel, only to be fired upon once more by the shore batteries.  As with the first attack, the U boat was forced to disengage and submerge, with no reported damage to either ship.
 
Attacks were not just limited to European concerns, however.  Even though the United States had not officially entered the war, and would not do so for several months yet, in May of 1942, German Uboat U-69 attacked and sunk the USS Norlantic; a 3,860 tonnes cargo ship.  It was 170 km east of Bonaire when U-69 opened fire on the surface, sending two torpedoes the cargo vessel's direction. Both torpedoes missed, forcing the U-69's commander to order the crew to use the deck gun to sink the neutral vessel. U 69 began bombarding the Norlantic as the cargo vessel attempted to flee, striking its steering gear and causing the Norlantic to quickly lose ground on the attacking submarine.  The crew of the Norlantic fired a flare, signaling their intent to abandon ship, though this intent was ignored by the Germans.  Only two lifeboats had been lowered to the water, when a shell from the U-boat pierced the hull of the cargo ship in the boiler room area.  The ship quickly began to list from flooding, and a subsequent boiler explosion finally did her in.  Though only two life boats had been launched, only six men were lost in the sinking. Primarily stokers who were killed in the boiler room when the boilers detonated. The survivors of the Norlantic waited several days out at sea until they were rescued by Allied ships.
 
Two Mexican tankers were sunk by German submarines:
 
• May 14th, 1942: the Potrero del Llano was sunk off Florida by  U-564 of Reinhard Suhren.
• May 21st,1942: the Faja de Oro, was  sunk off Key West by U-106 of Hermann Rasch.
 
The two attacks killed 16 men. This led to Mexico declaring war against Germany on June 1st, 1942.
 
On May 20th, one day before the Faja de Oro was sunk, the Sylvan Arrow, a Standard Oil company tanker, was torpedoed by U 155 south of Grenada. The Sylvan Arrow survived the attack, though badly listing, and was taken under tow to be pulled to Grenada for repair. Due to her damages, the going was very slow, and on May 28th, the flooding overcame her pumps and she sank roughly 100km south of Grenada.  The crew managed to abandon ship prior to the sinking, so no lives were lost.
 
Things started stepping up in June of 1942.  Several attacks on shipping were attempted, with the most disastrous for the Germans being the attack on the tanker Hagan, roughly 8km north of Cuba. U 157 attacked the ship, which was laden with barrels of molasses; crippling it with the first shot. This first torpedo destroyed the engines and caused a boiler explosion, while the second struck her just forward of her second hold.  Two days later, U 157 was depth charged and sunk by a cutter of the United States Coast Guard. The German U-boat dived and tried to escape the attack, but the Coast Guard vessel was able to find it through sonar and mark its position. After a single depth charge run, due to the oil slick which had surfaced, it was determined the submarine and its crew of 52 men had been sunk.
 
On Sept 3rd, 1942,  The U-162 was northeast of Trinidad when the submarine was discovered and attacked by the Royal Navy. Three British destroyers HMS Vimy, HMS Pathfinder and HMS Quentin attacked the U-162 with depth charges and sank the sub, though she did manage to surface and disgorge all but two members of her crew. The crew was interrogated and provided useful information on the German U-boats and their base at Lorient. The German captain Jurgen Wattenberg escaped from detention in late 1944, and took two months to be recaptured.
 
On 4 September 1942 the 6,511-ton tanker SS Mexican Amaltan was attacked by U 171. The Amaltan dodged three attacks by two torpedoes before she was hit. She sank with ten sailors, 24 were saved. 
 
SS_Stephen_Hopkins.jpg
SS Stephen Hopkins. The first, and only cargo ship to sink an enemy cruiser.
 
On Sept 27, 1942, the SS Stephen Hopkins, an armed Liberty freighter,was just coming back from Dutch Guiana to Cape Town when she was attacked by German auxiliary cruiser Stier. Stephen Hopkins as the instructions for stopping the German did not comply, she was attacked by the main gun of the Stier. After a brief but intense battle the American ship was sunk at 10:00 clock, but there were also losses on the part of the Stier. The cruiser was so badly damaged that they could not move, so her captain scuttled her two hours after the victory over Stephen Hopkins.
 
In November 1942, the American gunboat USS Erie escorted the convoy TAG-20 between Trinidad and the Bahia de Guantanamo, as she was attacked by U-163. The German U-boat, under the command of Karl-Eduard Engelmann, appeared and fired three torpedoes at the Erie. The Americans discovered the submarine and started evasive maneuvers. She escaped two torpedoes, but was heavily damaged by the third. The ship burned for several hours before the fire was brought under control. Seven Americans were killed in the attack, eleven were injured. Later, the Erie was towed to Aruba, but it capsized and sank on 5 December 1942.
PBM.jpg
Martin PBM.  One of the many interdiction aircraft used in the Caribbean, favored for their extensive range.
 
On July 7, 1943, U 759 attacked the Dutch cargo ship Poelau Roebiah  which was eventually sunk east of Jamaica. Two of her crew members went down with the ship, the remaining 86 was rescued. As a result of this event, the U.S. Navy began to pursue U 759. The first attack came from a Martin PBM, which dropped bombs on the submarine. After the bombing US Naval ships pursued U 759, harrying the U boat for several days before they lost contact and the submarine was able to escape. Seven days after the flight of the U-759 from the ships pursuing it, it was reported as sunk.  However, modern historians now note that the submarine was not sunk at this time, but instead survived on until July 23rd, when a Martin PBM caught it on the surface and bombed it.
 
300px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_101II-MW-3491-06
U-94, shortly before leaving for its final mission.
 
The U-94 was in an operation against an Allied convoy from Haiti when she was attacked by American and Canadian escort vessels. First, an American PBY bombed the submarine, forcing it to dive. Then the Canadian corvettes HMCS Halifax and HMCS Snowberry pressed the attack with depth charges. The depth charge attack forced the submarine to the surface where one of the two corvettes rammed the submarine. A boarding party was quickly assembled and assaulted the submarine, killing two men who rushed at them and taking the remainder of the crew prisoner. After they were arrested, the Canadian soldiers realized that the German crew had already begun scuttling their own boat.  U-94 sank, with twenty six of the forty five man crew surviving.
 
By the end of 1943, with the war turning against both the Italians and Germans, the extensive U-boat patrols in the Caribbean largely came to an end. Though there are reports of a number of ships being lost to enemy action, for the most part the war had ended for that part of the world.  Ironically, while the battle for the Caribbean was bad, it could have been much worse.  Had the Germans and their Italian allies centered their attacks in and around the Panama canal, then the west coast would have been effectively cut off from the east, preventing transporting of fuel and material, as well as war ships, which would later be used against both nations. It is not known exactly why the axis powers chose to not concentrate their effort there, though the best theory seems to be that they expected to have the war in Europe over quickly, and would then concentrate their efforts on the Gulf and Caribbean. Whatever the case, with the Panama Canal remaining open and defended, it meant that naval vessels could relatively quickly move from east to west; and vice-versa. Though many men lost their lives in this ongoing battle of the seas, in the end, the whole event is more a footnote in history; that is, when it's even included in the history books.
 
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Needs more pirates.

 

Capt. Jack Sparrow. And the Pirate Lords of the Brethren Court should have participated!

 

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Anyway, to the OP, nice work. Interesting to know also the patrol operations of the Mexican Navy in subduing the U-Boats. Perhaps, next article would be the battles and operations in South Atlantic, in South America seas. Of course, everyone is familiar with the Battle of the River Plate which is the first naval battle of the Second World War and only one of its kind to take place in South America during the war. 

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Thanks Katuysha I really appreciate it! Me and my dutch friends love ya for this! Thanks!

 

Very welcome. It was a story that really needed told.  Thank you for pointing me that direction.

Edited by _Katyusha_

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