Historic Battles Series: Battle of the Caribbean (1941 AD-1945 AD)

This is part 9 of the Historic Battle Series. 


The Battle of the Caribbean relates to a naval campaign conducted during World War II that was a part of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1941 to 1945. Italian submarines and German U-boats attempted to obstruct the Allied supply of food and oil. 


The Caribbean was strategically vital because of the Venezuelan oil fields in the south-east and the Panama Canal in the south-west. The Royal Dutch Shell factory on Dutch-owned Curaçao prepared eleven million barrels per month, making it the biggest oil refinery in the world; the factory at Pointe-à-Pierre on Trinidad was the biggest in the British Empire, and there was another large factory on Dutch-owned Aruba. The British Isles needed 4 oil tankers of petroleum every day during the initial war years, and most of it was shipped from Venezuela, through Curaçao, after Italy hindered entrance through the Mediterranean Sea from the Middle East. 

The Caribbean held further decisive importance to the United States. The Gulf of Mexico coastline, including petroleum plants and Mississippi River trade, could be secured at two points. The United States was well-positioned to protect the Straits of Florida but could not block access from the Caribbean through the Yucatán Channel. Bauxite was the favored ore for aluminum, and one of the few critical raw materials was not accessible within the continental United States. United States military aircraft generation depended upon bauxite shipped from the Guianas along shipping routes matching the Lesser Antilles. The United States protected the Panama Canal with 202 fighters and 189 bombers and submarines at Colón, Panama. United States Navy VP-51 Consolidated PBY Catalinas began impartiality patrols along the Lesser Antillies from San Juan, Puerto Rico on 13 September 1939, and buildings were upgraded at Naval Air Station Key West and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

British troops occupied Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire soon after Nazi Germany captured Holland. The French island of Martinique was seen as a possible base for Axis ships as British relations with Vichy France declined following the Second Armistice at Compiègne. The September 1940 Destroyers for Bases Agreement allowed the United States to build airfields in British Guiana and Trinidad, Great Exuma, Antigua, and Saint Lucia. On 11 February 1942, United States forces followed British soldiers on the Dutch refinery islands and began producing Douglas A-20 Havocs from Dakota Field on Aruba and Hato Field on Curaçao.

Axis operations

The first attack against the Caribbean refineries was ordered under the command of Kapitänleutnant (lieutenant) Werner Hartenstein aboard U-156 with and U-67, U-67161, and U-129. The first three U-boats began attacks in February 1942. U-502 sank crude oil tankers Tia Juana, Monagas, and San Nicholas between Aruba and Lake Maracaibo. U-67 penetrated Willemstad harbor on Curaçao and torpedoed 3 oil tankers. The 4 torpedoes from the bow tubes were failures, but the stern tube torpedoes submerged Rafaela. U-156 entered San Nicolas harbor on Aruba and torpedoed oil tankers Oranjestad, Pedernales, and Arkansas. U-156 then tried to shell the Aruba refinery with its 10.5 cm SK C/32 naval gun, but the gun barrel volley when the first shell exploded. The Germans slightly burned a large storage tank. A Venezuelan gunboat, General Urdaneta, aided in rescuing the crews of several torpedoed vessels; and A-20 Havoc light bombers hit all three U-boats unsuccessfully. As a result, an enhanced American occupation of the island began to prepare for its protection.

Attacks on Allied shipping

SS Norlantic was an American-flagged, 3,860 GRT cargo ship sunk on the morning of 13 May in the Caribbean by a U-boat. She transported a load of stray cargo from Pensacola, Florida, to Venezuela when hit by U-69 140 km east of Bonaire. Ulrich Graf fired 2 torpedoes from a surface position. Both torpedoes missed, so Graf directed his crew to close the range to 2,000 m and open fire with the deck gun at 03:47. U-69 began shucking Norlantic as she tried to escape the scene. After numerous hits, the American ship informed the Germans to cease-fire so they could escape the attack in their life-rafts. The Germans failed to hold their fire while two lifeboats were lowered, then at 04:11 they fired a coup de grâce which crashed Norlantic’s boiler room. She sank, taking six 6 down with her, two men were shot by the torpedo and 4 men killed from the shelling. Norlantic’s remaining crew were then drifting at sea for several days before being rescued by Allied ships.

German U-boats sank 2 Mexican tankers, Potrero del Llano on 14 May by Reinhard Suhren’s U-564 off Florida, and Faja de Oro on 21 May by Hermann Rasch’s U-106 off Key West. 16 men died in the two attacks. This provoked Mexico to declare war on Germany on 1 June.

On 5 July 1943, 110 km to the west of Port-Salut, Haiti, U-759 met the American-flagged steamer Maltran, which was part of Convoy GTMO-134. U-759 fired torpedoes, and at least 1 hit the vessel. Maltran sank within 15 minutes of being shot, though all of her crew survived and fled the danger in lifeboats. USS SC-1279 later rescued the crew. On 7 July, U-759 torpedoed the Dutch cargo ship Poelau Roebiah, in Convoy TAG-70. The ship sank just east of Jamaica, taking down two2men. 68 others were freed. After sinking, Poelau Roebiah U-759 was hunted down and overwhelmed by the U.S. Navy the following day. A PBM Mariner flying boat first dropped a load of bombs over the sub and then for seven hours, American surface vessel depth charged the area but U-759 disappeared without destruction or loss of life.


The Naval defenses of America, combined with the other allied forces, registered considerable damage to Germans and Italians. Nazi Germany navy grew tired and felt abandoned after years of battles in the Gulf of Mexico. Potent Allied anti-submarine warfare ultimately drove the Axis submarines out of the Caribbean region.

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