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Reviews of Reviews for The Caribbean War Front in World War II: The Untold Story of U-Boats, Spies, and Economic Warfare

Featured in: Must-Read Books of 2021 of El Nuevo Dia – January 8th, 2022

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Nuevo Dia is the oldest newspaper in Puerto Rico, founded in 1909. It also has the largest circulation in 2022. José L. Bolívar’s The Caribbean Front in World War II was featured in their review of “outstanding books from the past year,” a collection of books that “should not be forgotten.”

“José L. Bolívar’s The Caribbean Front in World War II offers the most complete examination to date of the Nazi submarine campaign in the Caribbean and its effect on the various societies of the region. Based on archival sources in the United States and Puerto Rico, an extensive reading of English and Spanish language newspapers, and a robust survey of secondary sources (including the volumes that he co-authored and co-edited with Jorge Rodriguez Beruff and Cesár J. Ayala), the book provides a synthetic analysis of this understudied aspect of World War II through six chronological chapters. While Puerto Rico and the Vichy-French controlled islands of Martinique andGuadeloupe are his primary focus, Bolívar also emphasizes other areas of the region, including Aruba, Curaçao, Trinidad, Jamaica, and British Guiana. In doing so, he makes the persuasive argument that not only was the Caribbean a major battleground in the early part of World War II, but that the war had an instrumental and lasting impact on social, political, and economic developments in the region as well. The book also demonstrates that the colonial context of the Caribbean was a major factor in making this a global war nearly two years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor: as the Nazi army moved across Europe during 1940 and 1941, control of the Dutch and French West Indies would be at stake.
While specialists on certain areas of the region will be familiar with some parts of the story, general readers will learn with interest about the centrality of the Caribbean to the flow of natural resources such as oil and bauxite to the United States. Indeed, Bolívar tells us, nearly all of the oil production needed on the East Coast came from the Dutch Royal Shell and Standard Oil refineries in Curaçao and Aruba, respectively. The German U-boat commander Admiral Karl Doenitz, who unleashed his forces on the Caribbean in January 1942, surmised that the Nazi war effort depended on his ability to “curtail the flow of oil and bauxite which the United States and Great Britain imported from the Caribbean” (p. 7). For much of the next year and a half, German submarines operated without restraint, as U.S. military leaders were unprepared for their attacks and, without radar or a coordinated convoy system in place, unable to detect or evade the lethal underwater boats.
The lopsided U-boat campaign, which sank 336 cargo ships in 1942 alone (totaling over 1.5 million tons of cargo), had dire consequences for the people of the region. Decreased shipping meant a reduction of exports of sugar, coffee, and fruits and a severe limitation of vital imports of oil and resultant reductions of electric power. Even more devastating were the widespread food shortages that affected Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, and the British West Indies, along with other areas of the circum-Caribbean such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Ironically, even as daily nutritional intakes declined, many people in the area were left in the dark about the cause, thanks to a U.S. military blackout of news regarding the deadly submarine war. (Bolívar tells us that information was limited and contradictory even within the U.S. Army and Navy).
As might be expected, based on his earlier work on military expenditures in Puerto Rico, Bolívar also details the U.S. military buildup. Through a combination of private contracts, New Deal agencies, and international agreements, the Roosevelt administration constructed military bases and air fields across the region. United States strategy was almost entirely devoted to protecting the Panama Canal from air attack, and securing the canal would remain a major focus of military construction projects. The new bases would also be critical to ending the submarine campaign in 1943 and ensuring U.S. control of the Atlantic, preconditions for staking out and supplying Allied lines in the European theater of the war. Defense of the Caribbean, in other words, was vital to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Bolívar closes this section with an analysis of how diverse populations responded to the war, ranging from Puerto Ricans concerned about the appropriation of privately-owned lands and the imposition of Jim Crow policies to Martiniquans reacting against the Vichy-aligned colonial government.
Throughout the book, Bolívar demonstrates his skillful reading of sources and eye for detail in articles from the daily press, including the New York Times, Washington Post, El Mundo, and others. The result, told in an engaging narrative style, is a must-read for anyone working on the twentieth-century Caribbean.” –Geoff Burrows, New West Indian Guide (NWIG)

“Based on an exceptionally wide range of research, this book covers a broad spectrum of relatively unremembered facets of WWII as they impacted 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
, the role of the United States in the area, the very serious impact of the German U-Boatcampaign there, and the sheer scale of US investment in facilities and infrastructure in the islands. … In the light of developing instability in Europe, American concerns from 1939 onwards centered 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 Dönitz’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 their 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 Milk Cow submarines that kept the U-Boats fueled and victualed.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 program of US infrastructure work across much of the region, often putting the military at odds with local populations. The projects included airfields, naval bases, accommodations, 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 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. Thebook ends with an epilogue that outlines the longer-term impact that the war years brought to the region and the progressive withdrawal of forces as islands moved to independence.
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 sideshow, but an important one.”ADMIRAL SIR NIGEL ESSENHIGH–The Naval Review

“José L. Bolívar Fresnada, military historian and relative of two US Navy veterans, brings his considerable knowledge of Puerto Rican, American naval, and Caribbean history to bear in order to more fully share the unsung but pivotal Second World War struggle for the oil and ore supplies out of the Caribbean. Particularly with the Neuland (New Land) offensive in the spring of 1942, along with a flotilla of effective Italian attack submarines known as BetaSom from Bordeaux, the Germans under Großadmiral Karl Dönitz made a determined effort to sever the Allied lifeline of oil from Venezuela via the refineries in Aruba and Curacao, and also the ore and bauxite routes from northeastern South America. They very nearly succeeded before the Allies, particularly the Americans, could organize a concerted defense by gaining effective anti-submarine warfare techniques from the air and developing intersecting convoy, defense, and counter-attack measures.

It was a near thing, with nearly 400 allied ships sunk between January 1942 and July 1943 alone. In retaliation, the Allies were able to sink 72 German U-boats, with the loss of 522 German sailors. Though the Italian submarines like Enrico Tazzoli were highly effective, only one penetrated the Caribbean Sea proper, cruising between Aruba and Jamaica without sinking any ships. Given the literally fluid nature of the battle, the forces, and geography of the region, Fresnada’s delineation of “Caribbean Sea” is expanded to include the north coast of Cuba, and to the southeast of Trinidad, along the South American coast, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, or the US Gulf. Given the convoy routes from Trinidad to Key West, Panama and New Orleans, this is understandable.

Like Trinidadian Gaylord TM Kelshall, who wrote the first book The U-Boat War in the Caribbean in 1988, published by Naval Institute Press, Fresnada utilizes German, French, American, Puerto Rican and myriad other resources to carry on where Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, the US Navy’s historian during the Second World War, left off. And what a story it is. U-boat historian Michael Gannon (Operation Drumbeat) has emphasized the need to tell both sides of the story, and Clay Blair (Hitler’s U-Boat War) and Guðmundur Helgason (Uboat.net) bring the highest standards of data dissemination to the field. The challenge to those of us documenting these watery battlefields is where to stop, and what not to leave out. If an Allied defensive measure never influenced the battle, does it merit inclusion? Does a reported attack on a submarine when no U-boats were actually in the area deserve a mention? These questions are not so easy to answer in the context of a 275-page book covering dozens of nations and well over a million square miles, yet author Fresneda handles the material adroitly and keeps the reader engaged.

Like Key West, Puerto Rico is described as the Gibraltar of the Caribbean: US Navy publicists had quite free reign within widespread censorship, creating zingers like “sighted sub, sank same,” and at one point in 1942 claiming to have sunk more U-boats than had actually arrived in the Americas. Fresnada covers the German assaults by U-boat patrol, and then wisely, rather than covering all 400 attacks, he focuses on 50 or fewer, some of them, like the Maldonado, closer to Bermuda than the Caribbean. Since Castro’s time, Cuba, with Havana being the largest city in the Caribbean, has received less attention for its Second World War support of the Allies, yet its contributions along with air bases like Borinquen in Puerto Rico, must be recognized, with the Naval Operating Base (NOB) Guantanamo protecting the most used gateway to the Caribbean serving as a centerpiece of Allied defense.

Unfortunately, Cuba can also serve as a large geographic magnet; in this case, the attacks on Michael Jebson, Standella, and Empire Corporal by U-598 under Gottfried Holtorf on 14 August 1942 occurred as close to Ragged Island, in the Bahamas, as to Cuba, but were attributed to being off Cuba, a not-uncommon error in the narrow Old Bahama Channel. Placing the sinking of U-176 by Cuban forces with US air support on 15 May 1943 “South of Haiti,” when it is confirmed to have been sunk between Cuba and Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas, was an error of wider margin.

Reporting the shelling of Mona Island, between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, is more understandable, given that the Grey Lady herself (The New York Times) printed a report the next day, as it arrived from Rexford G. Tugwell, the US Governor of Puerto Rico and highest law in the land. Tugwell received a report from Remberto Casaba, of the National Youth Administration, that on the evening of 3 March 1942, 170 young witnesses camping on the island with their adult supervisors witnessed and heard some 30 shells slamming into the cliffs of the islet, considered by most to be uninhabited.

Of course, this “attack” was immediately attributed to German U-boats roaming the area. While there is no doubt that someone shelled Mona that night, a close, mile-by-mile, hour-by- hour study of every German and Italian U-boat and sommergibile proves that there was simply no Axis submarine anywhere near Mona at that time, and that not one of them logged deck gun practice. Almost certainly, therefore, it was a live-fire exercise by an Allied warship which, having been detected and immediately reported to the Governor, was as quickly hushed up and the German enemy made to take the blame.

Fresnada admirably covers an impressive range of topics, which prove that this polyglot region, which provided so many essential supplies to the Allies, was much more of a linchpin than most of us realize. From the Caribbean, cargos went to Burma (on aircraft via Bahamas, Guyana and Brazil); to Africa, for the battle against Rommel in North Africa; as part of the southern aircraft supply line to the UK when U-boats and the Luftwaffe made the northern route untenable. For example, if the Germans could sink the shuttle tankers from Maracaibo to Aruba, it would take the Allies over a year to replace the specialist craft. In fact, they nearly succeeded, but in a critical attack the U-boat gunners left a plug in the muzzle of a gun, killing a crewman. Then, when they were starting to shell a refinery, a bunch of Dutch and expatriate boarding school children excitedly ran out to watch. Their screaming led the Germans to believe they were under
counter-attack.

The author expounds on the expropriations in Puerto Rico, rum consumption, revenues, segregation amongst the military, the war economy, espionage. (Most of it imagined, since the Germans, with Milk-Cow supply boats and the upper hand, really never needed local complicity to attack, and would not normally go near enemy shores without a military necessity. They were, however, known to destroy inter-island schooners to obtain protein, chickens, and fresh fruit and disrupt regional trade.) He covers oil, airbases, rationing, base negotiation and diplomacy, women in the military, base construction and employment, the sugar industry and the awkward and resource-draining crisis of French forces under Admiral Georges Robert bottled up on the island of Martinique, which were left in limbo by the Germans over-running Vichy France, and the scuttling of 77 French Navy vessels in the Mediterranean. He even covers the issue of Jewish and other refugees aboard ships like the Capitaine Paul-Lemarle, and how some of them settled in Sosua, near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

Finally, Fresnada gets it right with respect to the loss of U-153 under Wilfried Reichmann, whereas even leading lights in the genre, like Clay Blair, “fell” for mistaken post-war attribution by Navy publicists for the loss of this sub. In an effort to spread credit and medals, the USN awarded the 6 July 1942 sinking of U-153 to both a single pilot off Aruba (A-20A Havoc under Dr. Marshall Groover, which Fresnada correctly confirms), and, a week or so later, to a veritable panoply of American minelayers, aircraft, destroyers, etc. who were actually bombing a well-known freighter still spewing oil. While the German experts, including Dr. Axel Niestlé, concur, the US Navy is more intractable. Having spent years re-attributing the loss of U-84 in 2019, not everyone is willing to take up the case with Naval Heritage Command.

For taking on this task and succeeding so well in researching and explaining the many facets of this aquatic, sub-sea, and airborne battlefield, Dr. José Bolívar Fresnada should be congratulated. He has done an exemplary job of delivering lively details involving the little-known Caribbean Front of the Second World War.”–Eric Wiberg. The Northern Mariner / Le marin du nord