Following the unexpected Japanese attack on the US base of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and with the US entering World War II, Cuba also declared war on the powers of the Axis (Germany, Japan, Italy).
The story of the battles that took place in Cuban waters during World War II is hardly known. Throughout the years of the conflict, the waters surrounding the Cuban Archipelago, as well as the entire Caribbean , became a scenario for naval actions. The Cuban Navy played a modest but significant role in that struggle.
During the first two months after the US and most countries in the region entered the war, the Caribbean enjoyed peace. The war quite distant.
In January, 1942, the oil refinery in Aruba , the biggest in the world at that time, worked at full capacity and produced 7,100,000 barrels of gas-oil, aviation gasoline, natural gasoline, kerosene and lubricants. This production was essential for the belligerent countries.
The war came to the Caribbean like lightning in a clear sky. At dawn on February 16 th German submarines appeared almost simultaneously off of Curaçao, Aruba, and the entrance to Lake Maracaibo ( Venezuela ).
Before daybreak several missiles fired by a submarine struck the Aruba refinery but, miraculously, there was no major catastrophe of unpredictable consequences. Seven oil tankers had been torpedoed.
However, the psychological effects caused by the submarine attacks that night were even greater than the material damage. The crews of the oil tankers became terrified and refused to put out to sea without the escort of warships.
During seven days not a single ship came in or out of Aruba or Curaçao. Venezuelan gas production ceased because the storage tanks located at Lake Maracaibo were completely full. The refineries were closed due to lack of crude oil.
The crew members were arrested by the Dutch authorities of Aruba and Curaçao, who were desperate. On February 21 st , they convinced some of the crew members to return to work, but that same day a Norwegian oil tanker was torpedoed and again the sailors refused to go out without escort.
The Germans not only attacked the oil routes. Almost all the bauxite production of the Western Hemisphere was concentrated in the British and Dutch Guyanas. Two days after the attack off Aruba, on February 18 th , at dawn, a submarine surfaced in the Gulf of Paria (Trinidad) and torpedoed two merchant vessels right outside of Port of Spain .
On March 9 th , three weeks later, another submarine sank two vessels in front of Saint Lucia . In February and March, German submarines sank 23 oil tankers in the Caribbean .
In April, there were only 11 sinkings, mainly because the submarines were returning to Europe to re-fuel and, by that time, the German submarine fleet did not have enough units to continue its operations.
In May, the Germans returned and intensified the attacks: 38 vessels were sunk during that month and, in June, they reached the highest figure in the Caribbean , 48 vessels went to the bottom of the sea.
During June, two German submarines were detected near the access to the Panama Canal and, during two consecutive weeks, one vessel was sunk daily.
In July, the number of vessels sunk dropped to 17 because the submarines were again returning to their European bases for fueling. It was during that month that the Germans lost their first submarine. And it was also during that month that they placed mines in Castries Bay , in Saint Lucia .
The US Navy, in response to the threat of German submarines, organized a system of convoys in July. But the shortage of escort warships increased the number of attacks during those months, and then the main task was to rescue shipwrecked persons.
There was a time in Barbados when there were so many surviving sailors that the island ran out of provisions to assist them.
As a result of the great number of sunken vessels near Trinidad , the US Navy decided to escort the merchant marine ships up to 200 miles from that island. But, in response, the submarines concentrated their forces near the point where they would begin to navigate un-escorted. As soon as the escorts went away they started their attacks.
In August, 46 vessels were sunk. From then on, a new type of German submarine, displacing 700 T and with a greater autonomy and torpedo load, joined the fleet of 500 T subs operating in the Caribbean .
On August 27 th , a second German submarine was sunk in the region. A 110 foot patrol craft used at that time by the US Navy had many limitations. It was impossible to install on them the new multiple deep bomb launching called “hedgehog” because their structure did not allow the launching of the 24 missiles. It was impossible to cook with turbulence and even the fresh water was rationed.
It was not until September that the so-called PC went into service. The convoys were reorganized in a system called interlocking . Now, the great Caribbean convoy route was Trinidad-Aruba-Guantanamo (from where, taking special measures, they continued on to New York ).
In September, the number of sinkings dropped to 25 and, in October, to 15, but in November it increased again to 25. Another two German submarines were sunk. In November, most of the submarines were called back Europe due to the Allied landing in Northern Africa . In December, there were no sinkings in the Caribbean .
The period from February to December 1942 was the most intense in the Battle of the Caribbean . In nine and a half months, the German submarines sunk 263 merchant vessels for a total of 1,362 278 T of gross register. This figure is superior to the sum of the sinkings during the same period in the North Atlantic , the US East Coast and the Canadian coastal routes.
Meanwhile, the Germans only lost 4 submarines. During the above-mentioned period, two Cuban merchant ships and one fishing boat (plus a merchant vessel with a Honduran flag) were sunk in Cuban waters.
It was within that context that the Cuban Navy participated in the Battle of the Caribbean . When Cuba entered the modern war, its Navy only had a few old and inefficient vessels.
At the end of December, 1941, and the beginning of 1942, several agreements were signed between the governments of the US and several Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Cuba . Those agreements aimed at strengthening the defensive potential of Latin America and the Caribbean while, in reciprocity, they should continue to provide the required raw materials for the US military industry.
Due to Cuba 's strategic location, recognized historically as the Key to the Gulf of Mexico and the center of the maritime routes that cross the Caribbean Sea, it was of great interest to the US that the Cuban Navy participate in the Battle of the Caribbean escorting the freighter convoys and patrols in the surrounding waters.
Thus, the old cruiser Cuba , which was the largest Cuban warship, and the school-ship Patria were sent to the shipyard in Galveston , Texas , where they were totally transformed and modernized. These works took almost a year.
Also, the gunboats Baire, Yara, Juan Bruno Zayas, Pinar del Rio, 4 de Septiembre, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Camagüey, Oriente and Donativo , as well as the auxiliary vessels BA-1, BA-2, BA-3, BA-4 BA-5, BA-6 and BA-7 were modernized in Cuban and US shipyards.
As part of these agreements, the US established an Air Base in San Antonio de los Baños, 20 kilometers South of Havana, and another one in San Julian near the Western tip of Cuba . In addition, they built a landing field in Camagüey, a zeppelin base in Caibarien, and another one in the Isle of Pines .
The main target for all of these installations was the struggle against the submarines.
Another step was to provide the merchant marine vessels of the allied nations, including Cuba , with artillery. In many cases, US personnel operated the artillery on the merchant ships.
At the same time, through the Law of Loans and Leasing enacted by the US Administration, 12 leased patrol craft were transferred to the Cuban Navy, forming a fleet of 4 squadrons and 3 units each. The crew for these vessels received a three-month training course in several bases and training centers in the US .
The patrol craft fleet began operations in April, 1943. It was assigned to escort the merchant vessels that moved between Cuban ports and, one of the squadrons, escorted the daily Seatrain ferry that operated between Havana and Florida ports.
The efficacy of the fleet was soon described as outstanding. US Senator Kenneth McKellar, referring to the fleet's performance during the first trimester of operations, expressed before the US Congress:
“The Patrol Craft Fleet of the Cuban Navy, during this period (April, May and June, 1943), has had a loss of only 0,027% T, while convoying during enemy attacks and one of the patrol craft has had an outstanding success. The operation of these units of the Cuban Navy had prevented the US Navy from using a considerable number of its Navy personnel for those same purposes.”
The outstanding success -which was also the greatest one achieved by the small Cuban Navy- was the sinking of a German submarine in the Old Bahamas Canal, not far from Cuba's Northern coast.