WWII OPERATIONS ON THE DUTCH ANTILLES AND IN THE CARIBBEAN
Written by Meindert de Vreeze / English translation by Dick Boogaard
de Nederlandse versie kunt u hier lezen....
The Dutch Antilles consist of the Leeward Islands Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire (near Venezuela and the South American continent) and the Windward Islands St. Maarten, Saba and Eustatius some 900 km north close to American Puerto Rico. In 1940 the populations of Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire were 67,000, 31,000 and 6,000 respectively.
Together they were known as Curaçao Colony (from 1936 Curaçao Territory) after the largest island with a Governor appointed by the Netherlands. Surinam, four times the size of the Netherlands with 180,000 inhabitants also had a Governor. In reality those two possessions had quite different cultures. Surinam, between British and French Guyana, was part of South America.
An old Post Card showing Anna Bay on Curaçao, in the background the oil refinery and the Schottegat
Before the Second World War the Netherlands paid little attention to these possessions, contrary to the much larger and richer Dutch East Indies, with tens of millions inhabitants, many natural resources and many islands. The Dutch intended to remain neutral in case of war. In the West the Dutch armed forces amounted to a few hundreds, augmented by local volunteers and the local police. In 1939 a militia was organized and conscription introduced, although only a small percentage of the males actually served. In November 1939 around 250 marines arrived from the Netherlands with the naval artillery training vessel Kinsbergen, also two submarines, O-15 and O-20.
On May 10, 1940 the Netherlands were attacked by Germany and quickly occupied. In the West the Dutch Antilles and Surinam were still free. But the defense of the West was in a bad condition.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines had a West Indies Branch (WIB) flying from Hato airfield at Curaçao with several aircraft in the region. The Governor ordered that KLM personnel and their aircraft should also take up military tasks. The KLM WIB airplane, the Fokker F.XVIII Oehoe was modified for a military role as armed patrol aircraft able to drop depth charges. It was also repainted and got military markings.
KLM WIB Fokker X.VIII Oriol converted for a military role
Seven German ships, at anchor in Antilles ports were confiscated, although the crews tried to set them afire. German inhabitants of Surinam and the Antilles were immediately seen as suspects, arrested on May 10 1940 and interned, regardless of their political sympathies, even German Jewish refugees. On the Antilles they were arrested and transported to Bonaire. Curaçao and Aruba had an economy with a number of large oil refineries and from fear for sabotage Bonaire was chosen. At first schools were used, later a prison camp was built near the west coast. (After the war this camp was converted to the first Divi hotel on Bonaire) On May 11, 1940 some 180 French soldiers arrived on Aruba and on May 13 some 800 British soldiers on Curaçao. Their aim was the protection of the oil refineries. These were considered crucially important for the processing of Venezuelan crude to petrol for the Allies.
When the Netherlands surrendered on May 14, 1940, after the bombardment of Rotterdam, the Antilles and Surinam were on their own, just as the Netherlands East Indies. The Governors had great power as the Dutch government, evacuated to London, was far away. July 1940 the French forces were replaced by British, after the French capitulation in Europe. Along the Curaçao coast guns were positioned to protect the coast and especially the ports. In addition two Dutch trawlers and three Norwegian whalers were armed for escorting oil tankers. All remained “quiet in the West” because the Germans did not attack the Antilles and the refineries to prevent provoking the Americans. In the meantime the refining capacity on the Antilles was enormously enlarged. The main seat of Shell was moved to Curaçao. On Aruba, the Lago and Eagle refineries belonged to American companies. Mid 1941 already 80% of all “Allied” petrol came from the Antilles, so even before the Americans became involved in the war. December 1941 was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Americans were drawn into the war.
The production of bauxite in Surinam was also enormously expanded, as this material is crucial for aircraft manufacturing. Between 1940 and 1943 Surinam provided 60% of the American bauxite needs. The Americans feared an attack from neighboring French Guyana, which had chosen the Vichy side or from Brazil with its large German population. And a German seaborne attack by means of submarines was not ruled out. Mid 1941 American reconnaissance flights were regularly made, often without previous notification to the Dutch Governor. Protests were sent, often followed by American apologies. All the while both Western Governors were apprehensive about the weak defenses and especially the Surinam Governor Kielstra warned Colonial Secretary Welter of the Dutch Government in exile in London. Welter approached the Americans about this problem, causing dismay for Governor Kielstra who wanted to remain independent, only accountable to the Dutch Queen. In September 1941 the Americans offered to send armed forces to Surinam, startling the rest of the Dutch Government and Kielstra, but a refusal could not be justified. The first 100 American soldiers arrived November 1941 in Surinam growing eventually to 2,000 men. Also 150 men of the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade trained in the USA were sent to Surinam.
October 1941 relations improved and American aircraft regularly landed among others on Hato airfield at Curaçao. Early 1942 6 American aircraft arrived and started patrolling from the Antilles the Caribbean. Americans and aircraft were stationed on Aruba, the runway of Dakota airfield was lengthened and resurfaced. At the airfield large camouflaged shelters were built for the American aircraft. The surrounding area was closed off with barbed wire and guarded by American soldiers. The main road from Oranjestad to San Nicolas had to be rerouted owing to the expansion of the airfield. Hato airfield on Curaçao was also greatly modernized and in the Second World War Hato became one of the most important and busy airfields in the Caribbean. The West Indies branch of KLM maintained from mid 1943 a regular service to Miami.
Lodestar Lodestar PJ-AKB of the KLM West-Indies branch
The runway of the small airfield on Bonaire that was operational from May 1936 was also enlarged. In Surinam Zanderij airfield was much enlarged and Pan American Airways started a regular service.
More than a year passed like this. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 everything changed in Surinam as well. It meant increased American involvement in the war, which became a real World War. Soon the Japanese advance in Asia started and the attack on the Dutch East Indies. Early February 1942 the British forces on the Antilles were replaced by Americans with some 1,400 on Curaçao and 1,100 on Aruba. As a colleague Axis power the Germans were also at war with America and only four days after the arrival of the Americans they struck with Operation “Paukenschlag”, a series of submarine attacks. These attacks along the Eastern American seaboard were a complete surprise. But part of that operation also took place in the Caribbean. In the night of February 15 to 16, 1942 the first German torpedo in the Western hemisphere was launched. The tanker Pedernales was torpedoed near Aruba by the German U-boat U-156 but did not sink it, but four other tankers, among them ms. Oranjestad went down that night. The four attacking submarines belonged to the German “Neuland Gruppe”.
Near Curaçao South of Anna Bay of Willemstad the CSM tanker Rafaela was torpedoed at 4.00 AM on the same February 16, 1942. The Anna Bay was reached but then the ship broke in two. The Fokker F.XVIII Oriol stationed at Hato that had a military role was in maintenance. So the civilian KLM WIB Fokker F.XVIII “Snip” stationed at Hato got its passenger seats removed and a marine alerted and a few loose depth charges loaded. The Snip was send up in the air to search and possibly attack the German submarines but to no avail.
An important German target was also the Lago refinery at Aruba. At that time there was no blackout at all, the Lago installation was completely illuminated. After launching the torpedo’s the U-156 surfaced and started readying the heavy gun on deck for firing at the refinery. In the heat of the moment the gunner forgot to loosen a shutter underneath the gun. When the first shot was fired the heavy gun exploded, killing the gunner. However a school on shore was damaged using the small anti-aircraft gun on board of the submarine. Understandably the population panicked. Luck would have it that a ship Henry Gibbons, loaded with 3,000 tons TNT was still in port when the torpedo attacks began. One day later on February 17 a torpedo was found on the beach near the Eagle refinery. During a failed attempt to dismantle it a few soldiers were killed in an explosion. (Note: this second refinery stopped production in WWII because it did not produce aircraft fuel and personnel was transferred to work at the Curaçao oil refinery).
In the first weeks of the German submarine operations no less than 21 Allied ships were sunk. The Antilles refineries were relatively unprotected, a serious risk as they were of strategic importance. In the following periods some protective measures were quickly undertaken such as placing of anti-torpedo netting in front of the port and flying aircraft patrols. Near the Curaçao water fort an American detachment was encamped and modern armament was installed on the east wall. In Riffort near Anna Bay military were stationed and anti-aircraft guns installed on the walls. Near Caracas Bay at Fort Beekenburg a pilot vessel stationed with depth charges on board to protect the oil refineries. Later guns were placed and an anti-torpedo net. On Aruba guns were also installed, near the coastal gun battery Juana Morto.
On the Antilles CAFAC was appointed, the American Commander All Forces Curaçao. He cooperated with local forces and the militia. The Dutch commander of all local forces acted as chief of staff CAFAC. The military Camp Suffisant on Curaçao was near the American base. On Aruba the militia was encamped on Savaneta near the American camp. The tasks of the militia were mostly in the artillery and coastal defense, for instance on Bullen Bay at Curaçao and Juwanorto on Aruba. Remarkable were the blimps used by the Americans for aerial reconnaissance. Blackouts were also introduced so the islands were less visible from submarines and shipping was concentrated in convoys with anti-aircraft guns on the vessels. American aircraft were stationed for reconnaissance and attacks on submarines. In general the Americans were not impressed by the local forces and they were surprised by the racial mixing in the militia. The American army at that time was still strictly segregated. The American presence on the Antilles was an enormous stimulant for the local economy but sometimes caused friction with the local population.
On the smaller Windward Islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius the war had little impact, but they suffered from shortages. This was due to the cessation of the shipping service to Curaçao for fear of submarine action. Construction of an airfield on Sint Maarten became urgent and was completed in 1943. From 1943 a convoy left every three weeks Surinam with destination England and the Allied war effort in North Africa was completely dependent on fuel from the Antilles.
On the Antilles a number of aircraft of the local flying clubs were used for military purposes. Aeroclub Curaçao, founded in 1938, had a Piper Cub (PJ-AKA). During the war from 1943 on several aircraft such as Piper Cubs and a Fairchild were used for patrols from Hato.
In March 1942 the Aeroclub flying club on Aruba was founded and their first aircraft was a Piper Cub (PJ-AFA) financed by the members. Other airplanes were also used, for instance a Porterfield. In 1943 the club received two Aeronca aircraft, ordered by the Dutch Government. They became only available in September 1943.
Members, among them also locally stationed Americans were allowed to use the aircraft for recreational purposes and did so frequently. In practice, military flights rarely happened.
Aeroclub Aruba also received permission to build an airstrip near the Lago refinery with some hangars and the members started work. This airfield was finished in May 1944 and was called De Vuijst field after one the club’s founders. Early November 1943 crown Princess Juliana (who lived in Canada with her family) flew from to Surinam. A KLM West Indies branch Lockheed L-14 Super Electra (PJ-AIM) was used escorted by an American B-25 and a Dutch B-25G that had Dutch flag markings.
photo: Nationaal Archief (used with permission)
On the flight to Surinam the aircraft overflew Sint Eustatius and Saba where school children formed large letters O (orange) and V (victory). Pamflets were dropped with “best wishes for the common struggle”.
During 1943 the Germans concentrated their submarine war mainly in the North Atlantic and the shipping routes from America to England. September 1943 submarine attacks in the West were past. In fact the German submarine threat lasted only one and a half year. This did not mean that the American forces were reduced and in much larger Surinam still around 2,000 men were stationed.
In February and March 1944 crown Princess Juliana visited Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire and Sint Maarten.
In 1944 the newly built airfield on Sint Maarten was opened by Princess Juliana. American aircraft on practice flights were regular visitors on Sint Maarten.
Early 1944 when the tide seemed definitively turned and the Axis was losing the number of soldiers at the Antilles was reduced to 500 men in March 1945. But the threat was not completely gone, even in 1944 a few ships were torpedoed near the coast of Aruba by German U-boats.
The war effort was not only in the region. Many men from the Antilles and Surinam volunteered during the war to serve as gunners on merchant ships. Many hundreds of them lost their lives during the war time convoy attacks and at least 49 ships were lost. Some men even went to the Far East and to Australia to fight and became victims of the war in the Pacific and of Japanese attacks. They were based in Brisbane Australia and other ports and when the Allied advance continued also to the Indonesian islands. Antillean civilians also donated large sums to the so-called "Spitfire Fund" that financed many Spitfires for the Allied war effort.
August 1945 the Second World War ended with the capitulation of Japan.
"Oorlog in de West", L. ter Horst, Verzetsmuseum, 2004.
Articles by G.Casius in the magazines Luchtvaartkennis 2000-2 and 2015-3, published by the Aviation Society Luchtvaartkennis.
All photos from Collection Meindert de Vreeze
Check out this film coverage: http://www.lago-colony.com/KEN_BROWN/MOVIES_IMPROVED/Sequence%2001USTROOPS.wmv
This article translated in English was first published May 2017