Today, the very idea that we were heavily and intricately involved in a world war appears unbelievable. But just 60 years ago, this was indeed the case. Out of a relatively small population - less than a million in those years - there were several hundred men and women serving in the war effort at home and overseas. The Gulf of Paria had become a focal point for shipping and the oil refineries of Trinidad’s southland were viewed as vital to the war.
The threat of a German invasion was very real. Great Britain had withstood the onslaught of the bombers that had devastated her cities. British armies, together with their allies, were fighting in the north of Africa and in the Far East. It was, however, the war at sea that was the crucial element, for it was the link that kept ‘Fortress Britain’ equipped with men and material.
The president of the U.S.A., Theodore Roosevelt, had kept his country out of the war which had started in 1939, but by May of 1940 the losses in the Atlantic took such a terrible turn that Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister, appealed for help from their American ‘cousins’ on the other side of the ocean. He was desperately in need of destroyer escorts to safeguard the convoys on the North Atlantic run.
With much diplomacy, the deal was struck. Great Britain would receive the 50 destroyers so badly needed in exchange for making available lands on the Caribbean islands in her possession for the U.S. to establish bases. This arrangement between the two great wartime leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, was to turn the tide of the war. It is commemorated to this day in Trinidad in the Highway that was built in those dark years to link Port-of-Spain to the great military complex known as Fort Reid, which contained the major airfield called Wallerfield.
Army and navy installations were built at Great Exuma Island on the Bahamas, as well as in Jamaica, Antigua, St. Lucia, British Guiana and Trinidad. The establishment of these bases was not without contention, however. Principally, the length of the lease was 99 years. This seemed an unreasonable length of time to dislocate so many people from their ancestral property, as in the case of Chaguaramas. But the world at war dictated this, and Trinidad had a strategic position. The Gulf of Paria, where 140 years previously Admiral Nelson had turned an entire battle fleet with ease, its entry points, the Dragon’s and Serpent’s mouths, made it easy to hold its refineries, which were the biggest in the British empire. Trinidad was also relatively close to the vital Panama Canal, which was central to the coming new stage of the war, the battle for the Atlantic.
The hundreds of merchant ships that converged on Trinidad in this period is to this day hard to imagine. The impact of the hundreds of thousands of American, British and other servicemen is now hardly remembered. However, some events are recalled at their start with the calypso ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, and the end of the American occupation with another, ‘Jean and Dinah’.
The action that took place in the waters just off the coast of our islands was ferocious, desperate and cost the lives of hundreds. It mostly involved persistent and well-planned submarine attacks on merchant ships making for and sailing from the Gulf of Paria. Squadrons of German U-boats shipped out of the Bay of Biscay off the coast of Spain, crossed the Atlantic and entered the Caribbean Sea. They were known as ‘wolf packs’. The average age of their commanders was about 25.
The number of merchant ships sunk in the Trinidad sector between 1942 and 1943 was more than 160. In the area known as the ‘Galleon’s Passage’ between Trinidad and Tobago about 12. This was re-christened ‘Torpedo Junction’. In July of 1943, there were about 7 U-boats operating in Trinidad waters.
This is the story of U-boat U615 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Kapitsky. Despite Trinidad possessing the most powerful anti-submarine base in this part of the war, the ongoing attacks by the U-boats, their deadly fire on the surface, had forced the allies to lose many of the aircraft flown out from Piarco and from the naval base at Chaguaramas. Towards the end of July and the beginning of August, the wolf pack was beginning to withdraw from the area. They had lost five U-boats in the hard fighting.
U615 was in trouble. The craft had been sighted from the air. On realising this, Kapitsky had taken her under and kept her there, but as time moved on he brought her to the surface to air the boat and change his ... He was sighted by a huge seaplane called ‘Mariner’ and attacked. The depth charges fell from the sky and bracketed him with such force that the boat plunged under water, washing men overboard and shaking the giant seaplane. The gunners on the deck of U615 opened fire, raking the aircraft and causing a fire to blaze dangerously. Trailing smoke, the pilot took the plane over once more. The plane’s gunners opened fire on the fighting U-boat.
Inside the cockpit of the flying boat, blood was spattered everywhere. The instruments were shattered and the pilot lay dying amongst his wounded crew. On the gundeck of U615, the German gunners trained their weapons on the planes coming in low over the water and opened fire, ignoring the American fire hitting them, splattering upon the steel decking, sending fragments of shrapnel flying into the faces of the young seamen.
Over the next several hours and through the night, aircraft from several airfields in Trinidad ... the crippled U-boat, bombed and depth charged her. And still, the anti-aircraft guns blasted away at the planes overhead. Her commander Kapitsky was now slowly bleeding to death. The boat, battered, was listing dangerously. It was obvious that it was going to sink. Kapitsky, as the dull morning spread across the weary sky, bade his crew good-bye and died propped against U615’s conning tower. The crew abandoned the ship.
As Lt. Commander Gaylord Kelshall writes in his excellent book ‘U-boat war in the Caribbean’:
“When the Hamburg-built boat finally slipped below the waves, she carried the body of her gallant commander with her... She sank beneath us. 44 of her crew slid into the water in their lifejackets. They had fought the enemy, they had fought to keep their U-boat afloat. Now they had to fight the sea to stay alive.”