It might be argued that Sir Winston Churchill was the most significant person to live in the 20th century. The grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and the son of one of the leading British parliamentarians of his time, Lord Randolf Churchill and his beautiful American-born wife Jenny, Winston personified several significant archetypes: he was a consummate empire builder in the spirit of say Sir Cecil Rhodes; a soldier, adventurer, cast in the mold of Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. He was an author and journalist in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling or Rider Haggard. He was prolific and for many years lived off his writing. As an ambitious politician, he eventually followed in his father's footsteps, surpassing him and indeed completely overshadowing all his contemporaries.
He was on the one hand the ultimate conservative colonial, and on the other a sufficiently modern-minded man to be able to invent the tank. In doing this, he turned the tide of World War I. One may say that he impacted on Trinidad and Tobago twice; once when he was First Lord of the British Admiralty, when he ordered the conversion of the ships of the British Navy from the burning of coal to the burning of oil; the second time when he was Prime Minister in the dark days of the Second World War, when he was able to arrange with American President Franklyn D. Roosevelt the establishment of U.S. army and navy bases in British colonial Trinidad, in exchange for 50 vintage destroyers.
Winston Churchill as such changed the history of this island. Our petrochemical industry had a headstart because of his decision compared to other countries. This impacted on our cultural and economical life, giving us, for example, the unique steel band, as well as a highly developed infrastructure and access to advanced technology and of course significant wealth.
The establishment of British and U.S. army and naval bases in Trinidad changed forever the social fabric of these islands. It placed us at the hub of land and sea communications and introduced our lifestyle and culture to hundreds of thousand of men and women. It allowed us to contribute to that great enterprise that saved western civilisation as we know it from being overrun by lunatic totalitarianism in the Second World War. This collaboration of Chruchill and Roosevelt is remembered by a highway that runs eastward from Port of Spain.
The significance of the Second World War, particularly in its opening stages, was lost on most Trinidadians. the idea that Great Britain could fall seemed out of the question. The facts of the matter, notwithstanding, were arranging themselves quite differently. Great Britain as an island depended on an ongoing supply chain, so as to maintain production of food and a vast range of military material needed to equip her huge war effort. It had to be supplied from the Americas, from British Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India on an ongoing basis so as to survive.
Britain had held out during the previous war, that of 1914 - 1918 by organising convoys of ships sailing together. This had frustrated the German submarines. In the second war, the German "Kriegsmarine" (navy) had responded by organising its U-boats to attack in well organised formation, which became known as "wolf packs". This strategy became highly effective in the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. By October 1940, well over one thousand British merchantmen had been sunk by the Germans.
The basic problem was that the Royal Navy could not produce enough escort ships to protect the convoys. Convoys could proceed only as fast as their slowest members, and there was a difficulty in the availability of destroyers. Swift, built for speed, they could hunt and destroy German U-boats. It was almost impossible for them to stay with the slow-moving ships as they made their way across the oceans to England.
The real crunch came in September of 1940. At that time, Britain's distroyer fleet stood at 171. These had to serve in both the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters of war. Of these, over 80 were undergoing repairs after having been damaged in action. During that year, 21 new distroyers had been launched by the Royal Navy, but 34 had been sunk. It was obvious that by attrition the entire system of supplying by convoy would collapse, in that there would be no distroyers to protect them form the German U-boat wolf packs.
During this period, the United States of America had stayed out of the conflict. There was a strong pro-German lobby that encouraged a policy of isolation. Many Americans felt that they had saved England, in fact Europe, during the First World War, and performed their duty. The country on the whole had recently been in the grip of a terrible depression. All this served to strengthen the isolationist movements. Notwithstanding, the president, Franklyn Roosevelt, had developed a close personal friendship with Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This, together with the support of numerous Americans, served to stimulate a sense of commitment to England as she stood alone against a vastly superior foe.
Churchill was in need of help. As the year 1940 drew to a close, his country's reserves were at a low point. What he required was basically 50 destroyers to guard his Atlantic supply chain and to see him through these dark winter months.
Many felt that Roosevelt was backing a lost cause and things would go against the U.S. when a victorious Germany dominated the Atlantic sea lanes. Roosevelt, however, understood the gravity of the situation and knew well the peril the world would face if Nazi-controlled Germany under Adolf Hitler were to win this war.
He sought a found a way to supply England with the destroyers she needed. Albeit being somewhat old-fashioned, these formed part of a reserve fleet that had been "moth-balled" at the end of the last war. The plan to make them available was based on an earlier idea that had come out of the First World War. Britain should hand over all her naval and military bases in the Americas as payment for its debts owed to the United States. This plan had never been implemented, and other arrangements had been made. Now, it was put back on the table.
It was proposed that American bases may be placed alongside British bases in the colonies. America would get a form of defense, stretching from South America through the Caribbean in exchange for 50 old destroyers that were just sitting there.
The sticking point was the length of occupation. A lease arrangement was obvious, and 99 years was arrived at. To local people, it seemed very long to have one's property taken away. Perhaps 20 or 30 years at least, something in the lifetime of their children.
But in those years, no one knew how long this would last. Churchill was concerned with the survival of western civilisation. Roosevelt needed to know that a ring of steel could be put into place across the Caribbean, so as to guard the underbelly of the USA. In any event, all the territories involved were part and parcel of the British Empire. They were her assets and she could do with them as she pleased. Land for bases, both army and navy, were made available on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas and in Jamaica, in the Lesser Antilles, Antigua and St. Lucia. Also selected were Trinidad and British Guiana towards the southern end of the island chain.
On November 28, 1940, Trinidadians were astounded by the quantity of aircraft overhead. The steady droning of motors, planes flying in formation. All this had never been seen before!
Trinidad was being photographed and studied from the air. The Americans had arrived. There was great excitement. Everyone welcomed the Americans. There was a huge sure in patriotic fervour - here was Trinidad actually doing something real for the war effort. We were to be occupied, fortified and primed to deal with a terrible enemy! The lease bill would deal with 32 sq. miles of the island's territory. Eleven square miles of the north-western peninsula at Chaguaramas were earmarked for a naval base and air station. Some 19 sq. miles were used for a military establishment at Cumuto and several smaller areas were to act as auxiliary airfields. Other areas, such as Docksite on the waterfront in Port of Spain were taken over for the duration of the war.
Work commenced on 1 March, 1941 on the naval base at Chaguaramas. Some 500 Americans and a local work force of 5,000 prepared the site of one of the more significant naval bases in this part of the world, certainly one that would play a very special role in the years to come.
March 31 of that year saw the arrival of Major David Ogden, the District Engineer in charge of cconstruction in the Trinidad area. The colony's governor, Sir Hubert Young, welcomed the Americans:
"It is my great pleasure to welcome you here as the advance detachment of those who are to live and work with use here for the next one hundred years."
The army airbase at El Mamo, Cumuto, was called Fort Read, named for Major-General George Windle Read, a distinguished American general of World War I. Some 2,000 local workers cleared more than 2,000 acres of land. The 434th infantry regiment was stationed there.
Britain had to receive at her oil terminals at least four tankers full of oil every day so as to maintain the war effort. Most of this oil came from the fields in Venezuela and Trinidad. Trinidad and Aruba possessed very large refineries. Britian was also dependent on all sorts of commodities, bauxite from British Guiana to process into aluminum was vital to the aricraft industry. Other imports, such as sugar, coffee, fruit, leather and beef were important. Supplies came from even further afield.
Almost all the shipping carrying these cargoes had to pass through the Caribbean and the great bay that is the Gulf of Paria was the obvious point of rendezvous. Port of Spain was to be the mother of the convoys from here through the Grand Boca across the Caribbean Sea and eventually through one of the several passages between the islands in the lesser and the Greater Antilles into the open Atlantic to make the crossing to England.
In a short period of time, the installations a Chaguaramas became one of the largest in the world, and it became home to a major tactical base for the war against the German submarine fleets.