War, Cooperation, and Conflict: The European Possessions in the Caribbean, 1939-1945

By Fitzroy André Baptiste | Go to book overview

2
The War in the Circum-Caribbean Theatre: September 1939 to April 1940

The history of the first seven months of World War II in the Caribbean and the wider Western Hemisphere is that of the developing Battle of the Atlantic. For Britain and for France that battle was real from September 3, 1939, when they declared war on Germany. However, the situation was different for the United States. Though secretly committed to Britain in the defense of the Western Atlantic/ Caribbean, publicly the United States' status was that of a neutral. Here was a contradiction that was likely to produce difficulties between the United States and the belligerent Allies. Indeed, that was what occurred.

In the opening weeks of the war the Allies and the United States worked cooperatively as demonstrated in their response to the Athenia incident. About twelve hours after the official declaration of war by the Allies, the British passenger liner, Athenia, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in the Western Approaches to the British Isles. The liner was unarmed and unescorted, and the German U-boat struck without warning. Over 100 lives were lost, including citizens of the United States.

The Allies immediately instituted a far-reaching economic warfare control, including convoy. Roosevelt himself used the incident to issue a proclamation of United States' neutrality. He also ordered the United States Navy to institute a neutrality patrol to report and to track any belligerent, namely, German, naval forces near Caribbean waters.1 On September 6, 1939, the Navy's director of naval intelligence summoned the British and French naval attachés in Washington and informed them that the United States Navy was "today sending a force of destroyers destined to guard patrol vessels and flying boats to patrol up to three hundred miles out to sea from Newfoundland Banks to approximate latitude 10° north east of West Indian islands." Soon afterwards, the Navy Department undertook to keep secret the movements of Allied surface and submarine crafts in the Caribbean as part of a wider agreement relating to the broadcasting of movements of their naval and commercial shipping in and around the

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