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

By Fitzroy André Baptiste | Go to book overview

5
The Anglo-American Destroyers-Bases Agreement

While the Havana Conference was still being held, Great Britain and the United States were negotiating for the lease of British bases in the Western Hemisphere to the United States, in exchange for some old United States destroyers of World War I vintage, to help counter the Axis transatlantic menace. Finalized on September 2, 1940, the Destroyers-Bases Agreement gave the United States the right to construct naval and air bases in eight British transatlantic territories from Newfoundland and Bermuda in the northwest and West Atlantic off Canada and the United States to British Guiana near Brazil's bulge and astride the Straits of Dakar. (See Map 3) This agreement was perhaps the most tangible example of Anglo-American collaboration in Atlantic defense up to that time.

The antecedent of the Destroyers-Bases Agreement was the prewar agreement whereby Britain leased facilities in Bermuda, St. Lucia, and Trinidad to the United States Navy to assist in a patrol of the Caribbean on the outbreak of war. Because of internal political reasons, however, in the first nine months or so of the war, Roosevelt did not apparently exercise the base option under this secret agreement. He did institute the Caribbean-Western Atlantic patrol, to the mutual benefit of the United States and Britain. Among warships which he deployed in the patrol were some recommissioned destroyers of World War I origin. The British began to cast covetous eyes on these craft, seeking to solve the destroyer gap with which they had entered the war. Partly owing to the disarmament policy of the 1920s and 1930s, Britain had started World War II with a gap in destroyers and other craft suitable for naval warfare against the German fleet. Whereas in 1918 Britain had over 400 destroyers in service, in September 1939 it had only 153.1 Belatedly, a construction program had been launched on the eve of the war to offset the handicap. The first craft were not expected until the second half of 1940, at the earliest.

Naval developments during late 1939 underlined the severity of Britain's "destroyer-gap." On September 17 and October 14,

-51-

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