Using submarines (“U-boote,” in German) in the Caribbean to attack and stop the flow of war supplies from the Caribbean to the United States and Great Britain, two of Nazi Germany’s enemies, was a strategy to win World War II (1939-1945) put into action by Grand Admiral Karl Döenitz.
Both Great Britain and the United States stored supplies such as chromium, nickel, tungsten, bauxite, long-strand cotton and copper. They also received sugar, coffee, fruit, hides and meat and, most important of all, Venezuelan petroleum refined in Aruba and Curacao. Döenitz was convinced that without access to these indispensable war supplies, the Allies would be forced to surrender. The reality was that he came very close to achieving his objective in 1942.
Although the admiral had requested 25 submarines for the so-called “Operation Newland,” Nazi leader Adolf Hitler only gave him five submarines to operate simultaneously in the mission. They arrived in the Caribbean on February 16, 1942, and their attacks slowed the flow of petroleum tankers and merchant and passenger ships until December of that year.
The German submarines launched surprise attacks, generally at night, always controlled from a central command in Germany. The news of the German attacks maintained a permanent state of tension among the merchant marine and the civilian population of the islands. Between February and June of 1942, the submarines sank 100 cargo ships in the Caribbean, causing a scarcity of fuel and construction materials for planes among the Allies.
In Puerto Rico, U.S. governor Rexford G. Tugwell (1941-1946) had to manage the emergency caused by the German blockade. He repeatedly asked the U.S. Congress for an apportionment of $15 million to acquire a three-month reserve of supplies, but that was not approved until 1944. He also unsuccessfully sought a temporary exemption for Puerto Rico from the Cabotage Law so that foreign ships from friendly countries could supply the Island and buy its exports.
In 1942, all Caribbean islands suffered scarcity of industrial equipment, medical supplies and food. Puerto Rico regularly received 90,718 metric tons of food, medicines and other products. In the first half of 1942, the German military actions reduced these imports to between 9,000 and 18,000, and in September of 1942 it only received 6,350 metric tons. In September and October of 1942, only one cargo ship arrived.
The year 1942 was one of continuous military activity: establishment of radar and modern communications systems in the mountains and on the islets, practices to mobilize civilians, installation of anti-aircraft artillery and recruitment of soldiers. German, Italian and Japanese residents of Puerto Rico were treated as enemies and, because they were suspected of cooperating with the enemy, they had to register and were under surveillance.
The population lived in an atmosphere of fear. Tugwell recalled in his memoirs:
“We are helpless here on our island while ship after ship carrying our provisions, medicines, firefighting equipment, munitions and other necessities is sunk. Our losses gradually became larger than the ships that survived. Our hospitals are full of rescued passengers and crew. The warehouses are gradually going empty, the food reserves are used up. It was not unusual to ask the continent for a special plane with an urgent cargo: chlorine for the water supply system, insulin and sulfa, parts for some essential machinery. But food was the biggest concern.” (Tugwell, 201).
Changes in daily life
The war changed the daily habits of Puerto Ricans. For example, after February 16, 1942, the government began a scaled work day so that workers entered and left at different times. This reduced traffic and saved fuel. The lunch hour for public employees was reduced from an hour and a half to an hour so they would not go home for lunch, to save more fuel, and the time was moved ahead one hour to take advantage of daylight.
Although Tugwell promoted local production, the amount of food products was not sufficient to supply the needs of all Puerto Ricans. Sugar plantations needed to be converted to producing food, but the owners refused to do so, even though there were no ships to export their sugar. They accused Tugwell of being a “fascist” and a “socialist” and asked Congress to remove him. Only by providing government subsidies that equalized the profits of both types of crops were the owners convinced to cooperate.
Although the Department of the Interior allocated food from the United States for Puerto Rico, it remained in U.S. ports for months due to lack of cargo space going to Puerto Rico. And although there was a market in the United States for Puerto Rican rum, there were no ships to transport it. In April of 1942, 183,000 cases of bottles of rum were exported; in May, 150,000; in June, 25,000; and in July, fewer than 20,000. To resolve the problem, some distilleries bought used schooners and yachts to transport the products themselves.
Unemployment increased as various industries on the Island were left without raw materials and any means of exporting goods, while the federal government showed little interest in addressing the problem. In 1942, the unemployment rate was around 12%. Additionally, salaries were totally inadequate (about $0.41 per day) at a time when the prices of imports increased due to the high insurance rates the ships paid due to the threat of submarine attacks.
To attack unemployment, the Island government began construction projects to repair municipal roads, buildings, schools and hospitals. Jobs were also created in agricultural projects to increase the production of food. Although in other Caribbean islands local businesses developed to replace the missing imports, in Puerto Rico this was difficult due to its great dependence on U.S. imports.
Even people who had money to buy goods were unable to find the products they sought. The colonial government established rationing of foods such as rice, lard, butter, meat and coffee through a system of booklets of stamps of different colors. The booklets were distributed monthly to the people who had to present the corresponding stamps to be able to buy a specified quantity of each product. As in other Caribbean islands, a “black market” developed in which a pound of rice that normally cost $0.03 was sold for $1.50, but anything could be obtained, even chocolates.
Eating habits changed. Rice, beans, cod, meat and flour were replaced by taro, casava, malangas, yautia, breadfruit and plantains. Coffee was mixed with garbanzos and other cereals to extend it. The rice of the traditional rice and beans was replaced by “funche” or “marota,” which were made of cornmeal. When filling the traditional sausages, rice was replaced with bread. The little fresh meat available became expensive and by December of 1942 all that was available were pig tails and ears.
When soap for washing clothes became scarce, some began to make their own soap from pork fat. To make tires last longer, they were covered with pieces of other tires attached with screws. During the summer of 1942, the situation became so serious that for some periods no gasoline was sold for private use.
In the worst months of the blockade, Tugwell had to ask for an emergency flight by the Navy to bring 1,000 kg. of chlorine, indispensable for treating potable water. He also sounded the alarm when diesel fuel began to become scarce. Diesel was needed to operate sugar mills and rum distilleries and to produce electricity for military installations, hospitals and industrial refrigerators. In response to the emergency, the government closed some factories, cut electric service for several hours each day and restricted transportation to a few buses.
May, 1943: German defeat
Fortunately, beginning in August of 1942, the Nazi supremacy in the Caribbean began to recede thanks to the establishment of a system of convoys (June, 1942) protected by destroyers, submarine hunters, patrol boats and plans equipped with radar, among other measures. By December, the flow of food and other necessities was restored. Soon, prices stabilized and Puerto Ricans began to feel more secure.
In May of 1943, Nazi Germany withdrew its submarines and accepted defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic. The German submarines sank an impressive 400 merchant ships in the Caribbean while the Nazi government only lost 17 of its submarines. Obviously, the Nazi commanders did an outstanding job of executing their attacks.
The Caribbean experience forced the United States to pay attention to the region. This helped increase the importance of the Caribbean after the war, with Puerto Rico as its main base of operations. Meanwhile, Caribbean residents were affected by the traumatic experience of being a war zone and being abandoned by their colonial rulers in times of crisis. This generated among a majority the seeds of the struggle for self-determination.
Döenitz, Karl, “Memoirs. A Documentary of the Nazi Twilight”, New York, Belmont Books, 1961.
Domenech, Ligia T., “Imprisoned in the Caribbean: The 1942 German U-Boat Blockade”, Indiana: iUniverse, 2014.
Rodríguez Beruff, Jorge, editor. “La tierra azotada. Memorias del último gobernador americano de Puerto Rico Rexford Guy Tugwell”. San Juan: Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, 2009.
Author: Dr. Ligia T. Domenech Abreu
Published: June 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo