Operation Alacrity

'Alacrity' was the British peaceful introduction of forces into the Azores islands group, part of neutral Portugal, by agreement with the Portuguese government (8 October 1943).

Too weak to defend the Azores island group and indeed its large colonial empire, let alone its homeland, Portugal attempted to remain neutral in World War II. The country’s dictator, Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, was especially concerned with the possibility of a German invasion through Spain, and therefore wished not to provoke Adolf Hitler, and also to give Spain no excuse to side with the Axis and invade Portugal as a result of the strategic significance of the Spanish Canary islands group. The UK and USA devised but did not implement a number of plans to establish air bases in the islands in the face of Portuguese disapproval. Instead, during 1943 the UK requested permission to set up bases in the islands, and Portugal acceded to the request.

Since their discovery and colonisation in the 15th century, the Azores island group had been developed as a cornerstone of Portuguese power protecting the lines of communications to its overseas empire. The advent of flight increased the strategic importance of the Azores island group in the early part of the 20th century. During World War I, in which it became one of the Allied powers, Portugal had authorised the USA to establish naval bases in Horta and Ponta Delgada, and in 1918 as an official in the Navy Department Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the island group and became confident in the belief of the strategic value of the new US naval base there.

In May 1919, with World War I over, the first successful transatlantic flight took place from the USA to the UK by three US Navy flying boats, which made use of the harbor of Horta on the Azorean island of Faial as a stop-over in their flight. In the 1930s Pan American Airways flew the first regularly scheduled commercial airliners, Pan-American’s Sikorsky S-40 flying boats, from the eastern coast of the USA via the Azores island group and thence to Europe.

In the outbreak of World War II, Salazar’s dislike of the Nazi régime in Germany and its combination of political and territorial ambitions was tempered by his belief that Germany was a bastion against the spread of communism. He had favoured the nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936/39), fearing a communist invasion of Portugal, yet he was uneasy at the prospect of a Spanish government bolstered by strong ties with the Axis. Salazar’s policy of Portuguese neutrality in World War II thus included a strategic component. The country still held overseas territories that, because of their poor economic development, could not be defended from military attack. Upon the start of World War II in 1939, the Portuguese government announced, on 1 September, that the 600 year old Anglo-Portuguese alliance remained intact, but that since the British did not seek Portuguese assistance, Portugal was free to remain neutral in the war and would do so. In an aide-mémoire of 5 September 1939, the British government confirmed the understanding.

In 1940 the Portuguese navy established a permanent naval air base at Ponta Delgada. By the spring of 1941, Salazar had begun to believe that Germany, or its allies, would completely overrun the Iberian peninsula. As a consequence, the Estado Novo régime considered the withdrawal of the Portuguese government to the Azores island group with the support of the UK. It was in this context that an Anglo-Portuguese working group was established to study and design the construction of new airfields in the archipelago.

During 1940/41 the USA, the UK and Germany each made plans to occupy the islands. Despite the fact that the islands are only 720 miles (1160 km) from Lisbon and 2,100 miles (3380 km) from New York, in 1940 Roosevelt considered including both the Azores and Cape Verde island groups in the Monroe Doctrine of 1825. Roosevelt declared that German occupation of the Azores or Cape Verde island groups would compromise US security, and on 22 May 1941 directed the US Army and US Navy to draft an official plan, 'Gray' (ii), for the occupation of the Azores island group.

In May and June 1941 the attitude of the USA toward the Azores island group evolved into a diplomatic incident as a result of US press insinuations regarding a US pre-emptive occupation of the Azores island group, which would later be confirmed by a senator in a landmark speech and, on 27 May, by President Roosevelt’s speech. The Portuguese sovereignty over the islands was not considered in any of the speeches, which resulted in an enormous Portuguese diplomatic campaign in Washington, DC.

On 22 June 1941, however, the Germans launched their 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, and it therefore became unlikely that they would have either the resources or the inclination to revive their 'Seelöwe' plan to invade the UK, and would also have to relax their supposed pressure on Atlantic factors. In a letter of 8 July 1941, intending to dismiss the 'false reports' that were impairing relations between the USA and Portugal, Roosevelt assured Salazar that 'May I say first of all that, in the opinion of the Government of the United States, the continued exercise of unimpaired and sovereign jurisdiction by the Government of Portugal over the territory of Portugal itself, over the Azores and over all Portuguese colonies offers complete assurance of security to the Western Hemisphere insofar as the regions mentioned are concerned. It is, consequently, the consistent desire of the United States that there be no infringement of Portuguese sovereign control over those territories.'

In 1941, recognising the dangers inherent in any German seizure of the Azores island group, Portugal expanded the islands' main runway and sent additional troops and equipment to Lajes, the latter including Gloster Gladiator fighters. The Portuguese declared the base capable of air defense on 11 July 1941 and, in order to emphasise Portuguese sovereignty over the territory, General António Óscar Fragoso Carmona, the president of Portugal, made a high profile visit to the Azores island group in July and August 1941 with the message 'Aqui é Portugal' (Portugal is here).

However, in August 1941, during the 'Riviera' conference in which the Atlantic Charter was created, Roosevelt revived the plan to seize the Azores island group. But while German victories on the Eastern Front revived fears in the Atlantic all the attempts to give new life to the Azores island group project failed.

During December 1941, in a pre-emptive move, Australian and Free Dutch forces moved into Portuguese Timor, and Portugal immediately protested at this violation of Portuguese neutrality. Troops were dispatched from mainland Portugal but were still in the middle of the Indian Ocean when the Japanese invaded Portuguese Timor in January 1942. Salazar’s protests concerning the violation of his country’s sovereignty and neutrality by the Allies and subsequent Japanese invasion of Portuguese territory, then became a strong inducement for Portugal not wishing to concede further facilities to the Allied cause.

By 1943 US military strength had increased significantly, and Allied successes in the North African campaign had greatly reduced the chances of a German occupation of the Iberian peninsula in retaliation against any Allied seizure of the Azores island group. In May, in the 'Trident' (3rd Washington) conference, those involved agreed that the occupation of the Azores island group was essential to the conduct of Allies' fight against the U-boats as the basing of aircraft in this area would extend Allied air cover for convoys and increase the harassment of U-boats in the central part of the Atlantic hitherto lacking land-based air power. Delighted with the US stance, Prime Minister Winston Churchill cabled home with instructions: Portugal should be informed that if it refused to hand over the base, the Azores island group would be occupied. However, Sir Ronald Campbell, the British ambassador, considered the US State Department’s suggestion 'particularly ill-timed and incomprehensible at the present juncture'. Campbell recalled that at the outset of the war, Salazar had remained neutral with British approval, saw Salazar as fundamentally loyal to the Anglo-Portuguese alliance, and stated that '[Salazar] would answer the call if it were made on grounds of dire necessity'. Opposition to the forceful seizure of the Azores island group also came from Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, to whom the violation of the Portuguese neutrality could destroy the moral foundation of a true community of sovereign nations. Campbell and Eden were right, and in August 1943 the British requested military base facilities in the Azores, invoking the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, Salazar responded favorably and quickly: Portugal would allow Allied use of the islands' bases, letting the British use the Azorean ports of Horta on the island of Faial and Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel, and the airfields at Lajes on Terceira island and Santana on São Miguel island.

Roosevelt promptly informed Churchill that the USA wished to make a direct approach to the Portuguese government for the purpose of also obtaining aviation facilities in the Azores island group. The negotiations for the agreement between the USA and Portugal, conducted initially by George Kennan, the US chargé d’affaires in Portugal, were protracted and complex. The final agreement was signed on 28 November 1944 between Salazas and Raymond H. Norweb, the US ambassador.

As shown above, the British had long needed a foothold in the Azores island group, possessing the same strategic importance in the central Atlantic as Iceland did in the northern Atlantic for the control of the sea lanes passing by them. The concept was a particular favourite of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who fully appreciated that while Iceland could exercise a major role in safeguarding east/west convoy routes across the north Atlantic, the Azores could fulfil the same role in the central Atlantic for north/south convoys as well as those between the Americas and both Mediterranean and West African ports.

The British rightly reckoned that a move into the Azores would offer the double advantage of denying this key base to the Germans should they overrun the Iberian peninsula, and also of providing the Allies with bases for the long-range patrol bombers and short-range escort ships so desperately needed to cover the mid-Atlantic gap in which the U-boats were proving so successful.

The British and Portuguese governments had been negotiating the matter for some two years. The British had long considered plans for an occupation of the Azores islands by force or by invitation, but were loathe to use force against a country which was the UK’s oldest ally (despite the fact that the UK had declined Portugal’s offer of assistance in 1939), and the talks therefore reached no conclusion until the fears of Salazar about the possibility of German retaliation faded with the turn of the tide against Germany in the summer of 1943.

The obstacles still to be overcome, however, were the Portuguese reluctance to allow the landing of US as well as British forces, and the US insistence on sharing any of the Azorean facilities to which the British gained access. These conflicting objectives nearly occasioned a breakdown of the negotiations.

Finally, on 18 August 1943 the British and Portuguese governments reached an agreement whereby the British would provide Portugal with war matériel and a guarantee against German aggression in return for the right to use, from 8 October, the Portuguese air bases on the islands of Fayal and Terceira.

With the agreement signed, the British plans for 'Alacrity' were finalised and implemented. A naval squadron and all the necessary merchant vessels, tankers, anti-submarine trawlers and landing craft were despatched with the men, equipment and supplies needed to open and organise the bases.

The RAF established Air Vice Marshal G. R. Bromet’s new No. 247 Group on the islands, and plans were made for the establishment of an Area Combined Headquarters on Fayal. Only the continued existence of a separate US entity, the Moroccan Sea Frontier, prevented the full implementation of a new type of efficient control of maritime aircraft over the whole of the eastern Atlantic.

The 'Alacrity' force departed from the UK under the command of Commodore R. V. Holt and was centred on the 20,158-ton large transport Franconia and, as noted above, a number of tankers, freighters and small warships to provide local security. While on passage, the force was supported by the British Escort Group B5 (destroyers Havelock, Volunteer and Warwick, corvettes Buttercup, Lavender and Godetia, and sloop Lowestoft) and also the 8th Support Group (escort carrier Fencer and destroyers Inconstant, Viscount, Whitehall, Wrestler, and Free Polish Garland and Burza).

The British force reached the islands on 8 October. Meanwhile the Boeing Fortress aircraft, which were to fly from Gibraltar to the Lagens airfield on Terceira to provide the nucleus of a long-range patrol capability, were delayed by bad weather. Fencer therefore put to sea again on 11 October, and flew off nine Fairey Swordfish single-engined torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft to the airfield. For the next week, despite the fact that only very rudimentary facilities were currently available at Lagens, the Swordfish aircraft carried out dawn and dusk searches of the adjacent waters, as well as anti-submarine patrols.

On 18 October the first Fortress aircraft arrived, and began patrol activities on the next day. After more than four years of war, air cover could finally be generated over the entire east/west and north/south fetches of the Atlantic north of 30° N, and the Allies' growing force of escort carriers looked after convoys using the more southerly routes. It was 1944 before the use of the Azores islands group by US aircraft, disguised as machines of Air Vice Marshal B. E. Baker’s No. 19 Group of Air Chief Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas’s RAF Coastal Command, was finally permitted by the Portuguese government, but the availability of the bases in the Azores islands group nonetheless transformed the nature of the maritime war in the Atlantic to the detriment of the U-boat arm.