Operation Neuland (i)

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'Neuland' (i) was a U-boat small-scale campaign based on the use of single boats rather than wolfpacks against Allied shipping, especially oil tankers and aluminium ore transport vessels, crossing the Caribbean Sea (16 February/18 March 1942).

The undertaking comprised a number of simultaneous attack on the oil loading facilities at Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles by U-156, Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles by U-67, and Maracaibo in Venezuela by U-502 during 16 February. On 19 February there was an attack on Port of Spain in Trinidad by U-161, and on 10 March on Port Castries in St Lucia where a ship was torpedoed alongside a pier. U-129 operated along the coast of Guiana, and was followed by the other U-boats after they had completed their raids in the Caribbean.

In overall terms the U-boats achieved the following results: in the Caribbean Kapitänleutnant Günther Müller-Stöckheim’s U-67 sank two tankers (17,903 tons) and damaged another, Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein’s U-156 sank five ships (22,723 tons) and damaged two tankers, Kapitänleutnant Albrecht Achilles’s U-161 sank four ships (26,903 tons) as well as the US Coast Guard vessel Acacia and damaged four ships in port, Kapitänleutnant Jürgen von Rosenstiel’s U-502 sank five tankers (25,398 tons) and damaged one tanker, and off the coast of Guiana Kapitänleutnant Asmus Nicolai Clausen’s U-129 sank seven ships (25,613 tons).

The 'Neuland' (i) operation must be regarded as just one of a series of actions and engagements of what may be termed the Battle of the Caribbean (1941/45) as an adjunct of the Battle of the Atlantic (1939/45). The primary object of German U-boats and Italian submarines involved in this naval campaign was the disruption of the Allied supply of oil and other materials from this area. To this end, the boats sank shipping in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and attacked coastal targets in the Antilles, before the steady improvement of Allied anti-submarine capabilities drove the Axis submarines out of the Caribbean region.

The Caribbean Sea was of strategic significance because of the Venezuelan oil fields in the south-eastern part of the region and the Panama Canal in the south-west part. In the early part of World War II, the Royal Dutch Shell refinery on Dutch-owned Curaçao was processing 11 million barrels of petroleum products per month, which made it the largest oil refinery in the world; the refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre on Trinidad was the largest in the British empire; and there was another large refinery on Dutch-owned Aruba. The British needed the equivalent of four oil tankers of petroleum products per day during the early years of the war, and most of it came from Venezuela, through Curaçao, after Italy’s entry to the way in June 1940 had blocked passage through the Mediterranean Sea from the oil refineries of the Middle East.

The Caribbean Sea held additional strategic significance for the USA, whose Gulf of Mexico coast, including petroleum facilities and Mississippi river trade, could be defended at two points. The USA was well positioned to defend the Straits of Florida, but not so well to prevent access access from the Caribbean through the Yucatán Channel. Bauxite was the ore much needed by the US for the production of aluminium, and was one of the few strategic raw materials not available within the continental USA. Thus the production of US military aircraft depended on bauxite mined in and imported from the Guianas along shipping routes paralleling the Lesser Antilles islands group. The USA defended the Panama Canal with 189 bombers and 202 fighters, and based submarines at Colón in Panama and at the Submarine Base, Crown Bay, St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.

The US Navy’s VP-51 squadron began to fly Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats on neutrality patrols along the Lesser Antilles from San Juan in Puerto Rico on 13 September 1939, and facilities were upgraded at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in eastern Cuba and at Naval Air Station Key West at the southern end of Florida.

The UK based No. 749, 750, 752 and 793 Naval Air Squadrons at Piarco International Airport on Trinidad, and British troops occupied the islands of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire soon after the Netherlands had been taken by Germany in May 1940. The French island of Martinique was perceived as a possible base for Axis warships as British relationships with Vichy France deteriorated following the German defeat of France in May and June 1940. The September 1940 'Destroyers for Bases Agreement' made it possible for the USA to build airfields in British Guiana, and on the islands of Great Exuma, Trinidad, Antigua and St Lucia. On 11 February 1942, US forces replaced British soldiers on the Dutch refinery islands and began to fly Douglas A-20 Havoc attack bombers from Hato Field on Curaçao and Dakota Field on Aruba.

'Neuland' (i) was the first offensive against the Caribbean Sea’s oil production and delivery capability for the Allies in the Battle of the Caribbean, which cost the Allies about 400 merchant vessels as well as a number of warships and aircraft, b y comparison with the loss of 17 Axis submarines.

An oil refinery on Curaçao was shelled on 19 April 1942 by U-130 under Korvettenkapitän Ernst Kals, but this small engagement ended in German failure. Kals had ordered the shelling of several petroleum storage tanks, but after the boat had fired only five shots, a Dutch shore battery responded and forced him to abort. Later a German U-boat attacked a merchant ship off Curaçao and was engaged by Dutch anti-aircraft and naval gun batteries, but again the submarine escaped harm. German U-boats sank two Dominican merchant vessels in May 1942 after the Dominican Republic entered World War II on the Allied side.

The 3,860-ton Norlantic, a US-flagged cargo ship was sunk on the morning of 13 May in the Caribbean by a U-boat. She was transporting a load of miscellaneous cargo from Pensacola in Florida to Venezuela when attacked by U-69 some 90 miles (140 km) to the east of Bonaire. At 03:38 the surfaced U-69, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Graf, fired two torpedoes from a surfaced position: both missed, so at 03.47 Graf ordered his boat to close the range to 2,200 yards (2000 m) and to open fire with the boat’s deck gun. U-69 began to shell Norlantic as she attempted to escape. After several hits the US ship signalled the Germans to cease fire so they could escape from their burning ship, but the Germans continued to fire even as two lifeboats were lowered. At 04.11 the Germans fired a coup de grâce , which hit Norlantic's boiler room. The ship then sank, taking six men down with her: by this time two men had been killed by the torpedo and four men by the shelling. Norlantic's surviving crew were then adrift at sea for several days before being rescued by Allied ships.

U-boats sank two Mexican tankers, Potrero del Llano on 14 May by Kapitänleutnant Reinhard Suhren’s U-564 off Florida, and Faja de Oro on 21 May by Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch’s U-106 off Key West. Some 16 men died in the two attacks, which prompted Mexico into its 1 June declaration of war on Germany.

Sylvan Arrow was a tanker of the Standard Oil and Transportation Company when Kapitänleutnant Cornelius Piening’s U-155 torpedoed her on 20 May just to the south-west of the Caribbean island of Grenada. Attempts to tow the tanker to port did not succeed, and she sank on 28 May.

The tanker Hagan was sunk by Kovrvettenkapitän Wolf Henne’s U-157 on 11 June about 5 miles (8 km) to the north of the Cuban coast. Carrying thousands of barrels of molasses, the US ship was hit in the engine room by a torpedo which destroyed the engines and caused a boiler to explode, and only moments later another torpedo hit the ship. Six men were killed and 38 survivors made it to shore. Two days later, U-157 was sunk by a US Coast Guard cutter.

On 4 September Kapitänleutnant Günther Pfeffer’s U-171 attacked the 6,511-ton Mexican tanker Amatlan, which evaded three two-torpedo attacks before being hit by one in a final spread. Amatlan sank with 10 men, and 24 sailors survived.

On 11 September, Kapitänleutnant Hans-Jürgen Auffermann’s U-514 torpedoed the armed Canadian merchant vessel Cornwallis off the coast of Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. The ship sank in shallow water after a short exchange of fire, but was raised and towed to Trinidad in December 1942, and later towed to Mobile, Alabama, which she reached on 24 January 1943. The ship was repaired and returned to service in August 1943, but was torpedoed a second time, this time by Kapitänleutnant Hans Hilbig’s U-1230 on 3 December 1944 in the Gulf of Maine, and sank.

On 5 July 1943, about 70 miles (110 km) to the west of Port-Salut in Haiti, Kapitänleutnant U-759 encountered the 3,513-ton US merchant vessel Maltran, part of the GTMO.134 convoy. The U-boat fired torpedoes, of which at least one hit the vessel. Maltran sank within 15 minutes, although all of her crew survived and escaped in life boats. The crew was later rescued by the US submarine chaser SC-1279. On 7 July, U-759 torpedoed the 9,251-ton Dutch cargo ship Poelau Roebiah, which was part of the TAG.70 convoy. The ship sank just to the east of Jamaica, taking down two men, but 68 others were rescued. After it had sunk Poelau Roebiah, U-759 was chased and attacked by the US Navy on the following day: a Martin PBM Mariner flying boat first dropped depth charges over the boat, and then for seven hours US surface vessels depth-charged the area before U-759 escaped without damage or loss of life.