During the Second World War, some 500 merchant ships were sunk in the Caribbean Sea by German submarines. On the 73rd anniversary of the Victory Day celebrations, we remember the Cuban sailors who lost their lives defending the allied forces.
The strategic position of Cuba, considered the key to the Gulf of Mexico, caused the Cuban navy to immediately join the struggle against the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis. But how did these powers, so distant and immersed in the battlefields of Europe and Asia, trigger conflicts in the Caribbean?
“Cuba had an important strategic alliance with the United States, and in December 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, the island quickly became involved in the war,” Sputnik told Alina Bárbara López, a Cuban historian and Ph.D. in Philosophical Sciences.
On December 8, Cuba declared war on Japan and three days later on Germany and Italy. By the end of ’41, the island and Cuba were at war against the Axis powers.
“However, we can not say that there was direct participation in the battlefields, although a call was made to the military service and the role of the Cubans was vital in the region,” said López.
Ever since the United States became involved in the war, a very interesting harassment on this side of the Atlantic began with the German submarines that are beginning to sink a large number of merchant ships.
In the first months of 1942, the German submarines sank 263 merchant ships, a figure much higher than the sinkings that occurred in the North Atlantic, the East Coast of the United States and coastal areas of Canada. The Germans only lost four submarines.
“All ships and tankers loaded with merchandise, sugar, and strategic materials, even the Germans enter some important naval oil zones like Curaçao and Maracaibo and try to destroy them more directly within the territory,” the specialist explained.
According to the history of Cuba, the Honduran merchant ship “Nicolás Cúneo”, the Cuban fishing vessel “Lalita” and the Cuban merchant ships “Manzanillo” and “Santiago de Cuba” were sunk in waters near the largest of the Antilles.
These last two sinkings took place on August 12, 1942, in front of the Florida Keys, and 31 Cuban sailors lost their lives. Only eight of the corpses were recovered and veiled in the National Capitol with a heartfelt manifestation of the Cuban workers’ movement.
Before entering the war, the Cuban navy had few boats, all obsolete and dilapidated. The Government of the United States signed agreements with several Latin American and Caribbean countries to strengthen their war potential, in exchange for raw materials for the US military machinery.
It was then that the Cuban naval arsenal was repaired in the interest of the United States and the Marines came to play a vital role in the support of the Allies: guarding ships on the Guantanamo-New York route and hunting German submarines.
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“From then on, a strategic activity of the Navy of Cuba began, which participated in the insurance of the ships, given its geographical position,” said the historian.
The flotilla de cazasubmarinos began operating in April 1943. It was assigned the mission of escorting merchant ships that moved between Cuban ports. For three years in a row, Cuba sold all the sugar cane harvest to the United States, and the vessels left the port of Havana and Florida constantly.
“The sugar was very important to elaborate the rations of war, the condensed milk that was vital energy sustenance for the soldiers that were in combat in the front”, commented the specialist.
In addition, Cuba had the most important nickel reserve in the world, a strategic mineral for the development of machinery and military weapons. This also provoked a strong harassment on the part of the German submarines in all the area.
On May 15, 1943, a squadron of Cuban submarine fighters sailing from Isabela de Sagua to Havana escorting two merchants loaded with sugar received the information of a submarine sighting north of Matanzas, right in the middle of the scheduled route.
An American plane gave the warning and dropped a smoke bomb to fix the precise location and that was how the Cuban squad increased its speed and started the attack. Depth bombs were thrown and in the fourth explosion a bubbly sound was reported and a few minutes later the water was stained with oil, according to years later the commander of the squad Mario Ramírez.
For reasons unknown, the sinking of the German U-176 remained a secret to Cuban public opinion until after the end of the war. In total, some 79 Cuban sailors lost their lives in the defence and escort of allied merchants.
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In 1943 the attacks diminished and the improvement of the antisubmarine fight caused that the sinkings of transport ships were null while the losses of German submarines increased.
According to notes by Gustavo Placer, Captain of the Navy frigate and well-known Cuban historian, Navy ships sailed 134,206 miles, fulfilling convoy escort and patrol missions. The Cuba cruise, the largest of the island’s ships, sailed 27,974 miles during the war and escorted 89 Allied merchants, which displaced, as a whole, 712,000 tons of merchandise.
Source: Mundo Sputnik News