The U-Boat War in the Caribbean
Contributor: David Stubblebine
Review Date: 5 Aug 2015
The nature of this book is made crystal clear by the title. The author is a retired officer in the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard who was led to write this book by the fact that World War II historians have consistently under-emphasized the U-Boat war in the Caribbean in favor of over-emphasizing the U-Boat war in the North Atlantic. He wanted World War II bookshelves to include a full description of German U-Boat activities in the Caribbean along with an account of the expansive build-up of Allied anti-submarine resources in the region. This book successfully does that.
Within the Naval Administrations of the day, both Allied and German, the Caribbean Region took in a great deal more than just the Caribbean Sea. In the Allied view, the Caribbean Theater also included the entire Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas, and a large slice out of the mid-Atlantic from a line roughly even with Puerto Rico down to the equator. To talk about the Caribbean Region in this sense is to talk about an area more than four times larger than the Caribbean proper. The shipping lanes in this region were vital to the Allies with many of the essential raw materials needed to wage war sailing through them – and well the Germans knew it. The oil that was so vital to the British and American war machines came from wells in Venezuela and was refined on Aruba; the American aircraft industry desperately needed aluminum smelted from bauxite ore that came through the Caribbean from South America; as did the huge quantities of cow hides needed for the vast number of boots and belts being produced for the swelling armies; and much, much more. The 17 U-Boats lost in the Caribbean Region represented only two percent of all German U-Boats lost during the entire war yet by the end of 1942, 36 percent of all shipping lost worldwide was lost in the Caribbean region. Nowhere during the war, land or sea, did Germany enjoy a higher ratio of losses inflicted to losses incurred than in the Caribbean.
In gathering the background material for this book, Lieutenant Commander Kelshall exhaustively researched German U-Boat records and Allied anti-submarine reports as well as interviewing many veterans of the campaign. He then presented that information in a very complete, straightforward, and chronological manner. The narrative does well to blend the raw data of the events with suitable analysis when appropriate and also context from the global events. The material is covered with such completeness that I doubt a more authoritative work on the topic is possible.
There is only one problem with this book but it is pervasive. The book is written in a narrative style that would be very well suited for a novel or a memoir but does not lend itself well to a book whose greatest value is as a reference book. The events are listed chronologically and the chapters are logically broken up into monthly segments but the format loses all structure after that. If one wished to look up what shipping was attacked by what U-Boat on a particular date, the reader would have to read through most of the chapter for that month in order to pick out the data. For someone reading the book for the first time (like I just did), this narrative style makes the otherwise dry material flow a little bit better, but the style will get in the way when I go back later to look something up. I would have preferred to have the same narrative for each month followed by a well organized table showing that month's data.
Despite this shortcoming, I am still happy to have this book on my reference shelf. I believe I will look at it when needed because the U-Boat War in the Caribbean was important to the larger war effort and this book is almost certainly the most complete reference book on the topic there is.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939