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German U-Boats in the Caribbean: Operation Westindien, 1942
Operation Westindien showed the devastating effects of the German U-boats in the Caribbean from Feb. 16 to March 16, 1942. While Operation Paukenschlag began along the US East Coast at the same time (equally devastating), a handful of U-boats, Group Neuland, were ordered to deploy in the Caribbean.
Unknown to many today, in 1942, the oil refineries at Aruba, Curacao, and Trinidad were vital in refining the oil arriving from Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. Canada heavily relied on this oil, the US and England, also needed this oil. For the Germans, it was a missed opportunity to really devastate the Allied oil and fuel production, which would have long lasting impact on the war.
Located in Venezuela, Lake Maracaibo continues (even today) to provide the world with large amounts of oil from its oil platforms. Back in WW2, Canada received 70% of its oil and fuel from the lake. Nearly all of the oil from the lake arrived by LakeTankers (through the ever changing narrows and its shifting sandbars) at Aruba or Curacao for refining. If space was not available, it would be refined at Trinidad. Once refined, it would go to the US, Canada or Britain. For the UK, they desperately needed the high octane aircraft fuel for their aircraft refined at Aruba. On average, 500,000 barrels arrived at Aruba every four days from the Lake. After the U-Boats arrived, this dropped to 115,000 barrels when four of the nine LakeTankers were sunk. Attacking the defenseless oil cargo ships was easy, finding them proved harder. U-boat commanders were quite reluctant to enter the narrow confines of the approaches to Lake Maracaibo because of the shallowness of the water and the numerous sandbars for which the U-boats might become stuck. Thus, none did. However, few even hovered around the mouth of the its entrance due to a lack of direction from the German High Command in Germany. As early as 1939 the refineries on the two islands supplied 43% of the British and French oil requirements, and about 80% of those of the British Royal Air Force (kerosene). The American invasion in Northern Africa (1942-1943) was fuelled for 100%, and the battle in the Pacific (1944-1945) for 75% by oil from the Antillles.
In a rare daring attack, one U-boat surfaced just off the coast of Aruba, where the massive oil refinery existed and began to shell it with its deck guns. The attack was akin to a "pearl harbor" in shock and caused sufficient damage. Its attack was only halted when its own gun jammed causing an explosion. The Uboat then immediately dove for protection. Another U-boat also conducted a similar attack in broad daylight on another part of the island which did little but caused grave concern to the Allies. Aruba had nearly no aircraft to use against the submarines and obsolete ships to attack them with, assuming they could even find them. Thus, Group Neuland with its handful of submarines failed at its mission due to misdirection and confusing orders from Berlin. Had the wolfpack focused all of its resources in a simultaneous attack upon the Aruba oil refinery in 1942, its total destruction would have been insured. There was nothing to stop it except for the Germans themselves. It would have caused a severe blow to available resources to the US at this stage of the war.