*** World War II -- island territories

World War II Island Territories

World War II New Guinea
Figure 1.--World War I and World War II in Europe were fought over familiar ground. The Pacific War was a very different matter. Most Americans had never heard of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. The key battle of Midway was fought over a tiny Pacific atol. The turning point of the ground war occured at Gudalcanal in the Solomons. The larger island to the west was New Guinea. This was a huge island as remote geograpically and culturally a one could imagine. The local stone-age people who had little concept of the outside world, suddenly found their island the center of the Pacific War. the west was New Guinea. This was a huge island as remote geograpically and culturally a one could imagine. There America and Australia fought the Japan for 2 years. Then followed a series of bloddy major battles for one Pacific island after another leading to the Home Islands: Saipan, Leyte, Luzon, Iwo Jima, and finally Okinawa. Ultimately the Japanese surrendered before the final invasions of the Home Idlnds was necessary.

Quite a number of islands or island groups played roles of varying importance in World War II. The first islands to be engulfed by the War iother than Britain itseld were the Channel Islands off French Britainy. Most of these islands at the time were not countries, but the territorial possessions or provinces of the various beligerant or neutral countries. One of the key islands in the War was Iceland close to the sea lanes between America and Britain. Most but not all were Pacific islands. Many Pacific islands were the scenes of bloody battles involving some of the most bitter fighting of the War. Surprisingly, they were usully not naval battles. The Germans did not have the naval strength to take islands. As a result, the narrow English Channel stopped them from taking the most importaht island of all--Britain (September 1940). The one major island the Germans took, Crete, was taken by airborn troops (April 1944). It proved to be the wrong Island, it was tiny Malta that poved to be the key to the Mediterranean. The Japanese of course did have the naval power to seize islands and did so, creating a huge logistical problem for them. After the Sollomons Campaign, the Imperial Fleet retired (December 1942) until the United States attacked the Marianas (June 1944). America was first exposed to the intensity of the fighting when President Roosevelt authorized the release of grissly footage from Tarawa. The Japanese garrisons on these islands in most cases, fortified their positions and unsupported by the Imperial Fleet fought it out to the death. Other islands played important supporting roles. Few of these islands had vital natural resources. The exception was the Dutch East Indies which the Japaneses targeted because they needed oil. For the most part, however, what was important about these islands was their strategic location and sufficent size to build the airfields needed to project power in the vast Pacific. Unlike the battlefields of Europe, the islands in most cases were places virtually unknown to the general public before the War. The bloodiest battle in terms of losses per area was fought near the end of the war. On Iwo Jima more Americans fell than on D-Day (February-March 1945). The last islands involved were the Andamans in the Indian Oceam, a scene of terrible Japanese atrocities. It took the British moe than 2 months after the Japanese surrender to reach the Andamans in the Indian Ocean (October 1945). Many of these islands, even the ones with small populations, since the War have become independent countries.

Atlantic Ocean

The two critical battlefields of World War II were the savage conflict on the Eastern Front and the desperate naval struggle to control the Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic was critcial for the Western Allies. After the fall of France (1940), only the intervention of the United states with its emense manpower and resources could save Britain and liberate the occupied countries of Western Europe from the NAZI tyranny. And for this to occur, Britain and the United States had to defeat the U-boat threat and control the sea lanes from America to Britain. Prime Minister Churchill was to say after the War that it was the Battle of the Atlantic that he was really concerned with during the War. And here several islands played important roles. Key to the Allied victory was establishing air cover for the convoys carrying arms and supplies from America to Britain. And islands provided air cover for major portions of the Atlantic convoy routes. As the Battle of the Atlantic developed, it was in the mid-ocean gaps where the Battle of the Atlantic was fought out by the American, British, and Canadian escorts and the German U-boats. Most of the Battle of the Atlantic was fought along the vital North Atlantic convoy routes, but there were a few South Atlantic islands of some importance. Ironically the most heaviy fortified Atlantic islands were the German-occupied Channel Islands--islands of virtually no real importance. Building the fortifications there was of such magnitude that they actually delayed contruction of the fearsome Atlantic Wall.

Arctic Ocean

No important war had ever been fought in the Arctic Ocean before. Waring countries did not even fight wars during the winter, let alone venture into the Arctic. Improvements in ships and aircraft meant that militry operations for the first time were more than a footnote. This began early in the War with the Soviet invasion of Finland (November 1939) and the NAZI invasion of Denmark and Norway (April 1940). Operations in far north were limited. There was a major fight for Trodheim in Norway, but that was far below the Arctic Circle. Iceland was by far the most impoetant northern island, but just touches upon the Arctic Circle. It plaued a key role in the Battle for the Atlantic. The most northerly island of the War was Salvbard. Greenland was important as location for weather stantions and weather systens forming over Greenland had a major impact on European weather. The Japanese invaded the Aleutians, but this was primarily a diversion as part of Admiral Yamamoto Midway opoeration. They were of very limited strategic importance. The Japanese even evacuated one of the islands they seized--unusual for the Japanese.

Baltic Sea

World War I began in the Baltic when the German cruiser Schleiswig Holsten fired the first shots of World War II when it open up on the Polish Westerplatte fortress on the outskirts of Danzig. The War swirled around the Baltic, but the Baltic and Baltic islands played a limited rolw in the War. This was largely because the all important German Barbarossa offensive very rapidly moved inland from the Baltic after Army Group North seized the Baltic Republics. Before that the Soviets seized several Baltic islands as part of their demands on Finland and the Baltic Republics. The two Parki Islands off Estonia were examples of this. These Sovietsactions dod nothing to slow down Barbarossa. The Baltic for most of the war was a German lake. And the Germans used it to import all important iron ore for the German War economy. It was also the main route to get German equioment to the Finns. The German Kriegsmarine used it as a secure training and refittment location. The German island-like Peenamunde Peninsula was where the V-wepons were developed. The Baltic was an ideal testing ground. This only stopped when the British bombed it, (1942). The short distance between Denmark and Sweden provideed the escape route for Danish Jews. The only sucessful German naval campaihn was conducted in the Baltic. The Kreigsmarine lost the Battle of the Atlantic (1943), but they did achieve considerable success in the far less important Baltic. The Germans and Finns finished a highly successful anti-submarine net. Not a single Soviet ship or submarine made it past the net. It extended from Helsinki to Tallinn. The War was basiucally over for the Krieges Marine in the final months of the War. Großadmiral Karl Dönitz was, however, to evacuate some 2.5 million mostly German civilians from former Baltic Republics after the Red Army cut them off--Operation Hannibal. Hitler refused to allow the Heer soldiers to withdraw, but some did. Mostly it was a civilian evacuation along with badly wounded soldiers. The Red Navy attempted to shores to stop this and sunk some of the crowded refugee vessels--including the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. Some 9,400 people went down with the vessel -- the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.

Caribbean Sea

The Caribbean was not a major area of World War II operations, although some German U-boats did operarte there withnsomje success, mistly in 1942. Unlike South America, there were no Caribbean countries with Axis sympathies and many islands were colonial possessions of Allied countries (America, Britain, France and the Netherlands). The French islands after the fall of France were controlled by pro-Vichy-authorities, but they theadmiralminvolved was not about to challenge the Americans by lendung support to German submarunes. American Caribbean bases were primarily located in Puerto Rico asnd Cuba (Guntanamo). Many more bases were aadded by the Anglo-American bases for destroyers deal (1940). The hard pressed British did not have the resources need to expand the bases on iys numerous Caribbean possessions. The United States did. The Dutch West Indies and close-by Dutch Guiana were the only Dutch territory not occupied by Axis forces. Refineries there processed Venezuelan crude. The primary importance of the Caribbean was that it was connected to the Panama Canal, vital for the American war effort. Thus the Caribbean Islands were important for the defence of the Canal. Here Vichy control of Guadalupe and Martinique for a time was a concern. The Germans planned an attack on the Canal from U-boats operating in the Caribbean, but never carried it out. American anti-submarine patrols were conducted from several islands. Puerto Rico and Trinidad were especially important. The Caribbean was, however, not a major area of U-boat activity. The shallow clear waters were not idea for U-boat operations and the ring of Allied island air bases made the Caribbean dangerous for U-boats once America entered the War. The islands were a source of raw material. Cuba was a major supplier of sugar.

Figure 2.--Malta was one of the most heavily bombed places of World War II. Valeta near the Grand Harbor was essentilly flatned, but the island played an important role in denying supplies to Rommel's Afrika Korps. Here Maltese children are seen in improvished living quarters (April 1942).

Mediterranean Sea

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was so anxious to gain the spoils available in the wake of German victories that he ignored the obvious--Italy as a peninsula, unlike Germany, was vulnerable to Britain's greastest weapon--the Royal Navy. And Primeminister Churchill after the fall of France rejected advise to withdraw from the Mediterranean. It ws ine of his most important military decesions. The Mediterranean was the scene of some of the most fierce surface combat of the War until the onset of the Pacific War. The shallow depths and water clarity mean that it was a dangerous place for submarines, although both German U-boats and British submarines were deployed there. The Italians deployed midget submarines. The British deployed carriers, although with the exception of the attack on Taranto (1940), the British kept most of their small carrier force in the Atlantic, in part because obsolete aircraft could not compete with the Luftwaffe. The Medittrranean was the partif the sealane to India, but it was effectivdly closed by the Italian fleet and German airbases. Control of the Mediterranean became important as the route over which the Italian Army amd the Afrika Korps had to be supplied Mediterranean convoys. North Africa except for Egypt and the Suez Canal were of marginal importance. Much more important was that Rommel essentially taught the British and Americans in North Africa how to fight the Wehrmacht. The Germans expended valuable airborn troops to take Crete, but hesitated to commit them to the more important island of Malta, essentially in the British effort to inderdict the Afrika Korps' supplies. Insted Hitler ordered that Malta be bombed into submission. Cyprus proved to be just outside the German grasp, protected by the Royal Navy which defeated the Italian fleet in a series of desperate sea engagements. These battles made the Torch landings possible (November 1942). Allied victory in North Africa was followed by the invasion of Sicily (July 1943) which help to knock Italy out of the War.

Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean was not a major theater of World War II and the islands played only minor roles in the War. TheIndian Ocean was important primarily as providing the sea lanes to supply the British 8th Army during the North African campaign. And to main the sea laind open to India which ws an important support for Britain. Both British and American shipping was involved. No major naval battles were fought in he Indian Ocean. The Japanese sent a task force into the Indian Ocean (March-April 1942). The Royal Navy wisely declined to do battle. The Japanese could not however maintain a carrier group in the Indian Ocean because of the pressing need to destroy the Anerican carriers who had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor. After Midway (June 1942), the Japanese no longer had the naval strength to maintain a significant presence in the Indian Ocean beyond limited submarine deployment. The Indian Ocean islands thus played only a minor role in the War. The Andamans were the only Indian Ocean island group (other than the Dutch East Indies) occupied by the Japanese and the scene of terrible Japanese attrocities. The lack of Japanese activity may seem somewhat surprising given the fact that that Singapore at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans became the main Japanese naval base. The Japanese were, however, to hard pressedby thePacific Fleet after Midway to resume Indian Ocean operations. Ironically Singapore located at the perifery of the Pacific became important as aJapanese naval anchorage because oil was so scarce in the Home Islsands that Japan could not base the main units of the Imperial Navy there. Its location also shield ed the Imperial Fleet from the American Pacific Fleet. Ceylon was targeted in the Japanese Indian Ocean raid. Ceylon's principal importance was the supply of raw materials to the Allies. Madagascar was after the fall of France controlled by Vichy for a time and there was some German and Japanese submarine activity supported there.

Pacific Ocean

The Battle of the Atlantic was an Allied effort. The Pacific War was a largely American effort as two great naval forces gave battle over the tractless Pacific. The Philippines became tghe linchpin in the road to war. The war in Japanese eyes became necessary after the United States embargoed oil. The oil the Japanese needed was available in the Dutch East Indies and the Dutch could not prevent the Japanese from seizing it. The problem for the Japanese was that the American-held Phillipine Islands lay astride the sea routes between the Home Islands aqand the Resource Area of Southeast Asia tht the military leaders who goverened Japan saw a necssary for Japan to complete its conquest of China. Not only did the Philippines present a barrier to Japanese expansion, but the United States possessed the only naval force in the Pacific capable of opposing thepowerful Imperial Navy. Of particular importance was the Dutch East Indies which had the petroleum resources that Japan lacked. Japan launched the War by a carrier attack on the Haiwaiian Islands, the base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. This launched the Pacific War in which America and Japan fought out naval engagements in the vast Pacific, but amphibious invasions of islands that the people of the two contrie had never even heard about before the War. Unlike the DutchEast Indies, these islands had little intrnsic value in terms of resources, only theirgeographic location made them strategically important. These islands ranged from the frigid Alutians in the North Pacific to the steemy jungle islands of the South Pacific.


Bloch, Michael. The Duke of Windsor's War (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982).

Clarke, Austin. Pig Tails'n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir. Random House of Canada 2000).

Higham, Charles. The Dutchess of Windsor: The Secret Life (McGraw Hill, 1988).

"Spitsbergen party," Time September 21, 1941.


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Created: 2:48 AM 4/18/2008
Last updated: 5:26 AM 11/22/2020