World War II Island Territories

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 Germn U-boats did operarte there. 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). Caribbean bases were involved in the Anglo-American bases for destroyers deal (1940). 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 Catibbean dangerous for U-boats once America enteredc the War. The islands were a source of raw material. Cuba was a major supplier of sugar.


The Bahamas is actually located north of Cuba outside the Caribbean, but it is so close to the Caribbean that for our purpses makes more sence to consider as a Caribbean Island. The Duke of Windsor (former Edward VIII) was assigned to France during the first months of the War. With the German invasion (May 1940), his behavior was of deep concern to the British Government. Finally he was made Govenor General of the Bahamas where he was safely out of the way for the remainder of the War. He was out of favor with the Royal family and his behavior bother even Primeminister Churchill who had supported him during the accension criis before the War. He managed to escape the Germans by entering Spain. He and the Duchess arrived in the Bahamas during the Battle of Britain (August 1940). They were not happy to be shunted aside. He complained about their new quarters in Government House which were not up to their stabndards. They did, however, try 'to make the best of a bad situation.' [Higham, p. 300-02.] The Duke beleve the oposting was beneath him and was unhappy abouit it throughout the War. He referred to the Bahamas as "a third-class British colony". [Bloch, p. 364.] The Duke opened the Bahamian Parliament (October 29, 1940). True to form, his stay there was not without controversy. The Duke and Duchess conducted a tour of the 'Out Islands' (November 1940). He used a yacht owned by Swedish magnate, Axel Wenner-Gren. American intelligence wrongly believed that Wenner-Gren was close to Reichmarshal Hermann Göring. [Higham, pp. 307-09.] The British Foreign Office strenuously objected. [Bloch, pp. 154–59 and 230–33. Despite his personal beliefs and behavior, the Duke did serious work to reduce poverty. The Duke made no secret about his racial prejudice. The Bahamian population was mostly black. The Duke had similar attitudes toward other non-white people in the Empire. [Ziegler] A riot erupted in Nassau, primarily because of low wages (June 1942). . He is generally praised for his intervention to resolve the unrest. [Higham, p. 331-32.] This performance was marred by statements made about the rioting. The Duke blamed the unrest on 'mischief makers – communists' and 'men of Central European Jewish descent, who had secured jobs as a pretext for obtaining a deferment of draft'. [Ziegler, pp. 471-72.] The Duke resigned his post (March 16, 1945) just before the War in Europe ended. The Allies extensively used the Bahamas for flight training. It was also used for antisubmarine operations in the Caribbean.


Barbados did not play a major role, but there were air and naval based that played a role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Barbados is located outside the Caribbean of the Lesser Antilles, well into the Atlantic. This helped to project Allied air cover over a substantial area of the Western Caribbean. Actual participation was minimal. The British Royal Air Force recruited 12 men. They composed the Second Barbados Contingent of Volunteers for the Armed Forces. They were shipped to Britain (November 1940 to join the battle with the Germn Luftwaffe. A German U-Boat was patrolling off Barbados where it spotted and topedoed SS Cornwallis near Bridgetown (September 1942). The ship was brought ashore an repaired. It was subsequently orpedoed a second time and sank. The shipwreck has been converted into a reef and Marine park. There was some economic hardship felt in Barbados after established sea lanes and trading patterns were disrupted by World War II and the German U-boats. Barbados also contributed raw materials to the Allied war effot, primarily sugar,


Cuba first played a role in the move toward war in Europeand th Holocust. Cuba denied entry to Jewish refugees attempting to escape the NAZIs on the SS St Louis months before the War began. Cuba and much of Ltin merica are proof that you can have anti-Semitism wihout Jews. Cuba joined the Allies immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941) and Germany and Italy after those countries declared war on the United Sttes a few days later. The United States already had a naval station at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba. This was an important base protecting the Panama Canal and protecting Allied shipping in the Caribbean. The Cuban Navy sank a German U-boat near Havana.(May 15, 1943). The Government initited conscription, but the draftees were never committed to the War. Cuba was a source of raw materials to the Allied war effort, especially sugar and nickle. Like other Latin American countries, the economy benefitted from the Allied war purchses.

Dutch West Indies

The Neterlands attempted to remain neutral as it did during World War I. German without warning invaded and occupied the country (May 1940). Queen Wilhemina escaped to Britain and set up a Government-in-Exile. Colonial officials were loyal to this government. The Dutch West Indies and Surimame after the Japsnese invasion of the Dutch East Indies were the only Dutch territories that were not occupied by Axis forces.



Jamaica like other British colonis was immediately involved in World War II when after Germany invaded Poland, Britain declared war on Germany (September 1939). Britain applied thge the Defence of the Realm Act. This gave the Governor the authority to regulate prices of all commodities to prevent profiteering from war time shortages. The Governor also imposed press censorship as well as controls on mail and telegraph and cable messages. Jamaica was far from the war in Europe and Germany's small U-boat fleet was not at first active in the Caribbean. The U-boats werw, however, a major concern for Britain's over streached Royal Navy. The War did not go well for the Allies and after the fall of France (June 1940), it looked for a time that Britain itself might also fall. America at the time was neutral, but President Roosevelt moved to help Britain as much as possiblents of the Neutrality Acts and public opinion. One of those steps was the Bases for Destroyers deal (August 1940). Britain gave the United States the right to build bases in British possessions in return for 59 moth-balled World war I destroyers. This arrangement was more for U.D. punlic consumption than a real deal as Britain at the time welcomed American deployment to its overseas possessions. President Roosevelt could justify this aid to Britain as a step in protect the outer perimeter of the United States. The bases in the Caribbean were primarily air and naval bases. The two major American bases were Vernamfield Air Base and Goat Island Naval Base. Some of the other Caribbean islands proved of more strategic importance than Jamaica. Even as the German U-boat fleet grew, the Caribbean was not well suited for U-boat operations. Jamaica also benefitted from Lend Lease (March 1941). The American servicemen deployed to Jamaica was the first major contact beyween Jamaicans and Cubans. Jamaicans volunteered for military service. They served with British units. Some trained in the United States. There were some problems as both the British anand American military at the time was segregated. Some British civilans refugees from the Mediterranean were cared for in Jamaica.


Martinique was one of the two principal French Caribbean possessions. The other was Guadeloupe. After the fall of France, Martinique authorities remained loyal to Marshall Petain's Vichy government. Elements of the French fleet, including an aircraft carrier, were interned at Marinique. The situation on the island, however, as volitile. Unlike France itself, support for Vichy seems limited on Martinque. Vichy was neutral in the War, but in many ways cooperated with the NAZIs. This was of considerable concern tamong American authorities over Martinique because of the security of the Panama Canal, vital in American defense strategy. French French support grew on the island. At for a time an insurection was possible. The United States prepared to intervene. The United States organized a joint Army-Marine Corps task force on Puerto Rico (the 295th Infantry and the 78th Engineer Battalion). American intervention proved unecessary when Martinique authorities decided to recognize the French Committee of National Liberation. br>

Puerto Rica

Puerto Rico was a Commonwealth of the United States and military bases already existed there before the War. It made up part of the Panama Canal defenses as well as opeational air and naval bases fot the struggle against the Germn U-boats in the Atlantic.


Trinidad is the largest island of the Lesser Antilles. It is located off the coast of eastern Venezuela. At the time of World war II, Trnidad was a British colony. Bases on Trnidad were valuable for both protecting approaches to the Panama Canal and patrolling streaches of the Atlantic. Trinidad was one of the islands includes in the important "Bases for Destroyers" deal btween America abd Britain (1940). This resulted in the United States opening naval and air bases that played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Virgin Islands

Figure 2.--Malta was one of the most heanily 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 ferce surface combat of the War until the omset 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. Yhe Italians deployed midget submarines. The British deployed carriers, althogh with the exception of the attack on Toranto (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 tghe sealane to India, but it was effectivdly closed by the Italian fleet and German airbases. Control of the Mediterranean became important as the rote over which the Italian Army amd the Afrika Korps had to be supplied in North Africa. North Africa except for Egypt and the Suez Canal were of marginal importance. Much more important was that it was in North Afrika that Rommel essentially taught the British and Americans 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, essehtially 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: 10:52 PM 1/25/2016