*** World War II -- island territories Atlantic

World War II Island Territories: The Atlantic

Figure 1.-- The Battle of the Atlantic was arguably the most important campaign of World War II. After the War, Churchill said it that the only one that on which he was converned about the outcome. Several nislands plyed impotyant roles in the struggle. Ironically the most heaviky fortified Atlantic islands were the Channel Islands--islands of virtually no real importance. Here residents on German occupied Jersey are lining up for meat scarapd and bones that could be given to their pets. Later after the D-Day landings (June 1944), the German occupied islands were cut off, but refused to surrender. The Germans ans islanders by December were close to starvation.

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 cricial 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 laes from America to Britain. Prime Minister Churchill was to save after the War that it was te 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 establish air cover for the convoys carrying arms and supplies from America to Britain. And islands provided air cover for major portions of the Atlantic. As the Battle of the Atlantic developed, it was in the mid-ocean gap where the Battle of the Atlantic was fought out by the American, British, and Canadian and the German U-boats. Most of the Battle of the Atlantic was fought out in the North Atlantic, but there were a few South Atlantic islands of some importance. Ironically the most heavily fortified Atlantic islands were the Channel Islands--islands of virtually no real importance.


Ascension Island is a volcanic island south of the Equator. It is one of the most isolated places in the world, mote thsn 800 miles from the nearest landfall. The island was first inhabited when the British garrisoned it as part of imprisoning Napoleon on St Helena to the southeast (1815). While a British colonial possession, the British before the War made no effort to develop the island as an important military base. Once the War began there were many other priorities. Ascension became important as a HD/DF radio station covering all the important trade routes in the South Atlantic. Its location in the South Atlantic made it a valuable Allied air base in the campaign against the German U-boats. Aescion domintes the ocean area between the westward Bulge of Africa and the eastward bulge of Brazil. Control of this area mean that German U-boats had diffivulty operating to the south. Without Asencion, a huge ocean area would have been without air cover. Once America entered the War the situation on Asescion rapidly changed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Wideawake Field, the first air strip on the island. Two British Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes were the first to land (June 1942). Patrol aircraft operating from Wideawake played an important role in anti-submarine warfare in the South Atlantic. Large numbers of U-boats were sunk in an effort to transit and interdict Allied merchant shipping in this area. Thanks in part to Asenscion, American supply ships were able to deliver Sherman tanks and other vital equimpent to the British Army white the Royal Navy in the Meditrranean suceeded in sinking most of the Axis supplies sent to Rommel's Africa Korps Asension was also used as a refueling and staging station for aircraft flying between the Americas and Africa.


The Azores are an Atlantic archpelago of considerable importance. Britain and Portugal have a long history of commercial and military cooperation dating back well befoe the Napoleonic Wars. Portugal fought with the Allies in World War I. The Salazar dictatorship had some Fascist trappings. German Führer Adolf Hitler conceived of seizing the Azores an Canaries early in the war, but was disuaded from this adventure by his naval staff who realized that Germany did not have the naval strength that would be needed to supply the island and hold them. Portugal adhered to a strictly neutral stance. After the fall of France (June 1940), the danger arose of a German invasion. German Operation Felix conceived of a German offense through Spain to seize Gibraltar. Hitler hoped thast Franco would cooperate, but he refused. And after the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union Hitler's focus was clearly turned east (June 1941). The Azores were lightly defended. The Portuguese Goverment began expanded the small runway and sent additional troops and equipment to Lajes including Gladiator aircraft the British had provided. The Portuguese declared the base capable of effective air defense (July 1941). The Portuguese began Gladiators missions providing air cover to allied convoys, reconnaissance missions and meteorological flights. The Portuguese also began JU52 a cargo transport missions using aircraft previously provided by the Germans (July 1942). When the United states entered the War, planners saw the importance of the Azores both for convoy air cover and for commnications to North Africa. The Portuguese government, however, remained neutral. The Allied Torch lamdings (November 1942) clearly signaled the decling Axis fortunes. Both Ameriuca and Britain pressed the Portuguese to provide access to the Azores. German reverses in the East and North Africa convinced Salazar that it was both safe and advisable to moce toward the Allies. The British used a 600-year-old treaty (1373 Treaty of Peace) to negotiate the use of the Azores (August 1943). Salazar agreed to the British request for basing rights "in the name of the alliance that had existed for over 600 years between Portugal and Great Britain." By this time the Allies had decisely won the Nattle of the Atlantic. The decline of German arms mustt have been a factor. The British were given use of the Azorean ports of Horta, on the island of Faial, and Ponta Delgada, on the island of Sao Miguel, and the airfields of Lagens Field on Terceira Island and Santana Field on Sao Miguel Island. The British and Americans turned the Azoores into a key air base for operations against German U-boats.


The Duke of Windsor 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.


Bermuda was a British island south of the main Trans-Atlantic Sea Lanes. It played, howeer, an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic, for the Allies the It provides the Allies, however, animportant site for aircraft to help provide air cover over a substantial area of the Atlantic. U-boats could not effectively operate in areas where air patrols were active. Along with bases in the United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Ulster, England (Corwall), and eventually Portugal reduced the area of effective U-boat operations to a mid-Atlantic air gap. (The refusal of Ireland to allow the British to conduct air patrols was of emense aid to the Germans.) Both Britain and the United States operated air nd naval bases on Bermuda. Less well known is that Bermuda was an important intelligence post. One of their important operatiions was to monitor trans-Atlantic mail passing through the island aboard flying boats. Bermuda was used by both Pan Am and Britain's Imperial Airways. If the German Inteligence services wanted to surepticiously communicate with agents in the United Sates and Latin America, this was one of the fastest routes. At its peak, about 1,500 British intelligence officers, academics and code-breakers worked at the Imperial Censorship station. Britain more than any other country mobilized women for the war effort. As a result, quite a number of the British censors were attractive young women recruited from the universities. They were dubbed 'Censorettes'. A Trans-Atlantic cable also ran through Bermuda. We are unsure to what extent the Bermuda post worked on that. As it ran through Britain, it may have been dealt with by the code breakers in Bletchly Park. [Steveson]


The Canaries are Spanish islands, seized in the years just before Columbus' voyage. NAZI scientists from the Ahnenerbe, a research institute set up by SS Reichfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and funded by the SS, planned to work in the Cannary Islands, but were forced to postpone the project when war broke out (September 1939). The Ahnenerbe funded Spanish excavations, provided photographic equipment, and lent aircraft to conduct aerial surveys of archaelogical sites. [Garcia Alonso] Franco at first declared Spain a non-beligerant. German Führer Adolf Hitler conceived of seizing the Azores ans Canaries early in the war, but was disuaded from this adventure by his naval staff who realized that Germany might be able to seize the islands, but did not have the naval strength that would be needed to supply the island and hold them. Spain began constructing large military complex at Las Palmas (1940). President Roosevelt saw it as a potential "German springboard" for "aggression upon the Western Hemisphere". Unlike the Portuguese controlled Azores, the Canaries did not play a major role in the War. The British were concerned at first because it was not clear if Franco would enter the War on the side of the Axis. In Axis hands, the Islands could have disrupted sea commerce with the Dominions which provided critical supplies to the Britain. Even if the Germans did not seize the Canaries, allowing U-boats to refuel and resupply there would provide an important support for U-boat operations. The Canaries had, however, a serious weakness as a U-boat base. Fuel and equipment would have to be brought in by ship. And such shipping would be vulnerable to Royal Navy interdiction. The British prepared Operation Puma to seize the Canary Islands (June 1941). This was one of several contingency plans prepared to deal with any German plans to move against Spain and Portugal. Of course the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the same month made this much less likely. Spanish authorities denied the Canary Islands to the Kriegsmarine for refueling and rearming U-boats (July 1941). The British were prepared to seize the Canaries if the Spanish attacked Gibraltar. Dennying U-boas access to the Canaries, however, went a long way toward ending British concern with the Canaries. Franco decided to change Spain's status from non-beligerancy to neutral. The Allies decided to treat Spain as a neutral nation (1942).

Cape Verde

Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony durng World War II. It is an island group in the central Atlantic Ocean--10 volcanic islands making up the archipelago. It is located south of the Caranies. It lies 600-850 kilometres (320 to 460 nautical miles) west of Cap-Vert--the western-most point of continental Africa near Daka. Cape Verde forms part of the Macaronesia ecoregion (including the Azores, Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Savage Isles). The German Operation Felix (Führer Directive No. 18) aimed at capturing Gibraltar, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands (November 12, 1940). It was never executed and then shelved as Hitler's focus turned east (January 1941). The plan was premised on Franco's support, but he refused to join the Axis. Portuguese authorities declared neutrality, but gradualy shited to a pro-Allied position. The Cape Verde economy was adversely affected during World War II when the packet trade was drastically reduced. British ships were stationed in Mindelo British survivores from U-boat sinkings were sheltered on Cape Verde. British troops arrived (April 1941). Food shortages developed.

Channel Islands

The British Channel islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark lie only 15 miles off the French coast. Thus after the fall of France they were indefensable for the hard-pressed British, bracing for a German invasion of Englnd itself. Primeminister Churchill announced that Jersey was to be demilitarised and declared an undefended zone (June 19). Available shipping was limited. The British were not able to evacuate the entire civilian population. They evacuted all military personnel along with women and children desiring to be evacuated. Only men choosing to join the military were evacuated. The remaining population would have to endure German occupation. The Germans arrived (July 1940). The Islands thus became the only British territory to be occupied by the Germans during the War. The Germans stationed a substantial garrison on the Island, over 10,000 men. The Islands were of no real strategic importance. Hitler considered them useful as a propaganda statement. As the balance of power began to shift he became concerned that the British might seize the Islands. He thus ordered a massive construction campaign to build defensive fotifications. It was a massive effort, so large that it delayed the much more important project of building the Atlantic Wall. After the Normandy invasion (June 1944), the Islands and their German garrison was cut off. The Germans and the population nearly starved. They were finally liberated by the British after the German surrender (May 1945).


celand in the medieval era became a dependency of Norway ans subsequently the Danish crown. The Danish monarchy granted Iceland a constitution (1874). Denmark through the Act of Union recognized Iceland as a separate state with unlimited sovereignty. The country, however, retained its ties to Denmark as it continued to be nominally under the Danish monarchy. Iceland like Denmark and many other countries wsanted to remain neutral as Europe moved toward war. NAZI Germany requested landing rights for Lufthansa trans-Atlantic flights (1939). The Icelanders denined the request. After the War began, NAZI Germany invaded and occupied Denmark (April 1940). King ??? remained it Denmark and did what he could to support his people. The NAZI action shocked Icelanders. The Germans in World War I respected Danish neutrality. The British after the NAZI invasion of Denmark requested bases to ensure that the NAZIs would not also take over Iceland. The Icelandic Goverrnment was still determined to remain neutral and rejected the British request. The British hard-pressed in the North Atlantic proceeded to occupy Reykjavík (May 10, 1940). A German airbase in Iceland would have meant defeat for Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic. Most Icelanders were displeased, but understood the British action. Many were in a sence releaved that it was the British, unlke the NAZIs in Denmark. The British wanted to ensure that the Germans would not be able to use the country as an air and naval base in the Battle of the Atlantic. Iceland in British hands played a key role in closing the air gap in which German U-boats could opperate. After the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), some of the Arctic convoys ferrying supplied to that embatteled country were formed off Iceland. President Roosevelt ordered the American Marines (1st Marine Brigade) to replace the British (June 1941) even before America entered the War. The Brigade took responsibility for the defense of Iceland which released the British troops for duty elsewhere where the British were actively fighting the Germans. The Icelandic Government maintained an official neutral status during the War, but in fact cooperated closely with the Allies. A popular referendum voted for complete independence from Denmark which was confirmed by the Althing, the Icelandic parliament (June 17, 1944).


Germany invaded and occupid Denmark (April 1940). Greenland was nominally a Danish colony, but largely autonomous. The War and invsion largely cut off contacts between Denmark and Greenland. The Germans unlike other countries did not replace the Danish Government. Thus there was no Government in exile. The British Royal Navy seized any ships arriving from Axis-controlled Europe. Britain and Canada prepared plans to occupy Greenland. The United States opposed this operation and the idea of 'third party' intervention. The Greenland sheriffs (landsfogeder) invoked the emergency clause of the 1925 law specifying how Greenland was ruled, declared Greenland a self-ruling territory. The United States supported their action. Greenland is a huge, lighly populated island. The Germans early in the War were able to setup weather stations in Greenland. When America was drawn into the War (December 1941) Greenland became a combatant. The United States established extensive facilities for air and sea traffic in Greenland. Air bases in Greeland helped cover the Mid-Alantic air gap, critical in defeating the U-boat threat. Other facilities included radio beacons, radio stations, weather stations, ports, depots, artillery posts, and search-and-rescue stations. The United States Coast Guard organized resupply task up and down both coasts. Greenland traded with the United States, Canada, and Portugal. The cryolite (aluminum ore) became an important export. The War resulted in an imprtant realignment of the island's economy.


The Madeira Islands were a stunningly beautiful Portuguese colony some 1,000 km west of Morocco. Portugal was neutral at the onset of in Worlds War II. President Salazar decided to honor the oldest alliance in the world--the Treaty of Windsor (1386) with England. As part of thst treaty, Madeira took in refugees on a humanitarian basis. About 2,000 Gibraltarian arruved (July 1940). The British believed the Germans and Spanish would attsck Gibraltar. German Operation Felix did include an attavk on Gibraltar (November 1940). The Gibraltarians ijncluded 200 Jews. They vwere settled on Funchal where they found a Jewish cemetery that belonged to the Abudarham family--the same family which the Abudarham Synagogue in Gibraltar was named. Opperation Felix also included the possibility of attacking the mid-Atantic Portuguese and Spanish islands, but Hitler's ficus was to the East. Most of the Gibraltariuoans were creturbned (1944).

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Pierre and Miquelon were the only Axis foothold in North America, two tiny islands off Newfoundland. (Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada.) The islands were the oldest French overseas possessions and a relic of the Frenvhand Indian War. France list Canada and the Trans-Missippi, but insisted on retaining these islands because of the importance of the Grand Banks fishery. The islands also became a base for rum runners during the American Prohibition period. The Island's government led by Governor Gilbert de Bournat, like most French colonies after the fall of France, pledged their allegiance to Vichy. DeGualle was still not well known even in France and the Free French Movement was just beginning to form. The collaborationist Vichy regime was very unpopular with pro-Free French sailors and islanders. The islands were of some importance because of their location along the vital sea routes between Canada and Britain and there were cable and radio communications with Vichy. There were concerns of cioded messages being sent from the radio station. The Canadian probably would have seized the islands, but there was a diplomatic complication. The Americans while suddenly in the War (December 1941), were still trying to work with Vichy and this was a year before the Torch landings. This was an illusion, but the interned French fleet was not which alone was a reason to treat Vichy cautiously. And the United States had just concluded an agreement with Vichy over naval assetts in the Caribbean (December 12). In addition, Both Briton and Canada at the time saw America as vital and were not about to create a diplomatic confrontation with the Americans over two tiny islands. Gen. De Gualle was less the diplomat. Despite American objections, De Gaulle ordered the capture of the islands. [Aron, p. 203.] A small Free French squadron appeared off the islands on what was described as a training mission (December 23). It consisted of the submarine Surcouf (the squadron flagship) and three corvettes (Mimosa, Aconit and Alysse. The squadron landed a smell force of 230 armored sailors at the port of St. Pierre (December 24). There was no resistance and in 20 minutes the islands were in Free French hands. The Free French arrested Governor de Bournat and organized a referendum. The population endorsed the takeover by a vote of 63 for Free France (98 percent of the ballots cast) with three ballots voided (December 26). This was the first vote of any kindin Fance or the French Empore since the Gernman victory. President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull were furious because they still believed that there was value in working with Vichy. It thus caused an international incident. It was the beginning of the rift between President Roosevelt and Gen. De Gualle. Secretary Hull called it a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and categorized it as comparable to NAZI and Japanese aggression. [Auger] We suspect that Roosevelt expected De Gualle, who was not yet the figure he was to become, to silently defer and fall in line behind American policies. The President would resist acknowledging De Gualle as the preeminent French leader even after Torch. [Kimball, p. 67.] This would not change until after D-Day when the French people jubilantly welcomed DeGualle and the Free French.


Auger, Martin. "A Tempest in a Teapot' : Canadian Military Planning and the St. Pierre and Miquelon Affair, 1940–1942." Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region Vol. 33 (2003), pp. 47–72.

Aron, Robert. Grands dossiers de l'histoire contemporaine (Paris: Club des amis du livre: 1964).

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

Garcia Alonso, Francisco.

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

Kimball, Warren F. The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princreton Unversity Press: 1991), 304p.

Stevenson, William. A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible WWII Narrative of the Hero Whose Spy Network and Secret Diplomacy Changed the Course of History. Aeader tells us that the Stevenson book addresses the British Bermuda intelligence post. We have not yet had a chance to look into it. The book was published in the the 1970s before the Ultra story was fully released. It is, however, an important work because of the author's role in World War II intelligence.

Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII: The Official Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).


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Created: 2:40 AM 9/24/2009
Last updated: 11:24 PM 6/7/2022