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About the Author
Norman Herz is professor emeritus of geology at the University of Georgia and well known for his scientific contributions to archaeology. After service in World War II, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and served in Air Force intelligence.
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THE AZORES AND THE WAR IN THE ATLANTIC
By NORMAN HERZ
NAVAL INSTITUTE PRESS
Copyright © 2004
All right reserved.
THE BLACK HOLE
IN THE ATLANTIC
Liberty and democracy in the world were more seriously in
danger a few years ago than at any time since they were
overwhelmed in the last days of the Athenian democracy.
Our whole democratic civilization twice hung by a thread
during the recent war-once during the summer of 1940 after
Dunkirk and the fall of France, when Britain even with her
Navy might have failed to repulse a full-scale German attack
across the Channel, and again during 1942, when German
submarines were sinking three Allied merchant vessels for
every one constructed.
CORDELL HULL, Memoirs
The year 1944 dawned with the United States already at war for more
than two years. In an event not noted by history books, the 96th Navy
Construction Battalion (the "Seabees") sailed across the Atlantic from
Rhode Island and the 928th Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAR) left
Hampton Roads, Virginia. Both outfits were ignorant of each other's
existence or where they were going but they were soon to joinup on a
secret mission-"Operation Alacrity"-planned by the Allied Chiefs of
Staff with the collaboration of their leaders, President Roosevelt and
Prime Minister Churchill.
The story of World War II has been told many times through its
more famous operations, including the United Nations's victories of
Overlord (the Normandy invasion and the liberation of Europe), and
Torch (the landings in North Africa and the capture of Germany's crack
Afrika Korps). For the Axis powers there were the debacles of Operation
Barbarossa (the Russian invasion decimating the Wehrmacht) and
Sea Lion (the aborted invasion of England that annihilated the Luftwaffe).
These operations determined the course of the war, involved
millions of men at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dead, wounded,
missing, or captured.
In addition to these major operations, there were many smaller
operations that, although not celebrated as great landmarks on the road
to victory, nevertheless were important milestones. Some of them have
also been well described, but others have been ignored or kept secret far
too long. Alacrity is one of these, first formulated by Churchill to get an
air base in the Azores Islands before the Germans got there first.
Operation Alacrity was smaller in scale, not nearly as dramatic-and
definitely not bloody-as were the big operations, but still played a
crucial role in making the Allied victory possible. Its amphibious landings
were unheralded, without a shot being fired, in a spot unknown
to most of the world. Another difference between Alacrity and other
World World II operations was that it involved Portugal, a neutral
power and owner of the Azores, which made diplomatic maneuvering
necessary. As far as anyone can tell, besides canceling out Germany's
"tonnage war" and helping to bring victory in the Battle of the Atlantic,
Alacrity hardly hurt anyone or anything except for a number of sunken
U-boats and giving the prime minister of Portugal many sleepless
Each world power wanted the Azores and had its own ideas on how
to do it. Operation Alacrity was Churchill's, Roosevelt had Task Force
Gray and Operation Lifebelt, and Operation Felix/Projekt Amerika was
Hitler's. Each side knew of the other's plans and each had the same goal
in mind: to occupy the strategically located Azores Archipelago by fair
means or foul, by diplomacy, intimidation, or armed invasion. For the
Allies, controlling the islands with their strategic position in the middle
of the Atlantic Ocean meant protecting the important convoy
routes of the central Atlantic. Failing to control them left a giant "black
hole" in the Azores Gap for convoys headed to the Mediterranean and
England, a gauntlet with U-boat wolf packs ready to turn the route into
a shooting gallery of Allied troop and supply ships. If an invasion of
Europe was to take place, the Azores Gap had to have air cover. Only an
Allied airfield in the mid-Atlantic could provide that cover.
For Germany the Azores represented a base for U-boat operations
and air bases needed for Projekt Amerika-a Luftwaffe bombing campaign
of the United States's East Coast cities. With a base for provisioning
in the middle of the Atlantic, U-boats would not waste so many
days and precious diesel fuel sailing out of and returning to submarine
pens in France. Their time in action would be almost unlimited.
Equally important was the fact that the greatest chance of being sunk
anywhere was in the Bay of Biscay, which had to be traversed to reach
the open sea. The Royal Air Force (RAF) took advantage of the compact
targets formed in the narrow gauntlet through which the submarines
passed. Once out of the pens and safely through the gauntlet, U-boat
commanders tried to stay at sea as long as possible, postponing the day
when a return run had to be made through the RAF death trap.
A problem for all these planned operations was that Portugal,
strictly neutral, had no desire to get involved in a conflict between the
great powers, firmly believing that "when an elephant sneezes a mouse
dies of pneumonia." To stay out of the war, Portuguese Prime Minister
Salazar wanted neither side to use his territory as a base for offensive
After the war broke out, the Allies established air bases in Labrador,
Greenland, and Iceland to provide protection for convoys crossing the
North Atlantic, a major step in the battle against the U-boats. Any submarine
operating within about five hundred miles of the new bases
found that their major concern was survival-there was a good chance
they would be detected by aircraft, hunted down, and attacked-not
hunting merchant vessels. Although the northern Atlantic route between
the United States and Europe became safer for convoys, air cover
was far out of reach for the central and southern ocean routes that had
to be followed to supply operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Without the fear of attack from land-based aircraft, U-boats
patrolled freely, hunting Allied convoys with less to worry about than
their brethren sailing in the north. Protecting central Atlantic shipping
routes from the United States to Gibraltar became critical; Operation
Alacrity was given the highest priority.
Alacrity involved top-level decisions that had been discussed and
finalized at the meetings between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Charles de
Gaulle in Casablanca. Liberating Europe was the eventual goal, but first
the Atlantic had to be made safe for Allied convoys. Step one would be
to counter the German U-boat menace. If aircraft were based in the
Azores Islands, the "black hole" would be covered, and the entire northern
Atlantic would be within range of air protection. The Azores had
to be occupied; Churchill's Operation Alacrity was accepted as the
Allied approach. The Joint Chiefs of Staff knew about Operation Felix
and that Hitler wanted the Azores for a U-boat base and to carry out his
ambitious Projekt Amerika. Alacrity had to be successful, for if the
Germans got to the Azores first, the Battle of the Atlantic might be
When Operation Overlord was being planned it became clear that
bases in the Azores would solve two critical problems: first, convoy
traffic would be protected against U-boats; second, a mid-Atlantic airport
was needed for ferrying aircraft and for air transport. Flying from
Washington, D.C., to London or the Mediterranean meant puddlejumping:
Miami-the Caribbean-Natal, Brazil-Dakar, French West
Africa-Marrakech, Morocco-London which, lacking a better alternative,
was especially necessary in the winter months. The route was
time-consuming and wasteful of personnel, aviation fuel, and aircraft
but the northern route via Labrador-Greenland-Iceland-had severe
drawbacks: the North Atlantic suffered from bad weather in the winter,
and the strong tail winds leaving North America became a fierce
westerly head wind returning. In addition, the northern route was a
lengthy detour for North African and Mediterranean traffic. With a
base in the Azores, an easy nonstop flight from the United States or
London, every transatlantic round trip could be made efficiently via
the central Atlantic.
Because Portugal was unwilling to allow any of the belligerents to
establish bases in the Azores, Winston Churchill-always resourceful
and mindful of history-resorted to a diplomatic maneuver; he called
on the Treaty of Eternal Friendship signed in 1373 between England and
Portugal. The gambit worked: the treaty was the wedge that allowed
the Lagens air base to be built on the island of Terceira.
When the Joint Chiefs geared up for the Operation, the 928th EAR
and the 96th Seabees were charged with the jobs of building the air base
and improving the port facilities of the island. Following standard military
procedure, nobody taking part in the Operation, certainly no one
below the command level, knew anything about the discussions and
planning that led to their being sent to the Azores. When the GIs
arrived at the port of embarkation, they fully expected to be on their
way to Tunisia or Sicily, where the war was actually being fought. But
the big United Nations's operations to save the world from Hitler
needed some help from small Operation Alacrity, so they went to the
The secrecy surrounding Alacrity was pervasive as well as long-lived.
In August 1944-after the Operation was well under way and the
Lagens air base was fully functional-a few key enlisted men, myself
included, each received commendations from Brigadier General Cyrus
R. Smith, Commander, Military Air Transport Command. The letter of
commendation only stated that each "had contributed to the success of
the mission," leaving the world completely unenlightened with not the
vaguest hint of exactly where or what "the mission" was all about.
The exhaustive and authoritative history of the Army Air Force in
World War II by Wesley Craven and James Cate describes the history of
the Air Force and the important role played by the Aviation Engineers.
However, their discussion only covers the activities of the 19th, 21st,
and 38th EAR plus fifty-four different Engineer Aviation Battalions
(EAB) and three Engineer Aviation Brigades, with not even a hint about
the existence of the 928th. The 801st EAB, the sole battalion of the regiment,
is mentioned, but only for its role along with twenty-five other
EABs in building heavy bomber bases on Okinawa. The Craven and
Cate book does admit the 801st was in the Azores but leaves out any
details: "the 801st EAB had spent most of the war on the Azores. It had
the unusual opportunity of comparing the hurricane endured there
with the great typhoon of October 1945 on Okinawa." Lundeberg's
exhaustive treatise on U.S. antisubmarine Operations in the Atlantic
also noted the lack of published information on the Azores operation,
pointing out that in Craven and Cate "the Azorean story is a startling
A visit to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, shed no more light but was revealing
for what was not there. In the files of the Historian, "The Narrative
History of the 928th Engineer Aviation Regiment" begins: "The unit
having completed its overseas mission returned to the United States 10
March 1945 ... for 30-day recuperation leave and furlough while en
route from the Port of Entry [Hampton Roads, Virginia], to Geiger Field,
Not a word of what "its overseas mission" had been, where it took
place, or why. It was clear that the mission was too secret to entrust to
the Office of the Engineer Historian. Together with its lone battalion,
the public history of the 928th began with its scheduled departure for
The Navy was less hesitant about describing publicly the Seabees'
role in the operation. The Seabee web site gives a thumbnail history
of the 96th NCB including a tantalizing two-sentence description of
its arrival, departure, and role on Terceira. At the Seabee Historians
Office at Port Hueneme, California, the complete war records of the
96th are kept, describing when they were organized to their deployment
in the Azores, followed by assignment in the South Pacific, and
finally ending the war building an air base in China.
Buried away in the U.S. National Archives and declassified fifteen
to twenty-five years after the end of World War II, the events that led up
to the movement of the 928th EAR to Geiger Field and the mysterious
"overseas mission" were revealed. Complete in five large boxes are the
Joint Chiefs, CCS, and the COS files, and two boxes of State Department
records with enough information to piece together the story of
the Azores bases. Revealed are the military decisions and dip-lomatic
maneuvering, the adventures, misadventures, and accomplishments
that led to the Engineers and Seabees being sent to the Azores.
This book is based primarily on those documents, as well as official
publications and other declassified documents of the United States,
England, Germany, and Portugal, and augmented by my own personal
experiences as a corporal in S-3 (Plans and Operations) of the 928th
EAR Headquarters and Service Company.
Geology and Geography of the Islands
The Azores Archipelago (in Portuguese Arquipelago dos Acores) shares
the distinction with Iceland and five islands in the South Atlantic-Ascension,
Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Gough, and Bouvet-of sitting
exactly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. These islands are composed of
purely volcanic and oceanic material without the foundation of continental
rock found in other Atlantic islands, such as the Canary Islands
and the Cape Verde Islands, which rose from the margins of Africa.
What makes the archipelago unique, however, is that it bestrides the
major east-west shipping routes of the North Atlantic and lies almost
midway between Europe and North America, facts which have earned
it an unsought role in world geopolitics.
The Azores have a total land area of 910 square miles (2,355 square
kilometers), or slightly less than Rhode Island (which, coincidentally,
may have the largest population in the world of Azoreans and their
descendants outside of the homeland). They consist of nine islands
located at about 37º40' N and 25º31' W stretching over 373 miles (600
kilometers) from Corvo in the northwest to Santa Maria in the southeast
and geographically fall into three groups: an eastern one of Santa
Maria and Sao Miguel, a central with Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico, Faial, and
Graciosa; and Corvo and Flores in the west.
Excerpted from OPERATION ALACRITY
by NORMAN HERZ
Copyright © 2004 by Norman Herz.
Excerpted by permission.
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