The Battle of the Caribbean Sea
Though it took less than a month to play out, the Battle of the Caribbean Sea is widely and correctly recognized as the most influential event since the Plague and Unrest. Though the echoes are fading with time, they still reverberate to this day through military doctrines and international relations.
Its roots lay in European resentment of the Monroe Doctrine. As long as the United States remained a small regional power, the major European nations were content simply to turn a cold shoulder; they had other fish to fry, after all. This latent ill will would come to the fore—with unexpected and far-reaching repercussions—after the humiliating French failure to push through the Panama Canal.
President Theodore Roosevelt saw the perfect opportunity to step in and become the hero of the day. Rather than attempt to throw good money after bad in Panama, he sought an alternative route with his customary vigor. The clear favorite was a traditional rival: a canal from the Pacific to Lake Nicaragua, plus a dredging and re-engineering of the San Juan River from the lake to the Caribbean.
The distance would be longer, but levitator technology had recently improved enough that construction of large heavy-lift airships was finally possible. With them to serve as cargo carriers and airborne cranes, the short Pacific leg could be dug and finished without requiring the huge infrastructure demanded by conditions in Panama, and the San Juan was already navigable.
In the event, of course, the task proved more difficult than blithe optimism had assumed—but less so than the Panama Canal was in the player characters world of origin. In fact, because of this relative ease, one critical development, the discovery of mosquitos as the vector for malaria, would not occur until nearly a generation later.
Perhaps the largest obstacle was not the terrain but the local political landscape. Central Americas propensity for revolutions and dictatorships was notorious even then. The phrase banana republic stems from the efforts of the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century to exploit or even foment this instability for its own ends.
Without the need to split off Panama from Colombia, the US was free to bend its diplomatic and covert efforts in other directions. The answer was to revive and promote the idea of the Central American Federation, which for a couple of brief periods in the mid-nineteenth century had united the five nations of the region. The tacit quid pro quo, of course, was to become effectively an economic client state of the US.
There was still strong popular sentiment in favor of unification; it was the power-mongering of the politicians that had doomed the area to balkanization. With Teddy Roosevelts proverbial big stick to keep would-be dictators at bay, a new attempt might have a chance to survive. And survive it did . . . at the cost of rampant corruption. Nobody really much cared, though, since the standard of living improved and even a peasant could get things done if he knew who to talk to. This situation only intensified in the wake of the Plague and the resulting depopulation.
Once sanity returned after the Unrest, Europe eyed with unease the tight control the US effectively held over the canal. Nowhere was there a provision similar to the free passage clause of the Suez Canal charter. In theory, the US, through its proxy, the CAF, could shut down the canal or deny entry on a whim. It showed no sign of doing so, but who knew what the future might hold? Besides, the toll charges were not cheap.
The situation came to a head in the early summer of 1941. During a routine inspection, a Spanish cargo ship was found to be smuggling contraband. What made the incident unusual was that the inspector was an honest man and denied the ship passage. The ships captain protested, the shipping line complained, and the Spanish government sent a stiff note to the United States—not to the Central American Federation.
The US response was to refer the Spanish to the CAF. The CAF, in turn, largely ignored the whole affair, more out of ineptitude than by design. Infuriated by this inadvertent run-around and convinced the US was being disingenuous, Spain did its best to stoke the fires of outrage among the crowned heads of Europe . . . with mixed success.
On 1 September 1941, Spain, backed with varying levels of enthusiasm by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands, issued a voluminous ultimatum to the United States, enumerating a host of grievances and demands. The US flatly denied the former and refused the latter.
In the following two weeks, the European powers gathered forces in the Azores and the US gathered forces in Tampa and Mobile. It was clear to everyone concerned that trouble had become inevitable. The US, however, did not know whether the target would be Puerto Rico, Cuba, the CAF, or Florida, and so delayed deployment.
The European Armada, as it was dubbed, grew out of the international cooperation that had marked the Unrest. The latter, however, was usually a matter of small units linking up for ad hoc peacekeeping operations. The scale of the Armada was altogether different. Spain provided an army of 110,000 men to occupy the CAF as well as the transport and the commanding admiral. France and Britain supplied surface naval assets, while Germany sent airships. Portugal and the Netherlands contributed token logistical support.
This unwieldy flotilla sailed on the sixteenth, and US intelligence lost contact with it immediately after. As all airships were gathering in Tampa, a frantic call was sent to US aviators in the Caribbean and the Gulf. For the first time, the United States military had to rely on airplane patrols.
A week later, on the twenty-third, the first reports filtered to the US Weather Service of a hurricane forming east of the Antilles. The same day, a middle-aged aviatrix named Amelia Earhart discovered the Armada three hundred miles northeast of Antigua. Though the US Navy received her radio warning, she was subsequently lost somewhere in the so-called Bermuda Triangle and passed into legend. The Armada continued, unaware it had been spotted, and the US realized Florida could not be the target.
The next day, most of the nations in South America closed their ports and declared neutrality, almost certainly under diplomatic and political pressure from the US. At the same time, the submarine USS Marlin, two hundred miles northeast of Aruba, suffered an engineering casualty and dove to weather the hurricane.
The fast task force that had mustered in Tampa Bay departed south for the Strait of Yucatan. Speed being the highest priority made for a radical composition—heavy cruisers and still somewhat experimental fast aerodromes (airplane carriers), both surface and airship. Even so, there would not be time to reach Puerto Rico.
The heavier forces, built around battleships, left Mobile for the Gulf, pushing hard. Since their slower fleet speed made interception of the Armada impossible, their function would be as a reserve for the fast task force.
Late in the day, the Armada was again spotted, this time south of Haiti heading west. This made the CAF the likeliest target, and the fast task force was ordered to position for defense of Cuba and Centra America.
The Dutch deployed their small contingent of troops to Aruba and promised further logistic support. Their actual motive was to garrison Aruba against possible seizure by the victor, whether the Armada or the United States.
The Armada learned of the hurricane but dismissed it as a factor, believing it would turn north and strike Cuba, thus disrupting US forces based there. The command staff was by this point extremely confident—fatally so, as it would turn out.
The US fast task force engaged the Armada off Nicaragua on the twenty-fifth, fighting a hit-and-run delaying action. The Armadas commanders found themselves caught between the hurricane and numerically inferior but militarily superior enemy forces. They quickly realized the US Navys intent: to hold them in place until the hurricane arrived.
The battle was savage and bloody, both sides losing ships at an alarming rate. The US Navy enjoyed superiority in tactics, deployment, and the quality of its airmen, but cruisers and carriers were no match for the heavy metal of the Armadas battleships. On the other hand, the Armada suffered from multinational issues of pride, language, and coordination.
Realizing the fast task force could hold only so long, a plan was hastily devised to prod the Armada into heading north. Marlin, which had surfaced in the hurricanes eye, made hasty repairs, and was traveling with the eye, was ordered to send false distress messages to give the Armada the impression the US battleships were caught in the storm.
The ruse succeeded, and the Armadas commanders concluded the US heavies had been near Venezuela and would not be a factor—and that the Gulf of Mexico was undefended. The fast task force was pressuring the Armadas southern flank, leaving a retreat to the north open. What the Armada did not know was that the US battleships would reach the Yucatan Strait in the middle of the night and form line of battle.
The Armada turned north on the twenty-sixth to break contact with the US fast task force and to escape the impending hurricane.A decision was made to invade instead the US and Mexico Gulf coasts. Germany was especially interested in Vera Cruz for historical reasons.
The British, never enthusiastic about the whole enterprise, began to suspect a trap and argued there was no confirmation of the US battleships position. The Spanish grand admiral dismissed this out of hand, leading the British CO to contact the US for separate terms. The US agreed, telling the British contingent to shelter in Kingston harbor for the duration.
The Armada stumbled across the US battle line late in the day and was trapped between the two US forces. By that time, the US had air superiority, and the Armada was ground away. Unfortunately, the heads of state refused to believe the reports of misfortune and rejected US calls for a cease-fire.
By the next day, the battle was over. The Armada was sunk or scattered and the British waited quietly in Kingston under the watchful eyes of the remnants of the US fast task force. The hurricane made landfall in Honduras, sinking many Armada survivors that had fled south. The Dutch, worried that the US would take Aruba in revenge, declared it an armed neutral. The US accepted this legal fiction, since no Dutch forces had fired on US forces. Marlin, unable to keep up with a sudden spurt in the hurricanes ground speed, ran out of fuel and was lost in the 105-knot winds of the eye wall. Only three men survived, clinging to the wreckage of a fishing boat.
On the twenty-eighth, the US demanded, and got, surrender of all Armada forces in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Survivors were plucked from the sea and ships still afloat were gathered and disarmed under US guns.
Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany signed articles of surrender on the sixth of October, relinquishing claims to North and Central American territories and agreeing to pay token reparations and not to move military forces into or through Monroe Doctrine seas again. The following day the British and Dutch signed articles of peace under much less severe terms, and later in the month their forces were escorted to the open sea by the US Navy.
The surviving Spanish soldiers were concentrated in Santiago, Cuba, from which most were repatriated. However, many were disillusioned upon learning their government had refused surrender even as they were being slaughtered and elected instead to defect and settle in Santiago.
The Spanish enclave lent a more European flavor to Santiago, making it a vibrant and fascinating destination as well as a major trading port. Eventually it became Cubas leading city, enjoying a higher standard of living than the rest of the country and indeed most of the rest of the Caribbean.
The Monroe Doctrine remains unchallenged and Central America is unquestionably in the US sphere of influence.
The crew of Marlin was awarded, mostly posthumously, the Navy Cross. Her commander was awarded, also posthumously, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The US enjoys much better relations with Britain and the Netherlands than with the rest of Northern Europe. A strong rivalry between the US and Spain lingers to the present, and the latter nation still marks the twenty-sixth of September as the Day of the Hundred Thousand.
Relations between Spain and Britain, and between Spain and the Netherlands, are nearly as bad as during the seventeenth century, though open war so far has been avoided. As a result, British naval pride focuses more on the defeat of the Spanish Armada than on Nelson at Trafalgar. Spain still burns not only over the battle but over the Moroccan seizure of Gibraltar, Cueta, and Melilla during the Unrest and the subsequent diplomatic wrangling that left Spain holding the bag. Spains military impotence, though, leaves it with few options but to swallow the bitter pill. Open anger is fading, but an assumption of distrust colors each sides view of the other.
Britain and the Netherlands remain close. The rest of Western Europe is not particularly happy with either of them, but this sentiment is fading with time.
Spain, France, and Germany believe British cowardice and US logistical superiority lost them the battle. The response was to organize naval forces into fewer but larger fleets with heavier battleships and support trains. Problems in coordination have left most nations reluctant to form joint forces, ensuring that the US probably will be unchallenged for the foreseeable future, especially in the Western Hemisphere.
By contrast, the US and Royal Navies adopted a hard target doctrine. Traditional battleships, light aerodromes (carriers), and land-based air units form defensive forces relatively close to home, while power projection is accomplished through units of fast fleet carriers and pocket battleships, generally tasked for heavy hit-and-run tactics. The cooperation of air and sea forces is seen as imperative, and combined operations are emphasized in training and exercises.
Japan, studying the battle, elected to emulate this strategy. As a result, its forces would probably enjoy great success in any Asian or Indochinese campaign. This causes Australia, Europe, and the United States great concern, and heavy reliance is placed on US forces based in Hong Kong and British forces based in the Philippines to guarantee regional security. Ω
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