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Waiting for the Luftwaffe

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On 10 September 1942, the United States Army Air Corps Administration Building at Ft Bell was painted in camouflage colours and shapes, including the roof, although it appears to be a Bermuda home with two large chimneys that existed before the base was constructed (Bermuda Archives — PA 2004:0006).

‘It is believed that Bermuda is of as great importance in the Atlantic as Pearl Harbor is in the Pacific. — Captain Jules James US Navy, 30 June 1943

The independence of some of the continental British American colonies and the cessation of war in 1783 brought the strategic value of Bermuda to the fore in a changing oceanic world.

As the peace was concluded on the North American continent, Royal Engineers were assessing the defences of Bermuda, in anticipation of future hostilities with the new United States of America.

That fear of an American threat to British dominion of the Western North Atlantic gave rise in 1809 to a large dockyard and to successive rearmaments and works for the defence of Bermuda in the 1790s, the 1820s and the 1870s, with a final round of armament beginning in the last days of Queen Victoria’s long reign, as the nineteenth century drew to a close.

By early 1939, the once formidable anti-American fortifications and armaments had been reduced to two six-inch guns at St David’s Battery, manned by the Bermuda Militia Artillery.

Attitudes towards our neighbour, conversely, changed more slowly, so that the “Bermuda Defence Report 1935” could declare, with some finality, that an ‘attack by the United States of America need not be considered’, in bolstering the defence of the Island!

Captain Jules James, US Navy, however, still met with resistance from some of the British at Bermuda, when he arrived to build and to take up command of a US naval base in Southampton, while at the east end of the Island, Fort Bell and its Air Corps landing filed started forming after April 1941.

The advent of the US Forces included assuming responsibility for the coastal defence of Bermuda, adding twelve guns to the two British ones still in service.

As such, the American fortification at Bermuda represents the last major phase in the history of its coastal defences, which began in 1612 and ended with the departure of the British Garrison in 1957.

The value of Bermuda in American military policy lay in the fact that it was ‘the only base far enough off the central part of the Atlantic coastline of the United States to extend long-range patrolling by seaplanes into the Atlantic Ocean and to tie in coastal patrolling, both aerial and surface, with similar operations from Halifax and the West Indies’.

At the same time, the fall of Bermuda to the German enemy would turn these advantages around by using the Island as a forward station for an attack by air on the East Coast and its shipping.

However, the ability of the German Forces to effect an occupation of Bermuda, or to have a large enough air force, or Luftwaffe, to effect operations in that direction was indeed questionable, although in the early years of the Second World War, it was perhaps difficult to determine what Germany’s capabilities might be.

Jens Alers, Honorary German Consul at Bermuda, and a writer on modern oceanic matters, kindly submitted the following analysis: “The Luftwaffe had only limited potential to project air power beyond the occupied European continent.

“Unlike the British, the Germans had no overseas airbases from where warplanes could have been launched, but to some degree the Luftwaffe was able to do so from Norway, Greece and also North Africa.

“The Kriegsmarine did not have any aircraft carriers: it was one of the fundamental analytical failures of the German naval high command to pursue the constructions of major battleships such as Bismarck and Tirpitz instead of also considering such carriers.

“Then again, the Germans had a strategic problem which was actually a geographic one: it was extremely difficult for any surface vessels to break out of the confines of the German Bight and the North Sea, even after the occupation of Norway.

“The presence of the British Navy in the Channel and at Scapa Flow pretty much bottled up major German navy in home waters.

“If it was difficult to get past the British with a fast and heavily armoured raider, then it would have been virtually impossible for an aircraft carrier group to do so: hence the decision to bank on submarine warfare.

“Certainly until 1944 the German U-boat had few problems to sneak out into the Atlantic, especially from bases in occupied France.

“In that arena, the submarine ‘wolf packs’ wreaked havoc among Allied convoys and almost won the Battle of the Atlantic for Germany. Had that happened, Bermuda likely would have come onto the radar.”

In spite of such views, which may have been current in 1941, US anticipation of a German attack was exhibited in the new buildings arising at Fort Bell on the northern perimeter of Kindley Field (name somewhat eponymously for one Captain Field Kindley, a US air-ace in the Second World War).

My eyes was drawn to the matter when visiting Antony Siese, the optometrist, one evening of late to collect some memorabilia related to the Dockyard.

Tony showed me some images that were part of a collection owned by an American lady whose father owned the construction company that build Fort Bell and Kindley Field and he was instrumental in having the photographs given to the Bermuda Archives, where they now reside in secure, not to say, military, conditions.

To one’s astonishment, it seems that a number of the buildings were camouflaged: gone were the classic Bermuda white roofs and walls, as, in some instances, the entire new structure was painted with colours, possibly black, greens and greys, as if the whole was some ship being readied for the war at sea.

The disguise from an aerial perspective was also applied to existing buildings that the US Forces converted, illustrated by the Bermuda home that became the headquarters of the Air Corps, next to the newly-built air traffic control tower, itself slathering in the multicolour, multi-shaped designs of camouflage paint.

The camouflage extended to more natural covering materials, as fuel tanks and presumably gun emplacements were hidden under roofs of tree branches and netting. Achtung: the men of Fort Bell and Kindley Field were clearing waiting and ready for an air assault by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s and Germany’s oceanic Air Force, the Luftwaffe!

Nestled among cedar trees on Longbird Island, fuel tanks were thought to be protected by a camouflage of netting (Bermuda Archives — PA 2004:0006).
A trio of the buildings being erected at Fort Bell in the late summer of 1942; the eventual Commandant’s Headquarters is the centre photo, while the Permanent Barracks B-76 and B-77 are on the right. Parts of each of the structures appeared to be without camouflage and are painted white, perhaps to make the complex of buildings appear smaller to an airborne observer; inset, he ‘Luftwaffe Eagle’ (Bermuda Archives — PA 2004:0006).