I have been asked if the original airstrip at Wallblake in Anguilla, built in 1943 during WW II, resulted from the Lend-Lease Agreement between the British and US governments during the War. The answer is no, but the story is complicated.
Most of my information comes from the author, Patrick Leigh-Fermor. Bored with England, he took off as an 18-year-old in 1933 to walk from the Hook of Holland across Europe to Constantinople in Turkey. He finally ended up in Greece where he remained until war broke out and he returned to England to join up. Because of the fluency he had developed in Greek, he was soon recruited as an intelligence officer by the Special Operations Executive. The SOE parachuted him into Crete behind the German lines. His best-known exploit was his role in the kidnapping and evacuation of the German commander, Major General Heinrich Kreipe, from Crete to Mersa Matruh in British-held Egypt. These events were the subject of the 1957 film Ill Met By Moonlight, in which he was played by the actor Dirk Bogarde.
The Traveller’s Tree
Shortly after the end of the War, in 1948, he accompanied his friend the Greek photographer, Costa Achillopoulos, on a trip to the West Indies. Leigh-Fermor came along as interpreter for Costa who had a commission to publish a book of Caribbean photographs. Leigh-Fermor was to write the captions for the photographs. For the Leeward Islands segment of their trip, they chartered the Rose Millicent from Anguillian sloop-owner, Zylphus Fleming, and explored the islands in it, with Zylphus at the helm. He took profuse notes of what he saw, and these notes were the basis for his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, published in 1951.
Remy de Haenen
Leigh-Fermor appears to have had access as an ex-SOE officer to confidential intelligence files in London. These files were the source of his description of Remy de Haenen’s leasing of Flat Island from its owner, Leo Constant Fleming of Marigot in French St Martin. Flat Island, or Tintamarre as it is known by the French, lies two miles to the east of St Martin. It was then uninhabited, but the previous owner, Diederick Christian van Romondt (DeeCee) of Mary’s Fancy in St Martin, lived on it in the first three decades of the twentieth century and farmed cows, sheep, and goats on it. The ruins of his home are still visible. DeeCee sold the island to LC Fleming in 1931. The 500-acre Mary’s Fancy Estate is of particular interest to Anguillians. DeeCee left it to his mistress, Miss Josie, in his Will. She in turn willed it to Ronald Webster, who was employed by her on the Estate. He broke it up and sold it off to fund the 1967 Anguilla Revolution.
Ruins on Tintamarre
According to Leigh-Fermor, De Haenen was a German intelligence officer, an agent of the Abwehr. His mission was to secure a replenishing base for any German U-Boats that might become active in the Caribbean Sea in the event of War. His cover was that he was a French pilot in the service of the French post office. He obtained the contract to collect and deliver the mail by air among the French West Indies. Leigh-Fermor describes how de Haenen delivered the mail to St Martin. He writes, probably from first-hand observation, that there was no air strip in St Martin. De Haenen would circle his single engine aeroplane around the football field in Marigot, playing out a rope with a hook at the end of it holding the bag of mail he was delivering. When the bag became almost stationary in the middle of the field, the postmaster would run up to it, drop the bag and then hook up the return mail for delivery to Guadeloupe. De Haenen would winch the bag up and fly off, job done.
Edgar Oliver Lake recalls that up to the early 1950s de Haenen occasionally used a similar system to deliver mail to Anguilla. Either to save fuel or the inconvenience of a Wallblake airstrip landing, he would lower his speed and altitude over the old Courthouse/Treasury/Post Office building on Crocus Hill and no doubt compensating for wind drift drop a packet of Anguilla’s mail in the courtyard.
Wallblake airstrip in 1967
With the permission of Mr Fleming, de Haenen cleared an airstrip on Flat Island and constructed a small forge on it. The ostensible need for the airstrip was to train learner pilots to land and take off. The forge was used for minor U-Boat repairs carried out at night when the Boats could surface unobserved. For the use of the crews, he collected and stored fresh Dominican fruit and vegetables and flew in tinned foodstuffs from Puerto Rico. Fleming’s permission was subsequently formalised in 1945 in a lease, and de Haenan used Flat Island as the headquarters of his short-lived airline company, Companie Aerienne Antillaise (CAA). He taught several young men of the region to fly using the 500-metre long dirt track until operations of CAA ceased in 1952.
An elderly Anguillian friend of mine, the hotelier David Lloyd, was a sailor before and during the War. I knew him as one of the founders of the Anguilla Rotary Club in 1978, and we often spoke. He told me of the many trips he and other Anguillian sloop owners made for de Haenen, fetching foodstuffs, fruit, and water to Flat Island. He thought at the time that they were for smuggling into St Martin. St Martin was then in French Vichy hands until the British sent four armed policemen from St Kitts to capture it. It was only after the War that the sloop owners learned what the purpose was of their visits to Flat Island.
Eden Rock Hotel in its prime
After the War, De Haenen converted his home in St Barths into the famous hotel, Eden Rock. He went into local politics and became Mayor of St Barths. In the early 1980s he was my client. When he visited my law chambers, I would press him on the truth of the stories of his exploits during the War. He always denied them, and claimed they were invented by his enemies. But it seems to me that Leigh-Fermor had no reason or opportunity to become his enemy, as he was just passing through the West Indies.
The details of the clandestine arrangements between de Haenen, the German Abwehr, and LC Fleming, as described by Leigh-Fermor, could only have been written by an Intelligence Officer who had access to secret files. As a result of his agreement with de Haenen, LC Fleming reputedly became the richest man in St Martin. His family still to this day enjoy the proceeds of the Nazi gold he was paid for the use of Flat Island.
As I recall it, this bit of Second World War history written by Leigh-Fermor was where I first read a very short account about the construction in Anguilla of the grass-covered airstrip by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the US joined the War in late 1941. Leigh-Fermor describes it as having been built as an emergency landing strip in early 1942 for the use of US ‘planes flying on their way to and from Puerto Rico and the Coolidge Air Base in Antigua. It was only ever intended as a place where ‘planes could land if they experienced an emergency in mid-flight. If any of them landed in Anguilla during the War, I never heard. There was no air service to Anguilla until LIAT started one in the 1960s. LIAT’s founder, Frank Delisle, my mother’s cousin, told me that he was one of those taught to fly on Flat Island by de Haenen shortly after the War. Still visible on Flat Island to this day are engines and other parts of disabled aeroplanes dating back to the time when de Haenen taught West Indians to fly.
The Anguillian air strip, originally known as Wallblake Airport, was not part of the 1941 Lend Lease program. The 1940 Destroyers for Bases Agreement was an earlier project in which the British received moth balled First World War US destroyers in exchange for long leases of land to the US Army, Air Force and Navy for bases in Trinidad, St Lucia, Antigua, and other British colonies in the West Indies. The US had not yet entered the War, and Roosevelt was blocked by Congress from giving the British military aid. So, he and Churchill hit on this exchange of assets device as a way round Congress. When the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 was passed by Congress it officially sanctioned the earlier agreement between Roosevelt and Churchill.
By 1941, Britain and its Empire was the sole holdout against the Nazi armed forces. More British shipping was being sunk in the Caribbean Sea by U-Boats than was sunk around the entire coast of Europe. This was due to the importance of the Panama Canal to the British for trade, and the oil fields and the oil refinery of Trinidad for fuel. The Texaco oil refinery in Trinidad was at the time the largest in the Empire. Indeed, the Battle of Britain was fought on Trinidadian aviation fuel. Wallblake and Flat Island were part of these wartime events, not that you will read about them in any official account of World War Two.