- Jose Carlos Cueto
- BBC World News
Writer, journalist, fond of fishing, hunting and bullfighting and also a German submarine chaser during World War II in Cuba.
Ernest Hemingway’s resume rarely disappoints.
In Cuba, the novelist not only lived through many of his most prolific years, but also some of his most courageous and reckless adventures.
By 1941, historians say, Nazism had already penetrated the island. They had paramilitary training centers, held secret meetings and they had deployed a fleet of submarines around to carry out espionage operations.
Hemingway, then a recognized anti-fascist, went to work to found, first, a counterintelligence organization to uncover Nazi operations on the island.
And second, a crew to go out to the open sea to detect German submarines, attract them and neutralize them with grenades and submachine guns.
A bizarre adventure in the life of the writer who, had he found an enemy ship as he intended, it is likely that he would never have lived to tell the tale.
Hemingway in Cuba
The novelist arrived to settle in Cuba in 1939, while the Second World War shook the world.
He had returned from his job as a correspondent in the Spanish civil war and lived with his third wife, also a journalist Martha Gellhorn, in Finca Vigía, a privileged mansion on the outskirts of Havana.
Finca Vigía was one of the most stable residences in Hemingway’s life and where he wrote, among others, The old man and the sea, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, seven years before his tragic suicide in the United States.
A “crook factory”
Hemingway’s anti-fascist work in Cuba began with the creation of a counterintelligence service to uncover Nazi organizations that were supposedly flourishing in Havana.
“He called it” The Crook Factory “and for this he recruited, among others, veteran anti-fascist Spaniards in the Basque Club in Havana,” Norberto Fuentes, Cuban writer and author of Hemingway in Cuba, about the life of the American novelist on the island.
According to Fuentes’ book, then in Havana there were thousands of Spanish Falangists, many of them belonging to pro-Nazi societies.
Hemingway’s work had the approval and approval of the United States Ambassador to Cuba, Spruille Braden. Although it is not entirely clear which of the two came up with the idea of the writer organizing his own counterintelligence company.
“For a few months in 1942, Hemingway tried to uncover fascist spies for the American embassy. Never found anyAlthough he wrote a series of reports of mixed quality, “says Nicholas Reynolds, an American historian and author of another biography on the writer’s secret adventures.
Probably, Fuentes says, the point came when Hemingway got tired of little relevant information reaching him and decided to jump into action and hunt down the German submarines that had been circling Cuba since 1941.
If in Europe the war against German fascism was fought by bomb and shrapnel, a more strategic confrontation was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1941, after the United States entered the war, Germany deployed submarines in the Gulf, the Caribbean and the North Atlantic.
In addition to exploring and spying, “the German submarines attacked the allied ships loaded with Venezuelan oil, sugar and Cuban nickel. The Nazi predators had a good time due to the little antisubmarine defense that existed at the beginning,” says Fuentes.
Indeed, this deployment caught the United States unprepared.
“So the Navy asked yacht owners in the east of the country to keep their eyes open for possible sightings of German submarines. That way they organized a kind of citizen patrols that really paid off,” says Reynolds.
The purpose of these patrols was simply to keep watch. They were not expected to face the Nazi army. They only had to inform the Navy if they spotted any.
The US embassy in Havana wanted to export this strategy to the island.
Hemingway found out from his contacts at the embassy and members of the Navy, and in 1942 he recruited his own crew, boarded his fishing boat, and set out to scour the Cuban shores.
But their goal went beyond detecting and reporting submarines. He also intended to hunt them down.
A suicide plan?
El Pilar, the legendary fishing boat on which Hemingway undertook the mission, had been purchased in 1934.
It was a small wooden boat. The length was about 12 meters and the beam was less than four.
When the patrol began, they camouflaged it as a scientific vessel. They wanted disguise a mission investigation almost kamikaze.
To assemble the Pillar, Hemingway used his friendship with Ambassador Braden and Colonel John Thomason, a World War I veteran and then a member of the Naval Intelligence Bureau.
Got hand grenades, pistols, explosives, ammunition, an anti-tank rifle, five machine guns, a radio station, life jackets and night binoculars.
He also gathered provisions, food and drinks, and for about two years he dedicated himself to combing the north coast of Cuba, between the provinces of Pinar del Río and Camagüey.
As companions, Hemingway chose, in addition to a captain for the ship, a group made up of Cubans, Americans and Spanish.
Among the Spaniards he gathered some Basque ball players. He was confident that the players would have the dexterity and strength required to sneak the grenades into the hatches of the submarines.
“It is easy to understand that Hemingway could recruit eight men to add them to this adventure, since it was about a project with some possibilities for action and many to have a good time“, Fuentes points out in his book.
He called the operation Friendless (Without friends), the same name of one of the more than 50 cats that came to domesticate in Finca Vigía.
“Hemingway’s purpose was to appear to be a fishing boat, somehow attract the Germans and, when they got closer, start firing the submachine gun and throw the grenades at the submarine,” says Reynolds.
“Had he gotten close enough to the Germans, the plan would have been tremendously risky and potentially suicidal,” adds the historian.
“The type of operation, similar to that of a guerrilla, was adjusted to an indomitable personality by nature, if we are to believe the average of his apologists,” says Fuentes.
Recklessness or bravery?
The reality is that during the two years that the journey lasted, Hemingway and his comrades did not face a Nazi submarine.
They say that they barely spotted one, but he did not fall into the trap and wandered off when he encountered the “fishing boat.”
But how did Hemingway intend to engage a steel armored submarine from a small wooden ship with limited weapons?
For Fuentes and Reynolds, that remains anyone’s guess. Although they are clear that, had there been a confrontation, the Pilar would probably have ended up on the bottom of the sea along with all its crew.
Hemingway’s mission touched a fine line between recklessness and bravery. It could be attributed to the adventurous spirit of the novelist, but the truth is that he took his operation very seriously.
“There is a lot of legend about the reveler, drinker and adventurer Hemingway. Of course he liked to drink, but he was a tremendously organized guy and dedicated to his work. If he carried out this company it was because he was a patriot and he was convinced of the viability of the operation” , says Fuentes.
Reynolds agrees: “Hemingway could be very disciplined when he wanted and this mission contrasts him. They faced no danger, but for two years provided a serviceO useful and serious patrolling the coasts cuban“.
Back to the war correspondent
By the end of 1943, the underwater threat had subsided.
Across the ocean, the Allies had managed to defeat the fascist Axis in Tunisia and the European invasion to liberate the continent from the Nazis was imminent.
Martha Gellhorn had been in London since mid-1943 to work as a war correspondent.
From there, he asked Hemingway to finish his patrols and go to cover the conflict that was about to reach its decisive phase.
The novelist set out for the front, where covered momentous events such as the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris.
After his departure, the operation Friendless went on for about another year, but the number of missions decreased.
The Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage ended up breaking up in 1945. They say that, in part, due to the extensive time Hemingway spent hunting submarines and Nazi spies in the company of his friends during the time the couple lived in Cuba.
The operation Friendless It may not have had the warlike violence that the novelist expected, but it probably served as the inspiration for his posthumous novel “Islands in the Gulf”.
“Hemingway, thanks to literature, solved years later what never happened in reality: If his searches for a Nazi submarine were unsuccessful, in “Islands in the Gulf” he achieved his mission: to fight against German submariners, to pursue them, to use all their warlike potentialities and to measure their forces successfully with the adversary “, writes Fuentes.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.