801st Engineers Banner


The Azores - Strategic crossroads of the Atlantic

The Azores are a chain of nine volcanic islands stretching some 370 miles across the Atlantic ocean. The easternmost islands are about 930 miles from Lisbon, Portugal, and the westernmost about 1,100 miles from Labrador, and about 2,600 miles from the U.S. east coast port of Hampton Roads. They've been called "the crossroads of the Atlantic" for their strategic central position astride the major shipping lanes of the central Atlantic.

Lagens Field, Azores, from the air
The new, improved Lagens Field begins to take shape in early 1944

The Azores are Portuguese territory, and Portugal was neutral in World War II. But by 1941 the Portuguese government was wary of a possible German takeover of the islands. They expanded the runway on Lajes Field, the islands' airport, and sent reinforcements of troops and equipment, including British-built Gladiator aircraft. By 1942 the Gladiators were flying cover missions for allied convoys as well as recon and weather flights.

The strategic value of the Azores increased with the entry of the United States to the war. German U-boats were making the center of the Atlantic a graveyard for Allied shipping, and the Azores were in the middle of the shortest shipping route to the front in North Africa. An Allied airbase on the Azores would be of incalculable value. But the Portuguese remained neutral. As it turned out, Germany, Britain and the United States all had plans to establish a base of the Azores.

Fortunately, the British had Winston Churchill, a student of history who knew or discovered that Britain had a treaty of alliance with Portugal: a very ancient one, the 1373 Treaty of Peace, which allowed the British to request basing rights. By 17 August, 1943 Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the President of the Portuguese Council of Ministers and virtual dictator of Portugal, gave the British permission to use two ports and two airfields in the Azores, including Lajes Field on the island of Terceira. The British anglicized the name to Lagens Field, which they and the Americans would use until 1950, when it was changed to Lages Field. In 1953 the official designation was changed again, back to the original Portuguese name of Lajes Field, which is still in use today.

The British landed on October 8, 1943, building hangers, living quarters, and a power plant. U.S.-made Marston mats were used to build a 5,000-foot runway. Marston mats were prefabricated, perforated ten-foot by 15 inch steel plates designed to link together to provide a sturdy, durable landing surface for heavy aircraft when pouring heavy concrete runways was not an option. Over 60,000 of these plates were used in the runway's construction.

Within two weeks anti-submarine aircraft began operating off the strip. British-made Lancaster, York and Wellington and American-made Hudson and Flying Fortress bombers flew attack patrols in a 500-mile radius around the islands. The first U-boat kill came on November 9. Fifty-two others followed, dramatically reducing Allied shipping losses. What had been known as the "Black Pit" of the Atlantic was becoming much safer for Allied ships. On 9 Decmber the first heavy American bomber, a B-17, passed through in what was to be a "limited number" of flights through the Azores.

It was obvious that the Azores would be vitalas a stepping-stone in the cross-Atlantic avalanche of planes and material needed to defeat the Axis. But to do that they would need a much bigger air base.

Next: Coming ashore >

Portuguese militia

The Azores were Portuguese territory, and Portugal was technically neutral throughout World War II. more >

The details of America's involvement in the Azores in World War II were secret for many years and never appeared in any official histories. Norman Herz was part of the American expedion to the Azores and played an important role in creating the Allied bases. He decided the story needed to be told, and after years of research has recreated in Operation Alacrity the story of how the Allies plugged the Black Hole of the Atlantic and built a vital stepping stone to Allied victory.