Next to nothing has been written about the U-boat war in the Indian Ocean. This is the story of a forgotten campaign. The battle began in August 1943, when a German submarine arrived in the Malaysian harbor of Georgetown. In total, nearly forty U-boats were assigned to penetrate the Indian Ocean, serving alongside troops of the occupying Imperial Japanese forces.
The Japanese allowed U-boats to use Malaysia as an operational station. From that base, they mixed with Japanese forces on a hitherto unseen scale: a move which spread the U-boat war throughout the vast Indian Ocean and into the Pacific. Success in this theater of war held a real chance to swing the tide of battle in North Africa in favor of Rommel, but the Germans essentially did too little too late.
The joint action also gave U-boats the opportunity to penetrate the Pacific Ocean for the first time, attacking shipping off the Australian coast and hunting off New Zealand. Plans were even afoot for an assault on American supply lines. The cooperation' also brought into stark relief the fundamental differences of German and Japanese war aims. After the crews of Italian supply submarines joined the Germans and Japanese, relations between the fighting men of the three main Axis powers were often brutal and almost constantly turbulent.
Stories of U-boats laden with gold and treasure stem almost exclusively from boats destined to and returning from Japanese-controlled Malaysia, laden with material exchanged between the two major partners of the Triple Axis Alliance.
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About the Author
Lawrence Paterson has written eleven non-fiction histories of Germany’s Second World War U-boat service, inspired largely by his lifelong interest in the Second World War and working as a Scuba instructor, diving the wartime wrecks off France.
When not writing, Lawrence tours with the heavy metal band, Raven Lord, as their drummer.
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The Genesis of German Far Eastern Involvement
The war in Europe was three years old before the sound of exploding German torpedoes from the spearhead group of Uboats fighting their way around South Africa reverberated within the Indian Ocean. However, in order to understand the reasoning behind the stationing of German submarines so far from the vital Atlantic convoy routes it is essential to understand the strategic importance of the British supply lines that traversed the Indian Ocean. It is also important to realise that submarines and other naval forces of both Germany and Italy had already been operating within the Indian Ocean long before the arrival of the former's Grey Wolves.
The idea of stationing U-boats within the Far East could rightly claim to have grown from roots first established during German-Japanese naval cooperation at the end of the nineteenth century, when Japan was waging her war against Russia. Later, during the First World War, Berlin and Tokyo found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, although their only potentially major naval confrontation was averted as Japanese troops occupied the German protectorate of Kiaochao in 1914 at the behest of the British. Kiaochao boasted the German colonial outpost of Tsingtao, an important military and trading hub which had also housed the German East Asia Squadron before its withdrawal at the first sign of possible combat with Japan's overwhelming naval might. Indeed by 1914 Germany possessed a scattering of recently claimed colonies, including several within the Pacific Ocean in what are now known as Papua-New Guinea, Micronesia, Samoa, the Marianas and Nauru. The period of war between 1914 and 1918 deprived Germany of all her acquisitions.
Years later relations between Berlin and Tokyo improved, particularly after Hitler's accession to power and the rise of the aggressive military junta in Japan, but even before the advent of the National Socialist state in Germany U-boat commanders and engineers who had seen action between 1914 and 1918 travelled to Japan to advise and assist in designing submarines for her Imperial Navy (Teikoku Kaigun).
During the mid-1930s the two countries moved inexorably closer to one another, until on 25 November 1936 they signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in Berlin. Dedicated to resisting the influence of spreading international communism, the Pact concentrated in particular on the containment of the Soviet Union and Stalin's potentially expansionist leanings as Emperor Hirohito's government and Adolf Hitler prepared to indulge theirs. The alliance was soon joined by Italy, and the resulting so-called Triple Axis was established by November 1937. However, there was little unity of purpose in the various protocols signed by the three nations. Within mainland Europe, Italy adopted the role of a passive member, Mussolini's colonial aspirations lying in North and East Africa, while Hitler hoped that the treaty would dissuade Stalin's regime from interfering with Germany's planned extensions to the south — into Czechoslovakia and Austria. While keeping Stalin in check, Germany could strengthen her enlarged borders before directly confronting the Soviet Union at a time of Hitler's choosing. In Tokyo, the Japanese government also hoped to avoid Soviet interference, this time in their war of conquest on mainland China.
Disharmony between the two major Axis powers followed soon afterwards when, shortly before its attack on Poland in September 1939, Hitler's government concluded a non-aggression pact with its ideological enemy, Russia. Japan protested vigorously and stated baldly — and correctly — that it violated the Anti-Comintern pact, but Hitler, soon flushed with the success of his Wehrmacht and victory against the Poles, blatantly ignored the Japanese protest. However, Erich Raeder, the head of Germany's small Kriegsmarine, cherished hopes of German-Japanese naval cooperation despite the brusque reaction of his commander-in-chief to the Japanese complaints. Raeder realised that Germany's navy was in no position seriously to threaten British dominance on the world's oceans, notably the Atlantic, and reasoned that, by utilising the strength of the large and powerful Imperial Japanese Navy operating along the same lines as his own, the supremacy of Britain's Royal Navy could be diluted by its need to maintain sufficient strength in several geographically spread regions. Raeder also wished to lease some of Japan's large cruiser-submarines to augment the tiny U-boat force under the command of Fregattenkapitän Karl Dönitz, as well as bases within the Far East from which to strike at the trade arteries that traversed the Indian Ocean and kept alive British interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, although Hitler failed to grasp this most fundamental of issues, German domination of the Mediterranean could lead directly to control of North Africa and the Middle Eastern oilfields, spreading as far as the southern borders of the Caucasus. From there India — and, ultimately, the entire Indian subcontinent — lay vulnerable to attack and exploitation. The course of war against Britain could thus have been altered dramatically by German naval success in the Mediterranean Sea and land victory in Egypt. On 8 December 1939 the German naval command formally requested that Japanese bases be made available for Kriegsmarine units, an appeal that prompted protracted negotiations in Tokyo between Japanese authorities and Kapitän zur See Joachim Lietzmann, the German Naval Attaché. During these inconclusive initial discussions the Japanese proposed that German naval units could perhaps be allowed to lease sites in the Caroline, Aleutian, Marshall or Amchitka Islands. Nevertheless, ultimately no real headway was made in reaching a successful conclusion to the talks.
In the meantime, by mid-1940 Germany had spectacularly defeated her enemies on mainland Europe and successfully invaded Norway by means of combined amphibious and parachute landings. Importantly for Allied security within the Red Sea and Middle East, Italy had also finally declared war on Britain and France on 10 June, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa correspondingly declaring war on Italy hours later. Britain's Mediterranean possessions now appeared to face a direct threat from Mussolini's modern Roman legions, a situation exacerbated within a fortnight when the Wehrmacht, in a lightning military campaign, comprehensively defeated France. Strategically, Italy, with her large naval and air force units, was well placed to threaten the otherwise unhampered supply of material bound for Britain from the oil-producing regions of the Middle East. The countries fringing the coasts of the Persian Gulf lay within the British sphere of influence and were either Allied or pro-Allied neutral countries, although Persia remained a dubious friend at best. To the south-east, Arabia maintained close ties with Britain, also securing the eastern shores of the Red Sea and its important entrance to the Suez Canal. At the southern end of Arabia, Aden was a British colony. On the western shore of the Red Sea, Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan were squarely within Allied control; further south, French and British Somaliland lay on the southern shores of the Gulf of Aden. However, between the Sudan and Anglo-French Somaliland were the linked Italian colonies of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, bordered to the south by British Kenya. This small but strategically vital empire — Italian East Africa — gave Italian air and naval forces the potential to cut crucial Allied supply routes to Suez that trailed through the cramped passage of the Red Sea, particularly the southern entrance channel at Bab el Mandeb. Within the small port of Massawa in Eritrea, seven destroyers, eight submarines and two torpedo-boats of the Regia Marina lay ready for action against Allied merchant shipping, both within the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Furthermore, it was not merely the naval threat that concerned Britain: Italian army units stationed within the region were also theoretically powerful enough to conquer both British and French Somaliland, thereby posing a serious threat to the Sudan and Kenya. The Italians' one major problem was of supply to their distant colonies, the only effective route left open to them an aerial link from Libya.
While Italy prepared for her Middle Eastern and North African adventures, amongst the spoils of war from conquered Europe that Hitler could not readily claim were French and Dutch colonial possessions. Many such territories lay within the Pacific, a region considered by the Japanese as their personal area of authority. In order to allay fears in Tokyo over German trespass within their domain, the Japanese proposed a new pact detailing territorial claims and pledging conditional mutual assistance, particularly in the event of an attack on Japan by nations not already involved in the European or Chinese conflicts. Signed in Berlin on 27 September 1940, the Tripartite Pact declared that
The Governments of Germany, Italy and Japan ... have decided to stand by and co-operate with one another in regard to their efforts in Greater East Asia and the regions of Europe, respectively, wherein it is the prime purpose to establish and maintain a new order of things calculated to promote mutual prosperity and welfare of the peoples concerned.
Alongside the main treaty clauses were two Secret Supplementary Protocols exchanged between the three countries. The Axis powers had already determined to establish joint military and naval commissions as well as a joint economic commission within the clauses of their main treaty, the secret addendum stating more bluntly that the three countries would
... undertake to exchange from time to time without delay all useful inventions and devices of war and to supply one another with war equipment, such as airplanes, tanks, guns, explosives, etc., which each party may reasonably spare, together with technical skill and men, should they be required.
However, once again none of the parties bound by the Treaty appeared to view it as much more than a convenience for their own separate ambitions. Japan in particular, paranoid about German interest in the Pacific, was gratified when Hitler declared no territorial claim on the colonies of his recently subjugated foes (particularly the Dutch East Indies oilfields, which were crucial for Japanese imports of crude oil), although the German leader demanded guarantees from Tokyo that Germany could gain access to reasonable amounts of raw materials that might be found on the small islands.
While Berlin and Tokyo negotiated, Rome began to suffer the first of many unpredicted and devastating military upsets that would seem to characterise Mussolini's war. Italian possessions within the Middle East were staggering under the hammer blows of precisely targeted and extremely effective Allied attack, although not totally without retaliation. Four of the eight Italian submarines stationed in Eritrea had been accounted for within ten days of action. On 14 June 1940 Macallé ran aground, becoming a total loss. Two days later Galieleo Galilei made the sole sinking of a merchant ship by the group during June when she torpedoed and sank the 8,215-ton Norwegian MT James Stove. Captain Olaus Eliassen had been taking his tanker from Singapore to Aden, carrying 10,800 tons of aviation fuel bound for British forces, when Galieleo Galilei intercepted the ship and signalled her to stop. The crew were given an opportunity to abandon ship in lifeboats before two torpedoes sent her under. On 19 June it was Galilei's turn as the armed trawler Moonstone captured her following a surfaced gun duel in the Gulf of Aden during which the Italian commander and several men were killed. On 23 June, off the coast of French Somaliland, the submarine Evangelista Toricelli was scuttled after taking severe damage from the destroyers HMS Kandahar, Khartoum and Kingston, supported by the sloops Shoreham and Indus. During the fierce action, which comprised much surface gunnery, Shoreham was hit and damaged, while an Italian shell also hit Khartoum, splinters ricocheting against stored torpedoes which exploded and caused the destroyer to sink in shallow water off Perim Island. The submarine Galvani sank the 661ton Indian patrol boat Pathan with a torpedo before being sunk herself by the sloop HMS Falmouth the following day. The last success of an Italian submarine within the Indian Ocean was the sinking of Greek tanker SS Atlas on 6 September 1940, by a torpedo from Guglielmotti.
On land, Italian forces had greater success at first, moving from Ethiopia to attack British Somaliland and border posts in Kenya and the Sudan. The British evacuated the Somali capital, Berbera, on 14 August, Italian troops entering the town five days later. However, their success was to be relatively short-lived. In January 1941 the British and Dominion campaign to drive the Italians from East Africa began in earnest. Eritrea was invaded from the Sudan by largely Indian forces, while East African and South African troops attacked Italian Somaliland from Kenya to the south. The Indian advance into Eritrea was held up for most of February and March by the battle for Keren, which controlled the road through the mountainous interior that led to the Eritrean capital Asmara and the vital port of Massawa. However, to the south, Mogadishu, the capital of Italian Somaliland, was swiftly captured on 25 February, British forces pushing northwest into Ethiopia immediately afterwards. By 1 April the capture of Eritrea on the Red Sea coast of Italian East Africa was accomplished when Asmara was occupied, the strategically vital port of Massawa falling to Allied troops seven days later. On 6 April Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was taken, confining Italian resistance to the rugged northern highlands of Ethiopia.
Before the fall of Massawa the eight surviving Italian destroyers and torpedo-boats had been lost in action or scuttled in last-ditch attacks on Port Sudan and convoy traffic near the Eritrean coast. The Italian armed merchant cruiser Ramb 1 was located within the Indian Ocean near the Maldive Islands and sunk by the New Zealand cruiser HMNZS Leander as she attempted to break free of the East African débâcle and make for open seas and a potential raiding voyage. However, the four remaining Italian submarines had indeed managed to make good their escape. After fourteen unsuccessful patrols between September 1940 and February 1941, Archimede, Ferraris, Guglielmotti and Perla managed to escape from the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and eventually reaching Bordeaux, France, where they would join the Betasom command established within that port. With Italian naval forces either defeated or fleeing, the Allies once again considered the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to be secure.
The end of Axis power within the region was hastened after a pro-German coup in Iraq on 1 April 1941 had threatened Allied oil supplies, prompting British and Indian units to enter the country through the Persian Gulf, advance on Baghdad and occupy the city on 1 June. Later that month Allied troops invaded Vichy French Lebanon and Syria, concerned about growing German influence within the region. An armistice signed in the middle of July brought the fighting to an end, but paranoia over spreading pro-German sentiment in the Middle East had already begun to swell. During August the possibility of a pro-Axis coup d'état led Anglo-Soviet forces to invade and occupy Persia. A ceasefire was announced within four days, but violations of its terms led to Teheran being occupied by the British in the middle of September. By the month's end, with the exception of small parts of Ethiopia, the whole of the Middle East and East Africa, with its vital oilfields and pipelines, was now firmly under Allied control. Success was complete when the last Italian forces surrendered at Gondar in the northern mountains of Ethiopia near Lake Tana on 27 November 1941. The Italian East African empire had ceased to exist.
Tensions within the Indian Ocean were not completely assuaged by these events. In response to the British seizure off South Africa on 3 November 1941 of five merchant ships that comprised a Vichy convoy bound from Madagascar to Europe, two Vichy submarines were ordered by Pétain's government to operate against Allied shipping. The submarine Le Héros subsequently sank Captain This Jørgensen's 5,757-ton Norwegian steamer SS Thode Fagelund east of East London on 17 November. Travelling from Chittagong and Madras to Britain via Cape Town with a cargo of scrap iron, jute and tea, the steamer was hit by a single torpedo in the stern near No 5 hold and the subsequent damage caused her to sink immediately, although all 35 crewmen successfully abandoned ship and were later rescued. Initially their report to the South African authorities on the circumstances of the attack caused great suspicion in Cape Town, where the Allied representatives at first refused to believe that enemy submarines or aircraft were active in that area. The possibility of Axis mines within the region was also denied, and the suspicion of sabotage was unfairly placed on the ship's First Mate before Jørgensen categorically stated that it had been a torpedo that had hit his ship. His statement culminated with the assertion that after the initial explosion he had definitely spotted a conning tower and periscope to port of his sinking ship. Eventually Cape Town reported to the Admiralty that a Vichy French submarine had indeed torpedoed Thode Fagelund, their conclusion aided by knowledge of the Vichy convoy capture as well as intercepted radio communications between the French authorities and the convoy's escorting destroyer d'Iberville, which had been allowed to return to Madagascar. The submarines Le Glorieux and Le Héros were thought to have departed Dakar for Madagascar as part of the escort for a different convoy but had not returned with the recalled merchant ships and were therefore potentially active within the Indian Ocean.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hitler's Gray Wolves"
Copyright © 2004 Lawrence Paterson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Table of Ranks,
ONE The Genesis of German Far Eastern Involvement,
TWO Polar Bears at Cape Town,
FIVE Germany in Asia,
SIX Reinforcements to the Far East,
SEVEN The Atlantic Cordon Tightens,
EIGHT Combat in the East, Defeat in the West,
NINE Australia and New Zealand,
TEN The Rising Sun Finally Sets,
1. U-Boats for the Indian Ocean,
2. U-Boat Transport of Men and Matériel,