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The U-Boat War in the Indian Ocean

Introduction

By mid January 1943 the Anglo-American naval blockade of Germany had reduced, step by step, the stocks of those strategical materials the German were already short of (namely rubber, tungsten, molibdenum, copper, vegetal substances, quinine and some kinds of oils) and which were absolutely necessary to carry on the war. All these goods, uncommon in Europe and whose production was rather difficult, were on the contrary largely available in the Asiatic regions conquered by the Japanese during the war. The Indonesian Archipelago, the large and rich Dutch colony, invaded by the Japanese in the spring of 1942 after a rapid aero-naval offensive, could supply Germany and the Axis countries with the strategic materials they needed on condition that they were able to build ships fit for a voyage out and home on a very long and dangerous course.


The first naval missions

Since the beginning of the war several German vessels had managed to break the British naval blockade. Seventeen voyages had been made from 1940 to 1943 in order to connect the Japanese ports to the French basis of Brest and Bordeaux occupied by the Germans who had therefore been able to supply themselves with 104,600 tons of various goods and rare materials, The above figure, though not modest if related to the number of ship employed and to the difficulties met during the course, accounts only for 46% of the goods which had been forwarded from Japan. Twenty out of the thirtyseven German vessels employed to break the blockade had been intercepted, captured or sunk by the British fleet. The remaining 17 ships had managed to transport to Europe less than half of the 87,450 tons of rare rubber, 98,500 tons of copra and edible oils, 15,950 tons of non-ferrous metals and 24,475 tons of various goods (textiles, foodstuff, tea, coffee and pharmaceutical products such as opium and quinine) shipped from the Far East. In order to get an amount of precious goods a little over 100,000 tons, Germany had lost more than 50% of her ships and crews: a price which was estimated too high by Admiral Reader, commander in chief of the German fleet in those days. With that experience, Reader thought it was necessary to work out a new and safer transport technique, which could reduce losses. However, several months were needed before a new plan was conceived by the Kriegsmarine so deeply concerned with a very hard military situation which kept it engaged on several fronts.


The employment of U-Boats

The problem of linking Europe with the Far East was solved early in 1943 by Admiral Doenitz, the commander in chief of the German Submarine fleet. Doenitz suggested that U-boats having a long operating range should be employed, after been made suitable for transporting goods, to replace surface craft which had proved unfit for such a mission. His U-boats, having a higher tonnage, had obtained good results in the Indian Ocean since 1942 by sinking several British ships. Thus the Admiral felt he could grant, though recommending a good deal of caution, a regular linking service between the French bases and the ones held by the Japanese in Batavia and Penang (Indonesia). According to Doenitz the inferior capacity of cargo submarines would have been balanced by a reduction of risk. Morover a new fact had occurred in Germany by the end of January. Hitler had got a report from the Ministry of Industry which assured the discovery of new techniques enabling the production of a certain amount of synthetic rubber sufficient to meet, though at a very high cost, the national requirements. Since they were no more compelled to carry large quantities of rubber (the bulkiest and most required raw material till then) Doenitz's cargo U-boats were suitable for stowing a great deal of rare products (150 to 200 tons).

In 1943 the German war industry had devoured almost all the stocks of materials and strategic goods so that the shortage of tungsten, molibdenum (metals used to produce special steel) pewter, copper, vegetal fibres and quinine had become permanent. As a consequence there was the urgent need to employ the U-boats in order to face, at least in part, the supplying of the raw materials which were not available in occupied Europe. To solve the problem in a satisfactory way, on February 20th 1943, Admiral Doenitz brought Hitler's attention to a plan for building 200 submarines mod. XX which had been specially conceived for carrying goods. These new vessels were totally unarmed but could contain in their holds an 800 ton cargo and be built to have a range of 13,000 miles at a speed of 11 knots. Hitler, at first, approved the plan and gave the order to build 199 submarines (from U-1601 to U-1800) but, as the war situation got worse and the Atlantic submarine fleet was reduced by increasing losses, the Führer put off the plan, supporting instead the production of a modern fighting model (U-XXI). At the same time, Hitler asked Admiral Doenitz to find a cheaper solution to the Far East transport problem. Unwilling to remove from the operation theatre some good fighting vessels, Admiral Doenitz turned to Italy and proposed an agreement with Mussolini himself in order to exchange a number of submarines. Seven Italian ocean-going U-boats whose base was at Betasom (Bordeaux) were, according to Doenitz, too large and unfit for modern fighting techniques but they could still be converted into cargo ships. Mussolini aceepted the proposal and within a few months seven Italian vessels were sent to the yards for a total refit.

In the second half of May 1943, as soon as the hulls had been thoroughly refitted, the first Italian cargo submarine sailed from Bordeaux soon followed by some more (*), all awaited by a tragic doom. Two of them, in fact, (the Tazzoli and the Barbarigo) disappeared in the sea, soon after leaving, probably sunk by allied aero-naval forces, while the Giuliani and the Torelli, caught by the armistice of September 8th, when they were still in their Malayan port of call, were seized by German naval forces operating in that base.

The apparent misfortune of the Italian submarines gave, however, a good opportunity to the Japanese who could recover from the captured ships 355 tons of strategic materials shipped from Germany, that is 55% of the total cargo. On the contrary the 377 tons of rubber and the 184 tons of pewter which had already been stowed in the holds of the three Italian ships never got to Germany because the Germans didn't feel like using such worn out means of transport.

Towards spring 1943 the German navy could begin to rely on a good deal of new ocean-going submarines. They had a large fuel-range and were fit for linking Europe to the Far East without calling at ports. The vessels belonged to the IXD2 whose first models, deriving from the IXC series, had been put into service since the autumn 1942. Thus Doenitz decided to utilize a certain number of them. After their hulls had been modified in order to carry, in case of need, 315 tons of materials, the first submarines were ready for the long voyage in the spring 1943. In July of the same year the U-501 reached Penang where, in the meantime, Fregatten Kapitän Wilhelm Dommes (former commander of the U-178) had been appointed by Doenitz to the direction of the first south base for German submarines operating in the Indian Ocean. Dommes, who was a very good officer, made more efficient the activity of this faraway Kriegsmarine outpost trying to keep good relations with the harsh Japanese allie who always showed little sense of camradeship, giving negligible help to the German officer's work. Dommes had few means but he had a risky venture in mind. In fact he wanted to employ the U-boats coming from France not only to transport goods but also to practice privateering, on their return voyage, against the numerous and undisturbed Anglo-American convoys which need to cross the Indian Ocean.

German submarine U-852

German submarine U-852 with Kapitänleutnant Heinz Eick on board

If he had managed to give a hard and unexpected blow to the allied traffic, the Anglo-Americans would have been forced to move to that sector lots of aero-naval craft that had, till then, harassed the U-boats operating in the Atlantic. Admiral Doenitz as soon as he was informed about the plan, agreed to it and decided, in the meanwhile, to send to Penang 15 craft of different models. The U-177, 196, 198, 852, 859, 860, 861, 863, 871 followed by IX D2 510, by IXC 537, 843 and by VII F 059, and 1062 sailed from Bordeaux and from Brest between January and June 1943. As a result of the increased air and naval control operated by the Anglo-Americans and South Africans 8 vessels were lost during the crossing to the East. However the 7 submarines succeeded in reaching Malaysia were able to unload a fairly good quantity of materials urgently required by Tokyo i.e. precious metals, industrial equipments, precision machinery, aircraft engines (even jet engines) and projects for new military craft, submarines included. The German ships were immediately provided with fuel, water, foodstuff and stowed with the usual products the German industry greatly needed. In these difficult conditions, with a limited number of vessels, short of torpedoes and relying only on the insufficient Japanese protection, Dommes flotilla began, in echelon, the return voyage in the hope of sinking some isolated enemy ships. Unfortunately things went in a different way and all the skill of the German commanders was necessary to do the crossing towards the French Atlantic coast. In that period, in fact, the patrolling of the American aero-naval forces equipped with sophisticated sonar and radar had greatly increased even in the Indian Ocean. The first submarines which got to Bordeaux by mid June 1944 were the U-178 (Dommes ship handed over in Penang to Kapitänleutnant Spahr) and Korvetten Kapitän Ludden's U-118. Reassured by the success he had obtained Dommes sent five more cargo U-boats VI to Europe. One of the first craft, soon after sailing from Penang, had to rush back to the port because of a serious accident while the other four were to face a beautiful voyage. During the summer of 1944 the Allies, after landing in Normandy in June, had occupied the base of Bordeaux and almost all the French Atlantic coast depriving Germany of her safest naval bases on the Atlantic. The commanders of the German craft, as they arrived in the Gulf of Biscay after an eventful crossing, had no choice left but to head northwards, circumnavigate Great Britain and try to reach the distant Norwegian port of Bergen and then make for Hamburg: all that under the constant fire of the Allied planes and ships. Only one out of the five ships which took part in the enterprise reached the Scandinavian port early in April 1945, while the others were sunk or seized. However this one surviving ship was going to meet her doom before getting back to Germany. In fact after leaving Bergen on April 5th she was intercepted on the 9th by British planes in the Kattegat Strait and sunk with all her precious freight.

Though the military situation was worsening in the autumn of 1944, two more submarines sailed from Saint-Nazaire (still in German hands) directed to Penang. The two craft, the U-195 (mod IX D1) and the U-219 (mod U-XB did a terrible six months crossing arriving at the Indonesian base in January 1945. Soon after their arrival the Japanese military authorities invited the commander in chief of the German base, Dommes, to have his ships moved to Djakarta (Java), together with the other six which were already at anchor, as Penang had become too unsafe because of the more and more frequent raids of allied planes. From the base of Djakarta some submarines of Dommes' flotilla operated even in the vicinity of Australia. Particularly, the Korvetten Kapitän Timm's U-862 left the base on November 17th 1944 and - sailing along the coast - reached the east coast of Australia, where it sank on December 25th the cargo ship Robert J. Walker, 100 miles north of Gabo Island. Instead of coming back following the same route, Timm preferred to continue south-bound through the Tasman Sea and circumnavigated the whole Australian continent, arriving in the Indian Ocean. While going his long way back to Djakarta, he got the chance to sink the motor vessel Peter Silvester. The U-862 was the only German craft to violate the Pacific Ocean.


The epilogue

The tragic end was approaching. Dommes knew that he had to accept the advice which sounded like an order so he secretely summoned his officers to organize the return to Germany for all the remaining crews. The officer had already understood that the war was definitely lost for the Reich and didn't want his men to be taken to a prison-of-war camp either allied or Japanese. In fact Tokyo had broadcast in the previous days the news that, even in the case of Germany's surrender, Japan would go on fighting against the Allies till their total destruction. Thus a very short time was left. After he had overhauled the hull and the engines and shipped the, maybe useless, rubber and pewter cargo, Kapitänleutnant Eick sailed his U-510 from Penang on January 6th 1945 and thanks to his skill reached Saint-Nazaire by the end of April with his tanks almost empty. The German submarine however couldn't manage to refuel for the last leap to Bergen.



Fregatten Kapitän Wilhelm Dommes

The commander of the German garrison asked and obtained that Eick's men take part in the defence of Saint-Nazaire. The stronghold attacked by numerous American columns surrended on May 11th and, owing to a mocking destiny, lots of sailors - survived to a thousand dangers - fell on the field of this desperate battle. Just in those days Kapitänleutnant Oesten's U-861 which had also left Penang by the end of January berthed at the wharves in the Norwegian port of Trondheim when, on March 8th, she was cut off when Germany surrended.

A similar fate was to strike Korvetten Kapitän Junker's U-532 which had also sailed from Penang soon after the U-861. Caught by the end of the hostilities while he was off the Irish coast, Junker committed himself to the Allies in a port of the island. At several thousand miles distance the tragedy of the last German submarine belonging to kapitan Wilhelm Dommes' legendary South Flotilla was going to end. We are on the eve of Hitler surrendering. In the isolated and half destroyed base of Djakarta, bombed over and over again by the Allies, Dommes and a handful of officers and sailors who had taken shelter there with Kapitänleutnant Schneewind's (oddly he was born in Djakarta in 1917) U-183 started a desperate enterprise. He embarked on the submarine as many men as he could find among the ground staff coming from the former base of Penang then, after refuelling with the scanty stocks allowed by the Japanese, Schneewind went out to sea at dusk on April 21st. Dommes, without the knowledge of the Japanese, had not loaded a single gram of material in order to leave more room for his sailors and at the end he decided to remain on the island with a few men. Only twenty-four hours after leaving, at dawn, on the 23rd the U-183 (still sailing on the surface) is torpedoed and split into two parts by the American submarine Besugo that lay in ambush at the mouth of the Sunda Strait.
Thus the last German U-boat operating in the Indian Ocean is sinking, in a few minutes, dragging its whole crew to the depths of the sea.

Note

(*) The Italian submarines having their base in Betasom that underwent conversion works were seven: the Cappellini (1,060-1,317 of normal displacing); the Tazzoli and the Finzi (1,550-2,000 tons); the Giuliani and the Bagnolini (1,166-1,510 tons); the Barbarigo (1,063-1,317 tons); the Torelli (1,195-1,490 tons). The Tazzoli and the Barbarigo were sunk while the Cappellini after docking at Penang on September 10th 1943 was seized by the Germans and renamed U-IT24. After May 8th 1945 this naval craft was caught by Japanese and took the name of I-503. Also the Giuliani, arrived in Singapore late in summer 1943 (after the Italian surrender), was captured by the Germans and renamed U-IT23. This craft manned by a crew of Germans and Italians was sunk in the Malacca Canal by the British submarine Tally Ho. The Italian submarine Finzi that in September 1943 was still in Bordeaux, where the refitting works were in progress, was merged into the German navy and renamed U-IT21. The craft was never used as a freight ship and was sunk by the Germans themselves on August 25th 1944, just before the Allies arrival. From 1942 to 1943 the Tosi shipyards in Taranto designed and built two large submarines (the Romolo and the Remo) that had been planned for the links with the Far East. These two submarines (2,210-2,606 tons of normal displacment) were able to carry 610 tons of food and had a fuel-range of 12,000 kilometers. The Romolo and the Remo (the only craft built out of a lot of twelve) were lost on their first sortie, hit respectively by air and submarine allied forces in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Copyright © Alberto Rosselli 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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