'Much if not most of the Navy's work goes on unseen'.
Mr. Churchill. At a conference of Ministers, 10th April 1943.
Map 42. The Operations of Disguised German Raiders
The Final Period, January 1 - May 31, 1943
At the beginning of 1943 ocean warfare in the sense in which it has so far been treated in these volumes, namely the guerre de course by enemy surface warships and disguised raiders, had almost become a thing of the past. No German or Italian warships had broken out into the Atlantic since May 1941, and the powerful foray by the Japanese into the Bay of Bengal in April 1942 was the only occasion on which they adopted commerce raiding on a big scale.1 Only two disguised raiders appeared in this phase, and the defeat of the Togo's intended break-out down the English Channel in February has already been described.2 The other German raider was the Michel (Raider H). It was told in an earlier chapter how, late in December 1942, she returned from the Indian Ocean to her favourite hunting ground in the Atlantic south of St. Helena, and that while there her captain received instructions to go to Japan instead of returning to western France.3 On the 3rd of January she found one more victim in the Atlantic, the British ship Empire March, after which she again rounded the Cape of Good Hope and steamed right across the Indian Ocean to Java.4 She then spent a few days in Batavia and Singapore before sailing up the China Sea to Japan. On the 2nd of March she arrived at Kobe. We will return to her final cruise later.
But if ocean raiding of the type which we had experienced from the beginning had by this time been defeated, in another sense the whole maritime war was now ocean warfare; for the U-boats were ranging far and wide in their endeavour to find lightly protected targets, and had in fact taken over the work of the earlier surface raiders in the more distant waters. To illustrate what this meant to Britain and her Allies we may remind the reader that in October
1940 we were giving anti-submarine escort to our Atlantic convoys for only the first three or four hundred miles of their journeys.5 Now not only were all the north and central Atlantic mercantile and military convoys escorted right through to their destinations, but anti-submarine escorts had also to be found for the remote focal areas such as the Cape of Good Hope, the Caribbean, off West Africa and Ceylon, and as far away as Australia.6 The effort which the newer, long-range U-boats forced us to deploy was far greater than had been needed to deal with the ocean raiders. We could never have enough escorts everywhere, so it was natural that a sudden appearance by U-boats in distant waters would still sometimes bring them substantial, if short-lived, success. When the air and surface escorts arrived, or were reinforced, things quickly became too hot for them and they moved elsewhere. Their excursions into distant seas regularly followed this pattern in 1943.
At the beginning of the year there were actually few U-boats in remote waters. Four were working in the Caribbean, two were off the coast of Brazil and one was cruising between Freetown and Natal in Brazil. In January a group of four large boats accompanied by a U-tanker left for the Cape of Good Hope. On Hitler's orders one of them, U-180, had embarked at Kiel the Indian nationalist leader Chandra Bose, who had reached Germany from Russia. The U-boat was also to carry a special cargo of constructional drawings and war material for the Japanese. She sailed on the 9th of February, and passed round the north of the British Isles into the Atlantic. After fuelling from another U-boat in mid-ocean she rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the 12th-13th of April, and met a Japanese submarine to the south of Madagascar on the 23rd. Cargoes were exchanged with some difficulty, owing to heavy seas, but by the 29th U-180 started her homeward journey with, among other items, two tons of gold aboard. She arrived at Bordeaux on the 3rd of July. Chandra Bose and his adjutant were landed safely in southern India, with the object of stirring up trouble for those who were trying to defend that country.
On reaching their operational area off the Cape the U-boats found that conditions had completely changed since the first group had achieved its big successes there late in 1942.7 Nearly all shipping was now convoyed through the focus, and air escorts were regularly present. From the Cape the U-boats worked up the east coast of Africa as far as Durban and Lourenco Marques, and it was off the former port that, early in March, U-160 sank four ships totalling 25,852 tons from a convoy. Though this success to the enemy was an
isolated one it caused the Prime Minister to be 'shocked at the renewed disaster off the Cape'. 'We simply cannot afford losses of this kind on this route' he minuted to the First Lord and First Sea Lord.8 The Admiralty replied at length, stating the policy for convoying shipping off South Africa, the surface and air escorts available and the reinforcements expected, and pointed out that, out of the vast volume of shipping passing through the focus, we had only lost seven ships since convoy was introduced. 'Nowhere', said the First Lord, 'either in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, off Freetown or the Cape are we sufficiently strong to be able to guarantee the safety of every convoy'. Mr. Churchill replied that he was 'sure the Admiralty, as ever, are doing their best'.9 The total successes of the U-boats in South African waters amounted to fifteen ships of 76,948 tons in February and March 1943.
Apart from operations in the North Atlantic, which Dönitz considered the only theatre where a decision could be obtained, the most substantial successes were achieved to the south of the Azores. It was there that U-514, returning from the Caribbean, sighted the tanker convoy TM 1 bound for Gibraltar from Trinidad on the 3rd of January. Five days later twelve U-boats had assembled, and between them they sank seven tankers.10 The group then refuelled from a 'milch cow' and continued to work in the same waters. They were still being aided by the enemy's ability to decypher certain Allied convoy signals. Towards the end of February the chance sighting of a convoy of empty tankers bound for Curacao led to a long pursuit in which three of the convoy and one U-boat were sunk.
In March the U-boats made a sudden return to the Caribbean, where they hoped to find that their recent neglect of those waters had led to a reduction of the American defences. Their hope was not fulfilled, but in an encounter with a convoy off French Guiana they sank two ships and damaged four others.
At the end of the month a few U-boats were sent to probe the defences off the east coast of North America. Their reception was not at all to their liking, for the surface escorts were now numerous and better trained, and the convoys had continuous air cover. Two U-boats were sunk by aircraft for a very small return to the enemy.
In April, before the Germans knew that the last group of U-boats sent to South Africa had not accomplished very satisfactory results, six more large boats were on their way to those same waters. They arrived in late April and early May, and worked in a similar fashion to their predecessors along the off shore shipping routes from Walvis Bay in West Africa to Lourenco Marques or the Mozambique
Channel in the east.11 Again they sought unescorted or lightly escorted targets, of which decreasing numbers were to be found. Their accomplishments were about the same as those of the previous group. Fourteen ships of 86,151 tons were sunk in those waters in April and May. Most of the group continued to work off the south and east coasts of Africa until August, when they started to withdraw eastwards to replenish at Penang. Sinkings in June and July were 67,000 and 89,000 tons respectively-almost all of them independents.
It was mentioned earlier that in August 1942 the Germans started a second blockade running campaign, which aimed to bring 140,000 tons of dry cargo and 70,000 tons of 'edible oils' back from the Far East, and to send to Japan certain cargoes of specially valuable machinery and warlike stores.12 This traffic continued until May 1943, when it died down; it was not renewed until the following autumn. The adventures of the blockade runners up to the end of 1942 have already been recounted.13 Here we will take up the story of those which had not yet reached European waters, or had not yet sailed outward-bound at the start of the New Year.
Home Fleet cruisers were sent to patrol off the Azores in February, when several homeward-bound ships were expected to pass through the narrowest part of the Atlantic; but they had no luck until the 26th, when an American Liberator flying more than 80o miles from its base sighted a suspicious looking tanker, which she reported and then shadowed. The cruiser Sussex, on patrol about 190 miles away, intercepted the Liberator s signals and closed her position. That evening she caught and sank the tanker Hohenfriedburg, an ex-Norwegian prize.14 The cruiser did not stop to pick up survivors for fear of U-boats in the vicinity. That her action was justified is shown by our present knowledge that three of them were escorting the tanker at the time, and that one actually fired a salvo of torpedoes at the Sussex. As a result of this success it was decided to put all operations against blockade runners under the Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. One cruiser was always to be kept at that base, and in March several Home Fleet destroyers arrived to give the patrolling cruisers anti-submarine escort. The revival of the use of the great naval base at Plymouth for ocean operations in the South-West Approaches to these islands is to be remarked. Since July 1940, when all our Atlantic convoys were routed north of Ireland15, Plymouth had been generally used only by Coastal Forces and Channel convoys, and as a base for special operations such as the raid on St.
Nazaire.16 Now that operation 'Torch' had succeeded, and our command of the air over the Channel had so greatly improved, Plymouth resumed something of its old importance, even though our Atlantic convoys were not yet able to approach these islands by the shortest and traditional route south of Ireland.
The successes achieved by our intercepting forces early in the year led the Admiralty to expect the enemy to change his methods, and to send out several blockade runners simultaneously from the Biscay ports, on the chance that some of them would get through. This expectation was strengthened by the arrival of four of his large 'Narvik' class destroyers at Bordeaux early in March. It seemed certain that their purpose was to escort outward-bound blockade runners, and possibly to meet those which were homeward-bound as well. In addition they might be used to attack our convoys running to and from Gibraltar, which therefore still had to be strongly escorted. The Admiralty's deductions were correct, except that the Germans used U-boats rather than surface ships to meet the inward-bound blockade runners. The U-boat command strongly disliked the diversion of their forces from offensive operations to the passive role of providing escorts, but the German Naval Staff had its way, and the practice became common at this time.
On our side the Commanders-in-Chief, Home Fleet, Plymouth and Coastal Command were all concerned in the efforts to catch the blockade runners. As soon as there were indications of activity, Coastal Command started to watch the Gironde ports, and warned all its aircraft flying on Bay patrols to look out for suspicious ships. On the 17th of March the cruiser Newfoundland and two destroyers were sent to Plymouth, all naval and air forces were brought to the alert, and systematic air searches were flown for several days. We now know that three blockade runners sailed outward-bound at the end of March. One (the Italian ship Himalaya) was sighted by an aircraft and forced to turn back, another (the Osorno) was sighted but got through, while the third (the Portland) was not sighted at all. The Osorno reached Japan, but the Portland was sunk in the Atlantic by the French cruiser Georges Leygues on the 13th of April.
At the time when these outward movements were taking place our intelligence indicated that certain inward-bound ships were approaching. Wide air searches were organised, British and American submarines were sent on patrol in the Bay, and the escorts of convoys running to and from Gibraltar were warned to be on the lookout. But it was a German U-boat which caused the first casualty. The Doggerbank was an ex-British prize, the Speybank. She was unexpectedly sighted by U-43 off the Canaries on the 3rd of March, a
long way from where she should have been. The U-boat misidentified her and sank her. The incident is of interest to show how the enemy, for all that he had very few merchantmen at sea, found it difficult to keep constant track of their positions. It will be remembered that we were constantly plagued by similar difficulties of identification, when our warships sighted suspicious vessels.17 A week after the sinking of the Doggerbank, American warships caught the Kota Nopan, an ex-Dutch prize, south of the equator18; but the Italian ship Pietro Orseolo, though torpedoed by an American submarine off the Gironde on the 1st of April, succeeded in making harbour with most of her cargo intact.
Our intelligence next suggested that the enemy might try once again to get his ships home by the Denmark Strait or the Iceland-Faeroes passage19, even though he had not sent blockade runners north-about since 1939. Admiral Tovey accordingly sent cruisers to patrol those routes, and air co-operation was arranged with the Iceland Air Force. These measures were quickly rewarded when on the 30th of March the cruiser Glasgow caught the Regensburg off the north of Iceland. The surface patrols in the northern passages were maintained for a few weeks longer, but indications that U-boats were moving that way then made their withdrawal advisable. Actually the enemy sent no more ships by the northern route.
April saw a second attempt to break out by the Himalaya, but she was again sighted, damaged by bombs and put back for the second time. Next on the 9th of that month, German destroyers were seen to have left Bordeaux and air searches were begun. The minelayer Adventure, which was homeward-bound from the Mediterranean, intercepted the Irene (ex Silvaplana) from Japan next evening off Finisterre.
The enemy's second blockade running effort now ended. In the sum its results were far less satisfactory to him than the previous campaign between April 1941 and May 1942. Of the fifteen ships which sailed homeward four were recalled to Japan and seven were sunk. Three-quarters of their total cargoes (122,900 tons) were lost. Of seventeen outward-bound ships, three were recalled or turned back, and four were sunk. Less than 25,000 tons of cargo were delivered to Japan. On our side the intelligence which gave warning of the enemy movements had been excellent, but it had not been found at all easy to catch the ships. Air searches were invaluable to20
locate them, but the Commander-in-Chief, Coastal Command, disliked using his precious long-range aircraft for such purposes at a time when they were badly needed to escort our convoys far out in the Atlantic. Casualties were very probable if they flew near to the Spanish coast, or if they made low attacks on ships furnished with powerful anti-aircraft armaments. But the Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff attached importance to stopping these leaks in the blockade, and whenever intelligence indicated the departure or approach of enemy ships the Admiralty continued to demand wide air searches. Nor were our patrolling submarines more successful than our aircraft in sinking the blockade runners. To illustrate the difficulty our aircraft experienced in identifying a suspicious ship with certainty, one blockade runner was sighted and photographed in the Bay; but when she hoisted the Red Ensign the aircraft forebore to attack. It was indeed soon found that air searches were indispensable to locate, and often to shadow the ships; but that interception by surface warships working in close co-operation with the aircraft was the only sure way of bringing the blockade runners finally to book.
Although we here have considered only the efforts made to deal with the blockade runners at the European end of their journeys, in fact world-wide steps were taken to track them. For example the cruisers of the South Atlantic Command repeatedly swept the southern Indian Ocean looking for the Dresden, which was believed to have left Saigon late in 1942. But she got through to Bordeaux safely. Indeed there is no doubt that we had to devote a big effort to preventing these comparatively few cargoes from reaching the enemy, nor that he exhibited considerable ingenuity in getting even a proportion of them through the oceans which we and our Allies were controlling ever more tightly.
In May, at about the time when the last of the blockade runners of the 1942-43 wave was approaching France, the last German disguised raider, the Michel, sailed from Japan. Although her cruise takes us beyond the period covered by this volume, we will follow her now to the end of her career. For her last cruise the Michel was commanded by the former captain of the Thor, whose ship was blown up in Yokohama in November 1942.21 She replenished in Batavia and then passed into the Indian Ocean, where she sank two ships.22 Because her Captain could find few targets there he next moved right across the Pacific. On the 11th of September the Michel sank a large Norwegian tanker, the India, off Easter Island. That was her last victim. In mid-October she reported herself to Berlin when about three days steaming from Yokohama. On the 17th of October she was sunk to the south of that port by the American submarine
Tarpon. A Japanese escort which should have met the raider failed to do so, but the Michel's captain certainly took few precautions for his ship's safety when passing through waters in which he must have known that Allied submarines might be encountered.
Thus disappeared the last of the long line of German disguised raiders. Her active career had been a long one, lasting from the 20th of March 1942 to the 17th of October 1943, during which she covered thousands of miles of ocean. In all she sank seventeen ships of 121,994 tons; but most of her successes were obtained under her first captain in the South Atlantic.23
We may here summarise the results of the enemy's guerre de course. During the period covered by this volume the only merchantmen sunk by German surface warships were in our Russian convoys; and even there it was the U-boats and aircraft which did by far the greatest damage. In the broad oceans from the 1st of January 1942 until the sinking of the Michel, German disguised raiders sank thirty-one ships of 207,437 tons.24 Japanese auxiliary cruisers added a further four ships of 29,033 tons. Although raiders caused us a good deal of trouble and anxiety, the total number of their victims forms but a tiny proportion of the vast allied military and mercantile traffic which traversed the oceans in that period. They never approached the U-boat, nor even air attacks and minelaying, in the losses they caused and the difficulties they produced. None the less the cost to the enemy of fitting out and operating such ships cannot have been heavy. As long as their expectation of life was reasonable, and a fair number of unescorted ships could be found, he was probably right in considering that they yielded a sufficient return to justify themselves. But by the middle of 1943 neither condition held good, and it is not surprising that the disguised raider now disappears from the scene.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (XVI) ** Next Chapter (XVIII)