- Wright, Ken
- Naval Intelligence, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
BY MAY 1943, Germany had lost the Battle of the Atlantic. U-Boat losses had reached an intolerable level for the Germans with the loss of 38 U-Boats for that month alone. British Coastal Command had put into operation a scheme of air/sea cooperation against U- Boats operating from French ports. Bombers based in the south of England in conjunction with Royal Navy corvettes and guided by centimetric radar proved deadly. It became imperative that wide ranging action against general allied shipping take place other than in the Atlantic. With the cooperation of the Japanese Government, Grand Admiral Dönitz authorised operations to begin in the Far East.
During late June and early July 1943, eleven long range U-Boats, including U- 168 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Pich, were to be sent to the Indian Ocean. The submarines were scheduled to sail from French, Norwegian and German ports just after the monsoon season was over in their new area of operations and were to arrive in late September. They became known as the Monsun Gruppe. They would operate from Japanese-provided bases at Penang, Jakarta and Sabang. All were fully loaded with supplies for the Far Eastern bases. Of the eleven, one was forced to return to port just after departure, five were sunk in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean. Only four actually arrived safely in Penang. Among them was U-168 which was one of eighty seven type IXC/40 submarines. Unfortunately for the Germans, their plans did not quite work out.
It was not through a lack of suitable targets or the ability and courage of the U- Boat Commanders and crew, but one of supply and re-supply. U-Boat crews made their boats work with what material was available. Two major problems all the German submarines had to face was the rate of failure of the magnetic pistol in the torpedoes, and the fact that tropical conditions affected U-Boat batteries. Other examples were the difference in viscosity and density of Japanese diesel oil to German diesel oil, anti-corrosion paint, grease, lubricating oil and suitable torpedoes of a type U-Boats could use. These were just a few of the problems the Germans encountered.
Relations with Japanese
There was also the inability or reluctance by the Japanese to enthusiastically pitch in and assist. This is not to say they did nothing. They did carry out their duties but it was quite possible they found the U-Boat too sophisticated to service and the Germans suspected that in some cases the Japanese work crews were more interested in spying than in helping. Certainly the Germans found them unreliable and difficult to deal with. The relationship between the two so-called partners was on a strictly ‘business only’ nature.
On a personal level, one German officer described the Japanese as either stony-faced or smiling. There was no in between. With rare exceptions, the Germans disliked them intensely.
The problems the Germans encountered with their reluctant host forced them to place a heavy reliance on re-supply from Germany, especially for suitable torpedoes. The U-Boat success in the Indian Ocean was only mediocre but the Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (BdU) decided in early 1944 to order the remaining U-Boats of the first Monsun Gruppe to return to Trondheim in Norway. Their orders were clear: bring back as much strategic cargo as possible, rubber, tin ingots, opium, quinine, tungsten and molybdenum to name a few, and expend any remaining torpedoes on targets of opportunity. Three of the remaining Monsun Gruppe U-Boats set out to rendezvous with their supply tanker Charlotte Schliemann for the long journey home. Because the Allies were reading and deciphering the Enigma coded transmissions, the supply ship was sunk on 12 February 1944 by a British destroyer before the U-Boats reached her. A reserve tanker, Brake, was sent but she was also intercepted and sunk.
Reports from the Far East suggested the strategic and propaganda advantages of continuing operations in the Indian Ocean and the possible inclusion of Australian territorial waters. Despite the small tonnage sunk, Dönitz decided to send more of his valuable submarines to the Far East.
Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Timm and U-862 left Kiel during May in a convoy of other U-Boats destined for the Far East and operations in the Indian Ocean.
Crammed into every available space in U-862 were tons of foodstuffs, ammunition, lubricants and torpedoes plus, as ballast, hundreds of flasks of mercury and a shipment of lead for the Japanese war effort. After an arduous but successful voyage, sinking five ships and shooting down a RAF Catalina of 265/H squadron on the way, U-862 arrived in Penang on 9 September, but with her engines in need of a major overhaul. Because Penang was not able to carry out repairs of this type, the submarine was sent to Singapore, where the fully-equipped former British Naval base (captured intact by the Japanese) was able to carry out the necessary work.
Operations in Australian waters
While he was waiting for his U-Boat to be repaired, Timm requested permission from the BdU to carry out operations in Australian waters. Whilst it was fully understood that any shipping sunk in this particular area would be of limited benefit to the Fatherland, the psychological value of having a U-Boat deep in the enemies’ territory would prove Germany’s Third Reich could and would strike her enemies no matter how far away they were. (This was to prove correct as Timm’s exploits around Australian and New Zealand waters did cause considerable consternation to the military authorities at the time). Pich requested permission to accompany Timm on the new venture. The BdU Commander in Chief of Submarines sent a message on 14 September to the base in Penang authorising both Timm and Pich to commence operations in Australian waters. It is possible the Japanese had been exerting some pressure in Berlin through diplomatic channels to have U-Boats operating around Australian territory, which would have benefited the Imperial Japanese Navy.
On 6 October 1944, Kapitanleutnant Pich in U-168 was the first to leave for offensive deployment in the Australian area. Timm followed after his repairs were completed on 5 November. Pich had orders to carry out a one day trial of his batteries on his way to Surabaya before beginning his new war patrol. As a matter of routine the Japanese authorities were notified of U-168’s departure time, course, destination, speed, arrival time and the fact that the submarine would be travelling on the surface. The Japanese transmitted this information to all their relevant naval units. However, the Allies had, by this late stage in the war, penetrated Japanese communications and passed on the information about the German submarine’s intended movements to a Dutch submarine already in the area. The information was so good that the Dutch commander was later to remark, ‘they were only five minutes late.’
Lieutenant-Commander H. Goossens, of the Royal Netherlands Navy Submarine Zwaardvisch (Swordfish) was on his fourth war patrol on 6 October. His submarine was part of the British 8th Flotilla based in Fremantle in Western Australia. Once he was in position, Goossens fired a spread of six torpedoes at U-168. From the U-Boat conning tower, a lookout spotted the torpedoes approaching and shouted a warning but it was too late. The first torpedo exploded in the fore part of U-168, the second hit the control room but failed to explode and the third hit the engine room, penetrated the pressure hull and also failed to explode. Some of the crew on the bridge were wounded or killed and U-168 sank to approximately 120 feet. Fortunately some of the crew managed to escape, including the Kapitanleutnant, but U-168 took 25 of her crew with her to a watery grave at the bottom of the Java Sea.
Twenty seven survivors were taken aboard the Dutch submarine but it was decided that there were too many to be able to safely continue the patrol. Four officers and a wounded crew member were selected to stay and the rest were taken to a local fishing boat that happened to be in the area so they could safely reach Japanese occupied territory.
U-168 had just started its fifth patrol the day before it was attacked. During his patrols, Kapitanleutnant Pich had sunk three British merchant ships, Fresno City, Haiching and Salviking, one Greek ship, the Epaminondas C Embiricos, and damaged the Norwegian ship Fenris as well as sinking six sailing ships.
Survivors become POWs
The survivors were made as comfortable as possible and the Zwaardvisch and her prisoners eventually berthed at the Allied Submarine Base in Fremantle, Western Australia on 26 October. Within a few days, the five German submariners were transferred to the Gaythorne Internment and Prisoner of War Camp in Brisbane, Queensland. Here they were interrogated by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS). This was an intelligence unit composed of language personnel from all the Allied Nations for the purpose of obtaining military intelligence. It brought together a series of steps taken by various headquarters to organise and systematise the exploitation of captured documents and the interrogation of prisoners of war. The interrogators worked on the assumption that information must be gained from a prisoner in the first two weeks: after that, it was not worth the trouble. They got to work on Pich and his crew straight away. What cargo were they carrying? Where were the minefields? What Japanese ports did the U-Boats use? What identification signals were used between the German and Japanese naval units? They wanted to know anything and everything.
Interrogation Report No. 676 Serial 837
An assessment of five of the prisoners compiled by the questioning Allied officers of ATIS at Gaythorne covered the following areas:
- Assessment of Prisoners.
- Sinking Action.
- Details of U-168.
- Operational Information.
- German U-Boat Bases: Batavia, Penang, and Soerabaja.
After ten weeks in Gaythorne, Kapitanleutnant Pich, Doctor Wenzel and Torpedo Officer Baenge were transferred to the POW internment camp at Dhurringile in Victoria, arriving mid-January 1945. Quartermaster Feiertag was sent to the nearby camp at Murchison and Oberleutnant Niemann arrived in Dhurringile in July. Pich had the dubious distinction of being the only POW U-Boat commander in Australia. Even though the submariners had been away from Germany for approximately eighteen months, to most prisoners they were a great source of information about the progress of the war and about the homeland. To the German POWs who had been there for most of the war, the news was disheartening.
Repatriation to Germany
When the war ended in Europe and Germany had surrendered unconditionally, ATIS interrogators tried once again to obtain details of the Japanese minefields and harbour defences from Pich and Feiertag in preparation for an island to island invasion of Japanese held territory. It was pointed out to the officers that because of the unconditional surrender, they were released from their oath of allegiance to Hitler and were now obliged to cooperate. The Germans pointed out that they had received no official authorisation to cooperate and it was still their duty not to reveal any secrets of an ally still fighting. The island to island invasion never took place as Japan surrendered in August 1945.
During WW2, approximately 1400 captured German servicemen and 220 merchant seamen including officers were transported to Australia and held in remote bushland POW camps. Here they lived with hopes, fears, frustration, power struggles, loyalties, betrayals and the heartache of not knowing what was happening back home to their families, friends, loved ones and their country. That they were generally treated well under the circumstances was evident by the many who returned to Australia to settle. On 21 January 1947, Pich and his crew, along with other German POWs, were repatriated in RMS Orontes from Port Melbourne to Hamburg via Ceylon and Portsmouth.
U-Boat Far From Home by David Stevens, Allen and Unwin, Australia. 1997 (Excellent detailed information about U-862)
- MacDonough, Frank. Personal Papers, West Essendon, Melbourne, Victoria.
- Gregory, Mac., email@example.com
- Knee, Arthur and Lurline. Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum, Tatura, Victoria.
- Mitchell, Brett. Strategic Historical Studies. Sea Power Centre, Department of Defence, Canberra.
- MilitaryHistoryonLine.com The Battle of the Atlantic.
- Winter, Barbara. Stalag Australia. Angus and Robertson, Australia. 1986.