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U-Boats off Natal

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The Local Ocean War, 1942-1944 by William Bizley

This article reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
Some sixty seven years after the event, a good deal of reminiscence is evident as participants, historians, and a fascinated public carefully re-follow the chronology of World War II. Amazingly missing from this recollection here in Natal is the War as it came to our own front door (if one may use that expression for a broad reach of the Indian Ocean.)



How extensive was the submarine warfare off Natal? Why was it not more publicly reported? How many Allied ships were sunk? Was an enemy submarine ever 'killed' off our coast? Were U-boats ever seen from the Natal mainland by amateur spotters? Did the Durban 'black-out' have any effect on this local naval war? Was the Nova Scotia (whose sinking off St Lucia led to the largest loss of life in our maritime history) ambushed as a result of 'fifth column' information?

It came as a great surprise to me to learn that the ship losses off the South African coast between 1939 and 1945 were not the half-dozen or so as I had casually believed, but (as C.J. Harris tables it in War at Sea) no less than 155.(1)

Of that, 103 were lost in the 13 months of the present study, the period during which there were 'U-boats off Natal', and which accounted for some 26 ships off the Natal and Pondoland coasts alone. The sea, it seems, was the major local theatre of South Africa's participation in the war.

But the concealment of this warfare was so effective at the time (for reasons good and bad, as will be discussed) that its size and its military implication have never really figured in the cultural aftermath. u504dpartenmissionle19a_thumb.jpg

The story has four major phases:

Phase 1: May to July 1942, when the Japanese attempt to hinder the Allied occupation of Madagascar.

They make sorties down to Natal, sink one ship, and bring about the notorious 'black-outs', the most tangible evidence to the population at large that something is going on.

Phase 2 sees the entry of Germany into the South African war at sea.

(I am thinking here of a geographically-specific expedition. In 1940, the German raider Pinguin has already done damage south of Madagascar.) In October 1942, Gruppe Eisbär (Polar Bear), comprising four U-boats and a fuelling vessel, commence their formidable operation off the Cape, and don't return to occupied France until Christmas of that year. During their campaign, U-504 hives off from the pack and moves north, where it is joined by three U-cruisers. This derivative of Eisbär plagues both the Natal coast and the Mozambique channel from 31 October to 4 December.

Off Natal itself they sink ten vessels and most notably the converted freighter Nova Scotia, whose demise results in the largest loss of life ever recorded in South African waters.

Phase 3 Then, in late February 1943, , when Natal has the unwelcome attentions of Gruppe Seehund, U-160, U-506, U-509 and U-516, plus fuel-carrying U-459 which is stationed south of St Helena.

Seehund only ceases its mauling of coastal shipping - including some seven victims off Natal - when it is recalled on 14 March. A strange tail-end to this phase is the solo exercise in April by the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci which sinks, amongst others, three vessels south-east of Durban.

Off the Natal coast, just south of St Lucia mouth and in sight of land, Kapitanleutnant 'Kanonier' Lassen in U 160 could, on 9 March 1943, take his leisure in the knowledge that he had received the congratulations of his Fuhrer and the award of Oak leaves - the second U-boat commander to be so decorated within sight of Natal.

Phase Four began in May 1943. Perhaps it was because of demoralisation in the U-boat campaign that this last group to operate off South Africa did not even bear a code-name. As it was, the successes of Eisbär and Seehund contrasted remarkably with what was happening in the Atlantic, when, between August 1942 and May 1943, 122 U-boats were lost, 55 managed to damage but not sink an Allied vessel, and 42 achieved no result at all.
Off Natal the greater effectiveness of coastal defence and surveillance was illustrated at the new gruppe's very first strike, when, at 2.12 p.m. on 17 May off St Lucia, U-198 hit the British Northmoor (4392 tons).
Within two hours the submarine found itself circled by aircraft and patrol boats. They pursued her right through till 8.45 p.m. on the 18th, when U-198 was engaged by an RAF Catalina of 262 (St Lucia) squadron. The plane illuminated the sea, says the U-boat's log, with a 'dazzling red light'. On this occasion, the U-boat's deck guns had the better of it, and the Catalina had to limp back to St Lucia on one engine. U198 u-198 A few more successes accrued to this small contingent:
U-198 got the B.I.Dumra (it was thought at the time that the submarine was Japanese) off Zululand on 5 June, and on 7 June, east of Durban, the 7 176 ton American vessel William King.
(Says the U-boat log menacingly: 'The captain did not come on board until my invitation was emphasized with a burst from an automatic pistol.')
A more dramatic success had fallen to U-178 on 1 June as it waited within sight of shore some 60 miles from the Durban Bluff for the approach of convoy CD.20, which had already lost two ships to the gruppe off Cape Agulhas. At last the convoy arrived, and, in the morning light, U-178 picked off the Dutch Salabangka (6 586 tons) 60 miles off Durban Bluff.
The strikes of early June 1943 were the last U-boat strikes close to Natal. The gruppe scored more successes off Mozambique, and pottered on looking for victims through June and July into August. For all their long stay, the tables have now turned against submarines. They maraud the coasts for three months, but only account for five ships off Natal, and lose one of their members in the attempt.

Thereafter, U-boat Command decided against further sorties along the South African coast.

Read about a  similar scenario on the  US East Coast >> Torpedo Junction

See also >>First Aid on a Sugar farm- the contribution of U181

15 comments

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  1. Patrick Voorma

    We found the HMS Otus, scuttled off Durban. http://www.calypsoushaka.co.za/submarine_durban

  2. Victor Whiteside

    Hi History Bluffs
    I am looking for any infomation regarding the siniking of the Liverpool Ship ” SS Nova Scotia 28th November 1942

    Kind regards
    Victor Whiteside

  3. Angelo Constantinou

    As a young historian full of enthusiasm I really do appreciate the time and effort that people put in to producing such article’s as I feel it expands our knowledge for a brighter future. Thank you very much.

  4. Jochen Mahncke

    Good Day,
    since publishing my book: U-Boats and Spies in Southern Africa four years ago, I have been fortunate enough to receive and find more historical stories about this subject.
    I am now planning an upgraded edition with double the number of pages and some photographs, Anybody interested please contact me for inclusion in a buyer’s list.
    Thank you very much, Jochen Mahncke

  5. Patrick Voorma

    I think the submarine you are refering to is the HMS Otus. http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-12SS-01O-Otus.htm I have been trying to find its exact position for some time now. We would be interested to dive on the site. We have tried several dives to find it but none successful thus far. Does anyone have any infomation as to where exactly she was scuttled off Durban?

  6. Lynette Rens

    As a child, shortly after the war my father used to take us down to Durban bay to look at the ships, particularly a submarine that had come in to the harbour during the war. I do not know whether it was brought in, or whether it surrendered. I’d be interested to know

  7. Jochen Mahncke

    Good Day, I am still looking for more stories of contacts by German U-Boat crews along our coast during WW II for my updated book version: U-Boats and Spies in Southern Africa.
    Any help will be greatly appreciated.
    Please also check out my website: Jochen Mahncke

  8. Alan Harris

    The number of casualties given for the SS Nirpura sinking varies in different sources however what is interesting, and I believe unfortunate, for an incident that occurred south of Port St. Johns is that those lost are commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial in the former Burma. Are readers aware of any memorials along the South African coast to ships and men that were lost as a result of enemy action?

  9. ~Ed

    Hennie Heymans says:
    August 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    I must confess I am not an expert on South African / German maritime history – my interest lies more with our National Security History in general.

    But never the less I am interested in the subject.

    So much has happened that has not been recorded.

    The Germans in South Africa were interned at Baviaanspoort.

    After the war one of the inmates Mr Gerd Sauer settled near the Baviaanspoort Prison and we shared an interest in model railways.

    He told me that just before he was interned, he was a sailor in the German Merchant Marine. His father was in the U-Boat Service.

    One night, in the Indian Ocean more or less opposite Abyssinia their ship stopped next to a German Submarine. His father was on the Submarine and that was the last time he saw his father.

    Mr Sauer has unfortunately passed on – what a pity that when we were younger we did not record the accounts of other eyewitnesses! [I have now bought a digital recorder – to record the experiences of eyewitnesses to historic events!]

  10. ~Ed

    Hennie Heymans says:
    August 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm (Edit)

    This is very, very, good!

    I have also liaised with the author of a book on German Subs along our coast during WW2 – Joachen Mancke – and I also have Col DH Solomon’s account of Subs along our coast during WW2!

    Col Solomon was station commander at Umhlali. He gave accounts – unpublished to the public at large – of what did happen during the War and SAP/UDF/SAAF cooperation & successes.

    There are so many threats that we “amateur armchair historians” have to pull together in order to get a completer and clear picture of what really happend!

    The SAP was quite involved with watching subs right up to the middle 1980′s (Ops Peter and Ops Akkedis en Z Guards employed by the SAP SB.)

    Hennie Heymans (Brig SAP + SSSC Ret)

  11. Adrian Rowe

    Hi Arthur & Johan
    The question is interesting as it was generally not known that so many ships were in fact sunk of the Natal coast during the duration of World War II. Johan specified off “Mtunzini” which is at latitude 29º S. The well known passenger ship Nova Scotia (6,796 tons) was sunk on 28 Nov 1942 but further north at about latitude 28º 25’S off St Lucia. There were actually 5 ships sunk nearer latitude 39º than the Nova Scotia, firstly the Mundra on 6 July 1942, then the Mendoza (8,233 tons) on 1 Nov 1942, followed by the James B Stevens (7,176 tons) on 8 Mar 1943 and the Aelbryn (4,986 tons) on 11 Mar 1943, and lastly the Northmoor on 17 May 1942. The first two were sunk not far offshore whereas the last three were far from the coast. The James B Stevens & Aelbryn were interestingly sunk by U-160, the same U-boat, captained by Kapitänleutnant Georg Lassen, which was responsible for the sinking of the SS Nirpura on 3 Mar 1943 on which my grandfather, Adrian Morrison Howie, O.B.E. (Mil) lost his life.
    I have not researched any of these ships and am therefore unable to give numbers who lost their lives. I can say that the Nova Scotia was carrying about 765 Italians and 134 South Africans apart from her crew. The South Africans were returning home from action at El Alamein, and but for a problem obtaining his travel papers, Brian Godbolt a former Kloof resident would have been on board. There were only about 192 survivors and this sinking was recorded as one of the worst off the South African coast during World War II as far as loss of life was concerned.

  12. Arthur Fregona

    January 21, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Hello Johan’

    Thank you for this comment and for starters, I can only infer that the boat you are referring to must have been the Nova Scotia (click the first hyperlink in the article) Presumably a denizen of Mtunzini, which is relatively near to the site of the Nova Scotia sinking, has made reference to it? By the way Uboat net holds extensive information on this topic (see under links)
    Let me know whether you are able to gather any more information! Happy hunting!

  13. Johan Botha

    What happened to a boat that was sunk at the coast of Mtunzini 160 km north of Durban. Your comment will be highly appreciated.
    the name of the ship and how many lives were lost. Thank you
    Johan

  14. ~Ed

    Adrian, I want to take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely for your comment on Bill Bizley’s article on “U-Boats Off Natal” which I have published and would invite you to consider perhaps submitting a supplementary anecdotal article of your own. Because of your direct link to this event through your grandfather and the subsequent research you have done I would personally welcome an article of this nature!
    May I twist your arm in this respect? Please do let me know your thoughts on the matter. I would consider it a signal honour to welcome you aboard as a contributor!

    Looking forward to hearing from you!
    Arthur Fregona
    Editor

  15. Adrian Rowe

    This is a most interesting subject as I have a personal interest, because my grandfather, Major Adrian Morrison Howie O.B.E. (Mil) was aboard the SS Nirpura when she was torpedoed by U-160 which was captained by Kapitanleutnant Jorg Lassen on 3 March 1943 at about 21h30. As a result of this interest I have been researching Convoy DN 21 which left Durban in the early hours of 3 March 1943 and have accumulated a considerable amount of information including the names of all those who lost their lives that night on various ships within the Convoy. I have also produced a map of the area which I have overlaid with the grid system used by the German Navy and have plotted the course of U-160 off the Natal coast with information extracted from her ship’s Log book.

    Adrian Rowe

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