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.
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.
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.
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.
A similar scenario on the US East Coast >> Torpedo Junction