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U-Boats off Natal


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.)


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



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  1. Richard Smith

    I am looking for information on a cargo ship called The Columbia that was sunk 200-300 miles off the coast of Durban Africa during WW2. The ship was carrying parts of planes. It was sunk by a German sub. My dad was aboard when it sunk. 2 different life boats were lost at sea. One for 3 days and the other about 10-12 days. They were picked up by a British ship. I am not sure of the date.

  2. Marlene Airey nee tredinnick

    My father was a survivor of the Nova Scotia disaster. What’s your connection. Perhaps we could
    Exchange stories

  3. Marlene Airey nee tredinnick

    Dear sir. My father WALTER LEALIE TREDINNICK was on the Nova Scotia. I’m of the understanding he was picked up after 36 hrs In the water.
    Any info on who rescued him & what happened after at a debriefing.

  4. Henrique Silva

    My childhood was in northern Mozambique,my father was in the timber business and use to buy timber from one German couple.They lived and worked on the other side of Porto Amélia(Pemba) bay.the place was called Mareja,and from the house on top of a big hill we could see the Indian Ocean on one side and the bay on the other side,the distance from the sea to the house was about 20 miles.Madam Von Fryer was a public servant in Germany and Capt. Buck was in the Kriegsmarine until 1937 when both were discharged of their jobs and travelled to mozambique.When Mozambique become independent we moved to Portugal and was there that the german couple stayed with us a couple of months in transit to germany,i was amazed that in 10 days the German embassy arranged housing for them in Germany and full retirement pension.They didnt return after the war to Germany but for me was clear their involvement in the Uboat supply of fresh water,fuel,perishables and information allied vessels,Portugal was neutral and surely the Portuguese military were in full knowledge of this situation but did nothing,like this couple i am sure others were in action in the Mozambique coast down to the South African border.Its the first time i share this story but reading the coments made me think that this information could be usefull to someone.Thank for reading it.

    Henrique Silva

  5. Bob Mossman

    I am looking for any information I can find on the sinking of the cargo ship S.S Gunda (based in Norway) between Madagascar and Mozambique on November 19, 1942. The Gunda was torpedoed. Although most of the crew perished, eight crew members managed to make it somehow to shore. Don’t know if they did this on a lifeboat or were picked up somehow. Would love to find information, perhaps from a newspaper of the day, on any survivors that may have reported on their ordeal. Also where the survivors landed. I do have information from the shipwreck website on the sinking of the Gunda. Reason for this research is that I am exploring the life of one of the men lost in the sinking — Ali Haji Mohamed, 29. Ali was in the British Merchant Navy and served as a firemen on the vessel.
    Many thanks.

    Bob Mossman

  6. Jacques

    Is there any way to make contact with the contributors to this thread regarding investigations into the SS Nirpura?

  7. Jacques

    Is there any way to contact the contributors to this thread to find out more about the research they have done on the SS Nirpura?

  8. Gordon Keith


  9. Gordon Keith

    Does anyone know where I can get scale drawings of the Jap Sub L-10 which operated an aircraft over Durban during WW2, and any info about where (Position and distance from Durban) this Sub was when it launched its aircraft, I am led to believe it flew over Durban twice and also other places. It would also be interesting to know if this Sub and the other four Jap subs also used L.M. (Maputo) at the U-Boat base on Inhaca, so far all I have read mentions very little about their supply ships.
    Anyone who has required info can reply to my E-Mail address.

  10. ~Ed

    Thank you for your comment Alastair, I found your personal war story on the theater of actions off our coast to be really intriguing. It has always been my personal perspective that despite the horrors and tragedy of war, individual people on both sides often remain mostly humane and caring. That is at once the supreme pity and tragedy of war! I know that this may sound like I am peering through rose tinted glasses, but I have always felt that at least the U-Boat arm of Germany was comprised mostly of honorable gentlemen Officers and Crew!
    I suggest you have a look at the sister article on the connection between a Sugar farm in Natal and a German U-boat!
    Kind regards, ~Arthur

  11. Alastair Turner

    Don’t know if you are interested but I was a child at my father’s hospital (Bethesda) when the S.S. Llandaff was torpedoed by U177 off the Zululand coast in Nov 1942. When the sub surfaced, the survivors thought that they would be machine gunned but they were asked if they had enough food & water. It was apparently also suggested that they tied their lifeboats together as the current would drift them onto the coast. They were however picked up by a British warship a few days later. One lifeboat however was separated and did land on the beach. A local walked/ran to the nearest settlement being Ubombo, on the Lebombo Mountain. A local bus (Uckerman Transport) was sent down to collect them. My father had built a new nurses’ ward so the military personnel were catered for. A four year old girl ended up with my two sisters and three officers were housed in our spare bedroom. Other civilians were housed by the few local inhabitants. A train transported them back from Mkuzi station to Durban a day or so later.

    Alastair Turner

  12. Patrick Voorma

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

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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

  16. 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?

  17. 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

  18. 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

  19. 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?

  20. ~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!]

  21. ~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)

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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

  25. ~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

  26. 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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