Bizley - 13 September 2004
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'
claim that the following article has all the answers to these
questions. With our attention drawn to theatres of war in
North Africa and Italy, 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.
where the war at sea is concerned, to claim a 'theatre' in
any provincial or national sense must be tenuous. By far the
greatest number of sinkings were (despite the 'constant stream
of false alarms' from spotters on the coast(2)) far off territorial
limits. Indeed, Natal's one accredited 'kill', RAF Catalina
C/259 versus U-197, happened some five to six hundred miles
east of Natal and south of Madagascar. Nevertheless, it was
a St Lucia-based aeroplane that was involved, it was coastal
radio intelligence that located the
U-boat, and it was Durban-bound shipping that it was busy
attacking. I will claim, then (with perhaps a whiff of authorial
licence) that such incidents legitimately tell the story of
the naval action off Natal.
has four major phases. We start with 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
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.
in late February 1943, comes phase 3, 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.
4 sees the final U-boat gruppe from Lorient arriving off Natal
on 17 May 1943, not to return to Europe until 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 decides against further
sorties along the South African coast.
how exposed did the port city of Durban feel after February
1942 and the fall of Singapore? Not greatly, if the social
pages, the John Orr's and Greenacre's adverts, and the reminiscences
of servicemen are to be believed, the Mediterranean being
now closed to Allied shipping, Durban was the best-equipped
port on the route to the East, and the last 'swinging' haven
- for thousands of soldiers and sailors - before they got
down to the business of war, whether in the East or in North
Africa. Those more perceptive as to the sheer emptiness of
the Indian Ocean once Singapore had fallen might have cheered
themselves up with the knowledge of the boom at the harbour
mouth, or the depth-charge throwers which guarded this, the
only Union port whose dry-dock could accommodate a battleship.
Did the social whirl engendered by the wartime traffic blot
out the military facts? To quote War in the Southern Oceans:
'As the Japanese spread. . . over Malaya and the Indonesian
Archipelago, the Union had to face the possibility of serious
invasion, with the disconcerting premise that the coast batteries
and Seaward Defence Force were quite incapable of resisting
it.'(3 ) The fragility of Durban's wartime glamour was evidenced
in the tempting array of moored ships out in the roadstead,
averaging 20 a day in 1941 and 50 a day in 1942. The Japanese,
who had bombed eight merchant ships in Port Darwin on 19 February,
would not even have to penetrate the harbour!
south Atlantic movements of a Vichy French naval squadron
gave the first hints that the Axis might use the chief port
of Madagascar, Diego Suarez (a 'Vichy' possession) to complete
their grip on the Indian Ocean. Prime Minister Smuts decided
he must occupy the island, and a mostly South African force
took Diego Suarez on 6 May 1942. But, following their Singaporean
triumphs, the Japanese did not leave this uncontested. Natal's
coastal command must have felt distinctly anxious when it
became known that a Japanese submarine strike force (under
Admiral Ishizaki, operating south of Aden) had sneaked a midget
submarine into Diego Suarez, and on 29 May inflicted some
humiliating damage, mauling the battleship HMS Ramillies so
badly that it had to be towed to Durban for repair. The Japanese
action delayed the complete occupation of Madagascar until
Admiral Ishizaki, sitting in submarine I-10 in the Mozambique
channel, who instructed a reconnaissance aircraft to fly over
Durban on the night of 5 June? This small incident provoked
the 'black-out' procedures that were to become the main evidence
of a local war for the average Natalian. On this night the
nervous captain of the Durban-based battleship Valiant complained
to C-in-C Durban that though he had observed black-out procedures
in his corner of the port the brilliantly-lit city abated
not a jot in its hospitable mood. (The captain had every right
to feel jittery. Valiant was under repair in Durban as a direct
consequence of Italian 'human torpedoes' off Alexandria in
December 1941 !(4)) So, reluctantly and with not much conviction,
Durban had to submit to a black-out of 20 miles' radius. On
4 July, another unidentified aircraft was observed, but as
it turned out the black-out damaged the home side rather more
than the enemy. Naval patrols couldn't find port, Anson aircraft
couldn't find their landing-strips, and in another (somewhat
suppressed) incident, the Bluff gunnery brought down one of
the Durban-based planes. However, the sinking of the 7 341
ton Mundra off St Lucia on 6 July meant that the Japanese
threat couldn't be discounted, and the black-out remained
in force. (I shall speculate later, however, that the Durban
black-out did not affect the course of the war at all. Perhaps
it strengthened moral fibre on the home front!)
and the Ocean War
of 1942 another little-publicised discovery must have raised
stress levels at Command HQ. A camouflaged cache of gelignite
and detonators was found in the basement of a house in Oriel
Road, Wentworth. As G. C. Visser records in OS: Traitors or
documents seized was one from which it appeared that a plan
was afoot to blow up the graving dock in Durban harbour. Later
enquiries satisfied us that these two men (i.e. lodgers of
the house) ran a very efficient spy system in Durban and had
gathered information about ships and shipping from contacts
in the dock area. It is more than likely that this cell was
responsible for collecting the information relating to the
South African Expeditionary Force that sailed for Madagascar
in April 1942.(5)
hardly avoid considering, then, the effect of espionage on
the local naval war. The geographic base for such activity
was neutral Mozambique and of course the 'spy capital' of
southern Africa, Lourenco Marques. What better story for television
transcription than the psychological saga that was played
out there between the 'handsome, pink-cheeked, fair-haired'
Dr Luitpold Werz, sometime Consul for Germany in Pretoria
and now in Lourenco
Marques, and his opposite number for Britain, none other than
Malcolm Muggeridge. Visser observed at first hand the 'black
comedy' at the Polana Hotel:
struck me as ironical to see them sharing the grillroom or
bowing faintly to each other in the corridors, or stiffly
ignoring each other when they found themselves simultaneously
engaged in the gentlemen's cloakroom. . .(6)
the war Visser was a member of the Barrett Commission, instituted
by Smuts to search military records in Germany and get some
evidence of the extent of espionage activity in wartime South
Africa. In this capacity, Visser compiled eleven volumes of
translated, decoded transcriptions of the 'Werz telegrams'
(or Leo Reports) which had been somewhat casually dispatched
through the Lourenco Marques post office.
it to say that the post-war Smuts government was not eager
to pursue the Barrett report and stir up pre-election enmities.
So when the change of government came in 1948, it is hardly
surprising that the report went strategically missing. However,
according to Visser, the United Party MP for Salt River, Harry
Lawrence, was able to supply the missing volumes of the transcribed
telegrams. Strangely enough, it seems that they were eventually
scrutinised by none other than the first Nationalist Prime
Minister, Dr D.F. Malan, whose 1957 memoirs sum up 'the German
Documents' as extraordinarily comprehensive. No message from
there or back, is apparently omitted. The picture is complete.
'(7) With that, he (Malan) handed them to the State Archivist.
Extensive enquiries today in 1994 suggest that they are not
to be found. Surely it does not twist any ideological arm
to say, fifty years later, that if they were found, they would
put an end to much conjecture.
to doubt that the spying was as influential as Visser claims.
He says of the documents: 'They were revealing and indicated
to me exactly how much had been given away by careless talk.
. . ,(8) Writing in 1976, Visser could surely have afforded
some detail. He could have told us whether the attacks on
convoy DN.21 out of Durban or CD.20 into Durban in 1943, were
consequent on messages from Werz. After all, he is very circumstantial
in the case of the Madagascar campaign. Werz became possessed
(fortunately too late to be of effect) of very precise information
as to the task force that had assembled in Durban. The details
were given on micro-films:
about the convoy must have been gathered and dispatched to
Pretoria before the ships left Durban. Information at my disposal
later showed that a messenger had arrived at the house of
a professor of the University of Pretoria with the details
of the expeditionary force that had assembled at Durban. This
learned gentleman was not only a prominent member of the OB
(Ossewabrandwag) but also a very good photographer.
no other instance so specific? The lack seems to bear out
the somewhat notorious footnote to p.159 of War in the Southern
Oceans, recording the German complaint of their inefficient
South African agents, whose chief 'called himself Hannibal'
and whose 'identity is known'! Well: what was known in 1961
seems not to be known today. It might be mentioned that War
in the Southern Oceans was prepared by 'The Union War Histories
Section of the Office of the Prime Minister of the Union of
South Africa', and there is a possibility that in 1961 it
was not politic to declare the identity.
be as careful, of course, not to underplay the effect of spying
as I am to deny its ultimate influence. There is no question
that German Radio was able to reveal to its (largely unconfessed!)
South African audience some remarkable home truths. Rev. Arthur
Atwell of Cape Town recalls how, in 1944, he was - as a commissioned
officer in the Royal Navy - assigned to a convoy assembling
in Durban. The convoy was under such secret orders that next
of kin did not know where one was, and the men on the ships
had no idea of their destination. Yet the night before they
sailed, Zeesen wished them bon voyage for their trip to Alexandria,
and regretted that many of them would not make the journey.
The identification of the convoy, its departure date and destination,
was completely accurate, and indeed it was to find itself
harassed by submarines north of Mombasa.
I must note that no U-boat log, as researched from those vessels
operating off our coast, appears to record a predetermined
ambush as by instruction. If Janie Malherbe is correct to
recall how the Nova Scotia was sunk in November 1942 as 'the
result of information from a South African German spy' who
later 'unblushingly revealed his horrible deeds in a South
African Afrikaans periodical under a prudent pseudonym. .
.', the fact
remains that the U-boat captain (Gysae) misjudged the Nova
Scotia and its mainly Axis complement of internees (he thought
it was an 'auxiliary cruiser') in a way that hardly suggests
prior knowledge. For me, a clinching argument lies in the
fact that that succulent bait, the congested roadstead outside
Durban, was simply never touched. A dozen years after the
war, a U-boat captain was interviewed about this and he apparently
answered with surprise, 'They never told us about that. .
. So, even if 'they' were the Werz network, they failed
to put U-boat Command in touch with such a prime naval location.
only the Werz telegrams could ever really resolve the issue.
Ishikazi did not make his presence felt after July, and we
come now to the second phase, the entry of Germany into South
African waters in October 1942. The date is easily explained:
by July of that year American coastal defences and radar-assisted
convoys had contained, if not quite defeated, the submarine
menace in the Atlantic. Admiral Doenitz, meditating in his
Paris office on unemployed U-boats - when he wasn't listening
to organ recitals at Notre Dame - decided to send a pack of
the 750-ton vessels withdrawn from the American coast down
south of the equator, and so he set up the operational Gruppe
Eisbär. Cape Town was rather more distant than New York,
and there is not much room in a 750 ton vessel). One sailor
way you looked. . . torpedoes were lying about, big hams
and flitches of bacon hung all over the place, long fat pieces
of polony dangled here, there and everywhere. You knocked
your legs against piles of tinned stuff, and stumbled over
bags of sugar. . .
campaign started with the biggest single punch that unprepared
South Africa ever received by sea. The country's comparative
innocence is suggested by a night photograph - reproduced
in War in the Southern Oceans - taken through one of the Eisbär
periscopes. It shows a brilliantly-lit Sea Point and the outline
of Lion's Head. It was not surprising, then, that between
7 and 11 October 1942, within a range of thirty to ninety
miles off Cape Point, no fewer than fourteen ships (100 902
tons) were sunk in four
did not have it all its own way: it lost U-179 to aircraft
off Dassen Island, and it provoked such a vigorous coastal
response as to make the submarine captains abandon the plan
to attack the Union's harbour approaches.
this first round, a splinter from Eisbär (U-504) was
joined by three newly-arrived U-cruisers to take the operation
up the east coast. At 1 616 tons apiece, and with a range
of 23 700 nautical miles, the U-cruisers seemed suited to
the job. The literature, however, finds them to have lacked
manoeuvrability and to have been less successful than their
smaller counterparts. Seeing 'the other side' on these matters
is rather like trying to get a sympathetic notion of the Great
White Shark. One learns that a lot had to come together before
a U-boat could get a strike, especially if it must not reveal
itself by the fluctuation of the swell. (See U-178's log for
28 October off Agulhas: two torpedoes fired uselessly in the
swell at a 10 000 ton freighter, and a whole day spent following
a tanker without getting a chance.) Moreover, unlike the Great
White Shark, a submerged U-boat was no great swimmer, moving
at only 7.3 knots maximum. The hunter could become the hunted
in a moment: off: Tenerife one was destroyed by an armed trawler.
Natal might well have had a tremor of apprehension if it had
known that on 31 October 1942 its balmy land was first sighted
by a U-boat. If our 'local war' had a more vivid memory or
literature, one might well say that 'the hour had come'. A
certain complacency was understandable, perhaps: Natal was
basking in the reports of 'Alamein' where, between 23 and
25 October, the tide of war seemed conclusively to have turned.
So, even if they had been publicly disclosed, the lonely sinkings
200 miles off Durban of Empire Guidon (7 401 tons) and Reynolds
(5 113 tons), both falling to U-504 on 31 October, would not,
perhaps, have stirred local consciousness.
the 8 233 ton Mendoza (now under British colours.3) was sunk
on 1 November only 70 miles east-north-east of the Bluff,
the Port Natal defence mechanism sprang into action. Ten ships
were brought in from the roadstead, the black-out was tightened
up, and cars were banned from the beachfront. (Several authorities
cite the Mendoza as the nearest-ever sinking to Durban, but,
as I shall suggest later, this seems disputable.)
now began something of a psychological warfare between the
South African Naval Command and the popular press. How much
should be made known about the U-boat war? The question hinged
on the distinction between information on submarine strikes
and information on shipping movements. Surely one might have
the former without necessarily having the latter. Readers
of The Natal Mercury saw every day a welter of Reuter reports
on U-boat actions in the Atlantic and the North Sea. Such
briefings would persuade the public of the very real danger
that prevailed and of the vulnerability of the merchant fleet.
But the South African naval authorities seem not to have made
such a distinction, and (insofar as one can reconstruct their
policy) would have preferred that there be no reporting of
U-boat strikes at all. Even bearing in mind South Africa's
fifth column activity, this was surely counter-productive.
A Mercury columnist writing on 3 November- nearly a month
after Eisbär's big strike off Cape Town - is obviously
a victim of this attitude. He scoffs at German Radio's claim
that 'U-Boats are operating successfully against Allied shipping
east of the Cape of Good Hope', and accounts for it as 'an
indication of Axis nervousness. . .' But then, as if uneasily
aware that it might not be the Axis who are laundering the
news, he says: 'It would be unwise to dismiss altogether the
claims made by the enemy'. That the claims of the enemy were
unfortunately true was borne out that week by the arrival
of survivors from the Mendoza. This led to a strongly-worded
editorial in the Mercury for 7 November, entitled 'Naval Secrecy'
be difficult to imagine a more evasive or misleading statement
of policy than the one issued by the Naval Authorities to
explain their secrecy over recent shipping losses in South
African waters. There can be few people in the Union who do
not know of these losses. Hundreds of letters from survivors
have passed through the post; survivors are walking - and
talking - in the streets, and the news has been freely broadcast
from Zeesen . . . If enemy submarines are operating in South
African waters it is right and proper that the people of this
country should be told of the fact. . . The people do not
need to be comforted with soothing communiques. This is not
a private war for the Army and Navy. It is a people's war.
. . The present secrecy. . . drives people to listen to German
is possible, I believe, that the policy of secrecy made the
populace more casual, not less, as to the movements of shipping.
The signs that went up around Durban, 'Don't Talk About Ships',
merely increased a rumouring environment. But of course, for
the historian, the chief casualty is the events themselves.
Because of this policy some of the most formidable duels ever
fought in Natal warfare, and which might well rank with Shaka's
victory over Zwide or the defence of Rorke's Drift, have simply
passed into oblivion.
duel was that between the Durban-based destroyer HMS Inconstant
(fallacious name!) and U-181, off Port Shepstone on 15 November
1942. It seems amazing that our only documentation for this
comes from the U-boat commander's log. Kapitanleutnant Lüth
- notorious amongst crews for insisting that their pop music
be interspersed with classical records, and that there should
be no pin-ups in crew's quarters - had enjoyed a propitious
14 November. The day before group-leader U-178 had sunk the
British Louise Moller, 240 miles south-east of Durban, and
the campaign was going well. Now, lying off Port Shepstone-(which
Lüth observed as 'brilliantly lit up' ) came a radio
message: he had been awarded Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross
by a grateful Fuhrer.
So - for
the record - on 14 November, 1942, within sight of Port Shepstone,
an officer of the Reich received Hitler's congratulations
and the decoration of Oak Leaves. But Lüth was not to
enjoy these pleasures for long. At dawn next morning came
an aircraft warning, and at 9.36 a.m. U-181 and HMS Inconstant,
five miles apart, spotted each other. The tension of the sequel
comes out in Luth's report. First, he dives to 390 feet to
avoid the initial depth charge from Inconstant. Then 6 depth-charges
are counted much closer, and he must dive further to 460 feet.
Then come ten so close that he must take his submarine below
safety level to a dangerous 525 feet below surface. By 11.29
Inconstant is very much master of the situation. After another
salvo Lüth records: 'when the starboard motor does more
than 70 revs the boat clatters badly.' Those men who are off
duty must breathe through potash filters, to keep down the
carbon dioxide. After a while, a venting valve fails, and
the smell of foul gas from the bilges pervades the submarine.
At 1.00 p.m. Inconstant is back on track with another six
charges, and Liith, now down to 573 feet, reports a 'disquieting
creaking and cracking all over the boat'. But when an exit
hatch starts to leak 200-300 litres of seawater per hour,
there is nothing for it but to rise and take some of the pressure
off the stressed vessel. Fortunately, at 2.30 p.m. Inconstant
loses contact, and by 6.30 p.m. U-181 can rise to 250 feet.
But back comes the most constant Inconstant: the submarine's
hydrophones pick up the beat of her propellers. So the war
of nerves goes on. At 7.04 p.m. come four more depth charges,
the 'closest of all'. But Inconstant has now run out of charges,
and turns the battle over to her sisters Jasmine and Nigella.
They don't seem to be as convinced of the 'contact', and at
11.59 p.m., C-in-C Durban calls off the search.
of course one of the frustrations of submarine war that an
attacker like Inconstant would never know how close she had
come to destroying the Fuhrer's latest hero, Wolfgang Luth,
the second most successful U-boat captain of World War 11.15
Perhaps there was some recognition of the encounter in the
award to Inconstant's captain, Lieutenant-Commander W.F. Clauston,
of the Distinguished Service Cross the following year .
With immense relief Lüth surfaced at 1.30 a.m. on the
16th, and moved south to carry out repairs. His log is graphic:
every nut on the boat seemed loose enough to come off by hand,
as in fact one did. Fifteen tons of water had to be pumped
out to get the boat on even keel. The repairs must have been
well executed: back off Natal, on 20 November, Lüth takes
the 7 000 ton tanker Scottish Chief, carrying10000 tons of
crude oil. And, in another nasty twist of submarine warfare,
the nearby American ship Pierce Butler (7 191 tons) puts up
such a graphic radio report on the explosion of the tanker
that she gives away her own position, and is shot up by U-177.
Fortunately all 93 of her crew are saved.
by such blows, the Durban port authority closed the harbour
for a week. The U-boat pack, noticing the quiet, headed north
for Lourenco Marques. Survivors of one of Luth's sinkings
in the Mozambique Channel report him speaking from surfaced
U -181 in 'Oxford English with an accent that was German in
character'. His destruction of the 6481 ton Greek ship Mount
Helmos off Oro Point on 24 November might be included in the
Natal story, since the 37 survivors came ashore at St Lucia.
Lüth himself survived almost to the end of the war, when
he was shot, in Germany itself it seems, by a jittery sentry.
now turns to Kapitanleutnant Gysae in U-177, who performed
the two most familiar sinkings off Natal, and the two disasters
which brought the U-boat war to palpable reality for most
Natalians. At 6.12 a.m, on 28 November, Gysae sighted smoke
east of Cape St Lucia, and later identified 'a medium-sized
passenger ship' zigzagging at 14 knots. This was the ill-fated
Nova Scotia, a hired transport of 6 796 tons, whose demise
now was to cause the greatest loss of life of any maritime
casualty in South African history. Not that the major portion
of victims were South African: she was carrying 765 Italians,
mostly civil internees from Eritrea, and only 134 South African
servicemen in addition to her crew. The fact that Gysae, at
400 metres range, hit .a ship peopled mostly with Axis personnel
again suggests that there was no espionage behind this daylight
attack. (Incidentally, 14 knots is not quite fast enough to
escape a U-boat. Gysae would have struck the 17 000 ton liner
California on 15 November, east of Durban, if, after a five
hour chase, the passenger ship had not eventually outpaced
the submarine's 18 knots.)
South Africans on board Nova Scotia - in sight of a long-deserved
home welcome after the' Alamein' action - the destruction
of the ship was a bitter tragedy. I was first struck by this
when I came upon the Nova Scotia saga in a completely removed
context - the autobiography of the Natal mountaineer, Brian
Godbold.  Godbold had got early release from his corps
at Helwan, but found that he did not have all his papers,
and so had to sacrifice his chance of an early sailing. Later
'the hand of Providence' seemed to show itself when he learned
that the ship he missed at Port Tewfik was none other than
Nova Scotia. So he escaped being one of several Natalians
who went down with the ship - the Mercury later gave notices
for, amongst others, F. W. Brokensha (of 302 Prince Alfred
Street, Pietermaritzburg), and Sergeant (Jock) Payne, educated
at Maritzburg College. When Gysae, 30 miles off Cape St Lucia,
hit Nova Scotia with three torpedoes at 400 metres range,
there began the best-documented sinking saga in the local
war literature. One need only recommend the latest amalgamation
of accounts by Ian Uys in Survivors of Africa's Oceans. What
a story! - a man rushes from his cabin to escape the listing
ship only to find a pillar of oil-fire coming the other way,
straight along the corridor. Squeezing through the porthole,
he so injures his back as to keep the scars for the rest of
his life. He is winded when he hits the sea, yet not long
after notices sharks beginning to mill around the boats and
rafts. IS Down in the water, prisoners and their late captors
are suddenly equalised.
Andrew Biccard, of the Cape Town Highlanders, tried to board
a tiny raft which barely had room for the two Italians already
there. They tried to push him away. Then one noticed he had
a rosary around his neck. They were fellow Catholics! Biccard
was pulled to safety. 
historic interest of this saga lies in the subsequent actions
of the U-boat captain. (At this point I must interpolate a
completely non-specialist note when I say that, gazing at
the photograph of Nova Scotia in Ian Uys's book,[2O] I believe
I can see why Gysae might have identified this 7 000 ton transport
ship as an 'auxiliary cruiser.' The Nova Scotia has streamlined
passenger-type fairings around her bridge and foredecks, and
looks considerably more impressive than her actual size or
her humble designation.) There is no question but that the
rescue operation, mounted from Lourenco Marques, and which
saw the Portuguese sloop Alfonso de Albuquerque pick up 192
survivors, would never have happened if the U-boat captain
had not radioed for help. I say this because there is the
breath of an implication in some of Uys's interviews that
he only did this because he 'received a tremendous shock when
he found that he had torpedoed a prisoner-of-war ship carrying
his allies' and so was heard shouting repeatedly in English:
'I am sorry. . . I am terribly sorry. . . I will radio Berlin.
. . Help will be sent. . . Be brave. . .'.
for the men struggling in the water, the eerie presence of
one's late 'killer', especially of the size of a U-cruiser,
circling the disaster-scene of its own creation, its guns
manned in case of any retaliation, are factors not likely
to endear one to the voice behind the megaphone, even if it
does speak perfect English. But in fact Gysae's actions are
consistent with a number of reported instances, even when
the survivors were all under an Allied flag. Whereas it was
commonplace, apparently, for Japanese submarines to machine-gun
survivors, there is only one recorded instance of this in
all the 130 or so U-boat sinkings off South Africa, off Ascension
Island in 1944. (In fact the Nuremburg Trials showed it to
be the only case in World War II ) After the war not a
few survivors sought out U-boat captains to thank them for
aid received. Kapitanleutnant Witte, on U-159 of Eisbär,
heading home from the Cape in December, was so helpful to
his victims on Star of Scotland, supplying and towing their
lifeboat, that the American captain went to great lengths
to meet him again in 1948. Off Natal, note the case of
Louise Moller: 'Survivors describe how the U-boat (U-178)
surfaced and they were questioned by an officer with a long
black beard who, before making off, indicated various men
swimming in the water who should be rescued.'  As aerial
counter-attack became more efficient, however, such incidents
could only diminish. Once aircraft could come up from the
horizon in less time than it took a U-boat to submerge, one
could no longer afford to have the crew preoccupied up on
the German captains off South Africa had come under restraint
not to give more help, and that as a consequence of a 'red-letter'
incident which, fifty years later, should be given prominence.
This occurred some two and a half months before the Nova Scotia
affair, when Eisbär first moved south of the equator.
On 12 September 1942, U-156, under Captain Hartenstein, en
route to the Cape, saw and torpedoed the passenger liner Laconia.
It turned out that there were 2 372 passengers and troops
on board, many of them women. Hartenstein immediately mounted
a major rescue operation, and took on board many (including
an English nurse) who were later to testify to their good
treatment at his hands. In heavy seas he rounded up Laconia's
lifeboats and marshalled them ready for towing - all the time
showing a large Red Cross banner. Suddenly out of the skies
appeared an American 'Liberator' which started to bomb U-156.
The U-boat was damaged, and Hartensein had no option but to
disembark his new passengers, cut the tow-rope, and submerge
before the 'Liberator' could come back and finish him off.
policy changed in a moment. Admiral Doenitz issued a communiqué
that sounds strange to anyone too fixed on World War II stereotypes.
'The incident is proof', he said, 'of how disastrous it could
be to display humane feelings toward such an opponent.' 
Rescues must cease: one might round up the chief officer of
the sunken ship (to put his expertise out of commission for
the duration of the war) but thereafter the survivors must
look to themselves. 'In spite of the most scathing enquiries',
says Uys, 'no-one has ever discovered where that bomber was
based or whether or not it asked for and received orders.'
 At any rate, because of it, the Laconia casualty list
greatly increased, and less than half its complement reached
- as C.J. Harris reports the Nova Scotia in War at Sea - Gysae
radioed Command that he had sunk a ship with (as he estimated)
'over a thousand Italian civil internees ex Massawa' on board,
the predictable reply came back: 'Continue operating. Waging
war comes first. No rescue attempts.'  But obviously,
as we have seen, the German HQ did inform the Portuguese at
a Natal story, I must only hint at the sequel in Mozambique.
The Allied soldiers and sailors picked up by the neutral Portuguese
had to be interned under international law for the duration
of hostilities. But that was to reckon without Malcolm Muggeridge.
By dint of arranging a semi-official parole for them one Sunday
afternoon, and organising some 10 taxis to swoop down and
pick them up, he was able to have them delivered over the
Swaziland border. Despite Consul Werz's shrill protests they
arrived home rather sooner than international law required!
as our local social history goes, the sinking of the Nova
Scotia demonstrated graphically the strange policy of muffling
the U-boat war. The papers positively glowed with virtuous
silence. Two days before the sinking, there had appeared this
in the Mercury:
Christmas calling all children! Sssh!!!! don't talk about
ships. . . Everyone knows that all the big Boats have been
away taking Soldiers, Airmen and War supplies 'up North' and
everyone knows that the shops are short of Toys this Christmas.
When the war is over Father Christmas will return to Toyland
at Greenacres . . .
one must agree that, with men of the First Division en route
home from North Africa, the disclosure of convoy details and
shipping movements would invite danger. But that is a different
thing from refusing to admit that tragedies of some scale
are happening off one's own coast. On 30 November and 1 December
the Mercury reports some seven sinkings off Lourenco Marques.
But, closer to home, the Nova Scotia only gets a brief mention
on 2 December in a small item at the bottom of a page: 'About
100 survivors from a torpedoed vessel have been picked up
by the gunboat Alfonso de Albuquerque which left Lourenco
Marques on Sunday morning.' On 4 December this is corrected
to 192 survivors, and the admission is made that 'acting as
escort for prisoners of war were some British soldiers.' Otherwise,
the Mercury can only hint at this concealed disaster with
a few military funeral notices and a photograph of 'Captain
Herder and Purser Muller of the Nova Scotia " sub-titled,
with due vagueness, 'Drowned at sea through enemy activity.'
possible to be kept secret was the sinking - two days after
Nova Scotia - of the Union Castle liner LlandaffCastle, of
10799 tons, which was torpedoed just south of Oro point at
the boundary between Mozambique and Natal. This was another
'bag' for Gysae in U-177. In fact, on 2 December, he almost
opened fire on yet a third passenger ship to complete a gruesome
hat-trick, but fortunately identified her just in time as
the hospital ship Dorsetshire. (Luth, too, saw her that night,
illuminated, says his log, 'as in regulations'.) The abandoning
of the Llandaff Castle went according to drill, there being
no oil fire as on Nova Scotia, and 270 survived of a complement
was quite impossible for the Durban press to conceal this
event, because by 5 December the bulk of the survivors were
walking the streets! More than that, they were not slow to
compliment the city on its reception of them: 'Charity can
be cold, but Durban's charity and kindness is as kind as its
sunshine.' This comment raises the interesting question what
the weather was like in Durban on 3 December. Perla Gibson,
Durban's 'lady in white', recalls the weather in which the
Inconstant (constant yet again!) brought the Llandaff
Castle survivors to port.
the night of 3 December 1942 - it was pouring with rain -
we waited until in the grey, moist dawn, we saw the silhouette
of HMS Inconstant coming into dock, her decks crowded with
bedraggled survivors wearing all sorts of odd scraps of clothing.
Anything but downcast. . . they shouted, the moment they saw
me, 'Give us a song', and I responded with 'There'll Always
Be an England.' Lustily they joined in . . .
that day the visitors could be seen, says the Mercury, 'touring
the shopping centre in order to obtain clothing. A three-month-old
baby was fitted with a complete layette free of charge.' (Was
this the baby who, according to one interview, was handed
from boat to boat of the five lifeboats until it reached its
mother?) One survivor told how the officers had seen the torpedo
coming along the surface of the sea, and had tried to swing
the ship to port helm, but too late. There was notably no
panic: one child was heard to say, as it was lowered from
the sinking ship, 'Naughty boat, naughty boat to break.'
again, as the lifeboats gathered off the sinking ship, came
the eerie arrival of the victor.
quite close, the submarine surfaced - and what a whopper she
was! I heard a voice call out in perfect English: 'Come alongside'.
. . The submarine's searchlight then flashed over each boat
in turn. I thought that this was the end, and that the next
thing we would hear would be machine-guns; but nothing like
that happened. We heard her motors start up and she slipped
quite silently beneath the surface. . .
Castle saga had one interesting complication, when two of
the lifeboats broke from the tow in heavy seas. Their story
is reported in the Mercury for 7 December. They landed on
an uninhabited part of the northern Zululand coast, from where
the members of the crew carried a child for nearly twenty
miles 'in a blanket slung between ropes.' 'But', says the
Mercury cheerily, these survivors 'will be brought down by
train from Zululand this morning.' A compass from one of Llandaff
Castle's lifeboats graces the Provincial Assembly building
in Pietermaritzburg to this day. Apparently a Zulu headman,
Mpahleni Zikali, gave considerable help to a splinter-group
of survivors, and later found a ship's compass in their deserted
lifeboat. The neat plaque donated along with the compass by
the Union Castle Company does not mention that, when the Administrator
of Natal visited Zikali in 1946, the compass was handed to
him with the words: 'I no longer want this watch which doesn't
keep time. . .'
the far greater disaster of the Nova Scotia got no direct
mention - except, that is, for one grisly indirect mention
that could no longer be suppressed. Thus on 7 December: 'A
huge number of bodies - not from the Llandaff Castle - have
been washed up along the North and South Coast within the
last few days. They include 10 SA soldiers. (Notice how the
Nova Scotia is alluded to as 'not the Llandaff Castle'!) For
all the official concealment, then, such graphic evidence
meant that Nova Scotia entered Natal's folk consciousness.
Janie Malherbe says, in Port Natal: 'The people of Durban
were shaken into horrified awareness of the closeness of danger
when no less than 120 corpses were washed up on their city's
hitherto gay holiday beaches. . .' 
no doubt, with the advantage of hindsight when one judges
that if official policy had been more open on such incidents,
there would have been no need for the Mercury leader of 9
December. Ships bringing the First Division back home were
now approaching port, and the story of what had actually happened
on 28 November would surely have made people more, not less,
tight-lipped. Instead we get this, under the heading 'Telling
the Enemy'. 'No one', says the editorial, 'has complained
more than we have about the suppression of news.' On the other
hand the paper has never questioned that 'there are occasions
for absolute secrecy'. All the more reason to complain, then,
hours before these ships (i.e. the troopships) reached Durban
on Monday half the population of Durban appeared to know not
only the approximate time of their arrival but also the ships
in which they (the returning soldiers) were coming. The reason
for the leakage was the desire to give the men a civic reception.
in early December, the U-boat gruppe was still around. Returning
from the Mozambique channel, U-177 sank on 14 December the
Dutch vessel Sawhloento of 3 085 tons, almost exactly abreast
of Durban. This was the tenth ship sunk by Luth's group off
Natal, and their last victim of 1942. The U-cruiser remnant
of the original Eisbiir expedition was now recalled, and the
three U-cruisers were all back in Bordeaux by early January.
(Lüth celebrated Christmas, says his log, 'in tropical
heat 30 metres under water, with a concertina going and a
home-made tree.' )
or not this was a happy home-coming for the German crews it
is impossible to say. The colossal struggles around Stalingrad
were now in progress, and one wonders whether local editors
in occupied France were as much muffled from real events as
their counterparts in Durban. Meanwhile poor Durban, unaware
that its maritime enemies were well on their way back to Europe,
had to endure a 'blacked-out' New Year. The Mercury for 1
January - with its main headline 'Germans liquidated at Stalingrad'
- evoked the atmosphere. 'Present on the darkened streets'
were the 'coon' bands, their zest being undiminished by the
fact that they could be heard but not seen. Mr Edward Dunn,
Director of Entertainments, last night toured the principal
Durban cinemas to announce the arrival of the First Division
and outlined today's arrangements. The arrangements were greeted
by loud cheering and applause, to which a number of the First
Division men present contributed in no small measure.
those who arrived in port on New Year's Day itself was Brian
Godbold, quoted above. The lesson of Nova Scotia had considerably
delayed his homecoming. 'For three days we had been steaming
westward, so our top-secret course must have taken us a long
way towards India to elude the submarine menace. We did not
know then that the Nova Scotia. . . had been torpedoed. '
Three of Natal's U-boat war opens with the arrival of Gruppe
Seehund off South Africa in February 1943. U-5O6, U-5O9, U-516
and U-160 fuelled up at the 'milch-cow', as the sailors named
U-459, south of St Helena. Seehund arrived off Natal on 31
February. This group met with a less amenable war situation:
the palpable shocks of Nova Scotia and Llandaff Castle had
galvanised the Coastal Command. Ships moved in and out of
Durban, now, within a convoy system that was enforced all
around South Africa. Catalina squadrons, based at Durban and
St Lucia, had a much greater range than the valiant old Ansons.
The Seehund logs admit for the first time the demoralising
sensation of being under radar beams, as detected by their
own 'Metox' equipment. Nevertheless, along with the later-arrived
U-182, the five boats did a great deal of damage off Natal,
sinking seven vessels in a fifteen-day sortie, before Seehund
was recalled on 14 March. The expedition does not rank so
vividly in the literature, however, because no passenger ships
were involved, and there was no loss of life on the scale
of Nova Scotia.
Seehund accounted for what might well be an undesirable record
in South Africa's military/naval history. One of its members
dealt what was probably the most expensive single salvo that
has ever been fired from the enemy in any South African naval
action, and perhaps in any South African action whatsoever.
The story turns to Kapitanleutnant Lassen in U-160, who patrolled
off Port Shepstone on 1 March 1943.
Lasen's coastal patrol, on 1, 2 and 3 March from Port Shepstone
almost to the Bluff and back, is the only documented coastline
journey you will find in War in the Southern Oceans, whose
maps are compiled from the U-boat logs themselves. So . .
.! of all the countless spottings of conning towers, disappearing
periscopes, cylindrical shadows, emerging swastikas, megaphones
shouting through the surf, that were so amply and ardently
reported by Natalians through 1942 and 1943, we can say that
those who saw a lonesome periscope off-shore between 1 and
3 March 1943 did perhaps see the real thing! (We have to deglamourise
a considerable local mythology. After Eisbär's Cape peninsula
strike of October 1942, some 95 per cent of the U-boat operation
took place far off territorial limits.)
completed his patrol, Lassen lay at ease off Port Shepstone
on 3 March. The Mercury for that day ran a nice editorial
on the nagana controversy - the main local debate of these
months. It seems that a large agricultural lobby wanted disease-bearing
game shot out of Zululand. In the typical metaphor of the
day the Mercury called the Provincial 'action committee' a
'committee of little Hitlers', and stated that 'public opinion
is overwhelmingly against the slaughter of game.' Meanwhile,
unknown to the Mercury's genial readership, a life-and-death
struggle between hunter and hunted was going on right on its
p.m. on that day there occurred off Port Shepstone the fatal
meeting between U-160 and the eleven ship convoy 'DN .21',
attended by the corvette Nigella, and three Royal Navy armed
trawlers. The long debate as to whether convoys attract or
dissuade attack would have given the argument on this occasion
to the more cynical school. In U-160, 'Kanonier' Lassen (as
he was known to the U-boat men - he had worked his way up
from gunner to captain in fifteen months ) found it easy
to follow the convoy through the afternoon and into the night;
it was pin-pointed by the navigation lights of escorting aircraft.
He followed DN.21 to a position off the Pondoland coast (but,
as his ambush started off Natal, I will still lay claim to
this as a Natal story!) There he did a very daring thing.
He took advantage of the cloudy night, and surfaced in the
middle of the convoy. So there was U-160, up in the open,
penetrating the two lines of slow-moving ships and avoiding
(on the surface) the asdic search of the escorts. At 11.22
p.m. by his log he opened fire, and sent off what might well
have been the most destructive single salvo (three torpedoes)
ever fired in a South African engagement. He sank at once
the American Harvey W Scott of 7 176 tons, the British Nirpura
of 5 961 tons, and severely damaged the Dutch tanker Tibia
of 10356 tons (which eventually limped into Durban under its
lack of prior drill or convoy discipline immediately became
apparent. Harvey W Scott switched on her upper deck lights
on impact, making her own fatality all the more dangerous
to her consorts. Viviana switched on a searchlight to pick
up survivors, and thus gave illuminated information to any
silent watcher. Nigella sent up star shells, the American
indiscriminate tracer. While chaos developed, U-160 bided
her time, and then, at 1.10 a.m. (4 March) fired another two
torpedoes. The log claims two sinkings, but in fact only the
British Empire Mahseer of 5 087 tons was hit, and she went
down in less than two minutes. The convoy was now in complete
disarray, and Lassen could wait for another prime sighting,
which he eventually got at 3.46 a.m. Two torpedoes each found
their target, sinking the British Marietta E, of 7 628 tons,
and severely damaging Sheaf Crown. At last, after 14 hours
of chase, the convoy escort got the measure of Lassen's game.
U-160 discovered a destroyer coming straight for her, and
so quietly slipped away from the rout she had caused, and
headed north for St Lucia.
the Durban base's biggest single disaster. Reaction was clumsy:
the rescue boat didn't get through the harbour boom until
4.45 a.m. At 7.31 a.m. Nigella reported that DN.21 was reduced
to five ships and one escort. Later that day C-in-C Atlantic
took over affairs and ordered the convoy to be disbanded and
all sailings out of Durban to be cancelled. The dismal tidings
had more effect far way in the British Prime Minister's office
than in the local press. Churchill commented to the Admiralty:
'We simply cannot afford losses of this kind on this route'.
Their response was that, since convoys were introduced, only
seven ships had been lost. Churchill was pacified, being sure
that they were, 'as ever, doing their best.' 
that Natalians might have got to guessing a new intensity
in the submarine war was the appearance of a communique, published,
ironically, on 4 March, just as Lassen scored his final hits.
This was from the naval C-in-C South Africa:
has struck at our lines of communication. . . the tide of
land war has receded in Africa, but the sea war has come closer
to our shores. . . Never by word or deed give the enemy the
slightest information about the movement of ships at sea.
To win the war at sea he must have that information and he
spends a fortune in an attempt to get it.
sleight of hand, which put the blame more on the fifth column
than on the convoy system or coastal defence, no factual information
ever reached the public. The story of DN.21 was never told,
and the urgency of the HQ warning was never enforced by honest
facts. (The virtuous Mercury supported the call to secrecy,
though, with a rather nasty little regular slot which recorded
the names of those who were fined five pounds for not observing
off the Natal coast, just south of St Lucia mouth and in sight
of land, 'Kanonier' Lassen could, on 9 March, 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.
March many of DN.21's survivors were in hospitals in Durban,
with amazing stories to tell. (At least, one presumes they
were the convoy survivors, for the calamity itself was never
publicised. But there were no other Natal sinkings at the
time.) One man interviewed by the Mercury recalled how his
lifeboat had tried to make way with 30 men on board: 'Before
they had time to push off, the ship capsized on top of the
boat, which overturned. . . the suction was so terrific that
our clothes were ripped off. . .'Then, after six days battling
with the ocean, another incident burns itself on the memory.
One of the exhausted rowers 'suddenly rose, and in a matter-of-fact
voice told the others to carryon for a while, saying: 'I'm
just strolling home for a cup of coffee, fellows,' and walked
over the side. They drew him back with difficulty, and shortly
after that he died.' Another survivor described how his ship
had 'suddenly folded in two, stern meeting bow.'
U-160's trail of destruction continued. The American James
B Stephens (7 176 tons) was dispatched on 8 March, and the
night of 11 March saw the end of the British Aelbryn, of 4
986 tons, off the North Coast. In the tradition of Lüth
before him, Lassen surfaced and spoke to the survivors in
what they later described as 'perfect English'. All but eight
of them were rescued by the Portuguese liner Lourenco Marques.
What with such an array of successes, and with Hitler's radio
message to Lassen, it seemed that a hostile providence was
agreeing with Robey Leibbrandt, who on 12 March gave his pro-Hitler
speech when he received the death sentence for treason from
Justice Schreiner. U-160's activity off Natal in March 1943
must constitute an undesirable record for damage done by a
single operating unit of the enemy.
in occupied France, U-boat Command was not awed into false
optimism by Lassen's successes. In fact it was not satisfied
by Seehund's overall performance. It had been an almost one-man
affair (though U-182 finished off the South African Aloe (5
047 tons) far south-east of Durban as the group headed south.)
On 14 March Seehund was recalled, and all had reached the
'pens' at Lorient by 11 May - all, that is, except U-182 just
mentioned. And in her fate lay a bitter irony. We recall that
the U-boats were instructed to pick up the chief officers
of victim vessels. Let us hope that the captain of Aloe was
hosted well before U-187 was itself wiped out by a US destroyer
as it neared home in France. Regarding the Seehund mission,
U-boat Command 'passed the buck' rather as did their counterpart
in Cape Town, blaming the group's unsuccess not on themselves
but on enemy Intelligence! South African coastal defence was
they said 'brilliantly supported by a system of spotters along
the coast.' The authors of War in the Southern Oceans take
a very wry view of this claim. The 'prolific reports' that
saturated Naval HQ were 'almost invariably false and distracting.'
C. J. Harris recalls putting his crew at action stations and
steaming at full speed down the coast 'to ram a periscope
sighted off Durban'. It turned out to be 'a broomstick floating
upright in the water. . .' 
Seehund got home, however, the third phase of submarine activity
off Natal turned out not to be over. It was completed by the
strange lone voyage of the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci
under Captain Gazzana-Priaroggia. Of the 26 ships (as I calculate)
that were sunk by submarines off Natal and Pondoland in World
War II, only four were not felled by the Germans. One was
lost to the Japanese, and the other three to this Italian
loner, whose April expedition had begun with the notorious
destruction of the Empress of Canada off Las Palmas. By mid-April
Leonardo da Vinci was off Natal, where it sank the Dutch Sembilan
(6 566 tons), the British Manaar (8 007 tons), and the American
John Drayton (7 177 tons), all some 160 miles south-east of
Durban. The tenacious Durban tug Prudent went out to save
some 25 survivors in weather so ferocious that even the Ventura
squadrons did not leave ground. Meantime, the luckless captain
of the Manaar suffered the same fate as his confrere mentioned
above: his host vessel was itself sunk, going down with all
hands on its return journey on 23 May.
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.
more successes accrued to this small contingent: U-198 got
the British Dumra 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). But CD.20 did
not fall into disarray as DN.21 had done three months earlier,
and the convoy limped into Durban that evening. A tug attempted
to tow in the crippled Dutch freighter, but it foundered in
the seas. (Incidentally, if Salabangka was torpedoed where
it was sighted, 60 miles off Durban Bluff, this would surely
be closer to Durban than Mendoza - 1 November 1942 - which
was 70 miles off the Bluff.)
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,
but it seems incontrovertible that Natal now 'commanded the
sea'. South African coastal reconaissance, by radar and by
air, had greatly improved since July 1942. Dr F.J. Hewitt,
a sometime senior officer of the SSS, the South African Radar
detection unit, admits in a recent essay  the problem
of poor identification when radar was first deployed. The
locally-made receiver, the 'JB', was 'certainly not able to
distinguish quickly, if at all, between a fishing boat and
a surfaced submarine', so that' Air Force crews soon tired
of fruitless flights to find yet another fishing boat. . .
'  One can imagine the scepticism aroused by the fledgling
radar unit (a corps of 'mad scientists and beautiful women')
in seasoned airmen whose activity was itself dubbed 'a rest-cure
for those who had had a long spell in the Desert. . .', especially
when one reads of some of the earlier gaffes. Thus the Anson
from No.42 Air School, which in December 1942 sighted over
30 ships 60 miles off Port Elizabeth, and, knowing of no home
convoy of that size, signalled an all-time emergency. A bomber
squadron was immediately despatched to take on what looked
to be a full-scale Japanese fleet, only to find wafting over
the sea the rather beautiful effect of shadows of cirro-cumulus
clouds cast upon the water' !
by August 1943, coastal radar - or shall we say coastal radiographic
surveillance - was giving the U-boats a hard time. And as
for the cynical airmen, it was their patrolling technique
that had apparently given the enemy some complacency. War
in the Southern Oceans mentions an interview in 1958 with
ex-Korvettenkapitan Kentrat, ofU-196. Apparently the U-boat
personnel traded on the belief that the coastal pilots 'habitually
flew too high and were observed by the look-out on the U-boat
which had plenty of time to submerge and frequently evade
notice altogether.,42 But by mid-1943 this was no longer happening.
See for instance U-196's log for 25 May: the captain is scrutinising
the Natal South Coast when he is forced to submerge by aircraft.
Later, when he returns to Natal from the Mozambique channel,
he cannot surface for fear of being spotted by the Mtubatuba
Squadron (SAAF No. 22 TBR). Squadron patrols keep him down
for two days: only after midnight on 16 August can he surface
and let his boat catch breath.
mounting successes came to a head in what was surely Natal's
greatest local victory, and the memorable climax of its U-boat
war. I refer to the hunting and sinking of U-197, commanded
by Kapitanleutnant Bartels. U-197's terminal voyage takes
our story far off the Natal coast indeed. In fact her last
success, when, on 23 July, she torpedoed the 9 583 ton Swedish
tanker Pegasus, occurred 450 miles east of St Lucia. Remarkably,
at that distance, the entire crew was saved. (U-boat captains
were instructed, one gathers, not to respect neutrality in
the case of Swedish ships 'not listed in the Gateborg traffic'.)
The hulk of Pegasus was still blazing when, days later, it
was spotted 600 miles east of Durban. Having despatched the
Swede, U-197 headed even further east, little realising that,
at such a distance, she was still not safe from scrutiny of
South African coastal Intelligence. The unsung heroes on this
occasion are referred to in the literature as D/F - Direction
Finding, but otherwise not identified in the logistical data.
D/F now became engaged in the most exciting maritime hunt
of our local war. They managed to 'bust' the radio communication
between the four U-boats of the gruppe (ironically, a conversation
as to the best meeting-place to pass on to each other 'Bellatrix',
a newly-issued cypher code!) Radio signals on their own do
not identify position, but it seems that, on 17 August, a
careless reference by U-197 (Bartels), in its operational
report to U-181 (Luth), enabled D/F to plot a voyage-path.
So, at 7.10 p.m. on 19 August, R/F was able to offer combined
HQ a grid reference for the route of the enemy vessel. And
on 20 August, Flight-Lieutenant O. Barnett, in an RAF Catalina
of 259th St Lucia Squadron, was directed to a point in the
ocean far from base, some five to six hundred miles due east
of St Lucia, and 100 miles south of Madagascar. When one thinks
of the years of patrolling, of all the dubious alarms and
the close shaves, it seems nothing short of miraculous that
Barnett should emerge at 1.10 p.m. out of cloud over the vast
anonymous ocean, and see 'a large white-cap at the limit of
visibility'. The sea was rough, but 'with the aid of binoculars
he could make out U-197 on an easterly course, doing about
10 knots on the surface.' 
Barnett executed a port-side diving turn in order to approach
U-197 in an opposite course but at the correct angle for straddling.
At the last moment U-197 turned in the direction of the plane,
and the six depth charges, dropped from 50 feet, missed target.
Only the Catalina's front and port blister guns scored hits
on the submarine's deck and conning tower (Barnett could see
'the brown overalls and flat blue caps of her gun crews' as
he veered overhead). In fact, it was these gun-strikes from
the aircraft that eventually proved decisive. It became obvious
as the duel went on (the U-boat manouevring not to be caught
'straddled') that, with her listing appearance and tell-tale
oil streaks, she was hardly fit to submerge. This she attempted
at 1.45 p.m., but at 2.23. she had to come up again, and at
3.46 radioed her sister vessels (120 miles south) that she
was no longer able to dive. This was her last message. Meanwhile
Barnett, who had expended his depth-charges, could only circle
and leave a trail of flares, in the hope that other Catalinas
might spot the position. At last, at 5.05 p.m., he was joined
by N/265, manned by Flight Officer C.E. Robin. Desperately
Bartels tried to angle U-197 to the aircraft's dive. Robin's
first two runs were unsuccessful, but then, at 5.30 p.m.,
Bartels misjudged the aircraft's third attack, and was straddled
by six depth-charges, dropped from 75 feet. 'Debris flew into
the air, and the U-boat disappeared leaving a large patch
of oil on the surface.' For half an hour the Catalinas - the
only local aircraft with the range for this operation - circled
the area, but there was nothing more to be seen, and they
flew on to Madagascar for re-fuelling.
the U-boat war off Natal - and, indeed, in any operational
sense, off South Africa. (There were some lone hits far south
in the Atlantic while Germany and Japan exchanged materiel
and personnel in late 1944 and 1945.) No doubt the vantage
of hindsight is a privileged one, but it does seem remarkable
that this epic duel, with its great capacity to boost local
morale, went unremarked in the local or national press. In
fact, even when - in a final whiff of maritime excitement
- the submarine Ammiraglio Cagni gave itself up after the
Italian Armistice, and was escorted into Durban on 20 September
1943, there was no publicity. After that, Allied shipping
started to move through the Mediterranean again, and the 'strategic
significance of the Cape route was diminished to a level unknown
since Italy entered the war in June 1940.' 
is only in retrospect that we can piece together a story that
had many epic moments, the story of 'V-boats off Natal'.
debt to War in the Southern Oceans is so large as to render
one's narrative really a re-arrangement and a 'perspective'
on its authors' original research - itself having the incomparable
advantage of access to the U-boat logs. So although I only
cite my verbatim references to this work, the bulk of detail
does derive, nevertheless, from its pages.
would like to thank Ms Fiona Woollam of the Natal Museums
Service, and Commander W. M. Bissett, Senior Staff Officer
South African Naval Museums, for. suggestions pertaining to
to the Natal Mercury: Dates of quotations are identified in
Harris, War at Sea: South African Maritime Operations during
World War II, Ashanti Publishing, Rivonia 1991, pp.336-7.
2. L.C.F. Turner, H.R. Gordon-Cumming and J.E. Betzler, War
in the Southern Oceans (1939-45), Cape Town, Oxford University
Press 1961, p.86 (hereafter WSO).
3. WSO, p.109.
4. Viscount Cunningham, A Sailor's Odyssey, London, Hutchinson
5. G. C. Visser, OB: Traitors or Patriots?, London, Macmillan
1976, p. 116 (hereafter Visser).
6. Visser, p.50.
7. Visser, p. 199 (trans. Visser).
8. Visser, p.81.
9. Visser, p. 86 ff.
10. Janie Malherbe, Port Natal, Howard Timmins 1965, p.210
II. WSO, p.96.
12. WSO, p.161.
13. Mendoza had been a Vichy French ship, captured more by
argument than force outside Montevideo by HMS Asturias. She
was sufficiently damaged to warrant some repair, and this
was effected in Montivideo using steel plating from the scuttled
Graf Spee! In fact, those who
believe that Justice moves in circles will note that Asturias
was later put out of commission by the Ammiraglio Cagni, the
enemy submarine that was eventually to surrender outside Durban.
Harris, p.77 ff.
14. WSO, p.194.
I5. Bodo Herzog, U-boote im Einsatz, Dorheim, Podzun Verlag
1970, p.49 (hereafter Herzog). Lüth was credited with
16. Naval Lists, 1943. Why was 'Inconstant' not given a worthier
name, like others in the 1 370 ton 'I' Class Destroyers, such
as 'Imperial' or 'Impulsive'? Perhaps because she deserted
her baptismal name soon after her birth! Built for the Turkish
Navy as 'Gayret', she was requisitioned, on completion at
Barrow, by the Royal Navy in January 1942, and re-named for
the 'I' class. A smaller vessel than U-181, she would nevertheless
easily have out-gunned and out-paced a surfaced submarine,
having a speed of 36 knots. After the war she continued her
career for Turkey, with her original name 'Gayret'! (My thanks
to Eddie Oxley of Durban for the reference: Jane's Fighting
17. Brian Godbold, Mountains, Bullets and Blessings, Kloof
1989, privately published, p.3l7 (hereafter Godbold).
18. Ian Uys, Survivors of Africa's Oceans, Germiston, Fortress
Publishers 1993, p.84 (hereafter UYS).
19. Uys, p.91.
20. Uys, p.75.
21. Uys, p.93.
22. Herzog, p. 51; WSO, p. 248.
23. Herzog, p. 57.
24. WSO, p.194.
25. WSO, p.165.
26. WSO, p.l64.
27. Uys, p.58; but see Herzog, p.181.
28. Harris, p.334.
29. Uys, p.115.
30. Perla Siedle Gibson, Durban's Lady in White: An Autobiography
ed. Sam Morley, (Aedificamus Press, 1991), p.67.
31. Uys, p.131.
32. Malherbe, p.21.
33. WSO, p.20l.
34. Godbold, p.32l.
35. Herzog, p. 186.
36. WSO, p.210.
37. WSO, p.215.
38. Herzog, .204.
39. Peter Brain, South African Radar in World War II, Cape
Town and Johannesburg, The SSS Radar Book Group, 1993, p.139
ff. (hereafter Brain).
40. Brain, pp.152-3.
41. WSO, p.205.
42. WSO, p.223.
43. This detail from Martin/Orpen, p.278/9, but the reconstruction
on the whole is taken from WSO p.243 ff. Martin and Orpen
(1979) seem to have found a source since WSO (1961), but don't
disclose it. They are surely wrong to suggest that the attack
started at 12.10 p.m.
44. Martin and Orpen, p.279.