German U-Boat Operations in Australian Waters

by
Dr David Stevens

U-boat Operations off Australia 1944-45

If we could only have had more boats it would have led to a Paukenschlag like that off the coast of America

   - Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Timm, Commanding Officer U-862, December 1944.

The Paukenschlag or ‘Operation Drumbeat’, alluded to above by the commander of U-862, was the code name for the German U-boat offensive against the American Atlantic coast that began in January 1942. In the first two weeks of the campaign, a mere five U-boats sank 25 allied ships totalling 200,000 tons. In the four months it took for the Americans to introduce effective anti-submarine measures, 137 ships of almost one million tons would be lost. For the Allies it was a major disaster, for the U-boat commanders it would become regarded as the second ‘Happy Time’ of the Battle of the Atlantic.

In December 1944, however, U-862 was not in the Atlantic, and although planned to be part of a larger offensive, the U-boat was in reality quite alone. Korvettenkapitän Timm was actually making his observation while operating off the Australian east coast where he believed he had at last found another safe hunting ground for the U-boat arm. Elsewhere, Allied anti-submarine measures had largely driven the once feared ‘grey wolves’ from the shipping routes, but Timm had just detected a large concentration of shipping at the eastern entrance to Bass Strait and no escorts were apparent.

U-862 on the surface. Note the emblem visible on the front of the conning tower depicting a chimney sweep which was adopted as a bringer of good luck.
U-862 on the surface. Note the emblem visible on the front of the conning tower depicting a chimney sweep which was adopted as a bringer of good luck.

U-boats in the Far East

Although Germany began developing plans for U-boat operations in the Indian Ocean early in the Second World War, it was not until late 1942 that practical action was taken. While distant operations by the Hilfskreuzers, or surface raiders, were still reaping success, there was no urgent need to augment them and in any case the BdU (Commander-in-Chief Submarines), Admiral Karl Donitz was unwilling to transfer the scarce, long-range Type IX U-boats away from the critical Atlantic battles. Japan too, was at first less than supportive of a free-ranging German presence, regarding the Indian Ocean as being in their own sphere of influence.  When the Axis partners finally agreed to delineate boundaries in August 1942, the German zone of operations was limited to the waters south and west of 20°S and 85°E.

The first voyages by U-boats into the Indian Ocean therefore remained tentative and were confined to the area around the Cape of Good Hope. But as the war drew on into 1943, and both Germany and Japan found themselves on the defensive, the situation changed. Japanese submarines were undertaking fewer operational patrols and were primarily engaged in transport duties in the Pacific. Consequently they could not readily be spared for remote operations in the Indian Ocean. Recognising a need to put more pressure on Allied sea communications, the Japanese proposed greater German efforts in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, and offered the Germans the use of their submarine base at Penang.

This change in Japanese attitude coincided with a difficult time for U-boats in the Atlantic and a corresponding desire by Donitz to seek areas where Allied defences might be weaker. Available intelligence suggested that the Indian Ocean might indeed offer new opportunities, so in June 1943 the first 11 U-boats of Group Monsoon left their bases in Europe and proceeded east. The danger then existing in the Atlantic was evident when only five of those boats survived to reach the Indian Ocean. After operations in the Arabian Sea, where another boat was lost, the remaining U-boats eventually reached Penang in November 1943. With only eight merchant ships sunk in return, the results were disappointing, but the Monsoon experience did at least confirm that, in comparison with the Atlantic, anti-submarine measures in the Indian Ocean were weak and attack opportunities more favourable. Donitz therefore decided to continue sending long-range U-boats to the Far East. Ultimately, he allocated 44 operational and transport U-boats to Indian Ocean operations. Besides Penang, facilities to support the boats were also established with Japanese assistance in Singapore, Djakarta and Surabaya.

German Interest in Australia

One of the first references to the possibility of U-boat operations off Australia appeared in May 1944 in a report written by Kapitänleutnant Ludden of U-188. Ludden was the first of the Monsoon commanders to return home and he recommended that preliminary reconnaissance of the areas south and west of Australia should be undertaken. In this way, should it be the intention to make a surprise attack with a larger group of boats, the force could operate with a sound knowledge of traffic and defence conditions.

A great weakness of U-boat operations in the Far East was that operational control remained solely with BdU. The German commander at Penang, Fregattenkapitän Dommes, thus had little flexibility and no planning authority to arrange a mission to Australia. German strategic interest in the Indian Ocean was, in any case, still concentrated on the tanker and merchant ship routes in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden, so no immediate action was taken on Ludden's recommendations.

The Japanese, however, still found themselves hard pressed in the Pacific and continued to request even greater German cooperation. The Head of the Japanese Naval Mission in Berlin, Vice Admiral Abe, made several personal representations to Donitz asking for more U-boats and suggesting the expansion of their operations to include the Australian area. With the improvement of Allied defences in the western Indian Ocean making targets more difficult. Donitz finally agreed to the Japanese request. After initial consultation with Penang he released the following message on 14 September 1944:

Operation for Pich (U-168) and Timm (U-862) in Australian area approved. They are to sail when ready for war. Make use of Japanese knowledge of the traffic and defence situation.

U-862 berthing at Swettenham Pier in Penang (A. Schirrmann collection)
U-862 berthing at Swettenham Pier in Penang (A. Schirrmann collection)

U-168 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Helmuth Pich, was a Type IXC U-boat of 1140 tons. Pich was one of the most experienced of the Far Eastern commanders, having first arrived in Penang in November 1943. U-862 was a larger and longer range Type IXD2 and had only recently arrived from Europe. But Timm, had already demonstrated his professionalism, sinking one ship in the South Atlantic and another four in the Mozambique Channel on the voyage out.

Donitz understood that the Australian operation would primarily be for the benefit of the Japanese, but to show further German commitment told Vice Admiral Abe on 26 September that three submarines would now be scheduled to operate in the Australian area. The third U-boat was to be U-537, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Peter Schrewe. Another Type IXC, U-537 and had arrived in Djakarta from the Atlantic in early August.

The preparations required for a sortie of three submarines to Australia were not insignificant. Skilled manpower was scarce and being far from home, spare parts were almost impossible to obtain. The Far East bases were also critically short of torpedoes and those that were available had often deteriorated in the tropical conditions. Many of these torpedoes ran slow, increasing the likelihood of a failed attack. In late September, each of the Australian-bound U-boats was ordered to embark 14 torpedoes. Only half the full outfit of a Type IX, but a large proportion of available stocks.

A further difficulty for the Germans was a lack of recent intelligence. Despite BdU's suggestion, the Japanese had not operated in Australian waters for over a year. They thus had little idea of the traffic and defence situation, particularly off the West Australian coast where the Germans intended to concentrate.

Allied forces had no comparable intelligence problems. Unknown to both the Germans and the Japanese, their secret communications had been thoroughly compromised. The Australian Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Guy Royle, as Commander South West Pacific Sea Frontier, was receiving daily Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) reports from the US Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne (FRUMEL) and was already fully aware of German planning. Just five days after BdU had given approval for the mission, westbound Allied shipping was instructed to be routed well dispersed and pass not less than 250 miles south of Cape Leeuwin. Air patrols were also increased and additional anti-submarine vessels were transferred from Darwin to Fremantle. These ships were ordered to form part of a ‘Hunter-Killer’ group under the direct operational orders of Naval Officer-in-Charge (NOIC) Fremantle. Of far more danger to the U-boats, however, were patrolling allied submarines.

Allied intelligence was, from the outset aware of the deployment of U-boats to S.E. Asian waters.
Allied intelligence was, from the outset, aware of the deployment of U-boats to S.E. Asian waters.

U-168

U-168 became the first of the assigned U-boats to sail, leaving Djakarta at 0900 on 5 October 1944. The U-boat was initially programmed to conduct a one-day surface passage to Surabaya to complete battery trials. On successful completion of the trials she was expected to proceed south and operate off Australia’s southwest coast. Following normal procedures to safeguard the movements of a friendly submarine, local Japanese units were alerted by signal to the precise details of U-168's departure and arrival times, intended course and speed. The signal was decrypted and the particulars repeated in the FRUMEL summary for 5 October. Though there was little time left to arrange an en-counter, the Dutch submarine Zwaardvisch was on patrol nearby and ordered to attempt an intercept. Zwaardvisch belonged to the British 8th Submarine Flotilla based at Fremantle and was commanded by Lieutenant-Commander H Goosens. She had left Fremantle for her second Far Eastern patrol on 26 September and six days later passed through the Lombok Strait.

Shortly after dawn on 6 October, with Zwaardvisch off the north coast of Java at periscope depth, Goosens sighted U-168 on a steady easterly course at 14 knots. The Dutch submarine was well positioned for an attack and 11 minutes after the sighting he fired a fan of six torpedoes. Aboard U-168 the weapons were seen seconds before impact and much too late to take avoiding action. Two torpedoes hit. One pierced the U-boat's pressure hull but failed to detonate, the second exploded in the forward torpedo room. Immediate shutting of the watertight doors failed to slow the flooding and U-168 sank rapidly by the bows with the loss of 23 men.

Zwaardvisch surfaced shortly afterwards and five of the survivors, including Pich, were recovered for interrogation. The remaining survivors were put on a native fishing vessel for return to Japanese territory. Pich was unable to explain why he had been caught unawares, but one of his men blamed the Japanese, complaining that they never started anti-submarine air searches before 1100.

The Dutch submarine Zwaardvisch, which intercepted and sank U-168
The Dutch submarine Zwaardvisch, which intercepted and sank U-168 (Netherlands Institute for Maritime History).

U-168’s loss was reported by the Surabaya base later the same day and two Japanese submarine chasers were ordered to search the scene. The Japanese found nothing and Zwaardvisch returned safely to Fremantle on 26 October, having sunk or damaged another four enemy ships. Despite this failure and other similar losses, there appears to have been little extra effort put into improving anti-submarine defences by the Japanese. Indeed, Berlin advised Dommes that it might actually be safer for U-boats to proceed independently rather than in the company of a Japanese escort.

The Australian operation remained the principal offensive mission planned for the Far East and obviously remained important, both for keeping the U-boats effectively employed and as a show of practical support for the Japanese. As such, in early November BdU authorised another Type IXD2, Oberleutnant zur See Striegler’s U-196, as a replacement for U-168.

U-537

The next U-boat ready to depart, U-537, sailed from Surabaya on 9 November for a series of diving tests. If the tests were successful, she was then under orders to pass along the eastern coast of Bali and proceed outward bound for operations off Darwin and northwest Australia. Japanese units were again alerted to the presence of a friendly submarine. Five days before departure, the Surabaya Guard Force provided complete details of U-537's program after leaving port, including, ‘10th 0800 in 7-12°S 115-17°E where diving tests will be carried out for 10 miles on course 156 degrees.’

The U-boat’s fate had thereby been sealed even before she sailed. In Darwin on 6 November, the US submarines Flounder, Guavina and Bashaw received patrol orders that organised them into a coordinated search and attack group. Commander J Stevens, commanding Flounder, was the senior officer. The following day all three boats departed for their allocated areas. On the morning of 10 November, Stevens ordered his submarine to submerge in a position north of Lombok Strait. Flounder's patrol report completes the story:

0754 Officer of the deck sighted what appeared to be a small sailboat bearing 347° (T), distance about 9,000 yards.

0809 Target was identified as a German submarine making 12 knots.

0826 Fired four stern tubes. Track angle 90° starboard, range 1,000 yards, gyro angles very small. Torpedoes were set to run at 8 feet.

0827 Observed hit about 40 feet inside the bow. There was a tremendous explosion and the whole target was obscured by smoke and flame.

The sinking took only 20 seconds and had occurred one mile from the advised position. There were no survivors from U-537's crew of 58 men. Flounder went on to sink one other ship on that patrol, eventually securing in Fremantle on 13 December.

U-862

After her arrival in the Far East, U-862 had spent seven weeks undergoing refit in Singapore and 10 days in Djakarta, allowing the crew time for a short period of recuperation in the mountains. With all in readiness, Korvettenkapitän Timm finally sailed on 18 November, still unaware of the loss of U-537. Expecting the other U-boats to be operating in the west, Timm instead planned to take his boat along the shipping routes to the south and east of Australia. Fortune was with U-862 and for a change insufficient departure details were available for allied submarines to arrange an intercept.

Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Timm, with his crew following their arrival in the Far East.
Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Timm, with his crew following their arrival in the Far East.

Reaching Cape Leeuwin on 28 November, Timm turned his boat east to try to intercept shipping in the Great Australian Bight. For a week Timm conducted a fruitless search, eventually suspecting that traffic had been warned and directed away from the normal shipping routes. U-862 then moved towards the Spencer Gulf, Timm hoping to have more success around the focal area in the approaches to Adelaide.

On 9 December, the Germans sighted the Greek steamship Illisos off Cape Jaffa, 130 miles southeast of Adelaide. Detecting the ship too late for a submerged torpedo attack, Timm instead surfaced and ordered his 10.5 cm deck gun into action. In the rough seas prevailing, accurate fire could not be maintained and as Illisos was also returning fire Timm soon decided to break off the attack.

On being advised of the incident, NOIC Port Melbourne ordered two Australian corvettes in the vicinity, HMA Ships Burnie and Maryborough, to search for the U-boat. The corvettes found nothing on their own Asdic (sonar), but were counter-detected by U-862's hydrophones. Timm surfaced, but in poor visibility could not identify the warships and since the worsening seas prevented a torpedo attack, decided instead to run south at high speed.

U-862 deploying from Trondheim, 28 May 1944 (U-Boot Archiv)
U-862 deploying from Trondheim, 28 May 1944 (U-Boot Archiv)

No doubt remembering the mine-laying exploits of German surface raiders in 1940 and suspecting that U-862 might attempt the same. Burnie, Maryborough and HMAS Lismore were then ordered to sweep the shipping routes in Bass Strait. With the reduction in the Japanese threat, the local convoy system around Australia had ceased in February 1944, but other safety measures were now reintroduced. These included routing all shipping, except local traffic, south of Tasmania and ordering ships in southern Australian waters to zigzag and darken ship at night.

Timm had meanwhile moved to a position south of Tasmania where U-862 encountered a tanker on a course for New Zealand. The target was moving quickly and the U-boat again surfaced to try to move into an attack position. With night and heavy rain making the approach more difficult, the attack was finally thwarted by the appearance of an aircraft that, apparently mistaking the U-boat for the tanker, attempted to exchange recognition signals. U-862 crash-dived and waited, but the expected counter-attack never came.

Timm then turned north and while passing east of Bass Strait, his hydrophone operator listened to what sounded like a large group of ships moving at high speed. It was this detection that inspired Timm to pen his comments about an Australian Paukenschlag. Only one ship was actually sighted, but it was too far away for U-862 to reach a firing position. With no other U-boats in the area to assist, the opportunity to attack was lost.

The U-boat continued moving up the coast and on Christmas Eve intercepted the American Liberty ship Robert J Walker off Moruya. The attack began at 0255 on Christmas Day and continued for more than three hours. Liberty ships were well sub-divided with watertight bulkheads and five torpedoes were eventually needed to ensure the ship was finished. At least two of the German torpedoes ran slow, one so slowly that it was destroyed by gunfire from the freighter before it could hit.

The first RAAF aircraft arrived in the area ten minutes after the last torpedo exploded, beginning a massive submarine hunt that would last for more than a fortnight. Also included among the searchers were several RAN and USN warships from Sydney and the Royal Navy’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla, which had put to sea immediately from Melbourne. It was to be the largest and longest submarine hunt ever conducted off Australia. The searches all proved negative and, although some attacks were made on suspicious objects, U-862 managed to keep well clear. HMAS Quickmatch recovered the 68 survivors of Robert J Walker on 26 December, two men having been lost during the attack.

The Mercantile Movement Card recording the loss of Robert J Walker.
The Mercantile Movement Card recording the loss of Robert J Walker.
This damaged wooden name board was found on the beach at Bherwerre Beach, near Sussex Inlet NSW after the Liberty ship, SS Robert J Walker was sunk in December 1944.
The damaged wooden name board from the Robert J Walker was found on Bherwerre Beach, near Sussex Inlet, NSW in December 1944. It is now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial (REL 42365).

Deciding that, for the moment, he had caused enough commotion off New South Wales, Timm headed off towards New Zealand. On the way, another freighter was sighted. A good attack position was reached, but again Timm was let down by a faulty torpedo. Attempting to conserve his stocks, Timm fired only one weapon and it detonated prematurely 300m from the U-boat. The freighter escaped undamaged.

After crossing the Tasman Sea, U-862 sailed around North Cape and down the east coast of New Zealand. At times Timm brought the U-boat very close to the coast; close enough to Gisborne and Napier to see cars on the streets and to hear music from the cafes. The shipping though, was disappointing; several coastal vessels were seen but not the expected concentration of larger ships. Only one submerged attack on a small freighter was made. Despite the ship showing full peacetime lighting, Timm missed the shot. New Zealand was left undisturbed, with the population completely unaware of U-862’s combat patrol.

With seven torpedoes remaining, Timm had planned to return to the area off Sydney, but on 19 January 1945 he received orders from Fregattenkapitän Dommes to return immediately to Djakarta. The Japanese expected an Allied landing on the Malay peninsula and Dommes was concerned that Penang and Singapore would fall soon after.

For two weeks, the U-boat headed west into mountainous seas. Finally turning north, U-862 stumbled across another Liberty ship, Peter Sylvester, on 6 February. The Liberty ships again proved to be of excellent construction and it took four hits from five torpedoes to sink her. Thirty-two men were lost in the action and Peter Sylvester gained the dubious distinction of becoming the last Allied ship to be sunk by a submarine in the Indian Ocean.

The Liberty Ship Peter Silvester with a full cargo of war materials (Project Liberty Ship 26 749)
The Liberty Ship Peter Silvester with a full cargo of war materials (Project Liberty Ship 26 749)

 

After 22 days adrift survivors from the Peter Silvester are recovered by the escort carrier HMS Activity.
After 22 days adrift survivors from the Peter Silvester are recovered by the escort carrier HMS Activity.

U-862 broke radio silence for the first time at a pre-arranged escort point in Sunda Strait. Although the signal was decrypted, it would appear the rendezvous position was unknown to the Allies and Timm again managed to avoid an encounter with an Allied submarine. The U-boat finally returned to Djakarta on 15 February, having sunk only two ships, totaling 14,000 tons, on the three-month voyage. In his post cruise report Timm explained the disappointing result:

Mistake in planning operation was that sea area was too large. Better chances are to be expected by concentrating on traffic north and south of Sydney. The sea area would repay a generously planned operation with several boats.

U 196

The last U-boat allocated to the Australian operation was U-196, which had arrived in Penang in mid-August after sinking one ship on the voyage from France. The U-boat left Djakarta on 30 November and initially proceeded west to act as a refuelling stop for U-boats returning to Europe. On completion, Oberleutnant zur See Striegler's orders directed him to operate off southwest Australia for one month then proceed to Japan for a refit. Problems with the other U-boats caused the refuelling operation to be cancelled 11 days after U-196 sailed. A recall order was sent, but despite repeated requests by Penang for a position report, U-196 failed to respond. By the end of December, she was presumed lost. No Allied submarine claimed U-196 as a victim and although it is possible that the U-boat struck a submarine mine in Sunda Strait, her disappearance remains a mystery.

Left: A crewman on the forward casing of U-196 c. 1944. Right: U-196 refuelling at sea, possibly during her voyage to South-East Asia
Left: A crewman on the forward casing of U-196 c. 1944. Right: U-196 refuelling at sea, possibly during her voyage to South-East Asia

Conclusion

Although the Monsoon U-boats together destroyed close to a million tons of shipping, sinking rates were not high enough to disrupt Allied sea communications and came at a huge cost. Of the 44 U-boats Donitz sent out to the Far East, only five safely made the round trip back to Europe; six, including U-862, were taken over by the Japanese after Germany’s defeat and four were destroyed while operating from Far Eastern bases. The remaining U-boats were all lost while deploying or returning to Europe.

The high loss rates and maintenance difficulties experienced by U-boats in the Far East ensured that even at their peak there were never more than four or five boats available for operations. By February 1945, when U-862 returned to Djakarta, there was only one operational U-boat remaining available and Donitz had already agreed with the Japanese that future German efforts would concentrate on Allied supply lines around the Philippines. Timm's comments about Australian waters thus came too late to be acted upon. U-862 therefore became the only U-boat ever to operate off Australia and the Paukenschlag envisioned by Timm was thankfully never to come about.

Two of U-862's officers, left" Marineoberstabsarzt Jobst Schafer. Right: Oberleutnant zur see Karl Steinhauser
Two of U-862's officers, left: Marineoberstabsarzt Jobst Schäfer. Right: Oberleutnant zur see Karl Steinhauser (U-boot Archiv)

The phenomenal success of radio intelligence, and the lack of available enemy resources meant that Australian sea and air defences were never required to confront a determined underwater offensive. Nevertheless, it is sobering to imagine what might have happened. The unsuccessful search for U-862 after the attack on Robert J Walker was a major undertaking, involving at least a dozen warships and almost 200 dedicated RAAF sorties. Despite advanced warning, the free movements of U-862 showed that, when not betrayed by SIGINT, the U-boats were extremely difficult to pin down. With the Pacific war receding even further, Australia's own defences were not worked up and shipping had largely returned to peacetime practices. If the veteran Monsoon U-boats ever had been able to mount a determined challenge, the Australians would have been hard-pressed to match them.

On the other side, despite the lack of results achieved, U-862’s cruise, travelling alone, further from home than any other wartime U-boat, must stand out as an epic accomplishment. By 1944, the average life expectancy of a U-boat at sea was only eight weeks. Despite sickness, boredom, extremes of climate, frustration with faulty equipment and moments of terror, Timm kept his crew motivated and in high spirits, although all already knew that the war was lost. Timm's crew regarded him as one of the best U-boat commanders of the war, but U-862's survival was also testimony to the qualities of professionalism instilled into the U-boat arm as a whole.

Epilogue

The formal unconditional surrender of German forces in all areas came into effect at midnight on 8 May 1945. At that time U-181 and U-862 were in Singapore. Two days prior, KorvettenkapitänTimm ordered U-862's crew to assemble on board. Just before noon, the senior Japanese naval officer, Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, and his staff arrived to inform the Germans of their iminent internment. During the afternoon some trucks drew up on the wharf and an armed detachment of Japanese soldiers formed up opposite the U-boat. For a brief moment it appeared to the Germans that the Japanese intended to take U-862 by force. The situation, however, was strictly under control and within a few minutes the Kriegsmarine ensign had been lowered, the rising sun hoisted and the U-boat renamed I-502. There was no ceremony attached and without a word the German crew disembarked and filed onto other trucks ready to be taken back to their quarters.

U-862 was not used operationally by the Japanese and at the end of the war she was found by the British in Singapore along with her sister U-181. On 15 February 1946 both vessels were  escorted by the Royal Navy frigates HMS Loch Lomond and HMS Loch Glendhu to the middle of the Malacca Strait and scuttled in 52 fathoms of water, thus fullfilling the requirements of the Anglo-American Soviet Agreement concerning the destruction of U-boats.

Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Timm and his crew survived the war. Timm later served in the German Bundesmarine following its formation in 1955, retiring as a Fregattenkapitän in 1966. He died in Bremen in 1974.

Further Reading

David Stevens, U-Boat Far From Home, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1997