Blitzkrieg in the Backyard: Goa’s tryst with WW II
11 Mar 2018 07:56am IST
By Savio Correia
By Savio Correia
Seventy-five years ago, on 9 March 1943 to be precise, Goa had a tryst with World War II. Around midnight on the last day of Carnaval, mysterious explosions occurred off Mormugao Port aboard three German merchant ships “Ehrenfels”, “Braunfels” and “Drachenfels” and an Italian “SS Anfora”, in a tale marked with high espionage, sabotage, intrigue and daredevil military operation conducted by the British Secret Service through an amateur “ageing” group of British army volunteers, all in a typical Goan setting. The incident is said to have changed the course of the War in the sub-continent; maybe even delayed the Japanese armies’ march into India. A lot still remains shrouded in mystery though.Outbreak of WW II hostilities in August 1939 saw three German freighters sailing in the vicinity seek refuge at Mormugao Port. The Italian “Anfora” arrived in June 1940 following Italy’s entry in the war. Portugal was officially neutral during WW II, and Goa being part of Portuguese India was neutral territory. The ships were promptly interned by the local Government and ordered to turn over all arms, dismantle their radio and remain apart of the war in exchange for the protection of the port.
As the war continued, the plight of the crew turned extremely pitiable and some resorted to desertion. Though not seen as threats, the ships remained under the watch of Allied intelligence.
The threat perception changed in early 1942 when the British Government handed over a nota verbal to Lisbon about possibility of the German ships escaping to take active part in the war possibly as refuelling vessels.According to author James Leasor, the British intelligence unit “Special Operations Executive” (SOE) based at Meerut intercepted coded radio messages suspected to be transmitted from the Ehrenfels to German U-boats in the Indian Ocean with detailed information on Allied ships leaving Bombay Harbour, the source suspected to be an Indian National Army volunteer. Events came to a head when forty-six Allied ships were sunk by German U-boats in the Indian Ocean over a six-week period in the fall of 1942. The toll continued to climb steadily with twelve attacks in the first week of March 1943. SOE received orders to eliminate the Ehrenfels, and with it the transmitting station. Regular military units were not deployed as the attack would be carried out on a neutral territory. Instead, 18 members of the Calcutta Light Horse (CLH), a cavalry reserve in the British Indian Army, were recruited. The mission was assigned to Lt Colonel Lewis Pugh.
Historian Dr. P.P. Shirodkar suggests that Pugh along with Col Stewart came on a recce to Goa in November 1942 posing as British businessmen; one of their actions was the violent kidnapping of German national Robert Koch alias “Trompeta” and his wife Grete Koch on 19th December at Altinho Panjim and their suspected elimination at Castle Rock. Eye-witnesses confirmed use of force by the assailants. Robert Koch was alleged to be a key operative in the Nazi Gestapo’s global spy network and the brain behind the clandestine operations aboard the Ehrenfels. However, the local police inquiry concluded that the couple had crossed the border voluntarily with two European gentlemen.Codenamed “Operation Longshanks”, the raid was organized with utmost secrecy to avoid any diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Portugal. A section of the CLH team embarked on a hopper barge “Little Phoebe” at Calcutta and sailed around the Indian peninsula to Mormugao, while others travelled by train to board at Cochin. The surprise attack happened around midnight on March 9, 1943. Some accounts suggest that undercover agents weaned 31 members of the crew for an onshore Carnaval party to diminish resistance. By some coincidence, the lighthouse of the breakwater and the luminous buoy were not functioning that night. The unidentified vessel entered the port under cover of darkness and attacked the Ehrenfels. There was exchange of fire and outcry on the Ehrenfels followed by brief cessation and its resumption after fifteen minutes. A huge explosion followed. Survivors later deposed that they had seen a group of 8 to 10 men uttering obscene expressions in English. The attacking vessel then exited the port, its blitzkrieg operation lasting all of about 35 minutes. In a panic reaction, the other captains ordered their crew to scuttle their ships so that they do not fall into enemy hands. Five members of the Ehrenfels’ crew were found dead and three declared missing. Two cadavers could not be identified, though investigators presumed one to be of its Captain Johann Rofer. In all, 111 seamen were detained by the authorities after the incident. The action created a great panic in Goa and jubilation in British India. The media and intelligence agencies reported the scuttling of the four interned ships by their own crew. O Heraldo reported that crew members of the Ehrenfels had rebelled against their captain. The Times of India (Bombay) reported that the crew had set fire to their ships and were taken into custody. Ironically, the Judicial Court of Mormugao conducting the criminal case delivered a verdict on 1st October 1945 that no alien vessel had entered Mormugao Port on 8/9 March 1943 and there had been no attack! The seamen remained interned at Aguada Jail on charge of setting the ships on fire till end of the war. It was only when documents of the CLH operation were declassified by the British Government thirty years later in 1974 that the true picture emerged. James Leasors’ book “Boarding Party” based on the episode was later turned into a film “The Sea Wolves”. A deeper analysis of the events raises questions on Portugal’s neutrality, and whether it was aware of the impending British mission but looked the other way. Were the lighthouse and luminous buoy deliberately shut down that night? Were captains of the interned ships expecting the attack? Was Robert and Grete Koch kidnapping pushed under the carpet to avoid a diplomatic row? Was the second unidentified cadaver a member of the raiding party? On the other hand, during the rest of March 1943, German Uboats sank only one ship, the Panamanian “Nortun”, and only three throughout the following month of April. Was it a coincidence or attributable to the covert operation? Interestingly, British National Archive records released in 2002 suggest that the SOE mission was actually to capture the German ships, a mission that failed as the ships were scuttled before capture. They also disclose that three anti-Nazi seamen surrendered to the Britishers, served on SOE's strength in India and were repatriated on conclusion of the war. That accounts for three of the four “missing persons”. The last physical remnants of Mormugao’s tryst with history could be lost for posterity with MPT proposing to scrap the shipwrecks that have lain undisturbed in its waters for decades. Six Germans opted to stay on rather than return to their warravaged country; Erich Sautter (Drachenfels), Erwin Tiegel (Braunfels), Fritz Dimsak (Braunfels), Karl Breitkopf (Drachenfels), Kurt Thamm (Braunfels) and Walter Sedlaczeck (Drachenfels) married local girls and merged into the Goan countryside.
.Dr P P Shirodkar, CLH blitzkerieg in Mormugao Harbour during World War II, Purabhilekh Puratatva, 15 (July 1986).
.Dr P P Shirodkar, BLAZING MIDNIGHT (2012).
.Dr P P Shirodkar, World War II: German Master Spy and ships in Goa, Colloquim Vol IINo. 2 July-December 1979.
.Jose Antonio Barreiros, O ESPIÃO ALEMÃO EM GOA (2001).
.National Archives of India, De-classified files of Ministry of External Affairs, File no: Progs., Nos. 11(389)-W,(Secret).
.Dwight Jon Zimmerman, Operation Creek: SOE enlists an “over the hill” gang for a mission, DefenseMediaNetwork, available at: http://www.defensemedianet work.com/stories/soe-enlistsan- over-the-hill-gang-for-a-mis sion (last visited on March 5, 2018).
.War Cabinet, Weekly Resume (no. 184), 4, The National Archives London.
.O Heraldo, 10th March 1943.
.New Document Releases: Special Operations Executive Records Release 8th Feb 2002, NATIONAL ARCHIVES, pg 15 File no. HS 8/892.
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