The appeal of writing a book that dealt with those U-boats that had travelled to the Far East was immediate. Through the research for this work I was lucky enough to meet a number of veterans, Hans-Rudolf Rösing, Hans-Joachim Krug and Jürgen Oesten in particular giving me priceless first-hand information about the missions themselves and the surrounding strategy of them. It remains a fascinating subject for me; one of the boats actually making it as far as the shores of my home country New Zealand.
In July 1943 the eleven-strong ‘Monsoon’ U-boat group departed Lorient and Bordeaux, their destination the Indian Ocean and ultimately Penang. The group was so-named because they were due to arrive at their destination at the tail end of the monsoon season, their commitment to the Far East a logical continuation of OKM ideas frequently put forward since 1941. However, at that time the Japanese Navy had expressed little enthusiasm for German trespassing on their sphere of influence, flushed with the apparent ease in which the Imperial Japanese forces swept all before it. In turn, Karl Dönitz, head of the U-boat service and later entire German Navy, did not relish the prospect of diverting valuable U-boats from the Atlantic to far-flung theatres of war. Thus the division of naval control exercised by the two Axis countries remained at 70° East.
By 1943 all had changed for both powers. Japan had suffered the humiliation of defeat at the hands of the US Navy at Midway and stagnation on all fronts, beginning to experience setbacks in both China and the Solomon Islands. For Germany, defeat in the Atlantic focussed attention on opening new battlegrounds for the U-boats, hoping to rekindle the triumph of surprise before ASW capabilities in the Far East improved, attacks against South Africa and Madagascar already having borne fruit for Dönitz’s beleaguered forces. Furthermore it was felt that U-boats shuttling between France and the Far East could continue the valuable work of blockade-running that had become nearly impossible for large surface ships to undertake. Dönitz unhesitatingly endorsed the fresh proposal and the first boats sailed in late June.
The 12th U-Flotilla’s U178 left Bordeaux for Penang as Monsoon’s spearhead. Once in Malaysia the boat’s commander, FK Wilhelm Dommes, would later become Chef im Südraum, leader of the Far Eastern U-boat presence, coordinating the establishment of bases to be used by the German submariners, his work already begun by Admiral Wenneker, Naval Attaché to Tokyo. Wenneker’s relationship with Sho-sho (Rear Admiral) Ichioka Hisashi, commander of the local Eighth Submarine Group of the Imperial Japanese Navy, has been described as excellent. During spring 1943 ports in Batavia (Jakarta) and Singapore were made ready for use loading and clearing German blockade-running U-boats while the small island of Penang alongside Malaya’s west coast would be used by combat boats between patrols. A base was established at Georgetown’s former Imperial Airways seaplane installation and soon the Monsoon boats began to tie up to Swettenham Pier, a safe sheltered harbour on the north-eastern promontory of the island of Penang (Pulau Pinang).
But the idea that the Monsoon boats would open a full-scale offensive within the Arabian Sea while en-route never fully materialized. However, their lack of success was not solely attributable to faulty weaponry ― a recurrent problem for the U-boat service. Allied intelligence had monitored their progress as they passed South Africa, Enigma decrypts providing a virtual step-by-step track chart of the German submarines. Convoys had largely been diverted away from the cruising threat, minimizing what little impact they could have had. Cooperation with Japanese forces was patchy at best and in total the Far Eastern boats achieved little in the face of minimal Allied ASW measures although they tangled with British and American forces in places as far a field as India and New Zealand. Their various missions undertaken from Malaysia ultimately failed to significantly hamper Allied merchant traffic although large Type IXD U-cruisers of the 12th U-Flotilla continued to be sent to the area in vain pursuit of promising rewards. Likewise, the transport of raw materials back to Europe by U-boat also failed to be fully realized. However the very presence of German submarines within the Far East caused considerable anxiety within Allied command circles and a priority was placed upon their destruction. American, British, Australian and Dutch naval forces soon began their own offensive against the Penang U-boats.
Among the most curious additions to the German U-boat forces in Malaysia were the large Type VIIF torpedo carriers that transported fresh ammunition from Europe to the hard-pressed crews. Also, following Italy’s surrender in 1943, several commandeered Italian submarines were used as transport craft between France and Malaysia, named the ‘Aquila’ group for the duration of their operation. Later they were retained within the Far East to run supply missions between Penang, Singapore and Japan.
Finally in 1945 with the general German surrender, the remaining U-boats that had not succumbed to the constricting Allied vice around Malaysia were transferred to the Imperial Japanese Navy, their crews interned in camps by their erstwhile Allies.
First published by Greenhill Books, Lionel Leventhal Ltd, London, 2004
“This unknown facet of the naval war is brought to light through the words of the sailors who crewed the submarines, existing records, and sharp analysis of the war these men fought. It is a straightforward work in which the author’s expertise and study shines through. The book has many original photographs of the participants and what they saw during their long travels across an ocean far from home.”
Warfare History Network
Currently available through Amazon and other book outlets. Republished in 2017.
Reprinted in 2015: