Panikkar and the torpedo

It was the tail end of the First World War. The war had been raging for four long years and involved some 70,000 military personnel, including close to 60,000 Europeans and sending some 9 million people to their untimely deaths. Starting with the crises in Austria and Serbia, it pulled in the Hungarians and the conflict soon spread with the Germans invading Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany soon after and The Germans were on their way to storming Paris. Russia moved in and trench war was raging to its final stages at the Western front.

One of the first things the Germans did during this period was also to take the battle to the seas. The supply lines for raw material and soldiers were laid through the big seas and anything that could slow the movement of merchant ships or halt it would be ever so important in the main battles and in slowing the Allies. It was with this in mind that the submarine corps was strengthened. The SM U-46 was one of the 329 submarines serving in the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine). It was part of a small fleet that started with the U43 and went on until the U50. They were all ocean going diesel powered attack boats. The U43 was a class of eight ocean-going submarines built at the Imperial Dockyard at Danzig during World War I, with a displacement of 725 tons, cruising distance of 15,000 km, a speed of 15 knots, power of 2400 HP and each armed with 6 torpedoes, four from the bow and two from stern. The Danzig dock, famous as the birth place of the ship Emden that we talked about in the past, produced the U43’s which were rolled out between 1913 and 1916. The U-46 one such U boat launched in 1915 was also engaged in the naval warfare and took part in the First Battle of the Atlantic.

Prior to World War I, the submarine was considered an ineffective weapon for blockading an enemy country. Submarines, basically, had no space to take prisoners aboard and could never carry sailors to provide crews to man captured ships. So it was considered a useless against merchant shipping. In February 1915 the Germans decided it had a solution to the issue -- unrestricted submarine warfare where they just sank ships - crew and all after declaring a war zone around the British Isles within which they would sink any allied or even an US flagged merchant vessel on sight. When the Americans protested there was a brief lull between 1916 and 1917, but the attacks restarted in 1917 and on 6th April 1917, President Wilson of America declared war on Germany, the Submarine had dragged America into the war.
The Germans had planned on starving out the British who were dependent so much on the shipping lanes. Over a thousand merchant ships had been sunk and Britain was just weeks away from starvation. By April, when America declared war, Britain was on the edge of starvation.

Meanwhile a young Indian student from Malabar, named Madhava Panikkar was winding up his studies in Christ College Oxford, after having come there just as the war had started. He was being taken care of by his elder brother who was studying medicine in Edinburgh at the time. Interestingly, Paniakkar had no undergraduate degree, and had not really fared brilliantly in his entrance exams, but then professor Dr John Murray had a sixth sense that this entrant was a scholar in the making. How did he discern it? From the Indian boy’s handwriting!! There were about 60 Indian students in the school and KPS Menon was one of later students. Panikkar did well in school and was eventually awarded the Dixon scholarship. But the main topic of discussion during these years was war and if Germany would succeed. Britain was despondent. During these testing times, the boy wrote a lot, published many an article and made many acquaintances that were to be of great help in his later years. Soon he entered the avenues of history studies helping Vincent Smith in his book on Indian history. But time was running short and it was time for the young Malayali to return home. What could have been the full name of this character? None other than Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, the person I had previously introduced to you. Well, Panikkar was looking forward to the voyage back home and the trees and ponds of his native place Kavalam in Kuttanad, its monsoons and the life he had always loved. But fate had something else in store for him.
Several people advised Panikkar not to travel as they expected the war to end soon, but he was adamant. Finally he got a ticket on the SS Tasman bound for Bombay. According to Wint, he received a letter from his astrologer (not sure who, perhaps his doctor brother who later became an astrologer) stating that he was going to have bad luck in the seas but that he would escape. Anyway whether it was that reassurance or just plain dumb bravado, Panikkar decided to travel out on the Tasman on the 11th Sept 1918. Nostalgically he cast some final looks at the British shores that he had come to love though his homesickness had risen above it all.

Captaining the U46 during the final stages was the dashing Kapit√§nleutnant Leo Hillebrand, then 32 years old, who had joined the U46 only in January after a stint with the U16’s (For those technically inclines, the U boat stands for Unterseeboot or under sea boat). In fact he had participated in the battle of Jutland at Denmark, the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war. Both sides claimed victory, but eventually due to larger numerical superiority of the Royal navy, the German Navy turned its efforts and resources to unrestricted submarine warfare and the destruction of Allied and neutral shipping which had by April 1917 triggered America's declaration of war on Germany. So now Hillebrand had a free run and he took his orders to heart, sinking 50 ships with his U boat team. He was thus one of the underwater aces. The U boat U46 was on its last patrol run, having finished 10 already and sunk close to 140,000 tons of merchant ships.
The date was 16 September 1918. As the U46 locked onto the steamer sailing serenely ahead, Hillebrad quickly surfaced and lifted his periscope. He had surfaced in the Atlantic, 220 nautical miles (410 km) north by west of Cape Villano, Spain. The steamer on the waters looked akin to a huge whale in the eyepiece and he saw people walking on his bridge, and some of the crew cleaning the deck and a few passengers scurrying about, for the sea was calm and the weather good.

'But it cannot be helped,' Hillebrad must have thought 'War is war’ and called out to the control room - 'Stand by for firing a torpedo!' He knew that the liner had not a chance, for it just defensively armed, had neither Sonar nor depth charges, nor high power machine guns.
'FIRE!' he shouted, and a slight tremor went through the U boat – for the torpedo had gone. The distance was right, the aim on target and the torpedo ran towards the doomed ship at high speed. Those in the U boat could follow its course exactly by the light streak of bubbles which was left in its wake.

SS Tasman, the steamship built by Earle's Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd., Hull in 1912 and owned at the time by The Shipping Controller (Federal Steam Nav. Co. Ltd.,), London, was a British steamer of 5.023 tons capacity. On that fated week it was on the London Calcutta route. Panikkar and a number of others were as we know, on board. Let’s take the story from the accounts of Panikkar (His newspaper account in Kairali could not be located) narrated by Narendranath his biographer and Rev. George Ernest Woodford, a survivor, as recounted from his diary.

Panikkar’s biographer's account– It was the fourth day of the journey (It must have actually been the fifth for the event happened on the 16th Sept) and after lunch the passengers retired to their corners. Panikkar was half asleep when he was awakened by a deafening sound, the ship had been hit by a torpedo…….. Those on the deck of the soon tilting and sinking ship were ordered to jump into the sea and the panicky crowd did so in the hope that they would be saved. Panikkar being adept in swimming, thanks to training at Kuttanad, jumped with some fear and was soon taken into a boat. There was waiting and utter confusion about him. Not even enough room to sit. He himself had the sea sickness of the worst type. The wearied and dejected Panikkar received some comfort from a young man (was it Woodford? Woodford talk of lending a rug-blanket to a soul who had only a shirt on and Narendranath states that Panikkar had only a shirt on)beside him, who patted him on his back and put him to sleep. Many hours later they saw a light, but it was the light of the very submarine that had sunk them, and deepened the gloom of the group on the boat. By midday they saw a ship approaching, it was mercifully an American ship. They were saved at last. Narendranath states that Panikkar was among the 52 out of 273 on board, who were saved, but that is wrong for only 14 people lost their lives in this sinking, including the Master.
Woodford’s diary excerpts - The ships that took to the ocean were indeed camouflaged and that the Tasman was part of a convoy of 13 ships, with six destroyers in escort and a mystery ship. The SS Tasman rode on the outer left. By the 16th, the convoys returned and the ship was well into the high seas. Standing on the deck, one could only see another ship, the Colaba. He says - We went for tea at 3.35 PM and at 3.45 we were hit by a torpedo in the front hold of the South side. Five minutes later the ship had sunk. All the boats got lowered but only just in time. Many of us had to jump into the water and swim to the boats. We were holding onto the lines from the boats like bloaters on a string. I managed to clamber in. The rest had to be pulled in. Immediately she was struck, the ship took a strong list to S but fortunately she almost righted herself before she disappeared. If she had gone over, all the S boats would have been knocked out & taken under, as none of were more than 10 or 12 yards from her when she sank. She sank by the head and there was very little turmoil or suction as she glided down. She was an oil ship, and there was much oil on the water unfortunately for us. All 5 boats got safely clear & turned their heads to wind by means of sea anchor & oars. Nearly all the tillers were smashed. The weather was squally with heavy showers. Sea was rough with strong SW wind. Sighted submarine on horizon at 6pm don’t think she saw us. Boat torpedoed about 350 miles SSW of Ushant. There was a cross sea out – it was difficult to keep boat head to the waves after moon went down. Saw a wonderful lunar rainbow, the bands of colour were fainter and much wider than in the day solar rainbow. We know that our boat had no time to send out an SOS with our position, and could only hope that the Colaba had done so. She of course made off at top speed as soon as we were torpedoed.

At 9 am sighted smoke again and after a while a vessel which turned out to be the USA destroyer Talbot. We were rescued at last and made for Brest and got into harbour at daybreak. On the 19th we were back in Plymoth. Three things mainly responsible for our deliverance - No women & children on board, an oil fuel boat, a white crew (doubt if a lascar crew would have got the boats afloat in time).
In a later report, he adds - had quite a shock when I discovered what a small boat she was. On board, everything appeared in confusion. I was surprised and disappointed to find that there were no Indian stewards on board. The crew and stewards were all white, Australians in fact. The vessel was a Dutch boat that had been taken over in Australia, an Australian crew had brought her home and were taking her back to Calcutta, where they expected to pay off. A lascar crew, were, we understood, to be shipped there. We left on Saturday morning in a thick mist. When it cleared we discovered that there were 13 ships in our convoy, including a mystery ship and that we were escorted by 6 destroyers, some American and some British.

The passengers were not numerous, 50 or 60 perhaps. But they were a cosmopolitan lot. My cabin companion was a sea captain going out to Bombay to his boat. The list contained a High Court judge, a member of the ICS, businessmen bound for the Strait Settlement, Madras, Calcutta, Assam, Bombay and Mesopotamia, a young Indian returning after some years at Oxford, an old Indian pleader who had been to England to instruct counsel in a Privy Council appeal, 4 YMCA workers for Mesopotamia, two of whom were American and the other two English one being an ordained minister. I was the only missionary on board.
On Monday morning when we came on deck, we discovered that our escort had left us and that there was only one other ship in sight which was said to be the “Colaba” bound I believe for Bombay. The disappearance of the convoy and the escort caused a feeling of loneliness in most of us. At 3.30pm the tea bell went and a good number of the passengers trooped down for a cup. At 3.40 there was a very intensive BANG in the fore hold a little bit forward of the saloon in which we were sitting. All the glass came out of the windows and we were all jumped out of our chairs. Nobody said a word. We all knew what had happened, I noticed how tense and white everybody’s face was and wondered if my face was like all the others. We all rushed for the stairs leading to the promenade deck.

For those who would like even more details, please read thediary account in full at this wonderful site and many thanks to Jerome Woodford for making it available.
So Panikkar was finally back in Britain, but he would not stay any longer there and was on the lookout for another voyage to India. 10 days later he found another ship to India and soon he was back in his home, hale and hearty.

But many years later, another aspect of this story still remains a little out of place. According to Mathai’s reminiscences, after his return Panikkar was asked to accompany his uncle - an imperious man, to check out the flooded situation in his hometown. Panikkar according to Mathati was terrified since he did not know how to swim. Anyway he could not decline and accompanied him. While in the middle of the swirling waters, Panikkar’s uncle asked him to get married and informed curtly that an alliance had been arranged for him with his daughter, Panikkar’s cousin. The terrified Panikkar had no choice but to agree and that is how he got married. Then again that was Mathai, and his accounts should be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. Narendranath if you recall stated that Panikkar was adept at swimming. Anyway, this was just a tidbit to mull about.
After his return and marriage, Panikkar joined Aligarh Muslim University in 1919 to teach history and political science. He became the first editor of the Hindustan Times from 1924 and later decided to study law, by returning to England in 1925 for a year and enrolling in Middle Temple.

Quoting Wikipedia - Unrestricted submarine warfare in the spring of 1917 was initially very successful, sinking a major part of Britain-bound shipping. Nevertheless with the introduction of escorted convoys shipping losses declined and in the end the German strategy failed to destroy sufficient Allied shipping. An armistice became effective on 11 November 1918 and all surviving German submarines were surrendered. Of the 360 submarines that had been built, 178 were lost but more than 11 million tons of shipping had been destroyed.
A month later, on 26th November 1918, the U boat U-46 surrendered to Japan. She was in Japanese service as the O-2 from 1920 till 21. She was later rebuilt at the Yokosuka Navy Yard 1925 as a testbed for submarine salvage operations carried out by the tender IJN Asahi. During her transfer from Yokosuka to Kure on 21st April 1925, she was caught by a storm and lost. On 5th August 1927 her hulk was spotted by a US merchant ship, west of Oahu and subsequently scuttled.

Nothing is known of the future of Leo Hillebrand, the captain of the U46 who sunk the SS Tasman. The Tasman still lies on the ocean bed and has not been salvaged. If they did, they would still not find the 2,000 or so books he was bringing back to India and reams of correspondence that was part of Panikkar’s baggage. Those have become food for the marine inhabitants, not that they would be richer in intellect after ingesting those pages anyway!
That is thus the story of a ship, a submarine and a person who escaped the torpedo attack, with his life. He was so fated, but went on to become a great man. Perhaps a half hour of your valuable time has been wasted reading this perfectly useless bit of information, perhaps you enjoyed it, perhaps you hated it, nevertheless, I would be happy if you cast a comment or two.

Sardar Panikkar - his life and times – KR Narendranath
KM Panikkar – An autobiography
Sardar Panikkar – Shastyabdapoorthy Souvenir  - Ed BJ Chaco
The third Killer - Guy Wint
"U-boat Attack, 1916," EyeWitness to History, (1997)
The Wreck site
Tasman photo thanks to Shipspotting
U46 photo
Panikkar - Life, Old indian photos

Another U46 a Type VIIB was launched during the Second World War, it is not the same U boat as in this event. Thanks to the eyewitness to history for the U boat attack event which helped embellish my account and of course the Wreck site which provided much information on the ships. Thanks also to Jerome Woodford for the diary extracts.


It was enjoyment alone.Thanks for this piece from the annals of recent History.
Maddy said…
Thanks PNS..
been ages since i heard from you, glad you liked it. I will have another one on the KM Panikkar and Sir CP relationship sometime soon..
ajay joy said…
This blog was a chance discovery for me, but now I devour each page of this blog. Such erudite, yet enjoyable. Looking forward to read the next article.
Just a thought. Can these articles be translated to Malayalam as well. It would have enrichened the malayalam web content.
Maddy said…
thanks ajay & welcome
glad you enjoyed this, many more in the archives and new ones coming up..
Translating to malayalam- wow! this itself is hard work, maybe some day...
harimohan said…
the best things about your posts Maddy is the hard work behind it ,you are a true historian writer
MO Mathai’s comment is malicious and venomous. Incidentally, KMP has married the second uncles’s (Ayyappa Panikkar) daughter. Ayyappa Panikkar was not the “karnavar” of the family but assisting his elder brother Eravi Ramakrishna Panikkar who was the head of the matrilineal family set up of the time. In fact, Eravi Ramakrishna Panikkar’s daughter was married to KMP’s elder brother Dr.K.P.Panikkar who was an Edinburough trained doctor who served in the army for a period during IWW and later became the Karnavar while simultaneously doing philanthropic medical treatment for the poor. Both the marriages were as the custom of the matrilineal family set up arranged with the consent of everyone. According to my mother (KMP’s younger sister) when the family astrologer predicted the mishap at sea for KMP, all female members inclusive of his would be wife were worried at home until the confirmation cable reached in two weeks that he was back to England.
All those who are born in Kuttanad know swimming before learning how to walk on two legs.
Maddy said…
Thanks hari..
perhaps time to search for publishers...I have quite a collection now!!
Maddy said…
hello Prof Panikkar..
thanks, I agree Mathai's books are a collection of scandals and salacious stuff, the problem if if any or some of those stories are reliable. A couple I have checked out liked this, are just false!!
Anyway for me it was fun getting deeper into the story of the ships as well!
Vi said…
Dear Maddy,

Reading about my paternal grandmother's father brings me great joy. My Achamma has told me many stories about her 'Achan' and the torpedo was among many of her accounts. Thank you for such lovely posts, each of your posts is expertly researched and the content is scholarly and highly intellectual.

Maddy said…
Thank you vi..
always glad to hear from somebody who checks out my rambles....makes it well worth the effort.