The Story of Ehrenfels at Goa

Operation Longshanks and the Calcutta Light Horse

The Second World War had gripped almost the whole world in its vise like grip. Some countries entered into the war arena with a good amount of confusion and trepidation, some were forced into it, some watched from the edges, affected though by the fall out. Indians as a whole were not too fearful about the whole thing except when the Japanese planned their incursions through the North East. Most of the Indian populace were more interested in wresting themselves away from the British yoke while some served the British forces in faraway lands, fighting somebody else’s war. Some supported the Germans and the INA’s activities in Japan. Of course there were some tremors when the axis ships passed by shore lines, though some stopped for some refueling, R&R or some such thing as Ruby recounted in her book on Cochin. Up in the North East, a lot was going on though that story is still not very well known to Indians, like this story. Some months ago I decided to work on uncovering the CBI Theater in the North East and one event that surfaced was the fascinating story of Ehrenfels. It was the fodder for a book called The Sea Wolves (Boarding Party) and an insipid movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck, David Nivien, Roger Moore etc…

India on the whole was well under British control in those years, and in 1939, when the 2nd world war started, Europeans were in the thick of it and many a war theatre was played in those lands. The British bureaucracy in India were considering what their future would be after the war and some of them were planning their future in India or completing their travel back to Britain or other locales like Australia. The estate folks in Assam continued their laid back lives and visited Calcutta at times, meeting up and enjoying colonial life, and a few of them had some years back formed the Calcutta Light Horse in 1872, after the Anglo Boer war becoming a Cavalry Reserve in the British Indian Army. But before we get to these folks, let us see what triggered all these events.

There were a few places in the Indian mainland which were independent and beyond British Jurisdiction, examples were Goa, Mahe and Pondicherry. While the former was Portuguese territory, the latter were French. As the world war erupted, the Portuguese were considered neutral and as Decosta notes ‘from the British perspective, Portuguese non-belligerency was essential to keep Spain from entering the war on the side of the Axis’. As the war progressed, British sea channels were severely affected by an effective and aggressive Nazi U boat force. The cargo ships plying raw material and personnel between the distant theatres and supply centers in India were attacked incessantly by these U boats which Churchill considered alarming "The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”. Anti-submarine tactics were still to become effective and it was a period German submariners considered “die glückliche Zeit" or "the happy time.

But just as the war clouds darkened, on 28th Aug 1939, a German vessel named ‘Ehrenfels’ which was heading out from Bhavnagar towards Bombay, instead, slipped hurriedly into the Marmugao port of Goa for its own security, as was stated. The next day another German ship ‘Drachenfels’ which had actually left Goa bound for Rotterdam returned to Marmugao port and docked there for good. Three days later, the ‘Braunfels’ headed to Calcutta from Djibouti also berthed at Goa. Roughly a year later, in June 1940, an Italian ship ‘Anfora’ docked in Goa. The story of these four ships and their crew is what this is all about and one which was kept secret by the British and Indian governments until 1978. Interesting, right? Well, that it certainly was and as we unfold events around this story, we will travel down from Assam to Calcutta, then to Cochin and finally north to Goa. We will meet many nationalities, Indians, Germans, Brits and what not. As events turned out, the previously introduced motely group called the Calcutta Light horse were to get connected to this somewhat important operation of the SOE in India.

As the German U boats became very successful, British politicians got more nervous, war leaders got unsettled and it was discovered that these U boats were being led to their prey, which were the well laden British cargo ships headed out of to India by somebody, a spy perhaps. Without precise coordinates of their prey the U boats would be lost in the vast ocean. How did they get information every day and with such precision? Through bursts of high frequency radio transmission at predetermined times when the U boats surfaced. Where did the transmission originate? From one of the ships docked at Marmugao - Goa. Who delivered the information? An nationalist Indian spy network which risked their lives to get the information regularly to the Nazi transmitter.

The Nazi admiral Karl Doenitz’s chess game in the oceans had just started and the first two groups operating out of France sunk a number of ships in the waters off Africa, some 166,000 tons of it. The next group was supported by an intermediate supply ship and were directed by the abovementioned Indian spy ring operating out of Bombay and Goa, with the help of the transmitter on one of the 4 docked ships. With just the loss of one U boat (U197) they destroyed 31 allied ships totaling to 168,000 tons.

How did the Germans get up-to-date information from around the world? Well, it is said that they had their sympathizers amongst the INA spearheaded by Bose, but it is also stated by Ralph Bergstresser in his book on Nikolai Tesla that many of these spies were equipped with a special wrist watch  based on tesla’s invention which could transmit to 900 miles (I am not sure about the veracity of this, as nobody else has mentioned it, but I do believe that Tesla was so far ahead of his time, and won’t be surprised that he had patented such an invention, the world transmitter!) and that he saw it with some German spies in India. Anyway the Indian (Bengali) sympathizer provided information on departures, speed, cargo and timings to the captain of U181 through the Ehrenfel’s secret transmitter by their radio officer named Pollard (who spoke 7 languages and was also an engineer and code decoder – it is also rumored that an Enigma coder was used) in code. In fact the Japanese had withdrawn to the Bengal seas and left the Arabian to the Nazi’s because they had better access to the Indian spies. The Indian spy network was run by Trompetta or Robert Koch from Goa.

Why could these ships in Goa not be taken? Because they were in Portuguese territory. If a publically visible preemptive strike was launched, who knew what could happen to the Portuguese alliance? It may even tip them and the Spaniards into the Axis lap headed by the Germans, so the situation was very dodgy. The British SOE were ordered to act. But note here that by now it was 1942 and three years had passed since the war started, so the determination that this was indeed the case took quite some sleuthing.

Going back to the 1939 time frame and Goa to retrace the steps of the crew of the four ships, we see that they were in a pitiable state indeed. Many of them deserted, some of them sought asylum in Goa until the war ended and they also complained to the International Red Cross that they were being ‘interned’ by the Goan authorities. They had no resources and little stomach for this kind of life. In fact one Mr JA Rikil of the IRC was even sent for an interview with some money by the Germans. Many passed time doing little with limited funds and whiled away time painting lizards that visited them and all kinds of other silly antics.

Well, in the meantime, the SOE, later known as Force 136 had set up shop in India. That by itself is a great
story and we will cover it in more detail separately. Its purpose supposedly, was to incite, organize and supply indigenous resistance forces in various enemy-occupied territories and sensitive areas. The Indian mission was set up in Meerut by a former businessman, Colin Mackenzie of J. and P. Coats (remember Coats thread?), a clothing manufacturer and the organization was called GSI(k). As it happens, the responsibility for covert action to take out the hidden transmitter aboard the Ehrenfels was given to one Col Pugh of the Indian Police (an SOE member), who was also a honorary member of the Calcutta Light horse, a group of motely middle aged or even older men who mainly lounged around in the Club drinking gin tonic and talking about the fortunes of the allied forces. A meeting held in SOE’s offices in Meerut was overseen by Mackenzie, Stewart and Pugh. Initially he and Stewart hatched an ill-founded plan to first kidnap the spy master, then bribe the commander of the ship. Stewart and Pugh made their way to Goa, posing as representatives of a trading company, secured Tromepta (Koch) the spymaster and his wife in Dec 1942, and placed them in protective custody in British India. Shortly afterwards the transmissions began again, so it became clear that a new conduit had been found to get the information to the ship. Then it was decided that an attempt must be made to meet Roeffer and bribe (this was presumably operation Creek) the German captain (with a sum of £20,000) of the Ehrenfels to desert. This attempt failed.

Eventually the SOE acted on its own, and18 men were chosen to move against the ships and its crew. These men of course had no idea about the objectives, but it remained on Col Pugh’s shoulders to get them weapons trained in time. They had no official backing, not even funds to mount the attack, but well, for many of those tea estate type retired guys, it was a heaven sent opportunity for adventure and a fine way of showing their patriotism. They all agreed, even though it was made clear that they were on their own, and that no recognition, no medals or even a mention would be made of the event. In fact their mouths were also sealed, until 1978!! Each of them took leave from their jobs stating they were going for a training course in Goa and started getting ready for the mission, by now named Operation Longshanks.

Pugh set about finding a vessel which could be made available to transport them to Goa. In the end he managed to obtain the use of a hopper barge ‘Little Phoebe’ with a Bengali crew, a ramshackle tug which had been commissioned in 1912 and had a maximum speed of less than nine knots. In this smoky barge, Stewart, Pugh and a selected group from the Calcutta Light Horse led by Grice were taken to Goa after going to Cochin by train, with plans to split into three groups and board the Ehrenfels, one to take control of the bridge, another to destroy the anchor and the third to destroy the radio.

Their comments about Cochin are funny. Reaching Cochin from Madras by the mail, we read Leasor’s comment. “Our destination is Cochin. Cochin? That sleepy little hollow, a one horse town where even the horse left years ago”. Well they stayed at Hotel Malabar and the Harbor house. They lounged near the pool or went cycling around the town and they spent four uneasy days in Cochin, waiting to board Little Phoebe.
As this was going one, Jock Cartwright another Calcutta Light Horse member had been sent to Goa overland. His task was to lead away as many sailors and crew of the Ehrenfels and other ships. Cartwright bribed a brothel-keeper in Goa to offer free services that night to those seamen. He also managed to bribe a Goanese fidalgo to throw a party and invite the many port officials and ships officers. He finally made sure that as the party ended there were no taxis available to take the officers back to their ships.

March 9th 1943- The boarding party headed by Col EH Grice met with little opposition, and the Ehrenfels's radio transmitter, which was the principal target, was quickly put out of action, while the captain of the ship Roeffer and four semen were killed in the light action which followed. But Roeffer who had foreseen that this would soon happen had already instructed their crews to prepare for a possible attack by the British, and plant charges in all ships which could be exploded quickly so as to scuttle their ships rather than allow them to be captured. As the boarding party from the Phoebe seized control of the Ehrenfels, it was assumed that this was the beginning of the British attack and the charges were quickly exploded. The ships were soon racked by the explosions and sank one by one. The people onshore aghast by these quick happenings were led to believe that the nervous crew fearing an attack and out of depression, drunkenness and despair had set fire their ships. Little Phoebe quietly slipped out of the harbor during the melee but also with a fear  that one last transmission might have alerted the U boats which was probably on their tail. But nothing of that sort happened and all the British made safe return to their home bases. I will not go too much into the complete storyline and events and you are welcome to get that account from the book by Leasor.

Newspaper reports (Times of India) announced that the ships were scuttled by the drunken crew and though it had a good amount of truth, the fact that it was all started by Pugh and his men after they boarded the ship was never ever leaked out for 34 years following the incident. In fact even in 1978 it was assumed that the British were just trying to make a claim and that they had nothing to do with it.

But while all of this follows Leasor’s demi fictional writing, what was the real outcome of the boarding? Both the Cruickshank book and Dr Shirodkar’s study provide clues. You must recall that Capt Roeffer had already a good idea what was going to happen, in fact he had been told so by the SOE agents who had previously attempted to bribe him to sail the ship out of the harbor, and he knew they were coming. Also Koch had been kidnapped and so it was a matter of time. While the barge neared the Ehrenfels, it was never lit up as usual dark and was presumably awaiting the attack. The barge was apaprently hailed in English and before much could be done, the charges on the ship were starting to go off. Soon the other ships also caught fire and sank. It was by pure luck that the blame was laid on the ship’s crew for their scuttling and the SOE as well as the British escaped any recrimination from the Goan’s and the Portuguese and an international wartime scandal with severe recriminations was miraculously avoided.

The transmitter was of course destroyed and the shipping losses dropped drastically. But how much of it was due to the light horse men boarding the ship? That is a question which real historians have not satisfactorily answered though Leasor believed otherwise. The British SOE records roundly declared the Operation to be a disaster and McKenzie did get into trouble for clearing it (only the bribery plan had been approved, not the call for direct subversive action or any sort of violence). SOE’s chief Gubbins met up with Colin Mackenzie the one legged SOE station chief of India, as the latter was recalled to London to account for his apparent disregard of orders over the operation in Goa. Gubbins was quite impressed by him, as it appears and did not accept his resignation but Mackenzie was severely reprimanded.

More of the public and the press had in the meantime accepted that the Germans had mutinied and scuttled their own ships and the SOE actions escaped detection. In fact the Goan court found the Germans guilty for disturbing the tranquility of the Goan port and sentenced. 111 seamen out of which 34 were Italian were detained. 12 Italians and 21 Germans were obviously on shore partaking in the festivities, so they escaped jail. I do not know when the detained seamen were released, but the matter was laid to rest though the affected parties continued to appeal and complain of travesty to justice.

People may wonder why the operation was initially called Longshanks, well it was due to Stewart’s long legs. As for Lewis Pugh he was promoted to Major General with a CB, CBE and three DSOs. He retired from the Army to the family estate at Cymmerau in 1961, and lived in the house and developed its gardens, together with his wife until 1978, and thereafter at Wonastow House, before dying in 1981.Shipping losses reduced to single digits after the operation and life went on at the Calcutta club as before. The Light Horse Bar, located at the Saturday Club (Calcutta) in Wood Street Calcutta, named after the regiment did brisk business.

The waters and mud of the Goa harbor were not going to swallow the wrecks. Ehrenfels was salvaged in 1950 and scrapped later. Drachenfels was sold in December 1948 and scrapped in 1950. Braunfels disintegrated in the waters and Anfora was raised 1948 and scrapped in Bombay 1949. Some of the German men continued to reside in Goa after the war ended. Fritz Dimsak, one of them ran a watch repair shop near the Panjim. The others, Karl Tiegel and Karl Breitkopf set up some businesses in Vasco-da-Gama after marrying locally and raising families there.

The U181 or its ‘wolf pack’ did not get any more messages from Indian spies, and its commander Wolfgang Luth spent only a few more months captaining it. The U boat after a successful run, sinking 27 ships worth 138,000 tons and was transferred to the Japanese navy as I501. It was finally scuttled off the coast of Malacca after the war, in 1946.

An SOE report stated - Operation LONGSHANKS was an SOE effort to capture Axis shipping in the Portuguese colony of Goa. Although the mission was a failure, the Germans scuttling their vessels before they could be captured, three anti-Nazi German seamen took the opportunity to surrender to the British. These men served on SOE's strength in India they were repatriated to Germany and rewarded at the conclusion of the war in the Far East.

Who were the Indian German spies? One of them is stated to be named Ramdas Gupta, a friend of NSC Bose, however I have not been able to make much headway into his involvement. He was apparently part of a network of informers at the shipping offices in Bombay, and organized by the German spy master Koch a.k.a Trompeta resident in the neutral Portuguese territory in Goa. It is also rumored that as the barge reached Cochin before the mission, wild statements were bandied about that it would leave for the ocean to capture a submarine. One can perhaps assume that these rumors reached the Ehrenfels before the barge with the boarding did and that was why Roeffer was ready with the plan to scuttle the ships.
The members of the mission got back to Calcutta, rejoined their jobs. Interestingly, one of them, Jack Breene, an insurance partner discovered that it was his own company which had underwritten three of the ships which he helped scuttle. He did not utter a word, but of course.

And thus a movie was made with an impressive star cast, Gregory peck, Roger Moore, Davis Nivien, Mark Zuber and so on, but it was somewhat less explosive on screen than the story itself, though doing reasonably well at the box office.

The Sea wolves – James Leasor
Sea wolves - the movie
World War II in the Pacific: An Encyclopedia edited by Stanley Sandle
SOE in the Far East -Charles Greig Cruickshank
CLH Blizkrig in Mormugao harbor – Dr PP Shirodkar

Pictures - courtesy of Arnhemjim


Maddy said…
thanks Ramachandran
glad you liked it

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