Thursday, December 6, 2018

World War I in sleepy Goa



An interesting incident took place in Goa, on the west coast of India, in 1943, but the man in the street today may not even have heard of it.  As a province of Portugal during WW II, Goa remained neutral. In 1942 German U-Boats were wreaking havoc and grave devastation on British vessels plying the waters of the Indian Ocean.  The British Admiralty in London was nonplussed about the increasing losses.  It so happened that when war broke out, four merchant ships --- the German Ehrenfels, Drachenfels and Braunfels and the Italian Anfora--- played it safe and sought refuge in Marmagoa. The Portuguese gave them asylum provided their radio transmitters were immobilized.

The ships looked forlorn and harmless moored across from the dockyards, and nobody paid them any attention.  In March 1943, however, people were jolted from their complacency to witness all four ships go up in flames.  This was hard to believe. The rules of engagement in the war did not permit any nefarious action in a neutral port. Without ‘phones or radios in those days, news only spread by word-of-mouth. The story was that the ships had received information that an enemy attack was imminent and so they jettisoned their arms, ammunition, motorbikes, bicycles, into the ocean, before scuttling their ships and setting them on fire. In schools it was the topic of the day and kids took the news home to their parents and neighbours.  I was one of the lucky ones to accompany a teacher from school in Margao, by rail, to Marmagoa --- four stations away--- and witness the burning ships and the billowing smoke.

A few years later I finished my studies in India and found myself employed by the British Government in Uganda. At regular intervals I went on vacation leave to Goa. The rusting hulks were still there marring the scene, at their grotesque angles in the water. Nobody seemed to know whose responsibility it was to remove the blight from the landscape.  Time went by. In 1969 my family and I immigrated to Canada.  In 1980 I got a pleasant surprise.  In the Book Section of the June issue of the Readers’
Digest was the “Boarding Party” by James Leasor.  It was like a bolt from the blue to read for the first time in 37 years about the machinations behind the 1943 saga of the burning ships in Goa.

India was still under the British in 1943.  It turned out that British Intelligence had zeroed on a possible hidden transmitter in the Ehrenfels.
Options on how to demobilize the transmitter were considered.  Uppermost in mind was to ensure that Portuguese neutrality was not infringed upon. A plan was hatched.  A group of ex-British soldiers was assembled in the Calcutta area.  Let’s now skip the details and logistics engendered in the plot, and get to the chase.

From Calcutta on the east coast of India, to Cochin in the south-west, the troopers left by train, in separate batches to avoid suspicion. They assembled in Cochin and boarded a small, shabby craft reeking of goats and chickens in the hold, that had been arranged for them. This was the Phoebe. They carried Sten guns and German ammunition that fitted their guns, to throw people off their scent.  They headed north, along the western seaboard, for Marmagoa.  To coincide with their arrival, a British agent had arranged, through a Goan official, for the Assistant Port Commissioner in Marmagoa to invite the crew of the “stranded” ships and others in port, along with local dignitaries and their wives, to a lavish party at his residence. Apparently this was perceived to be a goodwill gesture, with nobody sensing any sinister motives. As planned, the Phoebe deliberately sailed past Marmagoa to throw off any suspicion. She was spotted by a German officer on watch on the Ehrenfels, but the captain dismissed her as an oiler or fishing boat and nothing unusual.

Under cover of darkness, with lights out, the Phoebe turned back, headed for the Ehrenfels and boldly pulled up alongside.  A lookout officer challenged her, but was told that she was a harbour barge.  Next, the intrepid invaders started scrambling up ladders propped up against the German ship.  They also flung grappling irons on to her deck.  The loud clanging brought a sentry out. The immediate response was a huge searchlight aimed at them. A British officer fired a shot at the searchlight and shattered it with an explosive flash.  The Germans were caught by surprise and stunned into believing that they were under attack.  They let off a loud siren warning of being attacked, which also served as their cue to “destroy” their ships.  The crew on the other ships instinctively readied themselves to confront the enemy and to scuttle their ships after setting them ablaze, if push came to shove.  Ashore, the revelers were rudely jolted as music, conversation and dancing came to an abrupt halt.  They were in utter disbelief.  This could not be happening in a neutral port. The sailors were out in the cold and could not get back to their ships. The invaders continued to carry out their assigned duties.

Plan ‘A’ was to seize control of the ship and sail her out of the harbour, while a couple of them were busy working to blow up the thick chain of the first of three anchors, with plastic explosives.  The explosion was deafening, the link had broken and the heavy chain sank into the ocean.  As they were racing to blow up the second anchor, they found the deck to be slimy with the smell of paraffin.  Simultaneously, a German fired a shot that scored the deck and it erupted into a ball of fire.  At the same time, below deck, two of the invaders turned on the light of the engine-room and studied the massive diesel engine.   They were crestfallen to discover that the engine had been immobilized by the Germans as a precaution.  They immediately switched to Plan ‘B’. They were able to blast their way past a heavy door behind a bulkhead, where they found a tiny cell which housed the hidden transmitter. They destroyed it in short order.

While all this was happening, the clarion call of the siren earlier on, was an ominous warning that they were under attack and had to follow protocol and scuttle their ship, while fire raged on deck.  Valves were opened hastily and seawater gushed in through opened pipes.   The Ehrenfels suddenly tilted and started going under.  The Phoebe let off three siren blasts warning the invaders to withdraw post haste.  After all her crew were accounted for, the Phoebe set off at Full Speed towards the open ocean. The other ships mistakenly thought that she was heading for them and panicked.  They had held back precipitate action after the alarm, until now.  The remaining three ships were soon ablaze and sinking fast. The “victims” had unwittingly torched and scuttled their own ships!  The original word-of-mouth story turned out to be right, except that the press report that the underlying cause of the fires was a dispute between Nazi and anti-Nazi factions, was really invented.  For the intrepid soldiers it was “Mission Accomplished”. Thereafter, there were no more surprise attacks on British ships in the area.

The strange and daring escapade was depicted in a film called “The Sea Wolves”, in the 80s and featured popular stars, Roger Moore, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Trevor Howard,  It was filmed on location in Goa.

(Ironically, not long after the war was over, German ore carriers were found making a daily beeline for Marmagoa, to a conveyor belt jutting out into the ocean, towards the graveyard of their destroyed ships, to take on high-grade manganese ore for their auto engines.)

Perhaps all is fair in love and war, after all.

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