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Library Reference Number: 163

Tracking Submarine U862 - Via The Maldives

Jack Burgess, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

Present day travel brochures may describe the Maldives as an idyllic unspoiled location, the perfect place to explore underwater marine life in a tranquil untroubled environment. During World War Two however, this very spot had more sinister objects lurking beneath the surface of the waterand determined to continue their attacks on surface shipping. The remote Addu Atoll had become an ocean crossroads for war vessels of many nationalities and trying to find this tiny spot a few miles south of the equator was a far cry from my intended RAF career and in which I had been trained to fly in Halifax aircraft. The sudden demand for Flight Engineers to fly with B24 Liberator aircraft brought about a swift change of plan and I was sent to Nassau to join a Canadian crew for operational training. A subsequent posting to the Far East had precluded any thoughts about encountering German U-boats, but to my surprise this was one of my first tasks before embarking on operations over Japanese-held territory. Jack Burgess explains:

Although I had experience of air-testing the new B24s at Montreal, flown the Atlantic as a crew member before volunteering for the Far East and flown across North African staging posts to India; we still felt we were a new and inexperienced crew compared to some of the well-seasoned companions with massive numbers of flying hours. It was all the more surprising when, soon after joining 160 Squadron based in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), I was asked by my 'B' Flight Commander S/Ldr Stacey to join his crew on an operational flight to the Maldives. The purpose of this detachment was to detect the whereabouts of an elusive U-boat which had wreaked havoc to Allied shipping.

According to what we knew at that time, German submarine U862 was a 87.5-metre-long IXD2 boat built by Deschimag on the River Weser and commissioned on 7th October 1943. Her Captain, Commander Heinrich Timm, had taken his 66-man crew on a remarkable long-range voyage covering three oceans and had destroyed a record number of Allied ships on the way.

Like many U-boat Commanders who had earlier found plenty of easy victims in the Atlantic, life had become too dangerous due to the excellent work of scientists at Bletchley Park using a new kind of programmable computer system called Colussus and which remained secret well after the war was over. Unknown to the German leaders, Colussus was aiding the Allies to break the highly secretive Enigma coding system and revealing much about enemy intention. German Submarine Wolf Packs, in search of North Atlantic Convoys, would suddenly find themselves challenged by Sunderlands or other long-range aircraft gradually closing the mid-Atlantic gap known as 'U-Boat Alley'.

Consequently, U862 took the traditional route round the African Cape and up past the Madagascar coast then across to Penang. She sank seven ships, four in one week, including the 3,614 ton British Tramp Steamer SS Radbury on Sunday 13th August 1944, taking no prisoners and leaving the entire crew to fend for themselves and struggling in the water.

On 20th August 1944, U862?s deck guns shot down an attacking Catalina (Capt.F/Lt. J.S.Lough) and one of the U-boat's crew dived in to retrieve valuable documents from the stricken aircraft. There were no survivors. The pilot, Jock Lough from Eyemouth, was later commended for his bravery in pointing his aircraft at the U-boat as he probably realised he would not make it back to base with his heavily damaged aircraft.

We know this because of diaries taken from the crew of U862. The same records show how the U-boat made its way east across the Indian Ocean to Penang and on the west coast of Malaya. They only stayed there three days in order to restock and refuel with their Japanese allies. According to these same records, they did not like the Japanese officials much as they wrote everything down and seemed to distrust them.

It was at this point while refuelling at Penang that Allied Intelligence contacted 160 Squadron to bring us into the picture. On 12th September 1944, it was discovered that U862, having refuelled, had left Penang and was making its way down to the Malacca Straits and towards Singapore. On that same day, I was briefed to fly south from Ceylon in an attempt to follow its progress and attack if possible. It was believed the vessel might be headed for Australia and determined to sink further Allied shipping.

I took off in Liberator EV889 at 07.20 Hrs on 13th September 1944 with S/Ldr Stacey as aircraft captain. This was an anti-submarine operation to look for the elusive U862 and after a fruitless search we eventually landed at Gan in the Addu Atoll of the Maldives six hours later. This was the first time I had crossed the equator as Addu Atoll was the most southern tip of the long string of small islands covering hundreds of miles. In fact, I thought afterwards if we had made a small error in navigation there was no land mass further south on which to land.

Gan is only three miles long by one and three quarters wide. The highest point is only six feet above sea level and the runway surfaced with crushed coral extended across the widest part of the island with the sea at both ends. This being so, it was essential to make a long low approach to land and especially trying to bring down a thirty ton Liberator without running into the sea at the far end. F/Lt Trotter, who had gone in ahead of us and had made this required low approach struck a post bearing a navigation light, tearing off his bomb doors in the process!

After more searching for submarine U862 and without success, it was eventually concluded that U862 had eluded us and was now probably beyond our flying range. S/Ldr Stacey decided that everyone should pile into Liberator EV889 that we had arrived in and get back to 160 base in Ceylon. His plan was that he and I should remain along with a couple of ground crew that had fortunately came with us and in order to repair damaged aircraft. This tuned out to be quite difficult in the circumstances with very minimal repair and service facilities at our disposal. A very rough repair job was completed by fixing sheet metal over the space left by the absence of the torn-off bomb doors that roll up from bottom to the side of fuselage on the B24. Eight days after we had first landed on Gan, we took off from the short island runway, staggering off the coral surface and I still recall the rattling of shells hitting the hull. With fingers firmly crossed, we landed back in Ceylon on the 21st September 1944 at Ratmalana Airfield, Colombo in 3 1/2 hours and only to discover Liberator FL969 had a fractured bulkhead and was declared a write-off.

At least we had managed to escape from Gan Island and where it had been necessary to dig out 5 gallon jerry cans of 100 octane fuel and which had been buried in the sand left from some earlier expedition. It took some hours to find this fuel dump and then pour the 5-gallon cans into a 40 gallon drum to hand pump the fuel into our Liberator's main fuel tanks. I sincerely doubt, whether the makers of this aircraft, American Consolidated Aircraft Company, would have approved of our primitive methods of treating their aeroplanes in his fashion; but it got us home!

I later flew across the Indian Ocean many times to drop in guerrilla type agents by parachute deep inside Japanese-held territory in Malaya, Thailand and Burma. On those occasions we could at least observe the enemy beneath us yet unlike the U862 whose progress remained hidden under the waves.

Of course, this raised questions on how we had been alerted and forewarned concerning the route the U-boat was about to take. Had the amazing Enigma code been broken? Was Admiral Doenitz still directing German submarines using this system in the North Atlantic and elsewhere? Had Blechley Park made an error? Post-war evidence suggests they were right on the mark and U862 had in fact made its way south to Australia.

Even if we were made aware of the submarine's route by means of decryption of Enigma codes, it still give credence to the boast by Admiral Donitz, Hitler's Commander-in-Chief of Naval Forces that "The aeroplane can no more eliminate the U-Boat than a crow can fight a mole." Thereis no doubt the U862 had a charmed life of massive destruction to Allied shipping, surviving all attempts to find and destroy it.

The U-boat eventually returned from Australia and surrendered at Singapore on VE Day and was taken over by the Japanese and renamed 1/502 even while still manned by a German skeleton crew. The vessel shot down one of the two US Lightning aircraft sent over to bomb Singapore harbour but ultimately, Timm and his U-boat crew were made prisoners-of-war on VJ Day and brought to UK. While there, their war diaries gave full details of their further attacks on Allied shipping.

Remembering how U862 had recently sunk seven ships before reaching our attention in Penang, four in one week including the British Tramp SS Radbury, further details were revealed from crews.

Post War Diaries tell us us about the submarine's journey to Australia. Proceeding down the Malacca Straits and passing Singapore, they had gone past the Maldives towards Australia and rounding Tasmania before sailing up the east coast of Australia on Christmas Eve. Approaching Sydney, U862 sank the 7,000 ton American Liberty ship "Robert Walker." and submarine Commander Timm then took his vessel round the north cape of New Zealand and cruised down the eastern coast. The crew recorded their marvel at the beauty of the scenery yet remained still intent on sinking more ships. They hesitated at attacking ships coming in and out of Auckland and Gisborne Harbours omn account of their small size and limited stock of torpedoes. Despite this, returning north and rounding Tasmania, U862 sank another 7,000 ton US Liberty ship named "Peter Sylvester"

This vessel had been sailing from Melbourne to Colombo, and of the 175 US personnel on board, 142 survivors were picked up, although 317 mules tied in their stalls were all drowned. At this final thrust, U862 returned to Singapore and surrendered.

Following this rude awakening to the threat of submarine warfare and the growing flow of enemy shipping bringing Japanese supplies to their army in Burma, 160 Squadron was involved in laying mines all down the western Malaya coastline; a stretch extending from Penang right down the Malacca Straits to Singapore. I was in one of the first three Liberators (led by S/Ldr Stacey) to begin the mine-laying process. Starting at Penang Island on 21st January 1945 and taking 19 hours to reach there and return to base in Ceylon. Mine-laying was completed down to Singapore, much longer missions were then undertaken by members of 136 Force (Special Operations).

S/Ldr Stacey was eventually promoted Wing Cdr. Commanding No.160 Squadron, and after a very long post-war RAF career became Air Vice-Marshal John Stacey, CBE, DSO, DFC, JMN. An account "Aircrew Leadership" referring to John Stacey, appears in Scottish Saltire Branch Website Library, Index No.110.

Detailed descriptions of some of U862's long journeys appearing in the above article, relied heavily on research undertaken by Arthur Banks. He served during WW2 with the RAF in East Africa, later qualifying in medicine at Edinburgh University before becoming a family physician. He wrote the first textbook for family doctors on Drug Addiction, also co-operated with NASA, Houston, on treatment for motion sickness. He was also co-founder of the Indian Ocean Flying Boat Association. On retirement, Dr Banks embarked on seven years research in preparation for publishing a wartime history of the Indian Ocean.*

During the early 1990s, Arthur Banks approached me to gain first-hand information on the role of 160 Squadron during the time of U862's visit to our area, and our subsequent mining operations. This led to many communications and phone conversations which confirmed the tremendous amount of detail he gleaned from interviewing everyone from very senior members of the Armed Forces, to former crew members of German U-boats. I was very pleased to learn that someone was interested in events which took place thousands of miles from UK, and also pleased to give information and photographs to an author who was prepared to contribute such a massive amount of time and effort into gaining factual evidence over such a long period. Without Arthur Banks post-war pursuit of detail and examination of war diaries, many of the above dates times and places within the above account would still have remained unknown.

* "Wings of the Dawning - The Battle for the Indian Ocean 1939-1945"
by Arthur Banks (1996)
Pub. Images Publishing (Malvern) Ltd. ISBN 1 897817 70 3

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