Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, November 24, 2019

U-boat Safari (Part one)

On the morning of 9th of August 1941 a 65 ton Brixham trawler named Maid Honour chugged slowly out of Poole harbour. Its destination was the west coast of Africa, to target the U-boats that were prowling around the area. These U-boats had been reported as using the rivers of Vichy French controlled areas as refuelling and rest stops. Here they could tie up on the surface and relax without the threat of a British escort heaving into view over the horizon. The plentiful cover would also keep them safe from aircraft observation. Maid Honour however had a trick up her sleeve. Looking utterly innocent with nothing warlike on deck other than winching gear, she was shallow draught and could too sail up the rivers. Upon spotting a U-boat one of the pieces of winching gear would suddenly turn out not to be so innocent. The trawler was fitted with a Blacker Bombard, which to the casual observer, would look nothing like a gun. In fact, it could quite happily fire a 20lb HESH round several hundred yards. With said weapon the Maid Honour could happily mallet any submarine with a few swift blows.
The main armament of the Maid Honour.
On board as crew were five men of the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF), armed to the teeth with Bren and Tommy guns, as well as lots of knives and some explosives. Another fifty men were to travel by other means to rendezvous with the Maid Honour at Freetown in Sierra Leone. Described as a 'Bunch of Hooligans', all the men had gone through Commando training, and were recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Their commander was briefed that should opportunities for other mayhem occur that he was to use his initiative.
I'm no expert on fishing boats, but this is the closest of what I think the Maid Honour would have looked like.

After a six-week voyage around the coast of France, looking like an innocent trawler sailing along, the Maid Honour arrived unmolested by the Germans, and the search for U-boats began. It soon became apparent that there were no U-boats using the rivers of West Africa. But other opportunities for mayhem were present. The Spanish owned harbour of Fernando Po, on the island of Santa Isabel off the coast of Africa held three vessels of interest. These were the Italian merchant Duchessa d'Aosta, weighing in with 8,500 tons. Her manifest was given as a variety of wools, textiles, leathers, asbestos and 1.1 million ingots of copper. However, SOE agents were able to find out that the first page of the manifest had not been submitted and the suspicion rose that she was carrying arms and ammunition. She also had a powerful radio transmitter fitted that could pass on ship movements. The rules of neutral ports stated the radio should be blocked while in port, but this one was still in operation. The Duchessa d'Aosta had arrived some time in 1940, and not yet left. Equally she was captained by a hard-line pro-Nazi. All this led to the suspicion she was a spy ship. There was also a German ship called the Likomba. Some sources describe it as a tug, others as a supply ship. There was also a third ship in the port, also German, which was a large barge called Bibundi. A plan was drawn up to sink the German and Italian vessels, as the Maid Honour had limpet mines and collapsible canoes it would be simplicity itself to sink all three vessels. However, the fear was such an action would cause Spain to enter into the Axis.
The Admiralty thought this operation sounded like a brilliant idea and gave the go ahead in November. However, the commander of West Africa refused to co-operate warning this was an action against a neutral power and might look like piracy. He found allies in the Foreign Office, who were worried about the Spanish reaction. Eventually after several months of negotiations the go-ahead was given. The Foreign Office demanded that there be no evidence of British involvement.

Thus, the SOE began gathering intelligence. First airborne photographs were obtained, by a local agent hiring a Spanish pilot for an airborne tour of the island, during which he took some pictures of the harbour which just happened to show the ships locations. This agent’s camera skills also came into use when he took some photographs of the Spanish governor, quite naked, with his mistress. These were discretely shown to the Governor, who very graciously agreed to relax security surveillance against the British community on the island. This gave the SOE more room to operate.
Captioned to be Axis ships in Fernando Po. If so the main vessel might be the Duchessa d’Aosta, although there are differences between the above picture and the one posted earlier. So this maybe the German contingent.
A British priest was then contacted, who rather joyfully agreed to assist the war effort. In a disguise he got onboard the Duchessa d’Aosta and found some useful information. The crews of the ships were essentially sitting in a safe port, getting paid to do nothing. Thus, they spent most of their time partying, whoring and drinking. Indeed, all three captains had become regular drinking buddies and would spend most nights ashore. In such an environment security was utterly lax as nothing would ever happen to them in their safe port...

In 11th January 1942 Operation Postmaster was commenced. Maid Honour was utterly unsuited to this mission so had been sold. In her place were two tugs graciously donated by the Governor of Nigeria, along with seventeen men handpicked by the SSRF's leader. These joined four SOE men, and eleven SSRF commandos. Training carried on throughout the journey, until on the 14th they were in position to strike. On the day, in sight of the volcanic cone of Santa Isabel, cold rations were issued, as the galley was being used to shape explosive charges. In addition to other weapons, coshes were issued. These were made from 12in steel bolts sheathed in rubber.

Part two can be found here.

Image Credits:
www.britishempire.co.uk and www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk