This British Covert Operation Convinced Two Axis Ships To Sink Themselves in World War II

This British Covert Operation Convinced Two Axis Ships To Sink Themselves in World War II

An unlikely group of British raiders came to raise unmitigated hell in Marmagoa, harbor of Portuguese Goa, on the west coast of India.

Key Point: During a clandestine raid, the Calcutta Light Horse silenced a German transmitter in the neutral harbor of Marmagoa.

Freighter Ehrenfels’ siren shrieked through the muggy night across the harbor. As the captain pulled down hard on the alarm cord, the alarm howled out over the steaming darkness, screaming that British raiders were in the harbor, alerting Ehrenfels’ crew and calling for help from ashore.

The captain spun around as the door to his cabin burst open. Framed in the door were two middle-aged, slightly paunchy men in khaki dungarees. These were not the young, tough Royal Marine or Royal Navy boarders the captain might have expected. These men looked like typical British businessmen, too old to serve in war.

The captain would never know that was exactly what they were, for they and their Sten guns were the last sight the captain saw on earth. As the captain and his mate reached for weapons, the intruders opened fire and the ship’s officers fell to the deck in the crowded cabin. They died under a portrait of Adolf Hitler glaring down from the bulkhead.

For on this night of March 9, 1943, an unlikely group of British raiders had come to raise unmitigated hell in Marmagoa, harbor of Portuguese Goa, on the west coast of India. With Portugal being neutral, any violation of this tiny Portuguese enclave ran the horrible risk of offending the Portuguese government, and an Allied loss of extremely valuable privileges–such as refueling of transatlantic flights in the Portuguese Azores.

Controversial Radio Equipment

But risky or not, something had to be done about Marmagoa, or rather about the German freighter Ehrenfels, interned in Goa since the early days of the war. She lay at anchor with her sister ships Drachenfels and Braunfels and the Italian merchantman Anfora. Any of the four ships loose at sea would be useful to the Axis, especially if they could make it to Singapore, where the Japanese might fit them out as commerce raiders.

But Ehrenfels posed a far greater danger, for concealed aboard was a powerful radio transmitter. She used it regularly, for she was the control for German U-boats ravaging Allied shipping all across the the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. To Ehrenfels’ concealed radio room came reports from Axis spies in India, of ship sailings and arrivals, many provided by Indian traitors.

British protests to the Portuguese fell on deaf ears. Officially, Ehrenfels’ radio equipment had been removed when she was interned, and the Portuguese colonial officials did not want a confrontation with Germany or anybody else. Some things it was better not to know, such as the presence on Ehrenfels of a second transmitter, concealed and very powerful, with the range to reach far out to sea, to the waiting ears of lurking U-boats.

Raiding in neutral harbors was desperate business, so the British first tried simple kidnapping. Two officers of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) drove from India across the border into Goa in civilian clothing, and casually snatched an important German secret agent.

Trompeta, as this spy was called, collected reports from other agents who had information about British ship movements. Trompeta passed this vital intelligence on to an officer of Ehrenfels. The German ship’s massive transmitter spoke to the U-boats, far out on the surface in the darkness, and more vital Allied shipping was buried at sea.

The two Englishmen wasted no time on finesse. They simply stuck a pistol into Trompeta’s belly, shoved him and his screaming wife into their car, and drove away, ignoring the shouts of a Portuguese policeman. Once out of Marmagoa, the two cut the telephone lines to the border, injected both of their captives with a powerful sedative, and drove on to the crossing point.

While one Englishman visited the border officials’ shack to accomplish the necessary formalities, the other SOE man sat in the car with the sleeping captives. The Englishman was prepared to throw a bag of rupees into the road if there was trouble; the idea was to smash straight through the wooden border barricade while the Goanese were engaged in chasing the shower of money.

But there was no alarm, and the two amateur kidnappers drove sedately on into India with their prize. The kidnapping was neatly done, and it knocked an important cog out of the German intelligence machinery.

However, it did not fix the problem. In spite of this daring coup and British arrests of a number of little fish, other agents continued to pass shipping information to Ehrenfels at Goa.

Silencing Ehrenfels

Making spies disappear was clearly not enough. Something had to be done about the source of the problem–Ehrenfels herself–and it had to be done quickly. There were several options: In the best Nelson tradition, she could be cut out by a Royal Navy boarding party and sailed out of the harbor, the ideal solution; or her radio system could be entirely destroyed or she could simply be sunk in the harbor. One way or another, she had to be silenced. Allied merchant shipping–stretched thin all over the world–could not stand U-boat losses at the present rate.

Still, the prickly question of Portuguese neutrality made conventional raiding an unacceptable risk. A strike by commandos or a Navy boarding party was the obvious answer to the Ehrenfels menace, but if the raid went sour there would be hell to pay. Regular forces were out of the question; the job had to be done by individuals without official connection to Britain. The raiders had to be people who could be disavowed if the raid failed—people, crudely put, both deniable and expendable.

It was also desirable that whoever struck the Portuguese port have a suitable—and real—civilian cover, and that they come from far away, to lessen the chances of discovery. With these requirements in mind, the British intelligence community cast about for a suitable tool, and in the end its hand fell upon a curious, almost archaic, military unit. At first glance it appeared a somewhat unlikely instrument for a delicate, super secret foray against an enemy on neutral ground.

It was called the Calcutta Light Horse, a reserve cavalry unit of ancient lineage that has its own monument in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. On formal occasions of state it performed with panache as escort to the Viceroy of India. Its battle honors stretched all the way back to 1759, the “year it rained victories” for Britain.

It was a regiment of real soldiers, too, stout-hearted men prepared to risk their lives when Britain was at war anywhere. More than 50 of its men had been killed in action in the two world wars, and over the years six of its members had won the coveted Victoria Cross.

Between wars, it was a warm and pleasant social center for British civilians in Calcutta, a place where a young man might ride and race and meet and become part of the British community. It had elected its own officers since 1857, but new men always started as ordinary troopers, regardless of their civilian office or profession. Promotion was entirely on merit and on the vote of the regiment.

Just now, however, in the middle of World War II, it was a slightly rusty sword. It was again largely a social club, for nearly all of its younger members were already on active duty with British forces across the globe. The average age of its members in 1941 was almost 40 and growing older. The men who were still civilians were either too old for active service or could not be spared from their jobs as company directors and civil servants.

The ‘Colonel of the Light Horse’

Most of them had already volunteered for active duty and been rejected, and all of them were discontent–they did not like being left out of the war. They still trained regularly and enthusiastically, but any hope of seeing real action was gradually fading away.

Bill Grice, the colonel of the Light Horse, was just the sort of man to entrust with a touchy mission, a forlorn hope like the Goa raid. As a young man he had served aboard HMS Vindictive in the daring British strike at Zeebrugge on the last St. George’s Day of World War I. He had lost none of his taste for action in the years between wars.

Once contacted by SOE, he quietly began to gather Light Horsemen for what promised to be, as the British put it, a very rum go indeed. Grice had to limit his strike force to about 20 men, and the four Axis ships’ companies would outnumber his skimpy force several times over.

It would be a shoestring operation in other ways as well. Small arms and plastic explosive were plentiful enough, but a ship was another matter. British shipping was stretched to the breaking point already; given the prickly question of Portuguese neutrality, using a Royal Navy warship was out of the question. In the end, after much searching, Grice’s men fell upon Phoebe, an unlikely ship of war. She was an unglamorous, 30-year-old, Glasgow-built gondola barge designed for the pedestrian job of dredging channels through the shifting sands of India’s Hoogly River.