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Stevens, David. U-Boat Far from Home: The Epic Voyage of U-862 to Australia and New Zealand. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997

ISBN 1-86448-267-2
282 pages

Acknowledgments; Table of Equivalents; German, British and American Rank Equivalents; Glossary; Preface; maps; photos; diagrams; tables; Epilogue; Notes; Bibliography; Index

Appendices: U 862; German U-Boats Allocated to the Far East

   Of all the U-boat patrols of the Second World War, the voyages of U-862 rank among the most remarkable. U-862 did not rate near the top in ships or tonnage sent to the bottom, but her long cruise to the Antipodes provides exploits aplenty for author David Stevens to weave into the pages of a nearly perfect book, one that offers information enough for hard-core specialists and excitement and tension sufficient for casual fans of dramatic entertainment.
   The opening chapters recount the story of German submarine development and the waging of undersea warfare against the Allies. In addition to the general course of the U-boat war, Stevens delves into technical specifications of the different U-boat Types, weighs their strengths and limitations, and explains how they fit into Admiral Doenitz's strategic concepts. The author also thoroughly explores the equipment and weaponry of U-862 in particular, including the fairly unusual Bachstelze, a hybrid of kite and helicopter which, along with its pilot/observer, could be towed high above and behind the submarine to provide a much increased radius of observation (if only in areas where threat of attack from the air was deemed unlikely) for spotting enemy shipping
   At a more personal level, Stevens introduces the reader to the officers and crew of the U-boat. The backgrounds of the men, especially the senior officers, are described as well as their jobs at sea, their work stations, and cramped accommodations. Much attention is paid to how the men relaxed when off-duty, how they interacted with one another, and how they worked to preserve their health and sanity under the pressure of so many weeks at sea and beneath the waves.
   Most emphasis is placed upon the skipper, Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Timm, including his pre-war career in the merchant marine, his early years in the Kriegsmarine, his transfer to U-boats, and his preparations to take his boat on its record-setting voyage. Stevens shows how he was molded by his experience and training, but also by the stress and tedium of the lengthy patrol, leading him on occasion to run risks that seemed out of character and at odds with the overall demands of the mission.
   By early 1944 the defeat of the U-boats in the North Atlantic caused Doenitz to search for new means of stretching Allied resources and regaining the initiative in the war at sea. Among his strategies was a plan to renew and reinforce German incursions into the Indian Ocean where, it was hoped, large numbers of merchant ships sailing alone or in inadequately protected convoys would prove to be easy meat for the U-boats. This disruption of worldwide Allied shipping routes, it was believed, would cause Allied naval forces to be transferred away from the vital North Atlantic, still considered to be the first line of defense against the impending invasion of Europe. To this end, Heinrich Timm's U-862, loaded with vital cargo for Germany's Far Eastern ally, sailed from Kiel on 21 May 1944, bound for distant waters.
   Timm's first attempt to break out of the North Sea failed miserably under heavy pressure from Allied air patrols and he turned back to Norway. From Bergen he then headed north along the Norwegian coast but soon was tied up in Trondheim with an oil leak. U-862 had sailed more than 2000 miles under stressful conditions and accomplished nothing but the waste of time, supplies, and fuel. It was not an auspicious beginning.
   Early in June the U-boat made its second departure, sailing far to the north to skirt the edge of the Arctic icepack and sortie through the Denmark Strait where Allied patrols were less in evidence. This time the breakout was successful, and the submarine—spending most of its time underwater—gradually made its way down the center of the Atlantic Ocean under orders to avoid contact with the enemy and only to attack in the absolutely most favorable conditions.
   Timm's route took his boat and crew steadily southward, across the equator. Although in a relatively empty stretch of ocean, U-862 found its first victim—Robin Goodfellow—and sank the 6885 GRT vessel, then hurriedly returned to its outward journey.
   By August U-862 was in the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the African mainland. There four more merchant ships were sent to the bottom. Stevens' account follows not only the submarine but also its victims, including the fates of survivors such as thirty-nine sailors from Radbury who made their way to safety on uninhabited Europa Island, only to be stranded there for two months before rescue. Meanwhile, on 20 August a patrolling Catalina of the RAF's 265 Squadron found the U-boat and dove to attack. Having spotted the aircraft too late to successfully escape to safety, U-862 attempted to defend itself on the surface by opening fire with its AA weapons. After seven rounds, the vaunted 3.7cm rapid-fire AA gun jammed, but it and the 20mm cannons had done their job. The Catalina was badly hit and appeared to be attempting to crash into the U-boat. Timm evaded at the last moment and the aircraft plunged into the sea with no survivors.
   Shortly afterwards, U-862 turned away from its previously planned sortie into the Arabian Sea and headed east across the Indian Ocean toward the German U-boat base at Japanese-occupied Penang in Malaya. Stevens demonstrates that this change in plan could have been responsible for saving the submarine, as Allied communications intelligence was providing a steady flow of information to the sub tracking centers and vectoring ASW assets against the U-boat's originally planned path. On 9 September 1944, having safely crossed the Atlantic from north to south, sailed across the Indian Ocean, and passed through the mine- and enemy submarine-infested Malacca Strait, U-862 slipped into Penang.
   Three days later the boat moved to Shonan (Singapore) for refitting and in November, due to increasing Allied pressure, sailed to the U-boat base at Batavia (Jakarta). While the crew relaxed and recovered in the exotic atmosphere of the East, its vital cargo was unloaded and transferred to the Japanese and plans were made for missions that would take them even farther from home.
   It was originally intended that U-862 would form part of a small wolfpack operating from Batavia, but loss of U-168, U-196, and U-537 (two thanks to Allied communications intelligence, one to unknown causes) meant that only Timm's boat could undertake the planned offensive against Australia. In this amazing voyage, the veteran submarine sortied through Sunda Strait in November, moved due south along the western coast of Australia, and then east along the southern coast of the continent. The submariners expected to find easy pickings, but encountered only tumultuous seas. On 9 December, perhaps frustrated by his lack of action, Timm rashly ordered his incredulous crew to engage the freighter Ilissos with gunfire. In the rough seas, U-862 could not sink or even stop the merchantman; instead, accurate return fire drove the U-boat away and underwater. For no gain whatsoever, surprise had been lost and Australian naval authorities began re-routing shipping and searching for the intruder.
   Although the patrol was a remarkable feat, it was not especially fruitful. One vessel was sunk south of Sydney before Timm headed across the Tasman Sea and around the North Cape of New Zealand. During January he sailed slowly down the eastern coast of North and South Island, but found nothing more than cities, towns, farms, and lighthouses with lights blazing, seemingly untouched by war. Again revealing some frustration at finding no targets worthy of attack, Timm nosed rashly into the shallow port of Gisborne, a risky maneuver that gained no success. Stevens rightly wonders, given the mission of stirring up sufficient trouble to draw Allied ASW assets from other theaters, why Timm failed even to lob a few shells into the easy Kiwi targets.
   (This adventure along the New Zealand coast, by the way, gave rise to one of the enduring U-boat myths of World War II. In the 1950s, as a naval officer in the post-war German navy, Timm spun a seaman's story and convinced his NATO colleague, Air Marshal Sir Rochford Hughes, that U-862's crew had gone ashore at Hawkes Bay and milked cows to supplement their rations.)
   Rounding Stewart Island, Timm sailed back to Australia and retraced his outward voyage but without another success. In November, 1000 miles west of Flinders Bay in Western Australia, the U-boat scored its final victory with the sinking of Peter Silvester. This vessel carried "317 army mules intended to become pack animals in Burma...a crew of 42 together with 26 Naval Armed Guard, and carried another 106 American servicemen as passengers." The sinking triggered a massive search and rescue operation which Stevens describes along with the stories of the survivors.
   Despite constant tracking by Allied intelligence, the lucky U-boat returned safely to Batavia on 15 February. The crew's exertions had done nothing to prevent the collapse of Germany from the hammering Allied armies and air forces, and even in the Pacific it was clear that the end was only a matter of time. On the 20th of the month, still lucky, having evaded Allied forces U-862 entered Singapore. An officer's journal carried this final entry: "Secured in Shonan. End of war cruise in East Asia. We live."
   Timm received orders to sail his submarine back to Germany as soon as practical, but the war in Europe was soon over. Immediately afterwards U-862 was seized by the Japanese and its crew interned. In August they were held at Changi Prison by the British, taken to England in July 1946, and not repatriated until 1947. U-862, also known by its Japanese designation as I-502, was towed out of Singapore and scuttled in the Malacca Strait in 1946.
   Stevens does a masterly job of telling this story from the perspectives of U-boat skipper, crewmen, merchant sailors, shipwrecked seaman, Allied naval authorities, and communications intelligence officers. Much of the material comes from personal journals, interviews with German and Allied sailors, and wartime documents. Stevens also provides a comprehensive summary of dates, patrols, successes, and fates of all U-boats which operated in the Far East.
   This is a riveting account of the day-to-day struggle of men locked in a life-and-death struggle at sea, but also an account that imparts to the reader a wealth of strategic, technical, and intelligence information.
   Recommended.
   Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Allen & Unwin.
   Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing this review copy.

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Reviewed 2 May 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
 

 

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