U-Boats in the Far East
German Interest in the Far East
German records indicate that discussions for a German U-boat base in Peninsula Malaya (modern day Malaysia) had begun as early as August 1942. The base was intended for the provision and support of U-boats operating in the Indian Ocean. The Germans did not have overseas bases and with few exceptions, were they able to use neutral ports. Setting up an Eastern base was no easy task and demanded considerable resources which could have been otherwise channeled for the Atlantic campaign. Why then was Germany interested in an Eastern base?
One of the reasons was due to necessity. Before the German invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) commenced in June 1941, land and air transportation between Germany and Japan was possible. The two allies often seek to exchange knowledge and other raw materials. Germany needed rubber, metals such as copper and bismuth, and medicines such as quinine. On the reverse, Japan needed steel, mercury and optical glass. In addition, the two nations were interested in each other’s latest military hardware, including prototypes of the latest weapons and blueprints for research.
After the invasion of Russia, the only practical means of exchange was by sea. Initially, this was met by surface blockade-runners running to and from the Far East. But the British blitz in 1942 disrupted the flow of materials that by the end of 1942, it became clear that German supply lines were being threatened and the situation could not continue as it is. As a consequence, a proposal was put forth by Admiral Donitz on February 1943 to use submarines for transport purposes. In order to provision for U-boats traversing the Indian Ocean, an Eastern base was clearly required.
Another reason for German interest in an Eastern base seem to suggest that while the Atlantic campaign was going well for the Germans, U-boat operations gradually extended southwards, down the African coast and finally up to the Cape of Good Hope. In its quest for more fertile fields, it was only logical to further extend into the Indian Ocean, where it is believed that Allied ASW capabilities were not as sophisticated as those in the Atlantic. Finally, with the collapse of the Atlantic campaign in May 1943, U-boats needed to be on the offensive elsewhere and with that, U-boats were dispatched to their Far Eastern bases in mid 1943 to undertake offensive operations in the Indian Ocean. Planning however for these bases had already begun, as early as late 1942.
Finally, other indications suggest that the Japanese themselves had on several occasions requested for German U-boats to operate in the Indian Ocean. Donitz was unreceptive of the proposal and viewed it as an unnecessary diversion from the Atlantic campaign. But with the collapse of the Atlantic campaign in May of 1943, the approval was finally given.
The motivation for German interest in the Far East is likely due to a combination of factors – but one thing is absolutely clear. On February 20 1943, a strategic decision was made to send the first wave of submarines to the Far East. These were not German U-boats, but Italian transport submarines, codenamed Aquila and Merkator. Their mission was to ply to and from Asia, ferrying rubber and other scarce raw materials.
Barely a month later, on March 28 1943, U-178 departed from France and en route to the Indian Ocean, BdU sent a message that she was to sail to Malaya and set up a U-boat base there. After having replenished from a surface tanker in the Indian Ocean, the U-178 arrived in Penang at the Malayan Peninsula on August 1943. KK Wilhelm Dommes became the first commander of the German U-boat base in Asia.
Penang, situated on the west coast of Peninsula Malaya was under Japanese occupation and was selected as the main U-boat base. A second base was established at Kobe, Japan, and a small repair base was located at Singapore, Jakarta and Surabaya.
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