Two articles in the last edition of Military History Journal (Vol 11 No 1, June 1998) - 'The Enigma Machine and the "Ultra" Secret' by C H Dean and 'South Africa's secret war: The war against enemy submarines' by Lt Cdr N A Stott provoke me to piece together a story that is incipient, if not fully-fledged, in researches that I have published concerning wartime U-boat activity off the South African coast.(1) Considering the amount of damage done by the three successive German Gruppen off our coast in 1942/1943, the sinking of only two of the U-boats must temper any judgement we make concerning our own success in countering their infiltration. However, one success was particularly striking - the destruction, by a Catalina of 259th St Lucia Squadron RAF, of U-197 under Kapitänleutnant Bartels on the afternoon of 20 August 1943. The U-boat's position was some 800 km east of Natal, somewhat south of Madagascar and it was the locating of that position that prompts this narrative.
The sinking of U-197 was, I am convinced, a strangely symptomatic moment. It demonstrated not only the schizophrenia in local 'allied' surveillance that Tony Stott hints at in his article, but also, on the German side, a strange breakdown of operational procedure with regard to 'Enigma' technique. I shall start by attempting to reconstruct the politics of high frequency radio intelligence (huff duff) in the South African situation. What becomes clear to the latter-day researcher is that high frequency radio intelligence was kept fiercely apart from the SSS (Special Signals Service) radar and indeed all ordinary military and civil South African intelligence. (Peter Brain's South African Radar in World War II, the retrospective memoir on the Special Signals Service, gives no mention at all of any independent direction finding operation; that is, one that used high frequency radio). Extraordinarily little post-war memory was possible, especially because, as the two articles mentioned above show, the full significance of what local HF intelligence was actually doing could only be concocted in retrospect some thirty years after the war. (In a verbal interview, Tony Stott told me how frustrating it was for anyone manning a receiver to pass on screeds of undeciphered code and yet have absolutely no idea of the importance of what one was delivering. I wish he could have sat with me in the Public Records Office at Kew in 1996, where I observed with amazement how, in canister after canister of Admiralty micro-film, even the most transient birthday greetings from Doenitz to his men south of the Equator was processed within 24 to 48 hours of broadcast. Announcements of bonny infants born in German hospitals alternate with the occasional 'Well done, old warrior' when one of his captains scored a success. True, most of these exchanges would not be in the sacred 'Offizieren' or Enigma code, but the quantity of recorded communication takes one's breath away.)
It was, as C H Dean makes clear, only from 1974 onwards that a researcher might realise that the reading of strategic messages in 'Offizieren' code resulted from the cracking of 'Enigma' transcript. 'Huff duff' never seemed so important in the immediate post-war retrospect because 'Ultra' - the cracking of the code - was still kept secret. (As an official at the War Museum, London, said to me in an undertone, 'Enigma' was still being used by Eastern Bloc governments in the 1970s, and Britain did not want them to know that they were still systematically transcribing and de-coding their messages!) The service done by radar should never be underestimated, but it could never match the strategic information that became available by radio and which, on a sunny Indian Ocean day in August 1943, brought about the demise of U-197.
My sleuthing on the fate of U-197 began with a mystery. In the classic work on the subject, War in the Southern Oceans, the locating of U-197 three days before its destruction on 20 August is attributed to a D/F (direction finding) agency that is not otherwise identified in the text. Who, then, was D/F? Peter Brain's South African Radar in World War II seemed quite unable to help me. Dr Frank Hewitt, one of the senior officers of the Special Signal Service (SSS) confessed to me that he was in virtual ignorance of the size of the U-boat operation off our shores until after the war. There seemed to have been a politics of schizophrenia and I do believe that it is only with the help of such biographic records as that of Tony Stott that we are beginning to catch up with the prevalent situation. Eventually it was Professor Eric Axelson who, when I quizzed him on the mysterious D/F, recalled that that eminently homely institution, the General Post Office of the Union of South Africa, had evolved a high frequency radio unit during the war. Through the good offices of Cmdr W M Bissett of the South African Naval Museum in Simon's Town, this clue led to my introduction to Tony Stott and to the information to which readers of this journal are now party, through his generous reminiscence in the last issue.
The Post Office 'wing' of huff duff - a co-operation between the Royal Navy and its attaché, Lt J S Bennett, and the General Post Office - is thus accounted for. But Tony Stott left for West Africa in 1942, and I could get no news of the subsequent success or lack of success of this seldom-mentioned D/F. It was Dr Hewitt, who had, during my interview with him, suddenly brought to his lips a long-unrecalled name - the 'Price Milne' Organization. Dr Hewitt remembered that Professor Glenn Harvey, late of Rhodes University, had served on such a team and that they had set up an independent top-secret enterprise, which reported to the Royal Navy rather than to any South African-based body.
My next major clue was a photograph - a black and white engravure passed on to me by Professor Harvey's widow which shows seven or eight officers posing as the 'Price-Milne' Organization. It included Glenn Harvey and four persons who were later identified by Prof G R Bozzoli as: I de Villiers (later Chief Engineer of Escom), J N Roberts, E T Price Jnr and N Troost. The latter three, said Bozzoli, had been contemporary students with him at Wits. This photograph I sent to Pam Stevens, convenor of the SSS social network which, even in the l99Os, still has a most loyal core of members. (I might say that I have always felt a little delicate in probing the question of high frequency radio amongst the radar brigade. In no way do I underestimate their own well-recorded war story when I insist that coastal radar could never in a hundred years spot a U-boat 500 miles [800 km] east of Durban.) At a commemorative function, Mrs Stevens showed the photograph to fellow SSS comrades and of course to Prof Bozzoli, retired vice-chancellor of Wits University. Then the clues began to come thick and fast.
Bozzoli had been privy to the development of the Price-Milne Organization, and was able to make some integral points in a letter to me. It seemed that Prime Minister Jan Smuts had been persuaded by the Director-General of War Supplies, Dr H J van der Byl, to start a system of HF surveillance, not at first in order to target enemy shipping, but rather, in Prof Bozzoli's words, 'to locate the sources of illegal radio transmission'. With the Ossewa-Brandwag unquestionably passing information on to the chief German agent in Lourenço Marques (Maputo) and facing a welter of 'Fifth Column' activity, Smuts had to permit the evolution of a strange 'state within a state' (As far as HF communication was concerned, this was a necessity because of 'the degree of opposition to the war effort known to exist in government circles'). When this secret organization was given the added task of intercepting enemy radio at sea, it became imperative that 'the utmost secrecy should be maintained' and that, again to quote Prof Bozzoli, 'the government should not itself be involved'. Thus, it became important that the equipment required for the organization should be manufactured through 'non-government channels'. (Prof Bozzoli suggested to me in a verbal interview that Wits was better placed to order components as if they were of academic priority than any department of government would have been.)
Mr E T Price, Chief Engineer of Escom, was asked to develop the 'huff duff' radio receivers, but soon teamed up with Mr M J Milne, whose engineering department at the Post Office was already working along similar lines. (It would have been Milne's side of the organization that figures in Tony Stott's article - an outfit sanctioned and initiated by the Royal Navy's Lt Cmdr Bennett, Tony's memoir therefore pre-dates the moment when, according to Prof Bozzoli, van der Byl 'took the obvious step of amalgamating the two groups into one - the Price-Milne Organization.')
Captain Kenträt and his crew aboard U-196 enjoy a
'Neptune' ceremony in the Indian Ocean. Kenträt was group
captain of the Gruppe which lost U-197 on 20 August 1943.
After all, my thesis would not be borne out in the definitive work published after the 'Ultra' breakthrough was 'confessed' - Professor F H Hinsley's British Intelligence in the Second World War. True, he notes Smuts' embarrassment that the 'main sources of enemy intelligence' were in South Africa itself, and he is clearly aware of Smuts' political handicap:(2)
'South African attempts to locate Felix's transmitter (the code name of the most effective Axis spy operating in South Africa) had ... come to nothing. Smuts ... was obviously apprehensive, in the light of the evidence implicating the OB (Ossewa-Brandwag), a semi-legal organization, in espionage activities, that taking action against him might raise political difficulties. In March 1944 no progress had been made, not least because of lack of co-operation at the top of the South African Police ...'
The scenario was set, then, for a situation where Smuts would organise a local HF system, and use such homely agencies as Escom and the Post Office to do a work so secret that no participant would ever know what they were actually processing. Smuts might well have set up the secret bureau without himself knowing about the 'Ultra' breakthrough.
Was it the Price-Milne Organization, then, that housed 'Direction Finding', the unit that sent an RAF Catalina 500 miles (800 km) into the Indian Ocean in August 1943, there to despatch U-197 with deadly accuracy in time and location? No-one sitting in the Public Record Office at Kew - as I did in 1996 - and filing through the Admiralty tapes, could doubt that someone in Indian Ocean surveillance had done a pretty good job: the number of decrypted broadcasts emanating from the small flotilla of U-boats could fill a small file. It is most disappointing, then, that the saga of U-197 does not figure in the official catalogue of 'Ultra' successes! And yet, in an important sense, Hinsley's refusal to classify this as an 'Ultra' incident might be correct. Here I get to the key 'hunch' in my theory: the sinking of the U-boat was not an 'Ultra' triumph, because, at that moment of time, 'Enigma' itself was, in that corner of ocean, failing to operate! A story proposes itself: the Price-Milne receiver did pick up the giveaway enemy message, but not in 'Enigma' (or, as the Germans called it, 'Offizieren' code). In the radio room of U-197, 'Enigma' had broken down!
The German side of the story follows in the last part of
my article. For now, let me draw your attention to a
letter, marked 'Most Secret', that has survived in the
archive of the South African Naval Museum, and a copy
of which has been passed on to me by Cmdr Bissett. It
is dated 14 October 1943, and it is signed by the same
J S Bennet whom Tony Stott tells us came to South
Africa at the beginning of the war to set up HF:
Dear Mr Thomas,
As a result of the efficiency of your station and close relation with this office, the Royal Navy has been able to take effective measures against enemy units operating here. These efforts have resulted in their destruction and the Commander-in-Chief has asked me to convey to you and your staff his congratulations. I would like to add my own thanks and say that I realise the difficulties under which you are working... In view of the need for security, it is essential that these matters should not be disclosed to anyone outside your station...'
Difficulties under which you are working... would have to refer to the production, day after day and night after night, of reams of ticker tape that yielded no hint of any consequence. Commander Bennett's letter must have been as sweet a reward as one could receive in five long years of anonymous, repetitive labour, but it is the date that we must particularly notice - 14 October. U-197 was sunk on 20 August; the only citable success for South African-based surveillance since Gruppe Eisbar lost U-179 in October 1942. We surely have every right to presume, therefore, that Bennett is here congratulating someone in the amalgamated Price-Milne group for the destruction of U-197, someone who has deserved this small hint of a major breakthrough. (Needless to say, if anyone could identify 'Mr Thomas' for us we might be able add further evidence to our speculation.)
A problem aboard U-197
Our Indian Ocean submarine warfare accounts for some two per cent, perhaps, of the reams of decoded and translated messages in the British Public Records Office at Kew which stem from U-boats or U-boat Command. Nevertheless, the flurry of messages emanating from the Indian Ocean in August 1943 seems to confirm the hint provided in War in the Southern Oceans - that, somehow or other, in a way that was quite untypical of U-boat technique, U-197 gave herself away. As the authors of that work say (but, alas, explain no further), the U-boat gave her position away in an ironic circumstance: she was attempting to find a meeting-place with her sister vessels specifically to 'pass on to each other "Bellatrix", a newly-issued cypher code'.(3) The question arises: how could experienced officers of the Kriegsmarine, with years of experience in 'Enigma' operation, suddenly require, far south in the Indian Ocean, this irregular and extraordinary procedure?
As C H Dean's article has shown us, the near-invincible power of 'Enigma' lay in the fact that, with one twist of a rotor on the machine itself, the cyphers could be manually changed in a matter of seconds, and a completely new set of links between mock alphabets instituted. Richard Hough tells us that, in the summer of 1942, members of Doenitz's U-boat arm had in fact become suspicious that their ultra secret code had been breached (a completely accurate suspicion, as we can now see). Their response was to insert 'a fourth wheel into (their) Enigma machines. It was like a spanner in the works for Bletchley, who had no more joy after that until, after intense and exhausting work, the cryptographers began to break through again in April 1943.'(4)
It seems possible to assert, therefore, that when a new generation of 'Enigma' code was ordered for August 1943, to be called 'Bellatrix', U-197 (even though she was commanded by a veteran officer, Bartels) may not have known how to handle the transition.
Amidst the hundreds of cryptographs which arrived at Doenitz's headquarters in August 1943 are a number which indicate that the Indian Ocean Gruppe was coming under a stress that was not inflicted by the enemy. On 1 August, Bartels earned a typical Doenitzian riposte: 'Expend your rage on the enemy...'(!) What could explain Bartels' irritability? By 14 August, all U-boat commanders were in receipt of an ultra secret order that 'the Key Word order Bellatrix comes into force at 12.00 on 16 August'. Why were the Indian Ocean U-boats, for some fascinating but intangible reason, unable to accept this instruction'? That the change of code was not going to be easy in this theatre is made clear by a further head office missive, also of 14 August, and again sent in Offizier cypher to the effect that Bartels and Lüth (U-181) must be 'in Naval Grid Sq 5855 at 8.00 on 17th Aug for instruction in regard to "Bellatrix" (and) likewise to begin passage thither and report arrival. Bartels is to report when instruction has been effected.'
One can only speculate that this wide deviation from general procedure was caused by a major breakdown in communication in the Indian Ocean Gruppe. On 15 August, HQ explicitly said to Kenträt (the leader of the Gruppe): 'A meeting with Bartels is necessary for instruction regarding the key-word order "Bellatrix".' That it was Bartels who was asked to make the confirmatory report suggests that it was he and his officers who were causing the difficulty. If that was not enough, yet another message was sent from HQ on 14 August, addressed to the Gruppe in general, and showing a keen awareness that, in the Indian Ocean flotilla, communication had reached a point of considerable fragility. It ordered that any 'rendezvous with other boats are always to be proposed in terms of disguised squares in future. If no disguised squares can be used give the rendezvous in terms of naval grid squares and send message in Offizier code,' (The German Navy, we must remember, did not use compass points but a 'chessboard' of squares for plotting positions.) It seems that HQ realised that if some of the Indian Ocean U-boats were not going to convert to 'Bellatrix' on the due date, then they would have to take the extra security precaution of 'disguising' their particular square of ocean. To the radio room back at Headquarters, no doubt, this warning seemed purely academic: after all, what evidence was there that the British had so much as sniffed the new 'Enigma' variation? But, of course, the hunch was all too correct, and my assumption is that at least one explanation of Bartels' sudden demise on 20 August is that he omitted to 'disguise' his positional square when he reported his whereabouts on high frequency broadcast.
With a world war on its hands, U-boat HQ found that it had to concentrate a whole flurry of messages on the small Indian Ocean flotilla in the days leading up to 20 August. An order transmitted on 17 August, for example, a day after the change to Bellatrix is supposed to have been made, instructed Bartels to meet up with Luth at 16.00 on 18 August in Square 7725. Immediately, Kentrat in U- 196 begged a countermand to this instruction and he too joined in the radio fray on 17 August by requesting, in 'Offizier' cypher, a new rendezvous with Bartels 'in JA2235 at l0.00am on 20th August'. The strategists back home must have torn their hair: the Indian Ocean Gruppe seemed perpetually unable to get their act together.
War in the Southern Oceans suggests that it was on 17 August that U-197 fatally gave its position away, and claims that it did so in an operational report to Lüth in U-181. Alas, with no citation given at all, one cannot test this evidence. That work was written without knowledge of the 'Enigma' politics within the U-boat arm. I will simply note Bartels's radio message to Headquarters, again, on 17 August, the day after all U-boats were supposed to have converted to Bellatrix: 'Have just sunk the Empire Stanley in Naval Grid Sq KQ 6676 course 050deg.'
Was this, then, the fatal giveaway moment for U-197 and Captain Bartels? The message was not in Offizier cypher! How could it be? Bartels was unable to make use of the new variation of Enigma code. Thus, if it could be proven that KQ 6676 is not a 'disguised square', then we would see exactly how Bartels betrayed himself to the enemy (a nice retrospective justice, one would have to say, for the unfortunate Empire Stanley!) Incidentally, Lüth, in U-181, might have sealed the fate of U-197 by signalling Headquarters on 19 August: 'Bartels is remaining in area of the old rendezvous, as I have sighted four steamships there on westerly and easterly courses, and I (have missed) a 3 000 tonner.' The last radio message recorded from the Gruppe before the fateful afternoon of 20 August is an interesting one, transmitted from Gysae in U-177: 'Bellatrix known but hold cyphers only 'til 1st October'. In cryptic fashion, Gysae seems to be asking how long he can survive with the wrong generation of cyphers in his Enigma machine.
(Incidentally, concerning the way in which one referred to the 'Enigma' machine without naming it, an expert like Mr Dean might like to comment on one message from the Gruppe on 19 June 1943: 'Have rotor blades suffered alienation or warped due to tropical climate?' Rotors being such key items of the Enigma equipment, I did pause to wonder whether the reference here might be to the diesel motors, or to the actual cog rotors of the 'Enigma' set-up. That tropical conditions plagued the U-boats is made clear in another message for 17 July: 'Ask Agfa whether film material which is unstable in tropical conditions can be stored at -20 deg C.')
The terminal hours of U-197 are briefly reported. Paging through hundreds of cryptographs fifty years later, I could not but wonder whether the officer on duty in Doenitz's office on 20 August 1943 had time to indulge a certain flicker of pathos as I did - the sun pouring down over Kew in October 1996 - when I read Bartels' message of 14.26: 'Aircraft has attacked with a stick of bombs. Am unable to dive, position is 8252 southerly. U-197.' I wondered whether that duty-room officer (as he radioed sister ships 'Assume that you are ... proceeding at best speed to Bartels ... bombed and unable to dive') realised that this submarine was going down, not primarily as the result of enemy action, but rather because of a deficiency within his own enterprise. At any rate, the Allies were now very much on top! With U-197 gone, Gysae in U-177 reported on 24 August that he was being 'shadowed by flying boats [RAF Catalinas]' and requested that the very notion of a rendezvous then be abandoned. On the same day, a relieved headquarters agreed and instructed that any notion of a rendezvous be duly scrapped. Thus did the Indian Ocean flotilla slip away to the Atlantic, and to other theatres of war less and less propitious for the German cause.
1. W H Bizley, 'U-boats off Natal' in Natalia, Vols 23-25.
2. F H Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vol IV, p 206 ff.
3. Bizley, 'U-boats off Natal', Natalia, Vol 23/4, p 95.
4. R Hough, The Longest Battle: The War at Sea, 1939-45, p 51.
Bizley W H, 'U-boats off Natal' in Natalia, combined Vol 23-4, and further items in Vols 25 and 27.
Hinsley, F H, British Intelligence in the Second World War, (HMSO, 1979).
Hough, Richard, The Longest Battle: The War at Sea, 1939-45, (Pan 1986).
Turner, Gordon-Cumming and Betzler, War in the Southern Oceans (OUP, 1961).
Admiralty Archives of the Public Record Office, London.
Letter from Prof G R Bozzoli, in the author's possession.
My thanks to the Editor of Natalia for his kind permission to reproduce material. Thanks, too, to Cmdr W M Bissett of the South African Naval Museum for forwarding a copy of the 'top secret' letter mentioned in the text.
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org