- Book reviewer
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, Book reviews, Submarines
- RAN Ships
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- June 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Sea Monsters – Savage Submarine Commanders of WWII, by Tony Matthews. Soft cover of 348 pages with b&w photographs. Published by Big Sky Publishing, Sydney, 2021.
This book discusses the exploits of four submarine captains, two from Japan and one each from Germany and Russia. In researching their careers, which includes some specific infamous events, the author reaches the conclusion that because of murderous intent they might all be termed ‘Sea Monsters’.
We start with the hospital ship Centaur off the east coast of Australia in the early morning darkness of 14 May 1943 when she was torpedoed and sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-177 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Hajime Nakagawa. Centaur was a relatively small motor ship of 3222 tons but with the large number of 332 passengers and crew. She had no patients on board and was mainly carrying medical staff bound for New Guinea. Only 64 survivors were recovered and the large loss of life would resonate with many Australian families.
Lieutenant Commander Nakagawa remained with I-177 until August 1943 when he was posted in command of the larger I-37. In early 1944, now on patrol in the Indian Ocean, he attacked the tanker British Chivalry. As the ship was in ballast she did not sink quickly and was then pounded by the submarine’s deck gun and despatched to the deep. The captain of the tanker was taken prisoner but other survivors in boats and on wreckage were fired upon before the submarine left the area. A total of 25 men were killed during the initial attack and subsequent strafing but surprisingly 38 survivors were rescued.
With inconclusive evidence linking I-177 with Centaur, Nakagawa was never charged with the sinking of this clearly marked hospital ship; he was however convicted of war crimes relating to the massacre of ships’ crews from the survivors of torpedoed ships. Pleading guilty, he received the lesser sentence of eight years’ hard labour.
Captain Tatsunosuke Ariizumi commanded the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-8 patrolling in the Indian Ocean when on 26 March 1944 he encountered the unescorted Dutch steamer Tjisalak on passage from Melbourne to Colombo. She was torpedoed and sunk but nearly all 105 passengers and crew survived in lifeboats and rafts. Many taken aboard the submarine were brutally beaten and tossed back into the water where they were machine gunned and killed, but four survived, being rescued by the US ship James O Wilder.
In similar circumstances, on 2 July 1944 I-8 encountered the US Liberty ship Jean Nicolet en route from Colombo to Calcutta, again with about 100 on board. Unescorted, she was torpedoed and sunk with her crew and passengers similarly brutalised but 25 survivors were rescued by the Indian ship HMIS Hoxa. Captain Ariizumi was transferred to another command I-401 which surrendered at the end of the war but on making its way to Tokyo Bay the Captain committed suicide, thereby avoiding any possible war crimes investigation.
Kapitänleutnant Heinz Eck in command of U-852 was on a South Atlantic patrol made difficult through increased Allied air reconnaissance. During the evening of 13 March 1944 the Greek freighter SS Peleus was sighted and when two torpedoes were fired she sank within minutes, giving her crew little time to escape. Survivors were discovered amongst rafts and wreckage. Wishing to destroy evidence of the attack Captain Eck ordered two machine guns on deck to fire at the rafts and wreckage. Despite the carnage five men from her crew of 35 survived to tell the tale.
U-852 continued on her passage around South Africa sinking another ship but without similar repercussions. Early one morning when on the surface the submarine was surprised by RAF Wellington bombers who strafed the boat. She was so badly damaged that she beached on the Somaliland coast with her surviving 35 crew members taken into custody by a British patrol.
Later in a war crimes trial Eck and four others were tried for the killing of unarmed civilians. Heinz Eck, another officer and, surprisingly the ship’s doctor, were all sentenced to death and the other two imprisoned. On 30 November 1945 the condemned were executed by firing squad. While there is no doubt the guilty deserved punishment the undue haste of proceedings tended to make this a victors show trial which was bitterly resented in Germany when many Allied atrocities where overlooked.
In early 1945 Germans were desperately trying to escape from Baltic states and Poland, fearing for their lives from an advancing Russian army. Two ex-passenger liners, Hansa and Wilhelm Gustloff, which had been used as troopships and hospital ships, were lying at anchor off Gdynia, crammed with wounded, refugees – mostly women and children – and military personnel. They were heavily overloaded with an estimated 5000 in Hansa and 9000 to 10,000 in Wilhelm Gustloff.
In bitterly cold conditions on 30 January 1945 the ships left harbour, escorted by two small torpedo boats, bound for the relative safety of Kiel, which was expected to fall under British control. Hansa soon developed engine problems and returned to port.
At about 9 pm that night Wilhelm Gustloff was discovered by the Russian submarine S-13 under the command of Commander Alexander Marinesko and in short succession three torpedoes struck the great liner. Many were killed by the explosion, some were drowned in the sinking ship, and others were thrown into the frozen water to die of hypothermia, but a number managed to make it to overcrowded lifeboats and were later rescued. It has been estimated that 1250 survived and 9340 died, making this the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.
This was not to be the last of the reign of terror of S-13 and Marinesko as in February 1945 the German liner Steubensailed from Pillau to Kiel carrying more than 5000 personnel including 2800 wounded soldiers and 800 civilian refugees. On the night of 9 February Steuben was discovered by S-13 with two torpedoes finding the unsuspecting liner. The ship sank 20 minutes later with about 4500 deaths and only 650 rescued.
Alexander Marinesko would go down in history as being the most successful Russian submarine commander in terms of tonnage of enemy ships sunk but he was also indirectly responsible for killing nearly 14,000 people. In Russia he is a hero but perhaps he was the greatest of all sea monsters.
The story is well researched and compelling, and in respect of Centaur, the story includes a number of personal accounts from survivors taken in interviews conducted by the author. While the actions of those involved cannot in any way be condoned, we might consider that savagery was committed by both sides during WWII, especially amplified by hatred driven by exaggerated propaganda.
Reviewed by Arcturus