GOA: At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, three German ships found themselves in the Indian Ocean – far from Allied-controlled waters and uncomfortably close to the enemy’s stomping ground. The crews must have been nervous. This was a time when both sides in the war, the Allies and the Axis, were attacking merchant vessels since they were soft targets. The German ships had to find a safe place and the one they settled on was Goa.
Goa was then a colony of neutral Portugal and its residents greeted the German freighters – the Ehrenfels, Braunfels and Drachenfels – and their crews with a mixture of curiosity and congeniality. To the British, though, they were a major security threat, a possible means for the Nazi regime to spread German propaganda in Goa.
“I am informed by a Goan [British subject)], who lately spent a month in Goa, that there are about 300 members of the crew of the three German steamers lying in Marmagoa,” said a source report supplied to the Special Branch of the Bombay Police dated June 19, 1940. “These crews are under no restriction of movement and go around the whole country, partly using motorboats, with which they go around the backwaters. They make friends with the younger generation, every Sunday they arrange football matches at various places and they make best use of all these occasions to spread Nazi propaganda.”
The report added that the sailors had radio reception apparatus and arranged for broadcast of German news in Goa. “Goanese and Portuguese officers and officials are rather worried about government impassiveness,” it said. “The influence of the Germans is said to be so strong that it has led to dissension and trouble in Goanese families. The elder generation knows only too well that the peace of Portugal and its colonial possessions is a Pax Britannica, the younger generation on the other hand, sees the salvation in Nazism.”
Adding to British fears was the fact that the frontier between British and Portuguese territories was virtually unguarded. They pondered over the prospect of the German sailors crossing over to British India and blowing up railway tracks. “The fact that most of these Germans are young, trained men, living under a stress of boredom, should be borne in mind as a strong possible incentive for such exploits,” the source report said.
The Special Branch shared this report with Intelligence Bureau officers, who felt that the allegations were greatly exaggerated. They, however, decided to send experienced intelligence officers to Goa to see what the German sailors were actually up to.
An officer from Bombay travelled to Goa in June 1940, just days after the source report was submitted to the Intelligence Bureau. What he found was no cause for alarm – at first. To start with, there were only 99 German sailors, not 300. Secondly, they were just bored men trying their best to find some sort of entertainment.
“Parties of five or more German sailors off the three ships refuging in Marmagoa harbour frequently visit Margao and Vasco da Gama, where they move in the streets and frequent cheap drinking saloons,” the officer from Bombay wrote, adding that the Germans play football with the locals and watch matches with them.
Stripped of a means of living, some of the sailors desperately looked for ways to sustain themselves. “Other errands on which members of the crew and the petty officers of the Braunfels, with the help of their captain and the connivance of the Portuguese Customs, seem to be engaged, are the smuggling into Goa in handbags and small parcels of Bayers’ preparations,” the officer wrote. “Customs authorities, and on one occasion, the Commandant of the Margao Police, have been seen in the company of the personnel from the Braunfels suspected to be in the possession of Bayers’ drugs.”
The officer noticed divisions in the Goan society over the Second World War. Most members of the older generation supported the British, but among the young, many were pro-Germany. “Like the youths, sections of the Goan intelligentsia, including certain European Portuguese officers, have Nazi sympathies,” the officer said.
There was a potential risk that these divisions between Axis and Allies supporters may snowball into larger social problems. “Such partisanship, I am told, results, on occasions, in open quarrels,” the officer cautioned.
British officials were in regular touch with the Portuguese authorities in Goa to ensure they remained neutral during the war. “The Governor-General told me, at the outbreak of the war, that if the Germans in his territory became truculent, he would intern the crews and impound the ships,” the officer wrote. “I have no information that he has resiled from this attitude.” The fact that the intelligence officer could meet the governor-general shows that he was possibly a very high ranking official in the government.
Another British agent visited Goa after the officer from Bombay to write a secret report. This agent reported that the press in Goa was tightly censored and generally favoured Britain.
“In Panjim I spoke to the sub-editor of the O Heraldo, who showed me that all the news they have is derived from British broadcasts and German broadcasts in English, from The Times of India, The Bombay Chronicle,” the agent wrote. “Longer articles are sometimes taken from 2 months old Portuguese (Lisboa) papers. The only information received by the O Heraldo from the British side are yellow sheets from the Chief Officer of Information, which have very little to do with the war, mostly contain statistics, commercial news, etc.” The agent didn’t entirely believe the sub-editor when he said that the Germans did not make any attempt to push propaganda into his paper.
The prime German surveillance target of the British was a man named Robert Koch, who, along with his wife, was suspected of being the main Nazi spy in Goa. “They are being watched, but our agents are unable to discover that they are engaged in wireless transmitting activities,” the Bombay intelligence officer wrote. “Being Germans, they must have been naturally jubilant over the fall of Greece: but I have no information that they illuminated their house.”
The captains of the Ehrenfels, Braunfels and Drachenfels were regular visitors to the Kochs’ Panjim home. Over the next few months, British intelligence officers stepped up their watch on Koch, who they suspected was using a radio set to transmit news to the Germans.
“Certain expensive radios of German and Japanese make can be used for transmission,” an anonymous express note sent to the Intelligence Bureau in 1941 said. “This particular radio set is seen to leave Koch’s sanctum pretty frequently. It is said for repairs. This set which is in constant use cannot be needing repairs so often.” The note added that a man with a “lavish lifestyle” like Koch could easily buy a new set instead of annoying himself with constant repairs.
“The only conclusion is that Koch is probably acting under advice from Berlin and having transformers or the coils changed each time to transmit on a different wavelength,” the note said. “He is no doubt transmitting on a short wave length probably very much below 7 M so that his transmission cannot be picked up except by a set specially prepared for this purpose, for most radio sets would not pick up on less than 7 M or so.”
Koch was good friends with a man named Victor Dias, who the Portuguese suspected of supplying information to the Germans under the pretext of running a radio station that played dance music and folklore.
Over the next two years, the British managed to accumulate enough evidence to show that the crews of the three German ships as well as an Italian ship were indulging in espionage and providing information to the Axis powers through radio sets. The Portuguese were presented with this evidence, but they refused to act on account of their neutrality. In the end, the British decided to undertake covert operations.
In November 1942, British agents kidnapped Koch and his wife and took them to what is now Karnataka through Castle Rock. There is no further information about the couple in the public domain.
Four months later, a nighttime operation was conducted to sink all four ships off the coast of Mormugao, bringing Goa briefly into the theatre of the Second World War. Five sailors from the ship were killed and another five went missing. The rest of the crew, estimated to number 130 were interned.
The attack on the German and Italian ships, codenamed Operation Creek, was the subject of a 1980 film titled The Sea Wolves. The film, starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven, was shot on location in Goa. Although it did take liberty to fictionalise the operation, it gives the viewer a glimpse of Goa before it became a global tourist hotspot.
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