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Operation Creek: Going to War on a River Barge

Part 2

The 18 men in Operation Creek were the most unlikely ever to participate in a special operations mission – middle-aged, overweight, and decades removed from active military service. The auxiliary regiments in which they were members, the Calcutta Light Horse (most) and Calcutta Scottish (four), were more social clubs than military units. But, because they were civilians who once had served in the military, they were Special Operations Executive (SOE), India’s only hope in Operation Creek – the capture or sinking of the Ehrenfels, a German merchantman-turned-spy ship, one of four Axis ships anchored in Mormugao harbor in the neutral Portuguese territory of Goa.

 “[T]his is the first time I – or probably anyone else – has taken a hopper barge into action.”

– Cmdr. Bernard Davis, RN, Captain of the Phoebe

The pre-mission plan called for the men to travel from Calcutta to the southwest Indian port city of Cochin (Kochi) where they would rendezvous with the ship that would take them north to Mormugao. But instead of an expected warship or trawler, Calcutta Light Horse Col. Bill Grice and Operation Creek leader Lt. Col. Lewis Pugh of SOE India showed them the Phoebe, a hopper barge used to dredge rivers, the only available vessel, captained by Cmdr. Bernard Davis of the Royal Navy.

A Hooper barge such as the one above was used as an assault craft during the raid. Photo courtesy of arnhemjim

A Hooper barge such as the one above was used as an assault craft during the raid. Photo courtesy of arnhemjim

Meanwhile, Light Horse member Jock Cartwright was in Mormugao using funds provided by SOE to secretly arrange the diversion. To reduce the number of crewmembers aboard Ehrenfels on the night of the attack, a ruse was devised involving a lavish festival and free prostitutes. Officially the festival was for all the officers and sailors of ships in the harbor. Cartwright bribed key government officials and made the appropriate financial arrangements with the brothel owners. On the night of March 9, 1943, with the festival in full swing and the brothels bustling with sailors, everything was ready for the boarders.

At about 2:30 a.m. March 10, the Phoebe’s hull ground against that of the Ehrenfels. Immediately the men of Operation Creek, led by Pugh, threw their grappling irons, clambered up makeshift boarding ladders, and began to fan out, Sten guns and explosive charges at the ready, to accomplish their assigned tasks.

Surprise was on the attackers’ side, and response by the skeleton crew on the Ehrenfels was slow and uncoordinated, in part because her captain was among the first killed.

Earlier, the captains of the Axis ships had worked out individual defensive measures in the event of such an assault. An attacked ship would also blast a siren warning. Finally, they agreed to scuttle their ships to avoid capture.

Surprise was on the attackers’ side, and response by the skeleton crew on the Ehrenfels was slow and uncoordinated, in part because her captain was among the first killed. Though the radio codebooks were destroyed, Pugh captured the transmitter. Twenty minutes into the raid, Davis on the Phoebe noticed the Ehrenfels beginning to list. Some members of the Ehrenfels’ crew had opened sea valves, letting in tons of seawater. Immediately Davis ordered the lines to the Ehrenfels cast off, and pulled three times on the ship’s horn, the signal for the attackers to return to the Phoebe.

Astonishingly, all the attackers returned to the Phoebe safely, with some suffering only minor injuries. Then they heard a series of explosions on the other Axis ships. Fearing an attack, the other captains had preemptively scuttled their ships.

A map of the successful mission conducted by the Calcutta Light Horse on behalf of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Photo courtesy of arnhemjim

A map of the successful mission conducted by the Calcutta Light Horse on behalf of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Photo courtesy of arnhemjim

As Davis guided Phoebe out of the harbor before Portuguese authorities could intercept her, Pugh transmitted to headquarters the code word “Longshanks” – meaning all Axis ships sunk.

U-boat attacks plummeted. For the rest of March, U-boats sank only one ship. In April, only three merchantmen went down.

Meanwhile the volunteers of the Calcutta Light Horse and Calcutta Scottish returned to their civilian careers. One such volunteer was Jack Breene, a partner in an insurance firm. As he settled in behind his desk to tackle business that had accumulated in his absence his partner entered, a worried look on his face. The partner handed Breene a newspaper, pointing to an article about the sinking of the Axis ships in Goa. Acting innocent, Breene looked at his partner, asking what that had to do with anything. His partner replied, “Hell of a lot. Didn’t you know I’d insured the damned things? They’re worth over £4,500,000. There’ll be a claim as long as your arm.” Breene began laughing.

Though belated, the volunteers of Calcutta Light Horse and Calcutta Scottish finally received their due.

In 1947, with India achieving independence, Calcutta Light Horse and Calcutta Scottish stood down for the last time. Because it was a secret mission, the civilian volunteers of Operation Creek never received any honors, medals, or government message of gratitude. The members of Calcutta Light Horse designed their own memento for the mission – a sea horse – which subsequently appeared in the masthead of the organization’s magazine, and was fashioned into brooches for their wives.

The mission remained classified for decades. Then in 1978 a book about Operation Creek, Boarding Party by James Leasor, was published. Two years later, The Sea Wolves, a movie based on Leasor’s book and starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Roger Moore, and Trevor Howard, was released. Though belated, the volunteers of Calcutta Light Horse and Calcutta Scottish finally received their due.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...