For decades the Calcutta Light Horse, a 186-year-old British auxiliary regiment, was more a social club than territorial regiment. The unit’s last military action had taken place in the Boer War almost 50 years earlier. Now its members, veterans who had separately seen service in World War I, with thickening waists and thinning hair, were resigned to watching from the sidelines as a new war was being waged around them. Then the Special Operations Executive (SOE) gave these old warhorses an opportunity for some covert derring-do that seemed more in keeping with Hollywood. On the night of March 9-10, 1943, volunteers from Calcutta Light Horse, assisted by some volunteers from Calcutta Scottish, another auxiliary regiment, conducted Operation Creek – arguably the most improbable SOE mission of the war. Their mission: Capture or sink the German merchantman Ehrenfels.
“To drink to deeds of daring – and the men who’ll have to do ’em.”
– Alastair “Red Mac” MacFarlane, Calcutta Light Horse
The Ehrenfels was one of four Axis merchantmen (three German, one Italian) in the region when war broke out in 1939. All immediately sought refuge in the nearest neutral port, in this case Mormugao, Goa. Located on India’s western coast about 300 miles south of Bombay (Mumbai), Goa was at the time a Portuguese territory. British authorities were aware of the ships’ presence in Goa, but as these were merchantmen, not warships, they were not seen as a threat. That perception began to change when 46 Allied merchantmen were sunk by U-boats in the Indian Ocean over a six-week period in the fall of 1942. The toll continued to climb. Twelve ships were sunk in the first week of March. At this rate, the U-boats would be able to completely blockade India. Eventually SOE India determined that the U-boats were getting detailed intelligence about merchant ship schedules, routes, even cargo, through a network of pro-Axis Indian agents providing information to the Ehrenfels which, in violation of neutrality laws, was passing the information to the U-boats via a secret radio transmitter.
Because Goa was neutral, a military operation was a non-starter. But a group of British civilians, using the cover story of a sea-going vacation-cum-drunken-dare boarding party gone awry (together with some well-placed bribes to Portuguese territorial government officials), could get away with an attack on the Ehrenfels.
Such was the basic idea behind Operation Creek. That such a mad scheme was not only considered, but also approved, is a testament as to how desperate the maritime situation had become. Lt. Col. Lewis Pugh was SOE India’s Director of Country Sections, part of Force 136 that conducted covert missions. In the latter half of February, he contacted his friend Bill Grice, the colonel of the Calcutta Light Horse, and after swearing him to secrecy laid out the basic facts. Pugh needed 15 to 20 men. Their target was the Ehrenfels, which they would either capture or sink. The mission would last about two weeks. The volunteers would be given some crash commando training. Because it was a top-secret mission, they’d get no credit, no pay, nor pensions should anything go wrong, and no medals. Grice wryly observed, “How attractive you make the conditions sound, Lewis.” But Grice agreed to call a special meeting to ask for volunteers.
The following evening, Grice addressed an assemblage of about 30 members, stating that he needed 18 volunteers for a secret mission against the Germans. “I can tell you nothing about it except that the operation should take about a fortnight and will involve a short sea voyage. There it is, gentlemen. I leave it to you. Is anyone willing to volunteer?” To a man, everyone raised his hand.
The culling commenced. Those clearly too old or in poor health were dismissed. Among the accepted was the unit’s corporal, Bill Manners, who asked, “What about me? You know I’ve only got one eye.” He had lost an eye in a school accident.
“It was good enough for Nelson,” replied Grice, referring to Adm. Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar. “Why shouldn’t it be all right for you?” Insufficient men remained after the culling, and four members from Calcutta Scottish, another auxiliary, completed the roster.
Instead, to their astonishment they found themselves boarding what was indisputably the most unlikely warship ever used in World War II.
Commando training was basic and brief. In addition, the men studied blueprints of the Ehrenfels obtained by SOE and practiced boarding procedures. When the time came to carry out Operation Creek, to avoid arousing suspicion, they traveled separately in small groups by train to Cochin (Kochi) on the southwest tip of India where they rendezvoused with the ship that would take them to Goa.
The raiders of Operation Creek expected to find in the harbor a destroyer, or a landing craft. At worst a trawler. Instead, to their astonishment they found themselves boarding what was indisputably the most unlikely warship ever used in World War II.