Worldbuilding: raiders of the secret U-boat

One of the best ways for writers to world-build is to look around. Not just sideways into the present, but back into the past. Sometimes there are stories back there that have all the feel of a Hollywood blockbuster – but they’re better than that. They happened.

A reader commented the other week on the tale of a U-boat that came into New Zealand waters during the closing months of the Second World War. It’s been the subject of a book, and I’ve written a fair amount on it myself. And in true worldbuilding style, the details have been mythologised, fictionalised – even turned into a play – underscoring the way writers can add creativity to past drama. Yet the original events were dramatic enough of themselves.

New Zealand was lucky during the Second World War – the country was virtually untouched by enemy activity, although the Kriegsmarine sent surface raiders into New Zealand waters early in the war. Later, wireless interception from the United States kept New Zealand officials well informed of Japanese submarine movements.  Coast-watchers and patrols completed the net. In any event, Japanese activity south of the Solomons was minimal after mid-1942. There were attacks in the Tasman during early 1943, and another national alert in November.

Then in January 1945 – as the war was all but over – the Type IX-D2 submarine U-862, Käpitanleutnant Heinrich Timm, slipped into Hawke Bay, on the North Island’s east coast. The moment has been mythologised; there were suggestions that he entered Napier’s breakwater harbour;  or even that the crew came ashore and milked cows — this last spurring a stage play. None of this was true.

Reality was a little more mundane, though still dramatic. In May 1944 Timm sailed from Narvik for the Far East, reaching Penang in September to pick up a cargo of rare ores for the German arms industry. He was given permission for a raiding cruise and went on to Australasian waters. He found no opportunities off Gisborne and Wairoa, and at dusk on 16 January 1945 motored across the bay to Napier. He knew about the beacons marking the route into the breakwater harbour, but although new wharves were opened in 1939 and 1943,  the harbour was still shallow in 1945 and ships had to quit the place in certain tides and swells. Timm had no chance of entering – and even if he had, there was no room to manoeuvre.

The only vessel in harbour was the Pukeko, but Timm knew none of this as his boat idled less than a kilometre from Napier. Blackout was long gone. The Germans saw what they thought were well-lit street cafes, watching couples dancing to jazz music that echoed across the quiet water.  It was a curiously European way of looking at the town; Napier had no waterfront cafes in 1945. It is possible the submariners were looking at the Joylands cabaret at Westshore. The Napier waterfront Soundshell was a popular roller-skating venue — but there was nothing scheduled that evening, though the swimming baths, on the waterfront a few hundred metres south of the breakwater harbour, were jammed with spectators watching a swimming championship.

At any event, Napier’s people were enjoying themselves, little realising the enemy lay just offshore.We can imagine the thoughts of the Germans, seeing a town apparently in peacetime routine after five years of war. As the hours wore on the Pukeko left harbour, fully illuminated. Timm followed, attacked at dawn on 17 January — and missed. A sailor on deck saw the torpedo as it streaked past, but it was such an unlikely sight in Hawke’s Bay he thought he must be mistaken.

Timm continued to stalk the little vessel, but when she began signalling the Portland Island signal station, he decided they had been seen and sheared off to the south. Next day he was ordered to abandon the cruise – and a few months later the war ended.

It was a salutary lesson in what could have happened, if either Germany or Japan had been sufficiently motivated – or had sufficient resource – to do more in the southern Pacific. New Zealand’s Second World War at sea was mainly fought in other waters. A few years ago I collected the tales and personal reminiscences of Kiwi sailors in my book Torpedo! – available online. The war took New Zealand seamen all over the world; and many of the places they went were as strange to them as Napier must have been to a war-weary U-boat crew on that hot summer night in January 1945.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: raiders of the secret U-boat

  1. Shakespeare did that, didn’t he – looking to the past for his plots and making them contemporary and, of course, better. It’s people that are everlastingly fascinating. The history you write about In TORPEDO was unknown to me until today. What a great story. Will be ordering it for my husband’s birthday. (I’ll read it first.) Very best for it.

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  2. Thanks for sharing those details of the incident, I hadn’t heard about the close call the Pukeko had. It is incredible to think that there was a German U-Boat stalking prey in these waters right at the end of the war.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on being inspired by stories from history. There is something fascinating about the story of a vessel and its crew being sent to the far corners of the world, fighting in the final months of a war that is all but lost. It would make a great sci-fi!

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  3. It was an absolutely astonishing story – I suspect this is where some of the more lurid add-ons about the tale have come from; it was just so remarkable to think of a U-boat cruising around the world like that at this very late stage in the war.

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