How the SS Samuel Heintzelman met the U-511

So the question becomes, why is a German submarine operating in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far away from the front in the Atlantic and from Europe? As it turns out, the U-511 was sent to the Indian Ocean at the request of the Japanese government. As early as December of 1942 the Japanese government had requested the Germans to send submarines to operate out of Japanese bases in Indonesia.

Initially, Admiral Doenitz the Supreme Commander of German U-Boat forces declined because he thought as long as there were plenty of targets in the North Atlantic, U-boats could not be spared for action in the Far East. This attitude changed however in May 1943. 

For the Germans, May 1943 was soon to be called "Black May," and it was only the beginning of an emerging crisis. Allied forces had improved their anti-submarine tactics to the point that the German U-Boat had ceased to be an effective weapon against Allied shipping in the North Atlantic.

In May of 1943 the Allies managed to destroy 43 U-Boats. As a comparison, in all of 1942, the Germans had lost 87 U-Boats to the Allies. Most of the German losses in 1942 had occurred in the latter part of the year. As it turns out, it was a sign of things to come. In all of 1943, the Allies would destroy an astounding 242 U-boats. The U-Boat kill ratio had declined to the point that the Allies could claim a U-Boat for every merchant ship sunk. (the kill ratio is a measure of how many merchant ships a U-boat could be expected to sink.) Clearly, losses had grown to the point that the U-Boat had become an ineffective weapon in fighting the war against the Allies merchant marine. If every U-Boat built could only claim one merchant ship then the Germans were in fact losing the war. In May 1943, this is exactly what happened.

In early 1943, the Indian Ocean was the one place in the world where merchant ships still traveled in near peacetime conditions. This situation was about to change.

Initially, duty aboard the SS Samuel Heintzelman would have been the perfect job. Delivering cargo in near peacetime conditions, the 27 Armed Guard members of Heintzelman crew would have had little to do. The initial journey across the Pacific would have been considered far more dangerous than operating in the Indian Ocean itself. In the end Allied planners were just a little too complacent in sending out the SS Samuel Heintzelman, alone and without destroyer escort. 

Because of the "Black May" Crisis, Doenitz decided to send two U-Boats to the Indian Ocean to operate out of Penang in Malaysia. The U-Boats were U-178 and U-511.

The following facts are known of U-511's movements: On May 10th 1943, U-511 sailed from France destined for the Indian Ocean. On July 9th, 1943 U-511 torpedoed the SS Samuel Heintzelman. Just a little more than a week later, U-511 arrived at Penang Base on July 17th, 1943. 

Considering the timetable it is obvious that the SS Samuel Heintzelman was unfortunate enough to have had a chance encounter with U-511 while U-511 was on its way to Penang Base in Malaysia. To convince yourself of this, take a look at a world globe. Looking at the globe, draw a straight line from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa to the northernmost point of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This line would represent the course of U-511 while on its way to Penang, Malaysia. The reported position of the SS Samuel Heintzelman when she was sunk is on this line! The simple implication of this is that U-511 was not really on patrol looking for targets when she sank the SS Samuel Heintzelman. The two vessels which were on very different courses just happened to be at the same place at the same time on July 9, 1943.

Sometime on July 9th, 1943 Commander Fritz Schneewind, the captain of U-511 looked through his periscope and spotted an American freighter steaming alone on a northwest course about 1000 miles south of Ceylon. An American freighter steaming alone without destroyer escort or escort from aircraft would be too temping a target to pass up. Shortly thereafter, he called bearing and range information to his weapons officer and gave the order 'Fire Torpedoes'. The SS Samuel Heintzelman was hit and she must have sank fast before getting out a message.

Without an SOS, the Allies would not have immediately known the fate of the SS Samuel Heintzelman. Without some direct knowledge of where or when she was hit they would be forced to search thousands of miles of ocean concentrating on areas she was scheduled to travel through, but leaving too large an area to be searched effectively.

If the SS Samuel Heintzelman was on a direct course to Ceylon, she would be facing a journey of 3000 miles. However the location of the SS Samuel Heintzelman when she was sunk indicates she was steering well away from Japanese held Indonesia so the journey would be even farther than 3000 miles.

It was said that the search found nothing more than some debris from the ship and at least one item had the name of the doomed ship on it. With little else to go on, the search would have to be called off.

The sinking of the SS Samuel Heintzelman would be a warning to the Allies that the Indian Ocean was about to become a dangerous place for merchant ships just like the North Atlantic was. It should have been a warning to the Allies that the same antisubmarine tactics that were so successful in the North Atlantic also needed to be employed in the Indian Ocean.

In a sense, the SS Samuel Heintzelman was a victim of the Allied successes in the North Atlantic. Had the Allies not convinced the Germans that they needed to deploy their submarines in less heavily defended areas, the SS Samuel Heintzelman would not have met U-511 in the Indian Ocean on July 9th, 1943.

The Monsun Fleet of U-Boats

U-178 and U-511 were only the first of many U-boats that were deployed to the Far East. In June 1943 eleven more U-boats were scheduled to join U-178 and U-511 in the Indian Ocean. The extra boats were to sail just after monsoon season was over and hence the boats operating in the Indian Ocean became known as the Monsun fleet. 

Out of 11 Monsun U-boats 4 were destroyed in transit and 2 were diverted to emergency refueling duties. Effectively, only 5 boats managed to even make it to the Indian Ocean. The losses of this group were so heavy that the Germans immediately sent another group of submarines to the Indian Ocean.

As a group, the Monsun Fleet was not all that successful. It turned out that the heat of the tropics was very destructive to the batteries used in torpedoes, and as a result, many torpedoes became useless or were rendered ineffective. Also, fuel was in short supply and this limited the ability of the fleet to stay on patrol.

Despite these obstacles, the Monsun Fleet managed to score hits against Allied shipping. The SS Samuel Heintzelman being just one example.

In all, the Monsun fleet was a threat to Allied shipping for a period of less than one year. By September 1944, all the U-boats were either in port or destroyed. The peak moment for the Monsun Fleet came in July and August of 1944.

The Final fate of U-511 

As it turns out U-511 was turned over to the Japanese government in September of 1943 and was recommissioned as hull number RO-500. The German government sold U-511 to the Japanese in exchange for supplies of Indonesian rubber. This transfer took place only two months after the SS Samuel Heintzelman fell victim to U-511.

U-511 it turns out survived the war and there is no record of any casualties among the men assigned to her.  

At the end of the war, U-511 (renamed RO-500) was scuttled by the US Navy at Maizuru, Japan. The U-boat that sank the SS Samuel Heintzelman, and took the life of my Uncle Stewart, was itself sent to a watery grave by the US Navy.

  

  

  

Why is a 
 German 
 submarine 
 operating 
in the 
middle of 
the Indian 
 Ocean? 

a chance 
 encounter 
 with 
U-511 

The U-boat 
 that sank 
the SS 
 Samuel 
Heintzelman 
 was itself 
sent to 
a watery 
 grave. 

     

  

 

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The Heintzelman || The Sinking || The U-511 Fleet || The Debris || The Cargo || The Crew