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The Second World War is usually regarded as having started on 1 September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany. There is much truth to this perception, although Japan had already clashed with Russia earlier that summer and had been fighting in China since 1937. The difference is that the invasion of Poland was fought on a total war basis, while the conflicts in Asia were kept limited by tacit agreement among the powers involved.

The United States were strongly isolationist and unwilling to intervene in the European war. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed three days later by declarations of war from Germany and Italy, meant that the United States would fight against the Axis with all of their considerable industrial potential.

The Allied Powers agreed that Germany was the greatest threat and had to be defeated first. In retrospect, this "Germany First" policy was unquestionably correct, but it was controversial at the time with the American public, who were inflamed by the Pearl Harbor attack and inclined to give higher priority to the Pacific theater. Eventually a formula was settled on in which 30% of Allied resources would go to the Pacific and 70% to Europe until Germany was defeated. The U.S. Air Force was scrupulous about this agreement, allocating almost precisely 30% of its squadrons to the Pacific. However, the latest model aircraft almost always went to Europe first. The U.S. Army was a little more flexible; in the early days of the war, when Japan was on the rampage in the Pacific, more Army troops went to the Pacific than to Europe. Later the allocation of divisions approached the 70/30 ratio. The U.S. Navy never took the 70/30 formula very seriously, partly because the Army adamantly refused to accept Marine divisions for service in Europe, and partly because the Pacific was a naval theater while Europe was a continental theater, apart from the U-boat war (which required a different force composition than the Pacific campaigns.) The naval allocation of manpower to the Pacific was never less than 50%. U.S. Army historian James Huston (1966) has questioned whether the Pacific was ever a significant drag on the war in Europe.

The actual German presence in the Pacific was never more than token. A number of U-boats operated in the Indian Ocean, a few auxiliary cruisers made calls at Japanese ports, and some blockade runners carried supplies and technology to and from the Far East, but that was about all. The first major blockade running operation, in the winter of 1941-1942, was relatively successful, with thirteen of seventeen ships successfully making the trip. Germany thereby acquired 32,000 tons of rubber and 25,000 tires, enough to provide Germany's natural rubber requirements for two years. Subsequent efforts were much less successful, but the single ship that got through in a January 1944 operation provided enough rubber, tin, and tungsten to cover Germany's needs for the remainder of the year. Japan in turn received mercury and intellectual property.

The Germans sent Joseph Meisinger, a Gestapo officer, to Japan in April 1941 to act as a liaison with the Kempeitai, and Meisinger was active in watching the German community in Japan for disloyalty. Meisinger also attempted to persuade the Japanese to exterminate the expatriate Jewish community in Shanghai. However, while the Japanese housed the Jews under harsh conditions, they resisted German pressure to actually exterminate them. Meisinger was arrested after the Japanese surrender by American occupation forces and was eventually turned over to the Poles, who hanged him for atrocities committed in Poland between 1939 and 1941.

Historian H.P. Willmott (1982) has argued that Japan's only real prospect for winning the Pacific War lay in an offensive across India into the Middle East to shake hands with German forces. However, the Japanese army, preoccupied with China and the possibility of a Russian collapse, was unwilling to support extended operations into the Indian Ocean.

U-Boat Operations in the Indian Ocean. The first U-boat incursion into the Indian Ocean was a brief raid by five U-boats in November 1942 into the Mozambique Channel, between Madagascar and mainland Africa. However, following the German defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic in May 1943, the Germans attempted to deploy their U-boats into less well-defended areas. A force of 11 U-boats (Operation MONSOON) lost six of its number before reaching the Indian Ocean in July 1943, but the surviving boats scored significant successes. In August 1943, U-178 reached Penang as the start of a significant buildup of German U-boat forces in the Far East. These operated almost exclusively in the Indian Ocean. U-boats returning to Germany for refit invariably carried as much tin, quinine, or other valuable commodities as they could carry. However, none of the ten specialized cargo-carrying U-boats sent to the Far East ever made it back to Germany.

A total of 57 U-boats saw service in the Indian Ocean.

German order of battle

German Naval Forces Far East
Paul Wenneker

Admiral Wenneker was the German naval attaché to Japan and acted as overall commander of all German naval forces in the Indian Ocean and Far East.
33 Flotilla

Penang German Naval Forces Far East

Arrived 1943-6-10 33 Flotilla


Arrived 1943-8-27
33 Flotilla

Arrived 1943-10-30 (Penang)       33 Flotilla

History. Sunk 1945-4-23 by Besugo
Arrived 1944-8-8 33 Flotilla
History. Taken over by the Japanese 1945-5 as I-501

Arrived 1944-8-10 33 Flotilla
History. Missing 1944-12-1 near Sunda Strait

Arrived 1944-9-9 33 Flotilla
History. Taken over by the Japanese 1945-5-6 as I-502

Arrived 1944-9-23 33 Flotilla
History. Sunk 1944--9-23 off Penang by Trenchant

Arrived 1944-9-23
33 Flotilla
History. Withdrew 1945-1-15

Arrived 1944-12-28 (Batavia)      33 Flotilla


Carpenter and Polmar (1986)

Deacon (1983)

Huston (1966)

Weinberg (1994)

Willmot (1982)

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