02 November 2011
«During the Carnival of 1943, four merchant ships (one Italian and three German) stationed at Mormugão harbour, in Goa, were set on fire and sunk by their crews. Following their arrest and interrogation by the Portuguese authorities, the Axis crewmembers claimed that their actions were in response to an armed attack by a British commando. However, no one believed that explanation.
«The subsequent inquiry conducted by the Portuguese Navy, and the trial of the crew members held in the local court, both concluded that the attack alleged never occurred and was a mere invention to justify the sinking of the ships, following a political altercation between the crews. Also, the Governor General of Goa, Colonel José Cabral, had, on the night of the incident, telegraphed a message to the Ministry of the Colonies in Lisbon, which was then passed on to Prime Minister Oliveira Salazar, stating that the story of the British attack was, in fact, not true.
«The official account of the incident was convenient for everyone involved, not only for the British, who had violated Portuguese neutrality by launching an attack in Portuguese waters, causing loss of life, but also for the Portuguese, who were anxious to maintain cordial relations with one of their oldest allies. Even the Germans in Berlin, could not refute the official account, as one of the possible motives for the British attack was the neutralisation of an Axis spy network operating from the main ship, the Eherenfels. Consequently, some of the German crewmembers were wrongly convicted and sentenced for arson and the file was closed.
«In fact, the account of the events given by the crewmembers was true. The British attack did happen, and was carried out by a team of Special Operations Executive («SOE»), together with some civilians, recruited in British India. The operation was code-named “Longshanks”. Prior to the attack, the same team had kidnapped a German spy, Robert Koch, who, with his wife, was resident in Panjim.However, the outcome was considered by London authorities to be a «fiasco», because the operation approved by the British Foreign Office was one which involving only the capture of the vessels by means of bribery alone and without any violence.
«Many years later, in 1978, James Leasor, a British journalist, published a book entitled Boarding Party, translated in German, which revised the foregoing interpretation of the episode and claimed it was a glorious British victory. In the same vein, building on the account furnished in Leasor’s book, a fiction film of the event, The Sea Wolves, was produced in 1980, starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Roger Moore.
«Following exhaustive research in archives both in Portugal (Foreign Office, Colonial and Salazar’s) and in England (Public Record Office), José António Barreiros has written a book, that goes to the limit in the quest for the truth. Comparing material previously published with recently released documents, the author presents a full account of the entire episode, together with political insights and operational details. The legal facts and political expediency are brought together in a fascinating style, which can be read like a novel. This short book reveals names and details that were not public knowledge before, including the whole story of the kidnapping of the German spy».