Unsafe Haven

When the Second World War reached Goa

Erwin Tiegel (right) was serving on the MV Braunfels when the Second World War broke out. courtesy edward tiegel
01 May, 2019

Erwin Karl Tiegel was born in the German port city of Hamburg. He died at the age of 80, on 11 June 1994, at the VM Salgaocar hospital at Chicalim, in Goa. He had spent the last 55 years of his life in the coastal state, nearly seven thousand kilometres from home, as a consequence of participating in a forgotten, but no less extraordinary, episode in one of the more obscure theatres of the Second World War.

When the war broke out, on 1 September 1939, Tiegel was employed by the German shipping line DDG Hansa. He was serving on the MV Braunfels, which was then travelling from Djibouti to Calcutta. Its cargo included “all kinds of things, from cars to cement,” his son, Edward, who lived in Goa until he died last August, told me. The ship received news that Germany would soon be at war with Britain, and that British India would, therefore, be enemy territory. However, though Portugal was a long-time ally of Britain, it had declared that it would remain neutral during the war, and German and Italian ships in the region had made their way to the Portuguese colony of Goa in anticipation of the war. When the Braunfels made its way to the port of Mormugao, on 31 August, it joined two other Hansa-line ships—the Ehrenfels and the Drachenfels. An Italian vessel, the Anfora, soon took refuge in Mormugao as well.

Although the Portuguese authorities in Goa were willing to let the ships dock, they were suspicious about their motives. The Goan government acquiesced to the request by the British government to allow all British Indian subjects aboard the ships to disembark, so that they could be repatriated. However, “it expressed its unhappiness over the willingness of the seamen of different nationalities to disembark on the land,” the historian PP Shirodkar writes, in his book Blazing Midnight, “and hence sought authority and instructions in this regard.”

The captains of the three German ships were more concerned with keeping their crews fed, as no one knew how long their confinement at Mormugao would last. They wrote a letter to the Swiss consulate in Bombay, asking them to either intervene or ask the German government to do so. The Portuguese government forwarded the letter to its consul-general at Bombay, but the British government did not allow it to be passed on to the Swiss consulate. As a result, the captains had no funds to pay their crews, barring an advance of Rs 30,000 from Elesbao Pereira and Sons, the Hansa line’s local agents. On 26 November 1940, the captains wrote to the governor general of Goa about their financial difficulties in the absence of functioning communications, and sought permission to sell at least the perishable cargo on the ships. Unless some immediate steps were taken to secure funds for their maintenance, they wrote, “we shall be on the verge of starvation in a Neutral Country.”