1943 – German Schnellboot S.100. German S-boats of World War II were among the best small combatant vessels ever produced. The armament carried by the S-boats gave them almost the same firepower as that of a destroyer and specially developed paint schemes rendered them almost impossible to see at night. The S-boat had a cruising range of 700-750 miles with speeds from 39-43.5 knots.
The surrendered E-boats arrive at HMS Hornet, the Coastal Forces base at Portsmouth.
In August the E-boats were equipped with a new long-range circling torpedo, the ‘Dackel’; although its speed was only 9 knots, it could run straight for about 16 miles and then circle for another 18 miles, with a total running time of no less than 3½ hours. This would have been virtually useless in normal circumstances but it posed a more serious threat against an anchorage crowded with shipping The cruiser Frobisher and two other ships were damaged and a landing craft sunk by this means. Two other ‘secret weapons’ also made their first appearance at this time, the ‘Marder’ which was a torpedo guided by a frogman who sat astride it, and the ‘Linsen’, a motor-boat filled with explosive and aimed at a target by the operator who jumped clear at the last minute. These were responsible for sinking the destroyer Quorn together with a trawler and a landing craft, but most were destroyed by MTBs and other ships before they could get near enough to do any damage. Such measures, calling for considerable bravery on the part of the men concerned, showed how desperate the Germans had become in trying to hold back the remorseless tide of troops and equipment crossing the Channel.
Towards the end of August, while a full-scale assault on Le Havre was made by Canadian troops from the landward side, MTBs joined with destroyers and frigates to establish a close blockade of the approaches to the port. This was the most eventful period of all for Coastal Forces in this area, involving continual night engagements as the Germans tried to move in supplies and reinforcements by sea and then to evacuate their shipping in strongly escorted convoys. The E-boats played their part in this, but were unable to prevent heavy losses and several of the craft themselves were lost. German resistance in the Channel ports was stubborn – indeed, the garrison at Dunkirk did not surrender until the end of the war – but with the final evacuation from Le Havre on 1 September, all maritime opposition in these waters ended. German shipping, including the dozen E-boats which were all that remained of Petersen’s original force of 34 at the start of the invasion, was driven through the Dover Strait and into the North Sea for temporary shelter in bases on the Belgian and Dutch coasts. The eastern end of the Channel was cleared of the enemy for the first time in four years. During that last momentous week, Allied naval forces including MTBs and PTs had sunk nine armed landing craft, five coasters, two trawlers, two R-boats and one E-boat, with several more E-boats so badly damaged that they were no longer serviceable. From D-Day until the end of August, MTBs alone claimed 34 craft sunk and nine possibles, for the loss of ten to themselves, three in action with E-boats and the remainder by mines and collisions. The E-boats sank 11 vessels and damaged eight others but lost 22, mostly by bombing although the last casualty fell to the coastal gun batteries at Dover.
In the western area, where a flotilla each of SGBs and ‘D’ class MTBs had been attached to Admiral Kirk’s Task Force to reinforce his four PT squadrons, there had been few actions during the early days of the invasion and no contact with E-boats. These units with the exception of two PT squadrons (30 and 35) which were transferred to Portsmouth, then joined the Coastal Force operations from Plymouth and Dartmouth off the Brittany coast and among the Channel Islands. Their exploits were so successful that enemy traffic among the islands was brought virtually to a standstill by the time that the enemy garrisons on St Malo and Ile de Cezembre fell on 18 August. From that point onwards, the Channel Islands ceased to be of any military importance. Meanwhile, Coastal Forces continued to operate off the French ports to the east until the night of 1–2 October, when the last action was fought between Boulogne and Calais. Most of the flotillas were then transferred to the North Sea where the E-boats were now fighting the last desperate stage in the battle for the narrow seas. It is worth recording that from the beginning of the war until September 1944, when the Germans were cleared from the Channel, no less than 2,000 convoys of over 45,000 ships had sailed from the key assembly and terminal point at Southend.
Having re-grouped at Rotterdam and Ijmuiden, the E-boats now resumed their main task of laying mines on the east coast convoy routes and off the Belgian coast. But they were also used occasionally to ship supplies to the beleaguered German garrison at Dunkirk. A new flotilla was formed at this time – the 10th commanded by Kapitänleutnant Karl Müller – and its first mission on the night of 18–19 September was to make one of the Dunkirk runs. The three boats of the flotilla that were operational – S.183,S.200 and S.702 – were to cover four other boats loaded with stores and ammunition. These supplies were landed successfully but then the covering force was detected by the radar-fitted frigate Stayner, on patrol with two ‘D’ class MTBs of the 64th Flotilla commanded by Lt-Cdr D. Wilkie – MTB.724 (Lt J.F. Humphreys) and MTB.728 (Lt F.N. Thomson). The patrol system of combining a ship equipped with radar and MTBs which could be vectored towards a target had been used defensively in 1943 for convoy protection off the east coast; now it was being employed offensively against E-boats off the enemy’s coast. Stayner gave the MTBs the course to steer and herself moved in to provide support with her guns. All three E-boats were sunk, two by the MTBs and one by the frigate, and 60 survivors taken prisoner including Müller himself.
In spite of losses such as these, the Germans managed to bring their total E-boat strength in the North Sea up to about twenty by mid-October, largely due to the efforts of the workshops in repairing damaged craft. Their main missions were to lay mines off the east coast and occasionally in the eastern Channel. But the Allied patrols were more alert than ever, and in the battles which raged in the familiar area around Smith’s Knoll, the MTBs invariably came off best. The E-boats sank no ships at all in October and their only success in November was one small tanker off Ostend. In December, raids by RAF Bomber Command on the E-boat base at Ijmuiden resulted in the destruction of three craft, and on the night of 22–23, two more were sunk by MTBs during an unsuccessful attack on a convoy off the Scheldt Estuary.
By early 1945, with the war in Europe coming irrevocably to its conclusion, there began a gradual reduction in the overall strength of Britain’s Coastal Forces. There was still plenty of work for the MTBs to do, of course, and the flotillas operating out of Lerwick in particular found no lack of targets off the coast of Norway; in the five months up to mid-February they sank nine merchant vessels (eight by torpedo and one by gunfire), six trawlers, two minesweepers and one E-boat. However, there no longer seemed any need for the very large force of MTBs that had been built up by this time. Building programmes were cancelled, older boats paid off, the American PT squadrons disbanded, and a number of bases closed down. It appeared that for coastal craft in the North Sea the war was as good as over. But the Germans had still not played their last card. Just as on land the German Army was still capable of springing an unpleasant surprise with its counter-attack in the Ardennes, so in the narrow seas the E-boats showed they were still a force to be reckoned with.
Although the great port of Antwerp had been captured virtually intact on 4 September, it could not be used as an entry for supplies and reinforcements until the Germans had been cleared from their strongly fortified positions on the islands in the estuary to the River Scheldt. This was not accomplished until early November, by a combined operation including Canadian and Royal Marine Commandos, and it was not until the end of the month that the eighty miles of river up to Antwerp had been cleared of mines. Convoys from the Thames to Antwerp started in December and by the beginning of 1945 acquired an even greater importance in view of the need to supply the Allied armies preparing their drive to the Rhine and also to replace the equipment lost in holding back the German offensive in the Ardennes. However, almost the whole of western Holland was still in German hands, and this included the E-boat bases at Ijmuiden, Rotterdam and Den Helder. The Germans were not slow in taking advantage of the targets now offered virtually on their own doorstep, namely the vital convoys passing up the River Scheldt to Antwerp. Another E-boat flotilla was brought back from the Baltic and the existing flotillas reinforced once again, so that about thirty craft were operational. For this last major offensive in the North Sea, the E-boats were aided by another ‘secret weapon’ in the midget submarines (‘Seehunden’) that had been developed.
Throwing caution to the winds the E-boats came out on every possible occasion at night in groups of six or eight to make torpedo attacks at sea and to lay mines in the Scheldt. During January and February E-boats and midget submarines were responsible for sinking seven ships by torpedo, while mines laid by E-boats sank a further 15 ships of 36,000 tons. Extra destroyers and MTBs had to be called in to meet this threat and in a series of fierce clashes sank four of the E-boats. In spite of the personal bravery of the Seehund crews, the two-man midget submarines did not come up to German expectations; of the 80 captured or sunk at this time, Coastal Forces accounted for 23. Had it not been for the strength of the British surface and air patrols, however, they would have achieved a considerable success in attacks on convoys.
The Germans stepped up their attacks in March, with the E-boats out almost every night and switching their operations abruptly from Dutch waters to the east coast of England in an effort to take the convoys by surprise. They were invariably driven off, only managing one important success by torpedo during the month, when on the night of 18–19 March they slipped through the defensive screen around Convoy FS 1759 off Lowestoft and sank the freighters Crichtoun and Rogate. In fact, these were the last Allied merchant ships in World War II to be sunk by E-boats in a direct attack. However, the mines laid by these craft continued to take their toll, and a further eleven ships were lost in this way during the month. Three E-boats were lost, including S. 181 which was sunk by a Beaufighter off Den Helder on 21–22 March, the commander of the 2nd Flotilla (Korvettenkapitän Opdenhoff) being among those killed.
It was during the period of one week in April that the E-boats were finally beaten, largely due to the close co-operation which by then existed between Allied air and surface patrols in which a major factor was the development of airborne radar; by this means, Coastal Command aircraft could detect enemy craft almost as soon as they left base and track them until MTBs were in a position to make contact. Fittingly, perhaps, that final week saw a peak in the intensity of fighting between E-boats and MTBs which had seldom been equalled before. It began on the night of 6–7 April when a unit of three MTBs under Lt J. May intercepted a group of five E-boats of the 2nd Flotilla, making what was to be its final mining operation. After a desperate running battle, the honours were even with two E-boats (S.176 and S.177) and two MTBs (494 and 5001) lost. The manner of these losses graphically illustrates the kind of encounters that took place in the latter stages of the war. Lt May’s own boat and one of the enemy were both sunk after colliding with one another. Another MTB commanded by Lt Foster sank a second E-boat by ramming, but then had to be written off after hitting the floating wreckage of May’s boat. On the following night, a further two E-boats (S.202 and S.703) were sunk in a collision with each other after they had been severely damaged by gunfire from an MTB patrol led by Lt Dixon. A third boat, S.223, was blown up by a mine off Ostend. The final action between E-boats and Coastal Forces took place five nights later, on 12–13 April, when the patrolling frigate Ekins and two MTBs intercepted a group on its way to lay mines in the Scheldt Estuary. One of the E-boats was badly damaged before they had to return to base with their mission unaccomplished. There were by then still 15 E-boats operational, but that was the last time they put to sea before the end of the war. The losses they had suffered in the final stages were just too heavy for the meagre results being achieved, and added to that there was a critical shortage of fuel and disorganisation at their bases due to continual bombing raids.
Only on one last occasion did two of the E-boats make the journey across the North Sea again. That was on 13 May, following Germany’s unconditional surrender, when they sailed under a white flag from Rotterdam to Felixstowe, bringing with them representatives of the German Naval Command who were to inform Nore Command of the location of German minefields. The two E-boats were under the command of Korvettenkapitän Fimmen who had taken over the 4th Flotilla after the death of Lützow. They were escorted into harbour by ten MTBs, on board which were most of the Senior Officers of the Nore Command flotillas. It was with mixed feelings that the British crews met face to face for the first time the enemy with whom they had fought so fiercely for five years. There was satisfaction, of course, for a battle well won. But also respect for an enemy who had shared common hardships in the bleak, storm-ridden narrow seas between Britain and the Continent of Europe.