Wartime German Destroyers: From Narvik to the Capitulation II

The battle off the coast of Brittany, 9 June 1944.

In Operation ‘Walzertraum’ (Waltz Dream), the heavy cruiser Lützow set out on 15 May with Z 4, Z 10, Z 27, Z 29 and a fleet escort boat to join Kampfgruppe I (Battle Group I) at Trondheim. The voyage was interrupted at Kristiansand to allow the completion of a minelaying operation by Z 4 Richard Beitzen, and then the convoy proceeded, arriving at Trondheim to join Admiral Scheer on 20 May as Kampfgruppe II. Bogen Bay near Narvik was reached on the 26th.

On 13 June Admiral Hipper moved up to Bogen Bay to form part of Kampfgruppe I under the fleet commander Admiral Schniewind aboard his flagship Tirpitz. The next stage of the process was Operation ‘Musik’, the transfer northward to Altaford, and, on arrival in Grimsöytraumen, Lützow, Theodor Riedel, Hans Lody and Karl Galster all struck uncharted shallows and were ruled out of the main operation.

On 3 July the two Kampfgruppen joined forces to attack the heavily escorted convoy PQ.17, which consisted of 36 freighters, one tanker and three rescue ships and was heading for Murmansk. The operation was codenamed ‘Rösselsprung’ (Knight’s Move). Tirpitz, Admiral Hipper, Admiral Scheer, six destroyers—Z 14 Friedrich Ihn, Z 24, Z 27, Z 28, Z 29 and Z 30—and two torpedo-boats put to sea on 5 July. They were beyond the North Cape steering north-east when the recall order was transmitted at 2200 that evening, and by 7 July the fleet was back at anchor. The Seekriegsleitung and the British Admiralty made a similar decision to withdraw naval surface forces from the area at about the same time. The preparations of the combined German battle group had been observed by British aerial reconnaissance, resulting in the recall of the naval escort and the controversial order to the convoy to disperse, which was to prove its death knell. On the German side, the wireless monitoring service had decoded British signals traffic reporting the German preparations, and SKL ordered the formation at sea to return to harbour on the grounds of the risk incurred. PQ.17 was then savaged by U-boats and the Luftwaffe.

On 17 August Richard Beitzen, Erich Steinbrinck and Friedrich Eckholdt escorted Admiral Scheer towards Bear Island for her solitary anti-shipping cruise, Operation ‘Wunderland’, into the Kara Sea, where she bombarded Port Dickson on the North Siberian mainland. On 29 August she met up with the same three destroyers off Bear Island for the return to Kirkenes. Z 4, Z 15 and Z 16 had escorted the minelayer Ulm to Bear Island to sow a field north west of Novaya Zemlya. On the way back Ulm fell foul of the British destroyers Marne, Martin and Onslaught and was sunk after a brief engagement.

Operation ‘Doppelschlag’ (Double Blow) was a continuation of ‘Wunderland’. It was planned that Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper and three destroyers would operate off the estuaries of the Ob and Yenisei rivers on the north Russian coast before hunting for independent shipping on the Novaya Zemlya-Spitz-bergen track. The operation was cancelled because of ice and the state of Scheer’s diesels.

On 13 September Hitler issued an order forbidding the employment of surface warships against eastbound convoys. Between 4 and 8 September Richard Beitzen, Z 29 and Z 30 had laid mines at the entrance to the Kara Strait. On the 24th of the month, as the flagship of Admiral Kummetz, Hipper set out with Beitzen, Steinbrinck, Eckholdt and Z 28 steering north-northeast into the Barents Sea and during the evening of 26 September laid 96 mines off the Matoshkin Strait at the centre of Novaya Zemlya. The purpose of this operation, codenamed ‘Czarin’ (Empress) was to force enemy convoys closer to the coast of Norway and thus nearer to German naval units. The group dropped anchor in Altafjord on the 28th.

Between 13 and 15 October Friedrich Eckholdt, Z 24, Z 27 and Z 30 laid a minefield off the Kanin peninsula at the mouth of the White Sea, and this quickly claimed a victim when the Soviet icebreaker Mikoyan blew up. On 5 November Hipper sortied from Kaafjord into the Barents Sea in company with Beitzen, Eckholdt, Z 27 and Z 30 on Operation ‘Hoffnung’ (Hope) with the idea of criss-crossing the convoy tracks in search of merchant vessels sailing alone. Whilst in pursuit of a tanker sighted by Hipper’s shipboard Arado, Z 27 sank the Soviet submarine-chaser B0-78, picking up 43 crew members: the same destroyer, at the far end of the patrol line, also sank the Russian tanker Donbass (8,000grt) with three torpedoes, the crew being brought aboard. The German ships returned to Altafjord on 9 November.

Following the discovery by U 85 on 28 December of what was reported to be a lightly defended convoy of ten ships 70 miles south of Bear Island, all available surface units in northern Norway were brought to readiness on 29 December, and, in a conference the following day, C-in-C Cruisers, Vizeadmiral Kummetz, explained Operation ‘Regenbogen’ to the commanders. The first destroyer to detect the convoy would shadow it while the remainder of the destroyer force closed in. The cruisers would stand off until first light. The first objective was to destroy the convoy escort before attacking the merchantmen. A superior enemy was to be avoided.

On 30 December, the German Kampfgruppe, consisting of the flagship Admiral Hipper, the heavy cruiser Lützow and six destroyers—Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Friedrich Eckholdt, Z 29, Z 30 and Z 31, headed north on course 60° once clear of the coast. Kummetz ordered a 65-mile scouting line to be formed as from 0830 on 31 December, the six destroyers combing forward in a south-easterly direction 15nm apart. Hipper and Lützow would keep station astern of and to seaward of the northern and southern ends of the line respectively for an 85-mile width of search, while the destroyers would advance in the order Eckholdt-Z 29-Beitzen-Z 31-Z 30-Riedel. Whilst the warships were forming into their allotted positions in the scouting line, Hipper detected by radar two shadows at 60° which could not be German vessels, and Eckholdt was detached as contact keeper. Thus at the start of the engagement the German group was effectively divided into two sections, the northern of which consisted of Hipper and the destroyers Beitzen, Z 24 and Eckholdt.

At 0842—daybreak—Friedrich Eckholdt reported ten vessels steering 90°, and at 0910, at a range of 18.000yds bearing 140°, Hipper sighted a number of vessels, including destroyers, consituting the main convoy escort on its northern flank. The destroyers were Onslow, Obedient, Obdurate, Orwell and Achates. The fourteen ships of convoy JW.51B were steaming initially on an easterly bearing and bore round south at 1020. At 0930 Z 4, Z 16 and Z 24 fired on Obdurate. Spotting and rangefinding were very difficult in the poor light and poor visibility and because of the icing and misting over of instruments.

At 1018 the destroyer Onslow was hit by a salvo from Admiral Hipper and at 1027 was reported by Richard Beitzen as burning fiercely and down by the stern. At 1030 Hipper was about 15nm to the north of the convoy and steering east. The convoy was now on a course to the south towards Lützow, but Hipper was entrammelled with the escorts and having to concentrate on the destroyer Achates and the radar-equipped minesweeper Bramble.

At 1135, on ultra-short wave radio, Friedrich Eckholdt asked a series of questions to establish the identity of a warship she had just sighted. In a batch of replies at 1136 Kummetz signalled, ‘In combat with escort forces—no cruisers’, although two minutes earlier Admiral Hipper had been surprised by fire from a cruiser with large bridge, a raked forefunnel and turrets fore and aft, making 31 knots and identified as probably a Southampton or Fiji class cruiser. Hipper had been hit and had her speed reduced, so that at 1137 Kummetz, who was in any case in two minds because of an ambiguous signal from ashore, decided to abandon the operation. At 1143 the destroyer Eckholdt, ignorant of Richard Beitzen’s, warning radio message, decided that the cruiser she was facing must be German, and was sunk with all hands by Sheffield. The German force returned to Altafjord, where it dropped anchor on 1 January 1943.

The unforeseen outcome of the operation had the most serious consequences for the German surface fleet. Although the Kampfgruppe commander was bound by orders which required him to abandon the mission if heavy enemy forces appeared, the attack had already been reported as a great success, and when news of a fiasco was conveyed to Hitler instead, he reacted by decommissioning all ships of the size of light cruiser and above. Raeder resigned a few days later and was replaced by Grossadmiral Dönitz. The latter obtained some concessions, but on the whole the directive remained in force until the course of the war determined otherwise.

At the end of 1943 the number of operational Kriegsmarine destroyers was twenty, with ZH 1, Z 32, Z 33, Z 34, Z 37 and Z 38 now in commission. ZG 3 Hermes was lost off Tunisia in May, while Z 27 became a casualty in December.

On January, in Operation ‘Fronttheater’, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen were met off Hela by Paul Jacobi, Friedrich Ihn and Z 24 for the run to Norway, but when the squadron was sighted off the Skaw by RAF Coastal Command on the 11th the operation was broken off; a repeat attempt, code-named ‘Domino’, on the 25th with the destroyers Jacobi, Erich Steinbrinck, Z 32 and Z 37 was similarly unsuccessful, the units repairing to Gotenhafen on the 27th.

On 24 January Richard Beitzen, Z 29 and Z 30 sailed with Admiral Hipper and the light cruiser Köln from Altafjord to Bogen Bay and then Trondheim, leaving on 7 February for Kiel.The minelayer Brummer and the destroyers Z 6 Theodor Riedel and Z 31 laid the only offensive field of 1943 in the roadstead near Kildin Island, Kola Bay, between 4 and 6 February.

On 6 March Scharnhorst sailed from the Baltic. Having set out with Jacobi, Steinbrinck, Z 24, Z 25 and Z 28, plus five torpedo boats as escort, she arrived at Bogen Bay on 9 March with only Z 28 for company, the remainder following eight days later after having had weather damage repaired at Trondheim.

Between 31 March and 2 April Paul Jacobi, Theodor Riedel and Karl Galster waited near Jan Mayen for the blockade-runner Regensburg returning from Japan. The meeting never took place, the freighter having been sunk in the North Atlantic by the light cruiser Glasgow.

The major offensive of the year was the occupation of Spitzbergen, which was carried out between 6 and 9 September. While Lützow, Z 5 Paul Jacobi and Z 14 Friedrich Ihn remained in the anchorage at Altafjord to cover the numerous absences for the benefit of Allied air reconnaissance, the battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst and nine destroyers—Z 6, Z 10, Z 15, Z 20, Z 27, Z 29, Z 30, Z 31 and Z 33—headed for Barentsburg. During the approach to the town three destroyers were hit by coastal artillery: Z 29 suffered four hits, damage to outer plating, three dead and three wounded, Z 31 received eight hits on the upper deck, with one dead and one wounded, and Z 33 received no fewer than thirty-three hits to her hull and bridgework, resulting in 28 casualties, three of them fatal.

The last anti-convoy sortie by any German heavy warship ended in disaster on 26 December after Scharnhorst, accompanied by Z 29, Z 30, Z 33, Z 34 and Z 38 left Kaafjord on Christmas Day. Once the destroyer escort had been released because of the bad weather, the battleship continued alone and ran foul of the convoy escort—of capital-ship strength—off the North Cape. The FdZ, Bey, was commanding the operation aboard Scharnhorst and went down with his ship.

During 1943 the Kriegsmarine found it necessary to strengthen the escort force in the Bay of Biscay both for U-boats based there and for inbound merchantmen. Germany was not reliant on imports by sea as was Great Britain, but the occasional blockade-runner making the voyage to France from the Far East with high-value raw materials was of such importance that as many as five destroyers would sail to meet an inbound ship. For example, in July 1943 Z 23, Z 32 and Z 37 came in with Himalaya, in early August Z 23 and Z 32 actually entered the Atlantic beyond the longitude of Cape Ortegal to meet up with Pietro Orsedo, and on 23 December Z 23, Z 24, Z 27, Z 37 and ZH 1 escorted Osorno into the Gironde.

Late on Boxing Day 1943, Z 23, Z 24, Z 27, Z 32 and Z 37 sailed with six torpedo boats of 4. T-Flottille—T 22, T 23, T 24, T 25, T 26 and T 27—to meet the blockade-runner Alsterufer. However, this large freighter had already been sunk by the Royal Navy, and on 28 December the German force encountered the light cruisers Glasgow (9,100 tons, 32 knots, 12×6in guns) and Enterprise (7,580 tons, 33 knots, 7×6in guns) in what the Germans refer to as Das Gefecht in der Biskaya (The Battle of Biscay). The German vessels had several knots’ more speed in ideal sea conditions than the two British cruisers, and also mounted a superior number of guns of the same calibre, but Glasgow and Enterprise were far more seaworthy in heavy weather. The latter factor was decisive. There was a big sea running which slowed the German force considerably, and as gun platforms the German destroyers were inferior on the day because of the wild rolling motion. Glasgow and Enterprise put their speed and manoeuvrability to better use and sank Z 27 and the torpedo boats T 25 and T 26. Of the 740 men aboard these three ships, only 293 could be saved—21 by U 618, 34 by U 505, six by Spanish destroyers, 64 by British minesweepers and 168 by an Irish freighter.

Kapitän zur See Max-Eckart Wolff, who had been deputizing for Konteradmiral Bey as FdZ since 30 October 1943, took over the post in a caretaking capacity on 27 December. On 26 January 1944 Vize-admiral Leo Kreisch was appointed the last FdZ, relinquishing the appointment on 29 May 1945. At the beginning of 1944 the five destroyers of 8. Z-Flottille—Z 23, Z 24, Z 32, Z 37 and ZH 1—were operating out of Biscay ports as U-boat escorts and were frequently under air attack. By the end of August all five were either beyond repair or sunk.

During a flotilla exercise on 30 January Z 32 and Z 37 collided and both ships were badly damaged. Z 32 was laid up for repair until May and Z 37, listing heavily, was towed into Bordeaux, where it was decided not to repair the damage. Her guns were landed and earmarked for coastal defence use, and the ship decommissioned on 24 August.

On D-Day, 6 June, Z 24, Z 32, ZH 1 and the torpedo boat T 24 set out from the Gironde for Brest. After surviving determined air attacks en route, the flotilla headed for Cherbourg, from where mines were to be laid off Brest. The enemy had got wind of this operation, and off Wissant a superior force of British destroyers was waiting for the four German ships. ZH 1 received such heavy damage that she was scuttled that same day, and the other three dispersed and made a run for it. Z 24 and T 24 returned to Bordeaux, but Z 32, after initially making for St-Malo, reversed course and ran once more into the enemy destroyers. She received such serious damage that her commander was forced to sacrifice his ship by running her aground on rocks off the Île de Bas, Roscoff.

On 12 August Z 23, in dock at La Pallice, was bombed beyond repair during an air raid, She was decommissioned on 2 August. On 2 August Z 24 and T 24, anchored in the roadstead at Le Verdon, were attacked by bomb- and rocket-carrying Beaufighters of Nos 236 and 404 Squadrons RAF. T 24 was sunk; Z 24 managed to get alongside the quay at Le Verdon but capsized and sank there next day.

When not in the shipyard, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Friedrich Ihn and Karl Galster, together with Z 30, worked out of southern Norwegian ports during 1944 on escort and minelaying duties. Mines were shipped at Fredrikshaven in Denmark and brought to Horten in Oslofjord to be distributed amongst the various units. Acting under instructions from the light cruiser Emden (flagship, C-in-C Minelayers), on 1 October Z 4, Z 14, Z 20 and Z 30 laid the Skagerrak XXXIIb Caligula field, the group coming under constant air attack while doing so. On 5 October the same ships laid the XXXIIa Vespasia field, also in the Skagerrak. On 20 October Z 30 struck a mine in Oslofjord and was towed to the shipyard by Ihn, Galster and UJ 1702. The repair work was still incomplete at the time of the capitulation.

Apart from a single sortie from Altafjord as far as Bear Island by Z 29, Z 31, Z 33, Z 34 and Z 38 on 30 May, the destroyers’ main task was to defend the battleship Tirpitz, principally against air attack. Following her demise in October and the decision to abandon the ‘Polar Front’, the destroyers escorted troop transports southwards and mined a number of fjords and sounds. No destroyers were lost in this theatre during 1944.

By early March 1944, Z 25, Z 28, Z 35 and Z 39 had all arrived in the eastern Baltic and begun minelaying operations in the Gulf of Finland. A major sortie was carried out there on dates between 13 and 25 April by Z 28, Z 35 and Z 39, the torpedo boat T 30, the minelayers Brummer, Roland and Linz and various minesweepers and R-boats. The new Z 36 joined the flotilla in June, but Z 39 returned to Germany for a long drawn-out repairs to bomb damage.

From 7 to 28 June, in Operation ‘Tanne West’, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen patrolled the Finnish coast north of Utô in the Aaland Sea in a show of strength to cover the German withdrawal. She was relieved by the heavy cruiser Lutzow, escorted by the destroyers Z 25, Z 28, Z 35 and Z 36.

Between 30 July and 1 August 1944, in the Gulf of Riga, the same four destroyers were placed under Army direction for the bombardment of Soviet positions inland. On 5 August all four escorted Prinz Eugen from Riga to the island of Oesel to fire inland, and on 19 August, off Kurland in the Gulf of Riga, Prinz Eugen rained 265 rounds of 20.3cm on Soviet positions at Tukkum, a road and rail junction 25 kilometres inland, while the four destroyers and two torpedo boats engaged other targets.

During September 1944 Z 25, Z 28 and four boats of 2. T-Flottille covered the withdrawal from Reval, six freighters evacuating over 23,000 people. On 21 September Z 25 and Z 28 brought out 370 evacuees from Baltisch Port to Libau, and on the 22nd they escorted the remaining German ships in the Aaland Sea to Goten-hafen.

On 10 October Kampfgruppe II Thiele—comprising Prinz Eugen and the four destroyers—sailed from Gotenhafen. Z 25 had as an additional task the delivery of 200 Army personnel to Memel, returning overnight with 200 female naval auxiliaries. The ship re-joined the group on the 11th, and over the next five days Prinz Eugen, Lützow and the destroyers attacked 28 land targets in the defence of Memel. On 15 October, off Gotenhafen, Z 35 and Z 36 stood by the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Leipzig after they had become locked together following a collision in the approach channel. On the 24th of the month Z 28, Z 35 and Z 36, in company with Lützow and three torpedo boats, bombarded inshore targets around Memel and on the Sworbe peninsula. They came under attack from Soviet aircraft for the first time on this day: Z 28 was hit by five bombs and suffered nine dead and numerous wounded, while Z 35 received splinter damage from a near miss.

On 22 November 1944, Z 25, Z 43 and 2. T-Flottille, together with the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, relieved Prinz Eugen and 3. T-Flottille off Oesel, covering the withdrawal until its completion on 24 November despite constant Soviet air attacks; 4,700 German soldiers were evacuated.

On 9 December, 6. Z-Flottille, consisting of Z 35 (flag), Z 36, Z 43 and two torpedo boats, left Gotenhafen to lay a mine barrier off the Estonian coast in Operation ‘Nil’ (Nile). On their arrival in the scheduled area on 12 December there was a thick ground fog, and as a result of poor navigation and the ‘confused, inflexible and deficient operational plan’ drawn up by Kapitän zur See Kothe (for which he was blamed posthumously), Z 35 and Z 36 entered the German-laid Nashorn minefield, where they were mined, blew up and sank with all hands. The situation offered no prospect for a rescue.

At the beginning of 1945, Z 33 was under repair at Narvik, and after enduring the occasional battering from the air in her attempts to get back to Germany, she sailed on 26 March from Trondheim for Swinemünde—the last German destroyer to leave the northern Norwegian theatre. After laying mines in Laafjord and the Mageröy and Brei Sounds during the latter part of January, Z 31, Z 34 and Z 38 had left Tromsö for German Baltic waters on the 25th. By the 28th they had reached Sognefjord, where they were intercepted by a British squadron which included the light cruisers Mauritius (8,000 tons, 12×6in guns, 6 torpedo tubes) and Diadem 5,770 tons, 8×5.25in guns, 6 torpedo tubes). Z 38 broke off the action with a funnel fire and split boiler tubes, and she made Kiel via Aarhus later with Z 34. The latter carried out three torpedo attacks on the British cruisers and received a shell hit on the waterline. Z 31 came off worst in the encounter. She was hit seven times, her 15cm twin turret was totally destroyed and she suffered 55 dead and 24 wounded. She put into Bergen for repair and eventually left the Oslo yard for Germany in mid-March.

Until the capitulation on 8 May 1945, and even afterwards, German units worked on a naval evacuation programme which dwarfed anything ever seen previously. Destroyers were involved in escorting refugee ships and boats of all kinds, and often embarked thousands of refugees themselves. Actual combat in the Baltic in 1945 was limited to gunnery engagements with Soviet troop dispositions and armour and artillery inland, the last rounds being fired on 4 May, after which a partial ceasefire came into effect, enabling the evacuation to proceed as agreed.

Between January and May 1945 1,420,000 individuals were evacuated by sea to the west, most of them refugees or Wehrmacht wounded, although fighting troops numbered more prominently amongst those brought out towards the end. On 2 May a report from Hela spoke of 150,000 soldiers and 26,000 refugees awaiting transport, plus 75,000 troops and 9,000 refugees in the Vistula lowlands. In the evening of 5 May numerous vessels arrived in Gotenhafen from Copenhagen and embarked refugees and troops to capacity, setting off westwards in four large convoys. These included the auxiliary Hansa (12,000 refugees), the minelayer Linz (4,900), the destroyers Karl Galster, Hans Lody, Theodor Riedel and Z 25 (6,000 in all) in Convoy 1; the troopships Ceuta (4,500) and Pompeii (5,400) with three torpedo boats (1,975 total) as Convoy 2; the destroyer Friedrich Ihn, T 28, the depot ship Isar and V 2002 (5,500 total) as Convoy 3; and M 453, V 303 and the training ship Nautik (2,700 total) as Convoy 4. During the night of 7 May small boats and naval launches brought 14,590 Wehrmacht personnel plus 1,810 wounded and refugees from the Vistula plain to Hela, and the following night the destroyers Karl Galster, Friedrich Ihn, Hans Lody, Theodor Riedel, Z 25, Z 38, Z 39 and five torpedo boats embarked another 20,000, the steamers Weserberg and Paloma carrying 5,730 more. A total of 100,000 persons on Hela and in the Vistula area could not be brought out, and these became prisoners of the Soviets.

By the time the surrender came into effect, a total of 116,692 soldiers and 5,397 refugees were still at sea in German warships, heading for either Copenhagen or Kiel.

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