It was on the night of 8/9 March 1945, only two months before Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender, that an amphibious raiding force set sail from the Channel Islands. Their objective was the port of Granville in Allied-controlled France, and their aim was to take the war to the enemy, bring back supplies, liberate POWs and capture or kill Allied servicemen. Bar local counter-attacks in mainland Europe, the raid is probably one of the last significant offensive operations undertaken by German forces in the Second World War.
In the last months of the war, a US Army-administered POW camp had been established at Granville on the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, an area which by late 1944 was 500 miles safely behind enemy lines. Just before Christmas 1944, a naval artillery midshipman, Fänrich der Marineartillerie Leker, and four paratroopers, who had been captured at Brest, escaped from the camp. They had attached themselves to a working party in the harbour area, passing themselves off as interpreters, and on 21 December slipped away under cover of darkness and located an American landing-craft LCV(P), which they contrived to take out on the evening tide. With only a pocket compass and a sketch map to guide them, they reached Le Maître in the Minquiers group, where the German observation post, having first signalled ‘Under attack by English landing craft’, opened fired on them, and then, when their identity had been established, directed them on to St Helier.
The POWs reported that the harbour at Granville was in full operation. There were usually about five ships there, most of them discharging coal. These ships came over in a convoy from Falmouth every other night, escorted by one escort trawler of the Plymouth Command Auxiliary Patrol. A US Navy patrol craft (PC) was also stationed at Granville, usually anchored outside the tidal harbour.
The winter of 1944–45 was particularly cold, and though there were coal mines in eastern France there was fighting in some of these areas, while in others the rail transport links were so badly damaged by the Allied air forces and German demolitions that coal could not be moved from the pitheads around the country. To help France to recover, the British began sending coal to the continent, and Granville was selected by Commander-in-Chief Plymouth, along with St Malo, Morlaix and St Brieuc, as one of the ports that could handle these deliveries from coasters sailing from South Wales. Despite the German demolitions, Granville had been cleared of many of the obstructions and the first collier entered the harbour in September 1944. It was in order to monitor these shipping movements that the German command on the Channel Islands had established the observation post on Le Maître in the Minquiers group.
The POWs said that a unit of the US Army was billeted in the barracks near the old town on the high ground overlooking the harbour. They would not have known the numbers, but the force was a half company – some fifty-two men of the US Army’s 156th Infantry Regiment, whose HQ was 20 miles to the north of Granville at Barneville. At Granville the only heavy weapon available for the US soldiers was one M1 57mm anti-tank gun. One hundred and thirty second-line French troops, armed with captured light German weapons, were stationed in the barracks overlooking the port. This rather bleak accommodation was known as ‘The Rock’ – a name more commonly associated with Alcatraz, the grim high-security Federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. Finally, there was a battalion of US Army labour troops armed with carbines, whose principal function was to guard and supervise the Germans POWs working in the docks. While not all of this would have been known to the Germans on the islands, they would have had a detailed knowledge of the layout of harbour, since Granville had been used throughout the war as a resupply base.
There was a signal station on the south pier of the headland at Granville, and a radar station on the coast a short distance to the north. It would emerge later that the German defences had been dismantled or were no longer manned.
Following the D-Day landings, the Channel Islands had collected a small but effective naval force. Some of the ships had been based in the French ports along the Gulf of St Malo, and following the liberation of Normandy had made a run for literally the closest safe haven. On the islands, many were now laid up due to lack of fuel.
On the basis of the intelligence from the POWs, Generleutnant Graf von Schmettow decided to seize the chance of hitting back at the enemy while incidentally raising the morale of his own men, which was suffering almost as much from lack of action as from lack of food. The plan was to put Granville harbour out of action, capture a coal ship to help the desperate fuel situation in the Channel Islands and destroy the rest of the shipping. In addition, staff officers who were believed to be billeted in the hotels would be captured. It was calculated that all this could be achieved in sixty minutes. Though the initial planing for Kommando-Unternehmen Granville was the work of von Schmettow’s staff, with the passage of time the credit would be hijacked by his successor.
The early commanders of the occupying forces under von Schmettow were reasonable men: they aimed to have a collaborative rather than coercive relationship with the population, so much so that prayers for the British royal family were even permitted to be said in services in the island churches. But in the closing stages of the war, after the failure of the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, and as Western and Russian armies approached the German heartland, extremists took over everywhere within the Third Reich.
Von Schmettow was replaced on 29 February 1945 by 47-year-old Vizeadmiral Friedrich Hüffmeier, who had come to the islands in June 1944 as Seekommandant Kanalinseln, or Seeko-Ki, to take over a command that had been established at the end of July 1942 and held by the highly efficient Kapitän zur See Julius Steinbach.
Hüffmeier was a former captain of the battle cruiser KMS Scharnhorst, a post in which he had proved incompetent and unpopular. In Death of the Scharnhorst, John Winton describes the crew’s impression of their commander:
It took only a short time for Scharnhorst’s ship company to decide, to a man that ‘Poldi’ Hüffmeier was a walking disaster area. They believed he owed his appointment more to social influence than to ability, and he quickly showed himself a poor seaman, with almost no talent at all for ship handling.
Under Hüffmeier’s command, the Scharnhorst had run aground off Hela at 26 knots; an Arado reconnaissance aircraft was catapulted off the ship before the engine had been opened up, and when it ditched only the observer was recovered alive; the Scharnhorst wrapped a buoy cable around the starboard screw while leaving Gdynia harbour, requiring dockyard repairs; and in August 1942 collided with the newly commissioned Type IXC U-boat U 523 while on manoeuvres in the Baltic. The latter accident led to further repairs. Despite this dismal record, Hüffmeier liked to be associated with the Scharnhorst, a ship that had sunk or captured twenty-two merchant ships in its role as a commerce raider. He even cultivated the rumour that he had been on the bridge when she made the daring Channel Dash in February 1942. In fact, the skipper of the battlecruiser was Capt. Kurt Hoffman, who two months after the remarkable operation was promoted Rear Admiral, and it was then that Hüffmeier took command.
Interestingly, as late as 1985, Hüffmeier’s version of events still had the power to mislead. Michael Ginns MBE, the author of the recently published authoritative Jersey Occupied: The German Armed Forces in Jersey 1940–1945, writes of Hüffmeier in After the Battle No 47, ‘he was nonetheless a competent deck officer, having commanded the battlecruiser Scharnhorst in its famous dash up the English Channel in February 1942’.
Unusually for the Kriegsmarine, Hüffmeier was an ardent Nazi, who controlled the only radio link powerful enough to reach Berlin. Before the liberation of France, communications had been transmitted from the islands by telephone, teleprinter or radio to the Corps HQ at St Lô on the mainland, and thence relayed to Berlin.
The formal handover of command was announced at 6.35 a.m. on 27 February 1945, when the Oberbefehlshaber West sent a signal jointly to Marineoberkommando West (MOK West) Naval High Command West and the 319th Infanterie-Division:
With immediate effect Generleutnant Graf von Schmettow, Commander of the 319 Division and Commander-in-Chief, Channel Islands, is transferred for health reasons to the Supreme Command of the Army Officers’ Pool and Vizeadmiral Hüffmeier, Naval Commander, Channel Islands, is appointed Commander-in-Chief, Channel Islands. A new commander for the 319 Division will be ordered by personnel division. Generalleutnant Graf von Schmettow is to be despatched at once without awaiting arrival of new Divisional Commander.
For Hitler, following the July plot in 1944, the Kriegsmarine was now the only arm in which he had any confidence. The plot had been the work of army officers, and the Luftwaffe was discredited as it failed to stop the Allied air offensive against the Reich. Hüffmeier could be trusted in Berlin because he had attended the Nationalsozialistiche Führungsstab der Kriegsmarine, the National Socialist Leadership School of the Navy.
Descriptions of this officer vary. Some accounts say he was a gaunt, rather sinister figure with a weak smile and a long admiral’s greatcoat that gave the impression of a cowl, and that he stalked around his tiny command carrying a large, bulging briefcase. King says of the Vizeadmiral, ‘in spite of his avuncular appearance he was a ruthless Kriegsmarine Nazi determined to hold the Islands at all costs, and deeply suspicious of the existing generals whom he saw as being too close to the Island rulers’. The Woods write, ‘Tall, burly, with something of the Goering build, his geniality masked a hint of fanaticism.’ They are perhaps a little generous, as some fellow officers on the islands who could observe him closely simply thought that he was mad.
Von Aufsess made the most perceptive assessment of the Vizeadmiral:
Two things strike me about him, his round shoulders, typical of the bookman rather than the man of action, and his high forehead, typical of the thinker. The army officers must find him a puzzling alien being. He belongs to that category of Nazi who are so carried away and bemused by their own oratory that they can never reckon to be dealing honestly either with themselves or with others. The Admiral would not be out of place as an evangelical pastor speaking from the pulpit. Certainly he could not proclaim his political, as against his religious, beliefs with more fervour or conviction.
Turner comments in Outpost of Occupation, ‘It was a shrewd assessment. After the war Hüffmeier found God and turned to the church.’
But now, in March 1945, at the height of his powers, Vizeadmiral Hüffmeier announced his self-appointed promotion in the Deutsche Inselzeitung:
As from 12 noon on 28.2.45 I have taken over as Commander-in-Chief, Channel Islands, and Fortress Commander, Guernsey from Generalleutnant Graf von Schmettow, who has been recalled to the Fatherland for reasons of health.
I know only one aim, to hold out until final victory.
I believe in the mission of our Führer and our people, I will serve them with unflinching faithfulness.
Heil to our beloved Führer
Vice-Admiral and Commander in Chief
On the islands, the German POWs who had escaped from Granville were treated as heroes. Signals were exchanged with Berlin and a Heinkel He 111 made the hazardous flight across Allied-controlled Europe to collect them for a triumphant parade in the German capital. In a fast turnaround, it landed at 12.40 a.m. on 25 December and took off for the return flight at 3.42 a.m. On board were Fregatten Kapitän Breithaupt, Oberleutnant zur See Pauli, a wounded naval rating and the escaped POWs, Fänrich Leker and three of the four paratroops. However, their aircraft was picked up by a USAAF night-fighter and shot down near Bastogne – probably the result of Ultra decryption of signals traffic from the islands to Berlin. All on board were killed and are buried at the Kreigsräbersttätte at Recogne-Bastogne, Belgium. When, on 5 January, news of the interception reached the islands, Hüffmeier announced the death of Breithaupt, an officer ‘whom the enemy never managed to touch in all his time at sea’. Flags were ordered to be flown at half mast on the islands.
In December 1944, Hüffmeier put his proposals for a raid on Granville in a private letter to Admiral Theodor Krancke, commander-in-chief of Navy Group Command West. Krancke decided that the enterprise had a good chance of success and gave it the go-ahead.
Interestingly, this would not be the first time that Hüffmeier had been involved in an amphibious raid. The one episode during his command of the Scharnhorst that reflected creditably on him was on 8 September 1943, when Admiral Oskar Kummetz led Operation Sizilien (Sicily), a naval surface attack on the British- and Norwegian-manned weather stations at Barentsburg and Longyearbyen at Spitzbergen. After departing the Alta Fjord in Norway, the battleship Tirpitz (Kapitän zur See Hans Meyer) and the battlecruiser Scharnhorst bombarded the two settlements, while the destroyers Z 27, Z 29, Z 30, Z 31, Z 33, Erich Steinbrinck, Karl Galster, Hans Lody and Theodor Riedel landed a battalion from Infantry Regiment 349 that wrecked various installations and took prisoners.
In January 1945, on the Channel Islands, selected volunteers were given special training. Among them, Paul Sommerfeld, a soldier in Infantry Regiment 584, recalled that the men selected had combat experience. Training was undertaken away from public view and the men were accommodated at Le Chalet Hotel in Fermain Lane, Guernsey. Allied signals intercepts had picked up that 400 hand-selected men were being given commando training, but when this intelligence reached London it was not taken seriously.
The men were transferred to Jersey and billeted in a hotel near Gorey harbour. They were kept apart from the garrison and forbidden to talk to civilians. They checked their weapons and equipment and waited for the right tidal conditions for a raid. It was established that at 11.30 p.m. on the night of 6/7 February there would be a high tide in Granville harbour, and so the raid was on.
A flotilla of craft1 left St Helier on the night of 6 February, but fog closed in, a swell developed and Kriegsfischerkutter war fishing cutter VP 229 developed engine trouble, slowing down escorting ships, and so the expedition was recalled. According to the US Navy history, the decision to cancel the raid was an encounter by an E-boat with PC-552, commanded by Lt James Spielman USNR. The patrol boat had been stationed outside the harbour to protect seven merchant ships in the Granville roadstead. The PC-552 opened fire and chased the E-boat for 20 miles to a point east of Cape Fréhel, and then west to the Minquiers, but the superior speed of the German craft allowed it to make the safety of Jersey. The E-boat was S 112, which had taken up a patrol position to screen the convoy – the chase by PC-552 was exactly what the German raiders planned, since it took the US Navy boat away from its duties outside Granville.
Three patrol boats carrying the diversionary party and a tug did not receive the recall order. The patrol boats came to within 250m off the shore, so close to Granville that their crews said they could hear the music from the Americans in the Hôtel des Bains and Hôtel Normandie. Only then did they realise that the rest of the force had returned to St Helier. They withdrew, undetected by the American radar station. On the return journey, the LCV(P) that had been captured by the five escaped POWs foundered on rocks south of Jersey and had to be abandoned.
As an early part of the operation, S 112 had laid mines in the northern approaches to St Malo. The mines were in fact British parachute mines, dropped by the RAF in the entrance to St Peter Port harbour as part of air operations supporting the D-Day landings. It had been feared that the Channel Islands might be used as a base for U-boats, which would have been able to attack the huge concentration of Allied shipping off the coast. The mines were spotted by the Germans at low tide and disarmed by Leutnant (Waffen) Heinz Kass and then recovered. Rearmed, they were loaded onto S 112 and their deployment would be the only success in the first attack on Granville.
Berlin had confirmed Hüffmeier as the new commandant of the Channel Islands. He now set himself to work on a new raid on Granville, no doubt encouraged by the fact that it appeared that no ships had been detected by Allied radar in the first attempt. Training exercises were carried out by 800 men on Guernsey, the island furthest away from the French coast, and away from the civilian population. As a further security precaution, no joint training was undertaken between the ships and assault forces in case observers deduced what was planned.
At the end of the first week of March 1945, the German observation post on Les Minquiers reported that a number of Allied ships were headed for Granville. The weather was fair and so Hüffmeier decided that the moment had come to launch the attack. The assault force marched down to the docks at St Helier and, on the evening of 8 March, the ships moved off into the darkness. This time Kommando-Unternehmen Granville was on.
However, it might not have been. On 7 March, just a day before the raid was launched, there was a fire and explosions at the grand Palace Hotel at Bagatelle near St Helier. Some historians have assumed this was sabotage – an indication of the declining morale of the island’s garrison. The truth is more intriguing. Within days of the occupation, the hotel had been commandeered, initially as a communications centre, then later as an officers’ training school. It was here that much of the planning for the Granville raid had taken place, so when a small fire broke out in a ground floor room that had been used to store explosives, the Germans attempted to control it themselves. Had the St Helier fire brigade been called, it was feared that they would see the maps and orders related to the raid, which might compromise the plan.
As the fire took hold, in a risky move, on the orders of Leutnant Hans Kiegelmann, demolition charges were placed on three floors in an attempt to create a firebreak. In the ensuing explosions, nine soldiers were killed and many injured, and much of the hotel was destroyed. Most of the burned and blasted shell was later demolished. A wing of the hotel did survive and in October 2007, researching the fate of the Palace Hotel for the BBC Radio 4 series Making History, Vanessa Collingridge travelled to Jersey and met historian Michael Ginns, who took her to the site. The indicators that the fire was sabotage are reinforced by the fact that, on the same day, fire damaged a German stores building, and a week later a fuel dump was set ablaze.
On 7 March, men of the US 9th Armored Division, 1st Army captured the damaged but intact Ludendorff railway bridge across the Rhine at Remagen. The Allies now had a lodgement on the east bank of the last major obstacle protecting the western borders of the Third Reich. In the east, the Red Army entered Kolberg and the Soviet High Command announced the capture of 8,000 men in a large pocket south of Schievelbein. German counter-attacks in the Lake Balaton sector of Hungary were repulsed. On 8–9 March, the heavily bombed city of Bonn fell to the US 1st Infantry Division. The Third Reich, which Hitler had promised would last for a thousand years, now only had months to live. However, on the Channel Islands, Vizeadmiral Hüffmeier was in denial and final orders were issued for Kommando-Unternehmen Granville.
The raid was led by 41-year-old Kapitänleutnant Carl-Friedrich Mohr,2 and the full-scale commando raid flotilla comprised four large M-class minesweepers, the M412, M432, M442, and M459, with their masts removed in order to reduce their radar reflection; three Artilleriefährprahm or AFP (artillery ferry) armed craft mounting 8.8cm guns, AF65, AF68 and AF71;3 three fast motor launches; two small R Type minesweepers; and the Diecksand, a seagoing tug. Embarked on the ships were eight army assault detachments totalling ten officers and 148 men, and thirty-four men in three naval assault groups with two officers. The Luftwaffe provided a flak crew of six, who were to give supporting fire when they landed.
The raiders were divided into five assault groups, numbered 1a, 1b, 2, 3 and 4:
Group 1a, the minesweepers, the M412 and M452. Both ships carried soldiers and naval personnel tasked with demolition of the port facilities and radar station. The soldiers were commanded by Oberleutnant Jagmann. The sailors would crew the captured ships for their return journey to the iIslands. Mohr had selected M412 as his command ship.
Group 1b, M432 and M442. The minesweepers were to take up position to shell the landward approaches to the harbour and so prevent reinforcements reaching Granville.
Group 2, AF65, AF68 and AF71. The artillery ferries commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Otto Karl would draw off the Granville guard ship and intercept any ships that might be sent from St Malo. Finally, as the force withdrew they were to destroy the Grand Chausey lighthouse to make navigation difficult for any pursuers. Destruction of the lighthouse would also make routine naval operations more difficult for the Allies.
Group 3, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Lamperdorff and Oberleutnant zur See Meyer. The fast Hafenschutz boats, the FK01, FK04 and FK56, would land the diversionary force under Hauptmann Schellenberg. They were to raid the two spa hotels Hôtel des Bains and Hôtel Normandie, where it was expected staff officers would be housed.
Group 4, the auxiliary minesweeper M4613 and the cutter FL13. These would screen the Cotentin passage.
Embarked on the vessels were the eight army assault groups, who were on the ships in Groups 1a and 3; also in Group 1a was the six-man Luftwaffe flak crew. The three naval assault groups were on the ships in Group 1b.
Inside the harbour on the night of the raid were five coastal steamers, the Kyle Castle, Parkwood, Eskwood, Nephrite and Helen, and outside were the coastal steamer Gem, HM Trawler Pearl and PC 564.