KOMMANDO-UNTERNEHMEN GRANVILLE, 8–9 MARCH 1945 Part II

The US Army radar station at Coutainville had picked up the German task force at 9.49 p.m., not long after it had left St Helier. The contact report was sent to the US Naval HQ in Cherbourg, the 156th Infantry Regiment at Berneville – who were put on standby – and, significantly, to the officer-in-charge at Granville. According to the History of US Naval Operations of World War II, Part XI, the officer regarded these reports as only ‘interesting information’ and consequently he did not order an alert. Ultra intercepts had also picked up that a raid was in the offing, and this information was passed on to the Americans at Granville. However, as with any Ultra intelligence that was disseminated to lower levels of command, the language in which it was couched was guarded and vague to conceal the priceless source – so it was not taken seriously.

There were other indicators that a raid was in the offing. A firm in Guernsey had been instructed to make scaling ladders, and these preparations came to the attention of the French consular agent on Guernsey, M. Lambert. He sent a warning to the Allies in France via M. Golivet, a French Todt worker who was planning to escape with the help of fishermen in St Peter Port.

Late on Thursday 8 March, word of the approaching task force had been passed to the US Navy submarine chaser PC 564, commanded by Lt Percy Sandell USNR. He had only been in command of the vessel for twelve days and had a scratch crew. At the same time, the Plymouth-based Asdic trawler HM Trawler Pearl, which had been escorting the Gem, a small collier, to Granville, was ordered to join PC 564. For some unexplained reason, the trawler skipper ignored the repeated requests to assist PC 564. The Cherbourg-based PT 458 and PT 460 were ordered south to support PC 564, but then were halted to cover the approaches to Cherbourg in case the Granville attack was a feint to draw off naval forces prior to an assault on Cherbourg.

This left Sandell and PC 564 as the only Allied ship guarding Granville. Without hesitating, he set course to intercept the convoy west of the Chausey Isles, but in so doing played into the hands of the Germans.

It was just before 11.59 p.m. that the American ship fired three starshells and closed for action, but after firing one round her 3in gun jammed. Now, as German starshells floated down in the spring night, the heavily armed AFP artillery ferries closed in and an 8.8cm shell hit the wheelhouse, killing everyone in it except Sandell and Lt Klinger, his gunnery officer. More shells and 2cm tracer fire hit the little craft, starting a fire and knocking out the secondary armament. Though the fire had been extinguished, Sandell knew that the situation was hopeless and gave the order ‘stop engines and abandon ship’. Fifteen men went over the side and took to a small life raft. At the time they were listed as missing, presumed killed; in fact, with one exception, they were rescued by the Germans and would spend six weeks in the POW camp on Jersey.

Now, with half the crew dead, wounded or missing, at Klinger’s suggestion the surviving crew restarted the engines and headed for the Pierre d’Herpin lighthouse, where they beached the patrol boat. The following morning, aboard the Pearl, Jack Yeatman, a radio telegrapher, noted in his diary:

We searched along the coast for the PC and found her near Pierre de Herpin. An awful sight – guns blown away and bits of her crew all over the deck – men we’d got to know quite well. 10 killed, 11 wounded evacuated to Rennes by ambulance, and about a dozen missing. There are also 11 more known to be adrift in a life-raft, not seen since 0030. They never really knew what hit them.

French fishing boats also arrived to help the wounded, and the next day, PC 564 was towed into St Malo harbour and then to Plymouth for repairs.

As the raiders approached Granville at 1 a.m., they saw that the harbour lights were burning, which suggested that there was some activity there. The three AFP took up position between the Ile Chausey and St Malo to cut off any Allied patrols in that area, and two of the minesweepers stationed themselves between Jersey and the Cotentin peninsula for the same purpose. Another two of the minesweepers were to be the spearhead of the attack. Their plan was to sail straight into the harbour, and when challenged by the signal station, simply to flash back the same challenge in the hope that this would throw the defenders momentarily off their guard and allow them to get in safely; a similar ploy was used by the British in the raid on Saint-Nazaire in 1942. On the night, the Americans thought the signaller had got the reply to the challenge muddled and gave him the benefit of the doubt.

The radar station on the western end of the Pointe du Roc had picked up the tracks of approaching unidentified ships, so Maj. Brown, the port commander, ordered a blackout and that the work party of seventy-nine German POWs who were about to start unloading the colliers should be secured in a stockade.

Before anyone realised what was happening, the German ships were into the harbour and seventy men equipped with demolition charges had poured onto the quayside, covered by the Luftwaffe crew.4 It was here that the neap tide that would prevent the raiders from capturing all but one of the colliers would also cause the one serious loss of the raid. M412 ran aground at the harbour entrance and, after the tug had transferred the troops on board and landed them, the crew of the Diecksand attempted to pull M412 clear – but she was stuck. Kapitänleutnant Mohr abandoned his command ship and transferred to the M452. The minesweeper M412, which was later identified inaccurately as De Schelde – Allied intelligence officers had found the plate with the shipyard’s name De Schelde and assumed it was the ship’s name – was blown up using the ship’s depth charges.5 Demolition specialist Paul Sommerfeld, who had originally been tasked with the destruction of a fuelling station in Granville, was rapidly assigned to this task.

In the harbour, the raiders demolished nine of the eighteen newly installed cranes and a locomotive. The third pair of minesweepers was left outside the harbour to provide covering fire, the three motor boats made straight for the bathing beach by the Hôtel des Bains and Hôtel Normandie to land their party, and the tug moved slowly towards the harbour entrance to give the leading minesweepers time to secure themselves. The assault parties were ashore and had established themselves in positions from which they could control the approaches to the dock area. For an hour and a half they remained in command of the situation, in spite of fierce counter-attacks by the Americans.

The local American forces were now on full alert, but the men of the 3rd Battalion of the 156th Infantry Regiment, some military police and the French light infantry company were no match for the heavy volume of German automatic weapons fire.

On La Haute Ville, or The Rock, Maj. Brown and Capt. T. Wilkinson were rallying their troops. Since the American soldiers were only armed with their personal weapons, they were outgunned by the firing from M432 and M442. The two American officers attempted to rouse the French troops in the barracks, but their officers thought that this was merely a realistic test exercise and it took considerable efforts by the Americans to get the French troops out along the wall, parallel and above the harbour, where they opened a desultory and inaccurate fire on the raiders.

It was different at the western tip of The Rock, where US soldiers were manning the radar station. Armed only with their personal weapons, they defended the site with such vigour that they not only drove off the raiders but killed Leutnant zur See Scheufele, the officer in command of the raiding party. The attack on the radar station failed in part because the boats covering this part of the operation found that the tide was so low that they could not get close enough in to provide adequate covering fire.

The Germans had assumed that a reasonable number of vessels in the harbour would be afloat and could therefore be taken under tow or taken out under steam. In fact, the tide was now so low that of the four ships in the harbour, three were firmly aground and only the 1,200-ton Eskwood was afloat, loaded with only 122 tons of coal. With the tide ebbing, time was against the assault force. Both Charles Cruikshank and Barry Turner say that the Germans miscalculated the way in which the tide would affect the operation.

However, Michael Ginns makes an interesting observation about this aspect of Kommando-Unternehmen Granville:

In an account written in 1952 Vizeadmiral Hüffmeier made it clear that the timing of the raid depended upon two factors; one of them was a moonless night with a high tide at a time which gave as much cover of darkness as possible. High tide, with no moon, was at midnight on the night of March 8/9 but it was a neap tide with a height of only 31 feet. Still it was a risk that had to be taken.

Ginns explains that an additional factor was that the Red Cross ship Vega would be making a delivery to the population of Jersey, and there were fears that her master might see indications that an operation was in the offing and pass this on to the British. Ginns writes, ‘In their assumption the Germans were correct as surviving documents show that the captain did indeed pass on information about anything he saw in the Channel Islands’ harbours.’

In Granville, the engines of the three grounded ships – Kyle Castle, Nephrite and Parkwood – and the Norwegian merchantman Heien were severely damaged by explosive charges, and the port installations – cranes, locomotives, wagons and fuel dumps – were systematically demolished. It had been intended that the tug should tow away any vessel that was captured, but in the event it was not needed. Capt. Wright, the master of the Eskwood, had been killed in the indiscriminate shooting, but there was still a crew aboard made up of chief engineer Bill Woodhead, first officer John Campbell, second engineer George Harrison, firemen Robert Dick and James Blair and donkeyman Joseph Sworda.

Since it was a policy to arm merchantmen to give them protection against Luftwaffe bombers and U-boats, the Eskwood was a defensively equipped merchant ship (DEMS) and had a gunner on board, Lance Bombardier James Mattock of the Royal Artillery. It was these men who took the Eskwood out of the harbour under her own steam. According to the account written by Hüffmeier in 1952, ‘The crew took a sportsmanlike view of the proceedings and worked their ship.’ In reality, the men were reluctantly crewing the ship under the barrels of German guns. When Michael Ginns contacted Bill Woodhead in 1984, he noted in his article on the Granville raid for After the Battle Number 47, ‘If the language used by Mr Woodhead … is anything to go by, his appreciation of the whole situation was anything but sportsmanlike!’

Fifty-five German POWs were liberated. There are suggestions that it was as high as seventy-nine, but twenty-four contrived to be recaptured, preferring the comfort of a US Army-run POW camp to the insecurity and rigours of life on the Channel Islands.

The diversionary assault on the Hôtel des Bains and Hôtel Normandie was completely successful. The fast patrol boats slowed to a halt about 250m offshore, inflatable assault boats were launched and the raiders paddled to the sandy beach. It had been cleared of barbed wire, and though there is a seawall there is also a slipway close to the casino that allowed the men easy access.

The raiders under Hauptman Schellenberg had enough time to spread out into roads south of the hotels, roads that now bear the names Avenue de la Libération and Rue General Patton. In this part of the town, the owners of the small shops and flats, hearing the explosions from the docks, the sound of gunfire and shouted orders in German, opened their windows. Their curiosity proved fatal – bursts of automatic fire killed six Frenchmen and women, and 40-year-old dockworker Marcel Guilbert was killed as he ran for cover up the Rue General Patton. Writing in the mid-1980s, Ginns noted that bullet scars could still be seen around some of the windows in the streets adjoining the hotels.

Two US Navy sailors were killed at the turreted and half-timbered Hôtel des Bains, which is only a few metres away from the slipway, and though the Hôtel Normandie was slightly less accessible there was little resistance in either location. Nine Americans were taken prisoner, among them Capt. R.H. Shirley, First Lt W. Wendell Heilman and bespectacled First Lt Newell Younggren. They had only arrived in Granville that evening and had no idea that the Channel Islands were still in enemy hands. Younggren had been sent a pair of pyjamas by his mother as a Christmas present, but in December 1944 he was caught up in Unternehmen Wacht Am Rhein, Operation Watch on the Rhine, the surprise German offensive through the wooded Belgian Ardennes. Now, on 8 March 1945, in a hotel that he was sure was miles from the front line, he had settled into bed in his pyjamas. Now, with jackets over their pyjamas, they were hustled down to the beach.

After the exhilaration of the liberation, it seemed that some of the French had grown tired of the behaviour of some of the rear echelon US forces and remembered the ‘correctness’ of the German occupiers with nostalgia. It is reported that some of the hotel staff assisted the raiders, showing them the rooms where American officers were staying. Writing later, von Schmettow recalled that the raid captured six officers and 43-year-old John Alexander, a principal welfare officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).6 Alexander was in Granville to liaise with US Army officers and arrange accommodation for displaced persons (DPs) who were expected to be arriving in the town.

The most senior captive, Lt Col Anderson, had not been caught napping. Hearing the gunfire, he and his driver, Private Mark Layman, had jumped into a Jeep and driven rapidly down to the harbour to investigate. They arrived in time to be captured by the raiders and ushered down to the beach and on to a Haffenschutz. In a wry comment in his report on the raid, von Schmettow noted that some of the officers in the hotels were not alone in bed, but the raiders ‘left the girls behind’.

One Royal Navy officer, Lt Frederic Lightoller RNVR,7 who had been the port commander at Granville, and five of his men died during this attack. Earlier in the war, as a skipper of MGB603 and 613, Lightholler had been awarded the DSC and received two mentions in despatches. In 1945, he was on the staff of the shore establishment HMS Odyssey, the naval parties’ accounting base at Ilfracombe. With the war in Europe drawing to a close, Granville was a secure posting and he was looking forward to rejoining his wife, Marcia, and their daughter.

It is an indication of how low the US garrison at Carteret had seen the threat from the Channel Islands that, on the evening of 8 March, some of the officers from the 156th Infantry Regiment (Separate) had thrown a party. Among the guests were two US Army nurses, Angeline ‘Angel’ F. Paul and Ellan J. Levitsky, of the 164th General Hospital, who had slipped out through a gap in the perimeter fence of the hospital without booking out.

Now, as the raid exploded in Granville, none of the US soldiers in the area knew what they were up against, so the two nurses were hurried upstairs by their escorts, covered with blankets in a wardrobe and told to remain silent. Through the night, the girls heard shouting, vehicles speeding around and even gunfire. With the dawn, US Army roadblocks barred the route back to La-Haye-du-Puits, and so they did not reach the hospital until late afternoon. ‘Angel’ was frantic because no one had signed out, and Ellan feared that her sister Dorothy, a nurse at the 164th General Hospital, would be worrying about her. Safely back at the hospital, as Ellan reached to hug her sister, Dorothy burst into tears, yelling, ‘What was I going to tell Mother?’, and gave her a resounding slap.

The German raiding force left Granville at 3 a.m. Ships of the Royal Navy and men of the US 156th Infantry Regiment reached the port about an hour later. On their way back to Jersey, as planned, the Germans attacked the lighthouse and signal station on the Grand Île de Chausey. On Jersey, observers saw that the light in the lighthouse at Cartert 14 miles away had been lit. Fearing that this might be to assist Allied naval units that could intercept the raiders on their return journey, the gunners in the Haesaler and Schlieffen batteries opened fire at 4.30 a.m. After shells had fallen around the lighthouse it was turned off.

All the German vessels, except the minesweeper and three dinghies, returned safely. The German losses were one missing (taken prisoner), fifteen wounded and three killed, including the leader of the radar station demolition team, whose body was left behind. The bodies of 29-year-old Oberfeldwebel Josef Kunkel (Grenadier Regiment 584) and 20-year-old Obergefreiter Paul Pfahler (Grenadier Regiment 583) were brought back to Jersey and buried with full military honours at St Brelade’s Cemetery. In 1961, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German war graves commission, dismantled the cemetery and the bodies were moved to Mont-de-Huisnes near Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.

The Allied losses were estimated at nine dead , with thirty confirmed wounded and sixty-seven POWs, who were taken back to the Channel Islands. Among the men of the Merchant Marine who are buried at Bayeux are 20-year-old fireman George Bell, the ship’s master William Fraser and 33–year-old able seaman Charles Olsson, who despite his Scandinavian name came from Penarth, Glamorgan, and served on the Liverpool-registered SS Kyle Castle. On the London-registered SS Nephrite, 22-year-old able seaman Gordon Wills was killed and is also buried at Bayeux. On the Goole-registered SS Eskwood, the 43-year-old master Andrew Wright of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, died in the fighting. Acting able seaman John D. Cullen from the Kyle Castle and acting able seaman Richard Lees from the Nephrite were killed and are listed as Royal Navy casualties serving aboard DEMS. Cullen’s name appears as Gollen in some accounts, and he is listed as a Royal Artillery gunner. It is probable that Cullen and Lees were the gunners aboard the ships and would have manned and maintained a bow-mounted gun.8

The prisoners were some of the first English-speaking strangers to be seen in the islands for five years, and according to some accounts the young ladies of Jersey society threw gifts and blew kisses across the barbed wire. Some of the Americans caused irritation by their reaction to the gifts. ‘One,’ write the Woods in Islands in Danger, ‘presented with a set of underwear, sent back a message the he never wore anything except silk; another, given a rare present of Virginia cigarettes, asked for blended next time.’ There may have been a little bit of licence in this account, since Ginns reports that the prisoners were housed in the old military prison at South Hill, overlooking St Helier. Forty years after his capture, Newell Younggren, now a grandfather, returned to Jersey for the first time. Accompanied by his grandsons, he visited the cell in which he was held and presented the Channel Island Occupation Society9 with the very pyjamas he was wearing when he was captured, along with a chess set he had used as a POW.

Since he had taken command of the islands, Vizeadmiral Hüffmeier had held regular meetings with Alexander Coutanche to discuss how many POWs were being held on the islands to ensure that they received Red Cross parcels. During one such meeting, Coutanche had joked, ‘Truth is, we are both prisoners of the Royal Navy.’ Following the raid, Hüffmeier sent a message to the Bailiff, ‘Beg to report, there are now thirty more of us who are prisoners of the British Navy.’

In the years after the war, and up to his death in 1974, and despite having found God, Hüffmeier would be happy not to dispute the version of the Granville raid that credited him with its planning and execution. However, at 8.04 a.m. on 9 March 1945 – just an hour after the raiders had disembarked at St Helier – his Kriegsmarine radio operators transmitted a long and detailed after-action report, that began:

From: Befehlshaber, Kanalinseln to MOK West

Emergency – Preliminary Report

Raid on Granville (including harbour destruction) planned by Generalleutnant von Schmettow and broken off 7/2 was replanned and, at my request, repeated under his control during the night.

In a ceremonial parade, the raiders received decorations for their part in Kommando-Unternehmen Granville. Their commander, Kapitänleutnant Mohr, was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 13 March 1945,10 and eight days later Oberleutnant zur See Otto Karl, skipper of artillery ferry AF65, learned that he too had been awarded this high decoration. According to Admiral Ruge, ‘Boldness, a sound plan, thorough preparation and complete secrecy had enabled the Channel Islands to strike a shrewd blow. Compared with the battle in Germany it was no more than a pin prick, yet it was the best they could do for their suffering country.’

The German-controlled Guernsey Evening Press reported on 12 March:

German assault troops of the Channel Island garrison, under the command of Lieut. Capt. Mohr which had been landed by patrol vessels of the German Navy carried out a coup de main on the enemy supply harbour of Granville, situated in the Gulf of Saint Malo, in the night preceding March 9th. They destroyed the locks, set the town and harbour on fire and made numerous prisoners including a Lieut/colonel and 4 further officers. 55 German soldiers were liberated from captivity. Furthermore, one American patrol boat was sunk, 5 supply vessels of together 4,800 gross registered tons destroyed, and one supply steamer captured.

Supplementing the report of the attack on Granville, Radio Berlin announced on Saturday night that troops from Guernsey and Jersey took part and that men of the French and American garrison were taken by surprise. The German prisoners of war who were liberated were found while they were shovelling coal. Before the alarm could be raised, the raiding force had returned to their ships, bringing twenty-eight prisoners with them. The supply steamer was captured and carried off as a prize as she was entering Granville harbour. ‘Although,’ concluded the radio commentator, ‘the Channel Island troops are completely isolated, this enterprise bears testimony that their fighting spirit is in no way impaired.’

 

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