The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units I

Frogmen at a display for Grossadmiral Dönitz (second right) showing an interested admiral – possibly Heye – his watertight Junghans diver’s watch/compass.

Development, Training, Structure

As with other light naval units, the MEKs were formed late in the war. As commandos and naval sabotage troops they operated behind enemy lines close to the coast, attacking harbour installations, bridges, ships, supply depots, ammunition dumps and other worthwhile targets.

The idea was never discussed at OKM until 16 September 1943, the motive for the deliberations being the operations by their British counterparts. During the period from February to July 1942, British forces had launched three commando raids of this kind between Boulogne and Le Havre and collected important intelligence on German defences. In the course of these raids a number of enemy personnel had been captured and paperwork confiscated by the Wehrmacht. This led to certain conclusions being drawn regarding the development, structure of commando units and the tactics of their operations. The evaluation laid the foundations for the equivalent German squads (MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos).

The first MEK came into being at Heiligenhafen on the Baltic at the end of 1943. The training camp was barracks immediately behind the beach. Later, as the company grew in size, the artillery barracks was used as a training ground. Oblt (MA) Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn was the first commando leader. In the summer of 1942 he had been a member of an assault squad which crossed the Strait of Kerch in the Crimea to attack Soviet positions on the Kuban Peninsula. Before his move to the K-Verband, Prinzhorn had been an instructor at the Kriegsmarine flak training school. By the end of 1943 the first thirty officers and men of all ranks were installed at Heiligenhafen, and the training lasted into the spring of 1944. It followed the British commando-training manual very closely, a fact to be kept strictly secret. Each man was required to sign a pledge to this effect. There was no leave and it was not permitted to leave the confines of the camp. All civilian contacts had to be broken off.

The instructors were infantrymen and engineers with frontline experience particularly against the Soviets. Training in sniping and explosives handling was made as realistic as possible. Sports, swimming and judo instructors taught methods of unarmed combat and how to overwhelm enemy sentries silently: experts gave instruction in motor vehicles and radio, specialists taught the use of life-saving devices and oxygen breathing gear, linguists passed on their knowledge of the vernacular used by enemy soldiers. Each man had to be an all-rounder. Candidates who flunked the course were returned to their unit without ever having really understood the purpose of what had been taught at Heiligenhafen. After completing training, the successful men were distributed between the various MEKs.

The authorized strength of an MEK was one officer, 22 men and 15 vehicles (3 radio cars, two amphibious and one catering vehicle, the other vehicles being for transport, equipment and ammunition). Rations and ammunition was to be sufficient for six weeks. In January 1944 Kptlt (S) Opladen’s men were instructed in their missions and the first three units (MEK 60 – Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn, MEK 65 – Oblt Richard and MEK 71 – Oblt Wolters) transferred to waiting positions in Denmark and France. Subsequently each MEK, depending on its assignment, received an influx of personnel for special missions, e.g. one-man torpedoes, midget submarines, Linsen and assault boat pilots, canoeists and frogmen. An MEK might eventually be 150 strong.

MEKs existed before the K-Verband did. They had been set up by the Hamburg Abwehr office, to which they were accountable. These units were: MAREI (Kptlt (S) Opladen) and MARKO (Oblt Broecker). Both units were absorbed into the K-Verband as MEK 20.

As time went on other MEKs were formed. MEK 30 (Kptlt Gegner); MEK 35 (Kptlt Breusch, November 1944–March 1945, Kptlt Wolfgang Woerdemann, March 1945–End); and MEK 40 (Kptlt Buschkämper, August 1944–March 1945, Oblt Schulz, March 1945–End). This unit was formed at Mommark in Denmark on the island of Alsen (Gelbkoppel) with 150 men for special assignments.

Others were:

MEK 70 – nothing known

MEK 75 – KptzS Böhme

MEK 80: Kptlt Dr Krumhaar (March 1944–End)

MEK 85: Oblt Wadenpfuhl (January 1945–End)

MEK 90: Oblt Heinz-Joachim Wilke

There are said to have been other MEKs, e.g. MEK Werschetz and MEK zbV. Leaders of these units may have been Oblt Rudolf Klein, Lts Alexander Spaniel and Wilhelm Pollex amongst others.

The training of MEK men was carried out at a training establishment at Kappeln and Heiligenhafen. Hand-to-hand infantry fighting training was held at Bad Sülze/Rostock, Stolp and Kolberg in Pomerania. Kappeln had the following officer corps:

Commander: KKpt Heinrich Hoffmann

Chief at Staff: Kptlt Erich Dietrich

Adjutant: Lt Günther Schmidt

National Socialist Leadership Officer (after 20.7.1944): Lt Gustav Weinberger

Medical Officer: Kptlt Dr Rudolf Neuman

Company chiefs: Kptlt Friedrich Adler; Oblts Werner Schulz, Hermann Ibach, Eckehard Martienssen, Hans-Günter Beutner; Lt Gerhard Zwinscher

Training Officer: Oblt Hans Diem

At Heiligenhafen the training staff was:

Commander: Kptlt Friedrich Jütz

Camp commandants: Kptlt Heinrich Schütz, Oblt Eberhardt Sauer

Instructors: Oblt Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn; Lts Erich Kohlberg, Hainz Knaup, Herbert Vargel, Kurt Wagenschieffer, Hermann Baumeister; Oberfähnriche Georg Brink and Anton Ibach.

MEK Operations in the West

In June 1944 the Allies at Caen in Normandy succeeding in crossing the Orne and Orne-Sea Canal to the east, and built a bridgehead posing a severe threat to German units. The Allies ‘pumped’ 10,000 men into this bridgehead. Their supplies were brought up over two intact bridges. Their AA defences were so strong that no attack by the impoverished Luftwaffe stood any chance of success. German engineers were unable to reach the bridges cross-country.

On Thursday 22 June 1944 the Battle for Caen began. It was General Montgomery’s intention to encircle Caen by crossing the high land with its dominant landmark Hill 112 south-west of the city and then the River Odon. This important sector was being stubbornly defended by 12 SS-Panzer Division Hitler Jugend led by SS-Oberführer Kurt ‘Panzermeyer’ Meyer. The demolition of the strategically important bridges was to be the proving test for MEK 60. Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn was given a platoon of frogmen from Venice. As the result of a road traffic accident, this platoon had been reduced in size from ten men to six. Its leader, LtzS Alfred von Wurzian, had been forbidden to take part in the operation because he was too valuable as an instructor.

The assignment was to destroy two bridges at Benouville which British airborne troops had captured in the early hours of the Invasion. The commandos consisted of two groups of three frogmen: Group One – Feldwebel Kurt Kayser, Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider and Obergefreiter Richard Deimann; Group Two – Oberfähnrich Albert Lindner, Fähnrich Ulrich Schulz and a third man whose name has not been remembered.

The operation was scheduled to begin from Franceville at 2300 on the night of 14 August 1944. Each group was to take a torpedo – actually a time bomb package inside a torpedo-shaped container – to a specific bridge. Things started badly and got worse. When the 800 kg torpedoes were let down to the surface of the river on pulleys, they sank at once. No allowance had been made for the changed specific gravity in fresh water. Floats were improvised from empty fuel barrels to salve the torpedoes. The frogmen now entered the water, two to tow, one to steer, a torpedo.

Prinzhorn’s group, which was to attack the further bridge over the Orne, passed carefully below the enemy-held first bridge. It was another 12 kilometres to the main bridge, which all believed to be the crucial structure. Here they were to anchor their torpedo to the central pillar. After strenuous effort they attained their objective, moored the torpedo about a metre above the bottom on the central pillar and set the timer. Four hours later they were back at MEK. Too soon, as Prinzhorn was to discover. A revision of the map had brought to light the sorry fact that a third bridge, the real objective, had been omitted. The explosive had been set below the wrong bridge. It detonated punctually at 0530 hrs.

Events were equally dramatic for Lindner’s group. Towing the torpedo was sheer torment. Suddenly the third man lost his nerve as they swam past the enemy on the bankside. He could not be convinced to go on and swam to shore. The two midshipmen proceeded with the operation alone. After passing a wooden hindrance designed to intercept drifting mines they reached the first bridge, anchored the torpedo and set off for MEK on foot. When this bridge also blew up at 0530, the British scoured the area for the saboteurs. Once Lindner and Schulz had to hide up in a latrine trench to avoid capture. It was the following evening before they reached the canal, where a weaker current allowed them to swim back. The third man had attempted to make his way back independently, had been shot by the British and died of his wound in captivity.

At the end of August 1944 the Allies had pushed onwards and eastwards. They took Honfeur near Le Havre with its formerly German coastal battery Bac du Hode sited on the south bank of the Seine between Honfleur and Trouville. This battery now menaced the German garrison in Le Havre. A Naval artillery assault squad had set out cross-country to retake the battery and had been wiped out in a firefight with the British. MEK 60 now received orders to destroy the battery. After Prinzhorn had been frustrated by engine breakdown in an attempt to cross the Seine aboard an infantry assault boat, he obtained two Linsen speedboats from K-Verband. These were fitted with double noise-suppressors and could make eight knots at slow ahead.

On the night of 26 August 1944 the operation began. Aboard the Linsen were Prinzhorn, seven MEK men and a naval artillerist who knew the locality well. At 0050 the agreed light signals flashed out from Le Havre, and they paddled their rubber dinghies through a minefield to land. They came ashore too far west and had to negotiate the beach area on foot. By 0230 they were within 100 metres of the battery. The men slipped past the sentries and got into the bunkers. Hastily they set their explosives on the three heavy guns and in the magazine and fled. Four minutes later the charges exploded and the battery was destroyed.

At the end of August 1944 the German military resistance in France collapsed. Within a few days, fast Allied units had broken through northern France and into Belgium. Antwerp fell after a short battle and would not serve the British as a useful port for supplies. Although Antwerp lay well inland at the eastern end of the Scheldt, it was tidal and this influenced the port operations to a considerable extent. Besides an open harbour the city had a large network of docks. The Kruisschans Lock ensured that the water in the main harbour remained at a constant height. All ships arriving and departing had to pass through it.

MEK 60, now re-located in the Low Countries, was called upon again. Its task this time was to destroy the two principal locks – Kruisschans and Royers. Putting them out of commission would seriously disrupt Allied supply, reducing unloading capacity by five-sixths while it lasted.

After assessing the situation, it was clear that only an attack by frogmen held out any hope for success. The enemy had sealed off the last kilometre of the lock approaches with net barriers. The difficult currents in the Scheldt made it impossible for swimmers to do the whole journey there and back swimming. It was therefore decided to transport the frogmen to the lock entrance aboard Linsen boats. Both river banks were held by the enemy, but it was essential that the passage remained undetected. A dark, overcast night, or fog would be best. Moreover a foodtide was needed, the noise made by the engines pitted against the strong ebb would be too great. This would also ensure that the frogmen saboteurs would arrive at the lock gates at high water, enabling them to work below the walkway, beneath the feet of enemy sentries.

To blow up the 35-metre wide lock gate, K-Verband had developed a torpedo-mine. The necessary tonne of underwater explosive was to be carried in an elongated aluminium container the filling of which mostly ammonia gas – was calculated to ensure that the torpedo mine would float with 30 to 40 grams negative buoyancy just below the surface, where it would be easily manoeuvrable in calm water. Two men would swim towing the torpedo while the third steered it from astern. At the appropriate time the mine would be flooded by opening a pressure valve, sinking to the river bed: a button would start the timer running for the detonator.

The operation began on the night of 15 September 1944. The pilots of the two Linsen were Prinzhorn and Oblt Erich Dörpinghaus of K-Flotilla 216. With motors suppressed for noise the boats set off towing the torpedo mines. Visibility was barely 30 metres and both Linsen were soon lost to sight in the murk. The boats motored slowly upstream and separated in search of their individual locks. At the ten kilometre mark Dourpinghaus’ crew began peering through the gloom and thought they could make out the lock entrance.

While Dörpinghaus moored his Linse to a convenient post the three frogmen, Fieldwebel Karl Schmidt, Mechanikermaat Hans Greten and Maschinenmaat Rudi Ohrdorf slipped into the water and prepared the torpedo mine. With great effort they swam the last kilometre underwater towing their elongated charge. Suddenly Schmidt’s clothing snagged on a submerged object and tore. Now he had to wage a constant battle against buoyancy loss. The first major obstacles they overcame were a net barrier then a steel-mesh net: two more hindrances and they were at the quay wall. They moved along it until striking their heads against the lock gate, their objective.

They flooded the torpedo mine and accompanied its descent to the bottom, about 18 metres below. After activating the detonator they surfaced and swam off. Returning to the Linse Schmidt became so exhausted that he had to be towed by boat hook. Some 75 minutes later they were back with Dörpinghaus. Once the Linse set off a motor boat approached them suddenly from the fog. Dörpinghaus put the Linse to full ahead and quickly lost sight of the stranger. It was in fact Prinzhorn’s boat, his men not having succeeded in finding the Royers lock gate. At 0500 a tremendous explosion shook Antwerp harbour. The lock gate was wrecked and the passage of seagoing vessels had to be suspended for several weeks until the damage had been repaired.

In September 1944 the Allies concentrated on capturing the Dutch towns of Arnhem and Nijmegen by means of strong airborne operations.2 This was to be the springboard for the Allied advance to the north and west into the heartland of Germany. Whereas at Nijmegen 82 US Airborne Division had taken intact the bridges over the Waal (the main tributary of the Rhine delta), the British 504th Parachute Regiment had run into stiff opposition at Arnhem, and only on the north bank of the Waal had they been able to establish a bridgehead. On the road to Arnhem they were in possession of an area about three kilometres deep, but south of Elst their progress had been stopped by SS panzer units.

In order to destroy the important bridges, men from MEK 60 (Oblt Prinzhorn) and MEK 65 (Oblt Richard) were to form a special operational team to included Linsen and frogmen. After a thorough evaluation both officers concurred that 3 tonnes of explosives would be required for each of the mighty bridge pillars. This would need to be brought up in two 1.5-tonne torpedo-mines, each loaded with 600 kg of the special dynamite Nebolith. The pillars were over 11 metres tall and almost four metres in diameter. They would have to be forced upwards out of the jambs in which they were embedded, and only two simultaneous, violent explosions on opposite sides of the pillars could provide the necessary turning movement.

Two torpedo mines had to be joined for each tow: at the destination they would be separated and a packet of explosives placed either side of a pillar. Three bridges, one railway and two road bridges, were to be attacked. Two frogmen were sent to reconnoitre the length of the approach. They reported that the current was too strong for swimming in the return direction and they had had to walk back. An Abwehr liaison officer now arrived on the scene. Hauptmann Hummel was also known by the name Helmers and had been active as a commando leader at Valdagno and Venice. He mounted a major reconnaissance with two assault boats from Jagdkommando Donau crewed by Lt Schreiber, Bootsmaat Heuse and two junior NCOs, Krämer and Kammhuber. The loud engine noises betrayed them, and in an exchange of fire Heuse was killed. The British were now alerted and set up a foodlight barrier. The bridges were illuminated, the sentries reinforced and searchlight beams roved the region.

It seems probable that Hauptmann Hummel was the Hauptmann Hellmer mentioned in Skorzeny’s memoirs who not only led the operations but swam a reconnaissance himself:

The bridgehead extended for about seven kilometres either side of the bridge. The left bank of the Waal was occupied completely by the British. One night Hauptmann Hellmer swam the required reconnaissance alone … fortified by good luck, he swam between river banks occupied both sides by the enemy, and then returned to his own men.

On the night of 29 September twelve frogmen entered the Waal about ten kilometres upstream from Nijmegen and began towing the torpedo mines towards the bridges. The first group consisted of the experienced Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider (MEK 60, Orne bridges operation) and senior privates Olle, Jäger and Walschendorff. The team was almost at the railway bridge, their objective, when they discovered about 200 metres before it a pontoon bridge, complete but for the central section, which was in the process of erection across the breadth of the river. They passed by the sentries unnoticed, and between the pontoon bridge and the railway bridge Brettschneider gave the signal to separate the explosive packets. The lines fore and aft were cut, the only tie being the long line which had to go round the pillar. Once all was set the swimmers set out on the walk back to base. An hour later the mines exploded – but the bridge held.

The two other groups towing four mines towards the road bridges fared no better. These eight men were: Obermaat Orlowski, Bootsmann Ohrdorf, Bootsmann Weber, Fieldwebel Schmidt, Steuermannsmaat Kolbruch, Obergefreiter Dyck and Gefreiten Gebel and Halwelka. One group drifted into a jetty, drawing the immediate fire of a British sentry. The attempt to link up the mines between the bridge columns failed because of the strong current. One of the men managed to open a valve and so sink the mine which exploded an hour later, blowing a hole of 25 metres diameter in the bridge. Of the twelve frogmen in the three groups only Brettschneider and Jäger reached the German lines at Ochten. The other ten were taken prisoner by the Dutch Resistance who were covering the south bank of the Waal.4

This action did not close the Nijmegen chapter. On 15 and 16 October 1944 two Marder one-man torpedoes and two Linsen set out with six torpedo-mines in tow. This force turned back nine kilometres short of the road bridge on account of technical problems. A second attempt with two operational and one reserve Linse on the night of 24 October was also called off after the mines sank one kilometre into the tow and exploded harmlessly five hours later. Subsequently paratroop-engineers made a bold attempt to destroy the road and pontoon bridges. The idea was to use mines to blow a channel through the Waal net barriers after which a float loaded with explosives would be moored to the bridge to blow a hole in the roadway overhead. The attack began on 20 November. Thirty-six mines were set adrift in the water between 1815 and 2000. Echo measuring devices would confirm the explosions in the net and the cable tension. The first operation failed because of a storm, and was repeated with eleven mines. At 0530 the float followed through and at 0657 an explosion occurred. Luftwaffe air reconnaissance photographs showed that a torpedo net had disappeared while large sections of the second and third barriers were no longer visible. The road bridge, though damaged, held however.

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