German Frogmen in Action II

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German Frogmen in Action II

German frogmen enter the water as they begin one of their river raids.

There was little time to rest upon their newly-acquired laurels. From the beginning of the Allied landings in Normandy to the eventual collapse of the German front in France the K-Verbände frogmen would undertake twenty-four missions, the majority of them successful. Amongst the frogmen’s achievements were the destruction of lock gates on the Orne by eight men led by the ex-SS man Obermaat Orlowski during July and the sabotage of captured German guns on 26 August by Prinzhorn and seven of his men. Earlier that month advancing British troops had captured the 15cm L/45 coastal guns of a battery at Vasouy that were originally designed to protect the mouth of the River Seine. Manned by men of MAA266, the guns and ammunition were abandoned without being disabled as British forces approached. Situated as they were between Honfleur and Trouville, the guns were perfectly placed within their concrete bunkers to bombard German-held Le Havre, only 7km away across the Seine river mouth. Prinzhorn and his men, led by an artilleryman familiar with the site, approached the formidable emplacement aboard two commandeered control Linsens and were able to land successfully less than 100m from the first bunkers. The artillery was situated above a bank that fringed the heavily-mined beach and Prinzhorn’s assault party crept silently to their objectives, planting explosives in the gun barrels themselves and slipping through the narrow gap between gun and concrete to place other charges amongst the stored ammunition. Each bunker lacked an individual guard and the raiders were able to destroy the guns without challenge by the few British sentries that tramped slowly around the site and without loss to themselves.

However, all was not well within the ranks of Lehrkommando 700. In June 1944 Heye had placed the medical officer MstArzt Dr Arnim Wandel in overall charge of the Kampfschwimmer branch of the K-Verbände, replacing the colourful Friedrich Hummel. At first Wandel faced problems in winning the acceptance of the frogmen under his command, Hummel being held in high regard due to his obvious experience in underwater sabotage. Wandel on the other hand had served not as a saboteur but as a U-boat medical officer aboard U-129 during 1941 before holding staff positions in the 26th and 11th U-Flotillas. Between April and June 1944 he had been attached to the Einsatz und Ausbildungs Stab Süd where he reported on the superb state of the training facilities and men at Valdagno and on the Venetian island of San Giorgio. Reporting back to Heye on his findings, the Admiral was impressed enough by the young officer to appoint him as commander of Lehrkommando 700 – despite the Geneva Convention forbidding medical officers to command combat units.

Wandel was later described as an ‘extremely hard worker’ but completely lacking in both the requisite technical knowledge and grasp of the overall tactical situations faced by his men. Furthermore, many felt that Wandel lacked the necessary drive and ruthlessness to forward the ambitions of the frogmen of Lehrkommando 700. On the other hand, these were skills that Hummel – and indeed the SS commando leader Otto Skorzeny himself – possessed in abundance. There remains some confusion as to the reasoning behind this unusual personnel change. Böhme later told Allied interrogators that he met Hummel in Paris on 10 August 1944 and the latter claimed to still be in charge of Lehrkommando 700, Wandel merely acting as a ‘caretaker’ senior officer in his absence. There is every likelihood that Hummel was actually removed from the post by Heye as he strove to eliminate the insidious and invasive presence of the Abwehr within his service. As we shall see he would soon also do the same with the SS men within the K-Verbände, attempting to regain complete control of the service rather than have the K-Verbände divided by such animosity and inter-service rivalry that elements within the Third Reich apparently thrived on.

With this uneasy tension affecting the Lehrkommando, Otto Skorzeny paid Valdagno a visit on 30 June, later also touring San Giorgio with Wandel. The potential of what he saw must have impressed the SS commando who also tested the diving equipment himself in the Venice Lagoon. He had already managed to convince Heye to accept SS men under disciplinary sentences into the K-Verbände and later the following month he despatched SS Untersturmführer Walter Schreiber to be his SS representative at Valdagno, a liaison officer between Himmler’s organisation and the K-Verbände.

However, at the front there was little time for the frogmen of the K-Verbände to concern themselves with the internal wrangling of their service headquarters. The last mission of August 1944 for MEK 60 and MEK65 was undertaken in support of the Bibers of 261 K-Flotilla. After their disastrous committal to action on 30 August the Bibers were withdrawn and Prinzhorn’s men were tasked with destroying any abandoned machines and their torpedoes as the rest of the Bibers retreated from Normandy. The MEKs were the last Kriegsmarine troops to leave the port of Fecamp, their own withdrawal to Ghent fraught with problems due once again to Allied air superiority and the Wehrmacht’s demolition of many water crossings and roads. The units were hurriedly moved on from Ghent on 3 September to Schouten near Antwerp and from there also pushed on to Utrecht due to enemy spearhead formations facing across Belgium.

The MEKs were scheduled for transfer to Denmark for rearming and reinforcement but the Marinebefehlshaber Niederland (Flag Officer Commanding the Netherlands), VA Gustav Kleikamp, demanded their retention for use around Antwerp. They correspondingly remained in Utrecht, reinforced by thirty officers and men from MEK 40 on 11 September and supplied with three Linsens, three Marders and demolition mines for future use. An original group of eleven frogmen from Sesto Calende that were due to also join them were delayed, replaced by ten frogmen from Lübeck instead, the men having recently transferred from Venice to the German port.

On 8 September, K.z.S. Böhme was appointed as commander of all K-Flotillas and MEKs in the Scheldt area. His brief was to employ his forces when opportunities presented themselves; his first task allocated by OKW being the destruction of the Kruisschans and Royer locks on the Scheldt in what would become ‘Operation Bruno’. During the rapid fall of Antwerp to British armoured forces on 4 September the speed with which the advanced elements of the 11th Armoured Division had entered the city had completely surprised the German defenders. British troops, helped in no small part by Belgian resistance members, arrived to find the lock gates that controlled the rise and fall of the tide within the harbour basin largely undamaged, the Kriegsmarine Harbour Commander (Hafenkommandant Antwerpen), F.K. Joachim Syskowitz, being killed in a brief skirmish as he attempted to carry out the planned destruction of the lock and dockside equipment.

The port of Antwerp was, and still is, one of Europe’s great harbours, but it is not a natural one. Its expansive docks were dug to the northwest of the city centre, their first use recorded during medieval times. Though it rests some way inland on the River Scheldt it remains a tidal harbour and so the first canal lock was constructed in the port at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Royers Lock was 30m in length and 7m wide and allowed for the first time the round-clock usage of the port. As shipping grew in size new locks were required to allow access by the larger vessels and so in 1928 the Kruisschans Lock was added to the harbour entrance alongside its predecessor. Unable to deny the Allies the port of Antwerp, Böhme was instructed to investigate the viability of sabotaging the lock in order to render the harbour inoperative.

An initial reconnaissance carried out by a Linsen carrying men of MEK65 on 10 September showed that though the Royers Lock appeared to be jammed closed, the Kruisschans lock gates were largely undamaged and Böhme approached ObH. MAdR Prinzhorn with the potential mission. Prinzhorn studied the problem and soon accepted on behalf of his men. By destroying the main lock gate totally, Antwerp could be denied to the Allies for a considerable period of time. Aware that the mission would require precise targeting and that newly deployed protective nets would have to be negotiated, the only real option remained frogmen rather than an attempted attack using Marders. The attackers would be carried toward their target from Lillo, a small polder village close to the mouth of the Scheldt and near the Dutch-Belgian border, using Linsens with silenced engines. Two separate groups on duplicate missions would be used, thus doubling the chance of success.

On 8 September the problems within Lehrkommando 700 once again rose to the surface as Böhme encountered Friedrich Hummel in Utrecht. Hummel, calling himself by one of his many aliases, Hellmers, arrived at Böhme’s headquarters in the uniform of an Army Hauptmann, stating that he was at that time working directly for the RSHA (Reichssicherheithaupamt – the Reich Security Department), ostensibly as part of Otto Skorzeny’s Jagdverbände. He then proceeded to inform Böhme that he had been personally selected by Admiral Heye to carry out the mission against the Kruisschans lock and requested that the necessary men and material be placed at his disposal. Böhme was apparently extremely affronted by this declaration and refused point blank, stating that the mission had already been entrusted to Prinzhorn. After a brief and heated discussion Hummel departed, Böhme subsequently complaining to Heye about Hummel’s behaviour only to be informed by his superior that Hummel had at no point been entrusted with the mission, though Heye had discussed the matter with Hummel and given him permission to go to Utrecht to act as an advisor to Böhme.

The arrival at Utrecht of the frogmen that would operate under Prinzhorn had taken longer than expected and the first planned mission date of 12 September was postponed for one more night. On schedule, one Linsen slipped from harbour at midnight followed by the second half an hour later. However, contrary currents forced a disappointing abandonment of the mission and the saboteurs returned to port. The following night they tried again, this time with greater success.

The attacking force comprised two Linsens from 216 K-Flotilla, each carrying an officer, group leader, helmsman and three frogmen with a single modified GS mine in tow. One Linsen was commanded by Prinzhorn himself, the other by Leutnant Dorpinghaus, the latter making better way than Prinzhorn’s boat and soon the two had separated in the fog and darkness. Dorpinghaus followed the operational plan and hugged the east bank of the river, searching for the ‘dolphins’ – wooden pilings that marked the entrance to the lock itself. After hours of nerve-wracking probing, a disappointed Dorpinghaus ordered his Linsen to reverse course, fearing that they had somehow overshot the lock entrance. As the small boat eased back toward the centre of the wide river one of the elusive ‘dolphins’ loomed out of the hazy darkness. Discovered to be less than 1,000m from the lock gates Dorpinghaus secured his Linsen to the pylon, he and his men waiting for the time agreed with Prinzhorn in which to begin their final approach and thus co-ordinate their attacks. The moment finally arrived and the three frogmen, Feldwebel Karl Schmidt, Mechanikermaat Hans Greten and Maschinenmaat Rudi Ohrdorf, eased into the water. Unhooking their mine from the Linsen the three saboteurs followed the line of ‘dolphins’ toward the lock.

I [Schmidt] swam ahead, the other two steadying the tail of the mine in the eddies that played around the dolphins. We were passing very close to one of these, perhaps the seventh, when my suit got hooked on some obstruction jutting out from the structure. My suit was ripped and I felt the cold water filling it, driving out the warm air cushion. My comrades came to my aid and tried to persuade me to return to the waiting boat, but I was determined to go on and by letting some oxygen into the counter-lung of my breathing apparatus I managed to regain buoyancy.

Schmidt, Greten and Ohrdorf carried on toward the lock gates, negotiating the first net barrage with ease but taking longer to circumvent the ensuing nets of finer mesh. The three men were forced to go around them, slipping through the narrow gap between net and shore with their mine in tow. Eventually the gate appeared in the darkness and the three men were able to rest alongside the stone pillars that flanked the huge metal gate. They could hear the steady footsteps of a sentry above them as they prepared to lay the mine against the sill of the lock. The mine was able to have its buoyancy adjusted by releasing air trapped in compartments at either end, a push button opening the required valve. Once on or near the seabed, a second button started the time fuse, the explosive force of detonation in theory concentrated by the water pressure against the target structure. Schmidt and Ohrdorf held an end each, gripping two small handles as they co-ordinated the release of the air. On Schmidt’s signal they both pushed the button, the sudden weight dragging them swiftly underwater – so quickly that Schmidt’s fins leapt out of the water with a resounding splash before he plummeted to the seabed. Behind him Greten froze, terrified that the sentry would have heard the disturbance. Seconds later he heard footsteps crossing the gate from one side of the lock to the other, but they were the slow measured tramp of a complacent guard; they had escaped detection.

The sudden pressure on our heads due to the quick descent made Ohrdorf and I feel numb. It was now high water and we were still going down until at about 18 metres the mine bumped heavily on the sill of the lock. It lay well, so I pressed the fuse button and we immediately began to surface, too quickly for my liking. I drew air from the counterlung and blew it out into the water to slow down the ascent, but both of us still bobbed up like corks, puffing and panting.

Once more their luck held as the sentry had still not noticed them. After a brief rest the trio began to retrace their steps until Schmidt finally succumbed to the cold of his punctured suit after negotiating only one net. Despite his protestations, his two comrades held on and dragged him the remainder of the way back to Dorpinghaus and the waiting Linsen. Schmidt was manhandled aboard followed by the two other frogmen and the Linsen cast off, retreating into the darkness. The Germans sighted another motor boat heading directly for them as they headed for their base and so they abandoned caution and opened the throttle to maximum, managing to outpace the pursuing craft. As events transpired, the other boat was Prinzhorn’s Linsen, still dragging its mine after they had failed to find the lock gates. The duplication of the mission plan had saved them from failure, Prinzhorn sighting the lock gate at the moment when Dorpinghaus’ boat began to leave the scene and correctly guessing by their speed that they had laid their mine successfully.

A little after 05.00hrs a violent explosion shook the outer gate of the Kruisschans lock. Luftwaffe reconnaissance was later able to confirm that day that the gate was buckled and the harbour water level was falling with the ebb tide, signifying that the mission had succeeded and Antwerp was effectively, though temporarily, unusable, although by 13 October the subject of denying the use of Antwerp to the enemy was again high on the agenda of a situation meeting at Führer Headquarters, the Wolfsschanze. The same night that Prinzhorn and Dörpinghaus had attacked Antwerp’s locks another group of ten frogmen had been scheduled to attack bridges in the Vught area south of Hertogenbosch, though German records do not record the outcome of their planned enterprise.

The German frogmen had once again proved their worth in combat and MEK60 was soon presented with a range of tasks to accomplish within the Scheldt. They were charged with the destruction of shipping at the Scheldt quay, which had failed to scuttle before the German evacuation; the scuttling of a German minesweeper lying off Fort Philip; the destruction of Scheldt navigation buoys by use of frogmen and Linsens; and an attack on a bridge south of Eindhoven. The men of ‘Operation Bruno’ were also ordered to demolish bridges and tunnels in the front-line area. The destruction of the minesweeper and Scheldt buoys between Hansweerth and Antwerp were successfully carried out on the night of 20 September, though one Linsen was hit by machine-gun fire from the south bank of the river.

Vizadmiral Kleikamp had in the meantime employed MEK65 as a reconnaissance unit as the military situation had deteriorated once more. On 17 September Field Marshal Montgomery made his bid for an armoured thrust over the natural barrier of the River Rhine and into the heart of Germany, threatening the industrial area of the Ruhr and aimed directly at Berlin. Code-named ‘Operation Market Garden’ the plan relied on the intact capture by airborne forces of three key bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem as well as several smaller crossings that the armour of British XXX Corps could pass over. History remembers the operation as going ‘a bridge too far’ but by 20 September Eindhoven had already fallen and Nijmegen Bridge was captured intact after a courageous river assault in broad daylight made by Americans of the 82nd Airborne Division. However, British troops at Arnhem were under extreme pressure by largely Waffen SS troops and the day after Nijmegen’s fall were forced to surrender the bridge’s northern end and became isolated within the city. In Nijmegen XXX Corps were forced onto the defensive and Montgomery’s plan was failing.

MEK65 was engaged in reconnoitring the area around Arnhem-Hertogenbosch as Polish paratroops were dropped on the south side of the river to attempt to link up with the British troops trapped in Arnhem on the north side. The K-Verbände men also began the first of what would become many attempts to deny bridges to the Allies as they prepared to demolish the Allied-held crossings at Nijmegen that consisted of a railroad bridge and the far more daunting road bridge. By this time the men of MEK65 were reinforced by Prinzhorn’s MEK60 and the Germans established their headquarters in a barn near the Dutch-German border as they pondered their next move. The Rhine splits into two separate rivers around the Dutch-German border – the Waal, that flowed past Nijmegen, and the Lek, which was crossed at Arnhem. Due to the extreme current in the Waal and the size of the target Prinzhorn and MEK65’s senior officer Kaptlt. Richard differed in their view on how best to destroy the bridge. Richard believed frogmen to be the only method by which to reach the bridge unobserved, though Prinzhorn maintained that Linsens were necessary in order to defeat the speed of the water flow. A sharp bend in the river about 150m upstream meant that frogmen would be badly placed to deliver the size of charge required to damage the thick bridge pylons.

Each one of the bridge pylons measured some 11m long and 4m thick, a formidable target to destroy using demolition charges floated downstream. There was little to be gained by exploding a charge alongside the foundations – the entire pylon would have to be lifted from its base to bring down the main span. Both Prinzhorn and Richard agreed that it could only be achieved by a pair of torpedo mines, each with 1.2 tons of explosive within the combined weapons and connected to each other by a length of thick rope. This rope would then be used to snag the weapon against the bridge pylon where they could be sunk to the required depth, one charge resting each side of it and co-ordinated to detonate simultaneously. They allocated one pair of mines for the rail bridge and two for the road bridge.

The two commanders continued to disagree on the method by which to deliver this hefty weapon to the bridges and therefore two frogmen, including one-time Brandenburger and member of Jagdverbande Donau Hauptmann Kurt Wimmer, volunteered to make a trial swim along the 35km length of river that would see them safely emerge once more in German-held territory. Their task was twofold; to reconnoitre the bridge area and test the current. The pair successfully completed their mission, entering the water near midnight and exiting the following morning at their correct preassigned position. However, the results were less than encouraging as the pair were swept swiftly past both of the bridges, unable to manoeuvre themselves against the current and between the central piers where the charges would need to be placed.

The problem returned to what kind of delivery method to use. At this point Friedrich Hummel once again made a not-entirely-welcome appearance. Brandishing a signed authorisation on the ‘highest authority’ Hummel assumed command of the operation in the name of the RSHA. According to the German author Cajus Bekker Hummel ignored in his swiftly hatched plan the need for silence and secrecy to carry out the operation and instead declared that a combined force of assault boats and frogmen would attack the bridges. While the assault boats drew the enemy’s fire, the frogmen would lay their charges. If true, this notion was ludicrous and at the very least Prinzhorn was unhappy to see his Kommando commandeered by the SS and telegraphed his concerns to Admiral Heye. However Hummel’s authorisation by Hitler to control the task was genuine and Prinzhorn departed shortly afterward to oversee the aforementioned attack on the Kruisschans Lock leaving Hummel in charge.

Hummel began planning for the attack almost immediately. He would use the twin-torpedo charge that Prinzhorn and Richard had put forward, the weapon requiring four men to control in the water; one at each end of a mine holding onto lines strung from the torpedo bodies. Again, according to Bekker’s account, Hummel decided to make his own study of the target bridge and took two assault boats to study the Nijmegen crossing, attracting heavy fire and alerting the British guards to the danger posed by frogmen. If true this would display a bizarre lapse of judgement on behalf of such an experienced saboteur. Nevertheless if true it also proved the impossibility of hoping to approach the bridge in boats. Frogmen were the only method by which the attack could be mounted. At some point immediately after Hummel’s alleged botched reconnaissance the British flooded the area upstream of the road bridge with arc- and searchlights to deter any possible attacks. British and Canadian units were posted along the Waal riverbank and authorised to fire at anything vaguely suspicious. The Allies would not relinquish the bridge that so many men had died to take despite the fact that by 25 September the surviving British troops of the 1st Airborne Division had withdrawn over the Lower Rhine from Arnhem, leaving the majority of their strength behind, dead or captured. ‘Market Garden’ had failed and the Rhine remained inviolate at the crucial final bridge.

Regardless of whether there is in fact substance to Hummel’s alleged behaviour, the attack was finally launched on the night of 28 September. The first group comprising Funkmaat Heinz Bretschneider (veteran of the Orne bridge attack), Obergefreitern Walter Jager, Gerhard Olle and Adolf Wolchendorf took to the water about 10km upstream of their target lugging the mines destined for the railroad span, the two cylinders joined together for ease of transport. The four men passed submerged under the illuminated road bridge and made ready to snag their mine against the pylons of the rail bridge when the unexpected obstruction of a pontoon crossing loomed from the darkness. Frantically diving to avoid the obstruction the men were nearly separated from the mines as they snagged on one of the pontoons. Their situation was precarious in the extreme as the four Germans clung to the guy ropes and were compelled to surface as quietly as possible and try to free the trapped weapon. Bretschneider remembered reaching the water surface and being able to see the shadows of British engineers working on the roadway above him, the glow of their cigarette-ends plainly visible.

Almost miraculously the four Germans were able to free the weapon without attracting the attention of the enemy above them and drifted onwards to the rail bridge. They had little time in which to pull apart the two mines, two men on each as they separated them enough to allow the rope trailing between them to act as anchor for the weapon. They were able to snag their weapon against the stonework of the pylon and sink it into place activating the timer and then drifting away with the current. Freed from their cumbersome charge the four men gradually became separated as they allowed the Rhine to deliver them to German lines once more. Bretschneider again remembered the sporadic firing of white signal flares agreed upon beforehand to show the frogmen where friendly territory began. With daylight creeping into the east he searched for a place in which to conceal himself, alighting upon a derelict fishing boat where he slept the daytime hours away, resuming the swim to safety once night had fallen again. Finally, using the signal flares as a guide he clambered from the cold water to be greeted by his comrades, Walter Jager amongst them. He too had been forced into hiding during the previous day, narrowly escaping capture by two soldiers whom he was forced to fight unarmed before taking flight and later hiding himself within a hollow tree stump. They were, however, the sole members of the team to return, Olle and Wolchen-dorf both having been detected and captured by the British.

The second and third groups that were destined for the road bridge had less fortune. The first of these was forced against the shore by the sudden bend of the Rhine, unable to control the ponderous mines as the current caught them. Stranded in barely waist-deep water they desperately tried to inch the weapons back into the deeper river water, wary of the British guns only metres away on the river-bank. A fusillade of shots suddenly rang out across the Rhine as the last group also washed against the river bank slightly upstream, spotted and fired on by British troops of 5th Battalion (Gloucester) who killed one man and wounded two others. The three survivors were dragged from the water, their mines abandoned and sunk behind them.

The four men of the second group, Bootsmaat Henze and Unteroffizieren Krämer and Kammhuber led by the formidable commander of SS Jagdverbände Donau Untersturmführer Walter Schreiber, laboriously moved towards open water, braced for the inevitable fusillade of shots. Schreiber activated the timer on the mine lest they be discovered although their silent struggles were finally rewarded as the mine floated free with the current once more. However, they had also finally been seen. Bullets splashed into the water around them as they despairingly realised that the current would not allow them to position their mines against the bridge pylon. With little option left open to them they flooded the chambers and allowed the mines to sink into the Rhine, too far away to do any real damage to the Nijmegen Bridge. Schreiber, Krämer and Kammhuber would subsequently reach friendly lines, but Henze was captured later that day by a British riverside patrol.

In due course Bretschneider’s mines exploded and the rail bridge was demolished, though Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft later showed only minor damage to the road bridge by Schreiber’s misplaced mines. Bretschneider and Jäger were awarded the German Cross in Gold for their successful attack. German propaganda in turn trumpeted the achievement, illustrations drawn to show frogmen placing the huge charges giving credit where credit was indeed due to the courageous commandos. Even the British Press were impressed, the London Times reporting on 6 October that the Nijmegen attack was one of the ‘most daring operations of the war’.

Elsewhere the campaign waged by the Marine Einsatz Kommandos continued apace. The Antwerp operations had been successfully executed and smaller missions in support of Scheldt operations carried out. As the Allies had advanced with ‘Market Garden’ the Linsens and Marders that had been based at Lillo were withdrawn to the more secure area of Groningen. A further attempt was also made on the Nijmegen road bridge by MEK60 using two borrowed Linsens and two likewise purloined Marders. The small force departed from a point three kilometres west of Tolamer at 19.30hrs on 15 October, the Linsens towing one mine each. After travelling for 9km the mine tows were transferred to the Marders, which in turn were supposed to continue to the bridge, affix the mines (by a method unspecified in reports) and then return to Zaltbommel. The Linsens discharged their mine tows to the Marders as planned and returned, though the human torpedoes subsequently aborted the attack for reasons that were not mentioned in German records. A second attempt was planned though this time the mines were lost in transit from Utrecht due to Allied air attack and another attempt was not able to be launched until 23 October, though this too was defeated as the Linsens failed to drag the mines freely into the current, the heavy mines becoming embedded in thick mud and later destroyed.

A fresh attempt on the Nijmegen Bridge by the newly raised MEK40 that had arrived in the Netherlands to relieve MEK60 and 65 was aborted on 14 November though the following night Prinzhorn’s MEK60 demolished a bridge at Moerdijk over the Holländsche Diep. MEK40 became embroiled in fighting within the Scheldt, a small raiding party sent to North Beveland failing to return in late November.

The flooding of the Rhine in December and the subsequent loss of suitable landmarks precluded further attempts against the Nijmegen Bridge. Nevertheless a detachment from MEK40 and twenty-four Bibers were being held in readiness for another attempt once the flood-waters had subsided. The remainder of MEK40 were spread between Rotterdam, Zeist and Biebosch islands, the latter involved in the elimination of an enemy machine gun post and capture of a boat carrying eight Allied agents during December.

Towards the end of 1944 and perhaps in no small part due to the antipathy with which many officers within the K-Verbände viewed Hummel, Admiral Heye moved to completely eliminate any presence of the Abwehr and SS within his service, during November ordering the removal of all such personnel from the K-Verbände. Böhme was convinced that this decision was due to Hummel’s actions at Utrecht, which Heye may have interpreted as an attempt by the SS to steal the ‘glory’ due to the K-Verbände. It could also not have been helped by resentment that had grown in Lehrkommando 700 regarding the incorporation of SS probationary troops being posted to Wandel’s unit. The annoyance of the K-Verbände officers and men rested predominantly on the fact that the SS men thus transferred by Skorzeny were usually being punished for some misdemeanour at the front, their degradation in rank and dangerous new employment viewed as a way to regain their honour. Many of the Kriegsmarine personnel were at first unaware of this and when they learned the details, including what have been described as several ‘unpleasant incidents’ they viewed it as a perceived slight on the elite and honourable status of the K-Verbände. By the month’s end the weeding out of the SS and Abwehr men had been completed, at least fifty SS men removed from six K-Verbände units and returned to their original service. Many would subsequently use their experience for Skorzeny within his Jagdverbände.

In January 1945, to placate those officers and men that still considered the young medical officer as unsuited to the task, Wandel was finally removed from command of the Lehrkommando 700 and his place taken by K.K. Hermann Lüdke. The base for the Lehrkommando had already moved due to the inexorable advance of Allied troops, the Venetian units having relocated to Sylt on 21 October 1944, Lehrkommando 704 following shortly afterward.

It was not just within the West that German frogmen had found employment during 1944.

December 10, 1944; 15.00hrs: The Chief of the General Staff, Army, emphasises the importance of destroying the Russian Danube bridges south of Budapest. The C-in-C Navy comments that Naval Shock Troops are available for such tasks in the area of the Southern Army Group, and that it is the responsibility of the local authorities to plan and execute the details.

A similar request had also been issued by Army Group A for K-Verbände units to be used against bridges across the Vistula where the German Army held a rapidly crumbling front. Russian bridge-heads across the Vistula and Danube Rivers posed great threats to the beleaguered Wehrmacht and Waffen SS men that fought to contain them, though they remained largely static until January 1945 as the Red Army sought to consolidate its positions before exploding into the final drive for victory.

The most extensive Russian bridgehead was that which straddled the Vistula, nearly thirty bridges having been taken and held by the Russians. Frogmen were deemed unsuited to the task so eighty-four Linsens were despatched from Plön to Krakow, their deployment overseen by Lüdke himself. The boats were transported under great secrecy to the Vistula and assembled awaiting the order from Army Group A to begin. The plan was absurdly simple. All eighty-four boats would race along the Vistula, each bridge being rammed by two of them which would sink alongside and be detonated by time fuses until the entire force was spent. It was, at best, wildly optimistic.

Regardless, the force was ready for action as Liidke impatiently awaited the order to start, aware that the temperature was steadily dropping and ice on the river would render the light hulled boats useless. Generaloberst Josef Harpe finally approved the operation on 19 December, but as the Linsens were being put into the water, the plan was scrubbed. Luftwaffe photographs had shown thick ice forming around the first pair of bridges.

Men of MEK71 had also been allocated to the Russian front, passed to Army Group South for the Danube operation. Though MEK71 was based within the Adriatic, fourteen men (including four divers) had been withdrawn to Weissenburg in Bavaria where they were first scheduled to operate against bridges on the Danube (Donau). The group led by Oberfähnrich Schulz was soon augmented by sixteen more men, commanded by Leutnant Tegethoff, the whole unit officially departing the strength of MEK71 and becoming ‘Kommando Wineto’. Their first use by Army Group South came on 4 December when they attacked the bridge at Paks south of Budapest with floating mines though the result of this attack is unrecorded.

The year 1944 had seen the final shattering of Germany’s military on all fronts. The final path spiralled downward into oblivion, though the K-Verbände, like most of the Wehrmacht, remained determined to make their enemies pay dearly for their advances.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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