SS in Iran

Soviet intelligence agent Nikolai Kuznetzov in Wehrmacht uniform. While undercover posing as a Wehrmacht officer, Kuznetzov learned about Operation Long Jump.

The first attempt to land German troops in Iran was unsuccessful. On 15 July 1941 in strict secrecy three Ju 52s took off from one of the islands in the Aegean, heading for the coast of Syria. On board each of them was a group of saboteur from the ‘Brandenburg’ regiment.

The aircraft safely flew over the Mediterranean, Syria and Iraq and entered Iranian airspace, but soon one of the Ju 52s suffered engine failure and the pilot had to make an emergency landing. So the group under Leutnant Meinhard was now in northern Iran close to the Turkish border. This region was deserted, so no one had seen the German aircraft land.

The saboteurs then moved north and about 150km from the Soviet border, fell in with the warlike Kurdish tribes who controlled the area. The Germans spent six months in the villages with fighters for an independent Kurdistan, teaching them how to handle modern small arms and basic military tactics. Then, in January 1942, the Kurds secretly moved the Germans across the border into the territory of the Soviet Union. Hiding in the mountains, they successfully carried out sabotage attacks on mountain roads. When the German mountain troops reached the Caucasus, the surviving saboteurs returned to the Third Reich.

The second group, led by Leutnant Mertzig, after landing managed to get to Teheran, after which in September 1941 they went to the north of the country, but there their traces were lost. The third group, which was landed around Abadan, was later captured by the British.

Why were British troops in Iran? Shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union, the Soviet and British governments jointly decided to occupy Iran as soon as possible. This operation began on 25 August 1941. British troops rapidly occupied the southern and western parts of the country, and Soviet troops entered Persia simultaneously from Transcaucasia and Turkmenistan. Soviet aircraft took an active part in the campaign. SB bombers, accompanied by I-153 fighters, carried out massive air raids on Iranian cities and ports, causing heavy casualties among the civilian population. Soviet troops also landed on the Iranian coast from the ships of the Caspian flotilla.

In the autumn of 1941, Britain and the United States began to supply the Soviet Union with weapons, food, fuel, non-ferrous metals and other materials under the Lend-Lease programme. The goods arrived in the USSR in several ways, through the ports of Murmansk in the north and Vladivostok in the east, and also through occupied Iran. Therefore, this region acquired great strategic importance for the Allies.

The largest and at the same time most difficult route for Allied supplies passed through Iran. Cargoes arrived at the port of Bandar Shahpur (now Bandar Khomeini) on the Persian Gulf. There they were loaded on trains which took the trans-Iranian highway through the mountains and Tehran to the port of Bandar Shah (now Bandar Torkaman), on the coast of the Caspian Sea. This route was extremely vulnerable to sabotage, as it had a total of 224 tunnels and about 4,000 bridges! Some of the supplies were transported by convoys on mountain roads. Then all this was loaded onto ships again and taken to various ports on the northern shore of the Caspian sea, with any excess loads going via rail. Most took the line from Astrakhan and Urbah (Saratov). Having covered thousands of kilometres on water, steppes, mountains and deserts, tanks, cars, planes and various other equipment entered service with the Red Army. In addition, since 1942, the USSR was supplying oil produced by the Anglo-Iranian oil company to refineries in Abadan. In Khorramshahr an assembly plant was built for American trucks, which then moved north on their own wheels to the Soviet Union.

By mid-1942, the Abwehr had a complete picture of all traffic on the southern Lend-Lease route, and the Germans decided to attack along its entire length, from the Persian Gulf to the city of Saratov (on the Volga).

On 25 August, the Luftwaffe began massive raids on the Astrakhan–Saratov railway, which ran along the eastern bank of the Volga, targeting key stations, the tracks and individual trains. The attacks were carried out continuously for four months, and as a result, a significant part of the Allied cargoes was destroyed, the rest suffering considerable delays and detours. In addition, German aircraft began to lay mines and attack shipping in the Caspian Sea. Up to June 1943 the Luftwaffe managed to sink seven Soviet ships with Lend-Lease cargoes, including the Kuibyshev which was loaded with tanks.

In Iran itself, resistance to the Allied occupation began immediately, with the Iranian Kurds taking a particularly intransigent position. In the winter of 1941/42 Abwehr agents had already made contact with leaders of the local tribes, and the aircraft of Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. began deliveries of weapons and explosives, as well as groups of saboteurs.

Together with the Kurdish guerrillas, they carried out numerous attacks. In the spring of 1942, the dock at Khorramshahr, 15km southwest of Ibadan, was completely destroyed by fire and fifty wagons with military cargo intended for the USSR were destroyed. At the same time a bridge on the Khorramshahr–Ahvaz was attacked. The saboteurs did not blow it up, but simply dismantled the rails and sleepers for 50m. As a result, a train carrying American trucks crashed, and almost all the vehicles fell into the river.

Due to numerous acts of sabotage on the trans-Iranian railway, freight turnover slowed significantly. In April–May 1942 on it passed on only 344 freight wagons passed on it, less than for the period from February to March. In the future, explosions, arson and train crashes, organized by saboteurs despite British punitive expeditions, occurred regularly.

Encouraged by their initial successes, the Germans and their Iranian friends began to construct a secret airfield in the desert in the south-west of the country. In a short time, a field measuring 1,500m by 1,000m was built. Serious consideration was given to the creation of a secret submarine base on the coast of the Gulf of Oman!

The delivery of groups of saboteurs and weapons was carried out by four-engined Fw 200s and Ju 290s from airfields in the Crimea, over a distance of 2,000–2,300km. For example, in March 1943, the RSHA prepared another sabotage and reconnaissance group for insertion into Iran, code-named ‘Franz’. It included six SS members: Unterscharführer Blume, Rottenführers Kendgen and Korel (a translator) and three radio operators, Oberscharführer Hollzapvel and Unterscharführers Grille and Rockstrol. On 22 March, a Ju 290A with the saboteurs aboard took off from one of the airfields near Berlin. The plane was piloted by Leutnant Nebel, and the commander of 2./Versuchsverband Ob.d.L., Hauptmann Karl-Edmund Gartenfeld, was also on board. He usually personally supervised the delivery of the most important agents and groups to their destinations.

At 21:30 Berlin time the Ju 290 landed in the Crimea, at the airport of Simferopol, where there was a branch of ‘Toska’. Unterscharführer Werner Rockstrol then wrote in his diary: ‘I began to get acquainted with Russia and appreciate the German culture and purity. Terrible streets, rickety houses, people in rags – this is my first impression of Simferopol, one of the big cities of Russia … the population is friendly to the Germans. Russians do not like Bolshevism and its destructive nature.’

The next day, Hauptmann Gartenfeld once again instructed the SS men on what to do during a parachute jump. He told them not to worry as – ‘everyone will go down, after all nobody ever stayed up in the air’. Along the way, the order of landing was also determined – Rockstrol, Grille, Korel, Hollzapvel and Kendgen, Blume being the last to jump over Iran.

On 25 March, the group made a visit by car to the city of Yalta. The beauty of the local scenery made a lasting impression on them. On the way back they stopped in Sevastopol, where they saw various sights, including the ruins of the famous Coastal Battery 30, which the Germans called ‘Maxim Gorky’. The large-calibre Soviet battery was completely destroyed by the joint efforts of the German artillery and the Luftwaffe during the siege of Sevastopol. The group spent the next three days playing football with the local police.

On 29 March, the SS men were told that their mission was to begin that day. The first half of the day was spent in training, then the saboteurs were taken to the airfield, where they waited for the familiar Ju 290. Rockstrol continued the story:

At 15.30 our ‘Flying Fortress’ left Simferopol. Last look at Russia. We’re flying over Turkey. Everyone felt tired, as sitting with full equipment with a parachute is very uncomfortable, being at an altitude of 7,000 metres. We had oxygen. The engines were making a lot of noise, there was no human voice. The Hauptmann shouted orders in our ears, but they were like whispers.

Evening was coming. It was nearing the hour of our jump. Pale face. Many have an unpleasant feeling in the stomach. I’m feeling good. I close my eyes. Remember his home, the scenes of youth, of love … ‘Attention!’— commanded the Hauptmann. The first number is preparing. I quickly put the kneepads on my knees and put on the English landing helmet. My comrades prepared themselves for the jump. In front of us there are loads that also have to be dropped.

Soon the hatch was opened, and the cold night air poured into the Ju 290. Cargo containers, one containing a radio set, were the first to fly into the Iranian sky, followed one by one by all six members of the group.

The landing went well, and the saboteurs quickly found each other. They spent the night together discussing their next steps. All the containers were soon located apart from the one with the radio set, which was only found after an extensive search. After this Korel went to Tehran to make contact with a German resident, Franz Meier. The rest had to settle down to live among the sands.

On the morning of 8 April, it was time to make contact with HQ. Werner Rockstrol wrote in his diary:

Time for experiments. 7 hours Central European time. I sent the call sign. Hans and Georg sat on the box. Georg waved to me with a happy look. They heard Berlin quite clearly. Now everything depends on it. Hans called Berlin on the radio for 10 minutes. They listened excitedly to the receiver. Berlin hears us. What pleasure. We’re thrilled. First words received. About our success in Berlin clink glasses and will be a long time to call by phones.

On the morning of 14 June, Korel returned with a small caravan of camels and five Iranians. After that, the saboteurs disguised themselves as local residents, dyed their hair black, loaded their cargo on the animals and set off in the direction of Tehran. After several days of travel, the SS camel caravan arrived safely in the ancient capital of Persia. There the agents took up residence in the house of one Mahmoud Agh, from which radio messages were sent to Berlin.

During this period, there were several SD groups operating in Iran. For example, on 17 August a group led by Obersturmführer SS Martin Kurmis landed in the south of the country, to join up with Nasir Khan’s rebels. The next day a Ju 290 dropped cargo containers with weapons, clothing, explosives and food. The group was tasked to blow up oil pipelines and pumping stations.

On 3 August, the Germans, together with the Iranian rebels, caused train No. 5107, loaded with military cargo destined for the Soviet Union, to crash. As a result, traffic on this section of the railway was paralyzed for two days. In addition, explosives were planted on oil pipelines leading to the ports of the Persian Gulf. In the future, the RSHA was going to deliver to Iran a few more groups, but this was prevented by the shortage of four-engined transport aircraft, which were in demand throughout the huge front.

The Blume group successfully operated in Tehran for four months. But in the late summer of 1943, on the eve of the famous Tehran meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, British counterintelligence sharply intensified their hunt for German agents. As a result, most of the agents were arrested. For example, on 14 August Franz Meier and Werner Rockstrol were arrested. After some time, Kurmis’s group was defeated. One of the agents committed suicide, but the other four surrendered to the British.

Despite this, the delivery of agents to Iran continued. On 1 September 1943 the Abwehr and SD organized a joint landing of several groups in different parts of the country. The saboteurs carried out several successful attacks, including derailing three trains on the trans-Iranian highway. The next delivery was carried out on 15 November. Despite the successes of the British, sabotage attacks continued, although on a smaller scale. For example, in 1944, saboteurs managed to set fire to a vehicle assembly plant in Khorramshahr.

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