About MSW

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“

Seehunds in the Thames Estuary I

By 29 January 1945 the ice at Ijmuiden had melted enough for the Seehunds to return to action. Likewise in Hellevoetsluis, the Bibers were no longer trapped in port by the thick winter ice and they too were made ready to sail. Ten Seehunds put out through the small lock at Ijmuiden in two groups; one bound for the Dumpton-Margate area and the other for the South Falls. The Seehunds were ordered to break off operations if the weather deteriorated from the southwest, though all ten successfully sailed. The first to return, U-5342, entered port that evening, Obersteuermann Bocher and Obermaschinist Frobel breaking off their journey with clutch failure after only three hours at sea.

Over the following days seven of the Seehunds returned with various mechanical problems or because of the increasingly heavy seas. Some had reached the approximate area of their intended operations, though they had been forced to abort. Leutnant zur See Henry Kretschmer was one of those that returned, bringing U-5041 into port after being battered by the elements. His engineer, Maschinenmaat Karl Radel, had become violently seasick and reached port in a state of almost complete exhaustion.

Only two of the Seehunds successfully patrolled their target areas, L.z.S. Stürzenberger and Obermaschinist Herold aboard U-5335 sighting three steamers and two escorts in convoy, but they were unable to gain a firing position. They soon broke off the mission in mounting seas, reaching Ijmuiden on 31 January. Oblt.z.S. Ross and his LI Oberlt (Ing.) Vennemann reported the sole success after torpedoing an estimated 3,000-ton collier near Dumpton Buoy in Margate Roads on 30 January. The two Germans were elated, though the British reported their steamer sunk by mines. It was the third sinking made by a Seehund since they had been put into service, aggregating an estimated 6,324 tons.

The same day that the Seehunds had sailed, fifteen Bibers set out from the Hook of Holland, having arrived there from Rotterdam the previous day. However, disaster overtook them almost immediately as three were sunk by hitting patches of ice which in places were 20cm thick. Five more returned with damage caused by the ice and another was beached near Hellevoetsluis after spending 64 hours at sea hunting in vain for the sight of any potential targets. The remaining six failed to return at all, their fate unknown.

January ended on this grim note for the K-Verbände, though Heye remained optimistic about the Seehunds at least. In a review of their operations Heye wrote on 4 February that despite their operating in severe weather conditions and meeting little success, they had unquestionably been of great value in eliminating teething problems with the small U-boats and for the training of their crews – at least those that had survived. He also expressed faith in better results once weather conditions moderated.

On 3 February the commander of the Seehunds in Ijmuiden was changed. Kaptlt. Rasch was rotated back to Germany to oversee the operation of Lehrkommando 300 in Neukoppel. His replacement was the celebrated U-boat veteran F.K. Albrecht Brandi, who became the chief of 312 K-Flotilla and later 5 K-Division. By now the threat of the midget submarines was being taken very seriously in British military thinking and on 3 February thirty-six Lancasters of 5 Group attacked concrete shelters at Ijmuiden (9 Squadron) and Poortershaven (617 Squadron) with Tallboy bombs. It was believed by the British that these pens were sheltering the midget submarines and in clear weather the RAF claimed hits on both targets without loss to themselves. Their appraisal had been correct: the S-boat bunkers in the Haringhaven received three direct hits though there was no damage to the Seehunds of which there were four operational and twenty-seven non-operational currently in the port. The bunker was never fully completed after work had begun on it, only ten pens being finished out of a planned eighteen, the Allied bombing achieving little despite its accuracy. On the other hand, the Molch depot was hit with greater result by Spitfires of 2nd Tactical Air Force who were engaged on a general attack against the railway system in the town of Amersfoort. Though no Molchs themselves were damaged the depot was virtually destroyed. Lancasters also attacked the Biber depot at Poortershaven and once again though no submarines were hit, damage to dockside installations prevented any more operations in February. The British were soon back again against the K-Verbände when fifteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron dropped Tallboys again on the pens at Ijmuiden without loss to themselves on 8 February. Of equally great concern was the RAF battering of rail communications between Germany and Holland that threatened to seriously disrupt the supply of Seehunds to the forward area. On 11 February consideration was given to transporting them via road through Zuiderseedamm and employing them within the inner Scheldt. This would negate the effect of bad weather as the inner reaches were relatively sheltered from the harsh elements of the North Sea and plans were developed to attempt a trial Seehund operation within the Scheldt.

In the meantime operations continued against the convoys trailing from England. Eight boats sailed on 5 February; U-5368, U-5033 and U-5326 all returning defective, U-5339 stranding north of the Hook of Holland, U-5311 stranding 14km north of Ijmuiden and U-5329, U-5348 and U-5344 returning without success and with varying degrees of depth charge damage. On the evening of 10 February eight Seehunds sailed, U-5335 forced back to harbour to repair a defect in its steering gear, though it was able to depart the following day. The dockside at Ijmuiden was scarred and still smoking from the attack by nine 8th Air Force B-17 bombers that had carried out the first of what they termed ‘Disney’ missions using Royal Navy rocket-boosted concrete-piercing bombs against the pens at Ijmuiden. Three more Seehunds – U-5363, U-5337 and that belonging to L.z.S. Polakowsi – were forced to return on 11 February with mechanical faults and U-5330 the following day, having sighted Allied ships but achieved nothing. U-5339 entered Vlieland on the evening of 12 February; U-5345 into Ijmuiden and U-5347 grounded on Texel 30km north of the port on the morning of 13 February after suffering severe damage in an air attack. Only U-5349 failed to return from the operation.

A further five departed Ijmuiden at 17.00hrs on 12 February, despatched to the North Foreland. Again two – U-5332 and U-5342 – aborted with mechanical difficulties. Oberfähnrich Streck and Maschinenmaat Niehaus aboard U-5345 reached their operational area, but were detected and subjected to a barrage of depth charges that the Kriegsmarine men counted as numbering 259 detonations before the attackers left the scene. With the boat badly damaged and crew shaken by their ordeal they limped towards Ijmuiden, eventually beaching their boat at the inner mole of the harbour. The fourth Seehund, L.z.S. Götz-Godwin Ziepult and Maschinenmaat Reek’s U-5361, returned on 17 February after claiming to have torpedoed a 5,000-ton merchant ship off North Foreland two days previously. The ship concerned was the Dutch tanker Liseta from convoy TAM80, badly damaged by a torpedo hit although able to reach port without sinking. However, the Seehund was not the only attacker to claim the hit, the Type VIIC U-boat U-245 also claiming to have torpedoed the Dutchman. Nonetheless, it was a victorious crew that reached Ijmuiden. The last of the five, U-5356, never returned.

On 14 February, while many of the Seehunds were still on station, it was decided to slip their leash more and extend operations to anywhere within their range, which included inside the Thames and as far as the Humber estuaries. Hitherto these areas had been off limits for the Seehunds. It was also ordered to stop any K-Verbände mine laying along the Thames-Antwerp convoy route to allow conventional U-boats to begin patrolling there as part of their last-ditch inshore campaign in British waters.

In the meantime a number of Molchs had been moved from Amersfoort to Scheveningen to be used in the Scheldt estuary. Their use was planned for the night of 12 February, but the deteriorating weather forced a postponement. During the night of 14 February two Linsen units were moved from Hellevoetsluis to Zeriksee on Schouwen to operate against Walcheren as the K-Verbände intensified its Scheldt attacks once more. As part of this stepping-up, the trial of the Seehunds in the Scheldt began on 16 February.

Four Seehunds sailed from Ijmuiden for the West Scheldt that morning, five Linsen units also sailing for the region that night. It would be the baptism of fire for the two-man midgets within the confined waterway and one that was ultimately unsuccessful. There was no word from the Seehunds until 20.00hrs on 18 February when U-5363 beached 15km north of Ijmuiden after experiencing no success at all. Another, U-5332, also beached itself, this time 3 kilometres north of the port at the same hour the following day. L.z.S. Wolter had fired two torpedoes after sighting an enemy convoy of several large landing craft but had missed after being kept at bay by the escort screen and unable to launch an attack at a close enough range. The remaining two boats, U-5041 and U-5337, did not return, though Maschinenmaat Karl Radel of U-5041 drifted ashore on the island of Voorne in a rubber dinghy, dying before he could relate his experiences. His coxswain L.z.S. Henry Kretschmer had been captured after a successful depth-charge attack by HMML901 on 22 February. The British motor launch was severely damaged during the battle with U-5041 in which a depth charge set off a sympathetic explosion of the midget’s torpedoes, damaging the ship’s wheelhouse. Five out of six rounds fired from the motor launch hit the Seehund and Kretschmer was soon pulled from the sea, Radel drifting away unseen in the early morning darkness. It was to be the last time that Seehunds were deployed within the Scheldt itself, that zone of control left to the equally unsuccessful Linsens, Bibers and Molchs. The Linsens that had deployed into the western Scheldt on the same day as the Seehunds had achieved no success either. Only two units reached the target area where they found nothing, the rest turning back in thick fog losing two of their number.

Bad weather once more frustrated plans for three Seehunds to sail for the Dumpton area on 19 February, though they were able to put to sea the following day. One returned with engine trouble which took 24 hours before it was rectified and the craft put out once more. Three more put to sea that same day, destined for the Elbow buoy in the South Falls off North Foreland, another single Seehund making for the same area on 23 February. U-5097 returned after a frustrating journey dogged by bad weather and poor visibility. After reaching the area that they considered to be the shipping lane from southeast England to the Scheldt estuary they were surprised by two British MGBs that raced out of a fog bank with machine guns blazing. Crash-diving to the seabed at a depth of only 30m, the two Germans were then subjected to a fierce depth charge bombardment, able to see the flash of the exploding Torpex through the Plexiglas dome. After nearly 24 hours, U-5097’s attackers dispersed and the Seehund was able to creep away toward Ijmuiden, severely damaged. The boat was leaking from the area of the electric motor and its compass had been destroyed, so they were unable to remain submerged, the captain, Wachsmuth, navigating by the constellations of the Great Bear and the Small Bear when they became briefly visible through the cloud. By daylight he used the horizon from which he considered the strongest morning light to emanate, unable to actually see the sun due to the daytime fog. As U-5097 headed for the Dutch coast Wachsmuth was suddenly confronted by a stone wall looming from out of the fog and rapidly threw the boat to port to avoid hitting it. However, in hindsight it appears that the vision was an hallucination brought on by the Pervitin pills that the two Germans were consuming to stay awake. The wall vanished as quickly as it had arrived.

They eventually made landfall as fuel and battery were almost exhausted, though with no idea of their location. In fact they had grounded the Seehund at Egmond aan Zee, 16km north of Ijmuiden and there they blew it up. Wachsmuth and his LI remained unsure of their location until a Wehrmacht soldier appeared. The newcomer was Mongolian and nervously escorted the pair off the beach and into a bunker occupied by Luftwaffe Flak troops. They still had to convince their rescuers that they were not Allied commandos before eventually contacting Brandi by telephone and being returned to Ijmuiden.

U-5342, on its first operational sortie, did not return; the two crewmen listed as missing presumed killed on 1 March 1945. The last crew of the trio, also new to action, did make a successful return to Ijmuiden, though Frohnert and Beltrami had achieved nothing.

L.z.S. Winfried Ragnow’s U-5367 was one of the four-boat group that had departed on 21 February. Ragnow later recounted his departure from Ijmuiden, a scene repeated for all departing Seehunds.

On 21 February my boat was the first of the flotilla to be cleared for patrol. A fortifying breakfast, specially catered – ‘klinker-free’ diet (as our ‘sled’ had nothing like a WC). F.K. Brandi gave our operational briefing 08.00hrs. We learned one more time all the important details about the operations area; currents, weather forecasts, enemy locations and convoy routes for the Thames-Scheldt supply lines, security, defence, air dispositions and so on. Weather wasn’t especially good, but it was supposed to be better in the Thames. Best wishes, a handshake and I was dismissed. Equipment taken by truck to the harbour where the LI is on hand and just as tense as I am about the mission. KUB367 (U-5367) lies at the pier. This time we have sharp torpedoes under her belly (each Eel had 300kg Trinitrotoluol in the head). We smoked a last cigarette, said goodbye to our comrades and support personnel. And then we went. Past the lock gates and outer mole. Windy -sea state 3 – breakers washing over the boat. Trim dive test by the Ijmuiden navigation marker and then course southwest at 6 knots – on towards England!

Despite their stalwart beginning, the two men had no success on their arduous voyage. Alternately hunting surfaced and diving to avoid enemy destroyers, MGBs and aircraft – once making the unprecedented depth of 76m with no untoward problems with their boat -they unsuccessfully attempted to attack a destroyer before heading back towards Holland. They grounded their boat amidst the beach defences, huddling in a bunker and keeping warm with schnapps before found by a Kriegsmarine artillery unit and returned to Ijmuiden. Later, Brandi dispatched a group to find and recover their Seehund, but it had drifted off with the tide and presumably sunk. Ragnow and Paul Vogel were sent to Wilhelmshaven to collect a new boat; both men awarded the Iron Cross Second Class on 28 February, the first of their flotilla to receive the decoration.

The three other Seehunds that had sailed as part of the group led by U-5367 experienced mixed levels of success. L.z.S. Horst Gaffron and his engineer Maschinenmaat Huber fired both torpedoes at an enemy destroyer, reporting a hit though British records do not confirm this. L.z.S. Walter Habel and Maschinenmaat Karl Rettinghausen also reported success. Sailing toward England on their first mission, the boat ran surfaced towards the Thames. The trails of V2 rockets could be seen arcing overhead on their way toward London as the young crew sailed toward their enemy. At 09.00hrs they sighted an enemy destroyer and launched two torpedoes before breaking away as an MGB passed over-head dropping defensive depth charges for twelve hours. They claimed to have hit the destroyer that they identified as HMS ‘Mecki’ – perhaps Mackay – though British records do not confirm this. However, the 1,625-ton tank landing ship LST364 of convoy TAM87 was hit by a torpedo and sunk, the attack attributed to an unidentified Seehund. The 220-strong British crew, of whom twenty-four were burnt and wounded by the detonation, were taken off by the trawler HMT Turquoise. Seehunds were the only active German submarines in that area, though the identity of the successful attacker remains unknown to this day. The last of the group, L.z.S. Hermann and Omasch. Holst’s U-5365 ran aground while returning without encountering the enemy. Stranding in shallow water near the German artillery batteries on Katwijk, Hermann paddled ashore in a small rubber dinghy to report their predicament while Holst remained with the boat. Shortly thereafter a Dutch lifeboat from Ijmuiden arrived with a salvage command on board, the Seehund towed into Scheveningen shortly afterward.

The last sailing of February, L.z.S. Klaus Sparbrodt and Maschinenmaat Günter Jahnke’s U-5330, which had put to sea on 23 February, was more definite in its result. This, the eleventh Seehund operation, was again targeting the Dumpton area, though it suffered its share of problems en route. They had barely reached Scheveningen when the diesel engine failed, forcing a premature return to Ijmuiden on electric motor. The problem was swiftly identified as a blocked oil pipe and soon rectified, the boat putting out once more for action. Attacked by Beaufighter ‘J’ of 254 Squadron as they cruised with battened hatch due to the choppy water, Sparbrodt crash-dived his boat and continued from the scene submerged while the hunter circled the area searching in vain for the Seehund.

By 22.00hrs we were nearing our patrol area. An hour later we were approaching a light-buoy, which told us that we had found the Dover route. Suddenly an unmistakable sound met our ears; the ignition of the engines of two motor gun boats lying in wait between the convoy route and the Goodwins. We dived immediately and lay there at 58 metres until 04.00hrs on 24 February. From then on we surfaced every hour to see how the situation was, but every time when we were at the top we heard the noise of the MGBs and we shot like a stone back into the ‘cellar’. At 07.00hrs the end came and we heard the gunboats heading away, surfacing in time to see them travelling at high speed for Ramsgate.

The sea was mirror-like – sea state 0. We headed at half speed towards Dumpton Buoy that lay in the middle of our operations area … We hoped that here we could find a convoy and fire our torpedoes at some worthwhile targets … A slight haze hung low over the water and we patrolled up and down at low speed. A little after 10.00hrs in a thickened mist I saw what looked like a vessel lying stopped, and we were slowly getting closer to her. At 10.20hrs we dived and began our attack.

I could now see that the ship was a warship, the forepart clearly visible but the rest lost in mist. I saw a long and high forecastle, a menacing cannon, large bridge, mast and funnel that showed it was at least a corvette and worthy of an Eel.

At 10.27hrs, the LI reported port torpedo clear for firing. I studied the target through the periscope. Its bow was facing left, at about 80° from us, and I observed no change as a minute passed. This indicated that it and the Seehund were both set in the same direction by the gentle current.

Estimating the range at 600 metres, after that minute I ordered ‘port torpedo – fire!’ and Jahnke pulled the lever. We heard from the boat’s hull a scream and roar as the Eel sped on its way. I started the stopwatch and put the rudder hard to starboard. I wanted to make a full circle and return to the same attacking position. 50, 60, 70 seconds went by and we heard nothing. The torpedo must have missed, but I was determined to get off a second shot.

Then at last, after 80 seconds following the shot, we heard a sharp crack through the water, but nothing more. This meant that the range had been 850 metres. I saw a column of water and smoke from the explosion rising midway between the bridge and funnel. I shouted, ‘blow tanks’ and within seconds we were on the surface and I called Jahnke to the tower. We saw the last of the ship as her bow lifted high and she quickly slid stern first into the sea.

The two men quickly submerged, celebrating their attack with a meal of chicken and rice followed by some strawberries before ten depth charges from a tardy retaliation reminded them of their precarious situation. They lay on the seabed as the hunt faded away and headed from the scene. Later that night, according to several accounts, they fired their last torpedo at a sighted ship but apparently missed, heading back to Ijmuiden and a victorious welcome. After confirming the details of their attack with Brandi the two Seehund men were informed that they had sunk the 1,505-ton Free French destroyer La Combattante, corroborated by intercepted British radio transmissions. The ‘Hunt’ class destroyer had begun life as HMS Haldon, but had transferred to the Free French Navy in 1942. She had patrolled the English Channel from March 1943 onwards and joined the Normandy landing on 6 June 1944, later conveying General Charles de Gaulle for his first journey to liberated France on 14 June 1944. She took sixty-two men, including two British, down with her. Curiously a torpedo also hit the British Post Office cable-layer steamship Alert east of Ramsgate during the night of 24 February. The 941-ton ship sank so rapidly that it was unable to send a signal reporting its loss, and this has been attributed to U-5330 as well. Could this have been the target that Sparbrodt believed he had missed?

There remain several sinkings often attributed to either mines or Seehund attacks that to this day remain unconfirmed as to what caused their sinking or indeed their exact identity. As well as the mysterious HMS Mackay, LST364 and the cable layer Alert, a Seehund whose number remains unknown reported sinking a ship named ss Rampant from convoy TAC near buoy NF8 off Ostend in the early hours of 26 February according to the eminent historian Jürgen Rohwer. However, despite the other ships apparently rescuing forty-six crewmen, Lloyd’s Register carries no such ship name. Additionally, on 26 February the 4,571-ton British steam tanker ss Auretta was in convoy TAM91 with twelve other merchants and five escorts en route to Antwerp in heavy seas when she was either torpedoed or hit a mine. Likewise the American steamer ss Nashaba was also lost from this convoy to either a mine or torpedo hit, one crewman and the pilot going with her to the seabed.

Harald Sander was engineer aboard one of the Seehunds that was active during February:

Some were actually inside the mouth of the Thames. So the two of us had to go down there. Well, I will never forget those two days and the conditions we experienced. We had a wind speed of 10 or 11 and the swell was correspondingly large … So anyway, we got there all right. The only thing was that then misfortune struck. The diesel air valve stopped working and every time we came up out of the water a wave washed into the boat. Our stern was getting lower and lower in the water and it was almost as though the rear of the boat couldn’t get to the air at all but stayed submerged. At the time I asked my commander, ‘How deep is it here?’ ‘Oh’, he said, ‘we are already quite far down. We are just about in that deep valley that runs from the North Sea through the channel in the direction of Biscay’. And he said, ‘It must be a good fifty metres’. I said, ‘Let it go down’.

At thirty metres the situation normally became quite serious with our boats, but we let it go down and we waited till we got to the sand and then we said, ‘So, now we are down’. One has to consider that we had an atmospheric pressure per square centimetre of five and the thickness of the outer metal around the boat only had a strength of five millimetres. The boat ribs were placed thirty centimetres apart, so it was practically like fishbones … and the body of the boat only had minimal strength.

But it didn’t crack. There was no noise from the boat. The only thing was that water came from astern into the front and we were both sitting in water. Well, the commander was seated a bit higher and I was a bit lower behind him, but we were both sitting in water. First we took a deep breath and then we said, ‘Okay, what shall we do now?’ and then we tried to surface the traditional way. The diesel engine cannot be started under water because it needs air, so we tried it with the electric motor. We put the hydroplane up at the front and then we started the electric motor and revved it up until the boat was high enough to have the nose poking out of the water, so that air came in and I could start the diesel engine. The diesel engine was then used to pump out the diving cells. We were so heavy that there wasn’t much water in the diving cells anyway. I hadn’t flooded them. The boat itself was heavy enough. A ship only floats if it has enough displacement to allow it to remain above the surface. Well, all right, this didn’t work because we were too heavy. We couldn’t pump either because our bilge pump only managed at a depth of 25 metres. It had 2½ times atmospheric pressure and this could be managed with the hand bilge pump. This was possible, although at a depth of 50 metres … We were both still fit and didn’t want to abandon ship. Getting out was not that easy at a depth of 50 metres and it could have been dangerous. So we kept trying.

We had two compressed air tanks in the boat in case of emergency and I released compressed air into the first diving cell in the bow and in this way the boat rose at the front a little. Then I started the electric motor and the boat actually rose up with this pocket of air in the bow. If you can imagine that practically half of the boat was still submerged, then we began pumping. We were pleased that we were at least up on the surface. Then came the question, ‘Are there ships up there?’ Underwater you can hear a long way. You can hear the noise made by every screw. There was nothing. We had waited so long for night time, until it was dark. They didn’t discover us and we began pumping eagerly in order to make the boat lighter so that we could continue on. We knew that the valve was broken. We were of course swaying close to the surface. The air quality inside wasn’t very good which made us both very anxious and we exchanged comments, such as, ‘Come on, do it, keep pumping’, and so on. At some point afterwards, I don’t know when, suddenly the commander said to me, ‘Harry, I can’t go on, I don’t know what’s happening, I’m getting out’, and such things. He was panicking and thinking he wouldn’t make it, but we had to, because if we didn’t keep pumping we would have sunk again and been down on the bottom at 50 metres. For me it was … anyway, I don’t know how I managed it. I yelled at him. I really told him what I thought. I said, ‘If you don’t, I will smack you between the eyes!’. He had to be brought out of his shock. So this was how it was. These days I get asked, ‘How could you have done anything in that small boat?’ The narrowness had an effect in that moment when neither of us were sane.

We managed our work all right but at any moment it could have all gone wrong. The English could have run us over if a boat had been there and if they had discovered us they could have chased us down to the bottom and so on. So I really had to pull myself together. The fact that I managed this is a great thing. I still say today, God had a big hand in it my whole time with the navy. In any case, to cut it short, we managed and we returned home, at least to Ijmuiden. We went on a bit and then we both pumped again and then we went on until we came to the locks. Then we told the lock keeper to adjust the crane after we were through and pick us up with the crane straight away so that we didn’t fall again because the boat was only just floating. That was the best it could do. They weren’t very pleased when we returned, but the main thing was that we were there. Both torpedoes were still attached, so they hadn’t been wasted. It was all valuable material. But, yes, the boat was wrecked.

Seehunds in the Thames Estuary II

During February there had been thirty-three Seehund missions, four of the Seehunds being lost in action. Despite these losses and the destruction of several machines that had been run aground, for the first time the month ended on an optimistic note for the Seehund crews as victories appeared to be on the increase.

Linsen operations had been delayed by bad weather in the latter half of February though three units departed Hellevoetsluis on the night of 21 February in search of targets within the Scheldt. Two of the units turned back with engine problems, while the third searched in vain, forced to scuttle one boat due to lack of fuel. Molchs too had begun operations in the Scheldt that same night. Ten were towed to the Scheldt and four others setting out from Hellevoetsluis under their own battery power. This operation marked the beginning of an almost suicidal undertaking – Totaleinsatz, or, ‘total commitment’. K-Verbände planners only envisioned the possibility of a maximum of four boats returning. Nevertheless, at least two-thirds of the Molch crews volunteered on 22 February for what they were told was probably a one-way mission. As it transpired, eight Molchs returned, but claiming no results. B-Dienst listening service indicated that Allied forces off West Kapelle sank three and captured two men. Three further Molchs were destroyed at their depot at Assen and another three damaged by air attack on 21 February.

The general situation for the German armed forces was dire in the extreme as March dawned on an increasingly beleaguered Wehrmacht. In conference with Hitler on 26 February Dönitz had suggested that Seehund attacks be concentrated against the Thames area as aerial reconnaissance had shown large shipping concentrations there. The latest Seehunds possessed an increased combat radius due to the addition of external saddle tanks as standard fittings and he expected better results than achieved previously. He also stressed the necessity of maintaining Dutch ground for the K-Verbände if it was to be able to operate effectively. Indeed the SKL later pointed out that the maintenance of Dutch roads and railways was vital to K-Verbände operations, since it was only from the Netherlands that Seehunds could reach the Thames under their own power, let alone the Biber, Molch and Linsen operations. Requests to transfer some Seehunds to the Mediterranean were declined by Dönitz, at least until a strength of eighty machines was reached in Ijmuiden. Dönitz countered this proposal with an idea to ship a Marder unit to Rhodes, though the Luftwaffe representative at Führer headquarters, Oberst-Leutnant von Greiff, replied that an undertaking of that nature would only be justifiable if of extreme strategic significance due to the fuel requirements and the necessary reallocation of Ju290 transport aircraft. The idea was immediately abandoned and the K-Verbände fought on as before. The sole addition to their arsenal was a so-called ‘Marder simulator’ which comprised a Plexiglas Marder hood from which was suspended an explosive charge that would be exploded by ramming. It is unknown if they were ever deployed, but a shipment of them bound for the frontline was definitely destroyed in an air attack on Rosenheim on 6 March.

Adverse weather forced a suspension of K-Verbände operations until 6 March when Seehunds and Bibers were once more cleared for action. For the Bibers it was also another day marked by disaster as they gathered ready to put to sea. In the crowded harbour basin at Hellevoetsluis, ten minutes before the Bibers were due to commence departure, a pilot accidentally released his torpedoes sinking fourteen Bibers in the resultant explosion and damaging another nine. Only eleven Bibers were left in a seaworthy state following this fresh accident, but they all sailed for the Scheldt that evening. None of them returned. One was captured by a British motor launch off Breskens on 7 March, another sunk by coastal artillery fire off Westkappelle the following day, four found abandoned ashore on the coastline at North Beveland, Knocke, Domberg and Zeebrugge. The remaining five vanished without trace. Undeterred, the assault against Scheldt shipping continued with six Linsens leaving Hellevoetsluis on the night of 10 March to attack the Veere anchorage on the northern Walcheren coast. Sighted by shore batteries they were driven away by heavy fire, leaving two boats grounded behind them.

The following night a combined massed operation was launched by using fifteen Bibers armed with torpedoes and mines, fourteen Molchs and twenty-seven Linsens, all targeting shipping in the West Scheldt. The results were predictably disastrous; thirteen Bibers, nine Molchs and sixteen Linsens lost for no result. Of the Biber casualties, the RAF’s 119 Squadron off Schouwen sank two on 11 March.

During the afternoon F/LT Campbell took up the Anson on an air test cum /ASR flight (searching for an aircraft lost on 9 March) … Having a keen eye, he spotted something suspicious in the sea 10 miles east of Schouwen and on flying down to investigate identified the conning tower of a Biber. No R/T, no W/T, but remembering his early training, he switched his I.F.F. to Stud 3 trusting it would be picked up and understood but it wasn’t. As the Anson was unarmed there was no possibility of attacking the midget, but a spot of ‘beating up’ was attempted without, however, shaking the Jerry sufficiently to make him do anything silly. After several attacks it was eventually given up as a bad job, and the aircraft was just making for home when lo and behold! Another little Biber made its appearance about a mile away. Campbell tried out the same tactics, and this time success greeted his efforts for the ‘U-Boat Commander’ (as the subsequent newspaper story dubbed him) evidently didn’t like the feel of an aircraft roaring over him at twenty feet, and on the third dive pilot and observer glimpsed one large rump disappearing over the side of the U-boat. On the final return a figure was seen trying to struggle into a dinghy, the midget turning turtle and slowly disappearing beneath the waves. ‘Killer’ Campbell returned to make his report and Swordfish ‘H’ … immediately took off followed in a few minutes by ‘R’… to search for the U-boat that was still at large.

At 18.25hrs at position 51°48’N 03°31’E, Flying Officers Corbie and O’Donnell aboard Swordfish ‘F’ sighted the Biber’s cupola as it surfaced, and attacked with four depth-charge runs. The last exploded almost directly beneath the Biber which was enveloped in spray and disappearing, leaving just a thick oil slick on the disturbed surface of the sea. The second Swordfish then arrived and dropped four more depth charges on the oil streak to ensure the Biber’s destruction.

The following day Swordfish ‘E’ of 119 Squadron encountered Linsens for the first time, sighting three and diving to release depth charges and strafe the Linsens below, disabling one which was seen to be ‘lower in the water after the shoot up’ and later still found floating abandoned on the swell. Further Swordfish encountered more Linsens, attacking and then calling for support from two Tempest fighter-bombers of 33 Squadron who destroyed the sighted Linsens with strafing, a single survivor seen floating in the wreckage.

The run of success enjoyed by 119 Squadron continued that day as two more Swordfish encountered Bibers, both subjected to depth charge and machine gun attacks rewarded by both Bibers sinking and in once case a small yellow life raft observed amongst the oil slicks, the other leaving only wreckage and oil behind. The jubilation felt by the Swordfish crews was reflected in their Squadron Log Book: ‘Four Bibers in two days! Whizzo!’ Two days later Swordfish ‘D’, engaged on a similar anti-Biber patrol, arrived on the scene of a single Linsen being circled by a Warwick and Beaufighter. Soon a Walrus flying boat of 276 Squadron arrived and landed beside the solitary German to pluck him from his disabled boat.

Four more Bibers were sunk by MGBs off Westkappelle, another four by shore batteries at Vlissingen and Breskens on 12 March. That same day a Spitfire attacked and sank a Biber off Walcheren and the following day HMS Retalick engaged another.

At 02.17hrs a midget submarine, Type Biber, was observed inclination 90 right dead ahead. Speed was increased to maximum and Pom-Pom opened fire. The submarine passed close down the starboard side and five charges, set for 50 feet, were fired. The submarine by then was very low in the water, and passed within ten feet of the starboard side at 02.27hrs. A five charge pattern, set for 50 feet, was fired. The charge from the starboard thrower was observed by myself to fall over the submarine. There was a particularly violent explosion and all trace disappeared. There was no doubt that the submarine had been hit repeatedly and was probably sinking before the last pattern was fired.

Gunners aboard HMS Retalick swore that they had also seen another Biber nearby during the attack, so the ensuing search for a survivor was brief and unsuccessful.

The massacre of the Bibers, Linsens and Molchs would continue throughout March. Linsens had also been deployed against the Thames estuary for the first time on the night of 11 March, carried into action aboard the converted S-boats. Launched in the South Falls area at midnight against a TAM convoy that had been sighted at a distance of 18 miles, the attack was unsuccessful. The sole German reference to it was that three control Linsens, carrying the pilots of their expended explosive boats, grounded the following morning near the Goeree lighthouse, where they were destroyed and the men killed in an Allied air attack. Linsens were also sortied on the nights of 22 March and 26 March without any success.

During the night of 23 March, sixteen Bibers armed with mines and torpedoes left Hellevoetsluis for the Scheldt estuary once more. This time there were more survivors as seven managed to return though with no successes. Of the remainder one was found abandoned on Schouwen and another sunk by Beaufighters of 254 Squadron off Goeree. Beaufighters ‘R’ and ‘G’ of 254 Squadron engaged on anti-Seehund patrols sighted the Biber at 09.40hrs on 25 March, circling the surfaced craft that appeared to be stationary and listing slightly with the operator standing atop the hull next to the conning tower. Consideration was given to capturing the Biber and the two Beaufighters circled while awaiting notification of whether a motor launch was close enough to assist. Two hours after first contact the aircraft were instructed to sink the boat and attacked immediately.

‘R’ made two attacks and ‘G’ four attacks, one-man crew seen to jump overboard and enter dinghy. He was last seen paddling away with both feet making his way to the distant Dutch coast.

HMS Retalick took a heavy toll on the Bibers deployed. The after action report submitted on 24 March recounts the ship’s actions against the attacking midget submarines as the battle soon developed into chaos.

At 19.41 when in position 293° Westkapelle 9.75 miles, Course 030°, Speed 14 knots, a small radar echo was detected at 030° 2 miles … At 19.48 Asdic contact was obtained, two echoes being recorded on trace … before a five charge pattern set at 100 feet was fired …

Course was maintained at reduced speed … and a second attack made … At 20.02 a third and deliberate attack was made.

The area was illuminated and at 20.15 shouting and whistle blowing was heard and two men were clearly seen in the water. All the bridge personnel saw these two men, one of whom (subsequently recovered) was very active, the other bleeding from the mouth was much quieter. Their pale grey clothes and red or orange life-belts were unmistakable. An attempt to recover them was made when it was realised that this might invite disaster, and a calcium flare was dropped, FH3, MTB493 being instructed to recover the survivors. He could only find one however, and after some time had elapsed at 21.14 Fähnrich Heinz Lehne was placed on board.

The prisoner was most emphatic that his was a one-man craft, nevertheless there were two men in the water. The plot shows some discrepancies as to the position and it may be that two midgets were close together, one attack being delivered on one and one attack on the other and both destroyed.

At 21.24 … a small radar echo was detected …

HMS Retalick engaged the third Biber with depth charges and cannon fire when an object was blown to the surface. Gunners reported the propeller of the midget submarine thrashing in the air as the Biber went down in a spume of churned water, Retalick herself violently shaken by an underwater explosion that was probably the midget’s torpedoes. The third ‘kill’ rendered no trace and at 02.37hrs another radar echo was established. Racing to intercept the Biber was seen on the surface as snowflake was fired above it. Cannon fire peppered the Biber as it passed to starboard, hammered as well by a full depth-charge pattern. Two large oil patches were all that marked its obliteration.

Aboard Retalick there was understandable jubilation at the destruction of four Bibers. Lehne was brought aboard soon afterward for interrogation and to have his effects examined. Amongst the usual equipment found on him were:

Leave tickets, photograph folder, photographs (personal), newspaper obituary and cuttings.

His initial interrogation revealed to the British that he:

… had served in submarines for six months. Was hit by the first pattern, and escaped after his submarine was holed, using escape apparatus: was the member of a mobile unit, and was out with several others proceeding independently.

Most insistent that he was the only man in the submarine. He was no Nazi, but a German citizen and his duty was to his country. No one in his service had yet returned from an operation. It was a suicide job, he did not expect to return. He was partial to the English, but opposed the Russians.

HMS Retalick had destroyed four of the six Bibers, the remainder disappearing without trace. Of the fifty-six Bibers and Molchs which sortied in March 1945, forty-two had been lost for no result.

The SKL were appalled by the results of these brave though doomed missions. They appealed for greater assistance from the Luftwaffe who were asked to bomb the docks and locks at Antwerp to delay Allied stores from being unloaded. The K-Verbände were obviously not having the desired affect on Allied supply lines with which the German Army struggled against on land. The German Naval Staff complained to OKW that counter-measures against the various midget services had been intensified, including the use of ‘old biplane aircraft’ which by virtue of their slow speed were capable of a more thorough search for targets below.

Fortunately for the men of the 1st and 2nd Seehund Flotilla, their two-man submarines fared better during the month of March. German records remain incomplete for this period, so the events can only be gradually pieced together. During March thirty-one Seehunds sailed, though two that put to sea on 13 March stranded outbound; one near Katwijk and the other near the Hook of Holland. Both crews were rescued, but their boats are not in the list that follows. The attackers mounted two distinct waves focussing on different regions, the first spanning from 6 to 19 March, the second 24 to 26 March.

6March – five boats sailed for Margate Roads and the Elbow Buoy, four boats for Great Yarmouth area.

9March – three boats sailed for Margate, one for Great Yarmouth.

11March – two boats sailed, one for each of the above stations.

16March – again one boat for each station.

19March – two boats sailed for Great Yarmouth.

24March – three boats sailed for the Thames-Scheldt convoy route, two for the British east coast north of the Thames.

25March – one boat sailed for each of the above areas.

26March – two boats sailed for the convoy route, one for the Thames.

Again Harald Sander was aboard one of the Seehunds that were active off the English coast. After his experiences during February, when his Seehund was wrecked, he had been allowed time to return to Germany before putting to sea once again.

Admiral Heye … said, ‘Harald, go home to Berlin for eight days and then from there go back to Wilhelmshaven and get yourself a new boat’. Then I told him that I didn’t really get on with my companion. ‘Okay, find yourself a new commander. We still have some in training’ … It wasn’t easy coming to Berlin because the ‘chain dogs’ were in operation … Mr Himmler and Adolf had formed these troops that were a sort of military police force and they wore chains. Everyone running around in Berlin and elsewhere was gathered together by them as troops for the Berlin defence. This was already the end of February and the Russian troops were advancing on Berlin. I had a special pass of course, so that they couldn’t recruit me. I had papers from Heye stating that I was in the ‘K group’ so they couldn’t send me off towards Russia.

Then the scheme started again from the beginning. Pick up a boat in Wilhelmshaven, then run it in, then we travelled from there by train. The whole ten boats in the flotilla were loaded onto a train. We had the infantry there as guards and we travelled by night. By day we halted at the border in a siding under guard and then we continued on, arriving in Ijmuiden after the second night. And then we ran the boats in again. Down there at the Scheldt it was different now. The invasion was more advanced. Then I was given the job of going to Great Yarmouth with my comrade. If a line is drawn directly from east to west from Ijmuiden you come to the corner of England where the port and the city of Great Yarmouth are situated … In two days we chugged across, lying low by day and continuing by night, because the boat couldn’t move fast … Then in Great Yarmouth we went to ground and the next day from a long way off we heard the sound of two ships and then we surfaced. There was a destroyer and a big commercial ship. At the time we estimated about ten or twelve thousand tonnes. It was behind the destroyer. Okay, it was a target and we wanted to try it out. We dived again until the destroyer had passed overhead and then we went down to sea bed level and my commander tried it out. I had to pull both the levers which were behind my chief engineer’s seat in order to free the torpedoes – first one lever and then the other. There was no explosion.

Well after firing we dived straight away and stayed on the bottom and then we had to be quiet. We couldn’t make a sound, no sound of metal, otherwise the English would start to attack immediately. Then came the sonar ‘Asdic’, as it is called… it sounded as though a handful of gravel was being thrown against the outside of the boat. There is this ticking noise, which comes at intervals. Then it was quiet for a while and then we heard the destroyer returning. The other boat, the freighter, of course, had kept moving and then the destroyer came looking for us.

That took a couple of hours. Either they changed position, or we changed position and when they changed position we moved as well, because it was sound against sound. And then when they were quiet and stopped moving they were looking for us, so we remained still. The whole thing went like that and they dropped about thirty depth charges on us. We weren’t hit directly, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, but they kept trying by dropping depth charges in our general position. They kept this up for a while and then afterwards we were so far away and we were really quite a small target. The boat is not quite one metre wide and with a length of twelve or thirteen metres it is not a big target to pinpoint. So we were in luck again and then we went home by night. We landed in Ijmuiden again and that was towards the end. It was already late March or early April of 1945. At that time the Canadians and the English were steadily advancing towards us.

Of the nine boats that sailed on 6 March, Oblt.z.S. Ross, L.z.S. Gaffron, L.z.S. Gohler, L.z.S. Drexel and L.z.S. Markworth were all forced to return with technical faults. One other was sunk by MTB675 26 miles east of Ramsgate on 7 March.

Over the remainder of the month several more Seehunds were lost. The confusion of reported attacks and sinkings from Allied sources and a lack of German records that detail losses, returning boats and sailing dates mean that only estimates can be made of the scale of sinkings experienced by the Seehund units. It is thought that at least fifteen boats were lost, possibly more.

As well as the confirmed sinking made by MTB675, there are several other definite German losses. One Seehund was lost to a Beaufighter attack on 10 March near Goeree, another sunk the following day and L.z.S. Newbauer taken prisoner. Two Seehunds were sunk by HMS Torrington; the first, U-5377, near Dumpton Buoy on the edge of Goodwin Sands on 11 March, the second, U-5339, 20 miles north of Dunkirk three days later. The hunt for this second Seehund caused considerable damage to Torrington herself, the engine and boiler rooms suffering from the concussion of depth charges set for 50 feet and exploding in shallow water. During the bombardment the wire rope lanyard that operated the starboard depth charge thrower parted following the first salvo. Its operator, Able Seaman Charles Horton, picked up a duffel coat and wrapped it around his head as he continued to fire the thrower by hand, burning his face and hands until the Seehund was destroyed.107 Leutnant zur See Siegert and Maschinenmaat Heilhues of U-5377 were both taken prisoner, picked up by MTB621 and later transferred aboard Torrington. Five minesweepers reported sighting and attacking a Seehund on 13 March northeast of Felixstowe. HMML466 attacked and sank a Seehund on 12 March in drifting fog, capturing the coxswain L.z.S. John but killing MascMt Teichmüller with machine gun fire. L.z.S. Hermann Bohme and his coxswain were also listed as killed by fighter-bomber attack on 12 March west of Schouwen. On 21 March enemy aircraft attacked L.z.S. Gohler and Omasch. Kassier as their boat sortied from Ijmuiden after the rectification of their technical problems – the boat was sunk and both men lost. Another Seehund of the first wave of attackers was sunk by MTB394 23 miles south-east of Great Yarmouth on 22 March, both crewmen rescued.

The second wave that had slipped from Ijmuiden between 24 and 26 March fared little better, losing one Seehund to Beaufighter attack at 14.40hrs on 25 March 20 miles north-west of the Hook of Holland, though misidentified by the attacking crew.

Aircraft ‘Q’; F/O B.V. Ekbery, F/S Thomas on Anti-Seehund patrol. 14.40: 52°12’N, 03°45’E. Sighted wake dead ahead and identified as conning tower of a midget U-boat, believed to be a Biber. Aircraft attacked with cannon as U-boat was crash diving. Hits were probable but target was hidden by splashes. About three minutes after attack a patch of thin oil was seen, about 15ft in diameter in approximate target position.

Another Seehund was lost to HMS Puffin off Lowestoft in the early morning of 26 March. The ship rammed a Seehund, the subsequent impact causing a torpedo to detonate, obliterating the Seehund and buckling the British ship’s bows, HMS Puffin limped into Harwich where the damage to the ship was judged so severe that she was not repaired. In Jürgen Rohwer’s book on U-boat successes he states that: ‘HMS Puffin was obviously rammed by a surfacing midget, which had already been abandoned.’

The same day that Puffin made her attack, the Royal Navy motor launch ME1471 sank a Seehund, and perhaps the final German victim for March fell to ML586 the following day west of Walcheren.

Their attempts were not without success though. On 10 March L.z.S. Lanz and Lt(Ing.) Gerhard Müller’s U-5364 recorded a successful torpedoing of a destroyer, though Allied records hold no mention of this. However, on 13 March the 2,878-ton Canadian steamer ss Taber Park taking coal from the Tyne to London was torpedoed by L.z.S. Maximilian Huber and Lt(Ing.) Siegfried Eckloff. The ship was travelling out of convoy and sank rapidly, killing four DEMS gunners and twenty-four crew out of a total of thirty-two people aboard. Two of the Seehunds operating within the Thames area claimed two ships sunk, Fröhnert and Beltrami claiming a steamer hit before they were subjected to a devastating depth charge bombardment that they narrowly managed to sneak away from and return bruised but intact to Ijmuiden. Kruger and Schmidt’s U-5064 also claimed a large steamer, estimated at 3,500 tons sunk in the Thames Estuary. Neither claim has been firmly corroborated by Allied sources.

On 21 March Hauschel and Hesel’s U-5366 torpedoed and sank the American Liberty ship ss Charles D. Mclver southeast of Lowestoft. Enroute to Southend from Antwerp and then planned to head onward to New York, the Liberty ship was at first thought by Allied sources to have been mined, though the attack coincides with that reported by the crew of U-5366. On 22 March ML466 was sunk by what has been suggested was a Seehund torpedo, though no surviving crew claimed the attack. More definite was the torpedoing by Küllmer and Raschke of the British steamer ss Newlands within the Thames Estuary. Newlands was hit with a shot fired from 320m, the Seehund escaping to return to Ijmuiden. The last sinking attributed to a Seehund for March was the successful torpedoing of the British coastal freighter ss Jim travelling from Goole to Dieppe.

The pressure on the Seehund crews was increasing during March as Germany tottered towards annihilation between the Russian and Western Allied forces. In Ijmuiden the USAAF returned to attack the concrete pens twice more; nine B-17s using ‘Disney’ rockets on 14 March, three more returning with the same payload a week later. March had yielded some more hopeful results for the midget service though, with Seehund attacks taking their toll despite a total of fourteen men definitely killed on operations and at least the same number captured.

Seehunds in the Thames Estuary III

As well as attacks against the enemy’s merchant shipping, the question of allocating Seehunds to the resupply of German defenders at Dunkirk – ‘Operation Kameraden’ – had been raised once more. This time Donitz agreed and the opening supply run departed Ijmuiden on 27 March, Frohnert and Beltrami the first of three crews assigned. The Seehund’s weaponry had been removed and replaced with two empty canisters of the same dimensions as a torpedo. These so-called ‘butter-torpedoes’ were loaded with the intended cargo, which comprised urgently-required foodstuffs such as a fat ration for each of the defenders as well as weaponry such as anti-tank mines and anti-tank artillery ammunition. Beltrami later recalled their voyage:

On 27 March we three supply Seehunds left Ijmuiden. We successfully travelled about two or three miles and made the obligatory trim test dive in salt water. But as soon as my tower hatch went under water I got a cold shower down the neck. We put the boat on the seabed to determine where the water was coming in and discovered two more places around the hatch that it was leaking from. I assumed that this was caused by damage that we had taken on an earlier mission when we were heavily depth charged by the enemy. The difficult mission that we had lined up ahead could not be accomplished with a boat unfit to dive. We decided that we had to return. When in the headquarters I reported to F.K. Brandi, complaining about the sloppy work done when repairing our boat.

The Seehund was worked on throughout the night and made ready to sail during the following afternoon. This time the test dive passed without problems and Frohnert and Beltrami were able to begin their mission proper. They headed into the teeth of a severe weather front that forced them underwater for hours as they waited for the storm to subside. Once surfaced they ironically had to creep past enemy shipping traffic – normally a target they longed to see.

We followed the coast and in the grey morning of the seventh day, we saw the silhouette of Ostend. There were many enemy ships in the harbour and we only had ‘butter torpedoes’ … We hugged the coast on to Dunkirk. There we were unable to enter the harbour as a minefield blocked our way forward. So we decided on a plan: I would climb out and signal with a hand torch to notify the posts on shore that we were there. It was still sea state 4! If I should fall overboard then the LI was to head south toward the beach. So I did what I said: clambered out, shut the hatch and held on to the periscope and signalled. The boat dipped a little so I was sometimes up to my waist in the water. In due course a signal came back from the head of the Mole: ‘Head 100 metres to the east, you are in a minefield! We will send a boat to guide you’. Open the hatch and back in the boat, the LI is very pleased. We head east…

Once docked in Dunkirk soldiers took the two crewmen to the hospital where they were given a warm bath while their boat was unloaded. The Fortress Kommandant, Admiral Frisius, made time to personally congratulate them, Heye doing likewise via radio. On 9 April they departed Dunkirk under a glowering sky. Their ‘torpedoes’ had been reloaded, this time with outgoing mail and messages from the trapped soldiers. Following a brief brush with a Mosquito fighter-bomber – bullets hammering the sea where the boat had just dived -and the almost obligatory motor and engine problems the Seehund entered Ijmuiden on 11 April. With the idea proven, the pattern of this successful mission was to be repeated until the end of the war.

By the beginning of April 1945 the Allied isolation of German-held regions within the Netherlands was nearly complete. The problems of supply for the K-Verbände had become critical and consideration was given to withdrawing the Biber and Linsen forces and rebasing them at Emden to defend the Ems waterway. This idea was deemed logisti-cally unworkable and rejected almost as quickly as it had been proposed, though further thought was given to moving Biber, Molch and Linsen units from Borkum to Emden instead. This too was judged impractical on transportation grounds and use of a single Linsen flotilla, which had already operated in support of the Army, was mooted instead.

Admiral Frisius in Dunkirk suggested that the K-Verbände units still in the Netherlands should move instead to Dunkirk from where they could continue operations against the Scheldt traffic. Frisius’s idea was based on the fact that the Seehunds remained the only craft of sufficient range to reach their allocated combat area from German bases, though his proposal was ultimately rejected and the K-Verbände fought on in Holland.

The bad weather that had dogged Fröhnert and Beltrami on their way to Dunkirk remained in place until 5 April after which operations were resumed. The Seehunds immediately began sailing, directed against the Thames-Scheldt convoy routes as well as the supply lines that traversed the British coast east of the Thames and as far as Dungeness. Seehund strength on 8 April in Ijmuiden was recorded as twenty-nine, of which only perhaps half were operational on that day. Reinforcements were scheduled to arrive from Germany; eleven Seehunds heading from Neustadt on 18 April to Wilhelmshaven and ultimately Ijmuiden, shepherded as far as Brunsbüttel by the armed trawler KFK445. The Seehunds had originally been intended to relocate to Heligoland but increasingly heavy air raids had rendered the island virtually unusable. Four other Seehunds arrived in Ijmuiden from Wilhelmshaven on 20 April and three more by the beginning of the following month, bolstered by a further two from Heligoland.

In total thirty-six Seehunds put to sea on war patrols between 5 April and 28 April, the maximum effort achieved on 12 April when sixteen boats were at sea. Of the thirty-eight that sailed, eight returned prematurely with defects, fifteen returned safely, six were recorded as definitely lost by 28 April, three unaccounted for and four were still at sea on that date. Only three of them reported successful attacks.

The first, U-5309, crewed by L.z.S. Benediktus von Pander and Lt(Ing.) Martin Vogl claimed a 1,000-ton tanker hit north-north-west of Dunkirk on 9 April, the day before they returned to Ijmuiden. The American army tanker Y17 had been hit and set ablaze by a torpedo in that approximate position while part of convoy TAC90. The 484-ton ship was one of the small tankers operated by the US Army. They were of a standardised design, similar in size and appearance to the Navy Yard oiler, though designated as ‘Y’ boats. These vessels were built for the Transportation Corps in two classes, a twin-screw version and a single-screw version, Y17 belonging to the latter. Burning fiercely after the magnetic torpedo exploded beneath the hull, Y17 was lost in less than thirty minutes after being hit.

Seehund U-5363 attacked convoy TBC123 off Dungeness late on 9 April, the British Liberty ship ss Samida hit and sunk and the American Liberty ship ss Soloman Juneau damaged a little before midnight. Again, there is confusion over who actually hit the two ships, German B-Dienst listening service crediting the Type VIIC U-245 engaged on Dönitz’s inshore campaign with the attack, though her captain denies that he was responsible. The likelihood is that it was L.z.S. Harro Buttmann and Omasch. Artur Schmidt’s Seehund that inflicted the damage, though the German midget was subsequently lost to an attack by ML102 during the action and both crew killed. Schmidt’s corpse was recovered during August 1945 in fishing nets near Föhr Island, his remains interred in Wyk cemetery. At around the same time that U-5363 was sunk by the British motor launch, Beaufighter ‘W’ of 254 Squadron accounted for another of the Seehunds destroyed during that month.

Markworth and Spallek’s U-5070 obtained a hit on an estimated 4,500-ton ship from convoy UC63B near Dungeness on 11 April, successfully torpedoing British ss Port Wyndham though the 8,480-ton Port Line ship survived the attack. Hit twice off the outer Lade Buoy at Dungeness the ship was holed forward, later being towed stern-first into Southampton where she was given temporary repairs prior to permanent work being completed by her builder. U-5070 had little time to celebrate as an escorting destroyer, HMS Vesper, hammered them for several hours with depth charges before they managed to limp silently away.

L.z.S. Reimer Wilken and Omasch. Heinz Bauditz aboard U-5368 made the third Seehund claim though in hindsight their target appraisal remains optimistic. They recorded two hits, the first against a corvette on 14 April that they fired at from a range of 800m, the second a 5,000-ton ship hit two days later at 18.30hrs from 1,000m. There is no Allied record of the former but on 16 April the 1,150-ton British Post Office cable layer ss Monarch was torpedoed near Orford Ness, this likely to have been Wilken’s target. Nonetheless, it was a successful and aggressively handled patrol, U-5368’s two crew expending their boat’s last reserves of diesel by 18 April, the incapacitated Seehund drifting ashore five days later near Katwijk.

In Ijmuiden there were also two further successes transmitted to Brandi’s men by the B-Dienst. On 18 April two ships from convoy TAM142 were torpedoed half a mile from the South Falls buoy early that morning, the Norwegian freighter MS Karmt and British steamer ss Frilleigh subsequently sinking. However, the attribution to Seehund attack appears to be misplaced as U-245 logged the attack in its own War Diary, making Seehund involvement unlikely.

The returning crews also reported three unsuccessful attacks during their patrols. The most dramatic narrow escape was undoubtedly suffered by Oberfähnrich Korbinian Penzkofer and Obermaschinist Werner Schulz’s U-5305 after an attempted attack on a destroyer in the South Falls area on 10 April. The port torpedo was readied to fire at the British warship, but failed to disengage, dragging the terrified crew through the water toward their enemy. As the Seehund shot underneath the ship the magnetic warhead failed to detonate and after a severe counter-attack from the startled British crew that involved a great deal of machine gun fire at the crazed midget that was apparently attempting to ram a British ‘Hunt’ class destroyer, U-5305 was able to creep away from the scene and return to Holland. U-5071 also recorded near disaster when they were attacked while homebound and still carrying their torpedoes. A splinter penetrated the warhead of one torpedo, though it failed to explode.

Aircraft continued to be a prime predator of the Seehunds, at least 1,000 of them being involved in anti-Seehund patrols, alongside 500 naval vessels. Mosquito ‘H’ of 254 Squadron, Wellington ‘V’ of 524 Squadron and Beaufighter ‘M’ of 236 Squadron combined to destroy a returning Seehund off the Hook of Holland on 12 April. The following day Barracuda ‘L’ of 810 Naval Air Squadron attacked another in the same area.

Friday 13th: New patrols now being flown off the Dutch coast… S/Lt McCarthy made an attack on a midget some 14 miles off the Dutch coast. The attack was successful, two survivors coming to the surface! S/Lt Taylor made an attack on a disappearing contact, but no results were observed. S/Lt Bradbury made an attack on a midget during the last patrol. Nothing came to the surface. But it can be assumed to be a probable.

Unbeknownst to the men of 5. K-Division the bloodbath was over for them as of 28 April. The final four Seehunds to run supplies into Dunkirk, U-5365, U-5074, U-5090 and U-5107, were the last of their kind to be on active patrols. There they would see the end of the war, later destroyed by their own crews before Dunkirk eventually capitulated.

Chaos had overwhelmed the German military in Holland during April. As Dutch harbours and installations were prepared for both defence against ground assault and destruction in the face of possible German withdrawal, Georgian troops that were serving in the Wehrmacht on the island of Texel revolted on 8 April. It was two more weeks before German soldiers managed to subdue the rebellion, the same day that the locks at Ijmuiden were destroyed by demolition. Dutch resistance members reported German morale to the British as ‘low’, though not among ‘younger elements’ which may well have included the K-Verbände. Looting began to increase amidst the breakdown of military order, though Heye’s men remained disciplined and loyal to the very end.

While the Seehunds had helped carry the war back into British home waters, the Bibers and Linsens had continued their desperate onslaught in the Scheldt, sixty Molchs being held in reserve in Amersfoort. In the early afternoon of 9 April, five Bibers armed with a mine and torpedo each had sailed for the Scheldt estuary. Two were forced to return within two days with mechanical defects, one striking a mine and sinking en route, while the remaining three were lost without apparent success, Beaufighter pilots of 236 Squadron and Swordfish of 119 Squadron reported attacking and hitting Bibers within the area.

For the Biber pilots the emphasis moved completely to mine laying and on 11 April two Bibers sailed from Zierikzee to lay their mines before Sandkreek. One accomplished its mission successfully while the other was lost. Swordfish of 119 Squadron probably accounted for the missing Biber, their logbook entry echoing what had become regular reports for Allied airmen as they harvested a grim tally of Biber kills.

April 12: Swordfish ‘F’ … Scrambled to search for Bibers reported approximately 40 miles north of base. At 15.10hrs two were sighted in position 0051°54’N 0003°17’E, one stationary on surface, the other just surfacing about 50 yards away. The first Biber apparently attempted to submerge but the conning tower was still visible when ‘F’ attacked with four depth charges. The stick fell between the two, the first one being blown out of the water and left stationary on the surface. The second was not seen again.

At 06.30hrs on 21 April the penultimate Biber mission in Holland was launched with six leaving to lay mines in the silt of the Scheldt estuary. Only four of them returned.

On 26 April the final recorded Biber mission from Dutch territory took place when four left Poortershaven at 01.30hrs to lay mines again in the Scheldt estuary. One grounded while outbound and was forced to return with damage. American Thunderbolt fighters off the Hook of Holland attacked the remaining trio, two of them sunk in the battle. The sole survivor escaped the prowling aircraft and aborted his mission, returning to base. During April, the twenty-four remaining Bibers that were in the Rotterdam area had all taken part in missions. Of these, nineteen were lost with no sinkings or damage of enemy ships attributed to their missions. The defeat of the Bibers was complete.

The last active component of the K-Verbände in Holland – that of the Linsens – had also comprehensively failed in its missions during April. Weather conditions moderated enough by 11 April to allow a resumption of their operations. Five units put out from Hellevoetsluis to attack shipping off Ostend during that evening. One unit reached the target area and unsuccessfully attacked an Allied patrol vessel. Of the remainder, one unit returned with mechanical problems, two failed to find the target area and another unit was lost in action. The same mission plan was repeated on the night of 12 April by seven units in total. Two of the control boats were also tasked with landing agents ashore in enemy-held territory, but the mission was scrubbed due to an unexpectedly heavy swell.

Five nights later two formations of Linsens set out once more. Two units were to attack enemy shipping in the Scheldt estuary again, while the remainder were destined to head for Dunkirk and continue their operations from there against the Thames-Scheldt convoy route as Frisius had suggested. The former returned with engine trouble while the fate of the latter remains unknown and conjectural.

At 21.30hrs on 20 April the last recorded Linsen operation began with four units slipping from Hellevoetsluis to attack Allied convoy traffic due around buoy NF8 at 02.10hrs and from there to sail onwards to Dunkirk at 04.00hrs. Two units aborted with engine trouble while the others were hammered by Allied naval vessels and aircraft west of Schouwen a little before midnight and obliterated. Once more the MTB control frigate HMS Retalick and its four accompanying MTBs were heavily involved in fighting the K-Verbände. The British report on the action paints a harrowing picture of the demise of the Linsen unit.

An overcast night but owing to the moon behind the clouds, one of reasonable visibility.

Both MTB units (FH3 and FH4 of two MTBs each) were established in position … Aircraft reporting at 22.26 a persistent contact… At 00.16, a small radar echo bearing 355°, 1.8 miles stationary and thought to be a midget submarine. Range closed at high speed and snowflake [illumination flares – author’s note] used. Target (I) seen to be a small motorboat, which was engaged as it started to move. Immediate hits were seen, it burned fiercely and stopped.

In the glare of the burning boat a second (II) was seen … this was pursued but contact was lost at 00.21 … At 00.33 EMB (III) was sighted after radar contact, pursued, engaged and seen to burn at 00.38.

Seen through the smoke from III, IV was seen, pursued, being destroyed at 01.00. A survivor was recovered from the water. FH3 and FH4 were vectored to search for survivors and wreckage. Depth charges were dropped at 00.49.

HMS Retalick recorded the destruction of four Linsens and another probable before the battle ended. The British had suffered no casualties or damage and gathered together the few shocked survivors.

The prisoners recovered were the leader, Oberleutnant zur See [Karl] Feigl and his coxswain [Bootsmaat Robert] Klein, both of whom were dead, having had the major portion of their heads shot off. Both [Matrosenobergefreiter Walter] Kettemann and [Funkgefreiter Günther] Mellethin, who were alive (Kettemann with his arm broken by gunfire) were in separate boats. They kept on enquiring for Schultz another member of the unit, whom one had seen in the water … Feigl had a chart and his orders on him.

The prisoners stated that after the death of their leader … they were thrown into confusion. It would appear that they were not individually briefed. They were of an excellent physical type and ardent members of the Hitler Youth.

With this characterisation in mind there remains one truly bizarre postscript to the K-Verbände operations in Holland. German naval documents reveal that on the night of 27 April at least thirty volunteers from unspecified K-Verbände units were to be heavily armed and flown to Berlin where they would act as a personal bodyguard for their Führer Adolf Hitler. They apparently got as far as assembling at the aerodrome at Rerick and preparing to board three Ju52 transport aircraft before their mission was abandoned – the sole reason for this cancellation appearing to be the expected inability to land men in the besieged German capital.

On 6 May 1945 the Royal Canadian Hastings and Prince Edward Regiments of the 1st Canadian Division took the surrender of German forces in Ijmuiden. Among the battered remnants of many Wehrmacht formations, the K-Verbände men marched into captivity with their commander K.z.S. Albrecht Brandi.

There we, 3,000 comrades of Brandi’s K-Verbände, were taken into custody. Since he, ‘Diamonds-Brandi’, had a huge reputation with our enemies, even more so than with the German public, the Canadian General and his men passed on this reputation to us … After we had cleaned our weapons and had them inspected one last time, we transferred them all complete with ammunition to a detail of trucks. Then in good disciplined order we marched as ‘Marine Division Brandi’ into a camp of tents, equipped with a special food supply. The next Allied order was that no military honour with the Swastika on it could be worn, so we deployed close to the town square. Then Brandi spoke to the assembled troops. ‘Our decorations are bestowed by our highest commanders, and if we are not able to wear them in the form given to us, then we will lay them down!’ Then he took off his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, along with 3,000 comrades that did likewise. We marched silently back into the camp.

Senzar (1470 BC)

The Great Battles of History series ventures back into the mists of time: the Bronze Age, or the Age of the Chariot. From approximately 1700 BC to 1200 BC (which was the abrupt end of the Bronze Age) the chariot reigned supreme on the battlefield. It was the first modern weapons system, and chariots controlled most of warfare until actual cavalry appeared in the middle of the Iron Age.  

But how did chariots work as a tactical weapons system? There is no complete historical agreement on what exactly they did or how they were used, but Chariots of Fire will show you our view of their many applications – and many types of chariotry there were – providing GBoH players with the complete and definitive chariot rules. These rules cover combat and mobility from the first battle wagons of the Sumerians to the two-man, fast-moving light chariots of the Egyptians, often complete with their associated and specialized Runner Infantry, to the heavy 3-man Hittite wheels.

Egypt (XVIIIth Dynasty), under Pharaoh Thutmose III vs. the Mitanni under King Barattarna The Naharin Bend of the Upper Euphrates River, Mesopotamia, ca. 1470 BC

The Annals’ reference to Thutmose having “overthrown” Kadesh is probably to his defeat of Kadesh’s maryanna and not to his having captured the city itself. had Kadesh been taken, it could have been taken only by siege, and there is no mention of one having occurred. If we can trust Amenemhab once more, Thutmose moved north toward Tunip and Qatna almost immediately after the skirmish at Kadesh, thereby making it very unlikely that he took Kadesh under siege. moreover, the capture of Kadesh would have been an enormous victory and would have merited much more extensive narration in the Annals than it received. The tribute lists would also have reflected much greater quantities of booty than they do. The capture of Kadesh would have certainly resulted in the transfer of its “vile prince” to Egypt amid great fanfare, and some record of his execution would almost certainly exist. Nevertheless, Thutmose had still been able to demonstrate that the main perpetrator of Egypt’s troubles in Syria was no longer beyond the Egyptian army’s operational reach.

What followed suggests that intimidation, not conquest, was the purpose of Thutmose’s march into the Syrian interior. having made his point at Kadesh, Thutmose turned north and marched up the Orontes. The Annals tell us that he “came to the land of Senzar.” Senzar is probably the Zinzar of the Amarna texts and is located on the Orontes close to modern Hamah.  The march took him through the territories of the powerful city-states of Qatna and Tunip, and Thutmose put on a dramatic demonstration of Egyptian military might and his willingness to confront the Syrian cities on their own ground. Thutmose was playing a psychological game.

After Thutmose III had taken control of the Syrian cities, the obvious target for his eighth campaign was the state of Mitanni. However, to reach Mitanni, he had to cross the Euphrates river. Therefore, Thutmose III sailed directly to Byblos and then made boats which he took with him over land on what appeared to otherwise be just another tour of Syria. He proceeded with the usual raiding and pillaging as he moved north through the lands he had already taken. However, here he continued north through the territory belonging to the still unconquered cities of Aleppo and Carchemish, and then quickly crossed the Euphrates in his boats, taking the Mitannian king, Barattarna, entirely by surprise. It appears that Mitanni was not expecting an invasion, so they had no army of any kind ready to defend against Thutmose. The Egyptian victory was total, and Thutmose had extended Egypt’s empire to its farthest historical sphere.

Mutiny on the Madagascar

The Blackwall Frigate Madagascar (lithograph, c. 1853)

The most mysterious mutiny of them all – motivated, it must be presumed (in the absence of any real evidence), by a lust for rich pickings – occurred aboard the Madagascar in 1853. The ship was one of a thoroughbred type of sailing vessel known as ‘Blackwall frigates’, from the famous yard on the Thames. These fast cargo and passenger ships serviced the gold fields and bore the growing number of emigrants to Australia, making rapid passages in which the public began to take an interest. Their masters became household names and their passage-times were followed in the newspapers, but they mostly attracted attention when they were lost, homeward-bound, laden with gold and with happy and successful prospectors. One such was the Madagascar.

She was due to leave Port Philip, near Melbourne, in July 1853, under Captain Fortsecue Harris, a competent and popular master who was well regarded by his passengers. Just before the sailed, police officers arrived and apprehended two of the passengers in connection with a recent robbery. A great deal of gold dust was discovered in their baggage but this, the men claimed, was the fruit of their labours at the diggings. More to the point, the protracted delay to the Madagascar’s sailing resulting from the consequent legal proceedings caused Harris a further problem. Harris had fully manned his ship, but the lure of the gold fields led to desertions. Finding himself in a common predicament, Harris sent his officers to recruit any likely hands from among the unemployed men ashore – men who had tried their luck in the gold fields and failed, men who might have thought easier money lay aboard the delayed Madagascar than at Ballarat.

As she lay at anchor awaiting the resolution of her problems, an outward-bound vessel, the Roxburgh Castle, arrived with a lady passenger, her three children and their nurse. Mrs de Cartaret was intending to join her husband, a prominent member of the Melbourne Bar. Sadly, as she read the Melbourne papers which came aboard with the pilot, Mrs de Cartaret learned she had been recently widowed; she immediately asked the Roxburgh Castle’s master to arrange for her to transfer to the next homeward-bound ship – the Madagascar – and this was duly accomplished.

Captain Harris finally sailed towards the end of July. Thereafter he, the Madagascar, her crew, her passengers and her cargo vanished. Weeks later she was posted missing at Lloyd’s, and there the matter rested. More than thirty years later a persistently enduring rumour surfaced: a dying woman in New Zealand who sent for a clergyman had told how she had been a nurse and had taken passage aboard the Madagascar. After the ship passed into the South Atlantic, the woman stated, a savage mutiny took place during which most of the crew and a few of the passengers seized the ship, murdered Harris and all his officers, and confined all but the youngest and most attractive women below. The boats were then lowered, all the gold found aboard the ship was put into them, along with water and provisions, and the Madagascar was set on fire. After a protracted and difficult passage, only one of the boats, bearing five men and six women, reached the Brazilian coast, where it capsized in the breakers and the conspirators lost most if not all the gold. The survivors struggled ashore and were swiftly reduced by yellow fever to two men and herself, who had been Mrs de Cartaret’s children’s nurse. What happened in the intervening years, and how the woman reached New Zealand, was never made clear. That the poor creature had been obliged to live a degraded life was hinted at by a further revelation that one of the survivors was later hanged in San Francisco for murder; beyond that – nothing.

It was not unknown for ships to be overwhelmed and founder in the Southern Ocean, or to run into icebergs and sink, but there was usually corroborative, albeit circumstantial evidence, of other ships having experienced heavy weather or ice in the estimated position of the lost vessel which had been posted missing. It is more likely that the Madagascar was overwhelmed not by the forces of nature but by the malice of man. If so, the rising was comparable with the horrors aboard several slavers, such as the Amistad or the Creole, or convict ships like the Lady Shore, and may not have been mutiny, pure and simple. The horror and indignity of the young woman is only to be guessed at, but the burning of the ship and her passengers is equally dreadful – if that is what took place. The obscurity of the fate of the Madagascar simply emphasizes the isolation of a ship at sea, where the rule of law, howsoever arbitrarily administered, is preferable to the rule of lust and disorder.

The mystery is compounded and the waters muddied by another version of the story which places the death-bed revelation in Brazil in 1883 – a more credible location, given the alleged position of the Madagascar at the time of the mutiny. However, the focus returns to New Zealand with yet another account which states that a Maori reported witnessing the loss of a Blackwall liner on Stewart Island. This version is accepted in New Zealand as the real account of the loss of the Madagascar. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between: the position of the ship has been mixed up, and the old woman did die in New Zealand and had been badly used by some survivors. That undesirable characters were on board Harris’s ship is entirely probable, as is the likelihood of their trying to seize any available gold. While one can speculate on what happened, any of these resolutions seems plausible, and all offer insights into the curious nature of shipboard life, with its necessary hierarchies and its carefully contrived social checks and balances. The end of the Madagascar has a metaphorical quality which stands for all mutinies. In the end, despite any provocations, the greater good is achieved in standing by the ship, since the artificial constructs of order and discipline are not conceived for the aggrandisement of the commander but for the survival of the entire company embarked.

A similar rising occurred the following year when her crew was seduced by the amount of gold in the lazarette of the Sovereign of the Seas. Built in the United States, she had been the largest merchant ship in the world and flew the American flag, but by 1853 she had been chartered by the Black Ball Line of Liverpool for the Australian emigrant trade. It was when she was homeward bound from Melbourne on her first voyage under the British ensign that the mutiny attempt was made. Captain Warner was equal to the occasion, however, and quickly mastered the situation and confined the mutineers to irons, where they were kept during the greater part of the vessel’s remarkable 68-day passage to Liverpool.

Occasionally a political motive might influence a crew, especially in time of hostilities when allegiances were tested. On 29 December 1856, during the Second Opium War, the Chinese crew of the British-registered coastal steamer Thistle mutinied while the vessel was on a passage down the Pearl River from Canton to Hong Kong. Eleven European officers and passengers were decapitated by the Chinese crew, who wore the badge of Imperial Commissioner Yeh, the Emperor’s Viceroy and a man opposed to the British insistence on their right to import opium into the Middle Kingdom.

The gold rushes subsided but a steadier emigrant trade continued, and was taken over by steamships. Steam power, with its augmentation of a ship’s crew by firemen and engineers, and the establishment of regular, scheduled passenger routes, increased the numbers of people aboard a merchant ship. This in turn had implications for the social order on board, and for the job of a master and his officers.

Huáscar in Peruvian service before her foremast was removed in June 1879

In times of dissent, one thing a ship-master could rely upon was the presence of a Royal Naval ship in most waters of the world: if he could contact her, he could demand assistance to quell any crew trouble. As the century progressed and more nations joined the imperial camp it was a duty assumed by most national navies, and provision was made in the emerging internationally agreed codes of flag signals for a ship’s master to summon help if his crew was mutinous. Having offered armed assistance to quell mutiny, even a junior commander of a minor warship was empowered to convene a Naval Court. This, calling on the help of any other independent British master in port, could try and condemn mutineers, though its powers of sentence were limited. Indeed in 1877, when the crew of the Peruvian man-of-war Huascar were caught up in a revolution, took control of their ship and raided trading vessels in the Pacific, HMSs Shah and Amethyst engaged the rebel warship. Although the Huascar escaped, later to be taken by the Chileans, her piratical activities were thereby curtailed.

Frenchmen in German Service WWII Part I

After the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, in addition to those nations allied to Germany, tens of thousands of volunteers from other occupied countries flocked to join the various expeditionary forces in order to participate in what promised to be an epic fight. Although not willing to return to a state of war following its defeat the year before, France, which had seen a large part of its territory invaded, now witnessed the birth of the so-called Légion des volontaires français (LVF) [Legion of French Volunteers]. The organisation was set up with the help of the German ambassador in Paris, with the aim of fighting on what was soon to become the Eastern Front. With the conviction that they were protecting their homeland from the threat of Bolshevism, many of the volunteers came from political parties that had sided with the Germans. Following an agreement with Hitler, units were formed of volunteers from the so-called ‘non-German’ countries, while those from ‘Germanic’ countries joined the Waffen SS.

From 1942 onwards, many wounded or reformed veterans decided to continue the fight and push their physical limits by joining the ranks of these various auxiliary groups, which were also open to younger recruits with no previous front-line experience. Indeed, despite Hitler’s invasion of his enemy’s land [Russia], many areas behind the front-line were still far from being pacified, forcing him to send new units to these areas to carry out such a task. The lengthening lines of communication in the East and Rommel’s African Front meant that Hitler was seriously struggling from a lack of man-power. This was to be filled, in part, by a massive recruitment of foreign labour, which was ready to flock to his banner and serve him in his propaganda war.

The commitments in the East meant a compulsory labour service was officially established in Germany, and the competition between the various paramilitary units to recruit on its behalf was fierce. The LVF was too politicised and had too much ‘French spirit’ for some. It was shunned by many young men, who preferred to admire the troops in their silver runes, which they saw as being more of an elite army facing down this ‘European creation’. In July 1943 they were finally allowed to join the SS, although not everyone was willing to go to the East to defend his ideals. After the defeat at Stalingrad, the decline of the Afrika Korps and the Battle of Kursk, the Wehrmacht was facing retreat on all fronts. There were those who believed that the struggle against anti-communism must now take place on home soil with the help of pro-German organisations.

According to Reichsführer Himmler, these foreign fighters against Bolshevism were more ‘trustworthy’, as they were made up of volunteers with a common ideal and following his numerous requests to Hitler that they be incorporated into his SS, his wishes finally came true in 1944. Amalgamated into a single unit that would fight on foreign soil until the last day of the war, these Frenchmen in German uniforms would follow the oath that they had sworn until its conclusion.

This article is a representation of the main units in which around 15,000 men fought side-by-side with the military forces of the Third Reich. It is not about Alsace-Lorraine, the region attached to Germany, which consequently saw many young Frenchmen forced into the different branches of the German Army and who were to suffer heavy losses on the Eastern Front. Nor is it about the French who fought with Mussolini, or those who were incorporated into Colonel Skorzeny’s Brandenburg German Special Forces unit. The same goes for those working in France as members of the Hilfpolizei (auxiliary police), as interpreters for the Kommandanturs and Feldgendarmerie, the secretaries at the recruitment offices or various German departments (SiPo, SD, etc.) as well as the numerous plain-clothed agents working for the Abwehr [German military intelligence organisation].

The Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF)

The LVF was created in Paris after being approved by Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1941, on the condition that the initiative would follow the collaborationist pro-German political parties, with no commitment to the French government, who instead preferred to keep its distance. These political groups were entrusted with recruiting volunteers for a new regiment in the German Army that was to fight in Russia. At the same time, anti-Communist White Russians arrived en masse from their motherland with the aim of fighting the Bolshevist Red Army.

The Deba camp near Krakow, in occupied Poland, was the chosen location for the training of the officially named Französischer Infanterie-Regiment 638, commanded by the French Colonel, Roger Labonne. The first contingent of 803 men and 25 officers arrived on 8 September 1941 to form the 1st Battalion, but a surprise awaited them; they learnt that they would have to fight whilst wearing a German Army uniform, the same uniform they had been fighting against for the past year and not the French Army uniform that had been promised them when they signed up. France was not at war with Russia and consequently the Hague Convention forbade them from fighting in their national uniform. This clause likewise affected the Spanish, Belgians, Danish and Dutch, who were also involved in the same struggle. A concession was made allowing them to wear a tricolour cloth badge on the right sleeve of their field uniform, thus distinguishing them from other soldiers. A second contingent of nearly 800 volunteers arrived on 20 September to form the 2nd Battalion. On 5 October the recruits were faced with a new challenge; they had to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, as was usual practice for the German Army. After several weeks of training, the 1st and 2nd Battalions set off for the front at the end of October. The legionnaires, divided into fourteen companies under the command of French officers, retained their flag and the use of weapons currently used by the French Army. By late November they were attached to the 7th Division of the 7th Bavarian Infantry Corps, commanded by General von Gablenz, and found themselves in the front-line facing the 32nd Siberian Division, near Djukowo, 70km from Moscow. Despite the exceptional cold and fatigue caused by severe hunger, they fulfilled their mission and were replaced by a German unit in early December. Nevertheless, a reorganisation of the unit was needed as a result of the missing, and dead, soldiers, as well as the incompetence that had been revealed at several levels, including management. A severe purge was carried out at the Kruszyna camp, in the General Government of Poland, and many ‘political’ soldiers took the opportunity to discharge themselves from the army and fight for their homeland once more. The 2nd Battalion was disbanded with all the men being put into the 1st Battalion and training began from scratch. Meanwhile, a third battalion had been in training at Deba since December 1941, and during all the years of its existence, the legion in the East would regularly receive new recruits from France.

In spring 1942 the two battalions of the LVF (1st and 3rd) were assigned to the Army Group Centre in the Steppes, although they were curiously sent to two different locations and therefore operated separately. From now on, the ‘Great Front’ was at an end and now their task was to fight the partisans behind the Reich forces. Meanwhile in France, the government carried out various upheavals to the LVF, including renaming it the Tricolour Regiment, but after initial success, the operation was denied by Hitler and it ended in failure. The volunteers in the East were not affected by these changes and were more preoccupied with the dangers that surrounded them, rather than what was happening at home. They witnessed the arrival of new comrades, including officers, who thanks to their previous military experience, were now put at the service of the Legion.

Since early 1943 the French government had funded an intense propaganda programme using meetings, posters and other publications to recruit new members to make up for the losses incurred. From its creation, some members of the Legion had seen their windows smashed by opponents to the new order, and those on leave often found themselves targets of snipers or attacks. The general public were more concerned with finding food to eat for themselves, rather than worrying about the fate of their sons in the land of Stalin. In October one of the most important figures in the story of the French volunteers, Colonel Edgar Puaud, arrived in Russia. As head of the entire Legion, his aim was to bring together the 1st and 3rd Battalions, who at this point were still fighting separately. He also started to put together a new 2nd Battalion which was to be attached to the other two, straddling the main road between Moscow and Minsk, in Belarus. However, the three battalions were still understaffed.

1944 was a turning point for the LVF, after the French maquis [rural guerilla band of French Resistance fighters] began to intensify their operations and a deal was made to combat the so-called ‘terrorists’ (supporters of General de Gaulle, who had been living in exile in London since 1940, communists, apolitical resistors etc.). In the East, the LVF continued to fight the Soviet partisans behind the 4th German Army, but by late June its fate had been decided; it was to return to France. A few hours before its departure, the Legion was gathered in the village of Bobr, near Berezina, when a counter-order arrived. Operation Bagration, in which 193 Russian divisions had launched an assault on ‘Fortress Europe’ in a gigantic offensive that was to sweep the Wehrmacht, had begun on 23 June. The legionnaires were now trusted with delaying the Soviets’ advance so that the German units who had been dispersed by the violence and speed of the attack would have a chance to regroup. The 1st and 3rd battalions were expected to stay put and hold their positions with just over 400 men. Assisted by an SS-Polizei unit and five Tiger tanks, they took up their position on a strategic bridge to stop the enemy from crossing, but instead of partisans, they now found themselves facing the Red Army. For forty-eight hours, one Russian attack after another was repelled, as the Tigers destroyed their tanks and the legionnaires pushed back the infantry. On the morning of 27 June, the French were relieved by another German unit, which would later be completely wiped out. Between forty and fifty enemy tanks (T34s and American Shermans) were destroyed during the fierce fighting. Soviet radio announced in a statement that units of the 2nd White Russian Front had run into resistance from two French divisions for forty-eight hours. For its part, the LVF, which had suffered around forty fatalities, began its retreat after the collapse of the Army Group Centre, the fate of which was linked to that of the rest of the German Army.

Now removed from the Eastern Front, the survivors from the fighting in Russia were grouped together at the Greifenberg Barracks, the LVF’s main base in Germany. Its depleted numbers were reinforced with new arrivals, volunteers who had served in other German units, loners arriving from Russia and soldiers returning from leave. By this time, large areas of France had been liberated following the Allied landings in Normandy on 6 June. For those soldiers far from home, no news of what had happened to their families was a blow to morale. Late August finally saw the departure for the SS training camp at Konitz, in northern Poland. The higher powers had decided that a new French SS brigade would be created and Himmler now declared that foreign volunteers would be poured into the Waffen SS. The last French unit to have fought on Russian soil was disbanded in order to form a new Waffen SS, who would train with their comrades from the SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade, as well as those who had been integrated into other German units. Unlike the officers, the plain legionnaires did not have a choice in the matter. Some of them refused on ideological or religious grounds, or by stating that they had signed a contract with the LVF, not the SS. These men were sent to concentration camps, where they would find fellow Waffen SS soldiers who had been sent there for indiscipline, dissent etc. Others would follow them there after a purge was carried out intending to keep only the best soldiers for this future SS division. The legionnaires in this division now had the benefit of three years combat experience, although many would fall in battle in Pomerania in early 1945, whilst others would end up in Berlin, defending Hitler in his bunker until the last days of the war. For many however, their last days were to be spent in captivity in the Soviet Union.

The Tricolour Regiment

On his return as head of the French government in the spring of 1942, Pierre Laval instructed his Secretary of State, Jacques Benoist-Méchin, to examine the possibility of taking over the existing LVF, but give it a new role. The idea was to absorb the Legion into a new unit, which would be engaged in theatres of operation where French interests, as well as those of its colonial Empire, were involved. It would be a part of the French Army, under the direction of General Bridoux, the Secretary of State for War.

On 22 June 1942, the first anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the central committee dissolved the LVF and renamed it the Légion tricolore (Tricolour Regiment). As well as a name change, there was also a personnel change in its 173 recruitment offices, and new faces appeared on its central committee. As well as fighting in the East, the Legion would now also fight in North Africa and other areas where the French Empire was threatened. Not only did this legitimisation mean that the Legion now found itself committed to several new engagements, most importantly it meant an influx of new professional soldiers. The unit was open to those serving in Vichy’s Armée d’Armistice and those serving in North Africa and recruits were chosen from men who wanted to fight, but who shared the views of Marshal Pétain, and not the party leaders who advocated collaboration. Prisoners were still not allowed to serve, but the prospectus declared that those born in France, were naturalised foreigners or were natives of North Africa, could join. Nothing was left to chance; there were ceremonies, parades, the creation of a new medal (la Croix de guerre légionnaire), a new emblem and even the taking over of social services to highlight the benefits of volunteering.

Despite the success of the operation, Hitler and the Wehrmacht high commanders refused to recognise the Tricolour Regiment and only accepted the LVF, which they did not want to see removed in favour of a new unit that they mistrusted. They feared that the Tricolour Regiment would lead to a larger French Army than the one agreed on in the Armistice, and one that might someday even turn against them. Benoist-Méchin resigned on 9 October 1942 having been excluded from the Government. The Anglo-Americans landed on the north African coast the following month and a unit christened the African Phalanx was set up by the government, which operated in the same spirit as the Tricolour Regiment. The government issued press releases inviting volunteers to sign up and work in its departmental offices, which would be directed from its assembly centre in Guéret. In the end only a few officers from the Tricolour Regiment participated in this new project after being sent to Tunisia.

Without completely abandoning the goals of the Tricolour Regiment, it was eventually dissolved by the government after a law enacted on 28 December 1942. Its resources were then divided between the recovering LVF and the African Phalanx.

The African Phalanx

Created out of the ashes of the Tricolour Regiment, the Französische Freiwilligen Legion, more commonly known as the Phalange africaine (African Phalanx), was a unit of volunteers sent to fight in Tunisia, which at the time was still a part of the French Empire

It all began on 8 November 1942 when Anglo-American troops landed on the coasts of Morocco and Algeria, in North Africa. Faced with this invasion, those French units loyal to Marshal Pétain fought for three days before signing an armistice on 10 November. The Minister of State, Admiral Platon, was sent on a mission to Tunisia to give government aid to the resistance, but this did not prevent the French Army in Africa from joining the Allies’ side on 15 November. Despite the armistice agreement of 1940, the Axis powers failed to inform the Vichy government that it was sending German and Italian troops to occupy northern Tunisia. As a result, the head of the French government, Pierre Laval, decided to create a voluntary force to reclaim this area, and which soon became known as the African Phalanx. The Tricolour Regiment’s recruitment offices were soon filled with eager men offering to join the fight. However, according to the Wehrmacht, problems with transporting the troops across the Mediterranean meant that when the troops finally arrived, they were no longer required. The German high command finally authorised the creation of an on-site fighting unit and six officers were flown to Tunis on 28 December 1942 to begin local recruitment.

The African Phalanx, known to the Germans as the Kompanie Frankonia, was symbolically integrated into the German Army in January 1943. It was attached to the 3rd Battalion of the 754th Panzergrenadier Regiment in the 334th Infantry Division of General Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Army. The Forgemol barracks served as the garrison while the Faidherbe barracks served as the depot. Both barracks were located in Tunis, along with the recruitment office, which opened on 1 January 1943. On 2 February a meagre company comprised of a number of Tunisians, departed for a two month training camp at Cedria-Plage, around 17km from Tunis. The Tunisians would later be removed from the company by the German authorities, who wanted to have closer control over them in other units. The recruits consisted of settlers, nationalist militants, students, NCOs and ‘free’ career soldiers.

The Phalanx was officially integrated into the 334th Division on 2 April 1943. After observing the French unit during combat exercises, the German Divisional Commander, Generalmajor Friedrich Weber, decided it was time for them to head for the Front. Dressed in German Infantry uniform, complete with German helmet and a blue, white and red rosette, the volunteers set off for their area of operations near the village of Medjez el-Bab, on the night of 8-9 April, where they relieved a German combat unit. Facing the five French sections, with a sixth remaining in camp to instruct the new arrivals, was the 78th Infantry Division of the British 1st Army. Their baptism of fire came on 14 April when the sector was heavily bombarded for two hours. On the night of 16-17 April an eight-man advance patrol was attacked by a detachment of fifty New Zealanders and Hindus. The French captured three prisoners as well as important documents. This action resulted in the 334th Division receiving its first citation and Generalmajor Weber was given three Iron Crosses to hand out in honour of the Führer’s birthday.

On the night of 22 April the English guns pounded the phalanx’s position, followed by an attack from the rear. American heavy tanks supported the English offensive and also attacked the Infantry. German smoke mortars then joined in and managed to stop the Anglo-American advance. The company and its many wounded retreated to its support positions and after twelve hours of fighting there were sixty missing soldiers, either dead or taken prisoner. The company was put into reserve on 25 April and under bombardment from the Allied forces, it retreated even further north over the following days before gathering on 6 May at the Faidherbe barracks in Tunis, with a fighting force of only sixty men. During the night, the company was disbanded on German orders. Due to a lack of resources, they were unable to withdraw to Italy and the Archbishop of Carthage granted protection to the soldiers and their families. When the Germans retreated, a small group of officers were evacuated to Italy by air. Back in Tunisia, those who had not been repatriated or had not managed to escape, were arrested by the French military. Some of these men were shot whilst others were integrated into French combat units and would later fight in France and Italy. A few months later, others members of the company were sentenced by the court in Algiers to varying degrees of punishment (death sentences as well as penal life sentences), including those who had been captured by the British.

Frenchmen in German Service WWII Part II

The NSKK-Motorgruppe Luftwaffe

After the success of Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe now needed drivers and mechanics to cover the losses it had suffered and to make sure that all lines of communication were working effectively, especially as they had now been stretched even further. In late July 1942, the first units of the Luftwaffe NSKK [a logistics corps of the Luftwaffe] were formed, which included French volunteers. Its main task was to ensure that supplies of food, fuel and ammunition reached the German Air Force in the occupied territories and especially immediately behind the frontlines

The first 150 volunteers left Paris on 21 July 1942 and headed for the Vilvoorde barracks (a Brussels suburb), in Belgium, where the distribution centre for the NSKK was based. They were assigned to the 4th Regiment NSKK (which also included Dutch and Walloons) and began five months of basic training. Their instructors were former members of the German Army who were retired or released from service. With the arrival of fifty to sixty new volunteers each week, two transport companies were established in December 1942 and the 1st and 2nd companies of the 6th Battalion were stationed at the Schaffen Airfield and in Diest, respectively. First Company left for Stalino [Donetsk], Russia, in January 1943 and were assigned to the Rostov-on-Don region, close to the front. Second Company left for Kharkov in late February/early March 1943. Of the 124 trucks that set off, only 70 arrived in Kharkov, the rest having been left on the side of the road by order of the company commander and chief engineer. They wanted to return to Brussels and a peaceful life as quickly as possible, and so thought that the fewer vehicles they arrived with, the sooner they could head back. At the beginning of April, both companies, around 600 men in total, were back in Diest. The head of 2nd Company, keen to protect his own neck, wrote a report to the General Staff in Berlin accusing the French of incompetence, mismanagement and sabotage, and blamed them for the high number of abandoned vehicles. More than half of the workforce refused to sign a new contract of employment and were discharged soon after. Thirty French deserters from the NSKK presented themselves to the Waffen SS Ersatzkommando in Antwerp. They wanted to take a more active role in the fighting and to see more of their fellow compatriots incorporated into the Waffen SS. In the mean time, two other companies were formed in order to provide transportation for V1 rocket parts in northern France and to control the traffic around the launch sites.

With the last volunteers enrolled, the companies were consolidated and renamed, whilst 4th, 5th and 6th were integrated into the 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment. These three companies were sent to a small Belgian town called Grammont to complete their basic military training, under the command of NSKK-Staffelführer, Josef Seigel, who would lead them until the end of the war. In late November the Wehrmacht sent the three companies to Brescia, Italy. The companies separated and left Brescia in early 1944, equipped with French and Italian vehicles of various sizes that they had been given when they arrived. From now on they were divided into a ‘column’, and each would live in its own quarters and work under its own administration. The ‘columns’ were scattered amongst the Italian civilian population, which for the most part accepted the volunteers, often allowing them to stay in their own homes. In return, as road signs and other infrastructure were disrupted and the railway stations bombed, the volunteers would sometimes take civilians in their trucks to other towns, in spite of the surveillance from the Feldgendarmerie. For two months they supplied the airports around Cassino with oil and gas, then carried bombs the 15km to Monte Cassino before heading to Florence and then down to Rome. These ammunition transports were carried out at night and had to be done without the use of headlights. Rules regarding safety were strict in terms of distances travelled, camouflage, routes taken and of course the schedules. The cabs of the large lorries became their home, where they would eat and sleep, and the drivers often lost their nerve as they were so tired from trying to escape from the attacking American aircraft. Contacts were established and relationships formed, but some did desert. The companies did not carry out these missions on behalf of the NSKK, but for the Luftwaffe. They also had to go out and look for trucks that had broken down on the roads so they could tow them back and repair them, as well as supply the batteries on Sardinia, which depended on the Luftwaffe. In August, whilst the Front in Bologna stabilised, there was an attempt to reconstruct the companies. However, supplies and equipment made it impossible; in one company, out of 300 men and 120 trucks at the beginning, there were now only 100 men and just 3 trucks.

In December 1944, after having handed in their trucks, they left Italy and were transferred to Denmark. They were to provide security to the airfield at Alesøe, where Messerschmitt planes had been grounded due to lack of fuel. They also worked in the shipyards at Odense and studied new anti-tank weapons. The companies were disbanded and the men and NCOs were each divided into groups of 400 men, plus staff. In January, the Staffelführer informed the assembled Battalion that a large French unit was being created within the Waffen SS, but no transfers were made. In late February/early March 1945, the first group was sent to the Hungarian Front, on the northern shore of Lake Balaton, where it saw a great deal of fighting due to the rapid advance of the Red Army. The second group left Denmark for Lake Balaton on 31 March, but withdrew when it reached Austria. The men were demobilised by NSKK-Hauptsturmführer, Hans Ströhle, on 29 April. Some decided to return to Italy, and a minority returned to their ‘former landlords’, where they had been happily housed, the year before.

This chapter ends with one final word on the Speer Legion, a subsection of non-Germans who served in the NSKK-Transportbrigade, but were not eligible for NSKK membership. Attached to the OT-Einsatzgruppe West in September 1943, it operated in five countries, each with a driving school and a mechanic. The West Speer Legion in Paris included Estonians, Ukrainians, French, Latvians, Lithuanians and Russians. Initial training took place near Paris, at Enghien-les-Bains, and included weapons handling, theoretical instruction on engines and car mechanics, before it moved to Nikolassee (in Berlin), at the Legion’s education centre for motorised vehicles. The men wore a black uniform with an army belt, along with a police cap with an NSKK cockade on it, but were not allowed to carry weapons. They were employed by the Germans as drivers along the Atlantic coast, as well as being tasked to move vehicles between Germany, the General Government and various regions in the USSR, including anywhere from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

The Todt Organisation

Headed by Oberbaudirecktor Karl Weis, chief engineer with the Militärbefehlshaber West, the Todt Organisation Einsatzgruppe West had been stationed in Lorient, Brittany, since May 1940. As agreed with the military services and the central Todt Organisation in Berlin, its main priority was the building of the Atlantic Wall in 1942, before heading south to build the coastal defences along the Mediterranean. On the construction sites, French workers were required to mix with their compatriots who had been forced to remain in the country playing the black market and other lucrative deals and thus avoiding compulsory work service in a factory in Germany. They were completely dependent on the Französische Frontführung [French Front Guide], a French department based in Paris and led by Haupttruppführer Camille Sinniger, a former member of the LVF, who had been given the highest military rank granted to a foreigner. In addition to the many forced labourers there were around 5,000 Frenchmen in uniform, who volunteered for the service. This led to the subsequent departure of many members of the Todt Organisation (TO), who wished to join units that were more active in combat.

There were militarised workers (Frontarbeiter) present in all of the Wehrmacht’s theatres of operation. They built bridges, modified fortifications, built roads, and oversaw the delivery of fuel and supplies. Until November 1942, members of the TO were regarded as Wehrmachtsgefolge [Wehrmacht followers], and remained independent of the army they were accompanying. This status was shown on their identity tags and pay books in order to avoid possible sanctions should they be arrested as snipers. After November 1942 they were issued with an army booklet labelled WH Festungsbau [Wehrmacht Heer Festungsbau – German Army Fortress Builder], and were included in the regular armed forces. They wore a swastika armband on their left sleeve and sometimes carried a weapon, depending on their location and availability in Europe or Russia, to counter possible attacks from partisans that sometimes resulted in injury or death. As a result, the TO decided to carry weapons in order to defend itself in various locations and set up its own protection units.

These armed detachments were drawn from the workers themselves and were called Schutzkommandos. They had their own ranks, which were gradually filled with volunteers of various nationalities, including French. They were equipped with a variety of small arms with the objective of maintaining order in the free workers’ camps on the construction sites, as well as guarding strategic buildings and facilities. After an internship that would normally last for one month, or longer if necessary, the French groups were assigned to various ports along the English Channel and the Atlantic coast. Over time it is possible to see where the German Army was present (Latvia, Norway etc.). In the summer of 1943, all existing TO Schutzkommandos composing of up to ten battalions were distributed according to the Army Groups. Those of the Einsatzgruppe West became the 11th Battalion and were divided into ten sections and groups. It withdrew to Germany in August 1944.

Ahead of the increase in the number of workers on its sites, the TO was concerned about the well-being of its employees. In November 1942 it created a team of ‘social inspectors’, whose recruitment was entrusted to Camille Sinniger. He primarily chose former members of the reformed LVF, who still wanted to serve according to the original ideals they had had when they first volunteered. In the TO camps throughout France, their presence made them a buffer between the Germans and the workers who might not have had the same mentality, or the same discipline. They were responsible for the welfare of the civilians and acted as advisers and liaison between the workers, the building companies, the German authorities and the French services, for everything related to social issues and the basic material requirements for life. Their training took place at a school in Brittany, under the direction of French teachers and instructors. For a period of around three weeks their schedule was devoted to physical exercises, courses in hygiene and how to solve social problems that might arise regularly in a camp, as well as how to combat hostile propaganda.

There were also transmission teams and telephone operators who were trained in France and at the Barten camp in East Prussia. The latter closed in November 1943 and training continued in France from the beginning of 1944, with training programmes of two months at Camp Beauregard, which also housed the Schutzkommandos. The paid training was designed to help the volunteers work with experienced engineers fitting telephone lines. One team was en route to Russia when Pietro Badoglio, the head of the Italian Government, announced the armistice between the Italians and the Allies. As the Italians abandoned the fighting, the team was sent to Yugoslavia to relieve them. Here the French were constantly beaten by the armies of Tito in the defensive positions assigned to them, and because the difficult conditions were not suited for combat.

There was also a unit called NSKK Transportgruppe Todt, whose staff were under the control of the NSKK. The French in their khaki uniforms with short jackets, like those of the German Army, served as military vehicle drivers on behalf of the TO, but were different from those of the NSKK Motorgruppe Luftwaffe, who wore a grey-blue uniform and worked for the German Air Force, distinguishing themselves on the Russian and Italian Fronts. Finally, the TO also employed women in different French camps. In addition to those who worked as typists and interpreters, there were also several hundred who served in uniform, mainly as nurses. As in most German organisations that accepted foreign nationals, these French auxiliary women wore a badge on their national uniform.

The Kriegsmarine

In 1941 Germany had conquered many nations bound by seas and oceans. Countless ports were fortified and put into operation to help with the fighting, as well as for use for the submarine service. The French worked as engineers, technicians and civilian workers in the national ports where the Germans now had bases. The time had not yet come for compulsory military service.

It wasn’t until nearly three years after the hostilities began on the Eastern Front, on 17 March 1944, that legislation was enacted in France. The government finally allowed its countrymen to serve in the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) and gave them the same benefits under the laws and regulations of the LVF. Nevertheless, for a long time those who lived by the sea (in Normandy and Brittany) had already worked in the local offices (or in Germany with the free workers). Around 2000 French worked for the Kriegsmarine, but only on an individual basis.

There are two main factors that explain the delay in the recruitment process: from a prestige point of view, it was hard for the Germans to believe that a foreign volunteer might appear on the decks of one of its warships. They were only there to supplement personnel, not as an incorporated unit. Furthermore, there was a lengthy discussion between Dönitz and Himmler regarding European volunteers, resulting in a great deal of time lost for formal recruitment. The Reichsführer finally agreed, and assigned those individuals who possessed knowledge of the sea, or whose businesses were linked to the sea, on the condition that they received political training by the SS at the Sennheim training camp in Alsace.

In 1943 the 28th Naval Depot was also used by the Waffen SS (28. Schiffsstammabteilung). This depot was specifically responsible for the basic training of foreign volunteers and received recruits from Belgium, the Netherlands, Latvia, Ukraine, Spain, France and Denmark. Due to a shortage of officials, the German training staff changed over the months and officers became increasingly rare on smaller vessels and submarines. Upon their arrival, the French were sorted and grouped by section or company, with numbers varying from 250 to 450 men for a total of 11 companies. Some were made up exclusively of French, whilst others were mixed. After they were assigned they were handed their German uniform: navy blue, field grey and a general blue one for all occasions. The latter uniform was distributed and worn after they had sworn their oath, marking the end of their initial training, which usually lasted between six and eight weeks. They were then transferred to specialist schools in Germany, notably Mannheim, Duisburg or Varel. Then followed rifle training at ‘soldier school’, and training at ‘sailor school’ (manoeuvring a canoe on a river or lake) for about three months. They were then assigned to a naval unit, usually on smaller vessels (minesweepers, patrol boats etc.) and mainly on the Baltic, at Kiel. They were rarely sent to the Mediterranean or the North Sea, and only the very first Frenchmen who signed up in the four initial companies actually set sail and engaged in fighting at sea. After the attempted assassination of Hitler on 20 July 1944, Himmler changed his mind about French sailors. Whilst some remained at their posts with the support of their superiors, many of them unwittingly ended up joining the Waffen SS, after having been trained by them in the first place. The majority of them found themselves integrated into the newly formed SS Charlemagne Brigade, including two sailors who would later be awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) in 1945.

There were also compatriots who belonged to the Kriegsmarinwerftpolizei (Shipyard Police), a unit created in early 1943 on the initiative of the Kriegsmarine services based at La Pallice, on the Atlantic Coast. Within this Franco-German paramilitary group, the French consisted mostly of LVF veterans, who protected and monitored the German shipyards and submarine bases, armed with guns. These men are not to be confused with the Kriegsmarine-Wehrftmänner (Naval Shipyard Guards), another unit created in late 1941, with the similar aim of protecting the naval arsenals in Brittany, but who wore a different coloured uniform.

The Franzosische-SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade No.8

On 30 January 1943 Hitler signed the order for the creation of a French unit in the Waffen SS. The order was immediately relayed by Himmler’s representative in France, SS-Brigadeführer Karl Oberg, the senior SS commander whose departments could now begin to make contact with those in the collaborationist circles, as well as those at the German Embassy in Paris. Although nearly 300 of their compatriots had already taken the plunge and were already serving in divisions such as the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking and the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, which included Walloons and Flemings born in northern France (which was then under German military administration), the majority of the French were waiting for the green light from Marshal Pétain’s government.

A decree issued on 22 July 1943 declared that the French state authorised its citizens to join the Waffen SS, giving them the same benefits as those members of the LVF, which was seen as a serious rival to recruitment. A recruitment office (Ersatzkommando Frankreich der Waffen SS) was opened in Paris, although it was also possible to sign up at German police stations and at regional prefecture headquarters. Prisoners of War were allowed to join, as well as forced labourers working in Germany. Lodged in Paris, the new recruits were then sent to the Sennheim training camp in Alsace to begin their military training. To comply with this government legislation published in July, a new contract had to be signed by those who had joined up before this date. The average age of the French volunteers was very young, and just like others who had enlisted before them, they wanted to prove to their superiors that despite coming from a country that had been defeated in June 1940, they deserved their place in the Waffen SS. Future officers and leaders were chosen from the individuals who stood out. Those with NCO potential were sent to the SS Unterführerschule at Posen-Treskau, whilst officer candidates went to the SS Junkerschule at Bad Tölz. Other recruits went to different schools, depending on what they were to specialise in. Some were transferred to the specialist SS commando school at Hildesheim or were sent to recruit other civilian workers or PoWs. The French would also act as SS war correspondents and in other general units where their rank was deemed sufficient enough for an assignment.

In 1944 the majority of troops were sent to the Beneshau camp in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, in order to form an artillery regiment. Due to a lack of qualified French officers, the brigade was transformed into a Sturmbrigade (Assault Brigade) of two battalions and was officially hereafter called the Franzosische-SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade Nr.8. (Franz. Nr.1) and was commanded by SS-Sturmbannführer Paul-Marie Gamory-Dubourdeau.

After a trip to Networschitz, three infantry companies, one heavy equipment company and one Pak company were formed. The unit was cleansed of all those with criminal records and of those who had failed to report cases incompatible with the SS code of honour. These men were immediately kicked out and sent to concentration camps. The conditions at Networschitz were not conducive to training and the brigade moved once more, to Neweklau, near Prague. Training there was mainly centred around anti-tank combat, with the arrival of the Panzerfaüste and Panzerschreck weapons. Despite the difficulty of conducting both day and night exercises, which inevitably resulted in casualties, enthusiasm was high amongst the men, who believed that their departure to the Front was close. In late July, whilst 2nd Battalion continued its training in the former Polish corridor from Danzig to Schwarnegast, 1st Battalion was now combat ready and awaiting its departure orders.

A total of 980 men under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Pierre Cance landed in Galicia, Turkey, on 5 August, on what was then the Eastern Front. They were attached to the 18th SS-Freiwilligen-Panzer-Grenadier-Division Horst Wessel and their mission was to reduce the salient and align the frontline along the railway line from Sanok to Krakow. Their first actions were carried out under the admiring eyes of Wehrmacht officers, with Horst Wessel mentioning the unit in his divisional dispatches. Holed up in the abandoned Russian positions, the French underwent several bombing raids up until Tuesday, 15 August. This was the last stage of the counter-offensive and after much fierce fighting and numerous fatalities, the French finally achieved their goal. As the Wehrmacht soldiers relived their positions, the Sturmbrigade fell back to Wolica, where officers estimated that they had around 130 dead or wounded.

After 24 hours, the revised units joined another sector of the frontline, where there were cracks everywhere. In Dębrica, Poland, they were spread over a 15km front along the Wisłoka River. On the morning of 20 August the Soviet artillery bombarded their positions and the battalion collapsed within hours. Scattered along their new defensive lines, on 22 August the French battalion, already depleted by the loss of so many soldiers and officers, attempted to defend the village of Mokré. Its commander, Cance, was wounded for a third time and the decision was taken to evacuate westwards. From those who had landed at the front in August, the rough casualty list shows that more than 100 men had died, 40 were prisoners or missing and more than 660 were wounded. Of the 15 officers, 7 were dead and 8 were missing. The units were reorganised around the survivors, commanded by SS-Obersturmführer Jean Croisile. Three companies were established, each with between forty and sixty men, including those who were hospitalised with minor injuries. On 24 August, 1st Battalion was cited in Horst Wessel’s divisional order before it left Tarnów station, heading for Bruss in the Polish Corridor.

Before the establishment of a more heterogeneous command unit, Reichsführer Himmler at first created German liaison officers from former members of the LVF who were transferred to the SS. They lived at Leisten and the German officers were required to observe and make reports on the French volunteers, who were far from home and whose families were worried about them. At the head of this inspection of the French SS was Gustav Krukenberg, who had been promoted for the role to the rank of SS-Brigadeführer and Waffen SS Major General on 23 September. Wearing the tricolour badge on his left sleeve, he is seen here in conversation with Waffen-Oberführer Edgard Puaud, who in turn has his back to the head of the Wallonien Division, Léon Degrelle. They are seen here attending the oath swearing ceremony on 12 November 1944. Degrelle, who was surprised to see that the French sang and obeyed their orders in German, was looking for men to join his project of forming a ‘Western’ Corps made up of French and Walloons, which he would command. SS-Obergruppenführer Gotlob Berger was against the idea and wrote to Himmler about the matter on 16 December, but the idea came to nothing.

The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division of the SS Charlemagne (French No.1)

In the spring of 1944 a command was issued from the OKW to transfer all foreigners serving in the German Army to the Waffen SS. The attack against Hitler on 20 July accelerated this movement, particularly concerning the French. German high command decided to regroup the volunteers into a new SS French brigade, under the command of Colonel Edgard Puaud. The SS-Hauptamt [the administrative office of the SS] decided to bring the 638 French infantry regiment back from Russia. It was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and its members transferred to the Waffen SS. The LVF headquarters at Greifenberg now became the new brigade’s headquarters as well as the Französische SS-Grenadier Ausbildungs und Ersatz-Bataillon (French SS Grenadier training and reserve Battalion), commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinrich Hersche who had arrived from Sennheim. The Sturmbrigade, whose 1st Battalion had proved itself so valiantly in Galicia, arrived on 5 September and joined 2nd Battalion for training at the ‘West-Prussian’ SS-Trüppenbüngsplatz. Alongside them, 2,000-2,100 political soldiers were finishing their basic training there, under the command of SS-Oberstumbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. In addition there were also men from the SS-Französische Flakbaterrie, who had not joined the Sturmbrigade in the fighting in Poland, 1,000-1,200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei who had landed at Greifenberg in mid-September, and around 2,000 men who were involved in the Schutzcommando and Todt Organisation, the NSKK, the Speer Legion and the Technische Nothilfe, which was part of the German Police. There were also other general German paramilitary units, although some had remained at their original training grounds with the permission of their leaders.

Two regiments were formed, with two battalions each comprised of four companies. The 57th Regiment was predominantly composed of former members of the Sturmbrigade, on the orders of Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 58th Regiment was headed by Commander Eugéne Bridoux and contained the ex-Legionnaires. Either for religious reasons (the perceived paganism of the SS), years of combat fatigue, or because they felt the war was definitively lost, a few dozen men categorically refused to be transferred. Taking advantage of this opportunity to start on a clean slate, a purge took place removing 180 of these ‘undesirables’. In order to learn the fighting methods of the SS, a number of LVF officers and soldiers were sent on training courses. During their absence, the brigade left its quarters and headed for the SS-Truppenübungsplatz at Wildflecken. On 5 November, part of the French state militia had to withdraw from Germany and found itself also being incorporated into the brigade. During the winter of 1944-45, the Waffen-Grenadier (no longer the SS-Grenadier as those of the Sturmbrigade had been called) had to endure particularly harsh training as a result of the snow, the freezing temperatures, lack of equipment and clothes and poor diet. Desertions among the prestigious SS units, such as the Walloon or the Wiking divisions were very common, because their members wanted to join the fighting as soon as possible.

Given the title of ‘Division’, despite its reduced capacity (more than 7,300 men), the orders to depart for the East by train arrived on 16 February. Integrated with the 11th Army, the first men arrived on 22 February at Hammerstein in Pomerania and gathered in a nearby camp. Sent to the frontlines without any armoured support, heavy weaponry or radio equipment, and with all their assault rifles having been hijacked by another unit, the division’s casualties began to pile up. Different companies broke off to fight in isolated groups, with no communication with the rear lines as they were pushed backwards. The survivors retreated to Szczecinek and after this initial engagement, the division had lost around one third of its troops, most of whom were either wounded or evacuated. Five hundred were dead. After regrouping at Białogard, the units were merged together to form a frontline regiment with the freshest and most experienced soldiers, and a reserve regiment with a reduced combat role, due to the fatigue amongst the men. They were sent to protect the retreat of the German troops at the port of Kolberg. Once more the French faced fierce fighting trying to defend the city, forcing them to consider pulling back towards Białogard, which was still held by the Germans. Trapped on a plain south-west of the city, the 3,000 men of the reserve regiment were massacred by Soviet tanks. A few survivors were captured, while others took refuge in the nearby woods. Surrounded for days, the exhausted soldiers now had to finish their war as prisoners, having failed to cross the River Oder. Arriving in Międzyrzecz, in western Poland after a long and painful march, the men of 1st Battalion, who were the only ones left unscathed, managed to succeed in breaking the encirclement of Pomerania. The French regrouped on the outskirts of Anklam and waited for other survivors of the Division.

Stationed at Carpin, the combat units were once more reorganised and resumed their training. On 24 April SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg, who was now in charge of the French, received a telegram from Hitler’s bunker announcing that he was to take up a new position in Berlin and must get there with a French assault battalion as quickly as possible. Having lost three vehicles en route, a French detachment arrived in Berlin, which by now was virtually surrounded by the Red Army. They were attached to the SS Nordland Division, commanded by Waffen-Haupsturmführer Henri Fenet. This division had distinguished itself in urban combat, repulsing many large-scale armoured vehicle attacks using the Panzerfaüst [German anti-tank weapon]. The very experienced French soldiers managed to officially take out sixty-two tanks as they gradually retreated to the ever-decreasing German-held zones. On the morning of 2 May, Fenet and his men finally reached Hitler’s bunker. They were hoping to find the last kernel of resistance, but instead realised that the battle was all but over. More fighting now commenced in order to avoid being taken prisoner, but one by one the men were arrested by the victorious Soviets, before resistance finally ceased at 3pm.

The remaining men who were still at the barracks at Greifenberg left and joined those at Wildflecken. Here they were divided into various units and separately retreated westwards, where some were subordinated into the 38th SS-Grenadier-Division Nibelungen. In the end, four members of the division were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

17th-18th Century Lines

Long, fortified lines were constructed in Europe during this period to connect forts and fortified cities, and enhance defenses for positional warfare. The most important crossed the United Provinces for 100 miles, from the Meuse to the Atlantic, in places connecting pre-existing canals and rivers as natural defenses against the French, supplemented by artificial barriers that included deepened ditches and high earthworks lined with firing steps and gun emplacements. Under Louis XIV the French built several new lines in Flanders. They built more in the Rhineland once Louis went on the defensive during the latter part of the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). Members of the Grand Alliance erected defensive lines facing the French lines in Flanders and again along the Rhine frontier. The forward lines constructed for Louis were the Lines of Brabant, built to protect older gains and his newly claimed northern frontier as ostensible protector of the Spanish Netherlands from Allied raids and crossings-in-force during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). In 1711 the French completed still more formidable inner defensive lines known as the Ne Plus Ultra.

Like entrenchments of World War I, 18th-century lines were comprised of communications and support trenches as well as the main fighting trenches. They differed in that the armies that manned them seldom possessed enough troops to cover the whole system. This permitted breaching by surprise concentrations and forced marches, supported by good intelligence on where the defenders actually were.

Ne Plus Ultra lines.

An inner set of lines along France’s northern frontier. About 200 miles long, they were begun by maréchal Villars over the winter of 1710-1711 following the bloody fight at Malplaquet (August 31/September 11, 1709). They were made to guard France itself from invasion, following repeated defeats in Flanders in the last years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). They were more substantial than the Lines of Brabant and reflected the fact that the Allies had already breached that forward line and the double lines of the old pré carré. Construction began after agreement to the London Preliminaries (October 8, 1711). The Lines were dubbed “ne plus ultra” (literally, “no more beyond”) by Villars to suggest that Allied armies would never advance beyond them. They ran from the coast past Arras and Cambrai to the Sambre River, then along it to Namur, incorporating some of the old Lines of Brabant.

Marlborough crossed the Ne Plus Ultra lines in their first year of existence. He bluffed Villars out of Arleux by ordering General William Cadogan to dissemble in his defense of the causeway there, before doubling back to take it a second time. Marlborough used this screen and time gained to march between Arras and Vimy Ridge (of course, unaware of how those names and places would later haunt British military history). Now in front of the surprised Villars, Marlborough broke through the Ne Plus Ultra lines without resistance or casualties, and took Bouchain on September 13/24, 1711. This directly threatened Paris. Marlborough was unable to exploit this achievement, however, as he was removed from command by Queen Anne and the Tories in January 1712, to clear the path to peace.

Lines of Brabant.

The first of a series of French defensive lines covering the northern frontier with the Spanish Netherlands. The lines of Brabant stretched for 130 miles from the Channel, passing in front of Antwerp and ending on the Meuse just below Namur and the junction with the Sambre. The Lines of Brabant presented a series of linked canal and riverine barriers intended to slow if not stop enemy advances. These were linked in continuous line with deep entrenchments, palisades, and strongpoints. However, after 1701 the French did not have enough troops to defend the whole system. The Lines were attacked by the Allies in late 1702. They were attacked again and partially forced by William Cadogan for Marlborough on July 17-18, 1705. That September, Allied military engineers razed a 20-mile section of the Lines around Zoutleeuw. This was not repaired while the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) lasted. Another Allied army razed a smaller section of the Lines near Antwerp. In 1706 Louis sent maréchal Villeroi and a large army to retake the lost ground at Zoutleeuw. That led directly to an even greater disaster for the French at Ramillies (May 12/23, 1706).

Lines of Stollhofen.

Short Allied lines in Germany built in 1703 at the start of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and greatly strengthened in following years. They were about 10 miles long, running from the Rhine at Stollhofen to an impenetrable wood in the hills east of Bühl. They were heavily entrenched and palisaded, well gunned, and well defended. Replicating a pattern familiar in Flanders, Dutch engineers who worked on them incorporated flooded zones to impede assault. Prince Eugene of Savoy remained in the Lines of Stollhofen while Marlborough marched on the Danube, forcing French troops to cover. Eugene then left the Lines with his cavalry and some infantry, joining Marlborough to fight at Blenheim (August 2/13, 1704). Villars assaulted the Lines of Stollenhofen in May 1707 with an army of 30,000. He drew out defenders by making multiple feints across one flank along the Rhine while his main force crossed on the other. He attacked and crossed at several points at once on the night of May 22-23, while preparing his main blow the next morning at Bühl. When he arrived at Bühl, he found the Lines abandoned. The Lines of Stollhofen thus fell without the French suffering any losses. Villars proceeded to occupy and hold them.

pré carré.

The term meant “dueling field,” but became famous in reference to the open space formed between a double line of regular fortifications, part of an elaborate defense system that Vauban developed along the northern frontier of France after he broached the idea in a 1673 letter to Louis XIV. It imitated the two lines formed by infantry in battle. The pré carré on the frontier with the Spanish Netherlands linked artillery fortresses from Dunkirk through Ypres, Lille, Tournai, Valenciennes, Maubeuge, and Dinant. Among the main fortresses of the second, interior line were Gravelines, St. Omer, Aire, Arras, Douai, Cambrai, Landrecies, Rocroi, and Carleville. Its establishment involved Louis in a long-term strategy that aimed at rationalizing and straightening France’s frontiers, whether by diplomacy or, as Vauban put it, by “a good war.” The outer line was breached by the successful Allied siege of Lille (August 14-December 10, 1708). Taking the inner line was the main aim of Marlborough’ s campaign of 1710. After signing the London Preliminaries, the French began work on a new set of lines, the Ne Plus Ultra. In the last campaign of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), Villars retook the lines of the pré carré, thus helping to ensure the general peace later agreed at Utrecht.

Lines of Lauterbourg.

A set of defensive lines constructed on the Rhine frontier near Strasbourg.

Lines of the Var.

These lines were constructed in 1708 in the Var Valley of Provence to hold back an anticipated Allied invasion of southern France.

IJssel line.

A Dutch set of defensive lines based on the IJssel branch of the Rhine. They were in a state of disrepair when French forces quickly outflanked and subsequently overran them at the start of the Dutch War (1672-1678).