The British in the Aegean September 1943

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A Bristol Beaufighter releases its bombs toward the further of two German flak vessels attacked by aircraft of No. 201 Group, south of the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese. Inadequate air support helped doom the British campaign in the Dodecanese. Imperial War Museum photo.

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In late June 1943, raiders from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) landed on the south coast of Crete to strike at three airfields that could be used by the Luftwaffe during Husky. The mission was only a partial success. Explosive charges were placed against several aircraft and a fuel dump at Kastèli, but the Germans had abandoned Timbáki airfield while Heraklion was no longer in use as a major air base. A fuel dump was selected as an alternative target. In 1942 there had been similar operations on Crete and Rhodes.

Hit-and-run raids had an undeniable nuisance value, but little or no effect on the bigger picture. The North African campaign had ended with the surrender of the Afrikakorps in May. Operation Husky commenced two months later on 10 July. The Allies made rapid headway and with the Italians facing an invasion of the mainland, Mussolini was ousted on 25 July and replaced by Maresciallo Pietro Badoglio.

By August a British plan of action had been approved in anticipation of a suitably favourable development in the Aegean and the Balkans. Among the proposals were an emergency ‘walk-in’ in to Rhodes and other islands in the event of Italy’s collapse and the withdrawal of German forces, a quick Accolade against German opposition only, and a full-scale Accolade (though not before 1944). On 3 August the British Chiefs of Staff advised:

Should the Italians in Crete and the Aegean area resist Germans and deadlock ensue, our policy should be to help the Italians against the Germans wherever possible.

It was recommended that a force be made immediately available together with ships for use as troop transports. Mediterranean Air Command (formed in February under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder) was approached for additional transport aircraft sufficient to lift a parachute battalion group. Four squadrons of American P-38 Lightnings were also requested. The latter were essential, for apart from Bristol Beaufighters, there were no fighters in the Middle East with the range to operate over the operational area. The paratroopers and their aircraft were to be in position by 14 August; the Lightnings were required to arrive in Cyprus by the 15th, and the seaborne element was to be ready to sail at any time after 18 August. Much depended on the destruction or containment of Luftwaffe units in the region, but this was achievable only if available bombers were released from all other commitments.

Faced with mounting pressure by the British to re-allocate resources to the eastern Mediterranean, an exasperated General Eisenhower finally relented. On 7 August, Allied Force Headquarters advised the Middle East that the required troops could be provided, though not before 14 August. Certain ships could also be released, but current requirements meant that no aircraft would be spared: no transports were available for parachute operations, and Lightning squadrons were fully employed in escorting the Strategic Bomber Force in attacks against Italian targets and were specifically required for Operation Avalanche – the Allied landing at Salerno, in Italy. In Eisenhower’s opinion, seemingly shared by both the Naval and Air commanders-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Accolade should have been abandoned. Eisenhower was assured that Accolade would take place only if conditions presented a reasonable prospect of success with the forces available and when the situation in Italy might allow the release of the all-important Lightnings. The target date of readiness was postponed to three days notice from 19 August, by which time Operation Husky had been concluded successfully and the Allied armies were about to push north into Italy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler and his Staff prepared for the inevitable as Badoglio’s government negotiated surrender terms with the Allies. At the same time in the Middle East, the British stood by to move into the Aegean. With Italy on the point of collapse, 8th Indian Division was embarked to undertake the capture of Rhodes and was to have sailed on 1 September. However, as a result of Quadrant on 26 August, the troop transports were released to India for the proposed operation against the Arakan (previously discussed during Trident), and 8th Indian Division was ordered to Italy. On 8 September, when the Italian armistice was announced, the force had been dispersed and with it went any opportunity for a rapid deployment. Furthermore, the Commander-in- Chief, Middle East was kept in ignorance of events and only learned about the armistice just before it was made public. Having anticipated Italy’s volte-face the Germans responded with countermeasures under the code name Achse (Axis), and moved swiftly to take over from the Italians in Crete, but were slower in reacting to the situation elsewhere. General Wilson decided therefore to act on recommendations of the Joint Planning Staff. The task of securing Rhodes was reallocated to 234 Infantry Brigade – 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (Faughs) and 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment having recently arrived in the Middle East from Malta. Italian cooperation was essential to British planning. A prerequisite to occupation was an unopposed entry into the port of Rhodes and the provision of an airfield either at Maritsa in Rhodes, or on the island of Kos. A military mission was to precede the expedition, while the SBS spearheaded the occupation of other islands including Kastellorizo, Kos and Samos. The British Prime Minister was a keen advocate of the plan, which was approved by him on 9 September: ‘Good. This is a time to play high. Improvise and dare.’

By then, events were already well underway. On 7 September the SBS commander, Major Lord Jellicoe, was dining with a fellow officer and his new bride at the St George’s Hotel in Beirut, when a military policeman arrived with orders for him to make his way to Raiding Force Headquarters near Haifa. There, Jellicoe was instructed to collect his battledress and field kit and present himself at Haifa airport, where an aeroplane was standing by for a dawn take-off for Cairo. On arrival, he was taken to Middle East Headquarters, shown to a room and seated with others around a large table. To his surprise, Jellicoe learned that the Italian armistice was taking effect that day and that it had been planned to try and occupy Rhodes with the assistance of the island’s Italian garrison. It was hoped that an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had forewarned the Italians, but no one had been able to contact him due to a breakdown in communications. It was proposed therefore to send a landing party by fast craft from Alexandria. Jellicoe recalled:

After about 20 minutes I really couldn’t contain myself any longer and I said, ‘I’m surprised at this. Would it not be much easier for a small party to drop in this evening, as clearly it should be done as quickly as possible.’ Why all of this was being done at the last moment; why the Italian armistice had not been anticipated; why our Raiding Forces had not been alerted, God alone knows.

It was decided that Jellicoe would parachute in to Rhodes, establish contact with the Italian governor, Ammiraglio Inigo Campioni, and ask for his support for a British take- over. Subject to the success of Jellicoe’s mission, Colonel D. J. T. Turnbull of General Headquarters was to follow up to discuss matters in detail. Major Count Julian A. Dobrski, a Polish SOE officer with the nom de guerre Dolbey, asked if Jellicoe spoke Italian. Jellicoe did not, and readily agreed to the multilingual Dolbey joining him as an interpreter. A wireless operator, Sergeant Kesterton, completed the ad hoc team. They took off in a Halifax that evening, but adverse weather conditions combined with an inadequate briefing prevented the crew from locating Rhodes.

The following night, Lieutenant Commander L. F. (Frank) Ramseyer, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), and a landing party composed mainly of SBS under Major David G. C. Sutherland, arrived off Kastellorizo in two motor launches (349 and 357) to secure the island as a staging post for Aegean operations; a two-man team was parachuted into Kos to prepare the Italians there for the arrival of British troops, and a further effort was made to infiltrate Rhodes which had become a battleground between pro-Badoglio Italians and Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleeman’s Sturmdivision Rhodos. Major Jellicoe:

The next night [9th] we took off again. By that time they [the aircrew] had brushed up their geography … and we were dropped at Rhodes. Just before we dropped, Major Dolbey said to me, ‘I think I must make a confession to you. I said that I was parachute trained. I’m not. I’ve never actually dropped by parachute, so give me a push if necessary.’ … He dropped on to the main coast road near Lemnos, on the east of the island and broke his leg, his thigh, extremely badly. I was dropped, as was the wireless operator, Sgt Kesterton, on to the hills above [a few hundred yards away] and shot at quite fiercely. The shooting continued – we were behind rocks by then. We didn’t know who was shooting at us. I had a letter from General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, C-in-C in Cairo, for the Italian commander, Admiral Campioni. I was told that in danger of capture by the Germans this should be got rid of. I had no idea whether they were Germans or Italians firing at us and there was nowhere to get rid of this letter – it was very rocky, hard ground. Of course, they were getting closer so I decided the only thing to do was to eat it which was not the most appetising meal I’ve ever had. And then I heard them approaching and I heard that they were shouting to each other in Italian. I shouted, ‘Amici! Amici!’, etc. Then, after a little bit of discussion and explanation I persuaded them to take me in their transport into Rhodes to Italian headquarters. All this had taken the best part of an hour or so and the major had already been found and taken in and there he was with Admiral Campioni. We had a long discussion with the Italian Admiral. We talked to him for a large part of the next hour or two. He was very enthusiastic to begin with and thought we were the precursor to substantial reinforcements. Although I said that we had further Raiding Forces standing by, I really couldn’t inflate their number. Accordingly I informed Campioni that in the next few days he could only expect some 200 reinforcements. Thereafter it would be some days before additional forces could reach Rhodes. As this sank in Campioni’s enthusiasm started to wane. All this time … Dolbey who had been speaking and interpreting so well and so nobly was in acute pain.

Dolbey, who had a compound fracture, was evacuated, first by fast craft to Symi, then by Italian seaplane to Kastellorizo and on to Cyprus. For the time being, Jellicoe and Kesterton remained in Rhodes and tried to stall Campioni, while in the Middle East frantic efforts were made to find enough landing craft to dispatch 234 Brigade. As this could not be achieved before 18 September, one battalion was stood by and ordered to embark in motor launches and RAF craft, while preparations continued for transporting the rest of the brigade. Jellicoe continues:

I stayed all the next day [10th], seeing, when I could, Admiral Campioni, getting messages through to Cairo, explaining the position and saying it was highly desirable that it was necessary to provide substantial reinforcements within a few days if Campioni was to be persuaded to hold out. The most, however, that I was able to promise him was a non- assault-loaded brigade within six or seven days. Of course, the sudden transfer from one side to the other was asking a great deal of the Italians. So, although I spent all the next day, whenever I could, talking to Admiral Campioni, and although he remained extremely friendly, at the end of it he was convinced it was not on as far as they were concerned. He sent me [and Sergeant Kesterton] off in an Italian fast craft with his chief of staff with all the maps of their minefields to Castelrosso [Kastellorizo], which, in fact, a squadron of mine had occupied that day.

In the haste to occupy the Aegean, Special Service troops, intelligence operatives and conventional forces were deployed by all available means. Poor communications, lack of coordination and the actions of a few who seem to have looked on the occasion as an adventurous outing sometimes resulted in an island being singled out by more than one interested party. On 8 September, Colonel L. F. R. Kenyon concluded his appointment on the General Staff of Force 292 and immediately joined the Aegean Mission as a representative of III Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sir Desmond Anderson. The Mission had been instructed to visit Rhodes, and after arriving at Kastellorizo, Kenyon discussed the possibility with Group Captain Harry G. Wheeler, senior RAF Staff Officer in Force 292 (and soon to be appointed senior RAF officer on Kos). So it was that when Major Jellicoe arrived at Kastellorizo from Rhodes on 11 September, Wheeler and Kenyon were en route from Kastellorizo to Rhodes. Kenyon reported:

15. On arrival we heard some A. A. [anti-aircraft] fire, and saw a number of craft “swanning” about outside RHODES harbour (I found that on an air alarm craft were ordered out of the harbour). The ITALIANS replied to our signal by a refusal to allow us into the harbour. I suggested asking the ITALIANS to take off one officer in one of their own craft, and to this they agreed, and a M. A. S. [motoscafo armato silurante: Italian motor torpedo boat] shortly after came alongside. No question had arisen as to who should go, and I transhipped. WHEELER had some doubts as to the advisability of my visit, but these were solved by a large bomb which fell on RHODES. The commanders of both vessels had the same idea, and the R. A. F. launch drew off at speed to the East, while my M. A. S. went to the West.

16. I was met by an ITALIAN Naval Captain, who at once struck me as being a good fighter, and who gave immediate evidence of his intense dislike for the GERMANS. He spoke good English, and failed to conceal (or succeeded in conveying) his lack of confidence in the advice being tendered to CAMPIONI by the senior ITALIAN General in RHODES.

17. As I drove up to the [Governor’s] Palace, there was a fairly heavy air raid in progress. I was led through a number of kitchens, and was presented to CAMPIONI in a dark scullery. He seemed embarrassed, and led me to his state reception room upstairs.

He informed me that his military advice was that the troops, having been pushed off the anti-tank obstacle covering RHODES, could not survive another GERMAN attack. He understood that the BRITISH would reinforce in about 5 days time. He stated that the best he could do was to temporise with the GERMANS to gain time. This course was not possible if the enemy knew he had BRITISH officers with him, and as the place was full of spies, he wanted me to go.

At my request he then outlined the facts on which his military advice was given. The crux of the whole advice was the presence of the GERMAN tanks, which seems to have paralysed the entire ITALIAN command. But for this factor, he said, he could fight on, and so on.

I knew something of CAMPIONI’s record and personality, and formed the opinion, to which I still adhere, that in a difficult position, he was playing an in and out game, and halting between two policies. I was in some doubts as to whether the best course would be to compromise him thoroughly with the BRITISH, and so cut off his chances of making terms with the GERMANS, and increasing the fighting spirit.

He then intimated that I must really be off, as he was expecting some GERMAN officers at once, with whom he was going to “temporise”. He refused my suggestion that I should wait to hear the result of his Conference. He ordered an M. A. S. to take me to CASTELROSSO [Kastellorizo], and I was disguised in a long black cloak, and taken from the Palace to the port. By this time I was convinced that he was intending to capitulate, and that his main preoccupation was to get rid of me before the GERMANS learn of my presence, and insisted on his handing me over.

18. At the harbour I was entertained to a good and much needed English breakfast by my former contact, who now spoke much more frankly. He said the General had always wanted to surrender, but that there was considerable opposition from some of his officers. He said the troops were not good, and were shockingly led. For himself, he was going to set up in a small fort, and kill as many GERMANS as he could. My own view was that we could do nothing to influence the general situation, but that we might save something out of the wreck. I told him, therefore, that it was his duty to arrange the total evacuation or destruction of all craft in the harbour, and said that we should welcome him and the Naval craft particularly at CASTELROSSO or LEROS. He promised to do all he could; some craft appeared later at CASTELROSSO, and I believe more at LEROS.

19. A further message then came from the palace ordering me off at once, and I went in an M. A. S. which was later retained and did good service …

21. I wrote my report on the way back to CASTELROSSO, and an hour or two after its despatch, we got news of the ITALIAN capitulation.

That day, Sturmdivision Rhodos, numbering approximately 7,500 men, seized control of Rhodes and took prisoner 35,000–40,000 Italians, thus ending British hopes of an assisted take-over. Rhodes had been the first Accolade objective and involved considerable forces. Indeed, the very success of Aegean operations was dependant on acquiring the island, as explained by Colonel Kenyon:

It is significant that every plan, no matter how much the expected military opposition was written down, contemplated the capture of RHODES as a preliminary to any extension to the north; and that every plan was profoundly influenced by the necessity of capturing at the earliest stage a number of Advanced Landing Grounds, and by the great difficulties to be overcome if this was to be possible.

It therefore became necessary for the British to revise their planning and strategy. Future operations were to be on a reduced scale and, as it was essential to act quickly, they had to be improvised. German resources in the Aegean had been stretched by their deployments in Rhodes and Crete. It seemed possible that by a rapid move the Middle East forces might obtain control elsewhere in the region, and by doing so detract from recent enemy successes, enhance British prestige throughout the Middle East and act as a diversion for operations in Italy. In spite of the reluctance of Eisenhower to divert resources, there was hope in the British camp that, even with the limited means at their disposal, the occupation of other islands such as Kos, Leros and Samos could still succeed. The number of German aircraft in Greece and Crete did not yet represent a serious threat, and with British fighters operating from Kos the possibility of major German seaborne or airborne operations seemed slight. It was thought that with Italian co-operation British forces might maintain themselves in Kos and Leros until an attack could be launched on Rhodes from the Middle East. The task of reinforcement and supply was to fall largely on the Royal Navy.

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A ZEPPELIN OVER AFRICA I

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Ludwig Bockholt

Though streng geheim, the secret purpose of the super Zeppelins being built in the cavernous sheds at Friedrichshafen, the Luftschiff mother base, in September 1917, had long been known to every urchin on the streets of the town. And to Central Power allies as far away as Constantinople. And of course to the Room 40 code breakers, and to the intelligence staff of the British War Office—perhaps alerted, as Woodhall claimed in his Spies of the Great War, by his mysterious Bulgarian/American agent.

An officer of the Kaiserlich Marine’s Airship Service on a train from Friedrichshafen to Berlin was approached by a random passenger with questions about the new Zeppelins: Were they really going to Africa? And would the officer have the honor of going with them? Having been sworn to silence, having even signed very serious papers to this effect, the officer feigned ignorance. But perhaps silence lacked pertinence to a morale-boosting mission everyone in Germany—and elsewhere—already seemed to know about.

By May 1917, von Lettow had become a national hero. Valiantly fighting to preserve German honor in a lost colony, completely isolated by the enemies of the Fatherland, he now lacked nearly everything, even the most basic supplies. His Schutztruppe lived off the land at the edges of the Makonde Plateau in the Mahenge country; most of his askaris fought with rifles and ammunition captured from the British. To the Kaiser and to others in the High Command, von Lettow’s long struggle in an African backwater had become a matter of great strategic importance: Both the Allies and the Central Powers expected the war to end in a negotiated settlement; at the peace talks it would help the German cause if Germany could claim her forces still held the field in Africa, fighting for possession of at least one of her overseas colonies. Unfortunately, von Lettow’s situation now seemed more desperate than ever. How long could he continue the struggle without material aid from the Fatherland?

Professor Dr. Max Zupitza, zoologist and medical doctor, came up with a singular answer to this question. Zupitza, an old Africa hand from the Karl Peters era, had survived both the Maji-Maji Rebellion and the Herero-Hottentot War, and at the outbreak of the Universal Conflict in 1914 was the chief medical officer of German South West Africa. Captured by the British after the fall of Windhoek, he spent a year cooling his heels in a POW camp in Togo, where he heard tales of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s impressive victories in GEA. Exchanged in 1916, he returned to Germany, determined to help the Oberstleutnant in his unequal struggle—but how? Then, in July 1917, Zupitza read in the Wilnaer Zeitung about the endurance flight of LZ 120, which had recently spent more than 100 hours circling the Baltic. Fired with enthusiasm that “an airship could remain aloft to accomplish a voyage to Africa,” he petitioned the Kolonialamt with a wild scheme to outfit a Zeppelin to resupply the beleaguered Schutztruppe.

In desperate times, government officials are often willing to listen to wild schemes; the wilder the better. Zupitza’s proposal, forwarded by the Colonial Office to the navy, found favor with naval chief of staff Admiral von Holtzendorff, who passed it on to the Kaiser. The German emperor, nearly as obsessed with von Lettow as Smuts had been, readily gave his imperial blessings. Construction of the first of the super Zeppelins, the ill-fated L57, began in October 1917. Zupitza immediately proposed himself as medical officer for the expedition and was accepted. It seemed fitting that the originator of the Zeppelin-Schutztruppe resupply mission, now code-named “China Show,” should share its fate.

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They chose Bockholt for his boldness and also because he was expendable. But following the disastrous incineration of L57 at the forward Luftschiff base in Jamboli, Bulgaria, on October 7, 1917, Korvettenkapitan Peter Strasser, the steel-souled mastermind of the Zeppelin blitz on London and commander of the Naval Airship Division, had wanted Bockholt removed from command of China Show. The floundering, storm-racked airship, Strasser believed, had been mishandled by her commander. An inquiry had revealed that, at the height of the gale, with the ground crew still clinging desperately to L57’s mooring ropes, Bockholt had ordered riflemen to shoot holes in the Zeppelin’s hydrogen cells, hoping to release enough gas to bring her down. Not only did this gesture show a poor understanding of basic Zeppelin mechanics (a few bullet-sized puncture wounds wouldn’t make much difference), the bullets probably ignited the volatile hydrogen/oxygen mixture, causing the blaze that destroyed her.

But forces higher up the command structure of the German Navy intervened. Some saw the Kaiser’s hand in it, as Bockholt was not popular with his immediate superiors or his fellow officers—many of whom thought him a selfish careerist who put personal advancement above the good of the service—though all agreed he did not lack courage. Had he not captured the schooner Royal by Zeppelin at sea, an event unique in the war? Still, “Every commander wanted to make the African flight,” so said Emil Hoff, elevator man aboard Zeppelin L42, “and matches were drawn,” selecting another. To no avail; Bockholt kept his job.

“A fine airship commander and a skillful flyer,” Strasser allowed at last, bowing to the Imperial Will. Though he added, “He has not enough experience of the capabilities of airships.”

The same lack of experience characterized L59’s crew—not the best men available, but adequate—and also, like Bockholt, because of their inexperience, expendable. Most, fairly new to the airship service, had been chosen because the mission didn’t come with a return ticket. Once its payload of armaments, ammunition, and supplies had been delivered to von Lettow, L59 would be disassembled on the ground in East Africa and all her parts cannibalized to aid the war effort there, captain and crew included: Like the men of the Königsberg before them, they would join the Schutztruppe and fight alongside von Lettow’s askaris in the jungle until the end.

Strasser privately saw the African mission as little more than a morale-boosting stunt in a military backwater and, though popular with command staff, of secondary importance. All his fearsome energies were directed toward the destruction of England, all his best captains and crews reserved for this imperative. He still believed—as he had written in a memo to Vizeadmiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet—that “England can be overcome by means of airships, inasmuch as the country will be deprived of the means of existence through the increasingly extensive destruction of cities, factory complexes, dockyards, harbor works with war and merchant ships lying therein, railroads, etc. . . . The airships offer certain means of victoriously ending the war.”

Ironically, in the end, Strasser came to agree with the Kaiser’s choice of Bockholt for China Show. It saved better men for the real Zeppelin war, which to him belonged to the darkened skies over London, to the bombs falling on the Theater District and perhaps on Buckingham Palace itself.

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L59, pushed by a tailwind from the direction of the German Reich, rumbled south from Jamboli in the freezing dawn of November 21, 1917, at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. The great lumbering airship cast her shadow over Adrianople in Turkey at nine forty-five a.m., and over the Sea of Marmara’s chop a short time later. At Pandena, on the southern shore, she picked up the railroad tracks to Smyrna, a steel ribbon barely visible after sunset. At seven forty p.m., L59 pulled free of the Turkish coast at the Lipsas Straits. Now the Greek Dodecanese Islands—Kos, Patmos, Rhodes—passed below, nestled like dark jewels in the black Mediterranean waters, notoriously stormy this time of year. But tonight, the Zeppelin surged forward beneath a clear sky and brilliant stars. Bockholt, who had made his life in the navy, had long ago learned to steer by them when necessary.

L59’s crew of twenty—excluding Bockholt and Zupitza—included twelve mechanics to service the five Maybach 240-horsepower engines (one in the forward control car, two opposed on the belly one-third of the way back, and two aft, each driving a single, massive twenty-foot propeller); two “elevator operators” (the elevators, movable flaps at the tail, controlled the upward or downward incline of the nose cone); a radio operator; and a sailmaker, whose job it was to sew up tears in the muslin envelopes affixed within the belly filled with the flammable hydrogen/oxygen mixture that kept the massive airship afloat.

As in the seaborne navy, watches divided the day into four-hour increments. As L59 approached the island of Crete at eight thirty p.m., a quarter of the crew just gone off watch opened their dinnertime cans of Kaloritkon, a bizarre sort of self-heating MRE. These undigestible, oversalted tubes of potted meat literally cooked themselves via a chemical reaction when exposed to air—heating food over open flame and smoking being strictly verboten aboard the flammable airship. The Kaloritkons, which everyone hated, took much water to wash down, and water was scarce, with barely 14 liters allotted per man for the duration of the voyage.

At ten fifteen p.m., L59 passed above Cape Sidero at Crete’s eastern extremity at 3,000 feet. Then the stars by which Bockholt had been guiding the Zeppelin to Africa suddenly disappeared, blotted out by a solid mass of black, churning clouds, shot through with bright veins of lightning. The Zeppelin headed into this cloud bank and, buffeted by thunderclaps and driving rain, was also suddenly consumed by a strange, vivid flame, cool to the touch, that seemed to dance across every surface of the doped canvas envelope.

“The ship’s burning!” called the top lookout—alarming, but no cause for alarm: This was St. Elmo’s fire, named after Erasmus of Formia, the patron saint of sailors. Technically a luminous plasma generated by coronal discharge in an atmospheric electrical field, it burned a vivid violet-blue and, in nontechnical terms, was entirely beautiful. For uncounted centuries the phenomenon had been interpreted as a sign—of what, exactly, no one could say—of God’s blessing, or God’s curse: It had been seen dancing above the obelisks of the Hippodrome just before the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453; it would be seen later, curling along the cockpit and around the spinning props of the B-29 Bockscar as she dropped Fat Boy on Nagasaki in 1945.

Not a quiet phenomenon, St. Elmo’s fire now hissed and sizzled and popped as L59 passed through the storm, fading at last as the super Zeppelin broke into clear air and dazzling moonlight. Now Africa glowed faintly dead ahead, the pirate seaports of the northern coast. For the duration of the storm, L59’s radio antennae, three long delicate wires trailing below her vast belly, had been wound in. Muffled in radio silence, the Zeppelin had been unreachable by any communication from Germany.

As it happened, three and a half hours into the flight, officials at the Kolonialamt having been informed somehow—how, exactly, will become a critical question—of British advances into the Makonde Highlands, last known gathering place of the Schutztruppe, decided to recall the mission. The Kolonialamt relayed this decision to Admiral von Holtzendorff, who broke the news to a crestfallen Kaiser. The Zeppelin handlers at Jamboli, soon informed of the recall, attempted to contact L59 but could not; she had passed beyond the limits of their frail transmitter. Jamboli called this failure back to Berlin: “L59 can no longer be reached from here, request recall through Nauen.” The radio transmitter at Nauen, near Berlin, the most powerful in Germany, then took up the recall message and continued to broadcast it all night long. But with her antenna wound in, deaf to these entreaties, L59 kept on her course for East Africa.

At five fifteen a.m., the sun cracked the rim of earth and the huge airship passed over the African continent at Ras Bulair on the Libyan coast. Miles of desert lay ahead; no Zeppelin had flown across such a landscape before. Now the level wastes of sand and rock stretched monotonously below L59’s keel, from horizon to horizon. Soon, the sun, blazing down, began to dry her canvas skin, still drenched and heavy from the storm. The airship grew lighter as the watery sheen evaporated; lighter still as fuel consumption continued apace. Then the gas in her envelopes, expanding with the heat, blew out the automatic valves into the atmosphere and soon, L59 became dangerously light and increasingly difficult to handle. To compensate, Bockholt flew her “nose down” throughout the day, shifting 1,650 pounds of ballast aft as a counterbalance.

In the late morning, hot desert air rose in bubbles of buoyancy, alternating with heavy downdrafts of cooler air. This caused a roller-coaster effect that made most of the crew violently airsick. Even the hardened navy veterans among them, used to storms at sea, were not immune to the stomach-churning sensation of weightlessness as L59 plunged into the downdrafts and precipitously rose again. Despite all this, L59 plowed ahead and made the Farafra Oasis around noon. This incandescent patch of green slid by below, its date palms rustling in the hot wind. The Bedouin tribesmen gathered there looked up in wild surmise, shading their eyes as the massive Zeppelin slid by overhead, still watching as she disappeared toward the west, the grumbling of her five Maybach engines audible long after she had vanished into the clouds.

Three hours later, the airship reached another oasis, at Dakhla. In this remote place, at the very heart of the desert, many of the tribesmen gathered with their camels around the murky spring had not heard of the war, or been aware that men could take to the air in flying machines. The sight of L59 looming above them like a visitation from a strange new god filled them with fear. (Years later, in 1933, a German aviator passing through the Dakhla Oasis saw crude images of a Zeppelin scrawled on the walls and doors of native huts. Questioning a Bedouin sheikh as to the meaning of these renderings, he was told the scrawl represented the shape of a “powerful sign from the heavens,” which had appeared twenty years before, and that it was worshipped as “a herald of Holy Grace.” Even now, he said, his people watched the skies for its return.)

From Dakhla, where apparently L59 had just inspired its own cargo cult, Bockholt aimed for the Nile. Flying across the endless desert, some of the men in this last era before the ubiquity of sunglasses had gone half-blind from the dazzling glare of sun on sand. Others had been visited with splitting headaches. A few, mesmerized by the persistent drone and the featureless monotony passing below, had become prey to hallucinations: Mirages rose out of the desert, ancient cities, half as old as time, full of jinn out of the Arabian Nights.

Meanwhile, the prosaic Bockholt in the forward gondola used the ship’s shadow crawling along the desert floor as a navigational tool. L59’s exact length, known to the millimeter and factored into a preset equation, measured both ground speed and drift. The Zeppelin sailed through the hot afternoon toward the Nile at sixty miles per hour, functioning perfectly until four twenty p.m. when a juddering sensation preceded the failure of her forward engine. Presently, the big propeller spun to a stop. Mechanics soon determined the reduction gear housing had cracked; they repaired it as best they could but took the engine out of service for the remainder of the journey. Now L59’s radio could not send messages, as this engine drove the radio generator—though radio signals could still be received.

Just before dusk, a flock of flamingos, vividly pink in the setting sun, flapped below L59’s nose cone; a moment later the marshes of the Nile came into view and the airship flew over mile after mile of verdant wetlands. Bockholt made for the great river, crossing over it at Wadi Halfa. Here he turned south, skirting the Nile’s broad flow and droning onward toward Khartoum and the Sudan beyond the last cataract.

Flying a Zeppelin is a difficult undertaking under the best conditions: Gas expands and contracts according to changing temperatures; lift and buoyancy fluctuate; all must be counterbalanced ceaselessly by the release of ballast water, the measured shifting of cargo, the canting of nose or tail via clumsy elevator flaps—and all this becomes doubly difficult over the desert. Bockholt had lightened his airship by 4,400 pounds of ballast in the last full heat of day and had even tossed some boxes of supplies overboard. He knew the rapidly cooling temperatures of the desert at night would contract the gas, causing the Zeppelin to sink. To counterbalance this sinking effect, he had planned to fly the ship at four degrees “nose up” on her four remaining engines.

But he had not counted on the humid, dense air of the Nile Valley. Even at 3,000 feet, ambient temperatures had reached sixty-eight degrees by ten p.m.; they rose steadily after midnight and still L59’s lift capacity gradually diminished. Finally, at three a.m., L59 began to lose altitude precipitously. The engines stalled. Forward thrust gone, the Zeppelin sank through the atmosphere from 3,100 feet to just under 1,300, not high enough to clear a looming desert escarpment; a minute later, her main radio antennae sheared off upon contact with an outcropping of red rock.

Now Bockholt ordered his crew to lighten the ship even further. With all engines stopped, 6,200 pounds of ballast and ammunition went overboard. The crew watched cases of ammunition, much needed by the Schutztruppe, shatter and explode on the ragged slopes below. But this sacrifice had its desired effect: Gradually, the sinking super Zeppelin stabilized; slowly, she rose into safer atmospheres:

“To fly steadily at 4 degrees heavy at night can easily be catastrophic, especially with sudden temperature changes in the Sudan, as at Jebel Ain,” Bockholt later confided to L59’s war diary, “particularly if the engines fail from overheating with warm outside temperatures. . . . Ship should have 3000 kg of 4 percent of her lift for each night to take care of cooling effect.”

Clearly, it was a complicated business.

A ZEPPELIN OVER AFRICA II

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L59, now less than 125 miles west of Khartoum, had two-thirds of the perilous journey behind her. But presently, to the dismay of all aboard, Bockholt turned the great airship around and pointed her nose cone due north—a faint radio signal had just been received from the radio transmitter at Nauen: Break off operation, return. Enemy has seized greater part of Makonde Highlands, already holds Kitangari. Portuguese are attacking remainder of Protectorate Forces from south.

This is the message that Bockholt penciled into the ship’s war diary. But the actual recall message received by L59 has been variously reported, with both its exact wording and—more important—its source varying according to the account. Here L59 sails from the dark cataracts of the Nile on the early morning of November 23, 1917, into the darker realm of historical conjecture:

“One of the many legends of the Naval Airship Division is that the British robbed Bockholt of success by sending a false recall message in captured German code,” wrote Douglas H. Robinson in his exhaustive study of airship warfare, The Zeppelin in Combat. Robinson, one of the foremost scholars of Zeppelinia, pointedly does not delve into the whys and wherefores of this “legend,” refusing to come down firmly on one side or the other.

Mosley, in his Duel for Kilimanjaro, written with the cooperation of von Lettow himself, reports the message as Go back. Newale has been taken. The war is over and the Schutztruppe has been defeated—and states flatly that “the message came from British sources which had set up their own radio station and were in possession of the German code.” Meanwhile, Zeppelin expert Frank A. Contey calls the idea of the British being responsible “unlikely,” stating that they probably couldn’t have “known the code and wavelength of L59’s radio communication.” But the British had possessed the German Naval Code, taken off the wreck of SMS Magdeburg, since the beginning of the war. The cipher masters of Room 40 had long since cracked it and, familiar with its intricacies, could both decipher captured messages and send messages of their own. Given Room 40’s massed-egghead brainpower, that they knew L59’s particular radio wavelength on the night of November 23, 1917, is not implausible.

Meinertzhagen later claimed that he alone originated the false recall message sent to L59—and indeed its odor is redolent of the many subterfuges he and his DPM crew perpetrated upon the Germans during von Lettow’s guerrilla campaign against the Uganda Railway in 1915. But Brian Garfield, the great and vigorous Meinertzhagen debunker, deftly puts the lie to this assertion. Garfield points out that Meinertzhagen’s account of his involvement in the L59 caper occurs in the much-revised 1926 version of his infamous diaries and not in the contemporaneous 1917 diary, and that the great fabulist wasn’t even in Africa during the time of L59’s clandestine flight. In fact, Meinertzhagen, suffering from a case of pernicious anemia, had been ordered out of theater by Smuts on November 10, 1916, and after a period of R and R at the luxurious Rift Hotel in Nairobi and an extended spell of home leave, had reported for duty in Cairo on May 24, 1917. By the end of the year, when L59 made her journey, Meinertzhagen was serving in Palestine far from the campaign in East Africa, and could not have sighted the Zeppelin either entering or exiting African airspace at Solum, in Egypt, as he later stated in his diary.

Garfield further states that what actually turned L59 back to Germany was “a signal relayed from one of Lettow’s little transmitters. The frail signal was amplified and forwarded by neutral stations in a few towns friendly to Lettow, and after some hours it reached German Naval Command. The signal informed headquarters not that Lettow had surrendered . . . but that the Schutztruppe had been unable to hold the flatlands around Mahenge and had been forced by heavy blanket-fire from British artillery to retreat back into jagged mountains where the dirigible would have no chance of landing without risking explosion.”

This version of events, however, is open to question: According to Mosley, via von Lettow, this message could not have originated from the Schutztruppe or any other German source in East Africa, as they had, by this time, no means of sending such a message:

“Lettow-Vorbeck’s sole remaining radio transmitter in Africa was situated at Newale, three days’ march north of the Rovuma River. Through this station he had, late in October, received news of his promotion to general and a message of personal congratulations from the Kaiser. He had assembled his Schutztruppe at Newale on November 17, 1917. . . . He was then informed that the radio station was in such a state of disrepair that it could only receive but not send any messages; a fact which could not, of course, be communicated to Berlin and does not seem to have been appreciated there.”

Actually, von Lettow did not seem to have been aware of the Zeppelin mission at all: “It was just as well for [his] peace of mind,” Mosley wrote, “that he did not know until after the war of what was happening in the skies over Africa. . . . On November 20,” Mosley concludes, “he ordered the [Newale radio] station to be dismantled.”

This was a full day before the departure of L59 from Jamboli for Africa.

How, then, was Bockholt and L59 supposed to reach the embattled Schutztruppe? His instructions in this regard were vague. According to Robinson: “On approaching the East African protectorate, [Bockholt] would endeavor to make radio contact with the troop headquarters, supposed to be southeast of Mahenge, and otherwise was to land northeast of Liwale.” These, as Robinson says, “sketchy directions” were the best available—as there now existed no way to contact von Lettow.

On putting the accounts together, it now seems certain (a) that the recall message taken in by Bockholt aboard L59 near Khartoum did indeed originate with the German transmitters at Nauen, but (b) that the message first informing Berlin of the Schutztruppe’s defeat—or at the very least of von Lettow’s retreat from the Makonde Plateau—did not come from von Lettow at all, and (c) that this message was a magnificent piece of disinformation, originating with British intelligence and sent out in German naval code via radio from London or Cairo or elsewhere and picked up by radio operators in Germany.

Indeed, the British knew all about the Zeppelin mission far in advance of L59’s departure—perhaps from Woodhall’s mysterious Balkan agent or another source—and had a long time to plan their strategies against her. Van Deventer, now overall commander of British forces in East Africa, mentioned it in dispatches on November 10. (Hoskins, Smuts’s replacement, had been dismissed for “dawdling” in May 1917.) Lord Cranworth complained that he was “awakened during the night to decode immensely long cypher dispatches as to the necessary steps to be taken on L59’s approach.” The handful of creaky BE2cs that constituted van Deventer’s East African Royal Flying Corps Squadron remained, props turning, in a state of readiness for days preceding the Zeppelin mission and “two mountain guns were dug in for L59’s reception” near the Makonde Plateau.

Captain Loof, by late 1917 a prisoner of the British, was thoroughly interrogated regarding the impending Zeppelin flight. They wanted to know where, exactly, it was going to land. Not only had Loof never heard of L59’s improbable mission, but he thought the proposition so fantastical that it had to have been some kind of ruse emanating from British intelligence—and decided to play along: “I can tell you in the strictest confidence,” he said, with all the false seriousness he could muster, “that two Zeppelins are coming, one to bomb Lindi and the other Tabora.”

Back in Germany, following the recall, they clearly believed von Lettow had been defeated. According to Mosley, “the false news of Lettow-Vorbeck’s capitulation which Zeppelin L59 brought back from its abortive journey to Africa filled the High Command with dismay.” But three weeks later, German agents working out of Dar es Salaam were able to smuggle the truth to Berlin: von Lettow-Vorbeck and the East African Schutztruppe still fought on. The Kaiser, despondent since receiving the news of von Lettow’s defeat, perked up enough to write out another effusive message, which he passed to Dr. Solf of the Kolonialamt, in hopes that it might be delivered, somehow, to von Lettow in Africa:

The Schutztruppe command has reported to me the most recent feat of arms of the remnant of our East African Army under the command of General von Lettow-Vorbeck. According to the latest news, there seemed to be no way out of their desperate situation and the merciless hounding-down seemed to be drawing to its end. We receive instead the joyous news that the strength of the band of heroes is unbroken, that they still uphold the German flag on the Black Continent, firmly hoping for the victory of German arms in Europe. Only a corps inspired by unreserved trust in their leader and a commander of General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s energy are capable of such an accomplishment, which fills us with pride and admiration, and which is held in esteem even by the adversary. And should in the future the courageous band be overpowered by the enemy, the history of this war will pay tribute to General von Lettow and his troops. May God grant you His aid.

After the destruction of the radio equipment at Newale, von Lettow had no way to receive this appreciation. The British themselves sent it through the lines under white flag, in these last days of the Gentleman’s War.

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But we have gotten ahead of our story. Whatever the source of the recall message received by Bockholt aboard L59 at twelve forty-five p.m. on November 22, 1917, it caused a near mutiny among his crew. To a man, they insisted vociferously the recall message must be false, that the mission must continue. That Bockholt only with difficulty persuaded them to follow orders is shown by the delay of nearly two hours between receiving the recall and carrying it out. At two thirty a.m., the lumbering airship finally swung a wide loop over the Nile and headed north again toward Europe. The journey out, difficult enough with its heat bumps, airsickness, and noxious self-heating canned food, seemed like a pleasure cruise compared to the return trip. The crew, no longer buoyed by hope, adrenaline, and a belief in their mission, fell prey to strange fevers. Sleep became impossible in the narrow confines of their hammocks slung in the keel too close to a noisily flapping panel. Temperatures fluctuated from 82ºF over the Libyan Desert to 14ºF above the Anatolian Highlands. Nearly twenty-four hours after turning around, L59 left Africa behind at the Gulf of Solum. Crossing the Mediterranean proved fraught with vicious storms, though this time no St. Elmo’s fire appeared to guide them on their way.

At dawn on November 24, the weather cleared and L59 soared to 10,000 feet over the Gulf of Adalia in northwest Turkey. By two p.m., she had crossed the Anatolian heartland, fishing vessels in the Gulf of Chalona riding the waves far below. Proceeding across Asia Minor after dark, she again lost headway and, as in the Sudan, nearly came to a disastrous end, sinking from 3,000 to 1,300 feet above the mountains north of Ushak. Her nose cone pointed six degrees up, the four remaining Maybach engines running at full power failed to stop the descent. A cold northern wind pushed her down and Bockholt ordered the dumping of 6,600 more pounds of ballast. Again, her antennae weights struck the slopes of the mountain; since they extended only a few hundred feet, here she came perilously close to crashing in the dark.

At last, at seven thirty a.m. on November 25, 1917, L59 made her docking station at Jamboli. Her mooring ropes dropped, the ground crew drew her down and walked her into the long shed. China Show had ended in failure.

The twenty-two aeronauts, wobbly-legged, nearly deafened by the droning Maybachs at close quarters, stumbled down the ladders to the ground in the gray Balkan morning. They had been in the air for almost four days and had covered 4,200 air miles—the longest distance in the shortest time of any airship to date. And in truth, they might have gone farther: 19,900 pounds of fuel remained in L59’s tanks—enough to power the Zeppelin for sixty-four more hours of flight—though her hydrogen reserves, reduced by a third, and the lack of sufficient ballast wouldn’t have permitted L59 to reach her maxim range of—say—Chicago.

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From here the elusive Professor Dr. Zupitza, medical doctor and professor of zoology, disappears from the pages of history. Kapitänleutnant Bockholt, awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, for his Africa exploit (had he succeeded, the Pour le Mérite would certainly have been his), remained in command of L59. His crew, now among the most experienced in terms of distance traveled, remained with him. But what to do with the moribund super Zeppelin? The hulking, unwieldy airship had not been expected to return from her suicide mission. Now she wallowed aimlessly in her shed in Jamboli, deflating slowly like a helium balloon after a birthday party.

For weeks her fate, debated between Strasser, Bockholt, naval chief of staff Admiral von Holtzendorff, and the Kaiser himself, floated between yea and nay. Bockholt wanted to try for Africa again, locate the still-undefeated Schutztruppe, and deliver his goods as intended. The Kaiser wanted to send her on a 2,300-mile journey to the coast of Yemen—there to deliver a load of gold and armaments to his Turkish ally, Enver Pasha, just then battling Lawrence of Arabia in the desert. The navy wanted to use her as a scout ship to search for mines in the Dardanelles. Strasser wanted to rebuild her as a bomb carrier, with which to attack England. The only purpose, he once more insisted, for which a Zeppelin was truly suited.

“England would be very pleased to have this airship kept away from her,” he wrote in a heated letter to von Holtzendorff. “Airship operations have never been worthwhile and never will be worthwhile except in the North Sea, scouting for the Fleet and in raids on England.”

Bockholt then drew up plans of his own that called for L59 to be converted into an offensive weapon and used against Allied military targets in the Mediterranean—Malta, Port Said, and various Italian cities, including Brindisi and Naples—all hitherto inaccessible to German aircraft. He sent a letter outlining this plan to von Holtzendorff over Strasser’s head, incurring the latter’s ire: To Strasser, such a proposal routed outside the chain of command smelled of rank careerism. But on January 5, 1918, the Kaiser with the naval chief’s recommendation decided in favor of Bockholt, and L59 was refitted as a bomb carrier at Jamboli.

Rebuilt to carry bombs, L.59 made only one raid in her new role, striking Naples on the night of 11-12 March 1918. Italian cities should be considered a prime Zeppelin target due to “the excitability of the population,” Bockholt wrote in a memo to the head of the German Naval Airship Division, Peter Strasser. About two dozen bombs were dropped, missing their targets (the naval base, gas works and Bagnoli steel plant) and instead falling on the northern outskirts of the city, killing 16 civilians and injuring 40 In the self-congratulatory telegram he later sent back to the Naval Airship Division HQ in Friedrichshafen, Bockholt complained about the bad food supplied to his crew (undoubtedly more foul, self-heating Kaloritkon) and made a lame joke: “If I ever get married, I won’t go to Naples on my honeymoon!”

On March 20, Bockholt aimed L59 for Port Said on the Egyptian coast, but was driven back by powerful headwinds and returned to Jamboli, bombs still nestled in the keel like so many poisonous eggs. This time, Bockholt ordered a complete overhaul of her engines—they should have been able to deal with the headwind, no matter how strong. Eighteen days later, on April 7, 1918, ready to fly again, the super Zeppelin kicked off her mooring ropes and sailed above the dour Bulgarian landscape, nose cone pointed to the southeast. Bockholt had decided to attack the important British naval base at Malta, via a route that took him across the Balkans and the Straits of Otranto into the Mediterranean.

Later that day, at sea, in the vermillion dusk, U53, a U-boat assigned to the German Mediterranean Flotilla, surfaced in the Adriatic off the Apulian coast. Oberleutnant zur See Sprenger, in command, came topside and observed a giant airship flying low over the water, following in his wake. At first unsure of her nationality—the Italians and other Allies now also used airships—he made ready to fire at her with his deck guns. Then he saw the Knight’s Cross emblazoned on her underbelly and the designation L59 on her hull and recognized her for a friend. Sprenger and his gun crew now watched as the Zeppelin overtook them, floating along quite low at only 700 feet, and kept watching as she disappeared, an ominous presence in the Adriatic gloom, bound for parts unknown—though Sprenger figured she might be heading for Otranto, which the German Mediterranean Flotilla had just been ordered to subject to a naval bombardment.

Then, after about an hour and a half, Sprenger saw “two points of fire” in the sky on the horizon, which he took for shrapnel bursts: “Shortly thereafter,” he saw, so he wrote in his ship’s log, “a gigantic flame which lit the entire horizon bright as day for a short time and then slowly fell to the water, where it continued to burn over the horizon for twenty minutes longer. When the fire started, several heavy explosions were heard. From all appearances, the airship was shot at and fell burning. Searchlights in the direction where she fell made it appear that a search was being made. On passing the approximate spot three hours later, nothing was visible. Position about 41 degrees, 2′ N, 18 degrees, 53′ E.”

Sprenger had witnessed the final end of the famous Afrika-Schiff L59, lost with all hands and all engines in the dark sea at the heel of Italy. Neither the British nor Italians claimed to have shot her down—though how to explain the searchlights? Later, an oil slick was found, a few enigmatic pieces of floating wood, a fuel drop tank; nothing more. The exact cause of her demise remains unknown, but members of her crew had complained of fuel-line leaks, so it is assumed an accident in which a fuel fire ignited the hydrogen and led to her destruction.

It would have been better for Bockholt and his ship had he ignored the recall message received five months earlier, despite all the odds against finding von Lettow, and continued his journey to East Africa. He turned back and perished. Though L59’s greatest mission was a failure, her record-making journey from Jamboli to Khartoum, the first truly intercontinental flight of any consequence, is still remembered by aviation historians as pointing the way to the future of modern air travel.

Erprobungsstelle Rechlin

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Between 1935 and 1940, several He 70s were used for testing new equipment by the Kommando der Erprobungsstellen situated at the Erprobungsstelle Rechlin near Lake Müritz, east of Berlin, and at other evaluation sites too. Unarmed He 70s were used for personnel transport or liaison duties until the early forties.

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The He 177 V29 (GO+IF, production number 15155), an aircraft belonging to the A-1 series, was mainly used for defensive armament trials at the E-Stelle Rechlin. Note a small remote-controlled weapons turret could be installed in the lower front section of the aircraft.

An aviator test- and training institute had been established at Rechlin on Lake Müritz in 1916. On 29 August 1918 the Flieger Versuchs- und Lehranstalt (Aircraft Trial and Test Station) Rechlin was established under the designation Kommandant der Flughäfen (Officer Commanding, Aifields) Müritzsee under the command of Hauptmann (Captain) August Joly. Up until 11 November 1918 (the end of the First World War), this new evaluation unit tested all new aircraft and equipment.

New but secret flight testing activities were recommenced in 1922. Early in 1928 the existing buildings at Rechlin were taken over by the Albatros Flugzeugwerke (aircraft factory) GmbH. Additionally a few more hangars were constructed and used by Albatros. From 1928 onward, all facilities at Rechlin were steadily and regularly enlarged to fulfil the many new tasks required of this secret evaluation site; several more hangars were built from 1929, for example. With the exception of the BFWM22, nearly all new German aircraft developments were sent to Rechlin for evaluation. Despite many evaluation flight crashes, it succeeded in selecting those aircraft, from the many designs which could have fulfilled the demands of the Truppenamt, used to arm what was to become the future Luftwaffe. On 1 June 1931, the Erprobungsstelle of the Reichsverband der Deutschen Luftfahrtindustrie (Reich Society of Aircraft Manufacturers), or RDL, situated at Staaken and Rechlin, was split into five separate departments, of which the major two were those used for the testing of new aircraft and new aircraft engines. The others evaluated new wireless systems, other ancillary equipment and were involved in problem solving in other aviation matters, such as aerial photography The RDL was ordered by the Truppenamt (Army Office) of the Reichswehr to continue with its secret development of German military aircraft as ordered in the autumn of 1929. In 1932, several transport aircraft were tested to examine if they would be capable of use as auxiliary bombardment aircraft. Besides the Ju G24 and Ju 52, the Dornier Merkur (Mercury) and Rohrbach Ro VIII were evaluated as part of this program. Additionally, the first batch of fighters including the He 51 and Arado Ar 65 was tested here.

On 30 January 1933, important proposals were put forward concerning an enlarged facility at Rechlin for the development and testing of new aircraft. On the back of this, a new military airfield at Lärz (near Rechlin) and subsequently the E-Hafen at Roggentin nearby were established by the new Luftwaffe command, both to accommodate the testing of aircraft and ancillary equipment.

By 1936, a huge Luftwaffe evaluation site had evolved, incorporating several engine testing sites. Buildings for officers and specialists were built around the main airfield near Ellerholz, east of Rechlin. In addition, a row of huge hangars was erected together with a widespread refuelling system and an ammunition dump, just east of the small village of Rechlin proper on the shore of Lake Müritz. Also engine test beds, a power station and the control tower were all built, followed by a second tower a short time later, again constructed near Lake Müritz. Subsequently, near the evaluation site itself, several smaller houses, called Siedlung Rechlin, were built to house officers and engineers working at the Rechlin evaluation centre in order that they should not live too far from their work!

On 9 November 1934, a secret exhibition was staged at Rechlin presenting the He 45, He 46, He 70, Ju W34, Ju 52 and Do 11. which were all shown with ancillary equipment fitted.

Then in 1935, a new German Luftwaffe was officially established. During the course of that year and the following year, many brand new combat- and training aircraft, especially the first Bf 109, Do 17, Hamburger Flugzeugbau Ha 137, Henschel Hs 123, Hs 126, He 111, Ju 86 and Ju 87, were sent to Rechlin to undergo their first Luftwaffe evaluation.

On 22 May 1936, an impressive exhibition was held at Rechlin showing not only the Ju 86, the He 111 and the Do 17 bombers, but also the He 112 and Fw 159 fighters together with many more improved types. Beside the Reichsminister der Luftfahrt (Reich Minister of Air Transport) and Oberbefehlshaber (Supreme Commander) of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, the Reichskriegsminister (Reich War Minister) von Blomberg together with several other high-ranking officers were present. A few weeks later, on 10 July 1935, the same aircraft were inspected by Adolf Hitler himself.

In 1937, still more new prototypes went to Rechlin; beside the Messerschmitt Bf 110 destroyer, engineers at Rechlin commenced their evaluation of one of the new Ju 88. Furthermore, the Fw 57 and a few Henschel aircraft, notably the Hs 122, Hs 124 and Hs 127, were intensively tested there. During the course of 1937, six new aircraft crashed at or near the site, killing 18 members of the Rechlin evaluation team. However, despite all the dangers associated with the evaluation of new aircraft types, it was viewed as simply too important a task to stop the program at this stage.

In 1938, increasing numbers of improved variants of the combat aircraft expected to enter Luftwaffe service arrived at Rechlin. Most of them were prototypes of the Bf 109 and He 111, but there were also some new designs such as the Ha 141, later designated the Blohm & Voss BV 131, the Ar 198 and even a few more experimental types found their way to Rechlin at about this time. Additionally, the first Do 217, more than just an improved Do 17, became ready for testing as the third two-engined bomber earmarked for service with the Luftwaffe. Simultaneously, the Ju88 was tested as a heavy dive-bomber armed with special weapon loads.

In 1939, all aircraft evaluation was placed under the command of the Generalluftzeugmeister (Officer In Charge, Aircraft Procurement) who was responsible for the Technisches Amt (Technical Office) of the RLM, and who was also responsible for all other evaluation sites. Despite new responsi-bilites given to the various departments within Rechlin, flight tests were still carried out in the usual way. Another important aircraft reached Rechlin that year: the first Focke-Wulf Fw 190. In addition, the Fl 265, the Hs 128 V1 and the Me 210 V1 were all tested by pilots at Rechlin.

During 1940, beside the Fw 190 and Me 210, a new four-engined bomber, the He 177 V1, arrived at Rechlin, to be tested intensively by the evaluation team. Many technical problems were found during the evaluation of these types, though not all of the issues could be resolved by the Rechlin staff due to shortened development time constraints of the Me 210 and the He 177 in particular. At about the same time Rechlin succeeded in testing Fw 190s fitted with the first of the BMW 801 radial engines which would be used to replace the less powerful BMW 139s in the then not-too-distant future. To improve existing fighter power, variants with larger aircraft engines were sent to Rechlin; several new Bf 110s were evaluated in 1940, together with the first prototypes of the new Bf 109F and the first pre-series Do 217.

As of 1941, evaluation tasks were expanded once more; the development of the large He 177 bomber involved much work in order to obtain a reliable aircraft finally capable of front line service.

After the outbreak of hostilities, theatres of war became increasingly large, close air support becoming increasingly important for the Wehrmacht ground units fighting on long fronts, often without powerful enough weapons and enough supplies. Therefore it became an important task for the Erprobungsstellen to test the first Hs 129s, as well as special ground attack variants of the Fw 189 and the early Fw 190 fighter/bomber.

At this stage of the war it became obvious that German air transport capacity was too limited to fulfil all its necessary tasks over the European war theatre and the north African desert. Therefore, new huge gliders were constructed which underwent test and evaluation activities in 1940. Beside the Gotha Go 242, far larger types such as the Ju 322 and the Me 321 Gigant (Giant) were evaluated, although only the Go 242 and a motorised variant of the Me 321, the Me 323, actually passed evaluation at the time.

Month by month, new variants of all the more common combat aircraft were transferred to Rechlin for evaluation. In 1941 and 1942, Rechlin pilots not only flew the newest Bf 109s of the early G-series, but also the improved Bf 110 aircraft of both the F- and G-series and yet more Fw 190 variants. Simultaneously, more powerful bombers were brought to Rechlin. Most of these were prototypes of the Do 217-K and –M, being powered by BMW 80IDs and DB 603As respectively At the time there were insufficient resources for the Reich to produce four-engined strategic bombers, such as the Allies’ Fortress or Lancaster. Therefore those types already in service, such as the He 111 and Ju 88, were continuously improved to allow missions under more difficult conditions during the defence of the Reich, for example under heavier AA fire and against the increasingly potent fighters of the Allies. By the middle of the war, the Luftwaffe was demanding the introduction of heavier destroyer aircraft types to defend Reich territory both by day and by night. Prototypes of these well armed aircraft, such as the Do 217N and Ju 88C, were sent to Rechlin for testing and evaluation. Later in 1942, the first Ar 240 and He 219 Uhu (Owl) prototypes were available and, as usual, were first tested by their manufacturers before being handed over to the various E-Stellen. Also, various new transport aircraft became available for testing at this time. Besides the Go 244, a motorised glider, the Ju 252 and Fi 256, both German liaison and transport types, were to start their evaluation phase. However, only a limited number of each were produced due to the lack of sufficiently high quality raw materials.

Rechlin’s role was however not limited to German aircraft, several captured aircraft being sent to the site for evaluation. All over German-held territory, teams of specialist engineers were responsible for the recovery of any allied aircraft shot down or forced to land. Those allied machines suffering only limited damage were of tremendous interest to these men, who were also responsible for the recovery of undamaged spare parts from similar aircraft, thus allowing the Rechlin specialists to repair damaged enemy aircraft for comparative flights with German types.

From 1942 onwards, numerous photoreconnaissance aircraft of the RAF attempted to probe the secrets of the Rechlin test centre. All unrecognised aircraft or those unknown to the reconnaissance specialists back in the UK were labelled “Rechlin #”. For example, “Rechlin 104” photographed on 28 June 1943, was possibly the first Ar 232 to land at the airfield. Photos of various heavy night fighter prototypes and new Do 217 variants then being tested at Rechlin were also brought back to England at around this time.

The war visited the E-Stelle Rechlin itself early in 1944, when Allied P38s hit hard at Rechlin-Lärz and destroyed a few of the prototypes dispersed around the second evaluation airstrip at the base. On 24 May 1944, a total of 13 four-engined bombers of the 388th Bomber Group appeared over Rechlin-Lärz and dropped 31 tons of bombs although they failed to hit even one of the prototypes located there.

Despite these attacks, the pilots, engineers and men continued with their work to create new weapons for the Luftwaffe. Between May and August 1944, reconnaissance aircraft of the RAF located the first Ar 234 and Ju 287 types, together with a few Me 262s based there. Overwhelming allied air power had not been significantly hindered from reaching their targets all over Europe by the then available German piston-engined fighters or destroyers. Therefore German aircraft manufacturers were ordered, within the shortest period of time, to construct well armed jet fighters and bombers to prosecute a new kind of defensive and offensive air war against the Allies. Not only was the Me 163, a small rocket-powered point-defence fighter, constructed and tested at this time, but also several prototypes of the Me 262 and a few He 280s were evaluated, both in Bavaria and at other sites all over the Reich.

On 12 and 13 June 1944, the E-Stelle Rechlin presented a complete review of all the various prototypes then being tested. Beside the huge He 177 (the B-5-prototype), the fast Ju 88S-3, the He 219 and the new Focke-Wulf Ta 154 Moskito were shown. Furthermore, all the new major fighter variants and conversions were flown or shown at the event. Beside the Ar 234, Me 163, the new Do 335 and the Me 262, there were also examples of the latest captured Fortress, Liberator, Lightning, Mosquito and other Allied types shown.

On 25 August 1944, Rechlin was again hit, this time by 179 bombers of the US 8th Air Force. There was damage to the base this time but it still managed to function, although unlike the previous raid a few prototypes were lost or damaged. Late in 1944, the evaluation of German jet aircraft projects was continued with great vigour. Specialist teams worked on the He 111H which was needed for airborne release trials of the V1. Additionally, desperate attempts were undertaken to use manned Vis, code-named Reichenberg, to destroy more important targets through the use of suicide attacks, but on 15 March 1945 all work on this particular weapon was ceased.

Meanwhile, in January 1945, the Red Army had advanced faster than estimated after the Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) had been severely mauled and had practically broken down. To stem the Russian ground forces’ advance, all available aircraft were required, including those at Rechlin. The inventory of E-Stelle Rechlin at the time consisted of both series aircraft and prototypes which was immediately organised into two night bomber Staffeln flying the He 111, Ju 88 and Ju 188. Also a fast Bomberstaffel (bomber squadron) consisting of nine Ar 234s, two ground attack formations flying the available Fw 190s and two fighter units with a total of 13 Bf 109s and Me 262s were all established. The complete Gefechtsverband (Fighting Unit) KdE was dissolved, however, on 19 February 1945, due to serious problems in using prototypes for offensive missions. Also, with Russian ground forces still advancing rapidly, the evacuation of E-Stelle Rechlin to Lechfeld in Bavaria began on 24 March 1945.

Once re-established there, the evaluation of the Ar 234, Me 262 and the new He 162 Volksjäger (Peoples’ Fighter) could start again. Only very few prototypes had been flown from Rechlin to Lechfeld, but that included the first pre-series Ar 234C-3 and some of the He 162s. Meanwhile Rechlin and Lärz were severely hit by American Liberators on 10 April 1945. The last prototypes left Rechlin on 20 April 1945, destined for Bavaria and Northern Germany, the last members of staff of the E-Stelle leaving by train on 29 April 1945 before the facilities were blown up by German forces the following day.

Besides the E-Stelle Rechlin, several similar units were established across Germany, though they were used for other purposes.

 

SS-Verfügungs Division 1940

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An SS-VT 37mm (1.47in) anti-tank gun pulled by what appears to be a Kettenrad half-track motorcycle during Case Yellow. However, the calibre of the gun was too small to threaten Allied tanks like the British Matilda.

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Officers from the Germania Regiment of the SS-VT discuss their plan of action during the campaign in the West in May 1940. Note the camouflaged smock which had just been introduced.

WALCHEREN DEFIANT

A favourable geographical situation also encouraged the garrison at Walcheren Island to hold its ground. Not only was the Beveland Peninsula a thin strip of land that prohibited any large-size attack force from assailing the island in a two- or three-pronged offensive, but also much of the terrain was flooded. This forced Hausser to send his battalions down a narrow, bottle-neck passage, where they were vulnerable to artillery- and machine-gun fire. At the end of the peninsula, the Germans had only one possible land-based route to the island. This passage was a strong, concrete dam running between the island and the peninsula, which was wide enough to allow an asphalt road and a single-track railway across the top.

For his attack upon Walcheren, Hausser selected two battalions from the Deutschland Regiment to use against the island garrison. SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt led the 1st Battalion, while SS-Sturmbannführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp commanded the 3rd Battalion. Although they had planned to approach the island in a two-pronged formation, the flooded terrain on the Beveland Peninsula forced the 1st Battalion to close ranks behind Kleinheisterkamp’s troops.

On the afternoon of the 16th May, as the SS battalions approached the island, they began to encounter stiff resistance from the garrison. At an area around Westerdijk, the men of the 3rd Battalion had to negotiate their way through a minefield that was covered with barbed-wire, while a group of enemy soldiers who were well-entrenched in permanent defensive positions along an embanked road fired into them. Meanwhile, artillery batteries based in Antwerp shelled the SS battalions, as did the British warships patrolling near the island. During this advance, the Germans lost 16 men.

ATTACK ON THE DAM

As a participant in the assault on Walcheren Dam, Paul Schürmann of No. 9 Company, 3rd Battalion, Deutschland Regiment, described the intensity of the fighting. ‘I see one man fall,’ he recalled, ‘then two on the right and then another comrade who lies face down. Some men are using their teeth to tear open field dressings to bandage their shattered arms or chests.’ Meanwhile, ‘more and more of our machine-guns cease firing, with their crews silent, bloody and pale behind the weapons’.

During a pause in the advance, Schürmann noticed more carnage. At one point he observed a comrade wandering about with his shirt torn from him. On this wounded soldier, ‘there is a gaping wound in his back and I can see the pumping movement of his lungs’. Schürmann recalled, ‘To the left of me another comrade goes back almost marching, erect, ignoring the bullets flying through the air … paying no attention to death. His throat and chest, covered in field dressings, are blood soaked. His unfocused eyes are wide open, his face is grey and he looks straight past me.’ To the right, Schürmann noticed another fallen soldier ‘lying on his back. His twitching fingers claw at the air.’

Despite this punishing counter-attack, the SS battalions pushed forwards and fought their way across the flooded, muddy ground to reach the Walcheren Dam. Here the German attack stalled in the face of more punishing resistance from the garrison. Finding protection in hastily excavated foxholes and behind railway cars, the SS troops held their ground as Allied machine-gun and artillery crews shot at them from the other side of the dam. During this engagement, the Germans lost another 17 men killed and 30 wounded. Satisfied with the amount of damage that they had inflicted upon the Deutschland Regiment, the Walcheren garrison finally evacuated the island.

While the SS-Verfügungs Division secured German control over the western end of Holland, the rest of Army Group B had captured Brussels, swept through Belgium and northern France, and had then pushed its way to the English Channel. When the Dutch Army capitulated, the main body of the 18th Army was able to join this offensive and help create a salient that separated Allied forces in northern France from those along the River Somme. During this action, the 18th Army was preoccupied with protecting the flanks of the salient, ensuring that Allied troops trapped in the area around Dunkirk would remain where they were, with their backs to the English Channel.

On the evening of the 22nd May, XIL Corps ordered the SS-Verfügungs Division to proceed with the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions toward the port of Calais in order to help strengthen German positions west and south of the Dunkirk perimeter, as well as tighten the noose around this pocket of resistance. Specifically, the SS soldiers were supposed to cross the La Bassée Canal and intercept enemy forces attempting to break out of the pocket at a point on the waterway south of the town of Cassel. In addition, the SS-Verfügungs Division was to establish bridgeheads across the canal and push British troops out of the Nieppe Forest.

Although Hausser’s men were now exhausted from several days of marching and fighting, they were still in high spirits and relished the prospect of playing a decisive role in the battle for Western Europe. During the march to the La Bassée Canal, the SS units covered the right flank of XIL Corps and headed for the town of Aire. Later in the night, Hausser received a message from 18th Army headquarters ordering him to remain at his current position. The SS units bivouacked for the night at an area further south, near the town of Saint Hilaire.

Unfortunately for the soldiers in the SS-Verfügungs Division, enemy troops did not allow them to enjoy any relaxation. During the course of the night, scattered groups of French armoured and infantry units charged into Hausser’s troops in an attempt to break out of the Dunkirk pocket. By the early morning hours of the 23rd May, an armoured battalion had overrun No. 9 Company, Der Führer Regiment, while other tank formations surrounded the regiment’s No. 10 and No. 11 companies.

Later in the morning, the French attacked No. 5 and No. 7 companies and charged into an area near Blessy. Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, Der Führer Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the SS Artillery Regiment had settled at this location for the evening, only to end up engaged in a confusing battle against desperate adversaries. They were fighting like cornered animals. During the battle, Karl Kreutz, a rising star in the SS-VT Division, witnessed the death of a careless battalion commander: ‘I saw Erpsenmüller was standing beside me smoking a cigarette. He asked, “Kreutz, aren’t you firing on prisoners of war?”’ Kreutz recalled, ‘The next second, while I was reloading, I saw him fall, shot through the head. He lay face downward with the cigarette still burning in his left hand.’

Reeling from the shock of the French surprise attack, the Germans rallied and began an orderly defensive action. Although surrounded by enemy battle tanks, a platoon of anti-tank gunners from Der Führer’s No. 7 Company destroyed at least 15 enemy vehicles. As the morning progressed, the French attack at Saint Hilaire gradually lost its momentum and the Germans seized the initiative, launching well-coordinated counter-assaults that involved infantry- and anti-tank units working in close cooperation. By the time the battle was over, Der Führer’s 3rd Battalion alone had destroyed 13 armoured vehicles and the division as a whole had taken about 500 prisoners. This battle was the first occasion in which the regiment had fought against battle tanks.

Other SS units distinguished themselves during the fighting that had broken out across the front of the division at the La Bassée Canal. While commanding a 30-man motorcycle patrol, SS-Untersturmführer Fritz Vogt spotted a French armoured column heading east to the town of Mazinghem. As an officer in the 2nd Company, Reconnaissance Detachment, Vogt had already won distinction for his leadership in the attack on the Dutch garrison at the Meuse-Waal Canal. In France, his actions against this armoured column would earn him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

With his anti-tank crews prepared to fire upon the French column, Vogt directed his men to shoot at the soft-skinned vehicles moving at the tail of the convoy. After knocking out these targets, the anti-tank crews struck the battle tanks at the front of the formation. Panicked and demoralized by this assault, the soldiers in the battalion-size armoured unit surrendered to the 30-man reconnaissance team.

HARD FIGHTING

Eventually, the battle near Saint Hilaire ended when the surviving members of the French assault detachment retreated to the other side of the La Bassée Canal and fell back to the Dunkirk perimeter. Although the men of the SS-VT Division had successfully repelled the attack, they were frustrated by the difficulty they had encountered against the French-built Renault 35 and other, larger, battle tanks. The German anti-tank weapons were not powerful enough to penetrate the tanks’ armour, except at close range. In some instances, enemy battle tanks had come within 5m (5.5yd) of anti-tank crewmen before being knocked out. This deficiency in firepower had contributed to the initial success of the French armoured formations in penetrating the division’s lines.

On 24 May, the SS-Verfügungs Division crossed the La Bassée Canal, established bridgeheads across the waterway, and advanced 8 km (5 miles) behind enemy lines before being intercepted by British soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division. Despite the tenacity of the British counter-attack, the Germans held their ground and maintained their bridgeheads. Even before this battle was over, the division received a message on 26 May ordering it to move north-west and begin an attack against British forces occupying the Nieppe Forest.

The following morning, the SS-Verfügungs Division started its assault on the forest. The Germania Regiment took the right wing of the advance, while the Der Führer Regiment marched on the left. Meanwhile, the Reconnaissance Detachment pressed forward at a position situated between Der Führer’s 1st and 3rd Battalions. Not surprisingly, the densely wooded terrain within the forest enabled the British defenders to fight effectively against this attack. They also enjoyed the protection of well-constructed field fortifications.

When the SS battalions launched their assault on the Nieppe Forest, they suffered high casualties from enemy marksmen. On the right wing of the attack, sharpshooters from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment wreaked havoc upon the Germania Regiment. Despite this difficulty, the SS units made substantial progress in their effort to push the British garrison out of the forest, exploiting their numerical superiority and fighting in a very aggressive manner.

By the end of the day, the men of the Germania Regiment had advanced as far as the town of Haverskerque, while the Der Führer Regiment had pushed through the Bois d’Amont and reached the Canal de Nieppe. At these areas, the SS soldiers found anti-tank rifles which had been abandoned by retreating enemy forces. When the Germans tested these weapons on a makeshift firing range, they found that the barrels had been bent and thus rendered inaccurate, as other weapons would later be after Dunkirk.

On 28 May, the offensive against the Dunkirk pocket became easier for the armies of the Third Reich when King Leopold III and his Belgian Army surrendered, thereby enabling the German 6th and 18th Armies to close in on the eastern end of the Allied perimeter. This capitulation – combined with successful assaults launched by the Kleist and Hoth Panzer Groups to the south and the west of Dunkirk – pushed the remaining Allied forces back to a small and narrow area extending from Ypres in the east to the Franco–Belgian border. Because the Nieppe Forest was now situated on a salient that was vulnerable to isolation and encirclement, the British Expeditionary Force evacuated the Queen’s Own and other regiments from the area, and took up positions closer to the English Channel.

While the Germania Regiment, the Der Führer Regiment, and the Reconnaissance Detachment saw action in the Nieppe Forest, Steiner and his Deutschland Regiment marched on Merville with the 3rd Panzer Division. On 27 May, the SS unit confronted a fresh line of British defences arrayed along the Lys Canal. After softening enemy positions with an artillery barrage, Steiner hurled his 3rd Battalion at the British defenders, driving them out of the area. Later in the day, two of his battalions were on the other side of the waterway forming bridgeheads for other German forces.

The Totenkopf Division was supposed to be in the area to help solidify German control over this part of the canal, but it was still several miles away when British armoured units launched a punishing counter-attack against the Deutschland Regiment. Although the SS soldiers fought valiantly, their rifles and grenades were not powerful enough to knock out the enemy battle tanks. After suffering heavy casualties, they were saved from the brink of annihilation when an anti-tank company from the Totenkopf Division arrived in the nick of time and repulsed the British armoured assault. Covered by protective artillery fire from nearby batteries, the surviving British tank crews withdrew from the area.

CB Lutzow

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17lutzow-july1943

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Deutschland was the lead ship of her class of heavy cruisers (often termed a pocket battleship) which served with the Kriegsmarine of Nazi Germany during World War II. Ordered by the Weimar government for the Reichsmarine, she was laid down at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel in February 1929 and completed by April 1933. Originally classified as an armored ship (Panzerschiff) by the Reichsmarine, in February 1940 the Germans reclassified the remaining two ships of this class as heavy cruisers. In 1940, she was renamed Lützow, after the Admiral Hipper class heavy cruiser Lützow was handed over to the Soviet Union.

The ship saw significant action with the Kriegsmarine, including several non-intervention patrols, during which she was attacked by Republican bombers in the Spanish Civil War. At the outbreak of World War II, she was cruising the North Atlantic, prepared to attack Allied merchant traffic. Bad weather hampered her efforts, and she only sank or captured a handful of vessels before returning to Germany. She then participated in Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway. Damaged at the Battle of Drøbak Sound, she was recalled to Germany for repairs. While en route, she was torpedoed and seriously damaged by a British submarine.

Repairs were completed by March 1941, Lützow returned to Norway to join the forces arrayed against Allied shipping to the Soviet Union. She ran aground during a planned attack on convoy PQ 17, which necessitated another return to Germany for repairs. She next saw action at the Battle of the Barents Sea with the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, which ended with a failure to destroy the convoy JW 51B. Engine problems forced a series of repairs culminating in a complete overhaul at the end of 1943, after which the ship remained in the Baltic. Sunk in the Kaiserfahrt in April 1945 by Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers, Lützow was used as a gun battery to support German troops fighting the Soviet Army until 4 May 1945, when she was disabled by her crew. Raised by the Soviet Navy in 1947, she was subsequently sunk as a target in the Baltic.

World War II

On 24 August 1939, a week before the German invasion of Poland, Deutschland set sail from Wilhelmshaven, bound for a position south of Greenland. Here, she would be ready to attack Allied merchant traffic in the event of a general war following the attack on Poland. The supply ship Westerwald was assigned to support Deutschland during the operation. Deutschland was ordered to strictly observe prize rules, which required raiders to stop and search ships for contraband before sinking them, and to ensure that their crews are safely evacuated. The ship was also ordered to avoid combat with even inferior naval forces, as commerce disruption was the primary objective. Hitler hoped to secure a negotiated peace with Britain and France after he overran Poland, and he therefore did not authorize Deutschland to begin her raiding mission against British and French shipping until 26 September. By this time, Deutschland had moved south to hunt in the Bermuda-Azores sea lane.

On 5 October, she found and sank the British transport ship Stonegate, though not before the freighter was able to send a distress signal informing vessels in the area of Deutschland ’s presence. She then turned north to the Halifax route, where on 9 October, she encountered the American ship City of Flint. The 4,963 gross register tons (GRT) freighter was found to be carrying contraband, and so was seized. A prize crew was dispatched to the ship; they took the ship with the original crew held prisoner to Germany via Murmansk. The ship was seized by Norway when she anchored in Haugesund, however, and control of the ship was returned to the original crew. Meanwhile, on 14 October, Deutschland encountered and sank the Norwegian transport Lorentz W Hansen, of some 1,918 GRT. The same day, she stopped the neutral Danish steamer Kongsdal, though when it became apparent that she was headed for a neutral port, the prisoners from Lorentz W Hansen were placed aboard her and she was allowed to proceed. Kongsdal would eventually report to the British Royal Navy the incident and confirm Deutschland as the raider operating in the North Atlantic.

Severe weather in the North Atlantic hampered Deutschland ’s raiding mission, though she did tie down several British warships assigned to track her down. The French Force de Raid, centered on the battleship Dunkerque, was occupied with protecting convoys around Britain to prevent them from being attacked by Deutschland. In early November, the Naval High Command recalled Deutschland; she passed through the Denmark Strait on 15 November and anchored in Gotenhafen on the 17th. In the course of her raiding mission, she sank only two vessels and captured a third. In 1940, the ship underwent a major overhaul, during which a raked clipper bow was installed to improve the sea-keeping qualities of the ship. At this time, she was re-rated as a heavy cruiser and renamed Lützow. Hitler in person made the decision to rename the ship, recognizing the propaganda value of the sinking of a ship that bore the name of its country. Admiral Erich Raeder, the commander in chief of the Kriegsmarine, also hoped that renaming the ship would confuse Allied intelligence; the Admiral Hipper-class cruiser Lützow was designated for sale to the Soviet Navy, and it was hoped that the usage of her name for Deutschland would hide the transaction. The refit lasted until March 1940, after which it was intended to send the ship on another commerce raiding operation into the South Atlantic. In April, however, she was assigned to forces participating in the invasion of Norway.

Operation Weserübung

Lützow was assigned to Group 5, alongside the new heavy cruiser Blücher and the light cruiser Emden, under the command of Konteradmiral Oskar Kummetz. Kummetz flew his flag in Blücher. Group 5 was tasked with capturing Oslo, the capital of Norway, and transported a force of 2,000 mountain troops from the Wehrmacht. Lützow embarked over 400 of the soldiers for the voyage to Norway. The force left Germany on 8 April and passed through the Kattegat. While en route, the British submarine HMS Triton attacked the flotilla, though her torpedoes missed. German torpedo boats attacked the submarine and drove her off.

Shortly before midnight on the night of 8 April, Group 5, with Blücher in the lead, passed the outer ring of Norwegian coastal batteries. Lützow followed directly behind the flagship, with Emden astern. Heavy fog and neutrality requirements, which required the Norwegians to fire warning shots, permitted the Germans to avoid damage. The Norwegians, including those manning the guns at the Oscarsborg Fortress were on alert, however. Steaming into the Oslofjord at a speed of 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph), the Germans came into range of the Norwegian guns; the 28 cm, 15 cm and 57 mm guns opened fire on the invaders. During the ensuing Battle of Drøbak Sound, Blücher was hit by many shells and two torpedoes. She quickly capsized and sank with the loss of approximately 1,000 sailors and soldiers. Lützow was hit three times by 15 cm shells from Oscarsborg’s Kopås battery, causing significant damage.

Lützow ’s forward gun turret was hit by one of the 15 cm rounds, which disabled the center gun and damaged the right barrel. Four men were wounded. A second shell struck the ship’s deck and penetrated the upper and main armored decks; starting a fire in the cruiser’s hospital and operating theater, killing two soldiers and severely wounding six others. A third struck her superstructure behind the port-side aircraft crane. One of the aircraft on board was damaged, and four gunners were killed by the third shell. The ship was only able to fire her secondary battery in return. The heavy damage forced Lützow and the rest of the squadron to reverse course and exit the fjord. She eventually landed her troop complement in Verle Bay, after which she used her operational 28 cm guns to provide fire support. By the afternoon of 9 April, most of the Norwegian fortresses had been captured and the commander of the remaining Norwegian forces opened negotiations for surrender. The delay had, however, allowed enough time for the Norwegian government and royal family to flee Oslo.

The damage Lützow sustained prompted the Kriegsmarine to order her to return to Germany for repairs. The rest of Group 5 remained in Norway, so Lützow cruised at top speed to avoid submarines. Regardless, the British submarine HMS Spearfish attacked the ship and scored a serious hit. The torpedo destroyed Lützow ’s stern, causing it to collapse and nearly fall off, and blew off her steering gear. Unable to steer, she was towed back to port and decommissioned for repairs, which lasted for nearly a year. During the attack on Norway, the ship suffered nineteen dead, and another fifteen were killed by the torpedo strike. Despite the setback, KzS August Thiele, Lützow ’s commander, was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his actions during the Battle of Drøbak Sound, during which he took command of the task force after the loss of Blücher.

She was recommissioned for service on 31 March 1941, after which the Kriegsmarine initially planned to send the ship on the commerce raiding operation planned the previous year. Her sister Admiral Scheer was to join Lützow for the operation, and on 12 June, she departed for Norway with an escort of destroyers. British torpedo bombers attacked the ship off Egersund and scored a single hit that disabled her electrical system and rendered the ship motionless. The crew effected emergency repairs that allowed her to return to Germany; repair work in Kiel lasted for six months. By 10 May 1942, the ship was finally pronounced ready for action.

Deployment to Norway

Lützow left Germany on 15 May 1942 for Norway; by 25 May she had joined Admiral Scheer in Bogen Bay. She was made the flagship of the now Vizeadmiral Kummetz, the commander of Kampfgruppe 2. Fuel shortages restricted operations, although Lützow and Admiral Scheer were able to conduct limited battle training exercises. Kampfgruppe 2 was assigned to Operation Rösselsprung, a planned attack on the Allied convoy PQ 17, which was headed to the Soviet Union. On 3 July, the force left their anchorages, and in heavy fog Lützow and three destroyers ran aground and suffered significant damage. The British detected the German departure and ordered the convoy to scatter. Aware that surprise had been lost, the Germans broke off the surface attack and turned the destruction of PQ-17 over to the U-boats and Luftwaffe. Twenty-four of the convoy’s thirty-five transports were sunk. Lützow returned to Germany for repairs, which lasted until the end of October. She began a brief set of trials starting on 30 October. She returned to Norway in early November with a destroyer escort, arriving in Narvik on the 12th.

On 30 December, Lützow, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, and six destroyers left Narvik for Operation Regenbogen, an attack on convoy JW 51B, which was reported by German intelligence to be lightly escorted. Kummetz’s plan was to divide his force in half; he would take Admiral Hipper and three destroyers north of the convoy to attack it and draw away the escorts. Lützow and the remaining three destroyers would then attack the undefended convoy from the south. At 09:15 on the 31st, the British destroyer Obdurate spotted the three destroyers screening for Admiral Hipper; the Germans opened fire first. Four of the other five destroyers escorting the convoy rushed to join the fight, while Achates laid a smoke screen to cover the convoy. Kummetz then turned back north to draw the destroyers away. Captain Robert Sherbrooke, the British escort commander, left two destroyers to cover the convoy while he took the remaining four to pursue Admiral Hipper.

Lützow meanwhile steamed toward the convoy from the south, and at 11:42 she opened fire. The harsh conditions negatively affected her shooting, which ceased by 12:03 without any hits. Rear Admiral Robert Burnett’s Force R, centered on the cruisers Sheffield and Jamaica, standing by in distant support of the Allied convoy, raced to the scene. The cruisers engaged Admiral Hipper, which had been firing to port at the destroyer Obedient. Burnett’s ships approached from Admiral Hipper ’s starboard side and achieved complete surprise. Lützow was then ordered to break off the attack on the convoy and reinforce Admiral Hipper. Lützow inadvertently came alongside Sheffield and Jamaica, and after identifying them as hostile, engaged them, though her fire remained inaccurate. The British cruisers turned toward Lützow and came under fire from both German cruisers. Burnett quickly decided to withdraw in the face of superior German firepower; his ships were armed with 6 in (150 mm) guns, while Admiral Hipper and Lützow carried 20.3 cm (8.0 in) and 28 cm (11 in) guns, respectively.

Operations in the Baltic

Hitler was furious over the failure to destroy the convoy, and ordered that all remaining German major warships be broken up for scrap. In protest, Raeder resigned; Hitler replaced him with Admiral Karl Dönitz, who persuaded Hitler to rescind the order to dismantle the Kriegmarine’s surface ships. In March, Lützow moved to Altafjord, where she experienced problems with her diesel engines. The propulsion system proved to be so problematic that repairs in Germany were necessary. She briefly returned to Norway, but by the end of September 1943, a thorough overhaul was required. The work was completed in Kiel by January 1944, after which she remained in the Baltic Sea to conduct training cruises for new naval personnel.

On 13 April 1945, twenty-four Avro Lancaster bombers attacked Lützow and Prinz Eugen without success due to cloud cover. The RAF made another failed attack two days later, but on 16 April, a force of eighteen Lancasters scored a single hit and several near misses on Lützow with Tallboy bombs in the Kaiserfahrt. The water was shallow enough that her main deck was still 2 m (6 ft 7 in) above water, permitting her use as a stationary gun battery against advancing Soviet forces under control of Task Force Thiele. She continued in this role until 4 May, by which time she had expended her main battery ammunition. Her crew rigged scuttling charges to destroy the hull, but a fire caused the explosives to detonate prematurely. The ultimate fate of Lützow was long unclear, as with most of the ships seized by the Soviet Navy. According to historians Erich Gröner and M. J. Whitley, the Soviet Navy raised the ship in September 1947 and broke her up for scrap in 1948–1949. Historians Hildebrand, Röhr and Steinmetz, in their book Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe, state that she instead sank off Kolberg, claiming that the Lützow broken up in the late 1940s was instead the Admiral Hipper-class cruiser Lützow that had been sold to the Soviet Union in 1940. The historian Hans Georg Prager examined the former Soviet archives in the early 2000s, and discovered that Lützow actually had been sunk in weapons tests in July 1947.

Units: Deutchland (Lutzow), Admiral Scheer, Admiral Graf Spee

Type and Significance: German heavy cruisers that are popularly called pocket battleships owing to the size of their primary weaponry.

Dates of Construction: Laid down between 1929 and 1932. All were completed by January 1936.

Hull Dimensions: 610′ 3″ x 70′ 10″ x 19′

Displacement: 11,700 tons

Armor: A belt between 2.25 and 3 inches thick, a deck 1.5 inches deep, and turret armor up to 5.5 inches thick.

Armament: Six 11-inch guns in two triple-gunned turrets, one each being located fore and aft. Also armed with eight 5.9- inch guns, six 4.1-inch pieces, eight 20.8-inch torpedo tubes, an assortment of antiaircraft guns, and two aircraft.

Machinery: Diesel engines that generated 54,000 horsepower.

Speed: 28 knots

Complement: 619-1,150

Summary: Although these vessels caused a great deal of concern in other countries such as France due to their armament, the protection was that of a regular cruiser rather than a more powerful vessel suggested by the nickname pocket battleship. None survived World War II. The Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled on 17 December 1939 after the Battle of the River Plate. The Admiral Scheer was sunk on 9 April 1945 by an Allied bombing raid. The Deutchland, renamed the Lutzow, was scuttled on 4 May 1945 after being badly damaged in an Allied bombing raid.

Normandie Groupe Air War: Kursk I

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Wishing to avenge the defeat at Stalingrad and at the same time show the German nation that its armies could triumph over the Communist hordes, Hitler ordered the German High Command (OKW) to prepare an attack against the Kursk salient, an operation that would carry the code name ‘Citadel’. With orders to go back on the offensive the German Army started a massive build-up of men and matériel in the Kursk region in preparation for a major pincer attack against Soviet positions in the Kursk and Orel salient. Soviet intelligence had already gained information from its ‘Lucy’ spy ring, a group of Soviet spies operating from Switzerland. They had informed Stalin that the Kursk operation Citadel was planned to take place between 3 and 6 July. Then on 4 July 1943 a reluctant Yugoslav draftee from the German Army deserted to the Russian lines and informed his Russian interrogators that a massive German attack was due for the next day (5 July) at 2 a.m. He also identified the location where the main armoured force was gathering for the big thrust forward. The Soviet Army, already well prepared, now knew the actual time and place where the main enemy attack would start.

The German offensive in the Kursk salient would be the last major tank battle of the Second World War. It was to be the largest clash of armour ever to take place; it has been described as the biggest land battle in history. At the start of the battle the German forces consisted of 900,000 men, 2,700 tanks and 1,800 aircraft. The Soviets had over 1 million men, 3,300 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft. Both sides would send in heavy reinforcements as the battle progressed; in one instance a German train full of new factory-delivered tanks was caught by the Soviet Air Force and destroyed before its cargo could be unloaded. It was here the new Ferdinands, heavy-calibre guns mounted on massive tank chassis, would be given their baptism of fire. As well, the updated Tiger tanks would be deployed for the first time in large numbers; over 100 would go into action at Kursk. The Soviets deployed the new Yak-9T attack aircraft, which were to prove that the Red Air Force had yet another superb aircraft, this time with a heavy-hitting 37mm cannon firing through the aircraft’s nose cone.

By 7 July the Germans had penetrated about 7 miles. Then after a long dry period the rain started to fall during the battle fought at Prokhorovka, where the Germans lost 400 tanks and 10,000 men in one day. Guderian, the German general, watching from his command vehicle, remarked that he could see the Soviet T-34 tanks streaming like rats over the battlefield in numbers that were simply overwhelming. Another black day for the enemy was 10 July, when the Germans lost 200 tanks and over 25,000 infantry killed. The Kursk battle continued with unabated ferocity. On 12 July the Soviets launched a counter-offensive in the north on the right flank against Orel where they were facing Model’s 9th Army with 3rd Panzer Corps and numerous infantry divisions. To the south of Kursk, Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, which included Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps, was heavily engaged. It was near the town of Prokhorovka that a further 400 German tanks were destroyed during this desperate and determined clash with Soviet armour. Overhead the battle for control of the sky had become an important part of the overall conflict. Just as the ground battle below was being determined by the numerical might of the Soviet’s heavy armour, so the aerial combat strength of the Soviet Air Force was proving to be a decisive factor as the Soviets sent in mission after mission of bombers against the German tanks and massed infantry forces. Soviet covering fighters stormed in against the attacking Bf-109s and Fw-190s; the enemy had put up a massive aerial protective shield to assist their advancing ground forces. It has been estimated that 65 per cent of the Luftwaffe in Russia were involved in the Kursk battle, but what turned out to be the real disaster for the enemy was that 70 per cent of his tank forces on the Eastern Front were now engaged in this greatest of all land battles.

The Soviet Air Force was determined to defeat the enemy and win control of the sky over the battle area of Kursk and Orel. This it did, in the process destroying over 200 Luftwaffe aircraft on 10 July alone. During combat missions flown over the battle region, Normandie was constantly involved in escorting and protecting Pe-2 and Il-2 bombers. These heavily armoured aircraft had orders to attack the German forces around the Orel salient, where Model’s 9th Army was leading the attack in this northern sector. In the course of these covering missions Normandie was continually in combat with large groups of German fighters over the whole Northern Front. Normandie’s aggressive and successful fighting abilities were to prove second to none, although the price paid was high, with six pilots lost in combat during the Orel campaign. Kursk was a terrible and wasteful defeat for the Germans; their entire tank reserves were spent in this futile battle. Their tank production was never to make good these massive losses. The Soviets claimed 70,000 German dead and the destruction of 3,000 enemy tanks. The Soviet tank losses were equally heavy, but Soviet factory production was geared to replace them. The Germans claimed they had destroyed 1,800 Russian tanks in the southern sector alone.

At the end of the battle the Soviet forces had captured more ground and were poised to advance into the Ukraine. By 6 August they had liberated Bielgorod. On the 23rd the city of Kharkov was liberated. The Normandie Groupe was mentioned in the Soviet ‘Orders of the Day’ for its successful part in this momentous battle. For its contribution to the victory, Normandie gained the battle honour orel, an honour title that would now appear on its regimental colours.

AERIAL RAMMING OF ENEMY AIRCRAFT

It was at this time that the French pilots started to hear of startlingly heroic actions undertaken by individual Soviet pilots during the air battles above Kursk. A new form of ferocious aerial combat was taking place that involved ramming enemy aircraft. The main aim was to slice the tail off the German aircraft with the propeller, a procedure that was to be known as the ‘falcon or taran attack’ (sokolnyjudar). All Soviet air regiments kept a record of these heroic and drastic events. During the Kursk campaign, which lasted eight weeks, aerial ramming of German aircraft was successfully carried out on forty-seven occasions. If the ‘falcon’ ramming attack was executed at sufficient altitude, there was always a chance for the Soviet pilot to parachute to safety. Of the forty-seven successful falcon attacks during the Kursk campaign, fifteen of the pilots did actually get their aircraft back or made forced landings, and nine managed to parachute to safety, but records show that twenty-three pilots were killed after these dramatic engagements. This form of aerial attack was not new to Russian aviation; in 1915 Kapitan Pyotr Nesterov rammed the German aircraft flown by Baron von Rosenthal, both pilots dying in this falcon attack.

The Soviet statistics for these heroic attacks are quite staggering: 595 confirmed falcon attacks took place during the Second World War: 558 by fighters, 19 by Il-2s (Stormoviks) and 18 by Pe-2 bombers. One Soviet ace of twenty-eight victories, pilot B. Kovzan, was the leading exponent of this feat; he had accomplished no fewer than four successful taran attacks. On his last ramming he lost his left eye, but after surgery and recovery he went back on combat missions to claim a further six German aircraft destroyed, shooting them down in traditional combat. Records confirm that two pilots each performed three successful taran attacks, and thirty-four pilots accomplished this form of deadly attack twice. Some of these rammings took place after guns had jammed or ammunition had run out; the frustration caused in the heat of the moment could lead to these heroic last-ditch actions. Eventually this form of suicidal attack was forbidden by direct orders from Stalin. In 1994 the Russian Federation struck a Nesterov medal to be awarded to Air Force personnel for exceptional service; on the obverse of the medal is the portrait of Kapitan Nesterov.

NORMANDIE’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE OREL OFFENSIVE

The Normandie Squadron Diary written at the time tells that from 10 July, starting at 10 p.m., an artillery bombardment of great violence was unleashed on the Orel front; bombers passed over all night long and the sky was illuminated by large explosions and flares. Artillery bombardments lasted all the next day and the following night; explosions formed a continuous rumbling. A truly big offensive was under way. At 8 a.m. on 12 July Normandie sent up fourteen Yaks; they were split into two groups and accompanied eighteen Pe-2 bombers, while a further 28 Pe-2s joined the mission, which was to bomb positions just a few kilometres behind enemy lines. The pilots reported that the anti-aircraft fire was still very heavy and German lines were hidden under a cloud of smoke. From the Soviet side of the lines Normandie pilots saw dozens of artillery blasts occurring at the same time. At the first passage of the bombers the anti-aircraft fire was very violent as the armoured Stormoviks, which were flying at low altitude, attacked the enemy batteries; at the second passage the Pe-2s found that the anti-aircraft fire was now much weaker. All the aircraft returned without having been hit. Enemy fighters did not intervene. Towards noon, shortly after the Pe-2s’ attack, artillery fire ceased and the Soviet counter-attack with tanks and infantry was unleashed. As the tanks rolled forward they were covered with Red Army soldiers, who clung to any hand grip available around the tanks’ turrets.

During the Orel offensive on 12 July, a German fighter pilot, who appeared to be suffering from exhaustion and combat fatigue, came in to land and surrendered his Fw-190, which was in perfect condition. This small drama took place on the landing strip immediately next to Normandie, whose French pilots on the strip at the time were amazed by the unexpected visitor. Later, those who were interested in the German Fw-190 went over to examine the enemy aircraft closely. Early that evening the same Fw-190 was taken up and flown by an experienced Soviet pilot, who executed combat exercises in company with two Yak-9s flown by pilots of the 18th Guards Air Regiment serving on the strip next to Normandie. On 31 July this same German Fw-190 was extensively comparison-tested against a Yak-9 at Katiounka.

In the evening Normandie sent up fifteen more Yaks to accompany ten Il-2s that were heading for the bridge at Tsin, which was being used by scores of German tanks and heavy equipment moving into action. This important objective was covered and defended by about twenty-four Bf-110s forming two defensive circles, one above the other, and circling in opposite directions. The Bf-110s got ready to attack the Stormoviks but the Yaks attacked first and forced the enemy to break the circle, after which the Bf-110s became vulnerable. And so it was that Littolff, Castelain and Durand each shot down a Bf-110. The Normandie pilots observed the Stormoviks successfully attacking enemy troop concentrations in and on the edge of the woods. All the Il-2s and Yaks returned to base safely. On 12 July the Red Army claimed that more than 300 German tanks had been destroyed during the day, and Normandie was told the Soviet counter-attack was going to continue throughout the night.