Air War Over Iraq

Frank Wootton’s painting “The Battle of Habbaniya, May 1941” shows Hawker Audaxes and Airspeed Oxfords bombing Iraqi artillery along a high plateau within firing range of the Royal Air Force’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School. (Wealdown Limited Editions, UK)

In May 1941, British forces were fighting to keep Iraq in Allied hands — a struggle that belatedly involved German and Italian aircraft as well.

By Kelly Bell

At 2 a.m. on April 30, 1941, officials in the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by Iraqi military convoys rumbling out of the Rashid Barracks, across bridges and into the desert toward the Royal Air Force (RAF) training base near the Iraqi town of Habbaniya. They immediately sent wireless signals to the air base’s ranking commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry George Smart. With his base not set up or prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than sound the general alarm — neglecting to announce the reason. The base speedily degenerated into a madhouse of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors and sundry other personnel.

In the spring of 1941, the RAF’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Habbaniya held just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane. As May began, however, those instructors — few of whom had combat experience — and their students found they were the principal obstacle to a military operation that might well have brought Britain to its knees.

There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya airfield the second Battle of Britain. Fought half a year after the exhaustively chronicled 1940 air campaign that blunted German hopes of neutralizing or conquering England, this Mideastern shootout was at least as crucial to the outcome of World War II — yet few have heard of it.

The prize over which the campaign raged was crude oil. Although Britain had granted Iraq independence in 1927, the British empire still maintained a major presence there, since Britain’s oil jugular passed through that Arab kingdom. On April 3, 1941, militant anti-British attorney Rashid Ali el Gailani led a coup d’état that set him up as chief of the National Defense government. This Anglophobic barrister’s dearest ambition was to expel by military force all Englishmen from the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who vaguely promised to organize an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece — which had just fallen to the Third Reich — to inform them of his intentions and solicit their support. He also let Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, newly arrived in Libya, know they could count on the support of pro-Axis Vichy French forces in Syria to provide easy access to Iraq. Finally, he told the Germans he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq, whether or not they were held by the British.

Until Rashid Ali’s coup, British forces in the region — falsely comforted by the 1927 treaty, by which Iraq and the United Kingdom were technically bound as allies — anticipated little trouble beyond scattered anti-British riots by civilians. Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis overtures set Prime Minister Winston Churchill at odds with his commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Wavell insisted that he had his hands full as it was, between evacuating Greece, preparing for an expected German invasion of Crete and dealing with Rommel’s recent North African offensive. Churchill recognized the threat that an Axis inroad in Iraq would pose to the empire. It could deprive Britain of crude oil from the fields in northern Iraq, sever its air link with India and encourage further anti-British uprisings throughout the Arab mandates.

As a first response, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on the night of April 29, with the rest of the division soon to follow, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers. On learning of that development, Rashid Ali mobilized his Iraqi army and air force supporters and dispatched them to seize Habbaniya air base.

Situated on low ground next to the Euphrates River less than 60 miles from Baghdad, Habbaniya was overlooked 1,000 yards to the south by a 150-foot-high plateau. Beyond that was Lake Habbaniya, from which British flying boats evacuated the base’s civilian personnel, including women and children, on April 30. The base’s cantonment housed 1,000 RAF personnel and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment. There were also 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian constabulary organized in six companies, but the British could only rely on the four companies of Assyrian Christians, who devoutly hated Iraqis of different extraction. Aside from 1st Company, RAF Armoured Cars, with its 18 outdated Rolls-Royce vehicles, the principal weaponry available to the base was its aircraft, the most potent of which were nine obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I bomber. The other planes at the school comprised 26 Airspeed Oxfords, eight Fairey Gordons and 30 Hawker Audaxes. Aside from the unsuitability of its aircraft for combat, Habbaniya’s greatest vulnerability lay in its dependence on a single electric power station that powered the pumps necessary to supply its base with water.

During the chaos following the alarm, the Iraqis arrived and set up artillery along the plateau running along the far side of the base’s landing field. This was a ghastly surprise for Air Vice Marshal Smart, who sent out an Audax trainer to reconnoiter at daybreak on April 30. The crew’s initial report was that the highlands were alive with what looked like more than 1,000 soldiers with fieldpieces, aircraft and armored vehicles. At 6 a.m. an Iraqi officer appeared at the camp’s main gate and handed over a letter that read: “For the purpose of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going out of any force of persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armored car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries, and we will not be responsible for it.”

Such comportment of forces on a “training exercise” struck Smart as disquietingly inappropriate, so he typed out the following reply for the courier: “Any interference with training flights will be considered an ‘act of war’ and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy.”

Smart next had his ground crews dig World War I–style trenches and machine gun pits around the base’s seven-mile perimeter, pathetic defenses against aerial attack and shelling from elevated positions. That left the cadets and pilots to arm, fuel and position their aircraft in 100-degree heat. The young men shoved their planes into the safest possible locations — behind buildings and trees, where they were still vulnerable.

Habbaniya’s RAF base commander, Group Captain W.A.B. Savile, divided his airplanes into four squadrons. The Audaxes were organized as A, C and D squadrons, under Wing Commanders G. Silyn-Roberts, C.W.M. Wing and John G. Hawtrey, respectively. B Squadron, under Squadron Leader A.G. Dudgeon, operated 26 Oxfords, eight Gordons and the Blenheim. In addition to the squadrons, Flight Lt. R.S. May led the Gladiators as a Fighter Flight from the polo ground. Although most of the planes were old, there were an impressive number of them. Of the 35 flying instructors on hand, however, only three had combat experience, and there were even fewer seasoned bombardiers and gunners. Smart selected the best of the cadets to bolster those numbers, while the ground crews installed racks and crutches for 250-pound and 20-pound bombs on the trainers.

On the evening of April 30, the British ambassador to Iraq radioed Smart that he regarded the Iraqi actions up to that point as acts of war and urged Smart to immediately launch air attacks. He also reported he had informed the Foreign Office in London of the Habbaniya situation and that His Majesty’s diplomats both in Baghdad and London were urging the Iraqis to withdraw — without response.

Habbaniya received four more wireless messages in the small hours of May 1. First, the ambassador promised to support any action Smart decided to take, although Smart would likely have preferred to have a high-ranking military figure giving him that backing. Second, the commander in chief, India (Habbaniya was still part of India Command), advised Smart to attack at once. The third dispatch was from the British commander in Basra, announcing that because of extensive flooding he could send no ground forces, but would try to provide air support. Smart finally heard from London: The Foreign Office — again, civilians — authorized him to make any tactical decisions himself, on the spot.

Meanwhile, by May 1 the Iraqi forces surrounding Habbaniya had swelled to an infantry brigade, two mechanized battalions, a mechanized artillery brigade with 12 3.7-inch howitzers, a field artillery brigade with 12 18-pounder cannons and four 4.5-inch howitzers, 12 armored cars, a mechanized machine gun company, a mechanized signal company and a mixed battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. This totaled 9,000 regular troops, along with an undetermined number of tribal irregulars, and about 50 guns.

Supporting those ground forces were elements of the Royal Iraqi air force, including 63 British, Italian and American-built warplanes equal to or newer than those at Habbaniya. Number 1 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at Mosul had 25 airworthy Hawker Nisrs, export variants of the Audax powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. Number 4 (Fighter) Squadron at Kirkuk possessed nine Gladiators. At Baghdad No. 5 (Fighter) Squadron had 15 Breda Ba.65 attack planes, while at Rashid No. 7 (Fighter-Bomber) Squadron could field 15 Douglas 8A-4s, as well as four Savoia S.M.79B twin-engine bombers purchased from Italy in 1937. On paper, at least, the Iraqi air force had the RAF outclassed at Habbaniya.

Smart contacted his ambassador in Baghdad to issue an ultimatum for the Iraqis to start withdrawing from Habbaniya by 8 a.m. on May 2. In that way should they refuse to heed the deadline, the whole day would be available for combat. Smart was still unsure of how far London would support him if he engaged the armed forces of a country not clearly defined as an Axis power. His maddening uncertainty was tardily banished by a May 1 telegram from Churchill: “If you have to strike, strike hard.”

That emboldened the harried commander to make the first move. He had learned from a radio message that 10 Vickers Wellington bombers from No. 70 Squadron had arrived at Basra. With expectations of their support, he would launch an airstrike at dawn on May 2. Although an aerial assault against well-dug-in armored forces had never succeeded before, Smart was upbeat, remarking, “They should be in full retreat within about three hours.”

Smart refused to withdraw the aircrewmen and least-experienced students from the trenches despite their doubtful ability, even bolstered by 400 Arab auxiliaries, to stop an armored charge. Knowing that their ground crews’ availability to service returning machines would be critical in the fight to come, Smart’s squadron commanders furtively toured the perimeter late on the night of May 1 and led the necessary personnel away from their fighting positions.

At 4:30 on the morning of May 2, 1941, the first flying machine cranked its engines on Habbaniya airfield. Thirty minutes later 35 Audaxes, Gordons and Oxfords were showering bombs on the Iraqis, joined by Wellingtons of Nos. 70 and 37 squadrons from Basra. The Iraqis were well dug-in on broken ground that provided good cover and concealment, so the British saw few potential targets at first. The Iraqis, unable to draw beads on the airplanes in the darkness, retaliated by shelling the air base, but the gun flashes gave away their positions. The Audaxes dropped explosives on the anti-aircraft gun pits while the Wellingtons’ turret gunners strafed them. The Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners used many tracers, again marking their positions for the British airmen to attack or avoid. After bombing from just 1,000 feet for maximum accuracy, the British carefully scanned the plateau for suitable future targets.

As soon as an aircraft landed, one of its two crewmen (they alternated) would hurry to the operations control room, report on the results of his raid and suggest targets for the next flight. Meanwhile, the other crew member would oversee ground personnel in making repairs, refueling and rearming the aircraft. The planes’ engines were generally kept running. As soon as the first crew member returned with a new assignment, the two would board their machine and return to the fray.

The Wellingtons performed well on the first day, but being big they attracted the eagle’s share of groundfire as well as half-hearted attacks from two Iraqi Gladiators and two Douglas 8As. One damaged “Wimpy” was forced to land at Habbaniya and then set on fire by Iraqi artillery shells; nine other damaged bombers were declared unserviceable when they returned to Basra. Groundfire brought down an Oxford flown by Flying Officer D.H. Walsh, and Pilot Officer P.R. Gillespy’s Audax failed to return.

Smart’s estimate that the Iraqis would cut and run within three hours proved seriously overoptimistic. By 12:30 p.m., after 7 1/2 hours of almost-constant aerial assault, they were still shelling the base, and at 10 a.m. their air force had joined in, destroying three aircraft on the airfield. One of the Gladiator pilots, Flying Officer R.B. Cleaver, was trying to intercept an S.M.79B when his guns failed, but Flying Officer J.M. Craigie caused a Ba.65 to break off its strafing attack.

By day’s end, the British had flown 193 recorded operational sorties — six per man. The RAF had lost 22 of its 64 aircraft, and 10 pilots were dead or critically wounded, but only a crippling injury was deemed sufficient to send a man to the infirmary.

Although the Iraqis had been sorely hurt and showed no inclination to launch a ground attack, they were still firmly ensconced atop their elevation with a variety of fieldpieces trained on the smoking flying school. Furthermore, that afternoon Iraqi troops invaded the British Embassy in Baghdad and confiscated every wireless transceiver and telephone, leaving the only two significant English outposts in the region isolated from each other.

By that evening, Dudgeon and Hawtrey were the only squadron commanders not dead or hospitalized. They decided that the next day Hawtrey would command all remaining Audaxes and Gladiators from the base’s polo field, which was visually screened from the artillery by a row of trees. Dudgeon would direct all Oxfords and Gordons from the cratered landing field.

Meanwhile, the Committee of Imperial Defense had transferred command of land forces in Iraq to Middle East Command, compelling Wavell to assemble whatever elements he could spare into a relief unit, called Habforce, to march the 535 miles from Haifa to Habbaniya. Rashid Ali’s leaders also appealed for help, but the Germans were preparing for their invasions of Crete and the Soviet Union, and the Italian response was slow. Only the Vichy French in Syria agreed to send arms and German-supplied intelligence to the Iraqis. They also promised the use of Syrian airfields to any aircraft that the Germans or Italians were willing to commit to Iraq.

On May 3, Smart, noting that the Iraqi artillery had not caused as much damage as he feared it would, called for the RAF to launch some preemptive strikes against the Iraqi air bases. Three Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron bombed Rashid, also claiming to have shot down a Nisr and damaged another. The Iraqi airmen struck back, but Cleaver attacked an S.M.79B, which he last saw diving away with its left engine smoking. One of the Gordon pilots, Flight Lt. David Evans, developed a novel and risky but effective method of dive-bombing. After the ground crewmen had affixed fuzes with a seven-second delay to the 250-pound bombs, he would remove the safety devices. That meant that if a bomb came loose from its fitting, it would probably explode seven seconds later. After takeoff, Evans would climb to about 3,000 feet and scan Iraqi positions. Then, diving at about 200 mph, he would yank back on the stick and drop a bomb from six to 10 feet over the target — too close to miss. Seven seconds later, just as Evans made it to a safe distance, the bomb would obliterate the target and rattle his teeth. This method so terrified the Iraqis that they took to their heels without bothering to fire at the plunging Gordon.

Although Rashid Ali’s troops kept shelling Habbaniya, they balked at storming the base. Their confidence was further undermined by the arrival of four Blenheim Mk.IVF fighters from No. 203 Squadron on May 3. Eight of No. 37 Squadron’s Wellingtons bombed buildings and strafed aircraft at Rashid on May 4 but lost a plane to a combination of 20mm groundfire and an Iraqi Gladiator of No. 4 Squadron. The Wellington crew was taken prisoner. Two Blenheim Mk.IVFs from Habbaniya also strafed Iraqi aircraft at Rashid and Baghdad airfields. At that same time, six Vickers Valentias and six Douglas DC-2s of No. 31 Squadron were flying troops into Iraq and ferrying out civilian evacuees. One of the DC-2s flew into Habbaniya with, among other supplies, ammunition for a couple of World War I–era fieldpieces that for years had stood as ornaments outside the officers’ mess. To the garrison’s surprise the old guns proved still operable, and when they opened up on the plateau, the Iraqis were convinced the British were being reinforced with artillery. The trainers only flew 53 sorties that day, but they also flew night missions to deprive their besiegers of sleep.

Still, the defenders were suffering much worse than their foes seemed to realize. After four days of combat, just four of the original 26 Oxfords were still battle-worthy. The Audax, Gladiator and Gordon contingents were similarly depleted. Pilots were also becoming even scarcer, as half-trained cadets died in action or suffered from cracked nerves.

On May 6, an Audax returned from a dawn reconnaissance mission with news that the Iraqis were withdrawing. That encouraged Colonel O.L. Roberts of the 1st King’s Own Royals, commander of ground forces at Habbaniya, to mount an assault, backed by the Audaxes, to drive the enemy from the plateau. The timing was perfect — the Iraqis, their morale broken at last, suddenly abandoned the heights in a disorderly withdrawal down the Baghdad road toward Fallujah. Meanwhile, six Wellingtons from No. 37 Squadron hit Rashid again.

That afternoon the British spotted a column of Iraqi reinforcements approaching from Fallujah, which soon ran into the forces retreating from Habbaniya. In complete disregard for military procedure, both groups stopped on the highway, and personnel jumped from their vehicles to confer, leaving all their trucks, tanks and armored cars parked in plain view. At that point, Savile hurled every remaining Audax, Gladiator, Gordon and Oxford he had — 40 aircraft — at the bunched-up mass of vehicles. The young airmen in their old planes knew they would not have a better — or another — chance like this, and they made the most of it with all the shells and bombs they could carry. The two airstrikes took two hours, with the British flying 139 separate sorties. One Audax was damaged by groundfire, but they left the Iraqi convoy in flames.

Habbaniya also came under Iraqi air attack, and two Gladiator pilots were wounded by bomb splinters on the polo ground. One Gladiator intercepted a Douglas 8A and, after firing two bursts, drove it off.

Armed ground personnel and Arab auxiliaries ventured from the airfield and rounded up 408 demoralized Iraqi prisoners, including 27 officers. Counting those POWs, Rashid Ali lost more than 1,000 men that day, compared with seven British killed and 10 wounded.

The next day the British could find no trace of the enemy near Habbaniya. A lone Nisr attacked at 10:45 a.m., but a Blenheim Mk.IVF of No. 203 Squadron shot it down in flames. The British also raided the airfield at Baquba, during which Pilot Officer J. Watson, piloting a Gladiator, encountered an Iraqi Gladiator, attacked it from behind and last saw it in a steep dive. Back at Habbaniya, ground personnel eventually found and shot up a few Iraqi machine gun nests in the village of Dhibban just east of the airfield.

In the previous five blazing days, Habbaniya’s makeshift air force had flown 647 recorded sorties, dropped more than 3,000 bombs of various sizes, totaling over 50 tons, and fired more than 116,000 machine gun rounds. The British lost just 13 airmen killed, 21 critically wounded and four to emotional collapse. It was a smashing victory over Rashid Ali, who now faced the British reprisal with a demoralized army and an air force that barely existed.

On the day that this motley fleet of RAF antiques was reducing the combined Iraqi forces outside Habbaniya to junk, Luftwaffe Colonel Werner Junck was in Berlin being briefed by Chief of Air Force General Staff Hans Jeschonnek. The colonel’s new mission was to organize a special force called Sonderkommando Junck, to be sent to Iraq. When Jeschonnek stated, “The Führer desires a heroic gesture,” Junck asked precisely what that meant. Jeschonnek replied, “An operation which would have significant effect, leading perhaps to an Arab rising, in order to start a jihad, or holy war, against the British.” The Germans were unaware that their erstwhile Mideast allies had already been soundly defeated and that Habbaniya’s garrison was at almost that very moment receiving a message from Churchill: “Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent.”

Twelve Messerschmitt Me-110Cs of the 4th Staffel (squadron) of Zerstörergeschwader (destroyer wing) 76 (4/ZG.76), two Me-110Cs of ZG.26, seven Heinkel He-111Hs of 4th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 4, and a transport contingent of 20 Junkers Ju-52/3ms and a few Ju-90s were hastily decorated in Iraqi markings. They began flying to Mosul via Greece and Syria on May 11. In an ill-fated start, one He-111 was fired on by Arab tribesmen as it approached Baghdad airport. That plane landed with Major Axel von Blomberg, the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Rashid Ali, dead.

On May 12 British reconnaissance planes discovered several German aircraft in Iraq, and on the 14th one of No. 203 Squadron’s Blenheims spotted a Ju-90 at Palmyra airport in Syria, confirming Vichy French cooperation in violation of its nominal neutrality. British aircraft — including Curtiss Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, in the first combat sorties ever flown by P-40s — attacked Palmyra the same day. It was the first round of hostilities that would ultimately lead to the British invasion of Syria in June.

Habbaniya struck at the Luftwaffe first when Flying Officer E.C. Lane-Sansom, of No. 203 Squadron, strafed Mosul at 3:15 a.m on May 16. At 9:35 a.m. three He-111s bombed Habbaniya and were themselves attacked by a Gladiator. Caught in the German gunners’ crossfire, Flying Officer Gerald D.F. Herrtage’s fuel tank was hit, and though he bailed out before his Gladiator exploded in flames, his parachute became tangled. Herrtage’s death was not in vain, however — one Heinkel’s engine was disabled, resulting in a crash-landing before it reached Mosul. The Germans launched no further bombing attacks, though that one had done more damage to Habbaniya than all the previous Iraqi airstrikes combined.

On May 17, Habbaniya was reinforced by the arrival of four more Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron and four modified, extra-long-range Hawker Hurricane IIC cannon-equipped fighters. While flying their No. 94 Squadron Gladiators over Rashid at 7:55 that morning, Sergeants William H. Dunwoodie and E.B. Smith attacked the two ZG.26 Me-110s just as they were taking off. Smith’s quarry crash-landed southeast of the air base with both engines on fire, while Bill Dunwoodie’s disintegrated in a fiery midair explosion.

Habforce finally reached Habbaniya on May 18. The base was no longer threatened, but Smart had suffered a nervous breakdown, and by some reports also been injured in a motor vehicle mishap. He was sedated, loaded onto a DC-2 with women and children evacuees and flown to Basra. Smart’s emotional collapse was hardly surprising — he was primarily a school administrator, not a soldier — yet until Churchill’s tardy response, every military officer above him had avoided taking any responsibility for whatever happened at Habbaniya. Air Vice Marshal John Henry D’Albiac took over command of the RAF in Iraq. Besides attacking the Germans at Mosul, 200 miles away, Habbaniya’s aircraft helped British forces at Fallujah fight off a succession of Iraqi attempts to retake that town.

On May 20 Habbaniya’s Gladiators and Hurricanes dueled with four ZG.76 Me-110s over Fallujah. Sergeant Smith was jumped by five Me-110s and narrowly escaped, but his Gladiator was sufficiently damaged for the Germans to credit it to future night fighter ace Lieutenant Martin Drewes, as his first of an eventual 52 victories. The fighting for Fallujah reached its peak on the 22nd, when the Iraqis, backed by light tanks, made a determined effort that resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Habbaniya’s planes flew 56 sorties in support of the British, attacking a column of 40 vehicles moving up to reinforce the Iraqis, but losing one Audax to return fire. Removing the Lewis machine gun from its rear mounting, Flying Officer L.I. Dremas — a Greek pilot-in-exile — and his gunner fought a running gun battle with the Iraqis until, aided by local levies, they reached British lines.

Another Gladiator was brought down by groundfire on May 23, but again the pilot evaded capture and reached friendly lines. Meanwhile the Italians, after delays and only grudging help from the Vichy French, finally flew 11 Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters of the 155th Squadriglia (squadron) to Rhodes, reaching Kirkuk on May 26. From there they began strafing British troops, who by then were marching from Fallujah toward Baghdad. As Habbaniya-based planes were supporting the British advance on May 29, they were attacked by two Fiats, which forced an Audax to land damaged, with its pilot wounded. Wing Commander W.T.F. “Freddie” Wightman of No. 94 Squadron dived on one of the C.R.42s and shot it down, with the pilot, a 2nd Lt. Valentini, bailing out and taken prisoner.

On May 30, Habforce, now numbering 1,200 men with eight guns and a few RAF armored cars, lay just outside Baghdad, facing an Iraqi division. The RAF’s now-undisputed control of the air made a great difference, however. The Iraqis refused to engage the dreaded British, and the RAF took over Baghdad’s airfield. Realizing that the game was up, Rashid Ali fled the capital after embezzling his soldiers’ monthly payroll of 17,000 dinars. His followers followed suit, and Iraq’s pro-British royal government was restored soon thereafter.

The Italians, too, were sufficiently forewarned to depart Kirkuk for Syria on the 31st, burning two Fiats that were too damaged to fly out. Sonderkommando Junck had a more ignominious departure, the last of its surviving personnel escaping overland to Syria on June 10, leaving behind the wrecks of all 14 Me-110s, five He-111s and two transport planes. Those losses were far less damaging than the pounding their prestige had taken in the eyes of the Arabs they had hoped to convert to the Axis side. A quick, sizable German incursion in support of Rashid Ali would have likely succeeded, but Adolf Hitler was too preoccupied with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union to pay much attention to events in obscure Iraq.

The implications of the Habbaniya battle are staggering. But even the folks back in Mother England, distracted by the capture of German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, took little notice at the time. Nonetheless, history has an obligation to give full credit to the handful of pilots of No. 4 SFTS, who in five days had secured Britain’s vital oil supply, as well as denied Nazi Germany a foothold in the Middle East.

For further reading, try: Dust Clouds in the Middle East, by Christopher Shores; Hidden Victory, by Air Vice Marshal A.G. Dudgeon; and Gloster Gladiator Aces, by Andrew Thomas.

This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History.

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Reinforced Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 2 seizes the Isthmus of Corinth I

General der Flieger Student hurried back to Berlin from the Semmering and with the staff of XI.Flieger-Korps commenced planning for the conquest of Crete, despite the fact that they still lacked a definitive directive. Meanwhile, the force under Generalleutnant Süßmann in Bulgaria became involved in Marita. Probably as a result of Hitler’s fear that the Corinth Canal could be blocked by the enemy, the OKL, the OKH and Armeeoberkommando 12/AOK 12 on 22 April, were tasked by the OKW to examine the possibilities for an operation by parachute troops against the Isthmus of Corinth. As the OKH and AOK 12 had beforehand reported about the importance of the canal and the only bridge which crossed it for the operations of ground forces and had spoken in favor of a parachute-assault against it, the decision was made on this very day, to go along with its execution.

The OKW directed the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe to commence with preparations. The aim of the operation was the seizure of the bridge across the Corinth Canal so as to enable the troops of 12.Armee to quickly enter the Peloponnese. A task beyond this aim, in particular the blocking of the Isthmus against forces of the British expeditionary corps, withdrawing from the north, had not been laid down explicitly, as the seizure and retention of the only bridge across the Corinth-Canal would anyway lead to this blocking.

The commander-in chief of Luftflotte 4, Generaloberst Löhr, issued the order for the execution of the operation still on 22 April and tasked with it Detachement Süßmann which was available on short notice. The overall control of the operation was assigned to General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen, commanding the VIII.Flieger-Korps. The general was strongly opposed to it as he considered the engagement of his flying formations against the anticipated evacuation operations of the British expeditionary corps as a priority and saw detrimental consequences for the supply of his corps in the temporary loss of the air transport formations, but had to accept the decision taken by the highest command level. However he determined that the airborne assault by Detachement Süßmann was to be conducted only after the Heer had seized Thebes, which was only 60km away from the Corinth Canal. Prior to the commencement of the planning process for the airborne operation, the situation in the Greek theatre of war had developed as follows:

After hard fighting and with considerable losses, the defense of northern Greece undertaken by Australian and New Zealand forces was overcome by parts of the reinforced 5.Panzer-Division and the 6.Gebirgs-Division. However the skillfully fighting defenders had managed to escape the danger of an impending envelopment of their left flank by mountain and motorcycle-infantry with the majority of their forces. The German command had remained ignorant of the decision of the British commander-in-chief Middle East, General Wavell, made known to the King of Greece on 21 April, to evacuate the British expeditionary corps from the Greek mainland. The Germans had clearly perceived withdrawal movements but had remained in the dark about the further intentions of the enemy, in particular, whether, protected by the Gulf of Patras, the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronian Gulf, he would continue the defense on the Peloponnese. Therefore the air operations of VIII.Flieger-Korps were initially directed against this region. During the afternoon of 23 April VIII.Flieger-Korps succeeded in destroying most of the still operational British Hurricane fighters on the airfield at Mykene (the remaining six aircraft were transferred to Crete the next day), allowing it to achieve unrestricted air superiority over southern Greece. It now could direct its efforts against the evacuation of the British expeditionary corps, which in fact had commenced in the night 24/25 April. However this task turned out to be complicated as the embarkation of the troops of the enemy took place simultaneously at several locations, sometimes away from ports and always during the hours of darkness. Moreover, the troops assembled for embarkation disciplined themselves so skillfully during daytime that they were seldom detected from the air.

At noon on 25 April the advance detachment of the 5.Panzer-Division entered Thebes. Thereby the precondition for the airborne-undertaking of Detachement Süßmann, as determined by General der Flieger Frh. von Richthofen, was achieved. South of Thebes, at Tatoi, a New Zealand brigade group once more blocked the advance of 5.Panzer-Division but was forced to retreat during the course of 26 April. Covered by the rearguard actions of the New Zealanders, an Australian brigade group of almost 6,000 men was embarked at Megara, about 30km away from Tatoi, during the night 25/26 April. By the morning of 26 April nearly all of the troops which had been designated for embarkation from ports on the Peloponnese, among them three brigade groups, had been brought across the Corinth Canal. In the night 25/ 26 April General Wilson, the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary corps, had moved his headquarters to Myli, about 45km south of Corinth and, despite the losses of large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies, had expressed his satisfaction about the present course of the evacuation operation. The German 12.Armee, after resistance around Thebes was broken, had been directing the efforts of its most forward troops towards Athens, about 25km away.

Immediately upon the receipt of the mission to seize the bridge across the Corinth Canal by a parachute assault, Detachement Süßmann commenced with preparations for this operation. The staff of FschPiBtl.7 and two of its companies were summoned to Plovdiv from Dessau-Kochstedt as reinforcements. For their transfer, two provisional squadrons were formed from the Ju 52s placed at the disposal of the parachute-schools. As the distance from Plovdiv to the Isthmus of Corinth was beyond the range of the Ju 52, Larissa, located in the Thessalian Plain, was chosen as the jump-off base for the parachute assault. A transfer of the paratroopers by land to the base had to be excluded because of poor road conditions, the lack of motor transport and the probable short reaction time between the receipt of the order and its execution. The transfer by air, however, also posed considerable problems. In the meantime two air transport groups had been diverted to the support of the German forces in North Africa, quite a number of transport aircraft still remained detached to VIII.Flieger-Korps and the combat readiness of the Ju 52 formations had decreased due to overuse. Thus, only about 140 transport aircraft were available for the undertaking against the Corinth Canal. This meant that the parachuting of the complete Detachement Süßmann in one single flight was not possible. In addition to that restriction, the stores of aviation fuel on the airfield at Larrissa, also used by units of VIII.Flieger-Korps, were insufficient for multiple flights of the air transport formations to Corinth and allowed for the employment of only one air transport group for a resupply mission after the landing of the assault force. Even for the return flight of the Ju 52s from Larissa to their bases in Bulgaria, fuel had to be brought along.

During the morning of 25 April the order for the parachute assault on the morning of 26 April arrived at the command of Detachement Süßmann. General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen repeatedly had expressed his opposition against the undertaking and had justified it with the strained air transport situation and his view about the priority of the employment of his forces against the British evacuation fleet. Göring, however, took the side of Generalfeldmarschall List, who had requested the execution of the airborne mission.

Generalleutnant Süßmann delegated the direct command of the parachute assault to the commander of FschJgRgt.2, Oberst Sturm. As the preparations of the detachment had been completed for the greater part by the arrival of the execution order, the transfer of the elements planned for the actual parachute assault commenced without delay early in the morning of 25 April. Nevertheless this action took up valuable time until late in the evening, so that the last air transport squadrons touched down on the totally crammed airfield at Larissa in the darkness. There was almost no time for the rest or supply of troops, as final arrangements for the start of operations still had to be completed. At this time, the following units had arrived on the airfield: staff and signals platoon of FschJgRgt.2, I./FschJgRgt.2 (Hauptmann Kroh), II./FschJgRgt.2 (Hauptmann Pietzonka), one-third of 13./FschJgRgt.2 (guns), half of 14./FschJgRgt.2 (anti-tank), 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 (less one platoon), the parachute engineer platoons Häffner and Brohm and half of 1./FschSanAbt.7. 3./FschArtAbt.7 was to follow in gliders with three guns. The remaining parts of Detachement Süßmann were initially to stay behind at Plovdiv-Krumovo.

In the course of the evening of 25 April Generalleutnant Süßmann moved with his forward command element to the command post of VIII.Flieger-Korps, which since 24 April had been in the seaport of Volos, about 45km south-east of Larissa. Against his instructions, Süßmann retained the two squadrons formed from the Ju 52 of the parachute schools, as they were urgently required to deliver aviation fuel from the Plovdiv area to Larissa. The tactical leaders of Gruppe Sturm were instructed about the terrain in the operational area as precisely as possible by means of maps and aerial photos. The intelligence produced the following picture.

The hub of the operation area was formed by the Corinth Canal, which was cut into the rocks of the Isthmus at its most narrow part, 6.4km in width. Built between 1881 and 1893 it connected the Saronian Gulf in the south-east with the Gulf of Corinth in the north-west. It was cut into the rock of the Isthmus up to 60m deep with almost vertical walls. It was 24m wide at its top and 21m at sea-level. The depth of the water was 8m. The villages Isthmia and Kalamaki were located on either side of its southern entrance. About 3km from its northern entrance the canal was crossed by its only bridge, a solid steel construction, being traversed by the road and railway line leading from Athens along the coast of the Saronian Gulf via Megara to Corinth on the northern coast of the gulf named after this town. North of these lines of communication and east of the canal the terrain descended from the 1,300m high Gerania Mountains, to the coast of the Saronian Gulf. Another road led from the settlement of Loutraki, located at the Gulf of Corinth, about 4km north of the bridge, toward the bridge-site. The town of Corinth with its about 20,000 inhabitants was built on the flat beach of the Gulf, a good 3km west of the bridge. Here, the road divided. One arm bypassed an airfield about 4km west of the town and led along the northern coast of the Peloponnese to Patras, on the Gulf with the same name. The other arm turned to the south and, bypassing the ruins of ancient Mykene, led through mountainous terrain to Argos, a town about 35km south of Corinth, then to Myli, on the coast of the Argolian Gulf and from there across the Peloponnese to the sea-port of Kalamata on the Messenian Gulf. Another airfield was located some distance south-west of Mykene. At Argos, a division of the road ran to the sea ports at Navplion and Tolon on the northern shore of the Argolian Gulf. Only a short distance west of the road division at Corinth, a mountain ridge with central massifs of more than 2,300m high rose steeply south of the coastal road and stretched toward the west.

On 25 April bombers and fighters of VIII.Flieger-Korps massively attacked the anti-aircraft positions of the enemy which had been detected in the vicinity of the Corinth Canal. Immediately after the decision to evacuate the Greek mainland, the command of the British expeditionary corps had concentrated its remaining anti-aircraft forces – 8 cannon 7.9cm, 8 cannon 3.7cm and 16 Bofors cannon 40mm – for the protection of retrograde movements, but also against possible German airborne attacks, on the Isthmus of Corinth, along the road to Argos and on the nearby airfield. Initially only the remainder of the 4th Hussars Regiment from the British 1st Armoured Brigade had been tasked with the surveillance of the northern coast of the Peloponnese, including the Corinth Canal on, a length of 110km. It had consisted of 12 light Mark VI tanks, six Bren Carriers and one armored car. On 24 April the New Zealand 6th Field Coy of engineers was summoned from Thebes and prepared the bridge across the Corinth Canal for demolition. Moreover it assembled some boats for the construction of ferries at the southern entrance of the canal, in case that the bridge was destroyed prematurely by the enemy.

On this day the command of all troops deployed at the canal was given to Brigadier Lee. His sector of responsibility included the terrain on either side of the canal and the areas around Corinth and Argos. He had been instructed to be prepared for German air-landings on the two airfields which were located in his sector. In the evening of 25 April, Brigadier Lee, who had retained some of the troops on their way toward the south and who had also received some reinforcements, in addition to the 4th Hussars and the air-defence elements, had at his dirposal: Three companies and two platoons from the Australian 2/6 InfBn, B-Coy/19th (NZ) InfBn, 6th (NZ) Field Coy and one platoon from the British 7th Armd Div Field Sqn. At about 0230hrs on 26 April C Squadron from the Cavalry Regiment of the New Zealand Division, still equipped with a few wheeled armored cars and reinforced with the remainders of the Bren Carrier platoons from the 22nd and 28th (NZ) Infantry Battalions, also arrived.

Brigadier Lee formed the so-called Isthmus Force for the direct defense of the bridge across the Corinth Canal. It was composed of B Coy/19th Infantry Battalion, 6th Field Coy, one platoon of 122nd Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, the British engineer platoon and C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry. The force was placed subordinate to the commander of B Coy/19th Infantry Battalion. This officer positioned one of his infantry platoons in the Gerania mountains, about 7km north-west of the bridge and deployed the remaining two platoons of his company in the hilly terrain about 500m north of the bridge. A company from 2/6 Infantry Battalion was also positioned in the area immediately east of the bridge. However the commanders of the two forces deployed east of the canal were not informed about each other’s presence. C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry was in the process of setting up positions about 2km west of the western bridge ramp. In the immediate vicinity of this ramp four heavy anti-aircraft guns were being positioned. Some of the 37mm and 40mm guns were dispersed in positions around the bridge. Others were set up further to the west and south-west. 6th Field Coy prepared positions about 500m south of Corinth. Two of its squads, foreseen as demolition teams, were kept standing by about 1km north of the bridge, near the western bank of the canal. In the buildings between Corinth and the northern entrance of the canal the 4th Hussars established their command post. A company of 2/6 Infantry Battalion moved into a position on the slope about 3km south of Corinth, just north of the small village Examilia. The remainder of 2/6 Inf, the staff, one company and two platoons, together with a few heavy and some Bofors air defence guns, were deployed for the protection of the airfield near Mykene.

For direct defense along the Corinth Canal and the immediately adjoining terrain, Brigadier Lee had 900 soldiers from the expeditionary corps at his disposal. A considerable number of Greek soldiers, who had not felt bound to the capitulation arrangements of their high command, were also present some distance east of the canal, in the settlements south of it and in the area around Patras. Joint combat operations with the expeditionary corps, however, had not been planned.

On 26 April Gruppe Sturm took off for the parachute undertaking against the Isthmus of Corinth from the airfield at Larissa between 0430 and 0600hrs.

Oberst Sturm had organized his assault force in three sub-groups (Untergruppen):

Untergruppe Pietzonka, with II./FschJgRgt 2, 3./FschFlaMGBtl 7 (-), two anti-tank-guns from 14./FschJgRgt 2 and parachute engineer platoon Häffner. Missions: to seize the canal-bridge and to prevent its destruction; subsequently to protect against Corinth, to seize and retain the airfield west of Corinth and to seize the area at the northern entrance of the canal, preventing any shipping there.

Untergruppe Kroh, with I./FschJgRgt 2 (less 1st Company), half of 13./FschJgRgt 2 (2 recoilless guns), half of 14./FschJgRgt 2 (anti-tank) and parachute engineer platoon Brohm. Missions: to block the defile 4 km east of Kalamaki, to seize Kalamaki and the area north of the eastern entrance of the canal, preventing any shipping there.

Untergruppe Regimental Staff, with the staff and the reinforced signals-platoon of FschJgRgt 2, 1./FschJgRgt 2 and half of 1./FschSanAbt 7. Mission for 1./FschJgRgt 2: to assemble as reserve in the drop-zone of the sub-group west of the canal; protect toward the south and south-west.

The approach-flight of the air-transport formations – KGr z.b.V. 102 with Untergruppe Pietzonka, KGr z.b.V. 60 with Untergruppe Kroh, I./KG z.b.V. 1 with 3./FschFlaMGBtl 7 (-) and half of 14./FschJgRgt 2, I./LL-Geschwader 1 with Untergruppe Regimental Staff – was conducted across the Pindus Mountains in a height of more than 2.000m. The most forward section consisted of six Ju 52, towing the gliders with the 54 men of Leutnant Häffner’s reinforced 2nd platoon of 3./FschPiBtl7 aboard. It was to land at both ramps of the bridge 12 minutes ahead of the first wave of the paratroopers and to take possession of it. South of the Pindus mountain range the air transport formations, except the six towing aircraft, descended to 30m above the surface of the Gulf of Corinth and flew protected from observation by the morning haze over the water toward the east. The gliders unhooked the cables of the towing aircraft at about 20km distance from the objective at 1,200m height and commenced the dive. The Ju 52s with the main force aboard ascended to parachuting height in the vicinity of the drop zones and reduced their speed.

During the time of the approach flight of Gruppe Sturm, combat aircraft of VIII. Flieger-Korps attacked identified positions of the enemy on either side of the Corinth Canal. Only Me 110 fighters with machine-guns and dive bombers, due to their capability of hitting targets precisely, were used, to prevent an unwanted destruction of the bridge by bombs going astray. Some of the air-defence guns around the canal were thus put out of action and the crews of the remaining weapons, as well as the infantry in their field positions, were forced to take cover.

The six gliders with Häffner’s platoon aboard came down on either side of the bridge at about 0610hrs, coming in as air attacks ceased, and hidden against observation until the very last moment by the haze and the smoke from the impacting bombs. Five of them touched down about 100-200m from the bridge. The sixth glider, attempting a landing on the western ramp of the bridge, crashed into its foundation block. Both the pilot and the medical sergeant behind him were hurled onto the road. The remaining eight soldiers were stunned and injured by the impact, and initially unable to join the fighting although they managed to leave the glider. The crews of the other gliders fought through to the bridge site, taking only a few losses from scattered fire by the totally surprised defenders. Here, a number of them neutralized the few guards at the bridge and commenced to remove the explosive charges from the steel framework and cut the ignition cables, while others prevented the crews of nearby anti-aircraft guns from occupying their weapon pits, which they had left during the air attacks.

Shortly before 0640hrs the first wave of Gruppe Sturm was dropped – 2nd and 4th companies of I./FschJgRgt 2 and engineer platoon Brohm east of the canal; 5th and 6th companies of II./FschJgRgt 2 west of the canal.

West of the canal 5./FschJgRgt.2, under Oberleutnant Thiel, reinforced with a heavy machine-gun platoon from the 8th Company, was dropped first. With just the weapons on hand the paratroopers seized the railway station near the bridge, three air-defence positions nearby and a number of motor vehicles that had been abandoned by their drivers and passengers during the air attacks on the road to Corinth. Thereby a considerable number of enemy soldiers were captured. Subsequently the company set up positions along a perimeter around the western ramp of the bridge, at about 1km distance. 6./FschJgRgt.2, commanded by Hauptmann Schirmer, was dropped two minutes after 5./FschJgRgt.2. Its 1st Platoon under Leutnant Teusen put four light anti-aircraft guns out of action and set up for the close protection of the engineers working on the bridge immediately west of it. The other two platoons of the company advanced against the column of motor vehicles on the road toward Corinth, which had not been attacked by 5./FschJgRgt.2.

The staff and the signals platoon of II./FschJgRgt.2 jumped as part of the first wave of the battalion. Hauptmann Pietzonka suffered a double fracture of an ankle on landing and was carried to his command post, which was being established a short distance from the canal. Here, he tasked Hauptmann Schirmer with the tactical command of the battalion. During the mopping-up actions in the drop zone of the force around the command post, the battalion’s orderly officer, Oberleutnant Dohmes, was killed. Leutnant Schallnas from 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 with his command section, jumped with the battalion-staff and shortly thereafter met the same fate.

East of the Corinth Canal, in the area of operations of I./FschJgRgt.2, Brohm’s parachute engineer platoon jumped first. Its mission was to seize the road and railway bridge about 4km east of Kalamaki and to prevent its destruction. However it was dropped incorrectly and came down in the defile about 10km north-east of Kalamaki, immediately on the shore of the Saronian Gulf. One of its squads landed in the water, whereby one soldier was drowned and two weapon containers were lost. Three other men were injured on the landing ground. Nevertheless, without further losses, the platoon overcame a number of Greek soldiers who had fired at them during the landing and captured 20 of them. Subsequently, platoon Brohm cleared the village of Aghia Theodori on the coastal road about 10km north of the canal from Greek stragglers. There it was joined by the 3rd Platoon of 2./FschJgRgt.2 under Leutnant Kühne. Together the platoons now advanced along the coastal road toward a barracks in the village of Kineta, about 6km further to the east. When this was found abandoned they moved on in the direction toward Megara. However by now they were continuously involved in firefights with Greek stragglers. Just west of Megara they successfully removed the explosive charges from a railway bridge. It was at this time that both platoons were ordered to fall back into the defile west of the village of Aghia Theodori and to act as combat outposts for Untergruppe Kroh. On the way to the new location the parachute engineer platoon unexpectedly became involved in a firefight with troops of the British expeditionary corps that were advancing from the east. Before it was able to disengage the platoon lost two killed and four wounded.

The 2nd and 4th companies of I./FschJgRgt.2, except two plane loads, were correctly dropped east of the canal together with the battalion-staff. The paratroopers first cleared the drop zone and then advanced toward the canal. Enemy infantry, to the strength of about a company, which were positioned east of the bridge, were quickly overrun and most of the soldiers of B Coy, 19th (NZ) Infantry Battalion were captured. The subsequent attack against a hill to the north met with stronger resistance.

While the fighting on both sides of the canal was ongoing and the parachuting of Gruppe Sturm continued, the engineers of Häffner’s platoon completed the removal of explosive charges from the bridge structure. These were piled on the bridge, to be carried away afterward. At this moment, at exactly 0700hrs, the bridge blew up in a tremendous explosion and plunged down into the canal. Several engineers who were still working on the bridge, and a military war correspondent, Sonderführer von der Heyden, who had accompanied the engineer platoon, were instantly killed. Some of the men from Teusen’s platoon, located in protective positions close to the western ramp of the bridge, were injured by steel splinters.

Despite the loss of the bridge the paratroopers continued with their missions. West of the canal, parts of the 5th and 6th companies that were advancing further to the west, come across the remainder of C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry and the assigned two Bren Carrier platoons east of Corinth. As these were still in the process of recovering from the preceding air attacks they were surprised by the sudden onslaught of the paratroopers. Eight to ten of the armored vehicles were destroyed or captured in the first minutes and most of their crews were taken prisoner. However about 40 of the New Zealanders, with two armored cars and five Bren Carriers managed to escape toward the south along a sunken road, unobserved by the attackers. When this road ended at a deep ravine the vehicles were pushed over, denying them to the enemy. Their crews were later found by Greeks and conveyed across the mountains to Navplion. The company from 2/6 Infantry Battalion, which had been positioned north of Examilia, was not drawn into the fighting and was able to retreat on its own toward the south.

7./FschJgRgt.2, after the landing, dispatched two platoons against Corinth. On the way to the north-western entrance of the Corinth Canal the third platoon encountered some resistance from field positions and buildings along its western bank. Nevertheless the platoon succeeded in overrunning the command post of the 4th Hussars and capturing most of its personnel. In the meantime 8./FschJgRgt.2, two platoons from 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 and two anti-tank-guns, that were the remaining parts of Untergruppe Pietzonka, also landed safely west of the Corinth Canal and secured their drop zones. The two anti-tank guns set up firing positions south of the road leading from the blown bridge toward Corinth. Hauptmann Pietzonka now assigned two-thirds of the 7th and 8th companies, one anti-tank gun and one light anti-aircraft gun to Hauptmann Schirmer with the mission to build a protective screen against the town. However the mission was quickly overcome by events, as the 6th and 7th companies from II./FschJgRgt.2 had already entered the outskirts of Corinth. Leutnant Rühle from 6th Company penetrated the town in one of the Bren Carriers, of which 6th and 8th companies had captured one each in working condition, despite the fact that it was occupied by a considerable number of troops. He managed to get hold of the town’s mayor and the Greek military commandant of Corinth and to escort them safely to Hauptmann Schirmer. After a short exchange of views with the latter the two Greek authorities declared themselves willing to hand the town over to the German officer in charge. They were then brought to the regimental command post, which had been set up at a road junction about 1.5km west of the destroyed bridge after the Regimental Staff had landed at 0730hrs. At 1100hrs Oberst Sturm met the two Greek officials and requested the unconditional surrender of Corinth by 1300hrs or else it would be attacked by dive bombers. The bluff worked and the Greek mayor surrendered the town unconditionally. Its occupation by German troops was arranged for 1300 hrs.

Reinforced Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 2 seizes the Isthmus of Corinth II

This aerial photo, taken by a reconnaissance airplane of on 26 April 1941 at 0659 hours, shows the Corinth Canal and the terrain either side of it shortly after the landing of Gruppe Sturm. The bridge across the canal is still intact.

This aerial photo, taken at 0701 hours on 26 April 1041, documents the destruction of the bridge across the Corinth Canal. The bridge had blown up a minute earlier, and its smoke can be clearly seen, drifting in a north-westerly direction.

In the meantime parts of the 7th and 8th companies of II./FschJgRgt.2, assigned to Hauptmann Schirmer, had attacked into the town on their own. Two platoons and the command section from 6th (NZ) Field Coy had stubbornly resisted the advance from a lemon grove at the edge of Corinth. When their situation had become hopeless they had managed to break out in small groups. Most of them eventually reached the port of Kalamata, where they too were evacuated on 27 April. Another platoon of 6th (NZ) Field Coy, with the exception of about 20 men, was captured in an air raid shelter. The few Greek troops in Corinth, consisting exclusively of staff, administrative and logistical personnel, offered no organized resistance. Hauptmann Schirmer’s 6th Company had bypassed Corinth in a southerly direction. On the way it occupied a barracks where it captured three air-defence guns, two light and one heavy. At 1400hrs, reinforced II./FschJgRgt.2 formed a defense line toward the south from the eastern entrance of the Corinth Canal, to the position of 6./FschJgRgt.2 south-west of Corinth. About this time, Oberst Sturm also moved to Corinth, from where he began to establish personal contact with subordinate units. Incomprehensibly, no attempt was undertaken to occupy the airfield at Corinth.

Together with the first paratroopers of II./FschJgRgt.2, a shock troop from 1./FschSanAbt.7, led by Oberarzt Dr. Mallison, had also entered Corinth. Not yet marked as medical personnel, the shock troop confiscated a Greek military hospital and immediately prepared the operating rooms for the surgical treatment of wounded. The main dressing station of 1./FschSanAbt.7 was moved to the hospital, leaving behind only a collection point for wounded in the original location. At about 1530hrs a Ju 52 dropped medical supplies at the hospital. Shortly afterwards a medical Ju 52 landed at the hospital, loaded the first seriously wounded and took off again. Some transport aircraft delivering supplies also touched down at the hospital and after unloading, took wounded aboard. By 1700hrs 37 of them were on their way to a German military hospital in Saloniki. Among them was Hauptmann Pietzonka, who had handed over command of his battalion to Hauptmann Schirmer.

In the operation area of Untergruppe Kroh, 3./FschJgRgt.2, under Oberleutnant von Roon, had arrived as last unit shortly after the canal bridge had been blown, even though it should have been dropped before the staff of I./FschJgRgt.2. Two of its platoons came down as planned and attacked the village of Kalamaki from the north. The village was occupied after a short fight because the Allied and the Greek troops there immediately made for the high ground north of the railway and coastal road. A ferry, which was found in Kalamaki, was immediately utilized, but it started to sink with the first truck aboard. Thereupon work commenced to construct a provisional bridge with boats found in the small port of Kalamaki. With the support of engineers from platoon Häffner, the 8-tonbridge was ready in the early afternoon and constituted the only permanent crossing site for troops and light vehicles for the time being. As the telephone exchange in Kalamaki still worked, communication across the canal was soon possible again via commercial lines. A platoon from 14./FschJgRgt.2 (anti-tank), dropped in support of I./FschJgRgt.2, arrived at Kalamaki without difficulties and set up positions on the eastern edge of the village toward the east. The platoon from 13./FschJgRgt.2, which had also been assigned to I./FschJgRgt.2, however, was dropped wrongly into the Gerania Mountains. The salvage of the individual loads of its two recoilless guns turned out to be extremely difficult and time consuming.

The third platoon of 3./FschJgRgt.2 was dropped incorrectly south-east of Corinth, west of the canal. It advanced toward its eastern entrance near Isthmia and captured an air-defence battery, which had already been abandoned by its crew. At about 1345hrs the gliders with guns of 3./FschArtAbt.7, which had been brought along from Plovdiv/Bulgaria via Larissa arrived near the regimental command post of Gruppe Sturm. A situation report from VIII.Flieger-Korps, about a possible enemy attack against the Isthmus of Corinth from the north-east, caused these guns to be assigned to Untergruppe Kroh. At 1900hrs their leader reported to the command post of I./FschJgRgt.2 and in the course of the night managed to bring along his two guns.

As the two platoons positioned as combat outposts of Untergruppe Kroh, in the defile west of Aghia Theodori, were attacked several times before midnight and VIII.Flieger-Korps had warned of a strong thrust by the enemy from the east within the next few hours, they were finally withdrawn into the main defensive line of I./FschJgRgt.2 just east of the Corinth Canal.

Except for the sporadic exchange of shots during reconnaissance or mopping up actions, the fighting in the operational area of Untergruppe Pietzonka came to a temporary end in the evening of 26 April. Since the begin of the glider and parachute assault, the sub-group, now commanded by Hauptmann Schirmer, had taken 554 soldiers of the British expeditionary corps as prisoners, among them 19 officers. Additionally more than 450 Greek soldiers were captured. Among the heavy equipment captured undamaged were 14 heavy and 10 light air-defence guns, two Bren Carriers, about 50 trucks and numerous smaller motor vehicles. However considerable forces of the British expeditionary corps, including some brigade groups, were known to have reached the area around Argos and Navplion. As the defence line, which was occupied by Hauptmann Schirmer’s force in the evening, was thought to be vulnerable to a counter-attack from the south it was relocated to that as of 1000hrs. A counter-attack had indeed been initiated in the morning. This had been based on an erroneous report by the command of the 4th Hussars, that just a hundred or so German paratroopers had been dropped near the Corinth Canal. Two companies from the 26th Battalion of the 6th (NZ) Brigade and a number of its Bren Carriers had been dispatched as reinforcements from the area around Argos to the Isthmus, in order to support the still intended movement of the 4th (NZ) Brigade Group to the Peloponnese. Informed by stragglers on the way toward Corinth about the true dimensions of the German parachute assault and attacked from the air, the commander of the reinforcement column decided to stop the further advance of his force and to initially occupy a blocking position at Solomos, about 7km south of Corinth. There, the force covered the rearward passage lines of a company of the Australian 2/6 Infantry Battalion, from the area north of Examilia and provided motor transport for this company further to the south. A German reconnaissance patrol, which had pursued the retreating Australian company from Examilia, was ambushed in the ravine in front of Solomos and was almost totally wiped out.

In the ports of Navplion and Tolon, about 40km south of Corinth, covered by the remainder of Lee’s task force and by the 26th (NZ) Infantry Battalion from the greater area around Argos, about 4,500 soldiers of the British expeditionary corps, among them the headquarter troops of General Wilson, were embarked during the night 26/27 April. As no further opportunity for an evacuation from these ports had been seen, the evacuation fleet had attempted to take aboard as many soldiers as possible. Therefore at daylight on 27 April the ships were still within the range of German dive bombers. These promptly attacked and managed to sink the transport Slamat, the Polish destroyer Wryneck, and the British destroyer Diamond, causing the loss of more than 500 soldiers and sailors. Furthermore about 2,200 soldiers of the expeditionary corps, mostly administrative and logistic personnel, were left behind for good on the coast of the Argolian Gulf. On 26 April General Wilson had passed command over all remaining forces of the expeditionary corps on the Greek mainland to the commander of the New Zealand Division, Major General Freyberg, and had left for Alexandria in a flying boat. In addition to the evacuations in the Argolian Gulf, about 8,700 soldiers of the expeditionary corps, including the two almost complete Australian 16th and 17th Brigade Groups, were evacuated during that night from the port of Kalamata for Egypt.

Owing to the uninterrupted replenishment of aviation fuel on the airfield at Larissa, the air transport formations which had returned from their tasks at the Isthmus of Corinth in the course of the late afternoon of 26 April were able to move III./FschJgRgt.2, a great part of the staff of Detachement Süßmann, and additional medical troops from the area around Plovdiv to Larissa. There, they were earmarked for delivery by air into the operation area of Gruppe Sturm on 27 April.

At dawn on 27 April, when attacks by the enemy from the north-east had failed to materialize, 1./FschJgRgt.2 pushed forward reconnaissance in front of its entire sector. Two platoons from its 2nd Company, advancing toward Kineta, came across motorcycle-infantry of the 5.Panzer-Division at Aghia Theodori. These light troops moved onto the Corinth Canal and crossed it using the provisional bridge at its eastern entrance. Thereby the combat operations of Untergruppe Kroh definitively came to an end. From its overall personnel strength of 30 officers and 973 other ranks, it had lost five killed, five wounded and 13 missing. On the side the enemy, about 1,120 soldiers had been captured, with about 380 of them belonging to British, New Zealand and Australian units. In view of the now approaching advance forces from 5.Panzer-Division, Hauptmann Kroh at 1730hrs received the order from Oberst Sturm to move his sub-group to Corinth.

As Untergruppe Pietzonka was also not counter-attacked, its positions, abandoned at nightfall on 26 April, were reoccupied shortly after first daylight on 27 April. At the western entrance of the Corinth Canal, four of the captured heavy air-defence guns were positioned against possible attacks by British naval forces. On the orders of Oberst Sturm, all Greek soldiers captured so far during the parachute undertaking were now released and sent home.

At about 1100hrs, a liaison officer from 5.Panzer-Division arrived by a light reconnaissance aircraft at the regimental command post. No need, however, was seen to accept his offer for an acceleration of the arrival of advance forces, and for the relief of the Fallschirmtruppe.

About this time, 1./FschJgRgt.2, which was deployed to protect the regimental command post, was also ordered to move to Corinth. Swinging far to the south the company suddenly came across elements of the enemy, which still held out in the park-like ruins of ancient Corinth. It took a costly flanking movement, which cost nine killed and four wounded, before the company managed to drive the enemy off. Its 3rd Platoon now advanced toward the airfield at Corinth, about 3km further to the north, at the beach of the Gulf of Corinth. On the way to this objective the platoon captured about 80 soldiers of the expeditionary corps, among them 14 officers. When it reached the undefended airfield at about 1345hrs, it found some Ju 52s in which Generalleutnant Süßmann and parts of his staff in the meantime had arrived.

By 1430hrs Generalleutnant Süßmann and Oberst Haseloff, the commander of 5.Schützen-Brigade from 5.Panzer-Division, who had driven ahead of his troops, shook hands at the command post of Gruppe Sturm. Around 1500hrs, probably based on an agreement between Generalleutnant Süßmann and the operations staff officer of 5.Panzer-Division, Oberst Sturm ordered Hauptmann Schirmer to immediately seize the airfield at Mykene, utilizing captured motor vehicles. Before Hauptmann Schirmer’s task force was ready to move, the staff of II./Schützen-Regiment 13, the 1st and 8th companies of this regiment and three 15cm guns from 8./ArtRgt.116, led by the commander of II./Schützen-Regiment 13, Oberstleutnant Kieler, managed to cross the Corinth Canal over the provisional bridge of the paratroopers. However the bridge had broken down under the weight of the third gun and as such the connection between both banks of the canal had to be maintained with boats until the arrival of engineers from the 5.Panzer-Division with bridging equipment.

For the advance toward Argos, task force Schirmer was now placed subordinate to Oberstleutnant Kieler. It was to advance to Argos ahead of Kieler’s troops. There, it was to wait for the arrival of the 15cm guns prior to the further advance toward Navplion.

At 1640hrs task force Schirmer moved off toward Argos. On the way Schirmer was informed by a report dropped from reconnaissance aircraft that the area around Argos was unoccupied by the British expeditionary corps. Therefore he decided to immediately pass through the defile north of Argos and occupy the nearby airfield. On the abandoned airfield the task force discovered a number of damaged British fighter aircraft, some air-defence guns and about 8,000 liters of aviation fuel. Leaving behind a parachute platoon, an anti-tank gun and a light anti-aircraft gun for the protection of the airfield, Hauptmann Schirmer hurried on. At 1915hrs his task force arrived in front of Argos. Although the 15cm battery had not yet made its appearance Hauptmann Schirmer sought out the mayor of Argos and the Greek garrison commandant, who immediately surrendered the town to him. The task force then moved on for about 8km toward Navplion. There, under the protection of sentries, it rested for some hours. During the night a platoon from 1./FschJgRgt.2 delivered an 80-watt radio set. By means of this communication, Gruppe Sturm tasked Hauptmann Schirmer to advance to Navplion and Mily early in the morning of 28 April and return from there to the area around Corinth after the arrival of follow-on forces from the 5.Panzer-Division.

During the afternoon of 27 April, III./FschJgRgt.2 landed on the airfield at Corinth and was initially kept in readiness there. With the departing transport aircraft a number of the less seriously wounded paratroopers were taken back to German medical installations in the north-east of Greece. A patrol from 1./FschJgRgt.2, moving along the coastal road, unexpectedly met elements of the 2./AufklAbt from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler at Xylokastron, about 30km west of Corinth. The Leibstandarte, which had commenced crossing the Gulf of Patras on 26 April and in the meantime had gained control over Patras and its port, had not been informed about the actual situation at the Isthmus of Corinth. Four of its companies therefore were sent from Patras by train for the relief of Gruppe Sturm late in the afternoon of 27 April. As there was no need at all for their presence, they returned to Patras on the morning of 28 April for the subsequent advance along the western part of the Peloponnese.

At dawn on 28 April, 5./FschJgRgt.2 occupied Mily, which had been cleared of the enemy. The 7th and 8th companies of Schirmer’s task force, supported by sub-units of the motorcycle-infantry from 5.Panzer-Division, took possession of the town and the port of Navplion. There was no sign of the British expeditionary corps with the exception of the wreck of the troop transport Ulster Prince, which after some bomb hits listed alongside the pier of the port. In the town the paratroopers captured the general who was in command of all Greek troops on the Peloponnese, except for those in Patras. The Greek general declared himself willing to surrender all troops under his command. This intention, however, caused some difficulties, as the telephone system on the Peloponnese had partly broken down and radio contact between Schirmer and Gruppe Sturm was not reliable.

Schirmer’s 6th Company in the meantime bypassed Navplion and around midday approached Tolon. There it was confronted by numerically superior British troops, who had not yet given up hope of being evacuated from this port. In the ensuing fighting 6./FschJgRgt.2 lost three killed and 14 wounded and was forced to fall back some distance toward Navplion. Upon Schirmer’s situation report, Oberst Sturm immediately dispatched a reinforced company from III./FschJgRgt.2, still available elements of 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 and a platoon each of the regimental-level gun and anti-tank companies, in support of Schirmer.

In the meantime Oberleutnant Knobloch, Schirmer’s adjutant, had won over a captured British officer as a negotiator with the stranded British forces at Tolon. He had obviously been able to convince him about the (non-existent) presence of numerous German troops close to Tolon, of the imminent arrival of armored forces and of a pre-planned dive-bomber attack. How effective his ruse was became visible a few hours later. At about 1900hrs 72 officers and 1,200 other ranks formed up at Tolon to march into captivity. In addition numerous enemy wounded were transported by ambulances to the field dressing station, which the medical officer of Schirmer’s task force had set up in Navplion. The amount of booty was also considerable, although most of the about 500 motor vehicles of the enemy were made permanently unusable.

The task force of 5.Panzer-Division under Oberstleutnant Kieler moved off from the Isthmus of Corinth late in the evening of 27 April and in the early hours of 28 April commenced to cross the Peloponnese in direction toward the port of Kalamata. In the course of this day it was joined by two 8-wheeled signals reconnaissance armored cars. These had used the light war bridge, which in the meantime had been constructed across the southern part of the Corinth Canal by the engineer battalion of 5.Panzer-Division.

After the capitulation of the British troops at Tolon Hauptmann Schirmer drove to Corinth. For the first time since the employment of his task force Oberst Sturm and Generalleutnant Süßmann now received a complete and precise report about the situation on the coast of the Argolian Gulf, as most of the radio traffic from there had been garbled. As this region was now considered safely in the hands of troops from the 5.Panzer-Division Schirmer’s force was ordered back to the Isthmus. The reinforcements for Schirmer, which had reached the area around Argos, had been called back earlier.

With the return of Untergruppe Pietzonka from the south, the mission of Gruppe Sturm on the Peloponnese had definitively come to an end. Of its overall strength of 28 officers and 830 other ranks, the sub-group had lost four officers and 43 other ranks in killed, wounded and missing. As it had taken the brunt of the fighting, it alone had captured more than 1,900 soldiers of the British expeditionary corps on the Peloponnese, among them 91 officers.

After the end of the campaign by the Wehrmacht on the Greek mainland, Detachement Süßmann was moved into quarters around Corinth and Megara. The fighting on the Peloponnese had cost the detachment 65 killed, 89 seriously and 123 less seriously wounded and 17 missing. With eight killed and 18 wounded, the losses of Häffner’s parachute engineer platoon was particularly high. During its involvement in the actual fighting, 1./FschSanAbt.7 had also lost four killed, 20 wounded and two missing. Among the killed was the commander of FschSanAbt.7, Oberstabsarzt Dr. Berg.

With the seizure of the Isthmus of Corinth, the parachute force again had proved its value as a military instrument of high shock effect. The command of the British expeditionary corps had not disregarded the threat of an attack from the air against the eye of the needle along the route of withdrawal for the majority of its troops to the planned embarkation sites on the Peloponnese. Consequently it had assembled what had remained of its air-defence forces on the Isthmus and had also arranged for some ground forces for the protection of the bridge across the Corinth-Canal. The command of the 12.Armee had evidently firmly counted on the success of the requested parachute assault, although it had been well aware of the enemy’s ability to cleverly and expertly block the advance routes of its ground forces and thereby to gain the time required to deal with the landed paratroopers on the Isthmus. In this context it is interesting to note that the command of 12.Armee evidently did not realize that most of the British expeditionary corps had already crossed the Corinth Canal on the way to the embarkation sites on the morning of 26 April. Seen from this point of view the decision to seize the Isthmus of Corinth by a parachute assault had mainly served the purpose of generating the conditions for an unhindered crossing of the canal upon the arrival of mechanized ground forces. As a result of the masterly executed evacuation operation Demon by Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, the opportunity to capture a large portion of the British expeditionary corps on the Peloponnese had not materialized.

On the side of Detachement Süßmann and VIII.Flieger-Korps, the planning for and the preparation of the parachute operation on the Isthmus of Corinth had been extremely well thought-out. One of the most important aspects had been the use of a glider force immediately prior to the parachuting of the majority of the assault force, utilizing the surprise effect of a fully combat-ready platoon against the bridge. In order to achieve the desired success the cooperation between the supporting combat aircraft and the glider force had to be accomplished in such a way that the former by their suppressive fire, prevented the air-defence weapons in the vicinity of the bridge from firing against the landing gliders, whereas as their first combat-action their passengers had to neutralize the air-defence positions before the crews of the guns were able to man them and to open fire against the approaching transport aircraft. How efficient this method of attack had been, was confirmed by the fact that not one of the Ju 52s was lost in the airspace over the Isthmus.

The gallantry and skill of the paratroopers of Gruppe Sturm went without saying. Nevertheless their quick success was also built on the fact that the defenders on the Isthmus of Corinth had consisted of a scratch force from British, New Zealand and Australian units which had never fought together before and had lacked any cohesion. Brigadier Lee, who was assigned as their commander, had been the artillery officer of I Australian Corps and as such was neither known by the detached troops, nor was he overly familiar with ground combat at the tactical level. It was therefore no wonder that the troops left behind on the Isthmus, with the feeling of all soldiers for a cause lost, had primarily seen their escape and survival as their main focus at the begin of the parachute assault. This explained why the about 900-1,000 defenders with a great many heavy weapons and a number of lightly armored vehicles at hand, had only in a few cases fought to the best of their abilities and, in some cases, had prematurely left the battlefield.

The decision to make use of the absolute air supremacy of the Luftwaffe such that the attack force was flown in and dropped in one formation, had proved correct. It had not been seen as necessary to seize the airfield at Corinth by parachute assault, as it had not been defended at all and landings had been planned for the remainder of Detachement Süßmann only after the occupation of Corinth and of all of the operation area on either side of the canal.

Some experience was also gained for future parachute missions. For the first time heavy weapons had been dropped by parachute together with troops. The planning and execution of the resupply with aviation fuel by the staff of Detachement Süßmann, for which the two squadrons of Ju 52s put together from the aircraft of the parachute schools were used, was also noteworthy; these had been retained in the zone of operations against the orders of Berlin. As in previous operations, the ability of the troops to come up with makeshift solutions had helped to solve a serious problem.

The opportunity to employ Detachement Süßmann in an earlier phase of the campaign in Greece had obviously never been contemplated. After the British had given up the defense of the Aliakmon line and of the Olympus mountain range and had conducted a fighting withdrawal toward the south, the seizure and blocking of the Domokos Pass at the southern end of the Thessalian Plain, 65km south of Larissa, by Detachement Süßmann, could have prevented the escape of strong elements of the ANZAC Corps, until the 5. and 2.Panzer-Divisions of the 12.Armee had approached from the north. Without doubt this operation could have led to the end of the planned resistance by the British expeditionary corps and to its piecemeal defeat, at a time when its evacuation had not yet been considered by the Middle East Command.

The second reason has to be seen in the attitude of Student himself. He had remained in his headquarters in Berlin during the transfer of Detachement Süßmann to Bulgaria for the execution of Operation Hannibal, as well as after the begin of Marita, and obviously had paid little attention to the fighting in Yugoslavia and Greece. As neither the OKW nor the high command of the Heer had thought about an operational-level role for XI.Flieger-Korps in Operation Barbarossa and as Student had also not developed his own ideas for this use, as one should have expected, he had concentrated his efforts on the build-up of his parachute corps and its employment according to Göring’s views about the extension of the war against the British Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. The sudden use of Detachement Süßmann against the Isthmus of Corinth certainly must have been against his own intentions. His assertion after the war that he was informed about this operation only after its execution is, however, difficult to understand. There can be no doubt that Generalleutnant Süßmann had informed him immediately after the receipt of the execution order from Luftflotte 4. In addition the measures related to the reinforcement of the detachment, with further parts of FschPiBtl.7 and the assignment of aircraft from the parachute schools for their transport to Bulgaria had not gone unnoticed by his staff in Berlin. More to the truth, therefore, probably is that in light of the command arrangements for Detachement Süßmann and the involvement of Göring and Generaloberst Löhr, Student had evidently accepted having no more influence on its use at Corinth.

How much the OKL already at this time was willing to comply with Hitler’s intuitions became clearly visible when Göring ordered the employment of Detachement Süßmann at the Isthmus of Corinth despite the fact that only a few days prior to this operation Hitler had decided to take Crete using parachute forces and calculations about the required strength of these forces had not yet been made.

The employment of parachute troops on the Peloponnese had, as in the previous operations in Belgium and Holland, ended with their quick relief by ground forces. Some of the lessons which were important for the planned operation against Crete, however, were not thoroughly taken into account, because the paratroopers had not been forced to fight a conventionally-armed or determined enemy. Despite the tremendous armament efforts of Germany, the issue of equipping the parachute force with organic means for the air transport of its forces and for fire support from the air remained unresolved. Both elements had to be drawn away from other users for every operation, which not only had a negative impact on the accomplishment of their other tasks, but was also time consuming and costly in effort. Therefore airborne operations on a large scale would always require approval at the highest command level.

Wild Boar Plan

The radar-based German fighter defense system was always oversaturated and nearly invalidated by the bomber streams and by the new electronic countermeasures systems, including Window (chaff). On 27 June 1943, Major Hajo Hermann proposed to the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, that night-fighter defense tactics be modified to a radical new scheme. This was the so-called Wild Boar plan that allowed the concentration of masses of single-engine day-fighters against the bomber streams independent of radar guidance. By using searchlights and flares for illumination and direction-finding, and by exploiting the fact that the bombers could easily be recognized against the clouds over burning cities, the fighters could make contact without radar.

Major Hajo Herrmann had been one of the most famous of the Luftwaffe bomber pilots, with an already incredible record of accomplishment. In early 1943 he was at staff college, fuming at the fact that each night the Reich was being defended by grossly overworked night fighters while hundreds of single-seaters stayed on the ground. He made out to Kammhuber a powerfully argued case for what was virtually a return to the old Helle Nachtjagd system. Herrmann was a man of influence far above his rank, and he explained how readily he could build a potent night force of single-seat fighters that would not be part of the regular day (JG) wings but manned by skilled former bomber pilots, all men used to flying at night and toughened by years of action. In his view such a man flying a 109 or 190 could find enemy bombers at night, especially over the glow of a burning city. Searchlights would be invaluable, and he considered that such experienced pilots ought to be able to destroy every bomber held in a searchlight cone for as long as two minutes. But Kammhuber had patiently constructed a formidable defence based on close GCI Himmelbett control. Fighters ranging uncontrolled among the Flak bursts seemed a terrible idea, even though Herrmann stressed that he wanted to fight not in place of the NJG force but in addition to it.

Getting nowhere with Kammhuber, he did not give up; he just went over his head, straight to Generaloberst Weise. Weise had no vested interest in the Himmelbett system, and felt that every little helped, especially as Herrmann had secured a verbal agreement from the Berlin Flak commander to restrict gunfire to below an altitude of 5 km (16,404 feet), giving the fighters a safe region above; and presumably other Flak divisions might do the same. Weise gave permission for trial operations, and Herrmann gathered his forces to practise what he called the Wilde Sau (wild boar) method. It was intended to be simple and effective. The single-seaters would be standard except for carefully flame-damped exhausts and, in some cases, the fitting of Naxos-Z homers. The main Wilde Sau fighters were the Bf 109G-6/U4N and Fw 190A-5/U2N. The name of the unit was the Kommando Herrmann, and there is no doubt that – quite apart from whatever else it achieved – it exerted an inspiring effect on the regular NJG forces. Herrmann’s ex-bomber pilots were imbued with their leader’s fanaticism. One way in which this was manifest was in their flight planning, which was based on continuing each mission until the tanks had practically run dry. The heavily armed single-seaters carried no external fuel, and endurance was very limited. It may have been deliberate policy to eschew such a nicety as being bothered about the fuel state, because in the course of the winter 1943–4 this became increasingly the general policy among the NJG units as well. Night fighters were now pouring off the assembly lines. So long as the crew got away with it, a dead-stick landing in the dark that destroyed the aircraft was of little consequence. Indeed, the most remarkable factor was the high proportion of pilots who did manage to regain an airfield runway.

The Kommando Herrmann began operations in the Essen/Duisburg area in June 1943, and had their first big chance on 3 July, when the target was Cologne. Undeterred by the fact that he had not notified the local Flak division, Herrmann and eleven of his pilots spent two hours among the intense shell bursts and shot down twelve bombers. Next day Herrmann found himself a national hero; he was instantly summoned to Karinhalle, where Goering authorized him to form a full Wilde Sau wing, designated JG 300 (not, it will be noted, NJG). It put Kammhuber in a difficult position. In the Nazi environment of constant intrigue it might have served him best to decide that, if he couldn’t beat Herrmann, he would join him (by publicly joining in the chorus of adulation). He chose instead to stick to his rigid and narrow doctrine of close radar control, and to call for a further increase in radar production. Little did he know what was just around the corner.

The new tactics required boldness because the German antiaircraft artillery were already firing at the bombers, but it proved very successful as a last resort after German radar was blindfolded by Window as of 25 July 1943. On the basis of this success, Hermann was ordered to establish the “Wild Boar” Fighter Geschwader 300. He later became commander of this unit and of the 1st Fighter Division.

On the afternoon of 24 July 1943 the crews of over 800 RAF bombers were briefed to attack Hamburg. During the briefing they were at last told about Window, and that night the 746 aircraft that bombed also released about 92 million strips of foil. The result was chaos. Ground controllers, night fighters, master searchlights and Flak were thrown into frantic confusion. Only twelve aircraft were lost, and those tended to be either low-flying Stirlings or the highest-flying Lancasters, cruising outside the main Window cloud. Just a few Himmelbett stations and NJG operators managed, partly by luck, to pick off from their crowded and flickering display screens the vital blip that appeared to have a motion different from the rest. But Window made no difference to Herrmann. In subsequent attacks in the ten-day battle that destroyed Hamburg, his single-seaters moved to the area and destroyed more than fifteen bombers, while others fell to NJG crews operating in the same freelance way. Some of the bombers were seen from below, dimly reflecting the light of the burning city. Some were seen from above, silhouetted against the fires, while others were spotted against the numerous searchlight beams pointing out the bombers’ track almost horizontally along the ground. It says much for the courage and tenacity of the German pilots that they were able to inflict many casualties by the same crude methods that had proved so ineffectual over Britain in 1917 and 1940. But one is not comparing like with like: over Germany in 1943 the bombers were bigger and much more numerous, and the amount of illumination on the ground and in the sky was immeasurably greater. Both RAF and Luftwaffe aircrew were hard-put to retain their night-adapted vision in the midst of such an inferno. (It was in theory a court-martial offence for Bomber Command aircrew to look at the glowing target.)

Great as was the confusion caused by Window, it was not the only countermeasure used by the RAF. The awareness, ingenuity and fast action of the TRE, Bomber Support Development Unit and other organizations had already begun a succession of ECM developments that henceforth kept the Luftwaffe perpetually off-balance. One of the first was Mandrel, a powerful airborne radio transmitter that broadcast intense noise interference on the exact frequency of Freya. Defiants, pensioned-off from night fighting, orbited bravely near the outer reaches of the Kammhuber Line with Mandrel instead of armament, taking out a section up to 200 miles wide during major RAF attacks. The heavies themselves were able to carry the jamming across Germany, because a Mandrel transmitter was installed in an average of one bomber in every squadron. To blot out GCI communication between the Himmelbett stations and the NJG fighters most bombers also carried Tinsel. This was simple and effective: the ordinary TR 1154/1155 radio was tuned to the German controller’s wavelength and arranged to broadcast from a microphone bolted inside one of the bomber’s engine nacelles. With Wilde Sau tactics, in a sky full of Window, everything depended on guiding the fighter in among the bombers. The Luftwaffe reacted violently to Mandrel and Tinsel, investigating ways of making the newer Mammut and Wassermann early-warning radars resistant to jamming, and building powerful new HF and VHF radio stations for broadcasting to the night fighters – all of them, not just the single-seaters. The RAF responded with Special Tinsel; monitors in England listened to the GCI traffic and radioed each new frequency to the attacking force, which then jammed it as before. To smother the VHF frequencies, 101 Squadron Lancasters sprouted tall mast aerials to broadcast jamming from ABC – Airborne Cigar – an extremely powerful VHF transmitter manned by a special German-speaking operator who listened to all VHF transmissions until he or she found the GCI frequency.

This was still only the beginning, for there was even more that the RAF could do. For months the possibility of sending the RAF’s own night fighters over Germany had been discussed, but as the majority of possible targets they might find were RAF heavies there were obvious snags. Of course IFF would help, but how could they be made to home on to the Luftwaffe night fighters? The answer was provided by TRE within a week of laying hands on the Lichtenstein-equipped Ju 88 that landed at Aberdeen. They devised Serrate, a small receiver tuned to 490 MHz and displaying any received signals on a cockpit CRT. The observer saw a display like a gappy herringbone; the bones became longer as the range closed, and moved up or down the display. When the fighter was heading straight for the German night fighter the bones were equal in numbers and length on each side of the vertical time-base. Serrate was issued first to 141 Squadron at Wittering, equipped with early Beaufighter VIF aircraft that still used AI.IV radar. Radar was essential, because Serrate did not positively indicate range. Under aggressive Bob Braham No. 141 began a few weeks of startlingly successful intruder operations, mostly over Holland, but after destroying 23 Luftwaffe night fighters the work was halted in September, because there were insufficient customers. By this time No. 141 was achieving a kill every 35 sorties, on average.

Wilde Sau (Wild Boar) was a tactic involving fighters roving at will without radar, intercepting by visual contact in cooperation with German ground anti-aircraft artillery. Initial successes with Wilde Sau were soon reversed by heavy and mounting losses and the technique was dropped in March 1944.

If the cloud ceiling at the time of the attack too high, restricting the lighting effect, the optical conditions were insufficient to apply Wilde Sau. The success of the attacks was also lost with the onset of bad winter weather in late autumn 1943, when wastage through accidents and icing soared. German pilots were always at risk from their own anti-aircraft fire. Even if “Wilde Sau” were also partly accomplished by twin-engine night fighters, the bulk of the action was carried out by conventional day fighters borrowed from the day Jagdgeschwaders. This double load of daily and night operations and the resulting erratic maintenance schedules meant fighter servicability rates dropped drastically.  

A leading Experte, Oberst Viktor von Lossberg, had argued for NJG units to infiltrate into the bomber stream before the heavies even reached the coast, and he transferred several squadrons to the Scheldt estuary and north German coast. Under the name Zahme Sau (Tame Boar) he proposed a freelance running fight with the NJG force to partner Herrmann’s Wilde Sau single-seaters which concentrated over the target. An integral part of Zahme Sau was to use the RAF’s own Window to confirm the position and track of the bomber stream. The technique recognized that under the new circumstances the Himmelbett system was useless, except to get the odd straggler that strayed out of Window protection. The answer seemed to be loose control, with fighters flying perhaps right across Germany, instead of staying in a neat little box, and fighting until they ran out of fuel. It was essential for the GCI controller to use every wile and sixth sense to try to divine the bombers’ target in advance, and to note every turn made by the leading sections in the bomber stream. Co-operation with Flak was essential, and one of the recurrent problems was that the free-ranging fighters were often running into intense Flak.

Luftwaffe night fighter control methods.

Zeppelins!

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was born in 1838. He served in the Royal Wurttemberg Army, in which he fought during the Franco-German War of 1870. In 1890 he left the Army feeling, as did many South German noblemen, that Prussia had far too much influence in the recently created German Empire. He then devoted himself to the development of the rigid dirigible airship which has born his name ever since. In fact, his organisation, the Luftshiffbau Zeppelin was not alone in manufacturing this type of airship, the Luftshiffbau Schutte-Lanz being a competitor during the early years, although by custom ever since every rigid airship has become known as a Zeppelin, just as vacuum cleaners are known as Hoovers and raincoats as Macintoshes.

Zeppelin chose hydrogen as the lifting agent for his airships, despite the terrible danger of fire, the outbreak of which was almost always fatal to the ships. The hydrogen was contained within huge gasbags along the interior of the hull, with provision for venting and water ballast tanks used to maintain stability while ascending or descending. These were contained in a long, sausage-shaped hull based on a complex internal girder construction surrounded by a flexible skin. Control and communications gondolas were suspended below, as were the ship’s engines, the number of which varied according to type.

At first, Zeppelin’s organisation was not a financial success and it was not until 1911 that his airline, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG began to show that large numbers of passengers could be carried at a profit. This aroused the interest of the Imperial German Army and Navy. The obvious advantages were that the Zeppelin had a very long in-flight endurance which made it capable of longrange reconnaissance and, of course, it could also be armed with bombs for dropping on specific targets. Of the disadvantages, fire has already been mentioned. In addition, the girder construction was so flimsy that clumsy handling in a shed or high winds on take-off or landing could wreck a ship. Even more serious was the fact that Zeppelins were extremely difficult to navigate. Even modest winds were capable of pushing the huge, lighter-than-air hulls many miles off course, while cloud cover could make it impossible to obtain a fix on the ground below. Later, a small car containing one or two observers and a telephone could be lowered by electric winch through the cloud and provide a view of the ground below, but the idea was not a success.

During World War One, Zeppelins served in every German theatre of war save East Africa, and even there one tried to get through, albeit unsuccessfully, by overflying Egypt and the Sudan. The Army preferred to use them for deep reconnaissance but would occasionally mount a bombing mission. The Navy used them as scouts for the operations of the High Seas Fleet but also carried out raids well inland into England, proving that nowhere was safe from the attentions of the Imperial Navy. Naval Zeppelin bases were established near Cuxhaven, at Ahlhorn near Oldenburg, Wittmundshaven (East Friesland), Tondern (Schlewig-Holstein, now Denmark) and, for a while, Hage, south of Nordeny. From these their route took them on a south-westerly course from which they would cross the North Sea to the East Anglian coast, from which the glow of London’s lights provided a distant beacon to steer by. Having carried out their mission, they would leave England by crossing the Kent coast and then head north-east to home.

Huge though the Zeppelins were, they generated very little awe in the professional flying community. In 1914 Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps squadrons had been posted to the French and Belgian coast as a defence against German air operations in the Channel. On 8 October, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, Lieutenant R.G.L. Marix located a Zeppelin shed at Dusseldorf and dropped four 20-lb bombs onto it from a height of 600 feet. The resulting explosions were quickly followed by a roaring inferno, the flames of which reached as high as 500 feet, signifying the end of an Army Zeppelin, Z-9. Although the Tabloid received some damage from enemy fire, Marix managed to nurse it back to within 20 miles of Antwerp, completing the journey home on a borrowed bicycle. The following day the Allies withdrew from the city.

On 21 November an even more ambitious RNAS raid with three Avro 504bs was mounted from Belfort in Alsace against the birthplace of the Zeppelin, Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. One airship was wrecked and considerable damage was done to the hangars and other facilities of this airship holy-of-holies. One aircraft was shot down, its pilot being seriously injured when he was attacked by a civilian mob. In contrast, the German military treated him with respect and great kindness while he was recovering in hospital.

On Christmas Day 1914 further incidents demonstrated how the naval air war was likely to develop. A squadron of light cruisers under the command of Commodore R.Y. Tyrwhitt escorted three specially converted Channel ferries, Engadine, Riviera and Empress, across the North Sea to a position close to the mouth of the Elbe, from which an attack could be made on the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. Nine Short floatplanes were lowered into the sea, of which only seven managed to lift off. The remainder flew to Cuxhaven where, although they were unable to identify the sheds, their appearance caused uproar. As the High Seas Fleet relied on Zeppelins for much of its reconnaissance, the risk of future raids was only too real. Furthermore, the German high command was seriously unsettled by the fact that so much valuable information on the fleet’s disposition had been gathered by the British pilots that a number of warships were moved immediately. Amid the hullabaloo, the battle cruiser Von der Tann was involved in a collision and so seriously damaged that she had to be docked. Three of the floatplanes returned safely to their carriers. The pilots of three more were picked up by the submarine E11, and the last became a passenger aboard a Dutch fishing boat.

Meanwhile, a counter-attack had been launched on Tyrwhitt’s cruisers by two Zeppelins, L5 and L6, plus a number of seaplanes. None were hit, although some were near-missed and finally the German aircraft droned off. L6, with her crew frantically slapping patches on 600 bullet holes hissing hydrogen out of her gasbags, was very lucky to get home.

It is, of course, impossible to describe all the raids that took place over four years in a single chapter. Naturally, the Kaiser insisted in regulating what was going on and insisted that London was not to be attacked west of the Tower. This ruled out most of the best targets, including the City. The Imperial Chancellor, Theobald Bethmann-Holweg gave permission for the City to be attacked at weekends, when it was empty. It was then pointed out that it emptied every night, so that restriction was removed.

Finally, the Kaiser permitted attacks throughout the capital, with the exception of historic buildings and royal palaces. Nature imposed her own limitations when Zeppelin operations were restricted to the moonless half of the month. The first attack on the United Kingdom took place on 19/20 January 1915 and caused very little damage. In all, 42 raids were launched during the year with a variable number of airships, the first strategic air offensive aimed at the United Kingdom, with very mixed results, including the needless destruction of a large number of glasshouses at Cheshunt.

London was not attacked until 31 May, when seven people were killed and 38 wounded. On 6 June L13, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Heinrich Mathy, a brilliant navigator and the nearest thing to a Zeppelin ace, attacked Hull, causing £45,000 of damage. A riot ensued in which property believed to be in German ownership was wrecked. It was not just that fear was getting the better of people; they were angry, too, that the powers that be were apparently failing to provide them with adequate protection and several Royal Flying Corps personnel were roughed-up because of it. This was not justified, because the threat was being taken very seriously and a great deal was already being done, although it would be some time before a fully integrated defence system became operational.

On 8 September, Mathy was back in L13, carrying a two-ton bomb-load, including one of the new 660-lb bombs specially designed for use against England. This time his target was the City, in which he started extensive fires and destroyed buildings in the area north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Anti-aircraft fire forced him to climb hurriedly to 11,200 feet, but his last bombs was used to damage the railway track leaving Broad Street Station and to destroy two motor buses. On this occasion he had caused over £500,000 worth of damage, killed 22 people and injured 87 more. Such was public anger that on 12 September the Admiralty appointed Admiral Sir Percy Scott, a gunnery expert of note, to command London’s anti-aircraft defences.

One of the most remarkable raids of all took place on the night of 13/14 October, involving L15 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Jaochim Breihaupt, another excellent navigator. Breihaupt penetrated central London and, flying steadily from west to east to the north of The Strand, dropped his bombs on Exeter Street, Wellington Street, Catherine Street, Aldwych, the Royal Courts of Justice, Carey Street, Lincoln’s Inn, Hatton Garden and Farringdon Road before heading for home. Behind lay a trail of death and destruction, including 28 killed and 60 injured. The number of casualties could have been higher as Breihaupt’s course took him close by the capital’s theatre land, where places of entertainment were packed to the doors. While leaving the target area, Breihaupt was also forced to climb sharply to avoid anti-aircraft fire, and noted with alarm that several aircraft were searching for him at a lower level, proof that the defence was stiffening.

Breihaupt’s attack may have unsettled some Londoners, but in certain circles it was simply not done to acknowledge the fact. At the height of the attack, about 22:30, Mrs Patrick Campbell, the doyenne of the London stage and leading member of British society, was being fitted with a dress. She was leaning out of her window, trying to discover the cause of all the fuss, with two seamstresses hanging onto her bottom for dear life. ‘They’re bombing Derry and Thoms!’ she announced in total disbelief. Obviously, the attempted destruction of one’s favourite fashion house was taking things beyond acceptable limits.

During this period, unless luck was on their side, aircraft were at a disadvantage when engaging Zeppelins, for not only were they unable to match the airships’ ability to gain altitude rapidly, their machine gun ammunition was unable to do more than puncture the gasbags inside the hull, damage which could be repaired quickly by a trained crew. An alternative was to drop bombs on the airship from above, but that was a very hit and miss affair, even if the necessary height could be gained. However, on the night on 6/7 June 1915 Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, piloting a tiny Morane, was on his way to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Berchem Ste Agathe when he spotted LZ-37 over Ostend. He closed in to attack but was not only driven off by machine gun fire, but also chased by the monster for a while. Without losing sight of the airship, he put his machine into a slow, steady climb until he reached the height of 11,000 feet. Turning off his engine, he glided noiselessly down on LZ-37, 4,000 feet below, and, flying along the back of his opponent, dropped six 20-lb bombs onto it. Some must have detonated on the airship’s hard internal skeleton, for there was a huge explosion that blew the little Morane upside down and caused some internal damage to the engine. Having recovered control of his machine, Warneford could see the flaming mass hurtling earthwards. It smashed into a convent, the only survivor being a quartermaster named Alfred Muhler who was thrown out of the control gondola when it crashed through a roof, landing on a bed bruised and singed but alive. For his part, Warneford managed to land his aircraft in enemy territory, where he was able to repair the damage and return home. His exploit won him the Victoria Cross but his story had a sad ending for, ten days later, he was killed in a flying accident.

In 1916 the number of Zeppelin raids mounted against ‘the island,’ as the crews termed the United Kingdom, increased three-fold, although the results achieved were far from commensurate with the additional effort involved. The principal reason for this was that the anti-aircraft defences of London and the Home Counties had improved beyond recognition. New and improved anti-aircraft guns were deployed throughout the capital and suburbs and in a secondary ring in the outlying hinterland, leaving a corridor in which British fighter aircraft could operate against the raiders without the risk of being hit by the anti-aircraft batteries. These were supplemented by searchlights and barrage balloons between which cable aprons were stretched, forcing the attackers to climb and therefore lose accuracy. These defences were duplicated to a lesser degree around the Thames estuary, the Kent and Essex coasts and further north along the east coast. In addition, the Royal Navy stationed guard ships along the Zeppelins’ most likely avenues of approach, armed with anti-aircraft weapons. Special machine gun ammunition was also added to the fighters’ armament, including Brock incendiary rounds, developed by the firework company of the same name, and Pomeroy explosive rounds. These were mixed together in the drum magazines of the Lewis guns that armed the antiairship fighters.

In August 1916 Admiral Reinhard Scheer received a letter from Captain Peter Strasser, the energetic operational commander of the Imperial Navy’s airship arm, promising him that his Zeppelins would inflict such serious damage on British civilian morale and economic life that their recovery was unlikely. It was indeed true that much larger, improved airships with the capacity to climb higher were being introduced, and that raids were now being carried out by groups of Zeppelins rather than by individual ships. However, the old problem of faulty navigation persisted, with commanders returning home convinced that their bombs had hit their target when they had actually landed many miles away. Again, the standard airship engine was a veritable minefield of trouble, causing numerous sorties to be aborted and contributing to the loss of ships. In the circumstances, it was an unwise prediction, especially as the British defence was beginning to take a steady toll.

On the night of 2/3 September no fewer than twelve naval airships, joined by four army craft flying from the Rhineland, set out for London. Among the latter was a new Schutte-Lanz craft, SL-11, commanded by a Captain Schramm. Approaching London from the north, SL-11 was brilliantly illuminated by searchlights and surrounded by bursting anti-aircraft shells. Schramm decided to turn away, but three night fighters were already converging on him. Closest was Second Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, who laced the huge hull with two drums of incendiary and explosive ammunition, without result. He then concentrated the fire of a third drum against one point near the tail. A glow appeared inside the envelope, grew in intensity and suddenly burst through in a roaring tongue of flame that briefly lit up another airship, L-16, over a mile distant. Then, stern first, SL-11 crashed to earth near Cuffley in Essex, her wooden Schutte-Lanz skeleton continuing to burn long after the impact. There were no survivors. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Simultaneously, after a good run in which serious ground fires had been started, L-33, one of the new ‘super-Zeppelins,’ sustained heavy damage from anti-aircraft fire and was crippled by a night fighter flown by Second Lieutenant Albert de Bathe Brandon. Her crew managed to land her near Little Wigborough, then set her on fire before marching towards the coast in the vain hope of finding a boat.

Mathy, now commanding L-31, took part in an eleven-strong raid on London during the night of 1 October. Having dropped his bombs, Mathy found himself under attack by four night fighters, one of which, piloted by Second Lieutenant Wulstan J. Tempest, came in from above and set the ship ablaze. The wreckage hit the ground at Potters Bar. Somehow, Mathy managed to jump clear but died from his injuries almost immediately. His loss was keenly felt throughout the airship service.

It was two months before naval Zeppelins appeared again in British skies. They avoided London because of its heavy defences, and attacked the North and Midlands instead. The raids were not a success and cost two Zeppelins shot down in flames; L-34 over West Hartlepool and L-21 off Lowestoft, having raided as far west as Newcastle-under Lyme.

For Count Zeppelin the airship was not the war-winning weapon he had hoped it would be. Zeppelin raids against the United Kingdom tailed away to 30 in 1917 and ten in 1918. Scheer’s memoirs record the final days of the airship service.

A painful set-back occurred in January 1918 when, owing to the spontaneous combustion of one of the airships in Ahlhorn, the fire spread by the explosion spread to the remaining sheds, so that four Zeppelins and one Schutte-Lanz machine were destroyed. All the sheds, too, were rendered useless. After this, the fleet had, for the time being, only nine airships at its disposal.

That was not quite the end of the of the Zeppelin story. The Royal Navy had been developing the concept of the aircraft carrier for some time and had finally produced a workable design by converting the light battle cruiser Furious and fitting her with a flight deck. On 19 July 1918 she flew off six Sopwith Camels which mounted a successful attack on the airship base at Tondern, destroying Zeppelins L-54 and L-60.

On 5 August five Zeppelins, led by Captain Strasser himself in the recently delivered L-70, mounted a final attack. L-70 was attacked by de Havilland DH-4 fighters. Explosive ammunition blew a hole in the outer skin of the ship’s stern. Within seconds flames spread rapidly along her length and the blazing wreckage tumbled seawards from a height of some 15,000 feet. The British pilots were horrified to watch the entire airship consume itself in less than a minute. There were no survivors. Strasser was a well-liked commander who had often accompanied his crews on their missions and had never lost faith in the airship concept.

Six days later Zeppelin L-53 was carrying out a reconnaissance patrol over the North Sea. No doubt the crew noticed, far below, a destroyer travelling at speed. It did not attract a great deal of interest as the airship was well beyond the range of its guns. For some unexplained reason it seemed to be towing a lighter, although the details were unclear. Had L-53 been flying lower she would have seen one of the strangest anti-aircraft systems ever devised, for on the lighter was a Sopwith Camel. The wind created by the speed of the destroyer’s passage created just enough lift for the biplane to become airborne. It took an hour before the Camel could reach a height at which the airship could be engaged. At a range of 100 yards, drum after drum was emptied into the Zeppelin’s belly, sending it into a fiery death-dive. This was the last enemy airship to be destroyed by British fighters during the war.

The huge size of the Zeppelins, caught in searchlight beams or sliding across a gap in the clouds, coupled with their ability to hover, produced widespread fear among the civilian population of Great Britain, generated by the knowledge that their island was no longer a safe haven from enemy activity, but it did not break their will to fight, as had been intended. Zeppelins killed 528 people and wounded 1,156 more. They also caused enormous damage, but it was spread across a very wide area. In addition, they tied down 17,340 men, hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons, plus numerous RNAS and RFC squadrons, all of which could have been usefully employed in other theatres of war.

To crew a Zeppelin was to risk a particularly horrible death. About 1,100 Zeppelin crewmen lost their lives, the second highest proportion of those serving in any branch of the German armed services, the highest being U-boat crews. John Terraine provides some idea of the scale of Zeppelin losses in his book White Heat – The New Warfare 1914–18. He points out that of the 130 airships employed by the German Army and Navy during the war, only 15 existed when the Armistice was signed. Of the remainder, 31 were scrapped, seven were wrecked by bad weather, 38 were accidently damaged beyond economic repair, 39 were destroyed by enemy warships or land forces, while a further 17 fell victim to the RFC or RNAS, either in the air or as a result of bombing.

Zeppelin LZ.38

29/30 April 1915

This was the first raid on England to be carried out by a German military airship.

LZ-38 was the single army airship that carried out the raid, under the command of Hauptmann Erich Linnarz. It was first reported from the Galloper lightship as being 30 miles south-east of Harwich, going west, after 11 p.m. on 29 April.

At 11.55 p.m. she crossed the coast at Old Felixstowe and went straight inland, reaching Ipswich at 12.10 a.m. There, she dropped five incendiary bombs in the borough, one of which failed to ignite. One fell on a house in Brookshall Road, setting fire to it and the adjoining house; otherwise no damage was done and no casualties were caused.

Immediately afterwards, five more incendiary bombs fell at Bramford, to no effect. At 12.20 a.m. five explosive and eleven incendiary bombs fell at Nettlestead and Willisham, 7 miles north-west of Ipswich, doing no damage except for crops. The airship eventually reached Bury St Edmunds, and for ten minutes circled over the town, going round two or three times. At 1 a.m. she dropped three HE and forty incendiary bombs on the defenceless town. Luckily, most incendiary bombs simply burnt out causing no damage or were doused by buckets of water.

The most significant damage was suffered by four business premises on the Butter Market, where Day’s Boot Makers and adjoining shops were gutted, and burned until morning. By some miracle, there was only one casualty – a collie dog belonging to a Mrs Wise.

The airship had now left the area of coast fog; the sky was quite clear and moonlit at Bury St Edmunds, and the LZ-38 was plainly visible at a height of about 3,000ft. She therefore hastened to return to the protection of the fog before she could be attacked, and went off eastward at high speed, dropping a single HE bomb as she went. No damage was done in either case.

At 1.15 a.m., she reached Creeting St Mary, 16 miles east-south-east of Bury St Edmunds, and dropped an incendiary bomb there, followed by another at Otley; neither causing any harm. At 1.27 a.m. another fell at Bredfield, 10 miles east-south-east of Creeting St Mary, and at 1.30 a.m. another at Melton, 2 miles from Bredfield, with the same result. The last bomb, also an incendiary, was harmlessly thrown at Bromeswell, and the airship proceeded out to sea near Orfordness at about 1.50 a.m.

After turning north along the coast, at 2 a.m. she passed over Aldeburgh and was last heard of at sea at 2.20 a.m., still going in the same direction. No action was taken against the Zeppelin; the mobile guns of the RNAS reached Bury St Edmunds at 1.45 a.m., three quarters of an hour after the raid, and it was by then too foggy on the coast for aircraft to go up.

10 May 1915

LZ-38, again commanded by Hauptmann Linnarz, was this time first spotted at 2.45 a.m. over the SS Royal Edward which was moored off Southend as a prisoner of war hulk. The raider dropped an incendiary bomb close to the port side of the ship, the flames leaping up to a height 10–12ft and lasting half a minute. The LZ-38 was travelling towards Southend and dropped two more bombs in the water between the ship and the shore.

She passed over Southend east–west at 2.50 a.m., dropping four HE and a large number of incendiary bombs on the town as she went. Two of the HE bombs failed to explode. After leaving Southend the airship went over Leigh to Canvey Island where, at 3.05 a.m., the Zeppelin came under fire of the AA (anti-aircraft) guns at Thames Haven and at Curtis & Harvey’s Explosive Works, in Cliffe. There were 3in guns mounted at Cliffe and their fire, the volume of which was probably unexpected, straightaway turned the LZ-38, which appeared to be hit – although not vitally.

The Zeppelin went back over Southend, dropping more incendiary bombs there at 3.10 a.m. She headed north-east towards Burnham, and went out to sea near the mouth of the Crouch. At 4.18 a.m. she passed the Kentish Knock light vessel, heading east. She passed near Sunk at 4.30 a.m. and by 5.15 a.m. she had moved south of the Shipwash, after which she headed towards the Outer Gabbard and out to sea. On returning to Belgium, she was found to have been holed twice aft by AA (anti-aircraft) fire, a shell having gone through her stern.

A large number of incendiary bombs, estimated to be about ninety, were dropped on Southend but, owing to the energy of the fire brigade surprisingly little damage was done. A timber yard was burnt out and a number of small fires were started, all of which were brought under control, except for one in a dwelling house which was completely burnt out. A woman was killed and a man injured in this house. A private of the 10th Border Regiment was also injured in the town.

The very heavy load of incendiary bombs carried by the airship was remarkable, as is the time at which the raid was carried out, just before dawn. As this time was not again chosen for a further raid, it was evidently deemed unsuitable for some reason. The height of the airship was unusual for this period, being estimated at 9,000–10,000ft, which is much higher than previously.

During the raid a message was dropped on the town, written on a piece of cardboard in blue pencil: ‘You English. We have come and will come again soon. Kill or Cure. German.’

17 May 1915

LZ-38, with Hauptmann Linnarz, was spotted again seven days later at 12.30 a.m. hovering off North Foreland for some time,and appeared to have dropped some bombs in the sea. She then approached Ramsgate. On being fired at from drifters at sea, she first went east and then northwards and was off the Tongue lightship shortly after 1 a.m. At 1.40 a.m. she came overland again at Margate and flew across Thanet, reaching Ramsgate at 1.50 a.m.

She dropped a number of bombs, apparently four HE and about sixteen incendiaries, on the town. One HE bomb struck the Bull and George Hotel, penetrating to the basement and blowing out the whole front of the building. A man and a woman who were on the second floor were seriously injured and died three days later; another woman was slightly injured. No other casualties were caused, though bombs fell all over the town and in the harbour. A few buildings and some fishing smacks were damaged. After throwing the bombs, the airship went out to sea under hot rifle fire and disappeared in the clouds.

She then proceeded down the coast, and came inland again about 2.10 a.m. at Deal, where she hovered for a short time with propellers stopped. At 2.25 a.m., LZ-38 approached Dover and was engaged by the AA guns of the garrison. In all, five rounds of 6-pdr and twenty-eight rounds of 1-pdr ammunition were fired. On being caught by the searchlights and fired at, the airship at once rose to a height of at least 7,000ft, dropping bombs as she did so, and emitted a dense cloud of vapour in which she disappeared (this was a discharge of water ballast).

The bombs fell at Oxney, 3½ miles from Dover. They were all incendiary, and thirty-three were found. No damage was done by any of them.

The airship carried on north, was fired on by the guard ship in the Downs at 2.50 a.m., hovered about in the neighbourhood of the North Goodwins until 3.25 a.m. and then went back to Belgium after day had dawned. She passed over the British lines at Armentières at about 4.20 a.m.

While over Ramsgate, the lights of London were discernible from the airship, but her commander’s instructions expressly forbade his venturing far inland and no attempt was made to raid London. The estimated value of the damage caused by the raid was £1,600.

26 May 1915

LZ-38 and Hauptmann Linnarz paid their second visit to Southend on this night, several weeks later. The raid was clearly a repetition of his earlier reconnaissance of the route to London, special attention being paid to the mouth of the River Blackwater.

At 9.18 p.m. LZ-38 passed Dunkirk going west, and at 10.30 p.m. appeared off Clacton-on-Sea. She then passed south-west via Bradwell-juxta-Mare at 10.50 p.m. to Southminster at 10.53 p.m. Here, she was fired on with fifty-seven rounds from a pom-pom.

LZ-38 turned south to Burnham-on-Crouch shortly before 11 p.m., passing over Shoeburyness at 11.05 p.m., where the airship came under fire from a 3in AA gun and veered westwards to Southend. Here, at 11.13 p.m., she dropped twenty-three small HE bombs and forty-seven incendiaries. Two women were killed (one of them, unfortunately, from a fragment of AA shell), a girl was injured and several other people received minor injuries.

LZ-38 went off to the north-east, and was again engaged by Shoeburyness AA fire at 11.20 p.m. (the 3in gun at Shoeburyness fired a total of twenty-four rounds HE and thirteen rounds of shrapnel). She passed Wakering at 11.25 p.m. then left via Burnham, where she was fired on with 200 rounds of rapid fire by A Company, 2nd/8th Battalion Essex Regiment, thence to Bradwell and out to sea at the mouth of the Blackwater at 11.45 p.m. The monetary damage caused by the raid was estimated at £947.

It was noted that the small HE bombs were more like grenades, weighing about 5lb each. The GHQ report stated:

These clearly had no other object than the killing or maiming of as many people as possible. Owing to their small size the damage they could inflict to well-built house property was relatively slight but as the casing of the bomb was serrated in the same manner as that of a Mills grenade, the explosion of such a bomb in a crowded thoroughfare or building would cause serious casualties.

The First Raid on London

LZ-38 was first reported on 31 May passing Dunkirk at 8.30 p.m. She crossed Calais at 8.55 p.m. and made for the North Foreland, passing Margate, where she was fired at with 500 rounds from the Maxim machine guns of the Southern Mobile RNAS section at 9.42 p.m. Other .45 Maxim machine guns of the Southern Mobile RNAS opened fire on her from Reculver at 9.50 p.m. and she seems to have moved over to the Essex shore. Here she was fired upon with twelve rounds of shrapnel shell by the 3in gun at Shoeburyness at 10.12 p.m.

LZ-38 passed inland between Rochford and Rayleigh at 10.25 p.m., reaching Wickford at 10.35 p.m. Later, at 10.50 p.m., she passed Brentwood and then seems to have hesitated as to her course; her commander was evidently fixing his exact position with regard to London.

LZ-38 then came straight in, passing between Woodford and Wanstead at 11.15 p.m. The airship was seen over London for the first time, about 400 yards away from Stoke Newington Station and, at this point, commenced dropping bombs at 11.20 p.m.

The first bomb to drop in the Metropolitan Police area was an incendiary. It fell on 16 Alkham Road, Stoke Newington, penetrating into two bedrooms and destroying their contents by fire. The spot where this bomb fell is about 300 yards south-east of Stoke Newington Station and it may possibly have been aimed at the station. The next bomb was also an incendiary and it fell on 8 Chesholm Road, falling through the roof of the back bedroom but without doing any further damage. This was followed by three HE grenades that fell on 41, 43 and 45 Dynevor Road, Stoke Newington. At the first house the windows and doors were blown out, but nos 43 and 45 also had the back extensions of each house practically demolished and the rest of the doors and windows blown out.

The airship then steered a course due south about 500–600 yards west of the main Kingsland–Stoke Newington road, which was doubtless visible. Bombs were then thrown in rapid succession, the next being an incendiary which fell at 27 Neville Road, Stoke Newington, completely gutting the premises. This was followed by an HE grenade, which landed in the roadway of Neville Road and failed to explode.

An incendiary bomb fell on a shed at the rear of 21 Neville Road, but caused no fire, and another incendiary followed this at 47 Neville Road, falling through the roof to the floor below without causing any fire. Another incendiary bomb was dropped at 6 Allen Road, and this went through the roof of the house to the ground floor, gutting two rooms and injuring four children slightly. At 69 Cowper Road, an incendiary bomb fell into a small water tank without causing any serious damage, while at 71 Cowper Road another incendiary caused a small fire.

The next bombs to fall were two grenades at 102 Shakespeare Road. One struck the coping of the house and another fell on the front steps. Considerable damage was done to no. 102 and the adjoining houses. Three more incendiary bombs were thrown into Barrett’s Grove, Arundel Grove and St Matthias’ Road, Stoke Newington, but no damage was caused.

Two HE grenades were dropped on Woodville Grove. These fell into gardens and did not explode. They were followed by three incendiaries and an HE grenade dropped in Mildmay Road, which caused very slight damage. From this point onwards to the Shoreditch Empire Music Hall no grenades were thrown. More incendiaries fell in Queen Margaret’s Grove and King Henry’s Walk without doing any damage; two, however, caused a fire in Ball’s Pond Road in which two people were burnt to death, and a man and four women injured.

Incendiary bombs were dropped all the way down Southgate Road at close intervals, but fortunately they all fell into gardens or onto roadways and caused no damage. After crossing at Regent’s Canal, an incendiary bomb was dropped at 6 Witham Street but only caused a slight fire, which was extinguished by the occupier.

The airship now veered more to the south-east, and dropped several incendiary bombs, causing only slight damage, until at 28 Hemsworth Street, Hoxton, where the premises were gutted, as were those at 31 Ivy Lance, Hoxton, where an incendiary bomb caused severe damage by fire and slightly injured a child. The next bomb, dropped at Bacchus Walk, Hoxton, destroyed the premises, and hit and seriously injured a soldier. Between this point and the Shoreditch Empire, three more incendiary bombs were dropped without causing any serious damage, two of them falling onto stone pavements.

Subsequently, four incendiary bombs were dropped together, three falling on the Shoreditch Empire Music Hall and the other on the house next door; the damage in both cases was slight. A grenade was also thrown at this point, and this fell onto the pavement in front of the music hall without causing any casualties. The audience was in the building at the time, and any tendency to panic was averted by the promptitude of the manager in addressing the audience from the stage.

The next bomb was an incendiary, and fell on the premises of Hopkins & Figg’s, drapers of Shoreditch, without causing any serious damage. There were about thirty female assistants sleeping on the premises and the consequences might have been very serious had the bomb set the building on fire.

Three incendiary bombs fell on Bishopsgate Street Goods Station, but the fires were promptly extinguished by the men on duty. Two incendiaries and one HE grenade fell into Pearl Street, Shoreditch, but did no great damage. These were followed by three incendiary bombs in Princelet Street, and an HE grenade in Fashion Street, none of which caused any serious damage.

Altogether, four men (including two soldiers), two women and two children were injured in Hoxton and Shoreditch. Fortunately there were no fatalities.

The airship then passed over Whitechapel. Incendiary bombs which fell on Osborn Street, Whitechapel and near Whitechapel Church did no damage. A HE grenade fell into a large tank of water at the whisky distillery of Johnnie Walker & Sons, Whitechapel, followed by three incendiaries in Commercial Road East, none doing any harm.

LZ-38 began to turn due north-east and, at the same time, dropped seven HE grenades in close succession. The first of these fell in a yard at 13a Berners Street, injuring a horse, followed by two on the same spot in Christian Street, Whitechapel. The casualties here were severe, as two children were killed, with five people seriously hurt and five slightly injured.

Another HE grenade fell in Burslem Street, St George’s, but failed to explode; followed by another in Jamaica Street and another in East Arbour Street, with similar results. The next bomb was also a grenade that fell on Charles Street, Stepney, but only broke some glass. The next two bombs were incendiaries at 130 Duckett Street and 16 Ben Jonson Road, Stepney, and these caused slight fires in both instances. They were closely followed by a grenade, which also fell on Ben Jonson Road, but caused no damage.

It is worthy of note that the commander of LZ-38 made no attempt to attack the docks which, at this point in the raid, lay only about 1 mile away from him to starboard.

A relatively large distance of 3 miles now elapsed before the next bombs were thrown. The fact that the airship was passing over the relatively thinly inhabited areas on each side of the River Lea could apparently be seen from the airship and, for this reason perhaps, no bombs were thrown hereabouts. The next bombs released were two incendiaries, which fell at Wingfield Road and Colgrave Road, West Ham, but did no damage. A grenade in Florence Street, Leytonstone, caused little harm, as did others which fell at Park Grove Road, Cranleigh Road, Dyer’s Hall Road and Fillebrook Road. The last bomb in Fillebrook Road, fell at about 11.35 p.m. The casualties at Leytonstone amounted to three people being slightly injured.

The total number of bombs dropped in the Metropolitan Police area were:

30 HE grenades at 5lb each = 150lb

89 Incendiary bombs at 25lb each = 2,225lb

This weight represents a total of 1 ton 1cwt and 23lb of bombs dropped on London.

LZ-38 now went off east, passing Brentwood at 11.55 p.m. and was spotted between Burnham and Southminster at 12.30 a.m. Her commander clearly had some difficulty in fixing the locality of his point of departure – no doubt the mouth of the Crouch – and hesitated for a few moments just as he had outside London, before deciding his position with regard to the coast. The airship was fired upon by an AA gun at Southminster and the mobile guns of the RNAS at Burnham. LZ-38 went out to sea at the mouth of the Crouch about 12.40 a.m. The estimated monetary value of the damage caused by the raid was estimated at £18,596.

The question of the height at which this airship was travelling was of some importance. At Shoeburyness her height was estimated at 7,500ft by the military authorities. The reports of the RNAS, however, speak of her as having passed near that place (probably on her return) at 10,000ft and, ‘at no part of its journey does it appear to have descended much below this elevation’.

No action against the airship was taken by the AA guns in London, then controlled by the RNAS. The reason given for this inaction was the airship was so high that it was neither seen nor heard: ‘There is no authentic case of anyone having been able to see it during its passage over London … it was faintly heard by the gun-station at Clapton.’ This statement appears to be substantiated, but at the same time the accurate manner in which the airship followed the straight line of the Kingsland Road from Stoke Newington to Shoreditch, at a height of 10,000–11,000ft, even by moonlight, is remarkable.

So great a height was not attained by any of the other airships, whether army or naval, which raided London later in the year. Their height was between 7,000 and 10,000ft during the raids of 7 and 8 September, until they had got rid of their bombs and were going off. On 13 October, however, the height of 12,000ft was attained by a naval airship, but it was not until autumn 1916 that this became the normal raiding height.

Hauptmann Erich Linnarz and his crew pose for photographs after LZ38’s first raid.

‘I was London’s First Zepp Raider’ by Major Erich Linnarz

Major Linnarz, who was commander of Zeppelin LZ.38, had been four times over England before, on May 31, 1915, he succeeded in reaching London. This was London’s first air raid.

It was not until January 1915 that the Kaiser at last sanctioned the bombing of England, and not until four months later that he was prevailed upon by his advisers to give his consent to attacking London. The proud ship LZ.38, the latest product of Count Zeppelin’s works at Friedrichschafen on Lake Constance, which I commanded, was one of those detailed for the job.

On the morning of May 31 orders in cipher were brought from Berlin to me at Brussels to raid London. Preparations for the flight were carried out all that day. Engines were tested, ballast tanks examined, the radio apparatus thoroughly overhauled, and the huge deflated envelope closely inspected for flaws. Presently there was the hiss of gas and slowly the monster took a more rigid shape. Then the bomb-racks were loaded. One hundred and nineteen bombs there were in all – eighty-nine incendiary, thirty high explosive ones. A ton and a half of death.

As the perspiring soldiers wheeled the infernal things on trucks before placing them in position, the setting sun sank behind the shed and stained the sky a deeper and more ominous red. My crew, clad in their leather jackets and fur helmets, were standing in groups on the landing ground. A siren sounded shrilly and they moved to the shed, entered the gondola and took up their posts. Gently guided by ropes the ship slid smoothly forward. The sounding of a second siren indicated that the ship was clear of its shed.

‘Hands off, ease the guides,’ I shouted. The men at the ropes let go.

Great Eddies of dust swept through the air as the final test to the mammoth propellers was given. An officer approached and told me all was ready, I stepped in, gave a signal, and mysteriously the ship soared upwards. We were on our way to London.

From my cabin, with its softly lit dials – everyone with a story to tell – its maps, its charts, and compass, I could hear the rhythmic throb of the engines; feel the languorous swing of the gondola as we rode smoothly through space. Over invaded Belgium we flew. Here it was that one of my crew at the helm reported that he had sighted what he thought to be a hostile airship approaching. For safety I altered course and steered in the direction of Ostend.

Often raiding Zeppelins, on their way out from Belgium to England, encountered enemy craft endeavouring to intercept their passage. But, as it afterwards turned out, this one was only Captain Lehmann, who was killed in an airship crash in America last year, on one of the other Zeppelins detailed to raid England. He had left Namur earlier, also with London as his aim, but over the Channel he had broken a propeller, which had pierced his gas-bag and forced him to return to his base.

He was on his way back when we saw him. None of the other ships reached London that night, but discharged their bombs on East Coast towns. On, on we sped. It was a beautiful night – a night of star spangled skies and gentle breezes, a night hard to reconcile with a purpose as grim as ours. And then the glimmer of water showed below and we knew we were over the sea. Tiny red specks winked at us. They were patrol boats keeping their ceaseless watch in the Channel, and we were looking down their funnels into the glowing heart of their stoke-hold furnaces. England!

We crossed the black ridge of the coast. Immediately from below anti-aircraft guns spat viciously. We could hear the shells screaming past us. We increased our altitude and our speed. Across the Thames estuary we raced, wheeling inland at Shoeburyness, over Southend, which I had raided the week before – and then, following the gleaming river, we made straight for the capital. Twenty minutes later we were over London. There below us its great expanse lay spread. I knew it all so well. I had spent several months there five years before. There seemed to have been little effort to dim the city. There were the old familiar landmarks – St. Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace, dreaming in the light of the moon which had now risen.

I glanced at the clock. It was ten minutes to eleven. The quivering altimeter showed that our height was 10,000 feet. The air was keen, and we buttoned our jackets as we prepared to deal the first blow against the heart of your great and powerful nation.

Inside the gondola it was pitch dark save for the glowing pointers of the dials. The sliding shutters of the electric lamps with which each one of the crew was provided were drawn. There was tension as I leaned out of one of the gondola portholes and surveyed the lacework of lighted streets and squares. An icy wind lashed my face.

I mounted the bombing platform. My finger hovered on the button that electronically operated the bombing apparatus. Then I pressed it. We waited. Minutes seemed to pass before, above the humming song of the engines, there arose a shattering roar.

Was it fancy that there also leaped from far below the faint cries of tortured souls?

I pressed again. A cascade of orange sparks shot upwards, and a billow of incandescent smoke drifted slowly away to reveal a red gash of raging fire on the face of the wounded city.

One by one, every thirty seconds, the bombs moaned and burst. Flames sprang up like serpents goaded to attack. Taking one of the biggest fires, I was able by it to estimate my speed and my drift. Beside me my second in command carefully watched the result of every bomb and made rapid calculations at the navigation chart.

Suddenly from the depths great swords of light stabbed the sky. One caught the gleam of the aluminium of our gondola, passed it, retraced, caught it again, and then held us in its beam. Instantly the others chased across the sky, and we found ourselves moving through an endless sea of dazzling light. Inside the gondola it was brighter than sunlight. Every detail of the car was thrown in sharp relief. The crew at their posts looked like a set of actors grouped in the limelight without their make-up. And so began a game of hide and seek in the sky. The helmsman and I tried every way of eluding the searchlights, practising every trick of navigation.

Then came the bark of the batteries. Shells shrieked past us, above us, below us. There were glowing tracer shells which we had never seen before, but had heard all about – slim projectiles that tore a hole in the ship’s fabric and then burst into flame. It was this thought that sent us home quickly. We had been over London for an hour. Soon we left the thrusting searchlights behind. We could see ahead of us the sea, through which the moon had laid a silver path to guide us home. As we crossed the black ridge of the shore we were met with a further attack from the anti-aircraft guns at Burnham and Southminster. I think our gondola light, now alight and casting a feeble glow over the cabin, perhaps had betrayed us. I put it out. Shell after shell whizzed past, some of them the dreaded incendiary type. Some burst dangerously near. On, on we flew, and at last we were out of range and the firing died down.

Now a new menace threatened us – aeroplanes. We went in dread of these since your pilots had orders that if they failed to reach us with the machine-gun fire they were to climb above us and ram our gas-bags with their machines. Evidently the supreme sacrifice meant nothing to these brave men. One by one they came from the airfields that had been established round the coast to intercept returning raiders. My look-out thought he spotted one flying towards us. Higher we rose out of reach. The British aeroplanes were faster than we were, but they couldn’t reach our height limit.

Presently in the fading moonlight, we could see the waves beating against the Belgian coastline far below. We were feeling cold and hungry, exhausted and spent from the high-pitched hours of that night – rather like the remorseful reveller returning in the hour before the dawn. It was almost dawn. The first vague light was edging the horizon as we flew over invaded Belgium. We had been away ten hours. The first attack on London had been accomplished. Our bomb rack was empty. Behind us we could faintly make out the red glow of fire on the sky’s rim. It was ravaged London. And as we sank to the earth and the gondola bumped across the landing-ground at Brussels-Evere, the sun, rising in front of the Zeppelin sheds, smeared the sky with crimson streaks as though fingers dipped in blood had been drawn across the horizon.

Battle of Wizna

Wladyslaw Raginis (1908-1939) – Captain of Polish Army, military commander during the Polish Defensive War of 1939 of a small force holding the Polish fortified defense positions against a vastly larger invasion during the Battle of Wizna.

Between September 7 and September 8 was fought the “Battle of Wizna. It is often known as “the Polish Thermopylae” – a reference to the 300 Spartans who bravely held off an enormous Persian army in Ancient Greece.

Polish historian Leszek Moczulski claims that between 350 and 720 managed to defend a fortified line from around 40,000 German troops. For three days they defended the fortified line and they managed to postpone the encirclement of Independent Operational Group Narew that was fighting nearby.

Captain Wladyslaw Raginis was the hero of the battle and the commanding officer of the Polish troops. He swore that he would hold position and fight Germans as long as he was alive. Fighting for 3 days without rest or sleep they started losing the battle. In the end, Captain Raginis told his troops to surrender and he committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade.

On September 3, Polish troops were attacked from the air, but their own aircraft could not fight back. The Podlaska Cavalry Brigade was operating in the area, but after multiple attacks on its flank on the night of September 4, it received an order to retreat toward Mały Płock and cross the Narew River.

On September 7, scouts of General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s 10th Panzer Division captured a village near Wizna. Polish scouts from the mountain rifle division suffered losses and were forced to retreat to the southern bank of the Narew. Polish engineers managed to blow up the bridge and because of that, the Germans faced difficulties to cross the river. In the night patrols of German soldiers managed to cross the river but were repelled with great casualties.

In Polish culture, the Battle of Wizna is known as the Polish Thermopylae because of the small number of Polish soldiers who fought against a great number of German soldiers.  Here are the statistics:

Polish forces:

720 men (20 officers)

Six 76 mm guns

42 MGs – machine guns

2 URs – antitank rifles

German forces:

42,200 men

350 tanks

657 mortars, guns and grenade launchers

Aircraft support

The area of the village of Wizna was fortified to shield the Polish positions in the south and guard the crossing of the Narew and Biebrza rivers. The 5.5 mile (9 km) line of defenses along the high riverbanks passed between the villages of Kołodzieje and Grądy-Woniecko, with Wizna in the center. In addition, the most important road, Łomża–Białystok, passed through Wizna. However, this defensive line was poorly fortified. If broken, an enemy would have access northwards to Warsaw. The construction of the main fortifications began only in April 1939.

By September 1, the Poles had built six heavy bunkers with reinforced concrete domes weighing 8 tons each, two lightweight concrete bunkers, and eight machine gun pillboxes protected by sandbags or earthworks. Four more bunkers were still in the construction stage when the war began.

The average thickness of the bunker walls was nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters). They were also protected by steel plates nearly 8 inches (20 cm) thick, which no Wehrmacht cannon could pierce at that time.

In addition to the bunkers, anti-personnel and anti-tank barriers were erected and many trenches and ditches were dug. To flood this area in order to create additional difficulties for an adversary, the plan was to destroy the dams on the Narew and Biebrza rivers. However, a record dry summer and low water levels prevented that from happening.

Despite their unfinished state, the Polish bunkers were of excellent quality. The fortifications were located on hills, which gave them a large radius of sight and many opportunities for shooting.

Raginis was not only outmanned 60:1 but also had to deal with an extremely formidable foe: General Heinz Guderian. Guderian was one of Germany’s best commanders, known for his infiltration tactics, where strong points on a heavily defended front would be bypassed with special combat teams.

Polish engineers destroyed the only bridge over the Narew, thereby temporarily stopping the Germans. German infantry patrols crossed the river and attempted to advance to Giełczyn, but suffered heavy losses.

On September 8, German General Heinz Guderian received an order to advance through Wizna towards Brześć. The next morning, his troops invaded the Wizna area and were combined with the “Lötzen” Brigade and 10th Panzer Division.

The Poles were vastly outnumbered. German planes dropped leaflets ordering them to surrender, in an attempt to unnerve them and avoid combat. They stated that most of Poland was already under their control, and that “further resistance would only prove futile.” Just when all hope was lost, Raginis found the means to bolster the courage of his men. He swore that he would never leave his post alive, no matter the consequences. Inspired and ready to accept their fate, the soldiers were now prepared to leap into the jaws of death.

The Germans proposed a truce and attempted to force the Poles to surrender, including through threats to shoot their captured comrades if they did not end their resistance. Soon after, the Germans conducted an aerial and artillery bombardment. The Polish artillery was forced to retreat to Białystok. After the bombing, the Germans attacked the northern flank of the Polish troops.

Two platoons of Polish troops were attacked from three sides, but the Germans suffered losses. After strong artillery fire, the Polish commander of the Giełczyn area, First Lieutenant Kiewlicz, received an order to burn the wooden bridge over the Narew and retreat to Białystok. Some of his troops managed to escape from the German encirclement, and joined the forces of General Franciszek Kleeberg in Białystok.

At the same time, the southern Polish fortifications were surrounded and could not repel a tank attack. They did not have anti-tank weapons at their disposal but, hiding in the bunkers, the Poles could still fire at enemy infantry.

Despite this, by 6:00 PM the Polish troops in the trenches and field fortifications had been forced to retreat to the bunkers. German tanks managed to cross the line of defense and advance to Tykocin and Zambrów. However, the German infantry suffered heavy losses and could not follow the armored units.

Lt. Col. Tadeusz Tabaczyński was unable to send his troops to the aid of Raginis, although he was less than 19 miles (30 km) away from him in the fortified area of Osowiec. On September 8, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz ordered the 135th Infantry Regiment, which made up the reserves of Wizna and Osowiec, to retreat to Warsaw.

By the time this order reached the troops, it was too late. The troops on the Wizna line were surrounded. Assaults on the fortifications around Wizna continued. On September 10, German troops using artillery and tanks destroyed all but two of the Polish bunkers. Regardless of the large number of dead and wounded troops, those in the remaining bunkers continued to resist.

In order to force the Poles to stop the resistance, Heinz Guderian demanded that Raginis cease-fire and surrender, threatening to shoot prisoners of war otherwise.For a while, resistance continued.

Eventually Captain Raginis, badly wounded but still in command of what was left of his forces, ordered his men to lay down their arms and surrender. However, true to his oath, he refused to surrender. After his men left the final bunker he committed suicide by throwing himself onto a grenade.

Several dozen Polish soldiers were taken into captivity. The rest fell in battle. Many civilians were murdered in Wizna, and Poland would suffer terribly under Nazi occupation. Polish soldiers fulfilled their oath until the very end. The heroic struggle against overwhelming odds is nowadays one of the symbols of the Polish Defensive War of 1939 and is a part of Polish popular culture.

Although the Polish units were almost entirely composed of conscripts mobilised in August 1939 rather than professional soldiers, their morale was very high. After the war, Guderian had trouble explaining why his Corps was stopped by such a small force. In his memoirs, he attributes the delay to his officers “having trouble building bridges across the rivers”. During the Nuremberg Trials, he remarked that Wizna was “well-defended by a local officer school.”

The resistance of Raginis’ soldiers slowed the advance of the Germans for three days, but could not prevent the occupation of Poland. Even so, the feat of Raginis’ troops is one of the symbols of Poland’s struggles in World War II.

Official Polish losses are unknown. According to various estimates, about 40-70 Polish soldiers survived, some of whom were captured. In his diaries, Guderian estimated German casualties at 900 people, at least 10 tanks, and a number of armored vehicles.

While even though nearly all the men in this famous last stand were killed in battle, the message it sent was one of great valor and bravery. These brave men kicked off one of the bloodiest segments in human history with an act of selflessness. They showed that there is value in setting an example, in creating a legend: in slowing the advancement of evil, even if it comes at the cost of your own life.

Though the engagements on the Narew were intertwined and all equally effective, it is often only the defence of Wizna that receives any popular attention. Perhaps because of the circumstances of Wladyslaw Raginis’ death, it is portrayed as a heroic last stand: Poland’s Thermopylae. Indeed, the memorial at the bunker site consciously echoes the Greek epitaph with the words `Go tell the Fatherland, Passer-by, that we fought to the end, obedient to our duty.’ The heroism of Raginis and his men, their determination and self-sacrifice, is undoubted, particularly as they were effectively abandoned to their fate by their superiors. Whether they appreciated it or not, the crossings on the upper Narew were crucial to the success of Guderian’s plan to drive further east towards Brest, and the few days’ delay that were inflicted upon the Germans there were of vital assistance to the wider Polish withdrawal southward.

However, the more breathless claims attached to the Wizna story are rather harder to justify. Wizna alone did not – as some accounts suggest – halt the 40,000 men of the German 3rd Army in their tracks; that accolade must be shared with the men who defended Lomza and Nowogrod further to the west. Neither did the battle last for three days. Though the Germans first arrived at the river on the 7th, there was evidently little genuine combat in the sector until the morning of the 10th, when the assault on the fortifications began in earnest. It is perhaps telling in this regard that contemporary German sources give Wizna very little mention, beyond complaining of the `weak bridgehead’ there and the resulting slow progress. To them, it seems, it was little more than a skirmish during the frustrating wait to cross the river.

The Pocket U-boat Seehund Part I

Development, Construction, Technology

U-boat Type XXVII B/5 or Seehund (seal) was the most successful small-scale submarine designed and operated by the Kriegsmarine. In contrast to all its forerunners which, with the exception of Hecht, were mere submersibles, Seehund was a straightforward U-boat. Made operational in numbers earlier in the war it would have represented a dangerous threat to Allied shipping.

It was the design of naval architiects Fischer and Grim. The latter was a young engineer who had been actively employed for several years at the Kriegsmarine naval shipyard at Wilhelmshaven, and had taken the post of consultant for small-scale submarines with K-Amt Berlin (located in Schell Haus on the Tirpitzufer). This office, headed by Otto Grim and designated ‘k1Ue’ had been created in 1942 shortly after a proposal was put forward to build a 100-tonne ‘pocket U-boat’. It would be 25.33 metres long, 2.7 metres in the beam, have a draught of 2.34 metres and a surface speed of 9 knots. An armament of three torpedoes was envisaged. This project was not pursued but in 1943, after the attacks on Tirpitz by British midget submarines, consultancy office k1Ue was reactivated. Under great pressure the design for the two-man submarine Hecht was turned out while in parallel K-Amt worked on a series of ideas designated Type XXVIIB. These would have a long range, carry several torpedoes and have diesel-electric drive. The first blueprints, completed in June 1944, bore a strong resemblance to Hecht.

The torpedo-like hull had a bow section for better sea-keeping when surfaced, and saddle tanks. Enlarging the keel to accommodate the batteries made more space available in the boat’s interior. The two torpedoes were suspended from two grabs alongside the hull. A 22 hp diesel engine provided surface drive. Speed was designed to be 5.5 knots surfaced and 6.9 knots submerged.

The building contract for the three Seehund experimental boats U5001-U5003 was awarded to Howaldtswerke Kiel on 30 June 1944. Enthusiasm for the pocket U-boat was so great that orders and boat numbers for series production (U5001 to U6531) were allotted even before the designs had been submitted. The ministerial programme of June 1944 wanted a thousand. Schichau Werft at Elbing in East Prussia and Germania Werft Kiel would produce 45 and 25 boats respectively each month. Other centres for mass production were Simmering (Graz), Panker (Vienna), W. Schenk (Hall, Austria), CRDA Monfalcone (Trieste) and Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz (Ulm).

The reality was different. Dönitz was not prepared to give Seehund priority over the large Type XXIII Elektro-Uboote. There were shortages of raw materials, skilled yard workers and transport bottlenecks. In the end, series production was concentrated mainly at Germania Werft and the Konrad bunker at Kiel no longer required for Type XXI and XXIII assembly. The three experimental boats were completed in September 1944 by Howaldt Werke. In the series production, Germania delivered 152 and Schichau 130 boats, the monthly basis being:

October 1944        35 boats

November             61

December              70

January 1945         35

February                 27

March                    46

A total of 285 Seehund were supplied to the K-Verband.

The Seehund displaced 14.9 tonnes. It was 11.9 metres in length and 1.7 metres in the beam. Fitted amidships was a small raised platform with ventilation mast, light-image reflective magnetic compass, periscope, hatch for crew access and side viewing ports. Later boats had a plexiglass cupola for navigation purposes pressure-resistant to 45 metres. Propulsion came from a Büssing 60 hp 6-cylinder heavy lorry diesel motor for surface drive and an AEG 25 hp electric motor for submerged travel. The diesel continued running submerged following a full speed alarm dive to 10 metres, in emergencies to 15 or 17 metres. This was possible because the diesel exhaust gases were expelled outboard through a vent at up to 2 atmospheres pressure. The critical depth was 20 metres, before which the engineer had to close the vent as rapidly as possible to prevent the external water pressure overcoming the exhaust pressure, entering the diesel and flooding it. The diesel fed on air in the boat. The crew would be deprived of breathable air if the diesel was kept running too long at depth. They could survive in air pressure of 550 millibars.

The Seehund had a range of 270 sea miles at 7 knots, if fitted with additional fuel tanks outside the hull up to 500 sea miles. Submerged, 63 sea miles was possible at 3 knots. Surfaced maximum speed was 7.7 knots, submerged 6 knots.

Seehund was the absolute zenith of contemporary pocket-submarine design worldwide. It could dive rapidly and be fully surfaced within four seconds. By six or seven seconds it could reach five metres. Great things were anticipated of it. The small hull would generally escape detection by radar, and not return an Asdic echo. When submerged at slow revolutions the electric motor would be barely audible to hydrophone gear. Even depth charges with the most violent shock waves would probably pass it by. At least, that was what the designers hoped for, but in practice the assumption varied from the reality.

The free-flooding forward compartment of Seehund contained the dive tanks. A tunnel below the pressure hull between the stern-most dive tank and forward of the diesel bunker held two 8 MAL 210 battery sets. Within the pressure hull the arrangement was very similar to Hecht. Forward of the control room bulkhead was the battery room with six racks (six 8 MAL 210 batteries each of 32 cells). The control room contained the driving position and two seats, one behind the other, for commander and engineer. The latter had the control panel in front of him and on the order of the commander fired the torpedo. When attacking the boat ran at periscope depth. The two (later three) metre long revolvable periscope of first class construction was inbuilt. Its optical spectrum allowed the commander to search the skies before surfacing.

Armament consisted of two standard G 7e torpedoes hung from a retaining rail secured by two protective arms either side of the keel. This arrangement required the boat to be lifted from the water and landed for reloads. Before the war’s end a Seehund-flotilla reportedly received the Walter-torpedo or K-Butt. On 28 November 1944 SKL reported that a Seehund travelled more than 300 sea miles during a four and a half day endurance voyage.

A further Type XXVIIB variant was the ‘small U-boat K’ designed for closed circuit circulating propulsion by naval architect Kurzak who had been appointed by OKM to investigate the possibilities at Germania Werft Kiel. A 15 hp diesel motor available in large numbers was adjudged suitable. A large 1,250-litre pressure flask in the keel supplied oxygen for the system. Seventy sea miles at 11–12 knots submerged was possible, 150 sea miles at an underwater cruising speed of 7.5 knots. After a discussion at OKM on 25 May 1944, Kurzak received a contract to develop the idea for a pocket U-boat. He chose the Daimler-Benz OM 67/4 100 hp motor. The engine (with an electric motor for slow running) would be ready-mounted on a common frame and slid into a stern box, secured with a few relatively accessible screws. Kurzak paid special attention to suppressing the resonance but found that four rubber shock absorbers in the corners of the frame sufficed. The designers hoped that this measure would be enough to eliminate the need for the slow-speed electric drive unit. The final result was a very light, simple engine.

Work on the Seehund closed circuit system was continued by naval architect Dr Fischer, head of the engineering bureau ‘Glückauf’ set up in the buildings of a girls’ school at Blankenburg in the Harz. An important colleague in this Type 127 design was engineer Kurt Arendt.

Contracts for the prototype Type 127 were awarded to Germania Werft Kiel and Schichau Elbing. By the war’s end Germania had three boats under contruction. These were to have received the Seehund conversion Büssing NAG-L06 diesel because so few Daimler-Benz motors were available. Bench tests confirmed that the Büssing diesel could be successfully substituted for circulatory drive purposes, but the war ended before the first prototype was ready.

Training of Seehund Crews

The Seehund crews trained at Lehrkommando 300, Neustadt/Holstein (Neukoppel) in a camp on the edge of the Wiksberg barracks, the home of 3 U-boat Lehrdivision. The exact date when this Lehrkommando was established is not certain but was probably at the end of June 1944. Presumably there was a forerunner, a small unit known as Versuchskommando 306 which had the job of preparing the training of Lehrkommando 300.

First chief of Lehrkommando 300 was LtzS Kiep, who had just completed training as a U-boat watchkeeping officer. His successor was Knight’s Cross holder Kptlt Hermann Rasch (13 ships of 81,679 tons sunk as commander of U-106). His last boat had been the trainer U-393. Rasch was temporary operations leader of the Seehund base at Ijmuiden until relieved by FKpt Brandi.

The technical shore staff head, Hecht and later Seehund instructor was initially a midshipman, Oberfähnrich (Ing) Hinrichsen. Once the Seehund boats arrived he yielded the post to Flotilla Engineer KKpt Ehrhardt. On 4 October 1944 Oblt (Ing) Palaschewski took over from Ehrhardt.

From July 1944 the volunteers, and a sprinkling of pressed men, arrived at Neustadt. As was usual with K-Verband Command all wore field-grey for camouflage purposes. Tactical training began with the delivery of the first Hecht on 26 July. It was evident almost from the outset that trained U-boat men were needed to handle the boats. It was through human error and inadequate mastery of the techniques that the fatal accidents referred to in Chapter Four occurred. Therefore only U-boat watchkeeping and engineer officers, midshipmen, cox-swains and senior engine room ratings who had undergone U-boat training qualified for Seehund training.

In September or October 1944 the first Seehund was brought to Neustadt. The training was typically hard and lasted eight weeks. It concluded with a Baltic navigation voyage over three days and torpedo-firing practice. For training purposes Lehrkommando 300 had available the survey ship Meteor, used as a target, and the torpedo preparation ship Frida Horn, a former Horn-Line steamer. The leader of torpedo practice was Kptlt Hagemann assisted by Oblt Stepputat shipped aboard Frida Horn. Probably the air-sea rescue ship Greif was attached temporarily as an escort to this command before being used to evacuate refugees from the East in the last month of hostilities. Six other air-sea rescue boats from Köslin, KFKs and communications vessels worked the torpedo retrieval routine and as escorts on training and practice sessions. The exercises took place in Neustadt Bay and between Pelzerhaken and Timmendorferstrand. Later, in April 1945, training was transferred to Wilhelmshaven (Graukoppel) and directed there by KKpt Ehrhardt. A Seehund flotilla was transported by train to Aalborg in Denmark on 23 September 1944 and at the end of the year moved from Neustadt to Holland.

The Seehund Flotilla and Its Men

Lehrkommando 300 at Neustadt had the following officer corps:

Chief: Kptlt Hermann Rasch

Adjutant: Oblt Gerhard Hermeking

Camp Commandant: Oblt Willi Demmler

Training Officers: Kptlt Klaus Ohling, Oblt Helmut Wieduwilt

Navigation Officer: Oblt Ernst-Ulrich Lorey

Torpedo Practice Leaders: Kptlt Karl-Heinz Hagenau, Oblt Manfred Stepputat, Oblt Reinhard Pfeifer

Torpedo Officers: Oblt Willi Sebald, Lt Friedrich Weinbrecht

Torpedo Officers: Oblt Willi Sebald, Lt Friedrich Weinbrecht

Acceptance Officer: Oberfähnrich Werner Hertlein

Medical Officer: Lt Dr Adolf Hollunder

The officers of Übungsflotille 311 were listed in Chapter Four, Hecht.

The officers of K-Flotilla 312 included:

Flotilla Chief: Oblt Jürgen Kiep

Torpedo Officer: Lt Paul Reinhold

Pilots/Engineers: Oblts Rudolf Drescher, Klaus-Gert Krüger, Karl Wagener, Hans-Hellmuth Seiffert, Wolfgang Bischoff; Lts Dietrich Meyer, Benedict von Pander, Winfried Scharge, Paul Reinhold, Harro Buttmann, Alwin Hullmann, Günther Markworth, Oberfähnrich Korbinian Penzhofer Which pilots and engineers were attached to K-Flotillas 313 and 314 can no longer be ascertained. From about February 1945 the Seehund crews were led as 5 K-Division. The following men were known to have been involved in sea-going missions:

Officers

Oblts: Alfred Dierks (Flotilla Engineer), Horst Kuppler, Palaschewski, Heinz Paulsen, Wolfgang Ross, Karl-Heinz Vennemann, Wolfgang Wurster.

Lts: Hans Werner Andersen, Wolfgang Bischoff, Wolfgang Böhme, Harro Buttmann, Wolfgang Demme, Karl von Dettmer, Rudolf Drescher, Claus-Dieter Drexel, Siegfried Eckloff, Horst Gaffron, Gernot Gühler, Walter Habel, Martin Hauschel, Klaus-Joachim Hellwig, Helmut Herrmann, Willi Hesel, Hinrichsen, Horstmann, Max Huber, Alwin Hullmann, Wolfgang Jäger, Ludwig Jahn, Friedrich-Wilhelm John, Wolfgang Kähler, Kallmorgen, Herbert Kempf, Jürgen Kiep, Harald Knobloch, Konrad, Henry Kretschmer, Alfred Küllmeyer, Karl-heinz Kunau, Giselher Lanz, Rolf Löbbermann, Günther Markworth, Dietrich Meyer, Friedrich Minetzke, Gerhard Müller, Ulrich Müller, Johann von Nefe und Obischau, Otmar Neubauer, Jürgen Niemann, Benedict von Pander, Werner Plappert, Heini Plottnick, Reinhold Polakowski, Werner Preusker, Winfried Ragnow, Gotthard Rosenlöcher, Felix Schäfer, Gerhard Schöne, Karl-Heinz Siegert, Wolfgang Spallek, Klaus Sparbrodt, Otto Stürzenberger, Hans Wachsmuth, Wagner, Hans Weber, Hans-Günther Wegner, Reimer Wilken, Willi Wolter, Götz-Godwin Ziepult.

Oberfähnriche: Friedrich Livonius, Korbinian Penzhofer, Streck.

Warrant Officers and Senior Ratings

Obersteuermann: Böcher, Fröhnert, Warnest.

Obermaschinist: Bauditz, Feine, Fröbel, Harte, Herde, Herold, Holst, Kässler, Nöbeling, Arno Schmidt, Stiller.

Maschinenobermaat: Langer, Sass.

Maschinenmaat: Baumgärtel, Hardacher, Heilhus, Heinicke, Heun, Jahnke, Köster, Leidige, Mitsche, Musch, Niehaus, Pawelcik, Pollmann, Radel, Reck, Rettinghausen, Rösch, Schauerte, Teichmüller, Vog(e)l.

Bootmaat: Köster.

Ranks unknown

Beltrami, Haldenberg, Huth, Knupe, Macy, Mayer, Schiffer, Schulz.

The Operations of the Seehund Crews

(Where known, the boat number and crew names are supplied, commander first, engineer second. The appropriate rank of each where known will be found in the preceding alphabetical listings.)

The Seehund base in Holland was at Ijmuiden, a district located at the entrance to the Noord Zee Kanal near the town of Velsen in the province of Noord-Holland. Velsen (population then 30,000) was an outlying suburb of Amsterdam. Besides being a large fishing port, it had jam factories, furnaces, steel and iron works, also cement, paper and chemical industries.

From 1940 Ijmuiden had been an S-boat base. The area seemed very promising for Seehund operations with its numerous tributaries and islands where the boats could be hidden from enemy air reconnaissance. The steadily growing importance of the port of Antwerp for the Allies meant that a huge number of shipping targets was available. The Noord Zee Kanal connected Amsterdam to the sea. It was constructed with a lock system designed to keep Amsterdam independent of the tides. Ijmuiden was at the seaward end of the system and had three locks of different sizes to accommodate all sizes of shipping traffic.

The HQ of K-Flotilla 312, the first Seehund flotilla, was located in an unheated two-storey building in the Rijkswaterstraat industrial area. An old mission house and the Velsen cemetery chapel served as the Operational Staff (later 5 K-Division) facility. The shore staff workshop was set up on the Hoogoven Pier, the crematorium and chapel made for a suitable food warehouse.

Aboard the boats neither roll-neck sweaters nor fur and leather jackets were effective against the Dutch winter. Since thick clothing hindered movement, the cold damp which filtered through the hatch and diesel air shaft made life miserable for the crews. Crew shipboard rations was concentrated fare poor in roughage and based on egg-white: pea-, lentil-and millet-soup cubes, rice with meat, dried vegetables, potato puree, dried egg powder, for sweet buns baked with cocoa, chocolate and almond nougat. Beverages were made from compressed bean coffee, Nescafé, compressed tea, some alcohol, also vitamin-C products, and naturally caffeine and cola nut extracts to aid alertness. Routine patrols could last up to four days and so a hotplate was installed for heating up rations as required.

Ashore the officers shared a house on the Kerkenweg in Driehus, the crews were later given a villa on the eatern side of the railway line to The Hague. The shore staff, about 100 men, were lodged in terraced housing near the small lock and in an hotel in the Velsenbeck Park. The Seehund were moored in the central lock alongside low-floating jetties.

A few days before Christmas 1944 some of the training staff were transferred to Wilhelmshaven (Graukoppel) and paired off to take over new boats. Operational leader of K-Flotilla 312 was Kptlt Hermann Rasch. The first six Seehund left Germany for Ijmuiden on Christmas Eve. Each day another group of six followed so that by the end of the year 24 Seehund had arrived at the Dutch base. On 29 December 1944 the flotilla was at readiness.

By order of Admiral Heye the first Seehund operation was scheduled for 1 January 1945 against Allied shipping in convoy lanes of the outer Scheldt between Ostend and the Kwinte Bank to position 3°10′E, and from the south coast of England against the Antwerp-bound traffic west of 10°50′E and south of 52°N. The boats would run parallel to the Dutch coast to the Hook of Holland, then pass through the eastern Hinder Kanal to reach their operational area off Ostend. From 1700 the Seehund feet – 18 boats – transited the small lock at Ijmuiden to embark on an operation expected to last three to five days. It was heavily overcast and rainy, the wind light, sea state Beaufort 2–3, but then the weather deteriorated rapidly, the wind increasing to storm force. Icy rain rattled down on the submarines, pitching and tossing in the rising seas. Vision became worse as the first combers swept the boats’ hulls. The catastrophe was about to begin.

Shortly after sailing, when still in sight of land the first casualty occurred when a Seehund hit a mine and blew up. U-5035 was forced to return with a leaky propellor shaft. Contrary to assurances that they would be invisible to radar, from intercepted enemy wireless traffic transmitted at Ostend and in the Scheldt it was soon evident that that was not the case.

The majority of the boats reached the operational area where they achieved a single success, Paulsen + Huth sinking the British trawler Hayburn Wyke, 324 tons, at 2225 on 2 January. On their return the boat struck a mine off Ijmuiden and both lost their lives. Also that day Andersen + Hardacher in U-5327 ran aground a mile west of Domburg on the enemy-occupied island of Walcheren. A farmer hid them but later they were captured by Dutch Resistance fighters after a brief firefight. The British seized the boat.

Hertlein + Haun had rudder damage. The destroyer HMS Cowdray discovered the submarine and fired on it from a quadruple-barrelled gun on the bow. The crew abandoned and were picked up by the British. Another Seehund, number unknown, was sunk on 2 January at 2002 by the frigate HMS Ekins north-east of Ostend.

On 4 January at about 1230 Kallmorgen + Vogel ran aground south of Katwijk while returning to base. The crew survived.

Scharge + Rösch had no luck. After a bomb exploding near the boat had caused little damage, they were forced to dive and depth-charged by two corvettes. Scharge ordered a torpedo fired at one of the pursuers. The torpedo stuck in the grabs. Later the diesel began to splutter, and the boat stranded off Scheveningen. After Scharge fired distress flares the crew was rescued by a naval flak battery on the evening of the seventh operational day.

U-5305 Penzhofer + Heinicke found no targets. On the return voyage the diesel broke down and the boat was run aground on the island of Voorne. Both swam to the mainland.

On 2 January U-5309 von Pander + Baumgärtel spent twelve hours in the vicinity of buoy NF8 being hunted by MGBs. The magnetic compass and diesels had failed after a depth charge attack. Sailing for home on battery drive only they eventually ran the boat aground off the Hook of Holland. A KFK brought them home.

A difficult time was experienced in U-5024 by Markworth + Spallek. After receiving serious damage from depth charging and bombing they were forced to run the boat aground on a sandbank off Goerre island. The two crew, who had spent a long time in the icy water, were found unconscious by a Wehrmacht patrol in a rubber dinghy.

Löbbermann + Plappert were surprised four miles north-east of Zeebrugge at 1655 on 5 January by a patrol boat, probably HMS Samarina. The crew was forced to abandon, were picked up by the British and brought to Ostend.

A terrible drama must have unfolded in one of the boats of the first wave. On 3 January the two crew were finished physically and mentally, their nerve gone. According to the commander’s account, at the request of the engineer the commander shot him dead and then fired a bullet into his own head. This wound was not fatal. The commander was later found adrift on the wreck of an MTB (how this came about, and whether the boat was British or German, is not explained) and he was taken to a military hospital. The outcome of the court-martial (the survivor of a suicide pact is guilty of murder) is unknown.