Tigers – The Heavy Punch I

The Tiger I heavy tank was the most famous tank of World War II. Built in relatively few numbers, rather slow and prone to mechanical problems, its 88mm gun and heavy armour made it a feared opponent on the battlefield. In the hands of a panzer ace such as Michael Wittmann it became almost invincible. The Tiger II tank, on the other hand, was less of a legend, and most fell prey to mechanical problems rather than Allied anti-tank rounds.

No tank epitomized the German panzer force better than the Tiger tank. The mere presence of a single Tiger on a World War II battlefield would send Allied tanks crews into a panic. These armoured monsters were almost invulnerable to Allied anti-tank weapons, and their powerful 88mm cannons could cut through the armour of American Shermans or Soviet T-34s like a hot knife through butter. On top of their armour and firepower superiority, German Tigers were always manned by the best panzer commanders and crews in the Third Reich, who were highly skilled at getting the best out of their machines.

Thankfully for the Allies, they never had to face large numbers of Tigers. The monster tanks were expensive and difficult to build, while Allied bombing further delayed and disrupted production. Germany’s reputation for its superb engineering even worked against the Tiger. Its very complexity, for example, made it hard to maintain, so that more were lost to breakdowns than enemy action.

There was more than one member of the Tiger family, which grew to include two tanks and two monster assault guns. This, however, was more by accident than design. The titans of the German armaments industry, Henschel, MAN, Daimler Benz and Porsche, all produced designs for heavy tanks during the late 1930s, as they rushed to win contracts to produce the weapons needed in Hitler’s rearmament programme.

Not much happened until late 1941, when the appearance of the T-34 in Russia caused a major panic. The new Soviet tank had revolutionary sloped armour, a powerful 76mm cannon and the Christie suspension system. German weapon procurement was in a highly chaotic state, the German Army’s weapons office placing an order with Henschel for its design of a new heavy tank and Hitler later being swayed by Dr Ferdinand Porsche to give the go-ahead for his design.

Tiger Production

Eventually the modified Henschel design got permission to proceed, and later became known as the Tiger E or Tiger I after production began in August 1942. Some 1300 were built before construction ceased two years later. Some 90 Porsche chassis had already been built by the time the project was cancelled, and so they were later converted into assault guns armed with fixed 88mm cannons. A version of the Tiger I fitted with a 380mm mortar for demolition work was also built in small numbers. Late in 1942 work began to develop a new improved version, the Tiger II or King Tiger, with heavier sloped armour and a more powerful version of the 88mm cannon. Henschel and Porsche again competed and the former won. Different turret versions, however, were eventually built by both companies. Just under 490 Tiger IIs were built from January 1944 until March 1945. Weighing in at 71 tonnes (70 tons), compared to 58 tonnes (57 tons) for a Tiger I, the Tiger II was the heaviest German tank to actually see combat during the war. The final version of the Tiger family was the Jagdtiger tank hunter, which was based on a Tiger II chassis and sported a fixed 128mm cannon. Only 80 were eventually built.

Everything about the Tiger was impressive. The frontal armour of the Tiger I was 100mm (4in) thick and impenetrable to almost every Allied anti-tank weapon until 1944, when the British 17-pounder and Soviet 122mm guns appeared. In 1943 one Tiger on the Russian Front reported surviving 227 anti-tank rifle hits, 14 52mm shell hits and 11 7.62mm anti-tank guns hits – none of which penetrated the tank’s armour. The Tiger II was even better protected, with 180mm (7in) frontal armour that was sloped. This made the monster impossible to knock out except by attacking its side armour. The L/56 88mm carried by the Tiger I, and later the L/71 88mm of the Tiger II, were superb weapons that were able to destroy all but the most heavily armoured Allied or Soviet tanks, such as the Churchill or Josef Stalin, at ranges in excess of 2000m (2188yd).

The Tiger I and II were designed along conventional lines, with the main armament mounted in a rotating turret. They both required a crew of five: a commander, gunner, loader, driver and a hull machine gunner/radio operator. Fighting inside the Tiger was often a confusing and terrifying experience. When closed down for battle, the crew could only view the world through their small vision ports or periscopes. Only constant running commentaries from other tank crews over the radio kept them fully abreast of what was happening around their vehicle. When enemy infantry got close or anti-tank fire started bouncing off the armour, Tiger crews became very nervous. Mutual support from other Tigers often proved the best protection.

The tank’s sheer bulk created new challenges for the Tiger crews. The tank’s great weight of armour put a heavy strain on the engines, transmissions and tracks. Maintenance was a nightmare, and crews had to spend far more time keeping them going than other German tanks. If one Tiger should break down, the only way to recover one was with another Tiger. As the German Army began its long retreat from Russia in 1943, it was very common for broken-down Tigers to be abandoned because they could not be moved.

Initially it was intended to provide every panzer regiment with its own company of about a dozen Tigers, but soon afterwards the Army High Command decided this was a mistake. The Tigers were to be concentrated in independent heavy tank battalions, containing some 45 vehicles, for decisive shock action. Tigers were intended to be used en masse to overwhelm opponents with firepower. The new battalions were to be assigned to panzer corps for specific operations, rather than parceled out to individual panzer divisions. The Waffen-SS Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions, as well as the army’s Grossdeutschland, had already formed their Tiger companies before the new structure was decided on, so they had small detachments of Tigers for most of 1943 until they could be expanded to battalion strength.

From the beginning it was envisaged that the Tiger battalions would be the elite of the German Army’s panzer troops. Only veteran panzer crews were posted to the new units when they began forming in early 1942, while the first Tigers were still on the Henschel production line at Cassel. The first two companies were formed in February 1942, and by May moves were made to activate the first three heavy battalions even before production tanks were ready. As the new tanks began to take shape the Tiger crews were sent to the factory to spend several weeks helping to build them, so they could master every intricacy of their construction. In the factory grounds and proving grounds, the crews put the Tigers through their paces for the first time. They then took their tanks to training grounds around Germany to learn how to drive, maintain and fight their new vehicles. The gunners zeroed their weapons, commanders tested out basic tactics, and drivers got the measure of their new charges.

It was intended only to commit the new units to battle when they were fully trained and equipped, so they could have a decisive impact and achieve maximum surprise over the enemy. Hitler, however, was impatient for his new toys to see action and so, in August 1942, ordered four Tigers of the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion to move immediately to join the attack on Leningrad. The tank crews were not yet fully trained and, not surprisingly, the deployment was not a success. On their first mission, the tanks got stuck in swampy ground and had to be abandoned by their crews. Eventually three were recovered and the remaining tank was destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands. It was a far from impressive performance, and confirmed the Army High Command’s view on how the Tigers should be employed en masse.

Tiger Tactics

By the end of 1942 the Tiger force was ready for battle, and the Soviet winter offensive provided ample opportunity for the new tanks to prove their worth. On the Leningrad Front in January 1943, the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion’s detached company found itself called to rescue an infantry division being overrun by 24 T-34s. When the “Snow Tigers” arrived on the scene they were able to pick off 12 of the Soviet tanks at long range for no loss. For over three months, the Soviets sent in attack after attack against the same stretch of front, providing the Tigers with easy pickings. When a Soviet attack materialized, the “Snow Tigers” would drive forward from their hides to firing positions behind the German infantry and devastate the T-34 attack waves before they could reach the forward edge of the German line. During this time the Tiger company claimed more than 150 kills, beginning the legend of the “Tiger ace”.

In southern Russia, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was soon to launch his famous counteroffensive to drive back the Soviet armies from the eastern Ukraine. The Waffen-SS and Grossdeutschland Tiger companies were to be in the thick of this action, when his panzer divisions turned on their pursuers in February 1943 and advanced to retake the city of Kharkov.

Exhausted by nearly three months of continuous offensive action and short on supplies, the Soviet armies in the Ukraine were in no condition to resist von Manstein’s panzer strike. In the first days of the offensive, German panzer units took the Soviet columns by surprise, catching anti-tank guns still attached to towing vehicles and tanks stuck between supply trucks. Von Manstein’s panzers enjoyed easy prey, shooting up almost defenceless convoys of panicked enemy troops. As the drive north to Kharkov gathered momentum the Tigers were in the lead. Now the Soviets had recovered their composure and the Germans began to run into whole brigades of anti-tank guns, dubbed “pak fronts”, dug into prepared positions and backed by scores of T-34s. The Tigers came into their own, because they were the only German tanks that could engage the pak fronts from a safe distance. If a direct frontal assault was required, then the Tigers could also safely advance and overrun the Soviet gun line. More lightly armoured tanks, halftracks and self-propelled guns followed in close behind, ready to exploit any gaps created by the Tigers. This tactic became known as the “panzer wedge”.

This tactic came into its own during Operation Citadel, the Battle of Kursk, when the Soviets deployed so many interlocking pak fronts that it was impossible to outflank them. The only thing for the Germans to do was to try to batter their way through by pushing the Tigers to the fore. At Kursk the Tigers made easy work of the pak fronts, but it was slow work and losses were heavy. Huge minefields protecting the Soviet positions slowed the advance and knocked out many of the Tigers. Pioneers had to be repeatedly called forward to clear a path through the Soviet minefields, so the advance could begin again.

A week into Operation Citadel the Tiger force was badly depleted, with only a handful of operational tanks left in each company. Only superhuman efforts by repair crews, who night after night ventured onto the battlefield to get the damaged tanks working again, kept the Tiger force in action. The tank crews were worn out and exhausted after continuous action. The offensive was fully defeated on 12 July after the Soviets committed their strategic reserves during the Battle of Prokhorovka. In the largest tank engagement of the war, more than 850 Soviet tanks surged forward in huge waves against II SS Panzer Corps. Across a flat open steppe, the brunt of the attack fell on the Leibstandarte’s panzer regiment. With barely 70 tanks and assault guns, including only four Tigers, the regiment fought a desperate action throughout the day, taking on and defeating wave after wave of Soviet tanks. The Tigers’ 88mm cannons gave the Leibstandarte a huge range advantage, allowing Soviet tank brigades to be decimated before they got to within firing range of the German lines. Almost 200 Soviet tanks lay burning in front of the division at the end of the day. One Waffen-SS Tiger commander, Michael Wittmann, established his reputation as one of the war’s best tank commanders during the fighting at Kursk. His kill total by the end of the battle was 30 tanks and 28 anti-tank guns.

After Kursk, Hitler’s armies were forced on the defensive in Russia and a growing number of Tigers were assigned to the Eastern Front, where they played a vital role in the futile German attempt to hold back the Soviet steamroller. Tiger battalions were thrown into a series of desperate battles, often holding long sections of front against overwhelming odds. However, during the winter of 1943–44, the effect of unending combat, mechanical breakdowns and unreliable supply lines meant Tiger battalions could often only put a dozen tanks into the field.

Tigers – The Heavy Punch II

German commanders kept them back as a reserve to counterattack against Soviet breakthroughs, and only committed the Tigers once the focus of the Red Army attack had been properly identified. Then the Tigers rolled. These engagements quickly became deadly stalks, as pairs of Tigers often found themselves up against hundreds of T-34s. A pair of Tigers would usually be assigned a sector to hold and clear of enemy tanks. One Tiger would move into an over-watch position to cover its partner as it moved forward. When this tank reached cover, it would stand firm and the second tank would move forward to find another fire position. Tiger commanders usually stood up in their turrets, scanning the horizon for targets with binoculars, despite the risk from snipers or artillery fire. Once the enemy was detected, the Tiger commander would try to find a firing position to engage the enemy from the flank. While the Tiger’s 88mm cannon could be counted on to penetrate the front armour of almost all Soviet tanks, there were still sound tactical reasons for flank attacks. Soviet tanks had poor optical systems and few radios, so unless a target was to their front there was little chance it would be spotted. Even if one Soviet tank commander spotted a target, there was no way to share the information with other tanks.

From concealed firing positions, Tigers regularly reaped a deadly harvest of death against Soviet tank columns. Often the Russians had no idea what was happening for several minutes as Tiger fire started to rip into T-34 after T-34. Even if the Tigers were spotted, the Soviets could rarely coordinate an effective response. By then the Tigers were already pulling back into cover and moving to a new fire position, leaving burning Soviet tanks behind them.

The arrival of heavily armoured Josef Stalin tanks in early 1944 made it even more important for the Tigers to use guile to stalk their prey. It was now vital for the Tigers to get the first shot in.

In the West, Tigers retained their armour and firepower supremacy and could hold their own against vast numbers of Allied tanks. Wittmann on one occasion even engaged a whole British armoured brigade by himself and destroyed 25 Cromwell tanks, stopping a division attack in its tracks.

The greatest threat to the Tiger in the West was from Allied air supremacy. Camouflage and concealment was the best defence against prowling squadrons of rocket-armed Typhoons. During the Normandy campaign in 1944, Tigers operated from hides in woods or farm buildings and would only move forward to the front when an attack was imminent. Once they had completed their task, they would quickly move back to cover.

During the December 1944 Ardennes Offensive, the mountainous terrain and limited number of roads meant unusual tactics had to be adopted by the Waffen-SS Tiger II battalion, attached to the Leibstandarte Division. The unit spearheaded the advance of Joachim Peiper’s battlegroup into the heart of the American defences. With no room to deploy offroad, Peiper put his Tiger IIs at the head of his column. Even though this slowed up the advance it meant that whenever his columns ran into opposition, the Tiger IIs easily blasted a way through. American anti-tank gunners could only watch in horror as their shells literally bounced off the front armour of the German monsters.

What of the individual Tiger battalions? The 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion was formed in the summer of 1942. The battalion took its tanks to North Africa in December 1942 and clashed with British and American troops until it surrendered in May 1943. The unit was reformed and sent to Russia in November 1943, and fought there until it was decimated in the Soviet offensive that destroyed Army Group Centre in July 1944. After being reformed with Tiger IIs, it was sent to the Eastern Front again as the redesignated 424th Battalion.

502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion

The first Tiger I unit to be formed, it was the first one to see action on the Leningrad Front in August 1942. It remained in action on the northern sector of the Eastern Front until the end of the war. In January 1945 it was redesignated the 511th Heavy Panzer Battalion.

503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion

Perhaps the most effective Tiger unit of the war after it was sent to join Army Group South in January 1943, where it spearheaded von Manstein’s winter counteroffensive. It then saw constant action as part of III Panzer Corps during the Battle of Kursk and the retreat to the Dnieper. In January 1944 it was grouped together with a Panther battalion to form Heavy Panzer Regiment Bake, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Franz Bake. This regiment neutralized a pocket of 267 Soviet tanks and then spearheaded the German relief attempt to free the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket. After being decimated later in the spring, the battalion was reformed and sent to fight in Normandy. In the autumn of 1944 the unit was re-equipped with Tigers IIs and sent back to the East as the Feldherrenhalle Heavy Panzer Battalion. It was trapped in Budapest in January 1945 by the Soviet winter offensive and destroyed. A new 503rd Battalion was formed in early 1945 and sent to fight with Army Group Vistula until the end of the war.

504th Heavy Panzer Battalion

Most of this unit was sent to Tunisia in January 1943, where it was destroyed. Some elements survived and fought in Sicily, and it was reinforced to help defend Italy as part of the Hermann Goering Panzergrenadier Division. The units remained there until the end of the war.

505th Heavy Panzer Battalion

Dispatched to join Army Group Centre in the late spring of 1943, it then spearheaded the offensive against the northern front of the Kursk salient. It remained in this sector until the following summer, when it was almost destroyed during the Soviet summer offensive. Re-equipped with Tiger IIs, it fought to the end in East Prussia.

506th Heavy Panzer Battalion

Committed to fight with Army Group South in the autumn of 1943, the battalion fought in the Ukraine until the summer of 1944 when it was withdrawn and re-equipped with Tiger IIs, and was sent to help defeat the Allied airborne landings in Holland in September 1944. In December it was assigned to support the I SS Panzer Corps during the battles in the Ardennes and Hungary.

507th Heavy Panzer Battalion

Formed in September 1943, the unit was committed to the Eastern Front the following January and served there until February 1945, when it was re-equipped with Tiger IIs while still in the line.

508th Heavy Panzer Battalion

Sent to Italy in January 1944, the battalion spearheaded the German offensive against the Allied bridgehead in Anzio. It remained in Italy for a year until it was decided to pull it back to Germany to be re-equipped with Tiger IIs. The unit was then sent to fight on the Western Front.

509th Heavy Panzer Battalion

Ordered to the Eastern Front in November 1943, the battalion fought there for almost a year until it was withdrawn to be re-equipped with Tiger IIs, before being sent to fight in Hungary in January 1945.

510th Heavy Panzer Battalion

One of the last Tiger I battalions, it was formed in June 1944 before being rushed to the East to try to halt the Soviet summer offensive in the central sector. It remained there fighting the Soviets until the end of the war.

301st Heavy Panzer Battalion

Equipped with both the Tiger I and the BIV remote-control demolition robot vehicles, the unit was formed in the summer of 1944. Sent to the West in November 1944 it saw action during the Ardennes Offensive, where it was all but destroyed.

Kummersdorf Panzer Battalion

A scratch unit that was formed to defend Berlin in February 1945, it went into action with the Munchenberg Panzer Division the following April and was destroyed as Soviet troops swept into Berlin.


III Battalion/Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland

During the first half of 1943, the elite army division had only a single Tiger I company, but it was later joined by a full Tiger battalion late in the summer. The battalion fought with the division for remainder of the war.


SS Heavy Panzer Companies

The Leibstandarte, Totenkopf and Das Reich Divisions were all provided with Tiger I companies in late 1942, and saw action on the Eastern Front throughout the following year.

101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 501st)

Formed from the Leibstandarte’s Tiger company in the autumn of 1943 as the heavy battalion assigned to the newly formed I SS Panzer Corps. It was ready for action when the corps was sent to defend Normandy in June 1944. Michael Wittmann eventually commanded the unit until he was killed in action near Caen. It was later re-equipped with Tiger IIs and saw action in the Ardennes and Hungary.

102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 502nd)

Formed to support II SS Panzer Corps, the unit saw action in Normandy from July 1944 onwards. By the end of 1944 it had been re-equipped with Tiger IIs.

103rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 503rd)

Originally formed with Tiger Is in 1943, it never saw action and was eventually re-equipped with Tiger IIs. It was then ordered to the Eastern Front.

653rd and 654th Panzerjäger Battalions

Formed to use the 90 Elephant or Ferdinand heavy self-propelled guns in early 1943, they used them in action on the northern wing of the Kursk Offensive. They suffered heavy losses because the vehicles lacked a hull machine gun to counter close-quarter infantry attacks. The remaining Elephants were withdrawn to Italy and fought at Anzio. Others were then sent back to the Eastern Front. The 653rd Battalion was re-equipped with the monster Jagdtigers in time for the Ardennes Offensive. Two other Jagdtiger battalions were formed in early 1945 and they fought in the West until the end of the war.

Tiger Elite

On every World War II battle front Germany’s Tiger tanks proved to be formidable opponents. Allied tank crews rightly feared these monster tanks whenever they appeared. A heavy price was always paid to put them out of action. Not only were they technologically superior to anything the Allies produced, but their crews were always professional and very determined opponents. The German Army’s Tiger battalions were always at the centre of the action, driving all before them or dying in the process. Though only just over 1500 Tiger Is were built in total, such was the reputation that this armoured fighting vehicle established during the war that it has become the most famous tanks in the whole of military history.

Origins of the Wolf Pack

Hitler seized upon the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland as a pretext for abrogating the Anglo-German Naval Treaty. He did so publicly, in a sarcastic speech to the Reichstag on April 28 1939. Soon thereafter the Kriegsmarine laid the keels for the two super-battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz. Despite these provocations and the public indignation and the stepped-up military preparations in Great Britain, Hitler continued to assert to his Nazi cohorts that neither Great Britain nor France would fight for Poland. Believing Hitler would pull another political rabbit out of his hat, Raeder naively—and irresponsibly—assured the Kriegsmarine that there would be no war with Great Britain.

Karl Dönitz was more convinced than ever that the opposite was the case. He believed that the “high state of tension” which Hitler had created between Great Britain and Germany could explode “into actual hostilities at any moment.” He therefore pleaded with Raeder and the OKM to approve a rapid increase in U-boat orders, with a major emphasis on Type VIIs, and to authorize theretofore prohibited U-boat exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. He got nowhere with his pleas for an increase in U-boat orders—the available shipyards were already jammed—but Raeder did permit the Atlantic exercises.

These exercises culminated in May 1939 with group or “wolf pack” attacks against a simulated convoy, composed of some Kriegsmarine vessels assigned to the annual fleet cruise to Lisbon and the western Mediterranean. A total of fifteen VIIs and IXs from the Salzwedel, Wegener, and Hundius flotillas participated. The “convoy” consisted of four German surface ships: a tanker, a freighter, Dönitz’s “command ship,” Erwin Wassner, and the Flotilla Salzwedel tender, Saar—the latter two vessels alternating as targets and defending escorts.

The fifteen U-boats deployed in five packs of three boats along a patrol line several hundred miles long. One pack quickly “found” the “convoy” and radioed a contact report to the other boats. In spite of clever evasive and defensive measures by the convoy—and extremely foul weather—the other boats converged on the target and attacked it relentlessly for over forty-eight hours, May 12 to 14. At the end of the exercise, thirteen of the fifteen boats converged for the final “kill.”

The exercise was wholly artificial and weighted to favor the U-boats. There were serious lapses in communications and tracking and gross errors in position reporting. Nonetheless, Dönitz could not have been more pleased. In a lengthy after-action critique, he concluded that the “principle of fighting a convoy of several steamers with several U-boats” was “correct” and that “the convoy would have been destroyed.” His group or “wolf pack” concept was therefore a sound one for defeating Great Britain; he renewed his pleas to Raeder for a step-up in the construction of Type VIIs.

Absorbed in the grandiose Z Plan, the OKM emphatically disagreed with Dönitz. The senior submarine planner at the OKM, Werner Fürbringer, a rear admiral and an assistant to Raeder’s chief of staff, Otto Schniewind, framed the response. “At the present moment,” Fürbringer wrote, “U-boat blockade of England has very little prospect of success for Germany. Any contradictory opinion, which takes comfort in the large number of our U-boats or in the idea that the English U-boat defense will not be effective far out in the Atlantic, can be dismissed as misleading” and, furthermore, it would be “irresponsible to commit the valuable U-boat crews” to such a war. “It can be taken as proven,” Fürbringer went on, “that every English convoy, no matter whether it operates along the coast or on the high seas, will be secured by defensive forces, fully capable of destroying with certainty any attacking U-boat, even under the surface.” In support of has argument, Fürbringer stressed the effectiveness of British sonar and predicted that the British would again resort to defensive minefields, which had been so deadly effective against U-boats in World War I. Until U-boats could be made “sonar-immune,” it was pointless to even consider starting a U-boat campaign against British commerce.

The Fürbringer paper dismayed and enraged Dönitz. In response he drafted a reply for Fürbringer’s superior, Otto Schniewind, vigorously rebutting Fürbringer’s arguments point by point. Going a step beyond—a large and career-risking step—he communicated his arguments directly and emphatically to Raeder, and asked that Raeder in turn place his views “before Hitler.” Hitler’s response, relayed to Dönitz through Raeder, was, as Dönitz remembered it, that “he would ensure that in no circumstances would war with Great Britain come about. For that would mean finis Germaniae. The officers of the U-boat arm had no cause to worry.”


By the time Dönitz was ready to launch the second wave of U-boats to the Atlantic in early October, the Allies had organized most merchant shipping into convoys. Composed of thirty to forty ships, the majority of the convoys arrived and departed the British Isles through the Western Approaches. The heaviest convoy traffic ran across the North Atlantic between the British Isles and the strategically situated British colony of Newfoundland and its neighbor, the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia.

By October 1939, the North Atlantic convoy system was fully in place. On the western end, the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the gathering place. All ships bound for the British Isles that cruised between 9 and 15 knots had to join convoys. There were two types of convoys: Halifax Fast (designated HX-F), composed of ships that cruised at 12 to 15 knots; and Halifax Slow (HX), composed of ships that cruised at 9 to 12 knots. Ships that cruised at speeds over 15 knots (considered too fast to be vulnerable to U-boats) were allowed to proceed alone, as were ships that cruised at less than 9 knots (considered too slow and not valuable enough to warrant the holdup of faster ships).

On the eastern end, the British Isles, departing convoys were categorized as Outbound. Those convoys bound for Halifax or elsewhere in the western hemisphere (the reverse of the Halifax convoys), composed mostly of ships in ballast, were designated Outbound B or OB. Some ships in OB convoys peeled away after some days of travel and went due south down the mid-Atlantic to ports in West Africa. Ships outbound from the British Isles that cruised faster than 15 knots or slower than 9 knots were also exempt from convoys.* Most North Atlantic convoys were escorted only during part of the voyage. The inexperienced and small Royal Canadian Navy (six destroyers) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) provided escort on the western end, going east several hundred miles with eastbound convoys and returning with westbound convoys. British and French surface ships and aircraft provided escort on the eastern end for Outbound convoys in a similar manner for a like distance. The important Halifax Fast convoys were escorted all the way across to the British Isles by Royal Navy capital ships (battleships, carriers) and their destroyer screens, or by cruisers. But only reluctantly. The long transatlantic voyage was very hard on these warships. The old destroyers assigned to this task (V and W class) could not cross the Atlantic without refueling, and the Royal Navy had not fully mastered ocean refueling. The modern destroyers could just barely make it across in heavy weather, which was the usual condition. Convoy escort was “defensive,” tedious, and boring for sailors trained to attack big German ships in complex fleet actions.

The Germans possessed a fairly accurate picture of Allied maritime traffic. During the 1935 crisis in the Mediterranean, when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the Kriegsmarine codebreaking unit B-dienst (later directed by Heinz Bonatz) had broken the Royal Navy’s old-fashioned (nonmachine) operational codes and, later, the nonsecure British merchant marine code. From the outset of the war, B-dienst codebreakers had supplied the OKM with current information on the movements of most British capital ships and other naval formations as well as convoy routing and rendezvous points for the convoy escorts.

In the initial U-boat offensive the OKM had deployed the Atlantic boats to individual patrol zones before the convoys had formed. Almost all of the merchant ships they sank had been sailing alone. Now that convoying was in full swing, Dönitz believed the time was ripe to initiate his group (or “wolf pack”) tactics. The packs were to capitalize on convoy information provided by the codebreakers in B-dienst.

Dönitz planned to deploy two packs in October, composed of the ten boats he had recalled earlier: five Type VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla and five Type IXs of the Hundius Flotilla. But that plan went awry. Five of the ten boats were unavailable: U-47 (assigned to the Scapa Flow mission) and U-52 (undergoing major repairs), U-38 (assigned to a special mission to Murmansk), U-39 (lost), and U-41 (undergoing major repairs).

The upshot was that Dönitz could mount only one pack, composed of six boats of an unwieldy mixture of types, from two different flotillas, which had not before exercised as a group: three VIIBs, U-45, U-47, U-48, and three IXs, U-37, U-40, and the U-42, the latter brand-new and rushed into service before completing a full workup. The senior officer, Hundius Flotilla commander Werner Hartmann, age thirty-seven, who had taken command of U-37, was to tactically direct the pack at sea.

Five of the six boats sailed independently into stormy, cold North Sea weather in the first week of October, going northabout the British Isles. Wrongly believing the Allies had not yet mined the English Channel, Dönitz ordered the last boat, U-40, a Type IX making its second patrol, with a new skipper, Wolfgang Barten, age thirty, to go by way of the channel to save time and catch up with the others.

While these boats were en route to the Atlantic, Hitler, poised to attack France (or so he thought), removed another important restriction on the U-boats. Commencing October 4, U-boats were permitted to sink on sight and without warning any blacked-out ship (including a neutral ship) sailing close to the British Isles in the Atlantic or North Sea and the French Atlantic coast. Dönitz and his skippers cheered this news, but to minimize charges of barbarism and inhumanity, Hitler had added a caveat: U-boats were still required to “save the crew” of any ship they sank if that could be done “without endangering” the U-boat.

Rushing to catch up with the other boats, U-40 ran at full speed through the English Channel on the surface. In the early hours of October 13, she hit a mine in the Dover-Cape Gris-Nez field. The boat blew up and sank immediately in 115 feet of water. Presumably, all hands on the bridge and in the forward compartments were killed instantly. But the watertight door in the stern room had been closed and as a result, nine enlisted men in that compartment survived the explosion and sinking. When they recovered from shock and ascertained what had occurred, the senior man, Otto Winkler, age twenty-one, organized an escape through the after deck hatch, which had a skirt for that purpose. After eating some biscuits, the men strapped on oxygen apparatus and flooded the compartment. When the water pressure in the compartment equalized with outside sea pressure, the hatch opened freely and the nine men—the first to escape a sunken U-boat—ascended.

Winkler was the last to leave the compartment. When he reached the surface he saw the eight other men swimming around in a cluster. It was dark—a new moon—and the channel water was frigid. Winkler thought he saw a lighthouse and began swimming toward it. Along the way he became nauseous and then he passed out. The next morning, two British destroyers (Brazen and Boreas) fished Winkler and two other survivors and five bodies from the water. All were wearing escape apparatus, labeled “U-40.” No trace was ever found of the remaining forty-six crew. Rushed to a hospital, Winkler and the other two lived to become prisoners. The next day, October 14, Boreas found an emergency telephone-equipped buoy, which had torn loose from U-40 in the explosion. Inscribed on a brass plate were these instructions: “U-boat 40 is sunk here. Do not raise buoy. Telegraph the situation to the nearest German naval command.”

Unaware of this loss, the other five boats of the “pack” headed for the Western Approaches one by one. First to arrive was the new, undertrained Type IX, U-42, commanded by Rolf Dau, age thirty-three. On the same day U-40 was lost, Dau found a 5,000-ton British freighter, Stonepool, which had separated from a convoy. Husbanding his torpedoes for pack operations, Dau attacked Stonepool with his 4.1” deck gun, but the freighter was armed, shot back, and radioed the SSS alarm. Two British destroyers, Imogen and Ilex, responding to the alarm, rushed up and attacked U-42 with guns, driving the boat under.

Attempting to evade, Dau took U-42 to 361 feet. But the destroyers fixed the boat on sonar and delivered an accurate and brutal depth-charge attack. One charge that exploded close over U-42’s stern ruptured the after-ballast tanks and lifted the bow to a 45-degree angle. In a desperate attempt to avoid sliding to crush depth stern first, Dau blew all ballast tanks. The U-42 shot to the surface like a giant cork, into the waiting arms of the destroyers, which instantly opened fire, scoring hits in the bow room. Holed fore and aft, U-42 began to sink. Ilex ran in at full speed to ram, but seeing that U-42 was doomed and sinking, she backed full astern to avoid damage to herself, and merely grazed the boat abaft the conning tower. Dau and sixteen men got out of the sinking boat through the conning tower hatch; the other thirty-two men were lost. Imogen fished the dazed German survivors from the sea.

By that time Dönitz had good information from the codebreakers of B-dienst on a special French-British convoy, KJF 3, inbound directly from Kingston, Jamaica, escorted by the monster French submarine Surcouf (two 8” deck guns). Assuming all six boats had reached positions in the Western Approaches, Dönitz ordered Hartmann to lead the pack in the attack. But two of the six boats had been lost and Hartmann, having sunk two neutral ships (a Swede and a Greek) en route, was behind schedule and too far away to take tactical command of the other boats.

Two VIIBs of the pack, operating independently, found the convoy and attacked. Herbert Schultze in U-48 sank two French ships from the convoy: the 14,000-ton tanker Emile-Miguet and the 7,000-ton freighter Louisiane, plus two British freighters, apparently stragglers from other convoys. Alexander Gelhaar in U-45 also sank two ships from the convoy: the 9,200-ton British freighter Lochavon and a prohibited vessel, the 10,000-ton French passenger liner Bretagne, which was running blacked out and therefore inviting trouble. While she slowly sank, British ships rescued 300 passengers.

Gelhaar in U-45 did not have to answer for this mistake. While he was pursuing another ship of the now-dispersing convoy, four British destroyers, Icarus, Inglefield, Intrepid, and Ivanhoe, which had responded to the SSS alarms, found U-45 and attacked. Nothing more was ever heard from U-45. She was the first VIIB and the first Atlantic boat to disappear without survivors.

The other two boats of the pack, U-37 and U-46, arrived too late to engage in a coordinated attack. However, on the morning of October 15, Hartmann in U-37 lucked into a straggler of the convoy, the 5,200-ton French freighter Vermont, and sank her with demolitions. But Herbert Sohler in U-46 never found the convoy at all. His sole contribution to the action was the interception of U-45’s last radio transmission (not received in Germany), which helped sort out Gelhaar’s first—and last—sinkings.

After the convoy dispersed, Dönitz, who was following the action by radio and by reports of distress calls and British movements provided by B-dienst, ordered the six boats (or so he thought) to move south to attack another convoy, HG 3, inbound from Gibraltar to the British Isles and to report results to date. Schultze in U-48 radioed four ships sunk for 29,000 tons; Hartmann in U-37, three ships sunk for 11,000 tons; Sohler in U-46, none. Wrongly believing Schultze and Hartmann had sunk a total of seven ships from the Caribbean convoy, Dönitz added all those to Gelhaar’s two and concluded that the first pack to attack an Allied convoy had sunk nine ships, an outstanding “success” that absolutely validated his pack doctrine. In reality, the first pack was so far a disaster: three of its six U-boats sunk; only four ships of the Caribbean convoy positively sunk, one of them a prohibited passenger liner!

While the boats were southbound on October 17, Hitler, still poised to attack France (as he thought), authorized a further relaxation in the rules. Henceforth U-boats could attack any “enemy” merchant ship (i.e., British or French) except big passenger liners, anywhere, without observance of the Submarine Protocol. In other words, U-boats were excused or exempted from the requirement to insure the safety of merchant-ship crews. This important relaxation allowed U-boats to wage unrestricted submarine warfare on all British and French shipping, except big passenger liners.

The luckless Sohler in U-46 was first to find convoy Homebound Gibraltar 3, which was heavily escorted by British destroyers transferring from the Mediterranean to home waters. He tracked the ships through the night, radioed a contact report, then submerged for a daylight attack. One of his first electric torpedoes pre-matured. In all, Sohler experienced seven torpedo malfunctions, but even so, he sank the 7,200-ton British freighter City of Mandalay. Brought into contact by Sohler’s report, Hartmann in U-37 sank the 10,000-ton British freighter Yorkshire and Schultze in U-48 got his fifth ship in as many days, the 7,250-ton British freighter Clan Chisholm.

Following this attack, Sohler broke radio silence to report the premature torpedo detonation and other torpedo problems. Shocked—and angry—Dönitz declared that the magnetic pistol was “not safe” under any circumstances and without consulting the OKM or the Torpedo Directorate, he ordered all boats to use only contact (or impact) pistols. Hence the more powerful effect of the magnetic pistol—exploding the torpedo beneath the ship—was lost. “We’re back to where we were in 1914-1918,” Dönitz noted bitterly in his war diary.

Upon learning that Dönitz had prohibited any and all use of the magnetic pistol, two days later, October 20, the Torpedo Directorate confessed to another defect. The torpedoes were indeed running deeper than set—6½ feet deeper. The Directorate technicians had known this all along, but did not report it to Dönitz because they did not believe it made that much difference when using magnetic pistols. But it did make a difference when using contact pistols. Dönitz hastened to relay this new discovery to his skippers, advising them to deduct 6½ feet from the usual depth settings for impact firing. The order introduced yet another complication. Since a depth setting of less than 13 feet was impractical when shooting in heavy seas, skippers were not to fire at any targets drawing less than 13 feet, such as destroyers.

Operations of the first wolf pack were terminated after the attack on the Gibraltar convoy. The two surviving VIIBs, U-46 and U-48, low on fuel and low on, or out of, torpedoes, returned to Germany, Herbert Schultze to rave reviews. In two patrols Schultze had sunk eight ships for 52,000 tons, elevating him to first place in total tonnage sunk. Extending his patrol to the approaches of Gibraltar, Hartmann in U-37 sank three more ships by gun and torpedo, establishing a new sinking record for a single patrol: eight ships sunk for 35,300 tons.

A careful after-action analysis of the first wolf pack deflated the earlier euphoria. In reality the attack on the Caribbean convoy was an uncoordinated free-for-all. Thanks to Sohler’s contact report, the attack on the Gibraltar convoy was slightly better coordinated. However, the boats had sunk only four ships from the Caribbean convoy and three from the Gibraltar convoy. Half the pack (three of six boats) had been lost to the enemy, two boats to convoy escorts. In a significant and far-reaching report, Hartmann, who had sunk only one ship from each convoy and who had found it impossible to “tactically coordinate” the other boats of the pack, recommended that the concept of flotillas and “local pack control” (at sea) be abandoned, and that all boats should be controlled individually from Dönitz’s headquarters.

Dönitz had three reasons for the failure to destroy the Caribbean convoy. First, the attack had been mounted too late—after the convoy was well into the Western Approaches and had been reinforced by local ASW vessels and had only a relatively short run to reach the safety of land. Second, in the confusion of combat, the boats making contact, U-45 and U-48, had not been able to transmit accurate data on the position, course, and speed of the convoy; hence help from U-46 had been lost. Third, there were too few boats in the initial attack—only two, actually—hence the escorts were able to concentrate on those two, sinking one, U-45.

The analysis led to three conclusions. First, convoys inbound to the British Isles from any direction had to be attacked as far out as possible in order to give the boats sufficient sea room for repeated attacks over several days and before the enemy added local ASW measures. Second, the boat first making contact with a convoy should not immediately attack, but instead should “shadow” it, transmitting “beacon” signals to “home” in other boats of the pack. Third, after the other boats arrived, all were to attack simultaneously in a single massive blow, which would scatter the convoy and overwhelm the escorts, maximizing opportunities for repeated attacks and minimizing counterattacks.

These tactics could be tested in Baltic training exercises, but not in Atlantic combat. There were not to be enough oceangoing boats to mount another full-scale wolf pack for months to come.

German Army: I Cavalry Corps 1944-5

The dissolution of the German army’s 1st Cavalry Division in the autumn of 1941 seemed to mark the end of that army’s formal cavalry tradition. True, the mounted squadrons of divisional reconnaissance battalions remained, but the presence of horse-mounted maneuver-units capable of independent action under the control of higher-echelon command appeared over for good. As things turned out, “for good” lasted for about twelve months. In fact, throughout the period from November 1941 to December 1942, various mounted units continued in existence in addition to, and sometimes amalgamated from, divisional reconnaissance squadrons. In July 1942, for example, an improvised cavalry brigade was authorized by the then-commander of Ninth Army, General Walther Model. It had the mission of helping eliminate Red Army forces, some 60,000 strong, still occupying a salient in the dense, swampy forests behind Ninth Army’s lines, a result of the latter’s near encirclement in the earlier winter fighting in the Battle of Rzhev. Comprised of elements of the reconnaissance battalions of the eight divisions under Model’s command, the brigade included three cavalry regiments of one or two horse-mounted troops (companies) and three to four bicycle-mounted troops each. There was also a combat-engineer company, a medical company, and one motorized and one horse-drawn logistics column. Each cyclist troop’s immediate supplies were carried in a two-wagon detachment hauled, as usual in Russia, by the ubiquitous panje horses. For their part, the troopers in the mounted elements rode regular military horses. The brigade remained a light formation, however, in that tanks and anti-tank units were seconded to it as required. Its organic artillery consisted of six (per regiment) of the same 75-mm guns typical of the 1st Cavalry Division before 1941. In its one major combat operation, from 2–13 July, the “Cavalry Brigade Model” as it was unofficially known successfully maneuvered and fought its way through more than ten miles of seemingly impenetrable terrain while the tanks of the panzer division to which it was attached sometimes found themselves literally stuck in their tracks. And while postwar German analysis admitted that the operation would likely have been successful even without the brigade’s presence, that same analysis concluded that the cost to Ninth Army in men, matériel, and time would almost certainly have been greater owing to the inability of either purely infantry or armored formations to move as effectively as the brigade had done.

The Cavalry Brigade Model’s example may also have served as inspiration for another effort to resurrect the mounted arm when, later in 1942, then Rittmeister Georg Freiherr (Baron) von Böselager managed to convince the commander of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, that horse-mounted cavalry might still be useful on a fulltime basis, despite the 1st Cavalry Division’s having been disbanded the year before. Given the terrible winter of 1941–1942 and the biannual rains, with all of the difficulties in maneuver that such weather always brought the German army on the Eastern Front, Kluge eventually agreed. Possessing a sort of provisional character, this “Cavalry Unit Böselager” was subsequently created by an army-group order in January 1943.

Born in Hesse in 1915, Böselager came from a military family and in his youth became a successful competitive rider. In due course, he found his way into the army, and he became an enthusiastic cavalry officer even as he continued to compete in both show jumping and flat racing.4 His original regiment, the 15th Kavallerie-Regiment, was one of those that became part of the infantry’s reconnaissance forces. In this case, his regiment became the eyes of the 6th ID. It was in his capacity as a squadron commander of the resulting 6th Reconnaissance Battalion that he made his case to Kluge.

Lieutenant General Gustav Harteneck

General der Kavallerie Gustav Harteneck later wrote:
While the Corps was still in the process of being transferred, we were once again ordered to take up stationary positions, to our great disappointment. The cavalry divisions of the Waffen-SS were fighting in the metropolis of Budapest. Every cavalryman knows that no good could come of that, and, as it turned out, nothing did. The SS divisions were encircled … My Cavalry Corps launched a night attack in an attempt to relieve them, but it was too late, and the Russian forces were too powerful. Although we managed to fight out way to the city limits, only 100 or so cavalrymen, under the command of the famous rider Staff Colonel von Mitzlaff, were able to break through to us. The subsequent battles, in the course of which my Corps was under the command of 6th SS Panzer Army, might have turned out quite differently had the two SS cavalry divisions been deployed to full advantage as cavalry divisions, instead of being ordered to hold Budapest

By the end of March 1943, this unit was expanded to the size of a regiment and designated, because of its army-group assignment, Cavalry Regiment Center. Army Groups North and South followed suit shortly thereafter. Thus, even though the 1st Cavalry Division had earlier disappeared, the cavalry tradition lived on in at least an ad hoc fashion. That fashion, however, was soon formalized. The then-chief of staff of the army, Colonel-General Kurt Zeitzler, authorized a full-fledged cavalry corps under the initial command of Major General Oswin Grolig and, shortly thereafter, Lieutenant General Gustav Harteneck, former commander of the 9th Cavalry Regiment in 1939–1940 and chief of staff of Second Army in 1943–1944. Orders establishing the I Cavalry Corps were issued on 25 May 1944, and the corps was supposed to be ready for operations (verwendungsbereit) by the beginning of August. Curiously enough, the Cavalry Corps first saw the organizational light of day in the very same region where both the 1st Cavalry Division and the 8th Waffen-SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer had already served, namely in the neighborhood of Pinsk in the western reaches of the Pripet Marshes. It was here that the Corps received assignment of its principal maneuver elements from the German army: 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades (outgrowths of the earlier Cavalry Regiments North, Center, and South). Also assigned was the 1st Royal Hungarian Cavalry Division. That division still carried the designation “royal” in light of the fact that Hungary remained a nominal monarchy, though it had been ruled since the 1920s by a regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya. It was at Pinsk, too, that General Harteneck assumed command of the Cavalry Corps on 22 June, the third anniversary of the beginning of Operation Barbarossa.

Despite this continuing threat of a breakthrough, the Cavalry Corps earned highest recognition for its accomplishments between the Rivers Bug and Narew. On 2 September the commander of Second Army, General Weiß, forwarded to Harteneck a statement that he (Weiß) had received from the commander of what remained of Army Group Center, Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Georg-Hans Reinhardt. In the ten days preceding the end of August, Second Army had managed, according to Reinhardt, to hold off at least thirty Soviet infantry divisions; three armored brigades; and numerous independent armored and assault-gun regiments. The steadiness and bravery of the German horsemen and infantry was “above all praise” (über jedes Lob erhaben). Combat leadership had been excellent, and these qualities manifested themselves even more strongly in light of the fact that air support from the Luftwaffe had been minimal. The Cavalry Corps was therefore singled out for Reinhardt’s “unreserved recognition” (uneingeschränkte Anerkennung) in that it had carried the heaviest burden of the defensive battles. Nevertheless, Reinhardt also made clear that further fighting awaited the cavalrymen and their comrades: “Inspired by this spirit,” he wrote, “we can await the coming battles with confidence.” But such confidence demanded a great deal of faith, for on the same day that Reinhardt issued his statement, the Cavalry Corps reported a total combat-strength of a mere 9,022. Fully one third of these (3,504 altogether) were the officers and men of the Corps’ principal maneuver elements, the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades.

Following several days of relative quiet on the Corps’ sector of the front, the Soviet advance resumed. In the meantime, the elements of the Corps had been withdrawn to “Defensive Position East Prussia II” hard by the Narew. As the name of the new positions indicated, the cavalrymen were now for all practical purposes defending the prewar German homeland. Furthermore, they were also defending the final redoubt of the Prussian-German cavalry tradition. The emotional significance of both facts was surely lost on no one. Not coincidentally, and in order to stoke the defensive effort, the specter was raised once again of threatening Asiatic hordes, a threat overlaid with the veneer of an all-devouring communist menace. On 12 September General Harteneck issued a directive to all commanders aimed at increasing the Corps’ defensive effectiveness. The Cavalry Corps now stood on the Reich’s very borders in positions dug by German men and women, German boys and girls. They’d dug with the sure hope that Corps’ soldiers would protect them and their homes from the Red Terror. Not one trooper or infantryman would be allowed to withdraw without orders, and only then if live enemy fire forced him from his position. Cowardice would be summarily punished with armed force if necessary. Commanders at every level would remain at their posts to the last possible moment, always leading from the front. Every position to a depth of six miles (10 km) behind the lines was to be dug in (einzubunkern) for protection from Soviet artillery fire. No man, no horse, no vehicle was to be without a foxhole or antishrapnel revetments. Furthermore, the Corps’ horses, such as those of the 4th Brigade that Harteneck noted specifically, were to be kept hidden in woods and not kept in villages, evidently to protect them from aerial attack and long-range artillery-fire. But even as these preparations continued, so too did combat training for unit leaders and technical specialists such as combat engineers, radiomen, and machine-gunners. Almost incredibly, at the same time Harteneck also ordered that even riding, driving, and horse-feeding training was to continue, with 55 officers and men being ordered to Fordon near Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), 160 miles (257 km) in the rear for that purpose.

No doubt surprisingly, the next several weeks passed with relatively little large-scale fighting, though regular and sometimes intense contact with Soviet troops continued. The Corps’ positions along the west bank of the Narew came under regular artillery and light weapons fire from Soviet forces on the other side of the river, the latter’s objective being to expand several bridgeheads that they’d managed to achieve on that stream’s western bank. On the Germans’ side, time was spent improving defensive positions and scraping together replacements from stragglers in the rear. In addition, yet another infantry division, the 292nd ID, was attached to the Corps on 22 September. This gave the Corps a total of three nominal infantry divisions on its TOE and brought its total combat-strength at the end of that month to 14,283 (a figure approximately representing the strength of a normal division of the German army in 1939). Since 29 June, the Corps’ units had killed a reported total of 8,942 Soviet troops, almost 40 percent of whom had fallen at the hands of the troopers of the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades.

During the period roughly between 1 October and 31 December, the Red Army entered a time of regrouping and resupply following its crushing summer offensive against German Army Group Center. During the Soviets’ operational pause, the Cavalry Corps was now at least able to catch its breath, even if replacements continued to be hard to come by. In that late fall of 1944, the Corps continued to hold its positions along a forty-odd-mile stretch of the Narew between Rozan and Nowogrod. Because of the continuing Soviet pressure and the inevitability of a renewal of the Red Army’s drive toward Berlin, it also began another reorganization and redeployment of its various elements. One of the most significant of those reorganizations was the detachment of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. It was moved to Fourth Army whose center of gravity at that moment lay to the east of the Masurian Lakes, the very lakes where Russian armies had come to grief in 1914. This transfer was noteworthy not only in that it meant that the Red Army’s forces had reached, and in many places crossed over, the borders of East Prussia. The transfer also meant that the Cavalry Corps had to temporarily relinquish fully half of that operational component that gave the Corps its very name and character, namely horsemen. With the 3rd Brigade’s departure for duty with Fourth Army, the Corps retained the 4th Cavalry Brigade as its only dedicated mounted element. The remainder of the Corps’ strength consisted in this period of four infantry divisions. They, of course, still had their horse-drawn logistics and artillery trains, along with various mounted reconnaissance elements. Before year’s end, other formations, both infantry and armored, would also be assigned to the Corps for various and usually brief periods of time. These included a scratch force named “Combat Group Hannibal.” About 1,400 strong, it comprised personnel from the 4th SS Police Regiment. The entire Corps would also be transferred briefly to the command of Fourth Army, even though its defensive positions remained the same.

Throughout the last half of October and the whole of November, Soviet artillery and aerial attacks continued as did ground combat, the latter sometimes intense and often at battalion strength. Though the widely anticipated, front-wide Soviet offensive did not occur, the Corps’ units suffered from this near-constant contact. As they had in the fighting retreat to the Narew, the Cavalry Brigades recorded many of those casualties. Alone in the period from 15 to 27 October, for example, the Corps’ two mounted brigades suffered 961 troopers of all ranks killed, wounded, and missing. And these losses occurred in a period when the Corps’ morning reports very frequently stated that the preceding day or night had passed quietly. The sacrifices in the mounted elements did earn another formal recognition. Second Army’s commander explicitly commended the “outstanding service” (hervorragende Bewährung) of the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades and wrote further to General Harteneck that the cavalrymen had delivered the “best proofs of the cavalry spirit” (Beweise besten Reitergeistes geliefert haben) in the defensive battles. Presumably the cavalrymen appreciated the sentiment. Such glowing praise, however, wouldn’t provide the horsemen with fresh mounts or those mounts with feed (deliveries for the entire Fourth Army area had been stopped), much less gasoline for the Corps’ vehicles or ammunition for its artillery. Neither could Hitler’s ferocious order of 29 October to the Ostheer, which commanded every German soldier to do one of two things: “stand or die.” Perhaps, however, the troopers took greater comfort in the fact that dismal autumnal weather was now frequently grounding Soviet fighter-bombers. They certainly needed the respite. Both of the Corps’ mounted brigades had been much reduced. By the end of November, the 3rd Brigade’s combat-strength (2,054) was only about 41 percent of its total ration-strength (6,055). The 4th Brigade could show a slightly better percentage, namely about 50 percent (2,181 out of 4,350) even though its overall number of personnel was lower. Similar figures (approximately 50 percent) obtained in the Corps’ other units such as the now-attached 558th Volks-grenadier-Division.

Even as the Corps attempted to recoup the losses it had suffered since June, General Harteneck evidently attempted, and in keeping with Army-level directives, to ensure that whatever training could be done was done. In one order, for example, he indicated that certain veterinary personnel and feeding specialists were supposed to attend a three-day school for instruction in winterizing the Corps’ horses and care and maintenance schedules. Attendees would subsequently act as training cadre for other soldiers. More significantly, he’d also issued a four-page directive entitled “The Basics of Cavalry Leadership” on 5 November. In it Harteneck re-emphasized most of those doctrinal elements of the cavalry that had last been formalized in 1935 in Truppenführung, the same ones that General Kurt Feldt had stressed in his own repeated statements regarding the earlier 1st Cavalry Brigade/Division. Despite nearly six years of war and all of the vicissitudes that the war had brought to the German army’s mounted arm, the cavalry’s essential characteristics remained the same in Harteneck’s view: mobility, flexibility, audacity, tenacity. True, the last physical vestiges of the cavalry’s traditional weapons—sabers—had disappeared in 1940–1941. True, as well, at least since the invasion of the Soviet Union if not earlier, the German cavalryman was now essentially a dragoon. He rode to battle but fought dismounted. And now, in 1944, he just as often fought his battles alongside attached armored and infantry formations. Nevertheless, a stubborn cavalry spirit hung on, and Harteneck hammered it home in his directive, not only as regarded his men but also as regarded the Corps’ horses. He also made it clear at the end that he expected his commanders to inculcate a National Socialist bearing in the Cavalry Corps. Whether his statement regarding this matter rested on personal conviction or expediency in the wake of the attempted assassination of Hitler on 20 July 1944 cannot be determined from the directive itself. Furthermore, the degree of subsequent Nazi indoctrination of the Corps’ various formations after November 1944 cannot be reliably deduced from the documents at hand. Nevertheless, Harteneck’s insistence in this regard sheds a disturbing light on the Cavalry Corps’ leadership as it faced the chaotic last six months of the war. And in light of his repeated and fairly ruthless advocacy of summary courts-martial, his urging on of stringent political indoctrination at least seems consistent.

As December arrived, the Cavalry Corps received new orders, ones that took it far away from the Soviet avalanche that was to bury East Prussia beginning in January 1945. Unfortunately, those orders took the Corps to Hungary. There a similar fate awaited the remaining horsemen. Between 18 and 23 December 1944, the Cavalry Corps’ command elements and logistics units were loaded onto trains at Lyck in the southeastern corner of East Prussia. From there they traveled south. The 4th Cavalry Brigade went as well. There followed a circuitous route by rail through Posen, Beuthen in Silesia, and western Slovakia. Upon arrival in Hungary—from Lyck an airline distance of some five hundred miles (800 km) and much more by train—the Corps was assigned to the area north of the eastern end of Lake Balaton (Plattensee). Orders arrived on Christmas Day placing the Corps under the command of Sixth Army and, shortly thereafter, Second Panzer Army. Three days later the Corps, in turn, received command of the 1st and 23rd Panzer Divisions. From now on, the I Cavalry Corps was essentially an armored formation containing large horse-mounted and horse-drawn components. Its mission was to help stabilize the then S-shaped front stretching northward from Lake Balaton to the borders of prewar Czechoslovakia, to protect a vital oil refinery at Petfürdö and, possibly, to assist in the relief of Budapest, the Hungarian capital having been encircled by advancing Soviet forces on 24 December. By a curious twist of fate, the 8th Waffen-SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer found itself trapped in the city with the remaining German garrison. It had ended up there following its anti-partisan campaign in the Balkans in 1944 after being earlier withdrawn from Russia. There was even a second, nominal SS cavalry division, the 22nd Volunteer SS Cavalry Division (sometimes carrying the moniker Maria Theresa) in the city as well. In this last week of December, the Corps was in constant combat with Soviet forces attempting to solidify their lines while other Red Army units lay siege to Budapest, a siege that would continue until the city’s fall in February. Though the combat was sometimes heavy—regimental-strength attacks or better by Soviet forces—the cavalrymen and their sister armored divisions held, even though they had to do so without being able to call on reserves. At that moment, there weren’t any. As it turned out, the Cavalry Corps and the other German units in Hungary were aided by the fact that Soviet forces there went over to the operational defensive throughout January, February, and into March 1945.

In the meantime, and at that moment unbeknownst to the Corps, Hitler was planning what turned out to be his last operational offensive on the Eastern Front, code-named Operation Spring Awakening. Its objective would consist of the preservation of the oil fields north and south of Lake Balaton by Sixth SS Panzer Army (transferred from the Western Front) and Second Panzer Army, respectively. More airily, Hitler yet dreamed of the recovery of Budapest and the destruction of Soviet forces in Hungary. While the bulk of the offensive’s armored strength was comprised of the Sixth SS Panzer Army, the Cavalry Corps also took part. Officially it remained an element of Second Panzer Army but also seems later to have been temporarily assigned to Sixth SS Panzer Army. At some point between January and March, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade—or elements of it—rejoined the Corps. Furthermore, at least on paper, both it and the 4th Cavalry Brigade were re-formed as cavalry divisions by order of OKH effective 23 February 1945. They did not, however, receive reinforcements to flesh out the redesignation. Consequently, whether there would be enough men, equipment, vehicles, and horses for continued effective operations remained an open question. For instance, losses of horses by early 1945 were high enough to have drawn the attention of Hitler himself. In a conference with the head of Army Administration in the Army High Command, SS Obergruppenführer (General) August Frank, on 29 December 1944, Hitler had been informed that the attrition specifically of horses and vehicles could no longer be sustained. For the cavalrymen on the ground, the matter no doubt seemed clear enough, and though the Soviet forces facing them remained on the operational defensive, the fighting nevertheless continued.

For example, in an earlier effort to relieve the garrison encircled in Budapest, the Cavalry Corps’ troops had been heavily engaged. On 7 January, in bitterly cold weather, they’d punched a ten-mile-wide (13 km) hole in the Russian lines southeast of the city and had fought their way forward about the same distance. Nevertheless, and despite several days of intense fighting, neither they nor their counterparts to the northeast of Budapest could force their way into the city itself, though unsubstantiated reports maintained that some of the Cavalry Corps’ patrols reached the suburbs. By the end of January, the defenders remaining in the fortress of Buda on the Danube’s western bank, like their French counterparts in Paris in 1870, were reduced to eating horsemeat and bread. In the final attempted breakout on 11 February, fewer than 700 members of the garrison reached German lines. Total German losses in the city amounted to some 51,000 killed and 92,000 taken prisoner. The suitability of the cavalrymen for such a relief mission may be questioned, though the heavy armor of several of their formations (even if in depleted strength) now theoretically made their employment for such a task conceivable. Nevertheless, Harteneck and other commanders on the scene weren’t the only ones wondering whether mounted formations might still be useful. Once again, Hitler and his most senior commanders in Berlin seriously discussed, on 2 March, the defensive use of cavalry on the eve of the spring offensive that began seven days later. Though the Cavalry Corps had clearly shown in occupied Poland and on the borders of East Prussia what the cavalrymen could do on the defensive, the specific suggestion at Hitler’s conference—the employment of pro-German Cossacks—seems to have been more or less dismissed.

Ultimately, Operation Spring Awakening began on 5 March. Initially it made headway but in appalling conditions. Hampered from the outset by cold rain and flurrying snow, mud, a serious lack of fuel, and stiffening Russian resistance, the offensive had stuck fast by the middle of that month. The Soviets then responded by launching their own spring counteroffensive in reply. It would roll forward inexorably, and the Germans would retreat just as inexorably until their final surrender. Indicative of the changing fortunes in Hungary, the OKW on 16 March no longer reported news of German attacks but rather news of a “successful defense” and “counterattacks” along Lake Balaton. In other words, Spring Awakening had been stopped, and the German troops in it had gone over to the defensive. By 19 March OKW was reporting a “bitter defense” by German troops in the region. On 24 March the high command’s announcements indicated that “‘the Bolshevists’ forward attack groups had been brought to a standstill on both sides of Veszprém…after heavy enemy losses.” Lying just west of Lake Balaton’s northern end and on the edge of the Bakony Forest, the city of Veszprém happened to be defended by none other than the now redesignated 3rd and 4th Cavalry Divisions of the Cavalry Corps. Just as had been the case in East Prussia, the cavalrymen’s efforts in defense of Veszprém earned them notice, again at the highest levels. At a conference on 23 March, Hitler was specifically informed that the cavalry divisions, along with the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen, had at least temporarily and successfully re-established “security” not only east of Veszprém but also along a nearby railway line. Successful or not, however, the Germans simply could not hold off the weight of the Soviets’ forward movement. And as the German armies retreated, they began slowly to disintegrate. On 10 April 1945, the New York Times’ war correspondent Hanson W. Baldwin reported that an unspecified number of German troops had effectively been isolated in a pocket around Vienna as the German army “melted away,” and by the end of that month OKW would have to admit in a public statement that German troops had been forced to withdraw to the southeastern borders of the Reich. These events were accompanied by reports that the Red Army was “storming the last German defenses in Vienna.” The city fell on 13–14 April, and the Soviet High Command reported 200,000 German troops killed or captured. Furthermore, other Soviet units had already begun their march up the valley of the Danube toward Bavaria.

As the Soviets advanced and shifted the brunt of their efforts to the drive on Berlin, the German retreat continued and followed two general routes. The Sixth SS Panzer Army and related forces moved more or less to the northwest. The Second Panzer Army, including the Cavalry Corps, moved generally southwest. This route took the Corps through Lower Austria and into the province of Styria. The cavalrymen, like the rest of the Second Panzer Army, were trapped by Russian armies advancing into the eastern province of Burgenland and the British Eighth Army marching steadily northward toward the Italo-Austrian border. Here the Cavalry Corps found itself when Germany’s unconditional surrender was signed on 8 May. On 10 May 1945, the Cavalry Corps also officially surrendered to British forces. Its reported total of 22,000 men and 16,000 horses—The (London) Times spoke of the “immense task” of collecting “vast hordes” of both men and horses from many different units—now went into Allied captivity. The day of the German horseman was done.

Late-WWII Luftwaffe Training

At this stage the Jagdflieger was of very mixed worth; undertrained and inexperienced pilots, leavened with old stagers who were very dangerous but too few in number, equipped with fighters that were basically good, and in some cases excellent, but were only effective in the right hands. From October 1944, they were increasingly handicapped by a shortage of fuel.

Wars of attrition against both Britain and the Soviets overwhelmed the Luftwaffe’s relatively small training system. Training programmes were truncated to speed up the flow of replacements. By July 1944 the average new Luftwaffe pilot was arriving on the front line with around 120 flying hours, just 15- 20 of them on his operational type. By contrast, American pilots were receiving 400 hours training, nearly half of it on their operational type, and RAF pilots around 350 hours, 100 of them on operational types.

The training accident rate soared until sometimes a third of each intake was lost before even qualifying, wasting not only personnel but also aircraft. Oil shortages also cut training hours, until the flow of pilots was reduced to just 30 per cent of the system’s theoretical monthly capacity. Personnel were not taught basic skills in instrument flying or tactics. From mid-1942, the strengths of front-line units gradually declined, reaching around 60 per cent of authorised pilots and 70 per cent of authorised aircraft by September 1944. It is telling that of the 107 German pilots credited with shooting down 100 or more enemy aircraft, only eight of them entered front line service after June 1942. The quality of German aircrew was decreasing and the quality of their foes improving.

When the Ardennes offensive was launched on 16 December 1944, appalling weather kept the Luftwaffe grounded. Instead, they became dragged into a piecemeal war of attrition, flying when the weather allowed, and losing 891 aircraft and 478 aircrew in just ten days of operations.

By 31 December 1944, the German fighter force on the Western Front stood at 1,446 aircraft, just 990 of which were serviceable and ready to fly. Although 1,825 pilots were on strength, only 1,139 of these were deemed combat ready.

Fuel was the main concern within the Luftwaffe with aircraft availability a close second. The general policy was one of a concerted effort to conserve fuel and assets. This resulted in a stockage of reserve fuel and ammunition as well as an increase in serviceable aircraft. The past few months of near uninterrupted Allied air superiority caused many problems for the Luftwaffe. Despite these problems, Marshal Herman Göring, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was able to equip and recommitted fifteen decimated Luftwaffe units by the end of October. The strength of twin-engine fighters increased by 25 percent from the beginning of the year, however, monthly German losses averaged 1,800 single-engine fighters in the West alone. This, along with the increase in deliveries, resulted in only a slight increase in actual availability of aircraft. The readiness emphasis on fighters was accomplished at the expense of the bomber and reconnaissance arms of the Luftwaffe.

Regardless of the number of planes, the desperate situation in aviation fuel limited use of the new planes. As mentioned earlier, aviation fuel production was suffering and stocks were being depleted. The shortage of fuel had two primary effects. First, pilot training was cut from 250 hours to 110 hours. Secondly, as a result of pilot and fuel shortages, Luftwaffe planes were only able to engage Allied missions over Germany on an average of four days a month compared to the Allies who conducted missions on a daily basis.

Additionally, the Germans wanted these forward airbases to conserve fuel and provide maximum time on station for ground support. This consolidation resulted in overcrowding of aircraft and gave Allied aircraft a target-rich environment when attacking these airbases.

By December 1944, the Luftwaffe received 527 Me-262 jet fighters. The Luftwaffe fielded the first Me-262 units this same month. However, technical problems and an effort to conserve aviation fuel resulted in a lack of pilot training. This would result in the Me-262 having no significant influence on the war.

What amounted to the last throw of the Luftwaffe came at dawn on 1 January 1945, with Operation Bodenplatte. This was an all-out assault on Allied airfields on the continent by 800 or more fighters. While this destroyed almost 300 Allied aircraft, Jagdflieger losses were horrendous; many irreplaceable fighter leaders went down during this operation. The attack caused a hiatus in Allied fighter operations, the brunt of the air fighting for the next week or so being borne by the Tempests of 122 Wing, which had escaped the onslaught. The Jagdflieger never recovered. From this moment on they were encountered in the air only infrequently, though the fuel shortages meant that those met with were more than likely to be Experten. In spite of this, a handful of Allied fighter pilots managed to build up respectable scores, even though opportunities were few.

S-Boot in the West I

The S-102 on patrol, the low profile of these fast craft is clear to see in this photograph.

A view across the 2cm Flak 38 gun towards the fully armoured bridge section (Kalottenbrücke) which was introduced with S-100.

KKpt Werner Töniges, the most successful S-Boot commander of the war, sinking eighteen ships on 281 combat patrols, for a total of 86,200 tons of Allied shipping. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross in recognition of his success.

January 1943 – May 1944

At the beginning of 1943 FdS had twenty-two operational boats at his disposal from a total of thirty-nine in the west: twelve in Ijmuiden, six belonging to 2nd S-flotilla, six to the 6th S-flotilla; four 4th S-flotilla boats in Rotterdam and six 5th S-flotilla boats in Cherbourg.

January storms lashed the English Channel, curtailing operations until five days into the New Year when all flotillas sailed. In the west the 5th S-flotilla headed for Lyme Bay, but in a strong gust of wind S116 rammed Führerboot S82, forced to limp slowly to St Peter Port in Guernsey, and the operation was cancelled. To the east, in extraordinary conditions of sleet and snow, S-boats found nothing of a reported FN convoy, two boats from Obermaier’s 6th S-flotilla – S76 and S119 – colliding in snow flurries and returning damaged for shipyard repair.

On 8 January fifteen boats from the three Netherlands-based flotillas put to sea, at once facing limited visibility and atrocious weather. Midway between Ijmuiden and Lowestoft in the early hours of the morning, ObltzS Ullrich Roeder’s S104 hit a floating mine. The explosion wrecked the foreship, killing one man instantly and wounding six others. Shocked survivors were evacuated and, unable to be taken under tow, the abandoned vessel was scuttled with explosives.

On 18 January the weather moderated enough for large-scale mining northwest of Cromer. In total nineteen boats departed and laid 100 LMB mines as planned. During the return, disaster befell S109 when it too struck a floating mine. The blast destroyed the foreship and blew the forward gunner overboard, never to be seen again. One other man was injured and the battered boat taken in tow by S78 and S87, who dragged it toward Ijmuiden, passing her over to a tugboat which took S109 into harbour. From Cherbourg, Klug’s 5th S-flotilla conducted partially successful minelaying near Dungeness on 28 January, S68 and S65 returning with mines intact due to defective mine carts that prevented them sliding along fitted rails.

Bad weather closed in once more and it wasn’t until the middle of February that the S-boats were in action again. On 17 February, fifteen set out from the Netherlands to mine the waters north of Sheringham. Less than four hours from port a Fairey Albacore dropped five bombs, lightly wounding one man but nothing more. However, the British were clearly aware of the S-boats’ movement and destroyers HM Ships Montrose, and Garth from 21st Destroyer Flotilla, supported by sloop HMS Kittiwake and a group of MGBs sailed to intercept. At 0051hrs HMS Garth sighted three S-boats eleven miles from Lowestoft and opened fire. ObltzS Rüdiger Suhr’s S71 was hit in the engine room and catching fire, radioed appeals for help intercepted by HMS Montrose’s Headache operator. HMS Garth came alongside the stricken S-boat, finding the skipper and seventeen crewmen dead, rescuing seven survivors as well as the boat’s canine mascot before S71 sank. Unaware of this, the remaining S-boats returned to base and Luftwaffe aircraft searched for the missing boat, but found no trace. In a decision that drew sharp criticism, amounting to a personal reprimand from Generaladmiral Wilhelm Marschall at MGK West, Rudolf Petersen despatched seventeen boats from three flotillas in a futile search operation. Marschall reasoned that the deployment of all combat-ready boats on anything other than an offensive operation constituted unnecessary risk. Though they later reconciled during a private meeting, the relationship between Petersen and his superiors remained uneasy.

On 26 February Luftwaffe Reconnaissance Group 123 reported twenty freighters and five destroyers near Start Point, Klug’s 5th S-flotilla putting S77, S65, S85, S81 and S68 into action, sailing toward Lyme Bay. Führerboot S77 hit rocks and was forced to abort, but the remainder made contact before Berry Head at 0119hrs, ObltzS Sobottka’s S65 firing first toward the ships of convoy WP300. His torpedo hit 445-ton ASW trawler HMT Lord Hailsham, sending her under with nine confirmed dead and nine missing. Norwegian minesweeping trawler Harstad was also hit, ObltzS Goetschke’s S68 sinking the 258-ton ship with all but one of her crew, the sole survivor wounded but later rescued. ObltzS Kolbe’s S85 hit the 625-ton tank landing craft LCT381 with a single torpedo, bringing the vessel to halt, during which time some of Kolbe’s crew boarded her with small arms and, after a brief battle, took eleven prisoners. A coup de grâce was fired by S65 to put the ship under. Kolbe also claimed to have hit two more 2,000-ton freighters, but they remain unconfirmed. The largest ship of the convoy, 4,858-ton MV Modavia was also sunk in a combined attack by S68 and ObltzS Wendler’s S81; by 0600hrs the S-boats were back in Guernsey.

The next mission on 28 February ended with nothing but damage to S110 from 40mm gunfire before poor visibility curtailed operations until 4 March. That night 5th S-flotilla was driven away from Lyme Bay by destroyers, S68 and S85 grounding on rocks and forced to abort to Guernsey, later requiring extensive shipyard time in Cherbourg. As the remaining four boats returned, S81 and S90 collided, putting both out of commission until repaired. In the North Sea, however, S-boats suffered greater casualties. ObltzS Hans Klose’s S70 of the 2nd S-flotilla struck a mine which detonated a reserve torpedo, immediately sinking the boat with five men killed. The 6th S-flotilla’s S74 and S75 were attacked by Spitfire and Typhoon fighters, ObltzS Wolfgang Hörning’s S75 severely hit and set ablaze, sinking within forty minutes. Eleven crewmen had been killed, including the chief engineer. Kptlt Herbert Witt’s S74 was also heavily damaged, two men killed and the skipper and four others badly injured, but the boat was able to limp back to Ijmuiden under its own power – no Luftwaffe cover was available despite urgent requests. In a little over two months, Petersen’s operational force had been significantly reduced. Of his four western flotillas only nineteen boats remained operational, eight out of commission due to heavy damage, ten others under scheduled refit.

On 7 March things did not improve for Petersen’s flotillas, despite the inauguration of a new tactic using radar technology. In a combined operation the 2nd and 6th S-flotillas carried out a normal Stichansatz attack, while boats of the 4th S-flotilla hung back from the convoy route. Equipped with newly installed radars, their task was convoy detection, a tactic named FuMB-Lauer (radar lurking). However, British changes to the convoy lanes put the radar boats too far seaward and only a few 6th S-flotilla boats made contact, deflected by enemy escorts. The Rotte S114 and S119 were pursued by HMS Mackay and MGB20 and 21 when S119 rammed LzS d Res August Licht’s S114, the former so heavily damaged that it was abandoned and scuttled. Licht returned to port with the rescued crew and was later praised by SKL for his ‘initiative and foresight’ during the event.

While diplomatic sources in Portugal indicated an Allied offensive within the Mediterranean was imminent, Hitler remained obsessed with a potential invasion of Norway. German intelligence reported large concentrations of troops and material along Britain’s east coast and rumours of invasion reaching levels similar in proportion to that which preceded Operation Torch. With this tension permeating MGK West, Petersen placed his flotillas in defensive readiness throughout the English Channel within small groups that shifted port regularly. Gradually, following several false alarms, the threat level declined and boats returned to their original ports. Petersen, however, remained under pressure to further reduce his western combat strength. From four flotillas of a theoretical strength of forty, he stood at an operational level of fourteen S-boats by the middle of March. A gradual addition of eighteen new or repaired boats was expected within a month, but he was being asked to allow six boats to be sold to Spain and transfer reinforcement to the 1st S-flotilla in the Black Sea.103 Petersen strongly urged against these decisions, warning of a ‘great aggravation of the present catastrophic situation of operational readiness.’ He requested immediate return to the Channel of the idle 8th S-flotilla from Norway, rejected immediately by Hitler.

In ‘E-Boat Alley’ the battle continued. During the night of 28 March S-boats encountered fierce defence of convoy FS74 (Phase 9), S92 and S29 battling MGB333 and 321 and British gunfire hammering S29’s unarmoured bridge, killing ObltzS Hans Lemm and six of his crew. Lieutenant Donald Bradford aboard MGB333 charged forward and rammed the disabled S-boat in the stern, slicing the aft section clean away, but was forced to retire with his own damage. German survivors were later taken aboard returning S-boats, S29 sunk at 0714hrs with scuttling charges.

Kapitänleutnant Niels Bätge moved on from command of 4th S-flotilla in March 1943. He transferred initially to the post of first officer aboard the destroyer Hans Lody before taking command of torpedo boat T20 and, subsequently, destroyer Z35 following promotion to Korvettenkapitän.104 In his place, KK Werner Lützow, former first officer aboard Karl Galster and Admiralty staff officer, arrived to take charge of the flotilla.

In early April several torpedo patrols guided by Luftwaffe reconnaissance failed to make contact with the enemy, although S90 reported a torpedo hit on a patrol craft near Start Point. Although the Luftwaffe had provided sighting information, visibility at sea was so poor that S-boats were unable to find the convoys. Two Bf109 reconnaissance aircraft reported sixteen freighters, two tankers and four escorts in Lyme Bay during Friday, 13 April, Klug’s 5th S-flotilla sailing to intercept. In order to operate further west than previously possible, Klug’s unit had moved to the Breton port of Aberwrach, eight boats putting to sea but two aborting, S84 with rudder damage accompanied by the other half of the Rotte S116. The remaining six managed to find and attack PW323 off Lizard Head. ObltzS Johann Konrad Klocke’s S121 torpedoed and sank 1,742-ton SS Stanlake, while Norwegian destroyer HNoMS Eskdale was also torpedoed and sunk, twenty-five crewmen going to the bottom with their ship. It is possible the destroyer was hit and disabled first by S90, before being finished off by both S65 and S111. Oberleutnant zur See Hans Dietrich’s S82 claimed one other unconfirmed 4,000-ton tanker sunk.

The following night 2nd and 4th S-flotillas laid mines, clashing with enemy forces led by HM Ships Westminster and Widgeon and sinking radar-equipped HMT Adonis in the brief battle. Rating T Roy Sparkes later recalled the attack:

On the night of the 14th, after manoeuvring my way across the pitching deck to take over the middle-watch, I had been settled down in the radar caboose astern for about an hour when I became aware of movement on the screen. There was a blip or two at about 6,000 or 7,000 yards. With the general conditions and the hand-turned radar ‘aerial’ to contend with, the blip was at about 2,000 yards before I could make any really definite report. At 1.15 a.m. I whistled up the old voice-pipe to the bridge to report my suspicions, but they could see nothing. The range then closed to 1,700 yards. From the bridge I heard the muffled order given to fire star-shells, a task for our fo’c’sle gun crew with their pride of weaponry, an old Japanese 14-pounder.

Then all hell was let loose. Faintly I heard the gun’s report, followed almost immediately by a huge explosion – the whole ship appeared to heave her guts and shudder. Up in my radar caboose, on its four spindly angle-iron legs, I was flung violently forward, crashing my nose into the radar tube. All the lights had gone out and I felt the floor beneath me begin to tilt.

Only eleven men out of the thirty-two aboard ship survived, later plucked from the sea by an RAF rescue launch. As nights shortened, Petersen moved his flotillas west once more to operate within the Channel; Feldt’s 2nd S-flotilla transferred to Cherbourg, while both the 4th and 6th went first to St Peter Port, Guernsey, to load torpedoes and then onwards to Cherbourg. Petersen and his FdS staff moved back to Wimereux.

Towards the end of May minelaying took precedence, S-boats attempting to vary routes to and from target areas and use their speed advantage to throw off potential pursuit and confuse radar and radio location monitoring. Only a few inconclusive engagements with enemy aircraft or surface vessels appeared to validate their efforts: 321 mines and eighty-four explosive buoys laid along the south coast of England between 23 May and 12 June. Not one single sinking can be attributed to them. Indeed, B-Dienst interceptions showed that the British were still able to accurately pinpoint minefield locations, avoiding routing convoys through them or having them swept. With the Luftwaffe no longer on hand to interfere with British mine-sweeping, the entire minelaying offensive proved an exercise in futility.

While torpedo missions were in a lull, Petersen rotated half of his frontline Channel strength at any one time to shipyards where they were up-gunned and fitted with the new Kalotte armoured bridge. Sixteen S-boats were fitted with 40mm C/28 Bofors anti-aircraft guns, the remainder carrying the new fully automatic 37mm flak weapon, theoretically allowing each Rotte to carry one of each.

At the beginning of 1943 Raeder had resigned as head of the Kriegsmarine, Hitler’s strategic decisions concerning German naval power no longer tolerable to him. He was replaced by Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, previous head of the U-boat service, who appeared to understand the potential and requirements of the S-boats, and lobbied for increased production of them to interdict the British coastal convoys from the strategically advantageous Channel coast ports. This boded well for Petersen’s Schnellboote. During 1942 thirty-four new German S-boats had been commissioned, another seven smaller Dutch boats in Schiedam. During 1943, the number remained more or less the same, peaking at thirty-eight new boats. However, in 1944 Dönitz’s support and Albert Speer’s genius for production raised the number of boats commissioned into service to sixty-three. Of course, the problem remained of equipping them with skilled crews.

As available combat boats slowly increased in the Channel, Petersen transferred the 2nd and 6th S-flotillas back to Ostend, planning operations within the Thames Estuary and splitting British defenders from the south coast. S-boats continued to rotate through shipyards for upgrade and refit. S90 and S122 were caught by radar-equipped aircraft during the early hours of 19 June while sailing from Boulogne to Rotterdam, one man killed aboard S122, while ObltzS Hans-Jürgen Stohwasser and seven of his crew were wounded aboard S90, the boat badly damaged but diverting under its own power to Dunkirk for emergency repair.

On 25 July S77 and S68 of Klug’s 5th S-flotilla sailed from Boulogne headed for refit in Germany, running unexpectedly into four MGBs north of Dunkirk. The ensuing firefight caused an engine failure and the jamming of two machine guns aboard ObltzS Josef Ludwig’s S77, which then came under sustained fire, igniting one of the torpedoes that engulfed the boat in flames as she began to flood. Ludwig lay dead on his shattered bridge, six other men also killed as MGB40 and 42 rescued four survivors from the water between them as prisoners of war. The remaining twelve crewmen still aboard S77 scuttled the boat and paddled for the French shore aboard a life raft, found on a beach near Dunkirk the following day by men of a Luftwaffe flak battery. From Führerboot S68, ObltzS Helmuth Moritzen had not exchanged fire with the enemy, nor had he issued a contact report via radio, continuing on to Ostend where a furious Kptlt Obermaier immediately scrambled five S-boats and led them on a search for survivors. Moritzen’s judgement was severely criticised and he was relieved of his command and court-martialled.

Seven S-boats swept into action off Orfordness during the night of 4 August, targeting a British minesweeping group. Seconds after making contact, they opened fire with machine guns and flak weapons, ObltzS Hans-Joachim Wrampe’s S86 torpedoing HMT Red Gauntlet, the trawler caught with her sweep gear still extended and unable to evade. The explosion blew the 338-ton vessel apart and from the seventeen crew only one body of a leading seaman was recovered by an RAF rescue launch the following day.

On the night of 7 August seven operational boats of the 4th and 5th S-flotillas were transferred to Brest in an effort to spread S-boat range further west. From the heavily defended harbour they moved to Aberwrac’h in preparation for an attack on Plymouth Sound. Moored in the outer harbour, they were vulnerable when Cornwall-based 263 Squadron Whirlwinds and a Spitfire escort screamed into the attack, raking the S-boats with cannon fire and bombs. S121 was squarely hit by bombs that exploded stored ammunition and set the shattered hulk on fire; ObltzS Johann Konrad Klocke, two petty officers and eight men were killed and three men wounded, one of whom died shortly afterward in a Brest hospital. All of the S-boats received damage requiring repair before they could sail again, S84 and S136 officially put out of commission with damage to the hulls and engines and at least two weeks’ repair time expected. The chief of the 4th S-flotilla, KK Werner Lützow and commander of S110, ObltzS Ludwig Graser, were also lightly wounded in the attack that the RAF called ‘The Massacre at the Aber Vrach [sic] River’, incorrectly claiming four S-boats sunk.

With more boats in Germany for engine replacement and overhaul and the disaster at Aberwrac’h, Petersen prepared his few S-boats for another concerted minelaying offensive using newly developed AA1 sub-sonic acoustic detonators. S-boats were kept at a state of intermittent alert as MGK West continued to fear Allied landings somewhere on the French coast, an alternating rota of crews kept at half-hour readiness into September. S-boats were also tasked with scouring inshore waters south of Cap Gris Nez for evidence of enemy activity. R-boats engaged in minelaying were also allocated S-boat escort and despite small skirmishes with enemy naval and air forces – including rocket-firing Typhoon fighter bombers for the first time – there were no losses.

New boats were also arriving, S100, S138 and S140 docking in Cherbourg on the last day of the month. S100 marked the beginning of a new class of boat. While retaining the outward dimensions of the S38-class they incorporated the Kalotte armoured bridge as standard, with additional armour-plating for the three 2,500hp MB511 engine superchargers. The bow 20mm was retained, with an additional 37mm or 40mm on the aft platform and twin 20mm flak weapon amidships. By mid September the four western flotillas were almost at full strength once more, all boats now carrying Kalottenbrücke and 40mm or 37mm quick-firing guns. Additionally, Klug’s 5th S-flotilla had received new 2,500hp MB 511 engines, allowing a cruising speed of 35 knots.

As the nights lengthened Petersen moved his flotillas once more, the 2nd and 6th transferring to Ijmuiden, the 4th to Boulogne and Rotterdam, while the 5th remained on station in Cherbourg. In Boulogne the 4th S-flotilla celebrated the award of the Knight’s Cross to ObltzS Karl-Erhart Karcher on 13 August. On 12 September a newly formed incarnation of the 8th S-flotilla began deploying into the Channel. S-boat veteran KK Felix Zymalkowski had been promoted to take charge of the new flotilla which initially comprised S64, S65, S68, S69, S93 and S127, sailing into Hoofden as they prepared for the minelaying scheduled for the night of 24 September.

At the allotted hour all four flotillas from the Netherlands carried out their assigned missions. The 2nd S-flotilla left Ijmuiden with eight boats at 2000hrs, dropping forty-two LMB mines as planned and all boats returned to the Hook of Holland by 0800hrs. Seven boats of the 4th S-flotilla had left the Hook at 2115hrs, S39 ramming S90 while trying to avoid an R-boat during departure. The damaged S90 was towed back into harbour by S39 and S74. From 0123hrs onwards the rest of the flotilla was within sight of the convoy route south of buoy 52 when they stumbled upon four minesweeping trawlers, ObltzS Sander’s S96 firing a torpedo that hit and sank 314-ton HMT Franc Tireur with half the crew killed. As the remaining trawlers tried desperately to evade the oncoming S-boats, two of them collided, sending HMT Donna Nook to the bottom also. The S-boats went on to lay thirty-four active mines, before withdrawing in bad visibility. As they did so, four British MGBs coming at high speed from a Z-patrol to the north suddenly blundered into the S-boats, Sander’s S96 colliding with ML150 and 145, damaging the British vessels but also dooming herself. Sander, aware that the ruined S96 was defenceless and going down, requested and received permission to scuttle his ship from flotilla headquarters, sixteen survivors, including Sander, taken prisoner by the British.

Eight S-boats of the 6th Flotilla left Ijmuiden at 2000hrs and carried out their minelaying operation according to plan. Engine trouble forced the first group of S74, S90 and S39 to return immediately after laying ten TMB mines near Shipwash, while the second group started on its return passage after an unsuccessful search for S96 survivors, clashing with MGBs in the swirling fog. The six newly arrived members of the 8th S-flotilla left the Hook at 2115hrs, laying thirty-four LMB mines as planned. Chancing upon a trawler group, S69 fired two torpedoes at HMT Corena but missed, S68’s side engine room hit by return cannon fire and the starboard engine put out of action. Nonetheless, they all returned to the Hook by 0900hrs. Six of the participating S-boats were rendered non-operational by the mission, three by unexplained crankcase explosions attributed to potential sabotage.

S-Boot in the West II

Korvettenkapitän Rudolf Petersen, Führer der Schnellboote

S67 sporting the experimental plexiglass bridge armour. Imperfect due to its high reflectivity, research ended with the armoured Kalottenbrücke (skullcap).

September was something of a high-water mark for Petersen’s western S-boats, able to field twenty-six operational craft. However, facing them were 324 MGBs, MTBs and MLs of the Allied coastal forces, not to mention larger warships and those of the auxiliary flotillas. The Luftwaffe had stopped its part in minelaying, diverted instead to defensive tasks or the resumed bombing of British cities. Bad weather prevented further S-boat operations until 7 October when all four flotillas laid mines once more along the east coast, S93 damaged outbound by another mysterious explosion within the crank casing and returning to Ijmuiden with S127 escorting. Hours later S83 was also compelled to return with engine damage, in company with S62.

Intelligence reports indicated that the British were not only aware of the minefields laid by S-boats, but also had developed a counter to the new fuses being deployed, and Petersen reverted to his trusted method of alternating torpedo and minelaying patrols, not informing MGK West of his decision but trusting to the level of autonomy that he held over S-boat operations.

Following a period of bright moonlight, the first torpedo mission took place on the night of 23 October using a massed force of twenty-seven boats from 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th S-flotillas, led by KK Heinrich Erdmann – FdS Chief of Staff – aboard S94. While once this formidable force would have seemed assured of victory, in October 1943 they ran into the overwhelming might of British convoy defence while attacking convoy FN60 (Phase 10) near Cromer. The incoming S-boats were detected by British bombers laying minefields in German waters, placing defences on high alert. The Germans arrived near the estimated convoy location, but were actually well astern of its path as FN60 was two hours ahead of schedule. The escort comprised destroyers HM Ships Campbell, MacKay, Worcester, Eglington and Pytchley as well as six MGBs, two ML and two MTBs. While shore radar tracked the inbound Germans, HMS Pytchley detected S-boat traces on shipboard radar and opened fire at 2318hrs. The sole German success was the torpedoing of straggling trawler HMT William Stephan by Kptlt Witt’s S74, four survivors rescued by their attacker. The remainder of the night was a German disaster.

All nine boats of the 2nd S-flotilla, including S94, managed to outpace pursuit and break free. Four boats of 6th S-flotilla, led by Kptlt Obermaier aboard Führerboot S76, suffered severe damage in the struggle that followed. Obermaier was forced to transfer to S114 after radio failure and, following Witt’s sinking of the British trawler, several S-boats suffered torpedo failures, many crewmen wounded by British cannon fire. Likewise, the six 8th S-flotilla boats took several hits before escaping under a hail of bullets and star-shells. The eight boats of the 4th S-flotilla bore the brunt of the enemy’s fury. One group – S88, S63, S110 and S117 – led by KK Lützow in S88, came under fire by HMS Worcester, a 4.7in shell hitting S88 directly and badly damaging her as she slewed to a halt. The bridge was wrecked and the bodies of Lützow and skipper Obstrm Heinz Räbiger were seen lying in the wreckage, both with severe head injuries. Fire quickly spread after more British shells landed, fuel tanks exploding as survivors sprang overboard, nineteen rescued by the British, two of whom later perished. Shell splinters had also knocked out one engine aboard S63, which was then bracketed by fire from HMS MacKay while laying smoke and dropping delayed action depth charges behind them. S63 was straddled with 6pdr fire and sank, LzS Dietrich Howaldt and twenty-three of his crew rescued, three as prisoners of the British.

There were no further missions in October as bad weather hampered a renewal of operations. Following the loss of Lützow, S120 skipper Kptlt Albert Causemann stepped in as interim commander of 4th S-flotilla until November when KK Kurt Fimmen, former commander of S26, and more recently captain of torpedo boat T16, came in to take the flotilla helm.

Kriegsmarine command proposed replacing some torpedo gear with extra guns to combat the increasingly effective British coastal forces, but Petersen strongly objected, despite recent losses. As if to confirm his faith in the torpedo, the 5th S-flotilla found convoy CW221 during the morning of 3 November and ObltzS Stohwasser’s S138 hit SS Storaa amidships. Heavily laden with tons of iron tank-tracks and aircraft parts, the 1,967-ton ship went straight down with twenty-two of her thirty-six-man crew killed. ObltzS Kolbe’s S100 also hit 811-ton SS Foam Queen carrying coal to Poole, her stern blew off as stored ammunition exploded, and she sank immediately as the engines also fell into the sea. What remained afloat was later towed to Dover and beached. ObltzS Jürgensmeyer’s S136 also torpedoed collier SS Donna Isabel, the torpedo hitting the engine room, but failing to explode and passing clean through the ship, before the eyes of the merchant’s chief engineer. Badly holed, the ship took one hour and twenty minutes to go down, the crew abandoning her without loss of life to be rescued by ML141. Though the S-boats had experienced a successful night, the statistic of only four hits from twenty-three torpedoes fired was sobering. For some commanders present these had been the first live torpedoes they had ever fired, Baltic training cut short by demand for front-line crews.

The following night the four Netherlands flotillas mounted another combined minelaying mission near Orfordness. Twenty-four boats sailed, two aborting with engine damage. The first group of 2nd S-flotilla laid twenty-eight UMB mines before encountering FN70 (Phase 10), its escorts unable to detect the S-boats on radar due to atmospheric interference. S80 and S89 both fired double torpedo shots, hitting and damaging 2,841-ton collier SS Firelight, blowing away most of the ship’s bow. S62 hit and badly damaged commodore ship MV British Progress. This 4,581-ton tanker was the first victim of an S-boat launched FAT torpedo. The FAT (Federapparat Torpedo) ran a wandering course with regular 180° turns, designed as a longdistance unguided weapon for use against densely packed convoy traffic.

The second group from Feldt’s flotilla unsuccessfully skirmished with escorting destroyers before breaking away from the action. Elsewhere, all minelaying was completed to plan, boats heading back to base as morning approached. The 6th S-flotilla’s S116 suffered engine failure, while S114 had another mysterious explosion within the crankcase shortly afterward. With dawn approaching, the flotilla boats sailed at reduced speed in mutually defensive posture, inevitably attacked by six RAF Beaufighters at 0725hrs. Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Witt’s S74 took multiple hits and lost all manoeuvrability, three men killed by cannon fire before the boat was abandoned and sunk by a torpedo from S135. S116 and S91 were also damaged as urgent appeals for Luftwaffe cover were denied. Eventually, at 0830hrs, six German fighters took off to assist, by which time the Beaufighters had gone.

During February 1944 KK Klaus Feldt departed 2nd S-flotilla, replaced as commander by Kptlt Hermann Opdenhoff, the two officers exchanging roles as Feldt returned to Germany to head the S-boat training division (Schnellbootslehrdivision) formed under Opdenhoff’s command in November 1943. Training division headquarters were established in Swinemünde, forming an administrative umbrella over all S-boat training units. Upon Feldt’s arrival these comprised 1st Detachment (Abteilung) in Swinemünde, and 1st S-training Flotilla (Schnellbootsschulflottille) centred on tender Adolf Lüderitz. By June 1944 a second detachment was established in Kaseburg and two more flotillas with tenders Carl Peters and Tsingtau.

Bad weather prevented many more Channel operations in 1943. A foray by 5th S-flotilla near Beachy Head on 1 December sank HMT Avanturine with a single torpedo, ObltzS Ahrens hitting the 296-ton trawler while it was under tow by HMT Peter Carey. The year had seen a drastic fall in S-boat success within the Channel: twenty-six merchant ships were sunk in total. For the S-boats, eighty-four men had been killed in action, fifteen more severely wounded and thirty-seven lost as prisoners of war. Fifteen S-boats had been sunk. Coupled with this was a perceptible increase in British home-water seapower. During May 1943 U-boats had reached their peak strength with 118 U-boats at sea, yet they also suffered their most grievous losses with forty-one destroyed in action. Dönitz conceded defeat and the U-boats withdrew from the Atlantic to revive their numbers, never to return in strength again. The Battle of the Atlantic had been lost and although U-boats continued to sail and sink ships, Allied naval and air power had prevailed to such an extent that many destroyers were no longer required for convoy protection, able instead to concentrate their efforts in coastal waters.

Petersen’s Channel force received recognition and reinforcement as the newly established 9th S-flotilla, under the command of Kptlt Götz Frhr von Mirbach, arrived in the Netherlands with new boats S130, S144, S145 and S146, while on 1 January 1944, flotilla commanders KK Bernd Klug and KK Klaus Feldt were awarded the Oak Leaves to their Knight’s Crosses.

Invasion fever still prematurely gripped OKW. Petersen countered proposals that S-boat control be devolved from FdS to local commands in the event of Allied landings, reasoning that optimal S-boat conditions for success were only possible under centralised command: Führer der Schnellboote. Through this office he would receive orders from MGK West and co-ordinate his boats accordingly. He also continued to resist the conversion of S-boats into heavier gun platforms, Dönitz himself questioning his tactics by declaring 37mm guns inadequate, instead proposing 50mm or 55mm fixed weapons, even the possibility of incendiary ‘Greek fire’ weapons. This would eliminate S-boat speed and manoeuvrability and while Petersen continued to resist such moves, he continued the war with what means he possessed.

By 1 January Petersen had forty-six operational boats spread between six flotillas in the west and five more refitting in German harbours. The Luftwaffe had promised a slight increase in available reconnaissance through the use of radar-equipped Junkers Ju88 aircraft. Petersen’s decision to abandon large scale minelaying met with belated approval from MGK West, though SKL was keen to point out that ‘a mine is a permanent source of danger; a torpedo, once fired, loses its effect’.

Rough seas prevented operations until 5 January when seven 5th S-flotilla boats attacked an eastbound convoy. Divided into three Rotten they had narrowly escaped damage after mines exploded near Führerboot S100 while departing Cherbourg. The S-boats found convoy WP457 between Land’s End and The Lizard during early morning darkness. Obersteuermann Richard Grüger’s S143 fired a single first torpedo as Plymouth radar reported the unidentified contacts closing fast. Grüger hit 1,408-ton SS Solstad headed to London with coal, the ship sinking in less than three minutes with five dead. ObltzS Hinrich Ahrens aboard S142 reported a ‘2,000-ton’ freighter also hit and sinking, while ObltzS Hans-Jurgen Stohwasser’s S138 torpedoed and sank the 545-ton escorting trawler HMT Wallasea. The Rotte comprising S84 and S141 both torpedoed 403-ton MV Polperro, the small collier carrying coal from Manchester and sinking with all eight merchant crew and three gunners. The final confirmed sinking was 1,990-ton MV Underwood carrying a cargo of nine fully fuelled invasion craft which burst into flame as the ship sank, fourteen of the twenty-three people aboard killed. Klug’s flotilla sailed for Brest as the scattered ships of WP457 retreated into Mounts Bay. The attack against WP457 had been the first use of the new TZ3 magnetic torpedo pistol and, though successful, Petersen was critical of the number of single torpedoes fired at excessive range.

During 16 January Klug’s flotilla attempted to repeat their success and attacked westbound convoy PW461 near Lizard Head. Although torpedoes were fired, HM Ships Talybont and Brissenden fended the S-boats off in bad visibility and the convoy was unharmed. Once again the 5th S-flotilla sailed to Brest before returning to their home port of Cherbourg.

Hinrich Ahrens’ S142 was at the forefront of the attack on CW243 southeast of Beachy Head by Klug’s 5th S-flotilla on the night of 30 January. Once again divided into three Rotten, one attacking from inshore of the convoy, Ahrens hit and blew the bow off escort HMT Pine which continued to fight back, later sinking under tow to shore. Ahrens also hit and sank 806-ton collier SS Emerald with the third torpedo he fired, his fourth a failure. The other half of his Rotte, ObltzS Hans-Jurgen Stohwasser’s S138, torpedoed 1,813-ton SS Caleb Sprague, twenty of twenty-seven crew and three out of four gunners lost.

During early February Kptlt von Mirbach’s 9th S-flotilla moved from Vlissingen to Dunkirk, from where it was planned to operate alongside Cherbourg’s 5th S-flotilla against the south coast. Reinforcing this area, Petersen was forced to lose strength from the Netherlands. Following the successful Soviet winter offensive near Leningrad, OKM feared a resurgence of the Soviet Baltic fleet and ordered 6th S-flotilla removed from the west and transferred to the Finnish Bight. Eight boats departed on 7 February, S128 and S135 following later, once fitting of 40mm flak weapons was completed in Rotterdam. Petersen then faced yet further potential reduction as OKM vacillated over decisions to move at least two of his flotillas to the harbours of Bordeaux, Arcachon, Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, amid fears of an Allied landing on the Iberian Peninsula. However, the idea was eventually dismissed.

On the night of 12 February the 8th S-flotilla mined the waters southeast of the Humber with thirty-six LMB mines, S99 and S65 sighting minesweeping trawler HMT Cap d’Antifer and sinking her with torpedoes leaving no survivors from the twenty-four crew. Two nights later both the 2nd and 8th S-flotillas sailed from Ijmuiden, the former to lay mines, though they were intercepted and forced away by HM Ships Shearwater and Mallard off Southwold. Returning to harbour they joined a battle between three German minesweepers and British MTBs near the harbour. S89, S98, S92, S80 and S67 raced into the attack, hitting and damaging several British vessels, the commander and three ratings killed aboard MTB444. During the confused melee, minesweeper M3411 was sunk by torpedoes from MTB455, and S89 so severely damaged by cannon fire that she was later towed into harbour, badly holed and low in the water, both torpedoes fired to lighten the hull as the crew doused fires in the stern.

Meanwhile, KK Felix Zymalkowski’s 8th S-flotilla were tasked with finding enemy MGBs in the vain hope of capturing one to obtain intelligence regarding British convoy routes, Petersen’s Luftwaffe intelligence having dried up. The same MTB groups that had tangled with Feldt’s flotilla now crossed paths with S93, S64, S117, S127, S129, S85, S133, S99 and S65 as they retreated to Lowestoft. The S-boats were in isolated Rotten and swift and accurate gunfire from the MTBs forced a path through the German vessels, damaging S99 and S133 and killing one man.

It had been an entirely unsuccessful mission as was the next one for 8th S-flotilla on 22 February when HMS Garth engaged the eight boats with cannon fire. Six torpedoes arced toward their attacker, all of them missing, and in the confusion that followed ObltzS Karl Rindfuß’ S128 collided with LzS Karl Boseniuk’s S94, killing one man. Both boats were so severely damaged that they were scuttled. The two young commanders’ inexperience lay at the heart of the disaster. Two nights later, after successfully laying mines, the flotilla torpedoed and sank 2,085-ton SS Philipp M from convoy FS71 (Phase 12). Laden with coal, the torpedo hit her starboard side, a vivid blue flash seen by ships three miles away. Her back was broken, and she sank within three minutes as the crew abandoned ship on rafts, their attacker being seen to approach at high speed from astern and then shut off engines and drift near a sandbank until lost in the darkness.

March and much of April saw disappointing mission results and increasingly frequent collisions. Bad visibility, strong enemy action and inexperienced S-boat reinforcements all contributed to the consistent failures. Meanwhile, Allied air power was directed against the S-boat harbours, Ijmuiden being raided by the USAAF 9th Air Force on 25 March. While the bunkers were not penetrated, they took heavy damage, other buildings used by 6th S-flotilla were completely burned out, and S93 and S129, moored outside of the protective shelter, were obliterated. To compound problems, a lighter was sunk immediately outside the bunker entrance, reducing access to during high water until the wreck could be removed.

On the night of 18 April S64 took a direct hit in the starboard torpedo tube and the midships-mounted twin machine guns while the 8th S-flotilla laid mines near Great Yarmouth. S133 was also hit, the shell exploding in the captain’s empty cabin, the boat already having suffered engine failure following another crankcase explosion. To the west that same night, the 5th S-flotilla was fired on by HMS Middleton and MTBs while also minelaying in the Channel. One man was killed in S141’s engine room before the flotilla escaped back to Cherbourg, avoiding MTBs attempting to head them off.

The pattern continued with S-boats taking casualties and damage with little recompense. On 24 April the Dutch tug Roode Zee was sunk defending CW264 near Dungeness, the only success thus far that month. Ordered to reconnoitre the Channel following yet another invasion scare on 26 April, S147 of the 9th S-flotilla was sunk by a direct hit from French destroyer La Combattante southeast of the Isle of Wight. The French ship closed the burning S-boat in order to rescue survivors, but only had time to pull one man aboard before hydrophone operators reported the approach of other S-boats, the destroyer moving away. S147’s skipper, LzS Bernhard Theenhausen, and ten men were later picked up, thirteen others killed.

However, S-boats were still dangerous. On 27 April six boats of the 5th S-flotilla and three of the 9th were ordered to sail against an enemy convoy reported by one of the infrequent Luftwaffe spotting missions. En route to their target area, S136 and S138 reported torpedo hits on an enemy destroyer, S100 and S143 claiming a 1,500-ton freighter hit and on fire. However, it was the 9th S-flotilla Rotte S130, S145 and S150 that wreaked the most havoc. They stumbled upon eight large tank-landing ships travelling in convoy as part of Exercise Tiger. An American simulation of the planned assault on Utah Beach, the eight LSTs were part of the mock ‘build-up’ phase, carrying vehicles and troops of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. The exercise had already been marred by ‘friendly fire’ casualties from live ammunition fired by HMS Hawkins. Used to accustom men to the sights, sounds and smell of combat, a timing misunderstanding had sent several landing craft into the inferno before the British ship ceased fire.

The LSTs of convoy T4 were escorted solely by corvette HMS Azalea, a second escort HMS Scimitar having been damaged in a collision with an infantry landing craft the previous night and not replaced. Tragically, the incoming S-boats were sighted by both British radar and coastal gunners, the latter under orders not to fire lest they betray the area’s level of coastal defence, the former relaying the news to Azalea, who then failed to pass the information onward, assuming incorrectly that the American vessels had received the same message, evidently unaware that they operated on a different radio frequency. In fact, radar echoes of the incoming S-boats were detected aboard one of the slow moving LSTs, but the operator assumed they belonged to the convoy. Luck was with the Germans.

Oberleutnant zur See Gunther Rabe’s S130 and ObltzS Franz Behr’s S150 both fired torpedoes at LST507, some failing to explode, before one from S130 blew a hole in the ship’s side, setting her on fire. Shortly afterward LST531 was also hit, this time by Behr, and LST511 torpedoed as well but by duds. Oberleutnant zur See Hans Schirren’s S145 hit LST289, destroying the crew’s quarters, rudder and stern guns, although flooding was soon under control and the ship made it to Dartmouth under its own power. The remaining LSTs scattered as the three S-boats withdrew. Behind them they left a scene of devastation with at least 638 American army and naval personnel believed to have been killed, hundreds drowned under the weight of their equipment as they abandoned the burning ships. Even official figures vary as to the final death toll, possibly rising to 946, although news of the disaster was immediately withheld lest it betray the impending invasion of France. More American troops were killed that night than during the landings on Utah Beach in June 1944. All of the S-boats returned without damage.

These were, however, the last torpedo sinkings of the first half of 1944, the S-boats suffering casualties elsewhere. On the night of 13 May ObltzS Walter Sobottka’s S141 was sunk by La Combattante, the skipper and five survivors rescued. Amongst the eighteen men killed was LzS Klaus Dönitz, eldest son of Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz. A week later, ObltzS Günter Rathenow’s S87 was severely damaged by two Swordfish aircraft following completion of a successful minelaying mission. The boat sank, with Rathenow and most of his crew later rescued, two others killed and one listed as missing in action. Their mines accounted for HMT Wyoming and Dutch minesweeper Marken during the same night. American minesweeper USS Osprey was also lost to an S-boat mine on 4 June near St Catherine’s Point. The explosion blew a hole in the forward engine room, with six men killed. This was, in fact, the first casualty of Operation Overlord, the minesweeper engaged upon sweeping channels for impending invasion traffic.

On 30 May 1944 Kptlt Bernd Klug left the role of 5th S-flotilla commander, and was replaced by Kptlt Kurt Johannsen. Klug moved over to Petersen’s FdS staff as chief of staff, his predecessor KK Heinrich Erdmann departing to command destroyer Z30.

Air power continued to take its toll on Petersen’s S-boats; S100 was bombed and one man severely wounded in the early morning of 24 May, and S172 and S74 were both trapped inside the S-boat bunker in Boulogne Harbour following American bombing throughout the Pas de Calais. Although the S-boats were protected from damage, a shelter door was blown off, blocking the entrance to one of the double-berth pens. Though he could not know it, the intensified Allied air offensive heralded the long-feared invasion: Operation Overlord was about to begin.

German Options, Leningrad Summer 1942

The Leningrad front from May 1942 to January 1943.

With the defeat of the Soviet Lyuban Offensive, the Germans began to reconsider the wisdom of committing the bulk of Heeresgruppe Nord to an extended siege operation. Führer Directive 41, issued on 5 April 1942, reversed the previous decision to besiege Leningrad and directed Küchler to capture the city. The OKH assured Küchler that he would be provided sufficient reinforcements for a summer offensive. Once Sevastopol fell on 4 July, the bulk of Manstein’s AOK 11 became available for redeployment and Hitler decided that four of its infantry divisions and its heavy artillery would be transferred to the Leningrad front.

In light of Führer Directive 41, Küchler’s staff developed three main offensive plans regarding Leningrad for the summer of 1942: Operation Nordlicht (northern lights), Operation Bettelstab (beggar’s staff) and Operation Moorbrand (moor fire). The last two were both relatively small- scale offensives, employing only three divisions; the first aimed at eliminating the Oranienbaum bridgehead and the other a pincer attack against the Pogost’e salient. However, Nordlicht was a major undertaking and would not be feasible until Manstein’s AOK 11 arrived. On 23 July, Führer Directive 45 specified that Leningrad should be captured by early September and recommended that the two smaller operations should be completed first to free up reserves for the main event.

Despite a window of opportunity in July-August, Heeresgruppe Nord remained on the defensive and decided to forego even a limited offensive until significant reinforcements arrived. Owing to transportation difficulties, Manstein’s headquarters did not arrive on the Leningrad front until 27 August and his four infantry divisions (24., 132. and 170. Infanterie-Divisionen, and 28. Jager-Division) began trickling in shortly afterwards. These AOK 11 divisions still retained the triangular nine- battalion structure and were much stronger than most of the reduced-size divisions in AOK 18. Küchler also received the 3. and 5. Gebirgsjager- Divisionen from Norway and the Spanish 250. Infanterie-Division. Luftflotte I was reinforced to over 250 operational aircraft in July 1942. Once the forces began to assemble on the Leningrad front, Hitler decreed that Manstein’s AOK 11 would conduct Operation Nordlicht with a total of nine divisions, while AOK 18 held the Volkhov. The offensive was tentatively expected to begin on 14 September and conclude by the end of the month.

After his costly victory at Sevastopol, Manstein was not sanguine about fighting his way into a major city like Leningrad defended by more than 200,000 Soviet troops. In particular, he lacked sufficient assault pioneers and assault guns – two of the critical force multipliers used at Sevastopol – to conduct effective urban combat operations. The original Nordlicht plan developed by AOK 18 staff called for a major breakthrough attack conducted by four divisions out of Pushkin – basically a continuation of the September 1941 attack – followed by a direct assault into the southern end of Leningrad. Instead, Manstein altered the plan by emphasizing envelopment rather than assault. In Manstein’s revised Nordlicht plan, five German divisions would seize the Pulkovo Heights and then snip off the Kolpino salient, followed by an assault crossing of the Neva River. Once bridgeheads were established across the Neva, Manstein intended to push the 12. Panzer-Division and four infantry divisions across the river to roll up the Soviet 55th Army and then advance northwards towards the Leningrad-Osinevets railway line. If successful, Manstein’s forces would cut all Soviet supply links across Lake Ladoga, thereby ensuring the rapid starvation of Leningrad’s garrison. As usual, there was a great deal of risk in Manstein’s plan since he had to strip Heeresgruppe Nord of virtually all reserves, leaving the Volkhov sector vulnerable to attack.

Amazingly, the Germans undertook no offensive actions against Leningrad at all during the summer of 1942. However, the besieged Soviet forces in Leningrad took no summer break. Fearing a renewed German push against Leningrad, Govorov ordered both the 42nd and 55th armies to conduct spoiling attacks against the German L AK lines. The 42nd Army attacked the 215. Infanterie-Division near Uritsk on 20 July with two rifle divisions, followed by the 55th Army attacking the SS-Polizei-Division south of Kolpino on 23 July with a rifle division and a tank brigade. Both attacks gained a little ground against the complacent L AK and forced Kuchler to divert some of the units forming up for Nordlicht, reinforcing the siege lines with 5. Gebirgsjager-Division. However, AOK 18 quartermasters did use the summer months to build up supply bases at Siverskaya, Tosno and Lyuban, while engineers improved the road and rail network behind the lines. These logistical improvements would serve AOK 18 well during the defensive battles of 1942/43.