The USS Endicott underway while serving in the Mediterranean
Battle damage to the United States Navy destroyer USS Endicott after the Battle of La Ciotat in 1944.
After the Battle of Casablanca in November 1942 the U. S. Navy’s surface fleet did not engage an Axis warship larger than a destroyer in European waters during the balance of the Second World War. A U. S. task group that included the Washington assisted in protecting the convoys to Murmansk during the summer of 1942, opening the remote possibility of a clash with the German battleship Tirpitz, and the Iowa spent several weeks guarding the North Atlantic in September 1943, lest the German battle fleet emerge from its Norwegian fjords while the British concentrated their battleships in the Mediterranean for the invasion of Italy. Otherwise, the principal tasks of U. S. surface forces in European waters were to escort shipping, conduct antisubmarine operations, interdict Axis supplies, and conduct amphibious operations. These duties reflected the state of the enemy they faced. When Italy announced its armistice with the Allies on 8 September 1943, the Axis lost its most significant surface force in the European theater.
Despite their decided disadvantage, German warships did tangle with U. S. warships in five engagements. The U. S. Navy’s surface fleet made its major effort in European waters in support of amphibious attacks in the Mediterranean and then during the ambitious and risky cross-channel attack on Normandy. Germany’s remaining surface assets-destroyers, torpedo boats, and MTBs-made strenuous efforts to interfere but lacked the strength to make a difference. German submarines accomplished even less. Following the Normandy landings and the subsequent Allied breakout into France’s countryside, Germany retained enclaves in the Channel Islands and at other French ports throughout the war. The Allies, applying lessons learned in the Pacific, contentedly quarantined these pockets of resistance.
The U. S. Navy held responsibility for security in the Gulf of St. Malo and the Channel Islands. During the first weeks of August 1944, while Patton’s armies motored into Brittany, the U. S. Navy patrolled the waters of the gulf every night with PT boats supported by destroyers or destroyer escorts, experiencing the vicious coastal war the British had been fighting for four years. The Americans’ opposition consisted of German M-class minesweepers-capable vessels used as corvettes-and a flotilla of armed trawlers.
On 11-12 August the American destroyer escort Borum supporting PT500 and PT502 engaged two ships of the 24th German Minesweeper Flotilla off La Corbiere on the southwest coast of Jersey. Following an unsuccessful torpedo attack, heavy gunfire chased the Americans off and damaged two boats. On the night of 13-14 August the Borum, the British destroyers Onslaught and Saumarez, PT505, PT498, and two British MTBs engaged the large minesweepers M412, M432, M442, and M452 (all 776 tons, 17 knots, one 4.1-inch gun), which were escorting a merchant vessel off St. Peter Port, Guernsey. Borum vectored the PTs toward the German ships. Under heavy fire, the PTs each launched two torpedoes from 1,500 yards, but they missed and the PTs retired undamaged. St. Malo fell to the American Army on 18 August. After that, the German navy kept largely to port, and the U. S. Navy discontinued offensive operations, although patrols using smaller warships like sub chasers and patrol boats continued.
In the Mediterranean Germany held the coastline from the Franco-Spanish border to the stalemated Italian front line south of Rome from October 1943 to June 1944. The German navy’s “capital ships” in the area consisted of captured torpedo boats and destroyers, which, combined with a fleet of corvettes, MTBs, barges, gunboats, and armed trawlers, protected a brisk coastal convoy traffic and engaged in offensive missions such as shore bombardment and mining. In general the Allies relied on MTBs, motor gunboats (MGBs), and armed landing craft to harass this traffic and used their larger warships to guard the beachheads and escort shipping. Between June 1944 and August 1944 the German-held shoreline contracted drastically when the Allies finally broke through central Italy to the Gothic Line in the north and invaded southern France. During this summertime operation, U. S. destroyers tangled with German surface units larger than coastal craft.
Early on the morning of 15 August the American destroyer Somers, skippered by Cdr. W. C. Hughes, patrolled south of Ile du Levant in support of a raiding group on the left flank of the Anvil invasion of southern France, which was scheduled to begin at 0830 that morning. At 0347 two pips appeared on Somers’s radar screen. Hughes tracked these contacts until it seemed their course would threaten the transports. At 0440, after the ships ignored his challenge, Hughes passed astern and opened fire from 4,750 yards. The intruders were German warships: the UJ6081 (728 tons, 18 knots, one 3.9-inch gun, two 17.7-inch torpedoes), which was formerly the Italian corvette Camoscio, and the SG21 (917 tons, 20 knots, two 4.1-inch guns) a former French aviso.
The Somers belted the SG21 with her opening salvos and left her ablaze with “numerous explosions forward and aft as ammunition began exploding.”2 The American destroyer then chased down the outgunned UJ6081 and left her dead in the water by 0520. The UJ6081 rolled over and sank at 0722. The SG21 burned and periodically erupted with small explosions until after dawn. The Somers expended only 270 rounds and suffered no casualties during this brief, conclusive, and well-fought action.
Two nights later a Naval Special Operations Force consisting of the American destroyer Endicott, two British river gunboats, the Aphis and Scarab, two PT boats, and four motor launches appeared off La Ciotat, halfway between Marseilles and Toulon, to feint a landing. During this operation the corvette UJ6082, the ex-Italian Antilope and sister to the UJ6081, and the large sub chaser UJ6073 (1,710 GRT, one 3.5-inch gun), formerly the Khedive of Egypt’s motor yacht Nimet Allah, attacked a small craft at 0545, prompting urgent calls for help. The British gunboats arrived at 0555 to find themselves outmatched and were chased southeast by the aggressive corvettes.
The Endicott, skippered by the PT veteran Cdr. John D. Bulkley came on the scene at 0620. She engaged the UJ6073, which was the much larger of the two available targets, even though jammed breech blocks had disabled three of the Endicott’s four mounts. In the first minutes 2 five-inch shells detonated in the exyacht’s engine room, and the UJ6073 quickly lost way. The Germans return fire fell close. One shell penetrated the Endicott and caused minor flooding but failed to explode. Using leather mallets to open and close the breech blocks, the Endicott continued to close range; at no time was she able to fire a full broadside using all four guns.
The UJ6073, listing heavily to port, began to explode at 0648, but the UJ6082 launched two torpedoes, forcing the Endicott to evade. The destroyer replied with two torpedoes of her own. When the UJ6082 combed the America torpedoes’ tracks, she masked her main battery. This allowed the Endicott to close to 1,500 yards. At 0702 Bulkey’s 20-mm and 40-mm guns raked the corvette’s deck. The UJ6082 gamely returned fire for a few minutes until five-inch rounds exploded near her stack and bridge. The UJ6082’s crew started abandoning ship at 0717, and the Endicott ceased firing. The UJ6073 sank at 0709. The UJ6082 finally capsized at 0830.
In the following weeks the Allies overran southern France, but their resources did not permit an offensive over the Alpine passes into the Italian Po Valley. For this reason, the front line froze east of Monaco along the Franco-Italian border, preserving Germany’s enclave on the Ligurian Sea for another eight months. In October the Allies established a naval Flank Force, Mediterranean that was made up largely of French units and under French command to guard the western portions of this enclave. British and American destroyers and coastal craft based out of Livorno patrolled the eastern flank. These naval forces supported Allied ground units, attacked German shipping, and were harassed in their turn by German coastal and small battle units. Throughout this campaign, German torpedo boats remained remarkably active, as when they shelled Allied positions near the Arno estuary on the night of 30-31 August.
USS Gleaves laying a smoke screen off Southern France, August 18, 1944. HMS Dido can be seen behind her.
On the evening of 1 October 1944, as the American destroyer Gleaves skippered by Cdr. W. M. Klee patrolled off San Remo, Italy, news arrived that Allied aircraft had bombed three vessels off Porta Maurizio further up the coast. Klee decided to head toward Imperia to investigate.
That same evening the TA24 and TA29 (both 1,110 tons, 28 knots, two 3.9-inch guns, six 17.7-inch torpedoes), and TA32 (2,000 tons, 31 knots, four 4.1-inch guns, three 21-inch torpedoes) sailed from Genoa toward San Remo to lay a minefield. The TA29 and TA32 were loaded with ninety-eight mines. The German force had just passed Imperia when, at 2313, lookouts spotted a large warship about 11,000 yards southwest. This was the Gleaves, which was also tracking the Germans. At 2319 the American destroyer turned parallel, rang up twenty knots, and opened fire.
The first salvo fell only fifty yards from the TA24. The Germans maneuvered as the next American salvo sent geysers spouting near the TA29. At 2324 the German commander ordered a simultaneous turn to starboard. The TA29, her rudder control affected by her cargo of mines, rammed the TA24. The German ships managed to separate and retreated toward Genoa, opening fire against the American destroyer at 0235. Klee assumed shore batteries were engaging, and when his radar detected two aircraft only three miles away at 2339, Klee had the Gleaves make smoke and head west. The gunfire continued until 2345. At 2348 the Gleaves secured from general quarters after expending eighty rounds and eight star shells.
The German torpedo boats made port by 0315. They thought they had fought a French light cruiser. In his report Klee concluded he had attacked three merchant ships. He observed two of them explode while under fire and believed them sunk or seriously damaged. Much more exciting was the encounter later that night with Axis small battle units. The big destroyer had some narrow escapes, sank several boats, and captured an enemy vessel. For this, the commanders of Cruiser Division 8 and the Eight Fleet recommended a slew of medals for the Gleaves’s crew.
The German navy retained a sting. In the most unlikely of combat zones, far behind the front line, the final surface action of the war involving the German and U. S. navies occurred on the night of March 8, 1945, when a small German force consisting of the M412, M432, M442, M452 (all 776 tons, 17 knots, one 4.1-inch gun), and nine other vessels sailed from St. Hélier in the Channel Islands to conduct a commando strike against the mainland port of Granville. En route they encountered the U. S. sub chaser PC564 (463 tons, 19 knots, one 3-inch gun, one 40-mm gun, two 20-mm guns) and severely damaged her, killing fourteen men and wounding eleven. With this defeat, the product of complacency, the U. S. Navy heightened its vigilance but the Germans did not venture out again before the European war ended two months later.
A notorious mutiny in which guns were taken aboard by the crew, and which like the mutiny on the Lennie captured the public interest because it ended in the English courts, was that aboard the Veronica. This wooden barque was another Canadian vessel, owned in New Brunswick. In October 1902 she was 23-years old. Commanded by Captain Alexander Shaw, an easy-going master, her crew were once again a polyglot mixture. Acknowledged to be the finest of her seamen was an Irishman named Patrick Doran; the other ten were Germans, Canadian, Dutch, a Swede and an Indian, the cook being a black man named Moses Thomas. Thomas, a Dutchman named Smit and three Germans named Rau, Flohr and Monsson were the only survivors, and it was from their confusing evidence that the court had to determine the course of events.
The Veronica left the Gulf of Mexico bound for Montevideo loaded with timber. She was last seen off the Florida coast on 24 October, and all was reported well on board. At the end of the year her five ‘survivors’ were taken aboard the Liverpool-bound steamship Brunswick, Captain Browne, from the island of Cajueira off the coast of Brazil; they claimed to be genuine distressed British Seamen, whom Browne was duty-bound to assist. They had, they said, been ship-wrecked. Gradually however the Brunswick’s crew grew suspicious of their story, suspicious of the well-caulked boat they had had on the beach, of the fact that Smit was wearing his shore clothes, and of the lack of evidence of their having been in contact with the fire they claimed had consumed their ship. They also kept themselves to themselves, eschewing the bonhomie shipwrecked sailors might be expected to share with their rescuers. Then, on the tenth day after leaving Brazil, Moses Thomas asked to speak confidentially to Captain Browne. He told him the story peddled by Rau was a pack of lies. Shaw summoned his chief officer, made Thomas repeat his version of events as he wrote the cook’s words in the Brunswick’s Official Log Book, got Thomas to sign this statement and his chief officer to witness it. Then he ordered the other four ‘distressed British Seamen’ clapped in irons. On his arrival in Lisbon Browne reported the case to the British consul and received instructions to carry the men on to Liverpool, whither the Brunswick was bound. Here the men were arrested. Thomas was kept under close police observation, and in due course the suspects were brought to trial. Eventually the occurrences aboard the Veronica were revealed to a horrified yet fascinated British public.
Apparently Able Seaman Gustav Rau had conceived a hatred for Doran based on the fact that the Irishman was a first-rate seaman who enjoyed the confidence of the officers and got all the sailorizing jobs in which technical skills were required. In the hermetic world of a ship such pragmatic favouritism could work on an unstable mind, in unpropitious circumstances, and this is what seems to have happened to Rau. The German sailor had seen previous service in the Imperial German Navy, from which he may have been dismissed but from which he had certainly acquired an authoritarian air, and he was able to orchestrate the factions that inevitably developed in a mixed-nationality crew during the prelude to the affair that followed. Rau led a German clique which included Smit and ridiculed the rest of the crew. Meanwhile Doran and his mates ignored any warning signs, attributing them to the normal unpleasant atmosphere that prevailed aboard a vessel manned like the Veronica. Doran and his shipmates were quite unaware that Rau had told his own cronies he had heard the officers discussing a plan to throw all ‘the Dutchmen’ over the side. This brought into play a racial prejudice prevalent at the time which lumped Germans and Dutchmen together colloquially as ‘Dutchmen’, and was calculated to inflame his fellow-Germans, whose country had not long been welded into a unified nation. Rau offered no explanation as to why Captain Shaw and his officers would want to deprive themselves of half their deckhands. Was it necessary he should, with Doran so fine a paragon of his profession? Rau decided that they ought to seize the ship before it was too late, reminding his men that they had two revolvers between them. With his diabolically inclined inferiority complex at work, he wanted Doran and a Canadian knifed before they went aft to deal with Shaw and the mates. Young Flohr demurred and Rau dropped the matter until three days later when, with the ship making little headway on the equator, he and Doran had a blazing row. Rau then suggested that when Doran was middle-watch lookout and the mate, Mr McLeod, had the deck, they should strike. Again Flohr cried out against the plan, and Rau began a systematic terrorizing of the younger man. Early the next morning Rau accosted Doran on the forecastle, and split Doran’s skull with a belaying pin. Flohr and Smit afterwards carried the wounded man away and shut him in a locker. Aware that something was amiss, McLeod came forward from the poop and saw the forecastle deserted. ‘Where’s the lookout?’ he called, only to be felled by Rau and Smit, as a horrified Flohr looked on. McLeod, probably still living, was thrown overboard.
Rau led his men aft, he and Smit bearing revolvers, to seek out the master and Second Mate Abrahamson. The latter, thinking he was being called for his watch, sat up from sleep only to be shot at by Rau. Leaping from his bunk, Abrahamson ran past Rau and into the saloon, calling out to Shaw that he had been shot. Rau and Smit seem then to have gone to the poop to deal with the man at the wheel, a Swede named Johannson who was a chum of Doran’s. Rau ordered Flohr to kill the Swede, but again Flohr failed, and Johannson ran forward while Flohr took the helm just as Shaw appeared on deck, confused as to what was happening. ‘Where’s the mate?’ he asked. ‘Why has the second mate been shot?’
Seeing Shaw, Rau shouted that he had been looking for the master, threw a belaying pin at Shaw and then shot at him. Clutching his side, Shaw made for the companionway to the saloon, where he and Abrahamson were battened down. Rau now headed for the galley, determined to execute Thomas. Fortunately Smit restrained his maddened leader, pleading the usefulness of the cook and extracting a promise from the terrified man that he would stay away from the poop where the master and second mate were confined.
Forty-eight hours after Shaw and Abrahamson had been made prisoner, during which they were held without food or water, Rau allowed them a drink in exchange for the charts and instruments. Three days later he convinced his fellow mutineers that the two must be disposed of. Assembling his men on the poop, Rau released the wounded men. Abrahamson emerged first, to be confronted by Rau, Smit and Monsson, all armed with revolvers, the third having been looted from Shaw. The young Flohr held a belaying pin. Seeing what was about to happen to him, Abrahamson made a run and dived over the side, Rau shooting at him until he disappeared. Shaw was now ordered on deck. Flohr was given Monsson’s revolver and, in order to implicate him, told to kill the captain. He fired three shots, but the kick of the gun made him miss. In contempt, Rau fired point-blank into Shaw, then ordered the body cast over the side.
Having dressed himself in Shaw’s uniform, ‘which revealed a cheap conceit in his character’, Rau determined they must now set fire to the ship and leave her, concocting a mutually agreed story: there had been an accident on board, after which the ship had caught fire and the crew had been obliged to take to the boats. Of course, they had no idea what had happened to the other boat. Johannson and the Indian seemed unable to commit the story to memory, and Rau decided they too must die. Ordered onto the bowsprit to furl the flying jib, Johannson was shot in the stomach. In agony he worked his way back onto the forecastle head and ran aft, pleading for his life. Smit caught him and blew his brains out. Flohr was given the job of shooting the Indian, but again muffed it. The poor man leapt overboard, whereupon Rau and Smit shot at him.
Having carefully readied a boat, on 20 December the mutineers set about preparing the Veronica for burning, dousing the upper deck and deckhouses with Stockholm tar, linseed oil and kerosene. Having ensured the vessel was well alight, they took to the single boat and pulled away, resting on their oars until the wooden-hulled Veronica disappeared. Then they hoisted sail and headed south-west, landing on the island of Cajueria, off Tutoia, midway between Fortaleza and Sao Luis. The island was owned by a company of Liverpool merchants and was uninhabited except when regular shipments of sugar and cotton were brought down the rivers of the mainland and ferried out to it. Steamers called to load when a sufficient consignment had been amassed, and it was in these circumstances that Rau and his party were discovered by the crew of the Brunswick in the New Year.
Although Rau had taken care to coach his fellow mutineers, once they were held and questioned in individual custody, his statement and those of Monsson, Flohr and Smit were found to be inconsistent in detail. They attempted to insinuate that there had been trouble between the officers and the crew as a whole, a class-based confrontation between the ‘British’ (though in strict fact Shaw was a Canadian), and the crew of helpless foreigners. Rau added spice to this by claiming that the black man, Moses Thomas, was the leader, of the mutineers. Matters had come to a head one night, and in an altercation the mate McLeod had jumped overboard to save himself from being murdered by Thomas, who had killed Shaw and Abrahamson. Not long after making his statement, Flohr asked to revise it, and told a story that corroborated the original account given to Browne by Thomas aboard the Brunswick and reiterated by him under interrogation.
In the preliminary hearings the Crown decided to withdraw the charge of murder against Flohr, his defence counsel arguing that he was a young man who had been utterly compromised by the others. Flohr had now turned King’s Evidence and substantiated Thomas’s story, so that on 13 May 1903 Rau, Monsson and Smit were brought to trial at Liverpool Assizes. A large model of the Veronica was placed in the centre of the court for all to see.
The prisoners Rau, Monsson and Smit were defended by counsel and pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the initial single charge of murdering Shaw. They persisted in their assertion that Thomas was the leader of the mutiny, that Flohr had seconded him, and that the very men whose testimony was being used to condemn them were in truth the guilty parties. The case for the Crown was led by the distinguished King’s Counsel Lord Birkenhead, who asked why they had not told this story immediately they were rescued by the Brunswick; the inadequate explanation given was that ‘they had trouble enough of their own’. As to their carrying revolvers, this was entirely for self-defence against the cook, Moses Thomas.
Systematically Lord Birkenhead and his assistant Mr Tobin demolished the case for the defence, and in his summing-up the judge spoke of the defendant’s part in ‘a most horrible story’. After seventy-five minutes the jury returned with a verdict of guilty, though Monsson was recommended for mercy on account of his youth and previous good character. In passing sentence on the murder of Captain Shaw the judge also referred to the defendants’ almost casual killing – after that of the three officers – of ‘four or five of your fellow sailors’.
They were all sentenced to death and Rau and Smit, ‘maintaining their stolid, sullen demeanour to the end’, were hanged at Walton Gaol on 2 June 1903; Monsson escaped death, his sentence being commuted to penal servitude for life.
By 29 January 1945 the ice at Ijmuiden had melted enough for the Seehunds to return to action. Likewise in Hellevoetsluis, the Bibers were no longer trapped in port by the thick winter ice and they too were made ready to sail. Ten Seehunds put out through the small lock at Ijmuiden in two groups; one bound for the Dumpton-Margate area and the other for the South Falls. The Seehunds were ordered to break off operations if the weather deteriorated from the southwest, though all ten successfully sailed. The first to return, U-5342, entered port that evening, Obersteuermann Bocher and Obermaschinist Frobel breaking off their journey with clutch failure after only three hours at sea.
Over the following days seven of the Seehunds returned with various mechanical problems or because of the increasingly heavy seas. Some had reached the approximate area of their intended operations, though they had been forced to abort. Leutnant zur See Henry Kretschmer was one of those that returned, bringing U-5041 into port after being battered by the elements. His engineer, Maschinenmaat Karl Radel, had become violently seasick and reached port in a state of almost complete exhaustion.
Only two of the Seehunds successfully patrolled their target areas, L.z.S. Stürzenberger and Obermaschinist Herold aboard U-5335 sighting three steamers and two escorts in convoy, but they were unable to gain a firing position. They soon broke off the mission in mounting seas, reaching Ijmuiden on 31 January. Oblt.z.S. Ross and his LI Oberlt (Ing.) Vennemann reported the sole success after torpedoing an estimated 3,000-ton collier near Dumpton Buoy in Margate Roads on 30 January. The two Germans were elated, though the British reported their steamer sunk by mines. It was the third sinking made by a Seehund since they had been put into service, aggregating an estimated 6,324 tons.
The same day that the Seehunds had sailed, fifteen Bibers set out from the Hook of Holland, having arrived there from Rotterdam the previous day. However, disaster overtook them almost immediately as three were sunk by hitting patches of ice which in places were 20cm thick. Five more returned with damage caused by the ice and another was beached near Hellevoetsluis after spending 64 hours at sea hunting in vain for the sight of any potential targets. The remaining six failed to return at all, their fate unknown.
January ended on this grim note for the K-Verbände, though Heye remained optimistic about the Seehunds at least. In a review of their operations Heye wrote on 4 February that despite their operating in severe weather conditions and meeting little success, they had unquestionably been of great value in eliminating teething problems with the small U-boats and for the training of their crews – at least those that had survived. He also expressed faith in better results once weather conditions moderated.
On 3 February the commander of the Seehunds in Ijmuiden was changed. Kaptlt. Rasch was rotated back to Germany to oversee the operation of Lehrkommando 300 in Neukoppel. His replacement was the celebrated U-boat veteran F.K. Albrecht Brandi, who became the chief of 312 K-Flotilla and later 5 K-Division. By now the threat of the midget submarines was being taken very seriously in British military thinking and on 3 February thirty-six Lancasters of 5 Group attacked concrete shelters at Ijmuiden (9 Squadron) and Poortershaven (617 Squadron) with Tallboy bombs. It was believed by the British that these pens were sheltering the midget submarines and in clear weather the RAF claimed hits on both targets without loss to themselves. Their appraisal had been correct: the S-boat bunkers in the Haringhaven received three direct hits though there was no damage to the Seehunds of which there were four operational and twenty-seven non-operational currently in the port. The bunker was never fully completed after work had begun on it, only ten pens being finished out of a planned eighteen, the Allied bombing achieving little despite its accuracy. On the other hand, the Molch depot was hit with greater result by Spitfires of 2nd Tactical Air Force who were engaged on a general attack against the railway system in the town of Amersfoort. Though no Molchs themselves were damaged the depot was virtually destroyed. Lancasters also attacked the Biber depot at Poortershaven and once again though no submarines were hit, damage to dockside installations prevented any more operations in February. The British were soon back again against the K-Verbände when fifteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron dropped Tallboys again on the pens at Ijmuiden without loss to themselves on 8 February. Of equally great concern was the RAF battering of rail communications between Germany and Holland that threatened to seriously disrupt the supply of Seehunds to the forward area. On 11 February consideration was given to transporting them via road through Zuiderseedamm and employing them within the inner Scheldt. This would negate the effect of bad weather as the inner reaches were relatively sheltered from the harsh elements of the North Sea and plans were developed to attempt a trial Seehund operation within the Scheldt.
In the meantime operations continued against the convoys trailing from England. Eight boats sailed on 5 February; U-5368, U-5033 and U-5326 all returning defective, U-5339 stranding north of the Hook of Holland, U-5311 stranding 14km north of Ijmuiden and U-5329, U-5348 and U-5344 returning without success and with varying degrees of depth charge damage. On the evening of 10 February eight Seehunds sailed, U-5335 forced back to harbour to repair a defect in its steering gear, though it was able to depart the following day. The dockside at Ijmuiden was scarred and still smoking from the attack by nine 8th Air Force B-17 bombers that had carried out the first of what they termed ‘Disney’ missions using Royal Navy rocket-boosted concrete-piercing bombs against the pens at Ijmuiden. Three more Seehunds – U-5363, U-5337 and that belonging to L.z.S. Polakowsi – were forced to return on 11 February with mechanical faults and U-5330 the following day, having sighted Allied ships but achieved nothing. U-5339 entered Vlieland on the evening of 12 February; U-5345 into Ijmuiden and U-5347 grounded on Texel 30km north of the port on the morning of 13 February after suffering severe damage in an air attack. Only U-5349 failed to return from the operation.
A further five departed Ijmuiden at 17.00hrs on 12 February, despatched to the North Foreland. Again two – U-5332 and U-5342 – aborted with mechanical difficulties. Oberfähnrich Streck and Maschinenmaat Niehaus aboard U-5345 reached their operational area, but were detected and subjected to a barrage of depth charges that the Kriegsmarine men counted as numbering 259 detonations before the attackers left the scene. With the boat badly damaged and crew shaken by their ordeal they limped towards Ijmuiden, eventually beaching their boat at the inner mole of the harbour. The fourth Seehund, L.z.S. Götz-Godwin Ziepult and Maschinenmaat Reek’s U-5361, returned on 17 February after claiming to have torpedoed a 5,000-ton merchant ship off North Foreland two days previously. The ship concerned was the Dutch tanker Liseta from convoy TAM80, badly damaged by a torpedo hit although able to reach port without sinking. However, the Seehund was not the only attacker to claim the hit, the Type VIIC U-boat U-245 also claiming to have torpedoed the Dutchman. Nonetheless, it was a victorious crew that reached Ijmuiden. The last of the five, U-5356, never returned.
On 14 February, while many of the Seehunds were still on station, it was decided to slip their leash more and extend operations to anywhere within their range, which included inside the Thames and as far as the Humber estuaries. Hitherto these areas had been off limits for the Seehunds. It was also ordered to stop any K-Verbände mine laying along the Thames-Antwerp convoy route to allow conventional U-boats to begin patrolling there as part of their last-ditch inshore campaign in British waters.
In the meantime a number of Molchs had been moved from Amersfoort to Scheveningen to be used in the Scheldt estuary. Their use was planned for the night of 12 February, but the deteriorating weather forced a postponement. During the night of 14 February two Linsen units were moved from Hellevoetsluis to Zeriksee on Schouwen to operate against Walcheren as the K-Verbände intensified its Scheldt attacks once more. As part of this stepping-up, the trial of the Seehunds in the Scheldt began on 16 February.
Four Seehunds sailed from Ijmuiden for the West Scheldt that morning, five Linsen units also sailing for the region that night. It would be the baptism of fire for the two-man midgets within the confined waterway and one that was ultimately unsuccessful. There was no word from the Seehunds until 20.00hrs on 18 February when U-5363 beached 15km north of Ijmuiden after experiencing no success at all. Another, U-5332, also beached itself, this time 3 kilometres north of the port at the same hour the following day. L.z.S. Wolter had fired two torpedoes after sighting an enemy convoy of several large landing craft but had missed after being kept at bay by the escort screen and unable to launch an attack at a close enough range. The remaining two boats, U-5041 and U-5337, did not return, though Maschinenmaat Karl Radel of U-5041 drifted ashore on the island of Voorne in a rubber dinghy, dying before he could relate his experiences. His coxswain L.z.S. Henry Kretschmer had been captured after a successful depth-charge attack by HMML901 on 22 February. The British motor launch was severely damaged during the battle with U-5041 in which a depth charge set off a sympathetic explosion of the midget’s torpedoes, damaging the ship’s wheelhouse. Five out of six rounds fired from the motor launch hit the Seehund and Kretschmer was soon pulled from the sea, Radel drifting away unseen in the early morning darkness. It was to be the last time that Seehunds were deployed within the Scheldt itself, that zone of control left to the equally unsuccessful Linsens, Bibers and Molchs. The Linsens that had deployed into the western Scheldt on the same day as the Seehunds had achieved no success either. Only two units reached the target area where they found nothing, the rest turning back in thick fog losing two of their number.
Bad weather once more frustrated plans for three Seehunds to sail for the Dumpton area on 19 February, though they were able to put to sea the following day. One returned with engine trouble which took 24 hours before it was rectified and the craft put out once more. Three more put to sea that same day, destined for the Elbow buoy in the South Falls off North Foreland, another single Seehund making for the same area on 23 February. U-5097 returned after a frustrating journey dogged by bad weather and poor visibility. After reaching the area that they considered to be the shipping lane from southeast England to the Scheldt estuary they were surprised by two British MGBs that raced out of a fog bank with machine guns blazing. Crash-diving to the seabed at a depth of only 30m, the two Germans were then subjected to a fierce depth charge bombardment, able to see the flash of the exploding Torpex through the Plexiglas dome. After nearly 24 hours, U-5097’s attackers dispersed and the Seehund was able to creep away toward Ijmuiden, severely damaged. The boat was leaking from the area of the electric motor and its compass had been destroyed, so they were unable to remain submerged, the captain, Wachsmuth, navigating by the constellations of the Great Bear and the Small Bear when they became briefly visible through the cloud. By daylight he used the horizon from which he considered the strongest morning light to emanate, unable to actually see the sun due to the daytime fog. As U-5097 headed for the Dutch coast Wachsmuth was suddenly confronted by a stone wall looming from out of the fog and rapidly threw the boat to port to avoid hitting it. However, in hindsight it appears that the vision was an hallucination brought on by the Pervitin pills that the two Germans were consuming to stay awake. The wall vanished as quickly as it had arrived.
They eventually made landfall as fuel and battery were almost exhausted, though with no idea of their location. In fact they had grounded the Seehund at Egmond aan Zee, 16km north of Ijmuiden and there they blew it up. Wachsmuth and his LI remained unsure of their location until a Wehrmacht soldier appeared. The newcomer was Mongolian and nervously escorted the pair off the beach and into a bunker occupied by Luftwaffe Flak troops. They still had to convince their rescuers that they were not Allied commandos before eventually contacting Brandi by telephone and being returned to Ijmuiden.
U-5342, on its first operational sortie, did not return; the two crewmen listed as missing presumed killed on 1 March 1945. The last crew of the trio, also new to action, did make a successful return to Ijmuiden, though Frohnert and Beltrami had achieved nothing.
L.z.S. Winfried Ragnow’s U-5367 was one of the four-boat group that had departed on 21 February. Ragnow later recounted his departure from Ijmuiden, a scene repeated for all departing Seehunds.
On 21 February my boat was the first of the flotilla to be cleared for patrol. A fortifying breakfast, specially catered – ‘klinker-free’ diet (as our ‘sled’ had nothing like a WC). F.K. Brandi gave our operational briefing 08.00hrs. We learned one more time all the important details about the operations area; currents, weather forecasts, enemy locations and convoy routes for the Thames-Scheldt supply lines, security, defence, air dispositions and so on. Weather wasn’t especially good, but it was supposed to be better in the Thames. Best wishes, a handshake and I was dismissed. Equipment taken by truck to the harbour where the LI is on hand and just as tense as I am about the mission. KUB367 (U-5367) lies at the pier. This time we have sharp torpedoes under her belly (each Eel had 300kg Trinitrotoluol in the head). We smoked a last cigarette, said goodbye to our comrades and support personnel. And then we went. Past the lock gates and outer mole. Windy -sea state 3 – breakers washing over the boat. Trim dive test by the Ijmuiden navigation marker and then course southwest at 6 knots – on towards England!
Despite their stalwart beginning, the two men had no success on their arduous voyage. Alternately hunting surfaced and diving to avoid enemy destroyers, MGBs and aircraft – once making the unprecedented depth of 76m with no untoward problems with their boat -they unsuccessfully attempted to attack a destroyer before heading back towards Holland. They grounded their boat amidst the beach defences, huddling in a bunker and keeping warm with schnapps before found by a Kriegsmarine artillery unit and returned to Ijmuiden. Later, Brandi dispatched a group to find and recover their Seehund, but it had drifted off with the tide and presumably sunk. Ragnow and Paul Vogel were sent to Wilhelmshaven to collect a new boat; both men awarded the Iron Cross Second Class on 28 February, the first of their flotilla to receive the decoration.
The three other Seehunds that had sailed as part of the group led by U-5367 experienced mixed levels of success. L.z.S. Horst Gaffron and his engineer Maschinenmaat Huber fired both torpedoes at an enemy destroyer, reporting a hit though British records do not confirm this. L.z.S. Walter Habel and Maschinenmaat Karl Rettinghausen also reported success. Sailing toward England on their first mission, the boat ran surfaced towards the Thames. The trails of V2 rockets could be seen arcing overhead on their way toward London as the young crew sailed toward their enemy. At 09.00hrs they sighted an enemy destroyer and launched two torpedoes before breaking away as an MGB passed over-head dropping defensive depth charges for twelve hours. They claimed to have hit the destroyer that they identified as HMS ‘Mecki’ – perhaps Mackay – though British records do not confirm this. However, the 1,625-ton tank landing ship LST364 of convoy TAM87 was hit by a torpedo and sunk, the attack attributed to an unidentified Seehund. The 220-strong British crew, of whom twenty-four were burnt and wounded by the detonation, were taken off by the trawler HMT Turquoise. Seehunds were the only active German submarines in that area, though the identity of the successful attacker remains unknown to this day. The last of the group, L.z.S. Hermann and Omasch. Holst’s U-5365 ran aground while returning without encountering the enemy. Stranding in shallow water near the German artillery batteries on Katwijk, Hermann paddled ashore in a small rubber dinghy to report their predicament while Holst remained with the boat. Shortly thereafter a Dutch lifeboat from Ijmuiden arrived with a salvage command on board, the Seehund towed into Scheveningen shortly afterward.
The last sailing of February, L.z.S. Klaus Sparbrodt and Maschinenmaat Günter Jahnke’s U-5330, which had put to sea on 23 February, was more definite in its result. This, the eleventh Seehund operation, was again targeting the Dumpton area, though it suffered its share of problems en route. They had barely reached Scheveningen when the diesel engine failed, forcing a premature return to Ijmuiden on electric motor. The problem was swiftly identified as a blocked oil pipe and soon rectified, the boat putting out once more for action. Attacked by Beaufighter ‘J’ of 254 Squadron as they cruised with battened hatch due to the choppy water, Sparbrodt crash-dived his boat and continued from the scene submerged while the hunter circled the area searching in vain for the Seehund.
By 22.00hrs we were nearing our patrol area. An hour later we were approaching a light-buoy, which told us that we had found the Dover route. Suddenly an unmistakable sound met our ears; the ignition of the engines of two motor gun boats lying in wait between the convoy route and the Goodwins. We dived immediately and lay there at 58 metres until 04.00hrs on 24 February. From then on we surfaced every hour to see how the situation was, but every time when we were at the top we heard the noise of the MGBs and we shot like a stone back into the ‘cellar’. At 07.00hrs the end came and we heard the gunboats heading away, surfacing in time to see them travelling at high speed for Ramsgate.
The sea was mirror-like – sea state 0. We headed at half speed towards Dumpton Buoy that lay in the middle of our operations area … We hoped that here we could find a convoy and fire our torpedoes at some worthwhile targets … A slight haze hung low over the water and we patrolled up and down at low speed. A little after 10.00hrs in a thickened mist I saw what looked like a vessel lying stopped, and we were slowly getting closer to her. At 10.20hrs we dived and began our attack.
I could now see that the ship was a warship, the forepart clearly visible but the rest lost in mist. I saw a long and high forecastle, a menacing cannon, large bridge, mast and funnel that showed it was at least a corvette and worthy of an Eel.
At 10.27hrs, the LI reported port torpedo clear for firing. I studied the target through the periscope. Its bow was facing left, at about 80° from us, and I observed no change as a minute passed. This indicated that it and the Seehund were both set in the same direction by the gentle current.
Estimating the range at 600 metres, after that minute I ordered ‘port torpedo – fire!’ and Jahnke pulled the lever. We heard from the boat’s hull a scream and roar as the Eel sped on its way. I started the stopwatch and put the rudder hard to starboard. I wanted to make a full circle and return to the same attacking position. 50, 60, 70 seconds went by and we heard nothing. The torpedo must have missed, but I was determined to get off a second shot.
Then at last, after 80 seconds following the shot, we heard a sharp crack through the water, but nothing more. This meant that the range had been 850 metres. I saw a column of water and smoke from the explosion rising midway between the bridge and funnel. I shouted, ‘blow tanks’ and within seconds we were on the surface and I called Jahnke to the tower. We saw the last of the ship as her bow lifted high and she quickly slid stern first into the sea.
The two men quickly submerged, celebrating their attack with a meal of chicken and rice followed by some strawberries before ten depth charges from a tardy retaliation reminded them of their precarious situation. They lay on the seabed as the hunt faded away and headed from the scene. Later that night, according to several accounts, they fired their last torpedo at a sighted ship but apparently missed, heading back to Ijmuiden and a victorious welcome. After confirming the details of their attack with Brandi the two Seehund men were informed that they had sunk the 1,505-ton Free French destroyer La Combattante, corroborated by intercepted British radio transmissions. The ‘Hunt’ class destroyer had begun life as HMS Haldon, but had transferred to the Free French Navy in 1942. She had patrolled the English Channel from March 1943 onwards and joined the Normandy landing on 6 June 1944, later conveying General Charles de Gaulle for his first journey to liberated France on 14 June 1944. She took sixty-two men, including two British, down with her. Curiously a torpedo also hit the British Post Office cable-layer steamship Alert east of Ramsgate during the night of 24 February. The 941-ton ship sank so rapidly that it was unable to send a signal reporting its loss, and this has been attributed to U-5330 as well. Could this have been the target that Sparbrodt believed he had missed?
There remain several sinkings often attributed to either mines or Seehund attacks that to this day remain unconfirmed as to what caused their sinking or indeed their exact identity. As well as the mysterious HMS Mackay, LST364 and the cable layer Alert, a Seehund whose number remains unknown reported sinking a ship named ss Rampant from convoy TAC near buoy NF8 off Ostend in the early hours of 26 February according to the eminent historian Jürgen Rohwer. However, despite the other ships apparently rescuing forty-six crewmen, Lloyd’s Register carries no such ship name. Additionally, on 26 February the 4,571-ton British steam tanker ss Auretta was in convoy TAM91 with twelve other merchants and five escorts en route to Antwerp in heavy seas when she was either torpedoed or hit a mine. Likewise the American steamer ss Nashaba was also lost from this convoy to either a mine or torpedo hit, one crewman and the pilot going with her to the seabed.
Harald Sander was engineer aboard one of the Seehunds that was active during February:
Some were actually inside the mouth of the Thames. So the two of us had to go down there. Well, I will never forget those two days and the conditions we experienced. We had a wind speed of 10 or 11 and the swell was correspondingly large … So anyway, we got there all right. The only thing was that then misfortune struck. The diesel air valve stopped working and every time we came up out of the water a wave washed into the boat. Our stern was getting lower and lower in the water and it was almost as though the rear of the boat couldn’t get to the air at all but stayed submerged. At the time I asked my commander, ‘How deep is it here?’ ‘Oh’, he said, ‘we are already quite far down. We are just about in that deep valley that runs from the North Sea through the channel in the direction of Biscay’. And he said, ‘It must be a good fifty metres’. I said, ‘Let it go down’.
At thirty metres the situation normally became quite serious with our boats, but we let it go down and we waited till we got to the sand and then we said, ‘So, now we are down’. One has to consider that we had an atmospheric pressure per square centimetre of five and the thickness of the outer metal around the boat only had a strength of five millimetres. The boat ribs were placed thirty centimetres apart, so it was practically like fishbones … and the body of the boat only had minimal strength.
But it didn’t crack. There was no noise from the boat. The only thing was that water came from astern into the front and we were both sitting in water. Well, the commander was seated a bit higher and I was a bit lower behind him, but we were both sitting in water. First we took a deep breath and then we said, ‘Okay, what shall we do now?’ and then we tried to surface the traditional way. The diesel engine cannot be started under water because it needs air, so we tried it with the electric motor. We put the hydroplane up at the front and then we started the electric motor and revved it up until the boat was high enough to have the nose poking out of the water, so that air came in and I could start the diesel engine. The diesel engine was then used to pump out the diving cells. We were so heavy that there wasn’t much water in the diving cells anyway. I hadn’t flooded them. The boat itself was heavy enough. A ship only floats if it has enough displacement to allow it to remain above the surface. Well, all right, this didn’t work because we were too heavy. We couldn’t pump either because our bilge pump only managed at a depth of 25 metres. It had 2½ times atmospheric pressure and this could be managed with the hand bilge pump. This was possible, although at a depth of 50 metres … We were both still fit and didn’t want to abandon ship. Getting out was not that easy at a depth of 50 metres and it could have been dangerous. So we kept trying.
We had two compressed air tanks in the boat in case of emergency and I released compressed air into the first diving cell in the bow and in this way the boat rose at the front a little. Then I started the electric motor and the boat actually rose up with this pocket of air in the bow. If you can imagine that practically half of the boat was still submerged, then we began pumping. We were pleased that we were at least up on the surface. Then came the question, ‘Are there ships up there?’ Underwater you can hear a long way. You can hear the noise made by every screw. There was nothing. We had waited so long for night time, until it was dark. They didn’t discover us and we began pumping eagerly in order to make the boat lighter so that we could continue on. We knew that the valve was broken. We were of course swaying close to the surface. The air quality inside wasn’t very good which made us both very anxious and we exchanged comments, such as, ‘Come on, do it, keep pumping’, and so on. At some point afterwards, I don’t know when, suddenly the commander said to me, ‘Harry, I can’t go on, I don’t know what’s happening, I’m getting out’, and such things. He was panicking and thinking he wouldn’t make it, but we had to, because if we didn’t keep pumping we would have sunk again and been down on the bottom at 50 metres. For me it was … anyway, I don’t know how I managed it. I yelled at him. I really told him what I thought. I said, ‘If you don’t, I will smack you between the eyes!’. He had to be brought out of his shock. So this was how it was. These days I get asked, ‘How could you have done anything in that small boat?’ The narrowness had an effect in that moment when neither of us were sane.
We managed our work all right but at any moment it could have all gone wrong. The English could have run us over if a boat had been there and if they had discovered us they could have chased us down to the bottom and so on. So I really had to pull myself together. The fact that I managed this is a great thing. I still say today, God had a big hand in it my whole time with the navy. In any case, to cut it short, we managed and we returned home, at least to Ijmuiden. We went on a bit and then we both pumped again and then we went on until we came to the locks. Then we told the lock keeper to adjust the crane after we were through and pick us up with the crane straight away so that we didn’t fall again because the boat was only just floating. That was the best it could do. They weren’t very pleased when we returned, but the main thing was that we were there. Both torpedoes were still attached, so they hadn’t been wasted. It was all valuable material. But, yes, the boat was wrecked.
During February there had been thirty-three Seehund missions, four of the Seehunds being lost in action. Despite these losses and the destruction of several machines that had been run aground, for the first time the month ended on an optimistic note for the Seehund crews as victories appeared to be on the increase.
Linsen operations had been delayed by bad weather in the latter half of February though three units departed Hellevoetsluis on the night of 21 February in search of targets within the Scheldt. Two of the units turned back with engine problems, while the third searched in vain, forced to scuttle one boat due to lack of fuel. Molchs too had begun operations in the Scheldt that same night. Ten were towed to the Scheldt and four others setting out from Hellevoetsluis under their own battery power. This operation marked the beginning of an almost suicidal undertaking – Totaleinsatz, or, ‘total commitment’. K-Verbände planners only envisioned the possibility of a maximum of four boats returning. Nevertheless, at least two-thirds of the Molch crews volunteered on 22 February for what they were told was probably a one-way mission. As it transpired, eight Molchs returned, but claiming no results. B-Dienst listening service indicated that Allied forces off West Kapelle sank three and captured two men. Three further Molchs were destroyed at their depot at Assen and another three damaged by air attack on 21 February.
The general situation for the German armed forces was dire in the extreme as March dawned on an increasingly beleaguered Wehrmacht. In conference with Hitler on 26 February Dönitz had suggested that Seehund attacks be concentrated against the Thames area as aerial reconnaissance had shown large shipping concentrations there. The latest Seehunds possessed an increased combat radius due to the addition of external saddle tanks as standard fittings and he expected better results than achieved previously. He also stressed the necessity of maintaining Dutch ground for the K-Verbände if it was to be able to operate effectively. Indeed the SKL later pointed out that the maintenance of Dutch roads and railways was vital to K-Verbände operations, since it was only from the Netherlands that Seehunds could reach the Thames under their own power, let alone the Biber, Molch and Linsen operations. Requests to transfer some Seehunds to the Mediterranean were declined by Dönitz, at least until a strength of eighty machines was reached in Ijmuiden. Dönitz countered this proposal with an idea to ship a Marder unit to Rhodes, though the Luftwaffe representative at Führer headquarters, Oberst-Leutnant von Greiff, replied that an undertaking of that nature would only be justifiable if of extreme strategic significance due to the fuel requirements and the necessary reallocation of Ju290 transport aircraft. The idea was immediately abandoned and the K-Verbände fought on as before. The sole addition to their arsenal was a so-called ‘Marder simulator’ which comprised a Plexiglas Marder hood from which was suspended an explosive charge that would be exploded by ramming. It is unknown if they were ever deployed, but a shipment of them bound for the frontline was definitely destroyed in an air attack on Rosenheim on 6 March.
Adverse weather forced a suspension of K-Verbände operations until 6 March when Seehunds and Bibers were once more cleared for action. For the Bibers it was also another day marked by disaster as they gathered ready to put to sea. In the crowded harbour basin at Hellevoetsluis, ten minutes before the Bibers were due to commence departure, a pilot accidentally released his torpedoes sinking fourteen Bibers in the resultant explosion and damaging another nine. Only eleven Bibers were left in a seaworthy state following this fresh accident, but they all sailed for the Scheldt that evening. None of them returned. One was captured by a British motor launch off Breskens on 7 March, another sunk by coastal artillery fire off Westkappelle the following day, four found abandoned ashore on the coastline at North Beveland, Knocke, Domberg and Zeebrugge. The remaining five vanished without trace. Undeterred, the assault against Scheldt shipping continued with six Linsens leaving Hellevoetsluis on the night of 10 March to attack the Veere anchorage on the northern Walcheren coast. Sighted by shore batteries they were driven away by heavy fire, leaving two boats grounded behind them.
The following night a combined massed operation was launched by using fifteen Bibers armed with torpedoes and mines, fourteen Molchs and twenty-seven Linsens, all targeting shipping in the West Scheldt. The results were predictably disastrous; thirteen Bibers, nine Molchs and sixteen Linsens lost for no result. Of the Biber casualties, the RAF’s 119 Squadron off Schouwen sank two on 11 March.
During the afternoon F/LT Campbell took up the Anson on an air test cum /ASR flight (searching for an aircraft lost on 9 March) … Having a keen eye, he spotted something suspicious in the sea 10 miles east of Schouwen and on flying down to investigate identified the conning tower of a Biber. No R/T, no W/T, but remembering his early training, he switched his I.F.F. to Stud 3 trusting it would be picked up and understood but it wasn’t. As the Anson was unarmed there was no possibility of attacking the midget, but a spot of ‘beating up’ was attempted without, however, shaking the Jerry sufficiently to make him do anything silly. After several attacks it was eventually given up as a bad job, and the aircraft was just making for home when lo and behold! Another little Biber made its appearance about a mile away. Campbell tried out the same tactics, and this time success greeted his efforts for the ‘U-Boat Commander’ (as the subsequent newspaper story dubbed him) evidently didn’t like the feel of an aircraft roaring over him at twenty feet, and on the third dive pilot and observer glimpsed one large rump disappearing over the side of the U-boat. On the final return a figure was seen trying to struggle into a dinghy, the midget turning turtle and slowly disappearing beneath the waves. ‘Killer’ Campbell returned to make his report and Swordfish ‘H’ … immediately took off followed in a few minutes by ‘R’… to search for the U-boat that was still at large.
At 18.25hrs at position 51°48’N 03°31’E, Flying Officers Corbie and O’Donnell aboard Swordfish ‘F’ sighted the Biber’s cupola as it surfaced, and attacked with four depth-charge runs. The last exploded almost directly beneath the Biber which was enveloped in spray and disappearing, leaving just a thick oil slick on the disturbed surface of the sea. The second Swordfish then arrived and dropped four more depth charges on the oil streak to ensure the Biber’s destruction.
The following day Swordfish ‘E’ of 119 Squadron encountered Linsens for the first time, sighting three and diving to release depth charges and strafe the Linsens below, disabling one which was seen to be ‘lower in the water after the shoot up’ and later still found floating abandoned on the swell. Further Swordfish encountered more Linsens, attacking and then calling for support from two Tempest fighter-bombers of 33 Squadron who destroyed the sighted Linsens with strafing, a single survivor seen floating in the wreckage.
The run of success enjoyed by 119 Squadron continued that day as two more Swordfish encountered Bibers, both subjected to depth charge and machine gun attacks rewarded by both Bibers sinking and in once case a small yellow life raft observed amongst the oil slicks, the other leaving only wreckage and oil behind. The jubilation felt by the Swordfish crews was reflected in their Squadron Log Book: ‘Four Bibers in two days! Whizzo!’ Two days later Swordfish ‘D’, engaged on a similar anti-Biber patrol, arrived on the scene of a single Linsen being circled by a Warwick and Beaufighter. Soon a Walrus flying boat of 276 Squadron arrived and landed beside the solitary German to pluck him from his disabled boat.
Four more Bibers were sunk by MGBs off Westkappelle, another four by shore batteries at Vlissingen and Breskens on 12 March. That same day a Spitfire attacked and sank a Biber off Walcheren and the following day HMS Retalick engaged another.
At 02.17hrs a midget submarine, Type Biber, was observed inclination 90 right dead ahead. Speed was increased to maximum and Pom-Pom opened fire. The submarine passed close down the starboard side and five charges, set for 50 feet, were fired. The submarine by then was very low in the water, and passed within ten feet of the starboard side at 02.27hrs. A five charge pattern, set for 50 feet, was fired. The charge from the starboard thrower was observed by myself to fall over the submarine. There was a particularly violent explosion and all trace disappeared. There was no doubt that the submarine had been hit repeatedly and was probably sinking before the last pattern was fired.
Gunners aboard HMS Retalick swore that they had also seen another Biber nearby during the attack, so the ensuing search for a survivor was brief and unsuccessful.
The massacre of the Bibers, Linsens and Molchs would continue throughout March. Linsens had also been deployed against the Thames estuary for the first time on the night of 11 March, carried into action aboard the converted S-boats. Launched in the South Falls area at midnight against a TAM convoy that had been sighted at a distance of 18 miles, the attack was unsuccessful. The sole German reference to it was that three control Linsens, carrying the pilots of their expended explosive boats, grounded the following morning near the Goeree lighthouse, where they were destroyed and the men killed in an Allied air attack. Linsens were also sortied on the nights of 22 March and 26 March without any success.
During the night of 23 March, sixteen Bibers armed with mines and torpedoes left Hellevoetsluis for the Scheldt estuary once more. This time there were more survivors as seven managed to return though with no successes. Of the remainder one was found abandoned on Schouwen and another sunk by Beaufighters of 254 Squadron off Goeree. Beaufighters ‘R’ and ‘G’ of 254 Squadron engaged on anti-Seehund patrols sighted the Biber at 09.40hrs on 25 March, circling the surfaced craft that appeared to be stationary and listing slightly with the operator standing atop the hull next to the conning tower. Consideration was given to capturing the Biber and the two Beaufighters circled while awaiting notification of whether a motor launch was close enough to assist. Two hours after first contact the aircraft were instructed to sink the boat and attacked immediately.
‘R’ made two attacks and ‘G’ four attacks, one-man crew seen to jump overboard and enter dinghy. He was last seen paddling away with both feet making his way to the distant Dutch coast.
HMS Retalick took a heavy toll on the Bibers deployed. The after action report submitted on 24 March recounts the ship’s actions against the attacking midget submarines as the battle soon developed into chaos.
At 19.41 when in position 293° Westkapelle 9.75 miles, Course 030°, Speed 14 knots, a small radar echo was detected at 030° 2 miles … At 19.48 Asdic contact was obtained, two echoes being recorded on trace … before a five charge pattern set at 100 feet was fired …
Course was maintained at reduced speed … and a second attack made … At 20.02 a third and deliberate attack was made.
The area was illuminated and at 20.15 shouting and whistle blowing was heard and two men were clearly seen in the water. All the bridge personnel saw these two men, one of whom (subsequently recovered) was very active, the other bleeding from the mouth was much quieter. Their pale grey clothes and red or orange life-belts were unmistakable. An attempt to recover them was made when it was realised that this might invite disaster, and a calcium flare was dropped, FH3, MTB493 being instructed to recover the survivors. He could only find one however, and after some time had elapsed at 21.14 Fähnrich Heinz Lehne was placed on board.
The prisoner was most emphatic that his was a one-man craft, nevertheless there were two men in the water. The plot shows some discrepancies as to the position and it may be that two midgets were close together, one attack being delivered on one and one attack on the other and both destroyed.
At 21.24 … a small radar echo was detected …
HMS Retalick engaged the third Biber with depth charges and cannon fire when an object was blown to the surface. Gunners reported the propeller of the midget submarine thrashing in the air as the Biber went down in a spume of churned water, Retalick herself violently shaken by an underwater explosion that was probably the midget’s torpedoes. The third ‘kill’ rendered no trace and at 02.37hrs another radar echo was established. Racing to intercept the Biber was seen on the surface as snowflake was fired above it. Cannon fire peppered the Biber as it passed to starboard, hammered as well by a full depth-charge pattern. Two large oil patches were all that marked its obliteration.
Aboard Retalick there was understandable jubilation at the destruction of four Bibers. Lehne was brought aboard soon afterward for interrogation and to have his effects examined. Amongst the usual equipment found on him were:
Leave tickets, photograph folder, photographs (personal), newspaper obituary and cuttings.
His initial interrogation revealed to the British that he:
… had served in submarines for six months. Was hit by the first pattern, and escaped after his submarine was holed, using escape apparatus: was the member of a mobile unit, and was out with several others proceeding independently.
Most insistent that he was the only man in the submarine. He was no Nazi, but a German citizen and his duty was to his country. No one in his service had yet returned from an operation. It was a suicide job, he did not expect to return. He was partial to the English, but opposed the Russians.
HMS Retalick had destroyed four of the six Bibers, the remainder disappearing without trace. Of the fifty-six Bibers and Molchs which sortied in March 1945, forty-two had been lost for no result.
The SKL were appalled by the results of these brave though doomed missions. They appealed for greater assistance from the Luftwaffe who were asked to bomb the docks and locks at Antwerp to delay Allied stores from being unloaded. The K-Verbände were obviously not having the desired affect on Allied supply lines with which the German Army struggled against on land. The German Naval Staff complained to OKW that counter-measures against the various midget services had been intensified, including the use of ‘old biplane aircraft’ which by virtue of their slow speed were capable of a more thorough search for targets below.
Fortunately for the men of the 1st and 2nd Seehund Flotilla, their two-man submarines fared better during the month of March. German records remain incomplete for this period, so the events can only be gradually pieced together. During March thirty-one Seehunds sailed, though two that put to sea on 13 March stranded outbound; one near Katwijk and the other near the Hook of Holland. Both crews were rescued, but their boats are not in the list that follows. The attackers mounted two distinct waves focussing on different regions, the first spanning from 6 to 19 March, the second 24 to 26 March.
6March – five boats sailed for Margate Roads and the Elbow Buoy, four boats for Great Yarmouth area.
9March – three boats sailed for Margate, one for Great Yarmouth.
11March – two boats sailed, one for each of the above stations.
16March – again one boat for each station.
19March – two boats sailed for Great Yarmouth.
24March – three boats sailed for the Thames-Scheldt convoy route, two for the British east coast north of the Thames.
25March – one boat sailed for each of the above areas.
26March – two boats sailed for the convoy route, one for the Thames.
Again Harald Sander was aboard one of the Seehunds that were active off the English coast. After his experiences during February, when his Seehund was wrecked, he had been allowed time to return to Germany before putting to sea once again.
Admiral Heye … said, ‘Harald, go home to Berlin for eight days and then from there go back to Wilhelmshaven and get yourself a new boat’. Then I told him that I didn’t really get on with my companion. ‘Okay, find yourself a new commander. We still have some in training’ … It wasn’t easy coming to Berlin because the ‘chain dogs’ were in operation … Mr Himmler and Adolf had formed these troops that were a sort of military police force and they wore chains. Everyone running around in Berlin and elsewhere was gathered together by them as troops for the Berlin defence. This was already the end of February and the Russian troops were advancing on Berlin. I had a special pass of course, so that they couldn’t recruit me. I had papers from Heye stating that I was in the ‘K group’ so they couldn’t send me off towards Russia.
Then the scheme started again from the beginning. Pick up a boat in Wilhelmshaven, then run it in, then we travelled from there by train. The whole ten boats in the flotilla were loaded onto a train. We had the infantry there as guards and we travelled by night. By day we halted at the border in a siding under guard and then we continued on, arriving in Ijmuiden after the second night. And then we ran the boats in again. Down there at the Scheldt it was different now. The invasion was more advanced. Then I was given the job of going to Great Yarmouth with my comrade. If a line is drawn directly from east to west from Ijmuiden you come to the corner of England where the port and the city of Great Yarmouth are situated … In two days we chugged across, lying low by day and continuing by night, because the boat couldn’t move fast … Then in Great Yarmouth we went to ground and the next day from a long way off we heard the sound of two ships and then we surfaced. There was a destroyer and a big commercial ship. At the time we estimated about ten or twelve thousand tonnes. It was behind the destroyer. Okay, it was a target and we wanted to try it out. We dived again until the destroyer had passed overhead and then we went down to sea bed level and my commander tried it out. I had to pull both the levers which were behind my chief engineer’s seat in order to free the torpedoes – first one lever and then the other. There was no explosion.
Well after firing we dived straight away and stayed on the bottom and then we had to be quiet. We couldn’t make a sound, no sound of metal, otherwise the English would start to attack immediately. Then came the sonar ‘Asdic’, as it is called… it sounded as though a handful of gravel was being thrown against the outside of the boat. There is this ticking noise, which comes at intervals. Then it was quiet for a while and then we heard the destroyer returning. The other boat, the freighter, of course, had kept moving and then the destroyer came looking for us.
That took a couple of hours. Either they changed position, or we changed position and when they changed position we moved as well, because it was sound against sound. And then when they were quiet and stopped moving they were looking for us, so we remained still. The whole thing went like that and they dropped about thirty depth charges on us. We weren’t hit directly, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, but they kept trying by dropping depth charges in our general position. They kept this up for a while and then afterwards we were so far away and we were really quite a small target. The boat is not quite one metre wide and with a length of twelve or thirteen metres it is not a big target to pinpoint. So we were in luck again and then we went home by night. We landed in Ijmuiden again and that was towards the end. It was already late March or early April of 1945. At that time the Canadians and the English were steadily advancing towards us.
Of the nine boats that sailed on 6 March, Oblt.z.S. Ross, L.z.S. Gaffron, L.z.S. Gohler, L.z.S. Drexel and L.z.S. Markworth were all forced to return with technical faults. One other was sunk by MTB675 26 miles east of Ramsgate on 7 March.
Over the remainder of the month several more Seehunds were lost. The confusion of reported attacks and sinkings from Allied sources and a lack of German records that detail losses, returning boats and sailing dates mean that only estimates can be made of the scale of sinkings experienced by the Seehund units. It is thought that at least fifteen boats were lost, possibly more.
As well as the confirmed sinking made by MTB675, there are several other definite German losses. One Seehund was lost to a Beaufighter attack on 10 March near Goeree, another sunk the following day and L.z.S. Newbauer taken prisoner. Two Seehunds were sunk by HMS Torrington; the first, U-5377, near Dumpton Buoy on the edge of Goodwin Sands on 11 March, the second, U-5339, 20 miles north of Dunkirk three days later. The hunt for this second Seehund caused considerable damage to Torrington herself, the engine and boiler rooms suffering from the concussion of depth charges set for 50 feet and exploding in shallow water. During the bombardment the wire rope lanyard that operated the starboard depth charge thrower parted following the first salvo. Its operator, Able Seaman Charles Horton, picked up a duffel coat and wrapped it around his head as he continued to fire the thrower by hand, burning his face and hands until the Seehund was destroyed.107 Leutnant zur See Siegert and Maschinenmaat Heilhues of U-5377 were both taken prisoner, picked up by MTB621 and later transferred aboard Torrington. Five minesweepers reported sighting and attacking a Seehund on 13 March northeast of Felixstowe. HMML466 attacked and sank a Seehund on 12 March in drifting fog, capturing the coxswain L.z.S. John but killing MascMt Teichmüller with machine gun fire. L.z.S. Hermann Bohme and his coxswain were also listed as killed by fighter-bomber attack on 12 March west of Schouwen. On 21 March enemy aircraft attacked L.z.S. Gohler and Omasch. Kassier as their boat sortied from Ijmuiden after the rectification of their technical problems – the boat was sunk and both men lost. Another Seehund of the first wave of attackers was sunk by MTB394 23 miles south-east of Great Yarmouth on 22 March, both crewmen rescued.
The second wave that had slipped from Ijmuiden between 24 and 26 March fared little better, losing one Seehund to Beaufighter attack at 14.40hrs on 25 March 20 miles north-west of the Hook of Holland, though misidentified by the attacking crew.
Aircraft ‘Q’; F/O B.V. Ekbery, F/S Thomas on Anti-Seehund patrol. 14.40: 52°12’N, 03°45’E. Sighted wake dead ahead and identified as conning tower of a midget U-boat, believed to be a Biber. Aircraft attacked with cannon as U-boat was crash diving. Hits were probable but target was hidden by splashes. About three minutes after attack a patch of thin oil was seen, about 15ft in diameter in approximate target position.
Another Seehund was lost to HMS Puffin off Lowestoft in the early morning of 26 March. The ship rammed a Seehund, the subsequent impact causing a torpedo to detonate, obliterating the Seehund and buckling the British ship’s bows, HMS Puffin limped into Harwich where the damage to the ship was judged so severe that she was not repaired. In Jürgen Rohwer’s book on U-boat successes he states that: ‘HMS Puffin was obviously rammed by a surfacing midget, which had already been abandoned.’
The same day that Puffin made her attack, the Royal Navy motor launch ME1471 sank a Seehund, and perhaps the final German victim for March fell to ML586 the following day west of Walcheren.
Their attempts were not without success though. On 10 March L.z.S. Lanz and Lt(Ing.) Gerhard Müller’s U-5364 recorded a successful torpedoing of a destroyer, though Allied records hold no mention of this. However, on 13 March the 2,878-ton Canadian steamer ss Taber Park taking coal from the Tyne to London was torpedoed by L.z.S. Maximilian Huber and Lt(Ing.) Siegfried Eckloff. The ship was travelling out of convoy and sank rapidly, killing four DEMS gunners and twenty-four crew out of a total of thirty-two people aboard. Two of the Seehunds operating within the Thames area claimed two ships sunk, Fröhnert and Beltrami claiming a steamer hit before they were subjected to a devastating depth charge bombardment that they narrowly managed to sneak away from and return bruised but intact to Ijmuiden. Kruger and Schmidt’s U-5064 also claimed a large steamer, estimated at 3,500 tons sunk in the Thames Estuary. Neither claim has been firmly corroborated by Allied sources.
On 21 March Hauschel and Hesel’s U-5366 torpedoed and sank the American Liberty ship ss Charles D. Mclver southeast of Lowestoft. Enroute to Southend from Antwerp and then planned to head onward to New York, the Liberty ship was at first thought by Allied sources to have been mined, though the attack coincides with that reported by the crew of U-5366. On 22 March ML466 was sunk by what has been suggested was a Seehund torpedo, though no surviving crew claimed the attack. More definite was the torpedoing by Küllmer and Raschke of the British steamer ss Newlands within the Thames Estuary. Newlands was hit with a shot fired from 320m, the Seehund escaping to return to Ijmuiden. The last sinking attributed to a Seehund for March was the successful torpedoing of the British coastal freighter ss Jim travelling from Goole to Dieppe.
The pressure on the Seehund crews was increasing during March as Germany tottered towards annihilation between the Russian and Western Allied forces. In Ijmuiden the USAAF returned to attack the concrete pens twice more; nine B-17s using ‘Disney’ rockets on 14 March, three more returning with the same payload a week later. March had yielded some more hopeful results for the midget service though, with Seehund attacks taking their toll despite a total of fourteen men definitely killed on operations and at least the same number captured.
As well as attacks against the enemy’s merchant shipping, the question of allocating Seehunds to the resupply of German defenders at Dunkirk – ‘Operation Kameraden’ – had been raised once more. This time Donitz agreed and the opening supply run departed Ijmuiden on 27 March, Frohnert and Beltrami the first of three crews assigned. The Seehund’s weaponry had been removed and replaced with two empty canisters of the same dimensions as a torpedo. These so-called ‘butter-torpedoes’ were loaded with the intended cargo, which comprised urgently-required foodstuffs such as a fat ration for each of the defenders as well as weaponry such as anti-tank mines and anti-tank artillery ammunition. Beltrami later recalled their voyage:
On 27 March we three supply Seehunds left Ijmuiden. We successfully travelled about two or three miles and made the obligatory trim test dive in salt water. But as soon as my tower hatch went under water I got a cold shower down the neck. We put the boat on the seabed to determine where the water was coming in and discovered two more places around the hatch that it was leaking from. I assumed that this was caused by damage that we had taken on an earlier mission when we were heavily depth charged by the enemy. The difficult mission that we had lined up ahead could not be accomplished with a boat unfit to dive. We decided that we had to return. When in the headquarters I reported to F.K. Brandi, complaining about the sloppy work done when repairing our boat.
The Seehund was worked on throughout the night and made ready to sail during the following afternoon. This time the test dive passed without problems and Frohnert and Beltrami were able to begin their mission proper. They headed into the teeth of a severe weather front that forced them underwater for hours as they waited for the storm to subside. Once surfaced they ironically had to creep past enemy shipping traffic – normally a target they longed to see.
We followed the coast and in the grey morning of the seventh day, we saw the silhouette of Ostend. There were many enemy ships in the harbour and we only had ‘butter torpedoes’ … We hugged the coast on to Dunkirk. There we were unable to enter the harbour as a minefield blocked our way forward. So we decided on a plan: I would climb out and signal with a hand torch to notify the posts on shore that we were there. It was still sea state 4! If I should fall overboard then the LI was to head south toward the beach. So I did what I said: clambered out, shut the hatch and held on to the periscope and signalled. The boat dipped a little so I was sometimes up to my waist in the water. In due course a signal came back from the head of the Mole: ‘Head 100 metres to the east, you are in a minefield! We will send a boat to guide you’. Open the hatch and back in the boat, the LI is very pleased. We head east…
Once docked in Dunkirk soldiers took the two crewmen to the hospital where they were given a warm bath while their boat was unloaded. The Fortress Kommandant, Admiral Frisius, made time to personally congratulate them, Heye doing likewise via radio. On 9 April they departed Dunkirk under a glowering sky. Their ‘torpedoes’ had been reloaded, this time with outgoing mail and messages from the trapped soldiers. Following a brief brush with a Mosquito fighter-bomber – bullets hammering the sea where the boat had just dived -and the almost obligatory motor and engine problems the Seehund entered Ijmuiden on 11 April. With the idea proven, the pattern of this successful mission was to be repeated until the end of the war.
By the beginning of April 1945 the Allied isolation of German-held regions within the Netherlands was nearly complete. The problems of supply for the K-Verbände had become critical and consideration was given to withdrawing the Biber and Linsen forces and rebasing them at Emden to defend the Ems waterway. This idea was deemed logisti-cally unworkable and rejected almost as quickly as it had been proposed, though further thought was given to moving Biber, Molch and Linsen units from Borkum to Emden instead. This too was judged impractical on transportation grounds and use of a single Linsen flotilla, which had already operated in support of the Army, was mooted instead.
Admiral Frisius in Dunkirk suggested that the K-Verbände units still in the Netherlands should move instead to Dunkirk from where they could continue operations against the Scheldt traffic. Frisius’s idea was based on the fact that the Seehunds remained the only craft of sufficient range to reach their allocated combat area from German bases, though his proposal was ultimately rejected and the K-Verbände fought on in Holland.
The bad weather that had dogged Fröhnert and Beltrami on their way to Dunkirk remained in place until 5 April after which operations were resumed. The Seehunds immediately began sailing, directed against the Thames-Scheldt convoy routes as well as the supply lines that traversed the British coast east of the Thames and as far as Dungeness. Seehund strength on 8 April in Ijmuiden was recorded as twenty-nine, of which only perhaps half were operational on that day. Reinforcements were scheduled to arrive from Germany; eleven Seehunds heading from Neustadt on 18 April to Wilhelmshaven and ultimately Ijmuiden, shepherded as far as Brunsbüttel by the armed trawler KFK445. The Seehunds had originally been intended to relocate to Heligoland but increasingly heavy air raids had rendered the island virtually unusable. Four other Seehunds arrived in Ijmuiden from Wilhelmshaven on 20 April and three more by the beginning of the following month, bolstered by a further two from Heligoland.
In total thirty-six Seehunds put to sea on war patrols between 5 April and 28 April, the maximum effort achieved on 12 April when sixteen boats were at sea. Of the thirty-eight that sailed, eight returned prematurely with defects, fifteen returned safely, six were recorded as definitely lost by 28 April, three unaccounted for and four were still at sea on that date. Only three of them reported successful attacks.
The first, U-5309, crewed by L.z.S. Benediktus von Pander and Lt(Ing.) Martin Vogl claimed a 1,000-ton tanker hit north-north-west of Dunkirk on 9 April, the day before they returned to Ijmuiden. The American army tanker Y17 had been hit and set ablaze by a torpedo in that approximate position while part of convoy TAC90. The 484-ton ship was one of the small tankers operated by the US Army. They were of a standardised design, similar in size and appearance to the Navy Yard oiler, though designated as ‘Y’ boats. These vessels were built for the Transportation Corps in two classes, a twin-screw version and a single-screw version, Y17 belonging to the latter. Burning fiercely after the magnetic torpedo exploded beneath the hull, Y17 was lost in less than thirty minutes after being hit.
Seehund U-5363 attacked convoy TBC123 off Dungeness late on 9 April, the British Liberty ship ss Samida hit and sunk and the American Liberty ship ss Soloman Juneau damaged a little before midnight. Again, there is confusion over who actually hit the two ships, German B-Dienst listening service crediting the Type VIIC U-245 engaged on Dönitz’s inshore campaign with the attack, though her captain denies that he was responsible. The likelihood is that it was L.z.S. Harro Buttmann and Omasch. Artur Schmidt’s Seehund that inflicted the damage, though the German midget was subsequently lost to an attack by ML102 during the action and both crew killed. Schmidt’s corpse was recovered during August 1945 in fishing nets near Föhr Island, his remains interred in Wyk cemetery. At around the same time that U-5363 was sunk by the British motor launch, Beaufighter ‘W’ of 254 Squadron accounted for another of the Seehunds destroyed during that month.
Markworth and Spallek’s U-5070 obtained a hit on an estimated 4,500-ton ship from convoy UC63B near Dungeness on 11 April, successfully torpedoing British ss Port Wyndham though the 8,480-ton Port Line ship survived the attack. Hit twice off the outer Lade Buoy at Dungeness the ship was holed forward, later being towed stern-first into Southampton where she was given temporary repairs prior to permanent work being completed by her builder. U-5070 had little time to celebrate as an escorting destroyer, HMS Vesper, hammered them for several hours with depth charges before they managed to limp silently away.
L.z.S. Reimer Wilken and Omasch. Heinz Bauditz aboard U-5368 made the third Seehund claim though in hindsight their target appraisal remains optimistic. They recorded two hits, the first against a corvette on 14 April that they fired at from a range of 800m, the second a 5,000-ton ship hit two days later at 18.30hrs from 1,000m. There is no Allied record of the former but on 16 April the 1,150-ton British Post Office cable layer ss Monarch was torpedoed near Orford Ness, this likely to have been Wilken’s target. Nonetheless, it was a successful and aggressively handled patrol, U-5368’s two crew expending their boat’s last reserves of diesel by 18 April, the incapacitated Seehund drifting ashore five days later near Katwijk.
In Ijmuiden there were also two further successes transmitted to Brandi’s men by the B-Dienst. On 18 April two ships from convoy TAM142 were torpedoed half a mile from the South Falls buoy early that morning, the Norwegian freighter MS Karmt and British steamer ss Frilleigh subsequently sinking. However, the attribution to Seehund attack appears to be misplaced as U-245 logged the attack in its own War Diary, making Seehund involvement unlikely.
The returning crews also reported three unsuccessful attacks during their patrols. The most dramatic narrow escape was undoubtedly suffered by Oberfähnrich Korbinian Penzkofer and Obermaschinist Werner Schulz’s U-5305 after an attempted attack on a destroyer in the South Falls area on 10 April. The port torpedo was readied to fire at the British warship, but failed to disengage, dragging the terrified crew through the water toward their enemy. As the Seehund shot underneath the ship the magnetic warhead failed to detonate and after a severe counter-attack from the startled British crew that involved a great deal of machine gun fire at the crazed midget that was apparently attempting to ram a British ‘Hunt’ class destroyer, U-5305 was able to creep away from the scene and return to Holland. U-5071 also recorded near disaster when they were attacked while homebound and still carrying their torpedoes. A splinter penetrated the warhead of one torpedo, though it failed to explode.
Aircraft continued to be a prime predator of the Seehunds, at least 1,000 of them being involved in anti-Seehund patrols, alongside 500 naval vessels. Mosquito ‘H’ of 254 Squadron, Wellington ‘V’ of 524 Squadron and Beaufighter ‘M’ of 236 Squadron combined to destroy a returning Seehund off the Hook of Holland on 12 April. The following day Barracuda ‘L’ of 810 Naval Air Squadron attacked another in the same area.
Friday 13th: New patrols now being flown off the Dutch coast… S/Lt McCarthy made an attack on a midget some 14 miles off the Dutch coast. The attack was successful, two survivors coming to the surface! S/Lt Taylor made an attack on a disappearing contact, but no results were observed. S/Lt Bradbury made an attack on a midget during the last patrol. Nothing came to the surface. But it can be assumed to be a probable.
Unbeknownst to the men of 5. K-Division the bloodbath was over for them as of 28 April. The final four Seehunds to run supplies into Dunkirk, U-5365, U-5074, U-5090 and U-5107, were the last of their kind to be on active patrols. There they would see the end of the war, later destroyed by their own crews before Dunkirk eventually capitulated.
Chaos had overwhelmed the German military in Holland during April. As Dutch harbours and installations were prepared for both defence against ground assault and destruction in the face of possible German withdrawal, Georgian troops that were serving in the Wehrmacht on the island of Texel revolted on 8 April. It was two more weeks before German soldiers managed to subdue the rebellion, the same day that the locks at Ijmuiden were destroyed by demolition. Dutch resistance members reported German morale to the British as ‘low’, though not among ‘younger elements’ which may well have included the K-Verbände. Looting began to increase amidst the breakdown of military order, though Heye’s men remained disciplined and loyal to the very end.
While the Seehunds had helped carry the war back into British home waters, the Bibers and Linsens had continued their desperate onslaught in the Scheldt, sixty Molchs being held in reserve in Amersfoort. In the early afternoon of 9 April, five Bibers armed with a mine and torpedo each had sailed for the Scheldt estuary. Two were forced to return within two days with mechanical defects, one striking a mine and sinking en route, while the remaining three were lost without apparent success, Beaufighter pilots of 236 Squadron and Swordfish of 119 Squadron reported attacking and hitting Bibers within the area.
For the Biber pilots the emphasis moved completely to mine laying and on 11 April two Bibers sailed from Zierikzee to lay their mines before Sandkreek. One accomplished its mission successfully while the other was lost. Swordfish of 119 Squadron probably accounted for the missing Biber, their logbook entry echoing what had become regular reports for Allied airmen as they harvested a grim tally of Biber kills.
April 12: Swordfish ‘F’ … Scrambled to search for Bibers reported approximately 40 miles north of base. At 15.10hrs two were sighted in position 0051°54’N 0003°17’E, one stationary on surface, the other just surfacing about 50 yards away. The first Biber apparently attempted to submerge but the conning tower was still visible when ‘F’ attacked with four depth charges. The stick fell between the two, the first one being blown out of the water and left stationary on the surface. The second was not seen again.
At 06.30hrs on 21 April the penultimate Biber mission in Holland was launched with six leaving to lay mines in the silt of the Scheldt estuary. Only four of them returned.
On 26 April the final recorded Biber mission from Dutch territory took place when four left Poortershaven at 01.30hrs to lay mines again in the Scheldt estuary. One grounded while outbound and was forced to return with damage. American Thunderbolt fighters off the Hook of Holland attacked the remaining trio, two of them sunk in the battle. The sole survivor escaped the prowling aircraft and aborted his mission, returning to base. During April, the twenty-four remaining Bibers that were in the Rotterdam area had all taken part in missions. Of these, nineteen were lost with no sinkings or damage of enemy ships attributed to their missions. The defeat of the Bibers was complete.
The last active component of the K-Verbände in Holland – that of the Linsens – had also comprehensively failed in its missions during April. Weather conditions moderated enough by 11 April to allow a resumption of their operations. Five units put out from Hellevoetsluis to attack shipping off Ostend during that evening. One unit reached the target area and unsuccessfully attacked an Allied patrol vessel. Of the remainder, one unit returned with mechanical problems, two failed to find the target area and another unit was lost in action. The same mission plan was repeated on the night of 12 April by seven units in total. Two of the control boats were also tasked with landing agents ashore in enemy-held territory, but the mission was scrubbed due to an unexpectedly heavy swell.
Five nights later two formations of Linsens set out once more. Two units were to attack enemy shipping in the Scheldt estuary again, while the remainder were destined to head for Dunkirk and continue their operations from there against the Thames-Scheldt convoy route as Frisius had suggested. The former returned with engine trouble while the fate of the latter remains unknown and conjectural.
At 21.30hrs on 20 April the last recorded Linsen operation began with four units slipping from Hellevoetsluis to attack Allied convoy traffic due around buoy NF8 at 02.10hrs and from there to sail onwards to Dunkirk at 04.00hrs. Two units aborted with engine trouble while the others were hammered by Allied naval vessels and aircraft west of Schouwen a little before midnight and obliterated. Once more the MTB control frigate HMS Retalick and its four accompanying MTBs were heavily involved in fighting the K-Verbände. The British report on the action paints a harrowing picture of the demise of the Linsen unit.
An overcast night but owing to the moon behind the clouds, one of reasonable visibility.
Both MTB units (FH3 and FH4 of two MTBs each) were established in position … Aircraft reporting at 22.26 a persistent contact… At 00.16, a small radar echo bearing 355°, 1.8 miles stationary and thought to be a midget submarine. Range closed at high speed and snowflake [illumination flares – author’s note] used. Target (I) seen to be a small motorboat, which was engaged as it started to move. Immediate hits were seen, it burned fiercely and stopped.
In the glare of the burning boat a second (II) was seen … this was pursued but contact was lost at 00.21 … At 00.33 EMB (III) was sighted after radar contact, pursued, engaged and seen to burn at 00.38.
Seen through the smoke from III, IV was seen, pursued, being destroyed at 01.00. A survivor was recovered from the water. FH3 and FH4 were vectored to search for survivors and wreckage. Depth charges were dropped at 00.49.
HMS Retalick recorded the destruction of four Linsens and another probable before the battle ended. The British had suffered no casualties or damage and gathered together the few shocked survivors.
The prisoners recovered were the leader, Oberleutnant zur See [Karl] Feigl and his coxswain [Bootsmaat Robert] Klein, both of whom were dead, having had the major portion of their heads shot off. Both [Matrosenobergefreiter Walter] Kettemann and [Funkgefreiter Günther] Mellethin, who were alive (Kettemann with his arm broken by gunfire) were in separate boats. They kept on enquiring for Schultz another member of the unit, whom one had seen in the water … Feigl had a chart and his orders on him.
The prisoners stated that after the death of their leader … they were thrown into confusion. It would appear that they were not individually briefed. They were of an excellent physical type and ardent members of the Hitler Youth.
With this characterisation in mind there remains one truly bizarre postscript to the K-Verbände operations in Holland. German naval documents reveal that on the night of 27 April at least thirty volunteers from unspecified K-Verbände units were to be heavily armed and flown to Berlin where they would act as a personal bodyguard for their Führer Adolf Hitler. They apparently got as far as assembling at the aerodrome at Rerick and preparing to board three Ju52 transport aircraft before their mission was abandoned – the sole reason for this cancellation appearing to be the expected inability to land men in the besieged German capital.
On 6 May 1945 the Royal Canadian Hastings and Prince Edward Regiments of the 1st Canadian Division took the surrender of German forces in Ijmuiden. Among the battered remnants of many Wehrmacht formations, the K-Verbände men marched into captivity with their commander K.z.S. Albrecht Brandi.
There we, 3,000 comrades of Brandi’s K-Verbände, were taken into custody. Since he, ‘Diamonds-Brandi’, had a huge reputation with our enemies, even more so than with the German public, the Canadian General and his men passed on this reputation to us … After we had cleaned our weapons and had them inspected one last time, we transferred them all complete with ammunition to a detail of trucks. Then in good disciplined order we marched as ‘Marine Division Brandi’ into a camp of tents, equipped with a special food supply. The next Allied order was that no military honour with the Swastika on it could be worn, so we deployed close to the town square. Then Brandi spoke to the assembled troops. ‘Our decorations are bestowed by our highest commanders, and if we are not able to wear them in the form given to us, then we will lay them down!’ Then he took off his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, along with 3,000 comrades that did likewise. We marched silently back into the camp.
Three days later, on July 24th, Admiral Edward Boscawen, commander of all British vessels in North America, informed Amherst of his bold plan to capture the remaining two ships – the Prudent (74 guns) and the Bienfaisant (64 guns). Late in the night of July 25th-26th, two squadrons under the command of Captains John Laforey and George Balfour, totaling approximately 600 sailors and marines, rowed into the harbor. Concealed by the dark and fog, and with Amherst ordering his artillery to “fire into the works as much as possible, to keep the enemy’s attention to the land,” the two squadrons slipped past the French battery guarding the entrance to the harbor and approached the two French vessels undetected.
As Laforey’s command approached the Prudent and Captain Balfour the Bienfaisant, each was hailed by sentries aboard the ships. Receiving no response, the guards opened fire, breaking the silence. The squadrons then moved quickly to maneuver alongside their respective targets, capturing both ships with minimal resistance, but at a cost of sixteen casualties (7 killed, 9 wounded).
Hearing the events that transpired, the French defenders were alerted to the threat and opened fire upon the two ships. Under fire, and finding the Prudent run aground, the British sailors set her ablaze. The Bienfaisant, meanwhile, was towed to the Northeast corner of the harbor, safe from French artillery fire. The image above, printed in 1771, depicts the Prudent caught in a blaze, while nearby the Bienfaisant is towed to safety.
The following day, with Amherst’s ground forces making ready to breach the city walls and Boscawen’s fleet entering the harbor, the French governor sent a messenger to Amherst initiating the surrender of the city.
England and the Netherlands, were establishing their own colonies in North America, attracted in part by the lucrative trade in furs. England’s alliance with merchants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1670, and, to an even greater extent, the mother country’s support of its colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to the south, led to frequent skirmishes and raids, often with the aid of native allies, between the English, Dutch, and French colonists. The role that sea power could play in such battles was demonstrated in 1628 when English privateers under Captain David Kirke captured a French supply convoy bound for Quebec, forcing Champlain’s garrison to endure a winter of severe privation. Returning the next year with an even stronger fleet, Kirke easily captured Quebec, taking Champlain and most of the French garrison to England and holding the outpost until it was restored to France in 1632. In a similar demonstration, a force of New Englanders under Major Robert Sedgwick sailed from Boston in 1654 and captured the French settlement of Port Royal, keeping Acadia under English rule until it was returned to France in 1667.
Colonial rivalry was renewed when England and Holland clashed with France in the War of the League of Augsburg beginning in 1688. As in future Anglo-French wars, the degree of confrontation in the American colonies was influenced by the strategy England adopted to exploit its seapower advantage over its land-based European rival. Although the superior numbers and seamanship of the Royal Navy allowed England to adopt a “Blue Water” strategy centred on fleet actions, naval blockade and colonial conquest-all designed to exert commercial pressure on France by interrupting its overseas trade-it also left the French free to concentrate their larger armies against their European opponents. To prevent France from completely dominating Europe-a situation that would have allowed Versailles to divert its considerable resources into a naval building program to overwhelm the Royal Navy-London had to complement its naval effort by sending English armies and money to the continent to aid their allies. As British Cabinet minister Lord Newcastle succinctly described it, England’s strategy was to protect “our alliances on the continent, and so, by diverting the expense of France, enable us to maintain our superiority at sea.” London’s thinking proved apt during the War of the League of Augsburg when the English and Dutch armies drained away French strength through a long, drawn-out stalemate on land that allowed the two sea powers time to overcome their enemy’s initial naval success. After the decisive Anglo-Dutch victory in the English Channel off Barfleur in 1692, France lacked the maritime strength to rebuild a navy comparable to the one with which it began the conflict and for the remainder of the war was forced to concentrate its ocean efforts on prosecuting a commerce raiding campaign instead.
The Pelican, French ship of line (1693-1697). Three centuries later, an authentic replica of the Pelican was built in La Malbaie, Quebec. Construction began in 1987, but the project encountered many problems. In 1991, the architect François Cordeau was removed from the project management. The concept was then changed quite a bit. The wooden hull gave way to steel, up to the waterline. AML Naval Shipyard remade the ship’s bottom. All sorts of other important changes reinforced the vessel. The ship was completed in 1992.
With the fighting between the Anglo-Dutch and French focused in Europe, the conflict in North America was restricted to small expeditions and raids. French expansion down the Mississippi valley as far south as Louisiana had been buttressed by a series of forts and trading posts that effectively hemmed in the English American colonies along the eastern seaboard. Prior to the war, France had moved to solidify its American position by encouraging immigration to increase the colony’s population, by establishing a naval school at Quebec to train river pilots and chart-makers, and by sending a few Canadiens to develop their military and naval skills with more formal training in the French navy. Most notable among these was Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who led four successful naval expeditions into Hudson Bay to capture the English forts along its shores during the war. During the winter of 1696-97, moreover, d’Iberville led 125 soldiers and Canadiens along the coast of Newfoundland, pillaging and burning the undefended English fishing settlements before eventually capturing St John’s. Taking command of the forty-four gun Pelican later that spring, d’Iberville sailed to capture Fort Nelson on Hudson Bay with four consorts. After his small squadron was trapped by ice flows, however, only Pelican managed to extricate herself to press on toward the English fort where it engaged the ships Hampshire of fifty-two guns, Dering of thirty-six, and Hudson’s Bay of thirty-two on 5 September 1697. In a four hour engagement, Pelican sank Hampshire and forced Hudson’s Bay to strike her colours, while Dering was the lone English ship to escape. The heavily damaged Pelican, meanwhile, was driven ashore by storms and wrecked near Fort Nelson. The timely arrival of the remainder of the French squadron, which had since freed itself from the ice, then allowed d’Iberville to capture the fort. English colonists also enjoyed some success during the war, most notably when another New England force, this time under Sir William Phips, again captured Port Royal in 1690 before sailing up the St Lawrence in an unsuccessful attempt to take Quebec. With the fighting in Europe stalemated both on land and at sea, the War of the League of Augsburg was ended in September 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick restoring both sides’ conquests, including the return, for a second time, of Acadia to French control.
During the Anglo-French wars of the first half of the eighteenth century, the use of seapower in support of colonial operations continued to be secondary to the fighting in Europe. With the success of her armies on land during the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1713, Britain (as England and Scotland became after the Act of Union in 1707) was finally able to exhaust French resources on land as well as at sea. Under the superb generalship of the Duke of Marlborough, the British-led coalition won a series of impressive victories on the continent, demonstrating that its troops and leaders were equal to the best in Europe and that London was willing to deploy them in strength to prevent French hegemony. Lacking any semblance of a real battle fleet, France once again resorted to an effective guerre de course, causing the Royal Navy to provide warships as escorts to convoyed British merchantmen. In North America the most notable achievement was the capture of Port Royal in 1710 by a force consisting largely of colonial troops. With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, a bankrupted France was forced to cede mainland Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and its posts on Hudson Bay, concessions that increased the vulnerability of its remaining possessions in North America. French leaders subsequently encouraged the shipbuilding industry at Quebec and built several forts, most notably at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, hoping to protect both the fishery and the main entrance to the colony through the Gulf of St Lawrence.
When war broke out between France and Britain in 1744-the War of the Austrian Succession-the fighting quickly spread to the colonies that had gained in importance to both economies in recent decades. For the first time, both sides despatched large naval fleets to North American waters to protect their interests. In the wake of attacks on New England vessels by French privateers from Louisbourg, American colonists mounted an expedition that captured the Cape Breton port in 1745 after a six-week siege, the New England effort being aided by British warships from Commodore Peter Warren’s Atlantic squadron brought up from the Caribbean. A powerful French naval force under the Duc d’Anville set sail the following year to recapture the fortress but was devastated by Atlantic storms during the crossing. Only a handful of French warships managed to reach safety in Chebucto Bay before returning home. In May 1747, a British squadron intercepted and defeated an escorted French convoy attempting to bring reinforcements and supplies to Quebec.
In the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748, however, Louisbourg was returned to France in exchange for relinquishing wartime gains made by French armies in Holland and India. The treaty-which turned out to be more of a temporary truce than a peace- reflected both French land and British sea power. Although the New England colonists were outraged that “the key to the Atlantic” had been returned to France so territory could be regained for Britain’s Dutch allies, London was well aware that a continental commitment remained necessary to distract the French from concentrating their considerable resources on building a stronger navy, one that could ultimately threaten Britain’s overseas colonies and trade. To further solidify its maritime position in North America, the Royal Navy established a naval and military base at Halifax in 1749, providing British warships with a large, accessible and well-protected harbour in the western North Atlantic.
With the perceived economic and strategic importance of overseas colonies continuing to grow among the European powers, the elimination of French colonial trade became the focus of British strategy when the Anglo-French rivalry resumed open conflict in 1756. Indeed, the importance that Britain and France placed on their colonial campaigns during the Seven Years’ War was in contrast to the secondary character of colonial operations in the earlier struggles and made the 1756-63 conflict, as some have termed it, the first true world war. By the early 1750s, both empires were seeking control of the Ohio River valley, where large areas lightly populated by the French were coveted by British colonists moving west through the Appalachians. With frontier skirmishes becoming more frequent, both Versailles and London despatched military reinforcements to North America. Although not yet formally at war, a French squadron narrowly escaped capture-losing only two transports-in the Strait of Belle Isle in June 1755 when it was surprised by a British fleet under Admiral Edward Boscawen. Anglo-French clashes in North America and the Mediterranean also coincided with growing European fears over the increased military strength of Frederick the Great’s Prussia. Formal declarations of war in May 1756 pitted Britain and Prussia against France and her allies, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony.
During the war’s opening stages, a rebuilt French navy was able to elude the British naval blockade in Europe and escort reinforcements to both Canada and the West Indies, an increase in military strength that helped to repulse the initial attacks by British and colonial troops. By 1758, however, the Royal Navy’s grip around coastal Europe had become more effective, making it difficult for the French to send further aid across the Atlantic. With French forces in North America largely cut off from Europe, the British government planned to take both Louisbourg and Quebec that summer, while making another thrust up the Lake Champlain valley. While the inland campaign was defeated by General Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm at Fort Carillon, 12,000 troops under Major-General Jeffrey Amherst, supported by a fleet of twenty ships of the line, eighteen frigates, and 100 transports under Boscawen lay siege to Louisbourg in June. The French defenders, outnumbered three to one, put up a stiff resistance before surrendering on 27 July, delaying the British long enough to postpone the Quebec campaign until the following spring.
In June 1759 Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders led a British armada of forty-nine warships-of which the largest was Saunders’s flagship, the ninety-gun HMS Neptune-and some 120 transports up the St Lawrence to land a force of 8,500 British troops under the command of Major-General James Wolfe on the Isle of Orleans below Quebec. “The picture one gets is that of a steady stream of the elements of naval power moving up the river as the wind serves, until in due time Saunders has so much strength in the Quebec area that the French are no longer able to challenge him.” In fact, Saunders fleet was larger than the one Sir Edward Hawke had under his command when he decisively defeated the French navy at Quiberon Bay, off the mouth of the Loire River on the Biscay coast, later that year. Despite the powerful British armada controlling the river, however, Wolfe spent the entire summer trying to devise a means to attack the virtually impregnable fortress and its 14,000 defenders under Montcalm. Unable to breach the French defences on the Beauport shore below the town, Wolfe’s brigade commanders recommended using the fleet to land the army above the fortress. As a prominent historian of the campaign has explained, “the brigadiers were in constant consultation with Saunders when making their plan, and the calculations in it concerning movements by water, embarkation and disembarkation are doubtless his. Naval officers are notoriously backward about giving advice on matters affecting land warfare; but this plan was as much a naval as an army one, and one cannot help wondering whether the silent, competent vice-admiral’s association with it may not have been the factor that decided Wolfe to accept it.”
Passing above the town on the night of 12/13 September, Saunders landed Wolfe’s men at the Anse au Foulon where they climbed the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham and cut French communications with Montreal and the French ships further up river. When Montcalm left the protection of his fortress walls to offer battle on the 13th, Wolfe’s gamble paid off. In a short, sharp fight, the British won the day and the defeated French army retreated into the city. After the bulk of the French forces abandoned the fortress to slip around the British army and move up river toward Montreal later that night, Quebec capitulated five days later. As decisive as the battle on the open plain was, the course of the campaign has led another historian to suggest that “Wolfe’s little army was really no more than a most efficient landing party from an overwhelming fleet.” The importance of naval power in the struggle for New France was demonstrated again in April 1760 when the 4,000-man British garrison that had wintered at Quebec was besieged by a 7,000-man French force, virtually the entire military strength left in the colony, that had been transported down river before the ice was out of the St Lawrence. Repeating Montcalm’s mistake, the British moved out of the fortress only to be defeated in a battle that involved heavier casualties than the more famous (or infamous) September clash-the British losing 1,100 to the French 800 in the April contest versus some 600 to 700 on each side the year before. Although the besieging French were hopeful of recapturing Quebec, it was the arrival of a British squadron in the St Lawrence in mid-May-Saunders having left a strong detachment at Halifax with instructions to re-enter the river as early as possible in the spring-that forced the French to retreat on Montreal after their own supporting frigates were attacked and destroyed. Despite the French navy’s crushing defeat at Quiberon Bay the previous November, a small squadron was sent from France with supplies and a few reinforcements but it was unable to pass the British ships blockading the river and was forced to take refuge in the Restigouche River where it was caught and destroyed in July 1760.
With the tactical brilliance of Frederick the Great’s Prussian armies (subsidized by the British treasury) confounding France’s European allies and the Royal Navy effectively isolating France’s overseas colonies, Britain completed the conquest of Canada in 1760. By war’s end, British forces had also taken Guadaloupe, Dominica, and Martinique in the West Indies, eliminated French influence in India and even captured Manila in the Phillipines and Havana in Cuba (Spain having joined France in the war). The Royal Navy was also able to provide the 8,000 ships of Britain’s merchant fleet with more effective protection against French privateers than in earlier conflicts, allowing a virtually untouched Britain to expand its trade and finance its dual naval/continental strategy. With the conclusion of peace in early 1763, Britain’s naval mastery allowed it to emerge from the Seven Years’ War as the only nation to have made major territorial gains, having been awarded all of France’s North American empire except Louisiana and the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland. Britain also received Florida in exchange for returning Havana to Spanish control.
On 17 June 1870, after forty miles and over twelve hours of exhausting oaring on the Teacapan River of western Mexico, the sixty-man expedition from the USS Mohican finally sighted their prize as the sun began to set: the pirate ship Forward. Led by Lieutenant Willard Brownson, USN, the sailors stealthily crept up on the vessel that had only the month prior ravaged the city of Guaymas, Mexico. Silently climbing on board, Brownson and some of the expedition’s party found the ship largely abandoned before a round of shot roared at them like a clap of thunder from the coast, apparently from pirates who laid in wait on shore for the seamen. The sailors quickly threw themselves against the ship’s bulwarks for safety. While still taking fire from the ambushing marauders, Brownson ordered his men to inspect the ship to see if she were moveable. Receiving intelligence that the Forward was in fact too hard aground to capture, he thus made the decision to scuttle her by emphatically declaring, “very good, I shall burn her.” Still under fire, Brownson ordered his men to collect the ship’s turpentine store and to ignite the Forward. While flame began to consume the piratical vessel, the lieutenant and his party bravely returned to their transports, eventually escaping to the safety of the Mohican at river’s mouth on the Pacific Ocean.
A more comprehensive examination of Forward’s destruction is necessary for three reasons. First, Commander William Low of the USS Mohican took it upon himself, without orders from Washington, to destroy the buccaneer ship, revealing a sense of American authority in the hemisphere that was rare, though not unheard of in the nineteenth-century U. S. Navy. Second, unlike previous U. S. naval interventions against pirates, such as those of 1819 in the waters of Venezuela and Texas, and in the early 1820s off Cuba and Puerto Rico, the attack on the Forward occurred well within foreign territory. Starting in the early morning hours of 17 June 1870, Brownson’s party pushed forty miles up the Teacapan River to accomplish its task of destroying the piratical craft. Third, in so doing, the officers and crew of the USS Mohican acted as the de facto naval authority of Mexico instead of acting solely for the interests of the United States. This diplomatic context has been most conspicuously absent from previous studies of the incident, which generally infer that Low had some high-level Mexican authority when, in fact, he did not. The Forward’s sensational demise represents an important event in American diplomatic and naval development. Naval officers, acting without orders from Washington, engaged a pirate ship in a friendly nation’s inland waters, enhancing the U. S. Navy’s prestige and amity between liberals in the two North American republics.
The Forward incident traced its beginnings to the 1864-67 civil war in Mexico. During this conflict, Benito Juarez and his liberal allies, with at least nominal support of most Western governments, had fought a guerrilla war against the French-supported Emperor Maximilian, using as their base the city of El Paseo del Norte (presently Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua). By 1867, increasing Prussian power in Europe caused French Emperor Napoleon III to recall his troops supporting Maximilian’s regime and the puppet government quickly crumbled. Ultimately, Maximilian and his two most prominent conservative Mexican allies, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia, met their deaths outside Querétaro, ending the civil war and restoring Juarez to power on 19 June 1867.
During the conflict, Washington materially and politically supported the liberal Juarez regime despite the obvious handicap of fighting its own civil war against the Southern Confederacy. Materially, the United States provided weaponry and medicine to the Juarista cause. With adept political and financial supervision from the Mexican minister to the United States, Matias Romero, various U. S. and Mexican citizens were able to purchase and to ship rifles, ammunition, gunpowder, and surgical supplies to the Juaristas. Politically, given the exigencies of a concurrent civil war in the United States, the Abraham Lincoln administration could offer no more than non-recognition of Maximilian’s regime in Mexico City to aid Juarez until 1865. The effective destruction of the Confederacy in April of that year enabled U. S. diplomatic support to assume more than a token character. For example, in July 1866, President Andrew Johnson sent General William Tecumseh Sherman to Veracruz to support Juarez but the war hero could not find the Mexican president. At the same time, Johnson ordered prominent cavalry commander Phillip Sheridan to lead a large army to Texas ostensibly to maintain order and to reconstruct the wayward state. While there, Sheridan covertly aided the Juarista armies on the south side of the border by supplying them “with arms and ammunition, which [Sheridan’s army] left at convenient places on [the U. S.] side of the border to fall into [Juarista] hands,” and, furthermore, disseminated rumors that his force “was to cross the Rio Grande in behalf of the Liberal cause.” Therefore, by the time of Maximilian’s death in 1867, the liberals under Juarez had a very positive relationship with Washington and for the next nine years, U. S.-Mexican friendship arguably peaked.
Nonetheless, the return of Juarez to Mexico City in 1867 did not bring peace and prosperity to Mexico. The inability of the central government to repair quickly the countryside from the ravages of the recent guerrilla conflict, and attempts by Juarez to centralize the government, against the tenets of Mexican liberalism, caused many anti-Juarez uprisings by disenchanted liberals. One historian estimates that thirteen such local rebellions occurred between 1867 and 1870.
Certainly, such localism pervaded Mexican history in the nineteenth century and was not unique to the 1860s and early 1870s. Since at least independence in 1821, political instability bred localism, resulting in small patrias chicas (small homelands) throughout the country. The rugged men who ran these territories, caudillos, enhanced their wealth and power through forceful protection of their landed interests with armies loyal to them and occasionally on sea using hired marine mercenaries. These efforts aimed at resisting the centralization of the caudillo’s lands by the national government and thus protecting his power.
One such example of political localism after Juarez’s return, the one which would catalyze the intervention of the USS Mohican, occurred in the Pacific-coast state of Sinaloa and was led by Placido Vega, a former Juarista. Immediately before the French intervention, Vega had governed the state, but during the war against Maximilian he fled the country and worked on behalf of the Juarez government in San Francisco, California, successfully purchasing more than $600,000 in arms for the Juarista cause before returning home in 1867 after the uprising against the Hapsburg emperor succeeded. Shortly afterwards, Vega’s discontent with Mexico City ostensibly over issues of political centralization became evident. In a proclamation on 8 February 1870 at Encarnacion, Sinaloa, Vega stated his opposition to the “usurping President Juarez.” Vega acceded in principle to the Plan of Zacatecas, a different statement of rebellion against the central regime from the adjacent state of Zacatecas. He asked “the legislature and executive or the state to sustain him,” militarily and warned that if they refused, he would “assume the civil authority with extraordinary powers” and raise an army himself. When the Juarista administration in Sinaloa obviously refused to sanction Vega’s actions, he built a private army around the mouth of the Teacapan River, which at the time was the border between the states of Sinaloa and Jalisco. Vega also received the protection of the caudillo Manuel Lozada, a powerful local leader with whom the Juarez government had agreed to a truce. For nominal recognition of Juarez’s presidency, Lozada had received a pledge from Mexico City that government troops would not invade Lozada’s territory. This arrangement permitted Lozada to create a virtual fiefdom in Jalisco and provided Vega with a secure base of operations.
To supply his rebel army, Vega began a systematic campaign of coastal piracy and interior raids, according to U. S. diplomats in Mexico who kept themselves apprised of the chaotic state of affairs that Vega’s forays caused in Sinaloa. For example, the American consul at Mazatlan, Isaac Sisson, remarked on 4 March 1870 – less than a month after Vegas’s rebellious announcement – that he found the state of Sinaloa in a “deplorable condition.” The Juarista governor had fled to the mountains to raise his own army, leading Sisson to lament that “Sinaloa was never in as bad a condition.” To compound the problems, the consul reported, “Vega is coming up from Jalisco, the state south of this, to proclaim himself Governor of this State.”
On 29 March, the U. S. minister in Mexico City, Thomas Nelson, informed Washington that Vega’s expedition to Tepic, a canton in western Jalisco, “completely failed” and that Tepic “would soon be secure against invaders.” By early April, the tables had turned: “the vanguard of [Juarista] Col. Parra’s command was defeated by a rebel force under Placido Vega . . . at a point in Sinaloa about a hundred miles from Mazatlan, and at the latest advices Vega was advancing toward” the important coastal port. The tide again changed and in early May Nelson reported that the entire rebellion “has resulted in complete failure and that [Vega’s] troops have been dispersed”; this coupled with incorrect news “that the intrepid bandit died recently at Tepic,” greatly encouraged Nelson.
Meanwhile, Alexander Willard, U. S. Consul in Guaymas, Sonora, warned that Vega was planning a new offensive. “[T]here is . . . a faction in this state that await only the success of the revolutionary movement of General Vega in the states of Sinaloa and Jalisco to develop into a political party,” Willard reported on 31 March 1870. That faction would thereafter “declare themselves in his favor under the pretext of saving this country `from the iniquitous compact’ which President Juarez (so they report) is about to make with the United States, to despoil and rob Mexico of her territory.” Willard reported that Vega “must first demonstrate that he has the means at his command and the ability as a soldier . . . before the state of Sonora will render to his movement any tangible assistance.” Given that Vega’s inland campaigns had failed – as Nelson reported – it was not surprising that the rebel began to focus on coastal raids to curry support in the state of Sonora. What Vega did not realize was that his actions would ultimately lead to the involvement of the United States Navy.
By the middle of May 1870, American officials suspected that Vega planned to move beyond the area of Tepic, where the Mexican army kept his forces in check and his supplies limited, and embark upon a maritime expedition. In Mexico City, Nelson received information from Tepic that the citizens of that town planned “to extricate themselves from the difficulties occasioned by Placido Vega” and that Vega aimed to “attack the State of Sinaloa at another point, perhaps in the neighborhood of El Fuerte,” a city a few miles inland in northern Sinaloa, near the Sonoran border. Given the overland distance to El Fuerte, Nelson’s anonymous purveyor of intelligence astutely expected a maritime expedition, noting that Vega had “a steamer and a sailing vessel at his disposal, but his force is small, and it seems his only hope is that his friends [at El Fuerte] may render him some assistance.”
The steamer Forward originally sailed under the British flag, until San Francisco merchant James Maule purchased the ship and registered it in San Salvador. He chartered it on 4 January 1870 to San Francisco merchant Charles Jansen and a few days later Forward left San Francisco for Mazatlan under the command of Captain James Jones on “a legitimate voyage” according to Jansen’s later testimony. The charter agreement was for “the term of twelve months [for] fishing, trading, [and] freighting . . . to and from ports or places on the coast of the Republic of Mexico, and . . . ports and places on the Pacific coast of the United States of America.” On 24 March, the ship docked at Mazatlan, where the Juarista authorities, suspecting collusion with the Vega rebellion, detained it and its captain for three weeks, making sure to take “some of her machinery and a portion of her sails” ashore “to prevent her escape.” The Juaristas found nothing to implicate the ship or its crew and allowed it to sail south to San Blas, where Jones received a permit to fish for oysters at the mouth of the nearby Teacapan River.
There, in the center of Vega’s power, the Forward became a pirate vessel after Juarista authorities arrested Captain Jones. Apparently, Captain Jones had anchored the ship at the mouth of the river for three days in late April when a local Juarista military officer Jesus Vega, of no relation to Placido Vega, ordered the Forward into port. Jesus Vega arrested the American captain, arguing that Jones took “cannon on board at San Blas and landed them at Boca Teacapan for Placido Vega.” Jones posted a three-thousand dollar bond and remained free in Mazatlan while awaiting trial. Meanwhile the steamer suddenly left port for an unknown destination and became a pirate ship.
Since the ship engaged in piracy after its sudden captain-less departure, Jones’s arrest helps clarify who among the various parties involved, Jesus Vega, the captain, and the crew, may have colluded with the rebels, facts of vital importance after the burning of the Forward. Because Jesus Vega turned Jones over to authorities in Mazatlan, a Juarista stronghold, one can assume that he was a firm Juarista acting on what he believed to be correct intelligence as to the ship’s mission. The validity of the intelligence, of course, remains in doubt.
Captain Jones’s role is less clear. While Jones protested his March 1870 detention in Mazatlan “one, twice, thrice, and as many times as may be necessary,” this does not prove or disprove his complicity in the plot. Quite possibly, the second arrest by Jesus Vega in April thwarted Jones in joining with the rebels. Alternatively, Jones may not have intended to participate in the plot and in that case Placido Vega’s men may have circulated false intelligence in order to have him removed from the Forward. Finally, Jones may have been oblivious to any plot and his arrest may have been a simple stroke of luck for the rebels. In any event, though the Mazatlan authorities viewed Jones “as a friend of Vega,” they did not have the “proofs sufficient to make it clear” and the Mexican officials officially acquitted him of any wrong-doing and released him by November 1870. Historians, working with a different set of evidence, need not heed judicial determinations or assumed culpability.
Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that at least part of the original American crew engaged in the later piracy. First, the consul at Mazatlan wrote that the Forward had an “oar crew of Americans, Germans, and Mexicans.” Second, when Lieutenant Brownson boarded the ship after its capture he noted that, among those taken prisoner, he “saw six men standing there, evidently not Mexicans” some of whom spoke colloquial English. Third, Consul Willard in Guaymas later noted that of these six captured, “two . . . claimed to be native-born citizens of the U. S. and three . . . claimed to have been naturalized.” Fourth, the ship originally sailed from San Francisco, Vega’s base during the fight against Maximilian. This body of evidence does not preclude that new Americans joined the expedition at some point, replacing the original San Francisco crew. Evidence that at least one member of the original crew was in the piratical party arose only after the capture of part of the Forward’s crew with evidence from Jansen that he employed one of the six prisoners taken in the raid, George Holder. That fact would play a very important role in determining who later assumed blame for the May 1870 raid on Guaymas.
What is beyond dispute is that when the Forward next appeared, at Guaymas on 28 May 1870, she was under the command of the rebel Vega’s forces. It was the vessel’s actions at Guaymas that prompted the United States Navy to act as an agent of a foreign power.
Placido Vega clearly ordered the raid on Guaymas in late May 1870, about a month after the Forward’s first detention in Mazatlan. In written instructions dated 18 May 1870 from the mouth of the Teacapan River, which Vega later sent to Mexican newspapers and Nelson forwarded to Washington, the rebel leader gave his subordinate Fortino Vizcayno a very specific plan of attack against the coastal town. Calling himself the “Commander in Chief” of the “Division of Sinaloa,” Vega ordered Vizcayno to accomplish four specific tasks and to complete them with “the well known good conduct of the force under your command.” First, after coming ashore, Vizcayno should obtain “two hundred and eight cases, containing five thousand Prussian rifles” sent to him from San Francisco aboard the American schooner Montana but which the “arbitrary” Juarez government forbid Vega to collect from the customs house. Second, Vizcayno should “impose without fail a forced loan of four hundred thousand dollars” from the local merchant houses and to obtain “corresponding receipts . . . signed by the Paymaster Citizen Ignacio Carreau.” Third, Vega ordered Vizcayno to conscript “the greatest number of men possible.” Finally, “if the circumstances of [the] expedition permit it,” Vizcayno should attempt to “land at the port of La Paz (Baja California) . . . [and] impose a loan of thirty thousand dollars.”
Vizcayno did not delay and left the mouth of the San Pedro River aboard the Forward soon after these instructions. He “touched at the islands of Maria,” off the coast of Jalisco, where his men “carried off the workmen who were employed by Don C. Villaseñor” in the salt mines. He continued north thereafter.
Once arriving at Guaymas, Vizcayno followed dutifully Vega’s instructions and carried out other acts of piracy. On the evening of 27 May 1870, fishermen reported the Forward six miles offshore from the Sonoran port. At 3 am on 28 May, an expeditionary party led by Vizcayno “entered the city taking it by surprise, without opposition, taking on board the collector of customs and his officers and the Jefe de Hacienda Lic[enciado] Alfonso Mejia, and almost all of the local authorities,” according to the U. S. consul. Immediately, Vizcayno’s party forced loans from the local merchants, collected only approximately $42,000 from the house of Ortiz Hermanos, obtained receipts for this money from the kidnapped customs collector, and “seized two Mexican vessels laying in port.” Afterwards, the party requisitioned the five thousand muskets, which U. S. Consul Willard reported were “brought [to Guaymas] originally for the Mexican government, but not accepted.” Later in the day, the Forward itself came into port and Vizcayno requisitioned “some fifty odd tons of coal, the property of the California line of steamers,” telling Willard that “urgent necessity compelled the seizure, but [Vizcayno] would pay $40.00 per ton, double the market value,” for the fuel. The following morning, 29 May, Vizcayno paid for the coal. Upon seeing government troops entering the city at 3 pm, Vizcayno’s crew prepared for its departure, “evidently wishing to avoid an attack . . . as all of the money due the Customs House from the merchants had been collected.” They embarked at 8 pm with the two seized vessels and government forces retook the city two hours later.
The Path of the Forward under the command of Fortino Vizcayno, starting at Boca Teacapan (May 1870).
The USS Mohican’s Pursuit of the Forward, starting at Guaymas (June 1870).
The human cost of the raid was relatively minor. According to the Mexican military commander that chased the Forward from Guaymas, one Mexican soldier had suffered injuries because of the raid and “we have to lament one death on our part in the said engagement.” Another anonymous source reported “several deaths” without elaborating. Moreover, the pirates kidnapped a number of people during the raid, though two prisoners escaped as the Forward prepared to disembark and the pirate crew released the remainder but for Alfonso Mejia, Guaymas customs collector and son of Juarez’s secretary of war and marine. This abduction occurred despite the “urgent solicitation” of Willard, who received assurances from Vizcayno that “no fears need to be entertained for [Mejia’s] life.”
he property losses at Guaymas were more extensive. A comprehensive list of losses compiled on 13 June 1870 by the American consul at Mazatlan found that “English, American, and Germans are the victims” of the robbery. Ortiz Hermanos calculated a total of $42,308 in goods stolen from their warehouse, $12,985 belonging to the English firm Rogers, Meyer, and Company based in San Francisco, $435 belonging to the English firm J. Kelly and Company of Mazatlan, $27,930 belonging to the German houses of Melchors Successor of Mazatlan and T. Heymann of Mazatlan, and finally, $958 in goods from three Mexican firms.
The Forward left Guaymas with Mejia aboard and headed south, never completing the optional mission of raiding La Paz in Baja California. In fact, Willard reported the rumor that the Forward was going south to San Blas to join with Vega’s forces to take Mazatlan, and somewhat prophetically noted that, “General Vega and his Western Republic are still in the balance and probably the next three months will decide its fate.”
Despite the threat that the U. S. consul believed the Forward posed to the Mexican republic, the Juarez regime’s lack of capable naval forces seriously hindered its efforts to punish Vega. The Mexican general-in-chief in charge of the region, Bibiano Davalos, thus articulated a solution in a letter to Consul Sisson at Mazatlan. “[I]t is the absolute duty of the naval forces to protect [the population],” wrote Davalos, “but unfortunately, my government does not possess any.” In view of the fact that “the United States man-of-war Mohican is at the present in these waters,” he asked Sisson to “exert [his] influence with the commander of that ship, so that he may contribute to the apprehension of those criminals, who are doubtless near this coast, as they have two sailing vessels in tow.” Later that month the government newspaper the Diario Oficial used this communication to claim that Sisson “ordered the steam man-of-war Mohigan [sic] to set sail in pursuit of the pirates,” on the advice of Davalos. Of course, such an order could not and did not come from Sisson. No order, in fact, ever came to the Mohican from any American official.
The same day that Davalos sent this request to Sisson in Mazatlan, Commander William Low’s USS Mohican entered Guaymas for supplies and there Low first heard with disgust the results of the Vega raid on the city. He reported his intentions – emphatically – to the Navy Department. Arguing that the Forward “was acting as a vessel of war, without the proper commission [from San Salvador] to act,” and that “she was fitted out on the pretence of being engaged in acts of civil war, but in reality for the purpose of robbery,” Low “deemed it [his] imperative duty to regard her as a piratical craft, and, in the assurance of the security of navigation, equally [his] duty to pursue, and, if possible, to capture or destroy her.” Months later, Commodore William Taylor, commanding the North Squadron of the Pacific Fleet, added that Low also suspected the pirates would continue south to attack “one of the Panama steamers, and perhaps the Continental, which runs between Guaymas, Mazatlan, and San Francisco,” though neither Low nor any other American naval officer offered corroborating written evidence for this suspicion.
Low immediately left Guaymas and steamed after the Forward, but rather circuitously as it turned out. The Mohican first touched at Altata to the south two days later on faulty intelligence that the pirate ship went there. The American warship then departed for La Paz, Baja California. Not finding the Forward at that port, Low took on coal and, on 11 June, left for Ceralbo Island in the Gulf of California. Low next anchored at Mazatlan on 14 June, where he met with Consul Sisson and Mexican authorities, receiving their requests to act. Using language that indicated a higher purpose than simply aiding Mexican authorities, Low stated that while at this city he “received additional information confirmatory of my opinion that the Forward was a piratical craft under the law of nations, and that I should be derelict in my duty not to make every effort to take her.”
Why did Low so determinedly characterize the Forward as a pirate ship? While the definition of piracy then as now is fluid – one man’s pirate is another man’s high-seas freedom fighter, after all – doubtlessly Low’s recent experience during the Civil War (1861-1865) influenced his reaction to the Forward’s raid on Guaymas. Low was well aware of one of the Navy’s principal duties during that conflict: the pursuit and destruction of Confederate commerce raiders such as the CSS Alabama. In fact, Low had personal experience with this mission; between 1862 and 1863, he commanded the USS Constellation of the Mediterranean Squadron and pursued these raiders. Thus, in 1870 Low would have found parallels between the Alabama and the Forward, both being ships of an unrecognized rebellion engaging in raiding, though the Forward perpetrated her piracy on land rather than on water. Not surprisingly, Low’s 1870 response to the Forward echoed that of Captain John Winslow of the USS Kearsarge in the pursuit of the CSS Alabama in 1864: to capture or to destroy the raider.
Low was not the only one to view the Forward as a pirate. For example, fifty years after the incidents described here Brownson recalled that upon hearing about the depredations of the Forward at Guaymas he felt that “this was nothing more or less than piracy according to all authorities and international law, and [the Forward] was liable to seizure by any nation in any waters.” Barrow, 139; Low to Robeson, 19 June 1870, enclosed in “Report of the Secretary of the Navy,” in House Exec. Doc. 1, 41 Cong., 3 sess., serial 1448, 145.
Even so, Low still used local Juarista officials to justify his pursuit of the Forward to his superiors. A later report from Commodore Taylor stated that “Commander Low decided upon his course of action after free conference with Governor Rubi, of the state of Sinaloa, General Darlus [sic], commanding the forces in that state, and himself; and that the attack was made at the request of those authorities.” In an even later report, Taylor added “Señor Supulvida, collector of customs at Mazatlan” to this group.
Even with the diplomatic cover these local officials gave Low, his decisiveness remained atypical for a ship commander on the Pacific Station in the 1870s. Often, Pacific Station commanders would only “proceed with caution, trying to decide the case on its merits . . . [knowing] his conduct might become the subject of official inquiry,” according to historian Robert Erwin Johnson. In Low’s case, requests by Mexican and American diplomatic officials gave him confidence to track down and to destroy the pirate ship with little fear of protests from Mexico and censure by his superiors.
Low took the Mohican in pursuit of the Forward from Mazatlan, this time with correct intelligence that the pirate ship had anchored somewhere to the south of the city. After sailing for about 140 miles, the Mohican put in at San Blas and received word that the Forward sat at the mouth of the Teacapan River, about 75 miles back north. Low steamed north, arriving on 16 June. Finding the mouth not navigable with his deep-draft ship, Low then devised a plan for a brown-water expedition under his second-in-command, Lieutenant Brownson.
Low ordered Brownson to take upstream “all the boats of the ship, with the exception of the dinghy” and engage the Forward. Ideally, Brownson should “endeavor to take possession of her and bring her down to the bar in readiness when the tide serves,” permitting him to “use the howitzer when within good range of the steamer to intimidate the crew” and take the ship. Low also provided a contingency plan if the pirates defended the Forward too effectively – he ordered Brownson simply to return to the Mohican. Finally, Low concluded with some practical advice, to “spare the men all unnecessary exposure to the sun” after the Forward’s capture.
Thus, starting at 2 am on 17 June 1870, Brownson led an expedition of “six boats and about 60 men in all” in search of the Forward at some point inland. Even before entering the river, the expedition encountered danger. Brownson needed the expertise of a man “who had recently enlisted at Mazatlan” to find a channel through “the heaviest surf [he] had ever been through,” as he wrote some years later. Overcoming the surf, the six craft entered the river, and using intelligence gleaned from trustworthy children at the small native village of Teacapan, Brownson believed the Forward had passed through only three or four days before. Continuing upriver, a fisherman met the party at about 3 pm, “carrying a load of water melons; . . . [the sailors] went for the melons and also for information,” as Brownson put it. The fisherman merchant informed the party that the Forward sat twelve miles upstream and offered his services in locating it, an offer Brownson willingly accepted. Although the fisherman incorrectly assessed the distance, the party found the ship slightly after sundown, after traveling “over 40 miles” from the river’s mouth.
The engagement did not play out as expected but Brownson’s courage and quick thinking assured that the Forward would never sail the ocean again. As the party approached the steamer in two columns, a small boat attempted escape. Brownson ordered Ensign Jonathon Wainwright, commanding one of the expedition’s six boats, to seize that vessel while the remainder of the Mohican’s boats continued to the main prize. The Forward was “hard aground . . . drawing seven feet and having only five feet of water under her.” Brownson ordered his men to board, and most of the party gained the quarterdeck and encountered six men, “evidently not Mexicans.” After confirming with these men that this ship was indeed the Forward, Brownson took possession of the ship, “in the name of Captain Low, commanding the USS Mohican.” While these men – later identified as the pilot, machinist, and some firefighters – acquiesced in English, “a carbine was fired from [Wainwright’s] first cutter and almost simultaneously a volley of shell, canister, and musketry from shore raked the decks and side of the steamer.” Thankfully for Brownson, the “high bulwarks forward protected greatly the Mohican’s men.” According to Low’s later estimates, 170 men of the pirate crew waited in ambush in the forest ashore; Brownson later surmised that a sentry warned the crew of their coming while the American seamen navigated the surf at the mouth of the river. These pirates used “four 12-pounders” complemented by some sharpshooters. Nonetheless, Brownson held the deck for nearly forty minutes. While under fire, he ordered the wounded and the six prisoners moved to the boats and inspected the Forward in an effort to determine a course of action. Having already “come to the conclusion that it would be impossible, under the circumstances, to take the ship out as she was hard aground with the tide failing,” Brownson needed an alternative plan. Sailors sent below returned to report that the ship had “little or no coal in her and [that] her engines were disabled.” With this news, Brownson exclaimed to his men: “Very good. I shall burn her.” Later, Brownson explained that “after losing a man and having five more wounded, one of them Wainwright, a very dear friend, [he] didn’t feel in a very good humor.” He directed a lieutenant “to make arrangements aft in the officer quarters.” Thereafter, Brownson and a portion of his expeditionary party covered the sleeping chambers and fire room with turpentine from the Forward’s signal kit, set the ship afire, and removed to their boats, finally reaching the Mohican at 2:30 pm on 18 June with the wounded and the prisoners. Recognizing the difficulty of capturing the pirates ashore and having in any case immobilized them by destroying their ship, Brownson felt the risk was too great to try to arrest them. He thus left them in the Mexican jungle as he worked his way back to the Mohican.
The destruction of the Forward came at a significant human cost. The Mohican’s surgeon, who accompanied the expedition up the Teacapan River, reported that eight men became casualties, two of them fatal: Coxswain James Donnell died at the scene and Ensign Wainwright died of his wounds aboard the Mohican the following day. This latter loss profoundly affected both Low, who claimed Wainwright had “promise of a career valuable to the service,” and Rear Admiral Thomas Turner, commander of the Pacific Fleet, who “rarely [knew] a young officer of higher promise.” Of the six others wounded, all later recovered.
Low “delivered to Mexican authorities at Mazatlan” all the prisoners, including two Yankees, George W. Holder, “presumed to be mate,” and F. W. Johnson, “presumed to be engineer.” While Low noted that Brownson’s party had found no papers on board the Forward, at least one of these men came from San Francisco. Charles Jansen, as the owner of the ship’s charter, mentioned Holder by name later and found the mate “grossly culpable” and deserving of “little sympathy.” This demonstrates, as noted previously, that at least some of the original American crew, if not all of it, joined with Vega. Nevertheless, the prisoners would not see their day in court; in January 1871 they escaped aboard the U. S. schooner Selma while en route to Guaymas to stand trial.
Low composed his official report as he sailed back to Mazatlan. Interestingly, while taking full responsibility, he took particular care in defending his use of expensive steam running in the pursuit. Brownson’s actions, he wrote, were “vindicated by the spirit of my orders and justified by the circumstances of the case; I must consequently give it my approval.” He continued, “I trust my action in this emergency may meet with the approval of the Department [of the Navy], and that in the use of steam I may also be justified.”
Low had the support of his superior officer, the commander of the Pacific Fleet. In August 1870, en route from Peru to San Francisco, Rear Admiral Turner heard of the actions of the Mohican. After stopping at San Blas and Mazatlan, Turner concluded that Low gave a “detailed authentic account” and he found “no need of [his] commenting upon” the operations. Regarding Brownson’s expedition, Turner later noted that the lieutenant’s “action on this occasion justified my [favorable] impressions” of him.
In early September 1870 Rear Admiral Turner met with British Admiral Arthur Farquhar, Royal Navy, commander of all British warships in the Pacific. Farquhar revealed that the British also sought the Forward after the raid at Guaymas, owing to the depredation against British commerce at that port. It gave Turner much pride, and he relayed to Washington Farquhar’s quip: “this is always the way with you American Navy officers; you are ahead of us when a ship-of-war is required to be on the spot.”
After the destruction of the Forward, American policymakers attempted to sort out the culpability for the raid on Guaymas. Given the strong relationship between the United States and the Juarez government, State Department officials in Mexico remained ambivalent when it came to pressing blame even as their superiors in Washington pushed them to fault the Mexican authorities. A letter from Sisson to Nelson dated 4 June 1870 argued for disavowing Mexican culpability and in fact anticipated later American foreign policy. Though a consistent critic of Mexican lawlessness, Sisson declared that he did “not see in any evidence yet before [the United States of] any good ground for holding the Mexican government responsible for the depredation of the Forward.” Rather, no single government deserved the entire fault for the expedition because the ship flew the San Salvadorian flag, it belonged “in fact” to a Mexican citizen, an American citizen chartered it in San Francisco, and it took Mexican rebels on board at a Mexican port. The Juarez regime, he wrote, “was under no obligation to anticipate or guard against” rebels who would abscond a foreign vessel and engage in piracy, though “in this case [Mexico] seems to have done what it could.” The United States, he likewise argued, “atoned for [any negligence] by destroying the Forward at the cost of the lives of at least two gallant officers.” Nevertheless, Sisson worried about the precedent that Mexico’s “inability to protect foreigners within its jurisdiction will have,” as foreign governments would use such impotence as an excuse to invade the Latin American nation. Foreshadowing the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904 to the Monroe Doctrine, Sisson argued that such threat “will compel us, as the next neighbor – who will not allow foreign powers to seek redress by military force – to take upon ourselves the onus of establishing just an efficient government in Mexico.” Thus, while Sisson treated Mexico as an immature child, he saw “nothing . . . to warrant international sedative action.”