British Carriers at Suez 1956

Sea Hawk FGA.6 XE364 was assigned to No.899 NAS when photographed complete with a full load of rockets. The aircraft and the squadron would both take part in operations over Suez.

After the Korean War many of the Colossus class carriers were withdrawn from use and placed in reserve causing the Royal Navy to shrink yet again. HMS Glory would finish its working life at the beginning of 1956 having acted as the base ship for a swarm of helicopters acting in the relief role over a deeply snowbound Scotland. A few of the surviving fleet carriers would also go to the breakers’ yards during this fleet rundown. One of these was HMS Illustrious, being paid off in December 1954. Also destined to disappear were two of the modified Illustrious class carriers: Implacable and Indefatigable. The former was paid off in September 1954, having acted as a troop ferry ship, while the latter was also retired during the same month. Indefatigable would be retired in October 1953, its withdrawal being hastened by an explosion which caused serious damage below the island, killing eight crew and wounding a further 32. During the subsequent fire and rescue ten gallantry awards, including two George Medals, were given in recognition of the crew’s bravery.

The maintenance carriers were also decimated, HMS Perseus, having served with distinction in Korea was de-stored by the end of 1954. The original intention had been to tow the carrier to Belfast for conversion to a submarine depot vessel. Arriving in Belfast in early 1955, the carrier was worked on until work was suspended in 1957 and it was placed on the disposal list; finally being broken up in 1958. One of shortest carrier careers was that of HMS Pioneer which had been commissioned in 1945. After service as a ferry vessel in the Far East the Pioneer was finally disposed off for scrap in September 1954. HMS Unicorn would also be retired during this period having served with honour during the Korean War. Arriving at Devonport in November 1953 the vessel was paid off and sold for scrap in June 1959.

In October 1951 the dictator president of Egypt, General Gamal Abdel Nassar, unilaterally seized control of the Suez canal in abrogation of an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Britain access to the canal and its established bases in the area for a period of 20 years. The seizure of the assets of the Universal Suez Canal Company had been precipitated by the withdrawal of the financial support by America, Britain and the International Bank that was required for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The cause of this withdrawal was Egypt’s move towards the Eastern Bloc for the purchase of weapons and other materials. Both Britain and France were alarmed by the threatened closure of the canal as this waterway was deemed essential for the transport of oil and it gave access to the trade markets of India and the Far East.

In response, Britain, France and Israel together decided to launch an armed seizure of the canal. Planning of the operation began in late July 1956 when the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the French Prime Minister Guy Alicide Mollet and the British Defence Minister met in secret in the French town of Sevres near Paris. During this meeting the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was kept informed of events and decisions reached throughout the conference.

In response to Egypt’s move General Sir Charles Keightley was appointed as commander in chief of all British and French forces on 11 August for the forthcoming military operations. Supporting the General would be Air Marshall D H F Barnett as the Air Task Force Commander. The rear echelon command for the Royal Navy was supplied by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet who moved, with his staff, from Malta to Episkopi, Cyprus on 30 October. As this was a joint Anglo-French operation an ultimatum was issued to the Egyptian government to withdraw its forces, however Nassar had sabotaged the canal by sinking 49 ships along its length. Even as the Anglo-French forces were moving towards a war footing Israel had already launched its own attack on Egypt codenamed Operation Kadesh on 29 October. American disapproval of British and French actions saw the French Navy carrier group sighting units of the US Navy just north of Egypt. The Americans would make their presence felt throughout the entire operation. When the Anglo-French ultimatum expired the US Navy sailed two destroyers into Alexandria and the carrier group moved slightly closer to the area of operations. On 1 November the C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet sent an urgent signal to the Admiral of the 6th US Navy asking that he and his carrier go and play somewhere else as the British had no desire to inflict damage on the ships and equipment of a close ally. Further reports of American interest were received on 3 November when submarines were detected. However, a flow of signals between the British and American navies soon saw the submarines being ordered to patrol on the surface.

The Royal Navy sent the aircraft carriers HMSs Albion, Bulwark and Eagle. Albion had just completed a full refit and had sailed from Portsmouth on 15 September 1956 with Nos.800 and 802 NAS with Hawker Sea Hawks, No.809 NAS with eight Sea Venom FAW.21s and No.849 NAS ‘C’ Flight with Douglas Skyraider Airborne Early Warning(AEW) aircraft aboard. Also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. Flying operations would begin on 1 November when Operation Musketeer began with air attacks. Aircraft from Albion would cover the parachute drops by the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment on El Gamil airfield near Port Said on 5 November. After the airfield had been captured and made secure, helicopters from Ocean and Theseus plus Albion’s Skyraiders undertook relief missions into the airfield taking in vital supplies and flying out the wounded. The vital supplies included beer; it had been discovered that by removing the rear observer seats at least 1,000 cans of beer could be carried, a load most welcomed by the troops. Albion would return to Grand Harbour, Malta, after hostilities had ended.

HMS Bulwark sailed for Musketeer duties on 6 August and embarked Nos.804, 897 and 810 NAS with Seahawks en route. During its part in Operation Musketeer the Bulwark aircraft flew over 600 sorties in support of the various segments of the Anglo-French landings before departing the area for a much needed refit in Portsmouth. The newest carrier in the fleet, HMS Eagle, with the Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, Vice Admiral Manley Power, aboard had been undertaking exercises off Malta when warned for Musketeer duties. Aboard Eagle were No.898 NAS with Seahawks, Nos.892 and 893 NAS with Sea Venom FAW.21s operating eight and nine aircraft respectively, No.830 NAS with Westland Wyverns plus No.849 NAS ‘A’ Flight operating Douglas Skyraiders in the AEW role. Eagle would be in position to undertake its share of the air cover duties during the landings of 1 November. The Sea Venoms began operations on 1 November with a surprise attack on the Egyptian airfields in the canal zone. No.893 NAS was responsible for the destruction of many of the MiG 15s on Almaza airfield near Cairo while the other Sea Venom squadrons also shot up the other airfields nearby. Alongside attacking ground targets the Sea Venoms also supplied Combat Air Patrols(CAP) over the fleet against possible retaliation that never materialised. Continued operations by the Sea Venoms were carried out against various ground targets using both cannon and rocket fire.

When the Port Said landings began on 3 November the Sea Venoms provided top cover. This was integrated into the ‘cab rank’ holding pattern from which aircraft were sent to attack targets of opportunity. It was during one of these attacks that the Commanding Officer of No.893 NAS, Lt Cdr R A Shilcock, attacked and sank an Egyptian ‘T’ boat that was attempting to close in on the fleet. During the entire period of Musketeer only one Sea Venom was lost: WW281 of No.893 NAS which crash landed on HMS Eagle during which the cross deck nylon-barrier was used for the first time. Fortunately the crew escaped, although the navigator, Flt Lt R C Odling was badly injured while the pilot Lt Cdr Wilcox suffered minor injuries. The aircraft was written off. During the ceasefire period the Sea Venoms acted as top cover for the troop withdrawals.

In the early hours of 1 November the Sea Hawks began their briefed objective of destroying the Egyptian air assets either on the ground and the air (while avoiding the possible heavy flak if possible). Surprisingly, the Egyptian Air Force did manage to get a patrol of MiG15s airborne, although, given the lack of training in combat techniques and a lack of ammunition, combat was not engaged. Fortunately, the flying time to the targets was only in the region of 30 minutes as the carriers were only 60 miles offshore. As the Sea Hawks closed in on Almaza Air Base the pilots were astonished to see the shiny silver MiGs parked in long rows on the airfield hard standing. Although the local defence gunners did their best to shoot down their attackers the Sea Hawks swept in firing their cannons at the parked aircraft. As the aircraft passed off to the north they left behind a shambles of exploding MiGs. Although the Sea Hawks had used a High-Low-High flight plan to reach and leave their targets the aircraft arrived over their carriers with little fuel available should a diversion have been needed. The successful first day attacks on the EAF air assets had the desired effect of giving the attackers air superiority, however, the anti-aircraft gunners obviously caused problems because, by day five of the attacks, many of the Sea Hawks were sporting minor repairs after being hit sometime during the campaign. Only one abort was called during Musketeer which was against Cairo West. This was fortunate because this part of the airfield was being used as the evacuation point for American citizens leaving Egypt. During Musketeer the Sea Hawk pilots flew a minimum of four sorties a day, they also paid the anti-aircraft gunners the compliment of attacking them once they had completed their missions.

No.830 NAS commanded by Lt Cdr C V Howard embarked on HMS Eagle in April 1956 with a strength of nine Westland Wyvern S.4s. When the carrier was warned that it would be needed for Operation Musketeer the Wyverns had the obligatory yellow and black stripes applied to the fuselage and wings. When offensive operations began on 1 November the Wyverns were briefed to attack the airfield at Dekheila, once a home to the Fleet Air Arm. Eighteen sorties were flown by the squadron, their remit was to strafe and bomb the airfield and its aircraft during which eighteen 1,000 lb bombs were dropped and 420 rounds Of 20 mm were fired. During this attack some light flak was encountered although none of the Wyverns were hit. The second day of operations saw the number of aircraft missions drop to 15 during which Dekheila was attacked again and military vehicles south of Cairo were attacked. On 3 November the squadron suffered its first casualty when Wyvern, WN330, piloted by Lt McCarthy was hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking the bridge at El Gamil near Port Said. Fortunately the aircraft was still controllable and the pilot was able to glide his aircraft towards Eagle before ejecting and was quickly picked up by the rescue helicopter. No.830 NAS flew no sorties during the fourth day but resumed operations on day five. Instead of attacking airfield and structures the Wyverns were assigned to the support of Army units. A total of 16 individual sorties were flown during which rockets and bombs were dispensed as required. It was during these missions that the squadron’s senior pilot Lt Cdr W H Cowling was forced to eject from WN328 when the engine was hit by flak. Again the pilot was able to glide towards Eagle before ejecting safely being rescued quickly by the carrier’s rescue helicopter. Overall, three strikes were launched from Eagle during which the squadron dropped seventeen 1,000 lb bombs, fired 176 rockets with 60 lb warheads and 2,250 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition were fired, all being used during that day’s 473 sorties. The final day of operations on 5 November saw the squadron flying 17 individual sorties during which they were employed on ‘cab rank’ duties for which they all sported long-range fuel tanks and bombs or rockets. During Musketeer the squadron lost two aircraft while others suffered minor damage to their tailplanes and engine installations. Aircraft deployed by No.830 NAS included WL888, WN325, WN326, WN328, WN330, WN336, WP337, WP338 and WP341. Although No.830 NAS would receive two replacement Wyverns its life was short as the squadron was disbanded in January 1957.

As mentioned before, also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus, both veterans of the Korean war. Ocean, having returned to Devonport for refit, had been used as a troop ferry during 1955, moving troops and their equipment to Cyprus. When the Suez crisis started to develop Ocean in company with Theseus transported the 16th Parachute Brigade to Cyprus. As the helicopter was now the favoured transport the carrier was quickly returned to Britain for conversion for their operation. During October 1956 with No.845 NAS and Whirlwinds aboard, and in company with Theseus, she undertook commando assault exercises in the English Channel. At the completion of these exercises No.845 NAS had transferred to Theseus while Ocean had embarked the Joint Service Experimental Helicopter Unit. Both vessels arrived in Grand Harbour, Malta, at the close of October 1956.

During the attack on Port Said the troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando were landed by helicopter. This was the first time that vertical replenishment had been used in action, this method of deploying troops and materials meant that 415 men and 23 tons of stores were landed in one and a half hours. After this last military adventure Ocean would return to Britain where it would enter Devonport to be converted for the training role. Theseus had also undergone a quick conversion for the operation of helicopters. It too would be involved in the Port Said landings although its career would end when it returned to Britain in December 1956.

Hostilities ceased at midnight of 6 November after pressure was put on both British and French governments by the United States acting through the United Nations, whose Security Council recommended the placement of an Emergency Force to safeguard the canal and ensure the withdrawal of the combatants. Much to the chagrin of the British and French, who had been making good progress along the canal, they were forced to withdraw. During this short sharp conflict the Fleet Air Arm had lost two Hawker Sea Hawks, two Westland Wyverns and a pair of Whirlwind helicopters. The final fallout of this debacle was the resignation of the British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden who resigned from office in January 1957.


The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units I

Frogmen at a display for Grossadmiral Dönitz (second right) showing an interested admiral – possibly Heye – his watertight Junghans diver’s watch/compass.

Development, Training, Structure

As with other light naval units, the MEKs were formed late in the war. As commandos and naval sabotage troops they operated behind enemy lines close to the coast, attacking harbour installations, bridges, ships, supply depots, ammunition dumps and other worthwhile targets.

The idea was never discussed at OKM until 16 September 1943, the motive for the deliberations being the operations by their British counterparts. During the period from February to July 1942, British forces had launched three commando raids of this kind between Boulogne and Le Havre and collected important intelligence on German defences. In the course of these raids a number of enemy personnel had been captured and paperwork confiscated by the Wehrmacht. This led to certain conclusions being drawn regarding the development, structure of commando units and the tactics of their operations. The evaluation laid the foundations for the equivalent German squads (MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos).

The first MEK came into being at Heiligenhafen on the Baltic at the end of 1943. The training camp was barracks immediately behind the beach. Later, as the company grew in size, the artillery barracks was used as a training ground. Oblt (MA) Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn was the first commando leader. In the summer of 1942 he had been a member of an assault squad which crossed the Strait of Kerch in the Crimea to attack Soviet positions on the Kuban Peninsula. Before his move to the K-Verband, Prinzhorn had been an instructor at the Kriegsmarine flak training school. By the end of 1943 the first thirty officers and men of all ranks were installed at Heiligenhafen, and the training lasted into the spring of 1944. It followed the British commando-training manual very closely, a fact to be kept strictly secret. Each man was required to sign a pledge to this effect. There was no leave and it was not permitted to leave the confines of the camp. All civilian contacts had to be broken off.

The instructors were infantrymen and engineers with frontline experience particularly against the Soviets. Training in sniping and explosives handling was made as realistic as possible. Sports, swimming and judo instructors taught methods of unarmed combat and how to overwhelm enemy sentries silently: experts gave instruction in motor vehicles and radio, specialists taught the use of life-saving devices and oxygen breathing gear, linguists passed on their knowledge of the vernacular used by enemy soldiers. Each man had to be an all-rounder. Candidates who flunked the course were returned to their unit without ever having really understood the purpose of what had been taught at Heiligenhafen. After completing training, the successful men were distributed between the various MEKs.

The authorized strength of an MEK was one officer, 22 men and 15 vehicles (3 radio cars, two amphibious and one catering vehicle, the other vehicles being for transport, equipment and ammunition). Rations and ammunition was to be sufficient for six weeks. In January 1944 Kptlt (S) Opladen’s men were instructed in their missions and the first three units (MEK 60 – Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn, MEK 65 – Oblt Richard and MEK 71 – Oblt Wolters) transferred to waiting positions in Denmark and France. Subsequently each MEK, depending on its assignment, received an influx of personnel for special missions, e.g. one-man torpedoes, midget submarines, Linsen and assault boat pilots, canoeists and frogmen. An MEK might eventually be 150 strong.

MEKs existed before the K-Verband did. They had been set up by the Hamburg Abwehr office, to which they were accountable. These units were: MAREI (Kptlt (S) Opladen) and MARKO (Oblt Broecker). Both units were absorbed into the K-Verband as MEK 20.

As time went on other MEKs were formed. MEK 30 (Kptlt Gegner); MEK 35 (Kptlt Breusch, November 1944–March 1945, Kptlt Wolfgang Woerdemann, March 1945–End); and MEK 40 (Kptlt Buschkämper, August 1944–March 1945, Oblt Schulz, March 1945–End). This unit was formed at Mommark in Denmark on the island of Alsen (Gelbkoppel) with 150 men for special assignments.

Others were:

MEK 70 – nothing known

MEK 75 – KptzS Böhme

MEK 80: Kptlt Dr Krumhaar (March 1944–End)

MEK 85: Oblt Wadenpfuhl (January 1945–End)

MEK 90: Oblt Heinz-Joachim Wilke

There are said to have been other MEKs, e.g. MEK Werschetz and MEK zbV. Leaders of these units may have been Oblt Rudolf Klein, Lts Alexander Spaniel and Wilhelm Pollex amongst others.

The training of MEK men was carried out at a training establishment at Kappeln and Heiligenhafen. Hand-to-hand infantry fighting training was held at Bad Sülze/Rostock, Stolp and Kolberg in Pomerania. Kappeln had the following officer corps:

Commander: KKpt Heinrich Hoffmann

Chief at Staff: Kptlt Erich Dietrich

Adjutant: Lt Günther Schmidt

National Socialist Leadership Officer (after 20.7.1944): Lt Gustav Weinberger

Medical Officer: Kptlt Dr Rudolf Neuman

Company chiefs: Kptlt Friedrich Adler; Oblts Werner Schulz, Hermann Ibach, Eckehard Martienssen, Hans-Günter Beutner; Lt Gerhard Zwinscher

Training Officer: Oblt Hans Diem

At Heiligenhafen the training staff was:

Commander: Kptlt Friedrich Jütz

Camp commandants: Kptlt Heinrich Schütz, Oblt Eberhardt Sauer

Instructors: Oblt Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn; Lts Erich Kohlberg, Hainz Knaup, Herbert Vargel, Kurt Wagenschieffer, Hermann Baumeister; Oberfähnriche Georg Brink and Anton Ibach.

MEK Operations in the West

In June 1944 the Allies at Caen in Normandy succeeding in crossing the Orne and Orne-Sea Canal to the east, and built a bridgehead posing a severe threat to German units. The Allies ‘pumped’ 10,000 men into this bridgehead. Their supplies were brought up over two intact bridges. Their AA defences were so strong that no attack by the impoverished Luftwaffe stood any chance of success. German engineers were unable to reach the bridges cross-country.

On Thursday 22 June 1944 the Battle for Caen began. It was General Montgomery’s intention to encircle Caen by crossing the high land with its dominant landmark Hill 112 south-west of the city and then the River Odon. This important sector was being stubbornly defended by 12 SS-Panzer Division Hitler Jugend led by SS-Oberführer Kurt ‘Panzermeyer’ Meyer. The demolition of the strategically important bridges was to be the proving test for MEK 60. Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn was given a platoon of frogmen from Venice. As the result of a road traffic accident, this platoon had been reduced in size from ten men to six. Its leader, LtzS Alfred von Wurzian, had been forbidden to take part in the operation because he was too valuable as an instructor.

The assignment was to destroy two bridges at Benouville which British airborne troops had captured in the early hours of the Invasion. The commandos consisted of two groups of three frogmen: Group One – Feldwebel Kurt Kayser, Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider and Obergefreiter Richard Deimann; Group Two – Oberfähnrich Albert Lindner, Fähnrich Ulrich Schulz and a third man whose name has not been remembered.

The operation was scheduled to begin from Franceville at 2300 on the night of 14 August 1944. Each group was to take a torpedo – actually a time bomb package inside a torpedo-shaped container – to a specific bridge. Things started badly and got worse. When the 800 kg torpedoes were let down to the surface of the river on pulleys, they sank at once. No allowance had been made for the changed specific gravity in fresh water. Floats were improvised from empty fuel barrels to salve the torpedoes. The frogmen now entered the water, two to tow, one to steer, a torpedo.

Prinzhorn’s group, which was to attack the further bridge over the Orne, passed carefully below the enemy-held first bridge. It was another 12 kilometres to the main bridge, which all believed to be the crucial structure. Here they were to anchor their torpedo to the central pillar. After strenuous effort they attained their objective, moored the torpedo about a metre above the bottom on the central pillar and set the timer. Four hours later they were back at MEK. Too soon, as Prinzhorn was to discover. A revision of the map had brought to light the sorry fact that a third bridge, the real objective, had been omitted. The explosive had been set below the wrong bridge. It detonated punctually at 0530 hrs.

Events were equally dramatic for Lindner’s group. Towing the torpedo was sheer torment. Suddenly the third man lost his nerve as they swam past the enemy on the bankside. He could not be convinced to go on and swam to shore. The two midshipmen proceeded with the operation alone. After passing a wooden hindrance designed to intercept drifting mines they reached the first bridge, anchored the torpedo and set off for MEK on foot. When this bridge also blew up at 0530, the British scoured the area for the saboteurs. Once Lindner and Schulz had to hide up in a latrine trench to avoid capture. It was the following evening before they reached the canal, where a weaker current allowed them to swim back. The third man had attempted to make his way back independently, had been shot by the British and died of his wound in captivity.

At the end of August 1944 the Allies had pushed onwards and eastwards. They took Honfeur near Le Havre with its formerly German coastal battery Bac du Hode sited on the south bank of the Seine between Honfleur and Trouville. This battery now menaced the German garrison in Le Havre. A Naval artillery assault squad had set out cross-country to retake the battery and had been wiped out in a firefight with the British. MEK 60 now received orders to destroy the battery. After Prinzhorn had been frustrated by engine breakdown in an attempt to cross the Seine aboard an infantry assault boat, he obtained two Linsen speedboats from K-Verband. These were fitted with double noise-suppressors and could make eight knots at slow ahead.

On the night of 26 August 1944 the operation began. Aboard the Linsen were Prinzhorn, seven MEK men and a naval artillerist who knew the locality well. At 0050 the agreed light signals flashed out from Le Havre, and they paddled their rubber dinghies through a minefield to land. They came ashore too far west and had to negotiate the beach area on foot. By 0230 they were within 100 metres of the battery. The men slipped past the sentries and got into the bunkers. Hastily they set their explosives on the three heavy guns and in the magazine and fled. Four minutes later the charges exploded and the battery was destroyed.

At the end of August 1944 the German military resistance in France collapsed. Within a few days, fast Allied units had broken through northern France and into Belgium. Antwerp fell after a short battle and would not serve the British as a useful port for supplies. Although Antwerp lay well inland at the eastern end of the Scheldt, it was tidal and this influenced the port operations to a considerable extent. Besides an open harbour the city had a large network of docks. The Kruisschans Lock ensured that the water in the main harbour remained at a constant height. All ships arriving and departing had to pass through it.

MEK 60, now re-located in the Low Countries, was called upon again. Its task this time was to destroy the two principal locks – Kruisschans and Royers. Putting them out of commission would seriously disrupt Allied supply, reducing unloading capacity by five-sixths while it lasted.

After assessing the situation, it was clear that only an attack by frogmen held out any hope for success. The enemy had sealed off the last kilometre of the lock approaches with net barriers. The difficult currents in the Scheldt made it impossible for swimmers to do the whole journey there and back swimming. It was therefore decided to transport the frogmen to the lock entrance aboard Linsen boats. Both river banks were held by the enemy, but it was essential that the passage remained undetected. A dark, overcast night, or fog would be best. Moreover a foodtide was needed, the noise made by the engines pitted against the strong ebb would be too great. This would also ensure that the frogmen saboteurs would arrive at the lock gates at high water, enabling them to work below the walkway, beneath the feet of enemy sentries.

To blow up the 35-metre wide lock gate, K-Verband had developed a torpedo-mine. The necessary tonne of underwater explosive was to be carried in an elongated aluminium container the filling of which mostly ammonia gas – was calculated to ensure that the torpedo mine would float with 30 to 40 grams negative buoyancy just below the surface, where it would be easily manoeuvrable in calm water. Two men would swim towing the torpedo while the third steered it from astern. At the appropriate time the mine would be flooded by opening a pressure valve, sinking to the river bed: a button would start the timer running for the detonator.

The operation began on the night of 15 September 1944. The pilots of the two Linsen were Prinzhorn and Oblt Erich Dörpinghaus of K-Flotilla 216. With motors suppressed for noise the boats set off towing the torpedo mines. Visibility was barely 30 metres and both Linsen were soon lost to sight in the murk. The boats motored slowly upstream and separated in search of their individual locks. At the ten kilometre mark Dourpinghaus’ crew began peering through the gloom and thought they could make out the lock entrance.

While Dörpinghaus moored his Linse to a convenient post the three frogmen, Fieldwebel Karl Schmidt, Mechanikermaat Hans Greten and Maschinenmaat Rudi Ohrdorf slipped into the water and prepared the torpedo mine. With great effort they swam the last kilometre underwater towing their elongated charge. Suddenly Schmidt’s clothing snagged on a submerged object and tore. Now he had to wage a constant battle against buoyancy loss. The first major obstacles they overcame were a net barrier then a steel-mesh net: two more hindrances and they were at the quay wall. They moved along it until striking their heads against the lock gate, their objective.

They flooded the torpedo mine and accompanied its descent to the bottom, about 18 metres below. After activating the detonator they surfaced and swam off. Returning to the Linse Schmidt became so exhausted that he had to be towed by boat hook. Some 75 minutes later they were back with Dörpinghaus. Once the Linse set off a motor boat approached them suddenly from the fog. Dörpinghaus put the Linse to full ahead and quickly lost sight of the stranger. It was in fact Prinzhorn’s boat, his men not having succeeded in finding the Royers lock gate. At 0500 a tremendous explosion shook Antwerp harbour. The lock gate was wrecked and the passage of seagoing vessels had to be suspended for several weeks until the damage had been repaired.

In September 1944 the Allies concentrated on capturing the Dutch towns of Arnhem and Nijmegen by means of strong airborne operations.2 This was to be the springboard for the Allied advance to the north and west into the heartland of Germany. Whereas at Nijmegen 82 US Airborne Division had taken intact the bridges over the Waal (the main tributary of the Rhine delta), the British 504th Parachute Regiment had run into stiff opposition at Arnhem, and only on the north bank of the Waal had they been able to establish a bridgehead. On the road to Arnhem they were in possession of an area about three kilometres deep, but south of Elst their progress had been stopped by SS panzer units.

In order to destroy the important bridges, men from MEK 60 (Oblt Prinzhorn) and MEK 65 (Oblt Richard) were to form a special operational team to included Linsen and frogmen. After a thorough evaluation both officers concurred that 3 tonnes of explosives would be required for each of the mighty bridge pillars. This would need to be brought up in two 1.5-tonne torpedo-mines, each loaded with 600 kg of the special dynamite Nebolith. The pillars were over 11 metres tall and almost four metres in diameter. They would have to be forced upwards out of the jambs in which they were embedded, and only two simultaneous, violent explosions on opposite sides of the pillars could provide the necessary turning movement.

Two torpedo mines had to be joined for each tow: at the destination they would be separated and a packet of explosives placed either side of a pillar. Three bridges, one railway and two road bridges, were to be attacked. Two frogmen were sent to reconnoitre the length of the approach. They reported that the current was too strong for swimming in the return direction and they had had to walk back. An Abwehr liaison officer now arrived on the scene. Hauptmann Hummel was also known by the name Helmers and had been active as a commando leader at Valdagno and Venice. He mounted a major reconnaissance with two assault boats from Jagdkommando Donau crewed by Lt Schreiber, Bootsmaat Heuse and two junior NCOs, Krämer and Kammhuber. The loud engine noises betrayed them, and in an exchange of fire Heuse was killed. The British were now alerted and set up a foodlight barrier. The bridges were illuminated, the sentries reinforced and searchlight beams roved the region.

It seems probable that Hauptmann Hummel was the Hauptmann Hellmer mentioned in Skorzeny’s memoirs who not only led the operations but swam a reconnaissance himself:

The bridgehead extended for about seven kilometres either side of the bridge. The left bank of the Waal was occupied completely by the British. One night Hauptmann Hellmer swam the required reconnaissance alone … fortified by good luck, he swam between river banks occupied both sides by the enemy, and then returned to his own men.

On the night of 29 September twelve frogmen entered the Waal about ten kilometres upstream from Nijmegen and began towing the torpedo mines towards the bridges. The first group consisted of the experienced Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider (MEK 60, Orne bridges operation) and senior privates Olle, Jäger and Walschendorff. The team was almost at the railway bridge, their objective, when they discovered about 200 metres before it a pontoon bridge, complete but for the central section, which was in the process of erection across the breadth of the river. They passed by the sentries unnoticed, and between the pontoon bridge and the railway bridge Brettschneider gave the signal to separate the explosive packets. The lines fore and aft were cut, the only tie being the long line which had to go round the pillar. Once all was set the swimmers set out on the walk back to base. An hour later the mines exploded – but the bridge held.

The two other groups towing four mines towards the road bridges fared no better. These eight men were: Obermaat Orlowski, Bootsmann Ohrdorf, Bootsmann Weber, Fieldwebel Schmidt, Steuermannsmaat Kolbruch, Obergefreiter Dyck and Gefreiten Gebel and Halwelka. One group drifted into a jetty, drawing the immediate fire of a British sentry. The attempt to link up the mines between the bridge columns failed because of the strong current. One of the men managed to open a valve and so sink the mine which exploded an hour later, blowing a hole of 25 metres diameter in the bridge. Of the twelve frogmen in the three groups only Brettschneider and Jäger reached the German lines at Ochten. The other ten were taken prisoner by the Dutch Resistance who were covering the south bank of the Waal.4

This action did not close the Nijmegen chapter. On 15 and 16 October 1944 two Marder one-man torpedoes and two Linsen set out with six torpedo-mines in tow. This force turned back nine kilometres short of the road bridge on account of technical problems. A second attempt with two operational and one reserve Linse on the night of 24 October was also called off after the mines sank one kilometre into the tow and exploded harmlessly five hours later. Subsequently paratroop-engineers made a bold attempt to destroy the road and pontoon bridges. The idea was to use mines to blow a channel through the Waal net barriers after which a float loaded with explosives would be moored to the bridge to blow a hole in the roadway overhead. The attack began on 20 November. Thirty-six mines were set adrift in the water between 1815 and 2000. Echo measuring devices would confirm the explosions in the net and the cable tension. The first operation failed because of a storm, and was repeated with eleven mines. At 0530 the float followed through and at 0657 an explosion occurred. Luftwaffe air reconnaissance photographs showed that a torpedo net had disappeared while large sections of the second and third barriers were no longer visible. The road bridge, though damaged, held however.

The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units II

A Linse unit before an operation.

Earlier, on 15 November 1944, MEKs 60 and 65 had launched an attack on the Moerdijk Bridge between Dordrecht and Breda. Nothing is known regarding this operation or its outcome. Otto Skorzeny5 described another frogman operation on the Rhine which did not proceed beyond the planning stage:

After the Invasion succeeded, the concern was expressed at the highest levels of Government that the Allies despised Switzerland’s neutrality and might invade Germany from Swiss territory. This idea emerged when the German western front came to a standstill in September 1944. At that time the front ran more or less along the Reich border. On orders from Führer HQ I had to begin preparations for such a contingency within a few days. My frogmen were to be held at readiness on the Upper Rhine in order to destroy the Rhine bridges at Basle the moment Allied troops set foot in Switzerland. This purely defensive measure would help the German leadership gain time to erect a front line opposite Switzerland and parry a future attack from this neutral territory. It was a region which had never been occupied heavily by German troops. A few weeks later the whole scheme was cancelled and the men recalled when it became clear that under no circumstances would the Allies embark on the feared adventure through Switzerland.

On the night of 12 January 1945, MEK 60 put 240 mines into the water at Emmerich, it being hoped that these would do the trick and destroy the bridges at Nijmegen. The mines were to be towed by 17 Biber midget submarines, the periscopes of which would be camoufaged as drifting moorhen-nests. Each Biber had to tow 272 kgs of explosives which would be cast off below the bridges. The mines were fitted with light-sensitive cells and as soon as the charges were overshadowed by the bridge, the change of light intensity would set off the detonators. The operation was planned by KptzS Troschke. Herr Bartels, master of the ferry Lena, which shuttled between Emmerich and Warbeyer, towed the Biber out of the harbour every day for their practice runs.

Kptlt Noack, a senior midshipman, a leading seaman and Obergefreiter Josef van Heek sailed the first mission each submerged with eight mines in tow. They failed to reach the bridges. Next evening, Noack, again leading a team of four Biber, made a second unsuccessful attempt. On the third occasion eight Biber got to within a kilometre of the nearest Nijmegen bridge but tangled in the net barriers. Seven Biber stuck fast on the river bed, two of the boats had to be destroyed. Eight of the pilots in the operations froze to death in the ice-cold water. The road bridges at Nijmegen remained standing to the end.

In March 1945 the situation in the West was unpredictable because the front was so fluid. On 9 March K-Verband Command informed OKW that for the purpose of defending the Rhine crossings in the Wesel-Arnhem area, two Linse-groups with 24 remote-controlled boats and 100 spherical drifting mines together with an MEK of 80 men was at readiness to destroy the Rhine bridge pillars at Lohmannsheide. For the railway bridge at Remagen, 11 frogmen with 700 kg mines were at their disposal. The Command itself had been hit by fighter-bombers but was still operational. Around 17 March, Lt Wirth’s squad of frogmen, who had made their way from Venice with two or three Italian remote-controlled SSB torpedoes, arrived.

Lt Schreiber led the operation, seven frogmen took part. The swimmers had to cover almost 17 kilometres of the Rhine in a temperature of only 7°C. They succeeded in damaging the Ludendorff Bridge so severely that it remained impassable for some time. The operation claimed four dead, two of whom died from hypothermia, and the others were made prisoner. Otto Skorzeny wrote:6

On 7 March 1945 a catastrophe occurred on the Western Front. The bridge over the Rhine at Remagen fell intact into the hands of the Americans. One evening I was ordered to Führer HQ at the Reich Chancellery. Generaloberst Jodl gave me orders to send my frogmen to destroy the Rhine bridge at Remagen immediately … the water temperature of the Rhine at this time was only 6 to 8°C and the American bridgehead already extended almost 10 kilometres upstream. I therefore stated that I saw only a small chance of success. I would bring my best men to the locality and leave it to them to decide if we should take the risk. Untersturmführer Schreiber was leader of Jagdkommando Donau. He decided to go ahead with this almost hopeless endeavour. It was a few days before we brought the essential torpedo mines from the North Sea coast to the Rhine … when everything was ready, the bridgehead upstream was already 16 kilometres broad. The men swam off into the night: many of them went shivering with the cold. The Americans raked the water surface with searchlights. Soon the group came under fire from the river banks, and some were wounded. The disappointment of the frogmen must have been enormous when, not far short of the objective, they came up to several pontoon bridges which the US Army had erected. Despite that they brought up the explosive charges. Whether despite the cold they were still able to move their fingers only the survivors know, and they are not talking. Half-dead they hauled themselves to the river bank – and into captivity.

On 11 March 1945 FKpt Bartels took over command at Lower Rhine HQ Lederstrumpf. A second unit under Kptlt Uhde code-named Panther was responsible for the Rhine-Moselle triangle. Oblt Dörpinghaus’ unit received the codename Puma. To destroy the Rhine crossings in the Sauerland an additional frogman platoon (one officer, 15 men) and three Linsen groups from K-Flotilla 218 with 36 boats had been made available.

On 26 March 1945 Army Group H reported that K-operations had no point having regard to the way in which the situation was developing in the West. Sonderkommando Puma was transferred to Aschaffenburg: Dönitz agreed that K-Flotilla 218 should be moved from Lederstrumpf to reinforce the defence of the River Ems as far as Groningen. At the request of 12 Army, on 20 April 1945 two Lederstrumpf groups were transferred to Magdeburg. The frogmen were to operate against the Elbe bridges at Barby using drifting mines and special explosives. Nothing further is known.

With regard to MEK 40 which operated in the West, the only information available is as follows: MEK 40 was 150-strong, trained at Gelbkoppel and had been formed for a special assignment at Mommark on the Danish island of Alsen. From August 1944 to March 1945 it was led by Kptlt Buschkäumper, and from then until the war’s end by Oblt Schulz. At the beginning of November 1944, MEK 40 was in the Scheldt area. From 8 to 12 December it perfomed espionage missions and during reconnaissance on the Drimmen peninsula, Holland Diep, north of Breda, took out a sentry and machine-gun nest. On the night of 22 January 1945, MEK 40 worked with Army units. With artillery support its saboteurs blew up a water tower and brought in prisoners after an operation at Anna Jakoba Polder east of Schouwen Island.

Operations in Hungary

By the end of 1944, Soviet troops in Hungary had reached the Danube. To prevent them crossing the river, Army Group South requested K-Verband for their support to destroy important bridges. As a result, the Kriegsmarine ordered K-Einsatzstab Adria to prepare the necessary explosive materials, and to plan and execute the operation. They were also to investigate the possibilities of operations by MEKs in the Apatin-Batina region.

On 1 December 1944, 1 and 3 Groups, MEK 71, reported to Army Group South in Hungary. At Paks, about 100 kilometres south of Buda, the MEK made its first reconnaissance sorties and set mines adrift in the Danube. On 2 December the Army Group made an urgent request for an operational unit with twelve Linsen. They were to go immediately to Gran on the Danube and report to Brükostaffelstab 939. The military situtation in that area then changed unfavourably with such abruptness that the Wehrmacht plan to operate the unit was cancelled.

Separate from these developments, on 10 December 1944 Sonderkommando Glatze led by Kptlt Friedrich Benthin, a Linse group for use on Lake Balaton, was set up. An Oblt commanded the Group, Lt Gerhard Weidlich commanded the remote-control team. The title of the operation is not known. Commando operations were given cover-names which – for security reasons – were often changed in the preparation phase. As a rule in the MEKs they were never written down and were known only to those immediately involved. Sonderkommando Glatze was ready to leave from Plön on 15 December 1944.

On 12 December Einsatzstab Haun informed SKL that the Army would welcome a Linse presence on Lake Balaton but only for its disruptive effect: the boats would find no worthwhile targets for their explosive cargo and were too light to mount artillery. Admiral Heye requested a decision from the Commander-in-Chief as to whether he should send his valuable Linsen under these circumstances. Dönitz decided in favour, but Lake Balaton then froze over, and the operation was called off.

A report dated 20 January 1945 states that a group from Sonderkommando Glatze was sent to Dunaföldvar, 100 kilometres south of Budapest, to destroy a bridge in the sector controlled by 4 SS-Panzerkorps. After the Army had demolished a bridge in the vicinity, the Russians had put up an improvised crossing which was now required to be blown up by Linsen. What came of this intention is not recorded.

In February 1944 a Linse group was sent to Zagreb in Croatia to destroy a Soviet pontoon bridge about 30 to 40 kilometres south of the city. The attempt failed because boats and crews were diverted for other purposes. More successful was an operation in Hungary in which two Danube bridges were blown at Budapest, while on 29 March 1945 the Wehrmacht communique reported the sinking of four river-ships by Linsen at Neusatz on the Danube.

Operations in Southern France, Italy and the Adriatic

In the sectors of Wehrmacht C-in-C South and Admiralty Staff South the principal naval sabotage units operational were MEKs 20, 71 and 90. These were directed by the operational staff of KptzS Werner Hartmann whose HQ was at Levicio, about 100 kilometres north-west of Padua. On 7 October 1944 the boundaries of jurisdiction and German Naval Command Italy were changed, and KKpt Haun with Staff HQ at Opicina, a suburb of Trieste, became responsible for K-Verband in the Adriatic.

Despite Italy’s capitulation in 1943, elements of the X-MAS Flotilla fought on the German side to the war’s end. After Prince Borghese had relinquished command of the Decima, in 1944 his flotilla splintered into several independent groups, some of which sided with the partisans. K-Verband Command brought those remaining loyal to Germany into a special fighting unit under its K-Verband control. Because it had distinguished itself in anti-partisan warfare, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler wanted to equip the unit with radio and integrate it into the German network, but Naval Command Italy and Dönitz were both opposed to the idea.

K-Verband units in the Adriatic operated mainly from Pola against the British, New Zealanders and Tito-partisans occupying the Dalmatian islands. These were almost exclusively sabotage raids, either made independently or under the protection of German S-boats. About MEK 20, which originated from the Abwehr, very little is known. In the summer of 1944 it was at Cavallo in Italy, and in September at Sibenick and Split in Yugoslavia. Subsequently it was withdrawn from the Dalmatian islands. MEK 90 under Kptlt Jütz fought at Dubrovnic in Yugoslavia in September 1944 and escaped from the encirclement of the city. On 27 October it arrived at Metkovic with four dead, two wounded and no vehicles. Subsequently the unit left Trieste and made its way back via Zagreb and Vienna to Lübeck Steinkoppel.

MEK 71 was en route from Germany to Italy when it received orders to engage the Maquis in southern France. On 9–10 August 1944 MEK 71 captured two large French Resistance camps near Aix without loss to itself and made safe large quantities of materials. The unit then proceeded as planned to La Spezia, the most important naval base. After the Badoglio capitulation, the Italian Navy had scuttled there the submarines UIT-15 (ex-Sparide), UIT-16 (ex-Murena), UIT-20 (ex-Grongo) and some Type CB midget submarines. MEK considered that the boats could be raised and towed to Genoa. On 4 and 6 September all were destroyed in an RAF air raid. Whether CB midget submarines were ever used by the German side is not known.

On 1 October, MEK 71 was ordered to transfer to the Adriatic 75 men with full equipment and five Linsen for operations against the Dalmatian islands. Early in October 1944 groups of eight to ten men exercised at Monfalcone in the Adriatic. On 20 October MEK 71 moved up to Trieste, and on 24 October the Abwehr’s 5 Marinekommando from Lehrkommando 700 frogman unit at Venice arrived at Haun’s operations HQ Opicina to scout the islands of Clib, Silba and Premnuda to prepare reports for possible MEK operations. Fishing boats and canoes were to be used.

Leader of operations was Oblt Ross, the Group was headed by Fieldwebel Mitschke. His first objectives were Komica Bay and Lissa on 17 October. A boat from 24 S-boat Flotilla was to carry the group from Pola to Sibenik from where on the second night they would attack the harbour. The men would enter in folding boats and attach explosives to destroyers, MTBs and freighters. They were to be brought out by S-boats, if this was not possible they were to paddle to Cape Plocca. The operation was called off because of winter storm Bora.

On 27 October Oblt Wolter arrived at Trieste with MEK 71. On the way he had tangled with partisans and had nine wounded plus two damaged Linsen. A section of his force left at once for Lussin, and Group Mitschke came under Wolter’s command. On 31 October Mitschke began scouting with a platoon of five. On the night of 20 November at Sibenik he found no large ships or military targets of importance. After blowing up the Gruzzo light tower he returned to base.

On 9 January 1945 naval saboteurs of MEK 71 were taken by S-boats to the Dalmatian and east Italian coast. At Zadar they sank two freighters and on the Italian Adriatic coast demolished three bridges.7

At the beginning of December 1944 Kptlt Frenzel, a former U-boat commander, was appointed head of MEK Adriatic. Group commander Oblt Hering,8 a German born in Italy, had 48 men at his disposal. On the night of 16 December MEK men blew up a lighthouse and harbour installations on the island of Metada. Between 8 and 10 January 1945 the men of Kommando Hering attacked bridges and roads in the Tenna estuary area on the Italian coast south of Ancona. S-33, S-58, S-60 and S-61 of 1 S-boat Division transported the men there.

The first group, Lt Kruse and Bootsmaat Sterzer, went ashore at Tenna from folding boats. They had orders to create havoc in the MTB base and blow up the bridge at the entrance to the Fermo ammunition factory. The other assault groups, each of four men, were to demolish the railway/road bridge over the Tenna and so halt Allied shipping along the Adriatic coast.

The second group (Obermaat Gericke) reached the railway bridge and goods yard at Porto San Elpidio. Oblt Hering and a midshipman, Stille, set the charges inside a bridge room. At 0245 all men were aboard S-boats for the return less two taken prisoner near Tolentino. Violent explosions were heard from the bridges, and an ammunition train erupted.

In another attack, 18 paired charges caused nine explosions on the base at Isto Island. Two tonnes of provisions were seized, a British officer and 20 men occupying the island were taken off by British MGB. In another raid at Zara, two coasters in the harbour were reported blown up. At Ruc Como, about 40 kilometres north-east of Milan, Sonderkommando Zander under Kptlt Nikolaus von Martiny was active, but active in what is unknown.

Operations on the Eastern Front

From November 1944 when the Red Army was already in East Prussia, naval sabotage units were used on the Eastern Front with increasing frequency. The swift Soviet advance was aided by numerous bridges and other facilities over and near inland waterways. These now became the target of K-Verband saboteurs. The MEKs could not halt the Soviets, but they could at least seriously disrupt their lines of supply. Frogmen and Linsen had been on the Eastern Front previously, at the Baranov bridgehead, on the Peipus and in the Baltic.

A few weeks before the capitulation, in March 1945 K-Verband Command fitted out a schooner as a Q-ship for Russian submarines operating between Windau and Memel and the tongue of land known as the Kurische Nehrung. For this purpose the schooner had explosives aboard with which the attacks were to be made. This interesting operation, Steinbock, was not proceeded with.

In early December 1944, Army Group A requested from SKL naval K-forces to destroy the bridges over the Vistula. The major Soviet breakout from the three Vistula bridgeheads was impending, speed was of the essence. K-Verband Command formed six operational groups with a total of 84 Linsen for Operation Lucie, but on 17 December when the Vistula froze over in a sudden cold snap, the planned operations became doubtful, and when the thickness of the ice was found to have increased on the 21st of the month Sondergruppe Lucie was stood down, the 84 Linsen were moved back to Fedderwardsiel and then onwards to help out in the west.

On 12 March 1945 MEK 85, formed in January that year under Oblt Wadenpfuhl with 90 men, was fully motorized and sent to Swinemünde to operate in the lower reaches of the Oder and Oderhaff. Suitable craft such as cutters, motor boats and canoes were pressed into service. In charge of the operation was Kptlt Meissner.

Besides MEK 85, Sonderkommando Rübezahl and Kampfschwimmergruppe Ost were stationed along the Oder. The latter frogman unit had been with Lehrkommando 700 at Venice in the previous autumn and transferred to List on Sylt, moving to the Eastern front in February 1945 via Berlin at the request of the OKW and Reichsführer-SS. In February the 16-strong platoon led by Lt Fred Keller transferred to the Oder river near Fürstenberg. In the first operation on the 25th of the month the group towed two torpedo-mines to the Soviet supply bridge for the Vogelsang bridgehead near the small village about two kilometres north-east of modern Eisenhüttenstadt. The attempt failed because the strong current forced the torpedoes against the river bank. On 13 March 1945 the bridge was destroyed by two Linsen.

On 1 March 1945 Admiral Heye reported that explosive charges placed around the pillars of the Oder bridge at Aurith had failed to detonate. It was hoped that a back-up detonator on a 24-hour timer would work. The frogman team returned. The same day the attempt to demolish an Oder bridge at Küstrin also failed when the explosive charge, a so-called ‘tree trunk packet’ drifted away from the bridge and exploded at the bankside.9

On 5 March, OKW informed Admiral Heye that Hitler had given Luftwaffe Oberstleutnant Baumbacher orders to lead the attack on all Soviet crossing points over the Oder and Neisse rivers. All Wehrmacht arms of service were to place at his disposal all appropriate means to execute his assignment. It is assumed that he was to coordinate the Luftwaffe attacks.

On 7 March Sondergruppe Rübezahl attacked two Oder bridges. The bridge at Kalenzig was destroyed over fifty metres of its length, the ground supports and lower structure of the bridge at Rebus were ruined over thirty metres of its length so that the bridge was rendered unusable.

On the night of 13 March Linsen attacked the Oder bridge at Zellin. In order to cover the engine noise, four Ju 88s circled the operational zone. The air reconnaissance photographs taken later that day showed that the bridge had been demolished over 270 metres of its length. The Soviets then rebuilt it, together with a pontoon bridge. On 16 April Luftwaffe suicide pilots attacked the crossings at Zellin. Fähnrich Beichl dived his Fw 190 filled with high explosive and carrying a 500 kg bomb into the bridge and destroyed it. The 40-strong Luftwaffe Sondergruppe destroyed in all seventeen Oder bridges between 16 and 17 April 1945.10

In the latter part of April 1945 the Soviet armies broke out of the Oder bridgeheads. On the evening of 24 April, Lt Keller reconnoitred the small island of Dievenow near Wollin which was still in German hands. After discussions with the island commandant the frogmen entered the water and drifted with their torpedo mines to the bridge linking the island to the Soviet-occupied mainland. Ashore they primed their charges. At 0417 hrs on 25 April 1945 the bridge was no more.

That same 24 April, Lt Albert Lindner (Lehrkommando 700 and the Orne bridges attack) led his naval saboteurs and three frogmen to destroy the pontoon bridges at Nipperwiese and Fiddichow. Two men were to blow up four pontoons from under the bridge. For this purpose they were equipped with small 7.5 kg explosive packs called Sprengfische. They set out from the infantry trenches at Oderdamm, southeast of Schwedt. The frogmen were discovered by a sentry, a Russian grenade hit one of the Sprengfische which exploded at once leaving several dead and wounded. The operation was repeated the following evening and succeeded. At 0500 explosive charges ripped the pontoon bridge apart, but the four frogmen involved finished up as Soviet prisoners of war.

The last frogman operation on the Eastern Front was at Stettin. On the night of 25 April 1945 the last German troops evacuated the city. Only a section of the harbour remained in German hands. The Soviets held the high ground at Altdamm, on the far bank of the eastern arm of the Oder, and were firing into the city. They had infltrated the harbour at a number of places. While setting a torpedo mine on a bridge pillar, Bootsmaat Künnicke was fired upon by a sentry. The mine drifted away and was lost. As it was already dawn, Künnicke hid in a barn and rejoined his unit next day. Two other frogmen who were Stettiners laid low in a swampy meadow between the east and west arms of the Oder while the Red Army rolled past them. The hiding place was on the bank of the Möllnfahrt, the Stettin regatta course. The pair had obtained for themselves a fine motor boat, Aristides, in which they were proposing to transport their torpedo mines. In their hiding place on 8 May they heard explosions and shooting. On 11 May, after selecting an Oder bridge as their target, they met a German civilian who gave them the news that the war was over. The two frogmen hid their equipment and obtained civilian clothing, then joined local people clearing the streets of rubble. Unfortunately they did not escape the attention of the Russians, and a long and arduous captivity followed.

Mitsubishi G3M long-range land-based naval bomber

Three days after Pearl Harbor, G3Ms made world headlines when a force of 60 bombers helped sink the British battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off Malaysia.

As Bill pointed out.

“G4M1s were mainly responsible for sinking the British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse off Malaya in December 1941.”

While it’s likely the G4Ms would have sunk the Prince of Wales by themselves, it was a G3M that scored the critical hit on the ship that enabled the G4Ms to complete the sinking.

At the time of its appearance, the Nell was one of the world’s most advanced long-range bombers. It participated in many famous actions in World War II before assuming transport duties.

In 1934 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, future head of the Japanese Combined Fleet, advocated development of long-range land-based naval bombers to compliment carrier-based aviation. That year Mitsubishi designed and flew the Ka 9, an unsightly but effective reconnaissance craft with great endurance. It owed more than a passing resemblance to Junkers’s Ju 86, as that firm had assisted Mitsubishi with the design.

Successful demonstration by Mitsubishi of its Ka-9 twin-engine long-range reconnaissance aircraft during 1934 led to the company designing and developing a twin-engine bomber/transport under the initial company designation Mitsubishi Ka-15. A cantilever mid-wing monoplane with wings tapering in thickness and chord from wing root to wingtip, a tail unit incorporating twin fins and rudders, retractable tailwheel landing gear and two 750-hp (559-kW) Hiro Type 91 engines, the prototype was flown for the first time during July 1935. A total of 21 prototypes was built (eight with an unglazed nose) and several engine/propeller combinations were evaluated. Service trials left little doubt that Mitsubishi had developed an excellent aircraft with exceptional range capability, and in June 1936 the type entered production with the official designation Navy Type 96 Attack Bomber Model 11, Mitsubishi designation G3M1. This first production version was powered by two 910-hp (679-kW) Mitsubishi Kinsei 3 radial engines and had a defensive armament of three 7.7-mm (0.303- in) machine-guns, one each in two dorsal and one ventral turret, all three turrets being retractable. However, only 34 G3M1 production aircraft were built before availability of 1,075-hp (802-kW) Kinsei 41 or 42 radials gave the promise of even better performance. The resulting G3M2 Model 21 differed from the early production version by the installation of these engines and by having increased fuel capacity. They soon demonstrated their capability, on 14 August 1937, when a force of G3M2s based on Taipei, Taiwan, attacked targets 1,250 miles (2010 km) distant in China, recording simultaneously the world’s first transoceanic air attack.

Subsequent production, which eventually totalled 1,048 aircraft built by Mitsubishi (636) and Nakajima (412), included the G3M2 Model 22 in which the five men crew of all earlier versions was increased to seven to provide additional gunners to cope with armament that comprised one 20-mm cannon and four 7.7-mm (0.303-in) machine-guns; and the generally similar G3M2 Model 23 which introduced Kinsei 51 engines and increased fuel capacity. A number of G3M1s were converted for service as military transport aircraft under the designation G3M1-L, being provided with two 1,075-hp (802-kW) Kinsei 45 engines, and from 1938 about 24 G3M2s were converted for transport use by civil operators, these being designated Mitsubishi Twin-Engined Transport. Two other transport models were produced later in the war, when the First Naval Air Arsenal at Kasumigaura converted a number of G3M1s and G3M2s to L3Y1 Model 11 and L3Y2 Model 12 Navy Type 96 Transports respectively. Both incorporated cabin windows, a door on the port side and were armed by a single 7.7-mm (0.303-in) machinegun. When deployed throughout the war zone they were allocated the Allied codename ‘Tina’, and all bomber versions had the codename’ ell’.

Mitsubishi G3Ms are remembered for their part in a number of important engagements, but almost certainly best known was the attack made on the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle-cruiser HMS Repulse on 10 December 1941, just three days after the initial attack on Pearl Harbor. The British vessels were steaming off Malaya, believing they were out of range of shore-based aircraft, when they were caught by a force of G3Ms with a smaller number of G4Ms and sunk. The type remained in service until the end of the Pacific war, but by 1943 most were being used in second-line roles.

Nells were among the first Japanese aircraft shot down by U.S. Navy fighters at Wake Island. The spring of 1942 then witnessed G3Ms functioning as parachute aircraft over the Dutch East Indies. Within months, however, revitalized Allied forces poured into the region, forcing the slow and under-armed Nells to sustain heavy losses. By 1942 most had ceased active combat operations and spent the rest of the war as transports.



    Prototype with either Hiro Type 91 (559 kW/750 hp), Mitsubishi Kinsei 2 (619 kW/830 hp), or Mitsubishi Kinsei 3 (679 kW/910 hp) engines and glass or solid nose, 21 built.


    Redesignated prototypes powered by Hiro Type 91 or Mitsubishi Kinsei engines, glass nose.

G3M1 Model 11

    Land-based attack bomber navy Type 96 first series model. Major extension of the cabin with a revised cover, some with fixed-pitch propeller, 34 built.


    G3M1 converted into an armed or unarmed military transport version and powered by Mitsubishi Kinsei 45 (802 kW/1,075 hp) engines.

G3M2 Model 21

    More powerful engines and increased fuel capacity, dorsal turret; 343 constructed by Mitsubishi, 412 G3M2 and G3M3 manufactured by Nakajima.

G3M2 Model 22

    Upper and belly turrets substituted for one upper turret, glass side positions, 238 built.

G3M3 Model 23

    More powerful engines and increased fuel capacity for longer range, constructed by Nakajima.

L3Y1 Model 11

    Transport navy Type 96, advanced conversion of G3M1 armed transport, built by Yokosuka.

L3Y2 Model 12

    Modification of G3M2 with Mitsubishi Kinsei engines, built by Yokosuka.

Mitsubishi twin-engined transport

    Around two dozen G3M2 Model 21 bombers convrted for use by civil operators such as Nippon Koku K.K..


    One of the twin engined transports converted to carry out a round the world flight in 1939 on behalf of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.

Specifications (Mitsubishi G3M2 Model 21)

General characteristics

  • Crew: 7
  • Length: 16.45 m (54 ft 0 in)
  • Wingspan: 25 m (82 ft 0 in)
  • Height: 3.68 m (12 ft 1 in)
  • Wing area: 75 m2 (810 sq ft)
  • Empty weight: 4,965 kg (10,946 lb)
  • Gross weight: 8,000 kg (17,637 lb)
  • Fuel capacity: 3,874 l (852.2 imp gal; 1,023.4 US gal)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Mitsubishi Kinsei 14-cyl. air-cooled radial piston engines, 791 kW (1,061 hp) each


  • Maximum speed: 375 km/h (233 mph; 202 kn)
  • Cruise speed: 280 km/h (174 mph; 151 kn)
  • Range: 4,400 km (2,734 mi; 2,376 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 9,200 m (30,200 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 6 m/s (1,200 ft/min)


  • Guns:
  • 1× 20 mm (0.79 in) Type 99 cannon in rear dorsal turret
  • 4× 7.7 mm (0.30 in) Type 92 machine gun in cockpit, left and right side positions, and in retractable forward dorsal turret.
  • Bombs: 800 kg (1,800 lb) of bombs or one aerial torpedo

Vaisseaux du premier rang

An oil painting by Thomas Whitcombe of the Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782, with Comte de Grasse’s flagship the 104-gun Ville de Paris in the foreground, in close action with Barfleur, 98 guns, flying the flag of Sir Samuel Hood. Although captured during the battle, the French flagship was wrecked before she could reach a British port, so it is unclear what reference Whitcombe used for the appearance of the Ville de Paris. She had originally been built as a 90-gun ship at Rochefort between August 1757 and May 1764, but during repairs at Brest in 1778-79, the waist was filled in to create a continuous third deck, with a new quarterdeck and forecastle constructed above and fourteen 12pdrs and 6pdrs added to her ordnance.

The First Rank Warships with 80 or more guns after 1715.

The first classification of the vessels of the French Navy into four Ranks (or (with a fifth Rank added) in July 1670. The 1st Rank Rangs) took effect in 1669, but was swiftly altered classification covered the most prestigious ships in the French Navy, embellished with ornate carvings and decoration. They were intended to be employed as as fleet flagships, as strong points in the fleet’s formation, and as symbols of Louis XIV’s magnificence displaying France’s maritime strength. Because of their large crews and requirements for stores they were also very expensive to operate and except during wartime were used sparingly.

The only `three-decker’ of over 60 guns built for the French before 1661 had been the Vendome of 1651. The somewhat smaller Saint Philippe which entered service in 1664, and subsequent ships built to the same concept, were officially classed by the French as three-deckers without a forecastle and with a rudimentary quarterdeck (really a poop); they carried no guns or gunports amidships on the third deck, and usually there was a physical break in the deck level (forming a `waist’), so that the portions of the third deck forward and aft of this interruption served in effect as forecastle and quarterdeck. In a few cases this unarmed portion of the third deck was physically present, complete with deck beams below it, so that the absence of guns and gunports (and sometimes the absence of any bulwarks along each side) left a complete structural level, thus improving the structural integrity of the ship; but in most cases there was a physical gap with the middle portion of this deck not constructed, so that the type was what the English defined as a two-decker.

Most of such `semi-three-deckers’ were eventually re-classed as 2nd Rank, but this applies solely to vessels built before 1689 – after 1689 only three-deckers built with a complete third tier of guns were classed as 1st Rank, until the appearance of 80-gun two-deckers of the 1st Rank in the 1740s.

The last 1st Rank three-decker of this broken-deck type was the Paris of 1669, while the last such 2nd Rank vessel was the Fier of 1682. It should be noted that the three-deckers with interrupted third tiers of guns retained the two levels of accommodations in the stern typical of three-deckers (the captain’s cabin and stateroom on top of the wardroom) while two-deckers had only a single level combining the captain’s cabin and the wardroom. Thus while the small three-deckers looked like two-deckers and are perhaps best understood as such, they had some structural features found only in three-deckers.

The first extra-large French three-decker with 100 guns or more (rated as a vaisseau du premier rang extraordinaire) was the Royal Louis, completed in 1669. Prior to 1689, these flagships, generally pierced with fifteen pairs of gunports on the lower deck (excluding the foremost pair or chase ports) were the only vessels fitted with the rare 36pdr bronze guns. Until 1690, these guns were in limited supply – iron 36pdrs did not appear until 1691 – and up to this date, vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaire generally carried a mixture of sixteen 36pdrs and fourteen 24pdrs on the lower deck (all guns in these ships were of bronze). The vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaires were also the only French three-deckers allowed by regulation to have a forecastle as well as a quarterdeck following the unhappy experience of the Monarque in 1669.

From 1690, these ships generally carried a uniform battery of 36pdrs (usually fourteen pairs) on the lower deck; initially there were two exceptions – the Soleil Royal (after her rebuilding in 1689) carried a mixture of 48pdrs and 36pdrs, while the new Royal Louis in 1692 received a complete battery of thirty 48pdrs. The huge 10ft bronze 48pdrs proved too cumbersome to handle, and the ships’ commanders (Tourville on the Soleil Royal and d’Estrées on the Royal Louis) soon arranged for these to be replaced by 36pdrs. The 48pdrs were also briefly carried in Monarque (1690) and Admirable (1692).

The flagships (navires amiraux) of the two fleets were always drawn from the premier rang extraordinaire. For the Mediterranean Fleet (Flotte du Levant), the flagship was always the most powerful ship based in Toulon: the Royal Louis of 1667, its namesake (and replacement) of 1692, until that ship was disarmed in 1716 and taken to pieces in 1727; from 1780 the new Majestueux became the navire amiral of this fleet, to be superseded by the Commerce de Marseille in 1788. For the Atlantic Fleet (Flotte du Ponant), the Soleil Royal served the same role from 1669, as did its namesake in 1692; the Foudroyant of 1724 then held the same responsibility, as did the new Soleil Royal in 1749, followed by the Royal Louis of 1759; the Bretagne of 1766 then fulfilled the role until the 1790s.

The smaller of the 1st Rank ships (those with fewer than 100 guns – in general 84 guns was the maximum) were pierced with thirteen pairs of gunports on the lower deck (again not counting the foremost pair or chase ports). Until 1689, those of 80 guns generally carried a mixture of twelve 24pdrs (bronze) and fourteen 18pdrs (iron) on this deck, and fourteen 18pdrs (bronze) and twelve 12pdrs (iron) on the deck above, with twenty-two 8pdrs (all bronze) on the upper deck, separated into those forward and aft of the unarmed waist, and with six 4pdrs (bronze) on the quarterdeck, the latter effectively being a poop deck; these ships as indicated above had no forecastle. The 84-gun variant had no gap on the upper deck, thus mounting twenty-six 8pdrs there (of which one pair were iron guns). After 1689, a standard armament of 36pdrs was adopted for these ships also, with new 1st Rank ships carrying a similar battery to the largest ships. By 1692, the foremost pair of ports (or chase ports) were no longer cut through on 1st Rank ships, in order to strengthen the head.

Altogether twelve three-decker 1st Ranks were begun during the 1660s. Colbert produced the first French system of rating with his Reglement of 4 July 1670, dividing the fleet into `Rangs’ (i. e. Ranks, analogous to the English system of Rates), the first of which comprised the three-deckers with more than 70 guns, while the second included the smaller three-deckers (as well as a few large two-deckers). By 1672, several of the smaller 1st Ranks (those with fewer than 80 guns) had been re-classified to the 2nd Rank. More important than actual numbers of guns, all 1st Ranks built after 1689 – see Section (C) – carried a principal (LD) battery of 36pdrs, while the main battery on the 2nd Ranks were generally 24pdrs (although some of this type carried a mix of 36pdrs and 24pdrs on their LD).

In 1680 or early 1681 an `establishment level’ of twelve 1st Rank ships was set, and retained well past the end of Louis XIV’s reign. This was the actual number of such ships on the List in January 1681 – five in the Brest Department, one at Rochefort (the never-completed Victorieux), and six at Toulon. This number was roughly adhered to until 1690, when the massive building program of twenty-five 1st Ranks made it irrelevant, but after 1712 the number shrank back and by 1717 most of the remainder had been taken to pieces without replacement.

By the close of the seventeenth century, all 1st Rank ships were three-deckers with three complete gun decks, and this continued well into the eighteenth century. At the same time forecastles were reintroduced in all 1st Rank ships. The relatively few three-deckers built after 1715. From 1740 onwards a new series of two-deckers armed with 80 guns was introduced; these fulfilled the role of capital ships (and usually the flagships) for the battlefleet.

Three-decked vessels acquired from 1 September 1715

Following the close of the war and the death of Louis XIV, the battlefleet was rapidly run down, with many of the remaining three-deckers being disposed of by 1715. Following the dismissal of Jérome de Pontchartrain as Secretary of State for the Navy on 1 October 1715, a Conseil de marine was set up by the Amiral de France (Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, Comte de Toulouse), directed by his two Vice-amiraux (Victor Marie, Maréchal and Duc d’Estrées and Alain Emmanuel, Comte de Coetlogon, for the Ponant and Levant Fleets respectively), which ran the Navy for the next three years.

Nevertheless, there nominally remained eleven 1st Rank ships at the end of 1715, survivors of the 1689-94 building spree. All of these were three-deckers, almost all with a principal battery of 36pdrs (the sole exception was the Monarque which from 1704 had only 24pdrs on its LD) and all had a second battery of 18pdrs. The Royal Louis, Triomphant, Vanqueur, Monarque and Intrépide were all noted as in need of rebuilding, while the Magnifique was already condemned (since March 1713) and the Orgueilleux and Admirable had been ordered (on 1 December 1715) to be broken up.

A year later the number was officially down to five – Royal Louis, Sceptre, and the soon-to-be-dismantled Magnifique, Orgueilleux and Admirable – and by the end of 1717 there were just four (the Sceptre had been condemned on 18 December, and would be ordered to be taken to pieces in January 1718). The Royal Louis (disarmed since 1716) lasted until condemned in 1723 and was broken up in 1727; no further threedeckers were attempted until 1723, and even then results were deplorable, no successful ship being achieved until the 1760s. After two short-term Secretaries in the five years from 1718, the appointment of Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas (and son of Jérome de Pontchartrain), began a term of office which lasted to his dismissal in 1749.

80-gun two-decked vessels (Vaisseaux de 80) acquired from 1740

All 80-gun ships prior to 1700 had been three-deckers, and none were built in the first four decades of the new century, but in 1740 the first of a series of two-decker 80s was begun. At the start of hostilities against Britain in 1744, this ship (Tonnant) was the only French warship with more than 74 guns, but more were begun from 1748 onwards. All had thirty 36pdr guns on the lower deck, and thirty-two guns (18pdrs or 24pdrs) on the upper deck, while eighteen guns (mostly 8pdrs) were fitted on the gaillards. Thirteen ships were built in the period to 1785 (one of which was rebuilt after a fire).

These ships were ambiguously classed in French official records, being usually defined as `premier rang’ but in 1766 the earlier Tonnant, Duc de Bourgogne, and Orient (all with 18pdrs on the UD) were classed as `second rang, premier ordre’ while the later Languedoc, Saint Esprit, and Couronne were `premier rang, second ordre’. We chose to class all of them here with the 1st Rank ships, as France built virtually no three-deckers for most of the eighteenth century, and in lieu of these deployed the 80-gun two-deckers as their principal capital ships. The original type with 18pdrs on the UD mustered a broadside of 900 livres, while the later substitution of 24pdrs on the UD raised this to 996 livres (or 1,075 English pounds), significantly greater than the standard French 74-gun ship’s 838 livres (904 pounds), which was in turn greater than the 818-pound broadside of the British three-decked Second Rates of 90 guns, and not incomparable with the 1,140-pound broadside of the largest British three-decked First Rates of 100 guns.

WWII Anti-Vessel Ordinance

The Magnetic Mine

Napoleon once said that he preferred marshals with luck. Somebody else said, “Luck is a matter of planning.” The story of defeating the magnetic mine, which to the British was a bad surprise, shows how one side’s poor planning was the other side’s luck.

Toward the end of 1939, some ships entering and exiting British ports were damaged by underwater explosions that hit their lower hulls. The damage usually was not fatal, but in many cases bottom plates were torn, rivets popped out, and internal machinery and propeller shafts dislodged. Many of these ships had to be written off or at best put into dry dock for repair.

An investigation confirmed that these ships were not hit by conventional sea mines. (Such a mine is usually placed at low depth and anchored to the bottom by a cable so that it will be positioned a few feet below the surface.) The investigation of the ships that managed to stagger into port pointed to an explosion beneath the ship but at a distance from it. This led to the conclusion that the damage was caused by a so-called “influence mine,” which was laid on the bottom and was activated by the propeller noise, the pressure wave of the approaching ship, or the effect of the ship’s metal hull on the local magnetic field of the earth. The experts tended to assume that these were magnetic mines, because already in World War I such mines were developed although never used. The trouble was that no effective countermeasures could be devised and employed without knowing the exact characteristics of the detonation mechanism, and finding one became a priority undertaking. But how do you identify and recover a mine lying somewhere on the sea floor? Here Lady Luck smiled on the British—and not once but twice.

A German aircraft dropping such mines made a navigational error at night. At high tide, the area flown over by the airplane was covered with water, and the pilot (or navigator) probably thought he was in the right position, but when the tide receded the mine was observed lying in the mud next to a British military base. The mine was moved into a workshop, and the experts (who already suspected it to be a magnetic mine) manufactured a set of bronze (nonmagnetic) tools, disassembled it, and learned how it worked. Here luck played a role again. The mine contained an antimotion device to protect against tampering if dropped on land. This device was to be deactivated by water entering it, if dropped at sea. The short time the mine spent in the water rendered it safe for handling.

The British developed three ways to counter the mine. The one that finally became standard, because it was the cheapest and did not require sailing through “cleared” corridors, was the “degaussing” of the ships. By dragging charged electrical cables over the hulls, the ships became nonmagnetic. This took about half an hour, although the process had to be repeated every six months. The technology of the magnetic mine was not really new, and the Germans chose a well-suited weapon to use. Without better information, the British might have groped in the dark for a long time, spending time and effort trying to deduce the exact nature of the mechanism. Navigational carelessness negated all the work the Germans invested.

The Acoustic Torpedo

An acoustic torpedo, which homes in on the noise the target produces, was thought of during World War I but, because of technical limitations, was never developed. The Germans were later the first to produce one designed to home in on the propeller noise of surface ships. A first variant was introduced in July 1943 but quickly superseded by a faster variant (the Zaunkoenig), which was used with moderate success. It had a major problem that the Germans were apparently unaware of: it sometimes exploded just when entering the turbulent wake behind the target. The Allies for some time suspected such a German development, because the Americans were busy developing their own acoustic torpedo and concurrently thought of potential countermeasures. So within sixteen days of the appearance of the Zaunkoenig, they introduced the Foxer, a towed noisemaker that caused the torpedoes to detonate prematurely (Macksey 2000, 143).

The Germans distributed this torpedo sparingly, and submarine crews were instructed to use it only against escort vessels and not merchantmen (Gannon 1996, 99–100). Later, when several such torpedoes were captured by the Allies, it was found that they could home in only on ships moving at twelve to nineteen knots (Gannon 1996, 101). It is not clear if the Germans were aware of this limitation or that the torpedo was designed from the start to attack escort ships as first priority.

The Americans advanced the homing technology much further. They had no need to attack merchantmen or escort vessels in the Atlantic but were acutely aware of the need to attack submarines. (The German submarine force was deemed of higher priority than the Japanese merchant fleet and its escorts.) From 1943, the ocean was regularly scanned by aircraft that took off from Iceland or Greenland and from convoys’ escort carriers. When such an airplane discovered a submarine, it would attack using bombs or depth charges and report the position to a Combat Information Center, which then decided whether to send a surface vessel (if one was available) or aircraft, which would force the submarine to stay submerged until the arrival of surface vessels.

But depth charges were of a limited efficacy. To explode near the submarine, the attacker had to follow the underwater maneuvering of the submarine and stay more or less above it. This remained true even after the next generations of forward-firing projectors—starting with the Hedgehog—were developed. More important, depth charges were set before firing to explode at a given depth. While this did not totally depend on guesswork, it was nearly so. Obviously, something better was needed.

In the fall of 1942, the U.S. Navy developed the sonobuoy. This device parachuted to the water, listened for anomalous sounds, and broadcast them to an airplane. It succeeded in detecting submarine propellers up to three and a half miles away. In order to fully exploit this capability, the United States then developed an acoustic torpedo that could home in on the submarine’s propellers, and specifically on cavitation noises. This torpedo, the Mk-24 (referred to as the Mk-24 Mine to hide its true nature, and nicknamed FIDO), entered service in the beginning of 1943 and was meant to be kept in production only until the end of the year. It was assumed that by that time the Germans would figure out its characteristics and its usefulness would be over (Price 1980, 110). To delay this possibility, the Allies introduced some strict rules. One of these said that this torpedo was not to be dropped against a submerged submarine when surfaced submarines were in the vicinity. By that time, the Allies controlled the air to such an extent that they could force even groups of submarines to submerge and then attack (Price 1980, 181). This torpedo also exploited the basic instinct of any submarine’s commander: when detected, dive as fast as possible. But running the motors at highest power caused cavitation, which was his undoing. In fact, if he had just shut down his motors, the torpedo would have lost its lock-on, but as pointed out, this was against the basic instincts of submariners. The secret of the Mk-24 torpedo was not compromised until the end of the war (Price 1980, 225n1).

Due to the combination of advanced technology and good secret keeping, this torpedo achieved a high success rate of nearly 20 percent sinkings and 9 percent damaged submarines, compared with 9 percent for depth charges.

“Long Lance”[1] Type 93 Torpedo

The modern torpedo, initially intended to be fired from surface ships, was developed by Robert Whitehead, a British engineer who lived in Italy (then under Austrian rule) and operated there a successful factory for marine engines. In 1848, Whitehead observed Austrian troops in Milan suppressing a popular uprising. He was horrified by what he saw and became a pacifist. He then thought of developing naval weapon so dreadful it would prevent future wars. His occupation with marine engines and his belief that naval warfare was the key to victory (in this, he anticipated Admiral Alfred Mahan) no doubt lay behind this conclusion. In 1860, he saw a demonstration of a remotely controlled explosive-carrying boat, but he thought that an underwater vehicle would be better and sat down to develop one. In 1870, he demonstrated his “torpedo,” and the Austrian navy, which at the time controlled part of the Adriatic Sea coast, was the first to buy it. The Royal Navy, the strongest naval power of the time, was the second, and in a few short years all the world’s navies were equipped with torpedoes. One of the torpedo’s main advantages was that even small boats could pack a punch comparable to big ships, which led to the development of a new class of ships—the “torpedo boat destroyer”—which eventually became the “destroyer.” The Royal Navy was the first to fire a torpedo in anger, in 1877, against some Peruvian rebels. It missed, but it was enough to scare the rebels away.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the torpedo was improved. Its original source of propulsive power, compressed air, was replaced by an internal combustion engine that received oxygen from a tank of compressed air. This was a major improvement but had a major drawback: Beside oxygen, air consists of 80 percent nitrogen, which does not contribute to the combustion and thus is exhausted as a visible wake of bubbles. This sometimes enabled a ship to avoid the torpedo by a quick maneuver. Everybody was looking for something better.

Replacing the air in the tank with pure oxygen, or high-concentration peroxide (H2O2), which the Germans tried, would have solved two problems. It would have increased the amount of oxygen in a given air tank, and since all combustion products were water-soluble, the bubbles would have been eliminated. However, the proximity of pure oxygen to grease and moving parts is an invitation for uncontrolled combustion, especially on surface ships engaged in combat.

Experimentation with oxygen was undertaken by several navies, and on the entrance of the United States into World War II, such torpedoes were at various stages of testing. However, Admiral King, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, believed such research would interfere with the production of standard torpedoes and assigned it the lowest priority (Blair 1975, 279–80).

The Japanese, in their effort to achieve excellence, were aware of the dangers but decided that the advantages of oxygen technology surpassed its disadvantages. They developed several versions of this torpedo, to be launched from surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. Thanks to the use of oxygen, these torpedoes were faster, had more than double the range, and carried a heavier warhead than any comparable Western torpedo. After the war, the Japanese also reported that they had no shipboard accident with these torpedoes (Blair 1975, 279–80).

The Japanese were very careful to make sure that no such torpedo fell into the wrong hands. This policy sometimes caused large numbers of ships to search for lost practice torpedoes, which were supposed to surface after their run (Lowry and Wellham 2000, 38). Nevertheless, their security sometimes failed. Luckily for them, the Americans did not notice.

In 1934, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) translated a Japanese article that stated “our latest torpedoes ran with practically no track.” One of the officers who read that passage highlighted it, but there is no evidence that ONI pursued the matter further (Mahnken 2002, 70). A worse security leak occurred several years later.

At the end of 1939 or the beginning of 1940, the American naval attaché in Tokyo was approached in his tennis club by a local medical student who turned out to be Chinese. The man, angered by Japanese atrocities in China, told the American that the Japanese navy organized tours for students in order to encourage a national spirit and increase recruitment. The American asked some specific questions, and on their next meeting the man told him that the Japanese had developed an oxygen-propelled torpedo and cited its performance, which surpassed anything available in the West (Mahnken 2002, 70–71). The naval attaché forwarded a report to Washington, and although the range was understated by the Chinese student, it still caused a stir at ONI. A copy was forwarded to the Bureau of Ordnance, but they declared that such a weapon was impossible (Mahnken 2002, 71). They probably understood that to obtain such performance the torpedo had to utilize oxygen technology, as the Tokyo report clearly stated. But since the United States and Britain were struggling with this technology, they assumed the Japanese could not have perfected it on their own. The Bureau of Ordnance experts preferred to consider the report a mistake rather than face the spectre of Japanese technological superiority. Ironically, the Japanese developed this technology because of a mistaken belief that the British had already mastered it (Mahnken 2002, 71n101).

Armed with the judgment of the Bureau of Ordnance, ONI filed away all reports about oxygen-powered torpedoes and abandoned pursuing any further “rumors” about advanced Japanese torpedoes.

In response to the Guadalcanal landing and in an attempt to hit American supply ships in the area, the Japanese sent in a task force of cruisers and destroyers. In a night battle (the Savo Island Battle), it attacked and defeated a similarly sized American force in what was later described as the worst defeat in battle of the U.S. Navy, which lost four cruisers and a destroyer against no losses and only slight damage to the Japanese. It was the first in a series of night battles in which the Japanese fired long-range torpedoes at ranges far longer than the range of their or American guns.

In the beginning of 1943, such a torpedo, called the Long Lance, washed ashore at Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal, was taken apart, and its data was sent to Pacific Fleet intelligence, but nothing except rumors filtered back. In a meeting preparatory to one of these battles (Kula Gulf), the captain of one American cruiser who had heard the “rumors” warned the presiding admiral not to approach the Japanese to less than ten thousand yards. The admiral, who believed that a submarine sank one of his ships in a previous engagement, dismissed the story as “scuttlebutt” (Morison 1949, 196). In the ensuing battle, this captain’s ship, in addition to a destroyer, was sunk.

The U.S. Navy was aware of Japanese emphasis on night fighting, which reduced the advantages of American material superiority (Mahnken 1996, 435). This possibility was already exercised in 1933 in an American war game in which the American force was defeated by a torpedo attack, nine years before a Japanese admiral actually did this for real. (A night gun battle could not be efficient, let alone decisive, without radar.) Surprisingly, the Americans did not ask themselves whether the real-life Japanese (not those in the war game) would look for other means to circumvent their inferiority in radar technology.

And there was another failure, that of not realizing that the enemy thinks in a different way. In the United States, it was thought that radar developments would enable gun battles at night, and this might have led to the implicit assumption that when the Japanese would catch up in radar technology, naval battles would revert to gunnery, including at night. But apparently the Japanese understood early the advantage the Long Lance conferred on them. Their doctrine thus called for a night battle, initiated by torpedoes fired from cruisers and destroyers, and a daylight mopping up by guns. For this purpose, they equipped many destroyers and cruisers with large numbers of these torpedoes, and they even converted two cruisers to “torpedo cruisers,” which carried dozens of them (Mahnken 1996, 435).

[1] The Type 93, designated for Imperial Japanese calendar year 2593) was a 61 cm (24 in)-diameter torpedo of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), launched from surface ships. It is commonly referred to as the Long Lance by most modern English-language naval historians, a nickname given it after the war by Samuel Eliot Morison, the chief historian of the U.S. Navy, who spent much of the war in the Pacific Theater. In Japanese references, the term Sanso gyorai, lit. “oxygen torpedo”) is also used, in reference to its propulsion system. It was the most advanced naval torpedo in the world at the time.

Battle of the Delta

Battle of the Delta was a sea battle between Egypt and the Sea Peoples, circa 1175 BCE when the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repulsed a major sea invasion. Illustration by Igor Dzis

A contingent of the Sea Peoples Invasion came by water. The Ramesses III reliefs text at Medinet Habu, Western Thebes, states that there was a naval encounter at the mouths of the Nile in the Delta. The king’s defensive measures included a stockade of lances that was set up on the shore to impede the enemy ships. At the minimum, this was done to prevent the Sea Peoples from landing their troops. In the accompanying reliefs, perhaps reflecting artistic sensibility, only four Egyptian ships attack five Sea Peoples war vessels. The king remained on land while his archers provided the necessary attack force. No chariots were employed because the battle was fought from shore to ship and from ship to ship. The naval victory was celebrated at a coast fortress. Ramesses III indicates the types of ships employed in this defense, and that they were also divided into three groups: ordinary transporters, galleys, and coasters. The first term was the most common one, and we can assume that the king requisitioned all types of Nile-bound vessels in order to provide his defense. The second refers to cargo ships whereas the third was employed for naval vessels undertaking lengthy voyages in the Mediterranean along the eastern coastline of Palestine and Syria.

The naval battle, quite rightfully, has been the subject of much study. The ships of the enemy reflect an Aegean tradition, one that was based on relatively long sea voyages across a large extent of water. In other words, they were not mere coasters or trading vessels. The hulls of the enemy fleet were angular and the prows and sternposts vertical. In addition, it seems that the Egyptian fleet blockaded the river outlets in order to prevent the enemy from escaping. This novel interpretation implies that Ramesses purposely waited until the enemy was close to disembarking and then, after having trapped them between shore and sea, attacked. In the scenes of battle, the enemy ships are stationary and within range of the land-based archers. Their vessels appear slender and lower in the water than the Egyptian ones, but a problem remains concerning the artistic impression. The Egyptian ships, on the other hand, reveal quite astounding details. Their high angular sternpost has no native parallel. The aftercastles were built with two stories, thereby providing a higher base for the naval archers and giving the helmsman a better position. But the high bulwark that protects the rowers is not known in the Nile Valley even though it was commonplace among the Aegean Bronze Age galleys. The low prow may imply the practice of ramming and therefore reflect a technological defense against the maritime activities of the Sea Peoples. This interpretation, however, seems questionable. Under Ramesses II and III the Egyptians began to employ a type of merchant ship hitherto unknown within the Nile Valley. These ships, called menesh, were probably built in the royal dockyards. But they were not developed from local sailing vessels known to the Egyptian for many centuries earlier. Lucien Basch has proposed that these menesh were derived from the north, and he pinpoints Syria, although Phoenicia is meant, as the origin. Known from the early years of Ramesses II, these ships were also present in the naval battle of Ramesses III against the Sea Peoples but operated as well in the Red Sea for voyages to the fabulous land of Punt, inland from the Somali coast or, as has been recently argued, along the southern coastline of Arabia. By and large, it seems reasonable that in Dynasty XIX, if not somewhat earlier, the flotilla of Egypt was reorganized according to the naval traditions of the Phoenicians. Their ports had close connections with various peoples traversing the eastern Mediterranean, and possibly their shipwrights had developed the high prows and sterns of other foreign sea cruisers. Moreover, these high prows were also common in scenes of the Syrian ships that unloaded their produce at Thebes in Dynasty XVIII. It appears reasonable to conclude that the Egyptian state improved its own merchant and combat navy during the second half of Dynasty XVIII and the first part of the succeeding dynasty in order to transport soldiers and to deliver “tribute” from Asia. Later, however, they would be used in sea combat.

The reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus. At any rate, the juxtaposition of both fleets is so close that we must conclude that only the final hour of the battle is pictorially recorded. The melee appears similar to a land battle, with the tactics of the Egyptian navy dependent upon the use of archers, thereby reflecting the New Kingdom tradition of the composite bow. In other words, just as with chariots, bows and arrows provided the main element of fighting.

Although the navy (such as it was) was certainly not as extensive as the navies of contemporary nations/states. For much of the Dynastic Period, shipping in the Mediterranean was mostly commercial, not military, but this seemed to change towards the latter part of the New Kingdom, when the Delta coastline was under threat from several seaborne foreign armies. For example, there was a raid by Sherden pirates in the second year of Ramesses II’s reign; these pirates were not only defeated, but were also incorporated into the Egyptian military as mercenaries. However, Ramesses II’s reaction to this seemed to be the building of multiple fortresses along the coastline, rather than increasing the number of military ships.

Most of the time, the ancient Egyptian fleet seems to have been used more for the transport of troops to battlefields as quickly as possible for the active engagement in naval battles. For example, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, Kamose (making a point to emphasise the amount of timber to be used in the construction of the flotilla) arranged for his fleet to lay siege to the Hyksos capital of Avaris, the soldiers and war supplies being transported to the site more quickly than they could be by marching overland. This would change to some extent later in the New Kingdom, but not hugely.

Much of the evidence for actual naval battles and warships seem to come from the reign of Ramesses III, when (in the eighth year of his reign) the Sea Peoples attacked at the Delta border. They came first over land (but were defeated in a single battle at the northern edge of the Sinai desert) and then by sea, where they were defeated in what seems to have been a fairly epic naval battle. This naval battle is portrayed at the mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, where the relief depicts handto-hand combat between the Sea Peoples (on five boats) and the Egyptians (on four boats which were, naturally, larger than their Sea Peoples counterparts). Ancient Egyptian artistic sensibilities and aesthetics must be taken into account here and it is safe to say that perhaps the numbers of vessels depicted on the reliefs do not accurately reflect the actual numbers that took part in the battle. It is possible, as with the smiting scenes discussed elsewhere, the artists were instructed to portray the superiority of the Egyptian fleet, or maybe there simply was not enough room on the relief to fit in the correct numbers of vessels.

The Egyptian vessels have rows of up to twenty-two oarsmen along with archers and foot-soldiers (although the exact numbers are difficult to discern with any precision), outnumbering the people on board the Sea Peoples vessels, where it is argued that the figures on-board must have doubled-up as warriors and rowers. The Egyptian vessels are described as having low prows, high, angular sterns, with ‘aftercastles’ of two storeys, and a high bulwark. The Sea Peoples boats were angular, with vertical prows and sterns (very much in the tradition of Aegean ships), designed to do well on long sea voyages. One of the Sea Peoples vessels has seemingly capsized or been brought down by the Egyptian flotilla and the Sea Peoples dead are seen floating in the surrounding water. As with the Sherden pirates discussed above, the Sea Peoples were apparently also assimilated into ancient Egyptian empire after Ramesses III’s victory, although in the long-term this solitary victory was only putting-off the unavoidable as the region of Canaan was lost to the Sea Peoples by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

It would seem that most of the time, particularly during the latter part of the Dynastic Period, any Egyptian fleet was mostly used to protect and enforce Egypt’s trade interests. For example in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the Saite pharaohs created a large fleet of war-galleys, in the style of Graeco-Phoenician ships, in order to regain (albeit temporarily) control of trade in the Levantine.

Despite this evidence for some aspect of naval warfare later on in Dynastic Egypt, throughout most of the Dynastic Period Egypt’s military forces were chiefly land-based, resorting to naval battles rarely, with the flotilla mostly being used to transport equipment and soldiers to battles. Certainly, there is a dearth of evidence for Egypt’s flotilla in the New Kingdom, but there is a wealth of evidence for the land-based forces; this either suggests that the sea-based military was not as important or developed as the land-based army, or that there is simply an annoying lack of primary resources providing relevant information. The former is the most likely explanation, with the land-based military indeed being far more advanced and essential to Dynastic warfare than the ancient Egyptian navy (such as it was).

Sea Peoples by Johnny Shumate.

Sea Peoples

They were a confederation of various groups who were active as pirates and marauders in the Ramessid Period, the Nineteenth Dynasty (1307-1196 B. C. E.) and the Twentieth Dynasty (1196-1070 B. C. E.). RAMESSES II (r. 1290-1224 B. C. E.) sought a pact with the HITTITE ruler HATTUSILIS III, in defense against these wide-ranging attackers, and MERENPTAH (r. 1224-1214 B. C. E.) faced one contingent of them during his reign. The actual listing of the Sea Peoples, however, dates to RAMESSES III (r. 1194-1163 B. C. E.), who destroyed them.

The Sea Peoples recorded on the walls of MEDINET HABU at THEBES include the Ekwesh, believed to be Greek Achaeans; Teresh, Anatolian sailors, possibly the Tyrrhenians; Lukka, an Anatolian coastal people; Sherdana, probably a group of Sardinians; Shekelesh, identified as members of the Sicilian Siculi; Peleset, from Crete and the ancestors of the Philistines. Others not identified with certainty were the Kizzuwatna, Arzawa, Zakala, Alasiya, Tjeker, and Denyen. The MESHWESH, Libyans who were always active in Egypt’s Delta, were also listed.

Originally some of the groups had fortified cities and worked copper mines. Displaced, the Sea Peoples conquered CYPRUS and blockaded Syrian ports. They began their first campaigns near their homelands. The Mycenean Greeks repulsed them, but other nations, including the Hittites, endured their aggression.

In Ramesses III’s eighth regnal year, the Sea Peoples had attacked Cilicia, CARCHEMISH, Palestine, Arzawa, CYPRUS, Amurru, and the HITTITES and had arrived in the Delta region with the Libyans. These marauders came in carts, bringing their entire families to the invasion. They wore kilts and headdresses of feathers or pleated stiffened cloths and they carried spears, short swords, and round shields. The Great HARRIS PAPYRUS adds other details.

Ramesses III met the Sea Peoples who were entering Egypt as migrants, not as marauders. Crop failures in the eastern Mediterranean region caused these nomads to destroy entire cities in their movement. They sought the safety of the Nile, and Ramesses III had to repel land and sea assaults. He moved defensive units to the eastern border and fortified the Nile branches in the Delta. By allowing the Sea Peoples to enter certain Nile branches and then moving floating islands and debris behind them, Ramesses III trapped entire contingents and annihilated them. Others he took as prisoners and forced them into his armed forces or made them slaves.

Egypt withstood their assaults, but the Sea Peoples changed the political matrix of the Mediterranean. One group that managed to escape Ramesses III’s assaults were called the Peleset. These are believed to have been the Philistines documented in Palestine. Some records indicate that the Peleset, or Philistines, were sent into Palestine to control the area there for Egypt.