K-Verbände Attacks against D-Day shipping III

There were reinforcements already en route to France by the time of the loss of the 361 K-Flotilla Negers. Sister unit 363 K-Flotilla had completed three weeks of training during the early part of July before travelling to Saalburg near Rudolstadt and drawing sixty human torpedoes from the Torpedoarsenal Mitte. This arsenal was the central issuing depot for the human torpedoes, their batteries and pressure chambers fully charged there before despatch. All necessary equipment for the pilots was also stored and issued from there. The young pilots enjoyed a short recreational stay in Paris before they arrived at Villers at the beginning of August. There they also joined the newly-arrived men of 362 K-Flotilla whose experience thus far mirrored their own.

After already suffering heavy losses, of whom many had been taken prisoner, a fresh directive was given to the new Neger crews that comprised a simple code to be used in the event of capture. By this method the Kriegsmarine could be notified of the results of their mission. In a letter written from the POW camp and delivered via the Red Cross the pilot was to use the first letter of the third line to indicate the target attacked: K would mean cruiser (Kreuzer); Z a destroyer (Zerstörer); B an escort ship (Bewacher); S an MTB (Schnellboot); L a landing craft (Landungsboot); T a transport (Transportschiff) and N would denote no target at all (Nichts). The first letter on the fifth line would then specify the result of the attack: V meaning sunk (versenkt); T denoted torpedoed (torpediert) and B indicating that the target had been damaged (beschädigt).

It was 362 K-Flotilla’s Marders that first took their place immediately in the front line, transferred to their jumping-off area at Villers-sur-Mer on 2 August and launching their attack that same night. They comprised a portion of a larger attacking force, joining the Negers of 361 K-Flotilla, fifty-eight human torpedoes deployed in total. In conjunction with them, sixteen control and twenty-eight explosive Linsens from Houlgate’s 211 K-Flotilla were also earmarked for the operation. As well as these forces the Germans intended to divert attention from the K-Verbände by use of a Luftwaffe attack and S-Boat sortie from Le Havre by units of 2. S-Bootflottille as well as the planned deployment of the Dackel (Dachshund) torpedo for the first time.

The Dackel (TIIId) torpedo had been developed as a coastal-defence weapon, improvised from the standard G7e electric torpedo. It was designed to give an exceptionally long range for use against targets such as concentrated invasion shipping where weapon speed was not important. Equipped with the Lage unabhängiger Torpedo (LUT) pattern-running apparatus that allowed a torpedo to be fired from any angle and run a desired course, the Dackel was able to cover 57km at 9 knots while carrying its 6201b warhead into action. The LUT gear installed had been slightly modified to allow a straight run of 34,600m before embarking on the first of what could be a maximum of 2,650 long pattern legs. Enlarged to 36ft by the addition of an empty battery chamber immediately behind the warhead, into which was fitted compressed air bottles that could provide enough air for the operation of depth gear and steerage during over three hours of travel, the weapon could be fired from S-Boats or rafts thus negating the costly and time-consuming exercise of constructing launch bunkers. It was estimated that if Dackels were fired from the entrance to Le Havre they could reach the Allied disembarkation area off the Orne River and their bombardment station off Courseulles, 29km and 37km distant respectively. Allowed to run their patterns under cover of darkness, Marinegruppenkommando West expected great results despite protestations from Schnellbootführer that with the low profile provided by S-boats, any possible targets at 29km distance would be beyond the visible horizon. He also correctly pointed out that original plans to launch at twilight – giving the entire night in which to run – were untenable due to Allied fighter-bombers. The S-boats would be forced to depart at night under cover of darkness. He further reckoned that the only possible method of firing was thus by compass bearing, using two waypoints to triangulate and obtain a true bearing of possible targets, transmitting this information to the S-boats by radio. He also feared that inaccurate firing data, faulty running and the effect of strong tidal movement on the slow running torpedoes might wash one ashore thereby revealing the LUT gear to the Allies. He was, however, overruled. As events transpired, the new weapon was never destined to play its part in the operation of 2/3 August. In the wake of heavy bombing the necessary loading gear was put out of action and the torpedoes remained ashore.

On schedule, the diversionary force of S-boats from Le Havre slipped from harbour. Several times that night they skirmished with what they took to be three British MTBs, S167 being damaged in a collision and SI 68 and SI 81 hit by enemy fire. All the remaining boats reported splinter and machine gun damage, though there were no serious losses. The Luftwaffe was scheduled to operate over the clustered shipping off Sword Beach between midnight and 02.00hrs on 3rd August. An hour later the K-Verbände would begin their attack. However, as the operation was launched there were severe delays in taking to the water, particularly with the human torpedoes, while four control Linsens and eight explosive boats never put to sea at all. Of those that sailed, only seventeen Negers and ten control Linsens returned, claiming a substantial total of enemy shipping sunk after suffering heavy defensive fire and constant harassment from the air from Spitfires of 132 Squadron as dawn broke. The human torpedoes claimed two destroyers, two corvettes, one 10,000-ton cruiser or troop transport and one merchant ship estimated at 3,000 tons sunk. Like his comrade Gerhold, 24-year-old Oberfernsch-reibmeister Herbert Berrer of 361 K-Flotilla was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 5 August for what was recorded as his part in the sinking of a 10,000-ton freighter and previously sinking another enemy ship during the attack at Anzio. With two Knight’s Crosses awarded and requiring urgent replenishment of their depleted ranks, the Neger pilots of 361 K-Flotilla were returned to Germany, headed to Suhrendorf/ Eckernforde (‘Dorfkoppel’) where they were issued with the improved Marder and later transferred onward to Denmark on 30 September.

The nature of the human torpedo as an effective weapon has often led to them being characterised as a suicide weapon, akin to the Japanese ‘Kaiten’ which truly was a human torpedo with no separate warhead capable of detachment. Though we have already mentioned the small number of SS men for whom assignment to the K-Verbände appeared to have been of a probationary and perhaps even suicidal nature, in general usage it was clearly untrue of the Neger and Marder. However, the fighting ardour of the young volunteers also hints at a near suicidal attitude, as evidenced in the SKL Diary entry regarding this operation.

Three officers of the Marder Flotilla as well as one cadet officer, one NCO and five men announced shortly before the start that they would make contact with the enemy and completely destroy any worthwhile targets, regardless of their radius of action and question of getting back. These men did not return from the operation.

In turn the Linsens, who had lost one officer and eight men, claimed one transport, one freighter with a ‘lattice mast’ and an LCT sunk. This optimistic appraisal of results once more caused a storm of enthusiasm amongst the units that reached all the way to Berlin. However, seven of the returning control Linsens (Kommandolinsen) also reported having to discharge one Ladungslinse each during the run in to the target, the explosive boats lost as a result of ‘technical failure’. Between them, the Linsens and Negers reckoned to have destroyed between 40,000 and 50,000 tons of enemy shipping, their attack leading onshore observers to report:

‘Seven explosions some of them with high jets of flame and large mushrooms of smoke and another succession of loud explosions … during the hours 02.30 and 06.00.’

In fact they had definitely sunk only three ships. The first of the sinkings, the ‘Hunt’ class destroyer HMS Quorn, had had an eventful career thus far during the war, striking mines twice and being one of five destroyers that intercepted the German raider Komet in the English Channel during 1942. In June 1944 Quorn was an escort for personnel convoys during Operation Neptune until hit and sunk during the K-Verbände attack, the violence of the explosion almost rending the hull in two. Four officers and 126 ratings were lost.

Already having been torpedoed twice while serving in the Mediterranean earlier in the war, Christopher Yorston … was up in the gunnery tower when Quorn was hit.

‘Within seconds I was in the water, looking up at the ship split in half,’ he said. ‘If I had been in a cruiser, where the gun turret is completely sealed, I’d have been a goner. I grabbed hold of the first thing in the water, a lump of wood, and a converted trawler picked me up. It’s the luck of the draw.’

Norman Ackroyd was another survivor from HMS Quorn. Part of the No. 3 gun crew on the quarterdeck, he remembers no mention of the Small German Battle Units that eventually destroyed his ship:

No, we were not warned before about explosive motorboats or the human torpedo but if we had I doubt at the time if it would have caused much more than passing interest, after all we were using weapons of a similar nature.

One unusual event before we sailed that night was that we were warned that it was a punishable offence not to wear a lifebelt at sea (very few of us did). We were also ordered to check our lifebelts and if it was found to be faulty to draw a new one from the stores. I found that mine would not inflate and drew a new one but it must have been damaged when I left the ship, as it would not inflate when I was in the water. Thinking about this afterwards it must have been considered at the time that we would be taking part in a very dangerous mission the following morning.

The ship had been part of the beachhead defence force for some nights before, on the night of August 3rd we sailed as normal just before dusk … accompanied by an American radar ship and we were informed over the tannoy that at dawn we were going in close to Le Havre in order to bombard the E-boat pens. The American ship was to control the shelling. Just before midnight however there was a massive explosion amidships and I understand she had been hit in the boiler rooms, broke in two, and sank in a few minutes. I personally was blown overboard by the blast and found myself in the water fully dressed. A large number of my shipmates must have gone down with the ship but there were quite a lot of us in the water. The American ship left the scene at full speed which caused a lot of resentment at the time but it was explained to us later that if she had stayed she would possibly have sustained the same fate as Quorn.

I personally did not see the American ship depart at speed but I was told of this by others when we survivors wondered why we had not been picked out of the water by them. Just after Quorn was sunk there was quite a lot of us in the water but by morning when we were picked up only a few were left. 130 lads lost their lives that night out of a crew of just under 150. We were informed after that the ship had been sunk by a German human torpedo … and that the German pilot had been picked up by another of our destroyers of the defence force. We were also told that we had run into a number of these torpedoes which were being carried into the beachhead by the tide but as a result of the Quorn being sunk the alarm had been raised and the other torpedoes had been dealt with.

The two other confirmed sinkings were that of the 545-ton ‘Isles’ class minesweeping trawler HMT Gairsay engaged in clearing the dense German minefields, hit by a Linsen, and LCG764 rammed by two Linsens simultaneously. The LCG (Landing Craft Gun) was an example of the ‘Mark 4 Landing Craft Tank’ that had been converted to provide close inshore fire support during amphibious landings. Carrying a crew of around fifty, including a sizeable Royal Marine detachment, these craft carried two 4.7in guns mounted facing forward with one superimposed to fire over the other on a reinforced deck over the tank well, with large quantities of ammunition above the waterline as well as three 20mm cannons.

Further to these three ships, three others had been so severely damaged that they were eventually written off. The transport SS Fort Lac la Rouge on bareboat charter to Britain’s Ministry of Transport from the US Maritime Commission and the Liberty ship SS Samlong were both considered structural losses. Fort Lac la Rouge had been one of the vessels constructed in an accelerated building programme instigated due to the heavy losses suffered by the Allied Merchant service in the war’s early months. Ships were commissioned from Canada and the United States for management by British Shipping Companies, the names of those built in Canada all prefixed ‘Fort’ along with their sister ships the ‘Parks’ and the U.S. built ‘Oceans’. Hit and badly damaged, Fort Lac la Rouge was beached at Ouistreham, after which her cargo was discharged. Towed to Cardiff and then Newport for survey, the freighter was eventually moved to the River Torridge where she was laid up until broken up in 1949. Likewise SS Samlong was so badly damaged that it was towed to Blackwater River and laid up as a structural loss. The last of this unfortunate trio was another warship, the ageing cruiser HMS Durban. The largest warship victim of the K-Verbande attack, this cruiser had served in the Royal Navy since 1921, one of its most notable assignments alongside the destroyers HMS Jupiter and Stronghold when they had provided the escort for the last convoy of evacuees from Singapore bound for Batavia before the bastion fell to the Japanese in 1942.

As the K-Verbände retired to lick their wounds and prepare for another attack, the delayed Dackel were put into action in the early morning hours of 6 and 7 August, launched by S-boats from the Le Havre approach buoy: six boats (S 174, S 176, S 177 of 2 S-Flotilla, S 97, S 132 and S 135 of 6 S-Flotilla) firing between 01.36hrs and 02.34hrs on the first night, three boats between 02.26hrs and 02.50hrs on the second.

The Linsens sortied once more on the night of 9 August, twelve control and sixteen explosive boats departing the Dives estuary in three separate groups to attack shipping off Sword Beach. Four of the control boats failed to return from the attack, which was timed to coincide with Dackel torpedoes launched between 03.59hrs and 04.20hrs by three S-boats. The survivors claimed one destroyer, one escort vessel, one LST and six merchant ships hit. Again, the results were enthusiastically greeted by German naval command and on 12 August Ltn (V) Alfred Vettner, Group leader of 211 K-Flotilla was also awarded the Knight’s Cross.

Our group [4 Rotten] went with Ltn Alfred Vettner … from Trouville for service against the Allied invasion fleet.

The Linsens, with the pilots in them, were pushed over the beach on their carriages and into the sea where they floated free and formed up. The course was laid in and the journey begun. First the command boat then explosive boats number one and number two. The sea was quiet and the moon shone in the sky.… After a short time the enemy shone searchlights high over our heads in our direction. I was the command boat leader and behind me sat both remote controls for the explosive boats. We remained lying quietly after disengaging the engines until the enemy fired star shells and then we increased speed. After we acquired the target we gave the pilot of number one boat the signal to go faster and the Linsen sprang forward in the water. We sped behind the explosive boats also at full speed. The remote control took over steering only on the final shot at the target. I, as pilot of the command boat, had the task of picking the other pilots up out of the water. It wasn’t long before I sighted him and pulled him, with his help, onto our forward deck. I noticed by a sudden flash at the Linsen, that the enemy had been hit. But now I had to concentrate completely on my task and save my comrades. An enormous explosion told us of our success.

Then it was the turn of target number two, but this time our luck ran out. The escorts shot at us with every barrel and the second boat was sunk. Also it took some time to search for the second Linsen pilot in the water, but we did find him and dragged him on deck too.

We had success with nearly every one of the explosive boats. But on the return we were attacked by Allied fighter-bombers and lost a command boat with all of its passengers.

The seas off Normandy remained perilous for the Allied fleet as Dackel were deployed again on the nights of 10 August (three S-boats launching ten torpedoes) and 14 August (two S-boats launching eight torpedoes). During this period the cruiser HMS Frobisher, the freighter Iddesleigh, the Algerine class minesweeper HMS Vestal as well as the minesweeper repair ship HMS Albatros (a 4,800-ton ex-seaplane carrier) were all damaged. Albatros was hit forward, over 100 casualties suffered in the blast and declared a write-off, though later placed in reserve and recommissioned as a minesweeper hulk.

HMS Frobisher had been part of Bombarding Force D covering landings on Sword Beach during D-Day, before being damaged by a bomb hit and later assigned as depot ship for the Mulberry Harbour B at Arromanches. Leslie Finlay remembered the Frobisher being hit in an article published in The Newcastle Evening Chronicle 60 years later.

I was below and it was 7.30 in the morning and I had just made the tea, it was D-Day+9 or 10, so I’d just made the tea and there was such a bang. And one of the first things you do is you want to get to the top. I think I was the only one hurt, because the teapot fell on my foot. Out of 800 I was the only one hurt.

However, the value of the Dackel in combat appeared to be minimal, even to optimistic German naval staff. The Führer der Schnellboote (FdS) raised serious doubts with SKL as to the reliability of reported sinkings, presenting the following on 16 August:

‘… [a] survey of the Dackel employment sector from the 4th to the 11th August, which enclosed six operations off Le Havre with a total of 76 torpedoes.

FdS believes only the sight and detector sets of two specially equipped direction finder stations to be reliable as far as observations were possible during night and in the twilight, when judging the observations of effect. The same applies to the observation post of Operational Staff Böhme. In return observations of the naval and army coastal batteries were regarded as unreliable and expelled, just so, observation from the Luftwaffe stations. Also flying reconnaissance is not reliable as they very often take firing ships’ artillery for detonations.

The FdS, without pronouncing a final sentence to the value of Dackel operations, is therefore sceptical to the majority of reported observed successes, as real observations from the sinking of ships were not at hand and especially as the radio monitoring up to now made no reports about torpedoing, averages, sinkings, etc.

Once again the remaining Neger pilots were sent into action on the night of 15 August. Their target was the concentration of Allied shipping off the Dives estuary and fifty-three Negers from 363 K-Flotilla were earmarked for the attack (six had become unserviceable due to damage in transit from Germany). However, atrocious weather conditions of thunderstorms and heavy rain – combined with inexperienced launching parties – virtually foiled the attack before it had begun. Only eleven craft were launched, seven of these returning prematurely due to the bad conditions. The remaining four valiantly stuck to their plan and claimed a munitions ship hit and sunk. Five of the Negers were lost at the launching site.

K-Verbände Attacks against D-Day shipping IV

The last roll of the dice for the Neger crews of 363 K-Flotilla came the following night when forty-two set sail from Villers-sur-Mer. Their deployment was to be matched by other Kriegsmarine units involved in torpedo operations in the south of the Seine Bay, committed to the waters off Dungeness and also mining the sea off North Foreland. Only sixteen Negers would return, the remainder falling victim to depth charges, surface defensive fire and air attack. Matrosengefreiter Wolfgang Hoffmann was one of the fortunate few to survive.

He had patrolled the Seine estuary in search of targets until nearly full light the following day. Finding nothing, Hoffmann was about to fire his torpedo at a barge to which was tethered a barrage balloon when he sighted an Allied speedboat heading across his path at high speed. Attempting what was a doubtful shot at best, Hoffmann released his torpedo but, unsurprisingly, missed the speeding craft. He then headed for home; hugging the coastline until at about 10.00hrs he was sighted by Allied fighters and attacked. Hoffmann quickly cut the power on his Neger and the torpedo sank by the stern so that it was nearly vertical, the young pilot hoping that it would either resemble a buoy or look like it was already sinking. Not fooled by his subterfuge, the fighters continued to attack, one bullet hitting the Plexiglas cupola, splintering it and allowing some water to enter. Hoffmann restarted the motor and regained horizontal trim, firing a distress flare through the shattered canopy, after which the aircraft stopped their attack and banked away from him. It had been a lucky escape and some two hours later Hoffmann was able to stagger ashore once again on the German-held coastline.

Seven Neger pilots were captured during the mission, another mortally wounded and taken with an intact machine by the support craft LCS251 as he sat dying at the controls. The Neger was soon returned to Portsmouth for investigation. The German pilots claimed to have sunk one destroyer and one freighter as well as the probable destruction of another destroyer. In actuality a single small landing craft, LCF11, and the small 757-ton barrage balloon vessel HMS Fratton were sunk, the latter with twenty-nine of its crew. Two torpedoes also impacted against the ancient French battleship Courbet, though this had already been deliberately sunk as a Gooseberry blockship. A hit was also registered on the 5,205-ton transport ship Iddesleigh though this too had already been beached following damage sustained from a Dackel hit six nights previously. The return course of the surviving Negers revealed the dire situation of the German frontline in Normandy: they were ordered to make for Le Havre as the position at Villers was no longer tenable. Böhme and his staff would also relocate to Le Havre on 18 August, shortly afterward moving onwards to Amiens.

It was the end of the Neger’s deployment in western France. The original concept of the midget service weaponry had been to use a rotating selection of weapon types; once the Allies had learnt to counter one, a new type could be despatched. However, the Neger was clearly no secret to the Allies and obviously vulnerable due to their inability to dive. Thus their tenure in the frontline could no longer be justified and they were soon withdrawn entirely from combat, replaced by the Marder. The Linsens too were no longer novel to the enemy, consequently on 18 August both 363 and 211 K-Flotillas were also withdrawn from the coast.

The Negers of 363 K-Flotilla relocated to St Armand Tournai in Belgium and the Linsens to Strasbourg in preparation for shipment to the south of France where a fresh Allied invasion, ‘Operation Dragoon’, had begun on 15 August. The last Negers passed over the Seine on 20 August as a fresh batch of sixty Marder human torpedoes -Oblt.z.S. Peter Berger’s 364 K-Flotilla – arrived in Le Havre from Reims in Germany. They too were directed to Tournai to await possible redeployment to the south of France though naval planners were acutely aware that they faced severe transportation problems between Belgium and the French Mediterranean coast. Shortly thereafter OKM ordered the transfer of both 363 and 364 K-Flotillas to the Mediterranean. There they would pass from Böhme’s command into the localised control of Kommando Stab Italien and be made ready for action against the Allied forces of Operation Dragoon.

However, before their relocation the mauled remains of both 362 and 363 K-Flotillas returned to Suhrendorf via Amiens, Tournai and then Lübeck, to take charge of the improved Marder design, even this movement order proving to be problematic in an increasingly hostile occupied country. As well as the omnipresent threat of air attack, other forces had risen against the Wehrmacht troops, Mechanikermaat Dienemann being killed by French partisans during the road journey.

The now veteran pilots of the K-Verbände flotillas had by this time adopted a tradition of the U-boat service. Men of 362 K-Flotilla now sported silver seahorses on their caps as a flotilla emblem, the pilots of 363 wearing a small silver shark, its tail adorned with a red stripe for each successful mission. Between them they had amassed considerable awards for valour, the K-Verbände no longer labouring under the image of an untried service, but now revelling in the brief flare of propaganda attention. Once in Germany, 363 K-Flotilla’s commander L.z.S. Wetterich, who had been wounded in action off the Normandy coast, was invalided out of active service and remained at Suhrendorf to oversee future training, replaced by L.z.S. Münch as nominal flotilla chief while Wetterich retained his title as Senior Officer. The flotilla received sixty Marders, these split into six groups of ten for the purposes of training, each group commanded by a man of at least Fähnrich rank. As established in the Neger units, the flotilla would total approximately 110 men, though many of the logistical branches were only attached during combat and were shared with other human torpedo units. The flotilla composition comprised sixty pilots, sixty truck drivers to haul the Marders into position from the nearest railhead where they had been taken by railroad flat car, plus fifteen to twenty engineers and up to thirty-five headquarters staff and administrative personnel.

Tournai became the new concentration point for K-Verbände forces with the despatch of 261 K-Flotilla’s twenty-five Biber one-man submarines from Germany for the Belgian town on 21 August. A flotilla of Molchs was also due to arrive there from the Fatherland eight days later, but last minute appreciation of the lack of possible launch sites for this latter submarine diverted them to the south of France and Mediterranean operations.

The Biber and Molch designs were the first of what could be rightfully called midget submarines to be committed to the front line by OKW. The Biber (Beaver) was the brainchild of K.K. Hans Bartels, developed by Lübeck’s Flenderwerke and modelled closely on the British Welman craft that had been captured at Bergen on 22 November 1943. The progress on delivering a working submersible was remarkably rapid given that negotiations between the builders and Bartels began on 4 February 1944 and within six weeks they had a prototype ready for testing – the so-called ‘Bunteboot’, named after Flenderwerke Director Bunte, though known more widely as ‘Adam’. Visibly different to the eventual finished Biber design, Adam measured 7m long with a beam and draught of 96cm each. Displacing three tons of water the small boat could dive to 25m, running for two and a quarter hours at six knots. This speed almost matched her surface capability of 7 knots, though the craft’s endurance was rated at 91 nautical miles for surface travel using a petrol engine.

Following the unexpected sinking during the first attempted ‘Adam’ trial, further tests undertaken in the Trave River on 29 May proved highly successful and an immediate series of twenty-four craft were ordered, with several slight refinements that led to the final Biber model. The submarine was not without its faults though, the most prominent being the use of petrol engine power rather than diesel for surface travel. Heye expressed extreme misgivings about the use of petrol and its subsequent risk of carbon-monoxide poisoning of the operator and explosion from an accumulation of highly-combustible fumes from the engine. However, the designers and officers of Marinegruppenkommando Nord responsible for the trials expressed no such misgivings. Their rationale was that while there was an acute shortage of suitably-sized diesel engines, there were an almost unlimited supply of petrol engines that could fit the submarine’s purpose and they were almost silent into the bargain. Heye’s fears were overruled and the Biber went into immediate production at both Flenderwerke and the Italian Ansaldo-Werke, further labour on the hulls later farmed out to Ulm’s Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz and other manufacturing companies. Thus the three sections were built in three distinct geographic locations and later assembled, almost as envisioned by Dräger years before. The specially constructed trailers used to transport the finished submarines were made by a firm in Halle and it was this asset of transportability that the K-Verbände rated highly. It was even suggested to use this portability to its most extreme by transporting a Biber by Bv222 flying boat to Egypt. There the aircraft would land either on the Great Bitter Lakes or the Suez Canal and the Biber released to find and torpedo a ship so as to block the strategically vital waterway. Fortunately for the pilot of this submarine, the far-fetched plan was abandoned as unworkable.

Costing 29,000 Reichsmarks each to produce, the final Biber model displaced 3.645 tons of water, the length having been increased to 9.035m, the beam to 1.57m with torpedoes and the draught remained the same as ‘Adam’s’. Two torpedoes of near zero specific gravity comprised the Biber’s usual armament, the torpedoes having to have neutral buoyancy lest they swamp the small parent craft with their weight and also obliterate any chance of keeping trim on discharge. This reduction of weight was achieved by the removal of half the battery from the weapon, accepting the loss of speed that this reduction would incur. Thus the TIIIb (Marder torpedoes) and TIIIc (Biber, Seehund and other midget submarine torpedoes) were capable of only 5,000m at 17.5 knots. The Biber’s two weapons were slung from an overhead rail, one on either side of the boat at the top of a scalloped cavity. They were launched with compressed air stored at 200 Bar in five steel bottles, the high-pressure air also being used for blowing ballast tanks.

As well as the torpedo, the Biber was capable of carrying mines on its twin racks. Generally the mines used were the Magnet-Akustisch-Druck (MAD) combined magnetic-acoustic-pressure triggered weapon. This was smaller than the standard midget torpedo, measuring between 5 and 5.5m in length, though having the same diameter. Set to explode by a ship of over 6,000 tons displacement passing overhead, the trigger relied on all three mechanisms to explode the warhead. The mines were heavier than torpedoes, therefore the two hemispherical ends of the weapon comprised of float chambers to offset this negative buoyancy. Correspondingly Bibers were subjected to a slight heeling to one side if a torpedo was carried on the opposite rail. When the mine was released, a spring-loaded lever held in place on either end of the mounting rail was also released, springing upward and piercing the float chambers though on discharge the mine had the disturbing habit of rising to the surface due to the slightly positive buoyancy, generally remaining there for about three minutes until enough water had flooded the holed compartments to make it sink once again. Perhaps more alarmingly the Biber also had a tendency to surface after releasing the mine, the weapon’s centre of gravity lying slightly to stern of the Biber’s, causing the boat to be in turn slightly bow heavy when loaded. Upon release, unless the operator was exceptionally skilled, the general counterbalancing action of the freed submarine would lift the bow too rapidly to be stopped.

Nevertheless, this was not necessarily a fatal design flaw. The Biber’s true Achilles Heel remained, as Heye had feared, its petrol engine and the resultant accumulation within the small craft of toxic and highly flammable fumes. A 2.5-litre, 32hp Opel-Blitz petrol truck engine provided this main propulsion, the 225 litres of petrol carried in the small craft’s tank giving a surfaced range of 100 nautical miles at 6.5 knots. Exhaust from the engine was vented outboard via a pipe that ran from the engine compartment to a small enclosure aft of the conning tower. For submerged travel the Biber was provided with three battery troughs (Type 13 T210) carrying four batteries in total (two of twenty-six cells and two of twelve cells) and a 13hp electric torpedo motor turned the 47cm diameter propeller, providing 8.6 nautical miles at 5.3 knots plus a further 8 nautical miles at 2.5 knots. The diving depth had been slightly decreased to 20m because the balance of size and weight had meant a corresponding use of 3mm sheet steel for the pressure hull. Internally, the three-sectioned hull (bolted together with rubber flanges between the joins) was strengthened by flat bar frame ribs spaced about 25cm apart. The flanges themselves were sometimes prone to leaking and Biber pilots were instructed to dive their boats for two hours to check the seals before they would be released for combat duty. One Biber veteran, Heinz Hubeler, later recounted that he had made many such dives, dropping to the seabed and reading a book until an alarm clock that he had taken for the purpose indicated that his two hours were over.

The relative weakness of this segmented hull was exacerbated by the twin-scalloped indentations that allowed streamlined stowage of the torpedoes but lessened depth charge resistance. Two heavy-duty lifting lugs were fitted to the upper hull fore and aft to enable moving by crane. Another lug was welded to the stern for towing something behind the small submarine, while yet another was fitted forward to enable the vessel to be towed to its operational area. However, experiments at using Linsens to tow the Biber resulted in failure as the small motorboats could not develop sufficient power, while S-boats were also unsuitable as they created too much wake for the Biber. Thus this task would fall to the overworked minesweepers of the R-Flotillas stationed in the combat zone. These were by no means ideal, especially those highly manoeuvrable craft fitted with the directional Voigt-Schneider propellers, but they were the best that could be provided for the K-Verbände.

The small conning tower in which the pilot’s head naturally was positioned was made of aluminium alloy casting bolted onto an oval aperture in the hull. Six rectangular ports – one aft, one forward and two others each side – provided armoured-glass windows for the operator to view his world around him. A circular hinged hatchway above was held in place by a single internal clip, another window in it providing upward view for the pilot as well. Expectations were high as the first completed Bibers began to be issued for training of their prospective crew.

However, the Biber was not an easy craft to handle. Two circular wheels, one slightly smaller in diameter than the other but both turning on the same axis immediately in front of the pilot, controlled a wooden rudder and single wooden hydroplane. It was undoubtedly a complicated and highly skilled manoeuvre to handle the hydroplane and rudder simultaneously while at the same time observing the compass, depth gauge and periscope, and perhaps even using the bilge pump as well. Correspondingly the Biber moved almost entirely surfaced, a freeboard of about 60cm showing when at normal trim, submerging only when it was absolutely necessary.

Compensating and trimming tanks had been dispensed with and solid ballast was stowed during preparation for operational use. While at sea, weight and trimming changes could only be accomplished dynamically or by partial flooding of the diving tanks situated fore and aft, both tanks free flooding with small vents in the top. This in turn made it nearly impossible to remain at periscope depth meaning that torpedo attacks also had to be conducted surfaced, though the Biber was theoretically capable of submerged firing. Pilots perfected the art of lying silently on the bottom in shallow water while awaiting an opportune moment to surface and attack whatever targets were at hand, though often when tanks were blown the Biber had an uncomfortable habit of shooting rapidly to the surface rather than making a stealthy appearance.

The periscope itself represented another problem. Due to the space constraints within the tiny aluminium conning tower the periscope was only capable of being directed forward, providing vision up to 40° to the left and to the right. The windows provided in the tower frequently became iced during the winter months rendering them useless; the pilot virtually blind other than what was visible through the periscope. Distance was difficult to estimate through the periscope, though it was fitted with cross-hairs, thus the whole operation was one of ‘point and shoot’, the torpedoes running at a little over 3m below the surface. If the forward windows were able to be used, a ring and cross hair sight was fitted near the tower that could be lined up with a bead fixed to the bow for surface firing.

Navigation was aided by a projector compass, the magnets for which were housed at the top of a sealed bronze alloy tube some 75cm in length, rigidly fixed to the forward end of the conning tower immediately in front of the periscope, passing through the tower ceiling to extend some 45cm above the craft. Behind the periscope was the boat’s air intake. Originally only 30cm above the conning tower, this was increased to a metre, all three masts joined together by metal bracing. Like the subsequent Seehund design, air was drawn in and circulated through the pilot compartment before reaching the engine, therefore acting as a source of fresh air for both the machinery and crewman. Once closed down for action the pilot was left a single oxygen bottle for breathing from, approximately thirty-six hours of air available.

Instruction for the Biber crews was undertaken at Blaukoppel near Schlutup opposite Lübeck’s Flenderwerft shipyard where the boats’ segments were primarily assembled. The camp of wooden huts was relatively isolated, three-quarters of a mile from the nearest tramline. Reckoned to require eight weeks of training, the first batch of pilots were rushed through in three, ready to follow Bartels into their first operational assignment. During their schooling the prospective pilots were often brought in to familiarise themselves with Bibers still in repair or construction in the shipyard workshops – almost a microcosm of the Baubelrung undertaken by U-boat crews. The men were next despatched to the depot ship Deneb that lay in Lübeck Bay, the Bibers in use resting either nearby in the water or housed in barges off Travemünde. Those who swiftly displayed a flair for the small submarines were tasked with instructing their flotilla mates while Bartels remained supervisor at Blaukoppel as Senior Officer, assisted by his small staff that comprised an Adjutant, Oblt.dR Mitbauer, Senior Engineering Officer, Obit. (Ing) Endler, Staff Officer, LdR Steputtat, Torpedo Officer, Lt(Ing) Preussner, and Chief Instructors, Oblt.z.S. Bollmeier, L.z.S. Bollmann, L.z.S. Kirschner, L.z.S. Dose and Oberfähnrich Breske.

The first three Bibers were delivered to Blaukoppel in May 1944, and were taken over by the eager recruits of 261 K-Flotilla. The following month saw six more completed, the number eventually rising to a production high of 117 Bibers completed in September.39 Each of the eventual ten planned Biber flotillas were supposed to consist of thirty boats and their pilots apiece, supported by an ancillary staff of nearly 200 men. As an example of the organisation of these combat units, the headquarters staff for 261 K-Flotilla as it headed for operations in France comprised:

Senior Officer: Kaptlt. (MA) Wolters (replacing Bartels who remained in Lübeck)

Engineering Officer: L.(Ing.) Schwendler

Torpedo Officer: Obit. (T) Dobat

C.P.O. (Navigation): Obersteur. Kramer

Medical Officer: Oberassistentarzst Borcher

An unnamed mine specialist officer and shore personnel numbering nearly 100 were under the command of Stabsoberfeldwebel Schmidt.

After being put onto an operational footing in August, Kaptlt. Wolters’ flotilla of Bibers faced a daunting journey from Blaukoppel to the front-line base allocated in France. As they neared the enemy the large trucks towing the canvas-draped Bibers on their trailers came under increasing pressure from air harassment as well as becoming aware of the proximity of several enemy armoured formations as the Wehrmachfs western front crumbled rapidly.

Days after the Bibers departed Germany, a fresh Linsen flotilla was also despatched, bound for Fecamp. However, the military situation on the ground had so changed by 30 August that the Linsen unit was halted in Brussels while OKM debated the wisdom of deploying them against British convoy traffic off Boulogne or Calais. As the situation worsened, they were eventually completely withdrawn and sent via Ghent to München-Gladbach in the Rhineland before possible transfer to the south of France. Their luck had deserted them though as they clashed with British armoured units at the start of their new road journey, taking heavy casualties and losing several Linsens. The mauled remains were transferred back to Lübeck for refitting before planned redeployment to the south of France. As events transpired it was to Groningen – west of the German border in The Netherlands -that the flotilla would eventually be sent on 23 October.

Wolters’ Biber unit at Tournai had in the meantime been transferred to Fecamp harbour on 29 August having also suffered losses on the way – this time to enemy aircraft. They were to be immediately launched against Allied shipping in the Seine Bay, but difficulties in getting them into the sea caused a postponement of 24 hours. By the night of 30 August, twenty-two of them had been placed in the water but due to the destruction of port facilities, damage to several Bibers and the loss of many personnel through the persistent air attacks only fourteen were able to actually sail between 21.30 and 23.30hrs. After nearly nine hours of strong winds and heavy seas twelve returned without reaching their target area, the remaining two, piloted by L.z.S. Dose and Funkmaat Bosch, claiming to have sunk a Liberty Ship and a large merchant ship between them before they too successfully returned to harbour.

In action the Biber pilots were subjected to the same trying conditions that the pilots of the human torpedoes had been. As most Biber sorties would last from one to two days – and subsequent Seehund sorties sometimes as many as ten days – German midget crewmen received a special, low-bulk or ‘klinker-free’ diet. Once under way they were instructed that during the first 24 hours they must use food tablets and thereafter energy tablets – including the DIX amphetamine cocktail – which would keep them going for another 24 hours. If they were reluctant to use DIX, which many men were once the side effects became known, many ate ‘Schoka-Kola’ a type of chocolate that comprised 52.5 per cent cocoa, 0.2 per cent caffeine and the balance sugar. To compound their discomfort many Biber pilots suffered from seasickness and owing to the inherent danger of water entering when the hatch was opened, vomited instead into the bilge. This in itself was unpleasant enough, though it was also something that had to be carefully monitored by the pilots, as one of the initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning is nausea and vomiting.

After this single costly exercise the Bibers at Fecamp were withdrawn to München-Gladbach. Travelling by road they once again suffered heavy casualties along the way as Allied ground-attack aircraft controlled the skies by day. As the German convoys raced for safety, Allied pursuit caught traces of the K-Verbände units left behind on the French roads. Among them was Royal Marine Patrick Dalzel-Job, an experienced commando who had worked for Combined Operations since 1942 and ironically had taken part in training aboard the Welman midget submarine. In 1943 he had been transferred to 30 Assault Unit -a specialised group of Marines and naval officers that raced alongside more orthodox combat units at the front-line, tasked with finding men and equipment from Germany’s naval secret weapons programme, gathering all available intelligence regarding the Kriegsmarine.

On 2 September, Patrick arrived in Fecamp to learn from liberated locals that the last eight Bibers had only recently departed on their long, low trailers concealed under canvas and towed by heavy trucks. Patrick and his men managed to trace the submarines to Abbeville, and eventually discovered one on the Amiens-Bapaume road, abandoned after suffering severe damage from Allied aircraft attack:

It was almost an anti-climax after such a long search; there it was, off the side of the road where the towing lorry must have left it – a midget submarine, itself intact, on a burnt-out trailer. It was indeed much more like a miniature of a normal submarine than were the British Welmans with which I was already familiar, and it carried two twenty-one-inch torpedoes instead of the Welman’s delayed-action nose charge. Given the right circumstances and a skilful pilot, it could no doubt be a formidable weapon.

The captured Biber, its interior ravaged by fire possibly ignited by the attack or in an attempt by its crew to destroy its controls, was transported back to Portsmouth where it underwent careful inspection.

In the meantime Kommando Stab West, K.z.S. Friedrich Bohme and his staff, had also departed for the same destination as the retreating Biber unit on 1 September, marking the end of K-Verbände West’s presence in France.

The PBR Story

A Uniflight pleasure craft and a PBR steam side by side. Both boats shared the same 31-foot fiberglass hull and were constructed in Bellingham, Washington. The PBR typified the ability of American manufacturers of the period to quickly develop specialized equipment for the military based on off – the- shelf technology.

This late-model Mark I boat (PBR-130) on the trailer features four finned underwater exhaust pipes for quiet running and two water jet nozzles with gates, shown here in the up position for forward motion. If they were in the down position, covering the nozzle discharge opening, the closed gate would cause water to shoot under the boat, resulting in reversing the boat’s motion.

The PBR’s life began at Hatteras Yacht Company in New Bern, North Carolina, in the spring 1965. Responding to a request for a 30-foot patrol boat, Hatteras’ president, Willis Slane, proposed a 28-foot fiberglass hull powered by water-jet pumps. Water jets would allow the new boat to operate in extremely shallow water. Enthusiastic about the proposal, the Bureau of Ships asked for a prototype. Slane, who had flown transports over the Hump for the Army Air Forces during World War II, gave it his all. Working 24-hour days, his team of builders and suppliers produced a working prototype in just two weeks. Powered by jet pumps manufactured by Indiana Gear Works and fitted with a wooden deck and a speedboat style windshield, the boat achieved speeds of up to 30.5 knots. Sadly, Mr. Slane did not live to see his creation showcased. The night before the demonstration, he died of a heart attack. Sarah Phillips, a long-time employee, had warned her boss to slow down, but Slane, who suffered from diabetes, ignored these warnings, ultimately working himself to death to transform his vision into a working prototype.

Impressed with his boat, the Navy asked for bids for a patrol boat similar to Slane’s beloved prototype. The boats had to achieve speeds of 25 to 30 knots, draw just nine inches of water while cruising, and accommodate a crew of four along with extensive equipment and weaponry, including a twin .50-caliber machine gun in an armored turret forward and a .30-caliber gun (later replaced by a .50-caliber) aft. Making matters even more challenging for the vender, the Navy requested 120 boats in less than six months. United Boatbuilders of Bellingham, Washington, won the contract with the lowest bid. Unlike Hatteras, which was primarily a builder of recreational boats, United had extensive experience working with the Navy, having previously built boats ranging from 15 to 52 feet under Navy contract. The eventual Mark I design incorporated United’s 31-foot fiberglass cruiser hull along with a completely new, Navy-designed superstructure. Twin General Motors’ 216-horsepower diesel engines powered the boat’s water-jet propulsion system, and Raytheon Pathfinder 1900N radar provided enhanced navigation and target acquisition capability. Fully loaded, the boat weighed 14,600 pounds and could reach speeds of up to 25.7 knots—slower than the Hatteras prototype but within the Navy’s specifications for a 25–30-knot boat. The original boats cost $75,000 each ($547,000 in 2014 dollars).

The beauty of the PBR design was its innovative application of off-the-shelf technology to a military role. The commercially manufactured Styrofoam-filled fiberglass hull, for example, would prove remarkably durable in combat. Unlike metal, it did not rust or corrode and was strong enough to withstand beaching. It was also relatively easy to repair. But most remarkable, shaped warheads often failed to trigger on the hulls: lacking a solid target to detonate, they tended to penetrate and exit the boat’s hull without exploding.

The PBR’s jet propulsion system allowed the boat to travel on virtually any waterway in the delta and perform maneuvers impossible for the traditional, propeller-driven boats. A PBR could run over a sandbar or beach itself on dry land without damaging the propulsion system and could stop or turn 180 degrees in its own length. Lieutenant Peter A. Huchthausen, a PBR officer in charge based in My Tho, developed a begrudging respect for the boat’s newfangled capabilities during training at Mare Island, California. “A PBR handled so well at high-speed that the slightest touch of the helm caused immediate and violent reaction. At slow speeds it was an obstinate beast. Successfully handling the PBR at lower speeds required the coxswain to turn the helm exactly the opposite than would be done on a normal boat because of the reverse effect of the nozzles.&helllip; Nevertheless, the ardent small-craft handler could learn in short order to set these bundles of energy smartly alongside a pier, even against the strong river current.” One of Seaman Jerry Hammel’s favorite tricks to play with his PBR was to spin it around on a single axis like a top. “You could hurt somebody if you did not tell them ahead of time what you were going to do. You could throw them off the boat.”

The PBR, though, was not immune to problems. Fully loaded, the Mark I PBR ultimately drew one foot 10.5 inches of water—far more than the nine inches planners had originally requested. The Mark I boats deployed to Vietnam never attained the trial speed of 25 knots. The GM engines, almost uniformly, could not reach speeds greater than 2600–2650rpm (rotations per minute) compared with the trial speed of 2700rpm. Many crews exacerbated the problem by carrying extra engine oil, water, and ammunition. “The boats were way slower than advertised,” lamented Fred McDavitt. “If a crew added a couple extra boxes of .50-cal ammo or carried the patrol officer and/or a Vietnamese policeman, the boat could barely achieve speeds above 12 knots.” At the heart of the PBR’s shortfalls were the Jacuzzi pumps, which greatly reduced the efficiency of the GM engines—so much so that with screws instead of water jets, one Uniflight representative told Fred McDavitt, the boat probably would have achieved speeds in excess of 40 knots.

To make the boats lighter, some crews removed engine covers and other unessential equipment. BM1 Williams often went out on patrol with just three-quarters of a tank of fuel and a minimum ammunition load, figuring that if his boat got into a real jam, the HAL-3 Seawolves could back him up with their helicopters’ extra firepower. Engineman Fireman (ENFN) Clem Alderson, a young River Section 531 sailor from Washington State, increased the maximum speed of Williams’ 105 boat and several others to 30 knots by shimming the governors of the engines so they could run as high as 3,200rpm as opposed to the 2,800 maximum rate set by the factory. Alderson also grafted triangular shaped wedges to the underside of the hull about three quarters of the way aft so that at about 12 knots the boats would “jump” up on the step and achieve speeds up to 25 knots. “Alderson had a surgeon’s touch,” explained McDavitt, “but no matter how fast your PBR could go, it couldn’t outrun a bullet. Speed, such as it was at 30 knots, provided a false sense of security.”

Other problems with the Mark I models included drive shafts that did not stand up well to the rigors of Southeast Asia and fiberglass hulls that were easily damaged during sampan and junk searches. 56 The hulls also developed leaks from pinhole cracks, as well as bullet holes, which caused water to seep into the Styrofoam between the fiberglass layers and slow the boats down. To rectify the problem, the boats had to be removed from the water and quarter-inch holes drilled in the keel to allow the water to drain. These holes, in turn, had to be patched with fiberglass.

Finally, just about every PBR crew complained about the constant need to clean clogged jet pump intakes. The screen over the intake had sharp blades, which cut up most of the water hyacinth and other plants before they entered the pumps, but what little got through this filter could wreak havoc on the propulsion system. When an intake clogged during a high-speed run, the PBR would make an unexpected U-turn known as a “flying 180,” occasionally sending equipment and crewmembers tumbling off the boat. To prevent such mishaps, boat captains had their crews clean the intakes once or twice per patrol, depending on the amount of flotsam on the river. Seaman Jere Beery vividly remembered the unpleasant duty: “The intakes are on the bottom of the PBR and I would have to strip naked, jump in, go underneath the boat, and clean them.” On occasion, a live snake would be caught in an intake. According to Lieutenant Robert P. Fuscaldo, “some of those snakes were pretty angry. We used to try and lift the cover off the pumps and push them out with a broom handle, but sometimes that didn’t work and you had to go underneath and pull them out, so it was interesting.”

Despite these issues, the boat generally performed better than expected given how hastily they were procured. As one Naval Ship Systems Command report explained, the PBR “was not built to current U.S. Navy standards,” nor was it subjected to an “adequate test and evaluation period.” Not surprisingly, a few bugs arose once it deployed in combat, but most were resolved expeditiously in theater. Author Tom Cutler, a veteran of the riverine forces, phrased it more eloquently: “Born in an atmosphere of urgency and tested under actual combat conditions, the PBR could have been a disaster. Instead, it proved to be a fierce little combatant that accomplished its mission.” More than anything else, the PBR demonstrated that off-the-shelf technology could be adapted for military use when circumstances demanded it.

In the blue-water oriented Navy of the Cold War, the PBR was a unique vessel in other ways as well. In contrast to the average Essex-class carrier of the period, with a crew of more than 2,600 men, the average PBR carried just four men: a boat captain, an engineman, a gunner’s mate, and a seaman. Initially, boat captains were junior officers and chief petty officers, but as the war progressed, a select group of first- and second-class petty officers also was given the opportunity to command these boats. In no other Navy command or ship were enlisted sailors given so much responsibility. Every crewmember cross-trained to perform every role on the boat, and during combat everyone was a gunner. For enlisted men accustomed to performing highly specialized work on large ships, the jack-of-all-trades nature of the PBR experience made them feel like sailors of yesteryear, and the danger of the rivers led many to think of themselves as a an elite group—a status unofficially conferred by the black berets they adopted as part of their uniform. “It was a unique experience to be on a 31-foot boat in the middle of a country where everyone wanted to kill you,” recalled Jere Beery. “You really develop a since of camaraderie.” Beery’s African-American shipmate, Seaman Harold Sherman, claimed many years later that it was the only assignment in his entire Navy career where he did not experience some form of racism.63 McDavitt agreed that PBR service was unique but challenged its “elite” status. “A lot of people ended up in riverine warfare who had been ‘volunteered’ from other commands,” he said. “We were no different from any other ship in the Navy.”

Patrols lasted up to 18 hours and covered distances of up to 35 miles from a base. For chow, sailors subsisted mainly on canned rations heated on the engine manifolds. To liven up the menu, some crews purchased kerosene camp stoves to prepare seafood and vegetables purchased from the locals. Eating Vietnamese food, however, was not without risk. Bacteria on unwashed produce could easily send a sailor running to the stern of the boat to defecate. Signalman 2nd Class Roderick Davis of River Section 512 described this act, known as “hanging ten,” as practically an Olympic event. “One had to step over the transom, drop trou, squat down on the flat stern board, hold on while hanging out, and finally, wipe while holding on precariously with one hand. Thence step back inboard. It took courage, skill, and balance and you could get points at the end of the exercise for a good dismount.” For the PBR sailor, privacy was the first casualty of war.

PBRs generally patrolled in two-boat sections. The main mission of the patrols during the day was inspecting river craft for contraband and checking IDs. One PBR would approach a contact at an angle, which allowed all weapons to concentrate on the target, and the crew would conduct the search while the other PBR stood at a distance to provide cover. All searches were to be conducted midstream as far from the shoreline as possible. Between 2100 and 0600, the patrols enforced night curfews and on occasion ambushed Viet Cong river crossings. Interdiction, in short, was the major objective of Task Force 116. The February 1966 Game Warden Operation Order stated that PBRs would not participate in shore assaults with the VNN River Force, nor would they normally conduct patrols in waterways and canals off the major rivers. If ambushed from the shore, the operation order advised PBRs to make a speedy withdrawal. “River Patrol Force Boats,” it noted, “are not designed, armed, or armored to stand and fight against superior firepower in the manner of VNN RAG craft.” Air strikes or artillery support could always be called in against the target following a tactical withdrawal.

The initial rules of engagement as promulgated in the February 1966 operation order allowed PBRs to stop any South Vietnam-flagged vessel (or one with no flag) to demand identification or search the vessel. Since PBRs did not have time to search every sampan and junk on a river, they often randomly chose their quarry. If a sampan failed to heed orders to come to, warning shots could be fired, but a sampan could not be engaged directly until its occupants fired first on the PBR. The staff officers who devised the operation order understood the counterinsurgency nature of the Game Warden mission and wanted to avoid alienating the local populace through the use of excessive force. Nevertheless, the inherent conservatism of these rules of engagement often put the PBR crews at a distinct disadvantage in combat. As Peter Huchthausen wrote, they “gave the enemy the luxury of choosing when and where to engage,” and whittled away “our advantage in firepower … to an easy parity with the Viet Cong.”

Bored with the endless searches of sampans and junks, some PBR sailors sought out firefights either by setting up night ambushes or by venturing up some of the smaller rivers and canals in the delta. Signalman 1st Class Chester B. Smith, a boat captain and patrol officer with River Section 531, explicitly favored night patrols because of the curfew. “We had full authority on the river after sunset,” he said in an interview. “If we saw something moving, we could go after it. You could not necessarily shoot them, but you could go after them because they were fair game. The philosophy was that if you could get them in a compromising situation, they would want to shoot. If they did, we could then return fire. There was nothing there that could outrun us unless they had a tremendous jump on us.” On occasion, this type of aggressiveness led to spectacular successes, but tragedies also occurred when some patrol officers were too bold. On large rivers the PBR’s maneuverability and firepower made them difficult targets, but in narrow canals or near the shore, the advantage rapidly shifted to the enemy. As critical as some sailors were of the TF 116 Operation Order, it was designed to minimize risk and maximize the impact of the River Patrol in stopping infiltration.

Battle of Ösel Island

After the victory of Gangut the Russian fleet, which now enjoyed free rein in the western skerries of Finland, reached Abo and occupied the Aland Islands. This greatly lifted morale and considerably stiffened the fighting spirit of the Russian troops. Gangut was given the name “Poltava at Sea” and its anniversary (July 27) became a celebrated tradition in the Russian Navy.

The year 1715 was marked by new Russian victories in the Northern War. The squadron of Captain Pyotr Bredal, three frigates and a snow captured three Swedish ships during a desperate fight in the open sea. In response, the Swedes attempted to engage the Russian ships at Revel, but failed. New victories nearly always meant new allies. Thus, England and Holland, interested in seaborne trade with Russia, sent a large convoy of merchant vessels and an escort squadron to the Baltic. Exploiting his success and the favorable position it gave him, Peter next decided to organize an allied Russian-Danish landing at Sconia, a southern province of Sweden.

In the summer of 1716 the Russian fleet, now concentrated off the Danish coast, was joined by Danish, British and Dutch ships. The allied armada was under the command of Peter I, who hoisted his ensign on the stellar ship of the Russian fleet, the 64-gun Ingermanland. The Russian force included frigates, small cruisers and eighteen ships of the line.

The allied armada set sail for Bronholm. Fearing that engagement with such a strong fleet would prove unsuccessful, the Swedes blockaded themselves in Karlskrona. Although final victory was at hand, considerable discord prevented the allies from bringing their mission to a successful conclusion. The summer of 1716 was not blessed by victory: the landing operation in Sweden did not take place, and the Northern War continued.

Moreover, Charles XII died in December 1718, putting an end to the peace negotiations which had already begun. England, now anxious over the obvious strengthening of Russia’s position in the Baltic, took up the side of the Swedes and volunteered to defend their interests with the backing of the English fleet.

It was difficult to stop the Russian forces which, by this time, were firmly established in the Baltic. The Russian fleet had become so powerful that it could now challenge the Swedish fleet on the open sea. In May 1719 Captain Naum Sinyavin left Revel with a group of six ships of the line and a snow to intercept a Swedish unit. On 24 May, the adversaries met not far from Osel Island. Sinyavin, aboard the 52-gun Portsmouth, supported by Captain Konon Zotov on the Devonshire, resolutely attacked the flagship of Swedish Commodore Wrangel. In the fierce fight that ensued, the Portsmouth, despite the loss of sails, managed to hit the 34-gun Swedish frigate Karlskrona Vapen with a fore-and-aft salvo, forcing her to surrender. When the Swedish flagship, the 52-gun ship of the line Wachtmeister, attempted to escape from the Russians, Captain Iakov Shapizo commanding the Raphail and Lieutenant-Commander John Delyap of the Hyagudiil were sent in pursuit. The bloody ensuing fight continued until the Russians overcame the Swedish flagship and forced her to strike her colours. Aboard the captured ships were approximately 110 killed and wounded. Sinyavin’s feat went down in history, and the battle of Osel Island became the first victory of the Russian fleet on the open sea.

Sinyavin was himself promoted to the rank of Captain-Commodore.

Ships involved


    Devonshire 52

    Portsmouth 52

    Raphail 52

    Uriil 52

    Varachail 52

    Hyagudiil 52

    Natalia 18


    Wachtmeister 52 – Captured

    Karlskrona Vapen 30 – Captured

    Bernhardus 10 – Captured

The following year the Swedes attempted to strengthen their position in the waters of the Aland Archipelago. However, the attempt resulted in defeat for Sweden. At the end of July 1720 near Grengam Island the galley fleet of General Mikhail Golitsyn engaged the detachment of Vice-Admiral Eric Sjoblad. Sixty-one Russian galleys and twenty-nine island boats set out against a Swedish ship of the line, four frigates and several smaller craft. Yielding to the enemy’s superior artillery power, Golitsin’s fleet retreated to the skerries. The Swedes started in pursuit of the Russian vessels, but Golitsyn, a shrewd and experienced officer, enticed the enemy into a disadvantageous position and seized his opportunity. The granite coastal boulders, in effect, came to Golitsyn’s aid; two Swedish frigates were run against them, seized and boarded. The Swedes realized their mistake and began to retreat, but it was already too late. The Russian galleys chased the Swedish vessels and in a savage fight succeeded in defeating two more frigates. An attempt was made to overtake the flagship of the Swedish force, and Admiral Sjoblad himself was fortunate to escape on the damaged 52-gun Pommern.

The Battle of Grengam, 1720 by Ferdinand Victor Perrot. The Battle of Grengam of 1720 was the last major naval battle in the Great Northern War that took place in the Åland Islands, in the Ledsund strait between the island communities of Föglö and Lemland. The battle marked the end of Russian and Swedish offensive naval operations in Baltic waters. The Russian fleet conducted one more raid on the Swedish coast in spring 1721, whereupon the Treaty of Nystad was signed, ending the war.

The Battle of Grengam in the skerries became an important page in the history of the Russian fleet. The Swedish 34-gun frigate Stor Phoenix, the 30-gun Vainqueur, the 22-gun Kiskin and the 18-gun Danska Orn were all taken captive. The Russian forces suffered losses of 285, while the Swedes recorded 510 casualties.

In 1721, the final year of the Great Northern War, Russian galleys ravaged towns along the coast of Sweden in a series of raids. It was now clear that the Kingdom of Sweden was no longer the dominant power in the Baltic Sea, a position the Swedes had enjoyed since the days of the Vikings.

Ingermanland 64 (“Ингерманланд”, 1715) – memorial ship 1724, BU after 1739. Ingermanland is a Russian tsar sailing battleship. It marks the beginning of Russia’s great plan for ship construction. It was constructed in 1712, launched in 1715 and became the flagship of Peter the Great in the campaigns of 1716 and 1721 during the Great Northern War. It has a 46.02 meter and 12.8 meter wide deck and 5.56 meter hull height.

Age of Exploration – Vessels


Portuguese Galleon The Frol De La Mar

Among the technological advances of the Age of Exploration, one stands out from all the others in the literature of the subject, and everyone tends to agree: there occurred a remarkably fast innovation in ship design and construction that enabled Iberian mariners-and by extension those other Europeans who followed, such as the English, Dutch, and French-to establish a mastery at sea. From Africa to the Malacca Straits, to China, to the Americas, European ships overpowered their competitors-native maritime cultures–and set up a maritime and naval supremacy that pushed Europe to dominate much of the world.

Concomitant with ship design was the adaptation of the gun to naval warfare, a transition so important that Parker noted it constituted a “revolution in naval warfare. . . in early modern Europe which.. . opened the way to the exercise of European hegemony over most of the world’s oceans for much of the modern period.”

The history of ship design and evolution is an immensely varied subject, complicated by the many terms and languages employed, the parallel evolution of ship types in some instances, the various claims of different nationalities that sometimes obscure fact from nationalist myth. For our purposes, the principal breakthroughs came in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when Iberians, for all practical purposes, adapted existing ships and sails to produce two vessels, the caravel and the nao, or ship, that carried the explorers far beyond the confines of European and Mediterranean waters.

By way of background, seagoing vessels had evolved into two general types, the long ship and the round ship. The longship, a descendant of both Mediterranean and Scandinavian forerunners, was propelled most often by oars, was quite maneuverable, and was employed for the most part as a warship. Generically termed “longship,” in Spanish literature it appears most often as a galera. Galeras and variations of the type formed the backbone of the Christian fleet that defeated the Turks at Lepanto on 7 October 1571.

The round ships in the Iberian fleets were relative newcomers compared with the galeras which traced their lineage to the ancient Phoenicians and Vikings. The roundship, or nao, sometimes called nauio by the Spanish, was driven solely by sails, tended to be quite broad in relation to its length, rode fairly deeply in the water, and, compared to the galeras, maneuvered sluggishly in adverse conditions. It was preferred by merchants who could ship large amounts of cargo at a low operating cost, since the crews necessary to man these vessels were a fraction of the sailors and soldiers a galera required. The galleys that fought at Lepanto each carried almost 400 men, prompting one observer to note that “when every man is at his post, only heads can be seen from prow to stern.” The origin of the roundship were probably Mediterranean, although the Arabian maritime culture of the Indian Ocean also produced vessels with similar characteristics.

The breakthrough for the eventual supremacy of the roundship over the longship came some time in -the late Middle Ages. Until then, square sails, set on one or two masts, had been the common means of propulsion. With a following or quarterly wind the vessels moved a decent clip and answered the helm reasonably well. However, winds forward of the beam left these wide, deep merchantmen with little alternative but to wait patiently for fairer breezes and better days. The solution to the problem was the adoption of probably an Arabic invention, the lateen sail, which was added to the after or rnizzenmast. The lateen sad had long been in use in the Mediterranean and its evolution is associated with that area, just as the square sail is thought to have evolved in Northern Europe.

The lateen sail, roughly triangular, could be worked into a variety of positions to catch the wind coming from virtually any direction except dead on. The Portuguese were the first successfully to utilize lateen-rigged caravels that carried explorers slowly down the African coast in the fifteenth century, discovering and colonizing some of the Atlantic island chains as well, such as the Azores and Madeiras. But the lateen-rigged caravels also had some disadvantages. They were hard to come about when tacking and their awkwardness in this respect limited their size, and thus the power they provided. Thus, when lateen sails were combined with square sails, a configuration was achieved which combined power-square sails with maneuverability-lateen sails. Here terms get confusing, for we have various descriptions-carrack, full-rigged ship, nao, nauio, galleon-all which represent various stages in the improvement in this new ship design that came about in the fifteenth century.

Other improvements in hull construction further facilitated the Iberian advantage. Sometime around 1000 AD “. . . instead of putting together the external skin of the ship first. . . shipbuilders put up the internal ribs and then tacked the hull planking to the external framework.” This method of ship construction allowed for a number of clear advantages: larger ships; more flexible hull designs and shapes; and it was less demanding in shipwrights’ time and skills.

This experimentation in hull design and sail configurations was a dynamic process, combining the various traditions to produce the caravels, carracks, and galleons of the age of exploration. All the while this phase of technological improvement was occurring in hull and sails, Iberians and other Europeans were also experimenting with what proved to be a most lethal combination and, indeed, perhaps a “revolution” in naval warfare, by adapting guns on ships.

As we consider the rise of European superiority at sea in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we need to maintain some perspective. It was not an unqualified, meteoric rise, marked by shell-shocked Muslims in the Indian Ocean and Chinese junks drifting to oblivion as Iberian, and later Dutch and English, warships and traders swept the oceans of their competitors. There were setbacks. But there was the near inexorable rise of Iberian superiority at sea, and the ease with which the Spanish conquered much of the Americas. Although disease played as much, if not a greater role, than technology in that part of the world, the role of cannon and technology employed are worth considering in some detail.

It has been fashionable now for some time to emphasize weapons, and specifically, guns, as preerninent factors in the rise of the European dominance, and not without some just cause.” A sampling of the literature is clearly unambiguous on this subject. “Non-European countries never succeeded in filling the vast technological gap [referring to guns and artillery] that separated them from Europe. On the contrary, in the course of time the gap grew conspicuously larger.” “. . . Between 1450 and 1650, the emergence of the heavily armed [with artillery] sailing ship transformed the situation.” And, “. . . one of the most important technological innovations during the fifteenth century was the introduction of artillery at sea.”

While the literature on guns and ships is large, and still growing, we can abstract it for the purposes of this essay. Beginning with small, breech-loading, cast or wrought iron guns, and capable of firing about a 4-pound shot, seagoing cannons evolved in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries into effective weapons. As early as the 1430s, Portuguese caravels carried small guns, some mounted on swivels for aiming, most of them delivering missiles as diverse as stone, iron, and lead projectiles. The names of the various guns are myriad, representing not only an industry or art in rapid transition, but national variances.

One of the earliest technological breakthroughs came with the introduction of the muzzle-loading bronze cannons in the fifteenth century. Here we have to pause in an essay that is not technical, but devoted in some ways to the technological improvements in ships and guns that drove the Iberian advantage. Breech-loaded cannons, or those loaded by opening them at the breech end, were cheaper and easier to fabricate, but had some intrinsic weaknesses: they were prone to bursting the barrel or blowing the breechblock out and could only be built for relatively small charges of powder. Muzzle-loading bronze cannon, on the other hand, possessed increased strength because of the fabrication process (casting them in a single piece) and could deliver a much heavier projectile over a longer distance. Bronze muzzle-loaders were, however, expensive to build and demanded a much higher degree of technical skill. As a result, the usual Iberian ship of exploration was equipped often with a combination of muzzle- and breech-loaders, of different calibers and types.

Douglas SBD Dauntless (1938)

This pre-war SBD-1 wears the markings of the commander of VSB-1, a U.S. Marine Corps squadron based at Quantico, Virginia, in early 1941. VMB-1 (later VMSB-132) was the second unit to receive the SBD after VMB-2.

By the end of the war in the Pacific, the venerable Dauntless dive-bomber was showing its age, and yet its contribution to victory in a succession of key naval battles cannot be overstated and its tally of Japanese shipping is unmatched.

This SBD-4 was operated by VMSB-243, part of the 1st Marine Air Wing, based on Munda on New Georgia, part of the Solomons Islands chain, in August 1943.

 The aircraft that found fame as the Douglas SBD Dauntless began life as a product of the Northrop Corporation, which was responsible for the BT-1 carrier-based dive-bomber of 1938, 54 of which were built to serve on the USS Yorktown and Enterprise. When Douglas took over Northrop, the BT-1 served as the basis for a reworked prototype XBT-2 of 1938, which was simply a modified development of the Northrop aircraft. In April 1939 the re-designated XSBD-1 won orders from both the U.S. Marine Corps (57 SBD-1 versions) and the U.S. Navy (87 SBD-2s) in order to equip scout and bombing squadrons of the respective service.

Before U.S. forces were thrust into action in the Pacific, Douglas had flown an improved SBD-3, this being outfitted with an additional pair of machine guns in the nose, self-sealing tanks and the Wright R-1820-52 radial engine. The first SBD-3 took to the air in March 1941, and over 500 examples had been delivered by the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. It fell to an SBD from USS Enterprise to sink the first enemy vessel by U.S. air power in World War II: the Japanese submarine I-70 on December 10.

Similar to the SBD-3, the SBD-4 featured a revised electrical system and was built at the El Segundo, California factory, which delivered 780 examples in the course of 1942–43. A number of photo-reconnaissance adaptations of the SBD-1, 2 and 3 were also completed in the period up to 1942. With the establishment of a new Douglas plant at Tulsa, Oklahoma, production here switched to the SBD-5, of which 2409 examples were built. The SBD-5 produced during 1943–44 was powered by an R-1820-60 engine and was followed by the SBD-6, of which 451 were manufactured with the -66 engine installed. As employed aboard a U.S. Navy carrier, SBDs were generally assigned to one bombing squadron (VB designation) and one scout squadron (VS), part of an overall air wing that also included two squadrons of fighters and one of torpedo-bombers. In practice, both VB and VS units shared similar tasks.

War-winning Dive-bomber

The Dauntless was responsible for sinking a greater tonnage of Japanese shipping than any other aircraft and was central to U.S. naval successes at the Battles of Midway, Coral Sea and the Solomons. This was all the more remarkable considering the fact that the Dauntless was considered obsolescent at the outbreak of the war, and was generally underpowered, vulnerable to enemy fire and limited in terms of endurance. Despite its limited performance, it has been recorded that one Navy SBD crew managed to shoot down seven Japanese A6M Zero fighters in a space of just two days.

In its intended role, the Dauntless made its mark at the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942. In the course of the battle, SBD-2 and SBD-3 models from USS Yorktown combined with Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo-bombers and succeeded in putting the Japanese carrier Shoho to the bottom after a 30-minute battle that cost just three U.S. aircraft.

During the Battle of Midway the Dauntless played the pivotal role, when a force of 128 was launched from the decks of Admiral Chester Nimitz’s carrier groups to seek out the carriers of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in June 1942. The Japanese force was finally discovered with darkness approaching, and the SBDs at the limits of their range and fuel. In the process, 40 of the dive-bombers were lost. The survivors, each armed with a single 1000lb (454kg) armour-piercing bomb, pressed home attacks on the carriers Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, sinking all four (three of them set ablaze in the space of just three minutes) and turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

Subsequent actions in the Pacific saw SBD involved in combat at Rabaul, Guadalcanal and the Solomons, and Truk. By late in the war, the Dauntless had been supplanted by the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in the dive-bomber role, but this aircraft suffered from a number of shortcomings and was never as successful as the SBD that preceded it. Once the Helldiver was on the scene, however, the earlier aircraft began to be relegated to anti-submarine patrol and close air support duties.

In addition to naval service, the Dauntless was also operated by the U.S. Army Air Forces, which designated the aircraft as the A-24 Banshee. USAAF versions comprised the A-24 (168 SBD-3As), A-24A (170 SBD-4As) and A-24B (615 SBD-5As). By the time production of all versions had come to an end, 5936 SBDs had rolled out of the factories.

Other Operators

U.S. Marine Corps SBDs, carrying centreline and underwing bombs, are seen heading for Japanese targets on Rabaul in 1944. The USMC was the second most prolific Dauntless operator, and certainly the most successful outside the U.S. Navy. In all, 20 Marine squadrons flew the Dauntless. Less auspicious was the service of the A-24, which the USAAF had ordered in January 1941. A-24s saw action in New Guinea and at Makin, but the aircraft proved vulnerable to interception by Japanese fighters. In the face of mounting casualties, the USAAF withdrew the A-24 from the front line. The UK acquired nine Dauntless DB.Mk Is (SBD-5s), but after subjecting the aircraft to test in 1944, rejected it for service. The Royal New Zealand Air Force also took the Dauntless into battle, after receiving SBD-3, SBD-4 and SBD-5 models from Navy and Marine stocks. These saw action at Bougainville. The other combat operator was France, which employed A-24s and SBD-3s at Agadir, Morocco, and in metropolitan France in pursuit of retreating German forces from 1944.

The Stunning Combat Record of the Douglas SBD Dauntless

German WWII Submarine Designs

German submarine designs exerted a major influence, either directly or indirectly, on most of the world’s submarine development in the years between the two world wars-except in Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union. All the major navies of the victorious Allies-Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States-received examples of the latest German U-boats under the terms of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles. They intently examined and analyzed these German craft to determine the applicability and suitability of their features for incorporation into their own types and, in several instances, commissioned former German submarines into their own services to acquire operational experience in their use. Both Italian and French designers were very much influenced by studying and operating examples of the later Mittel-U and UB-III types prior to developing their first new postwar boats. The big U-cruisers had even more impact. The first French oceangoing submarines, the Requin class, benefited substantially from their designers’ study of U-cruisers. The big U. S. Navy fleet boats owed a great debt to the German boats (including even their diesel engines, in some cases), and German engineers were intimately involved in the development of the early Japanese kaidai and junsen types.

German design influence spread to lesser fleets too, largely through the activities of the Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw (IvS). The IvS was established in July 1922 at Den Haag in The Netherlands by a consortium of the Krupp and Vulcan shipbuilding yards to circumvent the Versailles Treaty’s prohibition on submarine design and construction. The engineering staff was led by Hans Techel, who had headed Krupp’s submarine design team since 1907, and the firm also received clandestine financial support from the German Navy, which was desirous of maintaining German submarine design expertise despite the treaty. IvS engineers produced submarine designs that were constructed for Turkey, Finland, the Soviet Union, Spain, and Sweden, and also served as prototypes for the German Navy’s Type IIA coastal, Type IA long-range, and Type VII oceangoing U-boats.

German submarines were developed clandestinely, inasmuch as the Versailles Treaty prohibited them in the German Navy. Design work, both at IvS and by the Blohm und Voss firm, continued for foreign navies with production undertaken in the customer’s yards under German supervision. These boats also served as prototypes for domestic production, which made it possible for the first new German submarine, the U-1, to be completed on 29 June 1935, only five weeks after the repudiation of the Versailles Treaty.

The overwhelming majority of the 1,150 U-boats commissioned between 1935 and 1945 belonged to two groups: the so-called 500- ton Type VII medium boats, and the 740-ton Type IX long-range submarines. The Type VIIC actually displaced between 760 and 1,000 tons on the surface, had a cruising range of 6,500 to 10,000 miles at 12 knots on the surface and 80 miles at 4 knots submerged. They had a battery of 5 torpedo tubes with 14 torpedoes, an 88mm deck gun, and ever-increasing numbers of light antiaircraft weapons. Almost 700 of these boats in all of their variants entered service during World War II. The Type XIC actually displaced 1,120 tons; it had a cruising range of 11,000 miles at 12 knots on the surface and 63 miles at 4 knots submerged. They had a battery of 6 torpedo tubes with 22 torpedoes, a 105mm deck gun, and ever-increasing numbers of light antiaircraft weapons. Almost 200 of this type and its variants were commissioned.

Germany also commissioned a number of other important types during World War II. Among the most important were the Type X minelayers and the Type XIV supply boats. Both types operated as resuppliers for the operational boats during the Battle of the Atlantic, providing fuel, provisions, medical supplies, reload torpedoes, and even medical care and replacement crew members. Consequently they became prime targets for Allied antisubmarine forces, and few survived. The other major vessels were the radical Type XXI and Type XXIII boats, designed for high submerged speed and extended underwater operation. Revolutionary streamlined hull shapes, greatly increased battery space, and the installation of snorkels allowed these boats to operate at submerged speeds that made them very difficult targets for Allied antisubmarine forces. Confused production priorities, however, and the general shortage of materials late in the war prevented more than a very few from putting to sea operationally.


The outbreak of World War II found the German submarine arm well trained but deficient in numbers. From the moment of its reestablishment, the submarine force had concentrated much of its effort on validating Kommodore Karl Dönitz’s concepts for an all-out assault on enemy trade using concentrated groups of submarines under central shore-based control to locate and destroy convoyed shipping, primarily through surfaced night attacks (wolf-pack tactics). Dönitz was promoted Konteradmiral in October 1939, but shortages of U-boats, Adolf Hitler’s initial insistence on Germany’s adherence to the Prize Regulations, and demands on the submarine force for its support of surface naval operations prevented him from exploiting the potential of the wolf-pack tactics for most of the first nine months of the conflict. On average only six boats were at sea at any one time during this period, forcing them to attack individually, although some attempts were made to mount combined attacks whenever possible.

As a result of its World War I experience after 1917, Britain was quick to begin the convoying of merchant vessels. There was some initial hesitation because of the feared detrimental effect that convoys could have on the efficient employment of shipping, but when the liner Athena was torpedoed and sunk without warning on 3 September 1939, Britain took this to indicate that Germany had commenced an unrestricted campaign of submarine warfare against merchant vessels. Regular east coast convoys between the Firth of Forth and the River Thames started on 6 September and outbound transatlantic convoys from Liverpool two days later.

The conquest of Norway and the collapse of France in June 1940 brought substantial changes to the U-boat war against trade. From French bases, German reconnaissance and long-range bomber aircraft operated far into the Atlantic, while the operational range of the U-boats sailing from Norway and French Biscay ports increased dramatically. Italy’s simultaneous entry into the war terminated all commercial traffic in the Mediterranean except for very heavily escorted operational convoys bringing supplies into Malta. It also substantially increased the number of submarines available for the Atlantic campaign against shipping, inasmuch as Italian submarines began operating from Biscay ports, effectively doubling the total Axis force at sea. This situation allowed Dönitz to introduce his wolf-pack tactic on a large scale into the Atlantic shipping campaign, just as the British faced an alarming shortage of oceanic convoy escorts because of the neutralization of the French Fleet and their decision to retain destroyers in home waters to guard against a German invasion. The results vindicated Dönitz’s belief in the effectiveness of wolf packs. In the first nine months of the war, German U-boats sank a little more than 1 million tons of shipping, whereas they and the Italians together destroyed more than 2.3 million tons between June 1940 and February 1941. However, the release of destroyers from their guard duties, the addition of new escorts, and the transfer of fifty obsolete destroyers from the U. S. Navy improved the situation. The dispersal point for westbound transatlantic convoys and the pickup point for escort groups meeting eastbound shipping gradually moved westward as the range of the escorts was increased. This pushed the main arena of Axis submarine operations more toward the mid-Atlantic zone, which reduced the time that boats could spend on station. In mid-1941 the United States imposed its socalled Neutrality Zone on the western Atlantic and began escorting British convoys in conjunction with Royal Canadian Navy escorts, operating from Argentia in Newfoundland. North Atlantic convoys now were escorted throughout by antisubmarine vessels. Nevertheless, these additions to the escort force had only a limited impact on losses, since German and Italian submarines succeeded in sinking a further 1.8 million tons in the following nine months prior to the U. S. entry into the war.

The German declaration of war on the United States on 10 December 1941 brought a major westward expansion of U-boat operations against shipping. A disastrous period followed, while the U. S. Navy struggled with the problems of finding the escorts and crews required to convoy the enormous volume of merchant traffic along the East Coast of the United States, and with the very concept of convoy itself. Axis submarines sank more than 3 million tons of Allied shipping between December 1941 and June 1942, well over 75 percent of it along the East Coast of the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, by mid-1942 an elaborate and comprehensive system of interlocking convoy routes and sailings was established for the East Coast of North America and the Caribbean.

As Dönitz became aware of the extension of convoy along the Atlantic East Coast, he shifted U-boat operations back to the mid-Atlantic. His all-out assault on the North Atlantic convoy systems inflicted heavy losses: between July 1942 and March 1943, Axis (almost entirely German) submarines destroyed more than 4.5 millions tons of Allied shipping, over 633,000 tons in March alone. Nevertheless, new Allied countermeasures became available at this crucial moment, and U-boat successes fell to 287,137 tons in April, 237,182 tons in May, and only 76,090 tons in June. Dönitz’s reaction was to deploy his U-boats in areas where Allied antisubmarine forces were weak, anticipating that this would compensate for the lack of success in the North Atlantic. Initially this plan to some extent met his expectations, since sinkings rose to 237,777 tons in July, but the success of the Allied assault on U-boats in transit to their patrol stations rendered the German accomplishment transitory; merchant ship sinkings dropped to 92,443 tons in August, never to surpass 100,000 tons per month at any subsequent time during the war.

The collapse of the U-boat offensive in mid-1943 resulted from the Allies’ concurrent deployment of a series of new countermeasures and technologies that reached maturity almost simultaneously: centrimetric radar aboard both ships and aircraft, efficient shipborne high-frequency direction finding, ahead-throwing weapons that permitted ships to fire antisubmarine bombs forward and thus retain sonar contact, very-long-range shore-based antisubmarine aircraft, escort carriers and escort support groups, and advances in decryption of German communications codes. The U-boat arm attempted to defeat these countermeasures by deploying its own new weaponry, the most important elements of which were radar warning receivers, heavy antiaircraft batteries, and acoustic torpedoes designed to hunt antisubmarines vessels. Not only did these fail to stem the tide of Allied success against the U-boats, but new convoy communications codes also defeated German cryptographers, rendering locating targets much more difficult. Then, in 1944, Allied military successes in France began to force German U-boats to make more extended passages to their patrol areas as their home ports moved farther from the Atlantic; German air bases also ceased to give aircraft quick access to British coastal waters.

During the final year of this conflict, U-boats equipped with snorkels entered service. The production of new, fast elektroboote (the radical new Type XXI submarines with high underwater speed) allowed the first examples to become operational, but their numbers were far too few to make any difference. Also, there were insufficient experienced crews available to exploit their potential and they had design and manufacturing faults. Such was the success of Allied antisubmarine measures during this period that full-scale convoying became unnecessary in some areas, and much of the focus of their escorts turned to hunting U-boats rather than directly protecting merchant shipping. The full measure of the defeat of the U-boats is indicated by the fact that more than two-thirds of the 650 German submarines lost during World War II were sunk in the last two years of the war.

Soviet Naval Infantry

The Soviet Naval Infantry fought during the Second World War, but was then transferred from the navy to the coastal-defence forces before being disbanded in the mid-1950s. On 14 July 1958, however, the president of Lebanon requested urgent aid from France, the UK and the USA to counter a threat by the USSR to deploy Soviet ‘volunteers’ to support pro-Nasser rebels. The US Sixth Fleet was able to land three Marine battalions the very next day, and the threat from the Soviet ‘volunteers’ immediately disappeared. The Marine battalions withdrew on 21 August after what had been a classic exhibition of the value of sea power and amphibious capability.

The Soviet leadership, never slow to learn from such experiences, responded by re-establishing the Naval Infantry, which rapidly became a corps d’élite. in 1961 the Naval Infantry was resurrected; the Soviet Army came to recognize the utility of specialized marine forces for conducting amphibious landings, and each of the fleets was allotted such a unit. Essential to this new policy was the development of amphibious warfare ships, notably the new tank-landing ships (LSTs) of the Alligator class.

The Naval Infantry was divided among the four fleets. From 1961 the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic fleets were allotted a naval infantry regiment, while the Pacific Fleet deployed a brigade. US intelligence assessments from the 1980s indicate that these formations were larger by that time, with brigades deployed by three fleets, and a division with the Pacific fleet.

Each naval infantry regiment comprised three naval motor rifle battalions and a naval tank battalion. The motor rifle battalions each had about 33 BTR-60 amphibious armoured troop carriers, while the tank battalion had a mixed complement of 34 PT-76 amphibious tanks and ten T-55 or T-72 tanks. In battalions with the T-55 tank, three of the ten were often the TO-55 flamethrower type. A naval infantry brigade had two tank battalions and five battalions of naval motor rifle troops, making it nearly double the size of the 2,500-man regiments.

The naval infantry troops, like most Marine forces, were of a higher calibre than normal motor rifle troops of the Soviet Ground Forces. They were better trained than their Ground Forces counterparts, and an increasing percentage were parachute qualified and trained in helicopter-landing operations. There were apparently specialized teams in these regiments trained to employ atomic demolition munitions (ADMs). Soviet ADMs are believed to have been available in several types, weighing 32-36kg each, with an explosive force of 0.1-0.5 kilotons. They would have been used to attack major port or seaside facilities.

The Soviet Naval Infantry force was quite small. It was intended for use on a tactical level as a raiding force, and on an operational level as the spearhead of an amphibious-landing force. Once a beachhead had been seized, further troop landings would be provided by Ground Forces units. For this reason, the Soviet Naval Infantry numbered only about 18,000 troops – compared to the US Marine Corps, which was more than ten times its size. Likewise, the Soviet Fleet’s amphibious warfare ships were inferior in number and sophistication to those of the US Navy. The Soviet Naval Infantry also differed considerably from the US Marines in its approach to amphibious warfare. While the US Marines relied on specially designed armoured, amphibious tracked vehicles (amtracs) for landing operations, the Naval Infantry used the normal Ground Forces BTR-60, which had only marginal performance in the open water. This policy was due in no small measure to the difference in the experiences of the two forces. The US Marines had a tradition of preparing for hotly contested beach assaults, such as those of World War II in the Pacific. In contrast, Soviet wartime experience was mainly against targets without formidable beach defences. Current areas where the Naval Infantry might be used, such as the Danish or Norwegian coasts, were not heavily fortified.

Yet the Soviet Naval Infantry was ahead of the US Marines in the adaption of hovercraft for beach-landing operations. The Soviet fleet deployed over 60 hovercraft in classes, most notably 35 of the AIST class, which was capable of carrying four PT-76 tanks, two T-72 tanks or 220 troops; a fourth class of hovercraft, the Uterok, began entering service in the 1980s. Hovercraft have obvious attractions over armoured amphibious vehicles: against lightly defended beaches, they can quickly land an assault force, and return rapidly alongside the ships of the assault fleet to load up for renewed missions to the beachhead.

Judging by the Soviet Navy’s shipbuilding programmes of the 1980s, the Naval Infantry remained central to Soviet strategic thinking. The construction of further Ivan Rogov-class landing ships, for example, made the Naval Infantry more suitable for employment outside traditional Soviet waters. The Naval Infantry was no longer confined to LSTs alone: the Ivan Rogov class had habitable berths on board, thus permitting long voyages to more distant destinations.

The force expanded, peaking in size and effectiveness around 1988, when it was some 18,000 strong. It fielded:

• one division (7,000 men) of three infantry regiments, one tank regiment and one artillery regiment;

• three independent brigades (3,000 men), each of three infantry battalions, one tank battalion, one artillery battalion and one rocket-launcher battalion;

• four spetsnaz (special forces) brigades, each of three underwater battalions and one parachute battalion.

The Naval Infantry was transported by a growing number of amphibious-warfare ships. Largest were two Ivan Rogov-class dock landing ships, displacing 13,100 tonnes, which carried one Naval Infantry battalion and forty tracked or larger numbers of wheeled vehicles, plus helicopters and surface-effect ships. Fourteen Alligator LSTs were similar in many respects to the British Sir Galahad-class logistics landing ships (LSLs); with a large cargo capacity and bow and stern doors, these were intended for follow-up operations rather than the assault wave. Principal assault vessels were the thirty-seven Ropucha LSTs, which were built in Poland. Smallest were forty-five Polnocny-class small tank landing ships (LCTs), also built in Poland, which displaced some 1,000 tonnes and had a payload of six battle tanks.

The Naval Infantry seized on the surface-effect ship (SES) as an effective way of transporting marines ashore, and developed a number of types including the Pomornik, which could carry three battle tanks, and the Aist, which carried two. Under development at the end of the Cold War was the Orlan-class wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) vessel, designed to transport up to 150 troops at speeds of up to 300 knots. Both the SES and the WIG vessels were very fast compared with normal amphibious shipping, and were designed for short ‘hooks’ in support of a ground advance, or for lightning attacks on crucial targets in the Baltic and Black seas, both types of operation having precedents in the Soviet experience in the Second World War. These craft were another example of the flexibility of thought in the Soviet forces, which produced some novel solutions to the problems facing them.

The Soviet Naval Infantry (marines) numbered some 12,000 during this period, organized into regiments (one each stationed with the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific Fleets.) These forces were tailored for amphibious assault, but were largely directed to support the activities of the fleets to which they were assigned. However, as the Soviet-Syrian exercise in 1981 showed, they did have the capability to operate in a power projection role, as did the presence of Soviet amphibious forces in the Indian Ocean during this time. A total of 83 amphibious ships supported these forces. Supply could have been provided by the Soviet merchant marine, numbering some 1,723 ships by mid-1982.

In displaying American geopolitical will vis a` vis the USSR, the US Navy increasingly revealed the weaknesses of its Soviet counterpart. The Soviet Navy was never able to match the wide-ranging exercises of the Americans during the 1980s, as its Okean maneuvers in 1970 and 1975 had done. This is not to say that the Soviet Navy was idle. A major amphibious exercise was undertaken in July 1981 by Soviet and Syrian forces in the Eastern Mediterranean involving over 1,000 Soviet Naval Infantry. In September of that year, the Soviet Navy deployed 60 ships and landed more than 6,000 Naval Infantry and Army troops as part of Zapad ’81, a major combined-arms exercise conducted in the Baltic near the Polish border. The size of the exercise (the Soviets officially declared that some 100,000 personnel took part) and its political significance (it occurred three months before martial law was imposed in Poland as a result of the challenge of the Solidarity movement) meant that the Navy could still be seen as important to Soviet foreign policy. Nonetheless, when it is considered that the US Navy was able to participate in a plethora of combined-arms exercises that achieved such impressive results, Soviet activities are put into proper perspective.

Russian Federation

The Marine Infantry (MI) is an Arm of the Coastal Troops of the Navy, designed and specially trained for combat operations in amphibious landings, as well as for defending naval bases, important parts of the coast and coastal facilities.

The marines in amphibious operations can operate on its own for capturing stationing sites of the enemy’s navy, ports, islands, non-integrated parts of the enemy’s coast. In the cases, when the landing basis is represented with the Land Force’s units, the marines land within advanced units to seize seashore points and parts and to support landing on them of the main landing forces.

The MI’s armaments: waterborne combat equipment, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems and automatic small arms.

The Marine Infantry’s formations and subunits are landed on the beach from amphibious ships and boats, as well as from shipborne and shore-based helicopters with fire support of ships and aircraft. In some cases, the marines can surmount water spaces under their own power aboard amphibian vehicles (in most cases, armoured personnel carriers).

The Russian Naval Infantry have been gradually phasing out PT-76 amphibious tanks, and started to receive a number of T-80s. A full-strength Naval Infantry Brigade may have up to 70-80 Tanks. The APCs used by the Naval Infantry are either wheeled BTR-80s (in Assault Landing Battalions) or tracked MT-LBs (in Marine Battalions). While Naval Infantry units were supposed to receive BMP-3 IFVs, BMMP (bojevaya mashina morskoj pekhoti) fitted with the turret of the BMP-2, few have been delivered, and it is far from certain such re-arming will take place. BMP-3s may equip one company per Marine battalion.

According to Defense Ministry statement published by RIA Novosti (November 27, 2009), “All units of Russia’s naval infantry will be fully equipped with advanced weaponry by 2015.” Included in this upgrade would be T-90 tanks, BMP-3 IFVs, 2S31 120mm mortar/artillery tracks, wheeled BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, air defense equipment and small arms. All Naval Infantry units were equipped with Ratnik infantry combat gear and all Northern Fleet naval infantry units were equipped with BTR-82A APCs as of November 2016. Naval Infantry and Navy units also receive new-technology binoculars. The Naval Infantry have started to receive a modernized version of Strelets reconnaissance, control and communications system and completed receiving D-10 parachutes. All Pacific Fleet and Caspian Flotilla naval infantry units were equipped with BTR-82A APCs as of May 2018.

In late February 2014, at least one Black Sea Fleet assigned unit (at company level) was apparently using Tigr armoured cars near Sevastopol during the 2014 Crimean crisis. During the crisis in March 2014 imagery emerged of some Naval Infantry personnel carrying what appeared to be the OTs-14-1A-04 7.62×39mm assault rifle with an under-barrel GP-30 40mm grenade launcher; a bullpup design normally associated with the Russian Airborne Troops, as well as Combat Engineering and Spetsnaz units.