Underwater Demolition Teams [UDT] at Saipan

Cdr. Draper L. Kauffman was the innovative commander of the first UDT teams. Here his father, Rear Adm. James L. Kauffman, presents him with a gold star in lieu of his second Navy Cross, for action in the Marianas.

The Navy’s first frogmen, the swimmers of the Underwater Demolition Teams, reconnoitered lagoons and blew out reefs to clear the way for Turner’s assault troops and supply train.

Though the Navy had been wargaming a Central Pacific offensive for decades, the globe-spanning ambition of U.S. Army airpower ensured the fleet would come to the Marianas. With Henry “Hap” Arnold, Curtis LeMay, and Paul Tibbets, among others, eager to strike at the heart of Japan, Douglas MacArthur finally had to cease protesting the Navy’s choice of trans-Pacific routes. The Central Pacific drive acquired an irreversible momentum as the carriers of Raymond A. Spruance’s Fifth Fleet, under Marc A. Mitscher, and Richmond Kelly Turner’s amphibious forces delivered this conquest. The powerful triad of naval power, amphibious heavy lift, and strategic air forces opened an air corridor to Japan that would culminate in history’s first uses of atomic weapons. The war would have endured beyond 1945 had Saipan, Tinian, and Guam not been taken

The UDT were among several wrinkles that Turner and Holland Smith, Turner’s corps commander on Saipan,  had in store for D Day, set to roll less than twenty-four hours hence. Some were technical: ranks of LCI gunboats, advancing ahead of the amtracs, firing rockets in swarms. Some were organizational: a new way to organize the Marine divisions and their weapons, based on the concept of the battalion landing team. This was an eleven-hundred-man unit, two or three of them to every regiment, whose nucleus was a regular infantry battalion, muscled up with additional integrated elements: an artillery battery, an amphibious assault vehicle platoon, a combat engineer platoon, a light armored reconnaissance company, a tank platoon, a reconnaissance platoon, and other units as a mission might require. Other wrinkles were tactical. Turner had an entire transport division set aside, carrying a whole Marine regiment, to execute a false landing off Tanapag, the large harbor town north of Garapan. With the feint, he hoped to freeze Japanese forces in place well up the coast from the actual assault area. During planning, the Marines sprang a little surprise of their own. It was intended to deceive the U.S. Navy.

Holland Smith’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Graves Erskine, proposed the idea of embarking a battalion of Marines in rubber boats and, in dark of night, towing them with landing craft to the beach on the north coast of Magicienne Bay, on the side of the island opposite where the main landings would take place. Lieutenant Colonel Wood B. Kyle’s First Battalion of the Second Regiment (1/2) would go in light and mobile. Carrying no weapons heavier than their rifles and a few 60 mm mortars, they would move rapidly inland from Laulau before dawn and assault Saipan’s highest peak, Mount Tapotchau, three times the height of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. The 1/2 would take it, and then hold on against the inevitable counterattacks, resupplied by parachute drop, until units of the Second and Fourth Marine divisions had fought their way to the top of the island.

“This was the song and dance I gave,” Erskine said. The audacious administrative caper was calculated to appeal to Spruance and Turner, for the fast conquest of key objectives was always a priority, promising as it did to free the Navy from the dangerous, exposed job of supporting a ground operation. Erskine knew his proposal would never survive review by his higher headquarters, but the plan was not essential. What mattered were its men. “I wanted at least one extra reinforced battalion, but the Navy claimed they were short of ships.”

Holland Smith was in on the gambit. During discussion, he played the role of skeptic and inquisitor with zeal and zest, claiming that he agonized through many sleepless nights over the tactical problem of putting the 1/2 up the heavily defended mountain before reluctantly canceling the mission—but not until the Navy had assigned additional shipping for a Marine Corps brainstorm it decided it liked.

And so, just as Erskine had calculated all along, Colonel Kyle’s battalion was thrown into the general reserve, right where Smith and Erskine had wanted it all along. The shipping stayed, too. Erskine would call it “a beautiful maneuver,” adding, “In our planning we had to do a lot of things like that, in order to get what we really felt we needed to carry out the operation.” The Marine Corps had built a maverick reputation on the battles it fought in the halls of the Pentagon against the Navy’s perceived quest to sideline and humiliate it in various ways. At Saipan, the Marines had a last laugh. They hadn’t won a “special operations” victory so efficiently since Lieutenant O’Bannon roamed the Barbary Coast.

As the sun rose on June 14, D Day minus one, Draper Kauffman and his two Underwater Demolition Teams left their cramped crew spaces in the APDs Gilmer and Brooks and began their part in the action, piling into four landing craft that came alongside the ships. Each of the thirty-six-foot-long LCPRs took sixteen swimmers, each assigned to survey the approach to a particular beach. The Japanese had not reckoned with a volume of preparatory fires reaching such a crescendo. Nor were they expecting to discover, as day broke, swimmers sidestroking toward them, led by officers embarked in flagships no more glorious than a motorized black mattress, puttering in via an electric motor toward the well-defended shore.

Kauffman and his teams were minimally equipped as usual, wearing trunks, swim shoes, a face mask, and a sheath knife. They didn’t have fins or snorkels. Each pair carried a buoy, a reel, a Plexiglas slate, and a grease pencil as well. Though they had trained in the use of oxygen–beryllium chloride rebreathers, they didn’t carry those, either. The gear was cumbersome. Most of Kauffman’s team leaders decided to toss their bulky radios, too, in favor of a faster swim. And so they crossed the reef and entered the lagoon using a basic sidestroke known as the “invasion crawl.” It was less exhausting than an overhand crawl and produced minimal splash.

Kauffman was resigned to the idea that their chances of coming through unbloodied were poor. Team Five, under Kauffman, would reconnoiter the Red and Green beaches; UDT 7, under the command of Lieutenant Richard F. Burke, would take Blue and Yellow. Quietly estimating that his casualties would run as high as fifty percent, he kept his third team, UDT 6, in reserve, prepared for the worst.

As the LCPRs approached the reef, Japanese fire splashed around them. The frogmen began rolling over the gunwales into the water, one pair every twenty-five yards. Each duo dropped a red buoy, anchoring it to the point marking the seaward origin of their route, in order to orient them for the return. When enemy shell splashes began walking in toward the buoys, the Team Seven exec, Sidney Robbins, instructed the crews to stop placing them. He also decided then and there to abandon the use of the string reconnaissance technique that Kauffman had taught them. This was not going to be easy, he thought. The less they carried, the greater their chance of surviving the gauntlet ahead. Shortly after 8:30, Kauffman and his buddy, a frogman named Page, switched on their small outboard electric motor and began their puttering daylight run toward the beach.

The motorized mattresses were humble flagships, but Kauffman wanted his team leaders to keep some semblance of awareness and potential control over their eight dispersed swimming pairs. Kauffman was soon to consider them “the dumbest idea I’d had in a long time. They were the most magnificent targets.” In briefings, he had heard about the large sharks and man-eating giant clams known to be in the area. But he had advised his men to take no precautions against them, because greater threats loomed: Japanese coastal guns, beach pillboxes, and mortars, for starters.

A low ceiling of gun smoke hung over the strand as the bombardment continued. Just inland of the Red beaches, oil storage tanks were burning fiercely. The California’s neutralization fire was meant to keep enemy gunners from shooting at the UDT, and also to interdict Japanese troop movements down from Garapan. But even after rehearsing with real live ships at Kaho’olawe, Kauffman wasn’t prepared for this. When he saw splashes in the lagoon landing perilously close to his men, both ahead of and behind them, he thought the Navy needed work on its marksmanship. He radioed his executive officer, Johnny DeBold, and said, “Blow Pistol, this is Blow Gun. For God’s sake tell the support ships they’re firing short.”

Slowly and calmly DeBold answered, “Skipper, those aren’t shorts, they’re overs. They’re not ours!”

Kauffman’s reply fell flatly from his mouth. “Oh.”

The UDT commander’s many gifts did not include sharp eyesight. He was significantly shortsighted, in fact, so his buddy Page served as his seeing eye. But Page was color-blind. As they motored in, Page told Kauffman what he was looking at and Kauffman told him what color it was. That became the running joke, at any rate, but it was true. To Kauffman’s amazement, all of his men closed to within fifty yards of the beach, and most went in even nearer than that, under continued heavy fire.

On the Indianapolis, on station more than a mile west of Afetna Point in order to cover the lagoon reconnaissance, Raymond Spruance was serenely watching his flagship’s secondary battery pound the Blue beaches when incoming return fire began landing nearby. As large splashes rose close aboard, Captain E. R. Johnson maneuvered sharply back and forth, keeping broadside to his enemy while trying to anticipate the fall of shot. But the Birmingham, astern Spruance’s flagship, seemed to command greater interest from the shore gunners. Her ample battery of fast-firing six- inch/47s probably marked her as the greater threat. As she eased along at five knots, plunging fire straddled her like a pair of calipers two hundred yards off both beams. Two more shells followed quickly, raising splashes just twenty-five yards to port. Captain Thomas B. Inglis backed his engines, then increased his RPMs, backing faster, just then to be straddled seventy-five yards dead ahead, and then again still closer off the starboard bow. Noticing a shore battery on the heights above Garapan—three-inch guns, he thought—the captain ordered his gunnery officer to bring the secondary battery to bear. The first salvo produced a spout of white and yellow smoke that marked a direct hit. But the torrent of incoming fire continued. Japanese ordnance whistled through the cruiser’s masts, over, astern, ahead, and to port. Shells pierced the large square bedspring of her air-search radar antenna. Inglis thought it was mortar fire until one shell burst close enough aboard to throw hot fragments into one of his 40 mm mounts, wounding two crewmen and starting a small fire. Remnants of the shell’s base plate, found aboard, had rotating bands, indicating it had been fired by a heavy antiaircraft gun. He felt like a ball tumbling around war’s roulette wheel, not yet settling in a pocket painted red.

Shortly after nine, the California stood in Japanese crosshairs with a bit less luck. Salvos from 105 mm howitzers or large mortar tubes landed a pebble’s toss off the port side, and others off the port bow; several more passed close overhead. Then she took a direct hit. Falling nearly vertically, the shell hit the main battery fire-control platform, killing one man and wounding nine. It was well that the California was more than three times the Birmingham’s size, but the damage was substantial nonetheless. Her forward search and gunnery radars were knocked out of action, and for fifteen long minutes the main battery sat mute while control was switched to other stations.

On the bridge of the Birmingham, Captain Inglis took a moment to admire the courage of the UDT as they methodically sounded the lagoon. “This was all close under the gunfire of the Japanese, and within easy range of their machine guns emplaced on the beach itself. Therefore, their work was about as hazardous as anything that can be imagined.” As splashes played among the frogmen and their landing craft, the Birmingham’s spotters found a battery just north of Charan Kanoa’s sugar mill and took it under fire. A huge explosion marked its destruction, part and parcel of the detonation of a neighboring ammo dump. Closer to the water, Japanese soldiers could be seen moving among several gun positions. The crews of Kauffman’s LCPRs, using the two .30-caliber machine guns mounted on either side of the forward ramp, laid suppressive fire close over the heads of the swimmers. But there was little to be done against gunners they could not see.

The volume of incoming fire persuaded Kauffman to abandon his floating mattress experiment. The writing was on the wall for that oddball scheme as soon as he realized the morning naval bombardment hadn’t helped him much. Kelly Turner, to his chagrin, would find his instructions to his fire-support ships—target the beachfront first, then walk fire slowly inland—largely unexecuted. The first salvos started too far inland to neutralize the waterfront defenses. The commanding officer of the California, Captain Henry Poynter Burnett, had not been properly briefed, for he was under the misapprehension that Kauffman’s men would actually land. “Due to faulty communications, this ship was not so informed and considerable protection of their activities thus was unfortunately lost,” he admitted. As the salvos plowed farther inland, Japanese snipers and machine gunners near the beach were left unhindered. Larger guns located on Afetna Point, jutting through the surf between Green Beaches Two and Three, could enfilade the entire landing area, to the north and south. Somehow surviving an early-morning plastering by Oldendorf’s fire-support ships, Japanese crews located there kept their sights on Kauffman all morning long. So the UDT commander and his guide, Page, opted to ditch their awkward floating command post three hundred yards out. “We anchored it there and swam in because it would have been ridiculous to take the mattress in any further,” Kauffman said.

Lacking direct radio contact with the bombardment ships, the frogmen were poorly prepared to deal with surprises. Sid Robbins of Team Seven was startled to find that mortar teams had made a firing position out of a cluster of a dozen Japanese barges moored to the pier at Blue Beach One. Because of the intensity of the barrage that came down upon them, Robbins’s swimmers weren’t able to reconnoiter Yellow Beach One at all. After several attempts, this detachment returned to the Brooks with casualties that seemed light under the circumstances: just two men seriously injured.

Kauffman was mystified by the absence of airpower supporting him. Just after sunrise, the Wasp had sent a large strike with the ostensible mission of covering the UDTs, but the air coordinator routed them to other targets, and it was wise that he did, for Oldendorf’s heavies were in full voice then. The Avengers of Torpedo Fourteen hit gun positions around Aslito Field and tried to burn nearby sugarcane fields with phosphorus incendiaries. The remaining Helldivers, joined by Hellcats, attacked targets on Nafutan Point, where photo interpreters noticed six-inch shore batteries, the largest on the island.

At ten o’clock, a large flight of Hellcats was scheduled to sweep the full two-mile length of the four landing beaches. The mission would likely have scattered, killed, or suppressed most of the enemy soldiers working the waterfront and filled the gap in the pattern of supporting naval gunfire close to the water. But to Kauffman’s chagrin, the fighters never appeared. Their no-show likely had to do with confusion arising from the fact that Turner’s commander of support aircraft, Captain Richard F. Whitehead, had not yet arrived as of D Day minus one. He would not join Turner on the Rocky Mount until the day of the landings. That left an air support coordinator in the Tennessee to make sure the mission was carried out. But the battleship had a long list of scheduled fires to manage, and the air mission seemed to give way to other priorities on a day that was loaded with them.

Kauffman’s losses were light under the circumstances. Six men from Team Five were injured—internal damage from hydraulic concussion. Only one frogman was killed. This was Robert Christensen, a first-class petty officer who was one of the best-liked men on the team. He was shot in the head while helping Ensign Bill Running supervise his platoon from their floating mattress. Team Seven had five wounded, but they, too, lost only one man, Albert G. Weidner. He was the coxswain on Lieutenant Burke’s own LCPR, blown from the wheel when the boat took a direct hit after dropping off its swimmers at the reef. Burke escaped serious injury, but a Navy crewman from the Brooks was killed as well.

At 11:30, the Birmingham, her barrels radiating hot as a forge, checked fire after dealing more than thirteen hundred six-inch rounds and nearly twelve hundred five-inch rounds into Saipan. Around this same time, Kauffman ordered all his swimmers back to the reef, where their landing craft would be waiting for them. It proved to be an unpopular order, for two of his men were unaccounted for. But with mortars dropping around his boats, he had no wish to lose any of his critical information on the reef and the lagoon. Team Seven had lost one of its landing craft already, and Admirals Turner and Hill, as well as General Smith and his division and regimental commanders, were counting on a complete report. The Gilmer and Brooks poured smoke onto the water as the frogmen climbed aboard their LCPRs. The Tennessee, California, Indianapolis, and Birmingham threw their final salvos, then hauled clear to recover their planes and prepare for what was sure to be an even harder trial the next morning, when four Marine regiments would storm ashore.


Kelly Turner continued to doubt the wisdom of allowing the amtracs to ride inland, and he worried, too, about the chances of getting tanks over the reef and through the lagoon. That was until the leadership of UDT 7 appeared on the Rocky Mount and presented him and General Smith with the fruits of their morning of work. Draper Kauffman reported to Rear Admiral Harry Hill, Turner’s deputy, and the commanding general of the Second Marine Division, Tommy Watson.

Kauffman brought good news. There was about two feet of water over the reef, and the depth of the lagoon did not surpass eight feet. He reported that the reef was flat enough to be passable by amtracs and DUKWs, and that while stores of barbed wire, concrete, and posts on the beach suggested the Japanese had had plans, no man-made obstacles or mines were in the lagoon. Equally valuable, Team Seven had located off Blue Beach One a natural channel large enough for LSTs. Little work was needed to make it serviceable, aside from marking it with buoys. Blasting such a route through the reef after the landings would have been difficult given that the dense, sand-cemented coral polyps did not seem likely to disintegrate into a smooth ramp but to fracture into a mess of boulders and craters needing further demolition.

The UDT also found that the route the Marines had planned to use for their waterproofed tanks, set to paddle ashore following the assault waves, would lead them to disaster. It was potholed, and the water was too deep for these jury-rigged amphibs, which were never designed to swim and drowned out easily. Kauffman believed he had found a better way, a smooth path that crossed the lagoon in front of Red Beach Three diagonally onto Green Two. The Marines didn’t know what to make of Kauffman, with his professorial airs, thick glasses, and careful manner of speech. “He had none of the rough, tough appearance of an Underwater Demolition Team man,” said Colonel Robert E. Hogaboom, General Smith’s operations officer. “But there was no question about his competence and his willingness and his courage.” Kauffman passed along the positions of enemy guns and snipers, and he marked the nest of mortar barges for special attention by Oldendorf’s fire-support group.

That night Kauffman had his handiest draftsmen make charts based on the lagoon soundings. When the invasion force arrived before the next sunrise, the commanders of the amtrac and tank battalions and transport groups would have hand-drawn maps delivered to them.

During the evening, Admiral Hill summoned Kauffman to see General Watson. The Second Marine Division boss asked, “What in the hell is this I hear about your changing the route for my tanks?” He had wanted them to swim in across Red Two.

“General, they’ll never get through there,” Kauffman said, showing him his charts.

“Well, all right. But, young man, you’re going to lead that first tank in, and you’d better be damned sure that every one of them gets in safely, without drowning out.”

And now, considering Kauffman’s report and his calm, overriding confidence, Kelly Turner began to think that the idea of sending twenty thousand Marines ashore in these newfangled swamp buggies might just work out after all.



Halifax bomber towing a Horsa Glider.

SF Hydro at the rail dock on Lake Tinnsjo. She would be later sunk by Norwegian operative in order to deny the Germans heavy water from the plant at Vermork.

On 19 November 1942, the British initiated their glider operations with “Freshman,” a mission to destroy the Norsk Hydro Plant at Vermork, eighty miles inland and sixty miles from Oslo. This was a heavy water plant reportedly connected with German research on the atomic bomb. Two Halifaxes, each towing a Horsa, took off from Skiffen in Scotland. Each glider carried fifteen sappers (army engineers)-all volunteers-with Lieutenant G. M. Methuen in command. Two of the pilots, Staff Sergeant M. F. C. Strathdee and Sergeant P. Doig, came from the Glider Pilot Regiment. The other glider pilots were Australian: Pilot Officer Davies and Sergeant Fraser, RAAF. Squadron Leader Wilkinson of the RAF piloted the first tow plane and was accompanied by Group Captain Cooper. A Canadian, Flight Lieutenant Parkinson, piloted the second aircraft.

The small force faced many difficulties. The worst of them was the fact that the Halifax crews had little experience in towing gliders. The Halifaxes were modified for the mission, but their performance was marginal for the job they had to accomplish. The cooling system was inadequate to keep the engines from overheating, as they worked harder than normal while towing gliders. No one was certain that the straining engines could pull the load the 400 miles across the North Sea. The flight over water almost all the way called for pinpoint navigation, so that the two combinations could cross the Norwegian shore almost on target. Plans dictated that once Methuen’s men had destroyed the “heavy water” and the plant, he then had to lead his men through snow-covered mountains to Sweden. The Norwegian underground stood ready with guides for the long and arduous trek.

At 2341 hours, monitors at Skiffen got a faint voice by radio, believed to be Parkinson’s, asking for a course to bring him back to Skiffen. The monitors worked frantically trying to plot his location. By intersection of radio beams, they located Parkinson over the North Sea. Fourteen minutes later, monitors heard a voice grimly stating: “Glider released in sea.” But could it be? A quick calculation on a signal received from Wilkinson showed him to be above the mountains in southern Norway. The mission was in trouble-that much was certain.

The full story did not become known until some years after the war.

Trouble plagued the mission from the start. Weather was thick, although meteorologists promised a clear sky and a moon over the target. Before takeoff, one tug’s wingtip light and both towrope telephones failed. Because the use of radio was frowned upon, a simple code of light signals had to be improvised. By the time they had accommodated to these faults, darkness had fallen. What was worse, a night take-off with full load had not been practiced before. Given the “option to postpone the operation until the next day,” the pilots chose to take off at night and get on with the job. By 1750 hours, Wilkinson’s combination had taken wing into a darkening sky; twenty minutes later, the second followed. Wilkinson chose to fly high, picking his way through broken cloud and reaching Norway at 10,000 feet altitude. Then, just as he needed his Rebecca radio beam system to tie into the Norwegian agents’ Eureka system to direct the airplane to the target, he found the Rebecca did not work. Cooper, doing the navigation, could only rely on maps, but a heavy layer of snow disguised all landmarks.

Wilkinson passed over what might have been the release point. Lacking clear identification, however, he made another circle to find the target. The Norwegian agents in the landing zone had heard the aircraft flying almost directly over them on its first attempt, but they could make no contact since the Rebecca radio beam had failed. By then, he had been flying for five and a half hours and still had 400 miles to go to get back to Skiffen. He flew into thick cloud about 40 miles northwest of Rjukan and could not climb out of it. By this time, there was barely sufficient petrol to get the tug and glider home. Ice began forming on the aircraft and, worse still, on the tow rope. Both tug and glider lost height rapidly. They sank into unbroken cloud and, somewhere in the void above Stavanger, the rope parted. Staff Sergeant Strathee started a descent in zero visibility. Dense cloud turned into swirling snow. It was at this point that the wireless operator had sent out his signal. The aircraft, unable to do any more, just succeeded in returning before its fuel ran out. The glider crash-landed at Fylesdalen, on top of the snow-covered mountains overlooking Lysefjord, killing Methuen, Strathee, Doig and five others and injuring four more severely.

Meanwhile, Parkinson flew low above the sea, trying to keep beneath the clouds until just short of the Norwegian coast. He hoped to encounter the promised clear weather there. Parkinson crossed the coast near Egersund and was heading towards Rjukan when his plane hit a mountain beyond Helleland. Somehow, the tow rope snapped as the plane crashed, but the glider, with little chance for maneuver left, made a heavy landing close by, killing three. German personnel soon captured all survivors. The Gestapo then took over. They poisoned the four injured in the first glider crash while they were in a hospital recovering. On Hitler’s standing orders, the Gestapo then shot the nineteen uninjured men as saboteurs.

Along with this hideous war crime a map was found amongst the wreckage plotting Vermork as the target for the raid, the Germans increased security of the plant immediately.

With the failure of the operation the men of the Grouse team now had to retreat into their mountain hideaway, a small ski cabin high on the plateau north of the plant and exist on meagre rations, even resorting to eating lichen, until further on into the winter a reindeer was spotted and butchered.

On the evening of the 16 February 1943 a further six men were dropped on the plateau to supplement the Grouse team, known as Operation Gunnerside, these men were also Norwegian nationals who had been trained by SOE and the Commandos. Bringing with them much needed supplies and sabotage equipment the night of 27/28 February was chosen for the attack. Due to the discovery of the documents amongst the Freshman raid German security had been substantially raised, especially the bridge linking to the plant. It was decided that the team would descend into the valley and climb the opposite side then follow a rail line into the plant. Thanks to intelligence gleaned from workers inside the plant the men were able to gain access to the plant without alerting the German guards. However a caretaker was disturbed but he was happy to let the men continue their sabotage mission. Charges were placed and a British sub-machine gun was purposely left behind to show that it had been a Commando raid and therefore reduce local reprisals.

The men escaped without discovery and the machinery and stocks of heavy water were destroyed. Four of the raiding party decided to stay in the area to monitor the German response and act accordingly whilst two men moved to Oslo to continue work with the Norwegian underground, whilst the rest headed east to neutral Sweden.

Within two months the plant had been restored to full capability and this was relayed to SOE back in Britain. The chance of another raids success was minimal now that the Germans had increased the protection of the plant, but by early 1943 the USAAF had started to arrive in numbers in Britain, so a daylight raid, carried out by over 140 bombers was flown in November when the weather permitted a reasonable chance of target acquisition. However many of the bombs fell without result and the machinery itself was easily protected by the heavy concrete construction of the plant. However this caused the Germans to fear further raids and decided to transfer what stocks of heavy water they had produced and the machinery to a safer location in Germany. In order to transfer the remaining heavy water to the coast for transport to Germany it first had to travel a short distance from the plant to Mael. Here it would be loaded on to the steam ferry SF Hydro. Four men of the Norwegian resistance decided to sabotage the vessel whilst it was over the deepest part of lake Tinnsjo and deny the Germans the heavy water. The Germans decided to move the stock on a Sunday, lucky for the saboteurs as this would reduce any Norwegians travelling on the Hydro too.

The men snuck aboard the ferry on the evening of Saturday 19 February 1944 and proceeded to place an explosive charge in the bows of the ship. With the timers set the men withdrew.

The ferry left the station on time and by 10.30 am it was over the required area and the explosives blew as hoped. The ship started to list almost immediately, with those on deck managing to clamber aboard lifeboats or stumble over the side, however eighteen people were killed, including three Norwegian passengers, seven crew and eight German guards. The rest were picked up by locals using nearby boats to drag them out of the freezing water. The Hydro itself sank to below 400 metres, well beyond salvageable depth. The German Atomic programme, although never advanced, had taken a massive blow and would never recover.

Elsewhere in Norway, particularly in the south and especially in and around Oslo, there quickly formed a strong resistance movement, the men and women of the country having a strong patriotic streak and being disappointed by how quickly their country had fallen to the Nazi oppressor joined in droves. With the leaders of what became known as ‘Milorg’ making contact with the government in exile, based in London, the resistance grew and grew.

At first underground papers were the only course of action these groups could take, counteracting the strong bias of the local press and the propaganda that abound through all sources of media. Nearly 300 such papers were founded but would only appear at random intervals as the men and women of the publications played a cat-and-mouse game with the Gestapo and their Norwegian counterparts.

To assist the Norwegian underground the SOE set up what would become known as the Shetland Bus. This was a group of Norwegian trawlers that were tasked with infiltrating and bringing back agents from occupied Norway. Using fishing trawlers they were ideally camouflaged and only lightly armed. They still ran the risk of having to cross the North sea at night, in winter under the constant threat of discovery, however they were extremely successful right up to the end of the war.

Armed resistance and sabotage in Norway itself posed other problems, with any act of sabotage usually met with harsh reprisals by the occupies. However, members of the Norwegian Independent Company No. 1 were highly successful, notably Max Manus, a veteran who had fought in the Finnish campaign of 1939–40. Having seen his country capitulate to the Germans in 1940 he actively worked in underground propaganda. He was then caught and injured trying to escape custody. He then dramatically escaped the hospital he was being treated in and arrived in Scotland for Commando training following an epic journey through Sweden, Soviet Russia, Africa and eventually to Canada.

Following training he was dropped into Norway along with a friend Gregors Gram. They were tasked with attacking shipping in Oslo harbour using Limpet mines, a small explosive charge, attached below the waterline of a ship by magnets.

The first raid was carried out on the evening of 28 April 1943, where they successfully sunk two transports and damaged a third.

In January the following year the decision was made to attack the large troop carrier Donau. This vessel had previously been used to transport Norwegian Jews to Germany where they were then sent onto concentration camps. This time canoes could not be used to approach the ship at night as security was high by the wharf. However, with great audacity Manus and his companion, Roy Nielson, entered the docks dressed as workmen. Whilst a colleague distracted the gate guards the two men were only given a cursory security check and proceeded to a small area beneath a lift where an insider had left a dinghy. The men took off their boiler suits to reveal full British uniform, so if they were captured reprisals would be reduced to the local populace. The explosives were placed and the men withdrew without any attention. At ten o’clock that evening the charges blew, and although the captain of the Donau tried to beach her, she was lost.

ANALYSIS: The Italian Manned Torpedo Attack at Alexandria, 19 December 1941

Routes of the Three Manned Torpedoes (Petroliera is the tanker Sagona.) From de Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 123


Were the objectives worth the risks? The Italian navy, although beaten badly in the months prior to the attack on Alexandria, was in the process of commissioning three new battleships, Doria, Vittorio Veneto, and Littorio. The British had also suffered several naval defeats with the loss of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Barham in November 1941. If the Italians could destroy the remaining two battleships, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, they, along with the Germans, could dominate the Mediterranean. As it stood, however, even with its numerical superiority, the Italian fleet was insufficient to challenge the British in the eastern Mediterranean. With the British still controlling the vital sea-lanes, the Italians had to struggle to resupply Rommel’s forces in North Africa. By using the manned torpedoes to conduct underwater guerrilla warfare, the Italians were able to make maximum use of their maritime resources. With the destruction of two battleships and a destroyer, the Italians had an opportunity to control the maritime playing field and propagandize about the “weakness” of the British. Unfortunately, they did neither. Nevertheless, when one considers that only six men and three manned torpedoes were used to destroy the targets, the objectives were undeniably worth the risk.

Was the plan developed to maximize superiority over the enemy and minimize the risk to the assault force? The development of the manned torpedoes was a technological revolution in underwater warfare. It allowed the Italians to circumvent the conventional submarine marine defenses protecting the capital ships and to bypass the picketboats that were specifically designed to stop frogmen and divers. Superb operational intelligence allowed the planners to tailor the rehearsals to the mission and thereby ensured that the manned torpedo crews were properly prepared to overcome most obstacles. Although the plan maximized the possibility that the battleships would be destroyed, it did not minimize the risk to the divers. Unlike the attacks on Gibraltar, in which the divers could hit the target and swim to neutral Spain, there was little chance the Alexandria divers would return from a trip deep in enemy territory. The Scire, which would have provided the best extraction platform, departed immediately after launching the torpedoes. This reduced the submarine’s vulnerability, but certainly did not help the manned torpedo crews. There was an escape and evasion plan, but it was not well thought out and the divers did not truly expect to return.* Although this one-way trip may seem unacceptable by today’s standards, the Italians were able to maximize their combat effectiveness by eliminating the extraction phase. The torpedo’s battery power, the air in their Belloni rigs, and their physical endurance were all dedicated to mission accomplishment and not saved for escape.

Was the mission executed according to the plan, and if not, what unforeseen circumstances dictated the outcome? With some minor exceptions, the plan was executed exactly as rehearsed. Schergat said later, “From my point of view, the mission looked just like further training.” However, several problems arose that typify the frictions of war. Durand de la Penne lost his second diver, Bianchi, when the petty officer fainted and floated to the surface. One of the three manned torpedoes took on too much ballast and sank to the bottom of the harbor. One of the officers, Martellotta, got violently ill and had to direct the actions of his torpedo from the surface. All of these incidents were happenstance, but that is the nature of war. Regardless of how well the planning and preparation phases go, the environment of war is different from the environment of preparing for war. But, by being specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific mission, special forces personnel can reduce those frictions to the bare minimum and then overcome them with courage, boldness, perseverance, and intellect—the moral factors.

What modifications could have improved the outcome of the mission? The success of the mission speaks for itself. However, it is conceivable that had a more thorough escape and evasion plan been arranged, two of the crews might have escaped. By prepositioning an agent and a small boat outside the harbor, the evading crews could have quickly linked up and sailed away from the scene before the demolitions exploded. Apparently, this was never addressed. The Italians did have an agent in Cairo who was supposed to assist the divers in their escape, but the Italians, being unfamiliar with the city and unable to speak the language, had little chance of reaching this individual. This part of the plan notwithstanding, the operation was extremely well planned and coordinated, and there are very few modifications that could have improved the outcome.

Relative Superiority

Operations that rely entirely on stealth for the successful accomplishment of their mission have inherent weaknesses; however, they have one overwhelming advantage. As long as the attacking force remains concealed, they are not subject to the will of the enemy. Therefore their chances of success are immediately better than 50 percent because the inherent superiority of the defense is lost. The attacking force has the initiative, choosing when and where it wants to attack, and if the mission is planned correctly, the force will attack at the weakest point in the defense. Consequently, if the will of the enemy is not a factor, only the frictions of war (i.e., chance and uncertainty) will affect the outcome of the mission. Clearly the frictions of war can be detrimental to success, but through good preparation and strong moral factors, the frictions can be managed. The inherent problem with special operations that rely entirely on stealth is obvious. If that concealment is compromised, the mission has little or no chance of success.

Although there were some differences in the individual profiles, basically all three torpedoes reached the critical points at approximately the same time. At midnight on 19 December 1941, all three torpedoes entered the harbor and passed by the antisubmarine net. This was the point of vulnerability, but because the British did not know the torpedoes were in the harbor, the Italians began with relative superiority, albeit not very decisively. As the manned torpedoes continued into the harbor, circumventing the picketboats and pier security, their probability of mission completion improved marginally. Their decisive advantage came when they penetrated the antitorpedo nets. After this point, there were no other defenses that could prevent them from successfully fulfilling their mission. However, as the graph depicts, there was still an area of vulnerability even after overcoming the antitorpedo net. Had the Italians been detected (for instance, when Bianchi floated to the surface), the British crews could have dropped concussion grenades and possibly stopped the attack. Fortunately for the Italians, they were able to set their charges before the British detected them. Three hours later the charges exploded, and the mission was complete.

The Principles of Special Operations

Simplicity. This mission had several advantages not normally associated with a special operation. Although the target was clearly strategic, with the balance of the naval forces in the Mediterranean hinging on the mission success, the execution was almost an extension of routine training and wartime operations. Under Borghese’s command the Scire had previously conducted three missions that paralleled the attack on Alexandria. Durand de la Penne and Bianchi were also veterans of a previous attempt to attack the British. This experience helped mold the approach the Italians took in planning and preparing for Alexandria.

The lessons of the disaster at Malta convinced Borghese, who was the overall mission commander, not to create a complex plan of operation. Borghese limited the objectives by reducing the forces assigned to attack Alexandria. He could just as easily have incorporated another three manned torpedoes and several E-boats to overload British defenses and ensure the Italians of some success. Additionally, although each manned torpedo had only one warhead, it was possible, and often rehearsed, for each crew to hit multiple targets by placing the smaller limpet mines on as many ships as feasible. Borghese chose to avoid both these pitfalls and limit each manned torpedo to only one target with “all other targets consisting of active war units to be ignored.” Although not involved in the planning, Bianchi recognized the need to limit the number of targets. He said later, “In limiting the attack to one objective [per crew] the commander considered having the offensive power increased.” Even attacking one target became difficult. In each of the three cases the frogmen were able to execute their assigned tasks, but only after overcoming significant physical problems (vomiting, unconsciousness, headaches) and equipment failures (dry suit leaks, flooded torpedoes). Had the mission called for more than one target per dive pair, it is unlikely the divers would have had the physical or technical resources to complete it. Also, with multiple targets, the fuses on the charges would have to have been set for more time to allow the divers time to attack their other targets and escape. Arguably this might have allowed the British to find the charges or move the vessels from their anchorage (in Durand de la Penne’s case, moving the vessel would have prevented any damage to the Valiant). In either case, limiting the objectives clearly simplified the plan and allowed maximum effort to be applied against the primary targets.

Borghese knew the value of accurate intelligence, and he consistently used it throughout the operation to reduce the unknown variables and improve the divers’ chances of success. Knowing the physical limitations of divers exposed to cold water, Borghese insisted on getting his submarine as close to the harbor entrance as possible. Italian agents in Alexandria provided the 10th Light Flotilla with a clear picture of the British defenses and in particular the minefields off the coast. Borghese wrote later, “I had therefore decided that as soon as we reached a depth of 400 meters [which was probably where the minefield started], we would proceed at a depth of not less than 60 meters, since I assumed that the mines, even if they were anti-submarine, would be located at a higher level.”

This information eventually allowed the Scire to maneuver to a point only 1.3 miles from the entrance of the harbor. So close, in fact, that after launching the torpedoes, Durand de la Penne stopped his assault crews for a sip of cognac and a tin of food.

The torpedo crews were also provided the latest human intelligence and aerial reconnaissance photos to allow them to plot courses and find the simplest approach to the target. Borghese noted during the preparation phase that the divers’ desks “were covered with aerial photographs and maps … daily examined under a magnifying glass and annotated from the latest intelligence and air reconnaissance reports; those harbours, with their moles, obstacles, wharfs, docks, mooring places and defences, were no mysteries to the pilots, who perfectly knew their configuration, orientation and depths, so that they, astride the ‘pig’, could make their way about them at night just as easily as a man in his own room.”

The accurate intelligence had simplified the problem of negotiating minefields and navigating in an enemy harbor. Alexandria Harbor was thirty-five hundred miles from Italy. It was ringed with antiaircraft guns and supported by Spitfires from the Royal Air Force. It seemed impenetrable from the air. On the other hand, the Italian navy, which had almost no presence in the eastern Mediterranean, posed no significant threat to the more than two hundred vessels (merchant and warships) tied up in Alexandria. The only major fears the British had were from submarines and saboteurs, and extensive precautions had been taken to overcome both these possibilities. Until the establishment of the 10th Light Flotilla and the innovations that followed (i.e., the manned torpedoes, diving rigs, limpet mines, Belloni dry suits, and submarine transport chambers), the difficulty of penetrating the static defenses of Alexandria was not worth the risk in human lives or equipment.* These innovations allowed the Italians to reconsider the possibility of a direct assault.

The most significant tactical innovation was the use of disposable torpedoes. Having to plan for only a one-way trip meant enhanced time on target for the divers and reduced the threat envelope for the submarine Scire. Obviously one-way trips have their drawbacks for the individual operators, but from a mission accomplishment standpoint they improve the possibility of success by reducing the extraction variables. The technological innovations allowed the divers to completely bypass the British defenses. The small visual signature of the manned torpedo provided the Italians a host of tactical advantages. It allowed them to surface unobserved and ride out the depth charges. They were able to navigate around the harbor undetected by ballasting the submersible just under the surface. These actions would not have been possible with either a midget submarine or a conventional submarine. The ease of handling the torpedo also allowed the crews to climb over antitorpedo nets and allowed Durand de la Penne to physically move his flooded machine to a position under the Valiant’s keel. Innovation simplified the assault plan by eliminating the defensive threats posed by the nets and depth charges, and it was without question the dominant factor in the success of the mission.

Security. The raid on Alexandria again demonstrates how the importance of security was not a function of hiding the intent of the mission but of the timing and the insertion means. By December 1941 British intelligence was fully aware that the Italians had manned submersibles capable of penetrating their harbors. The second Italian attack on Gibraltar had provided the British with one torpedo and its crew. The attack on Malta had also resulted in the capture of Italian frogmen. And the sinking of the Gondar resulted in the capture of Elios Toschi, the designer of the original manned torpedo. With all this information, the British unquestionably knew the kind of operations they could expect from the 10th Light Flotilla. As Winston Churchill later said in his speech to the House of Commons, “Extreme precautions had been taken for some time past against the varieties of human torpedo or one-man submarines entering our harbours.” Even with all these precautions, however, the Italians still managed to sneak in and destroy the fleet.

The security employed by the Italians was tight but not overbearing. It did not prevent Borghese from asking for volunteers from among all the members of the 10th Light Flotilla, nor did it prevent the crews from conducting several full-mission profiles in and around La Spezia Harbor, although in both cases it is believed that the actual target was not made known to the general participants.

Borghese was, however, cognizant of the need to conceal the timing of the operation. Upon departing La Spezia for the final voyage, he ensured that the Scire’s transport chambers were visibly empty, and he did not load the manned torpedoes until he was out of sight of the harbor. He took these actions to convince possible onlookers that the Scire was out for just another routine operation. Borghese kept up pretenses when he arrived in Leros. While in port he had the transport chambers covered to reduce speculation about the submarine’s mission, and he refused an admiral’s order to conduct another exercise for fear of compromising the impending mission.

Borghese also understood that all things being equal, operational needs were more important than security. Throughout the mission he maintained radio contact with Athens and Rome. Although interception of the message traffic could have compromised the mission, Borghese obviously felt the need for updated intelligence outweighed that concern. In the end, Italian security was instrumental in preventing the enemy from gaining an advantage by knowing the timing of the mission. A good special operation will succeed in spite of the enemy’s attempt to fortify his position, provided security prevents the enemy from knowing when and how the attack is coming. In the case of the Italians’ attack on Alexandria, security achieved its aims.

Repetition. The principle of repetition as it applies to the attack on Alexandria can be viewed in both the macro and the micro senses of the word. The manned torpedoes of the 10th Light Flotilla had a very limited role: to conduct attacks on ships in port. Every mission profile was similar: launch from the submarine, transit to the objective, cut through the nets, place the charge, and withdraw. Because of this narrowly defined role every training exercise added to the base of knowledge of the operator regardless of what specific mission he would eventually undertake. If one considers that each of the six divers had been on board the 10th Light Flotilla an average of eighteen months (Durand de la Penne and Bianchi almost two years), during which time they had dived at least two times a week, then each man had over 150 dives. In addition, three of the divers (Durand de la Penne, Bianchi, and Marceglia) had previously conducted wartime missions, and all of the divers had at one time or another been designated as reserve crewmembers and undergone a complete mission workup. So, in the macro sense, the only aspect of the Alexandria mission that had not been rehearsed well over one hundred times was the exact course the divers would take.

The operational and reserve crews for the Alexandria mission were assembled in September 1941 to begin mission-specific training. It was during this preparation that the crews conducted exact profiles of the Alexandria mission. Borghese reported that this training “became highly intensified, this being the key to secure the greatest possible efficiency in the men and materials composing the unit. The pilots of the human torpedoes … travelled to La Spezia twice a week and were there dropped off from a boat or, in all-around tests, from one of the transport submarines, and then performed a complete assault exercise, naturally at night; this consisted of getting near the harbour, negotiating the net-defences, advancing stealthily within the harbour, approaching the target, attacking the hull, applying the warhead and, finally, withdrawing.”

Although exact numbers are not available, Spartaco Schergat indicates that a total of ten full-mission profiles were conducted by all three crews and the reserves. Other limited dives concentrated on specific aspects of the mission, such as net cutting or charge emplacement. In the end, however, it was repetition that provided the divers familiarity with their machines and their environment. The training became so routine that Schergat later remarked, “Being in Alexandria or La Spezia was the same. For me it didn’t make any difference.”

The raid on Alexandria presents a broader view of the principle of repetition. It shows that repetition must be measured in terms of both experience and mission-specific training. Special operations forces that are multidimensional will require more rehearsals and more time during the preparation phase than a unit whose sole mission encompasses this training on a daily basis.* However, no amount of experience can obviate the need to conduct a minimum of two full-dress rehearsals prior to the mission.

Surprise. In an underwater attack, unlike other special operations, surprise is not only necessary, it is essential. As illustrated in the relative superiority graph, special operations forces that attack underwater have the advantage of being relatively superior to the enemy throughout the engagement as long as they remain concealed. Owing to their inherent lack of speed and firepower, however, once surprise is compromised, underwater attackers have little opportunity to escape. Although many commanders may find this risk unacceptable, experience shows that this type of operation is mostly successful. During World War II the Italians sank over 260,000 tons of shipping and lost only a dozen men, while the British had similar successes in both the European and the Japanese theaters. The reason for this paradox is that it is relatively easy for divers or submersibles to remain concealed, up to a certain point. Alexandria was a huge harbor with approximately two hundred vessels anchored out, and wartime conditions called for all vessels to be at darken ship. Consequently, a small black submersible, even on the surface of the water, would have been detected only by chance. However, once the manned torpedoes got within close proximity of the target, the chance of detection was greatly increased. This is true of all underwater attacks. The fatigue of the divers, the vigilance of the crew, and the uncertainty of the situation combine to make the actions at the objective exceedingly difficult. This is why relative superiority remained only marginal in this operation until the Italians actually overcame the final obstacle, the antitorpedo net. Beyond the antitorpedo net the British were least prepared to defend themselves, and now the Italians had all the advantages.

The antisubmarine and antitorpedo defenses at Alexandria also show that, contrary to the accepted definition of surprise, the enemy is usually prepared for an attack. To be effective, special operations forces must either attack the enemy when he is off guard or, as in the Italians’ case, elude the enemy entirely. But to assume that the enemy is unprepared to counterattack is foolhardy and might lead to overconfidence on the part of the attacker. It is the nature of defensive warfare to be prepared for an attack. Consequently, if the attacker is compromised, the enemy will be able to react rapidly and the attacker’s only hope for success lies in quickly achieving his objective.

Speed. Underwater attacks are rarely characterized by speed. A quick review of the relative superiority graph shows that it took the manned torpedoes over two hours from the point of vulnerability until they reached the antitorpedo net. Throughout this time they were subject to the frictions of war, and by moving slowly and methodically they only increased their area of vulnerability. However, as long as the will of the enemy is not infringing on the relative superiority of the attacker, speed is not essential, although it is still desirable. Speed becomes essential when the attacker begins to lose relative superiority. Two of the torpedo crews reached their objectives and calmly proceeded to attach the explosives and depart. Durand de la Penne, however, reached his target and immediately began to have difficulties: his torpedo sank to the bottom, he lost his second diver, his dry suit filled with cold water, and he was fatigued to the point of exhaustion. As he said in his after-action report, at that point speed was essential. Durand de la Penne was rapidly losing his advantage and knew that if he didn’t act quickly “the operation … would be doomed to failure.”50 The closer an attacker gets to the objective, the greater the risk. Consequently, speed is still important to minimize the attacker’s vulnerability and improve the probability of mission completion.

Purpose. Commander Borghese, who was in overall charge of the attack on Alexandria, ensured that the purpose of the mission was well defined and that the divers were personally committed to achieving their objectives. This was a straightforward mission without any complicated command and control issues; therefore, defining the goals and objectives—the purpose—was relatively easy. Each manned torpedo had only one warhead and one target. Therefore it was essential not to waste the warhead and the effort on an undesirable objective. Borghese ordered Martellotta and Marino to attack the aircraft carrier Eagle if she were in port, and if not, the tanker Sagona. Once inside the harbor, however, the pair accidently attacked a cruiser. Fortunately, before they could detach the warhead, they realized it was not their target, and as Borghese notes, “with great reluctance, in obedience to orders received, abandoned the attack.” Their orders were clear; they understood the purpose of the mission. They were not to waste their effort on a small cruiser, but instead were to seek out a larger target, which they eventually found and destroyed.

Men who volunteered for the 10th Light Flotilla were typical of special forces personnel everywhere. Each was a combination of adventurer and patriot. They understood the risks involved in penetrating the enemy’s harbor and fully accepted the consequences. They did so out of a love for excitement and the understanding that their missions were important to the country. Teseo Tesei, who, at Malta, detonated his torpedo underneath himself in order to achieve his objective, said, “Whether we sink any ships or not doesn’t matter much; what does matter is that we should be able to blow up with our craft under the very noses of the enemy: we should thus have shown our sons and Italy’s future generations at the price of what sacrifice we live up to our ideals and how success is to be achieved.”

Although Tesei, who had died three months earlier, did not participate in the Alexandria attack, his inspiration was apparent in the attitudes of the Alexandria crews. All six divers knew they would be either captured or killed, and yet Borghese says the difficulties and dangers merely “increased their determination.” This personal commitment to see the mission completed at any cost is, as Tesei said, how success is achieved.

The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units I

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

Development, Training, Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others were:

MEK 70 – nothing known

MEK 75 – KptzS Böhme

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

MEK 85: Oblt Wadenpfuhl (January 1945–End)

MEK 90: Oblt Heinz-Joachim Wilke

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

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

Commander: KKpt Heinrich Hoffmann

Chief at Staff: Kptlt Erich Dietrich

Adjutant: Lt Günther Schmidt

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

Medical Officer: Kptlt Dr Rudolf Neuman

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

Training Officer: Oblt Hans Diem

At Heiligenhafen the training staff was:

Commander: Kptlt Friedrich Jütz

Camp commandants: Kptlt Heinrich Schütz, Oblt Eberhardt Sauer

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

MEK Operations in the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units II

A Linse unit before an operation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operations in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operations in Southern France, Italy and the Adriatic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operations on the Eastern Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commando Order – Telemark

Jens-Anton Poulsson, a Rjukan native, wanted a mission—and if his commanders would not give him one, he would come up with his own. He had nearly circumnavigated the globe to come to Britain to join Kompani Linge, and since his arrival in Britain in October 1941 he had heard a lot of plans but seen no execution. His best prospect had been to lead one of the six teams in Operation Clairvoyant, his task specifically to guide nighttime bombers toward the Vemork power station by setting out lights in the Vestfjord Valley. But then that operation was abandoned and, as he wrote in his diary, “the greatest opportunity of my whole life” slipped away.

Thus in late February 1942 Poulsson traveled down from Scotland to pitch his bosses in London a new plan. Meeting with a member of Colonel Wilson’s staff, Poulsson proposed the idea of a small team that would organize resistance cells around Telemark and prepare to sabotage railway lines. He drafted the details in a report, then returned to Scotland while the plan was considered.

Weeks passed and no answer came. He was sent on a training scheme to attack an airport. Then in early April he got orders to go to STS 31, the “finishing school” at Beaulieu, a forested estate in southern England. Over the next three weeks, he received training in espionage and living an underground life. He learned how to develop a cover (“Your story will be mainly true”); shadow a target; recruit informants (“A few drinks may be helpful”); build up an underground cell; establish a covert headquarters; and thwart counterespionage efforts, including losing a tail (“Lead him through a long deserted street and then plunge into a crowd”), staying alert (“A familiar voice or face suggests an agent is being followed”), and manufacturing a good alibi. His instructors taught him how to surveil a target, to merge into the background on a street, to burgle a house, to open handcuffs, to read a room for a quick escape. He became skilled in leaving hidden messages, in microphotographs, ciphers, and invisible inks. It was all very different from the kind of warfare he’d imagined.

He studied the enemy, everything from its organizations, uniforms, and regulations to its detective measures, wireless-interception abilities, and interrogation techniques. If he was ever to find himself under questioning, his lecturers said, “Create the impression of an averagely stupid, honest citizen.” The school’s commander, Major Woolrych, told his students, “Remember: the best agents are never caught. But some agents . . . they are inclined to relax their precautions. That is the moment to beware of. Never relax. Never fool yourself by thinking the enemy are asleep. They may be watching you all the time, so watch your step.”

Poulsson graduated from STS 31 with a somewhat mixed instructor report: “Much more intelligent than he would appear at first sight as he has a very retiring disposition. He has, however, a thorough understanding of the work . . . Could make a good second-in-command.” Even though he was tall—six two—with a mop of curly dark hair, a lean face, and bright blue eyes, Poulsson was a retreating presence in a crowded room. He preferred to remain at the back, clouded in pipe smoke. “A good second-in-command” was, however, far from the truth.

Poulsson had been born in Rjukan, where it was said that one was raised in either sun or shadow. Norsk Hydro’s top brass lived in grand houses on the sunny northern hillside of the Vestfjord Valley, while the rank and file found themselves living deep below, down by the river. As Jens-Anton’s father was a chief engineer at Norsk Hydro in town, he grew up in the light. His family had a storied history—nobility, ship captains, high-ranking army officers, English knights—and owned almost ten thousand acres of land in the Vidda, including an island on Lake Møs.

Named after his father and grandfather, Jens-Anton was the sixth of seven children. He had blond curls and the habit of smoothing them down with one hand, and he was shy in company, his nose usually pressed into his sketchbook or an adventure tale. He devoured stories of war, polar expeditions, and survival in the wild, but although he was a strong reader, he didn’t much care for school. His interests lay in the outdoors. Poulsson received a shotgun for his eleventh birthday and soon after killed his first grouse. With his best friend and neighbor, Claus Helberg, he spent his early teens wandering the Vidda, skiing, fishing, hunting, and hiking. A quiet, calm authority, Poulsson was the unspoken leader of his group of friends.

He never doubted what he wanted to be in the future: a military officer. A straight arrow, he liked rules and regimens. At his school in Rjukan, there were two classes of children his age, one wild and unruly, the other well-behaved. Wanting to tame the former, the principal moved Poulsson and Helberg into the disruptive classroom, and within a few months discipline had been restored. At fifteen, Poulsson spent a summer at a military camp. He was given his own Krag-Jørgensen carbine and learned to march in step. At twenty he joined the Army’s Second Division NCO school. He was there when the Germans invaded. Within five days his battalion, which was deployed solely in a defensive position, surrendered and retreated to Sweden. “The saddest day of my life,” Poulsson wrote. They hadn’t even put up a fight.

After a long billet in Sweden, he returned to Norway and holed up outside Rjukan for several months, bristling to do something. Unable to obtain passage to Britain by boat, he skied back to neutral Sweden, and from there he journeyed around the world. In Turkey he witnessed “mud and stone huts and beaten oilcans for roofs.” In Cairo he found “flies and street vendors the biggest plagues.” On heavy seas to Bombay, he experienced “stomach aches and head aches.” In India, the camp was “populated by large amount of lice, not nice bedfellows.” Still, it was an adventure, and an eye-opening one for a young man who had never before traveled outside his homeland. During the six-month journey, he worried at times if he had what it took to be a good soldier. One night he wrote in his diary, “One never knows one’s own reactions the first time one comes under fire.”

After concluding his spy training, Poulsson returned to STS 26 and learned that his proposal to build up resistance cells around Rjukan had been accepted. At last, he would find out what kind of soldier he was. Operation Grouse was due to depart in a few weeks, Poulsson at its head. He and his team were to survive the harshest of winter conditions out in the wild, like the alpine bird for which their mission was named, while waiting for the green light for operations.

One unlucky delay followed another, and soon the long Norwegian summer days made the launch of the mission too dangerous. Parachute drops into Norway were limited to a very narrow window. For half the year, there was too much light at night for planes to cross over the countryside unseen by the Germans. For the other half, particularly during the long winter, drops needed to occur around the full moon, when the darkness was cut by just enough natural light that pilots could navigate by landmarks—and parachutists could spot a safe place to land.

With the operation now delayed until at least late September, Poulsson wondered whether he might be better off rejoining the regular army. Others in the company, like Knut Haukelid, felt the same, even though the Norwegian Army soldiers who had made it to Britain were similarly frustrated with inaction. Reassured by their Kompani Linge commanders that they would soon get their chance, they remained.

In the meantime, Poulsson finalized his small team: Arne Kjelstrup, a short, broad-chested plumber born but not raised in Rjukan, who carried a bullet in his hip from fighting the Germans during the invasion. He had accompanied Poulsson on his round-the-world journey to join Kompani Linge. Knut Haugland was a slightly built twenty-four-year-old with a thick shock of fair hair and a thin, boyish face that belied his exacting intelligence. A carpenter’s son from Rjukan, he had become a first-class radio operator. And Knut Haukelid, whom Poulsson often went out stag hunting with in the Highlands, knew what it took to survive and operate in the Vidda.

While waiting for their orders to come through, Haukelid stumbled and shot himself in the foot during a training exercise in the countryside. Doctors told the crestfallen commando he would not be “fit for duty” until at least October. Poulsson quickly decided on his replacement: Claus Helberg, his childhood friend. Now leaner, taller, and fitter than most, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Helberg had found his own way to Britain in the early spring to join Kompani Linge. He would need parachute training, Poulsson knew, but there was time for that.

Throughout August, Poulsson and the others prepared for their operation, gathering enough supplies to fill eight tubular containers, which would be dropped with them. The inventory list was two pages long, supplies weighing almost seven hundred pounds: ski gear, boots, gaiters, windbreakers, woolen undergarments, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, tools, cigarettes, candles, tents, kerosene, rucksacks, maps, frostbite ointment, a wireless set and two six-volt rechargeable batteries to power it, guns, ammo, and food. No one was more exacting in his requirements than radioman Knut Haugland. Often to the rankling of the British quartermasters, he specified the exact type of batteries and other radio equipment needed for the operation. That was his way.

On August 29, a hot, sultry day interspersed with thunderstorms, Poulsson traveled to London to meet with Colonel Wilson and Leif Tronstad at Chiltern Court to finalize their plans. The Grouse team would drop near Lake Langesjå, ten miles north-northwest of Rjukan, with Einar Skinnarland on the ground to guide the plane in. Haugland knew Skinnarland well from the local Rjukan resistance, and all of the team were well acquainted with the Skinnarland family. (Einar’s brother Torstein was a ski-jumping legend in town.) If for any reason it was not possible for Skinnarland to act as guide, they would blind drop and head to Lake Møs on their own. Wilson and Tronstad laid out their operating instructions, the focus on forming “small independent groups” to prepare for operations against future targets. These included German communications, bridges, and roads. Vemork was not mentioned. As far as Poulsson knew, this target was no longer on the table since the shutdown of Clairvoyant.

Two days later, the Grouse team left for STS 61 at Gaynes Hall, near Tempsford airport outside Cambridge. The distinguished mansion had once been the home of Oliver Cromwell, but now served as the SOE launch point for foreign agents headed overseas. The Grouse team would continue to train here, and wait.

That same day, August 31, Leif Tronstad sat in a smoke-filled room on Old Queen Street, the Tube Alloys headquarters, and raised the prospect of Grouse leading an attack on Vemork. Seated around the table with him were Colonel Robert Neville, the chief planner of Combined Operations, Wallace Akers, and Akers’s former ICI assistant, Michael Perrin, a key member now of the British atomic program.

When Lord Louis Mountbatten took over Combined Operations in October 1941, the command he inherited, charged with missions that brought together naval, air, and land forces, was in a state of shambles. And indeed, since then the operations of the forty-two-year-old royal-blooded British naval hero had, at best, a checkered record. Stories of the disastrous mid-August beachhead assault at Dieppe were only just beginning to recede from newspaper headlines.

Since Churchill’s return from America, the War Cabinet had tasked Mountbatten with investigating a possible operation targeting Vemork. Neville, his chief planner and a Royal Marine, looked like he could take on the task single-handedly.

The four men considered several potential courses of action to stop the production of heavy water at Vemork: (1) an attack from within by Norsk Hydro men, (2) infiltration by Poulsson and his team, (3) a six-man SOE attack party to blow up the pipelines (mirroring an early Clairvoyant plan), (4) a Combined Operations raid of between twenty-five and fifty men to destroy the pipelines and the plant, and (5) an RAF bombing.

Tronstad argued against an air attack: with all the hydrogen and ammonia produced in the area, the town of Rjukan might be wiped out in a devastating explosion, and it was unlikely any bombs would penetrate deep enough into the plant to destroy the high-concentration stages located in the basement. As for recruiting saboteurs who already worked at the plant—an inside job—he did not believe they could find enough trustworthy people at Vemork to pull it off. Instead, Tronstad wanted his Grouse team at the forefront of a direct attack. They knew the area, and according to the most recent intelligence, there was only limited security at the plant. With an additional six-man sabotage team to carry out the demolition, the group would have good odds of success.

Neville was unsure—German defenses might be stronger than reported. He favored British sappers (combat engineers) executing the attack, with the Grouse team acting as guides. Fifty soldiers could overcome any resistance, and with their strength in numbers, they could perform a larger attack on the plant, making certain it was removed as a threat. The trouble would be getting the men out and away from Norway. Neville recognized that this challenge made the sappers very likely a “suicide squad.”

The four men knew Mountbatten would make the final decision, but it looked like the Grouse team would indeed have a role to play in the Vemork plan.

Tronstad was desperate to be part of any operation on the ground as well. Yes, he was contributing to the war effort. He had his own intelligence network. He recruited Norwegian scientists to aid the British defense industry. He advised on potential chemical attacks. He helped steer the strategy, training, and operation of Kompani Linge. But at times he felt like he was fighting a paper war, of reports and conferences. He wanted away from this “abnormal life.” He felt that others were suffering the burdens of the conflict while he remained in London. Many of his close friends were dead; the Gestapo had evicted his family from their home and hounded his wife for information on his whereabouts. Brun and Skinnarland were risking their lives every day spying for his country. Tronstad wanted to do the same.

After celebrating his thirty-ninth birthday that March, he had quit smoking and begun exercising diligently. In June, he went through parachute training at STS 51. Each evening, he tried to get in a “little commando work” in the expansive park, Hampstead Heath, near his house.

Believing himself prepared for any mission, he pitched to Major General Gubbins, the SOE chief, his own involvement in Grouse. But Gubbins told Tronstad that his place was in London. The Allies could not risk losing his insight and leadership. Coming to an uneasy peace with staying behind, Tronstad threw himself into his Kompani Linge command.

His resolve was strengthened by the news out of his homeland. Across Norway, average citizens were actively resisting the Germans any way they could. Earlier in the year, teachers had gone on strike, refusing Nazi demands to teach the new order to their pupils. Terboven had ordered the arrest of the most recalcitrant teachers—five hundred in number—sending them to a concentration camp in the Arctic seaport of Kirkenes. The journey took sixteen days, the prisoners crowded inside the cargo hold of an old wooden steamer, with little food or water and no toilets. They were forced to work twelve hours a day on the docks, alongside Soviet prisoners of war, and were ill fed, poorly housed, and beaten on a whim. Some died. Others went mad. Still, they resisted.

“War makes the mind very hard,” Tronstad wrote in his diary, thinking of the latest news of their hardship. “Becoming a sensitive person again will not be easy.”

Throughout September, as Knut Haukelid watched the rains sweeping across Scotland and nursed his injured foot, he wished passionately that he had been able to join the Grouse team. From the team’s letters, however, it sounded like they were as stuck as he was. In one, headed “Somewhere in England,” Poulsson wrote, “If you think we have left, then you are damned wrong . . . A week’s waiting for fine weather which never comes. Otherwise it is all right here—the house full of FANYs [field army nurses].” Then, on September 9, “There is a red light today and we hope for the best. We are now ready to start.”

Haukelid awaited word that they had dropped safely. Once they connected with Tronstad by wireless and were securely in place in Telemark, the plan was for him to join them with another Linge member. If only for that damn foot . . .

At the end of September, another letter arrived. “Of course we came back. Motor trouble.” The following day brought yet another note from the Grouse team. “Another unsuccessful attempt. Fog in the North Sea. Devil take the lot! But tails up.”

Then silence. Nothing. Surely they were gone now, landed in the Vidda, without him.

General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of German military forces in occupied Norway, strode through Vemork’s grounds on October 1, impressed by its natural defenses but conscious that they were insufficient to protect the plant from British bandits. There needed to be floodlights, more guards, more patrols, barracks for his troops, potentially an antiaircraft battery. Mines must be laid in the surrounding hillsides and alongside the penstocks running down into the power station. The fences around the grounds had to be raised and topped with rings of barbed wire. The narrow bridge leading to the plant required a reinforced gate.

With a face that looked like it had been chipped from stone, Falkenhorst was a soldier of the old school. He came from a noble German family, had fought in World War I, and won several promotions before his country again found itself embroiled in war. During the advance on Poland, he shone. When Hitler needed a commander to take Norway, Falkenhorst was recommended, in part because of his brief stint in Finland in 1918.

The Führer had given him only a few hours to return with a plan. Falkenhorst, who knew little of Norway, sketched out the attack based in part on what he learned from a Baedeker travel guide found at a local bookshop. His success with the invasion had not brought another command in the continuing German advance. Instead he found himself stuck in Norway, guarding the country like a common sentry. He kept himself on decent terms with Terboven and the SS but savored none of their brutality in keeping the occupied country in check. However, there was no doubt that if given an order from Hitler, he would follow it, no matter what.

After his inspection of Vemork was complete, Falkenhorst gathered its directors, engineers, workers, and guards. He explained that only eleven days before, the power station at Glomfjord had been blown up in a British commando raid, halting the aluminum works that depended on it. Grabbing one of the guards from behind, Falkenhorst demonstrated to his audience how fast and ruthless these commandos could be in an attack. He warned that they might arrive in town as ordinary passengers on the train or bus but that they would come “equipped with automatic weapons with silencers, chloroform, hand grenades, and knuckle-dusters.” Vemork, he concluded, must be prepared.

The price of failure—or for those who aided a sabotage operation—was soon after made clear. On October 5 men in British uniform raided an iron-ore mine outside Trondheim with what German intelligence believed was clear help from the Norwegian resistance (in fact, it was an operation concocted by Tronstad and executed by Kompani Linge). The next day, the city woke up to find posters declaring a state of emergency; the Reichskommissar Terboven arrived by overnight train, accompanied by SS Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Fehlis and scores of his Gestapo. After the RAF’s bombing of their Victoria Terrasse headquarters two weeks before, the SS was eager for blood.

In the town square, Terboven gave a speech. “I have sincerely, and in good faith, had this country and its people’s best interests at heart . . . I have waited magnanimously, and for a long time, but I have now realized that I am forced to take severe measures. When we National Socialists first realize that we have to intervene, we do not follow the democratic method, hanging the little fish, while the big ones swim away. Instead we get hold of big ones, those who want to remain in the background . . . This evening, the population will be made aware of this principle.” Terboven and the SS picked out ten prominent local citizens—a lawyer, newspaper editor, theater director, bank manager, and shipbroker among them—“to atone for several sabotage acts.” Later, Fehlis’s execution squad shot them in the back of the head.

The Swedish border was effectively closed, and Fehlis led an exhaustive hunt for resistance members—indeed, for anyone holding contraband (radios, arms, or large sums of money). His troops searched tens of thousands of people, vehicles, houses, and farms. In the end, they arrested ninety-one individuals as well as every male Jew over fifteen years of age. Some of these prisoners were executed as well.

Terboven intensified efforts to prevent any future raids and to break the will of the Norwegian people. New border regulations, ration cards, and travel permits were instituted. The list of violations punishable by death now included providing shelter to enemies of the state and attempting to leave the country. Across Norway, thousands were arrested, often indiscriminately. Prison transports to Germany increased. Informants were pressed for names of those in the resistance. Torture intensified. If a known resistance member couldn’t be found, the Gestapo took his or her parents or siblings instead.

In mid-October Hitler delivered a secret order, the Kommandobefehl, to his generals across Europe, including Falkenhorst, to further punish the Allies for their commando attacks: “Henceforth all enemy troops encountered in so-called commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or demolition groups, armed or unarmed; and whether in combat or seeking to escape . . . If such men appear to be about to surrender, no quarter should be given to them—on general principle.” The order clearly violated the written and unwritten codes of war.


Men from No.2 Commando (No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion) who participated in Operation Colossus

Hughes, Norman; Tragino Aqueduct; Airborne Assault Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/tragino-aqueduct-224940

In June 1940, Britain had withdrawn its army out of the jaws of death from Dunkirk. In just under 50 days, the German Wehrmacht had overrun Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. France was on the verge of defeat. Despite these developments, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke envisioned only offensive strategies. Clarke, a Royal Artillery officer, was the Military Assistant to the Chief, Imperial General Staff. After Dunkirk, he studied what other countries in the past had done in circumstances similar to those in which Britain now found itself. He recalled the tactics used by the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsula War; the South African Boers during their war with Britain; and, in his own experience, the role of the irregulars in Palestine in the mid-1930s. Based on this study, Clarke devised a strategy to employ small but hard-hitting units that would mount attacks from the sea striking at German targets from Narvik to the Pyrenees, then quickly withdraw back to the sea. He submitted the idea to the Imperial General Staff, which eventually adopted it. The Imperial General Staff called the units Commandos, after the mounted Boer units of the South African War.

Before the end of June 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill prodded the Army to raise a force of paratroopers, in a note that said: “We ought to have a corps of at least five thousand parachute troops. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these troops who can nonetheless play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence.” Within two days Major John F. Rock, Royal Engineers, was charged with organizing the prime minister’s airborne force. Soon after, Rock was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The recruiting process used for candidates for the Commandos also served as the basis for obtaining Commandos who would jump. Those being screened were told that Commandos would be in two categories, seaborne and airborne, and they were asked to state a preference. Early volunteers were a mix of those who had enlisted in the Regular Army and those in the Territorial Army (or T.A., which were locally raised units similar to the U.S. Army Reserve). No. 2 Special Service Company was the initial designation for the first parachute unit; this was later changed to No. 2 Commando. As with the other Commando units, it was subordinate to the Chief of Combined Operations, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. Keyes had gained fame late in World War I for planning and executing a Commando-style raid on the port of Zeebruge. His son, Geoffrey, would later be killed on a Commando raid whose objective was to kill or capture Rommel.

Parachute training was conducted at Ringway RAF Station. Ringway was initially known as the Central Landing School for security reasons. Later, the name was changed to Central Landing Establishment, in part because incoming mail was being received addressed to “Central Laundry School” and (worse) “Central Sunday School.” The name change also confirmed that Ringway would serve as the focal point for “the co-ordination and direction of all work required in the development and training of an airborne force.” Since there was no previous military application of British soldiers being delivered to the battlefield by parachute, the training literally started on the ground floor. Physical training NCOs were designated as the first instructors. One of the instructor sergeants was nicknamed “Bags o’ guts” because of his fondness for yelling at the students while trying to get them “into the most horrible contortions.”

The instructors at Ringway had to literally start from scratch. They first constructed a series of physical training devices designed to toughen muscle groups needed in parachute jumping. Next, after studying intelligence reports about German training methods, they put together a rough training outline. This outline was subject to many changes often dictated by innovations in training techniques, tactical studies, and progression in general knowledge. The initial airborne equipment they had available consisted of a captured German parachute and jump helmet. With this humble beginning, Britain’s parachute program began to take form.

Obviously, equipment was the first prerequisite—more parachutes and airplanes were required. The RAF was extremely reluctant to give up any of its planes, saying that all the bombers were needed for bombing raids on Europe. After some higher-level arm-twisting, four Whitley bombers were allocated to Ringway and immediately dubbed “flying coffins” by the parachute students. Several different methods of exiting the Whitley were tried. The instructors, who were learning their trade only about a step or two ahead of their students, decided that the most reliable method was for jumpers to drop through a hole in the belly of the plane. At about the same time that the Whitleys were delivered, the school also obtained a Bombay transport plane; this had a side door for jumping. Both types of aircraft came to be used in the early days of training at Ringway.

The first airborne jump was on 13 July 1940, using the pull-off method. In this method, the jumper stood at the rear of the plane on a platform built especially for this purpose. He faced the front of the plane and, on command, pulled his rip cord. The force of the parachute opening and catching the wind jerked him out of the plane. Needless to say, only one man jumped at a time. The early classes were organized into 50-man units and these included officers. The men came from various regiments. Corporal Philip D. Julian, a sapper from the Royal Engineers, was in K Troop. He had volunteered for special service after being successfully evacuated from Dunkirk.

When their jump training was completed, the new airborne troopers were sent to Scotland. There they underwent about six weeks of basic Commando training at the hands of Lord Lovat and his Lovat Scouts at their School of Irregular Warfare. Here they went on “wee walks” up nearby Ben Nevis, a massive fog-shrouded peak and the highest point in Scotland. Days off from training usually meant “a wee run” to the top of Ben Nevis.

In the course of their training, two men, introduced only as Sykes and Fairburn (both former police officers in Shanghai), taught the paratroopers the basics of unarmed combat and how to kill by fair means or foul. “Remember, gentlemen,” the instructors told them, “go for the eyes, ears, or testicles.” One month later, in early September, the students had completed the Commando phase of their training. Now, while they waited for an operation, the best among them began to fill out the ranks of trainers and instructors needed on staff at Ringway.

This new cadre of instructors did not stop their own training. Soon they were conducting night jumps. The first of these jumps included putting lights on the descending jumpers. As air crews and paratroopers gained experience and confidence, the lights were no longer used. On one of the night jumps, R.D. “Jock” Davidson was dragged below the plane. He remembers that “my static line got twisted round my wrist.” Soon thereafter, the static line became untwisted and “no one would have been happier than when I heard the canopy of the chute snap open and knew that all was well.”

In November, a demonstration jump was conducted for visiting dignitaries. At the same time, work began on the selection of a target for an operational jump. An unspecified area in Italy was chosen and it was given the codename Operation Colossus.

At about the time that Italy was designated to be the site of the first airborne operation, an engineering firm in London suggested that the RAF might consider bombing a huge aqueduct near Monte Vulture, 30 miles inland from Salerno, in the “ankle” of the Italian boot. The engineering firm had originally built the aqueduct over the Tragino River and was able to supply a copy of the construction plans. The aqueduct was the main water supply source for most provinces in southern Italy, including the towns of Brindisi, Bari, and Foggia. These all had military factories and dockyards that depended on the water. Eventually, a decision was made to use the new paratroopers instead of RAF bombers against the aqueduct.

As planning for the operation began, the unit was again redesignated; this time to 11th Special Air Service Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Jackson, commander of the unit, told his assembled troops that a “top secret” mission was being planned and asked for 40 volunteers. Almost in perfect unison every officer and man took one step forward. “Very well,” Jackson said. “I thank you all, but I’m afraid this means the men who are to take part will have to be selected.” The first one selected was Major Trevor A.G. Pritchard, Jackson’s second-in-command and leader of K Troop. Pritchard was told to pick five other officers and then each officer was to pick five men. The team was designated “X Troop,” 11th Special Air Service Battalion. The six officers were told only that they would have to train X Troop to blow up a bridge somewhere in enemy territory. Later, one officer and two men were added to X Troop as reserves.

A separate area was assigned to X Troop at Ringway. Mornings were devoted to runs and forced marches with full equipment. During the afternoons, the paratroopers rehearsed on a bridge mock-up in Tatton Park, located about five miles away from Ringway. At about the same time, eight Whitley bombers were set aside for use by X Troop. Pritchard planned to put six men into each of six planes. Sling containers, with weapons and explosives, were to be located in the bomb-bays and rigged for parachute drop. The other two planes, if they were still available, were to be used for a diversionary bomb run in Foggia, near the target area. He hoped that this maneuver would allay suspicion as to their true nature and mission.

Prior to the mission dress rehearsal, two additional men were added to X Troop. One was a civilian whose real name was Fortunato Picchi but rostered as Trooper “Pierre Dupont.” The other was forty-year-old Flight-Lieutenant Ralph Lucky, who wore ribbons denoting service in the World War. Both were introduced as interpreters. The dress rehearsal went terribly, with some of the men suffering minor injuries. “Jock” Davidson called the jump “a bit of a fiasco. The wind was far too strong,” he added, “and normally we would never have jumped in it, but it was our last chance before leaving so off we went.” Not one of those injured allowed himself to be taken off the mission. Philip Julian injured his knee but X-rays taken at a hospital showed “all was OK” and he returned to X Troop. Most of the men thought the bad dress rehearsal was a good sign; they were wrong.

In late January, Lieutenant Anthony Deane-Drummond, one of the six officers of X Troop, was informed as to the true nature of the real target. He was to leave England immediately and proceed to Malta where he would act as the unit’s liaison office in establishing an advance base. Deane-Drummond also learned that the plan called for the paratroopers, once their demolition mission was complete, to move west from their target to the Italian coast, some 50 miles away. There they were to be picked up by a submarine. Soon after his briefing, the signals officer left for Malta. He had to find accommodations for the unit, draw explosives and other necessary supplies, and arrange for the unit to be transported to the airfield on the night of the operation. A late change in the plan called for the paratroopers to go in under the cover of darkness.

On 4 February, X Troop departed Ringway by special bus, bound for Mildenhall RAF Base. Before leaving England, X Troop conducted a parade inside a hangar for Admiral Keyes, who offered a few encouraging words to the unit after inspecting it. On the morning of 9 February, X Troop and all eight Whitleys arrived on Malta and were met at the airfield by Deane-Drummond.

On the 10th, X Troop studied an aerial photograph of the target area taken on the day before. The photograph showed that there were actually two aqueducts across the Tragino. They were situated about 200 yards apart and one was larger than the other. In the end, the larger one, on the east, was designated as the target.

Final supplies were issued to the men. These included food, a six-day supply of water, and cigarettes. Each man carried three hand grenades. Personal weapons issued to officers included .38 caliber revolvers while each man carried a .32 caliber Colt automatic with four extra clips. Each man strapped a Commando knife to one leg. Explosives, rifles, and sub-machine guns were loaded into weapons containers stowed in the Whitleys’ bomb racks. In an effort to anticipate every feasibility, the paratrooper battle uniform was augmented to hide a variety of escape-related items, including: 50,000 lire in notes sewn into shirt collars and trouser waistbands; two silk maps (one of north Italy, the other of south Italy) sewn into sleeve linings; a hacksaw blade sewn into the left breast pocket of each shirt; and a special metallic collar stud was added that contained a small compass.

At 1700, X Troop had a meal of hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. As they ate, Major Pritchard briefed the men, telling them where they would be going and detailing the escape items in their uniforms. During their training, the men of X Troop had been led to believe that they would be blowing up a bridge in Abyssinia. Now they all knew they were headed for Italy. Many of the men were less concerned about executing their mission than they were about making their escape afterwards. It was obvious that they could only travel at night and through territory where the local military and civilian population would be looking for them. And it was mid-winter. They did not, however, express any reservations about their ability to blow up the aqueduct and make a clean getaway.

At the conclusion of the briefing, the men loaded into the Whitleys and took off. The plan was for the three planes carrying the infantry paras to leave first, followed 30 minutes later by the three planes transporting the sappers (combat engineers who were explosives experts). One of the planes carrying the sappers was delayed further when one of the paras got sick and had to be taken off the plane. Many of the men slept on the way to the target.

At 2137, seven minutes later than scheduled, the paratroopers in Deane-Drummond’s plane were alerted that the target was near. Flying on a general southeasterly course, the planes passed over the target area and disgorged their cargo. Deane-Drummond, fifth man out of his plane, made what he called “ … the best landing I had ever made.” He landed about 100 yards from the target. Within a few minutes, he and the men in his stick had retrieved their weapons and secured the immediate areas above and below the aqueduct. He made a quick inspection of the target and realized that the information from the London engineering firm was wrong in one major respect: the aqueduct was not made of concrete; it was made of reinforced concrete. As he made this discovery, the lieutenant could hear the far-off sounds of bombs exploding in the direction of Foggia. That would be the diversionary air-raid.

Soon the other planes began dropping their paras and almost immediately there were indications that things were starting to go wrong. Two planes carrying infantry were late because they had rerouted to avoid flak on their line of flight. Some of the weapons and explosives containers did not release, while others that did release were scattered over a wide area. Finally, the last plane, which was carrying Captain Gerry Daly and five sappers, dropped the paras on board in the wrong valley.

By about 2215, other troopers began to appear at the aqueduct. One of the first to arrive was Major Pritchard. Deane-Drummond immediately briefed his commander on the situation, informing him that Captain Daly and his plane-load of sappers were not yet at the target. Pritchard grabbed an engineer lieutenant named George Paterson and advised him to be prepared to oversee the demolition of the aqueduct should Daly not arrive in time. Paterson immediately reviewed the site and told Pritchard that the original plan would have to be modified because of the reinforced concrete. Furthermore, not all of the explosives had been successfully dropped. Pritchard told the lieutenant, “You’re the expert now, and I’ll stand by your judgment.”

As boxes of explosives were delivered to the aqueduct, Paterson and the 12 sappers who had landed near the target began arranging the material around the base of one of the aqueduct’s support piers. This group included Philip Julian and R.J. “Jock” Crawford. Covering parties commanded by Deane-Drummond, Captain Christopher Lea, and Lieutenant Arthur Jowett secured areas on both sides of the aqueduct. About a dozen Italian men, gathered up by the paratroopers for purposes of security were pressed into a labor gang to help. These civilians were later awarded medals by the Italian government for “gallant behaviour in the face of the enemy.” Deane-Drummond took the remaining two boxes of explosives and, with the help of two of his men, Lance-Corporal Robert Watson and Sapper Alan Ross, arranged them under one end of a small nearby bridge. This bridge, to the west of the aqueduct, was what had shown up on the aerial photograph of the target area. Deane-Drummond’s decision to take out this bridge was intended to stop or delay any vehicular troop movement from engaging and pursuing the British paratroopers.

By 0015, all was ready. The Italian men were moved to nearby buildings and the paratroopers moved to an area a short distance away from the aqueduct. Fifteen minutes later, Paterson and Deane-Drummond lit 60-second fuses at their respective targets. The charge at the small bridge went off. The charge on the main target should have gone off at about the same time but it did not. Pritchard and Paterson, both concerned as to what may have gone wrong, began to advance toward the support pier. They had only covered about a dozen yards when an explosion knocked them both off their feet. This was followed by a series of flashes and explosions that rumbled into the dark, distant mountains. Pritchard and Paterson picked themselves up and went forward to inspect the damage.

When they returned to update the rest of the unit, they were quickly surrounded and barraged by questions from every side. Pritchard held up his hand and said, “Listen to that sound.”

As the men quieted down they could hear the constant sound of running water. Half of the aqueduct had been knocked down; one of the support piers was gone and another “leaned at a crazy angle.”

Pritchard spoke quietly to his men as they gathered around him. “My thanks to you, you’ve done a splendid job. I’d just love to see old Mussolini’s face when he learns of our raid and what we’ve accomplished. We must now withdraw—and lose no time about it.” He reminded them of the plan for a submarine to pick up all those who could make it to the mouth of the Sele River in four days. Then he organized the men into three groups of roughly ten men and two officers each. All heavy equipment and rifles were buried. Lance-Corporal Boulter, who had broken his ankle during the jump, was left behind. At 0100, the three groups set off, moving west.

In another valley, Captain Daly and his men, including “Jock” Davidson, heard the sound of the explosion and decided that there was no longer a need to advance to the aqueduct. Daly briefed his four men on the submarine rendezvous and they set out. Daly’s last words, as they began their forced march west were, “We’ve got rather a long walk ahead of us.”

As a matter of fact, none of the parties involved in this plan made it to the rendezvous point on the Sele River. None of the paratroopers made it nor did the submarine. Within a matter of days, all of the paratroopers had been picked up by either Italian Army or Carabinieri units. After their capture and some initial interrogations, the Italians determined that Trooper Dupont was a civilian and a native of Italy. The next day he was executed by a firing squad. The rest of X Troop were sent to various POW camps throughout Italy. In time, some of the paras escaped and returned to England. Deane-Drummond was one of those who escaped; he later took part in the Arnhem jump in September 1944.

An incredible coincidence occurred during one of the escapes. In September 1943, after the Italian government had surrendered to the Allies, the Germans transported many of the Allied POWs north. “Jock” Davidson and three others were shielded by some Italians in an effort to keep them out of German hands. But the paratroopers got away from the Italians and headed south on their own. During their trek through the central mountains they saw a German plane towing a glider pass overhead. Three days later they were informed by some villagers in Tussio about Skorzeny’s raid on Campo Imperatore to free Mussolini. The paras had witnessed a part of Skorzeny’s assault force dispatched to the resort where Mussolini was being held!

Even if any of the paratroopers had actually made it to the rendezvous site after attacking the Tragino Aqueduct, they would not have been picked up according to the operation plan. One of the Whitleys that took part in the diversionary bombing raid over Foggia on the night of the attack lost an engine on its return flight. The crew bailed out safely but the plane crashed— at the mouth of the Sele River! Nervous staff officers at Malta believed that this crash caused too much attention to this area and cancelled the submarine pickup.

Mission Critique

The theme for this mission is that a special capability, that is, a fledgling parachute force, has been raised and trained. The planners then had to find some mission to test this capability and thereby justify the time and expense in it. This mission would determine if the special capability is worth having and if it is worthy of continued support.

Put in these terms, there is always some thought, as Vandenbroucke would say, that this justification, based strictly on a first mission result, may be mere wishful thinking. The desire is to see the mission succeed so that the original decision in creating such a force is proven correct. This desire may have entered into the line of thinking that finally resulted in the approval to execute the Tragino Aqueduct mission.

There seems little doubt that this mission was carefully considered by the planners as one that was directed against a necessary target and probably one that was within or contributed to the overall battle plan at the time. However, some juxtaposed reasoning was involved here. The planners took a target, the aqueduct, that was to be destroyed by aerial bombardment and decided, since the target was approved anyway, that the new paratroop capability could be used against it. It is this logic in the decision making process that seems faulty. A suitable target for one capability does not make that target suitable for any capability. When you compare the two capabilities being discussed here (aerial bombardment versus parachute force attack), the differences are startling. There is a saying among men who must be put in harm’s way that should be considered an axiom by all planners; it goes “Never send a man where you can send a bullet.” Had this principle been applied properly, the planners would have chosen a different target for X Troop.

So, while there appears to have been some justification for this target (however faulty the logic for choosing it), the question still remains as to whether using special operations forces to conduct the operation was necessary. In this case the answer should be an immediate “NO.” There are two things working to support this negative conclusion.

First is the fact that the target was approved for aerial bombardment— it had already been through a planning and approval process that brought it to that point. This does not mean that it should be automatically suitable or approved for attack by any method.

Second, we can see that what at first appeared to be a simple tactical plan was rendered almost completely worthless by a complicated and virtually unsupportable exfiltration plan. Only one method for getting the paratroopers out was considered. This plan necessitated the Commandos to move 50 miles through mountainous terrain during winter. The men were further limited to nighttime movement and evasion tactics. This limitation was a major hindrance even if the enemy was not aware of their presence. However, when the mission was executed, the men had literally announced their presence to the Italians. There was no external support until they would reach the coast. Now, this is definitely the kind of challenge that special operations forces can overcome, especially when they enter the target from an unexpected or unguarded approach. However, once the mission was underway, the exfiltration plan was scrubbed by a nervous planning/operations staff. Because of the lack of communications with X Troop, there was no way to tell them about this change.

While some mission had to be found for X Troop, there must have been a target available that gave them a better chance of getting out. Why go to all the trouble of investing these men with their specialized training if they are just going to be thrown away on the first plan that comes along? Why was the plan that was developed not reviewed from a critical perspective? This mission should have remained an aerial bombardment target.

Since it was more than one year before the next parachute operation was executed by the British—what was the almighty rush to conduct this one against this target? It seems that the unit was a solution looking for a problem. The planners were anxious to test the skills of the soldiers and prove the principle of airborne units. It seems to be a shame to have wasted such highly skilled and trained men on this mission. Yes, it produced a propaganda coup of sorts—but this coup could have been even more significant with a more suitable target and an attacking force that made it back. Special operations forces should not have been used against this target because such soldiers are not easily replaced.

Before examining this operation using the Vandenbroucke and McRaven criteria, the mission results must be analyzed. The aqueduct, which was the target, received some damage but not what the planners or the paratroopers expected. The damage was repaired in about three days, long before the local reservoirs were in any danger of drying up. The aqueduct was not of any strategic or tactical value. Photographic interpreters, after reviewing pictures taken almost two days after the raid, could not find any damage. The planning staff did not know if the paratroopers even got to the target until later in the month, when the Italians trumpeted the capture of the raiding force.

In a review of the criteria for failed operations several apply to this mission.

Inadequate intelligence on the aqueduct’s construction led to insufficient explosives being taken with the paratroopers. All that could be rounded up at the time of the attack had to be used to do the damage that was done.

Poor coordination was evident in several places. The paratroopers took no communications equipment with them and were thus unaware that the submarine pickup had been canceled because of the plane crash. There were no plans for an alternate pickup point.

Wishful thinking apparently guided the planning staff in its target selection. Too little time was spent looking at the plan as a whole to see that another target, closer to a pickup point (especially more than one possible point), should have been selected. After all, this mission was supposed to be a proof of principle type operation. If so then every effort should have been made to make it completely successful.

Cancellation of the submarine without a mechanism to notify the paratroopers heading to the pickup point was a classic case of in appropriate intervention of mission execution.

Conversely, most of the criteria for a successful mission were also present. The issuance of communications equipment with X Troop could have made the plan simpler than it was. Only the evasion and pick-up portions of the plan were complicated. The security, especially once the force was on the ground at the target, was a high point in the execution of the raid. All of the other criteria were definitely present, which should have made the mission one that the planners could look at with pride. After all, the paratroopers did their part very well. The fault was primarily with the planners and those overseeing the operation. Additionally, why the paratroopers said nothing about the lack of communication equipment is a puzzle.

Overall the execution was good and the planning was poor. The planning objective was to show that Britain could still project a force and cause troops to be tied up trying to protect potential targets. This mission only partly succeeded in the former and failed in the latter. The poor target selection was almost too big a hurdle to overcome.

Good lessons for future operations came from this raid. Probably most noticeable was the increased number of volunteers who wanted to join the parachute forces. News of the mission was released in response to an Italian news story that downplayed the damage and crowed about capturing the entire force. From an operational point of view, planning staffs learned to ask for and get more photo-reconnaissance of target areas and get it earlier in the planning process. Several changes were made in the procedures dealing with night jumps, although this continued to be a problem throughout the war. This first operational parachute mission also pointed out inadequacies with equipment containers. Eventually, both the equipment containers and release mechanisms on the planes were re-designed and improved. All of these changes were based on a good after-action review.


The formation, organization, and operation of the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon in June 1940 is a well-known story in the annals of special purpose, special mission organizations. This was, however, the first of two test platoons at the Army’s Parachute School at Fort Benning. The second was activated on 30 December 1943 and originally contained 20 enlisted men and 6 officers, the majority transferring from the 92nd Infantry Division, then stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The unit designation for the second Test Platoon was 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The 555th was the Army’s first and only all-black airborne unit. During its major action in World War II, Operation Firefly, the 555th (or “Triple Nickel”) would initiate and refine special operations techniques still in use today.

On 18 February 1944, 16 of the 20 enlisted men completed airborne training and received their coveted jump wings. Two weeks later, on 4 March, the six officers followed suit. These men formed the company cadre. As new members of the company reported for training, the cadre rotated through specialized training courses, such as jumpmaster, pathfinder, rigger, demolitions, and communications. Many of the early noncommissioned officers attended Infantry Officer Candidate School and, once commissioned, returned to the 555th. When the company reached a strength of 7 officers and 119 enlisted men, it shifted from individual to unit training. The progression of training was typical for parachute units at the time, although in most other units soldiers went through the training as individual fillers and not as a group or unit.

Another significant difference in training that the 555th initiated was in moving the men through leadership positions. On virtually every training jump, a different tactical objective was included. Enlisted soldiers were rotated behind the lines through as platoon and squad leaders as well as on weapons crews. Bradley Biggs, a platoon leader of the 555th, wrote later, “Over the period of these exercises each trooper had the opportunity to lead and command, and to learn each assignment in a crew-served weapons team. This leadership development made it possible for so many to be promoted.” On 17 July, the company transferred to Camp Mackall, where it was assigned to the Army’s Airborne Command. The size of the company continued to grow. On 9 November, the company was redesignated Company A, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, commanded by Captain James H. Porter. The battalion was authorized a strength of 29 officers and 600 enlisted men. Everyone in a leadership position moved up, squad leaders became platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and sergeants became company commanders and first sergeants, and so on.

Two events, separated by almost three years, came to bear on the history of the Triple Nickel. In Japan, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and other cities in the home islands in April 1942 shocked the Japanese. Until then, they had believed the U.S. was not capable of invading the home islands. They began to make plans to avenge the insult committed by Doolittle and his raiders. They called this the “Fu Go weapons project.”

Meanwhile, in Europe, Hitler launched his last fateful offensive, cutting through the American and British lines in the Ardennes Forest. The 82d and 101 St Airborne divisions were badly chewed up by this battle and needed many replacements. The 555th was alerted for duty in Europe but only as a reinforced company with a strength of 8 officers and 160 enlisted men. This downgrading action was necessary because the 555th was below its authorized battalion strength and had not yet begun its battalion training. In April 1945, just as the skeletonized company was completing almost three solid months of training in the field and was ready to rotate to Europe, the German Army collapsed. By this time, however, another threat had developed. Later that month, the Triple Nickel was transferred to Pendleton, Oregon on a highly classified mission, Operation Firefly. Having already made its mark in airborne history, the 555th was about to stamp that mark in indelible ink. It would accomplish this by fighting behind the lines in the U.S. northwest.

Beginning in November 1944, the Japanese had started their campaign to make the United States pay for Doolittle’s raid. This campaign consisted of sending balloons with incendiary bombs aloft so they would be carried by the prevailing upper winds (what we now call the jet stream) to America. Once over land the balloons would descend and drop their incendiary clusters. The Japanese believed most of these incendiaries would land in large West Coast cities and cause great havoc. In reality, most of those that made it to the West Coast landed in uninhabited areas and became a serious problem for the U.S. Forest Service, whose job included fighting forest fires in National Parks and Forests.

The Forest Service had been created in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and had begun fighting fires almost immediately. By 1925 it was using planes to spot fires and within four years was able to drop supplies from planes to fire fighters on the ground. In 1940, the first parachute jump was made on a forest fire. The following year, the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers were organized.

When the balloon bombs were first discovered, military intelligence offices noticed that the ballast bags contained sand. Samples of this sand were delivered in secret to scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey to see if it was possible for them to pinpoint either the balloon launch sites or, at least, the origin of the sand. Four scientists, Clarence s. Ross, Julia Gardner, Kenneth Lohmann, and Kathryn Lohmann, examined the sand. These scientists were able, based on unique mineralogical and paleontological assemblages, to confirm two likely sites on the east coast of Japan. Later aerial reconnaissance corroborated the exact location of the second site and it was subsequently bombed.

Working with the War Department, the Forest Service had been able to prevent any widespread reports about the balloon bombs, although some articles had appeared without attributing any cause to the fires. The Chief of the Forest Service, Lyle F. Watts, was interviewed on radio in late May 1945, describing the balloon bombs in some detail. What was not mentioned was the fear that the balloon bombs would be used to carry chemical or biological weapons. The presence of the Triple Nickel was also not mentioned.

The 555th initially set up its main camp at an inactive B-29 Army Air Corps Base outside Pendleton, located in northeastern Oregon, and immediately established a strenuous three-week training program for the battalion’s soldiers with the Forest Service Smokejumpers. As the training progressed the men of the Triple Nickel modified their uniforms to make them more functional—and safer. A 50-foot length of nylon rope was added to assist them down from trees, a common hazard in forest jumps. The heavy, fleecelined jacket and trousers of the Army Air Corps bomber crews were added next to provide padding for rough landings. Finally, they modified football helmets by adding wire mesh grills to the front to protect their face and eyes. Once on the ground, they donned gloves.

The major modification the paratroopers used was one designed by Frank Derry, one of the very first Smokejumpers. Derry had cut several panels out of the standard parachute and replaced one of the olive drab suspension lines with one made of white material. By pulling on the white shroud line, a jumper could turn in the air, to take advantage of the wind or nullify it. It was thus easier to pick out a place to land instead of being completely at the mercy of the wind. This is the first example of military use of steerable parachutes.

Within six weeks the entire battalion had qualified as Smokejumpers. During the training with their new chutes and modified clothing and equipment, the men of the 555th also worked with explosive ordnance disposal trainers to become familiar with disposal and disarming techniques. In mid July, about one-third of the battalion moved to an Army Air Corps Base at Chico, California. Splitting the unit provided wider coverage of forest area (for both fire and balloon bomb response) and better use of the skills of the paratroopers. Within a week of the move, each group had conducted its first jump into a fire area.

Once on the ground after a jump, the Triple Nickel took off the fleecelined uniforms and picked up whatever gear was needed, either to fight a fire or work on a balloon bomb. Discarded uniforms, parachutes, and unneeded equipment were left on the drop zone to be picked up on the way back to camp.

One former member of the battalion described a fire operation this way: “Digging a fire break or clearing a zone to either isolate the fire or keep it from jumping is smoky business. We stank of smoke and fought to keep upwind of it. Team work was the key. Watching out for your team members, keeping together and not losing anyone in the smoke or darkness was the top priority. We worked hard and ate like horses, often five big meals a day. The forest rangers furnished most of our meals and water. We saved ours for emergency or exit use.”

After a team arrived back at camp following a mission, battalion officers and NCOs conducted detailed debriefings of each member and filed afteraction reports. The average mission was four to six days long. On several occasions the paratroopers jumped into Canada, trying to limit the fire from spreading to the U.S. Captain Bradley Biggs stated that, in the case of balloon bombs, “We blew up only those bombs that represented a danger.” Those not blown in place were eventually turned over to an intelligence unit for exploitation.

One of the most interesting missions the Triple Nickel conducted during this period was to help train a group of U.S. Navy pilots who were preparing to go overseas. Captain Biggs and 54 paratroopers from his company were to jump before dawn onto a small drop zone and attack along a 15-mile route, calling in air support on a series of widely-separated targets and then assaulting each target with live ammunition. It was a mission that would task the hardiest paratrooper, lasting all day and with little room for error. Biggs said that “It had all the features of a combat mission except for a real enemy. There was the low altitude jump, full combat load, no ground support, and no DZ markers or pathfinders.” For the Triple Nickel, it was yet another chance to excel.

Biggs and his executive officer, Jesse J. Mayes, spent one full day reviewing the plan and reconnoitering the route the men of the Triple Nickel would cover. The drop zone was 400 yards long and 50 yards wide, and located in the mountains. The route to the various targets was up and down hill the entire way. There was great potential that heat and terrain could take a heavy toll. Each man carried a double ammunition load, two canteens, medical supplies, a compass, and two С-ration meals along with his combat pack. Jump altitude was 800 feet, allowing little time to react to a problem or a malfunctioning chute, “under conditions as close to combat as we might see.” Each plane would make two passes, with nine paratroopers exiting per plane on each pass.

The pre-dawn flight was very rough. Many of the paratroopers became sick before they felt the planes slowing down and descending as they neared the drop zone. Only one man was injured on the jump and had to be evacuated. The remainder headed for their first target, which they had to reach before the sun came up. They were in position and radioed the planes in as the dawn broke. For the rest of the day, the operation went according to plan.

Just prior to the eighth and final target, the Navy dropped a resupply of ammunition and water. This final target was within view of an observation post where several senior Navy officers watched the demonstration. Short of the target, the paratroopers laid out their two-feet by four-feet red marker panels and called in an air strike with rockets and napalm. In the follow-on ground attack, the men of the 555th fired off all their remaining ammunition.

Before the paratroopers departed the exercise area the Navy officers thanked them for their realistic support. “The commander of the naval fighter squadron was extremely complimentary. A job well done.”

Between 14 July and 6 October, the Triple Nickel fought 36 fires (19 from Pendleton and 17 from Chico) and disarmed or destroyed an unknown number of Japanese balloon bombs. In all, the missions included over 1,200 individual jumps with only 30 jump-related injuries and 1 fatality. They conducted at least one demonstration jump, on 4 July in Pendleton. Operation Firefly was an unqualified success. Because the Japanese balloon bomb operation was classified, it was not until many years after the war that the real mission for this operation was known and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion could receive full credit. The contributions the battalion made to special operations rugged terrain jumping is obvious to anyone who conducts even a cursory review of today’s techniques.

On 14 January 1946, by specific invitation of Major General James M. Gavin, commander of the 82d Airborne Division and of the parade ceremonies, the Triple Nickel took part in the World War II victory parade in New York City. The 555th marched as part of the 82d and was authorized by Gavin to wear unit decorations awarded to the “All-American” airborne division during the war, including the Belgian forragère and the Netherlands lanyard. Just prior to the parade, the 555th had been attached (not assigned) to the 82d for admin and training purposes, physically locating back to Fort Bragg.

By September 1947, the 555th was assigned to the 82d and redesignated as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, the regiment Gavin commanded during the combat parachute assaults in Sicily and mainland Italy in 1943. Gavin believed it was only right for his former unit to lead the division in setting the example for integration.

On 9 December 1947, Gavin took the final step, a full 7½ months before President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ordering “equality of treatment and opportunity” for all members of the military forces, irrespective of race, color, religion, or national origin. On that day, Gavin signed an order integrating the 82d Airborne Division and moving the men of the Triple Nickel to various units within the division and division headquarters.

Mission Critique

While planning Operation Firefly, the Army had no choice but to conduct the mission, if for no other reason than to prevent panic in the public at large. If the Japanese balloon bombs could be rendered harmless and their existence kept quiet from the American and Canadian public, the operation would be a success.

The U.S. planners had two choices for Operation Firefly. They could use Forest Service Smokejumpers to do it or a military parachute force. Using the Smokejumpers had at least two major problems: these civilian firefighters would have to receive extensive explosive ordnance disposal training and would, potentially, have to spend an unknown amount of time on the mission, time when they would not be available for fighting forest fires. This latter would require the Forest Service to hire additional people to take their place on the fire lines.

Using military parachute infantry forces, who already had training and experience in employing explosive ordnance was a more sensible choice for Firefly. These paratroopers would require training in disarming ordnance but their ramp up time would be a lot shorter than using Forest Service personnel. Additionally, their cover as Smokejumpers was perfect for their Firefly operations and was successful in preventing widespread knowledge of the existence of the balloon bombs. As shown, they helped develop a jump technique that is still used by special operations forces today, known as rugged terrain jumping.

Although the main discussion stresses the Triple Nickel’s contribution to rugged terrain operations there is another contribution that this unit made. This one was not unique to the 555th; in fact, most of the better special operations units in World War II made a similar contribution to special operations doctrine. The 555th, however, did it better than anyone else. This contribution is the method of cross-training unit members in a variety of skills and in different leadership positions. This is one of the best methods for building unit cohesion. Without this kind of cohesion the members of the unit don’t work as well together, don’t reach the ultimate, at least in special operations, of working as a team. The two best examples of the team concept are the Alamo Scouts and the Triple Nickel; the SAS, Popski’s Private Army, and the Jeds also demonstrate this quality well.

With this unit there are few examples from Vandenbroucke’s criteria and most from McRaven’s. One of the criteria from Vandenbroucke’s list, coordination, is present in several positive aspects here since the Triple Nickel dealt with some interesting organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service and its Smokejumpers, and the U.S. Navy. Security, one of McRaven’s key criteria, was the hallmark of Operation Firefly; it was kept so secret that not until many years after the end of World War II was the role of the 555th revealed to the public at large. This same security prevented the Japanese from knowing how many of their balloons made it to North America, where they landed, and what damage they had done.

All things considered, the Triple Nickel was typical of the other special operations units in this study. They did the things that the best special operations units did—they got good people, planned good operations, and ехеcuted with skill and style. Both Vandenbroucke and McRaven would happily give high marks to this unit and its operations.