German Naval Activity off Dunkirk 1940

Schnellboot S31 of the same class [Schnellboot 1939  Class] as S34

So far, German naval activity off Dunkirk had been non-existent, but this situation was not to last. In the early hours of 28 May Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Petersen, commanding the 2nd Schnellboote Flotilla in Wilhelmshaven, called his officers together and briefed them for offensive operations in the Channel area. Already, on 9 May, Petersen had led four boats of his flotilla in a successful night action north of the Straits of Dover; they had encountered a force of cruisers and destroyers of the British Home Fleet, and in the ensuing brief battle the destroyer HMS Kelly had been torpedoed and badly damaged by Kapitänleutnant Opdenhoff’s S31.15

Now, three weeks later, Petersen’s orders were simple: the S-boats were to enter the Channel under cover of darkness, lie in wait and strike hard at whatever British vessels they encountered, preferably those homeward bound with their cargoes of troops. Six boats were to undertake the mission, operating in two relays of three, hugging the 200 miles (320km) of coast on the outward trip and entering the Channel after dark.

The first three boats slipped out of Wilhelmshaven that afternoon. In the lead was S25, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Siegfried Wuppermann, an officer who was later to become one of the German Navy’s small ship ‘aces’ in the Mediterranean. Behind him came Leutnant Zimmermann’s S30, followed in turn by S34 under Leutnant Obermaier. The outward voyage was uneventful, the S-boats entering the Channel on schedule and spreading out, evading the slender screen of MTBs deployed by the Royal Navy from Felixstowe and taking up station, engines off, to the north of Ramsay’s cross-Channel routes. Station was kept, from left to right, by S30, S25 and S34, and after 90 minutes of pitching and waiting on the Channel swell it was Obermaier in S34 who made the first contact with the enemy. With the aid of night glasses, he picked out a vessel and identified it as a British destroyer. Starting S34’s engines, he closed to action stations and began his attack. At 0045 on 29 May, he launched four torpedoes at the target.

Among the crew of the destroyer HMS Wakeful, the tension of the day’s operations was making itself felt. Hardly had the destroyer entered Dover with her first load of troops on 28 May when she was ordered out again, and she had sailed as soon as the soldiers disembarked, still without having refuelled or taken on fresh stocks of ammunition. On her second trip across the Channel she had been attacked by Ju 87s and had sustained a hole in her side from a near-miss, but she had run the gauntlet of the attack and Commander Fisher had brought her back into Dunkirk, taking on another 640 troops. Now he was taking his ship home over Route Y, the most northerly of the evacuation routes, with the light of the Kwinte Buoy visible to port.

There was no time for evasive action. The first of S34’s torpedoes passed ahead of the destroyer but the second exploded amidships, tearing Wakeful in two. Within 30 seconds she was gone, leaving behind a few islands of wreckage and a handful of survivors, Fisher among them. Over 700 men, mostly troops crammed below decks, went to their deaths with the stricken ship.

Other vessels in the vicinity observed the disaster and closed in to give whatever help they could. The survivors had been in the water for little over 30 minutes when the first arrived: the minesweeper HMS Gossamer, closely followed by the Scottish drifter Comfort. By 0200 hours the destroyer Grafton, the minesweeper Lydd and the motor drifter Nautilus had also reached the scene, their lifeboats joining the search for the remnants of Wakeful’s crew.

A thousand yards to the east, other eyes were watching the rescue operation. They belonged to Leutnant Michalowski and they were glued to the eyepiece of a periscope in the control centre of the submarine U-62. Michalowski now focused on the largest of the English vessels, clearly visible in the periscope’s graticule as lights flickered across the water amid Wakeful’s wreckage. Michalowski quickly checked range, bearing, depth settings and running time, then ordered the launch of a salvo of torpedoes.

The destroyer Grafton was lying at rest, her rails crowded with troops who, like her captain, Commander Robinson, were watching the efforts of her lifeboat crews as they continued the search. At that instant U-62’s torpedoes struck. One tore away the destroyer’s stern; the other sent an explosion ripping through the wardroom, killing 35 officers.

What happened next amounted to panic. The other vessels in the area, their captains aware only that Grafton had been subjected to an unexpected attack, began steering in all directions, their gun crews tense and ready to fire at shadows. On the minesweeper Lydd, Lieutenant-Commander Haig saw what looked like the silhouette of a torpedo-boat moving south-westwards. Lydd’s starboard Lewis gun opened fire on it and Grafton, which was still afloat, opened up with her secondary armament. It was a terrible mistake; the ‘torpedo-boat’ was in fact the drifter Comfort, carrying survivors from HMS Wakeful. Machine-gun bullets raked her decks as the Lydd closed right in, cutting the drifter’s crew to pieces. Minutes later, Lydd’s bow sliced into Comfort’s hull, tearing her apart. There were only five survivors; among them was Commander Fisher, whom Comfort had plucked from the sea when Wakeful went down. Fisher spent a long time in the water before be was again picked up, more dead than alive, by the Norwegian tramp steamer Hird at dawn.

HMS Grafton, meanwhile, was finished. At first light the railway steamer Malines took off her survivors, and soon afterwards the destroyer Ivanhoe put three shells into her waterline. Ten minutes later she turned over and sank. Over the horizon U-62 and Wuppermann’s three S-boats were already well on their way back to base; there could be no doubt that the German Navy had won the first round.

During the late afternoon of 1 June, the French naval vessels off Dunkirk once again came in for severe punishment; at 1600 Stukas fell on a convoy of French auxiliaries, sinking three of them – Denis Papin, Venus and Moussaillon – within five minutes.

RAF Fighter Command carried out eight squadron-strength patrols during the course of the day, claiming the destruction of 78 enemy aircraft – a figure that was later officially reduced to 53. However, Luftwaffe records admit the loss of only 19 bombers and ten fighters for 1 June, with a further 13 damaged; and since the Royal Navy claimed ten aircraft destroyed and French fighters another ten, the actual score must remain in doubt. What is certain is that Fighter Command lost 31 aircraft during the air battles of 1 June, and that the evacuation fleet lost 31 vessels of all types sunk – including four destroyers – and 11 damaged. Most of the stricken vessels fell victim to air attack, but it was the German Navy that had the last word. Shortly before midnight, Leutnant Obermaier, making yet another sortie into the Channel in Schnellboot S34, sighted two ships and attacked with torpedoes, sinking both. They were the trawlers Argyllshire and Stella Dorado.

Despite the losses, the evacuation fleet lifted off 64,429 British and French troops on 1 June. Since the last stretches of beach still in Allied hands, and the shipping offshore, were now being heavily shelled, Admiral Ramsay planned to lift as many men as possible in a single operation on the night of 1/2 June. It had originally been planned to complete the evacuation on this night, but this was no longer feasible; there could be no question of abandoning the French troops who had fought so hard on the perimeter, and through whom the British had passed on their way to the beaches. Ramsay therefore decided to concentrate all available ships after dark in the Dunkirk and Malo areas, from where the maximum lift might be obtained. For this purpose he had at his disposal some 60 ships, together with the many small craft still involved in the operation; the French could provide ten ships and about 120 fishing craft.

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