K-Verbände Attacks against D-Day shipping III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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