The K-Verbände in Scandinavia

While real enemies assailed German-held Europe from east, west and south, Hitler remained obsessed with the phantom threat to the Scandinavian sector of his Thousand-Year Reich throughout the course of the Second World War. The conquest of Norway and Denmark had secured the Reich’s northern flank and, of more immediate importance, the vital Norwegian port of Narvik. Set amidst the natural splendour of Norway’s northern reaches, the isolated Arctic town was strategically unremarkable apart from the dock through which tons of iron-ore were shipped to Germany and its war machine from the Swedish Gallivore mines.

The European gateway to Norway was Denmark, the first of the Scandinavian countries to have been conquered by Germany in 1940. In August 1944 365 K-Flotilla, equipped with Negers, was transferred to the country, though their tenure was brief, relieved by the reformed 361 K-Flotilla at the month’s end and returned to Suhrendorf for Marder training. The newly equipped 361 K-Flotilla arrived at Skaw on 1 September, moving onwards to Asaa 40km south of Frederikshaven ten days later. Bibers of 263 K-Flotilla were the first midgets to arrive in Norway, thirty of them landed at Kristiansand South from Travemünde on 9 October.

Over the next few weeks several K-Verbände units arrived in Denmark and Norway as well as German possessions in the North Sea. By 2 November the disposition of K-Verbände units within Scandinavia as approved by Dönitz was as follows: in northern Norway there were approximately sixty Bibers and sixty Marders in the area between Westfjord and the Lofoten Islands; sixty Molchs and thirty Bibers were based in southern Norway, mainly around Oslo and Kristiansand South (the Bibers were planned to move toward Narvik though Dönitz blocked the move); in Denmark, sixty Bibers at Aarhus and Oesterhurup were headed to the west coast of Jutland, sixty Marders and twelve Hechts were stationed at Asaa. Within German held North Sea territory there were thirty Molchs in Heligoland, thirty more at Borkum and thirty Bibers within the Ems estuary at Norden and sixty Linsens at Fedderwardsiel.

To control the far-flung K-Verbände units within Scandinavia K.z.S. Friedrich Böhme initially assumed command of units in Denmark and Norway in an almost ‘caretaker’ position, the post soon divided between K.z.S. Düwel in Aarhus, Denmark (Kommando Stab Skagerrak) and K.z.S. Beck (Kommando Stab Nord) in Oslo, Norway, while Böhme headed south to the Mediterranean. Beck and his staff surveyed the coastline that they had been charged to defend, estimating that they would require at least forty flotillas to effectively ward off an Allied attack on the labyrinthine waterways.

The deteriorating situation in Holland during December 1944 meant that the Molchs from Heligoland, Bibers from Norden and Linsens from Fedderwardsiel were all transferred for use in the Scheldt, depleting the K-Verbände presence in the northern theatre. Further losses were made when, after the threatened shortage of volunteers to man the K-Verbände weapons during January 1945, the dozen Hechts at Asaa were withdrawn to Germany and their crews transferred to the Seehund training unit before posted to Holland as part of Brandi’s 5 K-Division.

During February 1945 Düwel and his adjutant Wenzel were detached from Kommando Stab Skagerrak for duty with the Kommando Stab zbV which would soon be responsible for operations within German waterways that had been taken by Allied forces. Specifically, Düwel was asked to study operational employment of K-Verbdnde forces in the Danube, Drau and Oder. Control of his Scandinavian region was meanwhile passed directly to Heye’s General Operations branch.

The Scandinavian elements of the K-Verbände spent the rest of the war in what transpired to be needless reshuffling of units and redeployment to different defensive areas. The men were involved in constant training and equipment maintenance in preparation for the expected final battle. The tactics that the K-Verbände evolved for Norway were relatively simple. The Biber and Molch midget submarines were largely held at central depots ashore. In the case of reported invasion, they were to be brought forward to previously-prepared launching sites and put to sea to predetermined areas of operation. The Bibers and Molchs were assigned the protection of fjord and harbour entrances. Once established in a defensive line across the waterway they would await the oncoming enemy and then launch their attacks. By that stage the enemy should have suffered casualties, and so the place of the midgets would then taken by the Linsen flotillas who would compound the attack with their explosive motorboats. Should any Allied ships break through; the last line of defence was the human torpedo, Marder flotillas operating within the shallow waters of the harbours themselves. Alongside the centrally-stored Bibers there is evidence to suggest that some craft were ‘farmed out’ to outlying areas aboard Marinefahrpramm and also using the U-boat depot-ship ss Black Watch as temporary base and repair station, until the latter’s sinking on 4 May 1945 by British carrier-borne Avenger and Wildcat aircraft.

Coupled with the K-Verbände flotillas in Norway were also several Marine Einsatz Kommando units that were attached to the K-divisions, operating as loosely organised mobile commandos along the Norwegian coastline, often in conjunction with the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, or SiPo) again hinting at a stronger bond with the SS organisation than otherwise noted.

By the end of hostilities in May 1945 eight flotillas, organised into four divisions and comprising approximately eighty-five officers and 2,500 men had been deployed in Norway. The command structure and stationing at the end of hostilities was thus:

1 K-Division (Kplt Woerdeman in Narvik)

K-Flot.1/265 Engeøy Island (Oblt.z.S. Ploger with 120 men and thirteen Bibers). This unit was in the process of transferring to Oslofjord when the war ended.

K-Flot.2/265 Engeøy (Oblt.z.S. Doose with eighty men and eleven Bibers, at Lødingen two Bibers were also surrendered aboard the vessel MFP233).

K-Flot.1/215 Ullvik (L.z.S. Hein with 100 men and thirty Linsens).

K-Flot.1/362 Brenvik (L.z.S. Gotthard with seventy men and twenty Marders).

MEK35 Harstad (Kaptlt. Breusch and sixty men).

2 K-Division (Oblt.z.S. Schuirmann in Trondheim)

K-Flot.1/216 Selvenes (Oblt.z.S. Krause with 100 men and thirty-six Linsens).

K-Flot.2/216 Namsos (Oblt.z.S. Thum with eighty men and twenty-four Linsens).

K-Flot.1/267 Kristiansand (Oblt.z.S. Sengbiel with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).

K-Flot.2/267 Molde (Kaptlt. Sommer with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).

(Two Bibers were also surrendered aboard MFP224 and two more aboard MFP241).

MEK30 Molde (Kaptlt. Gegner with eighty men).

3 K-Division (K.K. Silex in Bergen)

K-Flot.1/362 Herdla (Oblt.z.S. Koch with seventy men and twenty Marders).

K-Flot.2/362 Krokeidet (seventy men and twenty Marders).

K-Flot.2/215 Flatöy (Oblt.z.S. Schadlich with 100 men and thirty Linsens).

K-Flot 415 Sola (Oblt.z.S. Breckvoldt with 200 men and thirty Molchs).

K-Flot 1/263 Höllen/Tangvall (Oblt.z.S. Erdmann with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).

K-Flot 2/263 Tangen (Oblt.z.S. Thieme with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).

4 K-Division (Kplt Velguth in Oslo)

K-Flot 1/366 Stavern (Oblt.z.S. Lehmann with sixty men and fifteen Marders).

K-Flot 2/366 Maagerö (Oblt.z.S. Heinsium with forty-five men and fifteen Marders).

Ultimately the bulk of the German forces in Norway remained unused and those K-Verbände units still in Scandinavia on 8 May 1945 surrendered without seeing action. While many of the weapons were scuttled before the arrival of British or Norwegian troops, the vast majority were handed over to the victors at their holding depots for later scrapping.

There remains little evidence of the K-Verbände presence in Scandinavia, though occasionally the skeletal remains of a Molch or Biber are discovered either at sea in the frigid fjord waters or buried on land after their dismantling in 1945. In Narvik itself rests the remains of a Marder within the maritime museum. Only the nose and the Plexiglas dome remain largely intact – that portion of the scrapped human torpedo ‘commandeered’ by a Norwegian woman who wanted to use it to plant flowers in!

Elsewhere the remains of the K-Verbände were likewise being handed over to the victorious Allies. Many craft were scuttled, including the three Seehunds at Dunkirk though these were swiftly salvaged and later repaired and recommissioned into the French Navy for extensive trials. Curiously a Seehund also now rests off Key West in United States waters. Taken as a war prize by the US Navy it was tested and crewed by its two original complement being held as POWs before being sunk in gunnery trials in the balmy Floridian waters.

The Allies soon discovered several prototype vehicles in development for use by the K-Verbände. These included many varieties of improved Sturmboot and explosive motorboats, one even propelled by a VI flying-bomb’s propulsion unit, as well as several varieties of midget submarine. There were fresh designs such as the Delphin (Dolphin), Schwertwal (Killer Whale) and large tracked Seeteufel (Sea Devil) as well as improved versions of the Biber and Seehund types. The Hai (Shark) human torpedo was found at AG Weser’s shipyard in Bremen, a huge elongated version of the Marder that stretched to 12.7m in length with increased batteries allowing a projected combat radius of 90 nautical miles. None had progressed beyond the prototype testing stage and remain historical curiosities.

Heye’s men were ushered into captivity alongside their comrades from all of Germany’s defeated services, the history of the K-Verbände soon relegated to little more than historical footnotes in works that recount Germany’s naval war between 1939 and 1945. This must be due largely to the lack of success enjoyed by the K-Verbände. While British, Italian and even Japanese midget submarine operations are often deservedly recounted for their indisputably heroic achievements, the German effort provokes far less recognition. Likewise of their explosive motorboats, human torpedoes and frogmen, the latter who enjoyed comparatively greater success than their service colleagues.

So why did Germany’s K-Verbände not achieve greater triumph? It certainly was not through a lack of fighting spirit or ardour amongst its largely volunteer members. Nor, arguably, can it solely be put down to the often-primitive machinery with which they were expected to take the fight to the enemy. The weapons made available to the K-Verbdnde ranged from the stopgap measure of the Neger human torpedo to the sophisticated design of the Seehund, a full range of craft spanning the gap between the two. Perhaps the real flaw lies in their commitment to action. While the Italian and Allied Second World War pioneers in the use of midget delivery vehicles utilised them for special actions, more akin to commando operations than conventional naval war, the Kriegsmarine quickly gravitated to the use of their K-Verbände as another weapon in the arsenal of a conventional navy, pitting the human torpedo against all that the Allies could muster. The German High Command perceived them as a defensive weapon as opposed to the specialised offensive weapons employed by the other nations. Indeed the Seehunds were deployed in the same role as conventional coastal U-boats and in fact could have had similar success if given the time to iron out design and training flaws and to allow the requisite numbers to be employed. Arguably the sole weapon within the KvB arsenal that could really have caused problems for the Allies seems to have been the Seehund. Though lacking in range, it carried the same weapon load as the Type XXIII U-boat yet only took two men to man and a fraction of the construction time. They were extremely difficult to detect using sonar and also difficult to destroy with conventional depth charges, though the crew no doubt suffered more than their boat under such attacks. If German planners had begun work a year ahead of time on the designs that would eventually lead to the Seehund they could have been deployed against the massed shipping of the D-Day invasion fleet for what could conceivably been devastating results. However, such was not the case and remains in the ‘what if’ category of alternative history. There also continues to be great misunderstanding about the nature of the men that crewed the weapons of the K-Verbände. This is probably not helped by books such as Jack Higgins’ wonderful – though fictional – The Eagle Has Landed that has men sentenced to death operating the human torpedoes from the British Channel Islands. This image of criminality has continued to dog the men of the K-Verbände, though it has a grain of fact to it. While it is possible to state that most men enlisted into the K-Verbände were either volunteers or ordinary conscripts, there remain anecdotes of some under military court sentence used in the human torpedoes, such as several of Skorzeny’s SS men. Thus the subject is not crystal clear, though the use of criminals in the K-Verbände ranks does not appear to have been deliberate policy.

There also remains the label of ‘suicide squads’ so often used in relation to the K-Verbände. To take the most obvious example, between April 1944 and April 1945 the Neger and Marder human torpedoes had mounted twelve operational sorties. Of the 264 machines involved 162 were lost, taking at least 150 pilots to their graves. Clearly, through what we have learned of the K-Verbände, they were not originally intended as suicide weapons or missions as is so often claimed. However, though perhaps not envisaged as such, they nonetheless were lethal to a majority of their volunteer operators. Moreover, to additionally confuse the issue, the following extract (also quoted elsewhere in this book) from a conference between Hitler and Dönitz further muddies the waters:

18 January – 16.00: An unexpected storm interfered with the success of the first operation by Seehund midget submarines. However, valuable experience was gained and the boats continue to operate. Because of the long distances involved, other small battle weapons can be used only as suicide weapons, and then only if the weather is suitable, as they would otherwise not even reach the area of operations. Despite these limitations, all efforts will be continued to interfere with enemy supply traffic to Antwerp.

Indeed Padfield notes in his book War Beneath the Sea that during Eberhard Godt’s interrogation (Dönitz’s subordinate and Chief Of Operations for the U-boat service) he imparted the view that the midgets were seen as ‘expendable’ – militarily cheap to produce and man.

Ultimately it could be said that if German naval strategic planning had allowed for the kind of development of midget weapon ideas and techniques necessary before the stimulus of a ‘backs to the wall’ defensive fight forced there hand, then many things could have been different for the Kriegsmarine and particularly the K-Verbände. However, the rigidity of thought and conservative nature that marked the Kriegsmarine ensured that there was no fostering of such ‘out of the box’ thinking, the results of which in Britain had allowed the creation of such weapons as the ‘bouncing bomb’, the Leigh-Light and numerous ‘funnies’ employed by the Armoured Corps. Germany by no means lacked such individual thinkers that could have developed special naval weapons, but history shows that, bereft of official support from military leaders, any such advances for the German K-Verbände remain purely conjectural.