Monday, June 8, 2015

Story of E-boat S-130 Part I

Oberleutnant zur See Gunther Rabe

The only known, surviving and seaworthy S-boot, S-130, was built at the Johann Schlichting boatyard as hull 1030 in Travemünde, on the Baltic Coast, and commissioned on October 21st 1943. Her Commanding Officer was Oberleutnant zur See Gunter Rabe and she was assigned to the 9th S-Boot Flotilla (commanded by Korvettenkapitän Götz Freiherr von Mirbach, one of the most famous S-Boot commanders of the war) to reinforce their presence in the Southern North Sea. They operated out of Rotterdam until mid-February 1944, when they re-deployed to Cherbourg in order to reinforce the 5th Flotilla (under Korvettenkapitän Bernd Klug) in their operations throughout the Central and Western Channel area. Throughout her service, her radio callsign was “Rabe” (Raven), her dashing Master was known by all in the 5th and 9th Flotillas as “The Raven” and she wore a ship’s crest incorporating a raven in addition to the usual 9th Flotilla sign. The two Flotillas in Cherbourg were directed from his HQ on the French mainland by Kapitän zur See Petersen (later to become Commander of the whole German Schnellbootwaffe).

Attack on Operation Tiger
- Following a succession of dashing and violent night engagements during March and April 1944, S-130 took part in one of the most daring and successful S-Boot operations of the War. Both Flotillas had conducted a number of attacks against Allied shipping off the southern coast of England including, on April 22, a successful attack on British Motor Gun Boats in Lyme Bay and, on the 24th, a very successful attack on shipping in the same area. Then, on the afternoon of 27 April, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft reported a convoy of 7 merchant ships off Start Point, England. That morning, convoy T45 had left Plymouth for Lyme Bay as a preliminary to Operation Tiger, a US exercise intended to be a rehearsal for the forthcoming D-Day landings on Utah Beach. The exercise was to be conducted on Slapton Sands, near Dartmouth. As part of the exercise programme, the convoy’s primary purpose was to carry US tanks and men for Red Beach. It was led by the escort corvette HMS Azalea, followed by LST 515 and, at 700-yard intervals, LSTs 496, 511, 531 and 58 (towing two pontoon causeways). The WW1 Destroyer HMS Scimitar should have been on station as the main escort but had been holed above the waterline in a minor collision the day before and had been kept in Plymouth for repairs. The Naval HQ in Plymouth had not been informed of this and, as a consequence, no replacement vessel was provided. This breakdown in communication did not become clear until the early evening when the Captain of Scimitar realised what had happened and alerted the staff at Flag Officer Plymouth, whereupon HMS Saladin was immediately detailed as relief escort. Unfortunately, she did not get under way for Start Bay until well after midnight. Nevertheless, interference from S-Boote had been anticipated. Units were positioned between Start Point and Portland Bill to screen the operation in Lyme Bay and three MTBs were positioned off Cherbourg. Having been alerted by the earlier Lufwaffe report, however, all this activity had also attracted the attention of German shore-based surveillance systems and, as soon as it was completely dark (at about 2100 hours GMT) the 5th and 9th Schnellboot Flotillas, comprising six and three boats respectively, slipped out of Cherbourg. They evaded the small covering force of MTBs without difficulty and then, steaming at 36 knots under radio silence, soon covered the 90-odd nautical miles to the Northwest to break through the outer defensive screen across Lyme Bay. Meanwhile, the slow-moving convoy had been joined by a column from Brixham comprising LSTs 499, 289 and 507 (508 had failed to make the rendezvous). By this time, the convoy was west of Tor Bay and steering NNW before executing a complicated manoeuvre for the final approach to Slapton Sands. From his HQ on the French mainland, Kapitan zur See Petersen radioed the bearing of a possible target at 2317 hours and the E-boats of the 5th Flotilla split up into pairs to stalk their prey. Positive identification of targets was difficult, if not impossible and they moved slowly and quietly at first in order to retain surprise. After some time, at about 1.30 am, S-136 and S-138 spotted two "destroyers" at a range of 2000 metres and closed at speed. S-138 fired a double torpedo salvo at the stern of the right-hand ship and S-136 fired single torpedoes at the other. After a short interval, S-138 saw an explosion and, one minute later, S-136 noted simultaneous explosions on the second target. S-140 and S-142 had also identified targets at about the same time and opened fire with double shots at 1400 metres but, when no explosions were heard, Oberleutnant zur See Götschke correctly concluded that the ships were shallow-draft landing craft. Meanwhile, S-100 and S-143, alerted to the action by red tracer to their north, closed at high speed and noted that a "tanker" was already well ablaze. Both boats fired two torpedoes at a target of around 1500 tons, achieving a solid hit with one of them. The 9th Flotilla, comprising S-130, S-145 and S-150, were now attracted by red tracer from the 5th Flotilla (although at the time they thought they were from allied ships, since they understood that yellow tracer was to be used by their own force). Closing at speed, S-150 and S-130 turned straight in to a joint torpedo attack against a single ship while S-145 broke off to attack "small armed escorts" nearby (most likely more, lowered landing craft). On the bridge of LST 58, positioned in the middle of the convoy, the following events were logged (all timings are GMT);

0133 Gunfire directed at convoy. Probably AA to draw return fire. 0133.5 General quarters sounded. No target visible. Order to open fire withheld to protect position of convoy.

0202 Convoy changed direction to 203 degrees. Explosion heard astern and LST 507, the last landing craft in the convoy, seen to be on fire.

0215 LST 531 opened fire but no target visible from LST 58. 0217 LST 531 hit and exploded.

0218 Decision to break formation and to proceed independently. 0224 Order given on LST 531 to abandon ship.

0225 E-boat sighted at 1500 metres. Four 40mm guns and six 20mm guns on LST 58 fired off 68 and 323 rounds respectively. The E-boat turned away and at "cease fire" was about 2000 metres distant when it disappeared from view.

0230 LST 289 was hit.

0231 LST 289 opened fire but target not seen from LST 58.

0237 Surface torpedo reported off bow of LST 58.

0238 to 0400 Bright magnesium flares sighted in all directions with the intention of discouraging the scattered convoy making for shore. E-boat engine noises heard on many occasions.

0432 Order given on LST 507 to abandon ship.

0442 LST 515 lowered boats and picked up survivors from LST 507.

In the confusion of the action and darkness, it was impossible to be certain what was happening. The British Fighter Direction Tender, FDT 217, had sailed out of Portland to provide radar and communications cover (she was one of three FDTs that would provide stalwart service off Normandy two months later) but, on this particular night, she received a signal: "Make port all haste" which she duly did. Elsewhere the scale of the debacle was becoming only too apparent. LSTs 507 and 531 had been sunk with the loss of 202 and 424 lives respectively - a total of 626 out of a total US Army and US Navy complement of 943. LST 289 was damaged with the loss of 13 men and LST 511 was hit by fire from LST 496 resulting in 18 wounded. In the end, the total of 639 American killed and missing was 10 times the actual losses on Utah beach on D-Day, for which this exercise had been intended as a rehearsal. 

S130 at speed.
A Twist in the Fortunes of War
- On 12 May 1944, S-130 bore witness to one of the War’s many, tragic, little footnotes. S-130 was taking part in a patrol of some 10 S-Boote to the south of the Isle of Wight. The Royal Navy soon discovered them and destroyers were dispatched in pursuit. During the ensuing engagement, The Free French ship La Combattante succeeded in sinking S-141, onboard which was Oberleutnant zur See Klaus Dönitz, the son of Grossadmiral Dönitz, Chief of the German Naval Staff. He was training to qualify for command of an S-Boot and was among the 18 crew from S-141 who died.

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