Mysterious Fate of Adolph Hitler’s “BLACK SEA FLEET”, The
Unwilling to transit Turkey’s neutral waters, the Third Reich’s determined dictator transported an entire fleet of small warships, including submarines, overland in hopes of gaining control of a vast inland waterway
When someone learns that German submarines sank five Soviet ships in the Black Sea during World War II, the question invariably arises: How did these submarines get there?
Germany has no access to the Black Sea, and Turkey, as a neutral state, adhered strictly to the clauses of the Montreux Convention of 1936, which prohibited the passing of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus by ships of belligerent states. What’s more, the shipyards of Germany’s Romanian and Bulgarian Allies were unable to build submarines. And it was impossible to transport such big and heavy objects by rail.
Nevertheless, the German 30th U-boat flotilla not only operated six submarines successfully in the Black Sea, but managed to substantially harass the Soviets in the process of torpedoing six of their ships.
The idea of somehow transporting ocean-going submarines across the whole of war-torn Europe appeared at the time unbelievable. Amazingly, the first documents in which this remarkable feat was described were not published until 30-years after the war.
THE TRANSFER OF SUBMARINES
The German invasion of Russia began on 22 June 1941 on a broad front from Finland to the Black Sea. The German high command (OKW) proposed at first to block the Soviet Black Sea Fleet by massive air raids on the Naval bases and by the laying of mine barrages. Operation Barbarossa envisaged that the German army would capture the Soviet Black Sea harbors and the ships in them in the shortest time. However, the Russians were not that accommodating.
When, in the fall of 1941, it became clear that the war against the USSR would not be a Blitzkrieg, but that a long war must be expected, the German’s high command decided in December 1941 it was a matter of highest priority to transfer submarines to the Black Sea. A seemingly daunting task, much of the trek would require imaginative methods of sea and overland transportation. According to this project, the submarines had to be at first partially disassembled in Kiel and then loaded on shallow-draft pontoons. These were to be towed via the North Sea – Baltic Canal to Hamburg, and then on the Elbe to Dresden. There the submarines were to be shifted from the pontoons to low-bed motorized trailers. Then a drive of 300-mi over highways to Ingolstadt on the Danube was to follow. There the submarines were again to be shifted on pontoons and towed by tugs to Linz or the Romanian Galatz, where they would finally be re-assembled.
To carry out this unique project, a team of 600 men comprising shipbuilders, truck drivers, traffic policemen and other specialists was organized. The transport and auxiliary vehicles comprised heavy towing trucks, multi-axle low-bed trailers with a load-carrying capacity of 60-tons, a great number of trucks, tank trucks for fuel, communication vehicles, truck-mounted workshops and others.
Much of urgency behind the complex feat of moving a virtual Naval fleet overland was due to Adolph Hitler’s belief that control of the inland Black Sea was critical to his entire Barbarossa war plan.
An inland extension of the Atlantic Ocean, the Black Sea projects into southeastern Europe by way of the Mediterranean. It is connected to the Med via the Bosporous and the Sea of Marmara, and to the Sea of Azov by way of the Strait of Kerch. Its strategic value lays in the fact that it linked five warring nations bordering its shores – Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania. Within these countries some of their largest cities and ports were located on the Black Sea-Constanta, Varna, Odessa, Sevastapol and Yalta among them. With Bulgaria ad Romania being among Germany’s Axis Allies, Turkey neutral, and the rest under Soviet control the Black Sea was ripe for battle just as it had been in WWI.
THE TYPE IIB COASTAL SUBMARINES
Derivatives of the Finnish Vesikko UB submarines of WWI vintage, the Type IIB boats were longer-ranged versions of the postwar IIAs built for coastal patrol. By the outbreak of WWII, the Type HBs had been largely relegated to training duties in the Baltic. With a displacement of 279-tons surfaced and 329-tons submerged these highly maneuverable submersibles were still potent undersea threats with their three 21-in bow torpedo tubes, six torpedo reloads, or alternate ability to carry six to eight mines. For AA defense they had one 20mm and normally were manned by crews of 22 men and three officers. An overall length of 140-ft allowed them to make 13-kts surfaced on their 700-hp diesels, and 7-kts submerged on their electric motors. Twenty-one tons of bunkered diesel fuel gave them a 1300-mi range at 12-kts. The six Type IIB submarines to be transferred to the Black Sea would form the 30th U-boat flotilla with two groups. The first group comprised U-9, U-W and U-24 and the second group – U-18, U-20 and U-23.
The preparations for the transfer of the submarines began in the spring of 1942. Because of the limited depth of the waterways, all heavy equipment such as diesel engines, power batteries, guns and torpedoes, were removed. In order to reduce the height, the conning towers were partly dismantled. Once in the dry dock, five pairs of pontoons were fastened side by side vertically on the side of each submarine (the size of each pontoon was 10-ft by 4.5-ft). After filling the dock with water, the submarine with the pontoons was overturned at 90-degrees so that its hull was lying on the ten pontoons, the draft being 4-ft. In this most unusual manner the submarines were transported over water.
For the road transport, each low-bed trailer was towed by two or four towing trucks, which were arranged in tandem, or in pairs in two rows. Driving under and over bridges was most diflicult, requiring high precision and strict attention of the drivers. All bridges were examined in advance and, if necessary, they were reinforced or reconstructed. The distance of 280-mi from the Elbe to the Danube was passed in 56-hrs at a speed of about 5-mph. The change of drivers and the refueling of the towing trucks were carried out without stopping the convoys.
The submarines of the first group were assembled in 42- to 45-days in Linz, and the boats of the second group in Galatz. They were then towed to Sulina in the Danube delta and from there they continued to the Black Sea and their base at Constantsa.
The duration of the transfer of the submarines from the preparation in Kiel to reaching the Black Sea had been ten months. The last boat of the 30th flotilla ( U-20) reached Constantsa in July 1943.
The submarines eventually took part in 57 military missions and in the process sank the following Soviet ships: U-20-tank ship Vaillant Couture (16 January 1944), cargo ship PesteK19 June 1944); U-23- schooner Tanais (23 October 1943), harbor tug Smely (29 May 1944); U-24 – tank ship Emba (30 June 1943).
THE GERMAN SHIPS IN THE BLACK SEA
In addition to the six submarines transferred during the war to the Black Sea, the Germans managed to create an additional Naval force of about 500 small warships with a total displacement of more than 42,000-tons. Among them were:
30 motor-torpedoboats (Schnellboote, S-Boot), built in Germany between 1940 and 1943, with a displacement of 115-tons each; 23 minesweepers (Minenräumboote, R-Boot), built in Germany and the Netherlands, with a displacement that varied from 110- to 140-tons each.
It was decided in the beginning of 1942 that small warships should be developed that could be pre-fabricated in Germany, transported in sections to their area of operation by rail and then re-assembled for operation in the Sea of Azov and the Caspian Sea. Such shallow-water landing ships were ordered from the Krupp-Werke in Rheinhausen. They were designated Marine-Artillerieleichter, MAL (Naval artillery lighters). Their displacement was 140-tons, length 104.2-ft, beam 23.5-ft and draft of 2.6-ft. The flat-bottomed hull was assembled of twelve sections with the wheelhouse at the stern. Armament consisted of two 88mm guns on the upper deck and two 20mm AA on the wheelhouse wings. Each of the two Deutz heavy truck engines was 130-hp. The maximum speed was 8.5-kts. The load-carrying capacity of the MAL was 80-tons. Three heavy trucks could be loaded on the upper deck. If the 88mm guns were removed, five to six trucks or two medium tanks Pz.Kptw. III or IV could be loaded. The crew consisted of 21 men. The MAL sections could be transported by rail, each section being loaded on a bi-axial railway car. The armament, the engines and the remaining equipment were loaded on separate railway cars.
After their completion, eight lighters were shipped in April-May 1943 to the Black Sea. They were stationed in Sevastopol. They took part from June to October in the operations in the Sea of Azov, supporting the German army units. But in actual operations the MALs proved to have a number of serious drawbacks. Their seaworthiness was very limited. Bad weather was the cause of the loss of one MAL on 1 September 1943. The capability of carrying big loads was limited by the limited freeboard of the hull. In September-October 1943, five lighters took part in the evacuation of the German troops from the Kuban bridgehead to the Crimea. But bad weather conditions thereafter made the transfer of these boats to the Crimea impossible, with the result that their crews scuttled them on 29 October 1943. Two other lighters were scuttled by their crews at the end of August 1944 near Varna.
The Naval ferry barges (Marine-Fährprahms, MFP) were built 1941-1944 in Germany along with a few made in the Netherlands. Ninety-three MFPs were built in Bulgarian shipyards in Varna. Many components for the hull, as well as the vessel’s equipment was delivered from Germany. Moreover, a variety of machine tools, instruments, cranes, and other production equipment were also delivered. The MFPs were built in four versions that differed slightly. Their displacement varied from 200- to 280-tons. The length was 145- to 152-ft, the beam 23- to 26-ft, and the draft 3-ft (under full load 4.2-ft). The total power of the three Deutz diesel engines was 505-hp. The range was 1000-mi at 7.5-kts. The armament varied; for example, one 88mm gun, one 37mm AA gun, two 20mm AA guns, or one 75mm gun and one to three 20mm AA guns. The crew consisted of 21 men.
The artillery ferry barges (Artillerie-Fährprahms, AF) were designed and built in Germany on the basis of the MFPs, some of them being reconstructed MFPs. Their displacement was 335-tons, the length 152-ft, the beam 23-ft, and the draft 4-ft. Like the MFPs, they were driven by three diesel engines. The armament was different. It usually comprised two 88mm guns, one 37mm AA gun, two 20mm four-barreled AA guns, two 15mm aircraft machine guns and several 86mm rocket launchers (Raketen-Abschussgeräte, RAG). 25mm steel plates protected the water line, the wheelhouse and the engine room. The bridge, the 37mm gun platform and the ammunition magazines were protected by 100mm concrete plates. The crew was composed of 65 men; six of them engine room staff.
During the war, 27 military fishing cutters (Kriegsfischkutters, KFK) were built in Varna, Bulgaria, and three in Constantsa, Romania, using steel frames supplied from Germany. Their displacement was 103-tons, length 70.1-ft, beam 18.2-ft, and a draft of 3.6-ft. They were powered with two diesel engines of 120-hp each. The armament consisted of one 37mm gun and one to four 20mm AA guns, depth charges, and minesweeping gear. Part of the KFKs were later designated U-Booljäger, UJ(submarine hunter).
The three military transport ships (Kriegstransporter, KT) Ganter, Frankfurt and Kamel (the first two built in Budapest and the third in Linz) had a displacement of 700-tons. The engine was 2400-hp giving a speed 14.5-kts. The larger military transport ship Elbinghad a displacement of 3740-tons. The engine power was 1750-hp and the speed 9.5-kts.
The four flight operational-control boats (Flugbetriebsboot, FL.B) were built 1943-1944 in Germany. Three of them had a displacement of 43-tons, a length of 74.5-ft, a beam of 13.7-ft, and a draft of 3.9-ft. The power of their gasoline engines was 800-hp and the speed 21.5-kts. The fourth boat was bigger – 65-tons. Its length was 84-ft, the beam 15.6-ft, and the draft 4.5-ft. The power of its diesel engines was 1650-hp and the speed 23-kts. The armament of all boats consisted of machine guns.
Moreover, there were tank barges, harbor tugs, icebreakers, army transport ferries (known as Siebel-Fähren), and assault boats (Sturmboot).
Unfortunately, a great part of the German ships in the Black Sea cannot be verified because of the lack of information.
THE BLACK SEA FLEET OF THE SOVIET UNION
In the beginning of 1944 it was composed of one battleship, four cruisers, six destroyers, 29 submarines, 13 submarine hunters, three motor-gunboats, 27 minesweepers, one monitor, 47 motor-torpedo boats, 27 armored gunboats, 44 small minesweepers, 113 small submarine hunters and a great number of patrol boats. After the Germans captured the Naval bases in Odessa and Sevastopol, the main forces of the Soviet Fleet were stationed in Poti and other harbors in the Caucasus until the end of the war. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet outnumbered the enemy. But it could not realize its full potential because of the remoteness of its bases and airports, and also because of the great mine danger (from 1941 to 1944 the Germans laid more than 20,000 mines).
During the evacuation of Sevastopol, 25 convoys with German and Romanian ships traveled from 14 to 27 April 1944 in both directions to the Romanian harbor at Constantsa En route they were attacked 28 times by the Soviets: 14 times by aircraft, twelve times by submarines, once by motor-torpedo boats and once by motor-gunboats. Only two bigger ships (Ossag and Leo) were sunk. Of a total of 72,358 soldiers evacuated from Sevastopol, about 1000 perished (500 on Leo and 500 on Alba Julia). Soviet losses were twelve aircraft, two submarines and one motor-torpedo boat.
The efficiency of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was very low. An example was the submarines, which in AprilMay 1944 carried out 50 torpedo attacks and launched more than 100 torpedoes. During this period only one German ship was sunk (by aircraft!), one was damaged and three were possibly hit. During the period 1941-1944, aircraft bombs and mines sank six Soviet submarines in Bulgarian coastal waters. There were no survivors because, when hit, their frail hulls disintegrated as a result of structural defects.
After the evacuation of the Crimea and the northern Black Sea coast by the Wehrmacht, the Soviet fleet began to more actively disrupt German Naval communications along the western Black Sea coast.
On 22 August 1944, it was evident that Germany’s dreams of conquest had come to an ignominious end when the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army Group (Heeresgruppe) South Ukraine ordered the evacuation via the Danube of troops and ships from the Black Sea. More than 160 German military and auxiliary ships were assembled in the Romanian harbor of Braila. But the landing of Soviet troops near Shrebiani in the Danube delta on 24 August was most successful, thus cutting off the retreat of German troops and ships from the Black Sea.
AFTER THE SURRENDER OF ROMANIA ON 23 AUGUST 1944.
On 25 August, a formation of more than 100 German ships left the harbor of Braila on a journey up the Danube River. But since, on that same day, the new Romanian government declared war on the German Reich, the Romanian guns along the Danube shores began to shell the ships of the former allies stopping them near Turnu Severin. Therefore, part of the German ships were loaded in the Serbian harbor of Prakhovo on railway cars to be transported to Belgrade. But along the road, Yugoslav partisans managed to ambush and destroy many of them. In the broad retreat, more than 60 transport and auxiliary vessels were scuttled near Somovit and Prakhovo, or were run ashore and abandoned by their crews.
Since Turkey did not allow the German ships in the Black Sea to pass through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, they had no other choice than to either surrender to the Soviets or be scuttled. They withdrew southward to the Bulgarian harbors, since at that time Bulgaria was not in a state of war with the USSR. On 25 August, the last German ships left the southernmost Romanian harbor of Mangalia in direction of Bulgaria. Several German commanders were so frightened that, immediately after crossing the Romanian-Bulgarian border, they ran their ships ashore between Durankulak and Shabla and fled panic-stricken with the crews to the West.
When the German ships reached the bay of Varna, they first checked if Soviet troops were not already in the town. Discovering that they were not, they anchored on the commercial pier and in the canal to Varna Lake.
NEGOTIATIONS AND THE END OF THE GERMAN BLACK SEA FLEET
On 25 August, German ship commanders began to negotiate with the Bulgarian authorities. The Bulgarians required that all ships and crews be disarmed. The Germans asked for asylum in a country that was neutral with the Soviet Union. The negotiations continued until 27 August when a compromise solution was lbund: the ships were to be disarmed and the crews were to leave the country. The Bulgarian’s would provide railway trains for the departure of the sailors and soldiers.
The commander of the German motor-torpedo boats refused categorically to obey. He departed the harbor of Varna with his four S-boats and their crews later scuttled them off Baltchik.
On the morning of 28 August 1944, a great part of the German ships with only a few men on board left Varna’s harbor and stopped 5- to 6-mi to the east in the bay. Immediately upon leaving the harbor the crews began to throw weapons, ammunition and valuable equipment overboard while leaving the engines run without coolants and lubrication so that they would burn themselves out and become useless. Then a minesweeper made the rounds of all ships and collected the crews. A boat followed with a demolition party, which placed explosive charges with time fuses on each ship. After a preset time, the charges exploded and all of the ships sank. The boat with the crews returned to the harbor and was abandoned with running engines without cooling and lubrication.
By afternoon, a storm arose whose high seas made it impossible for the remaining 20 ships to leave the harbor to be scuttled. On 29 August, after sinking some more ships, the last group of German sailors and soldiers left Varna heading westward by train. The ships abandoned in Varna were guarded by Bulgarian soldiers, which on 9 September handed them over to the Soviet troops entering the city.
THE FATE OF THE GERMAN SHIPS IN THE BLACK SEA
The number of German ships sunk in military operations in the Black Sea is not exactly known. It varies from 110 to 145 according to different sources. The fate of many of the ships in the Black Sea still remains unknown. For many of them it was later claimed that they were Soviet war prizes, but this also remains unclear.
The German submarine [7-9 was sunk on 20 August 1944 during a Soviet air raid on the harbor of Constantsa. The submarines U-18 and U-24 were scuttled on 25 August to the south of Constantsa. The remaining three submarines in the Black Sea U-19, U-20 and U-23 were scuttled on 10 September 1944 off the Turkish coast. Their crews surrendered to the Turkish authorities with the request that they be handed over to the Americans.
Six motor-torpedo boats (S-boats) were sunk during air raids and two by artillery fire. S-46 has sunk in Feodosia after the explosion of one of its own torpedoes. S-45, -47and 51 were scuttled to the north of Varna. Five S-boats were captured by the Soviets.
Six minesweepers (R-boats) were sunk by Soviet surface ships, and one during an air raid on Yalta. Twelve R-boats were scuttled off Varna in the end of August 1944. Three boats were captured by the Soviets, and were later incorporated into the Red Fleet under the designation BO. Thirty-two Naval ferry barges (MFP) and artillery ferry barges (AF) were sunk during military operations in the Black Sea and 19 in the Danube. Twenty-eight were scuttled by their crews off Varna. Several of them were salvaged after the war and were incorporated in the Soviet fleet under the designation BDB. Six JViFPs were handed over to the Bulgarian navy. Eleven MFPs in different stages of completion were captured on 9 September 1944 by Soviet troops in the Varna shipyards.
Four Kriegsfischkutters (KFK) were sunk during the war by aircraft bombs and one by a mine. Uj 309 (exKFK 193) has sunk on 23 November 1943 near Varna after colusión with Uj 103. Eight KFKs were captured by the Soviets. Many KFKs with uncertain German designation were captured in Varna; they were incorporated in the Soviet Black Sea fleet under the designation T. The KFKs under construction in Varna were taken over by the Soviets after their completion and incorporated in the Red Fleet.
One of the flight operational-control boats ran ashore on 16 February 1944 near Evpatoria in the Crimea and was abandoned. The three remaining boats were abandoned by their crews in the beginning of September 1944 in the Bulgarian Naval air station “Chaika” on Varna-Lake, and were captured by the Soviets.
It is seen in Table 1 that 101 German ships were in the area of Varna and Bourgas in the end of August and the beginning of September 1944. Seventy-three of them were scuttled by their crews – 71 in the bay of Varna and only two – one JWFP and one R-boat – in the bay of Bourgas. It leaves the impression that a great part of the ships – 28 (about one-third) – were abandoned by their crews without being sunk. This confirms that at that time the German troops in Black Sea area had become panic-stricken. But German commanders eager to keep this equipment from falling into Soviet hands took the necessary measures to ensure that as many as possible of the combat ships were scuttled – these were all S-boats, AMLs and AFs, as well as a great part of the R-boats (32 of 38), MFPs (28 of 32) and KFKs (two of five).
THE SALVAGE OF THE SCUTTLED GERMAN SHIPS
On 5 September 1944, the USSR declared war on Bulgaria and in turn Bulgaria declared war on the German Reich on 8 September. As the result of a coup d’etat a new pro-communist government came to power in Sofia in the night of 9 September. The first ships of the Soviet Black Sea fleet reached the bay of Varna early in the morning of 9 September 1944. They were met in the night by Bulgarian motor-torpedo boats near Shabla, which safely guided them through the elaborate mine barricades. Within a matter of days, the Soviets took over the ships and equipment abandoned by the Germans.
The Soviet Naval command entrusted with the localization and salvage of the scuttled German ships the Salvage and Rescue Detachment ASO-130 of the Black Sea fleet (ASO = AvariinoSpassitehy Otryad). It was joined by a small group of Bulgarian sailors and divers. Until the end of the war (May 1945), 45 ships were raised; this number increasing to 73 ships by 1947.
While the scuttled ships rested in depths of only 35- to 80-ft their raising required great effort and was very dangerous because ammunition, bombs and torpedoes were aboard the ships. A Bulgarian 40-ton floating crane, three tug boats and several small auxiliary vessels also took part in the operation. Until the end of the war, about 20 ships were salvaged. Many were repaired in the shipyards in Varna and consequently taken over by the Soviets as war prizes. Others were cleaned and then towed for repair to Soviet harbors. Several ships were handed over to the Bulgarian shipyards for breaking-up. The Soviets allowed the Bulgarian Navy to salvage several ships for its own needs. Among them were two KFKs. The Soviet detachment ASO-130 was transferred to the Crimea in the middle of 1947. It handed over, before its departure, its special diving equipment to the Bulgarian Navy. Thereafter, Bulgarian personnel solely carried out the salvage of the sunken ships.
In 1948, an AF, sunk off the bathing beach of Varna was salvaged and, in 1950, a MFP that had supplied the German submarines with fuel, oil, water and provisions before their last journey towards Turkey, and was scuttled by its crew in the bay of Bourgas. Later, several more German vessels, ship components and many ferrous and non-ferrous metals were salvaged. Some ships were repaired, others reconstructed to serve long years in the Bulgarian Navy and commercial fleet. However, the greatest portion of the sunken German ships still rests on the sea bottom.
Prizes and Reparations of the Soviet Naval Forces by S.S. Berezhnoi, SahapoHgrafizdat, Yakutsk, 1994 (Russ.)
The Transfer of German Submarines to the Black Sea by V.F.Bildyn and V.I. Zharkov; Gangut, St. Petersburg, Vol.10, 1996.
Losses of the Enemy Naval Forces in the Black Sea Theater of Operationsby S.V. Bogatyrev, R.I. Larintzev, and A.V. Ovtasharenko; Archiv-Press, Kiev, 1998.
Marinekleinkampfmittel by H. Fock. J.F. Lehmanns Verlag, Munich, 1968.
Die Schiffe der Deutschen Kriegsmarine und Luftwaffe 1936-1945 und Ihr Verbleib by
E.Gröner; J.F. Lehmanns Verlag, Munich, 1954.
The author is grateful to Mr. Rija Todorov for information and illustrations.
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Nov 2007
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