by Michael Emmerich
It is well known, that the cooperation between the German Kriegsmarine and the German Luftwaffe was not the best during World War 2. Instead of its own naval aviation- the Marineflieger -that the Kriegsmarine demanded for, it was depending on those aircraft the Luftwaffe was willing to give for naval operations. Even more, Görings refusal to set those few aircraft that were available for naval warfare under Kriegsmarine command made it necessary to follow a long chain of command between the two branches of the German military to coordinate operations or even inform the other branch about individual operations that both branches would execute in the same area. This bad cooperation found its climax early in the war in February of 1940. The result was what today would be called
friendly fire - and the loss of two German destroyers.
During the first months of World War II, German naval forces were mainly used for mine warfare in the North Sea. This was separated into two parts - offensive mine warfare close to the British coast and harbors and defensive mine warfare to protect the German Bight against British raids
Z 16 Friedrich Eckoldt (1940)
German destroyers executed the offensive warfare. Being able to carry up to 60 mines, groups of 2-4 destroyers operated close to the British coast to lay mines in the main shipping lanes. The British never suspected that surface ships laid the mines close to their own coast; instead they considered that they might have lain by U-Boats or by aircraft. 11 of these operations were done between October 1939 and February 1940; those mines sank 76 allied ships. The destroyers were never spotted and identified as enemy ships during their operations, in the rare occasions they were detected, the British always believed to see some own ships.
All ships that were able to carry mines, from destroyers, torpedo boats, and light cruisers to converted ferries or transports did the defensive warfare. The result were several huge mine fields in the North Sea with well defined clear paths which could be used by German ships and which where cleared by mine sweepers regularly - at least this was how it was planned.
In the following parts, the events of February 1940 are reported from both sides, the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe, as they knew it during the time of the operation. Therefore time information of the same events can differ a few minutes due to asynchronous clocks.
In February of 1940, the Kriegsmarine had requested several air reconnaissance missions in the area of the Doggerbank, as several suspicious ships, fishing boats, trawlers and other small crafts were operating west of the defense mine fields. It was not clear what kind of task the suspicious ships had, but to Kriegsmarine command they seemed to be involved in some military operations and not being civilian fishing boats. In several occasions, the reconnaissance aircraft even reported that enemy submarines were detected while meeting with those boats. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine decided to intercept those boats with the 1st Destroyer flotilla, the
Friedrich Eckoldt, Richard Beitzen, Erich Koellner, Theodor Riedel, Max Schulz and Lebercht Maas on February 22nd 1940. This operation was called „Operation Wikinger".
Z 4 Richard Beitzen (1942)
Unlike all other destroyer operations, it was a moon lit night, almost cloudless sky, with light wind form the southwest when the six destroyers started their way into the North Sea. The Luftwaffe was ordered to provide fighter cover for the destroyers leaving their base and returning one or two days later. But due to the communication problems between the two branches of the German military, no Luftwaffe fighters showed up to escort the destroyers on their way out into the North Sea.
The day before, the X. Fliegerkorps had planned operations against allied merchant shipping at the British east coast for February 22nd. Two squadrons of Heinkel He111 medium bombers were planned to operate in the area defined by the Orkney Islands in the north and the Themes estuary in the south. Their task was to attack and sighted ships in this area, outside of it, attacks were not allowed. A first attack in the morning had to be canceled because of cloudy skies, but in the evening the weather has cleared and a second attack was prepared.
The way into the North Sea
At 19:00, the six German destroyers entered the mine-free passage „Weg I", a 6-mile width mine free part in the so-called „Westwall" minefield that protected the German Bight. With a speed of over 25 knots, the ships continued their way in a line ahead formation at a course of 300 degrees. With this speed, the ships produced a bright wake in the only 3 degrees Celsius cold water, but the ships tried to pass their own minefield as fast as possible to arrive in the operation area as soon as possible.
Z 13 Erich Koellner (1940)
So far, the operation was continuing uneventful. Only some very few clouds covered the sky, making the six warships clearly visible from the distance while they where heading northeast. It was 19:13 when the lookouts on board of the leading ship Friedrich Eckoldt hear the noise of an aircraft despite the noise of the ships turbines and ventilation. The engine sounds were so good to hear that the lookouts were able to identify the aircraft as a two engined one even if it was not visible so far. It took some more minutes until the unknown aircraft - very likely a bomber - was spotted in the moonlit sky, flying at an altitude of only 500 - 800 meters. It passed the
six ships uneventfully, showing no hostile signs, but also not showing the known identification signals. After passing the destroyers, the unknown aircraft reversed its course and crossed the destroyer’s path a second time before it disappeared into the night.
Z 6 Theodor Riedel (1942)
Eight minutes later, the aircraft returned and the flotilla commander ordered to reduce the destroyer’s speed to 17 knots to produce a smaller and less visible wake since he was still unsure about the identity of the aircraft. Since the aircraft had shown no identification signals so far, it appeared to be a hostile one for the crews on board of the German destroyers. It could have been a British reconnaissance plane shadowing the German ships, directing other aircraft or ships towards the position of the Kriegsmarine flotilla.
Therefore the second and third ships in the line, the Richard Beitzen and Erich Koellner fired several rounds of their 20 mm guns on the aircraft, which returned fire with its machine guns. Directly after the exchange of machine gun fire, the last ship in the line, Max Schulz reports that the unknown aircraft was a German one, since one of the bridge crew members was able to see the German cross on the aircraft’s wing while the guns were firing. But after the first exchange of fire, nobody in the flotilla command believed this reports, for them, the aircraft behaved like a hostile one. After the few moments of battle excitement, the aircraft again disappeared in the clear night, but now the crews on board of the destroyers were on alert.
After a while, at 19:43, Max Schulz detected the aircraft again, approaching from the rear directly out of a cloud in front of the moon and sends off a radio transmission – which should have been the last radio signal of the first destroyer build in Germany after World War I „Flugzeug ist gesichted worden in der schwarzen Wolke des Mondes" (Aircraft detected in the black cloud in front of the moon).
About two hours earlier, at 17:45, the 4th Squadron of KG26 prepared its He111 bombers for take off at Neumünster airfield. Among the planes is the He111 with the identification markings 1H + IM, commanded by Feldwebel Jäger. As on their canceled mission earlier this day, the bombers of KG26 are ordered to attack British coastal shipping at the British east coast.
After take off, the 1H + IM headed north until it reached the island of Sylt. There it turned left to a heading of 241 degrees over the dark North Sea.
Shortly after 19:00 the bomber crew detected a wake on the sea below them, and after they passed the wake, they saw a shadow in front of it. Although the crew never saw the ship directly, they were sure that this was a freighter and they decided to fly another circle to identify it.
While closing to the unknown ship again, suddenly anti-aircraft fire erupted from the shadow below - a clear sign that it was a hostile ship. After returning fire with one of the machine guns, the bomber broke off and climbed up in the sky to start its bomb run. At an altitude of 1500 meters the He 111 approached the shadow below then with the black cloud in front of the moon on their 6’o clock position....
Being on alert after the machine gun fire between the destroyers and the unknown aircraft, the German ships continued their way with a 300-degree course. Then, only one minute after its last radio transmission, two bombs went into the sea, just behind the Lebercht Maas. Only seconds later, all six destroyers opened fire with its AA-guns to the invisible aircraft, when a third bomb hit the destroyer between the forward superstructure and the forward funnel. In the following silence, the Lebercht Maas slowed down and left the formation to starboard, while signaling that it was hit and needed help immediately. Despite the bomb hit, there was no visible sign of a fire, smoke or damage caused by the hit. On 19:46, the other destroyers reversed course to assist the damaged Lebercht Maas, which was continuously signaling „Habe
Treffer, brauche Hilfe" (Being hit, need assistance), but they were ordered back into formation by the lead ship Friedrich Eckoldt a few minutes later. The Friedrich Eckoldt however closed up to the Lebercht Maas to investigate visually of much the other destroyer was damaged. While closing to the Lebercht Maas, everything was prepared to assist the damaged destroyer: Rescue equipment was prepared and towing gear was made clear to be used if necessary.
Z3 Max Schulz (1939)
It was 19:56 when the Friedrich Eckoldt was only 500 meters away from the attacked destroyer when suddenly the backward AA guns of the Lebercht Maas fired again, although nobody on board of the Friedrich Eckoldt had seen or heard the bomber again. Moments later two heavy explosions occurred on the Lebercht Maas - the first one directly behind the destroyer causing a huge water fountain to rise out of the sea. The second explosion went off in the area of the second funnel: A huge fireball - about one and a half mast heights - went up in the sky, followed by a cloud that covered the complete destroyer. When the wind removed the smoke cloud the effect of the explosion got visible to the crew of the other destroyers- the Lebercht Maas was broken into two parts, bow and stern were raised out of the water while the two parts of the ship with 330 crew members on board were sinking to the 40 meters deep ground of the North Sea. All this only took two minutes when the Friedrich Eckoldt reported over the radio: „An alle: Maas sinkt. Boote aussetzen" (To all ships: Maas is sinking, send boats).
While approaching the shadow below them, four 50kg bombs were prepared on board of the He 111 at 19:45. Set to an automatic release all bombs were released directly one after each other. As the bomber was closing to the ship from the stern, the fist two bombs were only near misses, going into the wake of the unknown ship. The third bomb however was a direct hit, according to the bombers crew, it hit the bow of the ship below them. The fourth bomb missed the ship completely. While the bomber climbed and turned to prepare a second approach, the crew could see that the ship was loosing its speed and turning to starboard while there were no visible effects of the hits.
After the Heinkel He 111 turned a large circle, it returned for a second attack. It was 13 minutes after the initial attack, at 19:58 another four 50 kg bombs were dropped on a shadow down in the North Sea. Two of the bombs were direct hits and the bomber crew noted: „Two hits on the target, followed by a huge fireball. After that the ship broke into two parts and sunk". When the second attack was completed, the bomber turned west, heading for England and the crew noticed other wakes and
shadows below them.
Chaos and Confusion
After the Lebercht Maas broke into two parts, the remaining destroyers of the flotilla slowly steamed towards the wreck and the survivors in the water to rescue them. This had to be done very quickly because of the very cold water. Erich Koellner was drifting between the survivors, which were swimming in the water between the two parts of the wreck. Erich Koellner, Friedrich Eckoldt and Richard Beitzen just had out their boats into the water when at 20:04 a second huge explosion erupted into the night sky. Lookouts on the Richard Beitzen reported another air attack, two near misses and one solid hit on another destroyer, but at this time, nobody on board of the flagship knew which destroyer was attacked. And nobody had seen or heard an aircraft that making an approach to the German ships. Theodor Riedel, which was only 1000 meters away from the explosion directly headed towards the fireball when the underwater microphones reported a submarine at starboard - this was the moment when chaos and confusion broke out among the German destroyers.
Z 1 Leberecht Maas (1937)
Fearing that a British submarine was nearby, the Theodor Riedel immediately headed for the contact and dropped four water bombs on it. But as those bombs exploded to close to the destroyer, the rudder got jammed and was only maneuvering in circles until it could switch to manual control.
The other three destroyers continued their rescue operation when at 20:09 a lookout on board of the Erich Koellner also reported a submarine. Because of this sighting and the previous water bomb attack of the Theodor Riedel, the flotilla commander Berger ordered to stop all rescue operations and hunt the submarine first. Besides the sunken Lebercht Maas, the Max Schulz too was not answering to radio calls anymore so the remaining destroyers tried to locate the enemy submarine, while it was unknown to them what has happened to their sister ship.
The next 25 minutes can only described as pure chaos: A periscope or submarine sail was „seen" almost every minute, even the wrecks of the sinking destroyers were identified as submarines. Countless torpedoes were „spotted" by the lookouts when the four destroyers were racing between the two sunken sister ships. When the Erich Koellner accelerated to top speed one of its boats was still towed beside it and capsized while the destroyer got faster and faster, all survivors in it got lost.
It was 20:36 when flotilla commander Berger ordered the retreat of the remaining four destroyers; course 120 degrees at 17 knots. For him, the danger of loosing another destroyer by a submarine attack was too high. The ships returned to the sinking destroyers to take their boats on board that had been left there during the hunt for the submarines, but they did not find any more survivors there. In the 25 minutes of the unsuccessful hunt for a possible British submarine, most of the survivors had died in the cold water of the North Sea.
On their way back to Germany, the size of the disaster got obvious, only 60 of the 330 crew members of the Lebercht Maas were rescued, and none of the 308 of the Max Schulz. Only a few minutes before the ships were ordered back, the Erich Koellner was close to the sinking Max Schulz, directly among the survivors, but because of another submarine sighing, none of them was rescued.
Adding one and one....
While the destroyers out in the North Sea did not know what really happened to them, the naval command in Wilhelmshaven - Marinegruppe West - received several different reports about the „battle" in the North Sea and slowly the big picture could be created by adding one and one....
At 20:30, the Marinegruppe West was informed by the radio transmission of Friedrich Eckoldt that the Lebercht Maas has been sunk. About half an hour later, a second radio transmission reported that the Max Schulz was destroyed too, and that the most likely reason was an attack by an enemy submarine. After this transmission, the four destroyers were allowed to abort their operation and return home if this was necessary.
In the naval command, the attack of a submarine seemed not very likely at all, especially as this would have happened inside the free path in an own minefield. It seemed more likely that the destroyers might run into their own mines, especially as the last check of the free patch by some German minesweepers was almost three weeks ago.
At 23:00 a Teletype message arrived form the X. Fliegerkorps in Hamburg, reporting that one of its bombers had attacked a ship of 3000ts, heading 300 degrees at about 19:50 and sunk it. Although the reported position of this attack was more than 50 miles away from the place where the destroyers were attacked, the course and size of the ships made the naval officers start to wonder what might had happened.
As the night continued the bomber and destroyers returned to their bases and it got more and more obvious that an own bomber in fact attacked the destroyers, but this would not explain the chaos that appeared on the „battlefield".
During the afternoon of the following day, the patrol boat VP809 was searching for survivors at the sinking location but because of heavy fog this task proved to be impossible.
In the following days a commission on board of the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper investigated the events of the night of 22.02.1940 to find out what really happened
Fact was that neither side, the Luftwaffe bombers nor the Kriegsmarine destroyer were informed that other German units were operating in the same area. But the investigation showed that the commanding headquaters at land had enough hints that would had a chance to prevent the events that took place in the North Sea on February 22nd :
22.02.1940 – 12:18:
The X. Fliegerkorps sends a teletype message to the Kriegsmarine headquarters (Marinegruppe West) that the KG26 will fly operations against costal shipping south of Humber between 19:30 and 0:00 the same evening. But although the destroyers were already on their way into the North Sea, Marinegruppe West did not inform them about the planned air operations.
22.02.1940 – 12:35:
Marinegruppe west sends two radio messages to the destroyers in the North Sea – one with the latest weather information and one containing the actual air thread. This second message only informs about a British bomber that was shot down, but nothing about the Luftwaffe bombers and their operations later that day.
22.02.1940 – between 13:00 and 15:00
The Kriegsmarine headquarters contacts several Luftwaffe headquarters to order some assistance for the six destroyers. A first request is send to the "Seeluftstreitkräfte" to provide some reconnaissance planes for the path ahead of the destroyers. A second request is made to the "Jagdfliegerführer" Deutsche Bucht" to send out some fighter aircraft to provide air cover for the destroyers during the afternoon and the next morning when they were planned to return. None of those two Luftwaffe headquarters was in contact with the X. Fliegerkorps, therefore the bomber crews still did not know that some German ships were on their way in the North Sea.
22.02.1940 – 16:15:
To protect the bombers on their way over the East-Frisian Islands and the coastline, the X. Fliegerkorps sends a Teletype message to the Kriegsmarine headquarters to remove the blockade balloons and to notify the Navy Anti Aircraft guns that own bombers will be in the area that night.
22.02.1940 – 17:00:
Marinegruppe west sends a request to the X. Fliegerkorps to prepare some bombers for the next morning to assist the returning destroyers if possible. After this information arrived, the Chief of Staff of the X. Fliegerkorps – Major Martin Harlinghausen – gets curious since this message means that several destroyers would operate in the North Sea in the upcoming night and nobody at the X. Fliegerkorps is informed about that.
22.02.1940 – 17:35:
Major Harlinghausen calls Marinegruppe West to ask if the Kriegsmarine has some destroyers operating in the same area, the Fliegerkorps is about to send their bombers in. This is the moment when it gets clear to all participants, that a dangerous situation can be arise if the bombers and destroyers would meet in the dark night. Since it is too late to inform the bomber crews - their aircraft were already on the runways, the Kriegsmarine could have send a radio transmission to the destroyers, but this radio call was never made.
Click here to see an animated battlemap
Without any prior warnings, the bombers and destroyer meet only one and a quarter hour later, with the known result that two destroyers were lost and 578 crewmembers died. And although the investigation showed the insufficient communication between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine, none of the responsible officers had to take any consequences for that.
In the weeks after the events of the 22.02.1940, the 1st mine hunter flotilla sweeps the area of the mine free passage "Weg I" again – and close to the sinking location, several British mines were found, which adds another detail to the unlucky night in the North Sea. After the war, the British navy admits that between February 9th and 10th, several mines were laid in an area about 5 miles around the sinking location. Since those mines were active in the night of the 22.02.1940, their effect on the events of this night must be included:
It is sure, that the first hits on the Lebercht Maas were the bombs of the attacking He111 – which was previously got under fire from the destroyers. Those bomb hits were the initial key for all events that followed. But in the following rescue operation, it is very likely that the German destroyers either were running into their own mine field or in the freshly laid British mines. In the end, it is not totally sure, what caused the loss of both destroyers; it is a proved fact that both attacks of the He111 were successful and lead to hits on the ships, but it is also possible that additional mine hits had their influence on the loss as well.