Pathfinders and minelayers
The conventional bomber force in the West, under IX. Fliegerkorps, was already in the process of disbandment when 75 of its aircraft devastated the centre of Eindhoven on 19 September 1944. For a time only jets and V-1 carriers still flew, with I./KG 66’s pathfinders marking the latter’s North Sea launch points. When the fighting for Walcheren ended on 8 November 1944, so did German ground forces’ threat to shipping in the Scheldt. Potentially, this opened the way to Antwerp, more than two months after the port’s capture. However the Kriegsmarine had sown the river with 300 ground mines and the time they took to clear meant that the first inbound convoy only made port on the 28th.
The Germans were acutely aware of how much the Allies’ position would be strengthened if the the port could be run at full capacity and the Luftwaffe had told the Kriegsmarine on 23 November of its intention for “a mining operation by a Kampfgruppe”. Before the port reopened it had been agreed that S-boats should lay mines west of Cadzand while the 50 nautical miles (92.6 km)—where surface vessels could no longer hope to survive—between there and Antwerp would be assigned to the Luftwaffe. It was accepted that traffic in the Scheldt could not be halted altogether, the intention was to impede it and to caude losses. Once trials were completed, it was hoped that Linse explosive motor boats and Biber midget submersibles could also contribute. Disruption would be multiplied by sowing mines with varying trigger systems and activation intervals, but one—the Druckdose or D-Gerät pressure trigger—was kept in reserve.The Germans did not believe that the Allies had yet recovered any undamaged but felt it was inevitable that air-dropping them on a narrow channel would see intact examples landing onshore and compromising the technology.
There was less reticence over mines with delayed arming mechansims: “It must be accepted that sooner or later the enemy can recover mines from a shot down aircraft and examine the triggers. With knowledge of the VW [Verzögerungs-Uhrwerk = delay timer] he will then, as the sole countermeasure, only allow ships to sail in convoy or right behind minesweepers.”
The I./LG 1 had moved forward from Fassberg to Varel on 3 December and two nights later aircraft of both the I. and II. Gruppen were active, although this does not seem to have been operational flying. Allied radio monitoring indicated some kind of operation on the night of 6/7 December but one intended for the next night was later cancelled. Mines were laid in the Scheldt on the 8/9th, in an operation codenamed Zeisig (Siskin) by the Germans and CONWAY by Allied Intelligence. Flak and costal shipping were warned that 48 Ju 88 would cross the coast at Zandvoort at 16.40 GMT, returning inland 50 minutes later. The Royal Navy estimated that 35 machines had laid mines off Walcheren and 15 had overflown the anchorage at Ostend. LG 1 for its part reported that 19 Ju 88 had placed their mines while two more aborted the flight with technical problems. The German Navy Operations Staff noted its war diary that:
On the night of the 8/9th, mining of the outer Scheldt was carried out by 27 aircraft, four of them illuminators. A further five aircraft broke off the operation, five were lost after laying their mines.
A second operation by 40 aircraft at 05.00 hrs. was cancelled at the last minute.
Both LG 1 Gruppen and I./KG 66 attacked land targets in support of the Ardennes Offensive from 17/18th December but returned briefly to mining on the night of the 25/26th when warnings were given that 20 Ju 88 were to cross the coast and 15 actually laid mines (I. and II./LG 1 had reported only 24 aircraft serviceable on the 23rd). The Navy telegraphed OKL on 11 January 1945 that so far there had been no appreciable disruption of enemy supplies to Antwerp either from naval efforts or aerial mining, and asked that the latter be resumed as soon as the weather improved. The Luftwaffe answered the same day that on the 10th orders had been given to LG 1 to mine the Scheldt again. Four days later information followed that LG 1’s efforts would be concentrated off Vlissingen and operation was duly flown around midnight on the 17/18th.
A Ju 88 from 1./LG 1 — "of the old A-4 series seldom found these days" — crashed north east of Neederweert, Holland by the intersection of Karisteeg and Lage Kuilen. It was examined on the 19th. A local military unit had heard an aircraft flying around at low altitude for almost two hours before it hit the ground at a shallow angle and broke up. All four crewmen died in the crash and are buried at Ysselsteyn: Fw. Rudolf Zacha (Pilot); Fw. Fritz Mattutt (Observer); Uffz. Paul Stendebach (Wireless Operator); and Ofw. Paul Hans Stroczynski (Air Gunner). No bullet strikes were found on the scattered wreckage, nor were there any bombs, although there was a Schloss 2000/XIII B rack. There was however a quantity of Düppel as well as two dorsal and one ventral MG 81 machine guns. Bomb sight and radio equipment were normal and there was no sign of a radio altimeter. Camouflage was dark green on the uppersurfaces, light blue on the undersides. Tactical markings were L1+EH (with the E in white) but there was some ambiguity over the machine’s Werk Nummer. There was a data card saying it was 301332 but on the compass correction card and the fin was 550061. However, stencilled in red aft of the dinghy stowage, on the starboard fuselage, was “Mdd 17/10/44” which was taken to indicate a rebuild and renumbering of the aircraft to W.Nr. 550061
Re: economies in aircraft fuel
… In particular it is ordered that … LG 1 is to be employed exclusively in the battle against the seaborne transport of supplies to Antwerp. Commitment in direct support of the ground fighting in the West lapses.
Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff (22 January 1945)
At 15.45 GMT on 22 January, Flak units were warned that 45 Ju 88 would be taking off from Ahlhorn and Varel from 16.30, returning three hours later. At an altitude of 0–200 metres they would cross the coast outbound at Noordwijk-aan-Zee and — with one exception — return over Den Helder. At 19.08 hrs. guns at Ostend were reported to be engaging German aircraft attacking a convoy off Zeebrugge, claiming three destroyed. The remainder retired east via Walcheren and Breda and a 409 Squadron chased one for 60 miles but was unable to identify it before losing its quarry in cloud. The British picked up radio traffic from five different machines, two from LG 1 landing at Marx. Rather than a direct attack on shipping, this seems to have been another mining operation and it cost LG 1 four aircraft and their crews, all posted missing on an operation to the Scheldt Estuary:
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© Nick Beale 2020–23