Still working on the new book ‘Hitler’s Forgotten Flotillas’ about the small units of the Kriegsmarine. Currently looking at the Vorpostenboote based in Brittany. These small ships were generally converted trawlers that acted as convoy and U-boat escort and patrol ships. The real backbone of most navies – though rarely attracting the glamour.
One such boat was V722 – a wreck that I was looking for in Brittany, but never got to dive this one. Here’s part of the ship’s history; a pitched battle in 1943 that resulted in a Knight’s Cross for a senior NCO aboard. This is actually pretty typical of the kind of fighting these vessels took part in. This isn’t strictly an excerpt from the book – it’ll be different in the finished version.
The Vorpostenboot V722 ‘Pilote 13’ had passed into the hands of the Kriegsmarine after the surrender of France in June 1940 for despite having been built in Germany, she had not been in German service. The keel for V722 was laid at Emden’s Nordseewerke, within yard number 152 during 1929. Completed the same year, she was launched under the name Loodsboote No.13 (Pilot boat 13) and handed over to her owners the Pilotage Belge (Belgian Pilot Service). The German shipbuilders were working to a contract for four identical vessels, all designed to shepherd larger ships in and out of coastal ports.
As the Germans launched their offensive into Belgium in May 1940 Loodsboote No.13 was transferred to the national Corps de Marine; a reformed navy (the previous navy had been abolished in 1927 for budgetary reasons) that had come into existence in 1939 predominantly comprised of commandeered civilian ships. Attached to the 1st Escadrille based in Ostend, for this ship its military career began with a series of retreats and on the 7 June 1940 she sailed for Rochefort, moving onwards to La Rochelle nine days later; like many other vessels managing to stay only one step ahead of the advancing Germans. Dispatched to the Gironde and now with a French designation, Pilote 13 arrived at Arcachon during Wednesday 19 June. Here her flight ended and she was abandoned and scuttled.
With the end of the fighting in France, the 451-ton Pilote 13 was raised and transferred to German control before being officially commandeered by the Kriegsmarine at the beginning of July. Her destiny was to be converted into a Vorpostenboot for service in occupied French waters. The armaments that were installed were typical for the type of vessel: five cannon — one 88mm atop its bow platform, one 37mm astern, and three 20mm quick-firing anti-aircraft weapons. Her submarine hunting capability comprised three depth charge racks that were arrayed astern. After repair and conversion work was completed she was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine on 2 May 1942 and transferred to Brest to join the 7th Vorpostenflottille renamed V722.
The ship was skippered by 30-year old Leutnant zur See Jonni Johannsen during an escort mission for Italian tanker Butterfly (the ex-Belgian Screvier) in April 1943. Ordered from Brest alongside minesweeper M4014 to reinforce the U-Boot Jäger escort for the Italian ship, V722 departed harbour on 27 April at 1330hrs. Rendezvousing with the other ships that already comprised the small eastbound convoy — Butterfly plus UJ1402, UJ1403 and V424 — they formed a loose formation of three short columns The 5,127-ton tanker Butterfly, formerly of the Italian company Industrie Navali Soc. Anon of Genoa, had been transferred to the German Merchant Navy for military supply missions and was carrying a cargo of fuel. Built by ‘Bartram & Sons Ltd.’ in Sunderland, England, Butterfly was a valuable asset to the Germans, and an important target for the British who received sighting reports of the ships northwest of Perros Guirec. During the hours of darkness the following morning British destroyers HMS Albrighton and Goathland accompanied by ten MTBs launched their interception attack.
At 0245hrs German lookouts sighted silhouettes to starboard. Radio messages had recently confirmed the presence nearby of both British ships and vessels of the 24th Minensuchflotille and for eight crucial minutes the German Convoy commander hesitated: who were the mystery ships? However, sudden cannon salvoes and the roar of approaching fast MTBs dispelled any doubts and battle commenced, both sides engaged at close quarters using cannon, torpedoes and machine-guns.
Aboard V722 the situation rapidly deteriorated. The French coast was too far for accurate supporting fire from shore batteries, leaving the German escort ships totally reliant upon their own firepower. In order to stand any chance of survival the less powerful German vessels must close the gap between themselves and the British enabling them to bring their lighter weapons to bear. The rudder and engine aboard V722 faltered following a shell hit astern and she began to erratically lose control. At this crucial moment the British turned their heavier weapons toward V722 whose sweating engineers were nursing a flagging diesel engine. However, the 88mm forward cannon continued to fire and their persistence was rewarded with a direct hit on HMS Albrighton’s bridge killing eight men and wounding 25 others. The British destroyer was less than 200 metres distant and the opposing sides added to the heavy fire with any small arms to hand. The Vorpostenboot’s 37mm cannon crew sighted and engaged an approaching British MTB to starboard, before a direct hit on the small German stern gun and its unprotected crew littered the deck with fragments of men and twisted wreckage. After his command had absorbed terrific punishment, LzS Johannsen ordered his now shattered ship abandoned, but even this was to prove impossible.
As lifeboats were lowered starboard, a prolonged burst of MTB machine-gun fire slashed across the deck, killing Johannsen and several of his crew instantly. Stored depth charges were hit, but failed to explode. The ship’s Second Officer suspended the order to abandon V722 and the remaining crew attempted to salvage their vessel as gunners returned to all functioning weapons to buy themselves more time. By 0340 hrs the nearby German minesweepers — M422, M475 and M483 with Flotilla commander Korvettenkapitän Fritz Breithaupt aboard — were approaching as reinforcements for the battle, as well as V210 from St Malo’s 2nd Vorpostenflotille. The British began to lose the upper hand, and attempted to disengage.
Dawn showed a scene of terrible carnage and brought added pressure on the German convoy from 24 RAF Spitfires belonging to 310 and 313 Squadrons along with four 263 Squadron Whirlwinds that began strafing the German ships. They, in turn, were engaged by two Luftwaffe Bf109 fighters who, though heavily outnumbered, managed to down at 310 Squadrons Spitfire V. V722 came under direct attack from the Whirlwinds, though they failed to score a decisive hit. Her hull shuddered with the shock of nearby detonations, and engine ventilators between bridge and smokestack were smashed by the impact of one airborne projectile that failed to explode.
German losses were heavy; UJ1402 had been hit and holed beneath the waterline. While crewmen of the six-year old converted trawler attempted to shore the damage from inside, her depth charges detonated after being peppered with machine-gun fire, virtually dissolving the ship in a searing flash. The prize – the petrol laden Butterfly – was also sent to the bottom. Hit repeatedly by shellfire from HMS Goathland and burning out of control she eventually buckled and sank at 0600hrs.
Aboard V722, 18 of the 41-man crew lay dead with another 19 wounded. Steuermannsmaat Karl-Heinz Fischer took command after the Second Officer was added to the casualty list. Despite blood streaming down his face from a head wound, he disengaged the ship as the battle petered out, sailing her towards Brest which the battered Vorpostenboot reached later that day. Afterwards V722 was found to have suffered 148 cannon hits from various calibre weapons and over 600 holes pock-marking the ship from machine-gun fire. Steuermannsmaat Fischer received the Knight’s Cross from Dönitz on 6th May 1943, while several other crewmen received gallantry awards of Iron Crosses first and second-class.
Their ship repaired and dead crewmen replaced V722 rejoined her flotilla later in the year. However, at 0115 hrs on the morning of 6 May 1944 the patrol vessel detonated an aerial mine laid by RAF bombers near the mouth of Anse de Berthaume. During the early morning hours of darkness soldiers manning Fort Berthaume and the artillery emplacements of neighbouring Pointe Saint Mathieu were startled to see the enormous flash of the exploding mine and in a matter of minutes V722 was gone, taking 27 of her battle-hardened 36 crew with her to the sandy seabed below. Fischer was not amongst them and he survived the war, passing away on 12 August 1993 in his home-city of Hamburg.
While I don’t yet have a casualty list for V722, these are the eight Royal Navy seamen that lost there lives aboard HMS Albrighton after V722‘s shell hit:
BENTLEY, George H, Able Seaman, D/JX 284280
CALF, John O, Engine Room Artificer 5c, D/MX 86650
CARTER, Tom, Able Seaman, P/JX 316774
COTTRELL, Mark, Ordinary Seaman, D/JX 305180
COYNE, Victor J, Ordinary Telegraphist, D/JX 309179
DAVIES, Eric A, Able Seaman, D/SSX 13595
NOWELL, Kenneth, Able Seaman, D/JX 345073
THOMSON, Archibald MCA, Able Seaman (Pens), D/J 37023