By Land, as if by Sea

At the beginning of 1942 with initiated German offensive in Crimea aimed against Sevastopol, Berlin Top Command acknowledged the fact that they needed light and fast-sailing ships for protection of sea communications laid along the southern shores of the Crimean Peninsula and in the Sea of Azov, as well as a number of small-draft submarines. Italy had such boats at its disposal, and for the first time during the war the Germans addressed their ally.

selective focus photography of orange cruise ship during daytime

The Italians were incredibly flattered with this request, and on January 14, 1942 the Italian fleet admiral Ricardi signed the agreement with his German allies under which the national Navy of fascist Italy was to be engaged to assist German forces on the Soviet-German front. The Italians were given two sites – Lake Ladoga and the Black Sea theater of military operations.

The first serious problem arose with the need to deploy the ships to the Black Sea. In fact, the only possible way involved land transportation, because the Dardanelles controlled by Turkey was closed for warships in accordance with international agreements. In pursuit of completing this difficult task, Italian Naval Command demonstrated its capabilities and creative thinking, when in the shortest possible time it formed a special convoy consisting of 28 heavy-duty tractor units, three prime movers, dozens of trucks, fuel trucks and trailers. In strict secrecy the long convoy left the naval base in La Spezia on April 25 and after successful dealing with numerous obstacles and difficulties (in some cases the drivers and combat engineers had to demolish roadside buildings to allow passage of bulky vehicles) arrived in Vienna, where the ships were put afloat in the Danube waters. They reached the Port of Constanta (Romania) by river (May 02). Upon leaving the city and making a short and easy sea passage, the ships called at the Russian port of Yalta, which became their first operating base.

Then the ships approached Crimea on their own with the port of Yalta becoming their basing site. The first group of three super-small submarines arrived in Yalta on May 05, 1942. All six boats were kept in the harborage carefully camouflaged. However, it didn’t stop Soviet motor boats from sinking one of them.

Torpedo craft got to Yalta on May 21, 1942. Foros was chosen as the further base in Crimea, for a reason. Cape Sarych located nearby is the southmost point of the Crimean Peninsula. Due to the short range of the assault boats, they could get as close as possible to the sea lanes used by the Black Sea fleet for sending supplies to Sevastopol. Using the shade of sea cliffs as a cover, the assault craft could not be seen until the target was close enough to attack it at a short range.

But the German Top Command realized at once that weak Romanian aircraft and very small Italian submarines could not be efficient in battles at the Black Sea communication lanes. At that moment position of Turkey finally became clear. It still had a liking for Germany but had no intention to either enter the war on the Reich side or (governed by Montreux Convention of 1936) let the German warcraft through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. That is why in the spring of 1942 the German forces commenced switching of Siebel-type landing rafts, high-speed MFP landing barges and submarines to the Black Sea by land.

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“IV” type submarines – U-9, U-18, U-19, U-20, U-23 and U-24 – were chosen for switching and redeployment. They took part in military operations in the Baltic and in 1941 sank three Soviet submarines: М-78, М-94 and М-99. In the spring and autumn of 1942 the selected submarines traveled from Gotenhafen to Kiel in two trios and drydocked. To reduce their weight the Germans removed the batteries, electric and diesel engines and demounted the deck houses.

Then the boats were set aboard and surrounded by six special pontoons making an original crate. In this “crate” they were towed to Dresden along the Kiel Canal and the Elbe. The most difficult task was still ahead – near Dresden-Übigau with the Reichsautobahn built over the Elbe the boats were unloaded on the land. They had to be hauled along the road to Ingolstadt, Austria to be put afloat on the Danube.

In accordance with the plan made up by certain Baumgarten, engineer of Deutsche Werke AG Kiel shipbuilding company, the empty submarine hulls weighing 112-138 tons each were set at an angle of 90 degrees so that they could be shipped under the bridges along the autobahn. The boats were firmly fixed on 18-axle Kuhlemeyer transporters. The convoy was brought into motion by four heavy tractor units Kablbe and Faun submitted to Lüftwaffe and coupled in row.

At a speed of 8 kilometers per hour the convoy traveled 425 kilometers of highways passing 150 bridges and other tricky road sections. On arrival in Ingolstadt the cargo was taken off the platforms and set afloat on the Danube, from where the turned hulls had to be towed with great care through narrow curves and under low stone bridges across the river. The boats were delivered to Vienna (some of them to Linz) safe and sound with consequent installation of the gear. Then they were to reach the Port of Constanta, Romania partly on their own. Total length of the transportation route equaled 2,400 kilometers.

This operation was undoubtedly complicated and unprecedented at that time, and its successful fulfillment proved that the German engineers knew their goods and were perfectly trained in material and technical issues. None of the onlookers witnessing the soldiers’ efforts could have imagined what kind of cargo was carried on thoroughly wrapped platforms. Many of them believed that it was a new weapon of the Third Reich.

Submarines U-9, U-10 and U-24 were the first to reach Constanta by the autumn of 1942. The ships were put together to form the 30th submarine flotilla Kriegsmarine with Lieutenant Commander Rosenbaum put in charge of it.

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The second group of submarines U-18, U-20 and U-23 arrived in the summer of 1943 (May 06, May 07 and June 03). Main Romanian naval base Constanta became the primary stationing site for the 30th flotilla. The boats from Sevastopol and Feodosia also took part in military campaigns. The redeployed submarines commenced combat actions in the late autumn of 1942. The boats efficiently fought against the Soviet fleet sinking dozens of ships (tankers, barges, mine sweepers), but their fate was sealed. Some of them broke down and were captured in Constanta. One of the submarines was knocked out by the Soviet aircraft in 1944, and three more boats were sunk by their own crews off the northern coast of Turkey in a no-win situation.

The similar transport operation unfolded on another battlefront. At the end of April, 1942 the 12th torpedo craft group based in La Spezia under the command of Biancini, III rank captain, was given an unusual assignment – to switch to Lake Ladoga by land and sea to take part in Siege of Leningrad.

On April 22, 1942 the boats were loaded on special trailers in Mestre and towed to Szczecin with no haste. After more than a month and 3,100 kilometers the convoy approached the Baltic Sea and got on board the Thielbeck vessel which delivered it to Helsinki on June 09. Then the boats were launched and reached the Saimaa Canal by sea. Along the canal they moved to Punkasalmi station, Lake Puruvesi, were loaded on the railway platforms and, upon discharging in Lahdenpohja on June 22, were set afloat on Lake Ladoga.

By that time the Finns had only an old Italian Sisu class attack boat on Lake Ladoga (built in 1916). In that very summer of 1942 the naval forces of the Axis countries on the lake were considerably bolstered by German assault landing craft (self-propelled armed ferries with the displacement of 144 tons) designed by Lieutenant Colonel Fritz Siebel and initially reserved for cutting across the English Channel. The ferries were made as twin-hulled craft consisting of two pontoons connected by the wide deck with fortified superstructures. Military equipment of the heavy boats included three 87-millimeter main guns and two 20-millimeter multi-barreled antiaircraft machine guns, and the light ferries had a single 37-millimeter cannon and two 20-millimeter multi-barreled antiaircraft machine guns as well. Two gasoline-powered engines with stealthy underwater exhaust allowed speeding up to 10 knots. Draft of the boats did not exceed 1 meter.

By July 15, 1942 the first 15 disassembled ferries were delivered from Tallinn to Helsinki on the steam ship and then to Lahdenpohja by railway. Afterwards the number of the boats rose to 30. Lieutenant Colonel Fritz Siebel took personal control over the completed ferry flotilla with the crew of about 2,400 soldiers.

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By early August, 1942 the joint Finnish-German-Italian flotilla included one gunboat, 21 landing barges (7 heavy, 6 light and 8 special boats), 8 assault boats, 6 patrol boats, 60 communication boats, one Finnish and four Italian torpedo boats. Lahdenpohja was their main base with Kexholm, Sortanlahti, Sortavala, Salmi and Saunasaari serving as stationing sites.

This heavily armed fleet had the upper hand at first and overnight into August 15 three patrol boats countered three Soviet Bira class gunboats near Toserovo and torpedoed one of them. It was accomplished by MAS 527 with Lieutenant Bechi in charge. Overnight into August 28 MAS 527 and MAS 528 launched their own attacks and one of the torpedoes sank the barge with food supplies for Leningrad.

But the first luck gave way to the first failure. In the south of Lake Ladoga, 37 kilometers away from New Ladoga held by the Soviet forces, there was a small artificial island Suho with a stone lighthouse built on it in 1891. The island was basically an important tactical position and allowed to control the vast southern area of the lake. The garrison of Soviet troops on the island counted 90 soldiers. There also were a battery of three 100-millimeter guns and machine-gun nests. The German Naval Command worked out the plan under codename “Brasil” to capture Suho Island.

Overnight into October 22, 1942 the ferry fleet covered by four Italian torpedo boats and carrying a special operating unit of 100 soldiers, held a course for Suho Island. The bad weather let the ships approach the island unnoticed and destroy the radio station with the first artillery strike. But a Soviet ship which happened to pass nearby noticed the landing party, reported the situation to the Soviet Command on the radio and engaged in combat. As a result, several boats and landing barges were damaged. At 9 a.m. the Soviet aircraft struck the landing troops heading for the north-west. After that the troops were run down and attacked by Soviet patrol boats. 17 out of 23 landing ships were either lost or damaged.

Subsequent to the attack on Suho all activities of the naval group were immediately folded, and early October the same route was taken to send three remaining boats to Helsinki and then to Tallinn to be sold to the Finnish Command by the crews. The war on Lake Ladoga was over for the Italians without any further major operations launched in that area.