The Disastrous Kriegsmarine WW2 Operation Wikinger

The Disastrous Kriegsmarine WW2 Operation Wikinger

Destroyer of class Zerstörer 1934 Z 3 Max Schultz.

Operation Wikinger in German known as Viking was a sortie into the North Sea by German destroyers in the early part of WW2 by the 1st Destroyer Flotilla of the Kriegsmarine during February 1940.

During the operation, bad communication between different armed branches and cooperation between the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe resulted in the loss of two German ships through friendly fire bombing.

With no Royal Navy forces involved!
German Type-1934-Destroyer Z 1 Leberecht Maass

In February 1940, the Kriegsmarine had grown suspicious of the activities of British fishing vessels around the Dogger Bank. Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights reported the presence of submarines, so it was decided to intercept the British vessels with the six destroyers of the 1st Destroyer Flotilla: consisting of the Friedrich Eckoldt  Richard Beitzen, Erich Koellner, Theodor Riedel, Max Schultz and Leberecht Maass, escorted by Luftwaffe fighters.

At about the same time the X. Fliegerkorps of the Luftwaffe planned to execute a anti-shipping operation over the North Sea, using two squadrons of Heinkel 111 bombers.

1The Kriegsmarine had been denied its own air wing by Goering and was dependent upon the Luftwaffe for air support, which remained under direct Luftwaffe control. Exchanges of information and plans and requests for support were made difficult.

The sortie began at 19:00 on the night of the 19th February 1940.

The flotilla proceeded at high speed through a cleared channel between German defensive minefields, without the fighter air cover that had been requested. In the sea and weather conditions they were clearly visible, from their wakes, but they wished to clear the mined area quickly.

He 111H-16 with a V-1 flying bomb, 8 August 1944

The flotilla was passed twice by a German bomber, which was uncertain of the ships’ status. It made no recognition signals and, as a result, it was taken to be a British reconnaissance aircraft and fired upon by the ships. Fire was returned by the aircrew. Each side was now convinced the other was undeniably hostile.

The German aircraft attacked.
An Allied reconnaissance photo showing a German Heinkel He 111Z aircraft taking off at Regensburg-Obertraubling (Germany), in May 1944

On the first bombing run, one of three bombs hit Leberecht Maass.

While the rest of the flotilla was ordered to continue in formation, Friedrich Eckoldt went alongside to help. The Heinkel made a second run and two bombs hit Leberecht Maass, which was blown in two by huge explosions. The bomber returned to its base, unaware until its return of the other ships in the flotilla.

Immediately after the explosions, the remainder of the flotilla attempted to rescue the crew.

Just after 20:00, Max Schultz exploded and sank, most likely striking a mine following all the chaos.

There were many conflicting reports of air attacks, submarines detected and torpedoes, ships dashed back and forth. Theodor Riedel dropped depth charges on a supposed submarine and the explosions damaged and jammed its rudder.

Lot-2275-84: German Warships, WWII. German destroyer Theodor Riedel, Maasz class, starboard view, 1939. Halftone image from Division of Naval Intelligence, Identification and Characteristics Section, June 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (2016/05/06).

After 30 minutes of panic, the flotilla commander ordered the surviving ships to return home.

There were no survivors from Max Schultz and only 60 from Leberecht Maass with 578 German sailors killed.
A Heinkel He 111H bomber, which was abandoned by the Luftwaffe in North Africa

The initial view of the naval command in Wilhelmshaven was that the flotilla had run into a German minefield. The presence of enemy submarines was thought unlikely. At 23:00, naval command received a report from X. Fliegerkorps that a ship had been engaged and destroyed in the general area of the sinkings, at the same time. Subsequent reports appeared to confirm that it was a friendly fire attack.

Through incompetence neither the destroyers nor the Luftwaffe squadrons had been told of the other’s presence, even with information being passed to the relevant commands. By the time the risks became apparent, it was too late to advise aircrews and sailors.

The official German investigation showed that there had been clearly inadequate communication between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. No one was held accountable, and no court martials. In total 2 destroyers were lost and one damaged.

Written by Harry Gillespie

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The Disastrous Kriegsmarine WW2 Operation Wikinger