Schnellboote operations around Malta and their losses

The ordeal of the air attacks over Malta in March and April of 1942 continued in subsequent months. At the same time, the lastingness of Malta’s effectiveness in the war was also being threatened by the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) assisting the Italian Navy (Regia Marina).

The German Naval support that was reluctantly dispatched consisted of U-Boote that made their way into the Mediterranean via Gibraltar with the task of cutting off Malta from resupplies. S-Boote (referred to as E-boats by the Allies) were also dispatched and were more efficient in intercepting ships close to the shore, at least until countered by the increasing radar prevalence that gnawed at their effectiveness. These 100-ton boats could reach speeds up to 44 knots as they launched their deadly torpedos at merchant ships or lay minefields.

A Mediterranean front was never on the ambitions or plans for a swift end of the war, but by 1941 the German forces had to get involved to avoid the collapse of Italy. Thus the reinforcements of Army, Navy and Airforce units sent were not part of any long-term strategy or policy. 

Schnellboote arrive in the Mediterranean

The 3. Schnellboot-Flottille, which became also known as the Die Afrika-Flotille, was diverted from the Baltics in the winter of 1941, where they were providing support during Operation Barbarossa. Their new mission in the Mediterranean was meant to limit the Royal Navy’s operational effectiveness and hinder merchant ships. The safest way to transfer these vessels had to be through occupied Netherlands and France. The boats had to be heavily camouflaged. The uniforms of the seamen made way for civilian attire as boats, and their crew journeyed from Rotterdam to Chalon-sur-Saône, and then onwards to the Mediterranean via a series of canals, narrow locks and rivers. Once they arrived in the Mediterranean, they were rearmed in La Spezia. The first group of boats were operationally ready on 10th December 1941 in Augusta.

The first 5 Schnellboote camouflaged in Black, passing through a lock in France
The first 5 Schnellboote camouflaged in Black, passing through a lock in France. Source: Archives Förderverein

The first mission took place on 12th December at 1630 following a Luftwaffe reconnaissance sortie that detected 4 cruisers, 4 destroyers, 8 large steamers and several small steamers in Valletta harbour. These ships were expected to leave port later in the day. The e-boats armed with torpedoes were to intercept this convoy as they were coming out of Malta but returned to base early in the morning as instructed without encountering enemy ships. The same mission was executed on the following day with the same result. When it was clear that no ships were entering or leaving the harbour at night, the S-Boote were ordered to switch to minelaying instead. 

The first minefield laid was laid near Malta on 16th December and by the 20th of May, 27 of these had been set. Two Schnellboote were lost during this timeframe, one due to enemy fire and the other out of carelessness.

The loss of Schnellboot S-31

Haag's S-31 Schnellboot with the Flying Fish coat of arms - Source: Haag's archive

On 9th May, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft reported a possible enemy cruiser (mistaken for the fast minelayer HMS Welshman) in the Straits of Sicily, bound for Malta. Four boats (S54, S56, S57 and S58) and three Sicilian minelayers were despatched from Augusta to intercept the eastern approach. Whilst these boats laid in wait northeast of Marsascala, S31, S34 and S61 proceeded inshore of Valletta harbour’s entrance to lay a triangular field off Sliema Point by 0421hrs. Moments later, S-31 detonated a drifting surface mine from a previous operation near the engine room. S-boot S-61 immediately closed on the broken wreck and pulled out 13 survivors, including the captain OberleutnantzurSee Haag, flotilla medical officer Marine-StabArzt Dr Mehnen, and two Italian liaison officers who were observers on the boat. 8 men within the engine room were dead. Take a closer look at the S-31 wreck.

S61 with the mermaid coat of arms, was responsible for saving the S31 crew. Source: Battlefront Living History Group member collection

The loss of e-boat S-34

On 17th May, the German E-boats returned once again to lay the 24th Minefield, North-East of Valletta. S34, S35, S58 and S59 were all picked up by coastal searchlights past 2 AM and were engaged by Garden and Fort St. Rocco batteries, 9km away by their BL 9.2inch guns. S34 received a direct hit amidship and started taking water. Under smoke cover by the e-boats, S59 closed in to rescue the crew, but 2 ratings and a petty officer were killed. Scuttling charges were employed but the following day, a Luftwaffe Bf-109 saw the drifting wreck still afloat and settled the matter by a bomb, where the wreck of S-34 is still lies, 12km off Zonqor Point.

The outcome and the aftermath

The minefields deployed by E-boats around between December 1941 and may 1942. Source: The Afrika-Flotille, Kemande

On May 18th, 24 mining operations and 557 mines later, the 3. Schnellboot-Flotille received orders to move to Derna in North Africa. That same month, 4 vessels were lost due to these mining operations. Combined with the threat of U-boats and air attacks on shipping, the Royal Navy decided to abandon the port of Malta as no safe passage could be secured.

Throughout the summer and autumn months of 1942, the Schnellboote were spread out in different ports across the Mediterranean, but they still intercepted convoys. They had returned briefly to Sicilian ports for another round of mining operations between September and November 1942, but improved radar installations on the island against surface ships meant that the Flotilla could not do their work effectively and had to abandon these mining operations for other opportunities.

The E-boats of the 3rd Flotilla (3. Schnellboot-Flottille) would make one final trip to Maltese waters from Ancona, where they had surrendered to the Royal Navy at the end of the war. The boats that had come some so close to Maltese shores in time of war, were now in port in Pieta Creek inspected, awaiting their fate. Their crew were sent to POW camps in Egypt.

Six of these e-boats were sunk off the coast of Malta in post-war years.