Saturday, September 21, 2013

KG200 Flying Boats Explode in Flensburg Harbor

The four flying boats were being kept in a remote corner of Flensburg harbor in a cove nestled among the broken hills which descended like steps from the side of the fjord.

It was where utility boats, small barges and other shallow-draft harbor craft docked and where the harbor patrol had one of its auxiliary stations. Shortly after the aircraft’s unannounced appearance, Doenitz ordered them towed there, in order to keep them inaccessible and out of public view. Their crews were ordered off them, except for a handful that stayed to look after the aircraft. In addition, a guard was placed there around-the-clock to prevent any unauthorized tampering.

But when Cremer and his men drove in through the compound’s back gates, they were surprised to find that everything was dark and none of the buildings showed any indication that anyone was inside. Then, hearing a low whistle, Cremer peered into the dark and saw one of his petty officers crouched among some stacked pipe, furtively waving at them. He and the others had been hiding there all day, he told them. Several hours earlier, a detachment of kettenhunde, Naval guardsmen, drove up from town and ordered everyone out, after which all the lights were shut down. All but one of the lights, he told Cremer, insisting he come up and see for himself what was going on underneath it.

They quietly made their way down the hillside to an equipment-strewn storage yard built onto the bluff overlooking the cove. Looking toward the harbor, Cremer could see the light of the streetlamp blazing into the blackness. On the way they came to a row of small metal storage sheds, in whose shadow four more of his men were hiding, including Manni Loerber, dressed in navy coveralls and trying hard not to look like a lifetime civilian. One look at his face and it was plain that he had no idea what had happened to the British either.

Leaving the others there, Cremer and the petty officer continued crawling up to the edge of the bluff. Cremer looked down and saw the lamp, standing at the foot of a small boat dock which extended out into the water like a long, narrow finger pointing at the spot out in the water where, half-hidden in the shadows, the four mammoth aircraft were moored.

But that wasn’t all. Clustered underneath the lamp stood a large group of people, easily thirty of them, mostly men, but a few women as well, all of them dressed for travel, in raincoats and heavy hats. They stood with baggage at their feet, as if waiting for a bus. Most of the men were heavyset in a way that suggested their girth was commensurate to their importance, men used to living well and eating amply. Gauleiters, thought Cremer. The handful of women were, on the other hand, nearly all tall and slim, and probably quite young. Only one or two looked like they might be wives.

There were others as well, Luftwaffe personnel, some in utility coveralls and flying suits, others in combat gear, clutching submachine guns. They moved about, attending busily to this and that, talking with each other, checking their watches, occasionally staring out speculatively into the darkness, keeping purposefully apart from the passengers.

The travelers started arriving an hour earlier, the petty officer whispered to Cremer. They’d come in their own cars, which the Luftwaffe men then took and drove away to a far corner of the yard. It had been forty minutes since the last one had arrived. They seemed to be still waiting for somebody.

Out on the water, one of the flying boats was starting to come to life. A row of circular lights blinked on along its fuselage, from below the cockpit to amidships. A moment later, another line snapped on, this one slightly lower than the other, going from amidships all the way to the tail. They weren’t running lights, Cremer realized, but portholes. Someone inside was turning on the interior cabin lights. Red lights filled the cockpit as the silhouettes of two men moved into the compartment and settled into their seats. They’re going through their primary instrument checks, Cremer thought. It’s still going to take a few minutes.

Cremer and the petty officer crawled back. Gathering everyone around him, Cremer laid out his ambush plan and showed everybody their positions. They’d wait till his signal before starting anything. The idea was to get them out in the open, away from their cars, hopefully up on the pier where their escape would be cut off. They would wait until Himmler’s group got clear of their cars but before they reached the dock and could join up with the milling group. Cremer would blow his whistle and the petty officer would use the bullhorn to announce they were all under arrest and unless they wanted to be shot they would immediately toss away their weapons and get down on the ground.

If shooting started, which he expected, they were to concentrate on the muscle, the guys with the machine guns. They’d prefer to capture Himmler alive, but if he made things difficult, then too bad for him! But mainly they wanted to pull Franzi Loerber away from the group. He was the one who looked like Captain Loerber and his brother Manfred here. Take a good look at them in case you don’t already know what they look like, gentlemen. Good luck to us all!

Everyone went to their positions. Suddenly everything was quiet again. Cremer looked at Ziggy, crouched in the shadows. He was looking strange again. What was with him, Cremer wondered. He’d known him most of his adult life and that whole time he was the straightest, calmest, most unimaginatively reliable man he’d ever met. But once back in the bosom of his weird family, he’d become a different person, someone given to trances and psychic pronouncements. And Manni, what the hell was he? When Ziggy had introduced them the day before, Cremer’s immediate impression was that the guy was a total freak.

Staring out past the flying boats into the harbor, seeing the buoy lights swaying with the waves, he thought of all the U-boat patrols he and Ziggy had been on, back before Ziggy had gotten his own command. He wondered if his friend’s famous luck only held at sea or if it would extend to land operations. He prayed it would, since without it, this misbegotten adventure would likely end up in a complete massacre. Their only real chance was to get Himmler’s group off-guard and bluff them into believing there was something more formidable coming at them than a bunch of U-boat sailors armed with pistols and Tommy-guns.

Out in the harbor, all of the anchored warships kept their lights burning, if for no other reason than to not be obstacles to navigation. It made Flensburg harbor look alive and bustling. But the sad fact was that by this point, except for the minesweepers, few ships had anything more than skeleton crews aboard them. Their crews were all permanently ashore now, either massed in some British-run prisoner of war enclosure or waiting to be put in one, or already demobilized and sent home. As for the ships, unless the allies chose to use them for something, they were all lifeless things.

A few small patrol boats combed the waters, searchlights blazing back and forth, happily oblivious to what was going on nearby on land. That’s it, thought Cremer, keep the tension up, but nothing out of the ordinary. Don’t spook them, don’t let them think any of this is the slightest bit different.

The Luftwaffe man in charge stepped out on the dock where the people on the flying boat could see him and held his hands out to show he didn’t know where whoever-it-was, was. Then he turned to the passengers and told them something which didn’t seem to allay their growing impatience. Cremer looked at his watch and realized twenty minutes had gone by. Where were they? What were they supposed to do if Himmler’s group didn’t show? Could it be that they were actually escaping some other way. This whole thing was definitely a massive cock-up.

“Headlights!” someone whispered.

“It’s them!” hissed someone else from the other side of the rise. “Two Horches!”

From where he was, Cremer couldn’t see anything, except scattered illuminations of the headlights on some of the moored boats. But he could hear the approaching cars’ engines coming up the harbor road.

But the Luftwaffe men could see them. One of them began walking up the dock, signaling the pilot. Immediately the flying boat’s six engines sputtered and whined as the large, three-bladed propellers began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster as the engines’ metallic whine turned into a loud roar. At the same time another Luftwaffe man stepped forward and waved for the Horches to come up close. But instead, the cars halted nearly a hundred yards away. After a quick, heated exchange of words with the man on the dock, he and two others started towards the cars to see what the deal was.

“Shit!” hissed Cremer. “We need to move over, where we can see what’s going on. Quick!”

They stepped back to keep out of view, then, silently as they could, made their way over to the side of the bluff overlooking the harbor road. It turned out they couldn’t see anything from there either. Cremer turned and saw Ziggy, looking more lost and desperate than ever before.

“What is it?” they heard one of the Luftwaffe men yell at the Himmler party. “You’re supposed to drive up. We’re not running a porter service here.”

“I want you to put out that light!” Macher’s voice yelled back. “Now!”

“We need it on! We’re still loading!” the Luftwaffe man shouted back angrily.

“That’s your problem,” barked Macher. “Kill it now!”

A moment later someone hit a switch and everything was back in darkness. “All right, then,” said Macher. “Keep coming.”

Then there was silence. Cremer started moving to another position. Finally he found a spot where he could see the cars. But in the darkness it was hard to make out anything. There were people moving around, bending over and picking up things. He tried to figure out who was who, but there was so much commotion, he got confused.

Four of them started walking toward the dock in a tight group. Then he recognized the trilby hat he’d seen Himmler wearing back at the farmhouse. Here we go, he thought, slipping the police whistle between his lips. He just needed to get them a little further from the cars, a little closer to the dock and then he’d give the signal.

Then, suddenly, a siren ripped through the stillness and at the same time searchlights flashed on, striking the group with their blinding beams. There was shouting as hands shot up to shield faces from the searing light. Then shooting broke out and the group that had momentary been frozen, broke into scattered, frenzied flight. Two of the figures began running toward the dock, ripping off their overcoats as they did, shouting and waving desperately not to shoot them. But the other two ran back, to the cars, all the while returning submachine-gun fire. More fire was coming from the cars as their engines roared back to life. As the sirens continued to howl, some of their fire hit the searchlights, several of which instantly faded out. One of the men running toward the docks screamed as he collapsed, writhing to the ground. The other clutched his arm before the side of his head exploded.

Cremer stood up. “Everyone hold your fire!” he shouted at his men.

Meanwhile on the dock the passengers were scattering any direction they could, some running into each other, some jumping into the water, others getting hit by bullets, bleeding, screaming with the outrage, the injustice of it all.

And then, just as suddenly, the flying boat exploded in a huge burst of flame.

As the explosion thundered, blotting out even the wailing siren, there was a screeching of tires and a roar of engines as the two Horches turned and tore back down the way they came, still firing at their ambushers as they did.

Frantically, Cremer started gathering his dazed group. “Pull back!” he shouted. “Quickly! We’re getting out of here! Now! Move!”

But Ziggy wasn’t moving. He looked blankly at Cremer, who, seeing his disorientation, grabbed his arm and, with the help of one of his men, pulled him along as they withdrew back up the hillside.

By the time they reached their cars, the huge aircraft was being consumed in flames that lit up the sky. There was a continual cracking of smaller explosions as ammunition inside the aircraft cooked off. Cremer wondered how he was ever going to explain any of this to Doenitz. But at the moment his main urge was to get his men out of there.

“Everyone into the cars,” he ordered in a calm voice.

But Manni stepped in front of him, resolute and serious. “We’ve got to go back and get Franzi!” he shouted.

“How the hell are we going to do that?” Cremer shouted back. “We don’t even know where they’ve gone.”

“I bet Ziggy knows,” said Manni. He grabbed his brother by the shoulders and gave him a slight shake. “Where are they going, Ziggy?” he asked softly, as one might question a child. “Where are they taking Franzi?”

Ziggy looked at Manni like he didn’t recognize him. “Franzi?” he asked. “Franzi?” He turned and stared down the harbor road, like he was waiting for a reply. Then he looked at Manni and then at Cremer, his eyes alert and clear.

“They’re on their way to Schloss Glucksburg,” he told them. “They’re going to make Speer pay for this!”

(A different version of this story, told from Himmler party's point of view, appears in Germania, published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here.)

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