Operation Klabautermann

bogey man

'Klabautermann' was an Axis and Finnish operation on Lake Ladoga by German and Italian light naval forces, based at Lahdenpohja on the lake’s north-west shore and supplemented by a number of Finnish craft, against the Soviet Ladoga Naval Flotilla with the longer-term objective of cutting the Soviet supply route across the lake to the beleaguered city of Leningrad (1 July/6 November 1942).

The Italian contribution was four MAS motor torpedo boats of the 12a Squadriglia MAS, while that of the Germans took the form of six small minelayers and 30 armed Siebel ferries. Overall supervision was exercised by German naval officers attached to the Finnish Ladoga Coastal Defence Brigade.

By August 1941 the German formations of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' were on the southern outskirts of Leningrad after taking the Baltic states and north-western Russia in the opening stages of 'Barbarossa', while the Finns had advanced to the south into the Viipuri peninsula within 'Jatkosota', leaving the city of Leningrad surrounded and cut off from all communication by land. The city’s only surviving line of communication was therefore by water over Lake Ladoga. To service and preserve this route, the Soviets collected a fleet of more than 50 merchant vessels, protected by more than 40 escort vessels, and with this capability were able to operate convoys to the beleaguered city.

The Germans and Finns lacked the capability to interdict this capability effectively as their only offensive strength was a single Finnish vessel, the elderly torpedo boat Sisu. Germany and Finland were nonetheless determined to sever Leningrad’s sole surviving line of communication, and decided to create an effective naval presence on Lake Ladoga. The Finns, who had operated naval units on Lake Ladoga before World War II, had started to re-establish a flotilla on the lake as soon as their troops reached its shores early in their 'Jatkosota' campaign. The headquarters were established at Läskelä on 2 August 1941, and by 6 August 150 motor boats, two tugs used as minelayers, and four steam ferries had been transferred there. The tugs and ferries were equipped with 47-mm guns and machine guns. The Finns also established a number of coastal batteries on the shore and islands of Lake Ladoga. As the Finnish land forces advanced, new headquarters were established in the captured towns along the shores of Ladoga. The headquarters of the Laatokan Laivasto-Osasto (Ladoga Naval Detachment) were eventually moved to Sortavala, and the harbour at Lahdenpohja became its primary base of operations.

During the spring of 1942 Kenraaliluutnantti Paavo Talvela and Eversti E. I. Järvinen, commanders of the VI Armeijakunda (corps) and (Laatokan Rannikkoprikaati (Ladoga Coastal Brigade) respectively, decided that the Soviet lake traffic delivering supplies to Leningrad should be halted. Talvela presented this idea to the Germans on his own behalf, bypassing both the Finnish naval and general headquarters. The Germans responded positively and informed the Finns, who where somewhat surprised as they had no idea of what was afoot, that transport of the equipment for the Ladoga operation had already been arranged.

Recognising the Italian navy’s expertise in small craft operations, the Germans and Finns also requested a force of MAS (Motoscafo Armato Silurante, or torpedo-armed motor boat) craft, and the Italians responded by creating the 12a Squadriglia MAS, in which MAS stood for Mezzi d’Assalto (assault craft). This was a component of the 10a Flottiglia MAS, and came into existence at La Spezia on the Tyrrhenian Sea in April 1942. The 12a Squadriglia MAS comprised four MAS boats together with their crews and support staff, a total of 99 men, under the command of Capitano di Corvetta Bianchini. In May 1942 the squadron began its journey to Lake Ladoga, its boats (MAS-526, MAS-527, MAS-528 and MAS-529) being loaded onto trucks for the overland journey via the Brenner Pass and Innsbruck to Stettin, and thence by ship to Helsinki. The final leg was by road to Sorlanlahti on Lake Ladoga, which served as the 12a Squadriglia MAS's base and was reached on 22 June 1942.

A joint Finnish, German and Italian unit, the Laivasto-Osasto K (Naval Detachment K) had been established on 17 May to co-ordinate the activities of a force that initially comprised the four Italian MAS boats, four German KM minelayers and Finnish Sisu. The German and Italian craft were grouped into two units under Finnish command. First to arrive were the MAS boats on 22 June, and five days later the four German KM craft arrived. However, the German minelayers suffered from the inexperience of their crews and the unreliability of their engines, and it was 10 August before the German boats were operational. Between 13 June and 15 August this Ladoga flotilla was strengthened by the arrival of two German naval contingents, Luftwaffe-Fährenflotille II and Luftwaffe-Fährenflotille III (Luftwaffe barge flotillas nos 2 and 3). These had been formed in May 1942 at the Belgian port of Antwerp and redesignated Einsatzstab Fähre Ost (EFO) for duty on Lake Ladoga.

The battle groups acted independently but maintained close operational ties with the Laivasto-Osasto K. The two groups comprised 23 Siebel ferries (seven heavy artillery types each mounting two to four 88-mm/3.465-in dual-role guns, six light artillery types mounting smaller-calibre Flak pieces, six transport types, six repair types, one hospital type and one headquarters type) as well as nine I-Transporter or infantry boats each capable of carrying 50 fully equipped soldiers. Four of the these boats were outfitted as minesweepers, three were kept as transports, one was outfitted as a hospital vessel, and one was operated as a headquarters vessel. In addition, one heavy Sturmboot acted as another headquarters unit.

The Siebel ferries had been designed by the aeroplane designer Fritz Siebel for service in Germany’s planned 'Seelöwe' invasion of the UK in 1940. Each Siebel ferry comprised two heavy army bridging pontoons connected by steel cross-beams and covered by a sturdy wooden deck. Each of the ferries was initially powered by four 60-hp (45-kW) Ford V-8 truck engines, two at the rear of each pontoon, connected to standard water propellers, but additional power came from three 600-hp (447-kW) BMW 6U surplus aircraft engines mounted on an elevated scaffolding spanning the rear deck. The aircraft engines were later removed, however, as they consumed considerable fuel and demanded greater maintenance. Siebel ferries displaced approximately 140 to 170 tons, depending on type, and could travel up to 350 miles (570 km) at 8 kt. With their low freeboard and wide flat deck, the Siebel ferries were easily configured for a variety of purposes. Oberstleutnant Siebel had a total of 30 vessels with 2,400 personnel under his command.

The Laivasto-Osasto K's primary task was the harassment of Soviet supply lines to Leningrad across the southern part of Lake Ladoga, but secondary tasks included attacks on Soviet bases and the conduct of limited landing operations. A number of smaller Soviet patrol boats and several barges delivering food to besieged Leningrad were attacked and sunk during 1942 and 1943, and the Los.K also clashed with vessels of the the Soviet Ladoga Flotilla, which operated in Lake Ladoga between 25 June 1941 and 4 November 1944.

The EFO suffered losses during a raid to destroy a Soviet radio station, lighthouse and coastal artillery emplacement on the strategically important island of Sukho (Suhosaari in Finnish) some 23 miles (37 km) off the southern shore of Lake Ladoga on the main supply route to Leningrad. The operation was schemed by Talvela, and this 'Brasil' undertaking began on 22 October 1942. Though the radio station and the lighthouse were burned and the artillery on the island was destroyed, the landing was eventually repulsed and, in a running battle, the flotilla was harassed by Soviet aircraft, torpedo boats, and gunboats all the way back to its base on the northern shore of Lake Ladoga. When approaching Sukho island, the light ferry SF 12 ran aground and several other ferries went to assist it: one of the light ferries (SF 22) was hit by Soviet coastal artillery fire and the heavy ferry SF 13 and light ferry SF 26, which had gone to assist SF 12, also ran aground; ultimately, all three craft had to be abandoned. During the return voyage the heavy ferry SF 21 had to be scuttled after it started to take in water. The infantry boat I 6, assigned to the ferry role, was also lost. The German manpower losses were 18 men killed, 57 wounded and four missing.

One of the lost ferries was later recovered and placed in service by the Soviets.

The 12a Squadriglia MAS began operations on 25 June with reconnaissance sweeps across the lake and the delivery of reconnaissance personnel behind the Soviet lines. On 25 July MAS-526 was severely damaged in an accident, reducing the Italian force by a quarter. On 14 August MAS-527 and MAS-528 intercepted three Soviet gunboats: after an exchange of fire the two Italian craft closed in and launched torpedoes, sinking one of the gunboats. On 27 August MAS-527 met a Soviet convoy of two tugs towing a train of barges and escorted by a third tug. MAS-527 shadowed this group and summoned help, and with the arrival of MAS-528 attacked with torpedoes, causing the barge train to blow up. On 1 September MAS-529 met two Soviet gunboats off the island of Verkosaari: it engaged the Soviet units with gunfire before retiring unharmed. On 29 September MAS-528 and MAS-529 encountered a Soviet convoy of a tug and barge train, escorted by a gunboat. The Italian craft manoeuvred to make a torpedo attack, but scored no hits.

During October the Italian craft provided support for the land forces, but by the end of this month the arrival of winter weather led to the first freezing of Lake Ladoga’s waters, making it impossible for operations to continue. The 12a Squadriglia MAS was therefore withdrawn from its base at Sorlanlahti to winter quarters at Tallinn on the Estonian coast of the Baltic Sea.

The spring of 1943 saw a change in the war situation, and the Italian navy decided to transfer the 12a Squadriglia MAS to the Mediterranean, its vessels being transferred to the Finnish navy rather than being transported back to Italy. Following its 1,000-mile (1600-km) journey to its area of operations, the 12a Squadriglia MAS had served on Lake Ladoga for a 90-day period, making 59 sorties and engaging in 17 actions, during which it had sunk one Soviet 'Bira' class gunboat and a 1,300-ton merchant vessel.

In overall terms, the operations of the Finnish, German and Italian force were nor a success. Torpedoes proved largely ineffective in the shallow waters of Lake Ladoga’s southern area, where they frequently struck the bottom, and their magnetic detonators did not work well against the wooden hulls of Soviet barges and patrol boats; the vessels' secondary armament also proved to be too light to pose a serious threat to the Soviet gunboats. The German mine craft had very unreliable engines, and this kept them in port for a time far longer than that they spent on operations; moreover, their influence mines were largely ineffectual against the mainly wooden-hulled Soviet vessels.

The EFO's Siebel ferries had effective armament, but were too slow and short-ranged for effective operations, and were also easy targets for Soviet patrol boats, gunboats and bombers. Moreover, as they were manned by Luftwaffe personnel without sea-going experience, operations in the often harsh weather conditions were extremely difficult.

Like the Italians, the Germans also withdrew most of their vessels as the winter of 1942 began, leaving two ferries and four infantry boats which the Finns had bought.

In January 1943, the Soviets launched 'Iskra' to open a land connection to Leningrad and break the siege. The German forces were driven back 50 miles (80 km) and the connection across Lake Ladoga, by water in the summer and ice in the winter, became insignificant. Neither the German nor Italian units returned to Lake Ladoga, where smaller Finnish units continued to operate against the Soviets during 1943.