Among the many beautiful wrecks found in the Maltese waters that keeps attracting thousands of divers from all over the world, for sure is the Schnellboot S-31 (‘S’ corresponding to ‘Schnellboot’). On the early morning of 10 May 1942, after laying a minefield off the Grand Harbour, S-31 hit a mine and sank to the bottom of the sea. U-Boat Malta Ltd., for the last few years, been studying closely the role that this and other Schnellboots in general played around Malta as well their fatal consequences. The following is the story of S-31.
CONSTRUCTION OF SCHNELLBOOT S-31
E-boats was the British and American term for the German Schnellboot (or fast boat). According to one version, it is believed that the E stood for “Enemy”, but on examination this phrase has an amateurish, journalistic ring to it. Furthermore, it is unlikely that such a description ever originated in the British Admiralty, which normally copied German designations. Originally the S 30 type, a sub-group of eight boats (S-30 to S-37) which Schnellboot S-31 was part of had been under construction for the Chinese Nationalist Government, but at the outbreak of World War II, were impounded and completed for the Germany Navy, the Kriegsmarine.
Schnellboot S-31 was built by the shipyard of Lurssen at Vegesack Beckedorf, Germany. She was launched in October 1939 and commissioned on 28 December of that same year.
She had a displacement of 81/100 tons. Measuring 32.76 metres long, had a beam of 4.90 metres and a draught of 1.90 metres. The propulsion system consisted of three Daimier-Benz MB 502 diesel engines 1200/1320 HP. The S-31 was a fast vessel capable of cruising a maximum speed of 38 knots and a range of 800 sea miles. Starting with S-30 type in 1939, several boats were built with a slightly smaller hull and with the old style wheelhouses. She had a complement of 21 men.
As armament she was equipped with two 533mm torpedo tubes and one 20mm machine gun. From October 1941 another 20mm Flak gun was added to the bows and a triple 20mm to the afterdeck.
The outside was covered by mahogany casing, with an internal hull of light metal. Like the other Schnellboots, on her launching, S-31 was painted brilliant white, a livery said later to have been the key to their initial successes, as the contours merged completely into the night
Little so far was written about the service of S-31. It joined immediately the 2 Schnellboot Flotilla at the North Sea in Ostee. Of interest in her records we learn that during the night of 8 May 1940, while still in the North Sea but at Skagerrak, S-31 succeeded in torpedoing and seriously damaging the British destroyer of Lord Louis Mountbatten, HMS Kelly, which had to be towed home. This incident highlighted the capabilities and danger of the Schnellboots.
A month later while in the Channel South of Dungeness, another Schnellboot S-32 detonated a mine. S-31 went to their aid and picked up the survivors, little realizing that a similar fate awaited her.
On the 11 June the transfer of the 2 Schnellboot Flotilla to Boulogne took place. While entering harbour the boats were taken under fire by own artillery, but lucky without damage. After a fierce bomb attack by British bombers with the result of six personnel killed in action, four of them of the S-31.
In mid-August a sabotage act occurred in Ostend, to which the torpedo control center and the torpedo store with 42 torpedoes destroyed and damaged all four Schnellboots present including S-31, forcing them to return to Germany for repair, from where they returned to Ostend in early September. As a consequence, the 2 Schnellboot Flotilla practically was fallen out.
Later the boats of type S-30 were handed over to the 3 Schellboot Flotilla in February and March 1941. The 3 Schnellboot Flotilla was under Kommandeur Friedrich Kemnade.
Some of these Schnellboots were later deployed in ‘Operation Barbarossa’ but before doing so, got camouflage paintings (grey-green/blue wave-form dazzle pattern on a white background chosen) and silhouettes of sea animals as coat of arms. S-31 had a Flying Fish painted on her quarter.
Among the success at this time of S-31 took place on the 23 June at the Golf of Finland. There, S-31 together with S-59 attacked the Sovoiet destroyer Storozevoj.
After the end of the Baltic operation, the 3 Schnellboot Flotilla was released from its service at the end of September 1941 and assigned to the Mediterranean. Before doing so, the boats completed a short refit at Wilhelmshaven. When this work was finished, the journey started on the morning of 7 October 1941. Rough weather was encountered in the North Sea.
As the French leader, Marschall Petain consented to the transfer of the flotilla to the Mediterranean Sea, the first group (S-31, S-34, S-35, S-55, and S-61)transferred to Rotterdam, where it moored on the next day in the S-boat-bunker. For reasons of secrecy, and in order to provoke as little interest as possible while passing through France, the boats were disguised there as harmless black tugs. A dummy funnel was fitted, the crews wore civilian dress and the deck weapons in plain view were dismounted.
From there the journey down the Rhine was carried out at an average speed of 15 knots and in daily stages until reaching Strasburg. From here the route led through the Rhine-Rhone Canal, through 167 locks, down to the Burgundian gate, along the River Doubs to the estuary where it joins the Saône at St Symphorien, then down the Saône and finally into the Rhone at Lyons. After a long wait on account of low water at Ecuelles on the Rhone, they arrived at la Spezia in Italy on 18 November. Here the armament was remounted, got back their white paint, and fitted out for operations. After ten days at La Spezia, they sailed via Gaeta for Augusta on the east coast of Sicily, their new base. After loading torpedoes and an engine overhaul, on 11 December – two months after leaving Germany – the flotilla was reported operational to Vizeadmiral Weichold, C-in-C German Naval Command (DMK) in Italy, with headquarters in Rome.
Augusta had been agreed as a base by DMK with Italian navy for its proximity to Malta. It was from Malta that aircraft, submarines, and surface vessels attacked Rommel’s supply lines. British successes had risen steadily from June to September 1941, with the result that the Afrika Korps had become bogged down and was unable to take Tobruk. Therefore, it was essential to overcome the threat, Malta.
Once mines became available, on the orders of DMK, minelaying off Malta began on the 16 December 1941. The mining of Malta lasted from December 1941 to May 1942. A total of 557 mines, of various types, and 416 protective buoys were laid in twenty-four minefields. One hundred and twenty-four of these mines, from 24-27 April 1942
To better be able to guard the Strait of Sicily, the 3 Schnellboot flotilla transferred to Porto Empedocle, on the south coast of Sicily.
Their first success in the Mediterranean was achieved on the night between 6/7 May. While off Malta, in the bright moonlight, S-31 together with S-54 and S-61, bumped into a British motor launch, ML130, and managed in sinking her. There was one crew member of S-31 who was slightly wounded. This is a typical example where Schnellboots proved a very tough opponent in the battle for their adversaries.
The next night Schnellboots mined the Grand Harbour entrance and on 8/9 May, they encountered trawlers entering the harbor but they did not attack them as their orders were to lay mine barriers unobserved.
During the afternoon of 9 May 1942, intelligence from the Luftwaffe indicated that HMS Welshman was making a solo run from Gibraltar to Malta and would arrive at Valletta before the dawn of 10 May. The 2,650-ton 40-knot ship was carrying vital supplies for Malta among them: 105 RAF maintenance crew for Spitfires, 15 tons of smoke-making compound, as well 96 Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, over 80,000 rounds of Bofors shells, plus medicines, tinned meat, powdered milk and dehydrated foodstuffs. All of this had to be stopped from reaching the besieged island.
So during the late evening S-54, S-56, S-57, and S-58 loaded with torpedoes left Porto Empedocle on the Southwestern coast of Sicily at 22.00 p.m. to intercept the HMS Welshman, from the North East, which was the normal direction of approach to Valletta by the British warships at that time. At the same time three other Schnellboots carrying mines, S-31, S-34 and S-61 left Augusta with orders to lay their mines directly in the harbor entrance of Valletta.
The first four would wait for HMS Welshman off the St. Thomas area to attack her as she approached up the South East coast. The other three were first to lay a minefield stretching out of Sliema point in order to cover this side should HMS Welshman approach Valletta via the Nort-west instead – this would be a fresh minefield which the British would have no time to clear. After laying this minefield the three E-boats were to go eastwards in search for the British warship.
By 4.14 a.m. the following morning the Schnellboots were laying the minefield which was in the shape of an isosceles triangle. The minefield consisted of 20 FMC mines (contact mines), 6 explosive buoys and 2 cutting buoys and it was completed at 4.21 a.m. (7 minutes). Afterward, the three MTB had to regroup and go eastwards in search for the British warship. Suddenly one minute after the laying of mines the S-31 exploded, probably due to hitting one of her own mines which had cut loose from the mooring ring, causing it to rise to the surface and drift into the path of the S-31. The boat broke up at once and sank at 4.38 a.m., S-61 managed to save 13 survivors
including C.O. Lt Heinrich Haag, the flotilla-medical Dr. Mehnen and two Italian officers who were as observers, the following lost their lives: Helmut Ley, Herbert Kluger, Erich Mosig, Hans Krienke, Werner Quetscher, Heinz Stefan and Helmut Schmieder. Karl Goldenitz died in consequence of the wounds suffered.
After the loss of S-31, the Flying Fish symbol was adopted by the new boat S-60 of Commander Lieutenant Heinrich Haag who for his bravery received the Italian ‘Medaglia di Bronzo al Valore Militare’ some days later.
Years passed by when on 6 September 2000, the wreck of S-31 was found in position 35° 34’N 14° 31’E by a team of technical divers off the Grand Harbour entrance in approximately 65 meters of water, fully intact with its original weaponry, but it was kept secret for a number of years.
Today the wreck can be found and admired in the upright position on the sandy bottom with one of her torpedoes still in-situ. Yes, a tragic story indeed for such a fine craft, that at the end of the day received a taste of its own medicine as mines do not distinguish between friend and foe.
Author: Joseph-Stephen Bonanno