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German Naval Air Service


By Johan Ryheul

During World War I the largest part of the Belgian coast was occupied by the German Marinekorps Flandern, a part of the Kaiserliche Marine. This Marinekorps stood under the command of Admiral Ludwig von Schröder. The harbours of Zeebrugge and Oostende and the connection between them via the port at Brugge by canals made these ideal U-boat bases. No less then 2554 ships went down due to the I and II U-Flottille Flandern. There also operated torpedo boats and destroyers from these harbours. To protect these bases and pre vent an Allied landing on the Belgian beaches, a large number of coastal batteries were constructed. Naval air units were responsible for reconnaissance over the North Sea and the frontline, became very active in bombing England and other targets, defended the air against enemy intruders. The first real co-ordinated operation between ground troops with air support happened here at Flanders during the Strandfest on the 10th of July 1917 near Nieuwpoort. It was an enormous success. The airfield of Jabbeke-Snellegem also often identified as Varsenare by the Allies was to become the most important one of the northern part of West-Flanders. The base at Zeebrugge mole the most important one of the western front concerning seaplanes. But there were several other aerodromes from where the naval air units operated.


On the 24111 of November 1914 the German Marine-Amt gave orders to commission the commanding officers to the unit. Commanding officer became Oblt.z.S. von Arnauld de la Perrière. He was the brother of the famous U-boat commander Lothar, the highest scoring U-boat commander of all time with 194 ships for about 450,000 tons sunk. Al ready on the 5th of December 1914 the unit was established at Zeebrugge on the harbour mole and on the 17111 of the same month the unit was already amongst those that were operational. Equipped with seaplanes of a memorable quality, it would in fact not be before early 1917 that the unit could be called really successful and completely operational. Especially for this unit a number of changes were made on the harbour mole at Zeebrugge. First of all the Passengers-centre, was reconstructed into a large base for the seaplanes. Next to it were constructed a number of hangars for these. A number of storage rooms followed for the fuel, ammunition, bombs and torpedo's. The cranes on the harbour mole were extremely useful to get the seaplanes in and out of the water. The unit was also very fortunate to have a railway connection from the harbour mole to the mainland This made it possible to trans port the seaplanes by train to Lissewege, where the Germans constructed a large repair and revisions hall for these planes. It would also become the Marinekorps Flandern Flugpark. Another part of the flugpark would be installed at the Koolkerke aerodrome, near Brugge and near the canal Brugge-Zeebrugge. Most famous commander of this unit is without any doubt Oblt.d.R. Friedrich Christiansen, also called the fighter pilot of Zeebrugge. The story of this plot-CO is completely different in comparison with that of the other German air aces. He never flew a one-seater and amongst his colleagues he could certainly be called an old man as he was al ready thirty-six when he scored his first successes. Most of the other fighter pilots and observers were in their early twenties! Although his age Christiansen became a real ace and his value as an instructor in his own unit was at least comparable with the one of another legend of the skies, no body else than Boelcke, who had 40 victories on his name. On the 17th of December 1915, exactly one year leter the unit became operational, they also lost their first commanding officer. Off De Panne the 493 (a Friedrichshafen FF33 E) of von Arnauld and Lt.z.S. Hans Wirchow had to make a forced landing due to engine trouble. Both became prisoner of war of the French and were taken to Dunkirk for further interrogation. Von Arnauld was succeeded by Lt.z.S. Bernhard von Tschirschkyund Bögendorffwho was promoted Kap.lt. On the 15th of September 1917 Oblt.d.R. Friedrich Christiansen became the new commander of the station. Second in command became Oblt.zS. Erich Killinger. Von Tschirschky became Gruppenkommandeur der Seeflieger. On the lst October 1918 all personnel from the sister unit at Oostende arrived at Zeebrugge. All luggage was loaded on a barge and went in the direction of Antwerp. For the personnel it was retreat but it was not a bad moment as the U-boats had brought in special provisions "Which meant that they had the best wines, chocolate, cognac and all kinds of other liquors. The next day the unit left Zeebrugge and went back to the fatherland.


On the 11th March 1917 the Seeflugstation F1andern U at Oostende became a fact From that moment on the Seeflugstation F1andern I at Zeebrugge would become also known as the Holland Staffel, because they were to operate in the most northern part of the area after the repartition of the operating area. Works at the Oostende 'Spuikom' seem to haw started at the end of October 1916. By March 1917 the unit could tell everyone they were operational. They were equipped with a pane hangar, a harbour crane, a downward slope to let the seaplanes in the water, which can still be seen today. By the end of the war the unit was housed in four larger hangars and two smaller ones. The crane was only used to take the planes out of the water. As already referred to with the seaplane base at Oostende becoming operational, tasks were redevided between the Seeflugstation units.

Zeebrugge became responsible for the area called the 'Hoofden', this being located between the Dutch coast off Scheveningen over the Channel to Yarmouth, going down the British coast to the mouth of the Thames river, going in a straight line back to Zeebrugge. 0ostende received an area from the mouth of Thames river down the coast to Ramsgate going from there back to Oostende also in a straight line. They had to control all shipping traffic, enemy U-boats, minefields, navigation boys, barrage nets, etc. They also were responsible for reporting all changes in positions of these. Of course the ot her tasks such as attacks on enemy blockade ships and defence of the area against enemy aerial units. 00 the 11 th March the unit was officially established as already mentioned and CO became Kap.lt. Bücker. The unit started with 4 seapanes,5 pilots and about 100 men personnel. Already 00 the 14th March the unit had it's first official victory. ft seems to have been a French flying boat However the unit would become really successful in aerial combat from 191800.


This unit was taken out of the 2nd Staffel of the Seefrosta on the lst August 1918. Commanding officer was Ltz.S. Rowehl. ft is not completely clear if the unit stayed at the airfield of Nieuwmunster of if they went somewhere else. Fact is however that they still were there on the 31st August as that day there was a crash of a plane from the Seeflugstation III that crashed on it during trials with a plane. The personnel moved on the 1st October 1918 also to Zeebrugge and two days later the installations in the harbour aod 00 the harbour mole were destructed Orders came for retreat. As this unit had land based planes and not seaplanes, they retreated with the other such units of the Marinekorps to Maldegem and Eeklo. By the end of November the personnel of all three Seeflugstations were back at their naval headquarters at Johannistal near Berlin.


At Zeebrugge Seeflugstation it became clear that it would be interesting to dispose of a unit that could attack enemy ships and warships in an effective way. And what could better be used for that purpose than torpedo's? It even seems that the Seeflugstation F1andern I had some experience in the field. The Torpedostaffel I was re-established on the 1st September 1917 at F1ensburg and arrived on the 4th of September at Zeebrugge. On the 9th they already had their first success. North-west of their base they attacked a steamer and did hit the ship twice. As the ship only measured 440 BRT, it is probably needless to say that it sank ! ft was a British ship named the Storm and it went down 1 mile south-east of the Sunk light vessel. The unit flew Hansa Brandenburg GW's, Friedrichshafen FF41A's, Gotha WD 11 and WDII's. Commander of the unit was Lt.z.S. Max Stinsky. On the 18th September the unit left Zeebrugge and moved to Windau, where they arrived on-the 23rd of the same month, only to return to Zeebrugge on the 6th of November where they arrived on the 12th. They stayed there until the unit was disbandoned somewhere in April 1918.


This unit arrived at Zeebrugge in the middle of March 1917. She was established on the 16 of that month and it's CO was Obltz.S. Hans Albrecht Wedel, a pilot. The personnel was housed in the ship Brugge, the former SS Brussels of the famous captain Fryatt, and at the same place were also staying most of the personnel members of the Seeflugstation. They were active against shipping at the North Sea and the Channel. For example early August they attacked a ship off Calais.

On the 13tb November 1917 came the order from the Marineflugchef to disbandon the unit This seems to have happened quite fast because on the 26th of that month, all the personnel that was not transferred to another unit of tbe Marinekorps had already left Zeebrugge.


On the 14th of September 1917 was given the order to establisb 3 Kustenfliegerabteilungen under the command of Kap.lt Franz Schröter, who became Gruppenkommandeur der Küstenflieger.

These Kustenflieger Abteilungen were in charge of mainly reconnaissance and observation flights off the coastal line and the fire guidance of the coastal batteries. They went looking for enemy shipping and when they came within reach of the coastal batteries they wired the position and gave the order to fire. They were also looking for friendly ships in need, that got in other trouble or were attacked by enemy planes or ships.


It can be considered as logical that they were also stationed on the Zeebrugge harbour mole together with the Seeflugstation as both units were co-operating very closely with one another. As there were also two of these units the partition of the area in which trey operated was identical with the one of the Seetlugstations I and ll. Commanding officer of the unit was until the end of the war Ltd.R. Thormählen, who started with 4 HFT planes. The unit retreated with the other units that had seaplanes on the 2nd and 3rd October 1918.


This unit was stationed at the same location as the Seeflugstation Flandern II at Oostende and used tbe same hangars and infrastructure. The first CO of this unit was Ltz.S. von Frankenberg und Proschlitz witb four HFT planes. In May 1918 the unit was under the command of Lt.d.R. Kaume.


Works for the Uitkerke aerodrome , of which two remaining personnel bunkers still remain as silent witnesses today ,started in the first part of 1917. The commanding officer of the unit was Oblt.d.S.L Schwarzlose witb S HFT planes. On the 19th March 1918 the command was transferred to Lt.dR.M.A. Leffler. In May of 1918 all units on this airfield disposed of six planes. On Wednesday night the 6th of October 1918 the unit left the Uitkerke aerodrome for retreat towards Germany.


This unit was also stationed at Uitkerke and was under the command of Ltd.R. Majewski. They also left the aerodrome on the 6th of October 1918 to retreat for the Allied Army group Flanders.



Indirectly the decision for the construction of an airfield for the navy in the Oostende area bad already been taken on the 2lst August 1914 by the Kommando des Freiwilliges Marine Fliegerkorps at Johannistal near Berlin. Shortly after the occupation of the city, on the 15th of October 1914 a start was taken for the preparation of the construction. It was the 8th of November when the Marine Amt gave final orders for the construction of an aerodrome at Mariakerke. On the 17tb of December, the unit, or what was ready of it, was staying at Snaaskerke, near Gistel where there also was an aerodrome and there was already a commanding officer for the unit : Obltz.S. von Skrbensky. He arrived with his 113 men and officers at Mariakerke on the 21st of December and had the city of Oostende, despite a number of protests, construct airplane hangars and other facilities. Ditches and canals were filled up and it didn't take long before the first planes arrived on the location, unarmed Albatros biplanes with Mercedes engines 0000 HP. It seems these were the models BI and BII. By the end of December the Marine also established the Kommando des Luftfahrtwesens Some reports also mention that by the end of March the first Albatros C1 planes des Marinekorps Flandern, of which Kap.z.S. Herr became the CO. By the 21st of January the unit was operational and from that moment on can be found reports of bombardment flights and reconnaissance flights arrived a the unit, but the question remains if this was a real amelioration. On the 7th September 1915 there was big alarm at the Belgian coast, more especially off Oostende and surroundings. Not less then 38 Allied vessels were coming close to the coastline with the purpose of bombarding the shore. It was not only a very busy day for the unit, it was also a black day for them as their CO von Skrbensky was shot down and killed in unknown circumstances. He probably was succeeded by Lt.z.S. Kocb. On the 20th September 1915 the I and II Marine Landflieger Abteilung melt together into the I Marine Landflieger Abteilung. Tbe unit is divided into two Halb Abteilungen, the first one under the command of Alfred Ritscber, the second under command of the Korps Weder. The III Marine Landflieger Abteilung, stationed at Nieuwmunster became now all of a sudden the II Marine Landflieger Abteilung.


One month later the unit also changed it's name. From the 20th October on the new name was I Marine Feldflieger Abteilung. The reason for this was rather simple and silly. The army units were all Feldflieger Abteilungen and at the navy there was the exception of Landflieger. On the 22nd of July 1916 the unit had to move to Gistel aerodrome. With the construction of the batteries Aachen and Antwerpen just north of tbe Mariakerke aerodrome, the airfield did not become a safer place, so there was decided to abandon Mariakerke. By noon of the 28th September 1916 a crew from this unit would write military history by flying on their own as the very first to London for a bombardment. In March 1917 Lt.d.R. Treitschke became the new commanding officer of the unit. The exact day is not known. What we do know however is that the unit moved once more on the 19th of June 1917 to VIissegem aerodrome and that they moved once more between the 8th and the 27th of December to... Gistel! On the11th of July permission was given for a number of new constructions on the airfield such as personnel barracks, a Werkstatt Baracke and 2 or 3 shelters. ft is not al known when that this unit left Gistel. We do know that they went to VIissegem again and that by the 2nd of June 1918 the II Marine Feldflieger Abteilung was at Gistel. So they probably mover shortly before or after.


The decision fell on the 10th of January and was confirmed on the 13th of the same month of1915. The unit it's commanding officer was Oblt.z.S. Alfred Ritscber (the man who gave name to Ritscberland in the Antarctic). On the 22nd of February the unit finally was ready to see action and arrived at Mariakerke airfield. The decision of forming two units did come in fact for one reason only: to make a difference between the planes at Oostende of the unit and those on other places which were at the disposition of the army, in this case the 4th German Army. Concerning this last fact some commotion followed in the ranks. Kap.z.S. Herr had to intervene personally and ease the minds of them explaining that they perhaps flew for the army, but that they would return to the navy in the appropriate time and would keep all their service years, grade and decorations. This seems to have been enough to solve the small conflict. On the 11th March they even were told that they could decide themselves where they wanted to have their new aerodrome, and they found indeed a very good terrain south-west of the village of Moorsele. The Generalkommando of tbe Marinekorps Flandern at Brugge directly took a Pioneer Abteilung under the arm to start the construction of the airfield where they arrived two days later. On the 16th two planes were flown from Mariakerke to Rumbeke for the first mission of the 27th Res. Korps. Meanwhile the first nine men and one NCO of the II MFFA arrived at Moorsele. Preparations were made to construct plane hangars and personnel barracks. On the 17 new canvas hangars arrived as one of those already installed bad suffered severe damage from a storm and was to be replaced. On the 19tb tbe rest of the men arrived at Moorsele. In an area where tbe population had seen nothing but army men the marines were something really special for the first weeks after their arrival. The unit also did get a Fesselballon that day, which had arrived by train in the station of Kortrijk. On the 20tb three planes were flown over from Oostende. Probably it were Albatros B I planes. On the 20tb of September they were again at the disposition of the navy and the same day they returned to Oostende. They also bad their name changed and became a Halbabteilung of the I Marine Landflieger Abteilung. The fact that they were back with the navy was in fact on demand of Ritscher himself. He had asked the 4th AOK if it was possible to be relieved by the 30th of August Official news had only followed on the 19tb September telling them that they would be replaced by the Feldflieger Abteilung 33. So one should think that on this moment the unit stopped existing, if it wasn't of the fact that it was reborn directly...?! The III Marine Landflieger Abteilung became now the 11 Marine Landflieger Abteilung. On the 13th of October 1915 the unit is mentioned as being located at Nieuwmunster aerodrome. On the 20th of that month they also changed of name an became the II Marine Feldflieger Abteilung.


The 29th November 1915 admission granted to improve the field. This improvement resulted in fact in the construction of a wooden runway of 10 by 190 meters. In March 1916 the unit disposed of 9 pilots and 5 observers. The unit was now under the command of Lt.d.R. Mettlich. Most of the planes were AGO C I’s. On the 27th of April 1917 the unit moved to Jabbeke-Snellegem aerodrome. This airfield had just been finished and construction works for it had started at the end of 1916. IC we say that it was finished, we mean in fact that Faze I of the airfield was finished. An aerial photograph of the 3rd of July 1917 clearly showed the eight large plane hangars that were at the aerodrome. On the 8tb of December the unit is mentioned at Meetkerke aerodrome and it's CO seems to be Oblt. Schmidt-Koppen. On the 18th December they moved to Male airfield, between Brugge and Sijsele. Male was originally constructed as a reserve airfield for the Marine Feld Jagdstaffel. On the 9th of February 1918 Oblt. Wilhelm Baumbach became the new CO of the unit. On the 2nd of June the unit moved once again, this time from Male back to Gistel. This is also were the story of the unit ends when they had to retreat in early October 1918.


This unit's base could be found at Nieuwmunster aerodrome, which was freshly constructed and finished on the 20th July 1915. It is not clear when exactly that the unit arrived over there but it must have been shortly afterwards the 20th of July. The unit was a Kampflugzeug Abteilung, a fighter unit, which had as purpose to defend the very important area between the cities of Brugge-Zeebrugge and Oostende. On the 20th September 1915 the unit became officially the 11 Marine Landflieger Abteilung as I had already explained.


Only rather recently we did find out that the I and II Marine Feldflieger Abteilung were having it's own KEK's (Kamp Einsitzer Kommando) in 1916. These KEK's remained a full part of both these units, so in fact they didn't become any new units on paper. The MFFA II seems to have been the first unit that had a KEK, and this one should have been established somewhere in April 1916. They were flying Fokker one-seaters. As already mentioned they were flying for the largest part AGO C I’s before that. In May however this seems to have been changing. Until recently before that moment, the planes of Flieger Abteilung 40 at Handzame aerodrome were quite active in the protection of the naval air units of the Marinekorps Flandern, being the I and II MFFA. On the 1st of November Kap.z.S. Herr wrote that the II MFFA had at it's disposition 4 Fokker D types, one Fokker E type with a 160 HP Gnome engine, one with a 100 HP engine and one with a 80 HP engine. He urgently requests 12 first class fighter planes. It looks as if the Fokker one seaters were replaced in December 1916. This led eventually, when the new demanded planes had arrived, to the establishment of a Marine Einsitzer Kommando under the command of Oblt. Von Santen. They seem to have received eight planes, were flying from Nieuwmunster aerodrome and one of the pilots was Gotthard Sachsenberg, the future ace with 31 victories. On the 1st of February the former KEK pilot's of the II MFFA, now being the Marine Einsitzer Kommando became the I Marine Feldjagdstaffel. MFFA I did get it's own KEK on the 6th of October 1916. It is very probably that this happened with the establishment of the North and South group within the MFFA I. The Sudgruppe was stationed at Beveren near Roeselare and was under the command of Oblt Schmidt-Koppen. They had 5 planes. On the 29th of December the Sudgruppe seems to be at Handzame aerodrome and was to return to the Nordgruppe which was based at Gistel airfield, and this in the first days of 1917. On the 1st November 1916 Kap.z.S. Herr wrote that the I MFFA had 12 planes in total, partly of the C type and partly Fokker D types. De Nordgruppe of the I MFFA disposed of three LVG220 HP planes and one Rumpler of 160 HP. This second KEK probably became the newly created Marine Kesta which became an under part of the I Marine Feldjasta on the 18th July 1917 and was commanded by Lt.d.R. Reusch, and it was this unit which would become later the II Marine Feldjasta.


On the 1st September 1918, when Marine Feldjasta IV and V were established, Ltd.R. Gotthard Sachsenberg became the commanding officer of the Marine Jagdgeschwader until the end of the war. The Marine Feldjasta's were the counterparts of the army's classic Jasta's and were responsible for the protection of the airspace of the Marinekorps Flandern.


The unit was established on the 1st February 1917. First CO was Oblt Von Santen, but this became very soon afterwards Gotthard Sachsenberg. The unit moved on the 15th of April to Aartrijke aerodrome and on the 10th of September 1917 towards Koolkerke. They probably moved again to J abbeke-Snellegem aerodrome on or around the 3rd April 1918. On the 2nd of September Lt.z.S. Philip Becht became the new unit's commander.


Established on the 19th October 1917 at Koolkerke airfield out of the Marine Kesta. They were to stay over there until the 3rd of April of the next year. On that moment they moved to Snellegem-Jabbeke aerodrome, which was becoming the most important airfield of the northern part of West Flanders, not to say of the whole province. First CO of this unit was Oblt.d.R. Reusch and on the 2lst March 1918 Ltd.R. Theodor Osterkamp, already a naval ace on that moment, came in command of the fighter unit. Another famous ace in this unit was Vizeflugmeister Alexandre Zenses.


Established at Jabbeke aerodrome on the 23rd June 1918 and the unit came under the command of Lt.z.S. Brockhoff. The unit would remain on the same airfield under the same CO until retreat came in early October 1918. Most important ace in this unit was Vizeflugmeister Hans Goerth.


Established September lst 1918 and CO became Lt.z.S. Reinhold Poss. The unit was based at Jabbeke-Snellegem aerodrome. Poss became a prisoner of war on the 15th October and command was taken from that moment on by Lt.z.S. Wilhelm, till the end o fthe war. Biggest scorers in this unit were Poss himself and Flugmeister Gerhard 'Kucken' Hubricb.


Also established on the lst of September 1918. CO of the unit was Lt.z.S. Paul Acbilles. Tbe discussion remains about the airfield were the unit stayed. Some think that tbey stayed at Nieuwmunster (both units were formed from the Seefrosta 1), other say tbat this unit also moved to Jabbeke-Snellegem. Achilles himself scored 8 victories for bis unit and Flugmaat Karl Engelfried 6.


In September 1917 Lt.d.R. Hans Rolshoven was ordered to create a new unit which would be specifically busy with the protection of the rather heavy seaplanes, operating from Nieuwmunster aerodrome. On the 21st of October 1917 the unit was already operational as they seem to have made a reconnaissance fligbt to Dunkirk and Calais. As they were flying most of the time over the sea, the planes received airbags which seem to have been placed in the fuselage for the case they had to do a forced landing at sea. On the 28th October the unit had already seven pilots and twelve of the fifteen planes were air worthy. On the 6th of May 1918 Hans Rolshoven died in a crash and was succeeded by Ltz.S. Reinhold Poss. Poss would become the CO of the newly formed Marine Feldjasta IV on the lst of September when the Seefrosta was dissolved.


Seems to have been formed on the lst of August 1918. On the fifth they had five Fokker DVII planes and two not further named planes that were not air worthy. On the lst of September the unit seems already to have been dissolved with the creation of the IV and V Marine Feldjasta.


This unit seems to have had a very brief life. ft had to replace the Seefrosta l and lI in the future but was al ready dissolved on the 15tb September 1918 as it was regarded as unnecessary.


The order for creation of the unit came on the 14th September 1917, together with the creation of the three Kustenfliegerstaffeln. De I Marineschusta seems to have been operational on the 23 September 1917. They flew with three Albatros CVIIl's and three DFW's. The first commander normally was Lt.d.R. Leffler and this until the 19th March 1918. During his leave in November-December there was temporarily command of the unit for Lt. Arthur Greiser. Then Leffler was ordered to Kusta III as CO, replacing Oblt.z.S. Schwarzlose on the 19th March. Schusta I was now under the command of Lt.d.R. Conrad. Seems this was however an ad interim as on the 2lst March Oblt.d.R. Reusch became the CO of the unit and afterwards Lt. Friedrich Lange and this until the end of the war. It is not completely clear when the II Marine Schutzstaffel was formed but the unit most certainly existed on the 11th April and was known on that moment as the Schlachtstaffel Nagel, named after it's CO Lt.d.R. Nagel. The text also mentions that the unit was going to be enlarged and was moving to Gistel aerodrome. Half May the unit most certainly had returned to Uitkerke airfield and both units were already known as Marine Schlachtstaffeln or Marine Schlasta's. The Schutzstaffeln of the army already were renamed as Schlachtstaffeln on the 24th March 1918 according to a number of documents but this seems to be questionable. Lt. Reusch became the new CO of the II Marineschusta somewhere in May 1918. However there is only an official Marine Schlasta I and II from the 16th October 1918 on, probably while based at Eeklo. The I absorbed the III Marine Kusta and the II the IV Marine Kusta. On the 16th also, Lt. Bruno Majewski became CO of the II Marine Schlasta.


On the 17th December 1914 this was the situation regarding the balloon units of the Marinekorps Flandern :

Festungs Luftschiffer Abteilung 29 was located at Leffinge under the command of Hauptmann Möschke. Marine Fesselballon Abteilung is not given any location, however strongly suspected to have been at Bredene. The unit's CO was Lt. Mallmann. Marine Luftschiffer Abteilung located at Wijnendale, under the command of Hauptmann Stein.

Early November 1917 followed a reorganisation of the names given to the balloon units starting November 4th :

Marine Fesselballon Abteilung became the Feldluftschiffer Abteilung 47. Ballonzug I at Knokke became the BZ 133, Ballonzug II at Stene became the BZ 134 and Ballonzug III at Wenduine became the BZ 135

Jabbeke, 4th October 2002 – 8 November 2005

OPERATION STRANDFEST – The origins of close air support

A new look on a unique attack, first of it’s kind in World War I.

This was to become the first operation in which artillery, aviation and infantry were working together, an operation coordinated from the air ! Today the Operation Strandfest is still known but it’s historic importance has been completely forgotten. This is the story of a small scale operation, with major results in new warfare and aerial warfare.

On the east side of the Yser river, still a small part of land was in hands of the Belgian army on the location where the river flew into the North Sea at a city called Nieuwpoort. Since 1914 it had been a strategic place, the town of Nieuwpoort as this was where the Belgian army stopped the German one by flooding the area of the Yser river from the sluices of Nieuwpoort and some other locations.

So, starting half October 1914, the biggest part of the coastline of the Belgian province of West-Flanders became occupied by the German Marinedivision, the future Marinekorps Flandern. From the Dutch border till Lombardsijde was now in German naval hands, including the important harbours of Zeebrugge, Oostende and Brugge. The Germans originally had hoped to come also into the possession of Dunkirk and Calais, but this finally had been nothing more than some serious wishful thinking.

The importance of the Belgian harbors was very quickly discovered by a number of personalities of the German admiralty who were looking at the possibilities of using the ports. The harbours of Zeebrugge and Oostende each had a canal leading to the port of Brugge in the hinterland of the province, making Brugge an ideal base for submarines, torpedo boats, destroyers, motorboats, etc.

On the 15th November a second Marine Division was added to the first one and the Marinekorps Flandern became a fact, under the command of Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, also called the ‘Löwe von Flandern’ or the Lion of Flanders, who was exactly 60 years old. On the 3rd of June 1917 a third Division was added to these. Most of the coastal area was in hands of the I Division, while the II and III were more in charge of the area’s near the front. The Lombardsijde area was next to the III Division sector.

Brugge, Zeebrugge and Oostende soon were to become U-boat bases from where the feared U-Flottille Flandern I and II were to operate. The UB and UC coastal U-boat types did sink no less than 2554 ships, excluding the military vessels, while operating from Flanders, something which was not halted by the ‘blockade’ of Zeebrugge and Oostende during April and May 1918.

Not only the U-boats were dangerous, but from time to time there were raids by German torpedo boats and destroyers, operating from the same harbors on all Allied shipping in the Channel, a few times with serious successes !

The strategically importance was known to both sides and soon after the Marinekorps had the coastal area, the British started shelling the harbors with monitors and other vessels. This resulted in a fist Atlantikwall, a network of trenches, bunkers and batteries along the Belgian coastline to defend the harbors and prevent the Allied troops of landing on the coast and weaken the Western Front this way.

About 42 batteries can be named, to be added are a number of Flakbatteries etc, calibers from 5, 8.8 and 10.5 cm to the average 15, 17, 21 and 28 cm, to the enormous 30.52 and 38 cm guns. Some of these batteries were railway guns.

The coast was secured but also the air had to be secured. This was done with a large number of naval air units such as the Marine Feldflieger Abteilungen, the Marine Jagdgeschwader, the Kustenflieger Abteilungen, the Seeflugstatione, Seefrontstaffel(s), Marine Schusta’s,…

Soon the coastline had become a hard to visit area for Allied visitors.

Allied visitor’s which had been playing with the idea to land on the Belgian coastline and get hands on the strategic important harbors, and perhaps even end the war this way by attacking the German Army in the back. It has to be said that the German High Command also seriously feared a landing on the mouth of the Schelde at Zeeuws Vlaanderen, Dutch territory, from where they could easily attack and occupy Brugge and Zeebrugge.

During the night of the 6th on the 7th of June 1917 Haig started another of his campaigns, another bloody one, for which he was known, as were most of the other commanders on either side. It resulted in the capture of Mesen and Wijtschate. On the 12th of July mustard gas was used, not resulting in much at all. On the 15th the shelling of the front started again…

Third Ypres it’s real target is most of the time forgotten, and even has been removed from it’s historic goals and context. The idea was to force an opening in the German frontlines and fight a way to the Belgian coast in order to capture the harbors of Zeebrugge and Oostende ! The big offensive really started on the 31st July 1917 and would result in not even 10 kilometers of terrain taken on the opponent side… Passendale was captured finally on the 6th of November. Capturing Oostende and Zeebrugge was already completely forgotten by that time.

On the 20th of June 1917 the Belgian Army handed over the Nieuwpoort sector to the British, something Admiral von Schröder already was aware of the next day. He suspected now that a Allied, read British, landing was very near. Indeed such plans existed on the Allied side for a landing at Westende. Immediately von Schröder started planning the Operation Strandfest, which was to take the last Allied strongholds on the eastern side of the Yser near Nieuwpoort. This was an area of a depth of 1200 m on 3 km.

On the 6th of July the final preparations started as the coastal and other batteries started shelling this part of the front. It would go on like this till the operation itself had started.

Originally the operation was to happen on the 8th but had to be postponed due to the weather conditions, which were extremely bad for the time of year.

The actual Operation Strandfest happened on the 10th of July 1917. That day it was dry but stormy weather. At 6 AM the first batteries started opening fire on the British lines. At 10 A.M. FA 231, I and II Marine Feldflieger Abteilung attacked British lines and destroyed the bridges over the Yser river. Due to the weather conditions the planned gun support from the destroyers and torpedo boats of the Flandern Flottille had to be cancelled.

With the bridges over the Yser destroyed, there was no possibility for reinforcements, and even more the roads leading towards the front were also under gunfire. The British had directly the fear that something was going to happen and were bringing reinforcements with trucks and lorries from Dunkirk, but this was to late.

At 19.51 hrs the attack follows by the naval infantry of the III Marine Division, supported by planes. It took the first German wave only two minutes to take the first British line ! Some reports even still talk about the Seesoldaten taking the lines, although this was a referral to the Seebataillone, which officially stopped to exist by the end of 1914. Surprised by their luck they stormed directly the second line, took it in a mather of no time and the third was taken in hand grenade battle. It seems the German artillery had a hard time following the fast attack (in other words, probably some marine personnel died by friendly fire). Flamethrowers were used to destroy the last British defenses in the dug outs etc. However more to the east, the naval infantry was not that lucky, but again German reports tell us that the goals that had to be reached were taken by 21.00 hours.

According to German sources 1300 POW's were taken, of which 17 officers including the Regimental CO. . The British opponents were the 1 Northamptonshire and 2 KRRC of 2nd Brigade, 1st Division. According to Robert Dunlop the total British casualties amounted to approximately 3,126 of all ranks, killed, wounded and missing. Of these, fifty officers and 1,253 other ranks belonged to the two battalions of 1st Division. He also mentions that 4 officers and 64 other ranks managed to reach the west bank of the Yser. It is not clear at all how high the German casualties were, but fact is that it was not a big number, which is also supported by the small number of graves that can be found that date of the 10th of July 1917 on the German military cemeteries in Flanders.

In the most easterly sector of the attack there still was a British counterattack which were able to retake the 250 meters of ground they had lost in that area, but this was without any importance to the Germans, which had reached their goals more to the west, and would keep them till the retreat in October 1918.

A report said that the observer planes and also the Kampfgeschwader with Rittmeister von Richthofen, had played an important role in the action. The POW 's were taken to Oostende and Brugge, where there was a parade for Admiral von Schröder. One of the participants in the operation Strandfest and a Lt. in the future Marine Sturmabteilung was a certain Bernard Hermann Ramcke, which certainly is known as the famous WW II Fallschirmjäger General.

This is what generally can be found on the matter… concerning the aviation. If one’s lucky this is what may be found more on the operation, concerning the aerial part :

The III Marine Infanterie Division attacks, supported by planes. The western bank of the Yser is bombarded by 24 C type planes, and a plane from II MFFA co-ordinates the battle from the sky with it’s wireless, meanwhile two Schusta 29 planes protect the plane. KG I planes bombarded coastal line between Nieuwpoort and Oostduinkerke. Jasta 17 planes do air cover for the whole operation during which a Sopwith is shot down.

During my visit this year in May at the Bayerisches Kriegsarchiv at Munchen, Reinhard Kastner pointed me towards a most interesting source on the aviation part of this attack. These reports were sent to Kofl 6 by Kofl 4 and Kofl Marinekorps. It gave in detail what happened day to day before and on the of the Strandfest. This text is the result from the translation.

The following units participated : I, II MFFA – FA A 293b, A 231, 48b - Schusta's 1, 16, 29, Marine Jasta, Jasta's 7, 8, 17, 20, Kasta 23 + the 4 elite fighter units of Jagdgeschwader I and the 6 Kasta's of Kampfgeschwader I, saying that the unit left it's airfield at Ascq for it to go to Gistel.

Most of the reports are from the hand of Kap.lt. Alfred Ritscher, who was the Kommandeur of the Feldflieger Abteilungen of the Marinekorps Flandern.

Ritscher issued a very clear order for the crews before and during the operation, and if necessary after it, the first days. No cards, notices or orders were to be taken along in the plane. If taken prisoner there was not to be said a word about the operation, even when in prison, because of the danger of the enemy, listening to conversations among prisoners. The plane was to be burned if forced to land in enemy territory, and for this purpose a special device was build in to the planes. All participating units had to place an experienced observer by the telephone as Officer with duty. No planes were to take off from an airfield unless they were on the schedule made by Ritscher, otherwise they needed an ok from Ritscher. Every loss of personnel or material, or personnel not able to operate, planes with engine trouble or other were immediately te be reported to Ritscher. The crews were also told to take enough negatives, maps without positions, signaling and machinegun ammo, etc with them.

In the preparations of the operation can be found that during the Strandfest and the days after a Jagdstaffel was flying ‘Sperrzeit’ while another one was in ‘Bereitschaft’. The last unit was to be in the air within 20 minutes after the command was given of heavy enemy activity that could endanger the operation. Meanwhile the Jagdgeschwader Richthofen was kept in reserve and could be used every of these days from 08.00 hours. Refueling and reserve airfield for this unt were the aerodromes Snellegem and Varsenare (in fact the northern and eastern side of the Jabbeke aerodrome). Between 5 and 6.30 Jasta 20 was on duty with the Marine Jasta in reserve. 6.30 till 8.00 was for Jasta 17 and Jasta 7 in reserve. 8.00 till 9.30 the Marine Jasta and Jasta 8. 9.30 till 11.00 Jasta 7 and Jasta 20. 11.00 till 12.30 Jasta 8 and Jasta 17. 12.30 till 14.00 Jasta 20 and Marine Jasta. 14.00 till 15.30 Jasta 17 and Jasta 7 as reserve. 15.30 till 17.00 Marine Jasta and Jasta 8. 17.00 till 18.30 Jasta 7 and Jasta 20. 18.30 till 20.00 Jasta 8 and Jasta 17. 20.00 till 21.30 Jasta 20, no reserve. 21.30 till darkness Marine Jasta, no reserve.

Kasta 23 bombed the station of Adinkerke in the night of the 8th on the 9th of July.

Kagohl I was moved from Ascq to Gistel aerodrome on the 7th of July. The unit was to operate from the night before the operation and to bomb railway stations, aerodromes and fortified positions behind the frontlines. They also were to bomb Dunkirk in the night before, but this had to be cancelled because of low clouds.

During the days before the attack, observation planes were recording all enemy traffic on the roads and railways towards the sector.

Concerning the other units involved, this were their operations on the 10th, a day which was very clouded and stormy :

Marine Feldflieger Abteilung I From 05.00 till 10.00 : Photographing of results of the artillery on Allied targets. This artillery had been led from the air to their targets by the same unit the previous days. From 10.00 till 20.00 Helping the artillery to find targets. From 20.00 till 23.00 Observation on enemy artillery activity and locations, observing of the ‘Sperrfeuer’, barrage artillery and reporting on the matter.

Marine Feldflieger Abteilung II From 05.00 till 20.00 Long distance observation, afterwards photo recon flights.

FFA 293 05.00 till 20.00 same operations as MFFA I

Schusta 1 05.00 till 20.00 Protection flights on demand of the I Marine Feldflieger Abteilung.

Schusta 29 05.00 till 20.00 Idem Schusta 1 but for the A293

Kasta 23 Around 09.00 bombing flight on the Allied aerodrome at Bray Dunes

FFA 231 05.00 till 20.00 stationed at the Flugplatz Vlissegem and operating in demand of the I Marine Feldflieger Abteilung.

FF48b and Schusta 16 were kept in reserve.

When the attack started at 07.51 hours, two Schusta planes were flying at low altitude over the storming infantry and were reporting the progression of the troops to the artillery and HQ. A total of 6 planes was used for wireless telegraphy during the operation and with full success.

4 C type planes from Kogohl I were used as Sturmflieger, and were flying at altitudes between 20-50 meters attacking the enemy positions with machinegun fire, operating just in front of the infantry. The principle of Stormflieger was completely new, and reports also mention that some British soldier were so terrified by the attack that they were surrendering, hands in the air, even before theyw ere reached by the Marine Infantry ! The planes themselves were very slightly damaged, only a few bullet holes were found. Kagohl I was also very happy about the results and sees a new way of warfare in it, they call them the Infanterie-Kampfflieger. They even made a task description : Their goal is to help the hard fighting infantry in attacks or defences, by deep flying, so strengthening the own troops and weaken the enemy by bombing and machine-gunning them. Needed are fast and very maneuverable planes with at least two MG’s, capable of dropping bombs and with a light armor. Construction of special bombs with shrapnel or even gas is wished. The use is only adequate when the planes attack on the right moment, exactly on the moment that the troops are leaving the trenches attacking the enemy, so that they are under attack already from the air. It is even said that a good pilot, used in this way, has tactical more value than a Jasta pilot, shooting down an enemy at high altitude…

Reports also say that between 20.00 and 22.00 all available planes were used to bomb targets in the area and to strafe them with machinegun fire on the western side of the Yser river, making the Allies unable to bring along any reinforcements or to give any support to their attacked colleagues on the other side of the river.

The Jasta’s on the other hand did over 70 war flights, but Allied air activity was extremely low duet o the weather conditions. Before noon only one enemy plane was sighted, and during the afternoon a total of only 4 !

Jasta 17 was protecting Kagohl I during it’s flights and they shot down a Nieuport plane. This probably was not a Nieuport but very probably Sopwith Camel N6361 of 4 Naval Squadron, shot down between Pervijze and Ramskapelle at 7.50 PM, killing Flight S.Lt. EW Busby, who was the first Sopwith Camel casualty due to combat. It is said that it crashed south of Nieuwpoort and that the wings had already broken off in the air. A terrible death…

On the 10th of July 1917, during the Strandfest operation, Kagohl I was bombing during 3 operations Oostduinkerke-bad and Nieuwpoort, targeting ammo and troop concentrations in that area. They claim that during the first raid they made explode an ammo dump near Oostduinkerke. It seems that between 8 and 10 in the evening they dropped over 6000 kg of bombs for this operation. Unfortunately nobody could confirm me if the story is real on the destruction of the ammo dump.

Later that night the railway station, harbor installations and aerodrome of Dunkirk were bombes as were the railway station of Adinkerke, and De Panne and Koksijde. This was again a total of 1500 kg of explosives.

Concerning the artillery this was their activity : From 05.00 till results are ok : Battery Pommern (1 x 38 cm gun), Moere (in fact Koekelare) was to open fire on the railway station of Adinkerke Battery Deutschland (4 x 38 cm guns) at Bredene had Zielgruppe 3, an unidentified target (probably targets along the Yser river) Battery Tirpitz (4 x 28 cm guns) at Stene, Oostende, was to fire at the Veurne railway station At 08.00 five railway guns (21 or 28 cm, not specified) was to open fire on various targets Between 10.00 and 12.00 the Pommern gun had to fire at Adinkerke in general and between 14.00 and 16.00 targeted again the railway station and the same location Even after darkness they were firing on their targets…

They were assisted by A293, A231, and very curiously, a unit unnamed before A204… Curious thing is that the unit is only mentioned once in a list on the artillery flights, while the others are named frequently, and that FA A 204 is not even mentioned in the list of units that participated. I think they did only some recon over the French targets during the operation.

The photo’s taken of the results, were immediately to be taken to the Generalkommando Gardekorps (Marinekorps) and to the III Marine Infantry Division by a motorcyclist.

It is clear that the operation was the first of it’s kind and opened the way for a completely new way of warfare, which is still used with success by modern forces.

Jabbeke, Flanders – 11 July 2005

Johan R. Ryheul

Sources :

- Kofl 6 – Bayerisches Kriegsarchiv - Kofl 4 - Bayerisches Kriegsarchiv - KTB Battery Deutschland and Pommern – Militärarchiv Freiburg - Kofl Marine – Militärarchiv Freiburg - Various - Marinekorps Flandern Archive – Jabbeke

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