Operation Hydra

Autor: František Novotný 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 48.191

František Novotný is the author of Cereals on The Invisible Dog

According to intelligence legend, it was the notorious agent A-54 of the Czechoslovak intelligence service who, in the so-called "Oslo Report", alerted the Allies as early as the autumn of 1939 to the development of a secret weapon against England in the form of an "airborne torpedo that turns into a plane by ejection", and to a research base on the Baltic coast. Today we know that Abwehr officer Paul Thümmel, who hid under the code name A-54, was a typical double agent who made a bohemian living in occupied Prague with messages that the Abwehr assumed the Allies knew anyway.


Information about Germany's secret jet-based weapons program flowed into Britain from several quarters. The Poles, French, Dutch and other members of the enslaved European nations who had been put to forced labour in the weapons programs saw much of interest and the Resistance managed to get their information across the Channel. Another important piece in the information mosaic was aerial reconnaissance and the sophisticated British system of evaluating aerial photographs. Its aces were the twin-engine De Havilland Mosquito reconnaissance version and - Miss Constance Babington Smith. The aerodynamically delicate aircraft, with speeds of over 600km/h, were able to race over Germany with impunity, and the girl in the uniform of the WAAF, a modiste in civilian life!, serving at Medmenham Evaluation Centre, was distinguished by an unprecedented combination of sharp eyesight, attention to detail and analytical mind.

Map of Usedom with Rügen in the north
NormanEinstein, CC BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

Convincing the Doubters

The first targeted British photography of Peenemünde occurred on 2 June 1943, and experts from Kenny's Industrial Intelligence Section revealed in photographs a thick column some 12 metres high. Ten days later, ballistic expert and government missile expert Dr. Jones recognized a rocket on a flatbed railroad car in another photograph and informed the chairman of the government's commission to search for German long-range rockets. He was Churchill's son-in-law Duncan Sandys, an anti-aircraft artillery officer, commander of the first battery of unguided anti-aircraft rockets in the British Army and, after an injury from a traffic accident, a wartime technical research officer.

The photographs confirmed information British intelligence already had from the Poles. The commander of the Polish resistance cell in the Baltic area was Bernard Kaczmarek, whose people included Jan Szreder, a Polish engineer living in Swinoujscie. Another member of the group was a German non-commissioned officer Roman Träger from the garrison in Peenemünde. He was originally an Austrian citizen from Bydgoszcz, Poland, who did not accept the fact that he was forcibly dressed in a Luftwaffe uniform and herded into the war. Under the codename "T2-As", he became a source of good information about German research at the Peenemünde base. The French Resistance group "Marco Polo" from Lyon was also on the trail of German secret weapons. It was headed by scientist André Helbronner, a specialist in gas liquefaction among other things, and included Alfred Eskenazi, who worked on feedback mechanisms, and electronics engineer Jacques Bergier, later a chronicler of the resistance and co-author of Morning of the Magicians. They were led on the trail by a German interest in liquid oxygen production and the design of lightweight turbopumps.

Based on agency network information cross-checked by aerial reconnaissance, Sandys, in a memorandum dated 17 May 1943, proposed bombing research stations and factories in Germany. Including Peenemünde. However, because of the amount of estimated losses and doubts about the whole thing, when missiles weighing tens of tons were beyond all human knowledge, the proposal was rejected. At that time, a "T2-As" agent gave the Polish underground a rough sketch of the base, and after evaluation by another resistance fighter, the aeronautical engineer Antoni Kocjan, the entire dossier was taken to the Polish embassy in Stockholm, where it soon found its way into the hands of the Intelligence Service.

But even this failed to convince Churchill's adviser and friend Lord Cherwell. He regarded Peenemünde as a deceptive target created by the Germans to distract the British from bombing the Ruhr. In his view, the missile weapons were just hype, as he thought that the technical problems involved in producing and launching 100-ton missiles (that was the British estimate of the weight of the V-2 at the time) were simply unsolvable.

On 17 May 1943, during a routine reconnaissance flight over Germany, a Mosquito pilot pressed the camera shutter over Usedom Island. Photographs revealed increased activity and one captured a "cylindrical object" 12 x 2.5 m. In June 1943, four more already targeted reconnaissance flights followed and "Miss Peenemünde", as the observant modiste came to be known, identified further objects in which Dr Jones safely identified rockets. Miss Babington Smith then also identified tailless rocket planes on takeoff - these were prototypes of the later Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet fighter rocket planes. This decided the raid on Peenemünde. On 29 June 1943, at a Cabinet meeting augmented by the Chiefs of Staff and scientific experts, Lord Cherwell capitulated when Dr Jones produced a German petrol dispenser as final proof. Peenemünde came second in it, just behind the Rechlin air test base.




The British didn't know how far away the Germans were with their rockets. The courier mail also carried alarmist reports that missile weapons would be deployed against Britain as early as August 1943. In north-west France, unprecedented building activity broke out. Todt's labor organization was building huge numbers of bunkers and other mysterious concrete structures. They were elongated and curved at the end, so they looked like skis when seen from the air. As it was later discovered, they were storage and launching pads for V-1 aircraft missiles. The Germans were also constantly reinforcing the air defenses of Usedom. Anti-aircraft gun batteries occupied an area of 10 hectares, and aerial reconnaissance also revealed 6 generators for the production of artificial fog.

Aerial image of Peenemunde (AIR 34/184)
Peenemunde Location Plan/Target Map, (AIR 34/632) Operation Hydra, raid on Peenemünde.
A: Experimental Station
B: Factory workshops
C: Power plant. D: Unidentified machines
E: Experimental facilities
F: Sleeping and living quarters
G: Airport

RAF photographer, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk, commons.wikimedia.org

So the raid had to be perfectly planned, which took many weeks. The commander of the Bomber Command, Marshal Harris, was tasked with attacking three targets in the Peenemünde area - the former Karlshagen spa resort, used as a hostel for scientists and engineers, two large factory halls and a development plant. The raid was to be carried out at night and included a deceptive action simulating an air attack on Berlin.

For the actual execution of the attack, a new technique of light-coloured marking and aerial guidance was chosen. Not to be helped by the Germans' fogging, the island of Rügen was chosen as the aiming point, From it the bombers were to fly a set course and release the bombs after a period of time. The actual marking of the targets was to be taken care of first by the illuminating planes. These were followed by "searchers" and then "markers", who, according to the decision of the air navigator, marked the targets with coloured markers. In order to keep the markers from disappearing during the bombing, at two-minute intervals the so-called "reinforcement aircraft" were to reinforce the coloured markers by continuously dropping more coloured flares. For night orientation, H2S radars were carried by "searchers". In addition, the "Window" technique was to be employed - the launching of strips of staniol of half the length of the wavelength on which the German radars operated. This led to a "clouding" of the screen, so that German radar operators could not read the position of the attacking British bomber formations. And part of Operation Hydra was the aforementioned mock attack on Berlin, codenamed "Whitebait", to distract German air defences.

On the evening of 17 August 1943, the darkened skies over England were split by the roar of more than 2,500 aircraft engines. Six bomber formations with 597 heavy bombers Lancaster and Halifax took to the air in succession. The crews were told that the target was the radar factories and if they did not destroy them, their losses would increase in the future. But the first to penetrate Third Reich airspace were eight Mosquito. It was the herons that were supposed to attract attention. The planes released staniol strips to mimic, in this case, large bomber bundles heading for Berlin.



At 23:18, the German fighters in Belgium took off in alarm. These were daytime machines, deployed for night action as part of the "Wilde Sau" tactic. The Luftwaffe headquarters in Arnheim lost contact immediately, and the commanding general Kammhuber was cut off from his fighter associations (two British agents were deployed to the headquarters). At 23:56, the herons reached Berlin, and instead of bombs, parachute flares descended on the city. A confused Kammhuber ordered all fighters of the XII Corps to move into the Berlin area. This was the order the British had been waiting for.

After the overflight of the herons, the air raid alert was called off at 01:00 in Peenemünde. But seconds later, the island's aircraft engines were once again revving up. This was the first wave of Lancasters, led by Colonel John Searby's machine. He was given the role of air navigator. The operation did not go well. The markers misidentified the island of Rügen, the reference point of the entire attack, and scattered the red markers in an unbearable dispersion. The target was moved 3 to 5 km and became the forced labour camp at Trassenheide. The actual target point F was marked by a single yellow marker, and Searby Zimprovised its reinforcement and gave the order to bomb the resulting yellow concentration. It was attacked by more than two-thirds of the first wave of 227 bombers.

More than 200 German fighters were still circling confusedly over Berlin. Some realized something was wrong and headed north on their own, where illuminating rockets shone. Five of them attacked a second British bombing wave of 113 machines at 01:35. Their target was a concentration of red and then refined green dots. According to Colonel Searby's observations, the second target was covered perfectly.

The third wave consisted of 178 bombers. As half of the pointers fell between the burning point B and the area E, just designated for the third wave, and a mistake was also made by the navigator Searby, the bombs fell 2 to 3 km from the development plant and hit the residence of the Peenemünde commander General Dornberger and Wernher von Braun. Only one searchlight placed its lights well, and the bombs of several isolated bombers destroyed laboratories and administrative buildings.

Objective 3/Air/389, order of attack with targets highlighted
RAF photographer, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk, commons.wikimedia.org

Total RAF losses were 41 bombers and 1 Mosquito. Group Commander Searby reported on his return that the target hit was good and the aerial imagery was so impressive that the British declined the offer of the USAAF's 8th Air Force to conduct another, in this case a daylight raid on Peenemünde.

Such Luftwaffe losses were not insignificant. But they were caused by their own confusion and not by the actions of the British. About 100 fighters, who had been waiting in vain over Berlin for Kammhuber's orders, decided to make an uncoordinated landing at the Brandenburg-Briest base due to a lack of fuel. In the nighttime chaos, a mass crash occurred on the runway, in which 34 fighters exploded and burned. At 8 am on 18 August 1943, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Colonel General Hans Jeschonnek, was informed of the German air defence debacle. Two hours later, his secretary found him in a pool of blood on the carpet and with a pistol in his hand.


After his house began to burn, General Dornberger (in the US as a manager in charge of the Apollo program) took refuge in an underground bunker with production director Wernher von Braun (co-designer of the "Moon" rocket Saturn). When they emerged after the raid, there was fire all around. Von Braun tried to salvage materials from the design office. The tool and fixture warehouse was not hit, nor was the all-important BMD Haus, where irreplaceable measuring instruments were stored. The assembly plant was in flames and there was nothing to save. At the last moment, Dornberger managed to stop the fire in the building where the missile guidance apparatus was being developed.

Von Braun was not so successful. The building structure burned down, but most of the documentation was saved. The bombs also completely flattened the Karslhagen housing estate, but casualties were low, with people taking shelter in trenches. Among the few dead, however, were Chief Engineer Walter and Dr. Thiel, head of rocket engine development. An inspection after dawn showed that only some of the machines in the large assembly hall were damaged by shrapnel. The unique supersonic wind tunnel, testing rooms and measuring console remained intact. The British bombs also avoided the Luftwaffe's experimental centre at Peenemünde-West, the V-1 development centre and jet aircraft.

Ironically, it was the forced laborers at the Trassenheide camp who suffered the most and were most instrumental in unraveling the mystery of Rocket Island. Of the 30 barracks, 18 were burnt to the ground and of the 732 killed, only 120 were Germans. The majority of the victims were therefore migrant workers and prisoners. They are all buried in a common grave in the Protestant cemetery in Karlshagen. On a huge cross commemorating them is inscribed:


After the August air raid, the Germans realised that the secret of Peenemünde had been revealed and now it was they who had turned the damaged base into an ambush. Even on the surviving buildings they put charred roof trusses and none of the craters were filled in. But life continued to flourish in this apparent vermilion wasteland. In addition, the development of missiles and other "miracle" weapons was duplicated at the SS training area near Blizno, Poland, where the development of the A-4 ballistic missile was successfully completed.

Usedom Today

In GDR times, only the southern part of Usedom was open to the public. The area of the former German test centre was occupied by the Soviet army, which built a naval and air base there. During the Warsaw Pact era, Czechoslovak pilots also practiced attacks on naval targets here. Only since 1991, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, has the whole island been open to the public and the former Soviet base has become a museum, as it is undoubtedly a remarkable place in terms of technical history. On 20 June 1939, for example, the first jet aircraft took off here (He 176), and on 3 October 1942, the first ballistic missile A-4 was launched, which is considered the first step on humanity's journey into space.

From the original era, the power plant, built in 1939-42, still stands and remained in operation until 1990. Today, the former staff canteen is a museum cinema. Another authentic building is the guard bunker, whose dungeons also serve museum purposes. In addition to the Peenemünde model and the A-4 launcher, the remains of an anti-aircraft missile Wasserfall, parts of a glider bomb HS 293, an air-launched cruise missile Ruhrstahl/Kramer X-4 and the R4/M unguided missile.

There are also dummy V-1 and a replica A-4 or V-2 with checkerboard paint.


Almost nothing remains of the legendary Site VII, where the V-2 was tested and launched. The buildings are a 2 m high pile of debris covered with forest, and only vegetated mounds and ditches remain from the actual launch site.

Begun in Prague on October 28, 2003, according to data from the books V. Nejtek's "Death Learns to Fly" and "Miracle Weapons" by Z. Hák

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