By the beginning of 1945, the German occupation of the British Channel Islands was well into its fifth year. The Allied liberation of France, that previous summer, had left them cut off and without any source of supply of food or fuel. Everyone on the island, German soldier and British civilian alike, was hungry, cold, and thoroughly miserable.
As peaceful and picture postcard-beautiful as the five islands were, garrison life for the 25,000-odd Wehrmacht stationed there was dull. Hitler had built extensive fortifications on the islands, but the invasion never came and, as most suspected, never would. There was nothing for them to do but twiddle their thumbs and wait for the war to end. For the naval units there, it had been different. They, at least, got to go out in their schnellboots and minesweepers and occasionally harass the enemy, which, if nothing else, kept up their morale. But once cut off, the skirmishing and forays diminished. Fuel couldn’t be spared for it. With their vessels permanently docked and rusting, despondency began setting in for their crews as well.
But then, late in December 1944, something happened that galvanized them back into activity. Thirty miles away, in the tiny French port of Granville, a small group of German POWs slipped out of their poorly guarded enclosure, sneaked up to the docks, and stole an American LCVP landing craft. Using only a compass and a hand-drawn map, they navigated their way to Jersey, where they were hailed as heroes. The news of their escapade quickly reached Berlin, and Hitler summoned them so he could decorate them himself. A special transport aircraft was dispatched to pick them up, but it never made it back. Flying over Bastogne, the aircraft was shot down by Allied night fighters, killing everyone aboard. But before they left, the five told their hosts of dockside warehouses full of foodstuffs and ships in the harbor laden with coal. It was just a few miles away and ripe for the taking.
Granville had changed considerably since they had seen it. Being the first French port liberated, it was briefly the world’s most important harbor. Warehouses had been built, and 18 new cranes erected, along with facilities for bulk-loading railcars and trucks. But as other ports came on line, Granville became primarily a coal port, with convoys coming down every other day from Falmouth. Much of the labor was performed by German POWs, who, when they weren’t working on the docks, were housed in a nearby enclosure. Though a U.S. Army battalion was stationed just over the hill and there were usually U.S. Navy patrol craft prowling among the many islands outside the harbor, inside Granville’s tiny harbor and dockyards, everything was completely lax and barely guarded. It would be entirely possible to come in with a small force and just steal a warehouse full of food or a coal ship or two and be gone without even attracting much attention.
The first raid was attempted on the night of Feb. 8. A small group of patrol boats departed St. Helier for Granville. But a heavy fog set in and the group was split up. A recall order was given, but several of the ships never received the order and continued on. They got close enough to the harbor that they could hear music coming from one of the hotels on the beach. Realizing the rest of the assault force was missing, they quickly turned around and headed back to Jersey. At the same time, an E-Boat separated from the assault force and came upon a group of cargo ships sitting at anchor. One of the American sub-chasers opened fire on it and a high-speed chase ensued that lasted more than an hour before E-boat was finally able to give the sub-chaser the slip and escape back to Jersey.
The Germans began planning another, much larger raid. This time, instead of just sneaking in and stealing things, they would wreak some serious havoc on the port, they’d liberate prisoners and maybe even take some prisoners themselves. They had re-established contact with a collaborator; a Frenchwoman working at the beachfront Hotel des Bains, now a “rest hotel” for American officers. She promised to let the Germans know when the guest list looked promising.
On March 8, she sent word that the current guests seemed worth nabbing. At the same time the Channel Islands’ radar posts reported a convoy of ships coming down from England. Vice Adm. Friedrich Hoffmeier gave the order, and as soon as it was dark, the assault force left St. Helier for another crack at Granville. Spearheading it were four large M-class minesweepers, a large seagoing tugboat, three fast motor launches, two smaller R-class minesweepers, and three barges, including the stolen American LCVP, on which they had mounted field artillery pieces. There were also numerous fishing boats and harbor craft. Altogether more than 600 men were taking part.