The Pioneer landing craft, called Pilabo, was used by the German Army during World War II, mainly for landing troops, vehicles, and supplies, and generally as a ferry.
Given that the Wehrmacht did not have modern ferries or tank barges, the Waffenamt (WaA – German Army Weapons Agency) in 1939 launched a tender for developing and procuring such a vessel.
The prototype from the Bodan shipyard in Kressbronn, on Lake Constance was the final choice.
Named Pionierlandungsboot 39, it entered mass production in mid-1940 and was accepted for service in September 1940.
Military personnel quickly named it “Pilabo” as an abbreviation of its original name, which became established. Pilabo 39 was 15 meters long and 4.65 meters wide. It was propelled by two 86 horsepower diesel engines each, with a top speed of 8 knots. It weighed 20 tons empty, could carry the same weight as payload and was quite stable. The vessel could be dismantled into two symmetrical longitudinal sections, each of which could be placed on a standard platform for rail transport.
The Pioneer landing craft 40 that followed had larger dimensions with a length of 19 m, a width of 5.95 m, and a draught of 0.72 m. Its weight was 30 tons, and it’s carrying capacity was increased to 30 tons in calm water and 20 tons in rough water. Alternatively, it could carry 150 men, and its crew consisted of 7 men. It was powered by two Deutz engines with the same layout and slightly better performance, reaching 9.2 knots, while retaining the ability to be dismantled and transported by rail.
As the fighting raged and the needs of the German forces increased, an improved version with increased transport capabilities was requested. Based on the experience of the first two versions, the Pilabo 41 was designed and built in 1942. It was marginally larger at 19.65 meters long by 5.93 meters wide. It weighed 35 tons but was powered by two 120-horsepower engines, each allowing a speed of 10.8 knots. The smaller engines freed up space, while the reinforced construction allowed transport up to 40 tons. Unlike the previous practice where Pilabo 39 & 40 had to have their bow opened and then the landing ramp dropped, a process that slowed down battlefield disembarkation, Pilabo 41 had a single ramp-bow, as did the Allied ships.
Pilabo 43 and 45 followed with much more expanded dimensions and carrying capabilities, remaining assembled in three parts but for mounting on a rail platform.
|Displacement (Construction)||30 t|
|Displacement (Maximum)||60 t|
|Draught (empty)||0.50 m|
|Draught (deep load)||0.72 m|
|Side Height||1.80 m|
|Max speed||9.2 kts|
|Loading Capacity||20 t in rough seas (4bf)
30 t in calm seas
The first large-scale tests for Pilabos were conducted in March 1941 in the Baltic Sea, on the sandy coast of Wollin Island in Pomerania. Two cargo ships carried the landing craft on their decks and then deposited them in the water to land troops on shore.
Their action in the field began in May 1941 on the coast of North Africa, when they unloaded trucks carrying troops and supplies for the German Afrika Korps.
Subsequently, Pionierlandungsboote was used in all European coastal areas where the Wehrmacht needed ferries, including the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, France, Norway, and the Baltic Sea.
During the last months of World War II, from mid-January to May 1945, and while the Red Army was successfully advancing, the German naval command ordered one of the largest maritime evacuations in history, known as Operation Hannibal. Pilabos were an important means of transporting civilians and military personnel as part of the German retreat and escape from the southern Baltic Sea. The landing crafts were used both for transporting populations to nearby coastal towns and for transporting refugees to ships waiting for them on the high seas to take them away to the west.
In memory of this tragedy in which 36,000 souls were lost and over 1.5 million people rescued, a Pioneer Landungsboot 41 with the operational number 534 has been placed at Oberschleißheim Airport in Bavaria. Perhaps the last remaining landing craft from the Bodan shipyard.
After continuous delays, German General Friedrich-Wilhelm Miller sets Friday 12 November 1943 as the start date of Operation “Taifun” (Typhoon). A combined airborne attack by German forces to recapture Leros from the Allied forces.
At dawn, shortly before 06:00, the German convoy arrived off the east side of Leros. There the landing force is divided into three groups. The Battle Group Der is heading towards Baya Bay, the Battle Group von Zaltern towards Kryfou Bay, and the Battle Group Sedlich towards Apitiki.
Part of the von Zaltern Battle Group attempted to land in the area of Blefuti Bay, just below the Chiano epicenter artillery battery at Peak 320 on the key hill. The position was defended by 15 men of “B” Group of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) under the command of Captain John Olivi with four Italian 152mm guns, assisted by 25-pounder English field guns under the command of an advanced ground surveillance officer, Lieutenant Harold Price of the Royal Artillery.
The sun had risen when, at 0621 hours, these landing parties came under heavy fire from the Italian coastal batteries, which were on the alert and waiting for the enemy to come within their effective range.
Captain Olivi narrates:
All the ships were sailing in constant maneuvers and slowly approaching the cove under the hollow with our guns. Suddenly there was a tremendous burst as gun No. 2 fired its first shots at a destroyer that had come quite close.
This vessel immediately turned to the open sea as fast as it could, creating a smoke screen as it went. The enemy’s objectives were obvious, the cove mentioned above (Blefuti Cove) below our position and the unobstructed ground behind the hill northeast of our position (Upper Dough). All guns were fired, and we could hear the 25-pound shells whizzing over our heads. Our Italian guns did a great job, and the shells were fired with a tremendous bang. You could follow them to a point as they seemed to travel slowly. It was very exciting, and all we did was watch as everything was still out of our range. I think the Italians scored the first well-timed hit by sinking a landing craft just as it was about to disappear behind the cape. This made the enemy hesitate, and one or two of the landing craft changed course.
Indeed, the fire of the Italian Battery 888, stationed on the Bluff Hill, hit a Pilabo 40, which suffered damage to the steering wheel and began to turn around Strongyle Island, off the north coast, repeatedly striking the rocks. Explosions of ammunition were heard, and fire broke out on the deck, causing the vessel to sink quickly.
The survivors struggled to swim out to the island, where the survivors continued to come under fire from allied machine gun guns.
Two German officers and 51 non-commissioned officers and privates were on board the landing craft. At least six men were killed, four wounded, and one officer and 31 men were captured by the Italians when, two days later, a boat from the Parthenon sector picked them up exhausted and transported them to Leros.
The German landing ship rudderless ended up sinking on the south side of Stroggyli Island. The assembly connection points were cut off, resulting in the starboard section being the shallowest part of the wreck, with the bow starting at a depth of 9m and the port section being the deepest, with the stern reaching a depth of 16m.
A few meters further on at 15m depth, the starboard side bow door, with its characteristic diagonal metallic rib, certifies the type of wreck.
Surprisingly, even today, the male part of the support hinge is visible in the door frame.
The underwater visitor can travel to another era inside the wreck and the broader area. For example, an MG42 machine gun, an MP38 or MP40 submachine gun, what is left of a Mauser rifle, a flare pistol, and helmets are scattered everywhere down to 31m depth.
Water flasks, boots, and human bones represent the horrors of war.
The spot where the complete personal equipment of a German soldier was found is a chilling sight, suggesting that this is where his body once lay.
The wreck is a watery grave and a place of remembrance that must be approached with due respect.
During our expedition to the island of Leros on 29/10/2021, we dived into this unique wreck for the Greek area. The diving center Hydrovious, owned by Kostas Kouvas, informed us best about its history and pointed out the points of interest during our dive.
We want to thank the renowned German historical researcher and author Dr. Peter Schenk for suggesting the type of landing craft and kindly permitting us to publish photos from his historical archive.
Historical research and research of archival material: Andreas Andrikopoulos.
Transcription of texts from German: Akis Seisidis.