On Wednesday 24th July 1940, a Luftwaffe bomber carried out a mine-laying sortie over Belfast Lough. The Focke-Wulf Condor FW200 F8+BH was part of 1st Staffel Kampfgeschwader 40.
On 23rd July 1940, the crew loaded 4 500kp LMA sea mines at Bordeaux-Merignac before continuing to Brest-Langeveoc, Brittany. The 5-man crew departed for Belfast at 2330hrs on 23rd July 1940. Hauptmann Volkmar Zenker commanded the mission.
This was the crew’s second similar flight in less than a week. An earlier Zenker flight on 19th-20th July 1940 may have caused the sinking of the SS Troutpool.
Belfast Lough under attack
Around 0200hrs on 24th July 1940, the Focke-Wulf Condor descended from the clouds close to Black Head south of Islandmagee, Co. Antrim. On activating the release, only 3 of the 4 mines left the racks. Zenker opened the throttle, climbing around to attempt to drop the remaining mine. Gunners at Grey Point Fort, Co. Antrim observed the plane at 0220hrs.
Zenker made his second run from a lower level and the final sea mine left the racks. In attempting to climb, neither engine responded to the throttle. The plane veered to the left and at such low altitude, there was no time for Zenker to react. He killed the starboard engines to avoid the wing hitting the water, lost control and the Condor crashed into Belfast Lough.
I had descended to 1800 metres over the Irish sea. The engines were idling as I was hoping not to be detected. During the first part of the mission, I was flying at 100 metres. But then I opened the throttles very slowly hoping to go lower and get rid of the last mine which had become stuck in its holder. I succeeded but now we were at 15 metres altitude. When I opened the throttles further, the two port engines stopped and the plane banked suddenly. In order to avoid the wing tip hitting the water, I stopped the starboard engines and ditched.
Hauptmann Volkmar Zenker
An air blockage in the fuel pipes caused the engines to fail. This was due to the long period of the Focke-Wulf FW200 gliding with idling engines. On crashing into Belfast Lough, the plane soon filled with water. Feldwebel Willi Andreas and Unteroffizier Rudolf Wagner failed to escape the wreckage. Gefreiter Lothar Hohmann grabbed the rubber dinghy and a distress signal in a tin can. It took almost eight hours to inflate as a compressed air bottle was not connected. Hohmann, Hocker, and Zenker made it to the dinghy and called out for their missing crew members. The bodies of the two missing men were never recovered.
By the following morning, Hocker took command from the exhausted Zenker. They discussed plans to tell any rescuers that they were a reconnaissance flight. They then ditched all ammunition, paperwork, and incriminating evidence overboard. HMT Paynter, an anti-submarine trawler picked up the 3 surviving Luftwaffe airmen, taking them to Larne, Co. Antrim.
The crew stood on deck with their rifles loaded. The officer had a pistol. I shot two red flare signals and threw overboard the pistol and ammunition box before putting my hands up. After being taken onboard and searched the sailors supplied us with rum. I was thankful about that as I could not take any more.
Unteroffizier Heinz Hocker
Paynter’s crew took them to the Olderfleet Hotel, which overlooked Larne Harbour. It was requisitioned by the Naval Officer in charge at Larne, Co. Antrim. Under interrogation, the captives attempted to conceal their operations. They claimed they were the crew of a Heinkel HE111 on a reconnaissance mission. Later Luftwaffe documents confirmed the Condor crashed 15 miles north-east of Belfast. This was close to where the Paynter picked them up.
At the time of the accident, Hauptmann Zenker was in command of 2nd Staffel Kampfgeschwader 40. His loss would have dealt a blow to the unit who had lost two commanders in that week. The crews of Kampfgeschwader 40 did not like using the FW200 for mine laying.