Fleet Commander Admiral Wilhelm Marschall Part I

Indienststellung des Panzerschiffs "Admiral Scheer" in Wilhelmshaven. Der Kommandant des Schiffes Kpt.z.See [Wilhelm] Marschall.

Indienststellung des Panzerschiffs “Admiral Scheer” in Wilhelmshaven.
Der Kommandant des Schiffes Kpt.z.See [Wilhelm] Marschall.

Fleet Commander Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, was a talented (and perhaps brilliant) officer who had a thorough grasp of naval tactics. Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, on September 30, 1886, he entered the navy as a sea cadet (Seekadett) in 1906. Commissioned in 1909, he served in several types of vessels, from battleships to hulks. Then, in 1916, he volunteered for U-boat school. In the last two years of the Great War he commanded UC-74 (a mine-laying submarine) and later UB-105 and sent a number of Allied ships to the bottom. Consequently, on July 4, 1918, he was decorated with Imperial Germany’s highest medal, the Pour le Merite. Marschall’s postwar career was also conspicuous and included tours as commander of the survey ship Panther (1924–1926), first officer of the battleships Schleswig-Holstein (1929–1930) and Hanover (1930–1931), chief of staff of the Baltic Sea Naval Station (1931–1934), commander of the battleship Hessen (1934) and the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer (1934–1936), chief of operations of OKM (1936–1937), and commander of German Sea Forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1937–1938). He was commander of pocket battleships (Panzerschiffen) when the war broke out.

Marschall first ran afoul of Grand Admiral Raeder in November 1939, when he took the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau out into the North Sea. His objective was to create a diversion in favor of the Deutschland, which was attempting to return home after a disappointing raid into the Atlantic. Just as he hoped, the British Home Fleet came after the two battleships, allowing the Deutschland to reenter German waters safely. Then Marschall not only eluded the British trap, he isolated and sank the British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi in the process. However, he received no thanks from the German Admiralty—only unfair and savage attacks and a clear implication that his job was in jeopardy. It seems that the German battleship had withdrawn after seeing the silhouette of a darkened ship at nightfall on November 23. Raeder, ever the chairborne critic, was furious that Marschall had not attacked and sunk the second British ship—whatever it was. Marschall should have attacked an unknown ship at night, in the middle of the British fleet, when any damage that slowed his speed even slightly could cost Germany one of her two operational battleships? This from Raeder, the man who had previously ordered that capital ships should not be risked? “Till now,” Marschall commented, “no one has ever questioned the naval axiom that capital ships should avoid all contact at night with torpedo craft and reconnaissance vessels.” Marschall was quite right, of course: the potential prize was simply not worth the risks. Raeder, however, continued to launch scathing attacks, but never officially and never face-to-face. He never gave Marschall a chance to defend himself. Instead, he made his biting remarks behind Marschall’s back but in places where he could be sure that word of them would get back to the fleet commander.

From the beginning of the war both Admiral Raeder and Winston Churchill wanted the same thing: Norway. Raeder wanted it to prevent the British from cutting off Germany’s supply of Swedish iron ore, which was shipped through the northern Norwegian port of Narvik, and to prevent the British from blocking the German exit to the North Sea, as they had done in World War I. Churchill wanted it for the opposite reasons. In addition, Raeder wanted the excellent ports Norway offered.

Hitler was initially opposed to the idea of invading Norway because he did not believe the British would violate Norwegian neutrality. On December 24, 1939, Raeder arranged a meeting between Hitler and Vidkun Quisling, the head of the Norwegian version of the Nazi Party, in an attempt to change Hitler’s mind, but it did no good. Only in February 1940, when a British warship attacked an unarmed German ship in Norwegian waters (to rescue some British prisoners) did Hitler draw the correct conclusions: the United Kingdom would violate Norwegian neutrality, and he had better act quickly to prevent the loss of his vital iron ore supply.

He was right.

Urged on by Churchill, the Allied Supreme War Council decided on February 5 to seize Narvik and the Swedish iron mines at Gaellivare, on the pretext of sending aid to the Finns, who were fighting the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939–1940. The Allied plan was thwarted only because Finland sued for an armistice. First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill did not give up, however. In fact, the British began laying mines in Norwegian waters on April 8, while in the Scottish ports British soldiers were already on the troop ships, awaiting the German reaction that Churchill and his cronies hoped the mine-laying would provoke. They were then to put Plan R 4—the Allied occupation of Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, and Stavanger—into immediate execution. They were too late: the German Fleet had already sailed.

Operation Weserueburg Nord, the occupation of Norway, was the only major action conducted by the German surface fleet in World War II. It was also Erich Raeder’s major contribution to the German war effort. It was an extremely bold and daring plan, taken in the face of nearly overwhelming odds. Even though virtually the entire German fleet was committed, it was no match for the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy; therefore a British intervention while the fleet was at sea would result in the failure of the operation and the virtual annihilation of the German Navy. Everything depended on speed, surprise, and accurate timing. The detailed planning was done by a staff under the direction of Captain Theodor Krancke and was modified by the Supreme Naval Staff under Raeder. It consisted primarily of a warship echelon of 11 groups (to clear minefields and conduct the landings); a tanker and export echelon (carrying military equipment and fuel for the destroyers’ trip back to German waters); and a sea transport echelon of eight groups, which formed the main troop and supply movement. Despite Doenitz’s objections (see later discussion), 42 submarines were stationed off the Norwegian coast, to attack the Royal Navy if it tried to intervene. As Raeder saw it, the most dangerous part of the operation would be the return of the warships to their home bases. They would be exposed to attack by superior British forces most of the way back. However, if everything went according to plan, only the submarines would engage the enemy’s naval forces.

The main German forces departed for Norway in serials between March 31 and April 6—only two days before the British mine-laying operation began. The British spotted the move at 9:50 a.m. on April 7, but it was late afternoon before the Home Fleet sailed—in the wrong direction. Thinking the German Fleet was trying to break out into the Atlantic, they sailed to block this move, leaving the central North Sea uncovered.

The landings took place on April 9 and were successful except for that of Naval Group 5, which was charged with depositing the assault elements of the 163rd Infantry Division at Oslo. It was spearheaded by the heavy cruiser Bluecher, which was severely damaged by the 280mm guns at Fort Oscarsborg, 10 miles south of the Norwegian capital, and then was hit by two torpedoes. The crew was unable to control the ensuing fires, which set off a magazine. The captain gave the command to abandon ship at 7 a.m., and the heavy cruiser sank 30 minutes later. Due to the strong currents at this spot of the fjord, many soldiers and sailors drowned, including most of the staff of the infantry division. Oslo did not fall until the next day.

German naval costs began to mount as the Norwegian campaign progressed. The Hipper was rammed by a mortally wounded British destroyer (which sank in the collision), and the German cruiser was severely damaged. The light cruiser Karlsruhe was sunk by a British submarine after providing covering fire for the landings at Kristiansand and Arendal. During the Bergen landings the light cruiser Koenigsberg was crippled by Norwegian coastal gunfire and, unable to put to sea, was sunk at her moorings by British aircraft on April 11. Early that same morning the Luetzow (formerly the Deutschland) was torpedoed by a British submarine and lost her entire stern. By superhuman effort her crew somehow kept her afloat until she could be towed to Kiel, but her operational usefulness was over. After this, she could be used for training purposes only. For Admiral Raeder this was perhaps the bitterest blow of the campaign, for he had not wanted either the Luetzow or the Bluecher used in the Norwegian operation, preferring instead to use them as ocean raiders. Sending them to Oslo was Hitler’s idea. But the grand admiral had only himself to blame, because neither he nor the Admiralty staff offered serious objections to the Fuehrer’s decision on this issue. And at this point of the war, Hitler still listened to the advice of his military experts, especially on air force and naval matters.

The biggest defeat for the German Navy in the Norwegian campaign took place in Narvik and adjacent fjords, where Naval Group 1 under the command of Rear Admiral Friedrich Bonte, the commander-in-chief of destroyers, landed Major General Eduard Dietl’s 3rd Mountain Division on April 9. The city fell the same day, as planned, but only one of the eight ships in Bonte’s export echelon arrived. (Three had been sunk or forced to scuttle, and the others, dispersed by a storm, put in at Bergen.) With his fuel tanks nearly empty, Bonte could not leave the port. Instead, he relied on four U-boats to cover the harbor entrance and was taken by surprise when the British 2nd Destroyer Flotilla sailed into the harbor under the cover of a snowstorm. Two German destroyers were sunk in the ensuing battle and three damaged, while one British destroyer was sunk, one beached, and a third was badly damaged. Admiral Bonte was among the dead.

What had happened to the U-boats? They had done what they were supposed to have done. They fired torpedo after torpedo into the British vessels, but all of them had been duds. Once again, as with the magnetic mine, a major German weapon had been neglected. Three days later the pattern was repeated when the British battleship Warspite and nine destroyers entered Narvik harbor and sank the remaining German destroyers. The Warspite and some of the destroyers had been hit by torpedoes from at least three different U-boats, but again they all were duds. The 10 destroyers lost at Narvik represented almost half the German prewar destroyer strength.

These were not the first incidents of German torpedo failure. In October 1939, when Guenther Prien entered Scapa Flow and sank the Royal Oak, four of the seven “fish” he fired failed to explode. Later that month Lieutenant Herbert Schulze (U-48) returned from patrol after sinking five ships, and reported five torpedo failures. And Lieutenant Commander Victor Schuetze of U-25 signaled U-boat Command hopping mad. He had halted a steamer, ordered its crew off, and fired four torpedoes into it at close range, one after the other—every one a dud!

The most important non-sinking occurred (or did not occur) in the North Sea on October 30, 1939, when Lieutenant Wilhelm Zahn of U-56 fired a fan of three torpedoes into the British battleship Nelson. The range was only 800 meters, and there was no way Zahn could miss. All three torpedoes were duds. The Nelson sailed away, all its passengers safe. These included Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet; the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound; and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill.

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