Fleet Commander Admiral Wilhelm Marschall Part II


HMS Glorious sinking…

By early November 1939, Karl Doenitz was reporting to OKM that at least 30 percent of his torpedoes were duds. Yet it was not until April 20, 1940, after Naval Group 1 had been wiped out and a frustrated Doenitz had recalled the entire submarine force on the grounds that he could not fight with blunted weapons did Grand Admiral Raeder belatedly appoint a special commission to investigate the “torpedo crisis.” The resulting scandal shook what was left of the German Navy. Among other things it was discovered that the percussion pistol in the German Aufschlagzuendung (percussion detonating device) had been test-fired only twice (in 1928) before it was labeled “indispensable” by the Torpedo Experimental Institute and, without further testing, was incorporated into all German torpedoes. The magnetically operated detonating device (Magnetzuendung) on the magnetic torpedoes had been developed and tested with a similar lack of thoroughness and had also failed under wartime conditions. The U-boats investigation also uncovered the shocking fact that Vice Admiral Friedrich Goetting, the chief of the Torpedo Inspectorate at OKM, had discovered that the German torpedoes were defective and had twice sent urgent warnings to Admiral Raeder and his SKL staff before the start of the war. His warnings had been ignored. And at Narvik, Admiral Bonte and his men paid the full price for the lethargy of their High Command. Eventually Rear Admiral Oskar Wehr, chief of the Torpedo Trials Command and long-time head of the Torpedo Testing Institute (Torpedo-Versuchs-Anstalt, or TVA), was court-martialed and sentenced, along with two of his principal associates. TVA alone bore the blame for the torpedo crisis, in what one officer called “a travesty of justice.” Grand Admiral Raeder and his staff should have been called to account for ignoring Admiral Goetting’s warnings, but no such action was ever taken.

With the destruction of the German destroyers at Narvik, the way was paved for Allied ground forces to land in northern Norway, which they did on April 24, 1940. Meanwhile, beginning on May 10, Hitler’s Western offensive swept across France and Belgium and trapped the main Anglo-French armies in the Dunkirk pocket, with their backs to the sea. At this point Admiral Raeder informed Hitler that the Scharnhorst and Hipper would be repaired and ready for new missions about May 27 and the Gneisenau a few days later. Raeder wanted to commit them in the area between Norway and the Shetland Islands, to attack Allied supply convoys which, of course, would be protected by Royal Navy warships. Earl F. Ziemke wrote, “During the following days a wide divergence of opinion developed between the Naval Staff [Raeder] on one hand and the operating commands, Naval Group West and Fleet Command, on the other. The operating commands wanted to conserve their forces and believed the chances of success too small to warrant risking the few German heavy ships. But Admiral Raeder and the Naval Staff, probably believing the war was drawing to a close, insisted on adopting aggressive methods to prove the worth of the navy and assure its future development.”

By the time the warships sailed out of Kiel on June 4, the main Allied armies in France had been destroyed or forced off the mainland, and the situation for Dietl’s mountain troops was desperate. They had been forced out of Narvik, were nearly out of ammunition, and were in danger of being destroyed altogether. Meanwhile, at Trondheim, miles south of Narvik, Lieutenant General Valentin Feurstein had organized a relief force and was pushing north toward Narvik. By now Admiral Marschall, the fleet commander and officer in charge of the task force, had been given instructions to provide direct relief for the hard-pressed ground forces at Narvik by attacking British warships and transports at their nearby base of Harstad. But then Admiral Raeder, acting on the orders of Adolf Hitler, commanded him to provide flank protection for General Feurstein. Which mission had priority? Marschall asked. Raeder, in effect, refused to make a decision. “Equal priority” was his answer.

As Marschall steamed toward Narvik with the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the cruiser Hipper, four destroyers, and the naval tanker Dithmarschen, he still did not know what was expected of him. Specific orders from Generaladmiral Alfred Saalwaechter, his direct superior at Naval Group West, did not help, because Admiral Otto Schniewind, Raeder’s chief of staff, signaled him that the Supreme Naval Staff’s order contained no such precise instructions. Schniewind did not, however, actually revoke Saalwaechter’s orders. This was typical of the confusion fleet and task force commanders had to deal with under Admiral Raeder.

On the night of June 7, Marschall received an aerial reconnaissance report that three naval convoys had left Narvik and concluded that the British were evacuating the place. He signaled that he intended to attack these valuable prizes. Raeder and Saalwaechter, however, did not agree with Marschall’s conclusions and signaled back at 5 a.m. on June 8 that his primary mission was still (?!) to strike at Harstad.

Marschall was right: the British were evacuating Narvik. Between June 4 and 8, they pulled out 24,500 men, and Marschall had stumbled right across their line of retreat. Furthermore, they did not yet know he was there. So Admiral Marschall, furious at his superiors’ meddling with the operations of a commander on the spot, took matters into his own hands and went out searching for convoys. The battleships had no luck, but the Hipper sank the British escort trawler Juniper, the Norwegian tanker Old Pioneer, and the 20,000-ton troopship Orama (which was empty). Meanwhile, about 1 p.m., Marschall dispatched his destroyers to assist Feurstein’s advance (as ordered by Hitler) and headed north, where intercepted radio signals indicated he would find the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious and the cruiser Southampton.

The Scharnhorst found the 22,500-ton Glorious at 5:10 p.m. and opened up on her from 26 kilometers away. The Gneisenau opened up a few minutes later with her big guns, while her mediums engaged the British destroyer Ardent. The German battleships pounded the Glorious until she sank at 7 p.m. There were only 43 survivors. Meanwhile, the Ardent went down, and the British destroyer Acasta, a burning wreck, fired four torpedoes at an extreme range of 14 kilometers. Nine minutes later one of them struck the Scharnhorst, tearing a 12-by-4-meter hole in its side. A few minutes later the Acasta disappeared below the waves. Only one man survived.

The Acasta’s lucky shot no doubt saved a great many other British ships, for Admiral Marschall now broke off the pursuit and the Scharnhorst limped into Trondheim for repairs. Admiral Marschall had won a victory even though it had not been a one-sided one. The British had lost more than 1,500 men in the Glorious alone, plus a troopship, a tanker, an armed trawler, and two destroyers. Had Marschall not been saddled with the requirement of supporting Feurstein, his victory would have been even more convincing, and, with the evacuation of Narvik in progress, Feurstein did not need support. But once again the fleet commander received no thanks for his actions, for Admiral Raeder now decided that Harstad had been the primary objective all along and bitterly denounced Marschall for his failure to achieve even greater success. Once again, however, he did not do it officially or to Marschall’s face, but in such a manner that he would be sure to hear about it through third parties. Raeder would not permit a man-to-man confrontation. Nevertheless, he continued to urge Marschall to make another foray (of the type he was simultaneously mercilessly criticizing), this time with the Gneisenau and the Hipper. The fleet commander, however, felt very strongly that Germany should conserve her few remaining capital ships. This elicited new unofficial scorn from Berlin.

On June 18, Fleet Commander Wilhelm Marschall reported himself ill, and indeed he was sick—sick of his chairborne grand admiral. Raeder quickly replaced him with a more pliable man. Now freed of his responsibilities, Marschall began a campaign to have a court of inquiry examine his conduct during Operation Juno, as his Norwegian sortie was called. He made several such attempts, but always in vain. Raeder never gave the former fleet commander a chance to state his case or justify his actions.

Perhaps to shut him up, Raeder recalled Marschall to active duty as an inspector of naval education in late August 1940. From late 1941 until May 1942, he was on special assignments, first at Naval Group South and then with Naval Group Baltic, but still with no real responsibility commensurate with his rank. After that he was again unemployed and went into semi-retirement.

Marschall was replaced as fleet commander on June 18 by Vice Admiral Gunther Luetjens, the former commander-in-chief of Reconnaissance Forces. At SKL’s urging, he sailed out of Trondheim at 4 p.m. on June 20 with the Gneisenau, Hipper, Nuremberg, and one destroyer. Seven hours later the Gneisenau was rocked by an explosion: a torpedo from a British submarine had ripped through her bows, leaving a hole as big as a house in both sides of the ship. The task force headed back for Trondheim, its mission a failure.

The Norwegian campaign had cost the German Navy dearly. In the summer of 1940, it had only one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, and four destroyers fit for action. Norway was the high point for the German surface fleet, which had virtually expended itself. This was no small comfort to the British in the dangerous months ahead.

For Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s proposed invasion of Britain, Raeder was charged with the task of transporting the German Army across the English Channel. However, the German Navy had never developed any landing craft. Raeder therefore collected more than 3,000 vessels of all kinds, including tugboats, river barges, motorboats, steam trawlers, and other dubious vessels, for the assault. If a single British warship had broken into the channel when this fleet attempted to cross, thousands of soldiers would have been slaughtered. Many men looked at these boats and said that they would prefer to swim, and they were only half joking. A great many generals were very happy when the operation was cancelled and not because they were afraid of the British Army.


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