Dönitz’s handling of these problems calls to mind those earlier reports of his ‘ability and quick perception of essentials …’ in staff appointments, and his deftness in dealing with other ministries. This was particularly noticeable in his handling of the Führer himself. In three apparently effortless stages he not only reversed the edict on scrapping the big ships, but turned the whole naval production situation round. The initial steps were taken during his first conference with the Führer on February 8th; Hitler agreed in principle that no more skilled workers engaged in U-boat construction or repairs should be called up for the Army; the next day he agreed that the big ships should be ordered out to battle as soon as a worthwhile target appeared, and that once out they should be allowed to operate on the force Commander’s initiative without any restrictions such as Hitler himself and the naval staff had imposed on earlier sorties. It is interesting that the British naval intelligence assessment of Dönitz’s character led them to predict that his appointment as C-in-C would lead to the big ships being used to attack the northern convoys or to attempt a desperate break-out into the Atlantic.
At his next meeting with the Führer on February 26th, Dönitz said that in his opinion the Archangel convoys with war supplies for Russia would make excellent targets for the surface forces and he considered it his duty, in view of the heavy fighting on the eastern front, to exploit this possibility to the full. To Hitler’s disbelief he went on to propose the despatch of the Scharnhorst to reinforce the Tirpitz—both condemned in his earlier plans—in northern Norway for the purpose.
Hitler objected that he was strongly opposed to any further surface ship engagements since, beginning with the Graf Spee, they had led to one loss after another. ‘The time for great ships is over. I would rather have the steel and nickel from these ships than send them into battle again.’
There were strong grounds for this view; the Pacific war had demonstrated that the gunned surface warship had been mastered by air power, and German naval-air co-operation had not begun to meet the challenge. However, Dönitz countered by implying again that the previous failures of German surface units had been due to restrictions placed on the force Commanders.
Hitler denied that he had ever issued orders of that sort, and contrasted the lack of fighting spirit shown in the surface ships with the bitter fighting by German soldiers on the eastern front and said how unbearable it was to see Russian strength built up continually by the northern convoys.
Dönitz seized his chance: he would consider it his duty, instead of decommissioning the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst, to send them into action whenever suitable targets for them could be found.
After further discussion at which both stuck to their guns, Hitler said finally, ‘We will see who is right. I will give you six months to prove that the big ships can still achieve something.’
There was a price to pay for Dönitz’s victory; as Michael Salewski, author of one of the few scholarly works on the German naval High Command, has pointed out, from that moment on Dönitz was under pressure to use the heavy ships in the way he had promised; their success was in the nature of a wager struck between the two men, the stake the big ships themselves.
In his efforts to gain more steel for the Navy, continuing through the spring, Dönitz fully convinced Hitler of the necessity for his expanded programme but there were so many other urgent priorities for the fighting in the east and so little steel that the matter was only fully resolved when he allowed Speer to take over naval construction. This was what Speer had been attempting to gain from Raeder; that Dönitz agreed to it—with suitable safeguards in the shape of a naval shipbuilding commission under his own nominee, Rear Admiral Topp—demonstrates his excellent sense of priorities. The scheme was fought through in the teeth of the naval construction department under Admiral Fuchs, whom Dönitz wanted to sack, but he could find no replacement for some time. While there was still a chance of rational production it proved itself: Speer had virtually the entire production resources of the Reich at his disposal and could exploit the materials and manpower in this vast empire better than individual services fighting their own corner. The measure also released Dönitz from one of Raeder’s constant frustrations, allowing him to devote more time to operations.
The Battle of the Atlantic was now at its height; from Dönitz’s point of view there were several disturbing developments. The first, noted in January, was the success with which the enemy routed his convoys around U-boat groups and the fact, confirmed by intercepts of allied U-boat disposition reports, that they had a very accurate knowledge of where the groups were. Hessler and the 1A Operations, Kapitänleutnant Schnee, made a detailed analysis of all the information probably available to the allies from bearings of U-boat wireless transmissions, sightings, radar contacts and U-boat attacks on ships, matched this with the allied reports and came to the conclusion that it was possible—except in one or two unexplained instances—for the enemy to have arrived at their precise knowledge by these means.
Dönitz’s suspicion of treachery was strong, nonetheless, and every member of the U-boat staff at am Steinplatz was subjected to investigation within the department; this turned up indiscreet French liaisons but no traitor. Finally only Dönitz and Godt remained to be vetted. ‘Shall I investigate you,’ Godt asked, ‘or will you investigate me?’
Meanwhile, despite the conviction of the communications experts that the enemy could not have broken the Enigma codes, Dönitz had ordered U-boats at sea to use the fourth rotor in their enciphering machine. It was a good move; the cryptanalyists at Bletchley Park had broken in again on the previous December 13th and the accurate situation reports were in fact based on decrypts. The fourth rotor blacked them out for a while, but they soon broke in again. B-Dienst was reading the allied convoy routing signals at the same time and as the speed of both sides’ decrypts varied randomly from a few hours to several days it is hardly possible to say which had the edge, nor is it important; this climax of the U-boat campaign was decided on other factors.
The most potent of these was manifesting itself to U-boat Command by a sharply increased rate of losses of boats on the way to or from their Biscay bases. The war diary for March 23rd noted:
… between November 1942 and January 1943 enemy air activity against U-boats had little result but since February its effect has increased to an alarming extent. We cannot tell whether this is due to improved location gear or more suitable types of aircraft …
There had been suspicions for several weeks that a new type of radar location was being used since Commanders were reporting being attacked by aircraft at night or out of low cloud without any warning from their Metox radar search receivers now in use on all boats. It seemed as if the enemy had deliberately developed a location device working on frequencies outside the range of this warning apparatus.
These were indeed the first signs of a very short wave allied radar operating on a wave length of only 10 cm instead of the old 1·5 m, designed not to outwit the boats’ receivers, but to gain greater range and definition. By these early months of 1943 the revolutionary set was being fitted to surface escorts as well as aircraft. As for the aircraft, the Boeings, Beaufighters, Liberators and Fortresses probing Biscay outmatched the few Junkers possessed by the Air Commander, Atlantic, who did not expect anything better in the near future. ‘There will be further particularly painful losses,’ Godt predicted.
Yet, despite all difficulties it was still possible towards the end of March for Dönitz to believe that with more boats and a tremendous effort he could win. The latest battle in the North Atlantic had resulted in the biggest success ever for U-boat packs against convoys.
The operation had been set off by B-Dienst, on top form, supplying U-boat Command absolutely current routing instructions for Convoy HX 229 eastbound off the US coast. On Dönitz’s instructions other operations had been broken off and all boats in the area formed into three patrol lines, Raubgraf (robber baron), Stürmer (daredevil) and Dränger (Harrier) across their route. While the boats were speeding to their positions B-Dienst intercepted new allied routing instructions for the convoy and another nearby convoy, SC122, which was also heading east; these were designed to steer the convoys around the northernmost Raubgraf line, which had revealed its presence by attacking a westbound convoy. The U-boat lines were now re-positioned and early in the morning of March 16th, U 603 of Raubgraf found herself in very heavy weather in the midst of one of the convoys. She reported and shadowed in exemplary fashion and U-boat Command ordered half the available boats towards her convoy, then after an intercept by B-Dienst suggested that the other convoy had passed, ordered all boats at full speed towards her position.
By dusk that evening seven boats were in contact, working their way ahead on the surface into attack positions, and at 10 o’clock U 603 herself opened the action from inside the escorts, scoring one hit. The other boats came in at half-hour intervals throughout the night, hitting another seven merchantmen although reporting rather more. The five escorts, meanwhile, who had to spend much of their time in rescue work, damaged two of the boats in depth charge attacks.
At the same time one of the Stürmer boats, U 388, heading towards the scene found herself in the midst of another convoy, actually SC 122, and attacked, scoring four hits. There was some confusion at U-boat Command about whether this was the second convoy or whether she had made a mistake in navigation, but the situation clarified during the next day, and orders were sent out distributing the boats roughly equally between the two convoys. Meanwhile reports of sinkings amounting to fourteen ships of 90,000 tons and a further six damaged had induced high spirits at U-boat Command, where the staff had been up all night. Godt sent a jaunty signal to all boats in the style of his chief. Dönitz was in Italy at this time, but it is possible he dictated the order by telephone.
‘Bravo! Dranbleiben! Weiter so!’ (‘Bravo! Keep at it! Carry on like that!’)
The convoys were in the central Atlantic ‘air gap’ now but approaching the extreme limit of very long range Liberators stationed in Northern Ireland, and one of these ordered out that morning reached the leading convoy, SC 122, and forced two of the shadowing boats to dive; she could not stay for long, however, and in the interval before the arrival of another aircraft, U 388 was able to work ahead into position for an underwater attack and she sank another merchantman. Similar underwater attacks were made on the original HX convoy which lacked air cover and three of whose escorts were attending merchantmen crippled the previous night; two more ships were sunk.
More and more boats were homing in meanwhile to both convoys but the appearance of Liberators shortly before dusk forced them to dive, and probably because the weather was still bad and the convoys made the usual dusk alterations throwing off the shadowers contact was not regained until the following day. By this time the actions were moving out of the ‘air gap’ and the boats were constantly forced to dive by the appearance of shore-based aircraft. They hung on nevertheless for another two days and nights, sinking another seven merchantmen until continuous air cover around the convoys made prospects hopeless. Before the operation was finally called off one boat was sunk when attacked by aircraft through squall clouds.
Analysing the results at U-boat Command it was noted that ‘As in so many actions the surprise attacks on the first night were the most successful …’ but then owing to the appearance of land-based aircraft ‘the U-boats from the second day on had a hard struggle’. Results were assessed as 32 ships totalling 186,000 tons and one destroyer sunk, and nine other ships hit. ‘This is so far the greatest success obtained in a convoy battle and more gratifying in that nearly 50 per cent of the boats shared in it.’ The Propaganda Ministry, badly needing good news, boosted the tonnage to 204,000 and early in April, as a further propaganda exercise, Hitler presented Dönitz with the oak leaves of the Knight’s Cross in recognition of the triumph and the total March sinking figures of 779,533 tons (actually 627,300 tons) which closely approached the record set the previous November.
The actual results of the battle were 22 merchantmen of a total 146,596 tons sunk (no destroyer hit) against only one U-boat destroyed; the shock impelled both Roosevelt and Churchill to intervene personally; as a result more destroyers were made available for ‘support groups’ to reinforce the convoy escorts under attack, and more long-range Liberators were provided to close the ‘air gap’. In this sense the U-boats’ undoubted triumph in the four-days’ battle, March 16–19th, hastened their ultimate defeat—for it seems that the allied chiefs of staff needed such a jolt to remind them of the Casablanca Conference decision that the defeat of the U-boats was their first priority.
In another sense, the balance was bound to tip against Dönitz at some stage, and the process was already well under way. On the very day that the U-boat Command war diary noted ‘the greatest success so far obtained in a convoy battle’ the British Commander of the Western Atlantic defences, Admiral Sir Max Horton, wrote to a friend, ‘I really have hopes now that we can turn from the defence to another and better role—killing them.’ He went on:
The real trouble has been basic—too few ships, all too hard worked with no time for training… The Air of course is a tremendous factor, & it is only recently that the many promises that have been made show signs of fulfilment so far as shore-based air is concerned, after three and a half years of war … All these things are coming to a head just now and although the last week has been one of the blackest on the sea, so far as this job is concerned I am really hopeful.
The U-boats’ successes had been made possible by the diversion of allied resources to the North African landings, the Pacific campaign and to bombing raids over Europe, aimed first at knocking out the U-boat bases and, when it proved impossible to penetrate the giant concrete shelters provided by Todt and Speer, to crippling German industry in the Ruhr. There were already more than enough long range Liberators to cover the whole North Atlantic convoy routes, and if a fraction of the effort devoted to these ‘offensive’ raids had been spent on the protection of convoys Dönitz’s gloomy forecasts of the late summer of 1942 must have been fulfilled and a great many allied ships and fives saved—not to mention civilians in France and Germany who also paid the price for the mistaken bombing policy. In this sense the crisis in which the allies found themselves in the spring of 1943—and which Dönitz and most German authorities on the U-boat war have used to claim that the Atlantic battle was a close-run thing—was entirely self-induced. There was never a possibility that the U-boats which Dönitz was throwing into the attack could have cut the Atlantic lifeline; directly they threatened to do so, allied resources must have been re-allocated from so-called offensive operations to the defence of this vital artery, and since the contemporary German U-boat had been rendered obsolete by improved aircraft performance and weaponry, his surface and group tactics by radar, this must have proved fatal.