Gunther Luetjens, who succeeded Wilhelm Marschall as commander of the German fleet, was born in Wiesbaden on May 25, 1889, the son of a merchant. Enthralled from childhood by stories about the sea, he decided to make the navy his career and joined as an officer-cadet in 1907. In 1910, he graduated from the Naval Academy, ranking 20th in a class of 160. As befitted his high standing, he was assigned to a battleship. Ironically, Luetjens was uncomfortable on large ships. As soon as the opportunity arose, he transferred to the torpedo boats and served on them throughout World War I. In the Weimar days, he alternated between training and staff assignments (mainly involving transport vessels) and was considered an outstanding instructor. He served as commander of the 1st Torpedo Boat Flotilla (1929-1931) and, after a staff tour as chief of the naval officer personnel department (1932-1934), Luetjens was given command of the cruiser Karlsruhe in 1934 and spent the first half of 1935 in South American waters, showing the German flag. When he returned to Germany, he was named chief of staff of Naval District North Sea, serving in that capacity until March 16, 1936, when Erich Raeder named him head of the naval personnel office. The grand admiral needed a staff officer of proven ability for the rapidly expanding navy, and the experienced and dependable Captain Luetjens was his man.
Gunther Luetjens was a taciturn officer with a monk-like devotion to his calling. His friends considered him quite charming once they got beyond his stoic exterior. A confirmed monarchist, he never used the Nazi salute or carried an admiral’s dagger with a swastika on it, preferring instead to wear his old Imperial Navy dirk. He even lodged a protest against Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, but it was buried by Hermann Boehm, the fleet commander at the time.
In 1938 Raeder named Luetjens commander-in-chief of Reconnaissance Forces, and in late 1939, as a rear admiral, he took part in the mining operations off the English coast. He was promoted to vice admiral effective January 1, 1940. After Luetjens’s cruisers took part in the Norwegian campaign, Erich Raeder appointed him fleet commander (Flottenchef) on June 18, 1940. In him, the grand admiral found exactly the man he wanted to command the surface fleet: an officer of the old school he could trust to obey every order SKL gave him without too many questions or objections. The fact that Luetjens had spent the bulk of his career in the torpedo boat and cruiser arms did not make him particularly well qualified to command the fleet, but this did not seem to bother Raeder, who had Luetjens promoted to full admiral on September 1, 1940.
Meanwhile, at Raeder’s urging, Luetjens attempted to take the Gneisenau and the Hipper out on a raid into the Atlantic on June 20, 1940, but his flagship Gneisenau was torpedoed the same day and out of action for months. Meanwhile, Admiral Luetjens was in charge of the naval portion of Operation Sea Lion, under the overall supervision of Admiral Raeder.
Repairs on the Gneisenau were completed by December, when Luetjens went out to sea again with it and the Scharnhorst. However, he ran into a gale, and both ships were damaged by heavy seas, forcing him to return to base again. On his third attempt, in early 1941, Admiral Luetjens finally succeeded in breaking out into the North Atlantic and fell on the British shipping lanes with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. They sank 13 British merchant ships and tankers before being confronted by the British battleship Rodney and its escorts. In accordance with the take-no-risks orders of Raeder and Hitler, Luetjens felt obliged to retire rather than engage in a surface battle. On the morning of March 23, 1941, he entered the port of Brest, France. He was then summoned to Berlin.
On Saturday, April 26, 1941, Gunther Luetjens took his leave of Grand Admiral Raeder after having been briefed on his next mission: he was to conduct a raid in the Atlantic with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the Bismarck. It would be the maiden voyage of Germany’s monstrous 42,000-ton battleship.
Luetjens voiced some valid objections to this plan. The difference between the endurance of the two ships would prevent them from operating together as a homogeneous force, he pointed out. Luetjens wanted to wait until the Scharnhorst was repaired and the Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, completed her crew training period, which would be in about four months. As a combined force, these three ships would be very difficult indeed to defeat. Otherwise, the German Navy would be committing its forces piecemeal. Raeder, however, argued the opposite case. Each pause in the Battle of the Atlantic helped the enemy; also, it was essential to create a diversion in the Atlantic, to force the British to withdraw naval forces from the Mediterranean, thus reducing pressure on the Italian-German supply routes to North Africa.
Although he had by far the stronger argument, Luetjens let himself be persuaded. He would obey the grand admiral’s wishes. When Adolf Hitler visited Gotenhafen (now the Polish port of Gydnia) on May 5, to inspect both the Tirpitz and the Bismarck, he also expressed doubts about the advisability of this operation; Luetjens, however, strongly supported Raeder’s point of view. Had Luetjens said what he really thought and agreed with Hitler, it is quite likely that the tragedy of the Bismarck would have been avoided. However, faced with the united front of his naval experts, Hitler decided not to interfere with Raeder’s plans, despite his personal reservations. The stage was set for yet another naval disaster.
Once again, as with Marschall, the fleet commander was cautioned again and again against taking unnecessary risks. Raeder told him to use “prudence and care” and not to stake too much for the sake of a limited success of dubious value. At his SKL briefing, Luetjens was told that “the primary objective is the destruction of the enemy’s carrying capacity. Enemy warships will be engaged only in furtherance of this objective, and provided such engagements can take place without excessive risks.”
After leaving Berlin, Gunther Luetjens paid a visit to his friend and predecessor Wilhelm Marschall, a champion of the right of freedom of action for a commander at sea. Marschall, now in retirement, warned him not to feel too closely bound by the Supreme Naval Staff’s instructions.
“No, thank you,” Luetjens said as he rejected Marschall’s advice. “There have already been two Fleet Commanders who have lost their jobs owing to friction with the Admiralty, and I don’t want to be the third. I know what they want, and shall carry out their orders.”
The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen left port on May 18 and were spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft on May 22. The Home Fleet tried to prevent them from breaking out into the Atlantic, and on the morning of May 24, a classic naval battle took place in the Denmark Straits, between Iceland and Greenland. Firing from 10 miles away, the Bismarck sank the British Hood. One of the German 15-inch (380mm) shells hit her aft magazine, setting off 112 tons of high explosives. The 42,000-ton battle cruiser went down only six minutes after the Bismarck opened fire, taking 1,416 officers and men with her, including Vice Admiral Sir Lancelot Holland. Only three men survived.
One minute later, at 6:01 a. m., the Bismarck turned its guns on the British battleship Prince of Wales. By 6:13 a. m. this opponent had sustained several hits and was laying a smoke screen, trying to escape the German task force. Ernst Lindemann, the captain of the Bismarck, wanted to pursue the crippled British battleship and finish her off, but Luetjens-ever mindful of SKL orders-refused to do so. A violent argument ensued, but Luetjens held firm, and the Prince of Wales escaped.
The Bismarck headed for the open Atlantic, where the British lost her. Luetjens, however, broke radio silence and transmitted a long report to Berlin, enabling the British to re-fix his position. Even so, the bearings were misinterpreted and the pursuing force went off in the wrong direction. The Bismarck was re-sighted by a Catalina flying boat two days later, and a wave of Swordfish dive-bombers from Vice Admiral Somerville’s Force H attacked the German battleship with torpedoes late in the afternoon of May 26. One of these struck aft, jamming the rudder and making the battleship unmaneuverable. Efforts at repairing her proved futile. Nor could the Bismarck be towed, for Luetjens had already detached the Prinz Eugen. As he had predicted, it did not have the endurance to operate with the Bismarck.
On May 27, the British closed in on the Bismarck in overwhelming force. The last anyone ever saw of Admiral Luetjens was early that morning, as he and his staff walked across the deck of the Bismarck and headed for the bridge. He was unusually quiet and did not bother to return the salutes of the crew. About 9 a. m. the bridge suddenly became an inferno of flames, and this is probably when Gunther Luetjens perished, but this is impossible to confirm. Only 110 of the Bismarck’s crew survived, while some 2,100 (including the entire fleet staff) perished. Many of them drowned after the battleship sank at 10:40 a. m. The British made very little effort to save them. Some have suggested that had the situation been reversed, there would probably have been another “war crimes” trial in 1946 or 1947.
Luetjens made several serious mistakes in his last campaign. There is little doubt but that he should have sunk the Prince of Wales when he had the chance. Adolf Hitler was right when he dressed down Grand Admiral Raeder for this failure, which was at least as much Raeder’s as Luetjens’s. Hitler showed a rare flash of strategic judgment when he recognized this fact-although he seems to have forgotten that he himself had urged caution from time to time. In any event, after the Bismarck debacle, Hitler never fully trusted Erich Raeder’s judgment again. “Whereas up till then he had generally allowed me a free hand, he now became much more critical and clung more than previously to his own views,” Raeder wrote later. 29 This was not necessarily bad for the German Navy. Raeder had exhibited questionable judgment since before the war began and since 1939 had shown a tendency to dissipate the navy’s strength on raids of dubious value. Hitler’s biggest mistake as a naval leader-other than not building enough U-boats and going to war too soon-was not replacing Erich Raeder much sooner.
Although from all accounts a good person, Luetjens must go down in history as a failure as a fleet commander. Certainly he was an unlucky one. His fatal flaws included an underestimation of the potential threat of aircraft to capital ships, a gross violation of the most elementary principles of radio security, and a slavelike obedience to the poor strategic thinking of the Supreme Naval Staff-even to the point of allowing it to cloud his own, sounder judgment. “Luetjens,” one former German naval officer wrote, “personifies the tragedy of a commander whose personal ability was sacrificed on the altar of dutiful obedience.”
And what happened to Wilhelm Marschall, who had warned Luetjens not to listen too closely to the instructions of Raeder and his Supreme Naval Staff? His career seemed to be over until Admiral Raeder suddenly called him out of retirement on August 12, 1942, and named him commanding admiral, France. Six weeks later he was promoted to commander-in-chief of Naval Group West, then headquartered in Paris. Raeder had thus promoted the fleet commander he had previously dubbed a failure and worse, and whom he had forced into retirement in semi-official disgrace. Even so, when Marschall tried to bring up the subject of his actions in Norway, Raeder refused to discuss it. Did this mean that Raeder had realized the validity of Marschall’s concept of tactical freedom of action for commanders at sea and thus recognized his own errors? Marschall thought so but also believed that Raeder “would rather have bitten his tongue out than admit it.”
Generaladmiral Marschall was among those senior officers retired in the first weeks of the Doenitz regime in 1943. He was again recalled in June 1944, to head a special authority staff for the Danube River. Retired again in November 1944, he was reappointed commander-in-chief of Naval Command West on April 19, 1945. He held this post until the end of the war. After being released from Allied captivity in mid-1947, Wilhelm Marschall wrote a number of articles on naval history and strategy. He died at Moelln (in Schleswig-Holstein) on March 20, 1976, at the age of 89.