Albert Speer and the new model U-boats

From the outset Albert Speer was determined to gain control over armaments in all three services. He had rapidly consolidated his authority over the army. Erhard Milch and the Luftwaffe were willing to cooperate. Only the navy remained intransigent in its determination to run its own affairs. The shipbuilder Rudolf Blohm, to whom in March 1942 he had entrusted the task of introducing industrial self-determination into the construction of warships, had been unable to stand up to the naval establishment. In July Speer replaced him with Otto Merker, a brilliant young engineer specialising in tracked vehicles, who was general manager of Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz and a member of the NSDAP since 1927. For Speer he was the perfect example of the innovative, forceful and imaginative technicians he added to his team. He saw it as a positive advantage that Merker had no knowledge whatsoever of the shipbuilding industry. That his appointment was a deliberate slap in the face for an old-fashioned reactionary like Blohm was an added attraction. Responsibility for merchant shipping was handed over to Hamburg’s populist Gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, a man whose nebulous vision of ‘socialism in action’ had won him a degree of popularity. He was one of the few Gauleiters who worked closely with Speer. Without education, profession or trade, he owed his first gainful employment to the NSDAP. He was staggeringly corrupt, even by Nazi standards, was ruthless in the pursuit of Jews and other undesirables, suffered bouts of severe depression, and, following the Hamburg raid, was almost solely concerned with saving his skin after Nazi Germany’s defeat, which he now thought inevitable. In this respect he was remarkably successful.

The main problem for the navy was that the development of the new model U-boats – types XXI and the much smaller XXIII – was a painfully lengthy process. Admiral Werner Fuchs, the navy’s head of the Warship Building Office, viewed the entire project with distinct scepticism. He thought that if they were given top priority it might be possible to have two XXI U-boats ready for preliminary tests by the end of 1944. If successful they could go into production in 1945 and be ready for action in 1946. Dönitz, refusing to accept this gloomy assessment, turned to Merker, who argued that there was no need for extensive tests and suggested that the U-boats be built in sections, in much the same manner as Henry J. Kaiser’s ‘Liberty Ships’. Only the final assembly would take place in the slipways, where the boats were vulnerable to Allied bombers. The navy’s technical staff was highly sceptical of the idea of building U-boats in sections, given the enormous pressure they had to resist when submerged, and their vulnerability to depth charges. Dönitz then sought the opinion of the navy’s leading civilian expert on U-boat construction. He agreed with Merker that building U-boats in sections to avoid Allied bombers was a viable option, but Merker’s ingenious proposal soon proved to be disastrous.

For Speer, Merker’s U-boat programme promised to be a repeat performance of the triumph of the Adolf Hitler Panzer Programme. The first of these wonder weapons was scheduled to be ready for Hitler’s fifty-fifth birthday on 20 April 1944. The navy was promised delivery of thirty Mark XXIs by the end of the summer of 1944, followed by a steady flow of thirty new submarines per month. But this proved to be wildly over-optimistic. Building U-boats in sections soon proved exceedingly difficult. Firms that had no previous experience in shipbuilding were required to build the eight separate sections. This resulted in lengthy post-production work to fix a number of serious deficiencies. In order to protect the final assembly facilities from air attack ten thousand concentration camp inmates were forced to build a hugely expensive concrete pen, ‘Valentin’, near Bremen. After two years of construction work it was seriously damaged in March 1945 by the RAF’s 617 ‘Dambuster’ squadron. It remained unfinished at the end of the war.

Dönitz and Speer boldly assured Hitler that the new U-boats were faster, could dive deeper and could remain under water longer than conventional submarines. They would be ready for action by November 1944. This was far too late for Hitler. He wanted to have these innovative U-boats in action as soon as possible. Whereas previous submarines spent most of the time above water, the Mark XXI, fitted with the revolutionary snorkel, could operate under water for days at a time. Its sleek design and powerful electric motors enabled it to move underwater at up to 16.5 knots, making it hard to chase and destroy. It was in fact the first true submarine.

Admiral Raeder, the navy’s commander-in-chief (Oberbehlshaber der Kriegsmarine), was in a difficult position. Unlike Speer or Milch, he did not have ready access to Hitler. Speer had deliberately excluded the navy from Central Planning. It controlled the allocation of steel, which was the key component of the naval building programme. When Dönitz took over command of the navy in January 1943 he was determined to rectify this situation. He managed to get an increase in the amount of steel allotted to the navy, but this advantage was cancelled out by heavy losses in action as well as by Allied bombing raids on the shipyards. He now felt that the only hope was to hand over the naval building programme to the ambitious young Minister of Armaments.

This was a most unpopular suggestion. Naval technicians knew from the fate of the Army Armaments Office that they would be pushed aside. They also doubted that this change would bring much relief. Speer warned that there would be no increase in the allocation of steel unless Hitler agreed to a significant reduction in the manufacture of consumer goods. This was questionable, given that the Nazi Party was opposed to any such move for fear of losing what was left of its dwindling popularity.

In spite of these caveats, on 3 July 1943 Merker’s shipbuilding commission reported that a 30 per cent increase in shipbuilding was feasible. On the basis of this wildly optimistic assessment Speer readily agreed to take over responsibility for shipbuilding. On 22 July 1943 he signed an agreement with Dönitz stipulating that future shipbuilding plans presented by the Naval High Command were to be vetted by experts from Speer’s ministry. Once the deal was done Speer announced: ‘Now we begin a new life!’ By taking over responsibility for naval armaments it seemed that he was, in Dönitz’s ambiguous words, ‘Europe’s economic dictator’ and the most powerful of all Hitler’s paladins. But it was difficult to see how he could possibly make good on his promise.

A Shipbuilding Commission was created, chaired by Rear Admiral Erich Topp, a U-boat hero who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves and swords for sinking thirty-five merchant ships. Its task was to ensure the implementation of Dönitz’s ambitious plans for U-boat and motor-torpedo boat construction that he had presented to Hitler in April 1943. This plan faced Speer and Röchling with the impossible task of increasing steel production by 30,000 tons per month, at a time when steel production was steadily declining. One month later Dönitz announced that the thirty U-boats per month that he had ordered would not be enough. He now demanded a minimum of forty. Hitler agreed, having first consulted Speer.

The first Mark XXI U-boat was duly launched at Schichau the day before Hitler’s birthday. It was a dubious birthday present. It was a hastily assembled prototype that leaked like a sieve and had to be towed back to the dock once the crowd of admiring dignitaries had dispersed. Thereafter progress was painfully slow. Regardless of all the difficulties, Speer, once he had recovered from a long illness, launched a massive and totally irresponsible propaganda campaign. In May 1944 he addressed a mass meeting of Hamburg dock-workers, in which he announced that they were building a weapon that was a key to ‘Final Victory’. He repeated this empty boast at the annual meeting of Gauleiters in Posen in August.

Speer was caught in an impossible situation. The U-boat programme that included the older types, the XXI and XXIII, as well as Dönitz’s new-found enthusiasm for one-man submarines, consumed a vast amount of raw materials, skilled labour and building materials. Even worse was the incontrovertible fact that it was a strategically pointless weapon. The naval war had been irrevocably lost. All of the eighty Mark XXIs that were built in 1944 were so defective that they were unfit for action. By the end of the war, four of the magnificent XXIs were at last ready to go on patrol, but only two of them ventured out. Whether or not U-2511 got within sight of the enemy is open to doubt. Whatever the case, it never fired a shot. Six of the XXIIIs saw active service and managed to sink five ships. All the other fifty-five boats of this type that were built had such serious deficiencies that they could not be deployed before the war’s end. Speer could have used the steel that was wasted in the U-boat programme to build the five thousand tanks that were desperately needed as the enemy advanced on all fronts. Hitler of course wanted both U-boats and tanks. It was impossible to convince him that he had to make a choice.

In the end the scepticism of conservative shipbuilders like Rudolf and Walther Blohm, naval engineers like Friedrich Schürer and experienced naval officers such as Admiral Werner Fuchs was proven completely justified. Speer and Merker, with their arrogant belief that the root of the problem in the shipbuilding industry was one of attitude and Weltanschauung, refused to take the blame for this fiasco. They continued to insist, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that their approach was correct and that the critical attitude of the Blohm brothers amounted to sabotage. Walther Blohm in return charged Merker with incompetence. The struggle between the two sides reached the point whereby Walther Blohm was court-martialled on a trumped-up charge of failing to take adequate air-raid precautions and sentenced to six months imprisonment.

The Blohm family, with their powerful contacts in Hamburg and Berlin, managed to get the sentence overturned. Frank Stapelfeldt, the head of Krupp’s Deschimag shipyard in Bremen, was less fortunate. As an outspoken critic of Merker’s approach he insisted that his target figures were impossible to achieve. Such criticism of the Minister of Armaments was swiftly silenced. Stapelfeldt was arrested by the Gestapo on 3 October 1944 and detained until the end of the war. Krupp was obliged to replace him with someone acceptably subservient to Speer. These unpleasant episodes show that there were some limitations to Speer’s system of industrial self-determination. He showed no compunction in using brute force to silence his critics.

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