Planning the “Dash” III

Hans-Jürgen Rudolf REINICKE [centre],  (*10/08/1902†29/01/1978)

On 30 December just after dinner an urgent signal was brought to Reinicke aboard Scharnhorst. It was from Naval Group West in Paris ordering him to report there at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day. As the message said Admiral Ciliax was also being ordered to report in Paris, he realized it was more than a routine matter.

It was too late to catch the evening train to Paris so he took one the next morning. It was evening when he arrived at the Gare Montparnasse and crossed Paris to the Gare de l’Est to meet Admiral Ciliax recalled from home leave in Germany by the same cryptic message from Group West. It was not surprising that Ciliax, never noted for his good temper, came off the train in one of his blacker moods.

“What’s this all about, Reinicke?” he growled more than once. But his Chief of Staff could not enlighten him. They would both have to wait for their appointment next morning.

It was New Year’s Eve. They had a meal, split a bottle of champagne, and went to bed early.

The next morning they went to Group West headquarters and waited in a conference room for Alfred Saalwächter. He soon appeared with Admiral Schniewind, the new operational commander of the German Navy. Saalwächter briskly told Ciliax and Reinicke the news—the Führer wanted the three ships to leave Brest, proceed to their German home ports and then to Norway for operations there.

But Admiral Saalwächter revealed he was worried about the fate of his great ships. After he told them of the Führer’s demands he asked for their frank opinions. He was trying to organize expert opposition to dissuade the Führer. When Ciliax raised many objections against Hitler’s scheme, he told him to go away and put them in writing. After Ciliax had written his detailed objections, Saalwächter forwarded them with his own report to Raeder.

He wrote: “I submit herewith conclusions for the comprehensive scrutiny that has been ordered into the question of the withdrawal of the Brest Group eastwards through the Channel.

“The hazards applicable to a voyage of battleships through the Channel eastwards are summed up at the end of the outline.

“I view these hazards as being very great. I must for this reason alone give an urgent warning against it being carried out.

“On the 12 November I commented that one single surprise move to the west by one or by several battleships was feasible. But conversely, a move eastwards of the battleships is one combined with too great a peril. Subsequent navigation through the Channel would be rendered impossible because the element of surprise would have departed.

“It can be executed only during the period of the longest nights. It must be accompanied by control of the mine situation and air preponderance in the Channel.

“I do not take the view that the new experiences in the East Asian theatre of war can be taken as proof of the uselessness of battleships to abandon our warfare in the Atlantic.

[The sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft.]

Our opponent does not think so, as the unchanged characteristics of his heavy forces show.

“I advocate, as I have always done, the conception that the essential tasks of our battleships lie in the Atlantic.

“Our numerical inferiority affords us opportunities for success only by surprise offensive sorties directed at the enemy’s weak points which are to be found in his long Atlantic supply routes, and not by continually facing with defensive action a greatly superior enemy.

“At this time the best possibilities of success for the Brest Group lie in surprise action against north to south convoys. The Brest Group’s achievements already go to show that the enemy feels and fears this threat and straightaway tries by air attacks to rid himself of it.

“This pressure can only be made permanent if our battleship strength actually goes to sea. Yet even during the long period of repairs the enemy can hardly foretell with exactitude when one or several of the ships are able to pounce. Withdrawal of the Brest Group from the Atlantic means releasing the enemy from this strategic pressure.

“The plan for tying down his heavy naval forces in the Atlantic falls apart. Maintenance of pressure on other theatres of war such as East Asia and the Mediterranean must also stop. A perceptible strengthening of English sea power in East Asia will follow, thereby impeding Japan.

“In addition to actual strategic prizes, there is great prestige for our enemy. On the other hand there would be a great loss of prestige for us which would be made far worse if the ships were lost by the voyage through the Channel. Political consequences very damaging to us and our allies are inevitable.

“If our ships disappear from the Atlantic or from the Atlantic position people would rightly talk about a ‘lost battle’. Naval actions from Norway would not make up for such a move.

“We do not stand there on the Atlantic just for raiding possibilities against the enemy supply routes. We threaten Scotland, Iceland, the North Arctic and Russia.

“In the Norwegian harbours the aerial danger and with it the stresses for the Luftwaffe would hardly be less. The enemy at all times could by choice of place and time have greater superiority. Liaison with any battleships in the Atlantic would be impossible.

“I am convinced that the problem of the Atlantic position as it is at present cannot be gone back upon later. In any case, it is clear that a “bringing back again” of the ships would be enormously difficult.

“Finally, there are indications that if our ships withdrew from the Atlantic after a lost battle, to appear again in home waters and remain there it would be injurious to the psychology of our own ships’ companies, of the entire Navy and of the German people.

“I am therefore convinced that it would now be a very serious mistake by us at this time to withdraw the ships from Brest in their Atlantic position.

“I consider their remaining there, even though with heavy damage and lengthy repair times, is the correct course.

“There remains for consideration only the slight relief of the Luftwaffe which would come about in Brest.

“If the withdrawal plan of the Brest Group to the East is adhered to, then examination might be made as to whether Prinz Eugen should take part. By the cruiser remaining at Brest, at least a portion of the present strategic operations of the Brest Group would remain in being to confront our enemy.

“I submit with this report extracts from three letters of C-in-C of the ships (Ciliax), corresponding to my point of view, which he sent me after the first conference on the matter in Group West.

“Should the question be put through the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht to the Navy: ‘Break-out or Disarm?’ then I would say with a heavy heart that against the ‘Break-out’ with its enormous risks, I would prefer temporary disarmament. For when the fortunes of the day change the ordnance could be restored, whilst a loss of these valuable ships and their crews could only bring damage without benefit.”

It was a gloomy and defeatist document and Hitler was to have none of it. He was concerned that the constant BAF bombing was slowly fraying the fabric of crew morale.

Although unaware of Hitler’s plan and Saalwächter’s strong objections, the BAF bombing of Brest increased in December. And for the first time photographic planes revealed that all three ships seemed to be preparing for sea.

On Christmas Eve the Admiralty ordered seven submarines to form an “iron ring” around the approaches to Brest.

The navigator of Scharnhorst, 42-year-old Helmuth Giessler, was on Christmas leave. When he went off, neither he nor any other naval officers at Brest had any inkling that Hitler was holding a pistol at Baeder’s head demanding the ships leave Brest. At that time not even Admiral Ciliax had the faintest suspicion of their fate.

Giessler came back from his leave on the same day as Vice-Admiral Ciliax returned from the New Year’s Day conference with Admiral Saalwächter at Naval Group West in Paris. That evening Ciliax summoned him to his cabin. As navigating officer of the flagship he was responsible for the whole squadron so he had to be one of the first to be told about the plan. Ciliax informed him in his usual brusque way about the proposed operation. He added crisply, “Consider your needs and requirements, Giessler, and what preparations you consider necessary. You have until morning!”

With these words the Admiral dismissed him. That night Giessler climbed into his bunk but did not get a wink of sleep. He tossed about all night with the information racing through his brain.

A voyage of these great battleships through the narrow English Channel had been so improbable that he had hardly looked at the Channel charts—he had never considered them as waters where the Scharnhorst might sail. Now the problem was how to obtain these charts without arousing gossip and suspicion.

Next morning he called Chief Petty Officer Wehrlich to his cabin and handed him a list. “I require these charts, of the Mediterranean and these charts of Icelandic waters,” he said. “Also these of the West African coast.” He also demanded pilot books of the Mediterranean and everywhere else he could think of. Wehrlich kept bringing so much navigational material that towards the end of the day he could hardly enter his cabin for papers and books. Among this pile of material were his charts of the English Channel. In the middle of all his other requests, Giessler had slipped in a casual order for them.

Giessler had an extra problem. He knew Wehrlich was not experienced enough for the magnitude of his task—but Wehrlich’s predecessor, Lt. Johann Hinrichs was. He was the man he wanted at his side to help plan this vital operation.

He was now the skipper of a fleet of mine-sweeping trawlers, but when Giessler explained the situation to Ciliax, a puzzled Hinrichs received a secret signal posting him back to Scharnhorst. When he arrived Giessler let him into the secret. During those January days they sat together in the navigator’s cabin. Giessler kept muttering to himself “Ach so,” and humming tunelessly as they pored over his charts. They worked out the tides, times of darkness, depth of water, and the complete timetable the ships must try and adhere to hour by hour on the voyage from Brest to Wilhelmshaven.

While Giessler was working out his plan, unknown to him something happened which was to help him. On 2 January, the Royal Navy’s submarine “iron ring” faded away. High submarine losses in the Mediterranean and a bottle-neck in the training programme caused the “subs” to be withdrawn—and surveillance left to the RAE

Yet, as if to confirm Hitler’s attitude, at 8:30 p.m. on 6 January 1942, a RAF bomb burst against the hull of the Gneisenau as she was lying in Number Eight Dock. Several yards of her armour were ripped and two compartments were flooded.

On 12 January, Admirals Raeder, Saalwächter and Ciliax were summoned to Wolfs Lair for the final full-scale conference. Raeder brought his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, while Ciliax was accompanied by Captain Reinicke, his own Chief of Staff, and Saalwächter by his mine expert, Commodore Friedrich Rüge. The. Luftwaffe was represented by Göring’s Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, accompanied by one of Germany’s famous fighter aces, Col. Adolf Galland, who had fought in the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War and was a veteran of the Rattles of France and Britain.

They arrived in a snowstorm at Wolfs Lair. Lt.-General Jodl, Hitler’s personal military adviser, who lived and worked there, described the Führer’s headquarters as “a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp.”

Hitler spent his days in a concrete bunker with a 20-foot thick roof. It was a sealed box with no window and no outlet to the open air. Next door was another similar concrete bunker used by Hitler as his map room, where he stood waiting for them. After giving them the Nazi salute he asked them to be seated round the big conference table.

At Hitler’s request, Raeder opened the session, saying, “The question of the passage of the Brest Group through the Channel has been examined by all agencies concerned. In the light of the Führer’s opinion, the German Fleet’s primary task is to defend the Norwegian coast and ports and, in so doing, it should use its might unsparingly. Since you, mein Führer, informed me that you insist upon the return of the heavy units to their home bases, I suggest that Vice-Admiral Ciliax report on the details of how this operation is to be prepared and carried out, and that Commodore Ruge subsequently report on the necessary mine-sweeping measures, to enable you, mein Führer, to make the final decision afterwards.”

Hitler replied: “The Naval Force at Brest has, above all, the welcome effect of tying up enemy air forces and diverting them from making attacks upon the German homeland. But with our ships at Brest, enemy sea forces are tied up to no greater extent than would be the case if the ships were stationed in Norway. If I could see any chance that the ships might remain undamaged for four to five months and, thereafter, be employed in operations in the Atlantic, I might be more inclined to consider leaving them in Brest.

“Since in my opinion such a development is not to be expected, I am determined to withdraw the ships from Brest to avoid exposing them to chance hits day after day. I fear that there will be a large-scale British-Russian offensive in Norway. I think that if a strong task force of battleships and cruisers, practically the entire German Fleet, were stationed along the Norwegian coast, it could, in conjunction with the German Air Force, make a decisive contribution towards the defence of the area.”

Then it was Ciliax’s turn. “I recommend the necessity of leaving Brest under cover of darkness, taking maximum advantage of the element of surprise, and of passing through the Straits of Dover in the daytime. This will make the most effective use of the means of defence at our disposal.”

Hitler agreed, saying, “I emphasize particularly the surprise to be achieved by having the ships leave after dark.”

Ciliax said, “I must stress emphatically that a very strong destroyer and fighter protection must be provided on the day of the break-through itself from dawn to dusk.”

“I am aware of the decisive role to be played by the Air Force in this enterprise,” replied Hitler and turned to Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, who said, “I do not believe I will be able to provide constant unfailing protection for the ships with the available 250 fighters which cannot possibly be reinforced.”

Even in the presence of the Führer he was exhibiting the Luftwaffe’s traditional reluctance to co-operate with the Navy. But with Hitler’s cold eyes upon him, Jeschonnek hastily promised to draw on the existing night-fighter formation to provide dawn fighter protection.

Hitler then asked for opinions as to the possibility of using the northern route saying, “I do not care which route is selected by the Navy, if only it is successful in getting those ships transferred to Norwegian waters.”

The four Admirals explained that the northern route was not suitable for several reasons. Baeder commented, “The present disposition of enemy forces is against such a move; there are two or three battleships and two aircraft-carriers in the Home Fleet. Moreover, the German air forces would not be able to provide the necessary air cover.”

Commodore Buge, commanding the seaward defences of the occupied French coast, including the mine-sweeping and mine-laying forces, was asked to report. Buge was able to assure Hitler that the menace from mines, always regarded as the main danger to forcing a passage through the Channel, was not as bad as imagined.

Baeder, still unsure of the Luftwaffe’s full support, repeated his demands to the Air Force for a very strong fighter cover. He also asked for attacks on enemy torpedo plane bases in the early morning of the day of the break-through, and possibly a few days earlier.

Lt.-General Jeschonnek replied stiffly, “The constant air cover demanded will leave insufficient aircraft for the heavy air battles that are sure to develop on the day of the breakthrough. We may expect our fighter force to become very inferior in strength—at least during the afternoon. Also our own anti-aircraft personnel are susceptible to fatigue in the afternoon as experience has shown.”

Col. Galland, who was to command the Luftwaffe fighter cover, also offered his opinion, “The strong Spitfire forces at the disposal of the British will render things difficult for the long-range fighters which we are going to employ.”

Raeder remarked that tide and daylight would determine the timing of the operation. That was the reason the date could not be changed. When he asked what should be done in case one or several ships were unable to move on the date set, Hitler decided, “If two battleships are in a position to move, they are to undertake the operation, if necessary without the cruiser. If only one battleship and the cruiser can move, they must do likewise. But in no case should the Prinz Eugen do so alone.”

Then Hitler, cutting through both air and naval objections, said briskly, “The ships must not leave port in the daytime as we are dependent on the element of surprise. This means that they will have to pass through the Dover Straits in the daytime. In view of past experience I do not believe the British capable of making and carrying out lightning decisions.

“This is why I do not think they will be as swift as is assumed by the Naval Staff and the Admiral Commanding Battleships in shifting their bomber and pursuit forces to the south-eastern part of England for an attack on our ships in the Dover Straits.

“Picture what would happen if the situation were reversed!—if a surprise report came in that British battleships have appeared in the Thames estuary and are heading for the Straits of Dover. In my opinion, even we would hardly be able to bring up air pursuit forces and bomber forces swiftly and mediodi-cally.”

He added dramatically, “The situation of the Brest Group is comparable with that of a cancer patient, who is doomed unless he submits to an operation. An operation, even though it might be a drastic one, will offer at least some hope that the patient’s life may yet be saved. The passage of our ships through the Channel would be such an operation. It must therefore be attempted.”

Finally Hitler said, “Nothing can be gained by leaving the ships at Brest. Should the Brest Group manage to escape through the Channel, however, there is a chance that it might be employed to good advantage at a later date. If the ships remain at Brest their ability to tie up enemy air forces may not continue for long. As long as they are in battle-worthy condition they will constitute worthwhile targets, which the enemy will feel obliged to attack. But the moment they are seriously damaged—and this may happen any day—the enemy will discontinue his attacks. In view of all this and in accordance with the suggestion of the C-in-C Navy I decide that the operation is to be prepared as proposed.”

That was it. After the conference Hitler entertained his admirals and generals at dinner in the concrete shelter where he lived. He ate frugally as usual but was more genial than anyone had seen him for a long time. He said, almost jovially, “You will find that this operation will turn out to be our most spectacular naval success of the war.”

He revealed his only doubt—would the Luftwaffe manage it? He realized that Galland with his fighters was the key figure in the operation. Saying good-bye to him he asked quietly, “Do you think they will bring it off?” When Galland assured him he thought they would he dismissed him with a rare smile.

The decision was made. Far from dismantling the great ships the Germans were to fight them through the English Channel in daylight. An attempt like this had not been made by an enemy of England for over three centuries—since the Spanish Armada of 1588.

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