Erich Raeder viewed the Nazi persecution of Jews and other groups as a nasty business of which he did not approve, but, as it was not a naval matter, he considered it basically none of his concern. When such persecution touched on his navy, however, he sprang into action like an angry rooster. In the late 1930s, for example, the Nazis began to harass retired Rear Admiral Karl Kuehlenthal because he was half-Jewish and his wife and children were Jews. As soon as Raeder got word of it, he took the matter straight to Adolf Hitler himself. The first time Raeder brought up the matter, the Fuehrer sharply refused the naval commander-in-chief’s request to exempt the Kuehlenthals from the Nuremberg Laws (which set the framework for the Jewish persecution), but if Hitler thought the matter was ended here, he was seriously mistaken. Like a bulldog that has been kicked off once, Raeder simply kept coming back to it. These people were navy! Stinging verbal reprimands to the sailor’s face did the Fuehrer no good. The diminutive admiral brought up the request at the next encounter, and the one after that, and the one after that, until Hitler finally realized that the only way he would ever lay the matter to rest was to replace Raeder or give him his way. At last worn down, he personally signed the exemption. With this document, the Kuehlenthals not only avoided the death camps—they got to keep their property and Admiral Kuehlenthal continued to draw his pension until the end of the war. This was not the only case of Raeder protecting naval people who happened to be Jewish; in fact, the Nazis succeeded in forcing only two non-Aryan officers out of the navy under the Nuremberg Laws. When the war broke out, however, Raeder quickly recalled them to active duty, where they received the same treatment as other officers. Raeder even went so far as to intercede (successfully) for a few Jewish families he knew as a child in Gruenberg, even to the point of securing their release from the concentration camps, which he later swore he knew nothing about. This was as far as he would go, however; he did nothing to try to halt the persecution of non-naval Jews or other groups that the Nazis hated.
Jews were not the only people Raeder protected—provided, of course, they were navy people or personal friends. Christian Science Church members (with navy connections, of course) benefited from his intercessions, and at least one was released from a concentration camp because of him. Raeder also had a more or less continuous running battle with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and the Gestapo over the naval chaplains, who Raeder firmly supported on every occasion. A 1942 incident is typical. A naval officer (who doubled as a Gestapo stool pigeon) accused a naval chaplain of making derogatory remarks about some leading Nazis. The Gestapo attempted to have the case tried in a civil (i.e., Nazi) court, but Raeder would not stand for it. The chaplain was quickly brought before a naval court-martial (the members of which were appointed by Raeder) and was promptly acquitted. The admiral personally confirmed the verdict and then gave the Gestapo agent a dishonorable discharge from the navy for perjury!
Raeder’s relationship with Hitler became strained on November 1, 1938, when Hitler lost his temper with the admiral for the first time. Hitler tore the naval construction program plans to pieces and ordered Raeder to submit a new one. The Fuehrer was especially critical of the weak armament and armor on the Bismarck and Tirpitz and demanded that the U-boat fleet be rapidly expanded to reach parity with the British submarine fleet. He also ordered that the British be notified of his intentions immediately, in accordance with the terms of the 1935 treaty.
There were several more meetings between Hitler and Raeder in the winter of 1938–1939. And Raeder warned, “If war breaks out in the next year or two, our fleet won’t be ready.” Hitler loftily replied, “For my political aims I shall not need the Fleet before 1946!”
Once again Raeder believed him, just as he had when he had promised that there would be no war with Great Britain. Now the talk was of war with Britain and her allies, but not before 1946, and still Raeder believed—even though the Sudetenland crisis had brought the world to the brink of war barely three months before. The results of all of this was the famous Z-Plan (Z for Ziel, or “target”), which Raeder submitted to the Fuehrer on January 17, 1939. Although its final target date was not until 1947, the new naval construction plan called for Germany to have six Type H battleships (of more than 56,000 tons displacement and armed with 420mm guns) by the beginning of 1944, in addition to four Bismarck class battleships. It was also to have four aircraft carriers, 15 surface raiders (Panzerschiffe, or pocket battleships), five heavy cruisers, 44 smaller cruisers, 68 destroyers, and 249 U-boats. Hitler approved the plan on January 27 and assigned it absolute priority over both other services, while at the same time assuring Raeder that he would not need the fleet for several more years.
After the approval of the Z-Plan, Raeder was back in the Fuehrer’s good graces in the first half of 1939. On April 1, 1939, Hitler promoted him to grand admiral (Grossadmiral), the fifth in German history. This era of good feeling was short-lived, however, and the reason was Hitler’s defense of a woman he had not even met.
In June 1938, Commander Karl-Jesso von Puttkamer, Hitler’s naval adjutant, returned to the destroyers for a tour of sea duty. He was replaced by 35-year-old Lieutenant Commander Alwin Albrecht. In 1939, Albrecht married a young schoolmistress from Kiel, with Erich Raeder acting as one of the witnesses. A few weeks later, in June 1939, the grand admiral received some anonymous letters revealing that she had been living in sin with a wealthy man. It turned out that she was well known to the local naval garrison at Kiel—in the biblical sense. Naturally, tales of Frau Albrecht’s past reached the ears of the navy wives, who quickly made their indignation known. Commander Albrecht sued one agitator—and lost. At this point the puritanical Raeder sent the adjutant on leave and showed up unexpectedly at the Berghof (Hitler’s residence on the Obersalzburg) and insisted that the commander be dismissed for entering into a dishonorable marriage. Hitler, however, refused to sack Albrecht or allow the grand admiral to do so.
The ensuing argument lasted two hours. Hitler screamed at Raeder—and Raeder screamed back. Their shouts could be heard all over the house. “How many of the navy wives now flaunting their virtue have had affairs in the past?” yelled the outraged Fuehrer. “Frau Albrecht’s past is the concern of nobody but herself!” Finally Raeder announced that he would resign unless Albrecht were dismissed.
The grand admiral could do as he pleased, Hitler replied. Raeder returned to Berlin in a huff. Shortly thereafter, Hitler invited Frau Grete Albrecht to the Obersalzburg. She was taken to the Bechstein guest house, an isolated villa near the Berghof, where Hitler visited with her for an hour and a half. Grete Albrecht was a tall blonde—just the type of woman Hitler liked. He found her charming and left the guest house furious with what he considered the double standard of the officer corps.
After this the incident took on overtones of a comic opera. Instead of resigning, Raeder dismissed Albrecht as naval adjutant on his own authority as commander-in-chief of the navy. Hitler retaliated by making Albrecht a personal adjutant. Albrecht was discharged from the navy on June 30, 1939, and was commissioned Obetfuehrer in the National Socialist Motor Corps the next day. (In effect, he had been promoted three grades in rank.) Raeder then refused to appoint a new naval adjutant. With war on the horizon, however, this important post could not remain vacant, so Puttkamer was recalled from the destroyer branch to reassume his old duties (although he was officially referred to as Alfred Jodl’s adjutant until October, to save Raeder’s face). Meanwhile, the navy invited Hitler to a launching at Bremen on July 1, but the dictator declined. The navy wives, meanwhile, rallied around Raeder, bombarding Albrecht with social invitations but not inviting his wife. For his part, Admiral Raeder never forgave Hitler’s insults and refused to confer with him again—a resolution he did not break until the start of the war.
Meanwhile, as if to complete the comedy, Grete Albrecht left her husband and moved back in with her former lover. Oberfuehrer Albrecht divorced her in 1940 and remarried the following year—more fortunately, this time. As a footnote, Albrecht never forgot the way Hitler defended him. He became a fervent Nazi and was reportedly killed fighting Russians in the streets of Berlin in 1945.
On the afternoon of September 3, 1939, two days after the invasion of Poland began, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder put his personal feelings aside and met with Adolf Hitler. Even now Hitler expressed the opinion that Britain would not fight. For the first time, Erich Raeder did not believe him. But now it was too late. The United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany that same day.
The German Navy went to war five years ahead of schedule and only four years after the post-Versailles expansion began. It had the wrong kinds of vessels and was in no way ready. “The surface forces . . . can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly,” Admiral Raeder wrote gloomily in the SKL war diary. The German Navy’s total strength in surface vessels stood at two battleships, three pocket battleships, one heavy cruiser, six light cruisers, and 34 destroyers and torpedo boats. Of this total, however, very little was at sea, except for the pocket battleships Deutschland and Graf Spee, and the U-boats, which were under tight restrictions. Gradually Raeder persuaded the dictator to relax these restrictions until, in November 1939, with the main armies home from Poland and western Germany no longer exposed to invasion, Hitler agreed to declare unrestricted submarine warfare.
Germany’s most effective naval weapon in 1939, however, was not the U-boat but the magnetic mine. Deposited off the east coast of Britain by destroyers and minelayers, and off the southern and western coasts by U-boats and naval floatplanes, they were unsweepable by the technology of the day. By December they had sunk 67 Allied and neutral ships (252,237 gross registered tons), and by March 1940, they had sunk 128 merchant ships, three destroyers, and six auxiliary ships. Unfortunately for Germany, Grand Admiral Raeder, with his multiplicity of prewar armaments plans and his obsession that Germany would not fight England, had all but ignored this as yet undefeatable weapon. Nor was Hermann Goering any help. He refused to use his Luftwaffe to drop mines until his stockpile reached 5,000—and by then the British had discovered a magnetic mine accidentally dropped in a mud-flat by a floatplane and had devised effective countermeasures. Meanwhile, the Graf Spee had been destroyed, and Hitler was sending mixed signals to OKM (Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine, or High Command of the Navy). In one breath he wanted aggressive naval action, but in the next he advised caution and restraint. Raeder took the same approach: he wanted his surface units to achieve major victories but not to risk their capital ships in doing so. Just how a surface commander was supposed to win a major victory over the Royal Navy without risk to his own forces was never specified. But any surface commander who did not conduct operations exactly as Admiral Raeder and his staff thought he should (after the fact!) forfeited his job. The first to go was Admiral Hermann Boehm, the fleet commander.
Admiral Hermann Boehm
Hermann Boehm was born in Rybnik/Upper Silesia (now Poland) on January 18, 1884, and entered the Imperial Navy as a sea cadet in 1903. Commissioned ensign in 1906, he served as the commander of various torpedo boats from 1911 to 1918. Discharged from the navy as a Kapitaenleutnant (lieutenant) in 1919, he reentered the service the following year and went on to distinguish himself in a number of assignments, including commander of the 2nd Torpedo Boat Flotilla (1926–1928), chief of staff of the Fleet Command (1932–1933), commander of the battleship Hessen (1933–1934), and commander of the Reconnaissance Forces (1934–1937), while simultaneously commanding German naval forces in Spanish waters during the first year of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1937). Upon returning to Germany, he was named commander of the North Sea Naval District (on October 4, 1937). Boehm was promoted rapidly by the standards of the day, to lieutenant commander (1922), commander (1928), captain (1930), rear admiral (1934), vice admiral (1937), and admiral (1938). He was made fleet commander on November 1, 1938. His tenure in this important post, however, was destined to be brief. Admiral Boehm was not relieved of his command because he was incapable, or because of any tactical mistakes on his part, or due to any operational considerations whatsoever. Rather, he was sacked because Raeder took exception to the wording of an order that Boehm’s operations officer had issued. The grand admiral thought there was an implied criticism of one of his decisions in an operational recommendation, and Erich Raeder did not take criticism (real or imagined) very well. Boehm was replaced by Vice Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, the former commander of surface raiders, on October 21, 1939.
Despite the fact that he had been sacked, Admiral Boehm’s abilities were never questioned at SKL. After Raeder’s temper cooled he recalled Boehm and appointed him commanding admiral, Norway (and later commander-in-chief, Naval Command Norway), and even promoted him to Generaladmiral on April 1, 1941. He remained at this post until the rise of Grand Admiral Doenitz, who sent him back into retirement in early 1943 because of Boehm’s lack of faith in National Socialism, because of his opposition to the measures imposed on the people of Norway by Reichs-commissioner Josef Terboven, and because the relatively junior Doenitz felt threatened and (like Raeder before him) replaced any senior officer he thought might challenge him.
Hermann Boehm was in retirement a full year. Then, on March 1, 1944, Doenitz (again like Raeder before him) recalled Boehm to active duty as chief of inspectors for naval education. Boehm remained in this office until the end of the Reich was in sight. He retired from active duty on March 31, 1945, and moved to Kiel, where he died on April 11, 1972, at the age of 88.
The Hermann Boehm case was just one example of Grand Admiral Raeder’s inability to make proper use of a potentially gifted subordinate. Raeder’s unsure hand was also seen in the odd command structure he set up. The fleet commander was not directly subordinate to the grand admiral, at least theoretically. Instead, Raeder set up two naval group headquarters (formerly naval districts Baltic and North Sea), which were directly subordinate to him, and the fleet commander was directly subordinate to one of these. (If the fleet was operating in the Baltic, he reported to Naval Group East; otherwise, Naval Group West. Conceivably, if the fleet was split, he could be subordinate to both. Later other naval groups were established.) However, Raeder himself often issued orders directly to the fleet commander, bypassing group headquarters: a direct and flagrant violation of the chain of command. It was not uncommon for a commander at sea to receive contradictory orders from Berlin and from group command. To make matters worse, Raeder’s orders were frequently vague. But heads would roll if an admiral did not act exactly as Raeder thought he should—every step of the way.
Admiral Wilhelm Marschall
A good example of Raeder’s fractiousness is the case of Fleet Commander Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, a talented (and perhaps brilliant) officer who had a thorough grasp of naval tactics. Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, on September 30, 1886, he entered the navy as a sea cadet (Seekadett) in 1906. Commissioned in 1909, he served in several types of vessels, from battleships to hulks. Then, in 1916, he volunteered for U-boat school. In the last two years of the Great War he commanded UC-74 (a mine-laying submarine) and later UB-105 and sent a number of Allied ships to the bottom. Consequently, on July 4, 1918, he was decorated with Imperial Germany’s highest medal, the Pour le Merite. Marschall’s postwar career was also conspicuous and included tours as commander of the survey ship Panther (1924–1926), first officer of the battleships Schleswig-Holstein (1929–1930) and Hanover (1930–1931), chief of staff of the Baltic Sea Naval Station (1931–1934), commander of the battleship Hessen (1934) and the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer (1934–1936), chief of operations of OKM (1936–1937), and commander of German Sea Forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1937–1938). He was commander of pocket battleships (Panzerschiffen) when the war broke out.
Marschall first ran afoul of Grand Admiral Raeder in November 1939, when he took the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau out into the North Sea. His objective was to create a diversion in favor of the Deutschland, which was attempting to return home after a disappointing raid into the Atlantic. Just as he hoped, the British Home Fleet came after the two battleships, allowing the Deutschland to reenter German waters safely. Then Marschall not only eluded the British trap, he isolated and sank the British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi in the process. However, he received no thanks from the German Admiralty—only unfair and savage attacks and a clear implication that his job was in jeopardy. It seems that the German battleship had withdrawn after seeing the silhouette of a darkened ship at nightfall on November 23. Raeder, ever the chairborne critic, was furious that Marschall had not attacked and sunk the second British ship—whatever it was. Marschall should have attacked an unknown ship at night, in the middle of the British fleet, when any damage that slowed his speed even slightly could cost Germany one of her two operational battleships? This from Raeder, the man who had previously ordered that capital ships should not be risked? “Till now,” Marschall commented, “no one has ever questioned the naval axiom that capital ships should avoid all contact at night with torpedo craft and reconnaissance vessels.” Marschall was quite right, of course: the potential prize was simply not worth the risks. Raeder, however, continued to launch scathing attacks, but never officially and never face-to-face. He never gave Marschall a chance to defend himself. Instead, he made his biting remarks behind Marschall’s back but in places where he could be sure that word of them would get back to the fleet commander.
From the beginning of the war both Admiral Raeder and Winston Churchill wanted the same thing: Norway. Raeder wanted it to prevent the British from cutting off Germany’s supply of Swedish iron ore, which was shipped through the northern Norwegian port of Narvik, and to prevent the British from blocking the German exit to the North Sea, as they had done in World War I. Churchill wanted it for the opposite reasons. In addition, Raeder wanted the excellent ports Norway offered.
Hitler was initially opposed to the idea of invading Norway because he did not believe the British would violate Norwegian neutrality. On December 24, 1939, Raeder arranged a meeting between Hitler and Vidkun Quisling, the head of the Norwegian version of the Nazi Party, in an attempt to change Hitler’s mind, but it did no good. Only in February 1940, when a British warship attacked an unarmed German ship in Norwegian waters (to rescue some British prisoners) did Hitler draw the correct conclusions: the United Kingdom would violate Norwegian neutrality, and he had better act quickly to prevent the loss of his vital iron ore supply.
He was right.
Urged on by Churchill, the Allied Supreme War Council decided on February 5 to seize Narvik and the Swedish iron mines at Gaellivare, on the pretext of sending aid to the Finns, who were fighting the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939–1940. The Allied plan was thwarted only because Finland sued for an armistice. First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill did not give up, however. In fact, the British began laying mines in Norwegian waters on April 8, while in the Scottish ports British soldiers were already on the troop ships, awaiting the German reaction that Churchill and his cronies hoped the mine-laying would provoke. They were then to put Plan R 4—the Allied occupation of Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, and Stavanger—into immediate execution. They were too late: the German Fleet had already sailed.
Operation Weserueburg Nord, the occupation of Norway, was the only major action conducted by the German surface fleet in World War II. It was also Erich Raeder’s major contribution to the German war effort. It was an extremely bold and daring plan, taken in the face of nearly overwhelming odds. Even though virtually the entire German fleet was committed, it was no match for the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy; therefore a British intervention while the fleet was at sea would result in the failure of the operation and the virtual annihilation of the German Navy. Everything depended on speed, surprise, and accurate timing. The detailed planning was done by a staff under the direction of Captain Theodor Krancke and was modified by the Supreme Naval Staff under Raeder. It consisted primarily of a warship echelon of 11 groups (to clear minefields and conduct the landings); a tanker and export echelon (carrying military equipment and fuel for the destroyers’ trip back to German waters); and a sea transport echelon of eight groups, which formed the main troop and supply movement. Despite Doenitz’s objections (see later discussion), 42 submarines were stationed off the Norwegian coast, to attack the Royal Navy if it tried to intervene. As Raeder saw it, the most dangerous part of the operation would be the return of the warships to their home bases. They would be exposed to attack by superior British forces most of the way back. However, if everything went according to plan, only the submarines would engage the enemy’s naval forces.
The main German forces departed for Norway in serials between March 31 and April 6—only two days before the British mine-laying operation began. The British spotted the move at 9:50 a.m. on April 7, but it was late afternoon before the Home Fleet sailed—in the wrong direction. Thinking the German Fleet was trying to break out into the Atlantic, they sailed to block this move, leaving the central North Sea uncovered.
The landings took place on April 9 and were successful except for that of Naval Group 5, which was charged with depositing the assault elements of the 163rd Infantry Division at Oslo. It was spearheaded by the heavy cruiser Bluecher, which was severely damaged by the 280mm guns at Fort Oscarsborg, 10 miles south of the Norwegian capital, and then was hit by two torpedoes. The crew was unable to control the ensuing fires, which set off a magazine. The captain gave the command to abandon ship at 7 a.m., and the heavy cruiser sank 30 minutes later. Due to the strong currents at this spot of the fjord, many soldiers and sailors drowned, including most of the staff of the infantry division. Oslo did not fall until the next day.