Erich Raeder III

German naval costs began to mount as the Norwegian campaign progressed. The Hipper was rammed by a mortally wounded British destroyer (which sank in the collision), and the German cruiser was severely damaged. The light cruiser Karlsruhe was sunk by a British submarine after providing covering fire for the landings at Kristiansand and Arendal. During the Bergen landings the light cruiser Koenigsberg was crippled by Norwegian coastal gunfire and, unable to put to sea, was sunk at her moorings by British aircraft on April 11. Early that same morning the Luetzow (formerly the Deutschland) was torpedoed by a British submarine and lost her entire stern. By superhuman effort her crew somehow kept her afloat until she could be towed to Kiel, but her operational usefulness was over. After this, she could be used for training purposes only. For Admiral Raeder this was perhaps the bitterest blow of the campaign, for he had not wanted either the Luetzow or the Bluecher used in the Norwegian operation, preferring instead to use them as ocean raiders. Sending them to Oslo was Hitler’s idea. But the grand admiral had only himself to blame, because neither he nor the Admiralty staff offered serious objections to the Fuehrer’s decision on this issue. And at this point of the war, Hitler still listened to the advice of his military experts, especially on air force and naval matters.

The biggest defeat for the German Navy in the Norwegian campaign took place in Narvik and adjacent fjords, where Naval Group 1 under the command of Rear Admiral Friedrich Bonte, the commander-in-chief of destroyers, landed Major General Eduard Dietl’s 3rd Mountain Division on April 9. The city fell the same day, as planned, but only one of the eight ships in Bonte’s export echelon arrived. (Three had been sunk or forced to scuttle, and the others, dispersed by a storm, put in at Bergen.) With his fuel tanks nearly empty, Bonte could not leave the port. Instead, he relied on four U-boats to cover the harbor entrance and was taken by surprise when the British 2nd Destroyer Flotilla sailed into the harbor under the cover of a snowstorm. Two German destroyers were sunk in the ensuing battle and three damaged, while one British destroyer was sunk, one beached, and a third was badly damaged. Admiral Bonte was among the dead.

What had happened to the U-boats? They had done what they were supposed to have done. They fired torpedo after torpedo into the British vessels, but all of them had been duds. Once again, as with the magnetic mine, a major German weapon had been neglected. Three days later the pattern was repeated when the British battleship Warspite and nine destroyers entered Narvik harbor and sank the remaining German destroyers. The Warspite and some of the destroyers had been hit by torpedoes from at least three different U-boats, but again they all were duds. The 10 destroyers lost at Narvik represented almost half the German prewar destroyer strength.

These were not the first incidents of German torpedo failure. In October 1939, when Guenther Prien entered Scapa Flow and sank the Royal Oak (see later discussion), four of the seven “fish” he fired failed to explode. Later that month Lieutenant Herbert Schulze (U-48) returned from patrol after sinking five ships, and reported five torpedo failures. And Lieutenant Commander Victor Schuetze of U-25 signaled U-boat Command hopping mad. He had halted a steamer, ordered its crew off, and fired four torpedoes into it at close range, one after the other—every one a dud!

The most important non-sinking occurred (or did not occur) in the North Sea on October 30, 1939, when Lieutenant Wilhelm Zahn of U-56 fired a fan of three torpedoes into the British battleship Nelson. The range was only 800 meters, and there was no way Zahn could miss. All three torpedoes were duds. The Nelson sailed away, all its passengers safe. These included Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet; the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound; and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill.

By early November 1939, Karl Doenitz was reporting to OKM that at least 30 percent of his torpedoes were duds. Yet it was not until April 20, 1940, after Naval Group 1 had been wiped out and a frustrated Doenitz had recalled the entire submarine force on the grounds that he could not fight with blunted weapons did Grand Admiral Raeder belatedly appoint a special commission to investigate the “torpedo crisis.” The resulting scandal shook what was left of the German Navy. Among other things it was discovered that the percussion pistol in the German Aufschlagzuendung (percussion detonating device) had been test-fired only twice (in 1928) before it was labeled “indispensable” by the Torpedo Experimental Institute and, without further testing, was incorporated into all German torpedoes. The magnetically operated detonating device (Magnetzuendung) on the magnetic torpedoes had been developed and tested with a similar lack of thoroughness and had also failed under wartime conditions. The U-boats investigation also uncovered the shocking fact that Vice Admiral Friedrich Goetting, the chief of the Torpedo Inspectorate at OKM, had discovered that the German torpedoes were defective and had twice sent urgent warnings to Admiral Raeder and his SKL staff before the start of the war. His warnings had been ignored. And at Narvik, Admiral Bonte and his men paid the full price for the lethargy of their High Command. Eventually Rear Admiral Oskar Wehr, chief of the Torpedo Trials Command and long-time head of the Torpedo Testing Institute (Torpedo-Versuchs-Anstalt, or TVA), was court-martialed and sentenced, along with two of his principal associates. TVA alone bore the blame for the torpedo crisis, in what one officer called “a travesty of justice.” Grand Admiral Raeder and his staff should have been called to account for ignoring Admiral Goetting’s warnings, but no such action was ever taken.

With the destruction of the German destroyers at Narvik, the way was paved for Allied ground forces to land in northern Norway, which they did on April 24, 1940. Meanwhile, beginning on May 10, Hitler’s Western offensive swept across France and Belgium and trapped the main Anglo-French armies in the Dunkirk pocket, with their backs to the sea. At this point Admiral Raeder informed Hitler that the Scharnhorst and Hipper would be repaired and ready for new missions about May 27 and the Gneisenau a few days later. Raeder wanted to commit them in the area between Norway and the Shetland Islands, to attack Allied supply convoys which, of course, would be protected by Royal Navy warships. Earl F. Ziemke wrote, “During the following days a wide divergence of opinion developed between the Naval Staff [Raeder] on one hand and the operating commands, Naval Group West and Fleet Command, on the other. The operating commands wanted to conserve their forces and believed the chances of success too small to warrant risking the few German heavy ships. But Admiral Raeder and the Naval Staff, probably believing the war was drawing to a close, insisted on adopting aggressive methods to prove the worth of the navy and assure its future development.”

By the time the warships sailed out of Kiel on June 4, the main Allied armies in France had been destroyed or forced off the mainland, and the situation for Dietl’s mountain troops was desperate. They had been forced out of Narvik, were nearly out of ammunition, and were in danger of being destroyed altogether. Meanwhile, at Trondheim, miles south of Narvik, Lieutenant General Valentin Feurstein had organized a relief force and was pushing north toward Narvik. By now Admiral Marschall, the fleet commander and officer in charge of the task force, had been given instructions to provide direct relief for the hard-pressed ground forces at Narvik by attacking British warships and transports at their nearby base of Harstad. But then Admiral Raeder, acting on the orders of Adolf Hitler, commanded him to provide flank protection for General Feurstein. Which mission had priority? Marschall asked. Raeder, in effect, refused to make a decision. “Equal priority” was his answer.

As Marschall steamed toward Narvik with the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the cruiser Hipper, four destroyers, and the naval tanker Dithmarschen, he still did not know what was expected of him. Specific orders from Generaladmiral Alfred Saalwaechter, his direct superior at Naval Group West, did not help, because Admiral Otto Schniewind, Raeder’s chief of staff, signaled him that the Supreme Naval Staff’s order contained no such precise instructions. Schniewind did not, however, actually revoke Saalwaechter’s orders. This was typical of the confusion fleet and task force commanders had to deal with under Admiral Raeder.

On the night of June 7, Marschall received an aerial reconnaissance report that three naval convoys had left Narvik and concluded that the British were evacuating the place. He signaled that he intended to attack these valuable prizes. Raeder and Saalwaechter, however, did not agree with Marschall’s conclusions and signaled back at 5 a.m. on June 8 that his primary mission was still (?!) to strike at Harstad.

Marschall was right: the British were evacuating Narvik. Between June 4 and 8, they pulled out 24,500 men, and Marschall had stumbled right across their line of retreat. Furthermore, they did not yet know he was there. So Admiral Marschall, furious at his superiors’ meddling with the operations of a commander on the spot, took matters into his own hands and went out searching for convoys. The battleships had no luck, but the Hipper sank the British escort trawler Juniper, the Norwegian tanker Old Pioneer, and the 20,000-ton troopship Orama (which was empty). Meanwhile, about 1 p.m., Marschall dispatched his destroyers to assist Feurstein’s advance (as ordered by Hitler) and headed north, where intercepted radio signals indicated he would find the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious and the cruiser Southampton.

The Scharnhorst found the 22,500-ton Glorious at 5:10 p.m. and opened up on her from 26 kilometers away. The Gneisenau opened up a few minutes later with her big guns, while her mediums engaged the British destroyer Ardent. The German battleships pounded the Glorious until she sank at 7 p.m. There were only 43 survivors. Meanwhile, the Ardent went down, and the British destroyer Acasta, a burning wreck, fired four torpedoes at an extreme range of 14 kilometers. Nine minutes later one of them struck the Scharnhorst, tearing a 12-by-4-meter hole in its side. A few minutes later the Acasta disappeared below the waves. Only one man survived.

The Acasta’s lucky shot no doubt saved a great many other British ships, for Admiral Marschall now broke off the pursuit and the Scharnhorst limped into Trondheim for repairs. Admiral Marschall had won a victory even though it had not been a one-sided one. The British had lost more than 1,500 men in the Glorious alone, plus a troopship, a tanker, an armed trawler, and two destroyers. Had Marschall not been saddled with the requirement of supporting Feurstein, his victory would have been even more convincing, and, with the evacuation of Narvik in progress, Feurstein did not need support. But once again the fleet commander received no thanks for his actions, for Admiral Raeder now decided that Harstad had been the primary objective all along and bitterly denounced Marschall for his failure to achieve even greater success. Once again, however, he did not do it officially or to Marschall’s face, but in such a manner that he would be sure to hear about it through third parties. Raeder would not permit a man-to-man confrontation. Nevertheless, he continued to urge Marschall to make another foray (of the type he was simultaneously mercilessly criticizing), this time with the Gneisenau and the Hipper. The fleet commander, however, felt very strongly that Germany should conserve her few remaining capital ships. This elicited new unofficial scorn from Berlin.

On June 18, Fleet Commander Wilhelm Marschall reported himself ill, and indeed he was sick—sick of his chairborne grand admiral. Raeder quickly replaced him with a more pliable man. Now freed of his responsibilities, Marschall began a campaign to have a court of inquiry examine his conduct during Operation Juno, as his Norwegian sortie was called. He made several such attempts, but always in vain. Raeder never gave the former fleet commander a chance to state his case or justify his actions.

Perhaps to shut him up, Raeder recalled Marschall to active duty as an inspector of naval education in late August 1940. From late 1941 until May 1942, he was on special assignments, first at Naval Group South and then with Naval Group Baltic, but still with no real responsibility commensurate with his rank. After that he was again unemployed and went into semi-retirement.

Marschall was replaced as fleet commander on June 18 by Vice Admiral Gunther Luetjens, the former commander-in-chief of Reconnaissance Forces. At SKL’s urging, he sailed out of Trondheim at 4 p.m. on June 20 with the Gneisenau, Hipper, Nuremberg, and one destroyer. Seven hours later the Gneisenau was rocked by an explosion: a torpedo from a British submarine had ripped through her bows, leaving a hole as big as a house in both sides of the ship. The task force headed back for Trondheim, its mission a failure.

The Norwegian campaign had cost the German Navy dearly. In the summer of 1940, it had only one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, and four destroyers fit for action. Norway was the high point for the German surface fleet, which had virtually expended itself. This was no small comfort to the British in the dangerous months ahead.

For Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s proposed invasion of Britain, Raeder was charged with the task of transporting the German Army across the English Channel. However, the German Navy had never developed any landing craft. Raeder therefore collected more than 3,000 vessels of all kinds, including tugboats, river barges, motorboats, steam trawlers, and other dubious vessels, for the assault. If a single British warship had broken into the channel when this fleet attempted to cross, thousands of soldiers would have been slaughtered. Many men looked at these boats and said that they would prefer to swim, and they were only half joking. A great many generals were very happy when the operation was cancelled and not because they were afraid of the British Army.

After Norway, the German naval war became primarily a U-boat war. Raeder had neglected this arm in his quest for a balanced fleet, but on October 10, 1939, after the Z-Plan was scrapped, he called on Hitler to authorize an increase in U-boat production from 2 per month to 29 per month. This was unrealistic—well beyond the capabilities of the German shipyards, which were, in the meantime, supposed to continue with battleships, cruisers, an aircraft carrier, and other vessels already on the stocks. Hitler nodded to Raeder and turned the matter over to Wilhelm Keitel, who informed Raeder that Hermann Goering was in charge of the armaments program. The grand admiral, of course, knew he would get very little help from this enemy. He basically had a choice: continue using his dock capacity for capital ships or for U-boats. This effectively ended the accelerated U-boat construction program, at least for the time being. “Raeder,” Cajus Bekker wrote, “though he supported the U-boat construction programme, refused to do so at the expense of his heavy surface ships, from which he promised himself great strategic results.”

Except for the U-boat war, 1941 was not a good year for the German Navy. The battleship Bismarck was sunk, the few German commerce raiders were run down, and the German battleships found their new French bases vulnerable to RAF attacks. The grand admiral and his staff had underestimated the value of aircraft against naval targets—one reason why Germany never did have an aircraft carrier. They did have one under construction, but it had a low priority and was an on-again, off-again affair.

Also in 1941, Adolf Hitler began to interfere more and more in naval matters at the operational level.

Hitler opposed the idea of sending the Bismarck on its fateful raid into the Atlantic, but Raeder insisted, backed by his yes-man fleet commander, Luetjens. Despite his personal misgivings, Hitler let them have their way. The huge 42,000-ton battleship was sunk off the French coast on May 27, 1941, taking more than 2,000 officers and men to their deaths.

After this disaster, Hitler became more and more critical of Raeder and the surface fleet, and less and less inclined to give him a free hand. On November 13, 1941, Raeder asked permission to send the battleships out on a fresh foray into the North Atlantic in February 1942. Hitler rejected the idea and asked if it were possible to bring the ships home (to German waters) via a surprise breakout through the English Channel. Raeder and his staff doubted it, but on January 12, 1942, Hitler ordered it done nevertheless. And it worked. Raeder’s stock dropped even lower in the Fuehrer’s eyes.

In late December 1942, Vice Admiral Oskar Kummetz led a task force consisting of the Hippel, the Luetzow, and six destroyers in a raid from Trondheim into the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea. Its object was to intercept and destroy Allied Convoy PQ-17; which was heading for Russia with every conceivable type of war material. Unfortunately, bound by SKL orders not to take any major risks, Kummetz accomplished very little. His force was superior to the screen of British destroyers that blocked his path to the convoy, but he could not penetrate it without risk. Even so, as he withdrew from the battle he was surprised by two British cruisers, which had come up unseen from the opposite direction. The Hipper was damaged and a destroyer was lost with all hands.

Meanwhile, back at his Rastenburg headquarters in East Prussia, Adolf Hitler anxiously awaited news of the foray for three days. He was so nervous that he could not sleep. On January 1, 1943, he finally heard what had happened and flew into a rage. He decided on the spot to pay off the heavy ships and reduce them to scrap. Their guns, he said, could be used as coastal defense artillery. He demanded that Grand Admiral Raeder appear before him at once.

Back in Berlin, however, Raeder feigned illness. This bought him five days. He hoped that Hitler would calm down in that amount of time. The Fuehrer did not. When he saw Raeder on January 6, he launched into a roaring monologue that lasted two hours. The grand admiral never said a word as Hitler recited the list of failures of the German surface fleet, damning it every way he could think of. He ended his tirade by repeating his order to disband the surface fleet. When Hitler finally finished, Erich Raeder resigned his post as commander-in-chief of the navy. The Fuehrer immediately softened his attitude and tried to dissuade him from quitting, but Raeder insisted. He had heard too much. To preserve the fiction of harmony within the High Command, Raeder retired on January 30, 1943—the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s assumption of power. He was also given the honorary title of inspector general of the navy—a strictly ceremonial position. Ironically it was his successor, U-boat Fuehrer Karl Doenitz, who convinced Hitler not to disband the remnants of the surface fleet.

Erich Raeder’s resignation came too late to help the German Navy. One by one the remaining ships of the surface fleet were destroyed by Allied submarines or air attacks, and the U-boat offensives were smashed by an enemy that was both quantitatively and technologically superior. Meanwhile, the Allied ground forces closed in, and in May 1945, Erich Raeder and his wife were captured by the Russians. The former admiral suffered a near-fatal heart attack on May 20, but as soon as he had recovered enough to travel, he and his spouse were flown to Moscow. That fall he was indicted as a war criminal and brought to Nuremberg to stand trial. On the stand he spoke of how Hitler deceived him many times and how he found the dictator impossible to get along with. In general, he tried to disassociate himself from the regime and minimized his own involvement as much as possible. On the issue of the invasion of Norway, he merely told the truth: all he did was beat the British to the punch. However, his attorney’s efforts to get the official British directives and plans introduced as evidence were rejected. Raeder’s conviction on the Norwegian charge is widely considered a travesty of justice, considering that the Allies were planning to do the same thing, but the tribunal was very selective about the evidence it would allow to be presented. On the other hand, however, Admiral Raeder could not dodge the fact that he passed on Hitler’s Commando Order of October 18, 1942, which ordered that Allied commandoes and paratroopers captured behind German lines were to be executed, whether they were in uniform or not.

Karl Doenitz, for one, was furious with Raeder’s testimony. “I cannot stand it when people turn their coats because the wind is blowing the other way,” he remarked. “I know how Raeder talked when he was the big chief and I was just a little man in the navy. It was altogether different then, I can tell you that. It gives me a pain to hear them change their tune now and say they always opposed Hitler.”

Despite Raeder’s evasions he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. When he heard the sentence, he implored the court to change it to death by firing squad. His request was denied. Raeder was sent to Spandau while his wife, who was never accused of committing any crime, remained a Soviet prisoner until September 1949. The couple was finally allowed to see each other again in March 1950, when they got to spend 15 minutes together. Raeder requested to be released long enough to attend the funeral of his only son, Hans, who died in Lippstadt on January 17, 1953, but this was denied him.

Much to his surprise, Erich Raeder was released due to his ill health on September 17, 1955, at the age of 80. He retired to Kiel, where he wrote his memoirs, Mein lben (My Life), a book that makes very interesting reading even though, in places, the author’s recollections are highly selective. Plagued by ill health in the last years of his life, Grand Admiral Raeder died in Kiel on November 6, 1960, at the age of 84.

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