The U-boat War, the Baltic Sea, and Norway II

A Beriev MBR-2 soviet floatplane bombing a German cargo ship.

The Soviet Baltic Fleet

Dönitz’s greatest fear was that the Soviet fleet would sail from Kronstadt into the Baltic and wreak havoc in U-boat testing and training areas. Until the fall of 1944 he could point to the importance of shipping supplies to Finland and receiving imports from Sweden as equally vital reasons to maintain the blockade of the Soviet fleet within the Gulf of Finland. Then Finland surrendered and Sweden closed its ports to German vessels. Dönitz’s cries to keep Russian warships out of the Baltic, however, became no less shrill.

The Russians had begun to build up their fleet in the mid-1930s, because Stalin hoped to make the Soviet Union a world-class naval power. One area in which the Soviet Navy had an advantage over the Germans was its independent air arm, an asset Dönitz eagerly desired. Yet in the midst of the naval building program Stalin carried out his purges, which struck the Soviet Navy even more ruthlessly than the Red Army. In June 1941 Russia’s Baltic Fleet consisted of two old battleships, two modern cruisers, two antiquated cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, seventy submarines, and numerous smaller vessels. Raeder kept little of his naval strength in the Baltic in June 1941, because he expected the army to capture Russian naval bases quickly. The German Navy planned a defensive campaign in the Baltic, laying mine barrages to pin the Russian fleet within the Gulf of Finland until its bases had fallen.

At first everything proceeded according to plan. As Nazi troops neared Reval the Russians planned to withdraw to Kronstadt, forming four convoys with over one hundred warships and sixty transports and auxiliary vessels. The ships sailed from Reval but encountered trouble almost immediately. The convoys ran into German mines and came under repeated attack by aircraft. Exact losses are uncertain, but an estimated sixteen warships and thirty-five transports sank during the flight from Reval. By mid-September the Germans had severed Leningrad’s land contact with the Russian interior. Hitler feared the Soviet fleet would attempt to flee to neutral Sweden and he ordered German warships to take up blocking positions near the Åland Islands. The Luftwaffe then carried out a series of air raids on the Soviet fleet, damaging nearly all the heavy Soviet warships. By the end of the month the Skl had returned German warships to their home ports. For nearly three years Russia’s Baltic Fleet remained blockaded near Leningrad. During this time its vessels served as floating artillery batteries, aiding in the defense of Leningrad and in January 1944 shelling German positions to support the offensive that finally lifted the siege. Soviet submarines broke into the Baltic in 1942, but they could not penetrate the mine barrages and submarine nets the Germans erected the following year.

Shortly after his appointment as the German Navy’s commander, Dönitz instructed the fleet to consider action to counter the possible emergence of Soviet warships from the Gulf of Finland. Soviet minesweepers became more active there during the summer of 1943, increasing anxiety within the German Navy. As a precautionary measure the Skl ordered one thousand mines held in readiness in case the Soviet fleet forced a passage through existing mine barrages. In the fall of 1943 Dönitz faced a dilemma. Fearful of attracting Allied air raids to submarine bases and training areas, in September 1943 he forbade the transfer of the damaged battleship Tirpitz to Gdynia for repairs. To Dönitz, an operational battleship in no way justified the possible threat to the U-boat war, and Hitler supported Dönitz in this decision. Naval Group Command North/Fleet proposed the transfer of the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to Norway to compensate for the Tirpitz’ s operational loss. Dönitz agreed to release Prinz Eugen from its training duties and prepare it for action, but not in Norway. He ordered the cruiser to remain in the Baltic, insisting that even a temporary disruption to the U-boat war must be avoided.

At the beginning of 1944 the Soviets lifted the siege of Leningrad and pushed the Germans back to Narva. Dönitz’s panic resulting from these events has been examined previously. The Skl’s fear of the Soviet fleet’s breaking out from Kronstadt threatened to become reality. At this time the Germans gauged Soviet naval strength at one battleship, three cruisers, eleven destroyers, fifty motor torpedo boats, thirty-five submarines, and over one hundred small vessels. Compared to the British fleet this was not a terrifying force, but the Skl preferred not to have to scrape together units to meet this threat. The Second Task Force Dönitz had formed in January remained operational.

Finally, with Finland’s defection, the failure to capture Hogland, and Army Group North’s withdrawal from Estonia, the Skl’s fears were realized. Russia controlled the entire coast along the Gulf of Finland, and Soviet warships could enter the Baltic from Finnish ports or from Reval. Several naval commanders believed the Soviets would immediately send out submarines and motor torpedo boats. To make matters worse, German naval intelligence confirmed POW reports that the Soviets had increased their submarine strength in the Baltic by bringing additional submarines to Kronstadt via the Ladoga Canal and Volkhov River. Although the Germans did not expect the appearance of heavy surface vessels before the following spring, they could not rule this out. Germany’s Baltic task force made preparations for a fleet engagement.

The belief in an imminent fleet engagement made the Germans reluctant to expose the Second Task Force to danger for any other purpose. Admiral Burchardi maintained it was too risky to support Army Group North’s withdrawal in the Riga area, insisting that the task force remain clear for action against the Soviet fleet; similarly, Meisel informed Guderian in December 1944 that the navy had to preserve its cruisers and destroyers for an anticipated clash with the Russian fleet. Kummetz declared his intention to send the Second Task Force into action as soon as vessels the size of a destroyer or larger appeared. In mid-February 1945 Soviet motor torpedo boats attacked a Courland convoy. Dönitz’s reaction to this relatively minor incident demonstrates his fear that disaster loomed. He considered transferring Germany’s entire motor-torpedo-boat force from Holland and Norway to the Baltic. Other officers vigorously protested this proposal, and cooler heads pointed out that there would be problems finding bases for these vessels and that the withdrawal of all such vessels from the West would free considerable enemy forces. Meisel suggested that Dönitz transfer only two of the six flotillas currently stationed in the West. The following day Kummetz reported that Soviet aircraft were his greatest concern and assured the Skl that his forces could deal with Russian surface vessels in the area. Dönitz calmed down and accepted Meisel’s proposal. Nonetheless, Dönitz still wanted to wipe out any Soviet surface vessel that endangered the revival of the U-boat war. He advocated a raid by German destroyers or torpedo boats against Soviet bases in Lithuania, but the Skl warned that the danger from German mines in the area was too great. The Skl recalled the disasters that had befallen the warships that had attempted to reinforce German minefields the previous year. Dönitz did not.

The following month it was Hitler’s turn to panic. Upon receiving reports of the presence of Soviet submarines in the Pomeranian port of Stolpmünde, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to attack these submarines, even if this meant postponing other tasks. Upon further investigation the “Soviet submarines” turned out to be sunken German vessels. At this time Second Army was fighting for its life around Danzig and Gdynia, but Hitler considered the destruction of suspected enemy submarines in the central Baltic more important. The first Type XXIIIs were then already operating off the coast of England, and Dönitz had promised that the Type XXIs would be ready any day.

As its naval bases in eastern Germany fell to the Soviets one after another, the German Navy still scanned the horizon for the Russian fleet. In mid-March Kummetz stated his intention to leave strong fleet units in the eastern Baltic to oppose Soviet warships. On 13 April the Army of East Prussia reported that enemy motor torpedo boats had been spotted in the Bay of Danzig. But by this time there was little Dönitz could do. Most of Germany’s fleet had been destroyed, and the few vessels that remained had no fuel. Nonetheless, and despite his fears, not even a single Soviet destroyer had entered the Baltic.

To the Germans the inactivity of the Soviet fleet was incomprehensible. Kummetz in particular was perplexed, claiming that Russian destroyers could have greatly aided the Red Army by disrupting Courland’s supply. Kummetz assumed that Stalin wished to preserve his navy and preferred not to risk a battle with the German fleet. The complete inactivity of the Soviet Baltic Fleet’s heavy surface vessels is indeed puzzling. The Russians recognized well enough the danger from German submarines to the Arctic convoys that brought them food and equipment. Yet they failed to grasp that the best chance of countering this threat lay in disrupting the delivery of combat-ready U-boats. In fact, the Soviets protested that British mining of the central Baltic threatened their own submarine operations. Even the Baltic Fleet’s air arm failed to concentrate on naval targets, flying far more sorties to support the land front. Soviet submarines, although occasionally sinking crowded refugee ships with great loss of life, torpedoed only a tiny percentage of the German vessels sailing in the Baltic. Soviet sources account for this poor performance by claiming that submarine commanders lacked experience in conducting night attacks; the Germans normally kept their vessels in port during daylight hours and sailed only under cover of darkness. Furthermore, Russian torpedo fire control systems and target-location equipment were rather primitive at that time. Soviet reports also contend that the mine situation in the Gulf of Finland remained too precarious to risk action by the Baltic Fleet.

Another possible explanation for the Baltic Fleet’s inactivity was lack of manpower. In the initial phase of the war the Soviet Navy provided 346,750 sailors to fight on land. The sailors withdrawn from the Baltic Fleet for Leningrad’s defense in the summer and autumn of 1941 probably suffered heavy casualties during the bitter fighting of that period. The loss of experienced seamen and the fleet’s inability to train throughout the almost three-year blockade would have been a formidable, although not insurmountable, obstacle. If Stalin had ordered the Baltic Fleet to sail, it would have done so, regardless of the cost.

Another theory is that Hitler’s invasion caught the Soviet Navy in a period of transition. During the 1920s and 1930s the navy had considered England its most likely foe. Due to numerical inferiority to the British fleet, Soviet naval strategists focused upon active defense, intending to fight only under the most favorable conditions. Such propitious conditions would be somewhat rare in wartime, and in effect this limited the fleet to coastal defense and support of the army’s flanks along Russia’s coast. In the years preceding the war a strategy of command of the seas began to gain acceptance. The German invasion, however, brought an end to the construction of capital ships, catching the Soviet Navy in the midst of transition from a “young school” to an “old school” strategy, and bereft of its most capable officers as a result of the purges. The Russian navy revealed itself unwilling to adjust, or incapable of adjusting, to the combination of strategic defense and tactical offense that the situation now required. Yet again, if Stalin had ordered the Baltic Fleet to attack, the navy would have adjusted its strategy accordingly. This explanation also fails to account for the success and aggressiveness of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in comparison to the Baltic Fleet.

A third possibility is that the Soviets did not recognize the potential of their navy. In view of Russian activity in the Baltic theater, it appears that the Soviets regarded the sea primarily as a convenient chopping block, with which they could split up German armies on the land front. Soviet armies in this theater never captured a major port in initial attacks. Instead, they veered from centers of resistance and broke through to the coast in lightly defended sectors. Had Russian troops seized Libau in their initial drive to the Baltic in early October 1944, German forces in Courland almost certainly would have been doomed due to lack of supplies. Without Libau as a supply port, Army Group North probably would have been forced to try to break through to East Prussia, a risky operation in view of Soviet troop concentrations in the area. Similarly, the appearance of Soviet warships off Courland’s coast would have caused major disruptions in the army group’s supply. A raid by a few Russian destroyers at critical periods, such as in the midst of the Third Kurland Battle, could have temporarily thrown German supply efforts into disarray. The importance of Baltic ports to the Germans seems to have been a factor the Soviets simply failed to comprehend.

Dönitz had no way of knowing this. Based on German experiences in the Black Sea, where Russian naval forces had proved quite active, Dönitz had to anticipate offensive action by Soviet warships in the Baltic. Since the German Navy’s primary goal was to revive the U-boat war, the Baltic represented a much more vital area than the Black Sea. For this reason Dönitz had advised Voss in August 1943 not to object too strenuously to proposals to retreat from the Kuban but to protest vigorously any suggestion to withdraw from the Leningrad area. Throughout 1944 and 1945 Dönitz apprehensively awaited reports that the Soviet fleet had sailed from Kronstadt, but his fears never materialized.

Norway

Hitler’s refusal to abandon Norway in the war’s final months is another subject that has long puzzled historians. Along with his demands to evacuate Courland, Guderian also repeatedly urged Hitler to withdraw forces from Norway in order to provide troops for the Eastern Front. But the Baltic was not the only area Dönitz considered vital for the U-boat war. The invasion of Scandinavia in April 1940 took place at the navy’s behest. Raeder had frequently warned Hitler of dire consequences if the British occupied Norway and pointed out the great advantages that would accrue from German possession of that country. Yet the Nazi occupation of Norway did not ease Hitler’s concern, because after the Norwegian campaign he still feared a British invasion in Scandinavia. In September 1941 he mentioned to Raeder the possibility of moving part of the surface fleet from France to protect Norway, citing the danger from air raids to warships in Brest. His anxiety increased, and at the end of December he ordered Raeder to move all battleships and pocket battleships to Norway. The battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen carried out the “Channel dash” in mid-February 1942. The transfer of these vessels under Britain’s nose was a great propaganda coup, but strategically it signified the German fleet’s assumption of defensive tasks, leaving only the U-boat arm and occasional air sorties to disrupt shipping to the British Isles.

In January 1942 Hitler maintained that intelligence pointed to an imminent invasion of northern Norway, and he warned that a successful Allied landing could decisively influence the course of the war. Allied control of Scandinavia would jeopardize Germany’s domination of the Baltic and its supply of Swedish iron ore and Finnish nickel. He also believed that the Soviets’ ability to resist depended upon supplies shipped to Murmansk and Archangel; an Allied landing on Norway’s Arctic coast would greatly reduce the threat to convoys to Russia. Hitler commanded the army and Luftwaffe to reinforce their units in the north; also, in an extraordinary display of anxiety, he ordered all U-boats transferred to Norwegian waters, to give advance warning of an invasion. A few days later Hitler again demonstrated his distress, insisting to Wagner that every warship not off Norway was in the wrong place. Hitler’s concern for Scandinavia persisted. Throughout 1943 he considered a landing in Norway likely, especially since the North African invasion in November 1942 indicated an Allied strategy of striking at the Reich’s periphery. At the turn of the year Hitler again pointed out the danger of an Allied landing and instructed the navy to deploy sixty to eighty submarines in Norwegian waters. Yet another invasion scare occurred shortly after the Allies landed in Normandy. In the autumn of 1943 Denmark joined the list of areas Hitler considered likely targets for an Allied invasion, and he began to strengthen its coastal defenses and build up reserves there in October. At the end of the year the Germans had six divisions, with about 130,000 troops, in Denmark and over thirteen divisions, with 314,000 men, in Norway.

Finland’s withdrawal from the war in September 1944 also had ramifications for Norway’s defense. Although Hitler originally planned to retain part of northern Finland for its nickel deposits, on 3 October he ordered Twentieth Mountain Army to continue its withdrawal to Norway. Rendulic, then commander of Twentieth Mountain Army, received instructions to retreat to the Lyngen Position, a line across northern Norway from Lyngen Fjord to the northern tip of Sweden. Several factors influenced Hitler’s decision to withdraw from Finland. Perhaps most important, Speer had reported that Germany possessed sufficient stockpiles of nickel, so there was no need to hold Finland’s nickel mines. Twentieth Mountain Army’s withdrawal would also provide reinforcements against a feared British landing in Norway, strengthen the Narvik area against a possible Swedish attack, and ease the strain on coastal shipping supplying units in the far north. Under difficult Arctic conditions, Twentieth Mountain Army completed its retreat to the Lyngen Position at the end of January 1945. In the course of this withdrawal Hitler feared the Allies would attack Norway to trap Twentieth Mountain Army between an Anglo-American invasion force and pursuing Soviet troops.

Hitler insisted that the British wanted to keep the Soviets out of Norway and could accomplish this only by occupying the country themselves. At this time Dönitz was not as concerned with Norway, regarding Denmark as a more likely site for an invasion. Dönitz ordered coastal batteries erected on Jutland’s east coast and on the islands of Seeland and Fünen and warned against withdrawing too many troops from Denmark. He feared that the Royal Navy would attempt to break through the Skagerrak and stage a landing. This would prove disastrous, cutting off Norway completely and crippling the U-boat war by blocking submarines’ entrance and exit routes to the Atlantic. At the same time Dönitz insisted that the Danish ports of Aalborg and Aarhus were indispensable, both for the U-boat war and to maintaining supply shipments to Norway. At the end of January 1945 Dönitz pointed out that Allied occupation of Seeland would almost totally seal off entrances to the Baltic.

In the summer of 1944 Norway’s importance to the navy vastly increased. The Allied invasion of France radically undercut the foundations of the U-boat war. As early as 13 June Meisel declared that the navy had to prepare additional submarine bases in Norway. Dönitz, at this time in his period of despair, glumly responded that bunkers required a great deal of time and effort to build and that he could not count on Norway with certainty. In August Meisel again advocated the preparation of more U-boat berths in Norway. Dönitz still believed that maintenance of Norwegian bases posed too many problems and declared that the U-boat war would continue from German ports, in order to concentrate all resources in one area. Meisel refused to give up. At the end of August he informed assembled naval commanders that in the future the U-boat war would continue from bases in Germany and Norway. For this reason it was vital for the navy to keep open sea routes in the Baltic and the North Sea. Meisel declared this a task of the first order. He again emphasized this point early the next month, recalling that Dönitz had repeatedly maintained that the revival of the U-boat war was the navy’s foremost goal. With the loss of French bases, Norway would serve as the staging area from which to launch the new U-boat offensive.

Adm. Eberhard Godt, head of the U-boat operations section, also recognized the increased importance of Norwegian ports for submarine operations. The two officers convinced Dönitz of Norway’s significance, and as a result the grand admiral opposed the decision to evacuate all German forces from Norway north of the Lyngen Position. He suggested leaving troops to protect coastal artillery batteries at Hammerfest and Alta Fjord, claiming that these important areas should not simply be handed over to the enemy. Hitler agreed, and Twentieth Mountain Army left small detachments at Hammerfest and Alta. The Germans did not evacuate Hammerfest until mid-February 1945.

Following the failure of the Ardennes offensive and with the approach of operational readiness for the new-type XXI and XXIII submarines, Norway’s value to Dönitz grew. Guderian repeatedly demanded the evacuation of troops from Norway to defend the Reich, but as had been the case with Courland, Hitler refused. Early in February 1945 Assmann requested the Skl’s opinion on a proposal to withdraw additional divisions from Norway, which would result in the evacuation of northern Norway. The Skl replied that a retreat from the Tromsö–Narvik area would cause very serious problems for the U-boat war, since enemy pressure on the Trondheim area would then increase. The Skl regarded loss of the Trondheim area as totally unacceptable, and Dönitz agreed. At the beginning of May 1945 Gen. Franz Boehme, commander of German armed forces in Norway, reported to Dönitz that eleven divisions and five brigades remained in the country, the total strength of German forces in Norway amounting to 380,000 men.

In early March Boehme called for a withdrawal from northern Norway and for a curtailment of the construction of submarine bunkers due to shortages of coal, cement, and other supplies. The Skl again warned OKW that these measures would cripple the U-boat war. A week later Jodl presented Hitler with the army’s request to withdraw south of Narvik in order to ease the supply situation. Hitler refused this proposal, because he feared the evacuation of northern Norway would entice Sweden to enter the war against Germany; he also claimed that Germany needed fish from the Lofoten Islands to feed its populace. In addition, he declared that Allied possession of northern Norway would threaten vital submarine bases in the southern part of the country. By the end of the month Hitler was continuing to insist on the defense of Tromsö, Harstad, and Narvik.

To the very end Dönitz and the Skl clung to the dream of operating the Type XXI submarines from Norway. Boehme asked the navy’s commander in Norway at the end of April if he still considered occupation of the Narvik sector vital. On 27 April—three days prior to Hitler’s suicide—the Skl replied that despite the fuel situation, the Narvik area was essential as for submarines. On the night of 3 May the Skl instructed the U-boat operations staff that even if the enemy occupied all of northern Germany, the U-boat war would continue from Norway. For that reason Dönitz had sent Godt and Hessler to Norway that afternoon. Dönitz still had not given up. Only on 4 May did OKW order troops in Norway to avoid incidents that might provoke the Western powers. The location of operational Type XXI submarines at the end of the war provides additional evidence of Germans plans to renew the U-boat campaign from Scandinavia. Of sixteen Type XXIs submarines ready for action, ten were in Norway and three in Denmark, and seventeen of twenty Type XXIIIs were in Norway.

Norway and Denmark had one factor in common with Estonia—they controlled entrance to the Baltic. The Skl feared the consequences of an Anglo-American breakthrough into the Baltic from the West almost as much as a Soviet one from the East. Dönitz informed Hitler that in the event of a major landing in Scandinavia, he planned to oppose the Allies with the task force in northern Norway as well as with warships from the Training Fleet and all available destroyers, torpedo boats, and motor torpedo boats in the Baltic, even those from training schools.97 Hitler had approved Dönitz’s decision not to send the fleet to combat an Allied landing on the French or Dutch coast, but Dönitz intended to engage the same enemy warships if they invaded Denmark and southern Norway. In other words, Dönitz was willing to risk a fleet engagement with either the Soviet or the clearly superior British fleet to protect any threat to his Baltic training areas.

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