Admiral Sir Max Horton, RN (1883–1951)



During the First World War, Horton had been one of Britain’s ablest submarine commanders. There could therefore have been no one better to lead the fight against the German U-boat menace as Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches from 1942. His overriding responsibility was for the safety of the convoys crossing the North Atlantic, a role that became increasingly important as the content of the convoys started to include US and Canadian troops coming to the UK for the invasion of Europe.

Horton joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet at Dartmouth on 15 September 1898. By the outbreak of the First World War, he was already a lieutenant commander in command of one of the first British ocean-going submarines, the 800-ton HMS E9. Surface ships rather than other submarines were the more usual victims of submarine attack. On 13 September 1914, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton was in command of E9 when she surfaced 6 miles south of Heligoland to find the German light cruiser Hela only 2 miles away. Closing to a range of about 600 yards, E9 sent two torpedoes towards the enemy ship before diving. As the submarine dived, an explosion was heard. Surfacing, Horton found that his prey had stopped, but enemy gunfire forced him to dive again and to stay down for an hour. Surfacing again, he could see nothing other than trawlers searching for survivors. On his return to his base at Harwich, Horton flew the pirate flag, the ‘Jolly Roger’ skull and crossbones, establishing a tradition in the Royal Navy’s submarine service for boats returning from a successful operational cruise. Horton’s next success came on 6 October while patrolling off the Ems, when he torpedoed and sank the destroyer S-126.

In the face of growing German U-boat activity, it had been decided to take the offensive, sending British submarines to the Baltic, where they could in turn wreak havoc on German shipping, in effect giving the enemy a taste of his own medicine. The idea had first been floated at a conference with Jellicoe aboard the Iron Duke on 17 September 1914. By the time implementation was in hand, the proposed flotilla had become just three boats, E11, E9 and E1, with three hand-picked commanders, Lieutenant Commander Martin Nasmith, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton and Lieutenant Commander Noel Laurence respectively. Laurence was the senior officer.

Submarines were the only warships that could hope to enter the Baltic unobserved, at least in theory as the charts showed that there was not enough depth for submarines to submerge in the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden. Horton, commander of E9, suggested that the way to enter the Baltic was to run on the surface, but with the submarine trimmed down as low as possible in the water in the hope that at night the small conning tower of these early craft might not be noticed. His first patrol in the Baltic was nearly his last as he only narrowly missed being seen and rammed by a destroyer. German patrols were not the only hazard awaiting him. On one occasion his boat was frozen in port, and although he managed to get an ice-breaker to get out into the Gulf of Finland, once in the open sea E9 started to ice up, and frozen slush clogged vents and valves froze solid. Spray froze on the rigging wires, the torpedo-tube caps and the periscope. Horton was determined to discover whether or not E9 could still dive and to everyone’s surprise, once she submerged, the warmer water soon melted the ice and the submarine was able to operate normally. The other major problem was that the British submarines were using Russian ports, but as the Russian forces fell back before the German advance on the Eastern Front, they had to change bases constantly. Operations were finally abandoned in 1917 because of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Between the wars, Horton, now a captain, served as commanding officer of first HMS Conquest and of the battleship Resolution during the 1920s. He was promoted to rear admiral on 17 October 1932, flying his flag aboard the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship Malaya. Three years later he took command of the First Cruiser Squadron, flying his flag aboard London. Promoted to vice admiral in 1937, he commanded the Reserve Fleet.

Northern Patrol

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Horton was put in command of the Northern Patrol enforcing the distant maritime blockade of Germany in the seas between Orkney, Shetland and the Faeroes. In 1940, he was made commander of all home-based submarines, even though he was far more senior in rank than the C-in-C Submarines had traditionally been, due to a new Admiralty regulation that the C-in-C Submarines had to be an officer who had served aboard submarines in the First World War. Many believed that this regulation was forced through for the sole purpose of ensuring that Horton was on a very short list of qualifiers for the post, in order to ensure his rapid transfer to submarine headquarters at Aberdour, so great was the desire of some within the Admiralty to have him revitalize the submarine arm. Horton also had his own ideas and moved his headquarters from Aberdour, where he was subjected to the whims and prejudices of the fleet commanders at Scapa Flow, to Northways in north London. He claimed that this was because he wanted a freer hand in running his command, but many feel that it was because Northways was located near some of his favorite golf courses (he is said to have played a round of golf almost every day during the war).

He was promoted to the four-star rank of admiral on 9 January 1941 and was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches Command on 17 November 1942. He took up his role as C-in-C Western Approaches at the most critical time of the war, with heavy losses to merchant shipping. Nevertheless, by May 1943, the situation had been transformed. He put in hand a series of changes in the way the escort ships were to be used. In addition to the escort group system, he oversaw the introduction of support groups, which would accompany the convoys but have the freedom to pursue submarines to destruction, being allowed to leave the convoy for long periods. These support groups proved to be decisive in the crucial spring of 1943, taking the battle to the U-boats and crushing the morale of the U-boat arm with persistent and successful counter-attacks.

Horton is widely regarded as one of the most crucial figures in the Allied victory in the Atlantic. The use of merchant aircraft carriers, the MAC-ships, and then escort carriers, helped close the Atlantic Gap – that section of the crossing that was beyond shore-based air cover – while the longer-range of aircraft such as the Consolidated Liberator also ensured greater security for the convoys. The increased number of purpose-built escort vessels, together with the Ultra intelligence that gave Horton the position of the U-boat wolf packs, all contributed to the Allied success. While much of this was the work of others, Horton was responsible for the overall control and coordination, and has been credited with showing untiring zeal, shrewdness and good strategic sense in the disposition of his forces. Perhaps his secret was that this successful submariner understood the workings of the minds of the U-boat commanders.

After the war, in August 1945, and at his own request, Max Horton was placed on the retired list in order to facilitate the promotion of younger officers. He was in any case past the peacetime retirement age. He was awarded the Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath. He died on 30 July 1951 at the age of sixty-seven.


Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope, RN (1883–1963) I


Christened as Andrew Browne Cunningham, perhaps inevitably he was known affectionately as ‘ABC to his subordinates, not that many would have dared address him as such. His early career was typical of that of many British naval officers, graduating from the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Between the two world wars, he also suffered the inconvenience and insecurity of being ‘rested’ on half pay, even as a rear admiral. This was an old British naval tradition in peacetime for officers of the rank of rear admiral and below whenever there were more senior officers than posts, and one that did not end until the Second World War.

Andrew Cunningham was born at Rathmines, County Dublin, Ireland, on 7 January 1883 to Scottish parents. He was sent to Edinburgh Academy. The family had no maritime connections and Cunningham only had a vague interest in the sea, but he decided that he would like to join the Royal Navy and was sent to a Naval Preparatory School, Stubbington House, which specialized in sending pupils through the Dartmouth entrance examinations, in which he showed a particular ability for mathematics. Dartmouth at the time was organized and run much as a boarding school, which meant that parents had to pay fees.

At Dartmouth, Cunningham’s introduction to the Royal Navy was as a cadet aboard the hulked training ship HMS Britannia in 1897, where one of his classmates was the future Admiral of the Fleet James Fownes Somerville. He passed out 10th in April 1898, with first-class marks for mathematics and seamanship.

He joined HMS Doris as a midshipman in 1899 and was in South Africa at the start of the Second Boer War. By February 1900, he had transferred into the Naval Brigade ashore looking for action, which he saw at Pretoria and Diamond Hill. He returned to sea, still as a midshipman in Hannibal in December 1901, before joining the protected cruiser HMS Diadem the following year, during which he also took sub-lieutenant courses at Portsmouth and Greenwich. In 1903, he was a sub lieutenant in the battleship Implacable in the Mediterranean, but after six months he was transferred to Locust to serve as second-in-command. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1904, and in 1908 was awarded his first command, HM Torpedo Boat No. 14.

Cunningham’s career spanned the end of the old Victorian navy with ships that, as Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher put it, ‘could neither fight nor run away’, and the twentieth-century navy in which the submarine and the aeroplane achieved overwhelming importance. He was a young officer when the all-big-gun battleship emerged, and took some time to appreciate the importance of air power, although he was to use this very effectively. He proved himself to be an outstanding commanding officer at sea during the First World War, winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with two bars.

In 1911 he was given command of the destroyer Scorpion, which he commanded throughout the war. In 1914, his ship was involved in the shadowing of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and cruiser SMS Breslau, which were chased across the Mediterranean, but which passed through the Dardanelles to reach Constantinople. Cunningham stayed on in the Mediterranean and, in 1915, Scorpion was involved in the attack on the Dardanelles. Cunningham was promoted to commander and awarded his first DSO. In late 1916, he was engaged in convoy protection, a duty he regarded as mundane, probably because he had no contact with German U-boats during this time, later stating that: ‘The immunity of my convoys, was probably due to sheer luck.’ When Scorpion paid off on 21 January 1918, he had been aboard the ship for the unusually long period of seven years. He was transferred to Vice Admiral Roger Keyes’ Dover Patrol in April 1918.

Post-war, Cunningham commanded another S-class destroyer, the Seafire, on duty in the Baltic. The British Government had recognized Latvia’s independence after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Throughout several potentially problematic encounters with German forces trying to undermine the Latvian independence movement, according to his flag officer, Vice Admiral Cowan, Cunningham exhibited ‘good self control and judgement’, and ‘Commander Cunningham … has proved himself an officer of exceptional valour and unerring resolution.’

Afterwards, Cunningham was awarded a second bar to his DSO and promoted to Captain in 1920. On his return from the Baltic in 1922, he was appointed Captain of the British Sixth Destroyer Flotilla. Further commands followed including the destroyer base, Lochinvar, at Port Edgar in the Firth of Forth in 1926. Later, Cunningham became Flag Captain and Chief Staff Officer to Cowan while serving on the North America and West Indies Station. The late 1920s found Cunningham back in the UK participating in courses at the Army’s Senior Officers’ School at Sheerness, as well as spending a year at the Imperial Defence College. Afterwards, Cunningham was given command of the battleship Rodney. Eighteen months later, he was appointed Commodore of Pembroke, the Royal Naval barracks at Chatham.

In September 1932, Cunningham was promoted to rear admiral and became Aide-de-Camp to King George V, before being appointed Rear Admiral (Destroyers) in the Mediterranean in December 1933. He hoisted his flag in the flight cruiser Coventry and used this time to practise fleet handling. There were also fleet exercises in the Atlantic Ocean where he learnt the skills of night actions that would prove their value at Matapan.

On his promotion to vice admiral in July 1936, further active employment seemed remote. However, a year later, due to the illness of Sir Geoffrey Blake, Cunningham assumed the combined appointment of commander of the British Battlecruiser Squadron and second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, with Hood as his flagship. He retained command until September 1938, when he was appointed to the Admiralty as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, although he did not actually take up this post until December 1938. He accepted this shore job with reluctance since he loathed administration, but the Board of Admiralty’s high regard for him was evident. During a six-month illness of Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, the then First Sea Lord, he deputized for Backhouse on the Committee of Imperial Defence and on the Admiralty Board.

The outbreak of war found Cunningham as an acting admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, which he regarded as ‘the finest in the Royal Navy’. It was clear that the Mediterranean theatre would be crucial during the war, with the ‘Med’, in British naval slang, being part of the route from the British Isles to India, the Middle East and Australia. Italy’s expansive plans in North Africa were clear from the Abyssinian crisis onwards and the close relationship between her Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the German Führer, Adolph Hitler, was all too obvious. The two countries had also sent forces to support the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Italy was geographically positioned to cut the Mediterranean in half and also posed a threat to the Royal Navy’s main base in the Mediterranean, Malta. All in all, everyone was surprised when the Italians did not declare war in September 1939.

The Mediterranean Fleet was one of the plum commands in the Royal Navy, second only to what was, at different times, termed as the Grand Fleet, Atlantic Fleet and, in 1939, the Home Fleet. It had a base at Gibraltar as well as at Malta, while Alexandria in Egypt was shared by the British Mediterranean Fleet and the French Marine Nationale, but Egypt was run almost as a British colony or protectorate, and the country’s navy even had a British admiral in command.

Despite the importance of his command and of the three bases, there was no fighter defence for Gibraltar or Malta at the outbreak of war, while Cunningham had just one aircraft carrier in 1939, the converted flight battlecruiser HMS Glorious, which was called to home waters for operations off Norway in spring 1940. The even older Eagle, a converted battleship, was recalled from the Indian Ocean as a replacement. The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean was outgunned by the Italian Navy, which had six battleships against the Royal Navy’s three. It took the French Mediterranean Squadron to redress the balance.

The Fall of France

When Italy finally entered the war in June 1940, shortly before the fall of France, it was simply a matter of good luck for Cunningham that the Italians did not move swiftly to seize Malta. The island was bombed from the morning after the declaration of war, but not shelled by Italian battleships and cruisers, and no attempt was made to land troops. The Royal Navy possessed the ability to inflict serious damage on the Italian Navy and did so, especially at the Battle of Cape Matapan and at Taranto.

The fall of France had created an unexpected problem for the Royal Navy. The ships of their erstwhile ally were scattered at a number of ports, in the Atlantic from Portsmouth and Plymouth in the UK to Dakar in West Africa, and in the Mediterranean from Casablanca in French Morocco, Mers-el-Kebir and Oran in Algeria, to Alexandria in North Africa. While the Royal Navy was reluctant to take action against the French, the attitude of the new Vichy French Government was an unknown quantity, although it was known to include pro-Axis elements. It was important that the ships should not fall into German hands and it was the ships at Alexandria that posed yet another problem for Cunningham.

Cunningham had every sympathy with his French counterpart, Vice Admiral Godfroy, who was under orders from his Admiralty to sail, but was trying to confirm that the order was authentic. While de Gaulle was already in the United Kingdom intent on establishing the Free French forces, this move was not universally accepted by all French émigrés, and at this early stage of the war, with so few personnel available to de Gaulle, and the future policies of the Vichy regime not known, few were inclined to commit themselves. After all, the Germans had not occupied the whole of France, and they did not wish to be classed as traitors.

Naturally, most of the personnel involved wished to return home. Darlan had issued orders that ships were to be scuttled if there was a risk of them being seized by the Germans, but it was also clear that they were not to be handed to the British either. Cunningham later recalled:

Though I had no doubts of the good faith of Vice Admiral Godfroy, it was impossible for the British fleet in Alexandria to go to sea for operations against the enemy leaving behind in harbour fully efficient units of the French Navy. Immediately we were out of sight they might … go back to France, where there was no assurance that they would not fall into German or Italian hands and be used against us.

Admiralty pressure on Cunningham to act decisively and quickly was considerable. It says much for his character that he refused to be hurried into taking action that could further affect Anglo-French naval relations.

Cunningham knew that his only alternatives were to intern the ships or risk unnecessary bloodshed on both sides by sinking them. After initially appearing to accept internment with the repatriation of most of his ships’ companies, while the vessels would be relieved of their fuel and the warheads taken off their torpedoes, the Vichy Government’s orders to sail forced Godfroy to change his mind. He instructed his ships to raise steam – a process that would take up to eight hours. Cunningham was alerted and, going on deck, saw not only that the ships were raising steam, but that their guns had been uncovered and they were ready for action, with the real possibility of a close-range gun battle in Alexandria harbour. The British warships immediately did the same, removing the tompions (muzzle covers) from their guns.

Cunningham immediately ordered his commanding officers to visit the French, while the flagship signalled each French warship in turn advising them of the British Government’s offer of repatriation if the warships were put out of use. The visitors to the French warships were not unwelcome, but in many cases the decision was taken out of their hands as French ratings held meetings on deck, while the French commanding officers visited Godfroy on his lag-ship, Dusquesne. Later, Godfroy asked to see Cunningham and they agreed that all fuel oil was to be discharged from the French ships, their guns were to be disabled, and some 70 per cent of their crews were to be landed and eventually repatriated.

No attempt was made to press the French ships into the Royal Navy. Leaving small crews behind meant that the ships were maintained ready for the day of liberation.

By 7 July, the French fleet no longer presented a threat, allowing the British to leave Alexandria without any concern over possible French action to seize the port or the Suez Canal. Cunningham had shown considerable skill and diplomacy in a difficult situation – in modern terminology he had defused the situation.

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope, RN (1883–1963) II


During the Battle of Calabria on 9 July 1940 Warspite achieved one of the longest range gunnery hits from a moving ship to a moving target in history, hitting Giulio Cesare at a range of approximately 24 km (26,000 yd).


Punta Stilo and Taranto

Soon afterwards, the first naval engagement between the British and the Italians occurred at the Battle of Punta Stilo [ Battle of Calabria], after the submarine HMS Phoenix had alerted Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, that the Italians had two battleships at sea. On 8 July 1940, the two ships were 200 miles east of Malta and steaming on a southerly course. Aerial reconnaissance later found that the two warships were supported by six cruisers and seven destroyers, escorting a large convoy. Cunningham planned to put his ships between the Italians and the major forward base at Taranto.

The following day, a Malta-based flying boat found the Italians 145 miles west of the Mediterranean Fleet at 0730. Further confirmation came from aircraft flown off from Eagle. By noon, the distance had closed to 80 miles and it was not until then that the Italian Admiral, Campioni, was alerted to the proximity of the Mediterranean Fleet by a seaplane catapulted from his own ship, the Guilio Cesare.

Other than Cunningham’s flagship, Warspite, most of the British ships were outgunned. To slow the Italians down, two strikes by Swordfish armed with torpedoes were launched from Eagle, but failed to score any hits, missing the opportunity to slow the larger ships, or even sink a cruiser. Just before 1500 hrs, two British cruisers spotted four of the Italian cruisers, which responded with their 8-inch main armament, outgunning their British counterparts which only had 6-inch guns. Cunningham, ahead of his other two battleships in Warspite, raced to the rescue and opened fire at just under 15 miles, forcing the Italians back behind a smokescreen. While Eagle and the two older battleships tried to catch up, two Italian heavy cruisers attempted to attack the carrier, drawing further fire from Warspite, Malaya and Royal Sovereign. At 1600, the two fleets’ battleships were within sight of one another and Warspite opened fire again at a range of nearly 15 miles, almost immediately after the second Swordfish strike. The Italians replied with ranging shots straddling the British ships, but a direct hit on the Guilio Cesare at the base of its funnels by a salvo of 15-inch shells persuaded the Italians to break off the engagement under cover of a heavy smokescreen. Cunningham also turned, aware that his ships would not be able to catch the Italian ships and that there was the risk of submarine attack. Italian bombers finally arriving to attack the Mediterranean Fleet bombed their own ships by mistake, to the delight of the crew of Warspite’s Swordfish floatplane, in the air since before the start of the action.

This was the only battle in the Second World War when two full battle fleets actually engaged.

An attack on the Italian fleet in its forward base at Taranto had been planned some years before the Second World War broke out at the height of the Abyssinian crisis in 1935, when the Mediterranean Fleet aircraft carrier was Glorious. The plan was revived in 1940. Originally it was intended that two carriers, Illustrious, newly arrived in the Mediterranean, and Eagle, should be used, giving a total of thirty Fairey Swordfish biplanes for the operation. A serious hangar fire aboard Illustrious delayed the operation, and then Eagle, having suffered extensive damage to her aviation fuel system as a result of near misses by heavy bombs, was not available. A number of aircraft were transferred from Eagle’s squadrons to those aboard Illustrious, giving a total of twenty-four aircraft for the operation, but before the operation could begin, two aircraft were lost. In the end, just twenty-one aircraft were available.

The operation eventually took place on the night of 11/12 November 1940, in two waves, with twelve aircraft in the first wave and nine in the second. Attacking against a heavily defended target, the first wave concentrated on the ships and the second wave on the shore installations. Three of the Italian Navy’s six battleships were sitting on the bottom of the harbour when the raid ended, although two eventually returned to service, while other ships were damaged and fuel tanks ashore set on fire, while just two aircraft were shot down, with the crew of one of these being taken prisoner.

The Italians were forced to move their warships away from Taranto at first, although the next nearest port, Naples, was within reach of Malta-based Wellington bombers.

As the year ended, on 18 December, the Mediterranean Fleet was able to send two battleships, Warspite and Valiant, to bombard the port of Valona in Albania, being used by the Italians for their assault on Greece. Two days later, Cunningham visited Malta in Warspite, to a warm welcome. The Axis powers were soon to show, on 10 January 1941, that they were also capable of inflicting serious damage to the Royal Navy, when Malta’s vulnerability was also brought home with a vengeance. The convoy code-named Operation Excess was escorted towards Malta by Admiral Somerville’s Force H, and consisted of just four large merchantmen, three for Piraeus and one, carrying 4,000 tons of ammunition and 3,000 tons of seed potatoes, for Malta. Two other merchantmen, one with general supplies and another with fuel for Malta, came from Alexandria with the Mediterranean Fleet. Wellington bombers from Malta had raided Naples on the night of 8/9 January, damaging the battleship Guilio Cesare, and forcing her and the Vittorio Veneto to withdraw north to Genoa.

After initial skirmishes on 9 January, when Force H was bombed, Ark Royal’s Fulmars accounted for two bombers, but the real action came at the handover the following day. The Axis reconnaissance aircraft knew of the Mediterranean Fleet’s presence in the area, but the bombers failed to find them until 10 January. Both carriers kept their Fulmar fighters on constant readiness.

On 10 January, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attacked, with most of their bombs aimed at Illustrious. Luftwaffe Stukas quickly scored six direct hits and three near misses on Illustrious, whose deck was designed to take a direct hit of 500-lb bombs, but the hangar lifts were much weaker than this. The ship was forced to put in to Malta for repairs, where she remained prey to the attentions of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica until she was able to sail to the United States for repairs.

Matapan and the Fall of Greece

By this time, Cunningham had been confirmed in the rank of admiral, but he was to have little time to appreciate this vote of confidence by the Board of Admiralty. The Germans were preparing to attack Yugoslavia and Greece, and pressured their Italian allies to cut British seaborne communications between Alexandria and Athens. When Italian ships were sent into the waters south of Greece to attack British convoys, British aerial reconnaissance soon spotted the Italian ships. Cunningham intended to retain the element of surprise and considerable effort was put into making it seem that the Mediterranean Fleet was staying in port, convinced that Alexandria was awash with Axis spies. Then, under cover of darkness, the Mediterranean Fleet slipped out to sea late on 27 March.

The opening of the Battle of Cape Matapan started at daybreak the following morning when Formidable flew off aircraft for reconnaissance, fighter combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrols. They soon received two reports of cruisers and destroyers. In fact, Italian heavy cruisers were pursuing the British flight cruisers and in order to rescue them from this predicament, Formidable flew off six Fairey Albacores escorted by Fairey Fulmar fighters to attack the Italian ships, which were being joined by the battleship Vittorio Veneto.

While the Fulmar fighters shot down one of two Junkers Ju88 medium bombers that attempted to attack the Albacores, and drove the other one off, the six Albacores dived down through heavy AA fire to torpedo the Vittorio Veneto. No strikes were made, but they did force the Italian battleship to break off the pursuit of the British cruisers.

A second strike of three Albacores and two Swordfish, again with Fulmar fighters, was sent off while two Italian bombers attempted to attack Formidable. Vittorio Veneto’s AA defences were surprised by the Fulmars machine-gunning their positions and the bridge as the Albacores pressed home their torpedo attack. As the AA fire started to hit it, the leading aircraft dropped its torpedo 1,000 yards ahead of the ship. The torpedo struck home almost immediately after the plane crashed and the battleship was hit 15ft below the waterline, allowing a massive flood of water to gush in just above the port outer screw, so that within minutes the engines had stopped. Hard work by damage-control parties enabled the Vittorio Veneto to start again, using just her two starboard engines, but she could only manage 15 knots. A third air strike was then mounted by Formidable. When this arrived over the ship at dusk, they attacked the Italians, diving down through a dense smokescreen and then being dazzled by searchlights and the usual colourful Italian tracer barrage in an unsuccessful attack. Then an aircraft flying from Maleme in Crete spotted a heavy cruiser, the Pola, successfully torpedoing it and inflicting such severe damage that she lost speed and drifted out of position. Once the Italian admiral, Iachino, realized what had happened, he sent two other heavy cruisers, Zara and Fiume, with four destroyers to provide assistance.

Although the Italians were not expecting a night action, Cunningham knew that they were weak in night gunnery and intended to take advantage of this. By this time, the opposing fleets were off Cape Matapan, on modern atlases usually referred to as Cape Akra Tainaron, a promontory at the extreme southern end of the Pelopponese peninsula. At first, Cunningham thought that the Pola was Vittorio Veneto. As his ships prepared to open fire, the Italian rescue force of Zara and Fiume sped across Cunningham’s path and were illuminated by a searchlight from a destroyer. In the battle that followed, Zara and Fiume and two destroyers were sunk by the 15-in guns of the three battleships, while Pola was sunk in a torpedo attack from two destroyers.

The next morning, Cunningham had his ships pick up 900 Italian survivors before the threat of air attack stopped the rescue. Nevertheless, before leaving he relayed the position of the remaining survivors to Rome, saving many more lives. Although this was not the only time he did his best for a defeated enemy, he could seem harsh and unyielding to those around him. He considered that the naval airmen who attacked Taranto were only doing their duty, although he later admitted that he had not realized at the time what a ‘stroke it had been’. The effect on morale aboard Illustrious was bad, with angry sailors tearing down the notices announcing the awards which included nothing higher than a DSO. He maintained a small staff, which undoubtedly meant that there was less overlap and duplication, but it put them under pressure. Cunningham simply retorted that he had never known a staff officer die from overwork, and if he did, he could always get another one.

By 23 April, the Greek Army had surrendered and the Mediterranean Fleet found itself evacuating British forces to Crete. Had Crete been used simply as a staging post, all might have been well, but the mistake was made of attempting to defend the island, despite the shortage of aircraft and the fact that the British had left most of their heavy equipment and their communications behind in Greece. In both the evacuation of Greece and then of Crete, Cunningham prolonged the operation for longer than his orders required, saving many soldiers from PoW camps.

Leaving the Mediterranean

Cunningham left the Mediterranean in June 1942 and served in Washington as head of the British naval delegation until October. It was his turn to realize that he did not enjoy staff work and it was no doubt with considerable pleasure that he found himself as Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force for the North African landings in November 1942. Early the following year he was promoted to admiral of the fleet, and became C-in-C Mediterranean; as Eisenhower’s naval deputy he was responsible for the naval aspects of the landings in Sicily in July and at Salerno in September.

Meanwhile, the First Sea Lord at the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s most senior officer, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, had been increasingly unwell for some time. He was overworked and had to cope not only with the normal strains of running a major part of the armed forces, but the fact that the Admiralty was also an operational headquarters. When he resigned in September 1943, before dying in October, Cunningham was appointed as his successor. As the alliance with the United States grew ever closer, he also became a member of the Combined Chiefs of Staff committees.

In his new role, Cunningham was quickly accepted by the other British service heads, and especially by the head of the Army, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, later Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Cunningham is credited with the success of the Normandy landing in June 1944, and the formation of the new British Pacific Fleet, the largest and most balanced fleet the Royal Navy ever created and which operated under the overall command of Nimitz. Not for nothing has the official Royal Navy historian described Cunningham as standing ‘unique amongst the leaders of fleets and sailors’.

When the war ended, Cunningham was entitled to retire, but he resolved first to pilot the Navy through the transition to peace. There was a large reduction in the Defence Budget which proved to be a challenge for Cunningham, who later remarked in his memoirs: ‘We very soon came to realise how much easier it was to make war than to reorganise for peace.’ At the end of May 1946, Cunningham retired to Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire. Ennobled, he attended the House of Lords irregularly but campaigned for justice for Admiral Dudley North, who had been relieved of his command of Gibraltar in 1940, and obtained a partial vindication in 1957. Cunningham died in London on 12 June 1963 and was buried at sea off Portsmouth.

Major Generals Three


William Howe. The senior-most of the three major generals sent from Britain to Boston in the spring of 1775, Howe was a skilled and innovative commander. But his heart was not in the war, and he would take much of the blame—unfairly, as it turned out—for the high British casualties at Bunker Hill.


Sir Henry Clinton. Contentious, shy, and difficult, Clinton was the most learned of the three newly sent British major generals. He would play an important part in the closing phases of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In later life, Sir Henry obsessed over his role in the battle, and was firmly convinced that the battle would have gone better for the British if Thomas Gage had listened to his advice. Portrait by Andrea Soldi.


Sir John Burgoyne. Burgoyne was by no means the equal of leaders like Howe and Clinton, but his boisterous presence in Boston after May 1775 helped to bolster sagging British morale. Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The most anticipated arrival, though, came on Thursday, May 25, 1775. HMS Cerberus, a sixth-rater of twenty-eight guns, threaded its way into Boston harbor late that afternoon. As the crew brought the warship alongside the Long Wharf and secured it there, a crowd gathered to greet its distinguished guests. The first was a courier, bearing the welcome news—welcome to Admiral Graves, at least—that Graves had been promoted to Vice Admiral of the White, a considerable distinction, given his unimpressive performance thus far. Then came the real attraction: the three major generals. William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and Sir John Burgoyne stumbled clumsily down the gangplank and onto the wharf, where they were quickly whisked away to Gage’s headquarters at Province House.

They made a curious and unlikely trio. Not one of them had been eager to come to America, and in fact each of them had protested against his orders. But no one else was suitable. Jeffrey Amherst, the highest-ranking general in the service and a hero of the French and Indian War, had steadfastly refused to go; he knew, probably better than anyone save Gage, how quickly a tour of duty in America could wreck a career. Gage’s second-in-command, Major General Sir Frederick Haldimand, was an experienced soldier and had been a capable administrator in Canada. He had been in Boston since the previous fall—Gage had called him in after the Powder Alarm—and Gage had given him very little to do while he was there, but still Sir Frederick knew the situation on the ground intimately. Haldimand’s main failing, though, was that he was Swiss-born, and the feeling in London was that a foreigner couldn’t be fully trusted in a domestic squabble such as the American rebellion.

As major generals, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne each ranked below Gage. They had not been sent to replace him—not explicitly, and not yet—but their presence had a meaning that poor, frustrated Gage could not mistake: they were there to remind him that the king and Parliament expected action, immediate action, and that the rebellion must be crushed now.

William Howe was the senior of the three in rank. He was well acquainted both with Gage and with America. He and his two older brothers had made their careers in the king’s service. Their mother was half-sister to King George I, which assured them of rich opportunities and a good life, but all three proved themselves to be exceptional leaders. George Howe, one of the most capable British commanders in the French and Indian War, would almost certainly have risen to the very highest ranks had his life not been tragically cut short by a French musket ball during Abercrombie’s botched assault on Fort Carillon in 1758, gasping out his last breaths in the arms of his friend Israel Putnam. The provincials loved him—loved him so much that Massachusetts honored him with a memorial in Westminster Abbey. The third brother, Admiral Richard Howe, was already well on his way to a distinguished naval career.

And William shared their qualities. He had been an officer since the age of seventeen and had fought in Europe during the War of the Austrian Succession. It was in America, though, that Howe made his name. He was one of the younger, progressive officers—like Gage—who embraced the new tactics and the concept of specially trained light troops. In General Wolfe’s improbable assault on the fortress of Quebec, it was thirty-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Howe who led his light infantry up the Heights of Abraham, clambering up the sheer rock face as if he were a boy. After the war he was widely regarded in military circles as the foremost expert on light infantry and irregular warfare, and he spent much of 1774 training light troops on Salisbury Plain.

Like Tommy Gage, William Howe knew Americans, understood the American character, and though he found them wanting in some respects, he had a healthy regard for their abilities. Howe liked Americans and disliked the prospect of making war on them. One year earlier, as a solid Whig, he had been elected to Parliament from Nottingham on the solemn promise that he would never take up arms against the king’s subjects in America. He meant it. But the king had other ideas, appointing Howe to command under Gage. Howe had no choice; he obeyed his king. Many of his constituents, many of his fellow Whigs who sympathized with the colonials, were very disappointed in the general.

Despite his distaste for the assignment that had fallen into his lap, Howe was a good choice. There was probably no one in the entire army who so thoroughly fit the mold of an ideal soldier than Howe. He had an obvious physical presence, much like his later adversary Washington: he was six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and full-lipped, with a dark complexion and a stormy demeanor. Introspective and thoughtful, an excellent tactician and a passable strategist, Howe was nonetheless possessed of a common touch that made him invariably popular with the men who served under him. Physical courage accounted for part of that popularity; he was one of those rare commanders who would not ask his boys to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. On the other hand, his considerable charm was partly his undoing: Howe loved the high life and although married was very much a ladies’ man. His soft life showed in his noticeably ample midriff, and his love for women would eventually distract him from his duties.

In nearly every way, Howe was a very different man from the next general of the trio, Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton was only a few months younger than Howe but little like him in experience or character. He was actually born in America, where his father, Admiral George Clinton, served as a naval commander, governor of Newfoundland, and then governor of New York. After a brief and uneventful tour of duty as a junior officer during King George’s War, Henry left the colonies for Britain at the age of twenty-one. Family influence advanced him rapidly. By age twenty-six he found an appointment as aide-de-camp to Sir John Ligonier, soon to be commander-in-chief of the army in Britain; by twenty-eight he was a lieutenant colonel. He never returned to America—not until now, that is—and his extensive service in the Seven Years’ War was entirely on European battlefields. That was no minor issue. There was a divide, subtle but wide and tangible, between high-ranking British officers who made their careers in America and those whose experience was primarily European. Officers trained in the “German school” held themselves to be more erudite, more experienced in the kind of warfare that truly mattered, than their comrades who had wasted their lives fighting against irregular Canadian militia and wild savages. Little surprise, then, that Clinton was as unwilling as Howe to risk his fortune in America. “I was not a volunteer in that war,” he noted plainly in his memoirs. “I was ordered by my Sovereign and I obeyed.”

To his credit, Clinton was as well read and thoughtful as Howe, but he was not a particularly likeable man. Short, stooped, and introverted—“a shy bitch,” he once described himself—he was ready to perceive slights where there were none, ready to bristle at any kind of criticism. He was outspoken, which was not in itself a bad trait . . . but he had great difficulty finding merit in the views of others when they conflicted with his own. He felt smugly superior in being a product of the “German school,” and since Howe and Gage were pupils of the “American school” Clinton would, from the very moment he crossed the threshold of Province House, feel that his two superiors dismissed his opinions out of hand. Brilliant but suspicious, brave but difficult, Clinton’s personality would hamper his command effectiveness for the remainder of his career.

And John Burgoyne—“Gentleman Johnny,” as he was often called, for his aristocratic air and his sartorial tastes—shared almost nothing in common with either Howe or Clinton other than rank and nationality. At fifty-three, he was the oldest of the bunch, though it was hard to tell from appearances. John Burgoyne had a dashing but unserious manner and a handsome face, and although soldiering was his career it was hardly his life. Like most general officers, he had purchased his commission while yet in his late teens; he unintentionally put his career on hold early on, though, eloping with a daughter of the influential Lord Derby and taking up a voluntary exile abroad. He returned to the good graces of his father-in-law, and to his vocation, at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1758. He proved valuable in promoting the concept of light cavalry in the British service, and justly earned a reputation for his progressive notions of military discipline—notions that included such revolutionary ideas as that officers should refrain from verbally abusing their men, and that even enlisted men should be treated as thinking individuals. In this sense, at least, Burgoyne was truly ahead of his time. Otherwise—except in his own estimation—he never distinguished himself as a soldier, and never would. What he prided himself on most, though, was his literary ability. Burgoyne fancied himself a playwright, penning two plays before called to duty in America. One of them, a maudlin little piece titled Maid of the Oaks, was produced just before Burgoyne’s departure for Boston in 1775.

In politics, Gentleman Johnny was just as flamboyant, though not without substance. As a member of Parliament he led the crusade against corruption in the East India Company, never shrinking from ruffling feathers when he felt it necessary. His attitude toward America was ambivalent. He had no connection to the colonies or the colonials; he counseled against the use of force, yet thought of America as a “spoiled child.” Plainly, Burgoyne had the least to contribute of the three generals aboard the Cerberus, and he knew it. He suspected that, as junior to Gage, Howe, and Clinton, he would be little more than a useless cipher. Burgoyne hoped that, perhaps, his connections back home might be able to wangle him another appointment—maybe in New York?—one in which he would have at least a chance to shine on his own.

Though the three generals were indeed very different men, close quarters aboard the Cerberus forced them to spend a great deal of time together. Howe and Burgoyne were naturally extroverted and outgoing; not so Clinton. Yet even the “shy bitch” had to be sociable—he was tortured by seasickness for the duration of the voyage, made worse by the cramped quarters that he shared with six other men, and only above deck in the open air could he find a small measure of relief from his illness. Here he, Howe, and Burgoyne fell into easy and familiar conversation, leading to mutual admiration and even something approaching friendship. “I could not have named two people,” Clinton wrote in his memoirs, “I should sooner wish to serve with in every respect.” The three men found, too, that their ideas on strategy were not all that dissimilar. “We do not differ in a single sentiment upon the military conduct now to be pursued,” wrote Burgoyne. Undoubtedly they did agree on one central principle: Gage had been needlessly passive. Yet even with Howe’s extensive knowledge of America, they had very little idea of what lay ahead in Boston’s gilded cage.

They were optimistic and boisterous nonetheless, and none more so than the perpetual actor Burgoyne. As the Cerberus approached Boston harbor on May 25, she hailed another vessel, and their captains exchanged news. Boston, as the crew and passengers on the Cerberus found out, was surrounded by warlike, armed, insolent Yankees who by their very numbers were able to keep Gage’s army immobilized. Burgoyne couldn’t suppress his theatrical nature or his wont to brag. Like an overconfident adolescent, he shouted to the captain of the other ship, “Well, let us in, and we shall soon make elbow-room!”

The Grand Admiral Part I




With his succession as Commander-in-Chief on January 30th 1943, Karl Dönitz was appointed Grossadmiral. this was the high-water mark of his life. He was 51, at the height of his powers; in Ingeborg he had a gracious hostess for the social duties that came with high office, and which despite himself he enjoyed. He could be proud of his two sons, both lieutenants in the élite U-boat arm; Peter just coming up to his 21st birthday was second watchkeeping officer in U 954 working up for its first war cruise; the elder, Klaus, prevented from front service perhaps by injuries to his head in a motorcycle accident in 1939, was on the staff of the 5th U-flotilla at Kiel; his son-in-law, the ace Günther Hessler, was first staff officer under his U-boat department chief, Godt.

Above all and filling his thoughts was the prospect of winning the war—virtually on his own! With the Reich now on the defensive everywhere, the U-boat arm, which he had decided to keep under his own direct control, was the sole means to victory. Success had seemed so close in November; over the last two months it had danced away tantalizingly; few convoys had been found, due chiefly to bad weather and the enemy using new routes and somehow sailing around the U-boat groups, although just how they had discovered his dispositions was not clear. Now at last he had the power to remedy this, he intended increasing the monthly production totals, cutting down the exasperating delays in the dockyards and so filling the North Atlantic that the enemy would be unable to avoid his patrol lines.

His mood and the ruthless practicality of his thinking showed in his first directive issued to the staffs within days of taking office; it could scarcely have provided a greater contrast to Raeder’s methods:

1) It is a question of winning the war. Considerations of how the Navy should appear after the war have no value.

2) The sea war is the U-boat war.

3) All has to be subordinated to this main goal …

He knew it was a race against time, but he believed recent experience showed that tactical surprise could still be achieved in the mid-ocean ‘air gap’—narrow as this had become—and a concentration of boats could still overwhelm the surface escort and achieve decisive success.

It is easy to criticize this as a gross underestimation of the enemy’s capacity, both in the air and in merchant shipbuilding, an even more serious misjudgement of their likely reaction if threatened with defeat in the Atlantic: they were bound then to concentrate all their dispersed resources on closing the ‘air gap’ to make the whole North Atlantic convoy route as impossible for U-boat operations as they had already made the western Mediterranean—as indeed he had prophesied the previous summer.

Nevertheless he was optimistic by temperament and there was really little alternative to the U-boat campaign; the surface fleet had been rendered virtually impotent by allied naval and air superiority; in the east the German armies were on the defensive, and within a day of his taking over as Supreme Commander, Paulus’ forces at Stalingrad surrendered to the Russians; in North Africa Rommel was being starved of supplies by sea, air and submarine assault on the transports, and neither the Italian surface fleet nor the Axis U-boats were able to prevent a huge Anglo-American build-up against him. In the air the Luftwaffe could not cope with the weight of the allied raids on the Reich, let alone hope to deliver a decisive blow of its own. The only offensive force left to Germany was the U-boat arm, and it was natural that it should be used in a desperate throw to break out of the circle of defeat.

Whether Hitler believed it could do so may be doubted. Probably he knew already with the rational side of his mind that the Third Reich was doomed; he had based his strategy in both west and east on lightning campaigns to smash his enemies before their rearmament programmes could tip the balance against him. Now, not only had the Blitzkrieg in the east failed, but the huge economic and industrial power of the United States had risen against him. There are signs that he was already preparing himself and the Party in the ideology of defeat; on February 7th, for instance, the day before the first conference Dönitz attended as naval C-in-C, he told a gathering of gauleiters that if the German people failed it would be because they did not deserve to win—in the elemental struggle for survival between races, the Germans would have proved the weaker and the responsibility would not be his, nor the Party’s! This was to become a familiar motif in the last months of the Reich. It was at night that this rational and logical side took over; to shut it out he talked to his aides or weary female secretaries far into the morning hours, but when at last he went to bed it prevented him from sleeping; he was forced to take sedatives. By day he could escape his doubts by attention to the small detail of the campaigns at his situation reports, and allow the irrational side of his nature to seize on any straws of hope presented.

It was here that Dönitz played such an important role; his optimism, his determination that the U-boats could and would succeed, his positive response to all difficulties, were exactly what the jaded Führer needed to feed his wilful self-deceptions. Moreover, Dönitz’s great strengths as a leader, noted over the years by his superiors, his ‘iron will-power, goal-oriented certainty and unwearying toughness … calm, circumspection and power of resolution …’ his ‘inner enthusiasm for his profession …’ and ‘absolute reliability …’ impressed Hitler and won his immediate confidence. Hitler also recognized, with his sure instinct, that this taut-lipped professional would follow him, body and soul, with unquestioning devotion to the end.

Dönitz, for his part, tasting a fulfilment which because of his inner insecurity could never be complete without a fixed object to adhere to, saw in the person of the Führer, aged since Stalingrad with bent back and trembling hand and his formerly electric blue eyes rather dulled and protuberant, all that he had been taught and needed fervently to believe in; here was the man of iron will whose political and military genius had rescued Germany from internal chaos, Bolshevism and the hate-inspired dictats of the western powers. So, while he held to his own judgement in naval affairs, he never questioned Hitler’s overall strategy or views—indeed he made them his own—and while exasperated often enough by the lack of co-ordination at the top of the three services he blamed this on personalities, particularly the gross sybarite, Göring, rather than the Führer system or the Führer himself.

It was from both their points of view an ideal relationship; Hitler needed assurance that—despite recent events—he was the man of German destiny—Dönitz needed to give him that utter faith and loyalty. And since Hitler distrusted all his generals as a class and Göring was a caricature of self-indulgence, it is natural that he seized on Dönitz as confident and adviser, and in view of Dönitz’s ambitious and thrusting temperament inevitable that he responded ardently.

Can Dönitz have been so blind as to have no doubts? Could a man capable of such sensitive appreciation of the quiet culture of the Balinese or the contentment of the Javanese villagers, so appreciative of the fact that the native women did not scold their children and would have found hitting them inconceivable, never reflect that his own Volk were in hell and never ask himself whether it was not the ruling circle he had joined who had brought and were keeping them there? It could not have been ignorance. ‘The tyranny, the terror,’ Helmuth von Moltke had written the previous year, ‘the loss of values of all kinds is greater than I could have believed possible a short time ago.’ He had estimated that a hundred Germans a day were being executed after civil trial or court martial and hundreds more being shot in concentration camps without pretence of a trial. The greater part of the population had been uprooted by conscription or forced labour and ‘spread all over the continent, untying all bonds of nature and thereby loosing the beast in man’. Could Dönitz have accepted the very obvious effects of all this and the reports of the barbarities on the Russian front and the bestial treatment of, particularly, the Jews in the occupied countries as simply exigencies of a war necessary to save the Fatherland from Bolshevism? Certainly this is the impression he seeks to convey by total silence in all his writings. This very silence, however, is proof enough that he deliberately shut out all doubt: the question then arises, was it simply ambition or deep inner insecurity and the consequent need to cling to the image of what he thought he ought to be and ought to serve—as he had been indoctrinated all his life—that enabled or forced him to blinker himself so thoroughly? And was it the suppression of other more sensitive feelings that drove him to excess?

A simpler answer to questions about his moral blindness might be the corrupting effects of power and status. He moved into an imposing house built about the turn of the century—now the Institute for Experimental Therapy, University of Berlin—set back in spacious grounds in the suburb of Dahlem, Berlin, where many other Nazi bosses had their grand residences. It is interesting that this had been the parish of his one-time fellow-cadet in the class of 1910, subsequently fellow U-boat Commander, Martin Niemöller. Niemöller had taken Holy Orders after the war, and although an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler at the beginning, his later opposition had led to his incarceration in a concentration camp; in 1943 he was still inside. His successors are clear that neither Dönitz nor Ingeborg were churchgoers during their time in Dahlem.

In addition to his splendid home, which was guarded by an SS company, Dönitz had all the other gleaming trappings of Nazi power, a large Mercedes staff car—escorted by SS guards when he travelled—a smaller car for Berlin, a private aeroplane and a train named Auerhahn with a restaurant coach and a sleeping coach with a conference chamber. And like the other top men he had his collections—the Persian carpets he loved, the heroic engravings, the sea pictures he had been acquiring in France. He also collected silver, antiques and objets, and had been presented by his flotillas in France with a priceless Gobelin tapestry which had adorned the wall of a château; the house in Dahlem was furnished with exquisite taste. How much all these came from his service pay, how much from the handouts with which Hitler was wont to retain the loyalty of his chief servants, or from the general corruption that welded the seams of the Nazi machine is quite unknown. He received a grant of 300,000 marks from Hitler on his promotion to Grand Admiral, but this was standard for equivalent ranks in all the services. Probably the question is not important; undoubtedly Dönitz’s loyalty sprang from deeper wells than money or possessions; all who knew him describe him as upright and not out for personal gain—as one of his adjutants put it, ‘the complete opposite of Reichsmarschall Göring’.

He truly believed and acted on his first directive to his staff, which ran:

Our life belongs to the State. Our honour lies in our duty-fulfilment and readiness for action. No one of us has the right to private life. The question for us is winning the war. We have to pursue this goal with fanatical devotion and the most ruthless determination to win.

His own devotion and habits of work remained uncorroded by his new status. He continued to retire early to bed and to rise early. His adjutant, Korvettenkapitän Hansen-Nootbar, who joined him that spring from torpedo boats so that he could inform him of the attitudes and needs of the surface fleet, describes him as the ‘consummate “morning-man” ’; he recalls being roused by telephone at between five and six in the morning and hearing Dönitz’s voice.

‘Hänschen, are you still asleep!’

‘Jawohl, Herr Grossadmiral…’

‘That’s no good. I want you …’

Dönitz used to tell him he had his best thoughts in the early morning.

He lost no time in getting rid of the senior officers identified with Raeder’s policies, dismissing some like Carls and shifting others to front commands or to backwaters like education. ‘The great seal cull’, as it came to be known, caused bitterness among those axed, but it was undoubtedly necessary and brought an infusion of younger blood and practicality to areas where failure and fantasy had ruled.

Some of his choices were not so happy, in particular perhaps his appointment of Wilhlem Meisel as chief of the naval staff. Meisel was a conscientious worker—who was not in the German Navy!—but lacked the imagination or personality to be much more than a transmitting organ for Dönitz’s ideas. This suited Dönitz perfectly, but it was the worst possible relationship for naval decision-making. What Dönitz needed was a strong curb, an analytical and sceptical right hand with the toughness to oppose his own blood-reasoning. Whether he would have tolerated such a man for long is, of course, doubtful. The fact that he chose a man like Meisel for the key post at High Command is significant; probably this too stemmed from his insecurity; or it may be, as his adjutant, Hansen-Nootbar, believes, he lacked understanding of other men.

Since the sea war was now to be the U-boat war, he combined the office of BdU with his own post as C-in-C of the Navy, and had U-boat headquarters moved from Paris to Berlin, where the Hotel am Steinplatz in Charlottenberg was furnished for the purpose. He retained Godt as his effective chief of operations with the title of Admiral commanding U-boats and FdU; Hessler remained Godt’s number one.

The Kriegsmarine was a vast concern by this stage of the war; it had the defence of scores of harbours and thousands of miles of coastline from occupied Scandinavia and the Baltic right around northern Europe and Biscay to the south of France, the Aegean and the Black Sea to look after; it was responsible for the protection of the shipments of iron ore and other vital metals down the Norwegian coast and across the Baltic, troop transport and supplies to the eastern armies, the security of blockade runners from Japan and Spain with equally vital commodities for the war effort; in the Mediterranean the Navy was working in co-operation with the Italian Navy in the struggle to keep open the supply lines to the Afrika Korps, now squeezed into a corner of Tunisia, and was fully engaged in the attack on allied supply lines. It was a hugely complex military, military-political and economic mosaic quite different from the simple certainties of the Atlantic ‘tonnage war’. He learnt this quickly, but in the beginning his concern was the battle in the Atlantic, his first overriding priority to boost U-boat production. He also intended to increase production of the only other potent weapon of offence, the Schnell (fast motor torpedo)boats which attacked shipping in the English Channel. The task was rendered particularly difficult since Hitler’s reaction to the disaster at Stalingrad was to cut the Navy’s already insufficient steel quota further to make more available for tank production, which he accorded the highest priority. A great part of Dönitz’s energies, therefore—according to Hansen-Nootbar at least 90 per cent of his working time—was spent with the technical and construction departments.

At first he seems to have agreed with Hitler’s directive to scrap the big ships; already the surface fleet was being combed for more officers and men for the ever-increasing force of U-boats and his first plans included the phased de-commissioning of the major units to release yet more men and dockyard workers, whose shortage also contributed to the bottlenecks in construction. However, he soon came to appreciate Raeder’s objections to this course which were persisted in by the naval staff: it would amount to an effortless victory for the allies, not only handing them a great psychological and propaganda success, but allowing them to release far greater forces, at present held back to cover the threat posed by the Tirpitz and the other big ships, for offensive operations against the German coasts and supply shipping, or to protect Atlantic convoys. Moreover the release of steel and manpower would be a mere drop in the ocean. Chiefly, though, it was the classic argument of the fleet ‘in being’ to tie up the enemy’s forces which had been accepted by virtually every inferior fleet throughout the modern history of navies.

The Grand Admiral Part II


Dönitz’s handling of these problems calls to mind those earlier reports of his ‘ability and quick perception of essentials …’ in staff appointments, and his deftness in dealing with other ministries. This was particularly noticeable in his handling of the Führer himself. In three apparently effortless stages he not only reversed the edict on scrapping the big ships, but turned the whole naval production situation round. The initial steps were taken during his first conference with the Führer on February 8th; Hitler agreed in principle that no more skilled workers engaged in U-boat construction or repairs should be called up for the Army; the next day he agreed that the big ships should be ordered out to battle as soon as a worthwhile target appeared, and that once out they should be allowed to operate on the force Commander’s initiative without any restrictions such as Hitler himself and the naval staff had imposed on earlier sorties. It is interesting that the British naval intelligence assessment of Dönitz’s character led them to predict that his appointment as C-in-C would lead to the big ships being used to attack the northern convoys or to attempt a desperate break-out into the Atlantic.

At his next meeting with the Führer on February 26th, Dönitz said that in his opinion the Archangel convoys with war supplies for Russia would make excellent targets for the surface forces and he considered it his duty, in view of the heavy fighting on the eastern front, to exploit this possibility to the full. To Hitler’s disbelief he went on to propose the despatch of the Scharnhorst to reinforce the Tirpitz—both condemned in his earlier plans—in northern Norway for the purpose.

Hitler objected that he was strongly opposed to any further surface ship engagements since, beginning with the Graf Spee, they had led to one loss after another. ‘The time for great ships is over. I would rather have the steel and nickel from these ships than send them into battle again.’

There were strong grounds for this view; the Pacific war had demonstrated that the gunned surface warship had been mastered by air power, and German naval-air co-operation had not begun to meet the challenge. However, Dönitz countered by implying again that the previous failures of German surface units had been due to restrictions placed on the force Commanders.

Hitler denied that he had ever issued orders of that sort, and contrasted the lack of fighting spirit shown in the surface ships with the bitter fighting by German soldiers on the eastern front and said how unbearable it was to see Russian strength built up continually by the northern convoys.

Dönitz seized his chance: he would consider it his duty, instead of decommissioning the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst, to send them into action whenever suitable targets for them could be found.

After further discussion at which both stuck to their guns, Hitler said finally, ‘We will see who is right. I will give you six months to prove that the big ships can still achieve something.’

There was a price to pay for Dönitz’s victory; as Michael Salewski, author of one of the few scholarly works on the German naval High Command, has pointed out, from that moment on Dönitz was under pressure to use the heavy ships in the way he had promised; their success was in the nature of a wager struck between the two men, the stake the big ships themselves.

In his efforts to gain more steel for the Navy, continuing through the spring, Dönitz fully convinced Hitler of the necessity for his expanded programme but there were so many other urgent priorities for the fighting in the east and so little steel that the matter was only fully resolved when he allowed Speer to take over naval construction. This was what Speer had been attempting to gain from Raeder; that Dönitz agreed to it—with suitable safeguards in the shape of a naval shipbuilding commission under his own nominee, Rear Admiral Topp—demonstrates his excellent sense of priorities. The scheme was fought through in the teeth of the naval construction department under Admiral Fuchs, whom Dönitz wanted to sack, but he could find no replacement for some time. While there was still a chance of rational production it proved itself: Speer had virtually the entire production resources of the Reich at his disposal and could exploit the materials and manpower in this vast empire better than individual services fighting their own corner. The measure also released Dönitz from one of Raeder’s constant frustrations, allowing him to devote more time to operations.

The Battle of the Atlantic was now at its height; from Dönitz’s point of view there were several disturbing developments. The first, noted in January, was the success with which the enemy routed his convoys around U-boat groups and the fact, confirmed by intercepts of allied U-boat disposition reports, that they had a very accurate knowledge of where the groups were. Hessler and the 1A Operations, Kapitänleutnant Schnee, made a detailed analysis of all the information probably available to the allies from bearings of U-boat wireless transmissions, sightings, radar contacts and U-boat attacks on ships, matched this with the allied reports and came to the conclusion that it was possible—except in one or two unexplained instances—for the enemy to have arrived at their precise knowledge by these means.

Dönitz’s suspicion of treachery was strong, nonetheless, and every member of the U-boat staff at am Steinplatz was subjected to investigation within the department; this turned up indiscreet French liaisons but no traitor. Finally only Dönitz and Godt remained to be vetted. ‘Shall I investigate you,’ Godt asked, ‘or will you investigate me?’

Meanwhile, despite the conviction of the communications experts that the enemy could not have broken the Enigma codes, Dönitz had ordered U-boats at sea to use the fourth rotor in their enciphering machine. It was a good move; the cryptanalyists at Bletchley Park had broken in again on the previous December 13th and the accurate situation reports were in fact based on decrypts. The fourth rotor blacked them out for a while, but they soon broke in again. B-Dienst was reading the allied convoy routing signals at the same time and as the speed of both sides’ decrypts varied randomly from a few hours to several days it is hardly possible to say which had the edge, nor is it important; this climax of the U-boat campaign was decided on other factors.

The most potent of these was manifesting itself to U-boat Command by a sharply increased rate of losses of boats on the way to or from their Biscay bases. The war diary for March 23rd noted:

between November 1942 and January 1943 enemy air activity against U-boats had little result but since February its effect has increased to an alarming extent. We cannot tell whether this is due to improved location gear or more suitable types of aircraft …

There had been suspicions for several weeks that a new type of radar location was being used since Commanders were reporting being attacked by aircraft at night or out of low cloud without any warning from their Metox radar search receivers now in use on all boats. It seemed as if the enemy had deliberately developed a location device working on frequencies outside the range of this warning apparatus.

These were indeed the first signs of a very short wave allied radar operating on a wave length of only 10 cm instead of the old 1·5 m, designed not to outwit the boats’ receivers, but to gain greater range and definition. By these early months of 1943 the revolutionary set was being fitted to surface escorts as well as aircraft. As for the aircraft, the Boeings, Beaufighters, Liberators and Fortresses probing Biscay outmatched the few Junkers possessed by the Air Commander, Atlantic, who did not expect anything better in the near future. ‘There will be further particularly painful losses,’ Godt predicted.

Yet, despite all difficulties it was still possible towards the end of March for Dönitz to believe that with more boats and a tremendous effort he could win. The latest battle in the North Atlantic had resulted in the biggest success ever for U-boat packs against convoys.

The operation had been set off by B-Dienst, on top form, supplying U-boat Command absolutely current routing instructions for Convoy HX 229 eastbound off the US coast. On Dönitz’s instructions other operations had been broken off and all boats in the area formed into three patrol lines, Raubgraf (robber baron), Stürmer (daredevil) and Dränger (Harrier) across their route. While the boats were speeding to their positions B-Dienst intercepted new allied routing instructions for the convoy and another nearby convoy, SC122, which was also heading east; these were designed to steer the convoys around the northernmost Raubgraf line, which had revealed its presence by attacking a westbound convoy. The U-boat lines were now re-positioned and early in the morning of March 16th, U 603 of Raubgraf found herself in very heavy weather in the midst of one of the convoys. She reported and shadowed in exemplary fashion and U-boat Command ordered half the available boats towards her convoy, then after an intercept by B-Dienst suggested that the other convoy had passed, ordered all boats at full speed towards her position.

By dusk that evening seven boats were in contact, working their way ahead on the surface into attack positions, and at 10 o’clock U 603 herself opened the action from inside the escorts, scoring one hit. The other boats came in at half-hour intervals throughout the night, hitting another seven merchantmen although reporting rather more. The five escorts, meanwhile, who had to spend much of their time in rescue work, damaged two of the boats in depth charge attacks.

At the same time one of the Stürmer boats, U 388, heading towards the scene found herself in the midst of another convoy, actually SC 122, and attacked, scoring four hits. There was some confusion at U-boat Command about whether this was the second convoy or whether she had made a mistake in navigation, but the situation clarified during the next day, and orders were sent out distributing the boats roughly equally between the two convoys. Meanwhile reports of sinkings amounting to fourteen ships of 90,000 tons and a further six damaged had induced high spirits at U-boat Command, where the staff had been up all night. Godt sent a jaunty signal to all boats in the style of his chief. Dönitz was in Italy at this time, but it is possible he dictated the order by telephone.

Bravo! Dranbleiben! Weiter so!’ (‘Bravo! Keep at it! Carry on like that!’)

The convoys were in the central Atlantic ‘air gap’ now but approaching the extreme limit of very long range Liberators stationed in Northern Ireland, and one of these ordered out that morning reached the leading convoy, SC 122, and forced two of the shadowing boats to dive; she could not stay for long, however, and in the interval before the arrival of another aircraft, U 388 was able to work ahead into position for an underwater attack and she sank another merchantman. Similar underwater attacks were made on the original HX convoy which lacked air cover and three of whose escorts were attending merchantmen crippled the previous night; two more ships were sunk.

More and more boats were homing in meanwhile to both convoys but the appearance of Liberators shortly before dusk forced them to dive, and probably because the weather was still bad and the convoys made the usual dusk alterations throwing off the shadowers contact was not regained until the following day. By this time the actions were moving out of the ‘air gap’ and the boats were constantly forced to dive by the appearance of shore-based aircraft. They hung on nevertheless for another two days and nights, sinking another seven merchantmen until continuous air cover around the convoys made prospects hopeless. Before the operation was finally called off one boat was sunk when attacked by aircraft through squall clouds.

Analysing the results at U-boat Command it was noted that ‘As in so many actions the surprise attacks on the first night were the most successful …’ but then owing to the appearance of land-based aircraft ‘the U-boats from the second day on had a hard struggle’. Results were assessed as 32 ships totalling 186,000 tons and one destroyer sunk, and nine other ships hit. ‘This is so far the greatest success obtained in a convoy battle and more gratifying in that nearly 50 per cent of the boats shared in it.’ The Propaganda Ministry, badly needing good news, boosted the tonnage to 204,000 and early in April, as a further propaganda exercise, Hitler presented Dönitz with the oak leaves of the Knight’s Cross in recognition of the triumph and the total March sinking figures of 779,533 tons (actually 627,300 tons) which closely approached the record set the previous November.

The actual results of the battle were 22 merchantmen of a total 146,596 tons sunk (no destroyer hit) against only one U-boat destroyed; the shock impelled both Roosevelt and Churchill to intervene personally; as a result more destroyers were made available for ‘support groups’ to reinforce the convoy escorts under attack, and more long-range Liberators were provided to close the ‘air gap’. In this sense the U-boats’ undoubted triumph in the four-days’ battle, March 16–19th, hastened their ultimate defeat—for it seems that the allied chiefs of staff needed such a jolt to remind them of the Casablanca Conference decision that the defeat of the U-boats was their first priority.

In another sense, the balance was bound to tip against Dönitz at some stage, and the process was already well under way. On the very day that the U-boat Command war diary noted ‘the greatest success so far obtained in a convoy battle’ the British Commander of the Western Atlantic defences, Admiral Sir Max Horton, wrote to a friend, ‘I really have hopes now that we can turn from the defence to another and better role—killing them.’ He went on:

The real trouble has been basic—too few ships, all too hard worked with no time for training… The Air of course is a tremendous factor, & it is only recently that the many promises that have been made show signs of fulfilment so far as shore-based air is concerned, after three and a half years of war … All these things are coming to a head just now and although the last week has been one of the blackest on the sea, so far as this job is concerned I am really hopeful.

The U-boats’ successes had been made possible by the diversion of allied resources to the North African landings, the Pacific campaign and to bombing raids over Europe, aimed first at knocking out the U-boat bases and, when it proved impossible to penetrate the giant concrete shelters provided by Todt and Speer, to crippling German industry in the Ruhr. There were already more than enough long range Liberators to cover the whole North Atlantic convoy routes, and if a fraction of the effort devoted to these ‘offensive’ raids had been spent on the protection of convoys Dönitz’s gloomy forecasts of the late summer of 1942 must have been fulfilled and a great many allied ships and fives saved—not to mention civilians in France and Germany who also paid the price for the mistaken bombing policy. In this sense the crisis in which the allies found themselves in the spring of 1943—and which Dönitz and most German authorities on the U-boat war have used to claim that the Atlantic battle was a close-run thing—was entirely self-induced. There was never a possibility that the U-boats which Dönitz was throwing into the attack could have cut the Atlantic lifeline; directly they threatened to do so, allied resources must have been re-allocated from so-called offensive operations to the defence of this vital artery, and since the contemporary German U-boat had been rendered obsolete by improved aircraft performance and weaponry, his surface and group tactics by radar, this must have proved fatal.

Martial Women of Medieval Europe and the Crusades


Eleanor of Aquitaine: (A.D. 1122?–1204) Romancers have placed her in the Second Crusade, clad in polished armor, plume dancing in the sun, dashing over the hillsides and killing Moors. The reality is hardly less impressive. On Easter Day, A.D. 1146, she offered the Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux, at Vézelay, her thousands of vassals, who formed the core of the Second Crusade. She intended to lead her legion personally and opinions vary as to how far she actually succeeded, although contemporary legend assumes the most. On the day of her army’s departure, Eleanor appeared in Vezelay riding a white horse, clad in armor, “with gilded buskins on her feet and plumes in her hair,” surrounded by other armored women, including Sybelle, Countess of Flanders, Mamille of Roucy, Florine of Bourgogne, Torqueri of Bouilon, and Faydide of Toulouse, all splendidly appointed. If it was a charade, she kept it up all along the route to the Holy Land. She met the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenos and went from his court, by sea, to Syria, where her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, one of the most brilliant knights of the age, was ruler. She went thence to Jerusalem, where she was greeted by Queen Melisande, ruler of Christians during the Crusades. Melisande not only fought Moslems, but also her own son, refusing to give up her rule when he came of age.

Independent evidence from the Greek historian Nicetas describes European women in the Crusades, and names especially “the Lady of the Golden Boot,” whom we can reasonably assume to be the same Eleanor with gilded buskins who started out from Vézelay, though some historians believe Nicetas referred to a troop of women in the employ of the German Conrad. The Greek historian describes her elegant and martial bearing, and describes, as well, her armored ladies with spears and axes, mounted on fine chargers.

Eleanor had been inspired by Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and the character of Clorinda when she had armor specially made for herself and her ladies-in-waiting. Many historians today dismiss this event, and suggest that, at the first sign of trouble, she and her women turned around and headed home. Nicetas’ report strongly suggests otherwise. The Bull of the Third Crusade (1189) expressly forbade women to join the expeditions, although the First Crusade included equal numbers of men, women, and children, and the Second seems to have included numerous noblewomen inspired by Queen Eleanor after her spectacle at Vézelay, where she had ridden about the countryside calling for crusaders. Whether the Bull of the Third Crusade was obeyed seems unlikely, as too many of the warrior-monks were of denominations that included nun auxiliaries, and a great many mendicant-nuns were free to roam at will.


Medieval nuns were often members of wandering sects and traveled armed for self-defensive reasons. Others were adjunct to famous sects of fighting monks and accompanied them on the Crusades. Still others learned to fight for the protection of their lands and convents in a tumultuous age, as was the case with Philothéy Benizélos of Greece and Julienne du Guesdin of Brittainy. At the siege of Seville by Espartero, an anticleric, the nuns of Seville rose against him, so that his siege was repelled. There can be no question but that nuns and abbesses have had a great propensity for violence, as witness the stories of Chrodielde and Leubevére warring in the sixth century for control of an abbey, or Renée de Bourbon in the late 1400s in armed struggle for reforms. In the monk wars of early Christian Ireland, women were reported fighting amidst the clergy, undoubtedly nuns.

An eleventh-century nun’s marginalia in an illuminated manuscript shows a nun jousting with a monk on horseback and defeating him. This piece can be seen reproduced in Karen Peterson and J. J. Wilson’s Women Artists (1976). Some would say the artist was being satiric, but the reality of her age better upholds the conclusion that she was depicting actual military exercises practiced by monks and nuns. The ill-fated First Crusade led by Peter the Hermit was most assuredly made up of men, women, and children. Misson in Voyage d’Italie (1688) reported his personal inspection of an arsenal of the Palazzo-Real, which included cuirasses and helmets for women, which he was told were worn by Genoese ladies who fought Turks in 1301. Searching for confirmation, he uncovered three letters in the archives of Genoa, written by Pope Boniface VIII, discussing in detail the “warlike infatuation” of Genoese ladies who were Crusaders in 1383. As they are referred to as “ladies” rather than courtesans, and known to the pope, it is probable that they took vows before leaving for the East, in the manner of the monk-knights. If these women had not taken such vows, their troop would almost certainly have been referred to in a manner similar to that of the twelve hundred women-at-arms accompanying the duke of Alva in Flanders in the late 1500s, who were considered harlots for not taking vows.

An account survives, written by the sister of a monk (perhaps “sister” is not literal but a reference to her status as a nun), describing her experience during Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem: “I wore a helmet or at any rate walked on the ramparts wearing on my head a metal dish which did as well as a helmet. Woman though I was I had the appearance of a warrior. I slung stones at the enemy. I concealed my fears. It was hot and there was never a moment’s rest. Once a catapulted stone fell near me and I was injured by the fragments.”

Crusading women were romanticized in literature, plays, and songs, so that even Eleanor of Aquitaine was inspired to a women’s crusade and had armor made for her ladies-in-waiting. Among the queens of Europe whose valor in the Crusades is certain, we must count Florine of Denmark, Marguerite de Provence and Berengaria of Navarre. Additional indicators include the “troop of Amazons” that accompanied Emperor Conrad to Syria, and the women Crusaders in the ranks of William, Count of Poitiers, as reported by Guibert de Nogent in Gesta Dei per Francos (God’s Deeds of the Franks), book VII.

Of later periods, there are clear records regarding the unconventional activity of nuns. Le Lusca in Introduzione al Nouvellare was amused by the women of the Alpine convents who on certain days “were permitted to dress up as gentlemen, with velvet caps on their heads, tight-fitting hose, and having sword at side,” and come out of holy seclusion to partake, as gallants, in carnival society. Antonio Francesco Grazzini reports also of nuns who arrived at carnivals clad as cavaliers, swords at side, acting as gallants. Until reforms started by the Council of Trent, Italian convents were places of considerable liberty, with young patricians sporting in the gardens with the nuns, or, even more notoriously, the nuns “converting” maidens and widows by spending nights in their beds and taking them afterward to their convents. Novelists may seem to have exaggerated these propensities, yet the records show that in 1329 the nuns of Montefalco were excommunicated for such behavior; in 1447, several nuns were “reformed” by means of life imprisonment; and, in 1472, a Franciscan commissioner reported on the “irreligious and unbridled lives” of nuns. A 1403 law prohibited citizens of Bologna from any longer hanging about the convents or to converse and play music with the nuns.

Le President de Brosses, in Lettres familière écrites d’Italie, volume 1, was equally amused by Italian nuns, who as a rule carried stilettoes. These Lettres include an account of the abbess of Pomponne who fought a duel with a lady who wished to take over the abbey. Various popes found it necessary to declare the heretical nature of fighting women, in an attempt to minimize their participation. The centuries-old ban on women wearing armor would be the technicality upon which Joan of Arc was condemned to burn.


Florine: Betrothed to the king of Denmark, she accompanied him in A.D. 1097 on the ill-fated First Crusade, and died with him in battle.

Marguerite de Provence, Queen of France: (A.D. 1221–1295) Daughter of Raymond Berenger, she married Louis IX in 1254. She accompanied him on the Crusade and was in Damietta with him during a siege. At the height of the battle, she elicited a vow from an officer to behead her if the Moslems breached the walls. She behaved “with heroic entrepidity” when the king was captured.

There were many such women of the Crusades. They were “animated by the double enthusiasm of religion and valor,” and they “often performed the most incredible exploits on the field of battle, and died with arms in their hands at the side of their lovers.”

Berengaria of Navarre: (A.D. 1172?–1230?) Daughter of Sancho the Wise, King of Naples. She married Richard the Lionheart in 1191 and accompanied him to the Mideast, participating in the Crusade against Saladin. After the death of Richard, she founded an abbey and ruled its vast estates.

Chrodielde: A martial nun of the convent of Poitiers. Her bid to usurp Leubevére, abbess of Cheribert, in A.D. 590, began with political maneuvering and escalated to battle. Repulsed from the convent along with her partisans, Chrodielde withdrew to the fortified cathedral of St. Hilary and there raised an army of criminals and outcasts, who fought against the bishops seeking Chrodielde’s arrest. At the heart of Chrodielde’s popularity with the peasants was the greed of the landholding church authority, who were frankly no better than any other landlords then or now. It seems evident that nuns and midwives commonly filled the void of sympathetic leadership among the peasants of the medieval world, which is but one of the reasons for the massive witch burnings.

Childebert, King of France, sent his troops to put down the war between Chrodielde and Leubevére, “but Chrodielde and her banditti made such a valiant resistance that it was with difficulty the king’s orders were executed.” Chrodielde was ultimately excommunicated for leading peasants to rebellion.

Leubevére: Falsely accused of impious crimes by Chrodielde, Leubevére, abbess of St. Radegunde convent, repulsed her rival and afterward waged war against Chrodielde’s army of thieves, outcasts, and disenfranchised peasants. The convents and monasteries of A.D. 590 tended to be little more than the estates of wealthy landholders with forces to defend their rights and to manage troublesome serfs. The bishops called upon the king of France to quell these warrior-nuns. King Childebert sent forces that were hard put to suppress Chrodielde. Leubevére was later found innocent of Chrodielde’s charges, but was nonetheless dragged in the streets by her hair, then imprisoned, for leading nuns to battle.