Moltke. She was fitted with ten 28cm guns, trainable within a wide arc on both sides. The antitorpedo nets, initially fitted on most capital ships, were removed during the war due to their limited effectiveness and burdensome handling.


Goeben at La Spezia in early 1914. Since Italy was part of the Triple Alliance, until she declared her neutrality in early August 1914, Goeben was entitled to have access to Italian naval bases. Her main support harbour in the Mediterranean was, however, the Austrian base of Pula on the Adriatic.


Moltke, 1914


Goeben, 1912

In defining the designs of Grosse Kreuzer ‘G’ and ‘H’, included in the 1908 and 1909 building programmes, the RMA avoided the mistake made by Britain, which failed to introduce in the Indefatigable class significant improvements over the Invincibles. In comparison to Von der Tann, the new German battlecruisers were, in fact, much larger, equipped with a more powerful main battery and better protected. This was possible thanks to the increased budget allocated to battlecruisers, which rose from RM36.7 million in 1907 to RM44.1 million in each of the two following years.

Design, Construction and Cost

The design process of Grosse Kreuzer ‘G’ started in April 1907. Faced with the alternatives of switching to a larger calibre (30.5cm) main gun, as in the new Helgoland class battleships, or increasing the number of existing 28cm guns, Tirpitz and Department K choose the latter. Given that Britain was building a larger number of battlecruisers than Germany, it was indeed advisable to have a greater number of guns, rather than increase their calibre. Moreover, the RMA considered the 28cm was sufficient even to engage battleships.

Initially, the 28cm SK L/45 was selected and a preliminary design – dubbed ‘G2i’ – for a 22,000t battlecruiser equipped with five twin turrets and capable of developing 24 to 24.5 knots, was approved by the Kaiser on 28 May 1907. The project definition continued at a slow pace, due to both the many changes gradually introduced and the work overload affecting Department K. At one point, building Grosse Kreuzer ‘G’ as a repeat of Von der Tann to save time was even considered, postponing the introduction of improvements to the next ship, Grosse Kreuzer ‘H’. This proposal, however, was set aside, and on 15 May 1908 Tirpitz decided that Grosse Kreuzer ‘G’ and ‘H’ had to be identical. On 17 September, the RMA entrusted the construction of ‘G’ to the Blohm & Voss shipyard, which had submitted the lowest bid in anticipation of winning the contracts for both ships. The order for the first battlecruiser was signed on 28 September and, on 8 April 1909, Blohm & Voss also secured the contract for Grosse Kreuzer ‘H’.

Moltke11 was laid down on 7 December 1908, launched on 7 April 1910 and declared ready for the acceptance tests on 30 September 1911. She entered service on 31 March 1912. Goeben12 was laid down on 12 August 1909, launched on 28 March 1911, declared ready for acceptance tests on 2 July 1912 and commissioned on 2 August. Moltke cost RM44.08 million, spread over four budget years (1908-11), and distributed as follows: hull and propulsion, RM29.15 million; guns, RM14 million; and torpedo armament, RM0.93 million. The cost of Goeben was almost identical: RM44.125 million over 1909-12.

General Features

The main design features of the Moltke class (overall length 186.6m, beam 29.4m, design displacement 22,979t) were largely superior to those of Von der Tann. In particular, the greater size of the hull caused an overall increase of about 3,600t in the design displacement. The table on pages 156-7 shows displacement, dimensions and the ships’ main characteristics. This overall increase was due to several features. 1,000t came from a hull that was finer at the ends and wider amidships. An additional 1,000t were due to a greater freeboard and the installation of an additional 28cm turret and the consequent lengthening of the ship’s citadel caused an increase of 900t. The installation of more powerful machinery resulted in an additional 450t and, finally, larger ammunition stowage accounted for 100t.

The hull was divided longitudinally into fifteen watertight compartments and horizontally into six decks. Extensive compartmentalisation and a double bottom extending for 78% of the hull length provided underwater protection. In addition, there were side longitudinal bulkheads that provided further compart-mentalisation in the central and aft sections of the hull. There were two passageways located along the hull sides in the upper, lower platform and hold decks, running from approximately the foremost boiler rooms to ‘C’ turret magazine. Another two middle passageways, only in the upper platform deck, ran along the boiler rooms.

The forecastle rose up gently up to 7.6m far forward, while aft it continued up to the superfiring turret. The freeboard was increased by about 1m at the battery deck but reduced at the stern. The stem was nearly straight, instead of the pronounced ram bow fitted on Von der Tann.

The forward superstructure included the main control tower, two 8.8cm guns, the chart room and the bridge and the flag bridge. The rear part of this superstructure supported the forward funnel, which was higher than the aft funnel because it had a hood. The foremast was just forward of the fore funnel. Two searchlight platforms were fitted on each side of the fore funnel; the air vents for the boilers were located at its base, which also supported two derricks for handling the service boats. The aft superstructure included the secondary conning tower and a lattice frame with two platforms, each supporting two searchlights.13 These were installed aft, rather than on the sides of the aft funnel, to move them away from the flash and blast of the 28cm wing turrets. The aft funnel was not fitted with an outer coating; it was no longer needed since the aft searchlights were moved onto separate platforms. At the base of the aft funnel, there were the air intakes for the ventilation of the lower decks.

The barrels of the 28cm guns were 1.4m longer than Von der Tann’s, due to the transition from 45 to 50 calibres. This resulted in a corresponding increase of the traversing radius, thus requiring an adjustment of the funnels’ positioning, with a consequent increase in length of the ship’s citadel. The original design foresaw lattice masts; concerns related to the increased volume of these structures, their stability in case of hits, and potential interference in the operation of the W/T equipment led to the adoption of metal pole masts. After 1914, a fire-control position was added on the foremast. The Moltkes were equipped with bilge keels to improve stability. Six turbo generators supplied 1,500kW at 225V, powering the lighting and communication systems and the training servo-mechanisms of the large calibre turrets. The turbo-generators were housed in four dynamo rooms, two positioned along the centreline and the other port and starboard of the forward engine room, in the upper platform deck. W/T fitting was the same as on Von der Tann. Anti-torpedo nets were originally fitted but they were removed in 1916.

The Moltkes’ metacentric height was 3.01m. The angle of maximum stability was 34° and the angle at which stability vanished was 68°. Complement included forty-three officers and 1,010 men; when serving as flagship, there were an additional thirteen officers and sixty-two men.


The increase in displacement allowed for a considerable strengthening of the Moltkes’ protection, compared to Von der Tann. However, the weakness represented by the thinner armour of the barbettes behind the main armour belt was not eliminated. The main belt, consisting of KC steel plates, extended over 112m between the barbettes of the forward and the aftermost large calibre turrets. Maximum thickness was 270mm on a height of 175cm, 35cm of which was below the waterline. The belt tapered upwards to 200mm at the battery deck level (or at the upper deck outside the citadel) and to 130mm at the lower edge, 175cm below the waterline. The main belt was closed by 200mm bulkheads fore and aft. Beyond the main belt, side armour extended towards the bow and stern with a reduced thickness of 100mm.

The citadel enclosing the 15cm guns was protected by 150mm side armour between the upper and battery decks and was closed by bulkheads of equal thickness. The side protection of the main conning tower was 350mm, with an 80mm roof. The aft conning tower featured 200mm in side protection and a 50mm roof. The main gun turrets’ armour was unchanged from Von der Tann (230mm front, 180mm sides and 90mm flat roofs). The thickness of the barbettes was 200-230mm above the main belt but it was reduced to 80mm behind the battery side armour and to 30mm behind the main belt. Horizontal protection was 75mm inside the citadel, equally divided among the upper, battery and armoured decks. The thickness of the sloping sides of the armoured deck was 50mm. Outside of the citadel, protection was provided by the armoured deck, with a thickness between 50 and 75mm. A longitudinal torpedo bulkhead ran 3.75m inside the main belt with a thickness of 30mm, increasing to 50mm on the sides of the ammunition magazines.


Moltke and Goeben were equipped with twenty-four coal-fired Schulz-Thornycroft boilers. They were housed in groups of three in eight separated rooms amidships. The watertight compartment that housed ‘B’ turret magazine and some auxiliary equipment separated the two forward boiler rooms from the aft boiler rooms. In turn, these were split into six compartments, obtained by dividing two adjacent boiler rooms with two longitudinal bulkheads.

Steam was raised at 16atm and fed two groups of Parsons turbines, powering as many shafts fitted with three-blade propellers, 3.74m in diameter. The Moltkes, like Von der Tann, featured two side longitudinal bulkheads, which split the engine rooms into port and starboard compartments. The two forward engine rooms housed the HP turbines, which operated the outer shafts. The aft engine rooms housed the MP turbines, which ran the inner shafts.

Design power was 52,000shp, providing 25.5 knots at 260rpm. This value was greatly exceeded during speed trials, in which Moltke attained 85,782shp at 332rpm, and a top speed of 28.07 knots. Goeben achieved 85,661shp at 330rpm, and 28 knots. Design coal stowage was 1,000t; the maximum 3,100t and endurance was 4,120 miles at 14 knots. After 1916, the boilers were equipped with tar oil sprayers, thus obviating the poor quality of available coal; oil capacity was 200t.

Moltke and Goeben had two rudders in tandem. Since the rudders were 12m apart, this layout increased manoeuvrability at slow speed and the ship’s survivability. However, this also remarkably increased the ship’s turning diameter at slow speed. When turning at full rudder, speed loss could reach 60%, while heeling could reach 9°.


The main armament consisted of ten 28cm L/50 guns in five Drh. LC/08 twin mountings: a bow turret (‘A’), two aft (‘C’ superfiring over ‘D’) and two wing turrets (‘B’ to starboard and ‘E’ to port).14 As in Von der Tann, this layout allowed firing a full broadside of ten guns within a wide arc (about 75°) on both sides. The height of the gun axis was 8.79m above the waterline for the forward turret, 8.43m for the wing turrets and 8.61m and 6.25m for the aft turrets. Each mounting weighed about 445t, and had a crew of seventy.

Elevation of the large-calibre guns was -8°/+13.5°, 6.5° less than Von der Tann. Therefore, the maximum range was limited to 18,100m.15 When the maximum elevation was increased to 16° in 1916, range was extended to 19,100m. As Yavuz (ex-Goeben), the maximum elevation was further increased to 22.5°, in order to enable her to deal with the newest Russian battleships, armed with 30.5cm guns, operating in the Black Sea. The guns of Yavuz could then achieve a maximum range of 21,700m. Thanks to the increased length of the barrel when compared with the 28cm L/45, the new gun fired the 302kg AP shell with a muzzle velocity of 880 mps and corresponding muzzle energy of 116.9MJ. Maximum rate of fire was three rounds per minute while the weight of the full broadside (ten rounds) was 3,020kg. Ammunition outfit totalled 810 rounds. The capacity of the magazines was 150 rounds for the wing and aftermost turrets and 180 rounds for the other two turrets.

The secondary battery consisted of twelve 15cm L/45 guns on MPL C/06 mountings, casemated on both sides of the ship’s citadel. Each gun’s axis was 5m above the waterline. Ammunition outfit was 150 rounds per gun (1,800 in total). Two 15cm guns were removed from Yavuz in May 1915 and used to strengthen the fortress of In Tepe, on the Dardanelles.

To defend against torpedo boats and destroyers, the Moltkes were initially armed with twelve 8.8cm L/45 naval guns: four were placed near the bow, two in the fore and four in the aft superstructure, and two on the upper deck, aft of the 15cm battery. These 8.8cm guns were first reduced to eight, removing the bow guns because they were flooded when the ship steamed at full speed; another four guns were removed in 1916. The remaining 8.8cm guns were replaced by four AA guns on MPL C/13 single mounts, which were installed on the aft superstructure. Ammunition outfit for these guns totalled 3,200 rounds (200 per gun). Moltke and Goeben were also equipped with four 50cm underwater torpedo tubes (one forward, one aft and two on the broadside), with eleven torpedoes carried.


In April-May 1912, Moltke paid a visit to the United States along with the light cruisers Stettin and Bremen. In July, she escorted the Kaiser’s yacht during a visit to St. Petersburg. Back in Germany, Moltke became the flagship of 1. Aufklärungsgruppe and served as such until Rear-Admiral Hipper transferred his flag to the new Seydlitz, on 23 June 1914. Moltke was interned at Scapa Flow on 24 November 1918 and scuttled by her crew on 21 June 1919. Raised in June 1927, she was scrapped in Rosyth in 1927-9.


In October 1912, after the outbreak of the First Balkan War, Germany decided to send a naval Division to the Mediterranean to exert influence in the area. On 4 November, Goeben, escorted by the light cruiser Breslau, sailed from Kiel to Constantinople, where they arrived on 15 November. At the end of the war in May 1913, the ships were supposed to return to German waters but the reopening of hostilities, in the Second Balkan War, dispelled this notion. On 28 June 1914, the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Goeben was cruising in the eastern Mediterranean, from where she immediately sailed for repairs at the Austro-Hungarian naval base of Pola (today, Pula in Croatia). Goeben was formally transferred to Turkey on 16 August 1914 and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim. However, the German crew continued to man the battlecruiser until November 1918. Yavuz remained in service under the Turkish flag until 20 December 1950, when she was placed in reserve. Deleted from the navy register in 1954, she was offered to Germany in 1963, with the proposal to turn her into a floating museum. Following the rejection of this idea by the German government, in 1971 Yavuz was sold for dismantling and scrapped in 1973-6.

Volksjäger Ta 183


Focke-Wulf Ta 183 in flight.


Focke-Wulf P.V of February 1945, soon to become the Ta 183.

Emergency Fighter Competition third round (27-28th February, 1945) competitors:

Messerschmitt P 1101, P 1110 and P 1111

Focke-Wulf P.V and Entwurf III

Heinkel P 1078

Blohm & Voss P 212

Junkers EF 128

Focke-Wulf continued to pitch its elegant P.V design with its swept wings and long T-tail but added another less risky option to sit alongside it – an aircraft known simply as Entwurf III. This was similar to the P.V but with the cockpit positioned further back from the engine’s intake rather than being sat right above it, and with a conventional low tail plane rather than the P.V’s T-top.

Stung by criticism of the P 1106’s poor pilot visibility, Messerschmitt withdrew it from contention – reinstating the P 1101 in its place. A refined version of the P 1110 remained, but was joined by a near-delta wing fighter which drew on the firm’s years of experience with tailless designs, the P 1111.

Heinkel pressed ahead with its P 1078 and Blohm & Voss altered its P 212’s fuselage to make it aerodynamically cleaner. Junkers EF 128 also remained in contention, unchanged.

A report produced for the meeting said: ‘Subject: Comparison of designs for single-jet fighter, Upper Bavarian Research Station, Oberammergau. Summary: The report gives a concise statement of the most important technical points and sizes for comparison of the single-jet fighter.

The performances are determined from general characteristics (performance adjustment according to Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt). At the request of the Entwicklungs Hauptkommission and the head of the Technische Luft Rustung, designs for single-jet fighters were tendered by the following firms: Blohm & Voss, Focke-Wulf, Ernst Heinkel, Junkers, Messerschmitt.

At the meeting of the Entwicklungs Hauptkommission on 27-28th February, 1945, a decision concerning the completion of these designs is to be made. The purpose of this report, after careful work on the material in question, is to present a comparison between the designs tendered, and, thus, is to serve the EHK as the basis for decision. A considerable interruption of the work necessary for this report was brought about by war conditions. On account of the bad traffic and communication facilities, it was not possible to obtain in written form the report of the DVL on general performance and criticism of the characteristics of the aircraft.

For the same reasons it was not possible to compare in the general discussion with DVL the additional designs tendered (the design from Heinkel and the Messerschmitt P 1101 and P 1111 designs).

In order to ensure the fairest possible comparison, reference was made to the performance and weights of all the designs submitted with regard to equipment and armament. The aircraft weights were determined against each other at the beginning of the performance comparison. The bulletproofing was not assumed to be of equal weight for the individual designs, but the bulletproofing for each aircraft was set out so that an equal extent of protection was obtained wherever possible.

Exceptions can be made for designs P 1101 and P 1111 from Messerschmitt, as these have to be considered with a view to their stronger armament (three MK 108 and four MK 108 respectively, instead of two MK 108). This happened on account of the fact that the arrangement of the supplementary armament at the extreme front of the aircraft presented great difficulties on both models in regard to the centre of gravity, and thus the firm provided additional armament as a fundamental. The design of the Heinkel company was not included in the comparison of performance and weight, as it was not ready at the time. The comparison was finished, but the result has not yet been submitted at this time to Special Commission for Day Fighters. The estimated performances are thus the firm’s specifications.

The estimated performance for the designs P 1110, P 1101 and P 1111 from Messerschmitt do not correspond entirely to the values that were ascertained at the comparison of performance. For the design P 1110, an increase of wing and fuselage surface is contemplated and considered according to the fundamental process of calculating the performance comparison. The designs P 1101 and P 1111 that were not submitted for the performance comparison by Messerschmitt, were calculated by the firm according to an agreed process and were submitted for decision in place of the project P 1106. The estimated performances are comparative figures, which will serve as the deciding factor for the value of the designs submitted. They are not to be considered as absolute estimates of the velocities.

The report consists of a short description, in concise form, of the separate projects, with the most important technical points such as the main dimension weights and important performances in comprehensive tables.

These served the Special Commission for Day Fighters on January 12, 1945, as a basis. In the meantime, alterations proposed by the firms have not been considered.’

The third and final round competitors for the Emergency Fighter Competition on 27-28th February, 1945, were Focke-Wulf’s P.V and Entwurf III, Messerschmitt’s P 1101, P 1110 and P 1111, Heinkel’s P 1078 C, Blohm & Voss’s P 212 and Junkers’ EF 128.

Comparative data

Top speed

Messerschmitt P 11101000kph (621mph)

Messerschmitt P 1111995kph (618mph)

Messerschmitt P 1101980kph (608.5mph)

Blohm and Voss P 212965kph (599mph)

Focke-Wulf Entwurf 3962kph (597mph)

Focke-Wulf Ta 183955kph (593mph)

Junkers EF 128905kph (562mph)

Heinkel P 1078 Cdata unavailable

Rate of climb

Messerschmitt P 111123.7m/s (4660ft/min)

Focke-Wulf Entwurf 323.2m/s (4550ft/min)

Junkers EF 12822.9m/s (4500ft/min)

Messerschmitt P 110122.2m/s (4380ft/min)

Messerschmitt P 111021.5m/s (4250ft/min)

Blohm and Voss P 21221.3m/s (4200ft/min)

Focke-Wulf Ta 18320.5m/s (4020ft/min)

Heinkel P 1078 Cdata unavailable

Take-off weight

Heinkel P 1078 C3920kg

Messerschmitt P 11014064kg

Junkers EF 1284077kg

Focke-Wulf Entwurf 34100kg

Blohm and Voss P 2124180kg

Messerschmitt P 11114282kg

Messerschmitt P 11104290kg

Focke-Wulf Ta 1834379kg

Maximum fuel capacity

Focke-Wulf Entwurf 32100 litres

Junkers EF 1281570 litres

Messerschmitt P 11011500 litres

Messerschmitt P 11101500 litres

Messerschmitt P 11111500 litres

Heinkel P 1078 C1450 litres

Focke-Wulf Ta 1831440 litres

Blohm & Voss P 2121370 litres

Maximum armament

Blohm & Voss P 2125 x MK 108

Messerschmitt P 11105 x MK 108

Focke-Wulf Ta 1834 x MK 108

Junkers EF 1284 x MK 108

Messerschmitt P 11014 x MK 108

Messerschmitt P 11114 x MK 108

Focke-Wulf Entwurf 33 x MK 108

Heinkel P 1078 C2 x MK 108


The Focke-Wulf’s P.V as it appeared in February 1945, shortly to become known as the Ta 183, was specifically design to allow the aircraft to fly as close to Mach 1 as possible without suffering the negative effects of compressibility – particularly strong vibrations and loss of control. Its wings were sharply swept back and far narrower than they had been a year earlier. The engine’s air intake had also been sculpted and shaped using wind tunnel models for maximum efficiency.

The design team at Focke-Wulf, who code-named the aircraft ‘Huckebein’, were confident that they had satisfactorily resolved the issues associated with high-speed flight and that the aircraft would be suitable for low-speed flying too.

It was proposed that the P.V/Ta 183 would be adaptable and could easily be converted into a short-range interceptor with the addition of a rocket engine with 1000kg thrust in the rear fuselage. The T-Stoff and C-Stoff fuel needed for this, however, would need to be carried externally in drop-tanks. The rocket’s pumps would be driven by the turbojet and 200 seconds of thrust would be available.

When used in the fighter-bomber role, the P.V would be able to carry up to 500kg in munitions in a specially designed semi-recessed bomb rack. Standard-fit weaponry would be a pair of MK 108s, each with 100 rounds, but a second supplementary pair of these powerful 30mm cannon could be installed with 60 rounds each. This would result in the aircraft’s maximum service ceiling being reduced by 600m.

The struts for the tricycle undercarriage’s main legs would simply be repurposed Fw 190 components, as would the pilot’s seat. Even the cockpit canopy and its emergency release mechanism would largely come from that of the Fw 190.

Some 45.3% of the P.V was to be made of steel, another 25% was duraluminium, 25.9% was plywood and other materials made up the remaining 3.8%.

The second Focke-Wulf design put forward for the final analysis was the Entwurf III. It was clearly similar to what would become the Ta 183 but was also noticeably more conservative in layout. The undercarriage arrangement was largely the same and so was the armament – but with an optional upgrade reduced to just one additional MK 108 for a total of three. But the wings had a less severe sweepback and the tail was far more conventional. Based on the DVL’s calculation formula, the Entwurf III was actually faster than the P.V/Ta 183, with a top speed of 597mph compared to 593mph and it could climb faster too, at a rate of 4550 feet per minute compared to just 4020 feet per minute.


Long months after the original ‘emergency’ for which the Emergency Fighter Competition was named had arisen and grown into a solid death blow for Nazi Germany, the contest finally drew to a close and a winner was chosen – Focke-Wulf’s Ta 183. Its performance against the other designs had been relatively mediocre and it finished mid-to-bottom of the table in every respect. Yet it won in one crucial area – it was close to production ready. The company could demonstrate that it had been working on the design, relatively unchanged, for over a year and was also able to produce detailed constructional blueprints for most of the design’s major structures and systems. It was a safe bet and the German chief development committee adjudicators grasped it with both hands – even though time had long since run out for what was now hurriedly designated the Ta 183. It had been hoped that the new fighter would be able to make its first flight as a prototype towards the end of May or perhaps early June 1945 but this was not to be. In fact, the earliest that production models of the Ta 183 might have been produced was October 1945. The capture of Focke-Wulf’s Bad Eilsen design headquarters – complete with chief designer Kurt Tank himself – on April 8 put an end to both the Ta 183 and the Emergency Fighter Competition that had spawned it.

Tapping the Hot Line




Back on September 7, 1941, Leningrad had been under direct German fire for three days. The famous siege of nine hundred days was about to commence. Immediately to the east, at a place called Shlisselburg, troops of the Soviet NKVD desperately resisted advance elements of the German Sixteenth Army. Three hundred aircraft of the German Luftwaffe swept in to strafe the holdouts, and by nightfall the city on the shores of Lake Ladoga was engulfed in flames.

Far to the south, but also on the eastern front, panzer chieftain Heinz Guderian had turned his tank columns in a drive across the Russian rear in the Ukraine. He soon would meet another German pincer sweep and close the vast encirclement of Kiev. At the center of the eastern front another huge haul of prisoners and territory was in prospect for the German Army Group Center driving toward Vyazma.

A world in such tumult paid little attention to a radio-telephone call late that day from still-peaceable Washington, D.C., to London. In that innocuous pulsing across the Atlantic—also the scene of raging war—a newly arrived British official merely asked his superiors in London to provide him an assistant.

Innocuous as the call may have seemed, the German enemy heard, recorded and understood the conversation—no matter that it was “scrambled.” The occasion, in fact, was a red-letter day for a certain set of German eavesdroppers—this was their first intercept of many on the very same transatlantic “line” that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt would be using throughout the war to discuss Allied strategy, tactics, and policy.

If the Allies had their super-secret ULTRA code-breaking operation as an ear to Nazi Germany’s pulse, the Germans, as an intelligence coup of their own, had solved the Allied “scramble” device and could listen in when the two heads of state, or their many functionaries, picked up the scramble phone on either side of the Atlantic.

So secret was ULTRA that only the highest Allied officials and the most select intelligence personnel knew about it. So secret, likewise, was the German radio-telephone intercept that military intelligence was left out of the game almost entirely. Hitler and his closest Nazi Party coterie kept this one pretty much to themselves.

And they could thank the man equivalent to America’s postmaster general for the coup, rather than Germany’s professional spies.

Ladislas Farago told the story of Reich’s Post Minister Wilhelm Ohnesorge’s contribution to the German war effort in the 1971 book, The Game of the Foxes. The tale actually begins in 1939, when a German agent in New York noticed a story in the New York Times that was headlined: “Roosevelt Protected in Talks to Envoys by Radio ‘Scrambling’ to Foil Spies Abroad.”

Roosevelt’s scrambler was located in a soundproof room in the basement of the White House. Later in the war, Churchill would do his conversing from a scramble instrument located in his underground War Cabinet Rooms in London. For the moment, though, America was still a neutral party, and FDR’s first use of the scramble phone had been to hear about the unprovoked German invasion of Poland on September 1 from his ambassador in Paris, William C. Bullitt.

Developed by Bell Telephone, the A-3 scramble device would break up the frequency band and scatter the voice impulses at one end, all to be sorted out by a descrambler at the other end of the radio-telephone link. From the White House, FDR’s conversation was piped into an AT&T security room in New York for the transatlantic transmission in unintelligible form.

The German spy in New York dutifully forwarded his clipping from the Times, but in Germany there was no immediate or significant reaction within the intelligence community. Still, the Allied “hot line” did interest one expert outside normal German intelligence circles—Wilhelm Ohnesorge.

As Reichs post minister, Ohnesorge was in charge not only of Germany’s postal system, but also its telephone and telegraph network. He was just the man to focus upon the ballyhooed radio-telephone “scramble” link between England and America, which he did without delay. His laboratories and engineers set to work entirely lacking in visible evidence of the highly secret Bell apparatus—no blueprints, models, or the like. But, beginning his work in 1940, Ohnesorge’s chief research engineer, Kurt Vetterlein, had developed experimental models of both the scrambling and descrambling devices by September 1941. The first interception was of the British official’s call to London from Washington late on September 7, even as Leningrad came under siege.

Keeping their experimental work secret, Ohnesorge and Vetterlein soon perfected their intercept system. They built a monitoring station on the coast of occupied Holland, complete with directional antennas to pick up the radio signals from nearby England. By March 1942, they were ready to begin their intercepts on a regular basis.

At this early stage of the war—for America, especially—FDR and Churchill had a great many military secrets to talk about. The Normandy invasion was still two years away; the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa was still months in the future, and for both Allies, the war in the Pacific against Germany’s Axis partner Japan still appeared an unmitigated disaster.

As David Kahn further explained in his 1978 book, Hitler’s Spies, wartime developments gradually encroached upon the listening unit’s original location in a onetime youth hostel on the Dutch coast. Commando raids on coastal radar stations prompted the Germans to move their Forschungsstelle, or “research post,” to Valkenswaard in southeastern Holland. “Here a compact brick-and-concrete bunker, in the shape of an L, was built for it in the woods….” wrote Kahn. “The men worked in areas guarded by inch-thick steel doors, cooked in their own kitchen, slept in rooms with dormer windows, and relaxed in a living room with a fireplace.”

By the fall of 1944, after the Normandy invasion, the exigencies of war forced the Germans to relocate again—this time as distantly from England as Bavaria. “But here the distance from the [England-based] transmitter considerably impaired its results.”

The original, early war locale, of course, had been the best for Engineer Vetterlein’s operation. That spot, two hundred yards from the sea, “could pick up both the ground wave of the transmitter in England and the back lob of its beam toward America.” Vetterlein’s equipment included single sideband receivers, filters, modulators, switching equipment, tape recorders, timers and, for the intercepts themselves, two rhombic antennas. The latter took in the Allied signals in their scrambled form, but with the supporting equipment, Vetterlein and his men would find the Allied chitchat “instantaneously disentangled by the apparatus, and tape-recorded in the clear.”

As Kahn also noted, Vetterlein did not exactly begin his work from a point zero. His Deutsche Reichspost agency had owned an A-3 device allowing radiotelephone communication with the United States. The trick for Vetterlein and his crowd was to descramble, even if they understood the operating principles.

Thus, they first attacked the problem using American transmissions intercepted near occupied Bordeaux, France. They “attacked the problem with oscilloscopes and spectrographs, filters and patience. By the end of 1940, they had reconstructed the A-3’s secret parameters—the widths of the subbands, their division points, their inversions, and their intersubstitutions, which changed thirty-six times every twelve minutes.”

The painstaking work led eventually to the equipment that would descramble the overheard conversations “as they were being spoken,” although it did take months—until fall of 1941—to effectively intercept and descramble the cross-Atlantic messages. Later, when the intelligence operation was in full swing, the Germans monitored the hot line around the clock, with thirty to sixty calls to choose from every day.

Churchill and his counterpart in Washington would not discuss everything by radio-telephone, to be sure. They did have their wartime conferences; they communicated by other means, and they had many subordinates shuttling back and forth. Many of those subordinates, however, both military and diplomatic, would be using the scramble phone too.

Unknown to any of the Allied principals, the German monitoring station first located in Holland produced an intelligence bonanza from the start. “Its equipment was so efficient,” wrote Farago in his book, “that the intercepted conversations could be ‘deciphered’ instantaneously, losing only a few syllables after each key change (which occurred at intervals of twenty seconds) until the proper key was found automatically. The German transcripts were sent to Berlin on a G-Schreiber, a classified teletype that had its own scrambler system. The entire operation, from the interception to the arrival of its transcript in Berlin, usually required only a couple of hours. It was probably the fastest means of intelligence procurement in secret service history.”

Reichs Post Minister Ohnesorge waited until the intercept system was working perfectly before informing Hitler of the great success. On March 6, 1942, he wrote the Führer to report that his was the only agency in the Third Reich “that succeeded in rendering conversations that had been made unintelligible, intelligible again at the instant of reception.”

As a direct result, among other helpful intelligence gleanings, the Germans in July of 1943 were able to confirm that the Italian government, having deposed Mussolini, was seeking an armistice with the Allies.

Various signs had pointed toward the wavering of the Italian ally, but Hitler and his close advisors were unsure what to expect. When Marshal Pietro Badoglio’s new government took over on July 25, confusion reigned in Nazi Germany’s highest councils.

On July 29, however, Post Minister Ohnesorge’s latest intercept, delivered in a sealed envelope marked with a big U, settled the controversy—and resulted in Hitler’s next fateful decision. At 1 A.M. that day, Churchill and Roosevelt had talked on their scramble phone about the tumultuous events in Italy. They had discussed the possibility of an impending armistice with the new government.

Since there had been no official peace-feeler by the Badoglio regime, they might have been premature in anticipating such a move just then. And they apparently did speak in a conditional sense, even if their expectations were made quite clear.

Whatever the tone of the conversation, it was enough for the eavesdropping Germans. They saw it as hard evidence that armistice negotiations were under way.

As a result, Hitler’s uncertainty was ended. He immediately ordered the occupation of Italy, and soon twenty German divisions stood in the Allied pathway up the Italian boot, instead of the mere eight that were stationed there before the telephone intercept. The Allies would spend the rest of the war subduing the German forces in Italy—at horrendous cost to both sides.

While the Deutsche Reichpost had more than proved the value of its listening post in Holland, Germany’s military forces were not often to share in the intelligence harvest that resulted. “This was a Nazi triumph, and it was to remain a Nazi operation,” wrote Farago. “Distribution of the intercepts was strictly limited. A single copy of the original transcript was sent to Heinrich Himmler to be distributed at his discretion. The [military] Abwehr was bypassed, as were the intelligence departments of the Army, Navy, and Luftwaffe.”

After SS Chief Himmler’s scrutiny of the incoming intercepts, the “choicest” were sent on to Hitler. A few went to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, but he apparently was discouraged by the fact that the Allied speakers on the radio-telephone were often guarded even in their scrambled conversations. “Owing to the fact that these conversations are camouflaged,” he once complained, “there is very little one can learn from them.”

Wiser members of the Third Reich’s ruling circles were, of course, more impressed. The Himmler protégé Walter Schellenberg, who had vaulted to head of all German espionage by 1944, recognized an obvious “bull’s-eye” when the Holland intercept picked up an FDR-Churchill conversation on May 5, 1944, about an Allied buildup in England. There, straight from “the horse’s mouth,” was confirmation that the invasion of France was imminent. And when it did take place, just a month later, it wasn’t the Deutsche Reichspost’s fault that Germany was unable to stop it. Germany’s postmaster general and his engineers had done their job—what could be done about the information they provided was another matter altogether.

The Luftwaffe Bombing of Stalingrad



The changing strategic focus of Axis forces in the summer of 1942 for the southern assault towards the Volga and the Caucasus (‘Operation Blue’) was signalled by the sudden increase in air attacks on railway communications across the southern zone as a prelude to the new campaign. In May and June a majority of attacks were directed at the southern Ukraine, the area around Voronezh and the Krasnodar region on the Black Sea coast leading to the Caucasus, 59 per cent of all German sorties. By the time Operation Blue started on 28 June the German Air Force had already inflicted substantial damage on rail centres and killed an estimated 1,400 people, including the two deadliest raids so far, when 415 mostly evacuees were burned to death at Kavkazskaia station and 466 killed at the rail centre at Kochetkova. In July attacks on railways targets more than 100 kilometres from the front line intensified, taking up almost two-thirds of all raids. These included the preliminary raids on Stalingrad and the region around the city as it became clear with German operational successes that the city would soon be an object within the grasp of Army Group South. There were 59 raids on the Stalingrad region, four on the city itself, doing little damage but killing 99 people. By August the German Air Force devoted one-third of all raids on the Eastern Front to the Stalingrad area, 17 per cent to the Caucasus.

The commander of the German Fourth Air Fleet for the campaign against Stalingrad was Wolfram von Richthofen, the officer who had commanded the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and who had led the ferocious aerial assault on the Crimean city of Sebastopol in June 1942. This month-long campaign saw the progressive destruction of the fortress city by a combination of repeated air strikes and the effects of 2,000 artillery pieces around its perimeter. The 390 bombers and dive-bombers available to von Richthofen pounded the city into ruins, leaving at the end only 11 undamaged buildings. When they did not drop bombs, the aircraft carried scrap metal – old engines, ploughs, rail track – which they dropped on the defenders. Sometimes they dropped leaflets asking Wie geht es? (‘How’s it going?’). Thousands of civilians were evacuated across the Black Sea, attacked by aircraft as they went. Those who chose to stay or were ordered to do so lived a subterranean existence in the hundreds of caves, tunnels and storerooms on the rocky peninsula which gave a natural protection. The local authorities counted only 173 dead after the first days of bombing, though many more died from the powerful artillery barrage. The shelters were filled with stale air, making it difficult to breathe, and were piled high with a jumble of goods and luggage. The Russian journalist Boris Voyetekhov found himself in one of the largest underground caverns, where machinery turned out a stream of grenades, newspapers were typeset and printed, the party officials worked on their reports and artists worked on posters encouraging greater effort. In the underground post office, the postmen wrote ‘to be looked for after the war’ on letters that could not be delivered to the streets of rubble on the surface. Sebastopol finally fell on 1 July.

Much against his will, von Richthofen was moved from the Sebastopol campaign shortly before its conclusion to set up headquarters for the new operation in which he was to play a leading part. The German Air Force allocated more than half of all aircraft to the Eastern Front, 1,155 in total, for Operation Blue. But the number of serviceable aircraft available to von Richthofen for the drive on the Volga and the Caucasus that developed from mid-July was only around 750, divided between the VIIIth and IVth air corps, the first for the drive across the Don steppe to Stalingrad, the second to support operations further south in the Caucasus. Most of the air force action was in direct support of ground forces and in combat against the Soviet Air Force which proved unable to contest air superiority successfully, although night-bombing attacks against German bases inflicted some effective damage. As Army Group B, under the command of General Friedrich Paulus, pushed its way rapidly across the steppe towards Stalingrad, the way was paved for a bombing assault on the city. This has always been treated in the literature as the most deadly bombing operation not only of the entire Eastern war, but of any day of raiding before Hiroshima.

The situation at Stalingrad, both at the time and since, has encouraged a popular sense of historical extremes, and there is no disguising the mounting drama as German armies, the Sixth Army under Paulus, the Fourth Panzer Army under General Hoth, pushed back the embattled Stalingrad defenders of the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies into a narrowing zone in front of the city and, by September, back into the city itself. The Soviet Eighth Air Army commanded by General T. Khriukin had only 454 aircraft when the assault started, of which just 172 were fighters. There were too few heavy anti-aircraft guns, since Stalingrad had not been expected to be a major target. The balance of air power lay for the moment with the German Air Force. On 21 August the German army crossed the Don River and pushed on towards the city; the bank of the Volga was reached on 23 August. On that day von Richthofen was apparently ordered by Hitler’s headquarters to bring together as many of his scattered air units as possible to support a major bombing attack on the city. Around 400 Ju88 and He111 bombers were available. There is no record in the War Diary at Supreme Headquarters, where Hitler watched closely the course of the campaign, to indicate that a heavy bombing of the city was ordered that day, but air force records show that the bomber force flew 1,600 sorties against targets in Stalingrad, dropping around 1,000 tons of bombs, though it seems likely that this took place over a six-day period and not all on 23 August. Because of poor anti-aircraft defence, bombers could fly at around 2,000–3,000 metres to drop their bombs. Soviet records show that they came in waves of 70–90 aircraft, sometimes in much smaller formations.

The attacks were not simply directed at destroying the city, which would be of little help in trying to capture it a few days later, but were concentrated on key military, administrative and economic targets, including the large oil-storage depots on the bank of the Volga. German air intelligence had produced detailed maps of Stalingrad, along with other cities, showing the key industrial sites and military installations. These included the vast ‘Dzerzhinskii’ tractor factory and the Red October metalworks, as well as an oil refinery. From early August the Soviet reports indicate attacks on warehouses, quays and industrial installations. The attacks on 23 August produced extensive damage to the main industrial installations and the communications system. The burning oil produced a vast fog of black smoke that contributed more than anything else to the sense that the raids on that day had substantially destroyed the city, but it was the bombing of the city centre the following day, 24 August, that did the most damage. Destruction of the central water supply system that day robbed the fire service of water at a critical juncture and allowed the fires to take hold, destroying or damaging around 95 per cent of the buildings in the central district. The standard figure cited for the losses of the Soviet population who remained in the city has been put at 40,000, which would indeed make 23 August 1942 the most deadly day of bombing before the atomic attacks.

There can be little doubt that this figure, like the exaggerated death toll at Rotterdam, will not stand up to scrutiny. No one doubts that by mid-September, pounded by a circle of heavy guns and tanks, bombed and dive-bombed regularly to destroy military resistance, the city was heavily destroyed. When Churchill’s interpreter, Arthur Birse, was invited to tour Stalingrad later in 1943, he found it an incredible sight: ‘A collection of scattered and broken remains … The streets, as far as I could distinguish any, were mounds of rubble. The inhabitants lived in dugouts and cellars.’ Yet the Soviet records of the damage to Stalingrad from the air (rather than the massive damage inflicted by artillery and tanks) present quite a different picture. The bombing of 23 August was not given particular prominence in the reports produced at the time, which focused instead on the regular raiding that took place over the whole period from 23 to 29 August, resulting in a cumulatively severe level of damage. The death from bombing of 40,000 people would almost certainly have been treated, as it was in Hamburg in July 1943, as a disaster without precedent and could have been produced only by a major firestorm. The report from the local air defence authorities for August simply records ‘Starting from mid-August the city experienced non-stop air bombing by large groups of enemy planes.’ The assessment of casualties for the six-day period of heavier raiding arrived at a figure of over 1,815 dead and 2,698 severely injured, many of the fatalities inflicted at the Volga River crossings. In September the number of raids fell from 100 to 69, mostly on the city, burning down many of the buildings still standing. Data was recorded as incomplete, which under the circumstances is unsurprising, but the recorded death toll was 1,500 for the whole month, not including those killed by the continuous artillery fire. Death statistics for October were again incomplete, but those recorded numbered 380. Between July and October 1942 the local civil defence authorities counted 3,931 deaths, a figure much more consistent with the scale of the raiding and the tonnage of bombs dropped.

There is little doubt that these figures understated the actual deaths from bombing, given poor communications and the emergency conditions, but no margin of error could turn this figure into 40,000. There are other factors to bring into account in reducing this statistic: Stalingrad was a city of 440,000, many of whom were in fact evacuated (or fled) across the Volga as the German army approached; no pre-atomic bombing succeeded anywhere in killing at least 10 per cent of the population in a single day. The German bomber force was anyway much smaller than the later Allied forces which could indeed obliterate half a city under the right circumstances. There were only 400 aircraft, all of them medium bombers, and the final tally of 1,000 tons represented what the same force had dropped on London in one night without exacting more than 1,000–2,000 deaths. Stalingrad was a modern city, with wide roads, parks, and a great many more stone and concrete buildings than less modern Russian cities. As in other more modern cities it would have been difficult to generate a firestorm sufficient to consume 40,000 people. As it was, the figures of over 1,800 in August and 1,500 in September were the highest death tolls recorded in the Soviet Union from bombing throughout the war. In the end the figure of 40,000, like the ‘20,000 dead’ in Rotterdam, has fitted a popular view of German atrociousness, but not the facts.

After the bombing in August 1942 the capability of von Richthofen’s Fourth Air Fleet declined steadily, the victim of persistent attrition from a reviving Red Air Force, and of the deteriorating weather and supply lines. By 20 September there were only 129 fully operational bombers left, some of which were used to attack Soviet oil production at Grozny in a raid on 10 October. At the same time the PVO defence of the region was greatly expanded. By November there were 1,400 Soviet aircraft on the Stalingrad front, with more in reserve, and thanks to reforms introduced by Novikov, following his promotion to air force commander-in-chief in April, the air units were centrally controlled, fitted with radio communication and more tactically adept. When Paulus and his Army Group were finally cut off and encircled at Stalingrad, Göring promised to supply the pocket using all the transport and bomber aircraft that could be spared. The result was the loss not only of 495 transport and bomber aircraft, but also of some of the experienced training officers brought out of Germany to boost the declining pool of regular pilots. One of the aircraft lost was a Heinkel He177, one of a first group of 20 sent to southern Russia for trials. Only seven were fit for service and the group commander was shot down on his first mission. The failure of the supply programme to keep the Sixth Army fighting contributed to the cooling of relations between Hitler and Göring, and marked a turning point in the offensive capabilities of the German Air Force. In his first post-war interrogation, Göring complained, without much justification, about the crisis of the German bomber arm prompted by the events in Russia: ‘I built the Luftwaffe as the finest bomber fleet, only to see it wasted at Stalingrad. My beautiful bomber fleet was used up in transporting munitions and supplies … I always was against the Russian campaign.’



Operation Blücher



Operation Blücher proposed a three-army attack along the Chemin des Dames: another frontal offensive, this one across the same terrain that had contributed so heavily to the French debacle in 1917. Ludendorff nevertheless approved as a means of drawing French reserves from a British front that he still expected to rupture decisively somehow at some future time.

Mounting Blücher required the transference of significant infantry and artillery from Rupprecht’s army group. Even then German strength was insufficient to replicate March 21 with a single coordinated attack. Results would have to be sought in a sequential series of attacks. That meant in essence using the same resources again and again, shifting their positions rather than relieving them to rest and prepare for the next round. Blücher succeeded in replicating Michael in the secrecy of its preparations—aided, according to some accounts, by the nightly croaking of thousands of frogs in the marshes and on the river banks. Thirty-nine divisions, two-thirds of them assault formations, were available. If the number of guns was fewer than optimal, Bruchmüller was in charge of them and supplemented tube artillery with over twelve hundred trench mortars. The Allies were taken by surprise when the German barrage, three million painstakingly coordinated and devastatingly effective rounds, opened on May 27. To make matters worse, the French sector commander insisted in front-loading his positions, at the rate of one division per five miles of front-line trenches. Finally, the initial weight of the attack fell on four British divisions badly mauled in the earlier fighting and sandwiched into this quiet sector to recover.

Tactically the attack was a virtuoso performance, even compared to Michael. Planning and serendipity enabled the Germans to advance as much as fourteen miles on the first day—the war’s largest single-day ground gain on any front. As the offensive attack continued to progress, Ludendorff applied the by now shopworn principle of following up tactical success with a set of operational objectives as vague as they proved ephemeral. He wrote of threatening Paris. Instead, Blücher devolved into an offensive to nowhere in particular as Allied reserves shored up the line and exhausted, disgruntled Germans found solace in captured supply dumps and their stores of liquor. Material results were impressive: 127,000 Allied casualties including 50,000 prisoners; 600 guns; an advance of almost forty miles in four days. But the vital northern French railway network was still uncut, its centers uncaptured. Blücher and its subsidiary operations had cost over a hundred thousand Germans dead, wounded, missing—replaceable in neither numbers nor quality. And a new player was making an appearance: the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

The improvised American Army had the obvious and predictable shortcomings: inadequate training, ineffective equipment, inappropriate doctrine, inefficient officers, inflexible organizations, inexperienced men. Two further factors exacerbated the Yanks’ initial difficulties. One was the strained relations between the Americans and their war-experienced mentors, the French in particular. A sense of saving the day at the last minute reinforced frequent dismissal of the poilus as burned out, prone to panic and reluctant to fight. In fact, as German casualty lists attested, the French remained on the whole first-rate combatants, skilled alike in minor tactics and larger combined-arms operations, making up in craft what they had sacrificed in élan. The confidence of inexperience limited the Americans’ ability to benefit systematically by observing their veteran allies. And that inexperience was red meat to the Germans who faced them.

In the “little war” of patrols, raids, and small-scale attacks that characterized the Americans’ early tours on the front line, the Germans consistently set the pace in battlecraft, initiative, and effective courage. The Americans were more than willing to fight. They simply did not know how, even against the third- and fourth-rate German divisions holding down the relatively quiet sectors that were the AEF’s test beds. The AEF’s higher commands and staffs were no less caught up in the higher mechanics of combat and logistics on scales heretofore unimagined at West Point or Leavenworth. The divisions were on their own. From Seicheprey and Château-Thierry through Belleau Wood to Soissons, Americans learned by experience, observation—and sometimes pure serendipity. Their learning curves could be steep, but too often the lessons learned were in a context of two steps forward, one sideways, one back. Their tactical deficiencies remained: poor cohesion and worse liaison, ill-defined objectives, misplaced initiatives. Their casualty rates were swingeing—on the scale of 1914–15. Too many officers in too many positions were still not up to their jobs. Tactical cooperation with the French was, if anything, growing worse. Nevertheless, the doughboys passed their first tests with credit, given where they had begun eighteen months earlier. They would play significant roles in checking the final German offensive and the resulting Allied counterattacks.

That, however, lay in the future. Present reality was Ludendorff’s reaction to the huge salient Blücher had created. Almost forty miles across, over sixty miles long, difficult to defend and more difficult to supply, it offered a stark choice as either a magnet for a major Allied counteroffensive or a springboard for another German attack. An initial effort in early June failed for the first time in months to achieve anything worthwhile tactically, to say nothing of operationally. The Allies were increasingly able to cope with storm troop tactics. The storm troop principle of infiltration, bypassing strong points in the way water seeks the easiest path, led to a downward focus that negatively complemented Ludendorff’s strategic principle of “punching a hole and seeing what happened.” In both cases there were no objectives—just processes, ultimately leading nowhere in particular. The result, as casualties mounted and reinforcements dwindled, was the reduction of assault divisions and storm battalions to isolated combat teams that could be frustrated, destroyed—or stopped in their tracks.

At command level, Ludendorff’s next operational decision was easily made: an attack towards the Marne, with the initial objective of—finally—capturing the railroad hub of Reims, and with Paris on the horizon as a prospect. There were more or less vague thoughts at OHL about using this offensive as a preliminary to a final, decisive blow against the BEF in Flanders. But what the Allies called the Second Battle of the Marne had first priority. If this was not an all-or-nothing effort, it was as close as the German Army could come. Forty-eight divisions, 900 aircraft, 6,300 guns, and Georg Bruchmüller were committed to the attack that began on July 15. This time the initial successes were limited, the offensive was stymied, and a series of well-coordinated Allied counterattacks retook almost all the ground lost during Blücher. Lossberg, a supreme realist and sufficiently junior to escape the predictable consequences, set the war’s “precise” turning point as July 18: the first day of the final Allied offensive on the Western Front. There might be errors and misunderstandings along the way, but from that date the Allies never looked back and the Germans always fought on the back foot, ever closer to home.

English-speaking historians remain prone to give the palm of decisive victory to the BEF’s attack on August 8, “the black day of the German Army” according to Ludendorff. It is more accurate to credit the empirical British with developing the first modern combined-arms team: a doctrinal, institutional, and technological synergy among infantry, artillery, tanks, and air power, coordinated by radio systems. The artillery sealed the flanks of an attack, conducted counter-battery fire against German gun positions, and provided an initial creeping barrage. Within the “artillery zone” the tanks sought targets of opportunity while the infantry probed for soft spots, each supporting the other as needed. Aircraft provided reconnaissance, artillery observation, and, increasingly, ground support: by August 1918 the Tank Corps had an RAF (Royal Air Force) squadron attached.

The complex interaction of these arms could not be controlled in any modern sense with the communication technology of 1918. Radios, still bulky and unreliable, were impractical below brigade level. Above all, even in the war’s final stages, technique and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. The Third Republic had the doctrine and possessed the tools for modern combat. French staff officers proclaiming “the battle of 1919 will be a battle of aviation and tanks” were, however, less expressing principled conversion to high-tech war than recognizing that their army had finally run out of men. By the time of the Armistice, “the emptiness of the battlefield” was more than just a metaphor in French sectors. The Americans were still chewing their way through the Argonne Forest on what amounted to a rifle-and-bayonet basis, suffering in under seven weeks the largest number killed of any battle in America’s history. They learned as they died, impressing the Germans with a fighting spirit long since eroded in their own ranks. But the AEF was still a long way from being able to implement smoothly the “semi-managed” battle, with attacks only able to move forward in a lurching progress that grew steadier with practice. It is similarly appropriate to speak of a “semi-mobile” battle, with men, vehicles, and firepower pushing back the German front as opposed to rupturing it. The initial gains of August 8 were in a sense deceptive. Neither the tactics nor the technology of 1918 was quite up to breaching even improvised defensive positions at acceptable cost. What they could do was maintain a steady pressure that compelled an eroding army to fall back steadily, never giving it time to recover.

Relative to its opponents, moreover, the German Army was demodernizing. The Fokker D-VII had acquired a reputation as the best fighter on the front, but the Jagdstaffeln were being whittled down by growing Allied numbers and increased Allied skill. A new generation of French and British air superiority fighters was coming from the factories to the front. Manfred von Richthofen had been killed on April 21, probably by ground fire. By mid-August his famous Fighter Wing 1 had been consolidated into a single squadron due to its heavy losses, the first of several times it would similarly be bled white. In May and June alone the Luftstreitkräfte used twice the amount of fuel that reached the front, and subsequent introduction of rationing limited some fighter squadrons to ten sorties a day. Whether a unit was fighter, attack, or observation, old hands carried the main burden and were making fatigue-related mistakes that too often proved fatal, even with the episodic introduction of parachutes in the war’s final stages. On the ground, the few tanks available achieved nothing in particular. Their numbers were too limited. Their technical shortcomings were too many. The overhanging chassis was vulnerable even to slight obstacles and irregularities. In operational contexts, officers of other arms had no serious idea of what tanks should or could do. Nor, indeed, did the tankers themselves. Armor doctrine, insofar as it existed, emphasized maintaining close contact with the infantry, using surprise when possible, avoiding rough or heavily shelled terrain. On one occasion a single cannon-armed A7V prevailed against no fewer than seven British Whippets carrying only machine guns. On another, the tanks encountered a river reported as fordable that in fact proved too deep to cross. On a third an Abteilung of A7Vs drove into an artillery position and was constrained to beat a hasty retreat. It was a far cry from June 1940.

More prosaically, artillery horses were dying in their traces by the score, limiting when not crippling the guns’ mobility, increasing the problem of providing effective fire support in what was becoming increasingly a war of movement. The deeper penetrations Allied tactics and technology enabled not only left more front-line units isolated, but made retreat an increasingly high-risk option. The result was a growing number of “ordered surrenders.” Three hundred forty thousand German soldiers surrendered between July 18 and November 11, 1918. These were mostly group capitulations, organized by company officers or senior NCOs, often brokered in part or accompanied by providing detailed information on a sector’s defenses and strong points as a good will gesture and to avert any later misunderstandings. It was a long way from August 1914.

The Germans’ fighting retreat was predictably tenacious and predictably skillful. They inflicted more casualties than they suffered. But in David Zabecki’s words, “they were truly burned out.” Hunger, influenza, typhus, and traumatic stress shredded the ranks at the front and in the rear. By default it was becoming an infantryman’s war that the infantry could not sustain indefinitely. Over 400,000 more men were dead or wounded. More ominously, almost 350,000 were counted as prisoners or missing. By early October an army corps with seven divisions in its order of battle was reporting its infantry strength at less than 5,000 men—less than 10 per cent of authorized tables of organization. One regiment could count only 200 men. Another mustered 120, organized in four companies instead of the regulation twelve. Units with such low strengths fell far below the critical mass necessary to sustain cohesion as a combat force. Battalions and companies depended increasingly and disproportionally on the remaining alte Hasen and the Korsettenstangen, the “old hares” and the “corset stays”—the machine gunners in particular—that the front’s artisan groups continued to produce. But as summer gave way to autumn the combat effectiveness of these groups eroded in favor of their survival aspects. Getting home alive became a primary objective of the Korporalschaften that in the course had become Kameradschaften as well as Kampfgemeinschaften. Wilhelm Deist describes the result as a “camouflaged strike,” with the “proletariat” of the war machine downing tools in a Marxist model of behavior. One might refer as well to Robert Darnton’s model of pre-industrial protest: challenging a system by defying its norms. Even before the army fell back towards its own frontiers, its rear areas contained increasing numbers of men who had drifted away from the front war. The will to enforce more than the minimum forms of discipline eroded, less from fear of a bullet in the back than a sense that it no longer mattered.

The German Army did win final victory—over its own government. Since August Ludendorff’s behavior had grown increasingly erratic. He blamed the continuing sequence of defeat on the failures of subordinates. He insisted deserters be executed out of hand and officers enforce orders with handguns. He had not, however, entirely lost touch with reality. On October 1 he presented a general review of the military situation. The war, he declared, was lost. The only way to save the army from disaster was for the government to request an immediate armistice. His auditors broke into fits of sobbing as the quartermaster-general finally confirmed the long-standing aphorism that “Prussia was an army with a country.” Two days later, Prince Max von Baden became chancellor. His first official act was to request an armistice on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s call for “peace without victory.” He received a dusty answer. Wilson demanded that any terms make German resumption of hostilities militarily impossible. He insisted on refusing to negotiate with the emperor and the generals. The protests of Ludendorff and Hindenburg amounted to spitting into the wind. William’s last imperial act was to replace Ludendorff as first quartermaster-general with Wilhelm Gröner. It would be Gröner the problem-solver who would negotiate William’s abdication as the Second Reich collapsed into mutiny and disorder in a matter of days. It would be Gröner who silenced the fire-eaters demanding an all or nothing end game on German soil. And it would be Gröner who arranged the compromise with an embryonic republican government that committed the army, what might remain of it, to maintain law and order if the republic restricted revolution to the political sphere.

Those, however, are stories for another time and another book. The generals’ rebellion that deposed the emperor and the domestic revolution that ended the monarchical order are alike remarkable for the limited influence they exercised on the army as an institution. Conscript national armies are held together by a complex interface between front and home, military system and civil society, incorporating varying combinations of compulsion, patriotism, and ideology. Underlying all of them, however, is an implied contract between the soldier and the system. When the nature or the conduct of a particular conflict breaks that contract, soldiers are likely to respond negatively. To speak of a “strike” is to minimize the emotional factors, especially the sense of betrayal that accompanies the process. One might be better advised to talk of alienated affection. By November 1918, the German High Command could count no more than a dozen or so of its divisions as able and willing to fight anyone. Its storm troop battalions were increasingly used as headquarters guards. Far from being “stabbed in the back,” the German Army was beaten in the field, beaten to a degree sufficient to break its social contract and erode its cohesion.

For the most part, the desires of the disaffected soldiers were expressed in the counterpart to a joke common among American GIs in World War II. A suitably edited version is “when I get home, I’m going to do three things. First I’ll have a beer. Then I’ll make love to my wife. Then I’ll take off my pack.” Such a mind-set may not make revolutions, but it can halt wars. The Imperial German Army ended its existence with a collective sigh of relief.

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.