5. Office of Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press secretary
6. Conference room, site 20 July 1944 assassination attempt
7. RSD command post
8. Guest bunker and air-raid shelter
9. RSD command post
10. Secretariat under Philipp Bouhler
11. Headquarters of Johann Rattenhuber, SS chief of Hitler’s
security department, and Post Office
12. Radio and telex buildings
13. Vehicle garages
14. Railway siding for Hitler’s Train
16. Generator buildings
17. Quarters of Morell, Bodenschatz, Hewel, Voß, Wolff and
19. Residence of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary
20. Bormann’s personal air-raid shelter for himself and
21. Office of Hitler’s adjutant and the Wehrmacht’s
22. Military and staff mess II
23. Quarters of General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations of
24. Firefighting pond
25. Office of the Foreign Ministry
26. Quarters of Fritz Todt, then after his death Albert
27. RSD command post
28. Air-raid shelter with Flak and MG units on the roof
29. Hitler’s bunker and air-raid shelter
30. New tearoom
31. Residence of General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel,
supreme commander of OKW
32. Old Teahouse
33. Residence of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring
34. Göring’s personal air-raid shelter for himself and
staff, with Flak and MG on the roof
35. Offices of the High Command of the Air Force
36. Offices of the High command of the Navy
37. Bunker with Flak
38. Ketrzyn railway line
Colonel-General Friedrich Fromm was still an unknown
quantity. He would not join the Resistance, but he did not oppose or betray it
either. He does not emerge with great credit from this story; like so many of
his colleagues, he was a man who wanted to run with the hare and hunt with the
hounds. His appointment of Stauffenberg as his Chief of Staff was a purely
military matter. He had had his eye on the young officer for some time, and at
his request Stauffenberg had written a report on the possible conduct of the
Reserve Army in Total War which had so impressed Fromm that he had passed it on
to Hitler, who remarked, `Finally, a General Staff Officer with imagination and
integrity!’ In many ways, Stauffenberg was Hitler’s ideal. Though not obviously
`Nordic’, he was handsome, young, and, above all, had been badly (and in
Hitler’s eyes, romantically) wounded for the good of the cause. It is difficult
to say whether the appointment to Fromm finalised Stauffenberg’s decision to
attempt the assassination of the Führer, or whether he went after the posting
as a means to that end. In any case, the effect was the same.
Stauffenberg’s first meeting with Hitler was at the Berghof
on 7 June – the day after D-Day. He travelled there from Bamberg where he had
been spending a week’s leave with his family prior to taking up his appointment
with Fromm. At the meeting were Himmler, Göring and Speer: it is a pity the
bomb could not have been planted then and there. He noted that, contrary to
rumours, it was perfectly possible to get close to Hitler. It would not have
been a problem to draw one’s pistol and shoot the Führer. The argument against
such action was the strong rumour that Hitler wore body armour. Hitler, who
habitually retired late and rose late, had not been told of the Normandy
landings until he had woken, but the military situation was in any case quite
hopeless. Supplies were all but used up, and factories were either bombed out
or operating only partially. The German divisions were spread too thinly across
all fronts and many were unfit for full combat. It is a testament to an insane
courage that their forces held out against the enemy for so long. The paratroop
regiments and the Waffen-SS divisions showed particular resilience.
Stauffenberg returned to Berlin after another brief stay at
Bamberg, taking with him Forester’s Hornblower novel The Happy Return to read
on the train. A few days later, he was persuading his cousin Yorck von Wartenburg
of the Kreisau Circle to enter into active Resistance. By mid-June, Goerdeler
was drawing up another of his potential Cabinet lists, and Wilhelm Leuschner
was defining the hierarchy of a new trade union movement. Hopes, at least, were
high. But on 16 June there was an unhappy meeting of the civilian Resistance at
the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin. Leber, who had turned down Stauffenberg’s
proposal that he be Chancellor in place of Goerdeler, and who was now in line
for Interior Minister, attacked Goerdeler for his unrealistic foreign policy
ideas – which still embraced a demand for Germany to retain her 1914 frontiers.
Leber thought that East Prussia, the Sudetenland and Elsass-Lohringen
(Alsace-Lorraine) would have to go. His homeland was Alsace, and there was no
question of his patriotism, but he was still shouted down by the others.
Shortly afterwards, the Resistance was to suffer another
cruel blow. Julius Leber and his close associate, Adolf Reichwein, had entered
into negotiations with a view to Resistance and postwar co-operation with a
Communist group led by three veteran freedom fighters, Bernhard Bästlein, Franz
Jakob and Anton Saefkow. Leber knew the first two personally, having spent five
years in the concentration camps with them before the outbreak of war. A series
of exploratory meetings followed, but the Gestapo already had the group under
observation, and Bastlein had been arrested on 30 May. Now the net closed, and
early in July the Security Service raided a meeting at which the others were seized.
Stauffenberg was appalled when he heard the news, and promised Leber’s wife
Annedore that they would get her husband out of prison, whatever else happened.
One should remember that during these preparations, Berlin
was being subjected to merciless air raids day and night. The battering had the
effect of stiffening the resolve of the fanatical Nazis, who were in any case
fighting to protect their own backs now. That such a man as Roland Freisler
could continue to conduct trials in the name of a `law’ that had no value and
had even lost the backing of power is evidence of this, and invites interesting
psychological reflection. The members of the Resistance themselves knew that
they had at the very most a 50 per cent chance of success, but the profound sense
of Tresckow’s advice to fight for it whatever the cost went home to all of
them. As late as the end of June, Adam von Trott zu Solz embarked on yet
another journey to Sweden, in the faint hope of renewing contact with the
British. In fact there was no hope at all.
Organisation was always a great problem for the Resistance. The arrangement of meetings was a matter of difficulty, since neither the telephone nor the post could be used. Fixed meetings often had to be aborted because of air raids and the resulting disruption of transport in Berlin. Often the conspirators used the Grünewald – the vast park in the west of the city – to meet, as houses were not always considered secure. Plans, too, had to be changed continually to keep up with the progress of the war. Schulenburg commented drily, `We’d have got further if Stauffenberg had made up his mind sooner.’
At the end of June, Kurt Zeitzler, the Chief of Staff, had a
nervous breakdown. He was replaced by Heinz Guderian. By now, Stauffenberg had
taken up residence in his office near Fromm’s in the Bendlerblock on
Bendlerstrasse, the massive building – the size of a small estate – which
housed Armed Forces administration. Fromm was astonished at the number of
unfamiliar officers he saw coming and going, but he did not ask what they were
doing, contenting himself with passing the remark to Count Helldorf, still
chief of the Berlin police, that `it’d be best if Hitler committed suicide’.
Like many officers, he would doubtless have considered himself released from
the Oath of Loyalty by Hitler’s death, which he hoped for, without wishing to
work for it actively.
Early in July Trott returned empty-handed from Stockholm,
but with news of the efforts of the National Committee for Free Germany. Stauffenberg
was chary of this. `I don’t think much of proclamations made from behind barbed
wire,’ he remarked.
Meanwhile, complicated arrangements were in train to obtain
the correct English explosives and fuses for the attempt on Hitler. Once again,
Stieff was in the forefront of this dangerous undertaking. At the same time,
arrangements were being made for the takeover of power. For a time Rommel, a
very popular general at home who had also earned the respect of the Allies, was
considered for the position of head of state. Rommel, however, was never more
than on the fringes of the conspiracy. Although he was sympathetic, he was put
out of action when his heavy unmanoeuvrable open-topped Horch staff car was
strafed by British fighters on 17 July and he was seriously wounded. After the
20 July attempt, however, the ever-suspicious Hitler obliged this best of his
generals to commit suicide in order to spare his family the concentration camps
and himself disgrace. The Führer then gave him a state funeral, but everyone
knew what had really happened.
The position of post-Nazi President, therefore, reverted to
Beck. Goerdeler would be Chancellor. Erwin von Witzleben would take over the
Army and Erich Hoepner the Reserve Army. Wherever possible conspirators would
be placed in the various Army districts around Germany and in the occupied
territories, but otherwise commands from Berlin would have to have the
authority of Fromm’s signature initially to implement `Valkyrie’. If Fromm
would not agree at the eleventh hour, Hoepner would have to announce that he
had taken over and issue the orders, hoping that the regional commanders would
still obey. SS divisions and units would have to be neutralised and then
subsumed within the Army. In co-ordination with `Valkyrie’, Helldorf, Nebe and
Gisevius (who travelled to Berlin from Zurich for the coup) would use the
regular police to take over the Security Service and seize its files. They
would also arrest all Nazi leaders then in Berlin, such as Josef Goebbels and
Robert Ley. There were plans to take over all radio stations, for a broadcast
to the nation would have to be made immediately after the coup to establish the
bona fides of the conspirators. Also, telecommunications at the Wolf’s Lair
would have to be neutralised for as long as possible. This daunting task was
entrusted to the Army head of Signals, General Erich Fellgiebel.
The Resistance had not yet given up all hope of making peace
with the West first in order at least to stall Stalin in the East, and they
were especially well prepared in France. The weak Günther von Kluge had taken
over general command in the West on 2 July, and he might still be swayed. The
military commander was General Karl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel, a veteran of the
Resistance, and he was backed up by other convinced conspirators like
Lieutenant-General Hans Speidel. A reminiscence of Philipp Freiherr von
Boeselager is an indication of the almost surreal circumstances of the time.
Shortly before the 20 July attempt, Tresckow sent Philipp’s brother Georg (of
the old `Boeselager Brigade’) to Paris with a message for Kluge. But Georg
needed an excuse for the journey. Fortunately a good one presented itself: the
Boeselagers owned a racehorse, Lord Wagram, due to run at Longchamps.
Accompanying it provided the perfect cover; but, as Philipp remarks, it is
astonishing that such things were still possible in mid-1944!
The whole plan was rickety and riddled with risk, but it
offered the only possibility, and time was running out fast for a coup of any
sort to be effected.
Stauffenberg attended a further meeting at Berchtesgaden on
6 July, and another on the 11th. On this second occasion, when he travelled
with his adjutant and confidant Captain Friedrich Karl Klausing, he was
prepared to make the attempt, the explosives packed in a briefcase, and
equipped with a pair of pliers to set the fuse whose handles had been specially
adapted so that he could manipulate them with his remaining crippled hand.
However, Himmler was not present at the meeting and so, after a telephone call
to Olbricht, Stauffenberg decided to abort the attempt. As no plans seem to
have been laid to set `Valkyrie’ in motion on this occasion one wonders if he
did indeed intend to make the attempt. It may have been a full dress rehearsal.
Stauffenberg must have been aware that he would have several opportunities in
the next few days to attend meetings with Hitler. Nevertheless, to take such a
risk without intending action seems hard to believe.
On 15 July, Stauffenberg accompanied Fromm to another
meeting with the Führer, this time at the Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg. They had
received the summons at midday on the 14th, so there was just time to activate
`Valkyrie’. This was to be it. Everyone was on edge. Berthold Stauffenberg
commented, `Worst of all is to know that we’ll fail; and yet we must go ahead,
for the sake of our country and our children.’ In the West, the SS division
generals Sepp Dietrich and Hausser put themselves fully under Rommel’s orders.
Very few people indeed seemed to have any faith in Hitler’s new wonder weapons,
the Vbomb rockets.
The Wolf’s Lair was a complex of compounds and buildings,
admission to which involved various degrees of security check. At that time it
was in a state of rebuilding. At least Stauffenberg had the opportunity to take
this in, for there was no chance to use the bomb. Once again a last-minute
change of plan by Hitler saved him. Fortunately, although Valkyrie’s initial
stages had been set in motion in anticipation of Stauffenberg’s action, the
conspirators managed to pass these off as an exercise.
Stauffenberg was deeply depressed by this setback, and those
who saw him at that time recall his state of nervous exhaustion. On the 16th,
he telephoned his wife in Bamberg to ask her to postpone a family visit she
intended to make with the children to Lautlingen. She objected that she had
already bought the railway tickets, and he did not press her. It was their last
conversation. The same day, Rommel transmitted a message to Hitler via Kluge
that the maximum time the West Front could continue to hold out was twenty-one
days. That evening there was a meeting of `the young counts’, as Goerdeler
called them, at the Stauffenberg brothers’ flat in Wannsee. Mertz von
Quirnheim, Claus’s successor as Chief of Staff to Olbricht, was there, together
with Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Adam von Trott zu Solz, Peter Yorck von
Wartenburg, Cäsar von Hofacker, the contact man with the Army in France, Georg
Hansen, who had taken over from Canaris at the Abwehr, and Schwerin von
Schwanenfeld. They decided that the only way to save Germany now would be to
kill Hitler at the very first opportunity and immediately thereafter enter
peace negotiations with the USSR and the Western Allies simultaneously. They
had no idea that Germany had already been divided up and parcelled out. Events
had long since overtaken them and they did not know.
The following day, the day Rommel was shot up, the Security
Service issued a warrant for Goerdeler’s arrest. Goerdeler was in Leipzig at
the time, but immediately left for Berlin, where he went underground.
Soon after, orders came for Stauffenberg to attend a meeting
at the Wolf’s Lair on 20 July to report on the recruitment of new People’s
Grenadier Divisions – a kind of last-minute Home Guard. He was calm, at least
outwardly, but possibly inwardly too, all day on the 19th. He smoked neither
more nor fewer cigarettes than usual, and he fulfilled his desk duties at the
Bendlerblock with his habitual punctiliousness. At 8p.m. he left the office for
home, but stopped off on the way to attend Mass. Once back at Tristanstrasse,
he packed the explosives in a case, concealing them under a clean shirt. His
thoughts must have turned to Nina, now three months pregnant with their fifth
child. He spent the evening quietly with Berthold.
Stauffenberg left the apartment at 6a.m. the following
morning and drove with his brother to Rangsdorf airfield, south of Berlin. There
he met his ADC, Werner von Haeften, and General Stieff, who was returning to
Mauerwald. The courier aircraft, a Junkers JU 52, left at 8a. m., an hour late,
for the 400-mile journey. They arrived at Rastenburg aerodrome at about 10.15a.m.
where Stauffenberg parted company with Haeften until noon. The meeting with
Hitler was due to take place at 1p. m. Haeften took charge of the briefcase
with its two 2-kilogram packages of hexogen plastic explosive.
At 11.30 Stauffenberg had a meeting at the Wolfs Lair with
Keitel, who told him that the meeting with Hitler had been brought forward to
12.30. Hitler had done this in order to make room for a meeting with Mussolini
at 2.30p. m. The Italian dictator had been sprung from prison in a daring raid
led by SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny and was now a guest of the Führer. Haeften
arrived from Mauerwald half an hour later, on schedule, but now they had only
half an hour to get ready. Stauffenberg asked for a room to freshen up in
before the meeting, and there, aided by Haeften, he began to repack the two
bombs in his own briefcase. Before they could finish the job, however, they
were interrupted by an NCO with a message from General Fellgiebel. The message
turned out not to be urgent, but Stauffenberg had no time now to pack the
second bomb. Nevertheless, he was confident that one would be adequate for the
purpose of blowing Hitler up in a confined space.
There was, however, another problem about which he could do
nothing. Owing to the building works at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters, the
meeting was not to be held in the usual concrete bunker (Hitler by now was very
much concerned by enemy air attacks), but in a large wooden hut, where the
shock waves on which the bomb depended for its main effect would have
considerably less effect, since they would not be contained and reflected by
unyielding walls. Still Stauffenberg thought he could bring the plan off, if he
could place the bomb close enough to Hitler. Neither Göring nor Himmler was to
be at the meeting, which was unfortunate, but there could be no question of
deferring the attempt any more.
Punctually at 12.30, the meeting began. The room was
dominated by a huge map table on two heavy oak supports. Twenty-four senior
officers were in attendance, including Hitler and Keitel. Stauffenberg managed
to get a place at the table very close to the Führer. He had set the ten-minute
silent fuse and shoved the briefcase under the table next to Hitler, against
one of the oak supports. On the excuse of making a telephone call, he left the
meeting a few minutes later, leaving his cap and belt in the antechamber
deliberately to indicate that he would be returning. In the meantime, Haeften
had ordered a car. The two men departed at 12.42, at about the same time as the
explosion. That the game was now being played for all or nothing is indicated
by the fact that Haeften got rid of the redundant packet of explosive by merely
throwing it from the car as they drove to the airfield. It was discovered later
by Gestapo investigators.
There was total chaos in the wrecked hut, but the windows
had been blown out, taking the force of the blast with them, and as the smoke
cleared they found that the damage was not as great as it might have been.
Neither Keitel nor Hitler was seriously wounded. Keitel embraced Hitler with
the words, `My Führer! You’re alive! You’re alive!’ Among the severely wounded
were Rudolf Schmundt, who had been so suspicious of Gersdorff s attempt, and
Heinz Brandt, who had innocently carried the `Cointreau bomb’ for Operation
Flash. Both died within days. Everyone present except Hitler and Keitel suffered
burst eardrums. Hitler had been protected by the massive table support.
By now, Stauffenberg and Haeften were speeding towards the
Rastenburg aerodrome, where a Heinkel HE 111, organised by General Eduard
Wagner, was waiting to take them back to Berlin. At 12.55, five minutes after
they had taken off, General Fellgiebel contacted his Chief of Staff at nearby
Mauerwald: `Something terrible has happened. The Führer’s alive!’ Kurt Hahn,
the Chief of Staff, and also a conspirator, promised to pass the message on to
the Bendlerstrasse. Fellgiebel did what he could to block telecommunications,
but quickly headquarters security ordered the main switchboard to stop all
outgoing calls except for those from Hitler, Keitel and Jodl. Hitler himself,
who had escaped with minor cuts and burns, was euphoric with relief. His
trousers had been shredded by the blast, but otherwise even his dignity was
intact. While his loyal signals officers hastened to put matters back in order,
he took his scheduled tea with Mussolini after only a slight delay, having
shown the Duce the wreckage of the hut. Göring and Ribbentrop were in
By 1.30, just before the clampdown on communications, both
Hahn and Fellgiebel managed to relay a message to Berlin about the failure of
the assassination attempt. The call was received at the Bendlerblock by Signals
officer Lieutenant-General Fritz Thiele. Thiele told Olbricht, but they took no
action. Fellgiebel’s message had lacked detail. They decided that they could
not risk unleashing `Valkyrie’ again until they knew more. If they did, and the
whole thing had aborted, they could not pass the `Valkyrie’ order off as an
exercise a second time. Precipitate action now might jeopardise any future
chance for the conspiracy. Their decision was based on sound reasoning; but it
was a fatal error.
At 3.30p. m., Stauffenberg arrived back in Berlin, to find
that no action had been taken, and `Valkyrie’ had not been set in motion.
Instead, he was met by confusion and doubt at the Bendlerstrasse. Grimly
insisting that Hitler was indeed dead, he took over, galvanising his fellow
conspirators into action. Three crucial hours had been lost, during which the
conspirators could have seized the initiative irrespective of whether Hitler
was dead or not.
At 6.20p. m. Fellgiebel managed to get a frantic call
through to Berlin: `What are you up to over there? Are you all crazy? The
Führer is now with the Duce in the tea room. What’s more, there will be a radio
communiqué soon.’ But a mark of the chaos was that conspirators were by now
being obliged through the nature of their official functions to operate against
the coup in order not to give themselves away. Men like Hahn and Thiele had to
help the telecommunications clampdown, and Artur Nebe, the brilliant detective,
was summoned to Hitler’s headquarters to investigate the assassination attempt.
Nevertheless, as soon as Stauffenberg arrived at the
Bendlerblock, coded `Valkyrie’ orders were set in train and soon telephone
lines and teleprinters were humming in Berlin. Mertz von Quirnheim, who had
been straining at the leash since early afternoon, rushed into action.
Meanwhile Fromm, still in his own office in the Bendlerblock, would not
participate. At about 4p.m. he telephoned Keitel who confirmed his suspicion
that the Führer was alive. From then on, Fromm refused to co-operate with the
conspirators, despite anything Stauffenberg said. In a stormy scene, Fromm
declared that all the conspirators were under arrest, whereupon Stauffenberg
retorted that, on the contrary, they were in control and he was under arrest.
He was relieved of his pistol and kept under guard. The conspirators constantly
showed a remarkable degree of mercy to their prisoners. They would have been
better advised to have shot Fromm out of hand, but such action would not have
occurred to them.
In the course of the afternoon, both Hoepner and Beck
arrived in civilian clothes, and so, later on, did Witzleben, who was scathing
about the muddle. A group of junior officers involved in the conspiracy, Ludwig
von Hammerstein, Ewald Heinrich von Kleist, Georg von Oppen and Hans Fritzsche,
were summoned by Karl Klausing from the Hotel Esplanade where they were
awaiting orders. Not all the conspirators knew each other, and they were
operating in a vast building where there were many staff officers who had
nothing to do with the coup, so the confusion continued to be great. Fritzsche
mistakenly helped Hoepner on with a uniform jacket destined for Beck – an
unimportant detail, but an indication of the problems the conspirators were
faced with. When General Joachim von Kortzfleisch, the commander of the Berlin
district, arrived in response to a summons from Olbricht, and refused to join
in the conspiracy by putting his troops at their disposal, he too was arrested.
He ran off, but was detained by Kleist and turned over to Hammerstein, who
guarded him in an empty office. He ranted and raved for some time, but then
subsided and as the hours passed wondered what they were going to do with him
overnight. Hammerstein asked Beck’s advice, who said bitterly, `He can stay
where he is. He’s the least of our worries.’ Kortzfleisch said pathetically
that as far as he was concerned he would rather go home and do a bit of weeding
in his garden. But by then it was clear to Hammerstein that things had gone
Later in the evening, a senior SS officer, Humbert
Achamer-Pifrader, arrived with an adjutant to invite Stauffenberg to accompany
them to Gestapo Headquarters for an interview. News of the attempted coup had
been telephoned to Berlin from Rastenburg but the Berlin Gestapo clearly had no
idea of the number of men involved at the Bendlerblock. Himmler was flying from
Rastenburg to Berlin to liaise with Goebbels. Pifrader and his aide were
arrested but time was running out for the conspirators. Already orders
countermanding those sent out to the various military districts from Berlin
were being issued from the Wolfs Lair. Such was the confusion that some of
these counter-orders arrived at their destination before the Berlin commands!
Meanwhile in the city, the commandant, General von Hase, had
failed to take control on behalf of the Resistance. The Guard Battalion under a
relatively junior officer, Major Ernst Remer, had started to carry out its
orders to cordon off the government quarter, but unfortunately Remer was in
personal contact with a Nazi lieutenant who worked in Goebbels’ Propaganda
Ministry, Hans Hagen. Hagen deduced from the troop movements in the city that a
coup was in train, and persuaded Remer to accompany him to see Goebbels.
Goebbels had already spoken to Hitler on the telephone and knew what was afoot.
When Remer appeared, overawed but still suspicious about what precisely was
going on, the Propaganda Minister saw his chance to turn the tables on the
conspiracy. Having assured himself that Remer was a `good National Socialist’,
he put through another call to Hitler. Remer spoke to the Führer in person,
recognised his voice, and stood to attention at the telephone. Hitler told him
that the future of the Third Reich was in his hands. He was directly
responsible for security in Berlin until Himmler arrived, with orders to take
over the Reserve Army. Remer was won over, and the coup was doomed. It was
Soon the Bendlerblock was sealed off by troops who now knew
that Hitler was still alive and that the orders they had been given were
unauthorised. The news spread and within the building itself several officers
not involved in the conspiracy began to ask awkward questions about what was
going on. Stauffenberg was exhausted. He had spent hours driving the others
along by the sheer force of his will, but now he knew he had not carried the
day. He took off the black patch he habitually wore over his dead eye – a sign
with him of fatigue and irritation.
Ludwig von Hammerstein was making his way back to the office
where General Kortzfleisch was locked when he heard the first shots. He drew
his own pistol but a plump staff officer who had appeared in the corridor next
to him said, `Put it away, there’s no point.’ Hammerstein did not know whose
side the plump officer was on, or what was happening, though he noticed that
the officer wore `brain reins’ on his cap – a silver chain issued as a service
award by the regime.
In the event there had been a shoot-out in which Stauffenberg
had been wounded. Hammerstein had taken the precaution on the advice of Kleist
of removing the Infantry Regiment 9 badges from his lapels, since they would be
an indication of whose side he was on. He managed to escape through back
corridors and staircases. He knew the building intimately since, as the son of
Kurt von Hammerstein, he had lived in his father’s service flat there when
Hammerstein senior had been Commander-in-Chief. But he was lucky that the
counter-coup officers did not know him; had the coup succeeded, he would have
become Beck’s ADC. Nevertheless, he had to go underground; he had had to
abandon a briefcase containing incriminating papers with his name on them and
his .08 service pistol in Olbricht’s office. Much later, after Berlin had been
occupied by the Russians, he had to throw away the gun he had with him – `it
was a lovely little thing, a 7.65 automatic my father had given me which I’d
had throughout the war.’ But to have been caught by the Russians in civilian
clothes with a gun could have meant instant death.
Meanwhile, Fromm had been released and had taken control. He
conducted a summary court martial at which he sentenced Stauffenberg, Mertz von
Quirnheim, Olbricht and Werner von Haeften to death. Hoepner, an old friend, he
spared to stand further trial. Beck, also condemned, asked permission to commit
suicide, and this was granted him, but he had to do it immediately while the
others waited in the same room. According to Hoepner’s later testimony, Beck
used his own Parabellum (Luger) pistol first, but only managed to give himself
a slight head wound. In a state of extreme stress, Beck asked for another gun,
and an attendant staff officer offered him a Mauser. But the second shot also
failed to kill him, and a sergeant then gave Beck the coup de grace. He was
given Beck’s leather overcoat as a reward.
The others were conducted into the vast grey courtyard of
the Bendlerblock and shot dead. Haeften threw himself in front of Stauffenberg
as the rifles thundered. Stauffenberg cried out `Long live Germany!’ as he
Following Hitler’s decision to give Kesselring complete charge in Italy, the OKW were all for disbanding the staff of Army Group B. But as von Rundstedt’s chief of Staff, General Günther Blumentritt explains, Hitler had other ideas: ‘Against this Hitler ordered its revival. He knew that in 1944 some-thing vital would occur in the west or on some other front, and on that account wished to hold this valuable Staff in reserve. But in order to keep Rommel and his Staff employed until a responsible position could be found for him somewhere, Hitler decided to entrust him with the inspection of western defences.’ He gave Rommel certain instructions (based on Führer Directive No 51), the details of which Blumentritt says OB West were never able to discover exactly, although OKW later confirmed the outline content. Basically Hitler’s aims in appointing Rommel were threefold:
So that he would familiarise himself with that sector of the Western Front which would undoubtedly be the decisive one, namely the Channel coastal area.
To have him take all necessary steps to rectify any shortcomings in the Atlantic Wall defences, making full use of the Todt Organisation, etc.
To avail himself of Rommel’s experience in fighting against the Allies, in particular the British.
‘Special Inspector Rommel’ (Blumentritt’s words) had the authority to report direct to Hitler, which inevitably led to friction, not so much between the two field marshals and their headquarters (OB West and Army Group B), but rather in ‘departmental circles’ and in relations with the Luftwaffe’s Third Air Fleet and the Kriegsmarine’s Western Naval Group. Leaving the command and control problems aside for the present, let us first look at what Rommel did on the ground. He had in fact begun to assemble his inspection team while he was still in Italy, requesting (on Gause’s advice) the assignment of Vice-Admiral Friedrich Ruge as Naval Liaison Officer (Marineverbindungsoffizier) whom David Irving describes as being: ‘a jovial, cocky Swabian’. There was an immediate mutual liking and he quickly became a firm and trusted friend, ‘ … a man in whose company the Field Marshal always took pleasure, to whom he could talk frankly and freely’. Ruge had arrived on 30 November 1943, having travelled by train via the Brenner Pass, and was staying with Rommel’s naval LO in San Vigilio on Lake Garda. ‘I reported in this irregular attire,’ he wrote later, referring to his warm and unmilitary muffler, ‘ … but it seemed unimportant, since Rommel was apparently less interested in the uniform than in the man inside it. Rommel appeared smaller than I had imagined him, rather serious, full of energy and very natural.’ Soon after his arrival Rommel sent Ruge off to Berlin to see the Kriegsmarine staff and collect as much background material as possible to help them with their task – maps, tide tables, shipping details, etc. He would meet the rest of the team en route (he actually rejoined Rommel in northern Jutland on 2 December). It was very fortunate that Ruge had personal knowledge of most of the coastline because a great deal of the material he so painstakingly collected in Berlin was destroyed during an air raid there before he left.
A special train had been arranged for the team, with spacious compartments in a ‘parlour car’ which Ruge reckoned had been designed for a ‘Balkan potentate’. There was a large briefing room and a dining-car. The team boarded the train at Munich on 1 December, bound for Copenhagen where the tour would begin with a visit to General Hermann von Hannecken, who was commanding all German forces in Denmark (he was C-in-C from 27 September 1942 until 27 January 1945). Rommel met von Hannecken on the evening of 3 December, and began the tour next morning at Esbjerg on the west coast of Jutland. They spent ten days in Denmark and by the end of the tour Rommel had realised that this part of the much publicised ‘Atlantic Wall’ was a hollow sham and that a vast amount of work would be necessary if a determined enemy assault was to be defeated. He would quickly discover that this applied to much of the rest of the supposedly impregnable defences. Rommel had already decided that any invasion must be defeated on the beaches before the enemy could gain a foothold – ‘the main battle line will be the beach’ was the message he propounded over and over again. In his logical way he reasoned that mobile warfare – of which he was a master – would be impossible against an enemy with total air superiority and a vast preponderance of mechanised weapons – tanks, guns, vehicles at their disposal. ‘… I therefore consider’, he wrote, ‘that an attempt must be made, using every possible expedient, to beat off the enemy landing on the coast and to fight the battle in the more or less strongly fortified coastal strip.’ He was to hold this view throughout his period of command of Army Group B despite the attempts of others who wanted to fight the battle differently. It was fortunate for the Allies that Rommel’s advice was not followed to the letter.
After concluding that Denmark showed (according to Ruge)’… how overtaxed the Wehrmacht was – a handful of modestly trained and equipped static divisions (coastal defence units) had to defend hundreds of kilometres of excellent landing beach’, most of the team moved on to Rommel’s new headquarters at Fontainebleau, while the ‘Desert Fox’ flew to southern Germany for a few days’ leave; he rejoined them on 18 December. The new HQ was in a small, luxurious chateau which had once belonged to Madame de Pompadour. The following day Rommel visited Field Marshal von Rundstedt in Paris, writing to Lucie afterwards that: ‘R is very charming and I think everything will go well.’ Undoubtedly there was a certain amount of mutual respect between the two of them – von Rundstedt at 68 was Germany’s most senior soldier, and Rommel, a mere 52, its youngest field marshal. Although von Rundstedt saw Rommel as a possible threat, he was happy to let the younger man do all the work, while, as General Hans Speidel succinctly puts it, Rundstedt’s ‘ … character, personality and mobility were failing, and at a time when supreme efforts were demanded, Rundstedt remained unknown to the soldier at the front, while Rommel ceaselessly exerted his remarkable powers of leadership on the soldiers personally, sparing himself not at all …’
While his main headquarters staff began to settle into ‘Maison Pompadour’ at Fontainebleau, Rommel and his inspection team continued their tour, beginning the inspection of the most important part of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ on 20 December. Rommel was extremely disturbed by what he saw: the lack of proper defences, the relatively poor quality of many of the troops charged with the task of meeting the coming invasion, and any coherent command structure sadly lacking. He did not break for Christmas, but continued his tours and reports: ‘ … out on the move a lot,’ he wrote to Manfred, ‘and raising plenty of dust wherever I go.’ He went everywhere and saw everything, including secret ‘V’ weapon sites, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine units and headquarters, and every-where he went he imparted his own special ‘Rommel Magic’. His staff were appalled at the pressure under which he worked – and drove them! – and the spartan regime under which he operated. The ordinary soldiers, who probably had never seen a field marshal in their lives, were naturally favourably impressed by his interest in their jobs, but anyone who had been ‘living the soft life’ – irrespective of rank – swiftly found himself on the receiving end of his wrath. A perfect example was Colonel General Hans von Salmuth, commander of Fifteenth Army, who protested when Rommel told him that he wanted his troops to lay more mines than ever before. Salmuth told him that he wanted: ‘fresh, well-trained soldiers, not physical wrecks,’ then patronisingly went on: ‘Stick around a bit and you’ll soon see that you can’t do everything at once. … If anybody tells you different, then he’s either just trying to flatter you or he’s a pig idiot.’ Once Rommel’s staff were out of earshot the furious Field Marshal gave Salmuth a tongue lashing that left him red-faced and speechless. ‘He’s quite a roughneck that one,’ beamed Rommel to Ruge as they began their journey back to Fontainebleau. ‘That’s the only language he under-stands.’
The team dined together at ‘Maison Pompadour’. Ruge lists them as being: the Field Marshal, Major-General Gause (Chief of Staff), Major-General Meise (Engineers), Major-General Gerke (Signals), Colonel von Templehoff (Operations), Colonel Lattman (Artillery) and Colonel Krähe. Later they were joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Stubwasser (Intelligence), Colonel Freiberg (Personnel), Lieutenant-Colonel Olshausen (deputy transport officer) and various staff officers – Lieutenant Hammermann, Captain Lang and the Prince of Koburg. In addition of course there were the naval and air representatives: Vice-Admiral Ruge and the Luftwaffe la, Lieutenant-Colonel Wolfgang Queisner, who were usually known as Hilfsvolker (auxiliary tribes). Their ages, experience and interests were varied, but all joined in the conversations. Rommel did not try to dominate the dinner-table, but listened to others and displayed a good sense of humour. Ruge comments, however, that although Rommel was no prude, he frowned upon ‘so-called humour’. He did not smoke, drank very little, insisted upon simple food and usually went to bed between 10 and 11 p. m. In short, Rommel was a man who, despite his fame: ‘ … had remained a modest human being with an engaging personality’.
Jürgen Oesten, like so many of his comrades, was approaching the end of a war that Germany was bound to lose, and everything in his life was going to change again.
Oesten brought U-861 into the harbor of Trondheim, Norway, on 19 April 1945, after a three-month passage from Penang in Japanese-occupied Malaya. The patrol he had just completed (actually two patrols separated by an extended layover in Malaya for overhaul and provisioning) had been only a partial success. He had sunk four ships, hardly a total for the record books, but his crew was still alive, and crammed into U-861’s hull were containers of opium, rock crystal, rubber in tanks, and 120 metric tons of molybdenum concentrate (whether any of this got from the docks of Trondheim to the factories of Germany is not known, but it is doubtful considering the tenuous condition of the supply lines at that time).
The Reich had less than three weeks to live when Oesten returned, and he stayed with U-861 until its end. There was one close call: Konteradmiral Erich Schulte-Mönting, Admiral Nordmeer, had planned to reassign him as commander of a minesweeping flotilla that was fast disintegrating into mutiny, but Oesten managed to talk him out of it with a large bag of coffee he had brought back with him from Malaya. Was it a bribe? He says no. It was simply a measure of how much things had changed in a year. Priorities had changed. The war was obviously over, and he had survived the worst of it. Better to stay in the relative safety of his own boat, among friends, than to take command of a flotilla of strangers looking for trouble. The imperative of accepting orders without question had been overriden by the more practical notion of using one’s common sense to stay alive.
To understand this mind-set, it is necessary to understand what was happening in the last days of the Third Reich. Allied armies had crossed German borders on both sides and were preparing to link up on the Elbe near Torgau. Refugees were flooding into the west. Adolf Hitler and his government were in Berlin, huddled in underground bunkers and insulated from reality. The fabric of discipline that had held the U-Bootwaffe, indeed the entire Wehrmacht, together for so long was beginning to unravel. Commanders were moved, and moved again, to serve the needs of a confused leadership. Some sought to avoid orders with an eye toward their own best interests; others began to disobey them; and still others were placed in positions of judgment to track these men down and punish them. Many were swept into captivity. Two took themselves and their boats away from the fight entirely. One, having seen defeat, died tragically soon afterward.
In March Karl-Friedrich Merten was forced to close the Twenty-fourth U-Flotilla in Memel, which he had commanded since April 1943, and to evacuate all flotilla personnel to the west. To his credit, he was also able to evacuate a large number of German military casualties and civilian refugees, who would otherwise have fallen into the hands of the advancing Red Army. He was subsequently assigned to what he will only call “Special Duties, Führer Headquarters,” actually a position as Erster Beisitzer on a Fliegendes Standgericht, a special flying court, attached to Navy Group West. The primary duty of these special courts, which consisted of a naval judge and two Beisitzer, naval advisers, was to try and pass instant judgment on naval personnel accused of cowardice, desertion, and other offenses likely to occur when an enemy force is advancing inexorably and withdrawals are either forbidden or heavily limited. Often the men accused were tried and sentenced by the court in a matter of hours, and their punishments, usually the death sentence, were carried out at once. Merten’s record as a member of the Standgericht is not available; it would be wrong to lay at his feet a death resulting from anything other than a fair and impartial execution of his duties, although his performance was good enough for him to be promoted in May 1945, just days before the war ended, to the rank of Kapitän zur See over 179 more senior officers.
Gottfried König was lucky enough not to have to appear before a Standgericht in the last week of the war. He had been away from the front since he left U-181 in October 1943 and was commander of the training boat U-316. On 1 May 1945, after the boat experienced a mechanical failure and could not be repaired, he sank her in the mouth of the River Trave and led his crew onto land and into a desperate search for safety in the plains of Schleswig-Holstein. At one point he was stopped and ordered to form an infantry company for a final defense of the Kiel-Flensburg area. “At the last minute,” he wrote, “a Panzerfaust was pressed into my hands for a final defense against the attacking English forces. I thought it was a crazy idea and refused, and since the English were in Lübeck a few days later I could not be held accountable for it. Of course U-boat sailors are not infantrymen, and could only make a mess of things in land warfare.” Like many others, König elected to follow his common sense rather than orders that were clearly absurd.
The destruction of the U-boats continued apace. More than one hundred boats were lost in the first four months of 1945, most of them with their entire crews, for negligible returns in tonnage and no strategic benefit whatsoever. There was one glimmer of hope in 1945. Toward the end of the previous year the first of two new U-boat types were commissioned: the small type XXIII and the large type XXI. Both were revolutionary; the latter in particular was as different from existing U-boats as the jet engine was from the propeller and was comparable in many respects to a modern submarine. Hull design was improved. New electric motors reduced sound signatures, and increased battery capacity raised maximum underwater speed to seventeen knots. Improved fuel economy and better snorkels allowed the type XXI to make an entire patrol without surfacing. They were indeed the miracle boats for which the U-Bootwaffe had been waiting so long; in spring 1945, after years of development and months of testing, they were beginning to arrive at the front, manned by veteran crews and commanded by the most experienced U-boat commanders still available (no matter how long they had been absent from the front). Adalbert Schnee, for example, Karl Dönitz’s operations officer since 1942, was given U-2511. Erich Topp, head of testing for the new boats and a staff officer for almost three years, finished the war in command of U-2513. Peter Cremer was moved from U-333 to U-2519.
It would have been interesting to see how these boats fared in battle; had they appeared a year or two earlier, they might have had a real effect (although probably not the desired one of turning the war around). As it was, few of them reached the front. Dozens were sunk in their berths. U-2519 was bombed and damaged beyond repair on 5 April; she remained in commission, but Cremer elected to scuttle her shortly after the surrender. Topp took U-2513 out of Kiel on 1 May and headed for Norway. He heard of Hitler’s death as he sneaked through the Skagerrak and was informed of the surrender as soon as he put into Horten. Schnee had managed to initiate an operation patrol on 30 April from Bergen but received the order to cease fire just after he had found the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk in his crosshairs, which he had been able to approach without detection. A later comparison of both logs showed that the Norfolk would have been destroyed; instead, Schnee broke off the attack and returned to Bergen. The type XXI miracle boats had not sunk a single ship. Neither they, nor the type XXIII boats, nor any of the other boats lost at sea since January had any effect on the course of a war whose death rattle now echoed in the discharge of a small pistol clutched in the hand of Adolf Hitler.
Before Hitler died, he designated his successor as head of the German state and commander in chief of her rapidly fading armed forces. To almost everyone’s surprise, this man was not Heinrich Himmler or Hermann Goering but Karl Dönitz, the Kriegsmarine chief and U-boat admiral. Dönitz, who had by this time become a somewhat fey and gloomy figure, received notification of Hitler’s death and of his own inheritance in the tiny Schleswig-Holstein town of Plön, where he had just relocated from Koralle. Shortly after that he moved again, to Flensburg, where the new center of government was set up in the gymnasium of the Marineschule. A new guard unit, Wachtbataillon Dönitz, was created from the crew of Peter Cremer’s boat U-2519 to protect it, and Cremer himself was made the commander of Wachtbataillon Dönitz, responsible for security around the gymnasium and the school compound.
One of Dönitz’s first acts in his new capacity was to recall his boats. There is some confusion even now about the number of transmissions, their originators, or even the sequence in which they were sent, but there is no doubt that on the afternoon of 5 May 1945 Dönitz made a signal to all U-boats that began: “My submariners: six years of submarine warfare lie behind us. You have fought like lions. An oppressive superiority in material has driven us into a corner. From the remaining ground a continuation of the fight is no longer possible.” It was signed “Your Grand Admiral.” It was a historic order, if perhaps not Nelsonian. “If the English sounds stilted,” wrote Dan Van der Vat rather cattily, “the reader need only consult the German to understand why.” Nevertheless, its meaning was clear: the U-boats were to cease all offensive action.
With this signal World War II ended for the U-Bootwaffe. It had not been an easy battle or a satisfying one. They had indeed fought like lions: sinking twenty-eight hundred ships of fourteen million tons, tying Allied supply lines into knots, causing their enemies to fear, more than once, that the war would be lost because of them, all with scant resources and only grudging support on their own side. But the other side of the ledger was so dismal that one is led to wonder whether it was worth the effort. Almost twelve hundred boats were commissioned in six years, and almost eight hundred were lost. Of the forty thousand men who served in them, almost thirty thousand were killed, most of them after the Battle of the Atlantic was irretrievably lost.
For these reasons the reaction to Dönitz’s signal was mixed. Herbert Werner was relieved, if not delighted, to hear it. “This,” he wrote in Iron Coffins, “was the message that put an end to the suffering. . . . My death in an iron coffin, a verdict of long standing, was finally suspended. The truth was so beautiful that it seemed to be a dream.”6 Not everyone was so enthralled. Heinz Schaeffer, commander of U-977, was incredulous when he picked up Dönitz’s recall signal in the English Channel. He did not believe that Dönitz was responsible for it; it was the work of an impostor, or the Grossadmiral had been forced to do it. “I couldn’t conceive it possible that our leaders had sunk so far as to send out official orders to surrender.” When, the next day, he received another signal from Dönitz stating that all boats still at sea were to hoist a black flag and put into the nearest Allied port, Schaeffer knew the war was lost. The thought of defeat was unbearable. He decided to do something that would take him away from it and from the suffering that would inevitably follow. He disappeared, and nobody could find him. In the surge of events it was assumed that he had been lost. Few mourned.
On 14 May 1945, one week after the German surrender in Rheims, Wolfgang Lüth died. Still the commandant of the Marineschule, he had survived six years of war and sixteen war patrols without as much as a scratch only to be shot dead by one of Cremer’s sailors on sentry duty. It was late at night in stormy weather, and Lüth was walking from Dönitz’s headquarters in the school gymnasium to his home in the commandant’s quarters along a narrow walkway called the Black Path. The sentry, young and nervous, challenged Lüth but heard no response; he fired once. Lüth was struck in the head and killed instantly. Since Lüth was the man who gave the order for the sentries to shoot, and since he kept walking even after the sentry had screamed three times for him to stop and identify himself, it was thought at first that he had committed suicide. This theory was rejected by a board of inquiry, and the shooting was ruled an accident.
Lüth believed in his country, her leadership, and National Socialism until the last days of the war, but he died knowing that Germany was defeated, Hitler was a fraud, and National Socialism was a bankrupt ideology responsible for untold suffering. We cannot know whether he rejected them before he died; Erich Topp believes that he would have done so had he lived. Nevertheless, Karl Dönitz requested, and received, permission from occupation authorities to bury Lüth with the military honors of the Third Reich: an honor guard of Ritterkreuzträger, an armed escort in his cortege, three volleys of rifle fire over his grave—and a swastika ensign on his casket. His story ends at that point. Dönitz never made much of his relationship with the man he buried so ceremoniously and mentions him only briefly in his memoirs. Other histories deny him the credit and the notoriety he deserves for his part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Lüth died, a talented officer, a confusing man, and vanished into time.
As Lüth lay on a bier in the memorial hall of the Marineschule, arguably a victim of the last bullet fired in Europe, other U-Bootwaffe officers more fortunate than he were contemplating an unlikely and often unexpected survival and a new life in an unrecognizable world. The country was devastated and lay in pieces. Of her once proud armies only dregs remained. Her people were exhausted, hungry, and homeless. In some cities, quite literally, there was no stone left upon another. One might say they had brought it on themselves; if so, they were paying for it. The families of U-Bootwaffe veterans suffered as much as anyone, in many cases even more because an abnormal number of their husbands, fathers, and sons had died at sea, and many others were still prisoners, their futures unknown.
More than six thousand U-Bootwaffe officers and men were registered prisoners of war. Most of them were in North America, and there were no immediate plans to send them back home. Hundreds more were interned when they brought their boats into Allied ports after the war. Captivity took on various and fickle forms, and if a man was lucky he might remain free. Peter Cremer should have been arrested in Germany but was sent home after the camp he was supposed to be housed in was found to be full. Gottfried König was not arrested, nor was Karl-Friedrich Merten. Victor Oehrn was spared; as it happened, he was in the hospital again for another operation on his damaged hip. And finally, as of 21 May, two weeks after the armistice, Karl Dönitz was free, albeit under close supervision and without any real powers as the German head of state. The Allies put up with him because they needed someone in his position to deal with. He was a useful tool, but he knew his usefulness would not last much longer, and he said as much in a somber conversation at Oehrn’s bedside. “Soon they will come to arrest me,” he said toward the end. “I will be tried and sentenced, and I won’t make it out of here alive [man wird mich einen Kopf kurzer machen].”
Oehrn found this very hard to believe. “How can you say that? Why would anyone treat you—a blameless naval officer—in such a way? It won’t happen!”
“You are still young,” said Dönitz matter-of-factly, “and you can’t see it. The victors are in charge. It is a political thing now, and there will be a political trial. I can count on being sentenced to death, and I only hope that I will have the strength to see it through without making a mess of things. Everyone will condemn me in the end; I only hope that my U-boat men will stand by me.”
“I can’t believe it will be that way,” replied Oehrn. “But whatever happens, the U-Bootwaffe will always stand by you. You can be assured of it.” Dönitz left then, “completely relaxed and calm,” and Oehrn, helpless in his hospital bed, could only reflect on Dönitz, on the U-Bootwaffe, on his own career, which, for someone who had always thought of himself as a staff officer, “a man without a name,” had been much more exciting and more fulfilling than he had a right to expect. The magnificent Tatars of the Caucasus. Mecklenburg Bight. The Schnorchelbude and Prien. “Five days, Herr Admiral.” Rome. Renate. “I can’t make a cabinet matter out of it. There is a war on, and I have to follow orders just like you do.” The magnificent Rommel. Dein Wille geschehe. “We are Australians. Are we good fighters?” Two grains of sand in the desert. “You will know later that I have never lied to you.” He had come such a long way from the Dänholm. And yet he was only thirty-eight.
Two days later, Dönitz joined his men in captivity when he and his cabinet were arrested by representatives of the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. By all accounts, he conducted himself with dignity, and the arrests took place without incident. “Words,” he said, “would be superfluous.” Six months after that he was on trial at Nuremberg, along with twenty other senior party and Wehrmacht officials, including Hermann Goering and Erich Raeder (Goebbels and Himmler were both dead, suicides like their leader). He was, of course, entirely correct in his predictions to Oehrn. The world wanted his head.
Jürgen Oesten, still in command of U-861 but marooned in Trondheim with his crew, could only watch as the events of April and May flashed before him. When the British finally came for him, he surrendered his boat quietly, having no idea what would come next. There was no rhyme or reason to the fates of U-boat crewmen in Norway. Erich Topp, for example, turned U-2513 over to the British in Horten and was unconditionally released several weeks later in Germany. Herbert Werner, in contrast, captured just down the road from Oesten in Bergen, was turned over to the French army, which shipped him with a large number of POWs back to France. After three attempts, he escaped in October 1945, hopped a train back to Germany, and fled into the woods outside Frankfurt.
Oesten was sent neither to Germany nor to France, although he was promised the first option. The British wanted his boat in Northern Ireland, and since they did not have the expertise to do it themselves, they asked Oesten and his crew to take it from Trondheim to Londonderry. Oesten declined; the war was over, he announced, and he wanted to go home. Negotiations began, and a deal was eventually worked out with Oesten and several other commanders in the area: if they would sail their own boats to Northern Ireland, they would be rewarded with early repatriation to Germany. The boats were duly delivered. As Oesten sailed into the harbor, shepherded by British destroyers, he flashed a message: “Thank you for the escort.” The reply, “It was a pleasure,” was followed with arrest and internment. The agreement had been overruled somewhere up the line. It was an act of bad faith for which Oesten is still bitter, for it meant that he too was a prisoner of war.
Oesten’s first stop was a tiny POW camp of two Nissen huts and a barbed wire fence in Lissahally. Theodor Petersen was in one of the huts when he got there. Petersen was commander of U-874 when the war ended, and he surrendered his boat under similar circumstances. The two were sent to London—to the London District Cage (LDC) in Kensington, to be precise—for formal questioning. All U-boat officers captured by the Royal Navy passed through the LDC, which continued to operate for some time after the war ended. The interrogators at the LDC were excellent at their work; they invariably impressed their guests with an encyclopedic knowledge of the U-Bootwaffe and a detailed outline of their own personal lives. Oesten appreciated that Kensington was a dangerous place, but he gave nothing away and “cannot recall anything unpleasant.”
At the LDC a prisoner would be classified as to his political persuasion: the usual designation was white for apolitical or anti-Nazi, black for Nazis, gray for those in between. On this basis, he was assigned to a permanent camp for internment, and in due course, after the usual administrative red tape and paper chase in London, Jürgen Oesten and Theodor Petersen were classified and sent to POW Camp 18, Featherstone Park, located on the banks of the South Tyne in Northumberland. There they were put in with several thousand other prisoners, officers and men, to await the pleasure of the king.
Featherstone Park was a large camp. It would eventually house many thousands of German prisoners from every branch of the Wehrmacht. The camp spokesman was a Luftwaffe colonel. There was an army contingent led by several other colonels, a sprinkling of Kriegsmarine surface officers, a horde of U-boat crewmen, and almost seventy commanders. Like many such camps, Featherstone Park was a depressing place. Until the end of the war it was a typical POW camp in which the prisoners were treated as dangerous men. It was divided into three major areas, each identified with one of the color designations described above, but the camp leadership was in the “black” range. It was heavily guarded, and prisoners were allowed out of their huts only for exercise in ranks. Hostility and mutual distrust were the norm. When the war ended, this mood did not improve but merely changed into one of sullen indirection. “Ideologies fell down like a house of cards,” wrote Matthew Barry Sullivan, author of the best book on prisoner of war camps in postwar Britain. “There was a parting of the ways between those who wanted to work for the future and those who endlessly mulled over the past.”
Theodor Petersen does not appear to have been overly affected by his bad fortune, but Jürgen Oesten was a nervous wreck when he arrived. His condition did not stem from defeat; unlike many in the camp, he was able to deal with the fall of National Socialism and the defeat of Germany. But the experience of war had left him emotionally exhausted; the sound of the guns, now silent, was deafening. He later described his mental state in a letter to an English friend, allegorically rather than literally, by using the image of a confused traveler in a strange land:
Once upon a time there was an odd-job man, who by chance got to a place in Northumberland to do some wood-cutting. He was a bit clumsy, handled the language roughly . . . and [he was] a bit curious about the situation and the new experience. The war had spit him ashore in this country and he was somehow drifting between two entirely different lives, the one behind and the one ahead. Few things had kept their value. The times that passed had left their marks. To be married to uncertainty for a bit too long a time had made him somehow hard-boiled and less sensitive. There were some undigested sensations and experiences hanging around still.
He was on the brink, and what happened to him in the months after his capture would probably affect him for the rest of his life. His “hard-boiled and less sensitive” veneer might have been very much exacerbated had Featherstone Park continued as Sullivan describes above; indeed, in many camps that did not change for the better, he would probably have become even more insensitive to life and perhaps been permanently scarred by bitterness and distrust. For such has happened to others in his position—men who are even now immersed in the gall of the past.
As Oesten prepared himself for the long Northumbrian winter, the world received its one final jolt of U-boat intrigue. On 17 August 1945 Heinz Schaeffer suddenly reappeared in Buenos Aires. By a remarkable feat of navigation, he had managed to take U-977 and most of her crew all the way from Norway to the River Plate without being detected. The journey had begun the day he received the second signal from Dönitz. Most of the married men were put ashore in Norway, a detour that meant U-977 would have to make a long and hazardous dash past the British Isles to Gibraltar through waters still vigorously patrolled by enemy ships and aircraft. The first sixty-six days of the journey were spent underwater. The crew became ghostly and listless; tempers were frayed; small incidents of theft and insubordination occurred. It is a tribute to Schaeffer that he kept everyone together until U-977 sailed into Argentine waters.
Things did not work out as Schaeffer had planned, however. He was accused after he arrived in Buenos Aires of having smuggled Adolf Hitler out of Europe, and for that reason he was interrogated at length by both Argentine and American authorities. Such a possibility seems patently ridiculous now, but many otherwise sensible people were prepared to believe it in the months and years after the war, and Schaeffer’s voyage has since provided a flimsy historical basis for wild tales of Adolf Hitler founding a fourth Reich in South America or Antarctica. For all his troubles, unfortunately, Schaeffer became a prisoner of war, first in Argentina, then in the United States, and the boat he had shepherded all the way to Buenos Aires was destroyed.
Oesten’s first winter in Featherstone Park was not as bad as he might have expected. The cheerless air of the previous summer improved markedly during that time so that by the spring it seemed a different place. When Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, the ranking survivor of the sunken battleship Bismarck, arrived from Canada in March, he was surprised by what he saw. “When, as a member of a large group, I first glimpsed Camp 18,” he recalled, “something unusual was immediately evident. There was no barbed wire; no watchtowers; British guards were nowhere in sight. I saw German prisoners leisurely strolling outside the camp area; completely without British ‘supervision’; their simple word of honor sufficed now.” Taken inside, he found less a prison than a small German city: a city that bragged a newspaper, two theaters, a university, a library, a working population, and a surprising level of trust and goodwill. For von Müllenheim-Rechberg, who had known both good camps and bad in his five years of captivity, Featherstone Park was a new experience.
It was a remarkable transformation, and several factors were involved, but Sullivan gives most of the credit to three men: the camp commandant, a new camp spokesman, and an unusual interpreter whose talents lay far beyond his duties. The commandant, a bluff and practical lieutenant colonel named Vickers, arrived at the camp just before Oesten. A prisoner himself in World War I, he realized at once that the men in Featherstone Park were being handled improperly. The war was over, and the purpose of the camp had changed; he “could see that. . . what his Germans needed was to be trusted, to feel less hemmed in and to have ways of relieving their cramped feelings and muscles.” As if to underscore this point, he removed the watchtowers and barbed wire fences surrounding the camp.
Theodor Petersen helped to tear those fences down. When he arrived at Featherstone Park he had seen only the wire, but when the wire was gone he was able to look around him, and he saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty of the area, the flowers along the Tyne, the deer in the fields. Petersen’s image calls to mind a book by C. S. Lewis called The Last Battle. In it he describes two soldiers, both of whom believe they are imprisoned in a cage. One soldier will not be told that the cage is an illusion, and so he remains imprisoned; the other opens his eyes, looks around, the cage disappears, and he is free. In fact, he has been free all along. This is what was happening to men in Featherstone Park: for some of them the place was no more than a prison and it stayed that way until the day they left. For others, like Petersen, the prison disappeared when they opened their eyes and looked around.
In January 1946 the interpreter arrived. His name was Herbert Sulzbach, and his background was as interesting as that of anyone described in this book. He was a German Jew, born in Frankfurt and a veteran of the German army in World War I. In 1938 the political climate forced him and his family to flee to Britain, and when the war began he was interned on the Isle of Man. He joined the British Army in 1940, received a commission, and by 1946 had risen to the rank of captain. He became a British subject during the war, but he held an undying love for Germany and never stopped believing in the underlying virtue of his former countrymen. His posting was not accidental; he was not sent to Featherstone Park because of his skill as an interpreter but because of his extraordinary ability to console, to advise, to counsel, and, if necessary, to admonish those who in his judgment had been temporarily misled by National Socialism. As Vickers improved the material lot of the men in Featherstone Park, Sulzbach improved their mental and emotional condition.
Sulzbach achieved an immediate affinity with almost every German in the camp. Such was his ability to comfort and to assure that they lined up outside his tiny office to talk to him. Said one former Featherstone Park prisoner (a farmer) in 1976, “Even now, if it were necessary, I would sell half my cows and drive over half the world just to be able to talk to Herbert.” Unfortunately, one of the few men who could not get along with Sulzbach was Jürgen Oesten. “[Sulzbach] did a tremendous lot of good handling POW affairs in a sensitive and fair way,” he wrote. “Why did we not like each other? I think he thought me to be arrogant and I did not take his camouflage seriously.” Paradoxically, the differences between the two men helped Oesten more than they hurt. They may even have been the key to his survival.
Shortly after Oesten arrived, he was made deputy camp spokesman, but the position did not seem to work out, at least not insofar as he used it to help other prisoners. “As a born man-manager,” wrote Sullivan “[Oesten] quickly asserted his force of character and ability at Featherstone Park. He was not, however, widely popular. He tended to bear rather heavily on the younger naval men . . . and he was not behind the new spirit that was being created in the camp.” Oesten concedes that he might have been unpopular, but he professes to be unconcerned: “Whether I was popular or not did not worry me overmuch as long as I could achieve more freedom for the camp inmates by cooperation with and suggestions to the British authorities. Of course for some of the diehard boys who were prisoners [for] many years this was going too fast and I may not have been popular with them.” In either case, Oesten’s leadership style did not appeal to Sulzbach.
Oesten had accepted defeat, and he felt it his responsibility to convince the men around him to do the same. “Based on an education by broadminded parents,” he wrote, “I was in a position to help many younger prisoners to see the era of Hitler and Co. in the proper proportion and to regard the defeat in its proper value.” For him it was a logical process. Once they were shown that the Third Reich was an evil institution, they would realize that Germany’s defeat was necessary and perhaps even a good thing. Unfortunately, the human mind does not work that way, and very few German soldiers of any political stripe would have accepted such an argument. Sulzbach had the same goal as Oesten, but his methods were entirely different. Rather than argument or logic, he used persuasion, trust, understanding, and humor. Compared to Oesten’s confrontational style of argument, Sulzbach could be disarming as well as direct. “His approach was very personal. It was as though he had his own dowsing technique into a person’s true feelings, into his quality as a human being.” Not surprisingly, Sulzbach succeeded where Oesten had failed, and Oesten’s influence began to fade.
Oesten was also a loner. He had his own agenda from the start, and he went along with the routine only reluctantly. Every prisoner in the camp, for example, had to undergo regular interviews and psychological testing to monitor his progress. Oesten, never interested in National Socialism, jaded by nature, and doubtless annoyed at being a prisoner in the first place, was not impressed by any of this and adopted a supercilious attitude toward the entire procedure. During one such interview he proposed that he be evaluated by three different officers because he could predict ahead of time how he would be evaluated. Unfortunately, he wrote, “The camp authorities did not have sufficient sense of humor.”24 Such an attitude may well have seemed arrogant to Sulzbach or to anyone else who had the misfortune of conducting an interview with Oesten.
This conflict was unfortunate for Oesten, especially in his position as deputy camp spokesman. He would have benefited from Sulzbach’s friendship. For soon afterward Sulzbach initiated a shakeup in the camp leadership structure that left Oesten completely out of the picture. Both men considered the camp spokesman all wrong for the position. “He was a dead duck,” wrote Oesten, “and the situation was hopeless.” But rather than replace him with Oesten, Sulzbach convinced Vickers to bring in a new spokesman from a different camp: an army general named Ferdinand Heim. Vickers, Sulzbach, and Heim would effectively run the camp from that point on, and Oesten no longer played an active role.
In the end he went quietly. He gave up the role of counselor to Sulzbach, who seemed to be having more success than he, and he paid less attention to his position as a camp spokesman. Instead, he threw his efforts into a new responsibility he had been given. One of Vickers’s ideas was that prisoners should be able to work outside the camp during the day (an arrangement that had already been tried with great success in North American camps). It allowed the prisoners to get out, and it enabled the local community to benefit from an extraordinary collection of talents which otherwise would have gone to waste. Oesten was made the officer responsible for forming the various work details that walked, rode, or drove out of Featherstone Park’s main gate every morning. He supplied laborers to Northumberland farms for the harvest, masons for repairing walls, carpenters, electricians, even a gaggle of shovel bearers for an archaeological dig along the Roman Wall. Officers, ordinarily exempt from manual labor, often volunteered for these jobs. Von Müllenheim-Rechberg, a hereditary baron, took the “greatest pleasure” in draining peat bogs. It was a job Oesten turned out to be very good at, and it seemed to satisfy his need to keep occupied, to focus on something other than his captivity.
It helped that captivity had become a rather abstract concept. It was hardly imprisonment in the classic sense. Military discipline, such as it was, had become the province of the German chain of command rather than the British. There was free communication to points outside the camp; the German cooks in the bakery, for example, could send packages of homemade chocolate bars back home to impoverished families. There were two camp newspapers and unlimited access to outside media. A program of higher education was instituted, with classes in almost every subject imaginable (most of these were later accepted for credit by German universities). There were two theater groups, one for serious theater, the other for lighter fare, and a camp orchestra. Bus tours to various scenic spots in northern England were arranged. Debates, organized and otherwise, raged within the camp: politics, religion, and social affairs were freely discussed.
Oesten could come and go as he pleased. He could use public transport; he could visit businesses in town or deal with local merchants. He was even able to remain outside the gates of Featherstone Park overnight and was a guest for some time at the home of the British archaeologist Eric Birley, who lived not far from the camp (it was to the Birley family that he addressed the letter quoted above). Under the circumstances, it would not have been difficult to escape, and some did, but when Oesten was asked about it later he stated that escape would not have made sense for him. In any case, by the end of 1946, he was a free man in every sense but the strictly legal one, and to leave Featherstone Park for Germany on an “unofficial” basis would have caused more problems than it solved.
Such an atmosphere was based on trust on both sides. It could not have existed in many postwar POW camps. Once Jürgen Oesten was sent away for a “sort of re-education course,” and instead of returning at once to Featherstone Park, he was held temporarily at another camp, Lodge Moor, near Sheffield. He believes this was to test his reaction to Lodge Moor, or perhaps to test the reactions of the Lodge Moor prisoners to him, for it was “rather black and primitive compared to Featherstone Park.” Prisoners from POW camps in the United States and Canada were sent to Lodge Moor on their way back to Germany. Their attitudes, he found, were frozen more or less at the point of their capture, and although he tried to convince several of them that things had changed, they were not interested. One of these officers was Otto Kretschmer, who had just arrived at Lodge Moor from Bowmanville POW camp in Ontario, Canada.
Otto Kretschmer had been in various forms of Allied imprisonment for five years and had not played an active role in the Battle of the Atlantic since early 1941. But as a POW he had pursued a war of his own and had become almost as famous for what he did after his capture as for what he did before. When U-570 was given up by Hans-Joachim Rahmlow in August 1941, her officers (minus Rahmlow himself) were sent to Grizedale Hall, a POW camp in the Lake District. Otto Kretschmer, the senior German officer in the camp, held a secret “court of honor” and found the first watch officer, Bernt Bernhardt, guilty of cowardice before the enemy. Bernhardt was given an opportunity to redeem himself by escaping from the camp and scuttling U-570 at her berth in Barrow-in-Furness, but he was shot and killed in the attempt. In 1942, after the failed Allied landing at Dieppe, Canadian soldiers were held in handcuffs, a violation of the Geneva Convention. German POWs at Bowmanville were ordered to don handcuffs in retaliation. Kretschmer, once again the senior German officer, refused and started a riot in the camp that has since become known as the Battle of Bowmanville. And it was Kretschmer who engineered the abortive escape attempt from Bowmanville in which a U-boat was to creep into the St. Lawrence River to pick up the escapees and ferry them to safety. To his men, he was magnificent; to his captors, Otto Kretschmer was a problem child who never got with the program.
Oesten will not discuss his conversation with Otto Kretschmer, except to say that it was contentious. Kretschmer had no love for National Socialism and at the time of his capture at sea expressed himself bored and disillusioned with the war. But National Socialism—and its effects—had done nothing to dim his love for Germany or his pride in being a German. Presumably Oesten tried to convince Kretschmer that Germany’s defeat was necessary to end National Socialism and that the country would benefit from it in the long term. Kretschmer would hear none of this, nor would two of Oesten’s classmates, members of Crew 33 he also met at Lodge Moor. The reason for these negative reactions, he believes, is something he calls “barbed wire disease,” an emotional condition brought on by prolonged confinement. “I studied the barbed-wire phenomenon to a certain extent, as I met many different types. . . . One thing seemed to me the same for all of them. The period of being [a] POW is like a black hole in their mental development. They stop in the position when they were taken prisoner, even if the possibilities for information and education are first class.”
Oesten had struggled to ensure that this did not happen to him. It had not always been easy. When he arrived, he was a nervous wreck, married, as he wrote, to uncertainty, a large chip on his shoulder. His position as a camp spokesman did not work out: he alienated more than a few of the men he had tried to help. He had his problems with Sulzbach, a man who seemed to have very little trouble dealing with anyone. His future was as cloudy as his new landscape.
But human beings are resilient by nature, and in the end, he did not allow any of these things to bother him. He began to improve. He knew he was getting better; he could see it in himself and by looking at other people, like Kretschmer, who had not changed. He had become more relaxed, more circumspect. He dislikes the term “cynical” and denies that it ever applied to him, but he was more open and willing to take at face value the opinions of other people, and he found that others were listening to him again and paying more attention to what he had to say. As he traveled around rural Northumberland matching men to jobs, he could see beauty in the country and in the daily lives of its people. “Lots of things happened,” he continued in his letter to Eric Birley. “He met a milkman at the same corner at the same time early morning, walking through that rough and hilly countryside breathing in plenty of fresh air. Some of the country folk he met were not at all surprised but fitted him somehow into their picture of the globe, which was sensible and uncomplicated.”
A passage from Jürgen Oesten’s last evaluation, signed by an interrogator at Featherstone Park named Philip Rossiter, is worth quoting. If, as Oesten believes, Herbert Sulzbach had anything to do with it, the evaluation can be regarded as reasonably accurate and very perceptive. “Oesten,” wrote Rossiter, “used to be an enthusiastic sailor who did not worry his head overmuch about politics. He has come to his present positive but very realistic attitude by slow but sure steps. He is most strongly recommended for a job in youth or adult education where his outstanding ability to influence people has scope. He would also make an excellent [leader] of some rehabilitation group. Above all, Oesten is a very decent chap.” Clearly, he had recovered.
In early 1947 Jürgen Oesten was moved from Featherstone Park to Camp 168, a transit camp, to prepare for repatriation. From Camp 168 he would be sent to Hull, then placed on a ship for Bremerhaven, and finally, after eighteen months of questionably legal confinement as a “prisoner of peace,” released. Most German prisoners of war came home between 1946 and 1948. Oesten believed they were released with the same mind-set they had when they were captured. If this is true—and the point is debatable—many of them were ill-equipped to handle freedom in a country that was very different from the one they had left so many years earlier. The Nuremberg trials were over. National Socialism had ostensibly been purged from society. A postwar government was in place and a new constitution was being written. Soviet control of Eastern Europe was complete and the first major confrontation of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, was under way. The country was still poor, but the first stirrings of a tremendous economic revival could be felt in the air. Everything had changed; a man who still believed as he had in 1940 or 1941 would be out of place in such an environment, like Oesten’s woodcutter, “drifting between two entirely different lives, the one behind and the one ahead.”
Happily, this was not the case with Oesten himself or with most of his fellow prisoners at Featherstone Park. Because of the camp’s enlightened management, its open walls, and its wealth of diversions, the men who eventually emerged from it were better adjusted and more prepared than most to deal with the changes they encountered. When Oesten arrived at Featherstone Park, he was a tired, bitter man, confused, apprehensive, and emotionally drained. When he left he was spiritually refreshed, self-confident, and at peace with himself. Any physical confinement is unpleasant. Becoming a prisoner in a foreign country, without a crime, without a trial, with no indication of a release date or even a condition for release, can destroy a man. Jürgen Oesten did not allow this to happen and ended his captivity in triumph.
In 962 Otto, who had also gained control of the Middle Kingdom, was formally crowned king of the Romans. The possessor of this title would, in time, be known as the Holy Roman Emperor. The coronation came to be seen as the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, an institution that lasted until 1806 and profoundly influenced the course of German history. The coronation of Otto was a moment of glory for the German monarchy, but its long-term consequences were not beneficial because as German kings sought to exercise the offices of the empire they became involved in Italian affairs, often to such an extent that they neglected the governing of Germany. Because German kings were so often in Italy, the German nobility became stronger. In addition, the presence of German kings in Italy as emperors soon caused them to come into conflict with the papacy, which did not hesitate to seek allies in Italy or Germany to limit imperial power. A last problem was that the succession to the German throne was often uncertain or was hotly contested because it was not inheritable, but could only be attained through election by the German dukes. This circumstance made the formation of an orderly or stable central government nearly impossible. In the opinion of some historians, Otto’s triumph in Rome in 962 ultimately was disastrous for Germany because it delayed German unification by centuries.
The beginning of the tenth century was a time of general demoralization for Europe. There was a seething process going on out of which good was eventually to come, but for the present it seemed. as though all social order were going straightway to destruction. The Magyars, Saracens, and Normans plundered at will, the central power became more and more sub-divided, the name of emperor was fast falling into forgetfulness, and popes were put up and cast down at will. Around the chair of Peter, indeed, corruption was even more rife than elsewhere. Over the corpse of Formosus, who had crowned Arnulf, the next pope had held a ghastly trial. Clothed in the papal adornments, the loathsome body had been placed on a throne, and, the mockery of a defence having been gone through with, judgment had been spoken against it. A year later the successor of Formosus had been strangled.
Literature and art had withered away for want of nourishment in the East Frankish or German kingdom. The strongest proof of this is that historical sources for the reign of Conrad (911-918) and Henry I. (919-936) were almost unknown to their own or to later ages. The court annals that had been continued during almost all of the Carolingian period come to an end, and we are dependent for information on the incidental evidence of monastic chroniclers of acts of synods and of charters.
Almost all that we know of Conrad’s reign is that he made a last attempt in Carolingian style to maintain the supremacy of the crown over the individual powers that were cropping up around it. He would not acknowledge the independence of the stem-duchies, although all his efforts to check that independence were in vain. Against each of the duchies in turn, against Lorraine, Saxony, Swabia, and Bavaria he waged wars which were almost universally unsuccessful. Lorraine, indeed, during his whole reign professed allegiance not to the East Frankish but to the West Frankish kingdom.
Conrad allied himself firmly with the Church. It was through the influence of a metropolitan bishop that he had been raised on the throne. Bishop Salamo of Constance was his chancellor and chief adviser, and to the Church he granted far-reaching concessions.
That institution in turn unreservedly entered the lists for Conrad. The synod of Hohenaltheim, which was held in 916, and at which a papal legate was present, spoke a threefold curse against all who should break their oath of fealty to the king, and declared treasonable undertakings to be punishable with life-long imprisonment in a monastery. Erchanger and Berthold, of almost ducal rank, and leaders of the separatist movement in Swabia, were condemned to this penalty, but Conrad, not satisfied with its severity, later had them put to death. This act, be it here remarked, availed him little, for a more dangerous leader of the Swabians arose in the person of their new duke, Burkhard.
Conrad’s efforts to create a strong monarchy that should stem, the growth of the local powers had been a failure, and no one recognized this fact more clearly than himself. His last act, although a practical confession of the uselessness of his whole policy, was the grandest of his life. He empowered his brother Eberhard to deliver the insignia of royalty to Henry of Saxony, the most powerful of the stem dukes, the man who had most bitterly opposed all efforts at founding a government on autocratic principles. Instead of trying to keep the royal dignity in the hands of his own family, Conrad, himself a Frank, induced his next of kin to bring about the reversion of the throne to a Saxon dynasty.
The annals of Poehlde, a generation or more later, sum up Conrad’s character in words that form a fitting epitaph for him: “This king was so bent on the good of his fatherland that he sacrificed to it his personal enmity — truly a rare virtue.”
The chief problem of Henry I.’s reign, like that of Conrad, was how to keep in check the power of the stem-duchies. But Henry’s method was a different one from that of his predecessor. He ceased to lean on Conrad’s chief ally, the Church, and at the very beginning repulsed Archbishop Heriger of Mayence, who was about to perform upon him the ceremony of unction at his coronation. Conrad had exercised violence and repression towards the individual dukes; Henry tried negotiation and conciliation.
With Eberhard of Franconia, who had brought him the insignia, and who, in an assembly of Franks and Saxons held at Fritzlar, had secured him the election, he stood, during the whole of his reign, on the best of terms. With Burkhard of Swabia, and the almost sovereign Arnulf of Bavaria, he came in time to a peaceful agreement, and induced them to do him homage.
Arnulf, indeed, was allowed to retain important prerogatives, chief among them the right to appoint bishops to the vacant sees in Bavaria. It will readily be seen what an important concession this was, a concession which no other duchy ever enjoyed. Arnulf could thus appoint to office his own particular and faithful partisans in every part of the land. They worked in his interests in their different dioceses, and were sure to take his part in any contention with the king. And their influence was not small: the bishops, as we shall often see in the future, were among the most powerful and richest political powers in the land.
Both Burkhard and Arnulf continued to call themselves “duke by the grace of God.” They issued coins stamped with their own likenesses, and dated their charters according to the years of their own reign.
The result of Henry’s policy was that Germany at this time could hardly be called a monarchy. The only duties of the dukes were to appear at the general diets and to take part in foreign wars. All of Henry’s own actual power came to him from his position as Duke of Saxony. Here and here only could he unfold his powers of organization and administration.
From Charles the Simple of France, who at first had tried to widen his bounds at the expense of Germany, Henry secured recognition of his own title as king of the Eastern Franks. The two sovereigns met on a boat that was moored in the middle of the Rhine, and closed a treaty of alliance with each other. A Carolingian king acknowledged the legitimacy of the elect of the people.
That same king’s own position was precarious, to say the least, and rival kings were several times set up by a part of the French nobles. Henry was more than once called upon to interfere, and the indirect result of his intervention was the reacquisition of Lorraine for Germany. First, as the ally of its duke, Gislebert, Reginar’s son, then, apparently, as his enemy, he brought the whole land into subjection, and Gislebert acknowledged his suzerainty. In 928 the ties that bound Lorraine to Germany were still further strengthened by the marriage of Gislebert with Henry’s daughter Gerberga.
Henry’s peaceful relations with the German dukes left him time for the important undertakings for which he is more generally known in history. He placed a limit at least to the greed and rapacity of the Hungarians, and gained large provinces and tracts of land from the Slavonians. But, what was still more, in order to attain these ends he trained and moulded his own people.
Since the beginning of the century the Hungarians or Magyars had been harassing Germany. What stirring accounts of these outrages come down to us in the annals of St. Gall and other monasteries! These religious houses, being repositories of riches as well as sanctuaries of the God of the Christians, were especially open to their attacks. In our own day these invasions have formed the theme for one of the best and most popular of modern literary productions.
In 924 Henry had the good fortune to secure the person of a Hungarian chieftain. The Magyars negotiated for his release, and a treaty was brought about that insured a nine years’ peace to Saxony, in return for which boon Henry was to pay a yearly tribute.
Henry now set about placing his people in a condition to defend themselves. He caused numerous fortresses to be built, within which the Saxons might take refuge at the shortest notice. Such fortresses are called “urbes” in the chronicle of our informant Widukind, and hence Henry’s fame as the “founder of cities.” But cities they were not in our sense of the word, although on the sites of, or possibly around, individual fortresses towns were later to arise. This was undoubtedly the. case with Quedlinburg, where, at his death, Henry’s bones were laid to rest.
In the matter of military tactics Henry introduced one great reform. The peculiar nature of the Hungarian inroads made cavalry an absolute necessity, and the Saxon vassals were now trained to fight on horseback, an art which the Franks had long since learned in their wars with the Arabs.
Conflicts with the Wends and other Slavonians gave the necessary baptism of blood to the newly created troops.
The present Mecklenburg, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the Ukermark and the region along the Havel were occupied at this time by different tribes, such as the Abodrites, the Redarii, Wilzi, and Liutizi. All through Thuringia, too, were Slavic settlements, and many towns and rivers such as Jena, Plane, the Lemnitz, and the Pollnitz still preserve their original designations. The Slavic villages were built in a circular form and were incapable of extension, which accounts for the great number of distinct settlements. In the small duchy of Saxe Altenburg alone Slavic names have been traced for three hundred villages.
We hear dimly of various expeditions undertaken by Henry I. against these century-long rivals of the Germans. It was in the territory of the Dalemincians that he founded Meissen. On one occasion he advanced as far as Prague and compelled Wenceslaus of Bohemia to do him homage. Among his conquests, too, was Brennaburg, the present town of Brandenburg. These victories brought north Germany into subjection at least as far as the river Elbe.
The truce with the Magyars came to an end, and on Henry’s refusing to continue his tribute they renewed their attacks in 933. We hear of a successful battle fought against them in that year, and we know that Saxony was henceforth free from their invasions although Bavaria and Swabia were still to suffer for another generation.
Henry’s last undertaking was a war against the Danes. We only know that it was in a measure successful, and that a tract of land between the Eider and the Schlei was won for Germany.
That Henry’s renown had spread far beyond the confines of his own land is proved by the almost unseemly alacrity with which King Athelstan of England entered into his proposal of an alliance by marriage. Henry sought a bride for his son Otto, and asked for the sister of the English king. Athelstan sent not one but two of his sisters, and Edith, the elder of the princesses who had come for inspection, was chosen by Otto.
It has been intimated that the contemporary history writing for the time of Henry, as well as for that of Conrad, was scanty and insufficient. Most of the details of his reign have been preserved by Widukind, who lived under Otto the Great. Widukind’s chief source of information seems to have been oral tradition, and much that he relates has to be received with caution. Some statements are sorely in need of further explanation. One assertion that has given rise to endless surmises is to the effect that, at the close of his life, Henry had determined to go to Rome but was prevented by illness. Did he intend to go as a pilgrim or as a conqueror? Was the pope’s blessing or the imperial crown the goal of his ambition?
The reign of Otto the Great (936-973) may be roughly divided into three periods. During the first he tries to solve the old problem of how to reckon with the stem duchies. During the second he renews Conrad’s policy of relying on the Church, not, however, as its servant, but as its head. In the third we find him as emperor and as ruler, not only over the German Church but also over the Church of Rome. Like a second Charlemagne he unites Italy and Germany under his sway; his court, too, although less by his own efforts than by those of the distinguished women of his family, becomes a centre for the revival of letters, learning, and art.
Otto owed his throne partly to the designation of his father, partly also to the election by the nobles, which took place at Erfurt, and to the acclamation of the people.
The brilliant ceremony of enthronization which took place at Aix, shows to what a degree of unity and organization Henry I. had brought the kingdom. The nobles and vassals of the crown had been summoned from all German lands, and at Aix la Chapelle they did homage to Otto as Charles the Great’s successor and as king of the Franks. Otto had laid aside his Saxon garb, for it was a recognized principle that the king, from whatever stem he might be chosen, must live according to Frankish law and custom.
The coronation was performed by the three archbishops of Mayence of Treves and of Cologne in Charles the Great’s chapel, and the throne or marble chair which Otto ascended was the same on which his great predecessor had sat. It was used in turn for centuries by successive German sovereigns, and is still preserved.
In the feast which followed the ceremony at Aix the heads of the different stem duchies performed for the first time those menial services that for eight hundred years were to symbolize the submission due to royal authority. The offices of chamberlain and steward, cup-bearer and marshal, were performed by the Dukes of Lorraine, Franconia, Swabia, and Bavaria. This act was of great significance. By it, on the one hand, the dukes showed their respect for the king’s position; Otto, on the other, recognized the dukes as heads of their stems, and as second only in power to himself.
Scarcely was Otto seated on the throne than he was called upon to suppress a revolt of the Slavic peoples to the east of Saxony, and especially of the Bohemians, who had by this time formed themselves into a state. The border tribes in general were the redskins of Germany. They too had been dispossessed of their lands, they, too, were glad of any occasion for havoc and plunder.
The conduct of the war against the Slavonians was entrusted to Hermann Billung, who was made margrave or count of the Saxon March, but in whose hands so much power was placed that he was looked upon with envy and jealousy by the border nobles. The latter were in the habit of drawing tribute from the Slavonians and saw their interests threatened by Hermann’s measures, as also, later, by the Church Missions.
During Otto’s first years he was to be continually tried as by fire. The Hungarians renewed their attacks but were met by the young monarch in Franconia and driven back. But worse than all outward enemies were those in the king’s environment and in his own household.
Eberhard, duke of Franconia and brother of Conrad I., formerly so loyal to the royal house, had been guilty of a lawless act, inasmuch as he had taken upon himself to punish one of his Saxon vassals, a certain Bruning. He had gathered a band of followers and had attacked Bruning’s castle in Hessengan, killing its defenders and finally reducing the pile to ashes. Otto, who did not allow himself to be swayed by regard for any privileged person whatever in matters pertaining to justice, condemned Eberhard to a penalty which was to consist in furnishing horses to the worth of a hundred pounds of silver. His aiders and abettors were to undergo the humiliating punishment of walking a certain distance each with a dog upon his shoulders. The punishments of this time were as a rule significant. The hand that forged or that stole was cut off, the eye that lusted was put out, and the penalty of dog carrying seems to have been intended to betoken the brutal character of the undertaking that called down its infliction.
A fearful blow had been struck to Eberhard’s self-esteem, it was a duel to the death now between himself and Otto. He soon allied himself with Thankmar, the bastard brother of the king, who was chafing under Otto’s arbitrary disposal of certain Saxon estates to which he felt that he had a claim. A very distant one it would seem to us — they had belonged to the cousin of his mother Hatheburg, whose marriage with Henry I. the Church had declared illegal.
Conspiracy is a weed that grows apace if the ground be in any way favourable. Saxon nobles and others joined the malcontents, and Thankmar was soon able to attack a castle of Otto’s brother, Henry, near Lippstadt, and to carry off that prince as a prisoner. Thankmar then possessed himself of the Eresburg, on the Diemel, and entrenched himself there, but Otto marched up the hill leading to the fortress at the head of such an army that the garrison did not dare to resist him. The gates were opened and Thankmar fled to the church, where he was slain near the altar by a lance hurled through the window.
In the meantime a revolt had broken out in Bavaria, where the son of Duke Arnulf, who had died at this time (937), refused to do homage to the sorely oppressed king. But here too Otto was soon master of the situation. The young duke was banished, and Bavaria was given to a brother of Arnulf. Otto now took occasion to suppress some of the almost kingly privileges which the former duke had enjoyed. A new official, the palgrave, or count palatine — in this case a younger son of Arnulf — was to see that the royal rights were regarded, and the bishops were henceforth to be nominated by the king. Otto’s final move in the pacification of Bavaria was the arrangement of a marriage between his brother Henry and Judith, the sister of the duke who had just been dispossessed.
That same brother Henry, nevertheless, who, as we have seen, had been taken prisoner by Thankmar, and who had been handed over by the latter to Eberhard of Franconia, by whom he had been released, was plotting with his recent jailor against the king. Eberhard, indeed, on Thankmar’s death, had made an outward submission and profession of obedience, but it was not long before he was at the head of a new and more formidable rebellion. Duke Gilbert of Lorraine was soon won for the movement, and joined his troops to those of Henry. This combined army was met and defeated by Otto at Birten on the Rhine, and the result was that many strong places that had been in Henry’s hands at once surrendered. Henry himself, after retreating to Merseburg, which fell after a two months’ siege, escaped to Lorraine, where he and Gilbert began to negotiate with the French king, Louis.
Otto hurried from one scene of war to another; he was struggling with a hydra. After vainly besieging Gilbert in Chevremont he tried to negotiate with Eberhard of Franconia, sending to him Frederick, the Archbishop of Mayence. Frederick overstepped his authority, and made a peace which Otto was forced to repudiate. The archbishop, accompanied by a number of bishops, thereupon joined the rebels, quitting the royal camp at Breisach in such haste that their belongings were left behind. The deserters were welcomed by Eberhard and Gilbert, who by this time had joined forces and taken up their position at Andemach on the Rhine.
Otto never showed himself greater than in this emergency. He is related to have remarked to an avaricious noble who wished to make capital out of his king’s misfortunes, and to secure for himself the revenues of the abbey of Lauresheim: “It is written ‘thou shalt not throw a sanctuary to the dogs.’ If you, like the others, are going to desert me, the sooner the better!”
Soon enough the tables turned. One morning as Otto was mounting his horse to repair to church for matins, a messenger ran to meet him whose news changed the whole aspect of affairs. The counts Udo and Conrad Kurzbold, better known as Conrad the Red, had surprised Gilbert and Eberhard, who had remained with a few attendants on one bank of the Rhine, while the bulk of their army had crossed over to the other. Eberhard had attempted to defend himself but had at last fallen in the fray. Gilbert, and some of his followers, had thrown themselves into a boat which, being overloaded, had sunk in the rushing river.
After this crushing blow the rebellion languished, and soon all concerned returned to their allegiance and submitted to the light punishments which Otto decreed against them. The victory of Andernach secured the unity of Germany, for Gilbert had undoubtedly intended to make Lorraine into a separate kingdom, while Eberhard seems to have aimed at undoing the work he had once furthered, at wresting the crown from the Saxon house, and restoring it to the Franks.
Otto was now more powerful than any ruler over Germany had yet been. Bavaria had been subjected, Saxony was in his own hands, and Franconia and Lorraine were at his disposal. Over Lorraine Conrad the Bed, the hero of Andernach was made duke in 944, and four years later was united in marriage to the king’s own daughter. Franconia remained attached to the crown and, for the time, no new duke was appointed. Henry, the brother of Otto, was treated with the greatest leniency. He seems for a short time, previously to 944, to have been duke of Lorraine, but to have shown himself unworthy of the office. He entered into a new conspiracy, and actually plotted to take the king’s life.
The plan was betrayed and several persons who had been concerned in it were executed. Henry fled, but afterwards returned of his own accord and threw himself upon Otto’s mercy. He was sent to Ingelheim and kept in close confinement. After a while his prison became unbearable to him, and he escaped by the aid of a priest to Frankfort, where Otto was holding the Christmas festival. The scene that followed is famous.
Early on Christmas Day while Otto was in the Cathedral and the Christmas music was being sung, a barefooted pilgrim clad in hair-cloth fell on the ground before the king and begged from his inmost soul for pardon. It was Henry who thus humbled himself before his brother. He was taken back into favour in spite of all his sins, and this time the reconciliation was final. The brothers lived together henceforth in perfect harmony, and Henry performed many and great services. In 947 he was made Duke of Bavaria. He made a victorious expedition against the Hungarians and penetrated to the heart of the enemy’s country.
It had been the custom under the Carolingians for kings to associate their sons with them in the cares of government. Otto induced his nobles to declare his son, Liudolf, co-regent, and the young prince was wedded to Ida, daughter of Duke Hermann, of Swabia. In 948 Hermann died and Liudolf succeeded to Swabia. All of the duchies were now in the hands of Otto or of his immediate family.
Otto had raised the German Kingdom to an unknown pinnacle of greatness, and his influence began to be felt far out over Germany’s borders. In France he was the acknowledged arbiter between the king and a restless party of the nobles. A synod at Ingelheim, at which by Otto’s request a papal legate was present, threatened Count Hugo of Francia with the ban should he not return to his allegiance. It was to German interference that the French king, in 950, finally had to thank his crown.
The condition of Italy at this time was one of indescribable demoralization. Since the general downfall of the Carolingian Empire, in 888, there had been no less than twelve shadowy kings, almost all of whom had been arbitrarily deposed by one or another faction. Four of them were Burgundians, four Italians, three Germans, and one French.
About 930 King Hugo, a Burgundian, possessed the Italian throne, and even ventured to cast lusting eyes upon Rome. In order to strengthen his influence he wedded the most notorious, but also the most powerful, woman in Italy, a certain Masozia. She had been the concubine of Pope Sergius III., and had caused the fall and death of John X. Her favour had gained the papal throne for Leo VI. and for Stephen VIII. At last she had ventured to raise her own son by Sergius III., a youth of twenty, upon the chair of Peter. He took the name of John XI. But out of Marozia’s own womb an avenger arose in the person of Alberic, whose father had been a margrave of that name. He threw his mother and his half-brother, the Pope, into prison, and drove his stepfather away from Rome.
King Hugo’s son, Lothar, who was obliged to leave the lion’s share of the Italian Kingdom to Margrave Berengar of Ivrea, was wedded to a princess of Upper Burgundy, Adelaide, daughter of Rudolf II. Her brother, Conrad, had stood in close connection to Otto, and had spent years at his court. No wonder that the German King was interested in Adelaide’s fate, which, on the death of her husband, Lothar, in 950, promised to become tragic enough. Berengar, although acknowledged as their king by the majority of the Italian nobles, saw in her a possible rival, the more so as she had already gained the affections of the people. He strove to win her by fair means or by foul. He proposed a marriage with his own son, Adalbert, but, on Adelaide’s refusal, began against her a course of persecutions. She was finally made prisoner and kept in confinement first at Como and then in a dungeon at Garda.
The sufferings of the young queen aroused universal sympathy, especially in Germany, and it was a golden opportunity for Otto’s interference. He soon determined to go to war with Berengar, to free Adelaide, to win her hand, to take possession of the kingdom of Italy, and thus to pave the way to the imperial throne. The idea of this Italian expedition won favour with the nobles, and the summer of 951 witnessed eager preparations in every part of Germany. Liudolf of Swabia, Otto’s son, at this time committed the first of that series of offences against his father which were finally to lead to an open rupture. His army was first in the field, but he did not, as was fitting, await Otto’s commands before descending upon Italy. His expedition was a failure, and he was obliged to withdraw.
Otto himself soon after crossed the Brenner with an army well equipped and of rare material. His brothers Henry and Bruno went with him, also Duke Conrad of Lorraine and Frederick, Archbishop of Mayence, besides a grand array of followers. His chief aim and object, as Bishop rather of Verona expressly signified in a letter to Pope Agapetus, was to gain the imperial crown.
All Lombardy soon submitted to the Germans, and Berengar took to flight. Otto assumed the titles of King of the Lombards and King of the Italians. Election and coronation were indifferent to him; he considered it his inborn right to rule beyond the Alps.
Adelaide meanwhile had escaped from confinement by the aid of a priest and a waiting- woman, who had excavated a way out beneath the walls of her prison tower on the Garda Lake. She had taken refuge in the Castle of Canossa, whither Otto sent to beg her hand. Shortly afterwards Pavia witnessed the celebration of their nuptials.
So far Otto had known no check in his victorious career in Italy. But now Frederick of Mayence, who had been sent to Rome to come to terms about the imperial coronation, returned with news of evil omen. The Pope, wholly in Alberic’s power, refused to open the gates to the Teuton.
Otto seems to have chidden Frederick for not having better performed his mission. At any rate the archbishop, accompanied by Liudolf, who was jealous of favours shown to his uncle, Duke Henry of Bavaria, and who also chafed under the influence wielded by his new stepmother, Adelaide, left Pavia and hastened to spread disaffection in Saxony.
The two conspirators soon gained a powerful and unexpected ally. Otto had quitted Italy, leaving behind him his son-in-law, Conrad the Red, who had done such services in the former rebellion, to checkmate Berengar. Conrad, instead of crushing the ex-king of Italy, made peace with him on his own responsibility, a peace which Otto refused to ratify, although he later did of his own accord reinstate Berengar in Italy, making him do homage for the land, however, as for a fief of the German crown.
Conrad was deeply offended at the small regard paid for his mediation, and went over to the rebels. Liudolf by this time had thrown all restraints to the wind, for Adelaide had given birth to a son, and a rumour had reached him that his own rights as eldest born would be disregarded.
The rebellion began with a deep humiliation for Otto. He found himself in Mayence in the spring of 963 almost completely in the power of Liudolf, Conrad, and Frederick. They forced him to sign an agreement which was shameful and disadvantageous in the extreme. On regaining his liberty he declared it null and void.
Otto was most ably aided at this crisis by his repentant brother Henry. For two months they besieged Mayence together, but in the meantime a revolt had broken out in Henry’s own duchy of Bavaria. A scion of the old dynasty still lived — that Arnulf whom Otto had made Count Palatine. Around him a large party collected which had always regarded Henry as a usurper. Liudolf fled from Mayence to Bavaria, where he succeeded in making himself master of many strongholds and in driving Henry’s wife and children from the land. Otto hastened to oppose him.
The year was fraught with hardships. For three months Otto besieged Ratisbon without success, and at last withdrew to Saxony. The old baneful struggle of the parts against the whole, of local interests against the crown, had broken out anew. Southern Germany seemed already lost, and the royal ascendancy was fast sinking.
At this moment relief came in a manner least expected. The Hungarians took advantage of the civil war to pour their hordes once more across the borders. The rebel German princes tried to use this invasion for their own ends, and began treating with their country’s enemies. But by so doing they ruined their own cause. Enough national enthusiasm was left to enable Otto to raise a large army. Bavaria and Swabia soon returned to their allegiance, and it was not long before Conrad of Lorraine, and Frederick of Mayence made their submission. Liudolf, too, was subjected after a few more conflicts. As usual, the rebels were mildly treated. Swabia and Lorraine, indeed, were placed in other hands, but the deposed dukes were allowed to retain their liberty and their own personal estates.
The rebellion of the duchies was but the forerunner of other struggles. The Wends made an inroad into Saxony, and, although Hermann Billung drove them back for the moment, a stronger arm than his was needed to bring them into subjection. Otto was preparing fresh forces against them when a peremptory call came to him from the south. The Hungarians had overrun Bavaria, and single hordes were devastating Swabia. Never before had this plague infested the land in such numbers.
The Hungarians had formed a camp of huge proportions in the plain of the Lech near Augsburg. Ulrich, Augsburg’s bishop, was bravely holding the town against them when Otto and his army approached. With the king was the repentant Conrad, ex-duke of Lorraine, leading a force of Franks.
The battle on the Lech plains was bravely fought. Otto himself headed the charge with irresistible effect, while an unexpected attack on the German rear-guard was brilliantly repulsed by Conrad. The enemy was scattered like chaff before the wind, and their camp fell into Otto’s hands.
It was as victors that the Germans mustered their forces at evening, but their own losses had been severe, and many of their noblest had sunk to earth. Conrad, apparently desirous to atone for the past, had fought with a lion’s courage, but as he paused for rest and loosed his helmet an arrow struck him and pierced him through the neck. “A great hero, and the world was full of his fame,” says Widukind the chronicler.
The fleeing hordes of the enemy found death at every turn. Many were drowned in crossing rivers, others were slain by the inhabitants of the Bavarian villages.
Never was a more decisive battle fought. Never again did this fearful enemy ravage Western Europe. In course of time the Germans were able to push their boundary lines further and further towards the east, and the peace and security of the Bavarian East March, as it was called, laid the foundation for the power and influence of the later Austria.
The Hungarians soon gave up their nomad life. By the year 1000 they had founded their kingdom in the present Hungary, and they gradually became a settled and civilized people.
Otto left the Lech plains to hasten to Saxony, where his margraves were holding back the Wends. Before the year was ended he gained a brilliant though not thoroughly decisive victory. Not till five years later, not till three new expeditions had been sent against them, was the German rule re-established in these Slavic lands.
Siemens-Schuckert D.III Serial: 8341/17. Seen here is D.III 8341/17 in ex-works finish of stained fuselage, natural metal cowl and five-colour lozenge on wings, rudder and elevators. The wing lozenge was applied at 45° to the leading edge. The interplane struts were also wrapped in lozenge fabric, possibly as protection against the wood splintering.
Siemens-Schuckert type G (R.I) Serial: G.32/15 (R.1/15). Germany, May-August 1915. The experimental bomber, later it was renamed R.I and reserialled R.1/15. In July 1915 at least one flight made by Hohndorf Walter who was and test-pilot of Siemens-Schuckert Werke.
Although Siemens-Schuckert’s first incursion into the world of aviation was in 1907, the company actually started life back in 1847, when it manufactured telegraph equipment. It was known as Siemens-Halske OH before it merged with the Schuckert Werke and became the famous Siemens-Schuckert Company.
In 1907, the German General Staff approached the company with a view to building a ‘military’ non-rigid airship. The Type-M, as it was called, was completed but was not the success anticipated. This was followed by a much larger version that by all accounts was very successful, but for some unknown reason the project was dropped. Two years later the company was approached again, this time to build three aircraft, all to be powered by the 50-hp Argus four-cylinder water-cooled engine. After two years and three aircraft, which could only be described as mediocre at best, the company went back to its original business of electrical manufacture. During this time, however, the company created a section that investigated the development of aero engines, in particular the rotary model. This resulted in the appearance in 1914 of the Sh.I, a 90-hp, nine-cylinder rotary engine.
Then in 1914, with the outbreak of war, the German Government requested that all companies respond to the war effort. Siemens-Schuckert re-activated the aviation department under the control of Dr Walter Reichel, who was assisted by Dr Hugo Natalis and designer/pilots Franz and Bruno Steffen. The company’s first effort was a single-engined monoplane that had been constructed for Prince Friedrich Sigismund of Prussia, based on a design by Swedish aircraft builder Villehad Forssman. Two of the Siemens-Schuckert Bulldogs, as they were known, were built in 1915 and submitted to the Idflieg for testing. One of the aircraft was fitted with a 100-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.I rotary engine, the other with a 100-hp Mercedes S I. Both the aircraft were rejected on the grounds of poor performance and even worse handling qualities.
Not put off by the rejection, Siemens-Schuckert produced the B model designed by Franz Steffen. Designed and constructed as an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, the Siemens-Schuckert B was powered by a 100-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.I rotary engine which gave it a top speed of 95 mph. It had a wingspan of 40 ft 8 in and a fuselage length of 20 ft 4½ in. The wing spars were constructed of tubular steel, a new innovation for the time. The one and only model built was delivered to the Brieftauben Abteilung at Ostend (for testing purposes) at the request of the commanding officer. During one of the test flights the aircraft crashed and what was left of the usable parts were returned to the factory.
One of the types of aircraft that had been requested by the Government were bombers. Siemens-Schuckert responded by submitting two R-plane (Riesenflugzeug – giant aircraft) designs. Two of the company’s designers, Villehad Forssman and Bruno Steffen, based their designs on the Sikorsky-built four-engined bomber Ilia Mourumetz. Both men had been in Russia at the time the heavy bomber had been built, Forssman building airships and Steffen as a pilot serving on the Russian Front.
The first design by Forssman, who can best be described as a man of vision and vivid imagination, copied the Sikorsky configuration line for line. The Forssman R, as it was called, had four uncowled 110-hp Mercedes engines mounted on the lower wing, driving two-bladed propellers. The top speed of the aircraft is said to have been 115 mph, but there is a great deal of scepticism regarding this. The pilot’s cabin was enclosed and fitted with ample transparent panels, giving him an excellent view all around. The observer/gunner was not so fortunate: his position in a pulpit fitted on the nose was completely exposed. The 78 ft 9 in wingspan initially had only single struts fitted, but it was soon realised that additional struts, including diagonal ones, were required.
There were a number of continuing problems; when one was solved, more suddenly appeared. The aircraft was underpowered, and the aircraft had only been subjected to a couple of ground runs when the first test pilot refused to fly the aircraft, stating it was unstable. A second pilot, Leutnant Walter Höhndorf, was requested to fly the aircraft. On his first run the aircraft hopped into the air twice then went over on its nose. The aircraft was rebuilt, and despite its glossy, streamlined look it was riddled with structural weaknesses. After the accident no pilot could be found to fly the aircraft and it was placed in a hangar.
In an effort to save the reputation of the company, the Steffen brothers were approached to test fly the aircraft, which they did on condition that they were allowed to make certain modifications. This was agreed. Bruno Steffen was to fly the aircraft and five members of the Idflieg Acceptance Commission were invited to go along. Not surprisingly all five refused, and it was left to Bruno Steffen to fly the aircraft alone. The Idflieg acceptance specifications called for the aircraft to reach a height of 2,000 metres in 30 minutes while carrying a load of 1,000 kg and enough fuel to sustain a 4-hour flight.
The brothers installed a device that allowed all four throttle levers to be operated in unison. After examining the design drawings, Franz Steffen warned his brother that the fuselage was weak behind the cockpit and to be careful on take-off and landings. The flight in October 1915 was relatively uneventful and the Idflieg accepted the aircraft, but only for training purposes. Shortly after acceptance the aircraft broke its back due to vibration while the engines were being run up.
The second of the designs submitted was the Siemens-Schuckert SSW R.I. This had been designed by the Steffen brothers and given the designation SSW R.I 1/15 (the 15 referred to the year of manufacture) and was built at the SSW-Dynamowerk, Berlin. It was powered by three 150-hp Benz Bz.III engines turning two, twin-bladed propellers. Two of the engines were placed in the nose of the aircraft with their crankshafts facing aft; the third engine was mounted behind the gearbox on a lower level and facing forward. Each engine was connected to a common gearbox by means of a combination of leather-cone and centrifugal-key clutches. When the required number of revolutions was reached the centrifugal-key clutch engaged automatically, while the leather-cone clutch was disengaged manually.
The SSW R.I/15 had a wingspan of 91 ft 10 in and a fuselage length of 57 ft 5 in. It had a top speed of 68 mph, an operational range of 320 miles and an endurance of four hours. The evaluation of the aircraft was carried out on the Eastern Front because the threat from the air was considered to be less than that it would face on the Western Front, where the low-performance, low-flying bomber would be extremely vulnerable.
The SSW R.II 2/15 was the next model to appear, just three weeks after the first flight of the R.I. This would later make its appearance over the Western Front. It was the first of six aircraft contracted by Idflieg at a cost of 170,000 marks, without engines. The first model was powered by three 240-hp Maybach HS engines that were supplied by the Government. There were problems right from the outset as the engines were no more than modified airship engines and totally unfit for operational use. Consequently the aircraft were plagued with problems throughout their manufacture and operational time. Eventually common sense prevailed and the engines were replaced, initially by 220-hp Benz Bz.IV types and later by the 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa.
It was decided that the relative success of this new bomber justified the creation of two new units or Riesenflugzeugabteilungens (Rfa 500 & Rfa 501). These units were created, initially as part of an existing unit, and only as and when the aircraft came off the production line, and as can be appreciated, this happened very slowly. Only two of these units were created as there were never enough of the aircraft built to justify any more.
A third model appeared, the SSW R.III, and this was almost immediately sent to Rea at Döberitz together with the SSW R.I and R.II and assigned for training duties. The appearance of the SSW R.IV allowed the replacement of the R.I and R.IIs at Rfa 501.
There followed a number of variations up to SSW R.VII 7/15 with different wingspans and engines. All these models gave sterling service to the German Army and carried out numerous raids.
The fighter aircraft side of the company switched back to the monoplane design and produced the Siemens-Schuckert E.I. Powered by a 100-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.I rotary engine, the E.I had a top speed of 93 mph. It was of conventional construction, the box-type fuselage being covered in plywood with dope-painted fabric wings. With a wingspan of 32 ft 10 in, a fuselage length of 23 ft 3½ in, the aircraft had an endurance of 1½ hours. Armed with a single synchronised, fixed, forward-firing Spandau machine gun, twenty E.Is were ordered by the Army and delivered at the beginning of October 1915.
A second model was built at the beginning of 1916, the E.II. Powered by an in-line, water-cooled 120-hp Argus As.II engine, it was constructed using some of the usable parts recovered from the crashed Siemens-Schuckert B. The only model built crashed during tests while being flown by Franz Steffen, brother of Bruno Steffen, one of the company’s designers. This was followed by the E.III, which was just an E.I fitted with a 100-hp Oberursel rotary engine. Only six examples of this model were built.
A return to the biplane design resulted in the appearance of the Siemens-Schuckert D.D5. Only one model of this single-seater fighter was built. Powered by a 110-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.I rotary engine, the D.D5 bore more than a passing resemblance to the Type B. Passed to the Idflieg for evaluation, the D.D5 was rejected for its lack of handling and the poor visibility from the cockpit. Using the information gained from the evaluation, the Siemens-Schuckert Company set to work to produce another fighter. The Allies were enjoying success with their French Nieuport fighters and whenever one was captured, the aircraft was handed over to the German manufacturing companies to see if they could use any of the refinements built into the aircraft. The Siemens-Schuckert Company had recently received one and set to work copying it; the result was the Siemens-Schuckert D.I. The first test flight of this aircraft was by Bruno Steffen, whose brother Franz Steffen died in the crash of the Siemens-Schuckert B.
The aircraft was then passed to Idflieg for evaluation with the result that an order was placed for 150 of them. In November 1916 production started, but within weeks problems arose. It was nothing to do with the aircraft, but with the supply of the rotary engines, so it was decided to use the 110-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.I engine that had recently been developed by another branch of the company. This was a revolutionary engine, inasmuch as the crankcase rotated in one direction at 900 rpm and the crankshaft in the opposite direction at 900 rpm. This gave an engine speed of 1,800 rpm for a propeller speed of 900 rpm, which resulted in greater efficiency.
The engine was mounted within an open-fronted, horseshoe-shaped cowling with the lower half completely cutaway allowing exhaust fumes to freely escape. The fuselage was of a box-girder construction with four main longerons of spruce with plywood formers. It was covered with slab-sided plywood and doped fabric, with the exception of the foremost section that had metal panels in which large ventilation slits had been cut. Tail surfaces and aileron were made of steel tubing and covered in doped fabric.
The wings were staggered and the original French designed planform retained, although the four centre-section struts were vertical in both side and front views.
The problems with delivery of the engines improved slowly, but by mid-1917 other fighters had improved markedly, leaving the Siemens-Schuckert D.I way behind. So much so, in fact, that only ninety-five of the original order were completed before it was cancelled by the Army. The D.I ended up in training schools, although a number did see action on the Western Front and gave a good account of themselves. There was a D.Ia model that had a slightly larger wing area, and two D.Ibs with an improved Siemens-Halske Sh.I engine, none of which mounted to anything.
At the beginning of 1917, Siemens-Schuckert designers came up with a design for a triplane fighter that was powered by two 120-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.I high-compression engines. This unusual fighter had a nacelle situated between the wings, with ‘push-pull’ engines mounted fore and aft with the pilot sitting in the middle. The tail assembly, with twin rudders, was mounted on tubular outrigger booms. It was fitted with twin, synchronised, forward-firing machine guns. The Siemens-Schuckert D.DrI, as it was called, crashed on its maiden flight and no effort was made to rebuild it.
The natural successor to the D.I was the D.III. There were a number of D.II prototypes, but they only tested some of the ideas and theories that had appeared on the drawing board. Idflieg, impressed with the D.II prototypes and with the relative success of the D.I, made a pre-production order for twenty D.IIIs in December 1916. This was followed by a further order for thirty more in January 1917, but there was a proviso, and this was that there was to be continued development of a D.IV model and three prototypes were ordered.
During the construction of the D.III, two prototypes were built, the first being the Siemens-Schuckert D.III (Short). Each of the two had a tubby, rounded fuselage, but there were distinctive differences. The first model had a wingspan of 27 ft 10½ in and a fuselage length of 19 ft 8 in. The second, the D.III (long), had a wingspan of 29 ft 7 in and a fuselage length of 19 ft 8 in. Both the aircraft were fitted with the Siemens-Halske Sh.III engine. From these two prototypes came the added information that made the Siemens-Schuckert D.III one of the finest single-seat fighter aircraft in the German Army.
The D.III was powered by the eleven-cylinder 160-hp Siemens-Halske Sh.III engine, which was one of the most powerful engines available at the time and had a top speed of 112 mph. There were teething problems with the engine involving piston seizure. This manifested itself when the aircraft was supplied to Jagdstaffel 15 of Jagdgeschwader II. It was commanded by one of Germany’s most experienced pilots, Hauptmann Rudolph Berthold, who, despite the problems he and his fellow pilots were having, continued to support the aircraft. There were also opponents of the aircraft, among them Oberleutnant Hermann Göring, whom, one suspects, was hand-in-glove with his friend Anthony Fokker in trying to get the Idflieg to purchase Fokker aircraft.
An improved engine was fitted into the D.III and one of the aircraft, flown by Siemens test pilot Rodschinka, was taken to an unprecedented 26,586 feet in 36 minutes. The Siemens-Schuckert D.III was now looked upon totally differently and, because of its superb climbing ability, was used by Kampfeinsitzer Staffeln 4a, 4b, 5, 6 and 8 as interceptors. It is recorded that on one sortie, Oberleutnant Fritz Beckhardt shot down two Breguet B 14s while they were on a reconnaissance mission at a height of 23,000 feet.
The Siemens-Schuckert D.IV was produced in March 1918 with a redesigned upper wing, the lower half of the engine cowling cut away and cooling louvres cut into the propeller spinner. The maximum speed was increased to 118 mph and the climb rate increased. A total of 280 D.IVs were ordered, but not all the aircraft would be delivered before the war was over. Production of the aircraft was controlled by the rate of delivery of the engine, and that was at times painfully slow.
The D.IV had a wingspan of 27 ft 4½ in, a fuselage length of 18 ft 8½ in and a height of 9 ft 2½ in. It was armed with two synchronised, fixed, forward-firing Spandau machine guns.
The first deliveries of the Siemens-Schuckert D.IV went to the Marine Jagdgeschwader, which was under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Osterkamp, and Jasta 14. Later Jasta 22 and Kest 2 were to receive a small number of the aircraft, but a number of other Geschwaders, including the famed Richthofen Geschwader, did not.
Then, in March 1918, from the Siemens-Schuckert factory in Berlin came the SSW R.VIII, the largest aircraft in the world at the time. The R.VIII had a wingspan of 157 ft 6 in, a fuselage length of 70 ft 10 in and a height of 24 ft 3 in. It was powered by six 300-hp Bass & Selve BuS.IVa engines, which turned two tractor and two pusher propellers and gave the 35,000 lb aircraft a top speed of 77 mph. With a maximum operating ceiling of 13,124 ft, the SSW R.VIII had a range of 559 miles.
The aircraft was given a new designation of R.23, in line with other R-planes. The cockpit, unlike the previous SSW models, was open, giving the two pilots an excellent all-round view. The aircraft commander/observer had a fully enclosed cabin situated behind the cockpit, which was fully equipped with map table and navigation equipment. It also had a dorsal fin in which a ladder was fixed to enable the upper gunner get to his post. The aircraft was a revolution for the time, but unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your position, the war ended before the aircraft was completed. This also ended the building of the R.24, which was running alongside the R.23 and was three-quarters completed.
One Siemens aircraft that spent a great deal of time as a prototype was the Siemens-Schuckert D.IIe. It had started life as a D.II and was built with dual-girder wing spars and unbraced wings. It was later fitted with ‘I’-type interplane struts with no bracing. On tests it was found that the wings flexed alarmingly, and so it was returned to the factory for bracing cables to be added. After more tests it was returned to the factory for refurbishment to D.IV standards and sent to Geschwader II for evaluation tests. It was returned to the factory for modifications to be made and a new engine, the Siemens-Halske Sh.III, to be fitted. It was returned to Geschwader II in July 1918, where it stayed until the end of the war and is believed never to have seen action.
Three prototypes of the Siemens-Schuckert D.V appeared in August 1918, all with different types of wing bracing. The last of the three competed in the D-Types Competition at Aldershof.
A deviation from the biplane heralded the arrival of the Siemens-Schuckert D.VI. Designed to replace the D.IV, the D.V was a parasol fighter fitted with a jettisonable fuel tank beneath the fuselage. Powered by a Siemens-Halske Sh.IIIa engine which turned a four-bladed propeller, the D.V had a top speed of 137 mph and a climb rate of 1,200 feet per minute. It had a wingspan of 30 ft 9 in and a fuselage length of 21 ft 4 in. Only two of the aircraft were built, neither of which saw action, as they were not ready for testing until after the Armistice.
The Siemens-Schuckert Company was never a household name in aviation like Fokker, Dornier and Rumpler were, but they were, without doubt, one of the most innovative of all the aircraft manufacturers of the First World War. A perfect example of this was that between 1915 and 1918, not only did they build some of the finest aircraft, but they also developed a number of glider bombs that were the forerunner of today’s guided missile programme. In 1918, the company developed a 300 kg and 1,000 kg torpedogleiter (glider bomb) and trials were carried out from the Zeppelin L.35. Thankfully, none of the bombs were launched in anger, but they did give the world an insight of what was to come.
After the war, the company continued to make engines, but under the Treaty of Versailles they were restricted to low-powered engines for sporting aviation. Some years later the Bristol Company granted them a licence to produce the Bristol Jupiter engine, which eventually led to the creation of the Bramo engine. In 1939, the Siemens-Schuckert Company became part of the Bavarian Motorwerke – Flugmotorenwerke Brandenburg GmbH and faded into obscurity.
Dr Josef Sablatnig was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, and regarded as one of Germany’s ‘Old Eagles’. In 1903, he built his first aircraft, possibly a glider (there is no record of it ever having been flown), and deciding that there was more of a future for aviation in Germany, Josef Sablatnig moved to Berlin in 1910. That same year, he and six other aviators learned to fly on a Wright Biplane at Johannisthal, Berlin. In 1912 he entered the ‘Austrian Circuit’ race and won.
In 1913, Josef Sablatnig became a director of the Union Aircraft works at Tetlow, where he was responsible for developing the Bombhardt’s Arrow Biplane into the Union Arrow Biplane – an outstanding aircraft. During the next few years Josef Sablatnig, together with another pilot by the name of Walter Höhndorf, who later became a German fighter pilot and holder of the Order Pour le Mérite, flew the aircraft in a number of aerobatic competitions.
The exploits of these two intrepid aviators did not escape the attention of the Kaiser’s brother, Prince Heinrich, who invited Josef Sablatnig to accept German nationality. The Union Aircraft Firm ran into trouble early in 1915 and went into liquidation. Josef Sablatnig, now a nationalised German living in Berlin-Koepenick, decided to found his own company: Sablatnig Flugzeugbau GmbH.
The first aircraft to come out of the new factory was the Sablatnig SF.1. Powered by a 160-hp Mercedes D.III engine, the SF.1 was an unarmed, two-seat reconnaissance floatplane and was accepted by the Navy. Only the one was built. The long, sleek fuselage of the SF.1 was to become a characteristic of the Sablatnig aircraft that were to follow.
The SF.1 was quickly replaced by the SF.2, again unarmed, but this time fitted with a radio transmitter. The first six were delivered to the Navy between June and September 1916, and such were performance results that LFG and LVG began to produce the aircraft under licence. Seeing the potential of the seaplane, Josef Sablatnig started to explore the use of a heavy seaplane for escort duties. The result was the SF.3. Powered by a 220-hp Benz Bz.IV engine, the fuselage of the SF.3 deviated from the previous two models by having plywood covering instead of the usual fabric covering. In keeping with the CFT requirements, it was fitted with a machine gun for the observer and a radio transmitter. It was sent to the Seeflugzeug-Versuchs-Kommando or SVK (Seaplane Testing Centre) at Warnemünde for testing and evaluation, but its fate is unknown. One school of thought considers that it may have crashed during testing and no record of the event survived.
In the meantime, Sablatnig continued with developing the SF model and on 17 February 1917, delivered the Sablatnig SF.4 to the Navy. Armed with a single synchronised, fixed, forward-firing Spandau machine gun, only one of these aircraft was built, as it failed to make the grade when in competition with other seaplane manufacturers. The feedback from the tests laid the way open for the development of the SF.5. This was an improved version of the SF.2 and so successful was the aircraft that 101 were built and delivered to the Navy. This model carried no armament but was fitted with a radio transmitter.
What was rather strange was the fact that the Sablatnig factory in Berlin was in the Koepenickerstrasse, which was almost in the centre of the city. Even more unusual was the fact that the company, in addition to its own production, took over sub-contract work for Friedrichshafen. Sablatnig did, however, have a small dockyard at the Müggelsee for floatation tests. Efforts were made to acquire additional premises at Warnemünde, which were successful later in 1917.
The first of the landplanes made its appearance in 1917: the Sablatnig SF.6 (B.I). It was, in reality, an SF.2 with the floats replaced by an undercarriage, and was intended for training duties only.
The company reverted back to making seaplanes with the SF.7 and dispensed with the bracing wires, replacing them with ‘I’-type interplane struts. Three of these aircraft were built and accepted by the Navy in September 1917.
A second land model was produced at the end of 1917, the SF.C.I. A conventional two-seater, the C.I. was of wood and fabric construction and physically differed very little from the other two-seater aircraft manufactured by various companies. It was armed with One manually operated Parabellum machine gun mounted in the observer’s cockpit and was capable of carrying six 50 kg bombs. Only two were built, as the aircraft did not come up to the requirements of Idflieg.
A second C-model, the C.II, was built, incorporating the interplane ‘I’ struts that were a feature of the SF.7. It was powered by a 240-hp Maybach Mb.IV engine which gave it a top speed of 94 mph, but only the prototype was built.
In January 1918 came the Sablatnig SF.8. This was a dual-control seaplane designed and produced specifically as an instruction aircraft for flying schools. The SF.8 was sent to Warnemünde for intensive testing and passed, with the result that an additional forty were ordered. It is not known if all the aircraft were delivered, but at least twenty found their way onto the Navy’s inventory.
Sablatnig continued to try and develop a landplane without a great deal of success. The appearance, in the spring of 1918, of two Experimental C-types, both variants of the C.II aircraft, gave some hope but only the single models were ever built. A C.III was developed and was fitted with a large single wing, similar to that of the Fokker D.VII; again, only the one was built.
The need for bombers prompted Josef Sablatnig to produce a single-engine, two-seater night bomber, the Sablatnig N.I. A small number were produced during the latter half of 1918, but the end of the war put an end to any more production of aircraft by Sablatnig.
It is a sad irony that during the Second World War, Josef Sablatnig was arrested and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp for assisting Jewish people to escape from Germany. He died in Auschwitz.