Verdun – Death of All…

The German plans for Verdun appear to have entirely abandoned the idea of a breakthrough, Falkenhayn himself describing such a full-scale assault as a ‘doubtful operation … which is beyond our forces’ and which might lead to German forces being trapped in untenable salients that could be pounded from both flanks. Verdun was chosen as the objective since it was perceived both as a base from which the French could launch a potentially decisive offensive and because it had acquired an almost mystical significance during the Franco-Prussian War. Ironically, the Germans underrated their own fascination for the fortress city. The ever-aggressive General Charles Mangin noted that ‘Verdun has always exercised a singular fascination upon the German imagination, and its capture, which seemed relatively easy, could in itself be celebrated as a great victory in Germany and in neutral countries.’

On the French side the success of German heavy artillery in 1914 had convinced GQG’s theorists that fortresses were potential death-traps which might enable the enemy to isolate and capture large numbers of men. The capitulation of forts on the Eastern Front in 1915 appeared to further confirm the lessons of 1870 and Joffre had ordered the remaining forts to be stripped of their guns in late 1914 to reinforce the army artillery. The theory was that fortresses supported the defensive system but were too fragile to function as a strong-point upon which the entire system could succeed or fail. Placing valuable artillery in a position that the enemy could easily target seemed akin to placing too many eggs in one basket. General Herr protested that there was a difference between an isolated fortress and a fort in a defensive system but his memoranda were ignored. Herr’s problem was exacerbated by the relative inactivity seen in the Verdun sector since the Marne. With major assaults being planned elsewhere and the rumours of an attack assumed to presage a limited assault, GQG assigned Verdun territorial units and concentrated on offensive planning.

Oblivious to their unintended assistance from GQG, the Germans deployed vast quantities of equipment and ammunition and began to construct bomb-proof stollen (shelters) for the assault troops being moved into the line. Infantry units were given strict instructions not to push out ‘parallels of departure’ or Russian saps that might give away the on-going preparations for the offensive. Artillery units were moved forwards and carefully concealed. Most batteries were under orders to hold their fire until Operation Gericht had commenced so that the French would be surprised by the 306 field guns, 542 heavy guns and 152 minenwerfer directly behind the assault units and the 400 additional guns supporting the offensive on the flank. Entirely fooled by the German deception plan, the French artillery was outnumbered by a ratio of 4:1 and French military intelligence had identified only 70 gun emplacements before the battle. Most dangerously, they totally missed the larger guns assigned to smash the forts, including the 420mm and 380mm heavy howitzers; the latter could drop 40 shells a day on almost any target in the Verdun sector.

General Schnabel

In General Schnabel’s fire-plan, the 210mm batteries were assigned to pulverise the front line then place a curtain barrage to block any potential counter-attack as the leading assault units consolidated their hard-won objectives. Strong-points would be reduced by both the heavy guns and minenwerfers and the 150mm batteries would then be assigned to both counter-battery missions and to interdict the supply network and rear areas. ‘No line is to remain unbounded and no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel safe.’ The 150mm batteries assigned to counter-battery work would use zone-fire, deluging entire areas instead of trying to hit individual targets, adjusting rapidly with the aid of air observers, instead of relying on more precise methods of adjustment. This required substantially more ammunition but the use of asphyxiating and lachrymatory agents delivered by gas shell successfully enabled the German gunners to neutralise the French batteries. The lighter guns would move forwards as soon as the assault began so that the heavy guns could be shifted to new positions capable of covering the new front line. The Germans stocked 2. 5 million rounds alongside the batteries, and intended to fire the bulk of them in only 9½ hours on a 22-kilometre stretch of front before an infantry attack only 7 kilometres wide. It would be an unprecedented demonstration of the power of modern artillery.

The bombardment was delayed by poor weather but finally began on 21 February. It was initially general, with batteries concentrating on key objectives only after the French defensive communication system was judged to have been sufficiently disrupted. In the final stages of the fire-plan, patrols were filtered into the gaps between the main target zones to assess the remaining defences. A horrified French air observer saw no evidence of a gap in the carnage and reported that ‘there are gun batteries everywhere. They follow each other non-stop; the flames from their shells form an unbroken sheet.’ Another described the fire as ‘a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it is raining nothing but paving stones’. Fire jumped to the second line and continued on into the rear areas and out on to the flanks as the infantry advanced and the Germans surged forwards, only to halt as soon as they reached their primary objectives. They had been instructed not to push beyond these locations and new units moved forwards methodically to assault the second line; the General Staff had seen the effect of artillery barrages on attacks that were unsupported by counter-batteries and were wary of repeating what they saw as Gallic over-enthusiasm. ‘The mission of infantry units is generally as follows: to seize a part of the hostile fortified system on a front and to a depth which has been delimited in advance; and then to hold it against intense artillery fire, and resist hostile counter attacks.’ A note written by a staff officer in the same division (the 20th Bavarian Brigade) summarised the official view on initiative:

It is possible that the enemy situation may be such as to permit the attack to be continued beyond the line that has been designated, and to capture certain points which the subordinate may consider of secondary importance. Do not forget that our artillery will not be in condition, if progress is made beyond the designated line, to immediately execute a new preparation and to quickly support the operation … The decision made by a subordinate commander to extend the attack beyond the objective is a very serious one and should be the exception. Furthermore, the responsibility of the leader is affected, if a position which has been taken be retaken by the enemy, even though the adversary thus gains only a moral success.

The highly regulated approach to securing the first line of objectives (although this theoretically abandoned any chance of a coup de main) enabled the Germans to exploit along the flanks of the initial penetration of the defensive system. German units that secured the initial objectives instinctively sought out opportunities to assist other units still struggling on their flanks. The French defensive system was severely ruptured but the combination of inflexible assault timetables and the leadership and defensive innovation displayed by the redoubtable if doomed Colonel Driant, in the section of the line dominated by the Bois-de-Caures, bought the French enough time to stabilise the front line before the Germans could realise how close they had come to a breakthrough. Driant’s simple but effective tactic was to scatter his men among the shell-holes so that the German lifting barrage, designed to ‘lift’ just before the assault infantry swarmed over the defences, fell on his empty trench line and not on the men of his beleaguered command.

During the first stage of the Verdun offensive General Fayolle noted:

The Boches have captured the front-line trench and the support trench. How do they do it: all their attacks succeed … they knock over everything with a horrifying bombardment after concentrating superior means. Thereby they suppress the trenches, the supporting defences and the machine guns. But how do they cross the barrage? Probably their infantry infiltrate, and since there is no one left in the fire trenches they get in, and when they are there to get them out we need to have the same artillery superiority.

The effect of the German heavy bombardment, involving a rate of fire that the French simply could not match, soon earned the mordant nickname trommelfeuer (drumfire). An officer of the 243rd Infantry was stunned by the destruction: ‘by three o’clock in the afternoon, the section of the wood which we occupied which, in the morning, was completely covered in bushes, looked like the timber-yard of a sawmill; a little later, I had lost most of my men.’ Kronprinz Wilhelm was delighted by the apparent destruction but was quick to note the relatively low casualties inflicted during the bombardment:

The enemy, surprised by the annihilating volume of our fire, only shelled a few villages at random. At 5 p. m. our barrage jumped on to his second line, and the skirmishers and shock troops of all corps left their trenches. The material effect of our bombardment had been, as we discovered later, rather below our expectations, as the hostile defences in the wooded country were in many cases too well concealed; the moral effect was immense.

Mangin was rather less impressed with their initial moves in the battle:

The offensive of 21st February was both terrible and stingy at the same time; it was staged on too narrow a front, which while it widened out slightly, again contracted, in spite of the great array of artillery with which it was provided, and the limitless use of infantry in deep formations, it advanced only with great effort and did not know how to profit by the gaps which were in front of it on certain days. When it was decided to extend it to the left bank of the Meuse, it was too late; the defence had got a new hold on itself and had been organised.

As Mangin had noted, the first assaults were focused on the right bank of the Meuse and ignored the defensive positions on the left bank; for planning purposes, it was assumed that the counter-battery artillery would deal with any batteries flanking the main assault. Considering that the German plan was intended to maximise French casualties by retaining complete air and artillery dominance of the battlefield, the decision to leave the French batteries on the left bank almost completely unmolested by infantry seems to have been a major error in the planning for the first phase of the operation. As successive assaults went in, the obsolete but cunningly emplaced 155mm batteries on the left bank shrugged off the increasingly desperate attempts to silence them and poured fire into General von Zwehl’s VII Korps every time they recommenced their advance. In spite of a spirited defence and an overly methodical fire-plan, the Germans still drove deep. Their overwhelming superiority in both guns and tactics enabled them to consolidate most of their initial objectives but as soon as the French threw in reserves, they launched vigorous counter-attacks and casualties on both sides began to mount. What Mangin bitterly described as the age of ‘mechanical’ battle had begun.

After the under-garrisoned and ill-armed Fort Douaumont fell, isolated by a near-constant barrage that gradually drove the supporting units to positions from where they were unable to cover the entrances to the fort, the Germans commenced a series of remorseless assaults on positions on both banks of the Meuse. Stunned by the initial reverses, Joffre sacked all the officers he saw as responsible for the débâcle and assigned Pétain to command the sector. Colonel Driant’s tactical success with dispersed defences in the Bois-de-Caures during the first day of fighting was extended into a broader operational concept based upon ‘an advanced line of resistance’ consisting of forward outposts and observation positions backed up by ‘a principal line of resistance’ where localised reserves could gather and retake any lost positions with the assistance of attached artillery units. The concept of the easily identified defensive line was being aban-doned in the face of increasing firepower. Counter-battery and curtain barrages by the heavy artillery units delayed the enemy while creeping barrages supported counter-attacks.

Pétain, ably assisted by the slippery but brilliant Nivelle and the implacable Mangin, stabilised the Verdun sector by creating a position de barrage behind the front line, then using the old forts as armoured bastions in a defensive system that served as a protective zone in which the reserves could gather and launch counter-attacks. Unsurprisingly the artillery was seen as the key to this enhanced system and Pétain demanded additional artillery. The continuing carnage forced Joffre to confront the consequences of years of mismanagement at GQG. The French artillery was still outclassed and outranged by the Germans, giving Kronprinz Wilhelm a priceless advantage in a battle where artillery was the key to victory. The evidence was conclusive enough to convince Joffre, who demanded that 960 medium and 440 heavy guns should be produced as quickly as possible. Even with better weapons, French supplies were being brought along a narrow-gauge railway and the one forlorn, wreckage-strewn road into the salient and Army Group Centre could not hope to equal the near-continuous German barrage even if they wanted to. An American, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, asked about the rumble of thunder he heard as they approached the city and wondered if there was a storm coming. The driver shook his head in despair. ‘If it were thunder the noise would stop occasionally. The noise is constant. It’s Verdun.’

Pétain and his staff drafted a new artillery programme and it was disseminated in May 1916. The roles assigned to each type of artillery and their proportions were adjusted in recognition of the new realities revealed by the battles around Verdun. Divisions gained additional medium howitzers while all the 155mm howitzers and heavier, bunker-busting mortars went into the corps and army artillery groupes. Once again it was the Second Army’s training pamphlet that was circulated to the entire army as accepted doctrine, outlining advances in support, counter-preparation, communications, liaison, counter-battery techniques and the rapid concentration of fire from dispersed batteries. Pétain also set up a Centre of Artillery Studies to coordinate research into new technologies, techniques and doctrines and to disseminate the most effective approaches to artillery operations. The new programme changed production schedules and increased the French artillery regiments from 115 to 247: a radical increase in dedicated manpower at the very point at which the French were beginning to run out of fresh reserves.

Pétain took a personal interest in the activities of his hard-pressed gunners and often started meetings by asking corps liaison officers ‘What have your batteries being doing? We’ll discuss other points later.’ Coordination was to be their new watchword and they were instructed to ‘give the infantry the impression that [the artillery] is supporting them and that it is not dominated’. Such a policy increased artillery casualties but heartened the infantry, who were increasingly seeing the artillerymen as rear-area troops who had found a way to avoid genuine combat. One of the key innovations was the artillery offensive, a series of coordinated artillery raids on rear areas designed to disrupt movement and cause casualties. The Germans quickly noted the effectiveness of such tactics, observing that the French ‘began the flanking fire on the ravines and roads north of Douaumont that was to cause us such severe casualties’.

Even antiquated guns could make an impression if properly sited and, as noted above, the obsolete 155s placed to flank any German assault on the right bank of the Meuse inflicted horrific casualties during VII Korps’ attempts to breach that sector during March. The French guns were concealed among the fortress lines on the Bois Bourrus ridge and there was nothing that General von Zwehl’s gunners could do to prevent the French from slaughtering his men. The wounded streaming back to their start lines were described as ‘a vision of hell’ by one commander while another officer shouted ‘What … battalion? Is there such a thing!’

The next series of attacks focused on the left bank of the Meuse, centring on the grim slopes of the all-too-appropriately-named hill, Le Morte Homme. The terrain gave the attacking infantry considerable cover but the complex topography also favoured aggressive counter-attacks and the entire region was soon covered with blackened craters – one airman described the Verdun sector as appearing like ‘the humid skin of a monstrous toad’. The German preparatory bombardments were horrifying and one description of an attack on Côte 304 creates a strong impression of both the improvements to artillery preparation being made by the Germans and the stubborn tenacity of their Gallic opponents:

The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed; it had been filled up with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It really was a living hell. How could one ever survive such moments? We were deafened, dizzy and sick at heart. It is hard to imagine the torture we endured: our parched throats burned, we were thirsty, and the bombardment seemed endless …

Pétain’s new system was based upon building up a detailed record of all enemy artillery missions and battery locations and then centrally co-ordinating his forces to maximise his own guns’ disruption and destruction.20 Petain ensured that units spent only a few days in the front line before being relieved, the noria system, and this combination of fire-power and a realistic understanding of what the infantry could withstand gave the French the edge they needed. The army buckled but it did not collapse, even after the Germans launched eight frontal attacks on the defensive system around the heroic stronghold of Fort Vaux, finally taking its exhausted and parched garrison on 7 June. Undaunted, the Germans experimented with creating artillery corridors for assaults and the French found these extremely frustrating as it was difficult to predict the objective and resist the concentration of firepower. As Pétain noted, ‘In effect, ignorant of the points threatened by attack, the defenders are obliged to be strong everywhere and to place in the front line increased numbers of personnel who must be replaced often.’ While the new tactic was successful in increasing French casualties, it could not win the battle without forming part of a wider operational plan; it proved to be yet another example of the Germans’ inability to use their advanced tactics to achieve strategic objectives. In contrast, they ignored French logistics and throughout the battle ammunition and reinforcements flowed up the road from Bar-le–Duc to Verdun, endless lines of soldiers and 2, 000 tonnes of ammunition a day moving towards ‘the everlasting rumble of the guns’. For reasons that are still difficult to understand, neither the German artillery batteries nor the Luftstreitkräfte made a concerted effort to cut this vital artery and thus doomed both sides to a level of attrition that drained the fighting power of both armies.

Pétain, ‘the master of scientific tactics’, was promoted to command Army Group Centre in June and Robert Nivelle took over the defence of Verdun, ‘the kingdom of the guns’. A new German offensive, led by the elite Alpenkorps and supported by a three-day bombardment that utilised large quantities of phosgene (a new asphyxiating gas), understandably described by Mangin as ‘the most important and most massive attack that Verdun had to withstand’, greeted Nivelle’s appointment but the French artillery had reorganised and restructured since February. The precise German timetable of fire-missions and assaults that had worked so effectively in February fell apart in the face of a devastating series of counter-barrages that enabled French counter-attacks to retake all the key points. Another offensive in July ran straight into Mangin’s veteran gunners and was pushed back to its start line by a series of savage counter-attacks. Verdun had become an open ulcer that threatened to swallow Germans as fast as it slaughtered Frenchmen. The German phase of the battle had ground to a halt and now the French could demonstrate what they had learned in the first six months of fighting.

It would take time to fully reorganise the French army to suit Pétain’s vision of total war but most of the key concepts would be in place when their primary creator was placed in supreme command. The proof came when Nivelle and Mangin finally launched a successful attack to retake Fort Douaumont, after a number of costly but instructive failures, overwhelming the battered fortress with relentless fire from super-heavy guns – including two 400mm pieces which Joffre brusquely dismissed as being ‘chiefly for the diversion of the public and the press’. Nivelle dedicated enormous resources to the assault and a number of innovations helped the advancing French infantry. Every unit was thoroughly briefed on their objectives, a creeping barrage was used to keep the defenders under cover until the assault was on top of them and all communication wires were laid in 6-ft deep trenches to ensure continuous communications. The barrage moved 100 yards every 4 minutes, the 75s firing a hail of shrapnel only 70 yards ahead of the advancing infantry and the 400 heavy guns methodically pulverising the line with high explosive another 80 yards further forwards.

The supremely confident Mangin, described by one observer as literally licking his lips in anticipation,24 even briefed Allied journalists on the morning of the attack:

My 75s will engage the Boche trenches and I have an abundance of large calibre shells to smash every shelter … At H-hour, in two hours, the infantry will leave their own trenches and take the trenches before them; preceding them, at a distance of 70 or 80 metres, will be a blanket of 75 shells … When the creeping barrage catches up with it, the heavies will shift targets and hammer the reserves … We will continue towards the [German] reserves using the same method and they will be beaten by our troops … It will be an affair of at most a few hours …

One officer saw the lines of guns being deployed and understandably snarled at the belated arrival of France’s full military potential: ‘If only we had been thus provided at the beginning of the war, we should not now be fighting in France.’

Mangin ordered a continuous preparatory bombardment to prevent the Germans from improving their defences, a process he gleefully described as ‘not burying the hatchet’ and the Germans assumed that the French intended a series of localised attacks. One French unit even withdrew to avoid being hit by any shorts from their own side during the massive barrage and some audacious Mecklenburgers on the other side of no-man’s-land had the audacity to dash over and take cover in the abandoned French front line! The larger guns focused on Douaumont itself and as the 400mm shells began to smash into the fort’s already shattered carapace, the German garrison withdrew to the interior – then, after the water was exhausted, all but a few men abandoned the fortress entirely.

The bombardment started on 15 December and lasted three days; when the French guns at last fell silent the Germans emerged from their stollen and dashed to their assigned positions just as their own guns commenced counter-preparatory fire. To the amazement of the front-line infantry, there were no enemy troops in sight – but then Nivelle’s reserve of heavy guns commenced counter-battery fire against the freshly unmasked German batteries. The French 155mm guns pounded the German positions for an additional 36 hours, silencing or destroying 68 of the 158 batteries, before the creeping barrage began its relentless progress towards the main French objectives. The stunned Germans were completely over-whelmed as the French emerged from the morning mist and poured across the shell-scarred landscape, seizing positions that both sides had bitterly contested for months. In the foggy chaos Mangin and his staff soon lost contact with the assault regiments – a foretaste of disasters to come – but the key objectives were taken. French casualties were higher than hoped but the defenders suffered an even greater mauling and the Verdun sector was finally deemed to be secure.

Joffre’s influence faded during the battle for Verdun. His aggressive prewar doctrine had simply collapsed in a battle where superior artillery played the decisive role. Heavier guns, indirect fire and greater range gave the Germans a valuable advantage but their strategic errors allowed the French to survive, a victory of sorts. With Papa Joffre politely kicked upstairs, the Young Turks were dispersed to field commands and the artillery was finally able to take full advantage of the increasing numbers of heavy pieces being supplied. Planning began to focus around the artillery instead of the furia francese. The problem with such revolutions is that they occasionally lead to grand assumptions about the utility of the technical innovations forged during the collapse of the old system and tend to forget that the enemy has an even greater reason to monitor such changes.

Of the 800,000 casualties at Verdun, an estimated 70 percent were caused by artillery. The Germans launched two million shells during their opening bombardment—more than in any engagement in history to that point—and the two sides eventually fired between 40 and 60 million shells over the next ten months. Rumbles from the barrages were heard as far as 100 miles away, and soldiers described certain hills as being so heavily bombed that they gushed fire like volcanoes. Those lucky enough to survive were often left with severe shell shock from the constant drumroll of falling bombs. “I arrived there with 175 men,” wrote one Frenchman whose unit fell victim to a German artillery attack at Verdun. “I left with 34, several half mad…not replying anymore when I spoke to them.”

Victor of Verdun

Saxons to Vienna 1683

In 1683, so far, most men had discussed the great crisis of the day from a distance. Vienna was remote, beleaguered, and they pondered its probable fate in courts and townships between Madrid and Podolia. They continued to do so, but the meeting at Hollabrun signified that the Habsburg government was at length fusing together widely dispersed forces into a combined armament capable of relieving the city. When Sobieski and Lorraine and Waldeck met, it was as if the curtains had been pulled back, though only by an inch or two and for a moment, to disclose the possibility of an astonishing and decisive feat of arms. The Danube, the hills of the Wiener Wald, and the numbers of the enemy, had always appeared formidable obstacles to success. On closer inspection they still looked formidable, and yet it seemed possible to overcome and even to profit from them.

One other powerful force, from Saxony, had also been brought into the arena by this date.

Leopold’s ministers, when the Sultan’s army entered Hungary, sent Lamberg once more to John George in Dresden and to Frederick William in Berlin. They continued to think in terms of the defence of the Empire, but hoped that a satisfactory agreement with the greater German princes would free more Habsburg troops to deal with the Ottoman advance. A fresh negotiation began in Dresden, but was soon overshadowed by the Elector’s dispute with his Estates. They refused to pay for his increasingly numerous standing army, while he insisted on larger grants of supply. Then the dreadful news from Vienna reached them, to be followed hot-foot by Lorraine’s special envoy the Duke of Sachsen-Lauenburg, appealing for immediate aid.

John George’s military ardour was at once fired by the prospect of a catastrophe which his initiative might help to avert. He had in any case to face the threatening implications of a permanent Ottoman encampment within striking distance of the routes northwards from Moravia and Austria. But he also argued like his neighbours in Franconia: it happened that at the moment he was maintaining numerous troops ready for action; that his own subjects objected strongly to the cost; and that the Turkish assault on Austria made their employment in the Empire unlikely because the Empire would have to acquiesce in a peace dictated by France. If, and the if was important, the Habsburg lands paid the costs, an expedition to Vienna looked like the reasonable temporary solution of a serious problem. The crisis of 1683 in fact forced the Dresden government to use a tactic which was popular enough in the early history of German standing armies. In the next few years Saxon and Brandenburg and Hanoverian regiments, dispensable at home, would be hired out to fight for the Habsburgs in Hungary or for Venice in the Morea. These arrangements were often the result of the most exact and bitter bargaining; but John George proved on this occasion a somewhat careless politician.

He had taken his decision by 22 July without insisting on precise agreements about supply, or the command of his forces in the field. Sachsen-Lauenburg assured him that the Habsburg government was certain to satisfy him on the first point; the Elector vaguely felt that the second could cause little trouble because he himself was setting out at the head of his army. Lamberg wrote from Berlin to lay that he intended to come back immediately to Dresden, in order to complete detailed arrangements for the line of march through Bohemia, and the provisioning of the Saxon regiments. The Elector still had qualms that Frederick William of Brandenburg would secure more favourable terms from Leopold, and he therefore instructed his envoy Schutt to negotiate with the Habsburg statesmen at Passau. Schutt was to ask for the army’s pay and supply on the march and during the campaign, for winter quarters, and also for a solution of current frontier disputes affecting forestlands claimed by both Bohemia and Saxon mining enterprises; if possible, Saxony wanted territorial concessions. It sounded grasping enough, but all these requests were robbed of their menace by John George’s prior decision to go to Vienna.

This was the position on the last day of July, and the Elector left Dresden on 11th August.38 The bustle in and about the city was tremendous. On 4th, 5th and 6th, some 7,000 infantry and 3,250 horse and dragoons were mustered on a great meadow by the banks of the Elbe, to be ceremonially reviewed by John George on 7 August. A first-class artillery officer and expert on fortifications, Caspar Klengel, selected artillery from the Dresden arsenal: 16 guns, 2 petards, 87 carts, 351 horses and 187 men were inspected on the 10th. The Elector’s own household and staff, when the expedition set out, amounted to 344 persons. Meanwhile members of the Saxon Diet produced a final catalogue of their doubts, debts, and grievances, in a not so humble petition. Commissaries of the Saxon and Bohemian governments met in conference, they settled how fast the army should march and how often it should rest. The Saxons undertook to cross the Bohemian frontier on 13 August and the Austrians agreed in rather airy and imprecise terms to find the supplies which would be required in Bohemia.

The Saxon soldiers now began to move southwards. It was at once apparent that communications and commissariat were entirely inadequate in their own country. They must have put to one another the question, were conditions likely to improve across the border in Bohemia?

A bare recital of dates in the month of August, and of places passed, seems to record the steady progress of the expeditionary force. It went over the heights to Teplice, and reached Lovosice by 16 August. Here it divided into two main bodies. Most of the cavalry moved up the Elbe valley, crossed to the right bank of the tributary Ultava (the Moldau) and then rode over the plains east of Prague, arriving in the uplands of southern Bohemia by the last day of the month. Meanwhile, the infantry and the Elector himself reached Prague on the 20th, followed the obvious southerly route to Tabor, turned south-east, and joined the cavalry in the neighbourhood of Nová Bystrice. They were now half-way between Prague and Vienna.

This record is deceptive. Only feverish negotiation, and hard riding by the negotiators, kept the army moving forward. On the day John George entered Bohemia, and on the next day when he rode to Teplice, a whole sequence of envoys reached his headquarters: the tireless Lamberg still shuttling between Brandenburg, Saxony and Passau; the Bohemian commissioners, who now announced that they were not empowered to provide supplies gratis to the Saxon troops; and a messenger from Schutt, to state that his discussions at Passau had not led to an agreement. Indeed the Habsburg ministers turned down every one of John George’s demands: for winter quarters, supplies, the supreme command in the field, and territorial concessions of any kind. They simply continued to ask blandly for his help and of course, from their standpoint, they correctly assumed that the Elector would find it difficult to draw back. The Saxon counsellors conferred angrily at Teplice. The diary of one of the most influential, Bose, says that the case was argued for an immediate return to Dresden. Lamberg intervened, pleaded, and finally secured a fresh statement of Saxon grievances with which he hurried off to Passau. The Elector said that he was determined not to advance beyond Prague until he received a satisfactory answer. The paper in Lamberg’s hand repeated his original demands, but the envoy himself now saw that only one point was crucial: if the Habsburg ministers wanted the Saxon army, they must at least co-operate in finding the necessary food and forage; nor could the Saxons be expected to pay for these. The other demands could be evaded, as before, by sensible diplomatic inaction. The army moved on. The Elector delayed a few hours longer to enjoy the hunting and to admire the scenery.

What happened in Teplice happened in Prague. Schutt’s message had been followed at a slower pace by a polite letter from Leopold, echoing the negative response of his councillors. The reply to the Saxon ultimatum carried by Lamberg had not yet come in. Once again the Elector sent off a messenger, Friessen, who was to state that the Elector proposed to advance no farther than two days’ march beyond Prague unless he got a satisfactory answer. Prague, so the diarists report, was an enjoyable city, the entertainment given in the Duke of Sachsen-Lauenburg’s palace was excellent; the Elector went sightseeing but, once again, he finally moved forward on 22 August without waiting for Leopold’s reply.

He was still trying hard to find more money at home. He required his administration in Dresden to raise a loan of 200,000 thaler; they said, dryly, that it was out of the question. He required the Estates of Upper Lusatia to find him 30,000 thaler. In both cases he wanted actual currency, his great need of the moment, not credit. Household economies at the Dresden court were also discussed; but there is no evidence that any of the suggestions provided extra money. The Saxon army simply continued to take from the rural population what it needed to keep moving. Payment was no doubt the exception rather than the rule, and no doubt the requisitioning of enough supplies for 10,000 men looked a hopeless business on the mountainous threshold of Bohemia round Teplice. But a week later in the central plain, just after the harvest, it was easier. For this reason, the threat to withdraw became less and less pointed; and John George knew that while the Elector of Brandenburg still held back, the Elector of Bavaria and the King of Poland were hurrying forward to take part in what might prove a glorious and exciting crusade. He and his officers were now near enough the Danube to smell battle.

Farther to the east, the cavalry continued to advance. The men and baggage of the infantry and artillery, with the Elector’s staff, passed through Votice and got to Tabor on 27 August. At both towns, soothing assurances came in from the court at Passau. Leopold accepted the Saxon demand for the free consignment of supplies during the march through Habsburg territory to the theatre of war. He also offered supplies for the coming campaign, provided that these could ultimately be charged to the account of the Saxon government. He left John George in full command of his troops, though reserving his own ultimate authority and the possible claims of the King of Poland. In general terms he accepted the principle that the Saxons could claim winter quarters in Habsburg territory, if these should be judged necessary; but said not a word about an adjustment of the northern frontier in the Elector’s favour. Bose, in his entry for 25 August, noted that ‘the whole court expressed itself satisfied’, and it seems as if the Habsburg assurances were just generous enough at a moment of crisis to silence John George’s more exacting councillors. At Votice, also, another diarist recorded items of news beneath the notice of serious politicians: the 26th was a heavy thunderous day, four musketeers were court-martialled for plundering, and one was executed.

Not long afterwards the two parts of the Saxon army began to knit together again. From Nová Bystrice Bose and Flemming were sent to the Emperor, now at Linz. The Saxons started crossing into Austria on the day that John Sobieski and Lorraine entered Ober-Hollabrun fifty miles east of them. They marched steadily forward, through Waidhofen which belonged to Lamberg’s family, and through Horn which belonged to Count Hoya. The troops camped in the open, and the Elector quartered comfortably in the residences of these great landlords; from the windows of the palace at Horn it was possible to survey the whole encampment of the Saxon army on 2 September. On the 3rd the men rested, and then made their way to the Danube. They reached Krems on 6 September. The last few days had passed without incident, although there was considerable nervousness about the alleged marauding of the Poles, with whom the Saxons were coming into contact for the first time. For one night most of John George’s regiments quartered on an island in the stream of the Danube. The Bavarians and Franconians were already over on the right bank of the river. The Poles were coming up on the left, farther downstream. The Saxons, in fact, now merged into the large and rapidly expanding army of relief, one of its best organised contingents.

The Saxon Mars and his Force: The Saxon Army during the Reign of John George III 1680 – 1691 (Century of the Soldier) Paperback – March 4, 2020 by Alexander Querengässer (Author)

This is the first detailed study of the origins of the standing Saxon army. Created by elector John George III (r. 1680-1691), it quickly won its laurels in the battle of Vienna (1683) and later in campaigns against the Ottomans and the French. This book gives a broad analysis on this army, dealing with topics like finances and organisation, uniforms, tactics and an overview of its campaigns.

Rumpler C IV

This Rumpler C. IV is a later-production model without propeller spinner. It wears standard factory camou? age enhanced with red/ white/black (German national colors) markings on the fuselage, wheel covers, wing struts, and nose, making it more colorful than most Rumplers.

The excellent Rumplers were a common sight in the skies of Europe throughout World War I. They were among the highest-flying reconnaissance machines to serve during that conflict.

Since 1915 the Rumpler Flugzeugwerke had provided the German army with numerous two-seat aircraft, both armed and unarmed. The firm’s C I was a masterpiece of aeronautical engineering that debuted in 1915 and soldiered on at the front lines three years later. Toward the end of the war Dr. Edmund Rumpler decided to update his long-lived design with one better suited for long-range reconnaissance work. The new version, the C IV, was a departure from earlier conceptions. A two-bay bi- plane, it possessed slightly swept, highly efficient wings constructed of wood and fabric. The fuselage was also highly streamlined and mounted a pointed spinner on the propeller hub. The tail surfaces had also been revised and lost the triangular shape that was a Rumpler trademark. But more important, this craft was fitted with an excellent Mercedes D IVa engine, which gave it plenty of power at all altitudes.

The Rumpler C IV appeared at the front in February 1917 and was strikingly successful. It was one of the few aircraft that could routinely reach altitudes of 20,000 feet at speeds of 100 miles per hour. Consequently, Rumplers were considered among the most difficult German aircraft to shoot down. They were also ruggedly constructed and could absorb great damage. That fall work on an even better version was commenced, and the C VII emerged that winter. Externally, it was almost indistinguishable from the C IV but was powered by a high-compression Maybach Mb IV engine. This plane functioned as a high-altitude long-range reconnaissance platform. An even more highly specialized form, the Rubild (Rumpler photographic) also materialized. It was a stripped-down C VII fitted with heaters and oxygen equipment for the crew. Thus rendered, it easily reached unprecedented altitudes of 24,000 feet, where no Allied fighters could follow. The exemplary Rumpler ma- chines continued serving with distinction until the war’s end.

1917 Rumpler C.VII

Rumpler C. IV to C. VII

The C. IV, the second of Dr. Edmund Rumpler’s C type designs to go into large-scale production, was preceded by the generally similar C. III, seventy-five of which were recorded in service in February 1917- The C. III was a 1916 design, powered by a 220 h. p. Benz Bz. IV. When the more powerful Mercedes D. IVa became available it was developed into the C. IV, which was one of the most efficient, as well as most elegant, German 2-seaters to appear on the Western Front. It had the staggered, sweptback wings of `libellule’ planform that characterised subsequent Rumpler C types, and its horizontal tail surfaces were of `wing-nut’ shape. The fuselage was reasonably well streamlined, with attention paid to nose-entry in the neat cowling of the 260 h. p. D. IVa engine and the small conical spinner over the propeller hub. In place of the small, comma-type rudder of the C. III, the C. IV’s vertical tail surfaces were of the triangular fin and plain rudder form used on the earlier C. I. The Rumpler C. IV carried the normal 2-seater armament of the period, i. e. a forward-firing synchronised Spandau gun and a ring-mounted Parabellum. The reconnaissance cameras were aimed through a trap in the floor of the rear cockpit. Light `nuisance’ raids were often undertaken, with a small load usually consisting of four 25 kg. (55 lb.) bombs on underwing racks. The C. IV had an excellent performance for an aeroplane in its class, especially at high altitude; it could climb to 5,000 m. (16,404 ft.) in 38 minutes, and at its maximum altitude was still fast enough to elude Allied fighters. Rumpler C. IV’s saw service in Italy and Palestine as well as on the Western Front; they were built by the Bayerische Rumpler- Werke and Pfalz Flugzeugwerke, those built by the latter concern having linked double ailerons.

The Rumpler C. V was a variant of the C. III airframe fitted with a Mercedes D. IVa, but apparently it did not go into production. There is no record of a C. VI, the next production version being the C. VII, which appeared late in 1917. The C. VII had a 240 h. p. Maybach Mb. IV engine which, although of a lower nominal rating, had a higher compression ratio than the Mercedes D. IVa that enabled it to maintain its output at greater heights. The C. VII was slightly smaller than the C. IV; it was built in two standard forms, the long-range recon¬ naissance version with radio equipment and a normal 2-gun armament and the C. VII (Rubild). In the latter version the front gun was dispensed with, and instead the aircraft carried additional photographic gear and oxygen breathing apparatus for the crew members, who were also pro¬ vided with electrically heated flying suits. These assets were extremely necessary, for the C. VII (Rubild) could fly to, and maintain its speed at, even greater heights than those reached by the C. IV. Service ceiling of the C. VII (Rubild) was 7,300 m. (23,950 ft.), which it could reach in 50 minutes. At heights in the region of 20,000 ft. (6,000 m.) it could fly as fast as such Allied fighters as the S. E. 5a. Both the Rumpler C. IV and C. VII remained in German Air Force service until the Armistice.

Rumpler C. IV of the Imperial German Military Aviation Service, late 1917. Engine: One 260 h. p. Mercedes D. IVa water-cooled in-line. Span: 41 ft. 6 3/8 in. (12.66 m.). Length: 27 ft. 7 1/8 in. (8.41 m.). Height: 10 ft. 8 in. (3.25 m.). Takeoff weight: 3,373 lb. (1,530 kg.). Maximum speed: 106.3 m. p. h. (171 km./hr.) at 1,640 ft. (500 m.). Operational ceiling: 20,997 ft. (6,400 m.). Endurance: 3 hr. 30 min.

Flugzeugabwehrkanone auf Panzer

Flakpanzer 38(t) auf Selbstfahrlafette 38(t) Ausf M (Sd Kfz 140)

During the autumn of 1943, Hitler approved the development of a 3.7cm Flakpanzer IV, but refused permission for the construction of the already available 2cm Vierlings FlaK auf pz Kpfw IV (2cm Quadruple AA Mounting on AFV IV). On 15 October 1943, because of the urgent need for a Flakpanzer, Hitler agreed to a makeshift solution which could be produced immediately on the basis of the Selbstfahrlafette 38(t). 150 Flakpanzer 38(t) were ordered, and were to be produced until the heavier Flakpanzer IV became available early in 1944. This vehicle was demonstrated to Hitler on 16 December 1943. Lack of firepower was a major drawback. The last ten vehicles of the order were used for the production of 15cm s1G33/2 Sf. 2cm FlaK38 with all-round traverse was mounted in the rear fighting compartment. A new superstructure was provided, the upper part of which could be folded down to allow easier access to the weapon and permit traverse at low elevation. 

The threat of aerial attack during World War II was constant, but for the Germans, the danger increased steadily during the course of the war as the once-powerful Luftwaffe lost control of the skies. Long-ranging and heavily armed Allied fighters could wreak havoc on German armored formations long before their tank guns were useful, and even the heaviest armor was of little use against 250- and 500-pound bombs.

Not surprisingly, then, the German military sought to equip their units with specialized antiaircraft, or FlaK, vehicles. FlaK is derived from Flugzeugabwehrkanone, or aircraft defense cannon.

Initially, these vehicles were based on soft-skinned half-tracks, but in time the increased mobility offered by fully tracked vehicles led to the introduction of the Flakpanzers, or antiaircraft tanks.

The need to counter Allied air power, especially close air support which in 1943 destroyed many of the 9,357 AFVs lost by German armed forces (losses in 1942 were 3,301), highlighted the need for a Panzer Regiment equipped with a suitable armoured, fully tracked anti-aircraft vehicle. Once more, production of the Panzers took priority and in October 1943 Hitler halted the development of a PzKpfw IV chassis-based Flakpanzer, preferring instead that based on the chassis of the PzKpfw 38 (t). The result was the 20mm Flak 38-armed Flakpanzer 38 (SdKfz 140), which dramatically lacked firepower; 87 examples were produced in 1943 and 54 in 1944. Production of the first, real Flakpanzer on the PzKpfw IV chassis (the most suitable for carrying heavier weapons) started only in July 1944; the first attempt was the Flakpanzer IV ‘Mobelwagen’, at first equipped with the 20mm, four-barrelled Flakvierling 38/1 and subsequently armed with the 37mm Flak 43. Since this solution proved unsatisfactory, a new 20mm, four-barrelled Flakvierling 38/1 on a turret mount- equipped Flakpanzer IV ‘Wirbelwind’ was made by conversion of the PzKpfw IV tank bodies sent back for refitting. This too was undergunned, and so the 37mm Flak 43-armed ‘Ostwind’ version was subsequently produced. Production was always limited, with 205 examples of the ‘Mobelwagen’ in 1944 plus 35 more in 1945, 100 examples of the ‘Wirbelwind’ in 1944 plus 6 others in 1945, and 15 examples of the ‘Ostwind’ produced in 1944, plus 28 in 1945. The low rates of production seems to have luckily matched the low rate of losses; only 91 Flakpanzer of all types were lost in 1944 plus another 22 in January 1945. On 15 March 1945 there were still 159 Flakpanzer in service – 97 on the Eastern Front, 41 on the Western Front and 21 in Italy.

2 cm Flakvierling auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen IV

In May 1943, it was requested that Krupp develop a Flakpanzer featuring a quadruple 2 cm antiaircraft gun (Flakvierling) mounted on a Panzer IV chassis. This vehicle was to be issued to Panzer units operating the Panzer IV in order to provide organic antiaircraft protection from a vehicle with parts commonality with the units’ tanks.

The vehicle’s superstructure would consist of an open-top box with hinged double-wall sides of 12 mm armor. The sides were engineered such that crewmen on the inside could lower the sides, allowing the FlaK gun a 360-degree traverse as well as permitting it to engage ground targets.

The pilot vehicle was completed in September 1943, ahead of schedule. The vehicle was driven six and a half hours to Kummersdorf for testing, which was uneventful.

General Guderian was satisfied that the vehicle met the requirements of the Panzer troops, and in October series production was scheduled to begin in April 1944 at a pace of twenty per month.

However, in December 1943, the Panzerkommission decided to abandon this vehicle and instead pursue development of a vehicle armed with the 3.7 cm FlaK 43. The planned series production was canceled, and the single trial 2 cm Flakvierling auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen IV was rearmed with a 3.7 cm FlaK 43.

3.7cm Flak auf Fahrgestell Pz.Kpfw IV (sf) (Sd.Kfz. 161/3) Möbelwagen – late
Note the armored plates with flat profile – late version

Flakpanzerkampfwagen IV “Möbelwagen”

The decision that was made to abandon the quad 20 mm mount Flakpanzerkampfwagen in favor of a single 3.7 cm mount appears to have originated with Hitler himself.

In a January 1944 meeting the decision was announced that per a demand from Hitler, the interim Flakpanzer was to be armed not with the 2 cm quad mount, but rather with the 3.7 cm FlaK 43.

In order to expedite development, the 2 cm Flakvierling auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen IV was modified to become the pilot for the new vehicle.

The quad mount was removed, as was its leveling frame, and in its place the 3.7 cm FlaK installed. The mount chosen was the standard 3.7 cm FlaK 43, with a shortened right-side gun shield and other minor modifications. By shortening the right-side gun shield, it became possible for the mount to traverse 360 degrees even without lowering the sides of the vehicle.

The folding sides of the vehicle had been modified when the vehicle was rearmed. Those sides had been shortened by 250 mm.

Per their February contract, Deutsche Eisenwerke AG Werk Stahlindustrie began production of one hundred of the new vehicles on chassis provided by Krupp-Grusonwerk and superstructure from Krupp-Essen, with the initial delivery being in March 1944. Production was to be at the rate of twenty per month.

The first forty-five vehicles had double wall folding platforms, first of 12 mm and later of 10 mm plate. After these were completed, the balance of the 240 Möbelwagens constructed had superstructure sides made of single-thickness 25 mm plates. The 25 mm-thick folding platforms were manufactured by a new contractor, Deutsche Rohrenwerke.

Troops dubbed the new vehicle “Möbelwagen” as its slab sides resembled those of a moving van. The Möbelwagen began to be issued to troops for training in April 1944, and was sent into combat in June.

While the Möbelwagen had from the outset been intended as an interim vehicles, delays in production of the Ostwind meant that additional production contracts for the Möbelwagen were issued. By the time Möbelwagen production ended in April 1945, 243 units had been produced.

Flakpanzer IV/3.7cm FlaK Ostwind I

From March 1944 the “leichte Flakpanzer (light AA tank) mit 3.7 cm Flak 43 auf Pz Kw IV Ausf J”, known as “Ostwind’; (East Wind), was produced by Deutsche Eisenwerke. As in the Whirlwind the crew was now housed in a strongly armoured (25mm all round) rotating turret. The combat weight with a seven-man crew and 416 rounds of ammunition was 25 tons. Forty of these vehicles were built. The Ostwind was also capable of engaging ground targets and served with the AA platoons of Panzer divisions until the end of the war. As with the other Flakpanzers this open-topped relatively tall vehicle was only an expedient.

On 18 August 1944, an order for 100 Ostwind (east wind) was placed, after successful trials had been held in July. Replacing the Wirbelwind, Ostwind I provided the Panzer troops with the more effective 3.7cm FlaK43. Both Ostwind I and the Möbelwagen were to be replaced by Kugelblitz, but because of delays, only two Kugelblitz were produced, and seven of the chassis were used to produce Ostwind I. While the Wirbelwind was built upon unchanged Panzer IV repair chassis, the Ostwind was built upon a changed superstructure of the Panzer IV which was built especially for the Ostwind.

For the Ostwind only factory fresh vehicles were used, except for the prototype. A six-sided open-topped turret was mounted, in place of the normal turret, on converted Pz Kpfw IV chassis. The turret could be traversed 360° to bring fast, effective fire on air or ground targets. Issued to the Flugabwehrzug (AA platoons) of Panzer regiments in Panzer divisions. Even Count von Seherr-Thoss, the designer of the Ostwind, doesn’t know exactly how many Ostwind were produced (although it probably was in the range of about 30 vehicles). We do know that some test vehicles saw troop trials in September 1944, but by the end of that year the production facilities were being moved constantly to keep them one step ahead of the Allied advance. Ostwind production Jentz (Panzer Tracts 12) refers to a 1st April 1945 report that six vehicles (completed March 1945), intended for Fla-Pz.Kp.z.b.V., were available for issue at Bielefld but does not say whether they were actually issued, let alone saw combat. Terlisten (Nuts & Bolts 13) gives the figure as seven but is also unclear on which unit received them. He does mention the production facility moving to Teplitz-Schoenau in January 1945 and speculates that if they did see action, it is likely that they did so on the Ostfront in this area. Seven Ostwind were produced in March 1945. s. Pz abt. 507 had some Ostwinds in 1945.

The only information I know so far is that sPzAbt. 507 received a few or at least one of them at the end of the war. But at that time they haven’t been a sPzAbt. anymore, but were reorganized to a PzJgAbt, if I remember correctly. There is one photo taken at Nove Benatky, which probably shows one of them. Possibly at that time they might have been part of KG Milowice. The Ostwind destroyed in Nove Beatky belonged to the Kgr. Milowitz indeed. This Kgr. was made up from the garrison of the Military area Milovice and trainees and instructors of a Panzerjaegerchule which was located there. Personal of sPzAbt 507 (redesignated into PzAbt 507) was among them too.

Flakpanzer IV/ 2cm FlaK Wirbelwind

Karl Heinz Prinz, the Kommandeur of II./SS-PzRgt 12. and Karl Wilhelm Krause from the Flakzug of II./SS-PzRgt 12, who invented FlaK-Panzer IV “Wirbelwind”. The plans for this vehicle were brought to Hitler by Max Wünsche and then it was decided to build it in series.

The design for an open-topped, nine-sided turret to house the Flakvierling was completed by June 7, 1944.

The Wirbelwind was developed as a mount for anti-aircraft guns on Pz Kpfw IV chassis which had been returned from the front for major overhaul. They were intended to supplement production of the Möbelwagen.

Interestingly, to produce the vehicle, the army did not turn to industry, but rather set up their own shop to produce the Flakpanzers Located in Schlesien and known as the Kommando Ostbau-Sagan, the facility would produce the vehicles utilizing rebuilt Panzer IV chassis and the new specialized turrets, which were produced by Deutsche-Rohrenwerk.

The turret was removed from normal Pz Kpfw IV and replaced by an open-topped turret, in which the Flakvierling 38 was mounted. Some vehicles had only 50mm frontal armour since early Ausf F to G were converted for use as the chassis.

A further advantage offered by the Wirbelwind was the protected position of the crew. The Möbelwagen crew was totally exposed to ground and strafing fire when in firing order, while the Wirbelwind’s crew was protected from small-arms fire as well as shell fragments from all sides except directly above. Beginning in September 1944, four Wirbelwind (as well as four Möbelwagen) were issued to Flakpanzer platoon.

In the autumn of 1944, production of the Wirbelwind ceased, since the 2cm Flakvierling was not proving so effective as the 3.7cm FlaK.

Inventor of the Flakpanzer

Karl Wilhelm Krause: He was a SS-Hauptscharfuehrer and later SS-Untersturmfuehrer in SS-Panzer Regiment 12. He had the idea for mounting the Flakvierling 38 (four barrelled 20mm antiaircraft gun) onto a Panzer IV chassis. He presented the idea to his regimental commander Max Wünsche, and Wünsche showed Hitler the plans when the two celebrated their mutual birthday on April 20, 1944. Hitler then ordered the design to be mass produced, making Krause the inventor of the Wirbelwind Flakpanzer. It was with his homemade prototypes of this vehicle that Krause achieved his success against Allied aircraft.

“Kugelblitz” Leichter Flakpanzer IV mit 3 cm Mk 103 als Zwiling Waffe

By January 1944, the Allies had achieved air superiority, and the need for a Flakpanzer capable of delivering a high rate of accurate antiaircraft fire was reaching desperate proportions.

As an interim solution, it was proposed to mount the 3 cm FlaK gun with turret, originally developed for use on U-boats, on an unmodified Panzer IV chassis.

Further investigation showed that this was impractical, but, with the concept still appealing, Daimler-Benz was contracted to design a similar new turret as well as the alterations to the Panzer IV chassis necessary to accommodate it.

The new turret, which somewhat resembled an oversized aircraft ball turret, mounted twin 3 cm M103 belt-fed aircraft autocannons.

The new turret required a larger turret ring, and accordingly a Tiger I turret ring was incorporated in the chassis, which required relocating the driver’s and radio operator’s hatches.

In June 1944 three hundred of the vehicles, which were named Kugelblitz, were ordered, with Krupp to produce the chassis and Deutsche Roehrenwerke the superstructure. The first five vehicles were scheduled to be assembled by Stahlindustrie in September 1944, with production to ramp up thereafter.

As was the case with many of Germany’s armament programs, and in September when the first vehicles were to be rolling off the production line, instead there was a meeting which forecast that the first two vehicles would not be completed until October. Those two would be built by Daimler-Benz, with Stahlindustrie beginning production the next month.

Further delays led to the estimate of initial Stahlindustrie production to be changed again, to February 1945.

As Germany came to its knees, in February 1945 the decision was made to move Kubelblitz production to Kommando Ostbau. Records indicate that two of the vehicles were actually produced in March.

German WWI U-boats I

Germany was one of the last of the major powers to begin a submarine-building programme for her navy. In many respects she followed the British model, developing and experimenting with new submarine designs rather than putting them into full production and then discovering that there were operational or constructional problems. While the British intended to use the submarine to defend bases and the coastline, the German navy’s intention was to use them as an offensive arm.

The key battle area would be the North Sea. This meant that any submarine deployed by the Germans would have to have a good operational range, the ability to remain at sea in the challenging winter months and a good surface speed, along with a high level of reliability.

It was not until February 1905 that the German navy awarded the first contract to build a submarine to the Germania Yard at Kiel. U-1 would be a 238-ton vessel with a kerosene engine and a single 45 cm bow torpedo-tube. One of the problems was that the kerosene created clouds of white smoke that could be seen for miles. Nevertheless, U-1 was finished in December 1906, and in the meantime a second and larger submarine had been commissioned to be built at the Imperial Dockyard at Danzig – U-2. In August 1907 two more slightly larger submarines, U-3 and U-4, were also ordered. It transpired that U-1 was unable to meet the operational requirements of the German navy, and the engine was not reliable enough.

The German navy was looking for a vessel that had a 2,000-nautical-mile surface endurance, a speed of 10.5 knots underwater, a surface speed of 15 knots, four torpedo tubes, two bow tubes and the ability to supply a crew of twenty with seventy-two hours’ air supply. Although the next twelve submarines were built with these specifications in mind, they did not fulfil them.

By 1912 it was still considered to be practicable only for the submarines to be out operationally for five days, working no more than 300 nautical miles from their base. In effect this meant they could operate on the eastern side of England and just into the English Channel from Heligoland.

The German’s first submarine casualty took place on 9 August 1914, when U-15 was rammed and sunk by HMS Birmingham. U-13 had been due to return from patrol on 12 August, but she failed to appear, in all probability having struck a German mine.

The German submarines had more success the following month when on the morning of 22 September U-9 sank three British cruisers, HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue. She also managed to sink the cruiser HMS Hawk on 15 October.

Technically, the U-19 Class of German submarine was an enormous step forward. It had a diesel engine, 50 cm torpedo tubes; it was much larger and longer and it also had six torpedo tubes. This type of vessel would provide the blueprint for many of the German submarines up to U-116.

Later on in the war larger submarines were ordered by the German navy, but many of these vessels were never completed. Those that were completed were often named after early German submarine heroes. U-140, for example, was named after Kapitän-leutnant Weddigen, who had commanded U-9 in 1914 but had been killed in action in U-29.

The Germans also deployed mercantile submarines, notably Deutschland (U-155). She was a blockade runner carrying cargo to and from the United States. She made two trips in 1916. Bremen accompanied her on the second trip but never arrived. A third, Oldenburg, was converted into a cruiser U-boat before she was completed. Ultimately Deutschland was also converted, with a pair of bow torpedo tubes and a pair of 15 cm guns.

Later in the war an improved version of this submarine cruiser was proposed, with six torpedo tubes and heavier guns. UD-1 was started but never completed.

When the Germans overran parts of Belgium in 1914 they acquired Bruges and Zeebrugge, both of which would be ideal submarine bases and, of course, closer to the proposed areas of operation. The Germans decided to introduce smaller coastal submarines. These were ordered in November 1914 and came into service at the beginning of 1915. They were known as Type UB submarines, just 88 ft 7 in. long, with a displacement of 127 tons and a pair of torpedo tubes. The idea was that they would be built in sections, transported by rail and then assembled at their base. The first was UB-1, which would operate in the Adriatic. The Type UB-3 came into service during the 1917–18 period. It was much larger: 182 ft long, a displacement of 520 tons and five torpedo tubes. These were such a success that they were to prove to be the blueprint upon which the Germans would design their Type VII U-boats for World War Two.

The Type UB submarines were designed for coastal operations. A smaller, Type UC, of which there were two variants, was also designed as minelayers. These too were transported by rail for final assembly, but the early ones had no means of offence or defence, although later models had torpedo tubes.

The British captured UC-5 and made a careful examination of the wreck of UC-2. This helped them enormously in unravelling German mining strategy and allowed the British to modify their own E Class submarines as minelayers.

There were also smaller Type UE ocean-going minelayers that had torpedo tubes. The later submarines in this series could operate off the United States coastline. A further Type UF coastal submarine was also planned. This was similar to UB-2 but would have four or five 50 cm torpedo tubes, but the Germans did not manage to complete any of these before the end of the war.

German WWI U-boats II

At the beginning of World War One the Germans had around twenty operational U-boats working with the High Seas Fleet. Initially they were deployed as a defensive screen; however, within days an ambitious plan was hatched to launch an attack on the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. This was the operation in which U-15 was lost. U-5 and U-9 turned back because of engine problems, and U-18, although it managed to penetrate Scapa Flow, was sighted and sunk on 23 November 1914. Overall the German U-boats had lost 20% of their strength without claiming a single kill.

September 1914 had been a more promising month: U-21, commanded by Otto Hersing, had sunk the British light cruiser, HMS Pathfinder. He was to become a U-boat ace, launching twenty-one war patrols over a three-year period in which he sank thirty-six ships, including two battleships. As we have already seen, U-19 had claimed the three British destroyers off the Hook of Holland in September.

On 20 October 1914 an event took place that was to set the scene or terms of engagement for both world wars. Off southern Norway U-17 engaged the British steamer, SS Glitra. Kapitän-leutnant Feldkirchner boarded the vessel to inspect the cargo, after which he allowed the crew to board lifeboats, and then he sank the steamer.

On 26 October the pattern continued when Kapitän-leutnant Schneider on U-24 torpedoed SS Admiral Ganteaume without warning in the Dover Strait. This was the first time that a merchant vessel had ever been attacked in this way. Henceforth merchant vessels would become the prime target in attempts to wreck the economy of a wartime foe.

The significance of these two events was not lost on either the British or the Germans. The British had already mounted a blockade of Germany at a distance. Now the Germans felt confident enough to be able to launch their own counter blockade. Had they been able to maintain this blockade throughout the war perhaps the Allied victory would have been compromised.

By the end of 1914 the Germans had lost five U-boats, but had sunk ten merchant vessels and eight warships. On 18 February 1915, unrestricted U-boat warfare was introduced by the Germans. Henceforth any vessel found around the British Isles would be sunk without warning. Deciding whether a vessel was truly neutral was at the discretion of the U-boat captain.

The Germans lost Weddigen in March 1915 when U-29 was rammed by the British battleship HMS Dreadnought. His vessel was lost with all hands.

One of the most notorious submarine incidents took place on 7 May 1915. Kapitän-leutnant Schwieger, commanding U-29, fired a torpedo at RMS Lusitania to the south of Ireland. She sank in eighteen minutes and 1,200 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Controversy still rages around the loss of the vessel. She was registered as part of the British Fleet Reserve, she was in a war zone and arguably she was carrying munitions. However, such was the storm of protest from neutral America at the loss of her civilians that the German submarines were now ordered to ignore passenger liners.

On 19 August 1915, there was a similar but less well-known incident. Kapitän-leutnant Schneider (U-24), believing RMS Arabic to be a troop transport, sank her. But among the forty-four dead were three Americans. The Germans feared a backlash from the Americans, and as a consequence, on 20 September 1915, the U-boats were withdrawn from British waters, and for a while the primary area of operations became the Mediterranean.

By the end of 1915 the Germans had lost twenty U-boats, but had claimed 855,000 tons of shipping. The UC minelayers had claimed another ninety-four vessels. However, on 24 March 1916, UB-29, commanded by Oberleutnant Pustkuchen, sank the French cross-channel ferry, The Sussex, which had been mistaken for a minelayer. Eighty people were killed, among them twenty-five Americans. There was another enormous diplomatic row, and this time the Germans withdrew all of their vessels on 24 April.

For the Allies the losses were beginning to be serious, and new counter-measures were needed. Up to this point, with depth charges still under development, a submarine could only be destroyed by ramming it or hitting it while it was on the surface. The British now created the Q-ship.

As far as the U-boat was concerned, the Q-ship would look like a tramp steamer, but in reality it was armed with guns and torpedoes, and its cargo was wood or cork, in order to make it almost unsinkable. The Germans discovered to their cost that these Q-ships were incredibly dangerous. U-36 was sunk by HMS Prince Charles on 24 July 1915. Less than a month later U-29 was sunk by HMS Baralong. One of the hardest-fought engagements between a Q-ship and a U-boat took place on 8 August 1917, when an eight-hour battle took place between UC-71 and HMS Dunraven. In all, Q-ships managed to destroy fourteen U-boats and damage sixty others. Twenty-seven Q ships were lost.

In October 1916 U-boats returned to British waters, and in that month alone they sank 337,000 tons, and between November 1916 and January 1917 another 961,000 tons. In February 1917 a further 520,000 tons were sunk. U-boat successes steadily continued, reaching a peak in April 1917, when 860,000 tons were sunk.

With the USA finally declaring war on Germany in April 1917, the numbers of potential merchant victims soared. In the period May 1917 to November 1919, 1,134 convoys, consisting of 16,693 merchant vessels, made their way back and forth across the Atlantic. This new convoy system would lead directly to the defeat of Germany: she simply could not stop the flood of munitions, supplies and men. The tide had certainly begun to turn against the German U-boat threat.

According to the Armistice the 176 operational German submarines were handed over between November 1918 and April 1919. The German navy had started the war with twenty-eight U-boats; 344 had been commissioned and 226 were under construction when the war ended. The Germans had sunk over twelve million tons of shipping, or 5,000 ships. Seven submarine commanders, headed by Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (450,000 tons) topped the list. The U-boats had been seen to be a powerful, though not a decisive, weapon of war. The 176 operational U-boats handed over to the British were evaluated, stripped, parcelled out to Allies or scrapped. Germany was then prohibited from building or possessing U-boats.

U-Boat Threat 1918 Part I

The first imperative was to staunch the losses, and convoy was the principal instrument. To Admiral William Sims, who commanded American naval forces in European waters, a convoy ‘seemed to be a rather limping, halting procession. The speed of a convoy was the speed of its slowest ship … The whole mass was sprawled over the sea in most ungainly fashion: twenty or thirty ships, with spaces of nine hundred or a thousand yards stretching between them, took up not far from ten square miles of the ocean’s surface’. Yet on to the maelstrom of Allied shipping movements convoy imposed an order that Sims likened to the trans-continental regularity of the US railroads. The system’s nerve centre lay in London, where an enormous map, accessed by ladders, covered one wall of the Admiralty’s convoy room: a paper ship marked each convoy, and circles the suspected positions of the U-boats. As merchantmen converged on Britain from across the globe, they formed up at assembly points. Those from the Mediterranean gathered at Gibraltar, which was the busiest point of the entire network: on one day in November 1917 117 ocean-going vessels lying at anchor. Steamers from the Cape, East Asia, and Australasia met at Dakar; those from Panama, the Gulf of Mexico, and the southern USA at Hampton Roads; and those from the middle Atlantic American States and Canada at New York, whence they proceeded to Sydney (Cape Breton Island) or Halifax (Nova Scotia). Convoys normally left New York at eight-day intervals, cruisers or old pre-Dreadnought battleships accompanying them to the edge of the danger zone around the British Isles, where a destroyer escort took over for the final leg. Faster and slower vessels followed different routes, and the Admiralty planned for the North Atlantic convoys’ destination to alternate between Britain’s west-coast and east-coast ports, the latter reached via the Channel. In the reverse direction, vessels from the Channel and east coast assembled off Devonport or Falmouth; those from the west coast at Milford Haven, Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, or Queenstown (Cobh) in Ireland. Originally convoys averaged twenty vessels, but as experience grew so did the numbers: thirty became commonplace, and convoy HN73 leaving New York in June 1918 numbered forty-seven.

Convoy emptied the seas. Before its introduction, merchant ships funnelling in singly through the thinly patrolled approach cones to Britain’s western coasts had been easier to detect. In contrast, in Churchill’s words:

the sea is so vast that the difference between the size of a convoy and the size of a single ship shrinks in comparison almost to insignificance. There was in fact very nearly as good a chance of a convoy of forty ships in close order slipping unperceived between the patrolling U-Boats as there was for a single ship; and each time this happened forty ships escaped instead of one.

Of 219 Atlantic convoys sailing between October and December 1917 only thirty-nine were even sighted: and this not only because of the ocean’s immensity, but also because shipping could now be better managed. The German Admiralty’s espionage network in Britain failed to ascertain the routes and schedules, and by mid-1918 British counterintelligence had broken it up. Few merchant ships yet had powerful wireless apparatus, but most warships did, and the Admiralty communicated with the convoy commanders to re-route their charges away from danger. Its convoy room was the clearing house for reports of U-boats, gathered from sightings by ships and – increasingly – aircraft, but above all from the surprisingly frequent moments when the submarines broke their isolation by radioing each other or their bases. The Allies’ direction-finding equipment rarely gave a precise enough location for the submarine to be attacked, but it did indicate vicinities to avoid, and frequently the messages – which might include a U-boat’s bearings – could be decrypted. Hence the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Division had plentiful information for its daily briefings, and redirecting convoys may have done as much as anything to save cargoes and lives.

Even if a U-boat did locate a convoy, the chances of a successful strike were small. The submarines were still an infant technology. Their radius of action was short, only a handful in 1918 being able to operate much beyond the British Isles. Rather than submarines proper they were submersibles. They could remain below for only a few hours before resurfacing to recharge their batteries, unless they could halt and sit on the bottom, which was possible only in shallower waters such as the Channel and the Irish Sea – in the Atlantic the pressure would crush them. They had two sets of engines: diesel for travel (at up to 15 mph) on the surface, and electric for travel (at up to 8 mph) beneath. When cruising to and from their killing grounds they were generally surfaced, and when surfaced they were most vulnerable, especially in fine weather, when visibility was unhindered. Once they were sighted, a single shot could pierce their hulls. Whereas a contest between a submarine and an isolated merchant ship was stacked against the latter, against a convoy escorted by destroyers the odds were reversed.

For the final stage into harbour a convoy zigzagged in formation, arranged in columns with the destroyers on its flanks, steaming at the highest speed it could muster. At night its lights were extinguished. Normally the destroyers parted company with an outward convoy at the edge of the danger zone, only promptly to rendezvous with an inward one, thus operating continuously though sorely trying their captains, several of whom broke under the strain. Yet the destroyers needed to be worked hard, as they were the vital anti-submarine weapon. Shallow in draught so that torpedoes would pass under them, they were fast (up to fifty knots) and could accelerate quickly. As well as 4- to 5-inch guns, they carried depth charges: canisters packed with high explosive that water pressure detonated. If one exploded within a hundred feet of a U-boat it was likely to destroy it or force it to surface. The Royal Navy pioneered depth charges during the war, and whereas in 1917 destroyers typically carried three or four each, by summer 1918 they carried thirty or more, as well as hoists that would throw them well out from the ship. In 1916 the British used 100 depth charges a month; in 1917, 200; and in 1918, 500 (although in 1942, by comparison, 1,700).

One consequence of convoy was that submarines attempted many fewer sinkings by gunfire, which had been their preferred method.16 Losses to submarine-laid mines also diminished; partly because the Admiralty re-routed convoys; partly because casualties among German mine-laying submarines had been very high indeed, no fewer than thirty-six being destroyed in 1917; and partly because minesweeping improved. In addition, from late 1917 all larger British merchant ships were fitted with the ‘Otter’ – a mine cable cutting device akin to the ‘paravane’ used by warships – although their captains did not always use it. This left sinking by torpedo, but torpedoes were bulky and expensive and U-boats typically carried only eight to twelve, their captains being advised to limit themselves to one hit per victim. Moreover, before firing successfully a submarine commander had first to take up position and aim, preferably from as close as 300 feet in order to inflict most damage by targeting the engine room. As a submarine’s torpedo tubes were located at its bow and stern, it had to fire from a point at right angles to the merchantman, whose high speed and direction changes obscured its likely ‘mean’ forward course to the point where it and the torpedo might make contact. Aiming was a highly skilled art, practised in the most stressful of circumstances, and the torpedo’s wake – a broad and distinctive foaming white line – would betray its originator’s position. Hence a U-boat could risk only one or two shots against a convoy, or might prefer simply to track it in the hope of picking off stragglers. Convoy losses proved extremely low, and the Admiralty’s statistician (a seconded railwayman, George Beharrel) quantified them. In August to October 1917 the loss rate among convoyed ships was 0.58 per cent, compared with a non-convoyed rate of 7.37 per cent. Even if a convoyed merchant ship were hit, the accompanying vessels might well salvage it or at least take off the crew, and inhibit U-boat practices such as taking the master and chief engineer captive. Against a form of warfare that relied on terror, convoy offered psychological reinforcement.

By early 1918, 90 per cent of the vessels sailing the Atlantic were convoyed, and more than half of Britain’s total overseas trade. Yet a major reason why sinkings continued high was that the system remained incomplete and the U-boats found the chinks in it, 85 per cent of the losses being independents. One weak point was the mid-Atlantic islands – Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verdes – where new longer-range ‘U-cruisers’ could operate, and the Germans extended their sink-without-warning regime in winter 1917/18. The prime targets were grain ships from the river Plate, and in response the British introduced a convoy service direct from Rio. A second weak point, the Mediterranean, was more difficult to deal with. In early 1918 losses there were rising, and the British First Sea Lord regarded conditions as ‘very critical’. The Mediterranean seaways were vital for Allied operations in Palestine, the Balkans, and Italy; for France to ferry troops from Africa; for Italy to import cereals and coal; and for Britain to bring supplies from Australasia and Asia without going via the Cape of Good Hope. None the less, the Cape route had become the norm and the shipping ministry estimated that restoring through-voyages from Suez to Gibraltar could free up the equivalent of forty steamers. Yet the Mediterranean’s narrowness and shallowness made it a happy hunting ground for the U-boats. In October 1917 fourteen Austro-Hungarian and thirty-two German submarines were stationed in the Austrian bases at Pola and Cattaro on the Adriatic, and four more German submarines at Constantinople. During the whole of 1917, only two Mediterranean U-boats were destroyed, and during 1918 Mediterranean sinkings averaged a quarter to a third of total Allied shipping losses. Through-convoys ran between Gibraltar and Egypt from October 1917, but the heaviest traffic plied the Western Mediterranean, and key routes such as those from Gibraltar to Genoa and to Bizerta had to wait until the spring to be organized. Yet even once the system was operating, Mediterranean loss rates averaged more than twice those for convoys as a whole, and in early 1918 shipping was so short that many units at Salonika were receiving only half their needs. Part of the problem was that the Mediterranean was a poor relation, its convoys having fewer and older escort vessels than those in northern waters and including auxiliaries such as converted trawlers. Moreover, the multiplicity of ports of call on both shores required a complex, criss-cross pattern of routes. Whereas Britain (with increasing American assistance) managed the Atlantic convoys, in the Mediterranean much greater international co-operation was called for, but not always forthcoming, Italy’s navy conducting almost no escort duty outside its coastal waters. Conversely, fourteen Japanese destroyers that had arrived in 1917 (in return for secret Allied pledges to support Tokyo’s claims to Germany’s island colonies in the North Pacific) proved indispensable as troopship escorts.

Even larger losses than in the Mediterranean occurred round Britain’s coasts. In response to the convoys’ introduction the U-boats shifted their attention from the Atlantic towards the Irish Sea and English Channel, and between May to July 1917 and November 1917 to January 1918 the proportions of sinkings in European waters occurring within ten miles of land rose from 17.7 to 62.8 per cent. The change had advantages for the Allies. Ships attacked inshore were easier to salvage and their crews more likely to be rescued. Moreover, the vessels were smaller: the German Admiralty advising U-boats that none the less these targets were worthwhile, as every loss would accentuate the Allies’ overall stringency. Trout being absent, minnows would do. Yet the coastal seas presented a formidable organizational challenge, as they contained not only ocean-going steamers but also shoals of short-haul vessels, and the British Isles were caught in a pincer between the German High Seas Fleet submarines operating from North Sea bases in the Heligoland Bight and the Flanders U-boats stationed at Bruges and exiting via canals to Ostend and Zeebrugge. The U-boats and U-cruisers used in Flanders were smaller, cheaper, and quicker to build, and they sank more tonnage each than did their High Seas Fleet counterparts.

Convoy was the essential element in the package that would frustrate the U-boats in these new theatres, but it competed for resources with other methods, some of dubious effectiveness. ‘Dazzle painting’, for example, the brainchild of Lt-Cdr Norman Wilkinson, entailed decorating ships in bewildering geometrical patterns. By October 1918, 2,719 British merchant ships had been painted, as well as 251 warships, and other Allied merchant fleets followed suit. Merchant skippers found it reassuring, but whether it really confused the U-boats’ aim remained inconclusive, and captured submarine crews said they failed to see its purpose. Other measures included the Jarrow smoke-box, which created an obscuring cloud by expelling boiler smoke at sea level rather than through the funnel; and a scheme of masthead look-outs whereby larger British merchantmen would train and pay bonuses to crew members who kept watch from the crow’s nest. More ambitious and expensive was DAMS (defensive arming of merchant ships), which entailed fitting cannon on to merchantmen and training their crews to use them (the American merchant navy, in contrast, placed service personnel on merchant vessels). DAMS ranked low among the Admiralty’s priorities, but the numbers of armed ships more than doubled, from 1,749 in September 1916 to 4,203 by November 1918. Yet although cannon were effective against surfaced U-boats, they were useless against submerged torpedo attacks, and altogether 1,784 armed British merchantmen went down.

The Admiralty’s answer to the U-boats, however, was not purely defensive. Indeed, part of the reason for the admirals’ lack of enthusiasm for convoy (at least in certain quarters) was the equivalent of the supposed offensive bias among the generals on land: the opinion that the navy’s proper function was to go out and take aggressive action. American naval thinking was similar. Allied strategy in 1918 therefore combined convoy with more pro-active measures, the latter facilitated by convoy’s success in easing the pressure. This approach achieved results, although concentrating all available vessels as convoy escorts would have done so more quickly and cheaply.

In the Mediterranean the centrepiece of the offensive strategy was an attempt to block the 45-mile exit from the Adriatic via the Straits of Otranto. Initially the Otranto ‘barrage’ had consisted of a courageous line of fishing vessels with nets, inadequately supported by naval patrols. On 15 May 1917 the Austrians attacked it, destroying fourteen drifters out of forty-seven. In 1918 the Allies tried to build a fixed barrier using special steel wire from Britain, but the wire arrived slowly and the new barrage was completed only in September. On the other hand, the Austrians attempted on 9–10 June to repeat their previous raid, but they withdrew after an Italian torpedo boat sank one of their most modern battleships, the Szent István. This success helped the Allies to station an enormous force of some 30 destroyers, 15 submarines, 18 trawlers with hydrophones, and over 1,000 drifters, as well as 36 American ‘submarine chasers’ – 110-feet-long wooden vessels equipped with new listening devices and depth charges. Between them the nets and barrage ships destroyed two submarines, and frightened and disheartened the crews of others. And yet, according to the Allies’ estimates, passages through the Straits fell by only 30 per cent. What really turned the corner in the Mediterranean was a reorganization and extension of the convoys in June, allowing more vessels to be escorted along a total of eighteen routes. Sinkings and tonnage losses fell permanently to about half the previous average, and of the fourteen U-boats destroyed in the Mediterranean during 1918, eight fell victim to convoy escorts. The Otranto barrage diverted forces from a convoy system that was losing 2 cent of the vessels it protected to a scheme that swallowed up resources to little purpose. Reviewing the situation in October 1918, Commodore George Baird, the Malta-based Director of Shipping Movements, considered that the escort vessels’ increased strength had destroyed more submarines and deterred attacks on convoys, especially when supported by air patrols. Better intelligence about the U-boats and convoy re-routing had also helped, as (and probably most significantly) had worsening morale among submarine crews. Yet although the methods that had succeeded in the Atlantic were now prevailing in the Mediterranean, he warned that the diversion of resources to the barrage was cutting convoy escorts to the bone, so that even at this stage in the war it would ‘really be a matter of luck and successful dodging if sinkings remain at the present low level’.

In British home waters too, Allied strategy included more aggressive elements. Overrunning the Flanders U-boat bases had been one goal of Haig’s 1917 Third Ypres offensive, and one reason why the Germans had so tenaciously resisted it. In 1918 the Bruges–Zeebrugge–Ostend ‘Flanders triangle’ remained a British target, but now via naval and air action. Most spectacular was the raid against Zeebrugge and Ostend on the night of 22/23 April 1918, undertaken on St George’s Day, blazoned in the press after weeks of bad news, and silencing murmurs that the navy had lost its Nelsonian daring. Another attack on Ostend followed on 9–10 May. Yet although both operations aimed to close the U-boats’ exit channels by sinking blockships, and although they seemed at first to have succeeded, neither matched up to expectations. Three blockships were sunk at Zeebrugge, but the Germans dug fresh channels round them. The sinking of the Vindictive closed only one third of the channel at Ostend. Channel losses fell afterwards, but mainly owing to a concatenation of other measures. Almost daily air attacks during the summer damaged the Zeebrugge lock gates, but they were quickly repaired, and coastal minelaying failed to close the sea exits. Second World War-style concrete pens shielded the U-boats, and eventually the Germans withdrew them because of land operations: the Allied advances in October obliged Wilhelm to order the Flanders submarines back to the homeland. But by now the Flanders flotillas were in decline anyway. In the final months they fell from twenty-five to sixteen vessels, and only one in seven of those returning through the Dover Straits in August and September did so without difficulty. The perils simply of getting to and from their harbours added further stresses to a nerve-racking existence.

Tighter Dover Straits security resulted from improved mines. For most of the war the Germans’ mines had been much superior and they had strewn them round the British Isles. Against this threat the Royal Navy and the civilians of its Auxiliary Patrol assembled an unsung armada that included sloops, trawlers, drifters, and motor launches. During the war no fewer than 3,685 auxiliary vessels enrolled in the Royal Navy’s service, and 445 were destroyed: 2,304 of their officers and men lost their lives. None the less, by late 1917 minelaying was diminishing and minesweeping becoming more effective: German mines sank 128 British merchant ships in 1917 but ten in 1918. Moreover, in autumn 1917 the British began mass production of the Mark H2, a ‘horned’ mine patterned on its German counterpart, which was far more reliable than its predecessors. By June 1918 the Royal Navy had 32,500 in store, was producing 6,000–7,000 per month, and was laying about the same number.

The ‘H’ mines could be moored at greater depths, and in autumn 1917 a new deep field was laid across the Channel between Cape Gris Nez and the Varne. Radio intercepts had revealed that U-boats were passing freely via the Dover Straits, and the previous barrage was useless. But whereas Rear-Admiral Roger Keyes, the head of the Admiralty’s Plans Division, wanted to prevent submarines from passing over the barrier at night by stationing trawlers along it with searchlights and flares, Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Bacon, the commander at Dover, refused to place ships in such an exposed position. Keyes was moved to Dover to supplant him, and he set the trawlers in place. On the night of 14/15 February German destroyers then raided the barrage, sinking eight fishing vessels and killing seventy-six men from their crews. Yet they never repeated the operation and the new barrage did make passage of the Straits much harder, forcing more U-boats to take the far longer alternative route round the north of the British Isles. Some 14–16 U-boats were lost in the Straits during 1918, and in May they were ordered not to use them until the weather became more suitable, the Flanders bases thereby losing much of their value. The new barrier did achieve something, if later than the British realized.

U-Boat Threat 1918 Part II

As the menace from Flanders receded, the burden of the campaign in British waters fell to the North Sea submarines based with the German surface fleet in the Ems, Jade, Weser, and Elbe estuaries. But here too more mines facilitated countermeasures. The Allies laid some 15,700 mines offshore during 1917; and some 21,000 during 1918, mostly by destroyers from the Humber. Extending more than a hundred miles out, the mined area became so vast and unpredictable that the Germans confined themselves to maintaining swept channels through it, but even these were repeatedly blocked. During September 1918 only seven submarines were escorted out of the Heligoland Bight, in three convoys. Increasingly the U-boats used the Kattegat, the strait between Denmark and Norway, which the British also mined though never succeeding in closing: but this route added 3–4 days to their travelling time and reduced their stay in the campaigning zone. The Allies also tried to block the U-boats’ exit into the North Atlantic by laying the ‘Northern Barrage’. This scheme – an American conception – was for a minefield from the Orkneys to Norway. It would replace the Tenth Cruiser Squadron, which had patrolled the wild northern seas since 1915, but had become a target for the U-boats while assisting little in their detection. An inter-Allied conference in September 1917 approved the plan: work began in March 1918 and by the autumn the British had laid 13,546 mines and the Americans 56,571, assembled at Norfolk, Virginia, and shipped across the Atlantic in special vessels. But so many American mines blew up or drifted off loose that laying was temporarily suspended and Beatty feared the North Sea would become too dangerous to navigate. The barrage was not completed until October, when the Norwegians submitted to Allied pressure to close a remaining gap by mining their territorial waters. It may have sunk six or seven U-boats, at a cost of $40m. Like the Otranto barrage it was an enormous diversion of resources, and was finished too late to make much difference.

More important than the Allies’ offensive measures was the submarines’ continuing lack of an answer to convoys. In British home waters, as in the mid-Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the system tightened its grip. More vessels were escorted to their assembly points, and local convoys introduced across the riskiest stretches: the Irish Sea in March and the English east coast in June. Round the shoreline, moreover, aeroplanes could operate, and by November 1918 the RAF was deploying 285 seaplanes and flying boats and 272 land-based aircraft against the U-boats, more and more of them carrying radios. In the last five months Allied aircraft sighted 167 U-boats and attacked 115, although sinking only two, in both cases aided by warships. Unlike in the Second World War, aircraft did not themselves destroy submarines, but they could spot them from a greater distance and observe torpedo tracks, and served as a deterrent: during 1918 U-boats pressed home attacks against only six convoys with air escorts. Like warships, aircraft achieved more when accompanying convoys than when engaged in general patrolling.

The argument thus far has questioned the effectiveness of the Allies’ offensive measures. Although they sank 69 submarines in 1918, compared with 63 in 1917 and 46 in 1914–16,74 new building kept the U-boat numbers at around the same level and the newly commissioned submarines were superior in performance and armament. The absolute numbers might suggest that the Allies were merely containing rather than reducing the threat. Nor did the Allies in the First World War achieve any breakthrough like that of May 1943, when the Germans called off their mid-Atlantic campaign after losing forty-one submarines in a month. The nearest equivalent was May–June 1918, after which Allied shipping losses in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean permanently fell off. The naval authorities were aware of the change, which the post-war official histories highlighted. However, it owed more to unspectacular modifications in convoying arrangements than to the fourteen U-boats destroyed in May, the highest monthly total of the war. Although Holtzendorff warned Wilhelm that losses were reaching a ‘dangerous magnitude’, he correctly saw the figure as freakish, linked to fine weather and ‘mirror-smooth’ seas that made the submarines more visible, and he foresaw that it would diminish.

What mattered more was that sinkings per submarine declined relentlessly: the U-boats based in the North Sea destroyed an average of 0.55 ships each per day in March 1917 but 0.07 in June 1918, or some eight times less.81 Even in the Mediterranean, German U-boats sank 802 tons per boat per day in April 1917 but 619 in July 1918 and 417 in August; in the Atlantic convoys loss rates almost halved between May to October 1917 and May to October 1918. Whereas the U-boats’ key objective was to destroy carrying capacity and cargo, the Allies’ was to shepherd the merchantmen safely to their destinations. The monthly totals of destroyed U-boats mattered less than that more cargo was getting through, and therefore that the Allies were winning. They prevailed as much through wear and tear upon the submarines and on their crews as through sinking them. By 1918 what the Germans had originally intended as a five-month all-out offensive had lasted four times longer, and at sea as on land men and machines were worn out. At the end of the war barely one U-boat in two remained available for front-line service, as they spent ever longer voyaging to and from their hunting grounds and rarely regained harbour undamaged. In the Mediterranean the facilities at Pola and Cattaro were overwhelmed with damaged submarines, and throughout 1918 some 30 per cent of the squadron was in dock for lengthy repairs, for which increasingly the requisite materials were unobtainable. Even in the better equipped yards in Flanders and Germany, the burden of repair grew heavier, and competed with the requirements of new building. Moreover, increasing numbers of submarines were needed to train replacement crews. The British Admiralty placed great stress on the U-boat crews’ demoralization and the killing or capture of many commanders. Being depth-charged was a terrible experience, with after-effects akin to those of shell shock on land. Interrogations of U-boat prisoners during 1918 suggested that many officers were still defiant, but the ratings were mostly raw and poorly trained conscripts, much more disaffected than in 1917, intimidated by the Allies’ countermeasures, and relieved to be out of the war. Loss of seasoned commanders was even more important, as their work demanded extraordinary courage, aggressiveness, and seamanship: out of some 400 captains only twenty had been responsible for 60 per cent of Allied shipping losses, and many had now gone. When in June 1918 British representatives negotiated an agreement for prisoner of war exchanges, the Admiralty protested that sixty-five submarine officers and men could go to neutral countries whence they could easily return to Germany, and ‘In carrying on this submarine warfare the greatest difficulty with which the enemy is now faced is the shortage of trained submarine officers and crews.’

As the U-boat offensive lost impetus, Germany’s leaders disagreed over how to revive it. Holtzendorff wanted an offensive in American waters, seeking softer targets and forcing Germany’s enemies to disperse their defences. The OHL, hoping for attacks on American troop transports, supported him. Reinhard Scheer, the High Seas Fleet commander, considered long-range operations would wear out the U-boats and sink fewer ships: he preferred to concentrate in closer waters. Moreover, Chancellor Hertling and the foreign ministry objected to proclaiming a Sperrgebiet (prohibited zone) off America’s east coast, fearing it would inflame US opinion and draw the country more whole-heartedly into the war. They feared a re-run of 1917, when they had caved in over unrestricted submarine warfare, only to find the navy’s optimism to be baseless. Wilhelm shared these misgivings, and ruled out a Sperrgebiet. Yet although the navy exploited the issue to blame the politicians for the U-boats’ failure, the submarines actually lacked the capacity to do much damage. Few of them could reach the American eastern seaboard, although U-151, operating there from May 1918 onwards, sank twenty-three ships and severed two underwater cables, while in June fear of submarine-launched seaplanes blacked out New York City, and six submarines stationed off the American coast between July and November sank ninety-three ships, including a cruiser. The Wilson administration responded by introducing coastal convoys but refused to recall American warships from European waters. It had expected such a campaign, knew when the U-boats were en route, and despite the public consternation believed that random patrolling in the Western Atlantic would be as ineffective as in the Eastern.

Around Britain, where the U-boats now faced coastal convoys protected by aircraft, they returned in summer 1918 to offshore operations. Their tactics in the final months foreshadowed those of the Second World War, with more attacks far out to sea at night (to avoid aircraft) and on the surface (for higher speed). The German Admiralty Staff had envisaged that group attacks might overwhelm convoy defences, but Holtzendorff accepted that only the North Sea U-boats (rather than the smaller and slower Flanders types) were suited to such tactics, and they would need time to become familiar with them. In fact the U-boats never achieved the co-ordination needed to break up convoys. For a fortnight during May up to eight submarines were stationed in the approach routes between Brittany and Ireland but during this period 183 vessels were convoyed safely inward and 110 outward, and only five (three of them in convoy) were damaged or sunk, while two of the U-boats were lost. Even in this relatively confined area, and in favourable weather conditions, the submarines had great difficulty in finding convoys, in massing attacks against them, and in landing torpedoes on their targets. In July a second attempt focused on the northern and southern approaches to the Irish Sea, but no more successfully.

The U-boats of 1918 had poorer radio communication than their Second World War counterparts, both for co-ordinating movements and for taking guidance from the homeland. Their numbers were much smaller, and their commanders warned Holtzendorff that to achieve much they would need more vessels.99 In March 1943, at the climax of the Battle of the Atlantic, an average of 116 submarines were at sea; in 1918 the average monthly figure was forty-five. The totals in commission were 132 in January (33 at sea), 129 in February (50 at sea), 125 in April (55 at sea), 112 in June, and 128 in September. Part of the problem was that too few had been launched earlier. After war broke out the Imperial Navy Office (Reichsmarineamt, or RMA) gave U-boats priority, but still completed two battlecruisers and two battleships between 1915 and 1917. It also built merchant ships, although German seaborne trade had almost entirely halted. On commencing unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, the RMA had been so confident that it suspended further U-boat orders for fear of being encumbered with masses of redundant submarines after victory. In addition, it sacrificed potential gains from mass production by spreading orders between different yards and a variety of types, concentrating on larger and longer-range vessels that took longer to build. Throughout the war, only twelve U-boats were delivered by the contract date, and the lags grew longer. On 1 April 1916, twenty-five were over contract: on 1 April 1918, seventy. In May 1917 the RMA expected 142 new vessels to come into service by May 1918; in fact 93 did, so that the 1918 fleet was similar to that of 1917 instead of being substantially bigger. In December 1917 the navy tried to accelerate the building programme by creating a new U-Boots-Amt – ‘U-Boat Office’ – within the RMA. By the end of the war – the hubris of 1917 now long abandoned – it had contracted for 340 more vessels, none of which entered service. As of 3 August 1918, no fewer than 473 submarines were on order.

Extra procurement made little sense until the production bottlenecks had loosened. Under the U-Boots-Amt completions rose, but only slightly. Many factors accounted for the delay, including the rival claims of repairs and of surface ship construction, and shortages of coal, transport, and non-ferrous metals, but all involved agreed the critical scarcity was of labour. Yet when at a conference on 4 October 1917 the RMA chief pleaded for copper, lead, and extra labour to build 118 submarines for delivery in 1919–20, as well as for 7,000–8,000 workers to finish those under construction, Ludendorff objected both to transferring metals from the army’s weapons programme and to providing more manpower. The army, he said, had already released 250,000 soldiers to the home economy and could spare no more: the key requirement was to raise the productivity of the workers already in place. In ‘all probability’ the war would end in 1918, and he needed to rest his troops for the spring campaigning. Implicitly he discounted the Admiralty Staff’s argument that more submarines were an insurance policy in case the war on land went wrong: ‘the great and also only reserve for the eventuality that the military direction of the war should not – or only incompletely – achieve its objective’. Although Ludendorff agreed in principle that U-boats should be the highest armaments priority, ahead of aircraft, motor vehicles, and munitions, he would not relinquish soldiers or weapons from his projected offensive, and in June 1918 the OHL again refused men from the home or front armies for U-boat construction. Matters only changed – and far too late – after the July turning point on the Western Front put paid to Ludendorff’s hopes of a land victory, and after the naval leadership was reconstructed in August. Holtzendorff was removed while Hipper, the battlecruiser commander, replaced Scheer as commander of the High Seas Fleet, and Scheer himself became head of the SKL or Seekriegsleitung, a new overall naval command that moved out of Berlin to sit alongside the OHL at Spa. The Battle of Jutland had given Scheer some of the aura of victory that Hindenburg and Ludendorff owed to Tannenberg, and he and the aggressive young officers round him at once pressed for a massive expansion in submarine output. Assuming that the U-boats were now indeed Germany’s last means of applying enough pressure to achieve a favourable peace, Scheer wanted targets comparable to those attempted for land armaments with the 1916 Hindenburg Programme. He prepared a scheme to accelerate the completion of the submarines now on the slipways and to order more, with the aim of once again sinking ships faster than the Allies could build them. Monthly completions were to rise from 12.7 in October 1918 to thirty-six by autumn 1919, continuing at that level into 1920, while the construction workforce was to double from 70,000 to 140,000, of whom 17,000 were needed at once. Ludendorff, however, though recognizing ‘what extraordinary importance a stronger pursuit of the U-boat war possesses’, again said that neither the front nor the home army could release more men. This was the position when at the end of September the OHL decided to seek an armistice, although Ludendorff agreed that Scheer should continue developing his project in case negotiations failed, and only after Germany finally recalled all U-boats to port on 21 October was the programme abandoned. Intended to rally the public and redeem the navy’s reputation, it was overtaken by Germany’s collapse.

The Germans intended that the British should get wind of the Scheer programme, and in London the prognostications were surprisingly gloomy. In late September Sir Eric Geddes, the former railway chief who had become First Lord of the Admiralty, warned the Cabinet that because of the need to escort troopships the Admiralty had neglected anti-submarine warfare, with the consequence that U-boat numbers were higher than they had ever been, a great new submarine offensive was developing, and tonnage losses would again become ‘a menace to the Allied cause’. Frustration caused by failure to sink more U-boats partly explained this despondency, which came to the Cabinet days before it considered Germany’s appeal for an armistice. Yet even if the war had continued into 1919 and the OHL had released some of the workers Scheer requested (which Ludendorff’s industrial expert, Colonel Bauer, was willing to contemplate),118 the trebling in production the SKL envisaged was not remotely achievable. Nor would extra U-boats with unskilled and disgruntled crews have made much impact on the panoply of Allied defences. The crucial elements in Germany’s dilemma – the decline in the U-boats’ destructiveness and their inability to harm the convoys – continued to apply. On sea as on land, the options had run out.