Japanese Pre-WWII Navy Part I


Japanese battleship Kirishima

In China and later in the Pacific, Japanese amphibious assaults were marked by surprise landings, often at night, at several spots simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Air and naval superiority were always present at the point of attack. Japan had no marine corps as such. The army was responsible for amphibious warfare and the navy for getting the troops to the invasion beaches and supporting the landings with gunfire and aviation. But Japan did possess an elite corps of “debarkation commandos,” special forces whose mission was loading the landing craft, moving them to the beaches, and returning the empty craft to the transports offshore. One keen student of Japanese warfare has observed that the nation’s warriors had a tendency to overplan, and “the more detailed the landing guidelines, the more difficult it became to hold to them.” This was the case when unexpected bad weather, high winds and surf, or unanticipated enemy resistance was encountered. As long as unforeseen difficulties did not occur, Japanese amphibious operations “ran like clockwork. But once a problem arose, confusion ensued,” and Japanese troops were likely to respond with foolish daring such as human-wave assaults in order to “win back full freedom to act.” Nonetheless, Japan conducted a series of major amphibious operations in China and the Pacific between 1937 and 1942 that rivaled in size and success those later undertaken by the Americans in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands between November 1942 and June 1944.

Japan’s preference for land-based naval aviation as an essential component of defensive warfare was given impetus by the war in China. Japanese forces followed up the Marco Polo Bridge Incident with a heavy air and land attack on the native sections of Shanghai. Within days, the army began a major thrust up the nearby Yangtze River valley toward Nanking and beyond, as Chiang Kaishek’s steadily retreating government lured the Japanese farther and farther from the coast.

Because of the vast distances involved, China inevitably became an air war— a strategic bombing campaign that in conception and scope if not scale prefigured those undertaken by the Allies over Europe after 1942. Such a campaign required the use of every plane and pilot in the Japanese arsenal. From the beginning, the navy consistently outperformed its army opposites in long-range bombing, often under terrible conditions of weather and terrain. Naval aircraft proved superb; the new Nell land-based bombers flew missions of up to 1,250 miles from Formosa and Kyūshū against targets in and around Shanghai, Nanking, Hankow (Hankou, now part of Wuhan), and other river cities. “The elation which swept the Japanese populace with the announcement of the bombing[ s] was understandable,” a Japanese historian recalled with chilling satisfaction. “We had a powerful, long-range, fair-and-foul-weather, day-and-night bombing force” with which to terrorize and kill thousands of civilians. Japanese casualties, however, were severe, especially during the first four months of the war, and until the end Japanese naval bomber aircraft, often unaccompanied by fighter escort until the advent of the Zero in 1939, were subjected to periodic savage maulings. Only in the crucible of battle did Japanese pilots learn the necessity of close-formation flying and at last master the art of dogfighting against skilled Chinese and Soviet pilots.

Carrier aircraft began making significant contributions to the Japanese offensive at Shanghai in August 1937 and continued to do so as the campaign moved up the Yangtze valley. The first generation of ship-based aircraft proved incapable of carrying out their missions, and the aircrews suffered terrible casualties. As late as the previous May, the fighter, dive-bomber, and attack aircraft aboard the Kaga were all biplanes. On August 17 the carrier launched its first strike against Chinese targets beyond Shanghai. A dozen Type 89 torpedo-bomber biplanes led by Lieutenant Commander Iwai roared down Kaga’s big flight deck and headed toward Hangchow (Hangzhou) to blast Chinese airfields. Only one plane returned. The bomber squadron failed to rendezvous with its fighter escort and had attacked alone.

The Japanese learned quickly from their mistakes. A year later Kaga had been joined by the smaller Hosho and the second-generation light carrier Ryujo, while Akagi completed a modernization program. From the beginning, the carrier air groups flying off Ryujo and Kaga were in the thick of the war. In late 1938 Akagi’s flyers joined the melee. The first carrier-based Type 89 attack bombers and then the Type 96 carrier-based fighters (Claudes) were badly mauled by the Chinese air force, increasingly manned with foreign volunteers and stocked with the best foreign aircraft. In response, Japan hurried new land- and carrier-based naval aircraft into production. “By importing many foreign aircraft and weapons,” two Japanese veterans of the campaign later wrote smugly, “we in Japan were able to gauge approximately what these weapons could and could not do. By keeping our planes and other armament within our borders and free from prying eyes, we led the world seriously to underestimate the combat strength of our naval aviation,” until the “China Incident” forced the Japanese to reveal how far their capabilities had advanced. In 1938–1939, Type 97 carrier attack bombers (Kates), Type 99 carrier dive-bombers (Vals), and the apex of Japanese aviation technology, the Zero fighter plane, all joined the fleet. As the Japanese army moved up the Yangtze beyond Nanking, chasing the always elusive Chiang and his forces, the carrier air wings moved ashore, following the army and bombing ahead of it in conjunction with the army air corps. By early 1940 land-based Nells, often escorted by Zeros or Claudes, were bombing Chungking, Chiang’s last haven of safety beyond the river gorges of the upper Yangtze more than a thousand miles west of Shanghai. Other bomber-fighter formations staging off carrier decks or, later, from advanced bases in Indochina ranged far and wide over southern China, ultimately closing down the vital Burma Road supply corridor.

The navy always boasted that its aviators were tougher and more adaptable than those in the army. Flyers and aircrew who trained ever more intensively for attacks against enemy surface fleets as the international situation shifted from Japan’s advantage in the late thirties nonetheless demonstrated from the earliest days of the China Incident an ability to strike land targets effectively. “Conversely, it was also determined that pilots trained specifically for maneuvers over land experienced great difficulty in over water operations, even in merely flying long distances over the ocean.”

In the mid-thirties as the carrier Ranger came into the U.S. fleet and Yorktown and Enterprise took shape in East Coast shipyards, the Imperial Navy bestirred itself to keep in step. Scarce funds were found to upgrade and modernize Kaga as well as Akagi. Training and war games had demonstrated that the best defense a carrier had was its own planes, and the unwieldy eight-inch batteries on both ships were removed. The crude three-deck hangar arrangement was abandoned, and the single flight decks were extended fore and aft to cover nearly the entire ship. As a result, Akagi’s and Kaga’s plane capacity increased from 60 to 90 (though both would normally carry about 72 planes in combat). At the same time, Japan pushed ahead with two ships roughly comparable to the American Yorktown class: the 34-knot Hiryu and Soryu, each 16,000–18,000 tons and capable of carrying at least 63 aircraft. A disastrous typhoon at sea in September 1935 damaged the fleet sufficiently to force designers to pay greater attention to strength and structural integrity. Both new Japanese carriers were built with higher hulls and forecastles. The carrier faction won an even greater victory in 1937 when it was able to place in the Fleet Replenishment Program orders for two superb 25,675-ton, 34-knot vessels to be named Shokaku and Zuikaku. Each ship embarked 72 aircraft, and each would be completed in 1941 in time to take part in the opening offensive of the Pacific conflict. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Japan possessed six splendid frontline carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, and Shokaku—that operating together as a fast mobile strike force, the Kido Butai, could deploy more than 350 aircraft. The Kido Butai displaced more than twice the tonnage allotted Japan by the Washington Conference.

Doctrinal and administrative progress kept pace with new construction. Experience in China had finally convinced Japanese carrier and fleet commanders that the attack aircraft at their disposal could best be employed—and protected— as a massed group. “Extending these realities to air war at sea slowly but inevitably led to the conclusion that carrier forces must be concentrated,” and by late 1940 the navy’s tacticians had hit upon the box formation as the best way to deploy carriers in a task-force configuration. Within months, Rear Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa had come up with another advance. Scattered as it was throughout the Pacific islands and on carriers, naval aviation in time of war would inevitably be employed incoherently and ineffectively. He convinced Yamamoto to create an air fleet within the Combined Fleet structure and to split it into land- and carrier-based components for maximum effect. At the end of 1941, the Eleventh Air Fleet, comprising eight land-based groups, was ready to lead the navy’s thrust southward toward the Philippines, Malaya, and the East Indies that would win Japan an empire within a few months. The First Air Fleet, encompassing all the aircraft deployed on the three carrier divisions, plus two seaplane divisions, composed “the single most powerful agglomeration of naval air power in the world,” including the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Just as each of Japan’s warships had to be qualitatively superior to fleet units in putative enemy navies, so Japanese naval aircraft had to possess greater speed, maneuverability, and, above all, range than comparable American—and British—planes. Japanese carrier aircraft were designed to deliver the critical first strike, to find and hit an enemy fleet before it could come in range to deliver aerial and surface blows of its own. Japanese carrier aircraft would have be lighter and more vulnerable than their U.S. opposites to achieve this objective, but as early as 1936 staff planners at Imperial Navy headquarters concluded that the key to success in any coming conflict “was to be mass attacks” by carrier aircraft “delivered preemptively because of the advantages of surprise and of ‘outranging’ the enemy.”

Japanese Pre-WWII Navy Part II


CV Kaga converted from a Tosa-class battleship.

Mindful of America’s industrial superiority, Japanese authorities realized that any protracted war, even if waged defensively, would require as many aviation resources as the empire could muster. The solution lay in building fast, medium size merchant and passenger ships that could be quickly converted to effective auxiliary carriers. Soon after Japan formally withdrew from the naval limitation system in 1935, its architects began planning for the construction of the appropriate ships. The NYK Line was given a substantial subsidy to build two 24-knot vessels designed specifically for conversion to carriers. Laid down in early 1939, both ships possessed greater height between decks and a stronger main deck than normal in merchant ships and more wiring than a passenger liner needed, together with better subdivision and a longitudinal bulkhead in the engine spaces. The design allowed for the quick construction of hangars, elevators, and provision for extra fuel and aviation gas tanks. But the superbattleships absorbed so much matériel and funding that Japanese fleet construction, no matter how imaginative, had to suffer somewhere, and the sacrifices eventually fell upon the destroyers and destroyer escorts needed to keep Japan’s huge merchant navy safe from enemy submarines. After 1940, as the final bills came due on Yamato and Musashi, the construction of small combatants virtually ceased. Japanese shipyards built no destroyer escorts between 1941 and 1943, whereas the Americans built well over three hundred. “The importance of merchant shipping was simply not appreciated” by a naval high command that in the last analysis could think no further in assessing command of the seas than a climactic Jutland-like battle between two lines of battleships heavily supported by airpower.

This modified Jutland model led to further crippling follies. The Yamatos, the Zuikakus, and their scores of support ships that Japan rushed onto the building stocks after 1935 would require thousands of new sailors and hundreds of new officers to effectively operate, but the elitist nature of the Imperial Japanese Navy fatally hindered rapid and efficient expansion. The Jutland scenario gave no consideration to the manpower and, above all, training needs involved in waging and surviving a prolonged war of numerous battles stretching over the vast distances of East Asia and Oceania.

A “solicitous” promotion system designed to guarantee every graduate of the naval academy at Eta Jima, no matter how marginal, at least a captaincy during his career meant that the naval officer corps had to be kept deliberately small. Moreover, the number of officers accepted at the academy as well as the number of personnel enlisted (and ultimately drafted) into the ranks were based on the size of the fleet at hand; thus, personnel requirements were determined only after naval construction and armament budgets had been approved. “In a navy that supposedly took ten years to develop a truly capable lieutenant and twenty years for a commander, training should have anticipated the numbers of officers and men required by the level of armaments ten years on.” It did not. In the mid-thirties, as the fleet began to expand, there were fewer than ten thousand officers and not quite ninety-eight thousand enlisted men to crew not only a rapidly growing surface fleet but also dramatically expanding submarine and air forces, the naval landing force, and the shore establishments. According to historians David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, the navy went to war in December 1941 against the United States and Britain “short at least two thousand combat and engineering officers.” Manpower swiftly reached crisis proportions in 1942–1943 when new-construction manning needs were increasingly undercut by widespread casualties and fatalities among the most experienced officers and men in the fleet. Fatally bound to a lengthy and rigorous training regimen for all, the Japanese navy never did develop a coherent program for effectively training thousands of new officers and recruits in a short period. New officers and men proved increasingly unqualified for their responsibilities “and thus generally lowered the navy’s efficiency.” Not until the end of the Solomons campaign in 1943 did the Personnel Department of the Navy Ministry reconsider its manpower and training policies, and “by then, the ministry realized, it was already too late to do anything effective about the problem.”

As the 1930s waned the Japanese army moved farther and farther up the Yangtze and along the China coast, fruitlessly seeking the final great battle that would bring the enemy to his knees and to his senses. In the process the army and navy learned how to integrate ground troops with gunfire-support ships, land- and sea-based aviation, and even on occasion submarines in devastating “triphibious” assaults against enemy coastal positions. Japan became the first nation to effectively meld sea and airpower in action, thus dramatically increasing the mobility, impact, and general effectiveness of its fleet. But the Japanese never found the conclusive battle they were looking for. As with another foreign power in Asia years later, their high command continually searched for the light at the end of the tunnel, and commanders on the ground constantly asked for just that one more division or two that would finally resolve matters once and for all. All too soon, mounting frustration triggered unmitigated and repeated barbarism. Troops and airmen bombed, pillaged, and slaughtered indiscriminately and unmercifully. Tokyo never understood that the behavior of its troops in China forfeited all claims to international respect and understanding.

Japan could not conceal its atrocities. There were too many Westerners to witness them. Chief among the observers was a remarkable community of sailors. For nearly a decade after the first battle for Shanghai in 1932, Western cruiser and gunboat crews lying off the city or steaming up and down the Yangtze had a front-row seat for conflict. At one point in 1937, the men of the American gunboat Panay became victims of that conflict. The Yanks—and their British and French colleagues—quickly acquired a profound distaste and contempt for the Japanese that was in no way mitigated by the frequent cowardice and incompetence of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese government and its troops. The sailors, and the reporters who followed them into the Chinese cauldron, conveyed their attitude toward the Japanese to the international community, further amplifying long-standing cultural and racial animosities that would inform the great global conflict that loomed ever larger.

In November 1938 Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe issued the famous— or infamous—“New Order” declaration in which the Japanese government formally pledged itself to the task of “fundamentally rectifying” nearly a century of Western imperial depredations in China:

[Nazi] Germany and [Fascist] Italy, our allies against Communism, have manifested their sympathies with Japan’s aims in East Asia. . . . It is necessary for Japan to not only strengthen still further her ties with these countries but also to collaborate with them on the basis of a common world outlook in the reconstruction of world order. It is high time that all of us should face squarely our responsibilities—namely, the mission to construct a new order on a moral basis—a free union of all the nations of East Asia in mutual reliance, but in independence.

Two years later, with Europe back at war and its own armies still slogging up the Yangtze, Admiral Sankichi Takahashi, former commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, confirmed that Japan’s proposed “new order in Greater East Asia” stretched from Manchukuo to Australia and eastward to the International Date Line. The new imperium would be “constructed in several stages. In the first stage, the sphere that Japan demands includes Manchukuo, China, Indo- China, Burma, Straits Settlements [that is, British Singapore], Netherlands Indies, New Caledonia, New Guinea, many islands in the West Pacific, Japan’s mandated islands and the Philippines.” Australia and what remained of the East Indies “can be included later.” Western observers noted that these statements were made not in advance of aggression, but in the midst of it. On the other side of the Pacific, fresh fictional accounts of an impending Pacific war had already appeared in American popular literature. A fuse had been lit.

Graf Zeppelin I


Graf Zeppelin. Flugzeugträger. Stapell.: 8.12.1938 B 676 (R IX E 7845)

Flugzeugträger "A". Baustadium Aufgen. am 14.9.1937 Deutsche Werke Kiel

Plans for a shipped-based air force started soon after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. The first plans were limited to supplying the existing battleships and cruisers with reconnaissance seaplanes. On March 12th 1934 the first requirements the future aircraft carrier was given. Within a year the design study had been completed. The model used was the British Courageous class of carriers. On June 18th 1935 the signing of the British-German naval agreement set the future strength of the German Navy at 35% of the tonnage of the British fleet applied to all classes of ships. This opened the way for building the first German aircraft carrier. Based on British tonnage of the time, 38,500 tons, this allowed for two ships of 19,250 tons. Officials were sent to England to attend the Navy Week where HMS Furious was opened for visitors but little was learned. More successful was a German Commission allowed to visit the carrier Akagi in Japan where they were given 100 copies of the blueprints of the air deck facilities. However, the Japanese neglected to tell them that the carrier was about to be completely rebuilt and the plans were obsolete.

At the end of 1935, when the design of the carrier was mostly completed, it received the consent of the commander of the navy. On 16th November 1935 the order to build the ‘A’ carrier was given to the Deutsche Werke Kiel AG. At that time most of its resources were engaged in building other warships and its slipways were occupied by ships under construction. Therefore construction was delayed until 28th December 1936 when it was possible to lay the keel on Slipway 1, twenty days after Battleship ‘E’ – the Gneisenau – had been launched from the same slipway. The slipway construction stage took two years. The ship was launched by Countess Hella von Brandenstein-Zeppelin, daughter of Count Zeppelin, on 8th December 1938 in the presence of Adolf Hitler. Work progressed during 1939 and by August it was estimated that the first tests could be carried out in June 1940 and the ship ready for service by the end of that year. When war broke out the Graf Zeppelin was 85%-90% completed. The engines and boilers were in place, the auxiliary machinery prepared though not yet installed and the 15cm guns were in place as well but lacked armoured shields.

The order for carrier ‘B’ was placed on 16th November 1936 with the Friedrich Krupp-Germania shipyard. The laying of the keel could not have taken place until the second half of 1938, after the heavy cruiser ‘J’ had been launched, because only one slipway (VIII) could accommodate the carrier. The date, 30th September 1936, given in some sources is invalid and probably a misprint. 30th September 1938 seems the most likely date. The construction of the ‘B’ carrier was intentionally slow because of the possibility of using experience gained from trials of the Graf Zeppelin in the ‘B’ construction. The planned launching was 1st July 1940 which did not take place as the order was cancelled on 19th September 1939. The ship had been finished up to the armoured deck. On 28th February 1940 Admiral Raeder ordered the dismantling of the hull. The ‘B’ carrier was never given a name. Peter Strasser is ascribed to the carrier by some sources but is entirely speculative and it is questionable that Hitler would have approved it even if it were on the list of proposed names.

After the start of the war, works on the Graf Zeppelin continued as planned for a while, but soon delays were caused by the extensive U-Boat building programme. [Carriers were always last in construction priority. Until 19th September 1939 the priority was: battleships, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers.] In October 1939 Hitler allowed only the building of small ships and the continuing construction of five large ships, the Graf Zeppelin among them. It was the German conquest of Denmark and Norway that had an adverse effect on the ship’s fate. Defence of the long the Norwegian coast required many small ships and their construction became the priority. During a conference with Hitler on the 29th April 1940, Admiral Raeder proposed stopping all work on the carrier. Even if the ship was commissioned as planned at the end of that year, equipping her with guns would take another ten months, if not longer, and the installation of the fire control system several more months. (The original fire control system had been sold to the Soviet Union. In the end the AA and 15cm guns were removed and sent to Norway to be incorporated in the coastal defence system.) During a conference in July, Hitler referred to aircraft carriers saying that Germany must have “a cruiser with a flight deck”. Ludicrous as it was to start a new project when the existing carrier was almost complete, it was Hitler’s remarks that stopped all work on the Graf Zeppelin on the 12th July 1940 and the Design Bureau to prepare a design of an ‘M’ cruiser that could carry 14 aircraft. On the same day the Graf Zeppelin left Kiel for Gdynia (called Gotenhafen by the Germans). The ship remained there almost a year until Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941. Because of the treat of Soviet air raids the Supreme Command of the Navy ordered Group North to tow the ship further west by 19th June. The carrier left at noon 19th June and reached Stettin on afternoon of 21st June. There she was moored at Hakenterasse, remaining until German forces had penetrated far enough to lift the threat of air attacks. On 10th November 1941 she left Stettin to arrive a week later back at Gdynia. She was then used as a floating warehouse for hardwood under the name Zugvogel.

By the end of 1941, the crippling of the Italian fleet in Taranto, the Home Fleet’s interception of the Bismarck and especially the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had proved that ship-based aircraft were a fully developed and dangerous weapon. The Seekreigsleitung pressed for completion and putting into service of the Graf Zeppelin as soon as possible. The final discussion took place on 16th April 1942 at Hitler’s Wolfschanze headquarters. The results were as follows:

  1. Works on the hull and engines were to be completed by summer 1943.
  2. The only available aircraft types, adapted Bf 109 and Ju 87, required upgrading of the air facilities, especially installation of stronger catapults. Design, production and testing of these would take not less than two years so it was decided to modernize and adapt the existing catapults which would take six months. This gave the earliest possible time to complete the carrier as the winter of 1943/44. From the point of view of the Luftwaffe constructing a new carrier-based aircraft was impossible before 1946.
  3. The Luftwaffe would provide the Kriegsmarine ten fighters and twenty-two bombers to be used in the reconnaissance role. Designing a torpedo-bomber was opposed by Hitler who thought such aircraft were not useful.

On May 13th 1942 the decision was made to resume the construction of the Graf Zeppelin. Along with changes to the air facilities there were other alterations considered necessary as early as 1938/39 because of the developments in naval technology. The superstructure was obsolete. The existing mast had to be replaced with a heavier one fitted with a fighter command post and radars. The bridge and fire control centre covered with fragment-proof armour. A higher funnel shield was necessary to protect the fighter command post from smoke. The alterations resulted in a significant increase in weight that needed to neutralised to keep the ship stable. Bulges were added to keep the ship upright. The secondary role was to protect the ship’s interior from torpedoes. Parts of the bulges served as oil tanks. These additions improved the manoeuvrability and range of the ship. AA protection was also upgraded. The planned air component was composed of 28 Ju 87s and 12 Bf 109s.


The Supreme Command of the Navy expected that work would be completed by April 1943 with the first sea test performed in August. However, the last twelve months of construction were to be carried out at the cost of cancelling VVIIC U-boats at Deutsche Werk AG Kiel. As well as the Graf Zeppelin, five other ships were to be converted to aircraft carriers. Due to the shortage of workers and lack of material, especially steel, Hitler decided to cancel the conversion of existing warships and put the workers and material into building the aircraft carriers Graf Zeppelin, Seydlitz and Potsdam. Meanwhile, due to increasing air threat, the operation to move the Graf Zeppelin to Kiel was delayed. She finally left Gdynia on 30th November 1942. On 3rd December the convoy reached Kieler Forde and the Graf Zeppelin anchored to the Heikendorf roadstead. On 5th December she was put into the Deutsche Werk floating dock where work on the bulges started immediately. At the same time work on the engines room was started to make the two inner shafts and their propulsion system operational allowing the ship to make a top speed of 25 to 26 knots. The objective was to finish the carrier in the autumn of 1943. On 30th January 1943 Hitler ordered all capital ships to be put out of service and cancel the construction of those not yet completed. Grand Admiral Raeder described it as “the cheapest sea victory England ever won” and was the direct reason for him being relieved from duty. On 2nd February 1943 the construction of the Graf Zeppelin, on which the bulges were still being installed, was stopped for good. On April 15th Deutsche Werk shipyard were ordered to prepare the ship to be moved to Gdynia. After these preparations the carrier was towed out on 20th April, its destination now Stettin. There she was anchored on one of the forks of the Odra River and camouflaged to look like a small island. The initial plan of moving the ship to Pillau was abandoned because of a lack of adequate anchor ground. The end of the carrier came soon after the Red Army entered the territory of the Reich. First all the Kingston valves were opened and the ship settled on the bottom. Then a ten-man squad prepared the ship for blowing up with depth charges. On the 25th April 1945 at 6pm the order was given. Thick smoke issued from the funnel, proof that the charges had gone off as planned.

Graf Zeppelin II



Last photograph of Graf Zeppelin towed from Swinocijscie Poland to Leningrad. April 17. 1947.

In April 1945, Soviet troops found the carrier’s artillery had been dismantled, the installation of fire control equipment had not been finished and the electrical installations partially installed as well as the flight equipment. There was a complete engine room and the power station was fully operational. Among the explosives, ten depth charges had been set off in the engine room. Water had penetrated through small blow-holes, cracks and leakages and the ship settled on the bottom in water seven meters deep. Seepage was so slow the water in the engine room was lower than that outside the hull. By 17th August 1945 the ship had been examined by teams of the 77th Emergency Rescue Unit. The carrier lay on the bottom with only half a degree of list to starboard. On the starboard were 36 holes up 1.0 X 1.0 meters made by shells and fragments. All the turbines, boilers and power plants had been blown up damaging the nearby watertight bulkheads. One .8 x .3 meter hole had been blown in the underwater part of the ship along with a .3 meter crack. The propellers had been dismantled and placed on the flight deck to minimize electrochemical corrosion of the hull. The aircraft elevators had been blown up as well. The ship was raised by simply sealing the underwater hole and crack and pumping out the water. Ten longitudinal and twelve transverse bulkheads had to be sealed to give the ship the necessary buoyancy. Cracks above the waterline and portholes were sealed with wielded metal sheets. Due to extensive damage and time pressures damage to ship’s deck were not mended. After the repairs were completed the ship was towed to Świnoujście, the former Kriegsmarine base known as Swinemunde. On 19th August the hulk was included in the Soviet Navy as a spoil of war. At the Potsdam Conference (17th July until 2nd August) the first agreement was reached on how to dispose of captured German surface vessels. On 23rd January 1946 an Anglo-American-Soviet committee was formed to deal with these matters. All combat and auxiliary vessels were divided into three categories A, B or C. The Graf Zeppelin was given to the Soviets by lot and came under category C – ships sunk, damaged or unfinished that required over six months of repairs using the resources of German shipyards. It was the recommendation of the committee that category C ships should be scuttled in deep water or dismantled by a given date. Admiral Kuzniecov requested to repair the Graf Zeppelin for use as an experimental platform for the construction of Soviet aircraft carriers. Initially he was given approval for the Baltic shipyard in Leningrad to carry out the necessary repairs; however the authorities chose the simpler option of complying with the terms of the allied agreement. On March 17th 1947 a resolution was passed that all category C vessels were to be destroyed in 1947. The command of the Soviet Navy had managed to convince the government to run durability tests on the vessels.

From 2nd February 1947 the Graf Zeppelin was classified as experimental platform PB-101. The destruction was to be carried out in a manner that allowed the collection of experimental data and experiences. A special committee head by Vice-Admiral Rall was formed and ordered to sink the carrier while testing its resistance to aerial bombs, artillery shells, and torpedoes in two variants, static and dynamic. Static meaning that the munitions would be placed in the ship and detonated and dynamic that they would be delivered by simulated attacks. The detonation of mines at various depths and distances from the ship was also considered. Between the tests teams of scientists would be sent aboard to assess the effects of the explosions. They were allowed to conduct minor repairs to stop the ship from sinking too soon.

At 2.45 pm on 14th August 1947 PB-101, as she was now known was pulled out onto the out roadstead of Świnoujście from where she was escorted by various vessels to the five mile square designated as the test area. Due to draining of three starboard rooms in the bulges she had a 3 degree list to port. When she arrived on the evening 15/16th August if was found that she could not be anchored. One of the main anchor chain links failed and the light kedge anchor could not prevent the ship from drifting. This was to affect the final outcome of the testing.

The first tests were carried out on the morning of 16th August. First a FAB-1000 bomb was exploded in the funnel along with three FAB-100 bombs and two 180 mm shells set under the flight deck. For the second test a FAB-1000 bomb was detonated on the flight deck. For the third a FAB-250 was set off on the flight deck and two 180 mm shells on the upper hangar deck. For the forth a FAB-500 over the flight deck set on a 2.7 meter high tripod, a FAB-250 on the upper hangar deck, another on the flight deck and a FAB-100 on the C deck. The fifth and last of the series, a FAB-500 and FAB-100 detonated on the flight deck with part of the bombs set deep in holes cut in the deck to simulate penetration.

The funnel was ripped open down to the flight deck but the island was not damaged, with the shockwave failing to deform the smoke ducts. No increase in pressure in the boilers was reported and on the armoured gratings an intact spider’s web was found. Of the three FAB-100 bombs detonated on the flight deck the most damaging was the one not set in the deck. The shockwaves of those set in deck were directed down into the hangar. The 180 mm shells caused various damage, the most effective being mixed armour piercing high explosive.

After the first series of tests an air raid was carried out on the ship by 39 aircraft from the 12th Guards Mine Torpedo Division and 25 Pe-2 dive bombers. On the day of the test there were only 100 P-50 exercise bombs available in the entire 4th Fleet instead of the 156 required. Therefore only 24 Pe-2 crews could perform the bombardment. Two nine plane flights dropped their payloads on the leader’s signal, the rest individually. A white 20 x 20 meter cross had be painted on the flight deck with arms 5 meters wide. The first group dropped 28 bombs from a height of 2070 meters, the second 36 from about the same height and the third attack carried out individually another 24 bombs. Three aircraft were forced to emergency dump their ordnance. The effects of the attack on what was a ‘sitting duck’ were farcical. Of the 100 bombs dropped only six hit the target, and there were only five marks on the flight deck. (Soviet pilots claimed there were eleven hits, some of the bombs having struck already damaged areas.) The test failed to give any useful information. The P-50 bombs were too small causing 5-10 cm dents in the flight deck and blew a hole about one meter in diameter in the starboard bulge. The pilots complained about poor visibility.

Another series of static explosions followed. After the forth series the entire island was wiped out and the upper hanger seriously damaged. The effect of the fifth series was the most spectacular. A FAB-550 bomb on the flight deck blew a three meter hole and a FAB-100 bomb in the hanger demolished all the light walls and destroyed the equipment. That concluded the static tests and preparations for the testing of underwater munitions where begun. On 17th August the weather bean to worsen and the carrier started to drift towards the shoals. There was the possibility that the ship would drift into waters too shallow to sink her. Rall decided to abandon the testing and finish off the carrier with torpedoes. The planed bombardment by cruisers had been cancelled because of an accident in one of the main turrets of the Molotov. The usage of the 180mm artillery was banned in the entire Soviet Navy for the year 1947. Three torpedo boats and the destroyers Slavny, Srogy, and Stroiny were summoned. The torpedo boats arrived first. The first run by TK-248 was unsuccessful, the torpedo passing under the carrier’s keel. After 15 minutes a torpedo fired by TK-503 hit the starboard side near frame 130. The explosion destroyed the bulge but the armoured belt remained unscathed. After an hour the destroyers arrived and the Slavny hit again the starboard side near frame 180 where there was no bulge. The carrier began to list to the twice damaged starboard. After 15 minutes the list reached 25 degrees, and the ship started to trim to bow. After another eight minutes the Graf Zeppelin with a 90 degree list 25 degree trim to bow slipped below the surface. The date was 18th August 1947.

The results of the tests were kept secret and the allies only informed that she had been sunk. The gap between the summer of 1945 when she was raised and March 1947 when her fate was decided remains a mystery. The German Admiral Ruge claimed in a book that the carrier capsized while being towed from Stettin to a Russian port due to the stowage of steel sheets on the flight deck According to gossip circulating in the Baltic Fleet published by Marek Twardowski in a magazine article, in 1946 the ship was towed to a Leningrad shipyard to be prepared for service. The authorities found this a welcome occasion for the transport of heavy loot which was placed on the flight deck because the damaged elevators prevented the stowage in the hangers. Placing a heavy weight on the flight deck made the ship unstable and she capsized in the shallow fairway. Most of the goods from the flight deck fell in the water, whilst those stored below caused serious damage to the bulkheads and braces. Raising the ship was not difficult but she was no longer suitable for reconstruction and had to be sunk to cover the accident. This supports the account of Ruge but is most probably untrue.

P2V Neptunes Part II



“The Truculent Turtle”

The third production P2V-1 was chosen for a record-setting mission, ostensibly to test crew endurance and long-range navigation but also for publicity purposes: to display the capabilities of the Navy’s latest patrol bomber. Its nickname was “The Turtle,” which was painted on the aircraft’s nose (along with a cartoon of a turtle smoking a pipe pedaling a device attached to a propeller). However, in press releases immediately before the flight, the Navy referred to it as “The Truculent Turtle”.

Loaded with fuel in extra tanks fitted in practically every spare space in the aircraft, “The Turtle” set out from Perth, Australia to the United States. With a crew of four (and a nine-month-old gray kangaroo, a gift from Australia for the Washington, D.C. zoo) the aircraft set off on 9 September 1946, with a RATO (rocket-assisted takeoff). Two and a half days (55h, 18m) later, “The Turtle” touched down in Columbus, Ohio, 11,236.6 mi (18,083.6 km) from its starting point. It was the longest unrefueled flight made to that point – 4,000 mi (6,400 km) longer than the USAF’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress record. This would stand as the absolute unrefueled distance record until 1962 (beaten by a USAF Boeing B-52 Stratofortress), and would remain as a piston-engined record until 1986 when Dick Rutan’s Voyager would break it in the process of circumnavigating the globe. “The Turtle” is preserved at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola.

Early Cold War

Prior to the introduction of the P-3 Orion in the mid-1960s the Neptune was the primary US land-based anti-submarine patrol craft, intended to be operated as the hunter of a ‘”Hunter-Killer” group, with Destroyers employed as killers. Several features aided this task:

Sonobouys could be launched from a station in the aft portion of the fuselage and monitored by radio

Some models were equipped with “pointable” twin .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, most had a forward observation bubble with an observer seat, a feature seen in several of the images.

A Magnetic Anomaly Detector was fitted in an extended tail, producing a paper chart. Unmarked charts were not classified, but those with annotations were classified as secret.

A belly-mounted surface search radar enabled detection of surfaced and snorkeling submarines at considerable distances.

As the P-2 was replaced in the U.S. Navy by the P-3A Orion in active Fleet squadrons in the early and mid-1960s, the P-2 continued to remain operational in the Naval Air Reserve through the mid-1970s, primarily in its SP-2H version. As active Fleet squadrons transitioned to the P-3B and P-3C in the mid- and late-1960s and early 1970s, the Naval Reserve P-2s were eventually replaced by P-3As and P-3Bs and the P-2 exited active US naval service. VP-23 was the last active duty patrol squadron to operate the SP-2H, retiring its last Neptune on 20 February 1970.

Nuclear bomber

At the end of World War II, the US Navy felt the need to acquire a nuclear strike capability to maintain its political influence. In the short term, carrier-based aircraft were the best solution. Nuclear munitions at that time were bulky and required a large aircraft to carry them. The Navy improvised a carrier-based nuclear strike aircraft by modifying the P2V Neptune for carrier takeoff using jet assisted takeoff (JATO) rocket boosters, with initial takeoff tests in 1948. But the Neptune couldn’t land on a carrier, so the crew either had to make their way to a friendly land base after a strike, or ditch in the sea near a US Navy vessel. It was replaced in this emergency role by the North American AJ Savage the first nuclear strike aircraft that was fully capable of carrier launch and recovery operations; it was also short lived in that role as the Navy was adopting fully jet powered nuclear strike aircraft.

Covert operations P2V-7U/RB-69A variants

In 1954 under Project Cherry, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) obtained five newly built P2V-7 and converted these into P2V-7U/RB-69A variants by Lockheed’s Skunk Works at Hangar B5 in Burbank, California, for the CIA’s own private fleet of covert ELINT/ferret aircraft. Later to make up P2V-7U/RB-69A operational losses, the CIA obtained and converted two existing US Navy P2V-7s, one in September 1962, and one in December 1964 to P2V-7U/RB-69A Phase VI standard, and also acquired an older P2V-5 from US Navy as training aircraft in 1963. Test flights done by lead aircraft at Edwards AFB from 1955 to 1956, all the aircraft painted with dark sea blue color but with USAF markings. In 1957 one P2V-7U was sent to Eglin AFB for testing aircraft performance at low level and under adverse conditions. The initial two aircraft were sent to Europe, based at Wiesbaden, West Germany, but were later withdrawn in 1959 when the CIA reduced its covert aircraft assets in Europe. The CIA sent the other two P2V-7U/RB-69As to Hsinchu Air Base, Taiwan, where by December 1957, they were given to a “Black Op” unit, the 34th Squadron, better known as the Black Bat Squadron, of the Republic of China Air Force (|ROCAF/Taiwan); these were painted in ROCAF/Taiwan markings. The ROCAF/Taiwan P2V-7U/RB-69A’s mission was to conduct low level penetration flights into mainland China to conduct ELINT/ferret missions including mapping out China’s air defense networks, inserting agents via airdrop, and dropping leaflets and supplies. The agreement for plausible deniability between US and ROC government meant the RB-69A would be manned by ROCAF/Taiwan crew while conducting operational missions, but would be manned by CIA crew when ferrying RB-69A out of Taiwan or other operational area to US.

The P2V-7U/RB-69A flew with ROCAF/Taiwan Black Bat Squadron over China from 1957 to November 1966. All five original aircraft (two crashed in South Korea, three shot down over China) lost with all hands on board. In January 1967, two remaining RB-69As flew back to NAS Alameda, California, and were converted back to regular US Navy P2H/P2V-7 ASW aircraft configurations. Most of the 34th Squadron’s Black Op missions still remain classified by the CIA, although a CIA internal draft history, Low-Level Technical Reconnaissance over Mainland China (1955-66), reference CSHP-2.348, written in 1972 that covers CIA/ROCAF/Taiwan 34th Squadron’s Black Op missions is known to be in existence but would not be declassified by the CIA until after 2022.

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, the Neptune was used by the US Navy as a gunship, an overland reconnaissance and sensor deployment aircraft, and in its traditional role as a maritime patrol aircraft. The Neptune was also utilized by the U.S. Army’s 1st Radio Research Company (Aviation), call sign “Crazy Cat,” located at Cam Ranh Bay, as an electronic “ferret” aircraft. Observation Squadron 67 (VO-67), call sign “Lindy”, was the only P-2 Neptune aircraft squadron to ever receive the Presidential Unit Citation. VO-67 lost three OP-2E aircraft and 20 aircrew to ground fire during its secret missions into Laos and Vietnam in 1967–68. The ROCAF/Taiwan’s secret 34th Squadron’s RB-69A/P2V-7U ELINT/SIGINT aircraft flew a low level electronic reconnaissance from Da Nang, flying over Thanh Hoa province on 20 August 1963 to investigate an air resupply drop zone that turned out to be a set trap for a Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) C-123B airdrop mission 10 days earlier due to the air-inserted agents having been captured and turned. Next year, an air defense radar mapping mission was also flown by 34th Squadron’s RB-69A/P2V-7U aircraft into North Vietnam and Laos on the night of 16 March 1964. The RB-69A took off from Da Nang, flew up the Gulf of Tonkin before coasting in near Haiphong, then flew down North Vietnam and the Laos border. The mission was requested by SOG for helping plan the insert or resupply of agents. Seven AAA sites, 14 early warning radar sites and two CGI radar signals were detected.

Falklands War

The Argentine Naval Aviation had received at least 16 Neptunes in different variants since 1958 including eight ex-RAF for use in the Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Exploración (English: Naval exploration squadron). They were intensively used in 1978 during the Operation Soberania against Chile including over the Pacific Ocean.

During the Falklands War (Spanish: Guerra de las Malvinas) in 1982, the last two airframes in service (2-P-111 and 2-P-112) played a key role of reconnaissance and aiding Dassault Super Étendards, particularly on the 4 May attack against HMS Sheffield. The lack of spare parts, caused by the US having enacted an arms embargo in 1977 due to the Dirty War, led to the type being retired before the end of the war; Argentine Air Force C-130 Hercules took over the task of searching for targets for strike aircraft.

In 1983, the unit was reformed with Lockheed L-188 Electras modified for maritime surveillance; in 1994 these were replaced with P-3B Orions.

Other military operators

The Canadian version of the Lockheed Neptune (P2V-7) served in the RCAF Maritime Air Command from 1955, as an anti-submarine, anti-shipping and maritime reconnaissance aircraft, being fitted with just piston engines initially. In 1957, the Neptunes had two underwing Westinghouse J34 jet engine pods installed. This conversion provided additional thrust for an improved takeoff, increased endurance by allowing higher weights of fuel and generally improved the overall performance of the aircraft. Armament included two torpedoes, mines, depth charges, bombs carried internally plus unguided rockets mounted externally underwing. A total of 25 Neptunes served with nos. 404, 405 and 407 Squadrons. Upon unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968, the Neptune was re-designated the CP-122 and was replaced by the Canadair CP-107 Argus the same year.

The Royal Air Force Coastal Command operated 52 P2V-5s, designated Neptune MR.1s as a stop-gap modern maritime patrol aircraft until the Avro Shackletons could enter service. They were used from between 1952 and March 1957, being used for Airborne Early Warning experiments as well as for maritime patrol.

In Australia, the Netherlands, and the US Navy, its tasks were taken over by the larger and more capable Lockheed P-3 Orion, and by the 1970s, it was only in use by patrol squadrons in the US Naval Reserve. The US Naval Reserve abandoned its last Neptunes in 1978, those aircraft also having been replaced by the P-3 Orion. By the 1980s, the Neptune had fallen out of military use in most purchasing nations, replaced by newer aircraft.

In Japan, the Neptune was license-built from 1966 by Kawasaki as the P-2J, with the piston engines replaced by IHI-built T64 turboprops. Kawasaki continued their manufacture much later than Lockheed did; the P-2J remained in service until 1984.

Jürgen Oesten and the End of the U-boats

Jürgen Oesten

Jürgen Oesten, like so many of his comrades, was approaching the end of a war that Germany was bound to lose, and everything in his life was going to change again.

Oesten brought U-861 into the harbor of Trondheim, Norway, on 19 April 1945, after a three-month passage from Penang in Japanese-occupied Malaya. The patrol he had just completed (actually two patrols separated by an extended layover in Malaya for overhaul and provisioning) had been only a partial success. He had sunk four ships, hardly a total for the record books, but his crew was still alive, and crammed into U-861’s hull were containers of opium, rock crystal, rubber in tanks, and 120 metric tons of molybdenum concentrate (whether any of this got from the docks of Trondheim to the factories of Germany is not known, but it is doubtful considering the tenuous condition of the supply lines at that time).

The Reich had less than three weeks to live when Oesten returned, and he stayed with U-861 until its end. There was one close call: Konteradmiral Erich Schulte-Mönting, Admiral Nordmeer, had planned to reassign him as commander of a minesweeping flotilla that was fast disintegrating into mutiny, but Oesten managed to talk him out of it with a large bag of coffee he had brought back with him from Malaya. Was it a bribe? He says no. It was simply a measure of how much things had changed in a year. Priorities had changed. The war was obviously over, and he had survived the worst of it. Better to stay in the relative safety of his own boat, among friends, than to take command of a flotilla of strangers looking for trouble. The imperative of accepting orders without question had been overriden by the more practical notion of using one’s common sense to stay alive.

To understand this mind-set, it is necessary to understand what was happening in the last days of the Third Reich. Allied armies had crossed German borders on both sides and were preparing to link up on the Elbe near Torgau. Refugees were flooding into the west. Adolf Hitler and his government were in Berlin, huddled in underground bunkers and insulated from reality. The fabric of discipline that had held the U-Bootwaffe, indeed the entire Wehrmacht, together for so long was beginning to unravel. Commanders were moved, and moved again, to serve the needs of a confused leadership. Some sought to avoid orders with an eye toward their own best interests; others began to disobey them; and still others were placed in positions of judgment to track these men down and punish them. Many were swept into captivity. Two took themselves and their boats away from the fight entirely. One, having seen defeat, died tragically soon afterward.

In March Karl-Friedrich Merten was forced to close the Twenty-fourth U-Flotilla in Memel, which he had commanded since April 1943, and to evacuate all flotilla personnel to the west. To his credit, he was also able to evacuate a large number of German military casualties and civilian refugees, who would otherwise have fallen into the hands of the advancing Red Army. He was subsequently assigned to what he will only call “Special Duties, Führer Headquarters,” actually a position as Erster Beisitzer on a Fliegendes Standgericht, a special flying court, attached to Navy Group West. The primary duty of these special courts, which consisted of a naval judge and two Beisitzer, naval advisers, was to try and pass instant judgment on naval personnel accused of cowardice, desertion, and other offenses likely to occur when an enemy force is advancing inexorably and withdrawals are either forbidden or heavily limited. Often the men accused were tried and sentenced by the court in a matter of hours, and their punishments, usually the death sentence, were carried out at once. Merten’s record as a member of the Standgericht is not available; it would be wrong to lay at his feet a death resulting from anything other than a fair and impartial execution of his duties, although his performance was good enough for him to be promoted in May 1945, just days before the war ended, to the rank of Kapitän zur See over 179 more senior officers.

Gottfried König was lucky enough not to have to appear before a Standgericht in the last week of the war. He had been away from the front since he left U-181 in October 1943 and was commander of the training boat U-316. On 1 May 1945, after the boat experienced a mechanical failure and could not be repaired, he sank her in the mouth of the River Trave and led his crew onto land and into a desperate search for safety in the plains of Schleswig-Holstein. At one point he was stopped and ordered to form an infantry company for a final defense of the Kiel-Flensburg area. “At the last minute,” he wrote, “a Panzerfaust was pressed into my hands for a final defense against the attacking English forces. I thought it was a crazy idea and refused, and since the English were in Lübeck a few days later I could not be held accountable for it. Of course U-boat sailors are not infantrymen, and could only make a mess of things in land warfare.” Like many others, König elected to follow his common sense rather than orders that were clearly absurd.

The destruction of the U-boats continued apace. More than one hundred boats were lost in the first four months of 1945, most of them with their entire crews, for negligible returns in tonnage and no strategic benefit whatsoever. There was one glimmer of hope in 1945. Toward the end of the previous year the first of two new U-boat types were commissioned: the small type XXIII and the large type XXI. Both were revolutionary; the latter in particular was as different from existing U-boats as the jet engine was from the propeller and was comparable in many respects to a modern submarine. Hull design was improved. New electric motors reduced sound signatures, and increased battery capacity raised maximum underwater speed to seventeen knots. Improved fuel economy and better snorkels allowed the type XXI to make an entire patrol without surfacing. They were indeed the miracle boats for which the U-Bootwaffe had been waiting so long; in spring 1945, after years of development and months of testing, they were beginning to arrive at the front, manned by veteran crews and commanded by the most experienced U-boat commanders still available (no matter how long they had been absent from the front). Adalbert Schnee, for example, Karl Dönitz’s operations officer since 1942, was given U-2511. Erich Topp, head of testing for the new boats and a staff officer for almost three years, finished the war in command of U-2513. Peter Cremer was moved from U-333 to U-2519.

It would have been interesting to see how these boats fared in battle; had they appeared a year or two earlier, they might have had a real effect (although probably not the desired one of turning the war around). As it was, few of them reached the front. Dozens were sunk in their berths. U-2519 was bombed and damaged beyond repair on 5 April; she remained in commission, but Cremer elected to scuttle her shortly after the surrender. Topp took U-2513 out of Kiel on 1 May and headed for Norway. He heard of Hitler’s death as he sneaked through the Skagerrak and was informed of the surrender as soon as he put into Horten. Schnee had managed to initiate an operation patrol on 30 April from Bergen but received the order to cease fire just after he had found the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk in his crosshairs, which he had been able to approach without detection. A later comparison of both logs showed that the Norfolk would have been destroyed; instead, Schnee broke off the attack and returned to Bergen. The type XXI miracle boats had not sunk a single ship. Neither they, nor the type XXIII boats, nor any of the other boats lost at sea since January had any effect on the course of a war whose death rattle now echoed in the discharge of a small pistol clutched in the hand of Adolf Hitler.

Before Hitler died, he designated his successor as head of the German state and commander in chief of her rapidly fading armed forces. To almost everyone’s surprise, this man was not Heinrich Himmler or Hermann Goering but Karl Dönitz, the Kriegsmarine chief and U-boat admiral. Dönitz, who had by this time become a somewhat fey and gloomy figure, received notification of Hitler’s death and of his own inheritance in the tiny Schleswig-Holstein town of Plön, where he had just relocated from Koralle. Shortly after that he moved again, to Flensburg, where the new center of government was set up in the gymnasium of the Marineschule. A new guard unit, Wachtbataillon Dönitz, was created from the crew of Peter Cremer’s boat U-2519 to protect it, and Cremer himself was made the commander of Wachtbataillon Dönitz, responsible for security around the gymnasium and the school compound.

One of Dönitz’s first acts in his new capacity was to recall his boats. There is some confusion even now about the number of transmissions, their originators, or even the sequence in which they were sent, but there is no doubt that on the afternoon of 5 May 1945 Dönitz made a signal to all U-boats that began: “My submariners: six years of submarine warfare lie behind us. You have fought like lions. An oppressive superiority in material has driven us into a corner. From the remaining ground a continuation of the fight is no longer possible.” It was signed “Your Grand Admiral.” It was a historic order, if perhaps not Nelsonian. “If the English sounds stilted,” wrote Dan Van der Vat rather cattily, “the reader need only consult the German to understand why.” Nevertheless, its meaning was clear: the U-boats were to cease all offensive action.

With this signal World War II ended for the U-Bootwaffe. It had not been an easy battle or a satisfying one. They had indeed fought like lions: sinking twenty-eight hundred ships of fourteen million tons, tying Allied supply lines into knots, causing their enemies to fear, more than once, that the war would be lost because of them, all with scant resources and only grudging support on their own side. But the other side of the ledger was so dismal that one is led to wonder whether it was worth the effort. Almost twelve hundred boats were commissioned in six years, and almost eight hundred were lost. Of the forty thousand men who served in them, almost thirty thousand were killed, most of them after the Battle of the Atlantic was irretrievably lost.

For these reasons the reaction to Dönitz’s signal was mixed. Herbert Werner was relieved, if not delighted, to hear it. “This,” he wrote in Iron Coffins, “was the message that put an end to the suffering. . . . My death in an iron coffin, a verdict of long standing, was finally suspended. The truth was so beautiful that it seemed to be a dream.”6 Not everyone was so enthralled. Heinz Schaeffer, commander of U-977, was incredulous when he picked up Dönitz’s recall signal in the English Channel. He did not believe that Dönitz was responsible for it; it was the work of an impostor, or the Grossadmiral had been forced to do it. “I couldn’t conceive it possible that our leaders had sunk so far as to send out official orders to surrender.” When, the next day, he received another signal from Dönitz stating that all boats still at sea were to hoist a black flag and put into the nearest Allied port, Schaeffer knew the war was lost. The thought of defeat was unbearable. He decided to do something that would take him away from it and from the suffering that would inevitably follow. He disappeared, and nobody could find him. In the surge of events it was assumed that he had been lost. Few mourned.

On 14 May 1945, one week after the German surrender in Rheims, Wolfgang Lüth died. Still the commandant of the Marineschule, he had survived six years of war and sixteen war patrols without as much as a scratch only to be shot dead by one of Cremer’s sailors on sentry duty. It was late at night in stormy weather, and Lüth was walking from Dönitz’s headquarters in the school gymnasium to his home in the commandant’s quarters along a narrow walkway called the Black Path. The sentry, young and nervous, challenged Lüth but heard no response; he fired once. Lüth was struck in the head and killed instantly. Since Lüth was the man who gave the order for the sentries to shoot, and since he kept walking even after the sentry had screamed three times for him to stop and identify himself, it was thought at first that he had committed suicide. This theory was rejected by a board of inquiry, and the shooting was ruled an accident.

Lüth believed in his country, her leadership, and National Socialism until the last days of the war, but he died knowing that Germany was defeated, Hitler was a fraud, and National Socialism was a bankrupt ideology responsible for untold suffering. We cannot know whether he rejected them before he died; Erich Topp believes that he would have done so had he lived. Nevertheless, Karl Dönitz requested, and received, permission from occupation authorities to bury Lüth with the military honors of the Third Reich: an honor guard of Ritterkreuzträger, an armed escort in his cortege, three volleys of rifle fire over his grave—and a swastika ensign on his casket. His story ends at that point. Dönitz never made much of his relationship with the man he buried so ceremoniously and mentions him only briefly in his memoirs. Other histories deny him the credit and the notoriety he deserves for his part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Lüth died, a talented officer, a confusing man, and vanished into time.

As Lüth lay on a bier in the memorial hall of the Marineschule, arguably a victim of the last bullet fired in Europe, other U-Bootwaffe officers more fortunate than he were contemplating an unlikely and often unexpected survival and a new life in an unrecognizable world. The country was devastated and lay in pieces. Of her once proud armies only dregs remained. Her people were exhausted, hungry, and homeless. In some cities, quite literally, there was no stone left upon another. One might say they had brought it on themselves; if so, they were paying for it. The families of U-Bootwaffe veterans suffered as much as anyone, in many cases even more because an abnormal number of their husbands, fathers, and sons had died at sea, and many others were still prisoners, their futures unknown.

More than six thousand U-Bootwaffe officers and men were registered prisoners of war. Most of them were in North America, and there were no immediate plans to send them back home. Hundreds more were interned when they brought their boats into Allied ports after the war. Captivity took on various and fickle forms, and if a man was lucky he might remain free. Peter Cremer should have been arrested in Germany but was sent home after the camp he was supposed to be housed in was found to be full. Gottfried König was not arrested, nor was Karl-Friedrich Merten. Victor Oehrn was spared; as it happened, he was in the hospital again for another operation on his damaged hip. And finally, as of 21 May, two weeks after the armistice, Karl Dönitz was free, albeit under close supervision and without any real powers as the German head of state. The Allies put up with him because they needed someone in his position to deal with. He was a useful tool, but he knew his usefulness would not last much longer, and he said as much in a somber conversation at Oehrn’s bedside. “Soon they will come to arrest me,” he said toward the end. “I will be tried and sentenced, and I won’t make it out of here alive [man wird mich einen Kopf kurzer machen].”

Oehrn found this very hard to believe. “How can you say that? Why would anyone treat you—a blameless naval officer—in such a way? It won’t happen!”

“You are still young,” said Dönitz matter-of-factly, “and you can’t see it. The victors are in charge. It is a political thing now, and there will be a political trial. I can count on being sentenced to death, and I only hope that I will have the strength to see it through without making a mess of things. Everyone will condemn me in the end; I only hope that my U-boat men will stand by me.”                                                        

“I can’t believe it will be that way,” replied Oehrn. “But whatever happens, the U-Bootwaffe will always stand by you. You can be assured of it.” Dönitz left then, “completely relaxed and calm,” and Oehrn, helpless in his hospital bed, could only reflect on Dönitz, on the U-Bootwaffe, on his own career, which, for someone who had always thought of himself as a staff officer, “a man without a name,” had been much more exciting and more fulfilling than he had a right to expect. The magnificent Tatars of the Caucasus. Mecklenburg Bight. The Schnorchelbude and Prien. “Five days, Herr Admiral.” Rome. Renate. “I can’t make a cabinet matter out of it. There is a war on, and I have to follow orders just like you do.” The magnificent Rommel. Dein Wille geschehe. “We are Australians. Are we good fighters?” Two grains of sand in the desert. “You will know later that I have never lied to you.” He had come such a long way from the Dänholm. And yet he was only thirty-eight.

Two days later, Dönitz joined his men in captivity when he and his cabinet were arrested by representatives of the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. By all accounts, he conducted himself with dignity, and the arrests took place without incident. “Words,” he said, “would be superfluous.” Six months after that he was on trial at Nuremberg, along with twenty other senior party and Wehrmacht officials, including Hermann Goering and Erich Raeder (Goebbels and Himmler were both dead, suicides like their leader). He was, of course, entirely correct in his predictions to Oehrn. The world wanted his head.

Jürgen Oesten, still in command of U-861 but marooned in Trondheim with his crew, could only watch as the events of April and May flashed before him. When the British finally came for him, he surrendered his boat quietly, having no idea what would come next. There was no rhyme or reason to the fates of U-boat crewmen in Norway. Erich Topp, for example, turned U-2513 over to the British in Horten and was unconditionally released several weeks later in Germany. Herbert Werner, in contrast, captured just down the road from Oesten in Bergen, was turned over to the French army, which shipped him with a large number of POWs back to France. After three attempts, he escaped in October 1945, hopped a train back to Germany, and fled into the woods outside Frankfurt.

Oesten was sent neither to Germany nor to France, although he was promised the first option. The British wanted his boat in Northern Ireland, and since they did not have the expertise to do it themselves, they asked Oesten and his crew to take it from Trondheim to Londonderry. Oesten declined; the war was over, he announced, and he wanted to go home. Negotiations began, and a deal was eventually worked out with Oesten and several other commanders in the area: if they would sail their own boats to Northern Ireland, they would be rewarded with early repatriation to Germany. The boats were duly delivered. As Oesten sailed into the harbor, shepherded by British destroyers, he flashed a message: “Thank you for the escort.” The reply, “It was a pleasure,” was followed with arrest and internment. The agreement had been overruled somewhere up the line. It was an act of bad faith for which Oesten is still bitter, for it meant that he too was a prisoner of war.

Oesten’s first stop was a tiny POW camp of two Nissen huts and a barbed wire fence in Lissahally. Theodor Petersen was in one of the huts when he got there. Petersen was commander of U-874 when the war ended, and he surrendered his boat under similar circumstances. The two were sent to London—to the London District Cage (LDC) in Kensington, to be precise—for formal questioning. All U-boat officers captured by the Royal Navy passed through the LDC, which continued to operate for some time after the war ended. The interrogators at the LDC were excellent at their work; they invariably impressed their guests with an encyclopedic knowledge of the U-Bootwaffe and a detailed outline of their own personal lives. Oesten appreciated that Kensington was a dangerous place, but he gave nothing away and “cannot recall anything unpleasant.”

At the LDC a prisoner would be classified as to his political persuasion: the usual designation was white for apolitical or anti-Nazi, black for Nazis, gray for those in between. On this basis, he was assigned to a permanent camp for internment, and in due course, after the usual administrative red tape and paper chase in London, Jürgen Oesten and Theodor Petersen were classified and sent to POW Camp 18, Featherstone Park, located on the banks of the South Tyne in Northumberland. There they were put in with several thousand other prisoners, officers and men, to await the pleasure of the king.

Featherstone Park was a large camp. It would eventually house many thousands of German prisoners from every branch of the Wehrmacht. The camp spokesman was a Luftwaffe colonel. There was an army contingent led by several other colonels, a sprinkling of Kriegsmarine surface officers, a horde of U-boat crewmen, and almost seventy commanders. Like many such camps, Featherstone Park was a depressing place. Until the end of the war it was a typical POW camp in which the prisoners were treated as dangerous men. It was divided into three major areas, each identified with one of the color designations described above, but the camp leadership was in the “black” range. It was heavily guarded, and prisoners were allowed out of their huts only for exercise in ranks. Hostility and mutual distrust were the norm. When the war ended, this mood did not improve but merely changed into one of sullen indirection. “Ideologies fell down like a house of cards,” wrote Matthew Barry Sullivan, author of the best book on prisoner of war camps in postwar Britain. “There was a parting of the ways between those who wanted to work for the future and those who endlessly mulled over the past.”

Theodor Petersen does not appear to have been overly affected by his bad fortune, but Jürgen Oesten was a nervous wreck when he arrived. His condition did not stem from defeat; unlike many in the camp, he was able to deal with the fall of National Socialism and the defeat of Germany. But the experience of war had left him emotionally exhausted; the sound of the guns, now silent, was deafening. He later described his mental state in a letter to an English friend, allegorically rather than literally, by using the image of a confused traveler in a strange land:

Once upon a time there was an odd-job man, who by chance got to a place in Northumberland to do some wood-cutting. He was a bit clumsy, handled the language roughly . . . and [he was] a bit curious about the situation and the new experience. The war had spit him ashore in this country and he was somehow drifting between two entirely different lives, the one behind and the one ahead. Few things had kept their value. The times that passed had left their marks. To be married to uncertainty for a bit too long a time had made him somehow hard-boiled and less sensitive. There were some undigested sensations and experiences hanging around still.

He was on the brink, and what happened to him in the months after his capture would probably affect him for the rest of his life. His “hard-boiled and less sensitive” veneer might have been very much exacerbated had Featherstone Park continued as Sullivan describes above; indeed, in many camps that did not change for the better, he would probably have become even more insensitive to life and perhaps been permanently scarred by bitterness and distrust. For such has happened to others in his position—men who are even now immersed in the gall of the past.

As Oesten prepared himself for the long Northumbrian winter, the world received its one final jolt of U-boat intrigue. On 17 August 1945 Heinz Schaeffer suddenly reappeared in Buenos Aires. By a remarkable feat of navigation, he had managed to take U-977 and most of her crew all the way from Norway to the River Plate without being detected. The journey had begun the day he received the second signal from Dönitz. Most of the married men were put ashore in Norway, a detour that meant U-977 would have to make a long and hazardous dash past the British Isles to Gibraltar through waters still vigorously patrolled by enemy ships and aircraft. The first sixty-six days of the journey were spent underwater. The crew became ghostly and listless; tempers were frayed; small incidents of theft and insubordination occurred. It is a tribute to Schaeffer that he kept everyone together until U-977 sailed into Argentine waters.

Things did not work out as Schaeffer had planned, however. He was accused after he arrived in Buenos Aires of having smuggled Adolf Hitler out of Europe, and for that reason he was interrogated at length by both Argentine and American authorities. Such a possibility seems patently ridiculous now, but many otherwise sensible people were prepared to believe it in the months and years after the war, and Schaeffer’s voyage has since provided a flimsy historical basis for wild tales of Adolf Hitler founding a fourth Reich in South America or Antarctica. For all his troubles, unfortunately, Schaeffer became a prisoner of war, first in Argentina, then in the United States, and the boat he had shepherded all the way to Buenos Aires was destroyed.

Oesten’s first winter in Featherstone Park was not as bad as he might have expected. The cheerless air of the previous summer improved markedly during that time so that by the spring it seemed a different place. When Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, the ranking survivor of the sunken battleship Bismarck, arrived from Canada in March, he was surprised by what he saw. “When, as a member of a large group, I first glimpsed Camp 18,” he recalled, “something unusual was immediately evident. There was no barbed wire; no watchtowers; British guards were nowhere in sight. I saw German prisoners leisurely strolling outside the camp area; completely without British ‘supervision’; their simple word of honor sufficed now.” Taken inside, he found less a prison than a small German city: a city that bragged a newspaper, two theaters, a university, a library, a working population, and a surprising level of trust and goodwill. For von Müllenheim-Rechberg, who had known both good camps and bad in his five years of captivity, Featherstone Park was a new experience.

It was a remarkable transformation, and several factors were involved, but Sullivan gives most of the credit to three men: the camp commandant, a new camp spokesman, and an unusual interpreter whose talents lay far beyond his duties. The commandant, a bluff and practical lieutenant colonel named Vickers, arrived at the camp just before Oesten. A prisoner himself in World War I, he realized at once that the men in Featherstone Park were being handled improperly. The war was over, and the purpose of the camp had changed; he “could see that. . . what his Germans needed was to be trusted, to feel less hemmed in and to have ways of relieving their cramped feelings and muscles.” As if to underscore this point, he removed the watchtowers and barbed wire fences surrounding the camp.

Theodor Petersen helped to tear those fences down. When he arrived at Featherstone Park he had seen only the wire, but when the wire was gone he was able to look around him, and he saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty of the area, the flowers along the Tyne, the deer in the fields. Petersen’s image calls to mind a book by C. S. Lewis called The Last Battle. In it he describes two soldiers, both of whom believe they are imprisoned in a cage. One soldier will not be told that the cage is an illusion, and so he remains imprisoned; the other opens his eyes, looks around, the cage disappears, and he is free. In fact, he has been free all along. This is what was happening to men in Featherstone Park: for some of them the place was no more than a prison and it stayed that way until the day they left. For others, like Petersen, the prison disappeared when they opened their eyes and looked around.

In January 1946 the interpreter arrived. His name was Herbert Sulzbach, and his background was as interesting as that of anyone described in this book. He was a German Jew, born in Frankfurt and a veteran of the German army in World War I. In 1938 the political climate forced him and his family to flee to Britain, and when the war began he was interned on the Isle of Man. He joined the British Army in 1940, received a commission, and by 1946 had risen to the rank of captain. He became a British subject during the war, but he held an undying love for Germany and never stopped believing in the underlying virtue of his former countrymen. His posting was not accidental; he was not sent to Featherstone Park because of his skill as an interpreter but because of his extraordinary ability to console, to advise, to counsel, and, if necessary, to admonish those who in his judgment had been temporarily misled by National Socialism. As Vickers improved the material lot of the men in Featherstone Park, Sulzbach improved their mental and emotional condition.

Sulzbach achieved an immediate affinity with almost every German in the camp. Such was his ability to comfort and to assure that they lined up outside his tiny office to talk to him. Said one former Featherstone Park prisoner (a farmer) in 1976, “Even now, if it were necessary, I would sell half my cows and drive over half the world just to be able to talk to Herbert.”  Unfortunately, one of the few men who could not get along with Sulzbach was Jürgen Oesten. “[Sulzbach] did a tremendous lot of good handling POW affairs in a sensitive and fair way,” he wrote. “Why did we not like each other? I think he thought me to be arrogant and I did not take his camouflage seriously.” Paradoxically, the differences between the two men helped Oesten more than they hurt. They may even have been the key to his survival.

Shortly after Oesten arrived, he was made deputy camp spokesman, but the position did not seem to work out, at least not insofar as he used it to help other prisoners. “As a born man-manager,” wrote Sullivan “[Oesten] quickly asserted his force of character and ability at Featherstone Park. He was not, however, widely popular. He tended to bear rather heavily on the younger naval men . . . and he was not behind the new spirit that was being created in the camp.” Oesten concedes that he might have been unpopular, but he professes to be unconcerned: “Whether I was popular or not did not worry me overmuch as long as I could achieve more freedom for the camp inmates by cooperation with and suggestions to the British authorities. Of course for some of the diehard boys who were prisoners [for] many years this was going too fast and I may not have been popular with them.” In either case, Oesten’s leadership style did not appeal to Sulzbach.

Oesten had accepted defeat, and he felt it his responsibility to convince the men around him to do the same. “Based on an education by broadminded parents,” he wrote, “I was in a position to help many younger prisoners to see the era of Hitler and Co. in the proper proportion and to regard the defeat in its proper value.” For him it was a logical process. Once they were shown that the Third Reich was an evil institution, they would realize that Germany’s defeat was necessary and perhaps even a good thing. Unfortunately, the human mind does not work that way, and very few German soldiers of any political stripe would have accepted such an argument. Sulzbach had the same goal as Oesten, but his methods were entirely different. Rather than argument or logic, he used persuasion, trust, understanding, and humor. Compared to Oesten’s confrontational style of argument, Sulzbach could be disarming as well as direct. “His approach was very personal. It was as though he had his own dowsing technique into a person’s true feelings, into his quality as a human being.” Not surprisingly, Sulzbach succeeded where Oesten had failed, and Oesten’s influence began to fade.

Oesten was also a loner. He had his own agenda from the start, and he went along with the routine only reluctantly. Every prisoner in the camp, for example, had to undergo regular interviews and psychological testing to monitor his progress. Oesten, never interested in National Socialism, jaded by nature, and doubtless annoyed at being a prisoner in the first place, was not impressed by any of this and adopted a supercilious attitude toward the entire procedure. During one such interview he proposed that he be evaluated by three different officers because he could predict ahead of time how he would be evaluated. Unfortunately, he wrote, “The camp authorities did not have sufficient sense of humor.”24 Such an attitude may well have seemed arrogant to Sulzbach or to anyone else who had the misfortune of conducting an interview with Oesten.

This conflict was unfortunate for Oesten, especially in his position as deputy camp spokesman. He would have benefited from Sulzbach’s friendship. For soon afterward Sulzbach initiated a shakeup in the camp leadership structure that left Oesten completely out of the picture. Both men considered the camp spokesman all wrong for the position. “He was a dead duck,” wrote Oesten, “and the situation was hopeless.” But rather than replace him with Oesten, Sulzbach convinced Vickers to bring in a new spokesman from a different camp: an army general named Ferdinand Heim. Vickers, Sulzbach, and Heim would effectively run the camp from that point on, and Oesten no longer played an active role.

In the end he went quietly. He gave up the role of counselor to Sulzbach, who seemed to be having more success than he, and he paid less attention to his position as a camp spokesman. Instead, he threw his efforts into a new responsibility he had been given. One of Vickers’s ideas was that prisoners should be able to work outside the camp during the day (an arrangement that had already been tried with great success in North American camps). It allowed the prisoners to get out, and it enabled the local community to benefit from an extraordinary collection of talents which otherwise would have gone to waste. Oesten was made the officer responsible for forming the various work details that walked, rode, or drove out of Featherstone Park’s main gate every morning. He supplied laborers to Northumberland farms for the harvest, masons for repairing walls, carpenters, electricians, even a gaggle of shovel bearers for an archaeological dig along the Roman Wall. Officers, ordinarily exempt from manual labor, often volunteered for these jobs. Von Müllenheim-Rechberg, a hereditary baron, took the “greatest pleasure” in draining peat bogs. It was a job Oesten turned out to be very good at, and it seemed to satisfy his need to keep occupied, to focus on something other than his captivity.

It helped that captivity had become a rather abstract concept. It was hardly imprisonment in the classic sense. Military discipline, such as it was, had become the province of the German chain of command rather than the British. There was free communication to points outside the camp; the German cooks in the bakery, for example, could send packages of homemade chocolate bars back home to impoverished families. There were two camp newspapers and unlimited access to outside media. A program of higher education was instituted, with classes in almost every subject imaginable (most of these were later accepted for credit by German universities). There were two theater groups, one for serious theater, the other for lighter fare, and a camp orchestra. Bus tours to various scenic spots in northern England were arranged. Debates, organized and otherwise, raged within the camp: politics, religion, and social affairs were freely discussed.

Oesten could come and go as he pleased. He could use public transport; he could visit businesses in town or deal with local merchants. He was even able to remain outside the gates of Featherstone Park overnight and was a guest for some time at the home of the British archaeologist Eric Birley, who lived not far from the camp (it was to the Birley family that he addressed the letter quoted above). Under the circumstances, it would not have been difficult to escape, and some did, but when Oesten was asked about it later he stated that escape would not have made sense for him. In any case, by the end of 1946, he was a free man in every sense but the strictly legal one, and to leave Featherstone Park for Germany on an “unofficial” basis would have caused more problems than it solved.

Such an atmosphere was based on trust on both sides. It could not have existed in many postwar POW camps. Once Jürgen Oesten was sent away for a “sort of re-education course,” and instead of returning at once to Featherstone Park, he was held temporarily at another camp, Lodge Moor, near Sheffield. He believes this was to test his reaction to Lodge Moor, or perhaps to test the reactions of the Lodge Moor prisoners to him, for it was “rather black and primitive compared to Featherstone Park.” Prisoners from POW camps in the United States and Canada were sent to Lodge Moor on their way back to Germany. Their attitudes, he found, were frozen more or less at the point of their capture, and although he tried to convince several of them that things had changed, they were not interested. One of these officers was Otto Kretschmer, who had just arrived at Lodge Moor from Bowmanville POW camp in Ontario, Canada.

Otto Kretschmer had been in various forms of Allied imprisonment for five years and had not played an active role in the Battle of the Atlantic since early 1941. But as a POW he had pursued a war of his own and had become almost as famous for what he did after his capture as for what he did before. When U-570 was given up by Hans-Joachim Rahmlow in August 1941, her officers (minus Rahmlow himself) were sent to Grizedale Hall, a POW camp in the Lake District. Otto Kretschmer, the senior German officer in the camp, held a secret “court of honor” and found the first watch officer, Bernt Bernhardt, guilty of cowardice before the enemy. Bernhardt was given an opportunity to redeem himself by escaping from the camp and scuttling U-570 at her berth in Barrow-in-Furness, but he was shot and killed in the attempt. In 1942, after the failed Allied landing at Dieppe, Canadian soldiers were held in handcuffs, a violation of the Geneva Convention. German POWs at Bowmanville were ordered to don handcuffs in retaliation. Kretschmer, once again the senior German officer, refused and started a riot in the camp that has since become known as the Battle of Bowmanville. And it was Kretschmer who engineered the abortive escape attempt from Bowmanville in which a U-boat was to creep into the St. Lawrence River to pick up the escapees and ferry them to safety. To his men, he was magnificent; to his captors, Otto Kretschmer was a problem child who never got with the program.

Oesten will not discuss his conversation with Otto Kretschmer, except to say that it was contentious. Kretschmer had no love for National Socialism and at the time of his capture at sea expressed himself bored and disillusioned with the war. But National Socialism—and its effects—had done nothing to dim his love for Germany or his pride in being a German. Presumably Oesten tried to convince Kretschmer that Germany’s defeat was necessary to end National Socialism and that the country would benefit from it in the long term. Kretschmer would hear none of this, nor would two of Oesten’s classmates, members of Crew 33 he also met at Lodge Moor. The reason for these negative reactions, he believes, is something he calls “barbed wire disease,” an emotional condition brought on by prolonged confinement. “I studied the barbed-wire phenomenon to a certain extent, as I met many different types. . . . One thing seemed to me the same for all of them. The period of being [a] POW is like a black hole in their mental development. They stop in the position when they were taken prisoner, even if the possibilities for information and education are first class.”

Oesten had struggled to ensure that this did not happen to him. It had not always been easy. When he arrived, he was a nervous wreck, married, as he wrote, to uncertainty, a large chip on his shoulder. His position as a camp spokesman did not work out: he alienated more than a few of the men he had tried to help. He had his problems with Sulzbach, a man who seemed to have very little trouble dealing with anyone. His future was as cloudy as his new landscape.

But human beings are resilient by nature, and in the end, he did not allow any of these things to bother him. He began to improve. He knew he was getting better; he could see it in himself and by looking at other people, like Kretschmer, who had not changed. He had become more relaxed, more circumspect. He dislikes the term “cynical” and denies that it ever applied to him, but he was more open and willing to take at face value the opinions of other people, and he found that others were listening to him again and paying more attention to what he had to say. As he traveled around rural Northumberland matching men to jobs, he could see beauty in the country and in the daily lives of its people. “Lots of things happened,” he continued in his letter to Eric Birley. “He met a milkman at the same corner at the same time early morning, walking through that rough and hilly countryside breathing in plenty of fresh air. Some of the country folk he met were not at all surprised but fitted him somehow into their picture of the globe, which was sensible and uncomplicated.”

A passage from Jürgen Oesten’s last evaluation, signed by an interrogator at Featherstone Park named Philip Rossiter, is worth quoting. If, as Oesten believes, Herbert Sulzbach had anything to do with it, the evaluation can be regarded as reasonably accurate and very perceptive. “Oesten,” wrote Rossiter, “used to be an enthusiastic sailor who did not worry his head overmuch about politics. He has come to his present positive but very realistic attitude by slow but sure steps. He is most strongly recommended for a job in youth or adult education where his outstanding ability to influence people has scope. He would also make an excellent [leader] of some rehabilitation group. Above all, Oesten is a very decent chap.” Clearly, he had recovered.

In early 1947 Jürgen Oesten was moved from Featherstone Park to Camp 168, a transit camp, to prepare for repatriation. From Camp 168 he would be sent to Hull, then placed on a ship for Bremerhaven, and finally, after eighteen months of questionably legal confinement as a “prisoner of peace,” released. Most German prisoners of war came home between 1946 and 1948. Oesten believed they were released with the same mind-set they had when they were captured. If this is true—and the point is debatable—many of them were ill-equipped to handle freedom in a country that was very different from the one they had left so many years earlier. The Nuremberg trials were over. National Socialism had ostensibly been purged from society. A postwar government was in place and a new constitution was being written. Soviet control of Eastern Europe was complete and the first major confrontation of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, was under way. The country was still poor, but the first stirrings of a tremendous economic revival could be felt in the air. Everything had changed; a man who still believed as he had in 1940 or 1941 would be out of place in such an environment, like Oesten’s woodcutter, “drifting between two entirely different lives, the one behind and the one ahead.”

Happily, this was not the case with Oesten himself or with most of his fellow prisoners at Featherstone Park. Because of the camp’s enlightened management, its open walls, and its wealth of diversions, the men who eventually emerged from it were better adjusted and more prepared than most to deal with the changes they encountered. When Oesten arrived at Featherstone Park, he was a tired, bitter man, confused, apprehensive, and emotionally drained. When he left he was spiritually refreshed, self-confident, and at peace with himself. Any physical confinement is unpleasant. Becoming a prisoner in a foreign country, without a crime, without a trial, with no indication of a release date or even a condition for release, can destroy a man. Jürgen Oesten did not allow this to happen and ended his captivity in triumph.

Maarten van Tromp, (1598-1653)


Dutch admiral. While at sea with his father on a Vereenigde Oostindische Compaagnie (VOC) ship to India, he was taken prisoner by an English pirate and made to serve as a cabin boy for two years. He saw his first naval action in 1617 against the Barbary corsairs. He signed on to a Dutch armed merchantman two years later, and was captured by pirates a second time in 1621. In 1624, he took command of a Dutch frigate in the war against Spain. Within five years, he rose to captain of the admiral’s flagship. He rose to admiral himself by the mid-1630s, after overcoming personal and political rivalries.

Over the rest of his career, Tromp emerged as one of the premier sea captains in any Navy during the 17th century. In 1639, he carried out a raid against Dunkirk pirates and privateers. That same year he led a squadron of 18 Dutch sail to victory over a huge Spanish invasion fleet off The Downs, capturing 13 galleons and 57 other prizes out of a convoy of 100 ships. It was an astonishing, decisive, crushing victory that helped decide the outcome of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648). In 1646, Tromp aided an attack on the privateer base at Dunkirk. He exchanged fire with Robert Blake off Dover on May 19/29, 1652, in defiance of the English claim to “sovereignty of the sea.” That action led directly to the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654).

Tromp lost half his fleet to a gale in July 1652, and was sacked upon his return to the Netherlands. He was restored after the disaster, for the Dutch suffered in his absence at Kentish Knock (September 28/October 8, 1652). He fought Blake twice in the Channel, driving him up the Thames at Dungeness (November 30/ December 10, 1652). He again fought Blake, but inconclusively, in a three-day battle off Portland (February 18-20/February 28-March 2, 1653). Tromp fought next at Gabbard Shoal (June 2-3/12-13, 1653). He and the Dutch Navy failed to adjust to the new English tactic of line of battle, as ordered in the fighting instructions. As a result, Tromp led and lost badly at Texel (July 31/August 10, 1653), where he was killed by a musket ball.


Battle of Portland, (February 18-20/February 28-March 2, 1653)

“Three Days’ Battle.” A sea fight of the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654).Maarten van Tromp, with 75 warships, was escorting a Dutch convoy of 150 merchantmen up the Channel when he was met off Portland by Robert Blake. The latter was lying in wait with a picket line of ships from Portland to the Cotentin peninsula, but he had neglected to post any scouts. Accordingly, Tromp struck as soon as he came upon one end of the English line, attacking an exposed wing before the rest of Blake’s fleet could close. Poor Dutch gunnery and still poorer discipline allowed the rest of Blake’s ships to beat close toward the end of the first day. The next morning, superior English broadside gunnery inflicted serious damage on the Dutch, but the skillful Tromp re-formed his escorts into a defensive shield at the rear of the convoy and fought well as he retreated up the Channel. During the third day, English frigates broke in among the merchantmen and began to take prizes, like wolves cutting individual sheep from a flock. Dutch escorts began to lose heart, even as they also ran low on powder and shot. Many ships were pressed hard against the French coast to await surrender at dawn of the fourth day. Instead, Tromp brilliantly escaped on the tide and was gone before the English noticed. Over three days, the Dutch had lost nine warships and 24 merchantmen, but the English had again failed to close a trap that had been improperly set.

The 'Gouden Leeuw' at the Battle of the Texel, 21 August 1673 *oil on canvas *149,8 x 299,7 cm *1687

Battle of Texel, (August 11/21, 1673)

A major sea fight of the Third Anglo- Dutch War (1672-1674). Admiral de Ruyter engaged an Anglo-French fleet of 86 sail mounting 5,386 guns with his much smaller Dutch fleet mounting just 3,667 guns. His fleet was also under-crewed, owing to the desperate need to man Dutch barrier fortresses against the invading French, who well prepared and timed the start of the Dutch War (1672-1678) to coincide with a secret alliance with England. The fight off Texel Island in the West Frisians lasted 11 hours. De Ruyter and the Dutch managed to inflict enough damage on their enemy’s ships that a long-planned Anglo-French invasion of Holland was denied.


Newport 1778

Black and white Pierre Ozanne wash drawing image of the French vessel "Languedoc" under fire from the British ship "Renown" under Captain Dawson who was taking advantage of the fact that the disabled French ship had lost her mast and rudder during strong winds the previous night, August 13, 1778.

By Charles P. Neimeyer

During February 1778, the new Franco-American alliance was announced, and it immediately changed the entire complexion of the war. Now the British not only had to guard against American forces surrounding the island but also against the possibility of a French invasion fleet arriving off the harbor mouth with little or no notice. Moreover, British intelligence had determined that the French fleet at Toulon had sortied from its base and, under the command of the Comte d’Estaing, was somewhere in the Atlantic. In addition, French privateers were now capturing British ships in the English Channel, thus forcing the recall of many Royal Navy ships to home waters.

Perhaps taking the advice of Captain Mackenzie that the cause of many administrative problems was idle soldiers in Newport, General Pigot on 25 May 1778 ordered a large 600-man raid on the towns of Warren and Bristol, located immediately to the north of the island of Rhode Island and largely believed to be the primary base for American raiding parties on the island.

Burning numerous boats and skiffs found gathered along the shoreline, the soldiers also set fire and pillaged the two towns at will. Believing that the house of Mrs. Peleg Anthony had been set on fire by militia as a signal, the soldiers attacked townspeople who arrived to put out the fire. According to Newport diarist Fleet Greene, “the inhabitants, without respect of persons, were greatly abused, knocked down, and beat. Wearing apparel of all sorts, necklaces, rings, and paper money, taken as plunder at Bristol and Warren, were offered for sale by the soldiers” in Newport.

But the true revelation of the raid was not the plunder. Rather, it was the large amount of barges and other landing craft that had been gathered by the Americans for a possible assault to retake the town of Newport. The British feared that with the help of the French fleet, the Americans might seriously threaten the British hold on Newport.

And indeed on 29 July 1778, Admiral d’Estaing and the French fleet sailed into Narragansett Bay and quickly forced their way past the British batteries at the harbor entrance. Anchoring just out of range, d’Estaing’s force waited in the bay to consult with their American allies, now under command of Continental Army Maj. Gen. John Sullivan. Newport resident Mary Almy, a woman of Tory sympathy, stated that most townspeople assumed that the fleet in sight must be that of Admiral Howe. However, by 10 a.m. it was determined that the ships were French and the news “threw us into the greatest consternation.” She added that now “the merchant looks upon his full store as nothing worth. The shopkeeper with a distressed countenance locks and bars the shop, not knowing what is for the best. . . . Heavens! with what spirit the army undertook the old batteries; with what amazing quickness did they throw up new ones.” Almy spent the night comforting her frightened children and was busy burying her “papers and plate in the ground.” Two days later, Mary Almy was shocked to see the British burning their now trapped frigates and observed at Coddington’s Cove the HMS Kingfisher and two galleys furiously ablaze and stated that she spent this day, “trembling, crying and hiding.” By 3 August, she noted that American troops were landing at Howland’s Ferry opposite the north end of the island.

Two days later, she observed that “at night [the British] ordered all the sailors into town, if possible to keep some order with them.” But apparently this did not take place as she noted that “every sailor was equipped with a musket that could get one; he that could not, had a billet of wood, an old broom, or any club they could find. They all took care to save a bottle of spirits, which they call kill grief; some fiddling, some playing jewsharps. . . . By dark the bottles were exhausted, and they so unruly that we were obliged to be safely housed that night.”

The appearance of the French had clearly caused great consternation among the townspeople. Almy noted that orders had been given that upon the appearance of the American army on the island, houses within three miles of the town were to be burned; all livestock on the island except a single cow per family were to be driven into town. All the wells outside of Newport were ordered filled and blocked. Her up-island relatives fled into Newport with all their belongings. She wrote, “Heavens! what a scene of wretchedness before this once happy and flourishing island.” On 7 August, the French shelled part of the town. Almy described a scene of sheer pandemonium: “the women shrieking, the children falling down.” Taking her children with her, Mary Almy ran with them to a house outside of town she thought might be safe from the shelling, lying flat on the ground until a broadside had passed overhead and then jumping up and running until the sound of the next salvo. The following evening was equally frightening, as the British set fire to their ships in the harbor that had not been sunk, and a brisk wind put the town in danger. Almy wrote, “to attempt to describe the horrors of that night, would pronounce me a fool, for no language could put it in its proper colors. Fire and sword had come amongst us and famine was not afar off, for the want of bread was great.” Fleet Greene concurred with Mary Almy and noted that in addition to the loss of livestock, “all carriages, carts, wheelbarrows, shovels, pickaxes, &c, are taken from the inhabitants.” The next day, “a number of trees were cut down at Portsmouth and Middletown and put in the road to obstruct the Provincials march.” Three days after that he recorded, “The army continues to lay waste the island, cutting down orchards and laying open fields, and numbers of the inhabitants without the lines are ordered to move from their houses that they may be taken down.”

On 9 August 1778, the Americans landed over six thousand troops on the north end of the island and the soldiers manning the British and Hessian outposts had fled to the safety of their lines in town. However, on this very same day, a small fleet from New York under the command of Admiral Howe arrived off Narragansett Bay to challenge that of Admiral d’Estaing. And while d’Estaing had originally planned to land approximately five thousand troops to assist their American allies, he now weighed anchor without landing any of them and prepared to engage Howe in a decisive sea battle. Passing the British forts guarding Newport, the French encountered “a very smart fire,” which they returned. As a result, Fleet Greene reported, “Great numbers of shot went through the houses in the town, but no other damage is done.”

However, despite the best laid plans of the Americans and French, the weather turned against both fleet commanders. In fact, a hurricane had likely moved up from the Caribbean. For three days the storm tossed and damaged both fleets and widely scattered them. Several of the largest French ships, including d’Estaing’s flagship Languedoc, were totally dismasted. While Howe was able to retreat to New York City with its extensive shipyards and repair facilities, d’Estaing limped back into Narragansett Bay with Newport’s yards still in enemy hands. Thus he decided to leave the environs of Newport for American-held Boston to refit his damaged fleet. This decision, of course, left the Americans alone in their quest to liberate Newport. Even so, the American ranks, now swelled with local militia, still outnumbered the British and Hessian forces. Ominously, after d’Estaing decided to depart for Boston, Sullivan’s militia began to dissipate. Still, the Americans pressed the British into their outer Newport fortifications and began exchanging cannon fire. However, with militiamen departing his force daily, Sullivan decided that, now that the French no longer controlled the bay, his best move was to retreat off the island before he was trapped by British warships whose return from New York was anticipated. Indeed on 27 August 1778, three British frigates, the Sphinx, the Nautilus, and the Vigilant, dropped anchor in Newport. They formed the vanguard of a relief force coming from New York.

On 29 August 1778, Private Döhla noticed that the Americans no longer returned cannon fire launched at their lines on nearby Honeyman Hill. Pigot ordered an immediate counterattack by two thousand men to see if he could catch or damage the American army as it tried to retreat off the island. During a day-long battle with American forces, which had anticipated an attack, Pigot’s regiments were repulsed and the Americans held their ground. The Hessians, in particular, suffered heavy casualties in the fighting. Sullivan was able to move his forces completely off the island the following evening. Fleet Greene reported two days after the battle that the British and Hessian troops further plundered the up-island inhabitants so that “some families are destitute of a bed to lie on.”

While recriminations flew back and forth as to who was to blame for the Franco-American failure to take vulnerable Newport, life for the troops in the town and on the island returned to mind-numbing routine once again. In fact, the British increased their troop strength there to over nine thousand men. In October 1778, Captain Mackenzie observed, “We are left at present in a Strange situation: Two of the three passages [in Narragansett Bay] are entirely open to the enemy. The winter advancing, & no provision made for the supplying the Garrison with firing [wood]. . . . No Barracks provided, no materials to fit up any, nor any Straw for the troops either while in the field, or when they come into quarters.” Fleet Green noted that the dearth of winter firewood forced many residents to leave town because the British refused to allow the locals to buy wood or have it brought in from the countryside.