Blackadder Goes Forth is the fourth and final series of the BBC sitcom Blackadder, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, which aired from 28 September to 2 November 1989 on BBC One. The series placed the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during World War I, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett. The series is particularly noted for its criticism of the British Army leadership during the campaign, and also refers to a number of famous figures of the age. In addition, the series is remembered for the poignant ending of the final episode.
By Dr Gary Sheffield
The scale of human devastation during World War One has often been blamed on incompetent leadership. Dr Gary Sheffield offers an alternative view.
Douglas Haig was ‘brilliant to the top of his Army boots’. David Lloyd George’s view sums up the attitude of many people towards Haig and other British generals of World War One. They were, supposedly, ‘donkeys’: moustachioed incompetents who sent the ‘lions’ of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles. Many popular books, films and television programmes echo this belief. The casualty list – one million British Empire dead – and the bloody stalemate of the Western Front seem to add credence to this version of events. But there is another interpretation. One undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies, not Germany, won the First World War. Moreover, Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 ‘Hundred Days’ campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.
Even the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), battles that have become by-words for murderous futility, not only had sensible strategic rationales but qualified as British strategic successes, not least in the amount of attritional damage they inflicted on the Germans. No one denies that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had a bloody learning curve, or that generals made mistakes that had catastrophic consequences. However, before dismissing the generals as mere incompetent buffoons, we must establish the context.
Haig and the Allies
From 1915 to 1918 the BEF learned, in the hardest possible way, how to fight a modern high-intensity war against an extremely tough opponent. Before 1914, the British army had been primarily a colonial police force, small but efficient. By 1916 it had expanded enormously, taking in a mass of inexperienced civilian volunteers. Later still, it relied on conscripts. Either way, it was a citizen army rather than a professional force.
The generals, used to handling small-scale forces in colonial warfare, had just as much to learn about a type of war for which they were almost entirely unprepared. It is not surprising that in the course of its apprenticeship the BEF had a number of bloody setbacks. What was extraordinary was that, despite this unpromising beginning, by 1918 this army of bank clerks and shop assistants, businessmen and miners should have emerged as a formidable fighting force.
An inescapable fact of life for Haig and his predecessor as commander-in-chief, Sir John French, was that Britain was the junior partner in a coalition with France. Naturally, the French tended to call the shots, even though the British C-in-C was an independent commander. Thus in July 1916 Haig fought on the Somme largely at the behest of the French, although he would have preferred to attack, somewhat later, in the Ypres salient where there were more important strategic objectives. At this time the French army was under heavy pressure from German attacks at Verdun. This reality of coalition warfare also helps to explain why Haig never contemplated halting the Battle of the Somme after the disastrous first day.
The one real achievement of the Anglo-French armies on 1 July 1916 was to relieve pressure on Verdun, as the Germans rushed troops and guns north to the Somme to counter the new threat. If Haig had called off the offensive on 2 July, he would have thrown away this advantage. Sitting back and letting Britain’s principal ally’s army be mauled was simply not an option for Haig. The alliance between France and Britain was always a somewhat uneasy one. Lack of co-operation, let alone British inaction in 1916, might well have caused the coalition to fall apart.
Techniques and strategies
In 1914-17 the defensive had a temporary dominance over the offensive. A combination of ‘high tech’ weapons (quick-firing artillery and machine guns) and ‘low tech’ defences (trenches and barbed wire) made the attacker’s job formidably difficult. Communications were poor. Armies were too big and dispersed to be commanded by a general in person, as Wellington had at Waterloo a century before, and radio was in its infancy. Even if the infantry and artillery did manage to punch a hole in the enemy position, generals lacked a fast-moving force to exploit the situation, to get among the enemy and turn a retreat into a rout.
In previous wars, horsed cavalry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front. In World War Two, armoured vehicles were used for this purpose, but the tanks of Great War vintage were simply not up to the job. With commanders mute and an instrument of exploitation lacking, World War One generals were faced with a tactical dilemma unique in military history.
It is not true, as some think, that British generals and troops simply stared uncomprehendingly at the barbed wire and trenches, incapable of anything more imaginative than repeating the failed formula of frontal assaults by infantry. In reality, the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies and enemies experimented with new approaches. Even on the notorious first day on the Somme, the French and 13th British Corps succeeded in capturing all of their objectives through the use of effective artillery and infantry tactics; the absence of such methods helps to explain the disaster along much of the rest of the British position.
The problem was that in 1914 tactics had yet to catch up with the range and effectiveness of modern artillery and machine guns. Warfare still looked back to the age of Napoleon. By 1918, much had changed. At the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the BEF put into practice the lessons learned, so painfully and at such a heavy cost, over the previous four years. In a surprise attack, massed artillery opened up in a brief but devastating bombardment, targeting German gun batteries and other key positions. The accuracy of the shelling, and the fact that the guns had not had to give the game away by firing some preliminary shots to test the range, was testimony to the startling advances in technique which had turned gunnery from a rule of thumb affair into a highly scientific business.
Then, behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of shells, perfected since its introduction in late 1915, British, French, Canadian and Australian infantry advanced in support of 552 tanks. The tank was a British invention which had made its debut on the Somme in September 1916. Overhead flew the aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force, created in April 1918 from the old Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. The aeroplane had come a long way from its 1914 incarnation as an extremely primitive assemblage of struts and canvas, its task confined to reconnaissance.
By Amiens, aeroplanes were considerably more sophisticated than their predecessors of 1914. The RAF carried out virtually every role fulfilled by modern aircraft: ground attack, artillery spotting, interdiction of enemy lines of communication, strategic bombing. This air-land ‘weapons system’ was bound together by wireless (radio) communications. These were primitive, but still a significant advance on those available two years earlier on the Somme.
The German defenders at Amiens had no response to the Allied onslaught. By the end of the battle, the attackers had advanced 13km (eight miles) – a phenomenal distance by Great War standards. The Germans lost 27,000 men, including 15,000 prisoners and 400 guns. It was, the German commander Ludendorff admitted, the ‘Black Day of the German Army’. From this point onward, the result of the war was never in doubt. Amiens demonstrated the extent of the military revolution that occurred on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. It was a modern battle, the prototype of combats familiar to armies of our own times.
One cannot ignore the appalling waste of human life in World War One. Some of these losses were undoubtedly caused by incompetence. Many more were the result of decisions made by men who, although not incompetent, were like any other human being prone to making mistakes. Haig’s decision to continue with the fighting at Passchendaele in 1917 after the opportunity for real gains had passed comes into this category. In some ways the British and other armies might have grasped the potential of technology earlier than they did. During the Somme, Haig and Rawlinson failed to understand the best way of using artillery.
Haig, however, was no technophobe. He encouraged the development of advanced weaponry such as tanks, machine guns and aircraft. He, like Rawlinson and a host of other commanders at all levels in the BEF, learned from experience. The result was that by 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability. It was led by men who, if not military geniuses, were at least thoroughly competent commanders. The victory in 1918 was the payoff. The ‘lions led by donkeys’ tag should be dismissed for what it is – a misleading caricature.
Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield (Headline, 2001)
British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One by John Laffin (Sutton, 1988)
Western Front by Richard Holmes (BBC, 1999)
The Evolution of Victory by Andy Simpson (Tom Donovan, 1995)
About the author Dr Gary Sheffield is Senior Lecturer in the War Studies Group at King’s College London, and Land Warfare Historian at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham.
‘Posterity, which experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example, justly considered [Septimius Severus] as the principle author of the decline of the Roman Empire.’
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Historians have argued for decades that Septimius Severus not only contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire but that he may have been the architect of its downfall. Much of this discussion hinges on his military reforms. Seen over the course of succeeding centuries, his changes in military organisation may have been fundamental in shifting the Roman military might from a strategy of static frontier defence to one of central reserve forces.
It remains uncertain, however, whether Severus himself consciously planned to take the Roman army in this direction or whether he was in fact responding to immediate concerns of defence. The army that emerged one hundred years later would be based on a bipartite military organisation, this would differ significantly from the well-known array of legions that spread out along the empire’s frontiers. The frontier of the fourth century Roman Empire would be settled by limitanei border garrisons, while more centrally located mobile field armies (comitatenses) would be ready to respond to threats from any direction.
Between Severus and this new strategic model, however, lay the battles and upheavals of the third century. Nothing was set in stone and nothing could be taken for granted. Historical hindsight induces a calm complacency, but for those living at the time, Rome (‘the world’) was being beaten back, overrun by adversity and faced imminent destruction. Individuals, not history or destiny, would carve out the empire’s future… if it had one at all.
How the Legions Work
In 192 the defence of the Roman Empire was based around thirty legions, dispersed around the frontiers as needed. The legion was a corporate unit, with its own identity, traditions and battle honours. Its men were often fiercely proud of their legion, a relationship enjoyed today between a British soldier and his regiment.
In size each legion was similar, with a manpower of roughly 5,000 soldiers based around ten cohorts. These cohorts were commanded by senior centurions and were each formed up of six centuries. Despite the misleading title, the century was a combat unit of eighty men led by a highly paid centurion. Cohorts then, being six centuries in size, had a typical strength of 480 men. The cohort and the century were the real tactical units of any Roman force. A cohort may be ordered to ‘follow the flag’ to form a vexillation and join a larger unit needing extra manpower.
The eighty men of a century were billeted in ‘tent parties’ of eight men each, these soldiers would be squad-mates, eating and sleeping together, fighting together, sharing a tent on campaign and a set of twin rooms while in barracks. Centurions had their own staff, not only a servant or two, but also junior officers from the century such as the tesserarius (watch keeper), the signifier (standard bearer and unit treasurer) and the optio (the centurion’s second-in-command). This unit proved quite self-sufficient, its men cooked their own meals and had entrenching tools, tents, arms and armour. It could draw mules from the legion to carry rations, equipment and other baggage and operate independently of its parent unit.
Some, and perhaps all, of the legions elevated the status and responsibility of the first cohort. The writer Vegetius reports that men of the first cohort were the tallest men in the legion.1 Instead of six centuries the first cohort contained only five, although its centuries were kept at double strength (170 men under a single centurion, rather than eighty). This meant that the first cohort became a powerful unit of 800 soldiers, a formation that could be used to spearhead assaults. As the cohort of honour, ‘the first’ was no doubt filled with veterans from across the legion and its five centurions must have been the most senior within the regiment.
In command of a legion was a member of the senatorial order, a legatus legionis. He was a man in his thirties working his way from office to office and was aided by a young senatorial officer, a tribunus laticlavius, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. He may hope to command a legion himself, later on in his career. Third in command was a seasoned centurion of long service, the praefectus castrorum, or camp prefect, responsible for logistics and administration. Like a senior NCO in any modern army, he will have been able to provide valuable tactical advice to the legionary legate. There were in addition, five young tribunes (tribuni angusticlavii) from Rome’s equestrian class within the legion’s headquarters. Without any specific command responsibility, they were given tasks as and when needed.
Each legion was allocated its own troop of 120 cavalry which carried out scouting, long range patrol, courier duties and screening the flanks of the legion if it was called on to march through hostile territory. Of course the cavalry also had its use in battle but typically this involved mopping up the enemy soldiers after the Roman legionaries had forced them to break and flee.
Additional forces were provided by auxiliary units (auxilia). Whereas legions were only open to Roman citizens (and popular with the poor and landless), the auxiliaries recruited non-citizens from recently conquered provinces. The bellicose tribes that had given the Romans so much trouble during the invasion and takeover of their homelands made ideal army material. Gauls, Germans, Britons, Dacians and others provided men for these auxiliary units.
The relationship between legion and auxilia could be compared to that of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) in modern-day Afghanistan. Post-Taliban, the ANA was reformed and underwent training along NATO lines, using US uniforms and equipment. Patrols and assaults in Afghanistan have been conducted by both forces in concert, with ISAF troops taking the lead. Like the Roman auxilia, the ANA often provides support during assaults, but it is also able to conduct its own operations. The analogy cannot be stretched too far, but it gives an idea of the relationship and differing status between the two types of troops. A division of labour, trust and responsibility existed between legion and auxilia.
Auxiliaries really were the junior partner in the military relationship. Pay for an auxiliary infantryman was 100 denarii compared to 300 for a legionary, for example. Auxiliary units were based around a single quingenary cohort (around 480 strong) or a double-sized milliary cohort (around 800 strong). This meant they could be moved easily around the empire as needed but it also pre-empted any troop rebellion. An aggrieved ethnic group now fighting for Rome as an auxiliary unit would have little chance against the higher level command structure and massed cohorts of a Roman legion. Auxiliary uprisings were very rare but did occur from time to time. ISAF troops, wary of individual ANA soldiers within their compounds, may sympathise with Roman legionaries who had no choice but to fight alongside men who had until recently been their sworn enemies …
Most Roman cavalry was provided by mounted auxilia, since many frontier peoples maintained a long tradition of horsemanship. These auxilia were organised as quingenary alae (with a strength of 512 men) or milliary alae (with a strength of 768 men).
Following the Flag
Under the early emperors, a legion or an auxiliary cohort would have many duties, from guarding granaries or post houses, to arresting dissidents, conducting patrols, overseeing some industrial activity and so on. Sometimes these duties took soldiers away from their home fort for weeks or months, but rarely were the troops posted outside of the province.
When an emperor was assembling an army for an assault on some foreign power, or if a frontier defence needed shoring up, he could call on those legions close at hand. He would also need to supplement this force with entire units from much further afield. Legio X Gemina, for example, was based in Germany but ordered to join emperor Trajan’s invasion force for his attack on Dacia in AD 101. It did not return home but was relocated after the Dacian war to Pannonia. This legion was one of three in Pannonia that acclaimed Septimius Severus as emperor in 193. The uprooting of an entire legion to some distant battle-front, along with its staff, families and equipment was the way in which large-scale warfare was waged.
As legions became more entrenched within their home provinces and took up the burden of local frontier administration, it became a difficult matter to lift a legion out of its province. Instead a unit might be ordered to contribute a detachment of men for a particular campaign, a detachment that would return home once the war had ended. When the Jews rebelled against Roman rule in 132, for example, detachments from X Gemina marched east to reinforce the Roman army there. Later in 162, Lucius Verus, the co-emperor of Marcus Aurelius, took a detachment of the Gemina into Parthia, far to the east.
By the time of the Marcomannic Wars, this practice of ordering discrete bodies of men to fight for short periods in wars, before returning them to their forts, had become common. The Latin term for such a detachment was vexillatio, from the word for flag or banner: vexillum. These detachments marched under a temporary Roman military vexillum, which resembled a flag fluttering from a crossbar that was suspended from a central pole. It seems that the vexillations were brigaded together to form a more effective fighting force. They would either return home at war’s end or, as happened to some vexillations, the troops would remain within the provinces they had fought in. Some, such as the vexillatio equitum Illyricorum, even became fully functioning units in their own right.
A typical combat detachment would normally be composed of one or more cohorts (c. 480 men) each of which could be separated from its parent legion easily and also take advantage of its internal six-century organisation. These centuries retained their own staff and had the ability to work independently. Together as a cohort the centurions commanding the centuries provided excellent leadership and an officer would be assigned to lead the detachment. Although his title was praepositus, he was most likely one of the five young tribunes (tribuni angusticlavii) that ordinarily performed staff functions within a typical legion. Assignment to lead a detachment could be great opportunity in the career of a young tribune, eager to make his mark.
Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, struggled to field enough soldiers using the system of vexillations alone. He was forced to create three new legions, Legio I, II and III Italica, but as tradition dictated, two of these were then settled into legionary bases on the frontier. Within five years these new legions were themselves sending out vexillations to places like Salonae, where detachments helped fortify the city against barbarian attacks.
There was no other easy way to mobilise troops for some new and troubling crisis. An emperor could either move entire legions, gambling that the frontier they protected would remain peaceful in their absence, or he could call on numerous individual detachments, which sometimes spread a legion out across more than one continent. During the crisis years of the third century attacks on the frontier became simultaneously more frequent and more widespread, the constant need for quick reaction forces necessitated the use of the vexillation. It could be mobilised rapidly and arrive at the frontier hot-spot to fight alongside other vexillations under a temporary commander. During the early third century vexillations sent to garrison frontier forts might expect to be deployed for up to three years. For those detachments engaged in field operations, however, a return home might be many more years away. Warfare in this chaotic century was almost constant and a full-strength vexillation was always needed somewhere along the frontier. A number of detachments spent so long operating in the field that they became, in effect, independent combat units.
Did Severus have an answer? He certainly moved legions around to help leverage the manpower he needed for his attacks on Parthia in 197 (and later in 208 on the north of Britannia). He also made use of vexillations to supplement his forces. Did his newly created Legio II Parthica, based in Italy, constitute a new type of military reserve? Although there is no evidence that Severus mobilised its troops to fight on the frontiers, his son, Antoninus, certainly did take large numbers of the legion eastwards to battle against the Parthians.
The New Reserve
The first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, had at his command a mobile field army supplemented by entrenched frontier forces, or limitanei. While the limitanei garrisons slowed an enemy invasion but did not stop it, the field army was tasked with rushing to the region to prevent the barbarian force from penetrating any deeper into imperial territory. This was defence ‘in depth’ that planned to catch the enemy after it had crossed the frontier. It was the way of the future and a new system of military organisation that would be matched against the almost overwhelming barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. Although Constantine ruled more than a hundred years after the time of Septimius Severus, it is possible to see the very start of this revolutionary new concept within Severus’ own strategy.
Mobile armies, independent of fixed legions, are often seen as a feature of the Late Roman era, but the historian Michael Speidel noted that ‘the field army is, in a sense, as old as the units stationed in Rome.’ The Praetorian Guard had been Rome’s garrison during the first two centuries of imperial rule but it was rarely deployed to a battle-front. Septimius Severus changed all that, in effect turning the Guard into Rome’s first mobile (or ‘imperial’) field army. As we saw in chapter one, the emperor opened up recruitment to veterans of his Pannonian legions as a reward for loyal service. This also had the effect of elevating the Guard to the status of an elite fighting unit; members were all now battle-hardened veterans. One Praetorian proudly proclaimed on his tombstone that ‘he had served in all the expeditions’.4
At a standing size of 10,000 soldiers and without the onerous administrative duties of units on the frontier, the Praetorian Guard had become the largest combat-ready force within the empire. It remained so throughout the third century and when paired with the new Severan unit, Legio II Parthica, became what was essentially the first effective imperial field army. The II Parthica was a regularly-sized legion of between 5,000 and 6,000 troops, but like the Guard, had no other duties. It was a lean fighting unit with an effective manpower greater than many other legions. Without other duties to tie it up, the II Parthica was always ready to march and to fight. Since it was always available, the II Parthica became the personal legion of the third century emperors and the unit’s commander even became a member of the imperial retinue. In that sense, then, it was not a true independent field army but instead an imperial fighting unit that could provide a reserve of troops for other legions if necessary.
There were a number of other smaller units available at Rome that added to this new reserve, including one of the six Urban Cohorts of military police that patrolled the streets of the capital. Severus increased their membership which meant that a single cohort could contribute 1,500 soldiers to the army reserve. We know at least one cohort could be spared for combat duties after the presence of Urban Cohort XIV was recorded at Apamea in Syria, where it had fought alongside II Parthica.
A number of mounted units had been garrisoned in or around Rome for some time and these may also have bolstered the strength of the Severan army. Foremost among these cavalry units was the imperial guard cavalry, the equites singulares Augusti. Just as he had with the Urban Cohorts, Severus increased the membership of this elite force, doubling it from 1,000 to 2,000. To these he probably added many of the Moorish cavalry that had surrendered to Severus after the battle of Issus in 194. Together with the Mauri auxiliaries that already garrisoned Rome, this light cavalry force numbered around 2,000 individuals and it fought in battle with Antoninus, the eldest son of Severus who was to succeed him. Finally, the ancient writer Herodian recorded that Abgar IX, king of the defeated eastern kingdom Osrhoene, supplied Severus with a force of (horse?) archers for his invasion of Parthia in 197. These cavalrymen then joined the new imperial reserve and may have been garrisoned at Rome within the castra peregrina.5
Amassed together, the Severan reserve may have totalled around 21,500 soldiers, which provided Severus and his successors in the third century with an unprecedented combat force. Vexillations from other legions would then attach to this military core in order to create an expeditionary army able to invade Parthia or tackle the hostile German tribes on their own territory. The variation in troops or detachments assigned to the army depended of course on the location of the threat and the availability of manpower. Emperor Maximinus, for example, raised a unit of German cavalry whilst on campaign in the north, in order to augment his expeditionary force.
Cavalry was proving increasingly valuable. In wars of the past, emperors had time to assemble a large army by marching legions to a troubled province or weak frontier. Once the troops were assembled the invasion would be launched. Often this invasion was either one of retribution for some recent enemy attack, or more likely a pre-emptive strike against a rising power. Rome no longer had the time for this kind of strategy. What the third century crisis needed was mobility and a rapidly reacting force that could attempt to deal with constant raids and invasions on many different frontiers simultaneously. Having an army almost permanently in the field led personally by the emperor addressed this new demand, as did a recognition of the value of cavalry.
Soldier emperors had to lead from the front, which meant that Rome saw less and less of them. Meanwhile, well-fortified frontier cities that lay on good communication routes behind the embattled frontiers began to serve as ad hoc imperial centres. Colonia, Treverorum, Aquileia, Sirmium, Mediolanum, Vindobona … all saw as much, if not more, of the emperor and his retinue than did Rome. Emperors could not leave this powerful military force in the hands of a trusted officer. This was to become a factor in any military deployment that had been relatively uncommon prior to the third century. Back in the first century AD the emperor Claudius, for example, had been able to leave the conquest of Britain to his general Aulus Plautius without fear that the general might suddenly turn the invasion force toward Rome.
The third century would illustrate time and time again that there were no longer any trusted men out there. A cycle of civil wars spanned the century as a long line of usurpers rose to seize the throne for themselves. Many emperors died violently and most of those deaths were the result of assassination. However, it was easier to gain power in the third century than it was to hold on to it; the reign of most of these emperors lasted for no more than a few months. The year 253, for example, saw the emperor Trebonianus Gallus murdered by his own troops as he prepared for battle against an usurper, Aemilius Aemilianus. Within months one of Aemilianus’ own generals, Valerian, declared himself emperor and marched his armies south to seize the throne. Confrontation was avoided when Aemilianus’ own army lynched him near Spoleto in October. While Gallus had reigned for just over two years, the rule of Aemilianus had lasted only eighty-eight days.
[General Alfred Jodl, former Chief of the Operations Staff of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, dictated this memoir, which he entitled “The Influence of Hitler on the Leadership of the War (Brief Reflections on Hitler as a Strategist),” to the wife of his defense counsel while he was a prisoner at Nuremberg—excepting the last two paragraphs. These he dictated later to his own wife, after he had been sentenced to death. The tone of the addendum, which his wife transcribed from shorthand, is understandable in view of the sense of indignation Jodl felt.
[Anyone attempting to write the history of Alfred Jodl’s life will find it difficult to penetrate the mask of the general who was condemned to death by the International Military Tribunal and executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. He felt constrained—if I understood him correctly—to wear this mask by virtue of the ethos he had grown to accept as an officer, and out of respect for the Chief of State whose failings he perceived far better than others, but whose positive gifts—as this brief memoir demonstrates—he still acknowledged even in the cell in which he awaited execution. That Alfred Jodl, at the bottom of his heart, no longer believed in victory after the winter campaign of 1941-1942, and certainly not after Stalingrad the following winter, has already been mentioned. His tragedy was that he felt morally obligated, as a matter of official responsibility, not to divulge what he thought. Consequently, he moved sharply against anyone who arrived at the same conclusion. To General Walter Warlimont, his closest associate, he once said, in response to a skeptical remark, that Warlimont really belonged in a concentration camp.
[To grasp the full implications of Alfred Jodl’s role is to perceive the frightful fate of those discerning General Staff officers who felt duty bound to be loyal to their Chief of State and Supreme Commander, who saw through and despised him as an autodidact but at the same time were fascinated by his “sixth sense,” and in the end were condemned before the world as his accomplices.
[Jodl’s relationship with Hitler will be made clear by a passage that a General Staff officer, who was assigned to Führer Headquarters in 1945, wrote during the winter of 1945-1946 (before Jodl’s death sentence was pronounced): “Jodl was not one of the people who crept before Hitler. He spoke his mind openly, bluntly, and often in very harsh terms. But what he said did not get through. The very first time I heard him briefing Hitler it was clear to me that Jodl did not have the slightest illusions about the real situation. He saw things objectively and clearly. He also gave the unmistakable impression, often in an almost cynical fashion that he made no effort to suppress, that so far as operational ability was concerned, he regarded himself superior to Hitler. His stance in regard to Hitler was occasionally even pedantic. But he thereby also revealed clearly that he was convinced he was preaching to deaf ears. He did not allow himself to be put upon. He occasionally went so far as to put Hitler in the position of having to acknowledge that either he himself or else Jodl was an idiot. Hitler would not take him up on it. Everything Jodl said simply bounced off him with no visible effect. I was told that earlier Hitler had had a great deal of confidence in Jodl and consequently also in the Operations Staff of the OKW. But during the battles in the Caucasus, Jodl had once visited Field Marshal List, who in Hitler’s opinion had failed, and when he returned to Führer Headquarters he defended him against Hitler. Thereupon Hitler lost confidence in him and also broke off all personal contact with the entire OKW Operations Staff, with whose leaders he had often previously eaten. The only reason Jodl was not relieved at that time was that Hitler was concerned that any successor he could find would be even more ‘unreliable.’ “]
Among the many concepts more often used than understood is the word “strategy.” Almost everyone knows it, almost everyone uses it, but many would have nothing to say if they were asked: “What is strategy, then?” People speak of it because they know or sense that the success or failure of strategy in war decides their fate also. Thus it concerns everyone directly, and everyone sees it much more clearly than he does the operational problems of battle. To judge or criticize the latter [i.e., tactics] is something people enjoy doing—even the officer corps, in fact, insofar as it does not belong to the General Staff. That is strange. Whether an attack should have been mounted sooner with weaker, or later with stronger forces, whether strength should have been concentrated on the right or the left wing, whether one should have broken through rather than encircled, or perhaps not even have attacked at all, whether the other fronts could have been weakened still further, whether one should have remained on the defensive, have ordered the troops to attack in order to pin down the enemy, or perhaps even have had them withdraw behind a sector of the battle front—these are all problems of military leadership, specifically operational ones, which even the carping critics tend to avoid. For in order merely to speak on these matters, one needs military maps, data concerning one’s own and the enemy’s strength, the condition of the troops, their equipment and armament, and their supply of munitions. But these are secrets that remain hidden in the files and charts of the General Staff, and even if they should later find their way into works on military history, they would never provoke a public controversy to the same extent as the strategic plans and problems of the war. The manner in which operations are conducted is regarded by everyone as a specialized scientific matter, no different than medical discussion of new methods of surgery.
The protective curtain of a clandestine science is drawn around tactics, with an impenetrably secret terrain surrounding it, so that no one will be able to find his bearings who in the course of a diligent life has not combined theory and practice in the auditorium and on maneuver, preparing himself to walk these tortuous paths. But in strategy everything appears simple and direct. Is it not obvious and self-evident to every layman that Hitler should not have attacked Russia, because Russia was stronger than we believed it to be, and because defeat was therefore inevitable? Has the frightful catastrophe that Germany suffered not provided irrefutable proof? In these terms, it does not seem difficult to describe the essence of strategy. But it is not so simple to analyze the basic elements and colors in this picture, which must be done in order to put together this seemingly uncomplicated and self-evident picture with its endlessly complex technological details.
Clausewitz could still define the concept of strategy very simply by saying that it is the teaching of the use of battles for the purposes of the war. The concept has remained, but what it comprehends has changed. Ever since war began to assume an ever more total character, that is, ever since it relentlessly drew the entire state, with all its functions, together with every citizen, regardless of occupation, sex, or age, into its orbit, the strategic leadership of war has developed into so universal a function that it has come to include every aspect of state leadership, thereby exceeding the limits of purely military responsibilities. Thus we see—in this war for the first time—how the concepts of “strategy” and “warlord,” which once were identical, began to subdivide. No longer did we see any soldier who led the war as a whole, but only military operations. Roosevelt and Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek were the strategists of this war, and—more or less heeding the advice of the soldiers standing at their side—they intervened as warlords only indirectly in the actual conduct of military operations. Only in Japan, which in this respect simply had not kept pace with the times, did the military machinery fight its way to political power and lead the country—though divided and without a strong political hand—in a war that was waged not as a means of politics, but rather with politics being made to serve as handmaiden of war. The reader should have a clear picture of this transformation before we go on to consider in greater detail Hitler’s influence on the war, on the campaigns, and on the individual battles. Otherwise we cannot confront the question that has been posed again and again: How was it possible for the German military leaders and professionals to permit a layman and former corporal of the First World War to dictate to them the prescription for victory and defeat? Those who pose this question have not yet adequately understood what strategy in the modern sense is all about.
I believe it is necessary to define the concept in the following terms: Strategy is the supreme leadership activity in warfare. It comprehends foreign and domestic policy, military operations and economic mobilization, propaganda and popular leadership, and must harmonize these vital aspects of the war effort in terms of the purposes and the political goal of the war. Only when the concept of strategy is understood in such terms is it clear that no general but only a statesman can be a strategist, though this does not preclude the possibility that both functions may be united in one person, as was the case in China.
Hitler was a statesman. He was a dictator. He was Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht and since 1941 Commander-in-Chief of the Army as well. He had unleashed the war, and it was up to him and no one else to lead it. He did in fact lead the war. It was Hitler who gave the order in the spring of 1939 to prepare military plans for the attack on Poland. No soldier could know whether the attack would take place, whether it would be provoked or unprovoked, a war of aggression or of defense; for even a politically defensive war could be waged by Germany—given its central position and the constant prospect of a two-front war—only as a military offensive. When the propaganda machine began to run and mobilization on the Polish border was ordered, all the leading soldiers were indeed quite clear about the operational questions confronting them, but the political, the strategic remained for them a veiled secret. Had Hitler himself not implied and even stated in his addresses that he confidently expected to reach a settlement with the West? Was the mobilization backed by a serious determination to attack Poland, or was it only a means of exerting pressure for negotiation, as had been the case in 1938 with Czechoslovakia? Was this hope not confirmed when, on August 26, 1939, the ordered attack was halted? The details of the struggle of the Great Powers to preserve the peace were unknown to the Commanders-in-Chief and their staffs, with the exception of Göring.
If there is anything that clearly demonstrates the revolutionary character of Hitler’s method of leadership, it is that he did not concede to his military working staff, the OKW, and within it, the Operations Staff, the role of strategic adviser. All attempts I undertook in this direction failed. Hitler was willing to have a working staff that translated his decisions into orders which he would then issue as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, but nothing more. The fact that even men like Frederick the Great would have their own thoughts and decisions tested and re-examined against the often contrary ideas of their generals made no difference to Hitler, who resented any form of counsel regarding the major decisions of the war. He did not care to hear any other points of view; if they were even hinted at he would break into short-tempered fits of enraged agitation. Remarkable—and, for soldiers, incomprehensible— conflicts developed out of Hitler’s almost mystical conviction of his own infallibility as leader of the nation and of the war. To reflect individually on the dozen or more decisions that determined the course of the war would be psychologically and historically tempting, but that cannot be the purpose of this sketch. The man who succeeded in occupying Norway before the very eyes of the British Fleet with its maritime supremacy, and who with numerically inferior forces brought down the feared military power of France like a house of cards in a campaign of forty days, was no longer willing, after these successes, to listen to military advisers who had previously warned him against such overextensions of his military power. From that time on he required of them nothing more than the technical support necessary to implement his decisions, and the smooth functioning of the military organization to carry them out.
Quite apart from Hitler’s arbitrarily dictatorial methods, there is the question of the position taken by senior military leaders regarding his individual decisions. These varied. Unanimous rejection, unanimous agreement, or divided counsel followed each other as in every war and under every regime. But it was always Hitler whose restless spirit would first cast its spotlight into the dark future long before the eyes of his military staff were able to perceive anything tangible or threatening in that darkness—with one single exception: the occupation of Norway. The danger that threatened our war effort if England had been able to secure bases in Norway and thereby block the sole reliable exit from the North Sea to the Atlantic was perceived first by the navy. But—as in the case of all ideas he himself had not conceived—Hitler was initially skeptical and hesitant, until in January 1940 he seized the initiative and ordered the most daring of solutions, once there could no longer be any doubt about the threatening intentions of England.
Let us leaf further, however, in the great memories which at some time in the future will form a book on Hitler’s strategy. First we come upon the decision to attack in the West. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army [General Walther von Brauchitsch] did not want to do it. To remain on the defensive on the border and along the Westwall, letting the war go to sleep, was his desire, his contribution to peace, which he sought to cloak behind military reasons, particularly the inadequate preparation of the army for so gigantic a task. Not all leading soldiers shared this opinion and belief, but it was the prevailing opinion in the High Command of the Army. Hitler ordered the attack through Belgium and Luxemburg, later also through Holland. One has to use time, he said; it works for no one automatically, but only for him who makes good use of it. And he decided to attack in the course of the very same winter. The generals all objected; there was not a single one who did not warn against it. But it did them no good at all. Only the weather god was harder than Hitler, denying us the needed period of clear freezing weather. It was necessary to wait until the dry spring. May 10, 1940, was correctly chosen. Hitler staged his breakthrough via Maubeuge toward Abbeville. He had overruled the General Staff’s thought of a broad encirclement [through Belgium, as in the Schlieffen Plan] by initially careful but then increasingly tenacious and unhesitating intervention in the operational leadership. Once more Hitler’s will triumphed and his faith proved victorious.
First the [enemy] front collapsed; then Holland, Belgium, and France collapsed. The soldiers were confronted with a miracle. They were still amazed when Hitler gave the order to prepare for the invasion of England. Eight weeks earlier they would have regarded this order as the vagary of a madman. Now they applied themselves with faithful zeal to the work, careful and confident, exploring every dubious improvisation. But by September the British air force had not been subdued. Goring was skeptical; Raeder was cautious; in the Army High Command they were confident; Hitler wavered. He shared the army’s belief that England could be beaten in a short time as soon as one was well established on the island. But whether the landing would succeed depended upon nautical imponderables which were strange to him. Perhaps this strategic decision was the only one in the course of the war in which Hitler let himself be counseled. The warnings of the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy together with an evaluation of the situation that I prepared for him decided the issue. The attempt to land in England was abandoned. Hitler turned toward the Mediterranean in order to strike at England there. But before doing so, he took a firm grip on the equipping of the army, which—all too slow, bureaucratic, and backward—had long been a thorn in his side. “The soldier should fight; that is his job. Everything else civilian specialists understand better.” He created the Ministry for Weapons and Munitions under [Fritz] Todt, leaving only the building of airplanes and ships with the air force and the navy. From then on Hitler determined the monthly quota as well as the direction and scope of all production of weapons and munitions down to the last detail. All the Operations Staff [of the High Command of the Wehrmacht] had to do was to give him the exact figures: inventory, utilization, and production during the previous month. But beyond this, Hitler’s astounding technical and tactical vision led him also to become the creator of modern weaponry for the army. It was due to him personally that the 75-mm anti-tank gun replaced the 37-mm and 50-mm guns in time, and that the short guns mounted on the tanks were replaced with the long 75-mm and 88-mm guns. The Panther, the Tiger, and the Königstiger [i.e., Tiger II] were developed as modern tanks at Hitler’s own initiative.
But let us return to the chronological sequence of strategic decisions. There was a military breathing pause. Political considerations became paramount during the second half of 1940. Rumania requested German instructional and training troops. Reluctantly and carefully, but step by step, Bulgaria attached itself to the Axis. Only Spain showed a cold shoulder. To what extent the influence of Canaris on the Spanish generalissimo played a role in this is a question I will not go into. Above all, it was bitter for Hitler to have to give up his plan to take Gibraltar with Spanish help or approval. This military intention of Hitler had the general sympathy of his military advisers, and even today I have no doubt that the attack on the mighty rock fortress, which we had meticulously thought through and prepared in detail, would have been successful.
But instead of being able to carry out this strategically correct plan, Hitler found himself constrained to hatch the cuckoo eggs that Italy had laid in the nest of our joint war effort. On his own initiative and despite the negative attitude of the Army High Command, Hitler had offered his friend Mussolini help in Africa. It was rejected with the explanation that tanks could not operate in the desert. But then in the last days of October 1940—in violation of all agreements not to disturb the peace of the Balkans—Mussolini attacked Greece. Hitler, who wanted to prevent this attack, arrived a few hours too late in Florence. He was enraged, but the god of war even more so. The latter had never been a friend of the Italians. And now he quickly changed sides. English tanks drove Graziani’s beaten army back to the border of Cyrenaica, and instead of winning a quick victory over the Greeks, the Italians found themselves threatened with the loss of Albania and of the divisions which were holding on there only with difficulty. Concern was now stronger than pride in Rome, and cries for help crossed over the Alps as far as the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler decided that in view of modern long-range aerial warfare we had to wage the war as far from the periphery of the Reich as possible. Therefore [Hitler ordered] help for Africa through Rommel and good mobile armored troops. He wanted no conflict with Greece, so he refused help in Albania. But for the spring of 1941 he ordered that an attack against Greece from Bulgaria be prepared in case this should become necessary after all, or even be forced on us by an English landing in Greece.
There was not much consultation before these decisions. They were unfortunately constrained—as much as Hitler’s generals on purely military grounds resisted this commitment of forces to different theaters. For meanwhile the specter of a massive Russian concentration of forces on the eastern borders of Germany and Rumania had taken concrete form, and Hitler was weighing the thought of preventive war. The world has learned from the Nuremberg Trial of many voices that warned against this march [into Russia]. All agree that it was definitely Hitler’s idea originally. Both [the fact that the idea originated with Hitler and that he was warned against it] are historical facts. The court judges according to good and evil, world history in terms of correct and false. I will not concern myself here with either of the two judgments, but rather only point out that the danger from the East was seen by all soldiers, and Hitler’s concern was shared, more by some, less by others. Opinions differed whether the danger was really so acute and whether it might not have been possible to deal with it by political means. On that question it will be necessary to await a later judgment. Here we are interested only in the influence it had on Hitler’s waging of the war, and of that the following can be said: the decision for the campaign against the USSR, Plan “Barbarossa,” was his decision and his alone. He did, however, make the final decision only on April 1, 1941. For at this time an event occurred that effectively delayed the beginning of the attack against the almost completely assembled Soviet forces by four to five weeks. For Hitler it was like a beacon that revealed Stalin’s intentions.
It was the military coup in Belgrade the night after Yugoslavia’s accession to the Tripartite Pact. Hitler was beside himself. He virtually dictated his decisions to the assembled Commanders-in-Chief and the Reich Foreign Minister. He tolerated no discussion of whether the political attitude of the Yugoslavian government should first be clarified diplomatically. So far as he was concerned, Yugoslavia was in league with Russia, prepared to strike us from behind when we marched into Greece, and was trying to establish contact with the English, who at the beginning of March had landed at Piraeus. And as a matter of fact, the Yugoslavian Army did mobilize on the borders. Beginning on April 6, it was overrun by German troops, even though these had very hastily concentrated, and within a few weeks it had reached the point of dissolution— [though these were] the same soldiers who then, only scantily clad, would for years wage a bitter guerrilla war under Tito’s leadership, until they were developed into a new Communist army.
The attack on Russia began on June 22 . The two-front war had been unleashed. It could lead to success only if it were possible to win an annihilating victory over the enemy on one front. This failed by only a little, but that little sufficed, together with the catastrophe of the cold winter, to carry Hitler’s train of victories, after having reached this culmination, over onto a declining track. When in 1942 he decided once more to commit all his forces in the attempt to break down the Russian colossus, he was not contradicted in principle by his military advisers; but there were many among them who would rather have seen the second major attack in the North, beginning with the capture of Leningrad, than in the direction of the Caspian Sea. The great apparent success of this campaign ended with the catastrophe on the Don and before Stalingrad. When toward the end of the year Rommel, defeated before the gates of Egypt, fell back on Tripoli as the Allies landed in French North Africa, it was clear not only to the responsible soldiers but to Hitler himself that the god of war had now turned from Germany and gone over to the other camp. With that, Hitler’s activity as a strategist was essentially ended. From then on, he intervened more and more frequently in operational decisions, often down to matters of tactical detail, in order to impose with unbending will what he thought the generals simply refused to comprehend: that one had to stand or fall, that each voluntary step backwards was an evil in itself. Opinions differ as to whether he thereby hastened or delayed the end of the war. One thing only is certain: he could no longer come to a strategic decision. But perhaps there was no longer one to be reached.
He could not surrender. None of the opponents would consider negotiating since agreeing on unconditional surrender as their wartime goal. Therefore what was Hitler to do? He could only fight to the end or seek his own death. Throughout his whole life he had been a fighter, so he chose the first course. Heroism or insanity, opinion throughout the world will always differ on it. Could he not, in order to save his people unnecessary suffering, have come to an earlier end? As a matter of fact, this very thought did concern Hitler during the last days of his life. When he informed me on April 22  of his decision not to leave Berlin again but to die there, he added: “I should already have made this decision, the most important in my life, in November 1944, and should never have left the headquarters in East Prussia.”
But his military advisers—today one often hears it said—should certainly have made it clear to him earlier that the war was lost. What a naive thought! Earlier than any other person in the world, Hitler sensed and knew that the war was lost. But can one give up a Reich and a people before they are lost? A man like Hitler could not do it. He should have fallen in battle rather than taking flight in death, it is said. He wanted to, and he would have done so if he had been physically able. As it was, he did not choose the easier death, but the more certain one. He acted as all heroes in history have acted and will always act.
He had himself buried in the ruins of his Reich and his hopes. May whoever wishes to condemn him for it do so—I cannot.
[Signed:] ALFRED JODL
[The foregoing reflections are complemented by the following passage in a letter Jodl sent to his wife. When she had written to him, after the interrogation at the Nuremberg Trial of Field Marshal Erhard Milch on March 8 and 11, 1946, concerning her own estimation of Hitler, he answered her that in many respects he agreed, although on one or another point he saw things somewhat differently, though for a number of reasons he did not care to go into it. He then went on as follows:]
When I read how Frank Thiess, breaking with historical tradition after fifteen hundred years, tries to reach a true picture of Justinian,7 then I must think more than ever of the present and am reminded of how the history of that man who brought the whole world into flux was falsified during the course of his life, in part even by himself. And so I find myself thinking again and again whether it might not be my responsibility to set the historical record straight without the slightest regard to my personal defense. And I would do this except for two considerations. In the first place, that is not the primary purpose of the court, which can bring an end to any such attempt by application of the legal concept of “irrelevance.” In the final analysis, the attempt would be futile, because the archives of the other side remain closed. In the second place, I ask myself: Do I then know this person at all, at whose side I led for so many years so thorny and self-abnegating an existence? Did he not play with my idealism, too, and only use it for purposes that he concealed in his innermost being? Who will boast of knowing another when that person has not opened to him the most hidden corners of his heart? Thus I do not even know today what he thought, knew, and wanted to do, but rather only what I thought and suspected about it. And if today a picture is unveiled in which one had once hoped to see a work of art, but one is confronted only with a diabolical distortion, then it is up to the historians of the future to rack their brains over the question of whether it was that way from the very beginning, or whether this picture had gradually transformed itself with the course of events. At times I often make the mistake of blaming [Hitler’s] origins, only to remember how many peasants’ sons have been given the name “the Great” by history. The ethical foundation is what counts.
The appointments of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to command of the German army and his Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, as the force’s First Quartermaster General on 29 August 1916 opened a new phase of the Central Powers’ war. The two soldiers had reached the apex of their profession through martial skill, a fair bit of luck and a large dose of intrigue. Thanks to their victories on the Eastern Front and a carefully cultivated public image, they enjoyed the faith of the people. At a time when Kaiser Wilhelm II had receded from public view and most Reich institutions were losing credibility, this gave them immense influence. The duo’s programme was victory, no matter what the cost. Germany’s war effort under them was stamped by a new ruthlessness. For both men, military necessity trumped any humanitarian scruple. As Ludendorff frankly admitted looking back at the period of the Third OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung), the German Army High Command, ‘in all the measures we took, the exigencies of war alone proved the decisive factor’.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, aged sixty-eight when he became Chief of the General Staff, was the most revered personality in the German-speaking world by 1916. For most of the Reich’s inhabitants, he was the man who single-handedly had saved the country from the ravages of the Tsar’s hordes in August 1914. With the victory at Tannenberg, he had become a national treasure overnight. The immortalization of his person in Berlin’s enormous nail figure in 1915 was an imposing mark of how completely he had usurped the Kaiser as the symbol of Germany’s war effort. Tremendous faith was placed in the man: ‘Our Hindenburg,’ the German public repeated to itself at times of crisis, ‘will sort it out.’ His name, which summoned up visions of a medieval castle, its sturdy walls standing immovable against all assaults, suited his physical bulk. At six foot five inches, he was a very tall man, with a square head like a block of masonry mounted on broad shoulders. He looked like nothing could shake him, an impression amplified by his legendary calm and resolution. It was also exaggerated by propaganda; Hindenburg took great pains about his public image. Renowned artists and sculptors were invited to his headquarters to promote his fame and he maintained close relations with the press. He was undoubtedly vain, yet he was also acutely aware of the power conferred by his popular following. He was no mere symbol or cipher but a highly political general, sure of what he wished to achieve but content to leave the details to competent subordinates. The political capital gained from his personality cult gave him a unique chance to impose radical change on how not just Germany’s army but the whole society waged war.
Erich Ludendorff, Hindenburg’s First Quartermaster General and right-hand man, was a very different personality. He was a master of minutiae, and a compulsive workaholic. Whereas his chief could be good company, charming visitors to the Field Army’s headquarters with a relaxed manner and dry wit, Ludendorff was cold, highly strung and utterly humourless. Since joining a cadet institution at the tender age of thirteen in 1877, he had made the army his life, and had struggled against the disadvantages of his bourgeois roots to become one of the force’s most respected, if not liked, General Staff officers. His concern to harness Germany’s manpower for military needs had found early expression in 1912–13, when with Moltke (the then Chief of the General Staff) he had pressed for a vast increase in the size of the army. At that time under Ludendorff’s influence, Moltke had insisted that ‘our political and geographical position makes it necessary to ready all available strength for a fight which will determine the existence or nonexistence of the German Reich’. In the summer of 1916, as battle raged on all fronts, the same thought obsessed Ludendorff. The Entente’s vast outlay of men and materiel during the Somme offensive had impressed on him with ‘pitiless clarity’ the urgent need for a drastic remobilization. The new First Quartermaster General had no respect for the customary division between ‘political’ and ‘military’ spheres within the Reich’s government, which was hopelessly ill-suited to the all-embracing conditions of a gruelling war of endurance. With the Kaiser incapable of coordination and the civilian government under attack from the right and increasingly discredited by the food shortages, the army, its prestige still intact, was the institution with the best chance of providing some unity to a fragmented war effort. However, Ludendorff’s narrow military expertise and arch-conservative instincts had failed to equip him with an understanding of the complexity of German society or to negotiate its competing interests. What emerges from his memoirs, besides arrogance, patent exculpation and obdurate blindness to the great responsibility that he bore for his nation’s defeat, is not a sense of power, but rather uncomprehending frustration at how the plans of the Third OHL were thwarted at every turn by political realities.
Characteristically, the new OHL’s programme for German remobilization had, as its starting point, the army. To counter enemy material superiority, the force would need to be upgraded. Ludendorff had encountered the elite storm troops in September 1916. Impressed, a month later he ordered the establishment of similar battalions within each army, and in December new tactical instructions for defensive warfare were issued based on their techniques and on analysis of the recent campaigns. To veterans of the Somme and Verdun, there was little novel in these instructions; lessons learned had been circulated throughout the force during the fighting, and many units had already embraced small-group fighting techniques through necessity, as by the end of the battles sturdy purpose-built lines had been lost or destroyed, leaving troops dispersed in shell-hole defences. Yet to meet the new challenges, the force required not just the institutionalization of the growing emphasis on teamwork and individual initiative but also extensive rearmament. The Third OHL wanted to treble artillery and machine-gun production. The numbers of trench mortars, weapons that gave the combat groups their own close support, were to be doubled. With the memory still fresh of the anguished cries for more shells from front-line formations on the Somme, it was also decided to double munitions output. All this was to be achieved by May 1917, when a new Entente offensive could be expected. To realize these targets, and their military vision, Germany’s new army leaders had to intervene heavily in their country’s industry and society. The ensuing industrial and propaganda drive was christened the ‘Hindenburg Programme’.
The Third OHL wasted no time in pushing for the total mobilization of German strength for the war effort. Already on 31 August 1916, Colonel Max Bauer, the arms procurement expert who worked closely with Ludendorff, had completed a memorandum for the War Ministry outlining the disadvantageous material and manpower position of the Reich’s army and stressing that ‘men . . . must be more and more substituted for by machines.’ Two weeks later, the Third OHL sent concrete proposals to Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. To accelerate production, Ludendorff and Hindenburg regarded administrative reform as essential: the management of the war economy would have to be centralized. More fundamentally, as industrialists had stressed to the new leaders, any rise in the output of armaments would depend on bringing workers into the weapons factories. The army was prepared to furlough skilled workers to help with the armaments drive. Yet new sources of labour would also have to be found and mobilized.
The prime administrative innovation introduced by the Third OHL for the purposes of economic remobilization was the Supreme War Office (Kriegsamt), at the head of which was installed the personable south German railway expert, General Wilhelm Groener. The new body came into existence on 1 November 1916. In part, it was a product of bureaucratic infighting. Ludendorff and Hindenburg regarded the War Ministry, whose agencies had been responsible for weapons and munitions procurement, with disdain. Although the Supreme War Office was situated within the War Ministry, Groener in practice answered to Ludendorff. Nonetheless, the reorganization was also a genuine attempt to move closer to a functioning command economy. The new office was, at its upper levels, organized on military lines for decisive decision-making, while a more conventional bureaucratic structure, with six major departments, operated below. The War Ministry’s responsibilities for labour, arms and clothing procurement, as well as for the War Raw Materials Section, the Food Section and imports and exports, all passed into its remit. Eminent scientists, economic experts and industrialists filled its technical staff, who were tasked with planning and advising its chief. The ability of the Supreme War Office to coordinate the Reich’s economy was greatly facilitated by the new right to issue orders to Prussian deputy commanding generals in the home military districts. This right was conferred on the War Ministry and devolved by a new War Minister, installed at the behest of the Third OHL, to the Supreme War Office. The allocation of manpower and material to the army and industry could finally be rationally planned and centralized, instead of being at the whim of regional military commanders with no economic training and subject to local pressures.
The Supreme War Office was, nonetheless, not the coordinating institution for which Ludendorff and Groener had wished. The new War Minister, Hermann von Stein, was Ludendorff’s man, but when faced by Groener’s over-mighty office within his own Ministry, his bureaucratic territorial instincts were kindled and he resisted all attempts to rein in the powers of the deputy commanding generals. There were conflicts too with civil authorities, most notably the Prussian Interior Office, which defended their own administrative jurisdictions. Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg refused to subordinate their institutions to any Prussian administrative body, and accordingly set up their own parallel war offices within their war ministries. Moreover, the Supreme War Office was itself no paragon of efficiency. Its weird half-military, half-bureaucratic structure led to much duplication of effort and confusion. So great was the flood of competing directives issued by his staff chiefs and departmental heads that Groener found it necessary at one point to impose a two-week hiatus. Yet even had the War Office been rationally organized and not at the centre of bureaucratic infighting, it could never have sponsored an industrial resurgence capable of meeting the fantastical aims of the Third OHL.
The Hindenburg Programme was doomed by the entirely arbitrary nature of its targets. Ludendorff and others would later stress the partly propagandistic motivation for the plan; the order to double or, in some cases, triple weapons production certainly added drama to the inception of the Third OHL. Yet, as Groener reflected, it was no way to run a war economy. The War Ministry, whose efforts to procure munitions were disdained by the Third OHL, had sensibly used the production of explosive powder as a basis for its armaments planning. After the first shortages of autumn 1914, it had established an incremental programme to increase powder manufacture, in the first instance to 3,500 tons. The target had been raised in February 1915 to 6,000 tons per month, an output finally reached in July 1916. The Somme battle prompted the War Ministry to increase its target further, to a monthly quantity of 10,000 tons of powder, to be achieved by May 1917. For the sake of an extra 2,000 tons and some striking press headlines, the Third OHL tore up these carefully calibrated plans. The result was, predictably, a disaster. The Hindenburg Programme, unlike the War Ministry’s scheme, needed to create new capacity to fulfil its goals, and consequently diverted scarce materials and manpower to constructing factories, some of which could not be completed. The programme overstrained both the Reich’s railways and its coal supply. Combined with freezing weather that iced up the canals, the programme thus contributed substantially to the shortages and misery of the German population during the ‘turnip winter’. It also added to civilians’ woes by fuelling inflation: the Third OHL cut back on foreign-currency-earning steel exports and, in attempting to incentivize greater output, abandoned the War Ministry’s careful housekeeping and offered armaments manufacturers generous profits. Paper currency in circulation proliferated. Remarkably, powder and guns were not linked in its programme, so if the targets had been achieved, there would have been a mismatch. However, the disruption meant that output never came close to being realized. Steel production was actually lower in February 1917 than six months earlier. Powder manufacture also suffered. Not until October 1917 did Germany produce 10,000 tons of powder in a month. The OHL would have been better off sticking to the War Ministry’s paced plan.
The Hindenburg Programme’s most significant feature was undoubtedly its aspiration to change the moral basis of Germany’s war effort. Labour was desperately needed. Even under the War Ministry’s armaments plan, there was a shortfall of between 300,000 and 400,000 workers. The Third OHL’s drive raised the need to between two and three million extra men. The army released 125,000 skilled workers from the front. A ruthless cull of industries not producing directly for the war effort was undertaken, diverting their manpower into the armaments sector. Small, less efficient factories were closed on a large scale in 1917, to redirect both manpower and scarce resources. In Prussia, the 75,012 plants registered in 1913 had shrunk to 53,583 by 1918. However, at the core of Ludendorff and Bauer’s scheme was a desire to gain total control over the labour force. Hitherto, the Burgfrieden had informed the home authorities’ policy towards labour. The government and deputy commanding generals had, for minor concessions, gained the voluntary cooperation of Socialists and trade unions. Now, much more coercive methods were to be adopted. In a letter to the Chancellor on 13 September, the Third OHL proposed among other measures that the upper limit for military service should be extended from forty-five to fifty years of age (a rise implemented by the Austro-Hungarians already in early 1915), and that a new war performance law should be introduced permitting workers to be transferred to armaments factories and making war work compulsory, even for women. All university departments except medicine should, it was argued, be shut down. The extent of the new army leaders’ radicalism was best encapsulated by Hindenburg’s chilling admonition to organize on the basis that ‘he who does not work shall not eat’.
There is little evidence that, had the Third OHL had its way, Germany’s economic performance would have been improved. Austria was also inducted into the Hindenburg Programme; Article 4 of its 1912 War Law had permitted the conscription of all able-bodied individuals not in the army, and Article 6 held labourers at their place of work. Yet in spite of this coercive legislation and although 454 million crowns were paid out to build or expand factories, Austrian arms production actually declined in the second half of 1917. In the Reich, civilian leaders were totally opposed to the OHL’s plans for compulsory civilian mobilization. The State Secretary of the Interior, Karl Helfferich, objected that attempts to force women to work were superfluous, as more women were already seeking employment than were offered positions. Any attempt to introduce compulsion, he rightly feared, would be ruinous to the ‘willing and enthusiastic collaboration’ that workers had largely displayed during the Burgfrieden. The War Ministry too was hostile, doubted that raising the age of military service to fifty would make much difference and stressed that inner conviction, not coercion, must motivate workers. Ludendorff’s response was simply to raise his demands and argue that all men from fifteen to sixty years old be given a military obligation. Most notable, and problematic, was the Third OHL’s insistence that the measures should be passed as a law and thus legitimized by the Reichstag. The Prussian government, well aware that deputies were fractious as a result of the ineptitude of the official food management and abuses by deputy commanding generals of the Law of Siege, and aware of how controversial the law’s provisions would be, regarded this as a grave error. Yet Hindenburg and Ludendorff brushed all reservations aside blindly. ‘The Reichstag,’ they asserted, ‘will not deny passage to this bill when it is made clear that the war cannot be won without the help of such a law.’
What became the Patriotic Auxiliary Service Bill was drawn up by Groener, whose Supreme War Office would control and allocate the nation’s captive manpower. Groener was a reasonable man. Unlike Hindenburg and Ludendorff he had worked on the home front and knew the dire conditions there. He was prepared to compromise with the proletariat’s representatives, recognizing that ‘we can never win this war by fighting against the workers’. His draft took account of civilian criticism. The extension of military service for fifteen to sixty year olds had mutated into a new obligation, Patriotic Auxiliary Service, which comprised war work of all sorts, in government offices and agriculture as well as in war industry. Only men were subject to this new duty; Hindenburg’s demand for women too to be obligated was abandoned. In keeping with the Third OHL’s wishes, the draft bill was short and general, but implicit in its statement that ‘at the command of the War Minister’ males of fifteen to sixty could ‘be called upon to perform Patriotic Auxiliary Service’ was the radical new power to transfer labour and restrict its free movement. Although Ludendorff pushed for immediate implementation, passing such a change through the Reichstag required extensive consultation. The civil authorities were not prepared to relinquish all control and added clauses granting the Bundesrat, the house representing the federal states of Germany, oversight of the decrees issued by the Supreme War Office in implementing the law and the right to revoke it. Ministers also rejected a provision for compulsory military training for adolescents over fifteen and they raised the lower boundary of obligation for Patriotic Auxiliary Service to seventeen years old. After meetings with industrialists and trade union representatives, guidelines were also added detailing how the bill should be implemented. To reassure the left, these included provision for arbitration committees with worker representation, which would mediate when an employee wished to leave his job but his employer would not grant a ‘leaving certificate’. The intention was to pass the bill through the Bundesrat, and then take it to the Reichstag Steering Committee, where party representatives would haggle with Groener and Helfferich over its contents behind closed doors. Once agreement was reached, it was hoped the bill would in short order receive thunderous acceptance in the Reichstag, sending a powerful message of unity and will to continue the struggle and placing Germany’s war effort on a new, more efficient and controlled basis.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff were in for a rude shock. Social Democratic, Centre and Progressive deputies in the Reichstag and its Steering Committee did not share the Third OHL’s vision of a suborned command economy and were unwilling to place unconditional trust in the hands of the military or government. The heavily revised bill accepted by the parliament on 2 December and signed into law by the Kaiser three days later was very different from the generals’ intentions. In contrast to Groener’s concise and general early draft, the long text was filled with concessions to the workers and their institutions; Ludendorff later denounced ‘the form in which the Bill was passed’ as ‘equivalent to a failure’. The disgruntled Helfferich complained similarly that ‘one could almost say the Social Democrats, Poles, Alsatians and the trade union secretaries made the law.’ For the conservative soldiers and statesmen, it was deeply worrying that the Reichstag had forced through a demand to set up a special committee of fifteen of its members to supervise the implementation of the Auxiliary Service Law, and even more so that general regulations would need their consent. Many industrialists, looking forward to having a captive workforce at their disposal, making planning easier and undermining employees’ ability to bargain for higher wages, were dismayed to find workers’ committees and conciliation agencies foisted on any factory with over fifty personnel. The trade unions had come closer to achieving a long-standing aim of forcing employers to recognize and parley with them. Perhaps worst of all, the primary objective of reducing worker mobility, a precondition for the central management of manpower resources, had to a large degree been thwarted. The left had spotted the potential for huge profits for industrialists, and had insisted that workers too should have the opportunity to better their lot. In consequence, although theoretically war workers were fixed to their employment, the prospect of ‘a suitable improvement of working conditions’ was explicitly acknowledged to be a valid justification to switch jobs.
The Third OHL’s attempt to remobilize Germany on a new basis of compulsion and control was thus a resounding failure. Ludendorff showed great naivety in imagining that a law limiting labour’s freedoms would be accepted without demand for compensation. He disowned the final Patriotic Auxiliary Service Law as ‘not merely insufficient, but positively harmful’; it was, he self-servingly argued, a manifestation of the weakness of civil authorities and avarice of the political left that ultimately cost the Reich victory. Yet the real issue for Ludendorff was that he had been thwarted and the forces of democracy and Socialism had received a boost. The Reichstag committee’s oversight of the law, the cooperation between the SPD and centrist bourgeois parties and the imposition of arbitration committees in which workers sat in judgement alongside employers were deeply disturbing for conservatives. Their claims, backed by some historians, that the Auxiliary Service Law undermined the war effort generally lack a firm basis in evidence. The increase in strikes in 1917 was a response to deteriorating social circumstances rather than the altered employment conditions under the new law, and the complaint that the law increased labour turnover appears doubtful. By contrast, the law was extremely successful in freeing up military manpower by substituting fit workers with men liable for auxiliary service. Crucially, the concessions made also kept the trade unions invested in the imperial regime and assured their cooperation; an invaluable achievement, especially given the tumultuousness of 1917. Attempting to militarize the workforce regardless of all other interests would inevitably have led to disaster. In a war that could only be fought with the consent of the people, the compromise and concessions of the Patriotic Auxiliary Service Law were Germany’s best hope of holding out.
No one—and especially not the members of Japanese Imperial General Headquarters or the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff—expected Okinawa to be the last battle of World War II. Why the surprise? The Joint Chiefs, having woefully underestimated enemy striking power at the beginning of the Pacific War, had just as grievously exaggerated it at the end.
Actually, as some perceptive Okinawans were already privately assuring each other: “Nippon ga maketa. Japan is finished.” In early 1945, after the conquest of Iwo Jima by three Marine divisions, the island nation so vulnerable to aerial and submarine warfare had been almost completely severed from its stolen Pacific empire in “the land of eternal summer.” Leyte in the Philippines had been assaulted the previous October by an American amphibious force under General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur, and in the same month the U.S. Navy had destroyed the remnants of the once-proud Japanese Navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. On January 9, Luzon in the Philippines was invaded, and on February 16—17, like a “typhoon of steel,” the fast carriers of the U.S. Navy launched the first naval air raids on Tokyo Bay. A week later Manila was overrun by those American “devils in baggy pants.” In late March Iwo fell to three Marine divisions in the bloodiest battle in the annals of American arms. Not only was Old Glory enshrined forever in American military history by the historic flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi, but more important strategically and more dreadful for Japanese fears was the capture of this insignificant little speck of black volcanic ash—a cinder clog, 4½ miles long and 2½ miles wide—for it guaranteed that the devastating raids on Japan by the new giant B-29 U.S. Army Air Force bombers would continue and even rise in fury.
Iwo became a base from which the Superforts could fly closer to the Japanese capital undetected and under protection of Iwo-based American fighter planes. Perhaps even more welcome to these gallant airmen, crippled B-29s unable to make the fifteen-hundred-mile flight back to Saipan could now touch down safely on tiny Iwo; or if shot down off the shores of Nippon, could even be reached by Iwo-based Dumbo rescue planes. Thus, not only could these exorbitantly expensive aerial elephants be saved, but their truly more valuable crews as well. On the night of March 9, to prove their worth and sound the requiem of the “unconquerable” island empire, the Superforts already striking Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe in pulverizing three-hundred-plane raids came down to six thousand feet over Tokyo to loose the dreadful firebombs that consumed a quarter of a million houses and made a million human beings homeless while killing 83,800 people in the most lethal air raid in history—even exceeding the death and destruction of the atomic-bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were to follow.
Meanwhile the huge Japanese merchant fleet, employed in carrying vital oil and valuable minerals to the headquarters of an empire singularly devoid of natural resources, had been steadily blasted into extinction by the flashing torpedoes of the United States Navy’s submarines. Here indeed were the unsung heroes of the splendid Pacific sea charge of three years’ duration: four thousand miles from Pearl Harbor to the reef-rimmed slender long island of Okinawa. These men of “the silent service,” as it was called, were fond of joking about how they had divided the Pacific between the enemy and themselves, conferring on Japan “the bottom half.” In fact it was true. Only an occasional supply ship or transport arrived at or departed Nippon’s numerous sea-ports, themselves silent, ghostly shambles. Incredibly, the American submarines, now out of sea targets, had penetrated Japan’s inland seas to begin the systematic destruction of its ferry traffic. Transportation on the four Home Islands of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Hokkaido was at a standstill. Little was moved: by road or rail, over the water or through the air. In the Imperial Palace hissing, bowing members of the household staff kept from Emperor Hirohito the shocking, grisly protests arriving in the daily mail: the index fingers of Japanese fathers who had lost too many sons to “the red-haired barbarians.” Most of these doubters—silent and anonymous because they feared a visit from the War Lords’ dreaded Thought Police—were men who had lived and worked in America, knowing it for the unrivaled industrial giant that it was. They did not share the general jubilation when “the emperor’s glorious young eagles” arrived home from Pearl Harbor. Their hearts were filled with trepidation, with secret dread for the retribution that they knew would overtake their beloved country.
For eight months following Pearl Harbor, the victory fever had raged unchecked in Japan. During that time the striking power of America’s Pacific Fleet had rolled with the tide on the floor of Battleship Row. Wake had fallen, Guam, the Philippines. The Rising Sun flew above the Dutch East Indies, it surmounted the French tricolor in Indochina, blotting out the Union Jack in Singapore, where columns of short tan men in mushroom helmets double-timed through silent streets. Burma and Malaya were also Japanese. India’s hundreds of millions were imperiled, great China was all but isolated from the world, Australia looked fearfully north to Japanese bases on New Guinea, toward the long double chain of the Solomon Islands drawn like two knives across its lifeline to America. But then, on August 7, 1942—exactly eight months after Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagomo had turned his aircraft carriers into the wind off Pearl Harbor—the American Marines landed on Guadalcanal and the counter-offensive had begun.
In Japan the war dance turned gradually into a dirge while doleful drums beat a requiem of retreat and defeat. Smiling Japanese mothers no longer strolled along the streets of Japanese towns and cities, grasping their “belts of a thousand stitches,” entreating passersby to sew a stitch into these magical charms to be worn into battle by their soldier sons. For now those youths lay buried on faraway islands where admirals and generals—like the Melanesian or Micronesian natives whom they despised—es—caped starvation by cultivating their own vegetable gardens of yams and sweet potatoes. And the belts that had failed to preserve the lives of the boys who wore them became battle souvenirs second only to the Samurai sabers of their fallen officers.
This, then, was the Japan that the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff still considered a formidable foe, so much so that it could be subdued only by an invasion force of a million men and thousands of ships, airplanes, and tanks. To achieve final victory, Okinawa was to be seized as a forward base for this enormous invading armada. In the fall of 1945 a three-pronged amphibious assault called Operation Olympic was to be mounted against southern Kyushu by the Sixth U.S. Army consisting of ten infantry divisions and three spearheading Marine divisions. This was to be followed in the spring of 1946 by Operation Coronet, a massive seaborne assault on the Tokyo Plain by the Eighth and Tenth Armies, spearheaded by another amphibious force of three Marine divisions and with the First Army transshipped from Europe to form a ten-division reserve. The entire operation would be under the command of General of the Armies MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Okinawa would be the catapult from which this mightiest amphibious assault force ever assembled would be hurled.
The Divine Wind
Japanese Imperial Headquarters, still refusing to believe that Nippon was beaten, still writing reports while wearing rose-colored glasses, also anticipated an inevitable and bloody fight for Okinawa as the prelude to a titanic struggle for Japan itself. While the American Joint Chiefs regarded Operation Iceberg as one more stepping-stone toward Japan, their enemy saw it as the anvil on which the hammer blows of a still-invincible Japan would destroy the American fleet.
Destruction of American sea power remained the chief objective of Japanese military policy. Sea power had brought the Americans through the island barriers that Imperial Headquarters had thought to be impenetrable, had landed them at Iwo within the very Prefecture of Tokyo, and now threatened to provide them a lodgment 385 miles closer to the Home Islands. Only sea power could make possible the invasion of Japan, something that had not happened in three thousand years of Japan’s recorded history—something that had been attempted only twice before.
In 1274 and 1281 Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan and Mongol emperor of China, massed huge invasion fleets on the Chinese coast for that purpose. Japan was unprepared to repel such stupendous armadas, but a kamikaze, or “Divine Wind”—actually a typhoon—struck both Mongol fleets, scattering and sinking them.
In early 1945, nearly seven centuries later, an entire host of Divine Winds came howling out of Nippon. They were the suicide bombers of the Special Attack Forces, the new kamikaze who had been so named because it was seriously believed that they too would destroy another invasion fleet.
They were the conception of Vice Admiral Takejiro Onishi. He had led a carrier group during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After that Japanese aerial disaster known to the Americans as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot,” Onishi had gone to Fleet Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of Japan’s Combined Fleet, with the proposal to organize a group of flyers who would crash-dive loaded bombers onto the decks of American warships. Toyoda agreed. Like most Japanese he found the concept of suicide—so popular in Japan as a means of atonement for failure of any kind—a glorious method of defending the homeland. So Toyoda sent Onishi to the Philippines, where he began organizing kamikaze on a local and volunteer basis. Then came the American seizure of the Palaus and the Filipino invasion.
On October 15, 1944, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima—the first kamikaze—tried to crash-dive the American carrier Franklin. He was shot down by Navy fighters, but Japanese Imperial Headquarters told the nation that he had succeeded in hitting the carrier—which he had not done—and thus “lit the fuse of the ardent wishes of his men.”
The first organized attacks of the kamikaze came on October 25, at the beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Suicide bombers struck blows strong enough to startle the Americans and make them aware of a new weapon in the field against them, but not savage enough to shatter them. Too many kamikaze missed their targets and crashed harmlessly into the ocean, too many lost their way either arriving or returning, and too many were shot down. Of 650 suiciders sent to the Philippines, only about a quarter of them scored hits—and almost exclusively on small ships without the firepower to defend themselves like the cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers. But Imperial Headquarters, still keeping the national mind carefully empty of news of failure, announced hits of almost 100 percent. Imperial Headquarters did not believe its own propaganda, of course. Its generals and admirals privately guessed hits ranging from 12 to 50 percent, but they also assumed that nothing but battleships and carriers had been hit.
Thus was the kamikaze born, in an outburst of national ecstasy and anticipated deliverance. In the homeland a huge corps of suiciders was organized under Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki. By January 1945 they were part of Japanese military strategy, if not the dominant part. So many suiciders would be ordered out on an operation, to be joined by so many first-class fighters and bombers: the fighters to clear the skies of enemy interceptors, the bombers to ravage American shipping and guide the kamikaze to their victims.
They needed to be guided because they usually were a combination of old, stripped-down aircraft and young, often hopped-up flyers. Admiral Ugaki did not use his newest planes or his most skilled pilots, as Admiral Onishi had in the Philippines. Ugaki considered this wasteful. He believed that the “spiritual power” of the “glorious, incomparable young eagles” would compensate for the missing firepower of obsolete crates from which even the instruments had been removed. At a period in the Pacific War when perceptive Japanese commanders were beginning to ridicule the “bamboo-spear tactics” of the School of Spiritual Power, as opposed to the realities of firepower, Ugaki was showering his brave young volunteers—for brave they truly were—with encomiums of praise intended to silence whatever reservations they may have had about piloting these patched-up old cripples, and also to inspire the nation.
So the suiciders were hailed as saviors: wined, dined, photographed, lionized. Many of them attended their own funerals before taking off on their last mission. Farewell feasts were held in their honor at the numerous airfields on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Solemn Samurai ceremonies were conducted, and many toasts of sake drunk, so that some of the pilots climbed aboard their airplanes on wobbly legs. It did not seem to occur to the Japanese—and especially Ugaki—that insobriety might affect the aim of the kamikaze and thus defeat the purpose of the suicide corps; and this was because the concept of the suicide-savior had so captivated the nation from schoolgirls to Emperor Hirohito himself that the slightest word of criticism would have been regarded as treason. And it was this very deep and very real faith in another coming of a Divine Wind that dictated to the planners at Imperial Headquarters exactly how the battle of Okinawa was to be fought.
The speed with which the Americans were overrunning the Philippines had produced a mood of the blackest pessimism at Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo in late 1944—until those roseate reports of kamikaze success during December and January replaced the darkest despair with the brightest hopes. By 1945 Headquarters had decided that the United States would next strike at Okinawa to seize a base for the invasion of Japan proper, as the four Home Islands were called. It was now believed that the kamikaze corps could greatly improve the chances for a successful defense of Okinawa, and thus perhaps—even probably—prevent enemy landings in the Home Islands. So a plan called Ten-Go, or “Heavenly Operation,” was devised. New armies were to be formed from a reserve of military-age men who had been deferred for essential labor, while a powerful air force built around the kamikaze would be organized to destroy the Americans.
More than four thousand airplanes, both suicide and conventional, would launch an all-out attack, joined by hundreds of suicide motorboats operating from Okinawa and the Kerama Islands and followed by a suicide dash of Japan’s remaining warships, including the mighty battleship Yamato. The air assaults would come from two directions: north from Formosa where the Japanese Army’s Eighth Air Division and the Navy’s First Air Fleet were based, and south from Kyushu, with a more powerful force combining several Army and Navy commands, all under the direction of Vice Admiral Ugaki. On February 6 a joint Army-Navy Air Agreement stated:
In general Japanese air strength will be conserved until an enemy landing is underway or within the defense sphere … Primary emphasis will be laid on the speedy activation, training and mass employment of the Special Attack Forces (kamikaze) … The main target of Army aircraft will be enemy transports, and of Navy aircraft carrier attack forces.
On its face this was a bold plan conceived in an atmosphere of the most cordial cooperation. Actually, the only leaders motivated by the same conviction were those who believed that the war could no longer be won. Otherwise, there was a deep divergence: the Navy officers seeing Ten-Go as the last opportunity to score a great, redeeming victory; the Army staffers in agreement that the final battle would be fought not on Okinawa but on Kyushu. Though their views conflicted, their reasoning was logical: the sailors, certain that if airpower could not stop the enemy at Okinawa, neither would it do so on Kyushu; the Army insisting that even on the Philippines the Americans had not yet fought a major Japanese army, and that, shattered and whittled by the suicide-saviors, they could be repulsed in Japan proper. However, all—even the doubters—were convinced that at the very least a severe defeat must be inflicted on the Americans to compel the Allies to modify their demand for Unconditional Surrender.
There was one more consideration, probably more apparent to the Army than the Navy. Bamboo-spear tactics were out. The illogical belief that spiritual power could conquer firepower had spawned that other cause of Japan’s absolute inability to halt the American charge across the Pacific: the doctrine of destroying the enemy invaders “at the water’s edge.” Those nocturnal, massed frontal attacks known as “Banzai charges” had repeatedly been broken in blood, leaving the Japanese defenders so weakened that they were powerless to resist. Now there was a new spirit informing the Japanese Army: defense in depth—as careful as the Banzai was reckless, as difficult for the enemy to overcome as the foolhardy wild Banzai had been easy for him to shatter, and so costly in the attrition of enemy men, machines, and ships as to weary the Americans and thus induce them to negotiate.
Ambush, or the tactics of delay raised to a military science, began on the large island of Biak off the western extremity of New Guinea. It was conceived by Colonel Kuzume Naoyuki, commander of about eleven thousand troops of the defense garrison there. Disdainful of the doctrine of destruction at the water’s edge, he decided instead to allow the Americans to come ashore unopposed so that they would stroll unwarily into the trap he would prepare for them. This would turn the area around the vital airfield there into a martial honeycomb of caves and pillboxes—all mutually supportive—filled with riflemen, automatic weapons, artillery, batteries of mortars, and light tanks. Naoyuki also stockpiled these positions with enough ammunition, food, and water—that priceless liquid was less than abundant on Biak, where the heat and humidity would take a toll equal to enemy gunfire—to sustain his defense for months. Thus, when the 162nd Infantry of the Forty-first Division of the U.S. Army landed on Biak on May 27, 1944, they did indeed move confidently inland expecting little opposition—until they reached that vital airfield. Then, from the low-lying terrain around them and the ridges above, there fell a terrible storm of shot and shell that pinned them to the ground; it was not until dark that amtracks were able to extricate them from the trap.
Thereafter, there was no foolish and furious Banzai by which the Japanese enemy customarily bled itself to death. Biak was a grinding, shot-for-shot battle. Ambush, or delay, was repeated at Peleliu and Iwo Jima, battles that the U.S. Marines expected to be won within days or a week or so but lasted for months, with staggering losses not only in valuable time but in still more valuable life and equipment.
These were the tactics that Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima intended to employ on Okinawa with his defending Japanese Thirty-second Army. After his arrival there in August 1944, he hurled himself into the gratifying task of turning that slender long island into an ocean fortress. In January 1945, he sent his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Isamu Cho, to Tokyo for a review of his defenses. Imperial Headquarters planners were delighted with his preparations, for they dovetailed with Ten-Go. Ushijima’s monster ambush was just the tactic to lure the Americans within range of the suiciders—airborne and seaborne—to be smashed so shatteringly that the Thirty-second Army could take the offensive and destroy them.
Upon his return to Okinawa, Isamu Cho was a happy soldier, thirsting for battle and bursting to tell his chief the good news about Japan’s devastating new weapon of the Divine Wind.
On the evening of March 23, 1983, a long black limousine pulled up to the south gate of Ronald Reagan’s White House. In the back sat Edward Teller, now seventy-five years old. Teller was not exactly sure why he was here. He had just flown in from California, where he lived, because the aide who called him three days earlier said President Reagan thought it was important that he be at the White House on this night.
Walking with a limp and a cane, Teller made his way through the White House foyer, up the stairs, and into the Blue Room. There he was greeted by Admiral John Poindexter, the Military Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Poindexter suggested Teller have a seat. Thirty-six chairs had been set up in neat rows. Teller sat down and waited. In another seat was the Jason scientist and Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes, the principal inventor of the laser.
At 8:00 p.m., in a nationally televised address, President Reagan announced to the world his decision to launch a major new research and development program to intercept Soviet ICBMs in various stages of flight. The program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), would require numerous advanced technology systems, the majority of which were still in the development stage. DARPA would be the lead agency in charge until SDI had its own organization.
President Reagan said that the reason for this radical new initiative was simple. When he first became president, he was shocked to learn that in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike, his only option as commander in chief was to launch an all-out nuclear attack against the Soviets in response. Reagan said he was not willing to live in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon—mutual assured destruction. The United States needed the capability to strike down incoming Soviet missiles before they arrived. This bold new SDI program would allow for that.
For decades, defense scientists like the Jason scientists had been grappling with this conundrum of ballistic missile defense and had concluded that there was no way to defend against an onslaught of incoming ICBMs. Now, Reagan believed that technology had advanced to the point where this could be done sometime in the not-so-distant future.
The Strategic Defense Initiative involved huge mirrors in space, space-based surveillance and tracking systems, space-based battle stations, and more. But the element that got the most attention right away was the x-ray laser, which scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had been working on since the 1970s. Very few people outside the Livermore group understood the science behind an x-ray laser, and even fewer knew that x-ray lasers were powered by nuclear explosions.
Several days after Reagan’s speech, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was leaving the Pentagon to brief Congress on SDI. Walking alongside him was Undersecretary Richard D. DeLauer, a ballistic missile expert. Secretary Weinberger was having trouble grasping the science behind SDI and DeLauer was trying to explain it to him.
“But is it a bomb?” Secretary Weinberger asked.
DeLauer was candid. As the former executive vice president of the missile company TRW, Inc., and with a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering, DeLauer understood the science behind the x-ray laser. “You’re going to have to detonate a nuclear bomb in space,” he told the secretary of defense. “That’s how you’re going to get the x-ray.”
This put Secretary Weinberger in an untenable position. President Reagan had assured the public that his new program would not involve nuclear weapons in space. “It’s not a bomb, is it?” Weinberger asked a second time.
DeLauer chose his words carefully. He said that the x-ray laser didn’t have to be called a bomb. It could be described as involving a “nuclear event.”
In a 1985 interview for the Los Angeles Times, DeLauer relayed this story verbatim. He said that the secretary of defense “didn’t understand the technology,” adding, “Most people don’t.”
The laser was invented in the late 1950s by Charles Townes, who in 1964 was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. In the most basic sense a laser is a device that emits light. But unlike with other light sources, such as a lightbulb, which emits light that dissipates, in a laser the photons all move in the same direction in lockstep, exactly parallel to one another, with no deviation. To many, the laser is something straight out of science fiction. In a 2014 interview for this book, Charles Townes, then age ninety-eight, confirmed that he had been inspired to create the laser after reading Alexei Tolstoi’s 1926 science-fiction novel The Garin Death Ray. “This idea of a flashing death ray also has a mystique that catches human attention,” said Townes, “and so we have Jove’s bolts of lightning and the death rays of science fiction.” A half century after Tolstoi wrote about the Garin death ray, George Lucas modernized the concept with Luke Skywalker’s light saber in the science-fiction film Star Wars.
One of the first sets of experiments involving lasers, mirrors, and space took place in 1969 and has been largely lost to the history books. The experiment began on July 21 of that year, said Townes, when, for the first time in history, two men walked on the moon. While on the lunar surface, “astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin [Buzz] Aldrin set up an array of small reflectors on the moon and faced them toward the Earth.” Back here on earth—which is 240,000 miles from the moon—two teams of astrophysicists, one team working at the University of California’s Lick Observatory, on Mount Hamilton, and the other at the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory, on Mount Locke, took careful notes regarding where, exactly, the astronauts were when they set down the mirrors. “About ten days later, the Lick team pointed the telescope at that precise location and sent a small pulse of power into the tiny piece of hardware they had added to the telescope,” said Townes. Inside the telescope, a beam of “extraordinarily pure red light” emerged from a crystal of synthetic ruby, pierced the sky, and entered the near vacuum of space. A laser beam.
Traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, the laser beam took less than two seconds to hit the mirrors left behind on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin, and then the same amount of time to travel back to earth, where the Lick team “detected the faint reflection of its beam,” explained Townes. The experiment delivered volumes of scientific data, but one set was truly phenomenal. “The interval between launch of the pulse of light and its return permitted calculation of the distance to the moon within an inch, a measurement of unprecedented precision,” said Townes. The laser beam was able to measure what stargazers and astronomers have wondered since time immemorial: Exactly how far away from earth is the moon?
While the astrophysicists were using laser technology for peaceful purposes, the Defense Department was already looking at using lasers as directed-energy weapons (DEW). In 1968 ARPA had established a classified laser program called Eighth Card, which remains classified today, as do many other laser programs, the names of which are also classified. Directed-energy weapons have many advantages, none so great as speed. Traveling at the speed of light means a DEW could hit a target on the moon in less than two seconds.
After hearing Reagan’s historic announcement from a front-row seat in the White House Blue Room, Edward Teller and Charles Townes had decidedly different reactions. Teller embraced the idea and would become a leading scientist on the Strategic Defense Initiative and the follow-up program, called Brilliant Pebbles. Charles Townes did not believe Reagan’s SDI concept could work.
“For a president who doesn’t know the technology one can see why [it] might be appealing,” said Townes. “It doesn’t really seem very attractive to me, or doable. But you can see how from a matter of principle it sounded good to Reagan. It’s like an imaginary story of what might be done.”
The day after the speech, Senator Edward Kennedy criticized the president’s initiative, calling it a “reckless ‘Star Wars’ scheme.” The name stuck. From then on, the president’s program became known around the world as “Star Wars.” Science fiction and science had crossed paths once again. For the general population, real-world lasers, death rays, and directed-energy weapons were scientifically impossible to grasp. Science fiction was not so hard.
Congress worried that SDI was not technically feasible and that it was politically irresponsible. That even if the technology were successful, it could trigger a dangerous new arms race with the Soviets. But after debating the issue, Congress gave the Reagan White House the go-ahead for the Strategic Defense Initiative, and over the next ten years, nearly $20 billion was spent. It is often said that the Clinton administration canceled the SDI program, when in fact it canceled only certain elements of the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI never really went away. In 2012 the Fiscal Times reported that more than $100 billion had been spent on SDI technologies in the three decades since Reagan first proposed the idea, $80 billion of which had been spent in the past decade.
SIMNET: A Turnkey Cloud-Based Simulator for UAS Suppliers
Space remains a domain where domination has long been sought but where all-out war has never been fought. For scientists and engineers working on DARPA’s SIMNET program, the focus would remain on land. There had been steady progress with the SIMNET program in the year since director Larry Lynn gave it the go-ahead, including the fact that the Army was now involved. Which is how, in the spring of 1984, Jack Thorpe, now a major, found himself maneuvering a sixty-ton M1 Abrams tank up over a muddy hill deep in the pine-forested back lot of the legendary armor school at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“When we started SIMNET, the threat was on Soviet armor warfare,” says Thorpe, “meaning tanks.” This meant that simulating tank warfare was SIMNET’s first priority. The desired goal was to create a virtual reality that felt real. So Thorpe and the DARPA team were at Fort Knox, driving through the mud, attempting to “capture the sense of tankness,” says Thorpe. DARPA had big plans for SIMNET, with a goal of building four SIMNET centers to house a total of 360 simulators, roughly 90 per site. At the time, Thorpe and the DARPA team were working on the first two simulators, which would be models of M1 Abrams tanks.
Because there would be no motion in these simulators, the emphasis was placed on sound. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) of La Jolla was in charge of working with field units at instrumented training ranges and collecting data. The defense contractor Perceptronics Corporation of California was hired to design the fiberglass and plywood simulators and wire them for sound. “For someone on the outside, the sound of the hundred-and-five-millimeter tank gun firing at a target downrange is incredibly loud, but for a person inside the tank the experience is totally different,” says Thorpe. Because of the overpressure, there is almost no noise. “It’s incredibly quiet.” What there is inside is movement, which, Thorpe says, “is a totally different kind of sound.” The audio specialists with Perceptronics replicated the sound inside the tank by simulating the loose parts that vibrate when the gun fires. “Coins in the glove box,” recalls Thorpe, “loose bolts, anything that’s not tied down.” Back in the laboratory, to convey that rattling sound, audio engineers filled a metal pie plate with nuts and bolts, then glued the pie plate to the top of a subwoofer which they hid behind the fiberglass in the tank simulator. Then Bolt, Beranek and Newman of Boston, which had been a principal contractor on ARPANET, developed the networking and graphics technology for the simulators.
The 1986 annual armor conference at Fort Knox was a milestone in SIMNET history, the first test run of two DARPA SIMNET simulators. General Frederic “Rick” Brown and another general would test the systems, and there was a lot resting on what they thought of a simulated war game. Thorpe recalls the first two simulators as being “about eighty percent [complete], made of fiberglass and plywood, with one hand control to control the turret.” The two SIMNET tank simulators had been set up roughly twenty feet apart. The generals took their seats and the DARPA team piled inside.
“Neither general had any experience in the virtual world,” says Thorpe. “Here’s General Brown looking at a screen in front of him with an icon of the other tank. I say, ‘There in that tank, that is the [opposing] general.’ He doesn’t get it. So I say, ‘Turn the turret and point it toward the other tank.’ The turret turns. General Brown got a little giddy. He gets it, I think,” Thorpe recalls. “I tell him to load a sabot [round]. ‘Sir,’ I say, ‘if you trigger here, you can shoot the general.’”
General Brown fired the virtual weapon. On the screen, General Brown watched the other general’s tank blow up. “Everything went dark,” Thorpe recalls, in the virtual world, “the general and his crew were ‘dead.’” From the other tank, in the other fiberglass and plywood box, Thorpe heard the other general call out, “‘Reinitialize!’” Inside his simulator, the second general’s tank came back to life. He swung his turret around, put General Brown in his sights, and fired at him.
In that “reinitialize” moment, Thorpe says, he became convinced that both generals were sold on SIMNET. “The behavior in a virtual world is the same behavior as the behavior in the real world,” Thorpe says.
After its initial trials, and with the endorsements from two U.S. Army generals, the SIMNET project had considerable momentum, and the DARPA teams went into production mode. In nine months, DARPA had constructed a building at Fort Knox the size of a small Costco. Inside there were roughly seventy tank simulators, each made of fiberglass, and each with the approximate dimensions of an M1 Abrams tank or a Bradley fighting vehicle. “The building was designed like a hockey rink,” Thorpe says. Power and networking cables dropped from the ceiling. “Entire tank battalions would enter the SIMNET center and begin training together, as if they were in a real tank battle.” Real-world problems had been built into the system. “If you left your virtual electricity on overnight, in the morning your battery would be dead,” Thorpe recalls. “If you didn’t pay attention to landmarks and disciplined map reading, you got lost in the virtual battle terrain. It was force on force. One group against another.” Competition drove the training to a whole new level. “The desire to win forced people to invent new concepts about how to beat their opponents.”
A second SIMNET center was built at Fort Benning, Georgia, then another at Fort Rucker, in Alabama, for attack helicopter training. In 1988 a fourth SIMNET center went up at the U.S. Army garrison in Grafenwoehr, Germany, also for armor vehicles. In DARPA’s SIMNET, the U.S. Army saw a whole new way to prepare for war. Then an unexpected new center was requested by the Department of Defense.
“The high rankers at the Pentagon wanted a simulation center of their own,” recalls Neale Cosby, who oversaw the engineering on this center. The facility chosen as the host was DARPA’s longtime partner the Institute for Defense Analyses, just down the street from DARPA in Alexandria. The IDA offices were located in a collegiate-looking yellow-brick and glass building located at 1801 North Beauregard Street. In 1988, Cosby recalls, much of the ground floor, including the cafeteria, was taken over by DARPA so an IDA simulation center could be built there for Pentagon brass. Cosby recalls the production. “We covered all the windows with camouflage, laid down a virtual tarmac made of foam, set up fiberglass helicopters, tanks, and aircraft cockpits, then networked everything and wired it for sound.” Finally, a mysterious feature was added, one that no other SIMNET center had. For reasons of discretion, Cosby and Thorpe called the feature a “flying carpet.”
“It was a way for [participants] to put themselves into the virtual world not as a pilot or a tank driver or a gunner, but anywhere” in flight, says Cosby. “It was as if you were invisible.” At the time, the details of the invisible component were classified because the flying carpet feature was a way for Pentagon officials with high clearances to experience what it would be like to fly through a virtual battle in a stealth fighter jet. These were the results of DARPA’s “high-stealth aircraft” program, which began in 1974.
Over a ten-year period, DARPA and the Army spent $300 million developing simulation technology. In the summer of 1990 the SIMNET system was transferred over to the U.S. Army. Its first large-scale use was to simulate a war game exercise undertaken by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), in Tampa, Florida. For years CENTCOM had sponsored a biennial war game exercise called Operation Internal Look, based on a real-world contingency plan. The Internal Look war games trained CENTCOM’s combatant commander and his staff in command, control, and communications techniques. The exercises involved a pre-scripted war game scenario in which U.S. forces would quickly deploy to a location to confront a hypothetical Soviet invasion of a specific territory. In the past, the war games had taken place in Cold War settings like the Zagros Mountains in Iran and the Fulda Gap in Germany.
In the summer of 1990 the Cold War climate had changed. The Berlin Wall had come down eight months before, and CENTCOM commander in chief General Norman Schwarzkopf decided that for Internal Look 90, U.S. forces would engage in a SIMNET-based war game against a different foe, other than the Soviet Union. A scripted narrative was drawn up involving Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his military, the fourth largest in the world. In this narrative, Iraq, coming off its eight-year war with Iran, would attack the rich oil fields of Saudi Arabia. In response, U.S. armed forces would enter the conflict to help American ally Saudi Arabia. Because new SIMNET technology was involved, realistic data on Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait were incorporated into the war game scenario, including geography, architecture, and urban populations, this for the first time in history. In playing the war game, CENTCOM battle staff drove tanks, flew aircraft, and moved men across computer-generated Middle Eastern cities and vast desert terrain with the astonishing accuracy and precision of SIMNET simulation.
“We played Internal Look in late July 1990, setting up a mock headquarters complete with computers and communications gear at Eglin Air Force Base,” General Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoir. And then to everyone’s surprise, on the last day of the simulated war game exercises, on August 4, 1990, Iraq invaded its small, oil-rich neighbor Kuwait—for real. It was a bizarre turn of events. Science and science fiction had crossed paths once again.
Months later, after the Gulf War began and ended, General Schwarzkopf commented on how strangely similar the real war and the simulated war game had been.
“As the exercise [i.e., the Gulf War] got under way,” General Schwarzkopf said, “the movements of Iraq’s real-world ground and air forces eerily paralleled the imaginary scenario of the game.”
A camouflaged defensive position constructed in the north wall of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex, during the Second World War. One report states: ‘At the time of the construction of the defence works in the walls of Pevensey Castle, from late July 1940 through August and September, the infantry regiment at Pevensey had been the 4th Bn. Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and the commander of this battalion, Lt. Col. Harrowing, appears to have been responsible for the siting of the machine gun emplacements, and for organising the strengthening of various of the dungeons and towers of the medieval castle to serve as headquarters buildings. This work was carried out by 562nd Field Company Royal Engineers.’
27 October 1939
Air Power Considered to Have Made the Risk of Invasion Negligible
The advent of air-power had changed the prospects for an invasion of this country. It was believed that the preparation of an expeditionary force would be unable to escape the watch of our air-reconnaissance patrols, and that the expedition could be bombed and shelled to destruction before reaching these shores.
Coastal Command R.A.F. was responsible for reconnaissance over possible invasion ports on the Continent (17 of the 19 squadrons approved for Coastal Command were ready to operate at the outbreak of war); and Bomber Command had an adequate striking force to attack any concentration of shipping. Our naval supremacy in Home waters was guaranteed by the Naval Pact with Germany in 1935.
In the circumstances the Committee of Imperial Defence had approved that “so long as our Navy and Air Force are in being, a sea-borne invasion could be defeated without the help of land forces … and the danger of airborne attack on a large scale is negligible”. The land forces to be retained in the United Kingdom needed to be adequate only “to man the anti-aircraft ground defences and to maintain order and essential services in the event of major and sustained air attacks”.
In accordance with their assurances all the Regular divisions in the country were sent to France as soon as mobilised, to be followed by Territorial divisions as they became fit for service.
Not only was the Home Army reduced to a token force of semi-trained troops, but priority was given to the Field Force in France for trained officers and the full output of equipment, artillery and transport from production. For the same reason – the belief that preparations against invasion were unnecessary – coast defence had come last in priority in defence measures, and the 28 “defended ports” were far below the approved requirement in armament.
Civil Invasion Preparations Cancelled
As the War Office did not propose to make specific preparations to deal with large scale seaborne or airborne raids, or invasion, civil defence schemes to meet such a contingency were “unnecessary and, indeed, impracticable”.
Entries in the Government War Book for civil anti-invasion measures, such as the evacuation of the population from coastal areas, removal of supplies, etc. inserted purposely after the 1914/18 War to ensure that they were not overlooked, had been cancelled in 1937.
Risk of a Large Scale Raid Considered
During the first weeks of the war the activities of German submarines off the North and West coasts resulted in a reduction of our light naval force in the North Sea to provide escorts for trade protection. When the nights began to lengthen in October, the War Cabinet agreed that a convoy of German transports might slip through our naval and air patrols, and land an armed force on the coast. The Chiefs of Staff were accordingly asked to reconsider the risk of a large scale raid, and to take the necessary steps to meet it. Our naval and air forces could be rapidly strengthened sufficiently to intercept any reinforcements of troops and supplies; but even a local success, such as the destruction of a port or of some vital objective near the coast, might have a political and moral effect sufficient to tie up many more troops at home. The requirement therefore was to destroy the landing force as soon as possible before any serious damage could be done.
The Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, was asked to “prepare immediate plans to meet an invasion on a large scale, based on a course of enemy action which had previously been ruled out an unlikely”. The outcome of that request was the “Julius Caesar” plan produced by G.H.Q. Home Forces on the 27th October
The maximum German force which might evade our sea control was estimated at a division, or 15,000 fully equipped troops, in twenty 4,000– 5,000 ton transports supported by 10,000 airborne troops in 1,000 civil aircraft.
Until the airborne troops had captured a port from the landward side, cleared opposition from the vicinity of the docks and anchorages, and from ground commanding the entrance to the port, it was considered to be “supremely dangerous for a seaborne landing to be attempted”; so that “if the initial air landing operation is a failure the operation as a whole cannot proceed and has definitely failed”. Consequently the defeat of the airborne force was the principal aim of the plan. With equipment limited to rifles and light machine guns, and a restricted ammunition supply, the airborne troops were expected to have little staying power unless quickly supported from the sea.
The most likely objective was an aerodrome, or landing grounds, near a port of considerable size, such as Harwich or the Humber, where a number of quays, wharves and cranes were available for rapid disembarkation; but defence precautions were taken at all ports between Peterhead and Newhaven where ships could come alongside, in particular Aberdeen, Dundee, Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Ramsgate.
The main defence was by fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns which would destroy the troop-carrying aircraft in the air; but parties of aircraft might evade the air defence, or might land before daybreak or in bad visibility. The ground defence was based chiefly on the location of mobile reserves within call; and the success of the plan would depend upon the ability of the local coastal forces to “pin down” the German airborne formations, and upon the time taken by the mobile reserves to reach the area of operations.
To give the earliest possible warning additional air reconnaissance and naval patrols were to be ordered to cover the German coastal and North Sea areas by day and on moon-light nights; and certain bomber squadrons were to be maintained in immediate readiness to bomb ship concentrations. With those precautions it was estimated that a minimum of eight hours’ notice could be given of any attempted large scale raid. The code-word “Julius”, denoting that an invasion was impending, brought the Home Defence forces to a state of readiness at eight hours’ notice; the code-word “Caesar” signified that an invasion was imminent.
It was expected that the landing force, seaborne and airborne, would be eliminated within seven days. That calculation provided the basis for the short-term period for the immobilisation of ports and the denial of facilities to the enemy. The civil population not in immediate danger were to be encouraged to remain in their homes; but the exodus of those persons in the danger zone was to be controlled and directed so that military two-way roads into the area of operations was kept clear of all civil traffic.
The C.-in-C. Home Forces put the minimum Army requirement for the plan at seven divisions: two for the Eastern and one each for the Northern and the Scottish Commands, and three in G.H.Q. Reserve. In Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia armoured detachments were to be ready to move at once to break up the landing force before a port could be seized. The dispositions of Home Forces early in May 1940, when nine divisions were available for the plan.
The Julius Caesar plan may be regarded as an annex to the Record of Home Defence Measures; and together they formed the foundation of the plans for Home Defence during the first Winter of the War.
U-3008 (Type XXI U-Boat) at Wilhelmshaven, June 1945. Note the two type IX submarines to its left. U-3008 was one of only two type XXIs to make a wartime patrol
The most likely reason why Hitler chose to defend Courland and other bridgeheads along the Baltic concerns the Atlantic Ocean more than the Eastern Front. It is well known that the Luftwaffe suffered a serious defeat over Britain in the second half of 1940. Historians also acknowledge that the German army met its match at Moscow in December 1941 and that it never regained the strategic initiative after the Stalingrad debacle the following winter. Yet people often forget that the tide did not turn against German navy until May 1943. Following the defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic, Dönitz’s single-minded goal was to regain the initiative in the war at sea. He planned to achieve this with new models of technologically advanced submarines that would sever the link between the Old World and the New, isolating America and starving Britain into submission. But first these new U-boats had to undergo trials and their crews had to be trained, both of which for geographic reasons were possible only in the eastern and central Baltic. It was absolutely essential to Dönitz to control the Baltic so he could ready his new submarine force for operations in the Atlantic.
Although the German navy had been woefully unprepared for war in 1939, Dönitz’s U-boat arm increased in size and efficiency. The number of submarines in the first year of the war hovered between fifty and sixty. This number increased dramatically to 248 commissioned U-boats in January 1942 and 400 in January 1943. The year 1942 was a banner one for German submarines. Following Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, U-boats prowled off America’s East Coast and in the Caribbean, sinking so many Allied vessels that the period from February to October 1942 became known to German submariners as the “Happy Times.” When American antisubmarine defenses improved, Dönitz shifted his U-boats back to the North Atlantic, where they again achieved impressive results. After a slow start in the first two months of 1943, large numbers of German submarines put to sea. The critical months of March through May saw the climax of the Battle of the Atlantic. Rarely has a period of victory been so closely followed by one of utter defeat. The Naval Staff (Seekriegsleitung) Skl announced that in March 1943 U-boats had sunk 140 ships of some 875,000 tons for the loss of 14 submarines. Near the end of the month Dönitz’s submariners claimed to have fought their most successful convoy battle of the war, sinking a destroyer and thirty-four merchantmen of 200,000 tons without losing any of the thirty-eight attacking U-boats.
Yet trouble was on the horizon. Dönitz met with Hitler in mid-April 1943 and reported on rising submarine losses in the Atlantic. Germany had lost nineteen U-boats in February, fifteen in March, and six during the first ten days of April. The advent of more effective Allied antisubmarine measures, he declared, called for increased U-boat construction. Dönitz proposed that the goal be increased from the as yet unreached figure of twenty-five submarines monthly to thirty, and Hitler agreed. In May the Germans claimed to have sunk fifty-seven ships of 344,000 tons, but at the cost of thirty-eight U-boats. Dönitz concluded that losses had reached an unacceptable level and ordered his submarines to leave the North Atlantic. Twice that month Dönitz briefed Hitler on the crisis of the U-boat war. He explained that Allied air superiority, coupled with a new device that enabled aircraft to locate submarines even during conditions of poor visibility, had deprived the U-boat of its advantages of stealth and surprise. Dönitz insisted that current losses made yet another increase in submarine production necessary and secured Hitler’s consent to raise production to forty U-boats per month. To expedite this, Dönitz asked that the armaments minister, Albert Speer, take over all naval construction, and Hitler approved this measure on 31 May.
Dönitz planned to regain the initiative in the war at sea with two new models of submarines, the Types XXI and XXIII. The Type XXI, intended for action in the Atlantic, had a crew of fifty-seven, was 237 feet long, weighed 1,600 tons, and could maintain a submerged speed of eighteen knots for and hour and a half, or twelve to fourteen knots for ten hours. This speed and endurance signified a tremendous improvement over existing U-boats, which traveled underwater at six knots for forty-five minutes, at best. Most Allied convoys sailed at speeds of six to nine knots; the new submarines would be able to approach convoys and escape pursuit much more easily. Furthermore, the addition of a “silent running” motor for speeds up to five knots would make detection by listening devices much more difficult. The Type XXI’s design also incorporated additional defensive and offensive improvements. Thicker hull plating rendered the submarines less susceptible to damage from depth charges, and improved listening and location devices permitted submerged attack without the use of the periscope. These U-boats were also called “electro-submarines,” because of their two 2,500-horsepower electric motors.
The idea for the Type XXI had originated at a conference Dönitz held in Paris in November 1942 with U-boat engineers and representatives from the Naval Construction Office. The designs for these submarines, completed in June 1943, combined the streamlined hull form of the Walter submarine (discussed below) with conventional means of propulsion. With its larger hull the Type XXI had two to three times the battery capacity of existing U-boats, which greatly enhanced its submerged speed and endurance. This submarine could also dive deeper than current U-boats; it was capable of reaching 376 feet, compared to 309 feet for the Type VII-C.6 The Type XXI had six bow torpedo tubes and could fire eighteen of its twenty torpedoes in twenty to thirty minutes. The smaller Type XXIII, intended for use off Britain’s coast and in the Mediterranean and Black seas, had a crew of only fourteen, was 114 feet long, weighed about 250 tons, and could cruise underwater at twelve and a half knots for one hour. The Type XXIII’s maximum diving depth was 330 feet. One disadvantage of its small size, upon which Dönitz insisted so it could be transported by rail, was that it carried only two torpedoes.
In July 1943 Dönitz enthusiastically reported to Hitler that with their ability to approach convoys and evade pursuit at high speed, the new submarines would render current antisubmarine vessels obsolete, because Allied sub chasers were designed to combat U-boats with slow underwater speed. Furthermore, a submerged speed of eighteen to nineteen knots provided an advantage that would persist for quite some time, since the Allies could not increase convoy speeds to much more than ten knots. The electro-submarines had defensive advantages as well. Dönitz explained that the new submarines could dive faster if attacked and quickly pass through dangerous coastal areas en route to and from operating zones. Intensely interested, Hitler queried Dönitz on a number of the new U-boats’ technical aspects and agreed that they signified a revolutionary development. Hitler asked when the first of these submarines would be ready; Dönitz replied that because the Naval Construction Office’s estimate of November 1944 was too late, he had requested Speer, who was present, to devise a method to accelerate production. Hitler turned to Speer and instructed him to give construction of these U-boats top priority.
Dönitz also briefed Hitler on recent developments in the U-boat war. He reported that a professor at IG Farben believed he could develop a material to absorb radar waves. He announced also that he planned to return to the North Atlantic once a new antidestroyer torpedo was ready. Finally, he requested additional manpower for his branch of service; Hitler replied that he was devoted to the navy and would do everything he could for it.
In hopes of regaining the initiative in the U-boat war, in mid-August Dönitz ordered submarine construction shifted to the new types XXI and XXIII. Despite this changeover, he insisted on a steady monthly output of forty submarines. Speer had reexamined initial delivery estimates and promised the first Type XXI in April 1944. To expedite their availability, Speer built these new submarines in a radically new fashion. His biggest gamble was to rush the submarines into production straight from the design stage, without first building a prototype. To ensure a smooth transition to the new building program Speer established a Central Board for Ship Construction in the summer of 1943. This committee consisted of representatives from the navy and the Armaments Ministry; it was headed by Otto Merker, whose previous experience was in the automobile industry. To reduce the amount of time and the number of workers required to build the U-boats, Merker proposed building the new submarines in prefabricated sections to be fitted together according to assembly-line procedures. Over a thousand designers and engineers worked at a central design agency in Blankenburg, in the Harz Mountains, to draw up the final plans for the new U-boats. Naval Construction Director Heinrich Oelfken headed this organization, the Glückauf Construction Office. Naval engineers concluded that building the Type XXI in eight sections would cut construction time from at least twenty-two months to as little as five to nine months. In addition, early estimates revealed that sectional construction would reduce slip time by 50 percent, a matter of vital importance, because submarines were particularly vulnerable to air raids while on slips.
Industry throughout the Reich produced submarine engines and accessories, and thirty-two inland factories built the prefabricated sections. From these factories the sections, weighing up to 150 tons and thus too heavy for rail transport, proceeded via inland waterways to eleven fitting-out yards near the coast; there they received propellers, engines, periscopes, cables, and other equipment. Finally, the completed sections went to three nearby shipyards—in Danzig, Bremen, and Hamburg—for assembly. Dönitz placed orders for 170 Type XXI and 140 Type XXIII U-boats in the fall of 1943.
The Germans planned to transfer final assembly of the new submarines from vulnerable shipyards to a colossal bombproof plant. Work on this facility, located on the Weser River near Bremen, began in early 1943 and was still in progress at the end of the war. The complex was approximately 1,350 feet long, 380 feet wide, and 75 feet high, with reinforced concrete walls nine to thirteen meters thick and a roof twenty-two feet thick. The building would accommodate twenty-four sections and thirteen or fourteen assembled submarines. The sections were to reach the building on barges traveling up a connecting canal and then to proceed along an assembly line, with finished submarines coming off the line inside the shelter. At the end of the assembly line each U-boat would be launched by flooding a lock chamber. Following engine tests the submarine would leave the plant’s bombproof doors and enter a canal to the river for its journey to the sea. The navy planned the construction of several similar installations. Although never completed, the undertaking of this mammoth plant reveals the expenditure of labor and materials the Germans were willing to make to build these U-boats.
Yet even the formidable Type XXIs and XXIIIs represented only an intermediate stage in German submarine development. Dönitz intended the “electro” U-boats to carry on the fight while the navy perfected a still more advanced weapon, the Walter U-boat. In the early 1930s engineer Hellmuth Walter had devised plans for a high-speed, lightweight submarine with a streamlined shape and an engine that used hydrogen peroxide fuel, which would eliminate altogether the need to surface. In 1939 he received a contract to build an experimental submarine. Walter built an eighty-ton unit, and during its trials in 1940 the Walter U-boat attained an astonishing underwater speed of 28.1 knots. In November 1941 Raeder and Adm. Werner Fuchs, head of the navy’s Construction Office, attended a demonstration of this U-boat. Raeder expressed great interest, though Fuchs’s office was slow to approve further tests. In January 1942 Walter contacted Dönitz, who embraced the idea wholeheartedly and requested development of these submarines as quickly as possible. Yet Fuchs’s office contended that the introduction of a new-type U-boat would impede current production. Dönitz nonetheless continued to push this project, and on 4 January 1943 the navy ordered twenty-four small Walter submarines, designated the Type XVII.
What Dönitz really wanted, however, was an Atlantic U-boat, and Walter began work on a submarine of this type in January 1942. Still the navy was hesitant to develop Walter submarines. Dönitz sent word to Hitler, who called a conference to discuss the Walter submarine on 28 September 1942. Hitler began the meeting by stressing the significance of quickly bringing new weapons into operation. Dönitz seized this opening and declared that existing U-boats required technical improvements to maintain current levels of success in the face of improved Allied antisubmarine tactics. The advantage of a submarine with high underwater speed lay in its ability to approach convoys quickly and elude pursuit. An increase in diving depth would help U-boats evade sonar detection and reduce damage from depth charges. The Walter U-boat was exactly what he needed. Hitler enthusiastically supported Dönitz, which finally put an end to Fuchs’s foot-dragging. Walter presented the drawings for an Atlantic U-boat, designated Type XVIII, to Dönitz in November. Dönitz demanded that the Type XVIII enter production as soon as possible; Walter pointed out that it would take at least a year. Engine installation posed problems for serial production, current manufacture of hydrogen peroxide was minimal, and his engineers wished to await test results from the smaller Type XVIIs and two prototype Type XVIIIs. Hitler expressed keen interest in this project and suggested construction of these U-boats in protected bunkers. By mid-January 1943 Walter had completed revised plans for an Atlantic U-boat. He envisioned the Type XVIII as having a top submerged speed of twenty-four knots, maintained for 270 nautical miles. By the end of the war seven Type XVIIs had been commissioned, but only as experimental and training submarines; they never saw action. The Type XVIIIs were not completed before Germany’s defeat.
To continue the fight until the Type XXI and XXIII submarines became available, then, Dönitz needed stopgap measures. These included improved torpedoes, heavier antiaircraft armament, and the snorkel. More so than earlier, submarines now had to destroy convoy escorts before attacking the merchantmen. The navy was hard at work on an antidestroyer torpedo, which Dönitz hoped to have ready by the end of the summer. On 24 May 1943 Dönitz ordered that all submarines located by aircraft should remain on the surface and engage the enemy with antiaircraft guns unless they could dive to eighty to a hundred meters before the plane released its bombs. This tactic only led to greater losses. By the end of June Dönitz ordered all U-boats to travel underwater through the Bay of Biscay in conditions of poor visibility, although this increased the transit time through this dangerous area. In any event, submarines still had to surface for four to five hours daily to recharge their batteries.
From the latter part of 1942 there were growing indications that the Allies were using airborne radar to locate submarines, yet the Skl virtually ignored this threat until too late. In mid-May 1943 Walter reported he had discovered an effective countermeasure to Allied location systems—U-boats fitted with tubes through which to draw in air and expel exhaust could travel at periscope depth on their diesel engines rather than their electric motors. This would eliminate the need to surface to recharge batteries. Walter pointed out that it was unlikely the Allies could locate so small a device from the air. This apparatus, the snorkel, was not a new invention. When the Nazis overran Holland in May 1940, they had found Dutch submarines fitted with an air mast. The Submarine Acceptance Commission had tested the device, and the Naval Construction Office had suggested trying the snorkel on a submarine in combat, but Dönitz rejected the proposal. When the snorkel finally went into production in 1943, it did so without further tests and with only minor modifications recommended by Walter. A valuable opportunity to evade radar had been squandered in the meantime.
Although the Skl considered location devices the bane of its U-boats, there were actually a number of reasons for the Allied victory in the Atlantic in the spring of 1943. The Allies had recognized the serious threat posed by U-boats and devoted considerable human and material resources to develop effective countermeasures. Unknown to Dönitz, in May 1941 the British had captured a German submarine with its Enigma code machine, complete with instructions. After studying the Enigma machine the Allies were able to decipher messages to and from the U-boats. Knowing the location of submarines allowed the British to reroute convoys and dispatch antisubmarine forces to attack them. The Germans stubbornly believed their codes were unbreakable and made few changes in signals communication. But even the ability to decipher the German Navy’s messages, though it was a key development, alone did not account for the Anglo-American success. Another vital factor was the Allies’ ability to provide air cover over the entire North Atlantic with escort carriers and very-long-range aircraft operating from land. The formation of support groups to hunt U-boats and assist convoys under attack also increased German submarine losses. In addition, the introduction of ten-centimeter-wavelength radar, high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF, or “Huff-Duff”), and new antisubmarine weapons all played key roles. The German obsession with devising countermeasures to radar caused them to ignore the threat from decryption and direction-finding equipment. Although Dönitz blamed Allied aircraft for the turn of the tide in the U-boat war, at least when he was with Hitler, in fact the navy was not blameless, having allowed the enemy to gain the technological lead and failed to make submarine construction a priority.
In the meantime the Battle of the Atlantic continued to go badly for Germany. At the beginning of August 1943 Dönitz reported that the U-boat war would remain costly until the new submarines became available. Hitler acknowledged this but insisted that the war at sea continue to keep Allied vessels engaged in defensive operations. In July the Germans lost twenty-seven U-boats, and the following month thirty-two submarines failed to return, over half the monthly average operating in the Atlantic. At the beginning of 1944 the Skl reviewed the status of the U-boat war. In an attempt to make a steadily deteriorating situation look better, the Skl emphasized that despite the loss of 227 submarines, 1943 had been the second most successful year of the war. Dönitz assured Hitler he would continue the fight until the new models of submarines were ready, pointing out as a problem that the Baltic was the sole training area for the new U-boat force. On 7 January Dönitz abandoned his wolf-pack tactics, ordering submarines instead to operate in groups of three or even individually. Massed attacks against convoys held little promise until the new submarines became operational. This was yet another admission of defeat in the Atlantic.
In January 1944 the Central Board for Ship Construction anticipated the completion of the first three Type XXIs in April and a total of 152 by the end of October. The first two Type XXIIIs were to be delivered in February, and the full complement of 140 by the end of October. The revival of the U-boat war was only a few months away—or so Dönitz led Hitler to believe. He soon had to explain, however, that the new U-boat war would not begin as soon as planned. At the end of February Dönitz reassured Hitler that the new submarines’ high speed would permit them to overtake convoys and that furthermore, since they would operate underwater, the enemy could not detect them as easily, because sonar range was much less than radar. Dönitz added, however, that a recent air raid had seriously damaged the new submarines’ electric motor factory in Berlin, resulting in a two-month delay.
In mid-April Dönitz reported further delays to the Types XXI and XXIII due to bomb damage to an Augsburg factory producing motors. A few weeks later he explained that shipyards in Hamburg, Bremen, and Danzig required additional air defenses, which Hitler ordered Göring to provide. Dönitz also complained that the shortage of workers meant that the navy now expected delivery of only 140, instead of 218, U-boats in 1944; Hitler protested that he had not ordered any reduction in workers for submarine construction. Nevertheless, Dönitz promised, the first Type XXIII would still be ready for action in October 1944.
On 6 June the Allies landed in Normandy, and a few days later Hitler requested a status report on the new submarines. At this time snorkels had been installed on only a handful of U-boats, and these had been sent into the English Channel. Initial reports from snorkel-equipped submarines were encouraging. U-boats fitted with this device had been located by the enemy, but ensuing attacks had been inaccurate. The snorkel seemed the best intermediate measure available until the arrival of the Type XXIs and XXIIIs, now scheduled for the winter of 1944–45. In fact, in the following months the performance of snorkel-equipped U-boats exceeded Dönitz’s initial optimism. The Skl boasted that a submarine had returned from the English Channel after remaining submerged for forty days. Although the U-boats fitted with snorkels did not achieve any spectacular success in the Channel, they were able also to operate off Britain’s east coast, in the Irish Sea, and off Gibraltar, areas into which German submarines had not ventured for three to four years.
The Skl noted with satisfaction that after U-boats had begun to operate solely underwater, losses dropped to the 1941–42 levels. This proved invaluable for boosting U-boat crews’ morale: snorkel travel granted security. But it did so at the cost of mobility, because the time required to journey to and from operational areas increased considerably, due to the slow underwater speed of existing submarines. Although the Germans kept a large number of U-boats at sea, each submarine spent only a fraction of the time at sea actually on patrol. Nonetheless, Dönitz repeatedly emphasized that the snorkel’s success justified his expectations for the electro-submarines, which would perform immeasurably better. The snorkel had proved an effective remedy to air power. With the submarines’ disappearance from the surface, visual search became more effective for the Allies than radar search. Until the end of the war the Anglo-Americans remained unable to produce an effective countermeasure to the snorkel.
On 19 April 1944, the day before Hitler’s birthday, the first Type XXI submarine was launched. U-3501, however, had been launched rather prematurely. Openings in the hull had been patched with wood, and the U-boat returned to dry dock immediately after launching. It was not delivered to the navy until 11 July; it was commissioned on 28 July. The first Type XXI commissioned was U-2501, delivered on 15 June and commissioned on the 28th. Although it had not been launched prematurely, it still required ten days’ work in July to correct faults. The first Type XXIII, U-2321, was launched on 17 April 1944—also too soon; it was commissioned only on 12 June. Prestige, not readiness, was the key criterion for these launching dates. Other new-type submarines followed, although not as quickly as Dönitz had promised Hitler. In the meantime Dönitz’s insistence on continuing the U-boat war exacted a heavy price: Germany lost twenty-seven submarines in July and thirty-three in August 1944. By 1 November a total of thirty-one Type XXIs and sixteen Type XXIIIs had been commissioned. This amounted to but a fraction of the 152 Type XXIs and 140 Type XXIIIs Dönitz had originally planned to have at this time.
Despite this drastic reduction, Dönitz continually promised Hitler that the new U-boat war would soon begin. On 13 October 1944, exactly one week before Hitler ordered Army Group North to defend Courland, Dönitz met with Hitler. He stressed the importance of the Baltic for naval training, adding that he planned to send the first Type XXIIIs into action in January 1945, followed by forty Type XXI Atlantic U-boats in February. Surely Hitler believed that the simultaneous introduction of forty of these new submarines would bring spectacular results. At about the same time Dönitz assured Goebbels that the Type XXI U-boats would sail against enemy convoys in January. On 5 October 1944, however, the Skl had informed the Luftwaffe that the new U-boat war would begin in April 1945. Dönitz was attempting to convince Hitler that the revival of the U-boat war was just around the corner—when he knew that it was not. Submarine construction continued to fall behind even revised estimates. In early September 1944 the navy planned to have 120 Type XXIs and 46 to 50 Type XXIIIs by the end of the year. The actual numbers on 1 January 1945 were sixty-two Type XXIs and twenty-eight Type XXIIIs, despite an increase, achieved by Speer, in total submarine construction in 1944.
At the beginning of 1945 Dönitz reviewed the statistical performance of U-boats per operational day. He concluded that submarines in December 1944 had achieved the same individual rates of success as in August 1942. The substantially lower actual tonnage sunk compared to 1942 resulted from the smaller number of submarines at sea and the increased time required for submerged travel to and from operational areas. This would change, however, with the arrival of the electro-submarines, whose submerged cruising speed was nearly twice that of current U-boats. If existing U-boats could achieve such success, then, stunning victories with the new-type submarines could be anticipated; Dönitz confided to Goebbels that he expected to launch the first convoy battles with the new submarines in February. In mid-February 1945 Dönitz informed Hitler that results from January confirmed this trend. He promised Hitler a sizeable increase in the number of U-boats at sea in the coming months, sixty per month, including the new-type submarines.
Despite Dönitz’s repeated promises that the new U-boat war lay just ahead, it never arrived. By the end of the war fifty-nine to sixty-three Type XXIIIs had been built. Only five or six had put to sea, the first on 29 January 1945 and the last on 4 May. None was sunk while engaged in operations, and Dönitz reported their performance had been excellent. In fact, the biggest problem was that their commanding officers underestimated their speed. They approached too close to their targets, moving so rapidly that they fired the torpedoes within the safety range, inside which they were not armed. The Germans commissioned approximately 120 Type XXI U-boats by the end of the war. Adalbert Schnee’s Type XXI (mentioned in the introduction) left Kiel for Norway on 17 March 1945, but a problem with its periscope postponed operations. On 17 April U-2511 again put to sea, but it had to return four days later due to problems with its diesel engines. Schnee finally sailed on 30 April 1945, just over seven months after U-2511’ s delivery on 29 September 1944. Only one other Type XXI left port in search of enemy vessels. U-3008, commanded by Helmut Manseck, left Wilhelmshaven on 3 May 1945 but, like Schnee’s boat, received Dönitz’s order to cease attacks. Dönitz had based his entire strategy for nearly two years on the deployment of these submarines, and they never fired a shot.
The British and Americans first learned of the new German submarine program in November 1943, and in April 1944 air reconnaissance revealed a “double shock.” Not only were the new-type submarines already under construction, but the use of prefabricated sections made assembly time alarmingly brief. One submarine had been launched after only six weeks’ slip time. Decrypts of signals from the Japanese naval attaché provided the British with detailed information on the Types XXI and XXIII in the spring of 1944. Deciphered messages from the head of the Japanese Naval Mission, Admiral Katsuo Abe, informed the Allies that air raids had delayed the new U-boat offensive until the spring of 1945. This information led to increased bombing raids as well as mining operations in the Baltic to disrupt training. Exact knowledge of these new submarines, however, did not lead to complacency on the part of the Allies. The submerged speed of the Type XXI U-boat was higher than that of Allied corvettes and only slightly slower than frigates. The only vessel that could have effectively dealt with the Type XXI was the destroyer, and the British were chronically short of destroyers. The British Admiralty feared that shipping losses could exceed those from the spring of 1943, and for this reason the British held back approximately three hundred destroyers and escorts originally intended for action in the Pacific.
In addition to the new-type U-boats, other causes for concern existed. The German submarines’ switch to transiting submerged and deploying individually led to a sharp reduction in signaling and thus of Allied decryption. Furthermore, the German Navy had begun experiments in flash transmission of radio messages. Such brief transmissions would have been devastating to Allied high-frequency direction finding as well as to their ability to intercept messages. In view of these developments, the new U-boats could have raised serious problems for the Allies. Churchill’s concern is evident in his request to Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 that the Soviets capture Danzig (one of three assembly sites for the Type XXIs) as quickly as possible. Signals intelligence provided the Allies with detailed information on U-boat specifications, though estimates on the number of these submarines available were often far from the mark.
When Dönitz had so jubilantly reported to Hitler on the new-type submarines in July 1943, Hitler had declared that it was vital to bring technologically advanced weapons to bear. He had added, however, that technicians must not make exaggerated demands that delayed their availability. Dönitz apparently remembered only Hitler’s enthusiasm. One of the most puzzling questions about these U-boats is why they took so long to become operational. Several reasons account for this. One is certainly that the navy had allowed itself to be surpassed technically, switching much too late to submarines with high submerged speed. Another major cause of delays was damage inflicted by Allied aircraft. Air raids on shipyards caused serious problems, although bombing never halted U-boat construction. Air attacks on German shipyards and assembly yards destroyed and damaged a number of the new submarines as well as essential installations and equipment. Bombing caused greater delays, however, by blocking Germany’s inland waterways; the transport of U-boat sections from inland factories to assembly yards near the coast required passage through a number of canals. Bomb damage to the Kaiser Wilhelm, Mittelland, and Dortmund-Ems canals hampered the delivery of sections. Air raids on factories producing parts for U-boats, particularly batteries and accumulators, were particularly devastating. In addition, the time lost to bomb damage, absenteeism, or simply from workers taking shelter during air raids rose considerably in 1944. Anglo-American aircraft increasingly mined the Baltic to disrupt German shipping and submarine training. Dönitz frequently complained of this to Hitler, claiming that if Germany could not hold open the entrance to the Baltic, the U-boat war would come to naught. On several occasions the Skl noted that U-boat training areas, as well as several shipping lanes in the Baltic, had been closed because of the danger from mines.
Many delays resulted from simple poor planning. The worst example was rushing the submarines into production without a prototype. Inexperience with sectional construction also caused serious problems. The tolerance for fitting sections together (initially plus or minus two millimeters for sections seven meters high and six meters wide) was rarely met, which meant that there was a good bit of shuffling sections around in hopes of finding a better match. Section ends often had to be stretched, shrunk, or patched to obtain a fit. Another problem was that the Type XXI submarines incorporated hydraulic power for all control systems and the periscope, antiaircraft armament, and torpedo hatches. But the Germans were relatively inexperienced with hydraulic design, and defects in the system led to chronic delays. Furthermore, construction of the submarines had already begun when snorkels were added to the design. On several occasions shortages of various components, such as batteries, periscopes, or electric motors, usually caused by Allied bombing, postponed production. Many sections arrived at the assembly yards with essential components missing. Moreover, at this stage of the war Germany lacked many high-quality materials required for these advanced submarines and had to substitute whatever was on hand. Besides shortages of materials, the navy always lacked skilled workers. The Type XXIII submarines did not contain as much highly sophisticated equipment as the XXIs, which accounts for their reaching operational status first. Further, although Hitler had assured Dönitz on 24 September 1943 and again on 26 February 1944 that he would support any measures to accelerate production of the new U-boats, in April 1944 he suddenly granted fighter production top priority. This confusion in armaments production also contributed to delays.
Problems mounted in the final months. The Soviet capture of Danzig in March 1945 robbed Dönitz of one of three assembly sites for the new U-boats. The loss of Upper Silesia denied the navy that area’s industrial output. Chronic shortages of coal and electricity for shipyards, as well as fuel for the submarines themselves, impeded construction and training. A final reason for the Type XXIs’ delay was that each required a long period of trials to rectify teething problems, and their crews needed extensive training. The first Type XXI U-boats built required additional work after commissioning, about six weeks. Recognition of several problems that could be corrected during the construction process later reduced this time to about three weeks. Even proven submarine types normally required four months after commissioning before they were ready for action. The Germans obviously needed more time to work out the bugs in these new submarines and then train the crews. A variety of factors, therefore, contributed to failure of the Type XXI to reach the open seas before the war ended. Postwar studies conducted by the U.S. Navy concluded that had the Type XXIs become operational in large numbers, they could have posed a grave threat indeed.
As it turned out, the Germans had devoted two years and enormous amounts of increasingly scarce raw materials to produce a weapon that did not yield a single Allied casualty. Vast numbers of skilled workers put in a colossal number of hours of labor to build these U-boats, which never fired a single torpedo at an enemy vessel. The construction of each submarine required an average of 252,500 man-hours, and approximately 40,000 production workers were involved in the Type XXI program. The new U-boat program tied up not only thousands of workers and 80 percent of the output of the nation’s entire electrical industry but enormous amounts of steel. The steel for the 170 Type XXI submarines ordered would have provided Guderian 5,100 additional tanks. The German war effort certainly would have benefited more from five thousand tanks than from Dönitz’s “miracle weapon.”