Military history

FOUR

A BRUTAL WINTER

Adolf Hitler, the continentalist, was irrevocably committed to an invasion of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941. On December 18, 1940, he issued preparatory orders for that undertaking, Operation Barbarossa.

Planning for Barbarossa was complicated by Mussolini’s failures in North Africa and Greece. Before he invaded the Soviet Union, Hitler had first to rescue Mussolini and protect Germany’s strategic position in the Balkans by sending ground forces—the Afrika Korps—to North Africa as soon as possible, and by invading and occupying Greece (Operation Marita) in March. For these reasons, “The Army must be sufficiently strong,” Hitler said. “After that everything can be concentrated on the needs of the Air Force and the Navy.”

The need to supply these far-flung projects with manpower and matériel slowed U-boat construction. On December 27, ten days after Hitler issued the preparatory orders for Barbarossa, Admiral Raeder conferred with him to make the strongest possible case against Barbarossa. His remarks to Hitler were preserved in abbreviated form by a stenographer:

It is absolutely necessary to recognize that the greatest task of the hour is concentration of all our power against Britain. In other words, the means necessary for the defeat of Britain must be produced with energy and speed. All demands not absolutely essential for warfare against Britain must deliberately be set aside. There are serious doubts as to the advisability of Operation Barbarossa before the overthrow of Britain. The fight against Britain is carried on primarily by the Air Force and the Navy. There is therefore the greatest need to produce the weapons used by these two services and to concentrate these weapons on the British supply lines, which are taking on increased significance in view of the fact that the entire armament industry, particularly aircraft and ship construction, is being shifted to America. Britain’s ability to maintain her supply lines is definitely the decisive factor for the outcome of the war…. The Naval Staff is firmly convinced that German submarines, as in the World War, are the decisive weapons against Britain.

Hitler was unmoved. The war against Great Britain was to take second or third priority until Mussolini had been rescued, the Balkans had been secured, and the Soviet Union had been conquered. Although these operations were to be carried out primarily by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine was to have many important responsibilities, such as blocking the Soviet Navy in the Baltic and Black seas and in Arctic waters, defending Norway and Greece against possible British amphibious invasions, and arranging naval transports for the shipment of the Afrika Korps and its impedimenta from Italy to North Africa and a supply line to support that force.

Raeder wrote later that Hitler’s decision to leave Great Britain undefeated and unoccupied in favor of an attack on the Soviet Union was “sheer madness.” Nonetheless, he accepted that decision like a good soldier and put the OKM to work on the various plans.

The naval war in the Atlantic was to be pressed to the fullest possible extent throughout 1941. The U-boats were to bear the main burden but they were to be augmented by the numerous merchant-ship raiders, the heavy cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen, the “pocket” battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow, the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and finally, the super-battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz.

The problem—the perennial problem—was the acute shortage of oceangoing U-boats. Thirteen new oceangoing boats had been commissioned between September 1 and December 1, 1940, but three oceangoing boats (U-31, U-32, U-104) had been lost in that period and two (U-28 and U-29) had been retired to the Training Command. This worked out to a net gain of eight oceangoing boats, for a total of thirty-one commissioned boats, including U-A. However, many new boats were still in workup. Even assuming that Baltic ice did not unduly delay them, it was to be March or April before most of the new boats could reach the Atlantic*

In view of the paucity of U-boats and the absence of reliable tactical information from B-dienst and the Luftwaffe, Dönitz urgently needed intelligence on British convoy movements. He therefore insisted to Raeder that something be done to compel the Luftwaffeto provide the long-promised, much-needed aerial reconnaissance. Since the reconnaissance would help the planned antishipping raids of the German surface warships as well, Raeder agreed, but he had no influence with the Luftwaffe chief, Reichsmarshal Göring. Raeder and Göring were scarcely on speaking terms.

The course of action taken entailed political risk: Raeder went over Göring’s head and sent Dönitz to make his case directly to one of Hitler’s close staff officers, General Alfred Jodl. The interview, Dönitz wrote, “was very satisfactory and Jodl was convinced.” The outcome was that Hitler personally directed that Luftwaffe gruppe 40, commanded by a former naval officer, Martin Harlinghausen, be placed under Dönitz’s operational control. Although the gruppe had only a few Condors—and the pilots had much to learn—Dönitz optimistically wrote in his diary that Hitler’s order was “a great step forward.”

Göring was Furious that Hitler had given Dönitz command of Luftwaffe gruppe 40 without consulting him. Later, when Göring came to France in his private train, he invited Dönitz to visit. “This was the first time I had ever seen him,” Dönitz wrote later. “He did his most to persuade me to agree to a cancellation of the Führer’s order, but this I refused to do. He then asked me to stay to dinner, but I declined the invitation, and we parted bad friends.”

By December 1940, the oceangoing boats available for patrol had shrunk to six, the lowest number of any month in 1940. Four sailed from Lorient and two, the VIIC U-96 and the LXB U-105, embarked from Germany on maiden patrols.

These six boats, as well as the November boats still on patrol, confronted raging westerly gales, the onset of a brutal and frigid winter, which was to be even worse than that of 1939-1940. The parade of gales churned up awesome grey seas which lifted the boats to giddy crests, then dropped them into terrifying troughs. The boats pitched and shuddered, slewing wildly to port and starboard and rolling to impossible angles. The winds flung biting cold spray—or hail and sleet—at the men on the bridge. From time to time huge waves broke over the bridge, submerging the men and bashing them about, putting human lungs and safety belts to the test. More often than not, visibility was nil. Conditions below were pure hell, like living inside a tumbling, wet barrel. It was not possible to cook or serve meals. Few cared. Even the oldest salts felt queasy and disoriented.

The boats also confronted the possibility of another disruption in the convoy cycles. The heavy cruiser Hipper was en route to the North Atlantic, with specific orders to attack Halifax convoys. The purpose of Hipper’s mission was twofold: to destroy valuable cargoes and to draw heavy elements of the Home Fleet to the western Atlantic so that the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and their supply ships could slip unchallenged through the North Sea into the Atlantic later in the month. If Hipper succeeded in finding a Halifax convoy, it was probable that the British would again suspend Halifax convoys until the threat had been eliminated.

Joachim Schepke in U-100 was the first to sail from Lorient. By then, Berlin had decreed that two boats were to be assigned to weather reporting at all times to assist in the Luftwaffe’s Blitz of England. The U-100 was to relieve one of the two weather boats, broadcasting “short signals” three times a day from about 20 degrees west longitude.

This assignment was not welcomed. Gathering the weather data and encrypting the messages for transmission was tedious. Because of atmospheric disturbances, it was often necessary to transmit a signal several times. Repeated broadcasts increased the chances that the British could obtain a DF fix on the boat. Although the broadcast position was beyond the range of most British ASW aircraft, there was always the possibility that the British would send out a destroyer group to hunt down the boat. At the least, the Admiralty would divert merchant ships from the area of the DF fix, decreasing the chances that a weather boat would find targets of opportunity.

En route to his station on December 5, Schepke ran head-on into a raging winter storm. The winds and seas were so hostile that for the next two days he averaged only seventy-two miles westward, more than half of that while running submerged. When he finally reached his station, he received a message from Dönitz to all boats to temporarily maintain radio silence except when attacking. B-dienst had informed Dönitz that the British had definitely DFed the previous weather boat.

Schepke had been awarded Oak Leaves to his Ritterkreuz but curiously, the Berlin propagandists had not publicized the award. Possibly Dönitz had withheld an announcement until Schepke had sunk several more ships to compensate for his well-known overclaims. If so (the record is not clear), Schepke had good reason to hunt relentlessly in spite of the ghastly weather.

Schepke had two opportunities to run up his score on December 8, but both failed. In the early, dark hours, the bridge watch spotted a “large steamer,” but an “inexperienced helmsman,” Schepke wrote, turned the boat the “wrong way” and the watch lost sight of the ship and could not find it again. Later, in daylight, the bridge watch spotted another ship. Schepke submerged to attack, firing two torpedoes from very close range. When both torpedoes missed—probably because of the mountainous seas—Schepke broke off, intending to attack again after dark on the surface. But when darkness fell, Schepke and the watch lost sight of the ship and it, too, got away. The failures left Schepke and his crew angry and dispirited.

The new VIIC U-96, commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, age twenty-nine, from the ducks U-5 and U-8, was the next boat to sail from Germany. On the afternoon of his eighth day at sea, December 11, while en route to a weather-reporting station, Lehmann-Willenbrock stumbled into the midst of the big inbound convoy, Halifax 92. Attacking submerged, he sank the 10,900-ton British freighter Rotorua. Pursuing the convoy after dark on the surface in huge seas, Lehmann-Willenbrock got ahead and sank three more ships for 15,200 tons.

To the west of U-96, Schepke in U-100, finally authorized to broadcast weather reports three times a day, had a change in luck. On December 14 the watch spotted two separate ships sailing unescorted. Schepke sank both in surface attacks, but in the rough seas it took five torpedoes to put them under. The first ship was the 3,670-ton British freighter Kyleglen, overclaimed at 4,573 tons. The second was accurately claimed at 3,380 tons. The expenditure of five torpedoes to sink these two modest ships further depressed Schepke, leaving him with a “heavy heart,” as he logged.

That same day Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96, patrolling about 100 miles to the northeast of Schepke, also had good luck. He sank an 11,000-ton British steamer and damaged a 5,100-ton freighter. The sinking raised Lehmann-Willenbrock’s score to five confirmed ships for 37,000 tons, an outstanding debut, especially in view of the foul weather and the almost complete absence of convoy contacts from the Condors and the other U-boats.

On December 15, Schepke reported that a “hurricane” struck the hunting grounds. It raged for the next forty-eight hours, forcing all the boats to run submerged most of that time, surfacing only to freshen the air supply and to charge batteries. Despite the difficulties, Schepke dutifully broadcast weather reports three times a day.

The terrible weather in the North Atlantic prompted the OKM and Kerneval to consider the possibility of concentrating boats in the southern Atlantic waters, as Dönitz had done the winter before. The shift would doubtless please Rome. On December 9 the modest British Army of the Nile had counterattacked and pushed the bloated, inept Italian Army back into Libya. Concentrated U-boat attacks against the convoys taking supplies to the British ground forces in Egypt via Gibraltar, Freetown, and the Cape of Good Hope would not only help the reeling Italians but also force the British to intensify ASW measures in the South Atlantic, thinning out the Mediterranean naval forces.

Dönitz opposed a concentration of U-boats in the south for several reasons.

First, he still believed the decisive battleground was the North Atlantic, that U-boat operations elsewhere constituted an unwise diversion of his meager resources. Although U-boat successes in the North Atlantic were declining sharply, the presence of even a few U-boats compelled the British to maintain convoying, which of itself reduced imports to the British Isles significantly.

Second, the returns from the two IXs in southern waters appeared to be even poorer than those in the inhospitable North Atlantic. The U-65 (von Stockhausen) patrolling off Freetown had reported no further successes since November 19. The other, U-37 (Clausen), had sunk seven ships, but all were small, aggregating merely 11,000 tons.*

Third, facilities for refueling boats in southern waters were iffy. Nordmark, the supply ship for the “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer, had gone far south, beyond the Cape of Good Hope. The presence of British naval forces in the Canary Islands had twice forced Clausen in U-37 to abort planned refuelings there and he had to return, to Lorient prematurely.

The upshot of those deliberations was a decision to shift not German but Italian submarines from the North Atlantic to the South Atlantic. Dönitz was not unhappy with this solution. Italian submarine operations in the North Atlantic had failed utterly. Dönitz put it this way in his diary: “They do not serve any practical purpose…. I have not received one single enemy report from them on which I could take action…. I am not at all sure that their presence in the operations area of German boats … does not do more harm than good.” He did not think the Italians were “sufficiently hard and determined” or flexible enough for submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. They were “inadequately disciplined” and were unable to “keep calm in the face of the enemy.” They had not the faintest idea of how to shadow a convoy, or accurately report its position and course, or how to attack at night. Their attacks were “clumsy,” and they let themselves be seen too often.

After the “hurricane” blew through the North Atlantic, on December 18 Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 continued his outstanding first patrol by detecting and attacking convoy Outbound 259 with his last torpedoes. He damaged but could not sink a 10,000-ton British tanker that was sailing in ballast. He shadowed the convoy and radioed a report to Dönitz, who directed Schepke in U-100 and Salmann in U-52 to close and attack, but neither boat could reach the convoy.

En route to find the damaged tanker, Schepke came across a lone, outbound 10,100-ton British freighter, Napier Star. He tracked the ship during daylight hours, surfaced after dark, and attacked, firing three torpedoes. One missed but two hit, and she went down. Upon receiving word of this sinking—Schepke’s third on this patrol—Dönitz logged happily that Schepke had become the “third skipper to pass 200,000 tons.” He gave this news—and the award of the Oak Leaves to Schepke’s Ritterkreuz—to Berlin propagandists, who released it on December 21, crediting Schepke with sinking forty ships for 208,975 tons.*

Schepke still had two torpedoes and was determined to sink at least one more big ship. In the early dark hours of December 22, the watch spotted a likely possibility: a 10,000-ton vessel sailing alone, possibly an armed merchant cruiser. Schepke bent on full speed for a surface attack, but as he was preparing to shoot, both diesels broke down. Exasperated, he submerged to finish the attack on electric motors, but at the climactic moment in the approach, the periscope malfunctioned. When the engineer reported the diesels were back in commission, Schepke surfaced in very heavy seas and continued the chase, pulling around and getting ahead in the dark. While he was closing for a third attack, the ship sighted U-100 and “maneuvered wildly,” denying Schepke a good shooting angle. Believing it to be “now or never,” as he described the situation, Schepke fired his last two torpedoes, but both missed.

These failures, Schepke logged on his twenty-first day at sea, caused morale on U-100 to fall “pretty low.” Having sunk “only” three ships for 18,000 tons, Schepke wrote in self-flagellation, they had been out all that time “for nothing.” Moreover, Christmas was merely three days away. Seeking some means of lifting morale, Schepke hit on the idea of requesting permission to go to Kiel rather than Lorient for U-100’s scheduled overhaul. Perhaps sensing that the U-100 crew needed cheer—or feeling they deserved it—Dönitz approved the request. Schepke’s return to Germany (to huge acclaim) left only one of the eighteen “aces” (or Ritterkreuz holders) in the Atlantic: Heinrich Liebe in U-38, who relieved Schepke as weather reporter.*

On Christmas Day 1940, there were eight U-boats in the Atlantic: six in northern waters and the Type IXs U-65 and U-37 returning to Lorient from African waters. All celebrated the holiday by decorating the boats with miniature Christmas trees, gorging on special meals and sweets, and, on some of the boats, enjoying tots of alcoholic beverages.

The hunting in the North Atlantic during the last week of the year remained poor. The four U-boats fresh to the area sank only three ships. The only Ritterkreuz holder at sea, Heinrich Liebe in U-38, sank two, generously sharing credit for one with the Italian boat Tazzoli. Gerd Schreiber in U-95 sank the other, a 12,800-ton British freighter.

The poor hunting during most of December was not the fault of the cruiser Hipper. She had entered the Atlantic convoy lanes on December 9, but she had not found a Halifax convoy or any other target. After ten days of futile searching, she had suffered an engine malfunction, forcing her to abort to France. Inbound to Brest on Christmas Day, she came across a military convoy outbound for Egypt, escorted by several cruisers and the carriers Furious and Argus, which were ferrying aircraft. Hipper mounted an ineffective, glancing attack, then ran in to Brest. As intended, her sudden appearance drew Home Fleet units into the Atlantic, enabling Gneisenau and Scharnhorst to sortie undetected. But all for naught. Gneisenau incurred wave damage off Norway and both ships aborted to Kiel, another humiliating setback for the Kriegsmarine.

Returning from African waters, von Stockhausen in U-65 had a run of luck, sinking four unescorted ships for about 27,000 tons, including two tankers, the 9,000-ton Panamanian Charles Pratt and the 5,900-ton British Premier. This raised his total claims for this ninety-day patrol to Freetown—the longest cruise on record to then—to eight ships (four tankers) for 52,800 tons, confirmed in Allied records as eight sinkings (four tankers) for 47,785 tons. Adding past overclaims, including generous credit for sinking the 28,000-ton French liner Champlain, which had been wrecked by the Luftwaffe, von Stockhausen’s total bag reached 100,000 tons and he qualified for a Ritterkreuz. After extended home leave while U-65 was in overhaul, he went to a job in the Training Command.

The return of U-65 raised anew the issue of sending German U-boats to African waters, provided the resupply problem could be solved. To some staffers at the OKM and Kerneval, the total score for U-65’s patrol—eight ships—was impressive. Besides that, the presence of the boat in southern waters had drawn some convoy escorts and warships from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic and compelled the British to mount extensive ASW air and surface patrols off Freetown. But Dönitz was still not persuaded. The sinking of eight ships in a ninety-day patrol—an average of one ship every eleven days—was a “barely acceptable” return, he logged. Counting prepatrol preparations, the patrol itself, and the postpatrol overhaul, the total investment in time for U-65’s African foray was about six months. In that time she might have conducted several patrols in the North Atlantic, possibly sinking double the number of ships, as well as spotting convoys for other boats.

The results achieved by U-boats in December were predictably disappointing. In the six patrols in the North Atlantic, the oceangoing U-boats sank thirteen and one-half ships for about 90,000 tons, a further decline to about 2.3 ships for 15,000 tons per boat per patrol.

There was little hope for improvement of merchant-ship sinkings in the immediate future. Only four U-boats were left in the hunting grounds on December 31, 1940, two of these assigned to weather reporting and all attempting to cope with the worst winds and seas anyone had ever experienced. Owing to the delays in the refits and the overhauls and the readiness dates of new boats, only ten boats were to be available to replace those four in January. Moreover, Germany was in the grip of a winter even more frigid than the last, again raising the probability of thick ice in the Baltic, Kiel Canal, the Elbe, and the Jade, which would severely curtail or prevent submarine-school training and delay the workups of the newly commissioned boats.

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