Military history

BARBAROSSA: THE BALTIC AND THE ARCTIC

One prime objective of the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the great city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), which is at the extreme eastern end of the Baltic on the Gulf of Finland. Army Group North struck out for Leningrad from East Prussia, angling northeast through the Russian-occupied Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. At the same time, a pro-Hitler, German-equipped Finnish Army struck at Leningrad from the northwest. The German blitzkrieg quickly overran the Baltic States, but the German-Finnish attack on Leningrad bogged down on the outskirts of the city.

The Soviet Union’s Red Banner (or Baltic) Fleet was based in the Gulf of Finland, guarding the seaward approaches to Leningrad. It comprised two old (1911) but modernized battleships, three heavy cruisers, forty-seven destroyers, and about seventy submarines. Its surface force was no match for the available Kriegsmarine surface forces in the Baltic, but Admiral Raeder and the OKM were deeply concerned about the possible damage the powerful (but untested) Soviet submarine force could inflict, should it deploy offensively into the Baltic. On the other side, the Soviet naval chief, Commissar Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, anticipated an offensive strike by Kriegsmarine surface forces in the Gulf of Finland in support of Army Group North.

Neither navy, however, was called upon to provide offensive action. Assuming defensive stances, each began the war by laying massive minefields in the narrow mouth of the Gulf of Finland, to hold the opposing naval force at bay. Both navies augmented the minefields with patrolling submarines and destroyers, and other small surface craft. The Kriegsmarine also mounted destroyer and submarine patrols in the Danish Belts of the western Baltic and in Norwegian waters, to warn of or block a possible naval thrust by Great Britain, which had quickly formed an uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union.

On the eve of Barbarossa, the OKM had cleared the eastern Baltic waters of U-boat training activities. The workup (Agru Front) flotillas moved operations to distant and inconvenient Norwegian waters, basing at Horten and staging tactical exercises in Oslo Fjord. En route to Norway, the new IXC U-128, commanded by Ulrich Heyse, who came from the destroyer forces, ran hard aground on an uncharted rock and ripped her bottom open. The depot ship Odin and the light cruiser Nürnberg rescued the crew and towed the boat into Horten, where she was patched up and then returned to Kiel for major repairs. Ironically, Heyse, age thirty-five, a onetime merchant marine officer, was one of the most mature and experienced ship handlers in the submarine force. He survived the court of inquiry and retained command.

The Germans and pro-German Finns deployed nine submarines behind the minefields spanning the Gulf of Finland on minelaying and torpedo missions. The five German boats were Type IID ducks, temporarily detached from the Submarine School.* Three of the five sank small, coastal-type Soviet submarines. A Shchuka-class Soviet submarine, 307, torpedoed and sank the duck U-144, commanded by Gert von Mittelstaedt, age twenty-nine, who had earlier sunk one of the Russian submarines, M-78. After the loss of U-144, the OKM withdrew the German ducks. A Latvian vessel under Soviet control hit a mine planted by the Finnish boat Vesihiisi and later sank. The Vesikko and Vetehinen each torpedoed and sank a Soviet freighter. German mines, aircraft, and ASW vessels—and the advancing German ground forces—destroyed a very large number of Soviet submarines, or forced the crews to scuttle. Apart from 307’s victory over U-144, the Soviet submarine force failed abjectly; its survivors fell back to Leningrad.

Barbarossa included a little-known German thrust from northern Norway to capture Murmansk and Archangel. As a gesture of friendship and cooperation with the Soviets, in late July the British War Cabinet sent a carrier task force (Furious, Victorious) to that Arctic area. Carrier-based aircraft struck at German forces in Petsamo, Kirkenes, and Trosmö, incurring heavy losses to little effect.

Ever since the British raid on the Lofoten Islands in early March 1941, Hitler had worried constantly about another British raid or a full-scale amphibious assault in Norway. This British carrier strike at the North Cape intensified his concern. He urged Admiral Raeder to fortify Norway with the Kriegsmarine’s big surface ships, but this was not possible. The Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz, was still fitting out; the “pocket” battleships Lützow and Admiral Scheer were in German yards for battle-damage repairs and overhaul, respectively; the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, as well as the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, were in French Atlantic ports—the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst damaged by British air raids.

The only effective German naval vessels available for reconnaissance and offensive strikes in Norwegian and Arctic waters were U-boats. Hitler and Raeder therefore reached the decision that until the big surface ships were again available, U-boats were to patrol those waters. The OKM directed Dönitz to maintain at least two ducks in the Shetlands and Orkneys to warn of a possible British sortie from Loch Ewe or Scapa Flow toward Norway and at least two oceangoing boats in the Arctic to support German forces attempting to advance on Murmansk.

Dönitz fumed. These new assignments required the diversion of about four ducks and four to six oceangoing boats. Inasmuch as the orders came directly from Hitler, however, Dönitz apparently did not challenge or appeal them.

Two new VIICs that had been rushed through workup inaugurated the Arctic patrols off Murmansk in July. These were U-81, commanded by Friedrich Guggen-berger, age twenty-six, and U-652, commanded by Georg-Werner Fraatz, age twenty-four. After replenishing in Trondheim, the boats reached the Kola Bay area in early August. Four other new VIIs soon followed. Handicapped by the long Arctic days and very short nights and a scarcity of traffic, these six oceangoing boats operating in the Murmansk area achieved almost nothing. Fraatz in U-652 sank a 600-ton freighter. Eberhard Hoffmann, age twenty-nine, in U-451 sank a 550-ton patrol boat. Karl-Ernst Schroeter, age twenty-eight, in U-752 sank a 600-ton freighter. Helmut Möhlmann, age twenty-eight, in U-571 damaged a 3,900-ton freighter, which beached herself, a total wreck. Grand total: four ships for 5,600 tons.

Barbarossa thus proved to be a costly inconvenience for the U-boat arm. It closed the east Baltic to tactical training, forcing Agru Front to move to Norway. It diverted about eight ducks from the submarine school for several months and several others from Atlantic patrols and sent six oceangoing boats to the Arctic, establishing a U-boat presence in that area that was to remain there for the rest of the war and to grow to substantial size.

Viewing these disruptions and diversions as a “waste,” Dönitz was especially incensed over the assignment of oceangoing boats to the Arctic. “I repeatedly protested,” to the OKM, he wrote, making his reasons plain:

Concrete successes so far have been meager in the extreme and of no account, for the reason that such traffic as there is consists of little ships which cannot be attacked by torpedo with much prospect of success.

The decisive factor in the war against Britain is the attack on her imports. The delivery of these attacks is the U-boats’ principal task and one which no other branch of the armed forces can take over from them. The war with Russia will be decided on land, and in it the U-boats can play only a very minor role.

Hitler was not dissuaded. His “intuition” that the British would soon again invade Norway became an article of faith. At his specific direction, ever greater numbers of U-boats were to go there to repel this supposed invasion and, later, to take on other tasks.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!