Military history


While the fifteen group Drumbeat boats were slowly plowing westward, the British mounted another surprise commando raid on Norway. Perhaps conceived principally to capture a four-rotor Enigma or Enigma keys and other material, the raid called for a two-pronged assault on December 26-27: a main thrust in Vest Fjord, leading into Narvik, and a secondary thrust much farther south at the island of Vaagsö in Nord Fjord near Alesund. Owing to the breakdown—and abort—of one troopship, the main assault on Vest Fjord was less than satisfactory. However, the secondary assault on Vaagsö was successful. In addition to operations ashore, British naval forces (the cruiser Kenya, four destroyers) sank or captured five German merchant ships, two trawlers, and a tugboat. The Admiralty has revealed that the raids netted “cryptoanalytic materials.” The OKM diarist logged that a shorebased naval communications facility at Maaloe (in Nord Fjord) had been destroyed with no survivors, and that “the whereabouts of secret documents is unknown.

Amounting to no more than a pinprick, these raids resulted in profound consequences for the Kriegsmarine and the U-boat arm. In a first, small reaction, the OKM temporarily diverted five new Type VII boats sailing from Germany to Nord Fjord to interdict British naval forces. When informed of this, Dönitz was dismayed. He protested to the OKM that all five boats were designated for the second wave to American waters; the diversion to Norway was a useless waste of time and fuel, as well as a high-risk assignment for new crews merely a few days out from Kiel on first patrols. Moreover, he curtly refused a further OKM suggestion that nine boats be permanently assigned to the west coast of Norway to protect against further Allied attacks.

The British raids coincided with a flood of rumors reaching Berlin from various sources, forecasting a full-scale Allied invasion of northern Norway. The supposed invasion was to be coordinated with a Soviet attack westward through Finland, possibly abetted by the Swedes. If the attacks developed as rumored, Germany was to be flanked on the north, cut off from vital Swedish iron ore and nickel, and vulnerable to Scandinavian-based Allied air and naval forces attacking over and across the Baltic.

Predisposed to believe the rumors, Hitler summoned Admiral Raeder to Wolfsschanze on December 29. “If the British go about things properly,” Hitler fumed, according to the stenographer, “they will attack northern Norway at several points.” This, Hitler declared, “might be of decisive importance for the outcome of the war.” Therefore, he continued, the Kriegsmarine must use “all its forces for the defense of Norway.” By that, Hitler meant Bismarck’s sister ship, the super battleship Tirpitz (then in home waters), the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst (in Brest, France), the “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer (in home waters), and the heavy cruisers Prinz Eugen (in France) and Hipper (in home waters).

Raeder demurred. He did not believe the British raids presaged a major invasion, nor did he credit the rumors of a Soviet thrust through Finland and Sweden. By keeping Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen in France, the Germans would compel the British to retain a sizeable counterforce in home waters that might be used elsewhere—the Mediterranean, for example. Hence the presence of those big ships in France indirectly helped Rommel. Moreover, the ships had been in French ports so long and had been so denuded of experienced personnel that all three would require weeks of workup before they were ready for the combat they were sure to face in a dash to Norway.

Hitler flew into a rage. Perhaps influenced by the destruction at Pearl Harbor and the nearly simultaneous loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in the Far East, he denounced the value of battleships in the air age.* He concluded the meeting by directing Raeder to be ready to carry out his orders on his signal. Tirpitz was to move to Trondheim (as already scheduled) within three weeks. Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen were to be brought home as soon as possible—and at any risk—via the English Channel, and thence sail to Norway together with Admiral Scheer and Hipper. Appropriate air and surface and U-boat escorts were to be provided for all big-ship movements.

There was no detailed discussion of deploying U-boats for the defense of Norway. At that time four Type VII boats had been assigned to Arctic patrols to attack the Murmansk convoys, but the OKM had concurred in Dönitz’s refusal to provide large numbers of boats for the defense of Norway. However, Hitler had insisted that the Kriegsmarine use “all its forces” for the defense of Norway. The OKM interpreted this to mean every U-boat except those in the Mediterranean assisting Rommel, but deferred such a drastic U-boat redeployment pending a thorough study of the Norway situation and more specific instructions from Hitler.

Thus the opening U-boat campaign in North American waters proceeded on uncertain grounds. Should what became known as Hitler’s “Norway paranoia” intensify, there was every possibility that the fifteen boats of the first wave would be recalled to thwart the supposed Allied invasion of Norway and that subsequent waves to the Americas would be canceled for the same reason. A dramatic U-boat strike was therefore absolutely essential to avoid what Dönitz viewed as another useless diversion of the U-boat force.

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