Military history


The U-boat campaign in American waters was savaging Allied shipping at a record rate and disrupting all plans, and had given German morale a timely lift. Yet in April 1942, some high-ranking Berlin strategists who had Hitler’s ear began to view the U-boat war with deep misgivings. The enlarged, high-priority U-boat construction program was absorbing high-grade steel and scarce copper, which was desperately needed by the “Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe for the war against the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Americans had announced the new—and massive—merchant-ship building goals for 1942-1943. Despite the mounting rate of sinkings by U-boats, the dissenting strategists viewed the naval situation as “hopeless” for the long term. That is, Germany could by no means build enough U-boats to make a decisive dent in the announced Allied shipping program.

There was a more pressing point. Notwithstanding the great numbers of sinkings in American waters, enormous amounts of military supplies were still getting through to the British Isles, to the British Eighth Army, and to the Soviet Union via the North and South Atlantic, the Arctic, and Indian Ocean sea routes. The critics argued that if Germany was to gain swift victories in the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean Basin, it was far more important to sink merchant ships in those areas rather than American coastal shipping, which included banana, sugar, and molasses vessels, and others of no military consequence, or vessels transporting raw materials, such as bauxite, which could not be transformed into weaponry soon enough to affect the outcome of the short-term fighting. The critics thus urged that the U-boat force be concentrated against those Allied convoys which were directly supporting the battlefronts of Germany’s enemies.

So it was that at the height of the most successful U-boat campaign of the war, admirals Raeder and Dönitz were compelled to justify to Hitler not only the continuance of the large-scale U-boat building program but also the decision to suspend attacks against convoys in war zones in favor of coastal shipping in American waters. Admiral Raeder made the Kriegsmarine’s case for the U-boat strategy to

Hitler in four meetings—April 16, May 13 and 14, and June 15—at Wolfsschanze. Dönitz attended the May 14 meeting and made the presentation. His chief points:

• That he did not believe the race between the enemy shipbuilding program and the U-boat sinkings was in any way “hopeless.” The announced Allied goal of building 8.2 million new tons of shipping in 1942 was probably propaganda. The experts at the OKM had calculated that the Allies could build no more than about 5 million tons in 1942. Hence Axis forces (submarines, surface ships, aircraft, etc.) need only sink 400,000 to 500,000 tons of shipping per month to keep pace with new construction and “anything above that number” cut “into the basic tonnage of the enemy.” All Axis forces were presently sinking ships at the rate of approximately 700,000 tons a month.*

• That since the United States and Great Britain had pooled all merchant shipping, the merchant fleets had to be regarded as one. It was immaterial where a ship was sunk. Therefore the best policy was to sink ships wherever the greatest number could be sunk at the lowest cost in U-boats lost. Germany should not concentrate “in one specific area” if that meant sinking fewer ships, except in unusual cases (Arctic, Mediterranean) where U-boats were required to relieve pressure on the Wehrmacht. Allied tonnage sunk anywhere degraded the ability of the enemy to mount a “second front.”

• That U-boat operations in American waters were therefore entirely justified. In the four-month period from January 10 to May 10, U-boats had sunk 303 ships for 2 million tons, including 112 tankers for 927,000 tons. The Americans had begun building an overland oil pipeline from Texas to the Eastern Seaboard (the so-called “Big Inch”) but it would not be ready for at least a year, during which time American industry was to remain dependent on coastal tankers. Every tanker sunk “represents a direct setback” to American industrial production. The U-boat force was “attacking the evil at the root.”

• That if and when sinkings in American waters became unprofitable, Dönitz would resume attacks on the North Atlantic and other convoy routes. The expected arrival in June and July of large numbers of boats that had been delayed by Baltic ice and the shortage of labor in the shipyards for final fit-outs, and the use of U-tankers, should make it easier to find convoys and to mount sustained attacks on them. The many war patrols to the Americas by numerous new boats had been beneficial from a training standpoint and had produced yet another generation of capable skippers—such as Albrecht Achilles, Otto von Bülow, Peter Cremer, and others—who could lead the attacks on the convoys.

In conclusion, Dönitz assured Hitler that “the outlook in regard to submarine warfare is promising.” The submariners had faith in their equipment and believed in their fighting ability. The most urgent thing to do was to get the delayed submarines out of the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic quickly and “in general to have as many submarines as possible out at sea engaged in operations.”

For some months Hitler had been mulling over a monstrous idea to impair Allied shipping: Shoot the merchant crewmen in the lifeboats. That idea first appears in official German records in the minutes of a conference on January 3, 1942, between Hitler and the Japanese Ambassador, Hiroshi Ōshima. “We are fighting for our existence,” Hitler told Ōshima, according to the stenographic notes of the meeting, “and our attitude cannot be ruled by any humane feelings.” If U-boat crews shot up the Allied lifeboats, Hitler explained, when the word got around, “the Americans would soon have difficulties in enlisting new people” to man the merchant ships.

This murderous idea next appears, officially, in the OKM diary of February 4, 1942, digesting the topics discussed during meetings between Hitler and Admiral Raeder. The OKM diarist phrased the exchange delicately: Hitler, he wrote, “brought up the question of intensifying warfare on supply traffic by abandoning any consideration for the crews of enemy steamers.” Admiral Raeder strongly objected to the idea “for obvious reasons,” the OKM diarist wrote, including “the effect which such a policy would have on our own crews.” The U-boat crews would be reluctant to carry out the policy for humane reasons and also out of fear that the Allies would retaliate and murder survivors of sunken U-boats.

In a sworn affidavit filed in defense of Dönitz at the Nuremberg trials, Admiral Raeder recalled that Hitler raised this idea during the Dönitz presentation in the May 14 meeting. “Hitler asked Dönitz,” Raeder testified, “whether any action could be taken against the crews of torpedoed merchant ships to prevent them from returning home [to man other ships]. Admiral Dönitz declined unequivocally any action against the survivors of the ship’s crew.” Raeder added that he, too, told Hitler that such action against surviving merchant crews “was out of the question.”

Dönitz went on to suggest that the goal Hitler had in mind could be realized if only the torpedo technicians could produce a reliable magnetic pistol that would explode the torpedoes beneath the targeted ships. That would not only save torpedoes and reduce risks to the U-boats, but—according to the stenographer’s notes—would “also have the great advantage that the crew will not be able to save themselves on account of the quick sinking of the torpedoed ship. This greater loss of men will no doubt cause difficulties in the assignment of crews for the great American construction program.”

That statement “satisfied” Hitler, Raeder swore in his affidavit, and thereafter Hitler did not approach him “with such a request.” Nor was any such order ever issued, Dönitz testified at Nuremberg. “Firing upon these men [shipwreck survivors] is a matter concerned with the ethics of war and should be rejected under any and all circumstances,” Dönitz said.

Yet another idea for impeding the manning of new merchant ships arose in the aftermath of this meeting. Berlin directed that upon sinking a ship, U-boats were to make every effort to capture the captain and chief engineer and bring them back to Germany as POWs. Dönitz relayed these orders to all U-boats on June 5, adding that if, in the judgment of the U-boat skipper, such captures would endanger the boat, or impair its fighting ability, they were not to be attempted.

To judge by the stenographer’s notes of this May 14 meeting, Hitler was apparently convinced that the Dönitz strategy for waging U-boat warfare was sound. “Victory depends on destroying the greatest amount of Allied tonnage possible,” the Fiihrer proclaimed. “Thus all offensive operations of the enemy can be slowed down or even stopped entirely…. The submarine war will in the end decide the outcome of the war.” He approved Raeder’s proposal that submarine production be stepped up from seventeen boats a month “to the very limit.” The copper and labor shortages were to be overcome by buying copper on the black market in France and Belgium* and by exempting shipwrights from conscription into the Wehrmacht.

Dönitz came away from the meeting believing he had won a sweeping victory, that the U-boat force finally had Hitler’s unqualified backing, and that Dönitz had a free hand to deploy the boats as he saw fit. But, in fact, Dönitz had won only a partial victory. Humiliated that Germany could not deploy Tirpitz, in part because the Kriegsmarine had no aircraft carriers to protect her, Hitler directed that work on the carrier Gräf Zeppelin was to continue at high priority and, furthermore, that the battle cruiser Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Seydlitz (under construction), and two large ocean liners, Europa and Potsdam, be converted to aircraft carriers. This work was to divert high-grade steel, copper, and shipyard workers from U-boat production lines. Moreover, still believing that the Allies intended to invade Norway at any hour, Hitler insisted that not less than twenty U-boats remain in Norway to thwart the supposed invasion and to attack the Murmansk convoys in cooperation with the Luftwaffe, even though the nightless Arctic summer had arrived, robbing the U-boats of cover for surface chases and attacks and for charging batteries, and reducing their effectiveness to near zero.

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