Military history

“AVOID INCIDENTS WITH THE U.S.A.!”

With Japan stubbornly refusing to help pull Hitler’s chestnuts out of the fire in Russia—the Japanese had their own chestnuts roasting—it became all the more important to Germany that the United States be kept out of the war until the Soviet Union had been conquered, as the Fuehrer was confident that summer of 1941 it would be before winter came.

The German Navy had long chafed under the restraints which Hitler had imposed on its efforts to curtail American shipments to Britain and to cope with the increasing belligerency of U.S. warships toward German U-boats and surface craft operating in the Atlantic. The Nazi admirals, looking further afield than Hitler’s landlocked mind was capable of doing, had almost from the first regarded America’s entry into the war as inevitable and they had urged the Supreme Commander to prepare for it. Immediately after the fall of France in June 1940, Admiral Raeder, backed by Goering, had urged Hitler to seize not only French West Africa but, more important, the Atlantic islands, including Iceland, the Azores and the Canaries, to prevent the United States from occupying them. Hitler had expressed interest, but he first wanted to invade England and conquer Russia. Then the upstart Americans, their position rendered hopeless, would be taken care of. A top-secret memorandum of Major Freiherr von Falkenstein, of the General Staff, discloses Hitler’s views at the end of the summer in 1940.

The Fuehrer is at present occupied with the question of the occupation of the Atlantic Islands with a view to the prosecution of war against America at a later date. Deliberations on this subject are being embarked on here.13

It was not a question, then, of whether or not Hitler intended to go to war against the United States but of the date he would choose to embark on it. By the following spring the date was beginning to sprout in the Fuehrer’s mind. On May 22, 1941, Admiral Raeder conferred with the Supreme Commander and reported ruefully that the Navy “must reject the idea of occupying the Azores.” It simply didn’t have the strength. But by this time Hitler had warmed to the project and, according to Raeder’s confidential notes,14 replied:

The Fuehrer is still in favor of occupying the Azores in order to be able to operate long-range bombers from there against the U.S.A. The occasion for this may arise by autumn.*

After the fall of the Soviet Union, that is. The turn of the United States would come then. He put this clearly to Raeder when the Admiral saw him just two months later, on July 25, when the offensive in Russia was in full swing. “After the Eastern campaign,” Raeder notes him as saying, “he reserves the right to take severe action against the U.S.A.”15 But until then, Hitler emphasized to his Navy chief, he wanted “to avoid having the U.S.A. declare war … out of consideration for the Army, which is involved in heavy combat.”

Raeder was not satisfied with this stand. In fact, his diary accounts of his meetings with Hitler, which one can now peruse in the captured documents, show his growing impatience at the wraps which the Fuehrer had placed on the German Navy. At every interview he sought to change the Leader’s mind.

Early that year, on February 4, Raeder submitted a memorandum to Hitler in which the Navy expressed strong doubts about the value of continued American neutrality, as it was working out, to Germany. In fact the admirals argued that America’s entry into the war might even prove “advantageous for the German war effort” if Japan thereby became a belligerent on the side of the Axis.16 But the Nazi dictator was not impressed by the argument.

Raeder was greatly discouraged. The Battle of the Atlantic was at its height and Germany was not winning it. American supplies under the Lend-Lease agreement were pouring into Britain. The Pan-American Neutrality Patrol was making it more and more difficult for the U-boats to be effective. All this Raeder pointed out to Hitler, but without much effect. He saw the Leader again on March 18 and reported that U.S. warships were escorting American convoys bound for Britain as far as Iceland. He demanded authority to attack them without warning. He asked that something be done to prevent the U.S.A. from gaining a foothold in French West Africa. This possibility, he said, “was most dangerous.” Hitler listened and said he would discuss these matters with the Foreign Office (of all places!), which was one way of putting the admirals off.17

All through the spring and early summer he continued to put them off. On April 20 he refused to listen to Raeder’s pleas “for warfare against merchant ships of the U.S.A., according to prize regulations.”18 The first recorded clash between American and German war vessels had occurred on April 10 when the U.S. destroyer Niblack dropped depth charges on a German U-boat which showed signs of attacking. On May 22 Raeder was back at the Berghof with a long memorandum suggesting countermeasures to President Roosevelt’s unfriendly acts, but he could not move his Supreme Commander.

The Fuehrer [the Admiral noted] considers the attitude of the President of the United States still undecided. Under no circumstances does he wish to cause incidents which would result in U.S. entry into the war.19

There was all the more reason to avoid such incidents when the campaign in Russia began, and on June 21, the day before the attack commenced, Hitler emphasized this to Raeder. The Grand Admiral had given him a glowing account of how the U-253, spotting the U.S. battleship Texasand an accompanying destroyer within the blockade zone in the North Atlantic proclaimed by Germany, had “chased and attempted to attack them” and had added that “where the U.S.A. is concerned firm measures are always more effective than apparent yielding.” The Fuehrer agreed with the principle but not with the specific action and once more he admonished the Navy.

The Fuehrer declares in detail that until Operation Barbarossa is well under way he wishes to avoid any incident with the U.S.A. After a few weeks the situation will become clearer, and can be expected to have a favorable effect on the U.S.A. and Japan. America will have less inclination to enter the war due to the threat from Japan which will then increase. If possible, therefore, in the next weeks all attacks on naval vessels in the closed area should cease.

When Raeder attempted to argue that at night it was difficult to distinguish enemy from neutral warships Hitler cut him short by instructing him to issue new orders to avoid incidents with America. As a result the Navy chief sent out orders the same night calling off attacks on any naval vessels “inside or outside the closed area” unless they were definitely identified as British. A similar order was given the Luftwaffe.20

On July 9, President Roosevelt announced that American forces were taking over the occupation of Iceland from the British. The reaction in Berlin was immediate and violent. Ribbentrop cabled Tokyo that “this intrusion of American military forces in support of England into a territory which has been officially proclaimed by us to be a combat area is in itself an aggression against Germany and Europe.”21

Raeder hurried to Wolfsschanze, from where the Fuehrer was directing his armies in Russia. He wanted a decision, he said, on “whether the occupation of Iceland by the U.S.A. is to be considered as an entry into the war, or as an act of provocation which should be ignored.” As for the German Navy, it considered the American landings in Iceland an act of war and in a two-page memorandum it reminded the Fuehrer of all the other acts of “aggression” against Germany committed by the Roosevelt government. Moreover, the Navy demanded the right to sink American freighters in the convoy area and to attack U.S. warships if the occasion required it.* Hitler refused.

The Fuehrer explains in detail [Raeder’s report on the meeting declares] that he is most anxious to postpone the United States’ entry into the war for another one or two months. On the one hand the Eastern campaign must be carried on with the entire Air Force … which he does not wish to divert even in part; on the other hand, a victorious campaign on the Eastern front will have a tremendous effect on the whole situation and probably on the attitude of the U.S.A. Therefore for the time being he does not wish the existing instructions changed, but rather wants to be sure that incidents will be avoided.

When Raeder argued that his naval commanders could not be held responsible for “a mistake” if American ships were hit, Hitler retorted that at least in regard to war vessels the Navy had better “definitely establish” that they were enemy craft before attacking. To make sure that theadmirals understood him correctly the Fuehrer issued a specific order on July 19 stipulating that “in the extended zone of operations U.S. merchant ships, whether single or sailing in English or American convoys and if recognized as such before resort to arms, are not to be attacked.” Within the blockade area, which was also recognized by the United States as being out of bounds, American vessels could be attacked, but Hitler specifically laid it down in this order that this war zone “did not include the U.S.A.-Iceland sea route.” The underlining was Hitler’s.22

But “mistakes,” as Raeder said, were bound to occur. On May 21 a U-boat had sunk the American freighter Robin Moor en route to South Africa and at a place well outside the German blockade zone. Two more American merchant vessels were torpedoed toward the end of the summer. On September 4 a German submarine fired two torpedoes at the U.S. destroyer Greer, both missing. A week later, on September 11, Roosevelt reacted to this attack in a speech in which he announced that he had given orders to the Navy to “shoot on sight” and warned that Axis warships entering the American defense zone did so “at their peril.”

The speech incensed Berlin. In the Nazi press Roosevelt was attacked as “Warmonger Number One.” Ribbentrop recalled at Nuremberg that Hitler “was greatly excited.” However, by the time Admiral Raeder arrived at the Wolfsschanze headquarters on the Eastern front on the afternoon of September 17 to urge a drastic retaliation to the “shoot-on-sight” order, the Fuehrer had calmed down. To the Admiral’s plea that the German Navy at last be released from the restrictions against attacking American ships the Supreme Commander again gave a firm No.

[Since] it appears that the end of September will bring the great decision in the Russian campaign [Raeder’s record of the conversation declares], the Fuehrer requests that care be taken to avoid any incidents in the war on merchant shipping before about the middle of October.

“Therefore,” Raeder noted sadly, “the Commander in Chief, Navy, and the Commanding Admiral, Submarines [Doenitz], withdraw their suggestions. The submarines are to be informed of the reason for temporarily keeping to the old orders.”23 In view of the circumstances, Hitler was certainly behaving with unaccustomed restraint. But admittedly it was more difficult for the young U-boat commanders, operating in the stormy waters of the North Atlantic and constantly harassed by increasingly effective British antisubmarine measures in which U.S. war vessels sometimes joined, to restrain themselves. Hitler had told Raeder in July that he would never call a submarine skipper to account if he sank an American ship “by mistake.” On November 9, in his annual address to the Nazi Old Guard at the familiar beer cellar in Munich, he answered Roosevelt’s speech.

President Roosevelt has ordered his ships to shoot the moment they sight German ships. I have ordered German ships not to shoot when they sight American vessels, but to defend themselves when attacked. I will have any German officer court-martialed who fails to defend himself.

And on November 13 he issued a new directive ordering that while engagements with American warships were to be avoided as far as possible German submarines must defend themselves against attack.24

They had, of course, already done that. On the night of October 16–17, the U.S. destroyer Kearny, coming to the aid of a convoy which was being attacked by German submarines, dropped depth charges on one of them, which retaliated by torpedoing it. Eleven men of the crew were killed. These were the first American casualties in the undeclared war with Germany.*More were to quickly follow. On October 31, the U.S. destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk while on convoy duty, with the loss of 100 men of 145 in its crew, including all its seven officers. Thus, long before the final formalities of declaring war, a shooting war had begun.

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