Military history

THE LONG RETREAT

I

The sharp decline of morale amongst the German population in 1943 was not just the result of the intensification of Allied bombing raids on German cities, it also reflected a series of dramatic reverses in other areas of the war as well. Amongst these, one of the most disheartening was in North Africa. In the summer of 1942 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had succeeded in capturing the key North African seaport of Tobruk and driving the British back into Egypt. But difficulties in supplying his troops by either land or sea weakened Rommel’s position, and the British stood their ground at El Alamein, where they prepared deep defensive positions and massed their forces ready for a counter-attack. On 23 October 1942, under yet another new general, the meticulous Bernard Montgomery, the British attacked the German forces with over twice the number of infantry and tanks that Rommel could assemble. Over twelve days they inflicted a decisive defeat on them. Rommel lost 30,000 men captured in his headlong retreat across the desert. Little over two weeks later the Allies, their command of the Mediterranean virtually unchallenged, landed 63,000 men, equipped with 430 tanks, in Morocco and Algeria. The German bid to gain control of North Africa and penetrate from there to the oilfields of the Middle East had failed. Rommel returned to Germany on sick leave in March 1943.84 Defeat in North Africa turned into humiliation in mid-May, when 250,000 Axis troops, half of them German, surrendered to the Allies.85 Its complete failure to disturb British control over Egypt and the Middle East denied the Third Reich access to key sources of oil. These failures once more signalled not only the fact that the British were determined not to give in, but also the massive strength of the far-flung British Empire, backed to an increasing degree by the material resources of the United States.86 Reflecting privately on these failures in 1944, Field Marshal Rommel still believed that, if he had been provided with ‘more motorized formations and a secure supply line’, he could have seized the Suez Canal, thus disrupting British supplies, and gone on to secure the oilfields of the Middle East, Persia and even Baku on the Caspian Sea. But it was not to be. Bitterly, he concluded that ‘the war in North Africa was decided by the weight of Anglo-American material. In fact, since the entry of America into the war, there has been very little prospect of our achieving ultimate victory.’87 It was a view that many ordinary Germans shared. Rommel was a brilliant general, the student Lore Walb confided to her diary. But, she went on: ‘What can he do with limited forces and little ammunition?’ After the recapture of Tobruk by the Allies in November 1942, she was beginning to wonder if this was ‘the beginning of the end’, and a few days later she began to fear that the entire war was being lost: ‘Will Heaven then permit us to be annihilated???’88

The Third Reich was now beginning to lose its allies. In March 1943, King Boris III of Bulgaria decided that the Germans were not going to win the war. Meeting with Hitler in June, he thought it politic to agree to the German dictator’s request for Bulgarian troops to replace German forces in north-east Serbia so that they could be redeployed to the Eastern Front. But he refused to render any further assistance, and behind the scenes he began to put out peace feelers to the Allies, rightly fearing that the Soviets would disregard Bulgaria’s official stance of neutrality in the wider conflict. Hitler continued to put pressure on him, meeting with him again in August 1943. But before anything could come of their talks, events took an unexpected turn. Shortly after arriving back in Sofia, Boris fell ill, dying on 28 August 1942, aged only forty-nine. In the feverish climate of the times, rumours immediately spread that he had been poisoned. An autopsy carried out in the early 1990s revealed, however, that he had died of an infarction of the left ventricle of the heart. He was succeeded by Simeon II, who was only a boy, and the regency largely continued Boris’s policy of disengaging from the German side, spurred on by increasing numbers of Allied bombing raids on Sofia, starting in November 1943. Popular opposition to the war spread rapidly, and armed partisan bands formed under the leadership of the Soviet-inspired Fatherland Front, causing increasing disruption; British agents arrived to assist them, but the partisan movement failed to make much headway, and some of the British agents were betrayed and shot. Nevertheless, under these pressures, the government began to backtrack, repealing anti-Jewish legislation, and declaring full neutrality the following year.89

Far more alarming to many Germans were the dramatic events that unfolded in Italy after their defeat in North Africa. On 10 July 1943 Anglo-American forces, ferried across by sea and backed by airborne assaults on defensive positions behind the beaches, landed in Sicily, which was occupied by a combination of Italian and German troops. Despite extensive preparations, the attack was far from perfectly executed. The landing forces mistook the planes flying overhead for enemy aircraft and started firing on them, weakening the airborne thrust. The British commander Montgomery split his forces in the east into a coastal and an inland column, as a result of which they only made slow progress against heavy German resistance. Syracuse was captured, but because of the delays in the British advance, the Germans managed to evacuate most of their troops across to the mainland. Still, the island eventually fell to the Allied forces. Ominously for the Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini, too, the citizens of Palermo had waved white flags at the invading Americans, and there were growing indications that ordinary Italians no longer wanted to continue fighting. Hitler visited Mussolini in northern Italy on 18 July 1943 to try to bolster his confidence, but his two-hour monologue depressed the Italian dictator and made him feel he lacked the will to carry on. The dictator’s prestige and popularity had never recovered from the catastrophic defeats of 1941, most notably in Greece. His relationship with Hitler had changed fundamentally after this: even Mussolini himself referred to Fascist Italy as no more than the ‘rear light’ of the Axis, and he soon acquired a new nickname: the Regional Leader of Italy. Hitler, always late to bed, had taken to sending him messages in the middle of the night, obliging him to be woken up to receive them; and the Italian dictator began to complain that he was becoming fed up with being summoned to meetings with him like a waiter by a bell.90

While Italian troops continued to fight, they were losing their faith in the cause for which they were being asked to lay down their lives. Mussolini himself began to complain privately that the Italians were letting him down. Distrusting the ability of the Italians to carry on fighting, Hitler had already made plans to take over Italy and the territories it occupied in southern France, Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania. He put Rommel in charge of the operation.91 As Allied planes began to bomb Italian cities, the prospect of an invasion of the Italian mainland by the Allies became imminent. German forces moved into the peninsula, indicating by their mere presence whose cause the Italians were now fighting for. Serious opposition to Mussolini’s dictatorship surfaced for the first time in many years and came to a head towards the end of July. In February 1943 Mussolini had carried out a purge of leading figures in his increasingly discontented Fascist Party. It had been growing ever more critical of his political and military leadership. This was virtually his last decisive act. Disoriented and demoralized, he began suffering from stomach pains that sapped his energy. He spent much of his time dallying with his mistress Clara Petacci, translating classic Italian fiction into German, or devoting himself to minor administrative issues. Since he was not only Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces but also held several major ministries, this meant that a vacuum began to appear at the centre of power. The sacked party bosses began to intrigue against him. Those in the Fascist Grand Council who either wanted more radical measures taken to mobilize the population or sought to place the further conduct of the war entirely in the hands of the military decided to strip him of most of his powers at a meeting held on 24- 5 July 1943 (the first since 1939). Few details were made known of this dramatic, ten-hour marathon. The leading moderate Fascist, Dino Grandi, who proposed the motion, later confessed that he had been carrying a live grenade throughout, in case of emergencies. But it was not necessary. Mussolini’s reaction to the criticisms levelled at him was feeble and confused. He hardly seemed to know what was going on and failed to put a counter-proposal, leading many to think he had no objections to Grandi’s motion. In the early hours of the morning, it was voted through by nineteen votes to seven.92

The Grand Council’s vote played right into the hands of the leading military men, whose dissatisfaction with the war prompted them to get the King to dismiss Mussolini (as he was constitutionally entitled to do, since Mussolini’s formal position was still that of Prime Minister), and have him arrested the very next day. There was no resistance, and the now ex-dictator was carried off to prison without any serious protest. Only one Fascist zealot is known to have committed suicide on hearing the news. As Mussolini’s successor, the monarch appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio to lead a new government. The Fascist Party more or less fell to pieces under the impact of these dramatic events, and was swiftly declared illegal. Badoglio and the King assured the Germans that Italy would stay in the war, and as a token of goodwill, or perhaps a recognition of the inevitable, the new government allowed them to take over key Alpine passes and other significant positions and begin pouring large numbers of troops and equipment into the peninsula. While the Germans withdrew their forces from Corsica and Sardinia, they also used the troops they had extricated from Sicily to start preparations to defend the southern part of the mainland. Amidst a rapidly disintegrating situation, Badoglio began secretly negotiating an armistice with the Allies, which he signed on 3 September 1943. The same day, Allied troops landed in Calabria, in Italy’s far south, and then on 9 September 1943 at Salerno, further up the coast. On the previous day, 8 September 1943, the Italian government announced its surrender to the Allies. Badoglio, the King and the government fled south, into Allied protection. Ordinary Germans at home were reported as expressing their disappointment that the Italian leaders had not been captured and hanged. Neither the Italian army nor the Italian government had any instructions for the million or more Italian troops still under arms.93

Faced with battle-hardened German troops taking up positions all over the peninsula, Italian soldiers flung down their weapons, threw off their uniforms, or simply surrendered. Only a few units tried to resist, most notably on the Italian-controlled island of Cephalonia, off the Greek coast, where fighting went on for a week and ended with the German occupiers executing more than 6,000 Italian soldiers and sailors, shooting almost all the Italian officers in batches over a four-hour period of cold-blooded carnage. Half a million Italian servicemen were lucky enough to find themselves in areas already under Allied control. They were disarmed and eventually sent home. But 650,000 Italian soldiers were seized by the German military as prisoners of war, and then deported to Germany as forced labourers in December 1943. Their situation was far from enviable. Goebbels declared that the Italians were ‘a Gypsy people gone to pot’. Hitler thought they were utterly decadent. Many Germans were bitter at what they regarded as Italy’s betrayal of the Axis, which they compared with similar events in the First World War, when Italy had also changed sides. The Security Service of the SS reported that there are marked feelings of hatred in all parts of the Reich and all strata of the population againstone people, namely the Italians. Basically people don’t hold the enmity of our real opponents against them. It is felt to be a matter of fate. But people can never forgive the Italians for the fact that after they have gone to great lengths to assure us through their chosen representatives of their friendship, they have now betrayed us so ‘despicably’ a second time. The hatred against the Italian people springs from the most profound feelings.94

The German authorities treated the Italians particularly harshly, exacting from them a severe revenge for Italy’s repudiation of the German alliance. In terms of food rations and general treatment they were placed on the same footing as Soviet workers. At the Krupp factory in Essen, the average weight loss of the Italian prisoner-of-war workers was 9 kilograms in the first three months of 1944; some lost as much as 22 kilos. Death rates were higher than for any other group except Soviet workers.95 Up to 50,000 Italian prisoners of war died in these conditions. At seventy-seven deaths per thousand, this was five times the death rate of British prisoners of war; it was, indeed, the highest death rate of all western prisoners of war in Germany.96

In Italy itself, the Germans’ outrage at the defection of the Italians found expression in numerous acts of gratuitous vandalism and vengeance. On 26 September 1943, after encountering some minor resistance as they marched into Naples, German troops poured kerosene over the shelves of the university library and set it alight, destroying 50,000 books and manuscripts, many of them irreplaceable. Two days later, while the library was still burning, German soldiers discovered 80,000 more books and manuscripts from various archives deposited for safe keeping in Nola and set them alight, along with the contents of the Civic Museum, including forty-five paintings. The German military commander of Italy, the air force Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, hurriedly organized the evacuation of art treasures from museums in Florence and other cities likely to become battlegrounds if the Allies succeeded in advancing up the peninsula. Soldiers and SS men took jewellery, furs and silver from palaces and country houses, or occupied them as billets, turfing out the owners. The Marchesa Origo, an Anglo-American woman married to an Italian aristocrat, arriving at her villa after the occupying German troops had retreated, described the scene that greeted her eyes:

The Germans have stolen everything that took their fancy, blankets, clothes, shoes and toys, as well, of course, as anything valuable or eatable, and have deliberately destroyed much of sentimental or personal value . . . In the dining room the table is still laid, and there are traces of a drunken repast: empty wine-bottles and smashed glasses lie beside a number of my summer hats (which presumably have been tried on), together with boot-trees, toys, overturned furniture and W.C. paper . . . The lavatory is filled to the brim with filth, and decaying meat, lying on every table, adds to the foul smell. There are innumerable flies. In our bedroom, too, it is the same.97

Her experience, suffering from the indifference of tired and exhausted German troops, many of whom had earlier fought on the Eastern Front, was typical of many Italian property-owners at this time.

In political terms, the Germans did not stand idly by. In September 1943 the deposed dictator Mussolini had been taken on the new government’s orders first of all to the island of Ponza, then to another island, and finally to an isolated ski hotel in the Apennine mountains of central Italy. Depressed and ill, he tried on one occasion to kill himself. In the meantime, Hitler had begun organizing a search and rescue operation, determined that his ally should not fall into Anglo-American hands, with all the possibilities for bad publicity and embarrassing revelations that this might entail. He was aware of the fact that, as the SS Security Service was reporting, many Germans thought that, if Mussolini’s regime could collapse overnight, then so too could Hitler’s. The Italian dictator’s mystique somehow had to be restored. And something had to be done to dampen the disastrous effects of his overthrow on popular morale in Germany, where, it was reported at the end of July, people were regarding it as another turning-point in the war, and the majority were now depressed and saw ‘no real way out any more’.98 Mussolini’s location was not hard to find - it was revealed by intercepted radio traffic. The hotel was staffed with a large force of armed military police. But they were under instructions to act with extreme caution, and in any case the occupation of Italy by the Germans made them extremely unwilling to offend the peninsula’s new rulers. The way seemed open for a rescue operation.99

On 12 September 1943, after carrying out air reconnaissance of the area, an SS commando unit consisting of paratroopers led by Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian SS officer, flew silently over the peak on gliders and parachuted down to the hotel, leaving the planes to crash into the nearby mountains. In five minutes they had overrun the complex without firing a shot. Skorzeny found Mussolini and announced he had been sent by Hitler. Clearing a landing-strip on a small, sloping meadow in front of the hotel, the commandos called up a small Stork reconnaissance and liaison aircraft, which was able to land at very low speeds: Mussolini was bundled in and taken first to Rome and thence to Hitler’s field headquarters at Rastenburg. Hitler was disappointed when he was confronted by an obviously broken man. But he persuaded the former Italian dictator to set up a puppet regime in northern Italy, based in the town of Salò. Here, prompted by the Nazis, he had five of the leading Fascists who had voted against him on the Grand Council, including his son-in-law and former Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, tried for treason and executed. His regime soon degenerated into a morass of violence, corruption and terror. Meanwhile, Skorzeny’s daring exploit cheered people up in Germany, as indeed it had been intended to. It showed, people were reported as saying, that Germany was still capable of getting out of a tricky situation by improvising in grand style.100

II

The German takeover and the establishment of the puppet Fascist regime at Salò plunged Italy’s 43,000 Jews, of whom 34,000 were located in the German zone, into a crisis far worse than they had so far experienced. They had been subjected to considerable official discrimination by the Fascist regime since the introduction of racial laws in 1938 along the lines of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany. Yet antisemitism had never been very intense or widespread in Italy. In Greece, southern France and Croatia, indeed, the Italian army had gone to some lengths to protect Jews from murder and deportation. Now such protection was no longer possible. To begin with, the Germans concentrated on robbery. Shortly after the German occupation of Rome, the SS Security Service chief in the Italian capital, Herbert Kappler, ordered the Jewish community to deliver 50 kilos of gold within thirty-six hours. If they did this, he assured the community leaders, they would not be deported. And indeed, although Himmler had already telephoned Kappler on 12 September 1943 to tell him to organize the deportation of the Italian Jews, the Security Service boss himself was of the opinion that the Italian police posed a far greater security threat, and intended if possible to devote his own rather limited manpower to dealing with them first. While the Jewish community leaders gathered the gold, delivering it to Kappler for transportation to the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin on 7 October 1943, Alfred Rosenberg’s staff arrived in the city and began loading the contents of the community’s library onto two railway wagons for transportation to Germany. This open robbery caused widespread alarm amongst Rome’s Jews, who were aghast at the impunity with which it was carried out. It did not seem to bode well for their own safety. Soon, indeed, fifty-four Jews were murdered by SS troops in the far north, in the area of Lake Maggiore, and deportations began from Merano and Trieste. And on 6 October 1943, Theodor Dannecker arrived in Rome with an armed escort, under orders from Berlin to override Kappler and organize the arrest and transport of the Jews to Auschwitz for extermination.101

His arrival caused considerable concern among the leading German officials in Rome. The acting representative of the German Foreign Office, Eitel Möllhausen, and the head of the German armed forces in the area, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, joined forces with Kappler to press the Foreign Office in Berlin to use the Jews on fortification work instead of being ‘liquidated’, as Möllhausen incautiously put it in a telegram sent to Berlin on 6 October 1943. Moreover, the newly appointed German Ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizs̈cker, warned the Foreign Office that Pope Pius XII, under whose windows, as it were, the deportation was to take place, might issue a public protest; in order to avoid this, he too advised that it might be preferable to employ the Jews on labour projects in Italy instead. Hitler’s reaction was not slow in coming. On 9 October 1943 the Foreign Office told Möllhausen in no uncertain terms that Ribbentrop insisted, ‘on the basis of a Leader instruction’, the Jews of Rome were to be taken away and he was to ‘keep out of all questions concerning Jews’, which were the business of the SS.102 This effectively squashed the opposition. With the support of regular German troops, Dannecker’s SS men arrested 1,259 Roman Jews on 16 October 1943, including 200 children under the age of ten. The majority of those arrested were women. After releasing twenty-nine of the prisoners because they were not Italian, or they were ‘mixed-race’ or married to non-Jews, Dannecker shipped them off to Auschwitz. Fifteen of them survived the war. Many other Jews went into hiding, assisted by non-Jewish Italians who were outraged by the action. Several thousand Jews found refuge in the Vatican and in monasteries and convents in other parts of Rome, but the predicted public protest from the Pope did not materialize; it might have given a lead to Italians and caused the Germans to stop their action for fear of arousing public opposition. But the Pope was nervous that an outright condemnation might endanger the position of the Church or even, indeed, the Vatican itself. An article that subsequently appeared in the official Vatican organ, the Roman Observer, praising the Pope for his attempts to mitigate the suffering caused by the war was cast in such vague and general terms that, as Weizsäcker noted, very few people indeed would interpret it as a reference to the Jewish question at all.103

In Mussolini’s rump Fascist state in north Italy, the government ordered all Jews to be interned in concentration camps, and the police began arresting Jews in Venice in December 1943 and again in August and October 1944, taking them out of an old people’s home and a hospital as well as their own houses. After the second and third of these raids, which took place, unlike the first, with German participation, the weakest of the internees were killed and the rest deported to Auschwitz. Altogether another 3,800 Jews were taken to Auschwitz in 1944, while another 4,000 Jews and partisans were rounded up by Odilo Globocnik, who had transferred from the east, on the Adriatic coast and killed at a concentration camp near Trieste, some of them in a mobile gas van.104Nevertheless, some 80 per cent of Italy’s Jews survived the war, not least thanks to help from ordinary, non-Jewish Italians.105 The German occupation led to the immediate formation of partisan groups, numbering 10,000 fighters by the end of 1943 and 100,000 by October 1944. Roughly half of them were Communists, and there was little overall unity or co-ordination between the others. Their activities spawned a variety of counter-organizations inspired by the Salò regime; they roamed the countryside, hunting down the regime’s opponents and carrying out bloody reprisals. SS units joined in, and in one notorious incident on 24 March 1944 they rounded up 335 people, including seventy-two Jews, in Rome, took them out to the Ardeatine caves, a labyrinth of early Christian catacombs, made them kneel down, and shot them all in the back of the neck as a reprisal for a minor partisan attack the day before. Other massacres followed, all of them with the same pretext, including one in which 771 people were shot at Marzabotto. Altogether, it has been estimated, nearly 45,000 partisans were killed in shoot-outs with Fascist or German police, paramilitary, SS and army units, and nearly 10,000 people were executed in reprisals.106 Among the partisans caught up in these actions was the young industrial chemist Primo Levi, who had fled to the Alpine foothills to avoid arrest and then joined a group that called itself ‘Justice and Liberty’. Captured by Fascist militia, he admitted to being Jewish and was taken to the internment camp for Jews at Fossoli, near Modena, and thence to Auschwitz, where he survived for several months thanks to his knowledge of German and the help of a fellow Italian prisoner. In November 1944 Levi was transferred to Monowitz, where his scientific expertise was put to use on the buna project. After the war, Levi’s reminiscences and reflections, gathered in his book If This Is a Man and other publications, attracted worldwide attention for the detail and subtlety of their eyewitness account.107

Meanwhile, Allied troops continued to fight their way slowly up the peninsula. In their path lay the Pontine marshes, which Mussolini had drained at huge expense during the 1930s, converting them into farmland, settling them with 100,000 First World War veterans and their families, and building five new towns and eighteen villages on the site. The Germans determined to return them to their earlier state, to slow the Allied advance and at the same time wreak further revenge on the treacherous Italians. Not long after the Italian surrender, the area was visited by Erich Martini and Ernst Rodenwaldt, two medical specialists in malaria who worked at the Military Medical Academy in Berlin. Both men were backed by Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage research organization in the SS; Martini was on the advisory board of its research institute at Dachau. The two men directed the German army to turn off the pumps that kept the former marshes dry, so that by the end of the winter they were covered in water to a depth of 30 centimetres once more. Then, ignoring the appeals of Italian medical scientists, they put the pumps into reverse, drawing sea-water into the area, and destroyed the tidal gates keeping the sea out at high tide. On their orders German troops dynamited many of the pumps and carted off the rest to Germany, wrecked the equipment used to keep the drainage channels free of vegetation and mined the area around them, ensuring that the damage they caused would be long-lasting.108

The purpose of these measures was above all to reintroduce malaria into the marshes, for Martini himself had discovered in 1931 that only one kind of mosquito could survive and breed equally well in salt, fresh or brackish water, namely anopheles labranchiae, the vector of malaria. As a result of the flooding, the freshwater species of mosquito in the Pontine marshes were destroyed; virtually all of the mosquitoes now breeding furiously in the 98,000 acres of flooded land were carriers of the disease, in contrast to the situation in 1940, when they were on the way to being eradicated. Just to make sure the disease took hold, Martini and Rodenwaldt’s team had all the available stocks of quinine, the drug used to combat it, confiscated and taken to a secret location in Tuscany, far away from the marshes. In order to minimize the number of eyewitnesses, the Germans had evacuated the entire population of the marshlands, allowing them back only when their work had been completed. With their homes flooded or destroyed, many had to sleep in the open, where they quickly fell victim to the vast swarms of anopheles mosquitoes now breeding in the clogged drainage canals and bomb-craters of the area. Officially registered cases of malaria spiralled from just over 1,200 in 1943 to nearly 55,000 the following year, and 43,000 in 1945: the true number in the area in 1944 was later reckoned to be nearly double the officially recorded figure. With no quinine available, and medical services in disarray because of the war and the effective collapse of the Italian state, the impoverished inhabitants of the area, now suffering from malnutrition as well because of the destruction of their farmland and food supplies, fell victim to malaria. It had been deliberately reintroduced as an act of biological warfare, directed not only at Allied troops who might pass through the region, but also against the quarter of a million Italians who lived there, people now treated by the Germans no longer as allies but as racial inferiors whose act of treachery in deserting the Axis cause deserved the severest possible punishment.109

III

The Allied invasion of Italy was made possible by what had by now become a complete Allied domination of the Mediterranean Sea. In 1942-3 the British and Americans were able to land their armies in North Africa, Sicily and Italy with impunity. The German and Italian navies were unable to attack them. During the 1930s, Hitler had intended to build a large surface fleet, but the fate of the relatively few ships that had been constructed by 1939 was not encouraging. Early in the war, the British Royal Navy outmanoeuvred the German pocket battleship Count Spee and forced it to scuttle off the coast of Uruguay. Another Royal Navy unit boarded a German prison ship, the Altmark, off Norway on 16 February 1940 and freed 300 captured British sailors. More German ships were destroyed in the invasion of Norway, as we have seen. The German navy never managed to build an aircraft carrier, so aerial attacks on British shipping were limited by the range of land-based bombers. Aircraft based in Norway did attack convoys en route for Russia’s ports in the Arctic, but they were in short supply. The damage had to be done by German ships. So the commander of the German navy, Grand Admiral Raeder, sent out capital ships to attack the British. But they met with mixed fortunes. A new battleship, the Bismarck, sank the British cruiser Hood and badly mauled the battleship Prince of Wales, but it was located by a British flying boat and sunk on 27 May 1941. The pocket battleship Lützow was torpedoed on 13 June 1941, while the battleshipsScharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by British mines while slipping through the English Channel on their way from France to Norway early the following year, and were effectively put out of action. A British commando raid on the port of St Nazaire destroyed the only Atlantic dock capable of repairing the one remaining battleship, Tirpitz, which was repeatedly attacked in its Norwegian bolt-hole until it was hit by a British mini-submarine raid in September 1943 and then put permanently out of action by bombing. The lessons were clear. Conventional naval forces would not succeed. Grand Admiral Raeder, who had continued to advocate surface attacks throughout this period, was summarily dismissed on 30 January 1943 and replaced by Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the submarine fleet, who only just managed to dissuade Hitler from decommissioning all the German navy’s remaining big ships and using their guns for coastal defence.110

Hitler had in fact long since focused resources on the construction of U-boats. But, in the early part of the war, hampered by shortages of essential raw materials such as copper and rubber, and by the concentration of resources on planning for the land invasion of France, the ambitious plans of Dönitz to construct 600 U-boats had stood no chance of being realized. In fact, only twenty were built between the outbreak of the war and the summer of 1940. The infiltration of a submarine into the British naval base at Scapa Flow, where it sank the battleship Royal Oak, was a spectacular propaganda coup. But far more serious was the fact that the U-boats, few in number though they were, immediately launched submarine attacks on Allied shipping in an attempt to disrupt supplies. They were helped by their success in breaking the codes into which the British encrypted their radio transmissions. By March 1940 they had sunk nearly 680,000 tons of British shipping. This caused serious alarm in London. Yet this was only a fraction of the total. Losses, breakdowns and lengthy periods in port for repairs meant that there were only twenty-five U-boats operating in the Altantic by the summer of 1940. This was nowhere near sufficient to cut off Britain’s transatlantic supply lines.111

As well as being few in number, German submarines were also not much more technically advanced than they had been in the First World War. They still had to sail mostly on the surface, where they moved slowly and could easily be spotted by enemy planes; diving was only possible for relatively short periods of time. They were also disadvantaged by their lack of air reconnaissance support, so that they had to find the ships themselves. The British set up a convoy system almost immediately, providing destroyer protection for vulnerable merchant ships. Scanning the horizon anxiously for the tell-tale columns of smoke from British ships rising faintly over the horizon, German submariners had to take visual aim before releasing their torpedoes. Diving was a defensive tactic, a last-resort measure undertaken to evade the attentions of the accompanying destroyers and their depth-charges. It was easy to be spotted, and only a few losses among the U-boat fleet would severely damage the attempt to destroy Britain’s seaborne supply lines.112A really major construction campaign might have given the U-boats the upper hand. They were far cheaper to build than surface warships. Hitler ordered the rate of construction to be stepped up to twenty-five submarines a month in July 1940. But the effects were slow in coming through. By the end of the year, an observer like the intellectual soldier Hans Meier-Welcker was forced to admit: ‘We cannot break English sea-power.’113 Other, more senior, figures agreed. A short time afterwards, Hitler changed priorities back to the army, and by March 1941 only seventy-two additional submarines had been delivered. Over the same period, the twenty-odd U-boats cruising the Atlantic at any one time none the less managed to sink more than 2 million tons of British shipping. However, the convoy system was then reinforced, and the British succeeded in deciphering German radio codes, so that losses had fallen to below 100,000 tons a month by the summer of 1941.114

In the first months after war was declared on the USA, German submarines lurking off the American coast and around the Caribbean took advantage of the Americans’ failure to dim the lights of coastal towns to sink large quantities of supply ships setting out across the Atlantic without armed naval escort. By the end of August 1942, 485 ships had been sunk, totalling more than two and a half million tons. For most of 1942, until it was finally broken in December 1942, a new German cipher prevented the British from decoding naval messages while the Germans for their part were able to decipher British radio traffic. In November 1942 alone 860,000 tons of Allied shipping were sunk, 720,000 of them by submarines. By this time, the number of U-boats at sea had increased from twenty-two in January 1942 to more than 100. Already on 27 June 1942 the Arctic convoy PQ17, carrying military supplies to the Soviet Union, had been largely destroyed by German planes and submarines with the loss of twenty-six out of thirty-nine ships after the naval authorities in London had ordered it to scatter in the erroneous belief that the battleship Tirpitz had left port to attack it. Many lessons were learned from this debacle, and after a short break the Arctic convoys resumed in September 1942, this time with a greater degree of success. However, attempts to bomb the shipyards where the U-boats were built and the harbours where they rested proved a costly failure. The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’, as it was dubbed, reached a climax in the first four months of 1943 in a series of hard-fought engagements between convoy escorts and German submarines, of which there were now more than 120 in the North Atlantic.115 The outcome seemed in the balance.

But the British were able to decode German naval signals traffic again from December 1942 and route their convoys away from the waiting U-boats.116 The submarines were forced to search for Allied convoys mainly by sailing in loosely knit groups (‘wolf-packs’) which converged when one of them spotted the enemy. Shore-to-ship radio traffic with the convoys was also intercepted by the German navy from 1941 until June 1943, when a new code was introduced, thus helping the submarines find the convoys or at least work out where they were heading. But the radio signals used by the wolf-pack U-boats to communicate with one another were intercepted by the convoy escort ships. The submarines could not send and receive radio signals while submerged, and when under water they could only move very slowly, so they spent most of their time on the surface, making them vulnerable to location and attack. Under water, they could be located by echo-sounding and damaged by depth-charges. Submarines generally attacked from the surface and at night, so the convoy escorts developed a searchlight system to locate them. From 1943 small aircraft carriers accompanied the convoys. This made a huge difference, not least to the Arctic convoys. In February 1943 for the first time the Allies, above all the Americans, were building more ship tonnage than the Germans were sinking. By May 1943 U-boat losses were running at one a day and submarine commanders were becoming reluctant to engage the enemy. On 24 May 1943 Admiral D̈nitz conceded defeat and ordered the submarine fleet to move out of the North Atlantic. U-boats continued to be constructed in substantial numbers, new, more advanced types were commissioned, and the war at sea continued, but the threat to Allied supplies across the Atlantic and through the Arctic Ocean was never really significant again.117

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