Military history


During the first weeks of January 1942, rumors of an Allied invasion of Norway intensified in Berlin. Doubtless the British inspired many of the rumors, partly to deceive Hitler, partly to encourage the embryonic Norwegian underground to rise up and strike, and partly to raise the spirits of all Norwegians. Given the recent Allied disasters at Pearl Harbor, Manila, and elsewhere in the Pacific, as well as the grievous British naval setbacks in the Mediterranean, the rumors were incredible. And yet Hitler seized upon each new report as though it were gospel.

As the Norwegian nightmare festered in Hitler’s mind, Raeder and the OKM drew plans to execute the Fuhrer’s order of December 29, 1941, specifying that “all ships” of the Kriegsmarine were to be deployed to defend Norway. The super-battleship Tirpitzshifted on January 15 from German waters to Norway. Although Raeder remained adamantly opposed to Hitler’s order to redeploy the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from France to Norway via the English Channel and Germany, he directed the OKM to carry it out, making arrangements with the Luftwaffe for massive air support.

Hitler’s concern over Norway reached fever pitch on January 22. During a meeting with Raeder’s chief of staff, Vice Admiral Kurt Fricke, according to the stenographer, the Fiihrer declared that Norway was the “zone of destiny” in the war. An Allied invasion of Norway appeared to be imminent. Hitler was “deeply concerned about the grave consequences which unfavorable developments in the north Norwegian area could have on the entire course of the war.” Therefore, Hitler iterated, the Kriegsmarine must employ “every available vessel” in Norway. It must “defend the sea lanes to Norway, and must dislodge with all available forces any enemy troops which have landed, entirely forgoing all other [naval] warfare except for the Mediterranean operations.” Furthermore, Hitler demanded “unconditional obedience” to all his orders and wishes concerning defense of this area and the “greatest speed and efficiency” in carrying them out.

Fricke left this meeting with the impression that Hitler had ordered that all U-boats other than those in the Mediterranean supporting Rommel were to be deployed in defense of Norway. This implied a cancellation of the U-boat campaign against America. However, on the following day, Hitler’s naval aide, Karl-Jesko von Puttkammer, telephoned Fricke to say that Hitler had noted “with satisfaction” the “mounting sinkings in American waters” and that Hitler “wanted these operations to continue.” The OKM diarist logged: “This is in significant contrast to his instructions—given only yesterday—about defending Norway.”

In view of Hitler’s satisfaction with the U-boat campaign in the Americas, the question of exactly how many U-boats were to be diverted to the “defense” of Norway and when they were to be transferred remained unsettled. Donitz doubted the Allies intended to invade Norway. So any diversion of boats to its defense would be a foolish waste of U-boats. Intent on maximizing the impact of the U-boat campaign in the Americas, he did notpress the OKM for a decision. The upshot was a complicated and extemporized commitment, which, however, was to diminish significantly the force of the U-boat campaign against the Americas.

When these discussions began, there were four boats in extreme northern Norway, basing at Kirkenes, merely 100 air miles from Murmansk. Their mission was to warn of and to repel the supposed Allied invasion and to interdict Allied shipping between Iceland and Murmansk. Operating in difficult seas and near-total Arctic darkness, three of the boats had confirmed successes in January: Rudolf Schendel in U-134 sank a 5,100-ton freighter from Murmansk-bound Convoy PQ 7; Joachim Deecke in U-584 sank a 250-ton Russian submarine, M-175; Burkhard Hackländer in U-454 sank the 1,900-ton British destroyer Matabele and damaged a 5,400-ton British freighter from PQ 8 and a 600-ton Russian trawler.

Hackländer’s attack on Convoy PQ 8, an indirect hit on the Soviet Union, was a tonic to Berlin. Apart from the sinking of the destroyer Matabele, and damage to the freighter, Hackländer overclaimed sinking a 2,000-ton freighter, damage to another 5,000-ton freighter, and heavy damage to another “destroyer.” The OKM diarist gloated that Hackländer attack served notice that the Arctic Ocean was no longer “free” to the Allies. Inasmuch as Hackländer had incurred damage requiring yard repair in Trondheim, the OKM sent a new boat, U-456, direct from Kiel to Kirkenes as a replacement, bringing the commitment of boats to Norway to five, although no master deployment plan had as yet been formulated. The four operational boats at Kirkenes patrolled off Murmansk—but none had any luck.

As the invasion rumors intensified during January, to Dönitz’s dismay the OKM directed that as many boats as possible be held on patrol in the area between Iceland and the British Isles. This order applied to thirteen new boats sailing from Germany, and three experienced boats returning from overhaul in Germany or Norway, a total of sixteen, most of which had been earmarked for patrols to North America. Some of these boats served as defensive scouts during the shift of Tirpitz to Norway; some searched, in vain, for a military convoy of “ten transports,” wrongly reported to be deploying American forces from Iceland to Scotland for the supposed invasion of Norway. The diversion of these sixteen U-boats sharply reduced the impact of the opening phase of the U-boat campaign against North America.

In addition to these sixteen boats, Ritterkreuz holder Wolfgang Lüth in the aged Type IX U-43 patrolled home to Germany for overhaul through the same area. Although the British were still reading naval Enigma in January and diverting convoys around the U-boats, Lüth found excellent hunting. He sank four ships for 21,300 tons, the second two from convoy Outbound North 55, disorganized by the heavy winter storms. Upon reaching Germany, Lüth, having sunk a total of twelve confirmed ships for 68,000 tons on U-43, relinquished command to a new skipper. Although he could have selected virtually any desk or training job in the Kriegsmarine, like Prien, Kretschmer, Schepke, Lemp, Endrass, and other Ritterkreuz holders, Lüth elected to return to combat—in a new boat.

One of the thirteen newly sailed boats, U-213, commanded by Amelung von Varendorff, Prien’s second watch officer at Scapa Flow, was a curiosity: an improvised minelayer, designated Type VIID. Six of these boats (U-213 to U-218) had been ordered after the start of the war. They were basic VIICs into which a 32-foot mine compartment had been spliced immediately aft of the control room. The compartment contained five silos, each designed to hold three vertically launched SMA anchored or moored mines, with 770-pound warheads. The addition of the mine compartment enabled the designers to incorporate more fuel saddle tanks, giving the VIIDs an extra fifty-six tons of oil, extending the range of these boats by 1,600 miles beyond that of the regular VIIC (8,100 versus 6,500). However, the SMA mine proved to be defective, and pending a redesign the OKM had barred its use, releasing the VIIDs for torpedo operations, for which they were also well equipped.

Four of the newly sailed boats patrolled close to two seaports of Iceland, Reykjavik and Seidisfjord. Off Reykjavik on January 29, Ernst Vogelsang in the U-132, who had made an Arctic patrol in the fall, attacked a “destroyer” which was towing a disabled freighter into port, firing all four bow torpedoes. Some hit and the “destroyer” was severely damaged. She was taken under tow by a British tug, Frisky, but capsized and was sunk by gunfire from the new American destroyer Ericsson. In reality, the ship was one of the 327-foot, 2,200-ton Treasury-class Coast Guard cutters, Alexander Hamilton, which had come across as part of the escort of convoy Halifax 170. She was the second—and largest—American warship after Reuben James to be sunk by a U-boat. Twenty-six of her crew perished. While an American destroyer rescued her survivors, another new destroyer, Stack, jumped on U-132 and inflicted such heavy depth-charge damage that Vogelsang was forced to abort to France. Although numerous American warships had claimed kills of or damage to U-boats, Stack was the first American vessel to do harm to a U-boat. Repairs to the U-132 kept her out of action for the next four months.

Most of the newly sailed boats patrolled in the Northwest Approaches or close to the Faeroes and Shetlands. This familiar territory was more perilous than ever. Apart from the saturation air coverage mounted by Coastal Command aircraft fitted with ASV radar, the British had twenty-five escort groups, comprised of 205 ships (seventy destroyers, sixty-seven corvettes, sixty-eight sloops, etc.), based in ports in the British Isles. Most of these ships were equipped with Type 286 meter-wavelength radar, and many had the superior Type 271 centimetric-wavelength radar.* Some were being fitted with High Frequency Direction Finders (Huff Duff).

None of the U-boats found any signs of the supposed Norway invasion forces, but on January 26, Alfred Manhardt von Mannstein in U-753, ten days out on his maiden patrol, ran into part of a convoy, Outbound North 59, which had scattered in a winter storm. He alerted Kerneval and attacked a tanker, but missed, and a “destroyer” of the escort group counterattacked U-753. Von Mannstein reported that the “destroyer” dropped only two depth charges but these had caused serious internal damage. Furthermore, the “destroyer” had “run over” the boat (in an apparent attempt to ram) and caused damage topside. As a result, von Mannstein reported, U-753 was no longer “seaworthy” and he was forced to abort to France. Dönitz directed six other boats to this convoy, but none made contact. Thus the sixteen boats diverted to the “defense of Norway” in January sank only one confirmed ship, the Coast Guard cutter Alexander Hamilton.

One of the six boats directed to the scattered Outbound North 59 was Otto Ites in U-94. Newly sailed from Germany after an overhaul, the boat developed mechanical troubles, as a result of which Ites was returning to Germany. Homebound on January 30, Ites radioed Kerneval that while ventilating his electric torpedoes, he had discovered that due to an air leakage, “excessive pressure” built up in the torpedo balance chamber containing the depth-setting controls, possibly causing the controls to make the torpedoes run deeper than set. Ites’s message arrived in Kerneval at the very time the staff was puzzling over the very large number of torpedo failures reported by the first wave of boats to North America. Although it was known that a great many of these failed torpedoes had not been ventilated, Donitz logged, the leaking balance chamber might account for many. Consequently, as an interim step, he immediately forbade all boats at sea to ventilate torpedoes, and relayed news of the discovery to the Torpedo Directorate, with a demand for new and urgent tests.

As it turned out, the twenty-three-year-old Otto Ites had discovered the last major defect in the standard electric torpedo. Three weeks later the torpedo technicians confirmed the leakage and, pending a redesign of the balance chamber, recommended temporary corrective measures which would permit ventilation of torpedoes for those boats already on patrol or preparing to sail. Dönitz was simultaneously elated and furious. He and his skippers had insisted all along that the torpedoes were still running too deep, but to no avail. Now, thirty months into the war, they were vindicated, thanks to one young skipper with minimum education, a damning commentary on the state of science and engineering in Hitler’s Germany.

The correction of this torpedo defect almost at the outset of the U-boat campaign against the Americas was fortuitous, to say the least. It contributed significantly to the success of U-boats everywhere, but especially to those in the second and subsequent waves patrolling North American waters.

• • •

Hitler himself drew the formal plan for the use of U-boats to defend Norway on February 6. Altogether, he decreed, twenty U-boats were to be deployed for that purpose at all times: eight on a patrol line between Iceland and the British Isles (to interdict the supposed oncoming American invasion forces from Iceland); six in Kirkenes (to block an invasion force and to attack PQ and QP convoys in Arctic waters); and two each at Narvik, Trondheim, and Bergen, to provide a last-ditch defense against the attacking forces. In addition, the U-A and three large Dutch submarines—captured early in the war and used since at the Submarine School—as well as four “small” submarines, were to be placed on standby to ferry gasoline and other supplies to Narvik and Tromso for the Luftwaffe.

Hitler’s order coincided with a sudden onset of brutal cold in the Baltic region. The OKM diarist logged: “Never in all its history has the German ice observation service witnessed ice conditions as bad as these.” Moreover, the ice would be even worse in March, “when surface water reaches lowest temperatures.” Summing up, the ice observers predicted Baltic ice to a thickness “not yet experienced in this century,” a forecast that proved to be accurate.

The sudden buildup of thick Baltic ice was another severe setback for the U-boat arm. Over the winter nearly 100 boats coming off the ways or in various stages of workup were to be immobilized—frozen at dockside or otherwise delayed for three to four months. The majority of the seventy-eight boats commissioned in the months of November 1941 to February 1942, inclusive, did not leave the Baltic for seven or eight months.* The thirty-seven boats commissioned in March and April 1942 were Baltic bound, on average, six months. As a result, the flow of new boats to all war fronts in 1942 fell off sharply: thirteen in February, thirteen in March, eight in April, six in May.

Because of the prolonged delays imposed by the Baltic ice, it was all the more difficult to assign Type VIIs to the “defense of Norway.” Five (including U-454 in overhaul) were already in Norway, leaving a deficit of fifteen. The deficit was to be met by diverting three more of the new VIIs sailing from Germany in January, all seven of the new VIIs sailing from Germany in February, and seven of the ten new VIIs sailing from Germany in March, bringing the total to twenty-two boats. The overage compensated for the boats, such as U-454, that were in overhaul or repairing battle damage.

Inasmuch as Hitler demanded that the twenty boats for the “defense of Norway” be in place no later than February 15, and because of the Baltic ice, the order could not be met promptly with newly sailing boats, Dönitz assumed temporary responsibility for providing the eight boats for the anti-invasion patrol line between Iceland and the British Isles. He fulfilled this obligation by prolonging the patrols of some of the newly arrived January boats and by holding some of the newly sailing February boats in the area, as well as some boats outbound to and inbound from the Americas (as fuel permitted), and by sending several boats to the area from France. These holds in and diversions to the Northwest Approaches were to further reduce the number of boats in the hunting grounds of Canada and the United States.

The last major step in the naval reinforcement of Norway was the shift of Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, and Prinz Eugen from France to Norway, via the English Channel and Germany. Amid the greatest secrecy, the ships sailed from Brest the night of February 11-12, heavily supported by minesweepers, torpedo boats, destroyers, Luftwaffe fighters, and—distantly—the U-boats on the patrol line in the Northwest Approaches. From Enigma and other intelligence sources, the British were aware of the plan and had prepared a counterplan (Fuller) to sink all three ships. However, the British early-warning network (submarines, aircraft, land-based radar, etc.) broke down and Operation Fuller failed. No less than 250 British aircraft, five destroyers, and a half-dozen torpedo boats belatedly attacked the German formation in the English Channel with torpedoes and bombs, but these forces were too little and too late, a humiliating failure.

Nonetheless, the German ships did not reach Germany unscathed. In anticipation of the channel dash, the British had sown new minefields along the predicted track of the ships. Both Gneisenau and Scharnhorst hit British mines. The damage to Gneisenau was slight, but after reaching the Jade, she struck a sunken wreck that damaged her bottom and put her in drydock for what the OKM predicted to be “three weeks.” On the night of February 26-27, an RAF bomber hit her with a bomb that blew up a forward magazine and wrecked the ship beyond repair. The two mines Scharnhorst struck damaged a turret and her turbo-electric motors, delaying her transfer to Norway for what the OKM predicted to be “several months,” but which stretched to a full year.

Notwithstanding the unavailability of the two battle cruisers, the OKM proceeded with plans to shift the “pocket” battleship, Admiral Scheer, and the undamaged heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to Norway. Escorted by three destroyers, they sailed from the Jade on February 21. Tirpitz left Norway to join them for an attack on the Murmansk convoys, but one of four British submarines lying off Trond-heim, Trident, commanded by G. M. Sladen, fired a salvo of three torpedoes at Prinz Eugen and blew off her rudder and thirty feet of her stern. Sladen’s success forced the Germans to cancel the Arctic sortie and return to Norway, yet another embarrassment for the Kriegsmarine. Prinz Eugen limped back to Germany for eight months of repairs, after which she was converted to a training ship and did not again leave the Baltic.

These events reduced the big ships for the defense of Norway—and for attacking Murmansk convoys—to three: the super battleship Tirpitz, the “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer, and the heavy cruiser Hipper.

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