Kriegsmarine U-boats between 1935 and 01 September 1939 (Part 2)
Port calls in foreign countries
The new U-boats of the Kriegsmarine carried out several visits to foreign ports during their training and exercise journeys. As mentioned above, U-boats participating in the embargo operations during the Spanish Civil War did also call at other than Spanish ports, such as Lisbon or Tanger.
In early 1937 U 28 and U 35 executed a long range training mission into the wider Atlantic Ocean and called at Ponta Delgada at the Azores from the 22nd to the 27th of January 1937.
A former crew member of U 31, Able Seaman Fritz Hennemann, describes in his book (see literature) apart from the employment of U 31 in the Spanish Civil War a long range navigation journey of the boat after its second mission to Spain ending in early June 1938 from Cadiz to Casablanca, Marocco, to Cape Town, South Africa up to Toliara at Madagascar and return via Mocambique and Cadiz, to arrive at Wilhelmshaven in December 1938, with replenishment at Mocambique by German Motor Vessel Wilhelm Schulz and a rendevouz with U 32.
This journey is not documented anywhere else. A simple time/distance calculation makes that trip even more doubtful and would constitute a seamanship masterpiece by the crew to sail the longest leg of the journey “single-handed” and without any further support from Mocambique to Cadiz over a distance of 6,178 nmi, as the maximum distance for Type VII A U-boats like U 31 and U 32 was 6,200 nmi at 10 kn. Also, the Commanding officer of U-31 changed at Wilhelmshaven from Kapitänleutant Rolf Dau to Kapitänleutant Johannes Habekost on 08 November 1938, when U 31 was still underway according to the memories of Fritz Hennemann. Notwithstanding, this story pops up occasionally in literature. Shortly prior the begin of World War II U 26 and U 27 called at Reyjavik, Iceland from 21 to 27 July 1939.
The U-Flottila “Weddigen” with several boats visited Helsinki, Finland from 06 to 12 August 1937, accompanied by its support tender Saar.
U-boats during political activities of the leadership of the German Reich
Some of the political activities of the national-socialistic leadership of the German Reich were supported by U-boats through deploying to assigned waiting areas in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, because the possible reaction by other nations had to be taken into consideration, using the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine as part of the supporting measures of the German Armed Forces.
This was the case for example during the re-occupation of the Rhine and Ruhr Area by German Armed Forces in March 1936, and also in March 1938, when the Republic of Austria was integrated in the German Reich. In December 1937 a directive by Hitler to the German Armed Forces was given to prepare the occupation of the Republic of Chechoslovakia in support of the “Solution of the issue of the population of German origin (“Sudeten”) in the western and northern part of the country”. This directive was confirmed on 21 April 1938, however, an occupation was not executed then because the political initiative for that failed in May 1938. The military planning for the occupation of the “Sudetenland” (The western and northern area of Chechoslovakia) as claimed by the German Reich had to be finalized by 01 October 1938, the day German Forces actually marched into Chechoslovakia.
Mobilization planning and preparation for attack of Poland on 01 September 1939
In September 1939 the 57 U-boats of the German U-boat Force commissioned until then were assigned to the training unit of the U-boat School, established at the end of 1936 at Neustadt/ Holstein at the Baltic Sea (U 1, U 2, U 3, U 4, U 5 and U 6, plus temporarily U 7, U 8, U 9, U 10, U 11 and other boats from the frontal flotillas) as well as to a total of 6 frontal flotillas. The 1st U-Flotilla “Weddigen” at Kiel (U 7, U 9, U 11, U 13, U 15, U 17, U 19, U 21 and U 23) operated the first Type II B U-boats, whereas the 2nd U-Flotilla “Saltzwedel” at Wilhelmshaven (U 25, U 26, U 27, U 28, U 29, U 30, U 31, U 32, U 33, U 34, U 35 and U 36) operated the Type I A U-boats plus the Type VII A U-boats.
The 3rd U-Flotilla “Lohs” at Kiel (U 8, U 10, U 12, U 14, U 16, U 18, U 20, U 22 and U 24) operated the further Type II B U-boats, whereas the 5th U-Flotilla “Emsmann” at Kiel (U 56, U 57, U 58, U 59, U 60 and U 61) received the first Type II C U-boats. The 6th U-Flotilla “Hundius” at Kiel (U 37, U 38, U 39, U 40, U 41, U 42 and U 43, with U 42 and U 43 used also for training) were the first Type IX U-boats given, whereas the 7th U-Flotilla “Wegener” formed in June 1938 at Kiel (U 45, U 46, U 47, U 48, U 49, U 51, U 52 and U 53, with U 45, U 49 and U 53 also used for training) operated the first Type VII B U-boats.
There were firm mobilization plans for the Kriegsmarine since 1938, the last version as of 01 April 1939. This plan provided for a split command of the U-boat, with a “FdU/ Führer der U-Boote West” (= Commander Submarines West) and “FdU Ost” (= Commander Submarines East). The meanwhile firm political intent to wage war against Poland (Fall “Weiß” = “Operation White”) led to a mobilization order of 15 August 1939, which planned the deployment of U-boat to assigned bases and sea areas, to be executed between 19 and 23 August 1939, in line with the opening of hostile action against Poland by the German Armed Forces initially scheduled for 26 August 1939, However, political developments caused a delay to 01 September 1939.
The re-organization of the U-boat Command was set in force on 18 August 1939. Initial assignment of the U-boats: North Sea (re-deployment to Wilhelmshaven) with U 9, U 12, U 13, U 15, U 16, U 19, U 20, U 21, U 23 and U 24, plus the school U-boats U 1, U 3 and U 4, Baltic Sea with U 7, U 14, U 18 and U 22, plus the school U-boats U 5 and U 6. Noteworthy that school U-boats were declared to be front line U-boats, only U 2, U 8 and U 10 remained exclusively school U-boats. U 14, U 18 and U 22 from the Baltic Sea U-boat forward deployed to the port of Memel (Codename: “Transport Exercise Lübeck”)
On 13 August 1939 a further 13 U-boats (U 28, U 29, U 33, U 34, U 38, U 39, U 40, U 41, U 45, U 46, U 47, U 48 and U 52) left their base. On 21 August 1939 another 4 U-boats sailed (U 26, U 27, U 30 and U 53), all bound for assigned operation areas in the North Sea, the adjacent Atlantic Ocean and the northeastern exit of the English Channel. U-27 and U-30 were to occupy waiting areas in the northern Irish Sea, whereas 5 other U-boats were patrolling the northeastern exit of the English Channel, 5 more U-boats guarding the Fisherbanks in the North Sea, 2 U-boat off Scotland and 1 U-boat west off the Norwegian coast at Utsire. In the North Sea mission “Operation Ulla” was to monitor the northeastern English Channel and the sea areas off the English eastern coast up to 0 degrees longitude.
On 25 August 1939 U 32, U 32 and U 35 left for “Operation Sweden”, which was to deny Polish Naval Forces to break through to the North Sea. At the same time U-boats from the newly formed 5th U-Flotilla “Emsmann” (U 56, U 57, U 58 and U 59) were retasked to leave the waiting position off the Polish coast for the North Sea. Despite all this, 3 Polish destroyers and 2 Polish U-boats managed to escape to Britain, and further 2 Polish U-boats made it successfully to Sweden. Notwithstanding, these wide ranging deployments to pre-planned waiting areas in execution of “Operation White”, among others also those to the Atlantic Ocean and around the British Isles, should not be considered being direct preparations for a war at sea against Britain, because at this moment in time a proviso was still valid, although some assumptions have been made then with regard to Britain as potential enemy: Only on 22 July 1939 the CINC Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, addressed the officers of the U-boat force assembled on board at aviso “Grille” at Swinemünde that Hitler had assured him war against Britain will occur by no means.
However, it was the 03rd of September 1939 when Britain declared war against Germany after its attack on Poland. Now, just two days into the war, Britain suddenly became an enemy in the war at sea, the assumptions made rather carefully only had become brutal reality.
At the beginning of World War II the German U-boat Force grown to 57 U-boats commissioned with just 22 U-boats out of 46 combat ready units being able to operate at high seas was facing a seemingly hopeless fight against the sea power of Britain and their sea lines of communication for resupply and reinforcements, years before only enormous efforts in armament measures were able to generate a U-boat Force ready to fight at least to some extent.
About two years after the inauguration of the new government of the German Reich under Adolf Hitler the development of U-boats carried out so far under some secrecy and disguising changed into open construction activities. A U-boat Force became a new component of the new Kriegsmarine. Despite all experiences gained with the employment and the significance of U-boats in the Imperial German Navy these weapon systems again was given a lower priority only in the armament program of the Navy as the construction or larger surface combatants dominated.
In contrast to that the construction of new U-boats and the training of their crews clearly did take into account the experiences gained in the war at sea in WW I. Consequently, formation und group training for wide ranging oceanic operations could be started in 1937 in the basis of excellent individual training of the crews. Many of the successes at the beginning of the U-boat war in WW II demonstrated the effectiveness of this training, the “U-boat aces” of the early years in the war at sea like Prien, Kretschmer, Schepke, Endrass and others were products of this training.
At the same time, this training revealed how focused the U-boats were prepared for offensive attack operations, in particular against possible enemy convoys, and also for clandestine mine laying operations off enemy coast. Strictly speaking, that enemy was no one else than Britain, although this assumption was put under taboo by and large until the beginning of WW II. On the other hand, the U-boat leadership brought rather early respective considerations into memoranda and paper exercises about Britain as potential enemy in a future war at sea. However, long range operations implementing “Oceanic Naval Warfare” were planned to be carried into the Mediterranean openly only against France.
While the training of crews until the beginning of the war in September 1939 resulted in a best possible combat readiness of the U-boat Force the armament program did not match that, neither in terms of technology nor in terms of number of units. With that, the military situation on 01 September 1939 was as Erich Reader noted it after Britain declared war on Germany: The Kriegsmarine including its small flotilla of combat ready U-boats only had unsatisfactory capabilities to fight Britain. This balance of powers did not change decisively throughout the war despite enormous armament and training efforts plus outstandingly brave service of the U-boat crews with many successes achieved, especially after the other great seapower joined Britain in the war at sea against Germany, i.e. the USA.
Some last remark about the myth about the U-boat armament and training program as an indicator for Hitler´s preparation of war. As early as 1937 (the famous “Hoßbach Minutes” of 05 November 1937 noting Hitler´s goals set for the leadership of the German Armed Forces) Hitler indicated to wage war not later than 1943 to implement his policy of “Lebensraum” (= territory in Europe required for Germans). The enormous armament program for the German Armed Forces followed this approach.
That was true also for the Kriegsmarine which initiated a fleet construction program of such dimensions that it would take well into the 1940ies to complete, in particular the construc-tion of large surface combatants. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine entered the war on 01 September 1939 still deep in a process of buildup, including a U-boat Force fielding weapon systems which were the classic carriers of long attack capabilities against enemy resupplies for the population and military reinforcements across the seas. If one looks individually at the Kriegsmarine´s U-boat Force, its overall situation at the beginning of war can be assessed as having generated “restricted capabilities” only in support of the preparation for war of the German Reich under Hitler, neither in terms of armament technology nor in terms of number of units. However, the answer is somewhat more affirmative if one looks at the training elements for U-boat employment in a war at sea drafted and executed by the U-boat Command under Karl Dönitz, as we clearly see a focus on training to attack convoys in the Atlantic Ocean.
Text: Peter Monte – Picture: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum
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