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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 18a - The Navy Command

AT the end of June, 1918, Admiral von Muller, the Chief of the Emperor's Naval Cabinet, informed me that Admiral von Holtzendorff's state of health made it improbable that he would be able to hold the post of Chief of the Admiralty Staff much longer. In this event His Majesty had designated me as his probable successor.

This information released me from the obligation that had hitherto prevented me from suggesting a change of organisation in the department which had directed the conduct of the war at sea. The system was a failure, was not very popular in the Navy, and our success was less than we had a right to expect. I could not very well recommend myself as head of this department, all the more so as the command of the Fleet involved personal danger, and I did not care to avoid this by getting a position on land. Even the very frank discussions which had taken place between the Chief of the Naval Staff and myself had not resulted in the full satisfaction of the demands of the Fleet. My personal relations with Admiral von Holtzendorff enabled me to speak to him without reserve. We had grown pretty intimate by serving together on the same ships at different times. We were thrown together at sea for the first time in 1884-86 on board the cruiser Bismarck, the flagship of Rear-Admiral von Knorr, when we went to West Africa, East Africa and the South Seas to visit our colonies there. After that I was navigating officer in 1895---96 in the cruiser Prinz Wilhelm, which Holtzendorff, a commander at the time, commanded on a cruise to the Far East. Later on he offered me the post of Chief of the Staff of the High Sea Fleet, which I held for two years, 1909 - 11, under his command as Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. On all these occasions I had learnt to appreciate his personality and his capacity as a leader. For this reason I was grieved at the particular cause for the change, but as the spell was broken I urged the Chief of the Naval Cabinet to accomplish it in any case.

I had no occasion to complain of undue influence or limitation of the Fleet by the Chief of the Naval Staff. But his position was not clear; he seemed to us to yield too much to political pressure. The conduct of the U-boat campaign was typical of it. Even at this moment there were serious differences of opinion as to the way it should be carried on. The forces of the Navy were scattered over the various theatres of war, and the Commanders of the Fleet could not see any necessity for this. The Fleet formed a sort of reservoir which was to satisfy all demands for personnel. Naturally there was great opposition to any withdrawal of personnel from the Navy, unless it was clearly conducive to the main aim of the war. But that aim could only be achieved by the Fleet and the U-boats, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet felt himself responsible for this.

There was no post of command superior to his, where full responsibility could be taken for the success of the conduct of war at sea. For the Naval Staff was not a Supreme Command, but an organ of the Emperor as the Supreme War Lord, which could not be bothered with details of the conduct of the war. The relation of the Naval Staff to the Navy was not the same as that of the Supreme Army Command to the Army on land. If, for instance, a plan of campaign in Roumania is carried out successfully, that is essentially to the credit of the Supreme Army Command, for it correctly estimated the strength and capability of troops and leaders, and set them a task proportionate to their abilities. In the war at sea the Naval Staff apportioned the existing ships and boats to the different fields of operation-the Baltic, the North Sea, or Flanders, the Mediterranean or foreign parts, and had to leave the officers in command there to act independently in accordance with their general instructions. On land the Supreme Command permanently controlled the war operations; this was not the case at sea. If the Fleet had been defeated in battle, no one would have dreamt of making the Naval Staff responsible, but only the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. But there was need of some body which should regulate the distribution of forces with a view to some definite end, and not leave the success of naval activities to the individual admirals in command in the different theatres of war.

The U-boat campaign had further complicated matters, because all independent officers in command had U-boats assigned to them, and the Chief of the Naval Staff had even placed certain of them, e.g. the U-cruisers, under his own immediate command. There was need of exchange among the different groups. The development ought to be regulated on uniform lines, and the experiences gained by the individual commanders in their boats, including those who specialised on the technical side, ought to be made of benefit to all. Finally, the personnel of all the new boats, at any rate all the officers and petty officers, had to be drawn from the Fleet.

That meant that the Chief of the Naval Staff must be included in the number of those commanders who were directly responsible for the conduct of the war. We felt the lack of a Supreme Command whose orders must be unhesitatingly obeyed. Our organisation in peace time had not foreseen this. In the year 1899 the Supreme Command of the Navy had been done away with, because at that time two powerful authorities, generally pulling in different directions, were detrimental to the development and building up of the Navy. The Secretary of State, von Tirpitz, did not feel able successfully to carry through the policy requisite 'For the steady development and growth of the Fleet unless it corresponded in every particular with his own convictions. The result was that the Naval Staff, which was all that was left untouched when the Supreme Command of the Navy was abolished, had been thrown into the shade, and the men appointed as Chiefs of the Staff were not for the most part such as would, in case of war, have the authority of chosen leaders, who had proved their ability as commanders of the Fleet.

When the Supreme Command ceased to exist the commanders of the Fleet demanded more and more independence. They did not pay any attention to strategic questions in peace time; tactics and development gave full occupation to their activities. The Fleet commanders' chief responsibility in the war lay in the apportionment of the most important units of the sea forces, for the aim of naval warfare is to deal the enemy Fleet a destructive blow. Success depends mainly on the skill of the leader. He must be thoroughly familiar with the handling and the capabilities of his weapon-the Fleet. How to bring about the encounter with the enemy must be left to him. Neither the place nor the time can be fixed beforehand. For in contradistinction to the war on land, the position and strength of the enemy are unknown.

Consequently it was thought that more or less indefinite general directions would suffice, which the Naval Staff had to suggest and transmit to the Fleet as orders from the Emperor, based on the Staff's strategic considerations. This had been a mistake. The organisation which had appeared useful for the building up of the Fleet in peace time hampered the ability of the Fleet in war. The war at sea grew too extensive to be carried on under the personal guidance of the Emperor, as it should have been in view of the relation of the Supreme Naval authorities to one another. Politics, technical matters, and strategy were all closely connected in this. The war against commerce also, which we had to adopt, influenced our relations with the neutrals. Technical considerations were involved in the decision as to whether we were to build submarine or surface ships, but this again was dependent on the course of our Naval strategy.

When it was realised that England did not intend to put matters to the test in a battle, then the time had come to institute a Supreme Command; all the more so when, towards the end of 1914, the views of the Commanders of the Fleet, the Naval Staff and the Secretary of State upon the course we should pursue were all divergent. Energetic measures should then have been taken to provide the Navy with the leadership it required. Grand-Admiral von Tirpitz himself was the most suitable person, for the Fleet would have willingly subordinated itself to him, although he lacked actual experience in handling it. That, however, was not a point of the greatest importance, as the Fleet Commander had that experience. The point was to co-ordinate and make use of all the forces which could contribute to the achievement of the Navy's aim.

The fact that the Grand Admiral was not appointed Supreme Commander of the Navy was no doubt in part due to the differences between him and the Chancellor. These grew more acute owing to our vacillating policy in the U-boat campaign. When Tirpitz was no longer allowed to exercise his influence in all-important questions touching the conduct of the war, and he was not consulted as to the decision with regard to the U-boat campaign in March, 1916, he, who had worked so admirably in organising our Fleet, felt compelled to resign.

As the war was prolonged it became more difficult to provide personnel and material for all the new exigencies; our warfare extended to far distant parts, and there was a danger of diluting the forces collected in the Fleet. The harder our task became, the more the difficulties that were put in our way. There was delay in the repair of ships and U-boats, in the delivery of new vessels, in the fulfillment of urgent demands and improvements. The 'Auxiliary Service Law was not calculated to increase the power of production of the workpeople, and this also suffered from the deterioration in food. It cost endless trouble to obtain from the Army Command technical workmen who were badly needed. Naturally urgent Army needs had the preference. But convincing representation of the needs of the Navy might have met with success in many cases, for goodwill and understanding were certainly not lacking in the sister service.

Between the Admiral in command of the Naval Corps, the officer in Supreme Command of the Baltic, and the Fleet, absolute understanding and the most friendly spirit prevailed whenever help was asked for. But that was a lengthy way of arranging matters, and was an insufficient substitute for a Supreme Command that could overlook the whole situation and give orders accordingly.

The gradual decline in the monthly sinkings accomplished by the U-boats filled one with anxiety. Many a U-boat with a splendid and experienced commander did not return. The new commanders had to gain experience under considerably less favourable conditions.

Day by day the commanders of the Fleet noted down the positions of every single U-boat; its departure and return were followed with care and suspense. All our thoughts centred on finding ways and means to keep up the standard of their achievements and to increase them. There was never a day when we were at sea that the commanders of the Fleet did not discuss this with the officer in command of the U-boats ' and his Staff of picked professional men. We felt that we were responsible for the attainment of such an end to the war as had been promised to the German people, and that we could achieve it by this means alone. The Fleet was animated by one sole idea we must and will succeed. Every single vessel, battleship, torpedo-boat, minesweeper, cruiser and airship, with their crews-all were permeated with the gravity and importance of this task which 1 impressed on officers and men on every occasion. New forces must be found which would under- take to complete the work, which threatened to be a failure when handled as hitherto by the Naval Staff and the Naval Cabinet.

A change of Secretary of State (Admiral von Capelle) seemed also very desirable. It was not to be expected that a man who was convinced that he had done all that was humanly possible would pledge himself, without reserve, to carry out new proposals which would bring him into opposition with his previous conduct of affairs.

It had taken six months of urging, from July, 1917, to December of the same year, before a central organisation for U-boats - the U-boat Office, demanded by the Fleet Command - had been instituted. Such was the delay in carrying out demands or suggestions as the case might be whether they referred to personnel, armament, or technical matters pertaining to ship-building and so on; the working of the different departments was inadequate for the needs of the times.

Though I was bound to the Fleet by such close ties, yet I was ready to take over the post of Chief of the Naval Staff, provided that in that capacity I should have definite powers of command. The Chief of the Naval Cabinet objected that the Emperor would never consent to give up the Supreme Command - a point on which I never insisted - but his doubts were not justified. For the Emperor consented to the request without hesitation. It was of course understood that the Supreme War Lord should be informed of the general trend of matters and of important projects, and that his consent should be obtained thereto. The practice hitherto followed of giving orders in the Emperor's name on matters outside His Majesty's sphere of interest was rather derogatory to the dignity of the Imperial Supreme Command. This incident proves how little foundation there was for some reports as to the Emperor's attitude, reports which emanated from those in his immediate entourage, and easily led to unpleasant decisions being kept from him.

I had such an experience when commanding the Fleet in January, 1917. The matter in question was the design of a new first-class battleship. I happened to be in Berlin for a consultation at the Admiralty, and the Emperor had commanded my presence when the Secretary of State made his report, the Chief of the Naval Staff also attending. The Secretary of State brought two designs for the projected ship, a so-called battleship-cruiser; that is to say, a ship which should combine the qualities of both kinds of ship-gun-power, power of resistance and speed.

Unless such a ship were of gigantic dimensions none of these qualities could be fully developed. This was the reason why up till then two distinct types had been built; the cruiser, with powerful guns, and high speed attained at the expense of its power of resistance, and the battleship, with the most powerful guns, and great powers of resistance at the expense of its speed.

The Emperor had repeatedly stated that he considered it necessary to merge these two types in one; hence these designs. The principle of the ship uniting all these qualities was to be accepted, but a choice was to be made between the two designs for carrying this into effect. The Chief of the Naval Staff and the Secretary of State were of opinion that the Emperor would not budge from what they supposed to be his attitude towards the matter, and they urged me to submit to it. But I had expressed myself to the contrary beforehand, and I repeated my arguments. The Emperor was soon convinced by our war experiences that we must continue to have two types of fighting ships with different speeds, and the Secretary of State thereupon received orders to have new designs made on the old lines that had proved successful-much to the gratification of his Chief Constructor.

Nor was it ever my experience that the Emperor rejected unpleasant information. In the two months of September and October, 1918, the unfavourable reports far outnumbered all others; His Majesty. always received them with the greatest calm and common sense.

If I had foreseen the rapid development of events I would have preferred remaining with the Fleet rather than organising the conduct of the war at sea, for my plans never reached fulfilment. Nor do I think it impossible that I might have succeeded in making the Fleet obey my orders and exert its full powers at the eleventh hour. My only excuse for this lack of foresight lies in the fact that my observation of the spirit of the crews was based on the undiminished readiness to undertake any warlike enterprise which they had always shown up to then, and further that no hint of the widespread disintegration in our domestic conditions ever reached the leaders of the Fleet from any reliable political source, just as little as it reached the Admiralty later on.

On July 28 I was summoned to General Headquarters at Spa; Admiral von Holtzendorff had again, on the advice of his doctor, asked His Majesty to relieve him of his post, and his request had been granted. At the same time a decision was to be reached as to whether the U-boat campaign should be extended to America. The Naval Staff had urgently recommended the declaration of a blockade of the American coast, as this was a necessary preliminary to carrying out a successful U-boat campaign. As the chief ports concerned all lay on a strip Of 300 nautical miles in length, it was thought that it would be easier to get at the traffic there. The troopships - the immense supplies that went from America to the Western theatre of war, and the large amount of coast traffic from South to North America were to be attacked there.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs made strong Objection to the declaration of this blockade. If Chile and the Argentine were thereby also induced to join the Entente, Spain would follow, and that was the only country that still protected German interests abroad. Quite apart from the political reasons urged by the Foreign Secretary, I did not think it probable that any good could result from extending the war to the American coast; for the declaration of a blockade entailed vigorous and decisive warfare. We could not count on stationing more than three boats there until the end of the year. No great success could be expected from that, especially as there was the added risk of the long voyage out. Moreover, to carry the war over to America would open prospects of an extension of the war that were out of proportion to our strength. Ours was a war of defence in Europe. America's interference in this quarrel was contrary to all her best traditions. No doubt there were a great number of intelligent Americans who did not approve of America's taking part, when they calmly and impartially considered the circumstances that had led to the world-war. Perhaps they remembered their own subjection - the manner in which England, their Mother Country, had deprived them of freedom, and how they had fought for their independence and successfully gained it with German assistance. If American troops were injured off the French and English coasts that was but the inevitable result of American interference in European quarrels.

But the feeling against us in that country would be very different if we began an enterprise which we had not the power to carry through successfully, and which must have an unnecessarily irritating effect. Three U-boats off the American coast could effect no essential amelioration in the results of our U-boat campaign. The decision in that campaign would be reached simply and solely by reduction of tonnage, and it must be sought in the main blockade area round England.

The officer commanding the U-boats was quite of my opinion that every possibility of adding to the achievements in this area must be made use of. From all the seas ships crowded to the British Isles. It was easier to deal an effective blow there than to follow the far-reaching trade routes, and try to attack them at their points of departure. And if an American transport now and then fell a victim to a U-boat on setting out from the American coast, that would not ward off the danger which threatened us from that source. It would be very easy for the transports to get through the dangerous strip near the coast by night, or to gain the open sea at any time under protection. We had learnt in the Franco-British blockaded area, where all the trade routes of the oceans meet, how difficult it was to pick out the transports from among all the other shipping for attack. If, for that purpose, we directed our main attention to the southern ports of France, as had been tried several times, the traffic was simply diverted as soon as the U-boat danger became manifest, and our U-boats were stationed there in vain, and achieved no results in the war against commerce. It was only by concentrating our activities on the main area round England that we could ensure success by sufficiently intensifying the ever-growing lack of means of transport, the effects of which were evident in so many directions. The French ports were not, however, left unmolested, and the minelayers in particular were busy there. The increase in the number of seaworthy and efficient U-cruisers that could stay at sea for months ought to bring more success in our activities against English convoy traffic. They were able to seek the convoys far out at sea, to keep in touch with them, and call up a considerable number of U-boats, as soon as their sphere of activity was reached. Hitherto the attempts at co-operation between the smaller U-boats without U-cruisers had been a failure because of the lack of suitable boats to lead them.

We had long desired to apply to the U-boat war the principles of scouting and keeping in touch, which were applied by the surface warships. Now we had the opportunity to do so, and we must not let it slip by diverting the boats suitable for this purpose to a far distant field of operations. That was the decisive factor which induced me to oppose the declaration of a blockade of the American coast, and the scheme was accordingly abandoned. The Supreme Army Command did not care what means the Navy used, so long as it achieved success. Their desire to have more transports sunk could only be realised by raising the total number of sinkings. The U-boat must attack whatever happened to come within range of her tubes. Naturally the enemy protected the transports especially well, and took them through the danger zone at times which were most awkward for the U-boats.

The greater the number of steamers sunk the more likelihood there was that a transport would be sunk. We should more quickly attain our end with the U-boat campaign by keeping the blockaded area round England and the coast of France under the greatest possible pressure than by extending the blockaded area to include the American coast.

August 11 was the date fixed for me to take over the affairs of the Naval Staff. Before that I had to take leave of the Fleet. I had to hand over the command to my successor and make all preparations for the organisation of the conduct of the war at sea. Admiral von Hipper had been chosen as commander of the Fleet. His great experience in matters appertaining to the Fleet, his efficiency in all the tactical situations in which he had found himself with his cruisers, seemed to. point to him as the most suitable person to whom I could confidently hand over the weapon from which I never thought to be separated in this life. The signs of faithful affection shown to me by the Fleet made my parting no easier, but I hoped to be able to continue to serve it in my new position. I felt the parting from my Staff especially keenly. The Chief of the Staff, Rear-Admiral von Trotha, on this occasion again showed his unselfishness by giving up some very important colleagues to assist me in the Navy command. The former Chief of the Department of Operations in the Fleet, Commodore von Levetzow, who had meanwhile been promoted to the command of Scouting Division II, had placed himself at my disposal as Chief of my Staff.

I took from the Naval Staff the necessary personnel for my command under the supervision of a Special Chief of Staff, and transferred them to General Headquarters where it was possible to keep in constant touch with the Emperor and the Supreme Army Command, as this seemed most desirable to me in view of situations which demanded prompt decisions. As a substitute for the Chief of the Naval Staff, Rear-Admiral Friedrich von Bulow was appointed to supervise matters in Berlin, which dealt mostly with reports, the supply of personnel and material, and political affairs. That did not entail any real change in the organisation, but only a regrouping of the Naval Staff for the purpose of the war. The fundamental improvement lay in the powers of command that the Chief of the Naval Staff was allowed to exercise in the "conduct of the war."

On August 12 I went to the General Headquarters of the General Field-Marshal to introduce myself to him in my new capacity and to consult with him and General Ludendorff upon the situation and further plans for the conduct of the war. Both officers were much impressed with the gravity of the events which had occurred on August 8, and had placed our war on land definitely on the defensive. They both admitted that the main hope of a favourable end to the war lay in a successful offensive of the U-boats, and General Ludendorff promised, in spite of the great lack of personnel in the Army, to do his utmost to help to develop it further.

Until the necessary accommodation for my Staff had been found at Spa, and they could move there, the business of the Naval Staff was concerned with the new regrouping, and initial preparations were made for the extension of the U-boat campaign that had been planned. The results of the last months had shown that the successes of individual U-boats had steadily decreased. This reduction in successes was due mainly to the stronger and more perfect measures of defence taken by the enemy, and also to the loss of some of the older and more experienced commanders. Taking into consideration the then rate of U-boat construction, we had to expect, in spite of the steady increase in the number of U-boats, that the figures of the monthly sinkings, which had already diminished to 500,000 tons would be still further reduced. Judging by the reports as to building, it was to be feared that within a short time the newly-constructed tonnage would be greater than the amount sunk. The success of the U-boat campaign might thereby be greatly diminished. A mere defensive could not help us to tolerable peace. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary for us to develop our only means of an offensive with all the strength at Germany's disposal, so as to attain our goal - a tolerable peace. In view of the Peace Conference, it seemed also advisable for us to have a strong weapon in the shape of U-boats with which we could bring pressure to bear on our enemies.

But if we wanted to achieve great things with the U-boat campaign then the whole industrial power of Germany must be at our disposal for the accomplishment of our task. I had got into communication with the principal controllers of industry, and at a conference with them and the Imperial Ministry of Marine had drawn up the following figures as the indispensable minimum for the increase in U-boats:

In the last quarter of 1918 ... ... per month 16
In the first quarter of 1919 ... ... per month 20
In the second quarter of 1919 ... ... per month 25
In the third quarter of 1919 ... ... per month 30

When I asked the U-boat Office why in January, 1917, when the unlimited U-boat campaign was decided on, more boats were not ordered to be built than was actually the case I received the following answer:

"As a result of the decision in favour of an intensified U-boat campaign no orders for boats on a large scale were placed. In February, 1917, only the following were ordered: 6 U-boats of the normal type, 45 U-B-boats, and 3 commercial boats. The large order for 95 U-boats was not given till June, 1917."

No definite information as to the reason for this building policy was forthcoming, but it was certainly strongly influenced by the opinion of the Chief of the Naval Staff that the boats would achieve their effect within a definite period of time, and that the existing U-boats would suffice. Moreover, in the Imperial Ministry of Marine the opinion prevailed that the capacity of the workmen for production was no longer to be depended upon.


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