Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page

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

After the U-boat Office had been instituted on December 5, 1917, 120 boats were placed on order the same month, and in January, 1918, a further 220 boats. During 1918 the monthly return of the boats supplied was still influenced by the earlier building policy

January ... ... ... ... ... 3 boats
February ... ... ... ... ... 6 "
March ... ... ... ... ... ... 8 "
April ... ... ... ... ... ... 8 "
May ... ... ... ... ... ... 10 "
June ... ... ... ... ... ... 12 "
July ... ... ... ... ... ... 9 "
August ... ... ... ... ... ... 8 "
September ... ... ... ... ... 10 "

With these numbers the losses were covered, but no noticeable increase in the actual total of boats was achieved. We needed a greater number of new boats than an average of eight a month in order to raise the monthly amount of tonnage sunk to more than 500,000 tons. To a further question as to whether it would have been possible for the U-boat Office to get a larger number of boats, and if so from what quarter, I received the following reply":'

"The U-boat Office exerted itself unceasingly to obtain a larger number of boats and had only been able, with the number of workmen assigned to it, to provide for a monthly Supply Of 23 boats up to the end of 1919. The hindrance lay in the supply of workmen Although the War Office did everything possible, and the U-boat Office never ceased to urge its needs, it was not possible to obtain a sufficient supply of workmen from the Supreme Army Command, either in regard to numbers or quality."

A telegram from the Supreme Army Command in June, 1918, gave the following reason for refusal -.'

"I learn from the War Office that the Imperial Ministry of Marine has demanded the immediate supply Of 2,200 skilled workmen for the Imperial shipyards at Danzig, Wilhelmshaven, and their Reiherstieg shipyard in Hamburg, and a further supply of nearly 900 skilled workmen for October 1. The Army cannot afford to be deprived of any more workmen; the people at home must supply the Army with more and more men, but cannot by a long way cover the demand caused by losses. The most urgent need of the hour is the supply of more men for the Army. Consequently it is improbable that the country will be able to spare skilled workmen from among those employed at home. Therefore I earnestly beg that you will carefully examine the supply of workmen now at your disposal, and that you endeavour to manage as far as possible with them. I also beg you to consider the possibility of employing skilled labour from neutral countries and the occupied territories (Reval, Libau, etc.)."

As Fleet Commander, when on several occasions I tried to effect improvements in the position of the Imperial shipyards by a better supply of workmen, I met with a refusal on the ground that the necessary workmen could not be produced; and I had the impression that there was not a sufficiently close understanding between the higher Navy Commands in Berlin and the Supreme Army Command, and that in consequence the needs of both could not be so adjusted as to assure the attainment of the great end for which both were working. That was the decisive reason why I established myself at General Headquarters, so that by my constantly keeping in touch with the Supreme Army Command all the resources of the country, both in men and material, might be applied to such work as would be of the greatest possible benefit.

When the centre of gravity of the war moved to the west as a result of the events of 1918, there was no reason why those in charge of the conduct of the war at sea should remain in Berlin, and thereby give up all possibility of close co-operation. The plans of the Supreme Army Command must be made to include all possible advantages to be derived from the war at sea, and full use must be made of them. If they admitted that the U-boat offensive could gain a decisive success, then the Army could very well spare some workmen for the needs of the Navy. This was the stage we had reached owing to the force of circumstances. Of course, the Navy must first of all give up every man that could be spared for the construction and commissioning of U-boats. That could only be done if the Navy Command took ruthless action.

Despite the menacing situation on our Western Front, the First Quartermaster-General drew the necessary conclusions, as soon as it had been proved to him that it was within the range of possibility to carry out the new U-boat programme if we could depend on obtaining 40,000 to 60,000 workmen. For the next few months a considerably smaller number would suffice to ensure the more rapid delivery of the boats now under construction.

To supply the men for the new U-boats we had to draw to an even greater degree than before upon the existing personnel of the Fleet, and had to take the necessary steps at once for training the commanders and officers of the watch for U-boat service, for it took several months for them to become familiar with the technical apparatus of the boats and acquire the necessary skill in marksmanship.

All U-boats at the time in home waters, as well as the U-cruisers, were placed under the control of the Fleet. In this way the officer commanding the U-boats gained the necessary influence over the training of the whole U-boat personnel, and he had the support of the Fleet in picking out suitable men. For the Fleet now bore the chief responsibility for the carrying out, and consequently for the success of, the U-boat campaign.

In place of the Secretary of State Admiral von Capelle, who had retired, Vice-Admiral Ritter von Mann-Tiechler, hitherto head of the U-boat Office, was appointed Secretary of State of the Imperial Ministry of Marine, in view of the fact that the chief task of this office now lay in furthering the construction of U-boats; and the building of reinforcements for the surface warships, which could no longer exercise any influence on the success of the war, was either given up or postponed, so that our entire capacity in shipbuilding was devoted to this one task.

Immediately after September 10, when I and my Staff had moved to General Headquarters, an opportunity occurred of proving. the advantages of the close personal exchange of ideas, when a decision had to be made as to the handling of the Spanish question. Influenced by the Entente, the Spanish Ministry seemed inclined to abandon the correct attitude of strict neutrality which the Spanish Government had hitherto maintained; for they made demands arising from the U-boat campaign which were plainly in the interest of the Entente. The Spanish Government made a claim to seize an equivalent amount of tonnage from among the German merchant vessels in their harbours for every Spanish ship sunk in the blockaded area. We were ready to give compensation in kind for ships sunk outside the blockaded area, and so as not to distress Spain by a lack of supplies, we were willing to compensate a once and not make the payment dependent on the inquiry as to whether the ships had been justly or unjustly sunk, leaving that to the Arbitration Court. But we had to repudiate most energetically the demand for compensation for ships sunk in the blockaded area because otherwise the other neutrals would quite justifiably have made the same claim, and the successes of the U-boats would have been illusory. It would have been nonsensical for us to have given up our own ships in compensation for those which we had justifiably sunk. It was a question altogether of 875,000 tons of German shipping which in this way would have passed automatically into neutral trade that went to England, and we should have derived not the slightest advantage from it. On the contrary, there was the danger that these ships would also be victims of our U-boats.

Another proposal of the Foreign Office was equally impracticable; this was to the effect that Spain should send her ships under convoy through the blockaded area, and that these convoys should be free from attack of our U-boats. Verbal discussions between the Supreme Army Command, the Foreign Office, and the Navy Command soon produced unanimity as to the attitude to be adopted towards Spain, by which, without departing from our fundamental principle that the blockaded area must be maintained, we should not incur the risk of making Spain side with our enemies. The discussions carried on for weeks among the authorities in Berlin had led to no result. But the claims that were then raised were but the regrettable consequence of the conciliatory attitude formerly adopted in this direction, an attitude which could only lend such encouragement to just claims that it was difficult to refuse them without a danger of serious conflicts.

On September 16 and 17, I visited the sea-front in Flanders and I was much impressed with the excellence of the measures taken by the commander, Admiral von Schröder, for defence against a landing of the enemy. I also became acquainted with the arrangements for the U-boat base at Bruges. The value of this position consisted in the flank protection it afforded, which had become necessary since the fighting front extended to the coast. So that this position could not be taken in the rear by the landing of troops, the whole stretch of coast from Nieuport, at the mouth of the Yser, up to the Dutch frontier had been strongly fortified. Zeebrugge, which was connected with Bruges by a deep sea canal, was a U-boat base. As any attack on this strong position would in all probability be made mainly from the sea the occupation of these coastal fortifications had been assigned to the Navy. The land defence on the extreme right wing of the front, closely connected as it was with the coastal defences, had also been undertaken by the Navy, which had formed regiments of able seamen. The English recognised the great strength of the position and had not dared hitherto to risk battleships in the bombardment of the harbour and locks. They had built special craft for this purpose, monitors with shallow draught, and armed with a gun of heavy calibre, but these had not once succeeded in inflicting serious damage, though they had made many attempts. The naval base which had in time developed at Bruges became such a thorn in the side of the English that they did not grudge the enormous sacrifices they made in the various attempts in Flanders to break through our front in this sector.

They only attempted once, on April 22 and 23, 1918, to block the sea canal at Zeebrugge and the harbour of Ostend, and so make it impossible for our U-boats to get out. But this attempt was a failure. The attack, which was made with great pluck under the protection of artificial fog, found our guards at their posts. Two old light cruisers, that had penetrated as far as the mouth of the canal, were sunk before they reached their actual goal-the lock gates, which were uninjured. It was found possible for the U-boats to get round the obstruction, so that connection between the harbour at Zeebrugge and the shipyard at Bruges was never interrupted even for a day.

Another cruiser, the Vindictive, whose commander had succeeded with great smartness and seamanlike skill in laying alongside the Mole, landed a detachment Of 400 marines, who were ready on the deck with scaling ladders; but this enterprise also met with no success. After suffering heavy loss, he was obliged to withdraw; only 40 men had been able to get on the Mole, where all, with the exception of one captain and 12 men, were killed in a fierce fight.

The Brilliant and the Sirius, which were dispatched against Ostend at the same time, did not attain their object, but stranded in flames east of the Mole. An English submarine succeeded in reaching the bridge of the Mole at Zeebrugge, and in blowing up the framework, so that for a time the outer end of the Mole was disconnected from the land. The object was to cut off the garrison on the Mole from all assistance from land, but this, too, was a failure, thanks to the courage of those in command of the guard.

Complete safety from such surprises is impossible of attainment, for it is difficult for those in the coastal fortifications lying farther back to be in time to overcome ships which come at night through the mist. But we had to count on a repetition of such attempts. The defences of the Mole therefore were strengthened so that a fresh attempt would probably have met with as little success. We did not lay mines farther out to sea to stop vessels from approaching, for this would have endangered our U-boats.

Although at the time there were no signs that a land, attack was imminent, in view of the general situation, we had to reckon with the possibility that the defences which our land front afforded to the U-boat base might be broken through, because we had very slight reserves at our disposal. All the more so when the enemy realised that for the next period of the war we intended to concentrate mostly on our U-boat offensive. The loss of Bruges would have been a very disagreeable blow to the U-boat campaign, especially as the assistance we received from the shipyard there, employing 7,000 workmen, would no longer have been at our disposal. The U-boats, however, could have set out from the North Sea, so that at a pinch we could have got over the loss.

Hitherto the U-boats in Flanders had been responsible for 23 per cent. of the total results. They had sunk 3,342,000 tons in all, which does not include sinkings due to mines.

On my return on September 18 I had a conference with General Ludendorff on the subject of the danger with which the position in Flanders was threatened. I was informed that the situation at the front would probably make an abandonment of the position in Flanders necessary. Under the arrangements made by the Naval Corps such a withdrawal would take eight to fourteen days if the valuable supplies of war material and shipyard fittings were to be saved. The Supreme Army Command could not undertake to give warning in good time, and as the danger did not appear imminent, the Navy Command decided to take the risk of losing this material (in case a hurried retreat were necessary) so as to carry on the U-boat campaign from Flanders as long as possible. The Supreme Army Command undertook to inform us in good time of any indications which might point to the necessity of abandoning the position. We took care not to increase the stocks there, but only to keep them up to the level that was absolutely needful.

In the course of September the discussions with employers of industry and the shipyards were continued, to ascertain whether it would be possible to carry out the extended programme of U-boat construction. On September 24 the Ministry of Marine informed the Naval Command that the possibility of carrying it out had, on the whole, been established.

In view of the greater importance that now attached to the U-boats, seeing that they were to give a favourable turn to the end of the war, I suggested to His Majesty that he should visit the U-boat School at Kiel. His Majesty accordingly left General Headquarters on September 23 for Kiel, and on the 24th he inspected first the torpedo workshop, and then the establishment of the Imperial shipyards, which had been very considerably enlarged for the purposes of the U-boat war.

At the beginning of the war the torpedo factory at Friedrichsort had been the only place where our torpedoes were manufactured; but during the war the engineering works (formerly L. Schwartzkopff) in Berlin, which in earlier years had also manufactured torpedoes, was converted into a torpedo factory, as were other works as well. Under the direction of the Chief of the Torpedo Factories, Rear-Admiral Hering, the enormously increased demand for the manufacture of torpedoes was fully satisfied, so that the supplies of the Fleet and of the torpedo-boats were kept at the requisite level. Moreover, they succeeded in making considerable improvements. The ships of Squadron II ("Deutschland" class) and the older torpedo-boats built at the same time, were still armed with torpedoes which had a charge of 120 kilos of gun-cotton, a range Of 2,200 m. and a speed of 24 knots. But most of the ships now carried a torpedo Of 50 cm. calibre with a range of 10,300 m., and a speed of 28 knots. In the newest ships, like the Baden and Bayern, the range was still greater, as much as 16,500 m. with a speed Of 25½ knots and the calibre was increased to 60 cm. The explosive charge of these newest torpedoes was 250 kilos of a material that had three times the explosive power of gun-cotton.

The U-boat School was established at Eckernforde. Its object was to familiarise the new U-boat crews with the handling of their boats and their armament, and especially to train them in marksmanship. The crews of all newly-commissioned boats were first sent to the U-boat School for a time to obtain practice in the military tasks with which they would be confronted. The Bay of Eckernforde was particularly suitable for diving practice, because of its uniformly great depth. Moreover, in consequence of its remote situation, there was little traffic there, and it was not, like Kiel Harbour, shut in by barriers, the passage of which always entailed a certain loss of time. In the large basin of Kiel Bay, which lay before the school, practice attacks on a large scale and in war conditions could be carried out. Special convoys were formed which were surrounded by guardships on the English model; the ships were painted in the manner which in course of time had been adopted by English ships to deceive the marksmen at the periscope. The ships were painted in all sorts of extraordinary colours, so as to deceive the observer, both as to the size and the course of the steamer, and hence to lead to bad aim in shooting.

At the time there were over 200 officers in training there, who were to find employment on U-boats as commanders and officers of the watch. The school was conducted by Commander Eschenburg, who succeeded remarkably well in imparting an excellent training to the men of the U-boats which were so precious to us, and ensuring the greatest possible number of hits with the torpedoes they carried. He achieved this in spite of the small number of boats at his disposal, because, of course, everyone was eager to make use of really well-equipped boats at the front.

The impression which His Majesty received of his visit of inspection was reflected in his address, before he departed, to the assembled commanders on board the school ship. He was clearly deeply conscious of the gravity of the task he had to impose on this band of courageous and self-sacrificing men, when he expressed his conviction that the Fatherland would not be disappointed in the hopes that must be put in the U-boat commanders. Involuntarily one thought: Morituri te salutant. None of us had the vaguest notion that the situation in the war on land was such that the cessation of all hostilities would soon be urged, and that in a few weeks the U-boat campaign would be abandoned.

On the return journey to General Headquarters, via Berlin, we received news, the day after starting, that the Bulgarian Front had broken down. This roused the gravest fears as to the steadfastness of our other Allies, and meant that our southern front was endangered. This news induced His Majesty to proceed to Spa on the morning of September 29 after staying for a short time in Cassel.

On the journey to Spa I met the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and he informed me that the situation had become extremely serious, and that a decisive conference with His Majesty as to what further measures should be taken was to be held that very morning. Although I expressed to him my desire to take part in this Conference, I was not present, and only learned in the afternoon what had taken place. General Ludendorff informed me that the Supreme Army Command had announced to His Majesty that the situation demanded the immediate initiation of negotiations for an armistice and peace. The Chancellor would deal with the consequences arising therefrorn which would affect home politics.

We had no detailed conversation on the subject. I knew what the feelings of the General must be. After years of glorious battles to be confronted with this result as the end of those activities that he had pursued with such an iron will ! I therefore contented myself with such information as immediately concerned the Navy.

The points to be considered were the withdrawal from Flanders and the carrying out of the big U-boat programme. To retain Bruges for the U-boat campaign was not to be thought of. On the other hand, General Ludendorff was in favour of keeping to the plan of strengthening the U-boat weapon. The threat it contained might be useful for securing the armistice desired by the Army, as it would be useful in case of a refusal, when all our powers would be strained to the utmost.

Thereupon I at once went to His Majesty to secure his consent to our withdrawing from the U-boat base in Flanders, and our adhering to the design of building more boats. His Majesty gave his consent.

Considering the very grave decisions which the Emperor had had to face this day, His Majesty's bearing was admirably calm and steady. When the questions relating to the Navy had been disposed of, he spoke to me somewhat as follows:

"We had lost the war. He had hoped that God would ordain otherwise, and he hoped that the German nation would stand by him loyally. The Army and the people had behaved splendidly but unfortunately the politicians had not. The Imperial Chancellor had informed him that he must go. His Majesty, therefore, had requested Count Roeden and the Chief of the Cabinet, von Berg, to suggest a new Chancellor. It would be difficult to find the right man. The new Ministry would have to be formed on a broader basis, and representatives of the parties of the Left would have to be admitted to it."

The same evening orders were sent to the Naval Corps to abandon Flanders as a U-boat base, and to carry out the evacuation according to Plan; the Supreme Army Command would reckon on the evacuation of Flanders step by step; for the present there was no intention of giving up Antwerp.

A meeting had been arranged for October 1 in Cologne, with representatives of industry and of the shipyards. The Secretary of State of the Imperial Ministry of Marine, Ritter von Mann, and Colonel Bauer, representing the Supreme Army Command, also attended. Everyone agreed that it would be possible to carry out the extended U-boat programme, so long as the requisite number of workmen, amounting to 69,000 altogether, was forthcoming; these men were chiefly wanted in the shipyards. For the year 1918 only 15 to 20,000 men were asked for. There was no lack of the raw materials required, but such materials as had hitherto been used for other purposes, e.g. bridge-building in Roumania, would henceforth not be available for work of that character.

The representative of the Supreme Army Command declared that the Army was ready to further the undertaking with all the means at its disposal.

I did not feel myself called upon to make any statement on the changed situation on the Army front, but I pointed out that all those in charge of the conduct of the war were unanimous in their desire for us to adhere to this plan, whatever events might occur on the Army front, for the collapse in the South-East might well have serious consequences for us.

On October 5 the new Imperial Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, sent a Peace Note to the President of the United States, and a Commission for Armistice negotiations was set up by the Navy Command, which was to deliberate with the Commission appointed by the Supreme Army Command under the chairmanship of General von Gundell. Rear-Admiral Meurer was appointed chairman of the Naval Commission, and Captains Vanselow and Raeder and Lieutenant-Commander Kiep were added to it.

In an interview that I had with General Ludendorff on October 6 to determine the general lines on which our common deliberations should be conducted, I asked him what concessions the Supreme Army Command was prepared to make in order to obtain the Armistice, saying that I presumed that these would not go so far as to make it impossible for us to resume our arms in case of need. General Ludendorff fully confirmed this. The Supreme Army Command would consent to an evacuation of the occupied territory in the West by stages, and would accept as the first stage the line Bruges-Valenciennes, and as the second a line from Antwerp to the Meuse west of Namur. The Supreme Army Command could not accede to a demand to give up Metz to the enemy. The Imperial Chancellor had wished to make further concessions, but had agreed to the Supreme Army Command's proposal in view of the technical difficulties involved.

The important question for the Navy was whether the U-boat campaign was to cease during the Armistice. As the Foreign Office declared that without this concession no armistice could possibly be concluded, I declared my readiness to stop the U-boat campaign during the Armistice, but emphasised the point that in return for this we must obtain other concessions in the shape of the return of valuable shipping lying in neutral ports and supplies of raw material and food. The continuance of the blockade would be unfair if we stopped the U-boat campaign.

As regards the disposal of the Naval Corps, the following plan was arranged: those sections which could be employed in the field, viz. the regiments of able seamen and marines, as well as the transportable batteries of the marine artillery, were to be placed at the disposal of the Army; all the other men were to return to the Navy.

Thus the Naval Corps in Flanders ceased to exist. It had been instituted under the leadership of Admiral von Schröder on September 3, 1914, and played an honourable part in the taking of Antwerp on October 10, 1914. The General Command had its headquarters at Bruges. The infantry of the Naval Corps consisted of three regiments of able seamen and the marines. The latter in particular had played a distinguished part in the great battles in Flanders in 1916 and 1917. The sea-front was guarded by regiments of marine artillery. Thirty guns of the heaviest calibre had been set up there, among them five Of 38 cm., four of 30.5 cm., and besides them a large number of quick-firing guns of from 10.5 to 21 CM. calibre. Hitherto they had repelled every attack from the sea.


  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.