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Classified Command Matters!
Officer currier only!
Report of the Commander in Chief, Navy, to the Führer on 6 June 1941, at the Berghof.
For "1" and "2" only the Führer
Afterwards Chief of the OKW [Generalfeldmarschall Keitel]
Kapitän zur See von Puttkamer
1. The course of the BISMARCK operation is discussed. See Annex 1.
The Führer inquires why the Fleet Commander [Admiral Lütjens] did not return to port after the engagement with the HOOD.
The Commander in Chief, Navy, replies that a break through the northern straits would have been a far more dangerous undertaking than a withdrawal to the Atlantic. The Fleet Commander was doubtless trying to achieve this as long as his fuel supplies permitted, in the hope of shaking off shadowers and finally making for St. Nazaire. Tankers were available in the Atlantic. A return break-through to the north would have incurred great risk of attack from numerous planes and light naval forces. The Fleet Commander's original intention of making a big detour before setting course for St. Nazaire is indicated by the fact that he hoped to draw the enemy across the line of submarines established by Group West and the Commander in Chief, U-boats, on 25 May. This plan had to be given up when it became clear that the loss of oil was too great to permit such a detour. Even the suggestion from Group West (Radiogram 1842 of 24 May) to lie low for some time in a remote area after shaking off the enemy could not be followed.
The Führer inquires further why the BISMARCK did not rely on her fighting strength and attack the PRINCE OF WALES again in order to destroy her after the HOOD had been sunk, even if it meant an all-out fight. Even if this had led to the loss of the BISMARCK, the final score would have been two British losses against one German one.
The Commander in Chief, Navy, replies that the BISMARCK re-engaged the PRINCE OF WALES on 24 May in order to make the withdrawal of the PRINZ EUGEN possible. After the HOOD sank, however, the PRINCE OF WALES carefully retired out of effective firing range, just as the other heavy enemy ships evidently did later. (The BISMARCK's speed is only 28 knots.) Furthermore, the Fleet Commander had to keep his main object in view, that of "damaging enemy merchant shipping", as long as the BISMARCK and PRINZ EUGEN were in a position to do so. Had he forced an action with the PRINCE OF WALES, he would have had to count on severe damage even if he were successful, which would have interfered with operations against merchant shipping. His task was to fight only when the enemy prevented him from attacking merchant shipping. If it had not been for the fatal hit in the steering gear, in all probability the BISMARCK would have reached the area in which the German Air Force would have provided effective support and could have carried out repairs in St. Nazaire. Seen in retrospect a defeat of the PRINCE OF WALES would naturally have been a greater achievement than the BISMARCK's heroic sinking without having accounted for a second enemy ship.
2. See Annex 2 for considerations concerning continuation of operations by surface forces against merchant shipping in the Atlantic.
3. See Annex 3 concerning declaration of extended or new zones of operations.
4. Permission to wage warfare against U.S. merchant shipping according to prize regulations is discussed. (See Annex 2, conference of 20 April 1941).
With reference to "3" and "4", the Führer is of the opinion that for the time being no change should be made in the present situation.
The question of searching American merchant ships is to be postponed until units of the fleet are sent to operate in the Atlantic.
5. Considerations with reference to the strategic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the further conduct of the war in this area are discussed. (See Annex 4.)
Re "5": The Commander in Chief, Navy, makes a very brief summary of Annex 4. He requests that the Italian Naval Staff should be pressed to intensify attacks on British supply routes with light naval forces, and to improve protection of Italo-German supply lines. The transport of supplies in fast vessels via Greece and Crete to Benghazi and Derna should be organized.
The Führer approves a meeting between the Commander in Chief, Navy, and Admiral Riccardi on this matter. He will write to the Duce to facilitate this. He suggests that old torpedo boats, etc., be converted for fast transport of ammunition, etc. They would have only anti-aircraft armament; the transport would take place during the day with good air support and reconnaissance.
The Chief of the OKW has discussed the withdrawal of Italian submarines from the Atlantic with the Chief of the Italian Armed Forces. Both reasons necessitating this were given: Our own need of Bordeaux, and the need for Italian submarines in the Mediterranean.
6. Special items: The Führer sanctions release of an official report concerning the BISMARCK operation.
7. The Führer permits that Admiral Feige be informed of the general plan for operation "Barbarossa" so that he can take the necessary measures for withdrawing valuable personnel.
Besides achieving considerable tactical successes, the first operation of battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in the Atlantic from January to March 1941 and the operation of the cruiser Hipper, confirmed the fact that such use of surface vessels has far-reaching strategic effects. These effects were not restricted to the waters chosen as the zone of operations, but extended in widely diverging directions to other theaters of war, that is, also to the Mediterranean and the South Atlantic.
Hence naval warfare had to attempt to preserve and intensify the effects of the initial operations by repeating similar operations as frequently as possible, making the most of the experiences gained. In view of the decisive significance which British supplies in the North Atlantic have for the outcome of the war, German naval warfare can most effectively achieve its object only right in the North Atlantic. The strong battleship escort of enemy convoys encountered during the first battleship operation in the Atlantic made it impossible for the German battleships of the Gneisenau type, with their comparatively light armament, to attack. However, it seemed possible to undertake attacks on convoys with battleship escorts in an operation of the battleship Bismarck, with her particularly powerful armament. The plan was to engage the enemy escort by gunfire from the Bismarck; at the same time the second warship was to attack the merchant ships of the convoy. In such an event the Bismarck was not, however, expected to destroy equally strong enemy ships in an all-out-effort; she was to attempt to hold them in a delaying action, during which she was to preserve her own combat strength as far as possible.
The operational directive of the Seekriegsleitung thus specifically emphasized that the main object of these operations was the destruction of enemy merchant shipping; attacks on enemy warships were to be undertaken only if the main task necessitated them, and if they could be carried out without incurring too much risk.
The lessons of the first battleship operation were fully respected during the planning and direction of the operation. Before the operation we thoroughly examined the question of whether it was practical in the present situation to postpone sending the Bismarck into the Atlantic until the second 35,000 ton battleship, Tirpitz, was also ready. In agreement with the opinion of the Fleet Commander, we rejected a further postponement of the battleship operation, as the time when the Tirpitz or the Scharnhorst would again be ready for action was too uncertain, and it was strategically most undesirable to put off any longer participation by surface vessels in the Battle of the Atlantic. In addition, it was to be expected that the appearance of the task force in the Atlantic would have considerable diversionary effect and would thus relieve the Mediterranean theater.
On 26 April at the conference at the Seekriegsleitung, the Fleet Commander emphasized the importance of reconnaissance for the success of the break-through; ice conditions and enemy patrols in the Denmark Strait must be investigated and observed. He requested that the number of planes, fishing vessels, and submarines available be increased for this purpose. We were in complete agreement with the Fleet Commander regarding the operational procedure of the task force.
The mission stipulated by Group West in the operational directive for operation "Rheinübung" was as follows: Enemy supply traffic in the Atlantic north of the equator was to be attacked. The operation was to last as long as the situation permitted. The route out to the Atlantic was through the Great Belt, the Skagerrak, and the Norwegian Sea. The ships were to attempt to break through unobserved. Even if the break-through into the Atlantic were observed, the mission remained as defined in the operational directive. It was left to the discretion of the Fleet Commander to shorten or break off the operation as the situation developed. According to the Group's directive the main aim throughout the entire operation was the destruction of the enemy shipping. As far as possible they were to shun risks which would jeopardize the operation. Hence they were to avoid encounters with ships of equal strength. If an encounter were inevitable, then it should be an all-out engagement. For the return to harbor the directive contained instructions that if the operation proceeded normally the ships were to put into the French west coast only if no extensive repairs were necessary, or if the condition of the ship or the enemy situation excluded any other possibility. For longer overhaul or repairs the ships were to return to home waters or as an alternative put into Trondheim.
As heretofore, the first portion of the undertaking, that is the break-through into the Atlantic, if possible unobserved, was regarded as the most difficult part of the operation. Previous experience had shown that enemy forces might appear in the Denmark Strait as well as in the Iceland-Faroes Strait. Under suitable weather conditions it was considered certain that there would be enemy air reconnaissance in the Denmark Strait. The lightness of the nights made an unobserved break-through all the more difficult. On the other hand we could expect that air reconnaissance over the northern part of the North Sea would provide an adequate picture of the enemy's disposition, and that in the Denmark Strait, at the ice border, poor visibility would favor the break-through. Since so far it had not been established that British ships are equipped with radar, as a matter of fact, observations made so far seemed to indicate that they definitely were not so equipped, and unnoticed break-through was feasible.
A certain amount of risk is involved in every break-through into the Atlantic. We had to run that risk, if German naval warfare were not to give up entirely the idea of disrupting British supply lines by means of surface forces.
3. Course of the Operation.
Originally the beginning of the operation was planned for the end of April, but on account of damage to the coupling on the Prinz Eugen and repairs to the crane on the Bismarck it was postponed twice and finally fixed for 18 May. The intention of joint operations with the battleship Gneisenau had to be abandoned because of severe damage inflicted on this ship by bombs and torpedoes in Brest.
The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen put out from Gotenhafen the evening of 18 May. Two supply ships and five tankers were waiting at various points in the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic to supply the operation. To improve the operational chances of the task force, two scouting vessels were sent out from the Atlantic coast into the Atlantic. All these ships succeeded in breaking out from coastal waters into the open ocean without difficulty. Four submarines wee en route to their positions for operating in conjunction with the task force on the North Atlantic convoy route. In contrast with these extensive preparations for the operation in the Atlantic itself, the possibilities of support during the outward passage through the Norwegian Sea and the Iceland area were very limited, since our naval air forces were numerically few and were inadequately equipped, and since the Luftwaffe has very few powerful long-range reconnaissance planes. The chances of carrying out extensive air reconnaissance in the remoter areas, such as the Denmark Strait and the area between Iceland and Greenland, were extremely slight. On the other hand, reconnaissance covering the entire central and northern parts of the North Sea and close air cover and fighter escort in coastal waters would give full protection on the first part of the outward voyage.
19 and 20 May. During 19 and 20 May the task force, protected by minesweepers, planes, and submarines, proceeded without incident and according to plan through the Great Belt, the Kattegat, and the Skagerrak and on the evening of 20 May lay off Kristiansand South.
The enemy situation was deemed favorable. On the morning of 20 May photographic reconnaissance located the main body of the British Home Fleet with two battleships (apparently of the King George class), the battle cruiser HOOD, an aircraft carrier (possibly Victorious), six cruisers, and several destroyers in Scapa Flow. No enemy forces were sighted in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. Weather conditions handicapped the Focke-Wulf 200 in reconnaissance and in investigation of ice conditions north of Iceland. The drift ice border north of Iceland was about seventy to eighty miles away. The flight was broken off fifty miles northwest of North Cape in low-lying fog.
21 May. At 0900 on 21 May the group put into Kors Fjord near Bergen according to plan. There they refueled during the day and kept out of sight of the enemy. From British radio reports it was clear, however, that the enemy had learned that our battleships had put out to the north. Early on 21 May radio intelligence intercepted enemy radio instructions, in which at 0620 planes were ordered to keep a look-out for two battleships and three destroyers reported to be proceeding on a northerly course. Group North, in charge of the operation, concurred with the Seekriegsleitung in the opinion that the enemy received this information from agents in the Great Belt. It was not clear whether the intensified enemy air reconnaissance along the Norwegian coast, caused by this report, had picked up the task force early on 21 May before its entry into Kors Fjord or in the Fjord itself. Our own observation yielded no conclusive evidence on this point, but the possibility did exist. According to a British Admiralty report of 27 May, planes of the coastal command are supposed to have sighted the Bismarck group on the Norwegian coast off Bergen; however, this announcement might have been a deliberate invention, in order to avoid compromising the agents on the Great Belt and the Norwegian coast.
The report on sighting German battleships led to intense reconnaissance activity by the enemy's 18th Reconnaissance Group during 21 May, further intensified towards evening and at night. Our own radio reconnaissance located enemy planes over the northern parts of the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Norwegian coast, and the Faroe Islands area. On the other hand radio traffic of the British Home Fleet did not point to anything out of the ordinary. Ground and high fog unfortunately prevented planes sent out over Scapa Flow from completing reconnaissance which should have observed any outward movement of the enemy ships. The investigation of the ice situation and reconnaissance in the Denmark Strait also had to be abandoned.
At 2300 the Fleet Commander with his group put out of Hjelte Fjord to continue north. A few hours later several enemy planes flew over the islands near Bergen and dropped flares in their search for the German task force.
In the evening of 21 may it was clear from his air activity that the enemy knew that the Bismarck group had put out to sea, but he was obviously uncertain of its position. There was no indication in radio traffic that naval forces were being sent out.
Actually from the British announcements of 27 May it can be deduced that as early as 21 May the British Admiralty took certain measures to strengthen the patrol of the Denmark Strait and of the sea area south of Iceland. It can be assumed that the heavy cruisers Norfolk, commanded by Captain Phillips, with Rear Admiral Wakewalker on board, and Suffolk, commanded by Captain Ellis, received orders as early as 21 May to take up positions for observation in the Denmark Strait. The orders to the units concerned escaped our notice, as the enemy was able to send them out as early as 21 May by telegraph.
22 May. On 22 May the Fleet Commander proceeded according to plan through the Norwegian Sea. The escorting destroyers were dismissed off Trondheim. With the exception of continued brisk enemy air reconnaissance activity over the north and central parts of the North Sea, nothing unusual was observed in enemy radio traffic. Our own air reconnaissance did not sight any enemy forces in the North Sea or in the Norwegian Sea. Unfortunately weather conditions made that planned photographic aerial reconnaissance of Scapa Flow impossible; however, a partial visual reconnaissance in the afternoon supposedly located four battleships in Scapa Flow, one of them presumably an aircraft carrier, six cruisers, and several destroyers. On the basis of this reconnaissance report Group North came to the conclusion that there had been no change in the enemy disposition after 21 May. Hence this report was a decided relief to the operational control and to the Fleet Commander, who was on the point of undertaking the break-through.
Group North thought that the Bismarck task force would take advantage of the fog and break through into the Atlantic as soon as possible, but as a precaution made preparations for refueling from the tanker waiting in the Norwegian Sea.
In the evening of 22 May the prevailing impression was that in spite of his knowledge that the Bismarck task force had put out, the enemy was still uncertain about the passing of the group through the Shetlands-Norway narrow. There was no sign that any naval forces were being sent into operation, and indeed, according to the air reconnaissance over Scapa Flow, such an operation could definitely be ruled out. The Fleet Commander decided, in view of the unusually helpful hazy weather combined with the apparently favorable enemy disposition, to forego refueling in the Norwegian Sea and to wait no longer, but rather to undertake the break-through via the Denmark Strait at once. The Fleet Commander was confirmed in his purpose by Group North, who radioed the favorable disposition of the enemy. Group North also called attention to the great successes of the Air Force against the British forces in Crete, and pointed out that if the fleet were to appear on the Atlantic routes soon, additional severe damage might be inflicted on British sea power.
If the visual reconnaissance in Scapa Flow in the afternoon correctly observed the actual situation, it must be presumed that the British forces, including the Prince of Wales, the Hood, and the Victorious, left Scapa Flow in the evening of 22 May and proceeded at high speed to take up waiting positions in the area southwest of Iceland.
23 May. On 23 May the Fleet Commander proceeded north of Iceland to break through via the Denmark Strait. The weather conditions were extremely favorable for his purpose: East wind, overcast, rain, moderate to poor visibility. At times visibility went down to 200 meters. Cruising speed of the group was 24 to 27 knots. Air reconnaissance over Scapa Flow was impossible because of the weather. Again on 23 May the investigations of ice conditions in the Denmark Strait had to be abandoned.
At first there was nothing unusual to be observed in the enemy radio traffic, with the exception of an operational radiogram through blind transmission intercepted at 1254. This message, however, did not give any direct indication of enemy operations.
At 2015 the evening of 23 May, the cruiser Norfolk contacted the Bismarck group at the ice border in the Iceland Strait (quadrant AD 29), and reported it on a southwesterly course. The distance was about 11,100 meters. There was a brief encounter without results. In spite of very poor visibility conditions, due to fog, snow and hail, the enemy succeeded, obviously by the use of efficient radar sets, in maintaining contact with the Bismarck group. The Fleet Commander reported [later] that the range of British radar sets was 35,000 meters. The task force was unable to shake off the enemy in the fog. Two enemy ships, Norfolk and Suffolk, kept contact throughout the night and reported all movements of the Bismarck group by reconnaissance signals.
In addition, radio interception picked up various urgent operational messages, which pointed to the commitment of heavy enemy forces. The course of the Bismarck group was given by the enemy as varying from 240º to 220º, speed 28 knots.
Considering the general evaluation of the enemy disposition, the encounter with an enemy cruiser patrol in the Denmark Strait to a certain extent came as a surprise to the Fleet Commander, but owing to the complete calm in the enemy radio traffic there was no reason to suppose that any extensive enemy operation was under way to prevent a suspected German advance into the Atlantic. When cruisers Scheer and Hipper made a break-through via the Denmark Strait on their return from the Atlantic, they had also noticed heavy cruisers on patrol and were able to elude the enemy in good time. Hence on sighting the heavy cruiser there was no reason for the Fleet Commander to break off the operation and retire to the east, especially as the very poor visibility made the chances for maintaining contact or for using reconnaissance planes seem very small. But what was most surprising, and of decisive importance for further course of the operation, was the probability, established for the first time, that the enemy possessed evidently excellently functioning radar equipment. This eliminated entirely the advantage of poor visibility for the break-through of the task force, and prevented a swift escape from the enemy.
24 May. At 0543 on 24 May the battle cruiser Hood (Captain Kerr), flying the flag of Vice Admiral Holland, and the battleship Prince of Wales (Captain Leach) made contact with the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen. A running fight at a range of between 20,800 and 18,000 meters developed. Of the enemy ships, the Hood was ahead, the Prince of Wales astern. Both ships concentrated fire on the Bismarck The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were proceeding in column. Both ships opened fire on the Hood, which was leading. She received several hits, and five minutes after the engagement began a hit on the stern, probably in the magazine aft, blew her up. Hydrophone observation enabled our ships to avoid several torpedoes from the Hood. After the destruction of the Hood both ships concentrated fire on the Prince of Wales. After certain hits from both ships had been observed she turned off amid clouds of black smoke and then was lost from sight for several hours. The Bismarck fired only 93 rounds from her main battery. The Bismarck received two hits from the Prince of Wales, one of them a low shot beneath the side armor in section 13-14, the other in section 20-21. As a result the Bismarck's speed was reduced; she went down by the bow 1º and the oil tanks were pierced, consequently leaving very strong traces of oil. The maximum speed of the Bismarck was 28 knots. In spite of several near hits, the Prinz Eugen did not suffer any damage.
After the victorious engagement the Fleet Commander continued to proceed south. The position at 1400 was in quadrant AK 11, which is about 240 miles east of the southern tip of Greenland. The Prince of Wales made off for the time being and the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk maintained contact, which was later resumed by the Prince of Wales also. At noon the Fleet Commander announced his intention of making for St. Nazaire and of releasing the Prinz Eugen to carry on warfare against merchant shipping. If no further engagement ensued, he planned to withdraw during the night.
In the evening Group West sent a radio message (Radiogram 1842) agreeing with the Fleet Commander's proposal to send away the Prinz Eugen to take part in the war against merchant shipping, and expressing the opinion that in case the Fleet Commander is able to elude the enemy, it would seem expedient for the Bismarck to wait for some time in a remote sea area.
The task of shaking off the enemy was obviously made more difficult by the reduced speed, the enemy's long-range radar sets, and the heavy traces of oil resulting from the hit. It is not known whether after the engagement the Fleet Commander considered the possibility of turning back to the north or the east towards Norway, or what was responsible for his decision to put into St. Nazaire. Presumably the Fleet Commander thought that the chances of throwing off the enemy were much better in the south than in the north, and in particular his fear of enemy destroyers and planes, especially planes from the carrier Victorious, probably led him to rate the danger in the southern area as less than in the northern area.
Group West, directing the operations from Germany, intended in agreement with the Seekriegsleitung, to move our forces so as to draw the enemy forces into our submarine operational area. Preparatory orders were given to the submarines and to the Fleet Commander, who himself suggested assembling the submarines that were in the west in quadrant AJ 68 for an attack on the heavy enemy forces at dawn on 25 May. During 24 May the Fleet Commander did not succeed in throwing off the contact which the enemy, apparently using very good radar sets, very skillfully maintained on the edge of the horizon. At 1944, in the evening, when visibility was very poor, the Bismarck again advanced to attack the Prince of Wales and the shadowing cruisers and thereby enabled cruiser Prinz Eugen to withdraw to refuel and to carry on warfare against merchant shipping. The Fleet Commander failed in his subsequent attempt to escape during the fog, since the enemy maintained contact with the Bismarck by radar. In the evening growing fuel difficulties arising from the loss of oil forced the Fleet Commander to decide to make straight for St. Nazaire. For this reason the plan for the attack by submarines next morning in the rendezvous quadrant unfortunately had to be abandoned.
In the meantime the enemy had succeeded in bringing up additional British naval forces. Constant reports from the shadowing forces made it possible to send torpedo planes from the carrier Victorious (Captain Bovell) to attack the Bismarck.
At 2238 came the first torpedo attack by the carrier planes on the Bismarck, which was evidently unsuccessful. The attacks were repeated in the course of the evening, and towards midnight, as reported by the Fleet Commander at 0028, there was a torpedo hit on the Bismarck. It had no effect on the ship's combat readiness, but possibly caused a further reduction in her speed. According to survivors' statements the torpedo attacks were carried out by twenty seven carrier planes; of these apparently five were shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire. Only one plane is supposed to have reached the carrier again, according to information presumably obtained by the ship's radio intelligence service from the carrier's radio traffic. As according to the Admiralty report the attack was carried out from a great distance, it is highly probable that there were plane losses, particularly since there were no air attacks on the following day.
As the submarines in the west could no longer contact the enemy on the Bismarck's present course, five submarines which were en route to or from the zone of operation were ordered to take up positions in a line across the course of the Bismarck between BE 64 and BF 44.
Preparatory measures were taken for reconnaissance and escort planes and light naval forces to meet the Bismarck in the coastal waters of the Atlantic coast. Long-range air reconnaissance far to the west was ordered for 25 May.
The Prince of Wales, which since the first encounter early on 24 May had kept at a very great distance from the Bismarck, maintained contact throughout the night, along with Norfolk and Suffolk.
25 May. Radio monitoring fixed the time of the last enemy contact report at 0213, the location, 56º 49' N. Enemy radio continued to be busy with urgent operational and tactical messages. Evidently at this time the enemy had temporarily lost contact. However, he regained it at dawn and according to the report of the Fleet Commander at 0700 on 25 May the Prince of Wales and the two cruisers were still shadowing the Bismarck in quadrant AK 55. From the radio traffic it can be gathered that the Bismarck, presumably making use of poorer visibility, succeeded in withdrawing from the enemy at about 1100 in the morning. As before, the enemy radio traffic was extremely busy. In the course of the day and in the evening and night several urgent operational messages from the British home area and the western part of the Channel were picked up, as well as messages communicating with the H task force and with the 3rd Battleship Squadron (Canada), all pointing to comprehensive measures for searching for the Bismarck. The H task force, with battle cruiser Renown, aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and cruiser Sheffield under the command of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, had already put out from Gibraltar on an unknown course during the night of 23 May, was presumed by radio monitoring to be on convoy escort in the eastern Atlantic. Actually, on 25 May the force was on its way north from Gibraltar. According to a British Admiralty report of 27 May, the enemy, besides bringing up the H task force, committed the main strength of the Home Fleet under the command of Admiral Tovey on the battleship King George V (Captain Patterson), which advanced from northern Scottish waters to the southwest. At the same time the two battleships Rodney and Ramillies approached from convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic. The movements of the naval forces were supported and supplemented by comprehensive air reconnaissance by planes of the Coastal Command in Britain and from Canadian base on Newfoundland. At noon on 25 May the prevailing impression was that the enemy was concentrating his superior heavy forces for attack on the Bismarck in the sea area between 43º N and 52º N beyond the range of German combat planes, i.e., somewhat west of longitude 15º W. The enemy did not succeed in re-establishing contact in the course of 25 May. There could be no doubt about the gravity of the Bismarck's situation at that time, however. There was no possibility of relieving her with our naval or air forces. In view of this situation, the Seekriegsleitung suggested to the Fleet Commander to consider putting in at a harbor in northern Spain, should further developments make such action necessary. It is probable that the Fleet Commander, when he escaped from the enemy on 25 May, considered the possibility of withdrawing into the open Atlantic. If had had done so for the purpose of refueling from one of the tankers north of the Azores, the Fleet Commander might have succeeded in preventing the enemy from quickly regaining contact. Even a temporary withdrawal would have forced the enemy to stop his convoys or to resume the protection of convoy routes by means of his fast forces as soon as possible. It must be assumed that owing to the fuel situation the Fleet Commander was unable to push out into the Atlantic in such a manner, and hence was forced to proceed directly to St. Nazaire, in spite of the great risk involved in such a course. Possibly the oil traces influenced his decision also.
The Fleet Commander was confirmed in his decision by a radio message from Group West on the night of 25 May, communicating the assumption of the Group that the Bismarck would proceed directly to a harbor in western France, even if there were no longer any contact with the enemy.
26 May. The Bismarck, however, did not succeed in evading enemy contact much longer. In spite of the unfavorable weather the determined enemy air reconnaissance succeeded in renewing contact; at 1030 on 26 May the Bismarck was sighted by a Catalina plane of the Coastal Command, approximately in square BE 16, 600 miles west of Land's End. Anti-aircraft gunfire from the Bismarck caused the plane to lose contact, but a little later carrier planes from the Ark Royal (Captain Maund) finally located the ship and with short interruptions maintained contact throughout the day. The weather was: Northwest wind 7 to 8, showers, varying visibility. The task of our reconnaissance planes, which set out from the Atlantic coast as planned, was rendered much more difficult by these weather conditions.
About 1115 a wheeled plane from the carrier Ark Royal located the Bismarck and thus established contact for the H task force coming from the south. This marked the beginning of the unfortunate developments in the withdrawal of the Bismarck.
At 1115 the Fleet Commander reported his position in quadrant BE 27, 600 miles west of Brest. In the afternoon he received instructions to make for Brest, since he would not be able to pass the bar off St. Nazaire if the bad weather in the Bay of Biscay continued. Our Air Force received orders from the Reichsmarschall to safeguard the Bismarck's return passage with all forces available in the western area and to insure her protection in coastal waters. In spite of unfavorable weather conditions, for FW 200 reconnaissance planes, exploiting their full range, attempted to cover loosely the sea area between 43º 30' N and 54º N up to longitude 25º W. Other forces tried to insure an adequate survey of the northern part of the area, as far as about 19º W, and the southern part as far as 14º W. The northwest storms in the Bay of Biscay unfortunately did not allow use of the destroyers available on the Atlantic coast to relieve and later meet the Bismarck.
Throughout the day the enemy maintained contact with the Bismarck with carrier planes from the Ark Royal and reconnaissance forces from the Coastal Command. At 1620 a British plane reported the position of the Bismarck as 47º 40' N, 18º 15' W, course 120º, speed 22 knots.
The commander of the H task force sent the cruiser Sheffield (Captian Larcom) to contact the Bismarck while he himself with the Renown and the Ark Royal kept outside the range of the German Air Force throughout the day.
British reports stated that carrier planes from the Ark Royal, sent to carry out a torpedo attack on the Bismarck in the afternoon, met with no success. Obviously, due to the prevailing weather conditions the planes did not get near the Bismarck but passed her.
In the afternoon reconnaissance signals from the planes led to cruiser Sheffield to the Bismarck. At 1824 the Fleet Commander reported the Sheffield's position in quadrant BE 5311, course 115º, speed 24 knots.
The establishment of visual contact with the Bismarck by the cruiser Sheffield was of particular importance for the further course of the action, since the enemy was now in a position to direct the torpedo planes in an attack on the Bismarck.
Our Air Force was considerably hampered by the prevailing weather conditions and by the distance involved. In the afternoon the Bismarck was still outside the effective range of our bomber units. In spite of this, at 1620 air reconnaissance succeeded in locating an enemy battleship escorted by three destroyers in quadrant BE 2120, 200 miles from the position of the Bismarck, course 170º. This was the Rodney (Captain Dalrymple Hamilton) who had been diverted from convoy escort in the eastern North Atlantic to the attack against the Bismarck. No other enemy forces were sighted during the afternoon. Six of our submarines, four with and two without torpedoes, were sent as a protection northeast of the route to be followed by the Bismarck. At 1900, U48, which was in quadrant BF 71, received orders to proceed at top speed to operate against the shadowing cruiser Sheffield. The submarine did not come to the point of firing, however.
In the meantime a report from the Fleet Commander indicated that the fuel supply of the Bismarck had become still worse as a result of oil losses caused by gunfire and torpedo hits; the Fleet Commander requested information as to the possibilities for refueling. Group West thereupon made plans to send out the supply ship Ermland for refueling during the night of 26 May.
The evening of 26 May the Bismarck, followed as she was by vastly superior forces, was in a very difficult position. However, there was still reason to hope that, with her guns and engines still unimpaired, she could manage to evade attacks from torpedo planes throughout the night and could be afforded substantial relief and support in the morning within easy range of our Air Force.
The decisive turn for the worse came in the evening of 26 May. As a result of successful all-out torpedo attacks by carrier planes from the Ark Royal between 2050 and 2115, the enemy made two torpedo hits on the Bismarck; the first hit the ship astern, the second amidships. Severe casualties were caused. Survivors stated that of the thirty five attacking planes, seven were brought down by the ship's anti-aircraft guns.
The torpedo hit astern was the decisive blow; by destroying the steering gear it made the ship incapable of holding a course for our bases.
In the meantime the enemy carried out the final moves necessary to surround the ship, now most severely handicapped in maneuvering. At 2200, U556 (Kapitänleutnant Wohlfarth) in quadrant BE 5332 made contact with a battleship of the King George class and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, which passed unescorted on a straight course quite near the submarine. It was a tragic accident that just this very submarine, returning from an operation, had no torpedoes left. After a short time the submarine lost contact in a squall of rain. At 2015 a German weather ship reported a heavy cruiser of the London class at 45º N 20º W proceeding at high speed on a easterly course. Urgent operational messages, including some addressed to the commander, 4th British Destroyer Flotilla (Captain Vian) and some to the H task force, ordered the destroyers to attack and gave directions to the H task force. At 2325 the Fleet Commander himself reported that he was surrounded by the Renown and light naval forces.
According to reconnaissance and radio intercept reports, the following British vessels were in the battle area around the Bismarck in the evening:
Aircraft carrier: Ark Royal.
Heavy cruisers: Norfolk, another cruiser of the London class (probably Dorsetshire).
Light cruisers: Sheffield, and probably another light cruiser.
Destroyers: 4th Destroyer Flotilla with several modern destroyers of the Tribal class (Cossack, Maori, Zulu, Sikh). More destroyers approaching.
At 2352 the Fleet Commander reported:
A survey of the possibilities of coming to the aid of the Bismarck led to the following conclusions:
The Bismarck was 400 miles distant from Brest. In order to decrease the prospects of attack from enemy torpedo planes and possibly from enemy submarines, the ship was forced to keep moving as fast as feasible in the rough sea. This would probably use up the remaining fuel supply, already very low.
The attempt to refuel could be made only if the Bismarck were able to get in the direct vicinity of our coast, where our coastal forces, in particular the Luftwaffe, could drive off the enemy and make attack by his surface vessels difficult or even impossible. But in view of developments there was no such prospect. It seemed hopeless to try to take the supply ship through the surrounding enemy forces to the rudderless Bismarck.
Tugs were made ready to leave in case there should be a change in the situation or in the weather which would enable the ship to make for a point near the coast after all. From the point of view of seamanship it would be impossible for one of two tugs, together with the ship's engines, to restore the Bismarck's ability to maneuver.
The weather conditions still made it impossible for us to send out destroyers. Neither the Gneisenau nor the Scharnhorst could be used, sine both ships were under repair and were not ready for operations.
Hence the possibilities of supporting the Bismarck were limited to the determined efforts of the Luftwaffe and the submarines available in the Biscay area. All the submarines in question, with or without torpedoes, were sent to the supposed position of the Bismarck. In the further course of the action they found it impossible to approach the enemy and to affect developments.
27 May. According to the available reports, during the night of 26 May there were various encounters between the Bismarck and light enemy forces, whose contact reports were constantly picked up by radio monitoring. The greatly varying accounts of the course of the Bismarck revealed the fact that she was unable to steer and showed that the enemy was also aware of her complete unmaneuverability. According to observations by the submarines, which reported gunfire and star shells, and according to the reports from the British Admiralty, light naval forces attacked the Bismarck particularly between midnight and 0100 and between 0400 and 0500. The British Admiralty report that during the night attacks by destroyers of the Tribal class torpedo hits had been scored on the Bismarck, damaging the engines, was not confirmed by statements of the survivors. According to these statements the Bismarck did not receive any torpedo hits during the night, and she succeeded in sinking one of the attacking destroyers with gunfire, and set another on fire. At 0430, U74 (Kapitänleutnant Kentrat) observed three loud explosions, but was not able to determine any further details.
An enemy attempt to make a dawn attack by torpedo planes from the Ark Royal could not be carried out because of bad visibility. On the morning of 27 May we sent out all available reconnaissance planes and bombers to locate and attack the enemy forces surrounding the Bismarck. Besides the long-range reconnaissance planes of the 40th Bomber Group and the 406th Coastal Air Group, the available bomber units of the 606th and the 100th Bomber groups, as well as Bomber Group I/28 were brought into action. The planes went to the very limit of their range under unfavorable weather conditions as before. Several times the planes were able to contact the enemy and to attack the cruisers and destroyers with bombs. In spite of all-out efforts they did not succeed in affecting the action around the Bismarck.
We have no precise information about the last engagement of the Bismarck. In his last message at 0625 the Fleet Commander reported the situation unchanged, wind 8 to 9. According to the British Admiralty reports and observations from our own submarines it must be assumed that between 0900 and 1000 the heavy enemy forces engaged the severely damaged Bismarck; at the same time a torpedo attack was made by cruisers and destroyers. One of our reconnaissance planes reported that at 0945 the Bismarck was at 47º 20' N, 15º 14' W in an engagement evidently with two heavy and two light cruisers. The British Admiralty reported that the final destruction of the Bismarck was accomplished by a torpedo fired from the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire (Captain Martin).
Fighting a far superior enemy, who had concentrated all his available heavy naval forces for the attack, the battleship Bismarck went down with her flag flying between 1000 and 1100 on 27 May.
1. The sinking of the battleship Bismarck makes it advisable to reexamine the principles which have governed warfare by surface forces against the supply lines, and to establish the directives for continuation of this phase of naval warfare.
2. Probable conclusions drawn by the enemy with regard to his own measures:
The course of events has proved to the enemy that, in spite of the loss of the Hood, his procedure was correct and let to the defeat of one of his most dreaded enemies.
a. He will therefore continue to use the same procedure to prevent surface raiders from breaking through. This involves the following:
(2) As far as possible constant supervision of the departure routes through the middle and northern North Sea.
(3) On the basis of reports from (1) and (2), reconnaissance forces equipped to maintain contact with the expected enemy forces under any circumstances will be assigned to the Denmark Strait and between Iceland and the Faroes.
(4) A strong fighting force will be stationed south of Iceland as a result of the information obtained as per (1) and (2). It will operate against the enemy reported by the reconnaissance forces mentioned under (3).
(5) Aircraft carriers with their long-range torpedo planes will be committed for the purpose of breaking down the speed of the reported enemy, which is of vital importance in the chase.
Here, too, such a task force will probably employ the aircraft carrier for the purpose of tracking down enemy warships and auxiliary cruisers in the areas indicated by distress signals. Carrier planes will be used to reduce the speed or the cruising radius of the enemy. Then the carrier's reconnaissance planes will guide the enemy's forces to the target, and in this way attempt to force our ship into an engagement.
The correctness of this assumption has been demonstrated by the composition of task forces sent into the Atlantic on the appearance of merchant raiders.
3. Review of the course of events:
a. Since the commencement of hostilities the naval war against Britain has been fought with vastly inferior forces. This was compensated for only by the daring of the operations and the determination with which they were executed. All along the Seekriegsleitung has been conscious of the enormous responsibility and the great risk involved, or the means at its disposal were always completely inadequate. We were handicapped by the small number of forces, by lack of advanced bases, by too few naval air forces and too short range, by lack of aircraft carriers, and of suitable escort forces for operations by the large ships in the Atlantic. Intelligent, reliable, and extensive air reconnaissance, however, is a prerequisite for such operations conducted with inferior forces. The situation is becoming steadily worse; apart from the three new British aircraft carriers and two fast battleships just completed, additional ships of both types are under construction. From the very beginning the Seekriegsleitung asked, and was promised, that ships under construction in the British shipyards be attacked and destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Up to the present time no such operations have been included in the program or air warfare. The Commander in Chief, Navy, repeats his request that this demand should at least be met in the future. British naval power stands in the way of the realization of the Führer's plans as far as they concern the main struggle against Britain, e.g., the questions of Ireland, the Azores, supplies to Africa, etc. This power must be smashed by concerted action of all branches of the Wehrmacht, principally the Navy and the Luftwaffe, and under circumstances involving the fewest possible forces, owning to the limited means at our disposal. In the case of the new ships, this means air attacks on the shipyards where the vessels are under construction.
The Führer admits this, and promises to instruct the Luftwaffe accordingly once again.
The Seekriegsleitung was aware of the fact that with their method of naval strategy great results might develop at any time from small causes, and that no matter how carefully they directed operations from both land and sea the fortunes of war could at some time change for the worse.
The guiding principles in directing surface forces were surprise and continuous changing of operational areas. Thus, even when battleships were involved, it was true cruiser warfare, in which combat with an evenly matched enemy must always be just the means to an end.
The Bismarck-Prinz Eugen operation clearly lacked the element of surprise from the very beginning. Radio intelligence revealed that as early as 21 May enemy planes received instructions to be on the look-out for two battleships with three destroyers which had been sighted. The fact that enemy countermeasures were not suspected at once can be attributed to the lack of other indications of any kind in enemy radio traffic following that one message. We later discovered from enemy announcements that such countermeasures were started on 21 May and were obviously prepared as a complete operational order in such a way that no radio message was necessary. The fact that no photographic reconnaissance was carried out over Scapa Flow on the decisive day before the break through the Denmark Strait enabled the enemy continue with the preparation of his countermeasures unobserved.
The encounter with the enemy in the Denmark Strait can therefore be explained by the absence of the surprise element, an this again by the fact that our ships had proceeded through the Baltic approaches and the islands off Bergen, where enemy agents had the chance of making reports. It is not clear whether the enemy statement that is was a plane which sighted the formation off Bergen is true or was made with the purpose of protecting agents.
In this case the enemy was able to forego use of radio, even to report sighting enemy forces, so that the course of the operation should not be disturbed, as a matter of fact to induce us to proceed according to plan.
b. Knowing nothing of the enemy movements and considering the favorable weather, the Fleet Commander had to make the break through the Denmark Strait without delay. Any delay would have meant another refueling, causing more delay, during which the favorable foggy weather might have changed.
The discovery of the enemy in the Denmark Strait was surprising, although not alarming at first, since both the Hipper and the Scheer had encountered heavy cruisers before.
The Fleet Commander had planned to break through the Denmark Strait unobserved. The construction of radar equipment for enemy naval forces had been expected. Its first appearance in this situation, however, came as a surprise and had fatal consequences. On account of prevailing weather conditions the Fleet Commander was unable to get rid of the shadowers by using his armament, and the enemy was able to maintain uninterrupted contact by means of his radar apparatus.
The enemy's radar apparatus enables him to function under the protection of foggy weather. In the past fog had been favorable only to us in the break-through operations.
The influence which the very probable presence of enemy radar will have on naval surface strategy in the Atlantic in the future needs a through examination. On no account, however, must it be allowed to render this type of naval warfare impossible.
An apparatus for the purpose of establishing whether one's own ship is being located by enemy radar has been completed and is now to be installed.
c. The battle with superior forces showed that with luck and ability a great deal can be made of the most difficult situation, and that our battleships were equal to those of the enemy, both in their powers of resistance and in the ability of the crews. Certainly the Fleet Commander would have avoided battle had this seemed possible. The slight damage to the Bismarck, combined with shadowing enemy forces which could not be shaken off, were the first steps toward her final destruction. This fact shows that the principle of "battle only as a means to an end" also holds good for battleships. On the other hand the outcome of the engagement shows that even a single Tirpitz has excellent chances for success in attacking a convoy escorted only by one old battleship and therefore need not avoid such an encounter.
d. The successes of British carrier-borne planes and the skillful handling of the carrier during the course of the pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck have demonstrated the value of aircraft carriers in large-scale operations. If an aircraft carrier of our own had been included in the Bismarck task force, the whole picture might have been entirely different.
4. Lessons learned from the events.
a. If the narrows on either side of Iceland are to retain their value as outlets to the Atlantic, an even greater effort than hitherto will have to be made to retain the element of surprise when breaking through. The longer the passage to these outlets, the smaller will be probability of keeping it secret. It would therefore seem expedient that ships intended for warfare in the Atlantic, if operating from home waters, should not be sent out from the German Bight or the Baltic, but should be moved to Trondheim if possible several weeks beforehand, in order to be able to make the speediest possible break-through under cover of suitable weather conditions.
Departure from the bases on the west coast of France will always be easier than through the Iceland straits. This fact practically outweighs the danger from the air in these bases, especially when the threat from the air has been diminished by appropriate measures of every kind. The situation will improve greatly when Ferrol and Dakar are at our disposal.
The presence of radar equipment, which in a short while will probably also be carried by auxiliary vessels and auxiliary cruisers, will restrict the possibilities of the Denmark Strait to an increasing extend, especially for slow ships such as the pocket battleships and auxiliary cruisers. The decision in each case for or against the use of this outlet must be dependent on reconnaissance by planes, submarines, or trawlers. The narrow south of Iceland thus again becomes important under favorable weather conditions. But for the reasons here presented, bases along the west coast of France are preferable.
Passage through the Channel is out of the question as far as battleships are concerned. But even for heavy cruisers of the Hipper and Scheer classes the risk would be so great that such passage could be considered only in a case of extreme urgency. At present our air forces are not sufficiently strong in the west to be able to hold down enemy air forces and attack light naval units. We do not have adequate escort forces and minesweepers. Vessels must keep to a certain course with no possibility of detour, proceeding at a low speed to avoid mines, and being forced to sail in good weather on account of navigational difficulties, all this in the vicinity of enemy air bases.
As a precaution Group West has been asked to make a through examination and operational survey of the Channel passage for ships of the Lützow or Hipper class.
b. Up to now the principle of the Seekriegsleitung has been to carry on warfare against the supply lines with surface forces as far as possible by means of an unbroken series of operations, achieving successes as fast as possible so as to conquer the British before the end of this summer. Besides the operation of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, this led to the independent operations of cruiser Hipper and to that of Bismarck with only the Prinz Eugen as escort. It could appear that this was a mistake, as a more powerful task force could have put up a better defense against the enemy. This is a false conclusion, however. Certainly several ships are more effective in combat than a single one; however it as not the aim of the operation to be involved in an engagement, but rather to reach the enemy's convoy lanes without being detected. The main objective of our German naval warfare consists in permanently disrupting the enemy's supply lines, and not in waging battles, which, even with a favorable start, could easily turn to our disadvantage owing to our lack of bases and of facilities for assisting damaged ships.
It must not be concluded, therefore, that the use of single battleships or cruisers in warfare on the supply lines is wrong in principle. It is precisely the mobility of such single ships or small task forces that is a prime factor of cruiser warfare and is thus to be striven for.
Nevertheless, in addition to continuous pursuit of this policy, it was the aim of the Seekriegsleitung to create task forces of a homogeneous nature, as for example Scharnhorst-Gneisenau, and also Bismarck-Tirpitz, a fact which was once again emphasized to the Fleet Commander prior to the operation. In the future, too, we must strive to regulate operations and periods of overhaul so a to make possible the formation of such task forces, and at the same time to keep the war on merchant shipping by surface forces from being interrupted completely as seldom as possible.
c. There is no doubt that refueling at sea has been made more difficult by the enemy's use of a number of aircraft carriers and radar, particularly when only slow tankers and available. Here too, however, it is only a matter of increased enemy forces and equipment; there has been no basic change. In connection with the question of refueling the disposition of tankers will need to be re-examined. The maintenance of our tanker capacity is of decisive importance for the continuation of any sort of warfare against supplies by surface forces. The following principles must be even more closely observed in the future, if losses are to remain small.
This is a necessary measure, as refueling points must of necessity lie too close to operational areas, so that they run the risk of being sighted accidentally by single enemy ships, or by regular enemy and U.S.A. naval reconnaissance.
(For the northern group of tankers the Davis Straits and the Greenland drift-ice border could be considered as suitable areas for withdrawal, and for the southern group, the Sargasso Sea area or the area 600 to 1,200 miles southwest of the Azores.)
(2) The execution of the operations will require the constant presence at sea of a fast supply ship, which on account of her high cruising speed is able to cover long distances quickly for emergency refueling. This ship should be kept for such emergencies, or for use towards the close of operations, and apart from this should be held ready in a withdrawal area suitable for the current operational area.
The longer nights from September to March facilitate a break-through, for example from the western French ports, and make it possible to shake off shadowers more easily; planes can maintain contact and launch attacks only for short periods. It is also easier to conceal the movements of tankers.
On the other hand, in the Norwegian Sea fog is very common in July, and this would facilitate the break-through by way of the northern straits in spite of the light nights.
5. Operations during the next few months.
a. The Lützow will be ready to break through in July, the Scheer in August. It is intended to transfer the Lützow to Trondheim shortly, where she can exercise a deterrent effect on any British operations during operation "Barbarossa". Besides this, reconnaissance of conditions in the northern straits is to be carried out by submarines, planes, and trawlers, for the purpose of clarifying the possibilities of a breakthrough in the summer. A decision is to be made on the basis of this information.
The Scheer will probably also be moved to the north in July or August.
b. At the commencement of operation "Barbarossa" the Tirpitz is to remain for a time in Kiel, which possesses the best anti-aircraft defense, and where the danger of air attack is not great during the short summer nights. She can be transferred to Trondheim at any time from there.
c. The Hipper will not be ready until September.
d. The Prinz Eugen will be ready to put to sea about the middle of June; she will probably not operate alone. The Scharnhorst will be ready to commence training on 18 June; two weeks in port, then two weeks at sea will be necessary. A decision will be made on the latter period as soon as conditions in the Atlantic become clearer. The Gneisenau will not be ready before the autumn as a shaft has to be replaced. Decisions with regard to combined operations on the west and Norwegian coasts will have to be taken as the situation develops. (The Chief of the OKW [Wilhelm Keitel], Colonel Schmundt, and Captain von Puttkamer were present at this discussion.)
The Führer explains his interpretation of the development of the situation in Britain, and the influence of operation "Barbarossa" on it: The situation in Britain is bad at present. A collapse could occur suddenly. By the middle of July at the latest he hopes to be able to judge how operation "Barbarossa" will progress and what effect it can be expected to have on the situation as a whole. Until then it would not be practicable to take great risks in naval surface warfare, unless there were prospects of definitive major successes.
If Britain were on the point of collapse, it would perhaps be possible for us to acquire a naval base by a lightning attack, in which case surface forces might possibly play an important role.
The Führer agrees to transferring the Lützow to Trondheim and stationing the Tirpitz in Kiel. He asks to be kept informed of any further decisions.
Annex 3The Question of Declaring Zones of Operations.
b. Extension of the zone of operations to the south to include the triangle outside the Western Hemisphere.
c. Declaration of a new zone of operations off the coast of West Africa.
Regarding "a": If this measure were taken, the area would extend far into the Western Hemisphere. Open declaration of such a zone of operations, which would bring the war to America's doorstep, appears at present politically undesirable, because it would be interpreted as a direct threat to America and would thus strengthen the position of the warmongers. The Seekriegsleitung therefore contends that for the time being it would be better to give naval forces the necessary operational freedom in some other way.
Regarding "b": This would be only a temporary measure, as enemy countermeasures might make it necessary at any time to station some of the submarines outside the zone of operations once more.
Regarding "c": Zones of operations off the west coast of Africa, no matter what form they take, affect not only shipping in the service of Britain, but also unavoidably our own and neutral interests. French shipping especially (and therefore German interests) would be affected by an unbroken zone of operations; Portuguese and Spanish possessions and Liberia would be blockaded. War measures would be brought close to the Cape Verde Islands. The political repercussions thereof would be highly unfavorable. The proposed measures would cause ill feeling in Portugal and Spain; Britain or America would find an excuse to take action against the Azores, the Cape Verdes, or the Portuguese colonies. There would be danger of a reversal in public opinion in French Africa. In the U.S.A. a declaration of this zone of operations would be interpreted as a threat to both the Americas, and its propaganda value would be fully exploited. The necessity of maintaining French and neutral merchant traffic would call for exceptions and concessions, which would contradict the whole purpose of declaring the zone and would greatly interfere with our operations. If declaration were made of a number of areas off British coasts only, as Gambia and Nigeria, French merchant shipping would be forced away from the coast and laid wide open to British attack. Compared with the great disadvantages, therefore, the advantages cannot be rated very highly.
For the time being there should be neither extension of existing areas nor declaration of a new zone of operations off West Africa, but orders should be issued to give naval forces at least the most essential freedom of action within the present zone of operations. Hence the proposal is made for sanction of warfare against U.S. merchant shipping according to prize regulations.
Annex 4Review of the Strategic Situation in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Balkan Campaign and the Occupation of Crete, and the Operations that are to Follow.
The decided improvement in the strategic position of the Axis powers in the Mediterranean area as a result of the Balkan campaign and the occupation of Crete demands a fresh review of the strategic and operational conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the tactical necessities arising from them.
As a result of Italy's independent attack on Greece in the autumn of 1940 and the ensuing Italian defeat, the Seekriegsleitung made an urgent demand for the speedy occupation of the whole Greek mainland including the Peloponnesos; this demand has been fulfilled, and in addition has been expanded to an unexpected degree in the occupation Of the whole Adriatic coast, the island of Crete, and all the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. The threat to our own position in southeastern Europe has been removed, and the domination of the Eastern Mediterranean is no longer entirely in enemy hands; it is exercised instead by the Axis powers in the whole Aegean area and the Ionian Sea, and is at least heavily contested by the defensive and offensive power of the Luftwaffe within a wide radius around Crete. If escort forces are increased sufficiently, sea and air supremacy in the Aegean Sea will insure vital supplies, especially oil supplies from the Black Sea, for Italy, France, and Spain, and shipments via the sea route and Italy will considerably relieve the German grain and supply situation in the future.
Possession of the island of Lemnos gives us the possibility of controlling the Dardanelles and of insuring the safety of supply traffic from the Black Sea area. Operational facilities provided by the possession of the main bases of Salonika and Piraeus and the Aegean islands will secure the transport of supplies through the Aegean Sea, which are routed through the Corinth Canal or around the Peloponnesos to Italy, France and Spain.
The possession of Crete and the Dodecanese cuts off the Aegean Sea from the south, and will enable the Luftwaffe operating from Crete, or naval forces operating from Suda Bay, to patrol the comparatively narrow sea area between Cape Littinos (Crete) and Ras el Tin (North Africa), a distance of about 165 miles or 305 kilometers. Thus they can flank the British forces leaving Alexandria for the Central Mediterranean to attack Italo-German transports to Africa. It also provides the basis for intensified offensive activity by naval and air forces against the British fleet and bases in the Eastern Mediterranean, and shifts our own bases for support of the Italo-German offensive in North Africa decisively nearer to the British positions. The domination of the Adriatic and the Aegean Seas insures once and for all the position of the Axis Powers in relation to the Balkans and Turkey, who will now be forced to give up any idea of going over to the side of the enemy. Finally, the new strategic situation is of special significance in its effect on the tenacity of our Italian ally, whose internal political and economic position would seem thereby assured, while her military potential will be released to a great extent for other duties.
In summary, the capture of these new strategic positions in the Eastern Mediterranean will be of vital operational and strategic significance for the future prosecution of the war.
The positions for launching the decisive battle against British supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean have been gained; the most vulnerable points in the British Empire now lie within effective range of the German offensive. The enemy is aware of the deadly danger, and he combines reinforcement of his own forces in this area with the hope for timely arrival of American support, which has been promised him in the form of extensive supplies of war materials to the Red Sea.
The powerful position of the British in the Eastern Mediterranean is gravely menaced as a result of the successful Balkan campaign and the occupation of Crete; it has not yet been broken, however, in spite of successful attacks by the Luftwaffe against British light naval forces. All signs indicate that the British are not at all inclined to give up their position in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the contrary, Britain seems determined to retain her position in this area by all the means at her disposal. Here, as in all other vital areas of the British Empire, this depends on the exercise of naval supremacy by the British battle fleet, with its nucleus of battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers. The fleet alone is in a position to protect the sea communications necessary for supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean and to guarantee Britain's political influence in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and to a great measure in Turkey, too, with repercussions in Africa, India, and even in the Far East. The prestige of the British Empire depends on her battle fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean area. Thus the aim of Italo-German strategy remains, as before, to destroy the British fleet as the dominant power in these waters, to drive it from the Eastern Mediterranean, and to eliminate its bases and operational facilities in the Mediterranean.
It is the opinion of the Seekriegsleitung that to achieve this aim German strategists, besides of course defending the occupied areas in Greece, Crete, and the Aegean islands, must make a determined effort not only to hold the strategic positions already gained, but to exploit them as quickly as possible by taking energetic and systematic measures for offensive action against the British position in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Operation "Barbarossa", which because of the magnitude of the undertaking naturally stands in the foreground of the operational plans of the OKW, must under no circumstances cause operations in the Eastern Mediterranean to be abandoned, reduced, or postponed, in view of the great strategic successes recently achieved in the southeastern area. On the contrary, it is the opinion of the Seekriegsleitung that everything must be done to keep the initiative in the Eastern Mediterranean firmly in our own hands, and to continue and intensify the fight by a series of strong, energetic attacks. Past experience has shown that the Italian armed forces, as regards leadership, training, and military efficiency, are not capable of carrying out any phase of the required operations in the Mediterranean with the tenacity, speed, and drive which are necessary to success. On the other hand, recent experience appears to confirm the fact that Italian junior officers and troops are quite capable of successfully carrying out certain operations with courage and sufficient prudence, under German planning, German organization, and strict German discipline, or under strong German influence. Future strategy must therefore as a general rule take this factor into account.
The Seekriegsleitung considers the following measures necessary for future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean:
1. A maximum number of operations should be undertaken by German and Italian bomber formations, if possible under unified German command, using torpedoes and heavy caliber bombs against the British Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, and aiming at the systematic destruction of the large battleships and aircraft carriers. (During the course of the war up to the present time not a single battleship or aircraft carrier has actually been destroyed or sunk by the Luftwaffe. Therefore it is necessary to investigate the production of suitable bombs with the greatest possible penetration and explosive force, and planes should be equipped with effective torpedoes. The British are far superior to us in the production and handling of aerial torpedoes, which are the most dangerous weapon of the air forces against warships.)
2. The Italians should be asked to transfer their submarines from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean for the purpose of a planned determined attack on British sea communications in the Eastern Mediterranean (From Alexandria to Turkey - Cyprus - Palestine - Port Said - Marsa Matruh - Tobruk - Malta), and against British naval forces in order to protect our own transport routes to North Africa. Here, too, we must endeavor to exercise controlling influence on operations through an experienced German liaison officer. (The Italian assertion that submarine operations in the Mediterranean are possible only to a very limited extent because of the clearness of the water and the special effectiveness of British anti-submarine measures in these waters is to be countered by reference to the British submarine successes.) (Marginal note: Italian anti-submarine measures are not so good as British anti-submarine measures.)
3. Planes operating from Crete and Rhodes should lay aerial mines in large numbers in the Suez Canal, off Port Said, both in and outside the port of Alexandria, along the coast of Egypt and off the Palestinian harbors.
4. The Italians should be made to abandon what has been until now a purely defensive and mainly passive and cautious strategy, and to employ their light fleet units (cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and PT boats) to a greater extent than before to harass and damage enemy naval forces, supply ships, and transports, utilizing the bases in Crete and the Pelopennesos. With the limited basis of operation left to him, the enemy should no longer be able to control the Eastern Mediterranean to the previous extent, or to disrupt the Italo-German transports to Africa as effectively as in the past. Considering the strength of the Italo-German air forces and in view of the numerical strength of the Italian fleet, our newly acquired strategic bases should make it possible to endanger British movements in the Eastern Mediterranean to an increasing degree, and to prevent or very severely threaten constant British operations in the Central Mediterranean and against German supply lines to North Africa.
It seems most desirable, if not actually necessary, that the direction of future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean should rest as far as possible in German hands; or at any rate we must obtain a stronger influence on all Italian operations than heretofore.
5. France must be persuaded to strengthen her military position in Syria so as to rule out any British action against that country. We should examine the possibilities of Air Force operations from Syria against the Suez Canal and sea communications through the Red Sea, including mining operations, as well as against supply traffic to and from Cyprus. The war materiel necessary for the defense of Syria should be released to France, and operational facilities for possible later support of a German offensive against the British stronghold in the Near East should be prepared.
6. Malta should be taken in order further to restrict British operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and to eliminate to a great degree the threat to our supply lines to North Africa. (To arrive at a final settlement of the whole Mediterranean question, it will be necessary to capture Gibraltar at a later date.)
7. Italy must be induced to close the Strait of Sicily really effectively by all the means within her power, with German support, thereby permanently disrupting the communications between Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria, and cutting off further reinforcements and supplies to the Eastern Mediterranean from Gibraltar.
8. The Seekriegsleitung considers that Tobruk should be eliminated or captured as soon as possible by routing more forces to Libya, and temporarily concentrating attacks on the Tobruk area by planes based on Crete. At the same time Italian submarine attacks should be intensified in order to prevent transport of further British forces to Tobruk or withdrawal of forces already there. These measures would serve to eliminate the threat to our flank on the North African front, forces would be released, and more operational freedom would be gained in the waters between Crete and the African coast. Apart from this, an early capture of Marsa Matruh would be of special value in the campaign against the British key position in the Eastern Mediterranean. The final goal of the whole North African military campaign remains Alexandria and Suez.
The Seekriegsleitung is still firmly convinced that the Eastern Mediterranean area must come under our control, and every political or strategic manifestation of power by the British in this region, influencing as it does to a considerable extent the whole Near East and even India, must be eliminated. This necessity is of such vital importance for the whole conduct of the war that the problems in this area absolutely must be dealt with energetically, and all operational possibilities which exist at the present time must be utilized, in spite of other very heavy demands on the German armed forces (i.e., operation "Barbarossa"). Only thus can the recent great successes in the Mediterranean be fully exploited at a time when American aid to Britain still has not reached decisive proportions.
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