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Reflections of the Chief of the Seekriegsleitung on Atlantic Warfare, 20 September 1939.

It appeared expedient in view of the political situation in the first part of the period of tension - about the middle of August to detail the two Panzerschiffe ready for action in the second half of August, for cruiser warfare in the Atlantic. (Japan at this time was a very benevolent neutral and very helpful to the Navy. It was hoped that Italy would become a partner.) They were sent out before the outbreak of war with the approval of the Führer, the GRAF SPEE on 21 August to the Middle Atlantic, the DEUTSCHLAND on 24 August to the North Atlantic. A supply ship for the GRAF SPEE was sent ahead. It took on oil in the U.S.A. and subsequently met the GRAF SPEE. A supply ship for the DEUTSCHLAND, fitted out as an auxiliary cruiser, was sent out on 22 August. The British evidently did not observe either the sailing of these ships or the departure for the Atlantic of about 21 submarines north of the British Isles between 19 and 29 August. The war on merchant shipping was to be carried on by all forces according to Prize Law. On 3 September after the British ultimatum to Germany had expired and the relevant British decree received, the order was given to begin hostilities.

After the ATHENIA case (a British invention), and in the hope that after the overthrow of Poland France would withdraw from the war, the submarine war on merchant shipping was restricted by the following orders from the Führer:

    1. In order not to provoke neutral countries, the United States in particular, it was forbidden to torpedo passenger steamers, even when sailing in convoy.

    2. Warfare against French merchant ships, attacks on French warships and mine laying off French ports were prohibited.

The second of these orders was modified on 10 September, in that mixed British-French convoys, if escorted by French or French and British forces, might also be attacked north of Brest. These restrictions meant that the large number of submarines sent out at the beginning of the war to achieve large initial successes could not be as effective as they would otherwise have been. In addition, the fact that mines, which were primarily to have affected British troop transports, could not be layed outside of French ports, made the measures against these transports much less effective. The few ports of arrival in France are easier to deal with than the numerous ports of departure in England. The approaches to Weymouth, especially mentioned as a point of departure, the waters near Dover (Downs), and the approaches to Liverpool were mined. In addition, one submarine was sent into the Channel from the west and two from the east for direct attacks on the transport vessels. Owing to the limitations set, it is no longer possible to intercept the transports from West Africa to France, on whose destruction the Navy pinned such hopes. Finally, it was also impossible to prevent French merchant ships (tankers) from putting into French ports during the first few weeks of the war. A number of considerations prompted the Chief of the Seekriegsleitung to reach the decision on 5 September that under the circumstances it would be wrong to commit the Panzerschiffe fully at this time already. These considerations were as follows:
    The political situation, together with the political commitment not to take any offensive action against France.

    The enemy's behavior, characterized by the absence of hostile acts on the part of France, diminishing enemy merchant shipping, slowness in setting up a convoy system, and a hesitant military attitude on the part of Great Britain.

    The possibility of inducing Great Britain and France to stop fighting as soon as Poland has been defeated.

He fears that the enemy might force the ships to give battle before peace is concluded - which might possibly be soon - and without their having achieved substantial successes.

At a conference on 7 September the Führer agreed with this view. The Panzerschiffe received the following orders:

    1. Operations by Panzerschiffe are inadvisable at present in view of France's cautious attitude and England's hesitant conduct of warfare.

    2. Since it is apparent that enemy merchant shipping is diminishing and the enemy can be expected to organize his forces to combat the Panzerschiffe, the prospects of achieving worthwhile successes are not very good.

    3. The ships are to break off warfare on enemy merchant shipping and to withdraw a considerable distance from the operational areas, for example to the Arctic Ocean, the South Atlantic, or the Indian Ocean. Radio silence is to be maintained.

When the political situation is clarified, the Panzerschiffe must again be brought into action. It is hoped that convoys will then appear on the North Atlantic route, which the submarines reported unfrequented during the last few weeks, and these will provide welcome targets for attack. If possible, the battleships are to make a sortie into the north simultaneously, in order to divert British battle cruisers and aircraft carriers from the pocket battleships.

According to reports from aerial reconnaissance, there are no worthwhile targets for our heavy forces in the northern North Sea at present. It would be wrong, therefore, to send these ships out without any specific target, as this could lead to losses on arrival or departure through the North Sea or the Kattegat. The time, moreover, must be utilized for tactical exercises, and the ships made completely ready for action.

Owing to the fact that at the beginning of the war 21 submarines were in the Atlantic, there exists a certain vacuum in the second half of September. From time to time there will be only 4 or 5 submarines in the Atlantic. By October it will again be possible to operate a larger number of boats, about 10 to 12. At this time convoys can be expected from the Mediterranean to England and from Cape Town to England; operations against these are particularly remunerative. Mine-laying operations off the east coast of England are to be continued.


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