Authors: Howard D. Grier
In the last years of the war German officers who rose to prominence tended to be those who demonstrated personal loyalty to Hitler and ideological conformity to National Socialism. Three Nazi military leaders will be examined in this context: the naval commander in chief, Karl Dönitz; the army chief of staff, Heinz Guderian; and Ferdinand Schörner. The person who influenced Hitler’s Baltic strategy most was Admiral Dönitz, whose memoirs
are not trustworthy and for whom no satisfactory biography exists.
Dönitz’s role in shaping Hitler’s grand strategy requires further analysis. Furthermore, his devotion to Hitler and unquestioning acceptance of National Socialist ideology, although documented by naval experts, are not widely recognized among nonspecialists. Particularly intriguing is the question of why Hitler selected Dönitz as his successor. Hitler did not appoint Dönitz simply by default or as a soldier suitable to make peace, as is often suggested, but because Dönitz had proven himself one of Hitler’s most loyal and ideologically reliable supporters.
General Guderian portrays himself in his memoirs as a military technician, uninterested in National Socialism and repelled by Hitler.
He bitterly condemns Hitler’s conduct of the war in the East and presents himself as the would-be savior of eastern Germany, but he neglects to mention his early support for Nazi ideology and his eager acceptance of landed estates and bribes from the Führer. His role in shaping Hitler’s strategy in this period was to insist that Hitler evacuate all of the Third Reich’s outposts to defend Germany itself. That Hitler listened to Dönitz rather than Guderian is no surprise, for Guderian’s course of action simply aimed to postpone defeat, while Dönitz offered the Führer a chance to win the war.
Of all German army generals, Schörner probably has the worst reputation. He is usually depicted as an insanely brutal man who owed his rapid promotion to fanatical adherence to National Socialism and sycophantic devotion to Hitler. Schörner’s military abilities have been considered negligible at best. His notoriety stems mainly from the execution of numerous soldiers in the war’s final months, and from his unquestioning obedience to Hitler’s commands. Schörner left no memoirs, and no serious study of him has been attempted. There is surprisingly little information on this important general whom Hitler named commander in chief of the German army prior to his suicide. Although he played only a minor part in shaping grand
strategy in the war’s final phase, he had to implement Hitler’s Baltic strategy and endure its consequences. Schörner’s portrayal as a brutal commander and fanatical Nazi is accurate, but depictions of him as a toady and an untalented military leader are off the mark. Schörner was a skillful tactician who repeatedly disobeyed Hitler’s orders not to retreat; that Hitler never relieved him of command was because he realized that Schörner was loyal to him personally.
The present study fits in with a broad range of literature on World War II. Early accounts of Hitler’s relationship with the German navy maintained that Hitler thought solely in continental terms and had no understanding of matters relating to the sea. This idea remained unchallenged for the most part until the early 1970s, when Jost Dülffer’s study of the German Navy between the wars
and Michael Salewski’s magisterial three-volume study of the German Naval Staff revealed Hitler’s extraordinary interest in naval affairs.
It was Salewski who first sketched the outlines of Hitler’s Baltic strategy. More recent contributions by naval historians Charles Thomas, Eric Rust, Keith Bird, Holger Herwig, Gerhard Schreiber, Werner Rahn, Herbert Kraus, and Douglas Peifer have immensely enhanced our understanding of the German navy in the Nazi period.
An examination of Hitler’s strategy in the Baltic can provide further evidence of his emphasis upon naval affairs and of the German navy’s close relationship with Hitler. Such a study also addresses some questions of continuity and discontinuity in German naval history.
There is surprisingly little written on Army Group Courland (formerly Army Group North), which was isolated in the Latvian peninsula of Courland in October 1944 and remained there until Germany’s capitulation. Existing works focus on tactical matters, ignoring the army group’s vital role in Hitler’s grand strategy of protecting the navy’s Baltic submarine training areas. These studies examine either the army group’s retreat to Courland
or events that transpired there until the end of the war.
They fail to investigate the most critical issue—why Hitler ordered nearly half a million seasoned troops to defend a remote Latvian peninsula at the very time Allied armies were entering German territory from both east and west. Furthermore, Courland was not the only German bridgehead along the Baltic. A small garrison defended the port of Memel from mid-October 1944 until the end of January 1945. Another large bridgehead arose after the Soviet drive from the Vistula to the Oder in January 1945 isolated almost another entire German army group in East Prussia. The Russian offensive in Pomerania in March 1945 forced yet another Nazi army back into bridgeheads around the ports of Danzig and Gdynia in West Prussia. These bridgeheads, especially those in East Prussia, have
received much more extensive treatment than the one in Courland, but again, existing works dwell largely upon the course of battle, rarely considering Hitler’s strategic motives or Dönitz’s role in the defense of coastal areas.
Most studies of German strategy in World War II focus almost exclusively upon land, or sea, or air strategy, seldom examining their interrelationship. This work is neither army history nor naval history. It analyzes both the army’s and navy’s strategic goals, and how they played out in the Baltic theater. The manuscript is organized chronologically and thematically. The first six chapters provide an operational history of warfare on the northern sector of the Eastern Front in 1944 and 1945, and give evidence of the navy’s demands that the Baltic coast be protected in order to preserve U-boat training areas. The following three chapters analyze possible reasons for Hitler’s defense of the Baltic coast. The first was the “official” reason given by Nazi propaganda, that German forces defending isolated coastal sectors tied down disproportionate numbers of Soviet troops. A second possible reason was that the retention of coastal areas—Courland in particular—deterred Sweden from entering the war on the side of the Allies. Finally, and by far the most likely reason, was that Hitler accepted Dönitz’s assurances that the navy could turn the tide of the war with its new U-boats. The final chapter examines Dönitz’s personal and ideological relationship with Hitler, his influence in shaping German strategy, and reasons why Hitler selected an admiral as his successor rather than a general or Nazi Party official.
From Leningrad to Narva
1943 Field Marshal Georg von Küchler, commander of Army Group North, flew from his headquarters in Pleskau to Hitler’s command post in East Prussia. Küchler hoped to obtain approval to retreat from positions around Leningrad to the Panther Position, a defensive line extending from the Gulf of Finland down the Narva River, along Lake Peipus’s western shore, then farther south over Pleskau to Polozk. As he passed over the large tracts of Soviet territory still under German occupation, Küchler perhaps recalled the German army’s triumphant advance in 1941 and the near-stalemate on the northern sector of the Eastern Front since that time.
At the beginning of the Russian campaign in June 1941, Army Group North, then under Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, had had the task of clearing the Baltic States of Soviet forces and capturing Leningrad.
Initially the advance had proceeded rapidly, but the invaders had encountered increasingly stiff resistance as they approached Leningrad. On 8 September German troops had captured Schlisselburg on Lake Ladoga, severing Leningrad’s land contact with the Russian interior. At this time, with the city especially vulnerable to assault, Hitler had ordered Leeb not to attack Leningrad but to surround the city and starve its inhabitants. Hitler wanted to wipe the city, the birthplace of the Bolshevik Revolution, from the face of the earth. He ordered Leeb not to accept Leningrad’s surrender should it be offered.
Leningrad was ill prepared to withstand a siege, as there was neither sufficient food nor fuel for the two to three million people inside the German ring. To make matters worse, on 16 September German troops isolated several Soviet divisions west of Leningrad in the Oranienbaum Bridgehead, an enclave approximately twenty miles long and twelve miles deep.
could be supplied only by sea from Leningrad, increasing the already enormous strain on the city’s logistical situation. Hundreds of thousands of Leningrad’s civilians died from hunger and cold. German artillery and bombers pounded the city, adding to the misery of the besieged. Not until late November, when Lake Ladoga froze solidly enough to bear the weight of trucks, could the Russians bring large quantities of supplies into the beleaguered city and evacuate some of its civilians.
The “ice roads” across Lake Ladoga saved Leningrad’s inhabitants from the starvation to which Hitler had condemned them.
German troops dug in and awaited Leningrad’s collapse. In January 1942 Küchler replaced Leeb as the army group’s commander, and for the rest of the year the positions of the opposing forces remained much the same. However, the Soviets planned a major operation at the beginning of 1943 to reestablish land contact to Leningrad. In mid-January 1943 the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts (Soviet army groups) launched an offensive to break the siege of Leningrad. After a week of bitter fighting, the two Soviet fronts joined forces. The Soviets furiously attacked until April, unsuccessfully attempting to expand the ten-kilometer-wide corridor on Lake Ladoga’s southern shore that linked Leningrad with the interior.
The Russians had succeeded in partially lifting the siege but could not break it completely. For the rest of the year there was little change in the front. In general, Army Group North’s positions changed very little from September 1941 until the end of 1943, especially in comparison to other sectors of the Eastern Front. Yet Küchler feared his army group could not withstand another blow, for in the course of the year Hitler had withdrawn several divisions to prop up less stable areas of the Russian front.
A series of reverses in the summer of 1943 caused Hitler to reevaluate the situation in the East. In May German troops in Tunisia surrendered, leaving North Africa entirely in Allied hands, and the navy temporarily withdrew its submarines from the North Atlantic after sustaining heavy losses in fierce convoy battles. Allied bomber formations intensified their attacks, and the Luftwaffe seemed incapable of protecting Germany’s cities and armaments industry. Furthermore, the army had to keep considerable forces in the West to guard against an expected Allied cross-Channel assault. In July the Soviets repulsed the German offensive at Kursk, inflicting frightful losses, Anglo-American troops landed in Sicily, and Mussolini fell from power, causing Hitler to question the reliability of his Italian ally. Following these defeats, in August 1943 Hitler issued instructions for the construction of the East Wall, a defensive line stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
A weakened Army Group North, composed of Eighteenth Army in the north and Sixteenth Army to the south, viewed the prospect of withdrawing to a shorter line with relief. Küchler met with Hitler on 11 September 1943 to discuss the retreat. Although Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, chief of the Army General Staff, enthusiastically supported the withdrawal, concern for Finland’s reaction disturbed Hitler. Zeitzler insisted that only Army Group North could provide troops to parry expected blows against Army Groups Center and South. Yet Hitler remained reluctant to yield territory in the Leningrad area and asked Küchler to examine the possibility of releasing divisions through a limited withdrawal. At this point Küchler suddenly did an about-face. Although he had come to request permission to retreat, after a short time in Hitler’s presence he began to advise Hitler of several reasons
to withdraw. Küchler again met with Hitler in early November and once more spoke against the retreat. This is especially puzzling, for the previous day the army group had complained that in the previous three months it had lost nearly 25 percent of its strength due to giving up divisions for other theaters and extending its sector to the south.
Küchler’s change in attitude probably reflected Hitler’s uncanny ability to instill confidence in his generals, at least as long as they were at Führer Headquarters.
In the end Hitler refused to grant permission for the withdrawal to the Panther Position. In mid-November Hitler told Army Group North’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Eberhard Kinzel, that he had no intention of relinquishing ground in the Leningrad area.
Yet at the end of December he again summoned Küchler to discuss a possible retreat. It was for this reason that on 30 December 1943 Küchler went to Hitler’s headquarters hoping to gain permission for the withdrawal. Küchler informed Hitler that compared to the army group’s existing front of nearly one thousand kilometers, the Panther Position had a land front of only four hundred kilometers. The withdrawal to a shorter line, Küchler explained, would free eight divisions for use elsewhere. In passing, Küchler unwisely commented that Eighteenth Army’s commander, Gen. Georg Lindemann, preferred to remain in his present positions, which were well constructed and familiar to his troops. Hitler dismissed Küchler, stating that he wished to discuss the matter with Zeitzler.