Authors: Howard D. Grier
There is no doubt that Dönitz wanted to help the Finns, even if his primary goal was to preserve domination of the Baltic for Germany’s purposes, but he also had an ulterior motive in sending heavy surface vessels to the area. At the end of April Hitler had approved the Skl’s proposal to seek Finland’s consent to transfer German warships to the Åland Islands, ostensibly to guard against Soviet landings in Estonia and Finland or a breakout attempt by the Soviet fleet. The Finns, however, refused the German request to use the islands as a base.
Dönitz’s underlying motive for this transfer was to have German forces on the spot in case the Finns collapsed. At the end of June
left Gdynia for Utö, carrying weapons and ammunition for the Finns. Yet that was not all the warship carried—
also had orders to occupy the Åland Islands in the event of Finland’s collapse.
As the situation in Finland began to stabilize, however, the plight of Army Group North became the focus of Dönitz’s concern in the East. At the beginning of June his fears of a Soviet landing on the Estonian coast resurfaced. In response to the invasion of France, Dönitz ordered all warships in the Baltic assembled to intervene in the event of further Anglo-American landings on other coastal sectors. Yet the following day Dönitz assured
Kummetz that he had full recourse to these vessels for action in the East and warned him to be on guard against surprise Soviet landings in Estonia.
At this point, however, Dönitz began to falter; he experienced a crisis of confidence. Disheartened by the failure to repulse the Normandy invasion, Finland’s uncertain attitude, and the collapse of Army Group Center, he wavered in his hitherto unshakable belief in victory and in his adherence to Hitler’s doctrine of “hold at all costs.”
Like Hitler, Dönitz had long believed that the Allied invasion of the continent would be a decisive moment. If Germany repulsed the landing, its position would improve immeasurably, for the Allies would not be able to attempt another invasion for some time. Furthermore, German divisions held in reserve behind the Atlantic Wall would then be available to regain the initiative in the East. Instead of an event to be feared, the Allied invasion offered Germany a splendid opportunity.
But the Normandy invasion force was not smashed. Allied troops secured a beachhead and ferried massive quantities of men and equipment across the Channel. Conceding on 10 June that the Allied invasion had succeeded, Dönitz declared that he intended to offer Hitler personnel from submarine training units for action on land, men he previously had jealously protected.
Looking to the future, Meisel advised the preparation of submarine bases in Norway, but Dönitz gloomily replied that construction of U-boat bunkers was difficult and time consuming and that he could not count on bases in Norway with certainty. At a meeting with Keitel and Gen. Alfred Jodl a few days later, Dönitz observed that if the Allies gained freedom of movement from their bridgehead, all of France would be lost. Keitel believed that if this occurred, Germany could still hold along the West Wall; Jodl, however, was not so optimistic.
The destruction of Army Group Center only deepened the grand admiral’s despair.
At the end of June Dönitz remarked that perhaps Army Group North should evacuate Estonia, despite the problems this would cause for Finland and control of the Baltic, or else it might suffer Army Group Center’s fate.
He expressed this view at a situation conference with Friessner and Model at Hitler’s headquarters on 9 July. When both army group commanders pleaded to withdraw Army Group North behind the Düna, Hitler asked Dönitz what consequences the evacuation of Estonia would have for the navy. The grand admiral replied that the Narva front was of decisive importance to blockading the Gulf of Finland and pointed out related diplomatic and economic considerations in Scandinavia, as well as the significance for U-boat training. But, in a surprising reversal from all earlier declarations, he stated that possession of the Estonian coast was
meaningless if the Soviets reached the Baltic in Latvia or Lithuania; the establishment of enemy air bases in that area would wrest domination of the Baltic from Germany. Nevertheless, Hitler, probably rather perplexed by this change in attitude, refused to permit the retreat. The importance of Dönitz’s comments, however, did not escape the army’s notice. Heusinger informed Kinzel that he and Zeitzler did not share Hitler’s predilection for a “Fortress Baltic States (
)” and that in this connection Dönitz’s statement was helpful.
On 11 July, still at Hitler’s headquarters, Dönitz reported that the land situation had further deteriorated and instructed Meisel to initiate planning for precautionary measures in case the Soviets reached East Prussia. The next afternoon Meisel assembled several leading naval officers to discuss this matter. Rear Adm. Eberhard Godt (U-boat operations chief) explained the importance of the eastern Baltic for the U-boat arm, disclosing that 25,000 U-boat men occupied bases in the sector Hela-Libau. Furthermore, he reported that 50–60 percent of all training took place in the same area and that there were five vital shipyards in this region. Germany’s loss of the Bay of Danzig would reduce the number of new U-boats ready for combat to twelve to fifteen per month. The navy was confronted with a dilemma of immense proportions, because submarine training could continue outside of the eastern Baltic only in an improvised manner, and training for surface vessels would be reduced by half. In addition, ports in the western Baltic were already filled to capacity, so the transfer of vessels from the East posed a seemingly insurmountable problem.
Meisel alerted Dönitz that the following tasks faced the navy if the situation in the East continued to deteriorate: fortification of the Baltic coast; supplying Army Group North and Twentieth Mountain Army (in Finland) by sea; preparing bases for naval forces to deliver these supplies; preparations for, and if necessary carrying out, the evacuation of Army Group North and Twentieth Mountain Army by sea; evacuation of naval bases in the East, and thus the transfer of training from ports in the Baltic States and Prussia; and the evacuation of the civilian population and economic goods. Meisel pointed out that the implementation of these measures would require all of the navy’s resources and cause drastic reductions in training and merchant shipping. A few days later the Skl ordered preparations for these measures, code-named “Weissdorn” and “Rotdorn” (white and pink hawthorn, respectively).
This was, indeed, a worst-case scenario, and that the Skl even considered it revealed Dönitz’s despair.
In the following days Dönitz displayed further signs of resignation. Upon Friessner’s request to withdraw Army Detachment Narva to the
shorter line on the isthmus of Narva, instead of vigorously protesting this proposal the Skl merely noted that it had asked the Luftwaffe to support a mining operation at Hungerburg and to prevent the Soviets from building up this port as a naval base. Dönitz also ordered the erection of coastal batteries at Memel and Pillau, approved a proposal to form a naval task force from training units, and agreed that vessels requiring long-term repairs should no longer be sent to shipyards in endangered ports.
He designated the Baltic task force the Second Task Force (the First Task Force consisted of the
and accompanying vessels in Norway). The Skl planned to create a Third Task Force, also for the Baltic.
Assmann too underwent a change of heart. He informed the Skl on 8 July that the Army General Staff deemed it essential to withdraw Army Group North behind the Düna to prevent its encirclement and to counter the threat to East Prussia. He explained that the army recognized the importance of the Estonian coast to the navy but nevertheless considered an immediate retreat an urgent necessity. Hitler would strive to retain the front along the Gulf of Finland, Assmann reported, and naval interests (shale oil, U-boat training, and control of the Baltic) played a decisive role in his decision. Adding that Hitler possibly would permit a temporary isolation of Army Group North for these reasons, he advised the Skl to investigate supplying the army group by sea.
As the situation at the front grew more critical, Assmann’s anxiety increased. On 19 July he reported that Hitler had refused permission for Army Group North’s retreat, for a variety of reasons: fear of Finland’s collapse, which would deprive Germany of its nickel supply and its position on the Gulfs of Finland and Bothnia; loss of unrestricted control of the Baltic, and thus the forfeiture of Swedish ore imports; loss of Estonian shale oil, which was unacceptable to the navy; and the elimination of Germany’s fleet and U-boat training bases in the Baltic. Assmann also confided that Heusinger did not believe Germany could hold East Prussia without Army Group North’s forces. If this were true, Assmann asserted, Army Group North’s withdrawal represented the lesser evil. Although abandoning the Gulf of Finland would offer the Soviets operational possibilities in the Baltic, it did not pose as great a threat as loss of the Bay of Danzig, which would almost wholly cripple training in the German Navy, particularly for its submarines. Moreover, if the Soviets severed Army Group North’s land contact with the Reich, Assmann doubted it could be supplied by sea in the long run.
Assmann also questioned whether the effects of Army Group North’s withdrawal would be as serious as Hitler feared. In view of Finland’s success in
halting the Soviet offensive, he believed that the Finns would continue to fight if Germany explained the reasons for its withdrawal. To soothe their fears, he suggested the transfer of German divisions from the Narva front to reinforce Finland. Assmann also evaluated the threat the Soviet fleet posed as having been exaggerated and expressed confidence that German naval forces could maintain convoys to Sweden. In addition, he claimed that as long as Germany held East Prussia, it could control the Baltic for the navy’s vital requirements. To ensure this, he proposed that destroyers based in Norway, and possibly even the battleship
return to the Baltic. Assmann also contended that retention of the Bay of Danzig was more decisive for submarine training than was the coast of the Baltic States. In any event, he again warned that if the Soviets captured the Bay of Danzig, the navy’s maintenance of Army Group North’s supply by sea was unlikely. Assmann concluded with the recommendation that Adm. Gerhard Wagner (liaison between Dönitz and the Skl whenever Dönitz was absent) contact Heusinger, Model, and Friessner before Dönitz tried to convince Hitler that the army group should retreat, with the warning that time was of the essence.
The next day, upon receiving Assmann’s evaluation, Dönitz declared that the critical issue was whether Army Group North’s withdrawal was necessary to protect Courland and East Prussia, and whether the retreat was still possible.
Events in the next few hours, however, saw Dönitz shake off his despair and regain his former confidence.
The unsuccessful assassination attempt of 20 July brought Dönitz back to his former devotion to Hitler’s
policy, the strategy of holding out. He was summoned to Hitler’s headquarters scarcely thirty minutes after the bomb’s detonation. As a member of Hitler’s inner circle, his presence was clearly required. Dönitz embraced Goebbels’s notion that the failure of the assassination attempt confirmed that “divine providence” favored Hitler. Dönitz issued an order to the navy: “We see in the salvation of our Führer renewed confirmation of the righteousness of our struggle. We will rally even closer around the Führer, we will fight even harder until victory is ours.”
Dönitz was not alone in this belief. Goebbels also had experienced a crisis of confidence in the preceding weeks, but Hitler’s seemingly miraculous survival of the assassination attempt brought the propaganda minister back to his former trust in his Führer. Goebbels later referred to 20 July as “not only the deepest point of our crisis but also the key date of our rebirth.”
Armaments Minister Albert Speer similarly described the failure of the plot as “the turning point in the struggle for survival, the turn toward victory, a victory that could only be won under the Führer.”
Hitler too was reinvigorated by having escaped the blast relatively unharmed,
convinced now that destiny would not prevent him from fulfilling his task of leading the German people to victory.
One of Goebbels’s colleagues charged that during the summer crises, “traitors” had sent desperately needed fuel and weapons to the wrong sectors and that masses of troops had been held back in Germany despite shortages of men at the front. Himmler was correcting these matters, and now that the traitors had been exposed, it would not happen again. Other leaders in the Nazi Party believed also that this was the cause of Germany’s defeats.
In other words, treacherous generals had been responsible for the summer’s catastrophes, not the enemy’s superiority or Hitler’s mistakes.
Guderian’s energy and optimism upon his appointment as chief of the Army General Staff immediately following 20 July impressed Dönitz. On several occasions Dönitz confidently predicted that Guderian would master the situation. In this connection, on 25 July he reversed his earlier order, commanding that Rotdorn and Weissdorn be viewed merely as precautionary measures and declaring that the navy had no thoughts of retreat.
Dönitz was prepared to assist Guderian as much as possible in his efforts to restore the situation. Upon Admiral Eastern Baltic’s protest that Schörner had demanded two thousand naval troops for the land fighting, Dönitz replied that he had conferred with Guderian on this subject and that the navy would comply with Schörner’s orders. Dönitz insisted that it was of decisive importance to close the “Baltic Gap” whatever the cost, for the stabilization of the front in this sector was essential for the continuation of the war at sea. He added but one reservation—he would seek Hitler’s intervention in the event of interference with the interests of the U-boat war.