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Bennett, G.H. and R. Bennett. Hitler's Admirals. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004
Although the title seems to indicate this might be a book of biographies, actually it's a compilation of post-war papers written by German admirals while in Allied custody. In many respects Hitler's Admirals resembles the books recently assembled by David Isby from documents composed by captured German generals, including Fighting the Invasion: The German Army at D-Day and Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage. In those books, however, each individual document is presented as a separate chapter, the accounts are mostly tactical and operational in nature, and Isby provides little in the way of corrections, clarifications, or commentary. Bennett and Bennett, on the other hand, take a different approach to the naval material, which tends to be more in the realm of strategy, politics, and even philosophy. First, they intersperse quite a few of their own remarks among blocks of text written by the admirals. Second, instead of presenting each original document as a whole, Bennett and Bennett have chopped the essays into pieces and reassembled them as a series of topical chapters:
1. The Prewar Period
With this approach, for each chapter the editors are able to include at least a few remarks from most of the admirals, thus permitting a variety of perspectives on each topic. The following officers contribute to the book as a whole:
Although the editors don't include separate biographical sketches of the admirals, the Introduction outlines their careers, and comments throughout the book keep the reader abreast of each admiral's position and responsibilities, which helps clarify all the individual perspectives. For example, the chapter on the first year of the war includes this paragraph from Admiral Heye.
The measures that had been taken shortly before, in case of a possible war with England, were largely defensive as far as the navy was concerned. U-boats alone had the task of carrying on offensive warfare by attacks on trade and by minelaying. In the first few weeks the armored ships were to operate against trade in order to tie down enemy forces. It was estimated that this war against trade would soon have to cease when defensive measures had been organized. Valuable time was lost because, as far as I know, attacks on trade were only allowed after some time had elapsed, since the [German] government clearly had hopes of coming to an understanding with England, or at least with France.
However, Heye was not involved with the U-Boat campaign, so Bennett and Bennett immediately point out an error in Heye's remarks before they go on to present Doenitz's point of view on how the U-Boats were utilized in the early going:
Heye's final sentence above is, in fact, incorrect. The first British merchant ship, the passenger liner Athenia, was torpedoed by U-30 on the day war was declared. By the end of the first month twenty-five other British merchant vessels had suffered the same fate, with three more lost to mines. From the earliest days, therefore, the German navy determined to strike at what it identified as the most vulnerable aspect of British sea power. Directing U-boat operations was Karl Donitz, a U-boat commander from the First World War, who had been in charge of training the new U-boat service since 1936. At the outbreak of war he was promoted to rear admiral with the title Befehlshaber der U-boote. His 1945 essay recalls the thinking on which German strategy was based....
Two oddball chapters cover the Russian Front. Although some of the post-war essays address German naval operations in the East (for example, Admiral Schulz served as naval commander of the Crimea, so he has some insight into fighting in the Black Sea), the admirals also seem anxious to make their own points about why Germany lost history's largest ground campaign.
In 1942 the German Cipher Office was fortunate enough to read various convoy ciphers. The German U-boat command thus had at its disposal the place and time of convoy meetings and also gathering points for convoy stragglers. This valuable assistance to attacking U-boats ceased in the early months of 1943. It was, of course, possible, granted a sufficiently large number of W/T messages, to break down the code, but advantage could no longer be derived from this, as the enemy was now changing the code at shorter intervals than formerly so that the wearying labor of breaking it down had to be recommenced each time.
Here we have two different views of the Italian Navy:
Weichold: The Italians had no tactics and they could not operate at sea. They had learnt no lessons from the last war as they had no naval engagements. The commanders of Major Units were unable to handle their ships unless an Admiral was present.... I do not think the Italians are afraid but they lack experience. Some of the Italian Admirals are good friends of mine and they are capable men but they have the Latin temperament. The Italians cannot handle ships.
Although writing at the behest of the British, Schniewind and Schuster (who seem to have collaborated on their paper) found the war's decisive factor on the far side of the Atlantic:
The entry of a nation like the US.A. into the war, as may be concluded in the light of subsequent knowledge, but that was definitely not recognized at the end of 1941, really meant the final overthrow of Germany's prospects of victory Tests were indeed madepartly at the instigation of the naval war staff and based upon research carried out during the 1914-18 warto determine the arms potential of the US.A., how much her steel production could be increased under war conditions, and how her achievements in the construction of warships and merchant ships, in the production of arms and ammunition, her potentiality for building up an army and obtaining the necessary manpower could he estimated.
Of course, given that the admirals were writing while in Allied custodysome facing prosecution, some attempting to curry favor, some obfuscating their roles, all without access to their wartime filesnot every word can be taken at face value. Blame is often apportioned elsewhere, but seldom do any of the writers admit to making mistakes themselves. Even at the end, in the final chapter, when the admirals assess reasons for defeat and lessons learned, only one man suggests that possibly National Socialism was at the root of the problem. More typically, the admirals seem to think that others let them down, that Hitler was right all along, and that the Allies would soon require a reborn, strengthened Germany to stand against the "Asiatics." Skipping most of his distasteful racial and cultural assessments, here's what Boehm has to say:
[This] English statement, two months after the end of the Second World War, that one is face with a Third World War is the best proof, even if it is undesired, that Germany is not the disturber of world peace but that it is an entirely different problemAsia versus Europe. The real fact is that National Socialism wanted nothing more than to secure for Germany and her compressed population a clearance of her eastern frontiers and more Lebensraum in that direction after the Treaty of Versailles had taken all from us. And, even here, an extension of her territory toward the east could never have constituted a warlike threat to the British Empire, such as now exists from Russia. With this thought in mind, Hitler's words, "I cannot imagine that any British statesman would bring England into the war in these circumstance" are quite comprehensible.
As Isby's books already prove, writings by German officers in Allied hands need to be treated carefully, but Bennett and Bennett (unlike Isby) provide ample counter-point to the admirals when needed. The editors also succeed very nicelydare we say admirably?in allowing the writers to have their say while fitting their thoughts into a larger, annotated context. Anyone who wants a window into the thinking of the upper levels of the Kriegsmarine, or at least what they wanted their captors to believe they were thinking, will appreciate Hitler's Admirals.
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Reviewed 19 September 2004
Reviewed 19 September 2004
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