Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page

Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 18c - The Navy Command

The U-boat flotilla in Flanders was first established on March 15, 1915. As many as 37 U-boats had belonged to it at one and the same time. The great results attained by this flotilla were achieved at the expense of heavy losses; no other flotilla suffered such losses, and against it the enemy's most vigorous defence was directed.

In addition to this, two flotillas of large torpedo-boats and many mine-sweepers had been active off Flanders. They had made their mark in numerous night raids on the coast of the English Channel, and the bombardment of fortified places like Margate, Dover and Dunkirk; they had also been continually occupied in clearing away the barriers laid by the English to prevent our U-boats from coming out. Among the torpedo-boats the losses due to mines and bombs dropped by flying men were appreciably higher than those in the other theatres of war.

The evacuation of the shipyard at Bruges and the establishments at Zeebrugge had been carried out according to plan and without interference. The ships had returned through the North Sea to Wilhelmshaven; eleven large and thirteen small torpedoboats; all U-boats excepting four had already been dispatched to the North Sea and had arrived there without incident. Four other torpedoboats, which required some repairs before being ready for sea, were to follow within the next few days. Four U-boats and two large torpedo-boats had to be destroyed as they were not in a condition to be transported. In the shipyard at Ghent there were three large torpedo-boats whose condition made it impossible to take them into the North Sea. These were to be taken to Antwerp and either blown up or interned in Holland. The fast torpedo motor-boats which had distinguished themselves as lately as August by a successful raid on Dunkirk, had gone to Antwerp and were sent on from there by rail to Kiel. The sea-planes of the Naval Corps had made their way by air back to the North Sea. The aeroplanes and the rest of the Naval material that was capable of employment in the field went over to Army Command IV. Of the heavy guns on the sea-front only ten 29 cm. guns running on rails could be transported; all the others had to be blown up when the batteries were evacuated.

Just as the retirement on our West Front resulted in the abandonment of the base in Flanders, so events in the Balkans led to a withdrawal of our forces there as soon as the Turks concluded a separate peace, and we could no longer dispose of the U-boat bases in the Adriatic.

The battle-cruiser Goeben was the last reserve in the defence of the Dardanelles. Turkey had our promise that the ship should be handed over to her after the war. Therefore there could be no question of withdrawing the ship until there was danger of her falling into British hands. The Imperial Chancellor had admitted that this must be avoided for the sake of our military reputation. Consequently the officer in command in the Mediterranean, Vice-Admiral von Rebeur-Paschwitz, had received orders to send the Goeben to Sebastopol if her further stay in Constantinople would be of no use.

Some of our naval mechanics stationed at Sebastopol had tried to make seaworthy the warships which the Russians had handed over to us in accordance with the terms of the treaty, but they met with great difficulties owing to the neglected condition of the ships. Among these were the battleship Volya and several torpedo-boats and mine-sweepers which we wanted put in order to assist in the transport of large numbers of troops that were to be taken across the Black Sea from the Caucasus and Southern Russia to Roumanian ports. But the development of events in Turkey was such that the idea of keeping the Goeben was abandoned. In order to secure better armistice conditions for the transport of our troops fighting in Syria, our Government decided to hand the Goeben over to Turkey. The English had made this one of the main conditions, so as to be able to get possession of the ship.

In the Mediterranean our U-boats were busy until well on into October; at the same time all preparations were made to evacuate Pola and Cattaro, in good time. The officer in command there, Captain Pullen, was left to decide as to this on his own responsibility. On October 28 the boats that were ready for sea began their journey home to Germany.

Altogether there were 26 of them there, of which 10 had to be blown up because they could not be made ready in time.

The further continuation of the U-boat campaign, if it should appear desirable, was thus dependent on the home bases-in the North Sea and the Baltic-and from these points it could have been directed against the shipping off the French coast and round the British Isles. In this case the whole strength of the U-boats could have been concentrated on this one main object.

The new Government formed at the beginning of October, under Prince Max of Baden as Imperial Chancellor, had approached President Wilson with a request for the conclusion of peace; at the same time they had undertaken to secure the cessation of hostilities as quickly as possible, and to obtain acceptable conditions of peace. But the manner in which they addressed themselves to this task, and their attitude during the negotiations, did not lead to the desired goal. The ever-increasing desire of our enemies to reduce our power of resistance till we were helpless was manifest in these negotiations. If the Government had determined to put a stop to the unduly exorbitant demands in good time, they might have secured important turning points in our fate, as the Imperial Chancellor had promised in his opening speech on October 5. On that occasion he concluded as follows:

"I know that the result of the peace proposals will find Germany determined and united, ready to accept not only an honest peace which repudiates any violation of the rights of others, but also for a struggle to the death which would be forced on our people through no fault of their own, if the answer which the Powers at war with us make to our offer should be dictated by the desire to annihilate us."

The decisions which the Government reached, and the information and advice supplied by the proper military quarters, may be summarised as follows:

To our first request for mediation with a view to peace, sent on October 5; on October 8 we received the answer :

"No armistice negotiations so long as the German armies remain upon enemy soil."

On October 12 the reply from our Government:

"We are prepared to accept the enemy's suggestions for evacuation, in order to bring about an armistice."

Wilson's next Note of October 14 contained the demand:

"Cessation of U-boat hostilities against passenger ships and change of the form of Government in Germany."

The German Government's reply of October 21

"U-boats have received orders which exclude the torpedoing of passenger ships, and with regard to the form of Government: The responsibility of the Imperial Chancellor to the representatives of the people is being legally developed and made secure."

Thereupon the answer from Wilson on October 23:

"Only such an armistice can justifiably be taken into consideration as will place the United States and the Powers allied to them in a position which will make it possible for them to enforce the fulfilment of dispositions that shall be made, and make it impossible for Germany to renew hostilities. Further, the demand that the Monarchy shall be abolished is plainly expressed, otherwise peace negotiations cannot be contemplated, but complete surrender will be demanded."

The attitude of the Supreme Army Command was responsible for the acceptance of the first demand for the evacuation of occupied territory, and it had signified its agreement with the text of our reply in our Note of October 12. No decisive influence could be exerted by the fears of the Navy regarding the danger which would threaten our industrial relations and also our U-boat base in Emden with the withdrawal from tile Western Front; for the Army was unable to give any guarantee that it would be able to hold the Western Front in its then advanced position. That was the immediate reason why an armistice was needed. In order to satisfy this need, the Navy had agreed to stop the U-boat war during the Armistice, although the enemy would derive the most advantage from that, if at the same time the English blockade were not raised or considerably loosened.

But Wilson's new claim on October 14 went much further, for the demand that passenger boats should be spared must result in practice in the cessation of the U-boat campaign. Wilson, however, did not offer in return to cease hostilities, but had declared that he would not enter upon negotiations if this preliminary condition were not fulfilled by us. In so doing we should lay aside our chief weapon, while the enemy could continue hostilities and drag out the negotiations as long as he pleased.

It was to be expected that the Government would agree to sparing the passenger steamers, for this concession seemed insignificant. But its consequences might be very serious, for, according to former experience, if the U-boats were again reduced to cruiser warfare, their effectiveness was lost, and so far as one could see, it would be impossible, if hostilities continued, for us to resume the unrestricted U-boat campaign. The following, therefore, was the attitude adopted by the Navy to the new Note: "Sacrifice the U-boat campaign if - in return - our Army obtains an armistice; otherwise, we strongly disadvise compliance."

On October 16 I had occasion to visit the new Imperial Chancellor and to communicate my views to him, which he seemed to understand and share. He invited me to the conference of the War Cabinet which was to take place the next morning in the Imperial Chancellor's palace, when General Ludendorff would report on the military situation upon which the Government had decided to make their attitude to Wilson's Note depend.

The statements made on this occasion as to our powers of resistance were calculated to weaken the unfavourable impression of those made on September 29. The answer to be sent was discussed on broad lines. We were unanimous on the point that the accusations of inhumanity, etc., must be repudiated. The devastation of districts that were to be evacuated was a consequence of the war, so was the killing of non-combatants who went on ships into the blockaded areas. It should be suggested to the President that he should put an end to the horrors of war on land and sea by effecting an immediate armistice, and that he should clearly state his conditions. Germany was not prepared to accept conditions which would dishonour her. The fact was also emphasised that the tone of our answer would have a great influence upon the moral of the people and the Army.

It would now become manifest whether the President intended to negotiate honestly on the basis of his Fourteen Points, or whether he wanted to make our military situation worse than was permissible by prolonging the negotiations unduly and by constantly increasing his demands. In the latter case, the German people must be ready to take up the fight for national defence and continue it to the death. Such was the lofty mood of the members of the Government and their military advisers at the end of the session.

The next day I had occasion to report to His Majesty at Potsdam; he had already been informed by General Ludendorff of the outcome of the conference. Confident that the Government would not alter the decision arrived at on October 17, General Ludendorff had returned to General Headquarters. I considered it necessary to obtain the Emperor's approval for the further actions of the Fleet in case, for any reason, we should after all be forced to abandon the U-boat campaign, either temporarily or permanently. In these circumstances the obligations imposed on the Fleet by the necessity for protecting the U-boats would disappear. If hostilities at the Front continued, it would be neither possible nor permissible for the Fleet to look on idly; it would have to try and relieve the Army to the best of its abilities. His Majesty agreed that in this case the Fleet would have freedom of action.

At the conclusion of my interview, a remark made by the representative of the Foreign Office, Counsellor of the Legation von Grunau, had struck me as odd. He had asked my Chief of Staff, Commodore von Levetzow, who accompanied me, whether there could not be a statement in the Note to the effect that the U-boat campaign would in future be conducted on the lines of cruiser warfare. According to that, the Foreign Office had not adopted the view that the cessation of the U-boat campaign was to be offered in exchange for the Armistice. I therefore determined to stay in Berlin so as to make sure that the text of the reply Note was in accordance with the decisions made on October 17.

On October 19 the War Cabinet deliberated upon this Note prepared by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Solf. Contrary to what had been agreed upon on October 17 it contained the sentence :

"The U-boat campaign will now be carried on upon the principles of cruiser warfare, and the safety of the lives of noncombatants will be assured."

The Vice-Chancellor, von Payer, opposed this draft most vigorously, as it was equivalent to an admission that our actions hitherto were contrary to law. "The U-boat campaign," he said, "must not be abandoned; the Navy must not stop fighting before the Army. Moreover, the whole tone of the Note misrepresented the feeling in the country." The Secretaries of State, Groeber and Erzberger, spoke to the same effect.

I made a counter-proposal based on the principle that the U-boat campaign must only be sacrificed in return for the Armistice. It ran as follows:

"The German Government has declared its readiness to evacuate the occupied territories. It further declares its willingness to stop the U-boat campaign. In so doing it assumes that the details of these proceedings and the conditions of the Armistice must be judged and discussed by military experts."

The majority of the representatives of the Government were in favour of the point of view defended by von Payer and myself, and Dr. Solf received instructions to draft a new Note to this effect to be laid before the Cabinet at its afternoon session.

Before this took place, the Ambassadors, Count Wolff Metternich, Count von Brockdorff-Rantzau, and Dr. Rozen, were invited to express their views; the representatives of the Navy were not present. Their statements very soon brought about a complete change in the views of the Cabinet. They now urged that the U-boat campaign should be sacrificed without any return being demanded. The new draft Note unconditionally consented to spare passenger ships.

I again emphatically expressed my grave fears with regard to this dangerous concession, pointing out that by omitting to fix any time-limit they made it possible for Wilson to prolong the negotiations, while the U-boat campaign must, as a fact, cease, and the pressure upon the Army would continue. By conceding this we should admit that we had hitherto acted wrongfully, and would set free hundreds of thousands of people in England who had so far been bound by the U-boat campaign. But I did not succeed in getting my view accepted; even the telegram sent to the Imperial Chancellor by the Supreme Army Command that they could not in any circumstances dispense with the U-boat campaign as a means of obtaining an armistice could not alter the decision of the Cabinet. They were all firmly convinced that they could not justify themselves before the German people if negotiations with Wilson were broken off, and that this would, be inevitable if we did not unconditionally concede what was demanded of us.

The form of the Note determined at an evening session contained the sentence:

" In order to avoid anything that might make the attainment of peace more difficult, at the instigation of the German Government all U-boat commanders have been strictly forbidden to torpedo passenger ships."

I declared to the War Cabinet that if we were loyally to carry out this concession, all U-boats sent out to make war upon commerce must immediately be recalled.

I required the consent of the Emperor to issue this order. As His Majesty was convinced of the serious military consequences, he used his personal influence to try and induce the Imperial Chancellor to alter the decision of the Cabinet. But the Emperor did not succeed in making the Chancellor change his opinions, so that His Majesty then informed me through the Deputy Chief of the Ministry of Marine that the Imperial Chancellor had represented the situation as such that the U-boat campaign must be abandoned.

An attempt on my part to make the Imperial Chancellor at least put a time limit for the concession in the Note in the same manner became fruitless. He declared that we were not in a position to make conditions, and the Navy must bow to the inevitable and at all costs avoid provocative incidents. I assured the Chancellor that we should do our best and that all U-boats should be recalled from the campaign against commerce. This decision as to the limitation of the U-boat campaign was very important because the further operative measures of the Navy Command depended upon it; the High Sea Fleet must again now obtain complete freedom of action.

So long as hostilities continued at the front, and there was for the present no indication of their ceasing, the Navy must not remain entirely inactive, while the attacks of the enemy on our Western Front grew ever fiercer, unhindered by any fear of U-boats. A success at sea must have a favourable influence upon the terms of peace, and would help to encourage the people; for the demands of the enemy would depend on the powers of resistance that we were. prepared to oppose to them, and upon the consideration whether their own power was sufficiently great to enforce their demands. Anything that would impair their power must be to our advantage.

The U-boats liberated from the commercial war materially increased the Fleet's power of attack, and by choosing the point of attack wisely it was highly probable an expedition of the Fleet might achieve a favourable result. If the Fleet suffered losses, it was to be assumed that the enemy's injuries would be in proportion, and that we should still have sufficient forces to protect the U-boat campaign in the North Sea, which would have to be resumed if the negotiations should make imperative a continuation of the struggle with all the means at our disposal.

On October 21, when the Note had been dispatched to President Wilson, the U-boats received orders of recall, and my Chief of Staff, Commodore von Levetzow, was commissioned to inform the Fleet Command in Wilhelmshaven of the course of the negotiations, and to take to them the order of the Navy Command: "The forces of the High Sea Fleet are to be made ready for attack and battle with the English Fleet." The Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, Admiral von Hipper, had already drawn up plans for such a proceeding, as its necessity was foreseen. A plan directed against the English Channel received the preference and my assent; it was to be carried out as soon as possible. The execution, however, had to be delayed for a few days owing to necessary preparations; the U-boats had to be sent to their stations, and the cruisers fitted out with mines to be laid along the enemy's probable line of approach. The Fleet was finally assembled for this enterprise in the outer roads of Wilhelmshaven on October 28.

Meanwhile, at noon on October 24, President Wilson's reply had been made known, and this quite clearly demanded complete capitulation. Animated by the same views as the Supreme Army Command I went with my Chief of Staff together with the General Field-Marshal and General Ludendorff (on the former's invitation) to Berlin, in order to be on the spot in case we were wanted for the deliberations arising from the new situation. We could not imagine that the Government could do otherwise than reply to this new demand of Wilson's by a direct refusal, consonant with the honour of the nation and its power of resistance.

Immediately on their arrival in Berlin in the afternoon of the 25th, the General Field-Marshal and General Ludendorff had been sent for by the Emperor. At this interview General Ludendorff received the impression that the Emperor would adhere to the suggestions of the Government, so that all that was left to us was to discover from the Vice-Chancellor, von Payer (the Imperial Chancellor himself had fallen ill), what decisions the Government would take.

This interview took place in the evening of the 25th, but its results were entirely negative. In spite of the most urgent arguments on the part of General Ludendorff, which the General FieldMarshal and I endorsed, it was impossible to convince von Payer that our national honour and our honour as soldiers made it imperative that we should refuse Wilson's exorbitant conditions. The Field-Marshal and General Ludendorff declared they would hold the Western Front through the winter. It was in vain. Herr von Payer would not believe Ludendorff's assertions; he wanted to hear the opinion of other generals at the front. But, above all, he had lost all faith in the powers of resistance of the people and the Army.

The discussion had to be broken off without result, as the ViceChancellor could not be moved to make any concessions. Even when asked if, when the full conditions-in so far as they were tantamount to capitulation-came into force, the people would not be called upon to make a last struggle, Herr Payer only answered: "We must first see what the situation would then be."

At an interview the next morning, granted by His Majesty to the Field-Marshal and General Ludendorff, the latter tendered his resignation, which the Emperor accepted.

The Government's answer to Wilson's latest demand was as follows:

"The German Government has duly noted the reply of the President of the United States. The President is aware of the fundamental changes that have taken place and are still taking place in the German Constitution. The peace negotiations will be carried on by a Government of the people, in whose hands the decisive power actually and constitutionally lies. The military forces are also subject to it. The German Government, therefore, looks forward to the proposals for an armistice, which shall lead to a peace of justice, such as the President has defined in his utterances."

The expectation that the negotiations would take a favourable course, as the Government seemed to imagine, was doomed to disappointment. General Ludendorff's prophecy was amply fulfilled; he predicted that if we continued to yield, the end must be disastrous, because the Government had neglected to steel the will of the people for a supreme effort.

But we suffered the bitterest disappointment at the hands of the crews of the Fleet. Thanks to an unscrupulous agitation which had been fermenting for a long time, the idea had taken root in their minds that they were to be uselessly sacrificed. They were encouraged in this mistaken belief, because they could see no indication of a will to decisive action in the bearing of the Government. Insubordination broke out when, on October 29, the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet was making preparations to weigh anchor for the planned attack. As always, the intentions and aim of the expedition had been kept secret from the crews, until they were at sea. The mutiny was at first confined to a few battleships and first class cruisers, but it assumed such dimensions on these ships that the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet thought it incumbent upon him to desist from his project. By seizing the agitators and imprisoning them in the meantime in Wilhelmshaven, he hoped that the ships could be calmed down. The crews of the torpedo-boats and the U-boats had remained thoroughly loyal.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet reported these events to the Navy Command on November 2, saying that they were due to a Bolshevist movement, directed by members of the Independent Social Democratic Party, on board the ships. As a means of agitation, they had made use of the statement that the Government wanted peace and the officers did not. Every provocation of the enemy by attacks of the Fleet would hinder the peace; that was why the officers wanted to continue the offensive. The officers wanted to take the Fleet out and allow it to be annihilated, or even annihilate it themselves.

Since October 29, when the first signs of dissatisfaction had become manifest, the movement had continued to spread, so that he did not think it possible to undertake an offensive with the Fleet. The Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, therefore, detached the individual groups, sending Squadron III to the Jade to place them in the keeping of the commanding officers there.

After that, quiet seemed to prevail again in Wilhelmshaven; but when Squadron III reached Kiel, disturbances broke out there on the evening of November 1. The Governor, Admiral Souchon, succeeded in preserving order for a little while, but on November 3 the disturbances grew, because they met with no vigorous opposition. Even the deputies sent by the Government to Kiel could not achieve any permanent improvement in the situation; just as little effect was produced by the proclamation of His Majesty the Emperor which the Imperial Chancellor now published, and which announced his complete agreement with the Government. Energetic measures against the agitators, which might at the beginning have met with success, were only possible under the protection of strong bodies of troops which the Ministry of War dispatched. But the troops proved untrustworthy. Nor did they arrive in sufficient numbers to produce the desired effect.

I have no official reports of the details of the Revolution which soon blazed up at all the Naval stations, for the military authorities were deprived of their power of command. The instructions issued by the Navy Command to the commanding officers to sink ships hoisting the red flag were not forwarded. They would, at least, have been of guidance to such officers who were in doubt as to what they should do, if they still possessed the power to do anything. Nothing but energetic action on the part of the superior officers who were on the spot could have saved the situation. Whether they failed in their duty, or whether the extent of the movement was underestimated, is an open question. Only when the history of the Revolution is written shall we get full information on the point. The evil-doers who picked out the Fleet as the means by which to attain their ends committed a terrible crime against the German nation. They deprived it of the weapon which at the decisive hour might have saved us from the fate which now weighs upon us so intolerably.


  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.