Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War/Chapter 18
AT the end of June, 1918, Admiral von Miiller, the Chief of the Emperor's Naval Cabinet, informed me that Admiral von Holtzendorff's state of health made it improbable that he would be able to hold the post of Chief of the Admiralty Staff much longer. In this event His Majesty had designated me as his probable successor.
This information released me from the obligatipn that had hitherto prevented me from suggesting a change of organisation in the department which had directed the conduct of the war at sea. The system was a failure, was not very popular in the Navy, and our success was less than we had a right to expect. I could not very well recommend myself as head of this department, all the more so as the command of the Fleet involved personal danger, and I did not care to avoid this by getting a position on land. Even the very frank discussions which had taken place between the Chief of the Naval Staff and myself had not resulted in the full satisfaction of the demands of the Fleet. My personal relations with Admiral von Holtzendorff enabled me to speak to him without reserve. We had grown pretty intimate by serving together on the same ships at different times. We were thrown together at sea for the first time in 1884 - 86 on board the cruiser Bismarck, the flagship of Rear- Admiral von Knorr, when we went to West Africa, East Africa and the South Seas to visit our colonies there. After that I was navigating officer in 1895 - 96 in the cruiser Prinz Wilhelm, which Holtzendorff, a commander at the time, commanded on a cruise to the Far East. Later on he offered me the post of Chief of the Staff of the High Sea Fleet, which I held for two years, 1909 - 11, under his command as Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. On all these occasions I had learnt to appreciate his personality and his capacity as a leader. For this reason I was grieved at the particular cause for the change, but as the spell was broken I urged the Chief of the Naval Cabinet to accomplish it in any case.
I had no occasion to complain of undue influence or limitation of the Fleet by the Chief of the Naval Staff. But his position was not clear; he seemed to us to yield too much to political pressure. The conduct of the U-boat campaign was typical of it. Even at this moment there were serious differences of opinion as to the way it should be carried on. The forces of the Navy were scattered over the various theatres of war, and the Commanders of the Fleet could not see any necessity for this. The Fleet formed a sort of reservoir which was to satisfy all demands for personnel. Naturally there was great opposition to any withdrawal of personnel from the Navy, unless it was clearly conducive to the main aim of the war. But that aim could only be achieved by the Fleet and the U-boats, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet felt himself responsible for this.
There was no post of command superior to his, where full responsibility could be taken for the success of the conduct of war at sea. For the Naval Staff was not a Supreme Command, but an organ of the Emperor as the Supreme War Lord, which could not be bothered with details of the conduct of the war. The relation of the Naval Staff to the Navy was not the same as that of the Supreme Army Command to the Army on land. If, for instance, a plan of campaign in Romania is carried out successfully, that is essentially to the credit of the Supreme Army Command, for it correctly estimated the strength and capability of troops and leaders, and set them a task proportionate to their abilities. In the war at sea the Naval Staff apportioned the existing ships and boats to the different fields of operation- the Baltic, the North Sea, or Flanders, the Mediterranean or foreign parts, and had to leave the officers in command there to act independently in accordance with their general instructions. On land the Supreme Command permanently controlled the war operations; this was not the case at sea. If the Fleet had been defeated in battle, no one would have dreamt of making the Naval Staff responsible, but only the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. But there was need of some body which should regulate the distribution of forces with a view to some definite end, and not leave the success of naval activities to the individual admirals in command in the different theatres of war.
The U-boat campaign had further complicated matters, because all independent officers in command had U-boats assigned to them, and the Chief of the Naval Staff had even placed certain of them, e.g. the U-cruisers, under his own immediate command. There was need of exchange among the different groups. The development ought to be regulated on uniform lines, and the experiences gained by the individual commanders in their boats, including those who specialised on the technical side, ought to be made of benefit to all. Finally, the personnel of all the new boats, at any rate all the officers and petty officers, had to be drawn from the Fleet.
That meant that the Chief of the Naval Staff must be included in the number of those commanders who were directly responsible for the conduct of the war. We felt the lack of a Supreme Command whose orders must be unhesitatingly obeyed. Our organisation in peace time had not foreseen this. In the year 1899 the Supreme Command of the Navy had been done away with, because at that time two powerful authorities, generally pulling in different directions, were detrimental to the development and building up of the Navy. The Secretary of State, von Tirpitz, did not feel able successfully to carry through the policy requisite Tor the steady development and growth of the Fleet unless it corresponded in every particular with his own convictions. The result was that the Naval Staff, which was all that was left untouched when the Supreme Command of the Navy was abolished, had been thrown into the shade, and the men appointed as Chiefs of the Staff were not for the most part such as would, in case of war, have the authority of chosen leaders, who had proved 1 their ability as commanders of the Fleet.
When the Supreme Command ceased to exist the commanders of the Fleet demanded more and more independence. They did not pay any attention to strategic questions in peace time; tactics and development gave full occupation to their activities. The Fleet commanders' chief responsibility in the war lay in the apportionment of the most important units of the sea forces, for the aim of naval warfare is to deal the enemy Fleet a destructive blow. Success depends mainly on the skill of the leader. He must be thoroughly familiar with the handling and the capabilities of his weapon - the Fleet. How to bring about the encounter with the enemy must be left to him. Neither the place nor the time can be fixed beforehand. For in contradistinction to the war on land, the position and strength of the enemy are unknown.
Consequently it was thought that more or less indefinite general directibns would suffice, which the Naval Staff had to suggest and transmit to the Fleet as orders from the Emperor, based on the Staff's strategic considerations. This had been a mistake. The organisation which had appeared useful for the building up of the Fleet in peace time hampered the ability of the Fleet in war. The war at sea grew too extensive to be carried on under the personal guidance of the Emperor, as it should have been in view of the relation of the Supreme Naval authorities to one another. Politics, technical matters, and strategy were all closely connected in this. The war against commerce also, which we had to adopt, influenced our relations with the neutrals. Technical considerations were involved in the decision as to whether we were to build submarine or surface ships, but this again was dependent on the course of our Naval strategy.
When it was realised that England did not intend to put matters to the test in a battle, then the time had come to institute a Supreme Command; all the more so when, towards the end of 1914, the views of the Commanders of the Fleet, the Naval Staff and the Secretary of State upon the course we should pursue were all divergent. Energetic measures should then have been taken to provide the Navy with the leadership it required. Grand-Admiral von Tirpitz himself was the most suitable person, for the Fleet would have willingly subordinated itself to him, although he lacked actual experience in handling it. That, however, was not a point of the greatest importance, as the Fleet Commander had that experience. The point was to co-ordinate and make use of all the forces which could contribute to the achievement of the Navy's aim. The fact that the Grand Admiral was not appointed Supreme Commander of the Navy was no doubt in part due to the differences between him and the Chancellor. These grew more acute owing to our vacillating policy in the U-boat campaign. When Tirpitz was no longer allowed to exercise his influence in all-important questions touching the conduct of the war, and he was not consulted as to the decision with regard to the U-boat campaign in March, 1916, he, who had worked so admirably in organising our Fleet, felt compelled to resign.
As the war was prolonged it became more difficult to provide personnel and material for all the new exigencies; our warfare extended to far distant parts, and there was a danger of diluting the forces collected in the Fleet. The harder our task became, the more the difficulties that were put in our way. There was delay in the repair of ships and U-boats, in the delivery of new vessels, in the fulfilment of urgent demands and improvements. The Auxiliary Service Law was not calculated to increase the power of production of the workpeople, and this also suffered from the deterioration in food. It cost endless trouble to obtain from the Army Command technical workmen who were badly needed. Naturally urgent Army needs had the preference. But convincing representation of the needs of the Navy might have met with success in many cases, for goodwill and understanding were certainly not lacking in the sister service.
Between the Admiral in command of the Naval Corps, the officer in Supreme Command of the Baltic, and the Fleet, absolute understanding and the most friendly spirit prevailed whenever help was asked for. But that was a lengthy way of arranging matters, and was an insufficient substitute for a Supreme Command that could overlook the whole situation and give orders accordingly.
The gradual decline in the monthly sinkings accomplished by the U-boats filled one with anxiety. Many a U-boat with a splendid and experienced commander did not return. The new commanders had to gain experience under considerably less favourable conditions.
Day by day the commanders of the Fleet noted down the positions of every single U-boat; its departure and return were followed with care and suspense. All our thoughts centred on finding ways and means to keep up the standard of their achievements and to increase them. There was never a day when we were at sea that the commanders of the Fleet did not discuss this with the officer in command of the U-boats and his Staff of picked professional men. We felt that we were responsible for the attainment of such an end to the war as had been promised to the German people, and that we could achieve it by this means alone. The Fleet was animated by one sole idea - we must and will succeed. Every single vessel, battleship, torpedo-boat, minesweeper, cruiser and airship, with their crews- all were permeated with the gravity and importance of this task which I impressed on officers and men on every occasion. New forces must be found which would undertake to complete the work, which threatened to be a failure when handled as hitherto by the Naval Staff and the Naval Cabinet.
A change of Secretary of State (Admiral von Capelle) seemed also very desirable. It was not to be expected that a man who was convinced that he had done all that was humanly possible would pledge himself, without reserve, to carry out new proposals which would bring him into opposition with his previous conduct of affairs.
It had taken six months of urging, from July, 1917, to December of the same year, before a central organisation for U-boats - the U-boat Office, demanded by the Fleet Command - had been instituted. Such was the delay in carrying out demands or suggestions as the case might be - whether they referred to personnel, armament, or technical matters pertaining to ship-building and so on; the working of the different departments was inadequate for the needs of the times.
Though I was bound to the Fleet by such close ties, yet I was ready to take over the post of Chief of the Naval Staff, provided that in that capacity I should have definite powers of command. The Chief of the Naval Cabinet objected that the Emperor would never consent to give up the Supreme Command - a point on which I never insisted - but his doubts were not justified. For the Emperor consented to the request without hesitation. It was of course under- stood that the Supreme War Lord should be informed of the general trend of matters and of important projects, and that his consent should be obtained thereto. The practice hitherto followed of giving orders in the Emperor's name on matters outside His Majesty's sphere of interest was rather derogatory to the dignity of the Imperial Supreme Command. This incident proves how little foundation there was for some reports as to the Emperor's attitude, reports which emanated from those in his immediate entourage, and easily led to unpleasant decisions being kept from him.
I had such an experience when commanding the Fleet in January, 1917. The matter in question was the design of a new first-class battleship. I happened to be in Berlin for a consultation at the Admiralty, and the Emperor had commanded my presence when the Secretary of State made his report, the Chief of the Naval Staff also attending. The Secretary of State brought two designs for the projected ship, a so-called battleship-cruiser; that is to say, a ship which should combine the qualities of both kinds of ship - gun-power, power of resistance and speed.
Unless such a ship were of gigantic dimensions none of these qualities could be fully developed. This was the reason why up till then two distinct types had been built; the cruiser, with powerful guns, and high speed attained at the expense of its power of resistance, and the battleship, with the most powerful guns, and great powers of resistance at the expense of its speed.
The Emperor had repeatedly stated that he considered it necessary to merge these two types in one; hence these designs. The principle of the ship uniting all these qualities was to be accepted, but a choice was to be made between the two designs for carrying this into effect. The Chief of the Naval Staff and the Secretary of State were of opinion that the Emperor would not budge from what they supposed to be his attitude towards the matter, and they urged me to submit to it. But I had expressed myself to the contrary beforehand, and I repeated my arguments. The Emperor was soon convinced by our war experiences that we must continue to have two types of fighting ships with different speeds, and the Secretary of State thereupon received orders to have new designs made on the old lines that had proved successful - much to the gratification of his Chief Constructor.
Nor was it ever my experience that the Emperor rejected unpleasant information. In the two months of September and October, 1918, the unfavourable reports far outnumbered all others; His Majesty always received them with the greatest calm and common sense.
If I had foreseen the rapid development of events I would have preferred remaining with the Fleet rather than organising the conduct of the war at sea, for my plans never reached fulfilment. Nor do I think it impossible that I might have succeeded in making the Fleet obey my orders and exert its full powers at the eleventh hour. My only excuse for this lack of foresight lies in the fact that my observation of the spirit of the crews was based on the undiminished readiness to undertake any warlike enterprise which they had always shown up to then, and further that no hint of the widespread disintegration in our domestic conditions ever reached the leaders of the Fleet from any reliable political source, just as little as it reached the Admiralty later on.
On July 28 I was summoned to General Headquarters at Spa; Admiral von Holtzendorff had again, on the advice of his doctor, asked His Majesty to relieve him of his post, and his request had been granted. At the same time a decision was to be reached as to whether the U-boat campaign should be extended to America. The Naval Staff had urgently recommended the declaration of a blockade of the American coast, as this was a necessary preliminary to carrying out a successful U-boat campaign. As the chief ports concerned all lay on a strip of 300 nautical miles in length, it was thought that it would be easier to get at the traffic there. The troopships - the immense supplies that went from America to the Western theatre of war, and the large amount of coast traffic from South to North America were to be attacked there.
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs made strong objection to the declaration of this blockade. If Chile and the Argentine were thereby also induced to join the Entente, Spain would follow, and that was the only country that still protected German interests abroad. Quite apart from the political reasons urged by the Foreign Secretary, I did not think it probable that any good could result from extending the war to the American coast; for the declaration of a blockade entailed vigorous and decisive warfare. We could not count on stationing more than three boats there until the end of the year. No great success could be expected from that, especially as there was the added risk of the long voyage out. Moreover, to carry the war over to America would open prospects of an extension of the war that were out of proportion to our strength. Ours was a war of defence in Europe. America's interference in this quarrel was contrary to all her best traditions. No doubt there were a great number of intelligent Americans who did not approve of America's taking part, when they calmly and impartially considered the circumstances that had led to the world-war. Perhaps they remembered their own subjection - the manner in which England, their Mother Country, had deprived them of freedom, and how they had fought for their independence and successfully gained it with German assistance. If American troops were injured off the French and English coasts that was but the inevitable result of American interference in European quarrels.
But the feeling against us in that country would be very different if we began an enterprise which we had not the power to carry through successfully, and which must have an unnecessarily irritating effect. Three U-boats off the American coast could effect no essential amelioration in the results of our U-boat campaign. The decision in that campaign would be reached simply and solely by reduction of tonnage, and it must be sought in the main blockade area round England.
The officer commanding the U-boats was quite of my opinion that every possibility of adding to the achievements in this area must be made use of. From all the seas ships crowded to the British Isles. It was easier to deal an effective blow there than to follow the far-reaching trade routes, and try to attack them at their points of departure. And if an American transport now and then fell a victim to a U-boat on setting out from the American coast, that would not ward off the danger which threatened us from that source. It would be very easy for the transports to get through the dangerous strip near the coast by night, or to gain the open sea at any time under protection. We had learnt in the Franco-British blockaded area, where all the trade routes of the oceans meet, how difficult it was to pick out the transports from among all the other shipping for attack. If, for that purpose, we directed our main attention to the southern ports of France, as had been tried several times, the traffic was simply diverted as soon as the U-boat danger became manifest, and our U-boats were stationed there in vain, and achieved no results in the war against commerce. It was only by concentrating our activities on the main area round England that we could ensure success by sufficiently intensifying the ever-growing lack of means of transport, the effects of which were evident in so many directions. The French ports were not, however, left unmolested, and the mine- layers in particular were busy there. The increase in the number of seaworthy and efficient U-cruisers that could stay at sea for months ought to bring more success in our activities against English convoy traffic. They were able to seek the convoys far out at sea, to keep in touch with them, and call up a considerable number of U-boats, as soon as their sphere of activity was reached. Hitherto the attempts at co-operation between the smaller U-boats without U-cruisers had been a failure because of the lack of suitable boats to lead them.
We had long desired to apply to the U-boat war the principles of scouting and keeping in touch, which were applied by the surface warships. Now we had the opportunity to do so, and we must not let it slip by diverting the boats suitable for this purpose to a far distant field of operations. That was the decisive factor which induced me to oppose the declaration of a blockade of the American coast, and the scheme was accordingly abandoned. The Supreme Army Command did not care what means the Navy used, so long as it achieved success. Their desire to have more transports sunk could only be realised by raising the total number of sinkings. The U-boat must attack whatever happened to come within range of her tubes. Naturally the enemy protected the transports especially well, and took 'them through the danger zone at times which were most awkward for the U-boats.
The greater the number of steamers sunk the more likelihood there was that a transport would be sunk. We should more quickly attain our end with the U-boat campaign by keeping the blockaded area round England and the coast of France under the greatest possible pressure than by extending the blockaded area to include the American coast.
August 11 was the date fixed for me to take over the affairs of the Naval Staff. Before that I had to take leave of the Fleet. I had to hand over the command to my successor and make all preparations for the organisation of the conduct of the war at sea. Admiral von Hipper had been chosen as commander of the Fleet. His great experience in matters appertaining to the Fleet, his efficiency in all the tactical situations in which he had found himself with his cruisers, seemed to point to him as the most suitable person to whom I could confidently hand over the weapon from which I never thought to be separated in this life. The signs of faithful affection shown to me by the Fleet made my parting no easier, but I hoped to be able to continue to serve it in my new position. I felt the parting from my Staff especially keenly. The Chief of the Staff, Rear-Admiral von Trotha,, on this occasion again showed his unselfishness by giving up some very important colleagues to assist me in the Navy command. The former Chief of the Department of Operations in the Fleet, Commodore von Levetzow, who had meanwhile been promoted to the command of Scouting Division II, had placed himself at my disposal as Chief of my Staff.
I took from the Naval Staff the necessary personnel for my command under the supervision of a Special Chief of Staff, and transferred them to General Headquarters where it was possible to keep in constant touch with the Emperor and the Supreme Army Command, as this seemed most desirable to me in view of situations which demanded prompt decisions. As a substitute for the Chief of the Naval Staff, Rear-Admiral Friedrich von Biilow was appointed to supervise matters in Berlin, which dealt mostly with reports, the supply of personnel and material, and political affairs. That did not entail any real change in the organisation, but only a regrouping of the Naval Staff for the purpose of the war. The fundamental improvement lay in the powers of command that the Chief of the Naval Staff was allowed to exercise in the "conduct of the war."
On August 12 I went to the General Headquarters of the General-Field-Marshal to introduce myself to him in my new capacity and to consult with him and General Ludendorff upon the situation and further plans for the conduct of the war. Both officers were much impressed with the gravity of the events which had occurred on August 8, and had placed our war on land definitely on the defensive. They both admitted that the main hope of a favourable end to the war lay in a successful offensive of the U-boats, and General Ludendorff promised, in spite of the great lack of personnel in the Army, to do his utmost to help to develop it further.
Until the necessary accommodation for my Staff had been found at Spa, and they could move there, the business of the Naval Staff was concerned with the new regrouping, and initial preparations were made for the extension of the U-boat campaign that had been planned. The results of the last months had shown that the successes of individual U-boats had steadily decreased. This reduction in successes was due mainly to the stronger and more perfect measures of defence taken by the enemy, and also to the loss of some of the older and more experienced commanders. Taking into consideration the then rate of U-boat construction, we had to expect, in spite of the steady increase in the number of U-boats, that the figures of the monthly sinkings, which had already diminished to 500,000 .tons, would be still further reduced, judging by thef reports as to building, it was to be feared that within a short time the newly-constructed tonnage would be greater, than the amount sunk. The success of the U-boat campaign might thereby be greatly diminished. A mere defensive could not help us to tolerable peace. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary for us to develop our only means of an offensive with all the strength at Germany's disposal, so as to attain our goal - a tolerable peace. In view of the Peace Conference, it seemed also advisable for us to have a strong weapon in the shape of U-boats with which we could bring pressure to bear on our enemies.
But if we wanted to achieve great things with the U-boat campaign then the whole industrial power of Germany must be at our disposal for the accomplishment of our task. I had got into communication with the principal controllers of industry, and at a conference with them and the Imperial Ministry of Marine had drawn up the following figures as the indispensable minimum for the increase in U-boats:
In the last quarter of 1918 ... per month 16
In the first quarter of 1919 ... per month 20
In the second quarter of 1919 ... per month 25
In the third quarter of 1919 ... per month 30
When I asked the U-boat Office why in January, 1917, when the unlimited U-boat campaign was decided on, more boats were not ordered to be built than was actually the case I received the following answer:
"As a result of the decision in favour of an intensified U-boat campaign no orders for boats on a large scale were placed. In February, 1917, only the following were ordered: 6 U-boats of the normal type, 45 U-B-boats, and 3 commercial boats. The large order for 95 U-boats was not giyen till June, 1917."
No definite information as to the reason for this building policy was forthcoming, but it was certainly strongly influenced by the opinion of the Chief of the Naval Staff that the boats would achieve their effect within a definite period of time, and that the existing U-boats would suffice. Moreover, in the Imperial Ministry of Marine the opinion prevailed that the capacity of the workmen for production was no longer to be depended upon.
After the U-boat Office had been instituted on December 5, 1917, 120 boats were placed on order the same month, and in January, 1918, a further 220 boats. During 1918 the monthly return of the boats supplied was still influenced by the earlier building policy:
January: 3 boats
February: 6 boats
March: 8 boats
April: 8 boats
May: 10 boats
June: 12 boats
July: 9 boats
August: 8 boats
September: 10 boats
With these numbers the losses were covered, but no noticeable increase in the actual total of boats was achieved. We needed a greater number of new boats than an average of eight a month in order to raise the monthly amount of tonnage sunk to more than 500,000 tons. To a further question as to whether it would have been possible for the U-boat Office to get a larger number of boats, and if so from what quarter, I received the following reply:
"The U-boat Office exerted itself unceasingly to obtain a larger number of boats and had only been able, with the number of workmen assigned to it, to provide for a monthly supply of 23 boats up to the end of 1919. The hindrance lay in the supply of workmen Although the War Office did everything possible, and the U-boat Office never ceased to urge its needs, it was not possible to obtain a sufficient supply of workmen from the Supreme Army Command, either in regard to numbers or quality."
A telegram from the Supreme Army Command! in June, 1918, gave the following reason for refusal:
"I learn from the War Office that the Imperial Ministry of Marine has demanded the immediate supply of 2,200 skilled workmen for the Imperial shipyards at Danzig, Wilhelmshaven, and their Reiherstieg shipyard in Hamburg, and a further supply of nearly 900 skilled workmen for October. The Army cannot afford to be deprived of any more workmen; the people at home must supply the Army with more and more men, but cannot by a long way cover the demand caused by losses. The most urgent need of the hour is the supply of more men for the Army. Consequently it is improbable that the country will be able to spare skilled workmen from among those employed at home. Therefore I earnestly beg that you will carefully examine the supply of workmen now at your disposal, and that you endeavour to manage as far as possible with them. I also beg you to consider the possibility of employing, skilled labour from neutral countries and the occupied territories (Reval, Libau, etc.)."
As Fleet Commander, when on several occasions I tried to effect improvements in the position of the Imperial shipyards by a better supply of workmen, I met with a refusal on the ground that the necessary workmen could not be produced; and I had the impression that there was not a sufficiently close understanding between the higher Navy Commands in Berlin and the Supreme Army Command, and that in consequence the needs of both could not be so adjusted as to assure the attainment of the great end for which both were working. That was the decisive reason why I established myself at General Headquarters, so that by my constantly keeping in touch with the Supreme Army Command all the resources of the country, both in men and material, might be applied to such work as would be of the greatest possible benefit.
When the centre of gravity of the war moved to the west as a result of the events of 1918, there was no reason why those in charge of the conduct of the war at sea should remain in Berlin, and thereby give up all possibility of close co-operation. The plans of the Supreme Army Command must be made to include all possible advantages to be derived from the war at sea, and full use must be made of them. If they admitted that the U-boat offensive could gain a decisive success, then the Army could very well spare some workmen for the needs of the Navy. This was the stage we had reached owing to the force of circumstances. Of course, the Navy must first of all give up every man that could be spared for the construction and commissioning of U-boats. That could only be done if the Navy Command took ruthless action.
Despite the menacing situation on our Western Front, the First Quartermaster-General drew the necessary conclusions, as soon as it had been proved to him that it was within the range of possibility to carry out the new U-boat programme if we could depend on obtaining 40,000 to 60,000 workmen. For the next few months a considerably smaller number would suffice to ensure the more rapid delivery of the boats now under construction.
To supply the men for the new U-boats we had to draw to an even greater degree than before upon the existing personnel of the Fleet, and had to take the necessary steps at once for training the commanders and officers of the watch for U-boat service, for it took several months for them to become familiar with the technical apparatus of the boats and acquire the necessary skill in marksmanship.
All U-boats at the time in home waters, as well as the U-cruisers, were placed under the control of the Fleet. In this way the officer commanding the U-boats gained the necessary influence over the training of the whole U-boat personnel, and he had the support of the Fleet in picking out suitable men. For the Fleet now bore the chief responsibility for the carrying out, and consequently for the success of, the U-boat campaign.
In place of the Secretary of State Admiral von Capelle, who had retired, Vice-Admiral Ritter von Mann-Tiechler, hitherto head of the U-boat Office, was appointed Secretary of State of the Imperial Ministry of Marine, in view of the fact that the chief task of this office now lay in furthering the construction of U-boats; and the building of reinforcements for the surface warships, which could no longer exercise any influence on the success of the war, was either given up or postponed, so that our entire capacity in ship-building was devoted to this one task.
Immediately after September 10, when I and my Staff had moved to General Headquarters, an opportunity occurred of proving, the advantages of the close personal exchange of ideas, when a decision had to be made as to the handling of the Spanish question. Influenced by the Entente, the Spanish Ministry seemed inclined to abandon the correct attitude of strict neutrality which the Spanish Government had hitherto maintained; for they made demands arising from the U-boat campaign which were plainly in the interests of the Entente. The Spanish Government made a claim to seize an equivalent amount of tonnage from among the German merchant vessels in their harbours for every Spanish ship sunk in the blockaded area. We were ready to give compensation in kind for ships sunk outside the blockaded area, and so as not to distress Spain by a lack of supplies, we were willing to compensate at once and not make the payment dependent on the inquiry as to whether the ships had been justly or unjustly sunk, leaving that to the Arbitration Court. But we had to repudiate most energetically the demand for compensation for ships sunk in the blockaded area, because otherwise the other neutrals would quite justifiably have made the same claim, and the successes of the U-boats would have been illusory. It would have been nonsensical for us to have given up our own ships in compensation for those which we had justifiably sunk. It was a question altogether of 875,000 tons of German shipping which in this way would have passed automatically into neutral trade that went to England, and we should have derived not the slightest advantage from it. On the contrary, there was the danger that these ships would also be victims of our U-boats.
Another proposal of the Foreign Office was equally impracticable; this was to the effect that Spain should send her ships under convoy through the blockaded area, and that these convoys should be free from attack of our U-boats. Verbal discussions between the Supreme Army Command, the Foreign Office, and the Navy Command soon produced unanimity as to the attitude to be adopted towards Spain, by which, without departing from our fundamental principle that the blockaded area must be maintained, we should not incur the risk of making Spain side with our enemies. The discussions carried on for weeks among the authorities in Berlin had led to no result. But the claims that were then raised were but the regrettable consequence of the conciliatory attitude formerly adopted in this direction, an attitude which could only lend such encouragement to just claims that it was difficult to refuse them without a danger of serious conflicts.
On September 16 and 17 I visited the sea-front in Flanders and I was much impressed with the excellence of the measures taken by the commander, Admiral von Schroder, for defence against a landing of the enemy. I also became acquainted with the arrangements for the U-boat base at Bruges. The value of this position consisted in the flank protection it afforded, which had become necessary since the fighting front extended to the coast. So that this position could not be taken in the rear by the landing of troops, the whole stretch of coast from Nieuport, at the mouth of the Yser, up to the Dutch frontier had been strongly fortified. Zeebrugge, which was connected with Bruges by a deep sea canal, was a U-boat base. As any attack on this strong position would in all probability be made mainly from the sea the occupation of these coastal fortifications had been assigned to the Navy. The land defence on the extreme right wing of the front, closely connected as it was with the coastal defences, had also been undertaken by the Navy, which had formed regiments of able seamen. The English recognised the great strength of the position, and had not dared hitherto to risk battleships in the bombardment of the harbour and locks. They had built special craft for this purpose, monitors with shallow draught, and armed with a gun of heavy calibre, but these had not once succeeded in inflicting serious damage, though they had made many attempts. The naval base which had in time developed at Bruges became such a thorn in the side of the English that they did not grudge the enormous sacrifices they made in the various attempts in Flanders to break through our front in this sector.
They only attempted once, on April 22 and 23, 1918, to block the sea canal at Zeebrugge and the harbour of Ostend, and so make it impossible for our U-boats to get out. But this attempt was a failure. The attack, which was made with great pluck under the protection of artificial fog, found our guards at their posts. Two old light cruisers, that had penetrated as far as the mouth of the canal, were sunk before they reached their actual goal - the lock gates, which were uninjured. It was found possible for the U-boats to get round the obstruction, so that connection between the harbour at Zeebrugge and the shipyard at Bruges was never interrupted even for a day.
Another cruiser, the Vindictive, whose commander had succeeded with great smartness and seamanlike skill in laying alongside the Mole, landed a detachment of 400 marines, who were ready on the deck with scaling ladders; but this enterprise also met with no success. After suffering heavy loss, he was Obliged to withdraw; only 40 men had been able to get on the Mole, where all, with the exception of one captain and 12 men, were killed in a fierce fight.
The Brilliant and the Sirius, which were dispatched against Ostend at the same time, did not attain their object, but stranded in flames east of the Mole, An English submarine succeeded in reaching the bridge of the Mole at Zeebrugge, and in blowing up the framework, so that for a time the outer end of the Mole was disconnected from the land. The object was to cut off the garrison on the Mole from all assistance from land, but this, too, was a failure, thanks to the courage of those in command of the guard.
Complete safety from such surprises is impossible of attainment, for it is difficult for those in the coastal fortifications lying farther back to be in time to overcome ships which come at night through the mist. But we had to count on a repetition of such attempts. The defences of the Mole therefore were strengthened so that a fresh attempt would probably have met with as little success. We did not lay mines farther out to sea to stop vessels from approaching, for this would have endangered our U-boats.
Although at the time there were no signs that a land attack was imminent, in view of the general situation, we had to reckon with the possibility that the defences which our land front afforded to the U-boat base might be broken through, because we had very slight reserves at our disposal. All the more so when the enemy realised that for the next period of the war we intended to concentrate mostly on our U-boat offensive. The loss of Bruges would have been a very disagreeable blow to the U-boat campaign; especially as the assistance we received from the shipyard there, employing 7,000 workmen, would no longer have been at our disposal. The U-boats, however, could have set out from the North Sea, so that at a pinch we could have got over the loss.
Hitherto the U-boats in Flanders had been responsible for 23 per cent, of the total results. They had sunk 3,342,000 tons in all, which does not include sinkings due to mines.
On my return on September 18 I had a conference with General Ludendorff on the subject of the danger with which the position in Flanders was threatened. I was informed that the situation at the front would probably make an abandonment of the position in Flanders necessary. Under the arrangements made by the Naval Corps such a withdrawal would take eight to fourteen days if the valuable supplies of war material and shipyard fittings were to be saved. The Supreme Army Command could not undertake to give warning in good time, and as the danger did not appear imminent, the Navy Command decided to take the risk of losing this material (in case a hurried retreat were necessary) so as to carry on the U-boat campaign from Flanders as long as possible. The Supreme Army Command undertook to inform us in good time of any indications which might point to the necessity of abandoning the position. We took care not to increase the stocks there, but only to keep them up to the level that was absolutely needful.
In the course of September the discussions with employers of industry and the shipyards were continued, to ascertain whether it would be possible to carry out the extended programme of U-boat construction. On September 24 the Ministry of Marine informed the Naval Command that the possibility of carrying it out had, on the whole, been established.
In view of the greater importance that now attached to the U-boats, seeing that they were to give a favourable turn to the end of the war, I suggested to His Majesty that he should visit the U-bobt School at Kiel. His Majesty accordingly left General Headquarters on September 23 for Kiel, and on the 24th he inspected first the torpedo workshop, and then the establishment of the Imperial shipyards, which had been very considerably enlarged for the purposes of the U-boat war.
At the beginning of the war the torpedo factory at Friedrichsort had been the only place where our torpedoes were manufactured; but during the war the engineering works (formerly L. Schwartzkopff) in Berlin, which in earlier years had also manufactured torpedoes, was converted into a torpedo factory, as were other works as well. Under the direction of the Chief of the Torpedo Factories, Rear-Admiral Hering, the enormously increased demand for the manufacture of torpedoes was fully satisfied, so that the supplies of the Fleet and of the torpedo-boats were kept at the requisite level. Moreover, they succeeded in making considerable improvements. The ships of Squadron II ("Deutschland" class) and the older torpedo-boats built at the same time, were still armed with torpedoes which had a charge of 120 kilos of gun-cotton, a range of 2,200 m. and a speed of 24 knots. But most of the ships now carried a torpedo of 50 cm. calibre with a range of 10,300 m., and a speed of 28 knots. In the newest ships, like the Baden and Bayern, the range was still greater, as much as 16,500 m. with a speed of 25 knots and the calibre was increased to 60 cm. The explosive charge of these newest torpedoes was 250 kilos of a material that had three times the explosive power of gun-cotton.
The U-boat School was established at Eckernforde. Its object was to familiarise the new U-boat crews with the handling of their boats and their armament, and especially to train them in marksmanship. The crews of all newly-commissioned boats were first sent to the U-boat School for a time to obtain practice in the military tasks with which they would be confronted. The Bay of Eckernforde was particularly suitable for diving practice, because of its uniformly great depth. Moreover, in consequence of its remote situation, there was little traffic there, and it was not, like Kiel Harbour, shut in by barriers, the passage of which always entailed a certain loss of time. In the large basin of Kiel Bay, which lay before the school, practice attacks on a large scale and in war conditions could be carried out. Special convoys were formed which were surrounded by guardships on the English model; the ships were painted in the manner which in course of time had been adopted by English ships to deceive the marksmen at the periscope. The ships were painted in all sorts of extraordinary colours, so as to deceive the observer, both as to the size and the course of the steamer, and hence to lead to bad aim in shooting.
At the time there were over 200 officers in training there, who were to find employment on U-boats as commanders and officers of the watch. The school was conducted by Commander Eschenburg, who succeeded remarkably well in imparting an excellent training to the men of the U-boats which were so precious to us, and ensuring the greatest possible number of hits with the torpedoes they carried. He achieved this in spite of the small number of boats at his disposal, because, of course, everyone was eager to make use of really well-equipped boats at the front.
The impression which His Majesty received of his visit of inspection was reflected in his address, before he departed, to the assembled commanders on board the school ship. He was clearly deeply conscious of the gravity of the task he had to impose on this band of courageous and self-sacrificing men, when he expressed his conviction that the Fatherland would not be disappointed in the hopes that must be put in the U-boat commanders. Involuntarily one thought: Morituri te salutant. None of us had the vaguest notion that the situation in the war on land was such that the cessation of all hostilities would soon be urged, and that in a few weeks the U-boat campaign would be abandoned.
On the return journey to General Headquarters, via Berlin, we received news, the day after starting, that the Bulgarian Front had broken down. This roused the gravest fears as to the steadfastness of our other Allies, and meant that our southern front was endangered. This news induced His Majesty to proceed to Spa on the morning of September 29 after staying for a short time in Cassel.
On the journey to Spa I met the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and he informed me that the situation had become extremely serious, and that a decisive conference with His Majesty as to what further measures should be taken was to be held that very morning. Although I expressed to him my desire to take part in this Conference, I was not present, and only learned in the afternoon what had taken place. General Ludendorff informed me that the Supreme Army Command had announced to His Majesty that the situation demanded the immediate initiation of negotiations for an armistice and peace. The Chancellor would deal with the consequences arising therefrom Which would affect home politics.
We had no detailed conversation on the subject. I knew what the feelings of the General must be. After years of glorious battles to be confronted with this result as the end of those activities that he had pursued with such an iron will ! I therefore contented myself with such information as immediately concerned the Navy.
The points to be considered were the withdrawal from Flanders and the carrying out of the big U-boat programme. To retain Bruges for the U-boat campaign was not to be thought of. On the other hand, General Ludendorff was in favour of keeping to the plan of strengthening the U-boat weapon. The threat it contained might be useful for securing the armistice desired by the Army, as it would be useful in case of a refusal, when all our powers would be strained to the utmost.
Thereupon I at once went to His Majesty to secure his consent to our withdrawing from the U-boat base in Flanders, and our adhering to the design of building more boats. His Majesty gave his consent.
Considering the very grave decisions which the Emperor had had to face this day, His Majesty's bearing was admirably calm and steady. When the questions relating to the Navy had been disposed of, he spoke to me somewhat as follows:
"We had lost the war. He had hoped that God would ordain otherwise, and he hoped that the German nation would stand by him loyally. The Army and the people had behaved splendidly, but unfortunately the politicians had not. The Imperial Chancellor had informed him that he must go. His Majesty, therefore, had requested Count Roeden and the Chief of the Cabinet, von Berg, to suggest a new Chancellor. It would be difficult to find the right man. The new Ministry would have to be formed on a broader basis, and representatives of the parties of the Left would have to be admitted to it."
The same evening orders were sent to the Naval Corps to abandon Flanders as a U-boat base, and to carry out the evacuation according to plan; the Supreme Army Command would reckon on the evacuation of Flanders step by step; for the present there was no intention of giving up Antwerp.
A meeting had been arranged for October 1 in Cologne, with representatives of industry and of the shipyards. The Secretary of State of the Imperial Ministry of Marine, Ritter von Mann, and Colonel Bauer, representing the Supreme Army Command, also attended. Everyone agreed that it would be possible to carry out the extended U-boat programme, so long as the requisite number of workmen, amounting to 69,000 altogether, was forthcoming; these men were chiefly wanted in the shipyards. For the year 1918 only 15 to 20,000 men were asked for. There was no lack of the raw materials required, but such materials as had hitherto been used for other purposes, e.g. bridge-building in Romania, would henceforth not be available for work of that character.
The representative of the Supreme Army Command declared that the Army was ready to further the undertaking with all the means at its disposal.
I did not feel myself called upon to make any statement on the changed situation on the Army front, but I pointed out that all those in charge of the conduct of the war were unanimous in their desire for us to adhere to this plan, whatever events might occur on the Army front, for the collapse in the South-East might well have serious consequences for us.
On October 5 the new Imperial Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, sent a Peace Note to the President of the United States, and a Commission for Armistice negotiations was set up by the Navy Command, which was to deliberate with the Commission appointed by the Supreme Army Command under the chairmanship of General von Gundell. Rear- Admiral Meurer was appointed chairman of the Naval Commission, and Captains Vanselow and Raeder and Lieutenant-Commander Kiep were added to it.
In an interview that I had with General Ludendorff on October 6 to determine the general lines on which our common deliberations should be conducted, I asked him what concessions the Supreme Army Command was prepared to make in order to obtain the Armistice, saying that I presumed that these would not go so far as to make it impossible for us to resume our arms in case of need. General Ludendorff fully confirmed this. The Supreme Army Command would consent to an evacuation of the occupied territory in the West by stages, and would accept as the first stage the line Bruges - Valenciennes, and as the second a line from Antwerp - to the Meuse west of Namur. The Supreme Army Command could not accede to a demand to give up Metz to the enemy. The Imperial Chancellor had wished to make further concessions, but had agreed to the Supreme Army Command's proposal in view of the technical difficulties involved.
The important question for the Navy was whether the U-boat campaign was to cease during the Armistice. As the Foreign Office declared that without this concession no armistice could possibly be concluded, I declared my readiness to stop the U-boat campaign during the Armistice, but emphasised the point that in return for this we must obtain other concessions in the shape of the return of valuable shipping lying in neutral ports and supplies of raw material and food. The continuance of the blockade would be unfair if we stopped the U-boat campaign.
As regards the disposal of the Naval Corps, the following plan was arranged: those sections which could be employed in the field, viz. the regiments of able seamen and marines, as well as the transportable batteries of the marine artillery, were to be placed at the disposal of the Army; all the other men were to return to the Navy.
Thus the Naval Corps in Flanders ceased to exist. It had been instituted under the leadership of Admiral von Schroder on September 3, 1914, and played an honourable part in the taking of Antwerp on October 10, 1914. The General Command had its headquarters at Bruges. The infantry of the Naval Corps consisted of three regiments of able seamen and the marines. The latter in particular had played a distinguished part in the great battles in Flanders in 1916 and 1917. The sea-front was guarded by regiments of marine artillery. Thirty guns of the heaviest calibre had been set up there, among them five of 38 cm., four of 30.5 cm., and besides them a large number of quick-firing guns of from 10.5 to 21 cm. calibre. Hitherto they had repelled every attack from the sea.
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 torpedo-boats; all U-boats excepting four had already been dispatched to the North Sea and had arrived there without incident. Four other torpedo-boats, 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 no 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 Romanian 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 Piillen, 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 the 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 morale 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 Griinau, 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 non-combatants 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 Field-Marshal 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 Vice-Chancellor 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 them- selves.
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.