By G. H. Bennett and Roy Bennett
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004
248 pages; index; no illustrations (Publisher cites "304 pages, 10 photographs"). Hardcover. 6 x 9 inches. $32.95 US
Reviewed by Michael C. Potter, Captain, SC, USNR (Ret.)
This book offers today’s officials lessons for winning a war, from the vantage of the losers of two successive world wars. The book also contains nuggets of naval technical interest.
British historians Roy Bennett and George Bennett, father and son, respectively, compiled this analysis of the German side of World War II from essays that nine Kriegsmarine admirals wrote shortly after the war ended. The book is not a collection of biographies.
The admirals’ careers and wartime assignments are not summarized in the book. Axis Biographical Research and other sources provide these highlights:
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz: CinC submarines 1936–43; CinC Kriegsmarine 1943–45.
General Admiral Hermann Boehm: CinC Fleet, 1939; Norway 1940–43.
Admiral Theodor Krancke: CO Admiral Scheer 1940–41; naval commander in France 1943–44.
VAdm Hellmuth Heye: Strategic planner 1938–39; CO Admiral Hipper 1939–40; created midget submarine force 1944–45.
General Admiral Otto Schniewind: Strategic planner 1938–39; CinC Fleet 1941–44.
Admiral Karlgeorg Schuster: Axis naval force commander for invasion of Crete, 1941.
VAdm Eberhard Weichold: Liaison to Italian fleet 1940–43.
RAdm Hans Karl Meyer: CO Tirpitz 1943–44.
RAdm Otto Schulz: North Sea 1940–43; naval commander in Crimea 1943–44.
British interrogators in May 1945 first sought technical information from German admirals. The latter feared that cooperation would doom themselves at war crimes trials. One committed suicide. Meanwhile Admiral Dönitz, who succeeded Hitler and had political skills, issued a "narrative" to Germany’s defeated military that of course the victors too would read. Dönitz made three assertions:
the German military fought heroically and bore no shame;
the western allies should revive Germany intact as a bulwark against communism, meaning against Russia; and
few Germans knew of the concentration camps (a German emigré who was a young woman during the war years told this reviewer’s family that most Germans knew of the camps).
Another mission by the allies invited German admirals to write about German naval policy under the Nazis, on condition that their essays would not be used to prepare war crimes cases. This method avoided the confrontation and resistance of an interrogation, and obviated an immediate need for translators. Only one (Weichold) had records; the others wrote from memory. This book comprises excerpts, arranged chronologically. The editors insert commentary for context and to note discrepancies in the essays.
In the first and longest chapter the admirals describe "The Pre-war Period" that followed Germany’s collapse in WW1. Dönitz and others tell how the Kriegsmarine built itself. It is a lesson in the productive use of senior veterans in a failed state. Heye, a competent technical planner, observes that every interwar German warship was at once a training ship, an experimental ship, and a warship. This reviewer notes that hybridization occurred too in Sweden in the cruiser Gotland of that same era.
Heye considers aircraft carriers "very necessary for the Arctic." Dönitz considers air reconnaissance vital to locate convoys for U-boats to attack. The excerpts repeatedly complain about poor cooperation from the Luftwaffe. Germany seized Norway, France, and Crete, and enjoyed bases in Italy, yet never severed the western allies’ sea lines of communication from Britain and Gibraltar. One would think that Norway could substitute for aircraft carriers, even more so since the Germans had no experience in operating aircraft carriers.
The essays reveal wartime incidents of bolstering although the editors do not highlight these. In bolstering, a decision maker downplays the risks and costs of a course of action and represents adverse aspects of a decision as attractive. One such incident described in these essays is justifying the risky sortie of the Bismarck as a diversion from the Crete operation. Another is Dönitz’s claim of victory in wearing out British ships by inducing the Royal Navy to operate continuously, ignoring the greatly increased prowess that the RN developed. Hitler’s admirals inadvertently remind us that a tyranny is highly susceptible to such self-delusion.
A more positive lesson for decision makers is that the victor can, to help to attain a peace settlement, offer to allow defeated leaders to write narratives such as those in this book. The narratives would explain the situation to the defeated population and to the defeated military forces. If the losers accede to our terms while retaining their pride, the settlement is favorable all around, as post-WW2 Germany shows.