When is a party not a party?

How the U-boats nearly missed the start of the war

When Hitler gave the German forces the go-ahead for the final preparations to invade Poland, the order was sent out carefully camouflaged. So well did the concealment work that the U-boat service did not even detect the true message when it was sent to them. To cover up for their mistake, they basically cooked the books. They had to avoid being caught lying, but the very first entry in their brand new War Diary was made by someone conscious of posterity, determined to be economical with the truth. The truth, however, has a way of getting out. This is the real story behind the strange first diary entry, which was written to cover up the U-boat arm’s ignominious first hour of the final countdown to what was to become the Second World War

By the summer of 1939, Hitler had not yet made much of an impression on daily life in Northern Europe. The glorious summer weather was making more of an impact on most people. On the German coast, they had not seen a warmer August for 20 years. Records for the two weather stations in the North of England, at Durham and Sheffield, show that August 1939 was far warmer than in previous years.During these balmy days of the last month of Peace, the North Sea represented little more than the blue horizon beyond sand and swimming, yet it was soon to be the only barrier that would successfully block Hitler’s violent lust for land.

In Northern Germany, in the coastal towns of Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea side and in Kiel on the Baltic coast, both naval bases, the sunny tranquillity belied the real sense of purpose amongst naval officers often deep in thought or discussion, aboard ship and in offices at the bases ashore. In Wilhelmshaven, several of the German Navy’s largest surface ships were moored, whilst Kiel played host to the headquarters for the German U-boats. The most senior amongst them knew Hitler was about to embark on his most spectacular gamble yet, the invasion of Poland, code-named ‘Case White’ (Fall Weiss). To the naval officers, this posed one big question: would the assault on Poland really bring Britain into the war and therefore force the small and unprepared Kriegsmarine to face up to the mighty Royal Navy?

In 1939, the German Navy was not ready for war. Their large expansion programme, the ‘Z-Plan’ would not be completed until 1944. They did not even have the fuel reserves for a naval war. In July 1939, an evaluation of the fuel stocks showed Hitler that his navy, such as it was that summer, only had enough marine fuel oil for less than two months of fighting.

He had repeatedly assured Admiral Raeder, the head of the German Navy, that no war with Britain was likely before 1944. Others were less certain. In Berlin, General Halder tried during the summer to convince Ambassadors M. Coulondre of France and Mr. Henderson of Britain, of the importance of showing how strongly their countries felt about an invasion of their ally Poland. Halder, a member of the German General Staff, was convinced that only stern British and French opposition would stop Hitler. In early April, Hitler had asked General Keitel, one of Halder’s colleagues, to draw up plans for an attack on Poland and within six weeks, the General Staff had started on the detailed deployment plans, which all had to be ready by 20th August 1939.

In the meantime at Wilhelmshaven, Hitler’s largest warships, the two pocked battleships, or heavy cruisers, the ‘Deutschland’ and the ‘Graf Spee’, were being readied to sail. By 24th August, they had both left port. The patrols of the RAF never spotted them as they slipped their moorings and over the next 48 hours steamed up the middle of the North Sea and disappeared north of Iceland. They headed for their pre-determined waiting positions near the main shipping lanes across the Atlantic, to be ready to pounce on unsuspecting British merchantmen. Yet war had not even been declared and only 12 months earlier, a flag-covered ‘Graf Spee’ had participated in the Spithead Review at the coronation of King George VI. Four months later, one would be sunk off the South American port of Montevideo and the other, the ‘Deutschland’, would be back after a rather ineffective, although entirely undetected mission in the North Atlantic.

The Baltic port of Kiel is located just beside the entrance to the canal leading to the North Sea. Originally built to help the Kaiser move his navy units quickly from one theatre of operations to another, Kiel was the ideal base for the German U-boat service. The location was close to their training grounds in the Baltic, and was the quickest route to the North Sea.At the base, preparations for the coming war were well underway. In fact, they were so well advanced that by the end of July, the leader of the U-boat arm, Doenitz, decided to take a well-earned break and go hill-walking in Austria.He needed a holiday. Instead of going skiing earlier in the year, he had focused on a war game – set four years into the future, when his boats might have to face the British. Then, in May, as the plans for ‘Case White’ were being prepared, Doenitz sent a group of civilian German ships together with 15 of his U-boats to the Bay of Biscay. The merchantmen were to sail in convoy whilst the new U-boats practised co-ordinated attack strategies. Even in peacetime, Doenitz was developing his Wolf Pack tactics, which would prove to be so devastating against Allied shipping during the first half of the war.

The actual operational centre for German U-boat operations at the time, was located on a small ship; the tender ‘Hecht’. Being mobile meant that those directing operations behind the actual theatre of war would never need to be any further away than necessary. That summer, Doenitz had ordered the ship into Kiel harbour and had her moored at the naval base. He could literally watch his crews’ progress from his desk, but the arrangement could possibly be vulnerable to air or even enemy submarine attacks and the use of the mobile headquarters did not last much beyond the first few months of the war. On the other hand, the U-boats had not yet earned their fearful reputation. Little did British intelligence know that they were all directed from a ship so small that the air force would not even have considered it as a worthy military target.

The ‘Hect’s’ radio was the deciding factor for the ship’s role. Once on war patrol, a U-boat was only answerable to the top commander, to Doenitz himself or his representative on duty. A good radio transmitter was crucial to such a command structure. Doenitz would in his operational decisions, draw heavily on decoded British radio intercepts, intelligence reports and weather forecasts. As his operation grew, he needed a larger staff and therefore more room. He moved first to a larger ship, the ‘Erwin Wassner’, before transferring ashore, first briefly to Wilhelmshaven, before he moved to Kerneval in France in 1940.

During July 1939, Doenitz had assessed the number of U-boats he could muster for the kind of war he thought was coming. The majority of them would not be deployed against Poland, they would be sent to stand-by positions around the coast of Britain. Hitler was still hoping that his attack on Poland would not bring Britain into the war, but he wanted to be prepared. The question for Doenitz therefore was; when should he send the U-boats to sea? If they spent too long on patrol, just waiting before hostile action commenced, they would expend too much food and fuel before ever firing a single torpedo in anger. This would mean that within a couple of weeks of the outbreak of war, they would all have to return to base to be re-supplied before sailing back out into the Atlantic, probably all the way around the northern edge of the British Isles. Such a voyage would leave shipping along the British coast in peace, without being attacked by any enemy patrols for around two weeks, which was not ideal during the early fluid stages of the war.

As the work-up period for his U-boat crews neared completion and his holiday was imminent, Doenitz invited his boss, Gross-Admiral Raeder to inspect the men. The visit to the U-boat base at Kiel took place on Saturday 22 July. The formal parade and inspection finished, Raeder addressed the assembled U-boat officers, pointing out that he had Hitler’s word that no hostilities with Britain would ensue for a long time yet.As an old man, and writing much later, in retrospect, Raeder conceded that Doenitz and others had not agreed with his optimistic sentiments of July 1939.

Being a fastidious planner, Doenitz knew before his holiday, exactly which U-boats he would have ready for action when the time came. All he asked of the naval leadership was that he be given at least a few days’ notice to sail and his identified crews would all be ready.

In Berlin, the General Staff had set out some very specific milestones. They would be ready to attack Poland by Friday 25th August that year. Such an attack could only be launched that weekend if Hitler gave his go-ahead ten days earlier, by Tuesday 15th August. Prior to this, the General Staff planned to meet the Saturday before, just to go over the plans and agree how best to present it all to Hitler.

As Doenitz was spending his days relaxing in Bad Gastein, Hitler was at Bayreuth in Bavaria, just a few miles north of the Austrian border. Hitler even had the time to attend a performance of the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ opera as he spent an entire week in the area, visiting his close friend, British born Winifred Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law. He left for Nuremberg on Thursday 3rdAugust. The following day, he met General Keitel in Munich for a private briefing on progress on his ‘Fall Weiss’ plans for the invasion of Poland.

Within six years of having been defeated in the First World War, Germany in all secrecy, had established a U-boat design office in the Netherlands. German U-boats had been ruthlessly efficient and deadly during the 1914-18 war. Although defeated, German naval strategists had been determined to build on the hard-won expertise. Some of the remnants of the former Imperial Navy had therefore been preparing for war even before Hitler came to power. One of the first orders he issued concerning the armed forces, was to commission a series of U-boats based on two prototypes, developed by the ‘covert’ office. The new U-boats were to be built at Finnish and Spanish yards.

Similarly, two naval officers assigned to work in the German Department of Transport had, by 1939 spent several years planninghow to handle the merchant navy in the event of war. Theirs was a global navy and they were determined to bring as many of the cargoes back to Germany as possible, even after war had broken out. The captain of each German merchantman with a radio transmitter, had been issued with a sealed envelope, which should be kept secret from all foreigners. Only when a special coded radio message was received, was the captain permitted to open the envelope, which contained the key to a set of codes. The German admiralty would use these codes when providing directions for the safest routes to take on the way home in case of war.

Interestingly, after the war, Doenitz’ son-in-law, Fregattenkapitän Gűnter Hessler, a former U-boat commander, was asked by the British authorities to write the official history of the U-boat war. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, Hessler argued that by the outbreak of war, so many pre-planned coded messages had been developed, that their use was devalued or even totally ineffective.

Doenitz was no different; he too had planned to use a pre-arranged coded message to trigger the start of the actual final preparations for war. Once his office received the signal, a set of orders would be issued by his Chief of Staff, Captain Friedeburg, if Doenitz was on holiday when the order arrived.

The reality turned out rather differently. In addition to Hessler’s official account, German archives provide two further fascinating sources of information, namely the war diaries of the naval leadership and of the officer in charge of the U-boats, Doenitz. Both diaries were started on Tuesday 15th August 1939, the day when German forces started the final build-up to war.

Raeder’s war diary, for the naval leadership, was even entitled “Fall Weiss – the war with Poland”. Within a good two weeks they would all realise how misleading that title would be; they had started Germany’s second global war in 21 years. The diary’s first two pages summarised the navy’s preparations, including a clear expectation that by 15th August, the larger U-boats, designed for the war in the Atlantic, should be ready for war.

As expected, on that crucial Tuesday morning there was a meeting at Berghof, his retreat in Obersaltzberg in Southern Bavaria. Hitler told his military chiefs to start deploying their forces. As his diary showed, Raeder now had a seven-point list of deployment to execute, including one for the U-boat base at Kiel. Fourteen U-boats had to be ready to sail by Saturday. In Berlin, the naval administration started dispatching the relevant orders to relevant base commanders and flotilla leaders to ensure that they would be ready on time. At Berghof that evening, they celebrated. The thickening fog of war was totally ignored. They celebrated the 25th anniversary for Hitler’s entry into the German Army. How could such an event fail to remind him of what had befallen his erstwhile comrades-in-arms since that day?

Sometime around mid-morning that Tuesday, at Doenitz’ headquarters in Kiel, a teleprinter rattled into life and slowly but steadily tapped out a seemingly very pleasant message from Berlin which read that there was to be a formal party for officers on Saturday night. In the scheme of things, a party for the officers, albeit nice, was hardly the sort of news they were looking for. In the light of what happened later, it appears as if the message was merely logged in and left in some in-tray for appropriate distribution later.

Doenitz’ war diary did not record the receipt of the telexed party invitation, but its arrival must have been roughly as described above, in order to explain the rather terse first few lines of the very first entry in his diary:

“Telephone call from naval high command (Lieutenant Fraesdorf) saying that the U-Boat Officers’ party was to be on Saturday 19 August and as many as possible was to be present. Were there no orders?”

When he phoned at 1200 noon, Lieutenant Fraesdorf reiterated the party invitation and basically demanded to know if this had not resulted in any orders being issued? Whoever Fraesdorf talked to, must at that stage have wished the ground could have ‘opened up and swallowed’ him. Secrecy and the ‘need to know principle’ at Kiel had been so effective that most of the base administration staff did not know or understand what coded message they were expecting, they simply did not know what to look for.

The duty officer at Kiel must have had the message and its importance spelt out to him in no uncertain terms in a manner so often associated with verbal military communication. Friedeburg, Doenitz’ deputy must have been alerted to the message at this stage and as he knew what it meant, and what its true significance was, the base at Kiel finallybegan to implement Doenitz’ carefully prepared plan, at the top of which was a telephone call to Doenitz at Bad Gastein in the Austrian Alps. During the afternoon, Friedeburg stopped all the training cruises in the Baltic and brought the U-boats back to port. They only had four days to prepare.

The gaffe was not that easily forgotten, in yet another telex later that afternoon, Berlin set out exactly what they expected the U-boat service to provide. They were no longer relying on the U-boat leadership to act alone. By the time he was back at base, late the following day, there was nothing Doenitz could do tocover up for the fiasco other than to possibly ensure that the first entry in his war diary was the telephone call from Berlin, pretending to posterity that this was the first they had heard of the order.

It was the inclusion of the question in the diary text that gave the game away, but only to those ‘in the know’. To the informed insiders, the coded message was itself an order, which, as Doenitz had planned it, would start a chain reaction of final preparations. To a casual reader, the very first entry in the War Diary might not appear as an attempt to cover up the U-boat service’s first mistake of the war, it merely seemed to acknowledge that it was Fraesdorf who spelt it out; they would be sailing Saturday, ready to kill or be killed. There was to be no party, this was war.


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