Tags: meet the author
Today marks the 64th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II so it is only fitting I e-interviewed Howard Grier about his book, Hitler, Dönitz, and the Baltic Sea: The Third Reich’s Last Hope, 1944-1945.
What inspired you to write Hitler, Dönitz, and the Baltic Sea?
Very little has been written on the northern sector of the Eastern Front, aside from the siege of Leningrad. I was also curious why half a million German troops remained in Latvia’s Courland Peninsula after Allied forces had entered Germany from both the east and the west.
What are some of the lingering questions about the Third Reich’s final months that you answer in your book?
There are two main questions I try to answer. I believe that a common misconception about the final period of the war is that the Germans had no strategy. The popular conception of Hitler in the final years of the war is that of a deranged Führer who stubbornly demanded the defense of every foot of ground on all fronts, and ordered hopeless attacks with nonexistent divisions. To suggest that Hitler had a rational plan to win the war flies in the face of accepted interpretation. Yet just because a plan does not succeed does not mean that no plan existed. We now know that it failed, but Hitler was still trying to win the war even in 1945. His goal was to hold out until new weapons which he thought would be decisive became operational.
The second question concerns Hitler’s choice of Admiral Dönitz as his successor. Hitler did not appoint Dönitz simply by default or because he was an honorable soldier suitable to make peace, as is often suggested, but because Dönitz had proven himself to be one of Hitler’s most loyal and ideologically reliable followers. Dönitz supported Hitler’s strategy of fighting to the end, and provided Hitler with a chance to turn the tide again in Germany’s favor by reviving the U-boat war.
Why was the Baltic theater important to the Germans?
The Baltic had enormous significance to the German war effort for military, diplomatic, and economic reasons. Economically, control of the Baltic facilitated deliveries of Finnish nickel and Swedish iron ore. Domination of the Baltic also assured the Germans of a secure link to provide assistance to Finland, which Hitler hoped to keep as an ally in the war against the Soviets. Furthermore, the Germans required Finnish cooperation to maintain the mine barrages and anti-submarine nets essential to blockade Russia’s Baltic Fleet within the Gulf of Finland.
The military significance of the Baltic was first and foremost that it served as the navy’s submarine testing and training area. After the collapse of the U-boat war in the spring of 1943 the Germans hoped to regain the initiative in the Battle of the Atlantic with new models of technologically advanced submarines. But before these new submarines could be brought into action, they had to undergo trials and their crews had to be trained, which for geographic reasons was possible only in the eastern Baltic. Norway’s retention was also essential, because it remained the only suitable location from which to launch the new U-boat war following the loss of Germany’s naval bases in France in the summer of 1944.
Throughout 1944, as the Red Army steadily drove Army Group North back to the west, Dönitz increasingly urged the defense of the Baltic coast in the interest of naval strategy. The results were not what either Hitler or Dönitz envisioned. Between October 1944 and March 1945, over a million German soldiers were cut off from land contact with the rest of the front in coastal regions of Latvia, Lithuania, and eastern Germany. An additional 350,000 troops sat idle in Norway until Germany’s capitulation in May 1945.
Can you tell us about the Germans’ Type XXI submarine?
The Type XXI submarine was a vast improvement over existing U-boats. An offensive weapon with war-winning potential, the Type XXI was a true submarine rather than a submersible, and its speed and ability to remain underwater indefinitely rendered contemporary Allied antisubmarine tactics ineffective. The Type XXI could maintain submerged speeds of 18 knots for an hour and a half, and 12-14 knots for 10 hours; existing U-boats traveled, at best, at 6 knots for 45 minutes. This increased speed was a significant advantage, because most Allied convoys sailed at speeds of 6-9 knots. The XXIs also had a “silent running” motor, thicker hull (better to withstand depth charges), and the ability to dive deeper. Improved listening and location devices enabled the new submarines to attack without surfacing or having to use their periscope. With a fleet of these new U-boats, Dönitz intended to starve Britain into submission and halt the shipment of American troops and supplies to Europe. All he required was the time to test these new submarines and train their crews in the eastern Baltic. In the end only two Type XXIs set out in search of Allies vessels in the final week of the war, but neither spotted a target before war’s end. Allied bombing, design flaws, and shortages of materials and workers delayed their operational readiness.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
In the course of my research, I unexpectedly came to believe that the common depiction of General Ferdinand Schörner was not entirely accurate. Of all German army generals, Schörner probably has the worst reputation. He is usually portrayed as an insanely brutal man who owed his rapid promotion to fanatical adherence to National Socialism and sycophantic devotion to Hitler. Schörner’s military abilities have been considered negligible at best. His notoriety stems mainly from the execution of numerous soldiers in the war’s final months. I believe that Schörner’s portrayal as a brutal commander and fanatical Nazi is accurate, but depictions of him as a toady and an untalented military leader are off the mark. Schörner was a skillful tactician who repeatedly disobeyed Hitler’s orders not to retreat, yet Hitler never relieved him of command because he realized that Schörner was loyal to him personally. Schörner’s willingness to defy Hitler when he believed the situation warranted it and his tactical skill deserve recognition. I have recently begun a long term project on Schörner’s military career.
Finally, I want to express my thanks to Naval Institute Press. The people there have been extremely helpful at every stage of the publication process.