It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
by Chris Oakley
The first five parts of this series deal with Germany’s invasion of Ireland and the Allied response; the entry of Japan, America, and the Soviet Union into World War II; the outbreak of war in the Mediterranean; the establishment of the first Irish Waffen-SS units; the start of the Kriegsmarine’s famous Seebrücke campaign; the Luftwaffe’s growing difficulties with Allied air attacks on German occupation bases in southern Ireland; Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy’s catastrophic defeat at Leningrad; and the naval battles at Pearl Harbor and Midway. In this segment we’ll recall the sinking of the Bismarck, Hitler’s fatal decision to divert the German 6th Army towards Stalingrad, and General MacArthur’s battle plans for defending the Philippines against possible Japanese invasion.
"Sink the Bismarck!": March 16th-April 5th, 1941
At 5:37 AM Berlin time on the morning of March 16th, 1941, the Bismarck left Kiel on what would turn out to be its final run as part of the Seebrücke convoy. Her captain, Ernst Lindemann, was uneasy about the fact that the convoy’s run had been delayed four days due to Dr. Fritz Todt’s death. Better, he thought, to have designated a single man to represent the entire Seebrücke convoy at Todt’s funeral and let the rest of the officers and crew make the run to Dungarvan as originally scheduled.
Lindemann’s immediate superior, Admiral Günther Lütjens, shared his concerns about the postponement; the five-month-long pause in ground operations in Ireland was almost about to end, and that meant new Allied attacks on the German front in southern Ireland. That in turn would mean an upswing in air and naval operations against German shipping…and if the Seebrücke convoy entered Irish waters at the wrong moment, valuable supplies and equipment would be lost, to say nothing of the human toll that would inevitably result if the convoy came under concentrated attack by Allied planes or warships.
Their worries were totally justified; no sooner had the main body of the convoy passed through the Skagerrak Strait into the North Sea than a combined Anglo-American naval task force, aptly code-named "Sledgehammer", put to sea from Scapa Flow and began arraying itself in a picket line to intercept the German merchant ships and their naval escorts. Headed by the British battlewagon HMS Repulse and the American battleship USS Massachusetts, the task force packed enough firepower to meet the German surface ships on equal terms; tipping the scales in the Allied flotilla’s favor was the presence of four light carriers which had been temporarily reassigned from anti-submarine operations in the Irish Sea.
At 10:13 AM London time, scout planes from the light carrier USS Little Round Top sighted Bismarck and Scharnhorst turning on a southwesterly course towards the mouth of the English Channel. This information was immediately transmitted to Massachusetts, which in turn relayed it to Repulse, who then passed it on to the rest of the "Sledgehammer" task force; by 10:30 the ships of the Seebrücke convoy, although they hadn’t yet realized it, were in the jaws of the Allied naval trap.
It wasn’t until 11:04 AM, when Repulse and Massachusetts began firing on Scharnhorst, that Admiral Lütjens finally sounded general quarters and ordered his own ships to return fire. But his order came too late; the Seebrücke flotilla was under fierce air and sea bombardment at that point. In fact, three German merchant vessels had already been torpedoed by Allied submarines by the time he gave the "general quarters" signal. They were the first of dozens of German naval and merchant ships that would be sunk by the Allies in what would later be recorded as the worst naval defeat the Germans had suffered since the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
At 11:13 AM, bombers from Little Round Top and the British carrier HMS Ark Royal struck Scharnhorst, scoring two direct hits amidships and one on her stern. With no decent air cover to speak off, and with half her anti-aircraft batteries disabled by Allied bombs, Scharnhorst was a virtual sitting duck for the next wave of Allied air strikes; by 11:29 AM her captain, Kurt Hoffman, had ordered the magnificent battlecruiser scuttled rather than risk seeing her become what he called "a museum exhibition in Hyde Park"1.
Desperate to spare his own ship from sharing Scharnhorst’s fate, Captain Lindemann ordered the Bismarck to reverse course and head back to Kiel at full speed. Those few merchant ships that hadn’t been previously sunk or boarded tried to scatter and make their own way home; only two actually made it back to Germany. Bismarck herself soon fell into grave trouble as a squadron of Swordfish torpedo planes from the Ark Royal scored a direct hit to her main rudder, making navigation highly difficult if not impossible.
Just before 3:00 PM Repulse and Massachusetts closed to within less than ten nautical miles of Bismarck. Within minutes, a rain of shells was crashing down on the doomed German battleship; she gave as good as she got, however, sinking Repulse and inflicting damage on the Massachusetts serious enough to force it to spend six weeks in drydock for repairs.
But in the end, fortune favored the Allies; at 3:26 PM Captain Lindemann reluctantly gave his crew the order to abandon ship. He made his decision just in the nick of time— at 3:32 a British submarine administered the death blow to Bismarck with a direct torpedo hit to her stern. At 3:31 she sank, taking 1150 of her 2200-man crew complement with her.
Though Captain Lindemann’s life had been spared, his naval career was destroyed along with his ship; when he finally made it home to Germany four days after the Seebrücke convoy’s fateful clash with Task Force Sledgehammer, he was relieved of his rank and court-martialled for incompetence in the line of duty; despite a stirring defense of his record from his surviving officers and crew, Lindemann was convicted and demoted to junior lieutenant. He spent the rest of the war as a cadet training instructor and finally committed suicide in 1946, unable to bear the disgrace of having lost Germany’s finest surface warship.
Lindemann would not be the only Kriegsmarine senior officer to have his career tainted by Bismarck’s destruction; on March 19th, three days after she was sunk, C-in-C Admiral Erich Raeder was summoned to the Reichschancellery and fired by Hitler. In a two-hour tirade Raeder would never forget, the Führer essentially blamed him for every calamity that had befallen the Seebrücke convoy, from the sinking of Bismarck and Scharnhorst to Admiral Lütjens’ disappearance during the battle2. For Hitler, whose trust in surface ships had been steadily waning since Operation Ouster, the Seebrücke squadron’s defeat was the last straw. From this moment on, he vowed, he would entrust primary responsibility for the Reich’s naval operations with its U-boat arm.
Consequently, Admiral Karl Dönitz, the Kriegsmarine’s foremost expert on submarine warfare, was appointed on March 20th, 1941 as Raeder’s replacement as C-in-C. Dönitz immediately put his staff to work devising a plan whereby U-boats could be employed to smuggle essential supplies to the German occupation forces in Ireland under the noses of Allied naval patrols; they came back to him eight days later with a campaign proposal code-named Fall Mitternacht-Nebel ("Case Midnight Fog"), which called for the use of stripped-down U-boats to act as cargo carriers while their fully-equipped sister ships staged hit-and-run attacks on Allied warships along the Irish coast.
Impressed by the daring of this plan, Dönitz immediately took it to Hitler, who officially approved it on March 30th. By April 2nd the Kriegsmarine’s most skilled engineers were modifying fifteen U-boats into cargo transports; on April 5th the first of these transports delivered food and medical supplies to Dungarvan under the protection of a flotilla of regular U-boats. When word of the successful supply run reached Hitler at Berchtesgarten, he phoned Dönitz personally to congratulate him on an impressive debut for the Kriegsmarine’s latest campaign.
"Zu Stalingrad!": April 6th-May 23rd, 1941
On the Russian front, meanwhile, the Germans had regained some of the ground they lost to the Red Army in the early days of Operation Bagration. A series of bold new tactical offensives launched to coincide with the spring thaw had knocked the Soviets back on their heels, and some of the Wehrmacht’s more optimistic officers were predicting that Moscow would be in German hands by the end of June.
That prediction might have come true had Hitler not made a catastrophic blunder on the afternoon of April 6th, 1941. Acting against his top generals’ advice, he directed the main body of the German 6th Army under General Friedrich von Paulus to divert from its push on Moscow in order to make a push on the Caucasus oil fields and the city of Stalingrad.
The Caucasus offensive had a certain sound logic to it; by choking off Stalin’s oil supply, the Germans could make it harder for the Red Army to wage war, thus hastening the final German victory on the Eastern Front. Stalingrad, however, had little value except in propaganda terms; located on the banks of the Volga River, it existed primarily as a showcase for the glory of Stalin’s regime. Though informed opinion within the German high command deemed it better to bypass the city and let it wither on the vine, as it were, Hitler was determined to capture it come hell or high water. He was convinced its fall would deal a severe blow to Russian morale, prompting the Soviet masses to overthrow the Communists and sue for peace.
It took Paulus’ troops more than six weeks to reach Stalingrad; their advance was slowed not only by mud but also by the ticklish business of co-ordinating the movements of Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian satellite units so that the Italian forces would be positioned to serve as a buffer between the Hungarians and the Romanians. This was not a military decision but a political one — there were long-standing animosities between Hungary and Romania, and even though they were technically on the same side the stark reality was that given half a chance they’d be more likely to fight each other than the Soviets. That was a distraction which the Axis cause in general and Paulus in particular just could not afford.
The 6th Army finally entered Stalingrad on May 20th amid bitter Soviet rifle and artillery fire; Stalin was just as determined to keep the city as Hitler was to capture it. Scorning the advice of Red Army commanders who felt it was wiser to make a tactical withdrawal from the city so the troops defending it could be deployed to secure the Caucasus oil fields, the Communist ruler ordered Stalingrad held at all costs. By May 23rd, half the city had been reduced to rubble and the other half was under siege by the Germans, but Stalin refused to quit.
Battlefield Corregidor: May 24th-June 18th, 1941
Douglas MacArthur had a great deal on his plate as the spring of 1941 turned into summer. With the fall of Singapore, the small-scale tactical Japanese raids on MacArthur’s flanks which had been going on since November of 1940 had now turned into a full-blown invasion of Luzon and there were fears that Japan would soon conquer the rest of the Philippines. On May 24th MacArthur met with the chiefs of staff of the Filipino army to organize final plans for opposing what was considered to be an imminent Japanese assault on Manila. These plans, code-named Operation Watchtower, called for regular American and Filipino troops to encircle the Philippines capital in a defensive cordon aimed at halting or at least slowing down the Japanese advance.
Further south, Filipino and American reserve units were deployed to act as a "fire brigade" in suppressing any flank attacks that the Japanese might try to make; unofficially, although few were willing to acknowledge it, they were also meant to provide cover in case American troops were forced to evacuate the Philippines. With the war in Ireland getting top priority in terms of both strategic planning and logistics, MacArthur’s forces could expect little in the way of help if the Japanese did manage to break through Manila’s defenses.
On June 8th, two Japanese reconnaissance planes were shot down while trying to photograph the main US airfield near Manila. The incident immediately set off alarm bells at General MacArthur’s field headquarters, where it was correctly concluded that the appearance of the recon aircraft was a signal Japan intended to make its move sooner rather than later. Within 36 hours, a mass evacuation of civilians from the city had begun at the behest of Filipino president Manuel Quezon.
Twelve hours after that, the first Japanese artillery shells hit the outer ring of the Allied cordon around Manila. As American planes rose to begin air strikes against the invaders, they were set upon by Japanese fighters and blown out of the sky in droves. By June 14th most of Manila and its suburbs were in Japanese hands and MacArthur was ordering American outposts in Corregidor to begin stockpiling food, water, and ammunition in preparation for a last-ditch stand against the advancing Japanese landing force. Back in Washington President Roosevelt directed the US Navy to ready PT boats to evacuate the general and his family and staff to Australia if worst came to worst.
The last pockets of Allied resistance in Manila were eliminated by Japanese troops late on the morning of June 15th; by June 18th Corregidor was under raging artillery bombardment. From his new command headquarters on the island of Mindanao, General MacArthur urgently wired the US Navy to send additional PT boats for Manuel Quezon and his cabinet; MacArthur knew better than most Americans of Quezon’s symbolic value to the Filipino people, and he was not under any circumstances going to let the Filipino president fall into Japanese hands.
In the short term, everything seemed to be going Japan’s way in the Pacific; in the long run, however, the losses the Imperial Navy had sustained at Pearl Harbor and Midway would prove to have a debilitating effect on Tojo’s ambitions to dominate Asia. Even though it wasn’t immediately apparent to the swaggering Japanese or the beleaguered Allies, the conquest of the Philippines would mark the high-water point of the Japanese Empire’s expansion; after that, Japanese forces would find themselves increasingly on on the defensive as the Allies regained the initiative…
Back in Ireland, the situation on the ground had been relatively quiet since the Allied liberation of Dublin— but that was about to change. Over the objections of General Heinrici, who feared the Allies might quickly smash any new offensives he started, Hitler had ordered him to begin a three-pronged assault against the Allied lines south of Kilkenny. The objective of the assault, code-named Fall Fackel ("Case Torch"), was to drive a wedge in the the Allied lines and pave the way for Wehrmacht troops to retake Dublin.
The attack was to begin no later than 7:30 AM Dublin time on the morning of June 22nd…
1 Some of Scharnhorst’s surviving crew later claimed that he actually said "Central Park", but this has never been verified.
2 At the time of Raeder’s dismissal, Lütjens was listed as missing in action; not until the fall of 1941 would it be confirmed that he had in fact been killed while awaiting transfer to the Admiral Scheer.