Thursday, April 7, 2016

August 15, 1939: U-Boats Put to Sea

Tuesday 15 August 1939

Doenitz U-boats
Admiral Doenitz reviewing a submarine in June 1941 (Gunther, Federal archives).
German Military Preparations: On 15 August 1939, Karl Dönitz, Commodore (Kommodore) and Commander of Submarines (Führer der Unterseeboote) since 28 January 1939, receives a coded message. It instructs him to send the U-boat fleet to sea and to take up stations off the coast of Great Britain. This is a direct consequence of the Fuhrer meeting two days previously at Berchtesgaden.

German/Soviet Diplomacy: In one of the truly consequential meetings of the 20th Century, German ambassador to the USSR Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg has a meeting with the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov. Molotov is a long-time Stalin crony, so there is no question that what he says reflects overall Soviet thinking. Schulenburg submits to Molotov a 6-point memorandum from German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop. It requests "a speedy clarification of German-Russian relations." Molotov receives the memorandum "with the greatest interest" and promises a reply after discussing the matter with Stalin. He poses his own questions in response, which includes the one question that the Germans are hoping for: would the Germans like to make a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.

North Africa: Indian troops arrive to bolster British troops in Egypt.

German Military: Army and Luftwaffe generals (including top boss Wolfram von Richthofen, the Stuka’s chief)) gather at the airfield near Neuhammer-am-Queis, Silesia. They are there to witness a demonstration of divebombing accuracy by the still fairly new (first flight 17 September 1935) Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. The demonstration exercise involves bombing a ground target, and the intent is to inspire confidence in the army generals to call in air support for their troops. The Stukas have been used in the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War, but a lot of doubts remain about the utility of divebombing.

Instead of a successful demonstration, they witness a catastrophe.

There are clouds over the target with clear visibility underneath reported to be up to 2500 feet. Ordinarily, training flights would be canceled in such circumstances, but the Luftwaffe decides to go ahead with the exercise because it would be an impressive sight for the generals to see the planes descend out of the clouds, hit the target, and then fly back up into the clouds. The danger, the Luftwaffe flight controllers decide, is minimal because the pilots would be able to complete their dives easily with 2500 feet of visibility to recover in.

Hauptmann Sigel leads a three-plane Gruppe of Staffel 2 of STG76 down out of the clouds first, with one wingman on either side. Why Staffel 2 goes first is a bit of a mystery and perhaps simply a function of random positioning in the sky. However, the meteorological reports turn out to be erroneous. Instead of clear visibility up to 2500 feet, it turns out the clouds come down to 300-600 feet, perhaps because of a late change in conditions. That lower ceiling does not give the pilots enough time to recover.

At the last moment, while exiting the clouds in a power dive, Sigel, who is carefully scanning for the target, sees the darker ground appear much closer than he expected. He barely escapes at the minimal level by yanking back on the stick in a panic. However, his two companion pilots cannot recover quickly enough (because they are focusing on Sigel's plane for positioning purposes rather than the ground). Those two planes crash, killing the two men (pilot and rear gunner) in each plane. 

But that's not the extent of the horror.

The demonstration continues anyway despite the crashes due to inadequate communication and the close order of bombers. 

A total of 13 Stukas crash and carry their 26 aircrews to their graves.

The devastation could have been even greater, but Squadron Kommandeur Hauptmann Rudolf Braun, circling above in his own Stuka with the Stab (headquarters) pilots waiting to take their turn last (again, the Staffel ordering is unexplained), hears Sigel's frantic shouts of danger and does not lead his own pilots down to certain death. All nine following planes of Staffel 2 also crash, along with two of Staffel 3.

This is among the worst losses of Stukas suffered in one day during the entire war. It is exceeded only on 17 August 1940 during the Battle of Britain, when 17 are lost.

Sigel is cleared in the resulting investigation and serves throughout the war. He ultimately is promoted to commander of the Luftwaffe in Norway. There, during an inspection flight on 8 May 1944, he crashes and dies when his plane hits power lines in deep fog. The commander of Staffel 1, Oberleutnant Dietrich Peltz, who later becomes the Luftwaffe's commander of its entire bomber force, is among the Stuka pilots in the units who are warned from diving at the last minute. He survives the war and dies on 10 August 2001.

United States Homefront: "The Wizard of Oz" starring Judy Garland has its official premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Doenitz U-boats
The premiere of "The Wizard of Oz" on 15 August 1939.


8-9 November 1923: Beer Hall Putsch

December 20, 1924: Hitler Leaves Prison

September 18, 1931: Geli Raubal Commits Suicide

November 8, 1932: Roosevelt is Elected

30 January 1933: Hitler Takes Office
February 27, 1933: Reichstag Fire
March 23, 1933: The Enabling Act

June 20, 1934: Hitler Plans the Night of the Long Knives
June 30, 1934: Night of the Long Knives

August 1, 1936: Opening of the Berlin Olympics

September 30, 1938: The Munich Agreement
November 9, 1938: Kristallnacht

August 1, 1939: Flight Tests of B-17 Flying Fortress
August 2, 1939: Einstein and the Atom Bomb
August 7, 1939: Goering Tries to Broker Peace
August 14, 1939: Hitler Decides To Attack Poland
August 15, 1939: U-Boats Put To Sea
August 16, 1939: Incident at Danzig
August 20, 1939: Battle of Khalkhin Gol
August 22, 1939: Hitler Tips His Hand
August 23, 1939: Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact
August 25, 1939: Hitler Postpones Invasion of Poland
August 27, 1939: First Jet Flight
August 31, 1939: The Gleiwitz Operation


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