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24 March – Today in German History

1918

  • On March 24, 1918, German forces cross the Somme River, achieving their first goal of the major spring offensive begun three days earlier on the Western Front.

    Operation Michael, engineered by the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Ludendorff, aimed to decisively break through the Allied lines on the Western Front and destroy the British and French forces. The offensive began on the morning of March 21, 1918, with an aggressive bombardment.


    The brunt of the attack that followed was directed at the British 5th Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, stationed along the Somme River in northwestern France. This section was the most poorly defended of any spot on the British lines, due to the fact that it had been held by the French until only a few weeks before and its defensive positions were not yet fully fortified. Panic spread up and down the British lines of command, intensified by communications failures between Gough and his subordinates in the field, and German gains increased over the subsequent days of battle. On March 23, Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the German side of the line, remarked that The progress of our offensive is so quick, that one cannot follow it with a pen.


    The next day, German troops stormed across the Somme, having previously captured its bridges before French troops could destroy them. Despite having resolved to concentrate on weaker points of the enemy lines, Ludendorff continued to throw his armies against the crucial villages of Amiens which had a railway junction and Arras which the British and French were instructed to hold at all costs hoping to break through and push on towards Paris. By that time, German troops were exhausted, and transportation and supply lines had begun to break down in the cold and bad weather. Meanwhile, Allied forces had recovered from the initial disadvantage and had begun to gain the upper hand, halting the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30.


    On April 5, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael. It had yielded nearly 40 miles of territory, the greatest gains for either side on the Western Front since 1914. He would launch four more offensive pushes over the course of the spring and summer, throwing all of the German army’s resources into this last, desperate attempt to win the war.

2015

  • On March 24, 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner deliberately flies the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and the other 149 people onboard. When it crashed, Germanwings flight 9525 had been traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany.

    The plane took off from Barcelona around 10 a.m. local time and reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet at 10:27 a.m. Shortly afterward, the captain, 34-year-old Patrick Sondenheimer, requested that the co-pilot, 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz, take over the controls while he left the cockpit, probably to use the bathroom. At 10:31 a.m. the plane began a rapid descent and 10 minutes later crashed in mountainous terrain near the town of Prads-Haute-Bleone in southern France. There were no survivors. Besides the two pilots, the doomed Airbus A320 was carrying four cabin crew members and 144 passengers from 18 different countries, including three Americans.

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22 March 1941 – End of Operation Berlin

Scharnhorst.

Under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau departed from Kiel, Germany on 22 Jan 1941 to raid Allied shipping. The two surface warships were supported by supply ships and tankers Uckermark, Ermland, Schlettstadt, Friedrich Breme, and Hamburg. They were detected by the British in the Great Belt strait between the islands of Zealand and Funen in Denmark; in response, Admiral Sir John Tovey was dispatched with a fleet of 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 11 destroyers to intercept. While Tovey hypothesized that the German force would enter the Atlantic Ocean south of Iceland, Lütjens decided on the route north of Iceland instead, thus the British fleet failed to make contact with the German fleet.

Allied convoy HX-106, consisted of 41 ships, was en route from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to Liverpool, England, United Kingdom when it was detected by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on 8 Feb. Captain Otto Ciliax of Scharnhorst offered to use his battleship’s superior speed to draw off British battleship HMS Ramillies escorting the convoy, allowing Gneisenau to overpower the transports. Lütjens, however, opted to abide by Adolf Hitler’s orders to avoid engaging Allied capital ships and broke off the attack. The convoy failed to make the correct identification on the two German battlecruisers, thus Tovey was not alerted of the actual location of his assigned prey.

Scharnhorst & Gneisenau.

The German battlecruisers then set to hunt down Allied convoy HX-111, during which attempt they came across another convoy on 22 Feb en route to the United States after already having emptied their cargo in Britain. This attack lasted over 12 hours, during which 5 ships were sunk. The attack was reported by the convoy.

Next, the Germans sailed south to the Azores off western Africa. They sighted a convoy, but due to the presence of battleship HMS Malaya, Lütjens decided not to pursue; instead, he shadowed the convoy and directed submarines in the area to attack.

Moving into the western Atlantic, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank a freighter, followed by two separate attacks on two convoys that resulted in 16 Allied ships sunk or captured.

Operation Berlin ended on 22 Mar 1941 as the fleet made a port call at Brest, France. The ships had traveled 17,800 miles during this operation, sinking or capturing 22 enemy ships totaling 113,690 tons.

Schlachtschiff Gneisenau.
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21 March 1944 – Cremer’s U-333 Survives Attack by Walkers’ Group

Peter Cremer was a lucky man. As a U-boat commander, he defied the odds and survived the war to write his memoirs. He did so after surviving a series of very close encounters with the Royal Navy. In 1942 he had been badly wounded in an engagement with HMS Crocus in October 1942. After recovering from his wounds he returned to command U-333.

On U-333’s 10th patrol they came up against a formidable adversary – the 2nd Escort Group under the command of Captain Walker, the most successful of all the U-boat hunters in the war. Walker’s group of ships was returning to port when they were alerted to a possible U-boat spotted by an aircraft. After the war, the Royal Navy examined the records of the Kriegsmarine and speculated that the 2nd Escort Group might have attacked U-333. Cremer was able to set the record straight in his memoir:

In English opinion ‘the move could well have taken the Group across the path of U 333, to which I can only say ‘it certainly did’, for our courses definitely crossed.

After the reconnaissance plane had observed and reported me in the early morning of 21 March, at about 1100 strong propeller noises were heard approaching in a broad spectrum extending from west to south.

I tried to outmaneuver the enemy and breakthrough to the south-west but it was a hopeless enterprise. The weather itself was bad. A long Atlantic swell was running which even at 40 meters depth made itself unpleasantly felt and swung the boat to and fro.

This Group came at U 333 from two sides in the attack formation preferred by Walker. In broad line abreast the ships dropped depth charges at very short intervals. As prelude numerous samples were dropped in a few minutes, their explosions merging with one another so that it was impossible to count them.

Their pressure waves were so enormous that the conning-tower hatch began to shudder and we were all thrown about. Then it became suspiciously quiet until the odious ping – ping – ping of a searching ship was first heard thinly, then louder. Then that, too, broke off and there was another pause, explained perhaps by the fact that the enemy did not succeed in locating us with certainty.

It may be that the weather was responsible. At any rate, it was a situation of ‘no reports being made since their contact was not firm enough.’

This probably saved our lives, for suddenly all hell was let loose again. But now they were throwing them without aim, on suspicion. Escaping was not to be thought of. The ocean was too shallow here and the slightest of our machinery noises would have betrayed us.

It was best to play possum and let nothing be heard of us – come what might. So I laid the boat on the bottom where it bedded itself softly in sand and mud. I ordered the crew to rest and as far as possible not to think of depth charges, though it was impossible not to hear them. I thought: whoever throws so many will soon have none left. Meanwhile, the hands of our clock kept moving, the search dragged on and lasted into the night.

It was deathly still in the boat if that does not sound macabre. As distinct from in films and many a book, the U-boat men controlled themselves in precarious situations and only seldom lost their nerve. There were neither cries nor groans and even orders were passed in a whisper from mouth to mouth. Pst! The enemy is listening! Water is an uncanny conductor.

I myself crouched in the control room, knees and stomach wrapped in soft catskins. It was cold and old wounds were hurting.

The propeller noises of the destroyers sounded muted, then clearer. They came closer, moved further off, sometimes singly, sometimes several together. Time passed. The air was used up, the potash cartridges were nearly expended and I had to supply oxygen. Everyone was breathing in short, heavy gasps. After ten hours (but what hours!) I was forced to go up.

All hands — Action stations — Surface! At once they were wide awake. ‘Blow tanks!’ A high-pitched hissing noise. That was all – nothing else. The boat would not budge, an invisible hand was holding it down. This was something quite new. Again, the same maneuver. ‘Blow tanks!’ Nothing moved.

U-333 had bedded itself only too well into the sand and mud of the ocean bottom. There was an even more nerve-racking period as they tried to free the U-Boat from the bottom of the ocean.

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21 March – Today in German History

1918

  • On March 21, 1918, near the Somme River in France, the German army launches its first major offensive on the Western Front in two years.

    At the beginning of 1918, Germany’s position on the battlefields of Europe looked extremely strong. German armies occupied virtually all of Belgium and much of northern France. With Romania, Russia and Serbia out of the war by the end of 1917, conflict in the east was drawing to a close, leaving the Central Powers free to focus on combating the British and French in the west. Indeed, by March 21, 1918, Russia’s exit had allowed Germany to shift no fewer than 44 divisions of men to the Western Front.


    Erich Ludendorff.

    German commander Erich Ludendorff saw this as a crucial opportunity to launch a new offensive. He hoped to strike a decisive blow to the Allies and convince them to negotiate for peace before fresh troops from the United States could arrive. In November, he submitted his plan for the offensive that what would become known as Kaiserschlacht, or the kaiser’s battle; Ludendorff code-named the opening operation Michael. Morale in the German army rose in reaction to the planned offensive. Many of the soldiers believed, along with their commanders, that the only way to go home was to push ahead.


    Michael began in the early morning hours of March 21, 1918. The attack came as a relative surprise to the Allies, as the Germans had moved quietly into position just days before the bombardment began. From the beginning, it was more intense than anything yet seen on the Western Front. Ludendorff had worked with experts in artillery to create an innovative, lethal ground attack, featuring a quick, intense artillery bombardment followed by the use of various gases, first tear gas, then lethal phosgene and chlorine gases. He also coordinated with the German Air Service or Luftstreitkrafte, to maximize the force of the offensive.


    By the end of the first day, German troops had advanced more than four miles and inflicted almost 30,000 British casualties. As panic swept up and down the British lines of command over the next few days, the Germans gained even more territory. By the time the Allies hardened their defense at the end of the month, Ludendorff’s army had crossed the Somme River and broken through enemy lines near the juncture between the British and French trenches. By the time Ludendorff called off the first stage of the offensive in early April, German guns were trained on Paris, and their final, desperate attempt to win World War I was in full swing.

1941

  • The last Italian post in East Libya, North Africa, falls to the British.
General Henning von Tresckow

1943

On March 21, 1943, the second military conspiracy plan to assassinate Hitler in a week fails.


Back in the summer of 1941, Major General Henning von Tresckow, a member of Gen. Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center, was the leader of one of many conspiracies against Adolf Hitler. Along with his staff officer, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, and two other conspirators, both of old German families who also believed Hitler was leading Germany to humiliation, Tresckow had planned to arrest the Fuhrer when he visited the Army Group’s headquarters at Borisov, in the Soviet Union. But their naïveté in such matters became evident when Hitler showed up—surrounded by SS bodyguards and driven in one of a fleet of cars. They never got near him.


Tresckow would try again on March 13, 1943, in a plot called Operation Flash. This time, Tresckow, Schlabrendorff, et al., were stationed in Smolensk, still in the USSR. Hitler was planning to fly back to Rastenburg, Germany, from Vinnitsa, in the USSR. A stopover was planned at Smolensk, during which the Fuhrer was to be handed a parcel bomb by an unwitting officer thinking it was a gift of liquor for two senior officers at Rastenburg. All went according to plan and Hitler’s plane took off. The bomb was set to go off somewhere over Minsk. At that point, co-conspirators in Berlin were ready to take control of the central government at the mention of the code word Flash. Unfortunately, the bomb never went off at all as the detonator was defective.


A week later on March 21, on Heroes’ Memorial Day, (a holiday honoring German World War I dead), Tresckow selected Col. Freiherr von Gersdorff to act as a suicide bomber at the Zeughaus Museum in Berlin, where Hitler was to attend the annual memorial dedication. With a bomb planted in each of his two coat pockets, Gersdorff was to sidle up to Hitler as he reviewed the memorials and ignite the bombs, killing Hitler along with himself and everyone in the immediate vicinity. Schlabrendorff supplied Gersdorff with bombs that had a 10-minute fuse.


Once at the exhibition hall, Gersdorff was informed that the Fuhrer was to inspect the exhibits for only eight minutes in which this was not enough time for the fuses to meltdown.

1945

  • During World War II, Allied bombers began four days of raids over Germany.
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19 March – Today in German History

1945

  • The Nero Decree was issued by Adolf Hitler on March 19, 1945, ordering the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent their use by Allied forces as they penetrated deep within Germany. It was officially titled Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree (Befehl betreffend Zerstörungsmaßnahmen im Reichsgebiet) and has subsequently become known as the Nero Decree, after the Roman Emperor Nero, who supposedly engineered the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The decree was deliberately disobeyed by Albert Speer.

1949

  • East Germany approves a new constitution. In a precursor to the establishment of a separate, Soviet-dominated East Germany, the People’s Council of the Soviet Zone of Occupation approves a new constitution. This action, together with the U.S. policy of pursuing an independent pathway in regards to West Germany, contributed to the permanent division of Germany.
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