The German Naval Archives: Tambach

The wreckage at Lunebach, Germany, ca. March 1945. (National Archives Identifier 535977)

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. It is part four of a series on the history of some of the seized foreign records housed at the National Archives.

Imagining Germany in April 1945 conjures up images of destruction and despair as the war in Europe drew to a close and the Nazi war machine gasped its final breaths.

That April, Allied troops seized documents of the German Naval Archives, also known as the Tambach documents, named after Tambach Castle in northern Bavaria, where they were captured.

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A document from German Naval Files relating to Operation Barbarossa from a collection that was seized at Tambach Castle. (National Archives Identifier 7431812)

The records found at Tambach Castle included German Navy documents from World War II but also some dating back as far as 1850. The Nazis had moved the documents from their home in Berlin to the rural safe haven in November 1943.

After Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the U.S. and British forces moved to London the seized documents that they could use for naval intelligence purposes.

They split the documents—some went to the British Admiralty while others were sent to 20 Grosvenor Square, the American military headquarters in London.

U.S. and British officials planned to jointly organize, catalog, and film the intelligence records at each location.

In the midst of filming, Commodore Dudley Knox of the Office of Naval Records and Library, recognizing the great academic and research value of the Tambach records, sought to film the entire collection and to maintain a copy.

Knox persuaded the Director of Naval Intelligence to film the additional documents—a mighty accomplishment considering the postwar reduction in military funds.

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A document from German Naval Files relating to Operation Barbarossa from a collection that was seized at Tambach Castle. (National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized)

Documents that had remained at Tambach Castle after the seizure—which were now deemed worth filming for historic value—were swiftly shipped to join the rest of the collection in London.

Knox eventually realized that it would be a logistical and costly nightmare to truly film every document of the German Naval Archives. Rather than let his dream of filming a greater portion of the Archive fall apart, he made the call to film only what he deemed the most historically valuable documents.

Microfilming the collection began in London in August 1945.

British naval staff first registered the documents, giving them a “PG” designation followed by a unique number identifier.“PG” reportedly stood for “pinched from the Germans.”

Once the documents were registered, American translators listed and detailed the items in the series. The documents were then filmed.

In 1946, while the staff were filming records from 1930-45—those considered most vital to be duplicated—they began the additional task of filming some of the more historic, older records.

Tambach 3
Piece of a map from German Naval Files relating to Operation Barbarossa from a collection that was seized at Tambach Castle. (National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized)

By July 1947, filming was complete, resulting in 3,905 reels of film, of which 40 percent concerned material from before 1930.

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Document from the Records of the German Navy, October 1915. (National Archives Identifier 7065546)

In 1962, 17 years after the German Naval Archives had been seized at Tambach Castle, the British Admiralty began the process of returning the original documents to the Federal Republic of Germany.

The original records were sent to the Federal German Military Archives in Freiburg. The entire microfilm collection of German Naval Archives material from before 1930 came to the National Archives in February 1967 from the Naval History Division of the U.S. Navy. The first transfer was completed in 1969. In 1972 the Navy began to transfer reels of unclassified records dating from after 1930.

So in addition to housing United States’ federal records, the National Archives had acquired documents relating to the German Navy under the Third Reich and Prussian Navy from the mid-19th century.

But the National Archives doesn’t just have German historical records—next Wednesday’s post explores records seized from Italy’s notorious II Duce.

Tambach 5
English translation of a page from a diary of German Naval Staff, Operations Division, that was captured at Tambach, April 8, 1943. (National Archives Identifier 23889434)

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