C. Plath of Hamburg in the Second World War

Excerpt from: Friedrich Jerchow, From Sextant to Satellite Navigation,
1837-1987, 150 years C. Plath

While C. Plath in Altona-Bahrenfeld was developing into a medium-sized industrial enterprise, things had been changing in Germany. After the democratic system of the Weimar Republic had through so called coordination been supplanted by the National Socialist dictatorship, the government in the following years succeeded in regimenting nearly all other spheres of life.

In the course of the four-year plan of 1936, for example, not only were the prices for all goods and services subjected to government control but also all wages and salaries. Raw materials and later food rationing was introduced, and just before the outbreak of war the free choice of a place of work was largely abolished.

And finally, when the second World War began in the late summer of 1939, the conditions under which C. Plath had to produce were in many respects no longer comparable with those which Theodor Plath had for decades taken for granted. It was not only the size of the firm which was no longer comparable with that of C. Plath at the time of the world economic crisis, it was, above all, the almost complete dependence on the bureaucracy of the Air Ministry and in a lesser degree on that of the Admiralty. There was no longer any negotiation as is customary with contracts between businessmen. Government bureaucrats now laid down the business terms.

The production program had also been modified to meet the requirements of the Navy and the Air Force; completely new instruments were developed and constructed. Here one should mention inter alia the goniometer table with which the Luftwaffe airfields were equipped during the second World War. As a simple ground station, it supplied navigational and direction finding data as well as radio navigation aids for aircraft returning to their airfield.

In addition to the big magnetic compasses 1 9 and 1 10, a transmitting magnetic compass system was developed and later built in large numbers for the Navy It was mainly used by mine-sweepers, for which a gyrocompass system was too expensive. The TMC system was modified at the end of the war and also used on one-man submarines. It permitted the transmission of the vessel's heading from the magnetic compass to repeater devices located in any part of the ship.

The so called SOLD sextant with built-in bubble as an artificial horizon was developed from 1939 onwards for use in aircraft to determine their position. It contained in addition a mechanical integrator to reduce errors during observation. At the end of 1943 the gyroscopic sextant K 30 was built on the same principle for the Navy; a built-in pneumatically driven gyroscope served as an artificial horizon. This sextant was mainly used on submarines. It was at that time the only means of fixing the submarine's position and of reaching prearranged rendezvous with supply vessels.
Even the products of other firms had to be manufactured, including gyroscopes, for whose production the responsible authorities had actually ordered specialists from other firms to work at C. Plath's in Hamburg.

Other instruments were gyroscopes for gyrocompasses and an auto pilot from Siemens, periscopes with aiming devices for the 8.8 cm antiaircraft gun and the so called turn-and-bank indicator for aircraft. This instrument with the help of two gyroscopes permitted a representation of the true horizon and the turn-and-bank motion of the aircraft.

Theodor Plath observed this development from the distant vantage point of the Kompasshaus. He had not moved to Bahrenfeld but had kept his old office on Stubbenhuk, which had been for him the control center of the firm since he had moved into the Kompasshaus in November 1915.

A former senior staff member reported:
He no longer had any conception of all the instruments we were producing. Apart from the fact that we were still supplying compasses for the Navy, the other instruments such as the gyroscope, the turn-and-bank indicator combined with artificial horizon and goniometer table were all quite new. These were later the principal instruments and we produced thousands of them." And on Theodor Plath's occasional visits to Bahrenfeld, the above mentioned informant goes on to report: "... he would come along and inquire about the compass."

Unless we are much mistaken, Theodor Plath was not particularly enthusiastic about the development of his former firm in the last few years. Whereas his other written records on all the important developments in the firm's history give, albeit briefly, an interesting insight into the problems of the time in question, they contain only the following comments on the development of the firm in Bahrenfeld.

"The transfer of the factory to Hamburg Bahrenfeld necessitated using the automobile as a means of transport. A three-wheeled delivery van was soon followed by a lorry and in addition several private cars were put into service. These enabled staff members to make journeys inside the city and outside it to airfields, naval ports, etc." As interesting as these remarks on the first use of cars and lorries by C. Plath are, the reader misses the regular assessment of business matters which normally came so naturally to Theodor Plath.

With the outbreak of war in the late summer of 1939, the military authorities stepped up their demands on C. Plath, and even more so the longer the war lasted. For, in addition to gyroscope, other navigational aids, mainly from firms in the Berlin area, were transferred to C. Plath in Hamburg. Soon a new branch works had to be set up in Schenefeld, near the Bahrenfeld works but outside the city boundaries, to meet the additional demands.

A major problem at this time was recruiting personnel. By 1940 the total number of persons employed in the three Plath works in Hamburg had risen to about 500, and in 1942 with approximately 650 employees reached its wartime peak. Nevertheless the work force was never sufficient to meet the production figures laid down by the government authorities. The demands for personnel continually submitted to the Hamburg labor administration office were never at any time during the war anywhere near adequately met because of the constantly rising requirements of the Army. On the contrary, so called 'combing out squads', which on the orders of the military authorities ransacked all industrial and commercial firms in search of able-bodied men, also showed up regularly at C. Plath's.

We read in the report of one of these combing out squads dated 18th February, 1941: The firm of C. Plath has recently had to take over the manufacture of new instruments which up to now have been made exclusively by other firms . . . Furthermore, the firm of Plath has made increasing use of opportunities to farm out work, just recently to Holland and France as well. The latest deliveries from France have proved very satisfactory. The firm can only be advised to continue to make use of such opportunities as in the present deployment of labor situation there is little hope now and even less in the coming spring of being allocated more workers.'

The firm was urgently recommended to exhaust every possibility of stepping up production  more subcontracting outside the 'Nordmark' and, if necessary, a temporary increase of hours of work. "Ford, a further passage in this report states, "hours of work could in an emergency provide certain reserves which could be temporarily exploited. The hours of work in the Plath factories were at this time 49 for women and for men actually 57 per week, provided that the demands of Navy and Air Force did not make overtime necessary.
A former foreman, at that time responsible for the production of binnacle stands, stated in the course of a conversation:
"We had a frightful lot to do. And I can say that I almost never worked less than an 11 or 12 hour day." In such cases the 6-day/ 57 hour week could easily turn into a 70-hour week.

This situation resulted in the firm of C. Plath employing from about 1941 for a period (no longer determinable) a total of about 40 Russian female workers in the Bahrenfeld and Schenefeld works. These women had been allocated to the firm by the state labor administration in response to its constant complaints about lack of workers.

The employment of foreign workers was not without its problems. They were subject to special laws. Special food and accommodation regulations applied to them. Their freedom of movement was largely restricted. They were neither permitted to use public transport nor to visit cinemas, theaters, restaurants and the like. There is as good as no evidence available to determine the fate of the Russian women who were employed by C. Plath. When questioned, one of the former staff members could only remember that they all spoke German.

Many of the workers were in favor of long periods of overtime, for the extra hours were a highly welcome addition to the meager wages paid in wartime Germany. But C. Plath could not be made responsible for these low wages. For when the government ordered a wage freeze in 1936, wages and salaries were still only slightly higher than the low pay level at the time of the economic crisis. At that time people were glad to find any work at all; there would be time enough to demand wage and salary rises when the economy recovered again.

But this was not to be. The wage freeze came instead. And so the average pay of workers employed by C. Plath was only 84 pfennigs an hour. A former Plath worker stated: ~I liked working overtime, for you must remember that the extra pay was my pocket money. I was paid 49 marks net a week, my rent was RM 42.90, gas and electricity came on top of that. So that didn't leave much over for beer."

One of the reasons for the very long time spent at work during the war was the exceptionally high percentage of lost hours; in 1942, for instance, there were 206,000  lost  hours  in approximately 1.308.000 working hours, and in 1943 actually 228,000 hours in 1,238,000 working hours were lost. This meant in practice for every six hours worked there was one hour of idle time. Nevertheless it was not the frequent air raid warnings or even bomb damage that caused these high lost time figures. They were responsible in 1942 for a total of 7.2 % and in 1943 actually only 5.5 % of the hours lost.

Certainly a higher than average rate of absenteeism through sickness among the in wartime mainly older workers had played an important role. But far more crucial factors for the high rate of hours lost during the war - and this is confirmed by the results of questionnaires circulated by the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce in 1945 were power cuts and shortage of materials. The outside suppliers from whom C. Plath received the intermediate products required for its own products were themselves seldom able to deliver punctually because of the shortage of raw materials or energy. Furthermore, the German railway network was hopelessly overloaded with excessive demands for the transport of troops, weapons and ammunition.

The rearmament of Germany and the subsequent war had made out of C. Plath, without any great effort on its own part, a firm of size and importance. Neither Theodor Plath nor his son-in-law Johannes Boysen could have anticipated this a few years before. But as the war continued, its negative and drastic results became apparent in Hamburg as well. Not only were the soldiers at the front and the sailors in the submarines scattered over the oceans exposed to enemy action but increasingly the people at home to the horrors of war.

But all the human casualties and destruction which Hamburg had suffered in the first years of the war paled into insignificance when compared with those which the city had to endure in the ten days from 25th July to 3rd August, 1943.3000 aircraft in seven night raids destroyed entire districts of the city. About 48,000 Hamburg citizens were killed, a quarter of a million dwellings destroyed and almost a million Hamburgians temporarily fled from the city. The report of the Hamburg police president on this inferno concluded with the lines: a word cannot describe the enormity of the horror which for ten days and nights petrified the people and whose traces have been inscribed indelibly on the face of the city and its inhabitants."

Several of C. Plath's employees were among the dead; many of them lost their homes. The Kompasshaus, head office of the firm on Stubbenhuk, occupied since 1915, was also hit by bombs and burnt out, while the production plants in Bahrenfeld and Schenefeld miraculously remained undamaged.

Here were produced not only the instruments of Plath's former production range but also subassemblies and single components for other firms, for example the magnetic compass subassembly of the Askania air compass which formed the navigational system for the first unmanned cruise missiles (the V 1), put into service in 1944.

Other special instruments were also developed, for example a handy coincidence range finder based on the principle of the sextant.

Here a particularly interesting instrument should be mentioned, namely the sun compass which from 1943 onwards was manufactured in addition to the aircraft magnetic compasses, now produced in their thousands. As the normal magnetic compass can make considerable indication errors at the high accelerations occurring in high-speed aircraft, the sun compass, with its fundamentally different principle of course indication, was used. The position of the sun was used as a reference; this was continuously corrected by a built-in clockwork mechanism. After the setting of the geographical coordinates and the time, the instrument indicated the course to be followed. The sun compass was used in fighter aircraft and later in the first twinjet fighters (Me 262).

As a consequence of the allied bombing attacks on Hamburg, the government authorities ordered a partial transfer of production from Hamburg to eastern German regions not endangered by enemy air raids. By October 1943 C. Path was allocated a new production plant in Scharfenwiese, south of the old East Prussian-Polish frontier, which started production of sextants and bearing devices in January 1944 with about 100 employees, half of them Polish and Russian.

Another Plath factory was set up in the course of the war in Zoppot north of Danzig in order to carry out instrument repairs for the ships of the German Baltic Sea fleet. But when towards the end of 1944 the German-Soviet front line moved closer and closer to East Prussia, the works in Scharfenwiese were first moved to Guttstadt in the center of East Prussia and later, like the naval supply point in Zoppot, abandoned.

Plath's Bremen branch, Cassens & Plath, had since the end of the calamitous economic crisis enjoyed a steady development under the management of the coowner, Captain Meinert Horstmann. Both sales development and the number of persons employed had remained relatively constant in the years from 1935 to 1942/43. Total sales, including a not inconsiderable  wholesale  share,  had amounted to about RM 83,000 in 1935; in 1939 they had risen to 115,000 marks and in 1942 to RM 119,000. The staff varied between 11 and 14 persons over the whole period.

C. Plath during the war years supplied a total of almost 21,000 sextants, 11,000 of which were bubble and gyroscopic sextants on the SOLD principle. In addition, over 9000 naval compasses were supplied and more than 500 magnetic compass remote transmission systems with over 2500 repeater compasses. This was a notable achievement when the difficulties of procuring materials and the absolute shortage of personnel are considered.

Even in March 1945, only a few weeks before the end of the war, production still continued under conditions of the utmost difficulty. From the delivery notes can be read that nearly 250 gyroscopic sextants and 150 marine compasses were supplied in addition to a large number of other instruments.

In the spring of 1945 Germany had lost the war after fighting for 5 3/4 years against almost the whole of the rest of the world. The armed forces of the four main allies, USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, occupied the whole of Germany. In Berlin, the capital of the Reich, they set up an Allied Control Council, which functioned as an occupation government for the whole of Germany. Hamburg was occupied by British troops, and C. Plath like all other industrial enterprises in the city, was with immediate effect subject to the authority of British Military Government. C. Plath was now faced with a new and at first completely unknown chapter in its more than 100-year-old history.

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