The German Navy's World War II Moment in the Sun

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Here’s What You Need To Remember: Geography doomed the Kriegsmarine. The Royal Navy was able to keep it mostly contained to the Atlantic Coast, and there was no massive Jutland-style naval battle in World War II. This did not, however, prevent hundreds of U-Boats from slipping past the Royal Navy and wreaking havoc in the Atlantic.

On the nights of August 21 and 24, 1939, two dark ships slipped out of the German naval base at Wilhelmshaven and turned west toward the English Channel. Forty-eight hours later they were well out into the broad Atlantic Ocean, safe from prying British eyes. They were two of the Kriegsmarine’s most innovative warships, the compact but powerful pocket battleships Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland. Each was armed with six 11-inch guns and could range for nearly 10,000 miles, prowling the seas for vulnerable prey.

A week before Hitler’s attack on Poland, Germany was already preparing to initiate Grand Admiral Erich Raeder’s Plan Z, the daring surface campaign to destroy Britain’s military and commercial sea trade.

The two ships were the vanguard of what Raeder hoped would eventually be dozens of fast and potent cruisers and battleships that would disrupt and destroy the Allies’ sea lanes and starve England into surrender.

At the war’s outset, Britain possessed about 2,000 merchant ships and another 1,000 coastal vessels of less than 2,000 tons each. This added up to around four million tons of cargo capacity. Another three million tons came from countries conquered by Germany, while another million tons were being launched each year. Britain required about 55 million tons of imports— consisting of food, oil, cotton, wool, and other industrial products—to sustain it. Raeder’s goal was to sink more tonnage than Britain could endure and force the capitulation. In essence, his raiders had to sink ships faster than Britain could replace them. As events proved, Raeder was doomed to fail before he even began.

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder led the Kriegsmarine until he fell out of favor with Hitler.

Erich Raeder, who had risen to command the Kriegsmarine after a career that went back to being a junior officer aboard Kaiser Wilhelm II’s yacht Hohenzollern to the post of chief of staff for Admiral Franz von Hipper’s battlecruiser force in the Great War, was a strong advocate of fast surface commerce raiders. They had proved successful during World War I, even if their impact on the outcome was negligible. The most successful surface raider was the light cruiser SMS Emden. In three months in the Indian Ocean, Emden sank two Allied warships and captured or sank 16 merchant vessels totaling 70,000 tons. Emden was undoubtedly Raeder’s inspiration for his vision of fast raiders running wild through Allied shipping. But he failed to give much credibility to the U-boat campaign of World War I. Although the U-boats were often hampered by the diplomatic need to appease neutral nations who violently opposed unrestricted submarine warfare, in 51 months the 371 U-boats sank 5,282 British, Allied, and neutral merchant ships totaling more than 11 million tons.

Ignoring this persuasive statistic, Raeder had convinced Adolf Hitler that a surface fleet was essential to victory at sea. In January 1939, he proposed his Plan Z, envisioning a huge fleet of battleships, heavy cruisers, and aircraft carriers that would roam and dominate the seas by 1948. Hitler had promised his fleet commander that there would be no war until at least 1944, giving Raeder a healthy margin of time to carry out his grand building program. 

But in the summer of 1939, Raeder learned of the planned invasion of Poland. Even though there was little doubt that Britain would quickly become involved, Hitler forged ahead, disrupting Raeder’s carefully laid plans to build a huge surface fleet. Faced with a fait accompli, Raeder used what few large surface warships he possessed to support Hitler’s grand campaigns.

But Raeder was more of a tactician than a strategist, a remnant of his time with the battlecruisers under Hipper. He never developed a broad strategy, instead using his meager force in hit and run raids and attacks. Additionally, Raeder gave little thought to U-boats as a viable means of cutting the Allied sea lanes. But his greatest blunder was that he failed to recognize the nearly two decades of advances in aviation, marine technology, and radar that made a surface fleet more of a target than a threat.

His shortsighted dogmas condemned the Kriegsmarine to defeat.

Erich Raeder was not only up against the powerful Royal Navy, but the former First Lord of the Admiralty and later Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose devotion to the Navy was close to reverence. Churchill gave the Navy all the support it needed to assure Britain’s survival.

The German battleship Bismarck posed a tremendous threat to Allied shipping with its main 15-inch gun batteries. Bismarck was hunted down and sunk by Royal Navy warships in 1941.

The last thing Churchill and the Admiralty wanted was for the distinctive shape of a huge German battleship to come out of the misty horizon and open fire with its heavy guns on a helpless convoy of tankers and transports.  A salvo of heavy 8-inch or 11-inch high-explosive shells screaming out of the sky like angels of death could be devastating. The thin-skinned merchant ships could be sunk in minutes, leaving their crews to flounder and die in the freezing sea. Germany’s powerful ships would be wolves in the fold, unstoppable and deadly.

Raeder lacked the strength and time to make a significant contribution to the Third Reich’s war aims, but he doggedly followed a radically shrunken version of his original raiding plan. His only advantage was that the Royal Navy was largely equipped with vessels that had been launched during or shortly after the Great War. They were mostly older, slower battleships and battlecruisers with a leavening of light cruisers and destroyers.

However, Raeder’s ships were all new, having been launched since 1931 and fitted with the latest naval technology and engines. They were for the most part fast, heavily armed and armored and were the equal of their larger British counterparts. But there were too few of them.

The numbers leave little doubt as to the inevitable outcome. Even at a fraction of its former glory, the British Home Fleet consisted of seven battleships, two battlecruisers, four aircraft carriers, 21 cruisers, more than 50 destroyers, and 20 submarines. The navies of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia added their own strength to this huge armada. Against this Raeder never had more than 10 powerful warships. Three were the so-called “pocket battleships” Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee, and Admiral Scheer. In Germany they were officially called Panzerschiffen, or “armored ships.” They carried two triple turrets with six 11-inch guns. They were registered as being 10,000 tons each but actually displaced over 12,000 tons. Three 14,500-ton Admiral Hipper-class cruisers, Hipper, Blucher, and Prinz Eugen, each carried eight 8-inch guns in four turrets. Formidable in themselves, they were soon superseded by two larger vessels, which were called heavy cruisers but were in fact battleships. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, launched in 1936, each carried nine 11-inch guns in three turrets. While they were officially registered as displacing 19,000 tons, their registered gross tonnage was closer to 32,000. This made them larger than any German warship ever constructed up to that time, but Raeder was not finished. His planned armada was only partially complete.

The zenith of Raeder’s raider fleet were the huge new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, each of more than 50,000 tons and carrying eight 15-inch guns in four turrets. Launched in 1939 and 1940, respectively, the sisters were the largest and most heavily armed and armored warships ever built in Germany. But their very size and power made them the focus of Royal Navy attention even before they completed their sea trials. They were also the last capital ships built in Germany during World War II.

A large crowd gathered in June 1934 to watch the launching of the pocket battleship Graf Spee. Graf Spee came to grief in 1939, scuttled after the Battle of the River Plate.

In August 1939, Raeder initiated Plan Z by sending Graf Spee and Deutschland out to sea. Graf Spee, named for Count Maximillian von Spee, commander of the German East Asia squadron in 1914, went to the South Atlantic, while Deutschland headed for the North Atlantic.

From the moment Graf Spee received word that Great Britain and Germany were at war, her captain, Hans Langsdorff, who was above all a gentleman warrior, began his hunt for British merchant ships. German raiders were under the strict rules of cruiser warfare, where all ships stopped must be searched and their crews allowed to escape in lifeboats before the vessel was sunk. His crew was skilled and loyal to their mission. Langsdorff used his ship’s reconnaissance plane to scout for prey. When Graf Spee came upon a likely ship, the first thing Langsdorff did was to destroy the merchant ship’s radio room with direct fire, preventing a distress call. Then he ordered the captain to abandon the vessel before he opened fire. Graf Spee sank 16 ships in three months of raiding in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic. Not one person was killed or injured. But time and circumstances were catching up with Langsdorff.