153: The Kriegsmarine


The leaders of the Kriegsmarine did not want to repeat the mistakes of the last war, so what did they want to do?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 153 - The Early War at Sea Pt. 3 - The Kriegsmarine. This week a big thank you goes out to Rhett, Mark, Abir, Sam, Eric, Daniel for choosing to become members, you can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Throughout the first 150 episodes of this show we have discussed in good detail some of the impacts that the experiences of the First world War had on the nations that would participate in the Second World War. Today we have to start with another of those impacts, and in this case it revolves around the German Navy, generally referred to as the Kriegsmarine. The efforts of the Kriegsmarine existed in the shadow of the events of the First World War at sea, and they would reject the strategy pursued by the Imperial German Navy during that conflict. That strategy was one of maintaining a fleet in being, driven by the desire to conserve fleet strength in the belief that simply by existing they were having an impact on the British War Effort. A rejection of this strategy pushed the German naval leaders into a pursuit of a fleet that could allow them to be proactive with their resources, and this meant that while the enemies were the same the strategy would be completely different. For most of the interwar period this strategy was heavily impacted by the provisions of the Versailles treaty which prevented the German nation from building even medium sized military vessels, and also prevented the construction of submarines. While these restrictions would be removed, it would still impact the German naval forces available in the first years of the war, with the most obvious example of this being the Panzerschiff, the armored ships which were focused around the task of commerce raiding. But even when the restrictions were removed, it would still be many years before the Kriegsmarine could meet other navies in open battle in the classic style. And this meant for much of the 1930s, regardless of the eventual goals of the Kriegsmarine the reality was that it had to be focused on a different type of naval war. Commerce raiding was seen as a critical task of the German navy, and not just their u-boats but also surface vessels with the goal of ranging out into the north and south Atlantic and interdicting the British trade that was essential to the British war effort. But then, in the late 1930s, the Kriegsmarine finally had access to the resources required to make its greater ambitions possible, which would result in a massive planned building campaign that would allow the German fleet to be a serious threat to even the great Royal Navy. The allure of the large capital ship was simply too great, which would result in the construction of first the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and then the even larger battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. These ships were less focused on the commerce raiding goal that the Kriegsmarine had focused on in earlier years, although they would prove capable of those kinds of actions. But then when the war started the massive building program, Plan Z, was only just started and none of the capital ships of that plan would be completed. The interesting conclusions to these efforts were that by the middle of the war the Tirpitz and other German ships in Norway existed as a fleet in being, always threatening the Arctic Convoys, and requiring British and American naval resources to guard them. All of that was of course quite negative, so I will end on a positive note for the Kriegsmarine, at least for the surface forces: while their impact on trade was not war altering, the ability of the Kriegsmarine to distract the Royal Navy and to force it to waste ships and resources to guard against attacks on trade was off the charts. The problem with this strategy was that it never unlocked a path to a German victory at sea during the only window that it would prove to have available, before the American entry into the war in late 1941. This episode will focus on the planning, leaders, and build up of the Kriegsmarine.

You cannot separate the Kriegsmarine of the Second World War from Erich Raeder, who would eventually be given the rank of Grand Admiral. Raeder would be placed at the head of the German navy in 1928, at a time when it was still very small and weak due to the constraints placed upon it by the treaty of Versailles. But even before his elevation he was involved in trying to determine the path forward for the German Navy after the First World War, and he was joined in that work by other German naval thinkers. Even during the Great War the actions of the Imperial German Navy came under criticism from some naval officers, chief among them being Vice Admiral Wegener. Wegener would write several critical papers of the path being pursued by the German Navy during the war, with that path best being summarized as a very cautious approach that was constantly trying to engineer a favorable massive fleet engagement in the North Sea, but at the same time being very risk averse, almost always preferring the cautious approach to preserve German ships if the conditions were not clearly favorable. To counter this Wegener pushed strongly for a more aggressive approach which would see the German ships focus on a strategy to push out of the North Sea and attack British trade in a more proactive way. He believed that it was only by more directly threatening British trade that the Royal Navy could be brought out to battle in a way that was favorable to Germany. These writings were criticisms of Germany’s entire naval strategy, and indirectly direct criticisms of those had had built that strategy, like Admiral Tirpitz, and so in 1916 Wegener was ordered to not write any more critical material for the remainder of the war. And so he stopped publishing writings, until after the war. Then after the war he started making up for lost time, first publishing a staff memorandum within the navy that mostly just restated all of his wartime writings, and then moving on to write “Naval Strategy in the World War” which was generally a discussion of the decisions, and in Wegener’s mind mistakes made during the First World War. Many of the critiques of the Imperial German Navy, and its strategic concept, are valid, and I would completely agree that the path pursued by the German Navy in the First World War held no path to victory. And this was the message that many would read in Wegeners book, which had good circulation among Naval circles and prompted many discussions. Along with this critique Wegener would also have his own ideas about how the war should have been fought. And it was in these ideas that Wegener would come into conflict with Raeder, and to be honest he would kind of fail to really make a convincing argument for what he was suggesting and why it was possible. Wegener would suggest that Germany just needed to be more aggressive at sea, and seek to address its geographic weaknesses as quickly as possible. He would claim that Germany’s largest problem in the naval realm was that it was bottled up in the north sea with limited access to that sea, and this could only be addressed by additional territory. Norway seemed like a tempting target which would provide much greater access to the North Sea but also the Atlantic and beyond. After geography was solved, then the fleet could move into a more offensive and aggressive stance, threatening British trade with the goal of forcing their fleet into a set piece climactic battle. These were all great ideas, fantastic ideas, but the problem is that Wegener did not really have a path towards actually making them happen given the naval realities of the 1920s and 1930s. And the problem was that even though he wanted to change how Germany fought the war at sea, he could not break away from the idea that the end result, the end goal, the way to actually win was to meet the enemy fleet at sea and destroy it. The problem was that the final step, the final battle, the final victory was never going to be possible, at least for decades as long as the Royal Navy started any conflict with such a massive lead in ships. Wegener did have suggestions on how to start chipping away at British strength, commerce raiding would spread the fleet out, attritional actions could take place, those types of things. But he just could not break himself away from the final battle concept. In some ways it reminds me of the planning that was taking place in Japan at roughly the same time, now the Imperial Japanese Navy would make the Kriegsmarine even at the height of its power look like a silly toy, but they had similar planning to Wegener around a naval war with the United States. They knew they would enter the conflict at a ship disadvantage, they believed the US fleet would charge across the Pacific, they would be able to enact some attrition on it, and then somehow it would just win the magical final massive battle. In the case of the Japanese during the war, and probably how Wegener’s strategy would have worked out, the challenge with this type of planning is that it did not properly account for how challenging it would be to weaken an enemy without destroying their own strength. Balanced against these strategies, was Raeder. Raeder did not necessarily disagree with Wegener’s conclusions and criticisms of the German actions during the First World War, but he took what was really a more realistic approach with how Germany could at least accomplish something with its navy in a future war. He did agree with Wegener that it was important for Germany to have a better strategy for attacking British trade with surface ships, which is one of the reasons that Raeder would put a high priority on ship endurance at sea during the interwar years. This would result in the Panzerschiffe and many other classes of German ships having greater endurance than their British counterparts. But Raeder also believed that some kind of climactic set piece battle, a Battle of Jutland Part 2, was a recipe for disaster for the new Kriegsmarine. And so instead he advocated for a strategy that was more around just focusing on spreading out British naval strength and chipping away at its trade, without the end goal of ever truly trying to destroy the Royal Navy, which he saw as an unrealistic goal. This basic concept would be maintained even up to the war years as German naval strength greatly expanded, with the plan always being to focus on using German naval strength not to directly destroy the Royal Navy but instead to accomplish other more achievable objects that would hopefully be impactful to the war effort in the aggregate. In these ideas Raeder was not alone among world naval thinkers, because in France at roughly this same time Vice Admiral Raoul Castex would be writing about these same ideas. Castex was also theorizing how France could meet and beat Britain at sea, with conclusions based on focusing strength not on meeting the Royal Navy strength for strength in battle, a battle that would always be lost. Instead the goal would be to find small tactical victories at important moments, and to focus on secondary objectives that were achievable because the results of these objectives “may exceed expectations and bring a success having major repercussions upon the principal theater, where all remains in doubt, even though the plan of maneuver has foreseen exactly the opposite.” Raeder would be successful in advocating for his ideas because he was successful in being promoted to the head of the German Navy, which allowed him to reduce Wegener’s influence and those that agreed with him. In some ways the two opposing viewpoints could be summarized as Wegener let his theories of Germany’s position mix with Mahan and the dreams of the triumphs of a major battle but he did not root his theories in reality, he simply dreamed the impossible dream and hoped that those dreams would be fulfilled. Raeder took a more realistic approach rooted not necessarily completely in reality, but at least in some basis of the reality of what Germany’s situation was, and would be, and how the fleet could be structured to at least have a chance of making concrete positive moves towards an end goal, even if it was not as glorious as sinking the pride of the Royal Navy in an afternoon.


No matter what the strategy might be, the Kriegsmarine needed ships, or it could do nothing. Before German rearmament started in the mid 1930s the ships available to the German Navy were, not exactly inspiring. There were some old pre-dreadnought battleships that were only truly useful in a shore bombardment role, there were some destroyers, and then there were three Panzershiffe’s of the Deutschland class. The Deutschland’s where unique ships for their day, powered by diesel engines that gave them good endurance at the price of unreliability, armed with 11 inch guns that were more powerful than anything on the cruisers of other nations, and reasonable speed which would position them well as commerce raiders. The last of these ships would be laid down in 1932, and so when Hitler came to power and real conversations about rearmament started Raeder and the Kriegsmarine had a choice on how to proceed, more Panzerschiffe or moving German naval construction into larger ships that were closer to the capital ships that other nations possessed. This was not allowed by the Versailles treaty, but Hitler obviously did not care. The first steps towards capital ship construction would be taken in 1935 when the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were laid down. These ships were undergunned, mounting just 11 inch guns, but with a displacement of 32,000 tons they were nearly 3 times the size of the Panzerschiffe. They would also be joined by the Admiral Hipper class of cruisers which were a relatively traditional cruiser design of 16,000 tons and 8 inch guns. As these ships were being laid down, the Anglo-German naval agreement of 1935 would be signed, which allowed Germany to legally build up to 35% of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy. This was signed by the British government because they desperately wanted to avoid another naval arms race against Germany when they already had so many other naval problems to deal with. For the Germans, they saw it as desirable for their rearmament to be legal, especially at a time during the mid 1930s when Hitler and others among the German leadership really wanted to avoid a war with Britain. Nobody wanted to avoid that war more than Raeder and the German Navy. The power of the Royal Navy in the North Sea, especially in the mid 1930s was absolute, and Raeder understood the timeframe involved with a building program that Germany would have to embark on to challenge that power. As early as 1933 Raeder, in discussions with Hitler about the long term plans for the Kriegsmarine made it clear that it would take maybe as long as 20 years to build a truly modern German fleet. This timeframe would be expedited through the introduction of Plan Z. Plan Z was the German plan for a massive naval construction program that would have, theoretically, made the German fleet one of the largest in the world. Some of the highlights were the eventually construction of 10 battleships, 6 of them being the H-Class which was still on the drawing boards, battleships that would have been roughly similar in size and armament to the American Iowa Class that was built during the war. There also would have been 3 battlecruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, 12 new and improved Panzershiffe and the large numbers of smaller ships. We don’t have to go into too much detail about the specific here because very few of them would even make it off the drawing boards. There were two major problems with Plan Z, even ignoring everything about ship design or German naval strategy. The first was simply the resources it would have taken to build the ships. By the late 1930s the German rearmament programs were having problems being completed simply due to a lack of raw material, steel and other metals were in short supply as the branches of the German military all fought for their own rearmament priorities. And do you know what really takes up steel and other material to build? battleships with 57,000 ton displacement. Another almost insolvable problem was oil. Massive naval ships do not receive great ratings for fuel efficiency, believe it or not, and it was estimated that if Plan Z would have been completed the navy would have needed between 8 and 10 million tons of oil per year. Germany’s entire annual consumption of oil at that time was 6 million tons, so it would have to more than double. So if the German economy could manage to build the ships, and if the oil could be found to fuel them, there was still the problem of were the ships that were being built what Germany needed? The answer to that question is more challenging to answer than you might think. The lessons of the Second World War would show that the dominance of large capital ships at sea was over, and air power was more important in a modern war. And this angle would be a major area of criticism of Plan Z after the war was over. But as I have so often mentioned, I think that is kind of a cheap and easy way out, because if you compare the German plans with the plans of almost every other major naval power in say 1939 they all look roughly the same. There was a focus on battleships, battlecruisers, and large cruisers because that is what naval power was based on in the past and it seemed like it would also be in the future. Aircraft carriers were also an important part of the future plans for actions at sea, and Germany was planning to build them as well. One of the problems that Germany faced around carriers was a lack of experience. The British, Japanese, and Americans would all begin building and experimenting with aircraft carriers during the First World War, and there would be a tremendous amount of learning and experience gained from the construction and usage of aircraft carriers during the 1920s. The Germans had none of this, and for most of the interwar period did not even really have great details about the aircraft carriers of other nations. But they did at least recognize the power and importance of carriers, and the initial German plans were to build a 10,000 ton in 1929. At the time the plan was for such a carrier to house at most 30 aircraft and to be used with the Panzerschiffe in a commerce raiding role. This same basic usage concept would continue throughout the 1930s but the plans would get larger over time, with the plans calling for an almost 20,000 ton carrier in 1935, while the Graf Zeppelin, the carrier that was actually launched in 1938 having a displacement of 33,000 tons. One of the mistakes that the German Navy would make during this time was focusing too much on building what they saw as the perfect carrier, instead of just trying to build a carrier of any kind to begin to learn how to actually use them. This learning experience would be the most important impact of the interwar carriers of other nations, as it would have an important impact on carrier design, aircraft design, and all of the systems built around using them on a ship at sea. A great example of this is that the Graf Zeppelin was built and designed around the idea that it would be able to conduct simultaneous launch and recovery operations. Being able to do this would have been amazing, but totally impractical for a navy with no carrier experience, the Americans would pursue that path as well, but it would prove basically impossible during actual combat. The German aircraft carrier program was also kind of doomed from the start due to the lack of ability to provide the German navy with its own airpower, and instead it was completely controlled by the Luftwaffe. This would be a constant challenge for the Kriegsmarine as it tried to get the resources necessary to expand its naval aviation capabilities, a similar challenge that the Royal Navy would labor under until the late 1930s. In Britain this disagreement would eventually be solved with the creation of the Fleet Air Arm, and while the Royal Air Force wanted to control all of the aviation assets of Britain, I don’t think I would ever characterize the actions of RAF leaders as malicious. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had different views of air power rooted in their different views of their place and responsibilities, and those views were large irreconcilable, and the creation of the Fleet Air Arm side stepped that problem, with the creation possible due to power of the political apparatus of Britain to dictate changes to the military. The situation in Germany could not have been more different. Goering controlled the Luftwaffe, believed that the Luftwaffe should control all aviation assets in Germany, and simply did not care what anybody else thought. Hitler could have maybe forced change, but that would have required him to force changes in the power structures in ways that he never really did with Goering. The disagreements and arguments between Goering and Raeder would be a major feature of Raeder’s memoirs, and would be a major challenge for the Kriegsmarine during the war. It would have been even more impactful if Plan Z had reached anywhere close to completion, so I guess in that way it was good that the war started in 1939. By every other metric the fact that the war started in 1939, and that Britain joined with Germany’s enemies in 1939 was a complete, total, unmitigated disaster for the Kriegsmarine. Plan Z was not even truly underway, even the pre Plan Z Bismarck and Tirpitz were not due to delivery until 1941. The U-Boat expansion program that was also a part of German rearmament planning, which we will discuss more in later episodes in this series, had only really gotten underway. There were plans in place for the Panzerschiffe and some of the German cruisers, but even the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had only completed their workups in the summer of 1939, and in August 1939 would be in port for some refits and improvements to their seaworthiness. This unreadiness limited their ability to have a large influence on the war, but it did not prevent them from having that influence. And in my mind, the Kriegsmarine, given its very limited resources, would really maximize their impact in some important ways during the first 6 months of the war, especially up to the Norwegian Campaign in early 1940. For further information on those actions, you will have to tune in to the next episode which will discuss the early actions of the war at sea.