The Kriegsmarine (German pronunciation: War Navy) was the name of the Navy of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It superseded the Imperial German Navy of World War I and the inter-war Reichsmarine. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany.
The Kriegsmarine grew rapidly during German naval rearmament in the 1930s (the Treaty of Versailles had limited the size of the German navy previously). In January 1939 Plan Z was ordered, calling for the construction of many naval vessels. The ships of the Kriegsmarine fought during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine (as for all branches of armed forces during the period of absolute Nazi power) was Adolf Hitler, who exercised his authority through the Oberkommando der Marine.
The Kriegsmarine’s most famous ships were the U-boats, most of which were constructed after Plan Z was abandoned at the beginning of World War II. Wolfpacks were rapidly assembled groups of submarines which attacked British convoys during the first half of the Battle of the Atlantic but this tactic was largely abandoned in the second half of the war. Along with the U-boats, surface commerce raiders (including auxiliary cruisers) were used to disrupt Allied shipping in the early years of the war, the most famous of these being the heavy cruisers Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer and the battleship Bismarck. However, the adoption of convoy escorts, especially in the Atlantic, greatly reduced the effectiveness of commerce raiders against convoys.
After the end of the Second World War, the Kriegsmarine’s remaining ships were divided up amongst the Allied powers and were used for various purposes including minesweeping.
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Adolf Hitler was the Commander-in-Chief of all German armed forces, including the Kriegsmarine. His authority was exercised through the Oberkommando der Marine, or OKM, with a Commander-in-Chief (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine), a Chief of Naval General Staff (Chef des Stabes der Seekriegsleitung) and a Chief of Naval Operations (Chef der Operationsabteilung). The first Commander-in-Chief of the OKM was Erich Raeder who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Reichsmarine when it was renamed and reorganized in 1935. Raeder held the post until falling out with Hitler after the German failure in the Battle of the Barents Sea. He was replaced by Karl Dönitz on 30 January 1943 who held the command until he was appointed President of Germany upon Hitler’s suicide in April 1945. Hans-Georg von Friedeburg was then Commander-in-Chief of the OKM for the short period of time until Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Subordinate to these were regional, squadron and temporary flotilla commands. Regional commands covered significant naval regions and were themselves sub-divided, as necessary. They were commanded by a Generaladmiral or an Admiral. There was a Marineoberkommando for the Baltic Fleet, Nord, Nordsee, Norwegen, Ost/Ostsee (formerly Baltic), Süd and West. The Kriegsmarine used a form of encoding called Gradnetzmeldeverfahren to denote regions on a map.
Each squadron (organized by type of ship) also had a command structure with its own Flag Officer. The commands were Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers, Submarines (Führer der Unterseeboote), Torpedo Boats, Minesweepers, Reconnaissance Forces, Naval Security Forces, Big Guns and Hand Guns, and Midget Weapons.
Major naval operations were commanded by a Flottenchef. The Flottenchef controlled a flotilla and organized its actions during the operation. The commands were, by their nature, temporary.
The Kriegsmarine’s ship design bureau, known as the Marineamt, was administered by officers with experience in sea duty but not in ship design, while the naval architects who did the actual design work had only a theoretical understanding of design requirements. As a result, the German surface fleet was plagued by design flaws throughout the war.
Post–World War I Origins
Under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany was only allowed a minimal navy of 15,000 personnel, six capital ships of no more than 10,000 tons, six cruisers, twelve destroyers, twelve torpedo boats and no submarines or aircraft carriers. Military aircraft were also banned, so Germany could have no naval aviation. Under the treaty, Germany could only build new ships to replace old ones. All the ships allowed and personnel were taken over from the Kaiserliche Marine, renamed Reichsmarine.
From the outset, Germany worked to circumvent the military restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. Through German-owned front companies, the Germans continued to develop U-boats through a submarine design office in the Netherlands (NV Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw) and a torpedo research program in Sweden where the G7e torpedo was developed.
Before the Nazi seizure of power on 30 January 1933, the German government decided on 15 November 1932 to launch a naval re-armament program that included U-boats, airplanes and an aircraft carrier which were not allowed under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The launching of the first pocket battleship, Deutschland in 1931 (as a replacement for the old pre-dreadnought battleship Preussen) was a step in the formation of a modern German fleet. The building of the Deutschland caused consternation among the French and the British as they had expected that the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles would limit the replacement of the pre-dreadnought battleships to coastal defence ships, suitable only for defensive warfare. By using innovative construction techniques, the Germans had built a heavy ship suitable for offensive warfare on the high seas while still abiding by the letter of the treaty. Modern destroyers and light cruisers were also built. All of these new ships were built in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that allowed replacements of the old ships taken over from the German World War I fleet.
The German Navy After the Nazis Took Power
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler soon began to more brazenly ignore many of the Treaty restrictions and accelerated German naval rearmament. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 18 June 1935 allowed Germany to build a navy equivalent to 35% of the British surface ship tonnage and 45% of British submarine tonnage; battleships were to be limited to no more than 35,000 tons. That same year the Reichsmarine was renamed as the Kriegsmarine. In April 1939, as tensions escalated between the United Kingdom and Germany over Poland, Hitler unilaterally rescinded the restrictions of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
The building-up of the German fleet in the time period of 1935–1939 was slowed by problems with marshaling enough manpower and material for ship building. This was because of the simultaneous and rapid build-up of the German army and air force which demanded substantial effort and resources. Some projects, like the D-class cruisers and the P-class cruisers, had to be cancelled.
Spanish Civil War
The first military action of the Kriegsmarine came during the Spanish Civil War 1936–1939. Following the outbreak of hostilities in July 1936, several large warships of the German fleet were sent to the region. The heavy cruisers Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, and the light cruiser Köln were the first to be sent in July 1936. These large ships were accompanied by the 2nd Torpedo-boat Flotilla. The German presence was used to covertly support Franco’s Nationalists although the immediate involvement of the Deutschland was humanitarian relief operations and evacuating 9,300 refugees, including 4,550 German citizens. Following the brokering of the International Non-Intervention Patrol to enforce an international arms embargo, the Kriegsmarine was allotted the patrol area between Cabo de Gata (Almeria) and Cabo de Oropesa. Numerous vessels served as part of these duties including Admiral Graf Spee. On 29 May 1937, the Deutschland was attacked off Ibiza by two bombers from the Republican Air Force. Total casualties from the Republican attack were 31 dead and 110 wounded, 71 seriously, mostly burn victims. In retaliation, the Admiral Scheer shelled Almeria on 31 May killing 19-20 civilians, wounding 50 and destroying 35 buildings. Following further attacks by Republican submarines against the Leipzig off the port of Oran between 15–18 June 1937, Germany withdrew from the Non-Intervention Patrol.
U-Boats also participated in covert action against Republican shipping as part of Operation Ursula. At least eight U-Boats engaged a small number of targets in the area throughout the conflict. By comparison, the Italian Regia Marina operated 58 submarines in the area as part of the Sottomarini Legionari.
The Kriegsmarine saw as her main tasks the controlling of the Baltic Sea and winning a war against France in connection with the German army, because France was seen as the most likely enemy in the event of war. But in 1938, Hitler wanted to have the possibility of winning a war against Great Britain at sea in the coming years. Therefore he ordered plans for such a fleet from the Kriegsmarine. From the three proposed plans (X, Y and Z), he approved Plan Z in January 1939. This blueprint for the new German naval construction program envisaged building a navy of approximately 800 ships during the period 1939–1947. Hitler demanded that the program completed by 1945. The main force of Plan Z were six H-class battleships. In the version of Plan Z drawn up in August 1939, the German fleet was planned to consist of the following ships by 1945:
- 4 Aircraft Carriers
- 10 Battleships
- 12 Battlecruisers
- 3 Armored Ships (Panzerschiffe)
- 5 Heavy Cruisers
- 44 Light Cruisers
- 158 Destroyers and Torpedo Boats
- 249 Submarines
- Numerous Smaller Craft
- Personnel Strength was planned to rise to over 200,000.
The planned naval program was not very far advanced by the time World War II began. In 1939, two M-class cruisers and two H-class battleships were laid down and parts for two further H-class battleships and three O-class battlecruisers were in production. The strength of the German fleet at the beginning of the war was not even 20% of Plan Z. On 1 September 1939, the navy still had a total personnel strength of only 78,000, and it was not at all ready for a major role in the war. Because of the long time it would take to get the Plan Z fleet ready for action and shortage in workers and material in wartime, Plan Z was essentially shelved in September 1939 and the resources allocated for its realization were largely redirected to the construction of U-boats, which would be ready for war against the United Kingdom quicker.
World War II
The Kriegsmarine was involved in World War II from its outset and participated in the Battle of Westerplatte and the Battle of the Danzig Bay during the Invasion of Poland. In 1939, major events for the Kriegsmarine were the sinking of the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous and the British battleship HMS Royal Oak and the loss of the Admiral Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate. Submarine attacks on Britain’s vital maritime supply routes (Battle of the Atlantic) started immediately at the outbreak of war, although they were hampered by the lack of well placed ports from which to operate. Throughout the war the Kriegsmarine was responsible for coastal artillery protecting major ports and important coastal areas. It also operated anti-aircraft batteries protecting major ports.
In April 1940, the German Navy was heavily involved in the invasion of Norway, where it suffered significant losses, which included the heavy cruiser Blücher sunk by artillery and torpedoes from Norwegian shore batteries at the Oscarsborg Fortress in Oslofjord. Ten destroyers were lost in the Battles of Narvik (half of German destroyer strength at the time), and two light cruisers, the Königsberg which was bombed and sunk by Royal Navy aircraft in Bergen, and the Karlsruhe which was sunk off the coast of Kristiansand by a British submarine. The Kriegsmarine did in return sink some British warships during this campaign, including the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.
The losses in the Norwegian Campaign left only a handful of undamaged heavy ships available for the planned, but never executed, invasion of the United Kingdom (Operation Sea Lion) in the summer of 1940. There were serious doubts that the invasion sea routes could have been protected against British naval interference. The Fall of France and the conquest of Norway gave German submarines greatly improved access to British shipping routes in the Atlantic. At first, British convoys lacked escorts that were adequate either in numbers or equipment and, as a result, the submarines had much success for few losses (this period was dubbed the First Happy Time by the Germans).
Italy entered the war in June 1940, and the Battle of the Mediterranean began: from September 1941 to May 1944 some 62 German submarines were transferred there, sneaking past the British naval base at Gibraltar. The Mediterranean submarines sank 24 major Allied warships (including 12 destroyers, 4 cruisers, 2 aircraft carriers and 1 battleship) and 94 merchant ships (449,206 tons of shipping). None of the Mediterranean submarines made it back to their home bases, as they were all either sunk in battle or scuttled by their crews at the end of the war.
In 1941, one of the four modern German battleships, Bismarck sank HMS Hood while breaking out into the Atlantic for commerce raiding. Bismarck was in turn hunted down by much superior British forces after being crippled by an airborne torpedo. She was subsequently scuttled after being rendered a burning wreck by two British battleships.
During 1941, the Kriegsmarine and the United States Navy became de facto belligerents, although war was not formally declared, leading to the sinking of the USS Reuben James. This hostility was the result of the American decision to support Britain with its Lend-Lease program and the subsequent decision to escort Lend-Lease convoys with American war ships through the western part of the Atlantic.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war against the United States in December 1941 led to another phase of the Battle of the Atlantic. In Operation Drumbeat and subsequent operations until August 1942, a large number of Allied merchant ships were sunk by submarines off the American coast as the Americans had not prepared for submarine warfare, despite clear warnings (this was the so-called Second happy time for the German navy). The situation became so serious that military leaders feared for the whole Allied strategy. The vast American ship building capabilities and naval forces were however now brought into the war and soon more than offset any losses inflicted by the German submariners. In 1942, the submarine warfare continued on all fronts, and when German forces in the Soviet Union reached the Black Sea, a few submarines were eventually transferred there.
Hitler, fearing a British invasion of Norway, forced the leadership of the Kriegsmarine to transfer her big ships based in the French Atlantic port of Brest to Norway. Thus, in February 1942, the two battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen passed through the English Channel (Channel Dash) on their way to Norway despite British efforts to stop them. Not since the Spanish Armada in 1588 had any warships in wartime done this. It was a tactical victory for the Kriegsmarine and a blow to British morale, but the German fleet lost the possibility to attack allied convoys with heavy surface ships in the Atlantic (which was its wish) because of Hitler’s decision.
With the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Britain started to send Arctic convoys with military goods around Norway to support their new ally. In 1942, German forces began heavily attacking these convoys, mostly with bombers and U-boats. The big ships of the Kriegsmarine in Norway were seldom involved in these attacks, because of the inferiority of German radar technology, and because Hitler and the leadership of the Kriegsmarine feared losses of these precious ships. The most effective of these attacks was the near destruction of Convoy PQ 17 in July 1942. Later in the war, German attacks on these convoys were mostly reduced to U-boat activities and the mass of the allied freighters reached their destination in Soviet ports.
The Battle of the Barents Sea in December 1942 was an attempt by a German naval force to attack an Allied Arctic convoy. However, the advantage was not pressed home, and they returned to base. There were serious implications: this failure infuriated Hitler, who nearly enforced a decision to scrap the surface fleet. Instead, resources were diverted to new U-boats, and the surface fleet became a lesser threat to the Allies.
After December 1943 when Scharnhorst had been sunk in an attack on an Arctic convoy in the Battle of North Cape by HMS Duke of York, most German surface ships in bases at the Atlantic were blockaded in, or close to, their ports as a fleet in being, for fear of losing them in action and to tie up British naval forces. The largest of these ships, the battleship Tirpitz, was stationed in Norway as a threat to Allied shipping and also as a defence against a potential Allied invasion. When she was sunk, after several attempts, by British bombers in November 1944 (Operation Catechism), several British capital ships could be moved to the Far East.
From late 1944 until the end of the war, the surviving surface fleet of the Kriegsmarine (heavy cruisers: Admiral Scheer, Lützow, Admiral Hipper, Prinz Eugen, light cruisers: Nürnberg, Köln, Emden) was heavily engaged in providing artillery support to the retreating German land forces along the Baltic coast and in ferrying civilian refugees to the western Baltic Sea parts of Germany (Mecklenburg, Schleswig-Holstein) in large rescue operations. Large parts of the population of eastern Germany fled the approaching Red Army out of fear for Soviet retaliation (mass rapes, killings and looting by Soviet troops did occur). The Kriegsmarine evacuated two million civilians and troops in the evacuation of East Prussia and Danzig from January to May 1945. It was during this activity that the catastrophic sinking of several large passenger ships occurred: Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya were sunk by Soviet submarines, while Cap Arcona was sunk by British bombers, each sinking claiming thousands of civilian lives. The Kriegsmarine also provided important assistance in the evacuation of the fleeing German civilians of Pomerania and Stettin in March and April 1945.
A desperate measure of the Kriegsmarine to fight the superior strength of the Western Allies from 1944 was the formation of the Kleinkampfverbände (Small Battle Units). These were special naval units with frogmen, manned torpedoes, motorboats laden with explosives and so on. The more effective of these weapons and units were the development and deployment of midget submarines like the Molch and Seehund. In the last stage of the war, the Kriegsmarine also organized a number of divisions of infantry from its personnel.
Between 1943 and 1945, a group of U-boats known as the Monsun Boats (Monsun Gruppe) operated in the Indian Ocean from Japanese bases in the occupied Dutch East Indies and Malaya. Allied convoys had not yet been organized in those waters, so initially many ships were sunk. However, this situation was soon remedied. During the later war years, the “Monsun Boats” were also used as a means of exchanging vital war supplies with Japan.
During 1943 and 1944, due to Allied anti-submarine tactics and better equipment the U-boat fleet started to suffer heavy losses. The turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic was during Black May in 1943, when the U-boat fleet started suffering heavy losses and the number of Allied ships sunk started to decrease. Radar, longer range air cover, Sonar, improved tactics and new weapons all contributed. German technical developments, such as the Schnorchel, attempted to counter these. Near the end of the war a small number of the new Elektroboot U-boats (XXI and XXIII) became operational, the first submarines designed to operate submerged at all times. The Elektroboote had the potential to negate the Allied technological and tactical advantage, although they were deployed too late to see combat in the war.