Pre-WWI Imperial German Navy Strategy


The four Nassau class ships (bottom right) with the rest of the I Battle Squadron and the II Battle Squadron before the outbreak of war.

The German Admiralty Staff and General Staff believed in January 1912 that Great Britain would support France in the event the French became involved in a war with Germany. Both observed British war preparations during the Agadir crisis and planned for London to send about 170,000 troops to the continent in support of France if war were to break out. Moreover, they believed that Britain would have ships available immediately to embark the troops because of their preparation during the increase in tensions.

The German Admiralty Staff estimated that the Royal Navy was capable of protecting its transports from German submarine and torpedo attacks. Because of the threat submarines posed, Great Britain would likely disembark in Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne-sur-Mer, the three French ports closest to England. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, chief of the German General Staff, suggested, however, that the British might land in Belgium or Holland to prevent Germany from taking the Rhein and Schelde estuaries. If Germany possessed these decisive points, it could render British control of the channel tenuous. German submarines and torpedo boats operating from there could seriously threaten British trade. Moreover, the German Admiralty realized that Britain would likely implement a blockade to prevent the German fleet and merchant shipping from entering the North Sea. Germany did not have sufficient naval strength to assume an offensive posture, so planning assumptions called for a defensive option.

On November 5, 1912, the German Admiralty Staff submitted a revised plan, with updated assumptions, to Kaiser Wilhelm. The new document discussed the possibility that in a European war involving Germany and France, Britain would assume a waiting posture, so Germany would only have France and Russia as opponents. The staff claimed their assessment was the result of a newly arisen situation, but Germany could not be certain of British actions; they could not dismiss the possibility that Britain might ally with Germany’s opponents. Although the staff did not elaborate as to the specific situation, the timing suggests ministers in Berlin had interpreted several diplomatic initiatives as signs of a rapprochement. British overtures to Germany preceding the failed Haldane mission, and the British reaction to the Balkan wars appear to be the newly arisen situation to which the staff referred. Germany’s ministers found additional encouragement for their policies when Berlin and London resumed discussion over naval issues during 1913–14. Despite the fact that the status of the ratio between the German navy and the Royal Navy was still unresolved when war broke out in 1914, during that two-year period the pair had resolved their disagreements over the Baghdad railway, and London supported Berlin’s colonial acquisitions in southern Africa. Britain still, however, opposed German colonies in the Mediterranean and along the North African coast. Step by step, Germany and Britain came together on all of the issues discussed during the Haldane mission. This prodded the Wilhelmstrasse to believe that much progress had been made toward an accord with Great Britain. Tirpitz even claimed after the war that he had acquiesced to the fixed 6:10 shipbuilding ratio proposed by Churchill in February 1913. Historian Robert Massie disputes Tirpitz’ claim, pointing out that each nation had built the capital ships it could afford. Nevertheless, Berlin’s hopes that London would remain neutral in a Franco-German war were based on the history of their mutual relations over a decade, especially the years of improved relations beginning in 1911.

The Risk Fleet, the Germans’ shipbuilding plan that Tirpitz had worked out for the Kaiser, was supposed to shore up political support for a German empire. Moreover it was supposed to attract minor naval powers as allies, and threaten Britain’s European security with a massive fleet near its eastern shores. The threat to Britain would allow the German empire to acquire additional colonial concessions without opposition from London. Tirpitz believed his policy to be successful, even gloating at one point after the war that Britain had to virtually withdraw the Royal Navy from the Mediterranean and the Far East in order to have an effective counter to the German High Seas Fleet. Therefore, Great Britain’s control over those portions of the world had virtually ceased.

Beginning in 1904, Germany improved the military usefulness of its colonies. It had developed the ability to communicate with each of its colonies via submarine telegraph cables, but most of the cables were British owned. The German government exercised initiative by building modern port facilities and adding wireless telegraphy. Generous subsidies provided by Berlin helped build neat and thriving cities, such as Dar es Salaam in German East Africa, and Rabaul in German New Guinea. For access to independent and reliable communications, Berlin had wireless stations erected in these locations as well as other Pacific locations: Angaur (Caroline Islands), Apia (Samoa), Nauru, and Tsingtao (Kiao-chau). A series of relay stations—at Duala (Cameroons), Kamina (Togoland), Windhoek (German Southwest Africa), and Yap in the south Pacific—connected these more distant locations to the main transmitting station in Nauen, Germany. These stations provided global coverage with the exception of areas in the Indian Ocean and the southernmost Pacific Ocean. Germany planned major transmitting stations in Tabora (German East Africa) and Sumatra to fill in these gaps.

Germany provided several shipping lines with subsidies to compete for trade in Africa and the Pacific. The German merchant marine, however, was the world’s second largest and no longer needed subsidies to compete with British firms for a fair share of the freight market. The effect of the subsidies therefore was to keep merchant vessels in a region of the world that they would otherwise vacate in search of more profitable trade.

Germany’s improved port facilities in its colonies served as coaling stations and important communications links. They were not major naval bases as in Tsingtao, but in a pinch they could serve as support bases for naval operations. This increased Germany’s naval potential in geographic areas where the Royal Navy presence was weak. German naval planning leveraged this advantage.

Germany’s plans for ships outside the North Sea became more elaborate over time. In the event of war with Great Britain, the East Asiatic Squadron was to attack Australia and to conduct cruiser warfare against British commerce along Australia’s northwestern coast, in the seas around Colombo, and in the China Sea. Cruiser warfare tactics stressed that ships were to operate in one area only for a short time and then move to another region, always evading large forces and attempting to retain the element of surprise. When Vice Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee assumed command of the East Asia squadron, his mission after April 1913 was to damage British shipping. His secondary mission was to attempt to divide British East Asiatic naval forces and defeat them in detail. In 1907, ships on the East African and West African stations were instructed to avoid being blockaded so they could conduct cruiser warfare. On the East American station, German cruisers were to intercept British food imports from Argentina. In 1909, guidance to vessels on the East American station changed to a more general task: intercept food imports to Britain coming from South America, the Caribbean Sea, and around the horn from Asia. The Admiralty Staff now considered the aging ships stationed in West Africa obsolete, so their orders directed the ships to proceed to the Brazilian coast to give up their guns to specified merchant ships that would become auxiliary cruisers.

Germany had begun making better arrangements to provide its commerce raiders with cash and coal in 1906. In 1908, it equipped passenger ships as auxiliary cruisers to replace obsolete naval vessels and augment the activities of modern cruisers. Merchant ships used for this purpose had to be capable of a minimum speed, have dual propellers, a submerged rudder, engine rooms below the waterline, and a double bottom with coal chambers located to protect the engines and boilers. Each also required provisions for mounting cannons and conveyance of below decks ammunition to the guns. Ships of the East Africa, Hamburg-America, and North German Lloyd lines met these requirements. Suitable ships had orders to depart any overseas port in which they found themselves at war’s outbreak, head for Brazil for conversion, and begin operation as auxiliary cruisers in the North Atlantic.

By April 1913, Germany’s naval staff believed that the best shipping lane to disrupt was the North Atlantic route between the United States and Great Britain. Since the most important route would also be the best protected, the German plan was to use the converted liners as commerce raiders. The staff reemphasized these orders in March 1914.

Berlin developed the Etappen system—a group of bases at communications hubs and other cities where Germany had a strong diplomatic presence—to support commerce raiding. The system’s major centers were in Batavia (Sud Etappe), San Francisco (Etappe Nordwest Amerika), Valparaiso (Etappe Sud Amerika) Rio de Janeiro (Etappe Brasilien), the Caribbean (Etappe Westindien), New York (Etappe Nord Amerika), Duala (Etappe West Afrika), Dar es Salaam (Etappe Ostafrika), and the Mediterranean (Etappe Mittlemeer). Others included Tsingtao, China, Japan, and Manila, in the western and southern Pacific. In South America centers were also established at Callao, Peru, and La Plata, Argentina. Germany staffed the Etappe centers with naval officers and agents, arming them with plenty of money and contacts. Their mission was to keep the kaiser’s navy operating.

At war’s outbreak, colliers were to be dispatched from these stations to meet cruisers at prearranged locations in the open seas as chartered adjuncts to the cruisers. Colliers would then ply back and forth from various centers with coal and supplies. Hundreds of Germany’s merchant ships were chartered for this purpose. To function properly, the scheme obviously relied on a benevolent interpretation of neutrality laws by neutral countries. Germany expected that South American nations and the United States would take little action to prevent colliers from supplying commerce raiders. The overt presence of a warship in a neutral port would push neutral countries to abide by international convention, so Germany planned to minimize this. On the other hand, an unscheduled merchant ship entering port could justifiably be ignored, especially if the neutrals expected to profit from the transaction.

The fast merchant liners designated to become auxiliary cruisers were to proceed to neutral ports to meet aging German gunboats. The gunboat would transfer its guns to the liner and then accept becoming interned. The liner would receive a commissioned officer and a small naval crew to provide oversight. When the ship left port, the commissioned officer would assume command; the liner would hoist a military pennant and become a commissioned warship. The sole purpose of these auxiliary cruisers was to inflict maximum damage on enemy trade. In no case were they to attempt to engage an actual enemy warship because they would certainly be destroyed. The idea was that the liners’ speed would permit them to flee an enemy warship and also easily run down and capture unarmed, slow tramp steamers.

By 1914, Germany had reinvented itself as a major sea power. Kaiser Wilhelm’s foreign policy was an aggressive one. Twice in a decade, Germany had threatened other major powers with war and caused them to back down. The first instance occurred in 1905 when Germany bullied France and forced the Algeciras conference, where ironically German diplomacy showed itself wanting. The second threat, issued in 1908, deterred Russia as Germany successfully supported Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzgovina. In the German colonies, Berlin improved the port facilities and built modern communications. All of this would support German trade, but it was also meant to support the kaiser’s navy in the event of war.

With the rapid construction of its modern navy, Germany positioned a serious threat near the British homeland. As Germany intended, its imperial fleet compelled Great Britain to concentrate its own fleet in home waters. As a result, the Royal Navy was only thinly represented in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Germany also implemented plans to turn its merchant fleet into support ships for its regular navy cruisers and into auxiliary cruisers that could operate against enemy trade during war. The three initiatives, when combined, presented a significant danger to British world trade and the security of the British Isles.

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