The German–Japanese Naval Coalition


Under the Rising Sun and an incorrectly hung German Nazi flag, the two allies often sent submarines between Japan and Europe to ferry personnel, strategic supplies, and the latest military hardware.


Wilhelm Dommes, commander of the U-boat base in the Far East, in the rear left with Captain Ariizumi (center) in the former British seaplane base in Penang.

Germany was most concerned that the United States would enter the war on behalf of England before Germany could finish building her own planned blue- water navy. One way to handle this possibility was to find an ally who already had a navy strong enough to cope with the United States. The obvious candidate was Japan.

The Germans had initiated their naval preparations for war against Great Britain in 1935, even before signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in the summer of that year. In 1937, once the weapons systems they believed were needed for war against France and England were being produced, Hitler had ordered the initiation of an armaments program for the war against the United States that was expected to follow the rapid and easy defeat of the USSR. A central part of the preparations for war against the United States was the construction of a blue-water navy. In German eyes, the United States was a weak power incapable of serious military effort, but it had a large navy and was far away. The issue of distance was to be solved by the development and production of intercontinental bombers, which were ordered in 1937.

There were several ways for the Germans to cope with the problem presented by the American navy. One was for the Germans to build their own. Construction on the first super-battleships that could destroy American warships before coming within range of their guns – a concept independently chosen by the Japanese and by Stalin – was initiated in early 1939. The unleashing of hostilities in September of 1939 put a hold on these projects.

In the summers of both 1940 and 1941, Berlin’s first reaction to its belief that the current set of hostilities had been successfully concluded was the resumption of construction of the ships designed for war with the United States. However, the actual subsequent course of events obliged the Germans to halt construction of battleships, aircraft carriers, and other big warships and instead to concentrate armament production on the immediate needs of combat. Another possible solution was that of destroying the American navy in its bases and ports by a coordinated peacetime assault by German submarines. In March 1941 the German navy’s investigation of such a project concluded that it was impossible.

This made closer naval relations with Japan necessary. The Japanese hoped to take advantage of the German defeat of The Netherlands and France and the threatened situation of Britain to seize the colonial possessions of those countries in the South Pacific, as well as in South and Southeast Asia. The Germans, who had earlier in the war unsuccessfully attempted to purchase submarines from Japan, urged the Japanese forward to expand their war with China. When informed by the Japanese that such a move, especially before the Americans left the Philippines in 1946 as then planned by Washington, meant war with the United States as well, the Germans enthusiastically promised that they would immediately join Japan in such hostilities. Here was the obvious way out of their dilemma, and the German Navy joined Hitler’s efforts to convince the Japanese of the wisdom of such a move while simultaneously observing anxiously any and all signs of Japanese hesitation and negotiations with Washington.

Tokyo did not inform the Germans of its plans but was reassured by Germany and Italy just before attacking Pearl Harbor that they would support the attack. Earlier, when Japan was still neutral, the Japanese had provided a little support for German ships involved in commerce raiding in the Pacific, but now the opportunity for serious wartime cooperation theoretically existed. There was even a Tripartite Commission established to meet in Berlin. Just as the Japanese decision to attack the Western Powers was a product of their faith in German victory, so too the Germans believed that the Japanese would tie down the United States in the Pacific and keep it from providing substantial assistance of any kind to Britain and the Soviet Union. However, in the face of these obvious incentives and opportunities for close coordination of their naval efforts, why did nothing of the sort ever evolve?

Several factors played a role in the refusal, not inability, of Germany and Japan to coordinate their naval efforts. In the first place, the initial victories of the Japanese blinded them to the derivative character of their spectacular advances. Because these advances were in fact carried out by their own armed forces, it appears never to have occurred to anyone in Tokyo that their conquest of Malaya, to cite an outstanding example, was actually the product of two factors related to Germany’s military efforts rather than their own. The British had sent to the Middle East, to halt the Axis advance there, the reinforcements that might have halted the Japanese in Malaya, and they had sent to the USSR much of the equipment that the British forces defending that colony lacked.

The absolute priority that Japan should have assigned to meeting the Germans in the Middle East by a thrust across the Indian Ocean, therefore, did not begin to receive their serious consideration until it was too late. By that time, in early 1943, their prior concentration first on the disastrous effort to strike toward Australia and Hawaii, and then on countering the American offensive into the central Solomon Islands at Guadalcanal, had forced them to miss their chance.

The Red Army had held the Germans in the Caucasus and had crushed them at Stalingrad; the British Eighth Army had stopped the Axis powers at Alamein and pushed them back into Libya; and the combined American–British landings in French Northwest Africa had pushed the German and Italian forces in Tunisia into a hopeless position. There would follow endless discussions of a meeting between the Axis powers, but whatever opportunity there had ever existed was already gone.

Second, in spite of Japan’s participation in the Allied anti-submarine campaign in World War I, the Japanese never grasped the significance of submarine warfare against merchant shipping. They failed to understand that their conquest of the oil wells, tin mines, and rubber plantations in Southeast Asia would not move the wells, mines, or plantations to the Japanese home islands, but instead only meant that the products would have to be shipped home in their own vessels, which were vulnerable to American, British, and Dutch submarines.

Similarly, in their emphasis on the role of their own submarines as parts of operations against Allied naval units, the Japanese never truly grasped the significance of the German submarine campaign against Allied shipping. The constant attempts of the Germans to get the Tokyo authorities to understand this issue were fruitless in the years before Japan’s submarines were increasingly shifted from the supposedly more heroic direct naval war to the even less heroic role of carrying ammunition, medical supplies, and other goods to Japanese garrisons isolated by the American strategy of by-passing those islands seized in the initial Japanese offensives. The German effort to provide a substitute for a concerted campaign against Allied shipping by the dispatch of German submarines to bases provided by the Japanese on the Indian Ocean coast of Malaya did lead to some sinking of Allied ships, but was basically a misallocation of scarce Axis resources.

Ironically, after the Germans had given the Japanese a couple of their own submarines, the Japanese asked the Germans to send their remaining submarines to Japan in early 1945 rather than surrender them to the Allies. There was, however, no fuel for such trips or the subsequent employment of any submarines that might have made it had the German leadership been willing to consider such a project. The Japanese did take over a few Italian submarines for their own use, but such last minute activities could not have had any substantial effect on the outcome of the war.

From the German side, there was an astonishing degree of ignorance and inattention. Hitler was willing to agree to the Japanese request that Asia be divided between the two at the 70th degree of longitude against his military advisers’ advice, who wanted more of Siberia for Germany, but neither he nor his staff ever paid much attention to the fighting in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas. Of course, had the Germans been more interested, the Japanese would not have made things easy for them; in fact, they provided their ally with misleading information. A striking example is that the Germans learned that the Japanese had lost, not won, the battle of Midway only when the Japanese in vain asked to purchase the unfinished German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin to tow to the Pacific.

Certainly an additional fact that made concerted coalition strategy unlikely was that in both Germany and Japan the respective army and navy command structures were never able to agree on strategic priorities in the years 1941–42 when the two powers still held the initiative. In Germany, the army invariably concentrated on the fighting on the Eastern Front and looked with doubt and even horror at the navy leadership’s interest in meeting with the Japanese. As army chief of staff General Franz Halder commented with outrage rather than approval in his diary on 12 June 1942 about the German navy’s projects: “Those folks dream in continents.” In Japan, the army and navy went their own way, and there was no prospect of their combining forces to invade India in 1942 when the conquest of Burma first offered that possibility and at a time when there was serious unrest in that largest portion of the British Empire.

The steady refusal of the Germans to agree to Japanese urgings, beginning in the fall of 1941, that Germany make peace with the USSR and concentrate on fighting the Western Allies, particularly in the Mediterranean, made for friction at the highest levels. Similarly, the unwillingness of the Japanese to interfere with the flow of American supplies to the USSR’s Far Eastern ports, lest the Soviets provide the United States with air bases for attacking the home islands, provided the basis for additional troubles between Tokyo and Berlin.

Although the Japanese did provide the Germans with support for their submarines at bases in Malaya, whether this project, which necessitated very lengthy journeys from Europe and substantial losses along the way, was really a cost-effective employment of limited German naval resources is difficult to say. In spite of even greater losses, the efforts to break the Allied blockade by sending first surface ships and subsequently submarines with cargoes from Europe to East Asia and the other way almost certainly proved a more useful form of naval cooperation, especially for Germany. Because Germany’s synthetic rubber program required a tiny percentage of natural rubber, the small quantities that actually arrived at German-controlled French ports were of real significance. This was also true of some of the other materials transported in this fashion. On the other hand, the technical information and equipment, such as samples of new German weapons, which were provided to the Japanese, arrived too late for the latter to take advantage of the knowledge and examples provided.

One may similarly question whether the 1943 transfer of the Indian collaborator Subhas Chandra Bose in the Indian Ocean from a German submarine to a Japanese one provided substantial aid to the Japanese. Most Indians willing to fight alongside the Japanese had already made that choice. Their addition to the ill-fated Japanese invasion of India in 1944 would most likely have been equally minimal, even had Bose continued to observe from his residence in Europe how the Germans treated conquered people and killed Gypsies, merely because they originated in India.

As the war continued, Germany attacked its main ally the USSR, and its naval relations with both Spain and Italy deteriorated. Throughout the years 1943 and 1944, coalition discussions between German and Japanese diplomats and military representatives continued with no discernible improvement. The Germans could no longer contemplate even a theoretical advance into the Middle East, and Hitler was under no circumstances willing to listen to Japanese – or for that matter Italian – advice to make peace with the USSR.

As the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic definitively turned against the Germans in 1943, their hopes of recruiting the Japanese into a role in the cam- paign against Allied shipping were no more effective than earlier. In view of Japan’s hopes of continued Soviet neutrality in the Pacific War, slowly turning to the further hope of Soviet intervention on their own side against the Western Powers, the Japanese were not about to do anything to interfere with the stream of American aid, of which fully half was being sent to the Soviet Far East.

Karl Dönitz, the new commander of the German navy who had replaced Raeder early in 1943, looked in the last weeks of the war into a future in which Germany would once again build a large surface fleet. He wanted to send to Japan a group of naval engineering officers who were to study major Japanese warships on the assumption that these were of a superior quality. No one had informed him that most of the ships he wanted studied and copied were already at the bottom of the ocean. The project was never implemented, but its almost lunatic character surely provides a fitting conclusion to the absolute failure of German–Japanese naval cooperation.


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