Germany: Ships and Strategy

Stefan Draminski

Berlin was always well aware of the hostility of the United States, even in the thirties when few substantive issues arose to mar relations between the two powers. The problems that did evolve were not of a critical politico-strategic nature but peripheral matters involving German attempts to undercut U.S. markets in Latin America as part of the general economic nationalism of a Depression decade or, more importantly, German persecution of Jews. But ideological animosity engendered bitterness, and consequently, despite the lack of pivotal grievances, German-American relations were cold and mutually distrustful.

German statesmen well understood that American isolationism was “an unreal utopianism” that would soon vanish once “values which concern the United States are at stake.” Ambassador Hans H. Dieckhoff warned from Washington that “neither the indifference of the rank and file toward foreign affairs” nor “the dogmatism of the pacifists” would preserve American neutrality if the survival of Britain were at stake. He reported so frequently on the transient nature of American isolationism that he was moved to apologize for his tenacity:

I am perhaps becoming a bore in Berlin, because I repeatedly point out . . . we can no longer count on America’s isolation, and that, on the contrary, we must certainly be prepared, in case of a world conflict, to see the Americans throw their weight into the British scale.

In Berlin, both the political and naval leadership assumed at the outset of World War II that American intervention was inevitable, merely “a question of time and opportunity.” Hitler sought to avert American entry into the war in two ways: first, by driving America’s natural allies out of the war quickly through blitzkrieg techniques of warfare; second, by keeping German warships out of the western Atlantic and by forbidding U-boats to attack American shipping anywhere on the high seas, thereby avoiding “incidents” with the United States. A Wehrmacht command memorandum issued on the eve of war best expressed the Fuehrer’s policy:

The American Neutrality Law is a shackle for the most war-loving of American Presidents, one which presumably cannot be shaken off so long as we do not provide him with the excuse to breach this shackle. . . . Even if we are convinced that, should the war be of long duration, the USA will enter it in any case . . . it must be our object to delay this event so long that American help would come too late.

Yet Hitler soon found that “the American danger was the one against which he could do nothing directly in advance.” The Germans lacked the sea power and bases to project their ample military strength to the approaches to the New World. For their part, the Americans lacked the Army and Air Force necessary to intervene in Europe, and their youth were “little inclined to war service.” Both sides needed time: the Americans to repair their weak defenses and refurbish their spirit; the Germans to deter American intervention by defeating the Allies. Thus, the Fuehrer’s policy was prudent and sensible. But it possessed two great drawbacks: first, German military successes, far from intimidating the Americans, only spurred them to a more combative position; second, Hitler’s reticence left the initiative in the Atlantic to the American President.

Adolf Hitler once said that he was a hero on land, but a coward at sea. A continentalist, he eschewed colonies and large ships as hostages to his enemies’ fleets. He believed that modern improvements in military transportation and communications made it possible at last for land powers to hold their own in warfare against the traditionally more mobile sea powers.

Germany’s geographical position between France and Russia has bred in her statesmen an obsession with national security and a desire to gain strategic depth by encroaching on the domains of weaker neighbors. To this traditional thrust of policy, the Fuehrer added the intense nationalism of an Austrian outlander and the fever of an ideology half-revolutionary, half-atavistic. The new states of central and eastern Europe were weak, allowing Nazi expansionism to march along the path of least resistance. This course had the additional advantage of leading to Hitler’s ultimate foe, Russia, which, because of shared origins and characteristics, both repelled and fascinated Hitler’s Germany in, as H.R. Trevor-Roper has said, the same way a snake repels and fascinates a bird. But another impulse moved the Germans east. Although the Fuehrer often ridiculed large warships, he never quite evaded the nagging ghost of Mahan. Thus, he found the teachings of the geopoliticians attractive. In the vast Eurasian heartland, immune to the assaults of the sea powers, he saw the ultimate haven of his Reich. Psychology was perfectly wedded to strategy, for years of constant strife gave the Fuehrer the harried weariness of the inveterate outlaw; in the Urals heartland, he might rest at last, finally secure from foes both real and imagined. The escapism inherent in high places and dark forests appealed to him; it was more than the good infantryman’s respect for tenable ground that impelled him to seek recreation or conduct business in mountain or forest regions. He sought an impregnable redoubt and built one in his mind.

A creative soldier, he complained often—as did his great adversaries, Roosevelt and Churchill—that his military advisers were too conservative. “The technicians,” he asserted, “know only one word: No.” A shrewd tactician, he saw better than his generals that tanks, trucks, aircraft, and mobile artillery had restored mobility to modern warfare and that the positional tactics and trench-fortress cast of thought from World War I were passé. But restless and impulsive, he lacked the patience and method to plan an effective long-range strategy for Germany. He built a powerful modern Army, the best in the world, and a largely tactical Air Force to support the tanks and infantry. But his continental outlook and impulsiveness, German industry’s sluggishness in making a thorough transition to wartime production requirements, and Germany’s insufficiency of vital natural resources, including metal ores and oil, all limited the growth of the Navy, which had a small submarine fleet and no aircraft at all. Without a formidable Navy and a strategic Air Force, the Germans lacked the best weaponry to defeat Great Britain in time to deter the intervention of the rearmed United States, and lacked the realistic strategic planning efficiently to wage a protracted war once American intervention occurred.

Frustration had long been the companion of the German Navy, which had played an insignificant part in the nineteenth century wars of unification; unlike the U.S. Navy, its traditions were not inextricably linked with the birth of the nation. The service fared better in the era of rapid industrialization and colonial expansion, and by World War I disposed a formidable array of modern vessels, outnumbered by but qualitatively superior to those of the Royal Navy. But geography and inexperience at sea doomed the Germans. They expected the British to mount a close blockade of the German coast, dispersing their forces in order to keep the German High Seas Fleet penned up in its ports. The Germans planned to whittle down the British blockading units spread out by weather, need to refuel, and tactical imperatives with quick, hit-and-run attacks by superior forces. Eventually, with British strength sapped by these tactics, the High Seas Fleet might be able at last to steam boldly into the North Sea and challenge the Grand Fleet in equal and decisive battle for command of the seas and victory.

But geography, the speed of radio communications, and the mine, submarine, and airplane impelled the British to forego the traditional close blockade; they found that they could intercept the High Seas Fleet from home waters. The British Isles served as a cork wedged deep into the neck of the North Sea bottle; and in home ports, the Grand Fleet might remain concentrated instead of dispersed.

The Germans, their prewar strategy foiled, sent their ships to conduct minor nuisance raids against the British coast and spent two years trying to maneuver the High Seas Fleet so as to force a battle against only a part of the stronger Grand Fleet. One such attempt resulted in the Battle of Jutland, in which the Germans fought well but were outnumbered and perhaps spared a crippling defeat only by the great caution of the British leadership. But, thereafter, the German heavy ships remained in port, their sailors disheartened by the contrast between hopes and achievement, while the Army bled copiously into the gray mud of the Western Front. There were rumors that cowardice, not strategic adversity, was responsible for the Navy’s failure to fight harder. But morale amongst the submariners, who sustained increasingly high losses as the United States entered the war and the convoy system was introduced, remained sound. It was on the big ships, amongst men who had fought too little, not too much, that the soul of the Imperial Navy decayed. Then in 1919 came the Navy’s ultimate humiliation; the surrendered High Seas Fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow to keep it out of Allied hands.

In the twenties, a small cadre of professionals kept a torpedo-boat Navy alive and clandestinely planned for future growth. In 1928, Erich Raeder became Commander-in-Chief of the Navy. Raeder, then fifty-two, came from a middle-class background. A dedicated, somewhat rigid and austere man, he deplored the glamour and hedonism of the times and strove to instill in the service his own reserve and commitment to cool professionalism. He was respected for his integrity, knowledge, and decisiveness; his staff had few strong wills or independent minds, as he preferred men who did not embarrass his shyness with unseemly controversy. Raeder detested the Nazis as ruffians, but hoped Hitler’s nationalism might mean a larger Navy. He intended to keep faith with the dead by providing Germany with another battle fleet. A fine scholar and administrator, as well as an experienced sailor, yet never having commanded a ship in battle, Raeder sought for both his Navy and himself the glory both had missed in the past. However, Hitler did not intend to repeat the Kaiser’s error of provoking the British with a significant naval building program; he also remembered that the Navy had played a major part in the nation’s spiritual collapse in 1918. So, in the thirties, the service replaced superannuated ships, but did not grow appreciably. Besides, the geographic problem still seemed insoluble: a large surface fleet would be useless because the British once again would block its access to the Atlantic.

However, in the late thirties, the German naval staff became convinced that conquest of Norway or certainly of the French Channel ports would give the fleet safe access to the Atlantic and so restore the Navy’s long-dormant offensive capability. At the same time, the Fuehrer was coming to see that the British would not indefinitely underwrite his advance toward the heartland. Prior to Munich, his foreign policy successes had resulted from the alleged superiority of the Luftwaffe; realizing this, Britain was improving her Air Force, and the Fuehrer felt the need of an additional weapon of intimidation. Thus, interest in a new High Seas Fleet was reawakened in Germany.

In 1938, the Navy prepared two plans envisaging eventual war with Great Britain. The first supposed that time was the crucial factor, that the Navy would unexpectedly find itself at war with a much stronger British Navy, and thus, it would not be able seriously to contend for command of the seas. Therefore, this plan provided for a war on commerce, with the construction emphasis on submarines, the mobile, long-range pocket battleships, and merchant cruisers. The second—or “Z”—plan supposed that war would not come for at least a half-dozen years and that the Navy would have time to construct a large, balanced fleet of modern, high-speed, long-range ships; by 1945, the Germans hoped to possess 25 battleships, 4 aircraft carriers, nearly 50 cruisers, and 68 destroyers, all incorporating the latest design refinements. Operating in mobile task forces, they would ravage the merchant convoys and batter a Royal Navy dispersed in protection of commerce; the U-boats and Luftwaffe would besiege the British Isles and destroy the enemy war economy. Then the main fleet would wrest command of the seas from the weary, beset Royal Navy, paving the way for invasion and victory. It was an exhilarating concept, especially for a service whose tradition was one of defeat and unwarranted humiliation.

Raeder presented the alternate plans to the Fuehrer, explaining that the modest, quickly built force was necessary if there was likelihood of war soon; the formidable, balanced fleet could not be completed for seven or eight years, and in the meantime, if war came unexpectedly, the German Navy would be too weak and unbalanced to influence the outcome. Hitler replied that he would not require such a fleet until 1946; in January 1939, he formally approved the Navy’s Z Plan. But Hitler promised the Navy a peace he could not deliver; Britain was forced, as she had been historically, to uphold a European balance of power in the interest of her own security. Raeder, a reflective man and an historian, must have sensed this; but he repressed the knowledge, anxious for another chance at the foe who had bested his proud surface ships in a different war. Like Ahab, Erich Raeder sailed after glory and revenge, and his vanity and ambition killed too many of his shipmates.

The Z Plan was the triumph of the Navy’s older officers. Raeder and his staff were comic figures to the submariners, led by Karl Doenitz, a fair, sharp-featured officer whose admiral’s greatcoat hung baggily on his rangy frame. The conflict was as much one of generations as of naval strategy. Doenitz was a fitting product of the instability of his times. Unlike Raeder, he deprecated his middle-class origins and scorned the verities and platitudes of olden days. Dynamic and opportunistic, he adjusted well to the Nazi creed, whose emotionalism, vitality, and activism appealed to him. To Doenitz, Raeder reflected the stuffiness and complacency of a securer age. He detested the battleship outlook of the Naval Staff and deemed it madness to once again squander precious steel on ships that would never fight. With three hundred submarines, he promised, he could defeat Great Britain; in September 1939, he had fifty-seven.                         

Doenitz was unquestionably a great tactician of submarine warfare. He was the pioneer of the night surface and “wolf pack” submarine tactics of World War II. He thought to employ submarines on the surface in the manner of oceangoing motor torpedo boats to counter the development of sonar; he evolved the Rudeltaktic of coordinated search and attack by several U-boats to counter the augmented defenses of the convoy system. And Doenitz was immensely popular with the submariners, whose morale he buoyed with hard training and fulsome praise. He pelted the naval hierarchy with prophecies of calamity. Raeder was annoyed by the unseemly pushiness of the younger man, but he was too dedicated to the service to replace so able, if obnoxious, an officer on personal grounds. He promoted conciliation by promising that U-boats would receive the highest construction priorities under the Z Plan. But the recriminations continued. Doenitz argued that the Z Plan would leave the Navy “unequipped for a war with Britain” and that the battleships would once again be prevented from moving into the Atlantic, this time by air power if not geography. The older officers, who regarded the Nazi apparatus with contempt, called the submariner “Hitler-Youth Doenitz.” They pointed out that the narrow wunderkind, despite his mastery of submarine tactics, knew little of the operations of great fleets and less of grand strategy. The submariners retorted that the Naval Staff preferred battleships because they “couldn’t put a band on the . . . deck” of a U-boat.

In the end, of course, Doenitz was right. Upon the outbreak of war, one of Raeder’s first acts was to suspend the Z Plan and abandon the construction of heavy ships. On 3 September 1939, he wrote an epitaph for his Navy: “. . . the submarine arm is still much too weak . . . to have any decisive effect on the war. The surface forces, moreover, are so inferior in number and strength to those of the British Fleet that, even at full strength, they can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly. . . .”

For Erich Raeder, the war came a half-dozen years too soon, and he abandoned himself to self-pity and memoranda of pessimism. The proud surface fleet was never built, and his smug rival, Doenitz, had charge of the only naval operations that mattered—the U-boat campaign. Eventually, the Fuehrer tired of Raeder’s brusqueness and condescension and replaced him with a man of deeper enthusiasm for his flagging crusade, Karl Doenitz. Raeder, who had striven successfully to keep Nazi influence from corrupting the Navy, suspected that the Party might have a long memory; he carried a pistol on his person. If the thugs came for him, he, like his navy, would know how to die.