MHV, in responding to questions about the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the Wehrmacht before and during the Second World War, describes the Kriegsmarine as “not ready.”
He further describes naval strategy as “build strategy,” noting accurately that it takes years, if not decades, to build robust naval power. In this series, we will endeavor to answer what really informs naval strategy and warfare.
First, we will look at the actual Kriegsmarine build strategy and employment of those forces against their primary enemy, the Royal Navy. MHV (as of this writing) has not delved into specific German build strategy from the 1930s and 1940s, but the plan was clear from the outset of the war.
Adolf Hitler approved Admiral Erich Raeder’s Plan Z in early 1939, which envisioned from the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin‘s launch on 8 December 1938 to commission, over the course of ten years, four carriers, three battle cruisers and nine additional (ten total) battleships. Graf Zeppelin was never completed, but the first four capital ships—the Scharnhorst-class quasi-battleships armed with 11-inch guns and the full-sized 15-inch-armed Bismarck-class served during the war. Bismarck and her sister Tirpitz were launched in 1939, while Scharnhorst and her sister Gneisenau predated Plan Z, having both been launched in 1936. Gneisenau was the one modern German capital ship already in commission on the date Graf Zeppelin was launched, armed in three triple turrets with the same 11-inch naval rifles mounted on the twin-turreted Deutschland-class cruisers. Besides mounting 50% more firepower than the “pocket battleships,” Gneisenau was better armored than the Bismarck-class and the design was intended to upgrade to 15-inch guns in three twin turrets; this idea also formed the basis for the planned three battle cruisers of the O-class, each armed with six 15-inch guns (but far less heavily armored, permitting a higher cruising and maximum speed).
The remaining six capital ships were later termed the ‘H-39’ class, which were envisioned to mount eight 16-inch guns in four twin turrets—essentially enlarged Bismarck-class ships. Follow-on ‘H-40’ and ‘H-41’ designs soon emerged, despite the keels of two ‘H-39s’ already having been laid down. But these 56,000-67,000 ton battleships weren’t enough for Der Fuhrer. After Albert Speer became Reichsminister for Armaments and Munitions in February 1942, Hitler gave him a directive from to design “very large battleships,” despite the German leader also ordering a halt to all capital ship construction for the duration of the war. This raises a question—why? What was Hitler’s aim?
This obsession for larger guns reached its zenith when Hitler ordered the H-Class be armed with 800mm (!) guns beginning with the 1941 design. German technology was capable of building such weapons and in fact, an 800mm gun was built for the Army's Siege Artillery.<12> The following characteristics are available: 800mm GUN<13> Caliber: 800mm (31.5"/40 caliber) Shell Weight: 15,653 lb Muzzle Velocity: 2,362 ft/sec Maximum Range: 41,560 yds Maximum Elevation: 53 deg These demands lead Admiral Erich Raeder to appoint Admiral Werner Fuchs to convince Hitler of the consequences in ship size, construction costs and time if such an armament was specified. These efforts were successful and Hitler relented in favor of the 16-inch gun for H-39.
It was the guns themselves—Hitler’s first love was 31.5-inch (80cm) artillery pieces. German military development during the Second World War was studded with proposals to mount naval-sized artillery onto tank chassis: 150mm (5.9-inch, Kriegsmarine light cruiser primary and capital ship secondary armament caliber) on the 90-ton Panzer VII Löwe, 128mm (5 inch, destroyer caliber) on the 188-ton Panzer VIII Maus, and two 280mm (11-inch, Scharnhorst-class main guns) on the 1000-ton Landkreuzer P. 1000 Ratte. But Hitler would not let go of his desire to mount the Schwerer Gustav on a self-propelled vehicle, which culminated in the 1500-ton, 800mm-armed Landkreuzer P 1500 Monster. Hitler’s expectations for the Kriegsmarine were no less grandiose:
In 1942, Grand Admiral Raeder told Hitler that he felt even the largest battleships would soon be outdated, and he advised Hitler to concentrate on the building of aircraft carriers, such as GRAF ZEPPLIN. Although Hitler agreed, he ordered his industry leaders to look into the possibility of building extra- heavy caliber naval guns in the order of 18 or 24 inches, and larger. These were intended for battleships which were to be the largest ever built and could meet any possible demand. Hitler wanted his ships to be singly superior to anything afloat.
Hitler’s proclivities for large artillery mounted on massive mountains of metal were not to be questioned, let alone denied. Even though the final ‘H’ proposal, the ‘H-44’ clocked in at over 140,000 tons, it “merely” had a planned armament of eight 20 inch guns. In contrast, Nimitz and Gerald Ford-class supercarriers, the largest warships ever built, clock in at just over 100,000 tons and the largest naval guns that ever put to sea were on the Japanese Yamato-class, armed with 18.1 inch guns. Estimates of the displacement a ‘H-45’ 2000-foot hull (a Landkreuzer P 1500 would have been 407 feet long) required to arm a battleship with eight 31.5-inch guns range up to 700,000 tons, which would outstrip even the Seawise Giant/Happy Giant/Jahre Viking/Knock Nevis/Oppama/Mont, the largest ship ever constructed. Not that such a battleship was remotely plausible or feasible:
Even if construction was successful, H-44, for example, would have been too large to enter any existing German port.
If Raeder had been given the decade he estimated he needed to fully implement Plan Z, his odds of success seem less than ideal given the fact that he was Dilbert and Hitler was the pointy-haired boss of the 1930s and 1940s.
MHV seems to imply German naval strategy was doomed primarily because Hitler failed to give Raeder until 1948 to rearm the High Seas Fleet, as the Graf Zeppelin-class and H-class would have formed an existential threat to the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy battle fleets. Actual naval performance from 1939 to 1945 shows something quite different.
The king of naval warfare in World War II wasn’t the aircraft carrier; not directly at least. The most devastating weapon in the naval arsenal was the torpedo; the weapon that was alone responsible for the loss of all three British battleships and one of the two RN battle cruisers sunk in 1939 and 1941 (the Royal Navy suffered no big-gun ship losses in 1940 and 1942 onward). While the sinking of HMS Royal Oak and HMS Barham confirmed that the U-boat was a deadly threat, Second World War submarines paled in comparison to the danger posed from the TBF Avenger.
The IJN did not commit the Yamato and her sister Musashi until October 1944, which was understandable given that Task Force 38’s TBFs, with the assistance of massed USN fighters and dive bombers, sent Musashi to the bottom during the Battle of Leyte Gulf before she could fire a shot at an American ship. Yamato too fell before the might of Marc Mitscher’s carrier-borne Avengers, Dauntlesses, Helldivers and Hellcats enroute to Okinawa on 7 April 1945.
But the battleship’s greatest vulnerability wasn’t torpedoes—it was psychological impairment. Both the Germans and Japanese were loath to risk their capital ships. While the loss of the IJN fast battleships Hiei on 14 November 1942 to TBF torpedoes and Kirishima on 15 November 1942 to the 16-inch guns of the USS Washington in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal marked the beginning of one Axis Power’s hesitancy to risk its capital ships until the war’s endgame, the Kriegsmarine never regained its composure after 27 May 1941.
Admiral Gunther Lutjens was the the most accomplished Kriegsmarine flag officer of the war. He commanded the distant cover force with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Weserübung (the invasion of Norway and Denmark) before planning Operation Sea Lion and leading Operation Berlin, the most successful surface ship raid of the war. Lutjens followed with Operation Rhine, which netted HMS Hood, the largest capital ship in the Royal Navy, on 24 May 1941. But Lutjens’ flagship was crippled by a torpedo from a Swordfish launched from the carrier HMS Ark Royal, and the Bismarck was pounded into scrap by HMS Rodney before either scuttling charges or HMS Dorsetshire’s and Rodney‘s own torpedoes (yes, Nelson-class battleships had torpedo tubes and Rodney did torpedo as well as annihilate Bismarck with the former’s 16-inch guns) sent Lutjens and his flagship to a watery grave.
Lutjens’ loss ended the German surface fleet. A fearful Fuhrer turned to rage after RN destroyers forced German cruisers to disengage during the Battle of the Barents Sea on 31 December 1942, leading Hitler threatened to scrap the surface forces altogether. He failed to understand that morale matters in the navy as well, having ordered Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to dash through the English Channel back to the “protection” of Wilhelmshaven/Kiel rather than remain in Brest and have relatively easy access to Allied shipping.
Ostensibly the Channel Dash was to relocate the German surface fleet to Norway for Arctic convoy interdiction, but Scharnhost did not engage another Allied ship until HMS Duke of York’s 14-inch shells and British torpedoes from numerous RN cruisers and destroyers sank the German vessel during the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943. The Kriegsmarine‘s other two battleships did not fare much better. A British bombing raid on 27 February 1942 detonated Gnesineau‘s ‘A’ turret magazine, knocking her out of action for the rest of the war; and Tirpitz was sunk at her moorings in Tromsø, Norway on 12 November 1944 by RAF Lancasters. Would Hitler have reacted differently to the Bismarck‘s loss if the H-class had been in service?
Zed or Dead?
Consider the likely sequence of events had Plan Z had been fully implemented. Even with ten German battleships in service, the loss of a capital ship would be almost inevitable. The five King George V-class battleships were entering service at the same time as the Bismarck and Tirpitz, and the Lion-class (armed with 16-inch guns) was about to be laid down. Had Raeder’s dream been realized, another naval arms race could have preceded the Second World War like the First, and in all likelihood the British would have retained supremacy as the British government (until the 1960s) first prioritized the Royal Navy, then the RAF, then Army; while the Germans retained the Prussian Heer/Luftwaffe/Marine priority chain. A late-1940s/early 1950s Battle of Jutland would probably reoccur, either in the North Sea like 1916 or in the Atlantic like 1941. The Kriegsmarine would have been slaughtered, by the Malta-class.
The Royal Navy had a series of aircraft carriers in the planning stages at the outset of World War II, the largest being the Malta-class. While the British were mocked for obsolescent carrier biplanes like the Swordfish, it is important to remember that new monoplane designs were in the works and the Swordfish had been retained both because the type could be fitted with floats and operate from battleships and cruisers, and the threat from European naval fighters had not yet presented itself.
Moreover the TBF and F6F Hellcat were both under development, which Grumman provided to the RN during the war under Lend-Lease. The Malta-class could have embarked over 100 of these deadly aircraft. The sympathies of the Americans would never be in doubt as HMS Rodney had her engines overhauled in the South Boston Navy Yard shortly after killing Lutjens and 2,000 other German sailors, while the U.S. was still neutral.
As the attack on Taranto demonstrated, the Fleet Air Arm was well-versed going into the Second World War and would be a formidable opponent in a 1940s rehash of the Battle of Jutland. The Kriegsmarine, however, would be lucky to have a single operational carrier, even if all four were commissioned by 1948.
The plan for the Graf Zeppelin-class aircraft carriers was a total shambles. Her air group was slated to consist of Bf-109s and Ju-87 Stukas, which on paper seemed appropriate. The Luftwaffe swore by dive bombing, and the -109 was unmatched in the late 1930s. But the -109 had an inline engine, which became standard for most air force fighters (Spitfire, P-51, LaGG-3, etc). But piston naval aircraft ideally were stub-nosed and powered with radial engines, both to take up less deck space and (more importantly) give pilots excellent forward and over-the-nose visibility for carrier landings. A long snout was deadly on landing, as F4U pilots soon discovered. This necessitated building carrier aircraft from the ground up with aircraft carrier operations in mind, which was not the case with the -109, Stuka and Fw-190; the long-snouted radial Luftwaffe fighter the Kriegsmarine would have first turned to after -109 pilots began plowing into Graf Zeppelin’s fantail while practicing landings.
Over the 10-15 years implementing Plan Z would require, new Luftwaffe models would have become available. But this presumes that carrier operations would be considered with these new designs, which doesn’t seem likely with Hermann Goring involved. More likely the pressure to “make it work” would be intense and deadly—for instance, the Spitfire’s navalized variant, the Seafire, did not take to carrier operations well and did not have the range necessary to escort strike groups over vast ocean expanses.
Moreover, the Luftwaffe preoccupation with dive bombing would oddly hurt Kriegsmarine carrier aircraft development. Second World War American and Japanese aircraft carriers were uniquely vulnerable to bombing attack because the armored/strength deck was at or below the hanger deck, which provided little protection to the aircraft themselves and greatly increased the risk of fire. British carriers starting with the Illustrious-class, however, had armored flight decks. This led to embarrassment when the British fleet was redeployed to the Pacific, as a kamikaze could easily knock out an Essex-class carrier but the same plane would practically bounce off if it struck a Royal Navy flight deck. While armor-piercing bombs are the obvious response to armored decks, it is important to recognize that GP (general purpose) bombs cause much greater damage to a target ship, especially flooding caused by near-misses. This made torpedo or guided missile attacks far more important when dealing with 1930s and 1940s British carriers. The Kriegsmarine had no aircraft capable of those missions.
An astute observer would notice the Fritz X was the pioneer anti-ship missile, first used by Luftwaffe Do-217s on 21 July 1943 on Sicily. An astute historian would notice two problems with this, namely the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe were always loathe to coordinate between each other and the Fritz X was deployed from medium bombers which could not land on aircraft carriers. Also, weapons development greatly accelerates in wartime; for instance the great monoplane switch-over of 1936-37 was almost certainly related to the wars in China and Spain. If Plan Z had been fully implemented, the Luftwaffe wouldn’t have had a reason to develop and deploy the missile over the same period, and the introduction of jet engines probably would have come at a later date.
Even if anti-ship missiles had been developed in this alternate history where the Second World War was delayed 10 years or more, it should be recalled that the threat from Fritz X and Hs 293 was largely neutralized by Allied ECM (electronic countermeasures), as the radio link from aircraft to bomb was easily jammed. Also, the Americans developed the Azon, BAT and GB-8 concurrently to the German Fritz X. The British were on the forefront of electronic intelligence gathering and weaponizing electronic devices, so combined with the likelihood the RAF/RN would have developed or have access to such American guided weapons the Beaufort would become an even more fearsome threat to the Kriegsmarine surface fleet.
The Bristol Beaufort was Britain’s primary medium bomber torpedo plane during the war. Only Britain (RAF Coastal Command and RN Fleet Air Arm) and Japan (IJN only) developed land-based only torpedo bombers during the war. Germany barely developed aerial torpedoes at all—had Germany commissioned the Graf Zeppelin, her strike aircraft would have been Stukas exclusively, the dive bomber becoming dual-purpose as the Fieseler Fi 167 biplane was (understandably) considered obsolete. This was a major oversight, as the Beaufort, G4M Betty, Swordfish and TBF could drop bombs horizontally in place of a torpedo, but not act as dive bombers. This is because torpedo planes had to be designed around the weapon—torpedoes had to be dropped from specific altitudes and airspeeds (i.e.: low and slow) that maximized the odds the torpedo would run ‘hot, straight, and normal.’ Dive bombing ideally is done at high speed to provide greater accuracy (target ship has less time to engage in evasive maneuvers) and to minimize anti-aircraft and fighter interception time. For this reason fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes often had very different wing designs and the IJN, RAF/RN and USN all had to purpose-build the aircraft the respective countries employed in all three missions.
Realistically, the only chance Grand Admiral Raeder’s build strategy for the Kriegsmarine would have worked is if he also established its own Fleet Air Arm, like the RN did after Royal Naval Air Service was subsumed into the RAF on 1 April 1918. Also Messerschmidt, Heinkel, Focke-Wulf, etc would have to learn how to design naval aircraft. Would Hermann Goring be willing to surrender such authority, splitting it with Erich Raeder? Would Raeder been able to shake the big-gun myopia that blinded many senior naval officers before the Second World War broke out?
Jutland, Mark II
Plan Z could only be implemented if Raeder limited the ‘H’-class to the ‘H-39’ design, a dubious prospect given Hitler’s propensity to meddle. But if Raeder succeeded and six ‘H’-class battleships were in commission when this alternate Second World War broke out in 1949, failure would be rapid.
The Allied nations were still reeling from the Great Depression and focused on naval treaties in September 1939. The arms race that Plan Z would have triggered also would have swept away Britain’s lack of readiness, just like the battleship arms race that began in earnest in 1897 finally ended the 1873-96 Long Depression. The Royal Navy would lock down the North Sea again, a repeat of 1914 (and what the RN did historically beginning in 1939).
Unlike 1914 and 1939, with an outbreak of war at the end of the ’40s the RAF and land-based RN aircraft immediately begin concerted attacks on Wilhemshaven and Kiel. British secrecy would have surprised the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine as the surrounding airfields are smashed Pearl Harbor-style while armor-piercing bombs detonate the Gneisenau’s and Tirpitz’s magazines and Bismarck, Graf Zeppelin, Hutton (the lead ship of the ‘H-39’-class) and Scharnhorst suffer multiple torpedo hits, capsizing the two full-sized battleships and causing Scharnhorst to explode.
The Kriegsmarine High Seas Fleet puts to sea, racing north rather than trying to navigate the treacherous English Channel. Further British land-based air attacks sink a Graf Zeppelin-class carrier and a battle cruiser. Luftwaffe counterattacks put two Illustrious-class carriers out of action, but without torpedo striking ability cannot sink any of the British capital ships. However some U-boats in the North Sea are able to slip past the British destroyer screen, sinking the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and battleship HMS Barham for the loss of three submarines.
The Germans surface fleet soon comes upon the British van (screening force), and in the ensuring battle sink the battle cruisers HMS Hood, HMS Repulse and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales in exchange for another German battle cruiser.
Approaching the British main fleet, all of the German radar screen are jammed and concentrated British carrier aircraft strikes put the remaining German carrier decks out of action. Out of the mist, the Germans see the British battleships, which have crossed their T. In 1916 Jellicoce performed this classic maneuver against Speer twice, while in 1949 the British only manage to do it once. That is the only thing going for the Kriegsmarine this day.
The fact that the King George V ships have been rearmed with 16-inch guns in place of the 14-inchers limitations imposed by 1930s naval treaties doesn’t help matters. Moreover, the Germans realize too late that the British, like the Japanese with the Yamato-class, reported their newest class of battleship was armed with 406mm guns but in actuality sport 460mm guns. The remaining German battle cruiser along with the one crippled Graf Zeppelin-class carrier are sunk outright. Additionally, one ‘H’-class battleship stops dead in the water while another has her steering destroyed.
The surviving Germans turn about, racing home. Speer’s maneuver saved his fleet in 1916, but it can’t save them this time. Deprived of air cover, the Fleet Air Arm goes in for the kill. The Malta-class carriers 100 nautical miles north of the British battle fleet unleash withering air strikes, crippling two of the retreating ‘H’-class battleships and sinking the remaining German carrier. The British battle fleet’s cruisers and destroyers unleashes a storm of torpedoes, sending the two H-class vessels under the British guns to the bottom.
Over the next day, the Germans limp back to Wilhemshaven. Air attacks take their toll, with only one ‘H’-class battleship still afloat when the Germans make port. It is later sunk by the RAF as it transits the Kiel canal for repairs.
Build Strategy Isn’t Naval Strategy
The above scenario might seem too heavily weighted towards the British, but consider the actual history. The British weren’t really prepared for war in 1939-40, as Dunkirk exposed, yet the RN slaughtered the main Italian Regia Marina anchorage at Taranto on 11-12 November 1940 with just 20 Swordfish torpedo bombers from HMS Illustrious. If nine or ten additional years had elapsed, a massed strike against the Kriegsmarine on the scale of 7 December 1941 at the outset would be very likely, with the understanding that the mission would be tasked to RAF fighters, bombers (of all types) and RAF/RN Beaufort torpedo planes or their successors as aircraft carriers could spoil the element of surprise and would be more vulnerable to counterattack than coastal airfields.
The distance across the North Sea to Wilhemshaven and Kiel would continue to open a German sortie to strikes by land-based aircraft, similar to what occurred to the British fleet off of Malaysia on 8 December 1941 where IJN land-based torpedo bombers sank two RN capital ships. The rest is a replay of 1916, except the retreat looks like the 25-27 February 1991 Highway of Death (Coalition air forces destroyed a retreating army, killing thousands of Iraqi soldiers fleeing from Kuwait).
This scenario obviously cannot be tested–just as easily a game could play out with the total destruction of the British fleet in a hypothetical 1949 conflict. But gaming out a Plan Z scenario misses the most important historical aspect–building ships isn’t strategic. Neither is analyzing how and why they were used in combat. In regards to naval strategy, build plans and the history of the implementation of those plans really doesn’t rise above the operational level.
Britain could not allow its fleet to be decimated, and neither could the Americans allow the Royal Navy to fall. This was the basic Allied strategic quandary in the Atlantic. Why? Answering that question gets at the heart of what strategy really is, and this series will turn to answering this question next.