Thursday, January 9, 2020

Did the Kriegsmarine Help the Reich?

Outgunned but Never Outfought

Admiral Doenitz and staff
Admiral Karl Doenitz kept the Kriegsmarine relevant until the final days of World War II.
War and the decisions made in waging it always involves some form of cost-benefit analysis. Setting aside the many broader questions about World War II, was the money and effort spent by the Germans on the Kriegsmarine worth it? I believe the answer is yes.

U-156 being sunk in the Atlantic
U-156 is sunk by aerial depth charges from a US Navy PBY Catalina east of the island of Barbados, 8 May 1943. No survivors.
The Kriegsmarine was outmatched throughout the war. The Allies always had superior resources to counter any German adventures on the high seas. That is indisputable. At best, the Kriegsmarine could control isolated sections of open water for limited times. When the power of the Royal Navy was brought to bear, it always could overwhelm the best that the Germans could muster.

However, despite its limitations, the Kriegsmarine punched far above its weight class.

Admiral Doenitz and staff in St. Nazaire, France,
Boss of the German U-boat arm Karl Dönitz observing the arrival of U-94 at St. Nazaire in June 1941 (Buchheim, Lothar-Günther, Federal Archive Bild 101II-MW-3491-06).
The U-boat fleet gave the Germans their best chance to actually win World War II. Winston Churchill confessed that shipping losses posed the greatest threat to Great Britain’s survival. The U-boat war did not peak until 1943 after the balance of power had shifted against Germany in all other areas. How the Allies won the U-boat battle is a big question, but it was a combination of Allied technological advances, better Allied naval tactics, and the terminal decline of the Kriegsmarine surface fleet which allowed the Allies free reign.

Bismarck survivors being rescued in May 1941
Survivors of the sinking of the Bismarck being rescued by HMS Dorsetshire, 27 May 1941.
Speaking of the Kriegsmarine surface fleet, it was utterly defeated but for over two years did well for its small size. The Germans had a small number of high-quality ships that kept the Royal Navy and RAF busy throughout the war. Aside from a few dramatic mistakes, the quality of leadership in the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet was quite high. When you are in an inferior military position, though, you can’t afford any mistakes, so mistakes that you do make lead to avoidable catastrophes for the Reich such as the sinking of the Bismarck.

German battleship Tirpitz in Kaafjord, April 1944
View of the port side of the German battleship Tirpitz at its heavily protected anchorage in Kaafjord, Northern Norway, 30 April 1944 (Federal Archive Bild 146-1980-096-60).
One of the overlooked successes of the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet was how it tied up huge Allied naval and air assets at relatively little cost to the Reich. The battleship Tirpitz did almost nothing of value during World War II - it shelled a weather station and embarked on some unproductive sorties against convoys but mostly just sat at anchor - but the British devoted outrageous numbers of assets over four years trying to sink it. By itself, the Tirpitz replicated the effect of the entire World War I German Navy as a "fleet in being." And all for the cost of just one ship! The Tirpitz investment paid huge dividends for the Reich and provided a major distraction until it was finally sunk in November 1944. This prevented the British from shifting more assets to the Pacific and gave the Japanese chances for success there.

Heavy cruiser Scharnhorst during the Channel Dash, February 1942
German heavy cruiser Scharnhorst during the successful 12 February 1942 Channel Dash (Federal Archive Bild 101II-MW-3695-21).
There were very bright men in the Kriegsmarine. The quality of leadership certainly was higher than in the Luftwaffe and probably higher than in the Army (Heer). Gross Admiral Erich Raeder was a key advisor and developed the "peripheral strategy" against Great Britain which held great promise had it been pursued with more intensity. Some of the Kriegsmarine's tactics were outstanding and made Allied naval officers look like fools. This included the Channel Dash in February 1942 which was a black eye for the Royal Navy and perhaps the single most successful and audacious naval gamble of the war. The Allies in Project Ultra at Bletchley Park never cracked many German naval codes while they had no problem breaking Luftwaffe and Heer codes. This was because Kriegsmarine radio operators were disciplined and not sloppy like the other services. The Kriegsmarine had the highest professional standards and maintained them throughout the war. Yes, there were some bad apples and some atrocities as elsewhere within the Reich, but also a number of humanitarian gestures that saved Allied lives.

Scharnhorst fires on Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, June 1940
Scharnhorst opens fire on Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on 8 June 1940.
Many of the Kriegsmarine’s exploits receive little publicity. For instance, German surface ships sank Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on 8 June 1940 in Operation Juno. It’s not easy to sneak up on an aircraft carrier and sink it in broad daylight! That’s not one the British movie industry made a lot of heroic films about. “Sink the Glorious!” wouldn’t have sold a lot of tickets in London.

A German Type XXI U-boat at sea
A Type XXI U-boat at sea.
Later U-boat designs such as the Type XXI U-boats were the most advanced in the world and foreshadowed nuclear submarines. Their propulsion system was quite similar to many modern electric cars, where there is a diesel motor to power the batteries that actually turn the wheels. This was an area of great promise for the Third Reich if the war had lasted longer.

There was a reason why Hitler picked Admiral Doenitz as his successor. The Kriegsmarine was outgunned but did splendid work for its size, it was just too small to make a difference.

HMS Glowworm battles German heavy cruiser Hipper, April 1940
HMS Glowworm making smoke in front of German cruiser Admiral Hipper, 8 April 1940.


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