In 1938, Hitler's aggressive foreign policy forced the navy to consider the possibility of a future naval war against Great Britain. The navy's commander, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, designed a strategy to attack the British sea-lanes. His proposal to build ships more suited to a commerce war, including additional U-boats, was rejected by Hitler, who was intent on building a battleship-dominated navy that would serve as an instrument of political and military force commensurate with a world power. Shortages of resources contributed to delays in naval construction, and Raeder's blind confidence in the Führer's diplomatic successes and promises that war would not come before 1942 or 1943 found the navy unprepared for war in September 1939.
At the beginning of the war, the German navy consisted of 79,000 men, 2 battleships, 3 pocket battleships (small, fast, strongly constructed battleships), 1 heavy cruiser, 6 light cruisers, and 33 destroyers and torpedo boats. Fewer than half of the 57 U-boats available were suitable for Atlantic operations. In spite of Raeder's initial pessimism that the navy could only "die gallantly," thereby creating the foundations for a future fleet, he intended to carry out an aggressive naval strategy that would attack British sea communications on a global basis using his concept of diversion and concentration in operational areas of his own choosing and timing. Raeder persistently argued with Hitler that only total economic warfare against England could have a decisive impact.
Hitler's restrictions on naval operations, particularly on the U-boats, frustrated Raeder's attempts to seize the initiative and achieve early successes. In late 1939, concerned that the British were planning to invade Norway, Raeder instigated planning for the successful German occupation of Norway and Denmark (Operation weserübung). This April 1940 operation was for the navy its "feat of arms"—justifying its contribution to the war effort and future existence. Although the navy did secure important port facilities for surface raiders and U-boats in Norway as well as the shipping route for iron ore from Sweden, it also suffered substantial losses in the operation in the form of 3 cruisers and 10 destroyers. In June, with the defeat of France, the navy acquired additional ports on the Atlantic and Bay of Biscay for surface ships and submarines. But the navy also now had to protect an extended coastline from occupied France to Scandinavia. From 1940 to 1943, Germany also sent to sea 9 armed auxiliary cruisers.
Raeder's intent to prove the worth of the surface fleet, in particular the battleships, led him to demand of his commanders that they take risks yet avoid unnecessary combat that could lead to losses. Two fleet commanders lost their jobs when they failed to exhibit the necessary aggressiveness. The scuttling of the pocket battleship Graf Spee in December 1939 and Hitler's displeasure over this loss further reinforced the inherent contradictions in Raeder's orders to strike boldly but avoid damage to the navy's own ships. With new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz joining the fleet, Raeder envisioned a new phase of the Atlantic surface battle, with task forces that would engage Allied convoys protected by capital ships. In an effort to prove the value of the battleships, Raeder pressed the Bismarck into service before the other battleships were available for action. Her loss in May 1941 represented the end of the surface war in the Atlantic and Hitler's increasing interference in the use of Germany's remaining capital ships.
Unable to achieve the conditions for a cross-Channel invasion (Operation sea lion) in September 1940, Raeder tried to divert Hitler from his plans to attack the Soviet Union. Raeder advocated an alternative strategy in the Mediterranean to defeat Britain first, especially given the growing cooperation between that nation and the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Raeder saw an opportunity to link up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and use the French African colonies and the Atlantic islands of Portugal and Spain to expand the bases for a long-term war against the Anglo-American naval forces in the Atlantic. These plans never materialized, as the war against the Soviet Union faltered and Germany was forced to come to the aid of Italy and secure its southern flank in the Balkans.
Nervous about British threats to Norway and Allied support to the Soviets in the north, Hitler ordered that the two battleships in Brest—the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst—and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen be either moved to Norway or scrapped. The "Channel dash" in February 1942 was a tactical success but a strategic defeat for the navy. With the fleet relegated to Norway as a "fleet-in-being," the U-boat arm, under the command of Admiral Karl Dönitz, continued its role as the navy's primary weapon. The lack of Luftwaffe support, though, continued to seriously hamper all operations. The navy never resolved the issue of whether the U-boat war was a "tonnage" war or a commerce war in which U-boats attacked targets that had the greatest potential for a decisive impact. Dönitz continued to argue that all resources should go to the U-boat war and disagreed with the diversion of U-boats to other theaters such as the Mediterranean or to the defense of Norway.
In late December 1942, the failure of the Hipper and Lützow to close with a weakly defended convoy in the Barents Sea (Operation rainbow) led an angry Hitler to attack Raeder and the surface fleet. Raeder resigned, and Dönitz succeeded him. Although Dönitz was determined to prosecute the submarine war ruthlessly, as with the surface fleet, the defeat of the U-boats in May 1943 resulted from Allied technology and successes in code-breaking that reflected the shortcomings in the naval leadership and military structure of the Third Reich. As the military situation of Germany deteriorated, the navy provided support to the army, particularly in the Baltic, where it conducted a massive and highly successful evacuation effort of troops and civilians.
In sharp contrast to the navy's collapse after World War I, the German navy during World War II enforced strict discipline until the end. In April 1945, Hitler named a loyal Dönitz as his heir and successor.
Keith W. Bird
Bird, Keith W. German Naval History: A Guide to the Literature. New York: Garland, 1985.; Blair, Clay. Hitler's U-Boat War. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1996, 1998.; Howarth, Stephen, and Derek Law, eds. The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945. London and Annapolis, MD: Greenhill Books and Naval Institute Press, 1994.; Militärgeschtliches Forschungsamt. Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (Germany and the Second World War). Trans. Dean S. McMurrey, Edwald Osers, and Louise Wilmott. 7 vols. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1990–2001.; Salewski, Michael. Die Deutsche Seekriegsleitung 1935–1945. 3 vols. Munich, West Germany: Bernard and Graefe, 1970–1975.