Military history


The Versailles Treaty virtually abolished the German Navy. It was permitted only 1,500 officers and 13,500 enlisted men and a motley collection of training vessels: six old battleships, six old cruisers, twelve destroyers, and twelve torpedo boats. The Germans were allowed to replace ships greater than fifteen years old, but the new ships were to be severely limited in size: a maximum of 10,000 tons for battleships, 6,000 tons for cruisers, 800 tons for destroyers.

In the teething years of the Weimar Republic, the German Navy was not held in high esteem. Ridiculed for its huge prewar and wartime expenditures for a High Seas Fleet, which had appeared to shrink from a decisive engagement with the Royal Navy, and blamed for being the seedbed of the tumultuous 1918 revolutions, which had undermined the Army and the monarchy, it was also accused of attempting to subvert the democratic Weimar government. Moreover, to its critics, the German Navy’s chief claims to distinction were at best dubious: the unrestricted U-boat campaign, which many viewed as one of the chief factors in the harsh retribution demanded by the Allies at Versailles, and the impulsive scuttling of the High Seas Fleet, which many viewed as one of the greatest wastes of assets in all naval history. For these reasons, and others, demands arose throughout the Weimar Republic that the Navy be abolished. Navy morale hit rock bottom; skilled officers and enlisted men resigned in droves to pursue civilian careers.

Commencing in the summer of 1921, the Navy underwent a rebirth with a new name: Reichsmarine (State Navy). Its guiding philosophy, in the words of one rising star, was “complete abstinence from every type of party politics” and “unconditional loyalty to state and to the government chosen by its people.” Accordingly, it purged its ranks of political extremists and other undesirables. It abolished the rank of warrant officer, deemed a breeding ground of leftist revolutionaries. The new volunteers were rigidly screened to prevent political or criminal infiltration. Only those men with the highest qualifications, character, intelligence, and loyalty to the Weimar Republic were retained or accepted.

Among the rising stars in the new Navy was Erich Raeder, an austere, straight-arrow, apolitical, devout Christian officer, whose influence in all ranks was to be profound. Born in Hamburg April 24, 1876, Raeder was the grandson and son of scholars and teachers. As a student, Raeder had ideas of becoming a physician, but in 1894, at age eighteen, he changed his mind and joined the Imperial Navy. During the war he had served four uninterrupted years in cruisers with the High Seas Fleet. After the war, among other tasks, he was assigned to write a two-volume official history of cruiser operations. In 1920, having served twenty-five years in the Navy and believing he would soon be retired, he began the study of political science and law at the University of Berlin, in preparation for a second career as a teacher. However, Raeder had already been marked for higher naval responsibilities, and in 1922 he was promoted to rear admiral and designated Inspector of Naval Education. As such Raeder served, in effect, as the schoolmaster of the new Navy, responsible for screening, selecting, and educating its officers and enlisted personnel. In every respect the Reichsmarine was to bear his personal stamp.

Given its minuscule size and antiquated equipment, the Reichsmarine was hard put to define a realistic mission for itself. The Soviet Union, still torn apart by revolution, posed no real naval threat to Germany. A more likely threat was Poland. She might gobble up isolated East Prussia, expanding her frontier on the Baltic. In such an event, the antiquated ships of the German Navy might render effective service as a counterforce to the third-rate Polish Navy. But that scenario posed a larger problem: France was almost certain to ally with Poland and establish a blockade of the German coast on the North Sea and possibly send strong naval forces into the Baltic. Therefore, the Poland scenario was discouraging.

Those concerned with the long-term naval strategy postulated more optimistic plans. Based on the recent economic and political history of Europe, it was not unreasonable to assume that Germany would in due course regain its dominant industrial and financial position, and that the harsh restrictions of the Versailles Treaty would be relaxed gradually, and ultimately rescinded. The challenge was to formulate future naval strategies and plan a Navy to fit the strategies within the existing restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, assuming at the same time that the restrictions were likely to diminish with the passage of years.

In drafting long-term scenarios, the strategists categorically and absolutely ruled out another naval war with Great Britain. The distinguished German naval historian Friedrich Ruge wrote: “The 1914-18 war with Britain was considered by every [German] naval officer a tragic mistake which should never be repeated lest the consequences become far more terrible to either side. Therefore it was strictly forbidden to play with this kind of fire even in war games.”

The long-range planners assumed that the most likely and formidable opponent in another war would be France, either as an ally of Poland in a dispute arising over the “Polish Corridor” or for other reasons. In event of war with France, the planners proposed the German Navy should wage another guerre de course. Owing to the ban on building U-boats, the planners of this commerce war recommended a new, fast, long-range surface raider powerful enough to force the French Navy to fragment and disperse its men-of-war to escort its convoys. The dispersion of French warships would deny France sufficient naval power for a blockade of the German coast or assistance to Poland in the Baltic, or interdiction of German maritime trade in the North Sea or elsewhere. Should Germany ultimately be permitted to build U-boats, they would neatly augment this strategy. Or should Great Britain ally with Germany in a war against France, the German commerce raiders would neatly augment the Royal Navy.

These strategic concepts directly influenced the design of the Reichsmarine’s first “replacement” battleship, the Deutschland. She was an extraordinary, 10,000-ton, state-of-the-art vessel. Powered by diesel engines, which gave her a top speed of 26 knots, and armed with six 11” guns, she had a cruising range of 10,000 nautical miles. As historian Ruge put it, the Deutschland was “faster than almost any heavier ship in existence, more heavily armed than any faster vessel, with a cruising range vastly exceeding that of any cruiser or capital ship.” Hence she appeared to be the ideal “hit-and-run” commerce raider. Because of her small size (to meet Versailles Treaty restrictions) she was nicknamed a “pocket” battleship. But when the Reichsmarine requested funds from the Reichstag for the costly Deutschland, it met strenuous opposition and initially had to settle for four new “replacement” light cruisers of 6,000 tons, useful mainly for training purposes: Emden (1925), Königsberg (1929), Karlsruhe (1929), and Köln (1930).

Meanwhile, in violation of the Versailles Treaty, the Reichsmarine continued U-boat research and development through the Krupp front, IVS, in Holland. The IVS encouraged—and financed—three submarine prototypes: one small (250 tons), one medium (500 tons), and one large (750 tons). Three 250-ton boats (Vesikkos) and three 500-ton boats (Vetehinens) were built in Finland. One 750-ton boat (E-1) was built in Spain. The IVS also financed a plant for building torpedo tubes and torpedoes in Spain. German sailors in mufti were assigned to conduct the trials of the submarine prototypes in Finland and Spain. Other Reichsmarine personnel established a submarine school in Turkey to train Turkish submariners to man three submarines IVS had sold to Turkey. The school also trained German submariners.

The clandestine German research and development on U-boats and other weaponry was a poorly kept secret. French and British newspapers repeatedly exposed the subterfuge. Nor was the Allied Control Commission, withdrawn after Germany entered into the Locarno Pact and the League of Nations, fooled. In its final report, the Commission stated: “Germany had never disarmed, had never had the intention of disarming, and for seven years had done everything in her power to deceive and ‘countercontrol’ the Commission appointed to control her disarmament.”

Not everyone in Germany approved of these secret military activities. In 1926 and 1927 some German politicians and newspapers attacked and exposed the subterfuges. One result was that the Hindenburg government was compelled to sack the Defense Minister, Otto Gessler; the Reichswehr chief, Hans von Seeckt; and the Reichsmarine chief, Hans Zenker.

In the shakeup, the prim, apolitical Erich Raeder rose to command the Reichsmarine, effective October 1, 1928. He took office, he wrote in his memoirs, determined to “travel the road of absolute correctness, in an absolutely loyal and well-defined relationship to the State and its government.” He demanded that all Reichsmarine personnel emulate his example. In the words of one German naval historian, the Reichsmarine became Raeder, and Raeder, the Reichsmarine.

At first Raeder had his hands full. The new Defense Minister, Wilhelm Groener, a former Army general, repeatedly expressed doubt in public about the need for a Navy, a sentiment shared by many Germans, including Adolf Hitler, who had savagely denounced the Imperial Navy in his book, Mein Kampf, and who ridiculed the Reichsmarine’s battleship replacement policy in a published article. But by gaining support from Hindenburg and by deft maneuvering in the Reichstag, Raeder succeeded in obtaining not only funds for the Deutschland (launched May 19, 1931 but also funds to lay the keels for two sister ships, Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer* In addition, Raeder secretly resumed support and funding for the small, medium, and large U-boat prototypes in Finland and Spain.

By 1932 Hitler and the Nazis held a strong position in the Reichstag and Hitler was scheming to unseat and replace the aged, ineffectual, but revered German president, Hindenburg. Encouraged in part by the Nazis, in part by the British proposals at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva for German “equality” or military parity with France, behind the scenes a succession of German chancellors and defense ministers secretly authorized vast expansions of the Wehrmacht and Reichsmarine.

Raeder supervised the plans for the expansion (Umbau) of the Reichsmarine, which was approved November 15, 1932. The plan envisioned six capital ships (battleships and “pocket” battleships), an aircraft carrier, six new heavy cruisers, six squadrons of destroyers, three squadrons of minesweepers and three of motor torpedo boats, numerous auxiliaries, and—in blatant defiance of the Versailles Treaty—a substantial naval air arm and a submarine force of three (half) flotillas, comprising a total of sixteen U-boats. A submarine school, disguised as an antisubmarine school, was to be established in secrecy on the Naval Academy grounds at Mürwik, a town near the city of Flensburg.

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When Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Raeder was wary and concerned. Hitler drew much of his power from the Army, not the small, apolitical Navy, which Hitler had often and freely criticized. But Raeder was soon reassured. Pledged to throw off the “shackles” of the Versailles Treaty and restore Germany to a position of military greatness, Hitler’s plans included a strong German Navy.

Hitler’s strategic vision for Germany—most of which was spelled out in Mein Kampf—was to reunite all German-speaking peoples into a single nation and then expand eastward to gain Lebensraum or “living space.” In effect, this meant the reclamation of the Rhineland and Saar; the annexation of Austria and the Sudeten-land area of Czechoslovakia; the conquest of the rest of Czechoslovakia and of Poland and Memelland, Lithuania; an alliance with or subjugation of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and, ultimately, the conquest of the Soviet Union.

Hitler believed he could successfully carry out these conquests notwithstanding the League of Nations, the Locarno and Kellogg-Briand pacts, and the various existing mutual defense treaties. France was rotten and corrupt; it would not fight. Or if it fought, it could easily be defeated. Mussolini’s Italy and possibly Japan could be drawn into the Nazi orbit. By its pro-German stand for German military “equality” at Geneva and other signals, the British government appeared to endorse Hitler’s plans to rearm and expand eastward.

The British attitude toward Hitler and the Germans sprang from a dense tangle of psychological, political, economic, and military factors. Many upper-class Britons who controlled the government and other institutions had vowed never to become embroiled in another slaughter on the continent. A vast majority of Britons, ravaged by the Depression, vigorously opposed expenditures for armaments of any kind. Many Britons were related to and sympathetic toward the Germans and loathed the French. These Britons believed the terms of the Versailles Treaty, insisted upon by the French, had been much too harsh and that the Germans had been punished enough. Many Britons deeply feared Joseph Stalin and the Communists and viewed a strong Germany as the most effective bulwark against the spread of communism or even an instrument for the destruction of communism.

One part of Hitler’s strategy was to encourage the pro-German, antiwar attitude in Britain to the fullest possible extent. Hitler did not want a war with Great Britain “under any circumstances.” Therefore the buildup of the Reichsmarine must not threaten the British people or the Royal Navy. Hitler planned to negotiate a bilateral naval agreement with Great Britain, fixing Anglo-German navies at a nonprovocative 3:1 ratio in capital ships. Thus the Reichsmarine should promote friendly relations with the Royal Navy. But until the agreement had been negotiated, the Reichsmarine buildup, especially the U-boat force, must be conducted with utmost secrecy and deception.

Over the next two years, 1933-1935, while Hitler and his cronies seized dictatorial powers in Germany, Raeder quietly directed the expansion of the Reichsmarine and cultivated friendly relations with the Royal Navy. Assuming that a bilateral Anglo-German naval treaty would be reached and that the Versailles Treaty restrictions would be rescinded, he authorized secret planning for two large battle cruisers, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, two super-battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz, numerous armed merchant ship raiders, and a submarine force to be composed initially of twenty-four small (250-ton), ten medium (500-ton), and two large (750-ton) U-boats.

Having consolidated his grip on Germany and rekindled its martial spirit, in the spring of 1935 Hitler, in effect, repudiated the Versailles Treaty. Berlin revealed that Germany was to initiate conscription to build the Wehrmacht to 300,000 men (thirty-six divisions) and that Germany was to create an air force, the Luftwaffe. At the same time Hitler signaled a desire to commence negotiations with the British government for an Anglo-German naval agreement. Determined to appease Hitler, the British government warmly welcomed the signals.

The negotiations commenced in earnest on June 3, 1935, in London. The British team was led by one of the chief appeasers, Foreign Secretary Samuel J. G. Hoare. The German team was led by Hitler’s new Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. There was little debate. The Germans offered a 100:35 capital ship ratio and the British accepted eagerly. The agreement allowed the Germans to build about 183,000 tons in capital ships. Deducting the three new “pocket” battleships, comprising a total of about 36,000 tons, this left Germany with a capital ship building allowance of about 147,000 tons, which was just sufficient to build the big battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and the super-battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz.*

The last item on the agenda was submarines. Germany insisted on parity with Great Britain (about 52,700 tons) but assured Britain it would build only to 45 percent of parity (about 24,000 tons) unless “outside considerations” compelled a larger program. In any event, Germany would not exceed 45 percent of British submarine tonnage without further negotiations. The British acceded to the German demands, provided Germany would adopt the 1930 London Treaty Submarine Protocol (Article 22) barring unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant ships. The Germans readily agreed to this stipulation.

The Anglo-German Naval Treaty was signed on June 18 and announced three days later. Hitler viewed it as one of his greatest diplomatic coups, “the happiest day of my life.” The treaty constituted Germany’s first legal release from the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, and as such, it tended to confer the stamp of legitimacy on all German rearmament.

Most British were pleased. The Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare, who was named First Lord of the Admiralty in 1936, praised his own statesmanship. The treaty, he said, was “safe” and was “in the interests of peace,” which “is the main objective of the British government.” Among the chief benefits attained in the treaty, he went on, was Germany’s pledge not to engage in “unrestricted use of submarines against merchant ships.” Britain’s most distinguished navalist, David Beatty, former Admiral of the Grand Fleet (1916-1919) and First Sea Lord (1919-1927), told the House of Lords: “We owe thanks to the Germans. They came to us with outstretched hands and voluntarily proposed to accept a thirty-five to one hundred ratio in fleet strength. If they had made different proposals, we would not have been able to stop them. That we do not have an armament race with one nation in the world at least is something for which we must be thankful.” Among the very few British critics was Winston Churchill, then out of the government and an outspoken opponent of appeasement. He denounced the treaty in his customary pungent language. That the British government would believe that Germany would abide by the submarine protocol, he said, was “the acme of gullibility.”

Prior to and during the negotiations, the Reichsmarine had built, in utmost secrecy, six duplicates of the 250-ton U-boat prototype Vesikko in German shipyards. On June 29, 1935, one week after the treaty was announced, the Reichsmarine (State Navy), appropriately renamed the Kriegsmarine (Combat Navy), commissioned the first boat, U-1, in a public ceremony. The news came as a profound shock to the world. Out of nowhere, it seemed, the dreaded, evil, long-illegal U-boat was back.

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