The German Fleet at War, 1939-1945

The German Fleet at War, 1939-1945

by Vincent P. O'Hara


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The German Fleet at War, 1939-1945 by Vincent P. O'Hara

The German Fleet at War relates the little-known history of the Kriegsmarine's surface fleet with a focus on the sixty-nine surface naval battles fought by Germany's major warships against the large warships of the British, French, American, Polish, Soviet, Norwegian and Greek navies. It emphasizes operational details but also paints a broad overview of the naval war. The book addresses the lack of information about the specifics of naval engagements in World War II and provides a database of naval engagements for comparison and analysis, but unlike most reference works, it has a continuous narrative and a theme. The result is a unique overview of the German and Allied navies at war that provides new appreciation of their activities and accomplishments.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591146438
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 09/28/2011
Pages: 342
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Vincent P. O'Hara is an independent scholar and the author of nine works including five published by the Naval Institute Press, most recently Torch. His articles have appeared in the Naval War College Review, Warship, MHQ, Storia Militare, and other periodicals and journals. He holds a history degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

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The GERMAN FLEET at WAR, 1939-1945


Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2004 Vincent P. O'Hara
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59114-651-8

Chapter One


September 1939-January 1940

Things look different on the open ocean from the way they do on the map at home. Grossadmiral Erich Raeder

Germany's obsolete battleship Schleswig-Holstein began World War II when her 11-inch guns opened fire on Poland's Westerplatte base in Danzig. The navy that went to war in 1939 included 74 warships displacing five hundred tons or more (55 destroyer types or larger) with another fifty-eight building or working up. It faced the British fleet of 275 such ships and the French navy with 106 more. This was not the navy the German commander in chief, Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, expected to deploy when he fought Great Britain. Only the year before Germany had adopted his ambitious Z-Plan, which called for a balanced fleet of more than two hundred large surface warships by 1948.

Faced with such disparity in numbers, Raeder nonetheless adopted an offensive posture wherever possible. In the opening months of the war German warships instigated three sea battles against the Allies in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the South Atlantic.

The German navy began the war with strong forces in the Baltic Sea to contain Poland's small, but modern, navy. Under the command of Naval Group East the German fleet included two obsolete battleships, three light cruisers, nine destroyers, one torpedo boat, eight S-boats, four escort ships, eight minesweepers, and ten submarines. To face this force the Poles, under Rear Admiral Jözef Unrug, commander of the Coastal Defense Region, had a destroyer, Wicher, a minelayer, Gryf, two old torpedo boats, two gunboats, six small minesweepers, and five submarines. Their principal ships, the destroyers Burza, Blyskawica, and Grom were well on their way to Britain when Schleswig-Holstein fired the war's opening rounds.

The Polish invasion's short naval campaign mainly pitted Polish submarines against German submarine hunters. The submarines made five attacks, but Zbik registered the only success when one of her mines sank the minesweeper M85 on 9 September. This was better than the Germans did; although their anti-sub forces reported definitely sinking seven boats, in fact, all five Polish submarines eventually escaped to Allied or neutral ports. On the war's second day the Germans began moving ships out of the Baltic to counter the threat of an Anglo-French declaration of war. Before this redeployment was completed, however, large German and Polish warships exchanged fire on one occasion.

Attack on Hel, 3 September 1939

Time 0630 to approximately 0735 Type: Harbor attack Weather: Visibility: Hazy Sea State: Calm Surprise: None Mission: Poles-self defense; Germans-reconnaissance

A Polish fleet consisting of Wicher (Commander Stefan de Walden), Gryf, loaded with 300 mines, four minesweepers, and two gunboats sortied from Gdynia at 1600 hours on 1 September to lay a defensive minefield about twelve miles southeast of Hel. The destroyer went on ahead, but the mining flotilla was barely out of port when thirty-three Ju87Bs jumped them. The war's first air attack against ships under way lasted nearly three hours; the Poles successfully avoided direct hits, but near misses seriously damaged the minesweeper Mewa, and jammed Gryf's rudder. Splinters killed twenty-one of Gryf's men including her captain, Commander S. Kwiatkowski. The minelayers put into Hel although Wicher, not informed the mission was scrapped, continued on patrol. That night she observed enemy ships off Pillau, but "a unique opportunity for carrying out a night torpedo attack... was foregone since... Wicher was tinder strict orders not to jeopardize the primary mission of laying mines." Gryf's damage was so extensive, she was placed in a floating dock at Hel and sunk in shallow water as a permanent battery.

Early on the morning of the 3rd, Führer der Torpedoboote, Konteradmiral Günther Lütjens, ordered the destroyers Z1 Leberecht Maass and Z9 Wolfgang Zenker to reconnoiter Hel. This was an aggressive mission more easily and safely accomplished by the air force, but Lütjens was mindful that the navy's contribution to the campaign had been small and that victories had to be seized while opportunity lasted. The German destroyers found what they were looking for: Wicher and Gryf (Commander Stanislaw Hryniewiecki) sheltering under the protection of battery Cyplowa's four 6-inch guns, supported by a pair of 4.1-inch weapons in batteries Dunska and Grecka just up the peninsula.

The German ships appeared to the southeast of the harbor shortly after dawn and opened fire from fourteen thousand yards as they sailed in a west southwesterly heading toward Danzig. Leberecht Maass engaged the destroyer and Wolfgang Zenker the minelayer. The Poles outgunned the Germans and their marksmanship was better as well. With shells splashing uncomfortably close, the Germans increased speed to twenty-seven knots, conducted sharp evasive turns, and finally laid smoke. Despite these maneuvers a 6-inch shell hit Leberecht Maass near No. 2 gun at 0657. Splinters killed four and wounded another four men of the gun's crew and severed electrical power to the mount.

After this blow the adversaries exchanged fire for nearly forty minutes more. The German destroyers registered two hits on Gryf, damaging her antiaircraft weapons and killing four members of her crew; splinters damaged Wicher superficially and wounded two. Finally, at 0735 Lütjens terminated the action and proceeded to Pillau to refuel. Leberecht Maass shot a total of seventy-seven rounds in almost one hour, hardly a fast and furious rate of fire. She repaired her damage at Swinemunde and was completely battleworthy by 10 September. The German air force appeared over Hel later in the day. In several heavy raids they sank Wicher, Gryf, a gunboat, and some smaller auxiliaries, erasing any satisfaction the Poles may have enjoyed from their repulse of the German destroyers.

Action off Cromer, 7 December 1939

Time: 0255-0318, G+1 Type: Encounter Weather: Good Visibility: New moon, good, up to ten miles Sea State: Surprise: Germans Mission: British-patrol and sea security; Germans-offensive mining

Germany's destroyers spent the first month of the war helping lay the defensive West Wall mine barrage in the North Sea. After this task was accomplished they began sowing offensive minefields off Britain's east coast. Between 17 October 1939 and 10 February 1940, destroyers dropped 2,160 mines in eleven different fields in seven separate operations. The third operation involved more than just mines.

On the morning of 6 December 1939, Z12 Erich Giese and Z11 Bernd von Arnim departed the Jade loaded with 120 contact and magnetic mines to lay a field off Cromer. Z10 Hans Lody (Fregattenkapitän Erich Bey, flag 4th Destroyer Flotilla) provided the escort. Several hours into the mission Bernd von Arnim, displaying the unreliability of the high-pressure steam system used on most major German warships, blew a boiler tube. After that a generator failed so, at 1835, Bey ordered her back to port and continued with only Erich Giese.

At 0105 hours on 7 December a pair of vessels approached the in bound Germans and then turned away. Although the lookouts couldn't identify the dark shapes, they were British destroyers, Juno (senior officer Commander W. E. Wilson) and Jersey on a routine patrol out of Immingham.

At 0205 Erich Giese arrived at her destination just three miles off the Hainsborough lightship, square in the narrow shipping lane between Britain's east coast and the Outer Dowsing, the shoal waters farther offshore. Seven minutes later her crew, in teams of five or six men, began rolling the bulky mines off the stern while Hans Lody loitered some distance to the north. Within half an hour the dangerous job was done. Two premature detonations caused some commotion onshore, but British searchlights probed the sky, assuming German bombers were the cause of the blasts.

Erich Giese joined her sister and the two ships steered north to clear the Outer Dowsing before turning east for home. But, sixteen minutes later at 0255, they detected two darkened shapes about nine thousand yards away sailing at a high speed on nearly the same course bearing 325 degrees. Within several minutes lookouts identified them as British destroyers.

Bey decided to hazard a torpedo attack. With Hans Lody leading, he angled in on the contact. By 0310 the Germans, running west and slightly south of the British, had closed to about five thousand yards. At 0314 Hans Lody fired three torpedoes while Erich Giese launched four. They then turned east.

Hans Lody's salvo missed, perhaps because of the reliability problems German torpedoes suffered in the war's first year, but after three and three quarters minutes, one from Erich Giese's salvo struck Jersey on her port side abreast the after torpedo tubes. There was a violent explosion that ignited a large fire. Juno immediately turned and laid a smoke screen, uncertain whether the attack had come from mines, bombs, or a submarine. Jersey was fortunate on several counts-the torpedo caught her in a hard turn to port (the British had finally seen something and were turning to investigate) which blew the blast away from the ship, and escaping steam eventually helped douse the fire. She lost only nine men.

As he watched the welcome sight of the burning destroyer, Bey considered whether he should turn and attack with gunfire but instead he set a course for home. While his decision may have forfeited a more decisive tactical victory, it ensured the British remained unaware that enemy destroyers were laying minefields off their coast, a secret worth more than one or two destroyers. Juno eventually managed to tow Jersey near to Immingham, and the tug Biddy brought her into port. She was under repair until 23 September 1940.

Battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939

Time: 0614-0740 Type: Interception Weather: Good, clear, slight breeze, no clouds Visibility: Extreme Sea State: Slight from SE Surprise: None Mission: British-patrol and sea security; German-offensive and sea superiority commerce raiding

The Battle of the River Plate was the war's first sea battle involving major warships. It was the first to be fought on the open sea and the only surface engagement of the war fought off the coast of South America. It was also the war's first Allied victory and so attracted tremendous attention in the English press and subsequent histories.

Grossadmiral Raeder had developed a strategy to deal with Great Britain's naval superiority. He envisioned Germany would conduct cruiser warfare against Britain's maritime lines of communication with specialized raiders supported by powerful surface groups. The surface groups would bring to battle elements of the divided British fleet as they chased the raiders. But when war broke out, he was seven years away from possessing the fleet required to implement his strategy. Germany did possess, however, some ships expressly designed for raiding or cruiser warfare, hybrid heavy cruisers the British press dubbed "pocket battleships." Two of these cruisers, Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland, were at sea when Britain and France declared war.

On 25 September, when it became clear there would be no early peace, Raeder unleashed Graf Spee to begin raiding operations in a poor man's version of his strategy. (The raid was supported by the foray of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau that sank the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi on 23 November 1939. This raid was an attempt to "maintain strategic pressure on the enemy's North Atlantic sea routes and [to launch] successful strikes against inferior forces whenever the occasion offered.")

Graf Spee subsequently destroyed nine vessels totaling more than 50,000 grt in waters ranging from the coast of Brazil to the Indian Ocean's Mozambique Channel. The tonnage destroyed was insignificant. However, the disruption caused was sensational. The Allies hunted the raider with eight surface groups that included four aircraft carriers, three battle cruisers, ten heavy cruisers, and five light cruisers.

The British Force G under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood was responsible for protecting the South Atlantic from the Falklands to Rio de Janeiro. To patrol this immense area Harwood had two heavy and two light cruisers. Based upon the distress call of Graf Spee's third to last victim, Doric Star, made 2 December off the coast of Angola, Harwood considered Graf Spee's range and calculated the heavily trafficked waters off the River Plate would make a fine stage for her next appearance. Accordingly, he called the heavy cruiser Exeter up from the Falklands and the light cruiser Achilles down from Rio de Janeiro to join Ajax patrolling these waters. He had Ajax, Achilles, and Exeter concentrated off the River Plate twenty-four hours before the German cruiser arrived "one of the most remarkable pieces of intelligent guesswork of the entire war." Or at least one of the luckiest.

Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff had conducted a careful, successful, and bloodless raiding cruise, but his vessel's diesel engines needed overhaul and it was time to head for home. On the way, however, he did indeed plan to appear in the waters off the River Plate as part of a feint toward the Pacific. On 6-7 December he rendezvoused with his supply ship, Altmark, and then set course southwest for the Plate estuary some two thousand miles away.

On 13 December 1939 Graf Spee arrived at a point three hundred miles east and slightly north of the estuary's mouth, searching for a small convoy Langsdorff expected in the area, intelligence he had obtained from his final victim, Streonshalh (3,895 grt) sunk on 7 December. At 0552, four minutes before dawn in the growing light of a beautiful, late spring morning, lookouts reported masts dead ahead below the horizon. As these resolved into warships, Langsdorff interpreted them as a cruiser and two destroyers-probably the convoy's escort. At 0600 he altered course toward them and worked up to 24 knots.


Excerpted from The GERMAN FLEET at WAR, 1939-1945 by VINCENT P. O'HARA Copyright © 2004 by Vincent P. O'Hara. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsvii
1Opening Rounds, September 1939-January 19401
2The Invasion of Norway, April-June 194015
3The English Channel and the High Seas, 194060
4The Bismarck Cycle of Battles, May 194175
5Actions in Soviet Waters, 194196
6The English Channel and the French Coast, 1942112
7Battles of the Polar Sea, 1942-1943128
8The Eastern Mediterranean, August 1943-May 1945166
9Actions in the English Channel and French Waters, 1943182
10Actions in the English Channel, January-June 1944200
11French Waters after D-Day, June-December 1944220
12The Western Mediterranean, September 1943-May 1945233
13Home Waters: Norway and the Baltic, 1944-1945248
Appendix AEquivalents, Abbreviations, and Definitions of Terms263
Appendix BOrganization of the German Navy269
Appendix CStatistical Analysis271

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German Fleet at War, 1939-1945 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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If you are interested in reading a well-researched, single-volume study of the German Navy in the Second World War, this is definitely the book for you. In addition to being a highly readable work, it is a fine piece of scholarship. My compliments to the author.