Allied and Enemy War Plans and Dispositions
You cannot build ships in a hurry with a
Admiral Sir J. A. Fisher to Lord Charles
Beresford. 27th February 1902
IN the last chapter we traced the development of Coastal Command's war plans up to the movement of all its squadrons to their war stations. We will now turn to the corresponding British naval war plans and, since the majority of the important German naval archives came into the Admiralty's hands at the end of the war, it will be possible to look over the shoulder of our principal enemy to see how he was, at the same time, planning his assault on our seaborne trade.
The Admiralty's war plans were formally approved by the Board on the 30th of January 1939 and were promptly issued to the naval authorities at home and abroad who, in the event of war, would be responsible for executing them. They were framed to deal with a war against Germany and Italy together; but account had also to be taken of the attitude of Japan, which, since 1936, had been acting towards Britain with increasing unfriendliness. Though it was not expected that Japan would join the Axis powers at an early stage in a war precipitated by the latter, 'nevertheless', the plans stated, 'we must be prepared for the active intervention of Japan against ourselves and France'.
After estimating which countries were likely to attack Britain and her ally and which to remain in a state of unfriendly neutrality, the broad strategy to be followed at sea was outlined. As must always be the case in a war with a European enemy, paramount importance was given to the home theatre, because any serious or prolonged loss of control of our coastal waters, or of the ocean trade routes which converge on these islands, would bring rapid and final disaster. Second only to the home theatre in importance came the Medi- terranean, through which sea, in time of peace, pass the very important oil- tanker traffic from the Persian Gulf and the greater part of our trade with India and the Far East. Though it was hoped that, in the event of war, the passage of warships through the Mediterranean 'could occasionally be undertaken', it was considered that Italy's geographical position and her considerable naval and air power would prevent the use of that route by our merchant ships. It was accordingly accepted that our mercantile traffic would be
diverted to the long route by the Cape of Good Hope. In spite of the closure of the Mediterranean it would be of cardinal importance to maintain a firm hold on the approaches to it from the east by the Red Sea and from the west by the Straits of Gibraltar; the supply of our land forces in the whole Middle East theatre would depend on the former, while the efficiency of our blockade of Italy and the safety of the north-south Atlantic trade routes would hinge largely on the latter. The forces stationed in the Red Sea were accordingly to be strengthened by detachments from the Mediterranean Fleet and the recall of certain warships from the Far East.
Our control of the western basin of the Mediterranean was greatly simplified by the presence of the greater part of the French Fleet in those waters, and by its well-placed bases in southern France and on the North African shore. Accordingly, it was agreed with our ally that the western basin should be a French responsibility. This enabled greater British strength to be allocated to the eastern Mediterranean without unduly weakening the Home Fleet. Third in importance came the Far East, over which the attitude of Japan hung like a storm cloud. British interests in the China Sea and in the waters washing the islands of the Eastern Archipelago were great; and from that area came imports of food and certain essential raw materials. The sea routes to the east must, if possible, be kept open. But we were not strong enough to guard our home waters properly, to maintain a major fleet in the Mediterranean and to send a third fleet to the Far East. Since an attempt to station a strong fleet simultaneously in each of the three primary theatres would lead only to dangerous weakness in all of them, it was accepted that a fleet capable of fighting the Japanese Navy on anything like equal terms could only be provided by withdrawing nearly all British forces from the Mediterranean and by leaving the control of the whole of that sea to the French Navy.
Apart from disposing its principal strength in the two most important strategic areas the Admiralty also had to provide against sporadic attacks at any point along the thousands of miles of our highly vulnerable ocean trade routes which in the words of the war plans, are 'vital to the life of the Empire'. In 1939 some 3,000 deep-sea dry cargo ships and tankers and about 1,000 coasting vessels, totalling 21 million tons, were registered in Britain and the average number at sea on any one day was 2,500.1 The need for large
Map 2. Naval Command Areas and Associated R.A.F. Commands, September 1939
numbers of cruisers to defend this great total of widely-dispersed merchant ships requires no emphasis. For many years after the First World War the Admiralty had insisted that seventy cruisers was the smallest number with which we could meet our responsibilities. Yet, from one cause or another, this minimum was gradually whittled down until, in 1939, our effective strength--including the Dominion Navies--was only fifty-eight. Though our cruiser strength was clearly quite inadequate, the attempt to hunt down and destroy the expected surface raiders and to patrol the focal areas of shipping where they were likely to work had, none the less, to be made. This would be the responsibility of the foreign naval commands--the North Atlantic Station (headquarters at Gibraltar), the South Atlantic (Freetown, Sierra Leone), the America and West Indies (Bermuda), the East Indies (Ceylon) and the China Station (Singapore and Hong Kong).2 In addition to these British overseas commands the Dominions each accepted a measure of responsibility, dependent on the strength which they possessed, for control of the waters adjacent to their territories. This brought some relief to the Admiralty, whose overseas responsibilities were thereby reduced. In addition to protecting our own shipping and searching for enemy raiders, all the foreign commands, as well as the Home and Mediterranean Fleets, would be responsible for the enforcement of the blockade, which the Government intended to declare on the outbreak of war, by intercepting enemy merchant ships and by controlling the carriage of contraband of war to enemy (or possible enemy) destinations in neutral bottoms. The Admiralty was responsible only for intercepting ships at sea and for sending them into the control bases. Subsequent action regarding the cargoes rested with the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the Prize Courts.
The blockade was to be enforced by patrolling the entrances to the North Sea and Mediterranean. At home 'contraband control' bases were to be established in the Orkneys and the Downs (the anchorage in the English Channel off Deal); similar bases were to be set up at Gibraltar, Haifa, Malta and Aden.3 There the ships' cargoes would be examined and any items which came within the definition of contraband removed, for subsequent condemnation in prize, before the ships were allowed to continue their journeys.
The establishment of a blockade has long been recognised as the right of a belligerent, provided that it can be made effective; but the delays to neutral shipping incident to recent developments in methods of blockade always lead to difficulties with the countries whose ships are involved. A balance has, therefore, to be struck by the Government between insisting on its full rights despite the
irritation caused to the neutrals and relaxing its measures to appease neutral sentiments, with the probability of contraband cargoes thereby reaching the enemy. It was not many weeks before the war produced difficulties of this nature, as, for example, when the United States Government protested against American ships being sent to the control base in the Orkneys, which lay inside the zone declared by the President as closed to American shipping.4 The British Government several times relaxed the full stringency of its blockade measures in deference to neutral opinion.
It will be remarked that these measures only applied to control of enemy imports. Export control was not enforced till later--in retaliation for the Germans' illegal minelaying.
Though the blockade was certainly not complete during the early months of the war and substantial leaks were known to exist (for example in traffic from Black Sea ports to Italy), no less than 338,000 tons of contraband were seized during the first six weeks. Thus, from the earliest days of the war, did we enforce the slow stranglehold of the economic blockade.
Though our opening strategy was except for the blockade defensive, the importance of seizing every opportunity to prosecute a tactical offensive was not ignored. Thus the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, was instructed 'to bring the enemy to action wherever and whenever his forces can be met' and the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, was given a similar directive. In addition to this long-standing and traditional function the Home Fleet was required 'to close the North Sea to all movements of enemy shipping and to exercise contraband control of neutral shipping'; and the Mediterranean Fleet was 'to ensure the isolation of Italy from all sea communication with the countries outside the Mediterranean'. Apart from the Home Fleet four naval shore commands were established in these islands--Portsmouth, the Nore (Chatham), the Western Approaches (Plymouth) and Rosyth--with responsibility for controlling our coastal waters and for defending the shipping which was funnelled into those waters from all the corners of the world.5 In addition, in the case of the southern home commands and in particular of Portsmouth, the safe transport of the British Expeditionary Force to France would be a primary responsibility. Since 'the traditional and well-proved methods' of convoy would provide the best protection against enemy submarine and air attacks, preparations for its introduction were forwarded and the Commanders-in-Chief abroad were given powers to order into convoy ships passing through their commands. Our cruiser strength
was, however, inadequate to enable ocean convoys to be formed at once; the Admiralty therefore intended to patrol the focal areas through which most shipping had to pass and to rely on 'evasive routing' to enable ships to sail independently and in safety from one focal area to the next. The control of all merchant shipping would be assumed by the Admiralty as soon as war seemed probable. It would be exercised through the Naval Control Service Staffs, who would be trained at home and then sent to their stations all over the world. The necessary instructions to the masters of all merchant ships had also been prepared and would be issued as soon as the emergency arose.
It was expected that the enemy would dispute our maritime control, firstly with his surface warships--and in particular the 10,000-ton 'pocket-battleships' of the 'Deutschland' class which had been specially designed for that purpose--and by disguised armed merchant raiders; secondly, by U-boat warfare, though it was left for experience to show whether it would be of the 'unrestricted' type which the Germans waged in the First World War after 1917, or whether it would initially endeavour to conform to international law; thirdly, by air attacks, though here it was considered that the threat to our mercantile ports and to the great tonnage of shipping berthed in them on any day was greater than the threat to the ships while at sea; and, lastly, by minelaying in our shallow coastal waters, our river estuaries and in the approaches to our naval and mercantile ports. It was plain that the impact of German submarine warfare, air attacks and minelaying would first be felt in our home waters and in the sea approaches to these islands, and plans were therefore made to combat these threats. To protect the very important flow of shipping which must proceed up and down the length of our east coast, convoys were to be run between the Tyne and Thames from the outset. The Straits of Dover were to be closed and the passage of U-boats by the shortest route to the Atlantic blocked by the laying of a mine barrage across the narrows. To protect the east coast convoys from incursions by U-boats or surface ships another minefield was to be laid, in several stages, along the greater part of the length of that convoy route. To guard the approaches to the English Channel and the Irish Sea from the west and to cover the flow of military transports and store ships proceeding to and from French ports, a powerful squadron, called the Channel Force, was to be based at Portland. To deal with any attempt by the Germans to operate light forces in the southern part of the North Sea, certain cruisers and destroyers were detached from the Home Fleet to be based on the Humber. The Admiralty assumed direct operational control of this force. The northern exits to the Atlantic between the Faeröe Islands and Iceland and by the Denmark Strait were to be watched by a
patrol of cruisers and, for the inshore sections, of trawlers.6 This Northern Patrol would be responsible for enforcing our blockade in those waters; it was to be carried out initially by the older cruisers which had been brought forward for service from the Reserve Fleet. But they were to be replaced in due course by liners converted to armed merchant cruisers, and half of the total of fifty such ships was allocated to this duty.
All merchant ships approaching these islands from the west would, until in convoy, be given positions through which they were to pass and routes by which they would continue their approach; and those routes would be patrolled by ships and aircraft. It was in the organisation of the defence of this great flow of shipping inwards from and outwards into the Atlantic, and in extending our defence measures as far west as possible, that the Admiralty and Coastal Command were handicapped by the lack of naval and air bases in Eire. During the first war Bearhaven7 in the south and Lough Swilly in the north had been of inestimable value for this purpose, and the Admiralty was not slow in pointing out to the Cabinet the probable consequences of the lack of their use in a second struggle with Germany. The First Lord took the matter up strenuously and repeatedly with his colleagues, and an approach was made to the Eire Government. But the desired result was not accomplished. Happily .the bases in Northern Ireland at Londonderry and Belfast remained available to our use and when, in mid-1940, all our shipping had to be diverted round the north of Ireland the importance of bases in the south was reduced. But the handicap imposed by having to use Plymouth and Milford Haven, instead of Bearhaven, as the bases for the escorts working in the south-western approaches was serious.
To deal with the U-boats themselves it was considered that the surface vessels and aircraft 'allocated to trade protection could best be divided into anti-submarine hunting units and disposed at strategic points round the British Isles'. Finally plans were made to arm all merchant ships with anti-submarine and anti-aircraft guns and to instruct their crews in their use. It has already been told how this was organised.8
Having outlined the objects of our world-wide maritime strategy and the particular problems with which each theatre was concerned we shall now consider the forces assigned to execute that strategy.
By the 31st of August all ships of the Home Fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, had taken up or were proceeding to
their war stations. The organisation and disposition of the fleet was as follows:--9
At Scapa Flow in the Orkneys: 2nd Battle Squadron Nelson, Rodney, Royal Oak, Royal Sovereign, Ramillies. Battle Cruiser Squadron Hood and Repulse. Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal. 18th Cruiser Squadron Aurora, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Belfast. 12th Cruiser Squadron Effingham, Emerald, Cardiff, Dunedin. 7th Cruiser Squadron Diomede, Dragon, Calypso, Caledon. 6th and 8th Destroyer Flotillas Seventeen destroyers. 1st Minesweeping Flotilla Seven fleet minesweepers. At Rosyth: Aircraft Carrier Furious At Dundee: 2nd Submarine Flotilla Depot ship Forth and ten boats. At Blyth: 6th Submarine Flotilla Depot ship Titania and six boats.
In addition to the foregoing ships and units under Admiral Forbes' command the following forces were stationed in home waters:--
In the Humber: 2nd Cruiser Squadron Southampton and Glasgow. 7th Destroyer Flotilla Nine destroyers. At Portland: Battleships Resolution and Revenge. Aircraft Carriers Courageous and Hermes. Cruisers Ceres, Caradoc, Cairo (A.A. cruiser.) 18th Destroyer Flotilla Nine destroyers.
To each of the four home naval commands certain light forces were allocated for local defence, anti-submarine and minesweeping duties; they were distributed by the Commanders-in-Chief to the various sub-commands organised in the smaller ports within their areas as might be necessary.10 Thus Portsmouth (Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir William James) had the 12th and 16th Destroyer Flotillas (twelve destroyers), five anti-submarine vessels and eight minesweepers; the Nore (Admiral Sir H. Brownrigg) had the 19th Destroyer Flotilla (nine destroyers) and a few minesweepers at Dover and other small forces at Harwich and in the Thames estuary; to the Western Approaches command (Admiral Sir M. Dunbar-Nasmith, V.C.), where the emphasis was on convoy protection, were
assigned the 3rd, 11th, 12th and 17th Destroyer Flotillas (thirty-two destroyers in all), while Rosyth (Vice-Admiral C. G. Ramsey), which was responsible for the northern part of the east coast convoy route, had the 15th Destroyer Flotilla (eight destroyers) and eight escort vessels, all of which had good anti-aircraft armaments. It should be mentioned, before leaving the home shore commands, that towards the end of October Dover was made an independent command under Vice-Admiral B. H. Ramsay and that an Orkneys and Shetland command (Admiral Sir W. French) was established and placed under the Commander-in- Chief, Home Fleet, shortly before war broke out.
Turning now to the foreign commands, the Flag Officer North Atlantic (Rear- Admiral N. A. Wodehouse, who was relieved in November by Admiral Sir Dudley North) was ashore at Gibraltar and had under his orders the two old cruisers Capetown and Colombo, the 13th Destroyer Flotilla (nine destroyers) and a few minesweepers.11 Ashore at Freetown, Sierra Leone, was the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic (Vice-Admiral G. H. d'Oyly Lyon), under whose orders was a comparatively strong force of cruisers comprising the Neptune, the 9th Cruiser Squadron (Despatch, Dauntless, Danae and Durban) and the South American Division (Exeter, Ajax and Cumberland) for guarding the important trade routes across that ocean, the seaplane carrier Albatross, one division of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (four destroyers), four escort vessels, two submarines and the usual small force of minesweepers. The Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies Station (Vice-Admiral Sir Sidney Meyrick), had under his orders the 8th Cruiser Squadron (Berwick, Orion, York, and the Royal Australian Navy's Perth) and two escort vessels. In the Mediterranean was stationed, under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, by far the greatest naval strength outside home waters. The principal units of the Mediterranean Fleet, based on Alexandria, by virtue of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, were the First Battle Squadron (Warspite, Barham and Malaya), the aircraft carrier Glorious, the First Cruiser Squadron (Devonshire, Sussex and Shropshire), the Third Cruiser Squadron (Arethusa, Penelope), the Galatea and the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry. Of flotilla vessels there was with this fleet a total of twenty-six destroyers of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 21st Flotillas, four escort vessels, ten submarines and four minesweepers. The fleet was made to some extent self-reliant by the presence of the repair ship Resource and the depot ships Woolwich and Maidstone, which served the destroyers and submarines respectively, besides auxiliary vessels for the carriage of stores, fuel and ammunition. The insecurity of the peace-time base at Malta and the lack of
adequate base facilities at Alexandria made it essential for the Mediterranean Fleet to be as self-supporting as possible. The Admiralty had been forced reluctantly to accept that, in the event of war with Italy, the Mediterranean Fleet would not be able to use Malta as a main base. They had pressed for it to be defended as strongly as possible; but the Army and Air Force held that, with Sicily only sixty miles away, it was impossible to defend it effectively, and to try to do so might mean wasting some of our already inadequate air defences. In July 1939, however, authority was given to increase the gun defences; but very little had been done by the time Italy came into the war. In September the only ships which stayed on at Malta were seven submarines, twelve motor torpedo-boats, together with their depot ships, and a small minelayer. Their purpose was to harry the Italian communications to Libya. Small numbers of minesweepers were stationed at Alexandria, Haifa, Port Said and Malta, and three destroyers of the 21st flotilla had been passed into the Red Sea to strengthen the protection of the route past the Italian East African bases.12 As soon, however, as Italy's intentions to remain neutral were clear, the greater part of Admiral Cunningham's forces was transferred to other theatres, and his fleet was not reinforced to a strength approaching that of September 1939 until a few weeks before Italy entered the war.
On the China Station (Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Percy Noble) were four cruisers of the 5th Cruiser Squadron (Kent, Cornwall, Birmingham and Dorsetshire), the aircraft carrier Eagle and one division of the 21st Destroyer Flotilla, the remainder of which had been transferred to the Red Sea, the submarine depot ship Medway and the 4th Submarine Flotilla (fifteen boats). In the East Indies (Commander-in-Chief, Rear-Admiral R. Leatham) were three cruisers of the 4th Cruiser Squadron (Gloucester, Liverpool and Manchester) and seven escort vessels, of which five were manned by the Royal Indian Navy.
The Dominion navies were, on the outbreak of war, chiefly in their home waters, though the loan of their ships to the various theatres where active operations were in progress was to start almost immediately. The Royal Australian Navy consisted at this time of the cruisers Canberra (flagship of Rear-Admiral W. N. Custance), Australia, Sydney, Hobart and the much older Adelaide, all of whom were in or near their home waters, and the Perth which, as has been mentioned, had joined the 8th Cruiser Squadron in the West Indies. There were also five destroyers, which were later to join the Mediterranean Fleet, and two escort vessels. The two cruisers Leander and Achilles of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy were working on the South Pacific trade routes and the six destroyers of
the Royal Canadian Navy were divided between the east and west coasts of that Dominion.
The effective strength of the naval forces available to the British Empire on the outbreak of war was as follows:--
Table 2. British Empire--Effective Naval Strength, 1939
Battleships and battle cruisers 12 Aircraft carriers 6 Seaplane carriers 2 Fleet cruisers 35 Trade route or convoy cruisers 23 Fleet destroyers 100 Escort destroyers and sloops 101 Submarines 38
Though the greater part of this strength was concentrated in the two primary strategic areas already mentioned, a considerable proportion--especially of cruisers and escort vessels--was divided among the foreign commands.13 In addition to the numbers given above, certain reinforcements were expected to arise from refits being finished and from the current naval building programmes; but the former was unlikely to bring any real gain in strength, because other ships would almost certainly have to take their place in the refitting yards. However, the battleship Valiant and the heavy cruiser Suffolk were expected to return to the fleet before the end of 1939.
Turning now to new construction, the first of the five battleships of the King George V class was not expected to be ready until the end of 1940, and only two of the six fleet carriers of the Illustrious class would be completed during that year. New cruisers were expected in better numbers since, of the twenty-one building, about half were due to complete in 1940. Thirty fleet destroyers and twenty of the smaller 'Hunt' class were on order, but few deliveries of these sorely-needed ships were expected for another year. Substantial additional orders for cruisers, destroyers, submarines and smaller vessels were placed on the outbreak of war, but no results could be expected from this emergency programme for many months to come.14
The arrangement whereby responsibility for the western Mediterranean was accepted by our French allies has already been mentioned. In addition to this the French Admiralty agreed to form and maintain a 'Force de Raid', consisting of its two newest battle cruisers, the Dunkerque and Strasbourg, one aircraft carrier, three
cruisers and ten destroyers, to work from Brest against enemy warship raiders in the eastern Atlantic. The general disposition of the principal units of the French Fleet at this time was as follows:--
Table 3. French Fleet--General Disposition, 1939
Station Battleships and
Destroyers Submarines English Channel -- -- -- -- 7 -- Bay of Biscay -- -- -- 3 -- -- North Atlantic ('Force de Raid') 2 1 3 1 9 -- Mediterranean 3 1 (Seaplane carrier) 50 28 20 53 South Atlantic
-- -- -- -- 2 4 Far East -- -- 2 -- 5 or 6 2
It will make the enemy's naval plans and intentions clearer if the story of the rebirth and growth of the German Navy after its surrender in 1918 is first briefly traced. By the Treaty of Versailles its strength was limited to 15,000 men, but attempts to circumvent the terms of that treaty appeared very rapidly. For example, naval organisations were incorporated under cover in civil ministries, orders to destroy coastal fortifications were never carried out and the efforts of the Allied Control Commission to enforce the treaty were repeatedly frustrated.
Between 1920 and 1921 the transitional German Navy became the permanent service once again and regular exercises and visits abroad were arranged. Though new construction was limited by the virulent inflation of the currency then in progress, treaty evasion continued; orders were even placed for submarines to be built in Spain and Finland. The years from 1920 to 1924 marked the rebirth of the German Navy, but it was in the next period, from 1925 to 1932, that serious reconstruction was started. Admiral Zenker was in command for the first part of this phase, but before it ended he was succeeded by Admiral Raeder, whose part in Germany's second assault on our seaborne trade was to be very great. In 1925 the new cruiser Emden was launched and a large building programme was started. The first of the pocket-battleships, which were later to cause us much anxiety, was laid down in 1928. The building of U-boats abroad continued and crews for them were trained under the guise of receiving anti-submarine instruction. Preparations were even made to build up a naval air arm. The years 1933 to 1939, still under Admiral Raeder's supreme command, marked the period of rapid
expansion. Although a pretence of limiting armaments was kept up until 1935, Admiral Raeder was in fact given a free hand to press on with reconstruction as soon as Hitler and the National Socialist Party had seized power. On the 16th of March 1935 the Treaty of Versailles was publicly repudiated, and on the following 18th of June the Anglo-German naval agreement was signed. By this treaty the Germans agreed to limit their naval construction to thirty-five per cent of British strength except in submarines. They were accorded the, right to build up to parity in submarine tonnage, but agreed not to exceed forty-five per cent unless 'a situation arose which in their opinion made it necessary'.15 Towards the end of 1936 Germany joined with other Powers in denouncing submarine war on merchant shipping in accordance with the London Protocol, which had been signed in November of that year.16 But the sincerity of this declaration by Hitler did not exceed that of any other of his avowals, and the entire Anglo-German agreement was finally abrogated by him on the 26th of April 1939.
The first fruits of the 1935 naval negotiations were a large increase in German naval personnel. Covert organisations were openly revealed and the merchant navy was also prepared for war. Admiral Raeder and his staff now had to choose between two alternative policies. Either they could build up to the agreed proportions of British strength on the assumption that war would break out in about 1940, and aim to reach their full permitted strength by that date; or they could assume that war would be deferred for some years and embark on a longer-term programme whilst accepting a weaker fleet during the intervening years. As Hitler assured his naval advisers that no war would take place before 1944 or 1945 the second alternative was adopted in general. A short-term plan was, however, made to provide against the possibility of war with France only. The battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were thus built as answers to the new French ships Dunkerque and Strasbourg of the same class.17 Raeder's choice of the long-term plan, combined with Hitler's miscalculation of the date when war would break out, was to have very lucky consequences for ourselves. It caused Germany to lose much of the advantage gained by the Anglo-German naval agreement and had the result that, in 1939, the German Navy was actually below its permitted strength. The German Naval Staff intended to allocate the agreed tonnage of capital ships to the three pocket-battleships, the two battle cruisers already mentioned and three new battleships. As
soon as Hitler abrogated the Anglo-German agreement four more battleships were ordered. Thus it was not until 1939 that full-scale naval preparations for war with Britain were started; and the resulting new construction could not be completed before 1942 at the earliest. A second and almost equally serious failure in German naval planning was that a destroyer force adequate to serve and protect the new heavy ships was not built; but this was caused more by constant changes in design and by technical difficulties with new equipment than by deliberate policy. It thus happened that when war actually broke out the German Navy was far less well prepared for it than the German Air Force.
It is important to realise that had the outbreak of war been deferred in accordance with Hitler's promise, and the long-term building plan thus been completed, the German fleet would indeed have been of formidable strength. It would have possessed no less than thirteen battleships, thirty-three cruisers, four aircraft carriers, some 250 U-boats and a large number of destroyers, almost all of which would have been of modern design. The threat to Britain which such a fleet would have constituted is not pleasant to contemplate, particularly when the age of the majority of our own warships is remembered. Hitler's wrong estimate of the date when war would break out may therefore be considered one of his more important mistakes, since it forced Admiral Raeder to abandon the long-term programme of building a balanced fleet and obliged him to build what he could use quickly to strike against our shipping. The German programme also included the conversion of a number of merchant ships into fast, heavily armed raiders. These were to cause us trouble enough and it was fortunate that these conversions, although a small threat compared with what the long-term German fleet would have become, did not start until after the outbreak of war.
The miscalculation by Hitler already referred to must have become clear to his advisers when, on the 3rd of April 1939, he ordered his armed forces to make ready for an attack on Poland in the following autumn. On the 10th of May the Navy and Air Force were told to prepare for the immediate opening of war on British shipping. The plans of the German Naval Staff will therefore now be studied.
The Battle, Instructions for the German Navy, issued in May 1939, started with the premise that the war would be fought against Britain and France in the west and against one opponent, who might be Russia or Poland, in the east. Russia was, of course, temporarily eliminated as a possible enemy by the Russo-German pact signed in the following August. This released certain German naval forces from the Baltic.
The tasks of the German Navy were summarised as being the protection of their coasts, the defence of their own and attack on the
enemy's sea communications, the support of land and air operations along the coast and service as a 'politico-strategic instrument of war to ensure, for example, the neutrality of the Scandinavian countries'. No mention was made of the possibility of waging war on the basis of a maritime strategy. In fact, because of the change of Hitler's intentions, the Germans did not possess the necessary strength; and the inadequacy of the navy to perform even the restricted duties allocated to it was admitted in the phrase 'the Navy is faced with a task for which its present development does not correspond'. The original organisation which the German Navy proposed to adopt in war was to establish, under the Supreme Commander (Admiral Raeder), two principal naval commands. They were to be known as the Naval Group Commanders, East and West, and their flags would be flown ashore at Swinemünde in the Baltic (later changed to Kiel) and at Wilhelmshaven respectively. There were also to be two Commanders-in-Chief for the same two theatres in command of the sea-going forces; their flags would be flown afloat but, after the pact with Russia had been signed, the post of Commander-in-Chief, East, was left unfilled.
The German U-boat fleet was commanded by Commodore Dönitz, who was stationed at first in the Baltic but moved back to Wilhelmshaven at the end of August, when it became clear that the war with Poland would spread westwards.
Since Russian neutrality greatly simplified the problems of the German eastern commands, it is not necessary to deal with their responsibilities beyond saying that they were to control the entrances to the Baltic and to secure the communications within that sea. The problems facing the western commands were, however, acute. To protect German shipping in the North Sea was admitted to be impossible 'because England . . . can and will strangle [these communications] . . . in the shortest possible time'. The attempt to do so was therefore abandoned in favour of making 'forces available . . . for offensive action against the enemy's supply lines' which 'can be successfully attacked only on the oceans'.
It can thus be seen that the German intentions corresponded closely to the appreciation made in the Admiralty's war plans. The German Naval Staff also anticipated correctly that 'England will choose . . . an open blockade' and that close blockade of the German coast was not practicable. Neither side seems to have realised at this time that air power had restored much of the old possibilities of close blockade. The German plans accepted that their forces would 'be excluded from the Channel in a very short time', which made the northern area of the North Sea the 'decisive point of the war at sea'. Their aims in this area were to be, firstly, 'constant disturbance of English operations in building up their blockade'; secondly, to afford
'assistance to the conduct of war in the Atlantic by keeping as many enemy forces as possible tied up' and, thirdly, to achieve 'occasional brief opening of the blockade for passage by Atlantic combat forces'. Permanent maritime supremacy could not be obtained in the northern North Sea, but they would try to compensate for this by 'intensive small-scale warfare, surprise attacks on weaker units' and to accumulate minor successes by 'constant harassing action'.
After outlining their objects in the North Sea the German plans turned to ocean warfare where, it was stated, 'the task . . . is war on merchant shipping'. The instructions then lay down that 'combat action even against inferior enemy naval forces is not an aim in itself and is therefore not to be sought. Even slight damage can decrease the effectiveness and the cruising endurance of our merchant raiders'. German surface forces were, therefore, to operate on the oceans. War on shipping in coastal waters was stated to be 'the prerogative of U-boats', and attacks on ports and bases were left to the German Air Force.
To help the surface vessels' work, supply ships were to be sent out before the outbreak of war, and efforts would be made 'to establish the necessary fuel and arms supplies by means of a secret organisation which was to be built up by German agents 'with the help of benevolent neutrals'. The ocean raiders were recommended to make sudden appearances in widely separated areas, followed by 'withdrawal into the ocean wastes'. Such conduct was considered to be particularly necessary in the Atlantic where the British reaction was expected to be 'especially lively'.
Minefields were to be declared in the Baltic and in the approaches to the Heligoland Bight, but shortages of mines necessitated strict economy in their use.18 It is interesting to find that the German Naval Staff expected us to strengthen our control of the northern exit by again laying a barrage of mines right across the North Sea. Their view of the effect of this measure was indicated by the statement that 'this . . . would make the northern sortie practically impassable for us'. They do not seem to have remembered that the completion of the barrage towards the end of the previous war had only been made Possible by the enormous number of mines produced in America, and that such a requirement for mines could not possibly have been met by ourselves for many months after war had been declared. Furthermore, the German Staff appears to have overlooked the fact that the barrage had actually caused them insignificant losses in the 1914-1918 war.
The Germans anticipated that British maritime power would interrupt their communications across the Atlantic very quickly; that our open blockade would be maintained from a 'cutting off
position' between the Shetland Islands and Norway; that we should successfully close the Channel and carry out air attacks on their naval bases and minelaying operations in the Heligoland Bight. All these operations did, in fact, have their place in the British war plans. The Commander-in-Chief, West, was therefore instructed to take energetic action against the 'cutting off position' and to consider investing the approaches to our bases with mines laid by U-boats.
The submarine war on trade was, initially, to be carried out in areas where surface raiders could not work. Though the Germans do not seem to have obtained any knowledge of the performance of our asdic, respect was shown for 'the increased effectiveness of antisubmarine defences'. Operations in widely separated focal areas such as off the North American coast, in the West Indies, off the Cape Verde Islands and in the Bay of Biscay were therefore deemed to offer the best prospects of success. For various reasons, among which the desire to avoid friction with the United States played a part, German U-boats did not in fact work in the western Atlantic until many months later. Finally the plans expressed the intention to send U-boats to their operational areas before war had been declared, and this was actually done towards the end of August 1939.
Some mention must be made of the attitude of the German Naval Staff towards International Law as set out in the various Hague Conventions governing war at sea. Although all naval vessels and aircraft were required 'for the present' to wage war in accordance with these rules, the fundamental cynicism of the German attitude was expressed in the sentence: 'it therefore goes without saying that effective . . . fighting methods will never fail to be employed merely because some international regulations . . . are opposed to them'. The rapid changes in the German adherence to the rules of International Law and, in particular, their progress towards unrestricted U-boat warfare will be told as they took place. Here it is only necessary to state that German records leave no doubt that it was Admiral Raeder's steady pressure to obtain removal of the initial restrictions which led to the opening of virtually unrestricted war on merchant shipping very much earlier than had occurred in the war of 1914-18.
The allocation of German naval forces to accomplish the plans and objects outlined above must now be considered. Under the Commander-in-Chief, West, were placed the two battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer, the cruisers Admiral Hipper and Leipzig, three divisions of destroyers, the 1st U-boat flotilla (nine boats) and minor vessels for patrol purposes, local defence and minesweeping.19 Nine naval air squadrons (about 100 aircraft) were also placed under his command. To the Eastern
Command were assigned the cruisers Nürnberg (flagship) and Köln, four divisions of destroyers, two torpedo-boat flotillas and some minor war vessels. Certain other ships, including the cruiser Königsberg, were to be added after they had completed other initial duties. The Naval Staff retained direct operational control of two of the three pocket-battleships--the Deutschland (renamed Lützow in November 1939) and the Admiral Graf Spee--and also of three flotillas, totalling about twenty-two U-boats.
As regards ships under construction or projected for the German Navy, mention has already been made of Admiral Raeder's long-term intentions--the Z Plan--and it has been told how they came to be abandoned. On the outbreak of war there were, however, certain major warships being built for the German Navy which had been ordered before the birth of the Z Plan. The chief of these were the two very formidable battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, on which work had been started in 1936; these ships, though supposed to conform to the limiting displacement of 35,000 tons agreed by treaty between the major naval powers, actually displaced about 42,500 tons--some twenty per cent larger than their announced size.20
As they mounted eight 15-inch guns in their main armaments, had a maximum speed of some twenty-eight knots and were very heavily protected, they outclassed even the new 14-inch gun battleships of the King George V class then building in this country, which conformed strictly to treaty limitations. In July 1939 the German Admiralty expected both ships to be completed before the end of 1940. The new aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin was expected to commission for service in the middle of the same year.
The 8-inch cruisers Blücher and Prinz Eugen, which were sister ships of the Hipper, were also expected to be ready in the middle of 1940, and two more ships of the same class were also on the stocks. These were the Seydlitz, due to complete in the autumn of 1940, and the Lützow which was not expected to be ready before the end of 1941, and which was finally transferred to Russia in an uncompleted state in February 1940.21 These cruisers, though their main armaments were the same in calibre and number as the British 'Washington
Treaty' 8-inch cruisers of 10,000 tons displacement, actually outclassed them in size, speed and protection. Though supposed to conform to treaty limitations they were, in fact, of 14,475 tons standard displacement and 18,500 tons at deep load--nearly half as big again as our own ships of the same class.
Whilst dealing with the deception practised by the Germans over the size of their new warships it is relevant to mention that the two battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were already in service, and which purported to be smaller than our own battle cruisers, and had a relatively light armament of nine 11-inch guns as against the 15-inch weapons in the British ships, actually exceeded their published displacement (26,000 tons) by about 6,000 tons. This enabled them to be heavily protected and reduced their inequality compared with the Hood, Repulse and Renown. Moreover, they were actually capable of a speed of thirty-one knots at deep load in smooth water, whereas the Admiralty believed their maximum speed to be only twenty-seven and a half knots. They could, therefore, outrun our battle cruisers if the need arose.
From the foregoing summary of Germany's naval strength on the outbreak of war it will be seen that, although greatly inferior to the British fleet in numbers, the German Navy consisted almost entirely of modern warships. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, was still equipped with a large number of ships whose design dated back to the 1914-18 war. Some had been modernised, others had not. But the age of the British ships and of their weapons, taken with the Navy's world-wide responsibility for the defence of our shipping, went a long way towards counteracting our superiority in numbers.
We may complete the story of the German naval plans and preparations by mentioning the dispositions taken up as tension mounted during the latter part of August 1939. The majority of naval vessels was concentrated in defence of their own coasts and in support of the invasion of Poland. On the 21st of August the Graf Spee sailed to her waiting position in the Atlantic, and three days later she was followed by the Deutschland. Their attendant supply ships Altmark and Westerwald were also despatched into the Atlantic. Complete secrecy regarding these movements was successfully maintained and they were not, in fact, known to the Admiralty until much later. By an unlucky chance the North Sea air reconnaissance patrols, which had been operating during the final peace-time exercises between the 15th and 21st of August, had stopped during these few days; but the use of darkness by the enemy and the limitations of these patrols made sighting unlikely even had they been flying.22
At the end of August the total German strength in U-boats was
fifty-six, but ten of them were, for various reasons, not fully operational. Of the total of completed boats eight were of about 700 tons displacement and capable of operating as far as Gibraltar or the Azores; eighteen were smaller ocean-going boats of 500 tons which could reach out into the Atlantic as far as 15° West or work off the coasts of Spain or Portugal, and thirty were small 250-ton boats which could only be used in the North Sea and in British coastal waters. A very high proportion of the total strength was thus operational at the outbreak of war; but the U-boat Command expected that it would be impossible to maintain this high ratio for long.
It is interesting to compare the size of the pre-war German U-boat fleet as now known to us with the contemporary Admiralty assessment of its strength. Two days after war broke out the Director of Naval Intelligence informed the First Sea Lord that they had completed thirty coastal and twenty-nine ocean- going boats--three more than the correct total.
Between the 19th and 29th of August seventeen ocean-going U-boats sailed to their war stations in the Atlantic. On the 21st seven coastal-type boats took up stations in the southern North Sea ready to lay mines off the British and French Channel ports. They were joined by another on the 29th. On the 25th six more coastal boats sailed to patrol in the central North Sea. By the last day of August 1939 no less than thirty-nine U-boats were disposed to strike at our shipping and ports as soon as war broke out.
It will be seen from the foregoing figures that on the outbreak of war the German U-boat strength was only one less than the British total of fifty-seven operational submarines. The rapidity with which the Germans had increased their strength from the forty-five per cent agreed in 1935 leaves no doubt regarding the advanced state of their plans and preparations for large-scale U- boat construction even before their intention to invoke the parity clause of the 1935 agreement was announced in 1938.
Though the Z Plan had been abandoned, the provision for U-boat construction which it had contained (162 boats by 1943 and 247 by 1948) formed the basis of the proposals now put forward to expand that arm. Dönitz realised that the strength possessed in 1939 was inadequate for his purposes, and that the numbers then building lent no hope of his being able to launch a decisive assault on our trade in the foreseeable future. For that purpose he assessed the need at 300 ocean-going boats. Admiral Raeder gave his support to these proposals with the result that, shortly after the declaration of war, Hitler approved a substantial increase in the number of boats to be completed in 1940 and a higher target for 1941. The Navy, however, considered the increases inadequate and, in October 1939, prepared
plans to build up to U.850 and to achieve a monthly production of nearly thirty boats. Hitler approved, but refused to give absolute priority for materials to the programme. The result was that little progress was made.
In December 1939 Raeder produced modified proposals which aimed at a total of 372 boats by the beginning of 1942, but no decision had been taken six months later to implement even this less ambitious programme. The reason probably was that Hitler still hoped that Britain would make peace when she saw that Germany had conquered most of western Europe. Not until July 1940 did Hitler lift all restrictions on U-boat construction and so enable the Navy to place orders for about twenty-five boats to be completed monthly in 1941; and it was August of that year before U-boat building really got into its stride. The slowness with which the Germans expanded their U-boat construction was to have most fortunate consequences for Britain.
Before leaving the subject of the German Navy's strength and dispositions on the outbreak of war, it is perhaps desirable to add a few words about our principal enemy's position as regards maritime aircraft. In January 1939 the German Navy and Air Force agreed that the former should eventually have forty-one Staffeln, each of twelve aircraft, under its control. Nine Staffeln were to be equipped with flying boats for long-range reconnaissance, eighteen were to be of general-purpose types like the Heinkel 115, two were of shipborne catapult aircraft and the remaining twelve comprised the aircraft complement of the Graf Zeppelin; but this strength, 492 aircraft in all, had not nearly been reached when war broke out. The German Navy then actually possessed 120 aircraft at North Sea bases and 108 more in the Baltic--a total almost exactly equal to the Royal Navy's first-line air strength.23 There were also six Gruppen (Wings) of Heinkel 111 bombers belonging to the German Air Force, which were earmarked for maritime operations against Britain such as minelaying and attacks on shipping. The first of the new Junkers 88 bombers had also been allocated to those purposes, but only a few had entered service by September 1939.
The Admiralty's war plans were, as has been mentioned, based on the assumption that Italy would join in the war at an early date, but as this did not happen until nearly a year later a description of the Italian Navy's intentions in the event of war with Britain and France will be deferred for the present. As, however, uncertainty regarding Italian intentions influenced Allied dispositions and strategy from the beginning of the war, it will be appropriate to summarise now the composition of their Navy and to compare it with the British
and French forces initially available to contest command of the Mediterranean.
Only the two old, though modernised, battleships of the Cavour class were in service in September 1939, but it was expected that the modernisation of the other two ships of the same class would be completed in 1940 and that the two new 35,000-ton battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto would enter service in the same year. Meanwhile the Italians were outnumbered by the three British and five French battleships in the Mediterranean, but as two of the latter were too old to be counted as effective capital ships the real Allied superiority was less than appears at first sight and would disappear altogether when the Italians had completed their 1940 programme. In 8-inch cruisers seven Italian ships were outnumbered by the three British and six French ships of the same class, but in 6-inch cruisers the Italians were superior, having eleven ships against three British and four French. Turning to flotilla vessels, sixty-one Italian destroyers and sixty-six torpedo boats could reasonably be balanced against a combined British and French strength of fifty-seven fleet destroyers and two dozen of smaller types. In submarines, however, of which the Italians had 105 compared with ten British and fifty-five French, they possessed a marked superiority inside the Mediterranean. It will thus be seen that, as long as a powerful proportion of the French fleet continued in the western basin, some grounds existed for the Italians to regard themselves as outnumbered at sea; but the excellent central position which their fleet occupied might justly have been considered as counter-balancing whatever may be regarded as the true numerical inferiority from which they suffered.24
Map 3. The English Channel Ushant to Texel
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (3) * Next Chapter (5)