*** war and social upheaval: Atlantic World War II naval campaigns -- phase 1

Atlantic World War II Naval Campaign: Phase 1 (1939-41)

German World War II mines
Figure 1.--After Hitler allowed the British Army to escape from the Panzers at Dunquirk, his next change for victory was the Luftwaffe. The Royal Air Force's victory in the Battle of Britain and America' decision to finance the British war effort meant that Hitler could not achieve the quick victory he had planned. The last chance to defeat the British fell to the Kriegsmarine and the U-boats. This time Hitler did not had the advatage of a superior force. The Kriegsmarine was not prepared for the War and had devoted fairly limited resources to the U-boat fleet. The Royal Navy had, however, miscalculated. They thought that the development of ASDAC (SONAR) had made the U-boat obselete. German U-boat commander Admiral Dönitz proved them wrong. The mine was one of the weapons the Germans used to cut Britain off from America and the Dominions. German mines washing up on British beaches helped the Royal Navy to keep up with German mine technology. Here an increibly dense photographer captures a small boy he probably palced there on a World II naval mine. The photograph was taken after the War on a Normndy bech where the mine had washed up (1949). We do not know if it is a German or British mine. Naval mines were not a importsnt as ghey had veen in World War I, but both the Allies and axis employed them in large numbers.

German Führer Adolf Hitler launched World War II with the Bliztkrieg on Poland (September 1, 1939). German planning had originally seen a later date for the War. Britis and French weakness at Munich had apparently convinved Hitler that they would not risk war over Poland. Ironically the first shots of the War were fired by the aging battle ship Schleswig-Holstein at Polish instalations at Danzig. Poland was defeated within weeks, but the Kriegsmarine was unprepared for the War. Military stratigists argue whether Hitler should have waited. In many ways Germany was not yet ready for war. This was especially true for the Kriergsmarine. Both Britain and France by 1939 had just begun to rearm and in partricular build airplanes and bought more in America. Thus war in 1939 came at a time before Britain and France had rearmed. Another factor was economics. Germany as a result of its armaament program was virtually bankrupt. Germany needed war booty to help pay for the high cost of its military armament program.

German Rearmament

The Germany Navy as part of the Versailles World War I peace settlement was severely limited (1919). The Germans were prohibited from having any U-boats. In violation of the treaty, the German Navy secretly opened a Submarine Design Bureau (1922). After the NAZIs seized power, much expanded resources were allocated. The Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were favored by Hitler, but the Navy also benefitted. The Kriegsmarine after the NAZIs seized power began quickly realized that the Versailles Peace Treaty would be scrapped and the Navy could be expanded. The question remained as to what resources Hitler would allocate and how those resources should be utilized. There were two factions in the Kriegsmarine. One faction led by Afmiral Doenitz advocated building a large submarine fleet and only a relatively small surface fleet meant for coast protection. This option was within Germany industrial capacity. The other major option was a mixed fleet of surface ships and a small U-Boat fleet. This would be essentially the same as the composition of the Imperial Navy in World War I or actually that of the British Royal Navy. The name ws changed to the Kriegsmarine (1935). Germany negotiated a naval agreement with Britain (1935). This allowed the NAZIs to openly commence building both capital surface ships and U-boats.

Plan Z

The Kriegsmarine High Command (OKM) developed a 33 billion Reichsmark fleet building plan. Both Hitler and the Kriegsmarine Commander Admiral Raeder focused primarily on the suface fleet. Hitler was especially interested in massive battleships. It was a plan to create a mixed fleet consisting of a variety of ship types and a relatively small sunnarine arm. he admirals did not preceive that Hitler would launch the War in 1939. Thus they conveived of a massive building plan that would not be completed until 1946. The new Germany fleet forseen in the Z-Plan consisted of about 800 units, includding 13 battleships and battlecruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, 15 Panzerschiffe, 23 cruisers and 22 large destroyers (Spähkreuzer) in addition to many small patrol craft. The Kriegsmarine personnel would be expanded to 201.000 men. The Z-Plan seems wildly over optimistic. Construcyion on this order would have streacjed Germany's industrial capacity even without competition from other services. In addition, such a massive building program would have have caused other countries to expand their own naval construction programs. The beginning of these new vessels finally began when two H-Class battleships were laid down (January 29th, 1939). Germany abrogated the Naval Treaty with Britain (April 1939). It wasn't until this that German naval planners began to realize that a naval war with Britain was about to occur. Hitler ordered the Wehrmact to invade Poland (September 1939). The Kriegsmarine found itself at war even before the Z-Plan had begun in earnest. Olans to build surface ships were soon scrapped as available resources were shifted to U-boat construction. This was because of early U-boat successes and the fact that they were relatively small ships that could be built quickly.

Hitler and Stalin Launch World War II (September 1939)

NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union surprised the world by signing an alliance--th NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact a week before launching the War (August 23, 1939). Itvwas a cynical alliance to divide Europe and the European people by the two totalitarian giants. With Stalin on his side and believing that Britain and France would back down again, Hitler ordered the Panzers into Poland (September 1). The NAZI invasion of Poland and the Second World War began when the German World War I battleship Schleswig-Holstein on the pretext of a courtesy call commenced firing on the Westerplatte--Polish fortifications in Danzig (September 1). The devestating Blitzkrieg on Poland followed. The action in Danzig was the Kriegsmarine primary contribution to the Polish campaign. The Kriegsmarine had little advanced warning that the Führer planned to go to war in 1939. The High Command (OKM) on the basis of Hitler's briefings had not anticipated war until the mid-1940s and unlike the Heer and Luftwaffe was unprepared for a major war. Although the British Royal Navy was a much smaller force than the Germans faced in Workd War I, the British Royal Navy outclassed the Kriegsmarine in every vessel class. Hitler did not believe the British and French would honor their guarantees to Poland and go to war. OKM ordered Dönetz to deploy the U-boats for war even before the Panzers crossed the Polish frontier. Hitler insisted that they operate under serious limitations as he was hoping even after the War began that he could avoid a major war with Britain. Stalin ordered the Red Army to strike Polnd from the East (September 17). Both the Germans and Soviets would conduct unvelievbly brutal atrocities in Poland.


Hitler had always planned another war although he never told the German people. Rearmament was a centrl aspect of NAZI policy from the very beginning. He thought that Germany would be prepared by the 1940s. Successes in the 1930s came with dizzying ease abnd as a result, he advanced his time table. Germany had a large industrial sector, however, there were limits and priorities had to be addressed. And the bulk of the resources were given to the Heer and Luftwaffe. The Kriegsmarine was the lowest priority. Thus when Hitler launched his war (September 1939), the Kriegsmarine was the least prepared of the three services. And within the Kreigsmarine, the Admiralty (OKM) favored surface ships and Hitler large battleships. Thus Admiral Dönitz had only a small, but well-trained U-boat force. Britain as in World War I proceeded to estblish a naval blockade of Germany in the North Sea. Thus also hampered German U-boat operations. Britain in peacetime imported about 60 million tons of food and raw material. In war time it would needed more. Dönitz calculated that with 300 U-boats using the wolf pack tactics he developed, he could sever Britain's Atlantic lifelines. At the outbreak of war, however, Dönitz had only a small U-boat force. His daring commanders, like r Günther Prien, scored some stareling successes, such as sinking the battleship Royal Oak in Scappa Flow, while an aging ship it still made an impression. OKM and Hitler planned on using its modern and growing surface fleet in additiion to U-boats to cut Britain's critical sea life lines. The destruction of Graf Spee in the South Atlantic was the first indication that this might not work. The U-boats on the other hand, while few in number, scored some impressive results. The Germans began World War II with a very small U-boat force. It proved more effective than the British and the OKM had expected. It was unable, however, to significantly impair the British war effort because of its small size. The major impact was to alert the British to the potential danger and give the British time to prepare for the massive U-boat campaign which the Kreigsmarine would eventually mount. The British mounted an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) effort, but resources were a first very limited.


Admiral Dönitz's U-boat's demonstrated that they were aotent naval weapon in the first months of the War. operations were hampered by the rough winter conditions in the first few months of 1940. Döenitz used the time to refit his ships and integrate new boats. Two developments then fundamentally changed the U-boat threat and the Battle of the Atlantic. First, the daring German gambit to take Norway suceeded (April 1940). The German surface fleet was damaged, losing most of their splendid destroyer force, but the German seizure of Norway it meant that the Royal Navy would not be able to seal off the North atlantic as they had done in World war I. It did not open the North Atlantic to commerce, but it did mean that the U-boats and German raiders would have much greater access to the Atlantic shipping lanes. And then even more shocking, France fell to the Germns (June 1940). Not only did the Royal Navy no longer have support from the French fleet, but gave the U-boats for the first time Atlantic ports and direct access to Britain's vital Atlantic sea lanes. And the British woukd have to divert resources to fight a new foe--the Italian Mediterranean fleet. The Germans began deploying their surface vessels, but did it peacemeal. They also deployed raiders desguised as merchant vessels. After the fall of France, OKM focused on Operation Sea Lion which because of the RAF victory was postponed and then cancelled. The U-boats continued to report successes in 1940, the numbers were at first still limited, but the numbers of U-boats were increasing. The British were working hard on ASW efforts, but relatively few U-boats were sunk by the small number of available escorts. Convoys helped to limit ship losses, but the increasing numbers of U-boats would test the convoy system. This is part of the reason Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to the Destroyers for Bases deal. Hitler was surprised that the British did not make peace after France fell. And then surorishingly the Luftwaffe failed to destroy the Royal Air Force. Thus while he turned his attention east, OKM was expected to sever Britain's Atlantic life lines. And the U-boats enjoyed their first Happy Time. The summer of 1940 proved to be a U-boat Happy Time. Not only did the French ports provide direct access to the Atlantic, but in shortening the time of a mission, a U-boat could could increase the number of missions completed. And Hitler devoted increased resources to U-boat construction, although he was still mesmerized by giabt battleships and lavishing resources on their construction.


Major changes ocurred in the Battle of the Atantic during 1941. German shipyards began delivering larger numbers of U-boats, giving German U-boat commander, Admiral Dönitz, an increasingly potent firce. At the same time, the British and Canadians were also adding escorts for convoy protection. The British were making technical advances in their ASW effort. One was forward seeking radar introduced early in 1941. It would be some time, however, before all escorts got them. Congress passed the Lend Lease Bill (March 1941). The President's interpretation was that Congress's action to provide Britain war material gave him the authority to get those supplies safely to Britain. This meant that the U.S. Navy would escort convoys with Lend Lease supplies. OKM and Hitler were optimistic that the surface fleet, including Bismarck would along with the U-boats would shut down the convoy lanes. Bismarck could destroy an entire comvoy. The whole British fleet was mobilized to sink the Bismarck (May 1941). The same month, Bletchley Park finally broke into the Marine Enigma (May 1941). This helped redirect the covoys while Britain was still building its escort strength. One month later, Hitler launched Barbarossa (June 1941). It was an effort to gain the living space and resources Germany lacked. The Allied strategy was two fold: 1) sink U-boats and 2) build more merchant ships than the Germans could sink. And to accomplish those goals, The Royal Navy not only imporivd its ASW capability, but the Americans spearheaded by automobile industrialist Henry Kaiser began the Liberty Ship program which would eventually outpace U-boat sinkings even at the heigth of their success. President Roosevelt and Primeminister Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter (August 1941). Soon after, the President launched an undeclared naval war months before America entered the War.


Churchill, Winston S. Memoirs of the Secind World War (Bonanza Books: New York, 1978), 1065p.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Johnson, Brian. The Secret War.

Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941 (1976).

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Created: May 5, 2003
Last updated: 5:25 AM 6/23/2016