German Navy in the Second World War

German Navy in the Second World War

By the end of the First World War the German Navy was one of the largest in the world. However, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, the German government was restricted to vessels under 10,000 tons, forbidden to own submarines and allowed only 1,500 officers.

When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 he implemented Plan Z, a ten year programme to develop a fleet capable of challenging the Royal Navy. The main emphasis was placed on the building of submarines and fast surface squadrons in order to be able to control Britain's vital trade supply lines.

In 1935 Karl Doenitz was put in charge of the new U-Boats being developed. However he clashed with Hermann Goering who was unwilling to supply the necessary capital to spend on the navy. Doenitz said that he needed 1,000 submarines to win any future war with Britain but by 1939 he had only 57.

German shipyards had difficulty producing the ships ordered by Hitler and on the outbreak of the Second World War the German Navy only had two battleships, two battlecruisers, three armoured cruisers, three heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, 22 destroyers and 59 submarines. Soon afterwards the Bismarck was completed. At 41,700 tons, it was considered the most powerful warship in the world.

In 1939 Hitler promoted Erich Raeder to the rank of grand admiral, the first German to hold this post since Alfred von Tirpitz. Raeder attempted to build large navy, but This brought him into conflict with Hermann Goering who as director of the German economy wanted to direct more resources to the Luftwaffe.

In October 1939 Raeder sent Adolf Hitler a proposal for capturing Denmark and Norway. He argued that Germany would not be able to defeat Britain unless it created naval bases in these countries. In April 1940 Hitler gave permission for this move but he was disappointed by the heavy losses that the German Navy suffered during the achievement of this objective.

At the beginning of the war the German Navy was equipped with the 750-ton Type VII U-boat. These proved too small for Atlantic operations and larger long-range types were later introduced. Between 1940 and 1943 U-boats took a heavy toll of Allied shipping in the Atlantic, Arctic and the Mediterranean.

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The German U-boats now had bases on the Atlantic coast which put them much closer to British trade routes. The Royal Navy used its older ships to protect the convoys bringing goods from the United States. From 1941 it was also able to use its growing number of corvettes.

Raeder supported Operation Sealion, the planned German invasion of Britain, but argued that first the Luftwaffe had to gain air superiority. When Hermann Goering failed to win the Battle of Britain Reader advised Hitler to call off the invasion.

On 18th May 1941, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left port but it was not until 21st May that British intelligence was informed that the ships were refuelling in Bergen Fjord in Norway. Afterwards the ships headed for the Denmark Straits in an attempt to avoid the Royal Navy based at Scapa Flow. However, Admiral John Tovey had been informed of its position and he called up every available warship to destroy Germany's most powerful battleship.

On 23rd May the Bismarck was spotted by the heavy cruiser Suffolk. Using its recently installed radar to track the German ship it was soon joined by the Norfolk. At the same time the Hood and Prince of Wales moved in from the other direction to tackle the German ships head-on.

The warships went into battle on the morning of 24th May. The engagement began when the Hood began firing at the more advanced Prinz Eugen. When the Bismarck arrived it used its 15-inch guns and after taking several direct hits the Hood exploded before sinking. Only three out of a crew of 1,421 survived.

The two German ships now turned on the Prince of Wales and after being badly damaged fled from the area. The Bismarck was also damaged and had a ruptured fuel tank. This resulted in an oil leak and a reduction of her maximum speed. That evening the Bismarck was attacked by nine torpedo bombers and scored one direct hit.

It was decided that she was now vulnerable to attack and orders were given for her to return to the port of Brest. Steaming at moderate speed to conserve fuel it was sited by a British flying boat on 26th May. The aircraft followed the Bismarck until the light cruiser Sheffield took over that afternoon. It was soon joined by the Ark Royal and the Renown. Soon afterwards the Bismarck was hit which resulted in her steering gear being jammed.

Now severely disabled, the Bismarck was now surrounded by the King George V, Rodney, the Norfork and the Dorsetshire. After an hour and a half the Bismarck was a blazing wreck. At 10.36 a.m. the Bismarck sank killing all but 110 of her crew. The loss of its largest ship marked the end of the German Navy's incursions into the Atlantic.

Adolf Hitler grew increasingly disillusioned with the performance of the German Navy and after the Luetzow and Admiral Hipper failed to stop a large Arctic convoy he accused his commander of incompetence. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder resigned in January, 1943 and was replaced by Karl Doenitz as Commander in Chief of the navy.

The Allies gradually began to introduce successful anti-submarine strategies. This included the convoy system, long-range aircraft patrols, improved antisubmarine detectors and depth charges. By May 1943 German U-boats were forced to withdraw from the Atlantic.

In 1944 Karl Doenitz gave permission for a radically improved U-boat to be built in 1944. Working closely with Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments, Germany were producing 42 of these all-electric boats a month by 1945. However, they were too late to make an impact on the outcome of the Second World War.

The Allies and neutral countries lost 2828 ships to the submarines of Germany, Italy and Japan during the war. The largest proportion of these were sunk by German U-boats.

Of the 1,160 U-boats built during the Second World War, more than 350 were still in service at the end of the conflict. Between 3rd September 1939 and 8th May 1945, 785 U-boats were sunk. An estimated 32,000 crew members died in the war.

An admiralty announcement on Saturday said that the battlecruiser Hood suffered an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up. It is feared that there will be few survivors. The 35,000 ton Bismarck, one of Germany's two newest battleships was damaged.

The two new German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz may both have been present, though only the Bismarck is mentioned in the official bulletin. Recently the German Admiralty was at pains to let the world know that both were completed and on service. They are reported to have been designed to steam at more than 30 knots, and if that is their speed the Hood should be the ship most likely to keep them within range in a running fight. None of our battleships can exceed 25 knots apart from the new King George V class, and we know nothing of their whereabouts.

The destruction of the Hood is surprising, for her design was based on the lessons of Jutland, where three battlecruisers were all destroyed by the blowing up of their magazines. The armour protection for the Hood was considered by the experts to be the most effective that could be devised. All the protection possible was provided in the gun turrets and ammunition trunks to prevent the flash of an explosion passing down the trunk into the magazine and the handling rooms - the cause of the destruction of the Queen Mary, the Indefatigable, and the Invincible at Jutland - and more than a third of the weight of the ship was devoid of armour.

The Admiralty last night told the story of the destruction of the Bismarck, Germany's 35,000-ton battleship, after a pursuit of more than 1,750 miles.

After the loss of H.M.S. Hood on Saturday very strong forces were sent out to hunt the Bismarck. They included Home Fleet units under Admiral Sir J.C. Tovey in H.M.S. King George V and Mediterranean Fleet units under Admiral Sir J.F. Somerville in H.M.S. Renown. H.M.S. Rodney and H.M.S. Ramillies, which were on convoy duty, and the aircraft-carriers Ark Royal and Victorious were among other notable ships in the pursuit.

The Bismarck came very near to making port. She was about 400 miles due west of Brest when she was brought to bay early yesterday morning, having then been hit by torpedoes from aircraft (which played a vital part in the operations) and destroyers.

Our heavy ships were in action in the final phase, but it was the cruiser Dorsetshire which dealt the final blows - with torpedoes - at eleven o'clock yesterday morning.

In the first action on Saturday the Bismarck was accompanied by the 10,000 ton cruiser Prince Eugen. "Measures are being taken in respect of her," Mr. Churchill told the House of Commons yesterday. Apart from the Hood, only one British ship was damaged, H.M.S. Prince of Wales, which was slightly damaged on Saturday but was still able to engage the Bismarck again.

The replacement of Admiral Raeder, Commandet-in-Chief of the German Navy, by the U-boat expert Admiral Donitz (announced on Saturday) is regarded in Sweden as a substantiation of recent signs that Hitler is pinning ail his hopes on winning the war by U-boats. Stockholm reports say that it was known there that Hitler had virtually stopped all major naval building in order to build submarines. It is said that the rate is almost one a day.

Raeder, who "has been appointed Admiral-Inspector" is being relieved of his daily work in the leadership of the Navy" at his own request"

Donitz has been chief of the U-boat fleet. He is reputed to be "the greatest submarine expert" in Germany, and is the inventor of the "wolf-pack" system.

According to the German radio Admiral Donitz, in an address to the German Naval Staff when his flag was hoisted over the German Admiralty, said: "The entire German Navy will henceforth be put into the service of inexorable fight to the finish."

In an order of the day, announced on Saturday, Donitz said he will continue to Command the U-boats, personally.

The dismissal of Admiral Raeder will add to Germany's despair, for he was a man who was trusted, says Reuter. The Navy - least Nazified of the German forces - will deplore, his departure. Raeder put the Navy before the party and as far as possible kept It efficient and self-respecting. He Is replaced by a more ardent Nazi.

No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats, and handing over food and water. Rescue runs counter to the most primitive demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews.

Be hard, remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when he bombs German cities.

Imperial German Navy

The Imperial German Navy (German: Kaiserliche Marine) was the navy created at the time of the formation of the German Empire. It existed between 1871 and 1919, growing out of the small Prussian Navy (from 1867 the North German Federal Navy), which primarily had the mission of coastal defence. Kaiser Wilhelm II greatly expanded the navy, and enlarged its mission. The key leader was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who greatly expanded the size and quality of the navy, while adopting the sea power theories of American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The result was a naval arms race with Britain as the German navy grew to become one of the greatest maritime forces in the world, second only to the Royal Navy. The German surface navy proved ineffective during World War I its only major engagement, the Battle of Jutland, was a draw, but it kept the surface fleet largely in port for the rest of the war. [1] However, the submarine fleet was greatly expanded and posed a major threat to the British supply system. The Imperial Navy's main ships were turned over to the Allies, but were scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919 by German crews.

All ships of the Imperial Navy were designated SMS, for Seiner Majestät Schiff (His Majesty's Ship).

German Navy in the Second World War - History


GERMAN SURFACE NAVY AT WAR - Capital Ships, Cruisers, Destroyers, Torpedo Boats & Commerce Raiders

Each Summary is complete in its own right. The same information may therefore be found in a number of related summaries

(for more ship information, go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search)

1933 - German pocket battleship "Deutschland" completed

1934 - German pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" completed

1935 - Under the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, Germany was allowed to build a surface fleet up to 35% of British total tonnage.

1936 - German pocket battleship "Admiral Graf Spee" completed

1938 - Germany draws up the major naval rearmament programme, the 'Z' plan, to bring the Navy closer to equality to Britain by the mid-1940s. Battlecruiser "Gneisenau" completed carrier "Graf Zeppelin" was launched but never completed.

1939 - Germany abrogates the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement in April. Battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" completed battleships "Bismarck" and "Tirpitz" launched before September 1939. German U-boats and two pocket battleships sail for their war stations in the Atlantic late August.



Germany - Aircraft of RAF Bomber Command made their first attacks on German warships in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel on the 4th. Cruiser "Emden" was slig htly damaged by a crashing aircraft.

Atlantic - Pocket battleship "Admiral Graf Spee" sank her first ship in the Atlantic off Brazil on the 30th September.


Atlantic and Indian Oceans - Pocket battleship "Graf Spee" claimed four more merchant ships in the South Atlantic before heading into the southern Indian Ocean. Seven Allied hunting groups were formed in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean to search for her. In total the Royal and French Navies deployed three capital ships, four aircraft carriers and 16 cruisers. Meanwhile sister ship "Deutschland", after accounting for two ships in the North Atlantic was ordered home. She reached Germany in November and was renamed "Lutzow".

Europe - Battlecruiser "Gneisenau" and other ships of the German Navy sortied on the 8th off Norway to draw the Home Fleet within U-boat and aircraft range. Capital ships "Hood", "Nelson", "Repulse", "Rodney" and "Royal Oak" together with carrier "Furious", cruisers and destroyers sailed for various positions, but no contact was made.


Indian Ocean - Pocket battleship "Graf Spee" sank a small tanker southwest of Madagascar and headed back for the South Atlantic. More Allied hunting groups were formed.

Atlantic - Armed merchant cruiser "RAWALPINDI" on Northern Patrol was sunk on the 23rd by the 11in battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" as she and sister ship "Gneisenau" tried to break out into the Atlantic. After the action to the southwest of Iceland, they turned back and returned to Germany after avoiding searching ships of the British Home Fleet.


North Sea - British submarine "Salmon" torpedoed and damaged German cruisers "Leipzig" and "Nurnberg" in the North Sea on the 13th as they covered a destroyer minelaying operation off the Tyne Estuary, NE England .

13th - Battle of River Plate - Now back in the South Atlantic, “Graf Spee” (below - Courtesy Maritime Quest) claimed three more victims to bring the total to nine ships of 50,000 tons, before heading for the South American shipping lanes off the River Plate. Cdre Harwood with Hunting Group G - 8in-gunned cruisers “Exeter” and “Cumberland” and 6in light cruisers “Ajax” and New Zealand “Achilles” - correctly anticipated her destination. Unfortunately “Cumberland” was by now in the Falklands.

At 06.14 on the 13th, 150 miles east of the Plate Estuary, “Graf Spee” (Capt Langsdorff) was reported to the northwest of the three cruisers. Faced with “Graf Spee's" heavier armament, Cdre Harwood decided to split his force in two and try to divide her main guns. “Exeter” closed to the south while the two light cruisers worked around to the north, all firing as they manoeuvred. “Graf Spee” concentrated her two 11in turrets on “Exeter” which was badly hit. By 06.50 all ships were heading west, “Exeter” with only one turret in action and on fire. She had to break off and head south for the Falklands.

“Ajax” and “Achilles” continued to harry the pocket battleship from the north, but at 07.25 "Ajax" lost her two after turrets to an 11in hit. “Achilles” already had splinter damage, but still the German ship failed to press home its advantage. By 08.00, still with only superficial damage, she headed for the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo, the cruisers shadowing. “GRAF SPEE” (below) entered port at midnight. As other Allied hunting groups headed for the area, much diplomatic manoeuvring took place to hold her there. Finally, on the 17th, Capt Langsdorff edged his ship out into the estuary where she was scuttled and blown up. Only “Cumberland” had arrived by this time. Langsdorff then committed suicide.



North Sea - German destroyers were attacked in error by their own aircraft in the North Sea on the 22nd and ran into a minefield laid by Royal Navy destroyers. “LEBERECHT MAASS” and “MAX SCHULTZ” were lost northwest of the German Frisian Islands.

MARCH 1940

German Raiders - Converted from a merchantman and heavily armed, auxiliary cruiser “Atlantis” sailed for the Indian Ocean round the Cape of Good Hope. In 1941 she moved into the South Atlantic, and operations lasted for a total of 20 months until her loss in November 1941. She was the first of nine active raiders, seven of which went out in 1940. Only one ever broke out for a second cruise. Their success was not so much due to their sinkings and captures - a creditable average of 15 ships of 90,000 tons for each raider, but the disruption they caused in every ocean. At a time when the Royal Navy was short of ships, convoys had to be organised and patrols instituted in many areas. In 1940 raiders accounted for 54 ships of 370,000 tons. The first German raider was not caught until May 1941 - 14 months from now.

APRIL 1940

German Raiders - “Orion” sailed for the Pacific and Indian Oceans around South America's Cape Horn. She was out for 16 months before returning to France.

Norwegian Campaign

8th - Royal Navy destroyers laid minefields, real and simluated off the Norwegian coast, including near Bodo. Battlecruiser “Renown” and other destroyers provided cover. One of the screen, “GLOWWORM” was de tached to search for a man overboard just as 8in-gunned cruiser “Admiral Hipper” headed into Trondheim. They met to the northwest of the port and the destroyer was soon sunk, but not before she rammed and damaged “Hipper”.

9th - Germany invaded Denmark and Norway: G erman Navy forces included a pocket battleship, six cruisers, 14 destroyers, torpedo boats and minesweepers for the landings at the six Norwegian ports, with battlecruisers “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” covering the two most northerly landings. Early in the morning of the 9th, battlecruiser “Renown” was in action with the two German battlecruisers to the west of Vestfiord. “Gneisenau” was da maged and “Renown” slightly. The Germans withdrew. As “Renown” was in action, German occupation forces heading for Oslo came under heavy fire from Norwegian coastal defences. Shore-sited guns and torpedoes in Oslo Fiord sank heavy cruiser “BLUCHER”. That evening, German cruiser “KARLSRUHE” left K ristiansand and was torpedoed by submarine “Truant”. She was scuttled next day.

10th - First Battle of Narvik - The 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (Capt. Warburton-Lee) with “Hardy”, “Havock”, “Hostile”, “Hotspur” and “Hunter”, entered Ofotfiord to attack the German ships assigned to the occupation of Narvik. These included 10 large destroyers. Several transports were sunk together with destroyers “ANTON SCHMITT” (AS) and “WILHELM HEIDKAMP” (WM) in Narvik Bay . Other German destroyers were damaged, but as the British 2nd Flotilla retired, “HARDY” was b eached, “HUNTER” sunk and “Hotspur” badly damaged by the remaining German ships.

Fleet Air Arm Skua dive-bomber’s of 800 and 803 Squadrons flying from the Orkney Islands sank German cruiser "KOENIGSBERG" at her moorings in Bergen. She was damaged earlier by shore batteries in the landings. This was the first major warship sunk by air attack.

11th - Returning from the Oslo landings, German pocket battleship “Lutzow” was to rpedoed and badly damaged by submarine “Spearfish” in the Skagerrak.

13th - Second Battle of Narvik - Battleship “Warspite” and nine destroyers were sent into the Narvik fiords to finish off the remaining German ships. The eight surviving German destroyers – “BERND VON ARNIM” (BA), “DIETHER VON ROEDER” (DR), “ERICH GIESE” (EG), “ERICH KOELNNER” (EK), “GEORG THIELE” (GT), “HANS LUDEMANN” (HL), “HERMANN KUNNE” (HK) and “WOLFGANG ZENKER” (WZ) were a ll destroyed or scuttled. The British “Eskimo” and “Cossack” were damaged.

MAY 1940

German Raiders - “Widder” headed for central Atlantic operations before returning to France six months later. On her way into the Indian Ocean, “Atlantis” laid mines off South Africa.

JUNE 1940

Italy declares War

German Raiders - Two more set sail. “Thor” made for the South Atlantic and returned to Germany eleven months later. “Pinguin” left for the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope, later operated in the Antarctic and was finally lost in May 1941. Meanwhile “Orion” which set out in April 1940 was laying mines off New Zealand that accounted for the gold-bullion carrying liner “Niagara”.

Norwegian Campaign - Conclusion and Aftermath.

On the 8th, at the end of the evacuation, British fleet carrier “GLORIOUS” with escorting destroyers “ACASTA” and “ARDENT” sailed for Britain independently of the other withdrawing forces. West of Lofoten Islands they met 11in gun battlecruisers “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” sailing to attacked suspected Allied shipping off Harstad. The British ships were soon overwhelmed and sunk, but not before “Acasta” hit “Scharnhorst” with a torpedo. Naval losses on both sides were heavy, and in the case of the Germans included damage to battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" (followed shortly by "Gneisenau") and pocket battleship "Lutzow".

13th - Five days after the sinking of “Glorious”, aircraft from “Ark Royal” attacked the damaged “Scharnhorst” in Trondheim but to little effect.

20th - As the damaged battlecruiser “Scharnhorst” headed for Germany, “Gneisenau” feinted towards Iceland. West of Trondheim she was torpedoed and damaged by British submarine “Clyde”. Both battlecruisers were out of action during the critical phases of the Battle for Britain until the end of the year. German Warships - By now, of the 23 surface ships of destroyer size and above that took part in the invasion of Norway, 17 had been sunk or damaged.

Europe - FRANCE capitulated and the Franco-German surrender document was signed on the 22nd. Its provisions included German occupation of the Channel and Biscay coasts including the major base of Brest.

JULY 1940

Europe - As the damaged "Gneisenau" made for Germany from Norway on the 26th, submarine "Swordfish" carried out an attack and sank escorting torpedo boat "LUCHS".

German Raiders - Only 11 months before German attacked Russia, “Komet” sailed for the Pacific through the North East Passage across the top of Siberia with the aid of Russian icebreakers. She operated in the Pacific and Indian Oceans until returning to Germany in November 1941, the last of the first wave of surface raiders to leave Germany.

Atlantic - Off the coast of Brazil on the 28th, German raider “Thor” badly damaged armed merchant cruiser “Alcantara” in a gun duel.


German Surface Warships & Raiders - Pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" sailed from Germany for the Atlantic and later Indian Oceans. She got back home in March 1941. Meanwhile German raider "Widder" arrived in France after six month's operations in the central Atlantic where she sank or captured 10 ships of 59,000 tons.


North Sea - A planned attacked on the 7th by German torpedo boats (small destroyers) off the coast of Scotland ended when "T-6" was mined on the British East Coast barrage and went down.

Loss of the "Jervis Bay" - Hali fax/UK convoy HX84 with 37 ships and its solitary escort, armed merchant cruiser "Jervis Bay" was attacked on the 5th by the 11in-gunned pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" in mid-Atlantic. The convoy was ordered to scatter as "JERVIS BAY" headed for the "Scheer", guns firing. The end was in no doubt and she went down, but her sacrifice saved all but five of the merchant ships. "Admiral Scheer" headed for the Central and later the South Atlantic.


German Raiders - "Kormoran" was the first of the second wave of raiders to leave for operations. She started in the central Atlantic and later moved to the Indian Ocean, where she was lost in November 1941. Much further afield in the South West Pacific, "Komet" and "Orion" shared in the sinking of five ships near the phosphate island of Nauru. Later in the month "Komet" shelled the installations on Nauru.

Atlantic - Armed merchant cruiser "Carnarvon Castle" was bad ly damaged on the 1st in action with raider "Thor" off Brazil, the German ship's second and equally successful fight with an AMC.

German Heavy Warships - Earlier in the month the 8in heavy cruiser "Admiral Hipper" left Germany and passed into the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait. On Christmas Day the 25th December, 700 miles to the west of Cape Finisterre, northwest Spain she encountered Middle East troop convoy WS5A, one of 'Winston's Specials', escorted by cruisers. They were accompanied by carrier "Furious" ferrying aircraft to Takoradi in West Africa. In an exchange of gunfire the heavy cruiser "Berwick" and two merchantmen were slightly damaged. "Hipper" retired and soon entered Brest. She was the first of the Gerrnan big ships to reach the French Biscay ports. From there she and her companions poses a major threat to the Atlantic convoy routes right up until the big-ship "Channel Dash" of February 1942.



German Heavy Warships & Raiders - Pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" was hunting in the South Atlantic, while battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" in Germany and heavy cruiser "Hipper" in Brest, France prepared to sail. At the end of the month the two battlecruisers headed out into the Atlantic for two months operations before returning to Brest. Six of the original seven raiders were still at sea - "Orion" and "Komet" in the Pacific, "Atlantis" at the desolate island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, "Kormoran" in the central and "Thor" in the South Atlantic. Finally "Pinguin" was in the Antarctic. All six moved to different areas over the next few months. Until June 1941, German warships sank 37 ships of 188,000 tons and raiders 38 ships of 191,000 tons. Thereafter neither type inflicted many losses as worldwide convoys were organised and the raiders' supply ships sunk.


German Heavy Warships - At the beginning of the month, heavy cruiser "Admiral Hipper" sailed from Brest. On the 12th, far to the west of Gibraltar, she sank seven ships from slow unescorted convoy SLS64 bound for Britain from Sierra Leone. Returning to Brest, in March she heads back to Germany via the Denmark Strait and took no further part in independent commerce raiding. On the 8th, battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" sighted convoy HX106 escorted by the lone battleship "Ramillies" south of Greenland, but declined to attack in case of possible damage. Two weeks later, five unescorted ships were sunk east of Newfoundland, before they headed for the Sierra Leone routes. Meanwhile pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" in the Indian Ocean operated successfully off Madagascar before preparing to return to Germany.

MARCH 1941

German Heavy Ships - Battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" were sighted by aircraft of battleship "Malaya" escorting convoy SL67 off the Cape Verde Islands. The German ships returned to the Newfoundland area and on the 15th and 16th sank or captured 16 unescorted ships. They returned to Brest on the 22nd, having accounted for 22 ships of 116,000 tons, but never again took part successfully in commerce raiding.

APRIL 1941

Atlantic - On the 4th, armed merchant cruiser "VOLTAIRE" was sunk in a gun duel with German raider "Thor" west of the Cape Verde Islands.

German Raiders - "Thor" now returned to Germany after an absence of 11 months, having accounted for 11 ships of 83,000 tons plus the "Voltaire". Pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" also got back to Germany after five months in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans credited with 16 ships of 99,000 tons and the "Jervis Bay".

German Heavy Ships - The arrival of battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" in Brest led to a long series of heavy RAF bomber raids. These did not end until the Channel Dash in February 1942. During this time both ships sustained varying amounts of damage. On the 6th "Gneisenau" was torp edoed and badly damaged by an RAF Beaufort of No 22 Squadron, Coastal Command.

MAY 1941

Indian Ocean - On patrol north of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, heavy cruiser "Cornwall" found and sank German raider "PINGUIN" on the 8th. This was the first raider to be hunted down, having accounted for 28 ships of 136,000 tons.

18th-28th - Hunt for the "Bismarck", Phase 1 - On the 18th, new German 15in battleship "Bismarck" and heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" sailed from Gdynia in the Baltic for the Atlantic via Norway. A simultaneous sortie by the battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" from Brest was fortunately prevented by the damage inflicted by the RAF. On the 20th, they were sighted in the Kattegat by a Swedish warship. 21st - In the evening the German ships were sighted in a fiord south of Bergen, Norway. Two of the Home Fleet's capital ships, "Hood" and "Prince of Wales" (the latter not fully completed and still working up), sailed from Scapa Flow towards Iceland to support the cruisers on Northern Patrol.

22nd - "Bismarck" was reported at sea and the main body of the Home Fleet under Adm Tovey left Scapa Flow and headed west. Battleship "King George V", fleet carrier "Victorious", cruisers and destroyers were later joined by battlecruiser "Repulse". "Victorious" was also a recent addition to the Fleet and still working up. 23rd - In the early evening, heavy cruisers "Suffolk" and shortly "Norfolk" sighted the German ships north west of Iceland and shadowed them southwestwards through the Denmark Strait separating Iceland from Greenland to the west. "Hood" and "Prince of Wales" pressed on to intercept west of Iceland. 24th - That morning the big ships met and opened fire. Around 06.00, after firing two or three salvos, "Bismarck" hit "HOOD" which blew up with only three survivors. Now it was "Prince of Wales" turn to be the target. After being hit several times, she turned away but not before damaging "Bismarck" and causing her to lose fuel oil to the sea.

Phase 2 - German Adm Lutjens decided to make for St Nazaire in France, with its large dry-dock, and headed southwest and later south out of the Denmark Strait. The two Royal Navy cruisers, and for a while the damaged "Prince of Wales", continued to shadow. Adm Tovey hurried west with the rest of Home Fleet. With "Hood's" loss, Force H (Adm Somerville) with battlecruiser "Renown", carrier "Ark Royal" and cruiser "Sheffield" sailed north from Gibraltar. Battleship "Ramillies", released from convoy escort duties, and "Rodney", then to the west of Ireland, headed towards "Bismarck's" expected track. "Ramillies" played no part in later operations. At 18.00, still an the 24th, "Bismarck" feinted north towards her shadowers long enough to allow "Prinz Eugen" to get away. (The cruiser went south, later refuelled from a tanker and cruised for three days before reaching Brest on 1 June. There she joined the two battlecruisers under heavy RAF attacked until the Channel Dash of February 1942.) Around midnight, southeast of Greenland's Cape Farewell, Swordfish from Adm Tovey's "Victorious" got one hit on "Bismarck" after she had resumed her southerly course. The damage was negligible. Shortly after in the early hours of the 25th, she altered course to the southeast for France and the cruisers lost contact. At this point Adm Tovey's heavy ships were only 100 miles away.

25th - "Bismarck" held her southeasterly course, but broke radio silence. Unfortunately the British direction-finding service put her on a northeasterly heading. Adm Tovey sailed in that direction for a while before turning to the southeast in pursuit. Now he was well astern of his quarry. Only by slowing her down could destruction become possible. In the meantime, Force H continued to sail north to took up a blocking position between "Bismarck" and her new goal of Brest. 26th - After a 30-hour interval, "Bismarck" was once more sighted, this time by a RAF Catalina of No 209 Squadron, and only 30hr from home. In the afternoon a Swordfish strike from Force H's "Ark Royal" attacked cruiser "Sheffield" in error. They missed. A second strike took place in the evening by 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons with 15 Swordfish led by Lt-Cdr Coode. They torpedoed "Bismarck" twice and one hit damaged her propellers and jammed the rudder. As "Bismarck" circled, destroyers of the 4th Flotilla (Capt Vian) came up around midnight, and made a series of torpedo and gun attacks but with uncertain results. Capt Vian's "Cossack", "Maori", "Sikh", "Zulu" and Polish "Piorun" had been detached from troop convoy ("Winston's Special") WS8B, an indication of the seriousness of the "Bismarck's" threat. By this time Adm Tovey's force of heavy ships had lost "Repulse" to refuel, but been joined by "Rodney". They now came up from the west but did not attack just yet. 27th - "King George V", "Rodney" and the still circling "Bismarck" all opened fire around 08.45. Only the German ship was hit and by 10.15 she was a blazing wreck. Heavy cruiser "Dorsetshire", having left convoy SL74 the previous day, fired torpedoes to finish her off. "BISMARCK" sank a t 10.36 to the southwest of Ireland. Shadowing cruiser "Norfolk" was there at the end.

JUNE 1941

Germany Invades Russia

Atlantic - Pocket battleship "Lutzow" attempted to break out. Attacked on the 13th off the Norwegian coast by an RAF Beaufort, she was hit by one torpedo and only just made it back to Germany.

Battle of the Atlantic - Following th e capture of the German “U-100” Enigma code material, the Royal Navy tracked down the supply ships already in position to support the "Bismarck" as well as other raiders and U-boats. In 20 days, six tankers and three other ships were sunk or captured in the North and South Atlantic.

JULY 1941

German Heavy Ships - RAF Bomber Command badly damaged battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" at La Pallice, France on the 24th. Heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" was a lso damaged in July. With "Gneisenau" in Brest and "Lutzow" back in Germany, both undergoing repairs, the main big ship threat was from the new battleship "Tirpitz".


German Raiders - "Orion" returned to France from the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope. In 16 months she had accounted for 9 1/2 ships of 60,000 tons, some in co-operation with "Komet".


German Raiders - Indian & Atlantic Oceans - Far across the Indian Ocean off Western Australia, the Australian cruiser "Sydney" came across German raider "Kormoran" on the 19th. Apparently caught unawares, "SYDNEY" was m ortally damaged and lost without trace. "KORMORAN" also went down. In a cruise lasting 12 months she had sunk or captured 11 other ships of 68,000 tons. While replenishing "U-126" north of Ascension Island on the 22nd, raider "ATLANTIS" was sur prised and sunk by heavy cruiser "Devonshire". The raider's operations in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans had cost the Allies 22 merchantmen of 146,000 tons. "Komet" returned to Germany through the Atlantic having reached the Pacific across the top of Siberia some 17 months earlier. Her score was just 6 1/2 ships, some in operations with "Orion".

German Heavy Warships - As the completed "Tirpitz", sister-ship to "Bismarck" prepared for operations, units of the British Home Fleet sailed for Iceland waters to cover any possible breakout. Still short of war, the US Navy supported then with a battle squadron


Japan declares War



German Surface Warships - The German big ships gave the Admiralty much cause for concern. "Scharnhorst", "Gneisenau" and "Prinz Eugen" all now repaired, were ready for a possible break-out from Brest into the Atlantic. At the same time the new battleship "Tirpitz" moved to Trondheim in the middle of the month from where she could prey on the Russian convoys. In fact Hitler had ordered the Brest squadron back to Germany. By early February the Admiralty had got wind of the proposed "Channel Dash" and prepared accordingly.

German Raiders - Raider "Thor" sailed from France for her second cruise. She was the only raider to do so successfully. Operations in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean continued until her loss in November 1942. No German raiders had been at sea since the previous November, and "Thor" was the first of three to break out in 1942. In the first six months of the year they sank or captured 17 ships of 107,000 tons.

Air War - RAF Bomber Command carried on its offensive against Germany and occupied Europe. Attacks were made in January on Bremen, Emden and Hamburg and the big warships in Brest.

11th-13th - The Channel Dash - The Bres t Squadron (Vice-Adm Ciliax) with "Scharnhorst", "Gneisenau" and "Prinz Eugen", heavily escorted by air and other naval forces, left late on the 11th for Germany in Operation 'Cerberus'. The aim was to pass through the Strait of Dover around noon the next day. A number of problems conspired to prevent the RAF standing patrols detecting their departure. The first intimation of the breakout came with a RAF report around 10.45 on the 12th as the German force steamed towards Boulogne. This left little time for attacks to be mounted. Soon after midday the first was made by five motor torpedo boats from Dover and six Swordfish torpedo-bombers of 825 Squadron (Lt-Cdr Esmonde), but no hits were made. All Swordfish were shot down.

From then on, events moved swiftly. At 14.30 off the Scheldt, "Scharnhorst" was slightly damaged by a mine. An hour later, torpedo attacks by six destroyers from Harwich were unsuccessful. Twenty minutes later a heavy attack by the RAF fails. The German ships carried on and in the early evening off the Dutch Frisian Islands, first "Gneisenau" and then "Scharnhorst" (for the second time) hit mines. Both were damaged, but together with "Prinz Eugen" reached German ports in the early hours of the 13th. The escape was an embarrassment for the British Government, but a tactical victory for the German Navy was also a strategic gain for the Royal Navy. The Brest Squadron no longer directly threatened the Atlantic convoy routes, both battlecruisers were damaged and ten days later "Prinz Eugen" was badly damaged. Two weeks later "Gneisenau" was further damaged in a RAF raid on Kiel and never went to sea again. A start was made on her repair but in early 1943 she was laid up.

German Surface Warships - Following the "Channel Dash", heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" sailed w ith pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" to join "Tirpitz" in Norway. Off Trondheim, submarine "Trident" torpedoed and heavily damaged her on the 23rd.

German Raiders - Raider "Michel" sailed for the South Atlantic and later Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Russian Convoy PQ12 and Return QP8 - By now Germ an battleship "Tirpitz", the ship that dictated Royal Navy policies in northern waters for so long, had been joined in Norway by pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer". The next Russia-bound and return convoys therefore set out on the same day, the 1st, so they could be covered by the Home Fleet with battleships "Duke of York", "Renown", "King George V" and carrier "Victorious". Convoys PQ12 and QP8 passed to the southwest of Bear Island and with "Tirpitz" reported at sea, the Home Fleet tried to place itself between her and the convoys. There was no contact between the surface ships, but on the 9th, aircraft from "Victorious" attacked but failed to hit "Tirpitz" off the Lofoten Islands. Of the 31 merchantmen in two convoys, only one straggler from QP8 was lost to the German force.

Russian Convoy PQ13 - PQ13 and its escort, including cruiser "Trinidad" and destroyers "Eclipse" and "Fury", were scattered by severe gales and heavily attacked. On the 29th three German destroyers encountered the escort north of Murmansk. "Z-26" was sun k, but in the action "Trinidad" was h it and disabled by one of her own torpedoes. As the cruiser limped towards Kola Inlet an attack by "U-585" failed and she was sunk by "Fury". Five of the 19 ships with PQ13 were lost - two to submarines, two to aircraft, and one by the destroyers. "Trinidad" reached Russia.

Raid on St Nazaire - Concerned about the possibility of battleship "Tirpitz" breaking out into the Atlantic, the decision was made to put out of act ion the only dry-dock in France capable of taking her - the 'Normandie' at St Nazaire. Ex-US destroyer "Campbeltown" was to be loaded with high explosives and rammed into the lock gates while British commandos, carried over in Royal Navy ML's or motor launches were to land and destroy the dry-docks installations. The force sailed from southwest England on the 26th, and by a number of ruse penetrated the heavily defended port early on the 28th. In the face of intense fire, "Campbeltown" was placed exactly in position and many of the commandos got ashore to carry out their mission. Losses in men and coastal forces' craft were heavy, but when "CAMPBELTOWN" did blow up, the lock gates were put out of commission for the rest of the war.

Russian Return Convoy QP11 - QP11 departed Russia on the 28th April and on the 30th cruiser "Edinburgh" was torpedoed twice by U-boat. As she limped back to Russia, three German destroyers attacked QP11, but only manage to sank a straggler. They found the cruiser on the 2nd. In a series of confused fought amidst snow showers and smokescreens, "Edinburgh" disabled the "Hermann Schoemann" by gunfire, but was then torpedoed for a third time by either "Z-24" or "Z-25". Escorting destroyers "Forester" and "Foresight" were a lso damaged. Both "EDINBURGH" and "HERMANN SCHOEMANN" were scuttle d on the 2nd.

German Surface Warships - In addition to aircraft and U-boats, the Germans now had "Tirpitz", "Admiral Scheer", "Lutzow", "Hipper" and nearly a dozen big destroyers at Narvik and Trondheim. With by-now continuous daylight throughout the journey, the Admiralty pressed for the convoys to be discontinued, but they continued for political reasons.

German Raiders - German raider “Stier” left Rotterdam for the Channel and operations in the South Atlantic. Off Boulogne on the 13th, she was attacked by RN coastal forces. One MTB was lost, but escorting German torpedo boats “ILTIS” and “SEEADLER” were torp edoed and sunk. “Stier” was free for four months until her eventual sinking.

Destruction of Russian Convoy PQ17 - PQ 17 left Reykjavik, Iceland on the 27th June with 36 ships, of which two returned. The close escort under Cdr J. E. Broome included six destroyers and four corvettes. Two British and two US cruisers with destroyers were in support (Rear-Adm L. H. K. Hamilton), and distant cover was given by the Home Fleet (Adm Tovey) with battleships "Duke of York" and the US "Washington", carrier "Victorious", cruisers and destroyers. The British Admiralty believed the Germans were concentrating their heavy ships in northern Norway. In fact pocket battleship "Lutzow" had run aground off Narvik, but this still left battleship "Tirpitz", pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" and heavy cruiser "Admiral Hipper" - all formidable adversaries, which reached Altenfiord on the 3rd. At this time PQ17 had just passed to the north of Bear Island, after which German aircraft sank three merchantmen. Fear of attack by the German ships led the First Sea Lord, Adm Pound, far away in London, to decide the fate of the convoy. In the evening of the 4th the support cruisers were ordered to withdraw and the convoy to scatter. Unfortunately Adm Hamilton took the six escorting destroyers with him. The merchantmen were now to the north of North Cape. Thirty-one tried to make for the isolated islands of Novaya Zemlya before heading south for Russian ports. Between the 5th and 10th July, 20 of them were lost, half each to the aircraft and U-boats sent to hunt them down. Some sheltered for days off the bleak shores of Novaya Zemlya. Eventually 11 survivors and two rescue ships reached Archangel and nearby ports between the 9th and 28th. In fact "Tirpitz" and the other ships did not leave Altenfiord until the morning of the 5th, after the 'convoy was to disperse' order. They abandoned the sortie that same day. No more Russian convoys ran until September.

German Raiders - After sinking just three ships, German raider "STIER" encountered American freighter "Stephen Hopkins" in the South Atlantic on the 27th. The "Hopkins" was sunk, but not before her single 4in gun damaged the raider so severely she had to be abandoned.

German Raiders - German raider "KOMET" attempted to pass down the English Channel on the 14th on the way out for a second cruise. A force of British escort destroyers and MTBs attacked off Cherbourg, and in spite of a strong escort, she was torpedoed and sunk by MTB.236.

Human Torpedo attack on "Tirpitz" - Ba ttleship "Tirpitz" posed such a threat to Russian convoys and held down so much of Home Fleet's strength that almost any measures to immobilise her were justified. A gallant attempt was made in October when a small Norwegian fishing vessel "Arthur", penetrated to within a few miles of the battleship in Trondheimfiord carrying Royal Navy personnel with their Chariot human torpedoed slung underneath. Just short of the target they broke away and all the efforts were in vain.

German Raiders - On the 30th, German raider "THOR" was d estroyed in Yokohama, Japan when a supply ship laying alongside caught fire and blew up. Since leaving France in January she had sunk or captured 10 ships of 56,000 tons.

Battle of the Barents Sea & Russian Convoys JW51A and JW51B - Af ter a three-month gap the first of the JW convoys set out. JW51 sailed in two sections. Part A left Loch Ewe, Scotland on the 15th with 16 ships bound for Kola Inlet. All arrived safely on Christmas Day, the 25th accompanied by supporting cruisers "Jamaica" and "Sheffield". JW51B (14 ships) left on the 22nd escorted by six destroyers, a minesweeper and four smaller vessels under the command of Capt St. V. Sherbrooke in "Onslow". Adm Burnett with "Jamaica" and "Sheffield" joined the convoy south west of Bear Island on the 29th to provide close cover through the Barents Sea. By now "Tirpitz", pocket battleship "Lutzow", heavy cruiser "Admiral Hipper", light cruisers "Koln" and "Nurnberg" and a number of 5in and 5.9in gun destroyers were in Norwegian waters. The Admiralty assumed they were for attacks on Russian convoys. In fact, they were in Norway because Hitler feared invasion. Convoy JW51B was reported an the 30th and 8in "Hipper" (Adm Kummetz), 11in "Lutzow" and six destroyers put to sea from Altenfiord to intercept north of North Cape. Early on the 31st, New Year's Eve, the British ships were in four groups (1-4) . The main convoy (1) with five remaining 4in or 4.7in destroyers "Achates", "Onslow", "Obdurate", "Obedient" and "Orwell" headed due east. (Some of the escort and merchantmen had been scattered by gales and never regained the convoy). Northeast of the convoy, detached minesweeper "Bramble" (2) was searching for missing ships. Adm Burnett's two 6in cruisers (3) covered to the north. Further north still a straggling merchant ship and escorting trawler (4) tried to reach the convoy. Capt Sherbrooke planned to use the same tactics as Adm Vian in the Second Battle of Sirte and head for the enemy while the convoy turned away under smoke. Unfortunately for the British, Adm Kummetz divided his force in two [1-2] and planned to attack from astern on both sides - "Hipper" [1] and three destroyers in the north and "Lutzow" [2] with the other three in the south.

On the 31st around 09.30, the action started with "Hipper's" three destroyers [1] heading north across the rear of the convoy (1) , and opening fire on "Obdurate". The convoy later turned as planned, but south towards "Lutzow" [2]. Then "Onslow", Orwell" and Obedient" sighted Hipper" [1] and held her off until, at 10.20, "Onslow" was hit and Capt Sherbrooke badly wounded (Capt Rupert St. V. Sherbrooke RN was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry). Meanwhile, Adm Burnett's cruisers (3) , following a radar contact, had diverted north towards the straggler and escort (4) . They only headed towards the action around 10.00. Still to the north of the convoy, "Hipper" [1] and her destroyers came across the hapless "BRAMBLE" (2) and sent her to the bottom around 10.40. They headed south, and 40min later the 8in cruiser [1] approached JW51B (1), opened fire and hit "ACHATES" which sank after the battle was over. Lutzow [2] had alr eady come up on the convoy from the south but did not join battle until 11.45. She was driven off by the remaining destroyers. By now "Jamaica" and "Sheffield" (3) had arrived on the scene. They quickly hit "Hipper" [1] and sank destroyer "FRIEDRICH ECKOLDT". "Hipper" tried to get back to the convoy but again the destroyers skillfully kept her at bay. By midday the German ships were withdrawing with the two cruisers in pursuit. Contact was shortly lost. None of the merchantmen were more than lightly damaged and all 14 reached Kola on the 3rd January. Return convoy RA51 left Kola on the 30th December. After being supported part of the way by "Jamaica" and "Sheffield", the 14 merchant ships were safely delivered to Loch Ewe on the 11th January. When Hitler learnt that his big ships had been driven off by light cruisers and destroyers he flew into a rage and ordered them all paid off. Grand-Adm Raeder resigned in protest and was succeeded as C-in-C, German Navy, in January by Adm Doenitz. The paying-off order was revoked.

Midget Submarine attack on "Tirpitz" - Nearly a year ea rlier an unsuccessful attack had been made on battleship "Tirpitz" using Chariot human torpedoes. Now it was the turn of midget submarines - the X-craft each with two 2-ton saddle charges. Six left for northern Norway towed by 'S' or 'T' class submarines. Two were lost on passage, but on the 20th off Altenfiord, "X-5", "X-6" and "X-7" set out to attack "Tirpitz" and "X-10" for the "Scharnhorst". "X-5" was lost a nd "X-10" was unable to attack, but "X-6" (Lt Cameron) and "X-7" (Lt Place) penetrated all the defences to reach "Tirpitz" laying in Kaafiord at the far end of Altenfiord on the 22nd. Both dropped their charges under or near the battleship before they sank and some of their crews escaped. "Tirpitz" managed to shift her position slightly, but not enough to avoid damage when the charges went up. She was out of action for six months.

English Channel Actions - Cruiser "Charybdis", accompanied by two fleet and four 'Hunt' class destroyers, sailed from Plymouth to intercept a German blockade runner off the coast of Brittany in Operation 'Tunnel'. Early in the morning of the 23rd, the force was surprised by a group of torpedo boats. "CHARYBDIS" was hit twice by torpedoes fired by "T-23" and "T-27" sinking with heavy loss of life. 'Hunt' class escort destroyer "LIMBOURNE" followed her down after a hit by "T-22".

Battle in the Bay of Biscay - Eleven G erman destroyers and torpedo boats sortied into the Bay of Biscay to bring in the blockade-runner "Alsterufer". She was sunk by a Czech Liberator of RAF Coastal Command on the 27th, and next day, the 28th, as the German warships returned to base they were intercepted by 6in cruisers "Glasgow" and "Enterprise". Although outnumbered and out-gunned they sank 5.9in-gunned destroyer "Z-27" and torpedo boats "T-25" and "T-26".

Battle of North Cape and Russian Convoy JW55B - R ussian convoys were still sailing in two sections. JW55A left Loch Ewe, Scotland on the 12th and arrived safely with all 19 merchant ships on the 20th. Adm Fraser with "Duke of York" went right through to Russia for the first time before returning to Iceland.

Convoy JW55B, also with 19 ships, sailed for Russia on the 20th. >>>

<<< Three days later return convoy RA55A (22 ships) set out.

Cover for both convoys through the Barents Sea was to be provided by Vice-Adm R. L. Burnett with cruisers "Belfast", "Norfolk" and "Sheffield" (1) which left Kola Inlet on the same day as RA55A - the 23rd. The Admiralty expected the 11in battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" (below - Maritime Quest) to attack the convoys and Adm Fraser with "Duke of York" and cruiser "Jamaica" (2) left I celand and headed for the Bear Island area. "Scharnhorst" (Rear-Adm Bey) and five destroyers [1] sailed from Altenfiord late on the 25th, Christmas Day. Early next morning JW55B was 50 miles south of Bear Island, the weather stormy, as the Germans headed north to intercept. Meanwhile Adm Fraser (2) was 200 miles away to the southwest and Adm Burnett's cruisers (1) were approaching the convoy from the east.

At 07.30 on the 26th the German destroyers were detached to search for the convoy, failed to make contact and were later ordered home. They played no part in the battle. First contact (by group 1) was just before 09.00 on the 26th when "Belfast" detected "Scharnhorst" by radar as she was heading south and only 30 miles east of the convoy. "Norfolk" engaged and hit the battlecruiser which turned north and away to try to get around to JW55B. Adm Burnett anticipated this move and instead of shadowing, carried on towards the convoy. "Belfast" regained contact at noon and all three cruisers (1) opened fire. In the next 20min "Scharnhorst" was h it and "Norfolk" badly damaged by 11in shells. The German ship now headed south away from the convoy as Adm Burnett shadowed by radar. At this time, Adm Fraser (2) was now to the south-southwest and in a position to cut off her retreat. He made radar contact soon after 16.00 at a range of 22 miles and closed in. Fifty minutes later at 1650, "Belfast" (1) illuminated "Scharnhorst" with starshell and Adm Burnett's cruisers (1) engaged from one side and "Duke of York" and "Jamaica" (2) from the other. Hard hit, especially by the battleship's 14in shells, the German ship's main armament was eventually silenced. Finally the cruisers and accompanying destroyers fired torpedoes, 10 or 11 of which struck home, and soon after 19.30 "SCHARNHORST" went do wn. Only 36 men could be rescued. Now only "Tirpitz" remained as a potential big-ship threat to the Russian convoys. On the 29th JW55B reached Kola safely. Return convoy RA55A was well clear of Bear Island by the time the battle had started and made Loch Ewe on 1st January. The second return half - RA55B of eight ships - left Russia on the last day of the year and got in on 8th January.


APRIL 1944

Fleet Air Arm attack on "Tirpitz" - The da mage inflicted by midget submarines on "Tirpitz" in September 1943 was nearly repaired and the Admiralty decided to launch a Fleet Air Arm attack. On the 30th March, Adm Fraser left Scapa Flow with battleships "Duke of York" and "Anson", fleet carriers "Victorious" and the old "Furious", escort carriers "Emperor", "Fencer", "Pursuer" and "Searcher", cruisers and destroyers, split into two forces, and headed north, partly to cover JW58. By the 2nd the two forces had joined up 120 miles off Altenfiord and early next morning on the 3rd, two waves each of 20 Barracuda bombers with fighter cover surprised "Tirpitz" at anchor. A total of 14 hits were made, but the damage was not serious. However, the battleship was out of action for another three months. Home Fleet was back in Scapa on the 6th. A similar operation was attempted later in the month, but bad weather prevented any attacks. Instead a German convoy was found in the area and three ships sunk. The weather again saved Tirpitz from two sorties in May 1944, but the fleet and escort carrier aircraft did manage to sink several more merchant ships at these and other times during the month.

English Channel Actions - Two surf ace actions took place in the English Channel off the coast of Brittany, both involving Canadian destroyers. On the 26th, cruiser "Black Prince" with four destroyers - three from the Royal Canadian Navy - was on Western Channel patrol out of Plymouth. Early that morning they ran into German torpedo boats "T-24", "T-27" and "T-29" on a minelaying mission. "T-27" was damaged and "T-29" sunk by the Canadian 'Tribal' class "Haida". Then on the 29th, "Haida" and sister ship "Athabaskan" were covering Allied minelaying, when they were surprised by the surviving "T-24" and repaired "T-27". "ATHABASKAN" was hit by a torpedo from "T-24" and blew up, but "Haida" managed to drive "T-27" ashore where she was later destroyed. The surviving "T-24" hit a mine but got into port.

JUNE 1944

Normandy Invasion - Attempts by German light forces to interfere with invasion shipping had little effect and they suffered heavy losses. However, on D-day, torpedo boats sank the Norwegian destroyer "SVENNER". Then on the night of the 8th/9th another force of destroyers and torpedo boats tried to break through from Brest but was intercepted by the 10th Destroyer Flotilla of 'Tribals' off Ushant. Destroyer "ZH-1" (ex-Dutch) was damaged by "Tartar", then torpedoed and sunk by "Ashanti", and "Z-32" driven ashore by the Canadian "Haida" and "Huron" and later blown up.

JULY 1944

FAA attack on "Tirpitz" - Barra cuda torpedo bombers from Home Fleet carriers "Formidable", "Indefatigable" and "Furious" attempted to hit "Tirpitz" in Altenfiord on the 17th, but failed, partly because of defensive smokescreens.


FAA attack on "Tirpitz" - Russian convoy JW59 (33 ships) left Loch Ewe on the 15th with a heavy escort including escort carriers "Striker" and "Vindex" and the 20th and 22nd Escort Groups. Home Fleet, under the command of Adm Moore, sailed in two groups, partly to cover the convoy but mainly to launch further FAA attacks on "Tirpitz" in Altenfiord. One group included "Formidable", "Indefatigable" and "Furious" and battleship "Duke of York" the second one escort carriers "Trumpeter" and the Canadian-manned "Nabob" together with t he 5th EG (Cdr Macintyre). Between the 22nd and 29th, three strikes were made, but in two of them the German ship was obscured by smoke and although a hit was obtained on the 24th, the bomb failed to explode.


RAF attack on "Tirpitz" - No w it was RAF Bomber Command's turn to hit at battleship "Tirpitz" (above - Maritime Quest) in Altenfiord in the far north of Norway. Flying in difficult conditions from Russian bases near Archangel on the 15th, the Lancasters managed to get one hit in spite of the usual smokescreens. Partly because of the damage, the battleship was moved south to Tromso.


RAF Destruction of "Tirpitz" - Th e damaged "TIRPITZ" was finall y destroyed on the 12th as she lay at anchor off Tromso, Norway. Lancasters of Nos 9 and 617 (Dambuster) Squadrons, RAF Bomber Command using 12,000lb bombs put paid to the ship that had tied down the Home Fleet for so long. After several hits and near misses by bombs weighing over 5 tons, she turned turtle trapping nearly 1,000 men inside.


MARCH 1945

German Heavy Warships - The end of the remaining German big ships was in sight. Battlecruiser "GNEISENAU", out of service since 1942 and now hulked, was sunk as a blockship in Gdynia (Gotenhafen) on the 27th. Light cruiser "KOLN" was sunk at Wilhelmshaven by Allied bombing. Only two pocket battleships, two heavy and three light cruisers remained, and most of these would survive only a few more weeks.

APRIL 1945

Last Month of the German Surface Fleet - In RAF raids on Kiel early in the month, pocket battleship "ADMIRAL SCHEER" capsized and heavy cruiser "Admiral Hipper" and light cruiser "Emden" were badl y damaged. A few days later pocket battleship "Lutzow" was al so put out of action at Swinemunde.

MAY 1945

Last Week - Pocket battleship "LUTZOW" at Swinemunde and heavy cruiser "ADMIRAL HIPPER" and light cruiser "EMDEN" at Kiel, all badly damaged in April bombing raids, were scuttled in the first week of May. When Germany surrendered, just three cruisers survived. "Prinz Eugen" was used in A-bomb trials in the Pacific "Leipzig" scuttled in the North Sea in 1946 loaded with poison gas munitions and "Nurnberg" ceded to Russia. A dozen or so big destroyers also remained afloat.

8th Surrender of Germany

The Deutschland Class in World War Two

The pocket battleships played an important role in the Second World War at sea - perhaps a disproportionately large role relative to their power and the cost of building and maintaining them. Soon after the outbreak of the conflict in 1939, the Lutzow and Graf Spee were dispatched to the Atlantic to begin hunting the merchant vessels carrying vital supplies to sustain Britain during the war, and after surviving a British air attack that cost the RAF four bombers and did minimal damage, the Scheer went through an overhaul to optimize her for combat in the Atlantic.

The Lutzow destroyed two merchant ships before being reassigned to patrol the Baltic Sea, but the Graf Spee raided into the South Atlantic until December of 1939, sinking or capturing nine ships and tying up a disproportionately large portion of the Royal Navy which desperately tried to find and sink her. She was caught at sea by one heavy and two light cruisers operating in the South Atlantic, and though she inflicted major damage on the heavy cruiser, she was blockaded in a neutral port in South America and scuttled to avoid capture.

The most successful of the three vessels was the Admiral Scheer, which sank nearly twenty merchant ships and escorts - seven out of a single convoy in 1940. She afterwards operated north out of Norway harassing convoys bound for Soviet Russia, and later even provided gunnery support for retreating German forces near the Baltic Coast.

The German Navy in World War 2

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the head of the modern German fleet, Admiral Erich Raeder kept his distance from Hitler until he came to power. His first impression of him was favorable. Hitler seemed to him “an outstanding personality with a real claim to leadership. He had gained the Führer’s confidence and, once the strategic decisions had been taken, had been given a free hand and a generous budget to build up the navy. Hitler had been presented with two choices for his navy. The first proposed a cheap, light, flexible force, centered on submarines and the small but powerfully armed long-range cruisers that the British had nicknamed “pocket battleships.” This plan had no pretensions to challenging Britain as a naval power but carried great potential to harm her. The second was to build a big fleet of modern surface ships that would establish Germany as a world maritime force. He had chosen the grandiose option, with Raeder’s approval. The result was “Plan Z,” which Hitler had finally agreed to only two months before. It envisaged a fleet with ten battleships at its core and four aircraft carriers to provide the air power that was becoming a vital adjunct of naval operations. Supporting them would be fifteen pocket battleships, over a hundred cruisers and destroyers, and an underwater strength of more than 250 U-boats.

A force of this size would take up to ten years to build. The plan had been designed on the assumption, reinforced by Hitler’s frequent assurances, that a war with Britain was still well over the horizon. Only four years before, the two countries had signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which Hitler mentioned in his speech. Germany agreed to limit its surface ship-building program to 35 percent of the British fleet and its submarines to 45 percent of the Royal Navy’s tonnage, with a clause allowing it to rise to parity in special circumstances. The deal was negotiated in a friendly atmosphere. Historically, both sides had felt respect for one another. When the commander of the British Fleet at Jutland, Lord Jellicoe, died in November 1935, Raeder ordered all German warships to fly their flags at half-mast.

A confrontation with the Royal Navy had seemed a distant prospect when Plan Z was being worked out. Now, with Chamberlain’s guarantee to the Poles, it loomed suddenly and alarmingly into view. Raeder’s exalted title scarcely reflected the might of his fleet. As he waved his landlubber leader off at the end of his Wilhelmshaven jaunt, he knew very well that he had limited assets with which to face the coming crisis.

The German fleet that spring had only two big ships in service —the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both weighing 32,000 tons. (All displacements are given as standard: minus the weight of fuel, water, and stores that would be carried on voyage.) There was a heavy cruiser, the 14,000-ton Admiral Hipper, which would be joined in the coming year by two ships of the same class, the Blücher and the Prinz Eugen. Three pocket battleships were in commission, the Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee, and Admiral Scheer. Despite weighing only 12,000 tons, they packed heavy firepower in their six 11-inch guns. Of the four planned aircraft carriers, only one, the Graf Zeppelin, had been retired, but years of work remained. As for submarines, about fifty would be ready for operations by the summer’s end.

In numerical terms, this was a tiny force compared with the Royal Navy. It could muster twelve battleships with five more on the way, four battle cruisers, six aircraft carriers with another six under construction, and twenty-four heavy cruisers. Numbers were only equal below the waves.

But strength was not measured in numbers alone. The qualitative difference between the two fleets went a long way towards correcting the quantitative imbalance. The core of the German fleet was modern, whereas many of the British ships dated back to the previous war and only some of them had been updated. The new ships in the pipeline were inferior to their German counterparts. Britain, it would often be lamented in the years to come, had played the game squarely when it came to honoring the limitations agreements it had made in the interwar years. The Germans, on the other hand, had systematically and ruthlessly cheated.

All of Germany’s large ships were bigger than they were supposed to be. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were actually 6,000 tons heavier than officially claimed. The extra weight came from the thick armor plating which reduced the danger from the British battle cruisers’ heavier guns. They were also faster than claimed and could muster thirty-one knots, which gave them the edge over their counterparts if forced to run.

It was in the top class—the battleships—that German superiority was most marked. Since Tirpitz and her sister ship Bismarck were retired in 1936, the German Embassy in London had lied to the Foreign Office about their specifications on Raeder’s instructions. Instead of being 35,000 tons—the upper limit decided upon in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement—they would both weigh in at 42,500 tons. The British, by contrast, stuck to the rules. As a result the battleships of the King George V (KGV) class under construction were nearly 12 percent lighter than their German counterparts.

It was not merely a question of size. When finished, Tirpitz and Bismarck would best the Royal Navy’s new ships in every department. They each mounted eight 15-inch guns against the 14- inch main armament of the King George V. They were faster and could travel much greater distances without refueling. They were also immensely well protected, with thick layers of steel armor encasing decks and hull, turrets, engine rooms, and magazines. Their enemies often said that the Germans had declared their battleships “unsinkable.” The claim does not seem to have been made officially. The builders revealed after the war that the Kriegsmarine often intervened during the building of Tirpitz and Bismarck to “raise their levels of unsinkability.” The result was that, in the case of Tirpitz, 40 percent of her overall weight was made up of armor plating.

The belief grew that Tirpitz and Bismarck could survive any torpedo, shell, or bomb that the British ships or aircraft could hurl at them—and it was not unfounded. The British navy had been starved of funds in the postwar years and little effort had been made to develop new weaponry. Torpedoes and shells carried feeble charges and lacked penetrative power. The greatest failure to keep pace with technological developments lay in the area of naval aviation. The Admiralty was only now regaining control of the Fleet Air Arm from the RAF, whose equipment programs had given priority to fighters and bombers. The navy was entering the war equipped with biplanes that looked like survivors from the previous conflict.

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This article is part of our larger resource on the WW2 Navies warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the WW2 Navies.

German Navy in the Second World War - History

By G. Paul Garson

It was Napoleon Bonaparte who purportedly said, “An army travels on its stomach.” Toward the goal of feeding his particular army’s stomach more efficiently, in 1795 the French general came up with an interesting solution to the problem. He sponsored a contest with a cash prize offered to the first successful demonstration of a means to safely preserve food and thus make it portable. It took 14 years for the prize to find a recipient in 1809, Nicolas Appert, a French chef, invented a food canning process using glass jars. In the usual game of European one-upmanship, only a year later the British raised the bar by developing the metal can. However it took another 76 years for someone to figure out a purpose-designed can opener. World War I German soldiers used a hammer and chisel and various sharp or blunt instruments to open their steel cans, but by 1925 the modern serrated-wheel can opener came into use—just in time for World War II and for the Germans and French to go at it again. But in WWII, German rations needed to provide an efficient and nutritious way of feeding troops, as well as the civilian workforce back home, and rations could mean the difference between winning and losing a battle or a war. (Get a personal guide through every defining moment in history, from Napoleon to D-Day, with Military Heritage magazine.)

To that end, German scientists, including agronomists and nutritionists, were marshaled to devise a plan of food production in step with the Third Reich’s ambitions to conquer Europe and eventually turn the East into one large farmland for Greater Germany.

Food Ministers of the Reich

Initially, the individual entrusted with affecting the far-reaching programs was Richard-Walther Darre, a German born in Argentina in 1895, educated both in Germany and at King’s College in England, and who then served as an artillery officer in World War I. As a certified agronomist, a fervent exponent of the “blood and soil” Nazi ideology, and also an early friend of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Darre found himself well placed for advancement.

Much of his appeal had to do with his books espousing his claims that Nordic (i.e., German) peoples had been the founding fathers of European culture, specifically the German peasant-farmer. Darre, himself a pig farmer, found himself in like-minded company with Himmler, an ex-chicken farmer. In 1933, the inaugural year of the Third Reich, he was appointed both the National Farmers’ Leader (Reichsbauernführer) and the Minister for Food and Agriculture. He also penned a volume about pigs in ancient folklore and other works expressing his racist viewpoints and the means to ensure racial health.

However, Darre’s incompetence relative to organizing the German food supply caused him to fall out of favor with Hitler, and he was replaced in 1942 by the more pragmatic Herbert Backe, who kept the post as Reich Food Minister until the end of the war. His main focus was organizing foodstuffs for the war against the Soviet Union, which included feeding Germany’s military.

Combat Rations of the German Military

On the whole, the regular German Army foot soldier (Landser) received scientifically designed, high-calorie/protein rations. Typically, each soldier carried a daily supply of the so-called Halbieserne or “Iron Ration” that contained one 300-gram tin of meat and one 125- or 150-gram unit of hard bread. The canned meat could be Schmalzfleisch (a pork product), Rinderbraten (roast beef), Truthahnbraten (turkey), or Hahnchenfleisch (chicken). In addition, there was canned Fleischkonserve, its contents generically, and thus ambiguously, labeled “canned meat,” which allowed for a number of interpretations.

Another longstanding staple of the German Army’s menu of portable food items was the Erbswurst, a nourishing soup compressed into a pellet, packaged six to a ration. A pellet was crushed and dropped into a half pint of boiling water. One minute later and the instant soup was ready to eat. Condensed canned tomato soup was also available as a substitute when a field kitchen was not available, soldiers often adding half a can of water and half a can of milk to maximize its flavor. The milk also came condensed in cans.

Elite troops received food “perks” as in the case of Kampfpackung fur Fallschirmjäger or “Combat Rations for Paratroops,” one item consisting of real canned cheese, but these were issued only prior to a combat mission. The special kit also contained two cans of ham chunks, one bar of ersatz high-energy food, and Milchkaffee (powdered milk and instant coffee), as well as Knäckebrot and candy drops.

The SS had their exclusive version of German rations, the cans treated to a special extreme climate coating and painted in a rust-preventing yellow/brown lacquer. Standard German rations for SS units in the field consisted of a four-day supply: about 25 ounces of Graubrot (gray rye bread) 6-10 ounces of Fleisch (canned meat) or Wurst (canned sausage) some five ounces of vegetables a half ounce of butter, margarine, jam, or hazelnut paste either real or ersatz coffee five grams of sugar and, oddly enough, six cigarettes, despite the SS leadership’s antismoking stance, the rationale being that cigarettes served the troops under combat stress as a “nerve tonic.” There were also other special SS supplements, one example being canned Leberwurst, a quality liver spread.

The Third Reich’s antismoking initiatives, part of the general public health campaign that included protocols about alcohol and exposure to workplace contaminants, was prompted by research conducted in 1939 by German scientist Franz H. Muller, who published the world’s first epidemiological, case-control study showing a link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. The various health programs sought to reduce lost time and expense due to illness, to help produce fit and healthy workers and soldiers and to “preserve the racial health of the Volk.”

The Height of Germany’s Agricultural Economy

The Reichs Labor Service (Reichsarbeitdienst), or RAD, was a compulsory paramilitary organization established by law in June 1934 whereby 19- to 25-year-olds, male and female, worked in the fields with farmers or performed other labor for a period of six months within a strictly disciplined program in which they drilled as soldiers but carried spades. With it, Hitler solved Germany’s massive unemployment problems, provided cheap labor, and indoctrinated the young. Through RAD, he was able to sidestep the restrictions of the post-World War I Versailles Treaty that sought to limit German military expansion and a means to transition Third Reich youth into a military mold for later incorporation into the Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, Luftwaffe, and SS.

During the early years of Hitler’s regime, indicative of an improved economy, beer consumption in an already high-beer-consuming country increased by 25 percent. Wine consumption, particularly after the conquest of France, doubled while champagne sales increased fourfold.

Soldiers were allowed to ship home parcels from their posts in occupied territories, which prompted an avalanche of items sent from France, Holland, Belgium, Greece, the Balkans, and Norway. By early 1942, German families were receiving a cornucopia of foodstuffs, including fresh fruits, whole hams, and even lard, butter, and chickens—not to mention non- food items such as silk stockings, perfumes, shoes, and quality soaps—all of which contrived to fuel a healthy black market in Germany.

Soldiers serving alongside their Italian allies occasionally sampled their fare, including what they called Mussolini-Kartoffeln or “Mussolini potatoes,” the German term for macaroni and spaghetti.

Sweet treats of one kind or another were much prized, and some even served a medicinal purpose. Soldiers returning from an especially taxing duty or action, for example, were eligible to receive Zusatzverpflegung für Frontkämpfer or “Supplemental Rations for Frontline Soldiers.” Packaged in a pink bag, they included individually wrapped pieces of fruit candy. In addition, a soldier’s nutritional allotment included Kandiezucter, a rock candy issued as a sugar ration.

Another sweet, the lemon-flavored Zitronentropfen, helped frontline troops deal with severe weather conditions, and were also handed out at aid stations to wounded troops. Another popular treat was the mint candy Vivil found in Army ration packs as well as Luftwaffe in-flight and survival packs. Vivil, because of its relative mildness, was preferred over other, stronger mint candies when something was needed to camouflage the scent of alcohol. Luftwaffe personnel also received Waffelgebuck, a 100-gram chocolate wafer bar, often a popular subject of trade with other Wehrmacht branches.

German Rations Feeding the Homefront

Because the Nazi regime feared that negative home morale would undermine the war effort (as it did in World War I), they took special effort to see that wartime rations were the highest in Europe. The lands conquered by the German military machine were stripped of their foodstuffs, not only to feed German citizens, but as part of an overall plan to promote widespread starvation among the subjugated peoples in order to “depopulate” the Slavic lands and make room for German Lebensraum and new Aryan landowners. The plan envisioned by the German Ministry of Agriculture in 1940 projected the death of some 30,000,000 Russian civilians. Toward that goal, by early 1942 some 3,000,000 Soviet POWs had died, most by starvation. Hundreds of thousands more of all nationalities would slowly starve to death in concentration and slave labor camps across Europe.

In the latter stages of the war, as German home front food supplies were both rationed and in increasingly short supply, various “fillers” were added for substance (if not nutrition) to loaves of bread, while ersatz coffees were made from chicory as well as from roasted and ground acorns, beechnuts, barley, and even chickpeas and oats.

Most lacked any caffeine and thus any real benefit to soldiers running on few calories and less sleep. Civilians found their allotments of sugar and meats doled out by the ounce. As a result, many kept Daschschwein or “roof pigs”—the term describing cats raised as food, often in rooftop cages.

As a side note, in September 2009 the German government overturned Nazi-era treason convictions, clearing the charges made against its citizens and soldiers who had been convicted of “harming the nation,” which included black marketeers.


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All Rights Reserved except for Fair Dealing exceptions otherwise permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended and revised.

Accepted Non-commercial Use

Permitted use for these purposes:

If you are interested in the full range of licenses available for this material, please contact one of our collections sales and licensing teams.

Bismarck: why was the WW2 German battleship so feared? Plus 9 things you didn’t know about its only mission

Named after the ‘Iron Chancellor’ who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871, the battleship Bismarck was intended to be a national icon – but it had a short life at sea. Iain Ballantyne reveals nine lesser-known facts about the ship and its sole mission…

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Published: May 22, 2021 at 9:33 am

Launched on Valentine’s Day 1939 at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, the battleship Bismarck inspired love in many of those watching her go down the slipway.

A powerful representation of Germany’s rise from the ashes of the First World War, it was a fearsome combination of size, swiftness and firepower. Bismarck was nominally meant to be 35,000 tons to meet the stipulations of the Washington Naval Treaty [which placed limits on the size of battleships]. That treaty lapsed, allowing naval architects of the major maritime powers to add a further 5,000 tons, but then the Germans secretly pushed it even further. Bismarck’s true displacement when fully laden was 50,933 tons – a fact the Allies only discovered when they acquired secret German naval documents after the Second World War.

With a top speed of 29 knots, Bismarck (and her sister vessel Tirpitz, launched in April 1939, were faster than any the Royal Navy could send to war. Its eight 15-inch main guns were of a bigger calibre than those of Britain’s new King George V-class battleships – and though Britain did possess warships with larger guns, they were built in the 1920s and couldn’t match Bismarck for speed.

By May 1941, with the battle of the Atlantic in full swing, Bismarck was a latent threat. British naval forces were spread thin, tasked with protecting Atlantic convoys, fighting the Italians and Germans in the Mediterranean, and watching a belligerent Japan. Could the overstretched British stop Bismarck from breaking out of the Baltic and into the Atlantic to join forces with U-boats?

The vessel’s long-awaited first deployment was expected to be a severe trial of Britain’s national will and the Royal Navy. And so it proved, though for the Germans it was a major test of nerve that ultimately ended with the sinking of the Bismarck.

Here Iain Ballantyne, author of Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom, reveals nine lesser-known facts about the battleship and its one and only sortie…

The Kriegsmarine was afraid to tell Hitler that Bismarck had gone to war

For all Bismarck’s power, the top brass of the Kriegsmarine still feared the Royal Navy. So they did not give Adolf Hitler advance notice of Bismarck’s deployment in case he banned them from doing so. They knew the Führer was anxious about the humiliation Germany would face if she lost a ship named after its first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

When Kriegsmarine boss Grand Admiral Erich Raeder finally confessed to having sent Bismarck out, Hitler asked if it and her consort – the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen – could be called back. He was especially worried about what British aircraft carriers might do to cripple Bismarck and leave her at the mercy of enemy battleships.

Bismarck almost sank a second Royal Navy ship during its sortie

For the Germans, the breakout into the Atlantic got off to a good start. During a clash in the Denmark Strait on 24 May, Bismarck managed to sink the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood, when a cataclysmic explosion ripped the elderly battlecruiser apart. All but three of her 1,418-strong crew were lost.

The new Royal Navy battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, almost suffered a similar fate. Bismarck hit Prince of Wales close to its ammunition compartments, but in that instance Bismarck’s shell fragmented and did not explode. However, Prince of Wales did land three hits on Bismarck, one of which punctured a fuel-oil tank, forcing plans for Bismarck to attack convoys to be abandoned – the ship was forced to make for port for repairs.

Bismarck may have escaped had it not been for loose German tongues

Still reeling from the loss of Hood, in the early hours of 25 May the British lost track of Bismarck. During the 31 hours following Bismarck’s disappearing act, Royal Navy warship commanders mostly kept their radio silence – unlike the Germans, who were wireless signal blabbermouths.

Admiral Günther Lütjens, who was aboard Bismarck and was the mission’s commander, made frequent progress reports to German naval headquarters. It was a huge error. Although Germany’s naval Enigma signal codes were still hard to crack, the Bismarck’s transmissions enabled British Radio Direction Finding (D/F) stations to identify the battleship’s general location and heading.

This was allied with intelligence gleaned from elsewhere, allowing the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC) in London to ultimately confirm Bismarck was heading for a French Atlantic coast port. It was information crucial to turning the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet around to head southeast.

Bismarck’s crew were offered a ‘last supper’ on the eve of their final battle

After being found by an RAF Catalina flying boat and later attacked by Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal – with a torpedo crippling the ship’s steering and halting her escape – the morale of Bismarck’s crew was shattered. Officers fell into a state of deep depression and the battleship’s captain told his men they could take whatever they wanted from the stores, including watches, cheese, cigarettes and alcohol.

This proved to be a poor idea the night before battle. It plunged many of the men into despair and meant they performed their jobs poorly.

The only U-boat that reached Bismarck couldn’t help to save it

In the absence of readily available Kriegsmarine battleships or battlecruisers to sail over the horizon, any rescue of Bismarck came down to U-boats being ordered to abandon plans for ambushing the British fleet.

It was an impossible task for slow, tiny submarines that, due to stormy seas and threat of enemy attack, had to crawl along submerged on battery power.

U-556 got the closest, but had no torpedoes left when some of Bismarck’s pursuers came into view of her periscope. On the night of 26/27 May, it was relegated to sending reports to Kriegsmarine headquarters while watching the British attack Bismarck.

Hitler was furious

When it became clear Bismarck was at the mercy of the Britain’s naval forces, Hitler asked why it wasn’t possible for the Luftwaffe to inflict the same kind of pain on the British battleships.

He was told that the only way to do that properly, with a co-ordinated torpedo-bomber attack, would have been to have an aircraft carrier at sea. The Germans had started building one, the Graf Zeppelin, but it lay incomplete in a Baltic shipyard.

Some Bismarck crew tried to surrender

When the final battle came on the morning of 27 May, the Royal Navy battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, along with heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Norfolk, swiftly incapacitated Bismarck. Hundreds of officers and men were killed on the German vessel, and there was evidence that some people aboard tried to surrender – using semaphore flags and light signals – even as Bismarck’s surviving guns carried on firing.

As for actually taking the surrender of a still defiant enemy, it would have been time-consuming and complex. Also, the British capital ships were running out of fuel and were expecting hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers to come over the horizon at any moment. Had Britain lost either Rodney or King George V to air attack, the blow would have been severe, especially in the wake of Hood’s loss.

Bismarck proved hard to sink

Despite being utterly destroyed as a fighting vessel, Bismarck was hard to sink, a product of it being a new warship, but one still based on First World War-era design principles.

Her armoured citadel enclosed her engine room spaces and ammunition magazines, but not other vital areas of the battleship, and hence she stayed afloat even after being utterly destroyed as a fighting vessel.

British torpedoes and shell hits would have slowly taken Bismarck down, but the final blow was levied by the German vessel’s own crew, who detonated the scuttling charges when they abandoned ship.

The Royal Navy rescued some of the surviving Bismarck crew

The men of the Royal Navy wanted to sink Bismarck – there was a desire for some measure of retribution for the loss of the Hood and the fire-bombing blitz of Plymouth (the homeport for Rodney, Dorsetshire and other warships) by the Luftwaffe in March-April 1941, which had seen many loved ones made homeless, injured or killed. Destroying a symbol of the Nazi regime on the high seas was likewise a major motivation. But once the guns fell silent on 27 May 1941, the men of the Royal Navy just saw fellow sailors struggling to stay alive.

In the end, 110 Bismarck survivors were rescued by the Dorsetshire and Maori despite heavy seas. Dorsetshire was forced to withdraw – leaving behind hundreds survivors in the water – after a possible U-boat sighting, but its crew dropped floats over the side for those left behind. Maori too had to leave the scene as it was running low on fuel, there were concerns about it being sunk by an enemy air attack.

After the war, sailors from the cruiser Dorsetshire and destroyer Maori – themselves both sunk in 1942 – enjoyed reunions in the UK and Germany with the Bismarck survivors they had rescued. The former foes had forged strong bonds of friendship.

Iain Ballantyne is a journalist, editor, and author who has written several military history books on the Second World War and the Cold War, including Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom. Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or

This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021

Military Watches of the World: Germany Part 1—19th Century Through World War II

In the third and final installment of our series focused on military watches from around the world, we are going to take a look at military watches from Germany from the early 19th century through World War II.

Given their penchant for engineering and innovation, it should come as no surprise that some of the first wristwatches ever created for the explicit purposes of outfitting soldiers were either designed by or commissioned for the German government.

In 1879, the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm I placed an order with Swiss watchmaker Constant Girard (of Girard Perregaux fame) for 2,000 wristwatches to outfit his naval officers. The watches, which were ordered in two series of 1,000 pieces each and produced in 14k gold to avoid rust, represent the first significant commercialization of the wristwatch, which wouldn&rsquot become truly popular amongst men until after World War I. The watches are also known to have featured shrapnel guards and black dials with luminous numerals, though as none have yet to be recovered fully intact, Girard Perregaux produced a modern mock-up example for their museum from historical records.

Girard Perregaux&rsquos modern recreation based on historical records.

Despite its introduction in 1879 to the German navy, the wristwatch didn&rsquot seem to catch on in German military circles during World War I (1914-1918) as it had in limited ways in the British and American militaries.

However, during World War II, small, time-only wristwatches were used by the German military and issued in large numbers. Rather than designing a specification for a wristwatch and then farming out the design and manufacturing to local watch manufacturers via a tender, as was the norm in the United States, the German government instead provided requirements to a contractor, who in turn sub-contracted suppliers to provide watches that met said requirements.

These watches were typically between 31 and 34 millimeters in diameter and featured either black or white dials with luminous numbers and hands (though sometimes lume was not featured). Plastic crystals and fixed strap bars were the norm, though some examples did feature spring bars, and case backs were either snap-back (earlier examples) or screw-back (later examples) in chrome or stainless steel cases.

All examples featured manually-wound, minimum 15-jewel movements with either sub-seconds (earlier models) or sweep seconds (more popular by 1942). Many companies utilized the Schild AS1130 movement, which was evidently ubiquitous enough amongst German military watches as to it earn the moniker &ldquoWehermachtswerk,&rdquo or &ldquoWehrmacht movement.&rdquo Sometimes a particular manufacturer would use its own movement in place of the AS1130, and as the number of manufacturers who produced these watches is long, it&rsquos anybody&rsquos guess as to how many different movements were utilized (there is no definitive list or precise number of manufacturers known, but the number seems to be well over 30).

These timepieces are commonly referred to as &ldquoDH watches&rdquo by collectors in reference to their case back markings, which often featured a &ldquoD,&rdquo followed by a serial number, followed by an &ldquoH.&rdquo Though some maintain that &ldquoD.H.&rdquo stands for &ldquoDeutsches Heer&rdquo (German army), Konrad Knirim, who literally wrote the book on German military timepieces, theorizes that it stands for &ldquoDienstuhr Heer,&rdquo or &ldquoservice watch, army.&rdquo However, as there are records of DH watches being provided to Luftwaffe personnel (air force) and Kriegsmarine personnel (navy), the true meaning of the abbreviation is still up for debate (an interesting aside is that the watches provided to Kriegsmarine personnel serving on U-Boats often featured fully-lumed white phosphorus-coated dials with black, non-lumed numerals and state &ldquoK.M.&rdquo on the dial). Many of the Swiss manufacturers (Longines, Record, Omega, IWC, and others) producing DH watches for Germany were also producing watches for Allied personnel.

While infantrymen and sailors were outfitted with these small, simple, and essentially off-the-shelf Swiss and German timepieces, Luftwaffe pilots enjoyed the use of a custom-engineered behemoth of a timepiece: the Beobachtungs-uhren, or observation watch, commonly referred to as a &ldquob-uhr&rdquo (&ldquob-uhren&rdquo is plural). In 1935, as Germany re-armed right under the noses of the great world powers, the Reichs Luftfahrtministerium (Reich Ministry of Aviation) designed a watch specification from the ground up.

Originally including an hour angle indication such as that of the famous Lindbergh watch, the specification was updated until deemed just right, at which point it called for the following features:

  • 55 millimeter case
  • Hand-wound movement with hacking (typically these were pocket watch movements)
  • Breguet balance spring
  • Inner iron core surrounding the movement for anti-magnetic protection
  • Oversized diamond or onion crown for easy operation with flight gloves
  • Long, double-riveted leather strap for passing over a flight jacket, or for affixing to the thigh for hands-free operation
  • Black dial with Arabic numerals
  • Blued sword hands coated in luminous material
  • Triangle or arrow at 12 o&rsquoclock position (accompanied by two dots on the Type A models)
  • Outer chapter ring on Type A outer ring for minutes/seconds and inner ring for hours on the Type B (beginning 1941)
  • Snap-back case with information on type, production number, movement, order number, and manufacturer, and designation FL23883

The watches were highly regulated to chronometer standards and would be provided to a Luftwaffe navigator for a specific mission, after which they were returned. A signal from the control tower would allow the navigator to set his watch precisely in time with the Deutsche Seewarte, the German Naval Observatory, and hacking seconds allowed for the utmost precision in time-setting.

Five manufacturers produced the watches: A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), I.W.C., and Walter Storz (Stowa). Lange examples featured their in-house cal. 48 and cal. 48.1, and Laco used its Durowe cal. 5, which constituted the two German-made movements from amongst the manufacturers. Wempe and Stowa chose to use Swiss movements (the Thommen cal. 31 and Unitas cal. 2812 respectively), and I.W.C. used its own cal. 52T S.C. In 1938, Wempe had purchased the Chronometerwerk in Hamburg, which allowed them to assist Lange and Laco in watch production when these two manufacturers had trouble meeting demand (Lange also sent ébauches and cases to outside manufacturers for assembly and regulation).

As outlined above, there were two dial types, referred to as &ldquoA&rdquo and &ldquoB.&rdquo The A-type, released first in 1939, featured Arabic numerals 1 through 11 with 12 replaced by a triangle flanked by two dots, and an outer minutes track with hashmarks for each individual minute and longer, thicker marks at 5-minute intervals. The B-type, released first in 1941, featured Arabic numerals beginning at 5 and continuing in 5-minute intervals through 55 with a triangle in place of 60, an outer minute track with hashmarks for each individual minute plus the thicker hashmarks at 5-minute intervals, and an inner ring with Roman numerals 1 through 12.

Given the number of companies producing reproductions of the B-uhren today (albeit generally with smaller case dimensions), it&rsquos evident that the original observation watch designed for the Wehrmacht is perhaps one of the most enduring and iconic of all military timepieces ever produced.

1940&rsquos Tutima Flieger Chronograph. Image via Watchuseek.

A second watch developed for Luftwaffe personnel was the Fliegerchronograph produced by Hanhart and Tutima (at the time, UROFA-UFAG, or Uhren-Rohwerke-Fabrik Glashütte A.G-Uhrenfabrik Glashütte A.G). Both single and dual-button versions of the chronograph were made, with production commencing in 1939 for Hanhart and 1941 for Tutima. All versions featured nickel-plated brass cases, black dials with white Arabic numerals, 30-minute and running second counters, central flyback chronograph seconds hands, and either knurled rotating or smooth fixed bezels. Dual-button versions featured the cal. 41 by Hanhart or cal. 59 by Tutima, and mono-pusher variants featured the Hanhart cal. 40. A well-known variant of the watch featured a red-coated chronograph button, and some versions featured telemeter scales that were issued to naval forces (the Hanhart &ldquoTachyTele,&rdquo introduced in 1939).

And that wraps up Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we&rsquoll go over post-war German military watches.

Going to War

It was known right from the beginning that Canada's merchant ships would have an important role to play in the war effort. In fact, early information gathered by British intelligence agents about German ship movements led Canada to conscript all merchant ships two weeks before the war actually began. On August 26, 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN ) took control of all shipping. Despite the fact that merchant crews were not compelled to sail on the dangerous ocean passages, most indeed did.

  • When the war began, Canada had 38 ocean-going merchant vessels. By war's end 410 merchant ships had been built in Canada.
  • Because so many merchant sailors experienced the dangers of mines and submarines during the First World War, they knew firsthand the dangers of wartime shipping.
  • Merchant crews were given training at special schools such as the Marine Engineering Instructional School in Prescott, Ontario.

Watch the video: Πολεμικό Ναυτικό - Β Παγκόσμιος Πόλεμος 2