Kriegsmarine Surface Fleet during WW2 : Too hesistant or too weak to be effective ?

Apr 2014
388
Istanbul Turkey
#1
During World War 2 while German Navy surface fleet caused concern for Allies eventually it turned out they were not as much as a threat as U-Boat arm or Luftwaffe. Especially after Norwegian Campaign and loss of Bismark German admirals did not press attacks and instead preffered to sortie briefly (like against Russia convoys on Arctic Ocean ) and did not press their attacks much (Operation Knights Move against PQ-17 convoy and Battle of Barents Sea) Even much vaunted Channel Dash of Scharnhorst , Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen was considered a strategic retreat AND despite successful passage from Channel all three German battleships suffered moderate to heavy damage. (both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau struck mines during passage and a few weeks later RAF heavy bombers hit and damaged Gneisenau off Dutch coast so badly it was taken out of service permenantly. Prinz Eugen was torpedoed in same month on Norwegian Sea ) With suprise advantage why they did not raid eastern coastal harbours of Britain like Kaiser's High Seas Fleet did during WWI ?

Were Germans along with Hitler too hesistant to use their battleships more actively or did they start the war too weak in numbers so their hesistancy was natural ?
 
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redcoat

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,782
Stockport Cheshire UK
#3
Were Germans along with Hitler too hesistant to use their battleships more actively or did they start the war too weak in numbers so their hesistancy was natural ?
In the early war years most of their heavy ships were out of action for long periods due to mechanical problems or battle damage.

For example, in the summer of 1940 the largest ship the Germans had that was fully operational was a single heavy cruiser.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,260
Dispargum
#4
The KM would have performed well against the Soviet Baltic Fleet, but the KM surface fleet had no business trying to challenge the British battleships. The British just had too many battleships.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did do well as commerce raiders early in 1941. In the 1930s, when Germany built those two ships plus the two Bismarcks, no one knew how powerful aircraft would become vs battleships. Bismarck proved that even if she could only be sunk by battleships, she could be found, tracked, and crippled by aircraft. The Channel Dash was necessary because at Brest German surface ships were vulnerable to British-based air attack. If it wasn't for aircraft, German surface raiders would have been more successful against British convoys. No one before the war foresaw the power aircraft would have on naval operations.

Without Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the new Hipper-class cruisers, I doubt it would have been possible for Germany to invade Norway. Did the occupation of Norway help or hinder Germany to wage the war? That's a different question.
 
Jun 2017
2,905
Connecticut
#5
First part of my long answer(sorry for it being so long) is based on whether they could numbers wise(your second question), the second part of my answer is going to be based on whether the Germans wanted to(your first question).

Honestly Germany had a far greater chance of defeating the RN in a surface fleet engagement in WWII then they had in WWI. If they'd made that a priority which they didn't. Bismarck was able to sink Hood and if she'd pursued POW, POW probably sinks too. Bismarck was sunk when she didn't have any steering and was facing 2 battleships with cruiser support. Churchill even referred to the Tirpitz as a "fleet in being". Both the Bismarcks lost steering and the Tirpitz's sinking were due to airpower, not surface opponents and I think with 4-5 of these ships(not counting the Scharnhorts), Germany could beat the UK in a surface conflict and gain naval superiority and I'm going o go into greater details why below.

Important difference between WWI and WWII is that the Germans while outfighting the UK at Jutland while outnumbered, also had a disadvantage in terms of capabilities. Whil you'd think Jutland would imply otherwise, that's more to do with UK battlecruisers being easy to blow up than the German ships being better(I think Bayerns were better than QE's but Bayern's weren't there). The UK built 10 battleships and 4 battlecruisers in WWI who had 15 inch guns by the end, the Germans had 2 battleships with this armament. The UK also had a ton of ships with 13.5 inch guns, while aside from the two German battleships I just mentioned in WWII every single capital ship they had was armed with either 11 or 12 inches battery's. Germany in WWI was quite simply outgunned regardless of how Jutland might make it look otherwise.

In WWII Germany still had the numbers disadvantage, though both capital ship fleets were considerably smaller but they had seized the capabilities edge. Bismarck and Tirpitz had 15 inch guns and while the UK had two ships with 16 inch guns and 11 with 15 inch guns, they were twenty years old with a serious disadvantage in basically every other way(speed, range etc) with the exception of Hood(and we all know what happened to her). Churchill openly tried to keep the Royal Sovereigns away from front line combat they were so obsolete so simply counting capital ships doesn't tell the whole story. The most modern 5 UK ship's had 14 inch guns and aside from that you have only the Nelson class that really has a chance her. Also important to note 2 of these ships didn't come up until 1942. During her most vulnerable period, the UK really only had the 2 Nelsons, 2 Renowns and 3 KGV's(and Hood which would be sunk at DS). It is conceivable Bismarck ALONE takes out 3 of these 7 ships if her commander is more aggressive and her steering isn't taken out(1 is almost certain, 2 is likely, 3 is possible but a stretch). Imagine two of the Bismarcks together, nm 3 or 4? Also important to note that the Italy's 3 15 inchers were arguably the best battleships in Europe, and the Richelieu was under Vichy control.

If defeating the UK in a surface engagement and gaining naval superiority was a German priority, it was attainable much more attainable than it was in WWI, especially given the context that POW and Repulse were sunk in 1941 by the Japanese, in the window between that sinking and the new KGV's commission, the UK capital ship force was 1 Renown, 2 Nelsons and 2 KGV's(maybe even just 1 of each if Bismarck had taken down all her opponents, let's assume all the capital ships in that engagement including Bismarck go bye bye). The Germans had both Scharnhorts(who are inferior to the UK's best ships) and the Tirpitz at this time IRL, if they'd had another pair or two of Bismarcks is capable of acquiring naval superiority especially given the fact the UK has quite a few capital ships in the Mediterranean fighting the Italian fleet. Important to note later in the war one of the Scharnhorst's does get 15 inch guns after her sister got sunk by a KGV, which would make her a serious threat to the UK fleet as well.

This is all dependent on it being a priority for the Germans though, not just during WWII when they'd ordered 6 Project H battleships, and the UK had ordered 4 Lion class battleships(I think the Lions would have been better based on the designs) but in 1930s. If you take the US out of it and pit the Axis against the UK without the Lions, the Axis has not only a chance of winning but the advantage as is referenced as the reason for the Lion class's construction on the following wikipedia page. Based on the pre war status quo and the Axis outbuilding the Allies, the Axis would have a huge advantage and without the Japanese still would have had an advantage. The source below is counting Germany and Japan though not Italy and not Vichy France. In our timeline the UK was actually quite lucky the Italians didn't sink any of their capital ships and with one or two defeats for the UK there even without escalated German spending things do not look good for the UK.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dreadnought_battleships_of_the_Royal_Navy

At the end of the day given air superiority, the value of naval superiority was lower. If the Germans had acquired air superiority in the Battle of Britain, they didn't necessarily need naval superiority to land troops in the UK(though it would help) whereas WWI they would have needed it even to stop the British blockade. Of course invading the UK in WWII was not a primary German objective, and you'd think the allocation of resources here IRL is a testament to that, as while the UK shifted to building aircraft carriers and achieving air superiority, the German priority was to invest in things that would help them with the USSR, and the main objective in fighting the UK was to make them give up so the Germans wouldn't have to worry about them anymore and again invest more in fighting the USSR. To this end the German capital ships in WWII despite their superiority weren't used to seek and destroy the RN as their WWI peers had been as doing that wouldn't really accomplish any Nazi goals, they were to be used to supplement the U Boat's as glorified trade raiders that could get the UK to come to the table. Cutting the UK off from trade could get the UK to the table, sinking their whole fleet couldn't(although it would make for great propaganda). Battleships and capital ships were pretty inefficient in that role(sunk far fewer merchant ships than their cheaper U Boat counterparts) which is why no additional ones were built. It was the UK whose objective was to get rid of the German battleships(and Italian ones), and it's important to note the Bismarck was going convoy raiding and the Hood, POW, KGV and Rodney were all coming specifically to find her not the other way around. This difference in priority's is made more telling by Bismarck letting an injured POW escape, Bismarck had a chance there to seriously effect the numbers game in the surface war which in WWI would have been a huge deal to the Kriegsmarine but her mission wasn't to do that, it was to attack convoys if the British BB's would leave Bismarck alone she'd be free to continue in that pursuit.

While most of my answer discusses capability, additional German capital ships would have been used in the same way. We can talk about whether they were capable all day long but at the end of the day the Nazi's had a vastly different set of priority's than the German Empire had militarily.
 
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Jun 2017
2,905
Connecticut
#6
Now I'm going to defend their decision to "be hesitant" as logical.

Even if fighting the UK had been a priority, with the dominance of air power, battleships had no reason to exist. Battleships had one express exclusive purpose, they existed to sink other battleships. All their other functions can be done better by other weapons, Schnrnhorsts would never be as good at convoy hunters as U Boats, Bismarck's would never be as good surface battery's as missiles, Germany had the V-2 remember, which did more to the UK than Project H ever could have. Aircraft carriers took away battleships only logical reason for existence. The only reason for battleships to exist then and now is for PR and to excite naval historians/history buffs. All their other functions are just inefficiency's to achieve military goals that could be achieved cheaper with less interesting and expensive weapons. So can we really say the Germans were wrong to not build more ships even if they did want to take out the UK? Bomb the coast, they've got their V-2's(Even if fighting the UK had been a priority, with the dominance of air power, battleships had no reason to exist. Battleships had one express exclusive purpose, they existed to sink other battleships. All their other functions can be done better by other weapons, Scahrnhorsts would never be as good at convoy hunters as U Boats, Bismarck's would never be as good surface battery's as missiles, Germany had the V-2 remember, which did more to the UK than Project H ever could have. Aircraft carriers took away battleships only logical reason for existence. The only reason for battleships to exist then and now is for PR and to excite naval historians/history buffs. All their other functions are just inefficiency's to achieve military goals that could be achieved cheaper with less interesting and expensive weapons. So can we really say the Germans were wrong to not build more ships even if they did want to take out the UK? Bomb the coast, they've got their V-2's, sink convoy's they've got their U-Boats, sink british battleships they've got torpedo bombers AND U Boat's.

V-2's(ad cruise missles in general) are not only cheaper, they can hit more places, are more terrifying(you can't see them coming), and they are almost impossible to stop, especially in WWII.

Airplanes and U Boats not only are cheaper at sinking battleships they are much better at it, battleships are extremely durable because they are built to resist the fire of other battleships, unless you get their magazines or they are obsolete and facing shells they were not built to withstand. A bunch of torpedos whether from the sky or sea a few of those and RIP. A beautiful example of this, is the sinking of Bismarck. Bismarck had no steering and was under the fire of two BB's with 14 and 16 inch shells and they couldn't sink the thing and actually had to leave because they were low from fuel, it was taking so long(this is a ship that can not shoot back). Cruiser was left to finish it off with torpedo's and boom right away, Bismarck sinks.

It is true that using battleships as commerce raiders have an advantage over U Boats because they don't need to run from the escorts they can just take their time and sink everything unlike the U Boat which needs to hide, unload their torpedos and get away before they are discovered by an escort, this is probably why they were initially used as such. However in terms of scale and efficiency of trying to starve a nation out, it's so much easier to build the massive amount of U Boats who can do the job even if they are less effective in non sneak attack combat because you'll never build enough whole convoy sinkers to be able to do the whole job. I guess it makes sense to have a few of the battleships and mostly U Boats and this seems like a balanced approach, but then the enemy is just going to make taking out of those ships a huge priority like the British did. Tirpitz might as well haven't been commissioned in terms of the damage she was able to do as the threat of air attack rarely let her sail. If Germany HADN't been hesitant in trying to win the surface war why wouldn't these other ships have shared that same faith? Bismarck was a little lucky as she'd been around in 1941 before the dominance of airpower was fully locked in and I guess building more ships earlier(which is why I said 1930s was a crucial time for the Germans if they wanted naval superiority) would have also initially evaded this fate, the Project H's wouldn't have they'd have been sitting ducks.
 

M9Powell

Ad Honorem
Oct 2014
4,439
appalacian Mtns
#7
There is one purpose a Battleship excels at you didn't list. Shore bombardment in support of amphibious landings. Cruise missiles cost a lot more than shells. Aircraft cost a lot more too deliver ordinance than a gun. And you put the aircraft & crew at risk. Even today there is no way too intercept an incoming 16 inch shell. If a nation can achieve air superiority over the landing zone & can intercept anti-ship missiles (a must for any amphibious landing) nothing can support the beachhead as cost effectively & as well.
 
Jun 2017
2,905
Connecticut
#8
There is one purpose a Battleship excels at you didn't list. Shore bombardment in support of amphibious landings. Cruise missiles cost a lot more than shells. Aircraft cost a lot more too deliver ordinance than a gun. And you put the aircraft & crew at risk. Even today there is no way too intercept an incoming 16 inch shell. If a nation can achieve air superiority over the landing zone & can intercept anti-ship missiles (a must for any amphibious landing) nothing can support the beachhead as cost effectively & as well.
I would still count this as under coastal bombardment as the battleship is still doing the same thing. While the shell might cost less, you're not just paying for the shell you're paying for the whole ship, fuel, crew, maintenance. It's not just the armament it's like an aircraft carrier a platform for the armament. Missles take away the need for the platform same way LBA in situations take away the need for carriers. An aircraft also is cheaper and has 1 person usually, and if it is shot down they could survive the risk is greatly spread, a battleship has 1000-2000 and in this sort of situation if the ship is sunk not only is the ship gone, but most of those people are probably going to die. There's also more risk in a situation like this than in a typical sailing up to the shore and firing situation, mines, coastal defenses etc. Mines in particular will be a great risk if the enemy has an idea an amphibious attack is coming. Also while you say air superiority has been achieved that doesn't mean their is no risk as planes will be able to come from further inland. They can still come from enemy aircraft carriers, further inland etc even if you've taken out certain installments. I also don't think in WWII intercepting anti ship missles was a thing. So I will agree battleships are less obsolete now than they were in WWII(also because great powers are fighting countries that usually don't have state of the art capabilities)in that regard but is that enough to build them? Today is the likelihood of amphibious assaults great enough to outweigh the costs?

While a battleship can be useful in this situation(and they are useful in all of the scenarios I was listing above, I'm just saying they are an inefficient and obsolete tool in those scenarios), it's too limited a scenario to justify what will likely be decades of needless expense. For example we were talking about the Germans, when did the Germans need an off the coast battery to support an amphibious landing? If you say the UK, this again brings us back to the point of what the priority's of the Nazi's were. Even then, while they'd be helpful they wouldn't be inherently necessary. For the UK and US it was somewhat of a different story and while I know the US used some in Torch, I do not think they were used in Overlord.
 
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Jul 2016
306
england
#9
Bismarck had no steering and was under the fire of two BB's with 14 and 16 inch shells and they couldn't sink the thing and actually had to leave because they were low from fuel, it was taking so long(this is a ship that can not shoot back). Cruiser was left to finish it off with torpedo's and boom right away, Bismarck sinks.
Bismark was pounded to scrap long before she sank. Even if by some miracle she did not eventually sink then there was no way to repair that much damage and get her back into service. It did not need all the torpedoes and shells to sink Bismark rather it needed so many to make sure she sank whilst there were ships around to see that she sank.
 
Jul 2016
306
england
#10
V-2's(ad cruise missles in general) are not only cheaper, they can hit more places, are more terrifying(you can't see them coming), and they are almost impossible to stop, especially in WWII.
The V2 was an unguided weapon. You could comfortably hit London or Rotterdam with it but never expect it to hit say a ship or a specific military target. It was a terror weapon. Not only that but the cost of the V2 program was huge-the German A-Bomb if you will. It used up valuable resources that were badly needed elsewhere. 1 V2 was roughly the equivalent of 1 Allied bomber and the precision of the later was far in advance of the V1/V2.
 

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