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Wartime propaganda poster.


The Kriegsmarine (German pronunciation: [ˈkʁiːksmaˌʁiːnə], War Navy) was the name of the German Navy between 1935 and 1945, during the Nazi regime, superseding the Reichsmarine, and the Kaiserliche Marine of World War I. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches of the Wehrmacht.

Command structure[]

Adolf Hitler was the commander-in-chief of all German armed forces, including the Kriegsmarine. His authority was exercised through the Oberkommando der Marine, or OKM, with a Commander-in-Chief (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine), a Chief of Naval General Staff (Chef der Stabes der Seekriegsleitung) and a Chief of Naval Operations (Chef der Operationsabteilung).[1]

Subordinate to these were regional, squadron and temporary flotilla commands:


These covered significant naval regions (commanded by a Generaladmiral or Admiral) and were themselves sub-divided, as necessary. There was a Marineoberkommando for the Baltic Fleet, Nord, Nordsee, Norwegen, Ost/Ostsee (formerly Baltic), Süd and West. The Kreigsmarine used a form of encoding called Gradnetzmeldeverfahren to denote regions on a map.


Each type of ship also had a command structure with its own Flag Officer. The commands were Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers, Submarines (Führer der U-Boote), Torpedo Boats, Minesweepers, Reconnaissance Forces, Naval Security Forces, Big Guns and Hand Guns, and Midget Weapons.


Major naval operations were commanded by a Flottenchef. The commands were, by their nature, temporary.


Post-World War I origins[]

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was only allowed a minimal navy of 15,000 personnel, six capital ships of no more than 10,000 tons, six cruisers, twelve destroyers, twelve torpedo boats and no submarines. However, even before the Nazi takeover German naval rearmament had begun with the launching of the first pocket battleship, Deutschland in 1931.[citation needed]

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler soon began to ignore many of the Treaty restrictions and accelerated German rearmament. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 18 June 1935 allowed Germany to build a navy equivalent to 35% of British surface ship tonnage and 45% of British submarine tonnage; battleships were to be limited to no more than 35,000 tons. That same year the Reichsmarine was renamed as the Kriegsmarine.[citation needed]

Build-up during the interwar period[]

File:National- und Handelsflagge 1935-1945 (HK links versetzt).svg

Kriegsmarine Jack

Following the 1938 crisis caused by the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Germany abandoned all pretensions of adherence to treaty limitations on its navy.[citation needed]

Plan Z, the blueprint for the German naval construction program finalized in 1938, envisaged building a navy of approximately 800 ships during the period 1939–1947. The building programme was to include:

  • ten new design battleships and battlecruisers,
  • four aircraft carriers, fifteen armored ships (Panzerschiffe),
  • five heavy cruisers, forty-four light cruisers,
  • 158 destroyers and torpedo boats, and
  • 249 submarines, as well as numerous smaller crafts.

Personnel strength was planned to rise to over 200,000.

Since the simultaneous and rapid build-up of the German army and airforce demanded substantial effort and resources, the planned naval program was not very far advanced by the time World War II began. Implementation only began in January 1939 when three H-class battleships and two M-class light cruisers were laid down. On September 1, 1939, the navy still had a total personnel strength of only 78,000, and it was not at all ready for a major role in the war. With expectations in Germany of a quick victory by land, Plan Z was essentially shelved and the resources initially allocated for its realization were largely redirected to the construction of U-boats.[citation needed]

Spanish Civil War[]

The first military action of the Kriegsmarine came during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Following the outbreak of hostilities in July 1936 several capital ships of the German fleet were sent to the region. The Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and light cruiser Köln were the first to be sent in July 1936. These capital ships were accompanied by the 2nd Torpedo-boat Flotilla. Ostensibly, the German presence was used to covertly support Franco's Nationalists although the immediate involvement of the Deutschland was humanitarian relief operations and the rescuing of 9,300 refugees from the fighting, including 4,550 Germans. Following the brokering of the International Non-Intervention Patrol to enforce an international arms embargo the Kriegsmarine was allotted the patrol area between Cabo de Gata (Almeria) and Oropesa. Numerous vessels served as part of these duties including Admiral Graf Spee. U-Boats also participated in covert action against Republican shipping as part of Operation Ursula. At least eight U-Boats engaged a small number of targets in the area throughout the conflict. By way of comparison the Italian Navy, Regia Marina, operated 58 submarines in the area as part of Sottomarini Legionari. On 29 May 1937 the Deutschland was attacked in the Deutschland incident off Ibiza by two bombers from the Republican Airforce. Total casualties from the Republican attack were 31 dead and 110 wounded, 71 seriously, mostly burn victims and in retaliation the Admiral Scheer shelled the harbour of Almeria on 31 May. Following further attacks by Republican submarine forces against the Leipzig off port of Oran between 15–18 June 1937 Germany withdrew from the Non-Intervention Patrol although maintained a continuous presence in the area until the end of the conflict.[citation needed]

World War II[]

The Kriegsmarine was involved in World War II from the start of the war and participated in the Battle of Westerplatte and the Battle of the Danzig Bay during the Invasion of Poland. In 1939, major events for the Kriegsmarine were the Battle of the River Plate, the sinking of the Battleship HMS Royal Oak, and the sinking of the Aircraft Carrier HMS Courageous. The Battle of the Atlantic started in 1939, although the German submarine fleet was hampered by the lack of good ports from which to attack Allied shipping.

In April 1940, the main action the German Navy was involved in was the invasion of Norway, where it suffered quite heavy losses, including the Heavy Cruiser Blücher sunk by the guns of Oscarsborg Fortress in the Oslofjord, ten destroyers lost in the Battles of Narvik and two light cruiser lost elsewhere during the campaign. The Kriegsmarine did however sink a number of British ships during this campaign, including the Aircraft Carrier HMS Glorious.

The losses in the Norwegian Campaign meant that only a handful of heavy ships were ready for action for the planned, but never executed, invasion of Britain (Operation Sealion) in the summer of 1940. There were serious doubts that the invasion sea routes could have been protected against British naval action. After the fall of France and the conquest of Norway, the German submarine fleet was brought much closer to the British shipping lanes in the Atlantic. At first, the British merchant convoys lacked radar equipped escorts; as such, the submarines were very hard to detect during their nighttime surface attacks. This year was for these reasons one of the most successful for the Kriegsmarine, as measured in terms of merchant shipping sunk compared to submarines lost (the First Happy Time).

Italy entered the war in June 1940, and the Battle of the Mediterranean began: from September 1941 to May 1944 some 62 German submarines were transferred there, sneaking past the British naval base at Gibraltar. The Mediterranean submarines sunk 24 major Allied warships (including 12 destroyers, 4 cruisers, 2 aircraft carriers and 1 battleship) and 94 merchant ships (449,206 tons of shipping). None of the Mediterranean submarines made it back to their home bases as they were all either sunk in battle or scuttled by their crews at the end of the war[2]

File:Marine Hitler.jpg

Hitler and Captain Ernst Lindemann inspecting crew of battleship Bismarck in 1941.

In 1941 one of the four modern German battleships, the Bismarck sank HMS Hood while breaking out into the Atlantic for commerce raiding. However, the Bismarck was in turn hunted down by much superior British forces after receiving crippling damage from a torpedo plane and scuttled after taking a heavy beating from two British battleships.

Throughout the war the Kriegsmarine was responsible for coastal artillery protecting major ports and important coastal areas and also anti-aircraft batteries protecting major ports.[3]

During 1941, the Kriegsmarine and the United States Navy became de facto belligerents, although war was not formally declared, leading to the sinking of the USS Reuben James. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war against the United States in December 1941 led to another phase of the Battle of the Atlantic. In Operation Drumbeat and subsequent operations until August 1942, a large number of Allied merchant ships were sunk by submarines off the American coast as the Americans had not prepared for submarine warfare, despite clear warnings (this was the so-called Second happy time for the German navy). The situation became so serious that military leaders feared for the whole allied strategy.

The vast American ship building capabilities and naval forces were however now brought into the war and soon more than offset any losses inflicted by the German submariners. In 1942, the submarine warfare continued on all fronts, and when German forces in the Soviet Union reached the Black Sea, a few submarines were eventually transferred there.

The Battle of the Barents Sea was an attempt by a German naval force to attack an Allied Arctic convoy. However, the advantage was not pressed home and they returned to base. There were serious implications: this failure infuriated Hitler, who nearly enforced a decision to scrap the surface fleet. Instead, resources were diverted to the U-boats, and the surface fleet became a lesser threat to the Allies.

File:Tirpitz altafjord.jpg

Battleship Tirpitz in Norway, 1944

After 1943 when the Scharnhorst had been sunk in the Battle of North Cape by HMS Duke of York, most of the German surface ships were pent up in or close to their ports as a fleet in being, for fear of losing them in action and to tie up British naval forces. The largest ship of these ships, the battleship Tirpitz, was stationed in Norway as a threat to Allied shipping and also as a defense against a potential Allied invasion. When she was sunk by British bombers in late 1944 (Operation Catechism), several British capital ships could be moved to the Pacific.

From late 1944 until the end of the war, the surface fleet of Kriegsmarine was heavily engaged in providing artillery support to the retreating German land forces along the Baltic coast and in ferrying civilian refugees to the western parts of Germany (Lübeck, Hamburg) in large rescue operations. Large parts of the population of eastern Germany fled the approaching Red Army out of fear for Soviet retaliation and mass rapes and killings. The Kriegsmarine evacuated large numbers of civilians in the evacuation of East Prussia and Danzig in January 1945. It was during this activity that the catastrophic sinking of several large passenger ships occurred: the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Goya was sunk by Soviet submarines, while the SS Cap Arcona was sunk by British bombers, each sinking claiming thousands of civilian lives. The Kriegsmarine also provided important assistance in the evacuation of the fleeing German civilians of Pomerania and Stettin in March and April 1945. In the last stage of the war, the Kriegsmarine also organized a number of divisions of infantry from its personnel (submarine crews and so on).[3]

During 1943 and 1944, due to Allied anti-submarine tactics and better equipment the U-boat fleet started to suffer heavy losses. Radar, longer range air cover, improved tactics and new weapons all contributed. German technical developments, such as the Schnorchel, attempted to counter these. New U-boat types, the Elektroboote, were in development and, had these become operational in sufficient numbers, the Allied advantage would have been eroded.

Between 1943 and 1945, a group of U-boats known as the "Monsun Boats" (Monsun Gruppe) operated in the Indian Ocean from Japanese bases in occupied Indonesia. As the Allied merchant convoys had not yet been organized in those waters, the initial sinkings were plentiful. However, this situation was soon remedied.[4] During the later war years, the "Monsun Boats" were also used as a means of exchanging vital war supplies with Japan.


After the war, the German surface ships that remained afloat (only two large warships were operational) were divided among the victors. Some (like the unfinished aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin) were used for target practice, while others (mostly destroyers and torpedo boats) were put into the service of Allied navies that lacked surface ships after the war. The British, French and Soviet navies received the destroyers, and some torpedo boats went to the Danish and Norwegian navies. The destroyers were all retired by the end of the 1950s, but some of the torpedo boats were returned to the new West German navy in the 1960s.

For the purpose of mine clearing, the Royal Navy employed German crews and minesweepers from June 1945 to January 1948,[5] organized in the German Mine Sweeping Administration, the GMSA, which consisted of 27,000 members of the former Kriegsmarine and 300 vessels.[6]

In 1956, with West Germany's accession to NATO, a new navy was established and was referred to as the Bundesmarine (Federal Navy). Some Kriegsmarine commanders like Erich Topp and Otto Kretschmer went on to serve in the Bundesmarine. In East Germany the Volksmarine (People's Navy) was established some time after the war. With the reunification of Germany in 1990, it was decided to simply use the name Deutsche Marine (German Navy).

Major Kriegsmarine wartime operations[]

  • Wikinger (1940) – foray by destroyers into the North Sea
  • Weserübung ("Exercise Weser") (1940) – invasion of Denmark and Norway
  • Juno (1940) – operation to disrupt Allied supplies to Norway
  • Nordseetour (1940) – first Atlantic operation of Admiral Hipper
  • Berlin (1941) – Atlantic cruise of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau
  • Rheinübung ("Exercise Rhine") (1941) – breakout by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen
  • Doppelschlag ("Double blow") (1942) – anti-shipping operation off Novaya Zemlya by Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper
  • Sportpalast (1942) – aborted operation (including Tirpitz) to attack Arctic convoys
  • Rösselsprung ("Knights Move") (1942) – operation (including Tirpitz) to attack Arctic convoy PQ-17
  • Wunderland (1942) – anti-shipping operation in Kara Sea by Admiral Scheer
  • Paukenschlag ("Drumbeat" ("Beat of the Kettle Drum")); "Second Happy Time") (1942) – U-boat campaign off the United States east coast
  • Regenbogen ("Rainbow") (1942) – failed attack on Arctic convoy JW-51B, by Admiral Hipper and Lützow
  • Cerberus (1942) – movement of capital ships from Brest to home ports in Germany (Channel Dash)
  • Ostfront ("East front") (1943) – final operation of Scharnhorst, to intercept convoy JW-55B
  • Domino (1943) – second aborted Arctic sortie by Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen and destroyers
  • Zitronella ("Lemon extract") (1943) – raid upon Allied-occupied Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
  • Deadlight (1945) – postwar scuttling of U-boats


See also: List of Kriegsmarine ships

By the start of World War II, much of the Kriegsmarine were modern ships: fast, well-armed and well-armoured. This had been achieved by concealment but also by deliberately flouting World War I peace terms and those of various naval treaties. However, the war started with the German Navy still at a distinct disadvantage in terms of sheer size with what were expected to be its primary adversaries – the navies of France and Great Britain. Although a major re-armament of the navy (Plan Z) was planned, and initially begun, the start of the war in 1939 meant that the vast amounts of material required for the project were diverted to other areas. The sheer disparity in size when compared to the other European powers navies prompted German naval commander in chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder to write of his own navy once the war began "The surface forces can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly." A number of captured ships from occupied countries were added to the German fleet as the war progressed.[citation needed]

Some ship types do not fit clearly into the commonly used ship classifications. Where there is argument, this has been noted.

Surface ships[]

The main combat ships (not U-boats) of the Kriegsmarine:

Aircraft carriers[]

Construction of the Graf Zeppelin was started in 1936 with an unnamed sister ship started two years later in 1938, but neither ship was completed. In 1942 conversion to auxiliary carriers was begun on three German passenger ships and two unfinished cruisers—the captured French light cruiser De Grasse and the German heavy cruiser Seydlitz—but by 1943 all the conversion work was halted for lack of materials and the deteriorating military situation. [1] With no carriers in train, orders for the Fieseler Fi 167 ship-borne biplane torpedo and reconnaissance bomber were canceled.


Bismarck and Tirpitz


Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The classification of these ships is problematic. The "battlecruiser" designation is largely a British and Royal Naval usage (arguing that 11" armament would not be adequate) while the Germans in particular describe them as "battleships" or "Schlachtschiffe".[citation needed]

Pre-dreadnought battleships[]

The World War I era Pre-dreadnought battleships Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein were used mainly as training ships, although they also participated in several military operations. Hessen was converted into a radio-guided target ship in 1930.

Pocket battleships (Panzerschiffe)[]

The "Pocket battleships" Deutschland / Lützow, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee. Modern commentators favour classifying these as "heavy cruisers" and indeed the Kriegsmarine itself reclassified these ships as such (Schwere Kreuzer) in 1940.[7]

Heavy cruisers[]


Destroyer Z1 Leberecht Maas.

Admiral Hipper, Blücher, and Prinz Eugen

Light cruisers[]

The term "light cruiser" is a shortening of the phrase "light armoured cruiser." Light cruisers were defined under the Washington Naval Treaty by gun caliber. Light cruiser describes a small ship that carried armour in the same way as an armoured cruiser. In other words, like standard cruisers, light cruisers possessed a protective belt and a protective deck. Prior to this, smaller cruisers tended to be of the protected cruiser model and possessed only an armoured deck. Germany's light cruisers are as follows:

  • Emden
  • Königsberg
  • Karlsruhe
  • Köln
  • Leipzig
  • Nürnberg

In addition, former Kaiserliche Marine light cruiser Niobe was captured by Germans on sept.11th 1943 after the capitulation of Italy. She was pressed into Kriegsmarine service for a brief time before being destroyed by British MTBs.

Auxiliary cruisers[]

During the war, nine merchant ships were converted into "auxiliary cruisers" and used as commerce raiders, particularly in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The German auxiliary cruisers were:

  • Orion (HSK-1)
  • Atlantis (HSK-2)
  • Widder (HSK-3)
  • Thor (HSK-4)
  • Pinguin (HSK-5)
  • Stier (HSK-6)
  • Komet (HSK-7)
  • Kormoran (HSK-8)
  • Michel (HSK-9)
  • Coronel (HSK-10)
  • Hansa (HSK-11)


Although the German World War II destroyer (Zerstörer) fleet was modern and the ships were larger than conventional destroyers of other navies, they had problems. Early classes were unstable, wet in heavy weather, suffered from engine problems and had short range. Some problems were solved with the evolution of later designs, but further developments were curtailed by the war and, ultimately, by Germany's defeat. In the first year of World War II, they were used mainly to sow offensive minefields in shipping lanes close to the British coast.[citation needed]

Torpedo boats[]


"Raubtier" class torpedo boats

These vessels evolved through the 1930s from small vessels, relying almost entirely on torpedoes, to what were effectively small destroyers with mines, torpedoes and guns. Two classes of fleet torpedo boats were planned, but not built, in the 1940s.

Troop ships[]

Cap Arcona, Goya, Steuben, Wilhelm Gustloff.


Minelayers, Minesweepers, Gunboats, E-boats and Watchboats. Catapult-launched spotter planes: Arado Ar 196.

Submarines (U-boat)[]

At the outbreak of war, the Kriegsmarine had a relatively small fleet of 57 submarines (U-boats).[8] This was increased steadily until mid-1943, when losses through allied counter-measures matched the new vessels launched.[9]

The principal types were the Type IX, a long range type used in the western and southern Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans; and the Type VII, the most numerous type, used principally in the north Atlantic. Type X was a small class of mine-layers and Type XIV was a specialized type used to support distant U-boat operations – the "Milchkuh" (Milkcow).

Types XXI and XXIII, the "Elektroboot", would have negated much of the Allied anti-submarine tactics and technology, but they were never deployed in sufficient numbers. Post-war, they became the prototypes for modern submarines, in particular, the Soviet W-class.

During World War II, about 60% of all U-boats commissioned were lost in action; 28,000 of the 40,000 U-boat crewmen were killed during the war and 8,000 were captured. The remaining U-boats were either surrendered to the Allies or scuttled by their own crews at the end of the war.[citation needed]

Top 10 U-Boat Aces in World War II
274,333 tons (47 ships sunk)     Otto Kretschmer
225,712 tons (43 ships) Wolfgang Lüth
193,684 tons (34 ships) Erich Topp
186,064 tons (29 ships) Karl-Friedrich Merten
171,164 tons (34 ships) Victor Schütze
171,122 tons (26 ships) Herbert Schultze
167,601 tons (28 ships) Georg Lassen
166,596 tons (22 ships) Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock
162,333 tons (30 ships) Heinrich Liebe
160,939 tons (28 ships), plus the British battleship Royal Oak inside Scapa Flow Günther Prien

Captured ships[]

The military campaigns in Europe yielded a number of captured vessels, many of which were under construction. Nations represented included Soviet Union, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Italy (after the armistice), Yugoslavia and Greece. Few of the incomplete ships were actually commissioned; they were abandoned, wrecked or broken up.[citation needed]

Major warships sunk by the Kriegsmarine[]

Ship Type Date Action
HMS Courageous (Royal Navy) Fleet Aircraft Carrier September 17, 1939 torpedoed by submarine U-29 while on convoy escort
HMS Royal Oak (Royal Navy) Battleship October 14, 1939 torpedoed at anchor by submarine U-47
HMS Glorious (Royal Navy) Fleet Aircraft Carrier June 8, 1940 sunk by battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst
HMS Hood (Royal Navy) Battlecruiser May 24, 1941 sunk by the battleship Bismarck
HMS Ark Royal (Royal Navy) Fleet Aircraft Carrier November 14, 1941 torpedoed by submarine U-81
HMAS Sydney (1935) (Royal Australian Navy) Light Cruiser November 19, 1941 sunk by German Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran
HMS Barham (Royal Navy) Battleship November 25, 1941 torpedoed by submarine U-331
HMS Audacity (Royal Navy) Escort Carrier December 21, 1941 torpedoed by submarine U-751
HMS Eagle (Royal Navy) Aircraft Carrier August 11, 1942 torpedoed by submarine U-73
HMS Avenger (Royal Navy) Escort Carrier November 15, 1942 torpedoed by submarine U-155
USS Block Island (American) Escort Carrier May 29, 1944 torpedoed by submarine U-549


Comparative ranks (during World War II)[]

Kriegsmarine US Navy/Royal Navy
Großadmiral Fleet Admiral/Admiral of the Fleet
Generaladmiral Admiral
Admiral Vice Admiral
Vizeadmiral Rear Admiral (Upper Half)
Konteradmiral Rear Admiral (Lower Half)
Kommodore Commodore
Kapitän zur See Captain
Fregattenkapitän Commander
Korvettenkapitän Lieutenant Commander
Kapitänleutnant Lieutenant
Oberleutnant zur See Lieutenant (Jg.); Sub-Lieutenant
Leutnant zur See Ensign
Oberfähnrich zur See Midshipman (Senior)
Fähnrich zur See Cadet/Midshipman (Junior)


Many different types of uniforms were worn by the Kriegsmarine, here is a list of the main ones:

German English
Dienstanzug Service Suit
kleiner Dienstanzug Small Service Suit
Ausgehanzug Suit for Walking Out
Sportanzug Sports Suit
Tropen-und Sommeranzug Tropical and Summer Suit
große Uniform Parade Uniform
kleiner Gesellschaftsanzug Small Party Suit
großer Gesellschaftsanzug Parade Party Suit

See also[]

  • List of Kriegsmarine ships
  • List of ships of the German navies
  • List of Knight's Cross recipients of the Kriegsmarine
  • Alwin-Broder Albrecht
  • Erich Raeder
  • Karl Dönitz
  • Horst Wessel


  1. Pipes, Jason (1996–2006). "Organization of the Kriegsmarine". Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  2. U-boats in the Mediterranean – Overview
  3. 3.0 3.1 Feldgrau :: Organization of the Kriegsmarine in the West 1940–1945
  4. U-boat Operations – The Monsun U-boats
  5. German Mine Sweeping Administration (GMSA) (in German), accessed: 9 June 2008
  6. Google book review: German Seaman 1939–45 Page: 41, author: Gordon Williamson, John White, publisher: Osprey Publishing, accessed: 9 July 2008
  7. Deutschland History
  8. Ireland, Bernard (2003). Battle of the Atlantic. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books. pp. 32. ISBN 0 84415 001 1. 
  9. Ireland, Bernard (2003). Battle of the Atlantic. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books. pp. 225. ISBN 0 84415 001 1. 
  10. Battleships sunk by the Kriegsmarine
  11. Carriers sunk by the Kriegsmarine

External links[]


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