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Nations at war
O'Hara, Vincent. The German Fleet at War, 1939-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004
x + 308
Preface and Acknowledgments; photos; maps; tables; charts; graphs; Endnotes; Bibliography; Index
Appendices: Equivalents, Abbreviations, and Definitions of Terms; Organization of the German Navy; Statistical Analysis
Vincent O'Hara scores a big success with his first book. Not only does he discover a large body of Kriegsmarine battles with which readers will almost certainly be unfamiliar, he dissects each one in a thoroughly professional and thoroughly engaging manner.
Most readers will closely identify the German Navy in World War II with the U-Boat campaign and perhaps the sinking of the Graf Spee and Bismarck. O'Hara, on the other hand, identifies sixty-nine surface engagements involving the Kriegsmarine from September 1939 through March 1945, each one fought "between purpose-built surface warships displacing at least five hundred tons full load (which is how I define a "large" warship) where torpedoes and/or gunfire were exchanged." This includes loss of the Graf Spee and Bismarck, but obviously quite a few other encounters. Indeed, O'Hara calculates that, based on the definition he uses here, the Kriegsmarine fought more surface engagements than the Italian Navy, more than the Japanese Navy, and even more than the United States Navy. Given that each encounter must involve at least one "large warship" per the author's definition, typical readers will probably be hard-pressed to recognize as many as half of the battles covered in the book. One of the pleasures of The German Fleet at War is being led engagement-by-engagement through all those little-known actions.
The author organizes his book into fourteen chapters, the last of which contains his "Conclusions." The other thirteen divide Germany's naval war into geographical and chronological segments:
Opening Rounds, September 1939-January 1940
The Invasion of Norway, April-June 1940
The English Channel and the High Seas, 1940
The Bismarck Cycle of Battles, May 1941
Actions in Soviet Waters, 1941
The English Channel and the French Coast, 1942
Battles of the Polar Sea, 1942-1943
The Eastern Mediterranean, August 1943-May 1945
Actions in the English Channel and French Waters, 1943
Actions in the English Channel, January-June 1944
French Waters after D-Day, June-December 1944
The Western Mediterranean, September 1943-May 1945
Home Waters: Norway and the Baltic, 1944-1945
Each chapter begins with an overview of the naval situation in that area at that time, followed by a table listing the date, location, name, opponent, and type (harbor attack, encounter, interception, etc) for each engagement being covered in the chapter. Most chapters also include a strategic map showing the location of each engagement. Here's a typical table:
|Table 5.2 Actions in Soviet Waters, 1941|
|26 Jun 41||Black Sea||Constanza Harbor||Soviet||Harbor Attack|
|6 Jul 41||Baltic Sea||Kolka Lighthouse||Soviet||Encounter|
|1 Aug 41||Black Sea||Cape Domesnas||Soviet||Interception|
|7 Sep 41||Arctic Ocean||Porsanger Fjord||British||Convoy Attack|
|17 Dec 41||Arctic Ocean||Cape Gorodeski||British||Interception|
After providing that context, O'Hara moves through the engagements for that chapter in chronological sequence. For each battle, he begins by summarizing the name of the action, date, time commenced and time ended, type of action (harbor attack, encounter, interception, etc), weather conditions, visibility, sea state, which side (if any) achieved surprise, and the missions of the opposing forces. Many of these sections include a tactical map of the engagement. Each engagement also contains a table displaying information about all the participating warships. O'Hara then writes a detailed, blow-by-blow account running anywhere from a few paragraphs to several pages.
Here's an example of a relatively brief account of one of the smaller actions:
Action off Cromer, 7 December 1959
|TIME: ||0255-0318, G+l|
|VISIBILITY: ||New moon, good, up to ten miles|
|SEA STATE: |
|MISSION: ||British patrol and sea security; Germans offensive mining |
Germany's destroyers spent the first month of the war helping lay the
defensive West Wall mine barrage in the North Sea. After this task was
accomplished they began sowing offensive minefields off Britain's east
coast. Between 17 October 1939 and 10 February 1940, destroyers
dropped 2,160 mines in eleven different fields in seven separate operations. The third operation involved more than just mines.
On the morning of 6 December 1939, Z12 Erich Giese and Z11 Bernd
von Arnim departed the Jade loaded with 120 contact and magnetic mines
to lay a field off Cromer. Z10 Hans Lody (Fregattenkapitan Erich Bey, flag
4th Destroyer Flotilla) provided the escort. Several hours into the mission
Bernd von Arnim, displaying the unreliability of the high-pressure steam
system used on most major German warships, blew a boiler tube. After
that a generator failed so, at 1835, Bey ordered her back to port and continued with only Erich Giese.
At 0105 hours on 7 December a pair of vessels approached the inbound
Germans and then turned away. Although the lookouts couldn't identify
the dark shapes, they were British destroyers, Juno (senior officer Commander W. E. Wilson) and Jersey on a routine patrol out of Immingham.
At 0205 Erich Giese arrived at her destination just three miles off the
Hainsborough lightship, square in the narrow shipping lane between
Britain's east coast and the Outer Dowsing, the shoal waters farther offshore. Seven minutes later her crew, in teams of five or six men, began rolling
the bulky mines off the stern while Hans Lody loitered some distance to the
north. Within half an hour the dangerous job was done. Two premature detonations caused some commotion onshore, but British searchlights probed
the sky, assuming German bombers were the cause of the blasts.
Erich Giese joined her sister and the two ships steered north to clear the
Outer Dowsing before turning east for home. But, sixteen minutes later at
0255, they detected two darkened shapes about nine thousand yards away
sailing at a high speed on nearly the same course bearing 325 degrees.
Within several minutes lookouts identified them as British destroyers.
Bey decided to hazard a torpedo attack. With Hans Lody leading, he
angled in on the contact. By 0310 the Germans, running west and slightly
south of the British, had closed to about five thousand yards. At 0314
Hans Lody fired three torpedoes while Erich Giese launched four. They
then turned east.
Hans Lody's salvo missed, perhaps because of the reliability problems
German torpedoes suffered in the war's first year, but after three and three
quarters minutes, one from Erich Giese's salvo struck Jersey on her port
side abreast the after torpedo tubes. There was a violent explosion that
ignited a large fire. Juno immediately turned and laid a smoke screen,
uncertain whether the attack had come from mines, bombs, or a submarine. Jersey was fortunate on several countsthe torpedo caught her in a
hard turn to port (the British had finally seen something and were turning
to investigate) which blew the blast away from the ship, and escaping
steam eventually helped douse the fire. She lost only nine men.
|Table 1.3. Action off Cromer, 7 December 1939|
As he watched the welcome sight of the burning destroyer, Bey considered whether he should turn and attack with gunfire but instead he set
a course for home. While his decision may have forfeited a more decisive
tactical victory, it ensured the British remained unaware that enemy
destroyers were laying minefields off their coast, a secret worth more than
one or two destroyers. Juno eventually managed to tow Jersey near to
Immingham, and the tug Biddy brought her into port. She was under
repair until 23 September 1940.
The book devotes considerably more space to some of the larger engagements, but all share the same attention to detail and the same stylish prose. With so much information presented so expertly, O'Hara's accounts should appeal to those interested in reading exciting sea tales as well as those seeking hardcore data.
More than that, the author analyzes the accumulation of data to discover some interesting statistics and trends: "The details of these battles, both famous and forgotten, are interesting
in themselves for illustrating how designs, doctrine, and leadership withstood the stress of combat. I unexpectedly discovered that the details fit
together like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal a bigger picture. They reveal how the
navy, its men, and its opponents evolved through six long years of warfare. They reveal that the German navy's war was not just a U-boat war, that the
surface fleet was much more than a few doomed battleships. They reveal that
the navy's contribution to Germany's war effort was greater and more crucial to her hopes for victory and later her survival than is commonly realized."
It should come as no surprise when O'Hara concludes that the evidence shows as a whole the leaders of the Kriegsmarine failed to take chances at sea and "...repeatedly lost battles they could have won." This did not come about because they were faint-hearted, but because the size of the Kriegsmarine meant the Germans could not afford to take losses, and because the tradition and doctrine of the German Navy did not approve of combat simply for the sake of combat. The Kriegsmarine, O'Hara writes, was also handicapped by warships with unreliable machinery, flawed weapons (such as faulty torpedoes and dud shells), and an inadequate working relationship with the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, the author asserts that German warships and sailors fought with bravery and determination, and he lists multiple examples of how the numerically inferior Kriegsmarine repeatedly scored important strategic successes, such as in the invasion of Norway. Given that the Royal Navy was stretched thin by worldwide commitments, the possibility existed that Germany could utilize its surface fleet in a war-winning role. O'Hara quotes Admiral Dudley Pound's fear that surface raiders, not U-Boats, would paralyze the UK's seaborne supply system, and the author points out "[t]he 1941 cruise of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst provided a template on how to shut down the North Atlantic convoys."
O'Hara goes on to cite statistics developed in the course of producing his book, and the meaning of those statistics. For example, through the end of October 1943 the Kriegsmarine surface fleet was more than holding its own against the combined Allied navies, having won or achieved a draw in twenty out of thirty-seven surface engagements, with the Allies losing more warships and more warship tonnage than the Germans during that period. On the other hand, the pendulum swung decisively against Germany in surface engagements for the remainder of the war. Many of those engagements in the last eighteen months of the war were decided by superior Allied intelligence, particularly sigint, which "enabled the Allies to concentrate overwhelming force at just the right place at just the right time." Appendix C delves further into this kind of data with graphs (and explanations) covering the relative frequency of various types of surface engagements, where those engagements occurred, who the Germans opposed, etc. In one of the most interesting, Figure 5 demonstrates that through 1942 the overwhelming majority of Kriegsmarine surface battles were fought during daylight, while from 1943 through the end of the war the balance shifted to 90 percent at night.
Other appendices deal with abbreviations, definitions, and organization of the German Navy.
O'Hara did everything right with this book. He picked an interesting, seldom discussed topic. He wrote polished, engaging prose that practically puts the reader on the bridge in the middle of each battle. He packed the book with a heavy dose of hard data, fully documented. He included clean maps, clear graphs, and a solid bibliography. He analyzed the battles and drew conclusions about the whole which transcend each separate action. And he left us looking forward to his next book.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Naval Institute Press.
Thanks to NIP for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 21 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone