When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis assumed power they initially had grand designs for the development of a large, ultra-modern, three-ocean navy that would bring Germany on a par with all the other naval powers in Europe, including the historically powerful British Empire. In the grand scheme of things, Hitler and the German Navy high command (OKM) envisaged the creation of a powerful surface fleet based around the inception of four large fleet aircraft carriers, 10 modern battleships and more than 200 battle-cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers; complimented by an underwater fleet of some 250 submarines or U-boats. This wholesale expansion of the German Navy was dubbed Plan Z in 1939, after Hitler had abrogated every last constraint levied against his nation by the Treaty of Versailles. But soon after Germany went to war Hitler was compelled to pare down his naval expectations considerably by devoting Germany’s limited war production capacity toward the building of a large and powerful conventional army and air force instead. Hitler’s pursuit of empire-building and world domination came with a decidedly continental slant, which left him prone to limiting his aggressive visions primarily toward objectives within the domain of purely ground-based intervention. His limited strategic grasp of naval power ultimately led him to abandon his pursuit of a large-scale, global navy for the alternative of a maritime military force built around the commerce-raiding tendencies of submarine warfare.
Germany’s naval performance during WWII was largely disappointing compared to the illustrious military feats of its army and to a lesser extent, the Luftwaffe. Much of this was because of the inadequate resources Germany’s war machine devoted to naval production, especially after Plan Z was effectively terminated in exchange for a commitment strictly toward the building of submarines. The Kriegsmarine’s primarily tactical, surface fleet, with its small but powerful assortment of heavy cruisers and pocket-battleships, was never powerful enough to take on the naval might of the British Empire on an even keel, thus it was forced to resort to a ‘fleet-in-being’ posture, restricting its major warships to their own ports, apart from an occasional commerce-raiding sortie to intercept Allied convoys in the Atlantic or Arctic Oceans. Germany’s naval high command considered their surface warships too vulnerable to the combined might of British and American naval forces; so were indisposed to seeking out the pivotal confrontation on the open seas that typified naval engagements in the Pacific Theater. And because the Soviet Union’s diminutive naval surface fleet was effectively blockaded in the North Baltic for most of the war, Germany’s only maritime threats emanated from the west, which gave prominence to the one-directional, ‘fleet-in-being’ defensive stature the Kriegsmarine rendered their surface fleet for the duration of the war.
At the opening to hostilities in WWII Germany’s surface fleet made a considerable impact in the taking of Poland’s Westerplatte Fortress in Danzig Harbor but its powerful battleships, pocket-battleships and heavy cruisers were left back home to defend the North Sea approaches to its principal navy bases in Kiel and Bremerhaven. It wasn’t until the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April of 1940 that the Kriegsmarine was given its first and only chance to decide the outcome of a major Wehrmacht operation. Operation Weserubung, the plan for the German invasion of Denmark and Norway was a military endeavor fashioned exclusively by the navy high command (OKM) and their conceptual overlords in the Wehrmacht high command, (OKW). Most of Germany’s naval surface fleet was to play a pivotal role in the transport and landing of ground force contingents as well as preparatory bombardment of ports and harbor facilities; intercession against Allied naval penetration of the landing areas and the neutralizing of Norwegian and Danish naval assets. Germany’s navy did an admirable job in fulfilling its main objective to transport more than 100,000 German troops into six separate landing zones on the Norwegian peninsula but it later suffered significant losses to its destroyer fleet as well as the loss of a heavy cruiser and two light cruisers. These considerable losses compelled Hitler to forego using the navy’s dwindling surface fleet in anymore military operations of an amphibious nature.
Because of the surface fleet’s diminished capacity for large-scale naval operations the navy’s commander-in-chief, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder revised the Kriegsmarine’s wartime strategy to elicit an indiscriminate naval blockade of the British Isles in order to starve his mortal enemy into submission. For this military endeavor Raeder conscripted Adm. Karl Doenitz’s U-boat fleet to undertake a comprehensive submarine blockade of British ports and the maritime interception of British and Allied merchant shipping to and from the isles. But just like in WWI when German U-boat operations alternately yielded the hostility of the USA for interfering with their commerce shipping, so too did Doenitz’s U-boat wolfpacks raise the ire of the American government for intermittent damage caused to its merchant fleet. After the USA entered the war in 1941 Doenitz initiated a virtual free-for-all on all Allied shipping plying the waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. For the first few years of the war Doenitz’s wolfpacks wreaked extensive havoc on Allied merchant shipping which nearly brought Britain to her knees but by the middle of 1943, with newer convoy escort tactics thriving and improved radar and sonar technology giving the defenders a unique advantage, the roles were swiftly reversed and Germany’s U-boat menace gradually subsided. Once the Allied air forces decisively reduced their Luftwaffe opponents, Germany’s vulnerable surface fleet began to diminish one ship at a time as their home ports increasingly fell victim to the Allied strategic bombing campaign.
By the end of the war the German Kriegsmarine’s dwindling rolls were increasingly absorbed into the beleaguered army to refill depleted infantry divisions or to constitute new fighting formations. Many of the makeshift navy formations were amalgamated in with their equally inept Luftwaffe brothers for which a whole slew of inexperienced, infantry combat formations were sacrificed to forestall the inevitable collapse of Nazi Germany. Probably the one lasting impression posterity would have for the WWII Kriegsmarine was that Adolf Hitler thought enough of its last wartime commander-in-chief, Adm. Doenitz to designate him as his political successor and final president of the thousand-year Third Reich. In the end, Germany’s Kriegsmarine had made its most impressive contributions to modern warfare in the field of submarine technology. Its development of the schnorkel, underwater air filtration system more than doubled the amount of time submarines could operate submerged and in its introduction of the Type XXI and XXIII electro boat models, the submarine was finally adapted to operate submerged for an indefinite period; bringing forth a whole new meaning for the term submersible vessel. But probably its greatest legacy lay in the German Navy’s use of the enigma, signals encryption device for which the Allied war effort would gain immeasurable intelligence breakthroughs that enabled them to stay one step ahead of the German war machine for nearly the duration of World War Two. The following is our list of the ten greatest officer-sailors in the German Navy throughout WWII.
Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz: Germany’s U-boat guru might not have been the navy’s most distinguished seaman but he was certainly its most renowned and eminently feared high admiral during the Second World War. During the interwar years Doenitz was Germany’s foremost advocate of unlimited submarine warfare against the British Empire, for which he believed was the only plausible way to inhibit British war production if they should revert to war against Nazi Germany. Once Germany initiated the war in Europe in 1939 Doenitz was given his chance to implement these naval strategies after being promoted to lead the Kriegsmarine’s submarine arm. For the next three years Doenitz’s U-boats proved quite a profitable investment to the German war effort by securing a virtual siege perimeter around the British Isles which nearly starved the British into submission. The U-boats immediately brought huge dividends by sinking the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous in the North Sea and brazenly torpedoing the battleship HMS Royal Oak at anchorage in its base at Scapa Flow. Doenitz devised and oversaw the development of the originally successful ‘wolfpack’ sub tactics as a way to defeat the Allied convoy system and then boldly sent his submersibles to wreak havoc along America’s eastern seaboard after the USA entered the war. Doenitz’s ‘wolfpack’ system proved to be the only fruitful undertaking Germany’s undersized navy introduced throughout the war. In 1943 Doenitz acceded to the highest position in the German Navy after succeeding Grand Admiral Erich Raeder as commander-in-chief, but spent the rest of the war in frustration after the Allies finally cracked the key to the U-boat’s success and formulated their own war-winning strategy to neutralize Germany’s submarine menace. Doenitz’s loyalty to Adolf Hitler was duly reciprocated at the end of the war when the fuehrer appointed him as his political successor and commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht in his final will and testament. Ultimately it was Doenitz who eventually ended the war when he ordered his military underlings to accept the Allied conditions for surrender on May 7, 1945. Doenitz’s ill-fated post-Nazi German government in Flensburg lasted only sixteen days before the Allies shut it down and took all its members into custody. As one of the high commanders in the Wehrmacht, Doenitz was tried as a war criminal at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal and convicted of waging aggressive war and other war crimes charges. Most of these came as a result of his order to U-boat commanders to forego the rescuing at sea of enemy sailors that survived the sinking of their vessel. He spent ten years in confinement at the Allied war crimes prison in Spandau before being released in October of 1956.
Adm. Gunther Lutjens: As one of the Kriegsmarine’s most capable, capital surface fleet skippers, Gunther Lujens was involved in many of the German Navy’s most notable engagements on the high seas. His glaring reputation as a naval tactician made him the obvious choice to command Germany’s high-seas fleet for the invasion of Normandy in 1940. Taking command from his flagship aboard the battle-cruiser Gneisenau, Lutjens oversaw the transport and amphibious landings of more than 60,000 German troops at six separate landing areas along the Norwegian coast and then directed naval fire support operations in the various fjords that channeled the landing zones. Although the operation was ultimately successful, Germany’s capital warships took heavy losses in the various skirmishes they fought against the British Navy and the Norwegian coastal artillery batteries. Lutjens later went on to author the navy’s operational plans for the later cancelled Operation Sea Lion; the amphibious invasion of the British Isles. Later in the winter of 1941, Lutjens took to sea with the Gneisenau and the battleship Scharnhorst during Operation Berlin; a deep sea commerce-raiding voyage that destroyed 22 allied merchant ships in the mid-Atlantic, along with more than 100,000 tons of British war material. He attempted a similar voyage several months later aboard the battleship Bismarck and her escort cruiser Prinz Eugen during Operation Rheinubung. Lutjens oversaw the breakout from the Baltic of both warships but immediately ran into the British battleships HMS Hood and the HMS Prince of Wales. In the ensuing battle off the coast of Iceland, Bismarck hit the Hood with a broadside salvo with her 16-inch guns that tore into the ship’s gun magazine and set off a cataclysmic explosion that sank her in minutes. Bismarck also damaged the Prince of Wales extensively and forced the British to break off the action. However Bismarck was to suffer debilitating damage to her rudder that left her oozing a trail of oil in her wake, wherein the mighty battleship was quickly tracked down and blasted by shore-based British Mosquito bombers. Lutjens and more than 2,000 of his crew went down with the Bismarck on May 27, 1941.
Admiral Oskar Kummetz: Was one of the Kriegsmarine’s premier capital warship commanders and its last commanding admiral of the Baltic Fleet. His first notable performance during the war came at the bridge of the heavy cruiser Blucher when he gallantly led a naval task force of cruisers and destroyers into Oslo fjord during the invasion of Norway in an attempt to seize the Norwegian capital and capture its ruling monarch, King Haakon VII. During the close order action inside the fjord the bridge of Blucher was destroyed by artillery fire from shore-based naval guns from the Norwegian fortress at Oscarsbourg. Kummetz barely escaped death when the Blucher subsequently capsized and sank inside the fjord but he later went on to neutralize the enemy fire and direct naval support of the German troops inside the city. Two years later Kummetz directed one of the two surface task forces designated to intercept and destroy the Allied PQ-17 convoy as it entered the Barents Sea on its way to the North Russian port of Murmansk. But Kummetz’ most distinguished performance during the war came at the head of Operation Hannibal, the naval evacuation of more than a million German civilians and soldiers from the besieged province of East Prussia during the waning months of the war. In a 15-week span between January and April of 1945, Kummetz directed more than 1,000 German naval vessels, merchant ships, trawlers, passenger liners, barges, tugs and private pleasure craft in an immense rescue operation to liberate millions of his threatened kinsfolk from the vengeful Red Army as they ran roughshod over the first German province to fall behind enemy lines. Kummetz’ humanitarian operation was roughly four times larger than the Allied evacuation that rescued 330,000 British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940. Although Hannibal would witness the tragic loss of more than 7,000 civilians from the Soviet sinking of the passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff and a further 10,000 casualties from the dual sinking of the passenger ships Goya and the merchantman Admiral von Steuben, Kummetz’ rescue flotilla did manage to bring out more than 1.2 million civilians and Wehrmacht personnel before the operation came to an end with the Soviet seizure of the East German province. Kummetz’ humanitarian rescue mission was and still is the largest military evacuation at sea in world history and perhaps the German Navy’s greatest operational performance in all of WWII.
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris: This enigmatic but distinguished German admiral made his mark in WWII not in the field of naval operations but in the clandestine realm of military intelligence. Canaris was the Wehrmacht’s top spymaster during much of the Second World War and played an integral part in Adolf Hitler’s initial foreign policy triumphs before the opening of hostilities. But in the process of machinating the numerous intelligence bonanzas that enabled Hitler to embark on his quest for world conquest, Canaris became disillusioned with the path the Nazi regime was taking the German people. His disenchantment with the Nazis’ gradually turned to covert opposition wherein he began to secretly conspire with Germany’s numerous anti-Nazi resistance groups to put an end to Hitler’s disastrous adventures. As head of the Abwehr, the Wehrmacht’s semi-independent intelligence branch, Canaris was properly positioned to direct a small cadre of subordinate co-conspirators to elicit collaboration with Germany’s numerous foreign enemies to bring a semblance of legitimacy to the Nazi resistance circles. Canaris was instrumental in uniting the various resistance groups toward one prompt endeavor and supervised a coordinated campaign to deceive and divert the attention of the Nazi secret police services away from the main conspirators. For four years Canaris and his secret operatives played a cat and mouse game with the Gestapo to conceal the activities of the Wehrmacht officers involved in the anti-Nazi resistance while continuously feeding a steady stream of disinformation and semi-legitimate, intelligence data to Hitler’s trusted confidantes in the military high command and the Nazi’s own parallel spy service in Reinhard Heydrich’s SD. Ultimately Canaris and his cohort’s involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance was exposed after the failed assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944; a conviction that would lead to his execution at the hands of the Gestapo barely ten months later.
Captain Otto Kretschmer: “Silent Otto” was the celebrated moniker given to this stealthy and brilliantly capable U-boat commander and even though his combat career was cut short in 1941, four years before the end of WWII, his legendary exploits and submarine tactics were simulated and duplicated by every standing member of the U-boat’s command fraternity for the duration of the war. Kretschmer was after all, the most successful U-boat commander of the Second World War and one of the legends of submarine warfare since its inception early in the Twentieth Century. His career yield of 47 enemy ships sunk and more than 275,000 tons of destroyed allied shipping in just the first eighteen months of WWII was a mark that was never matched by any other U-boat commander nor any enemy submarine commander either. This mark is all the more impressive considering that it was accomplished in the days before the German Navy paired up its teams of U-boats in order to perfect the wolfpack tactics that soon became the calling card of German submarine assault operations. All his successful U-boat assaults were performed in solo attacks on enemy ships plying the waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Yet Kretschmer was never one to taunt his beleaguered quarries that were suddenly cast into the frigid waters of the northern seas. He regularly aided his unfortunate victims by providing life-saving provisions to the lifeboats of stranded sailors and more than once he was noted for bringing some on board his vessel to deliver more acute medical care. Kretschmer’s U-99 was finally forced to surface from a British depth-charge salvo on March 17, 1941, for which he promptly scuttled his ship and went off into captivity alongside his crew for the next seven years. But Germany’s foremost U-boat commander was abruptly called back to service to help build the post-Nazi, German Navy and he later went on to serve as chief-of-staff to NATO’s naval command in the early 1960’s.
Lt. Commander Gunther Prien: Another elite commander of Germany’s U-boat fraternity, Prien is listed as his navy’s ninth most successful submarine commander of the Second World War. His Type VIIB, U-47 is credited with sinking 30 allied merchant ships and over 200,000 tons of enemy shipping in just the ten missions it sailed in over the first eighteen months of the war. However Prien’s most celebrated accomplishment was his audacious sinking of the British battleship HMS Royal Oak while it sat at anchorage in the Home Fleet port at Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939. Prien’s ‘do-or-die mission’ with an all-volunteer crew was one of the most daring naval operations in all of WWII. His U-47 was forced to navigate through an extensive, naval defense screen, formidable shore batteries and perilous shallow waters to deliver a seven-torpedo salvo on the exposed British battleship. Although five of the torpedoes failed to detonate, the two that managed to explode were enough to sink the mighty warship in 100-feet of water. When Prien returned home after the mission he was immediately elevated to national hero status wherein his celebrated prestige is often likened to American aviation hero Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, as his nation’s first soldier to bring defeat on the enemy. Prien and the crew of U-47 were killed in action after being torpedoed by the British destroyer HMS Wolverine as it shadowed convoy OB-293 off the coast of Ireland. News of the celebrated U-boat commander’s death was deliberately postponed for more than two months by the German media to delay the inevitable shock to national morale that Prien’s death was sure to provoke.
Captain Wolfgang Luth: Was the second most successful U-boat commander and probably the most prolific merchant vessel hunter out of all the submarine aces in the Second World War. His 46 merchant ship kills and more than 230,000 tons of allied shipping was second only to Otto Kretschmer as his nation’s foremost submarine commanders. Luth traveled far and wide in his five-years at the helm of four different U-boats and is credited with sinking merchant shipping from more than a dozen enemy countries. Many of these merchant kills occurred in seas more than 10,000 miles from his home port in Lorient, France; often in the far Southern Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. He is one of only two navy sailors to be awarded Germany’s highest military medal for battlefield bravery, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. In September of 1944 and after more than 600 days in submarine service on the open seas, Luth was promoted to command the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat command school where he became intricately involved in adapting the tactical skills of Germany’s remaining U-boat commanders to the newest developments in submarine warfare ingrained from the Type XXI and Type XXIII electric boats. Five days after the end of WWII Luth was mistakenly shot and killed by a German sentry as he attempted to gain entrance to the new government’s naval command facilities in Flensburg. He was the last German soldier to be given a distinctly Nazi, state funeral and was widely honored by Admiral Karl Doenitz’s short-lived Flensburg government.
Admiral Theodor Burchardi: Was one of the senior admirals in the Kriegsmarine and surface fleet commander in the Eastern Baltic for most of WWII. He acceded to head Fleet Command-Ostland after the launching of Operation Barbarossa and then oversaw a collective effort by German and Finnish surface warships in effectively blockading the huge Soviet naval base at Krondstadt for the next three years. Burchardi supervised naval operations along the Baltic coast, including the destruction of the Soviet’s Red Banner Fleet in Tallinn Harbor in the fall of 1941; the offshore shelling of Tallinn and the subsequent evacuation of German and Axis forces from that port when the Soviets cut them off in the autumn of 1944. Burchardi’s warships then supported the ground operations of Army Group North during their debilitating retreat from the coasts of Estonia and Latvia in the latter half of 1944; including the evacuation of civilians and military personnel from Memel and Riga. He later teamed up with Admiral Oskar Kummetz in coordinating the extensive evacuation-by-sea of millions of soldiers and civilians from East Prussia during Operation Hannibal. Burchardi’s organizational talents were instrumental in transferring hundreds of thousands of German troops to different parts of the front after the Soviet offensives of 1944-45’ effectively cut them off by land from their lines of communications and retreat. He is widely considered to be one of the Kriegsmarine’s most effective, surface fleet commanders during the Second World War and its most capable tactician in the operations of capital warships in shore defense and coastal support of operations on land.
Captain Albrecht Brandi: This bold and courageous U-boat commander led all German submarine aces in the sinking of enemy warships throughout WWII. Brandi is credited with destroying 12 enemy warships, including a British and an American destroyer and the British minelayer HMS Welshman, in the crowded and often perilous Mediterranean Sea. In 1943 Brandi navigated through the formidable British defense picket across the Strait of Gibraltar and then remained on station in the Mediterranean for the next ten months during the most brutal period of fighting in the heavily contested theater. Brandi’s U-617 set up shop in the waters off of Malta and proceeded to wreak havoc on the allied supply lines to and from the strategic island and their bases in North Africa. U-617 destroyed more than 60,000 tons of allied shipping in the Mediterranean during the ten months it was on active patrol but made more of an impact interrupting the allied navies in their own anti-shipping operations against the Axis supply-lines to Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The U-617 was eventually forced to surface and abandoned off the coast of Spanish Morocco and the crew was subsequently detained by Spanish authorities. Brandi nevertheless found his way back to Germany and went back to sea at the helm of U-967 when he once again defied the British Navy by sneaking into the Mediterranean and sinking the American destroyer, USS Fechteler in May of 44’. After he returned from this operation Brandi was promoted to command all German U-boats in the Eastern Baltic, where he once again proved an energetic and palpably aggressive high commander in destroying mostly Soviet shipping during the waning months of the war. Brandi partnered with Capt. Wolfgang Luth as the only two sailors in the German Navy to be awarded the coveted Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.
General Admiral Wilhelm Marschall: This celebrated U-boat commander of the First World War would spend the interwar years refining his tactical skills in the command of capital warships and at the outbreak of WWII he led the first German naval task force in the sinking of an enemy warship off the Faroe Islands. Marschall went to sea aboard his flagship battleship Gneisenau and immediately sank ten enemy merchant ships during commerce raids in the North Atlantic in 1939. In 1940 during the German invasion of Norway Marschall once again led a surface fleet task force based around the pocket battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, with the express orders to draw away British capital warships from the German landing zones but not to engage them on the open seas. But when the aggressive Marschall saw a chance to hit a British aircraft carrier during the waning days of the Norwegian Campaign he opted to disregard his standing orders and confront the enemy while he had the advantage. In a three hour battle which pitted his battleship task force against the British carrier HMS Glorious and her destroyer escort force, Marschall scored a resounding victory by sinking the enemy carrier and two of her destroyer escorts. However Scharnhorst suffered serious damage by an enemy torpedo and had to be towed back to port at Trondheim, Norway. For his disobedience in ignoring a standing order, Marschall was relieved of his command and assigned to shore commands for the next three years. In 1942 he was rendered fit for promotion and given command of Germany’s Western Fleet based out of France, but his inability to get along with Admiral Doenitz once again forced him from a command position. He later oversaw Germany’s small flotilla of barge craft and patrol boats on the Danube River. Marschall was an extremely capable naval tactician who was simply a victim of the Nazi’s overly conservative handling of their navy’s surface fleet.
Grand Admiral Erich Raeder: Germany’s original navy commander-in-chief was one of the chief proponents of the Nazi’s Plan Z naval expansion. When those plans were eventually disregarded in exchange for a far less expensive buildup of submarine craft, Raeder became increasingly disillusioned with Hitler and the Wehrmacht high command. He finally resigned from his position after arguing with Hitler over naval strategy in the Atlantic. Raeder was a steadfast advocate of the sinking of American merchant vessels destined for the British Isles before the USA entered the war in December of 1941. He was tried and convicted of waging aggressive war at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released early because of health reasons after serving ten years in Spandau Prison.
Captain-Lieutenant Otto Pollmann: This clever destroyer skipper was the navy’s foremost submarine hunter in WWII; credited with the destruction of 14 enemy submarines. He later went on to serve as the post-Nazi German Navy’s premier expert in anti-submarine warfare. He died on active duty serving as a NATO coast patrol liaison with the Dutch Navy.