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Surface Commerce Raiding

Given the disparity in strength between the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) and the Royal Navy, German strategy at sea during World War II was to avoid a traditional naval battle and attack Allied merchant shipping with surface raiders and submarines (U-boats). These attacks on maritime trade served multiple purposes. The threat alone forced Britain and France to put merchant ships into inefficient convoys, while the difficulties of spotting and tracking U-boats required the dispersal of large numbers of planes and escorts for trade defense. In addition, the cumulative total of cargo ship losses would reduce overall transport capacity and reduce the amount of cargo shipped overseas. The role of surface raiders in this campaign was to evade enemy patrols in European waters and then sink as many merchant ships as possible in a sudden descent on the Atlantic trade routes. A side benefit of these operations would be the disruption of the merchant ship convoy cycle, which had secondary and tertiary effects on Allied resource mobilization, war production, and troop deployments.

The main tools used by the Kriegsmarine in this campaign were the three Panzerschiffe (literally armored ship, but popularly known as pocket battleships) Lutzow, Admiral Graf Spee, Admiral Scheer, two heavy cruisers (Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen), two battle cruisers, (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), and a fast battleship (Bismarck). All of these warships were relatively new, the oldest being Lutzow, and she was launched in 1931. They had good range, were faster than most Allied battleships, and were well-armed compared to most British and French anti-commerce raiding forces. The Germans also equipped armed merchant ship auxiliaries as raiders, which had the advantage of "camouflage" when sailing in far off waters such as the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

Unfortunately for Germany, the surface raiders had little success early in the war. Lutzow made a long but unsuccessful cruise in October 1939, while Admiral Graf Spee was hunted down and forced to scuttle in the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay, two months later. The pair only sank eleven merchant ships between them. The British naval operations that led to the self-destruction of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in Uruguayan waters in December 1939 highlighted the ineffectual character of the Neutrality Zone around South America. In 1940 the United States abandoned the idea of a specifically limited neutrality zone and adopted instead a policy of patrolling Atlantic waters as far out to sea as circumstances of the moment dictated. Under this revised policy the United States extended its patrolling to the mid-Atlantic in 1941.

These poor results were caused in part by the restricted geography of the North Sea, with German Navy bases being concentrated in the southeastern corner. In the summer of 1940, however, the collapse of Norway, the Low Countries, and France dramatically improved Germany's strategic position. No longer could the Royal Navy easily "bottle up" Axis forces in restricted waters. To make matters worse for Britain, attacks from newly-established bases in France outflanked British defenses and stretched British patrol aircraft and escorts to the breaking point.

In response to this disaster, American policy began to shift away from neutrality. On 27 June 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a national emergency and began American efforts to control shipping in the western hemisphere. In August, as part of informal staff talks between American and British officers, the U.S. sent military officers to observe Commonwealth operating procedures. As part of this process, and to familiarize the British with American-built seaplanes (London had ordered 200 such aircraft), U.S. Navy officers soon began flights in Coastal Command Catalina patrol aircraft. In addition, on 2 September 1940, the United States government provided the Royal Navy with 50 over-age destroyers in return for leasing agreements on British bases in the Bahamas, Antigua, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Jamaica, and British Guiana. American forces began shifting into these bases over the next few months, strengthening the Atlantic Squadron's ability to patrol and watch over American waters.

In December 1940, German raiders Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper put to sea. These warships, together with the two battlecruisers that sortied during the first quarter of 1941, evaded British patrols and sank 47 Allied merchant ships. These actions disrupted British convoy defenses and severely dislocated the flow of shipping across the Atlantic. German U-boats took advantage of the confusion and sank another 138 merchant ships over the same four-month period.

In response to these raids, the U.S. Navy established the Support Force, Atlantic Fleet on 1 March 1941. Composed of destroyers, seaplane tenders, and patrol plane squadrons, it was intended to provide protection for convoys in the North Atlantic. By early-1941 the Battle of the Atlantic had taken an extremely critical turn. In Admiral Stark's opinion it had become, in fact, "hopeless except as we take strong measures to save it." Four of the most powerful surface vessels of the German Navy -- the pocket battleship Scheer, the heavy battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the 8-inch cruiser Admiral Hipper -- were on the loose, prowling the Atlantic sea lanes and adding serious destruction to the mounting toll of the U-boat packs. Submarine attacks could be countered by light escort vessels; but the German surface raiders, whether in refuge or at sea, presented a different threat, one that only capital ships or strong cruiser and carrier forces could meet. Admiral Stark had not at all exaggerated the seriousness of the situation.

By March 1941 it seemed to him only a matter of at most two months before the United States would be at war, "possibly undeclared," with Germany and Italy; although the Army at this time was counting on at least five months' grace. Admiral Stark discussed his analysis with the President on 2 April 1941 and again the next day, thrashed out the steps to be taken, and was told to adopt the strong measures he thought were required: to draw up plans for escort of convoy west of longitude 30 west and issue orders for the transfer into the Atlantic of a heavy striking force, including three battleships, from the Pacific. The destructive forays of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had given President Roosevelt an understandable concern for the safety of the American bases, particularly those which were most exposed or of most value to the Navy-Bermuda, Trinidad, and Newfoundland. On 7 April 1941 he directed the Secretary of War to have Newfoundland reinforced and to send garrisons to Bermuda and Trinidad immediately.

On 26 April, American patrols were pushed southward in the Atlantic to 20 degrees below the equator. This extension by enabling American carrier task groups to patrol the South Atlantic, allowed the British to concentrate their forces in northern waters. On 18 May, patrol squadron VP-52 at Argentia, Newfoundland began patrol operations from seaplane tender USS Albemarle (AV-5).

In an attempt to continue their successes from earlier in the year, the Kriegsmarine sent battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen on a raid into the Atlantic on 20 May 1941.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:57 ZULU