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War Ensign of Germany (1935–1938)
War Ensign (Reichskriegsflagge) 1938−1945

The Kriegsmarine is largely identified today with the navy of National Socialist Germany being one of three official branches of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces from 1 June 1935 to 1945. However it was a lineal continuation of the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic (1919-1935) as well as the Kriegsmarine (Kaiserliche Marine) of the German Empire before it. The K.u.k. Kriegsmarine was also the official name used by the Imperial and Royal Navy of Austria-Hungary until and including 1918.


German Battlecruiser Scharnhorst at Wilhelmshaven on 6 January 1938 a day before she was commissioned (top); Day of commissioning (bottom).
The battleship "Bismarck", 1941
Luftwaffe assisting the Kriegsmarine during the Operation Rösselsprung (1942)
The Brandenburgers had their own small naval unit: Coastal Raiders of the Meeres- und Küstenjägerabteilung during the anti-partisan (Bandenbekämpfung) Operation "Delphin" (1943).
Battleship "Tirpitz" in Norway, 1944
1: Kapitän zur See als Kommodore; 2: Konteradmiral; 3: Vizeadmiral; 4: Admiral; 5: Generaladmiral; 6: Großadmiral
Karl Dönitz with combat swimmers (German: Kampfschimmer or Meereskämpfer) of the Kriegsmarine, September 1944

Germany's Kriegsmarine grew rapidly during German naval rearmament from the later 1920s, the Treaty of Versailles had limited the size of the German navy and ways to circumvent this were to some extent found. In January 1939 Plan Z was ordered, calling for the construction of many naval vessels. The ships of the Kriegsmarine were on station during the Spanish Civil War and fought in World War II.

The Kriegsmarine's U-boats, most of which were constructed after Plan Z was abandoned at the beginning of World War II, became famous. Wolfpacks (groups of submarines) were rapidly assembled which attacked British convoys during the first half of the Battle of the Atlantic but this tactic was largely abandoned in the second half of the war due to the Allies development of accurate underwater radar.

The ultimate Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine (as for all branches of armed forces during the period of absolute National Socialist power) was Adolf Hitler, who exercised his authority through the Oberkommando der Marine.

With the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Weimar Republic – the successor to Imperial Germany – was allowed only a small defensive military force known as the Reichswehr. The Reichswehr’s size and composition were strictly controlled by the Allies in the hope that by restricting its constitution they could prevent future German military aggression. The Reichswehr consisted of 100,000 men divided between a small standing army, the Reichsheer, and a small defensive navy, the Reichsmarine. In 1933 the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) came to power and the infamous Third Reich was born. Two years later in 1935, the Treaty of Versailles was renounced and the Reichswehr became the Wehrmacht. The newly formed Wehrmacht would still consist of an army and a navy – the renamed Heer and Kriegsmarine, but a new air force was born as well – the Luftwaffe. The Kriegsmarine can be said to have consisted of three main components between 1935 and 1945, individual naval vessels, naval formations consisting of specific types of ships, and a wide variety of ground-based units. From these three main components, the Kriegsmarine fielded thousands of ships and hundreds of naval formations and ground units. Between 1939 and 1945 over 1.5 million served in the Kriegsmarine. Over 65,000 were killed [[[Killed in action|]]), over 105,000 went missing and over 21,000 were wounded. Of the 7361 men awarded the initial grade of the highest German combat honor of WWII, the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, 318 were from the Kriegsmarine making up 4 % of the total awarded. Of all the branches of the Wehrmacht, the Kriegsmarine was the most under-appreciated. It fought against superior numbers on almost every front with a force greatly limited by a lack of effective coordination and a harsh misunderstanding from within the German High Command (OKW). Although Allied air and naval power largely destroyed the entire German High Seas Fleet and U-boat force, the smaller and auxiliary vessels of the Kriegsmarine continued to serve effectively until the last hours of WWII. These vessels saw service along thousands of miles of coast in every theater of war and provided an important link in the backbone of the Wehrmacht. German naval ground units also provided a critical service during WWII, manning massive guns along the Atlantic Wall in the west and naval flak and artillery units all across Western and Eastern Europe. There were also countless naval infantry, engineer, and communications units as well. In the last months of WWII most, all of the naval ground units were involved directly in fighting of some form or another, some naval units even took part in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The Kriegsmarine was officially disbanded in August of 1946 by the Allied Control Commission, although many smaller Kriegsmarine ships survived on active service, now under Allied control, as a part of the German contingent to clear the oceans and seas of mines sown by Axis and Allies alike.[1]

Major wartime operations

  • Wikinger ("Viking") (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 ("Knight's Move/Leap") (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 Spitzbergen (Svalbard)
  • Hannibal (1945) - evacuation proceedings from Courland, Danzig-West Prussia and East Prussia.
  • Deadlight (1945) – the British Royal Navy's postwar scuttling of Kriegsmarine U-boats

Operation Weserübung

Main article: Operation Weserübung

Operation Weserübung was the codename for the German plan (27 January 1940) to conquer Norway and Denmark, which was implemented from 9 April to 10 June 1940. In preparation for the offensive on the French front, the armed forces of the Reich first invaded Denmark and Norway. Since the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 and plunged Europe and the world into World War II, the military-political leadership of the Reich had achieved several important objectives. Scandinavia was an important military base. Berlin had to beat England and France, who planned to land troops in Scandinavia during the Soviet-Finnish war. After the defeat of Finland, the Anglo-French military-political leadership had not abandoned plans to use strategic points of Scandinavia. So Hitler wanted to get ahead of the Anglo-French forces. Control of the Norwegian coastline could allow the Allies to implement an efficient blockade of Germany. This blockade could create great strategic difficulties for the German forces. The Reich had no other choice.

The Reich needed the important ports and airfields as a strategic launching pad to put pressure on England and for a possible future war with Russia. A Norwegian bridgehead could be used to attack the Soviet Arctic and the blockade of sea routes in the Barents sea. Germany would also be provided with important kinds of strategic raw materials, which would strengthen the military-economic potential. German industry was dependant on the import of iron ore from Sweden. This ore was sent via the Norwegian port of Narvik. The occupation of Norway would allow Germany to control the nearby seas and to organise future operations by German U-boats.

Using assistance to Finland as rationale, the Allied Supreme War Council decided on 5 February 1940 on intervention in Norway. Initial plans are for a landing at Narvik, and success would rely on the acquiescence of Norway and Sweden. It was clear that despite the stated rationale, cutting supplies of iron ore to Germany was a prime motivation for the plan. On 16 February 1940, the British destroyer HMS Cossack under Philip Louis Vian intercepted the German tanker Altmark in neutral Norwegian waters. The Britisch freed 303 British internees (merchant sailors) whose ships had been captured by the Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. Eight men from the Altmark crew were shot and murdered, another 10 wounded. The "Altmark Incident" makes public the attitude of the Allies toward intervention in Norway, and provides impetus to German planners to accelerate their plans. The Norwegians were angered that their neutrality had been infringed by the British, as they did not want to be dragged into the war. Nonetheless, the incident sowed doubts about Norwegian neutrality among the Allies and in Germany. Adolf Hitler ordered intensified planning.

German forces were able to slip through the mines Britain had laid around Norwegian ports because local garrisons were ordered to allow the Germans to land unopposed. The order came from a Norwegian commander loyal to Norway’s former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling. Hours after the landing, the German minister in Oslo demanded Norway’s surrender. The Norwegian government refused, and the Germans responded with a landing of Fallschirmjäger as well as Gebirgsjäger (only after one of the two Norwegian coastal armored ships lying off Narvik was sunk could German mountain troops be brought ashore) and the establishment of a gouvernment led by Quisling. Some Norwegian forces refused to accept German rule and continued to fight alongside British troops. But an accelerating German offensive in France led Britain to transfer thousand of soldiers from Norway to France, supporting the complete German victory.

The Kriegsmarine under Erich Raeder lost 1 heavy cruiser, 2 light cruisers, 10 destroyers as well as various U-boats, transports and smaller warships. Norway lost 116 ships lost, the Royal Navy lost 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, 7 destroyers, 1 submarine as well as various transports and smaller warships. The French Navy lost 1 destroyer and 1 submarine, the Polish Navy 1 destroyer and 1 submarine.

Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine (OBdM)

  • Admiral/Generaladmiral/Großadmiral Erich Raeder – 1 June 1935 until 30 January 1943 (de facto since 1928)
  • Großadmiral Karl Dönitz – 30 January 1943 until 30 April 1945
  • Generaladmiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg – 1 May until 23 May 1945
  • Generaladmiral Walter Warzecha – 23/24 May until 22 July 1945 m. d. W. d. G. b. (under the command of the occupying forces or Allies)

Comparative ranks (during World War II)


Kriegsmarine US Navy/Royal Navy
Großadmiral (= Generalfeldmarschall of the Heer) Fleet Admiral/Admiral of the Fleet
Generaladmiral (= Generaloberst and SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS) Admiral
Admiral (= General der Waffengattung and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS) Vice Admiral
Vizeadmiral (= Generaleutnant and SS-Gruppenführer und Generaleutnant der Waffen-SS) Rear Admiral (Upper Half)/Rear Admiral
Konteradmiral (= Generalmajor and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS) Rear Admiral (Lower Half)/Commodore Admiral
Kommodore (Kapitän zur See als Kommodor) Commodore Junior Grade/ Commodore
Kapitän zur See Captain
Fregattenkapitän Commander
Korvettenkapitän Lieutenant Commander
Kapitänleutnant Lieutenant
Oberleutnant zur See Lieutenant (Jg.)/Sub-Lieutenant
Leutnant zur See Ensign/Acting Sub-Lieutenant
Oberfähnrich zur See Midshipman (Senior Grade)
Fähnrich zur See (Officer Cadet) Cadet/Midshipman (Junior Grade)
Offiziersnawärter / Seekadett (Officer Candidate)

Seamen and Petty Officers

  • Matrose (Seaman Recruit)
  • Matrosengefreiter (Seaman Apprentice)
  • Matrosenobergefreiter (Seaman)
  • Matrosenhauptgefreiter (Seaman with 4 ½ years time-in-service)
  • Matrosenstabsgefreiter (Seaman with 6 years time-in-service)
  • Matrosenoberstabsgefreiter (Seaman with 8 years time-in-service)
  • Bootsmannsmat (Petty Officer 3rd Class)
  • Oberbootsmannsmat (Petty Officer 2nd Class)
  • Bootsmann/Feldwebel (Petty Officer 1st Class)
  • Stabsbootsman/Stabsfeldwebel (Petty Officer 1st Class with 12 years time-in-service)
  • Oberbootsman/Oberfeldwebel (Chief Petty Officer)
  • Stabsoberbootsman/Stabsoberfeldwebel (Chief Petty Officer with 10 years time-in-service including 3 years time-in-grade)

Further reading

External links

Walter Lewandowski (1925–2021; DKiG)

In German