02 Dec 22

Having been assigned to work with the Army in Aldershot, I availed myself of the excellent Prince Consort’s Library in the Military Town, accessible to all serving personnel. Amongst the surprisingly large maritime collection this book caught my eye.

Plan Z was the German Naval Staff’s construction plan for 1939-47. Once Versailles, Washington and London treaty restrictions had been discarded, Plan Z was the next step towards a balanced fleet to challenge the Royal Navy. The Plan was proposed by Raeder and fully endorsed by Hitler until he grew frustrated with the surface fleet’s performance in 1942 after the Battle of the Barents Sea with Arctic convoy JW 51B. This book is not a comprehensive survey of the proposed warship designs. Rather it traces the origins of German naval rearmament and ambition before considering the effect on the conduct of the war at sea had Plan Z been realised.

Wragg majors on the defence-industrial shortcomings of the rearmament programme. For instance, German steel production fell in 1938 and 1939 as the economy overheated from rearmament. The Kriegsmarine found themselves third in line for raw materials after the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. One of the main problems with realising Plan Z was the earlier than promised (by Hitler) outbreak of war. German strategic planners had been using 1942 as the date for the first need to use the Kriegsmarine in anger, by which time some of the Plan Z ships would have been commissioned.

The crucial problem with Plan Z was insufficient U-boat numbers before the outbreak of war. As experience from 1917 could have showed, U-boats were the key anti-commerce weapon. By committing to five heavy cruisers, 12 battlecruisers, eight battleships and four aircraft carriers, Plan Z under-resourced U-boat production until a course correction when Dönitz succeeded Raeder as Grand Admiral in January 1943. Both officers’ careers are covered in detail in the early chapters on the evolution of the Kriegsmarine.

As with other sources on German naval performance in the Second World War, there is an important discussion of the wrangling over naval aviation. Goering as head of the Luftwaffe retained control of all aviation even including the tiny force of capital ship embarked spotting seaplanes. This compromised not only maritime patrol efforts for the Battle of the Atlantic but also the forming of a coherent air group for the Graf Zeppelin, Germany’s first aircraft carrier. This book is therefore a useful contribution to understanding the Battle of the Atlantic, complementing existing literature on, for example, intelligence contributions, convoying, Allied air support and U-boat basing in France.

There is a disappointing lack of detail on Graf Zeppelin even though the ship was one of the few Plan Z projects to be underway by the start of the war. She was launched in 1938 with construction reaching approximately 85 per cent completion before the project was finally abandoned in February 1943.  Wragg points out how Graf Zeppelin would have been outclassed by comparable British designs, barely reaching the technology level of converted First World War battlecruisers HMS Glorious and Courageous and equipped with unsuitable converted landplanes, the Ju-87C dive/torpedo bomber and BF-109T (träger = carrier) fighter.

The book finishes with vignettes covering the major naval battles involving the Kriegsmarine. Rather than being counter-factual fantasy, these provide brief and useful narratives of actions we should all have some working knowledge of, e.g. Norway, the Channel Dash, Bismarck, and the Battle of North Cape.

The most intriguing sections of the book consider the impact on the course of the war if the Germans had been able to utilise the captured French and Italian fleets, and better coordinated naval programmes with Imperial Japan. For instance, Fascist Italy had two aircraft carrier conversions underway before the Armistice in 1943. This book is therefore a thought-provoking view on adversary naval building (including ab initio carrier programmes), a surprisingly rich insight into defence economics and recommended reading for anyone interested in the European Axis navies.