Before the outbreak of World War II, the German Navy had no organized service force. Because of its size and mission, there was no need for mobile support techniques like those developed by the U. S. Navy. It had a few depot ships capable of making minor repairs and billeting personnel at some of its second class naval bases. It also had five fleet supply ships which accompanied capital ships on maneuvers. The naval dockyards at Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, and Gotenhafen (Gdynia) were equipped to make all kind of issues and repairs, and ships could easily steam to one of them from any of the regular operating or training areas.
The mission of the German Navy, excluding that of the U-boat Command, was to defend Germany’s coastline and to deny entrance of enemy vessels to the Baltic Sea. It was not contemplated that the fleet would engage in extensive operations away from its main bases. In the various war games played prior to 1939, the Navy’s role had always been a defensive one. How well it perfected this defense is evidenced by the fact that no major enemy surface unit penetrated the Baltic Sea during the First or Second World War.
In the course of making a study of the supply aspects of German naval logistics during the summer of 1951, I interviewed fifty former German naval officers and officials. Several of them told me that when the German Army invaded Poland in September, 1939, there was no plan to extend the Navy’s logistic system and that no change in the Navy’s mission was contemplated. It was planned, they said, that pocket battleships and cruisers would make merchant raiding forays into the Atlantic. It was anticipated that the rest of the surface fleet would leave homeland waters only to engage enemy forces attempting to penetrate them and would return to Kiel or Wilhelmshaven after the battle.
The U-boat Command naturally had an offensive mission. It was an independent command, responsible not to CinC Fleet but directly to CinC Navy. It had its own supply ships and tenders and carried on its own training and operations.
Although this was the situation when World War II broke out, the unprecedented advance of the German Army through Poland and its plans for the occupation of the Lowland Countries and France forced an expansion of the Navy’s logistic system and the forces required to support it.
The first step was the conversion of all merchant vessels suitable for use as supply ships and of all German tankers which were in Germany when war broke out. (Some had entered neutral ports for internment or to await further orders from the German Admiralty.) This had been anticipated by the Navy as early as 1931, when the assistance of the directors of most of Germany’s large steamship lines had been engaged to draw up lists of all German merchant vessels and foreign merchantmen regularly visiting German ports. These lists showed characteristics, capacities, speeds, and other data likely to be useful if the vessels were conscripted or seized for use as naval auxiliaries. Many vessels of the North German Lloyd and Hamburg American Steamship Lines were equipped with naval codes, ciphers, and special radio equipment in anticipation of war. Executives of the Waried Tanker Company were most cooperative in this operation. This company, partly financed with American capital and with ships sailing under the Panamanian flag, controlled 26 tankers, all of which became German naval auxiliaries when war broke out.
The second step was to seize all enemy shipping and convert it for naval use. Much supply tonnage was obtained in this manner when Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France were occupied. The same measures were employed when the German Army overran the Balkans and Crimea. In addition, many neutral vessels were chartered.
Before World War II, control over supply ships, tankers, and depot ships not assigned to the U-boat Command was vested in CinC North (North Sea) and CinC East (Baltic Sea). (The Navy had no peacetime hospital ships or troop transports.) On April 1, 1940, such control was transferred to the Admiral Quartermaster’s Division of the Naval War Staff (Adm Quill), an activity similar to our Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Logistics). Branches of this organization, known as Logistic Support Departments, were established at the naval dockyards, Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Later, when French ports were being used as bases for blockade runners and armed merchant cruisers, a third logistic support department was established at St. Nazaire. Until the end of the war these activities controlled the movements of all naval auxiliaries, with the sole exception of fleet supply ships, which were directed by Adm Quill, and U-boat supply ships which were controlled by the U-boat Command.
On October 5, 1944, discounting previous losses, the Navy was operating:
5 Fleet supply ships
9 Auxiliary supply ships
5 U-boat supply tenders
14 Undersea supply ships
14 Hospital ships
It also had a small number of converted lenders and depot ships. Troop transports and cargo freighters were not naval auxiliaries, but regular merchant vessels. The Navy controlled the operations of these ships from 1939-1942 and from 1944-1945. From 1942-1944, they were controlled by the Reich Commission of Maritime Shipping, an organization similar to our War Shipping Board. These vessels were seldom if ever used by the Navy, however, and its main interest in them was in scheduling their movements and providing escort for them.
Fleet and auxiliary supply ships ranged from 5-14,000 gross registered tons and had load capacities of 7-20,000 tons. Their speeds varied from 12-18 knots. Tankers carried general and special stores in addition to fuel.
Support of Surface Units
The German concept of mobile support of heavy fleet surface units was that each battleship or pocket battleship should have its own supply ship. These ships moved with the heavy surface units and were their main source of supply for everything, including food. In the two ships, a six months’ supply of consumables, except fresh food and fuel, was carried at all times. Ordinarily it was distributed as follows: a three months’ supply of consumables was stored in the fighting ship and a similar three months’ supply carried in the supply ship. Transfers were made between the ships as required. Ammunition was an exception to the general rule, because requirements were indefinite. Ammunition resupply, however, was carried in the supply ship. The first real test of the effectiveness of this system of mobile support was made in September, 1938, when the supply ships Samland and Schwabenland were assigned to accompany the Deutschland and Graf Spee to Spanish waters. Persons interviewed by me stated that it proved very satisfactory.
During extended raiding operations such as that of the Scharnhorst in 1940-1941, five or six tankers were stationed at strategic points in the Atlantic, e.g., in the waters around Norway, Northwest Africa, Greenland, Iceland, and the Lesser Antilles, so that one of them would be available in any sector in which the fighting ship required fuel. The supply ship would remain in the general operating area and would rendezvous with the fighting ship when ordered by the Admiralty.
These vessels were combination tanker/supply ships equipped with reconnaissance planes and guns to defend themselves against enemy merchantmen, submarines, and other light forces and aircraft. Space was provided for prisoners taken by the units they supported. The supply ship Altmark, for example, was captured by H.M.S. Cossack at Josing Fjord, Norway, on February 16, 1940, with 299 British survivors of vessels sunk by the Graf Spee.
Although manned by civilian crews, regular naval supply personnel were embarked in the supply ships to supervise stores replenishment and accountability. An ex-merchant marine officer with great experience in handling cargo was usually detailed as cargo officer and responsible for loading and discharging stores. Eight of these vessels, according to one former supply officer, carried between 11-12,000 tons of fuel. The bunker capacity of a pocket battleship, he said, was 3,000 tons. He estimated that a pocket battleship consumed 60 tons of fuel per day, when cruising at a normal speed of 19 knots. When a supply ship’s 11-12,000 tons of fuel was added to the 3,000 tons carried by the pocket battleship, a great cruising range resulted.
To effect rendezvous on the high seas, all oceans were divided into grid areas. These areas were assigned cover names. Subdivisions of the areas were given numerical designations. This system was devised to avoid mention of latitude and longitude in despatches. Lists of the areas and subdivisions were held by all heavy surface units engaged in raiding operations, and by blockade runners and armed merchant cruisers and auxiliaries assigned to their support. These areas were well clear of shipping lanes. There were about a dozen in each ocean. Positions remained constant, but cover names were changed at regular intervals, or if their compromise was suspected.
When a ship required supplies, the Admiralty was informed by short signal of the approximate date on which they were desired. She would then be directed to proceed to one of the grid areas and a supply ship or tanker ordered to meet her. Absolute radio silence was observed by both ships. Upon arrival in the area, they would cruise within it until they met. This system was very effective until the tanker Esso Gdynia was captured by the British and the codes used in directing logistic support vessels in their operations seized. The British directed eight or nine large tankers which were operating with the Prinz Eugen to proceed to an area where they were intercepted and sunk. As soon as this was discovered, the system was discontinued.
Fuel transfers were made at speeds of 7-10 knots, with the tanker ahead, not parallel. Two hoses were used. A distance of 500 metres was maintained between the two ships. Stores were transferred in ships’ boats, or tubular rubber rafts with canvas bottoms supported by wooden slats which were towed by boats. This was usually done at night with both ships practically dead in the water, a “dangerous practice,” by one admiral’s admission. It was said that several trials of fuelling and transferring stores between ships steaming parallel had been conducted in peacetime, but that the method had been discarded as unsatisfactory.
During a raiding operation lasting 161 days, the Admiral Scheer was furnished fuel, provisions, and general stores on fourteen occasions. One of the ships used in this operation was the Duquesa, a coal-burning refrigerated ship captured by the Scheer while transporting meat and eggs from Argentina to the United Kingdom. The prize crew placed aboard her forced the captain to remain in company with the Nordmark, the regular supply ship assigned to the operation. All German vessels in the area were serviced. When they had taken all the meat and eggs they could store and the Duquesa ran out of fuel, she was sunk.
Although an extravagant use of supply ship tonnage, the system of assigning a supply ship to each major surface unit worked very well, according to several officers interrogated. There were, they said, no failures in the system.
Cruisers, because of their restricted steaming range, were not assigned their own supply ships. They could carry consumables sufficient for 33 days’ operations. Fuel was furnished by tankers ordered to rendezvous with them. Destroyers and torpedo boats likewise had a very limited range of operations and could carry only a small amount of consumables. No repair or depot ships moved with them. Minesweepers and similar auxiliaries were supported by the bases from which they operated or by other naval vessels.
Submarines in the Atlantic
With Submarines a different situation arose. The 250 ton U-boats were used for coastal defense only. They could operate at sea for only fourteen days and were replenished at their operating bases. All other submarines were supported by undersea supply ships known as “milk cows.” They were built especially for this purpose. They were short, with a broad beam. According to a former U-boat commander, they were constructed of parts of the type VII submarine and had a large bulge around the hull. In addition to fuel, they carried spare parts, food, clothing, ammunition, and other essential supplies. They had a machine shop capable of making minor repairs. A quick release type of fuelling hose, with a telephone connection running through it, facilitated casting off if an enemy approached during an underwater fuelling operation, or if a crash dive was necessary when fuelling on the surface. Each cow carried a doctor with medical stores, as well as a complement of supply personnel.
The U-boat Command had fourteen cows; also five surface supply ships: the Nordvard (4,000 tons, speed 10½ knots), the Eurland (7,600 tons, speed 14 knots), which operated mostly in Norwegian waters, and the Kota Pinang, Bullaren and Python. I was unable to obtain any details regarding the characteristics or operations of the latter three vessels. The loss of the Kola Pinang and Python on their first supply operations prompted the Navy to build the cows, which normally operated out of Bordeaux. Some 1,600 ton minelaying submarines were converted during the latter stages of the war into undersea tankers because (1) the mines developed had proved unsatisfactory, and (2) these submarines were so large that they could do little with them in certain mine fields. Most of the cows were lost during the spring and early summer of 1943 through bombing or airborne depth charges.
Submarines in the Far East
As early as April, 1940, Germany asked her ally Japan to afford bases for U-boats in the Pacific. In 1941, armed merchant cruisers took some prize ships to Japan. Refuge for them was sought in Yokohama, and permission was granted only after much negotiation. German-Japanese relations were strained. Japan signed a non-aggression pact with Russia, and in May, 1941, Germany demanded that Japan should break it. Japan declined. Mistrust between the navies was apparent. Each kept secret from the other its fundamental methods of conducting naval warfare. Because of these conditions, it was not until December, 1942, that Japan granted Germany and Italy bases for their submarine flotilla in the Far East. Penang, the base of Japan’s Indian Ocean submarine flotilla, Sabang, or a port in the Andaman Islands were offered.
No facilities other than a sheltered anchorage and Japanese workshops with a small slipway and a fuel stock of 1,000 tons were provided at Penang. Nevertheless the German Navy found the Penang offer attractive, and in June, 1943, the first U-boats commenced operations from that port. Between June, 1943, and May, 1945, nineteen submarines were based either on Penang or Batavia. Most of the food used in submarine operations had to be imported from France in surface and submarine blockade runners. Singapore was more desirable because of its dock facilities. Some repairs were effected there, but until Germany capitulated, the Navy continued to operate most of its Far Eastern submarines from Penang. Intelligence gained from Japanese submarine personnel outweighed the other disadvantages. Although Batavia grew more important during the last months of the war, because of its proximity to Australian waters, in which stepped up operations were taking place, Penang nevertheless remained the major operating base. Soerabaja, while used as a U-boat base, was not satisfactory because of the lack of any repair facilities. Some submarines were sent to Kobe for repairs, especially for new batteries. The Charlotte Schliemann and Brake, both tankers, were assigned in March, 1943, to support submarines operating in the Far East. However, these tankers were sunk in February and March, 1944, and such support was thereafter provided by surface and U-boat blockade runners shuttling between France and Java.
It became apparent early in 1940 that the flow of certain critical raw materials, especially rubber, from the Dutch East Indies and other Far Eastern territories to Germany had to continue uninterrupted. Sixteen German merchant vessels were in Chinese, Japanese, and Manchurian ports. Six others crossed the Pacific from the west coast of South America and joined them. Admiral Paul Wenneker, the naval attaché at Tokyo, was assigned the task of transferring them into the German Navy and equipping them as blockade runners, collection carriers for blockade runners, or supply ships for the armed merchant cruisers and submarines which the Admiralty planned to send to the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Most of the ships were equipped in Japan. Ten were considered unfit for the duties planned for them and sold or chartered to Japan. One of them, the 18,000 ton Pacific express liner Scharnhorst, was later converted into the Japanese aircraft carrier Shinyo. The Kulmerland, Muensterland, and Regensburg were equipped for duty as supply ships for armed merchant cruisers, and the Quito and Bogota as collection carriers. The task of the latter was to pick up raw materials at the various ports in the Far East and deliver them to Djakarta or Batavia, the points from which most of the blockade runners sailed. Seven vessels were equipped for blockade running duty at other points before assignment to this operation. Operating bases were established at Yokohama, Kobe, Singapore, Batavia, Djakarta, and Soerabaja. The following ships took part in blockade running operations:
Admiral Wenneker assumed full control of blockade runners on February 3, 1941. The first ship left Japan in May, 1941. During that year, four out of five of these ships successfully evaded the blockade. In 1942 about 50 per cent avoided interception. In 1943 success waned and four out of five ships sailing either from Java to France or from France to the Far East were sunk. The Osorno, arriving at Bordeaux in December, 1943, was the last blockade runner to reach France. The use of surface vessels as blockade runners and commerce destroyers was then abandoned, because of the effectiveness of reconnaissance patrols established in the Bay of Biscay. An example of the over-all success of the mission, however, is contained in a German report which stated that during the period 1941-1943, twenty-one surface ships sailed from the Far East with 69,300 tons of raw commodities, and that fifteen of them with 62,500 tons of such commodities plus 26,500 automobile tires reached a European port. In addition, 2,500 tons of cargo for Italy was carried in these ships. During the same period, thirty-five vessels sailed from Western France with 257,000 tons of supplies for submarines and armed merchant cruisers operating in the Indian Ocean and with special equipment for Japan. Sixteen of them arrived in the Far East with 111,490 tons of cargo.
Submarine Blockade Runners
When the use of surface blockade runners was no longer profitable, this scheme was discontinued. Fifteen German, five Japanese, and seven Italian submarines were then assigned to this duty. The Italian submarines, among which were the Cappellini, Torelli, Bagnolini, and Givlani, were converted at Bordeaux in April and May, 1943. German and Japanese submarines were converted at their homeland dockyards. Tubes and main armament were removed to provide maximum fuel and cargo space.
U-boats returning to western France from patrols in the Indian Ocean, among which were U-178, 219, and 861, were diverted to Malaya to take on cargoes of critical war essentials and transport them to France. Regular blockade running submarines operated between Penang or Singapore and Bordeaux, La Pallice, or L’Orient. They transported natural rubber, tin, quinine, wolfram, molybdenum, opium, caffein, vitamin concentrates, and other vital materials. They returned with mercury, refined steels, optical goods, radio apparatus, radar equipment, machine tools for fine work, small arms, plans for aircraft, and samples of shells and other munitions for Japan. They also transported exchange technical personnel. I discovered no evidence that these submarine blockade runners, like the surface blockade runners, provided logistic support for operational submarines in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. However, it appears reasonable to believe that they continued to do so.
Although submarines were used as blockade runners from December, 1943, until the end of the war, Admiral Nomura, the Japanese Naval Commissioner to Berlin, stated when interrogated by SCAP officials in 1946 that this effort to obtain critical materials was unsuccessful and that only three Japanese and five German submarines successfully ran the blockade into French and German ports.
Submersible Supply Trailers
Seized German naval documents disclose that the German Navy designed and built stream-lined, submersible supply trailers for use by blockade runners between East Asia and Europe. It was intended that operational U-boats should only take over the tow for the shorter stretch of the route, i.e. from the South Atlantic to French or German ports. As many as three of this type of trailer could be towed by a submarine. It was also intended that these trailers would be used as floating supply bases for submarines in the South Atlantic. The Navy did not expect that the percentage of losses in this type of craft would be high.
Grand Admiral Doenitz had disapproved of the venture for some time. However, in October, 1943, the designer successfully demonstrated one of them to Doenitz and Dr. Albert Speer, the Minister of War Production and Armament, and orders were issued in May, 1944, for the construction of fifty 90-tonners. By July, 1944, three 90-ton general supply trailers and one 300-ton fuel oil trailer were completed and a 700-tonner designed. At the same time, i.e. July, 1944, it was suggested by the German Navy that Japan should build these trailers for the interchange of essential war materials. Tokyo replied that experiments were already being carried out on 39-, 75-, and 100-ton trailers, and that the first one was already in use in Saipan. The Japanese models, called “cargo tubes,” were somewhat similar to midget submarines and could be towed three or four in train. The Japanese had run into difficulties over towing speeds, battery capacities and shortage of suitable towing lines, but agreed to build a limited number of the German type, provided Germany would pass on all of its experiences in trials and operations.
The 90-ton trailer had a cylindrical body with a spherical nose and a finned conical tail. It was 64 feet long, had a beam of 10 feet, and was tested with a tow line 230 feet long. It performed satisfactorily behind a submarine at periscope depth, or when towed by surface craft. The chamber capacity was 15 tons. It was not definitely determined whether the German Navy actually used these trailers for the purpose intended. It is believed, however, that the Russians captured some of them with a view to developing a new type of mobile support.
Armed Merchant Cruisers
The conversion of merchant vessels into raiders took some time. In World War I, the Navy had converted fast liners into raiders. These ships were easily recognized and losses were heavy. Because of this and the effectiveness of air reconnaissance, it decided to convert its fastest, most harmless looking freighters. The latest navigational devices and weapons were installed in them. This and the pressure of priority work on warships and submarines delayed the commissioning of the first armed merchant cruiser until the spring of 1940. Ten of these vessels were completed during 1940-1942. Five others were never commissioned.
Generally speaking, the Germans assumed that once a raider had sailed from Germany she would have to rely entirely upon her own resources, and that when her supplies were exhausted, or if she ran short of essentials, she would return to Germany or lie up in a neutral port. The Atlantis operated under these conditions one year, eight months, and eleven days before she was sunk by the H.M.S. Devonshire. When western France was occupied, regular logistic support was furnished through St. Nazaire to raiders operating in the Atlantic. Those operating in the Pacific and Indian Oceans were supported by supply ships sailing from Japan and Malaya. Raider operations were most effective during 1940-1941. Only three raiders, the Thor, Slier (destroyed in 1942) and Michel survived that period. The Michel was finally sunk on October 17, 1943.
Fleet Units in Norway
When Norway was occupied by German forces, its many ports and fjords were used by various fleet units, some as operating bases for submarines and forces raiding convoys along the coast, others as refuges from allied warships. A small number of repair ships and submarine tenders were retained in the larger ports. Supply ships and tankers made irregular trips along the coast, rendezvousing with units to discharge stores and fuel, but even this service was infrequent. The supply depots at Tromso, Harstad, and Hammerfest were regularly supplied from Kiel by the Conlania and Straslund. One admiral stated that when battleships were operating from northern Norwegian fjords, a repair ship was stationed at Narvik. The whaling ship Jan Wellem was used at Narvik to supplement shore fuelling facilities.
A few supply ship-tankers were stationed at Polyarny, the Russian base in Kola Bay on the Arctic Coast, during 1939-1940, when the Germans were carrying out their operation of repatriating ships caught by the outbreak of war in the Atlantic. Between 48 and 50 percent of all merchant vessels that tried to make German ports were successful.
The Komet, a raider, crossed the Arctic Ocean in July-August, 1940, and thence into the Pacific. It was assisted by Russian ice breakers. Logistic support was afforded by German naval supply ships, however, while the Komet was preparing for the crossing via the Northeast Passage.
The only dockyard capable of servicing large ships in northern Norwegian waters was at Trondheim, and major fleet units requiring repairs had to go there or return to Germany. This indicates a certain lack of mobilization planning on the part of the German Navy and of anticipation of the needs for floating drylocks or fleet tenders large enough to render such service. Its failure in this respect, however, bears out the statements of officers interviewed by me that before World War II the German Navy had no plans to extend its lines of communication beyond the Baltic and North Seas and that the mobile support techniques employed during the war were developed through expediency rather than through peacetime planning and training.