3rd September 1939 (North Atlantic – the U-boat war and surface fleet)
So if the British were caught unprepared for the war that was to be waged against the sea lanes - the vital arteries that served the United Kingdom with its lifeblood: food, oil, and other resources – what about the Germans?
The head of the Kriegsmarine Grand Admiral Erich Raeder was assured by Hitler that there would be no war with Britain until 1944. By this time, the Kriegsmarine would have Plan Z – a plan approved just months earlier – well underway. Plan Z envisaged a Kriegsmarine with 4 aircraft carriers, 8 battleships, 12 battlecruisers, 3 pocket battleships, 5 heavy cruisers, 32 light and scout cruisers, 68 destroyers, 90 torpedo boats and 250 U-boats. Plan Z was a pipedream – and with the outbreak of war, it was cancelled altogether.
Erich Raeder head of the Kriegsmarine in 1939
The Kriegsmarine’s focus would now be on building up the U-boat arm. But as said previously, the U-boat arm in 1939 was no bigger than the submarine fleet of the Royal Navy thanks to the Hitler’s belief that he could keep the British “on-side” and the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935.
So on the 3rd September 1939 what did Admiral Karl Donitz have operationally ready and at his disposal?
22 Ocean-going U-boats (Types VII and IX) – 17 were in position off the Atlantic coasts of the UK, France and Gibraltar, 1 (Type I) was assigned mine-laying duties in the English Channel, 3 were held in reserve and 1 sent to operate in the North Sea.
29 Type II (known as Ducks) boats – 17 were to operate in the North Sea, 10 on defensive duty, 5 on mine-laying duty and 2 to patrol off Scotland.
Many of the U-boat commanders at sea that day would become “U-boat aces” in the coming months – heroes to the German public and holders of the highly prized Ritterkreuz. Among those at sea on the 3rd September were: Prien, Lemp, Endrass, Bleichrodt, Liebe, Schultze and Hartmann.
Karl Donitz head of the U-boat forces in 1939
There were hopes too for the surface fleet initially in the commerce raiding role. In late August, with Hitler having made up his mind to deal with Poland, the 11-inch gunned “pocket-battleships” Graf Spee and Deutschland had sailed from Wilhelmshaven. Each had a supply ship (Altmark and Westerwald respectively) that would provide the ships with supplies, spare parts and be on hand to assist with taking on prisoners of war etc.
Graf Spee (Captain Hans Langsdorff) was headed for the South Atlantic and Deutschland (Captain Paul Wenneker) was ordered to the North Atlantic. However Hitler, still hoping to get Britain and France to come to terms, did not authorise either ship to begin offensive operations until later in the month.
The Panzerschiffe Deutschland
Other units of the surface fleet were at work from the 3rd too. The German light cruisers and destroyers (under the command of Vice-Admiral Hermann Densch) were deployed to escort ships carrying out defensive minelaying operations in the North Sea – the so called Westwall Barrage. This operation would take until the 20th September to complete.
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