The Luftwaffe and the War at Sea 1939-1945

The Luftwaffe and the War at Sea 1939-1945: As seen by Officers of the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. Edited by David Isby. Greenhill Books, Barnsley, 2005, paperback edition 2017.
Reviewed by Gregory P. Gilbert.

FROM the earliest days of military flight the political struggle for control over maritime air power has been a recurring leitmotif. Many of our Australian readers will be aware of the ongoing tensions between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force peaking every twenty years or so. Some arguments have changed but differences in strategic policy outlooks have led to inter-Service disagreements during the early 1920s, the late 1930s, throughout the late 1950s and into early 1960s, the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the early 21st century. In my view we need to recognise that there are inherent differences in outlook between the sea and the air Services. We should recognise these differences as a good thing instead of as an either/or dichotomy. Indeed, I would suggest that the implications for the Australian Armed Forces have yet to work themselves out, even though many believe that the contemporary joint Australian Defence Force has resolved any outstanding controversy.

‘The Luftwaffe and the War at Sea 1939-1945’ examines air power at sea from the context of the Germans who served in the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) and the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) during the World War II. This book contains a though provoking series of reports covering first-hand experiences in commanding maritime air power during a war. It offers German experiences that are a counterpoint to the traditional British experience of deep tensions and divisions between RN and RAF strategic level commanders. I would contend that the wartime relationship between the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe has much in common with the current relationship between the RAN and the RAAF in the maritime environment, and as a result this book is a very useful source that should challenge some of our contemporary beliefs in the effectiveness of today’s joint Australian Defence Force.

When Germany started to rearm in 1933 the Kriegsmarine developed its own naval air arm to best meet the requirements for maritime air power. This in turn generated a number of policy conflicts and some duplication of effort between the German Navy and Air Force. Unlike the British and many other national armed forces, the Germans had an overwhelming psychological need for clear and concise lines of command. So in order to resolve areas for potential conflict the German commands sought resolutions from their supreme leader, Adolf Hitler. Now there was a common saying at the time that Hitler commanded a Prussian Army, an Imperial Navy and a Nazi Air Force. In practice every time Grossadmiral Raeder, the head of the Kriegsmarine, asked Hitler for clarification on a naval air arm issue, Hitler would decide in favour of Reich Marshal Goering and the Luftwaffe. From the beginning, the Reich Ministry for Air was responsible for supplying all aircraft, equipment and weapons as well as air personnel for the reformed naval air arm. Units were initially transferred to the authority of the Fleet Command for operations. Policy conflicts continued however so in 1939 a protocol was agreed where control over all naval air units passed to the Luftwaffe – the Commander in Chief, Air. Maritime reconnaissance and tactical participation of air units in naval engagements were to be placed under naval command. As can be imagined it did not take long before the naval air activities became low priority tasks having to be done with fewer resources, inexperienced personnel and generally obsolete aircraft. Over time the German air force developed its own naval air fleet and gradually the Luftwaffe absorbed even the few naval activities defined in the 1939 protocol. During 1941 the last coastal air group under naval command was transferred to the Luftwaffe but the air force command never accepted the strategic mindset required to operate aircraft in pursuit of a maritime strategy. The German Air Force was organised around fighting an air strategy and achieving victory in the air. It was just not all that interested in winning a war at sea. Despite major concerns within the German Navy over the overwhelming failure of maritime air power, the Navy leadership did not have the political capital to fight for the successful application of a maritime strategy.

This book is not all about the German Navy’s views. On the surface there would appear to be no reason why a maritime air power could not operate effectively under air force leadership just as well as under naval leadership. At the tactical level air force and naval personnel mostly worked very well together despite the glaring limitations imposed upon them by the decisions made at higher levels. Unfortunately, for them, the limitations led overwhelmingly to numerous disasters in the war at sea.

‘The Luftwaffe and the War at Sea’ includes a chapter written in 1944 from a Luftwaffe perspective (pp. 123-160) which highlights one of the underlying reasons why the Luftwaffe failed to win the war at sea. To quote just one paragraph: –

“There had never been any doubt of the possibility and the necessity of using the bulk of the Luftwaffe in full force for strategic purposes on land, and later also at sea. The strategic idea was present in the leadership as well as in the technical department of the bombing forces, which were created for and completely suited to these purposes. It is therefore in accordance with the situation to concentrate on this ‘strategic air force’ and to make only parts of it available for direct support of the Army and Navy. The weaker the Luftwaffe formations used for ‘cooperation’ with other branches of the Service, were, the stronger would be the strategic force which could be built up and trained.”

This helps demonstrate why navies and air forces do not often see eye to eye when it comes to warfighting. Navies have to fight and win at sea using a maritime strategy to achieve victory. Air forces on the other hand have to fight and win in the air using an air power strategy to achieve victory. Depending upon the circumstances either one or a combination of these strategies may be the preferred approach to actual warfighting, (not forgetting ground, cyber, or other domain based strategies). For the Germans their ground based Blitzkrieg approach was paramount until the defeat of France in 1940, then an air power strategy dominated during the Battle of Britain, after which, from the last few months of 1940 at least, the most likely way that Germany could have defeated Britain was through application of a maritime strategy. Aircraft should have be used to support each of these strategies to the largest extent possible. Overall the joint approach needs to promote each and every Service oriented strategy and all other approaches to warfighting – not as selections from a multiple choice questionnaire but as part of a spaghetti diagram where alternatives come to the fore or recede to the background depending upon time, place and other circumstances.

This book is highly recommended for all air and sea power enthusiasts. ‘The Luftwaffe and the War at Sea 1939-1945’ is an effective counter for anyone who believes that our modern joint, seamless Australian Defence Force is an intellectual reality.

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