Hitler Wanted An Epic Battleship Fleet to Crush His Enemies (It Never Happened)

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: Due to Hitler’s vindictive and wrathful nature, he was unable to recognize his own responsibility in a minor military setback, and instead lashed out at his men for following his orders all too well.

At first glance, the Battle of the Barents Sea seems insignificant, a minor World War II naval battle in which a couple of destroyers were sunk. Yet the New Year’s Eve skirmish in frozen Arctic waters convinced Hitler that he should scrap all of his capital ships and had far-reaching consequences on the leadership of Nazi Germany. The reason why points to the dilemmas inherent to being an underdog in naval warfare.

During World War I, the Imperial German Navy had disposed of dozens of massive battleships, dreadnoughts and battlecruisers—but due to their numerical inferiority vis-à-vis the British Royal Navy, almost never committed them to battle, with the notable exception of the inconclusive clash at Jutland.

In 1939 Hitler conceived of an ambitious “Plan Z” to build a large fleet to rival the British Royal Navy—one that would reach full strength in 1945, the year World War II ended. Instead, the German Kriegsmarine entered the war with around sixteen modern cruisers and battleships and twenty destroyers. The successful invasion of Norway in February 1940 cost the German Navy two light cruisers and half its destroyers, as well as many ships damaged.

Two large surface combatants—the Admiral Graf Spee and Bismarck—embarked on hit-and-run commerce raids. Like swaggering villains in a Tarantino film, the powerful warships inspired terror and wreaked havoc, but attracted too much attention to themselves and met violent, ignominious ends.

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