Plan Z

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Plan Z was the name given to the planned re-equipment and expansion of the Kriegsmarine (German navy) ordered by Adolf Hitler in early 1939. The fleet was meant to challenge the naval power of the United Kingdom, and was to be completed by 1948. Development of the plan began in 1938, but it reflected the evolution of the strategic thinking of the Oberkommando der Marine (Naval High Command) over the two decades following World War I. The plan called for a fleet centered on ten battleships and four aircraft carriers which were intended to battle the Royal Navy. This force would be supplemented with numerous long-range cruisers that would attack British shipping. A relatively small force of U-boats was also stipulated.

<i>Kriegsmarine</i> 1935–1945 naval warfare branch of Germanys armed forces

The Kriegsmarine was the navy of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It superseded the Imperial German Navy of the German Empire (1871–1918) and the inter-war Reichsmarine (1919–1935) of the Weimar Republic. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches, along with the Heer (Army) and the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces from 1933 to 1945.

Adolf Hitler Leader of Germany from 1934 to 1945

Adolf Hitler was a German politician and leader of the Nazi Party. He rose to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and later Führer in 1934. During his dictatorship from 1933 to 1945, he initiated World War II in Europe by invading Poland in September 1939. He was closely involved in military operations throughout the war and was central to the perpetration of the Holocaust.

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom (UK), officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and sometimes referred to as Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea lies between Great Britain and Ireland. With an area of 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi), the United Kingdom is the 78th-largest sovereign state in the world. It is also the 22nd-most populous country, with an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.


When World War II broke out in September 1939, almost no work had been done on the new ships ordered under Plan Z. The need to shift manufacturing capacity to more pressing requirements forced the Kriegsmarine to abandon the construction program, and only a handful of major shipsall of which had been ordered before Plan Zwere completed during the war. Nevertheless, the plan still had a significant effect on the course of World War II, in that only a few dozen U-boats had been completed by the outbreak of war. Admiral Karl Dönitz's U-boat fleet only reached the 300 U-boats he deemed necessary to win a commerce war against Britain in 1943, by which time his forces had been decisively defeated.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Karl Dönitz President of Germany; admiral in command of German submarine forces during World War II

Karl Dönitz was a German admiral who played a major role in the naval history of World War II. Dönitz briefly succeeded Adolf Hitler as the head of state of Nazi Germany.

Emden, the first major warship built after World War I Light Cruiser Emden in China 1931 crop.jpg
Emden, the first major warship built after World War I

Following the end of World War I, the German armed forces became subject to the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. For the new Reichsmarine , this meant it was limited to six pre-dreadnought battleships, six old light cruisers, 12 destroyers and 12 torpedo boats. A further two pre-dreadnoughts, two cruisers, and four destroyers and torpedo boats apiece could be kept in reserve. [1] The first major ship to be built after the war was the light cruiser Emden in the early 1920s. This was followed by a further three light cruisers of the Königsbergclass: Königsberg, Karlsruhe and Köln, and a further two ships that were modified versions of the Königsberg class, Leipzig and Nürnberg. [2] At the same time, the Germans created a dummy corporation, NV Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw (IvS), in the Netherlands to secretly continue development of submarines. [3] This was in violation of Article 191 of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited Germany from possessing or building submarines for any purpose. [4] IvS built several submarines for foreign navies, including the Turkish Gür, which was the basis for the Type I U-boat, and the Finnish Vesikko, which was the prototype for the Type II U-boat. [5]

Treaty of Versailles one of the treaties that ended the First World War

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to an end. The Treaty ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to the war. The other Central Powers on the German side signed separate treaties. Although the armistice, signed on 11 November 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the League of Nations on 21 October 1919.

<i>Reichsmarine</i> 1919–1935 maritime warfare branch of Germanys military

The Reichsmarine was the name of the German Navy during the Weimar Republic and first two years of Nazi Germany. It was the naval branch of the Reichswehr, existing from 1919 to 1935. In 1935, it became known as the Kriegsmarine, a branch of the Wehrmacht; a change implemented by Adolf Hitler. Many of the administrative and organizational tenets of the Reichsmarine were then carried over into the organization of the Kriegsmarine.

Pre-dreadnought battleship Type of battleship, preceding the development of HMS Dreadnought

Pre-dreadnought battleships were sea-going battleships built between the mid- to late 1880s and 1905, before the launch of HMS Dreadnought. Pre-dreadnoughts replaced the ironclad battleships of the 1870s and 1880s. Built from steel, and protected by hardened steel armour, pre-dreadnought battleships carried a main battery of very heavy guns in barbettes supported by one or more secondary batteries of lighter weapons. They were powered by coal-fuelled triple-expansion steam engines.

The Treaty also stipulated that Germany could replace its pre-dreadnought battleships after they reached twenty years of age, but new vessels could displace no more than 10,000 long ton s (10,000  t ). [6] In response to these limitations, the Germans attempted to build a powerful heavy cruiserclassified as a panzerschiff (armored ship)that outclassed the new heavy cruisers built by Britain and France. British and French heavy cruiser designs were bound by the Washington Naval Treaty (and subsequent London Naval Treaty) to a caliber of 8 in (200 mm) on a displacement of 10,000 tons, the Germans chose to arm Deutschland with six 11 in (280 mm) guns. The Germans hoped that by building a ship significantly more powerful than the Allies, they could force the Allies to admit Germany to the Washington treaty system in exchange for cancelling Deutschland, thereby abrogating the naval limitations imposed by Versailles. The French vehemently opposed any concessions to Germany, and therefore, Deutschland and two further units Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee were built. [7]

Displacement (ship) ships weight

The displacement or displacement tonnage of a ship is its weight based on the amount of water its hull displaces at varying loads. It is measured indirectly using Archimedes' principle by first calculating the volume of water displaced by the ship then converting that value into weight displaced. Traditionally, various measurement rules have been in use, giving various measures in long tons. Today, metric tonnes are more used.

Long ton, also known as the imperial ton or displacement ton, is the name for the unit called the "ton" in the avoirdupois system of weights or Imperial system of measurements. It was standardised in the thirteenth century and is used in the United Kingdom and several other British Commonwealth of Nations countries alongside the mass-based metric tonne defined in 1799.

Tonne Metric unit of mass

The tonne, commonly referred to as the metric ton in the United States and Canada, is a non-SI metric unit of mass equal to 1,000 kilograms or one megagram. It is equivalent to approximately 2,204.6 pounds, 1.102 short tons (US) or 0.984 long tons (UK). Although not part of the SI, the tonne is accepted for use with SI units and prefixes by the International Committee for Weights and Measures.

In 1932, the Reichsmarine secured the passage of the Schiffbauersatzplan ("Replacement ship construction program") through the Reichstag . The program called for two separate production phases, the first from 1930 to 1936, and the second from 1936 to 1943. The latter phase was secretly intended to break the Versailles restrictions. [8] The following year, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. He unilaterally withdrew from the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles and began the systematic re-building of the armed forces. The prestige brought by the Panzerschiffe led to two improved vessels, the D class, to be ordered. These ships were cancelled and reordered as the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, [9] which were 32,000-long-ton (33,000 t) ships armed with nine 28 cm guns and much greater armor protection than their predecessors. [10] In 1935, Hitler signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which permitted Germany to build up to 35 percent of the strength of the Royal Navy in all warship categories. [11] The initial designs for two follow-on shipsthe Bismarckclass initially called for a displacement of 35,000 long tons (36,000 t) with 13 in (330 mm) guns, but to counter the two new, French Richelieu-classbattleships, the new ships were significantly enlarged, to a displacement of over 41,000 long tons (42,000 t) and 15 in (380 mm) guns. [12]

Reichstag (Weimar Republic) legislative body of Weimar Germany

The Reichstag was the Lower house of the Weimar Republic's Legislature. It originated in the creation of the Weimar Constitution in 1919. After the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, the Reichstag continued to operate, albeit sporadically, as the nominal Legislature of Nazi Germany.

Chancellor of Germany Head of government of Germany

The title Chancellor has designated different offices in the history of Germany. It is currently used for the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the head of government of Germany.

German battleship <i>Scharnhorst</i> Scharnhorst-class battleship

Scharnhorst was a German capital ship, alternatively described as a battleship or battlecruiser, of Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine. She was the lead ship of her class, which included one other ship, Gneisenau. The ship was built at the Kriegsmarinewerft dockyard in Wilhelmshaven; she was laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched a year and four months later on 3 October 1936. Completed in January 1939, the ship was armed with a main battery of nine 28 cm (11 in) C/34 guns in three triple turrets. Plans to replace these weapons with six 38 cm (15 in) SK C/34 guns in twin turrets were never carried out.

Operational philosophies

Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1980-128-63, Erich Raeder.jpg
Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine

The postwar German navy was conflicted over what direction future construction should take. In September 1920, Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) William Michaelis issued a memorandum laying out the goals of the new Reichsmarine; these goals emphasized coastal defense rather than significant expansion. The German Army viewed Poland as the primary future enemy, and the Navy assumed that in a conflict with Poland, France would support Poland. Thus, the French Navy would be the most likely opponent for the Reichsmarine; Britain was expected to remain neutral in such a conflict. The construction of warships through the mid-1930s was primarily directed against the perceived French threat. [13] Any hypothetical U-boats would generally support the main fleet rather than embark on a commerce-raiding campaign, and any raiding would be done strictly according to cruiser rules. [14] This view remained the established orthodoxy until the mid-1930s, when then- Kapitän zur See (Captain at Sea) Karl Dönitz came to command the U-boat arm. [15] Dönitz advocated a return to unrestricted submarine warfare and the adoption of wolfpack tactics to overwhelm convoy defenses. [16]

Konteradmiral, abbreviated KAdm or KADM, is the second lowest naval flag officer rank in the German Navy. It is equivalent to Generalmajor in the Heer and Luftwaffe or to Admiralstabsarzt and Generalstabsarzt in the Zentraler Sanitätsdienst der Bundeswehr.

William Otto Ernst Michaelis was a German viceadmiral and head of the Naval Command within the Ministry of the Reichswehr in the Weimar Republic.

Coastal defence and fortification military operations and doctrine regarding protection of coastlines against military attack

Coastal defenceand coastal fortification are measures taken to provide protection against military attack at or near a coastline, for example, fortifications and coastal artillery. Because an invading enemy normally requires a port or harbour to sustain operations, such defences are usually concentrated around such facilities, or places where such facilities could be constructed. Coastal artillery fortifications generally followed the development of land fortifications, usually incorporating land defences; sometimes separate land defence forts were built to protect coastal forts. Through the middle 19th century, coastal forts could be bastion forts, star forts, polygonal forts, or sea forts, the first three types often with detached gun batteries called "water batteries". Coastal defence weapons throughout history were heavy naval guns or weapons based on them, often supplemented by lighter weapons. In the late 19th century separate batteries of coastal artillery replaced forts in some countries; in some areas these became widely separated geographically through the mid-20th century as weapon ranges increased. The amount of landward defence provided began to vary by country from the late 19th century; by 1900 new US forts almost totally neglected these defences. Booms were also usually part of a protected harbor's defences. In the middle 19th century underwater minefields and later controlled mines were often used, or stored in peacetime to be available in wartime. With the rise of the submarine threat at the beginning of the 20th century, anti-submarine nets were used extensively, usually added to boom defences, with major warships often being equipped with them through early World War I. In World War I railway artillery emerged and soon became part of coastal artillery in some countries; with railway artillery in coast defence some type of revolving mount had to be provided to allow tracking of fast-moving targets.

In the 1920s, the question arose over what to do with the cruisers that would presumably be abroad on training cruises when a war would break out. The high command decided that they should operate as independent commerce raiders. When Vizeadmiral (Vice Admiral) Erich Raeder became the head of the Reichsmarine in 1928, he fully endorsed the concept of long-range surface raiders. This was in large part due to his service in World War I as the chief of staff to Vizeadmiral Franz von Hipper, where he saw the fleet rendered impotent by the crushing British naval superiority. [8] By 1938, Hitler's aggressive foreign policy made conflict with Britain increasingly likely. He ordered that completion of Bismarck and Tirpitz be expedited, along with six new H-class battleships yet to be laid down. These eight battleships would form the core of a new battle fleet capable of engaging the British Royal Navy. Hitler nevertheless assured Raeder that war would not come until 1948. [11]

Raeder meanwhile believed that Britain could be more easily defeated through the surface raider strategy he favored. The initial version of his plan was based on the assumption that the fleet should be centered on panzerschiffe, long-range cruisers, and U-boats to attack British commerce. [11] These forces would tie down British naval power and allow a smaller number of battleships to operate in the North Sea. This first draft was called Plan X; a pared-down revision was renamed Plan Y, and the final version presented to Hitler was Plan Z. [17] Hitler rejected Raeder's proposed construction plan, which led to a more balanced fleet that incorporated the battleships Hitler sought and was accepted on 1 March 1939. Raeder planned to use the battleships and aircraft carriers in task forces to support the panzerschiffe and light cruisers attacking British merchant traffic. [11]

The plan

Graf Zeppelin at her launching Graf-Zeppelin-2.jpg
Graf Zeppelin at her launching

The plan approved by Hitler called for a surface fleet composed of the following vessels, which included all new ships built in the 1920s and 1930s: [11]

Aircraft carriers40
Heavy cruisers53
Light cruisers136
Torpedo boats9036

These figures included the four Scharnhorst- and Bismarck-class battleships already built or building, the three Deutschland-class panzerschiffe and the six light cruisers already in service. [11] To complete the core of the Plan Z fleet, six H-class battleships, three O-class battlecruisers, twelve P-class panzerschiffe, and two Graf Zeppelin-classaircraft carriers with two more of a new design, were to be built. [18] [19] The five ships of the Admiral Hipperclass fulfilled the mandate for heavy cruisers, while the M class of light cruisers would fulfill the requirement for light cruisers. [20] The Spähkreuzer 1938 design would form the basis for the fleet scouts ordered in the program. [21] On 27 July 1939, Raeder revised the plan to cancel all twelve of the P-class panzerschiffe. [19]

In the short time from the introduction of Plan Z to the beginning of war with the United Kingdom on 3 September only two of the plan's large ships, a pair of H class battleships, were laid down; material for the other four ships had started to be assembled in preparation to begin construction but no work had been done. [22] At the time components of the three battlecruisers were in production, but their keels had not yet been laid down. [23] Two of the M-class cruisers had been laid down, but they were also cancelled in late September. [24] Work on Graf Zeppelin was cancelled definitively in 1943 when Hitler finally abandoned the surface fleet after the Battle of the Barents Sea debacle. [25]

Impact on World War II

U-36, a Type VII U-boat Bundesarchiv DVM 10 Bild-23-63-65, U-Boot U 36.jpg
U-36, a Type VII U-boat

Since the plan was cancelled less than a year after it was approved, the positive effects on German naval construction were minimal. All of the ships authorized by the plan were cancelled after the outbreak of war, with only a few major surface vessels that predated the plan were completed during the conflict. These included Bismarck and Tirpitz, along with the heavy cruisers Blücher and Prinz Eugen. Without the six H-class battleships or the four aircraft carriers, the Kriegsmarine was once again unable to meet the Royal Navy on equal terms. [26]

Most of the heavy ships of the Kriegsmarine were used as commerce raiders in the early years of the war. Two of the panzerschiffe, Deutschland and Graf Spee, were already at sea at the outbreak of war; the former found little success and the latter was ultimately trapped and forced to scuttle after the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939. [27] [28] From October 1940 to March 1941, Admiral Scheer went on her own raiding operation and captured or sank seventeen ships, which made her the most successful of the German capital ship surface raiders in the entire war. [29] [30] [31] Scharnhorst and Gneisenau conducted Operation Berlin, a major sortie into the Atlantic in early 1941. [32] Bismarck and Prinz Eugen went on the last Atlantic raiding mission, Operation Rheinübung, in May 1941. Bismarck sank the British battlecruiser HMS Hood but was herself sunk three days later. [33] [34] The loss of Bismarck led Hitler to prohibit further sorties into the Atlantic; the remaining capital ships were concentrated in Norway for use as a fleet in being and to threaten convoys to the Soviet Union on the Murmansk Run. [11]

Despite the fact that Plan Z produced no new warships in time for World War II, the plan represented the strategic thinking of the Oberkommando der Marine (OKM"Naval High Command") at the time. Most significantly, the OKM favored surface combatants over the U-boats Dönitz needed for his submarine campaign in the North Atlantic, which left him with only a handful of submarines at the start of war. [17] The two Scharnhorst-class battleships cost close to 150 million Reichsmarks apiece, and the two Bismarck-class ships cost nearly 250 million Reichsmarks each [35] for this amount of money, the Germans could have built more than a hundred additional Type VII U-boats. [36] The shift to the submarine war was not definitively made until 1943, by which time the campaign had already been lost. [37] [38]


  1. Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 218.
  2. Gardiner & Chesneau, pp. 229–231.
  3. Rössler, p. 88.
  4. Treaty of Versailles, Part V, Section II, Article 191
  5. Rössler, pp. 98–99.
  6. Paloczi-Horvath, p. 64.
  7. Bidlingmaier, p. 73.
  8. 1 2 Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 219.
  9. Gröner Vol. 1, p. 63.
  10. Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 225.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 220.
  12. Garzke & Dulin, pp. 203–209.
  13. Gardiner & Chesneau, pp. 218–219.
  14. Herwig, p. 237.
  15. Rössler, p. 103.
  16. Blair, pp. 37–38.
  17. 1 2 Showell, p. 15.
  18. Gardiner & Chesneau, pp. 224–226.
  19. 1 2 Gröner Vol. 1, p. 64.
  20. Gardiner & Chesneau, pp. 228–232.
  21. Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 235.
  22. Gröner Vol. 1, p. 37.
  23. Garzke & Dulin, p. 354.
  24. Gröner Vol. 1, p. 125.
  25. Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 227.
  26. Gardiner & Chesneau, pp. 224–232.
  27. Williamson, p. 15.
  28. Bidlingmaier, pp. 91–93.
  29. Williamson, p. 33.
  30. Rohwer, p. 65.
  31. Hümmelchen, p. 101.
  32. Garzke & Dulin, p. 140.
  33. Bercuson & Herwig, pp. 155–156.
  34. Garzke & Dulin, p. 256.
  35. Gröner Vol. 1, pp. 31–35.
  36. Gröner Vol. 2, p. 44.
  37. Showell, pp. 15–16.
  38. Syrett, p. 2.

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Further reading