The recent Duel title German Heavy Cruisers vs Royal Navy Heavy Cruisers: 1939–42 is an informative, illustrated study of the opposing heavy cruisers of the German Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy, as they engaged in a global game of cat and mouse during the opening years of World War II. On the blog today, author Mark Lardas gives insight into the creation of this title and the discoveries he made during its formation.
In my teens I was into wargaming, especially naval miniatures. We spent weekends refighting the naval battles of World War II on basement and gymnasiums floors. In those days, before the computers of today, naval air combat and carrier actions tended to be too abstract to satisfactorily play with miniatures. Our battles were surface actions. Daytime actions, such as Kommandorski Island or River Plate were favored. We used Surface Action rules, a slightly modified and updated version of the Fletcher Pratt Naval War Game.
Many games featured fights between the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine prior to 1943. There were enough surface actions – or near surface actions – to satisfy us. Unless they were hopelessly lopsided such as the battles in which HMS Glorious and Glowworm were sunk, the Royal Navy almost always won the historical battles (well, except for an unfortunate incident with the Hood.)
In our wargames, Britain lost more often than not. On one level it was unsurprising. Kriegsmarine warships were materially better than their British counterparts. In battles fought to satisfy teen bloodlust, with both sides always going toe-to-toe, victory was on the side of more powerful ships. The disparity in results puzzled us, but at the time we never found a satisfactory explanation.
That had to wait nearly 50 years. Last year Nikolai Bogdanovic asked me to write a Duel about German and British heavy cruiser actions in World War II. The book gave me a chance to re-examine the issue. Teen memories about the material superiority of Kriegsmarine ships proved accurate.The Royal Navy heavy cruisers were smaller, older, and weaker than their Kriegsmarine counterparts.
Despite this, even when they took more damage, Royal Navy cruisers consistently won the battles. Cruiser battles almost always ended with the Kriegsmarine fleeing the battlefield before inferior Royal Navy forces. The best example was the Battle of the Barents Sea (soon to be covered in Campaign 376: Barents Sea 1942: The Battle for Russia’s Arctic Lifeline publishing May 2022), where heavy cruisers Lützow and Hipper fled from two British light cruisers. But why?
The “aha!” moment came while writing the Duel book. I read an article about a hiker, lost in the woods. It was completely unrelated to naval combat except for the reason the camper died. Under stress, people revert to training, which proved fatal to this hiker: a big part of the hiker’s training was to “leave no trace.” Lost in the woods, she held onto trash, buried poops, doing everything possible to minimize her environmental impact. She even put out a fire she set, fearing she was doing too much damage. Hundreds of searchers were looking for her. With a nice, big, smoky fire, she would have been quickly found. Under stress, she reverted to her leave-no-trace training leading to her death.
What does a lost camper have to tell us about cruiser combat? Getting lost in the woods is stressful. Combat is even more stressful. For officers it is not just a matter of physical courage (or lack of it). Rather it is the stress of responsibility for your crew and your ship as much as winning the battle. The wrong decision may cost the battle – or potentially the war.
Under stress the body shuts down functions unessential to survival while sharpening those most necessary. Among those shut down are memory and higher-level thinking. Action becomes instinctive, not deliberated. You revert to instinct and training. The British and German officers fighting those battles did. But their training was very different.
The Kriegsmarine had very few ships. When the war started, the Kriegsmarine had two fast battleships, one heavy cruiser, and six light cruisers in commission. Only two more battleships and two of the four heavy cruisers under construction joined the fleet during the war, all before 1941 ended.
From January 1940 onward Kriegsmarine captains and officers put to sea knowing they were responsible for half of the Kriegsmarine’s remaining battleships, battlecruisers, panzerschiffe, or heavy cruisers. A captain’s primary responsibility was the preservation of his command, so it would be available for the decisive battle. Their navy trained – and fought as they trained – accordingly.
The Royal Navy had a different tradition. The Royal Navy did not win all its battles, but won the ones that counted. It went on to own the oceans through a pugnacious willingness to fight. Over a century after Horatio Nelson’s death, men of the Royal Navy were still guided by his instructions given before the Battle of Trafalgar: “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” The Royal Navy – officer and sailor – trained accordingly.
Relying on instinct and training meant the two sides fought different wars. Britain’s tradition led to unequal fights. The armed merchant cruiser Rawapindi took on battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau rather than surrender. Destroyer Glowworm, trapped by heavy cruiser Hipper, fought on, ultimately ramming the enemy cruiser before sinking.
Instinct sometimes served the Royal Navy badly. It led to the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse in December 1941. Instead of preserving them as a fleet in being against a superior Japanese Navy, the commander of that force instinctively pushed them into combat, where they were lost.
Germany’s philosophy of maintaining its warships yielded valuable victories. It kept the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet tied to the North Sea to guard against Kriegsmarine breakouts from Norway. It was the proximate cause of the disastrous losses of PQ-17, when an Arctic convoy dispersed due to the suspicion the battleship Tirpitz was at sea.
On the few occasions the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine met at sea, the battles between the two navies ended up as a clash between these two doctrines. The result was several improbable victories, such as at River Plate and Barents Sea. Even when the Royal Navy came up on the short end of the damage tally, as they did in the battle between Hipper and Berwick, the conflicting training philosophies led to British strategic success. Ultimately, the Kriegsmarine’s instinctive shielding of its ships from loss cost it the ships it sought to protect – lost not in surface combat, but through Germany’s commander discarding them.
German Heavy Cruisers Vs Royal Navy Heavy Cruisers, 1939-1942 by Mark Lardas publishes 19 August 2021. Pre-order your copy today!