Plan Z:
German Destroyers, Part One

Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet had been accompanied by a huge swarm of destroyers, and Admiral Erich Raeder of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine determined that his new battle fleet outlined in Plan Z needed a strong screening element as well. Destroyer development continued throughout World War II even as work on larger surface ships stopped and started and stopped. Germany’s Great Leader did not count destroyers as major warships and the Navy (probably employing some willful blindness) considered them exempt from his edicts banning new construction.

Examples of all of the German destroyer classes that saw action in the Second World War (or at least had class members commissioned before the war’s end) have appeared in previous Second World War at Sea series games. More types were in the design and building stage at the end of the war, that likely would have seen service had war been delayed and Plan Z’s lofty goals been accomplished. So we’ve included them in our Second World War at Sea: Plan Z expansion set.

The Type 1936C Destroyer grew out of dissatisfaction with the main armament of previous German destroyers, which could not engage enemy aircraft and often made the boats overweight. The Type 1936A had carried the ridiculously oversized 150mm (5.9-inch) gun and the 1936B the more reasonable 127mm (5-inch) gun. The double turret for the forward 150mm guns badly weighed down the boat’s forecastle, and both types were useful only against surface targets.

Destroyer Z39 shows off her cruiser-sized main armament.

Type 1936C had three twin turrets for 128mm guns, a new weapon derived from a very successful anti-aircraft gun. For the first time, German warships had a true dual-purpose secondary weapon. They also would have an array of light anti-aircraft guns, the standard eight torpedo tubes, and were fitted to carry and lay sixty mines. They also had four depth-charge throwers.

At 3,700 tons’ deep load displacement and 126 meters long, they were big destroyers, even larger than the American Sumner class boats designed for operations across the vast Pacific Ocean (though with less range than the Sumners).

Five boats were ordered from the Deschimag yard in Bremen, two in October 1941 (initially as Type 1936B boats) and three more in June 1943. The two ordered in 1941 were laid down in 1943 and broken up in 1945, never having been launched. The other three were not begun. All five are present in our Plan Z expansion set, numbered Z46 through Z50.

The next new destroyer would have been the Type 1942A, intended for operations deep in the Atlantic escorting the battle groups of Plan Z. This boat had a new hull form and was even larger than previous German destroyers. She would have diesel propulsion, which had performed somewhat better in service than the high-pressure steam turbines of previous German destroyers and larger warships (though even German marine diesel engines proved troublesome). Diesel engines would require fewer crewmen than the high-pressure steam power plants, but burned higher-quality fuel. They gave much greater range, a prime consideration of Plan Z’s planners.

The lone member of the Type 1942 class, Z51, was to serve as a test bed for diesel-propelled destroyers, but she would be destroyed by British aircraft before she completed fitting out. The Kriegsmarine apparently decided to move forward with the new class anyway, though by the time Z51 was destroyed it was obvious that the war had been lost and Germany would be building no more destroyers.

In addition to their enormous range, the new destroyers would carry the same new main armament as the Type 1936C – six 128mm dual-purpose guns in three twin turrets - with an improved anti-aircraft armament of 55mm and 30mm weapons responding to calls for heavier guns to combat tougher enemy airplanes. Neither weapon yet existed when the destroyer plans were drawn up, further confirmation of the project’s fantasy status. And neither had been developed by the end of the war; though the Army had deployed a 30mm anti-aircraft gun by then this appears to have been a different weapon than that intended for the new destroyers. Like the preceding class, she would have carried four depth-charge throwers and eight torpedo tubes (though with a full set of re-loads; Type 1936C had four reloads while Type 1936A and 1936B had none). Five boats were ordered in 1943 from Deschimag, numbered Z52 through Z56; material had been gathered but no construction undertaken when all five were cancelled in June 1944.

By the time seals were planned on the blueprints for the Type 1942, Germany’s Leader had called a halt to construction of major surface warships. The big Type 1942 destroyer, with its enormous range, could have served as a small commerce-raiding cruiser on its own. The huge German destroyers filled a role more like the French contre-torpilleurs or the Italian Capitani Romani class small light cruisers, with the torpedo boats carrying out the missions givien to similarly-sized “destroyers” in other navies.

The German destroyers don’t quite fit into Plan Z like the larger warships, since design and development continued unabated during the war while the cruisers and battleships are in many ways frozen in 1939. As a result, the new destroyer classes show the influence of wartime operations, knowledge that would not have been available to the naval architects drafting the Plan Z fantasy fleet. The major lessons did not necessarily require battle experience: that destroyers needed a heavier anti-aircraft suite, that high-pressure steam power plants were unreliable under heavy use and even harder to keep operating properly in a small ship like a destroyer, and that a single-use main armament was outdated.

Rheinmetall-Borsig began testing the 128mm Flak 40 cannon in 1937, so it could have been adopted by the Navy before war broke out – a political issue, Krupp’s monopoly over naval artillery production, kept the gun off earlier destroyers rather than a technical difficulty. But given such a fine weapon, and no driving wartime need to keep operational destroyers operating, surely the Kriegsmarine would have re-fitted the earlier boats with the new gun.

No plans appear to have been made to replace the 150mm and 127mm single-purpose weapons of the older destroyers with the 128mm dual-purpose cannon. In the Second World War at Sea: Plan Z expansion set the older German destroyers are presented as they were designed or built, without hypothetical re-armament.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.