The Politics of Plan Z
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2017

Erich Raeder wanted battleships.

Raeder took command of the Reichsmarine, the Weimar Republic’s Navy, in 1928. Raeder’s predecessor, Hans Zenker, had believed that Germany could not hope to match the fleets of her potential enemies and should instead build ships maximized for commerce raiding, like the so-called “pocket battleships.” Raeder detested the pocket battleships and apparently detested Zenker too. The two had clashed repeatedly during the First World War, when Raeder often overstepped his authority as chief of staff to Admiral Franz Hipper, commander of the High Seas Fleet’s scouting forces, and Zenker commanded the battle cruiser von der Tann (it’s no coincidence that the name von der Tann would never be applied to a new ship under Raeder’s reign).

Raeder presented his first program for rebuilding the fleet in 1929, proposing that Germany build an aircraft carrier, six battleships, six cruisers, 48 destroyers plus submarines and other craft. That program foundered, as did smaller versions that followed, on the solid rock of the Army’s primacy in the struggle for the Weimar Republic’s limited financial means.

The admiral’s hard-line right-wing politics sympathized with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, but he was crushed when the Nazis voted against his fleet construction program. Hitler proclaimed that Germany’s enemies were Poland and the Soviet Union, and no fleet was necessary to fight them – resources diverted to battleships would only weaken the Army.

When Hitler took power in early 1933, Raeder told associates that he, Raeder, would use his powers of persuasion to convert Hitler to navalism – the belief in the primacy of sea power as the foundation of national strength. Raeder had already declared himself the Second Tirpitz, and appears to have deeply believed in his own skills.

Soon after becoming Chancellor, Hitler began a series of steps that would lead to a vast increase in the Reichsmarine, the German Navy. While Raeder apparently believed that he had convinced Hitler, the dictator had a shrewd grasp of human psychology and expertly fed Raeder’s dreams of a huge new construction program.

Hitler considered it vital to break down the Versailles Treaty system, and believed he could force a wedge into it through a naval armaments agreement with Great Britain. Preliminary talks began a little more than a year after Hitler’s accession as Chancellor, and by 1935 the Anglo-German Naval Agreement had been finalized.

Germany did far better than even Hitler had expected. Britain agreed that Germany could build a fleet equal to 35 percent of British tonnage in all categories except submarines; the Germans could match 100% of British tonnage in that category. Hitler told Raeder to move ahead with plans for two more “pocket battleships,” but now they could be expanded from 10,000-ton armored cruisers to 25,000-ton battle cruisers.

The ships that became Scharnhorst and Gneisenau drew heavily on the old Imperial Navy’s battle cruiser designs, but would always be called “battleships” by the Kriegsmarine, as the Reichsmarine now formally became. While Raeder and Hitler discussed arming the two new ships with 350mm (13.8-inch) or 380mm (15-inch) guns, Krupp had already begun work on the 280mm (11-inch) turrets for the new armored cruisers, and these would be the heavy weapons installed on the new ships.

Raeder finally had his battleships, even if they were very weak ones, and received permission to start work on first-rate battleships. Drafting work on a new battleship – one heavily influenced by old Imperial Navy design practices – had begun in 1932, before Hitler’s rise to power. The naval agreement would have allowed 406mm (16-inch) guns as the ships’ main armament, but Krupp had already invested in developing a 15-inch gun during design work for Scharnhorst and now lobbied heavily for this weapon’s use in the new ships. Raeder told Hitler that the 15-inch gun would be acceptable to the Navy, and the Führer went along on political grounds, as this would be less threatening to the British.

Plans for a much larger fleet expansion program began to take shape in 1938. British reactions to the German annexations of the Sudetenland and Austria convinced Hitler that a future war with Britain had become likely, and to wage such a war Germany would need a more powerful Navy. Plan X, centered on six large battleships, gave way to Plan Y, which put more emphasis on a successor to the “pocket battleships” to serve as a long-range commerce raider. Plan Z simply tossed all of the different factions’ wish lists into one, and this was the plan Raeder presented in Hitler in January 1939. After some revisions Hitler approved the plan, and granted the Kriegsmarine top priority for funding and materials (particularly steel).

The ten-year plan called for 10 battleships (including the four already completed or under construction), a dozen new-model armored cruisers (an improved version of the “pocket battleships”), four aircraft carriers, five heavy cruisers, 22 light cruisers (including the six already in service), 22 scout cruisers, 68 destroyers plus smaller craft.

Plan Z’s total figures would be subject to continual tinkering: for example, three of the armored cruisers were soon replaced by full-fledged battle cruisers.  Various sources therefore list various totals of ships, but since they represented imaginary target figures, the exact count is not particularly important. What is clear is that Raeder wanted a huge surface fleet, and for about eight months Hitler allowed him the resources to build it, until the outbreak of a general European war in September 1939 brought the plans to an abrupt halt.

A true bureaucratic warrior, Raeder made the most of his brief months sitting atop the Third Reich’s budgetary pyramid. While Germany could potentially build 10 dreadnoughts at once during the heyday of Tirpitz’s regime, the Germany of 1939 had only four slipways capable of building the big ships. Raeder immediately ordered construction to begin on two of his new battleships, with two more to start in the fall of 1939 and the last two in early 1940.

Orders were placed as well for the three new battle cruisers, but work could not begin until the slipways had been cleared by the launch of two of the new battleships (and work had been completed on an additional new slipway). Shipyards for the new armored cruisers were selected, but again none were actually in a position to start and some of them also needed to build new slipways to accommodate the work. But by placing the work, Raeder gained important political allies in case the project fell out of favor.

All of the heavy cruisers were already under construction when Plan Z received approval, with the first nearing completion. Likewise two of the aircraft carriers had already been laid down, with the naval engineers recommending that the next two await completion of the first so that any lessons learned could be incorporated into their design.

Two of the new light cruisers had started construction in 1938, and Raeder now assigned four more to shipyards. Design work for a large ocean-going destroyer classed as a “scout cruiser” had been prepared in 1938, but no orders were placed for this ship.

By early 1940, all of the orders had been cancelled and what little work had been done on those ships laid down was dismantled. The workers and materials were soon shifted to new programs, chiefly submarine construction.

Our Second World War at Sea: Plan Z has all of Raeder’s ships from the first construction phase plus a few more. There are six new battleships, two aircraft carriers, three battle cruisers, eight armored cruisers, three heavy cruisers, six light cruisers and six scout cruisers. And masses of destroyers, plus a few ships not strictly part of Plan Z, like the large liners converted to aircraft carriers and one of the Luftwaffe’s catapult ships.

While Raeder certainly wanted to complete his battleship fleet, his leader’s real desires are difficult to fathom. Hitler certainly granted Raeder priority in the race for steel and money among the armed services, but whether this was to build a navy or to threaten the British with building a navy is not completely clear. Hitler excelled at building castles in the air, particularly those castles his audience wished to see. Was he spinning such a tale for Raeder, or did he really mean to build a huge fleet of battleships?

Nazi Germany was a much poorer country than Imperial Germany, between the after-effects of the Great War, the hyper-inflation of the Weimar period, the world-wide effects of the Great Depression and the stunning managerial incompetence of its hard-right nativist governing party. Imperial Germany could built a huge fleet in 10 years, but Hitler’s Germany did not have the raw materials, the financial wherewithal, the industrial base or the skilled labor available to the old regime.

Click here to order Second World War at Sea: Plan Z right now.

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.