Lack & misuse of naval power by the Axis

While Germany, Japan and Italy all fielded large land armies, and powerful air forces, the biggest oversight by all three was in the proper development, and use of naval power.


Deutschland Class heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, launching a Heinkel 60 scout plane.

The biggest naval warfare failure. Germany had built highly advanced surface warships, and had the industrial capacity to build fleets. They simply didn’t do it.

Hitler, and Kriegsmarine chief Admiral Erich Raeder realized the need for a battle fleet. However, as the land war expanded in Europe, Hitler became less and less interested in naval matters.

Germany by September 1939, had built advanced warships comparable, or superior to any navy in the world. But in such few numbers, Germany couldn’t assemble one effective battle-group that could survive combat beyond the Baltic Sea.

Even Germany’s infamous U-boat fleet barely existed in 1939, with a mere 17 vessels in commission. And, until the very end of the war, Germany did not build a true ocean-going U-boat.


Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto.

Italy’s Regia Marina, was actually quite powerful. Most of its battleships and cruisers were fairly modern, heavily armed, fast, and highly maneuverable. Italian sailors were as well-trained, motivated and professional as those of any modern navy.

The problem, was the Italian admiralty’s mortal fear of the British Royal Navy. Despite successes against the British, they never fully prosecuted clear openings to decisive victories. For the most part, Italy’s main battle fleet was kept in port.

With land based air cover, the Italian battle fleet could have provided powerful naval gunfire support to Axis forces in North Africa, and stood a fair chance against Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet.

One major Italian accomplishment was the December, 1941 Italian raid on Alexandria, Egypt by six frogmen operating manned torpedoes. They managed to sink the battleships HMS Valiant, and HMS Queen Elizabeth in shallow water, putting both out of action for over six months.

Italian Navy manned torpedo of the type used in WW II. Taormina, IT – courtesy Giovanni Dall’Orto via Wikipedia.


Despite Japan’s foresight with naval air power, they entirely failed to appreciate other facets which led to a rapid collapse of Japan’s naval supremacy after the Battle of Midway.

The 3,000 ton I-15. Equipped with a small hangar, and catapult to house & launch seaplanes, and an 8-inch retractable gun aft.

Japan had a fleet of large modern submarines (a few reaching the size of destroyer), with the range to operate off the US West Coast, yet never duplicated German Wolf Pack tactics against American merchant shipping, or even warships.

For still mystifying reasons, Japan refused to embrace the convoy system for protection of merchant shipping until far too late. American submarines patrolled nearly unopposed and by early 1945 had effectively annihilated Japan’s Merchant Marine.

Japan also failed to embrace standardized capital warship designs; or to make combat air groups interchangeable between aircraft carriers; and never operated their large fleet of surface combatants with land based air cover. Had they done so during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Japan would likely have destroyed General MacArthur’s landing force.

Most devastating of all, was Japan’s tardiness establishing a naval aviation training command. They shockingly did not have one, until after the Battle of Midway. The result was that Japan had no hope of rebuilding the elite naval air force lost at Midway, before final defeat.

Implementation of Japan’s Kamikaze strikes, while sinking smaller warships, and taking many lives, never posed a fatal threat to capital ships. Late in the war, Japan very nearly sank the brand new Essex Class aircraft carrier Franklin, with a purely conventional attack by one dive bomber.

Two armor-piercing bombs struck home, gutting the ship and putting it out of action for the rest of the war. The Japanese pilot, flew home safely.

The aircraft carrier USS Franklin March 19, 1945. Listing, and afire from bow to stern.

Naval warfare against the Axis, was by no means a pleasure cruise. It cost many Allied lives and much fortune in ships, and materials. However, it would have been far, far worse had the Axis powers not so severely neglected and failed to prosecute, proper naval warfare tenets of the 1940’s.

15 thoughts on “Lack & misuse of naval power by the Axis

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  1. There is no question that all three Axis powers mis-handled their naval forces, even in terms of the tactical and strategic arguments of the day. Correct ways of managing them WERE usually expressed in their commands, but the debates were often lost – frequently due to wider politics, as much as anything else. Hitler certainly had little genuine interest in the navy. The main arms of the Japanese military were constantly in-fighting to the point where relations between army and navy basically broke down. And, as you say, the Italians were basically terrified of the British.

    On the other hand, many of the outcomes also had to do with decisive leadership by the Allies, before the weight of largely US-built materiel began to have effect on the balance of sea force. One main British concern in European waters after the fall of France in 1940 was the Italian fleet, particularly if the Nazis obtained the French navy to support it – a combined force well ahead of anything Germany alone could field – hence Operation Catapult and the attack on Mers-el-Kebir. The balance of forces in-theatre for some time afterwards was still marginal, and in this I think Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham was a decisive figure, in that he never let go of the offensive, under any circumstance – even when his own forces were technically inferior to some of the Italian. As Maj-Gen Freyberg pointed out after the battle for Crete, there were many command failures among the forces, but the Royal Navy (under Cunningham) was not among them. There are other examples in other theatres – but to me, Cunningham (in particular) was one of the most determined and capable naval commanders of the war.


    1. The Italian fleet was no threat outside of the Mediterranean as long as Britain held Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. And, Italy did actually attain naval superiority in the Central Med, with Luftwaffe air cover, and even went on the offensive against Malta convoys quite successfully for a time. Cunningham took the initiative, but he was also well aware his Italian counterparts, had a mortal fear of all things, ‘Royal Navy’. And, they never recovered psychologically from Taranto. The infighting between the IJN & IJA, had no affect on how the IJN ran itself. That battle was over funding and Japanese internal politics. There were many things the IJN could have done, they simply didn’t do. Especially with submarine warfare. Though had Yamamoto lived, they might have.


  2. I think that Hitler was so intent on killing Jews and Communists and acquiring ‘lebensraum’ that he felt anything which did not contribute to these purposes was an irrelevance. Don’t forget too that Germany had a huge Navy which they lost in the aftermath of the First World War. Because of ‘Barbarossa’ Hitler had no desire to build it up to previous levels….he had little desire either to wage war with Britain, especially on the high seas. The Germans constructed lots of U-boats as far as I remember. It was just that the Allies sank lots of them as the years went by. One other thought strikes me…how old were the Japanese and Italian ships, which would not have been affected by the result of WW1 as they were on the winning side? A lot of British ships were pretty old.


    1. As the war went on, yes. Because, Hitler never expected the war in the West, to last after the fall of France. He wasn’t counting on Churchill becoming Prime Minister. The High Seas fleet being scuttled, rather than actually beaten, is all the more reason not rebuilding the Kriegsmarine was a total failure. As for Barbarossa, Hitler deluded himself into believing the USSR was just waiting to be knocked over in short order. Yes, they constructed many U-boats. But, not until Hitler finally agreed to put German industry on a full war footing. Which didn’t happen until after the defeat at Moscow. Germany had the industrial capacity to have built more ships between 1933, and 1941-42. They simply didn’t do it. As for the ages of ships, Britain had many more older ships, but Britain kept them upgraded & maintained properly. Japan too, had some older battleships and cruisers, though most of their carriers (their prime naval warfare platform) were built from the mid-1920’s onward. All but a handful of Italy’s battleships, were less than a decade old in 1940. And, they modernized up to 1940, what they did have that was WWI era construction. Hitler not wanting to do battle with Britain on the high seas was a lot of rubbish on Hitler’s part. He didn’t start telling his generals that, until summer 1940. Because France fell so shockingly fast, and as mentioned above, Hitler didn’t anticipate Churchill becoming PM, anymore than most of the MP’s in Parliament did in 1940.


  3. As I recall, a fair proportion of the Japanese complement of warships were built in British yards, weren’t they? Not directly relevant, I know, but indicative of the hold the British navy maintained upon the ‘Western Approaches’ which is always the explanation I was given as the inhibitor of German naval power. Hitler’s limited access to the Atlantic, heavily patrolled by British ships, deterred him from investing heavily in his navy. Eg. the Bismarck and the Tirpitz which spent most of the war hidden in Norwegian Fjords.


    1. No, they were not. Britain built a handful of warships for Japan between 1870 & 1896, all of which were long gone by 1920. And, no again on German naval power. Hitler had control of European ports from the Arctic to the Spanish border, more than enough ‘access’. The Atlantic was not ‘heavily patrolled’ by the British. You’re talking about an ocean, not a lake or a sea. Bismarck was never hidden in Norway. And, Tirptiz was based there specifically to attack allied convoys to the Soviet Union, and to combat British amphibious raids. She only had to be hidden after suffering damage, and not being seaworthy enough to make it back to Germany.


    1. In the long run, yes. At first, even Yamamoto refused to believe the raid was launched from an aircraft carrier, due to the B-25 being a land based bomber, and considered too large for carrier operations. Over time however, and especially after the severe losses at Midway, it became clear that at least one US carrier had to have launched the B-25’s. And, Yamamoto knew better than anyone else in Japan, that Japanese shipbuilding had no hope of matching the output of America’s. And, in the back of his mind too, was probably the thought that the Royal Navy would eventually be able to send a sizeable battle fleet into the Pacific.

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