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BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE 13 DECEMBER 1939

AMERICAN and British views on sea warfare are so similar that naval students in the two countries will agree on many conclusions about the opening phases of the present campaign. They will agree, for example, that the present naval war is not likely to provide a major fleet action on the scale of Jutland. The German Navy's strength in capital ships at the outbreak of war was much too low to permit it to challenge the British fleet. Against the fourteen British capital ships in existence -- though not all concentrated in the North Sea, as the Grand Fleet was in 1914 -- Germany could oppose only the two battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Her two new battleships of the 35,000-ton Bismarck class will probably not come into service for many months; nor is it conceivable that even after all four of the new German capital ships have been completed twelve to fifteen months hence they will give battle to the British Main Fleet.
German naval strategy clearly must fall back on the old idea of a raiding war, a constant campaign of pinpricks in which the central objective is to destroy the enemy's commerce. One need not have been clairvoyant to foretell this at any time after 1935, when the Nazis put Admiral Erich Raeder at the head of the German Admiralty and told him to rebuild a navy that would revive the glories of the Kaiser's fleet. For Admiral Raeder was by no means a dark horse. His record in the last war as a Staff Officer with Hipper in the German Battle Cruiser Force was well known. Moreover, after that war he produced two important volumes on "Cruiser Warfare" in which he clearly laid down the lines along which a small force should wage naval warfare against a first-class Power. The plans which he outlined in those volumes he has followed in rebuilding the German Navy and, since last September, in employing it against the Allies. He advocated a cruiser war in which as many enemy naval vessels as possible would be tied up by a constant search for individual German commerce destroyers dispersed far and wide over the seas. He advocated the unrelenting destruction of the enemy's sea-borne commerce by every conceivable means. He advocated attacking the individual warships which were pursuing the raiders -- whenever the warships were less powerful. And he advocated the Blitzkrieg, the infliction of instant and overwhelming damage at the very outset of hostilities.
It is clear, as indeed the Admiral's private conversations in Berlin long ago indicated, that his strategic ideas were strongly influenced by Mahan's "Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812." The great damage done in that war to Britain's sea-borne trade by the small but efficient American Navy and by the well-handled privateers under the Stars and Stripes, impressed itself on Raeder's imagination. He saw what had been the effect on British public opinion, in the War of 1812, of the constant loss of merchant ships -- a total of 500 captures in seven months -- and he expected a small but efficiently trained German Navy to achieve a similar result by substituting U-boats for privateers.
This, then, was the basis of his policy. And the British Admiralty would have been blind had it failed to see what was bound to happen once war broke out.
The war came -- and what happened?
A number of U-boats were already at large in the Atlantic along the routes usually followed by British merchant shipping in times of peace. To this extent Raeder's plans had worked. But there were no German cruisers at sea. In 1914 the light cruisers Emden, Karlsruhe, Leipzig, Dresden and Nürnberg, in addition to the famous Far Eastern Squadron of von Spee headed by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were all at sea destroying Allied commerce. In 1939 the only German surface warship outside the Bight of Helgoland when the war began was the Admiral Graf Spee. Nor was Germany able to fill this gap in her offensive plans by setting converted merchantmen to prey on the trade routes. That part of Raeder's strategy broke down completely. There was no Blitzkrieg on the surface of the sea.
What of the underwater campaign?
In the first week of the war eleven British merchantmen were sunk; in the second week, sixteen; in the third, seven -- an average of eleven a week. To attain the 1812 figures of 500 in seven months, the average would have had to be eighteen a week. The pressure was obviously below the standard set by the program. Even in tonnage this fell far below the achievements of the U-boats of 1916. Raeder's flotillas, in spite of the opportunities for catching British merchant ships still on their peacetime routes and in peacetime routine, could sink only 156,000 tons of British shipping in the first month of the war, whereas the Kaiser's flotillas sank 545,000 tons in the month of April 1917. This was a resounding failure for the German Navy.

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