Author Topic: The Five Front War  (Read 1474 times)

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Offline W1RC

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The Five Front War
« on: December 03, 2021, 04:33:33 AM »
The conventional view of history states that when Germany failed to subdue Britain in the summer of 1940 and then went on to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, it condemned itself to wage a two-front war.

I would submit that this assessment is an understatement. Instead of a two-front war, Germany eventually found itself embroiled in a five-front war.  Of these fronts, only one involved the Soviet Union; that being the Eastern front. The remaining four fronts were all waged against the Western Allies. These consisted of the Western front in Northwest Europe; the Southern front involving the conflict in Africa and Southern Europe; the Aerial front, which primarily consisted of Germany?s attempt to oppose the strategic bombing campaign; and finally the Maritime front, which was overwhelmingly conducted in the Atlantic and waters off of Northwest Europe.

Of these, we will now focus on the Maritime front. Rarely are Germany?s maritime activities viewed in terms of being a front in the war. While Germany is clearly viewed as a major land power during World War II, its position as a maritime power is far less appreciated. Instead, when considering the Axis, Japan is usually viewed as the dominant naval power. Much of this stems from the small size of the German Kriegsmarine (navy) at the beginning of the war when it possessed just two battlecruisers, three pocket battleships, two pre-dreadnought battleships, eight cruisers, 33 assorted destroyers/torpedo boats, 57 U-boats and 10 escorts. When combined together, this constituted a force that was less than a third of the size of the Royal Navy at the time.

If this had been the largest the Kriegsmarine had gotten, its status as a minor service would have been justified. However, the Kriegsmarine did not remain at this strength. Throughout the war, the Germans invested significant resources and effort to expand the Kriegsmarine. From 1940 through 1943 roughly 10 percent of all German armaments production was earmarked towards naval applications, mostly in the form of shipbuilding. To put this in perspective, this was a larger percentage of industrial effort than went into producing tanks during the same timeframe.

The result, over the course of the war, the Germans attained a very large navy with an accumulated strength of 1,640 principal warships. Roughly three-fourths of these vessels were U-boats, but this also included 450 surface warships ranging from battleships down to fleet minesweepers. Again, to put this in perspective, this total number of principal warships was more than twice the accumulated number of like vessels that served in the Imperial Japanese Navy (773) during the war. Nor was this the extent of this effort as the Germans also commissioned thousands of auxiliaries and minor warships to augment this force. Meanwhile, in terms of manpower, the Germans employed over two million men in their conduct of the maritime conflict. This included staffing for the Kriegsmarine and German merchant fleet as well as civilian support personnel and industrial workers assigned to maritime production.

Of the vast number of German ships employed in the maritime conflict, most were lost during the duration of the war. At the forefront of this were 1,015 U-boats that were sunk due to combat operations, accidents, unknown causes and scuttling. Likewise, a total of 1,258 German surface warships and auxiliaries worth a combined 941,728 tons were sunk or otherwise lost in the waters around Europe (excluding the Mediterranean and Black Sea). Included in this tally were two battleships, two battlecruisers, two pocket battleships, two pre-dreadnought battleships, one aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, 65 destroyers/torpedo boats, eight assorted escort destroyers/sloops, three corvettes, 118 fleet minesweepers and three minelayers. During the same period a total of 2,495 German and German-affiliated merchant ships and commercial vessels worth 4,417,664 tons were sunk, wrecked or captured in the same area. The tally was even higher in the Mediterranean where the Axis lost 1,817 military vessels and 3,179 merchant ships worth 1,044,722 and 4,147,523 tons respectively from 10 June 1940 through 2 May 1945. Most of these losses were Italian, but the former included an aircraft carrier, three cruisers, nine destroyers, 31 torpedo boats, six escort destroyers and 18 corvettes that were all sunk while under German control. Finally, the pocket battleship *Graf Spee* and 330 German and German-affiliated merchant ships worth 2,048,891 tons were sunk, scuttled or seized in the waters outside of Europe and the Mediterranean.   

When viewing the immense human and materiel resources that went into prosecuting Germany?s maritime effort and the costs it sustained, the basis for considering this a wartime front becomes clear. This was an effort that was almost entirely oriented against the West. Had the maritime conflict in the Atlantic and Northwest Europe not existed, the Germans could have diverted a substantial portion of this manpower and industrial effort into ground applications against the Soviet Union. Imagine the impact that hundreds of thousands of additional men and thousands of additional tanks and guns might have had during the key battles of 1942 and 1943 on the Eastern front. This diversion of resources constitutes just one example of the immense impact the Western Allies had in helping to defeat Germany.