World War II Naval Campaign: The Atlantic--Sea Areas

German sailor
Figure 1.--

The primary Atlantic campign was fought in the North Atlantic between the Allies and the German U-boat fleet in a life and death struggle to keep the sea lanes between America and Britain open. The campaigns in the Atlantic sea areas were of only limited importance compared to the strugge in the North Atlantic. They were not, however, unimportant. The most important was the struggle between the Italian Regio Marina and British Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. This largely determined the outcome in the North African struggle and blocked Axis access to Middle Eastern oil. There were also naval campaigns in the Baltic and Black Seas. Campaigs that are poorly covered in World War II histories. The Baltic until the last year of the War became essentilly a German lake. The Black Sea was more of a contest and played a role in the Eastern Front campaign in the Ukranian. The substantial Soviet naval force at the onset of Barbarossa was largely negated and destroyed by German air power. The British naval victories in the Medterranean, however, meant that the Axis was unable to introduce substantial naval forces in the Black Sea.

Mediterranean Sea

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, immediately challenged the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean. With the fall of France some British leaders counceled evacuating Malta and withdrawing from the Meditrranean. Churchill and the War cadinet decided to fight it out with the Italians in a series of epic sea battles. The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sicily, and Italy posed a formidable challenge. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterranean (Suez and Gibraltar). In between and in many ways the key to the Mediteranean was the small British bastion at Malta. Malta became the most bombed place in the War. It survived in part because of an American carrier (badly needed in the Pacific) delivered fighters and American tanker running the gauntlett of Axis airpower. When the Italians faltered, they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Afrika Corps. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bare against the Axis.

Black Sea

At the time that Hitler and Stalin launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1939), the Soviet Red Navy dominated the Black Sea. None of the other Black Sea countries (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania) had sizable navies. The Germans forced Bulgaria and Romania which had been desmembered by the Soviets into the Axis. Turkey wavered, but was concerned with Soviet aspirations to control the Bosporus ad Dardanelles. British naval victories in the Mediterranean (1940-41) meant that the Axis was unable to introduce major fleet elemets into the Black Sea. and it meant that the Mediterranean could not be a conduit for Middle eastern oil. The Axis naval campaign in the Black Sea to support Barbarossa was an international effort with units from Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, and Romania confronting the much larger Red Navy Black Sea force. Many of the smaal boats deployed bt the Axis force were brought to the Black Sea by rail and canal. Unfortunately for the Red Navy, the Black Sea is an enclsed sea, all of which is acceable by air bases surrounding it. And while the Black Sea was not a German prioroty in the first week of Barbarossa, the Red Air Force and its substantial and vulnerable forward deploymment. The Germans basically destroyed the Red Air Force during the first week of Barbarossa--much of it on the ground. This meant that for the first two years of the conflict in the East, the Red Navy had little or no air cover. And during the War most of the major Red Navy ships were lost--mostly the result of air attacks. The Black Sea campaign was largely fought in support of the land campaigns fought in the Ukraine, most prominently the Crimea. The Crimea is a peninsula which juts out into the Black Sea and from an early point it would dominate the Black Sea campaign. For the Germans, the Black Sea was potentially of great importance, especially when Hitler shifted the focus of the campaign to the south (1942). Logistics were one of the most serious problems the Germans faced, With Barbarossa the battles were being fought huge distances from the war industries and supply depots in the Reich. Thus men and material had to be transported by rail requiring a major logistical effort which was vulnerable to Soviet attck. Control of the Black would provide a safe, efficent supply line, especially in 1942 when the Germans smashed through the Don Bend and entered southern Russia and the Caucauses. It also mean a safe route for transporting the oil of the Causes back to Axic countries where it could be shipped on to the Reich. The Soviet naval campaign was overseen primarily by Vice Admiral Filipp Oktyabrskiy. Another major factor other than the Soviet Black sea fleet units was the shipyards which built and maintaned the fleet. The major Soviet shipyards were located in the Ukraine (Nikolayev) and Crimea (Sevastopol). Both were occupied by the Germans during Barbarossa campign (1941). Fleet units including still uncompleted ships were evacuated to harbors in Georgia which would be the only port cities the Red Army was able to protect. These thus became the bases for the surviving fleet. These Georgian ports like Poti had very limited repair facilities. This significantly impaired the operational capability of Black Sea Fleet.

Baltic Sea

The pre-War Soviet fleet played a minor role in the war. Much of the Soviet fleet was deployed in the Baltic Sea. When the NAZIs invaded (June 1941), the Wehrmacht rapidly moved east and seized almost all of the Baltic ports. Soviet ships had to withdraw to Leningrad and Kronstadt where they were impobilized by Finnish and German minefields. Thus imbolized, the Soviets ships were mauled by Luftwaffe attacks. The Kriegsmarine primary assignment in World War II was to disrupt the Atlantic convoys and cut off Britain from America and te Dominions. It filed in this key assignment. The Kriegsmarine operations in the Baltic, however, were enormously successful. The Germans turned the Baltic into essentially a German lake. Soviet naaval operations were limited in 1941 and 42 and in 1943 the Soviets did not succeed in getting one ship or submarine through the anti-submarine nets and mines streaching from Helsinki to Tallinn. This meant that shipments of metal ores and other products from Sacandavia could freelt flow show to support the German war effort. This situation did not change until the Finns withdrew from the War (July 1944) and the Red Army began to take Baltic ports. The role of the Kriegsmarine changed as the Red Army offenses in the east drove toward the Baltics and East Prussia. The Kriegsmarine successfully evacuated about 2.5 million Baltic and German civilians and soldiers to German ports. The Soviet Navy attempted to prevent this but largely failed. This operation still stands as the largest sea-rescue operation ever conducted.







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Created: 1:32 PM 9/14/2016
Last updated: 1:32 PM 9/14/2016