The Working Environment for German Warship design in WWI and WWII.

by Peter Lienau
Updated 22 October 1999


If we take the period between 1903 and 1913, we can see a clear borderline between "the seagoing branches" and the "design bureau," the Reichsmarineamt (RMA).  The RMA was mainly a technical and political department.  The engineers, technicians and clerks employed in this organization were "just" civilians in uniform.  There was a very long, arduous process before one could join this elite organization.

To become a designer in RMA during the Admiral Tirpitz era, one must travel a long, hard road.  After high school, two years of practice, after that university and a Master's Degree in engineering.  The candidate needed to join the Imperial Navy for 4 years, including one year onboard and three years at the IM shipyards.  After that, there is a rigorous examination to see how much has been learned.  After three years of service as an assistant engineer, they were then allowed to take a second examination which included six week ship design project. If one failed here, he was expelled with no hope of readmittance.  If one passes, he was then employed as a civil servant.  After a few years, and if he was judged to be experienced and innovative enough, only then was he was asked to join the RMA as a designer.  These design teams were large, but the number of teams was small.  The designers were guided by experienced senior designers.  The team performance was regularly better than the sum of the individual performances.

The design requirements were given by the opponents, mainly the Royal Navy and the limit was set by the navy procurement laws and the financial limitations of Germany.  This was the frame for design.  Due to the fact that Germany would never be so rich as to be able to achieve the numbers of ships the RN (Home Fleet) had, the main concern was survivability.  The main goal was to produce ships that would be superior to their direct counterparts.  This was achieved first with the Battlecruisers, or as the IM named them, the "Große Kreuzer."

The main stream of thought inside the RMA was that one may sacrifice speed for armor, but never armor for speed.  The gun size generally followed the RN, but only for ships built before the Bayern class.  In this particular instance, Admiral Tirpitz decided to use 15" caliber weapons BEFORE the Germans found out that the British Queen Elizabeth class battleships would use that same caliber.

The invention of the torpedo and its cost-to-effect-ratio lead to the (I believe) best torpedo defense system of that time.  Night is the friend of the small vessels, especially  the Torpedo Boat.  Fear of such vessels was the only reason that the IM trained for battleship combat at night.  And that's one of the reasons the Germans never dropped the concept of three different calibers on their capital ships.

What I'm trying to make clear is the following : The political leadership sets the mind frame, the RMA (following the navy laws) converted the granted money into ships (each with the certain technical standard, obeying the design evolution).  The end of the chain was the "fleet," the men who manned these vessels.  They had to live with what was delivered, they were ordered to give some feedback's and thoughts but that's all that was wanted, all else was the RMA's responsibility.

OK.  WWI is lost.  The RMA is disbanded.  The Versailles Treaty is signed and the fleet scuttled.  The RMA-personnel reduced by 80% of the original number and with the possibility of additional reductions in the future.  The Weimar Republic is born.

The new politicians of the Weimar Republic never want war again.  So, they do not spend any more money on the military than is absolutely necessary.  Great reductions in the active fleet are mandated by the Versailles Treaty, putting many officers at loose ends.  There are now more active officers than jobs.  During this phase of reorganization in the entire military structure, the design groups and the fleet personnel are merged to some extent.  So, new positions for the former ship-officers are created inside the RMA, which is now renamed Marineamt (MA).  This means that the inner workings of the design team are now populated with front-line officers.

After 1933 the number of the (now) MA staff grew rapid and constant.  But as we discussed earlier, front-line officers in command.  Most of the new, fresh, young and inexperienced designers never saw a warship from the inside.  All they had to have is a Master's Degree in engineering.  The design work was more and more fragmented, with two or more groups working on the same problem.  So they had "design parties" led by technically inexperienced front-line officers, young ambitious designers without onboard-experience and finally design-questions ripped from the overall context.

The outer environment is now changed as well.  The Versailles treaty knocked the German navy down to that of a 3rd or 4th rate nation.  If you don't want to play this role, but you are saddled by the treaty, then you have to invent something new and upgrade the old things to become the new cutting edge.  You cannot just follow what the other nations do there's no money, no political support and the dictate of Versailles prohibits much of what was formerly done.  You must create things that are better than what other navies have.  This mindset leads to such things as the comparatively high performance 11" gun, the diesel powered Panzerschiffes and the all-welded hull designs.  But the bad news is that the overall design-process is turned upside-down.  Now, things look like this:

a) No political overview.  The dictate was that:  "The Fleet must be ready for combat within 8 years."  But for the questions of:  "For what?  Against whom? For how long?  Strategy and Tactics?" there are no answers.  This results in an absence of political guidance for the MA, thus the directors are free to follow their own ideas.

b) No technical concepts that need to be followed.  The major ships were ALL just prototypes.  Some good, some bad, none outstanding.  Why?  We will return to this a little later.

c) The atmosphere inside the MA is poisoned.  Ex-military men, with no design experience, are now in charge.  No longer was the RMA (now MA) mainly a department of uniformed civilians.  It had now morphed into a barracks square, with the iron discipline that implies.  You need time-in-rank to get to the next level of command, not technical experience.

d) Starting perhaps as early as 1933, but absolutely after the signing the 1936 London treaty, the engineers were under constant and growing pressure to deliver RESULTS.

What were the effects of this upheaval?

1. Design team leaders who are not able to decide between good and bad ideas, ones who cannot provide guidance in technical questions.
2. Teams whose junior members are not aware of  "how a warship must perform," with no ideas about what is really important and what is a trivial concern.
3. Rivalry between the teams, overestimating their individual importance in the design process.
4. Inventions just for having inventions with no one asking if about if they are useful or not.

For example, think of  how you would behave in this situation.  If you are forced to something quick, would you also combine it with some totally new techniques or designs?   Most likely, the answer would be no.  You would most likely do it the same way you have done things in the past because you are familiar and comfortable with those "tried and true" concepts.  Likewise, the German designers.  They were forced to produce instant results by the "seagoing branch" inside the MA.  And the MA too often demanded the impossible.  Unlike during Adm. Tirpitz's time in command, the MA did not care much about what potential opponents were doing.   The concept was, "didn't we prove with the Panzerschiffe that we are capable of producing the impossible?"  So, the leaders of the MA continued to ask for the impossible.  See the Cruiser "P" design concepts.  This combination of demands was horrible for the designers.  The solutions of the design teams leaned on the "conservative, iron rules" of IM design (because they must deliver quick results) in combination with some welding and power plants of higher performance.  But the end result was that these demands conflicted to such an extent that the ships cannot be built.

One can clearly see the influence of the "fleet" in the designs of Hipper, the Scharnhorst and the Bismarck classes of warships.  Although the Battle of Jutland proved that the shooting of German ships was quite adequate, the lack of a coordinated, centralized fire-control such as the British had was well known by the "fleet" after this sortie.  Result:  The Fleet wanted the a Fire Control System that would be the best, the utmost, the totally superior Fire Control System.  So, the MA spent a great deal of time and resources into developing such a system.  The end result was an overly complex, very heavy Firing director and very sensitive machinery.  This development process continued until the point of chaos was reached.  For example, the new battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were found to be incapable of shooting their main guns in the autumn 1939.  This could only be corrected after 22,000 yards (!) of useless electrical wires were removed and major modifications were made to the Fire Control circuits and mechanisms.

A second example would be the anti-aircraft FCS on the Bismarck.  The company that built the computers for this proudly announced that only a dozen of their 20,000 employees were capable of assembling this machine.  When you think about this, there is really no better way to express the fact that this inherently means that the computer won't work properly in actual service.  All in all, they (the fleet branch) wanted every thing PERRRRFECCCCT.  But if you do it, you often are 10 years too late.  The DP-gun wasn't produced because the fleet branch wanted them stabilized in three dimensions why not start with a 2-d stabilized version and see how it works?  The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were outfitted with every gun and FC gimmick (useful or not) that was available.  Result:  An overloaded design.  A few tons more and the main armor belt would loose its function as it would wind up below the waterline.  Likewise, the upperworks of the superstructures were the favorite playground of every ambitious technical naval officer who was in command in the MA I'm sure you noticed the different deck layout for each of these two ships.  This is the reason for it.  Remember not technical qualification, but rank is required for all decisions.

At the battle off the Norwegian coast, did the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau perform well?  The answer is no.

The situation facing the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was nearly textbook.  In theory, this sortie should have turned out to be a "piece of cake," a clear victory within a couple of minutes.  Look at the conditions:

    - Good visibility
    - Normal sea conditions for that region
    - 18 large caliber guns vs. 6 on the Renown
    - Distance to opponent about 150 hm (16,400 yards), perfect for main guns and secondaries.
    - The German shells could easily defeat the Renown's armor at this range.
    - A chance for "crossing the T."

Instead of that, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau bugged out, showing good shooting only in the first few minutes of the engagement.  Everything after changing course to 70° was a slow, but constant waste of ammo.  The longer the battle lasted, the worst became the shooting.

I don't want to pick on the ships commanders or say they should have done things differently.  I think they did not have much of a choice - due to the bad seagoing abilities of their ships in combination with extra-sensitive guns and overly-complex FC.  Where did these deficiencies come from?  From overloading the ships and poor performance by the equipment.  Where did this come from?  From "crazy freaks" inside MA!

As a further example, the Bismarck wasn't equipped with turbo-electric propulsion because the Navy demanded the capability of going from full ahead to full astern within ONE minute.  I can see no reason why a battleship intended for commerce raiding should be capable of doing this.

In summary, compared to today's successful corporations, the MA lacked a "passion for excellence" and they were very far away from having a "self-correcting-process" which would allow them to learn from past mistakes.  Their management was arrogant and technically incompetent.  They lacked any overall strategic or technical guidance.  It was a mixture of "we want revenge" and a "I have a wish" party.  This was supported from the (sorry) "goddamned" German discipline which kept the designer from protesting until it was too late.

In 1914, the German capital ships were among the best in the world, very close to the "bleeding" edge in technical innovation.  By contrast, in 1941 their ships were clearly inferior to their opponents in many areas.

Note that I'm not saying that the MA designers were headed in the wrong direction it was more a case of them being headless and rapidly circling around their own naval history.
 


Organization of the Marineamt during World War II.
 

      The departments of the MA (Marineamt) [mainly adopted from the RMA of pre WW 1]

      1. Naval Command departments (A)
      1.1 Naval High Command (A I)
      1.2 Military aspects of warship design (A IV)

      2. General Navy Departments (B)
      2.1 Material concerns of the fleet
      2.2 Support of Navy yards and arsenals
      2.3 Seaway and harbor building
      2.4 Administration

      3. Naval Weapons Department (Mwa = Marinewaffenamt)
      3.1 Design and manufacture of weapons, ammo, Firing directors, and so on.
      3.2 Carrying out of shooting trials against ship's armor

      4. Naval Construction Department (design and building of warships)

      5. Naval Staff/Personnal Department (MPA = Marinepersonalabteilung)

      6. Department of Machines and Propulsion Plants (ING = Ingenieur)

      7. Corpsman Department

      8. Budget Department (E = Etat)

      9. Central Department (Z = Zentral)

      In the late summer this structure was changed and renamed into K-department (K-Amt = Hauptamt Kriegsschiffbau)

      K I Shipbuilding
      K II General Machine construction
      K III Military aspects of warship design (out of A IV)
      K IV Ships machine construction (out of ING)
      K V Shipyards (out of B)
      K VI Harbors
      FEP Research, development, patents (from 1943/44 on)
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