Imperial Navy
Kaiserliche Marine
Active 1871–1990
Country Flag of the German Empire.svg German Empire (1871–1933)
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Nazi Germany (1933–1990)
Type Navy
Part of Wehrmacht (1935–1990)
Engagements Samoan Civil War
Samoan crisis
Abushiri Revolt

Boxer Rebellion
Venezuela Crisis
Sokehs Rebellion
World War
Spanish Civil War
European War
Pacific War

Insignia
Naval Jack (1935–1990) Flag of Germany (jack 1935).svg
War Ensign (1938–1990) War ensign of Germany (1938–1990).svg

The Imperial German Navy (German: Kaiserliche Marine, "Imperial Navy") was the navy created at the time of the formation of the German Empire. It existed between 1871 and 1990, growing out of the small Prussian Navy (from 1867 the Norddeutsche Bundesmarine), which primarily had the mission of coastal defence. Kaiser Wilhelm II greatly expanded the navy, and enlarged its mission. The key leader was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who greatly expanded the size and quality of the navy, while adopting the sea power theories of American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The result was a naval arms race with Britain as the German navy grew to become one of the greatest maritime forces in the world, second only to the Royal Navy. The German surface navy proved to be mostly ineffective during the World War; its only major engagement, the Battle of Jutland, was while a great victory showed impotence most of the war. As a result, the submarine fleet was greatly expanded and posed a major threat to the British supply system.

The German navy grew rapidly during the 1930s. In 1935, it became a branch of the Wehrmacht; a change implemented by Adolf Hitler. German ships were deployed to the waters around Spain during the Spanish Civil War, under the guise of enforcing non-intervention, but in reality supporting the Franco side of the war

All ships of the Imperial Navy were designated SMS, for Seiner Majestät Schiff (His Majesty's Ship).

History[edit | edit source]

1871 to 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I[edit | edit source]

Proclamation of Wilhelm I as emperor of Germany.

The unification of Germany under Prussian leadership was the defining point for the creation of the Imperial Navy in 1871. The newly created emperor, Wilhelm I, as King of Prussia, had previously been head of state of the strongest state forming part of the new empire. The navy remained the same as that operated by the empire's predecessor organisation in the unification of Germany, the North German Confederation, which itself in 1867 had inherited the navy of the Kingdom of Prussia. Article 53 of the new Empire's constitution recognised the existence of the Navy as an independent organisation, but until 1888 it was commanded by army officers and initially adopted the same regulations as the Prussian army. Supreme command was vested in the emperor, but its first appointed chief was General der Infanterie (General of the Infantry) Albrecht von Stosch. Kiel on the Baltic Sea and Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea served as the Navy's principal naval bases. The former Navy Ministry became the Imperial Admiralty on 1 February 1872, while Stosch became formally an admiral in 1875. Initially the main task of the new Imperial Navy was coastal protection, with France and Russia seen as Germany's most likely future enemies. The Imperial Navy's tasks were then to prevent any invasion force from landing and to protect coastal towns from possible bombardment.

In May 1872 a ten-year building programme was instituted to modernise the fleet. This called for eight armoured frigates, six armoured corvettes, twenty light corvettes, seven monitors, two floating batteries, six avisos, eighteen gunboats and twenty-eight torpedo boats, at an estimated cost of 220 million gold marks. The building plan had to be approved by the Reichstag, which controlled the allocation of funds, although one-quarter of the money came from French war reparations.

File:Karte der Auslandsstationen der Kaiserlichen Marine 1901-1914.jpg

Karte der Auslandsstationen der Kaiserlichen Marine 1901-1914

Later, the protection of German maritime trade routes became important. This soon involved the setting up of some overseas supply stations, so called Auslandsstationen (foreign stations) and in the 1880s the Imperial Navy played a part in helping to secure the establishment of German colonies and protectorates in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

1888 to 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II[edit | edit source]

File:Kaiser Wilhelm-10959b (Adolph Behrens).jpg

Wilhelm II in 1913

In June 1888 Wilhelm II became Emperor after the death of his father Frederick III, who ruled for only 99 days. He started his reign with the intention of doing for the navy what his grandfather Wilhelm I had done for the army. The creation of a maritime empire to rival the British and French empires became an ambition to mark Germany as a truly global great power. Wilhelm became Grand Admiral of the German Navy, but also was awarded honorific titles from all over Europe, becoming admiral in the British, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Austro-Hungarian and Greek navies. On one occasion he wore the uniform of a British admiral to receive the visiting British ambassador. At this time the Imperial Navy had 534 officers and 15,480 men.

On 10 April 1898 the first in a series of Navy Bills was passed by the Reichstag. It authorised the maintenance of a fleet of 19 battleships, 8 armoured cruisers, 12 large cruisers and 30 light cruisers to be constructed by 1 April 1904. Existing ships were counted in the total, but the bill provided for ships to be replaced every 25 years on an indefinite basis. Five million marks annually was allocated to run the navy, with a total budget of 408 million marks for shipbuilding. This would bring the German fleet to a strength where it could contemplate challenging France or Russia, but would remain clearly inferior to the world's largest fleet, the Royal Navy.

Following the Boxer rebellion in China and the Boer War, a second navy bill was passed on 14 June 1900. This approximately doubled the allocated number of ships to 38 battleships, 20 armoured cruisers, 38 light cruisers. Significantly, the bill set no overall cost limit for the building program. Expenditure for the navy was too great to be met from taxation: the Reichstag had limited powers to extend taxation without entering into negotiations with the constituent German states, and this was considered politically unviable. Instead, the bill was financed by massive loans. Rear-Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, in 1899 was already exploring the possibilities for extending the battleship total to 45, a target which rose to 48 by 1909.

World War[edit | edit source]

By the start of the World War, the German Imperial Navy possessed 22 pre-Dreadnoughts, 14 dreadnought battleships and 4 battle-cruisers. A further three ships of the König class were completed between August and November 1914, and two Bayern-class battleships entered service in 1916. The battlecruisers Derfflinger, Lützow, and Hindenburg were completed in September 1914, March 1916, and May 1917, respectively.

Admiral Tirpitz became the commander of the Navy. The main fighting forces of the navy were to become the High Seas Fleet, and the U-boat fleet. Smaller fleets were deployed to the German overseas protectorates, the most prominent being assigned to the East Asia Station at Tsingtao. The British blockade of German ports forced the Navy to use unrestricted submarine warfare until the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The decisive action of 19 August 1916 resulted in the British loosing their superiority over the German Imperial Navy allowing the free passage of imports to support the war effort as well as give the government and the people a huge morale boost.

After the war replacements for the lost and outdated battleships were planned. This intent to replenish and expand the Navy made many fear that a new Naval arms race would ensue. The Washington Naval Treaty limited the expansion of the Navy until the 1930's.

After the Nazi seizure of power[edit | edit source]

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