Sports and politics

Let me celebrate the first day of the FIFA World Cup 2018 with this little photo. Putin’s Russia will no doubt turn the tournament into a propaganda event, which is in the tradition introduced with the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin 1936. Authoritarian states have a tendency to use sports as a propaganda tool, despite the vehement claims from some quarters that sports and politics don’t mix. The Berlin Olympics were a big success, and Germany was credited with arranging the best games hitherto. It was a part of the image that Hitler wanted to project to the world, and that his Third Reich might not be such a bad place after all. It worked for a while…

The photo shows football teams from the Heer and the Kriegsmarine prior to a game. If it had been an American war movie, the game would’ve turned into the typical Army vs Navy brawl, but in this case, it seems to be just a training game. The lack of an audience is telling. There were international games during the war, though. The national football team of Sweden met the German team in Berlin 1942. Before a crowd of 98,000, the Swedes refused to perform the Nazi salute, something the British team hadn’t done in 1938 due to pressure from politicians at home. Anyway, the Swedes beat the Germans 3-2, and after a couple more defeats, the German national team was dissolved and the players sent to the front. Few of them survived the war.

These days, sports has more to do with entertainment and big business than politics, but the political angle is still there when it comes to big international events. Sports and politics do mix, but badly.


Anchors aweigh

40 Kriegsmarine sailors are turning a capstan, raising the anchor from the seabed. I don’t know enough about German warships to tell what class the ship might be, but my guess (judging by other photos of sailors working capstans) is that it could be a destroyer or a training ship with 3-4 masts.

Some 1.5 million men served in the Kriegsmarine between 1939 and 1945, with a peak in 1944, when 810,000 men were in Navy uniform. Not all were aboard ships, though, as the Kriegsmarine had plenty of administrative and other personnel ashore, as well as coastal artillery troops, radar operators, etc. While the surface ships had trouble measuring up to the mighty Royal Navy, the U-boats wreaked havoc among Allied shipping. That came at a price, though, as 28,000 out of 40,000 U-boat sailors were lost, with another 8,000 captured. The greatest single loss of lives was when the battleship Bismarck was sunk in 1941, when about 2,100 sailors died.

As the war progressed, the Kriegsmarine had more personnel than needed for the ships. Some 40 infantry regiments were raised and deployed as ground troops. With just some basic infantry training, their worth as combat units was probably limited. Still, the Kriegsmarine was capable of some feats, like Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of the Courland pocket in early 1945, where about 1.2 million civilians and soldiers were saved from the advancing Soviet armies.

By the end of the war, the remaining ships were divided between the victors. Of great interest were the latest submarines, which were to influence submarine technology for decades to come. Other ships met ignominious fates, like the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which was used as a target ship and sunk in a nuclear bomb test in 1946. Like the other branches of the Wehrmacht, the Navy had limited resources and mighty adversaries. While the U-boat campaign was a serious threat until Allied countermeasures neutralized it, the Kriegsmarine was too small to be a match for the Royal Navy.

That sinking feeling

A merchant ship, with a GRT of perhaps about 5000 tons, lists over as it is sinking. In a minute it will be gone. It could be Allied or from a neutral country. It isn’t apparent if the photo is taken from a Kriegsmarine surface ship or a U-boat. The normal procedure was to give the crew a chance to abandon ship, and then sink it with guns. U-boats carried a limited number of torpedoes, and used the 8.8 cm deck gun whenever possible in order to save the torpedoes for attacks while submerged.

More than 3,000 merchant and military vessels were sunk by the German navy during World War 2, the majority by submarines. The top ten U-boat commanders sank some 320 ships, and, surprisingly, nine of them survived the war. The war took a heavy toll on the U-boat fleet, 28,000 of 40,000 men not returning, ending up in a watery grave instead.

When the British documentary series “The World at War” aired in Sweden in the mid-1970s, I remember that my dad reacted negatively when we watched the part about German submarine warfare. He was a sailor for a few years in the early 1950s, and heard stories from older crewmates who had experienced the U-boat menace during the war. I, on the other hand, found it intersting, and got the Swedish translation of “U-Boat: The Secret Menace” by David Mason (from the Ballantine’s series of books on WW2).

Sweden was cut off from the rest of the world during WW2, the only sea route to the North Sea and the Atlantic patrolled by both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine, minefields making any excursions outside the safe sea lanes dangerous. Sweden, which was neutral, needed to export goods in order to pay for the necessities needed for building the military forces, as well as the needs of the population. Treading a narrow path between the Allies and the Axis, playing them off each other, Sweden managed to import fuel and goods, even if it was just a fraction of the pre-war imports. Despite all possible precautions, ten of the 79 merchant ships involved were sunk, 166 people losing their lives. German submarines and sea mines were the main culprits. Small wonder my dad hated them.

Happier times

Here’s a nice mix of seamen for the ladies ashore… The photo shows sailors from the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy fraternising on the deck of a British battleship, and it inspired me to do some digging. The back of the photo confused me at first, as a note says “England ) Ocktober [sic] 1934 Hipper (4)”. The only reference to as German naval visit to Britain in 1934 I could find was when Köningsberg and Leipzig visited Portsmouth. The Admiral Hipper wasn’t launched until 1937, so that reference was a bit puzzling. Clearly, the info in the back was wrong.

I posted the photo and a question about it in the Axis History Forum, and forum member GregSingh stepped up to the challenge. Further analysis of the photo showed that the Royal Navy cap bands said “HMS Nelson”, while the German caps said “Panzerschiff Deutschland”. GregSingh could convincingly prove that the photo must be from late January/early February 1938, when Nelson, together with sister battleship HMS Rodney, visited Lisbon in Portugal at the same time as the Deutschland. This caused a diplomatic embarrassment for Portugal, as the Portugese had to entertain both rivals with dinners and receptions. As evident, the crews got the opportunity to learn to know each other. A little over 1½ years later, the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine went to war…

The Panzerschiff Deutschland was commissioned in 1933, one of three “pocket battleships” that were built to get the most out of the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. She was later reclassified as a heavy cruiser, and in 1940 she was renamed “Lützow”, as it was feared that it would look bad if a warship named “Deutschland” was sunk. She saw action until the last days of the war, when she was damaged and scuttled outside Swinemünde (now Świnoujście in Poland). Lützow was raised by the Soviets in 1946, and sunk in weapons experiments in 1947.

HMS Nelson was commissioned in 1927. She was the flag ship of the Home Fleet and saw action in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean, including artillery support of the landings in Normandy on D-Day. After the war, she was decommissioned in 1948, then used as a target ship before sold and scrapped in 1949. There’s a fair chance that the men in the photo survived the war, which was a happier outcome than those of the ships they served on.

Triplets, or the hull truth

This is the German Zerstörer (destroyer) Z9 “Wolfgang Zenker”. Or Z10 “Hans Lody”. Or perhaps Z11 “Bernd von Arnim”. Actually, there’s no way to really know, as all three ships wore the hull number “62” at least once in their respective careers. (“6” stands for “6th division” and “2” for the second ship.) All were of the Zerstörer 1934A class, laid down at Germaniawerft in Kiel in 1935, and launched the following year. A total of twelve were built, measuring 119 meters and capable of 36 knots. The main armament was five 12.7 cm guns, plus AA guns, torpedoes, mines and depth charges. Each was crewed by ten officers and 315 enlisted men.

“Wolfgang Zenker” and “Bernd von Arnim” were both involved in the Second naval Battle of Narvik on 13 April, 1940, where the Royal Navy dealt the Kriegsmarine a serious blow. By the end of the day, the two warships were sunk together with six other destroyers. The surviving crews were formed into a temporary unit, the Gebirgsmarine (“mountain navy”), and while it wasn’t trained for land combat, it still contributed to the German effort in the ensuing battle.

“Hans Lody” survived the war, and was taken over by the Royal Navy. She was scrapped in 1949.


Thanks to Axis History Forum member Polar bear for ID’ing the destroyer(s).

In port

Fischerischutzboot Weser, or her sister ship Elbe, in port 1933-35. The two ships were built in Wilhelmshafen in 1931, and served as support vessels for German fishing boats on the North Sea. They were based at Marinestation der Nordsee in Wilhelmshafen. The ships were armed with a 8.8 cm deck gun and machinegun. In 1939, both ships were rebuilt and had their sterns extended in order to improve their seaworthiness. They were transferred to the Kriegsmarine (Navy), and fitted with 2 cm AA guns and depth charge racks. The Weser and Elbe now served as minesweeper escorts. Weser ended up in the 7. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway, and fell into British hands at the end of the war. She was used for post-war minesweeping, and was scrapped in 1954. The Elbe served in the Baltic Sea before going to the 5. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway. Like her sister, she was captured by the British in 1945, but was handed over to the Soviets in December, 1945, and renamed Terek. She was scrapped in 1962.


Thanks to member Polar bear on Axis History Forum for help with identifying the ship.

No land in sight…

The view from the conning tower towards the stern of a Type VIIC U-boat, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The photographer has taken a break from watching for ships and enemy airplanes. Three or four other members of the crew are scanning the horizon. The rest of the crew, some 45 men, are down in the narrow hull, savoring any whiff of fresh sea air. A patrol could consist of weeks of boredom, and then frantic action as a ship or even a whole convoy was encountered. At the same time, enemy warships scoured the ocean, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the U-boats.

The name “Battle of the Atlantic” was coined by Winston Churchill in February 1941. It has been called the “longest, largest and most complex” naval battle in history. The campaign started immediately after the British and French declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, and lasted until the German surrender in May 1945. It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theatre of war covering millions of square kilometers of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining the advantage, as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures and equipment were developed by both sides. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, though losses due to U-boats continued until war’s end.

While the loss of life was relatively small compared to the land war, it still claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. Between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 Allied warships were sunk, and some 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives. The Germans lost 783 U-boats and approximately 30,000 sailors killed, 75 % of Germany’s 40,000-man U-boat fleet. The German plan to starve Great Britain and stop the flow of supplies to the UK and the Soviet Union failed.