Alfred von Tirpitz – All risk(theory), no plan
Alfred von Tirpitz is best known as the ship. Really, more people know about the ship, but not its namesake. And in the collective mind of my fellow Germans -at least the ones who payed attention to the 5 seconds of history class he gets mentioned- he is the mighty Admiral who built the mighty Hochseeflotte for the Kaiser Wilhelm II.
But in fact he was a stubborn idiot with a risky plan, which he based on a theory he himself coined (or let coin) "risktheory". Nomen EST Omen. I do not exaggerate if I say: The blood of every German seaman who died west of the Kattegat in World War 1 (WWI) is on his hands. But let me explain.
His life begins 1849 in Küstrin, Province Brandenburg, but more importantly, his military career begins in 1865 unremarkably, but develops remarkably well. He joins the Prussian Navy in 1865 at the age of 16 and is apparently well enough educated to become a Kadett, officer in spe - Ensign in anglophone navies. He's not nobility at the time as the Prussian and later the German Navy accepts "Bürgerliche", well educated subjects of the king who are commoners, as officers from the get go. Unlike the army, which is forced to do so eventually, but that's of no importance here.
He trains on the school ship of his time, SMS Musquito, where he makes a first visit to the Mediterranean. A few promotions later he sees "action" in the Franco-Prussian war on the Ironclad SMS König Wilhelm. Most of the time at anchor as the numerical superior French Navy semi-effectively blocks Wilhelmshaven. A few break out operations see no French opposition. After the formation of the Kaiserreich he serves quietly at sea, before developing the German torpedo, torpedo tube (still in use in WW1 according to a newspaper article I found), torpedo boats and the torpedo flotilla basically alone in the years between 1877 and 1888. He commands as Kapitänleutnant the first German torpedo boat "SMS Zieten", with which he sinks the first ever German flag ship of 1848 "Barbarossa" in a successful test. How very Prussian of him.
He leaves the torpedo inspection which he built from scratch in 1888 as Korvettenkapitän, because "torpedo stuff" fell out of favour under the new Chancellor at the time. He requests to be put in command of a ship and is assigned as commander of the SMS Preussen and afterwards the SMS Württemberg. During that time he gets promoted to Kapitän zur See. Finally in 1890 he is assigned to be chief of staff of the "Marinestation Ostsee". Which hints at one thing, which I found echoes of in the articles about him: He is seen as much better at thinking and strategizing about naval affairs than actually commanding a ship or even a fleet at sea. And he also already had his fatal ideas in mind. But you don't need to lead from the front lines to doom your entire navy to losing a minor military encounter like WWI. Oh, you thought he is only responsible for all dead sailors west of the Kattegatt in WWI? No, all 34.836 dead sailors are on his tab. But who is counting, right?
Since you might be wondering at this point: "What is that Korky person rambling about?", I'll get to the point. As early as 1890 Tirpitz promoted the idea of a strong battlefield fleet over a mobile cruiser fleet. Now, in 1890, chief of staff of the whole Baltic Sea for the German Navy he collected all sorts of stand-in battleships and even made a presentation of his plans with them to the Kaiser. Personally. Who was reportedly impressed. Big ships! Yummy! It even gained him personal access to the Kaiser. Which should've been way out of league for him at this point rank- and positionwise. An he's a commoner! Alas nothing immediately came of it as the time was not right.
The reason being, the naval state secretary at the time, Hollmann, opposed the idea and favoured a "mixed fleet" and even the Kaiser was a bit more preoccupied with favouring cruisers for the moment, as they would provide better support and protection in over seas engagements. Like the colonies or supporting the Boers. Important to pretend to be a big mighty empire. The Kaisers heart was with Tirpitz, but his mind distracted. And the political setting was against a bigger fleet and the navy supporters rather clumsily missed their chance with the then current chancellor. They first fell out of favour with him and then even lost the bit of traction they had gained in the Reichstag. Which was equally bad, because the Reichstag had to approve the money to build the envisioned fleet, no matter what ships..
In any case Tirpitz had obtained the favour of the Kaiser and showed skill as chief of staff. So much so he became chief of staff of Naval High Command in 1892 and was promoted to Konteradmiral in 1895. The conflict between cruiser vs. battleship doctrine had further escalated in the meantime and Tirpitz asked to be relieved in late 1895. He was frustrated his superiors, the chancellor and the naval state secretary, still favoured cruisers and blocked him at every opportunity. But the Kaiser loved him. He loved him because Tirpitz was capable and shared the dream of a fleet with big ships. Big shiny battleships, with big shiny guns. After all size matters, right? And Cousin George of England had one. A fleet with a lot of battleships, I mean. The Kaiser wanted Tirpitz to be naval state secretary, but it was impossible, because sacking his predecessor during negotiations with the Reichstag AND a crisis in South Africa (remember, the Boers) the time just wasn't right. Soooo Tiritz was persuaded to first draft a few battleships and -after more political shenanigans- was sent off as commander of the Kreuzergeschwader Ostasien (not famous yet) to find a suitable harbour for the Reich to lease from the Chinese. He did, but was recalled home before a decision on the matter was reached. Tirpitz time had come, Hollmann and his incompetent band of losers had resigned, the Kaiser wanted Tirpitz, the Navy wanted Tirpitz and Tirpitz wanted the job to finally do what was right and inevitable: Challenge the Royal Navy! He had shown skill in fleet management, was well versed in the naval Reichspolitics, even developed a completely new type of naval weapon for the Reich. What could possibly go wrong?
His strange obsession with Great Britain and the Royal Navy could. I told you I'd get there.
The moment Alfred Tirpitz (still no "von") became naval state secretary in 1897 he went to work on two fronts. One was inside the Navy. He got rid of basically anyone in the way of the "Tirpitz-Plan". He also immediately published and actively circulated a seemingly standard memorandum about the state and composition of the German navy. But in it he basically abandoned cruiser based warfare and discredited it. He demanded a strong, battleship based fleet to be able to face the Royal Navy. From there he developed his "risk theory".
That was his second front. The German Navy should at all times be at around 2/3rds the strength of the Royal Navy, effectively denying the RN the realisation of its "Two-Power-Standard". Thus the RN would not "risk" an engagement with the Kaisers fleet. A battle would, in theory, be too risky for the RN. Even if it managed to beat the Kaisers fleet, such a Pyrrhic victory would be the real risk. The then mightier fleets of France and Russia could make short work of British naval supremacy. Hence "risk theory".
In only 20 years time this plan could be put into effect, afterwards the German Navy would surely be strong enough to fend off the RN and keep the North Sea shores safe and the trade routes into the Atlantic open.
And the Kaiser and the Reichstag loved it. They swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Remember big, shiny ships! Rivaling England on the high seas! A bit of cunning coercing by an immensely successful propaganda campaign, led by Tirpitzs man for the masses Ernst Levy von Halle helped a fair share and soon the fleet frenzy of the Kaiserreich had broken out.
Only a few critics saw the flaw in the Tirpitz-plan. Or rather the many flaws.
What if the Royal Navy decided to NOT come out and fight? Tirpitz completely disregarded a fleet in being approach. His High Sea Fleet was there to bravely engage the Royal Navy (not allied with the French Navy at the time... as if THAT would ever happen).
And if, just for the love of speculating, Britain would actively blockade Germany at sea? How could a fleet of slow battleships break that blockade? At all.
If the home fleet would be beaten and the -even in Tirpitzs plans- inferior German Navy had survived the decisive battle, how would the problem of still having to sail past bloody Britain itself to get to the Atlantic be solved? Tirpitz never addressed this. He also denied the Naval commanders favouring a cruiser fleet enough resources to build a parallel raider/trader fleet to exploit the unlikely success.
Then ther's the time frame. 20 years is actually a bloody long time. And Britain has a head-start in size and power. And the better and much more naval resources..... how was Tirpitz to achieve 2/3rds of the RN size and power if, let's say Britain got wind of it and decided to beef up its own Navy accordingly?
Did I mention the Kaiser loved to brag about his fleet and exaggerated its power to impress Cousin George? No way Georgie (and everyone else like...dunno... the French maybe?) would panic and build even more ships!
What if France and or Russia start to ally with Britain? Because the Kaiser also loved to brag how Germany would take "its rightful place" as an imperial superpower equal to them in might AND size. A bit problematic if no space of the world is unoccupied...... and the Kaiser insists.
Talking about France and Russia: Tirpitz seemed to be strangely obsessed with Britain. He sent his daughters there to a reputated girls school, but also only ever fixed his mind on defeating the Royal Navy. Other Navies appear in everything I read about his plans only on the sidelines. Which is especially odd, because you payed attention, dear reader, and know his only battle experience was against the French.
To top it all off, the army started to mention a slight underfunding problem, because military funds were pumped into very expensive battleships and not the modernisation of the army. Not to mention to keep it at the manpower levels laid out in the armys own plans and approved by the Reichstag. But who cares about an army, if he wants to wage a war in the distant future and only roughly 9/10th of the country borders are landborders? And who had EVER heard of a French or Russian army being a "thing"?
The one thing I let Alfred von Tirpitz off the hook is HMS Dreadnought. He couldn't really foresee it. I assume in his favour he HAD spies in Britain. But he was warned prior to 1906 time and again about all the other fallacies. Even prior to 1900, when he was elevated into nobility. The HMS Dreadnought also did something else: It rendered all other battleships obsolete. So suddenly all efforts in regards of achieving 2/3rds of the RN strength evaporated with her.
In the grand scheme of things the HMS Dreadnought effectively should've killed the German fleet program:
Germany had to stick to its obsolete concepts, because those had to be finished.
The new concept had to be adapted somehow first before ships akin to HMS Big D could be built.
They also would require a renewed political battle with a now sobered up Reichstag and populous.
This meant keeping old ships in the fleet, while Britain was merrily modernising its fleet.
And did I mention everyone could see by 1906 how close Britain and France had become? And Russia and France? Punching another hole the size of a football goal into the Tirpitz-plan, which hinged on the idea of Britain having to fear those two Navies.
And those are only the problems adding to the other problems I mentioned above.
And those are only the obvious ones. If we go into detail we could spot many more, I'm sure. But naval details (like comparing fleet quality) is not my strong suit.
But do you think Tirpitz (and his buddy the Kaiser) abandoned their HSF-risk plan over such minor concerns? Of course not. Even in the face of the army complaining about a slight underfunding problem, because someone in Germany was building big, expensive battleships and now on top of it was developing completely new ones. The army was delighted to loose even more funding as you can imagine. Things got so obviously bad, finally even a small opposition inside the Navy formed against the almighty Tirpitz, promoting cruiser warfare again. But it was discarded. And I think my point becomes clear by now. But I must insist to hammer it home. Because not only the whole Navy disaster was Tirpitz-made. In fact he lost Germany the whole WWI. Yep, the entire gig failed because of him and was doomed to fail even if von Moltke had been a better field commander. In fact every German dead soldiers and a lot of other dead soldiers blood is on von Tirpitzs bloody hands. Not all, because he did not kick it off, but his “preparations” doomed them all in the long run.
As we are all hopefully aware, in 1914, all hell broke loose. Long story short: After Coronel the surface fleet and its doctrine failed miserably. In fact the most successful squadron of Germany was the East Asia Squadron (Kreuzergeschwader Ostasien, famous now). A cruiser based squadron and its most successful ladies, the Emden and Dresden are the stuff of German naval legends to this day. Remembered stories seem to only exist around raiders and cruisers, hinting already at how wrong Tirpitz was. Imagine if he had equipped the far away colonial outposts properly to support the cruisers? Because the German colonies were only equipped to handle the cargo ships to exploit colonial goods. If at all. Staffing, fortifying and equipping those colonial harbours to support cruisers would've meant to give a Mark (the German currency) for the cruiser doctrine. Not with Al von T.!
Or if their numbers had been greater? And the Royal Navy would have been super busy guarding the North Sea regardless. And finding small, annoying German cruisers in the bloody oceans, made even harder by their ability to supply themselves properly. How devastating well supplied cruiser could wreck havoc on a superior enemy was proven by Göben and Breslau in Ottoman service. Of them there was even a very compelling argument made they were the most influential naval force of the whole first world war. <insert link to DYM post>
Instead after Coronel, nothing came of it. The heavy cruisers were dealt with immediately and the light cruisers held out until they ran out of luck and supplies. The African colonies laid bare anyways and the North Sea blockade of the Royal Navy was super effective, because no one had thought to build small vessels as blockade runners. And the decisive battle in the North Sea? The HSF received one bloody nose after another most famously at the Doggerbank and at Jutland. Sure, the RN received wounds as well, but in relation the RN was demoralised to go on the offensive. The HSF was incapacitated to do so, which she desperately needed to do since she was the one being blockaded. The RN just had to hang in there and exist to stop and frisk some trade ships. And such the German Navy lost 34.836 men and gained nothing.
Another immense failure of him was the Babylonian structure of the naval command. Naval command was split between the Kaiser, the chancellor, the cabinet and the supreme command of the army(!). It was so frustrating von Tirpitz actively resigned over the matter in 1916. How easily this issue could've been fixed was proven in 1918(!) be Reinhard Scheer, the German commander in the Battle of Jutland. The latter had apparently some similar realisations after the battle of Jutland on his time afterwards as supreme commander of the fleet trying to quell mutinies. He handed the keys to the fleet to Franz von Hipper on August 11th 1918, met with OHL on August 12th and had replaced all the administrative nonsense with a beautiful and effective Seekriegsleitung officially on August 27th 1918. So Tirpitz (and his successors, all his "followers" until Scheer) was a failure in fleet administration at wartime as well. He was so bad he resigned over an issue, Scheer solved in roughly two weeks.
The only thing in which Tirpitz proved possibly right was his advocation of the unrestricted U-Boot warfare. He wanted to implement it in 1915 already, after German Naval command had first realisations that the many, many sunken British ships were a result of the U-Boote and not mines. Over the months and years a lot of German admirals endorsed the U-Boot warfare, including the aforementioned Admiral Scheer basically as a consequence of Jutland. But if you payed attention, you know why he was right there: Torpedoes were heavily involved in the topic.
But you know. That's only the Naval failure of Alfred von Tirpitz in all its miserable scabbiness.
I also now mentioned twice the impact of his policies to the army. And how he doomed them all to a long terrible manslaughter. I'm talking about his impact on the army that put up a 4 year fight to the combined strength of Italy, Belgium, Serbia, Russia, Britain, France, Hellas, Franz Xaver Josef Conrad von Hötzdorf and Romania. Also some US folks who eventually happened to come over. On every landborder the Reich had to offer and beyond (that's how Conny landed on the list).
Well, most people reading this probably know about the Schlieffen-Plan. It was first introduced in 1893/94 and was changed several times by von Moltke until 1914. Well, prioritizing the Tirpitz battleship-fleet meant the war started and the German army was.... actually undermanned and underequipped. Yep, the mighty German army was actually going to war below the strength planned by Schlieffen and even Moltke. As a broad example: The army had prepared to equip and staff around 750.000 soldiers. Total. Prior to full mobilisation it had ~500.000 soldiers ready and equipped to face both France and Russia in the case of an attack.
But the original Schlieffen plan had asked for ~790.000 soldiers alone for its initial offensive actions and additional soldiers to man the planned siege of Antwerpen, cut off French troops in southern Germany and encircle the bulk of the enemy force in or around Paris. On top of that it acknowledged the necessity for additional troops to occupy Belgium, to hold off Russia or if the British Expeditionary Force showed up. (They did not foresee Austrias incapability, just saying.)
But the army had voluntarily restricted itself and settled for 750.000 men, because they wanted to tend to the Kaisers need for BIG, SHINY BATTLESHIPS!!! - courtesy of Tirpitz.
So apart from one or two tactical errors, which Moltke had -at least mentally- prepared for, he had to throw the decisive battle of the Marne, because he had 750.000 men in the battle and realised: He had run out of steam. He couldn't fill a gap between his two armies and no HSF battleship would come to his aid. That realisation broke Moltke and he was relieved from command, deemed unfit for duty. His successor Falkenhayn suffered the long term consequences as well, when he only had freshly drilled regiments to start the race to the sea, while the Brits could use their best men to beat the young German soldiers. Because all seasoned men were needed to hold the line elsewhere, no reserves available. There simply were not enough, because of big shiny battleships anchoring in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven.
Now you see why Tirpitz was the most incompetent military leader of all time. He was so bad, he sealed defeat for his whole country years before the war it had to fight even began.
With all this in mind now, two ironic circumstances in regards to "his" battleship are remarkable in my opinion:
Tirpitz got herself some nice torpedo launcher, endorsing the one thing her namesake was indisputably good in (apart from sweet-talking the Kaiser and almost everyone else into battleships) and he reportedly called his service at his torpedo fleet "the best eleven years of my life".
Tirpitz service record proves her namesakes rejection of the fleet-in-being concept very wrong. And on top of that she was only one ship, hardly a fleet.
Alfred von Tirpitz.odt