What do you know about the German navy in World War II? They had lots of U-boats; everyone knows that. They had a couple of big battleships named Tirpitz and Bismarck, best known for sinking. Their pocket battleship Graf Spee was scuttled in a South American river. But destroyers? Did they have any?
Indeed they did, upwards of forty. While a proliferation of literature exists on American, British, and Japanese destroyers, next to nothing concerns the German little ships.
Germany began the war on September 1, 1939, against Poland. Several destroyers joined the large Kriegsmarine force against the diminutive Polish navy. When Great Britain joined the fray, the destroyers steamed west, where they helped lay a defensive minefield in the North Sea and an offensive minefield along the east coast of England. They also conducted mercantile warfare, stopping, searching, and sometimes seizing ships.
The first five months of the war saw the destroyers’ most success with their offensive mines. Their usefulness in the war declined sharply in early 1940, never to recover.
Fishing trawlers filled the North Sea, and the Germans planned an attack on the fishermen to strike a psychological blow at the British and force the Royal Navy to expend its strength by guarding the fishing fleet. The Germans viewed it as an easy exercise. It wasn’t.
Six destroyers set out on Operation Wikinger on February 22, 1940. An aircraft spotted the ships. Two of them fired at it. Aboard the Leberecht Maass, it was identified as a German plane; aboard the Koellner, it was deemed hostile. The plane dropped two bombs, one striking the Maass. Two more bombs followed, and Maass broke in half.
As the other ships attempted to rescue survivors, another explosion rocked the Max Schultz. A panic over submarines and torpedoes ensued. The Riedel dropped depth charges but, moving too slowly, succeeded only in suffering damage from the blasts.
Subsequent investigation determined there had been no submarines. As the destroyers scurried around in the panic, the Schultz had strayed into a British minefield.
The Luftwaffe had been attacking shipping in the North Sea and had informed the Kriegsmarine, but the navy neglected to warn its destroyers, and hadn’t informed the Luftwaffe their ships were at sea.
Only sixty men of the Maass’ crew of 330 survived. All 308 of the Schultz’s company died.
In April, Operation Weserübung around Narvik in the Norwegian fjords further decimated ten German destroyers. Narvik was occupied with little difficulty, but only one of three fueling ships made it to the rendezvous. That one was a converted whaler that lacked the right equipment to expediently fuel ten ships. The process took too long and the British were on the hunt. Snow squalls confused the action, and the Germans were trapped in the fjords. Rocks in the poorly charted fjords ripped the bottom off the Koellner. By battle’s end, the British had a bloody nose and the Germans had ten wrecks.
For the rest of the war, the British Royal Navy had the remaining destroyers hemmed in on the North Sea. The German destroyer service was kaput.