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An Account of the German Submarine Operations in the Mediterranean Sea: A Colossal Failure

Updated on January 4, 2018
German Sub returning to pen
German Sub returning to pen


The Mediterranean is a clear and calm body of water which is almost like an inland sea. It has three entry points, namely the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bosporus. Out of these the most important is the Strait of Gibraltar which was and is till date controlled by the British, by virtue of their control of the rock of Gibraltar, a rocky island off the Spanish coast.

This outpost was seized by the British and an unequal treaty shoved down the throats of the Spaniard’s. Spain failed to reclaim Gibraltar and perhaps General Franco blew his best chance of regaining the rock during World War II when he lost nerve in attacking Gibraltar. This base was the ultimate thorn in the throat of the German Navy.

Limitations of the Krieg marine.

The German Navy (Krieg marine) was greatly handicapped as it did not have free access to the Mediterranean Sea. For Karl Donitz the chief of the submarine fleet, initially this theatre was of secondary importance compared to operations in the Atlantic, but once full-scale operations were launched in North Africa the importance of this sector skyrocketed. Despite the importance of the Mediterranean as a theatre of war, the German were greatly handicapped as they had no easy access to the Mediterranian Sea. The lynchpin being Gibraltar, which had a strong British naval presence.

How Hitler ordered German Navy to the Mediterranean Sea

After the invasion of Poland and the declaration of war, Hitler initially left the Mediterranean and North Africa to his Italian allies as he felt it was their theatre of operations. The Italian army was not equal to the task and Hitler had to turn his attention to the Mediterranean as well as bolster the Italian army by way of the Afrika Corps under General Erwin Rommel.

Simultaneously instructions were passed to the German Navy to operate U boats in the Mediterranean Sea and attack allied warships and supply ships. He also made plans for the conquest of Gibraltar. But unfortunately General Franco dithered and this strategic outpost at Gibraltar remained in British hands with drastic results for the German Navy.

Despite the lukewarm approach of the commander of the U Boat fleet to operations in the Mediterranean, the operations were ordered by Hitler as Axis supply lines to North Africa were greatly hampered with severe losses.

Class 212A German Submarine WW II
Class 212A German Submarine WW II

Factors Against the German navy

Another factor that went against the German navy was the failure of the Italians to neutralize Malta. Thus two important outposts at Gibraltar and Malta were a thorn in German operations. The German Naval staff earmarked 60 U –Boats for operations in the Mediterranean Sea. The U- boats had to make the hazardous passage from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through the strait of Gibraltar.

Donitz had started his operations in 1939 by sending 3 submarines into the Mediterranean. In real terms only one made it and returned back on 5 December 1939. No other submarine ever made it back from the Mediterranean.

German training sub
German training sub

23rd U Boat Flotilla

In 1941 the German navy set up the 23rd U- Boat Flotilla to help the Afrika Corps. Control of this flotilla was handed to General Kesselring of the German High command in Italy. In May 1942 the 29th Flotilla was organized with its base at La Spezia

Total Defeat

Crossing the strait was disastrous for the German navy and 9 U- Boats were sunk outright and another 10 damaged. It is on record that the voyage of the German U- boats were a one-way voyage to destruction as except for one submarine no other submarine made it back to Germany. These U- Boats were unable to carry out their task in the Mediterranean Sea. The naval operations in the Mediterranean by the German Navy lasted for 3 years and by end of 1943 the allies had snuffed out the U- boat challenge. Though a few submarines continued operations till September 1944, the sun had set on U- boat operations a year earlier. The German U Boat operations in the Mediterranean Sea were a colossal failure.

Perhaps the results would have been different in case the Gibraltar and Malta had been taken over, but this did not happen.


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