The Greer: Nazi strategy

Nazi strategy

Eric Rauchway


April 12, 2023

The September 4, 1941, U-boat attack on the Greer was materially inconsequential, but symbolically vital, and to understand why, we have to think about this particular moment in the war. In this post we will look at this moment in Nazi strategy, just a couple months after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the German assault on the Soviet Union. Although the conclusion of David Stahel is pretty well established—that is to say, that by August the collapse of Barbarossa was already determined; that the failure to put resources into the construction of railroads and other logistical necessities spelled catastrophe—we should remember that even if to us, the tanks racing East look foolishly disconnected from the infantry that could secure their advances, at the time, they looked like the irresistible advance guard of yet another successful Blitzkrieg. As Stahel notes, the British Joint Intelligence Committee thought the Germans would win within six weeks; in the US, Secretary of War Stimson and General George Marshall believed it would take Germany one to three months to defeat the Soviet Union.1

A panzer, part of Army Group Centre, advancing into the East. Imperial War Museum.

And the Nazi high command, Hitler in particular, thought the same. Victory in the East was certain and imminent, which meant that the German navy need only stay its hand briefly before launching war on the United States.

According to Holger Herwig, Hitler told Admiral Erich Raeder to plan for a fleet of ten “superbattleships” by 1944, for war on Britain, the United States, or both. The Ziel Plan, or Z-Plan, drafted in 1939, sketched out the development of this Navy and, Herwig notes, the plan was modified in 1940 specifically for war on the United States, when Hitler “took an active interest in selecting future Atlantic bases, preferring Iceland, the Azores, the Cape Verdes, and the Canaries”; this in the flush of victory after the fall of France and “with an eye to the future war with America,” as of October 29, 1940.2 Herwig tells us that Raeder and Hitler viewed this plan differently; Raeder thought of it as an alternative to the war with the USSR, while Hitler—who was ideologically committed to the acquisition of lebensraum in the East and the killing of the people currently living there—thought of it as a consequence to the war with the Soviet Union.3

Therefore Hitler instructed Raeder repeatedly to avoid any incident with the United States, if only for the time being. Herwig has Hitler saying so as early as May 1941. In June, the day before Barbarossa, Hitler told Raeder, “avoid every incident with the United States until ‘Barbarossa’ unfolded itself. After a few weeks the situation would be cleared up.” In July, with the US occupation of Iceland, Raeder and the naval staff requested “immediate armed assault on all USA ships within our publicly proclaimed war zone.” Hitler did continue planning operations in Gibraltar and Northwest Africa to establish an “offensive stance against America” but also repeated his order to wait for outright operations against the United States until the campaign in the East had reached its successful conclusion. He repeated this order again on August 22.4

At the time of the Greer attack, Hitler and his naval commanders anticipated a war, soon, against the United States. The navy was eager for it and restrained only by Hitler’s belief that it must wait on the imminent victory against the USSR (which came, even to Hitler, to seem less imminent by the end of August, if still within reach).


  1. David Stahel, Opearation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 148.↩︎

  2. Holger H. Herwig, The Politics of Frustration: The United States in German Naval Planning, 1889--1941 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), 210, 214.↩︎

  3. Herwig, Politics of Frustration, 216.↩︎

  4. Herwig, Politics of Frustration, 224 and 224n, 226–227, 232 and 232n.↩︎