German Naval Infantry
in the Defense of Berlin
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
With Soviet troops massing only a few dozen kilometers away from the German capital, all branches of the Nazi empire began to offer up their reserves of manpower to defend Berlin — all while most of the capable, veteran mobile formations of the regular Army were diverted to other fronts in Silesia and especially Hungary.
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the German Kriegsmarine’s commander-in-chief, would not be outdone in displays of loyalty. When Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering promised to provide tens of thousands of new troops during a meeting with Adolf Hitler on 6 April 1945, Dönitz offered up 12,000 navy personnel as well — and unlike the other Nazi barons, Dönitz more or less delivered. These troops appear in our new Road to Berlin in their own colors.
Imperial marines storm a French-held position in Flanders, 1914.
Imperial Germany maintained marines, who fought the Empire’s colonial campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The “Sea Battalions” were made up of tough, long-service professionals and these were the troops that Kaiser Wilhelm II urged to act like Huns during the Boxer Rebellion, and who massacred at least 70,000 people during the Herero War of 1904 in South-West Africa (Namibia).
During the Great War, the marines formed most of the 3rd Naval Division, which was created in 1917 and participated in Germany’s final 1918 offensives. In small units they had participated in the siege of Antwerp in 1914, but mostly provided security for naval bases. In September 1914 the Navy formed regiments of “Marine Fusiliers,” surplus naval personnel plus new recruits from Germany’s port cities. The 1st Naval Division fought during the siege of Antwerp and the 2nd Naval Division was formed afterwards. These two units made up the Naval Corps, which anchored the far right flank of the German line in Flanders with responsibility for coast defense. By 1918 they were officially rated as “fourth-class” divisions; by 1915 they had even been forced to give up their Mauser rifles for issue to front-line troops and had been given captured Russian Mosin-Nagant pieces instead.
The naval divisions formed in 1945 were a new generation of this type of formation; though sometimes called “marines” by English-language writers they were in no way equivalent to the old Sea Battalions or the United States Marine Corps. These were instead hastily-raised divisions, maintained under naval authority to help boost the Kriegsmarine’s political standing among the assorted Nazi hierarchies — just as police and even firemen went to the front in their own formations, led by their own officers.
Germany lost her colonies in the Versailles peace accords, and together with the colonies went the rationale for the Sea Battalions. The post-war Reichsmarine maintained base security detachments, and by the late 1930s the Kriegsmarine had added “Marine Assault Companies” — actual marines in the American sense of the word. These troops took part in the first action of World War II in Europe, attacking the Polish naval base at Westerplatte in Danzig’s harbor under covering fire from the ancient battleship Schleswig-Holstein. The Poles resisted stoutly, and the marines did not emerge from their first action with a very high military reputation.
Kriegsmarine ground units continued to see action over the next several years, but always as the result of emergencies where security detachments or base personnel were drawn into the fighting — for example, in the defense of Novorossisk in 1942, at Messina in 1943 or at Sevastopol in 1944. Otherwise, they were not seen as true ground combat elements. Coast defense artillery had been part of the Reichsmarine, and expanded greatly to protect the shores of occupied Europe from Allied invasion. But these gunners, who included a large contingent of anti-aircraft troops, were definitely not considered combat forces.
In April 1940, crews from destroyers sunk in the Narvik operation formed three small ad hoc battalions that took part in defense of the Norwegian port alongside German mountain troops. They were led by their own officers and armed with weapons taken from the Norwegian 6th Division’s arsenal, which had been overrun by the mountaineers. But as soon as the operation was concluded, these unoits were dissolved and the men became sailors agaiun.
As German forces fell back from France, the Soviet Union and the Balkans, naval personnel became involved in ground fighting at numerous locations. By November 1944, the Navy had taken its cue from the Air Force and began to form an infantry brigade for coast defense on the North Sea. By February it was on its way to Stettin for front-line service as the 1st Naval Infantry Division. The unit received a cadre of officers from the Army, including a new commander, Maj. Gen. Wilhelm Bleckwenn, and was organized along the Army’s 1945 tables. It fought, usually poorly, for the remainder of the war ont he northern flank of the German line on the Oder River.
The 2nd Naval Infantry Division formed in Schleswig-Holstein in March 1945 and went to the front in April (again, with the infusion of an Army cadre including a new commander) and fought the British and Canadians around Bremen. Three more “divisions” (the 3rd, 11th and 16th) were ordered form, but none seem to have seen much if any action.
Additionally, large numbers of Kriegsmarine personnel were tranferred directly to units at the front during April. The 20th Panzer Grenadier Division fighting in front of Berlin received several thousand Kriegsmarine replacements and sent them into action still wearing their naval uniforms.
Sailors also were sent to the 32nd SS Grenadier Division, also in their old uniforms (a blessing in this case, as the Soviets rarely took prisoners clad in SS camouflage). Small naval units also showed up as ad hoc reinforcements alongside the Volkssturm and police units rushed to the front, including several hundred trainees from the Kriegsmarine’s radar school — that the Navy was still training radar operators with the Soviets smashing their way into the capital goes far to illustrate the Nazi state’s “efficiency.”
The naval troops in Road to Berlin are of poor quality, with much lower firepower than regular Army units and lower morale. They appear to have been armed with captured weaponry for the most part, and suffered from serious ammunition shortages as a result. The ratio of Navy to Army officers in the front lines is hard to determine, and in the game they draw their leaders from the general Army pool.