Naval warfare

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Aerial view of maneuvering ships in the sea ​​battle in the Gulf of Leyte , 1944

Naval warfare describes the armed conflict between political actors at sea, which takes place predominantly between state naval forces using naval warfare equipment.

Naval warfare equipment

Naval warfare means all weapons and weapon systems primarily used for conducting naval warfare . These include warships , submarines , naval aircraft, and marines . One of the aims of naval warfare is to control sea areas in order to use these areas for their own supplies or for attacks at sea. Another goal can be to deny the opponent such use, whereby he can be cut off from supplies, for example.

These goals can be achieved through individual naval battles and enemy voyages or by meeting larger fleets in sea ​​battles . Characteristic of naval warfare are long periods of wear and tear, in which the enemy is supposed to be damaged by blockades.

The task of a warship in combat is to make enemy ships unusable by sinking them, to prevent further use or to conquer them by boarding. Since the invention of long-range weapons such as cannons , it has also been possible to use sea-based weapons in land warfare , for example by shelling enemy port cities or fortresses . Another way of combining land and sea warfare is sea landing .


Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Age of the Belt Ships

Sea warfare could be waged either hand-to-hand by ramming and / or boarding . The warships of ancient Egypt were generally not seaworthy. The first organized navies with seaworthy ships, most of which were rowed by slaves , were among the Carthaginians , Greeks and Romans . The ramming of enemy ships has been one since the defense of the Sea Peoples by the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III. proven technology. It required very targeted maneuvering of the ship, which was only possible by means of oars ( galleys ). In Greece the ramming technique with rowing ships ( Pentekonteren ) was at least about 650 BC. Known. As early as the Punic Wars , the Romans used regular infantry on ships that attacked the crews of the enemy ships using boarding bridges ( corvus ) in the sea ​​battle of Mylae (260 BC) . Polybius gives a description in his history. In East Asia, the establishment of organized navies had already begun around the 7th century.

Mural of a Pentecontere from a temple in Nymphaion (Crimea) , today in the Hermitage (Saint Petersburg)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the coasts of Europe were open to raids by the Arabs and Vikings. In the eastern Mediterranean, however, the Byzantine Navy continued the Roman tradition seamlessly. During this time, the sinking of enemy ships with incendiary devices ( Greek fire ) was common. In the 13th century, Emperor Friedrich II built a powerful Mediterranean fleet with which he waged war against the Republic of Genoa (see Battle of Giglio ). Genoa, in turn, fought successful naval wars against Pisa , but was replaced as the leading naval power by the Republic of Venice at the beginning of the 15th century (see Chioggia War ).

The last naval battle before the great age of sailing ships was the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. 300 ships of the Holy League , an alliance of the Christian Mediterranean states, faced 270 galleys of the Ottoman Empire . The Ottoman fleet was defeated and more than 30,000 men lost their lives. Decisive for the victory was the use of Venetian galeas , oversized galleys with auxiliary sails, which could set up about 30 cannons in their front and aft fortifications and carry up to 1000 men with them.

Also towards the end of the 16th century in the defensive war in Korea against Japan , another mixed type of belt and sailing vessel used by the Koreans: the armored with wood and equipped with cannons Turtle Ship , which brought them significant benefits.

Age of the sailing ships

While galley warfare continued to dominate the Mediterranean for a long time, new forms of naval warfare with sailing ships emerged in northern Europe and the North Atlantic in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance with largely unregulated sea traffic. Since the military use of gunpowder and the associated construction of firearms towards the end of the 14th century, naval wars were also fought from increasing distances (i.e. mostly 500 to 1000 meters); one was no longer limited to boarding enemy ships.

Up until the 15th century, ships in northern Europe were mainly used to transport mercenaries to opposing coasts. The decisive battles were fought on land. The crews consisted of embarked citizens until the 15th century. The term “warship” was first mentioned in a Hanseatic source in 1526; But the Hanseatic League armed its merchant ships even earlier and later deployed so-called peace ships manned by hired soldiers to secure their trade routes. A document from Lübeck is from 1421.

Due to the increased fore and aft fort and the guns carried by at least 150 kilograms to three tons, the weight of the ships increased and the center of gravity shifted significantly upwards, which resulted in design changes: by installing frame and directional frames, heavy ones could also be used Point loads are brought into position. Later Holke were used instead of cogs . The tactics changed with the introduction of firearms: The ships now had to be steered tactically in the squadron in order to approach the enemy in a wedge shape or in a dwars line from windward , thus determining the distance of the fight and giving him the wind from the sails when boarding to take. This required the function of an admiral as squadron commander, whose ship in turn attracted attacks by the enemy. In addition, more mercenaries had to be recruited as crew: On the Admiralsschiffs Lübeck alone around 150 to 160 men were required to operate the guns, on smaller war sailors more than 100 men can be assumed.

In the consolidating nation-states of Western Europe, specialized warship construction has developed much faster since the 15th century than in Germany and in the entire Baltic Sea region. Here, private ship owners and pirate militias such as the Vitalienbrüder , the Wassergeusen or (in England) Francis Drake were equipped by regents or cities to capture , plunder or sink enemy ships or to blackmail the implementation of (commercial) political goals. The French corsairs , flibustiers and buccaneers of the 17th and early 18th centuries were particularly interested in the Spanish silver fleets. The North African barbarian corsairs enjoyed the protection of the Ottoman sultan, operated slave trade and hindered shipping in the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic from the 16th to the beginning of the 18th century.

The Northern Seven Years War 1563-1570 brought about improvements in the artillery and shipbuilding technology as well as in the organization and equipment of the fleets and in the tactics of the operation also in the Baltic Sea area, whereby the lead of Western Europe was not completely caught up. Warships of German sovereigns have been occupied since around 1570.

When the Dutch arrived in Bantam on Java in 1596, they broke the Portuguese monopoly of spices in the East Indies

Establishment of organized war fleets

Naval battle near Abukir 1798: Positioning of the French fleet (blue) in line as a floating coastal battery at anchor and pincer attack / breakthrough of the English fleet (red)

One of the largest war fleets of the early modern period with an alleged 300 ships was built around 1400 at the time of the Chinese Ming Dynasty . These are said to have included the largest wooden ships ever built.

From the late 16th century onwards, the major European powers England, France, Spain, Holland and Sweden developed especially for war use sailing ships, which gradually replaced the ships of the privateers sailing on behalf of the state . If they initially carried the guns on a continuous deck, they were later installed in large numbers below deck or on several decks one above the other (one, two or three decks). By 1650 the republic of the united Netherlands had the strongest navy in the world and thus protected its trade routes.

From the second half of the 17th century, naval officers were professionally trained, first in England; strict discipline was enforced. The Navigation Acts passed under Oliver Cromwell in 1651 expressed the pursuit of dominance over the world’s sea trade routes; they also standardized the construction of warships. 1st class ships of the line carried up to 100 cannons. In the long term, the Royal Navy gained a strategic preponderance over other European nations in naval warfare. In the 17th and 18th centuries there were four naval wars between England and the Netherlands for supremacy on the oceans, which were mainly fought in the North Sea, but also in the Caribbean, off West Africa and in Southeast Asia. After the Netherlands, threatened by economic decline, was no longer a serious opponent for the Royal Navy, its predominance in the age of sailing ships culminated in the victories of Horatio Nelson over the French fleet.

Arms race at sea

In the 1860s, cannons with rifled barrel were used, against which the ships, previously shod with copper or steel plates, were defenseless. In 1859, the first steam-powered armored ship suitable for the ocean , the French La Gloire, was built . From approx. 1860/70 warships were more and more often propelled and armored with heat engines, from 1880 torpedoes were also ready for use, against which the underwater armor had to be reinforced. Their development was particularly promoted in Germany by Alfred von Tirpitz and led to the development of new types of ships. By 1900 the first submarines were ready for use.

Model of La Gloire (1859)

However, the capital ships initially remained strategically decisive. At the end of the 19th century, the USA and the German Empire competed with England and France as sea powers to enforce their colonial policy. This was also expressed in the mutual surpassing of ship sizes, gun calibers and armor over the next few decades, according to v. a. in the German-British naval battle . Characteristic of this era, the climax of which was the Skagerrak Battle of 1916, was the development of the ship of the line , which (as the name suggests) was deployed in the keel line and fired explosive projectiles at enemy ships with numerous cannons. His further developments to the dreadnought or battleship determined naval warfare until around 1941 ( attack on Pearl Harbor , sinking of the Bismarck and other large battleships, especially with the help of torpedo pilots ).

After the introduction of guided ranged weapons

During the Second World War , the vulnerability of large warships to air raids became apparent. The superiority in the air also became crucial for the warfare at sea, which led to the development of large aircraft carriers as the main weapon. Therefore, combined sea / air battles only took place out of sight of the enemy ships or at night, which was supported by the invention of radar . Large ship units have never been involved in direct combat since the Battle of Surigao Strait .

The war at sea was replaced by the combined sea / air war and / or the sea / land war. In the mid-1950s, the first sea-based anti- aircraft missiles such as the RIM-2 Terrier and cruise missiles such as the SSM-N-8A Regulus were developed. This is how the guided missile cruiser came about - the USS Boston (CA-69) was the first ship to be retrofitted with it. Numerous other types of ships followed with radar or laser guided missiles. Today missiles and precision- controlled weapons are used at sea, under water and in the air to combat land and sea targets or to defend against aircraft (example: Falklands War ). Nuclear propulsion enables many types of ships to operate over or under water for long periods of time without having to call at land bases.

As a consequence of the development of multimodal war scenarios, major military missions with a maritime component have generally been led by integrated (cross-armed forces) staff since the Korean War . In this context, the global naval communications infrastructure of the great powers is playing a growing role.

Forms of naval warfare

Sinking of the English steamer Maplewood by the German submarine U 35 , April 7, 1917.

In addition to the direct confrontation between the warring naval powers , which occasionally comes to a head in major naval battles , there are various other forms of naval warfare that are either waged alongside the direct confrontation or dominate in the event of a severe imbalance in the naval forces. In this case, the inferior in strength avoids direct confrontation, as it would have more disadvantages than advantages.

Trade war

As a special form of sea war, the trade war can pursue the disturbance of the sea ​​trade of the enemy by various maritime means. They all serve to prevent or at least disrupt its economy and the supply of goods in order to weaken its ability to continue warfare. The pirate war and the cruiser war (see below) as well as the sea ​​blockade are such means. The trade war is regulated by the part of the naval war law called prize law. Blockade and piracy were also carried out as coercive trade policy measures or to force political concessions without there being a formal state of war. For example, the blockade of Flanders in 1358–1360 by the Hanseatic League with the aim of safeguarding the rights of German merchants in Bruges .

Sea blockade

There were sea ​​blockades , for example, in the British-American War and the Coalition Wars .

During and after the First World War , Great Britain blocked Germany's supply via the North Sea. In the Second World War , Germany tried to stop Great Britain's supplies from North America in the North Atlantic ( Atlantic Battle ). The United States Navy succeeded in the most famous naval blockade in 1962 in the Cuba Crisis .

Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip has existed since 2007, primarily affecting supplies to the Gaza Strip via the Mediterranean Sea .

Cruiser war

The cruiser war was a strategy of inferior powers and had a strategy of pinpricks . Specially built ships, the cruisers , should operate individually or as a small group in the remote areas of interest and sea routes of the enemy and attack merchant ships or small bases. After the attack, the cruiser hid again in the vastness of the oceans . This was intended to materially or at least psychologically disrupt sea trade and to force the enemy to send large naval forces into the operational area as a defensive measure, which distributed and weakened its forces.

The cruiser type of ship therefore had to have a large operating radius and a high maximum speed in order to evade superior enemy units. Auxiliary cruisers were civilian ships that were converted for this purpose.

The wreck of the Emden on the beach of the Cocos Islands (1914)

Cruiser war led Germany in World War I to the end of the war and even used large passenger steamers such as "Kaiser Wilhelm the Great" or the sailing ship SMS Seeadler as auxiliary cruisers. The cruisers were mainly supplied from the cargo and fuel supplies of the captured merchant ships.

The Frankfurter Zeitung reported on December 2, 1914: The small cruiser “Emden” , active in the Indian Ocean , “caused direct material damage of 80 million marks according to estimates, while the damage caused by the stagnation of English shipping and the driving out of war premiums resulted in even higher figures should. More can not be asked of a trade destroyer built for 6,380,000 marks in Danzig in 1909. "After its sinking in the Indian Ocean" the premium for the war insurance of the (opposing) ships going to East India could, if the newspaper reports are correct, to be reduced by half, namely two percent ”, which is eight percent of the value of the ship over a year.

Submarine war

The trade war with submarines is a special form of cruiser war, whereby the submarine can largely evade the enemy by diving.


Capers were entrepreneurs with a letter of security ; they waged the (often not officially declared) war on their own account and with their own material. De facto privateering is funded by a state piracy / piracy . In the Caribbean it has declined since the independence of the Latin American states; in East Asia it lasted much longer. In the Paris Declaration of the Law of the Sea of 1856, privateer was forbidden.

Mine Warfare

Mine warfare is an indirect form of warfare and uses sea ​​mines . Mine warfare is only possible in shallow coastal waters and shelf seas . In offensive operations, sea mines are laid in coastal waters in front of enemy ports and shipping lanes, initially to sink ships, then to block shipping after the minefield has been discovered and to induce enemy forces to clear the minefield. Various types of anti-mine vehicles are used against sea mines .

Minefields are also used defensively to protect own ports and bases. Crossing the minefield is only possible through narrow and secret roads. You prevent the enemy from attacking the bases.

During the First World War , the Royal Navy and the United States Navy moved the so-called North Sea mine barrier in the northern North Sea from 1917 , with over 70,000 mines laid to prevent German submarines from breaking out of the North Sea. Other sea areas, some of which were heavily mined during the First World War, were the German Bight and the English Channel . In the Second World War, Germany and Finland mined the Narva Bay in the Baltic Sea so massively from 1941 that the Baltic fleet of the Soviet Union was almost completely shut down for almost three years, but individual submarines repeatedly break through the mine bars.

During the Second World War, sea mines were also increasingly thrown from the air. For example, between the autumn of 1939 and March 1940, German aircraft dropped around 1,000 sea mines, including numerous magnetic mines , in British coastal waters. By April 1940, 129 Allied merchant ships were lost to mines. Later in the war, the Allies carried out even more extensive mining operations from the air. The United States Air Force, for example, dropped more than 12,000 mines in Japanese coastal waters between March and July 1945 ( Operation Starvation ), which almost brought shipping to a standstill. In addition, more and more mines with different ignition devices were used during the Second World War, for example pressure , magnetic and acoustic mines, which made clearing operations more difficult.

Mine warfare is one of the few possibilities of guerrilla warfare at sea. In 1984 sea ​​mines were laid in the Red Sea by a merchant ship, which sunk or damaged several ships. The state of Libya is suspected to be the originator of the action .

Landing operations

Canadian troops land on Juno Beach as part of Operation Overlord 1944

Landing operations are part of amphibious warfare, for example in the form of island occupations or military interventions. There were major landing operations especially during World War II . Among the largest are the Battle of Iwojima and Operation Overlord . The last so far were Operation Attila in the Cyprus conflict and the Falklands War .

The Marines applies in some states as its own armed force .


The very existence of large naval forces in sea areas ( fleet in being ) can have a massive impact on the opponent's strategy. This also has a direct impact on the tactics of the fleets involved. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Royal Navy tried to sink the enemy as quickly as possible and used almost every opportunity for a battle. The strategy of the French, who tried to protect their fleet, was different: only an intact fleet could deter the enemy or tie up his forces in the right place.

For most of the time from 1941 to 1944, the German battleship Tirpitz was hidden in the fjords of Norway , but forced the British to constantly keep a superior force of similarly powerful ships ready to escort the convoys to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk or to secure them from a distance.


Volume 1. A maritime world history from the beginning to 1850.
Volume 2. A world maritime history from steam navigation to the present.

See also

Web links

Commons : Naval Warfare  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Naval Warfare  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


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