“Within weeks of taking office, the Nazi dictator kicked off a clandestine campaign aimed at turning Germany into a global military super power before the end of the decade.”
ADOLF HITLER AND THE NAZIS RODE INTO POWER in 1933 on a pledge to restore Germany to its former greatness.
At the time, the country was still stinging from its defeat in the Great War. Even 15 years after the surrender, ordinary Germans bristled at the humiliating restrictions placed upon their nation by the western powers.
Under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, not only was Germany forced to shed 25,000 square miles of territory and pay Europe a crippling penalty of 20 billion gold marks, as a final disgrace the country’s once-mighty military was to be dismantled.
Berlin would be permitted a small national army of no more than 100,000 men — but tanks, armoured vehicles and even heavy guns were outlawed. In fact, any German involved in the building of heavy weaponry faced devastating fines and six months in prison. Under the treaty, conscription was also forbidden, strict limits were placed on infantry training and even the army general staff was abolished. Furthermore, Germany would have no air force whatsoever and would be restricted to a token 15,000-man navy consisting of just six pre-war battleships, some light cruisers, a dozen destroyers and absolutely no submarines.
In the decade following the war, the Weimar Republic skirted some of these constraints – military R&D continued in fits and starts and the national police was partially militarized to act as a reserve army if needed.  Of course, such measures were entirely illegal under the Versailles Treaty.
Yet even these infractions shrink to insignificance when set against the massive and premeditated crash rearmament program undertaken by Hitler. Within weeks of taking office, the Nazi dictator kicked off a clandestine campaign aimed at turning Germany into a global military super power before the end of the decade.
Under the Fuhrer’s plan, the Reich’s armed forces were to be professionalized, super-sized and fully equipped with top-of-the-line weaponry. The brightest minds in Germany were seconded to the effort and billions in marks were secretly funneled to the country’s resurgent armaments industry.
While the Nazi chancellor played the statesman on the world stage, behind the scenes, military planners and industrialists secretly fashioned one of the world’s most fearsome war machines. Here’s some of what they were working on:
Within weeks of assuming power, Berlin founded the Deutschen Luftsportverband or “German air sports association”. Almost overnight, the innocuous-sounding athletic club began secretly training military flyers for the Third Reich’s emergent air force, the Luftwaffe. And the centrepiece of this new air corps would be a cutting-edge warplane devised by aviation magnate Willie Messerschmitt. His ground breaking Bf-109 was a space-aged, all-metal, monoplane with retractable landing gear capable of reaching speeds of nearly 380 mph (610 km/h). As soon as it took the skies, all other warplanes on earth were obsolete. And not only was the 109 sleek and fast, the next-generation fighter packed a hefty battery of machine guns and 20 mm cannons. More than 1,800 Messerschmitts were produced prior to 1939, while a staggering 31,000 more were built before the final collapse of Germany in 1945. Numbers like that made it most widely manufactured aircraft in history.
The Heinkel He-111, the Luftwaffe’s iconic twin-engine bomber has famously been described as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”  Outwardly designed as a super-fast passenger aircraft and civil cargo carrier, the Heinkel was really a purpose-built warplane from nose to tail. To further conceal its actual function, Berlin publically delivered 12 civilian 111s to Germany’s domestic air carrier Lufthansa in 1935. Meanwhile, factories busily cranked out more than 800 military models in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. As a bomber, the He-111 could haul 4,400 pounds of ordnance and its crew of five up to 1,400 miles at speeds approaching 275 mph. In all, 5,600 were manufactured.
The Flying Pencil
Unlike the He-111, the Dornier Do-17 was a pre-Nazi design. In fact the plane, dubbed the “flying pencil” was pioneered in 1932 as a high-speed mail carrier. But within weeks of taking office, Reich officials ordered aviation experts to transform the airframe into a medium bomber and strike aircraft. By 1937, Do-17s attached to Germany’s Condor Legion were leveling cities in Spain during that country’s three-year civil war.
Type II U-Boat
Between 1914 and 1918, Germany’s 300 U-boats managed to sink a total of 5,000 civilian merchant vessels totalling nearly 13 million gross tons of shipping.  Following the Armistice, the Britain and France barred Germany from owning a single submarine. But in 1933, Hitler set out to reconstitute his country’s silent service. The Nazi dictator initially concealed his objective by outsourcing the Reich’s submarine manufacturing to Finnish and Dutch shipyards. The end result of this process was the Type II U-boat. By the time the first vessel in the class was in the water, Berlin had negotiated an agreement with London that allowed Germany a limited number of submersibles. Less than two weeks later, the first Type II sub, designated U-1 was officially commissioned. More than 50 more such models would be constructed over the next five years. By 1945, nearly 1,250 German U-boats of various makes and models had put to sea. All told, Hitler’s submarines sank more than 2,750 Allied ships totalling more than 14 million tons.
Among its many provisions, the Versailles Treaty expressly prohibited Germany from building fighting vessels larger than 10,000 tons. But that didn’t stop the Nazis from ordering outsized warships to be built at flank speed. Case in point: on paper, the Admiral Graf Spee (launched June 30, 1934) was within the 10,000-ton limit. In reality, the vessel, which carried six 11-inch guns and armour plating nearly a half-foot thick, topped 16,000 tons when fully armed and loaded. Similarly, the Deutschland (later renamed Lützow and) and the Admiral Scheer displaced 14,000 and 15,000 tons respectively. Germany cleverly referred to the new vessels as cruisers; the British more accurately dubbed them “pocket battleships”. Interestingly, work on all three vessels predated the Nazi regime by as many as four years. But once in power, Hitler accelerated the construction and intensified German military shipbuilding across the board. In 1935, the Nazi dictator struck a naval agreement with this British government that allowed the Reich a larger navy. London, although increasingly wary, felt that appeasing Hitler would help avoid war. The bi-lateral accord paved the way for even larger warships. The following year, work began on the 40,000-ton battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz and plans were even afoot for a German aircraft carrier. Hitler dissolved the naval agreement within four years and eventually planned to sortie a fleet that would rival the Royal Navy – war erupted before he could make good on his designs.
Initially, Weimar Germany dubbed the notorious 88 mm anti-aircraft gun the Flugzeugabwehrkanone or “Flak 18” to create the impression that the rapid-fire, high-caliber artillery weapon pre-dated the Versailles Treaty (the numeric designation “18” was supposed to denote the year 1918). Although a prototype of the system was finished in 1928, the 88 didn’t go into production until the first year of Nazi rule. That’s when Hitler ordered hundreds of the guns for the military. Eventually 21,000 rolled off Krupp assembly lines. The innovative design formed the basis of an entire family of devastating anti-tank/anti-aircraft weapons that served on every front of the war in Europe.
Panzer Mk. I and II
Germany concealed its post-Versailles tank R&D by shrewdly designating all of its experimental tracked fighting vehicles as “tractors”. And while as early as the mid-1920s, army commanders and industrialists were experimenting with new designs, it wasn’t until Hitler was in power that tank production began in earnest. Within 20 months of taking power, the Nazis placed substantial orders for both the 5-ton Panzer I scout tank, and the more substantial 9-ton Panzer II. In all, more than 3,000 models were produced prior to the outbreak of war in 1939. Both types served with distinction in the invasions of Poland, France and the Soviet Union.
In 1935, Hitler stunned the world by revealing the end result of his two-year crash rearmament program. In a series of speeches in March of that year, the Nazi dictator announced that his country had managed to build a modern 2,500-plane air force and was in the process of reconstituting a navy befitting a great power. But among his most shocking revelations was that Germany had raised a thoroughly professional 300,000-man army – three times as many troops as was permitted under international law. What’s more, the Fuhrer boldly renounced the Versailles Treaty and pledged to increase the size of his land forces to half a million through conscription. By the outbreak of World War Two, the Germany army would exceed 1.5 million men; by 1940 that number would swell to 2.5 million. By that point, Hitler’s war machine was virtually unstoppable. It would take the combined military might of British Empire, the United States and the Soviet Union more than five years to bring it down.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on October 14, 2014)
Did you enjoy this story?
Consider making a donation to help us create more FREE content.