In the Star Wars films, George Lucas attempts to distill the basic elements of human fantasy and storytelling into a widely resonating narrative. He draws on world mythologies and cultures to make connections between imagination and reality. A key part of any culture is its shared memory -- its history. Intentionally, or by broad reach of inspiration, Lucas includes recognizable patterns of history in his saga. The rise and fall of empires, the illogical actions of someone in pain or love, and the seduction of absolute power are all tales told throughout history. Yet, individual segments of the Star Wars saga can be directly associated with specific historical analogues. Lucas builds his stories on the history of the world's recent past: immediately believable yet blurred by time, distance, and creativity.
One of these historical patterns is the Imperial Navy of the Original Trilogy. In the Galaxy of Star Wars, the Imperial Navy (sometimes referred to as the Imperial Star Fleet or simply the Imperial Fleet) is a respected organization dating back into the reign of the Old Republic. Han Solo is at one point a cadet in the Imperial Naval Academy, and Luke Skywalker continually whines to Uncle Owen that he wants to attend the Academy. Rapidly in Star Wars: A New Hope, the Imperial Navy is shown as having a number of interstellar law enforcement and military responsibilities: capturing spies, interdicting smugglers, convoy protection, etc. The Imperial Navy is the central institution used in Star Wars to illustrate the power and reach of the Galactic Empire. It is the glue that holds the Galaxy together.
However, the Imperial Navy is shown as suffering damaging losses due to bungling and basic ineptness. Seemingly, George Lucas sets up this powerful, menacing organization to stumble in service to the protagonists' victory. These errors seem too convenient as story devices, but they are also echoes from history. These errors actually occurred, and Lucas adopts them into his saga. The Imperial Navy (by way of George Lucas) actually helps the Rebel Alliance, in both incompetence and direct resistance, through historical allusion.
In the first scenes of A New Hope, the Emperor is still solidifying control over his Empire. The remaining vestiges of the previously governing Old Republic are dismantled when the Senate is dissolved in favor of local, dictatorial governors. This move leaves the Imperial Navy as the last holdover from the Republic. The Fleet is too crucial an organization for maintaining law and order in the Galaxy to dismiss. The veteran crews and officers in the Imperial Navy are carried over from the Clone Wars. By eons-old tradition, many of these officers are non-clones, meaning the Emperor has to work hard align the Fleet with the goals of his new regime.
To accomplish the task of bringing the Imperial Fleet under his control, the Emperor and his minions position detachments of the elite, ultra-loyal Stormtrooper Corps aboard important capital ships. Stormtrooper officers are shown wearing black uniforms and supervising the gray uniformed naval officers. In The Empire Strikes Back, the bridge of Darth Vader's flagship, the Executor, is shown. Black uniforms shadow gray ones in the operation of the ship. The constant fear of being accused of being disloyal and summarily executed leads to errors in the simplest tasks: navigation (two Star Destroyers nearly colliding during maneuvers), tracking (allowing the Millennium Falcon to attach to the hull), tactical surprise (coming out of Lightspeed too close to Hoth), and security (Bothan spies, everywhere). Questioning the orders of the Emperor, Darth Vader, or Stormtroopers can lead to death. The Stormtrooper Corps are both the primary shock troops of the Empire and the leash controlling the Imperial Fleet.
Historically, stationing watchdog forces aboard ships is common. Navies are commonly the most independent portion of a government due to the autonomy of, distance between, and communication delay with ships at sea. The British Royal Navy during the Golden Age of the Sail (roughly the 16th through 19th Centuries) has this problem of control. The British Empire is vast, and the Royal Navy is the key implement of keeping the British Empire connected. Common practice in the Royal Navy is to build crews from criminals, the poor, or pressed sailors (which leads to the War of 1812 with the United States). These low loyalty sailors are more interested in the independence of the sea and the possibility of prize treasure (gained through the capture and sale of enemy ships). The risk of mutiny and piracy is high "on the far side of the world." As such, the Royal Navy positions infantry on their ships. These Royal Marines act as shock troops during amphibious battles, ship boarding, and ship security. A primary goal of the Royal Marines is to defend the noble officers on ship and ensure fealty to the British Crown among the crew.
This tasking falls to many ship-borne infantries and police. The American Navy during the American Revolution has the Continental Marines, established by act of Congress on November 10, 1775. The Continental Marines serve as the infantry of the young fleet, but they also guard against seditious sailors and keep focus among the privateers. More recently, during World War II, the Japanese navy includes parts of the Kempeitei, a police organization whose primary task is less law enforcement and more loyalty enforcement to the Emperor.
More definitely, George Lucas intends the Stormtroopers to be patterned after Schutzstaffel, or SS, Stormtroopers of Germany's Third Reich during World War II. The SS are a paramilitary organization independent of the normal German military structure, reporting directly to Nazi High Command. They are hand selected for genealogy and loyalty to the Fuhrer. Units of the SS are stationed at German Naval bases across Europe to ensure the loyalty of the German navy.
Like the Imperial Navy descending from the Old Republic's Navy, the Kriegsmarine of Nazi Germany is sewn together from the remnants of the Reichsmarine of the preceding Weimar Republic. In most instances, the Nazi High Command are wary of the Kriegsmarine's institutions and traditions -- they are too independent. This relaxed fealty to Adolf Hitler is a concern to the Nazi High Command. Proven loyal naval commanders are issued SS detachments at naval bases to keep an eye on the workings of the Kriegsmarine. The SS along with the Schutzpolizei (security or loyalty police) enforce loyalty among sailors (at least while on land). They make sure that the Fuhrer's orders are carried out without hesitation. Many of the rank-and-file officers and sailors that put out to sea have no direct connection or love for the Nazis (as explored in the film Das Boot) -- patriotism is duty to one's country and not devotion to a despot.
Not all the Kriegsmarine are resistant to the rise of a Fascist regime in Germany. Position seekers and power mongers in the Kriegsmarine leverage politics and brutality to gain higher status in the Nazi party. Admirals and captains on the policy and strategy side of the Kriegsmarine endorse war crimes, including the torpedoing civilian ships, the expulsion of "undesirables," and mass murder. The pull of amoral Nazi party politics affects the Germany navy heavily. The most devastating examples come from port cities controlled by the Kriegsmarine, particularly in France and Latvia. Commanders Stein and later Captain Kawelmacher are responsible for the Liepāja Massacres where SS troops alongside naval officers attempt to eradicate the Jewish, Communist, and Gypsy communities in Western Latvia. At best, there is a mixture of loyal Nazi officers and ordinary officers in the Kriegsmarine.
In the Star Wars Canon, this same mixture is true. There are officers held in place by fear (such as Admiral Piett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). There are also officers that willingly follow the rule of the Emperor (like Conan Antonio Motti, the officer Force choked by Darth Vader on the first Death Star).
The most loyal officer to the Emperor is Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, who starts his career as a Republic Naval Officer. After briefly being captured by Separatist forces and held in the Citadel (in The Clone Wars episodes "The Citadel," " Counterattack," and "Citadel Rescue"), Tarkin rises to prominence by supporting Chancellor Palpatine's rise to power. Tarkin achieves the rank of Admiral due to his use of mass murder in quashing insurrection (the Tarkin Doctrine) against the Chancellor-turned-Emperor. By A New Hope, he is one of the highest ranking governors in the Empire. He is rewarded by the Emperor by being placed in charge of the Death Star Project. Tarkin works hard to please the Emperor, at one point even outranking Darth Vader (who temporarily falls out of favor with the Imperial Court). Tarkin still wears the gray uniform of the Imperial Navy up to his death. For all intents, Grand Moff Tarkin is the second most powerful man in the Galactic Empire. Still, his arrogance and reliance on terror belies a basic ineptness for command. He loses the Death Star and his life due to these errors.
The best Nazi analogue for Grand Moff Tarkin is Großadmiral Karl Dönitz (pronounced close to Donuts). This Grand Admiral has a similar early career to Wilhuff Tarkin. Dönitz serves as a combat naval officer and is captured by the British, serving time as a prisoner of war in the closing month of World War I. Upon returning to his homeland's navy, he uses Nazi politics to boost his career and gather power. He achieves the rank of admiral by the early days of World War II due to his development of the "Wolf Pack" doctrine among U-Boats. The "wolf pack" uses groups of submarines to hunt Allied shipping. This doctrine is meant to instill terror among Allied merchant fleets. In 1943, Dönitz ingratiates himself with the Fuhrer and is appointed the Commander of the Kriegsmarine. Like Tarkin, Dönitz eventually becomes the second most powerful man in the Third Reich. In 1945, Adolf Hitler commits suicide, and his will appoints Karl Dönitz as the Head of State and Commander of the German Armed Forces. Dönitz is forced to capitulate the Third Reich to advancing Allied Forces. Also like Tarkin, Dönitz is known somewhat for his arrogance. Dönitz underestimates the resolve and technology of Allied Navies. During his time as leader of the Kriegsmarine, surface ships and submarines suffer heavy losses.
This poor naval strategy, by both the Kriegsmarine and Imperial Fleet, signals the disconnect between serving sailors and opportunistic members of a dictatorial regime.
In Star Wars, the largest Space Naval blunder is the deployment and loss of the planet-destroying battle station Death Star. As a "technological terror," the Death Star is intended by its builders to change the face of the war with the Rebel Alliance -- the "ultimate weapon." It is the culmination of decades of research and construction. Unfortunately, the arrogance of the Emperor and his senior staff launch the Death Star with little to no naval escort. In a conversation on the Death Star, the senior staff argue the wisdom of having no escort. Conan Antonio Motti (retroactively named for Conan O'Brien) says that the battle platform can defend itself -- it is the "ultimate power in the Universe." General Cassio Tagge warns that the Death Star is vulnerable. He is correct.
Grand Moff Tarkin agrees with Motti and orders the Death Star into battle to "crush the Rebellion with one swift strike." Because of heavy armor and armament, the Death Star is more than a match for any large capital ship. Unfortunately for Tarkin, the Rebel Alliance captures the plans for the Death Star and finds a major flaw. Squadrons of single-person fighters fly into the structure of the Death Star, sending a proton torpedo into an open exhaust vent. The torpedo causes a chain reaction, detonates the Death Star, and kills a smug Grand Moff Tarkin in his "moment of triumph." A junior officer does warn that the Death Star may be at imminent risk of exploding, but Tarkin ignores him.
George Lucas borrows heavily from the stories and tactics of World War II combat. The Death Star Escape scene from A New Hope is based on edited footage of an Allied Bomber defending against German fighter planes. Likewise, the story surrounding the Death Star and the fashion of its ultimate defeat is remarkably close to the World War II naval engagement that sunk the German Battleship Bismarck.
The deployment and loss of the Battleship Bismarck is one of the greatest naval blunders committed by the Kriegsmarine during World War II. The Bismarck, and its sister ship the Tirpitz, are built to terrorize the Atlantic with overwhelming force: heavy weaponry, thick armor, and overpowered engines. Kriegsmarine officers warn that the ship, though more than a match for almost any single capital ship afloat, has weaknesses. They warn that it will be the target of unrelenting attack. At some level, Hitler agrees. He refuses to let the designers name the ship after him, fearing that every Allied sailor would jump at the honor of "sinking the Hitler." Nevertheless, Hitler and his staff rush the Bismarck into combat, flaunting it in front of the Allied navies.
The Bismarck is dispatched with a light escort (a single light cruiser, three destroyers, a U-Boat group, and support ships), but this escort separates to hunt shipping in the North Sea. The Bismarck engages the HMS Hood and sinks her, inciting the Royal Navy to hunt this "technological terror" with a vengeance. A task force is dispatched to Sink the Bismark (conveniently the title of another film).
Here, the story closely parallels the Assault on the Death Star. Allied OSS operatives, working with a variety of European Resistance groups gain intelligence on the Bismarck: its strengths and weaknesses. The Royal Navy fears that the hardened hull of Bismarck would allow it to win any stand-up "slugfest" (a ship-to-ship cannon battle of attrition). Instead, the chosen weapon against the Bismarck is the aircraft. Small planes can circumvent the defenses of the Bismarck and deliver a knock-out blow. British Swordfish torpedo planes launch from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and engage the Bismarck. The planes weave through the Bismarck's anti-air defenses and manage to score a direct hit on one of the only weaknesses of the Bismarck: its rudder. The torpedo strike disables the Bismarck's port rudder, rendering the ship all but defeated. After a brief surface engagement, commander of the Bismarck, Grand Admiral Lütjens, declares the ship lost. He orders the ship scuttled. The Bismarck sinks below the waves, leaving nearly 2,100 men to drown.
Many in the Kriegsmarine are upset by the loss of the Bismarck and the series of poor strategic commands leading to its demise. Some begin to strongly question the wisdom of the Fuhrer and his minions.
Still, the Kriegsmarine never openly rebels against Adolf Hitler. In fact, the strong watch over the Kriegsmarine by the SS and Nazi High Command inadvertently leave it as the most trusted branch of the Wermacht. The Luftwaffe and the SS both attempt coups against Hitler (Operation Valkyrie and Heinrich Himmler's brief defection). This trust by default is what allows Grand Admiral Dönitz to succeed Hitler in the last days of World War II. In terms of Star Wars, the role of the Imperial Navy in the fall of the Galactic Empire more closely resemble the role of the German Navy during the Wilhelmshaven Mutiny and subsequent German Revolution of 1918-1919.
In Return of the Jedi, the fate of the Galaxy falls into the orbit of one forest moon, namely Endor. The Death Star II enters its final phases of construction, and the Emperor sets a trap to decimate the bulk of the Rebel Alliance fleet. A central figure during the climactic battle is Moff Jerjerrod -- the nervous officer who welcomes Darth Vader aboard the Death Star II. On the surface, Jerjerrod's actions seem cowardly and compliant with the Emperor's wishes. In context, his actions, in coordination with the commanders of the Imperial Fleet, save the Galaxy from the continued reign of Emperor Palpatine's minions.
Upon learning that the Emperor is visiting the Death Star II with a faster construction schedule, Jerjerrod asks Darth Vader for more manpower. Of course, Darth Vader declines and makes threats. Jerjerrod keeps quiet and attempts to look busy. This exchange indicates that Jerjerrod is attempting to delay the construction of another genocide battle planetoid.
In somewhat non-canon deleted scenes from Return of the Jedi (available on the special features disc on the Star Wars The Complete Saga Blu-Ray Collection) and intact in the novelization of the film, Moff Jerjerrod subtly moves to undermine the Emperor and ensure the collapse of the Empire. During the Battle of Endor, the Emperor orders the Imperial Fleet to quarantine the space around the Death Star II and hold a surprised Rebel fleet in place. The main weapon on the Death Star II is operational, and the Emperor gives Jerjerrod the command to destroy Endor. The resulting explosion is estimated to kill the Imperial troops on the moon with the moon's debris damaging or destroying the Rebel fleet along with most of the Imperial Fleet. Jerjerrod balks at the order and delays.
Rather than carryout the order, he decides to destabilize the Empire with a single act of sacrifice. In the chaos of the battle, he quietly works to guide General Calrissian's squadron to the power core of the space station. Defenses are lowered, laser blasts fly wide of their mark, and sign post-like force fields are raised. Even the TIE fighters seem more intent on shepherding the Rebel fighters than destroying them. Jerjerrod waits until he knows that the Rebel fighters are in the power core before giving the moot order to fire. Jerjerrod's actions are a mutiny, and the Imperial Fleet continues the mutiny by allowing the Rebel fleet to break quarantine with little to no resistance.
Moff Jerjerrod's sacrifice does more for a popular uprising than any of the military engagements of the Rebel Alliance. In response (as seen in the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi), spontaneous revolts occur all over the Empire, from Coruscant to Bespin to Naboo, within seconds (for some reason) of the destruction of the Death Star II. The people themselves are overthrowing a dictator.
The decisions made by Jerjerrod and the Imperial Navy mirror the Wilhelmshaven and Kiel mutinies by the Germany navy in 1918. In the closing days of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Supreme Command order the Third Navy Squadron to sail into the English Channel and engage the Royal Navy. The move is considered extremely peculiar by most of the sailors in the squadron. They know that the engagement is a sacrifice for bravado -- "to go down fighting." None of the German ships are expected to survive. Both the German and the British fleets are expected to take heavy casualties. The sailors object to this needless death and sacrifice because the nation is on the verge of signing a ceasefire with the Allied countries. For a short time, the sailors delay. They fake non-receipt of orders or sabotage their ships. When forced, they mutiny and refuse orders. When placed in the sights of weaponry, the sailors are arrested.
Days later, the munity turns into popular rebellion. Sailors along with representatives from unions, socialist and democratic parties, and ordinary people join in support of the mutineers at Kiel. The group protests until shots are fired; then they answer in kind. An armed revolution occurs that sweeps the German Empire. The popular rebellion grows to the point that it dismantles the Kaiser's government and sends him and the remaining German princes into exile. The resistance of the sailors of the Third Naval Squadron inspire the overthrow of a dictator and the (eventual) installation of a democratic government (and later the rise of Hitler).
George Lucas intends Star Wars to contain distilled patterns found in human mythology and history -- the essence of human experience. He seeks to portray in cinematic form that which connects people in a living world. Whether or not there is a direct correlation behind the ideas in Star Wars and actual historical events, the patterns echo in the films and throughout history: the seductinve influence of power (see the Triumph of the Will ending to A New Hope), the despicable use of martial strength, the misappropriation of duty, the arrogant mistakes of those seeking control, and the freedom of newfound agency.
Still, the story of the Imperial Navy fits with key historical events: particularly the missteps and defeats. If Lucas is specifically mirroring historical naval actions, he is indirectly inflating the destiny of his heroes by making their enemies slightly more inept than they are intimidating. The Imperial Navy needs teamwork training, and Stormtroopers need glasses.