SMS Lützow: The Skagerrak Battle

One of the only photographs extant that clearly shows the shape of Lützow’s fore funnel after it was fully jacketed.

German Battle Cruiser SMS Lützow Hipper’s Flagship badly damaged by British shell fire.

For the sake of consistency, the times from the Lützow war diary have been altered from summer time to MEZ/CET, a difference of one hour, to match the times given in the official history.

At 02.00 on Wednesday, 31 May the weather in Schillig Roads was cloudy and rainy, with the wind in the NNE. Lützow, with the I AG following, ran out to sea in accordance with Operational Order 6, with the IX TBF as an anti-submarine screen. The day passed quietly until at 15.20 a report was received from the small cruiser Elbing about a smoke cloud to the SW. At 15.26 Lützow went onto course WSW at ‘utmost power’. At 16.08 the I AG was running at 23kts on course NW, and at 16.20 speed was increased to 25kts to chase the British light cruisers. Then large warships came in sight to port ahead. At 16.23 they were made out as British battlecruisers and six minutes later the order was given for fire distribution from the right, as Vizeadmiral Hipper intended to fight the enemy on a northerly course, even though this would take him away from the support of the High Sea Fleet. At 16.28 the enemy ships were observed sending the recognition signal ‘PC’, and then two minutes later at 16.30 they made a turn so that Vizeadmiral Hipper also turned and went onto a SE course at 21kts. Then speed was reduced to 18kts to allow the II AG to catch up.

The wind had changed to the SW, force 2–3, it was sunny, and there was a slight haze. Fire distribution was ordered from the left, ship against ship, and at 16.48 Lützow opened fire on the leading British ship, Lion, at a range of 168hm. During the entire battle Kapitän zur See Harder remained outside the conning tower on the unprotected bridge so he could gain a better overview of the battle, and was accompanied by Signal Offizier Leutnant zur See Schönfeld. Half a minute later the British returned fire, with Lion and Princess Royal firing on Lützow. Korvettenkapitän Paschen, the I Artillerie Offizier, wrote:

For the entire battle Lützow fired with turret salvo fire, forward and aft alternating, a method of fire which I cannot praise highly enough. Both guns worked as one, loaded as one and were directed by one man. After loading all was quiet in the turret. The gunnery leader changed the direction, as and when required. The muzzle smoke collected at the end of the ship, which is most unfavourable for observation conditions. [There was a] 22-second flight time. Impact. 12/16 left, ahead of the bow. 12 to the right. Salvo! A shock from turrets C and D. Impact, over, midships. 8 down, salvo! Over! 8 down, salvo! – straddle! A hit near the bridge! A sigh of relief, and then continue.

Lion was hit twice, at 16.51 and 16.52. Then at 16.57 Lützow was finally straddled, but at 17.00 struck Lion with a hit which penetrated Q turret and blew the roof off. The turret was put out of action and twenty-eight minutes later a huge cordite fire erupted with flames going mast-high, and only the fact that the magazine had been previously flooded saved Lion from destruction. At around 17.00 Lützow suffered the first two hits, both on the forecastle deck. A short time later, at 17.05, Lion sheered out of line and disappeared from sight. She had suffered six hits from thirty-one salvos, whilst Lützow had been hit three times. Target was changed to Princess Royal.

At around 17.15 Princess Royal hit Lützow in the forward dressing station, killing or wounding everyone there. Of the four physicians and doctors aboard Lützow during the battle, two were killed and one was wounded. Then, as the British 5 Battle Squadron approached the I AG and opened fire, at 17.44 Vizeadmiral Hipper ordered the battleships to be taken under fire. In the same minute Lützow hit Barham abreast the aft conning tower. However, relief was now at hand as the German main body came in sight and at 17.51 course north was ordered. So far Lützow had hit the enemy ten times, whilst suffering four hits in return. Of the nine shell-hits on Lion, four did not detonate.

After turning to the north Lützow targeted Lion, and obtained three hits between 17.59 and 18.02. When Lion had passed out of range target was changed to Barham. Nevertheless, observation of the target became increasingly more difficult as visibility deteriorated for the Germans. At 18.13 a 15in shell from Barham struck the armoured belt just ahead and below the port I 15cm casemate. At 18.25 another two 15in shells hit Lützow, striking together between the funnels, and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations, causing heavy loss of life. Vizeadmiral Hipper was instantaneously deprived of his link with his Reconnaissance Groups and with the Flottenchef. Then, at 18.30, the Panzerkreuzer was struck by another 15in shell, this time from Valiant, which hit to port between the IV and V 15cm casemates. At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure below the conning tower.

Around this time the British 3 Battlecruiser Squadron unexpectedly arrived in the east and the German I AG had to turn towards the east to counter this new threat. However, soon 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons began to direct heavy fire on the I AG and at 18.59 Vizeadmiral Hipper carried out a battle turn onto the opposite course, to withdraw from this fire and to close on his main body. At 19.05 Lützow hit Lion again and then at 19.10 the I AG turned back to the NE and took position at the head of the German line. Virtually nothing could be seen of the British forces through the smoke and haze.

Then, at 19.16, part of the British 1 Cruiser Squadron, Defence and Warrior, which had been firing on the small cruiser Wiesbaden, suddenly became visible to the I AG. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Then something unexpected happens. From right to left a ship passes through the field of view of my periscope, improbably large and near. From the first glance I make out an older English armoured cruiser and give the necessary commands. Someone pulls me by the arm: ‘Don’t shoot, that is the Rostock!’ But I see clearly the turrets on the forecastle and stern. – ‘Passing battle. Armoured cruiser, 4 funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Measurement! 76hm, salvo!’ Five salvos fall in swift succession, of them three straddle, and then what happened to the battlecruisers was repeated, and the ship blew up in full view of both fleets. The English main body also has Defence in sight at this time, although to us they are invisible and remain so.

Defence sank at 19.20.

Whilst fighting the 1 Cruiser Squadron, Lützow was hit twice at 19.19 by Lion. One shell struck far forward above the bow armour. The other went through the port casemate roof deck and passed forward to detonate just aft of B turret. During this time Lützow was also evading torpedoes fired by British destroyers, and in return hit Onslow twice, and Acasta twice.

With the 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons enveloping the German head of the line, Lützow came under increasingly heavy fire. Korvettenkapitän Paschen described it thus:

the English battlecruisers require our entire attention. They stand to port aft 130hm away, as we have swung onto an easterly course, and for us are barely recognisable. And then it began, which made everything before look like a game. Whilst the target of our guns was hidden from me by smoke, I gave the direction to the aft position, when suddenly a hail of hits struck from port aft and port ahead. There was nothing to see other than red flashes, not the shadow of a ship.

Between 19.26 and 19.34 Lützow was hit eight times, all from Invincible and Inflexible. The most devastating of these hits were two 12in shells that struck the forward broadside torpedo room and two 12in shells that struck the bow torpedo room. One shell struck below the armour in the broadside room, the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick forward belt. Both penetrated the broadside room. The two other shells struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline. The entire forecastle ahead of frame 249 and below the waterline immediately filled with water. Speed was reduced to 15kts and then 12kts to reduce pressure on bulkhead 249, but water quickly leaked from compartment XIV into compartment XIII through the joints of bulkhead 249 and through speaking tubes.

Then at 19.30 one of Lützow’s assailants suddenly became visible. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Meanwhile we had turned onto a southerly course, and suddenly an English battlecruiser of the Invincible type appeared out of the haze clearly and relatively near, four points to port astern. I cannot say strongly enough what satisfaction I felt, to finally have this pest presented before my eyes, and as quick as lightning the commands were given out. But already a dark object slides between my periscope and the opponent: the corner of the admiral’s bridge, which limits the angle of vision of my periscope object lens to about 10°. ‘Has the aft position measured?’ – ‘Jawohl! 100hm!’ – ‘Direction aft position!’ Kapitänleutnant Bode gives brief and clear orders, and to the inexpressible joy of the whole ship, 15 seconds later our guns crash out again, with the exception of B turret. I heard everything myself through the headphones; what Bode and the artillery transmitting station said, and now also saw the opponents again. ‘Over! 4 down, salvo! Straddle! Salvo!’ As the sound of the fall of shot indicator screeched, the columns flickered out of the water around the enemy and again the beautiful and unmistakable dark red flares up.

Invincible had been struck on Q turret and the shell had detonated inside, blowing off the turret roof. A great explosion followed almost immediately as the magazine exploded and the ship broke in two and sank within ten to fifteen seconds. The magazine of A turret is also thought to have exploded. The two halves of the ship came to rest on the shallow bottom and were clearly visible above the water for some time. The time of the explosion was 19.32. Derfflinger had also been firing on Invincible and it had taken just two minutes to destroy her, whilst Defence had been sunk in just three minutes.

At 19.45, whilst still under heavy enemy fire, the torpedo boat G39 was called alongside and Vizeadmiral Hipper and his staff disembarked to move to another flagship. Lützow was down by the bows and was unable to maintain speed and the wireless had been destroyed. The heavily damaged cruiser took course at slow speed off to the SW to withdraw from the enemy fire, but at 20.15 she came under a particularly pernicious and destructive fire. The British battleships Monarch and Orion hit Lützow a total of six times between 20.15 and 20.30 at a range of approximately 169hm. One shell struck turret B, putting it out of action, another struck the right gun of turret A, showering the turret in splinters. A further hit struck the starboard belt armour below B barbette. Another struck the casemate armour of the IV starboard casemate. A further hit struck the deck aft of C turret and destroyed the aft dressing station. Stabswachtmeister Behrens wrote:

Then a report arrived that a heavy hit had penetrated the aft dressing station from above and exploded there. Obermaat Meyer, wounded, brought this report forward to me. His wound did not appear too bad, and briefly after his report he sat down and began to smoke. In reality he was badly wounded by a splinter and succumbed to this wound 14 days later.

Now it was frighteningly clear to me that all the doctors and specially trained medical personnel were dead or injured. The vision earlier seen: the commander of the ship, surrounded by the four doctors, came before my eyes, and now the present situation; both dressing stations knocked out or destroyed by heavy artillery hits and connected with that the injuries to doctors and specialist medical personnel, and destruction of the greater part of the medicines and medical equipment.

Because there was no alternative the badly wounded were simply taken to a Zwischendeck compartment and laid out.

The final hit during this period sent the top of the main mast crashing down on deck.

Lützow was veiled in a smoke screen laid by four escorting torpedo boats and at 20.40 the enemy ceased fire as Lützow crept off to the SW at just 3–5kts. At 21.13 it was reported to the bridge that there were 1,038 tonnes of water in the ship. At 21.35 it was attempted to run at a higher speed, but this had to be abandoned because the bulkhead between compartment XII and XIII could not stand the pressure. Then at 22.05 the first enemy destroyer attack against the fleet was observed to port ahead at a range of about 60hm. At 22.15 there were approximately 2,395 tonnes of water in the ship.

By 23.12 Lützow and four escorting torpedo boats were in grid square 018 epsilon, course SSW, speed 13kts. The draught forward was 13m. The ship quickly sank deeper and deeper by the bow and by 00.05 on 1 June water was washing about the barrels of A turret and the draught was approximately 15m. By 01.00 the pumps could no longer hold the port diesel dynamo room drained. The forward group of pumps had failed as the ‘leak’ pump room was flooded and the pipes in the forecastle were shot through. Water began to penetrate boiler room VI. Even though revolutions were maintained for 7kts the speed achieved was just 5kts. As related by Korvettenkapitän Paschen the battle to save the ship was slowly being lost:

I still held out hope for the ship, but at about 2am in the morning the commander called the senior Offiziere to a conference, and the First Offizier reported 7,500 tonnes of water in the ship, and gave his view that at the longest we could remain afloat was until 8am in the morning. The news was a bitter blow. Our beautiful ship! However, it must be so; the forecastle was now 2m under water; through the open casemates the water entered the battery in streams, and poured through the torn deck into the Zwischendeck. The large forward oil boiler room had to be abandoned to save the men.

The last figures from damage control indicated that there were 4,209 tonnes of water below the armoured deck, and 4,142 tonnes above, giving a total of 8,351 tonnes, but this was still increasing and the draught forward was approximately 17m. Shortly after 02.00 an attempt was made to steer the ship stern first, but this failed because the propellers were already too far out of the water. Likewise an attempt to tow the Panzerkreuzer with torpedo boats was abandoned. Kapitän zur See Harder ordered ‘Fires out’ and gave the order to abandon ship. However, tragically, there were some men trapped in an air pocket in the flooded bows. A Leutnant zur See wrote:

I had to think of the six poor stokers that were still alive when the ship sank. They sat in the forward diesel-dynamo switch room, just like a diving bell, and could not get out. They had called me once, as I had a connection with them, and reported that the water was slowly rising in their room. It was held by pumps at a certain height. They maintained their courage and optimism until the last. They were still trapped.

The four torpedo boats that had remained with Lützow – G40, G38, V45 and G37 – were now called alongside. Three at a time, they lay contiguously alongside to starboard to take off the crew. Kapitänleutnant Jung wrote:

The survivors assembled on the quarterdeck. Above them fluttered the battle flag, shot to pieces by the enemy shells. Where there was no longer any Offiziere, the senior Unteroffizier took command. Still it was a black night. Only in the east the hesitating dawn appeared, heralding the new day. The address of the commander was short and concise. He concluded with the request that we be proud of SMS Lützow and her crew today for their selfless and extraordinary service for the Fatherland. Then three cheers were called for the ship and Kaiser.

‘And now go to the boats!’ The last words of the commander were almost paternal, sounding out of the dark. They touched the deepest emotions of all of his subordinates.

Kapitän zur See Harder was the last to leave the ship. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

The disembarking of the crew was exemplary; first all wounded, then quietly, all the remaining. When we cast off as the last boat, I could see in the first of the morning gloom the ship as follows: turret A under water, B an island. The bridge stood in water to the upper deck. The stern was approximately 2m higher than usual.

On the orders of the commander the torpedo boat G38 fired a torpedo to scuttle the cruiser, but the draught aft was so reduced and the torpedo ran under the sinking ship; a second struck amidships and Lützow lay slowly over to starboard and capsized. The time was 02.47. Her position was 56° 15’ N, 5° 52’ E.

The torpedo boats steered to Horns Reef light vessel. In the grey dawn there was a brief firefight with three enemy destroyers steering to the SW, and soon after with two British light cruisers and about six destroyers, which, however, did not take up the pursuit. G40 received a hit in the starboard turbine and was towed by the other boats, and thereby could only run at 10kts. Upon receiving news of these events the II FdT (Führer der Torpedoboote), Kommodore Heinrich, made a turn at about 09.45, on his own initiative, and took Regensburg and three boats of the IX TBF to meet the tow unit near Graa-Dyb light vessel. Some of the Lützow crew were transferred to Regensburg and reached Wilhelmshaven during the evening. During the battle Lützow is reported to have lost 116 Offiziere and men, but this number climbed subsequently to a final figure of 128, as in the days following the battle other crew, including Stabarzt Gelhaar and Obermaat Meyer, died from their wounds.

Damage Suffered During the Battle

As the Panzerkreuzer Lützow was scuttled and sank on the morning after the battle, the detailed hit descriptions found with the other cruisers are absent, and the order and location of hits must be reconstructed from reports and an excellent hit diagram. This deals with the hits from bow to stern, but we shall look at them in chronological order.

Hit One

At 17.00 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle near the capstans and made a large hole. The explosion shook turret A and it rocked from side to side. Three men in the working chamber were knocked out but later recovered. Poisonous gases entered the gun barrels and when the breeches were opened the gases entered the turret and rendered three men unconscious.

Hit Two

Likewise at 17.00, this 13.5in shell-hit from Lion also made a large hole in the forecastle deck, and later these two hits allowed great quantities of water to enter the ship.

Hit Three

A heavy-calibre shell from Princess Royal struck between A and B turrets at 17.15 and destroyed the forward combat dressing station.

Hit Four

Hit number four was also at 17.15 from Princess Royal and struck the belt armour aft at approximately frame 120. The shell did not penetrate the thick armour, but the ship was shaken and vibrated powerfully.

Hit Five

At 18.13 a 15in shell fired from Barham struck the belt armour around frame 210 just below the waterline. The shell shattered on the armour, but the plate was displaced and allowed the two outer wing compartments to fill with water.

Hits Six and Seven

At 18.25 two 15in shells from Barham struck the superstructure between the two funnels and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations. With this hit the shell hoist to the starboard III 15cm cannon temporarily failed, but was soon re-switched and operating again.

Hit Eight

A 15in shell from Valiant struck at 18.30 between the IV and V port 15cm casemates. The shell burst above the armoured deck without causing serious damage.

Hit Nine

At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure side to port just below the conning tower, causing minor damage.

Hit Ten

At 19.19 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle far forward.

Hit Eleven

Also at 19.19, a second hit from Lion – this time the shell struck the port casemate roof and penetrated before passing forward to detonate just behind turret B. A fire was started amongst the damage-control material stored there, which created a lot of smoke.

Hits Twelve and Thirteen

At 19.26 Lützow was struck by two 12in calibre projectiles, from either Invincible or Inflexible, below the waterline. One shell struck the broadside torpedo room below the armoured belt; the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick armour and likewise penetrated the broadside torpedo room.

Hits Fourteen and Fifteen

At 19.29 two further 12in shells from the same antagonists struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline and bow armour. As a result of these four hits the entire forecastle beneath the armoured deck immediately filled with water. The bulkhead at frame 249 came under huge pressure and speed had to be reduced, first to 15kts, then 12kts and finally just 3kts. Bulkhead 249 was not completely watertight and water penetrated compartment XIII and then XII. Later on water finally penetrated into compartment XI, the forward boiler room. The draught forward quickly increased to 12m.

Hit Sixteen

At 19.27 a 12in projectile from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the upper deck of the forecastle, producing a large hole in the deck.

Hit Seventeen

A 12in shell from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the belt armour near its lower edge to port at approximately frame 165, below the IV 15cm casemate. The projectile penetrated the armour and was found wedged on the Böschung (sloping armour) without detonating. Gas pressure damaged the IV 15cm cannon and rendered it unserviceable.

Hit Eighteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the belt armour above the waterline between the port III and IV casemates and shattered without detonating.

Hit Nineteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the port side net shelf just below the V 15cm cannon and detonated.

Hit Twenty

At 20.07 a heavy shell struck the port casemate and put the port combat signal station out of action. The signal personnel were killed and a fire resulted.

Hit Twenty-one

At 20.15 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the right barrel of A turret and detonated just outside the gunport. Splinters showered into the turret, the aft hoop was torn off the barrel of the right 30.5cm gun, which was jammed. The left gun was protected by the splinter shield inside the turret and remained serviceable.

Hit Twenty-two

Likewise at 20.15, a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch penetrated the deck between C and D turrets. The aft dressing station was badly hit and there were heavy casualties amongst the wounded and medical personnel. In addition, the electrical cable to D turret, which ran above the armoured deck in this position, was severed so that D turret had to resort to hand training. Nevertheless, before Lützow sank the electrical personnel successfully restored the cable connection.

Hit Twenty-three

At 20.16 a projectile from either Orion or Monarch struck to starboard in the area of B turret barbette, causing the flooding of the starboard I 15cm gun munitions chamber.

Hit Twenty-four

At 20.17 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the 250mm-thick armour of the starboard side of turret B, which was still traversed to approximately 280° to port. The aft lower right side wall was penetrated, leaving a calibre-sized hole approximately 0.25sq m in size. The shell was kept out but the punched-out piece of armour was found on the right gun carriage cradle. The loading facilities and right upper hoist were destroyed and men to the rear of the gun were killed. A fore charge on the right upper powder hoist burned, but a main charge directly above it did not. The turret Offizier, Kapitänleutnant Fischer, was killed by toxic gas, whilst others escaped, although some suffered burns.

The right hydraulic pump in the powder handling room was destroyed.

Hit Twenty-five

Sometime between 20.15 and 20.30 a heavy shell struck the upper main mast above the observation position. Inside the aft conning tower a deafening impact was heard directly beside the tower as the upper mast fell from a great height.

Below is a copy of Kapitän zur See Harder’s combat report. Not all of his observations and impressions are entirely accurate. (The times used are summer time.)

‘Lützow’ survivors. Wilhelmshaven, 8 June, 1916. B. N°. Gg 14.

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