The Third Reich’s Battleship Ambitions

In what was a time of general Allied distress at sea. In the European Theater, the notorious Channel Dash of 11-13 February 1942, by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau with an escort of destroyers and aircraft, might be termed a comedy of errors but for the great loss of life-almost all British. Both German warships slipped from their French bases, steamed through the English Channel past slack British defenses, and found haven in Germany. It was the first time since 1588 than an enemy fleet had managed to pass through the English Channel. This, after the Royal Navy had been at war at sea for more than two years. Two days later, on the other side of the world, Singapore ignominiously capitulated.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Scharnhorst: sunk by HMS Duke of York and others off North Cape, Norway, 26 December 1943. Gneisenau: self-scuttled 28 March 1945 as block ship after being badly damaged by RAF attacks.

KMS Scharnhorst

KMS Scharnhorst was planned as the Ersatz Elsass, fourth of a class of six planned ‘pocket battleships’. By 1933, however, the weaknesses of the ‘pocket battleship’ or Panzerschiffe were so obvious that Hitler gave the German navy permission to expand the design to 26,000 tons as a reply to the French Dunkerque.

It was hoped to arm the ship with three twin 380-mm (15-in) turrets, but to save time three triple 280-mm (11-in) turrets were used. The design was nominally of 26,000 tons, but had reached 32,000 tons; to conceal the size of the new battle-cruiser the Kriegsmarine continued to quote the lower figure.

For most of her active life the Scharnhorst operated with her sister KMS Gneisenau, and both ships made forays into the North Atlantic in 1940-1. The Scharnhorst was badly damaged by a torpedo fired by the destroyer HMS Acasta while attacking the carrier HMS Glorious in June 1940.

Although the two ships posed a considerable threat to the British while lying at Brest in 1941 and the repeated raids by the Royal Air Force were far too inaccurate to do any serious damage, Hitler felt the two units were too exposed, and ordered them to return. Operation ‘Cerberus’, the daylight dash through the English Channel in February 1942, was probably the Kriegsmarine’s greatest success, for it took the British completely by surprise, the two battle-cruisers and the heavy cruiser Prinze Eugen slipping past ineffectual air and sea attacks. Apart from slight damage to Scharnhorst from a magnetic mine during the final phase it had been a humiliation for the British and proof that audacity pays.

After repairs lasting until August 1942 the ship was sent to Norway in March 1943. She took part in the raid on Spitzbergen in September but otherwise lay in a remote fjord until December 1943, when Admiral Donitz ordered her to sea for an attack on a British convoy.

Germany, stripped of its World War I-era dreadnoughts, had only two true battleships between 1919 and the early 1930s: Schleswig- Holstein and Schlesien, pre-World War I relics that the victors had grudgingly allowed for coastal defense, presumably against the resurgent Poles (the sister ship Hannover was still in existence but apparently not in active service). Schleswig-Holstein does, however, have a claim to dubious fame: By opening fire on the Polish fortifications at Westerplatte (Danzig) at 4:45 A. M. on the morning of 1 September 1939, this elderly battleship fired the first shot of World War II. (The three units of the even older Braunschweig class [Hessen, Braunschweig, and Elsass] were rebuilt as coast-defense battle- ships and reequipped with 280mm and 170mm guns. Only Elsass, converted into a target vessel, survived into the 1930s and beyond.)

In early 1942, after repeated British bombing raids, the two ships made a daylight dash up the English Channel from occupied France to Germany. In early 1943, Scharnhorst joined the Bismarck-class battleshipTirpitz in Norway to interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union. Scharnhorst and several destroyers sortied from Norway to attack a convoy, but British naval patrols intercepted the German force. During the Battle of the North Cape (26 December 1943), the Royal Navy battleship HMS Duke of York and her escorts sank Scharnhorst. Only 36 men were rescued, out of a crew of 1,968.

It was a badly planned operation, and the Scharnhorst failed in her attempt to brush aside the destroyers and cruisers escorting the convoy. In- competent reconnaissance by the Luftwaffe left her with no idea that the battleship HMS Duke of York was closing fast, and she was taken by surprise when 356-mm (14-in) shells started to hit her. She disengaged but the British and Norwegian destroyers slowed her down with torpedoes, allowing the Duke of York to pound her again. She was finally sunk by torpedoes from HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica and went down with the loss of all but 46 of 1,840 men on board.

‘Scharnhorst immer voran’ (‘Ever onwards’)

The Third Reich’s battleship ambitions were every bit as grandiose as those of any other naval power. Germany’s naval chief, Eric Raeder, was in close harmony with Adolf Hitler’s global goals. Raeder and Hitler foresaw Germany eventually going to war with Great Britain, the United States, and even Japan, and envisioned a fleet for those eventualities. As a temporary deterrent to Great Britain, the aborted Plan Z (1939) envisioned 10 (some sources say six) super- Bismarcks of 56,000 tons, three battle cruisers, four aircraft carriers, and 249 submarines, with top priority over air force and army requirements, all to be completed in six years. Plan Z was the basis for the even larger blue-water battleship-based navy programs of 1940 and 1941, drawn up to take on the rest of the world’s major naval powers and featuring capital ships of 98,000-141,500 tons armed with 20-inch guns. It is also indicative of German battleship- mindedness that its navy never completed an aircraft carrier.

Thanks to post-World War I Allied policies, the Third Reich entered World War II with only fast and modern battleships (not counting those two nearly-valueless pre-dreadnoughts). Its three pocket battleships laid down in the late 1920s and early 1930s (and thus predating Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933) were Lutzow, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee. (Lutzow was originally named Deutschland, but Hitler, worried about the domestic reaction if a warship named after the German nation were sunk, ordered it re- named.) Although high speed was supposed to be the main advantage of these small capital ships, their average of 28 knots was soon enough surpassed by the following Scharnhorst class’s 32 knots. Nonetheless, the Deutschlands/Lutzows, a well-balanced pioneering design, served as the embryo of many later, much larger warships, such as the Scharnhorst class, and Germany’s first and only true post-World War I first-class battleships (Bismarck and Tirpitz), as well as for the Royal Navy’s King George V class, and even for the last three U. S. Navy battleship classes. The Lutzows were also no- table for their pioneering of welded construction and unique diesel propulsion, the latter a feature never repeated in any other capital ship. They could also be called cruisers (and were actually reclassified in 1940 as heavy cruisers), but their six 11-inch guns were not matched in any other cruiser until the U. S. Alaskas, which were officially classified by the U. S. Navy as large cruisers. Whatever the nomenclature, these were the Kriegsmarine’s most successful heavy units. Specifically designed as commerce raiders that were to be more powerful than any faster warship, the three destroyed some 300,000 tons of Allied shipping. Thus the Scharnhorsts and the Lutzow/Deutschlands did what battle cruisers were supposed to do- attack enemy commerce-and avoided what battle cruisers were supposed to avoid-enemy battleships-something the Royal Navy, to its cost, never learned.

The Scharnhorsts (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) were both laid down in 1935. There is little question that these two units were true battleships, but even with more than twice the displacement of the Lutzows, they mounted only the same 11-inch main guns. The German admiralty planned to up-gun these warships at the beginning of World War II, but the complexity and the costs not only of the bigger guns themselves but also of their intricate mountings precluded this proposal in the German Navy (or in any other navy, for that matter).

Bismarck and Tirpitz were the last and by far the most powerful battleships built by Germany. Although nominally still bound by the London Naval Agreement, they exceeded its tonnage limitations by a wide margin. In this case “wide” can be taken literally; they were the broadest-beamed of any contemporary capital ship, which gave them outstanding stability. (Only the aborted U. S. Montanas would have measured wider.) Their intricate internal subdivision made them extraordinarily difficult to sink. Yet at the end of the war, and in sharp contrast to World War I, not one German capital ship survived to be turned over to the Allies.


Germany’s Masterly Deception I

Germany’s Masterly Deception II

Bomber Command’s offensive against Scharnhorst and Gneisenau 1941