WW2 German Battleships Nazi Germany (1936-42) - 4 Battleships: Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Bismarck, Tirpitz
Kriesgmarine's schlachtschiff: Mighty Promises
As an introduction to an apparently limited subject contrary to WWI, where Germany entered with four pre-dreadnought and four dreadnought classes, plus battlecruisers*, Germany only entered the war with just two capital ships: The "terrible twins" of the Scharnhorst class. Although its main potential adversaries has been gutted by the Washington treaty and modernization, France still had seven battleships, including two modern plus two in completion, and Britain ten old (three modernized), five completed on in construction, and three battlecruisers. *Wittelsbach, Braunschweig, Kaiser Friedrich III, Deutschland, Nassau, Helgoland, Kaiser, König classes, etc.
Hitler's launch of hostilities in september 1939 caught the Kriegsmarine off-balance. The "poor child" of German arms was granted the ambitious plan Z approved by Hitler on 27 January 1939. It was enabled by the anglo-german naval agreement of 1935, and abruplty stopped at the start, well before its final deadline in 1948. It was quite ambitious, first to fill the 35% tonnage clause to British own tonnage, then a "wartime tonnage" going to parity with the Royal Navy.
In the first scenarios made, if it was unlikely the invasion of Poland would trigger war in the first place, as Hitler gambled, there were chances UK would be drawn with the war after France like in WWI on the ground of the insurances given to the Polish government, which meant a war with the greatest naval powers in Europe. But that context mattered little, as all was prepared for a combined air and ground attack, the so-called "blitzkrieg" on the continent, so the navy was just an afterthought.
To really act as intended, the Kriegsmarine staff had to wait on paper until 1948 for the full Z plan to be realized, which meant welcoming three H class, three N class, and alongside these three O class battlecruisers, six P and six Q class "panzerschiffe" for commerce raiding. In reality, the war was won quickly in the west, so quickly that it was believed Britain will soon sue for peace and the Royal Navy would not be an hinderance. If everything went to plans, Germany will soon secured the west and concentrate to the east, bringing in the resources necessary to back up plan Z as intended, even if there was no need for it, as long as Britain and the US were out the game.
Kriegsmarine capital ships, including Z plan
As shown by the protracted construction of the Graf Zeppelin, first of a wave of fleet aircraft carriers part of plan Z, little consideration was given to accelerate construction but of the most urgent ships: The two Bismarck class. As completion was close, so far only two H class keels has been laid down, on 15 July 1939 at Blohm & Voss and 15 August at AG Weser. All work on these was suspended on 10 October as manpower and resources were redirected to the Wehrmacht for its ongoing campaigns. To the dismay of Raeder and the naval staff, his "poor child" has been robbed again.
In September 1939, the Kriegsmarine, not happy to play second fiddle was nevertheless to commit in subsequent operations with just two battleships, now well trained since a solid year. With their high speed, they were promising as long range commerce raiders, and before the much-needed Bismarck and her sister ship arrived, hopefully expected in late 1940 or early 1941, commerce raiding could be setup with the three panzerschiffe (deutschland class), one already at sea. Submitted to Hitler's orders, the Kriegsmarine was fully committed in the Norwegian campaign, arguably its largest operation of the war. And it did not fare well.
Between heavy losses in Norway, poor results by the "terrible twins" (the Scharnhorst class) in their first great raid in early 1941 (Operation Berlin), and the Bismarck epic run in the Atlantic (Operation Rheinübung) that did not ended well either, combined wih the loss of Graf Spee and poor results by the remaining Panzerschiffe weighted much on Hitler, not a man understanding the sea. Soon rebuffed by the apparent lack of usefulness of the surface fleet in his grand plans, he continued to diver resources out of the Navy and toward ground and air assets. Raeder authority's was sapped by Gunther Dönitz's constant and ardent promotion of his U-Boat force, which was "marketed" to Hitler as a cheaper and more efficient proposition. In addition it fit well in the economics considerations of Hitler with the advantage of knocking out Britain of the war, something Goering was unable to do.
By mid-1941 if Raeder still had some freedom in how to use his ships at least to disrupt commerce, Hitler by now freezed any construction of new surface ships. Plan Z was frozen indefinitely. The H class battleships has been cancelled and broken up already in 1939, while no of the other classes were even given consideration. The plan was to be realized only when the war was won, if there was any utility in it after securing the whole continent. The U-Boat arm however was soon given all priority and the shipyard's workforce, assets and resources were all secured to produce scores of mass-produced, cheap and proven Type VII submersibles. Dönitz notably "sold" the fact he could have a whole flotilla of the latter for the price of a single H-class battleship, with far more chance of inflicting massive damage, even to the Royal Navy. After all, the sinking of the Royal Oak right in Scapa flow at the opening of the war has been quite a shining moment for his arm. Afterwards in 1942, the U-Boat command now in full strenght, had its "happy times", confirming hitler's belief that Dönitz was right.
What remained of the surface fleet of the Kriegsmarine, including the two Scharnhorst class and newly completed Tirpitz, the last two Panzerschiffe, were all to be based in Norway to intercept convoys to USSR. If not gaining successes there, at least they mobilized considerable allied assets by their mere presence there. We know the rest: Tirpitz made a few sorties, mostly unsuccesful, and was regularly attacked by the Royal Navy in various Fjords until bombed into oblivion in late 1944. Apart their "mad dash", the Scharnhorst class achieved little either. The first was lost in a duel with HMS Duke of York on 26 December 1943, the second simply disarmed while in repairs by early 1943, after an anger bout by Hitler, disgusted by the failure of surface raiders and ordering a full stop to all repair work. Her armament was simply dismounted and she was gutted and cannibalized.
KMS Admiral Scheer and Lützow's poor performances had them also immobilized in between repairs, and forced into inaction anyway by lack of oil. The eastern front devoured all resources by this point. This was the end of all hopes of having any capital ship at sea for the Kriegsmarine in the future. From 30 January 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine), Großadmiral of the Oberkommando der Marine
. Under his direction what was left of the surface fleet was consigned to the Norwegian perimeter, while all resources and assets were concentrated in submarine warfare, meaning also R&D to develop new homing torpedoes, the snorkel and new revolutionary submarines, faster underwater and capable of staying so almost indefinitely. In 1944, the Kriegsmarine went to a grandiose Z-plan in 1939 to midget submarines and ultimately, human torpedoes, reflecting the state of desperation reached at that point. If there was to be any consolation, at least this surface fleet has been consumed to the full, which was not the case of the mighty Kaiserliches Marine and its strong arm, the Hochseeflotte, lost almost intact in an abject scuttling in 1919...
Early Projects of the Reichsmarine
German Battleships Specifics
H class (1942)
Other battleships and Battlecruisers of Z Plan
Links The Bismarck on wikipedia The Tirpitz on wikipedia Visiting Bismarck, Explorers Revise Its Story
Specs Conway's all the world fighting ships 1921-1947.
Deutschland class: Deutschland, Adm. Graf Spee, Adm. Scheer. Cruisers or Battleships ?
Compromised ships for the Interim Navy
The three units of the Deustchland class (Deustchland, Admiral Scheer, Admiral Graf Spee), incorrectly called "panzerschiff", from which allies despised their protection were not battleships but rather small battle cruisers.
Compromises indeed were made in the face of the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles: 10 000 tonnes (tonnage of a heavy cruiser). In order to remain within this limit while possibly having any military value as battleships, they were the first products of the tactical conceptions of Erich Raeder, a champion of commerce raiding warfare. Thus these ships were designed to attack trade and facing all kind of escorting vessels in two ways: Fight the weak (cruisers), with a superior fire power, range, and equal protection, or flee the strong (true battleships) thanks a cruiser's speed, 30 knots instead of 20-25.
The Deutschland did not take yet into account a largely paper-borne generation of rapid battleships still blocked by Washington's moratory. They would eventually make this class vulnerable. These interwar limitations were perfectly demonstrated during the events of the Graf Spee and the Battle of the Rio de la Plata in 1939, soon throwing a veil of suspicion over the concept of these ships and surface raiders as a whole in the eyes of Hitler.
KMS Admiral Scheer before the war
Designed to deliver a privateer's war to merchant traffic, these vessels had large holds to receive the captured crews, and were to receive the assistance of a supply ship. For the Graf Spee, it was the famous Altmark. The Graf Spee commander, Hans Langsdorff, played at the start of the cat and mouse war with the French and British allied fleets, successfully attacking the trade (he sank 50,000 tons of ships) Southern hemisphere (see the story about it).
The Deustchland, for its part, sank 7,000 tons and the Scheer 137,223 tons. After the misfortune of the Graf Spee, Hitler ordered that the Deustchland be renamed in Lützow, for an obvious question of national prestige in case of similar fate... The Admiral Scheer and the Lützow participated in the attack of the convoys of the North Atlantic from their Norwegian fjords. They were eventually wiped out by the "Tall Boy" bombs of the RAF lancaster in 1945, and also came out of the Tirpitz.
KMS Deutschland specifications
|Dimensions||155.10 x14.30 x6.60 m|
|Propulsion||3 screws, 3 diesels 9-cyl MAN, 54 000 hp|
|Speed||28 knots (42 km/h; 20 mph)|
|Armament||6(2x3)x 280 mm, 8x 150 mm, 6(2x3)x 105 mm AA, 16(8x2)x 37mm AA, 6(2x3) TT 533 mm|
|Armor||Belt: 76 mm (), Deck: 38 mm (), Turrets 140mm, Conning tower: 152 mm ()|
P class project (1934) Rendition of the fictitious "Pommern" - WoW
O class project (1937) Rendition of the fictitious "ägir" - WoW
Scharnhorst class (1936) Scharnhorst, Gneisenau. 1935-1937
The two Scharnhorst class somewhat escaped classifications. They were in essence a German answer to the French since the 1935 naval agreement with the British, the latter being even more likely than before, enemies. Ordered in February 1934 to Kiel, and named after the famous generals of the Napoleonic armies, and also an hommage to WWI's Admiral Von Spee armoured cruisers which defeated Admiral Cradock's squadron at Coronelbefore being sunk themselves in the Falklands. These two "terrible sisters" which operated practically all the time together, presented themselves as improved derivatives of the previous Deutschland. They also had to answer the French Dunkerque and Strasbourg when construction was known. KMS Scharnhorst prewar - Bundesarchiv
Carrying a faster artillery, having a better AA and especially three turrets, better protected and supremely fast, they were more than capable to wage efficiently commerce raiding missions. This main artillery was superior to heavy cruisers that can reach her, but still insufficient to the heavy guns deployed by much slower battleships, not to mention their protection. Like battlecruisers, their speed remained an excellent active protection, but it was years before the arrival of a new generation of fast battleships in 1939-40.
Hitler planned an upgrade to the same 38 cm mm turrets used on Bismarck, but this caliber at the time was still experimental and when it was possible to uprade them, it was too late. These German 28 cm were quick-firing, long range, and combined with excellent optics and fast, agile ships, these still made them the perfect cruisers killers. The USA with their "Alaska" started in 1942 briefly renewed that trend, but with 14-in guns, and they proved "white elephants", a total waste of taxpayers money.
Scharnhorst's 280mm turrets
In 1938-39, their straight prow soon proved unable to cope with the north atlantic and north sea heavy weather. They received soon a new clipper bow, better suited to hunting ground. Their length increased to 235 meters overall. The catapult installed on the N°3 turret on Scharnhorst was dismantled, her mast moved and rebuilt as a tripod. Both ships received additional 20 mm FLAK quad mounts (Flakvierling), Scharnhorst two triple banks of 53 cm torpedo tubes (21 in) from the gutted KMS Nurnberg, to meet the destroyer threat. In October 1939, the "zwilling" were prepared to attack convoys in the North Atlantic.
They sank the British auxiliary cruiser (AMC) HMS Rawalpindi and in 1940 off Norway they duelled indecisively against the 15-in gun armed HMS Renown. In 1940 Scharnhorst was forced to return to Kiel because of the severe damage suffered by striking a magnetic mine.
Scharnhorst in Port
On June 8, 1940, off the northern Atlantic, the two sisters surprised a squadron of troopships, and later managed to sink the HMS Glorious and her escort of two destroyers. Gneisenau will be torpedoed at the end of the month and thus again immobilized. From January to March 1942, they set out against the convoys (Operation Berlin) and sank 22 ships. Based in Brest, they were repeatedly attacked by the RAF. The Führer thought they were no longer useful against the Atlantic convoys, and ordered them back to Norway, against Murmanks convoys. This was Operation Cerberus. A bold and successful attempt to cross the English channel, the shortest route back home. This meant passing right in front of the English coastal batteries, under radar cover, RAF attacks from the Coastal Command and Royal Navy squadrons on high alert.
In spite of all expectations, on February 12, 1942, the two "terrible sisters" made their historic "mad dash" acrossthe channel, escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and a squadron of a Me 109s. This happened in broad daylight, to the nose of the British. However a total fuckup on the British side prevented any meaningful response in time. Only desperate swordfish attacks were tried, but all were shot down. This success however, was short-lived: Destroyers attempted to torpedo them but a string response and heavy weather repelled them, HMS Worcester being severely damaged in the process. Gneisenau however later hit a magnetic mine in the Skagerrak and had to stop completely for 30 minutes of repair before making it in Heligoland for other repairs.
Finally at Kiel for further repairs, RAF located Gneisenau and bombed her during the night of 26 February. A bomb penetrated her aft rear ammunition store, causing a huge explosion, causing more than 112 victims. Repairs were postponed, and it was envisaged to replace their triple turrets by twin 38 cm.
Gneisenau after her second bow refit in 1942
It was also planned to replace her prow destroyed by the explosion, by an even longer and taller one, in order to compensate for the added the weight of the new turrets. The original turrets were moved away, transported to Norway, and placed in an ideal position to defend the approach to the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst anchorage, back there in the meantime. In February 1943, as Scharhorst was lost at the Battle of the Barentz Sea, Hitler decided to stop all work on her sister ship. Gneisenau remained disarmed in Gotenhafen for the rest of the war, scuttled in March 1945 to block the entrance to the port.
In the North Sea, Scharnhorst has a reclusive existence, with too few sorties, marred by the lack of intel, heavy weather and the lack of oil. The hour of glory arriveed at the battle of the North Cape (Sea of Barentz). On December 22, 1943, convoy JW55 was reported with defenses estimated weak by the luftwaffe and U Boats reports. Scharnhorst sorties, escorted by five destroyers (Rear Admiral Erich Bey), facing the three cruisers of Admiral Burnett's 10th Squadron (Belfast, Sheffield, Norfolk).
Scharnhorst, counting on her speed, always maintained a marging with the three cruisers, and only spradically engaged them when range was favourable. She lost them and tried to reach again the convoy, resuming her way due north in heavy weather and abysmal visibility. She wasted precious oil trying to locate the convoy while the alerted nearby 10th Squadron joined by destroyers of 36th Division, guided by HMS Norfolk's radar, squared on Scharnhorst and engaged her. This was fierce, but Bey decided to break out in search for the convoy again, then withdrawing further sendin her right on the path of HMS Duke of York, soon joined By King Georges V.
They cumulated twenty 356 mm guns opposed to six 280 mm and the British "barred the T" of the German battleships. Soon, the range and precision of British fire got Scharnhorst's two forward turrets. Only thanks to superior speed, Bey was able to breaks away, until a providential salvo from Duke of York penetrated her engine compartment, destroying the boilers. Bey sent a last message announcing to Hitler his intention to "fight until the last shell". The ensuing artillery duel was an execution, as she received nearly 2,000 shell, finished off by destroyer's torpedoes. 36 survivors were rescued. At that point, the Kriegsmarine only had one battleship left: Tirpitz.
Scharnhorst firing against HMS Glorious
KMS Gneisenau in november 1943, in the "Norway" pattern.
Bismarck class (1940)
The most formidable battleship in the world, 1941.
Ordered in 1935 to 1937, launched in 1939 and 1941, the Bismarck and Tirpitz were the last battleships of the German history. They were also the first undertaken since the Baden of 1917 and retained its configuration, ie 4x2 380 mm turrets, AB-XY. However, the two ships were of a brand new generation, that of "fast battleships", a revolution seeing the marriage of the speed of a battle cruiser with the protection of a battleship. This resulted in a new pattern for the design of gigantic warships, reaching non-standard tonnage.
Bismarck prow seen in Hamburg harbour, 1940.
Indeed, with these two first ships of the plan Z class (6 other modified battleships were to follow) officially labelled as 35 000 tonnes to remain within the limits of the Washington Treaty. When in fact, they almost reached 50 000. When Bismarck was admitted in active service on 24 August 1940, after four years of design, it was de facto the most powerful warship in the world. A combination of perfect protection, higher speed than the contemporary British ships, impressive artillery of medium caliber (English battleships were comprised between 356 and 406 mm), but of greater range and a state-of-the-art fire control system, electronically assisted and in every way remarkable. KMS Bismarck was going to do its demonstration with his quite short and decisive duel against the Hood.
KMS Bismarck in service
Bismarck being the first in service, she passed a few months in the Baltic training to prepare for her first major mission in the North Sea in May 1940. Commanded by Admiral Lütjens under the Rheinübung operation, assisted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, the Bismarck left the Skagerrak and took due north to come to anchor in the fjord of Bergen, facing Scotland. Already informed by his contacts in Sweden, the Admiralty Columbia had the confirmation of its presence in Norway by a spitfire recognition.
Bismarck training in the Baltic
Thus a battle plan was developed to block her three possible path to the Atlantic. The rest is history (see movie classic "sink the Bismarck"). The battleship entered in the legend. It was rediscovered in 1989 by prof. Robert D. Ballard (who had previously located and explored the wreck of the Titanic) in the Gulf of Gascony, in great depth. In 2002 the Canadian director James Cameron created a full documentary dedicated to the ship, exploring the hulk and showing that her ultimate fate was caused by torpedoes, not unlike the "official" historical accepted theory for 60 years...
KMS Tirpitz in service
For its part the Tirpitz (a tribute to the creator of the imperial navy German in 1890), launched on 1 April 1939 to Wilhelmshaven and baptized by Hitler and the daughter of Von Tirpitz, was admitted in active service in February 1944 with a consequent additional DCA ( 40 fast pieces of 20 mm). She was sent immediately in Norway, to the Faettenfjord (Trondheim) to take a position, so hastily that it remained unfinished...
The teams hastened to carry these completion steps at anchor. Her early career was however pretty quiet. A presence which was enough to scare the British convoy supervisors and mobilize a large part of the Home Fleet in this sector.
US Navy recognition drawing about the Tirpitz
A dark shadow on the North Sea
Her only rare outings due to increasing shortages of oil, often resulting in failures (convoy signaled by not spotted in time) and quick retreats due to the threat of destroyers and in particular aircraft carriers, casting a shadow on all operations since the loss of the Bismarck. Thus she never ventured deep into the Atlantic. Neither Karl Topp (the commander) or the Grand Admiral Raeder, nor Hitler did not want it. Well protected by nets and ASW mines, patrols in the fjord and on shore, and substantial AA protection on the heights, the Tirpitz seemed untouchable. But her unbearable presence justified numerous operations to destroy her, like the RAF Bombing raid of April 27, 1942, later on frogmen trying to undermine its hull (Operation Tile), micro-submersible raid (X1-8), unsuccessful although the last raid allowed to damage her seriously enough.
Bombed into oblivion
Due to the fuel shortage, it was decided to move further inland, back to the fjord shoals, on a kind of "platform" dredged and flattened. In case of a leak, it would have fallen into shallow water, and artillery would have remained active. But the plan did not take into account the new Bomber Command ploy to defeat here in November 1944. Lancaster bombers armed with monstrous piercing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis ( "Grand Slam", 9 tons) designed to break dams in Germany were now deployed against the battleship. An ammunition store was touched, and she tilted and then capsized, resulting in the loss of 971 men and officers. The wreck of the Tirpitz was gradually dismantled after the war by the Norwegians which laid hands on a very valuable metal stock...
|Dimensions||248 x 36 x 10.6 m|
|Propulsion||3 screws, 3 Brown-Boveri turbines, 12 Wagner boilers, 138 000 cv|
|Speed||30 knots (55.58 km/h; 34.53 mph)|
|Range||8,870 nmi (16,430 km, 10,210 mi) 19 knots (35 km/h, 22 mph)|
|Armament||4x2 380 mm, 12x150 mm (6x2), 8x2 105mm, 8x2 37mm, 12 20mm AA, 4-6 hydroplanes.|
|Armor||Belt 317mm, deck 50mm, torpedo bulkheads 44mm, turrets 362mm, blockhaus 356mm|
Gallery 3D rendering, Bismarck during Operation Rheinübung. Renditions of the Bismarck and Tirpitz (Unknown src.) - the second one is stunning, never seen it before.
Bismarck with her May 1941 camouflage (From trumpeter kit)
The KMS Tirpitz june 1944, in her "Norvegian livery".