Tuesday, June 30, 2015
The Third Reich’s battleship ambitions
The chase and ultimate sinking of Germany’s monster battleship Bismarck (24–27 May 1941) involved no less than five RN battleships, two aircraft carriers, nine cruisers, and 18 destroyers. Bismarck had completed its sea trials the previous month. (Captain Ernst Lindemann was granted special permission to refer to the ship as “he,” in honor of former chancellor Otto von Bismarck.) In the initial stages of the battle, fire from Bismarck’s consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (some claim that the fatal fire came from Bismarck), caused the British super-battle cruiser Hood to explode with the loss of all but three of its 1,500 crewmen. It was only Hood’s second serious combat in her 20-year lifespan. Although by 1941, Hood was elderly and unmodernized (plans to thicken its armor protection had been aborted with the onset of war), its loss was considered a national tragedy. Hood was the fastest and largest capital ship of the time, actually weighing some 5,000 tons more than the new Prince of Wales class of battleships. Prince of Wales, in its first engagement, and with workmen still aboard, did not fight efficiently and was the target of both German warships; it broke off the engagement and fell away under cover of a smokescreen. (Bismarck was also a new battleship, but it did have the advantage of several months of work-up cruises.) As if losing Hood were not bad enough, now a Royal Navy battleship, part of a superior British force, had retreated in the face of the enemy. Actually, the RN side of the battle had been badly handled, with Admiral Lancelot Holland in Hood allowing Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to cross the T of his two main warships; Holland paid for this blunder with his life. But King George V (sister ship to Prince of Wales) and Rodney had devastated Bismarck’s upperworks with concentrated fire. It was finally dispatched some 600 miles off the French coast by torpedoes from the cruiser Dorsetshire. There is even some persuasive argument that its own crew scuttled Bismarck in a final act of defiance. (Prinz Eugen managed to escape the British net, later made the Channel Dash with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, was used as a target vessel after the war [surviving two atomic explosions at Kwajelein/Bikini Atoll in July 1946], and sank after an accident disabled its stern.)
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 battleshipmindedness 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 renamed.) 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 notable 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.