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The pride of the Kriegsmarine

Written by Sakhal

Admiral Graf Spee

The Versailles Treaty forced Germany to limit the normal displacement of its warships to 10,160 tonnes, with a maximum caliber of 280 millimeters for their armament. However, according to the experience acquired during the first months of the First World War, the German Navy believed that warships of longer operational range would be more effective than warships of larger size. These circumstances led to the development of a very peculiar class of warships: the "Panzerschiff" of the Deutschland class.

The "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee was built in 1934 after her sisters Admiral Scheer and Deutschland. These ships had been designed to elude the limitations imposed by the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited Germany to build warships of displacement above 10,160 tonnes and armed with calibers above 280 millimeters. This matched the displacement and armament of the pre-dreadnought battleships which Germany had been allowed to keep in service for training missions. The intention was to restrict the German naval power to ships of the same type than the Swedish coastal defense battleships of the Sverige class. However, inspired by the success achieved in surface attacks during the first months of the First World War, the German Navy believed that warships of longer operational range would be more effective than warships of larger size.

After realizing several different designs, the German engineers built a ship which constituted a modern combat unit, while not exaggeratedly exceeding the mandatory weight. The Deutschland had a mast-type conning tower; the Admiral Scheer and the Admiral Graf Spee, being a derivative of the former, had a conning tower of modernized design and the aircraft-launching catapult reallocated aft the funnel. The three ships of the class had an inclined waterline belt and an anti-torpedo bulkhead superimposed to it, but the waterline belt was thicker on the Admiral Graf Spee. The original anti-aircraft armament comprised 88-millimeter cannons, which were soon replaced by 105-millimeter cannons in the Admiral Graf Spee, and in the autumn of 1939 in the other two ships.

By using a large proportion of light alloys and replacing rivets by electric soldering, it was possible to lighten the hull and arm it with cannons of much larger caliber than that of those installed in other warships of similar tonnage. The main armament was installed in two triple turrets to save weight, but this allowed to fire with certain precision at only one target at a time, a negative aspect which came to light when the Admiral Graf Spee had to fire simultaneously against the Exeter and the other two cruisers which pursued her during the Battle of River Plate. The 150-millimeter cannons were installed beside the superstructure in single mountings protected by simple casemates. Two torpedo launchers with four tubes each were installed astern, being their main purpose to quickly sink the merchant ships. The catapult gave service to a single reconnaissance aircraft. Apart from the large-caliber armament there was another "secret weapon" in the ship: the radar, which the German called "Dete". The Admiral Graf Spee was one of the first warships fitted with such a device.

The propulsion system was based on Diesel engines, which despite being not much lighter than the typical steam machinery occupied less space, required less operators and consumed less fuel, granting a longer operational range to a warship of such restricted size. Another advantage of such engines was that they produced less smoke, which allowed the Admiral Graf Spee to sight the British squadron in River Plate fifteen minutes before the enemy could sight her own smoke. A negative aspect was that the utilization of Diesel machinery reduced her maximum speed. The units of the Deutschland class were long-range but slow ships, a fact that the German acknowledged in February 1940, when the Lutzow (ex Deutschland) and the Admiral Scheer were reclassified as heavy cruisers. Both ships were modified with raised prows to better protect them from the water.

These ships would have been more effective if they had installed a lighter armament, for the saved weight could have been used to increase speed and protection. However, they would have not had the same effect of propaganda. Since their speed did not allow them to fight at long range, they were very vulnerable to the 203-millimeter cannons, whose projectiles could easily shatter their armor. The French fast battleship Dunkerque confirmed the obsolescency of this type of warship, and the other three ships of the Deutschland class which had been planned never had their keels laid down. However, the main armament of two of them had been already produced and it was finally installed in the battlecruisers of the Scharnhorst class, another unfortunate design operated by the Kriegsmarine.

The Deutschland and the Admiral Scheer carried out corsair missions as well as other war actions in Norway and in the Baltic Sea. The Deutschland was renamed as "Lutzow", to prevent a success of propaganda for the enemy if they managed to sink her. This ship was severely damaged by torpedoes in two occasions: the 11th April 1940, by the British submarine Spearfish, and the 13th July 1941, by a British aircraft.

Corsair mission

The Admiral Graf Spee left the Wilhelmshaven naval shipyards the 21st August 1939, the same day that the German-Russian Pact was signed in Moscow. Less than two weeks were left for the beginning of the war and Hitler had taken definitive decisions. During these days of general doubt Germany tuned up its war machinery. The Admiral Graf Spee was just an echelon of this homicidal chain and her mission was already one of war, a corsair route against the British merchant ships in the Atlantic. She had to reach a secret position to start attacking at the outbreak of the conflict. The complement was formed by 1,500 men, all young and selected, commanded by Hans Langsdorff, German officer born in Hamburg in 1894. Apart from those in charge of the Admiral Graf Spee, there were groups called "prey crews" whose purpose was to get onboard the seized merchants to transfer them to Germany if possible.

The 7th October the Admiral Graf Spee had captured four British ships, which Langsdorff decided to sink after retrieving the crews and any kind of valuable equipment from them. Facing the German corsair expedition the British set in state of alarm the entire war fleet, but the orders were vague. None of the seized ships had communicated their position before being sunk and the only data known was that one or two corsair ships were operating in the Atlantic. Thus, the British Admiralty initiated the largest tracking operation in History. With the Mediterranean Fleet in the Atlantic nine search groups were formed, being entrusted a sector in the ocean to each of them. Yet this seemed like finding a needle in a haystack. However, the safety of the Admiral Graf Spee relied in preventing that the seized ships called for help, and when one of them did so things turned ugly for her. At noon, a British squadron showed up in the horizon. As a last resort, and using a clever camouflage to mimic a Repulse-class cruiser, Langsdorff attempted to quietly overpass the enemy squadron without being spotted. This stealthy maneuver was successful and the Admiral Graf Spee continued her mission without further trouble.

Battle of River Plate

In the morning of the 3rd December, after a brief mission in the Indian, the Admiral Graf Spee returned to the Atlantic. Morale was extraordinarily high onboard. During three months of piracy they had sunk nine enemy merchants for a total of 50,000 tonnes, and however not even a drop of blood had been spilled. The war seemed like an easy thing. But Commodore Henry Harwood, commander of three British cruisers - the heavy cruiser Exeter and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles - tasked with patrolling the South American coasts, was preparing a deadly trap for the Admiral Graf Spee. He calculated that she would be in the waters of the River Plate around the 13th December, as it indeed happened with disconcerting punctuality. The Admiral Graf Spee sighted the small enemy fleet with anticipation, but Langsdorff did not realize that he was dealing with cruisers. Believing the British ships to be destroyers, the commander ordered to charge against them. This was his first mistake.

Despite of the enemy ships being cruisers, the "pocket battleship" should have had, at least in theory, advantages in facing them. She was armed with six 280-millimeter cannons and eight 150-millimeter cannons, directed by an excellent fire control system. The three British cruisers had a total of six 203-millimeter cannons and sixteen 152-millimeter cannons. A large-caliber salvo from the Admiral Graf Spee would easily destroy the thin armor of the enemy cruisers, whereas three simultaneous salvos from the latter would hardly break through her more robust armor. The battle lasted for an hour and twenty minutes, causing 36 dead and 60 wounded to the German and 72 dead (61 on the Exeter) and 28 wounded to the British. The three British cruisers were hit several times. In opinion of Charles Woodhouse, commander of the Ajax, Langsdorff could have avoided the combat and fled before the British noticed his presence. During the battle both the Admiral Graf Spee and the Exeter were severely damaged. The largest part of experts who studied the Battle of River Plate agreed that it was a mistake from Langsdorff to not complete the neutralization of the Exeter. Langsdorff was injured in the head and his judgement was probably diminished because of this.

Being severely damaged after the confrontation, the Admiral Graf Spee had to take refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo. In the morning of the 14th December the German wounded were disembarked, as well as the British prisoners, who consequently regained their freedom. Then Langsdorff started to realize that he had committed a big mistake. He had started a diplomatic battle, more arduous than the naval one in the sense that he was risking to lose his ship without being able to fire a shot. The Uruguayan Government granted only 72 hours to the German to repair the damages suffered during the battle. Ended that time the Admiral Graf Spee would have to leave the port, otherwise she would be seized and the crew interned. Meanwhile, the British cruisers were waiting outside the port the chance of sinking her as soon as she left the neutral area. Langsdorff, after having tried in vain a prolongation of the permission, solved the dilemma in an unexpected way.


In the sunset of the 17th December, at the end of the permission, the Admiral Graf Spee left the port of Montevideo, as expected. But, after having traveled just a few miles, she stopped. The crew had received orders of sinking the unfortunate ship with explosives. The forthcoming battle that the world was waiting for would not take place. After having scuttled their own ship, Langsdorff and his crew crossed the River Plate to reach Buenos Aires, a place which was more hospitable for the German. In the afternoon of the 19th December, Langsdorff committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The reasons for Langsdorff's behavior during the Battle of River Plate and thereafter remain obscure.


Class: Deutschland (Deutschland, Admiral Speer and Admiral Graf Spee)

Launched: 30 June 1934 in Wilhelmshaven naval shipyards

Dimensions: 188 x 21.7 x 7.3 meters

Displacement: 12,100 tonnes (16,200 at full load)

Propulsion: 2 x propeller; 8 x MAN 9-cylinder Diesel engine (four per shaft); 56,800 horsepower

Maximum speed: 26 knots

Operational range: 14,500 kilometers at 19 knots

Armor: 100 millimeters in waterline; 45-70 millimeters in armored deck; 150 millimeters in conning tower; 140 millimeters in main turret front

Armament: 6 x 280-millimeter cannon (2 x 3); 8 x 150-millimeter cannon (8 x 1); 6 x 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (3 x 2); 8 x 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (4 x 2); 10 x 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (10 x 1); 8 x 533-millimeter torpedo tube (2 x 4); 2 x aircraft

Complement: 1,124


The Scharnhorst is another example of the limitations that Germany had for its rearmament because of the Versailles Treaty. The most important deficiency of this battleship lied in her armament, about which the project team lacked a continuous experience. But, despite the difficulties, this ship managed to put out of action an aircraft carrier and two destroyers of the Royal Navy, before being sunk in the Battle of Cape North, in the last days of 1943.

In 1932 France laid down the "fast battleship" Dunkerque, which outclassed the "pocket battleships" of the Deutschland class. In 1928 the German had prepared the plans for a ship of 19,300 tonnes of standard displacement armed with three 280-millimeter triple turrets, even if these characteristics could have gone against the dispositions from the Versailles Treaty. Circa 1932 a "Panzerschiff" (armored cruiser) armed with four 305-millimeter twin turrets, three 150-millimeter triple turrets and four anti-aircraft cannons was designed. Her 160,000 horsepower could have provided a speed of 34 knots, but the armor was too weak, in the style of a battlecruiser, a type of ship which the latest technical improvements had rendered obsolescent.

The project of the Scharnhorst was officially made for a ship of 26,410 tonnes of standard displacement with armor of medium thickness, three 380-millimeter twin turrets, high speed and a reasonably long operational range. Unfortunately, due to the limited number of projects developed since 1918, none of those made for a heavy artillery turret was valid and, since the design and construction of turrets took longer than that of ships, the 380-millimeter twin turrets were not available until 1938-1939 even if they were based in projects from the First World War. However, four 280-millimeter triple turrets had been already ordered and they were in construction. Their destination would be the fourth and fifth ships of the Deutschland class, which had been already planned. Another two of these turrets were ordered and incorporated to the Scharnhorst project as a provisional measure, as it was intended to replace them by 380-millimeter turrets at a later date.

Because of the lack of experience of the project team regarding large high-speed warships, the hull was based in that of the battlecruiser Mackensen from the First World War. It was initially intended to install the whole secondary armament in twin turrets, but the utilization of machinery of almost twice the power than that of the Mackensen, even if it was one of modern design, did not leave enough available space for the central turrets. Because of this four 150-millimeter single mountings, initially ordered for the fourth and fifth ships of the Deutschland class, were installed amidships, despite having a lesser protection. The best characteristic of the Scharnhorst project was the adequate provision of directors for the anti-aircraft armament, even if a better utilization of the weight could have been made by installing dual-purpose secondary armament.

The Scharnhorst was fitted with new light high-pressure machines, which were notoriously unrealiable because they had been hastily installed before having been adequately tested. The utilization of turbines instead of Diesel engines, to ensure a high speed, meant as well a reduced operational range. One of the characteristics kept from the Mackensen was the low freeboard in the prow. Even after having been modified with the raised "Atlantic bow" the forecastle was too wet. This put these ships in a notable disadvantage when navigating on rough waters, as it happened during the encounter with the Renown and in the Battle of Cape North.

Despite the mixed origins of the project, the units of the Scharnhorst class were powerful ships, albeit they could have been very improved if the 380-millimeter cannons had been installed, for the 280-millimeter ones were inadequate even for facing an outdated capital ship. These ships carried out some incursions with efficiency, albeit often disturbed by failures in the machinery and a restricted operational range. Besides, the German Admiralty insisted that they did not even face an outdated capital ship, because their armor, and particularly the horizontal one, was totally inadequate for withstanding very heavy projectiles.

After 1939 the Scharnhorst could be differentiated from the Gneisenau because her main mast had been reallocated further aft, from its original position immediately after the funnel. The Gneisenau was launched the 8th December 1936 in the Deutschewerke naval shipyards at Kiel and completed the 21st May 1938, seven months and half before than the Scharnhorst. The service historial of the Gneisenau from 1942 is similar to that of the Scharnhorst. The 27th February 1942 she was severely damaged by a bomb which shattered her bow, and then it was planned the reconstruction with a longer and more seaworthy bow, as well as the installation of 380-millimeter cannons. But this project was abandoned and the Gneisenau was eventually scuttled, without ever being repaired, the 27th March 1945.

Launched in 1936, the battlecruiser Scharnhorst, as her twin Gneisenau, was one of the units built with a very modern criteria which should constitute the backbone of the reborn Kriegsmarine. She took her name from an armored cruiser which during the First World War had distinguished herself as one of the most powerful and robust units of the High Seas Fleet, and it seemed indeed that also in this war the name of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst would be kept in a high position. Already at the beginning of the war the new unit had started to get fame; the 23rd November 1939 she had sunk through gunfire the British auxiliary cruiser Rawalpindi and later, alongside her twin Gneisenau, she had been used for the corsair war in the Atlantic. The results had been good, because during a single campaign the two ships managed to sink 22 enemy units. Later, the 12th February 1942, the Scharnhorst, this time alongside the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, had forced her way across the English Channel, in broad daylight and in front of the eyes of the British, to arrive to German docks departing from her base in Brest. The humilliation was big for the British, who since the times of the Spanish Armada had not seen enemy ships in the Channel. After the success of her transfer, it was decided that the Scharnhorst would operate, from September, as a complement of the battleship Tirpitz against the Allied convoys in the Arctic. This decision was fatal for the excellent ship which, after the enemy midget submarines had managed to damage the Tirpitz immobilizing her during several months, had to fight on her own. In the encounter of the 26th December 1943, after the attempt of intercepting the convoy JW 55B in route toward Russia, the Scharnhorst fell into a trap and found herself in front of the Duke of York, one of the most modern British battleships, armed with ten 356-millimeter cannons versus the nine 280-millimeter cannons of the German battlecruiser. The fight was long, but in the end, as it was logical, the Scharnhorst had to succumb. To the ears of the mariners onboard the British destroyers, which navigated the area of the sinking to gather the castaways, weakly arrived words from an old song of the German Navy: "There are no flowers on a sailor's grave". They were 36 survivors out of 1900 men, who remained united amid the waves while singing. This was how much was left from the crew of the ill-fated battlecruiser. Not even one officer was among them.


Class: Scharnhorst (Gneisenau and Scharnhorst)

Launched: 3 October 1936 in Wilhelmshaven naval shipyards

Dimensions: 235 x 30 x 9.9 meters

Displacement: 38,900 tonnes at full load

Propulsion: 3 x propeller; 12 x Wagner boiler; 3 x Brown-Boveri turbine (one per shaft); 160,000 horsepower

Maximum speed: 31.5 knots

Operational range: 18,500 kilometers (at 14 knots?)

Armor: 350 millimeters in waterline; 20-50 millimeters in armored deck; 350 millimeters in conning tower; 360 millimeters in main turret front

Armament: 9 x 280-millimeter cannon (3 x 3); 12 x 150-millimeter cannon (4 x 2 + 4 x 1); 14 x 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (7 x 2); 18 x 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (9 x 2); 44 x 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (6 x 4 + 4 x 2 + 12 x 1); 6 x 533-millimeter torpedo tube (2 x 3); 4 x aircraft

Complement: 1,900


The battleships of the Bismarck class were the evident consequence of the limitations that the Allied nations imposed to the rearmament of Germany after the First World War. During nearly the whole interwar period, facing disadvantages regarding experience and research on the construction of battleships, the German naval architects were forced to realize projects restricted by the tonnage allowed by the different treaties. Consequently, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz were poorly protected battleships, with problems in their communication systems and deficiencies in the disposition of their secondary and anti-aircraft armament. Both battleships were sunk in naval encounters, the first of them during her first mission.

The forced interruption that Germany suffered regarding naval projects at the end of the First World War affected all the German ships during the Second World War. The naval architects could not benefit from the lessons learned between 1914 and 1918. They were not able to give continuity to their experience in designing, essential for the creation of new projects, nor to extract conclusions from the destruction of ships built by other countries, as the Allies had done in the early 1920s. Because of this, the experts in naval construction began to work in the late 1920s with a considerable disadvantage in respect of the other nations.

When designing the Scharnhorst class they had the possibility of taking a shortcut by using the Mackensen project from the First World War, albeit this ship did not have the adequate size for the speed required in a modern battleship. Besides, considering that the counterparts of the Scharnhorst which had been built in other countries were either smaller, as the French fast battleship Dunkerque, or older, built during the First World War, it was wanted that the new battleship were superior to any foreign contemporary warship, the largest part of which were backed by a decade of research and development that the German did not have. Besides, they did not have time to catch up.

The technical studies about battleships started in 1933 and the Anglo-German Naval Treaty, signed the 18th June 1935, provided Germany with enough supplementary tonnage for building three battleships of 35,560 tonnes of standard displacement. The contracts for the construction of two of them were signed at the beginning of 1936. Facing this emergency situation, the German naval architects used as basis for the new battleships the Baden class from the First World War. It was necessary to increase the size to satisfy the new requirements: increase of speed of six knots, large increment of anti-aircraft artillery and installation of anti-torpedo armored protection. This latter was favored by keeping the draught as short as possible, due to the agitated waters of the German coasts. As in the Japanese battleships of the Yamato class, the result was to increase the width of the hull to allow the installation of an excellent anti-torpedo system.

Albeit the result of these efforts was an undoubtedly powerful battleship, the Bismarck was not as much as she should have been. The difficulties in the research of the protection caused that the communication systems (conduction lines for electricity, oil or steam) were left practically unprotected at the bottom of the belt armor, whereas the contemporary battleships of other nations had them installed between the upper part of the belt and the armor of the main deck. This deficiency contributed to the quick and easy destruction of the Bismarck. The same deficiency in the protection of the rudders which prevented the Bismarck from escaping to her fate had come to light in the German ships already in the Battle of Jutland, twenty-five years before. The lack of research of dual-purpose secondary armament led the Bismarck to have separated anti-ship and anti-aircraft artillery, rendering her unnecesarily large. The lack of research caused as well that the German armor did not surpass the American or the British one. Her conning tower, theoretically protected against the projectiles fired by battleships, was mowed down by a 203-millimeter projectile at the beginning of the last confrontation. Besides, too many German projectiles did not explode. Only one, which hit the Prince of Wales, exploded.

Still, the design had positive traits. Fire control was excellent in general, especially that of anti-aircraft artillery. Besides, she had been fitted with fire control radars for aiming her long-range artillery. She was also extremely difficult to sink (albeit this aspect was less important than the easiness of putting her out of action). She did not sink until her crew used special explosive charges to scuttle her and the Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes against her.

The Tirpitz differentiated from the Bismarck mainly in having a longer operational range, cranes in different position, slightly modified masts, upgraded radars and fire control mountings, torpedo launchers and increased anti-aircraft armament. The Tirpitz was launched the 1st April 1939 in the Wilhelmshaven naval shipyards and completed the 25th February 1941, six months later than the Bismarck. She was severely damaged by British midget submarines the 22nd September 1943 and was never properly repaired. She survived several attacks but was finally sunk near Tromso by the 5.6-ton bombs that fell over her.

Corsair mission

From the military dock at Gotenhafen (Gdynia in Polish language), the battleship Bismarck departed for her first and last war action the 19th May 1941, followed by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were unable to accompany the Bismarck due to the severe repairs that they required, but this had not discouraged Grand Admiral Raeder from sending the invaluable battleship to the designated corsair mission without a proper escort. When the two ultramodern warships left the dock nobody though that one week later the Bismarck would be lying in the seabed of the North Atlantic. But at the moment the Bismarck was the pride of the new Nazi Germany, powerful and self-confident, albeit in excess. Already when her keel was laid down, Hitler ignored the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. There was no intention to dissimulate the magnitude of the new project and the displacement exceeded 50,000 tonnes at full load. Launched in 1939 like her twin Tirpitz, the Bismarck differed from her sister in a slightly lesser displacement, a reduced anti-aircraft armament and a lack of torpedo launchers. The Bismarck was equipped with radars for navigation, localization and fire control. Her long operational range would have allowed the Bismarck to be an indefatigable prosecutor and her maneuverability was excellent due to a special type of rudder, but this feature would be precisely the cause of her ill fate.

The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen arrived to the Norwegian fjords without any incident. There, Admiral Lutjens decided to stay until bad weather and thick fog appeared, to better cover the presence of the corsair warships on their way to the North Sea and from there to the Atlantic. There they should intercept the convoys destined to supply England, which traveled north of Iceland along the Denmark Strait. Despite keeping the departure of the Bismarck under secrecy, the British Admiralty had been warned shortly after and thus the Home Fleet had been set in state of alert. The German intentions seemed clear for the British: to repeat the exploits previously made by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau upon the Allied convoys. This time the danger seemed greater, since there were only a few escort vessels which could confront a ship like the Bismarck. To mobilize the whole Home Fleet did not make anyone to feel proud, but it seemed like an imperative. Everything would be tried to prevent the German warships from reaching the Atlantic.

In the fjord of Kors, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were about to depart when a British reconnaissance aircraft overflew the nearby town. A bitter omen fell upon Lutjens and his high staff, and eventually upon all the young officers destined onboard the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen. Why had they to venture into enemy waters without being accompanied by a proper escort? If Germany had at least one available aircraft carrier... In the afternoon of the 22nd May, another British observer inspected the fjord, but this time the two German warships had already departed. Then the alarm was sent to the British Admiralty. Forty-five minutes later, the battleship King George V and the aircraft carrier Victorious, commanded by Admiral Sir John Tovey and escorted by an impressive fleet of cruisers and torpedo boats, departed from Scapa Flow, located in the northernmost Scotland. This was the large base from where the Home Fleet watched the North Sea and the North Atlantic. The great hunt had begun.

With the first alarm, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood had departed as well, and Vice Admiral Lancelot E. Holland, protected by a flock of lesser warships, patrolled the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland. Meanwhile, three cruisers and a certain number of torpedo boats patrolled the wide space existent between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. At this point, the British had in their minds the omen of Germany being able to subdue Britain by winning the "Battle of the Atlantic". The German corsair ships had already sunk about 750,000 tonnes of ships (not counting the sinkings caused by the U-Boot) and nobody could foresee the extent of the damages caused by the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen if they managed to reach their targets. The night of the 22nd May, Prime Minister Winston Churchill telegraphed President Roosevelt: "Yesterday, 21st May, the Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen and eight merchant ships were spotted in Bergen. This afternoon we found that they had already left. We have reasons to believe that they have planned an important mission in the Atlantic. If we could not catch them in their route, your Navy would be certainly in condition of sighting them and giving references. The Prince of Wales, the Hood, the Repulse and the aircraft carrier Victorious, along with auxiliary ships, will hunt them. Give us the information and we will do the work."

During the whole night and the whole 23rd day, the British fleet commanded by John Tovey unsuccessfully sought the Bismarck within fog banks. But around 20:00 o'clock, a radio message reported that the Suffolk, one of the cruisers which were patrolling the Denmark Strait, had sighted the two German warships. Amid the fog, the eyes of a mariner had detected the enemy ships before than the radar. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were trying to enter the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait when the radar of the Suffolk finally put the two dots on its screen. The message from the Suffolk had been received as well by Holland, who was onboard the Hood lurking in the waters south of Iceland. The Hood was the last exponent of a generation of battlecruisers built just before and during the First World War. With a displacement of 46,000 tonnes and an overall length of 262 meters, the Hood was, when she entered service in 1920, one of the best warships in the world, if not the best. But in 1941 she was somewhat outdated. Her main cannons had the same caliber than those of the Bismarck, but they were shorter and the German battleship was equipped with a more modern fire control system. Alongside the Hood was the Prince of Wales, a battleship of 35,000 tonnes which had recently entered service.

Holland searched the Bismarck with determination and in the early morning of the 24th day the squadron commanded by him detected the Bismarck... in the same moment that the Bismarck detected the Hood. During a couple of minutes both colossi seemed to study each other, separated by a distance of 23 kilometers. In those moments Holland was probably recalling when the House of Commons rejected the modernization of the Hood requested by the Royal Navy. The Hood had to engage in combat against one of the most powerful warships in the world... How capable would she be against her rival? Holland shouted the order of opening fire upon the Bismarck. Onboard the German battleship, Lutjens was assessing the alternatives that the situation offered. His orders were clear: he had to reach the Atlantic and the convoys, sinking as many as possible. He was not there to make a demonstration of strenght against the Home Fleet. But he knew that the encounter was not a fortuitous one. The enemy was chasing him and there was no reason for delaying the unavoidable. Hence Lutjens ordered to open fire upon the Hood. Meanwhile, the Prinz Eugen had already opened fire upon the British battlecruiser.

It was a matter of few minutes. After the fifth salvo, the Hood was shaken by a terrible explosion. During a moment, Lutjens observed the enemy ship through the binoculars and then he ordered: "Change of target to the left!". This way the crew of the Bismarck knew that the Hood had been put out of action. Then the cannons of the German ships began to fire upon the Prince of Wales. The crew of this ship has witnessed the disaster of the Hood with anguish. The British flagship had suddenly been hit and a fire had begun in one of the four-inch batteries. Everyone had thought that the hit had been a superficial one, but the armor of the Hood was indeed too light for withstanding the heaviest projectiles from the Bismarck, which fired at long distances acquired a particularly dangerous curved trajectory. Apparently, the impact had effect in a powder magazine which was just beneath the upper deck. At 6:00 o'clock, from the Prince of Wales, the Hood was seen exploding and rising in the air. When the smoke was dispersed, the two halves of the ship were seen rapidly sinking. While firing her cannons, the Prince of Wales had to turn aside to avoid the remains from the unfortunate battlecruiser. Out of the 1,500 men onboard only three could be rescued. The rest of them, including Vice Admiral Holland, followed the fate of their ship.

The duel against the Prince of Wales was favorable for the Bismarck, which managed to hit the British battleship four times with her 380-millimeter projectiles. One of them had hit the conning tower, killing or injuring everyone in there. Other hits had destroyed two of the 356-millimeter cannons. But beyond this temporary victory Lutjens had to meditate about the next movements. The Bismarck was not intact either, for a projectile from the Prince of Wales had caused a leak on a fuel deposit under the waterline. From that moment the Bismarck began to leave a visible trail in the ocean and the notorious loss of fuel would later have terrible consequences. After the encounter, the German ships continued their travel to the southwest. Meanwhile another British squadron, commanded by Admiral Sommerville and formed by the battlecruiser Renown, the cruiser Sheffield and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, had departed from Gibraltar. The heavy cruiser Norfolk and her accompanying squadron were already chasing the German ships from a secure distance.

The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen followed their route during the 24th day until shortly before 19:00 o'clock, when they changed course heading to the north again. The Norfolk and her squadron, surprised by the change of attitude of the enemy, exchanged some inconsequential shots with the German ships. With that unexpected maneuver, Admiral Lutjens, who had already assumed the fate of the Bismarck, managed to distract the enemy so the Prinz Eugen could escape intact. Some days later, the German cruiser managed to safely reach Brest.

Admiral Tovey ordered the aircraft carrier Victorious to precede the squadron to launch an aerial attack against the Bismarck. At 22:00 o'clock, nine torpedo planes departed from the Victorious and two hours later they reached the Bismarck. The German opened a terrible barrier of fire but the airplanes attacked with despise to danger. At least one of the torpedoes hit the Bismarck but no damages were apparently caused. In the early morning of the 25th day, around 3:00 o'clock, the Suffolk lost radar contact with the Bismarck. Dozens of British ships were converging on that point but then the enemy seemed to have misteriously disappeared. But nothing special had happened; the Suffolk, forced to advance in zig-zag to difficult the labor of enemy submarines, had gotten too far from the Bismarck and hence the radar contact had been lost.

Lutjens lost any hope of being able to accomplish his mission, for the whole British fleet was watching the Bismarck. Then he decided to escape to Brest as well. Eventually, the British intercepted a communication coming from the point where the German battleship should be located. Breaking the silence in such a crucial moment was the most serious mistake committed by Lutjens. Actually, he did not know that the British had lost his trail one hour ago, so he probably thought that breaking the silence in such circumstances would not make a difference. But the High Command of the Kriegsmarine in Paris wisely ordered the Bismarck to remain silent. The order was obeyed but it was already too late. John Tovey received from the Admiralty Operations Center a message indicating the position of the Bismarck. He was surprised when reading it, but he had to comply with the orders received, so he ordered his squadron to head to the north. Admiral Tovey did not know that the officer from the Admiralty who transferred the position of the Bismarck onto the map had committed a mistake. The Home Fleet was navigating in opposing direction to the Bismarck while this latter continued heading to Brest.

During nine hours, the Home Fleet continued moving away from the Bismarck, until the British found themselves hundreds of miles away from their target. Meanwhile the Bismarck, which so far had been favored by the mistake committed by the enemy, had managed to escape from the siege and achieve a considerable advantage. During the whole 25th day the British Admiralty was afraid of having lost the prey. But the Bismarck was actually in trouble; she had to reduce her speed because of the hole opened in the fuel tank, which had greatly decreased the amount of available fuel. During the night, the British Admiralty decided to move the whole fleet to a point to the south, alleged location of the Bismarck. However, the squadron which had departed from Gibraltar was unknowingly heading toward the Bismarck. At dawn, the British Admiralty ordered the Catalina seaplanes based in North Ireland to search for the Bismarck. This already seemed the last chance but it gave fruits; at 10:30 o'clock on that fatidic 26th May, one of the observers sighted the Bismarck and sent the alarm. Then, he approached the Bismarck in excess and the anti-aircraft artillery managed to hit his aircraft.

Two hours later two Swordfish torpedo planes from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal sighted the Bismarck. Their report stated that the Bismarck was far away from the British fleet but in a position where the Luftwaffe could not protect her. The British fleet headed toward the Bismarck but without the intention to engage in combat against her, until the battleships King George V and Rodney arrived, for these were the only British warships capable of fighting in parity against the Bismarck. Admiral Sommerville ordered the light cruiser Sheffield to precede the squadron arrived from Gibraltar, to set contact with the Bismarck and subsequently guide the aircraft upon her. Unfortunately, someone forgot to warn the pilots about the mission carried out by the Sheffield. After the Sheffield confirmed the position of the Bismarck the crews of the attacking aircraft mistook the British light cruiser with the much larger German battleship. The aircraft performed their attacks upon the Sheffield and her astonished and frightened crew, while the commander desperately maneuvered to avoid the torpedoes. Once the identification was done, the ashamed aircraft crews returned to their carrier. An unarmored ship like the Sheffield could have been sunk with just one torpedo hit.

Shortly after 19:00 o'clock, a wave of fifteen Swordfish departed from the Ark Royal. They soon reached the Bismarck and hit her with at least two torpedoes, one of which irreparably damaged the rudder system. The great battleship irremediably lost control and began to turn in place. The night was falling when a group of destroyers got close to her, attacking with torpedoes when possible. The Bismarck was going to end her fatidic venture at just 400 miles away from Brest. Shortly after midnight, the radio of the Bismarck sent a message to Berlin: "Ship not maneuverable. We will fight up to the last projectile. Long live the Fuhrer!". It was later known that some German submarines had converged into the point where the Bismarck was, while the British fleet was approaching at full speed. One of the submarinists claimed to have had the Ark Royal within torpedo range, but all the torpedoes had already been launched. At dawn, the battleships King George V and Rodney arrived. The former opened fire at 8:47 o'clock and the latter one minute later. The Bismarck replied and her third salvo hit the Rodney, but this would be the last hit from the German battleship. Half an hour later, the Bismarck had been silenced and a thick smoke surrounded her.

Circa 10:15 o'clock the Rodney approached to a distance of 4,000 meters and began to fire with all of her artillery against the defenseless Bismarck. But the unfortunate battleship remained afloat until 10:40 o'clock, after her own crew had tried to scuttle her and a salvo of torpedoes from the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire had hit her. Admiral Lutjens and the largest part of the crew died along with the Bismarck; only a hundred of men could be rescued. Paying with the lives of so many men as well as his own, Lutjens demonstrated the senselessness of the strategy adopted by Grand Admiral Raeder. From that moment the U-Boot of Admiral Doenitz would have the protagonism in the Atlantic. The mistake committed by the Kriegsmarine was recognized by the British as well, as shown by these words from Winston Churchill: "In no way could have Hitler employed more efficiently the two large battleships other than keeping them in the Baltic Sea in full order of battle. From time to time, they would spread the rumor of an imminent departure. This way we would have been forced to keep virtually all of our ships reunited in Scapa Flow or in the nearabouts, while they would have the advantage of choosing the moment without the effort of being always prepared."

The 18th May 1941 the "Bismarck" combat group departed from the military port of Gotenhafen, to start a raid against the British supply lines in the Atlantic; the "Rheinubung" operation was beginning. The group was formed by the battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, two splendid and very modern warships. Nobody thought that for the Bismarck this would be her last mission. A week later, of the superb battleship only a pile of scrap and few dozens of castaways would remain. But at the moment, the Bismarck was, with reason, the pride of the new Nazi Germany, powerful and self-confident, albeit in excess. When the keel of the Bismarck was laid down, Hitler was no longer concerned about the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty; because of this, the displacement exceeded 50,000 tonnes, without resorting to subterfuges, unlike what had been done to build the former "pocket battleships". Launched in 1939 like her twin Tirpitz, the Bismarck differed from her sister in just some details: she had a slightly lesser displacement, a reduced anti-aircraft armament and a lack of torpedo tubes. The vertical armor reached a maximum of 305 millimeters and the horizontal one a maximum of 102 millimeters. The Bismarck was equipped with radars for navigation, localization and fire control. Her long operational range rendered her an indefatigable prosecutor. Her maneuverability was excellent thanks to a special type of rudder, but this would ultimately be the cause of her end. When the Bismarck was left with her rudders blocked, after being hit by the Swordfish from the 810, 818 and 820 squadrons embarked onboard the Ark Royal, she was forced to turn on herself without being able to maneuver. Practically immobilized, she would be totally dismantled by the British salvos. With her sinking the illusion of choking England through corsair ships or large warships ended. From this moment the U-Boot would have the say.


Class: Bismarck (Bismarck and Tirpitz)

Launched: 14 February 1939 in Blohm und Voss naval shipyards, Hamburg

Dimensions: 251 x 36 x 10.2 meters

Displacement: 50,153 tonnes at full load

Propulsion: 3 x propeller; 12 x Wagner boiler; 3 x Brown-Boveri turbine (one per shaft); 130,000 horsepower

Maximum speed: 29 knots

Operational range: 15,000 kilometers at 19 knots

Armor: 320 millimeters in waterline; 80-120 millimeters in armored deck; 360 millimeters in conning tower; 360 millimeters in main turret front

Armament: 8 x 380-millimeter cannon (4 x 2); 12 x 150-millimeter cannon (6 x 2); 16 x 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (8 x 2); 16 x 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (8 x 2); 36 x 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (4 x 4 + 6 x 2 + 8 x 1); 6 x aircraft

Complement: 1,989 (2,192 as flagship)

Prinz Eugen

Until 1935 the Versailles Treaty had limited the German warship construction, but that same year the Anglo-German Naval Treaty allowed Germany to build up to a 35 percent of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy. This was enough to build up to five cruisers in compliance with the conditions set by the Washington Treaty. Consequently, the keels of the cruisers of the Admiral Hipper class were laid down. However, Germany was more interested in building powerful ships than in respecting the limits set by an international treaty, so the ships of the Admiral Hipper class considerably exceeded the limit of 10,160 tonnes. The initial projects were prepared in 1934 parallely with those for the Bismarck class. The new cruisers were specifically intended for counteracting the French heavy cruisers and preventing the maritime supply from North Africa to France.

The Admiral Hipper, first ship of the class, was completed with the straight stem and the uncrowned funnel which were typical of the German projects previous to the Second World War. Later, her prow was modified with a clipper bow and her funnel was crowned. She also received another two anti-aircraft directors. The Blucher, second ship of the class, was sunk before undergoing any modification, but she had the clipper bow and the funnel's crown installed just after being launched. The Prinz Eugen, third ship of the class, had a slightly longer hull and she was completed with a clipper bow, a crowned funnel and four anti-aircraft directors. All the ships of the class had a bulging hull fitted with a bow sonar. They were fitted as well with a powerful torpedo armament.

These ships were designed after the largest part of countries had discontinued the construction of cruisers armed with 203-millimeter cannons. They were superior in many aspects to the first French cruisers limited by the Washington Treaty but they would have faced difficulties against those of the Algerie class, which were smaller but better armored. And they were definitely inferior to the American cruisers of the Baltimore class, which had a heavier armament and a thicker armor, and carried more aircraft. An unfortunate characteristic of the project was its relatively short operational range, which along with the unrealiable machinery posed a great disadvantage in the utilization against the mercantile convoys, despite the extensive system of fuel tanks that the German built in the Atlantic. Apart from this, they were very well adapted for operating on their own due to their powerful main armament and their very well controlled anti-aircraft battery.

After the signing of the Russo-German Pact in 1939 it was proposed to Russia to exchange the three last ships of the class (which had not been yet completed) for raw materials. However, only that which was farther from completion (the Lutzow) was transferred. The Prinz Eugen, as we know, was finally completed as she had been designed. It was proposed to convert the Seydlitz, fourth ship of the class, into an aircraft carrier. Germany had already launched the Graf Zeppelin of 23,570 tonnes of standard displacement and laid down the keel of her twin, but it was not appreciated the vital importance of an integral air force in the sea, so the construction continued in an intermittent way. When the loss of the Bismarck made clear the importance of a seaborne air force, the work in the Graf Zeppelin was retaken and the transformation of the Seydlitz was started. However, since the Allies achieved a too large superiority in the sea none of them was completed.

The Admiral Hipper took part in operations in Norway and in the Atlantic, and remained in the Baltic Sea from 1944. She was damaged during an aerial attack the 3rd May 1945 and subsequently scuttled by her own crew. The Blucher had a really short career, as she was sunk in the fjord of Oslo by the Norwegian coastal defenses the 9th April 1940, while carrying an invasion force onboard. Neither the Seydlitz (whose hull was rescued by the Russian) nor the Lutzow were completed and both were later scrapped. After being abandoned her conversion into an aircraft carrier, which had started in 1942, the Seydlitz was eventually scuttled the 29th January 1945. After having been sold to Russia in 1940, where she was renamed "Petropavlovsk" and later "Tallinn", the Lutzow was scrapped circa 1950.


Class: Admiral Hipper (Admiral Hipper, Blucher and Prinz Eugen)

Launched: 22 August 1938 in Germania naval shipyards, Kiel

Dimensions: 210.4 x 21.9 x 7.9 meters

Displacement: 14,707 tonnes (18,694 at full load)

Propulsion: 3 x propeller; 12 x Wagner boiler; 3 x Brown-Boveri turbine (one per shaft); 132,000 horsepower

Maximum speed: 33.4 knots

Operational range: 12,000 kilometers at 18 knots

Armor: 70-80 millimeters in waterline; 20-50 millimeters in armored deck; 105 millimeters in main turret front

Armament: 8 x 203-millimeter cannon (4 x 2); 12 x 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (6 x 2); 12 x 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (6 x 2); 8 x 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (8 x 1); 12 x 533-millimeter torpedo tube (4 x 3); 3 x aircraft

Complement: 1,600

Bad times for the Kriegsmarine

The 2nd February 1943 a series of dispositions were published, as part of the plan prepared by the chief of the German Navy to comply with the order given by Hitler for the disarming or scrapping of the warships regarded by the Fuhrer himself as useless for a modern war.

The first disposition referred to the cessation of all the works in battleships, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, aircraft carriers and troop transport ships, with exception of the ships destined to training. The cessation of the works comprised as well the weapons and equipment provided for these ships, but it would be regulated in such a way so as to prevent that an unexpected interruption of the works could affect the exterior. The disposition referred to the following ships: the battleship Tirpitz, the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, the light cruisers Koln and Leipzig, and the pre-dreadnought battleships Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein, which had been kept until then as training units.

The second disposition specified that the medium-caliber mountings existing onboard the dismantled ships should be employed in the coastal defense; that the disassembly of the heavy artillery would be discarded because the installation of these turrets in the coast would imply a year of work and because their disassembly would equal to the dismantlement of the ships, whose preservation and later utilization of the hulls and the onboard facilities would be impossible; and that the defensive power of the ships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst for repelling enemy landings would be considered more effective if it were possible to transfer these ships to the epicenter of the fight to serve as mobile heavy batteries, rather than to install their turrets in a certain point of the coast where they would have a limited effectiveness of local character.

The third disposition specified that the ships which were susceptible of dismantlement included those ships which were not prepared to the point of being operative and which required work in shipyards; those ships whose operative employment could not be taken into consideration because of their old age and the conditions in which they were; those ships which were no longer necessary for training the new promotions of officers and mariners, especially those of the submarine weapon; and those ships whose operative utilization would be required only for a limited time (such would be the case of the Tirpitz in Norway and the Scharnhorst in the Baltic Sea). This disposition also specified that the negative repercussions of military and propagandistic nature caused by the sudden dismantlement of the large units should be avoided.

The fourth disposition specified the units capable of putting to sea which would continue in service with the role of training the naval forces; these were the Prinz Eugen, the Admiral Scheer, the Lutzow, the Nurnberg and the Emden. They would be enough for ensuring the basic training of the new promotions of the submarine and surface forces, for the specialization centers of naval weapons and for the experimental and developmental activities of the Navy.

The fifth disposition indicated that the following ships remained in operative service: in the area of Norway, the Tirpitz until the autumn of 1943 and the Lutzow and the Nurnberg until the 1st August of the same year; in the area of the Baltic Sea, the Scharnhorst until the 1st July 1943 and the Prinz Eugen until the 1st May of the same year, to later serve as training ship. The Prinz Eugen, the Admiral Scheer, the Leipzig, the Nurnberg and the Emden were no longer in condition of fighting due to the continuous change of personnel, so they would receive only the necessary assistance for putting them in condition of accomplishing their role of training units.


The pride of the Kriegsmarine. From bottom to top: heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in 1939, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in 1942, battlecruiser Scharnhorst in 1942 and battleship Bismarck in 1941.

Related articles

The fate of the Admiral Graf Spee

The hunt for the Bismarck

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen

The fate of the Scharnhorst

Categories: Ships - Naval Warfare - World War Two - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2020-11-05

Article updated: 0000-00-00

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