The “pocket battleship” (panzershiffe: "armored ship"), was a German warship officially classified by weight as a heavy cruiser but with the firepower of a battleship. The design was meant to comply with the terms of the Versailles Treaty (which allowed post-WWI Germany only a couple of battleships over 11,900 metric tons) while providing the German Navy with more capital ships.
In all, Germany built and operated three pocket battleships: the Deutschland (later renamed the Lützow), the Admiral Graf Spee, and the Admiral Scheer. Each had a displacement of 11,700 tons and an average crew of 30 officers and 1040 men. Main armament consisted of 6 11-inch guns in two triple turrets and 8 6-inch guns in individual turrets. Two propeller shafts, driven by diesel powerplants, gave the ships a top speed of 28 knots. In addition, each ship carried two float planes. All saw service in World War II.
The first of this new class of ship, the Deutschland was launched in 1931 and commissioned in 1933. She was active in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War, evacuating refugees and escorting German ships carrying supplies to the Nationalists. In May 1937, the ship was attacked by Republican aircraft and suffered two bomb hits. 23 sailors were killed and 73 wounded. In retaliation for this attack, Adolf Hitler ordered the bombardment of the Republican-held harbor of Almeria by the Deutschland's sister ship, the Admiral Scheer.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Deutschland was at sea. After a delay, she was sent into the North Atlantic to conduct commerce raiding. She sunk or captured three merchant ships (over 11,000 tons in total) before weather damage forced the ship to the safety of Kiel harbor, arriving on November 15, 1939. It was on this date that the ship was renamed. This was done partly to confuse enemy intelligence, and partly because it was felt that if a ship bearing the name of the German nation was sunk, national morale would be damaged. Consequently, the ship was renamed in honor of Adolf Freiherr von Lützow, one of Germany’s most distinguished military commanders from the Napoleonic Wars.
After a refit in the port of Danzig, the Lützow was sent north as part of Operation Weserubung, the German invasion of Norway. The ship was loaded with 400 Wehrmacht troops and sent to Oslo with the heavy cruiser Blucher, the light cruiser Emden, and three torpedo boats. The group succeeded in capturing the Norwegian forts in Oslofiord, but shore-based batteries sunk the Blücher and damaged the Lützow. On the way home, she was intercepted by the British submarine Swordfish and hit by a torpedo which destroyed her rudder. She was taken under tow and entered the port of Kiel in April 1940. Between the artillery and submarine attacks, the mission had cost the Lützow 35 dead and damage that would take almost a year to repair.
On June 12, 1941, the Lützow, accompanied by an escort of destroyers, set out for Norway, but was hit by a torpedo from a British bomber, forcing her return to Kiel for another six months of repairs. Bombing raids and bad weather caused delays, but the Lützow sailed for Norway on May 15, 1942, to join the Admiral Scheer in Narvik. Both ships were sent to intercept Convoy PQ 17, destined for Russia. While leaving port, however, the Lützow ran aground in the fog, necessitating a return to Germany for further repairs. The ship returned to Norway in November, and was sent, with the cruiser Admiral Hipper and several destroyers, to intercept Convoy JW 51 headed for the Soviet Union. The mission was a failure; no merchant ships were sunk, and the Lützow failed to score a single hit on the enemy. Part of the reason was bad weather, and part of it was inadequate coordination between the German ships. Adolf Hitler was reportedly furious about this fiasco, and ordered that all of Germany’s heavy ships be scrapped and their guns be reassigned for use on land. The new Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Karl Donitz, was able to change Hitler’s mind, although Hitler had very little confidence in his surface units from that point on.
Aside from one last sortie to Norway, the Lützow spent the rest of the war in the Baltic Sea, on training exercises at first, then on escort and support missions as the German army retreated from the Soviet Union. She was still a prime target for bombing attacks, and on April 16, 1945, suffered a near miss by a “Tallboy” bomb from an RAF Lancaster. This opened a breach in her hull, causing significant flooding. The flooded areas were pumped out, but the ship was no longer fit for sea, and served as a battery in the port of Swinemünde until her ammunition ran out. After this, the Lützow was scuttled in Swinemünde harbor on May 4, 1945.
Admiral Scheer was the second ship of the class, launched in April of 1933 and commissioned into the German Navy in November 1934. Her namesake was the commander of the German fleet at the Battle of Jutland. Like the Deutschland, she saw service in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War. On May 31, 1937, the Admiral Scheer bombarded the port of Almeria in reprisal for the Republican attack on the Deutschland, causing serious damage and many casualties.
When World War II began, the Admiral Scheer was in harbor at Wilhelmshaven. On September 4, she was attacked by RAF bombers, but suffered no damage. She spent the rest of 1939 in the Baltic Sea on training exercises, then underwent a major overhaul in port. Finally, in October of 1940, she was sent out on her first major combat mission of the war, to intercept enemy shipping in the Atlantic. Over the next six months, the Admiral Scheer sank or captured 17 merchant vessels and 1 armed merchant cruiser, totaling over 113,000 tons, on a voyage that spanned the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. After returning to Germany in April, she underwent an overhaul at Kiel. Another commerce-raiding mission was planned, but after the sinking of the battleship Bismarck, this was cancelled for fear of further losses.
In February 1942, the Admiral Scheer was sent north to Narvik, in Norway, and was later joined by her sister ship, the Lützow. Both ships were assigned to attack the Arctic convoy PQ 17, but the Lützow ran aground, and the Admiral Scheer never made contact with the enemy. On a later mission in those waters, she had more success, sinking an icebreaker and shelling Soviet shore facilities.
In December 1942, the ship returned to Wilhelmshaven for an overhaul. Bombing attacks in port caused only minor damage to the Admiral Scheer, but forced its removal to Swinemünde on the Baltic Sea. The overhaul was completed, and the ship was transferred to the Fleet Training Group, where she was used in the training of Kriegsmarine cadets through 1943 and most of 1944. In autumn of 1944, the Admiral Scheer was reassigned to provide fire support for retreating German forces on the Eastern Front. Surviving several attempts by Soviet aircraft to sink her, she continued this mission in 1945, in addition to evacuating refugees. In April, while in port in Kiel for desperately needed maintenance on her gun barrels, she was hit and heavily damaged by an RAF bombing attack, causing her to capsize soon afterward. As most of her crew was off the ship while this maintenance was taking place, the loss of life was minimal.
Admiral Graf Spee
See main article: Admiral Graf Spee (heavy cruiser)
This ship was the third ship of its class, and the most famous. It was named after a German admiral who had been killed in the First World War. The Graf Spee was launched in June 1934 and officially commissioned into the Kriegsmarine in January 1936.
When the war began, the cruiser was sent out on a commerce-raiding mission in the Atlantic. She sank her first victim off the coast of Brazil, and destroyed or captured nine more vessels before being intercepted by a British cruiser force. In the Battle of the River Platte on December 13, 1939, the Graf Spee damaged 3 cruisers, but suffered several hits and a number of casualties. The German ship made it to the port of Montevideo, but the port’s neutrality meant that it could only stay for three days, not enough time to make proper repairs. Faced with what he believed to be a superior British force, the captain chose to scuttle the ship.
- German Pocket Battleships, by Gordon Williamson, Osprey Publishing, 2003
- Denmark and Norway 1940, by Douglas C Dildy, Osprey Publishing, 2007