The Deutschland Class "Pocket Battleships"

By Chuck Hawks

Graf Spee
RM Admiral Graf Spee in 1936. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

The Deutschland (later renamed Lutzow) and her sisters Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee are an interesting class of ships. These "pocket battleships" (or, more accurately, "pocket battlecruisers") were essentially armored cruisers optimized for raiding on the high seas in the years before the proliferation of ship and airborne radar, long range maritime patrol bombers and escort aircraft carriers.

The romance of a lone raider on the high seas in wartime has always fascinated me, and many others. A truly great adventure, although dangerous in the extreme. ("Suicide by battleship," as one associate put it.)

The Deutschlands were a direct result of the Versailles Treaty prohibition against German capital ships larger than 10,000 tons. The intention was to limit Germany to coastal defense ships along the lines of the Swedish Sverige class, which would be limited to Baltic Sea and coastal North Sea operations. However, many senior officers in the new German Navy, who had served in the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet, wanted blue water ships.

The design of Germany's first post-WWI capital ships was actively and bitterly debated within the Kriegsmarine. Some wanted a relatively slow, "balanced" coast defense battleship with 12 inch guns and appropriate armor protection. Some favored what would later be termed a heavy cruiser type with 8.26 inch guns. Others favored a blend of fast capital ship and commerce raider characteristics, which of necessity would be lightly armored to keep the displacement somewhere near 10,000 tons. The latter type was ultimately accepted and became the Deutschland class.

The decision in favor of an 11 inch (28cm) main battery was mostly a political compromise. A big gun was considered politically necessary and 11 inches was the largest gun it was felt would not upset the Allies. A minimum of six main battery guns was desired, so the big guns were disposed in two triple turrets, one forward and one aft. This layout was adopted to save weight, although it was understood that three twin turrets would have been a more versatile arrangement.

In another attempt to avoid antagonizing the Allies, the new capital ships were not rated as battlecruisers, although with their big guns, light armor and high speed (for the time), they could have been considered as such. Instead, they were simply called Armored Ships (Panzerschiff). The Allied press coined the moniker "pocket battleship," which stuck.

The formula adopted was six 11 inch guns in two triple turrets on a cruiser size hull with cruiser level protection and diesel propulsion for extended range. Long range was critical, as Germany had no overseas bases.

The desired top speed was to be faster than contemporary battleships, all of which had a heavier armament, to allow the new ship to evade an unequal combat. It was felt that her 11 inch guns would allow her to out shoot the enemy cruisers that were fast enough to catch her. (The idea of a warship that could out run stronger types and out shoot faster types was certainly not new.)

Overall, it was a very clever design and state of the art at the time. They were the first of the third generation capital ships, the first to have electrically welded hulls to save weight and the first capital ships with diesel main machinery. Even so, the class wound up roughly 20% overweight.

The only ships in service at the time the Deutschland was commissioned that could both run her down and out-gun her were three, much larger, British battlecruisers. However, nothing could be done about that on 10,000 tons. Up to eight panzerschiff were planned, but rapid changes in both the national and international political climate resulted in only three being completed.

The first of the class, Deutschland, was authorized in 1928, laid down in 1929 and commissioned in 1933. Scheer was laid down in 1931 and commissioned in 1934. Graf Spee was laid down in 1932 and commissioned in 1936. Each ship grew a bit and differed in certain details, including the forward superstructure and fighting top. Recognition of the individual ships was therefore possible.

Admiral Scheer
RM Admiral Scheer characteristics. US Dept. of Naval Intelligence data sheet.

Specifications as Commissioned (from German Capitol Ships of World War II by M.J. Whitley)

  • Standard Displacement: 11,700 tons (Deutschland, Scheer); 12,100 tons (Graf Spee)
  • Full Load: 15,200 tons (Deutschland); 15,900 tons (Scheer; 16,200 tons (Graf Spee)
  • Length Overall: 186.0m
  • Beam: 20.7m (Deutschland); 21.4m (Scheer); 21.7m (Graf Spee)
  • Full Load Draught: 7.25m (Deutschland, Scheer); 7.43m (Graf Spee)
  • Main Machinery: 8 MAN two-stroke diesels, 4/shaft; 41,500-44,200 HP
  • Service Speed: 26 kts. (Deutschland); 27 kts. (Scheer, Graf Spee)
  • Max Trials Speed: 28.5 kts. (Graf Spee)
  • Range: 18,650nm at 15 kts. (Deutschland); 17,460nm at 15 kts. (Scheer, Graf Spee)
  • Main Battery: 6-28cm (2x3)
  • Secondary Battery: 8-15cm (8x1)
  • DP Battery: 6-88mm (3x2) Deutschland, Scheer; 6-105mm (3x2) Graf Spee
  • AA Battery: 8-37mm (4x2), 10-20mm MG (10x1)
  • Torpedo Tubes: 8-53.3cm (2x4)
  • Armor, Belt: 80mm (Deutschland, Scheer); 100mm (Graf Spee)
  • Armor, Deck: 45mm (Deutschland, Graf Spee); 40mm (Scheer)
  • Armor, CT: 150mm (Deutschland, Scheer); 140mm (Graf Spee)
  • Armor, Turrets: 140mm
  • Aircraft: 2 (1 catapult)
  • Complement: about 619

The Graf Spee entered service in 1936 and was sunk very early in the war, in late 1939, so modifications were few. The other two survived into April 1945, finally being dispatched in port by British heavy bombers armed with "tallboy" bombs. Both were modified throughout the war. They received raked (Atlantic) bows, large funnel caps were fitted, radar was added and the AA armament was progressively increased. The 88mm (3.46 inch) high angle guns were replaced with 105mm (4.1 inch) guns. The wartime complement increased to a maximum of about 1150 officers and men.

These ships were recognized as a serious threat to merchant shipping throughout the 1930s. Early in WWII, all three were employed as commerce raiders, achieving varying degrees of success.

The Deutschland briefly raided in the North Atlantic at the beginning of the war in 1939, but sank only two ships totaling 6,962 tons before suffering storm damage from heavy seas and returning to Germany. After the loss of the Graf Spee, Hitler approved renaming the ship to avoid the loss of a ship named "Germany." Her name was therefore changed to Lutzow in February 1940.

The Graf Spee conducted a longer and much more famous cruise in the South Atlantic at the beginning of the war, sinking nine ships for a total of 50,089 tons. This ended in a battle with a British hunter/killer force of three cruisers (1-CA and 2-CL) that damaged the Graf Spee and caused her Captain to seek shelter in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. A few days later, on 17 Dec 1939, the Graf Spee was scuttled in the mouth of the River Plate to avoid internment. She was the only panzerschiff to be lost while raiding.

On 15 Feb 1940, the two remaining panzerschiff, Lutzow and Scheer, were reclassified as heavy cruisers (CA). Although the former panzerschiff were similar is size and protection to heavy cruisers, their 11 inch guns technically disqualified them from this classification. By international agreement, heavy cruisers were limited to guns no larger than 8 inches. In addition, the panzerschiff were not designed to achieve the high speed (over 30 knots) of contemporary cruisers.

The USN classified their massive 12 inch gun cruisers of the Alaska class "large cruisers" (CB). The Alaskas were actually full size battlecruisers (CC) and the panzerschiff were essentially light battlecruisers ("CCL," to coin a designation).

The Admiral Scheer conducted the longest wartime raiding cruise and had the most successful career of the three. She departed occupied Norway late on 28 Oct 1940 and cruised through the North Atlantic to the South Atlantic and Indian oceans, not returning to Germany until 1 Apr 1941. She had cruised 46,419nm and sunk or captured 16 Allied ships totaling 137,223 tons.

In reality, a similar size ship with 8 inch main guns and a couple of knots more speed could have done the same job, there being no significant difference between an 11 inch battery and an 8 inch battery to a merchant ship. As members of wartime task forces, the panzerschiff proved less useful than conventional heavy cruisers, principally due to their inferior speed. The later German heavy ships were capable of 30-32.5 knots and high speed was seen as critical to evade superior Allied task forces.

The Deutschlands were certainly under-armored or over-gunned, depending on how you look at it. The only way a ship of that size with 11 inch guns could be "balanced" would be if it were a coastal defense ship, as the Allies intended. The type of ship the Kriegsmarine, I believe wisely, decided against.

My biggest complaint about the design is only two main battery turrets. I would have accepted smaller bore guns (if necessary) and the cruiser level armor scheme if I could have my six main guns in three twin turrets. Weight could have been saved by eliminating the heavily armored conning tower and replacing the 5.9 inch secondary battery with dual-purpose 4.1 inch guns. The latter would also simplify the ammunition supply and handling. Of course, the Kriegsmarine staff realized the flaw in a two turret design and there was immediate pressure for a three turret ship that eventually resulted in the Scharnhorst class.

The later Hipper class heavy cruisers were better balanced ships of similar size, but they were not capital ships and did not cause as much consternation to the world's major sea powers as did the Deutschlands when they were introduced. In that sense, the Deutschland design was politically very successful. It announced to the world that the German Navy refused to be limited to coastal operations.

When criticizing the panzerschiff, one must remember their design (hampered by the hated Treaty of Versailles) was approved in 1928 and the last of the three ships, the Graf Spee, was laid down in 1932. They were designed for the type of naval operations envisioned at that time.

When introduced, they were very advanced ships. Yes, they were under-armored and they were not as fast as many of the subsequent third generation capital ships they inspired, such as the Scharnhorst and the French Dunkerque. However, as the 1940-41 cruise of the Admiral Scheer demonstrated, when employed correctly and given a little luck, they could perform effectively.

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Copyright 2015, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.