Tag Archives: Operation rheinübung

The Bismarck’s Last Battle

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is a massively edited and expanded version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood.

I also apologize for not publishing this yesterday as I had planned. I went a lot deeper into my research and could not complete it before I needed to go to bed. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

After a sleepless night in which they attempted to regain control of their ship and endured multiple attacks from destroyers before sunrise, the officers and crew of Bismarck were preparing their ship and themselves for what they all understood would be their final engagement. That sense of fatalism had been fueled by messages they received from Grand Admiral Raeder and Adolf Hitler that were broadcast to the entire crew. Raeder’s message said `All our thoughts are with you and your ship. We wish you success in your difficult fight.’ Hitler addressed the crew `All of Germany is with you. What can be done will be done. Your devotion to duty will strengthen our nation in its struggle for its existence. Adolf Hitler.’ At that point the crew knew that both Raeder and Hitler already considered them dead. Bismarck’s 4th Gunnery Officer Kapitänleutnant Burkhard von Mullenheim-Rechberg was told by another gunnery officer spoke words that Mullenheim-Rechberg would never forget: `Today, my wife will become a widow, but she doesn’t know it yet.’

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lütjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

On that fateful morning the British ships prepared for a battle, even Admiral Tovey donned his steel helmet and put cotton in his ears as his ships closed the range with the German ship. Rodney, which was already being prepared for her overhaul in Boston had much gear stowed about her decks.  Bismarck was ploughing in to force 8 winds (34-40 knots) and Bismarck struggled to maintain seven knots against the wind as the tension on her bridge mounted as the officers and watch standers knew that they would soon meet the British Battleships that would soon sink their ship. These German officers were realists who knew that their lack of maneuverability made them both a sitting duck for the British onslaught, and not be able to control their gunfire as they might have under better circumstances.

At 0833 Tovey order his ships to close with the last reported position of Bismarck. Their lookouts sighted the German ship at 0843 at a range of just over 25,000 yards. Rodney opened fire at 0847 followed by King George V a minute later. Bismarck’s forward turrets opened fire at 0849, and her first salvos straddled Rodney, something that sent shivers through British sailors who remembered the fate of the Hood, however that was the closest Bismarck got. Her inability to maintain a stable course, something necessary for accurate naval gunfire inhibited her gunnery, while Bismarck’s position amid rain squalls degraded the accuracy of the British gunfire.

For about 12 minutes an uneventful exchange of gunfire ensued, but at 0902 Rodney found the range and two of her 16” shells hit the forward part of Bismarck’s bridge, killing many senior officers and knocking out her forward fire control radar and fire direction equipment, also damaging turret Bruno, the forward 15” turret directly forward of the bridge. The hit blew the rear armor off the turret and over the side of the ship. The hydraulic lines to Anton were cut by a hit and her guns drooped down to their maximum depression, making them useless. At 0908 shells from both British  Battleships, as well as the cruisers destroyed the forward gun direction radar and disabled turret Anton. Bismarck’s Fire control was shifted to the aft fire control center under Mullenheim-Rechberg. In six minutes half of Bismarck’s main battery, and her main fire director destroyed.

Under his control Bismarck’s aft turrets, Cäsar and Dora began to find the range of King George V, and on their fourth salvo straddled the British flagship, but at 0913 the director cupola was destroyed by a 14” shell from King George V. The result was that Bismarck was no longer able to control its main battery fire. Mullenheim-Rechberg wrote about his reaction to the hit:

“My aft director gave a violent shudder, and my two petty officers and I had our heads bounced hard against the eyepieces. What did that? When I tried to get my target in view again, it wasn’t there; all I could see was blue. I was looking at something one didn’t normally see, the `blue layer’ baked on the surface of the lenses and mirrors to make the picture clearer. My director had been shattered. Damn! I had just found the range of my target and now I was out of the battle.”

Mullenheim-Rechberg, ordered the turrets to continue under local control, but within fifteen minutes every turret on Bismarck was out of action. At 0921 turret Dora was put out of action when a shell misfired in the starboard gun, killing much of the turret crew and leaving the gun tube peeled back like a banana. Ten minutes later turret Cäsar was silenced. Only a few guns of her secondary armament, useless against battleships remained in action. At 0930, Captain Lindemann passed the order to prepare to scuttle and abandon ship.

With no real threat to themselves the British ships closed to point blank range, Rodney to a mere 2500 meters, where her 16” and 6” blazing away and hitting the helpless ship with almost every shot, as did King George V and the cruisers from slightly farther away. Without opposition They fired shot after shot into the helpless German ship, but she still remained afloat, though the burning of fires within, seen through holes in her upper deck. She was listing 20 degrees to port and down by the stern, yet on her mainmast her battle flag still flew. Admiral Tovey could not believe Bismarck had remained afloat despite the barrage she had been subjected. In the last minutes before he ordered that the rate of fire be increased, as he due to the smoke he could not see shots hitting hitting. He was concerned. He had remained on station close to ten hours longer than his fuel situation recommended, and he knew that the Germans would certainly send Luftwaffe bombers and U-Boats to attack any British ship the found. Every minute that he remained would make his ships return that much more hazardous.

As the British continued to fire, the situation aboard Bismarck became ever more desperate. Lütjens had been killed. Lindemann was trapped on the forecastle of the ship and made no attempt to escape the sinking ship.

Reluctantly, Tovey ordered the British Battleships to cease fire and withdrew do to a lack of fuel and the real threats of air and submarine attacks. Whether Bismarck remained afloat or sank, Tovey had no doubt the great German ship would never make port. But there was much sympathy for crew of Bismarck. One British officer thought “Pray God I may never know. Another thought “What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt.”  For 45 minutes the British ships had rained a hail of steel  at Bismarck without threat to themselves. Rodney’s Captain, F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton said “I can’t say I enjoyed this part of the business much, but I didn’t see what else I could do.” Likewise, King George V’s Captain, W.R. Patterson remarked that he would have stopped firing earlier if he had been able to see what was going on aboard Bismarck. 

Observers on the British ships could see flames shooting out of the many holes in her superstructure and little knots of men scurrying about the decks, some climbing over rails and jumping into the sea. Aboard Bismarck Mullenheim-Rechberg saw Rodney just 2500 meters away, her now silent guns still trained warily on Bismarck and he wrote “I could look down their muzzles. If that was her range at the end of the battle, I thought, not a single round could have missed.”  

As the King George V and Rodney withdrew from the action Bismarck all that remained was death and destruction. All senior officers except First Officer Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels were dead. Oels ordered that the ship be abandoned and scuttled before he was killed trying to direct some 300 members of the crew to safety, and telling them that the ship had been scuttled and they needed to abandoned ship when a shell hit the crowed space, killing him and over 100 crewmen.  Since scuttling cocks and watertight doors has already  The senior remaining engineering officer Gerhardt Junack ordered the scuttling charges fired, just as HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedos which hit the German ship. The hits stuck the armored belt of Bismarck, and one hit her superstructure as she began to capsize. None would have sunk the Bismarck. 

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

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The end of the Bismarck

The British battleships and cruisers fired 2,876 shells at Bismarck, of which an estimated 300-400 hit Bismarck. This doesn’t mention her previous damage; the three 14” hits scored by Prince of Wales, the three aerial torpedoes from the Swordfish from Victorious and Ark Royal, including the one in a million hit on the night of 26 May which crippled her, and another 3-5 torpedo hits from Rodney and Dorsetshire. 

The shells fired included 380 of 40.6 cm (16”) from Rodney339 of 35.6 cm (14”) from King George V527 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Norfolk254 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Dorsetshire716 of 15.2 cm (6”) from Rodney, and 660 of 13.3 cm (5.25”) from King George V

Though the British had had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained  afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

Following the scuttling order, the ships  watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams. Likewise, pumps which were being used to pump water out of flooded spaces were reversed. Likewise engineers had the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. At 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the torpedos fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship still argue. But truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. It was estimated that about 800 men successfully abandoned ship. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser believed that they spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations to avoid attack. Aboard King George V, Admiral Tovey mused of the words that he would finish his operational report.

Their withdraw left hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted, the U-558 had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers Junack, Mullenheim-Rechberg and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck. Combined with the three men who survived the sinking of Hood, those lost on Prince of Wales, and other ships, nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished during Operation Rheinübung. Junack entered the West German Navy when it was established and in 1958 was the first commander of the Bundesmarine damage control and survival school. Mullenheim-Rechberg became a diplomat and later wrote Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story. Admiral Tovey retired in 1946 became a member of the House of Lords. He died in 1971. Captain F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton retired as an Admiral in 1950 and served in a number of minor civil service positions until 1983. He died in 1984. Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1943 and was appointed Third Sea Lord and Controller where his primary mission was the creation of the vast amphibious armada used from Operation Torch to D-Day. In May of 1945 he was promoted to Admiral and Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet. He died unexpectedly at his home at the age of 57 in September 1945. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder resigned following Hitler’s Tirade against the surface Navy following the Battle of the Barents Sea in January 1943. After the war he was tried for major war crimes by the International Military Tribunal and was found guilty on all four counts and sentenced to life in prison. He was release for health reasons in 1955 and died in 1960. Captain Patterson was Knighted and promoted to Admiral. He retired in 1950 and died in 1954. 

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. In fact only two of Rodney’s 16” shells penetrated Bismarck’s armored belt out of the hundreds of shells that hit her. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

As the survivors went into the water the Bismarck began to sink by the stern as she began to capsize. Some crew member attempted to dive headfirst over the port side only it break their necks on the bilge keel. Others decided to slide feet first as the ship began to capsize. When Bismarck sank some 800 of her crew were adrift in the open Atlantic. The Dorsetshire and the last of Vian’s destroyers went to rescue of the survivors. The sea conditions and their injuries made rescue hard, but then a lookout sighted a periscope, and the rescuing ships took up their lines and steamed away, leaving hundred to die of exposure or drown. A few others would be rescued by German and Spanish ships, but of over 2200, officers, crew, and the admiral’s staff, only 115 survived.

At 1100, Winston Churchill informed the House of Commons of the battle: “This morning shortly after day-break, the Bismarck virtually immobilized, without help, was attacked by British battleships that pursued her. I don’t know the result of this action. It seems however, that Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and now will be sunk by torpedoes. It is believed that this is happening right now. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful enemy battleship, as she is the newest enemy battleship and the striking of her from the German Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining effective mastery of the Northern sea and maintenance of the Northern blockade.” Churchill had just sat down following the announcement when he was handed a note. He rose again From his seat and said: “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.” After so much bad news the members loudly and lonely cheered and clapped at the news.

The German High command issued their statement in the evening.

“Berlin, May 27, 1941. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces announces: The battleship Bismarck, which in her first battle against superior British forces sank the Hood and damaged the King George V, had her speed reduced by a hit forward. A torpedo from an aircraft attack that took place on the 24th of May, again affected her speed. On May 26, when 400 miles west of Brest, towards 21 hours, the ship was again hit by two aerial torpedoes from aircraft, destroying one steering gear and propellers, and the ship was unable to steer. During the night, the Chief of Fleet, Admiral Lütjens sent the following report to the High Command of the Navy: ‘Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer. Chief of Fleet.’ Contending with enemy naval forces which were gradually being reinforced, the battleship Bismarck went on fighting in her incapacitated state, until finally, on the morning of May 27, she fell victim of the superior strength of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, several cruisers and destroyers. The British formation itself has been attacked early today by German bombers. The thoughts of the entire German people are full of pride and sorrow towards the victorious fleet commander, Admiral Lütjens, during his naval battle in Iceland, towards the battleship Bismarck, her commander, Captain Lindemann, and his brave crew.”

Bismarck was now at the bottom of the seas, and within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world. While the legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surviving German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Bismarck’s Survivors in England

But from the perspective of the survivability of a battleship against overwhelming odds and against a massive number of hits by shells and torpedoes. Bismarck was not sunk by the fusillade of British shells and torpedoes, but by the actions of her crew, ordered by Captain Lindemann and carried out by Commander Junack and his engineering and damage control teams. The expedition which discovered her wreck and subsequent explorations of the her by multiple teams have determined damage sustained by Bismarck by the British gunfire and torpedoes was not the cause of her sinking, at least of when she sank. Of all the hits on her main armored belt, only two of the 16” shells of Rodney pierced them. None of the torpedoes, except the last ditch strike launched by Ark Royal’s Swordfish which disabled her steering gear and ended her chance of a safe escape to France, did any appreciable damage.

The one weakness were not appreciated at the time was the structural weakness of the stern of Bismarck, a design flaw found in the Scharnhorst Class, and the Admiral Hipper Class Heavy cruisers. After Bismarck was lost, Tirpitz and other ships with the same weakness were corrected. The last 35 feet of the stern collapsed either shortly before her sinking or afterward. In 1942 Prinz Eugen had her stern collapse from a single torpedo hit.

However, even today there are many controversies about what was the cause of the sinking of Bismarck, however, there are no ships that were designed and built after the Washington and London Naval Treaties, even those built in defiance of them, that ever survived the amount of damage that Bismarck sustained in her short career. Prince of Wales was sunk by just four aerial torpedoes, Roma of the Vittorio Veneto Class, was sunk by one hit by a German guided rocket, Jean Bart of the French Richelieu Class, put out of action by a few 16” shell hits from USS Massachusetts, and last but not least the massive Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi. Both ships were far larger than Bismarck and had much heavier armored belts, decks, and turrets, yet they were sunk by much less ordnance. Yamato was by 11-13 Mk 13 Aerial torpedoes and 6-8 550-1000 pound bombs. Her sister, Musashi was hit by an estimated 19 torpedos and 17 bombs. Their weakness was their torpedo protection. Though on paper their torpedo protection appeared strong there were three major weaknesses. First the voids between the triple underwater armored belts were left empty, rather than filling them with reserve water or fuel. Second, the upper main belt was not joined well to the lower torpedo belt, which created a vulnerable seam just below the waterline, and finally, their bow sections, which were very long were poorly protected, resulting in massive flooding when hit by torpedos. The only modern battleship to survive a large number of hits from 14”, 8”, and 6” shells, was USS South Dakota which was struck by at least 26 shells, but only one was 14”. It is it is doubtful if she or any other ship could have survived the damage inflicted on Bismarck.

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

The Late Treaty and Post Treaty Battleships, an Introduction

Line Drawing of the German H-39 Class Battleship

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still on Trump and COVID19 overload so I am going back to the introductory article of a series I planned years ago.

This is the introductory article for a series of ten articles on the classes of battleships built or planned by the major powers following the expiration of the Second London Naval Treaty. A previous series of articles dealt with the battleships constructed in compliance or close compliance with the treaty. This series will cover the Japanese Yamato Class, and Super Yamato Classthe British Lion Class, the Vanguard, the German Bismarck and H39 Classes, the French Alsace Class, the Soviet Sovyetskiy Soyuz Classand finally the American Iowa and Montana classes.

Model of the Montana Class

When I first wrote this article over a decade ago I classed all of these ships as post-Treaty designs while overlooking the fact that most were designed during the Treaty period, and that most were designed and built in violation of it, or by invoking the  escalator clause. In truth only the Vanguard, the Montana’s and the never laid down German ships of the H-41 Class and beyond, as well as the Japanese Super Yamatos.

All of these ships were designed and built or designed in the late 1930s and early 1940s and with the exception of the Sovietetskiy Soyuz Class built on each navy’s past experience in battleship design and construction. The Japanese had constructed no treaty battleships in the 1930s, so the Yamato’s were the first battleships constructed by Japan since the Nagato Class which had been completed in the 1920s and the incomplete Tosa Class.

The Bismarck

The Second London Naval Treaty of 25 March 1936 was signed by France, Britain and the United States. Japan walked out on the conference and the Italians did not sign because of the outcry that their invasion of Abyssinia had evoked.  The treaty called for ships to have a standard displacement of not more than 35,000 tons and main armament not to exceed 14” guns. This was a reduction in the size of armament from the previous London and Washington treaties. When the Japanese delayed and then refused to sign the agreement, as did the Italians, refused the United States invoked the escalator clause which permitted them to disregard the treaty limitations.

USS Iowa lead ship of the Iowa class

The Americans who invoked only the armament part of the clause on the North Carolina and South Dakota classes. However they took full advantage of it to construct the 45,000 ton Iowa class. The plans called for six of this class, but only four were completed. The Montana Class of 65,000 tons mounting twelve 16” guns and Provided protection against that type of shell. The Montana Class ships were never laid down but because of their features will be covered in this series of articles.

Line Drawing of the Lion Class

Following the King George V Class the Royal Navy planned the Lion Class which was in essence an enlargement of the King George V Class armed with nine 16” guns.  Four of the Lion ships we’re planned, but none were to built. They cancelled early in the war and only one further battleship the 44.500 ton HMS Vanguard would be completed by the Royal Navy but not until 1946.

HMS Vanguard

The Germans, who were not a signatory to the treaty but had an agreement with Britain to limit their total naval tonnage to 35% of Britain’s had build the Scharnhorst Class Battlecruisers in the mid 1930s and began the Bismarck Classthe largest capital ships completed in Europe. These were to be followed by the H39, H41, H42, H43 and H44 classes ranging in displacement from 56,444 tons to 131,000 tons with armament ranging from eight 16” to eight 20” guns. Since just two of the H39’s were laid down and then cancelled while in the early stages of construction, and the others never laid down, so I will only discuss the H39 class in this series. The others only existed in the world of a mad dictator’s fantasies.

Sovyetskiy Soyuz Class

The Soviet Union which was never a signatory to any of the naval treaties and had not built a battleship since the First World War planned the massive Sovyetskiy Soyuz Class. This would have been a Class of 15 ships would have displaced 58,220 tons and mounted nine 16” guns. Several designs were evaluated, including those of American and Italian shipbuilders and designers. The foreign designs were rejected in favor of a Soviet design. However, the timing coincided with Stalin’s purge of the Armed forces leadership, as well as men who ran military and naval production plants. This added a further delay in their design and construction. The four initial ships of the class were laid down but never completed due to the Nazi invasion in 1941. Construction was halted and all were scrapped after the war.

Yamato

The Japanese Yamato Class, the largest battleships ever constructed of 69,998 tons standard displacement armed with nine 18” guns, the largest main battery ever installed on battleships were the largest capital ships built before the second generation of U.S. Navy super carriers.

The French Alsace Class was intended to counter the German H-39s. They would have been an enlarged and more heavily armed modification of the Richelieu Class. However, the German attack and and conquest of France led to their cancellation before they were ever laid down.

The first article I write will be about the Bismarck Class and that will appear later this week. This will be cutting it close because I plan on dealing with Operation Rheinübung, the deployment of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen which would turn out to be one of the most intense times of the war, especially for the British and the Royal Navy. So tomorrow on to the Bismarck and Tirpitz.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under germany, History, imperial japan, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Power, Beauty and Tragedy at Sea: The Battlecruisers Scharnhorst & Gneisenau

Scharnhorst

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was too tired last two nights to write anything. Thursday I had a long but good day at work and had to clean out much of my private email last night before I could do anything else because I was at over 90% of my email storage capacity. And it took forever to sort through it and get it down to almost 50%. Likewise, I did very little on social media. I finally caught up on my comics from the last couple of days and replied to some correspondence that I needed to do and began to work on this last night, but again found that I was too tired to complete it. So when it appeared that I wouldn’t complete it until after midnight I simply said “what the hell” and put it off until now.

This is another one of those posts to switch things up and write about a class of warships that I find fascinating, the World War II German Battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. First and foremost I think that they were among the most beautiful capital ships ever built. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t have design flaws, or were superior to many other capital ships. Gneisenau’s career was cut short by Germany’s inability to protect her while in port, while Scharnhorst was the victim of an ill planned sortie under the command of an admiral who had no experience commanding large ships and who had only assumed command of her task force the day before. So if you are a Naval history or warship  buff, enjoy.

Have a great day, stay inside and if you have to go out wear a mask and keep a safe distance from others to protect you and them.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

The naval architects of Germany in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Nazi Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy.

Gneisenau refueling  from Tanker Westerwald in July 1939 

The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, Panzerschiffe, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later during the war were reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships which Germany was allowed to retain following the Treaty of  Versailles. The ships incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruising range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns. It was believed that as surface raiders their speed would allow them to avoid battle with all existing battleships except the three British Battlecruisers Hood, Renown, and Repulse, while being able to outgun any heavy or light cruiser they might encounter on such a mission. While they were an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by Hood, Renown and Repulse, as well as later French Dunkerque and Strasbourg. 

Gneisenau

The next and first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau battleships which in reality were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships. The Hermans did. plan to rearm them with 15” guns but the war kept that from happening.

Scharnhorst before the War 

Despite the disparity in their main armament, their displacement and armor protection was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US North Carolina class.  Only the British Hood was superior to them in speed. However, their speed came at a cost, they did not have the long cruising range to make them truly effective commerce raiders because they were propelled by steam turbines which consumed large amounts of fuel. Since the Germans did not have a fleet replenishment system like the U.S. Navy, nor the secure network of worldwide bases of the Royal Navy, they could only operate in the Northern Atlantic or Arctic for limited amounts of time. If damaged there were few safe harbors for them which had the capability of repairing them without them being exposed to allied bombers.

Gneisenau Main Battery

As built they displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand after being damaged in Operation Cerberus to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

Scharnhorst in Action Against HMS Glorious

Scharnhorst was laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936. She was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping in the North Atlantic. On 23 November 1939 they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi while on patrol near the Faroe Islands.

During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers HMS Ardent and Acasta on 7 June 1940. It was the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war. However, Scharnhorst was hit by a torpedo from Acasta which led to her being withdrawn to Trondheim, for temporary repairs before retiring to Kiel for permanent repairs.

Scharnhorst during Operation Berlin and being Refueled during the Operation

From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base. During the action the task force encountered the British Battleships HMS Ramillies and HMS Malaya escorting different convoys which Lütjens refused to engage. After sinking ships from another convoy they encountered HMS King George V and HMS Rodney which they escaped using their superior speed, but by now, Lütjens realize that the danger of continuing the outweighed the potential success and headed for repairs in the port Brest, in occupied France.

While in Brest Scharnhorst needed repairs to a superheater for her boilers, while Gneisenau was damaged during a British air raid and were unable to deploy with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen for Operation Rheinübung, during which Bismarck sank HMS Hood, but was damaged by a 14” shell from HMS Prince of Wales which cut the fuel line from the ship’s forward fuel tanks. Lütjens decided to cut the mission short and escape to Brest, but was damaged by an aerial torpedo from a Swordfish torpedo bomber flying from HMS Ark Royal which wrecked her steering gear and allowed HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, as well as cruisers and destroyers to catch and sink her on May 27th. Prinz Eugen returned safely to Brest to join the Battlecruisers.

The Channel Dash Seen from Prinz Eugen above and below


                          Admiral Cilliax Addressing the Crew of Scharnhorst at Kiel

While at Brest Gneisenau was again bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port, the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  Commanded by Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax,  Operation Cerberus took place from 11-13 February 1942. It involved the Battlecruisers and Prinz Eugen, accompanied by destroyers, E-Boats, and R-Boats. The force was protected heavy Luftwaffe fighter cover, Code named Operation Donnerkeil the air operation was commanded by the legendary Luftwaffe fighter ace, General Adolf  Galland. 

The dash up the English Channel, was unsuccessfully contested by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The German ships successfully broke through the Channel in broad daylight and protected itself from being damaged by aircraft, motor torpedo boats, destroyers, and shore batteries. Once clear of the channel and headed for home both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau struck mines which caused various amounts of damage, but both got through to Kiel.

The success of the daylight passage through the English Channel shocked and infuriated the British public. The Times of London published an editorial on 14 February which fumed:

Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our sea-power has happened since the seventeenth century. […] It spelled the end of the Royal Navy legend that in wartime no enemy battle fleet could pass through what we proudly call the English Channel.

Despite the fact that then Operation was successful, the high command of the German Navy Their breakthrough was an embarrassment to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The high Command of the German Navy considered it a tactical victory but a strategic defeat, for it had traded a base, albeit exposed from which it could conduct offensive operations, to the defense of Norway, a mission of dubious value at best.

                                    Gneisenau after being Bombed in Floating Dry Dock

While undergoing repairs in a floating dry dock at Kiel Gneisenau was heavily damaged by the Royal Air Force on the night of 26-27 February. The damage was such that the Kriegsmarine High Command decided to elongate her damaged bow section and rearmament to replace her main battery with 15” guns. Once seaworthy she steamed to the port of Gotenhafen for full repairs and rearmament. Although some work was completed the conversion was halted by Hitler who was infuriated by the failure of a German Task Force at the Battle of the Barents Sea, 30-31 December 1942. Hitler fired Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and and gave an order to scrap what remained of the German surface fleet and concentrate on the U-Boat war. Admiral Karl Donitz prevented the scrapping of the fleet, but most ships were laid up and their crews reassigned to provide crews for U-Boats. Gneisenau was disarmed with her 11” and twin 5.9” removed and installed along the Atlantic Wall. One triple 11” turret, either Bruno or Dora was installed as part of a coastal defense battery in Norway. The battery was taken over by the Norwegians after liberation and remained in commission as Austrått Fort until 1968. Since then it has become a well preserved museum.

When the Red Army approached Gotenhafen her remaining crew moved her to the harbor entrance and sank her as a block ship on 27 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped in 1951.

Gneisenau Sunk as Blockship 

Turret of Gneisenau at Austrått Fort Norway

 

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia. On Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey the Scharnhorst set sail with several destroyers undertook Operation Ostfront and the ensuing battle became known as the Battle of North Cape. The mission was an attack on two Russia bound convoys. But the orders were intercepted and decoded by the British. Admiral Bruce Fraser planned a trap to intercept and neutralize Scharnhorst. 

Once Scharnhorst sailed the battleship HMS Duke of York, four cruisers and a number of destroyers as she closed on the convoy. However, due to the sea conditions Bey detached his escorting destroyers and ordered them to return to port.  Duke of York and her supporting cruisers and destroyers engaged Scharnhorst. Bey now realized he had no chance of destroying the convoy and attempted to escape.  However, Scharnhorst was damaged and her speed and maneuvering capabilities impaired.  Now virtually defenseless and surrounded the great ship was sunk with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew. Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Sinking of Scharnhorst by Charles Turner ( c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Survivors of Scharnhorst debark in England 

Thus ended the careers of two of the most beautiful battleships ships to grace the seas. Though their  careers were short they both survived frequent heavy battle damage to return and fight again.  Perhaps  their greatest weakness was the inability of the German Navy to provide them adequate escorts at sea, and the inability of the Luftwaffe to protect them against air strikes while in port. But ultimately their great weakness was the poor naval strategy employed by Hitler and Raeder at the beginning of the war which ensured their destruction. Of the major German surface units only the Pocket Battleships we’re capable of long range commerce raiding operations. The short range of the other heavy German ships, their reliance on steam turbines rather than Diesel engines, lack of air and surface support at sea, and secure overseas bases that that could operate doomed all of them to failure, and resulted in the deaths of far too many brave sailors, fighting for their country in an unrighteousness and evil cause.

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