Alternatives for Deutschland

Article 181 of the Treaty of Versailles limited the German Navy to six pre-dreadnought battleships of the Deutschland or Lothringen classes, with a provision for their replacement when they reached 20 years’ service (measured from the ship’s launch date). By the late 1920’s all of the Weimar Republic’s battleships exceeded this limit, and the Reichsmarine’s commander, Admiral Hans Zenker, looked at a number of alternative designs for new ships.

Article 190 governed the new ships, and it gave very little guidance: an upper displacement limit of 10,000 tons, with no mention of armament or other characteristics. Allied negotiators apparently believed that would limit the Germans to coast-defense ships like those built by Sweden, but Zenker had other plans.

The admiral reviewed multiple plans for each of several alternatives, ranging from the 17,500-ton battle cruiser he truly wished to build through coast-defense ships, long-range armored cruisers and an unusual heavy cruiser design. Eventually Zenker chose a radical new design for a long-range, diesel-powered armored cruiser that became the famous “pocket battleship” Deutschland (and her two sisters).

Our Serpent Worship Festival 2017 Golden Journal includes the “Alternatives for Deutschland” variant with six of these designs (plus the original design proposed for the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau). Let’s take a look at them:

The Battle Cruiser

This was the ship Hans Zenker really wanted, but he knew it would require an easing of the Versailles Treaty tonnage restriction that seemed highly unlikely. But just in case, design work went ahead alongside that for the armored cruiser that became Deutschland.

Zenker’s ship had turbines, nominal armor protection and the very high speed of 34 knots. She would carry eight 12-inch (305mm) guns in four double turrets and also sport nine 5.9-inch (150mm) guns and torpedo tubes. Her task would be to hunt down and destroy enemy heavy cruisers, thereby leaving the convoys they escorted vulnerable to surface raiders.

The Coast Defense Ships

While the Versailles Treaty did not limit the armament of the new ships, it did place strict limits on the manufacture and importation of heavy guns. Germany could not manufacture guns larger in caliber than 11.1 inches (280mm), could not retain heavy guns manufactured under the Imperial regime, and could not import weaponry of any type or size.

Nevertheless, Zenker entertained proposals for coast-defense ships with much heavier guns than those allowed. One unique design featured three 15-inch (380mm) guns in a single triple turret mounted forward, with four 5.9-inch (150mm) guns facing aft in a pair of double turrets. In effect a sea-going monitor, the ship would have heavy armor protection but not a great deal of speed. An equally-fanciful variant design mounted 13.8-inch (350mm) guns and used the weight saved for more armor.

A more conventional ship carried four 15-inch (380mm) guns in a pair of double turrets fore and aft, good protection and moderate speed. Germany’s international situation had improved markedly with the Locarno Pact of 1925 which promoted reconciliation between Germany and France, and Zenker believed the Versailles restrictions on armaments could be eased at least slightly.

The Armored Cruisers

Zenker chose the design that became Deutschland from a number of armored cruiser proposals, all of them maximized for commerce raiding – very good endurance, not so much protection.

One ship very similar to the winning entry also carried six 280mm guns in a pair of triple turrets, but went without any 150mm guns and thereby came closer to the displacement limit of 10,000 tons (Deutschland weighed in at 11,700 tons; weight crept upward still further with each subsequent sister ship). Otherwise she was very similar, with diesel propulsion but she was expected to turn in better speed thanks to the weight savings.

The more conventional option carried four 305mm guns in a pair of double turrets, retaining the 150mm secondary battery and coming closer to the displacement target. She also lacked a catapult and aircraft, considered vital for commerce raiding. This ship carried her secondary armament in dual turrets rather than the single gunhouses of the design selected.

The Heavy Cruiser

Zenker put 280mm guns on his armored cruiser because he could – as many on his staff pointed out at the time, smaller guns might have been better-suited to the commerce-raiding mission. But simply building a Treaty cruiser like those of other nations would do nothing to enhance the prestige of the Reichsmarine, and would also mean stepping back from fleet that included capital ships to third-tier one built around cruisers.

Even so, the design team produced a sketch of a ship similar to the armored cruisers, but carrying a quadruple turret with 203mm guns in the fore and aft positions. She would have been slower than similarly-armed cruisers of other nations, though she would have the enormous range required for commerce raiding.

The Fourth Pocket Battleship

Initial plans called for Germany’s fourth and fifth new capital ships to be greattly improved versions of Deutschland and her sisters. Adolf Hitler would later order their expansion into small battleships with much heavier armor and a third turret bearing three 280mm guns.

Design work began on these ships in 1931, while the Weimar Republic still held power though Hans Zenker had been replaced by his bitter personal foe Erich Raeder. As armored cruisers, ships D and E (following Imperial practice, names were not formally assigned until a ship was launched) would have a similar outward appearance to Deutschland and her sisters.

But these would be significantly larger ships than their near-sisters; Germany had escaped consequences for cheating on the displacement of the Deutschland class and Raeder chose to ignore the 10,000-ton limit. The new ships would have much better armored protection and turbines instead of diesels. That would give them a better turn of speed, though not enough to register at the Second World War at Sea scale, and less range.

Ship D (which would become Scharnhorst) would also be fitted as a fleet flagship, signaling a change in mission from far-seas raider to a more conventional role – though just who such a ship might usefully fight in a sea battle is hard to determine.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.