Bread, Not Armored Cruisers!
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2019

Following the First World War, the Versailles Treaty limited German naval power to decidedly third-rank status. The Weimar Republic was left with eight pre-dreadnought battleships, only six of which could be operational at any one time. These could be replaced 20 years after their launch, but any new ship would be limited to 10,000 tons’ displacement.

The treaty placed no formal limit on armament, but German leaders understood that the Allied Powers would not tolerate anything greater than 11-inch (280mm) or at best 12-inch (305mm guns). The Allied naval experts consulted during the treaty’s drafting process assured the politicians that this would prevent the Germans from building anything more capable than coast defense ships like those operated by the Swedish navy.

Admiral Scheer visits Gibraltar, 1936.

The oldest of the pre-dreadnoughts, Braunschweig, had been launched in December 1902. Planning began for her replacement in 1920, but the initial designs concentrated on reproducing the excellent protection of the Imperial Navy’s dreadnoughts on a very small hull, sacrificing both speed and armament toward this goal.

When Admiral Hans Zenker took over the Reichsmarine in 1924, he ordered a fresh set of designs. Zenker had a new vision of the Navy’s role in a future conflict. The admiral believed France to be the most likely future opponent; it would be impossible to build a battle fleet to challenge the French alone, let alone the British. Therefore Zenker sought to maximize the possible: how could the Reichsmarine best aid the German effort in a future war?

This turned military bureaucracy on its head; the peacetime goal of any service is usually the expansion of its funding and influence at the expense of its nation’s other services. Zenker abandoned hope of new battleships and instead asked for long-range commerce raiders that could damage French trade in far-flung oceans, reducing French economic strength directly and naval strength indirectly by forcing the assignment of warships as convoy escorts and to hunt for these raiders. The ship should have enormous cruising range, and at least one tactical advantage over potential opponents.

Admiral Graf Spee leads Admiral Scheer and Deutschland in a peacetime naval parade.

At the high end of the plans, Zenker requested a 17,500-ton “cruiser killer” design. This ship would only be possible if the Versailles restrictions were eased, something that was not thought likely. An example appears in our Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold game. The designers gave Zenker four variants of what he considered politically feasible: a 10,000-ton armored ship with a speed of at least 26 knots and an armament of six 280mm guns. This would give her a gunnery advantage against the “Washington Treaty cruisers” then joining the American, British, French, Japanese and Italian fleets, as they were limited by treaty to 203mm (eight-inch) guns. The new ship would also be faster than existing battleships.

The Royal Navy and the Japanese Navy included battle cruisers with both heavier guns and greater speed than the new design, but Zenker considered this an acceptable risk. His new ship would at least have an edge over most of her likely opponents.

The designs laid before the navy’s chief included variants with 380mm (15-inch) and 305mm (12-inch) guns. Though such ships were not strictly forbidden, Zenker foresaw enough domestic political trouble getting the request approved and did not want to add foreign pressure on top of it. The admiral chose a design with its six heavy guns in two triple turrets, another radical departure from Imperial practice. German warships had always carried their guns in double turrets, as this was seen as offering better protection: a single hit could at most knock out two guns, and the turret armor could be thicker). The triple turret saved weight and was thought to give better gunnery results, since the fall of shot would be more tightly grouped.

Deutschland’s forward gun turret. Note the smaller bridge structure compared to her sisters.

Defense Minister Wilhelm Groener considered canceling the project outright, but eventually asked the Reichstag to fund one such ship. The outgoing Reichstag approved the request, but it became the focal point of the 1928 elections with the Social Democratic Party slate swearing to cancel the ship if elected under the slogan “Bread, Not Armored Cruisers!” The socialists won the highest vote total and became the dominant party in the new governing coalition, and soon found themselves forced to renege on the promise when their centrist coalition partners threatened to bring down the government if the cruiser were cancelled. The German shipbuilding industry desperately wanted the work and the implied renewal of German naval construction. The Communists embarrassed the Socialists by launching a petition drive to cancel the ship (an option under the Weimar constitution) but failed to gain enough signatures. Among the political fallout, Zenker was forced to resign and Erich Raeder became the new fleet commander.

The first ship, Deutschland, was laid down at Deutsche Werke in Kiel in February 1929. She came in at 11,700 tons standard displacement, having achieved great weight savings through welded construction of her hull (as opposed to the traditional rivets). She also saved weight and achieved her endurance of 10,000 nautical miles by carrying diesel engines instead of turbines.

The Imperial Navy had experimented with diesels for large warships, and in 1910 signed a contract with MAN for a diesel engine to help power the dreadnought Prinzregent Luitpold. The battleship would have had coal- and oil-fired boilers as well. Development problems slowed the diesel’s deployment, and the battleship was commissioned with her central engine room empty and her center propeller shaft alley welded shut. The engine was not ready for sea until 1917, and would have been fitted in the battleship Sachsen had she been completed.

Deutschland showed that the extra ten years hadn’t worked out all of the kinks in the marine diesel. Breakdowns were common, and she needed extensive yard work during refits, much more than a conventionally-powered ship. They did manage to exceed their design speed, making 28 knots, but this would be too slow to outrun the new fast battleships that entered service in several navies by 1940.

Though called a “pocket battleship” in the English-language naval press, this term greatly exaggerated the ship’s capabilities. She was about the same size as a heavy cruiser and armored on the same scale; the German Navy initially called them “armored ships” and reclassified the two surviving units as “heavy cruisers” in early 1940.

The Great Depression and the Reichstag controversy made it impossible to build a second ship right away, and another (Admiral Scheer) was not authorized until 1931 with a third (Admiral Graf Spee) laid down in 1932.

When the Nazis came into power in late 1932, Zenker’s vision of eight such ships was replaced by a larger building program. The two units projected for 1934 and 1935 were re-designed as the Scharnhorst class battlecruisers, using some of the material gathered for their construction. Raeder reverted from Zenker’s radical views on ship design to a more traditional German model, emphasizing protection over armament but adopting the new high-pressure steam turbines in place of diesels.

Admiral Scheer, sunk by RAF bombers 9 April 1945 at Kiel, seen a month later.

The armored ships proved successful as commerce raiders; Admiral Graf Spee sank only nine ships before meeting her end off Montevideo, Uruguay, but this had more to do with her commander’s shattered nerves than a design flaw. Deutschland (renamed Lützow in November 1939) was out of action for long stretches with torpedo damage, but Admiral Scheer conducted successful raids in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Two of the class appear in Second World War at Sea: Bismarck, and they are present both for their own missions and as optional units that could have been made available for Bismarck’s fatal cruise had German shipyards been able to refit them more quickly.

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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.