Plan Z:
German Light and Scout Cruisers

Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, conceived a massive new fleet in his Plan Z for naval construction, and for a brief period in 1939 actually had budgetary authority to move forward with the great project. There would be battleships, aircraft carriers and long-range commerce-raiding armored cruisers. But the program did not neglect supporting units in favor of the prestigious ships: there would also be cruisers, destroyers and other less-glamourous craft.

Starting under the Weimar Republic’s Reichsmarine and Raeder’s despised predecessor, Admiral Hans Zenker, Germany had built a series of small, fairly weak light cruisers. These ships lacked the range to effectively raid enemy commerce; in Zenker’s vision of the future, that role would be taken by armored cruisers (the so-called “pocket battleships”) and converted merchant ships. The light cruisers would help train new seaman and officers in peacetime, and support the destroyers and torpedo boats performing coastal defense missions in wartime.

Raeder grudgingly accepted the need for his fleet to attack enemy commerce, but wished to do so with a traditional battle fleet centered on battleships. That would require a new, longer-range light cruiser to support these big ships on distant missions.

Design work on the new cruiser, designated “M” (the previous light cruiser ordered, Lützow, had been designated as “L” before being re-ordered as a heavy cruiser), began in 1936. The new ship would be smaller than the original Lützow design, with a displacement of 8,000 tons, the same as the newly-completed light cruiser Nürnberg.

Like the other ships of Plan Z, the Navy demanded a very high speed: 35.5 knots. To achieve that, they would have a combined turbine/diesel power plant producing 115,000 horsepower (by way of comparison, the similarly-sized Nürnberg made 32 knots on 66,000 horsepower). The combined power plant had been used in German cruisers since Königsberg in 1926: the fuel-efficient diesels would be used at cruising speeds, with the turbines kicking in when full power became necessary.

The ship itself was only slightly longer and wider than Nürnberg, but had enormous range (8,000 sea miles, more than twice what Nürnberg could cover). That, and her speed, was about the extent of the design’s positive attributes. Like most of the other ships of Plan Z, Cruiser M was a badly-designed vessel patched together to make a funding deadline.

Where Nürnberg had carried nine 150mm (5.9-inch) guns, Cruiser M would have eight, in the same dual mountings that served as secondary armament on the Bismarck-class battleships. That would be augmented by four 88mm (3.4-inch) anti-aircraft guns and a dozen light guns – a ludicrously inadequate anti-aircraft suite. She would also carry eight torpedo tubes in quadruple deck mounts, in recesses on either beam. To meet another Navy requirement, Cruiser M was also fitted to act as a minelayer and carried 60 mines.

While the ship would be armored, it’s a stretch to call it protection. The belt would be 80mm (3.15 inches), the same as that of a Panzer IVE medium tank. The turrets, more properly called gunhouses, would have had even less protection. The 20mm deck armor, less than an inch’s worth, might not have stopped a sand-filled training bomb.

Despite these glaring inadequacies, the project moved forward with four cruisers ordered in May 1938. Work began on the first two cruisers that November, and halted in September 1939 with little progress having been made. The two hulls were promptly scrapped.

The ultra-long-range battle fleet foreseen by Raeder would also need an ultra-long-range destroyer to protect against air and submarine attack, and a project to provide such a boat began as a new destroyer. Destroyers of all nations had relatively short ranges, thanks to their relatively small size. Refueling them from oilers or battleships – the solution followed by the Americans and Japanese in the Pacific theater’s vast distances – did not seem practical. The Germans considered that the low speeds required for underway replenishment represented an unacceptable risk factor. Like German light cruisers, the new destroyer would have a combined turbine/diesel power plant, requiring two different fuels. And so the new destroyer would have to carry her own fuel supplies.

A destroyer with range comparable to the new battleships and cruisers, and the high speed Raeder demanded of the new fleet, would be enormous. Initial design work on what was then called an “Atlantic Destroyer” began in 1937, producing a 4,900-ton destroyer with a speed of 36 knots and a range of 4,500 sea miles. She resembled a larger version of the more “normal” German destroyers, themselves generally much larger than those of other navies.

Further design studies made in 1938 called for a 4,900-ton vessel with a speed of 37 knots and a range of 8,000 sea miles, but she lacked sufficient anti-aircraft armament for her escort role. Mission creep also set in, with the boat now also expected to scout for the battle fleet. That added a seaplane and catapult to the design. After further work, the redesigned destroyer now displaced 5,900 tons.

That size, equivalent to some navies’ small cruisers, brought a new designation: Spähkreuzer, or Scout Cruiser. The Scout Cruiser carried six 150mm (5.9-inch) guns as its main armament, compared to five of them for the 1936A-type destroyer, a large boat by usual destroyer standards at 2,600 tons (about the same as the American Sumner and Gearing). There would be four 88mm anti-aircraft guns and 20 light anti-aircraft weapons. The cruiser would have 10 torpedo tubes in a pair of centerline quintuple mounts. And since she had not been laden with enough conflicting mission requirements, she would be fitted as a minelayer and carry 50 mines as well. On top of that, she retained the destroyer anti-submarine mission, and so carried depth charges and depth charge throwers as well.

Armor protection would be very light, mostly serviceable only against splinters. The ship (no longer a boat after the promotion to cruiser status) would have a 40mm (1.57-inch) armored belt, which would defend her against rifle fire and not much more – but the Navy demanded an armored belt, and the architects provided one.

Orders for three Scout Cruisers were placed with Kiel’s Germaniawerft shipyard in February 1941, replacing contracts for the 1936B-type destroyers Z40, Z41 and Z42. Thy would receive no names, but simple numeric designations like destroyers. Work proceeded slowly, until an air raid destroyed the only complete copy of the building plans and progress ground to a halt. The incomplete hulls were scrapped in 1943. Machinery for three more Scout Cruisers was ordered in December 1941, but orders for the ships themselves were never placed.

The Scout Cruiser was a bloated, poorly-designed ship; apparently someone in the Construction Office agreed and concocted the transparent “airplanes ate our homework” excuse to stop the project. They were enormously expensive ships, laid down long after the battleships and carriers of Plan Z that they were to escort across the seven seas had been scrapped or cancelled. The Italians, to cite just one example, managed to design a much better (and faster) fighting ship on only 3,600 tons with their Capitani Romani class fast cruisers, but with a range of “only” 4,300 sea miles and no seaplane.

Raeder’s foolish insistence on performing the commerce-raiding mission with a traditional battle fleet’s ships resulted in a whole series of badly-designed compromises that met neither set of requirements. Plan Z’s ships would have been an unbearably expensive disaster for Nazi Germany had they been completed, but you can take them into action nonetheless in our Second World War at Sea: Plan Z.

Click here to order Second World War at Sea: Plan Z right now.

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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. Leopold despises motorcycles.