Salmon and Gluckstein Revisited
Part Six

By Kristin Ann High
April 2016

Click here for Part Five.

The Ships

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were ordered and laid down as improved Panzerschiffe—the Germans originally designated them as Panzerschiffe 'D' and 'E', respectively. The path through which the improved Panzerschiffe became Schlachtshiffe 'D' (Scharnhorst) and 'E' (Gneisenau), is complicated by factors as disparate as evolving German naval doctrine, the political manœuvering of the Great Powers in Europe, and the always-present effect of escalation in naval armaments among those Great Powers.

The Panzerschiffe

The inaugural event was the German reinvention of the armoured cruiser [1] with the building of Panzerschiffe 'A' (Deutschland) and 'B' (Admiral Graf Spee) between 1929 and 1934 [2]. The German Panzerschiff means "armoured ship," and is disingenuously close to Küstenpanzerschiffe, the armoured coast defence ships of the old German Navy [3].

The Panzerschiffe, however, were in no sense coast defence ships. Built for endurance, high speed, and superior acceleration, their main engines were not steam-driven turbines, but 9-cylinder MAN diesels providing 54,000 brake horsepower (bhp) for a flank speed of 26 knots [4]. Not only did the two-stroke double-action diesels give the Panzerschiffe a wartime cruising range in the neighbourhood of 17,000 nm, they provided superior acceleration to steam-driven turbines, which could be decisive in the opening moments of a surface action. They were also easier to maintain and repair than steam turbines, an important consideration for a navy having no overseas bases.

The Panzerschiffe were armed for commerce warfare. Although their main battery was much heavier than that of any cruiser, neither the number of rifles, nor their arrangement, was oriented towards surface action against warships. The six 11"/52-calibre C.28 main battery rifles were carried in two triple LC.28 turrets [5], one foreward and one aft. This was ample for dealing with auxiliary cruisers and armed merchant ships, sufficient for dealing with the older cruisers likely to be guarding a convoy, and adequate for handling modern light cruisers.

The secondary battery comprised eight 5.9"/55-calibre C.28 rifles, in eight single MPL.28 shielded pedestal mounts, while the tertiary battery comprised six 4.1"/65-calibre C.33 dual-purpose rifles in three dual LC.31 shielded pedestal mounts. The Panzerschiffe also carried a fairly robust ack-ack mount for 1930s-era ships, with eight 37mm/83-calibre HACN and ten 20mm/65-calibre C.30 LACN [6]. Lastly, the Panzerschiffe were fit with eight 21" torpedo tubes in two quadruple-tube mounts, and all carried two floatplanes with an athwartships catapult.

The principal weakness in a surface action was the siting of the main battery turrets fore and aft, which meant that escorts, likely to be in superior numbers, could overwhelm the ship's main battery by attacking the raider from both beams. The secondary battery was heavy enough for use against destroyers and light cruisers, but the weapons were poorly sited and lacked protection. The tertiary battery was rather light, and it, too, was poorly sited and lacking in crew protection.

The Panzerschiffe were not heavily armoured, depending on speed and firepower for most of their protection. With their high flank speed, the Panzerschiffe were fast enough to outrun existing British, Italian, and French battleships. The only ships both numerous enough to serve as convoy escorts and fast enough to outrun the Panzerschiffe were light cruisers, and against these ships the Panzerschiffe counted on their superior acceleration to keep the range open long enough for their heavy main battery rifles to shatter the poorly armoured enemy ships. Against multiple cruisers the Panzerschiffe might find the ranges dropping, but their armour protection was proof against the 6-inch rifles comprising the main battery of the British and French light cruisers [7], and against the light cruisers and auxiliary cruisers (armed passenger ships) of both Allies.

In the event, this scheme proved to be the largely successful—at The Plate, the armour protection of Admiral Graf Spee defeated the fire of Ajax and Achilles, despite seventeen hits, while the auxiliary cruiser Jervis Bay proved no match for Admiral Scheer. Against lighter warships like destroyers, trawlers, and sloops, the speed, power, and protection of the Panzerschiffe were simply overwhelming [8].

Treaty cruisers [9], armed with 8-inch main batteries [10], proved to be rather more difficult. Although the Germans believed their armour plate was sufficiently strong to prevent an intact 8" APC round reaching the vitals of a Panzerschiff, experience proved otherwise. At The Plate, Exeter—a modified “County”-class treaty cruiser—scored a hit on Admiral Graf Spee that penetrated the main belt and both interior armoured bulkheads before exploding, just missing the machinery spaces. But treaty cruisers were at a distinct disadvantage against a Panzerschiff, as their armour protection was in no way able to withstand the German ships' main battery, which also gave the German ship the advantage in range. At The Plate, Exeter was battered almost to ruin before Admiral Graf Spee ceased firing on her, and she was able only to land three hits against the German ship.

The only ships clearly superior to the Panzerschiffe were the old enemy of German armoured cruisers, Royal Navy battlecruisers. But the once-mighty Battle Cruiser Fleet was now reduced to three ships, Renown, Repulse, and Hood. Of the three, only Renown could comprehensively dominate a Panzerschiff in the open sea, having superior speed, a heavier main battery, and enough armour protection to batter the Panzerschiff to pieces before the German ship could close within effective range of its main battery. Repulse and Hood could probably match the speed of a Panzerschiff, but it is an open question as to whether they could have run her down.

More importantly, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were permitted to build up to eight such ships, while the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty prohibited Great Britain from building more battlecruisers, even had the funds been available, and the political will to build such ships at hand. The immediate answer to the Panzerschiffe thus came from the Third Republic.

Scharnhorst in early 1939.

Dunkerque and Strasbourg

The French ships Dunkerque and Strasbourg were laid down after the first two German Panzerschiffe, and they were clearly intended to answer the threat of those ships. Although most sources credit the French ships with being the progenitors of the fast battleship, a close reading of their construction details—the ships were as heavy as contemporaneous battleships, and as heavily armed as most of those battleships, yet they were 8 to 10 knots faster than any battleship then at sea—shows the unmistakable signs of their ancestry.

Jacky Fisher's navy coined the term that still applies to such a ship, and the French employed it for the design studies that were the precursors of the new ships—Croiseur de Combat, the battlecruiser. They bought their speed at the price of armour protection—the very definition of the Croiseur de Combat.

The first step of escalation was clear in the French battlecruisers—though the French themselves always classed the ships as battleships—as they were significantly heavier than the Panzerschiffe, at 35,500 tons as against 16,200 tons [11], while still being faster—both French ships could make 30 knots over eight hours on 114,050 shaft horsepower (shp), easily 4 knots faster than the German ships could manage at full power.

The French ships were also much better armed, mounting eight 13"/50-calibre M.1933 main battery rifles in two quadruple turrets [12], both mounted foreward. They had a numerous, though somewhat light, secondary battery of sixteen 5.1"/45-calibre M.1932 Dual-Purpose rifles in three quadruple turrets and two dual turrets, with these batteries capable of strong concentration aft. Most sources consider the two ships' secondary battery to be the first dual-pupose weapons, though they seem to have been prone to jamming and crew fatigue under the high rate-of-fire conditions obtaining for ack-ack. The two ships were fit with eight 37mm/50-calibre M.1933 HACN in four twin mounts, and carried thirty-two 13mm/76-calibre Hotchkiss M.1929 HMG in eight quadruple mounts.

Their armour was intended to be proof against the German 11-inch rifles arming the Panzerschiffe—and thus also the 8-inch rifles arming treaty cruisers. The main belt was inclined, to increase its resistance to penetration while saving weight. The French ships' 13-inch rifles could defeat the German ships' armour at all ranges, while the German 11-inch C.28 rifles did not start to become a threat until the range had fallen to below 18,000 yards. With a 4 knot speed advantage, the French ships could work the range until they began to find the Panzerschiff, and then set about methodically demolishing it as they closed in.

The French ships also boasted extensive and sophisticated anti-torpedo protection as an integral part of their design, rather than as a compensating measure for excessive topweight then adapted to torpedo protection, as was the case with many Great War-era dreadnoughts and their modernization schemes.

The German ships remained superior in endurance and acceleration, but acceleration is only relevant if it can be used to achieve separation. If the Panzerschiff could shake the French ships, however, it had the cruising endurance to wait the bigger, faster French ships out—especially as it could later rendezvous with the network of German supply ships hiding at sea.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau

The Germans were not slow to respond to the threat of the French ships, and the resulting designs provoked something of a controversy in the German government and Navy. The Navy wanted a direct answer to the French ships—a more conventional warship with heavier armament and better armour protection. The Reich government, now headed by Adolph Hitler, wanted a more heavily protected Panzerschiff. The Navy won, mostly.

The two ships to counter the French battlecruisers were officially improved Panzerschiffe, needed to "match" Dunkerque and Strasbourg. The British, who had decided upon a unilateral naval arrangement with Germany, were satisfied with this justification, and that satisfaction was sufficient for Hitler's ends.

In some ways, the two German ships were scaled-up versions of the Panzerschiffe. They added a superfiring turret foreward to carry nine main battery rifles in three triple turrets, as against the six in the Panzerschiffe, but those rifles were still 11-inch, albeit the newer 11"/55-calibre C.34 model. They carried more numerous secondary and tertiary batteries, and these were sited better, but the rifles themselves were the same—and the secondary battery still suffered from poor arrangement, with two sets of single-purpose rifles intermixed. Armour protection was improved considerably, but was still not sufficient to defeat the French 13-inch rifles, and deck armour remained weak. The new ships were two to four knots faster, about equal to the French ships.

There were costs associated with the additional armament, increased armour, and improved speed. The new ships were almost twice as heavy as the Panzerschiffe, at 38,100 tons deep load displacement, and about the same as the French ships and two of the three British battlecruisers—Hood, at 48,360 tons deep load, being the exception.

To move that weight at 30+ knots required a conventional steam power plant, in place of the economical diesels. Endurance fell by almost half, to around 9,000 nm on 6,200 tons of fuel oil, while the steam plant made maintenance and repairs almost impossible at sea. In addition, the new German high-pressure steam plants were unreliable, making the need for frequent maintenance pressing, and increasing the risk of breakdowns necessitating repair.

Although the new ships were more powerful surface warships than the Panzerschiffe, they were not well-suited for commerce raiding, particularly beyond reach of friendly ports. On the other hand, in the surface warfare rôle, they were inferior to both the new French ships and the older British battlecruisers, as their 11-inch rifles were less powerful than the French 13-inch and British 15-inch rifles.

The one fight the Navy lost, was in regard to the main battery. The Navy had wanted to fit the 15"/52-calibre C.34 rifle, in three dual-mount turrets, giving Scharnhorst and Gneisenau a main battery equal to that of the French and British ships. The Reich government worried that the adoption of 15-inch rifles would alarm Great Britain, and insisted on retention of the 11" rifles.

The Anglo-German naval agreement of 1935 permitted main battery weapons of up to 16-inch, whereupon the Reich government ordered the Navy to fit the 15-inch C.34 rifles to the new ships, which were now officially Schlachtshiff.

The government promptly reversed itself upon learning that the turrets to mount the 15-inch rifles would take some time to develop and produce; the two new Schlachtshiffe would have the 11-inch C.34 rifles after all, with the understanding that the more powerful 15-inch C.34 rifles would be used to re-arm both ships as soon as possible.

Scharnhorst firing on British carrier Glorious, June 1940.

Rearming a warship, rather than replacing older models of a rifle with newer models, is a much more complicated proposition than might first appear. Almost everything about the main battery is involved in such a change. Even given that the turret mounts were constructed to accommodate the heavier battery, rearming Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was not a simple matter of dropping in six new 15-inch rifles and their new turrets. For the German ships, building in this future possibility meant making design trade-offs during their building.

A triple-mount LC.34 turret for the 11"/54-calibre C.34 rifle weighed 827 tons complete. A twin LC.34 for the 15"/52-calibre C.34 rifle weighed 1,160 tons complete. The turrets thus imposed a design burden of 3,480 tons as against 2,481 tons, making for a net increase of 999 tons.

The 11-inch C.34 rifles fired an APC round—PzSpgr— weighing 727.5 lbs., and an HE/SAP round—Spgr—weighing 694.5 lbs [13]. Both shells took a total propellent charge of 535.7 lbs. (262.4 lbs. of propellent and 273.3 lbs. of brass casing for the main charge). The main magazines could carry up to 150 rounds per rifle, so a load of 100 PzSpgr and 50 Spgr weighs approximately 94 tons. For nine rifles in three triple turrets, this yields a total weight of 846 tons of ammunition.

The 15-inch C.34 rifles fired an APC and an HE/SAP round both weighing 1,764 lbs. Both shells took a total propellent charge of 621.4 lbs. (467.4 lbs. of propellent and 154 lbs. of brass casing for the "main charge"), for a 15-inch round weight of 2,385.4 lbs. complete. The main magazines could carry up to 130 rounds per rifle, for a weight of approximately 155 tons (310,102 lbs.) per rifle. With eight rifles in four twin turrets, this yields a total weight of 1,240 tons of ammunition.

The difference in shell weights thus reduced the ammunition supply by roughly twenty rounds per ship. Full ammunition load for the 11-inch ammunition was 846 tons as against 1,240 tons for the 15-inch, making for a net increase of 394 tons.

Together, the additional weight of turrets and ammunition imposed a build burden of an additional 1,393 tons.

"As soon as possible", turned out to be never [14], but the possibility existed, nonetheless. Plans were in hand for both ships to be re-armed from the availability of the first turrets, in 1939. The ships would have then be nearly as potent with their main battery as were Bismarck and Tirpitz, allowing some leeway for the heavier ships' superiority as a gun platform, and the additional turret aft.

The Kriegsmarine had been primarily a policy tool wielded by the German Government in its efforts to absorb Austria, reclaim territories lost at Versailles, and recover the status of a Great Power. The Kriegsmarine was useful in this respect both as presenting a "gentleman's face" for the Nazi State—particularly towards Great Britain—and as potential maritime threat to the Third Republic, which that nation must answer.

The outbreak of war in September 1939 rendered what passed for subtlety in German diplomacy moot. Once the general European war began, the vast building programmes for the Kriegsmarine were pushed to the bottom of the priorities list—behind even automobiles and similar consumer items, the production of which, in the Allied countries, were almost immediately suspended.

There were three periods when the two ships might conceivably have been re-armed. The first, and probably the best from the point of view of the ships themselves, was during the winter of 1938–1939, when both ships were having "clipper" bows refit. The second was during the ten-month long period they were in Brest between March 1941 and January 1942. The final opportunity came during the yard periods for repairs necessitated by the failure of Operation Cerberus [15] in February of 1942. It was during this last that plans for Gneisenau's re-arming were briefly advanced.

The ships were in German yards, in peacetime, during 1938–1939, and the new turrets and their rifles could have been ready at least by the end of their yard periods. The priority for the 15-inch turrets in 1938–1939 lay with Bismarck and Tirpitz, and though there is a definite argument to be made in favour of putting off completion of the two big ships in order to re-arm the more flexible Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the political position of the Kriegsmarine made it unlikely such practicality would win out over the prestige of completing a pair of 50,000-ton battleships.

The long period in Brest offered the best possibilities in terms of the availability of yards and skilled workers, once the war began. But the ships in Brest were poorly protected by the Luftwaffe in France, and any move to re-arm them would almost certainly have intensified the air attacks on them, and possibly precipitated a Commando attack. The logistical obstacles of installing German turrets and rifles on German heavy ships in French yards is not lightly dismissed, either.

The last period, when the ships were being repaired in Germany after the disaster of the Channel Dash, has the fact that such a move was actually planned for Gneisenau to its credit. On the debit side is the fact that Gneisenau was condemned to a meaningless twilight during that very period, despite having suffered damage that was repairable. The German surface fleet was a political orphan in a mismanaged economy. With the East devouring war production of all kinds, and the focus of the German government almost exclusively filtered through the lens of that front, there was little enough hope for the surface fleet in Norway, much less those ships still in, or forced to return to, German waters.

In all probability, there is very little short of a major surface success that could have provided the Kriegsmarine with the kind of political capital it needed to re-arm Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and had such capital existed, it is not at all certain that it would have gone to the re-arming of the two ships. Raeder continued to press for Graf Zeppelin to be completed, despite the Kriegsmarine's utter lack of experience operating aircraft carriers, and the obstructionism of the Luftwaffe—which could not meet even part of its existing operational responsibilities, much less take on more.

Scharnhorst at sea, fall 1940.

End Notes

[1] The German is quite specific. Schlachtshiffe means literally "battle ships" (the singular is Schlachtshiff), while Schlachtkreuzer means literally "battle cruiser" (the plural is Schlachtkreuzeren). Great War-era armoured cruisers like Admiral Graf von Spee's Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were Großer Kreuzer, literally "great cruiser". Light cruisers like von Spee's Leipzig, Nürnberg, and Dresden were Kleiner Kreuzer, literally "small cruiser". With the emergence of the 8-inch "treaty cruiser" after the Washington Naval Treaty, cruisers became generally divided into light and heavy types, principally based on their main battery. The German for "light cruiser" was Leichter Kreuzer, literally "light cruiser", and the "heavy cruiser" was Schwerer Kreuzer, literally "heavy cruiser" (the plurals are Leichter Kreuzeren, and Schwerer Kreuzeren, respectively).

[2] The two French ships provided the Reich government—now led by Adolph Hitler—with the political justification to build Scharnhorst and Gneisenau necessary in the German Chancellor's view to keep relations with Great Britain friendly. Although the French protested violently over the two German "improved" Panzerschiffe, the British concluded a unilateral Naval Treaty with Germany.

[3] While the popular notion of summing up "weight-of-broadside" to calculate fleet power is fallacious—firing nine 2,000 lbs. shells "sends a massive broadside of 18,000 lbs. of steel hurling towards the enemy", but unless a shell hits, this impressive feat amounts to 0 lbs. of steel on target—the weight of an individual shell is of the first order of importance in surface naval warfare, for it determines the armour penetration and bursting charge capacity of the shell.

[4] The Befehlshaber der Aufklärungsstreitkräfte (BdA), the commander of reconnaissance ships or forces; a commodore commanding light forces employed to scout or screen heavy ships.

[5] These ships are known by a great many names, but their general lines are the same—merchant hulls, commonly passenger ships or large freighters, armed with a miscellany of old naval rifles and perhaps some depth charges or torpedoes, commanded by retired or passed-over regular Navy officers, with the remaining crew usually Reservists.

The German merchant raiders were called Handels-Stör-Kreuzer (HSK), "commerce disruption cruisers"; the Royal Navy employed the term Auxiliary Cruiser, although many later British histories use the term Auxiliary Merchant Cruiser (the German histories use Hilfskreuzer, "auxiliary cruiser" for the Allied ships); the most widely used term is Armed Merchant Cruisers, and is from that usage that the SWWAS Ship Type derives—AMC.

Whatever they were called, they were no match for a warship—except perhaps one crewed by Australians—and certainly not for two battlecruisers.

[6] Two Panzerschiffe had sortied from Germany during the crisis of August, 1939, to take up waiting positions in the Atlantic. These were Deutschland and Admiral Graf Spee. As is so often the case in such situations, crews see what they are expecting to see; Rawalpindi had been told that the Admiralty believed—correctly as it turned out—that Deutschland was operating in the North Atlantic. Deutschland's first war cruise was desultory at best, at least in part because the North Atlantic was alive with Allied warships. Deutschland returned to Germany via the Färoes-Shetlands Gap, anchoring in Gotenhafen 17th November 1939.

[7] Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945, by Jürgen Rohwer with Gerhard Hümmelchen, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, 2007. See also: "".

[8] Rohwer uses the German Nordpolarmeer, literally North Polar Sea; I believe this refers to the Norwegian Sea, but it may be that the German ships sailed into the extreme North of the North Sea, rather than the southern portions of the Arctic Ocean. Whatever the case, the German ships sailed above the Arctic Circle (Nordpolarkreis), a considerable distance for two such short-legged ships to sail just to "wait"—German sources are also silent as to what Marschall was waiting for.

[9] The heavy ships of the Home Fleet were at Greenock, in The Clyde, after U.47 sank Royal Oak in the Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow on 14th October 1939. There was thus a slim but extant chance that a German ship could slip through the Firth, though it would have taken a good deal of luck to manage.

[10] Forbes served as C-in-C Home Fleet until February of 1940, at which time he was relieved by Acting Admiral Sir John Cronyn Tovey; Forbes went to Plymouth as FOC Plymouth Command, a typical assignment for a former C-in-C Home Fleet before retirement. Forbes got his DSO for actions at Jutland.

[11] Norway was Neutral at this stage of the war, just as she had been in the Great War. She was struggling to keep both the Allies and the Germans from disregarding her territorial waters, and she was largely unsuccessful in her attempts.

[12] According to German sources, Vizeadmiral Lütjens was Acting Flottenchef while Admiral Marschall was on leave—possibly sick leave—and Marshall resumed command when he returned, on 23rd April. Exactly what the nature of Lütjens appointment as Flottenchef entailed is uncertain. Lütjens was certainly Battle Fleet Commander between 11th March 1940, after the failure of Nordmark, and 23rd April 1940, by which time the initial naval operations in support of Weserübung had completed. On 18th June 1940, Lütjens again replaced Marschall, this time permanently.

[13] The German is Kriegsschiffsgruppe, "warship group".

[14] This is the popular name for the opening phase of the Battle of Jutland, 31st May 1916, in which Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's Battle Cruiser Squadron engaged in a lengthy gunnery battle with Vizeadmiral Franz Hipper's Scouting Force. The Run To The South ended when Beatty found that Hipper had led him onto Admiral Reinhard Scheer's High Seas Fleet. Beatty then repaid Hipper in the same coin by starting the Run To The North.

[15] The Royal Navy's Naval Staff History claims that Renown struck Gneisenau on “A” turret— “Anton” in German parlance—and disabled the mount. German sources do not note this hit, nor acknowledge any damage to Gneisenau's main battery beyond that done to fire control equipment. It is not impossible to reconcile the two claims— Renown may have hit Gneisenau on “Anton” and knocked out its fire control equipment, or damaged the linkage between “Anton” and its DCT.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.