Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau vol. I

The Kriegsmarine battleships, in fact, were only four vessels introduced during 1935-1941.




The first two, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were ready before the war and two others, Bismarck and Tirpitz, were commissioned into the fleet after it had begun. That was the biggest achievement in the arming of the German navy conducted by A. Hitler. Interestingly, all these ships served within the period no longer than a fiscal quarter. If we calculate, it lasted from February to May 1941. In the meantime, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were stationed in Brest, France, Bismarck was getting ready for raids on the Atlantic and Tirpitz was finishing her sea trials and getting ready for commissioning. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had already been through a baptism of fire, which ended with a little victory on the British sea routes. However, staying on the French coast, they constantly were under the threat of airstrikes. The career of Bismarck ended with her sinking though she had successfully attacked British convoys before. As the consequence of that defeat, the German network of sources on the Atlantic was destroyed. Since that moment, raids by heavy German battleships became almost impossible to carry out. Besides, they were suffering from the ever-expanding control of the Atlantic by the Allies. Considering that, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped to Germany via the English Channel. That bold plan of returning is recognised successful; it became a tactical achievement of Germans but there was a strategic failure behind its apparent excellence and heavy cruisers started being gradually withdrawn from combat operations. The beginning of the end of their military performance was stationing them on the Norwegian waters.

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Afraid of a potential attack by the Allies, Hitler commanded to deploy battleships and battlecruisers to Norway in order to ensure the supply of ore necessary for manufacturing weapons. Before that, Gneisenau got attacked and badly damaged, which made her unable to fight almost till the end of the war. In the meantime, Scharnhorst and Tirpitz remained the only serviceable vessels that could sail to Norway. There they stayed hidden in fjords and were plaguing by the problem of bad fuel supply. After the unsuccessful ending of the Operation Regenbogen in July 1942, Hitler understood that heavy units of the Kriegsmarine were unable to fight and he ordered to disengage them. This made Commander-in-Chief Grand Admiral Raeder resign. Although his successor, Dönitz, managed to save most of the ships from getting scrapped, fortune abandoned those units. In 1943, the battlecruiser Scharnhorst got sunk by British vessels.

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Tirpitz, the only to remain, sank on 12 November 1944. That was the last ship of its class in the Kriegsmarine. The time of heavy ships was irrevocably gone and the history of German battlecruisers ended with that one.

The history of both battlecruisers goes back to the end of 1932. In November, the Reichsmarine admiral Raeder met with Reich Minister of Defence, general Groener. During this appointment, they agreed on empowering the future German fleet, which by the end of 1938 featured 6 Panzerschiffe, 6 cruisers, 6 destroyers, a flotilla of torpedo boats, 3 flotillas of patrol boats and, in case of the beneficial political situation, 16 U-boats. However, minor difficulties occurred when this ambitious plan was being realised. Construction works on the third unit (Ersatz Braunschweig) coincided with the start of construction the French battlecruiser Dunkerque. According to the intelligence information, the estimated displacement of that ship was approximately 26,000 t. Yet the biggest surprise for Germans was its potential speed of 31 kn. If the French armed their vessel with eight 330mm guns, it would become stronger than the Deutschland-class units. Suddenly, there was a bad situation for Germans as their ship could be weaker and slower that its prospective adversary. The completed project of the fourth Panzerschiffe ‘D’ (Ersatz Elsaß) was suspended and its implementation postponed to 1931-1934.


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