In the aftermath of the First World War the German fleet had been left without all worthful ships, and there was nothing at first to indicate that the force would be revived. Despite the restraints imposed, it was not long before engineering work on heavy vessels was underway.
The first warship of the new type was named Deutschland. With rather unconventional technical specifications, she could not be easily and explicitly classified within a definite category of ships. The Deutschland’s service was long and intensive. Later on, during the course of the Second World War, both her name and classification were changed to Lützow and heavy cruiser respectively.
The stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles that allowed Germany to retain a fleet of only six battleships and as many light cruisers in addition to twelve torpedo boats and as many torpedo boat destroyers came into effect on January 10, 1920. In 1922 five powers became signatories to the Washington Naval Treaty, on whose authority the German navy could replace the eight old battleships (including two in reserve) it had after World War I with new constructions. The displacement of the new warships was not, however, to exceed 10,000 tons. Two years after the treaty was signed, Germany started development of a future battleship under the contract name Ersatz Preussen which would enter service as a replacement for the reserve battleship Preussen.
The new vessel was envisaged in two ways. One view premised development of a warship for defensive tasks. This construction would feature armament of a power inversely proportional to the speed. The premise of the other view was a construction classified between the battleship and the cruiser. This ship would be armed with six 28cm guns and eight 12cm ones. Fitted with two Diesel engines rated at 54,000 horsepower, she would attain speeds of up to 28 knots. Such a construction would make the ship effective in combat against cruisers while the high speeds would make her fast enough to overtake battleships. Initially, the naval authorities were inclined toward the former, more traditional concept. However, in June of 1927 Admiral Zenker, commander-in-chief of the Reichsmarine, changed his mind and supported the development of a warship based on the other construction.
The designing stage allowed development of two ships, “A” and “B”, unconventionally classified as Panzerschiffe, or literally “armored ships”. They were later commonly called battleships while the English-speaking countries used the term “pocket battleships”. When planning a budget for the year 1928, though, the higher chamber of the German parliament did not approve funding for initial construction of the “A” ship, justifying the refusal with the horrendous state of the Reich’s finances. The case ended up with the lower chamber, the Reichstag, who approved the project on March 27, 1928. The polemic over spending money for naval armament had taken almost a year. It was not until a memorial by the Reich’s minister of defense—in which he argued for the necessity to defend communication with East Prussia in the event of war with Poland or France—that the opposition yielded and the project could be approved.
The ship’s keel was laid on February 5, 1929. The Reichsmarine had signed the contract for building the vessel with the German shipyard Deutsche Werke AG of Kiel. The celebratory launching of the ship’s hull took place more than two years later, on May 19, 1931. Apart from a numerous audience of approximately 60,000 observers, the official ceremony was attended by the Reich’s president Paul von Hindenburg and the chancellor Heinrich Brüning. During Brüning’s speech the ship began to unexpectedly slide down the slipway. A bottle of champagne was broken over the bow at the very last moment, thus concluding the christening of the battleship by the name of Deutschland.
A construction outline
As has already been mentioned, the leading premise of the design work on the warship was the fitting of possibly heavy guns and a power unit capable of reaching significantly high speeds while at the same time keeping displacement relatively low at around 10,000 tons. To reach these objectives necessarily required making considerable savings in the tonnage area. That was achieved at the expense of the armor, which was not very solid: on the main belt it was 80mm at the thickest part whereas on the main deck it was 45mm.
The ship was propelled by eight Diesel engines manufactured by MAN that allowed her to attain the speed of up to 28 knots at 48,390 horsepower. Range was impressive, ensuring no less than 17,400 miles of travel at a fuel-efficient speed of 13 knots. Still, the choice of the compression-ignition units proved to be inexpedient, as the ship would be troubled by frequent breakdowns in the future.
The armament, on the other hand, was very strong. The main artillery consisted of six 28cm guns in two triple turrets (one at the bow and one at the stern). A secondary battery of eight 15cm guns was mounted at single positions amidships and arranged four per side. This was complemented by anti-aircraft weapons: three 8.8cm guns, eight 3.7cm guns and eight 2cm ones. Because of an increasing threat of aerial fire, the anti-aircraft battery would later be modified and reinforced on multiple occasions. The ship also carried torpedo armament, with two quadruple 53.3cm launchers installed at the stern.
Early service and the Spanish Civil War
The outfitting work was carried out until November of 1932. In January of the following year the battleship underwent her first sea trials. On completion of propulsion system tests and after artillery trials, she was commissioned into the Reichsmarine on April 1, 1933, where command of the ship was taken by Kapitän zur See Hermann von Fischel.
The Deutschland’s maiden voyage began in May of the same year. She departed Wilhelmshaven and, through the Skagerrak, headed for Kiel. This period of time was spent dealing with engine malfunctions and training the crew. Then the Deutschland continued on her first voyage, visiting Balholmen in Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. When in the Skagerrak waters, she took part in a modest ceremony held in remembrance of the people killed in the Battle of Jutland. The battleship returned to Wilhelmshaven on June 1. After some engine defects had been removed on the ship, the Deutschland set out again on June 6, now for the Baltic Sea, in order to conduct speed trials and artillery tests. She was eventually declared ready for active naval service on December 10, 1933.
Early in the following year the battleship’s crew underwent training, whereupon the ship left Kiel in April. She was headed for Norway and carried the Reich’s chancellor Adolf Hitler onboard among others. On return to Kiel in May of the same year, the Deutschland participated in fleet exercises in the Baltic Sea. In June she performed artillery drills in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean with assistance from the light cruiser Köln. Further maneuvers took the ship to the Swedish port of Göteborg in the autumn. The battleship’s cruise continued with a visit to Scotland in October of 1934 as a Reichsmarine flagship. When back from this voyage, the Deutschland cast anchor again at the Wilhelmshaven shipyard for maintenance and refitting. The shipyard work was completed by February of the following year.
In March of 1935 the battleship was ready to set out on a voyage to Brazil, Trinidad and Aruba. The focus of this long cruise was engine testing. The Deutschland returned to Wilhelmshaven on April 19, having covered more than 12,000 nautical miles at an average speed of 16 knots. On September 30, 1935, the battleship was passed under new command. With Kapitän zur See Paul Fanger now in charge, more artillery drills for the Deutschland followed in October with a sister battleship, the Admiral Scheer. These exercises took place off the Canary Islands and the Azores, and were accompanied by fuel consumption measurements and towing practice. After these maneuvers the battleship underwent thorough maintenance in November of 1935.
The first half of 1936 was generally a period of crew training. Later in May the Deutschland participated in a fleet review at Kiel on the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. This celebration also became an occasion to inaugurate a naval memorial in Laboe dedicated to commemorate the fallen sailors. From there the battleship sailed through the Bay of Biscay and the Irish Sea on to Copenhagen, where she paid a visit on June 19.
Because of the outbreak of a civil war in Spain, the Deutschland was called back in to Wilhelmshaven on July 23 from her torpedo trials being conducted in the Baltic Sea. She was resupplied with ammunition, fuel and food and ordered into Spanish waters along with the sister ship Admiral Scheer under the command of Konteradmiral Rolf Carls. Both vessels were followed by three other ships: the light cruiser Köln and two torpedo boats. The mission objective was to evacuate and provide security to German citizens who were staying in Spain. The actual purpose of the mission, though, was to protect German transport vessels which carried supplies for the nationalists commanded by General Franco. The Deutschland arrived at the port of San Sebastian on July 26, 1936. She also made stops at the ports of Bilbao and La Coruña, and afterwards at Cádiz, Almeria and Málaga in early August. On August 3 the Deutschland prevented the north-African port of Ceuta from coming under fire from the rebels. During this month she also took part in an escort of freighter ships to Lisbon.
As a result of an agreement signed on August 24, 1936 by four countries: England, France, Germany and Italy, which had established sectors for international control of the Spanish coast, the Deutschland was sent back to Germany and returned to Wilhelmshaven on August 30. However, she was redeployed to Spain in October and did not return to her native port in Germany until November 21.
In late January of 1937 the battleship departed Kiel, heading for Spanish waters for a third time. Having finished this operation in the second half of March, the ship was re-docked at Wilhelmshaven, where she underwent a refit. The agreement signed in August of the preceding year came into force in April, whereupon the Deutschland left German territory, setting out for Spain for a fourth time on May 10. The ship sailed to Palma on the island of Majorca. The port was hosting a number of other neutral warships as well. On the morning of May 24 the harbor became the target of an aerial attack by the Republican forces, but the battleship remained unscathed.
The Deutschland was then hastily ordered out to Ibiza. While cruising off the island on May 29, she came within sight of two Republican cruisers and four destroyers. A moment later there was another sighting, with two enemy aircraft being spotted nearby. Although combat alert was sounded at 1840 hours, it was already too late for the ship. The Soviet-built SB-2 bombers attacked from an altitude of 1000 meters, deploying two 50kg bombs onto the battleship. The first one hit the cover of the third starboard 15cm gun, with the shrapnel penetrating the fuel tank of a floatplane. The resulting fire embraced the aircraft and a boat, and led to an explosion of 15mm rounds. The second bomb struck the main deck, penetrating it near the fore superstructure turret, to blow up inside crew quarters. More than twenty seamen were killed on the spot while eighty others were wounded. The fire spread very quickly and clouds of smoke formed below deck. A torpedo boat, the Leopard, came to rescue and began making attempts to extinguish the fire. The situation was back under control by 1930 hours. The attack left a total of 31 people dead while 110 men had sustained injuries, predominantly burns.
On the next day 35 severely wounded crewmen were transported to a hospital in Gibraltar. Thirty-four others with injuries were transferred to land on May 31. On the very same day Hitler issued an order for the Admiral Scheer to open retaliatory fire upon the port of Almeria. The fallen sailors were buried with military honors on June 1, 1931. However, upon Hitler’s demand the bodies were exhumed and sent home to Germany. The coffins were delivered onboard the Deutschland by the British on June 11. The battleship arrived at Wilhelmshaven five days later. The funeral services were held on the day after and were attended by Adolf Hitler himself, other high-ranked national representatives and several thousand citizens. The Deutschland was docked for maintenance and refitting.
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