The Lützow’s Trial by Fire

By Gary Staff

By 9 February 1916 the repairs finally were completed, and after coaling for two days, further trials followed. On 20 March, the Lützow joined the four other battlecruisers of the I Reconnaissance Group (I AG), which was commanded by Vizeadmiral Franz Hipper. After a brief period of unit training the I AG entered the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal to transfer to the North Sea, and the Lützow arrived on Wilhelmshaven Roads early on 25 March. The very next day the battlecruiser received a baptism of fire when a torpedo launched from the British submarine E24 passed just 50 to 100 yards astern as the ship returned from an advance against British light forces.

Early on the morning of 24 April, the I AG put to sea for an operation to bombard the English ports of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. During the sortie, the squadron’s flagship, the battlecruiser Seydlitz , struck a mine and was forced to return to Wilhelmshaven, so the leader of the operation, Kontreadmiral (Rear Admiral) Friedrich Bödicker, transferred his flag to the Lützow. After the early-morning coastal bombardment, the Lützow and Derfflinger took under fire a group of British light cruisers. The flagship HMS Conquest , hit by five heavy-caliber shells, was severely damaged and suffered 23 dead and 13 wounded before the action was broken off. According to Korvettenkapitän (Commander) Günther Paschen, first gunnery officer on board the Lützow , this was the first time the battlecruiser fired her main guns with full battle charges.

On 15 May 1916, the Lützow was detached from the I AG for training in the Baltic. After arriving at Kiel on 16 May, shooting practice began on the 17th, including trials with gyroscopic firing gear. More shooting followed the next day, including against the old target ship Oldenburg , which the battlecruiser struck with the third salvo. On 19 May, during speed trials on the measured mile, the Lützow recorded an impressive maximum speed of 27.9 knots.

Fully combat-ready, the battlecruiser returned to the North Sea on 22 May, and six days later, Vizeadmiral Hipper, back from sick leave, raised his flag on board the Lützow . On 30 May orders were received for the fleet to assemble in Schillig Roads, off Wilhelmshaven, prior to the next large-scale North Sea operation, which would lead to the greatest clash of capital ships in naval history—the Battle of Jutland.

Early on the morning of 31 May 1916, the weather at Schillig Roads was cloudy and rainy, with the wind from the north-northeast. At 0100 (all times are according to Greenwich Mean Time) the flagship Lützow , leading the I AG, put to sea and set a northern course for her appointment with destiny. The day passed quietly, and during the afternoon the weather improved; the rain stopped and the sun began to shine. At around 1420, Hipper received a report from the small cruiser Elbing about a suspicious smoke cloud to the southwest, and the Lützow increased speed to 23 knots.

On board the battlecruiser, drums and horns sounded; “All men to battle stations, clear ship for battle.” Soon a report came of British light cruisers, and the I AG again increased speed, to 25 knots, to chase them. Then large warships came into sight ahead to port. Up on the admiral’s bridge, Vizeadmiral Hipper was overhead to say to his first staff officer, Korvettenkapitän Erich Raeder, in his rough Bavarian accent: “Raeder, I’ll eat my broomstick if that is not Beatty again!” That was in fact the case, and soon six capital ships of British Vice Admiral David Beatty’s 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser squadrons could be made out, while some distance farther north the 5th Battle Squadron’s four dreadnoughts could be discerned.

The Lützow signaled for a speed of 18 knots and a distance between ships of 700 meters as the German line assembled into battle formation to begin the action on a northerly course. Coolly prepared to battle a superior enemy, Vizeadmiral Hipper then signaled fire distribution from the right. This meant that the German battlecruiser line would each take their opposite number under fire, ship against ship, beginning with the Lützow targeting the leading enemy battlecruiser.

Run to the South

At 1535, five minutes after German observers spotted the British battlecruisers making a southward turn, Hipper altered course to the southeast—toward the advancing German battle fleet—and ordered fire distribution from the left. The range continued to fall, and at 1548 the Lützow opened fire on the leading British battlecruiser, Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion , at a range of 16,800 meters (10.5 miles). To get a better view of events, Kapitän zur See Harder, accompanied by a signal officer, Leutnant zur See Wolfgang Schönfeld, would remain outside his ship’s conning tower on the unprotected bridge throughout the battle.

Half a minute later, the British returned fire, with the Lion and Princess Royal both targeting the German flagship. During the entire battle, the Lützow would use salvo fire—alternating between all four guns of turrets A and B firing together, then those of turrets C and D firing together. A shell from the fourth salvo hit the Lion at 1551; a minute later, another Lützow projectile hit the ship. Only at 1557 was the German flagship straddled in return.

Then at 1600 the Lützow hit the Lion with a 12-inch shell that nearly resulted in the loss of the British flagship. It penetrated the battlecruiser’s Q turret, detonating inside. The explosion blew off the forward part of the structure’s roof and caused a munition fire that put the turret out of action and killed the crew. Twenty-eight minutes later a huge cordite fire erupted from the damaged gun house with flames going mast high. Only the fact that the turret’s magazine had been flooded saved the Lion from destruction.

Also at about 1600, the Lützow suffered her first two hits, both on the forecastle deck. Five minutes later, the Lion sheered out of line and was lost from sight. She had suffered six hits from 31 salvos, while the Lützow had been hit three times. The German flagship changed targets to the next ship astern, the Princess Royal .

Approximately 15 minutes later, a 13.5-inch shell from the Princess Royal struck the Lützow in the forward dressing station, killing or wounding everybody there. Meanwhile the British 5th Battle Squadron, straining to catch up with Beatty’s battlecruisers, opened fire on the trailing German ships. At 1644 the Lützow took the squadron’s lead ship, the Barham , under fire, hitting the dreadnought abreast the aft conning tower. Soon after, the German battle fleet hove into sight, and at 1651 the I AG was ordered onto a northern course. So far, the Lützow had hit the enemy ten times, while suffering four hits in return.

Run to the North

After reversing course, the Lützow again targeted the Lion , which along with the other British ships was now headed north. The German battlecruiser obtained three hits between 1659 and 1702. When the flagship passed out of range, the Lützow opened fire on the Barham . Shooting conditions for the Germans soon deteriorated; little could be seen of the British ships through the smoke and haze, while the German ships clearly stood out. During this period the Lützow was struck by four 15-inch dreadnought shells and one 13.5-inch shell from the Princess Royal . Nevertheless, the battlecruiser hit the Lion again at 1805.

While the British battlecruisers remained virtually invisible, at 1816 the armored cruisers Defence and Warrior , part of the force screening the British Grand Fleet’s approaching dreadnoughts, were sighted on the opposite course. As Korvettenkapitän Paschen began giving orders to engage the Defence a colleague tugged at his arm, saying, “Don’t shoot, that is Rostock !” But the gunnery officer recognized the distinctive forecastle gun turret of a British armored cruiser and opened fire. Of five salvos fired, three straddled the target, and after three minutes of firing the Defence blew up.

Meanwhile, the Lützow was hit by two shells from the Lion and then between 1826 and 1834 was caught under a particularly pernicious fire from the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible , being hit eight times in this short period. Two 12-inch shells struck below the waterline in the bow torpedo room, and two struck likewise below the waterline in the port broadside torpedo room, the area Paschen referred to as the Lützow ’s Achilles’ heel. The entire forecastle below the armored deck and forward of frame 249 immediately filled with water. “The forecastle . . . was rent apart by several hits and showed holes which a railway locomotive could comfortably have driven through,” recalled Matrose (Seaman) Fritz Loose.

At 1830 the Invincible had suddenly appeared out of the haze, but Paschen was unable to direct fire on her because the Lützow had begun turning away and the bridge wing blocked the view from his director periscope. Therefore the third gunnery officer, Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Gustav Bode, in the aft conning tower, directed the guns, and just two minutes later, the Invincible disappeared in a gigantic flash of flames as she blew up. A shell had penetrated her Q turret, blowing the roof off, and almost immediately the magazine detonated, breaking the ship in two.

Death of the Lützow

At 1845, while the grievously wounded Lützow was still under enemy fire, the torpedo boat G39 came alongside and took aboard Vizeadmiral Hipper and his staff to transfer them to another flagship. However, the Lützow ’s ordeal was not over; between 1915 and 1930 she was struck another six times by the dreadnoughts Orion and Monarch . The 25th and final heavy-caliber shell to hit the battlecruiser sent the main mast top crashing down onto the deck. Then the four torpedo boats escorting the Lützow drew a veil of smoke around the stricken ship.

By 2115, 2,395 tons of water had flooded into the battlecruiser, which was sinking deeper by the bows. A fight to save the Lützow was slowly being lost as the forward group of pumps had failed and the pipes in the forecastle were shot through. At an officers’ meeting held at 0100 on 1 June, the first officer reported that 7,500 tons of seawater were in the ship and at best the vessel could be held until 0700. The forecastle was already below the waves, and water was pouring through the casemates in torrents. Shortly afterward an attempt to steer the ship stern-first failed because the propellers were coming out of the water. After an attempt to use the torpedo boats to tow the battlecruiser also failed, Kapitän zur See Harder ordered fires out and abandon ship.

The officers and crew assembled on the quarterdeck, and Harder gave a short speech, asking that they be proud of their Lützow . He then led three cheers for the ship and Kaiser Wilhelm II. After that the crew boarded the torpedo boats that had come alongside the sinking ship. The captain was last to leave the battlecruiser, and as the boats pulled away, he gave orders to G38 to scuttle the ship. The second torpedo fired struck her amidships, and at 0147 the Lützow , the only German capital ship lost during World War I, slowly lay over to starboard and capsized. The Lützow was reported to have lost 116 men killed in action; however, this number subsequently rose to 128, as in the days following the battle some men died of their wounds.

Hard to Sink Ships

With the ships of the Derfflinger class, German battlecruisers reached a peak in design. While the Lützow had the shortest commissioned life of any Imperial Navy ship, the battlecruiser had demonstrated a durability unsurpassed by any other World War I vessel, and sinking her had proved problematic. It was only because of the unlucky hits forward below the waterline that she was lost at all.

The subsequent Mackensen German battlecruiser design had a similar armor configuration and, like the Derfflinger class, had hulls divided into many watertight compartments. While the ships of this class were never completed, their design subsequently was used as the basis for the Scharnhorst . And that German capital ship, along with the Bismarck , continued the Lützow tradition of being extremely difficult to sink.


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SMS Lützow , Derfflinger -class Battlecruiser

Overall length: 690 feet, 3 inches

Beam: 95 feet, 2 inches

Displacement: 31,000 tons (fully loaded)

Propulsion: 2 sets of Marine-type turbines (4 three- bladed screws)

8 30.5-cm (12-inch)/50-caliber guns
14 15-cm (5.9-inch)/45-caliber guns
4 8.8-cm (3.4-inch)/45-caliber guns
4 single 60-cm (23.4-inch) torpedo tubes

Complement: Approx. 1,200 officers and enlisted men

Contrasting Battlecruisers

By Gary Staff

On 10 August 1904, at the Battle of the Yellow Sea during the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese discovered that the armaments of their armored cruisers were outranged by those of the Russian battleships. The Japanese response was swift. While the war still raged they laid down new armored cruisers armed with 12-inch guns. The first, the Tsukuba , carried the same armament as contemporary battleships, was two knots faster than them, but had belt armor two inches thinner than most battleships’. The Tsukuba could be regarded as the first battlecruiser.

In March 1905 the U.S. Congress authorized the new “all-big-gun” Michigan -class battleships, while around the same time in Britain the design for the Dreadnought was being finalized. To complement their all-big-gun battleship, the British had designed an all-big-gun cruiser, which became the battlecruiser Invincible and her two sisters. This class carried eight 12-inch guns, had a designed speed of 25 knots, but carried an armored belt of only six inches. Although their specific role was not clearly defined, in general they were to conduct reconnaissance in force, be able to sweep aside enemy cruisers and support their own light cruisers, be employed in commerce protection on overseas stations, and finally be able to support the fleet as a fast wing, capable of outflanking the enemy line and pursuing the enemy as it fled.

The German conceptual model for their battlecruisers was different. Germany knew that it would always have fewer warships than its potential opponent, Britain, and therefore its battlecruisers were designed to be able to join the battleline as “gap fillers” after the fight had commenced. In a March 1909 article comparing battlecruiser development, a member of the Imperial German Navy’s information bureau, Korvettenkapitän (Commander) Vollerthun, wrote:

In the type development of our großen Kreuzers [battlecruisers] since 07, inspired by the English Invincible class, we have pursued more and more the qualities of a fast battleship with the intention of making the authorized number of large ships as far as possible also capable of fighting in the line. This approach with our großen Kreuzers since 07 has given them a different character to the English, and has brought their displacement to that of the battleships.

To achieve this aim the German battlecruisers were much more durable than their contemporaries. They carried much thicker armor, spread over a greater area, and had smaller compartments and more of them. For example, the Derfflinger had 12-inch belt armor, the same as the British dreadnoughts of the Orion and Iron Duke classes. Nevertheless, class for class the German battlecruisers carried guns of a slightly smaller caliber, but they were sufficient to do the job.

The one imponderable asset the German ships had—both battlecruisers and dreadnoughts—was their longitudinal torpedo bulkhead. Generally it ran the length of the citadel and was from 30- to 45-mm (1.2­–1.8 inches) thick. The bulkhead proved very effective and prevented widespread damage or flooding on many occasions. The Moltke was torpedoed by submarines on two occasions, the Goeben struck two mines in December 1914 and three mines in January 1918, while the Seydlitz was mined once and torpedoed once. In each of these instances flooding was kept to a minimum, even when struck outside the area protected by the bulkhead, thanks to the battlecruisers’ subdivision into many compartments. On the other hand, multiple shell hits below the waterline far forward on the Lützow were the primary cause of her loss.

Therefore the German battlecruisers were extremely combat-capable ships, steadfast against shell fire, mines, and torpedoes. Korvettenkapitän Vollerthun succinctly summed up the differences between Royal Navy and Imperial Navy battlecruisers by terming the British ships “battleship-cruisers” and the German ships “cruiser-battleships”—indeed a farsighted and prophetic characterization.



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