In the years between the two great wars Germany built three warships with which she frightened the parliaments of half the world. These were the famous “pocket battleships”—Deutschland (renamed Lützow in 1940), Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee, completed in 1933, 1935, and 1936 respectively. According to the treaty of Versailles they were not to exceed 10,000 tons, but they turned out nearer 12,000 tons. They mounted six 11-inch guns in two triple turrets, one forward and one aft. The secondary battery consisted of eight 5.9-inch guns, and the anti-aircraft battery of six 4.1-inch guns. Torpedo tubes were carried in an armored mount on the fantail. Speed was about 26 knots, which was better than any battleship then in commission could do. Although these ships were nothing more than modern versions of the old armored cruiser, they were acclaimed as revolutionary, and a good deal of discussion was provoked as to the best way to “answer” them.
England had both more and less to fear from the pocket battleships than had any other nation. On the one hand she had a huge, vulnerable merchant fleet plying long trade lanes all over the world—an excellent target for the German ships. On the other hand she had three old but fast battle cruisers left over from the other war, each of them more than a match for the German ships, and (including two Australians) seventeen heavy cruisers, most of them mounting eight 8-inch guns on a 10,000 ton hull. At first the Royal Navy didn’t appreciate the value of these latter ships although, as events turned out, they certainly justified themselves.
France’s trade problems were similar to Great Britain’s but on a smaller scale. Many of her colonies could be reached across the Mediterranean, a distance of a few hundred miles. But strutting Italy spread herself athwart that sea, and Italy owned seven overweight heavy cruisers. France had seven heavy cruisers, too, but most of them were renowned chiefly for their lack of armor. In order to compensate for her disadvantage in fast, big gunned ships, France started work on the Dunkerque and Strasbourg, 26,500 ton ships mounting eight 13-inch guns in two quadruple turrets, both forward of the bridge. (Though unable to fire directly astern, this unusual turret arrangement was followed in the new Richelieu class battleships, too.) The secondary battery of the Dunquerque and Strasbourg was composed of sixteen 5.1-inch guns. Speed was about 30 knots. With their delivery in 1937 and 1938 the French had two ships capable of out- gunning anything the Italians had, and in addition they could both outspeed and out- gun the German pocket battleships. These French ships were the first of the new battle cruisers.
Germany replied to the two Frenchmen with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. They were supposedly of 26,000 tons, but were actually over 30,000 tons. They carried nine 11-inch guns in three triple turrets, two forward and one aft, and had a speed of 30 knots or more. They went into commission in 1938 and 1939.
The war broke out in September, 1939. In December came the Battle of the Plate in which the Admiral Graf Spee had to flee before the small heavy cruiser Exeter (8,400 tons, six 8-inch guns) and two even smaller light cruisers. Before she blew herself up in Montevideo Harbor, British and French battle cruisers and British heavy cruisers had gathered round to fight the raider if she sortied. Nothing more involving battle cruisers occurred until the following Spring.
One blustery April day in the North Sea, H.M.S. Renown sighted the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. The engagement opened at long range and never closed. An 11-inch shell struck the Renown but failed to explode. Another carried away the radio aerial. That was the extent of the damage done to the British ship. On the other hand, the Gneisenau was struck by two or three 15-inch shells and her after turret ceased fire. Fire was later resumed with local control but it was slow and inaccurate. At this juncture the Scharnhorst laid a smokescreen between the Gneisenau and her adversary. The British ship gave chase, but the heavy seas prevented her from going beyond 20 knots, and the Germans were soon lost behind the screening smoke and the thickly falling snow.
Early in June, 1940, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau caught a small British convoy in the North Sea and sank every vessel in it but one, a hospital ship. Later that same day they sighted the British aircraft carrier Glorious, screened by the destroyers Ardent and Acasta. This was the first engagement between a carrier and surface vessels and it went badly for the carrier. The Englishmen fought bravely but the fire from their 4-inch and 4.7-inch guns fell short. The Glorious was hit and began to burn. Her planes could not get into the air. The ship slowed and was abandoned. Then she sank. In the meantime the Ardent and Acasta launched a torpedo attack. Both destroyers were sunk, but the Acasta managed to get one torpedo into the Scharnhorst, damaging the vessel considerably. That was the end of activities for the two German ships for some time.
It was July. France’s battle cruisers were at the North African naval base of Oran. They had done little during the first nine months of the war, and now France was beaten. On July 3, 1940, the British Navy sent an ultimatum to the French admiral at Oran. It said in effect: “Come with us, be demilitarized, or be sunk.” The French gave no satisfactory answer, and a British force steaming off the coast opened fire. The Dunkerque was damaged, but the Strasbourg got steam up and fled. An Ark Royal Swordfish put a torpedo into her but she escaped to the continental base at Toulon.
The year 1942 opened with the German battle cruisers at Brest, on the Brittany peninsula. The RAF had dropped hundreds of tons of heavy bombs on them during their long stay but without noticeable effect. Finally, in February, 1942, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the lucky cruiser Prinz Eugen slipped out of the harbor and headed home through the English Channel. They were at sea for some time before the British knew about it. As soon as they were discovered, they were attacked with everything the British had available. They were shelled by big guns placed along the coast to thwart such intrusions. They were attacked by motor torpedo boats and Swordfish planes and RAF bombers and finally by destroyers. But the weather was with the Germans, as it had been when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped the Renown two years earlier. It was a cold, boisterous day with a heavy snow-fall. The Germans had waited a long time for such a day and they had planned well. Fighter planes escorted the three warships up the coast, warding off attacks by torpedo planes and bombers. When they reached the limit of their range they were relieved by fresh squadrons. Only battleships could have stopped the Germans that day, but none of these were among the means the British had available. The Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen made their way to Germany.
Though they failed to sink the escaping enemy ships, the British attacks had done great damage. The Scharnhorst was hit by torpedoes and was laid up for some time. Her sister ship was even worse off. She went to the former Polish port of Gdynia for repairs. Here she was subjected to further attack by the RAF. This time the flyers were more successful. The work on hand was given up and the Gneisenau was sunk as a blockship, her crew disbanded.
By November, 1942, the Allies were strong enough to invade French North Africa. The following month the Germans occupied Vichy France, which included Toulon on the Mediterranean, with its naval base. Here, among the other remnants of the French fleet, were the repaired Dunkerque and Strasbourg. When the Germans entered the town, the French blew up their ships, including the battle cruisers, rather than let the invaders have them. The Dunquerque and Strasbourg lay in the mud until after the liberation in 1944, when they were surveyed as being beyond salvage.
Twenty-one months after her dash through the Channel the refitted Scharnhorst got underway and left the Norwegian fjord where she had been hiding. She steamed north, through the Norwegian Sea, across the Arctic Circle and into the Arctic Ocean. In the morning of December 26, 1943, after she had been at sea for a day, she found what she was after—a Murmansk-bound convoy. The convoy was protected by a British force, consisting in the main of one heavy and two light cruisers—His Majesty’s Ships Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield. The escorts spotted the raider on their radar screens and placed themselves between her and her prey. The cruisers opened fire and the Norfolk scored a hit with one of her 8-inch shells. The big German raider turned about and disappeared. She re-appeared several hours later on the other side of the convoy, but the three cruisers were there waiting for her again. There was another short engagement in which the Scharnhorst struck the Norfolk with an 11-inch shell. Then the battle cruiser vanished again, hidden by the Arctic darkness. She headed for home, discouraged by the opposition she had met and fearful of being caught by a superior force and destroyed.
There was a superior force, to the south and west of the convoy. It was made up of the 35,000 ton Duke of York with ten 14-inch guns, the 6-inch gunned Jamaica, and four destroyers, including the Norwegian Stord. This force was guided to its quarry by the escort cruisers which had trailed the fleeing battle cruiser. The hunters found the Scharnhorst, and the Duke of York commenced firing, five guns at a time. She hit her target on the second salvo. The German ship turned and steamed toward the east, directly away from the British squadron. This way she could get only three of her nine guns to bear, but she was able to make the best use of her superior speed. The Duke of York hit the German battle cruiser several times more before the faster ship got out of range altogether. But now the four destroyers had reached a position to attack with torpedoes, two of the little ships on either bow of the raider. The Scharnhorst's 5.9 and 4.1-inch batteries opened up and put on a spectacular show, but it was ineffective. Only H.M.S. Saumarez was hit, in the upperworks.
The destroyers had accomplished their mission and put their torpedoes into the doomed Scharnhorst. Then the Duke of York fired again and again into the sinking hulk. Finally the Jamaica slipped more torpedoes into the dying ship which rolled over on its side and sank in a cloud of smoke and steam, taking all but thirty-six of her men with her. The Scharnhorst was the last of the New European battle cruisers and the last of Germany’s heavy ships. She had fought bravely in her last fight, but to no great effect. Aside from the hits on the Norfolk and Saumarez, she got only one hit on her adversaries, which carried away the Duke of York’s radio aerial but inflicted no personnel casualties.
In September, 1940, our Navy Department let contracts for six “mystery ships” to the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, N. J. Aside from their displacement which was to be 27,000 tons, nothing was known about these ships except their names, which were: Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Samoa. The Department labeled them CB or “Large Cruiser,” though they turned out to have battle cruiser characteristics, as every one had suspected they would. The first of the six, Alaska, was not laid down until December, 1941, ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then they were shrouded in greater mystery than ever. The last three orders were cancelled in June, 1943, when it had become evident that battle cruisers or “Large Cruisers” were a luxury in war, while aircraft carriers were a necessity and more would have to be built. Work on the other ships was continued, though. The Alaska slid down the ways in August, and the Guam followed her in November. The keel of the Hawaii was laid in December.
Both the Alaska and the Guam were commissioned in the summer of 1944. They were 27,500 ton ships, mounting nine 12-inch guns in three triple turrets arranged in the usual manner, two forward and one aft. They had twelve 5-inch double-purpose guns as well as the standard large complement of 20 mm’s and 40 mm’s. Speed was well over 30 knots, but this may have been acquired at the expense of armor, for Jane’s Fighting Ships credits them with only a six-inch belt. In any event both of them turned up in the Pacific early in 1945 in time for the Okinawa campaign. They screened carrier task forces and distinguished themselves for their antiaircraft work, and they made sweeps into the China Sea. But they never got a chance to use their batteries against any Japanese ships, though they did swing their guns against some island targets, where their great speed was of no special advantage.
The war with Japan ended within a few months of the arrival of the Alaska and Guam in the Pacific. The two Large Cruisers were hurried around to the east coast and decommissioned at Bayonne, N. J. after only a year and a half of service. Obviously the Navy felt that it had no need for such ships in its post-war fleet. Not only were they reported to have poor maneuvering qualities, but such ships are expensive to run and there is nothing that they could do that a conventional battleship couldn’t do better. So the Navy, knowing that it would be operating on severely reduced appropriations, put them in the reserve fleet, from which they may never emerge—certainly not in peacetime.
Further construction on the third ship of the class, the Hawaii, was suspended.
Now what about the pocket battleships that caused all this battle cruiser activity? They were failures, as their armored cruiser predecessors were. Their designers tried to get too much of everything aboard and ended up with not enough of anything—guns, protection, or speed. One is a mangled wreck at the bottom of the Plate. The other two were bombed into the mud in German ports where they lay hiding from Allied seapower.