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The Axis’ Interest In “Pocket” Battleships And Their Purpose

The Admiral Graf Spee, the last of the three pocket battleships built, is widely regarded as the class’s most recognizably representative.

Graf Spree Pocket Battleship. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Hitler’s Miniature Battleships Were Conceived as a Way to Ignore the Treaty of Versailles In the years leading up to World War One, and the German Imperial Navy attempted to amass a fleet capable of challenging the British Royal Navy’s dominance. The German Imperial Navy wanted to turn the Home Fleet (Heimatflotte) into a High Seas Fleet, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was the mastermind behind the scheme (Hochseeflotte).

Even though it brought the United Kingdom closer to France and Russia and set up the alliances that led to World War I, German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II strongly supported the initiative. But the German High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet never had a decisive battle except for the Battle of Jutland, which both sides thought was a win.

Most of the German fleet was detained at Scapa Flow, on the Orkney Islands of Scotland, after the war as part of the conditions of the November 1918 Armistice while negotiations took place over the fleet’s ultimate fate. German Admiral Ludwig von Reuter scuttled the fleet on June 21, 1919, out of fear that the United Kingdom would seize the vessels if Germany resumed hostilities after rejecting the Treaty of Versailles.

Over half of the 74 vessels towed to the harbor for internment capsized and sank; for the High Seas Fleet, it was a humiliating defeat.

Germany’s primary goal in its military rearmament efforts was to evade the limitations imposed by the Treaty mentioned above of Versailles. Construction of the cruisers in the Deutschland class began under the Weimar Republic long before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power.

Although modest in size, the Deutschland class was highly armored and carried the type of armament typically found on battleships, directly violating the limits set on Germany by the Washington Treaty. Between 1929 and 1936, they built cruisers for the Reichsmarine, the German Navy during the Weimar Republic and the first two years of Nazi Germany. They displaced between 10,600 and 12,340 long tonnes.

More extensive than the 10,000-long tonne limit of the Washington Treaty, these vessels nonetheless utilized welding in their construction and diesel-centric propulsion to keep their weight down.

Although the Reichsmarine was ostensibly a branch of the defensive-minded Reichswehr, covert efforts to violate the treaties began in the early 1920s. It persisted even before the Nazis took control; one could argue that the Nazis merely didn’t try to conceal the fact that the German military was rearming.

Newly constructed cruisers stood out from their contemporaries in more ways than one, the most obvious being the size of their weapons compared to those of older cruisers. The Brits dubbed these ships “Little Battleships” because they were armed with six 11-inch guns in the main battery, a size generally reserved for much larger boats. These new warships could hold their own against a “real” battleship, whereas they would outgun a “treaty” cruiser.

Although not designed for defense, the pocket battleships’ combination of cruiser speed (up to 28 knots) and capital ship weaponry made them seem tailor-made for one particular mission: commerce raiding.

These ships first saw action in a role often reserved for genuine battleships of the time: coastal bombardment. During the Spanish Civil War, the German pocket battleship Deutschland was attacked by Spanish Republican aircraft, including two SB-2 bombers constructed in the Soviet Union. The other German pocket battleship, Admiral Scheer, was also stationed overseas.

Hitler retaliated by giving orders to Admiral Scheer to attack the port of Almera. But the ships still had to face their greatest challenge.

All three pocket battleships, by then formally designated as heavy cruisers, were put to use as commerce raiders when World War II broke out. Germany, which was renamed Lützow after participating in the 1940 German invasion of Norway so that a ship bearing the name of a country wouldn’t be lost at sea, was one of the ships involved. After being sunk by a British submarine and subsequently reconstructed, she resumed her attacks on civilian vessels and allied convoys. As the war wound, she took on additional roles, including being employed as a gun battery to defend Germany against an impending Soviet assault.

Admiral Scheer was tasked with launching trade raids for most of the war, and she even made a brief venture into the Indian Ocean. During her 161 days at sea, she could sink 113,223 GRT of commerce, making her the most successful capital ship surface raider of World War II. Afterward, Admiral Scheer served as a training vessel and backed ground operations against the Russians. When she was docked in April of 1945, she was sunk by mobile bombs dropped by the British during an air raid on Kiel. Her remains can be found buried close to the city’s modern harbor.

The Admiral Graf Spee, the last ship of her class to be constructed, is widely considered the most well-known and infamous of the three pocket battleships. From September through December of 1939, When war broke out, I served as a trade raider in the South Atlantic; she was responsible for sinking nine ships with a combined GRT of 50,089. At the war of the River Plate on December 13, 1939, she faced three British cruisers off the coast of Uruguay in response to a task force sent by the British and French navies.

It was the first naval engagement of World War 2.

Though she dealt significant damage to the British vessels, Graf Spee was damaged during the battle and was forced to seek refuge in the Uruguayan port city of Montevideo. Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, captain of the pocket battleship/heavy cruiser, ordered it to sink rather than surrender. He took his own life three days later in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This navigational hazard, the wreck of Graf Spee, has lain in the water for decades, and only in recent years have struggles been made to raise the vessel. In January of this year, the Uruguayan Court of Appeals upheld the sale of the 880-pound bronze eagle that had formerly adorned the stern of the German cruiser. The Argentine millionaire who has tried to buy the eagle has vowed he will “pulverize” it if he gets his hands on it, putting to rest concerns that could use it to rally support for neo-Nazi organizations.”

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