The Treaty of Versailles limited Germany to warships of no more than 10,000 tons displacement. A number of technical innovations, including large scale use of welding (rather than rivets), and diesel engines made the hull lighter, and allowed a formidable warship to be built within this restricted weight. Even so, Deutschland (that was the name of the first post-WWI German battleship) was 2000 tons overweight, although for political reasons her announced displacement was always given as the 10,000 tons of the treaty limit.
The British began referring to the vessels as pocket battleships ("a battleship that fits into a pocket"), in reference to the heavy firepower of the relatively small vessels. They were considerably smaller than a true battleship and their armor and guns were far inferior to those of battleships and battlecruisers; however, they could outgun any contemporary cruiser. The ships were actually two feet longer than the American Pennsylvania-class battleships, and superficially resembled contemporary battleships due to their massive main gun turrets, unusually high conning tower/bridge and the masts of the Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee. The Deutschlands design and displacement was very similar to that of a heavy cruiser, though they were armed with guns larger than the heavy cruisers of other nations, albeit at the price of a lower speed than a cruiser. The Panzerschiffe had a greater cruising range than the following Hipper class cruisers, making them more suitable as high seas raiders. The term capital ship typically encompassed battleships and battlecruisers, and not heavy cruisers, but prior to 1940 the Deutschlands were classified as capital ships.
The principal feature of the Deutschland design was that it had guns of large enough calibre—280 mm (11 inches) - to outgun almost any enemy cruiser fast enough to catch it, while being fast enough to outrun almost any enemy powerful enough to sink it. The Royal Navy had three modernized battlecruisers that could be effective in pursuing the Deutschlands; the HMS Repulse, HMS Renown, and HMS Hood were equal to the Deutschland ships in speed and were far better protected and better armed. World War I-era Japanese battlecruisers of the Kongo class could do the same.
The German naval staff also knew that new ships would be built that were both faster and more powerful than the Deutschland class ships—the announced intention to build six of the Deutschland-class ships led the French, for example, to draw up their own small "fast battleship" (the Dunkerque class) - but they hoped for a temporary advantage. The advantage did not last long: Deutschlands had a maximum speed of 28.5 knots, which would already be considered to be too slow at the beginning of the Second World War, only eight years after the first ship was launched. The ships had a range of about 30,000 km (18,650 miles).
The Kriegsmarine, which superseded the Reichsmarine and thus inherited the ships, was much more cognizant of the ships' limitations, and during the war they intended to use the pocket battleships purely as commerce raiders on the high seas. In the early years of the conflict—the Deutschlands' speed and heavy armament made them very difficult to bring to task, as they could generally avoid any fight they did not like; indeed, they were ordered not to fight enemy ships unless they were much stronger than them. It wasnt until the Allies closed the air gap over the North Atlantic, developed better Huff-Duff (radio triangulation equipment), airborne centimetric radar, and provided escort carrier protection to the merchant ship convoys - could the Deutschland ships hope to be brought to task.
During the Spanish Civil War, Deutschland was deployed to the Spanish coast in support of Franco's Nationalists in a total of seven operations between 1936 and 1939. During one of these deployments, on 29 May 1937, she was attacked by two Republican bombers, and as a result 31 German sailors were killed and 101 were wounded.
The hit nearly tore off her entire stern, and repairs were not finished until the spring of 1941. Later on in June, Lützow was again torpedoed - this time by an RAF Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber from No. 42 Squadron RAF. The ship returned to the port of Kiel, Germany, and she underwent repairs there. On 31 December she was present at the Battle of the Barents Sea.
The ship was badly damaged by three six-ton Tallboy bombs dropped by the RAF in April 1945, while she lay off Swinemünde, Germany, and she came to rest on the bottom. After repairs, she then continued to provide artillery support of the army. Lützow was finally scuttled by her crew on 4 May 1945.
Deutschland's sistership Admiral Graf Spee is the most famous of the 'pocket three'. She was sent to the Atlantic Ocean as a commerce raider in 1939, where she sank nine Allied merchant ships. Numerous British hunting groups were assigned to find her, with three British ships finally tracking her down in December 1939. The Battle of the River Plate ensued, during which the Graf Spee was damaged.
She docked for repairs in the neutral port of Montevideo, but was forced by international law to leave within 72 hours.
Faced with what he believed to be overwhelming odds, the captain scuttled his ship rather than risk the lives of his crew.
The other sistership, Admiral Scheer, had a rather spectacular wartime record. In October 1940 - April 1941 it steamed over 46,000 nautical miles (85,000 km), sinking 16 merchant ships. On the night of 9 April 1945, during a general RAF bombing raid on the dockyard by over 300 aircraft, she was struck, and capsized at her berth. Most of Scheer's crew were ashore at the time, but 32 men were killed.
The wreck of Admiral Scheer was buried when the inner harbor was filled with debris after the war.
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