156: Panzerschiffe


The Germans would have their surface raiders in position even before the war started.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 156 - The Early Naval War Pt. 6 - The Panzerschiffe. This week a big thank you goes out to Ian for the donation and to Stephen, Jason, Landon, David, Daniel, ModernPenguin, Bob, William, Jordan for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members. You can find out more about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. When it comes to the raiding of British commerce during the war the first topic discussed is often the U-boats. And it is true that the U-boats were a very important weapon for the Kriegsmarine during the war, but there was also another weapon that caused just as much concern in Britain before the war: surface raiders. Surface raiders presented a very real problem to the British and French due to their longer range, and their ability to move around the oceans, threatening merchant ships over a much wider area. The German armored ships, even though only three were built in the early 1930s, would be the focus of these concerns at the start of the war. This episode begins a three episode series discussing the Panzerschiffe and the most famous ship of the class: the Admiral Graf Spee. The Graf Spee was named after Admiral Maximillian von Spee who had led the China Squadron of the Imperial German Navy during the opening months of the First World War. At that time Graf Spee had led his small squadron across the Pacific, and then defeating a British Squadron at the Battle of Coronel before finally being overcome by the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The Admiral Graf Spee and its commander Captain Hans Langsdorff, and its crew would be in for a similarly wild ride.

The Panzerschiffe, or the Deutschland class cruiser if you want to be a bit more formal about it, was an interesting project driven almost entirely by the restrictions that Germany found itself under after the First World War. In the Treaty of Versailles Germany was not allowed to build any capital ships, so no battleships and no battlecruisers, but they were allowed to build a few 10,000 ton cruisers. The 10,000 ton cruisers became enshrined in naval history due to Washington Naval Treaty which gave cruisers an upper limit of 10,000 tons, which most major navies would build up to and at times beyond. Germany would also seek to fit the Panzerschiffe within that 10,000 ton limit, or at least close enough that nobody would notice. In the end the Panzerschiffe would have a displacement of over 11,700 tons, but Germany was far from the only nation to miss the 10,000 ton target. But there were two major differences between the cruisers being built by other nations and the Panzerschiffe, the first was the size of the guns. As part of the Washington Naval Treaty the largest guns that signatory navies could put on cruisers were 8 inches, a decision not really based on what was best for a ship with a 10,000 ton displacement but instead just the size of guns being mounted on cruisers after the First World War when the treaty was signed. Germany was not a signatory of the Washington Naval Treaty though, and so they could take a step up and instead of 8 inch guns they were able to mount 6 11 inch guns. This gave the German ships, theoretically, greater hitting power than any other cruiser it might meet. The other major difference in the Panzerschiffe design was the propulsion system. During the interwar years almost all naval ships were powered by steam turbines, especially ships at the destroyer and above level. But the Panzerschiffe would instead be propelled forward by 8 diesel engines. There were major advantages to the diesel engines, the first being that they took up much less space which allowed more space for other things in the ship. This reduction in size did not also result in a reduction of weight though, and they were still very heavy. The second major advantage was the range that they provided the ship. The diesel engines required a higher grade of fuel than the steam turbines, but it was able to take that oil and turn it into greater efficiency. This meant that the Panzerschiffe had a range of around 10,000 nautical miles, when contemporary British cruisers were hovering around 5,500 nautical mile range. But there were downsides. The first was that the displacement of the ship, when combined with the power provided by the diesels, resulted in a top speed of only 27 knots. This was much faster than many capital ships, but was slower than British treaty cruisers of the Leander class that were entering service when the Panzerschiffe were being built, which would be a critical part of the later story of the Graf von Spee. The second major problem was that the diesel engines were complicated and they had reliability problems. This is one of the reasons that diesel engines were not pursued for large ships by other navies at this time, for all of the downsides of steam turbines they were a very mature and reliable technology. Steam turbines had been first introduced into large naval vessels in the early years of the 20th century and by the early 1930s they were more efficient and reliable than ever. The German designers would decide to go with the riskier diesel engines, taking the increased range and size and risking the reliability. The Graf Spee would be the last of the Deustchland class ships, and it would be completed in 1933 and enter service in 1936. In 1938 it would go through a minor refit, with the most important change being the addition of a radar and an improved rangefinder. The Graf Spee was then scheduled for a major refit in late 1939 which would have resulted in some changes to bow to improve her sea keeping, along with a list of other changes and improvements, but this would of course not occur.

The plan for the Panzerschiffe in case of war with Britain was to launch then on commerce raiding expeditions at the start of the conflict. But even with the range provided by the diesel engines, there needed to be some way to resupply the ships while they were at sea, and to accomplish this the German navy would build 4 fleet auxiliary ships in 1937. These ships were specifically designed to assist and support the Panzerschiffe on their raiding expeditions, with Altmark being the ships that would accompany the Graf Spee. The goal of the Kriegsmarine was to have these supply ships already at sea when the war started, to prevent them being captured or destroyed by the Royal Navy, and so on July 27th the Altmark began to take on cargo to prepare for the possibility of a war. It was able to store enough supplies to keep both itself and the Graf Spee at sea for three months, and that clock started ticking on August 5th when it exited the North Sea through the English channel. The Altmark then made for Port Arthur in the United States where it was able to get 9,400 tons of diesel fuel. After topping up its fuel tanks, the Altmark would then go to make its first rendevous with the Graf Spee which had also left Germany before the start of the war. While not everything would go to plan for the Panzerschiffe, the Altmark and her sister ships would perform very well and would prove to be a real success story. There were a few challenges, like the length of time it took to re-provision the ships while at sea, but the concept would prove itself. This would be clear right from the beginning when the two ships met up on September 1st to conduct the first replenishment. The Graf Spee had received orders on August 15th to make ready to put to sea, out of concern that a war would soon begin. Langsdorff on board the Graf Spee would receive the orders on August 17th and the ship would immediately be put into dry dock for a quick cleaning. Then on the 21st the Graf Spee would leave Wilhelmshaven, with as much secrecy as possible maintained. The mission given to Langsdorff was to sail into the South Atlantic and once he arrived there and the war started to begin a trade war against British shipping. At the same time the first Panzerschiffe, the Deutschland, would perform the same type of raiding in the Northern Atlantic, hopefully spreading the strength of the Royal Navy out along the entire Atlantic. Both ships were under orders to avoid open confrontations with Royal Navy warships, and to instead focus solely on British trade ships. The orders given to Langsdorff even cautioned against engaging decidedly inferior Royal Navy ships, out of concern that even in such and advantageous situation something might occur that would endanger the ability of the Graf Spee to continue its primary mission. The Graf Spee had the advantage of the wide expanses of the South Pacific, where the risk of being spotted by aircraft or Royal Navy patrols was very slim due to the lack of military vessels in the area. Langsdorff would be able to take advantage of this situation over the course of the next several months of raiding as he was able to attack shipping on both sides of the Atlantic and even the Indian Ocean with only the radio distress calls of the merchant ships that were attacked giving the British information about the Graf Spee’s location. The Graf Spee and the Altmark would sail together for a few days to start September before news arrived via radio that war had been declared between Germany and Britain, which meant the Graf Spee’s mission began in earnest.


One of the challenges faced by the Graf Spee and the Deutschland during the early weeks of the war were the very restrictive rules of engagement placed upon them by Hitler and the German government. For the first few weeks of the war there was still hope in Berlin that, if Poland could be quickly defeated before any open fighting broke out between Germany and Britain and France then maybe the western nations could be brought to the negotiating table. To keep open this possibility a very restrictive set of engagement rules were placed on any attacks against commerce, from both surface ships and U-Boats. The challenges presented to the two surface ships was mostly around what would happen the instant they hit their first merchant ships. Any action was destined to be met with a response by the British, and so it was felt to be critical that when the first merchant ship was captured or sunk, it had to be at a time when the Panzerschiffe were ready to begin full commerce raiding activities, otherwise it would just be a waste because the expectation was that the ships would eventually be either attacked or forced back to Germany at some point after they began operations. This resulted in a delay in the true beginning of actual commerce raiding until September 23rd, 20 days after war had been declared. It would only be on that day that Raeder was able to convince Hitler that it was critical to unleash the Deutschland and Graf Spee, otherwise they were just burning through their supplies for no purpose and they would eventually have to return to Germany having achieved nothing. With the invasion of Poland coming to a conclusion, and with little prospect of Britain or France entering into negotiations, the order was sent on the 26th of September for the ships to really get going with their operations: “Commence commerce warfare against France and England in defined areas according to Operational Orders. Deutschland in the North Atlantic, Graf Spee in the South. […] Radio silence, but report position and intentions if in contact with enemy warships or if reported by merchant shipping.” Along with these new operational orders, the latest possible intelligence was forwarded to both of the ships. For the Graf Spee the most important part of this information was the presence of 7 Royal Navy cruisers in its area of operation, 4 off the South American coast and 3 off the coast of Africa, along with a collection of destroyers and submarines. These reports were mostly correctly, although there were only 2 British cruisers off the African coast. Along with these intelligence reports another set of orders would arrive on September 29th via radio which included this quote: “At the present time England needs successes. Any gain of prestige by England is therefore undesirable. On the other hand attacks on shipping by Panzerschiffe are to be carried out to the fullest extent. The restriction of Panzerschiffe operations to specific areas is hereby cancelled.” These new orders basically told the captains of both the Deutschland and Graf Spee happy hunting, but to be careful to avoid providing the Royal Navy and the British government with any kind of victory.

Before the podcast spends the next two and half episodes on the adventures of the Graf von Spee, it is worth taking just a moment to discuss the adventures of the Deutschland, the other Panzerschiffe which would be positioned to begin commerce raiding at the start of the war. The Deutschland was commanded by Captain Wenneker and was accompanied by the supply ships Westerwald, with the goal of commerce raiding in the northern Atlantic. Much like the Graf von Spee the Deutschland’s freedom of operation would be severely curtailed during the first month of the war and it would not be until October 5th that it would stop its first freighter, the Stonegate east of Bermuda. Then just 4 days later the American freighter City of Flint was intercepted and captured, a prize crew was placed aboard the ship and it was then sent to Europe, although it would eventually be interned in Norway. After this second ship was spotted and dealt with the weather would not cooperate for the Deutschland and it owuld not be until the 14th that another ship would be spotted, and eventually sank, this ship was the Norwegian freighter Lorentz W Hansen. After the 14th the weather once again deteriorated and it would continue for two weeks. Then on October 28th orders arrived for the ship to head back to Germany, at least partially out of concern that the bad weather would continue making further efforts untenable. The ship would transit the Denmark Strait and arrive back in Germany on November 17th. It was a disappointing first war cruisers for the Panzershiffe, having sank just two ships and captured another while also precipitating several international diplomatic incidents due to the ships that were stank and captured being American and Norwegian. It would be around this time that the Deutschland was renamed to the Lützow, apparently due to the fact that Hitler was concerned about the public relations nightmare that would be caused by a shipped named Deutschland, or Germany, being sunk by enemy action.

For most of the September the Graf Spee would spend its time existing in the South Atlantic, scrupulously avoiding any Royal Navy ships. The closest call can on September 11th when the Arado floatplane that the cruiser carried was doing a routine patrol while the Graf Spee resupplied from the Altmark. While on patrol the Arado spotted two ships, one of which it believed was a British cruiser which seemed to abruptly change to a course that would bring it directly into contact with the Graf Spee. As soon as this news was relayed to Langsdorff he made the decision to abort the resupply which was underway and leave the scene as quickly as possible. The Arado was right about one thing, the ship was a British cruiser the HMS Cumberland but it did not know that the Graf Spee was in the area, instead the change in course was simply a routine change in direction as the ship was zig zagging as standard anti-submarine protocol. The Cumberland was en route to join the the cruiser squadrons of Commodore Henry Harwood which was currently patrolling off the South American coast. Harwood already had access to the two Leander class cruisers the Ajax and Achilles which were in the Falkland Islands and the York Class cruiser Exeter which would be combined with the Cumberland to make Force G. All of the British cruisers were, by themselves, outgunned by the German cruiser, mounting guns no larger than 8 inches, but their 6 and 8 inch guns were still more than capable of damaging the German ship in a gun duel which would accomplish their goals just as well as sinking it, because the goal was to prevent it from continuing its commerce raiding. These ships were also just the beginning of the ships that would be sent to hunt down the Graf Spee, with six total groups put together to patrol various areas of the South Atlantic. Each of these groups was built around two cruisers due to the recognition that in a single duel the British cruisers would have some problems. These hunting groups were part of a wider strategy for the British when dealing with the Panzerschiffe at the start of the war. In the Northern Atlantic the focus was around using Royal Navy ships to protect convoys, with for example the Aircraft carriers Furious and Ark Royal working in conjunction with the battlecruisers Repulse and Renown to provide convoy protection, along with many other less powerful groups of ships. Over the course of the last half of 1939 as the Panzerschiffe did their raiding the positioning of the hunting groups in the Atlantic would change, with for example the Aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the Renown being sent further south due to the actions of the Graf Spee, although the British believed it was the Admiral Scheer, more on that in a moment. While this would prove to be an effective response to the threat posed by the German ships in the early months of the war it was also kind of exactly what the Germans were going for. The dispatch of so many cruisers and capital ships to guard merchant shipping spread the Royal Navy out, reducing their overall strength in the North Sea an the Mediterranean. Because this was all according to German plans, Langsdorff was well aware that he would have to spend most of his time dodging British ships that were hunting for him, and so before heading off to his first hunting grounds which would be off the South American coast he would put in place a bit of deception. Langsdorff would make some fake modifications to his ship so that it appeared to look like the Admiral Scheer from a distance. Even though they were both Panzerschiffe there were slight differences in some of the upperworks, the kinds of changes that happen even within the ships of a single class. Some painting work would also be done. This was done to try and sow some confusion and hopefully make it unclear exactly how many German ships were operating in the South Atlantic. This would work for some time, and if you look at British communications over the next two months as the Graf Spee is hunted down there is some confusion about which exact ship is loose in the area, especially when there are reports from the RAF that they had hit the Admiral Scheer in a bombing raid in port on September 5th. The British were concerned that if it had managed to slip out of the North Sea, which was completely possible, then they had 3 Panzerschiffe to deal with and not 2.

With the disguise in place, on September 30th the first victim of the Graf Spee would come into sight. This was the 5,000 ton Clement, a British merchantship on its way to Bahia Brazil. The Graf Spee’s Arado floatplane was in the air and when it had firmly established the name of the ship and that it was British, the floatplane launched its own attack by shooting up the steamer’s bridge with its machine guns. The Clement would immediately be stopped while the radio officer on board started to translate the RRR signal, which included the Clement’s position, identifying information about the ship, and that it was being attacked by a German surface ship. This was the pre-arranged signal that every British ship was supposed to send out when it came under attack, as a way of quickly and concisely notifying any British ships in range of what was happening so that they could relay the message. As the Graf Spee approached the captain of the Clement gave the order to abandon ship and all of the crew made it into life boats. The Captain and the Chief Engineer were brought on board the Graf Spee, at which point they saw that there were embossed letters on the quarterdeck that appeared to be painted over which said Admiral Scheer, this was exactly the deception that Langsdorff had planned, and now he had a carrier of that deception. When the captain met with Langsdorff the German said, in English ‘I am sorry, Captain, but I have to sink your ship. We are, you see, at war.’ before ordering that two torpedoes should be fired at the abandoned merchant ship. Neither of the torpedoes exploded, although it is unclear whether they missed or they failed to explode, which the early war German torpedoes were notorious for. And so Langsdorff switched tactics and ordered that the main guns fire on the ship at point blank range, with 5 being required before the ship was under the waves. While it was good that the Graf Spee had made its first kill, the failure of the torpedoes and the need to resort to the wastage of main armament ammunition was not a great way to start the campaign. The merchant seamen were offloaded onto another passing merchant ship that would offload them at a nearby port, with the news that made it back to Britain being that the ship had been sunk by the Admiral Scheer. This caused some serious confusion in London, which was again, exactly the point.

The next victim to fall into the hands of the Graf Spee would be the British tramp steamer Newton Beech, which the Graf Spee would encounter on October 5th. The crew of the Newton Beech attempted to destroy some important papers but failed, and this provided good information to Langsdorff for his further raiding. One of the more important pieces of information were the general routing plans that had been provided to all British ships by the Royal Navy, this was essentially a highway map for British ships at sea. Several items would also be taken from the Newton Beech to resupply the Grad Spee, which would be a common theme over the following weeks of raiding. It could be as simple as some extra food, or as important as critical supplies depending on the ship in question, for example on the next ship attacked by the Graf Spee, the Ashlea, a good amount of sugar and potatoes were transferred over the Graf Spee before it was destroyed with scuttling charges. The crew of the Ashlea were loaded onto the Newton Beech, which was manned by a prize crew specifically to follow the Graf Spee around to house captured crew and stores. The usage of the Newton Beech in this way seemed like a good plan, but it was not long after the sinking of the Ashlea that the plan was abandoned and all of the prisoners were moved over to the Graf Spee and the ship destroyed, again with explosive charges to conserve ammunition. Over the course of only around a week the Graf Spee had been able to sink 4 British merchant ships off of the South American coast, and the Graf Spee’s rampage was really only beginning.