The Scharnhorst class were the first major capital ships built by Germany since the First World War. However, their design was interesting and rather different compared to warships from other nations. They had incredibly thick armor, on par with the battleships used by other navies. They were also fast vessels, able to steam at speeds of 30 knots. However, their armament is where they set themselves apart. Armed with a battery of nine 11″ guns, they almost seem weakly armed compared to their potential adversaries. Adding further confusion, they were ordered as battlecruisers and then later reclassified as battleships. This led to considerable confusion to naval observers of the day and still continues to divide historians today. Were the Scharnhorst class battleships or battlecruisers? I suspect the best answer will come from a close examination of German battlecruisers. In this article we will trace the development of German battlecruisers and see if they eventually lead to the Scharnhorst design. Before that however, I believe it important to determine what a battlecruiser is.
What Are Battlecruisers?
Today, we think of battlecruisers as warships with the firepower of a battleship, but the protection of a cruiser. The armor being sacrificed to attain lighter weight and thus higher speed. While this is true for Anglo-American battlecruisers, we forget that Germany approached the battlecruiser concept from another direction. Rather than sacrifice armor, they Germans opted to cut weight by carrying lighter main guns. This allowed their ships to achieve higher speeds, but also allowed them to retain armor on par with a battleship. So while British battlecruisers might have had an advantage in firepower compared to their German adversaries, the German battlecruisers were considerably more protected.
British vs. German Battlecruisers
Compare each country’s first battlecruiser below. Each vessel sets the precedent for their nation’s respective ideas concerning the battlecruiser concept.
HMS Invincible SMS Von der Tann
Year Commissioned: 1909 1910
Length 567′ / 173m 563′ / 171.7m
Beam 78.5′ / 23.9m 87.3′ / 26.6m
Draft 30′ / 9.1m (Deep Load) 30.1′ / 9.17m (Deep Load)
Displacement 20,750 tons (Deep Load) 21,300 tons (Deep Load)
Installed Power 41,000 SHP 41,426 SHP
Speed 25.5 Knots 27.5 Knots
Range 3090nmi at 10 knots 4400nmi at 14 knots
Belt (Maximum to Minimum) 6″ to 4″ 9.8″ to 3.1″
Deck 2.5″ to 1.5″ .98″ + 2″
Turrets 7″ 9.1″
Conning Tower 6 to 10″ 9.8″
x8 (4×2) 12″ (304mm) Main Guns x8 (4×2) 11″ (28cm) Main guns
x16 4″ (102mm) QF Secondary Guns x10 5.9″ (15cm) Secondary Guns
x7 Maxim Guns x16 3.45″ (8.8cm) Secondary Guns
x5 Torpedo Tubes x4 Torpedo Tubes
Immediately noticeable is the greater amount of armor carried by the German ship at the expense of firepower. While Von der Tann weighed more than her British adversary, she also devoted an additional 10% of her weight to armor.
The primary reason for this huge difference in armor was how each ship was expected to be utilized. Britain expected their ships to operate alone or in small taskforces. They were designed to hunt down smaller cruisers and other ships. When an enemy battleship appeared, the battlecruisers were expected to use their high speed to disengage and flee. Outfight anything weaker and outrun anything stronger. On the other hand, Germany designed their battlecruisers to operate in the main battle line alongside battleships. They were designed with the armor needed to survive in this environment along with the speed needed to flee if necessary.
The difference in design theory was made apparent during the Battle of Jutland. The battlecruisers were forced to operate in the main battle line. For the lightly armored British battlecruisers, this proved disastrous. On the other hand, the more heavily armored German battlecruisers displayed much greater resilience to damage. Only one German battlecruiser was lost during Jutland compared to three from the Royal Navy. On average the German ships withstood much greater damage in contrast to their British counterparts.
The Scharnhorst Class
Germany was well aware that they could not match the Royal Navy in quantity and Hitler had repeatedly made it clear he did not want to antagonize Great Britain. However, they did want to ensure that sea lanes could be protected. To achieve this, they opted for two “D class” panzerschiffe to supplement the already existing Deutschland class. However, despite Hitler’s best efforts, the threat of powerful commerce raiders was of greater concern to Great Britain than fleet oriented capital ships. At the same time, France announced the construction of the Dunkerque class battleships, a counter to Germany’s projected D class warships.
Germany now needed a ship to counter the Dunkerque class while also fulfilling the original requirements for the D class. Erich Raeder advocated for an enlarged version of the D class incorporating greater armor and firepower. However, knowing that any increase in the size of the main guns would cause alarm, Hitler refused to allow guns larger than 11″. At that time, he was trying negotiate the 1935 Anglo-German naval agreement and didn’t want to risk his chances. If successful, the new naval treaty would allow Germany to begin building larger, more capable capital ships, including actual battleships.
Following conclusion of the naval agreement, Germany was free to build larger guns. While their was talk of increasing the main armament of the Scharnhorst class to 15″, work was already underway. It would take months to design new 15″ guns while their was an abundance of 11″ guns. Eager to have new warships in service, Hitler approved the decision to continue work with the 11″ guns.
The final specifications to the Scharnhorst can be viewed below in comparison to a Royal Navy battleship and battlecruiser.
Scharnhorst vs. King George V and Renown
HMS King George V HMS Renown (1939 Rebuild) KMS Scharnhorst
Year Commissioned: 1940 1916 1939
Length 745′ / 227m 794′ / 242m 771′ / 234.9m
Beam 103′ / 31m 90′ / 27.5m 98′ / 30m
Draft 32.6′ 9.9m 31.9′ / 9.7m 32′ / 9.9m
Displacement 42,200 tons (Deep Load) 36,660 tons (Deep Load) 38,700 tons (Deep Load)
Installed Power 125,000 SHP 120,000 SHP 159,551 SHP
Speed 28 knots 30.75 knots 31 knots
Range 5400nmi at 18 knots 6580nmi at 18knots 7100nmi at 19 knots
Belt 14.7″ 9″ 13.8″
Deck 5.38″ 1.5 to 5″ 2 to 3.7″
Turrets 12.75″ (Maximum Thickness) 9″ (Maximum Thickness) 14.2″ (Maximum Thickness)
Conning Tower 3 to 4″ 10″ 13.7″ (Maximum thickness)
10x (2×4,1×2) 14″ (360mm) 6x (3×2) 15″ (381mm) 9x (3×3) 11″ (28cm)
16x 5.25″ (133mm) 20x (10×2) 4.5″ (113mm) 12x (4×2, 4×1) 5.9″ (15cm)
14x (7×2) 4.1″ (10.5cm)
The relation between Scharnhorst and HMS Renown is remarkably similar to that of SMS Von der Tann and HSM Invincible. Notably, the German ships have smaller guns compared to the British ships. Like SMS Von der Tann, Scharnhorst is roughly 2000 tons heavier than it adversary and both carry substantially more armor for their weight. Both are also faster than their British equivalent.
Compared to King George V, Scharnhorst is weaker in both armor and firepower. However, this is no different than German battlecruiser of World War One. Like its battlecruiser predecessors, Scharnhorst has the armor to survive some shots from a battleship. It also has the speed needed to disengage and flee if need be.
Battleships or Battlecruisers?
As noted above the Scharnhorst was originally ordered as a battlecruiser. So why does that not put an end to the argument about classification? This is because they were reclassified as battleships during construction, becoming the Kriegsmarine’s first Schlachtschiff. It seems odd that a battlecruiser would suddenly be reclassified as a battleship with no change in design or mission. I suspect however, that the reason for reclassification is purely political In nature.
By relabeling the Scharnhorst class as a battleship, Germany gave the impression that their navy could not threaten the Royal Navy. A battleship armed with 11″ guns would appear to be weaker than every one of the battleships and battlecruisers in service with the Royal Navy. This had the following advantages:
- Germany could have a powerful commerce raider while the British thought it was simply a weaker battleship.
- It would not cause the Allies to become alarmed, allowing Germany to build more powerful warships.
- Politically, It would not alienate Britain, who Hitler was still trying to win over as an ally.
I also think it important to remember that Hitler wanted powerful symbols to boost German morale and prestige. A battleship was an important symbol of naval power at that time, much more so than a battlecruiser. I suspect that the reclassification would also have resonated with the German people.
Outside of Germany, most nations were divided on the classification of the Scharnhorst class. The United States and France both considered them battleships. The United States basing their opinion on the armoring of the Scharnhorst class while France was mindful that the class was a counter to their own Dunkerque class battleships.
On the other hand, the Royal Navy consistently called them battlecruisers. This is primarily due to the fact that they expected them to operate as commerce raiders, the very role that England was most fearful about. The Netherlands developed their own warship from the Scharnhorst design, the Design 1047 which was class classified as a battlecruiser. The German designers assisting the Dutch were also supportive of the battlecruiser designation. However, the Dutch also considered the Scharnhorst class to be battleships as they carried more armor than their own ship.
Based on the development and design of German battlecruisers, I am inclined the believe that the Scharnhorst class leans towards being a battlecruiser. It shares the same basic design features while its also expected to perform many of the same roles. It was faster than a battleship and like most German battlecruisers, it carried lighter guns. Most importantly, like all German battlecruisers it had the armor to survive in the main line of battle. Outside of design, it was also operated in a manner consistent with a battlecruiser. Germany utilized them as fast commerce raiders that would engage smaller, weaker ships. When threatened by capital ships, they were to disengage and retreat with their superior speed.
Based on all that, I firmly believe the Scharnhorst class were battlecruisers. I think the only reason for their reclassification was based on politics. Outside of Germany, I think the battleship classification was based on unfamiliarity with German battlecruiser design as well as just following Germany’s own classification.
Final Comments and Further Reading
I hope you enjoyed the article. If you have comments or questions, feel free to comment below.
Want to see what happens when a ship has all the advantages of a battlecruiser and a battleship rolled into one? Check out this article on the Iowa class Battleships.
Read about America’s not quite battlecruiser design, the Alaska class large cruisers.