Before World War II, Germany created the Deutschland Class of heavily armored cruisers in order to comply with the regulations in the Treaty of Versailles. Three of these cruisers (called pocket-battleships by the British) were built: the Deutschland, the Admiral Graf Spee, and the Admiral Scheer. In 1940, the Admiral Scheer and the Deutschland were reclassified as heavy cruisers, and the Deutschland was renamed to the Lützow.

The Admiral Graf Spee and the Admiral Scheer both had success in their task of disrupting trade and supply to the Allied Powers.

The Admiral Graf Spee was active in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans where it captured or sank 8 different ships between October 5, 1939, and December 7, 1939 (Wikipedia), (Britannica).

The Admiral Scheer was also active in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and became the most successful capital ship commerce raider in World War II (Wikipedia), (Military Factory).

As far as I am aware, the Deutschland had no such feats, despite participating actively until the end of the war. The ship participated in battles (the Battle of Drøbak Sound, the Battle of the Barents Sea), but was damaged in these conflicts (Wikipedia). Was this lack of success the result of its location in the North Sea, or something else?

EDIT: By success, I mean raiding commerce during the war since that seems to be the main purpose of the Deutschland Class. In that case, why was the Deutschland not sent on commerce raiding missions as opposed to larger battles?

  • 8
    It seems by your own quotes that the ship was not sent to raid commerce. So... I would imagine it has a hard time holding up in the statistics in regards to that. Can you clarify what you define as "success"?
    – nvoigt
    Oct 8, 2019 at 5:45
  • 2
    The pocket battleships didn't actually comply of course. They were just built in such a way that they looked almost like a good-faith effort to abide by the treaty, so that the British could pretend there was a difference of opinion/mistake, and not feel honor-bound to make an issue of it.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 8, 2019 at 16:37
  • 3
    @DevSolar - Right. As I said, it violated it by an amount calculated to be small enough that it wasn't a blazingly obvious violation of the treaty that the British would feel compelled to respond to. They were sticking a toe over the line, rather than dancing over it.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 8, 2019 at 20:51
  • 1
    @DevSolar - Check again, The Iowa was exactly 45,000 long tons standard (as per treaty), as were all the rest except the New Jersey. Also, every ship in the class (except the Iowa) was laid down after 1940, when the treaty was a dead issue, because all the other signatories were at war with each other. The US technically still kept to it though, because none of the Iowa class launched prior to the treaty's prearranged expiration date in 1942.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 9, 2019 at 0:15
  • 1
    @DevSolar - Yes it does mean that. Notice the Iowa hit the limit to the ton. Ship designers know exactly what they are doing.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 9, 2019 at 14:58

3 Answers 3


...why was the Deutschland not sent on commerce raiding missions as opposed to larger battles?

Bad timing, and a bit of bad luck. She wasn't "less effective" by any means (other than being somewhat lighter build than her sister ships), she just did not get a chance at that one good raiding sortie that her sister ships had.

I'll mis-use the quotation markup here -- normal text on Deutschland / Lützow, quoted text on her sister ships and general course of the war.

At the outbreak of the war, Admiral Graf Spee was already in the South Atlantic, where she could immediately engage in commerce raiding -- in summer conditions. Admiral Scheer remained at anchor close to Wilhelmshaven.

The Deutschland had a short first stint as commerce raider in the (stormy, at this time of year) North Atlantic, during which she sank two ships and captured a third. She was then (November 1939) recalled for refit, including a new bow section to increase her seaworthiness. (Both the Deutschland class cruisers and the Scharnhorst class battleships had issues with wet foredecks, in part because they were lying so low in the water, in part because their bow section proved to be inappropriate for the North Atlantic.)

Admiral Scheer went directly from anchorage to refit. Admiral Graf Spee would have required refitting as well, plus an overhaul of her engines. After all, she had sailed to Madagascar and back. But in December 1939 she had already met her fate in the Battle of the River Plate, ending her stint after nine ships sunk (if I count correctly).

In March 1940, the refit of Deutschland (and her renaming to Lützow) was done. But Operation Weserübung was up, and Lützow was ordered to participate in the operation.

Admiral Scheer was at that time still undergoing refits, and would not be able to sail again till July.

During the invasion of Norway, Lützow took heavy damage in the Battle of Drøbak Sound, and had to return to port for repairs. Those took until the end of March 1941. In June, she was to sail to Norway, to eventually return to the Atlantic for raiding.

This was the time when Admiral Scheer was conducting her stint raiding in the Atlantic, sinking 17 merchant ships before returning for an overhaul of her engines.

As bad luck would have it, en route to Norway Lützow was hit by a torpedo bomber rendering her dead in the water, so she had to be towed back to Germany and repaired again. This would put her out of action till May 1942.

By summer 1941, raiding in the Atlantic had basically become impossible. The sinking of the Bismarck had proven how dangerous air superiority at sea was for capital ships. The network of supply ships that had kept the Kriegsmarine units fueled, fed, and armed was no more. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen sat holed up in Brest under frequent air attacks. (The British joked about the "Brest Bomb Target Flotilla".) This led to the decision to recall the capital ships to better defendable waters (Unternehmen Zerberus, the Channel Dash). They would not return to the Atlantic for the rest of the war. Instead, they were relocated to Norway, to attack shipping there.

None of the German capital ships had significant success in the Norwegian Sea. The situation had changed. Instead of scouring the wide open waters of the Atlantic for lone merchants, the mission now was attacking escorted convois under Royal Navy air cover. The days of the lone raider were over -- not that any surface ship ever got a second stint in the Atlantic -- and so, eventually, German capital ships were either sunk, or retreated to the Baltic Sea.

(Sources: A mere reshuffling of the Wikipedia articles linked in the question, based on what I already knew about their timelines.)


The Deutschland was sent on a commerce raiding mission at the start of the war. However, she was not allowed to begin raiding until 26th September 1939, because Hitler hoped to make peace with Britain and France after taking Poland.

Deutschland was assigned to the North Atlantic, where the weather in October and November tends to be substantially worse than it is in the South Atlantic at the same time. That was where the Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee had their raiding successes. The Deutschland's biggest success in raiding was tying down the Allied ships searching for her. She returned to port on 17th November and required refitting.

After Admiral Graf Spee was defeated in the Battle of the River Plate on 13th December, the remaining pocket-battleships were never again sent on long-distance solo commerce raids. Since Admiral Graf Spee had been defeated by two light cruisers and one heavy cruiser, rather than the capital ships that were expected to be needed, it was clear that this mission would simply lead to their loss. The fate of the Bismarck emphasised the point.

The Deutschland (renamed Lützow) and Admiral Scheer did the remainder of their war service in Norway, attempting to attack convoys to Russia. Since those were always escorted by ships with good radar, surprise attacks were not possible.

So Deutschland had one chance at raiding success, but was frustrated by bad weather, in an area and time of year when that was to be expected. After that, raiding in the form expected pre-war wasn't considered practical and wasn't attempted.

  • I am not sure it is fair to say that the Admiral Graf Spee was "defeated" by Ajax, Exeter and Achilles. The destroyed fuel processing plant rendered her incapable of returning to friendly ports for restock repairs, dooming her eventually. But as far as the battle itself was concerned, the Allied were lucky that Graf Spee disengaged instead of pressing for a decision then and there. It's like saying that HMS Hood "defeated" the Bismarck by damaging her oil bunkers and forcing her to make for Brest...
    – DevSolar
    Oct 26, 2020 at 8:15
  • @DevSolar: I'd say that Britain's Commodore Harwood waged a battle of "mutually assured destruction." Except that the Britishers escaped the destruction. Both sides knew that the British had a fourth ship, the Cumberland, waiting in the wings.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 29, 2020 at 21:57
  • @TomAu: Still, the "defeat" was a strategic one (RN having reinforcements in range, AGS having nowhere to go for repairs), not one due to inefficiencies of the AGS' design. If both the AGS and the Ajax / Exeter / Achilles were forced to duke it out to the bitter end then and there, the outcome would still have been up for grabs -- Ajax and Achilles' guns being too light for AGS' armor, and AGS running short of ammunition...
    – DevSolar
    Nov 30, 2020 at 6:38

One reason was the quality of the ships' respective Captains.

The Admiral Scheer was commanded by Captain Theodore Krancke, the most capable of the three ship commanders, who was promoted to Admiral, after he sank or captured 17 merchantmen.

The Admiral Graf Spee was commanded by Hans Langsdorff, who managed to sink nine merchantmen, but was "cornered" of the coast of Uruguay, by a small British cruiser flotilla.

Captain Stange, of the Lutzow, was the least capable of these three ship commanders. During the so-called New Years' Eve battle, he gave way to a weaker British force consisting of light cruisers and destroyers. The captain of an opposing ship, the Onslow, was promoted to Rear Admiral for his role in that battle, which did not reflect well on Stange or the Lutzow.

Captain Stange was not a worse captain than the skippers of other German ships such as the cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen, the battle cruisers Scharhorst and Gneisenau, and the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. But in the company of the other two pocket battleship commanders,* he was the least distinguished.

*For instance, Captain Krancke of the Sheer rose to the second or third ranking Admiral of the navy under Doenitz.

  • 1
    German capital ships were under orders to avoid engagement with the Royal Navy where possible, something that is mentioned in the New Year's Eve battle article you linked. That can hardly be held against Captain Stange.
    – DevSolar
    Oct 27, 2020 at 8:04
  • Captain Stange was not "behindhand" compared to non-pocket battleship captains, such as those of the Hipper, Prinz Eugen,Scharhorst,Gneisenau, Bismrack or Tiripitz. But among the three pocket battleship commanders, he was in highly distinguished company. Captain Krancke of the Sheer rose to second or third in command of the German Navy (after Doentiz). Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee was an exceptionally brave officer who scuttled his ship (and himself) rather than surrender. It was in this "company" that Captain Stange might be considered "pedestrian."
    – Tom Au
    Nov 29, 2020 at 21:49

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