Battle cruisers of the Scharnhorst class had a displacement of 32,000 tons and a speed of 31 knots, but carried only 11-inch guns.

On the other hand, British battle cruisers like the Renown had a displacement of only 26,000 tons, a speed of 32 knots, but 15-inch guns.

Why were the German battlecruisers larger and more heavily armored than their British counterparts, about the same speed, but carrying lighter guns?

I thought the idea of battle cruisers was for them to be as heavily gunned as battleships, but faster, with a sacrifice of size and armor protection as the offset. But the Scharnhorst was larger but lighter gunned than the British equivalents. The British classified the two German ships as "battleships". They were, in fact, only slightly lighter than the Nelson class battleship, which, however, had 16-inch guns. The two German ships were also much lighter than the newer but slower King George V battleships (which the Germans could not have known about).

This makes even less sense when one realizes that the Germans also built pocket battleships that had two-thirds of the firepower (six 11-inch guns vs. nine) of the battlecruisers, but were otherwise much closer in size to the British heavy cruisers that they were supposedly the equivalent of, due to the limitations imposed by the Versailles Treaty. Also, in "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler himself expressed a preference for German ships that were more heavily gunned than their British equivalents so they could win the "single combats" he hoped would ensue as a result of German attacks on Allied shipping.* The pocket battleships met this criterion, the battle cruisers did not. The Germans also built two battleships, the Bismarck and Tirpitz, that were superior to any single British battleship.

Or did the lighter 11-inch guns make the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau seem less threatening to the British and others so that there was a "deception" element involved?

*During the war of 1812, the Americans won a number of notable victories because their ships were heavier than their British equivalents. That is, while a British man-of-war could beat an American frigate, a British frigate would be an underdog against a supposedly comparable American ship.

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    They were built at very different times under very different conditions.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 21:12
  • 8
    So, you're asking why British battle-cruisers built in 1915 were built to a different design from German battle-cruisers built two decades later, in 1935? Commented May 3, 2020 at 22:37
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    @sempaiscuba: No, the other way around. (See the last part of the revised question.) Using British ships as the "standard," Hitler had expressed a preference for German ships to be more heavily gunned than their British equivalents. The pocket battleship met this test in spades. The battle cruisers did not. Why not? That is, why were they built with "inferior" gunnery? Unless, for some reason, a battery of German 11 inch guns was not inferior to a battery of British 15 inch guns?
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 22:43
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    Hmm. Then perhaps you could edit the question to explain what more you are looking for, beyond what is covered in the Wikipedia article on the Scharnhorst-class battleship? Commented May 3, 2020 at 23:04
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    @TomAu The article explicitly explains why the Scharnhorst-class had 28.3 cm guns (which still seems to be the main thrust of your question). The increased armour protection was presumably carried forward from the D-class cruisers (which were cancelled to make way for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) which is also described in that article. Commented May 4, 2020 at 0:14

5 Answers 5


Renown was a true battlecruiser in the Jackie Fisher sense. It was built during World War 1, and intended to fight other similarly armed battleships and battlecruisers of the German High Seas Fleet. Post Dreadnought both Germany and the UK built large fleets of such ships, with the distinction between battleship and battlecruiser being mainly one of speed vs armor.

With the end of World War 1, in defeat the German navy was severely limited, since the UK did not wish to replicate the expensive task of keeping ahead of Germany in another naval arms race (see also the Washington and London Naval treaties more broadly). Initially that meant that Germany could keep only 6 pre-Dreadnought battleships and 6 light cruisers (although, at the time, the definition of light vs heavy to be found in the later naval treaties did not exist). None of those 6 battleships were any match for any existing UK ships. This limit on the Germany navy, like the other armament limits, was considered punitive by Germany.

It was with this backdrop that the Deutschland class were conceived, nominally as a replacement for the out-of-date pre-Dreadnought ships. Since the old battleships were armed with 11-inch guns, the Deutschlands could be as well. Further, by at least pretending to stay under the 10,000 ton cruiser displacement under the London/Washington naval treaties, their design and construction could only cause some discomfort for the UK, but would not obviously abrogate the Versailles treaty.

The punitive nature of the Versailles treaty was at least partially negated by the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935 which, while irritating France, allowed Germany to build up their fleet up to 35% of the existing UK fleet. This agreement was signed on 18 June 1935. Meanwhile Gneisenau had been laid down in May of 1935. She and her sister Scharnhorst were designed, pre Naval Agreement, to also use 11-inch guns even though they would clearly be in violation of the cruiser limits, but perhaps could be argued to be replacements for the old WW-1 battleships.

Certainly, until later (with Bismarck and Tirpitz), Germany did not want to risk being seen to either (1) be dramatically violating the Versailles Treaty or the Naval Agreement, or (2) wanting to kick off a new naval arms race. Either might draw more attention to their general re-arming, with consequences. Now, both the Deutschlands and the Scharnhorsts did provoke responses from both the UK and France (for example the Dunkerques).

So — the Scharnhorsts were not classic 'battlecruisers' in the WW-1 sense like Renown was. They were hybrid ships, keeping kind-sorta within various treaty limitations. Further, they had not desire to fight either real battlecruisers or battleships (which they failed at miserably). They could be expected to out-duel a single heavy cruiser, and perhaps do a bit better than Graf Spee did against 1 heavy and 2 light cruisers. But, they worked within what they were designed for.

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    This was part of the zigggina and zagging of the "deception" or "beat Versailles" game. Because the issue wasn't about building the best ships, but the most powerful ships acceptable to the British navy. This answer makes sense. And naming the earlier ones "pocket battleships" was a masterpiece of PR because they were seen as "weak battleships," as opposed to "supercruisers."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 19:44
  • " in the Jackie Fisher sense" - an unfamiliar metaphor. What does this mean?
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 10:11
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    @MCW This is not a metaphor. According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battlecruiser, Admiral Fisher was the inventor or champion of the battle cruiser type of warship. Read "in the Jakck Fisher sense" as "in the original sense". Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 11:52
  • @kimchilover - Indeed. Added a link to Wikipedia. He (well, the committee he chaired as First Sea Lord) initiated both Dreadnought and Invincible, revolutionizing navies around the world.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 12:38
  • This would be a perfect answer if you added a lede to the beginning, explaining your main point (the Germans were dodging post WWI treaty restrictions).
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 13:13

Unless, for some reason, a battery of German 11 inch guns was not inferior to a battery of British 15-inch guns?

I think in this case a more holistic look at the armaments of the two vessels will show the answer. Six 15-inch guns on the Renown compared to nine 11-inch guns on the Scharnhorst. The Scharnhorst also had 42 smaller guns, compared to the Renown's 17.

Additionally, the range of the British 15in MkI maxed out around 33 thousand meters, while the 11in SK C/34 had a maximum range of almost 45 thousand meters.

I'm not sure that your supposition that the German ship was inferior in armament to the British is correct.

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    42 "smaller guns" includes 1.5" AA guns, excluding those the count is 26, but secondary batteries do not decide a big gun duel. The more useful comparison is "weight of shell": Renown's six 15" guns fired about 5200 kg vs 3000 kg for the nine 11" giving the Renown a decided edge. Note that there was an intent to replace the Scharnhorst's nine 11" guns with six 15" guns, just like Renown, but like many things in the Kriegsmarine it never happened. Finally, there was that time two Scharnhorsts met the Renown... and ran away.
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 18:41

The reason appears to be a change in German thinking in the use of warships.

In the earlier phase, up to about 1930, the purpose of German warships appeared to be as "duel" ships. In that context, it made sense for the Germans to build more heavily gunned ships than British ships of equivalent speeds; that is, pocket battleships to fight cruisers, and later, super-battleships like the Bismarck to fight British battleships, etc. The German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did not fit this mold, which appears to be the basis of your question. This "duel" ship strategy was used by the Americans to great success in the War of 1812.

There appears to have been a change in the early 1930s, when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were built as commerce raiders. Their speed was clearly an advantage, but the German navy determined that the longer-ranged11 inch gun was optimal for commerce raiding compared to shorter range but heavier 15 inch guns. So they made their "battlecruisers" supersized versions of their pocket battleships, rather than lightly armored "battleships" with 15 inch guns for "duels" against British battlecruisers.

Later, when Hitler took power (and asserted his control over the Navy), it went back to building larger "duel" ships such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz.


The two ships you mention were built twenty years apart. Yet the German naval architects had no opportunity to practice their craft in those years, so the situation becomes even less comparable.

  • Don't just look at the caliber of artillery, look at projectile design, projectile weight and muzzle energy. The German guns fired faster shells but that might not have compensated for the weight difference.
  • Armor penetration in "inches" was notoriously dodgy. Against what armor? What range?
  • The design decisions of the Renown were influenced by components already at hand, including battleship turrets. She was wartime construction and built in a hurry.
  • Armor is equally hard to compare. How thick? How hard? What coverage? But looking just at thickness, the German design had much heavier armor.
  • I disagree with your first line. The German pocket-battleships brighthubengineering.com/marine-history/… were built before the battle cruisers, so the Germans had that level of experience. An upvote for an otherwise fairly good answer.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 17:13
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    @TomAu, doing it once (or even two or three times) doesn't give routine. Germany lost continuity for tanks, aircraft, subs, ships. For the smaller items, they managed to cheat (cooperation with Russia, with the Dutch/Fins, etc.) but big ships are something different. Yes, they built credible battleships. But it takes a lot of work to get the last knot out of a hull.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 17:37
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    There are at least some indications that the Bismarcks were heavily based on late WW-1 German designs, at least with respect to protection concepts. This likely reflects the dispersal of the design teams. In contrast, there were many studies and real iterations of ships for, in particular, the US, before the outbreak of WW-2.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 20:20

The British favored firepower and speed.

In any battleship (or battlecruiser) you negotiate the Triad. A compromise between three variables

  1. Speed (horsepower)
  2. Firepower (offense)
  3. Armor (weight)

A ship with smaller guns carries more ammunition … but less hitting power from ranges past 10,000 yards.

A ship with more armor weighs more, thus engine power is insufficient to keep up with faster cruisers and destroyers.

A ship with better engines is faster.

German's stressed armor because they had a smaller navy and couldn't afford a more robust fleet. Britain lost more ships during the Battle of Jutland … twice as many tonnage.

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