The Battleship Gneisenau

When the battleships returned to Brest, the information about their arrival was immediately transmitted to London. For the British it was an opportunity to get rid of both inconvenient battleships with the help of bombers. Most valuable was the information that the ships would remain in Brest for at least three months. During that time, their moves were closely observed by agents operating in Brest and by air reconnaissance. That information was used to systematically modify plans of the air strikes against the German battleships. At one time the ships left the dry-dock and were moored at the wharf. Immediately, the British took advantage of that fact and launched a torpedo bombers strike against the Gneisenau. It was truly a master stroke, since the Germans did not expect a torpedo attack against a vessel moored in the narrow inner basin. Admittedly, such a possibility had been discussed, but there was not enough time to lay the anti-torpedo nets. A daring attack made by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell scored a torpedo hit on the Gneisenau. Four days later the British launched another air raid and the ship was hit by bombs, which put her out of action for a few months. On April 14, 1941, Admiral Lütjens made an inspection of the Gneisenau, and it was estimated that all the necessary repairs would last at least until autumn.
The Gneisenau remained in Brest until the end of the year, when on November 5, 1941, she was finally made fully operational. Her further fate is connected with Operation “Cerberus”. In February 1942, along with her sistership the Scharnhorst and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, she dashed through the English Channel to Germany, under the nose of the British. During that sortie, on February 12, she hit a mine, but despite the damage she was safely moored at Brunsbüttel on the next day. Within the next days, she sailed through the canal and on February 15 was dry-docked at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel with ammunition still on board. Restoring her to fully operational status was a priority and the repairs were scheduled to conclude on March 6, 1942. Therefore, permission to keep the ammunition on board was granted on one condition – shell fuses had to be removed. As it soon turned out, it did not protect the ship from danger. In the meantime, the British were not idle and on the night of February 26-27, 1942 launched an air raid against the battleship. The Gneisenau was hit by a bomb, which exploded in the bow section. Hot gases and splinters ignited propellant charges in turret “A” which cased an explosion. Consequently, the entire bow section of the battleship was demolished, which put her out of action for at least a few months.
The damage was not fatal, and it was decided to rebuild the ship in order to arm her with the new 38 cm guns according to design specifications approved by the OKM (Oberkommando der Marine – Naval High Command) on July 21, 1942. The approved design alteration also included lengthening of the bow section by 10 metres to the total of 245 metres. According to calculations, standard displacement would be approximately 33 510 tons, while operational displacement would reach 40 720 tons. It was assumed that the 15 cm and 10.5 cm guns would be replaced by a battery of dual purpose 12.8 cm SK C/42 guns. The design also stipulated the modification of the superstructure, including construction of the mainmast identical to that of the Scharnhorst and removal of the tall funnel mast. The ship was decommissioned on July 1, 1942 to be thoroughly rebuilt and rearmed. However, after the failure of Operation “Regenbogen” Adolf Hitler decided to decommission all capital ships. Therefore, the conversion work on the Gneisenau was stopped and both remaining main battery turrets were removed and installed in Norway as shore batteries. The ship remained in Gotenhafen (now Gdynia) serving as the accommodation hulk and floating warehouse.
The Gneisenau spent her final moments in harbour basin III. She was there on March 23, 1945, when the destroyer Z 31 towed her to the entrance of the harbour, where the Germans planned to scuttle her and thus block it. The operation began on March 27, 1945 by opening the Kingston valves. Additionally, the destroyer Z 31 launched torpedoes, two of which exploded on the port side in the engine room area. Water rushed through the openings, and although the explosion torn the side armour plates and destroyed a number of compartments, it failed to pierced the engine room bulkhead. Only the detonation of explosives finally flooded the engine room. For a few years after the war, no salvage work was attempted. The contract between the harbour authority and the Polish Ship Salvage (Polskie Ratownictwo Okrętowe) for refloating and removal of the wreck was not signed until in April 1950. The work commenced on April 28, 1950, but only on September 7, 1951 the sealed hull was refloated. Then it was towed away from the breakwater to clear the harbour entrance. At that time moving the wreck towards the wharf turned out to be impossible because the Dredging and Underwater Works Company (Przedsiębiorstwo Robót Czerpalnych i Podwodnych) had just begun dredging the section of the channel leading from the wreck to the wharf. At 10 metres the ship’s draft was too big, so the entire towing operation was postponed until the end of April. At the beginning of 1952, a meeting was called at the Wreckage Removal Company (Przedsiębiorstwo Demontażu Wraków) to discuss the removal of the Gneiseanu’s armour plates. Relatively soon they were removed and what was most important, by July 1952, all the machinery and equipment with a total weight of around 2500 tons had been removed from the wreck. The final sections of the battleship’s floor plates were ceremonially scraped on July 15, 1953, a few days before the scheduled date set to July 22, 1953.

Endnotes

1 Various German language sources provide conflicting data concerning the armour thickness.

 

 

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3D14 Gnaisenau

 

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