Scharnhorst was ordered as Ersatz Elsass as a replacement for the old pre-dreadnought Elsass, under the contract name "D". The Kriegsmarinewerft in Wilhelmshaven was awarded the contract, where the keel was laid on 16 July 1935. The ship was launched on 3 October 1936 (...)
|Battleship Scharnhorst, Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), DVM 10 Bild-23-63-46|
The intent of the Kriegsmarine's leadership was to reach parity with the battlefleet of France.
The very idea was childish.
Germany had barely left the great economic crisis behind and government insiders had the certainty that huge fiscal problems laid ahead because of the army re-armament and expansion. The construction of two expensive capital ships (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) was only justifiable with an actual military purpose, not with a mere childish pissing contest.
The concept development for these ships during the early 30's included many interim ideas and was very arbitrary. 18,000 mt, 26,000 mt and 35,000 metric ton designs with 28 or 30.5 cm guns (11" or 12") were considered.
Now let's finally look at possible military purposes. These ships were incredibly expensive (more about that later), so they should really have been able to make a difference!
Baltic Sea; the only real potential opponent there was the Soviet Baltic Fleet, which was in shambles. Stalin could have concentrated the Baltic, Arctic and Pacific fleets there, but the fleet was simply outdated. Four obsolete dreadnoughts of the Gangut class were in the Soviet navy's inventory. Their effectiveness was very much in doubt in the Baltic Sea due to neglect, old age and the rather confined nature of the Baltic Sea. Littoral navy assets such as offensive and defensive minelayers and motor torpedo boats were available as very cost-efficient counters to the Soviet Baltic Fleet. The neutralisation of the Austrian-Hungarian fleet in the similarly confined Adriatic Sea in 1915-1918 was available as blueprint. The 1930's situation even added the possibility of engaging capital ships with bombers.
France was another potential opponent. The Kriegsmarine stared at the new French Dunkerque class, two ships which were developed to overpower the new German ships of the Deutschland class.
This was, as I wrote previously, a pissing contest attitude. Navy officers were paid for professional work, not for schoolboy attitudes. A professional work would first and foremost have led to the question what the Kriegsmarine could contribute for an acceptable conclusion of a war with France - or to a deterrence of France.
The answer to that question was simple and short: Nothing of relevance.
The offensive potential of the Kriegsmarine against France had no chance of becoming decisive, no matter how large the Kriegsmarine would be. France would always have been able to maintain its international trade via rail and via the English Channel and the Mediterranean. Even the idea that the Kriegsmarine could have had a reasonable impact on French Atlantic shipping was quite utopian.
|French battleship Dunkerque|
Likewise, the French navy hadn't really the strength to maintain a fully effective blockade of German trade (as done by the Royal Navy in 1914-1918) in the 1930's. Again, littoral units and possibly bombers could have kept the French Navy away from the German bight. Blockade runners would have had a pretty good chance during winter months against the French Navy. A mere two battleships armed with 28 cm guns would not have changed the situation much, for the French had five old super dreadnoughts and the two fast and small Dunkerque battleships.The best opportunity for breaking a French blockade would have been to avoid the five old super dreadnoughts in any case, for the repair of damaged German battleships could take months.
One might disagree here and think that two battleships would have helped much to break a blockade, but even that is far from "parity". Germany needed at most 2/3 as much naval power as France for maintaining its overseas trade.
All this was quite moot, though; Germany was able to trade with many, many countries via rail or quasi-immune coastal shipping in a war with France. And then lets not forget that the Nazi grand strategy included a strive for economic autarky and securing continental resources for Germany.
The third possible opponent was the United Kingdom. The Kriegsmarine had only one promising option in such a scenario; protect the coast, seal the Baltic Sea against the Royal navy with littoral forces. Raiding British shipping with cruisers had zero chance of strategic success.
There was thus no real promise of (advantageous) strategic decisiveness for a German battleship fleet in the 1930's. It was risky politically (British antipathy was for sure), it was extremely expensive (again, more on that later) and it was risky tactically (even a damaged battleship could be put out of action for months, and a single lucky hit could destroy even a robust German battleship).
Now let's look at the costs.
Scharnhorst did cost 143.5 and the sister ship Gneisenau did cost 146 million Reichsmark (Bismarck and Tirpitz later about 200 each). These roughly RM 290 million plus operating costs for several years plus costs of investment in infrastructure don't really tell us much, do they? How much money were RM 290 million?
I prefer to look at alternative uses for the money, for this shows us the opportunity costs as well. Obviously, it would have been nice to cut taxation by RM 290 million or to invest the money for civilian purposes. Yet, even military alternatives looked enticing in comparison to the construction of two battleships.
The Imperial navy's huge budget had crowded out money from the army budget in the years 1898-1916, and this had certainly a gigantic impact on the course of the First World War. History repeated itself, nothing was learnt.
RM 290 million were actually the procurement cost of about 7,000 15 cm howitzers for the army (each 38,500 to 40,400 Reichsmark). Even the procurement of suitable tractor motor vehicles for these howitzers wouldn't have decreased this quantity much below 5,000.
That would have been almost as much as the Heer's field artillery firepower of Autumn 1939 (despite absorbing Austrian and Czech field artillery). The Heer had about 4,900 10.5 cm howitzers, 400 10.5 cm cannons and 2,400 15 cm howitzers at that time.
What else could have been bought for RM 290 million by 1939? About 2,800 StuG III assault guns, for example. Or 12,600 SdKfz 251 armoured personnel carriers; a revolution for army mechanisation and reputed to have cut the losses of infantry in armour divisions by half, while allowing for much quicker offensive actions. That would have pushed the Soviet Union off the cliff in 1941.
|A SdKfz 251. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 101I-801-0664-37|
RM 290 million would also have sufficed for the purchase of 2,900 Bf 109 E fighters. There would not have been a Battle of Britain against such a fighter force.
This was just the beginning. Two bigger battleships, together the fiscal equivalent of 10,000 15 cm howitzers, were ordered in the late 30's as well; Bismarck and Tirpitz. Eventually, the only beneficiary of these four battleships was Imperial Japan, which had to face a few Allied battleships and aircraft carriers less because the Kriegsmarine kept them busy in the Atlantic.
The two battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were in my opinion produced at great cost, based on immature and unprofessional reasoning and in defiance of a fresh historical lesson. This failure was probably a good thing in the long run, but at least we should do better, understand and remember this historical lesson. Military procurement is not for pissing contests or prestige. It should make a difference for the good of the nation.