A Capital End


HMS Renown August 1945.


Lützow, sunk in the Kaiserfahrt, on 26 April, 1945.

From the summer of 1944 onward, the Soviet Army mounted attack after attack against which the Germans, now fighting on two fronts, deserted by their allies one by one, outnumbered on the ground and with hardly any air support whatsoever, could only stubbornly give ground and retreat and retreat. It is some measure of their fighting qualities that it still took the Western Allies eleven months to do what the Germans had done in six weeks in 1940, despite the fact the bulk of the Axis troops were engaged in the East. Still, there was no staying the new might of the Russian armies and by October they had broken through to the Baltic coastline at Libau.

From now on, the main task groups of the remainder of the German Navy were engaged in support of the army on this flank and in evacuating over two million soldiers and civilians away from the Soviet advance to the sanctuary of the west. Between October 6 and 13, for example, the task force comprising the pocket battleship Lützow, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and six destroyers was employed in firing on Soviet troop concentrations near Memel under heavy air attack. Force 2 was formed under Vice Admiral Thiele, and in addition to the above ships, the Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper, and all available light cruisers and destroyers were in constant action off the Sworbe Peninsula, which, thanks to their firepower, managed to hold out until November 22.

By the beginning of 1945, the Soviet ground forces had reached East Prussia and were still pressing forward. From February 2 to 5, the Prinz Eugen was in action against the Fischhausen area, with the Admiral Scheer in close support, while a week later, the Lützow was bombarding near Frauenburg in support of the 4th Army.

Both pocket battleships continued in action throughout that month in efforts to halt the Russian advance on Königsberg and fired off huge numbers of shells from their 11-inch guns, the effects of which were found to be as devastating by the Soviets as had the Allied naval bombardments by the Germans earlier in the war. Huge efforts by torpedo bombers and MTBs were made by the Russians to eliminate these ships but all survived save a few destroyers.

But all the time, their area of operations was shrinking, and not only from the east. From the west, the continued Allied advance eliminated fighter bases and the heavy bombers of the RAF and USAAF were free to roam at will over the Baltic ports with little or no opposition. Casualties were inevitable and heavy. One by one the big ships were blasted to the bottom as they returned to harbors to renew their guns, which had become worn out by the continual bombardments.

The old Schleswig Holstein was sunk in an RAF attack on Gotenhafen on the night of December 18–19, going down in shallow water. The Admiral Scheer was in action covering the bridgehead opposite Wollin at the beginning of March, as was the old Schlesien, which had to withdraw by the twenty-first because of lack of ammunition. Her place was taken by the Lützow and Leipzig, and the bombardments went on unabated.

At Gotenhafen, it was clear the port was due to fall soon, and the hulk of the Gneisenau found one last employment in the war. She was sunk as a blockship on March 27. The evacuations reached a new peak in the final two months of war, and losses among the merchant vessels were heavy. Off Hela, the Lützow was in action again until April 8, when, down to her last drops of precious oil fuel, she had to withdraw to harbor.

On the night of April 9–10, Bomber Command mounted a heavy attack on the harbor at Kiel, dropping 2,600 tons of bombs in a concentrated attack. The pocket battleship Admiral Scheer was trapped in this inferno, was hit several times, and capsized with her keel showing above water. No. 617 finished off the Lützow, which was lying immobilized in the Kaiserfahrt, to the south of Swinemunde, on April 16. The British used the giant Tallboys that had smashed up the Tirpitz against this ship less than one half her size; the results were predictable:

They picked out the Lützow far below, a microbe on the water beside the quay, and as they turned on her the flak burst among them savagely, predicting deadly accurately on the unwavering formation. Clusters of puffs blotched the patch of sky on which they moved, so that nearly every one of the eighteen bombers was hit and holes opened in wings and fuselages as shrapnel ripped through.

It was not for another two days they found out that the Lützow had sunk as far as the seabed would let her. The near-miss by the bows had torn out her bottom; the dock was not very deep, but the Lützow was finished, lying on the mud. (Someone in the navy claimed she was not really sunk because her decks were still above water).

In fact, some of the turrets were still operational and were kept firing at the advancing Russians until finally, on May 3, she was blown up by her remaining crew when they got too close. The Schlesien sortied on May 2 but was heavily damaged by a ground miss near Greifswalder Oie and had to be towed back to Swinemunde and beached not far from the Lützow. Both ships were blown up together when the area was evacuated.

With the German surrender, only the Prinz Eugen, Nürnberg, and a destroyer remained of the German surface fleet. Unlike the Italians, they had fought gamely to the end, and by their rescue operations and bombardments of 1944–45, they had regained much of the honor lost by their ancestors when the High Seas Fleet scuttled itself without a struggle at Scapa Flow in 1919. But the end result was the same, and a third great European navy had gone the way of the bulk of the French and Italian fleets.

The Home Fleet had little to do in these closing months. With all the modern ships on the way east, only the Rodney remained in solitary splendor at Scapa. Toward the end, however, there were some fears expressed that the surviving German heavy ships might leave the Baltic and indulge in one last orgy of destruction across the North Sea. “Dönitz’s Death Ride” it was called. This was taken quite seriously, and because of it, the Renown, having finished her refit at Durban and rejoined the East Indies Fleet at Ceylon, was ordered home “with dispatch” on March 30.

The Renown was still the fastest capital ship in the Royal Navy, and for the last time, she was able to prove it. After a high-speed voyage, she arrived at Scapa from Ceylon on April 14, having covered 7,642 miles in 306 steaming hours. It was a fitting ending to such a worthy lifespan. The flag of the commander in chief was duly hauled down from the Rodney’s masthead and hoisted at the Renown’s, and the Rodney steamed away to reserve, her war finally done. The Renown did not long outstay her, for with the end of the war in Europe, she had no other duties to fulfill.

One last honor was accorded this grand old ship when in August 1945, at Plymouth, the historic meeting between King George VI and President Harry Truman, on his way home from the Potsdam Conference, took place aboard her in the Sound, under the watchful eye of Drake. By the end of the year, she was at Portsmouth and reduced to two-fifths complement awaiting her fate; later, she finished up as one of the four ships of the Imperieuse establishment, at Devonport, along with the other veterans moored there. Her place in the East Indies Fleet was to be taken by the Nelson, which had finished her long refit in the United States and was at Malta on her way east when VE Day was celebrated. Meanwhile, the Queen Elizabeth was left as the only battleship on that station for several months. She had not been idle.

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