WWII German Warships and the Prussian General Staff | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

WWII German Warships and the Prussian General Staff

Scharnhorst WWII German warship
Scharnhorst WWII German warship

In our continuing series of history articles that we are presenting, our historians are writing on a range of subjects. This week, James Arnold, who is the author of more than thirty military history books, discusses two prominent Prussian military officers who fought in the 19th century Napoleonic wars. In the post-WWI years as Nazi Germany began to re-arm, despite the strictures of the Versailles Treaty, they named two battleships after these generals: Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. We learn how they each came to an ignominious end.

WWII German Warships and the Prussian General Staff

By James Arnold

Say the name Bismarck and World War II buffs will recognize the name of the powerful German battleship whose foray into the Atlantic is remembered by many thanks to the epic 1960 movie, Sink the Bismarck. Most will also realize that the ship was named after the brilliant statesman who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871. Say the names of another pair of German warships, the battle cruisers Scharnhorstt and Gneisenau, and far fewer will know why they were so named. While working on my forthcoming book, October Triumph: Napoleon’s Invasion of Germany 1806: Jena and AuerstädtI encountered some interesting information about the two outstanding Prussian staff officers for whom these ships were named. I would like to share some of what I learned.

In 1806, Prussia enjoyed a lofty military reputation. Although Frederick the Great had been dead for twenty years, his fame still burnished Prussia’s reputation. Prussia had a professional army officered almost entirely by the aristocracy. There was little connection between the army and the people.

Thoughtful German officers pondered how warfare was evolving under the stimulus of a revitalized France, but their seniors were set in their ways and resisted new ideas. Prussia fell behind in tactics, and the entire military organization calcified. The coming campaign showed inefficiency and ineptitude at all organizational levels including recruiting, logistics, and staff work. Yet few suspected how deeply the rot had set in. One exceptional officer, August Gneisenau, saw through the façade: “The habit formed in the years of peace of occupying [the army] with useless minutiae of elementary tactics, invented to gratify the people’s love of shows. Our system of recruiting with all its exemptions…obliged only a part of the nation to bear arms, and prolonged the term of service of this part unreasonably, so that in consequence it served with reluctance, and was only kept together by discipline.” In 1805, a Hanoverian officer named Gerhard Scharnhorst, advised his son against joining the Prussian army: “It will not, it cannot, in the condition in which it is…do anything great or decisive.”

In the future, the names Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would be associated with both high level strategy and operational art. Because of their performances, the position of chief of staff assumed a guiding role in German operational decisions. But that time was yet to come. 

In the summer of 1806, Prussia mobilized for war against France. Its task was daunting. Napoleon had a splendidly trained army numbering some 210,000 veterans camped on Prussia’s doorstep in southern Germany. The Prussian field army had only 120,000 soldiers. Napoleon enjoyed the support of numerous continental allies. Prussia had the unwilling support of 20,000 Saxons while the forces of its Russian ally were far away to the east.

At this time, Scharnhorst served as chief of staff to the Duke of Brunswick, the commander of the Prussian Main Army. He participated in the endless councils of war where the Prussian king’s advisors debated how to proceed. Undoubtedly, Scharnhorst’s proposal to trade space for time until the arrival of the Tsar’s armies made the most sense. However, even the dullest minds within the Prussian high command knew that Frederick the Great had earned his reputation by rapid offensive thrusts. Consequently, Scharnhorst’s plan met with immediate objections on the basis that his Fabian strategy* was unworthy of Prussian tradition and would compromise the army’s honor.

*war of attrition against an enemy and avoidance of major battles.

The weeks slipped by and the discussions continued. At one point Brunswick asked Scharnhorst’s opinion. He responded with the same ardor that would lead to his mortal wound in 1813 at the Battle of Lützen in the Napoleonic wars. Scharnhorst interjected that he disagreed with what was being proposed, but that mattered not because, “in War, it was not so much what one did that mattered, but that whatever action was agreed upon should be carried out with unity and energy.” Scharnhorst’s utterance subsequently became an enduring proverb for the German army.

The disastrous Prussian defeats at the twin Battles of Jena and Auerstädt on October 14, 1806, and subsequent blitzkrieg-like French pursuit left Prussia defenseless. At the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, Prussia had no choice but to accede to Napoleon’s demands. Diminished in territory, population, and economy, Prussia was effectively removed from great state status. 

The humiliating collapse of the Prussian army after Jena-Auerstädt provoked widespread outrage.  Bowing to public and political pressure, on July 15, 1807, King Friedrich-Wilhelm III created the Military Reorganization Commission to conduct a thorough examination of the Prussian military system. He appointed Scharnhorst to serve as head of the Commission. Other members included young reformers like Gneisenau, as well as a little-known artillery captain named Carl von Clausewitz.

In November, the Commission began a comprehensive examination of the conduct of the Prussian officer corps during the war. A purge followed. The Commission found some 250 officers guilty of “degrading the uniform.” Because he had surrendered the fortress of Magdeburg, itcondemned a major-general to death. The Commission sentenced another senior general to imprisonment for life. The Commission’s harsh judgments extended down the ranks. A commander of hussars was among those cashiered by the investigative tribunal. His offensive was not leading from the front during his unit’s charge. The tribunal judged a lowly hussar lieutenant guilty of the same offense and cashiered him as well. Among all the fortress commanders, the Commission acquitted only one officer: Gebhard Blücher. When Prussia next fought France in 1813, only 8 of the 183 men who had served as generals in 1806 remained.

After the purge came a comprehensive military reform. Because Napoleon had placed strict limits on the size of the Prussian military, Scharnhorst led the reformers in finding creative means to train and enlarge the army without arousing Napoleon’s suspicions. Their efforts worked brilliantly. After Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812, Prussia joined the coalition pitted against France. For Prussia, 1813 was “The War of Liberation.” Through the difficult, bloody campaign the revitalized Prussian army served as the coalition’s spearhead. At the start, General Blücher provided indomitable fighting spirit while his chief of staff, Colonel Scharnhorst, provided the brains. When Scharnhorst was mortally wounded, Gneisenau replaced him. Thereafter, the command team of Blücher and Gneisenau eventually led the allied armies into Paris in 1814, driving Napoleon into exile.

After Napoleon evaded his captors and reclaimed the French throne in 1815, the pair reprised their roles. On the field of Waterloo, as the Duke of Wellington’s army began to crumble from relentless French blows, Wellington looked at his timepiece and muttered, “night or Blücher.” The arrival of the Prussian army stemmed from a vital decision Gneisenau had made two days earlier. At that time, with Blücher temporarily incapacitated after his horse was shot out from under him, senior Prussian generals advocated a retreat to safety in a direction away from the British. Effectively taking over army command, Gneisenau insisted on another route that retained contact with Wellington’s army. His was the most important strategic decision of the 1815 campaign because the Prussian arrival at Waterloo sealed Napoleon’s fate.

Over one hundred years later the German military recalled how Prussia had successfully evaded limitations on national rearmament as they fashioned their plans to re-arm after World War I. When Nazi Germany began its naval rearmament after the Treaty of Versailles, the first battlecruiser built was named the Scharnhorst. Its sister ship was the Gneisenau. Oddly, the name of the officer who had done more to defeat Napoleon than any other German, Marshal Gebhard Blücher, was relegated to a heavy cruiser.

When World War II broke out, the surface ships of the German navy proved a woeful misuse of scarce resources. The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau participated in the German invasion of Norway, achieving their greatest success on June 8, 1940 when they fought a British battlecruiser to a draw and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. By that time, the heavy cruiser Blücher lay at the bottom of Oslo Fiord, a victim of Norwegian artillery and torpedoes. Subsequently, after an abortive commerce raid into the Atlantic, the two battlecruisers took shelter in Brest, France. In February 1942, they made a daring daylight dash through the English Channel back to Germany. However, they failed to find safe harbor. An air attack on Kiel in late 1942 heavily damaged the Gneisenau. She never recovered and was ingloriously sunk as a blockship** in late 1945. By that time, the Scharnhorst had found a watery grave as well.

** A ship moored or grounded in a channel to block it or provide shelter.

Transferred to Norway, the Scharnhorst attempted to interdict Allied convoys sailing to Russia. The German high command did not perceive that she would have been more useful simply as a ‘ship in being,’ tying down considerable allied resources rather than attacking convoys. The Royal Navy intercepted and sank the Scharnhorst at the Battle of North Cape on December 26, 1943. Only 36 men were rescued out of a crew of 1,968. In an extraordinary feat of underwater detective work, a joint British-Norwegian team found the wreck of the battlecruiser in September 2000. The hull lies upside down on the seabed, with debris, including the main mast and rangefinders, scattered around the wreck. Photographs show extensive damage from shellfire and torpedoes. The bow is separated from the hull, probably blown off when a magazine exploded in a forward turret.

About Jim Arnold

James R. Arnold is the author of over thirty military history books, ten of which are Civil War studies.  His work devoted to the Civil War ranges from Jeff Davis’s Own: Cavalry, Comanches, and the Battle for the Texas Frontier, a study of how pre-war experience shaped the future conduct of prominent Civil War generals, to  a six-volume library reference set for young adults. He has also written two historical novels about the war, The Cost of Freedom and Freedom’s Children. For the past 25 years, Arnold and his wife have lived on a working farm near Lexington, Virginia.

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