Why Do German Battleships Have Torpedoes?

Bit of a short History Sunday today, and as it happens, we’re staying on the subject of the German navy! Still battleships, too, perhaps because I’m lazy and like being a little topical.

The three German battleships still afloat after the sinking of BismarckScharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Tirpitz – all were upgraded to have deck-mounted torpedo tubes: two triple mounts each for the Scharnhorst-class, and two quadruples for the mighty Tirpitz. They’re wonderfully fun in-game, since they allow you to blast any ships that come too close with heavy damage, particularly other battleships. That latter part might even be considered an effectual strategy if, during your games, you’re picturing yourself as the battleship Rodney going toe-to-toe with Bismarck herself.

Unfortunately, the truth is far less exciting than that.

German Admiral Johann Günther Lütjens, most famous for going down with the Bismarck, executed the generally great success that was Operation Berlin in early 1941, starring Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the Allied convoys of the Atlantic. He found that one of the riskiest parts of the business of commerce raiding was the scuttling of captured vessels; normally, scuttling charges would be placed, the sinking would be observed, and the raiders would be off like pirates into the open sea. More often than not, the two battleships in the Atlantic found that the British were hot on their tails, and Lütjens was perpetually adamant that the ships avoid engaging in open combat, even with older battleships like Ramillies. This was smart, considering that if the two battleships got tangled into a fight, the rest of the Royal Navy’s capital ships would certainly close in quickly.

So, he put forth the recommendation that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau be upgraded with deck-mounted torpedo tubes taken from the Leipzig-class light cruisers – in World of Warships, the Nürnberg. In March of 1941, while the two were in the port of Brest in France, the battleships were given torpedoes. They were intended to use these to quickly scuttle captured merchant vessels; their use in combat would be minimal. They weren’t connected to the ships’ fire control systems, and were manually targeted, because they were intended for use again harmless, stationary targets.

If anything, they were a structural weakness in combat; in a proper battle, it’s likely the torpedoes would be tossed overboard because it would be more than likely that a stray shot could blow them up. Outside of commerce raiding, the torpedoes would have been fairly useless, even in emergencies.

Later on Tirpitz was also upgraded with torpedo tubes like the Scharnhorst sisters, but she never ended up seeing a use for them as she was never sent out to do any raiding, thanks to the sinking of Bismarck. On the other hand, had Bismarck survived, it’s very likely she, too, would have received some torpedo tubes of her own.

So, the fun and glamour of using torpedoes in battle as we do in-game is entirely a fantasy when it comes to Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Tirpitz. Still plenty of fun, though.

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