Prinz Eugen & Her Active WW2 Career
Prinz Eugen & Her Active WW2 Career
Prinz Eugen had an unlucky start with her commissioning being delayed slightly due to light damage sustained during a Royal Air Force attack on Kiel on the night of July 1st, 1940. Prinz Eugen suffered two relatively light hits in the attack, but she was not seriously damaged and was commissioned into service on August 1st.
The cruiser spent the remainder of 1940 conducting sea trials in the Baltic Sea.
In early 1941, the ship’s artillery crews conducted gunnery training. A short period in dry dock for final modifications and improvements followed.
In April, Prinz Eugen joined the newly commissioned battleship Bismarck for maneuvers in the Baltic. The two ships had been selected for Operation Rheinübung, a breakout into the Atlantic to raid Allied commerce.
On April 23rd, while passing through the Fehmarn Belt en route to Kiel, Prinz Eugen detonated a magnetic mine dropped by British aircraft.
The mine damaged the fuel tank, propeller shaft couplings, and fire control equipment. The planned sortie with Bismarck was delayed while repairs were carried out.
Admirals Erich Raeder and Günther Lütjens discussed the possibility of delaying the operation further, in the hopes that repairs to the battleship Scharnhorst would be completed or Bismarck’s sister ship Tirpitz would complete trials in time for the ships to join Prinz Eugen and Bismarck.
Raeder and Lütjens decided that it would be most beneficial to resume surface actions in the Atlantic as soon as possible, however, and that the two ships should sortie without reinforcements.
By May the 11th, 1941, repairs to the Prinz Eugen had been completed. Under the command of Kapitän zur See (KzS—Captain at Sea) Helmuth Brinkmann, the ship steamed to Gotenhafen, where the crew readied her for her Atlantic sortie.
On May 18th, Prinz Eugen rendezvoused with Bismarck off Cape Arkona.
The two ships were escorted by three destroyers—Hans Lody, Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt, and Z23—and a flotilla of minesweepers.
The Luftwaffe provided air cover during the voyage out of German waters.
At around 13:00 on 20 May, the German flotilla encountered the Swedish cruiser HSwMS Gotland; the cruiser shadowed the Germans for two hours in the Kattegat. Gotland transmitted a report to naval headquarters, stating: “Two large ships, three destroyers, five escort vessels, and 10–12 aircraft passed Marstrand, The Oberkommando der Marine (OKM—Naval High Command) was not concerned about the security risk posed by Gotland, though Lütjens believed operational security had been lost. The report eventually made its way to Captain Henry Denham, the British naval attaché to Sweden, who transmitted the information to the Admiralty.
The code-breakers at Bletchley Park confirmed that an Atlantic raid was imminent, as they had decrypted reports that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had taken on seasoned crews and requested additional navigational charts from headquarters.
A pair of Supermarine Spitfires were ordered to search the Norwegian coast for the German flotilla.
On the evening of May 20th, Prinz Eugen and the rest of the flotilla reached the Norwegian coast; the minesweepers were detached and the two raiders and their destroyer escorts continued north. The following morning, radio-intercept officers on board Prinz Eugen picked up a signal ordering British reconnaissance aircraft to search for two battleships and three destroyers northbound off the Norwegian coast.
At 7:00 on the 21st, the Germans spotted four unidentified aircraft that quickly departed.
Shortly after 12:00, the flotilla reached Bergen and anchored at Grimstadfjord. While there, the ships’ crews painted over the Baltic camouflage with the standard “outboard gray” worn by German warships operating in the Atlantic.
While in Bergen, Prinz Eugen took on 764 t (752 long tons; 842 short tons) of fuel; Bismarck inexplicably failed to similarly refuel. At 19:30 on 21 May, Prinz Eugen, Bismarck, and the three escorting destroyers left port. By midnight, the force was in the open sea and headed toward the Arctic Ocean.
At this time, Admiral Raeder finally informed Hitler of the operation, who reluctantly allowed it to continue as planned. The three escorting destroyers were detached at 04:14 on 22 May, while the force steamed off Trondheim. At around 12:00, Lütjens ordered his two ships to turn toward the Denmark Strait to attempt the breakout into the open waters of the Atlantic.
By 04:00 on 23 May, Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen and Bismarck to increase speed to 27 knots (50 km/h; 31 mph) to make the dash through the Denmark Strait. Upon entering the Strait, both ships activated their FuMO radar detection equipment sets.
Bismarck led Prinz Eugen by about 700 m (2,300 ft); mist reduced visibility to 3,000 to 4,000 m (9,800 to 13,100 ft). The Germans encountered some ice at around 10:00, which necessitated a reduction in speed to 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph).
Two hours later, the pair had reached a point north of Iceland. The ships were forced to zigzag to avoid ice floes. At 19:22, hydrophone and radar operators aboard the German warships detected the cruiser HMS Suffolk at a range of approximately 12,500 m (41,000 ft). Prinz Eugen’s radio-intercept team decrypted the radio signals being sent by Suffolk and learned that their location had indeed been reported.
Admiral Lütjens gave permission for Prinz Eugen to engage Suffolk, though the captain of the German cruiser could not clearly make out his target and so held fire. Suffolk quickly retreated to a safe distance and shadowed the German ships. At 20:30, the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk joined Suffolk, but approached the German raiders too closely. Lütjens ordered his ships to engage the British cruiser; Bismarck fired five salvoes, three of which straddled Norfolk and rained shell splinters on her decks.
The cruiser laid a smoke screen and fled into a fog bank, ending the brief engagement. The concussion from the 38 cm guns disabled Bismarck’s FuMo 23 radar set; this prompted Lütjens to order Prinz Eugen to take station ahead so she could use her functioning radar to scout for the formation. The British cruisers tracked Prinz Eugen and Bismarck through the night, continually relaying the location and bearing of the German ships.
The harsh weather broke on the morning of May 24th, revealing a clear sky. At 05:07 that morning, hydrophone operators aboard Prinz Eugen detected a pair of unidentified vessels approaching the German formation at a range of 20 nmi (37 km; 23 mi), reporting “Noise of two fast-moving turbine ships at 280° relative bearing!”.
At 05:45, lookouts on the German ships spotted smoke on the horizon; these turned out to be from Hood and Prince of Wales, under the command of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland. Lütjens ordered his ships’ crews to battle stations. By 05:52, the range had fallen to 26,000 m (85,000 ft) and Hood opened fire, followed by the Prince of Wales a minute later.
Hood engaged Prinz Eugen, which the British thought to be Bismarck, while Prince of Wales fired on Bismarck.
The British ships approached the Germans head on, which permitted them to use only their forward guns, while Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could fire full broadsides. Several minutes after opening fire, Holland ordered a 20° turn to port, which would allow his ships to engage with their rear gun turrets. Both German ships concentrated their fire on Hood.
About a minute after opening fire, Prinz Eugen scored a hit with a high-explosive 20.3 cm shell, detonating unrotated projectile ammunition and starting a large fire on Hood, which was quickly extinguished. Holland then ordered a second 20° turn to port, to bring his ships on a parallel course with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.
By this time, Bismarck had found the range to Hood, so Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to shift fire and target Prince of Wales to keep both of his opponents under fire. Within a few minutes, Prinz Eugen scored a pair of hits on the battleship and reported that a small fire had been started.
Lütjens then ordered Prinz Eugen to drop behind Bismarck, so she could continue to monitor the location of Norfolk and Suffolk, which were still some 10 to 12 nmi (19 to 22 km; 12 to 14 mi) to the east. At 06:00, Hood was completing her second turn to port when Bismarck’s fifth salvo hit.
Two of the shells landed short, striking the water close to the ship, but at least one of the 38 cm armor-piercing shells struck Hood and she suffered a magazine explosion and blew up. The massive explosion broke the back of the ship between the main mast and the rear funnel, the forward section continued to move forward briefly before the in-rushing water caused the bow to rise into the air at a steep angle. The stern similarly rose upward as water rushed into the ripped-open compartments. After only eight minutes of firing, Hood had disappeared, taking all but three of her crew of 1,419 men with her.
After a few more minutes, during which Prince of Wales scored three hits on Bismarck, the damaged British battleship withdrew. The Germans ceased fire as the range widened, though Captain Ernst Lindemann, Bismarck’s commander, strongly advocated chasing Prince of Wales and destroying her. Lütjens firmly rejected the request, and instead ordered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to head for the open waters of the North Atlantic. After the end of the engagement, Lütjens reported that a “Battlecruiser, probably Hood, sank.
Another ship, King George V or Renown, turned away damaged. Two heavy cruisers maintain contact.” At 08:01, he transmitted a damage report and his intentions to OKM, which were to detach Prinz Eugen for commerce raiding and to make for St. Nazaire for repairs. Shortly after 10:00, Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to fall behind Bismarck to discern the severity of the oil leakage from the bow hit. After confirming “broad streams of oil on both sides of Bismarck’s wake”, Prinz Eugen returned to the forward position.
With the weather worsening, Lütjens attempted to detach Prinz Eugen at 16:40. The squall was not heavy enough to cover her withdrawal from Wake-Walker’s cruisers, which continued to maintain radar contact. Prinz Eugen was therefore recalled temporarily. The cruiser was successfully detached at 18:14. Bismarck turned around to face Wake-Walker’s formation, forcing Suffolk to turn away at high speed. The Prince of Wales fired twelve salvos at Bismarck, which responded with nine salvos, none of which hit. The action diverted British attention and permitted Prinz Eugen to slip away.
On May 26th, Prinz Eugen rendezvoused with the supply ship Spichern to refill her nearly empty fuel tanks. She had by then only 160 tons of fuel left, enough for a day. Afterwards the ship continued further south on a mission against shipping lines. Before any merchant ship was found, defects in her engines showed and on 27 May, the day Bismarck was sunk, she was ordered to give up her mission and make for a port in occupied France. On 28 May Prinz Eugen refuelled from the tanker Esso Hamburg. The same day more engine problems showed up, including trouble with the port engine turbine, the cooling of the middle engine and problems with the starboard screw, reducing her maximum speed to 28 knots. The screw problems could only be checked and repaired in a dock and thus Brest, with its large docks and repair facilities, was chosen as the destination. Despite the many British warships and several convoys in the area, at least 104 units were identified on the 29th by the ship’s radio crew, Prinz Eugen reached the Bay of Biscay undiscovered, and on 1 June the ship was joined by German destroyers and aircraft off the coast of France south of Brest and escorted to Brest, which she reached late on 1 June where she immediately entered dock.
The Port of Brest is not far from bases in southern England and during their stay in Brest, Prinz Eugen and the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were repeatedly attacked by Allied bombers.
The Royal Air Force jokingly referred to the three ships as the Brest Bomb Target Flotilla, and between 1 August and 31 December 1941 it dropped some 1200 tons of bombs on the port. On the night of 1 July 1941, Prinz Eugen was struck by an armor-piercing bomb that destroyed the control center deep down under the bridge. The attack killed 60 men and wounded more than 40 others. The loss of the control center also made the main guns useless and repairs lasted until the end of 1941.
The continuous air attacks led the German command to decide Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would have to move to safer bases as soon as they were repaired and ready. Meanwhile, the Bismarck operation had demonstrated the risks of operating in the Atlantic without air cover. In addition, Hitler saw the Norwegian theater as the “zone of destiny”, so he ordered the three ships’ return to Germany in early 1942 so they could be deployed there.
The intention was to use the ships to interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union, as well as to strengthen the defenses of Norway. Hitler insisted they would make the voyage via the English Channel, despite Raeder’s protests that it was too risky. Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax was given command of the operation. In early February, minesweepers swept a route through the Channel, though the British failed to detect the activity.
At 23:00 on 11 February, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen left Brest. They entered the Channel an hour later; the three ships sped at 27 knots (50 km/h; 31 mph), hugging the French coast along the voyage. By 06:30, they had passed Cherbourg, at which point they were joined by a flotilla of torpedo boats. The torpedo boats were led by Kapitän zur See Erich Bey, aboard the destroyer Z29. General der Jagdflieger (General of Fighter Force) Adolf Galland directed Luftwaffe fighter and bomber forces (Operation Donnerkeil) during Cerberus. The fighters flew at masthead-height to avoid detection by the British radar network. Liaison officers were present on all three ships. German aircraft arrived later to jam British radar with chaff. By 13:00, the ships had cleared the Strait of Dover but, half an hour later, a flight of six Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, with Spitfire escort, attacked the Germans. The British failed to penetrate the Luftwaffe fighter shield, and all six Swordfish were destroyed
Off Dover, Prinz Eugen came under fire from British coastal artillery batteries, though they scored no hits. Several Motor Torpedo Boats then attacked the ship, but Prinz Eugen’s destroyer escorts drove the vessels off before they could launch their torpedoes. At 16:43, Prinz Eugen encountered five British destroyers: Campbell, Vivacious, Mackay, Whitshed, and Worcester. She fired her main battery at them and scored several hits on Worcester, but she was forced to maneuver erratically to avoid their torpedoes. Nevertheless, Prinz Eugen arrived in Brunsbüttel on the morning of 13 February, completely undamaged but suffering the only casualty in all three big ships, killed by aircraft gunfire.
On 21 February 1942, Prinz Eugen, the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, and the destroyers Richard Beitzen, Paul Jakobi, Z25, Hermann Schoemann, and Friedrich Ihn steamed to Norway. After stopping briefly in Grimstadfjord, the ships proceeded on to Trondheim. Two days later, while patrolling off the Trondheimsfjord, the British submarine Trident torpedoed Prinz Eugen. The torpedo struck the ship in the stern, killing fifty men, causing serious damage, and rendering the ship unmaneuverable. However, on her own power she managed to reach Trondheim and from there was towed to Lofjord, where, over the next few months, emergency repairs were affected. Her entire stern was cut away and plated over and two jury-rigged rudders, operated manually by capstans, were installed.
On May 16th, Prinz Eugen made the return voyage to Germany under her own power. While en route to Kiel, the ship was attacked by a British force of 19 Bristol Blenheim bombers and 27 Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers commanded by Wing Commander Mervyn Williams, though the aircraft failed to hit the ship. Prinz Eugen was out of service for repairs until October; she conducted sea trials beginning on 27 October. Hans-Erich Voss, who later became Hitler’s Naval Liaison Officer, was given command of the ship when she returned to service. In reference to her originally planned name, the ship’s bell from the Austrian battleship Tegetthoff was presented on 22 November by the Italian Contrammiraglio (Rear Admiral) de Angeles.
Over the course of November and December, the ship was occupied with lengthy trials in the Baltic. In early January 1943, the Kriegsmarine ordered the ship to return to Norway to reinforce the warships stationed there. Twice in January Prinz Eugen attempted to steam to Norway with Scharnhorst, but both attempts were broken off after British surveillance aircraft spotted the two ships. After it became apparent that it would be impossible to move the ship to Norway, Prinz Eugen was assigned to the Fleet Training Squadron.
For nine months, she cruised the Baltic training cadets.
As the Soviet Army pushed the Wehrmacht back on the Eastern Front, it became necessary to reactivate Prinz Eugen as a gunnery support vessel; on 1 October 1943, the ship was reassigned to combat duty. In June 1944, Prinz Eugen, the heavy cruiser Lützow, and the 6th Destroyer Flotilla formed the Second Task Force, later renamed Task Force Thiele after its commander, Vizeadmiral August Thiele. Prinz Eugen was at this time under the command of KzS Hans-Jürgen Reinicke; throughout June she steamed in the eastern Baltic, northwest of the island of Utö as a show of force during the German withdrawal from Finland. On 19–20 August, the ship steamed into the Gulf of Riga and bombarded Tukums. Four destroyers and two torpedo boats supported the action, along with Prinz Eugen’s Ar 196 floatplanes; the cruiser fired a total of 265 shells from her main battery. Prinz Eugen’s bombardment was instrumental in the successful repulse of the Soviet attack.
In early September, Prinz Eugen supported a failed attempt to seize the fortress island of Hogland. The ship then returned to Gotenhafen, before escorting a convoy of ships evacuating German soldiers from Finland. The convoy, consisting of six freighters, sailed on September 15th from the Gulf of Bothnia, with the entire Second Task Force escorting it. Swedish aircraft and destroyers shadowed the convoy, but did not intervene.
The following month, Prinz Eugen returned to gunfire support duties. On 11 and 12 October, she fired in support of German troops in Memel. Over the first two days, the ship fired some 700 rounds of ammunition from her main battery. She returned on the 14th and 15th, after having restocked her main battery ammunition, to fire another 370 rounds.
While on the return voyage to Gotenhafen on 15 October, Prinz Eugen inadvertently rammed the light cruiser Leipzig amidships north of Hela. The cause of the collision was heavy fog. The light cruiser was nearly cut in half, and the two ships remained wedged together for fourteen hours. Prinz Eugen was taken to Gotenhafen, where repairs were effected within a month. Sea trials commenced on 14 November. On 20–21 November, the ship supported German troops on the Sworbe Peninsula by firing around 500 rounds of main battery ammunition. Four torpedo boats—T13, T16, T19, and T21—joined the operation. Prinz Eugen then returned to Gotenhafen to resupply and have her worn-out gun barrels rebored. The reboring process is a multiple step machining process involving up to 25 reamer pulls to get your barrel up to the new bore diameter. Then the rerifling process involves the rifling cutter moving in and out of the barrel approximately 300 times (50 times per groove). Occasionally during this process something goes wrong.
The cruiser was ready for action by mid-January 1945, when she was sent to bombard Soviet forces in Samland. The ship fired 871 rounds of ammunition at the Soviets advancing on the German bridgehead at Cranz held by the XXVIII Corps, which was protecting Königsberg. She was supported in this operation by the destroyer Z25 and torpedo boat T33.
At that point, Prinz Eugen had expended her main battery ammunition, and critical ammunition shortages forced the ship to remain in port until 10 March, when she bombarded Soviet forces around Gotenhafen, Danzig, and Hela. During these operations, she fired a total of 2,025 shells from her 20.3 cm guns and another 2,446 rounds from her 10.5 cm guns. The old battleship Schlesien also provided gunfire support, as did Lützow after 25 March. The ships were commanded by Vizeadmiral Bernhard Rogge.
The following month, on 8 April, Prinz Eugen and Lützow steamed to Swinemünde. On 13 April, 34 Lancaster bombers attacked the two ships while in port. Thick cloud cover forced the British to abort the mission and return two days later. On the second attack, they succeeded in sinking Lützow with a single Tallboy bomb hit. Prinz Eugen then departed Swinemünde for Copenhagen, arriving on 20 April. Once there, she was decommissioned on 7 May and turned over to Royal Navy control the following day.
Prinz Eugen & Her Active WW2 Career Written by Harry Gillespie
Harry Gillespie is a military historian who resides with his wife in the United Kingdom.
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