Why was the German Cruiser Deutschland’s Name Changed During WWII?

Photo Credit: Heinrich Hoffman Collection / US National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Many historic ships have had their names changed or passed on to another. For example, the US Navy has had eight different ships named Enterprise, with a ninth planned to carry on the legacy. A number of different vessels saw action during the Second World War and some, like the German cruiser Deutschland, had their names changed in the middle of the conflict.

This can happen for a number of reasons, including an older vessel being demolished or being sold to another country, where it gets a title in accordance with its new owner’s naval traditions. Deutschland, however, was renamed for a much different, albeit practical, reason.

German Cruiser Deutschland

Deutschland was the first Panzerschiffe constructed by the Germans and was launched in May 1931 as one of three heavily-armored cruisers, along with the Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee. They were designed within the confines of the Treaty of Versailles, and were the first ships to rebuild and bolster the German Navy, later known as the Kriegsmarine.

Crowds of German sailors watching the launch of the German cruiser Deutschland
Launch of the German cruiser Deutschland at the Deutsche Werke shipyard, May 19, 1931. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Deutschland was 610 feet long, could reach a top speed of 28 knots and was well-equipped with armaments that were improved during the Second World War. Prior to the conflict, she was used for non-intervention patrols during the Spanish Civil War, during which she was attacked by bombers. During the second bombing, Deutschland suffered damage to her upper deck, armored deck and third starboard, resulting in the death of 31 crew members.

In the lead-up to World War II, Deutschland, along with her sister ship Admiral Graf Spee, were positioned in the Atlantic Ocean to attack Allied vessels once Germany officially declared war.

Changing Deutschland‘s name

The decision to rename Deutschland came from the German Chancellor himself. He realized it would be a public relations disaster to have a ship sharing the country’s name sink. In wartime, this was always a possibility, and changing the name would avoid any scandal or public discontent.

Sheet of paper featuring the layout of the Lützow
Wartime recognition drawing of the German heavy cruiser Lützow, produced by the Office of Naval Intelligence, 1942. (Photo Credit: Office of Naval Intelligence / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

It was decided the cruiser would become Lützow. The original Lützow had been purchased by the Soviet Union in 1939, freeing up the name for use. Aside from removing the name, Adm. Erich Raeder hoped the change, in conjunction with the sale, would confuse the Allies.

During this time, the vessel was modified to add a raked clipper bow, to make her perform better while at sea. She was also re-designated a heavy cruiser.

Lützow was attacked numerous times during World War II

As it turns out, it was a good idea for Deutschland‘s name to be changed, as she was attacked – and heavily damaged – on more than one occasion. The ship was deployed during the German invasion of Norway and was torpedoed by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Spearfish. Lützow was later attacked by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1945.

Both attacks caused damage to the ship, which required significant repairs.

Lützow docked with a damaged stern
Lützow with a snapped-off stern in Kiel Harbor, sometime after April 13, 1940. The damage was caused by a torpedo hit from the Royal Navy submarine HMS Spearfish two days earlier. (Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MN-1038-06 / Meisinger / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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While there was initially a lot of discrepancy over what happened to Lützow at the end of the war, records from Soviet archives indicate she was taken by the Soviet Navy and used as a target ship. She was sunk during weapons testing, in the Baltic Sea off the Polish coast, on July 22, 1947.