Why Did the German Cruiser Deutschland Change Her Name During WWII?

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

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

This happens for a number of reasons, including older vessels being demolished or sold to other countries, where they receive names in accordance with their new owners’ naval traditions. Deutschland, however, was renamed for a much different, albeit practical, reason.

German Cruiser Deutschland

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

Deutschland was the first Panzerschiffe constructed by the Germans, and she 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.

Deutschland was 610 feet long, could reach a top speed of 28 knots and was well-equipped with armaments that were improved upon during the Second World War. 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 WWII, 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

Diagram of 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)

The decision to rename Deutschland came from the Führer 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 renaming her would avoid scandal or public discontent.

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

Lützow docked with a damaged stern
Lützow with a snapped-off stern in Kiel Harbor, sometime after April 13, 1940. (Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MN-1038-06 / Meisinger / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 de)

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 heavy cruiser was deployed during the German invasion of Norway and torpedoed by the British 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.

More from us: All Five of the Second World War’s Triple Aces in a Day Flew for the German Luftwaffe

While there was initially discrepancies 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.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.