BIG GUNS IN THE ATLANTIC: GERMANY’S BATTLESHIPS AND CRUISERS RAID THE CONVOYS, 1939-1941 & GERMAN HEAVY CRUISERS Vs ROYAL NAVY HEAVY CRUISERS, 1939-1942

Reviewed by: SIMON HAILL

These two publications are relatively short consisting of 80 pages and they are linked with each other. They cover a wide field of subjects ranging from technical descriptions to short histories of the individual personnel involved with the ships and actions.

Big Guns covers Germany’s battleship and cruiser raids on the convoys from 1939-1941. The Kriegsmarine’s first salvoes of the Battle of the Atlantic were not fired by U Boats, but by  heavy cruisers and battleships. The early sorties by the cruiser Deutschland and the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, met with mixed results but showed the potential of surface raids. By mid 1940 the conquest of France had changed the strategic situation with the Atlantic now being suddenly far easier to reach – and escape from. Memories of the accounts of German Navy surface activity in the early years of the war have faded with time.  In Operation BERLIN, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau remained at sea for two months destroying 22 Allied merchant ships. So successful was this operation that Admiral Lutjens was ordered to repeat his success with the brand-new battleship Bismarck. The artwork in this book is extremely good and the narrative details the Kriegsmarine’s early Atlantic raids which led directly to the ill-fated Bismarck’s only voyage, that in turn led to Hitler’s loss of confidence in his surface Navy.

German Heavy Cruisers is an account of the opposing heavy cruisers of the Kreigsmarine and the Royal Navy that engaged in a global game of cat and mouse during the opening years of WW II. This was a period in which the heavy cruiser still reigned supreme in open waters with both sides reluctant to risk their battleships, and carrier-based aircraft yet to dominate the seas.

This fascinating and well-illustrated book examines the design, development and technical performance of the Deutschland-class Panzerschiffe and Hipper-class cruisers with the Royal Navy County and York-class heavy cruisers. The book assesses the impact of the key clashes between the two Navies at the Battle of the River Plate, the Christmas Day Battle of 1940 and the Battle of the Denmark Strait in May 1941.

The two books are well laid out and a great deal of information is contained in them. In particular, the photographs are very good and fully complement the dialogue. A number of topics are squeezed into the short narrative of each book and the reader will find themselves veering rapidly from subject to subject. However, they are good ‘taster’ books for the busy reader who will find the references at the end of each publication extremely helpful for further research.

Angus Konstam is a former Naval Officer and a museum professional having worked as a curator in the Royal Armouries and the Maritime Museum at Key West Florida. He lives in the Orkney Isles and has written widely on Naval History. Mark Lardas is a naval architect and technical writer with an interest in ship construction and engineering. He has published over 30 books on these topics.