Hitler's Secret Super Battleship

In maritime history the stories of the powerful Battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz are well known. Their speed and armament made them deadly threats to Britain's merchant convoys during the second world war. However, if the war had not started until a few years later, a much larger and deadlier breed of warship may have rolled of Germany's slipways. These monstrous super battleships Hitler was planning were never given names and are only known as the H Class.

Digital portrayal of the H-Class dwarfing the Tirpitz

The H class was a series of battleship designs for the German Kriegsmarine, intended to fulfil the requirements of Plan Z (re-equipment and expansion of the Nazi German Navy) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The first variation, "H-39," called for six ships to be built, essentially as enlarged Bismarck-class battleships with 40.6 cm (16.0 in) guns. The "H-41" design improved the "H-39" ship with still larger main guns, with eight 42 cm (17 in) weapons. Two subsequent plans, "H-42" and "H-43", increased the main battery yet again, with 48 cm (19 in) pieces, and the enormous "H-44" design ultimately resulted with 50.8 cm (20.0 in) guns.

The earliest design studies for "Schlachtschiff H" ("Battleship H") date to 1935, and were near repeats of the early designs for the Bismarck class ships, armed with 35-centimeter (14 in) guns. Intelligence indicating that the Soviet Navy was planning the Sovetsky Soyuz class with 38 cm (15 in) guns prompted the Germans to increase the calibre of the ship's armament to 38 cm as well on 5 October 1936. The Oberkommando der Marine (OKM) issued staff requirements at the end of October for a ship of 35,000 long tons (36,000 t) armed with eight 38 cm guns with a speed of 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph). The ship's radius of action was to be at least equal that of the Deutschland-class cruisers.

The H-39 design
Design work on the ship that came to be designated H-39 began in 1937. The design staff was instructed to improve upon the design for the preceding Bismarck class; one of the requirements was a larger-calibre main battery to match any battleship built by a potential adversary. It appeared that Japan would not ratify the Second London Naval Treaty, which would bring an escalator clause that permitted signatories to arm battleships with guns of up to 40.6 cm (16.0 in) calibre. By virtue of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, signed in 1935, Germany was considered to be a party to the other international naval arms limitation treaties. In April, Japan refused to sign the treaty; shortly thereafter, the United States Navy announced it would arm the new North Carolina-class battleships with 40.6 cm guns.

Admiral Werner Fuchs, responsible for the staff section in the OKM that determined the operating requirements for the ship, discussed the vessel's design with Adolf Hitler. Hitler demanded guns larger than any possible adversary, but guns of the calibre demanded by Hitler would have required displacements of over 80,000 tons and drafts so deep as to prevent the use of Germany's ports without significant dredging. Fuchs eventually convinced Hitler that the 40.6 cm gun was the optimal choice for the H-39 design. In 1938, the OKM developed Plan Z, the projected construction program for the German navy. A force of six H-39 class battleships was the centrepiece of the fleet. Plan Z was finalized by January 1939, when Admiral Erich Raeder, the commander of the Kriegsmarine, presented it to Hitler. He approved the plan on 18 January and granted the Kriegsmarine unlimited power to bring the construction program to fruition.

Only four shipyards in Germany had slipways large enough to build the six new battleships. The OKM issued orders for construction of the first two ships, "H" and "J", on 14 April 1939. The contracts for the other four ships, "K", "L", "M", and "N", followed on 25 May. The keels for the first two ships were laid at the Blohm & Voss dockyard in Hamburg and the Deschimag shipyard in Bremen on 15 July and 1 September 1939, respectively. The outbreak of war in September 1939 interrupted the construction of the ships. Work on the first two was suspended and the other four were not laid down, as it was believed they would not be finished before the war was over. The keel for "H" had 800 t (790 long tons; 880 short tons) of steel installed, 3,500 t (3,400 long tons; 3,900 short tons) of steel had been machined, out of 5,800 t (5,700 long tons; 6,400 short tons) of steel supplied to Blohm & Voss by that point. Only 40 t (39 long tons; 44 short tons) of steel had been worked into the keel for "J", out of 3,531 t (3,475 long tons; 3,892 short tons) of steel delivered. Steel for the other four ships had been ordered and partially machined for installation, though no assembly work had begun. It was expected to resume work on the ships after a German victory in the war. None of the subsequent designs progressed further than planning stages.

An artist's interpretation of a H-class battleship
The ships neither received names nor were official name proposals published. The names, which appear in several publications (Hindenburg, Friedrich der Große, Großdeutschland) are pure speculation. Especially the often mentioned Großdeutschland ("Greater Germany") is highly unlikely, as Hitler always feared the loss of a vessel with name of Germany (hence the renaming of Deutschland to Lützow). The only hint on the names of the units were given by Hitler himself, who mentioned during documented unofficial talks, that he would propose the names Ulrich von Hutten and Götz von Berlichingen for the ships, as these names are not connected with persons of the third Reich or the country itself, so the loss would not have a significant negative psychological and propaganda effect on the German people.