The lead ship of her class, the heavy cruiser Deutschland was laid down at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel in February 1929. Launched on 19 May 1931, she was commissioned two years later in April 1933. In 1940, she was renamed Lützow, after the Admiral Hipper class heavy cruiser of that name had been handed over to the Soviet Union. The outbreak of war in 1939 found Lützow (as she would soon be known) at sea in the Atlantic with orders to commence operations against Allied merchant shipping. Damaged during the invasion of Norway the following year, Lützow was returning to Germany to undergo repair when, on 11 April 1940, it was spotted in the Kattegat by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Spearfish. Lieutenant Commander John Hay Forbes attacked the heavy cruiser; one torpedo destroyed Lützow’s stern, causing it to collapse and nearly fall off, as well as removing the warship’s steering gear. Lützow was towed back to port and decommissioned for repairs; the latter took nearly a year to complete.
Re-commissioned for service on 31 March 1941 the Kriegsmarine planned to despatch Lützow on a commerce raiding operation that had originally been planned for the previous year. Her sister Admiral Scheer was to join her for the operation, and on 12 June 1941, she departed for Norway with an escort of destroyers. Within hours she would find herself under attack again, this time at the hands of the RAF. An RAF account of the service of Coastal Command published in 1942 describes what happened next: “On 12th June, 1941, a Blenheim on reconnaissance emerging from clouds some miles south of the Lister Light saw, 1,000 feet below, four or five enemy destroyers screening a much larger vessel, coloured light grey, steaming north-west.
“The larger vessel was almost certainly the ‘Lutzow,’ and it seems probable that she had put out with the object of raiding our commerce in the Atlantic. In addition to her destroyer escort, the pocket-battleship had an escort of Me. 109 and Me. 110 fighters. The Blenheim slipped back into the clouds. It was just before midnight. “On receipt of its message a striking force of Beauforts was sent from a Scottish aerodrome to attack with torpedoes. At 2.20 in the morning of the 13th June – it must be remembered that in those latitudes, at that time of the year, there is almost no darkness – one of the Beauforts attacked the enemy. It flew low, crossed just above one of the protecting destroyers, and released its torpedo at a range of 700 yards. As the aircraft broke away the air gunner and wireless operator both saw a column of water leap from the ‘Lutzow’ amidships, and this was followed by a dense cloud of smoke.”
The “striking force” mentioned in the RAF account consisted of Bristol Beauforts of 42 Squadron based at RAF Leuchars and a detachment of Beauforts of 22 Squadron from Wick. One of the 42 Squadron pilots was Flight Sergeant Ray Loveitt. Loveitt subsequently gave the following broadcast on the BBC:
“Friday, June 13th was not a lucky day for the German Navy. A Coastal Command Beaufort aircraft, of which I was the pilot, obtained a direct hit with a torpedo on a German pocket battleship as it was slinking out past Norway, and sent it, with its attendant destroyers, back home. “When it was getting near midnight on Thursday we had orders to push off with other aircraft from the squadron. Somebody mentioned that it would soon be the 13th, and when my wireless operator [Sergeant C.T.W. Downing] found that we had to take pigeon container No.13 he said, ‘We’re bound to be lucky’.
“Carrying our torpedo slung beneath us, we started off in formation. There was a bit of moon, but it was partly obscured and shone through the haze only occasionally. In some patches of cloud you could see hardly anything, but it was fairly light in the clear spaces. We were well over the North Sea when midnight came. We were flying pretty high as we approached the coast of southern Norway and found several gaps in the clouds where the moon was breaking through. “You could see the surface of the water and, as we came into one of these clearings, we suddenly spotted a formation of enemy warships away down under the starboard wing. The white washes trailing behind them caught our eyes first, and then we saw the ships’ small black slim shapes. They were arranged in a very nice formation with the pocket battleship in the middle and her five escorting destroyers dispersed around her. “One destroyer was right ahead of the battleship and there were two more destroyers on each side, making a pretty effective screen. We dived to get into position from which to attack. We came down to a few hundred feet above the sea and flew at right angles across the stem of two destroyers bringing up at the rear. That put us on the broadside of the formation. We made a right-about turn to starboard and came straight back on its beam.
“There was not much time to think about attacks. One destroyer was right in our way and I had to skid round its stern to get a suitable angle to drop. We were close enough to the destroyer to see the design of its camouflage, outlines of the deck fittings, and even the rail. The next second I put the nose of the aircraft round and saw the battleship in my sight. I pressed a button on the throttle which released the torpedo and away it went. “As soon as the torpedo had gone I made a sharp turn to port and opened my engine flat out. I was expecting a barrage of flak at any moment. The navigator beside me was looking back at the ship saying, “It’s coming, it’s coming”.
“Friday, June 13th was not a lucky day for the German Navy.”
“But fortunately the flak did not come, not even when, for one unpleasant moment, we found ourselves in a vertical turn round one of the destroyers where we should have been easy meat. I think our attack must have taken them completely by surprise. All this time the torpedo was running on its course and really only a few seconds had elapsed.
“As we flew clear from the ship, the rear gunner and the wireless operator shouted together over the intercom: ‘You’ve hit it. There’s a great column of water going up, and dirty white smoke.’ “I flew round in a circle to see for myself, and sure enough there was plenty of smoke and a patch of foam on the ship’s track. Naturally I didn’t want to hang around too long, so when we were satisfied with the results of our attack, we made a signal reporting it.
“When we got back home we heard that other aircraft had found the German force after we had attacked it. The ships had stopped by then and were trying to hide themselves behind the smoke-screen made by the destroyer. Still later we learned that the formation had turned back to the Skagerrak and was limping home at reduced speed.”
Unbeknown to Flight Sergeant Loveitt at the time, Lützow was picked up again later by Blenheims of Coastal Command, which, together with further Beauforts, shadowed her for many hours. By this time she and her escort had turned about and were making for the Skagerrak at reduced speed.
The single torpedo hit on Lützow disabled her electrical system and rendered the ship motionless. The crew carried out emergency repairs that allowed her to return to Germany. The repair work in Kiel, undertaken at the same Deutsche Werke shipyard in which she had been constructed, lasted for six months.
For his part in the attack on Lützow, Loveitt was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. The announcement in The London Gazette of 24 June 1941, stated: “One night in June, 1941, this airman was the pilot of one of a formation of nine Beauforts which carried out a torpedo attack against a pocket battleship, screened by five destroyers, sailing off the south-west coast of Norway.
“After maintaining close formation for over two hours in most difficult conditions, Flight Sergeant Loveitt came out of low rain cloud near the enemy force. He skilfully manoeuvred his aircraft and dropped his torpedo from inside the destroyer screen, scoring a direct hit on the battleship. The execution of this brilliant attack was so sudden that the enemy was taken completely by surprise … He has shown the greatest courage and efficiency.”
This article first appeared inside the February 2014 issue of Britain at War Magazine as part of the ‘RAF on the Air’ series looking at a series of wartime radio interviews with RAF personnel. To purchase your own digital copy of this, and more of our back issues, please visit our page at Pocketmags: https://pocketmags.com/britain-at-war-magazine/issues