German Warships of World War Two: The Light Cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg

I have a tendency to start a series of posts on a specific subject then stop before I’m through so I’m trying not to do that. This is the final post on German light cruisers.

Let’s start with the basic question: was there anything special about the light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg? No. They were just as badly designed as the other light cruisers I’ve discussed and accomplished almost nothing. Both ships were torpedoed on 13 December 1939 in the North Sea by the British submarine, HMS Salmon. The ships were not far from Germany and both limped back to port. The Leipzig was too badly damaged to justify a complete repair so she was patched up and used as a training ship in the Baltic.

On 15 October 1944 Leipzig was approaching the port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia). Because Soviet aircraft and submarines regularly dropped mines into the main channel, ships used a narrow channel which was constantly swept for mines and this narrow channel was divided into two narrower channels: one for entering the port and one for exiting the port.

For reasons the Kommandant never fully explained, the Leipzig steamed into the wrong channel. She then stopped all engines and drifted astride the line dividing the exit channel and the entrance channel. It was evening, it was dark, and there was heavy fog. Fearing she might be torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, the Captain orders all navigation lights extinguished. So there she drifts: astride the two channels, lights extinguished, engines off. One doesn’t have to be Fleet Admiral Nimitz to realize this is not a very intelligent thing to do.

You might imagine what happens. A few minutes later, the following entry is made into the log of the Leipzig: ‘Heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen collided into compartment X, port side, at an angle of 35 degrees.’

Prinz Eugen, steaming in the correct channel, on the correct course with her navigation lights on, rams the Leipzig amidships. Prinz Eugen isn’t badly damaged but her bow cuts clean through to the center line of the Leipzig.

After being towed into Gotenhafen, the crew patched up the Leipzig and for the next few months it crept around the Baltic providing fire support to German troops retreating from the East. The ship took off refugees and wounded troops and ended up in Denmark at the end of the war where she was seized by the Royal Navy and later scuttled.

The Nürnberg did almost nothing during her career – not even get rammed. After the torpedo damage was repaired she served as a training ship and wandered around the Baltic. One gets the impression the German Navy High Command forgot about her. Later in the war she provided fire support in the East and was then sent to Norway to help lay mines and escort German ships through the minefields. She managed to do so without hitting one of her own mines unlike her assistant, the minelayer Elsass, which hit one of her own mines and sank on 5 January 1945. For reasons I can’t figure out, the Nürnberg steamed to Copenhagen (Denmark being under German occupation) and dropped anchor on 27 January 1945. Because of the critical fuel shortages affecting the German navy, the ship just stayed there until Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. I find this strange because the German navy found fuel for all their other warships which performed an incredible feat by lifting off over 1.5 million people trapped in East Prussia by the Soviets.

The ship was awarded as a prize of war to the Soviets and was used by the Soviet Navy until 1960 when she was scrapped.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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