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Kriegsmarine Heavy Cruiser: The Prinz Eugen, Her History and Fate

written by: AMT • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 5/19/2011

The Prinz Eugen was a Hipper class heavy cruiser of the German Navy during the Second World War. Her primary claim to fame is that she was the companion of the legendary battleship, the KMS Bismarck, during her spectacular breakout into the North Atlantic in 1941. She was sunk during atomic tests.

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    K.M. Prinz Eugen: Third Cruiser of the Admiral Hipper Class

    During the military buildup begun by National Socialist dominated Germany in the 1930's, the provisions of the Versailles Treaty were slowly but surely violated, then flaunted, and finally repudiated entirely. Aware that Germany K.M. Prinz Eugen 3 was painfully vulnerable to its sources of foreign raw materials being blockaded by the vastly superior Royal Navy, a naval buildup was begun that, if it had been completed, would have resulted in Germany fielding a powerful and balanced naval fleet capable of taking on the Royal Navy in the North Sea.

    German Cruiser Prinz Eugen The Admiral Hipper class of heavy cruisers was one product of this drive, known as Plan Z, and the German cruiser K.M. Prinz Eugen was built as the third member of this class of tough, modern cruisers. Often remarked to be akin to the Bismarck class in a visual sense, the Prinz Eugen was outfitted with a standard (for the time) armament of eight 8" naval guns mounted in pairs on four turrets, two fore and two aft. As such, it was not a vessel capable of going toe-to-toe with a capital ship, and was less heavily armed even than the similarly sized Deutschland class of Panzershiffe - widely known as pocket battleships. But it was an able complement to a heavier ship like the Bismarck, which would tend to draw fire in any engagement and allow an accompanying cruiser a chance to maneuver.

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    The German Cruiser Prinz Eugen: Deployment With the Bismarck

    Prinz Eugen finally made it to sea in late 1940 after suffering some damage in port during one of the early air attacks on German territory. Her first mission was to accompany the breakout of the Bismarck into the open Atlantic. After shuffling between several Norwegian ports in May of 1941, the Bismarck and K.M. Prinz Eugen made for the open seas through the Denmark Strait. There the two German vessels, after being shadowed for a time by a pair of British cruisers, were intercepted and engaged by the Royal Navy battlecruiser Hood accompanied by the battleship Prince of Wales.

    K.M. Prinz Eugen 2 The outcome of the Battle of the Denmark Strait was starkly one sided. Both the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen focused their firepower on the Hood - with devastating results. As the Hood fired at the Prinz Eugen, the German cruiser's returning salvos struck amidships and started a fire that spread through exposed light ammunition. Not long after, a salvo from the Bismarck struck Hood - and within moments she became an inferno. The HMS Hood exploded, broke in two, and sank within minutes; only three members of her crew survived the ship's demise.

    After this stunning victory - which caught both the Germans and British completely by surprise, the Prince of Wales suffered significant damage including three hits from Prinz Eugen's 8" guns, and narrowly withdrew before the German cruiser, Prinz Eugen, could fire a salvo of torpedoes at her. The Battle of the Denmark Strait resulted in a major German victory, though it was tempered by the loss of the Bismarck in the days after.

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    The Rest of Prinz Eugen's War

    Prinz Eugen split off from the Bismarck in order to conduct commerce raids in the Atlantic, but developed engine trouble and had to retreat to German occupied France for repair. And from there, her war service was dominated primarily by one final operation: the Channel Dash.

    After Bismarck was sunk due to the combined effort of virtually the entire British Atlantic fleet, German capital ships were prohibited from launching surface raids out into the Atlantic. The Prinz Eugen along with the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were all ordered to return to German home waters. But in an incredibly bold move, they transited the English Channel in broad daylight. This action caught the British by surprise, and the three ships survived the transit almost undamaged.

    Prinz Eugen spent the remainder of the war either under repair (after being torpedoed by a British submarine), as a training vessel in the Baltic, or shelling the onrushing Soviet forces along the Baltic coast. In addition, she helped to evacuate German civilians from East Prussia in the final days of the war.

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    K.M. Prinz Eugen - 1/100 Scale Models and Other Later History

    After surrendering to the British in Copenhagen, it was the Prinz Eugen's fate to be handed over to the United States Navy and sailed to the Pacific Ocean to participate as a target vessel in the Able and Baker nuclear tests. Taken to Kwajalein atoll in the central Pacific, she survived not one but both of the Prinz Eugen Wreck nuclear blasts nearly intact - a testament to the quality of her construction. Unfortunately after the underwater Baker explosion she remained far too radioactive to go near, and was towed to shallower water where she eventually sank due to relatively minor leaks that nevertheless proved fatal to a vessel that could not be boarded and repaired. The Prinz Eugen wreck remains there to this day, still visible to visitors braving the (now only mildly radioactive) isle.

    K.m. prinz eugen 1 Interest in the vessel has remained as the years have passed, largely due to Prinz Eugen's role in the sinking of the Hood and her accompanying the Bismarck on her only deployment. Prinz Eugen 1/100 scale models have been constructed by enthusiasts, and in this reduced form the likeness of Germany's most famous cruiser of World War II still plies the waters of the world.

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    K.M. Prinz Eugen Technical Details, Sources, and Image Accreditation

    The third member of the Hipper Class, Prinz Eugen diverges from the standard data of her sisters due to modifications to the design brought about as a result of lessons learned from the earlier vessels.

    • 697 feet long, 72 feet abeam, 24 foot draught, ~18,000 tons full load
    • 136,000 hp engine capacity, max speed of nearly 34 knots
    • 7200 nautical mile range at 20 knots
    • Eight 8"(203mm) naval guns (primary), twelve 105mm secondary guns
    • Around 35 37mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns, 28 20mm machine guns
    • Twelve standard 533mm torpedo tubes, three Arado seaplanes
    • Armor belts ranging from 30mm to 80mm along the deck and main armor belts, and up to 16 cm of armor around the turrets and conning tower - standard armor for a heavy cruiser of the time
    • Crew of around 1600

    All in all, the Prinz Eugen was about a quarter better powered than her sisters and slightly faster, and mounted a heavily reinforced anti-aircraft armament.

    Sources

    Janes Fighting Ships of World War II, 1946 Janes Publishing Company, 1994 reprint edition

    Barrie Pitt, The Battle of the Atlantic, 1977 Time Life Books

    Heinz Kolb, Prinz Eugen 1/100 Model

    Jose M. Rico The Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen

    Images courtesy of (respectively), Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive) through Wiki Commons, the United States Navy, Heinz Kolb via John Rasmussen, and Wiki Commons via F. Lang.