The Zerstorer (Destroyer) Type 1934 class was the first group of destroyers built in Germany after the end World War 1. The Z4 Richard Beitzen was a part of this new class and named for the World War 1 torpedo flotilla commander who was killed when trying to rescue crewmembers in the water after their torpedo boat hit a naval mine. She represented the forth vessel in a class totaling four ships that included the lead ship - the Z1 Leberecht Maass - and sisters Z2 Georg Thiele and Z3 Max Schulz. The German government selected the Deutsche Werke Corporation as the primary shipbuilding company and the Z4 was laid down in January of 1935 in Kiel, Germany and officially commissioned in May of 1937.
The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 limited much of the war-making capacity that was the former German Empire. Additionally, the world powers of the time - the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy - all converged on Washington, D.C. to sign the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This served manage and limit the size and firepower of navy warships across the globe. As such, Germany was restricted to just twelve completed destroyers along with a number of reserve ships and nothing more. She was assigned no air power whatsoever and her land army was severely restricted to just a few hundred thousand soldiers and armored cars - no tanks of any kind. However, a rebuilding Germany was already planning new warships for her resurging navy and Japan cared little of the restrictions found in the naval treaty. The treaty indicated future German destroyers must displace less than 800 tons but, by 1930, the destroyer limits had been increased to 1,850 tons. Germany saw neighbors Poland and France building large destroyers themselves and President Hindenburg and his Admirals were expected to comply with the limits of the Versailles Treaty. However, there grew a compounding fear among German authorities that she would be out-produced numerically by her historical enemies.
This real concern placed pressure on German builders to design a new class of warship with advanced features in an effort to outdo competing ships of other countries. One of these enhanced features proved to be the mounting of 5 x 5-inch L/45 SK C/34 main guns instead of the four being fielded on French, Polish and British destroyers of the day. The fifth gun emplacement was set just forward of the aft funnel in the sway open area so all five guns could be brought to bear when firing a full broadside to port or starboard. However, the Z4 carried 80 rounds per gun less than British type destroyers. She did carry eight torpedo tubes and one reload while the French destroyers were provided with just six tubes and no reloads. Her anti-aircraft (AA) protection included 2 x 37mm guns with 8,000 rounds carried per gun and 6 x 20mm AA guns with 12,000 rounds provided. For Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) protection, hydrophones were provided as passive defense for active defenses came online later on a few ships. Once submarines were detected, a depth charge run would be made. Two rails fed four depth charge launchers though only 18 depth chargers were stowed aboard - a surprisingly few such installations were fitted on German warships despite the Germans superior knowledge of submarine warfare proven by her U-Boat foray.
Problems with the Type 1934 design proved numerous and kept the class total at just four ships. The class had a narrow beam and was top heavy which caused seakeeping problems in rough open waters. Structural hull fractures soon developed due to inferior stern and bow designs. The engines were underpowered for the displacement they managed and were not wholly reliable at sea. Reloading of the torpedo tubes while at sea also proved something of a challenge for even a trained crew. The low levels of ammunition kept aboard would inevitably lead to loss in the class though the basic design was accepted and continued to be the largest type to be built by Germany. The designers would instead integrate future modifications and eventually eliminate inherent flaws in future classes.
The Z4 was commissioned on May 13th, 1937 and, after she completed her requisite sea trials, Z4 patrolled the German coastline while training her new crew. Three days before World War 2 began - formally marked by the German bombing and subsequent land invasion of neighboring Poland on September 3, 1939 - Z4, along with her sister ships and the light cruisers Koln, Leipzig and Nurnberg, were assigned various operations in the Danzig Bay in the North Sea. Z4 joined up with four 1934A type destroyers to help mine the sea around Newcastle, New South Wales to help combat actions of the British Home Fleet. After mining the mouth of the River Tyne, the destroyers set a course for home and once again met up with the light cruisers Koln, Nurnberg and the Leipzig. On patrol that day was the British submarine S-Class (N65). She sighted the German fleet and fired a spread of torpedoes towards the cruisers, hitting the Leipzig and the Nurnberg. Z4 and the other destroyers hunted N65 for over two hours but were unable to detect her and eventually returned to escort the damaged cruisers back to Germany for repairs.
In January of 1940, Z4 continued to carry out mining operations against the Thames Estuary and Newcastle along with a number of other German destroyers without incident. "Operation Wikinger" was a German sortie into the North Sea conducted in February of 1940 with the Z4 taking part and being joined by five other destroyers. The small fleet was sighted by a Luftwaffe bomber who mistakenly took the ships as British in origin, attacked them and sank the Z1 Leberecht Maas. While rescuing the crew, the Z3 Max Schulz hit a mine and was lost with all hands on board. Thru the rest of 1940, Z4 carried out a number of mine-laying missions. In 1942, she was used for escort and costal patrol missions. In mid-July of that year, she steamed with Destroyer Flotilla 6 where Z4 helped sink two Russian patrol boats. One week later, another Russian patrol boat was sunk along with a floatplane.
On August 10th, 1941, Richard Beitzen was operating with three destroyers near Kola Inlet and came upon a Russian patrol boat which was engaged and sunk. Shore batteries shelled the destroyers and hit the Z4, forcing her to head home for repairs. After the destroyer was patched in German waters, she was transferred to Le Harve and escorted the battleship KMS Tirpitz to the Trondheim Fjord. She continued her active patrols and was then transferred to Brest. In May of 1945, she was formally seized by the British while dock side in Oslo, Norway as a war prize and became the only ship of her class to survive the war in whole. The British took her to England and she was subsequently broken up as scrap by 1949.
Z4's sisters did not fare well in their tenure during World War 2. On February 22nd, 1940, the Z1 Leberecht Maas, having taken a direct bomb hit, went off course into a minefield and struck a naval mine, ultimately sinking with 282 hands aboard. As mentioned above, the Z3 Max Schultz attempted a rescue and, herself, hit a mine and sank with all hands aboard. In April of 1940, the Z2 Georg Thiele was in a battle with British destroyers in the Ufut Fjord and ran out of ammunition. She was subsequently blown up (scuttled) by the crew before she could be boarded and captured by the British.