German Battleships, Part One
In February 1916, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz established a new committee to study designs for future capital ships for the High Seas Fleet. They would determine the future look of the High Seas Fleet in light of wartime experience.
Germany had four new battleships under construction at the time, with Baden and Bayern nearing commissioning and their sisters Sachsen and Württemburg some months behind them. No other dreadnoughts had been laid down since the outbreak of the war, and new construction appeared unlikely until peace returned. But when peace did come, Tirpitz wanted to be ready for the true battle to commence – that over his service’s funding.
Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, Admiralty chief of staff, produced a memorandum in November 1915 pointing out the lower rate of fire of the 15-inch (380mm) guns carried by the Bayern class, compared to the 12-inch (305mm) guns of the preceding König class. Perhaps the new classes of battleship and battle cruiser (“large fighting ships” in German vernacular) should revert to the smaller guns and carry more of them, in triple or quadruple turrets.
An early proposal for the Bayern class would have fitted them with triple turrets bearing 13.8-inch (350mm) guns, a weapon retained for the Mackensen class battle cruisers but replaced in the battleship with dual turrets carrying the larger gun. German engineers visited the Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis, which carried triple turrets for her 12-inch guns, and came away unimpressed. The turret design required overly large openings in the armored deck, they argued, and a single hit or mechanical fault could render three guns inoperable rather than just two.
Admiral Georg von Müller, the head of Tirpitz’s committee, raised an uncomfortable issue, what became known as the Typenfrage, the “Type Question.” Germany had to date build both Linienschiffe (“ships of the line,” or battleships) and Grosser Kreuzer (“Large Cruisers,” used to designate what other nations termed protected cruisers, armored cruisers and battle cruisers). The most recent designs for battleships and battle cruisers had already begun to converge, with the most recently-designed battle cruisers having cruiser speeds yet the protection and armament to stand in the line of battle with the dreadnoughts. This raised a potent political issue, as Tirpitz had secured separate funding lines for battleships and cruisers in Germany’s Naval Laws and did not wish to upset this procedure.
That became less of a problem when Tirpitz was forcibly retired in March, allowing Müller to propose merging the two types into a single ship design, the Linienschiffskreuzer. This battleship-cruiser would have the speed of a battle cruiser, the protection of a battleship, the range to serve on overseas stations and a main armament capable of delivering “drumfire” – a terms borrowed from current Army artillery practice, what later generations of naval thinkers would call “saturation fire.”
For the first designs it would study, the committee requested a fast-battleship version of the Bayern design. The Construction Bureau duly handed over six design sketches on 19 April 1916: three for battleships, and three for battle cruisers. These went not only to the committee, but following normal practice to Kaiser Wilhelm II as well.
The new Navy chief, Eduard von Capelle, noted when forwarding the sketches to the Supreme War Lord that new developments had rendered earlier battleships obsolete. The High Seas Fleet needed to prepare for battles fought at a great distance from home bases and at long range, requiring ships with high speed and heavy guns. Toward that end, he suggested that it might become advisable to retire two of the High Seas Fleet’s battleship squadrons – not only the pre-dreadnoughts of the Deutschland class, but the early dreadnoughts of the Nassau and Helgoland classes as well.
By that note, Capelle argued for a massive increase in battleship construction, since not only the pre-dreadnoughts but eight supposedly first-line dreadnoughts needed immediate replacement. The Kaiser remained non-committal, not throwing his weight behind Capelle’s desire for many more dreadnoughts but not firing him for his effrontery, either.
The committee began its study, therefore, with at least a glimmer of hope that the ship it approved might actually be built. The three battleship designs, designated L1, L2 and L3 (for “Linienschiff”), all drew heavily on Bayern for their armor design and internal arrangements.
The hull was stretched, going from 183 meters long for Sachsen (the longest of the Bayern class) to 220 meters for L1 and L2 and 230 meters for L3. Each design differed in details, some of them significant. All three had a “mixed” power plant, with both coal- and oil-fired boilers.
L1 would be the simple, “fast Bayern,” with the same armor and mostly the same internal arrangements, adding another boiler room and six additional boilers, raising power output from 55,000 horsepower in Württemberg (the most powerful and fastest of the Bayern class) to 65,000 horsepower, and speed from 22.5 knots to 26 knots (with the longer, finer hull form contributing to this increase as well). The new ship displaced 38,500 tons at maximum load, compared to 32,500 for Sachsen.
L3 also had 18 boilers, but had larger oil-fired boilers than L1, producing 95,000 horsepower (this must be a misprint; the improved-Mackensen class battle cruisers made 100,000 horsepower with an enormously larger power plant). Whatever her output, it was enough to drive the ship at 26 knots, the same as L1, on a displacement 4,500 tons heavier.
The extra weight went to additional armor protection: for the first time, a German dreadnought added a thick armored deck in acknowledgement of the increased ranges at which future battles would be fought (thus bringing incoming enemy shells in at a higher angle) and added much thicker armor over her casemate, considered a potentially vulnerable area. Both designs carried the same armament as the Bayern class: eight 15-inch guns in four double turrets, sixteen 5.9-inch (150mm) guns in casemates, and five torpedo tubes with twenty torpedoes.
L2 started with the same hull as L1, but reduced the number of boilers to 15 from 18 and added a fifth turret for two 15-inch guns. This would be fitted in “C” position, stacked over the two aft turrets on a towering barbette. The design sketch claimed no displacement increase with the swap of boilers for barbette, which the committee found questionable, which also brought the designed speed of 25 knots into doubt as well. And they wondered about stability issues from the high mount.
None of the designs would be approved before the Battle of Jutland intervened, bringing a re-assessment of prevailing assumptions. But we’ve included L2 (four examples) and L3 (also four examples) in our Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919 supplement, along with scenarios for their use.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.