German Battleships, Part Two
Though German propagandists declared victory in the Battle of Jutland – known as Skaggerak in Germany – the High Seas Fleet’s evaluations of the action and their ships shook the German admirals’ confidence. In particular, the fast super-dreadnoughts of the Queen Elizabeth class made an enormous impression.
The High Seas Fleet’s staff, writing in the name of fleet commander Reinhard Scheer, issued a memorandum pointing to three key factors that must be considered in the construction of new capital ships: heavier-caliber main guns, higher speed, and an emphasis on fast battleships rather than battlecruisers.
Scheer’s staff did not endorse the concept of a “Unitary Warship” filling the role of both battleship and battle cruiser. As long as the British kept building battle cruisers, the Germans would need to do the same to support their scouting forces. But while the admirals and staff officers assigned to desks in Berlin studied the tactical reports and made their recommendations accordingly, the sea officers formed an economic argument.
The sheer size of the Grand Fleet, Scheer’s staff wrote, made it unlikely that Germany could ever match the British ship-for-ship. And as long as the British held an advantage in fleet speed, they would be able to dictate the time and place of future fleet battles against the smaller German fleet, a recipe for disaster.
Therefore, the new capital ships should be individually superior to their British opponents: as fast as a battle cruiser, with protection at least sufficient against the 15-inch (380mm) guns of the newest British battleships, and a main armament heavier than the British 15-inch Mark I: the proposed 420mm (16.5-inch) SK L/45 gun, just entering the design stage at Krupp.
While the fleet staff did not dismiss battle cruisers, it pointed out that the next eight battle cruisers, including Hindenburg then fitting out at Wilhelmshaven’s Imperial Dockyard, had already fallen behind the curve in terms of speed, protection, armament or all three. Therefore they felt it imperative to lay down a class of at least four new fast battleships armed with 420mm guns to redress the imbalance with the Grand Fleet.
The unrealistic nature of the demand bordered on the insane. Hindenburg’s sister ship Derfflinger, the fleet’s “Iron Dog,” had taken 29 months to go from keel-laying to commissioning. At the time of the fleet staff’s Denkschrift the new battle cruiser had been under construction for 35 months already, and would not commission for another eight months – 43 total, or almost half again as long as Derfflinger. German shipyards simply did not have the labor to build capital ships while building vast numbers of submarines and undertaking the necessary repair and refit work engendered by wartime action.
A sparsely-populated shop floor at Wilhelmshaven's Imperial Shipyard.
If the Imperial Dockyard could not complete a 26,000-ton battle cruiser in a reasonable length of time, it had no hope of building a 42,000-ton battleship in time to influence the outcome of the war. Even so, design work went forward on both the ship and the 420mm guns she would carry.
For Jutland 1919, we’ve provided the design variant known as L20e, presented to the Admiralty in August 1917. She was a huge ship, 235 meters long and displacing 42,000 tons (Germany’s last completed battleship, Baden, displaced 28,000 tons on a 183-meter length). She would have belt and barbette armor of 350mm (just under 14 inches), the same as Baden, but thicker protection for her decks and less below the waterline.
Powering the ship would be 22 boilers, six fired by oil and the remainder by coal, with the coal-fired boilers having an auxiliary oil spray system to help the fuel burn hotter; the exhaust of all 22 boilers was trunked into a single gigantic funnel. Those boilers would provide steam to four turbines driving four shafts, an arrangement expected to produce just under 100,000 horsepower, nearly doubling Baden’s output of 55,000 horsepower. That would give the ship a designed speed of 23.5 knots and thereby yielding an edge to Queen Elizabeth’s supposed 24 knots. Despite the experience of Jutland, the Germans do not seem to have been aware that the British ships never met their designed speed – their new ship would have matched the British super-dreadnought or been very slightly faster.
Main armament would be eight 420mm rifles, in four twin turrets laid out almost exactly as those for the Ersatz Yorck class battle cruisers’ 380mm guns with a large space between the two aft turrets, known in German parlance as C and D, because of the huge turbine room underneath them. Skoda had already designed and tested a 420mm naval gun, but the High Seas Fleet’s intricate relationship with Krupp mandated a new design which would not be approved until September 1918. No prototypes of the big gun were ever built.
Secondary armament would be a dozen 150mm (5.9-inch) guns in an armored casemate, an arrangement going back to pre-dreadnought days. Eight heavy anti-aircraft guns, either 88mm or 105mm weapons, occupied single mounts on the deck. Three torpedo tubes would be carried as well, with an underwater tube at the bow and an above-water tube on either side, each tube having three torpedoes.
Though the architects had drafted an impressive warship, Scheer and his staffers were not impressed. The battleship was much too slow, and they wanted a ship that could make at least 30, preferably 32, knots. That required a much bigger ship, to house the larger power plant and protect it with adequate armor. Subsequent schemes reduced the main armament to obtain higher speed, but these ships had even less chance of being built than the L20e design.
We’ve included all four examples sought by the High Seas Fleet in Jutland 1919. They are well-protected ships with an impressive heavy armament, but are out-gunned by the new British battleship design with 18-inch guns under discussion in London at the same time. Scheer’s insistence on high speed matches that of his counterpart Sir John Jellicoe, though unlike Scheer the British admiral indicated acceptance of a slower battleship as long as it carried 15-inch guns and could be brought into service as quickly as possible.
Both Scheer and Jellicoe overlooked an essential reality: each of them commanded a fleet including large numbers of ships armed with 11-inch, 12-inch and 13.5-inch guns, designed for a fleet speed of 21 knots maximum (and in the case of the oldest German dreadnoughts, even less than that). Unless Scheer wanted to steam out for battle with just the four new battleships, he would always be at a disadvantage in terms of numbers, speed and main armament.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published more books, games and articles on historical subjects than anyone should.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.