Giant German Torpedo Boats
Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet, despite its name, was never really intended to operate on the high seas. Ship design focused on vessels capable of operating in the North Sea against the Royal Navy – resulting in a fleet that would pose a dire threat to British naval supremacy, but would be incapable of projecting power much beyond home waters. Battleships lacked crew quarters suitable for long voyages; the sailors lived in barracks while the fleet stood and anchor, and slept in hammocks slung near their duty stations on the rare occasions when they went to sea. And destroyers – styled “high seas torpedo boats” in German naval parlance – were usually much smaller than their British counterparts.
That attitude changed with the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the cancellation of Russian contracts with the German firm of AG Vulkan for turbines to power a battle cruiser and four destroyers. The German Admiralty approved Vulkan’s suggestion to put the machinery into new ships for the High Seas Fleet; a pair of fast minelaying cruisers made use of the huge battle cruiser turbines (half of them fitted in each ship) and destroyers based on the Russian plans handed over to Vulkan would use the destroyer turbines.
Practice showed these larger destroyers with higher freeboard to be much more useful warships than the smaller torpedo boats, but they still fell well short of British standards for seakeeping. Early war experience also showed the 88mm (3.45-inch) guns carried by German torpedo boats to be completely inadequate compared to the 4-inch (102mm) weapons of British boats. The Germans responded by re-arming their torpedo boats with 105mm (4.1-inch) guns that matched British performance, but the admirals demanded something better than their enemies’ weapons.
The answer would be the truly gigantic Type 1916 Torpedo Boat (the vessel, despite its size, would still be a “torpedo boat”). Where the standard German torpedo boat (the Type 1913, also known as the V25/S49 classes) displaced 975 tons, the new boat would weigh in at 2,345 tons, nearly two and a half times heavier than the previous “large torpedo boat” and grow in length from 78 to 106 meters.
This vast increase in size would permit fitting of a new main armament to give the boats a decisive edge over British destroyers: four of the 150mm (5.9-inch) SK/L45 guns that equipped German light cruisers and served as secondary guns on most battleships and battle cruisers. The gun had enormously more range than the British 4-inch Mark IV (16,000 yards vs. 9,000 yards) while tossing a shell three times as large (45 kilograms (99 pounds) vs. 14 kilograms (31 pounds)). But that huge round could no longer be handled by one man, and so the main armament’s rate of fire dropped by about a half to two-thirds, from 15 rounds per minute for the 105mm to five to seven rounds per minute for the bigger gun.
S113 in French service.
The Germans had similarly re-armed their older light cruisers, replacing their 105mm guns with the bigger 150mm. But these ships filled a different role, and were expected to stand off and support the torpedo boats with their gunfire. A cruiser-sized gun did not fit the torpedo boat’s mission.
Alongside the larger guns, the new torpedo boat would mount four of the new 60cm torpedo tubes in place of the 50cm weapons previously carried. Range at top speed for the new torpedo jumped from 4,000 meters to 6,000 meters, and the explosive warhead increased slightly from 195 kilograms (430 pounds) to 210 kilograms (463 pounds). She could also carry and lay 40 mines.
The resulting boat – despite her size, she was still considered a “boat” – had enough freeboard to allow her weapons to be served in much worse weather than had been possible for her smaller predecessors. She had great speed (34 knots), significantly faster than the V25 class, and much better range than earlier German torpedo boats.
The Navy ordered a dozen of the big torpedo boats in 1916, three each at the Schichau, Vulkan, Germaniawerft and Blohm & Voss yards. Like other German torpedo boats, they carried an alpha-numeric designation indicating their yard of manufacture: S113 - S115, V116 - V118, G119 - G121, and B122 - B124.
Only two of the huge torpedo boats would be completed, neither in time to see service with the High Seas Fleet. All of the others were broken up while still incomplete, none of them having been launched or advanced any more than 75 percent of the way to completion.
V116 was commissioned at the end of July 1918, but saw no action under the Imperial flag. After brief service in the Weimar Republic’s Reichsmarine she was transferred to Italy as a war reparation and served until 1937 as Premuda. S113 was completed in August 1919 and likewise spent a brief period in the Reichsmarine before going to France as a reparation and becoming Amiral Sénés. The other ten would be scrapped incomplete.
The 150mm SK/L45, seen on light cruiser Frankfurt.
The two surviving boats appear to have been very successful, serving their new owners for nearly 20 years despite being one-off vessels in each fleet (though part of this no doubt related to their status as prizes of war, and therefore symbolic of the victory over Imperial Germany). The bigger hull made them very durable and very steady at sea, but the heavy armament was probably not worth the vastly reduced rate of fire. The following Type 1918 Large Torpedo Boat reverted to the 105mm gun and 50cm torpedo tube, but was a much larger boat if not as gigantic as the Type 1916 (1,500 tons’ displacement and 92 meters long).
We included seven of the huge boats in Great War at Sea: Jutland, and the remaining five appear in the Jutland 1919 expansion book. In a melee with other destroyers their additional size is an advantage (they’re harder to sink) but players would probably rather have two tertiary gunnery factors in place of the one secondary factor. They’re more like under-armed cruisers than true destroyers, but without the staying power or range. Had they been given a dual 105mm mount in place of the single 150mm, they would have been formidable surface warships and a great addition to the German scouting forces. As designed and built, their heavy guns would have added much less to the High Seas Fleet’s fighting power than the German Admiralty hoped.
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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.