Last Armored Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In February 1907, Kiel’s Imperial
Dockyard laid down what may have been the
best-designed armored cruiser built for any
navy before the First World War, SMS Blücher.
Unfortunately for the High Seas Fleet and
ultimately for 792 of her crew, she was already
outdated when the first steel plates were
In 1905 and 1906, the British Royal Navy
laid down two radically new types of ship: Dreadnought, a battleship carrying
10 large-caliber guns instead of the usual
four, and Invincible, a fast cruiser
with the 12-inch guns of a battleship. Hints
of the radically new types of warship leaked
out of Britain, some of the information accurate,
some of it deliberately planted to mislead
At the time, the High Seas Fleet’s
admirals were divided in their thoughts on
future shipbuilding. Some wanted more cruisers
to project power around the globe. Others
wanted a larger battle line, to better challenge
the Royal Navy. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz
had similarly torn feelings: His famous “Risk
Theory,” as spelled out in the 1900
Navy Law, required that Germany build battleships
and it is for this impulse that he is best
known. But as a cruiser admiral himself, he
supported the construction of cruisers as well.
The Deutschland-class battleships
of the 1904 fiscal year had been a fairly
conventional design, with four heavy guns
and a large battery of secondary weapons (170mm,
or 6.7-inch). News of Britain’s new
battleship slowed the German building program
as they awaited more details, and the design
selected for Germany’s next battleship
was constantly enlarged. Deutschland was to have been followed in the 1906 program
with a “semi-dreadnought” similar
to the Austrian Radetzky or British Lord Nelson types: two turrets each
with two heavy guns (11-inch) and four turrets
in the “wing” positions each with
two 240mm (9.4-inch) guns. Like the Austrians
and British, the Germans studied replacing
these wing turrets with single mounts with
heavy guns. Unlike them, they did not waste
the resources to actually build these outdated
ships, but paused for a year and then built
a true dreadnought in the 1907 program, the Nassau class.
Having accepted a delay in battleship construction
to await this new development, Tirpitz did
not wish to wait in building an answer to
the new British armored cruiser type. Germany
would build a new class of large armored cruiser,
and to make up for the lost battleship construction
she would build six of the new type.
Intelligence reports suggested that the
new British cruiser would be a development
of their well-designed Minotaur. Minotaur carried four 9.2-inch guns in turrets fore
and aft, and ten 7.5-inch guns in single turrets
along either broadside. They were very large
cruisers at 14,600 tons, with a top speed
of 23 knots. The Germans believed the new
type would make the logical step to a uniform
main armament of 9.2-inch guns with perhaps
an increase in speed.
The new German armored cruiser design improved
on the Scharnhorst class then under
construction. The Scharnhorst design
built on a basic layout going back to the Victoria Louise of 1896, one very similar
in concept to German pre-dreadnought battleships. Scharnhorst, at 12,800 tons, carried
eight 8.2-inch (210mm) guns, a weapon the
Germans considered superior to the British
The new armored cruiser the Germans
Scharnhorst had turrets in the usual
fore-and-aft arrangement, each with two guns,
with the other four weapons sited in casemate
mounts behind them. The new cruiser would
replace each of these single mounts with a
similar turret, giving her 12 guns though
only eight could fire on a broadside. This
mimicked the arrangement of the never-built
1906 semi-dreadnought and the Nassau-class
battleships of the 1907 program.
The new cruiser would be much larger to
accomodate this heavier armament and bigger
engines and boilers. At 15,500 tons, she was
the largest and most expensive warship laid
down in Germany up to that time when construction
began in February 1907. She was about 2,000
tons lighter than the actual Invincible, but
had better armor protection than the British
ship and her speed was only slightly less
than the bigger British cruiser.
The pause in building battleships would hurt
German shipyards and the steel producers who
supplied them, but the new cruiser program
would compensate for it. The German building
pattern since 1900 had been to order four
or five battleships and two big cruisers in
every other fiscal year; as these new cruisers
were larger than the last class of battleships
there would be no less of a need for steel
Blücher as completed.
Though often portrayed as a meddling dilettante
in naval affairs, Kaiser Wilhelm II stepped
in to provide some sanity in the process.
Pointing out that reports of the new British cruiser’s
capabilities had not been confirmed, he reduced
the appropriation request from six units to
one. The remaining five cruisers could be
restored in a supplementary request, hinted
Imperial caution proved justified in the
summer of 1908, when Invincible went
to sea and observers easily noted her massive
main armament of eight 12-inch guns. By then Blücher’s construction had
advanced too far to be modified, despite desperate
proposals to replace the 8.2-inch turrets
with single mounts bearing 11-inch (280mm)
guns. She commissioned in October, 1909, and
spent the next several years as a gunnery
training ship. The Navy attempted to sell
her to Turkey without success.
Assigned to the First Scouting Group at the
outbreak of war, Blücher was lost
at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915 along
with 792 of her crew. Hit by at least 50 heavy
shells, she proved very difficult to sink
and her sacrifice allowed the rest of her
squadron to escape.
The cruiser’s end.
Blücher appears in Jutland and in Cruiser Warfare. Her armament
provided a difficult game design question;
most armored cruisers with 8.2-inch or 9.2-inch
main armament in older Great War at Sea games received a nominal primary gunnery
value of “1”; Blücher clearly outclassed most of these and we rated
her at 2 for primary gunnery, but that
put her at an unfair disadvantage in a short-range
fight with some of the older British armored
cruisers with secondary gunnery of 3 or 5
(against 2 for Blücher) that she
clearly should out-class; a strong argument could be made for a rating of 0 primary and 7 secondary, and that's what she carried in the supplement High Seas Fleet and the ship data of the Cruiser Warfare Final Edition. With her speed of
2 she is a most formidable armored cruiser.
Unfortunately, she’s usually matched
against British battle cruisers with the same
speed and a primary gunnery of 5 or 8.
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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.