Germany’s Last Armored Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2017

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 Unfortunately for the High Seas Fleet and ultimately for 792 of her crew, she was already outdated when the first steel plates were cut.

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 foreign navies.

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 Unlike them, they did not waste the resources to actually build these outdated ships, but paused for a year and then built a true dreadnought in the 1907 program, the Nassau class.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 armored cruiser the Germans expected.

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 9.2-inch.

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.

Blücher as completed.

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 or labor.

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 the All-Highest.

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.

The cruiser’s end.

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.

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.