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The Royal Netherlands
Navy’s Dreadnoughts

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2013

At the height of Dutch power, the Netherlands acquired a number of trading stations in the Spice Islands, the huge archipelago eventually called the East Indies and today known as Indonesia. A small naval squadron remained on station from the early 1600s.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the Royal Netherlands Navy built a series of “armored ships” for this duty. Usually called “coast defense ships” in English-language literature, they were definitely high seas warships and more of a slow armored cruiser than a small battleship. They lacked the heavy armor of the traditional coast defense monitor, but carried only 9.4-inch guns until the last of them, De Zeven Provencien, was laid down in 1908.

De Zeven Provencien, later re-named Soerabaya.

De Zeven Provencien proved a severe disappointment. With a maximum speed of just 16 knots she was much slower than foreign battleships, let alone cruisers. She did not have the armor to stand up to a battleship and probably not to an armored cruiser, and her two 11-inch guns were not likely to allow her to inflict much damage before her own destruction.

Debate raged among the kingdom’s Defence Council, as the admirals pushed for a true battleship and the political appointees refused to fund the massive improvements that the dockyards at Amsterdam and Soerabaya would need to service a larger vessel. For the 1912 Fiscal Year, the minister of naval affairs proposed an enlarged De Zeven Provencien with four 11-inch guns but no improvements to protection or speed.

Dozens of pre-dreadnought battleships had been rendered obsolete by the appearance of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought six years earlier and now could be obtained cheaply. Rather than build a useless new ship, several members of Parliament suggested, perhaps the Navy should use the same funds to buy a squadron of them. The Dutch examined several foreign battleships so this may not have been taken as sarcasm, but Parliament ridiculed the ship especially after receiving details of the new Swedish coastal battleship Sverige. Sverige carried the same main armament and a heavier secondary battery and could make 22 knots, yet cost about the same as the proposed Dutch ship.

The naval ministry countered that the Swedish ship had a much shorter range than the Dutch design, and would not have the coal capacity to carry out the long patrols undertaken by Dutch warships in the East Indies. When some members suggested the Spanish España class design for a 15,700 ton dreadnought, the ministry noted that modifying her to Dutch requirements would raise the displacement to 20,000 tons and make her much too large for existing facilities.

Unhappy with that answer, Parliament fired the navy minister and instructed his superior, War Minster Hendrik Coljin, to provide alternative fleet plans built around either dreadnoughts or fast cruisers. Coljin had already asked Krupp-Germania to prepare battleship designs, and by September 1912 the German firm handed in preliminary sketches. The proposed ship displaced 21,300 tons and carried eight 13.5-inch guns and a dozen 5.9-inch guns. She had a mixed power plant with three boilers burning oil and nine burning coal and was projected to make 22.5 knots; her protection was slightly thinner than most German dreadnoughts. In appearance, the Dutch ship would have resembled the German Kaiser class, with one less turret but heavier guns.

The Dutch by now had reports that showed the “echelon” arrangement of turrets (all on the same level) limited a ship’s firepower compared the “superfiring” layout (some raised to fire over others). The Defence Council also questioned the ship’s lack of subdivision compared to German designs and a seemingly small ammunition load. Coljin asked Krupp for a new design addressing these concerns, which the firm delvierd in March 1913.

The new ship was a very handsome design with two turrets arranged fore and aft. Armor was re-arranged to increase turret protection, ammunition stowage increased markedly and speed went up to 23 knots. Krupp also submitted an alternative with two quadruple turrets, apparently in order to maximize protection within the Dutch weight limit.

While the Dutch now agreed on the ship’s particulars, they still were not satisfied with the Krupp designs and opened the competition to 10 other foreign yards. Dutch shipbuilders, apparently concerned about gambling their entire business on a single huge project, had signalled that they would not object to a foreign-built ship as long as significant work was subcontracted to local firms. Displacement went to 26,000 tons and main armament to 14-inch guns. Blohm und Voss, which was just finishing the battle cruiser Derfflinger, appears to have been the favorite and the Dutch probably would have placed their order in October 1914. The firm had included the Krupp armor and weapons that the Dutch preferred, offered to build the ship in the Netherlands if desired, and promised the shortest delivery time. However, the outbreak of the First World War scuttled the Dutch battleship project.

Dutch practice, when funding allowed, was to build ships in groups of three rather than the more usual four of other navies. Most fleets found tactical units of four ships to be the handiest organization and so shipbuilding programs often built classes of four, sometimes five to allow one of them to be undergoing maintenance. The Dutch found that their rigorous East Indies service kept their ships in dockyard hands more often, so their groups of three ships were intended to keep two in service at any one time and one undergoing refit.

We included two alternative Dutch dreadnought designs in Great War at Sea: Cruiser Warfare. Two of them are of the original Krupp 1912 design, with offset turrets for eight 13-5-inch guns. The other two are of the quadruple-turret design, because we thought it looked cool.

Click here to order Cruiser Warfare now!