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Great War at Sea:
Imperial German Pre-Dreadnoughts
By David Hughes
January 2015

When admiring the seamanship of Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee or the gunnery skills of his flagship Scharnhorst, (she and her sister Gneisenau are found in High Seas Fleet), it is difficult to believe that the German ocean-going fleet was only just over 20 years old at the time.

For the first 30 years of its existence, from its first battles with the Danes, the Royal Prussian and Imperial German navies had been limited to a coast-defence force. You can see its last ships built for that purpose in Jutland, the coast-defence battleships all named after Nordic heroes (made popular by the contemporary and exceedingly Germanic operas of Wagner).

Weissenburg shows off her unusual center turret.


The first sea-going battleships were laid down in 1890. The four ships of the Kürfurst Friedrich Wilhelm class weighed 10,500 tons and carried six 28cm (11-inch guns). They had one peculiar feature. These guns were in three centre-line turrets and it turned out that the centre turret had been built too close to the funnel supports so that when pivoting from one side to another the muzzles would have collided with the superstructure! The only solution was to make them shorter, so that they finished up with two types of 28cm guns, 40 calibres long on the end turrets, but only 35 on the centre one. Brandenburg, together with Wörth was scrapped shortly after the war. The other two ships, Kürfurst Friedrich Wilhelm herself (the German name of the man known to us as the "Great Elector") and Weissenburg had much more exciting lives. Both were sold to the Turkish navy in 1910 as the Heyreddin Barbarossa and Torgut Ries. The former was sunk by the submarine E.11 at the Dardanelles in 1915, the latter mouldered on until the hulk she had become was broken up in 1935. All four ships had the same armor, 300-400mm (11.8 to 15.7 inches) on the belt, 120mm (4.7 inches) on the turrets, but two had only compound rather than the Krupp steel of the other two ships. Hence the distinction in Jutland with two ships having heavy and the other two shown with light armor. The problem here is that even Germany, home of Krupp armor, lacked the capacity to produce enough armor during the decade in which it was invented.

Incidentally I am following German custom in giving metric measurements — thus 24cm for gun size, but 240mm for armor thickness.

Kaiser Barbarossa, sometime pre-war.


In the next class the displacement jumped by 1,000 tons allowing for a very strong secondary armament of eighteen 15cm (the 5.9-inch gun that would be a favourite German calibre in two world wars). However, the primary firepower had been reduced, to only four 24cm (9.4-inch) guns. This pattern of heavily armored but relatively lightly gunned ships would characterise German capital ship design for the next 50 years. Since Germany was still new at building large ships, they retained some distinctly old-fashioned features. The very impressive belt armor, by now all of Krupp steel, was 300mm thick, yet was still backed by another 250mm (nearly 10 inches) of teak wood! These four ships were laid down between 1895 and 1898 and collectively known as the Kaiser class, as all memorialised German rulers. They were Kaiser Friedrich III (ruled for 99 days in 1888), the Kaiser Wilhelm II (the ruling monarch, Kaiser Billy himself), Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (the man whose armies beat the French in 1871) and the Kaiser Barbarossa (the one who drowned while leading the Third Crusade). During the First World War the Germans were not sure what to do with them. They had the armour of a battleship, the guns of an armoured cruiser and the speed (17 knots) of an elderly gunboat. In the end they were initially in reserve ready to support Baltic Sea detachments in the event the Russian fleet came out to fight. They were laid up in 1916 and broken up soon after the end of the war.

During the period in which the last three pre-dreadnought classes were built the German Navy changed. Admiral Tirpitz steadily eliminated all trace of its coast defence ancestry, such as the reversion to lighter guns, and created a force whose capital ships matched or excelled those of the Royal Navy itself.

Wittelsbach, a disappointment to the Kaiser and his admiral.


Although Admiral Tirpitz was in power by 1899 the next class laid down did not meet his ambition of creating a world-class fleet. The Wittelsbach (the name is that of the Bavarian royal house) class were virtually identical to their predecessors, a little bigger at 12,500 tons but still with the same but by now demonstrably inadequate primary armament. On paper her armor was weaker at 225mm (8.85-inches) however quoting a single number is usually, as in this case, deceptive. With this class the German Navy initiated its definition of good armor protection — that simply covering the magazines and engines was dangerously inadequate. This value of this policy, the reverse of the American “all or nothing” system, would be frequently demonstrated over two world wars.

In Wittelsbach the armor made available by thinning the main belt and increasing displacement was used to protect the ten 15cm (5.9-inch) guns in the citadel with 140mm (5.5 inches) and the two-gun turrets for the remaining eight with 150mm (6 inches) of protection. Also the belt itself was both deeper and longer that that of the previous class. Tirpitz's efforts meant that these and the remaining pre-dreadnoughts were build in classes of five rather than the four of previous classes. The remaining units of the class were Wettin (the oldest North German royal family), Zähringen (the Saar), Schwaben and Mecklenburg. The use of these regional names, as well as those of the two royal houses, demonstrates the care taken by the newly established German Empire to recognise the formerly independent states that joined to create it. Although they were part of the active fleet for the first two years of the war, their poor primary armament meant that all five were reduced to training units in 1916. All except Zähringen were broken up after the war. She became a remote-controlled target ship and was still afloat when bombed in December 1944 at Gotenhafen (Gdynia). Utterly wrecked she was used to block the harbour mouth in March 1945.

Hessen sometime after the Great War, but before her conversion to a target ship.


The two last pre-dreadnought classes were on a much bigger scale as the ambitions of Tirpitz and the Kaiser, as well as those of the shipyards at Hamburg, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven could now be realised. The first group of five, laid down in 1901, were the Braunschweig (in English usage, Brunswick) class. They were just as big, at over 14,000 tons, as Royal Navy ships and at last mounted heavier guns. The primary weapon was the 28cm (11-inch), 40-calibre gun. Note that although the German dreadnoughts would also carry 28cm weapons, they were the more powerful 45-calibre version. Secondary guns were also more powerful with the previous 15cm replaced by fourteen 17cm (about 6.7-inch) pieces. Although the armor values remained the same, its coverage continued to increase. For the first time protection was extended to the bow and stern, though there reduced to 100mm (just under 4 inches). The remaining members of the class, all named after German states or provinces, were Elsass (Alsace, a choice which must have particularly annoyed the French), Hessen, Preussen and Lothringen. They were considered fit to serve beside dreadnought battleships during the first half of the war, with Hessen fighting with the Second Battle Squadron at Jutland.

The year after they were laid up, principally due to the shortage of sailors, needed for newer capital ships and the U-boats. As a result they were not scuttled at Scapa Flow, and three members, Hessen, Braunschweig and Elsass served in the navy of the Weimar Republic and are shown in action in a battle scenario in Sea of Troubles. Having been disarmed in 1916, the number of 17cm pieces they carried now varied. Experts may wish to change their secondary values to show Elsass with ten and the other two with twelve guns. Only Hessen survived the cutbacks of the Great Depression and then ignobly as a radio-controlled target ship. This survivor of Jutland was surrendered to the Russians who named her Tsel. In a capricious stroke of fate she would outlast all other capital ships of the Imperial German Navy, continuing to serve as a target ship until broken up in 1960.

Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein, seen in 1934.


The five vessels of the Deutschland class were almost identical in armor and armament when they were laid down in 1903 to 1905. However the designers continued to introduce hidden improvements. For example these ships had a double-bottom for 84 percent of their length, compared with just 60 percent in the Braunschweig group. One point to note is that German yards built large ships very quickly, each of these completing in less than two years. Since the Dreadnought was made public during the building period, these were the last German pre-dreadnoughts to be built. Indeed many had argued for a short delay, so that they could be built to a new design similar to the Royal Navy Lord Nelson class. Some experts believed they were ordered just to keep four shipyards busy, (four because Germaniawerf built both the Deutschland and the Schleswig-Holstein). They were part of the High Seas Fleet for the first three years of the war, including at Jutland, where Pommern was sunk during the night battle by the British destroyer Faulknor. All of her crew of 839 were lost, suggesting that the torpedo struck below the belt and detonated a main magazine. Deutschland was broken up in 1922, Hannover in 1935, but both Schleisen and Schleswig-Holstein survived to become part of Hitler’s navy and to presumably eventually appear in the Second World War at Sea. My advice is that the Deutschland and Braunschwieg classes should be treated as BB when applying the penalty for a B type firing at long range.

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