The König-class Battleships
in the Second Great War

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2017

Commissioned just as the First World War broke out, Germany’s König-class dreadnoughts represented a substantial step forward in warship design for the High Seas Fleet. All four ships survived the Great War, and would be scuttled at Scapa Flow in June 1919. But in our Second Great War alternative history (as seen in Second World War at Sea: The Kaiser's Navy) there is no Grand Scuttle, as a negotiated peace is forged in early 1917.

For the next decades, the four ships would be in and out of service, participating in training exercises and sometimes showing the flag at various foreign ports. By the late 1920’s, the four battleships like the rest of the High Seas Fleet would be showing their age. All of the pre-dreadnoughts would have been stricken soon after the end of the war and cut up for scrap. The oldest dreadnoughts, the eight ships of the Nassau and Helgoland classes, would go into reserve as soon as the war ended. By 1929 they no longer had a role in High Seas Fleet planning and would also meet the cutting torches.

Two more classes, almost as old, also faced deletion: the five Kaiser-class dreadnoughts and four of the König class. While they carried the same main armament (ten 12-inch guns, in five dual turrets), the König class had a much better weapons distribution with a pair of super-firing turrets fore and aft, and the fifth turret sited amidships. The Kaiser class had a pair of super-firing turrets aft but only one turret forward, with the remaining pair in unwieldy “wing” positions.

SMS König fires her broadside.

Some admirals wished to scrap all nine ships, questioning the utility of their main batteries of 12-inch guns. Kaiser Wilhelm himself pointed out that the British appeared to be retaining at least one class of dreadnoughts armed with 13.5-inch guns, and though the German 12-inch gun threw a smaller shell its performance almost matched that of the heavier British weapon. And further, the All-Highest noted, in future wars air power could well dictate that surface actions would occur mostly at night – where the higher rate of fire of the 12-inch battery might be decisive. Others added that Germany’s most likely opponent in a future war, France, planned to strike at German commerce in the Atlantic and urged that the battleships be modernized as convoy escorts. Naval armaments treaties gave an incentive to keep older ships around, and perhaps more importantly, the ships were very popular in the service for their very smooth steaming qualities and steadiness as gun platforms. Eventually the Navy chose to re-build the better-designed König class and sell the Kaisers to the Netherlands after the Königs’ modernization work was complete.

The biggest outward change would be the removal of the amidships 12-inch turret, to allow more powerful machinery to be installed. That creates enough space for extensive seaplane-handling facilities, including a hangar with an elevator, and a half-dozen floatplanes. The added space also provides additional crew accommodation. During the Great War, High Seas Fleet crews slept ashore in barracks and in hammocks when at sea. Battleships lacked adequate facilities for long-term deployments, and a ship intended to escort a convoy across the Atlantic would need much better quarters for her crew than what the König class offered in 1914. The remaining four 12-inch turrets would receive improved protection, and all of the guns would have their potential elevation increased to improve their range.

The entire secondary and tertiary armament would also be removed, and the 14 casemates for 5.9-inch guns plated over. Casemate mounts for 3.4-inch (88mm) guns had already been removed during wartime refits. In their place are fitted four turrets for new-model 5.9-inch guns and five dual mounts for 105mm high-angle anti-aircraft guns. Like the Kriegsmarine of another reality, the Imperial Navy does not have a dual-purpose secondary weapon and mounts both anti-surface and anti-aircraft weapons on its heavy ships, reducing the utility of both.

The König class had been built with a mixed set of boilers – some burning oil, but most fueled with coal. The original designers wished to equip them with a set of diesel engines as well to increase their cruising range. Two screws would be powered by turbines, with a third shaft on the centerline driven by a big MAN six-cylinder, 12,000 horsepower diesel engine. Delays in finishing the diesel engines finally became intolerable and the ships were completed without them. As originally envisioned, the diesel engine would be used solely to extend their range and could not be used in tandem with the turbines – either one set of machinery or the other would have to be in use.

Note: The German Navy really did want to fit the class with a diesel cruising engine. The first plan was to experiment with the battleship Prinz Regent Luitpold of the previous class, but the diesel could not be made ready in time and her central drive shaft was simply plated over and the propeller never fitted. All four König class ships were to receive the diesel, but lacking a proof-of-concept this was cut to just two (Markgraf and Grosser Kürfurst). Once again, MAN could not deliver on time, and the diesel was cancelled. This time the central propeller was put to use, with the turbines spread to power all three shafts. The experiment shifted to Sachsen of the Bayern class; but with a new arrangement that allowed use of the diesel together with her turbines.

Removing the central turret would allow much better arrangements for the machinery, yielding more than half again as much space for boilers and turbines. The new boilers would all be oil-fired (as opposed to three of 15 originally fitted) and could probably raise the horsepower output from 31,000 to at least 45,000, which should be good for 24 knots. The hull form likely couldn’t do much better than that unless the ship were lengthened to increase the length-to-beam ratio and that would be far more effort – and expense – than the result would be worth. The diesel engine concept looked good for a coal-fired ship, but was redundant in one powered by oil and it was deleted from the rebuilding plans.

Note: By this point over in that other timeline, German ship designers were planning to fit high-pressure superheated steam boilers in their new battle cruisers. This very sophisticated power plant produced enormous results – when it chose to work properly. The small-tube boilers used by the Imperial Navy were troublesome enough during the Great War.

Well-protected by the standards of 1914, the class would receive significant armor upgrades during their rebuilding. The armor deck only covers the machinery spaces, much lower in the ship than in later designs, but can be increased from 2.4 inches to four inches. The relatively thin upper deck armor would also go from 1.2 inches to four inches.

German ship designers were well aware that a hit to the torpedo compartment caused the progressive flooding that doomed the battle cruiser Lützow at Jutland, and so ripping out the torpedo rooms would be one of the first acts of reconstruction. Not much could be done to improve underwater protection, which was very good by the standards of 1914 but far less effective than the schemes used in new warships.

As the four battleships emerged from the dockyards in the mid-1930’s, they were quite small (little more than half the size of the big new fast battleships), reasonably modern but lacked the speed and firepower of the new battleships under construction for the High Seas Fleet and other navies. If not for limitations on new construction, they would have been scrapped rather than modernized. But they could serve to repel enemy cruisers raiding convoys, support amphibious landings, and provide a force presence when required. All four would see heavy service during the Second Great War.

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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.