Germany’s Seaplane Cruisers
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
From a print review
Noticeably absent from
the game are scout planes. In R.K. Lochner’s
book The Last Gentleman of War: The Raider
Exploits of the Cruiser Emden, it is
noted that much reliance was placed on Emden’s
scout planes for locating enemy merchant
shipping in the disconsolate vastness of
the open sea. . . . Lochner’s
book also discussed how difficult it was
to maintain the scout planes and the plane
was easily knocked out of action due to
There’s a problem with that passage
beyond the shockingly poor editing: In neither the English
or German editions does Lochner write any
such thing. The verification
for the claim is just plain made
up. Lochner makes no such statement for a very
simple reason. Neither Emden nor any
other German cruiser at that time carried
an airplane. When one questions others’ work it’s
usually a good idea to have one’s own
facts in order, or an actual editor who'll check them.
No German cruiser carried a seaplane into
action until 1918, when the converted light
cruiser Stuttgart sortied with the
High Seas Fleet. She appears in our Great
War at Sea: Jutland both as a standard
light cruiser and as a seaplane carrier.
During the Battle of Jutland in June 1916,
the British had used seaplanes launched from
a converted merchant ship to look for the
German fleet. The Germans had used their rigid
airships, but with much less effectiveness.
The fleet command attempted to use its own
converted merchant ships as seaplane carriers
during the Moon Sound operation in the Baltic
in October 1917. They found them much too
slow to operate with the fleet, and the German
carriers ended up serving as static depot
ships in German-controlled ports. While these
had their uses, the High Seas Fleet wanted
seaplanes to hunt mines — a task which
zeppelins did not perform well.
In December 1917, the High Seas Fleet commander,
Adm. Reinhard Scheer, sent a formal request
to the Imperial Naval Office to convert at
least one light cruiser for use as a seaplane
carrier. The ship should be fast enough to
operate with the fleet on sorties into the
North Sea, and have the endurance to remain
at sea and support the minesweeping and minelaying
flotillas in the Helgoland Bight with aerial
While Scheer recommended using the fleet’s
older cruisers, the Naval Office studied a
range of vessels including the 52,000-ton
liner Imperator. The architects objected
to using light cruisers as installing the
required equipment would so greatly reduce
the ship’s firepower as to make her
useless in the cruiser role. Growing worried
that the project might become entangled in
bureaucratic wrangling, Scheer repeated the
request at the end of the month, emphasizing
its urgency. In late January 1918, the Naval
Office authorized converting two cruisers,
Stuttgart and Stettin.
The only survivors of their class (Königsberg
and Nürnberg had been sunk,
without any seaplanes aboard, while far from
home), the two ships had been present at Jutland
but their 105mm main armament was considered
too light for fleet conditions. Stuttgart
had gone into a lengthy refit afterwards
while Stettin became a training target
for U-boats; both were considered expendable.
Stuttgart as converted to carry
Stuttgart was still in dockyard hands
at Wilhelmshaven’s Imperial Yards, as
her post-Jutland work had very low priority,
and so would be the first converted. The engineers
hoped to incorporate any lessons learned in
Stettin’s conversion, and so
she did not enter the dockyard at that time
(and apparently never did, although her exact
state at war’s end is unclear).
Workers removed six of her ten 105mm guns,
and built a framework of steel girders over
the aft deck to serve as a hangar. Canvas
sheeting covered the frame, and two cranes
for handling her aircraft were fitted as well.
She carried three seaplanes, one of them on
the open deck, and was declared ready for
action in May. As flagship of the High Seas
Fleet’s Aerial Forces she supported
the mine warfare forces in the coastal zone
but did not participate in the fleet’s
last sortie in April 1918.
In bad weather, Stuttgart could only
operate two seaplanes, and when Adm. Franz
Hipper assumed command of the High Seas Fleet
in August 1918 he asked that a larger cruiser
be converted, one that could operate more
aircraft and do so in heavier seas. Hipper
suggested the armored cruiser Roon, then
employed as a cadet training ship in the Baltic.
The navy’s engineers drew up a plan
for her to carry eight to 10 seaplanes, and
Kiel’s Imperial Yard was ordered to
perform the conversion. She had been disarmed
in 1916; in her new form she would carry six
150mm guns and six more 88mm anti-aircraft
guns. An aft hangar similar to Stuttgart’s
would be fitted, with four cranes rather
than two. She could still make 21 knots, or
so the staff believed, making her quite capable
of keeping up with the fleet’s dreadnoughts;
however, some of the plans indicate she could
only handle four aircraft in her hangar, well
short of Hipper’s requirement (this
may result from confusion over the number
of handling stations rather than the number
The cadets were booted off the cruiser in
September and the yard ordered to clear dockyard
space and assemble materials and workers.
But in October the project was cancelled,
before any actual work had been performed.
Stuttgart and Stettin became
a British prizes after the war, and were scrapped
in the early 1920s. Roon was scrapped
at Kiel, where she had been moored awaiting
All three cruisers appear in Jutland
both in their earlier guise as gun-armed cruisers,
and in their converted or projected appearance
as seaplane carriers.
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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.