As long as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remained in power, the German Navy was distinctly subordinate to the German army in the counsels of government, and the navy was relegated basically to a coast-defense mission. (Until 1888, the year of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s accession, the navy had actually been run by an officer in the army!) The Germans remembered how the greatly superior French fleet could not affect the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War. But William II dismissed his Iron Chancellor and began to dream of Germany finding its “place in the sun.” That demanded coaling stations, and coaling stations demanded colonies, and colonies demanded maritime power-and that demanded battleships to protect lines of communication and to fight it out with other powers on the high seas. (No one seemed to take note of Belgium and Holland, each of which managed to exploit one very profitable colony with modest naval power in the case of Holland and practically none in the case of Belgium.) More rationally, Kaiser Wilhelm worried about the vulnerability of merchant shipping transporting the food and raw materials essential for Germany’s existence as an industrial power.
The Kaiser found his answers in the works of U. S. Admiral Alfred Mahan (1840-1914). Mahan gave the Kaiser the rationale for his navalist beliefs. (The Kaiser even ordered that a copy of Mahan’s 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power upon History be placed in the wardroom of every German warship.) Closer to home, Kaiser Wilhelm relied upon Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930), who was appointed secretary of state for the navy in 1897. Tirpitz was an admirable administrator and propagandist. Primarily due to his efforts, and to pressures from the Kaiser, Germany’s First Navy Law was passed in 1898, providing for the construction of a modest 19 battleships over six years; two years later, the program was expanded to an incredible 38 battleships (plus 48 cruisers), all to be completed by 1920. With Germanic thoroughness, the First Navy Law provided for the automatic scrapping of each battleship when it had reached the age of 25 years. Such a program was all the more impressive in a nation that already possessed the world’s largest standing army. U. S. navalists had a much easier time, as the nation’s regular army at the time was little more than a frontier constabulary.
Even with these impressive numbers, German naval planners did not seek to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Rather, they followed Tirpitz’s risk theory, that the German Navy would be powerful enough to inflict such serious damage on the RN that it could be open to attack by France and Russia as well as by Germany. Thus the Royal Navy would be deterred from any anti-German adventures. Yet the German battleship fleet, despite the protestations of Kaiser Wilhelm and Admiral von Tirpitz to the contrary, was indeed designed to go directly against Great Britain. In the Kaiser’s words, “Our fleet must be so constructed that it can unfold its greatest military potential between Heligoland and the Thames” (Padfield, p. 200). The two German navalists drove Britain into a rapprochement with its traditional enemy, France; the British Navy could then leave policing of the Mediterranean to its new French ally. A treaty with Japan in 1902 similarly permitted the Royal Navy to withdraw its main naval forces from the Pacific and face Germany directly. Further, Russia, badly defeated by Japan in 1904-1905, ceased to be a major player on the high seas. For all its thoroughness, rarely has a theoretical construction proved so disastrous in practice as Germany’s maritime policy, and Tirpitz lived long enough to see his program quite literally sunk.
Germany’s first true pre-dreadnoughts, the undergunned and underprotected Kaiser class, first laid down in 1896, did not compare well with Royal Navy contemporaries. They indicated that the Germans, like the Americans, had much to learn about contemporary battleship design. Although both mighty industrial powers would learn soon enough.
The succeeding Wittlesbach class, the first to be constructed under the First Naval Law, and the following Braunschweig (launched in 1902-1903) and Deutschland classes, of five each, continued a gradual improving trend, although they still did not match their British contemporaries. Braunschweig carried four 11-inch main guns and 14 6.7-inch guns on a 14,167-ton displacement. The Germans accepted smaller main battery guns because of their belief that it was more advantageous to spray the enemy with accurate fire, something more likely with faster-firing, lighter heavy guns. However, throughout the early battleship era, the German challenge was more threat than substance.
Deutschland German battleship class, built 1903-08. These were the last pre-Dreadnoughts built in Germany, and like many similar ships in other navies they were obsolete by the time they were completed because of the incredibly rapid building of HMS Dreadnought. They were improved editions of the Braunschweig Class, but to counter the introduction of heavier secondary guns in foreign ships the secondary battery was increased from 150- mm (5.9-in) to 170-mm (6.7-in) guns.
They resembled the Braunschweig Class, but could be distinguished by the half-cased funnels and the absence of secondary turret- guns amidships. During reconstruction after the First World War, four upper deck 170- mm (6.7-in) guns were replaced by four 150- mm (5.9-in) guns, and after 1936 a variety of light AA guns were added.
All five saw action at the Battle of the Skagerrak (Jutland) on May 31, 1916, in the 2nd Squadron of the German high seas fleet. They were too slow and weakly protected, but Admiral Mauve is said to have begged Admiral Scheer to allow his old ships to accompany the fleet to sea. It led to tragedy. During the night action a British destroyer’s torpedo hit the Pommern; a ripple of flame spread along the waterline, and almost immediately the ship disintegrated in a colossal explosion, taking her entire crew with her. It is the only instance of a battleship blowing up from a single torpedo-hit, and the cause was undoubtedly the faulty stowage of the 170-mm (6.7-in) shells, with their nose-caps outwards in the wing magazines. This had been strongly criticized by the constructors, but Scheer had insisted that the ships could not be spared for the necessary refit.
After serving as the flagship of the 2nd Squadron, the Deutschland was reduced to an accommodation ship at Kiel in 1917, to release men for service in V-Boats. The Schleswig-Holstein took up similar duties at Bremerhaven, and then moved to Kiel in 1918. The Schlesien was relegated to training duties and spent most of the remainder of the war in the Baltic. The Deutschland was stricken under the Versailles Treaty in 1920, and was scrapped, but her four sisters were permitted to be retained by the Weimar Republic’s Reichsmarine as coast-defence ships. For this role they were given a partial modernization, but they were earmarked for replacement by the ‘pocket battleships’ of the Deutschland type, and in 1935 the Hannover was stricken. She was intended for conversion to a radio-controlled target ship but this was never carried out, and she was finally scrapped at Bremerhaven at the end of the Second World War.
The surviving pair underwent major modernization to serve as gunnery training ships for Hitler’s new Kriegsmarine. The two forward funnels were trunked together and the secondary armament was altered. Both ships saw active service in September 1939 when they bombarded Westerplatte near Danzig, but took little part in the rest of the war. The Schlesien was scuttled on May 4, 1945 after being mined off Swinemünde the previous day; she was salved in 1947 and was towed to Konigsberg (Kaliningrad) by the Russians, and then scrapped in 1949-56. Her sister Schleswig-Holstein was badly damaged by RAF bombers on December 18, 1945, while lying in Gotenhafen (Gdynia). The wreck burnt out and on March 21, 1945, she was scuttled to block the harbour. The wreck was not finally broken up until 1956.
Displacement: 13 191 tons (normal), 14218 tons (full load) Length: 127.71 m (419 ft) oa Beam: 22.17 m (72 ft 9 in) Draught: 7.7 m (25 ft 3 in) normal Machinery: 3-shaft reciprocating, 17000 ihp=18 knots Protection: 240-102 mm (94 in) belt; 70-44 mm (2i-1 in) decks; 285-170 mm (116 in) turrets; 305-140 mm (12-5 in) conning tower Armament: (As built) 2 280-mm (11- in)/40-cal (2×2); 14 170-mm (6.7-in)/4D-cal (14x 1); 20 88-mm (3.5-in)/35-cal (20x 1); 6 45- mm (17.7-in) torpedo tubes (1 bow, 1 stern, 4 beam, all submerged); (Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein from 1936) 4 280-mm (11-in) (2×2); 10 150-mm (5.9-in)/45-cal (10×1), removed 1944; 4 88-mm (3.5-in)/45-cal AA (4x 1), removed 1944; 4 37-mm (1.4-in) AA (2×2); 4 20 mm (0.79-in) AA (4x 1); 10 40-mm (1.57-in) Bofors AA (10×1), added 1944; 22 20-mm (0.79- in) AA (4×4, 3×2), added 1944; 419.7-in (50-cm) torpedo tubes (in trainable mountings on battery deck) Crew: 743 (214 cadets embarked in Schlesien and 175 in Schleswig-Holstein)