The battleships of the Bayern class were the last to be completed for the Imperial Navy. They represented a belated attempt not only to equal foreign contemporary battleships, but to surpass them. With this class Germany moved to the design layout that was to become the normal standard configuration, with two superfiring groups forward and aft for the eight heavy-calibre weapons. This disposition gave an excellent all-round field of fire for the guns, and none of the arguments used previously to delay the utilization of this layout proved to have any merit. This design also had the advantage of allowing a large deckhouse, which was used to house many officers’ cabins, giving them a bright and airy position.
The armouring of the Bayern class held to the principle of covering almost the entire hull side, whereas in the United States the Oklahoma class had only the waterline covered by a thick belt, working on an ‘all or nothing’ rule. Just as with all battleships since Kaiser, the belt was 350mm thick, but the citadel armour was increased in thickness to 250mm. The turrets and barbettes had greatly thickened armour. Yet from the belief that battles would be fought at reduced ranges, the deck armour was not as thick as in contemporary navies. Visibility ahead from the heavily armoured forward conning tower was not good, as to save weight and reduce the centre of gravity this was of minimum height.
The foreship of this class was bigger essentially for two reasons: to provide buoyancy for the greater weight concentrated in the foreship, being two 38cm turrets and the heavily armoured conning tower, and to provide space for the launching and storage of the larger H8 torpedoes. Therefore the full lines of the foreship resulted in increased water resistance at speeds above 22 knots, and this was relieved somewhat by the greater length of the last two ships of the class.
The Bayern class was the final powerful class of German battleships of this era, representing a considerable technical advance and a particular success. At the same time, they presented a harmonious appearance.
The inability, since the early days of the war, to force a decisive battle upon the Royal Navy on German terms caused deep frustration within the officer corps. Smaller tactical or operational successes against the British at sea had not translated into any strategic advantage and the abandonment of a surface warfare strategy in favour of commerce warfare in the autumn of 1916 put into question Germany’s huge pre-war investment in its navy. The High Sea Fleet, the second largest fleet in the world, henceforth existed to support the U-boats and even they failed in the long-term to live up to expectations.
In contrast the army had been engaged in combat since the outset, fought in multiple theatres and even during the retreat on the Western Front in 1918 still controlled considerable territories outside Germany. Languishing at anchor morale in the fleet plummeted and disturbances had occurred as early as the summer of 1917. For the officers who had dreamed of an Entscheidungsschlacht – a decisive battle – against the Royal Navy somewhere between Heligoland and the Thames it was intolerable that the navy might have to surrender without a fight.
In April 1918, coinciding with Beatty moving the Grand Fleet to Rosyth, the High Sea Fleet left Wilhelmshaven on its first North Sea sortie in nineteen months. After William II rejected his appeal for a blow against the southeast coast of England, Scheer decided to repeat, in much greater force, a raid the light cruisers Brummer and Bremse had conducted in October 1917 against the Allied convoy route between Norway and Scotland. Striking shortly after the Neumünster cryptanalysts had broken the British convoy code, the two cruisers succeeded in sinking nine merchantmen in a convoy of twelve, along with two of their escorting destroyers. The fleet sortie of April 23–24 came after Scheer learned that the British were using capital ships to escort convoys on the same Norway–Scotland route. Aside from the three older dreadnoughts assigned to Meurer’s Finnish expedition, the operation involved every capital ship in the German navy. Departing Wilhelmshaven on the night of April 22/23, they headed north under cover of a heavy fog. Hipper and the five battle cruisers led the mission, followed some 60 miles (90 km) behind by Scheer with the flagship Baden and fifteen other dreadnoughts, a scouting group of light cruisers, and four flotillas of destroyers. The lack of reaction from the British (who, by coincidence, were preoccupied on April 22 and 23 with the Zeebrugge–Ostend operation) led Scheer to speculate that, for once, he enjoyed the element of surprise. But on the morning of April 24, as Hipper closed to within 40 miles (60 km) of the Norwegian coast off Stavanger, one of his ships, the Moltke, lost a propeller, touching off a chain of mechanical mishaps that left it with a damaged hull and flooded engine room. Undeterred, Scheer ordered Hipper to proceed to the convoy lane with the four remaining battle cruisers, while one of his dreadnoughts took the Moltke in tow. As luck would have it, the Germans missed by one day a westbound convoy whose escort included four British battle cruisers, and were too early to intercept the next eastbound convoy. Hipper carried the search to the latitude of 60°N, almost all the way to Bergen, before turning back. By noon on April 24, the Grand Fleet left Rosyth, alerted by the rise in German wireless traffic after the Moltke’s mishap, but Beatty sortied too late to intercept Scheer on his run home. By the morning of the 25th, with “the enemy…nowhere to be seen,” Scheer ordered the Moltke’s tow dropped, allowing the crippled battle cruiser, which had taken on 2,000 tons of water, to proceed the rest of the way home under its own power. The British almost made him regret the decision when, at 19:50 that evening, 40 miles (60 km) north of Helgoland, the British submarine E 42 torpedoed the Moltke. Fortunately for Scheer, the blow struck “at a very acute angle,” adding little to the considerable hull damage the ship had suffered in the propeller accident, and it was able to steam into Wilhelmshaven later that night. Had Scheer known that the Grand Fleet was at Rosyth, not Scapa Flow, he would never have ventured so far north. The High Sea Fleet’s longest sortie of the war would also be its last.
The near-loss of the Moltke, coming two weeks after the fatal stranding of the Rheinland on the Finnish coast, left a demoralized High Sea Fleet with twenty-two operational capital ships, against which the Grand Fleet had forty-three, not counting the dreadnoughts of the American division.
The High Sea Fleet returned to anchor after April 1918, with nothing left to accomplish in the Baltic after the Finnish expedition and no hope of achieving anything in the North Sea after Scheer’s sortie. Meanwhile, as spring gave way to summer, “the gradual decline in the monthly sinkings accomplished by the U-boats” left Scheer and his colleagues “filled…with anxiety.” The navy’s senior admirals appeared paralyzed by pessimism. The chief of the Admiralstab, Holtzendorff, had seen his optimistic calculations of early 1917 disproven by the success of Allied antisubmarine warfare, and he had no answer to the question of how to reverse the trend. Meanwhile, Capelle, state secretary of the Imperial Navy Office, had continued to fight a rear-guard action to save capital ship construction projects, defending the long-term primacy of the surface fleet over the submarine force even though he did not share Scheer’s view (after the executions of Köbis and Reichpietsch) that its short-term reliability had been restored. In early August, Scheer finally persuaded William II that the officer corps had lost confidence in Holtzendorff and Capelle. The emperor then used Holtzendorff’s age (sixty-five) and poor health as pretexts for changing the command structure. Scheer became chief of a new Naval High Command (Seekriegsleitung), inheriting most of Holtzendorff’s powers but with direct operational oversight of the High Sea Fleet. Scheer’s fleet command passed to Hipper, whose battle cruiser command went to Rear Admiral Reuter. Vice Admiral Behncke, commander of a dreadnought squadron for most of the war, succeeded Capelle at the Imperial Navy Office. As moves intended to revive the navy, the changes were far less dramatic than Horthy becoming commander of the Austro-Hungarian fleet or the elevation of Kolchak and other young captains to the rank of admiral in Russia in 1916–17. The new leaders, all in their early fifties, were a decade younger than the men they replaced, but Scheer, Hipper, and Behncke were hardly outsiders, and had little to offer in terms of new ideas or energy.
Throughout October plans were drawn up for final engagement, a ‘deathride’ against the British. The very secret Operation Plan 19 of 24 October envisaged using light forces in attacks against the Thames and Flanders coastline to lure the Grand Fleet south towards the High Sea Fleet. U-boats and minefields would whittle down British superiority. It was a very questionable plan. The fleet assembled in the Schilling Roads during 29 October with a view to sailing the next day. However, unrest amongst the sailors spread quickly as rumours of the undertaking circulated. Admiral Hipper had little choice but to cancel the operation and return the fleet to base.
Most scholars view Operations Plan 19 as a deliberate attempt by Scheer and his staff to undermine the chancellor and the armistice talks and sacrifice the fleet to satisfy their own archaic sense of honor. But Hipper’s biographer absolves him of complicity in this “admirals’ rebellion,” on the grounds that “it is difficult to ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt” that Hipper knew Scheer had not informed Prince Max about the proposed sortie. Rejecting the generally accepted view that Hipper was Scheer’s accomplice in planning a suicide mission for the fleet, he argues that “the plan was feasible and offered the chance, at acceptable odds, for major military and political gain.” Of course, what mattered at the time, and to history, was what the crews of the High Sea Fleet thought, and as Scheer conceded, “the idea had taken root in their minds that they were to be uselessly sacrificed.” On October 28, the unrest from the battle cruisers to the dreadnoughts of the III Squadron, and took on such proportions that Hipper had to cancel the sortie order late on the 29th, by which time a heavy fog had made it impossible to proceed anyway. The following day, Hipper issued a strident, patriotic appeal to the fleet, in which he sought to dispel “the rumor…that the officers of the navy desire a battle with a superior enemy such that the fleet would be shot to pieces and therefore not be surrendered with the armistice.” He then sought to reinstate the sortie order, ultimately just for the U-boats and the I Squadron, an inexplicable half-measure that served only to ignite rebellion aboard the dreadnoughts of that squadron. As late as midday on October 31, Hipper continued to try to get the I Squadron to move; on his orders a U-boat and two torpedo boats threatened to sink the Thüringen, compelling 200 mutineers aboard it to surrender, but this proved to be an isolated success against the forces of disorder. The IV Squadron likewise rose in rebellion on the night of October 30/31, leaving no part of the fleet unaffected.
By the evening of October 31, Hipper had abandoned all hope of further operations and focused instead on restoring order, convincing himself that this could best be achieved by dispersing the dreadnoughts.