The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) – North German Federal Navy



The Battle of Havana on 9 November 1870 was a single ship action between the German gunboat Meteor and the French aviso Bouvet off the coast of Havana, Cuba during the Franco-Prussian War.

At 8 a. m. on November 7 the Meteor arrived in Havana harbour after leaving Nassau some days before. An hour later the French aviso Bouvet arrived from Martinique, steaming in from the opposite direction. The next day the French mail steamer SS Nouveau Monde left the harbour for Veracruz but was forced to return a few hours later due to fears that she would be captured by the Prussian gunboat. Later that day the Meteor’s captain, issued a formal challenge to the captain of the Bouvet to fight a battle the next day. The Bouvet accepted and steamed out of the harbour to wait for the Meteor. The Meteor had to wait 24 hours before it could meet the French vessel due to neutrality laws, since Spain was a neutral country during the conflict.

Upon the end of the 24-hour waiting period, the Meteor steamed out to meet the Bouvet which had been waiting 10 miles (16 km) off the border of the Cuban territorial sea. As soon as Meteor had passed the border line, Bouvet opened fire on the German gunboat. The battle came to an inconclusive end when the Bouvet, which had closed the range in an attempt to board the Meteor, suffered damage to a steam pipe which knocked out her propulsion and was forced to retreat into neutral waters under sail, whereupon she came under the protection of Spain once again. Neither ship was permanently disabled, mostly suffering damage to masts and rigging (the Bouvet’s boilers and machinery remaining intact and functioning) and very few killed and injured on either side. The battle was not considered significant by commentators of the day.

Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866 had led to the formation of the North German Confederation the following year and, with it, the transformation of the Royal Prussian Navy into the North German Federal Navy. In the summer of 1867 the navy took possession of the armored frigates Friedrich Carl (6,000 tons, from La Seyne) and Kronprinz (5,800 tons, from Samuda), followed early in 1869 by the 9,800-ton armored frigate König Wilhelm, the former Turkish Fatikh, which the navy had purchased from the Thames Iron Works in 1867 after the sultan defaulted on its contract. Krupp received the artillery contracts for all three ships, having developed all-steel muzzle- loading rifles superior to the latest Armstrong rifled muzzle loaders. 78 Production problems delayed delivery of the first guns until the summer of 1869, prompting the postponement of a scheduled West Indian cruise by the new “armored squadron” until the following summer. In July 1870 the onset of war with France forced another change of plans.

Wishing to complete the process of German unification with a victorious war against the French, Bismarck succeeded in baiting France into declaring war on Prussia on 19 July 1870. As the Prussian army and its allies from the lesser German states mobilized and crossed onto French soil, the north German navy deployed the small ram Prinz Adalbert as harbor watch at Hamburg and concentrated its three armored frigates with the small turret ship Arminius at the new North Sea base of Wilhelmshaven; meanwhile most of the unarmored fleet was dispersed to defend the Baltic coast. The French fleet enjoyed a great superiority over the north German navy. Its 400 warships included seventeen seagoing frigates in the same class with the König Wilhelm, Friedrich Carl, and Kronprinz. French navy leaders pondered attacks on Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, the destruction of merchant shipping, and cooperation with the army in landing troops on the north German coast. But the navy and the army had done little prewar planning for amphibious assaults, and the fleet included too few of the small vessels needed for close coastal operations. In any event, French navy leaders concluded that they could execute landings only on the beaches of the Baltic. Such operations were unthinkable without an alliance with Denmark, which resolved to remain neutral following the Prussian army’s invasion of France in the first days of the war.

Nevertheless, the northern squadron, under Vice Admiral Bouët-Willaumez, moved from the Channel into the Baltic, while the Mediterranean squadron, under Vice Admiral Martin Fourichon, relocated to the North Sea. Together they seized enough merchantmen early in the war to deter German-flagged vessels from venturing out. At the onset of bad weather the French squadrons withdrew to Cherbourg, but by then the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan (2 September 1870) had decided the outcome of the war. After the imperial government gave way to a republic over thirty warships were disarmed, their men and guns put to use ashore in the defense of Paris and other northern cities. Meanwhile, naval units left in the Mediterranean evacuated the French garrison from Rome, abandoning the city to be annexed by Italy. France pursued the war for another five months, sustained in part by American arms shipments that the north German navy could do nothing to stop. The only action beyond European waters came on 9 November 1870, when the 350-ton screw gunboat Meteor, commanded by future admiral Eduard Knorr, engaged the 800-ton dispatch steamer Bouvet in an inconclusive two-hour duel off Havana.

Throughout the war, the north German navy at best annoyed the French. Admiral Prince Adalbert himself underscored the irrelevance of sea power in the Prussian– German strategy by spending the war with the army, as he had in 1866. At the end of the first week of August 1870, Vice Admiral Jachmann took the König Wilhelm, the Kronprinz, the Friedrich Carl, and the Arminius on a sortie all the way to the Dogger Bank but encountered no French warships. The French made their first appearance in the North Sea, off Wilhelmshaven, shortly after Jachmann returned to port. Thereafter, the durable Arminius went out on more than forty sorties while the armored frigates were idled by engine trouble. On 11 September Jachmann finally took all three frigates out on a second squadron sortie, but by then the French already had left for home. After the French navy seized a number of German merchant ships early in the war, Bismarck authorized commerce raiding against the French merchant marine. In November 1870, after most of the French navy had returned home, Captain Johannes Weickhmann took the corvette Augusta to the Atlantic coast of France, where he captured three ships at the mouth of the Gironde in January 1871. The action caused alarm in nearby Bordeaux, then serving as temporary capital of the new Third Republic. With several French armored frigates bearing down on him, Weickhmann took the Augusta to the safety of Vigo in neutral Spain, where it remained blockaded until the war ended. The Augusta’s three prizes were the only French merchantmen taken by the Germans in the war. In comparison, the French navy captured no German warships but seized more than 200 merchantmen, paralyzing German overseas trade for more than half a year.

At its birth the German empire ranked as the foremost military power in Europe, but the negligible role played by the Prussian and the north German navy in the wars of German unification left deep scars on the younger generation of the officer corps. The frustrated young men included Lieutenant Alfred Tirpitz, then 21 years old, who spent most of the Franco-Prussian War at anchor in Wilhelmshaven aboard the König Wilhelm. For Tirpitz, the humiliation of 1870 helped shape his later conviction that Germany must have a fleet capable of offensive action.