Battleships for Export – German Classes

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Russian battleships of the Sevastopol class, built to a local design after the political decision not to proceed with the competition-winning Blohm & Voss scheme.

During the later nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Great Britain had obtained the lion’s share of warship orders from powers unable for reasons of technology or capacity to build their own. France also had a flourishing warship-export trade. Germany had, as already noted, built two battleships for China in the 1880s and cruisers for her and Japan, but since then had not matched the success of her rivals. However, the advent of the dreadnought era brought about new opportunities, as a number of powers launched international competitions for new materiel.

A number of competitions were run during the years leading up to 1914, in particular following the appearance of Dreadnought, which allowed existing force levels to be reset. A particular example was in South America, where the ordering of the Brazilian Minas Gerais class in Great Britain began a short-lived local naval race. Thus, specifications were issued by Argentina in 1908 to a range of shipbuilders for a pair of ‘answers’. Blohm & Voss were amongst those invited, although in the end the orders went to US yards.

BATTLESHIP DESIGNS FOR RUSSIA

Blohm & Voss were particularly active in the export market, and had already been involved in bidding for the new generation of Russian battleships. Discussions regarding these had begun in April 1906, with a basic concept of a turbine-driven ship, with twelve 12in [305mm] and twenty 4.7in [120mm] and 254mm belt armour recommended in May. A number of internal proposals, and then more from the British firm of Vickers, culminated in international proposals being invited at the end of 1907. AG Vulcan, Blohm & Voss, Schichau and Germaniawerft were amongst the invitees, with the first two submitting proposals. Ships would be built in Russia.

The bids were divided between those with a ‘linear’ arrangement of four triple turrets (i.e. all on a single level) and those with other arrangements. Blohm & Voss submitted eleven variants of a basic scheme 627 (I–X and Xb), of which 627-IV had been worked out in detail. This 22,000t vessel had twelve 12in [305mm] in triple turrets fore and aft, with a twin superimposed forward and another two en echelon amidships. 627-I had six twins, superimposed fore and aft, the midships pair en echelon; 627-II was similar, but with the midships turrets on the centreline; 627-III had Nassau’s ‘hexagonal’ turret arrangement; 627-V had triples fore and aft, with twins superimposed fore and aft, and midships; 627-VII followed Dreadnought, albeit with triples fore and aft; 627-VIII had four triples, with the midships pair en echelon; 627-IX had triples superimposed fore and aft; and 627-X had the ‘linear’ arrangement.

The Russian Naval Technical Committee placed 627-X at the top of the ‘linear’ category, with 627-V and VI in second place in the ‘other’ category. An assessment by the Naval General Staff placed 627-X in second place, behind one from Ansaldo of Genoa. At joint meetings in June and July the two bodies, it was agreed that only ‘linear’ designs should be considered further, leaving 627-X, the Ansaldo design, plus a ‘linear’ version of the Russian Baltic Works scheme that had come top of the Naval Technical Committee’s ‘other’ list.

In the meantime Blohm & Voss had been working-up 627-X into a detailed design, with a number of sub-variants (627-XA, XB, &c), with various alternative arrangements of machinery, decks and other features being produced into the autumn. However, while the Ansaldo design had now been ruled out, resulting in Wilhelm II going so far as to send a telegram of congratulations to Blohm & Voss for winning the competition, protests from France objecting to funds from major loans she had made to Russia finding their way to Germany and internal pressure to favour Russian solution meant that the award of a contract to a German company had become politically impossible. The award was thus made to the Baltic Works of St Petersburg for the design that would become the Sevastopol class.

However, the Baltic Works and the Admiralty Works, which would build the new ships, exhorted the government to purchase the full range of drawings produced for 627-X and its sub-variants to aid in the development of the Sevastopols. This was done, hard negotiations resulting in a price being paid that was a quarter of that first demanded by Blohm & Voss.

In 1911 a further international contest was launched for the design of what would become the Izmail class battlecruisers. Alongside various Russian and British firms, AG Vulcan submitted two designs, while Blohm & Voss partnered with the Russian Putilovskii Works to produce a dozen initial options for the nine-14in [356mm]-gun ship originally envisaged. These were sufficiently well regarded that Putilovskii was amongst those firms requested to re-bid when the requirement was changed to twelve guns.

Scheme 707-XVII was also considered a good design by the gunnery and General Staff assessors, but was rejected by the shipbuilding authorities as having a hull structure and machinery that did not accord with Russian practice. The ships were thus built to an Admiralty Shipyard (St Petersburg) design. However, the Blohm & Voss/Pulitovskii link was maintained, and German personnel made significant contributions to the studies for 16in [406mm]-gunned battleships carried out by the Russian company early in 1914 against potential future national requirements.

THE GREEK BATTLESHIP

In response to Turkey’s expanding battlefleet, Greece formulated a programme, agreed in March 1912, providing for a 13,716t armoured ship (its size limited by the floating dock at Piraeus), two destroyers, six torpedo boats, two submarines and a depot ship. The competition for the capital ship brought forth a range of bidders form a number of countries. Although half of the Greek Board on Naval Construction were members of the British naval mission that had been in Greece since 1910 the contract was not the expected British walk-over. The best price was offered by Krupp for a ship to be built by AG Vulcan, but Vickers scored highest on hull and machinery, while the US Bethlehem bid was favoured for its armament and protection. An informal meeting between Wilhelm II (the brother of the Greek Crown Princess), who annually holidayed on Corfu, and the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos (1864–1936), led to a promise to purchase from Germany, albeit after a further round of bidding.

Thus, bids from Vickers, Orlando of Italy and AG Vulcan having been judged all-but-equal on technical merit, the contract was given to Vulcan as the lowest bid on 30 July 1912 – thus adding to the yard’s existing Greek portfolio of a pair of destroyers, ordered on 29 June, and fulfilled by diverting two vessels already under construction for the German Navy (V5 and V6, which became Nea Genea and Kervanos). The armoured ship was to be armed and armoured, however, by Bethlehem – a subsequent suggestion that Krupp products might be substituted for the latter was dropped for fear of disturbing the whole contracting process.

As ordered, at a cost of £1,106,500, the ship would carry a main battery of six 14in [356mm] guns, of the same type as installed in the American New York class. However, as such a ship would be badly outgunned by the ten-main-gunned Turkish ship, there were proposals in August to modify the design to increase its capabilities. Initially, an increase to 16,500t was contemplated, but this was then raised to 19,815t and the contract amended accordingly on 23 December 1912, in spite of the opposition of the Greek Prime Minister. As re-cast as a fully-fledged battleship, the ship, to be named Salamis, had eight main guns, although was still inferior to Reshadieh, and also to Sultan Osman I, the fourteen-12in ex-Brazilian Rio de Janeiro, purchased in 1914. Accordingly, a French Bretagne class vessel with ten 340mm guns was ordered that year, with the American battleships Mississippi and Idaho acquired (as Kilkis and Lemnos, after a worldwide search) to provide interim capability, since neither Salamis nor the French order would be ready before the two Turkish vessels would complete during the autumn of 1914.

Salamis was laid down to the new design in July 1913, with a contracted delivery date of 28 March 1915, for a price £1,693,000, to be paid in nine instalments against specific milestones. The Greeks had made progress payments amounting to the equivalent of £450,000 up to July 1914, but the outbreak of war found Salamis still on the slip, with only 17 per cent of her American armour delivered. Thus, while the hull was structurally complete, with boilers and some other machinery installed, the ship lacked the two superimposed main barbettes, her armour deck, side armour, conning tower, not to mention her turrets and main and secondary guns, still completing in in the USA.

Work continued until November to allow the hull to be launched to clear the slipway; it appears that she was to be launched under the new name Vasilefs Georgios, presumably to match the name, Vasilefs Konstantinos, allocated to the French order, although the name Salamis continued to be used in all post-First World War documents. After launching, nothing more was done than house over the openings in the deck to put the unfinished ship in a state of preservation; this work was complete by the end of December 1914.19 AG Vulcan later stated that this stoppage of work was primarily owing to the failure of Greece to make the stage payments it regarded as due in the autumn of 1914, rather than the outbreak of war.

Since it was clear that her American guns and armour would not be delivered for the duration of the war, and that domestic production of these items would take two years at least, no serious consideration was given to completing the vessel for German service – and most certainly not under the name Tirpitz, as has been speculated on occasion. In fact, the main turrets, their guns and those intended for the secondary battery were sold to the British on 10 November 1914 – something of which the shipyard professed themselves to be unaware, and which Bethlehem were unwilling to publicly admit into the 1920s; the main guns and turrets were installed in the four Abercrombie class monitors, the secondary guns for coastal defence at Scapa Flow.

BATTLESHIPS FOR THE NETHERLANDS

In 1912, the ongoing expansion of the Japanese Navy led to a decision in the Netherlands to expand their navy in defence of their East Indies possessions. Initially, four more coast defence armoured ships of a design that had been evolved over several generations since the Evertsen class, laid down in 1893, was envisaged, but doubts about the effectiveness of such vessels led to the an enquiry to Germania in September 1912 regarding fully-fledged battleships. This resulted in the design of a vessel that was essentially a Kaiser, with the superfiring turret aft deleted and the calibre of the remaining eight guns raised to 34cm, plus twelve 15cm weapons. Armour would be slightly thinner, to give an extra 1kt. The design was generally liked, except for the en-échelon arrangement of half the main battery, a revised version with superimposed turrets fore and aft, plus other amendments, being requested.

The revised version (scheme 753) was 700t heavier, included an increase in the number of secondary guns to sixteen, a further 0.5kt, modified protection, and looked very different, with a single funnel and a tripod mast. A further variant placed added another 700t, placed the main battery in two quadruple turrets and further enhanced the protection.

In parallel, a Dutch Royal Commission was appointed to consider the matter, its report in August 1913 recommending the acquisition of nine full-size battleships, five for the East Indies (one in reserve) and four for home waters, of 21,000t, with a speed of 21kt (oil firing only), with eight 34.3cm, sixteen 15cm and twelve 75mm guns. They would be designed for a twenty-year life, twelve in the Indies, followed by eight at home.

After extensive debate, it was decided to procure four battleships, to be somewhat larger than those recommended, and all to be permanently stationed in the Indies. The specification was modified in November 1913 to set the armament at eight 34cm/45, sixteen 15cm and twelve 75mm guns, plus three/five submerged TT, the speed at 21kt and the minimum range at 5000nm (9300km) at 12kt; protection would comprise a main belt at least 250mm, with the turrets and conning tower at least 300mm thick. A further amendment in March 1914 set a displacement of 25,000t and raised the calibre of the main battery to 35.6cm, the speed to 22kt and the range to 6000nm (11,000km). All ships would be built abroad, given a lack of appropriate slips in the Netherlands.

Eleven invitations having been issued, for return by 4 June 1914, proposals were received from seven bidders, including Germania, Blohm & Voss, AG Vulcan (with a version of Salamis, guns and armour again coming from Bethlehem) and AG Weser. Germania’s scheme 806 was the favourite, given the yard’s previous engagement with the Dutch. However, the outbreak of the First World War led to the frustration of the scheme before anything could be done to pass the requisite financial legislation. Instead, three 7000t cruisers were authorised, to Germania plans; two (Java and Sumatra) were belatedly completed in 1925, and the third (Celebes) ultimately cancelled, to be re-ordered as De Ruyter in 1933.

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