The Dawn of the German Empire Navy


König Wilhelm as completed. She had been laid down for Turkey. 

König Wilhelm

As compared with the second-class vessels upon which Friedrich Carl and Kronprinz had been modelled, the larger British ironclads (the Warriors, Achilles and Minotaurs) displaced between 9300t and 10,900t. In 1866, the opportunity arose for Prussia to acquire a ship of this class, when the impecunious Ottoman authorities put up for sale their Fatih, building at the Thames Iron Works. Prussia bought her on 6 February 1867, initially under the name Wilhelm I. However, this was changed in December to König Wilhelm, the ship being launched under that name the following April. Another potential purchase in the spring of 1867 was of the American Dunderberg which was, however, actually acquired by France as Rochambeau,and would operate against Prussia during the forthcoming Franco-Prussian War.

On completion, König Wilhelm was popularly regarded as the most powerful warship in the world, being compared favourably with HMS Hercules, which was some 1800t smaller and 10m shorter, and has a smaller number of guns. König Wilhelm’s great size was initially a problem, as no dock in Germany was big enough to take her; she thus had to make a run to Britain in August 1869 for her bottom to be cleaned. It subsequently proved possible to dock her (with difficulty) at Wilhelmshaven, but it was not for some time that the development of the German dockyards meant that they could easily take ships of her dimensions. The constraints of existing dry-docks were always an important issue in the development of new generations of ships, a good example being that of French dreadnoughts in the years prior to the First World War, and in designing the final generations of Imperial German capital ships during 1916–18.

König Wilhelm was originally to be armed with 72pdrs (in her case thirty-three), but was actually fitted with eighteen 24cm/20s on the gun-deck and five 21cm/22s. Also as with earlier ships, there were delays in the provision of weapons, and she was still not fully armed in September 1869, seven months after commissioning. Three of the 22cal weapons were mounted in a forecastle armoured battery and the other two in a pair of upper deck armoured batteries in the rear waist at upper deck level. These latter were protected with 152mm plating, the battery-deck itself and belt having 203mm armour, tapering to 152mm fore and aft, on 560mm of teak, itself on the 50mm-thick hull shell.

On commissioning, König Wilhelm became flagship of an evolutionary squadron that also comprised Kronprinz and Friedrich Carl, which undertook exercises with various other ships during August/September 1869. The following May, the same ships, plus Prinz Adalbert, were proceeding on a visit to Great Britain when Friedrich Carl damaged her screw by grounding in the Great Belt and had to be repaired at Kiel, rejoining her squadron-mates at Plymouth. Here they were formally constituted as a training squadron on 1 July, sailing for the Azores. However, with an increase in tensions with France, Prinz Adalbert was recalled to Dartmouth to remain in contact with events. The remainder of the squadron joined her on 13 July and, war being considered imminent, sailed for home, arriving on the 16th – Prinz Adalbert in the tow of Kronprinz, owing to her lack of speed.

War broke out with France on 19 July 1870, ostensibly over a diplomatic slight to the French Emperor Napoleon III in the wake of a dispute over the future occupant of the throne of Spain, but in reality the culmination of pressures arising from the progressive unification of Germany that was felt to threaten French interests. Although on land the French army was a third the size of the forces available to Prussia, the North German Confederation and the southern German states (which formally joined the Confederation November), all of whom allied against France, the French Navy was vastly superior to that of Prussia, and rapidly imposed a blockade of her coasts.

The Prussian Navy’s larger ironclads, Friedrich Carl, Kronprinz and König Wilhelm, were based at Wilhelmshaven from the outset, but Arminius was forced to break through the blockade to the North Sea from Kiel by exploiting her shallow draught to sail through coastal waters, and shook off an attempted interception by three French armoured frigates. Prinz Adalbert and three small gunboats were also available, but the ironclad was unsuitable for seagoing operations and served as the Elbe guardship throughout the war.

The French were unable, in spite of their superior numbers, to make any attack on the Prussian naval bases, and largely contented themselves with taking up a blockading station off Heligoland. The Prussians made a number of sorties into the North Sea, but after the first, in early August 1870, by Arminius, Friedrich Carl, Kronprinz and König Wilhelm, engine problems suffered by the latter three meant that Arminius for a time became the principal combat unit, the ship sortieing over forty times. However, action was limited to a single brief skirmish with the French armoured frigate Gauloise and the armoured corvette Atalante off Heligoland. On 11 September, the three Prussian frigates joined Arminius on another sweep, but no French ships were encountered, as the French Navy withdrew its ships in September, following their army’s defeat at Sedan and the capture of Napoleon III. The war continued, however, into the New Year, and it was proposed that a newly-overhauled Kronprinz should undertake a raid on Cherbourg in early February; however, the armistice, signed on 28 January 1871, came before the attack could take place.

It was on 10 December 1870 that the North German Confederation was renamed the German Reich, with Wilhelm I of Prussia as its Emperor, as formally proclaimed at Versailles on 18 January 1871 during the siege of Paris that marked the last four months of the war. As well as the consolidation of all German states except Austria into one political entity, the war also resulted in the transfer of the most of the province of Alsace, and a quarter of Lorraine, to the German Empire under the direct rule of the Reich Government, not any of the States. The existence of Alsace-Lorraine within the German Empire would remain a running sore in Franco-German relations.


Hansa as completed.


The concept of the armoured corvette Hansa went back to 1861, with a focus on service against shore fortifications, but it was not for some years that she was built, as the first armoured ship to be built in Germany.11 However, when the ship was actually begun in at Danzig Dockyard in November 1868, it was to a Reed design, not dissimilar to HMS Pallas, launched in 1865; like her, Hansa had a wooden hull, but was slightly larger and more heavily armed.

In Pallas and the contemporary, but much bigger, ironhulled HMS Bellerophon, Reed had introduced the central-battery concept, with the armament placed in an armoured box amidships, rather than simply spread along on a gun deck. Hansa had in addition an upper battery arranged for axial fire, much like the British Audacious class (1869/70). Hansa was launched in October 1872, and in August of the following year was towed to Stettin for completion by AG Vulcan, work there finishing in December 1874, before transfer to Kiel on 3 January 1875, for final fitting-out in a floating dock.


Preußen as built.

The Preußen Class

The navy’s first uniform class of capital ships, all built in home yards, was originally intended to follow previous German armourclads in being broadside-armed, the new Austro-Hungarian central-battery ship Custoza12 being regarded as a model. This ship had a double-storey battery, designed to maximise axial fire. However, after the first vessel, Großer Kurfürst, had already been laid down, the design was entirely recast as a turret-ship similar in layout to HMS Monarch, with Coles-type twin turrets on a low hull, but built-up fore and aft for seaworthiness (as carrying a full sailing rig), the deck-lines of the forecastle and poop being extended along the mid-length by hinged bulwarks, as in many other similar vessels of the period. To make up for the lack of ahead fire of the turret-mounted 26cm/22 guns, chase pieces of 17cm/25 calibre were fitted in forecastle and poop.

The turrets were steam-powered and mounted on what would originally have been the battery deck. The faces of the turrets were 260mm thick, the remainder having 210mm armour. The hull armour at the waterline midships was 235mm for a single plate’s width, thinning to 185mm below the waterline and 210mm above, all thinning to 105mm at the ends. All armour was mounted on a wooden backing.

As with Hansa, the inexperience of the yards – Großer Kurfürst was the first product of the new dockyard at Wilhelmshaven and Friedrich der Große the second to be laid down in the yard at Kiel – resulted in extended building times, exacerbated in the case of Großer Kurfürst by the need to alter her design on the stocks. Indeed, the first to be launched and to complete was the privately-built Preußen, a year ahead of the state-built Friedrich der Große.


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