Nassau (1909)

Nassau was a beamy ship (beam 0.18 per cent of length compared to Dreadnought’s 0.15 per cent), most of the difference being used for additional protection.

Twelve 280mm (11in) guns were carried, compared to Dreadnought’s ten 305mm (12in) guns. Magazine layout beneath the flank turrets was cramped.

One of the first German big-gun ships to be built after Dreadnought, Nassau carried a substantial secondary armament as well as 12 main guns. Powered by triple-expansion engines rather than by turbines, it was in action with the High Seas Fleet at Jutland.

Plans for ships of this class had been worked on from March 1904 and the final design was completed in 1906. Four battleships formed the class, with Rheinland as the first to be laid down but Nassau first to be completed on 1 October 1909, having been laid down at Wilhelmshaven on 22 July 1907 and launched on 7 March 1908. The others were Posen and Westfalen. They cost around 37.5 million Goldmarks each, and all were in service by May 1910.

Secondary armament

These were large battleships, mounting 12 heavy guns, but unlike Dreadnought a large-scale secondary armament was also included, with 12 150mm (5.9in) guns mounted in casemates at a level below the port and starboard main turrets, and 16 86mm (3.4in) guns in side-mounted sponsons on the hull and superstructure. Foremast and fore funnel were very close to each other, and to the deckhouse, with navigation bridge and chart house. Nassau’s masts had high wireless aerial gaffs set at an angle from the mizzen top of both masts; these were removed in 1911, and during World War I a spotting top was fitted on the foremast. Gooseneck cranes at each side of the aft funnel swung out the boats housed amidships.

The main guns, 280mm (11in), were of smaller calibre than the 305mm (12in) guns being established as the British standard, but extensive testing had convinced the German navy that they were not significantly less effective. They had a barrel calibre of 45 and weight of 47.7 tonnes (52.6 tons) and fired a 305kg (672lb) shell 18,900m (20,669yd) with a 20 degree elevation.

Its best firing rate was three rounds in two minutes. Comparative figures for Dreadnought’s guns were: barrel length identical, barrel weight 51.7 tonnes (57 tons), shell weight 385kg (849lb), range 19,000m (20,779yd) at 13 degrees of elevation and a rate of fire of two rounds a minute. The advantage would seem to be with the British, but the German admirals believed in the armour-piercing qualities of their shells.

Nassau and its sister ships had triple expansion engines with water-tube boilers; the first German heavy ship to have Parsons turbines was the battlecruiser Von der Tann of 1907. Consequently the three boiler rooms and the engine room occupied most of the hull between the masts. In 1915 the boilers were adapted to burn an oil-coal mix, with the oil sprayed above the burning coal. Oil tanks with a capacity of 142 tonnes (157 tons) were installed. The German designers set great store by good underwater protection and Nassau’s hull had 16 watertight divisions, with the placing of armour on the class done on a scientific basis. But the underwater lines had to be modified after sea experience. It had been supposed that the wide beam and the lateral placing of heavy guns would make a stable ship, but in some North Sea swells they rolled violently and bilge keels had to be fitted.

In August 1914 Nassau was one of the eight ships of Battle Squadron I of the High Seas Fleet (there were three squadrons with a total of 26 battleships). Wartime modifications apart from those already noted included the removal of the stern-mounted 86mm (3.4in) guns in 1915 and the removal of all the others in 1916 to be replaced by four AA guns of the same calibre.

Battle of Jutland

The ship saw no action until an unsuccessful sortie into the Hoofden (North Sea off the Dutch coast) on 15–16 March 1916. On 24 April 1916 it escorted a squadron of battlecruisers to bombard the English coastal towns of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. In the Battle of Jutland, 31 May, it was hit twice by shellfire and ran against the British destroyer Spitfire in an attempt to sink it by ramming, but all damage was repaired by 10 July. Subsequently Nassau made three further sorties into the North Sea without any positive result; on the last occasion, with other ships of the Squadron including Westfalen (pictured below) and Posen reaching the latitude of Stavanger (23 April 1918). Not among the ships scuttled at Scapa Flow, it was stricken on 5 November 1919. Intended to go to Japan as war reparation, it was sold by the Japanese government to a British company who had it scrapped at Dordrecht in the Netherlands in June 1920.

General characteristics

Type:     Dreadnought battleship


    Design: 18,873 t (18,575 long tons)

    Full load: 21,000 t (21,000 long tons)

Length: 146.1 m (479 ft 4 in)

Beam:   26.9 m (88 ft 3 in)

Draft:    8.76 m (28 ft 9 in)

Installed power:

    12 × water-tube boilers

    22,000 metric horsepower (22,000 ihp)


    3 × screw propellers

    3 × triple-expansion steam engines


    Design: 19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph)

    Maximum: 20.2 knots (37.4 km/h; 23.2 mph)

Range:  At 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph): 8,300 nmi (15,400 km; 9,600 mi)


    40 officers

    968 men


    12 × 28 cm (11 in) L/45 guns

    12 × 15 cm (5.9 in) SK L/45 guns

    16 × 8.8 cm (3.5 in) SK L/45 guns

    6 × 45 cm (17.7 in) torpedo tubes


    Belt: 30 cm (11.8 in)

    Turrets: 28 cm

    Battery: 16 cm (6.3 in)

    Conning Tower: 40 cm (15.7 in)

    Torpedo bulkhead: 3 cm (1.2 in)


The commissioning of the Dreadnought in December 1906 rendered all smaller and older armored warships obsolete. Fisher’s dreadnought and battle cruiser designs raised the technological bar for Tirpitz’s challenge but at the same time presented the Germans with an opportunity, as the British had negated their own considerable advantage in predreadnought types. By the time Germany’s Nassau entered service in October 1909, Britain already had commissioned its first five dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers. Thereafter, a supplementary navy law passed by the Reichstag in 1908 enabled Germany to close the gap under an accelerated timetable of construction of dreadnoughts and battle cruisers (or “capital ships,” as the two types together became known). Meanwhile, the Liberal majority in Parliament approved just two capital ships in the naval estimates for 1908-1909, giving Britain twelve built or being built to Germany’s ten. At that pace Tirpitz could achieve much better than the 3:2 ratio of inferiority that he felt would give the German fleet a chance of defeating the British in the North Sea.

The accelerated pace of German naval construction understandably alarmed the British. The same Liberal Parliament that had approved just two capital ships for 1908-1909 authorized eight for 1909-1910, four of which were to be canceled should Germany agree to negotiate an end to the naval race. As of April 1909 Britain was willing to accept a 60 percent capital ship superiority over Germany. At that time, however, Tirpitz was willing to concede only a 4:3 ratio of British superiority. By May 1910 Britain had laid down all eight new capital ships, designs that ensured a qualitative as well as quantitative advantage. The dreadnoughts of the Orion class and two Lion class battle cruisers had 13.5-inch guns rather than the 12-inch guns of the most recent British and German dreadnoughts, and the Lions would be capable of a remarkable speed of 27 knots (compared to the original Dreadnought’s 21 knots). In June 1910 work began on another two battle cruisers, the Australia and New Zealand, paid for by those dominions.

During the same months in 1909 and 1910 when the British laid down these ten new capital ships, the Germans started work on just three, and thus fell behind in the race by twenty-two to thirteen. Tirpitz had assumed all along that he could push the British to a point beyond which they would not or could not maintain their lead. Recognizing his grave miscalculation, in 1911 he offered to accept a 3:2 (15:10) British advantage in capital ships, close to Britain’s goal of a 60 percent (16:10) advantage, as long as the British included in their total the Australia, the New Zealand, and any other ships funded by the British Empire. Meanwhile, following Tirpitz’s earlier logic that a strong fleet would be a “political power factor” supporting German diplomacy, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg attempted to wreck the Anglo-French Entente by demanding British recognition of the territorial status quo in Europe (including a German Alsace-Lorraine) in exchange for German recognition of British naval superiority. The British found such terms unacceptable, and the race continued. In 1910-1911 and again in 1911-1912, the Germans laid down four capital ships and the British countered with five. Following an unsuccessful mission to Berlin in February 1912 by the British secretary for war, Richard Haldane, the recently appointed first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, proposed a mutual one-year “naval holiday.” Churchill’s dismissive characterization of the German navy as a “luxury” fleet reflected his true sentiments, however, and in March 1912 the Reichstag responded by giving Tirpitz a third supplementary navy law adding three dreadnoughts to the numbers previously approved, raising the authorized strength of the German fleet to sixty-one capital ships (forty-one dreadnoughts and twenty battle cruisers).

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