German Battleship Classes of the First World War

Introduction
Pre-dreadnoughts
Dreadnought

Introduction

The German battleship fleet of 1914 was both the cause and the product of the battleship race between Britain and Germany. The new German navy was an inevitable result of German unification, but its size and the direct challenge to British naval power was not. This arose partly because of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s interest in naval matters, and partly because of Admiral Tirpitz’s “Risk Theory”.

Tirpitz became Secretary of State for the Navy in 1897. At that point Britain was maintaining a “two power” navy, with squadrons scattered around the globe. This fleet was still largely aimed against France and Russia, and initial British responses to the new German navy were framed by the rivalry with France – there was concern that the Germans might hold the balance of power at sea.

The idea behind the “risk theory” was that Germany would build such a large navy that it would be a “risk” for the British home fleet to take it on in battle.  A series of naval laws and amendments were passed, which provided for an increasingly large fleet.

The First Naval Law, on 1898, provided for 19 battleships, 8 coastal defence ships, 12 heavy cruisers and 30 light cruisers, all to be built by 1903. The Second Naval Law of 1900 increased that to 38 battleships, to be built by 1920. The two laws were followed by a series of amendments. The First Naval Amendment of 1906 was something of a defeat for Tirpitz. He had wanted 6 more battleships, but instead he had to make do with 6 heavy cruisers.

The same year saw one of the most dramatic developments in the naval race. The launch of HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-gun battleship, made every earlier battleship obsolete. From having a two-power battle fleet, the British now had a one Dreadnought fleet. Tirpitz had a new chance to catch up with the British. 

The six cruisers of the First Naval Amendment became battlecruisers, although the term was not adopted at the time. The Second Naval Amendment of 1908 decreased the lifespan of a battleship to 20 years, making the Siegfried and Oldenburg classes obsolete. Tirpitz now got his six new battleships, first requested for the First Amendment.

Finally, the Third Naval Amendment of 1912 called for a fleet containing 25 battleships and 8 battlecruisers in the front line, with another 16 battleships in reserve – a total of five squadrons of eight battleships.

The new Dreadnought race was won by Britain. At the start of the First World War Britain had completed 20 dreadnoughts to Germany’s 13. Damage to British ships and the completion of the König class in late 1914/ early 1915 closed the gap, but by the time of Jutland the British Grand Fleet had 28 dreadnoughts to the High Seas Fleet’s 16, and the Germans still had one squadron of pre-dreadnoughts in the fleet.

The “Risk Theory” suffered two blows in the years before the First World War. The first was Entente cordiale between Britain and France. The British were now free to concentrate on the increasing threat from Germany. The second was the willingness of Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, to concentrate the British battle fleet in home waters. At the start of 1904 Britain had 16 battleships in home waters, by the end of 1905 that number had increased to 25.  

The first German pre-Dreadnoughts, and the older German battleships in use in 1914 were the Brandenburg class, laid down in 1890. They were armed with six 11in guns, and were generally similar to the British Royal Sovereign Class, laid down in 1889, and mounting four 13.5in guns. Germen pre-Dreadnoughts tended to have smaller main guns and bigger secondary guns that their British equivalents, and were generally to be less battle worthy ships.

In contrast German dreadnoughts were much more impressive. They still tended to carry lighter main guns than their British opponents, but had much better armour piercing shells. They were generally wide (greater beam), which gave them better protection against torpedoes, but made them slightly less stable gun platforms.

In the event neither dreadnought fleet was put to the ultimate test of a full scale fleet battle. The nearest they came was at Jutland, where after a brief encounter the German battlefield escaped from the much larger British fleet. The most dramatic clashes of the war came between battlecruisers, where the Germans ships were proved to be rather superior, or at least less prone to explode, but the evidence is lacking to make a similar judgement over the battleships.

Pre-dreadnoughts

Name

Size

Speed

Biggest guns

Built

Ships

Brandenburg

10,502t

16.5kts

6x11in

1891-1892

2

Kaiser

11,599t

17kts

4x9.4in

1896-1900

5

Wittelsbach

12,596t

17.5kts

4x9.4in

1900-1901

5

Braunschweig

14,167t

18.25kts

4x11in

1902-1904

5

Deutschland

13,993t

18.5kts

4x11in

1904-1906

5

Dreadnoughts

Name

Size

Speed

Biggest guns

Built

Ships

Nassau

18,570t

19.5kts

12x11.1in

1908-1910

4

Helgoland

25,200t

20.3kts

12x12in

1909-1912

4

Kaiser

27,400t

21/22kts

10x12in

1909-1913

5

König

29,200t

21kts

10x12in

1911-1915

4

Bayern

31,690t

21kts

8x15in

1913-1917

2

Sachsen

31,700t

21.5/22kts

8x15in

1914-1917

2*

* unfinished at the end of the war, these two ships were slighty modifed versions of the Bayern class design.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 September 2007), German Battleship Classes of the First World War , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/lists_battleship_classes_German_WWI.html

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