This book covers the entire lifespan of Imperial Germany, not just the more famous cruisers of the First World War era. As a result it does take a bit of time to get going – the early cruisers of Wilhelm I are technically interesting, as they were built in a period of rapid technological change and uncertainty, but had pretty uninteresting operational careers. However they do set the scene for the development of the ‘standard’ small cruiser. For many of these early ships decisions had to be made about the balance between steam and sail power, with one giving speed and flexibility and the other the endurance required for service overseas.
On the other hand the book doesn’t actually cover all types of cruisers. The author had already studied the large cruisers (armoured cruisers and battlecruisers to the British) in an earlier book on German capital ships (The Kaiser’s Battlefleet), so doesn’t repeat that material. This approach is probably easier to follow with the German navy, where different types of ships were placed into legally defined catagories (and where the large cruisers were perhaps nearer to being fast battleships that British style battlecruisers), than it would have been for the less rigidly controlled Royal Navy, although one does wonder if the same decision would have been made if the books had been written the other way round.
For most people I suspect the most interesting part of this book will be the sections examining the cruisers that fought in the First World War, and their performance during the conflict. These cruisers were the product of a prolonged debate about the correct form of the ‘universal’ cruiser, and of a balancing act between what the Navy wanted and what the Reichstag would fund. The result was the standard small cruiser – three or four funnels between two masts, very small superstructures, and 10.5in guns with some arranged along the sides and some at the front and back. This type dominated construction until the war, but it was quickly found to be lacking, and the German Navy spent some time considering what to replace it with, expecially after several were lost at Jutland. We get to follow the pre-war debate about giving the cruisers heavier guns, the reasons for the failure to do so, and the acknowledgement during the war that this had been a mistake.
As well as the directly naval aspects, we get some interesting insights into the nature of Imperial Germany, and the fine balance of power between the Kaiser and the Riechstag. The Kaiser played an unexpectedly important role in warship design, approving in person each new design, but funding was controlled by the Reichstag, so many of the ships that were planned were never built.
I like the structure of the book, with the technical aspects of ship design and their pre-war careers dealt with first, followed by two chapters on the First World War. As a result we get a clearer view of the way in which these designs evolved, without sizable combat histories in between, and then a good overview of how the available cruisers performed without too many technical details to disrupt the flow. It’s also nice that the book continues on past 1918 to trace the final fate of the surviving cruisers, with some scuttled at Scapa Flow, some taken by the victorious allies and a handful remaining in German hands.
1 – Before the Kaiserreich
2 – The Era of Wilhelm I
3 – The Universal Cruiser
4 – The Fleet Laws and Beyond
5 – The New Generation
6 – Cruisers for Export
7 – The Minelayers
8 – War – I
9 – War – II
10 – Afterglow
11 - Retrospect
Author: Aidan Dodson and Dirk Nottelmann