Battleships and the Past

It finally arrived!  My copy of “German Battleships 1914-18 (2)” from the fine Osprey series came and I immediately sat down and read through it.  The book is a quick read at 48 pages but it is filled with diagrams, great photos, and detailed drawings of the three major late generation German World War One battleships, the Kaiser, Konig and Bayern classes.

Prior to World War One the British and the Germans engaged in an arms race to build mightier navies, with each side attempting to out-do the other with each succeeding generation of ships.  The ships got larger, more heavily armored, and were armed with larger caliber main armament.  The Kaiser class battleships have the odd turret configurations used in that era; the Konig looks more modern, and the Beyern class has very similar lines to the iconic WW2 Bismark series ships, along with the same caliber armament (15″ guns, in 4 double turrets).

One of the most interesting elements to me is the fact that the Bayern class is so relatively unknown given how powerful and modern they were relative to their WW1 contemporaries.  This is likely due to the fact that the Bayern did not participate in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 which was the seminal act in WW1 fleet battles, for afterwards the focus of the German navy shifted to submarines and unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.  The wikipedia page for the Bismark series discusses how the Bismark series was derided by one British analyst as just a mildly upgraded Bayern class vessel.

Also interesting is the fate of the Baden (the second and final ship of the Bayern class); as discussed at the wikipedia link, the British saved it from being sunk at Scapa Flow and used it to test out their armor piercing weapons at close range.  They sank it once and then refloated it again, and used this information to refine their ammunition and change their armor design.  This page describes a diver who has been to the wreck several times at 180 feet, which is a deep depth for this type of diving (per the article at least, I am not an expert).

The book discusses the practical trade-offs that the Germans made; they fitted their ships with smaller caliber, accurate and quick-firing weapons, rather than being seduced by large caliber weapons, feeling that it was better to invest in heavy armor and solid ship construction than to plan for a long range duel.  This was also due to fiscal diligence; throughout the book they discuss how the government made concessions to stretch their budget.

The fact that they did not delay Jutland for the launching of the Bayern (the ship was undergoing trials and the crew was on leave) is also interesting; in 1943 Hitler delayed the start of Kursk so that more of the modern Panther tanks could be brought up to lead the offensive.  The “meddling” so common in the second war seems less common in the more practical first war; this also shows up in how the Germans shortened their lines and implemented “reverse slope” defenses on the Western front to turn their attention to knocking out the Russians in the East – it seems hard to imagine the second war Germans making such a sensible decision.

The level of investment that these ships represented for the economy at the time was enormous; imagine if our best minds and a huge chunk of our entire infrastructure was devoted to building these enormous machines.  Individual citizens at that time had few possessions, much less radios or excessive clothing; to think of how these resources could have been deployed for the civilian economy if that type of choice was available.

Cross posted at LITGM

9 thoughts on “Battleships and the Past”

  1. “The level of investment that these ships represented for the economy at the time was enormous; imagine if our best minds and a huge chunk of our entire infrastructure was devoted to building these enormous machines.”

    In all fairness our capital ships are the aircraft carriers which are about twice the length and 3 or 4 times the displacement of those battleships.

    What is interesting to me is the see saw of military tactics. The battleship, like the dug-in battle lines of the Great War, was totally displaced by the mobility devices (tanks and airplanes) of WW II.

    I am concerned that we have reached the terminus quo of our current military technology. I would like the next generation to be smaller, faster and cheaper. The next generation of carriers should be for UAVs.

  2. Agreed that the Carriers are bigger and represent more individual investment. But at the time these giant world war one ships represented a huge net investment of the entire economy in terms of technology, steel, and supporting infrastructure (like giant floating docks in Germany). The average person was so immensely poorer than today, as well.

  3. You know what I love about this blog? It has blog posts that begin with, “It finally arrived! My copy of “German Battleships 1914-18 (2)” ….”

    Being entirely serious and not the least bit snarky. I mean, that’s seriously cool.

    – Madhu

  4. Where the Germans still coal-fired?

    Churchill had switched the British fleet to oil by then, increasing range, speed, and available interior space while decreasing time to refuel.

  5. I am not an expert but I think they were mostly coal powered although they also had oil powered engines.

    The coal also provided de-facto armor plate as test firings proved.

  6. One interesting aspect of warship history is the evolution of gunnery fire control systems…think about the challenge of hitting a target 15 miles away, from a platform which is pitching and rolling, with both the firing ship and the target in motion. By WWI, there was already a use of electrical data transmission, combined with mechanical computing assistance.

  7. Peter Padfield wrote “Guns at Sea”,which covers the subject of fire control. Also Jon Sumida wrote “In Defense of Naval Supremacy” covering the British side of the pre-GreatWar build up.

  8. I took a couple of NROTC classes in college (mid-70s), partially to satisfy a “physical education” requirement – that avoided me sweating in the Florida sun.

    One class was on naval technology, taught by a young destroyer Lt, so of course we went over gun fire control – in depth! He still taught the electromechanical design, a big analog computer using cams, gyroscopes,linkages. Pretty impressive stuff.

    The second class was on naval strategy = but I had already read Mahan.

  9. Carl from Chicago Says:
    June 30th, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    I am not an expert but I think they were mostly coal powered although they also had oil powered engines.

    Yeah, they had coal-fired boilers, but also either supplementary oil burners on the coal fired boilers [KAISER-class], or some coal-fired boilers and some oil-fired boilers [KÖNIG-class, BAYERN-class]. It is an interesting development that they also were moving towards the use of supplementary Diesel engines to save fuel for cruising, starting with the KÖNIG’s. They had problems installing one MAN six cylinder 2-stroke 12,000 hp Diesel in each for the center screw, so they were dropped and a turbine installed in its stead in each.

    They were successful in getting them to work in the BAYERN and BADEN [SACHSEN and WÜRTTEMBERG were not completed]. I cannot but suspect that the experience with the BAYERN’s was instrumental in the decision to use Diesels in the Panzerschiffen.

    Yes, I am a WW II geek too. If you like the Osprey’s, y’all might want to look for an old copy of Siegfried Breyer’s “Battleships and Battlecruisers 1905-1970”. ISBN 0385072470-3 Doubleday, 1973. It covers all nations’ ships of those types, including projected designs, for that period. I think you’d like it. He also has a Battleships only volume published in 1980.

    Subotai Bahadur

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