Warship Wednesday January 21, 2015: A Teutonic Heavy in two World Wars
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday January 21, 2015: A Teutonic Heavy in two World Wars
Here we see the a pre-WWI image of the Deutschland-class Linienschiff SMS Schleswig-Holstein, the last predreadnought battleship of the Kaisherliche Marine of Imperial Germany as she sails with a serious bone in her teeth and heavy coal smoke from all three of her stacks.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, that oh so malfeasant warlord of almost comic proportions, was enamored with the concept of producing a naval force second to none as a matter of national prestige. Taking the small coastal defense navy of the late-19th century, whose primary focus was to prevent British landings on the German North Sea coast and send the occasional gunboat to African, American and Asian ports to wave the flag, ole Willy set a course to build a first class High Seas Fleet to challenge Britannia (and anyone else) for worldwide mastery of the waves.
One of the initial rungs on this ladder was to order construction of the five Deutschland-class battleships in the early 1900s.
These hardy ships, when designed, were mammoth 418-foot vessels of some 14,200-tons. Heavy and beamy, they needed some 26 feet of water to float while mountains of coal required teams of stokers working round the clock to shovel into her 12 steam watertube boilers to feed her trio of 5600 ihp expansion engines, one for each shaft. At top speed, they could be expected to push 18-knots, which was not terribly fast but they weren’t designed to run– they were designed to fight.
Four 11-inch (280mm) L/40 guns in two twin turrets capable of hurling a 500-lb. shell some 20,000-yards. This was backed up by 14 6.7-inch secondary and respectable 22 88mm tertiary battery pieces gave her a punch far in excess of any 1900-era cruiser that could catch up to her while up to 11-inches of cemented Krupp armor helped protect her from large caliber hits from English battlewagons of the day (and by day we mean 1901).
Ordered from Germaniawerft, Kiel, 11 June 1904, just after the outbreak of hostilities between the Tsar of Russia and the Empire of Japan, the last of five ships of the class was given the name Schleswig-Holstein, after the land captured from Denmark in 1864, during her christening on 17 Dec. 1906. In departure from the typical Prussian fashion, she was commissioned by a woman, the German Empress Augusta Victoria, but still in front of an all-male audience that included her hubby, the Poseidon of the Baltic Adm. Tirpitz with his great beard, and the good Herr Krupp himself.
However, even before she was to be completed on 6 July 1908, the brand-new Schleswig-Holstein was woefully obsolete.
The Russo-Japanese War had shown the folly of 1900s era battleship design limits and around the world, modern navies were taking these lessons and using them to produce improved, all-main gun fast battleships such as the HMS Dreadnought which could outrun, outfight, and outmaneuver legacy ships such as the German Deutschland-class. Worse, ships that made the Dreadnought herself look like small fry were already on the drawing boards from Tokyo to Washington, London, Paris, and St. Petersburg.
As such, the group was largely put out to pasture by the very navy that championed them only scant months before, ridiculed as being able to only last “five minutes” in combat against the modern British ships.
Schleswig-Holstein‘s peacetime pre-WWI service was uneventful and when the guns of August came in 1914, the six year old warship was, along with her four sisters Deutschland, Hannover, Pommern, and Schlesien, along with the even slower Braunschweig-class predreadnought SMS Hessen, part of the II Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet, which despite its grand name was largely relegated to coastal defense.
In December 1914, they sailed as part of the raiding force that bombarded the English coast and made a few pushes into the North Sea in 1915. Then, at Jutland, the slow Deutschland-class ships hampered Scheer’s tactics and they often had to fall out of line, risking being left behind several times during that epic naval clash. In the battle, Schleswig-Holstein, a midget wrestler in the middle of an MMA competition, fired only a dozen or so shells and luckily suffered only one minor hit (from a 12-inch gun on HMS New Zealand) on her topside in return.
Royal Navy destroyer HMS Obedient, ending the battle, dispatched her sister, SMS Pommern, in a hail of torpedoes at 0315. She was the only battleship lost in the engagement for either fleet and took her entire crew to the bottom.
Following Jutland, Schleswig-Holstein, along with her remaining sisters, were unceremoniously withdrawn from fleet service. Her sailors, needed to operate U-boats, were largely reassigned, and the ship was tasked with berthing, guard ship, and submarine tender duties for the rest of the war.
As the German Imperial fleet went apeshit in the last weeks of WWI and raised a red flag from the masts of its ships, the old battleships were left behind when the bulk of the fleet was interned by the Allies at Scapa Flow. As part of the draconian Versailles Peace Treaty, the magnanimous Allies let the new Wiemar government keep eight old ships, four of the Deutschland-class and four of the even more obsolete Braunschweigers. These ships served in one form or another the new German Reichsmarine.
Class leader SMS Deutschland was retired 1920 and scrapped, in favor of keeping a fifth Braunschweiger while Hannover was kept as fleet flag for a couple years before her lay up in 1927 along with the Braunschweigers, leaving the fleet very short of capital ships.
Schleswig-Holstein was then reboilered with a hybrid coal/oil suite, and modernized, as much as the cash-strapped Germans could afford, to become fleet flag following her this refit 31 January 1926.
For the next decade, the old ship and her similarly refitted sister Schlesien were the pride of the tiny but efficient German fleet, and traveled the world on goodwill missions including visits in many former enemy ports. They had to, being the last two operational Teutonic battleships on Earth at the time.
On 22 September 1935, at age 27 and with a World War, a revolution, and a peaceful generation of summer cruises behind her, Schleswig-Holstein was relieved of her flag duties and turned into a training ship for naval cadets in the new Kreigsmarine, some 175 of which would make up her crew.
In 1939, with tensions escalating between Poland and Hitler’s Germany, Schleswig-Holstein was dispatched to protect German interests in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk) after commemorating the 25th anniversary of the WWI loss of the old Imperial cruiser SMS Magdeburg to the Russians. Upon docking, she was pushed to within 150-meters of the Free City’s border with Poland (cue ominous music).
It was there, at 04:47 on 1 Sept 1939, she fired the first rounds of World War II when she opened up on the Polish customs house and ammo depot at the Westerplatte to cover the assault of a force of 225 marines of the Marine-Stoßtrupp-Kompanie under Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen on the ersatz defenses.
This action as described by her deck logs :
0447: Open fire!
0448-0455: Eight 280mm heavy artillery shells and fifty-nine 150mm light artillery shells hit the southwestern section of the Westerplatte wall – not to mention 600 rounds from C30 machine-guns. The battleship approaches the target with her bow directed slightly against the slope of the docks, the tug Danzig at her stern. Numerous harbor buildings are hit and set ablaze.
0455: Suddenly two or three breaches in the wall can be seen. Hold fire! Red rockets!
0456: The assault company commences its attack. Soon explosions can be heard from the right wing, where the railway gate has been destroyed. Machine-gun fire is heard from Westerplatte, some rounds passing over the battleship’s bridge.
Following her week-long support of the attack on the Westerplatte, and joining her sister Schlesien in bombarding other Polish army positions for a few weeks, Schleswig-Holstein was withdrawn and used next in the invasion of Denmark, where she lay off Copenhagen on April 8/9, 1940, ready to deliver rounds from her battery onto the city if needed. She wound up not firing a shot and the German flag flew over the capital by lunch of the next day.
The rest of the war, as in the first, passed uneventfully for Schleswig-Holstein. She was relegated to the Eastern Baltic where she received extra AAA batteries to help defend herself against air attack, and served once more as a training ship. Speaking of air attack…
Of the 37 battleships (to include WWI-era predreadnought and coastal defense panzerschiffs) sunk in combat during World War II, most were sent to the bottom by air attack. These included a club of 11 that were scratched while in harbor of which the old Schleswig-Holstein, was a member. Her war ended when she was holed by a flight of RAF bombers in Gdynia Harbor on December 19 1944, settling to the bottom in 40-feet of water after suffering 28 killed and 53 were wounded. As such, she was one of the last German capital ships afloat.
Only the German pocket battleship Admiral Hipper, sunk by RAF bombers in Kiel, April 9 1945 with loss of 32 crew, and Schleswig-Holstein‘s Imperial sister Schlesien, sunk by mine and Soviet bomber attack and then scuttled near Swinemunde in the Baltic, May 5 1945, outlived her on the Kreigsmarine’s Naval list. The only German battlewagon to arguably survive the maelstrom was the pocket battleship Lutzow that was sunk by the Russkies as a target after the conflict.
However, don’t count an old German battlewagon out. Schleswig-Holstein was raised by the Soviets, towed to Tallin where she sat for two years as a floating warehouse, and was then towed to the shallows near the island of Osmussar off the Estonian coast. There, she was regularly pounded by Soviet air and naval forces as a target ship for another twenty years and her superstructure remained above water into the 1970s.
Today she sits in shallow water and is a dive attraction, although she is littered with live German 280mm shells.
Displacement: 13,200 t (13,000 long tons) normal
14,218 t (13,993 long tons) full load
Length: 127.6 m (418 ft. 8 in)
Beam: 22.2 m (72 ft. 10 in)
Draft: 8.21 m (26 ft. 11 in)
Installed power: 17,000 ihp (13,000 kW)
Propulsion: three shafts, three triple expansion steam engines, 12 boilers
Speed: 18 knots (33 km/h)
Range: 4,800 nautical miles (9,000 km); 10 knots (20 km/h)
708 enlisted men
Armament: At construction:
2 × 2 – 28 cm SK L/40 guns
14 × 17 cm (6.7 in) SK L/40 guns (casemated)
22 × 8.8 cm (3.5 in) SK L/45 naval guns (shielded/casemated)
6 × 45 cm (18 in) torpedo tubes (submerged)
Armament in 1926:
2 × 2 – 28 cm SK L/40 guns
12 x 15 cm SK L/45 guns (casemated: removed 1940)
8 × 8.8 cm (3.5 in) SK L/45 naval guns (shielded)
4 × 50 cm (20 in) torpedo tubes (casemated)
Armament in 1939:
2 × 2 – 28 cm SK L/40 guns
10 x 15 cm SK L/45 guns (casemated: removed 1940)
4 × 8.8 cm SK L/45 anti-aircraft guns
4 × 3.7 cm (1.5 in) guns (2×2)
Augmented 1943 with extensive flak batteries
Belt: 100 to 240 mm (3.9 to 9.4 in)
Turrets: 280 mm (11 in)
Deck: 40 mm (1.6 in)
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