The imperial German navy

During the German wars of unification and the early years of the German Empire, the German navy hardly played a role. Only with Kaiser Wilhelm II was the rearmament significantly advanced by the Navy to become the 2nd strongest in the world. Highly prepared for a war, however, it was hardly used in the First World War, had the largest share in the fall of the empire and ended dramatically in the Scuttling.




Emergence of the imperial navy:

After the victories of Prussia in the German-Danish and the German War of 1864 and 1866, the North German states united to the North German Confederation under Prussian rule. As a result, the North German Navy was founded, which emerged almost exclusively from the Prussian Navy, since the other countries had no significant ships.

With the victory over France in the Franco-German War of 1870-1871 and the proclamation of the German Empire, the Navy was accordingly restructured and continued as imperial navy in the German Empire. With the imperial constitution of April 16, 1871 the supreme command was also transferred to the emperor personally. From February 1, 1872 was also introduced to the ships, according to the British model, the designation SMS for His Majesty's ship. In addition, the hitherto dispersed naval authorities were summoned to the Imperial Admiralty, whose first chief was General of the Infantry Albrecht von Stosch.

The mission of the Navy was at that time mainly from the protection of the German coasts, only with advent of German colonies overseas and the protection of maritime trade routes became more important. In addition, the Navy was involved in the construction of commercial and overseas bases.




William II. as large admiral and a commander in chief of the navy


Alfred von Tirpitz




The big structure of the fleet:

Until the late nineties of the 19th century, the construction of the German navy was neglected. It was not until the accession of Wilhelm II to the German Emperor that the role of the navy changed.

Wilhelm himself was fascinated by ships from childhood. So he gave the impetus to expand the German Navy to one of the most powerful in the world. His first official act was the restructuring of the leadership of the Navy and the appointment of Alfred von Tirpitz Secretary of State of the Imperial Navy Office, which strongly advanced the fleet expansion.

There were also major technical developments in shipbuilding at the beginning of the 20th century. With the introduction of mines, torpedoes, the submarine and naval aviation not only the warfare at sea changed but also tactics and the warships themselves. Ever larger ships with stronger weapons and armor were laid on keel.




The construction of the High Seas Fleet and the tensions with England:

At the turn of the century, it was still customary among the naval powers to hang up their warships in the harbors during the winter and return them to seaworthiness in the spring. Background was the at that time still overwhelming number of wooden warships, which survived the winter months only poorly.

In the German Empire every spring the exercise or maneuver fleet was contracted, which carried out various maneuvers and to make the ships re-usable. As a rule, this fleet consisted of the most powerful ships in the fleet. In 1900, this fleet was renamed the Battlefleet, on 16 February 1907, however, in the High Seas Fleet, since according to the testimony of Alfred von Tirpitz the term battle fleet abroad could be taken too aggressively.

Tirpitz was also the one who pushed through the upgrade of the High Seas Fleet. According to his plan, the fleet was to include 41 battleships, 12 large and 28 small cruisers and 18 foreign cruisers and several torpedo boat flotillas by 1920. Although France and Russia were classified as the main opponents, a war against England was not ruled out in the planning, even if the construction should not call into question the supremacy of England at sea. The actual strategy Tirpitz was in the coastal defense, as he assumed that English ships would carry out a blockade of the sea routes against the German Empire and position their ships at the height of Helgoland. Thus, the focus of the newly built ships was less in a deep sea war but near the coast.

On the English side, however, the development of the German High Seas Fleet was perceived as a threat. In addition, the German economy was already partially stronger than the English and the German army was also growing steadily. England saw it endanger its supremacy over Europe and also began to expand its navy.


Line ships of the High Seas Fleet




Strength and structure of the Imperial Navy around 1914:

Battleships 14
Liners 22
Coast ironclad 8
Battlecruiser 4
Armored cruiser 7
Small cruiser 12
Torpedo boats 89
Submarines 19



  • I. Squadron
    - SMS Ostfriesland (Flagship)
    - SMS Helgoland
    - SMS Thüringen
    - SMS Oldenburg
    - SMS Nassau
    - SMS Westfalen
    - SMS Rheinland
    - SMS Posen


  • II. Squadron
    - SMS Preußen (Flagship)
    - SMS Deutschland
    - SMS Hannover
    - SMS Pommern
    - SMS Schleswig-Holstein
    - SMS Schlesien
    - SMS Hessen


  • III. Squadron
    - SMS Prinzregent Luitpold (Flagship)
    - SMS Kaiser
    - SMS Kaiserin
    - SMS König Albert
    - SMS König
    - SMS Großer Kurfürst
    - SMS Markgraf


  • IV. Squadron
    - SMS Wittelsbach (Flagship)
    - SMS Wettin
    - SMS Zähringen
    - SMS Schwaben
    - SMS Mecklenburg
    - SMS Braunschweig
    - SMS Elsass


  • V. Squadron
    - SMS Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Flagship)
    - SMS Kaiser Wilhelm der Große
    - SMS Kaiser Barbarossa
    - SMS Kaiser Friedrich III.
    - SMS Kaiser Karl der Große
    - SMS Wörth
    - SMS Brandenburg


  • VI. Squadron
    - SMS Hildebrand (Flagship)
    - SMS Heimdall
    - SMS Hagen
    - SMS Frithjof
    - SMS Odin
    - SMS Beowulf
    - SMS Siegfried



  • I. Reconnaissance group
    - SMS Seydlitz (Flagship)
    - SMS Moltke
    - SMS Von der Tann
    - SMS Blücher
    - SMS Derfflinger


  • II. Reconnaissance group
    - SMS Cöln (Flagship)
    - SMS Mainz
    - SMS Stralsund
    - SMS Kolberg
    - SMS Rostock
    - SMS Straßburg
    - SMS Graudenz


  • III. Reconnaissance group
    - SMS München (Flagship)
    - SMS Danzig
    - SMS Stuttgart
    - SMS Hela
    - SMS Frauenlob


  • IV. Reconnaissance group
    - SMS Roon (Flagship)
    - SMS Yorck
    - SMS Prinz Adalbert
    - SMS Prinz Heinrich


  • V. Reconnaissance group
    - SMS Hansa (Flagship)
    - SMS Vineta
    - SMS Victoria Louise
    - SMS Hertha


  • East Asia squadron
    - SMS Scharnhorst
    - SMS Gneisenau
    - SMS Nürnberg
    - SMS Leipzig
    - SMS Dresden
    - SMS Emden
    - SMS Iltis
    - SMS Tiger
    - SMS Luchs
    - Torpedo boat S 90
    - SMS Jaguar
    - SMS Otter
    - SMS Vaterland
    - SMS Tsingtau
    - auxiliary ship Titania
    - SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich
    - SMS Cormoran
    - supply ship Baden
    - supply ship Santa Isabel
    - supply ship Seydlitz




The Navy in the First World War:

At the beginning of the First World War, the imperial navy had risen behind the English and, before the American, the second largest and most powerful in the world. However, right at the beginning of the war, the complete misjudgment and planning of the naval command regarding the English naval blockade became apparent. Before the war, a sea blockade was classified as very likely in the event of an altercation with England, but this planed at the height of Helgoland and thus within reach of the German High Seas Fleet. After the war began, the British ships blocked differently than planned, the area between the Shetland Islands and Norway and thus out of reach of German ships. In addition, the English Navy was in terms of the number of ships of the German Navy clearly superior, also in terms of firepower. Through the introduction of naval aviators and reconnaissance zeppelins, it was hardly possible, undetected large ship movements to perform and so surprise the enemy. With a few exceptions, the German ships were thus damned to lie in the harbors and do nothing.




In return, the German submarine weapon was clearly built. Called useless at the beginning of the war, the potential of this new weapon quickly developed over the British warships. As a result, ship projects already started on the German side have been stopped and the raw materials put into the submarine construction. The unrestricted submarine war around England, which was proclaimed for the second time in 1917, led to the USA's entry into the war on the Allied side.




The sailor uprising:

In the course of the year 1918 there were still individual forays of the German warships in the North Sea, but without major enemy contact. When it became clear in the autumn of 1918 that the war was no longer to be won, the Fleet Command was given up on October 24, which was to give a final battle against the British Navy in order to at least have honorably lost. However, this order meant that in the port of Kiel, the sailors rose against their superiors and refused the command, so that no further unnecessary sacrifices were to be complained.

The revolution in Kiel, which began in November, soon took hold of other cities in Germany, which forced the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to go into exile a short time later.




The end of the imperial navy:

With the capitulation of the German Empire, the German Navy had to transfer their ships to England, so that they could be interned there at the naval base Scapa Flow.

Once there, the ships were disarmed and were only provided with a German emergency crew, so that in case of a resumption of fighting, the German Navy is incapacitated.

During the negotiations on the Treaty of Versailles it became known that the German Empire must deliver almost its entire navy to the victors. In order to escape this weakness and to restore at least a portion of the lost honor, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter issued the order to his remaining sailors on June 21, 1919, to sink the German ships themselves.

Only 1 large-line ship, 4 small cruisers and 14 torpedo boats could be rescued by English sailors and dragged into shallow waters. By contrast, 55 ships sank and were mostly lifted and scrapped in the next few years.

The Weimar Republic remained after only 6 old ships of the line, 6 small cruisers and 12 torpedo boats with a staff of 15,000 men.


The interned Imperial High Seas Fleet in the Bay of Scapa Flow in November 1918






You can find the right literature here:


The Imperial German Navy of World War I, Vol. 1 Warships: A Comprehensive Photographic Study of the Kaiser’s Naval Forces

The Imperial German Navy of World War I, Vol. 1 Warships: A Comprehensive Photographic Study of the Kaiser’s Naval Forces Hardcover – December 28, 2016

The Imperial German Navy of WWI is a series of books (Warships, Campaigns, & Uniforms) that provide a broad view of the Kaiser's naval forces through the extensive use of photographs. Every effort has been made to cover all significant areas during the war period. In addition to the primary use of photographs, technical information is provided for each warship along with its corresponding service history; with a special emphasis being placed on those warships that participated in the Battle of Skagerrak (Jutland). Countless sources have been used to establish individual case studies for each warship; multiple photos of each warship are provided. The entire series itself is unprecedented in its coverage of the Kaiser's navy.

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From Imperial Splendor to Internment: The German Navy in the First World War

From Imperial Splendor to Internment: The German Navy in the First World War Hardcover – July 15, 2015

This important work describes how the Imperial German Navy, which had expanded to become one of the great maritime forces in the world, proved, with the exception of its submarines, to be largely ineffective throughout World War I. The inactivity of the great Imperial Navy caused deep frustration, particularly among the naval officers. Not only were they unable to see themselves as heroes, they were also ridiculed on the home front and felt profoundly humiliated. With the exception of the one sea battle at Jutland, their ships saw little or no action at sea. Morale collapsed to a point where, at the end of the war, the crews were in a state of mutiny. The order that forced the fleet to go to sea against the British in 1918 was driven by a sense of humiliation, but because the German sailors wanted no part in such madness it triggered a revolution.

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The Kaiser's Battlefleet: German Capital Ships 1871-1918

The Kaiser's Battlefleet: German Capital Ships 1871-1918 Hardcover – March 15, 2016

The battleships of the Third Reich have been written about exhaustively, but there is little in English devoted to their Second Reich predecessors. This new book fills an important gap in the literature of the period by covering these German capital ships in detail and studying the full span of battleship development during this period. The book is arranged as a chronological narrative, with technical details, construction schedules, and ultimate fates tabulated throughout, thus avoiding the sometimes disjointed structure that can result from a class-by-class approach. Heavily illustrated with line drawings and photographs, many from German sources, the book offers readers a fresh visual look at these ships. A key objective of the book is to make available a full synthesis of the published fruits of archival research by German writers found in the pre-World War II books of Koop & Schmolke, Großmer's on the construction program of the dreadnaught era, Forstmeier & Breyer on World War I projects, and Schenk & Nottelmann's papers in Warship International. As well as providing data not available in English-language books, these sources correct significant errors in standard English sources.

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German Battlecruisers of World War One: Their Design, Construction and Operations

German Battlecruisers of World War One: Their Design, Construction and Operations Hardcover – November 4, 2014

This is the most comprehensive, English-language study of the German Imperial Navy's battlecruisers that served in the First World War. Known as Panzerkreuzer, literally "armored cruiser," the eight ships of the class were to be involved in several early North Sea skirmishes before the great pitched battle of Jutland where they inflicted devastating damage on the Royal Navy's battlecruiser fleet. This book details their design and construction, and traces the full service history of each ship, recounting their actions, drawing largely from first-hand German sources and official documents, many previously unpublished in English.

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German Surface Raider Warfare: the Ships and Operations of the German Imperial Navy During the First World War, 1914-18

German Surface Raider Warfare: the Ships and Operations of the German Imperial Navy During the First World War, 1914-18 Paperback – April 19, 2017

The creation of surface merchant raiders by the Imperial German Navy at the outset of the First World War, was an innovative departure from the traditional practices of naval fleet operations. These ships had originally been merchant vessels and at first sight remained so. However, they were the definitive ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, for they carried beneath their disguises, which could be dropped when a target vessel was in close range, a formidable array of weaponry which included naval guns, torpedoes and mines. Some carried their own reconnaissance seaplanes and crews. This was a bold tactical initiative for these ships, acting independently, had missions that in many respects were destined to be ill fated. Their task was to do as much damage--principally to merchant ships carrying materiel for the Allied cause—as they could without (or before) being caught by the warships that were seeking to destroy them. Inevitably some were quickly sunk, or eventually beached or scuttled, and others were forced into neutral ports where they were interned for the duration of hostilities. Some, such as the SMS Wolf, were, however, phenomenally successful, and returned to their home ports to popular acclaim as romantic latter day buccaneers. This Leonaur book is based upon writings collated by the British Admiralty after the war, which was, in turn, gathered from German sources within the history of the activities of the Imperial German Navy. The book describes each vessel and details its voyages and battles, together with interesting operational and logistic information. Included in this Leonaur edition, to enhance the text for modern readers, are many pictures not included in any of the original texts.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.

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