Machine of the Month: German Super Battleships

Machine of the Month

Welcome to Machine of the Month! Each month we'll be exploring a famous plane, ship or tank through an extract, blog post, fact file and artwork.

This month to celebrate the launch of our new Fleet series we're taking a look at the Super Battleships of the German High Seas Fleet from Angus Konstam's new book. At the bottom of the page you can find related titles for some further reading.

Next month we'll move onto our first tank feature with a dive into armoured warfare in North Africa from 1942 to 1943.


The Origin of The German High Seas Fleet

The very creation of the High Seas Fleet in 1907 had been part of a naval stratagem, ‘the Risk Theory’, which argued that a powerful German fleet would deter Britain from intervening in Germany’s rise to imperial power, the Kaiser’s ambition. If the two fleets clashed, it was probable that the larger Grand Fleet would be the victor. The key to the stratagem was to ensure that any war would result in such a costly, pyrrhic victory for the British that the Royal Navy would lose its naval dominance, which in turn would leave it dangerously vulnerable to other, smaller rivals. Given such a strategic scenario, Britain would choose to protect its navy and empire, and decline to fight Germany. The role of the High Seas Fleet was not to fight its way to predominance, but rather to hold the status of the Royal Navy hostage.

When war came, however, not only did the British avoid this decisive, costly battle until mid-1916, but they came within an ace of destroying the High Seas Fleet. The British also used geography to render the German fleet ineffective, through its inability to defeat the Grand Fleet and break Britain’s economic blockade of Germany. Ultimately, this blockade would ensure an Allied victory in the war, and the surrender en masse of the High Seas Fleet. The outcome of the naval war could have been very different if the High Seas Fleet had been able to achieve its quickly re-designed mission: whittling down the strength of the Grand Fleet piecemeal until the naval balance gave Germany the edge in the North Sea. Then, Der Tag would have come when the High Seas Fleet could show its worth.


The opening phase of the battle of Jutland involved a clash between the rival battlecruisers, and the detached division of British fast battleships. Inevitably, however, the climax would come when the two rival battle fleets clashed. It was Vizeadmiral Scheer’s misfortune that when they did meet, he found himself at an immense disadvantage. At the time his battle fleet was in line ahead formation, steering towards the north-east. Then, to the north, the leading German dreadnoughts spotted a line of British dreadnoughts blocking their path. Admiral Jellicoe’s battle fleet was steering towards the east-south-east, so effectively he was in a position to ‘cross the T’ of the German fleet, at a range of just six miles. This meant that all of his dreadnoughts could fire full broadsides at the enemy, while only the forward-facing guns of the leading German dreadnoughts could fire back. It was a potentially catastrophic situation for the German commander.

However, his battle fleet had practised a manoeuvre which was perfect for this appalling situation. The Gefechtskehrtwendung (or ‘Battle Turn-Away’) involved a simultaneous reversal of course by every ship in then German line. At 1818hrs, on his flagship Friedrich der Grosse, Scheer sent the signal which set the manoeuvre in train. It read ‘Turn together 16 points to starboard’. This shows the manoeuvre under way. The leading German dreadnought König attracted most of the British fire, and she was hit several times, as were the other leading ships Grosser Kurfürst, Kronprinz and Markgraf. Still, within five minutes or so the German ships were hidden by smoke, and the British lost contact with them. Scheer had pulled off the seemingly impossible, and saved his battle fleet. Their escape from under the guns of the Grand Fleet was thanks to extensive training, good ship handling and a sizeable slice of luck.