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Sunday Battleship Blogging: SMS Ostfriesland

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SMS Ostfriesland was the second ship of the Helgoland class, the second group of German dreadnoughts. Germany had been taken aback by the construction of HMS Dreadnought and HMS Invincible. The Kiel Canal, which provided for quick, safe transit between the Baltic and the North Sea, could not accomodate vessels of Dreadnought’s girth. The German’s dawdled a bit before finally deciding to enlarge the Canal, and in 1907 laid down their first dreadnought battleships. The construction of HMS Dreadnought turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because while the Germans trailed badly in naval strength in 1906, Dreadnought reset the race; everybody went back to zero, and the Germans were well positioned to make a game of it.

Commissioned in August 1911, Ostfriesland displaced about 23000 tons, could make 21 knots, and carried 12 12″ guns in six twin turrets. The turret layout on Ostfriesland was remarkably inefficient, including one turret fore, one aft, and two on each wing. This meant that Ostfriesland only had a broadside of 8 12″ guns. To compare, the much smaller USS Michigan also had an eight gun broadside. The Brazilian Sao Paulo and the Argentinian Rivadavia each had ten gun broadsides, and the Hungarian Szent Istvan and Italian Dante Alighieri each managed a 12 gun broadside on a smaller displacement than the German ship. However, like all German ships, Ostfriesland was very well armoured, and capable of sustaining a great deal of damage.

Ostfriesland’s career mirrored that of the rest of the High Seas Fleet. It was thought at the time that encounters at sea tended to heavily favor the side with numerical superiority. A naval battle, unlike a land battle, suffers from relatively few natural impediments. Thus, it was thought that any encounter would quickly become a match of competing battle lines. In such a match, the side with more heavy guns would cause damage above ratio to the other fleet. A small numerical advantage would mean a large victory; if sixteen ships met thirteen, the ships would not simply cancel each other out, and the smaller side would be devastated at a relatively light cost to the larger. Because the High Seas Fleet could never match the Grand Fleet in numbers, its admirals were loathe to sortie.

The only major clash between the dreadnoughts of the two fleets came at the end of May, 1916, at the Battle of Jutland. Ostfriesland played a relatively small part in the battle, taking no damage but probably inflicting some on portions of the British squadron. On the way back to port, Ostfriesland hit a mine, but did not suffer crippling damage. The High Seas Fleet made only a couple more minor sorties, and mutinied when ordered on a near-suicide mission in late 1918.

Being fairly old, Ostfriesland was not interred at Scapa Flow at the end of the war. The remaining German fleet was parcelled out among the great powers. Ostfriesland was allocated to the United States. A forty-two year old American aviator, General William “Billy” Mitchell, had been arguing since the end of the war that aircraft could destroy surface naval units. In July of 1921, this argument was put to the test. Along with a number of other naval units, including the pre-dreadnought Alabama, Ostfriesland was attacked by successive waves of US Army Air Force bombers. The first attacks by the bombers caused relatively light damage, but later attacks by heavier aircraft caused extensive flooding, and sank Ostfriesland. Mitchell concluded from this demonstration that surface fleets had become essentially obsolete. The US Navy rejected this, arguing that the German ship was, old, small relative to new US ships, carried no anti-aircraft armament, and could not maneuver. A fleet under steam, the admirals argued, could not be so destroyed.

Both services took the tests seriously. The B-17 was intially designed to attack naval targets, although it was rarely used in that capacity. In battleship refits after 1921, the US Navy substantially increased the anti-aircraft weaponry of its main units. Aircraft would sink at least 14 battleships in World War II, the largest single cause of battleship loss.

Trivia: Seven of the ten fast battleships constructted by the United States have been or will be preserved as museums. Five of the ten fast battleships represent coastal states. Which fast battleship representing a coastal state was not preserved, and why wasn’t it preserved?

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