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Sunday Battleship Blogging: SMS Baden

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The dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleet had two notable characteristics. First, they were well armored and have excellent survivability characteristics. These qualities extended to German battlecruisers, most of which took brutal damage at Jutland yet survived. On the downside, German dreadnoughts tended to be poorly armed. The first German dreadnought class, the Nassaus, carried twelve 11″ guns in an extremely wasteful hexagon pattern that allowed a broadside of only eight guns. Later German dreadnoughts adopted the 12″ gun, but the Germans continued to arrange the turrets poorly, not adopting a full centerline plan until the Konig class of 1913.

To some degree these choices involved a value trade-off. The Germans focused on survivability more than did the British, although probably less than the Americans. The Germans also believed that battles in the North Atlantic would be fought at short ranges, and that at these short ranges lighter guns, with their increased rate-of-fire, would prove superior to heavy guns. On the other hand, heavy guns did more damage when they hit, and were more likely to penetrate a ship’s main armor belt and do severe damage to the vitals. In another sense, however, the German behavior was just foolish. Heavier guns did not necessarily require a larger frame or sacrifices in speed or protection. The 8 15″ guns of Queen Elizabeth weighed no more than the 10 13.5″ guns of Iron Duke. Correctly arranged, a larger guns could actually save weight while maintaining strength of broadside and increasing effective range.

The Royal Navy steadily increased the size of its guns, from 12″ on Dreadnought to 13.5″ on Orion to 15″ on Queen Elizabeth. The Imperial Japanese Navy designed Kongo with 14″ guns, and the USN followed suit with the 14″ gunned New York. The otherwise quite modern Konig, a contemporary of these ships, carried only 10 12″ guns. The German Navy, upon discovering that the British had decided to arm Orion with 13.5″ weapons, finally authorized the use of a larger gun. The next class of German ships would be built on a larger frame and would carry 8 15″ guns. These ships would become Bayern and Baden, and would be the only German battleships, in either war, to be sufficiently armed for their size.

Baden was an excellent design. She displaced 29000 tons and could make 22 knots, slower, but better armored, than the Queen Elizabeth class. Baden had a mixed propulsion system that used both oil and coal, an arrangement unique to later Imperial German ships. Unfortunately for the Germans, neither Baden nor Bayern were ready for the Battle of Jutland. Baden was not commissioned until March of 1917, while Bayern entered service a few weeks after Jutland. No single ship (other perhaps than the USS New Jersey) could have transformed the outcome of Jutland, but it’s fair to say that the Germans would have done much better if Baden or Bayern had been available. In particular, the battleships of the Fifth Battle Squadron, including Barham and Warspite, would have suffered badly from the heavier German guns. Warspite only barely escaped after being hit by 15 12″ shells. The 15″ guns of Baden might well have sent her to the bottom.

The German Navy did not sortie after Jutland, and Baden had a relatively uneventful career. The High Seas Fleet refused a suicidal order to sortie in late 1918, and at the end of the war the Allies demanded that the most powerful German ships be interned at Scapa Flow. The German fleet (somewhat ragtag after being poorly maintained for the last year of the war) was escorted from Wilhelmshaven to Scapa Flow by a huge fleet of British, French, and American battleships. The situation remained tense, and the Allies were careful to keep their guns trained on the German battleships as they left port. Baden was not originally slated for internment, but another ship, Mackensen, was not complete and Baden was taken as substitute

The German fleet remained, with skeletal crews, at Scapa Flow as peace talks dragged on. Several of the ships would have been significant prizes for the Allies, including Baden and Bayern. France in particular would have liked to incorporate some of the German ships into her fleet. The Royal Navy was content to let the ships rust. The British were reluctant to seize the ships while peace talks continued, and they believed, in any case, that the German crews would react to an attempt at seizure by scuttling the ships.

On June 21, 1919, acting on what may have been an erroneous report about the negotiations, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the High Seas Fleet to scuttle itself. Eleven battleships, five battlecruisers, and dozens of smaller ships opened up their hulls and sank. The Royal Navy, out on maneuvers, was unable to stop the Germans, although a few German sailors were shot in the confusion. Deeply annoyed, the British imprisoned the crews for some time before allowing a repatriation to Germany. Only the Baden could be saved, as the British towed her into shallow water before she sank.

Over the next two years, the Royal Navy tested, prodded, poked, and disassembled Baden in order to figure out how she compared to British ships. Their conclusions, which should be viewed with some skepticism, were that Baden was definitely inferior to her Royal Navy contemporaries. On 16 August 1921, Baden was mercifully sent to the bottom by fire from Royal Navy battleships. The wrecks of eight German battleships and battlecruisers remain at the bottom of Scapa Flow, and have become an attraction for adventurous SCUBA divers.

Trivia: Which German battleship of the twentieth century had the longest active service career?

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