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Sunday Battleship Blogging: SMS Schleswig-Holstein

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SMS Schleswig-Holstein was the fourth of the Deutschland class, the last pre-dreadnought battleships built by Germany. The Deutschland’s were authorized by Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz’ Fleet Acts, designed to provide Germany with a large, powerful Navy. The idea of a powerful Navy appealed to a wide swath of German society, including labor and big industry. The prospect for a larger overseas empire also excited the Kaiser. Schelswig-Holstein was laid down in 1904 and completed in 1908. She carried four 11″ guns in two twin turrets, displaced 14000 tons, and could make about 18.5 knots. Pre-dreadnought battleships tended to carry large secondary armaments, and Schlewig-Holstein was also armed with 14 6.7″ guns

The commissioning of Dreadnought in late 1906 rendered most battleships in the world obsolete. This helped to obscure the fact that Schleswig-Holstein and her sisters were completely outclassed, upon completion, by foreign competition. The British King Edward VIIIs were much larger and carried a heavier main armament. The same could be said of the American Connecticut class, and even the Japanese Mikasa, completed six years earlier, compared favorably with the German design. Moreover, the German ships were utterly inferior to the last generation of pre-dreadnought warships, mostly completed after Dreadnought, and including the British Lord Nelsons, the French Dantons, and the Austrian Radetzkys.

No one knew quite what to do with pre-dreadnought battleships after the completion of Dreadnought. The USN continued to employ pre-dreadnoughts in front line roles until it possessed enough dreadnoughts to push the older battleships into the second line. Some pre-dreadnoughts, like the Radetzky class, had the speed to keep up with the dreadnought battlefleet, and could stay in a fleet role. The British employed pre-dreadnoughts in any number of different roles, including coastal defense, cruiser hunting, and in the Dardanelles operation. By 1914, Germany had an embarassment of dreadnoughts for any mission other than fighting the Royal Navy. Most German pre-dreadnoughts were committed to training operations or coastal defense. The Deutschland class, however, were retained as a squadron in the High Seas Fleet, and regularly performed maneuvers with the German dreadnought fleet.

Thus, Schleswig-Holstein was part of the High Seas Fleet in late May of 1916, when the German Navy sortied in an effort to catch and destroy a portion of the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy. The inclusion of the six pre-dreadnoughts (the five Deutschlands and the earlier Hessian) was controversial; these ships were slower than the German dreadnoughts, and many believed that they didn’t add enough firepower to be of consequence. Given that the High Seas Fleet was at a severe firepower disadvantage relative to the Royal Navy, I think that the inclusion of the pre-dreadnoughts was defensible. Schleswig-Holstein and her sisters were at the end of the German line, and did not suffer from severe gunfire damage. However, one of their number, Pommern, was hit by a torpedo and sank.

After the High Seas Fleet returned to port, Schleswig-Holstein and her sisters were removed for other duties. At the end of the war, the best of the High Seas Fleet was dispatched to Scapa Flow for eventual scuttling. The rest of the German dreadnoughts were turned over to other allied powers, which either sank the German ships as targets or sold them as scrap. By the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was allowed to keep only a few pre-dreadnought battleships, including Schleswig-Holstein. The replacements allowed for these ships were even smaller than the pre-dreadnoughts themselves. Thus, the Kriegsmarine retained Schleswig-Holstein as an active unit for the entire interwar period.

In late August 1939, Schleswig-Holstein was dispatched to Gdansk for a “courtesy visit”. On the morning of September 1, 1939 the aging battleship opened fire on a Polish Army barracks, opening World War II. Schleswig-Holstein continued to bombard Polish positions for the next five days, taking some damage from Polish shore batteries in the process. The rest of Schleswig-Holstein’s career was relatively uneventful, although she did participate in the occupation of Denmark in early 1940. The Kriegsmarine used the old battleship as a training ship for the rest of the war.

On December 19, 1944, Schleswig-Holstein was hit by 3 bombs, caught fire, and sank in shallow water. The crew later set off scuttling charges, causing some additional damage. This damage did not dissuade Russia for refloating Schleswig-Holstein, renaming her Borodino, and turning her into a target ship. She continued in that service until 1948, when the Russian Navy scuttled her.

Trivia: What was the only German capital ship (other than a pre-dreadnought) lost in World War I?

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