17 Oct 19
Posted by: R. G. Melly

SMS Helgoland was the lead ship of the second class of dreadnoughts designed for the German Imperial Navy. As such, she was a marked improvement over the earlier Nassau class, primarily as her main armament was increased to 12in guns, thereby matching the Royal Navy’s armament of the day. Laid down in 1908 and commissioned in 1911, she saw action during World War I and was finally surrendered to the British as war reparations, before being sold for scrap in 1921.

It is probably as a result of this background that the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich holds a remarkable set of official ship’s drawings, showing the Helgoland’s general arrangements and providing a wealth of detail with regard to the ship’s layout, armament and systems.  These drawings have now been ‘scanned’ and are presented in this finely produced book, along with an explanatory narrative.  The book is the latest in a series of publications, based on original draught drawings held by the museum, which provide a fascinating insight into the design and construction of warships.

In the book’s introduction, the author outlines the genesis of this class of dreadnought. In keeping with the German concept of close-range combat, the ships were fitted out with an impressive armament of heavy, medium and light calibre guns, supplemented with six submerged torpedo tubes.  The result was a handsome, compact, well-armed and well-armoured vessel which compared well with its Royal Navy counterparts.  Powered by coal, perhaps one surprising decision was to select 4-cylinder vertical triple expansion engines for the main machinery – and this at a time when the British, French and American navies were investing in steam turbines (albeit the ship could still manage an impressive 20.5 knots).  The Helgoland was clearly designed to withstand damage, with an impressive array of armour, compartmentalisation, and anti-torpedo measures.  In the event of flooding, there was also an ingenious system for removing water, utilising pipework protected in the double bottom and accessed by pumps throughout the ship.  The four ships of the class all survived the First World War but were disposed of shortly thereafter.

The true joy of this book is, however, the colour illustrations which comprise the majority of the publication.  The ship is shown in profile and in plan in what are inevitably busy drawings.  However, in a section covering 48 pages (a third of the book), the ship is broken down with larger scale drawings showing 25 cross-sections of the ship, each viewed in two planes, and each liberally supplied with explanatory panels (necessary not least because the drawings are of course annotated in German).  Further drawings provide details of the coaling arrangements, boat stowage, rigging, and the armament’s control and communication systems.  Finally, illustrations are provided of the layouts of each of the ship’s decks, complete with further explanatory panels.

The full name of the book is German Battleship Helgoland – detailed in the original builders’ plans and this is pretty much what Aidan Dodson, the author, has provided. Beautifully produced, it represents a significant piece of research by an author who is well versed in the subject, having authored an earlier book The Kaiser’s Battlefleet: German Capital Ships 1871-1918. The Introduction is well-written and informative, and I found, a little bit to my surprise, that I was both fascinated and intrigued by this detailed insight into the layout and construction of these powerful vessels. Very reasonably priced at £30 RRP, I suspect that most NR readers would be unable to resist picking the book up from a coffee table!