THE KAISER’S CRUISERS 1871-1918

January 13, 2023
Posted by: REAR ADMIRAL R. G. MELLY

I approached this book with some trepidation, as it appeared daunting in many ways – by weight, by size (320 pages) and by topic! What quickly became clear, however, is that it is the culmination of a very considerable amount of detailed research by its two experienced authors: Aidan Dodson is the author of 25 books, many of them covering ships of this era; and Dirk Nottelmann, a German civil servant, has been working on the history of the Imperial Navy for over 30 years. The extensive experience brought to this handsomely-produced book by these two prolific authors is all too evident.

The time frame covered is one of great change, embracing the 47 years of the ‘Second Reich’.  The ships under consideration evolved from the pre-Empire vessels at the start of the era, some with wooden hulls and many with sails, to the small steel-hulled cruisers that fought in the First World War, where the underlying visions of empire were finally extinguished.

The authors set the scene by outlining the naval forces available in the decades immediately before Wilhelm I was pronounced German Emperor in January 1871 and by describing the events in which these vessels were involved during the numerous wars of that period. Wilhelm I began the task of building a navy fitting for an emerging power, with the commissioning of a significant number of classes of cruisers. However, it was not until Wilhelm II came to the throne (1888 – 1918) that a perceived under-investment in the Navy was addressed, not least due to the growing number of overseas commitments. In 1894, a memorandum prepared by the then-Kapitän zur See Tirpitz set out a logical concept for the development of the German navy; this postulated that the meeting of the enemy in battle should be the key to German strategy, with cruiser warfare a secondary activity.  Nevertheless, Tirpitz also set out the desired characteristics of cruising vessels, stipulating the desired displacement, range, speed and armament of such ship, perhaps best embodied in the handsome cruisers of the Gazelle and the Frauenlob classes.

In 1898 (the First Fleet Law) and in 1900 (the Second Fleet Law), the size of the future navy was agreed by the Reichstag. These laws set out the numbers and types of ship to be commissioned, including the provision of cruisers, now to be built to a steady drumbeat. Each cruiser class was a development of its predecessor, with displacements, speed and range generally increasing, and turbines introduced for main propulsion. The 1909 estimates resulted in a step-change in cruiser design, with the introduction of a larger displacement, side armour, ever greater speed, improved survivability and, eventually, a larger calibre of main armament (15cms versus 10.5cms).

The operational deployment of the cruisers during WWI is recounted in full, as is the roles played by those ships which survived to serve further either with the Germans (six vessels) or with other navies. A total of 105 ships could be categorised as the Kaiser’s cruisers, of which 15 were lost in action in WWI (primarily those ships based overseas, when hostilities began). Nevertheless, these light cruisers grew to be indispensable work horses, combining seaworthiness, a useful armament and a degree of expendability.

The book is furnished with an astonishing amount of detail, including line drawings of many of the ships described along with some evocative black and white photographs. For each of the ships of this period, a full operating history is provided, complemented in the appendices with tables summarising the key characteristics of each class of ship, along with their name, key dates and fate.  The wealth of information provided is impressive, and I have no doubt that the book will be seen to be the definitive book of reference for anyone interested in ‘The Kaiser’s Cruisers’.