König Wilhelm (1869)

König Wilhelm was also designed for ramming. Between 1862 and 1893 more warships were sunk or heavily damaged by accidental ramming than were sunk in battle.

A deck plan of the ship in its original form. Despite the high freeboard, the weather deck is almost entirely clear of equipment. The battery is on the main deck, below.

König Wilhelm after the 1895–1896 reconstruction into an armored cruiser.

At first the flagship of the Prussian fleet, after 1871 it became the largest battleship in the navy of the newly-unified German Empire, and retained that status for 20 years, until Germany’s naval expansion got under way.

Classified by the Prussian Navy as a Panzerfregatte or armoured frigate, like other such vessels of the time, König Wilhelm was in effect a battleship, the ‘frigate’ being a now anachronistic reference to the single gun-deck, which by now carried more firepower than any former three-decker. It had been ordered by the Imperial Ottoman Navy from the Thames Ironworks at Blackwall, London, but when the Turks cancelled the order, the Prussians stepped in and bought it on the stocks in February 1867 Launched on 25 April 1868, the ship was named after King Wilhelm I.

Specifications and armament

The hull was fitted with the ram-type bow fashionable at the time, though a lengthy bowsprit extended before it, housed in a ‘cubby’ at a lower level than the weather deck. It was a high-sided ship, with 12.94m (42ft 5in) of freeboard. The hull was divided into 11 watertight compartments, and was double-bottomed for 70 per cent of its length. Steam power came from a Maudslay horizontal two-cylinder engine. Eight boilers were set in two rooms, each with a funnel, and the three masts could mount a spread of 2600m2 (27,986 sq ft) of sail.

The original armament, which would quickly become obsolete, was 33 muzzle-loading 32-pounders, smooth-bored. The choice of guns was presumably based on British advice. At this time the Admiralty’s policy on guns was in some disarray. Armstrong breech-loading guns with rifled barrels, intended for armour-piercing, and introduced in 1860, had been a failure, especially the 110-pounders. Discussion of the respective merits of smooth-bore and rifled bore, of loading by breech or muzzle, was intense, and various designs were tried.

In 1865 a 64-pounder muzzle loader was introduced using ‘Woolwich’ rifling, devised at the Royal Gun Factory, but it was not a success. It would be 1880 before the British finally resolved their naval gun problem.

Grand review

It became customary in the age of the steam-powered capital ship to use such vessels for peaceful visits to countries allied or at least not hostile. These courtesy visits were also opportunities to show off the latest in the way of naval design. Naval reviews, with long lines of ships assembled, and visiting warships from other nations, were a favourite way of demonstrating British imperial power and the might of the Royal Navy.

To the grand review organised at Spithead (Portsmouth) in 1896 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, Kaiser Wilhelm II, her grandson, sent König Wilhelm, rather than the new Brandenburg, to represent the Imperial German Navy.

It was perhaps a double-edged compliment to the host-nation, to send a ship originally built in Britain, but radically modernised and improved in Germany: an intimation that Germany had every intention of rivalling Great Britain as a first-class naval power.

Imperial fleet

Prussia was a kingdom with strong military ambitions. In 1870 France declared war on Prussia only to be quickly defeated on land. König Wilhelm was flagship of the Prussian fleet but (despite the much greater size of the French Navy) naval forces played little part in the war, and König Wilhelm was immobilised by engine problems for much of the time.

In 1871 the German Empire was proclaimed, King Wilhelm became Kaiser, and it became the largest ship of the Imperial Fleet, which was simply the old Prussian one, though a new building programme was put in hand. On 31 May 1878 König Wilhelm accidentally rammed and sank one of the new vessels, the turret ironclad Grosser Kurfürst (commissioned in 1875) in a faulty manoeuvre to avoid a couple of sailing craft as they cruised up the English Channel off Folkestone. As one British admiral commented, ‘the ram was more dangerous in peace than in war’.


A complete modernisation was done in Hamburg in 1896. The sail rig was taken down and replaced by two new-type naval masts, with observation platforms, fighting tops with light guns, and signalling arms. A small third mast remained, with a bridge house built in front of it. The cubby where the bowsprit had been stepped was plated over, though the original decorative scrollwork was left in place, and a forward lookout and searchlight platform was installed.

New boilers and triple-expansion engines were installed, and the ship was completely re-gunned. Twenty-two Krupp 239mm (9.4in) and one 152mm (6in) rifled breech-loading guns were installed and supplemented by 18 88mm (3.5in) quick-firing guns. Five torpedo tubes were fitted, above the waterline, to fire weapons scarcely anticipated when it was originally planned.

By 1893–94 the German Navy’s four new Brandenburg-class battleships were being commissioned, and in its new form König Wilhelm was redesignated as a Grosser Kreuzer (armoured cruiser). From 1893 to 1897 it was flagship of Division II of the Imperial German Navy, at the new North Sea base of Wilhelmshaven. After 1897, as the German fleet grew in size and power, it was relegated to a harbour defence and training role until its removal from the active list in 1904. Disarmed, it continued in use as an accommodation ship, at Kiel, and did not go finally out of service until 1921, when it was scrapped at Rönnebeck, near Bremen, having outlasted the German Empire by three years.


Dimensions Length 112m (367ft 5in), Beam 18.3m (60ft), Draught 8.56m (28ft 1in), Displacement 8711 tonnes (9603 tons)

Propulsion (1869): 8 boilers, Maudslay horizontal 2-cylinder engine developing 6000kW (8000hp)

Speed 14.5 knots

Armament (1869): 33 72-pounder ML guns (smooth bore)

Armour Belt 305–152mm (12–6in), Battery 152mm (6in), Deck 50mm (2in)

Range (after 1896): 4148km (2240nm) at 10 knots

Complement 730

Hans von Koester

Koester was promoted to Kapitän zur See in 1881. Appointed commander of the Segelfregatte (sail frigate) Niobe in 1883, Koester next took command of the Panzerkorvette (armored corvette – later battleship) Württemberg in 1884.

In 1887 he was named commander of the Panzerfregatte (armored frigate – later armored cruiser) König Wilhelm, long the largest ship in the fleet.

Hans von Köster (1844-1928) was one of six Großadmirale appointed in the Kaiserliche Marine. In fact, he was the FIRST active-duty Admiral promoted to that rank in 1905. He retired the following year.