The Brandenburg Class

The Navy’s bid for funds under the 1889/90 Programme was already being formulated at the time that Wilhelm II came to the throne. It was intended to include two capital ships, at the opposite end of previously-noted range of Construction Office options from the Siegfrieds. An initial preference for another central battery ship along the lines of Oldenburg foundered on the difficulty in accommodating a substantive anti-torpedo boat armament in such a vessel – the torpedo threat had become more pronounced as the decade progressed. As noted in the previous chapter, there had been a preference for 30.5cm guns for the ‘high end’ of the armoured spectrum, but there was concern at the practicability of manually loading such weapons. Since 26cm guns were felt now to be too light as compared with the 30.5cm guns planned for the Baltic Russian Imperator Aleksandr II and Imperator Nikolai I (laid down in 1885), a 28cm bore was selected, a calibre used extensively in coast defence, but not as yet deployed afloat.

The first concept to be worked-up employed four single mountings: since a requirement still existed for three guns capable of firing directly ahead, this may have been on the basis of a lozenge arrangement, as found in a number of battleships launched in France since 1886.1 Such an arrangement required significant tumblehome to provide nominal2 axial arcs for the wing turrets. The original displacement envisaged for the Construction Office ‘heavy battleship’ was 10,000t, but it was agreed that this could be raised to 11,400t, the maximum size that would allow the use of existing docking facilities, as well as capable of passing through key locks. This allowed an extra 300t for armament that could, if twin mountings were used, permit a six-gun main battery.

There were two options for arranging these. One was that adopted for the contemporary Russian Black Sea battleships of the Ekaterina II class – a pair of twin mountings placed abreast firing forward, with a single twin firing aft; the Siegfrieds had employed a similar layout for their single main guns. The other was to place all three mountings on the centre line – one on the forecastle, one on the quarterdeck and one amidships, an approach employed (using single guns) in the French Amiral Baudin class, just at that time completing. Although not delivering desired the maximum bow-fire, it was at length agreed to go with this arrangement, as allowing all guns to fire on the broadside. The resulting ships had for many years the heaviest broadsides in the German navy, and their number of heavy guns in revolving mountings was not equalled until HMS Dreadnought in 1906 – although the latter was based on wholly different tactical concepts.

The expansion of the planned class from two to four ships was decreed by the Emperor in August 1888, funding being granted at length by the Reichstag (which was happy to fund the lead-ship, but wished to delay the other until she was complete) as the one major output from Mont’s short tenure. All of what became known as the Brandenburg class were laid down during the first half of 1890, the last vessel (D = Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm) taking a slip previously earmarked for Q = Frithjof of the Siegfried class. Originally, all six main guns were to have been 28cm/35s, housed in hooded barbettes, but while the ships were on the stocks a new 28cm/40 weapon became available. These could not be fitted in the midships mounting without a major change in superstructure layout, but the forward and aft mountings received the newer guns. While this led to a mismatch of ballistic characteristics within the battery, the short ranges then envisaged for battles meant that the differences in performance was not felt to be a significant issue. It was only when ranges grew that uniform performance across the whole armament became important, and was a reason for the move away from mixed calibres during the first decade of the twentieth century. The mountings were supplied with ammunition via a hoist at the rear of the barbette, from which shells were transferred to a rail-system to behind the guns. Here, a crane lifted a projectile up to the breech, into which it was hand-loaded. Although laborious, it gave the mountings an all-round loading capability.

The secondary battery was originally intended to be sixteen 8.7cm/35 guns, but as ships were being begun they were superseded by the new 8.8cm/35. However, when in 1891 the 10.5cm/35 became available, eight of these replaced the eight lighter guns that had been destined for mounting on the main deck. A six-tube torpedo outfit was installed, all above water and marginally trainable.

Armour for the first pair was ordered from the Dillingen company, but that for the second two it was procured from Krupp, who were in the process of experimenting with a new nickel-steel plate. Thus, while the first two ships completed with compound armour throughout, the later vessels received significant parts of their protection in the new armour.

Brandenburg’s trials were marred on 16 February 1894, when owing to a valve fault on the starboard engine, a main steam pipe burst, killing forty-four people (twenty-five naval personnel, eighteen shipyard employees and a member of the trials commission) and wounding seven. On the other hand, Wörth became fleet flagship (with the Emperor also aboard on occasion) for the 1894 manoeuvres, which included two extra divisions of capital ships – a real one (the IV.) comprising three Siegfrieds, and a nominal one (the III.), with four corvettes ‘playing’ capital ships for exercise purposes. The 1894 exercises were the last ones in which the old ironclads served as capital ships, although König Wilhelm would return during 1896 and 1897 as a cruiser.

The Reconstruction of the Brandenburg Class

The Brandenburgs had been little altered since their completion, apart from the heightening of their funnels during 1894/95. Now, they were also extensively refitted between 1901 and 1905 (with funds voted under the 1902 to 1905 programmes), although not to the extent seen in the Siegfrieds and Odins. One proposal, to replace the midships turret with a battery of four 15cm guns (much as had been done in 1896–8 in the similarly-arranged French Amiral Baudins that had helped inspire them), was rejected for reasons of cost, and the main battery was merely equipped with new ammunition and telescopic sights. On the other hand, the boilers were re-tubed and an aft conning tower and a further pair of 10.5cm guns on the main deck installed. The trainable torpedo tubes were all removed except that at the stern, with a pair of new submerged tubes installed instead, a torpedo-room being worked-in forward of the fore magazines. In addition, the searchlights were moved from their platforms low down on the masts to the spotting-tops. This reflected a wide programme of rearranging searchlights within the fleet during the first decade of the twentieth century.

The intention had been that the last Königs would replace the remaining Braunschweigs (Lothringen, Preußen and Hessen) in the High Seas Fleet, but with the coming of war, all were retained in the II. Sqn. The I. Sqn continued to accommodate the Nassaus and Helgolands, with the most modern battleships concentrated in the III. Sqn. With mobilisation, three further squadrons of battleships were provided from reserve, the Wittelsbachs, together with Braunschweig and Elsaß, becoming the IV. Sqn, and the Kaiser Friedrich IIIs the V. Sqn along with the two remaining Brandenburgs, while the Siegfried and Odin classes formed the VI. Sqn. Of the older large cruisers, the Victoria Louises became the V. SG, the remainder being grouped into the IV. SG (redesignated III. SG on 28 August 1914), except for Fürst Bismarck, which did not finish her reconstruction until mobilisation was complete – and by which time some of the older ships brought forward were already being paid off. Thus, as soon as she had completed her post-refit trials, Fürst Bismarck was used briefly as mobile target for torpedo trials, and then reduced to a stationary training ship.

Brandenburg and Wörth were being employed as harbour defence floating batteries at the now-occupied Baltic port of Libau (1915), moored just behind its northern and western breakwaters, and thus retained the potential for action longer than their younger squadron-mates.

Brandenburg arrived back at Libau, but now under tow and no longer a fighting ship. She had been disarmed at Danzig during December 1915, to provide spare guns for her Turkish sister Turgut Reis, before being refitted as an accommodation and distilling ship for submarines. The former battleship remained at Libau until February 1918, when she was towed back to Danzig with the intention of converting her to a target ship, to replace Oldenburg (i) – work that was never completed.