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German Navy, World War 1-era


Kaiser Wilhelm II (Supreme Naval Commander) being greeted on his birthday by Admiral von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office (Library of Congress, click to enlarge)  return to "Pax Britannica", 1815-1914
or World War 1, 1914-1918


Researching awards of the Pour le Merité to the Imperial German Navy, some of which were granted to commanding Admirals, I found it difficult to understand their positions in the hierarchy. These are the notes I made, which might help others to understand something of the Navy's organisation as well as its expansion prior to the outbreak of World War 1.


1 8 9 7


The Imperial German Navy was the creation of Admiral von Tirpitz (1849-1930) (right), appointed by the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II to be Secretary of State of the Reichsmarineamt (Imperial Naval Office), which became the main administrative office of the Navy.


The German Naval Supreme Command was dissolved by the Kaiser as Supreme Commander of the Navy and reorganised into three main (and confusing) departments, each one taking on the role of a pressure group: (1) the German Admiralty, which was reduced to an advisory role, (2) Fleet Command under a Gross Admiral from 1903, responsible for the fleet and its personnel rather than general policy, and (3) the Reichsmarineamt under Tirpitz, reporting directly to the German Prime Minister or Chancellor but taking orders from the Kaiser, and covering administration, technical and training matters. Other pressure groups included the Naval Cabinet and various commands.



1 8 9 8


First German Naval Law, a construction programme to enable the new German Navy to oppose the French and Russian Navies. Nineteen battleships, 8 armoured cruisers, 12 large and 30 light cruisers to be completed by 1904.



1 9 0 0


Second German Naval Law to challenge Royal Navy. Fleet to be doubled to 38 battleships, 20 armoured cruisers and 38 light cruisers.



1 9 0 4


Anglo-French Entente Cordiale highlighted German concerns about British future intentions and the threat of the Royal Navy.



 1 9 0 6



Third Naval Law (6 battleships) proposed by Reichsmarineamt. These, the Deutschland-class, 13,990t, 4-11in, were the last pre-Dreadnoughts to be built; above - SMS Pommern of the class, launched December 1905.


The revolutionary British all big-gun battleship DREADNOUGHT was launched and soon completed, superseding all existing capital ships and thus dislocating the German building programme.


First Amendment of 1900 Naval Law (5 + 1 armoured cruisers) instead of the 6 battleships of the 3rd Law which would have to be uprated to the Dreadnought concept. This would have been too expensive for the German Parliament (Reichstag) at that time.



1 9 0 7


Anglo-French-Russian Triple Entente further threatened Germany.


German High Seas Fleet introduced



1 9 0 8


Second Amendment of 1900 Law (6 Dreadnoughts at the rate of two each fiscal year, plus submarine construction). Admiral Tirpitz, as Head of Reichsmarineamt was subordinate to the Imperial Chancellor but in effect steered German foreign policy and Anglo-German relations.



Starting with the 1906-07 fiscal year, a total of 21 dreadnoughts (2 uncompleted) and 11 battlecruisers (one, the BLÜCHER only mounted 8.2in guns, and 3 uncompleted) were approved (tonnages quoted are deep load):



1906-07 fiscal year (FY) - 2 of 4 Nassau-class Dreadnoughts, 21,000t, 12-11in (NASSAU, WESTFALEN (below - top), and small-gunned battlecruiser BLÜCHER (below - second), 17,250t, 12-8.2in.




1907-08 FY - final 2 of 4 Nassau-class Dreadnoughts (RHEINLAND, POSEN), and battlecruiser VON DER TANN (below), 21,700t, 8-11in.




1908-09 FY - 3 of 4 Helgoland-class Dreadnoughts, 25,200t, 12-12in (HELGOLAND, OSTFRIESLAND, THÜRINGEN), and 1st Moltke-class battlecruiser MOLTKE (below), 25,300t, 10-11in.




1909-10 FY - 4th Helgoland-class Dreadnought (OLDENBURG (below), 2 of 5 Kaiser-class Dreadnoughts (KAISER, FRIEDRICH DER GROSSE), and 2nd Moltke-class battlecruiser GOEBEN.




1910-11 FY - last 3 Kaiser-class Dreadnoughts, 27,400t, 10-12in (KAISERIN, KÖNIG ALBERT (below - top), PRINZREGENT LUITPOLD), and battlecruiser SEYDLITZ (below - second), 28,100t, 10-11in.





1911-12 FY - 3 of 4 König-class Dreadnoughts, 29,200t, 10-12in (KÖNIG, GROSSER KÜRFURST (below - top), MARKGRAF), and 1st Derfflinger-class battlecruiser DERFFLINGER (below - second), 30,700t, 8-12in.







1912-13 FY - 4th König-class Dreadnought (KRONPRINZ), and 2nd Derfflinger-class battlecruiser LÜTZOW.



1913-14 FY - 4 Bayern-class Dreadnoughts, 31,690t, 8-15in (BAYERN (below - sinking in Scapa Flow 1919), BADEN, uncompleted SACHSEN, WÜRTTEMBERG), and 3rd Derfflinger-class battlecruiser HINDENBURG




Wartime estimates - 3 Mackensen-class battlecruisers, 36,000t, 8-13.8in (MACKENSEN, PRINZ EITEL FRIEDRICH (ERSATZ FREYA), GRAF SPEE - all uncompleted)




1 9 1 2


Third Naval Amendment - to build three capital ships each year, building up to an active fleet strength in German waters of 1 fleet flagship, 3 squadrons of 8 battleships, 8 battlecruisers, 18 light cruisers.



1 9 1 4 - 1 8


The conflicting and confusing structure of the Imperial German Navy proved even more ineffective in war than it did in peacetime. The Heads of the three main departments through most of the war, through whom the Kaiser controlled the Navy, and their appointment dates, were as follows (* awarded Pour le Merité):


Reichsmarineamt or Secretary of State, Imperial Naval Office (or Minister of Marine)

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz * (role in 1914 reduced to advisor to Kaiser, forced to resign because of his support for unrestricted submarine warfare)

March 1916 - Admiral Eduard von Capelle *

October 1918 - Vice Admiral Paul Behncke *

October 1918 - Vice Admiral Ernest Mann Edler von Tiechler


Imperial Naval Cabinet

Admiral Georg von Muller *


Admiralstab der Marine or Chief of Admiralty Staff

Admiral Hugo von Pohl

February 1915 - Admiral Gustav Bachmann

September 1915 - Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff * (right, back to camera, with Adm Tirpitz (LC))

August 1918 - Admiral Rheinhard Scheer * (appointed Head of the new Seekriegsleitung - see below)


The following excerpt from a 1914 edition of the New York Times might help to clarify how the naval structure worked in practice at least at the beginning of the war:


'KAISER AND CZAR CONFER; Cabinet Meeting Follows Naval Council of War at Potsdam.


BERLIN, Thursday, July 30. -- The Kaiser (right in naval uniform) last evening held a naval council of war, which was attended by Admiral von Tirpitz, Minister of Marine; Prince Henry of Prussia, Admiral Commanding in Chief; Admiral von Pohl, Chief of the Admiralty General Staff, and Vice Admiral von Mueller, Chief of the Imperial Naval Cabinet. '..'


Prince Henry (or Heinrich) of Prussia * was the Kaiser's brother, and commanded the High Seas Fleet from 1906 to 1909. Dismissed for opposing Tirpitz, he was promoted Gross Admiral (Grand Admiral) and appointed Inspector-General of the Navy. In July 1914 he became Supreme Commander Baltic.


In August 1918, the German Naval Command was reorganised with the creation of a supreme command similar to the Army structure - the Seekriegsleitung or SKL (Naval Warfare Command). Admiral Scheer was appointed Head with Captain von Levetzow as Chief of Staff.


To complete the picture, the Commander-in-Chiefs and Chief of Staffs of the High Seas Fleet, the main counter to the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet were:


Chef der Hochseestreitkräfte or CinC High Seas Fleet

January 1913 - Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl (replaced following Battle of Dogger Bank)
February 1915 - Admiral Hugo von Pohl
January 1916 - Vice Admiral/Admiral Reinhard Scheer *
August 1918 - Vice Admiral/Admiral Franz Ritter von Hipper *


Flottenstabschef or Chief of Staff

September 1913 - Captain Ernst Ritter von Mann Edler von Tiechler
September 1914 - Rear Admiral/Vice Admiral Richard Eckermann
February 1915 - Captain William Michaelis
January 1916 - Captain/Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha *

links to

Memoirs, Vol II
by Grand Admiral von Tirpitz

Germany's High Sea Fleet in the Great War by Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Pour le Merité, the "Blue Max", Imperial German Navy

including naval aviation 1914-18





Bennett, Geoffrey, "Naval Battles of the First World War", Pan, 1974


"Conway's, All The World's Fighting Ships, 1906-1921", Conway, 1985


Groner, Erich, "German Warships 1815-1945", Conway, 1990


Halpern, Paul G, "A Naval History of World War 1", UCL, 1994


Haythornthwaite, Philip J, "The World War One Source Book", Brockhampton Press, 1998


Tarrant, V E, "Jutland: The German Perspective", Cassell, 1995




All warship images are courtesy of Michael Pocock of Maritime Quest, the rest, the United States Library of Congress. I am indebted to both.

return to "Pax Britannica" 1815-1914
or World War 1, 1914-1918

revised  29/07/14