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SMS Hessen

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Bundesarchiv DVM 10 Bild-23-63-56, Linienschiff "Hessen".jpg
Hessen ca. 1931
German Empire
Name: Hessen
Namesake: Hesse
Builder: Germaniawerft, Kiel
Laid down: April 1902
Launched: 18 September 1903
Commissioned: 19 September 1905
Fate: Ceded to the Soviet Union following World War II, renamed Tsel and scrapped in 1960
General characteristics
Class and type: Braunschweig-class pre-dreadnought battleship
Displacement: 14,394 t (14,167 long tons)
Length: 127.7 m (419 ft)
Beam: 22.2 m (72 ft 10 in)
Draft: 8.1 m (26 ft 7 in)
  • 3 shafts triple expansion
  • 17,000 PS (16,770 ihp; 12,500 kW)
Speed: 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)
Range: 5,200 nmi (9,600 km; 6,000 mi); 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
  • 35 officers
  • 708 enlisted men
  • Belt: 100 to 255 mm (3.9 to 10.0 in)
  • Turrets: 250 mm (9.8 in)
  • Deck: 40 mm (1.6 in)

SMS Hessen[a] was the third of five pre-dreadnought battleships of the Braunschweig class. She was laid down in 1902, launched the following year, and commissioned into the German Imperial Navy in 1905. She was named after the state of Hesse. Her sister ships were SMS Braunschweig, SMS Elsass, SMS Preussen, and SMS Lothringen. Like all other pre-dreadnoughts built at the turn of the century, Hessen was quickly made obsolete by the launching of HMS Dreadnought in 1906; as a result, she saw only limited service with the German fleet.

During World War I, Hessen saw action in the Battle of Jutland as the second ship of the III Division of the II Battle Squadron. In the last daytime action between capital ships at Jutland, Hessen and the other pre-dreadnoughts of the II Battle Squadron covered the retreat of Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper's battered battlecruisers from Vice Admiral David Beatty's battlecruiser squadron. After the battle, the vessel was disarmed and used as a depot ship.

Hessen was one of the few obsolete battleships Germany was permitted to retain under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. She served as a coastal defense ship in the 1920s and early 1930s, though she was withdrawn from front-line service in 1934. The following year, the ship was converted into a radio-controlled target. During World War II Hessen served in this capacity, while also working as an icebreaker in the Baltic and North Seas. The ship was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1946 after the end of the war and, renamed Tsel, served until scrapped in 1960.


Line-drawing of the Braunschweig class

Hessen was 127.7 m (419 ft) long overall and had a beam of 22.2 m (72 ft 10 in) and a draft of 8.1 m (26 ft 7 in) forward. At full load, she displaced 14,394 t (14,167 long tons; 15,867 short tons). Her crew consisted of 35 officers and 708 enlisted men. The ship was powered by three 3-cylinder vertical triple expansion engines that drove three screws. Steam was provided by eight naval and six cylindrical boilers, all of which burned coal. Hessen's powerplant was rated at 16,000 metric horsepower (15,781 ihp; 11,768 kW), which generated a top speed of 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph).[1]

Hessen's armament consisted of a main battery of four 28 cm (11 in) SK L/40 guns in twin gun turrets,[b] one fore and one aft of the central superstructure.[2] Her secondary armament consisted of fourteen 17 cm (6.7 inch) SK L/40 guns and eighteen 8.8 cm (3.45 in) SK L/35 quick-firing guns. The armament suite was rounded out with six 45 cm (18 in) torpedo tubes, all mounted submerged in the hull.[3]

Hessen was protected with Krupp armor. Her armored belt was 110 to 250 millimeters (4.3 to 9.8 in) thick, with the heavier armor in the central portion that protected her magazines and machinery spaces, and the thinner plating at either end of the hull. Her deck was 40 mm (1.6 in) thick. The main battery turrets had 250 mm of armor plating.[4]

Service history[edit]

Construction to 1914[edit]

Prewar postcard of Hessen

Hessen's keel was laid down on 15 January 1902, at the Germaniawerft in Kiel under construction number 100. The third unit of her class, she was ordered under the contract name "L" as a new unit for the fleet.[1][5] Hessen was launched on 18 September 1903; the vessel was christened by Princess Irene of Hesse and her brother, Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse gave a speech. The ship began shipyard sea trials on 16 May 1905, and was commissioned on 19 September. The Kaiserliche Marine then began its own sea trials on the ship, which was assigned to the II Squadron of the Active Battle Fleet. Trials lasted until 4 March 1906, at which point Hessen joined her unit, bringing the squadron to its prescribed strength of eight battleships. The year was filled with squadron and fleet training exercises, including a summer cruise in July and August to Norwegian waters. During the annual fleet maneuvers held every autumn in late August and September, the fleet conducted landing operations at Eckernförde. Further fleet exercises took place in the North Sea in November.[5]

On 16 February 1907, the fleet was renamed the High Seas Fleet.[6] Fleet maneuvers in the North Sea followed in early 1907, which included a cruise to Skagen and mock attacks on the main naval base at Kiel. Further exercises followed in May–June, after which the fleet went on a cruise to Norway. After returning from Norway, Hessen went to Swinemünde in early August, where Czar Nicholas II of Russia met the German fleet in his yacht Standart. Afterward, the fleet assembled for the annual autumn fleet maneuvers, held with the bulk of the fleet every August and September. This year, the maneuvers were delayed to allow for a large fleet review, including 112 warships, for Kaiser Wilhelm II in the Schillig roadstead. In the autumn maneuvers that followed, the fleet conducted exercises in the North Sea and then joint maneuvers with the IX Army Corps around Apenrade.[7] Hessen won the Kaiser's Schießpreis (Shooting Prize) for excellent shooting in the II Squadron; at the time, her gunnery officer was then-Kapitänleutnant (Captain Lieutenant) Adolf von Trotha.[5] In November, the ship took part in unit training in the Kattegat.[8]

Hessen participated in fleet maneuvers in February 1908 in the Baltic Sea and more fleet training off Helgoland in May–June. In July, Hessen and the rest of the fleet sailed into the Atlantic Ocean to conduct a major training cruise. Prince Heinrich had pressed for such a cruise the previous year, arguing that it would prepare the fleet for overseas operations and would break up the monotony of training in German waters, though tensions with Britain over the developing Anglo-German naval arms race were high. The fleet departed Kiel on 17 July, passed through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal to the North Sea, and continued on to the Atlantic. During the cruise, Hessen stopped at Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The fleet returned to Germany on 13 August. The autumn maneuvers followed from 27 August to 12 September. Later that year, the fleet toured coastal German cities as part of an effort to increase public support for naval expenditures.[8] The next year—1909—followed much the same pattern as in 1908. Another cruise into the Atlantic was conducted from 7 July to 1 August, during which Hessen stopped in El Ferrol, Spain. While on the way back to Germany, the High Seas Fleet was received by the British Royal Navy in Spithead.[9] Late in the year, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff became the commander of the High Seas Fleet. His tenure as fleet commander was marked with strategic experimentation, owing to the increased threat the latest underwater weapons posed and the fact that the new Nassau-class battleships were too wide to pass through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal. Accordingly, the fleet was transferred from Kiel to Wilhelmshaven on 1 April 1910.[10]

In May 1910, the fleet conducted training maneuvers in the Kattegat, between Norway and Denmark. These were in accordance with Holtzendorff's strategy, which envisioned drawing the Royal Navy into the narrow waters in the Kattegat. The annual summer cruise went to Norway, and was followed by fleet training, during which another fleet review was held in Danzig on 29 August. A training cruise into the Baltic followed at the end of the year.[10] In March 1911, the fleet conducted exercises in the Skagerrak and Kattegat. Hessen and the rest of the fleet received British and American naval squadrons in Kiel in June and July. The year's autumn maneuvers were confined to the Baltic and the Kattegat.[11] During fleet exercises on 23 August 1911, Hessen accidentally rammed and sank the Danish steamer SS Askesund. The crew of the steamer was rescued and there were no reported injuries; Hessen herself was undamaged in the collision.[5] Another fleet review was held during the exercises for a visiting Austro-Hungarian delegation that included Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Admiral Rudolf Montecuccoli.[12]

The winter of 1911–1912 proved to be very cold, and as a result Hessen was employed as an emergency icebreaker in the Little Belt in February 1912 to rescue ships that were threatened by the heavy ice.[5] In mid-1912, due to the Agadir Crisis, the summer cruise only went into the Baltic to avoid exposing the fleet during the period of heightened tension with Britain and France.[12] In July 1913, Hessen collided with the torpedo boat G110. The torpedo boat suffered significant damage, though it did not sink, and three of its crew were killed.[5]

World War I[edit]

Map of the North and Baltic Seas in 1911

At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the ship was assigned to the IV Battle Squadron along with her four sisters, and served primarily in the Baltic Sea.[2] Hessen performed fleet duties up through the first two years of World War I.[3] Hessen was present as part of the distant support for the battlecruisers that bombarded Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby on 15–16 December 1914.[13] During the operation, the German battle fleet of 12 dreadnoughts and 8 pre-dreadnoughts came to within 10 nmi (19 km; 12 mi) of an isolated squadron of six British battleships. However, skirmishes between the rival destroyer screens convinced the German commander, Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, that he was confronted with the entire Grand Fleet, and so he broke off the engagement and turned for home.[14]

Another raid on the English coast followed on 24–25 April; this time, the battlecruisers bombarded Yarmouth and Lowestoft.[15] During this operation, the battlecruiser Seydlitz was damaged by a British mine and had to return to port prematurely. Visibility was poor, so the operation was quickly called off before the British fleet could intervene and inflict further losses.[16]

Battle of Jutland[edit]

The German fleet sailed to the north and met the British fleet sailing from the west; both fleets conducted a series of turns and maneuvers during the chaotic battle.
Diagram of the Battle of Jutland showing the major movements

Hessen took part in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May–1 June 1916. Hessen and the five ships of the Deutschland class formed the II Battle Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Franz Mauve. During the battle, Hessen and the Deutschland-class ships performed a vital blocking action that covered the withdrawal of the German battlecruisers. Vice Admiral David Beatty's battlecruisers had attacked the German ships in the darkness, and when the German ships had turned westward to evade their attackers, Mauve continued in a southerly course, which placed his ships between the British and German battlecruisers. The British battlecruisers turned their attention to the pre-dreadnoughts, who in turn altered their course to the southwest in order to bring all of their guns to bear on the British ships.[17] In the darkness, only muzzle flashes from the British ships could be seen; as a result Hessen and the other II Squadron ships held their fire.[18][c]

At approximately 03:00 on 1 June, a group of British destroyers launched a torpedo attack against the German battle line. At 03:07, Hessen narrowly avoided a torpedo, but Pommern, the ship directly ahead of Hessen, was not so lucky. At 03:10, Pommern was struck by at least one torpedo, which is believed to have detonated one of the ship's 6.7 in (17 cm) shell magazines, destroying the ship. Hessen was undamaged.[19] Aboard Hessen, it was assumed that a submarine had destroyed Pommern; at 03:12 Hessen fired her main battery at an imagined submarine.[20] Hessen and several other battleships engaged imaginary submarines again at 05:06, and again at 05:13. Gunfire from Hessen and Hannover during the latter incident nearly hit the light cruisers Stettin and München; Admiral Scheer ordered them to cease fire.[21] At 06:55, Hessen and Schlesien mistook a mine buoy dropped by Kaiser as a periscope and attacked it.[22] In the course of the battle, Hessen had fired five 28 cm rounds,[23] thirty-four 17 cm shells, and twenty-four 8.8 cm rounds.[24]

In 1917, Hessen was withdrawn from active service, disarmed, and used as a depot ship in Brunsbüttel. While in reserve at Brunsbüttel, Hessen was jokingly referred to as SMS "Kleinste Fahrt" (SMS "Shortest Voyage") because of a warning that had been painted on the ship's hull.[3] The ship's four 28 cm guns were re-mounted as railroad guns and employed on the Western Front.[25] The Australian Army captured one of the guns on 8 August 1918;[26] it's preserved as the Amiens Gun at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia.[27]

Reichsmarine and Kriegsmarine[edit]

Hessen as a target ship in 1946

Hessen was one of eight old pre-dreadnoughts, along with the other ships of her class and the Deutschland-class battleships Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesien, that Germany was permitted to retain under the terms of Treaty of Versailles.[28] After being refitted and rearmed, Hessen returned to service with the Reichsmarine in 1925.[3] Of the eight ships, Hessen was one of only three still in service as a warship when the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The Nazis began a program of naval rearmament; this included the battleship Gneisenau,[29] which was ordered as a replacement for Hessen in 1934.[30]

On 12 November 1934, Hessen was withdrawn from fleet service and placed in reserve. On 31 March 1935, Hessen was stricken from the reserve list and converted into a target ship. Her armament was removed, the hull was lengthened, and new machinery was installed. The longer hull allowed room for two additional watertight compartments, which brought the number up to 15 from the original 13. The ship's superstructure was cut down nearly entirely; Hessen retained only a single funnel, a tower foremast, and the two armored barbettes for the main battery turrets. The ship had a crew of 80, but could be operated by remote control when being used as a target.[3]

Hessen was recommissioned on 1 April 1937 and served in the Kriegsmarine through World War II.[3] On 31 March 1940, Hessen acted as an icebreaker for the auxiliary cruisers Atlantis, Widder, and Orion, on their trip from Kiel to the North Sea.[31] She and her control ship, Blitz, were ceded to the Soviet Union in 1946. She recommissioned on 3 June 1946 as Tsel, and continued to operate as a target ship until scrapped in 1960.[3]



  1. ^ "SMS" stands for "Seiner Majestät Schiff" (English: His Majesty's Ship).
  2. ^ In Imperial German Navy gun nomenclature, "SK" (Schnelladekanone) denotes that the gun is quick firing, while the L/40 denotes the length of the gun. In this case, the L/40 gun is 40 caliber, meaning that the gun is 40 times as long as it is in diameter. See: Grießmer, p. 177.
  3. ^ The German official history states that the II Squadron fired 23 rounds of 28 cm ammunition at this phase of the battle, but according to naval historian John Campbell the individual ship logs recorded no such firing at this time; instead, the 23 shells were fired at imaginary submarines several hours later. See: Campbell, p. 255.


  1. ^ a b Gröner, p. 18.
  2. ^ a b Hore, p. 68.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Gröner, p. 20.
  4. ^ Gröner, p. 19.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 4, p. 148.
  6. ^ Staff, p. 7.
  7. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 2, pp. 237–238.
  8. ^ a b Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 2, p. 238.
  9. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 2, pp. 235, 238.
  10. ^ a b Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 2, pp. 240–241.
  11. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 2, pp. 241–242.
  12. ^ a b Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol. 2, p. 242.
  13. ^ Staff, p. 15.
  14. ^ Tarrant, pp. 31–33.
  15. ^ Staff, p. 11.
  16. ^ Tarrant, pp. 52–54.
  17. ^ Tarrant, p. 195.
  18. ^ Campbell, p. 255.
  19. ^ Tarrant, p. 243.
  20. ^ Campbell, p. 300.
  21. ^ Campbell, p. 314.
  22. ^ Campbell, p. 315.
  23. ^ Campbell, p. 348.
  24. ^ Campbell, p. 359.
  25. ^ François, pp. 30–31.
  26. ^ François, p. 30.
  27. ^ Williams, p. 231.
  28. ^ Williamson, pp. 3–4.
  29. ^ Williamson, p. 4.
  30. ^ Gröner, p. 31.
  31. ^ Duffy, p. 8.


  • Campbell, John (1998). Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting. London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 978-1-55821-759-1. 
  • Duffy, James P. (2005). Hitler's Secret Pirate Fleet: The Deadliest Ships of World War II. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-6652-0. 
  • François, Guy (2006). Eisenbahnartillerie: Histoire de l'artillerie lourd sur voie ferrée allemande des origines à 1945 (in French). Paris: Editions Histoire et Fortifications. ISBN 978-2-915767-08-7. 
  • Grießmer, Axel (1999). Die Linienschiffe der Kaiserlichen Marine [The Battleships of the Imperial Navy] (in German). Bonn: Bernard & Graefe Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7637-5985-9. 
  • Gröner, Erich (1990). German Warships: 1815–1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-790-6. 
  • Hildebrand, Hans H.; Röhr, Albert; Steinmetz, Hans-Otto (1993). Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe (Band 2) [The German Warships (Volume 2)]. Ratingen: Mundus Verlag. ASIN B003VHSRKE. 
  • Hildebrand, Hans H.; Röhr, Albert; Steinmetz, Hans-Otto (1993). Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe (Band 4) [The German Warships (Volume 4)]. Ratingen: Mundus Verlag. ASIN B003VHSRKE. 
  • Hore, Peter (2006). The Ironclads. London: Southwater Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84476-299-6. 
  • Staff, Gary (2010). German Battleships: 1914–1918. 1. Oxford: Osprey Books. ISBN 978-1-84603-467-1. 
  • Tarrant, V. E. (2001) [1995]. Jutland: The German Perspective. London: Cassell Military Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-304-35848-9. 
  • Williams, John Frank (1999). ANZACS, The Media and the Great War. Sydney: UNSW Press. ISBN 0-86840-569-8. 
  • Williamson, Gordon (2003). German Battleships 1939–45. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-498-6. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Dodson, Aidan (2014). "Last of the Line: The German Battleships of the Braunschweig and Deutschland Classes". Warship 2014. London: Conway Maritime Press: 49–69. ISBN 978-1591149231.