Thursday, December 20, 2012

The ships of 1914 -- Spee's armored cruisers

Scharnhorst -- model by Navis

The central players in the drama of the 1914 affair were the sister ships KMS Scharnhorst and KMS Gneisenau. These two warships represented the heart of the military threat posed by Von Spee’s squadron.  The accompanying light cruisers had a role to play, but they were minor warships and could be countered by similarly minor combatants that would have negligible affects on the naval balance.

                The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in contrast, were capital ships, albeit of an obsolescent type in 1914.  They were armored cruisers – a type of capital ship that had a relatively short heyday as such major warships go. The first “armored cruiser” were in the 1870s and the very last armored cruiser was the HMS Defense, completed in 1908, so the total length of time this type was in first-line service was barely four decades.
                Still, while they didn’t serve very long as first-line units, they did play prominent roles in the several of the battles that occurred during the pre-dreadnaught era, notably the Battle of Santiago in the Spanish-American War and the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. 

                The main reason why armored cruisers enjoyed their brief time in the sun was the undeveloped state of naval gunnery during the closing decades of the Nineteenth Century. Cannon technology grew by leaps and bounds during that era, resulting in naval artillery that could fire at unheard-of ranges with great accuracy. During the naval battles of the American Civil War and the Battle of Lissa, gunnery duels between ships were often still  measurable in hundreds of yards and it was practicable for ships to get close enough to use ramming tactics. This was despite the fact that the guns, themselves, could easily hurl projectiles for many miles.  The ranges the guns could fire increased even more over the ensuing decades but the problem of actually hitting the target remained. Long-range gunnery was inherently challenging, but naval gunnery added additional complexities as both the target and the firing ship were constantly changing position. At the Battle of Manila, Dewey’ fleet managed to achieve only 2-3% hits on the nearly immobile Spanish squadron. The destructive power of modern artillery was sufficient, however, that this was enough to annihilate the Spanish squadron. 

                Under the gunnery conditions of the late nineteenth century there seemed to be a lot to be said for volume of fire. The very largest naval guns, like those carried on battleships, were very destructive, but had such a slow rate of fire that there was little opportunity a gunner to successfully use the information from a miss to adjust  his fire to get closer on the next shot. Too much time would pass between shots and the relative positions of the ships would likely be so different that each shot was basically starting anew.  The higher rate of fire of smaller guns would not only throw a lot more metal in the vicinity of the target, but provided some chance for adjusting fire from misses.  Because of this, battleships of the ear commonly carried a mixed armament of some very heavy ship-smashing main guns, some medium caliber secondary guns and a tertiary battery of quick-firing guns for defense against light craft. 

                Armored cruisers essentially traded the large main battery guns for additional endurance and speed compared to battleship, but were often armored at similar levels and carried as their main battery guns equal in size to the secondary batteries of battleships.  As such they were generally able to stand in the line of battle alongside the battleships, as they did at Tsushima.

                By 1914, however, the situation had dramatically changed, and the armored cruiser was no longer able to stand in the line of battle. The Dreadnought concept of an all-big gun battleship and the similar Invincible class battle cruiser had changed the equation. Improvements in the large guns had increased their rate of fire and improvements in gunnery techniques were promising improvements in accuracy that suggested that having a uniform battery of large guns would be more effective than the mixed armament of earlier ships and that armored cruisers could no longer safely operate in the main battle line. 

                Still, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were still powerful ships, especially on detached stations such as the Far East, where dreadnought-type warships were still uncommon. 

                The two German ships were conservative designs, very well-built as was usual for German naval construction and well-armed. They were identical sister ships, and therefore worked well together as unit. Their main battery was a total of eight 8.1-inch guns,. Four of the guns were mounted in twin turrets fore and aft, but the other four were mounted in casements on the side, which meant that the total broadside was only six heavy guns.  Also in casements were the secondary battery guns, eight 5.9-inch guns, for total broadside of four. 

                They were well-protected with belt armor of 6 inches and a 2-inch armored deck and, like most German warships, well compartmented. 

                They were not especially speedy for armored cruisers, with maximum rated speeds of around 22 knots. This was enough to outrun any pre-dreadnought battleship but markedly slower than many British armored cruisers and hopelessly insufficient to outrun one of the new battle cruisers. This speed deficiency would play a major role in the outcome of the campaign and was a major consideration a Spee weighted his options.

                A bare recital of stats is not the sum total of a warship’s effectiveness in any era, but its especially important to note the more intangible aspects when evaluating the ship in this campaign. 

                The nature of the German East Asia Squadron’s mission, as  a detached squadron on a distant foreign station, had a major impact on its efficiency. All the crew members were long-service regular navy men, without any of the conscripts that filled out the rosters of homeland-based vessels. It was an elite posting and the two ships were widely regarded as efficient and well-led.

                This manifested itself in at least two ways. First, both ships were noted for their proficiency in gunnery, being recent and multiple-year winners of the German Navy’s gunnery competition. This had obvious implications in the coming engagements, as the tow German ships could be counted on to be very dangerous adversaries.

                Less visibly, but also vital, is that the two ships were evidently very well-served by their engineering crews. In an era when large ship engineering plants were still relatively new and often temperamental, the exceptional reliability of the two ships played a key, if little noted roles in the campaign. Von Spee confidently set forth on a journey of extraordinary length and with little available support if something should go wrong with his systems. In the event both ships performed exceptional feats of steaming right up until their final moments.

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