Book Review: From Ironclads to Dreadnoughts: The Development of the German Battleship, 1864-1918


by David M. Sullivan and Dirk Nottelmann

Warwick / Philadelphia: Helion /Pen & Sword, 2023. 5Pp. 502. Illus., maps, plans, diagr., tables, biblio.. $95.00 paper. ISBN: 1804511846

Evolution of the German Battleship

The Imperial German Navy was, in large part, the creation of two men: Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859 - 1941) and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930.) The Kaiser’s mother was an English princess (eldest daughter of Queen Victoria.) Envy of Great Britain’s Royal Navy and colonial empire dominated his troubled reign:

“. . . he showed a very strong interest in all naval matters since the days of his youth. One special hobby was the design of a variety of vessels which . . . looked quite impressive, but always bore the one major fault of being unable to float.” (p. 121)

Tirpitz entered the Prussian Navy as a cadet in 1865 at the age of 16. It was an age still of wooden sailing ships, mostly armed with short-ranged muzzle-loading cannon. Tactics and technology had changed relatively little in two centuries. By the time he retired in 1916, warships were made of steel, powered by oil-burning steam turbines, equipped with rifled cannon up to 15-inch caliber in armored turrets, and fitted with torpedoes, searchlights, radios, and complex optical fire-control systems. And the battleship’s mastery of the sea was beginning to be challenged by the submarine and the aircraft.

At first glance, From Ironclads to Dreadnoughts looks like a large format (8.2 by 11.7 inches) picture book, packed with hundreds of monochrome photographs, and diagrams — many never before published. But the accompanying text, deeply researched in those meticulously curated German archives, and written with a wry sense of humor, is well worth the effort of wading through pages of technical specifications and organizational turf battles. According to the authors, much of what we thought we knew about the evolution of the Imperial German Navy turns out to be wrong.

During Europe’s long peace between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War I, there were few significant naval battles, and these were intensively studied by naval staffs in an effort to understand the dynamics of future combat at sea. The battle of Lissa, fought in 1866 in the Adriatic between fleets of Austria-Hungary and Italy, was decided by ramming, and this created a fad for equipping ships with strong ram bows. As a result accidental collisions between ships of the same fleet were often fatal. The battle of the Yalu, in 1894, in the Yellow Sea, between the Imperial Japanese and Chinese fleets was decided by a storm of Japanese short-range medium caliber fire, leading to a proliferation of medium caliber (6” - 8” guns) broadside guns on pre-Dreadnought battleships; weapons that proved largely ineffective at the longer ranges that prevailed when the Great War came.

From Ironclads to Dreadnoughts is a highly technical book that will be of great interest to naval historians, engineers and nautical architects. This is a book I would put on the shelf beside the classic Modern History of Warships (1920) by William Hovgaard and the monumental British Battleships: 1860-1950 (1966) by Oscar Parkes. It is not, however, an operational history of the Imperial German Navy. The list price of $95.00 may cause some sticker shock, but on Amazon the book was on sale for $61.03 at this writing.

Dirk Nottelmann is a marine engineer, working for the German government. He has researched the history of the Imperial Navy for four decades. David M. Sullivan, is the author of The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War (four volumes, 1997-2000), and is president of the International Naval Research Organization and editor of its journal, Warship International.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews in modern history include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler’s "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort, Governments-in-Exile and the Jews During the Second World War,Admiral Gorshkov, Comrades Betrayed: Jewish World War I Veterans under Hitler, Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44, A Raid on the Red Sea: The Israeli Capture of the Karine A, Strike from the Sea: The Development and Deployment of Strategic Cruise Missiles since 1934, 100 Greatest Battles, Battle for the Island Kingdom, and Abraham Lincoln and the Bible




StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz    

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