Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SMS Schlesien

Figure 1:  The German Imperial Navy’s Deutschland class battleship SMS (which stands for Seiner Majestät Schiff, or His Majesty's Ship) Schlesien. This photograph was taken prior to the start of World War I in 1914, but the exact date and place are unknown.  Photograph courtesy of the US Library of Congress. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 2:  The German battleships Schlesien is at left, Schleswig-Holstein is in the foreground, and Hessen is in the right background. Photograph was taken circa 1930. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: German battleships Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein in a German port, circa 1934. The bow of a light cruiser is at the extreme right. Note that the ships are flying the pre-Nazi era national ensign. Photograph from the Hoffman collection in the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 4:  Schlesien photographed while transiting the Panama Canal, 8 March 1938. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5:  Schlesien photographed on 8 March 1938, while transiting the Panama Canal. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6:  Schlesien photographed from the battleship Scharnhorst during gunnery exercises in the western Baltic in late January 1940. The ice in the area near Kiel, Germany, was unusually thick that winter. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 20. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the German province of Schlesien, the 13,200-ton SMS (which stands for Seiner Majestät Schiff, or His Majesty's Ship) Schlesien was a Deutschland class pre-dreadnaught battleship that was built by the Schichau-Werke shipyard in what used to be the German city of Danzig, but which is now known as Gdańsk in Poland. The ship was commissioned on 5 May 1908 and was approximately 419 feet long and 73 feet wide, had a top speed of 17 knots, and had a crew of 743 officers and men. Schlesien was originally armed with two 11-inch guns, 14 6.7-inch guns, 22 3.5-inch guns, and six 18-inch torpedo tubes. This armament, though, changed dramatically in later years. Unfortunately for the Germans, Schlesien and her sister ships were already outdated by the time they entered service, being inferior in size, armor, firepower, and speed to the revolutionary new British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which was commissioned in 1906. However, this did not prevent Shlesien from having a long and active career.

After being commissioned in 1908, Schlesien was assigned to the I Battle Squadron of the Imperial German High Seas Fleet. During the first two years of World War I, from 1914 to 1916, Shlesien remained part of the I Battle Squadron, but she and her four sister ships were transferred to the II Battle Squadron by early 1916. Shlesien played only a minor role in the pivotal Battle of Jutland (31 May to 1 June 1916) and, after that, she was relegated to guard duties before being withdrawn from service in 1917. Shlesien then became a training ship for the German Navy.

After World War I ended in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles permitted the German Navy to retain eight obsolete battleships, which included Schlesien, to defend the German coast.  Schlesien was used extensively in the newly formed Reichsmarine (or German Navy) and was heavily modernized in the early 1930s. After being completely overhauled, Schlesien was armed with two 11-inch guns, two 3.5-inch guns, four 1.5-inch guns, and 22 0.8-inch cannons. She remained one of Germany’s primary training ships throughout the 1930s.

After the start of World War II in Europe in September of 1939, Schlesien continued playing a support role in the German Navy. The old battleship did participate in the German invasion of Norway in 1940. But after Norway surrendered, Schlesien again was relegated to support and training duties.

Towards the end of World War II, Schlesien was used primarily as a floating anti-aircraft battery in the Baltic Ocean. On 3 May 1945, Schlesien steamed into the harbor of Swinemünde, Germany, and struck a mine. The ship sank in shallow water, though much of her superstructure, including her guns, remained above water. During the last few days of the war, Schlesien used her guns to support retreating German ground troops. After the war ended, the wreck of this once proud battleship was slowly broken up for scrapping, but the final parts of the hulk were not removed until the 1970s.