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SMS Fürst Bismarck
A 1902 lithograph of Fürst Bismarck
Class overview
Preceded byVictoria Louise class
Succeeded byPrinz Heinrich
German Empire
NameFürst Bismarck
NamesakeOtto von Bismarck
BuilderKaiserliche Werft, Kiel
Laid down1 April 1896
Launched25 September 1897
Commissioned1 April 1900
Stricken17 June 1919
FateScrapped in 1919–1920
General characteristics
TypeArmored cruiser
Length127 m (416 ft 8 in)
Beam20.40 m (66 ft 11 in)
Draft7.80 m (25 ft 7 in)
Installed power
Speed18.7 knots (34.6 km/h; 21.5 mph)
  • 4,560 nmi (8,450 km) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
  • 3,230 nmi (5,980 km) at 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph)
  • 36 officers
  • 585 men

SMS Fürst Bismarck (Prince Bismarck)[a] was Germany's first armored cruiser, built for the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) before the turn of the 20th century. The ship was named for the German statesman Otto von Bismarck. The design for Fürst Bismarck was an improvement over the previous Victoria Louise-class protected cruisersFürst Bismarck was significantly larger and better armed than her predecessors.

The ship was primarily intended for colonial duties, and she served in this capacity as part of the East Asia Squadron until she was relieved in 1909, at which point she returned to Germany. The ship was rebuilt between 1910 and 1914, and after the start of World War I, she was briefly used as a coastal defense ship. She proved inadequate to this task, and so she was withdrawn from active duty and served as a training ship for engineers until the end of the war. Fürst Bismarck was decommissioned in 1919 and sold for scrap.


Fürst Bismarck was designed before the naval arms race between Germany and the United Kingdom. Admiral Hollmann was the State Secretary of the Naval Office at the time. Given the dominance of the British Royal Navy and the impossibility, as he saw it, of competing with it, Hollmann envisaged a small fleet consisting of torpedo boats and coastal defense ships to be based in German waters. This would be supplemented by a number of cruisers for overseas duties, including trade protection.[1]

The first armored cruiser to be designed by the German navy, Fürst Bismarck was an enlarged version of the Victoria Louise-class cruisers, at nearly twice the displacement and with a significantly more powerful armament. The ship was intended for overseas use, particularly in support of German colonies in Asia and the Pacific. Despite heavy political opposition, the new ship was approved by the Reichstag and construction began in 1896.[2]

General characteristics and machinery[edit]

Plan and profile drawing of Fürst Bismarck

Fürst Bismarck was 125.70 m (412.4 ft) at the waterline, with an overall length of 127 m (417 ft) and a beam of 20.40 m (66.9 ft). She had a draft of 7.80 m (25.6 ft) forward and 8.46 m (27.8 ft) aft. She displaced 10,690 tonnes (10,520 long tons) as designed and 11,461 tonnes (11,280 long tons) at full load Fürst Bismarck was a very good sea-boat, and was highly responsive to commands from the helm. However, the ship suffered from serious roll problems and heavy vibration at higher speeds. Her metacentric height was 0.72 m (2 ft 4 in).[3]

The ship was of transverse and longitudinal steel frame construction; the hull was a single layer of wooden planks covered by a Muntz metal sheath that extended up to .95 m (3.1 ft) above the waterline. The lower portions of the ship, including the stem and the stern, were covered with bronze plating. The ship had 13 watertight compartments and a double bottom that ran for 59 percent of the length of the hull.[4]

Fürst Bismarck was propelled by three vertical four-cylinder, triple-expansion engines. The engines were powered by four Thornycroft boilers—which had been built under license by Germaniawerft—and 8 cylindrical boilers. The Thornycroft boilers had two fire boxes apiece, for a total of eight, while the cylindrical boilers each had four fire boxes, for a total of 32. Each of the three engines drove a three-bladed screw propeller. The center propeller was 4.40 m (14.4 ft) in diameter, while the two outer screws were slightly larger, at 4.80 m (15.7 ft) in diameter. The engines produced 13,500 indicated horsepower (10,100 kW) and a top speed of 18.7 knots (34.6 km/h; 21.5 mph). On trials, the engines were pushed to 13,622 ihp (10,158 kW), but still only provided a top speed of 18.7 knots (34.6 km/h; 21.5 mph). Electrical power was supplied by five generators that provided 325 kilowatts at 110 volts.[4]


Fritz Stoltenberg painting of Fürst Bismarck shortly after her commissioning

Fürst Bismarck's primary armament consisted of a battery of four 24 cm (9.4 in) SK L/40 guns in twin-gun turrets,[b] one fore and one aft of the central superstructure. The guns were mounted in Drh.L. C/98 turrets, which allowed elevation to 30° and depression to −5°. At maximum elevation, the guns could hit targets out to 16,900 meters (18,500 yd). The guns fired 140-kilogram (310 lb) shells at a muzzle velocity of 835 meters per second (2,740 ft/s). The ship stored 312 rounds, for a total of 78 shells per gun.[4][6][7]

The secondary armament consisted of twelve 15 cm (5.9 in) SK L/40 quick-firing guns in MPL type casemates. These guns fired armor-piercing shells at a rate of 4 to 5 per minute. The ships carried 120 shells per gun, for a total of 2,160 rounds total. The guns could depress to −7 degrees and elevate to 20 degrees, for a maximum range of 13,700 m (14,990 yd). The shells weighed 51 kg (112 lb) and were fired at a muzzle velocity of 735 m/s (2,410 ft/s). The guns were manually elevated and trained.[7][8]

For defense against torpedo boats, the ship also carried ten 8.8 cm (3.5 in) SK L/30 guns in a combination of individual casemates and pivot mounts.[4] These guns fired 7.04 kg (15.5 lb) shell at a muzzle velocity of 590 m/s (1,900 ft/s). Their rate of fire was approximately 15 shells per minute; the guns could engage targets out to 6,890 m (7,530 yd). The gun mounts were manually operated.[7][9]

Six 45 cm (17.7 in) torpedo tubes were also fitted, with a total of 16 torpedoes. One tube was fitted to a swivel mount on the stern of the ship, four were submerged on the broadside, and the sixth was placed in the bow, also submerged.[4]


Fürst Bismarck was protected with Krupp armor, which was in some cases thicker than that of subsequent designs. The armor belt was 20 cm (7.9 in) thick in the central portion of the ship, and tapered down to 10 cm (3.9 in) towards either end of the ship. Set behind the armored belt were 10 cm (3.9 in) thick shields for critical areas of the ship. The main armored deck was 3 cm (1.2 in) thick, with 5 cm (2.0 in) thick slopes. The forward conning tower had 20 cm-thick sides and a 4 cm (1.6 in) thick roof, while the aft conning tower had 10 cm sides and a 3 cm roof. The main battery turret sides were 20 cm thick and the roofs were 4 cm thick. The 15 cm turrets had 10 cm sides and 7 cm (2.8 in) gun shields. The casemated guns had 10 cm shields.[4]

By contrast, the following armored cruiser design, Prinz Heinrich, had only had a 10 cm-thick armor belt and 15 cm (5.9 in) of armor on the turret sides.[4] Even Blücher, Germany's last armored cruiser, had only a 18.0 cm (7.1 in) armored belt and 18 cm-thick turret faces, although her overall scale of protection was much more comprehensive than Fürst Bismarck's.[10]

Service history[edit]

Fürst Bismarck at her launching ceremony

The contract for Fürst Bismarck was awarded to the Kaiserliche Werft (Imperial Shipyard) in Kiel, and her keel was laid down on 1 April 1896. Her completed hull was launched on 25 September 1897, where she was christened after former Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. While the shipyard was completing the fitting-out work for the new armored cruiser on 2 March 1900, the ironclad Sachsen accidentally collided with Fürst Bismarck, slightly damaging her stern. The accident delayed the start of sea trials until 19 March. Initial testing revealed the need for alterations to the ship, but the outbreak of the Boxer Uprising in China in late 1899 prevented the work from being done, as the German East Asia Squadron required reinforcement. Accordingly, on 30 June the ship left Kiel for East Asia, stopping to refuel at Gibraltar and at Port Said and Port Tewfik, at both ends of the Suez Canal. While passing through the Red Sea, 41 members of her crew suffered from heat-related illness. Fürst Bismarck stopped in Perim at the southern end of the Red Sea and then crossed the Indian Ocean to Colombo, Ceylon before proceeding to Singapore.[11]

East Asia Squadron[edit]

Boxer Uprising[edit]

Illustration of Fürst Bismarck

In Singapore on 4 August, the ship received orders to escort the troop ships Frankfurt and Wittekind to Qingdao, the capital of the German Kiautschou Bay Leased Territory in China. The three ships arrived there on 13 August, and four days later, Vizeadmiral (VAdm—Vice Admiral) Emil Felix von Bendemann, the commander of the East Asia Squadron, transferred his flag from the protected cruiser Hertha to Fürst Bismarck. At the time, in addition to Hertha, the squadron consisted of the protected cruisers Hansa, Kaiserin Augusta, and Irene and the unprotected cruisers Gefion and Seeadler, the latter having arrived in the region just days before Fürst Bismarck. Not long after Fürst Bismarck reached Hong Kong, the Detached Division, which consisted of the four pre-dreadnought battleships of the Brandenburg class and the aviso Hela arrived with additional troop ships. The squadron was further reinforced over the following month with the cruisers Geier, Schwalbe, and Bussard, the gunboats Luchs and Tiger, the torpedo boats S90, S91, and S92, and the hospital ship Gera. German forces contributed 24 warships and 17,000 soldiers to the Eight Nation Alliance, which assembled 250 warships and 70,000 soldiers in total to combat the Boxers. An agreement with Russia saw the German Generalfeldmarshall (Field Marshal) Alfred von Waldersee placed in command of the multinational force.[12][c]

Bendemann decided to implement a blockade of the Yangtze, and so went there with Fürst Bismarck, Gefion, Irene, and the gunboat Iltis, as well as the ships of the Detached Division, though he sent the battleship Wörth to cover the landing of troops at Taku. Landing parties from the ships went ashore in Shanghai to protect Europeans there. Bendemann sent Seeadler and Schwalbe up the Yangtze to protect German, Austro-Hungarian, and Belgian nationals upriver, Bussard to Amoy, and Luchs and S91 to Canton. Bendemann based his flagship in Shanghai, and on 25 September, Hertha arrived with the new German ambassador to China, Alfons Mumm von Schwarzenstein to meet with Bendemann before proceeding on to Beijing. By this time, Allied forces had seized Beicang at the mouth of the Hai River, but the port frequently froze over in the winter, so additional harbors were necessary to adequately supply the forces fighting ashore. Bendemann therefore took most of his fleet to attack the ports of Shanhaiguan and Qinhuangdao, since they had rail connections to Taku and Beijing. Bendemann issued an ultimatum to surrender to the Chinese defenders of the cities, both of which accepted, allowing the Alliance to take both cities without a fight. On 5 October, Fürst Bismarck steamed to Taku, where she joined Hertha and Hela and the battleships Brandenburg and Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm. Beginning in late October, the naval forces of the Eight Nation Alliance concentrated on the mouth of the Yangtze. Britain and Germany both suspected the other of attempting to secure a permanent occupation of the area, though both suspicions proved to be false. In November, Fürst Bismarck went to Nagasaki, Japan for engine maintenance, temporarily transferring Bendemann to Kaiserin Augusta while she was away for repairs.[14]

By February 1901, the fighting had decreased to the point that the ships of the East Asia Squadron could resume the normal routine of individual and squadron training exercises. In May, Seeadler was detached to Yap in the Caroline Islands, and in June, Hansa carried Konteradmiral (KAdm—Rear Admiral) Hermann Kirchhoff to Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. Also in June, the Detached Division, Irene, and Gefion returned to Germany. The following month, the East Asia Squadron returned to its normal peacetime footing. Fürst Bismarck visited Japanese ports with Geier, S91, and S92 in mid-1901, and in September, she and S91 visited Port Arthur in Russian Manchuria before returning to Japanese waters in October. Another shipyard period in Nagasaki followed, which included repairs to her frequently-leaky stern. By this time, the Chinese government had signed the Boxer Protocol on 7 September, formally ending the conflict. The experience of projecting significant military power over such a great distance proved to be invaluable to the German army and navy and it made particularly clear the importance of logistics. Accordingly, a maritime transport department was created in the Reichsmarineamt (Imperial Navy Office) in 1902 under Carl Derzewski.[15]


Fürst Bismarck in port at some point during her career

Fürst Bismarck completed repairs in Nagasaki on 15 January 1902 and in early February she rendezvoused with Hertha and Bussard in Singapore. There, Bendemann returned to the ship, though days later on 15 February, he turned command of the squadron over to VAdm Richard Geissler. Later that month, the light cruiser Thetis joined the squadron; further changes to the composition of the squadron followed shortly thereafter, with Kaiserin Augusta, S91, and S92 returning to Germany in February and March. In April, Schwalbe, Geier, and Luchs went to Ningbo to protect Europeans from unrest in the city while Fürst Bismarck and the rest of the squadron toured East Asian ports, ranging from Japan to the Dutch East Indies. During this period, they also conducted various training exercises and alternated visits to Qingdao and Japan for periodic maintenance. Schwalbe returned to Germany in September, though her place was taken by Geier. On 25 December, Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded the Schießpreis (Shooting Prize) for excellent gunnery in the East Asia Squadron to Fürst Bismarck.[16]

In early 1903, Fürst Bismarck anchored off the mouth of the Yangtze with Hansa and Thetis, remaining there until mid-March before proceeding to Qingdao. She remained there until late April, when the squadron conducted training exercises through May, during which Fürst Bismarck again won the Schießpreis. The ship visited Japan in company with Bussard, where Geissler and his staff were received by Emperor Meiji. The two ships then made a visit to the Russian Pacific Fleet, based in Vladivostok, in early August. On 15 November, KAdm Curt von Prittwitz und Gaffron replaced Geissler as the squadron commander, after which Fürst Bismarck returned to Nagasaki for another overhaul in December.[17]

The year 1904 began with exercises and visits to ports in the region. By this time, tensions between Russia and Japan over their competing interests in Korea had risen considerably, so on 7 January the Admiralstab (Admiralty Staff) instructed Prittwitz und Gaffron to order his ships to observe the strictest neutrality toward both countries. Over the course of 20–23 January, Hansa evacuated German and Austro-Hungarian citizens from Port Arthur and Dalny. Japan severed diplomatic relations with Russia on 5 February and attacked the Russian fleet in Port Arthur in a surprise nighttime attack on 8/9 February without having declared war. On 12 February, Hansa returned to Port Arthur to remove the last of the civilians from the city, and Thetis was sent to Chemulpo to do the same on 21–22 February. After the Battle of the Yellow Sea on 10 August, several damaged Russian ships sought refuge in Qingdao, including the battleship Tsesarevich and the cruiser Novik, where they were interned for the remainder of the Russo-Japanese War. For the rest of the war, Fürst Bismarck and the East Asia Squadron were primarily occupied with enforcing the internment of the ship and destroying Russian naval mines that threatened German shipping.[18]

During the war, the squadron continued its normal training routine, and Fürst Bismarck won the Schießpreis again that year. She, Hertha, and Seeadler were present in Shanghai for the opening of a German club in the city. In early 1905, riots in China forced most of the squadron to remain in Chinese ports until March. Prittwitz und Gaffron recalled his ships to Qingdao when the Russian Second Pacific Squadron approached the area; following the Battle of Tsushima, where the Russian squadron was annihilated, the German vessels resumed training activities. Later in the year, both Seeadler and Thetis were sent to German East Africa to suppress a rebellion against German rule. By August, a floating dry dock had been completed in Qingdao, allowing the East Asia Squadron to repair its ships itself; Fürst Bismarck underwent repairs there in October. On 11 November, KAdm Alfred Breusing relieved Prittwitz und Gaffron as commander of the squadron, and in December embarked on a tour of the southern portion of the East Asia Station, though the cruise had to be cut short due to unrest in Shanghai that necessitated Fürst Bismarck's presence there. The ship sent a landing party ashore, along with men from the gunboats Jaguar, Tiger, and Vaterland. The men patrolled the city center and protected the German consulate, but did not take any active role in the unrest.[19]


In January 1906, Fürst Bismarck began a tour of Indonesia,[20] after which she went to Hong Kong via North Borneo in late February.[21] She remained there for almost a month, departing on 23 March to meet the rest of the squadron, which by then could be withdrawn from Shanghai. Fürst Bismarck and Hansa, the only major warships assigned to the squadron by that time, visited Japanese ports in May. On 28 May, Fürst Bismarck went to Taku, where Breusing and his staff traveled overland to Beijing, the first German naval officers to visit the Guangxu Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi after the Boxer Rebellion. Hansa began the voyage back to Germany on 4 July, and on 9 August, the light cruiser Niobe arrived to join the squadron. On 19 November, the light cruiser Leipzig arrived to further strengthen the squadron. Fürst Bismarck and Tiger went on another tour of Indonesia and Japan in early 1907. On 13 May, KAdm Carl von Coerper arrived to replace Breusing; he began his tenure as squadron commander by boarding Tiger for a cruise into the Yangtze to familiarize himself with German economic interests in the area. After returning to Fürst Bismarck, he visited Japan in company with Niobe. During the squadron maneuvers that year, Fürst Bismarck won the Schießpreis for a fourth time.[20]

The light cruiser Arcona joined the squadron on 23 October, finally bringing the strength of the unit back to its prescribed four cruisers. In January 1908, Fürst Bismarck steamed to Siam, where she was visited by the King of Siam. The rest of the year passed uneventfully for Fürst Bismarck, and in early 1909 she received orders to return to Germany for repairs. The scale of work necessary for the ship, which had been abroad for nine years, was greater than could be done in the floating dock in Qingdao and it would have been too expensive to do elsewhere in Asia. On 8 April, she began the voyage home and she rendezvoused with the new flagship of the East Asia Squadron, the armored cruiser Scharnhorst, in Colombo on 29 April. Fürst Bismarck arrived in Kiel on 13 June, where she was decommissioned on 26 June.[22]

Later career[edit]

In 1910, Fürst Bismarck was taken into the shipyard at the Kaiserliche Werft in Kiel for an extensive modernization. Part of the work also included converting the ship into a torpedo training ship to replace the old ironclad Württemberg. Her heavy fighting masts were replaced with lighter pole masts and her two aft-most 15 cm turrets were removed. The work lasted for four years, and was completed shortly after the outbreak of World War I in July 1914. On 28 November, Fürst Bismarck was recommissioned under the command of Kapitän zur See KzS—Captain at Sea) Ferdinand Bertram, the former head of the artillery school. She initially completed sea trials, but owing to her low combat value was not assigned to a front-line unit. Instead, she was allocated to I Marine Inspectorate based in Kiel for use as a training ship. From 4 to 6 September 1916, she was disarmed, and from 1917 she was also used to train commanders for the Type U-151 cruiser submarines and the navy's zeppelins. She was decommissioned on 31 December 1918 after the end of the war, though she remained in the fleet's inventory into mid-1919. She served as a floating office until 27 May before being stricken from the naval register on 17 June. She was then transferred to what was now the Reichswerft in Kiel and then sold to a Dortmund-based company and broken up in 1919–1920 in Rendsburg-Audorf.[4][23]



  1. ^ "SMS" stands for "Seiner Majestät Schiff", or "His Majesty's Ship" in German.
  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.[5]
  3. ^ United States forces in the alliance could not legally come under foreign command, and French forces refused to due to political reasons. Nevertheless, Waldersee maintained good relations with US and French commanders in the field and the forces collaborated effectively during the campaign.[13]


  1. ^ Padfield, p. 37.
  2. ^ Campbell & Sieche, p. 142.
  3. ^ Gröner, pp. 48–49.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Gröner, p. 49.
  5. ^ Grießmer, p. 177.
  6. ^ Friedman, p. 141.
  7. ^ a b c Campbell & Sieche, p. 140.
  8. ^ Friedman, p. 143.
  9. ^ Friedman, p. 146.
  10. ^ Gröner, p. 53.
  11. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 164–166.
  12. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, p. 166.
  13. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, p. 167.
  14. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 167–168.
  15. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 168–169.
  16. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, p. 169.
  17. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 169–170.
  18. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 170–171.
  19. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 171–172.
  20. ^ a b Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, p. 172.
  21. ^ "Notes & Quotes". The British North Borneo Herald. 1 March 1906. p. 47.
  22. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, pp. 172–173.
  23. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr, & Steinmetz, p. 173.


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  • Friedman, Norman (2011). Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines and ASW Weapons of All Nations; An Illustrated Directory. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84832-100-7.
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