Armored Cruiser S.M.S. Blücher (1909)

BLUECHER at anchor

Intro - read on.    |    Specifications    |    Photos    |    The Sinking of the Blücher

Above, the Blücher was the last armored cruiser made for the Imperial German Navy. A logical development from the Scharnhorst class, she carried all her 8.2" main guns in twin turrets -- six of them in a hex layout like the Nassau class dreadnoughts. Blücher is often classified as a battlecruiser, but our judges say "no." There were no heavy naval guns in her specifications; in fact she was a very large armored cruiser carrying a heavy armament of cruiser guns (50% more than the previous class).

SMS BLUCHER at seaBlücher's mere existence is testimony to the effectiveness of British disinformation: when building its first 12"-gunned battlecruisers, the Invincibles, the British let on that they were to be merely larger and faster armored cruisers rather than near-battleships in their own right. Blücher, named for the Prussian commander at Waterloo, was meant to be a reply to the fictitious British armored cruisers: A measure of how well the ruse succeeded. At the Admiralty, Jacky Fisher and Prince Louis Battenberg no doubt cackled with amuseument at their rivals' misstep.

That said, Blücher was a powerful warship in her own right. With a broadside of eight 8.2s and a robust armored belt, she was a potent raider and bombardment platform. Being caught in the midst of Germany's awkward shift to dreadnought production, her advantages never got the chance to shine as they might have. Rather than the lead ship of a class of mighty armored cruisers, she became a one-off as attention shifted to replying to the Invincibles with Germany's first dreadnought battlecruiser, the Von der Tann, mounting eight 11" guns. By 1911 the Moltke class had followed, adding a superfiring turret to the Von der Tann layout. Each ship thus mounted ten 11" in twin turrets, was capable of 27 kts, and had better protection than any British battlecruiser of the Great War. Blücher clearly was not in a class with these heavy ships. Nevertheless, she notched 26½ knots on her trials. The 1914 issue of Jane's commented, "She is a very successful ship in all respects."

Plans and Specifications

Schematic of armored cruiser SMS BLUCHER

Specifications for the Blücher:
Dimensions: 530'7" x 80'5" x 29'   Displacement: 17,500 tons. Armament: (12) 8.2"/45 cal. (6x2), (8) 5.9"/40 cal., (16) 3.15"/45 cal. guns. (3) submerged 18" torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp cemented type. Belt: 9.85-6.3", turrets: 7", conning tower: 9.85", deck: 2.76"/2" Fuel capacity: 900 tons of coal, normal; maximum 2,300 tons. Propulsion: (18) coal-fired Shulz-Thornycroft boilers; (3) 4-cyl. vertical inverted triple expansion engines developing +32,000 SHP, shafted to triple screw. Design speed: 25.8 kts. Trials speed: 26.4 kts. Maximum speed at time of Dogger Bank action: 23 kts. Crew: 1,043. Endurance: 6,600nm @ 12 kts. Cost: £1,340,000 equivalent at 1907 valuation.

Metric Specifications:
Dimensions: 161.9m x 24.5m x 8.84m   Displacement: 17,500 tons. Armament: (12) 208 mm/45 cal. (6x2), (8) 150 mm/40 cal., (16) 80 mm/45 cal. guns. (3) submerged 45 cm torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp cemented type. Belt: 180/160mm, turrets: 180 mm, conning tower: 9.85" 250mm, deck: 50-70mm. Fuel capacity: 900 tons of coal, normal; maximum 2,300 tons. Propulsion: (18) coal-fired Shulz-Thornycroft boilers; (3) 4-cyl. vertical inverted triple expansion engines developing 23,862.4 kW, shafted to triple screw. Design speed: 47.8 km/hr. Trials speed: 48.89 km/hr. Maximum speed at time of Dogger Bank action: 42.6 km/hr. Crew: 1,043. Range: 12,223 km @ 22.2 km/hr. Cost: £1,340,000 equivalent at 1907 valuation.

Images of the Blücher

Launch of the armored cruiser BLUECHER at anchor
Launch of the Blücher, April 11, 1908.

BLUECHER at anchor
A handsome portrait of the ship coming out on a sun-splashed, cloudy North Sea day. Enlarge

BLUECHER at anchor
Another wedge shot of the ship cutting along. Bundesarchiv

BLUECHER at anchor
An atmospheric view of Blücher steaming at high speed. Enlarge

BLUECHER at anchor
Detail of the wing turret mounts reveals additional 6" position tucked in next to the turret base.  Enlarge

BLUECHER at anchor
Unusual angle reveals the ship's slender haunches and stern turret.

BLUECHER at anchor
Bow ¾ view of the Blücher at anchor. Note fire-control rigged in fore and main tops.

BLUECHER at anchor
The Blücher firing at the British -- wartime watercolor by Willy Stöwer.

BLUECHER starting to capsize
In illustration based on a battlefield photo, Blücher wallows and starts to capsize at the Battle of Dogger Bank.

Battle of Dogger Bank: Detail of British Propaganda Print

Detail of an ambitious British propaganda print produced within days of the action, proclaiming a great naval victory. At left, Lion leads the British line, while behind her Blücher heels in a rendering that owes much to the photo directly above. The remaining German ships are incorrectly shown behind her engaging in a broadside duel, when the action was a stern chase. A zeppelin and a squadron of aircraft hovering over the Germans add a note of pizazz that was absent in the actual battle. Though it is incorrect in some details, in the main this lithograph by Abrahams & Sons gets it right. Enlarged view

The Sinking of the Blücher

Quarter view of BLUECHERBlücher's awkward timing also affected her fate, paradoxically making this unusual cruiser one of the most famous German warships of all time.

In late 1914 the German battlecruiser squadron under Adm. Franz Hipper had made two raids on small English North Sea ports, with devastating results. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the Allies had procured copies of their naval codes from a foundered cruiser, and the Admiralty had set up a code-breaking operation to decipher radio intercepts (Room 40). So it was that when Hipper sortied for a third raid in January 1915, the Admiralty had Beatty's five battlecruisers -- including three "Big Cats" armed with 13.5" artillery -- poised to intercept the German force. Adm. Goodenough's light cruiser division was deployed in support as were a flotilla of destroyers from Commodore Trywhitt's command at Harwich. The location for the momentous meeting was a North Sea fishing ground known as the Dogger Bank. Anticipating a clean victory in the clash to come, Winston Churchill (First Sea Lord at the time) wrote, "Only one thought could reign. Battle at dawn. Battle for the first time in history between such mighty super ships!"

Now it chanced that one of Hipper's four battlecruisers, the
Von der Tann, was undergoing routine maintenance in drydock and unable to be got ready for sea when the raid was called on the spur of the moment. So it was that the slower, smaller, less capable Blücher was assigned as her replacement with the sortie group. The sands of Fate had run out for the ship; when dawn broke clear over the Dogger Bank on the 24th, a British reception committee was there waiting. Beatty's force of five battlecruisers pounced on the Germans, who fled back toward base. From fourteen miles west, Beatty began a stern chase, pelting them with 13.5" shells at extreme range. The distance gradually diminished as the three 28-knot British ships worked up to speed, at the same time leaving their two older battlecruisers behind.

Illustration of Dogger Bank battleNaturally the slowest German ship, the 23-knot Blücher, trailed behind in the headlong rush for safety and so was first in range for the British. She was hit and hit again, her port-side turrets destroyed with all their crews, then her bow turret jammed. Her electric switchboard was disabled, then her steering partly jammed and she sagged out of line, unable to maneuver. As they came up, the British ships in turn all took target practice on Blücher before shifting to the battlecruisers further ahead. In this way, the armored cruiser was gradually reduced to a flaming charnel house while her fleeter sisters continued to make good their escape. German gunnery, too, took its toll on the British, concentrating on Beatty's flagship Lion, the lead ship in the pursuit squadron. One gun in Lion's "A" turret was disabled by the concussion from an 8" hit by the Blücher. The flagship's armor was bent and dented, her hull holed repeatedly at the waterline. Some 3,000 tons of flooding seawater contaminated her boiler feedwater system, forcing the shutdown of the port engine and disabling the dynamos. This cut off all electric power and thus crippled the flagship's ability to fire and to communicate by wireless.

Despite Lion's misfortunes, other things being equal, there was time and sufficient force for the British to catch all of Hipper's ships, but in wartime things seldom follow such a straightforward path. Due to a confusion in signaling orders from the Lion, all the British battlecruisers broke off the chase and concentrated their attention on the already sinking Blücher, pounding her to pieces while the cameras clicked. After bearing the unbearable and still firing bravely back, the wounded cruiser abruptly rolled over, floated bottom up for a few minutes, then sank at 12:07 p.m. It would indeed have been a scandal had she not gone to the bottom after being mauled by seven torpedoes and more than 70 shells! Thus it was that Blücher became a world-famous symbol of British triumph at sea, when in fact she was the sacrifice which enabled the three German dreadnoughts present to flee and fight another day. But British triumphalism, desperate for a victory in a war barely five months old, would not be silenced. Beatty was lionized as "the new Nelson" and the Dogger Bank fiasco trumpeted as a tremendous naval victory.

The BLUCHER sinking at Dogger Bank

In perhaps the most famous naval photo of WWI, the Blücher turns turtle. Crewmen clamber down the ship's flanks and jump into the sea. 792 of the Blücher's crew lost their lives in the engagement. Some 250 were rescued from the water by Cmdr. Goodenough's cruiser force, but the rescue was called off when a German seaplane intruded and began showering the area with hand-dropped 20-lb bombs, none of which came close to hitting a British vessel. Hundreds of struggling swimmers were abandoned to the January cold as the cruiser force beat a hasty retreat.

Though the action was clearly a tactical defeat for the Germans, both sides claimed victory. The Germans had set the ship's boats ablaze on HMS Tiger and erroneously reported the brand-new dreadnought sunk. The Kaiser nervously gloated. For the men aboard the smoldering wreck of the Blücher, it was an entirely different story. Nearly 800 crewmen were killed or died from their wounds (the Germans lost 159 more in a turret fire on the Seydlitz). Foreshadowing the gruesome scenes aboard the Bismarck in 1941, a catalogue of horror unfolded throughout the Blücher, as told by an engineering officer who escaped:

"Now the shells came thick and fast with a horrible droning hum. At once they did terrible execution. The electric plant was soon destroyed, and the ship plunged into a darkness that could be felt. Below decks there was horror and confusion, gasping shouts and moans as the shells plunged through the decks, even bored their way to the stokehold. Coal in the bunkers caught fire. Since the bunkers were half-empty [with a plentiful air supply] the fire burned furiously.

"In the engine room a shell licked up the oil and sprayed it around in flames of blue and green, scarring its victims and blazing where it fell. In the terrific air pressure of explosions in the confined spaces, the bodies of men were whirled about like dead leaves in a winter blast, to be battered to death against the steel walls. As one poor wretch was passing through a trap door a shell burst near him. He was exactly halfway through. The trap door closed [on him] with an awful crash. In one of the engine rooms men were picked up by that terrible whirlwind and tossed to a horrible death in the machinery."

Quoted in Filson Young, With the Battle Cruisers (London: Cassell, 1921), 204-5.

Naval warfare is usually recorded by the victors, as a battle between ships. A ship takes the worst of it and sinks, or surrenders. Only at the end are survivors seen coming topside and jumping into the water; soon afterwards the ship's sunken hulk enfolds and conceals the horrors endured. Our thanks to the Blücher officer for lifting the bullet-proof veil, revealing the desperate struggle of men that undergirds any battle between ships.

Crest of the BLUCHER