Torpedo Cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth (1886 / 1889)

SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth on maneuvers, during her stint in the Far East from 1900-1914.

Intro - read on.    |    Specifications    |    Ship's History    |    Life in Qingdao

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An experimental type known as a Torpedrammkreuzer, SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth and her -- er -- spouse-ship, SMS Kaiser Franz Josef I were an unusual class in the Habsburg navy: 4,000-ton fast cruisers heavily armed with torpedoes, a pair of 9.4" guns, and a large number of intermediate and smaller weapons. Kaiserin Elisabeth was named for the beautiful but narcissistic Empress Elisabeth ("Sissy"), wife of Kaiser Franz Josef I, after whom the other ship was named. The royal couple's marriage had already entered a stage of estrangement in 1888 when their only son, Archduke Rudolf, ended it all in a murder-suicide pact with his 17-year-old mistress.

But Trieste was far removed from Habsburg family scandals in Vienna. The STT workmen turned out very sturdy pair of ships to honor the royals. The Elisabeth's vitals were shielded with up-to-date all-steel armor; her sides protected by cellulose-filled cofferdams in obedience to an 1890s fad (the cellulose was removed before her journey to the East in 1900). She carried her big guns en barbette at bow and stern, with the gunners protected by a 40mm armored shield overhead. The half-dozen 5.9" were carried in sponsons: four on the hull, with two more suspended from the outboard sides of the boat deck. The ship had four torpedo tubes and a large torpedo storage area, as befitted a torpedo specialist. And at 19 knots (nearly 20 under forced draft), she had the freedom of maneuver to line up her shots better than most of her contemporaries. Both of these vessels were known as fuel hogs, but their antiquated horizontal engines could still produce 19 knots at the end of their careers, when they were 25 years old. The Kaiserin Elisabeth was 12 years old when her namesake, the Empress Elisabeth, was assassinated by an anarchist during a state visit to Italy in 1898. In Vienna 111 years later, admirers still deck "Sissy's" grave with flowers.

Plans and Specifications

Schematic of cruiser KAISERIN ELISABETH

Specifications for the Kaiserin Elisabeth:
Built at Pola Arsenal. Laid down: January 25, 1884. Launched: July 6, 1887. Commissioned: Sept. 20, 1889.
Dimensions: 325'6" x 49' x 19'4"   Full load draft: 27'0" Displacement: 4,060 tons standard. Armament (as built): (2) 9.4"/35 cal Krupp guns, (6) 5.9"/35 Krupp guns, (5) 1.85" 3-pdr Hotchkiss guns, and (2) 1.5"/33 MG; (4) 15.75" torpedo tubes. Armament as modified, 1905-06: (2) 5.9"/35 Skoda Kannonen, (6) 5.9"/35 Krupp guns, (14) 1.85"/44 Hotchkiss guns, and (2) 1.85"/33 MG; (4) 15.75" torpedo tubes. Armor: Nickel steel type. 3½" barbettes, secondary gun shields, and casemates; 5"/3½" shields for 6" guns; 2¼"/1.7" deck; 4½" conn. Fuel capacity: 400 tons of coal std, 600 tons maximum. Propulsion: (4) double-ended Scotch boilers, (2) horizontal triple-expansion engines developing 6,400 hp (9,000 hp under forced draft), shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 19.17 knots; 19.94 under forced draft. Crew: 24 officers, 320 enlisted men.

Ships in class: Kaiser Franz Josef I · Kaiserin Elisabeth

Metric Specifications:
Dimensions: 102.56m x 14.94m x 5.7m   Full load draft: 8.23m. Displacement: 4,060 tons standard. Armament (as built): (2) 24 cm/35 cal Krupp guns, (6) 15 cm/35 Krupp guns, (5) 47 mm 3-pdr Hotchkiss guns, (2) 37 mm/33 MG; (4) 40 cm torpedo tubes. As modified, 1905-06: (2) 15 cm/35 cal Skoda Kannonen, (6) 15 cm/35 Krupp guns, (14) 47 mm/44 Hotchkiss guns, and (2) 47 mm/33 guns; (4) 40 cm torpedo tubes. Armor: Nickel steel throughout. 40 mm barbettes, secondary gun shields, and casemates; 60/40 mm shields for 15cm guns; 57/38 mm deck; 45 mm conn. Fuel capacity: 400 tons of coal std; 600 tons maximum. Propulsion: (4) double-ended Scotch boilers, (2) horizontal triple-expansion engines developing 4,772 kW (6,711 kW under forced draft), shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 35.5 km/hr; 36.9 under forced draft. Crew: 24 officers, 320 enlisted men.

Journey to the East

Battle of TianjinIn 1900 China was torn by antiforeign riots, with government troops joining the insurgent Boxers. A number of important foreigners were brutally murdered, including the Japanese Chancellor, Sugiyama, on June 9 and the German Minister, Klemens Graf von Ketteler, on June 20. By early June some 3,000 westerners and Chinese Christians had fled to the legations at Beijing for safety. There they were ringed by tens of thousands of Boxers and regular troops, armed with two Krupp guns of the latest design, to which they replied with their own artillery. In an episode of imperial history little remembered in the west but long harped upon by the communist régime in China as a monstrous injustice, all the western Powers combined with Japan to stamp out the Rebellion with a heavy hand. 25,000 troops were sent from Europe, arriving starting in June, while a well-armed Japan contributed nearly as many again. In May, the Kaiserin Elisabeth was sent out to China as part of a powerful squadron of the KuK navy's recent cruisers. Other warships in the Austro-Hungarian detachment included the armored cruiser Maria Theresia and the light cruises Aspern and Zenta.

In June, pre-invasion, the Austrian flotilla helped hold the Tianjin railway against Boxer forces, and also fired upon several armed junks on the Hai River near Tongqiao. They took part in the seizure of the Taku Forts guarding the approaches to Tianjin, and the boarding and capture of four Chinese destroyers by Capt. Roger Keyes of HMS Fame. With the lifting of the Siege of Tianjin, the 2,000 sailors and marines under Vice Adm. Edward Hobart Seymour who had been defending the city came forth and joined in the victorious march on Beijing. The overall command of the expedition devolved on Gen. Linevich, the Russian Far East C-in-C. Approximately 20,000 prime troops set out for the 120-km advance on the capital. The spearhead of British and Japanese troops arrived Aug. 14 to find the legations battered but intact. In all K.u.K forces suffered only 17 casualties during the rebellion, although total allied casualties amounted to 2,500 killed and wounded.

Terrorizing the population and widespread looting of art works and luxuries, perpetration of rape and ruin all were common after the troops broke through to relieve the besieged legations at Beijing. Austria's forces were present when the legations were freed, and later when the Imperial Tombs were sacked, and later yet when entire districts of North China countryside were laid waste in an effort to root out any vestiges of rebellion. Looting of a different kind went on in diplomatic chambers as the western Powers exacted an indemnity equal to US $135M in the coin of the day, to be paid over 39 years.

Cruiser SMS KAISERIN ELISABETHThe Germanic portions of the expedition were not encouraged to be moderate in dealing with the Chinese. Kaiser Wilhelm, in one of his less attractive moments, exhorted his men to be especially destructive and violent, stamping such a dread of Germany on the Chinese that "the name of Germans [would] resound through Chinese history for a thousand years." Lusting for glory, Wilhelm despatched 30,000 troops on August 18 under the command of Gen. Alfred von Waldersee, designated to take over as C-in-C from Linevich. The Kaiser got his wish. Though they only landed in China after allied troops had already occupied the capital for seven weeks, Wilhelm's troops obliged with savagery that is bitterly remembered to this day in China. Waldersee's forces remained in North China through late 1902, randomly butchering village headmen and otherwise making themselves feared and loathed.

Austria had a much more limited presence and, one hopes, a more restrained demeanor. Some of her crewmen provided man- and firepower to the punitive expedition. By the last half of 1902, Austro-Hungarian operations in China were starting to wind down, and many of the Austrian warships departed. But in the wake of the unrest, Vienna decided to station a squadron in China waters permanently. A cruiser and light units in support were assigned, and that cruiser was the Kaiserin Elisabeth.

Life in Olde Tsingtau

Port of Qingdao c. 1912
The port of Tsingtau (Qingdao), its harbor brimming with ships, in 1912. Map

During the Boxer Rebellion the Austrian ships were based at Russian-occupied Port Arthur, but for long-term operations they were hosted by Kaiser Wilhelm in his rival colonial port of Qingdao (Tsingtau). Taken over by Germany in 1897 under the Tripartite Intervention following the Sino-Japanese War, Qingdao was a bustling hub of commerce (map), the fourth busiest port in all China by 1913, with its own extensive switching yard on the German-run Shandong Railway. The colony was administered by the German Navy -- home base of the formidable East Asia Squadron -- and was becoming well fortified by land and sea, with four batteries around the harbor plus five heavily-gunned redoubts facing inland and a garrison of some 2,500, to be augmented by 1,500 naval gunners in the event of war. The city hosted undersea cables to Shanghai and Qifu and a radio transmitter with a range of nearly 2,000 miles. Life in the "Eastern Riviera" was congenial, with good locally-brewed beer (Tsingtao Beer), your choice of Catholic or Lutheran churches, architecture reminiscent of Bavaria or the Salzburg Alps, sensible German law, and plenty of docile native servants.

Qingdao waterfront, c. 1912

The panoramic camera captured a portion of the industrial waterfront of Qingdao, circa 1912: the main commercial pier or Qingdao Bridge (Bundesarchiv photo). There were also harbor facilities for junks and coastal steamers, a separate naval harbor, and a floating drydock capable of handling large freighters and cruisers. The commandant of the colony, Governor Meyer-Waldeck, was a retired admiral of the Kaiserlich Marine who deployed naval forces skillfully in the siege.

German-looking street corner & 2-towered church in colonial QingdaoIn 1905-06, the Kaiserin Elisabeth refitted at Hong Kong. Her armament was revamped for colonial service: her 9.4" guns were removed, replaced by new 15cm weapons from Skoda, making her guns a wholly homogeneous lot. These new guns were mounted in small single turrets fitting into her existing barbettes. Her antipersonnel arsenal was expanded. It was clear what sort of duty was anticipated. Happily no resurgence of the Boxer troubles rocked the Celestial Empire on her remaining North China watch. And after a coastal cruise, the rathskellars of Old Qingdao were as welcoming as any in the home country. In 1913 she was summoned to Austria for a refit, returning to Qingdao in midsummer 1914, just as war was about to break out in Europe.

Kaiserin Elisabeth was sunk to avoid capture by the Japanese in the Battle of Qingdao, early in WWI. The German Asiatic Squadron under Count von Spee had departed Qingdao on June 20, 1914 for its annual Pacific cruise, and instead steamed all the way to Chile in the first leg of its voyage to glory. At war's opening, Vienna could not make up its mind what it wanted its China station cruiser to do. Orders were received to (a) intern the ship at Shanghai, (b) join the Germans in the fight, (c) fight the British, (d) not to antagonize Japan. After bouncing in and out of Qingdao like a yo-yo for some weeks, the ship was trapped by the Allied blockade which took effect Aug. 27. On orders from Vienna most of the ship's crew traveled by rail to Tianjin, only to be ordered back to Qingdao to assist the Germans in resisting the Allied siege, after Kaiser Wilhelm applied intense pressure on Vienna. All 324 of the ship's company fought in the battle. Eventually the ship's eight 15 cm guns were landed to assist in the defense, only the AA guns remaining on board; the Japanese made use of five seaplanes housed in the primitive carrier Wakamiya; the German aircraft employed during the siege was an unarmed Taube piloted by Gunther Plüschow, the German "Condor of Tsingtau." Also operating with the Elisabeth in the early part of the siege were the 1899 German destroyer S90, the gunboats SMS Jaguar and her sister Iltis, the sister-gunboats Tiger and Luchs, and two minelayers. Present, but not used for combat, were four small river gunboats which had reported to Qingdao from all over northern and central China as war clouds thickened. The crafty Germans outfitted several passenger steamers with guns from the naval arsenal at Qingdao and despatched them to raid Allied commerce. However, none of these had noteworthy success. Only the Emden, a naval cruiser formerly stationed at Qingdao with the Asiatic Squadron, had luck in that endeavor; but she had spectacular luck, enough to make up for some lackluster mates.

Smashed gun emplacement at German fort in QingdaoIn the battle a German-Austrian combined force of about 5,000 stood off a full-bore attack by a Japanese fleet and army for almost 2 months. Under instructions to avoid casualties, the Japanese commander, Gen. Kamio, landed troops on the north side of the Shandong Peninsula and marched overland on the city. They were greatly hindered by the monsoon-like weather, the wettest fall in living memory. The Japanese employed a textbook siege like their assault on Port Arthur ten years before. On September 2, Japanese forces landed and fanned out along the German perimeter, siezing one of the five forts at Tsimo. On the 18th the Japanese, joined by a battalion of British troops and 2 companies of British colonial troops from India, had surrounded Qingdao. They then ringed the position with S-shaped trenches. Kaiserin Elisabeth's guns contributed to the defense, notably silencing Japanese batteries on Sept. 26. The destroyer S90 also had a success, exploding the magazines of the venerable cruiser Takachiho with one torpedo before running to safety beyond the blockade; the cruiser took all but three of her crew with her when she sank, while the destroyer was interned in a neutral Chinese port for the duration; she was later scuttled to prevent capture when China was bullied into joining the Allies. But back in Jiaozhou, the Germans lost their key position on Prince Heinrich Hill the night of Sept. 27/28 when Japanese units surprised the German outpost at the summit, carrying the position with a heroic charge. 24 Japanese were killed in the action and 54 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Japanese took the commanding heights, able to pour down devastating fire at will.

Meanwhile the Japanese landed 100 siege guns, including 11" howitzers, crews, engineers, and ammo. On Oct. 31, the Allies began bombarding the port from the siege guns and from their ships -- a powerful fleet that included the dreadnoughts Kawachi and Settsu, the new battlecruiser Kongo, and the British battleship HMS Triumph.

Assault on Bismarck Hill fort at Qingdao, Nov. 1914The results may be gauged by the photo above left: a cupola-mounted 28 cm (11") Krupp gun, toppled from one of the Bismarck Hill forts by a burst that demolished its foundation, rests upside down in the mud. As the noose tightened around the city on Nov. 1, Governor Meyer-Waldeck ordered his remaining ships -- the German gunboat Jaguar and the Kaiserin Elisabeth, both battle damaged -- scuttled to avoid capture. On Nov. 6, 1914, soon after the withering weeklong bombardment ceased, the Japanese made a determined assault on the main forts surrounding the city; in a hand-to-hand battle at the main fort at Bismarck Hill that night, Austro-Hungarian seamen fought courageously, suffering two killed and three wounded. The following day, with three of his five main forts taken and ammunition running low, Meyer-Waldeck surrendered. Of the Elisabeth's crew, 10 were killed and 10 more wounded in the battle, out of a German total of 199 killed and 294 wounded. Allied losses were 415 killed and 1,485 wounded (Japanese Army); ~300 killed and 100 wounded (Imperial Japanese Navy); 13 killed and 61 wounded (British Army elite corps); and 3 killed and 6 wounded (Royal Navy). Allied totals were thus 731 killed and 1,652 wounded. The Japanese lost five ships in the operation: the cruiser Takachiho, one destroyer, one torpedo boat, and two minesweepers. HMS Triumph suffered a large-calibre hit on Oct. 14 while bombarding German batteries at close range; the pre-dreadnought retired forthwith, but expert Japanese repair crews had her back on the firing line in 24 hours. In Japanese-occupied Qingdao the remains of the Elisabeth and several German gunboats became part of the scenery at first. Their remnants were broken up in place in 1920.

German eagle carved in the cliff face at QingdaoThe surviving crewmen of the Kaiserin Elisabeth spent the war in Japanese POW camp, returning to a much changed Europe in 1920. At least one of the Elisabeth's crewmen turned the time in POW camp to literary use, compiling a book of his poetry and other writings quite nicely illustrated. Several of the naval drawings by Dumitru Nistor are reproduced below.

Meantime in East Asia, following the emphatic rejection of their 21 Demands (1915), which had caused a firestorm of public indignation in China, and the May 4, 1919 nationwide demonstrations against the Versailles Treaty, which would cede all German possessions in China to Japan without charge, the Japanese decided to exercise diplomacy. They ostensibly handed the port back to China in 1922. To be sure, this move was made not to benefit China, but to punish Britain for terminating the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. In the maneuvering leading up to the 1922 Washington Treaty for Naval Disarmament, Britain sided with the U.S. against Japan and broke off the 1902 alliance: Japan -- and particularly the Imperial Japanese Navy -- had been staunchly loyal to the partnership with Britain, a source of great prestige for the navy in Japanese domestic politics. So its abandonment by Britain was seen as an act of betrayal (with racist overtones) in Japan. In the final Treaty, the two western Powers were permitted parity in the number of capital ships, while Japan was allowed only 3/5 the number of ships alotted to Britain or America.

But means of retaliation were at hand. Back in Shandong, Britain's lease on the Weihaiwei region, dating to 1895, was dependent on other foreign Powers' holding territory in the Bohai Gulf region (map). Thus Japan's withdrawal from the ex-German colony forced Britain to relinquish her Weihaiwei enclave. Since Japan still retained the Shandong Railway, she effectively controlled the peninsula despite having ceded the former German territory. Moreover, since Hong Kong was the closest British base after the withdrawal from Weihaiwei, Japan assumed mastery of the Yellow Sea and the marine approaches to Beijing. This maneuver was designed for domestic face-saving following the perceived humiliations of the Washington Treaty; in point of fact the Treaty tacitly ceded control of the local seas to Japan by removing all British and American capital ships from East Asia. Japan's powerful dreadnought fleet would move into the vacuum, achieving local predominance. And so it remained through 1943. As for the former Central Powers, their influence over Chinese affairs virtually ceased, and their colonial possessions were parceled out under League of Nations mandate, principally to Japan. The cultural imprint remains around the shores of Jiaozhou Bay, however, in enduring Art Nouveau architecture and frothy Tsingtao Beer -- as enduring as the Imperial German marker chiseled in the rocks of Bismarck Hill (above) to commemorate the taking of Jiaozhou Bay by Adm. Diederich on Nov. 14, 1897.

A Kaiserin Elisabeth Gallery

Stern view of the KAISERIN ELISABETH
A fine quarter view of the Kaiserin Elisabeth.

Bow view of the Kaiserin Elisabeth in harbor as the moning fog burns off.

Aft 12-in barbette, KRONPRINZ RUDOLF

The Elisabeth with the other Austrian cruisers in China waters during the Boxer Rebellion.

KAISERIN ELISABETH at anchor, bow view
The Elisabeth at anchor on a placid Adriatic bay.

Painting of the ship, stern view
Painting of the Elisabeth on cover of a coin catalog from the Austrian State Mint - the Ausstellungkatalog.

The Austro-Hungarian Punitive Expedition to China, 1900

Bow view of SMS KAISERIN MARIA THERESIA at anchor, showing forward öbservatory mount

The Maria Theresia stopping at Shanghai on her way back from the late unpleasantness in the East.

Profile view of SMS ZENTA at anchor

Commissioned in 1899, SMS Zenta shows off her racy form. A regular in the Adriatic fleet, the ship was captured just weeks after war was declared in 1914 after a bloody battle with Anglo-French forces. Survivors were imprisoned in Montenegro for the duration, in conditions that made them wish they had gone down with the ship.

Bow view of small cruiser ASPERN

Sister ship of the Zenta, SMS Aspern was a stalwart member of the Adriatic fleet all the way through WWI.

1912 French map of Qingdao
A 1912 map of Qingdao, fortifications shown in orange.

The Siege of Qingdao, 1914

Japanese siege gun and crew at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914
An 11-inch "Osaka baby" field howitzer roars away at Qingdao.

Japanese siege gun and crew at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914
Aerial spotting and excellent telephone communications helped Japanese forces coordinate a devastating week-long cannonade at Qingdao.

Japanese siege gun and crew at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914

The Germans had their own one-man aerial spotting and reconnaissance unit in Gunther Plüschow, the "Condor of Tsingtau," in his unarmed Taube monoplane. Plüschow became a national hero in Germany for his exploits, reported over Qingdao's powerful wireless station.

The German-Austrian Seebatalion at Qingdao, 1912
Crewmen of Kaiserin Elisabeth were absorbed into the Seebatalion, a mixed German-Austrian unit, for fighting ashore in the siege.   Bundesarchiv

The Shanghai Volunteer Corps at Qingdao, 1912
The Shanghai volunteer corps helped to defend Qingdao. Enlarge  Bundesarchiv

Japanese battleship SETTSU

The new Japanese dreadnought Settsu and her sister ship Kawachi, with two dozen 12" guns between them, led the Allied bombardment fleet during the siege. HMS Triumph joined them with four 10" guns and fourteen 8". Also present were five Japanese pre-dreadnoughts, the new battlecruiser Kongo (below), three armored cruisers, and a staggering support armada. Japanese ground forces counted an entire infantry division augmented with detached battalions of engineers, logisticians, sappers, and signalmen; a mountain artillery battalion; detached regiments of field artillery, cavalry, and infantry; and a full brigade of additional foot-soldiers.

Japanese dreadnought KONGO in 1913

The Japanese dreadnought battlecruiser Kongo, built at Vickers to Japanese specifications, glimpsed above on her trials. She joined Japan's Home Fleet in 1913, less than a year before she stood in to bombard fortifications at Qingdao. Armed with eight 14" guns and with a 30-knot turn of speed, Kongo was a trend-setting ship that rattled precedent and forced reassessment on three continents. After assessment came widespread imitation, even in the Royal Navy. Kongo was imitated the most in the Japanese fleet, which produced no less than seven improved copies. Kongo is more evocative to the battleship purist in her early incarnation as seen above, than the version whose gadget-encrusted pagoda towers fought World War II. Kongo was one of the heavy hitters in the Qingdao bombardment, smashing up the fortifications on the heights and harbor. Ship eventually fell victim to a U.S. sub in the Taiwan Straits in November 1944.   Enlarge

Japanese aircraft carrier at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914
Launching a Maurice Farman seaplane from the carrier Wakamiya, 1914.  Enlarge

Japanese battery at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914
Japanese field guns at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914.

Japanese battery at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914
Above and below: Commemoration of the naval action at Qingdao, ink on paper by Dumitru Nistor, Romanian crewman and POW, 1919.  Enlarge

Colored ink drawing of the KAISERIN ELISABETH by POW Dumitru Nistor, 1918

Japanese battery at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914
Japanese field guns at the Siege of Qingdao, 1914.

Illustration of the fall of Qingdao, 1914
The Fall of Qingdao, as conceived by German illustrator Richard Assmann.

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