Imperial German Navy

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Flags of the Imperial Navy (with Iron Cross)

The Imperial German Navy (German: Kaiserlich Deutsche Marine, sometimes Kaiserliche Kriegsmarine) was the navy of the German Empire from 1872 until 1918. The German Navy also had U-boats (U-Boote), an air force (Marineflieger), an infantry or marines (Marineinfanterie of the Seebataillone) and rigid airships (Zeppeline).

Standard of the Chief of the Admiralty (1872–1889)


Rang- und Quartierliste der Kaiserlich Deutschen Marine für das Jahr 1889 (Rank Seniority List)
Standard of the Chief of the Admiralty Staff
The Reichsdienstflagge (Imperials Service Flag) of the Imperial Naval Office (German: Reichsmarineamt)
Imperial German and Imperial Austrian Navys united in loyalty during WWI
Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool by naval artist Willy Stöwer (1864–1931); On 30 January 1915, "Linda Blanche", on a voyage from Manchester to Belfast with general cargo, was sunk by the German Unterseeboot SM U 21 (Kommandant Otto Hersing), 18 miles NW1/2 north of the Liverpool Bar lightvessel. There were no casualties. The crew of the cargo steamer, who landed at Fleetwood after the sinking of their vessel, declared that they had been well treated by the Germans who had given them cigars and cigarettes. One of the officers told them he was sorry to have to inconvenience them, but he had orders to sink all British craft. They left Manchester at four o'clock on Friday afternoon, and anchored for some time in the Mersey. At eight o'clock on Saturday evening the voyage was resumed , and at 12.30, when the vessel was due west of Liverpool Lightship, the German submarine U21 came alongside suddenly. The German officer, who spoke perfect English, instructed the skipper, Captain Ellis, to take the crew off within ten minutes. The two small boats of the vessel were quickly lowered and the crew got into them. The German sailors then fixed mine on the bridge of the vessel and one in the forecastle, and these exploded. The vessel was a complete wreck in five minutes. The Germans told the crew there was a trawler in a certain direction, and at two o'clock in the afternoon they were picked up by it. The interviewed man told an interesting incident in connection with the skipper's fox terrier. In their haste to get into the boat the animal was overlooked, and when the crew had cleared off, the dog jumped into the sea and swam to the small boats. When Ellis was interviewed the dog was in his arms.[1]

German Imperial Admiralty (1872–1889)

The German Imperial Admiralty (German: Kaiserliche Admiralität) was an imperial naval authority in the German Empire. By order of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Northern German Federal Navy Department of the North German Confederation (1866–71), which had been formed from the Prussian Navy Department (Marineministerium), became on 1 January 1872 the German Imperial Admiralty (Kaiserliche Admiralität).

The head of the Admiralty (Chef der Admiralität) administered the Imperial Navy under the authority of the Reichskanzler and the supreme command of the Emperor (Kaiserliche Kommandogewalt). It lasted until 1889, undergoing several reorganizations, but proved an impractical arrangement given the constant growth and the expansion of the German Navy.

Finally it was abolished in April 1889 and its duties divided among three new entities: German Imperial Naval High Command (Kaiserliches Ober-Kommando der Marine), led by a Commanding General, the Imperial Naval Office (Reichsmarineamt), led by a State Secretary, and the Imperial Naval Cabinet (Kaiserliches Marinekabinett), led by a Head (Chef). The Imperial Naval High Command was, on 14 March 1899, replaced by the German Imperial Admiralty Staff, which simply transferred over most of the personnel of the Admiral Staff detachment of the former Naval High Command.


Heads/Chiefs of the Admiralty (Chefs der Admiralität):

  • Albrecht von Stosch (1818–1896) : 1 January 1872 to 20 March 1883 (11 years, 78 days)
    • Von Stosch was since 1870 Generalleutnant, also Staatsminister, since 1875 General der Infanterie and Chef der Admiralität mit dem Range als Admiral
  • Vize-Admiral/Generalleutnant Leo von Caprivi (1831–1899) : 20 March 1883 to 5 July 1888 (5 years, 107 days)
  • Vize-Admiral Carl Ludwig Alexander Graf von Monts de Mazin (1832–1889): 5 July 1888 to 19 January 1889 (198 days)
    • his official title was Commanding Admiral and Deputy Head (stellvertretender Chef der Admiralität); his health condition was so bad, that he was never officially named Chef.
Chiefs of Staff (Chef des Stabes der Admiralität)
  • Ludwig Friedrich Wilhelm von Henk as Direktor der Admiralität (1872–1873)
  • Karl Ferdinand Batsch (6 December 1873 to 16 April 1878)
  • Louis von Blanc (April 1878 to April 1881)
  • Eduard Knorr (1881–1884)
  • Hans von Koester (Autumn 1884 to Spring 1887)
  • Friedrich von Hollmann (1887–1888)
  • Guido Philipp Kilian Karcher (1888 to January 1892)

Commanding Admirals

Naval High Command (Ober-Kommando der Marine)

Commanding Admirals of the German Imperial Naval High Command (German: Kaiserliches Oberkommando der Marine) were:

  • Vizeadmiral Max von der Goltz (1838–1906): 1 April 1889 to 8 March 1895
  • Admiral Eduard von Knorr (1840–1920): 8 March 1895 (another source claims 14 May 1895) to 14 March 1899

German Imperial Admiralty Staff (1899–1918)

The German Imperial Admiralty Staff (German: Admiralstab) was one of four command agencies for the administration of the Imperial German Navy from 1899 to 1918. While the German Kaiser Wilhelm II as commander-in-chief exercised supreme operational command and control of the naval forces, the military staff was split into the Admiralty, the Naval Office, the Naval Cabinet, and the Inspector-General.


Heads/Chiefs of the Admiralty Staff (Chefs des Admiralstabs der Kaiserlichen Marine):

  • Admiral Felix von Bendemann (1848–1915): 14 March 1899 to 31 December 1899 (292 days)
  • Vizeadmiral Otto von Diederichs (1843–1918): 1 Januar 1900 to 19 August 1902 (2 years, 230 days)
  • Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Büchsel (1848–1920): 20 August 1902 to 28 Jan 1908 (5 years, 161 days)
  • Admiral Friedrich Graf von Baudissin (1852–1921): 29 Januar 1908 to 5 September 1909 (1 year, 219 days)
  • Admiral Max von Fischel (1850–1929): 6 September 1909 to 11 March 1911 (1 year, 187 days)
  • Vizeadmiral August von Heeringen (1855–1927): 12 March 1911 to 31 March 1913 (2 years, 19 days)
  • Admiral Hugo von Pohl (1855–1916): 1 April 1913 to 1 February 1915 (1 year, 306 days)
  • Admiral Gustav Bachmann (1860–1943): 2 February 1915 to 3 September 1915 (213 days)
  • Großadmiral Henning von Holtzendorff (1853–1919): 4 September 1915 to 10 August 1918 (2 years, 340 days)
  • Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863–1928) 11 August 1918 to 14 November 1918 (95 days)

State Secretaries of the Imperial Naval Office (Reichsmarineamt)

The administration of the navy was part of the Reich administration and was therefore subordinate to the Reich Chancellor. In fact, this assumption only appeared to a limited extent because, on the basis of the so-called Deputy Act of 17 May 1878, the Reich Chancellor was assigned a permanent deputy for the entire naval administration department in the person of the State Secretary (Staatssekretär) of the Reich Naval Office. According to the form, the State Secretary – for example in his relations with the Emperor – acted as the representative of the Reich Chancellor, and the Imperial Orders went to him with the secondary address in brackets (Reichsmarineamt).

  • Konteradmiral Karl Eduard Heusner (1889–1890)
  • Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann (1890–1897)
  • Großadmiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1897–1916)
  • Admiral Eduard von Capelle (1916–1918)
  • Vizeadmiral Paul Behncke (1918)
  • Vizeadmiral Ernst Ritter von Mann Edler von Tiechler (1918–1919)
  • Vizeadmiral Maximilian Rogge as Head of the Reichsmarineamtes but not Staatssekretär (1919)

Generalinspekteur der Marine (1871/89–1918)

  • Adalbert Prince of Prussia (1811–1873): 1871 to 6 June 1873
  • Hans von Koester (1844–1928): 14 March 1899 to 29 December 1906
  • Heinrich Prince of Prussia (1862–1929): 1 October 1909 to 10 August 1918

Engagements (WWI)

Notable major battles

  • Battle of Heligoland Bight (Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass) – 1914
  • Battle of Coronel (Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee) – 1914. The German East Asia Squadron defeated the British West Indies Squadron
  • Battle of the Falkland Islands (Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee) – 1914. The East Asia Squadron (de) was defeated by British battlecruisers
  • Battle of Dogger Bank (Vice Admiral Franz Hipper) – 1915. Armoured cruiser Blücher sank and British battlecruiser Lion put out of action.
  • Battle of the Gulf of Riga (Vice Admiral Ehrhard Schmidt)
  • Battle of Jutland (Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer; Vice Admiral Franz Hipper) – 1916.
    • In the largest naval battle of the war several British ships were sunk or damaged but the High Seas Fleet was unable to damage the British Grand Fleet sufficiently to threaten the blockade of Germany.
  • Operation Albion (de), including Battle of Moon Sound (Vice Admiral Ehrhard Schmidt) – 1917. In the Baltic against Russian forces.
  • First Battle of the Atlantic – U-boat warfare

Notable minor battles

  • Battle of Gotland
  • First Battle of Dover Strait – 1916. Torpedo boat attack on Dover Barrage
  • Second Battle of Dover Strait – 1917. Attack on Dover Barrage
  • Battle of Cocos
  • Raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby – 1914. Bombardment of British east coast ports.
  • Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau
  • Bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft – 1916. Bombardment of British east coast ports.
  • Battle of Trindade

Minor engagements included the commerce raiding carried out by the SMS "Emden", SMS "Königsberg" and the sailing ship and commerce raider SMS "Seeadler".


After the end of World War I, the bulk of the navy's modern ships (74 in all) were interned at Scapa Flow (November 1918), where the entire fleet (with a few exceptions) was scuttled by its crews on 21 June 1919 on orders from its commander, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. The surviving ships of the Imperial Navy became the basis for the Reichsmarine of the German Reich. 1935 the Kriegsmarine would become it's successor.

Scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow

Buch Scapa flow 1919, Friedrich Ruge, herausgegeben 1969.jpg
Scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow II.jpg
To mark the 100th anniversary (2019) of the scuttling, German and British naval divers have attached the Imperial flag to some of the wrecks, which lie on the seabed at depths of up to 47 meters.

The signing of the Armistice with Germany on 11 November 1918, at Compiègne, France, effectively ended the First World War. The Allied powers agreed that Germany's U-boat fleet should be surrendered without the possibility of return, but were unable to agree upon a course of action regarding the German surface fleet. The Americans suggested that the ships be interned in a neutral port until a final decision was reached, but the two countries that were approached – Norway and Spain – both refused. Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss suggested that the fleet be interned at Scapa Flow with a skeleton crew of German sailors, and guarded in the interim by the Grand Fleet. The terms were transmitted to Germany on 12 November 1918, instructing them to make the High Seas Fleet ready to sail by 18 November, or the Allies would occupy Heligoland. The first craft to be surrendered were the U-boats, which began to arrive at Harwich on 20 November 1918; 176 were eventually handed over.

Admiral Franz von Hipper refused to lead the surface fleet to the surrender, delegating the task to Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. The fleet was met by the light cruiser HMS Cardiff (D58) on the morning of 21 November, and was led to the rendezvous with over 370 ships of the Grand Fleet and other allied navies. There were 70 German ships in total; the battleship SMS König and the light cruiser SMS Dresden had engine trouble and had to be left behind. The destroyer SMS V 30 struck a mine while crossing, and sank. The fleet was then moved between 25 and 27 November to Scapa Flow; the destroyers to Gutter Sound and the battleships and cruisers to the north and west of the island of Cava.

This huge armada was the greatest show of British sea-power that the world has ever seen. The Admiral of the Fleet, Sir David Beatty, had laid on this show of strength to humiliate the German navy. He would have been furious if he knew that the Germans took it as a compliment. To them, the act proved that even without the means to fight, the ships of the German Fleet were still regarded as a formidable foe. At the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh, Beatty gave the order that the German Imperial flag was to be lowered at sunset and not raised again without permission. This was intended to be a humiliation. As the ships were interned, they were still the property of the German Government. No British guards could be stationed on the ships.

Command of the interned ships was exercised through von Reuter, flying his flag in the battleship SMS Friedrich der Große. He had a British drifter at his disposal for visiting ships and issuing written orders on urgent business, and his staff was occasionally allowed to visit other ships to arrange repatriation of officers and men. Over seven months the number of men in his command was continually reduced from the 20,000 men who had sailed the ships over in November. Four thousand returned to Germany on 3 December 1918, 6,000 on 6 December and 5,000 on 12 December, leaving 4,815, of whom approximately 100 were repatriated a month. In Orkney, altogether 17,675 men were repatriated to Germany, leaving only a skeleton crew to man the German Fleet.

The Germans found the censorship of the mail, the limited allocation of resources such as fuel, the British refusal to provide food for payment, the ban on shore leave and so much more to be unnecessary harassment. The German ships were supplied from Germany, but food and toiletries were in short supply. Conditions on board must have been awful. The German ships, unlike the British, were never meant to be lived in. In Germany, sailors lived in accommodation huts ashore at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Everyday life was monotonous and caused depression, among other things. Strangely enough, the one thing that the Germans had plenty of was cognac, which they traded with the supply vessels that brought them water. The local newspaper, The Orcadian, claimed that an Iron Cross medal was swapped for a bar of soap. The crews fished from the sides of their ships to pass the time and to fight hunger.

Their ships were being used as a bargaining chip in the high-stakes game being played out in Paris. The men felt degraded. When the order came in June 1919 to carry out one last German heroic deed, everyone was highly motivated. Now they could show the British the real German character, even in defeat. Friedrich Ruge wrote about this in his book Scapa Flow 1919. Das Ende der deutschen Flotte (1969, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the scuttling), which was translated to English in 1973 (Ian Allan Publishing, London).

Having learned of the possible terms of the Treaty of Versailles in May 1919, von Reuter began to prepare detailed plans to scuttle his ships. Admiral Erich Raeder later wrote that von Reuter was informed that the fleet was to be scuttled at all costs. Around 10:00 a.m. on 21 June 1919, von Reuter sent a flag signal ordering the fleet to stand by for the signal to scuttle. At about 11:20 the flag signal was sent: "To all Commanding Officers and the Leader of the Torpedo Boats. Paragraph Eleven of to-day's date. Acknowledge. Chief of the Interned Squadron." The signal was repeated by semaphore and searchlights. This seemingly innocent command was von Reuter's order to scuttle the ships. ‘Paragraph Eleven’ was a pseudo military drinking term used by students in the 19th century. It meant ‘keep on drinking’. But, of course, had the British seen it they would have been none the wiser. So it was that the German Fleet started their last and longest drink. Scuttling (Selbstversenkung) began immediately: seacocks and flood valves were opened, internal water pipes smashed and drain valves on sewage tanks opened.

The German ships were once again flying their Imperial Standard flags (Reichskriegsflagge) as they sank. With only a couple of destroyers on guard duty, there was no stopping these massive ships from sinking. One group with a ringside view was the senior primary school and secondary school pupils from Stromness, who had been enjoying a sightseeing trip around the German ships on the water vessel Flying Kestrel. As the small boat sailed through the fleet, the ships started to settle in the water. Then, came a great whoosh of water. One after another, the ships of the German Fleet rolled over and sank. James Taylor, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel, later wrote:

"The German ships’ decks were lined with German sailors who….did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water. Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss. And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, lifebelts and chests… and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives. As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale."

These scenes of destruction would be forever engraved on the minds of the children who witnessed the death of a navy. Peggy Gibson, another pupil on the Flying Kestrel, later wrote:

"As a child I thought, why shouldn’t they go down with their flags flying, even though they had been conquered. We felt sorry for them, you see – we felt sorry for those that were in the sea and the struggle with the ships. Being children, we didn’t think of them as being an enemy."

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, Commander-in-Chief of the Interned Squadron, was recorded saying:

"What a sight! In front of us the Großer Kurfürst reared herself steeply into the air. Both cables parted with a loud clinking; she fell heavily to port and capsized. The red coating of her bottom shone wide over the blue sea."

The last German ship to sink was the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg at 17:00, by which time 15 capital ships were sunk, and only SMS Baden survived. Five light cruisers and 32 destroyers were also sunk. Eight German men, including the commandant of SMS Markgraf, Korvettenkapitän Walther Schumann, were shot and killed by the British Royal Marines and many wounded aboard their lifeboats rowing towards land or with bayonet wounds when getting close to the Royal Navy ships.

Gunfire was heard as Royal Marines opened fire on the unarmed German crews. Seven men died that day. One more sailor succumbed to his wounds the following day. In all, 21 were injured, mostly with bayonet wounds. A less-talked-about story is that of the ninth German sailor who died. He was murdered on board HMS Resolution in Scapa Flow after the peace treaty was agreed. Kuno Eversberg, along with another prisoner, was being escorted to the toilet just after midnight on the 24th June 1919 when he was shot in the lower back. The bullet passed through him, puncturing his bowels. Eversberg died of peritonitis on 29th June, possibly the last death inflicted from World War I. Many more would die in years to come from wounds and damage from gas. Although a British sailor was tried for Kuno's murder in the High Court in Edinburgh the verdict given was ‘Not Proven’. Another sailor was suspected of having been the one who pulled the trigger. Kuno Eversberg was buried in the Lyness Royal Navy Cemetery, along with 12 other WWI German High Seas Fleet sailors and more than 440 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War. 107 of these sailors are unidentified. The wrong date was carved on Kuno's headstone, as he did not die during the scuttling but afterwards in peacetime. This is being corrected for the 2019 100th year commemoration.[2]

During the afternoon, 1,774 Germans were picked up and transported by battleships of the First Battle Squadron to Invergordon. Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle had sent out a general order declaring that the Germans were to be treated as prisoners-of-war for having broken the armistice and they were destined for the POW camps at Nigg. The French were disappointed that the German fleet was gone, having hoped to acquire at least some of the ships. Admiral Reinhard Scheer declared:

I rejoice. The stain of surrender has been wiped from the escutcheon of the German Fleet. The sinking of these ships has proved that the spirit of the fleet is not dead. This last act is true to the best traditions of the German Navy.

Of the 74 German ships at Scapa Flow, 15 of the 16 capital ships, 5 of the 8 cruisers, and 32 of the 50 destroyers were sunk. The remainder either remained afloat, or were towed to shallower waters and beached. Two remembrance ceremonies took place on Friday 21 June 2019 to mark the 100th anniversary of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet. The grandson, and three great grandsons of von Reuter attended both services. The morning 'Reflection at Sea' service was held in the middle of the Flow at 11:00 am and was attended by dive charter vessels, the Orkney Ferries vessel Thorsvoe, Longhope Lifeboat and two ships from the Northern Lighthouse Board, Pharos and Polestar. The second ceremony was held at Lyness in the Royal Naval Cemetery by the graves of fallen WWI German sailors.

See also


Further reading

  • Kaiserliche-Marine,
  • Dan Van Der Vat: The Grand Scuttle – The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, 2017

External links


  1. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 1 February 1915
  2. The German Fleet in Orkney (Archive)