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SMS König Wilhelm
SMS König Wilhelm at Gravesend
König Wilhelm in Gravesend, England
Name SMS König Wilhelm
Class overview
Operators: War Ensign of Germany (1903–1919).svg Kaiserliche Marine
Preceded by: Kronprinz
Succeeded by: Hansa
Built: 1865—69
Completed: 1
Scrapped: 1
Career (Prussia; Germany) War Ensign of Germany (1903–1919).svg
Name: SMS König Wilhelm
Namesake: William I (1797-1888), King of Prussia (1861-1871), later William I, German Emperor (1871-1888)
Builder: Thames Iron Works, Leamouth, London
Laid down: 1865
Launched: 25 April 1868
Commissioned: 20 February 1869
Struck: 4 January 1921
Fate: Sold for scrapping, 1921
Notes: Served as barracks ship 1904–1907, then as training ship
General characteristics
Type: Armored frigate
Displacement: Design:
  • 9,757 t (9,603 long tons; 10,755 short tons)
  • 10,761 t (10,591 long tons; 11,862 short tons)
Length: 112.2 m (368 ft)
Beam: 18.3 m (60 ft)
Draft: 8.56 m (28.1 ft)
Installed power: 8,440 ihp (6,290 kW)
Sail plan:
  • 2,600 m2 (28,000 sq ft) (removed 1895-1896)
Speed: 14.7 kn (27.2 km/h; 16.9 mph)
  • 1,300 nmi (2,400 km; 1,500 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Boats & landing
craft carried:
  • 36 officers
  • 694 enlisted men
  • 18 × 24 cm (9.4 in) guns
  • 5 × 21 cm (8.3 in) guns
  • Belt: 152 to 305 mm (6.0 to 12.0 in)
  • Battery: 150 mm (5.9 in)

SMS König Wilhelm[lower-alpha 1] (King William) was an armored frigate of the Prussian and later the German Imperial Navy. The ship was laid down in 1865 at the Thames Ironworks shipyard in London, originally under the name Fatikh for the Ottoman Empire. She was purchased by Prussia in February 1867, launched in April 1868, and commissioned into the Prussian Navy in February 1869. The ship was the fifth ironclad ordered by the Prussian Navy, after Arminius, Prinz Adalbert, Friedrich Carl, and Kronprinz. She was built as an armored frigate, armed with a main battery of sixteen 24 cm (9.4 in) and five 21 cm (8.3 in) guns; several smaller guns and torpedo tubes were added later in her career.

The ship was for a time the largest and most powerful warship in the German navy; she served as its flagship during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–1871, though engine troubles prevented the ship from seeing action. In 1878, the ship accidentally rammed and sank the ironclad Grosser Kurfürst, with great loss of life. König Wilhelm was converted into an armored cruiser in 1895–1896; by early 1904, however, she had been superseded by newer vessels. In May of that year, she was placed out of active service and used as a floating barracks and training ship, a role she held through World War I. In 1921, the ship was ultimately broken up for scrap, after a career spanning 52 years and three German states.


General characteristics and machineryEdit

Konig Wilhelm (1868)

Line-drawing of SMS König Wilhelm

König Wilhelm was 108.6 meters (356 ft) long at the waterline and 112.2 m (368 ft) long overall. She had a beam of 18.3 m (60 ft) and a draft of 8.56 m (28.1 ft) forward and 8.12 m (26.6 ft) aft. The ship was designed to displace 9,757 metric tons (9,603 long tons; 10,755 short tons) at a normal loading, and up to 10,761 t (10,591 long tons; 11,862 short tons) with a combat load. The ship's hull was constructed with transverse and longitudinal iron frames. It contained eleven watertight compartments and a double bottom that ran for 70 percent of the length of the vessel.[1]

König Wilhelm was noted by the German navy as having had "satisfactory sea-keeping qualities";[2] the ship was responsive to commands from the helm and had a moderate turning radius. She suffered from severe roll but little pitch. The ship's crew numbered 36 officers and 694 enlisted men, and while serving as a flagship, the crew was augmented with a command staff composed of 9 officers and 47 enlisted men. König Wilhelm carried a number of smaller boats, including two picket boats, two launches, a pinnace, two cutters, two yawls, and one dinghy.[2]

A horizontal two-cylinder single expansion steam engine, built by Maudslay, Son & Field of London, powered the ship. It drove a four-bladed screw 7 m (23 ft) in diameter.[3] J Penn & Sons of Greenwich built eight trunk boilers for the ship. These were divided into two boiler rooms with twenty fireboxes in each, supplied steam to the engine at 2 standard atmospheres (200 kPa).[2] The propulsion system was rated at 8,000 indicated horsepower (6,000 kW) and a top speed of 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph), though on trials König Wilhelm managed to make 8,440 ihp (6,290 kW) and 14.7 kn (27.2 km/h; 16.9 mph). The ship carried 750 t (740 long tons; 830 short tons) of coal, which enabled a maximum range of 1,300 nautical miles (2,400 km; 1,500 mi) at a cruising speed of 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph).[1] A ship rig with a surface area of 2,600 square meters (28,000 sq ft) supplemented the steam engine, though in service they added little to the ship's performance. Steering was controlled with a single rudder.[2]

Armament and armorEdit

As built, König Wilhelm was equipped with thirty-three rifled 72-pounder cannon. After her delivery to Germany, these guns were replaced with eighteen 24-centimeter (9.4 in) L/20 guns, supplied with a total of 1,440 rounds of ammunition. These guns were mounted in a central battery, with nine on either broadside. The guns could depress to −4° and elevate to 7.5°; at maximum elevation, the guns could reach targets out to 4,500 m (14,800 ft). The ship's armament was rounded out by five 21 cm (8.3 in) guns, which could depress to −5° and elevate to 13°. Their maximum range was 5,900 m (19,400 ft).[2]

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2008-0175, Panzerfregatte &quot;SMS König Wilhelm&quot;

König Wilhelm after the 1895-1896 reconstruction into an armored cruiser

König Wilhelm was reconstructed into an armored cruiser in 1895–1896 and rearmed with twenty-two 24 cm L/20 guns, a single 15 cm (5.9 in) L/30 gun with 109 rounds mounted in the stern, and eighteen 8.8 cm (3.5 in) quick-firing guns on the upper deck, nine on each broadside. The 15 cm gun had a range of 8,900 m (29,200 ft). Five 35 cm (14 in) torpedo tubes were also installed; two were placed in the bow, one on both broadsides, and one in the stern, all above water. The torpedo tubes were supplied with a total of 13 rounds. Following her conversion into a training ship, most of her armament was removed. The ship only carried sixteen 8.8 cm L/30 guns, and in 1915, twelve of these were removed.[2]

As built, the ship was protected by wrought iron plating mounted over teak backing. Protection at the waterline was thickest amidships, with an outer layer of iron armor 305 mm (12.0 in) thick, an inner layer of 178 mm (7.0 in) thick iron, and 250 mm (9.8 in) of teak behind the iron. The outer layer was reduced to 152 mm (6.0 in) in the stern but did not extend to the bow. The inner layer was 127 mm (5.0 in) thick in both the bow and stern, and the teak backing was 90 mm (3.5 in) for both ends of the ship. The main battery was protected with 150 mm (5.9 in) thick plating and capped on either end with 150 mm thick transverse bulkheads. During her reconstruction into an armored cruiser, the iron armor was cut away and replaced with stronger steel armor. The conning tower received armor protection during the refit as well. The sides were 50 to 100 mm (2.0 to 3.9 in) thick sloped plates, with a 30 mm (1.2 in) thick roof.[1]

Service historyEdit

Laid down at the Thames Ironworks shipyard in London, England in 1865, the ship was originally ordered by the Ottoman Empire as the Fatikh. The ship was built to a design created by the British naval architect Edward Reed.[4] Before her launch, the Prussian Navy purchased the ship on 6 February 1867 and initially renamed it Wilhelm I. On 14 December 1867, the ship was renamed again, as König Wilhelm. She was launched on 25 April 1868 and commissioned less than a year later, on 20 February 1869.[2] The ship's first commander was Kapitän zur See Ludwig von Henk.[5] The ship was the largest and most powerful vessel in the Prussian fleet, and served as its flagship.[4][lower-alpha 2] Indeed, König Wilhelm remained the largest German vessel until 1891.[6] This was in part due to the fact that Germany laid down only one small ironclad between 1876 and 1888;[7] the four Brandenburg-class battleships, launched in 1891 and 1892, were the first ships to surpass König Wilhelm in size.[8]

Franco-Prussian WarEdit

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the greatly numerically inferior Prussian Navy assumed a defensive posture against a naval blockade imposed by the French Navy.[9] König Wilhelm and the broadside ironclads Friedrich Carl and Kronprinz, along with the small ironclad ram Prinz Adalbert, had been steaming in the English Channel before the French declared war; they had left Plymouth on 10 July with the intention of steaming to Fayal in the Azores. On the 13th, however, they put into port and learned of the rising tension between France and Prussia. The ships therefore returned to Wilhelmshaven immediately, arriving on 16 July.[10] France declared war on Prussia three days later on 19 July.[9] König Wilhelm, Friedrich Carl, and Kronprinz were concentrated in the North Sea at the port of Wilhelmshaven.[9]They were subsequently joined there by the turret ship Arminius, which had been stationed in Kiel.[11]

Despite the great French naval superiority, the French had conducted insufficient pre-war planning for an assault on the Prussian naval installations, and concluded that it would only be possible with Danish assistance, which was not forthcoming.[9] The four ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Jachmann, made an offensive sortie in early August 1870 out to the Dogger Bank, though they encountered no French warships. König Wilhelm and the other two broadside ironclads thereafter suffered from chronic engine trouble, which left Arminius alone to conduct operations.[12] König Wilhelm, Friedrich Carl, and Kronprinz stood off the island of Wangerooge for the majority of the conflict, while Arminius was stationed in the mouth of the Elbe river.[13] On 11 September, the three broadside ironclads were again ready for action; they joined Arminius for another major operation into the North Sea. It too did not encounter French opposition, as the French Navy had by this time returned to France.[12] After the war, the Prussian Navy became the Imperial Navy, and resumed its peacetime training routines. General Albrecht von Stosch became the chief of the Imperial Navy, and organized the fleet for coastal defense.[14]

Collision with Grosser KurfürstEdit

File:SMS Grosser Kurfurst collision.png

While steaming in the Straits of Dover on 31 May 1878,[15] König Wilhelm accidentally collided with the newly commissioned turret ironclad Grosser Kurfürst.[16] The two ships, along with Preussen, had left Wilhelmshaven on the 29th. König Wilhelm and Preussen steamed in a line, with Grosser Kurfürst off to starboard. On the morning of the 31st, the three ships encountered a pair of sailing vessels off Folkestone. Grosser Kurfürst turned to port to avoid the boats while König Wilhelm sought to pass the two boats, but there was not enough distance between her and Grosser Kurfürst. She therefore turned hard to port to avoid Grosser Kurfürst, but the action was not taken quickly enough, and König Wilhelm found herself pointed directly at Grosser Kurfürst.[17] König Wilhelm's ram bow tore a hole in Grosser Kurfürst.[16]

A failure to adequately seal the watertight bulkheads aboard Grosser Kurfürst caused the ship to sink rapidly,[15] in the span of about eight minutes.[17] Out of a crew of 500 men, 269 died in the accident.[15] König Wilhelm was also badly damaged in the collision, with severe flooding forward. König Wilhelm's captain initially planned on beaching the ship to prevent it from sinking, but determined that the ship's pumps could hold the flooding to an acceptable level. The ship made for Portsmouth, where temporary repairs could be effected to allow the ship to return to Germany.[17] In the aftermath of the collision, the German navy held a court martial for Rear Admiral Batsch, the squadron commander, and Captains Monts and Kuehne, the commanders of the two ships, along with Lieutenant Clausa, the first officer aboard Grosser Kurfürst, to investigate the sinking.[18] The damage to König Wilhelm necessitated a lengthy period of repairs from 1878 to 1882.[4] The work was carried out at the Imperial Dockyard in Wilhelmshaven,[1] and also included reboilering and replacement of the ship's ram.[4] Torpedo nets were fitted to the ship from 1885 to 1897.[2]

Later serviceEdit

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König Wilhelm as a training ship

By 1893, König Wilhelm had been assigned as the flagship for the II Division of the German fleet; the four Sachsen-class armored corvettes composed the I Squadron. The ship flew the flag of Admiral Otto von Diederichs, and was based in Wilhelmshaven. On 20 February 1894, a special ceremony was held on board the ship to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her commissioning. Kaiser Wilhelm II attended the ceremony, as did Ludwig von Henk, who had by that time retired as a Vizeadmiral.[5] In April 1894, the II Division conducted a training cruise to prepare for the annual summer maneuvers. During the cruise, König Wilhelm ran aground on a mud bank off the Frisian coast. Deutschland and Friedrich der Grosse quickly pulled the ship free with minimal damage.[5] The ships then proceeded to Scotland via Oslo and Bergen. The division returned to Kiel at the end of May to replenish its stocks of coal and provisions for the summer exercises.[19] During the 1894 maneuvers, von Diederich's II Division acted as the opposing force in the Baltic, simulating a Russian fleet attacking Germany's Baltic coast.[20] Following the conclusion of maneuvers in September, Admiral Diederichs left the squadron and was replaced by Admiral Karl Barandon.[21]

In 1895, König Wilhelm went into drydock at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg for an extensive reconstruction into an armored cruiser. The vessel's armament was increased, the ship rig was removed, and new fighting masts were installed in place of the old masts. The ship's crew was dramatically increased, to 38 officers and 1,120 enlisted men. Work lasted through 1896, and the ship was returned to the fleet in her new guise on 25 January 1897.[3] She served with the fleet until 1904, when she was removed from active duty. Starting on 3 May 1904, she became a harbor ship. She was then used barracks ship and training vessel for naval cadets, based in Kiel, starting on 1 October 1907. Two years later, König Wilhelm was moved to the Naval Academy at Mürwik, where she continued in these duties.[2] Starting in 1910, the old corvette Charlotte served as a support vessel for the ship.[22] The light cruiser Medusa replaced Charlotte as König Wilhelm's auxiliary vessel in 1917.[23] König Wilhelm served through World War I, until 1921, after Germany's defeat. On 4 January 1921, the ship was stricken from the naval register and broken up for scrap in Rönnebeck.[2]



  1. "SMS" stands for "Seiner Majestät Schiff", or "His Majesty's Ship".
  2. König Wilhelm was armed with 23 large-caliber guns; earlier ships, such as Friedrich Carl and Kronprinz, were armed with 16 guns, and later vessels, such as the Preussen and Kaiser classes, were armed with four and eight heavy guns, respectively. See Gröner, pp. 2–6.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Gröner, p. 3.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Gröner, p. 4.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gröner, pp. 3–4.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Gardiner, p. 243.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Gottschall, p. 119.
  6. Herwig, p. 12.
  7. Sondhaus, p. 147.
  8. Gröner, p. 13.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Sondhaus, p. 101.
  10. Wilson, p. 273.
  11. Wilson, p. 277.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Sondhaus, p. 102.
  13. Wilson, p. 278.
  14. Gottschall, p. 40–41.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Gröner, p. 6.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Sondhaus, p. 109.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Irving, p. 135.
  18. The New York Times 1879-01-09.
  19. Gottschall, pp. 119–120.
  20. Gottschall, p. 120.
  21. Gottschall, p. 121.
  22. Gröner, p. 45.
  23. Gröner, p. 102.


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