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SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
Photo of the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse at sea.jpg
SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
Name: SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
Namesake: William I, German Emperor
Owner: North German Lloyd
Port of registry: Flag of the German Empire.svg Bremen, Germany
Builder: Stettiner Vulcan, Stettin
Laid down: 1896
Launched: 4 May 1897
Christened: 4 May 1897
Maiden voyage: 19 September 1897
Fate: scuttled in battle, 26 August 1914
General characteristics
Tonnage: 14,349 gross tons (GRT)
24,300 tons displacement[1]
Length: 655 ft (200 m)
Beam: 65 ft 9.6 in (20.056 m)
Installed power: 33,000 ihp (25,000 kW)
Propulsion: 2 triple expansion reciprocating engines
2 screw propellers
Speed: 22.5 kn (25.9 mph; 41.7 km/h)
Capacity: 1,506 passengers
Crew: 488
Armament: (in World War 1) 6 x 105 mm (4.1 in) guns; 2 x 37 mm (1.5 in) guns

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (Ger. orth. Kaiser Wilhelm der Große) was a German transatlantic ocean liner named after Wilhelm I, German Emperor, the first ruler of united Germany. Constructed in Stettin for the North German Lloyd (NDL), she entered service in 1897 and was the first liner to have four funnels. The first of four sister ships built between 1903 and 1907 by NDL (the others being SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II and the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie) she marked the beginning of a huge change in the way maritime supremacy was demonstrated in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

The ship began a new era in ocean travel and the novelty of having four funnels was quickly associated with size, strength, speed and above all luxury. Quickly established on the Atlantic, she gained the Blue Riband for Germany, a notable prize for the quickest trip from Europe to America which had been previously dominated by the British. In 1900, she was involved in a fire in the port of New York which resulted in several deaths. She was also the victim of a naval ram in the French port of Cherbourg in 1906. With the advent of her sister ships, she was then converted to an all third class ship to take advantage of the lucrative immigrant market travelling to the United States.

Converted into an auxiliary cruiser during World War I, she was given orders to capture and destroy enemy ships within the first months of the war. Relatively successful, she destroyed several enemy ships before eventually being destroyed in the Battle of Río de Oro in August 1914, the first month of the war, by the British cruiser HMS Highflyer. Her wreck was rediscovered in 1952 and then dismantled. A once popular ship, she has largely been forgotten, having been overshadowed by her British counterparts.


Origins, conception and construction[]

The SS Teutonic of the White Star Line, the inspiration for the future "Four Flyers"

At the end of the 19th century, the United Kingdom dominated maritime trade with the ocean liners of the principal maritime companies such as the Cunard and the White Star Line. Having gained more influence in Europe after William I, German Emperor, his grandfather, had created the German Empire in 1870, Emperor Wilhelm II wished to consolidate German influence on the waves and thus decrease that of the British.[2] In 1889, the Emperor himself had attended a naval review in honour of the jubilee of his grandmother Queen Victoria. There he saw the strength and size of these British ships, notably the latest and then largest liner owned by White Star, the SS Teutonic. He particularly admired that these ships could easily be converted to auxiliary cruisers in time of conflict. Leaving a lasting impression, the emperor was heard to say that "We must have some of these..." clearly showing they had had a lasting effect.[3]

The Norddeutscher Lloyd, commonly known as NDL or North German Lloyd, was one of only two German maritime companies which had any influence in the hugely profitable transatlantic shipping market. Neither of these lines had up until now shown any interest in operating large liners. NDL, however, was the first company to name any of their liners in honour of members of the Imperial family, purely to flatter the emperor. The company also had important links with the naval architects AG Vulkan of Stettin. NDL then approached Vulkan and commissioned them to construct a new "superliner", which was to be named the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. The new ship would set a new style for ocean liners. She was the largest and longest liner afloat and would have been the largest ever had it not been for the Great Eastern of 1860.[4]

The launching of the ship took place on 4 May 1897 in the presence of the Imperial family; it was the emperor who baptised the ship whose name honoured his grandfather Emperor William I, "the Great". Construction and the internal decoration of the liner took place in Bremerhaven and before long she was ready to begin her regular crossings, her maiden voyage being scheduled for September the same year.[5] The most striking feature of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was her four funnels, the first ship ever to sport such a quartet, which for the next two decades, would be a symbol of size and safety.


Drawing of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse by an unknown painter

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse set out on her maiden voyage on 19 September 1897, travelling from Bremerhaven to Southampton and thence to New York.[6] With a capacity of 800 third class passengers, the NDL had ensured that they would profit greatly from the immigrants wishing to leave the continent for a better standard of living in the United States. From her maiden voyage, she was the only superliner to cross the Atlantic with such speed and such media attention. In March 1898,[6] she successfully gained the Blue Riband with an average crossing speed of 22.3 knots, thus establishing the new German competitiveness.[7] The Blue Riband, an award given for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic, east and westbound, had previously been held by the Cunard liner RMS Lucania.[8] This turn of events was closely watched by the maritime world of the era, who were eager to see how the British would retaliate.[9] However, the NDL soon lost the riband in 1900 to the new German superliner, the aptly named Deutschland of the Hamburg America Line.[10] This change in events was acceptable to Germans, who were able to relax in the knowledge that they were still the owners of the fastest liner; however, NDL promptly ordered that the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse undergo a refit to ensure that they were the dominant German company.[11] This refit included the installation of wireless communication, then new technology which allowed the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse to transmit telegraphic messages to a port, emphasising her image of security.[12]

Promotion of the "Four Flyers" of the NDL

The NDL took the battle even further. 1901 saw the addition to their fleet of another four-funnel liner, named the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm in honour of Crown Prince William, heir to the German throne, and they subsequently commissioned another two superliners, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II and the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie of 1903 and 1907 respectively.[13] From 1903 to 1907 the Blue Riband was held by the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II. The company stated that the four liners were of the renowned Kaiser class and decided to market them as the Four Flyers, a reference to their speed and associations with the Blue Riband.[14]

The career of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, despite its prestige, was not without incident. In June 1900 at her quay in Hoboken, New Jersey, she was the victim of a fire which killed one hundred staff who were trying to remove the threat.[15] Six years later, on 21 November 1906, she was the victim of a naval ram inflicted by the Orinoco, a British ship of the Royal Mail, in Cherbourg. Five passengers lost their lives in the incident and the liner was found to have an 8 metre rip in her hull.[16] To make matters worse, ever growing technological evolution of steamships soon made NDL's express steamers outdated. Cunard's RMS Lusitania and her sister the RMS Mauretania outmatched their German rivals on all fields, and when the future White Star's RMS Olympic entered service in 1911, luxury on the high seas was taken one step further. As a result, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was rebuilt in 1913 to carry Third Class passengers only. It seemed that her glory was fading regardless of her career as the first "four stacker".[17] From 26 January 1907, she was charged with carrying passengers between the Mediterranean Sea and New York, effectively ending the public career of the first of the "four flyers".

First World War[]

From 1908, German naval captains had been receiving orders to make preparations in the event of a sudden war. In fact, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was soon fitted with cannons and thus transformed into an auxiliary cruiser.[17] Across the world, supply ships carrying weapons and provisions were ready to convert merchant vessels into armed auxiliary cruisers. In August 1914, international relations reached crisis point. Germany declared war on the British as well as the French. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was requisitioned and turned into an armed cruiser, painted in grey and black. Her commander at the time, Captain Reymann, operated not only under the rules of war, but also the rules of mercy.[17]

Painting depicting the battle between the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and the HMS Highflyer in August 1914.

Wreck of the Kaiser Wilheim der Grosse off Africa

Reymann soon sank three ships, the Tubal Cain, the Kaipara and the Nyanza, but only after taking their occupants on board. Further south in the Atlantic, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse encountered two passenger liners: the Galician and the Arlanza.[17] Reymann's first intention was to sink both vessels, but, discovering that they had many women and children on board, he let them go. In this early stage of the war, it was thought that it could be fought in a chivalrous fashion. However, soon it was to become a total war and ships would no longer be warned before being fired upon. As the Kaiser approached the west coast of Africa, her coal bunkers were almost empty and needed refilling. She stopped at Río de Oro, (Villa Cisneros, former Spanish Sahara) where German and Austrian colliers started the task of refuelling her.[17][18]

The task of coaling was still going on on 26 August, when suddenly the British cruiser HMS Highflyer appeared. Reymann quickly prepared his ship and crew for battle and steamed out to engage the enemy after disembarking his prisoners of war. A fierce battle took place, but came to a dramatic end when the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ran out of ammunition.[17] According to the Germans, rather than let the enemy capture the onetime pride of Germany, Reymann ordered the ship to be scuttled using dynamite, which was already in position should this situation ever arise. On detonation, the explosives tore a massive hole in the ship, causing her to capsize. This version of events was disputed by the British, who stated that the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse had been badly damaged and sinking when Reymann ordered it to be abandoned. The British firmly believed that it was gunfire from HMS Highflyer which sank the German ship.[19] Reymann managed to swim to shore, and he made his way back to Germany by working as a stoker on a neutral vessel. (Most of the crew were taken prisoner and held in the Amherst Internment Camp in Nova Scotia for the remainder of the war.)

The downfall of such great liners in the event of war was their huge fuel consumption. Most liners were subsequently converted from cruisers to hospital ships or troopships.[20]


Technical aspects[]

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse measured 200 meters long and had a width of 20 meters. Her overall weight was 14,349 gross tonnes. In fact, her dimensions were similar to those of the 1860 Great Eastern, which was the largest ship of its time.[21] As already noted, her four funnels were her most unique feature. People associated the safety of an ocean liner with the number of "stacks" or funnels they had. Some passengers would in fact refuse to board ships if they did not have four funnels.[22] In an age when ocean travel was not as safe as today, it was important to ensure that passengers felt at ease.[23]

The special improvement in the arrangement of this steamer, as compared with other express steamers previously built by the NDL or other companies, consisted in the entire upper deck.[6] Like many four-funnelled liners, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse did not actually require that many. She had only two uptake shafts from the boiler rooms, which then each branched into two to connect to the four funnels—this design is the reason for the funnels being unequally spaced.[22]

Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse became the first liner to have a commercial wireless telegraphy system when the Marconi Company installed one in February 1900.[21] Communications were demonstrated with systems installed at the Borkum Island lighthouse and Borkum Riff lightship 30 km (18.6 mi; 16.2 nmi) northwest of the island, as well as with British stations.[21] The ship was powered by with two triple expansion reciprocating engines as well as and had two 22' 3-3/4" propellers,[24] allowing her to reach speeds of over 20 knots.[17] The engines were noted for their stability.[25] The engines were balanced on the Schlick system, which prevented movement being transferred to the body of the ship, thus reducing unpleasant vibration.


The First Class Dining Room of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

As a large passenger ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was built to carry a maximum of 1,506 passengers: 206 first class; 226 second class; 1,074 third class. At the time of her construction, she had a crew numbering a mere 488. However following her refit of 1913, her crew space was increased to 800. The décor of ship was in the style of Baroque revival, overseen by Johann Poppe, who carried out all of the interior decoration. This was unique as usually a ship would have several interior designers.[16]

The interiors were graced with statues, mirrors, tapestries, gilding and various portraits of the Imperial family. The interiors of her sister ships were also placed in the hands of Poppe. The first class salon was noted for its tapestries and its blue seating.[26] The smoking room, a traditionally male preserve, was made to look like a typical German inn.[27] The dining room, capable of holding all passengers in one sitting, rose several decks and was crowned with a dome. The room also had columns and had its chairs fixed to the deck, a typical feature of ocean liners of the era.[28]

Notes and references[]

  1. Schmalenbach p48
  2. Mars, p. 36
  3. « Teutonic », The Great Ocean Liners. 15 July 2010
  4. Ferulli, p. 117
  5. Ferulli, p. 116
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Miller, p. 2
  7. Mars, p. 47
  8. Mars, p. 39
  9. Piouffre, p. 109
  10. Le Goff, p. 25
  11. Burgess, p. 36
  12. Le Goff, p. 23
  13. Ferulli, p. 121
  14. SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie », The Great Ocean Liners. 15 July 2010
  15. Server, p 43
  16. 16.0 16.1 Le Goff, p. 22
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 17.6 "SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, The Great Ocean Liners". The Great Ocean Liners. Retrieved 15 July 2010. 
  18. Ferulli, p. 120
  19. Kludas' Great Passenger Ships of the World
  20. Burgess, p. 231
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Ferulli, p. 118
  22. 22.0 22.1 Miller, p. 4
  23. Ferulli, p. 119
  25. « SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Norddeutscher Lloyd », Norway Heritage. Consulté le 15 July 2010
  26. Server, p. 19
  27. Piouffre, p. 108
  28. Piouffre, p. 110


  • (English) Burgess. Douglas D. Seize the trident: the race for superliner supremacy and how it altered the Great War. McGraw-Hill Professional. 1999. 9780071430098
  • (English) Miller. William H. Jr. The First Great Ocean Liners in Photographs. Courier Dover Publications, 1984. 9780486245744
  • (French) Ferulli. Corrado. Au cœur des bateaux de légende. Hachette Collections. 1998. 9782846343503
  • (French) Le Goff. Olivier Les Plus Beaux Paquebots du Monde. 9782263027994
  • (French) Mars. Christian. Paquebots. Sélection du Reader's Digest. 2001. 9782709812863
  • (French) Piouffre. Gérard. L'Âge d'or des voyages en paquebot. Éditions du Chêne. 2009. 9782812300028
  • (French) Server. Lee. Âge d'or des paquebots. MLP. 1998. 2-7434-1050-7

External links[]

Preceded by
Holder of the Blue Riband (Westbound)
Succeeded by
Atlantic Eastbound Record

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