brand-new and still without the 30.5 cm gun (1875)
A wasps' nest
Gun drill in the 1890s
Stern with emergency
steering wheel (LAVERRENZ, 1900)
deck and conning tower in the 1890s (LAVERRENZ, 1900)
History and context
The WESPE-Class armoured gun-boats were born out of a
tactical concept that dated well back into the Napoleonic era. The
idea was to mount a heavy long-range gun onto a highly mobile small
craft that would be able to retire into shallow coastal waters,
beyond the range of even the heavy artillery of an attacking fleet.
The addition of a steam engine and the increase in calibre followed
the development of the time, of course. Adding heavy armour to the
front (mainly) was meant to give the gun-boats a certain attacking
capability. It also owes something to the floating batteries used in
the defence of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic wars and to the
armoured floating batteries used by the allied French/British forces
during the Crimean War (1854-55). In fact, adding armour plating to
a (rowing) gunboat was already proposed as early as the late 18th
century in Spain, as documented by a model in the Museo Naval in Madrid,
but apparently never put to work in full scale.
At the time of the conception of the WESPE-class in
the early 1870s a former cavalry(!) general was the naval
chief-of-staff in Germany. The tactical dogma was 'proactive
defence': an attacking enemy was to be awaited in home waters and
fenced off. The main threat was seen in amphibian operations
attacking the German coast. Thus, the landing of troops at strategic
points had to be prevented. Long-range strategic and oceanic
operations were out of the scope of the naval planners at the time.
There was a certain logic in this, as Germany, unlike Britain,
is/was a more or less land-locked country and largely
self-sufficient in many respects at that time. Overseas trade then
did not have such an importance as in Britain or as in later
globalising economies. Therefore, attempts to severe overseas supply
chains was not so relevant. There was, indeed, active resistance
from trade interest groups, particularly the merchants in the cities
of Hamburg and Bremen, to a navy that would engage itself overseas.
These merchants relied on their network of friendly contacts.
Hence, the WESPE-Class was designed to be mainly a
heavily armoured gun-platform, giving long-range protection to the
tidal North Sea harbours that are surrounded by mud-flats and to
give mobile protection to the deep fjords of Schleswig-Holstein's
Baltic coast. They would be backed-up by heavy artillery (and later
torpedo batteries) in coastal forts.
The guns usually could only be trained by turning the whole boat.
This seems more difficult then it probably was, because even in the
old days of the rowing gunboats they would attack by rowing in a
wide circle and when the intended target passed through the line of
aim, one would fire. As the WESPE-Class was designed
to let themselves fall dry on mud-flats, a possibility to train the
gun was needed.
This distinguished the WESPE-class
from earlier boats of similar design in Britain. The first such
boat was originally built by Armstrong
as a sea-going platform for testing heavy guns. Design and
tactical brief seem to have been sufficiently convincing so that
the Royal Navy had a series of 30 such gun-boats built from the
late 1860s onwards in three classes: ANT-class
(20), GADFLY-class (4) and BOUNCER-class
(2) (CONWAY, 1979). The armament was a 10" MLR
(muzzle loading rifled) gun. Having only a displacement of 254 and
265 t respectively, they were much smaller than the WESPE-class.
A model of HMS STAUNCH(?) is on display in the Science Museum in
South Kensington/London. For those who like to build paper models,
David Hathaway (Papershipwright)
offers inter alia models
of HMS STAUNCH (prototype) and HMS KITE
(ANT-class). Other navies followed the example: the
Argentinian navy had four 'Bombardere' (BERMEJO, CONSTITUCIÓN,
PILCOMAYO, and REPÚBLICAbuilt around 1874/75 at
Laird's in Great Britain. BERMEJO and PILCOMAYO
had a displacement of 416 tons, were capable of making 9 knots,
and were armed with what appears to be an 11" Armstrong gun on a
sliding carriage (MINISTERIO DE
MARINA, 1945). Models and lithographs are
in the Museo
del Tigre (North of Buenos Aires). The Danish Royal Navy
also had such boats, e.g. the FALSTER and MØN,
but the Armstrong-guns were mounted on a central pivot slide. The
Dutch Royal Navy had a whole series of them built after the model
of HMS STAUNCH as is evidenced by plans in the Scheepvaart Museum in
Amsterdam and the odd photograph. The Spanish SOMORROSTRO-class, built by the Societé
Nouvelle des Forges et Chantiers de la Mediterranée in Toulon
(France) 1874ff had two 12 cm bronce guns in an armoured tower
forward, allowing to train the guns in an arc (ALAMILLO,
It is quite possible that the
ideas for the WESPE-class gunboats owe something to
this British development, albeit the former are somewhat more
sophisticated in design and equipment.
The WESPE-class comprised ten boats delivered in two
batches between 1876 and 1880: WESPE (1876), VIPER,
BIENE, MÜCKE, SCORPION,
BASILISK, CAMAELEON, CROCODILL,
SALAMANDER and NATTER. They were all
built by A.G. Weser in Bremen. With a length of 46.4 m and a beam of
10.65 m they had a dead weight of 1157 t, drawing 3.37 m. The
dimensions vary somewhat according to source, but this may be due to
different reference points, such as length overall compared to
length between the perpendicles etc.
BRIX (1876) gives their length as 43.5 m and their
beam as 10.6, the former number clearly pointing to a dimension
between perpendicles. The same author also provides a detailed
description of the constructional arrangements, the dimensions of
the scantlings, as well as two cross-sections. These drawings appear
to be based on the source same as those drawing preserved in the
Deutsche Museum in Munich (see below):
Two inclined double-expansion engines on two propellers gave a
maximum speed of 11 knots. Their original complement was 3 officers
and 73 crew. Steering was from a stand on the hut and an emergency
double steering wheel abaft. Very early on they were also
retrofitted with an electrical generator.
The WESPE-class were the first German warships (and
indeed among the first of any warship) that did completely without
auxiliary sails. In the consequence they only had a light mast for
signalling. In spite of sporting quite some leading edge technology,
they were only of limited seaworthyness and their handling was
far from perfect. This resulted in them being given a collection of
rather unfavourable nicknames (GRÖNER, 1937). They
were also not very popular with their crews and officers due to the
cramped conditions below deck , but then they were not meant for
long voyages in the open sea.
The main armament was a single
30.5 cm rifled breech-loading gun (Ringkanone mit
Rundkeilverschluß) designed and manufactured by Alfred Krupp AG
in Essen. At the time the WESPE-class boats were
designed, fast torpedo-boats did not exist yet – the automotive
fish-torpedo was just being developed. When then in the mid-1880s
small torpedo-boats became a tactical reality, some form of
self-defence against them was necessary and two bronze(!) 8.7 cm/l24
breech-loading guns in 'disappearing' carriage and two 37 mm
Hotchkiss revolving guns came on board. In fact, very early on
(1883) also two 35 cm underwater torpedo launching tubes were
installed to increase the attacking capabilities.
The 30.5 cm/l22 Rk
The Rk-30.5/l22 (Ringkanone of 22 calibre length) gun
was the heaviest gun in the German Imperial Navy for many years and
was among the heaviest ships' guns in the World at that time. It was
mounted on the usual sliding carriage on a turn-table in an open
barbette. Later, sliding armour shields were added to give the gun
crew better protection while loading. The gun was trained entirely
by hand. The apparatus is an interesting exercise of remote control
or 'power steering'. The No. 1 would stand in a lightly armoured box
behind the gun, taking aim and turn the gun left or right by
actuating a clutch to the drive using one of two levers. The power
is genuine 'man-power', provided from below deck onto a set of
hand-cranks. It would be interesting to know why no steam power was
employed at a time when power steering apparatus, which work on very
much the same principle, were already known. Below is an excerpt
from GALSTER (1885) describing the gun itself and its
mounting and from a French (military intelligence) publication (MINISTÉRE
DE LA MARINE ET DES COLONIES,
DE LA MARINE ET DES COLONIES
The same type of gun was sold by Krupp to some other navies as well,
including the Danish Navy. Blueprints, judging by the date probably
belonged to the 'marketing package', survive in the Rigsarkivet in Copenhagen and a very
detailed instruction model for training the gun crews is on display
in the Orlogsmuseet. The
lower carriage in this model is somewhat different from that of the
WESPE-class guns, as the gun was mounted in a turret,
forming the main armament of the 'panserskibet' HELGOLAND
Rear of carriage
Instruction model for the Rk
30.5/l22 on HELGOLAND in
of upper carriage
excentric rear rollers
drive for shell hoisting crane
Instruction model for the Rk
30.5/l22 on HELGOLAND in
Some specimens of full-size 28 cm guns built in Russia presumably
under license by Krupp survive in various stages of decay on the
fortress island of Suomenlinna
just outside Helsinki in Finland. A pictorial survey of the guns'
details can be found here.
The 8,7 cm/l24 Rk
GALSTER (1885) also provides a detailed description
of the 8,7 cm guns and their 'disappearing' carriage:
The 3,7 cm RevK
The Hotchiss revolving gun was adopted in the early 1880s in the 37
mm or the 47 mm version in those navies around the World that did
not opt for the competing products of Nordenfeldt or Gatling. A synopsis of the 37 mm gun,
based on various original sources and some Internet resources is
presented in these PDF-files: Part
1, Part 2
A copy of an original instruction and maintenance manual (in German)
can viewed here: Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3
Some time ago, I have been able to take some close-up pictures of an
original naval gun from 1886, preserved at the Wehrtechnische
Studiensammlung and another close-range defense gun in the Ehrenbreitstein
Fortress, both in Koblenz, Germany. The land-based guns
lack the shoulder piece, have a straight hand crank and simpler
sights, but are otherwise largely identical to the naval version.
1886 naval version. Note that it appears to rest the wrong way
around in the
fork, as pivot locking srew should be facing inboard
screw for the rear cover
the barrel bundle.
internal workings (left) and the
individual parts (right) from a specimen
preserved in the USA
gun in carriage mounting in the
former German East Africa sometime
between 1903 and 1916
A number of Hotchkiss-guns have been restored to working
order and are occassionally being fired for demonstration purposes:
And a similar, but smaller calibre Gatling-gun
being fired. Here are two videos of the internal workings of a Hotchkiss-gun
(at the end of the movie!). At this Link you can
find a movie of animated CAD-drawings of the internal workings of
Changes to the
Much uncertainty persists
(and likely will so in the future) over any stage in the
history of the prototypes and what they exactly looked like at any
given time. Though it is known that they went through various
refits, during which e.g. the underwater torpedo launching tubes
were added and the 3.7 cm RevKs and 8.7 Rks came on board. Also an
armoured conning tower was added together with the sliding
semi-circular armour shields on top of the barbette. Early on boat
racks were added; the boats appear to have been originally slung
outboard from davits, thus being more vulnerable to the sea and to
damage from collision when in harbour. To protect the double
screws, an extended rubbing strake was also added. On some boats
at least the deck house seems to have been extended at its after
end by something that has decidedly the appearance of a garden
shed ! Early on also a platform for an additional binnacle was
errected atop the engine-room skylight.
The early boats, S.M.S. WESPE and S.M.S. VIPER,
must have been delivered in the 1874 ordinance colour scheme:
hull up to main bulwark railing; certain iron
deck areas and (probably) machinery such as the capstan,
masts and funnel, scroll-work (picked out in gold), water
ways; deviating from the ordinance also the two main
boiler-room ventilators next to the funnel seem to have been
line about 0.5 m above the CWL and another one just below
the main bulwark railing; any superstructures above the
level of the main bulwark railing, ventilators, deckhouses,
inside bulwark and awning stanchions.
pictures, skylight caps have been natural wood in clear
varnish, rather than white as stipulated by the ordinance.
In 1878 a new ordinance was issued specifying the following colour
scheme and also the yellow appears to have become brighter:
hull up to main bulwark railing; certain iron deck areas
and (probably) machinery such as the capstan, bollards etc.
any superstructures above the level of the main bulwark
railing; masts and funnels; scroll-work (picked out in
gold); ventilators; deckhouses.
line about 0.5 m above the CWL and another one just below
main bulwark railing; inside bulwark and awning stanchions.
Judging from pictures,
skylight caps have been kept in natural wood in clear
varnish, rather than yellow as stipulated by the ordinance..
At some stages red(?) bands
appeared around the funnels, distinguishing the different boats in
According to the "Vorschriften für die Behandlung und
Instandhaltung der Schiffsgeschütze (...)", Berlin, 1891 (I have
not seen this reference in person) the gun barrels were to be
painted brown, while the gun carriages were painted green and
other accessories belonging to the gun were black. This colour
scheme for the carriages of deck guns is corroborated e.g. by the
contemporary dockyard model of S.M.S WACHT (1887)
in the Deutsche Schiffahrtsmuseum
Bremerhaven (see picture above, where actually the guns are
nickel-plated). Nothing specific is known about the hues of the
brown and green. One might infer that the brown was something like
an umbra, mimicking the in situ
browning applied in earlier times by rubbing the barrels
repeatedly with vinegar and solidifying the developing 'rust' by
rubbing it down with linseed oil (DAVIDS, 1870).
The barrels of all Krupp-guns in Copenhagen's Orlogmuseet, whether
instructions models or originals appear to be chemically
There remains some uncertainty around what the decks originally
looked liked, that is before imported
marine linoleum was introduced by the Imperial Navy at the end of
the 1870s. Contrary to the assumption made in early model
reconstructions, it is now sure that the only decks with a wooden
cover was the one on the quarter deck and certain sectors of the
gun emplacement. All other decks were presumably covered in some
sort of tar paint, mixed with sand and with sand sprinkled on.
This would give these decks a dark grey 'tarmac' appearance. It is
not known what colour the early linoleoum had. Some research on
linoleum indicates that it was originally only available in its
'natural' colour, i.e. a darkish cork-brown, from domestic sources
from 1882 onwards. The characteristic red-oxide colour of
'battleship'-quality linoleum was introduced in 1892 according to
the archives of the (sole) manufacturer.
It is not exactly known, how the linoleum was fixed to the iron
decks, but presumably some sort of marine glue was used. In
addition, the seams of the linoleum panels were protected by flat
brass bars about 5 cm wide, as can be clearly seen on on of the
In 1895 and 1896 new ordinances specified grey over virtually the
whole ship. However, as the model will be built to represent S.M.S.
WESPE when brand-new, these further changes are not discussed. ,
except the pictures below.
in Kiel ?
in Kiel ?
in Wilhelmshaven ?
in Wilhelmshaven ?
and S.M.S SCORPION.
Entrance to Wilhelmshaven dock.
A brief 'biography' and evaluation of S.M.S. WESPE
and her class
The keel of S.M.S. WESPE was laid down in May 1875 and
she ran off the blocks on 6 July 1876. She commissioned only
26 November 1876 - 8 February 1877
24 March 1877 - 9 April 1877
20 September 1880 - 15 October 1880
20 September 1881 - 17 October 1881
20 August 1885 - 14 September 1885
She was struck of the active list on 28 June 1909 and sold in
1910 to be used as a lighter in Düsseldorf. The final fate of
the hull is not known.
Her short active life and that of her sister ships reflects the
fact that the design was not entirely successful (HILDEBRANDT
et al., 1999). Though the Admiralty design office was
inexperienced with ships for such tactical brief, the Chief
Designer A. Koch took on job. At the time the first series was
built the German steel industry still was not capable of
providing the necessary armour plates, which in consequence were
ordered in the UK. To this end exact wooden models for the
plates were taken off the boats and sent to England. When
approved by the yard's representative, the plates were shipped
to A.G. Weser in Bremerhaven for mounting on the boats. Only
from 1878 the German steel industry was able to produce adequate
armour plates and the last six boats of the WESPE-class
were fitted with plates made by the Dillinger Hütte. At the time
the shipbuilding yard, A.G. Weser, received the order they only
had built two naval ships, two armoured river gunboats, and thus
little experience as well. These circumstances resulted in a
design of limited seaworthiness, tendency to heel, slow turning,
to little bunker capacity and hence limited steaming capacity
and last but not least inadequate accommodation for crew
(forward under the quarter deck) and officers (aft, behind the
engine). While the ships appear to have been unpopular with the
crews and attracted a variety of pejorative nick-names, such as
'mud-bug' and 'tidal slipper' (referring to their intended
operation on the tidal mud-flats of the German Wadden Sea), the
design found much attention in the foreign press, particularly
et al., 1999)
As for most ships of the early
German Imperial Navy drawings and photographs are rather scarce
and good quality ones even more so. My research efforts that
extended back some 15 years were supplemented by a group of
interested people loosely organised in the 'Kaiserliche
Marine-Forum'. However, little material additional to what I
already had came to light. This group is currently collecting all
the available material into a CD-ROM.
Recently a set of pages that summarise the main data on the WESPE-Class
appeared on the German Wikipedia.
Museum in Munich has a set of contemporary drawings (on
which the commercial model building plans appear to draw), but
these were not builder's plan, rather than some instruction or
publicity material. These plans appear to have been drawn before
the major refit in the 1880s, i.e. the change in armament is not
recorded, but the change in the arrangement for the boats. The
regular grid pattern on the deck may also indicate that the deck
by then had been laid with linoleum.
(Freiburg i. Brsg.) has a number of drawings that survived the
plundering/partial destruction of the naval construction offices
archive in Berlin in 1945, but these only pertain to some
refitting at a late stage in life of e.g. S.M.S. NATTER.
Some years ago a set of interesting drawings surfaced in the USA
in a private collection (www.dreadnoughtproject.org).
drawing of the gun bears a date of 1877 and may have been the
original from which the drawing in LAVERRENZ (1900)
was reproduced. The other drawings seem to pertain to some
refitting done in Wilhelmshaven in the early 1890s. In any case,
considering the signatures and other marks, these drawings are
certainly 'official' ones. It is hoped that some day they may
find their way into a public collection, though their current
ready accessibility is rather laudable.
of the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte in the Württembergische
Landesbibliothek keeps a small range of photographs and pictures.
The commercial image bank of the Wilhelmshavener Zeitung, WZ-Bilddienst offers
range of photographs for sale. Some are from published sources,
while others are available elsewhere, e.g. in published books.
Very recently an album with photographs of the
Panzerkanonenboot-Flotilla in Danzig, dated around 1898, appeared
in an auction on ebay and is now in a private collection.
Some photographs shown on this site are only known from published
books, no original prints or negatives seem to have survived.
The photographs above seem to be indeed all that is available from
the time when the ships appeared in the 1874 or 1878 livery.
At the time S.M.S Wespe was designed and
built, it seems to have raised considerable interest and
descriptions of various details appears in the contemporary
technical and popular literature, e.g. BRIX (1876),
KRONENFELS (1882), HENK (1895) or LAVERRENZ (1900).
The main armament is reviewed in
detail with accompanying drawings in GALSTER (1885)
as detailed above.
Commercial Sources for the modeller
There are a couple of commercial
plans available, such as that drawn by Wolfgang Bohlayer
(available e.g from VTH);
all pertain to the time after the major refit of the mid-1880s.
For those into card modelling, there
is also a commercial building set for WESPE/NATTER
available that is based on the published modelling drawings for
S.M.S. WESPE by W. Bohlayer.
are still open and if anybody can shed any light on these,
please contact me at wefalck at wefalck dot eu:
Which was the colour of the skylights (mahagony/white/yellow)
and when ? Pictures and regulations (e.g. Marineverordnungsblatt
2(102 and 9(181)) give conflicting information.
What did the original boat-davits (before the racks were
installed) actually look like ?
Where the coaling hatches made of cast iron or of bronze ?
A waterline model in 1:160 scale (N-scale) is currently under
construction, aiming to show S.M.S. WESPE as she
might have appeared when first commissioned in 1876.
The model is largely based on the drawings from the Deutsche Museum
München and the photograph that shows her while being fitted out -
with occasional reference to the plan drawn by W. Bohlayer - who
drew on the same sources, in order to see how he interpreted various
details. Of course, all the other source material listed here has
also been consulted.
Construction progress is
documented on a separate modelling page (updated 25/02/09).
ALAMILLO, A.A. (2009): Buques de la
Armada Española del siglo XIX. La marina del Sexenio y de la
Restauracion (1868-1900).- 156 p., Madrid ( Ministero de
Artillerie-Unterricht für die k.k. Kriegs-Marine.- 3 vols., pl.,
Laibach (I. von Kleinmayr & F. Bamberg).
ANONYM (1887): Exercirreglement für die
Marine-Artillerie, Nr. I. Für die 30,5 cm Kanone L/22 in
Pivot-Laffete C/76.- Berlin (E.S. Mittler und Sohn). !!! If you have a copy or
know someone who has, I would very
much appreciate to hear from you: wefalck at wefalck dot eu
ANONYM (1891): Die Kaiserlich
Deutsche Marine.- 8 p., 29 plates, Leipzig (Verlagsbuchhandlung
von J.J. Weber).
BRIX, A. (1876): Der
Bau eiserner Kriegs- und Handelsschiffe - Ein Leitfaden.- 114
pp. + 33 plates, Berlin (Ernst & Sohn).
BRIX, A. (1878): Praktischer
Schiffbau - Bootsbau.- 28 pp. + 12 plates, Berlin (Hütte).
CONWAY (1979): All the World‘s Fighting Ships
1860-1905.- 440 pp., London (Conway Maritime Press).
DAVIDS, K. (1870): Leitfaden
für den Unterricht in der Schiffsartillerie zunächst für die
Feuerwerksmaatenschule.- 176 Sp, 18 woodcuts., 4 plates, Berlin
(E.S. Mittler und Sohn).
GALSTER, C. (1873): Das Krupp‘sche 30 1/2 cm Geschütz.-
Marine-Verordnungsblatt, Beiheft 4.3: 16-9, Berlin.
GALSTER, C. (1885): Die Schiffs- und Küstengeschütze der
deutschen Marine - Unter Benutzung amtlichen Materials
bearbeitet.- 290 pp., 248 woodcuts, 7 lithographs, Berlin (S.
Mittler und Sohn).
GRÖNER, E. (1937): Die
Deutschen Kriegsschiffe 1815-1936.- München (J.F. Lehmanns
HENK, W. VON (1895): Zur See.- 417 pp., Hamburg (reprint 1982
at Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim).
HILDEBRAND, H., RÖHR,
A., STEINMETZ, H.-O. (1999): Die Deutschen
Kriegsschiffe – Biographien, Bd. 8 - Schiffsbiographien Undine bis Zieten.- 286 pp., Hamburg
KRONENFELS, J.F. VON
(1881): Das schwimmende Flottenmaterial der Seemächte.- 599 pp.,
Wien/Pest/Leipzig (A. Hartleben‘s Verlag; reprint 1976 as Vol. I, Christian
Schmidt‘s Maritime Reprints, München).
LAVERRENZ, V. (1900): Unter Deutscher Kriegsflagge – Bilder
aus dem Manschaftsleben an Bord.- 178 pp., Berlin (W. Sommer).
DE LA MARINE ET DES COLONIES
[Ed.] (1873-1876): Aide mémoire de l’artillerie de marine.- Ch.
I (Pl. 1-46), Ch. II (Pl. 8-12), Ch. XI (Pl. 1-13), Paris
(Imprimerie Lemercier et Cie.)
MINISTÉREDELA MARINEETDES COLONIES [Ed.]
(1883): Mémorial de l’artillerie de marine.- 1re (Pl.
1-13) livraison, Paris (Imprimerie Lemercier et Cie.)
MINISTERIO DE MARINA
(1945): Museo Naval del Tigre.- 87 S., Buenos Aires (Guillermo
REVENTLOW, Graf E. (1901): Die deutsche Flotte.- 300 pp.,
Zweibrücken i.d.Pf. (Fr. Lehmann, reprint 1999 at Weltbild
Verlag, Augsburg, ).
R. (1961): Orlogsmuseet.- 128 pp., København (Marinehistorisk
Selskab/ Strubes Vorlag).
R. (1968): Vore Panserskibe 1863-1943.- 492 pp., København
(Marinehistorisk Selskab/Strubes Vorlag).