brand-new and still without the 30.5 cm gun (1875)
A wasps' nest
Gun drill in the 1890s (LAVERRENZ,
Stern with emergency steering
wheel (LAVERRENZ, 1900)
Upper deck and conning tower
in the 1890s (LAVERRENZ,
History and context
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
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.
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
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.
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,
MINISTÉRE 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
(STEEN STEENSEN, 1961, 1968).
Elevating gears, brake
model for the Rk 30.5/l22 on HELGOLAND
in the Orlogsmuseet
Hydraulic recoil brake
Front of carriage
Bearing for barrel
Front rollers of
Excentric rear rollers
of upper carriage
Tampion and lever for
excentric rear rollers
drive for shell hoisting crane
model for the Rk 30.5/l22 on HELGOLAND
in the Orlogsmuseet
drive for shell hoisting crane
Shells and hoisting
Wiper (above) and
and powder bag
of the gun on the armoured battleship HELGOLAND
Drawing of the shell hoisting cradle
model for the Rk 30.5/l22 on HELGOLAND
in the Orlogsmuseet
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
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
1886 naval version. Note that it appears to rest the wrong way
around in the
fork, as pivot locking srew should be facing
screw for the rear cover
Front bearing of
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: Hotchkiss-1,
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 the gun.
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, bollards
funnel, water ways; deviating from the ordinance also the
two main boiler-room ventilators next to the funnel seem
to have been painted yellow.
line about 0.5
m above the CWL and one just below the main bulwark
railing; any superstructures above the level of the main
bulwark railing, ventilators, deckhouses, inside bulwark
and stanchions, scrollwork.
Judging from 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.
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, scrollwork.
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 a flotilla.
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 a caput mortuum, 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 above pictures.
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
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 sporadically:
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 Britain (HILDEBRANDT
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
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 two albums with photographs of the
Panzerkanonenboot-Flotilla in Danzig, dated around 1898,
appeared in auctions on ebay and are now in private collections.
Some photographs shown on this site are only known from
published books, no original prints or negatives seem to have
The photographs above seem to be indeed all that is available
from the time when the ships appeared in the 1874 or 1878
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
The main armament is reviewed in detail with accompanying
drawings in GALSTER (1885) as detailed above.
for the modeller
There are a couple of commercial plans available, such as
that drawn by Wolfgang Bohlayer (available e.g from VTH); they 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.
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 03/11/21).
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 Defensa).
(1880-82): Artillerie-Unterricht für die k.k. Kriegs-Marine.- 3
vols., pl., Laibach (I. von Kleinmayr & F. Bamberg).
(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 !!!
(1891): Die Kaiserlich Deutsche Marine.- 8 p., 29 plates,
Leipzig (Verlagsbuchhandlung von J.J. Weber).
A. (1876): Der Bau eiserner Kriegs- und Handelsschiffe - Ein
Leitfaden.- 114 pp. + 33 plates, Berlin (Ernst & Sohn).
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).
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).
C. (1873): Das Krupp‘sche 30 1/2 cm Geschütz.-
Marine-Verordnungsblatt, Beiheft 4.3: 16-9, Berlin.
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).
E. (1937): Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe 1815-1936.- München (J.F.
W. VON (1895): Zur See.- 417 pp., Hamburg
(reprint 1982 at Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim).
H., RÖHR, A., STEINMETZ, H.-O.
(1999): Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe – Biographien, Bd. 8 -
bis Zieten.- 286 pp.,
Hamburg (Koehlers Verlagsgesellschaft).
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
V. (1900): Unter Deutscher Kriegsflagge – Bilder aus dem
Manschaftsleben an Bord.- 178 pp., Berlin (W. Sommer).
MINISTÉRE 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
MINISTÉREDELA MARINEETDES COLONIES [Ed.] (1883): Mémorial de
l’artillerie de marine.- 1re (Pl. 1-13) livraison,
Paris (Imprimerie Lemercier et Cie.)
MARINA (1945): Museo Naval del Tigre.- 87 S.,
Buenos Aires (Guillermo Kraft LTDA.).
RECKENDORF, H. (1983): Die Handwaffen der königlich
preußischen und kaiserlichen Marine.- 172 p., plates,
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).