Tough engineering, tougher crew – how SMS Seydlitz survived Jutland

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how sms seydlitz survived jutland
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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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The way that ships are more than just their engineering specifications – as Robert Heinlein once put it, ‘more than just steel’, is clear in the tale of how SMS Seydlitz survived Jutland.

how sms seydlitz survived jutland
SMS Seydlitz. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The German battlecruiser took a pounding at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. Struck 21 times by heavy shells, and with her forward hull torn by a torpedo, she remained in the fight to the end. This survival was a testament to her design and to the ability of German ship-builders to turn that into effective hardware. The personal skill of the men who built her – their ability to implement the construction details – counted for much.

So Seydlitz survived a hammering. But as with all ships of the day her bulkheads were not perfectly watertight. This was compounded by the fact that she was pushed at speed despite the bow damage, which strained the internal structures and provoked more leaking. Although Seydlitz initially joined the rest of the High Seas Fleet in the withdrawal to Horns Reef, Kapitan Zur See Moritz von Egidy (1870-1937) was forced to drop Seydlitz out of the fleeing German force and make his own way to Wilhelmshaven. By the early hours of 1 June it was clear the battlecruiser was in dire trouble. Counter-flooding aft could only do so much: the issue became reserve buoyancy and stability.

how sms seydlitz survived jutland
Final battle-damage flooding (red) and counter-flooding (blue) on SMS Seydlitz. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The ship literally scraped over Horns Reef. She was joined by the light cruiser Pillau, as escort. Now it was all down to the crew. Von Egidy described later how:

how sms seydlitz survived jutland
SMS Seydlitz returning to Germany after battle, low in the water. Provenance unknown, assumed public domain, via Imgur.

“The entire forecastle was riddled like a sieve. Through rents, holes, leaky seams and rivets water entered one room after the other until only the forward torpedo flat could be held. The big “swimming bladder” gave the forward part of the ship just enough buoyancy. But she was so much down by the bows that the sea started getting into the forward casemates. Their covers were destroyed or bent, and the wood for shoring up leaks was somewhere under the forecastle. We used everything we could get our hands on, mess tables, benches, eventually even the empty shelves from the shell-rooms to the dismay of the head gunner.”

This epic struggle by exhausted men kept Seydlitz afloat, and the journey home began. But it was still touch and go. By now the battlecruiser had over 5300 tons of water aboard and virtually no stability. But the crew battled on. As von Egidy put it:

how sms seydlitz survived jutland
Seydlitz off Heligoland with pump ships in attendance. SMS Pillau is in the background. Provenance unknown, assumed public domain, via Imgur.

“Quite a few compartments had to be kept clear by incessant bailing over a period of two days. Some bulkheads had to be watched carefully and shored up again from time to time. The whole ship’s company was kept busy, and so sleep was possible only in snatches. Late on June 1, pump steamers arrived but so also did a stiff breeze from the north-west. We were off Heligoland then, with a list of eight degrees and very little stability, and could proceed at no more than three or four knots whether going ahead bows first or stern first, which we did part of the time. When seas started breaking over the waist, the Pillau made a lee on our starboard bow, and a tug laid an oil-slick. That helped until the wind abated. We could not have stood a heavy gale.”

There were fears for the ship’s survival, and von Egidy prepared to have the wounded taken off. Seydlitz finally arrived in Wilhelmshaven to the cheers of the rest of the fleet. And while she had survived in part due to the toughness of her construction, the real arbiter was her crew, whose efforts went above and beyond the call of duty. Without that effort, Seydlitz would certainly have foundered.

The episode underscores a key reality of naval warfare – one that is still true today.  Without the human factor, the academic ‘paper specifications’ of any warship are just that – academic.

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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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