Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Ignominious Demise of SMS Ostfriesland

SMS Ostfriesland was the second vessel of the Heligoland class of battleships of the Imperial German Navy. Ostfriesland participated in all of the major fleet operations of World War I in the North Sea against the British Grand Fleet. This included the Battle of Jutland. After the German collapse in November 1918, most of the High Seas Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow during the peace negotiations. The four Heligoland-class ships were allowed to remain in Germany, however, and were therefore spared the destruction of the fleet in Scapa Flow. Ostfriesland was eventually transferred to the United States Navy as a war reparation. 

Ostfriesland  in 1915

The early rivalry between the U.S. Air Service and the Navy in the immediate post-Great War years was one of the very public and controversial projects of the irrepressible Billy Mitchell. His strategic thinking, truly reflecting the potential for air power in the 20th century, was yet another irritant he inflicted on the older, established military services.

Mitchell's tenacity in proving his belief in air power to the public and the U.S. government took shape in 1921 with the staged sinking by aerial bombing of the illustrious Ostfriesland. She was a noble foe indeed, enduring 18 hits from British guns and striking a mine on her way home after Jutland. In the war's aftermath she was sent to the U.S. to be destroyed. Her ultimate fate was to serve Mitchell's purpose in proving the superiority of aerial rather than naval coastal defense.

Ostfriesland Under Bombardment

The U.S. Navy, predictably, disagreed strongly with Mitchell's stance, and in due course something of a "bomb-off" contest was staged in the summer of 1921 in the Atlantic some 50 miles out to sea from the Chesapeake Bay. The contest was set up with "rules" and conditions that were intended to weigh the outcome heavily in favor of the Navy over Mitchell's bombers. Mitchell, not surprisingly, persisted with his Handley Page O/400s and the new Martin MB-2 biplanes and did indeed sink the Ostfriesland. The Navy unsportingly derided the value of the successful demonstration and claimed that Mitchell had violated the rules.  The entire squabble would appear childish were it not for its real importance in highlighting this necessary progress in military efficacy.


  1. This is a common distortion of the facts.

    The Army and the Navy had both been dropping one bomb every few days on the target for nearly a month, evaluating the effects of the different sizes and bomb shapes. Mitchell got bored and decided to just sink the vessel.

    Contrary to what the USAF has been trying to sell for the past seven decades, the Navy knew that aerial bombing could eventually sink a ship--it eventually happened in 1940. They were using the Ostfriesland as an operational test of weapons, not as a demonstration of the power of the Navy.

  2. The Navy still have not figured out the importance of air power and only by luck where are carriers save from the Pearl Harbor attack.When they were left pretty much with all my carriers they had to figure it out. Battleships didn't play any significant part in World War II Pacific. They were just there for the gun club.

  3. Sorry, that was supposed to be had not