SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

Launched in 1897, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse became the first true superliner of the modern era. The ship also was the first ship to have four funnels. Soon four funnels became a signal of strength and safety when crossing the ocean. Most ships of the day still relied partly on sails, or had multiple masts to switch to sails in the event of an emergency. 

Built by the North German Lloyd Line, the ship was named to commemorate the first Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I. Entering service during a rather nationalistic chapter of history, the ship set the standard for naval strength. The launch of this ship set other nations scrambling, including Great Britain's decision to build the Lusitania and Mauretania, as well as the United State's Great White Fleet of 1907 at the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Soon after entering the war hunting other ships for several months, the Kaiser lost a final battle with the British battleship HMS Highflyer in 1914 off the coast of Africa.

SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ocean liner painting Germany
SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse photograph of the ship leaving

A Ship First of its Kind

The SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, all of 14,349 GRT, became the first superliner in service. Being the first ship with four funnels, the Kaiser became a symbol of safety and stability while crossing the Atlantic.

In 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the christening of the White Star Line's RMS Teutonic, the largest ship in service at the time and was mesmerized at the boat's size and opulence. In his effort to ensure German competitiveness on the oceans, he urged the his fleet be modernized.

 

Less than ten years later, built to be the pride of Germany, the Kaiser outclassed all other ships of the day, sparking an intense battle for fleet superiority, the era of the four funneled ocean liners.

Four Flyers

Between 1897 and 1907, the North German Lloyd line had launched four Kaiser Class vessels, including the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of 1897, SS Kronprinz Wilhelm of 1901, SS Kaiser Wilhelm II of 1903, and SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie of 1907. Each an equally impressive and fast ship, the Four Flyers of Germany were providing express service across the Atlantic Ocean.

With all the prestige and success of being the first ocean liner, the Kaiser's career had a slight blemish. A collision with the RMS Orinoco near Cherbourg, France claimed the lives of five passengers aboard the Kaiser and 3 crew members aboard the Orinoco. 

Sailing into harbor at night, SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ocean liner painting
SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ocean liner in port,
Victim of Rapid Innovation

Originally built to serve both elite Europeans and Americans as well as more traditional passengers, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse set the bar for the levels of size, luxury, and speed of steamers. However, the SS Kaiser soon became out classed by both British and other German ships, NDL decided to refit into a 3rd class only transport ship.

Serving the burgeoning immigrant trade of migrants traveling to America, the Kaiser became profitable again. Fortunately for the Germans, the new spartan interiors of the ship allowed for quick reassignment during the outbreak of World War One.

World War I 

Assigned to be a hunter, despite being outclassed and outgunned, the Kaiser sailed the oceans out to destroy enemy ships. Several successful encounters led to an adherence with the Rules of War, allowing several ships mainly consisting of women and children to escape unharmed, the Kaiser continued south.

 

After several strikes, the ship was approached and defeated by the HMS Highflyer while refueling along Africa's northwestern coast in 1914. The battle was fierce, and the Kaiser was faster, but the downtime of the refueling allowed the more powerful Highflyer to attack first. after holding her own for some time, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse sank as a casualty of war. 

The ship wreck was rediscovered in 1959 and removed for scrap.

WWI battle between HMS Highflyer and SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ocean liner
 

SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse Ship Facts

Tonnage:
14,349 GRT
Length:
655'
Beam:
65' - 10"
Draft:
27' - 11"
Number of Decks:
6
Cruising Speed:
22.5 Knots (25.9 mph or 41.7 km/hr)
Line:
Shipyard:
AG Vulcan, Stettin Germany
Port of Registry:
Bremen
Maiden Voyage:
September 19, 1897
Years in Service:
1897 - 1914
Current Status:
Destroyed during battle of WWI, scrapped in 1952

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