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Combat Engagement Identifiers on German Warships in the First World War

by Dr. Rudolf Nagel
(translated via Alta Vista Babel Fish by Tom Tanner with much help from Peter Lienau)

Published here posthumously is the 1989 work of the deceased Dr. Rudolf Nagel. The author researched the question of combat identifiers for a long time and the manuscript, which is the basis for this publication, was completed at the beginning of 1989. With the permission of his wife, the manuscript was shortened and edited. Because of the abundance of formations, ships and boats to be described, the editors refrained from subdividing the several boat flotillas into their half flotillas in order to save space.

As is well known, the thoughts of the crew of the High Seas Fleet circled in the last days of October, 1918, around the question of whether they would run out again in order to, depending upon status and conviction, "surrender dishonorably" (»ehrenvoll unterzugehen«) or be "sacrificed". About 30 years ago I read a note on this topic. Crews of the capital ships, which tended to believe more in the last view, saw while they sailed to Schilling Reede on 29 and 30 October, 1918, already present the small cruisers and torpedo boats of the assigned torpedo boat flotillas, whose aft funnel was red painted. They found their fears re-inforced particularly since on their own ships the paint cans were also supplied.

I hadn't heard anything of coloured funnels up to this point and questioned some people who were also maritime interested. One of them told me that in the Skagerrak Battle (as the Battle of Jutland is known in Germany, transl.) German units had red painted funnels. I had a quantity of additional questions but received no response and so this topic slowly disappeared "in my wake."

In March 1984 I read the book "Skagerrak 1916" from Costello/Hughes. There I found that the German naval forces that participated in the Skagerrak battle sailed with their aft funnels painted red. The compiler/translator Erwin F. Sieche, as supporting information, was only able to give me a photocopy of the original document for the order, and so I had a loose end in hand with the chance to clarify historically this special area. The relevant entry in this source reads: "General: Participating naval forces paint aft funnel red".

The written "inquiries" had, among other things, a consequence that the addressed gentlemen for their part additionally contacted other people. I estimate that due to this "historical knowledge thirst" up to 50 honourable citizens were probably concerned. It met a large set, combatants of the First World War of all ranks from the navy and later admirals, then physicians, professors, historicans, technical writers and private men interested in naval history. It was proved here again that eye-witnesses observe much that is registered but not noted and documented and how the following generations subordinate it as natural, because different things for the most diverse reasons were considered at that time and stored. Much was also forgotten. In addition, there were reverse appearances. One of my correspondents, for example, addressed a retired commander, who in turn asked a 90 year old relative, who had taken part as a "coal-monkey" on the light cruiser KOLBERG in the Battle of Doggerbank. The old gentleman explained he was able to remember that the German torpedo boats had cruised with a red painted funnel. This was, at first, a completely astonishing statement, which cast doubt on the memory of the old gentleman. But it was proved that the assertion was possible. Likewise other older gentlemen, who lived their youth in Kiel or Wilhelmshaven and who also saw units of the fleet immediately after large operations, could not remember having seen anything other than grey painted funnels. But this was also found to be completely correct and was cleared up later astonishingly easily. During this time of questioning I always hoped that something was present, somewhere, already printed, but no reference to such a source came. Perhaps it will emerge now?

I looked meticulously in my own personal library and had some success, and likewise that kind fellow combatant who provided me with the initial clue into the topic. The information became clearer, but only regarding the colour red. Yellow had been also used, but when and where? Here the whole effort came to a halt, until finally I found during my own research the answer I was looking for. To me it appeared appropriate to determine and list the different stages in the appearance of the fleet units as well as the ships taking part in individual operations and boats. This is also for the modelers because of the different building statuses of interest. With the capital ships, the ship-of-the-line and the small cruisers that was not too difficult, but the composition of the torpedo boat flotillas and their effectives within the individual operations would not have been clarified if not for a former naval officer and a very well-known technical writer who sent a special document to me to the order.

The result of all these efforts can be summarized as follows:

  • So far as can be determined, there were altogether 13 operations by German naval forces in the First World War at which all units or at least a certain type of the forces involved cruised with the aft funnel painted red or yellow;
  • This measure was initially introduced to prevent friendly fire on their own units, in particular the light cruisers that were Torpedo Boat Flotilla-leaders and the Torpedo Boats themselves, during a mêlée;
  • The designated red was more of a pastel color and the yellow was ocher-yellow;
  • There are only a few black-and-white reproductions of accommodations in the relevant literature, with which it is to be assumed that a so painted funnel was shown. Otherwise, I know of only one picture in which a funnel is shown that may be red or yellow painted
  • Usually, painting took place only when the ship was out of sight of land. Accordingly, the repainting of the funnels in the old colour took place before the ship came into view of land again. Thus the time in which the units sailed with the ordered marks is substantially shorter than the actual operation duration. On the basis of official timetables of the operation I indicated, as far as is determinable, the period when those funnels were painted. One must thus add, starting from the beginning of the operation, a substantial amount of time, likewise with the return. For example, for operation number 12 on the list the identifier is applied only after passing through the last friendly mine barrier, while the one by fog forced upon break, in which friendly minesweepers still cleared a way through a British barrier, approximately at the on height of Esbjerg attached?????
    or (For example the identifier of the operation specified with the systems under number 12 is only after the passing through of the last own mine barrier, during a break forced upon by nebulas, the own mine search vehicles vacated still another way by a British barrier, approximately on the height of Esbjerg attached. )
  • from paintings only one is well-known to me, which shows coloured a suggestion of this measure: a picture by Claus Bergen. He had participated also, as well known, in the Skagerrak battle. The painter gave to the painting the title "March to the Skagerrak". It shows two units of the III.rd Battle Squadron. On KÖNIG the aft funnel is brown. The through-glowed (annealed?/tempered?) funnel discoloured thus the indication paint. Either it is artist liberty, the red discolours due to glowing-through (annealing/tempering) to yellow-brown, or it is as the base put in the raid from the 18./19. August 1916, which was actually not executed however in the direction of Skagerrak, at which the aft funnel was not to be painted yellow was. KÖNIG participated in it.

In the context of this work arose still a series of finds, which surely interest in our connection. Partly it concerns references to literature places, which admit are, but too few attention receive. In detail it concerns itself over:

  • essay by E. Gröner in the marine and marine-Rundschau, July 1933. Here also briefly referring to camouflages used by the germans in WW 1.
  • in the Skagerrak battle the german torpedo boats showed/flyed? long, red pennons.
  • the white circles which became the airplane recognition marks on the turrets B and C onboard the ships-of-the-line and capital ships probably starting on from the occupation of the islands Oesel and Dagö, thus starting from October 1917, by small cruisers and mine cruisers just as led as already beforehand by liners, here however on foreship and quarterdeck.
  • the signal effect of a colored funnel is only for so long given, as the same is not shot away in combat. Therefore on 4 August 1916 by painting attempts for KÖNIG ALBERT, PRINZREGENT LUITPOLD and KAISERIN were checked whether other surfaces would be better suitable. The four external walls of the turrets were painted:
    • KÖNIG ALBERT: Turret A = black, turret C = knows
    • KAISERIN: Turret A = red, turret C = yellow
    • PRINZ REGENT LUITPOLD: With the turrets A and C: in half height of the turret external wall a strip 75 cm (29.53") broad, continuously and from the upper and lower edge of the turret sides equivalent parallel running a strip and on the center of the page and rear walls, or in front between the pipes a 1 m broad, perpendicular strip in the colour turret A = black, turret C = red.
        Result summary:
      • black not suitable
      • red and yellow are most clearly to detect
      • painting the funnels in red and yellow remains further.
    • starting from 11 June 1916 all combat units of the torpedoboat-flotillas, which were subordinated to highseas-forces, were painted „grey over all". The painting of the II.nd Torpedoboat-flotilla was however already changed from summer (July/August) 1915 on to „grey over all".
    • in the standard work of Erich Gröner, "The German warships", vol. 2, 1983, P. 26, are given special notes concerning the specific identification marks showed by torpedoboats.

In the following now the operations, in which identification marks were used: ....

With the coming of war in 1914,


Axel Grießmer, "Große Kreuzer der kaiserlichen Marine," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1996, ISBN 3-7637-5946-8 (in German)

Axel Grießmer, "Die Linienschiffe der kaiserlichen Marine," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1999, ISBN 3-7637-5985-9 (in German)

Erich Gröner, Revised and Expanded by Dieter Jung and Martin Maass, "GERMAN WARSHIPS 1815-1945, Volume One: Major Surface Vessels," Naval Institute Press, 1989 ISBN 0-87021-790-9 (in English)

Dieter Jung, Arno Abendroth, and Norbert Kelling, "Anstriche und Tarnanstriche der deutschen Kriegsmarine," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1997 ISBN 3-7637-5964-6 (in German)

Gerhard Koop, Klaus-Peter Schmolke, "Vom Original zum Modell: Die Großen Kreuzer Von der Tann, Moltke-Klasse, Seydlitz, Derfflinger-Klasse," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1998 ISBN 3-7637-5673-5 (in German)

Peter Lienau, Numerous E-mails to the author

Dr. Rudolf Nagel: "Gefechtskennungen auf deutschen Kriegsschiffen im Ersten Weltkrieg," Schiff und Zeit, 39. Berlin (in German)

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Last Update on 03/14/2000.

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