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World War 1 Picture - Alfred von Tirpitz, 1915

Alfred von Tirpitz Information

Alfred von Tirpitz

Place of birth: Kustrin, Brandenburg
Place of death: Ebenhausen near Munich
Allegiance: Deutsches Reich
Service/branch: Kaiserliche Marine
Years of service: 1869-1916
Rank: Grand Admiral
Battles/wars: World War I

Alfred von Tirpitz (March 19, 1849 - March 6, 1930) was a German Admiral, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, the powerful administrative branch of the Kaiserliche Marine from 1897 until 1916. He is considered to be the founder of the German Imperial navy.

Family and early life

Tirpitz was born in Kustrin in the Prussian province of Brandenburg, the son of lawyer and later judge, Rudolf Tirpitz (1811-1905). His mother was the daughter of a doctor. Tirpitz grew up in Frankfurt (Oder). He recorded in his memoirs that he was a mediocre student as a child.

Tirpitz spoke English fluently and was sufficiently at home in England that he sent his two daughters to Cheltenham Ladies' College.

On 18 November 1884 he married Maria Augusta Lipke (born 11 October 1860 in Schwetz, West Prussia, died after 1941). On 12 June 1900 he was elevated to the Prussian nobility, becoming von Tirpitz. His son Oberleutnant zur See Wolfgang von Tirpitz was taken prisoner of war following the sinking of SMS Mainz in the battle of Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914.

Naval career

Tirpitz joined the Prussian Navy more by accident than design when a friend announced that he was doing so. Tirpitz decided he liked the idea and with the consent of his parents became a naval cadet at the age of 16, on 24 April 1865. He attended Kiel Naval School. Within a year Prussia was at war with Austria. Tirpitz became a midshipman (Seekadett) on 24 June 1866 and was posted to a sailing ship patrolling the English Channel. In 1866 Prussia became part of the North German Confederation, the navy officially became that of the confederation and Tirpitz joined the new institution on 24 June 1869.

On 22 September 1869 he had obtained the rank of sub-lieutenant and served onboard SMS Kx¶nig Wilhelm. During the Franco-Prussian war the German navy was greatly outnumbered and so the ship spent the duration of the war at anchor, much to the embarrassment of the navy. During the early years of Tirpitz' career, Prussia and England were on good terms and the Prussian navy spent much time in British ports. Tirpitz reported that Plymouth was more hospitable to German sailors than was Kiel, while it was also easier to obtain equipment and supplies there, which were of better quality than available at home. At this time the British navy was pleased to assist that of Prussia in its development and a considerable respect grew up in Prussian officers of their British counterparts.

Development of torpedoes

Unification of Germany in 1871 again meant a change of name, to the Kaiserliche Marine or Imperial Navy. On 25 May 1872 he was promoted to Lieutenant (Leutnant zur See) and on 18 November 1875 to the equivalent of Senior Lieutenant (Kapitx¤nleutnant). In 1877 he was chosen to visit the Whitehead Torpedo development works at Fiume and afterward was placed in charge of the German torpedo section, later renamed the torpedo inspectorate. By 1879 a working device had been produced, but even under demonstration conditions Tirpitz reckoned it was as likely to miss a target as to hit it. On 17 September 1881 he became Lieutenant Commander (Korvettenkapitx¤n). From developing torpedoes, Tirpitz moved on to developing torpedo boats to deliver them. The Navy State Secretary, Count Leo von Caprivi, was a distant relative and Tirpitz now worked with him on the development of tactics. Caprivi envisioned that the boats would be used defensively against their most likely enemy, France, but Tirpitz set about developing plans to attack the French home port of Cherbourg. Tirpitz later described his time with torpedo boats as, 'the eleven best years of my life'.

Strategic development of the Navy

In 1887 the torpedo boats escorted prince Wilhelm to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of his grandmother, Queen Victoria. This was the first time Tirpitz met Wilhelm. In July 1888 Caprivi was succeeded by Alexander von Monts. Torpedo boats were no longer considered important, and Tirpitz requested transfer, commanding the cruisers SMS Preussen and then SMS Wurttenberg. He was promoted to Captain (Kapitx¤n zur See) 24 November 1888 and in 1890 became chief of staff of the Baltic Squadron. On one occasion the Kaiser was attending dinner with the senior naval officers at Kiel and asked their opinion on how the navy should develop. Finally the question came to Tirpitz and he advised building battleships. This was an answer which appealed to the Kaiser, and nine months later he was transferred to Berlin to work on a new strategy for creating a High seas fleet. Tirpitz appointed a staff of officers he had known from his time with the torpedo boats and collected together all sorts of vessels as stand-in battleships to conduct exercises to test out tactics. On 1 December 1892 he made a presentation of his findings to the Kaiser. This brought him into conflict with the Navy State Secretary, Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann. Hollmann was responsible for procurement of ships, and had a policy of collecting ships as funding permitted. Tirpitz had concluded that the best fighting arrangement was a squadron of eight identical battleships, rather than any other combination of ships with mixed abilities. Further ships should then be added in groups of eight. Hollmann favored a mixed fleet including cruisers for long distance operations overseas. Tirpitz believed that in a war no amount of cruisers would be safe unless backed up by sufficient battleships.

Captain Tirpitz became chief of the naval staff in 1892 and was made a Rear Admiral in 1895.

In autumn 1895, frustrated by the non-adoption of his recommendations, Tirpitz asked to be replaced. The Kaiser, not wishing to lose him asked instead that he prepare a set of recommendations for future ship construction. This was delivered on January 3, 1896, but the timing was bad as it coincided with raids into the Transvaal in South Africa by pro British forces against pro German. The Kaiser immediately set his mind to demanding cruisers which could operate at a distance and influence the war. Hollman was tasked with obtaining money from the Reichstag for a building program, but failed to gain funding for enough ships to satisfy anyone. Chancellor Hohenloe saw no sense in naval enlargement and reported back that the Reichstag opposed it. Admiral Gustav von Senden-Bibran, Chief of the Naval Cabinet, advised that the only possibility lay in replacing Hollmann: Wilhelm impulsively decided to appoint Tirpitz.

Meanwhile however, Hollmann had obtained funding for one battleship and three large cruisers. It was felt that replacing him before the bill had completed approval through the Reichstag would be a mistake. Instead, Tirpitz was placed in charge of the German East Asia Squadron in the Far East but with a promise of appointment as Secretary at a suitable moment. The cruiser squadron operated from British facilities in Hong Kong which were far from satisfactory as the German ships always took second place for available docks. Tirpitz was instructed to find a suitable site for a new port, selecting four possible sites. Although he initially favored the bay at Kiautschou/Tsingtao others in the naval establishment advocated a different location and even Tirpitz wavered on his commitment in his final report. A 'lease' on the land was acquired in 1898 after it was fortuitously occupied by German forces. On 12 March 1896 the Reichstag cut back Hollmann's appropriation of 70 million marks to 58 million, and Hollman offered his resignation. Tirpitz was summoned home and offered the post of Secretary of the Imperial Navy office (Reichsmarineamt). He went home the long way, touring the USA on the way and arriving in Berlin 6 June 1897. He was pessimistic of his chances of succeeding with the Reichstag.

State Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office

On 15 June Tirpitz presented a memorandum on the makeup and purpose of the German fleet to the Kaiser. This defined the principal enemy as England, and the principal area of conflict to be that between Heligoland and the Thames. Cruiser warfare around the globe was deemed impractical because Germany had few bases to resupply ships, while the chief need was for as many battleships as possible to take on the English fleet. A target was outlined for two squadrons of eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserves. This was to be completed by 1905 and cost 408 million marks, or 58 million per year, the same as the existing budget. The proposal was innovative in several ways. It made a clear statement of naval needs, whereas before the navy had grown piecemeal. It set out the program for seven years ahead, which neither the Reichstag nor the navy should change. It defined a change in German foreign policy so as to justify the existence of the fleet: England up to this point had been friendly, now it was officially an enemy. The Kaiser agreed the plan and Tirpitz retired to St Blazien in the Black Forest with a team of naval specialists to draft a naval bill for presentation to the Reichstag. Information about the plan leaked out to Admiral Knorr, head of the Naval High Command. Tirpitz agreed a joint committee to discuss changes in the navy, but then arranged that it never receive any information. Similarly, he arranged a joint committee with the Treasury State Secretary to discuss finance, which never discussed anything. Meanwhile he continued his best efforts to convince the Kaiser and chancellor, so that in due course he could announce the issues had already been decided at a higher level and thereby avoid debate.

Once the bill was nearly complete Tirpitz started a round of visits to obtain support. First he visited the former Chancellor and elder statesman, Otto von Bismarck. Armed with the announcement that the Kaiser intended to name the next ship launched 'Furst Bismarck', he persuaded the former chancellor, who had been dismissed from office for disagreement with William, to modestly support the proposals. Tirpitz now visited the King of Saxony, Prince Regent of Bavaria, Grand Duke of Baden and Oldenburg and the councils of the Hanseatic towns. On October 19 the draft bill was sent to the printers for presentation to the Reichstag. Tirpitz' approach was to be as accommodating with the deputies as he could. He was patient and good humoured, proceeding on the assumption that if everything was explained carefully, then the deputies would naturally be convinced. Groups were invited to private meetings to discuss the bill. Tours of ships and shipyards were arranged. The Kaiser and Chancellor stressed that the fleet was only intended for protection of Germany, but so that even a first class power might think twice before attacking. Highlights from a letter Bismark wrote were read out in the Reichstag, though not mentioning passages where he expressed reservations. Papers were circulated showing the relative size of foreign fleets, and how much Germany had fallen behind, particularly when considering the great power of her army compared to others.

A press bureau was created in the Navy Ministry to ensure journalists were thoroughly briefed, and to politely answer any and all objections. Pre-written articles were provided for the convenience of journalists. University professors were invited to speak on the importance of protecting German trade. The Navy League was formed to popularise the idea of world naval power and its importance to the Empire. It was argued that colonies oversea were essential, and Germany deserved her 'place in the sun'. League membership grew from 78,000 in 1898, to 600,000 in 1901 and 1.1 million by 1914. Especial attention was given to members of the budget committee who would consider the bill in detail. Their interests and connections were analysed to find ways to influence them. Steel magnate Fritz Krupp and shipowner Albert Balin of the Hamburg-America Line were invited to speak on the benefits of the bill to trade and industry.

Objections were raised that the bill surrendered one of the most important powers of the Reichstag, that of annually scrutinising expenditure. Conservatives felt that expenditure on the navy was wasted, and that if money was available it should go to the army, which would be the deciding factor in any likely war. Eugen Richter of the Liberal Radical Union opposing the bill observed that if it was intended for Germany now seriously to take up the Trident to match its other forces then such a small force would not suffice and there would be no end to ship building. August Bebel of the Social Democrats argued that there existed a number of deputies who were Anglophobes and wished to pick a fight with England, but that to imagine such a fleet could take on the Royal Navy was insanity and anyone saying it belonged in the madhouse.

Yet by the end of the debates the country was convinced that the bill would and should be passed. On 26 March 1898 it did so, by a majority of 212 to 139. All those around the Kaiser were ecstatic at their success. Tirpitz as navy minister was elevated to a seat on the Prussian Ministry of State. His influence and importance as the man who had accomplished this miracle was assured and he was to remain at the center of government for the next nineteen years.

Second Naval Bill

One Year after the passage of the bill Tirpitz appeared before the Reichstag and declared his satisfaction with it. The specified fleet would still be smaller than the French or British, but would be able to deter the Russians in the Baltic. Within another year all had changed. In October 1899 the Boer war broke out between the British and Dutch in Africa. In January 1900 a British cruiser intercepted three German mail steamers and searched them for war supplies intended for Boers. Germany was outraged and the opportunity presented itself for a second naval bill. The second bill increased the number of battleships from nineteen to thirty-eight. This would form four squadrons of eight ships, plus two flagships and four reserves. The bill now spanned seventeen years from 1901 to 1917 with the final ships being completed by 1920. This would constitute the second largest fleet in the world and although no mention was made in the bill of specific enemies, it made several general mentions of a greater power which it was intended to oppose. There was only one navy which could be meant. On 5 December 1899 Tirpitz was promoted to Vice-Admiral. The bill passed on 20 June 1900.

Specifically written into the preamble was an explanation of Tirpitz' Risk theory. Although the German fleet would be smaller, it was likely that an enemy with a world spanning empire would not be able to concentrate all its forces in local waters. Even if it could, the German fleet would still be sufficiently powerful to inflict significant damage in any battle. Sufficient damage that the enemy would be unable to maintain its other naval commitments and must suffer irreparable harm. Thus no such enemy would risk an engagement. Privately Tirpitz acknowledged that a second risk existed: that Britain, seeing its growing enemy might choose to strike first, destroying the German fleet before it grew to a dangerous size. A similar course had been taken before, when Nelson sank Danish ships to prevent them falling into French hands, and would be again in World War II when French ships were sunk to prevent them falling to the Germans. A term, to copenhagenize even existed in English for this. Tirpitz calculated this danger period would end in 1904 or 1905. In the event, Britain responded to the increased German building program by building more ships herself and the theoretical danger period extended itself to beyond the start of World War I. As a reward for the successful bill Tirpitz was ennobled to the hereditary ‘von’ Tirpitz in 1900.

Tirpitz noted the difficulties in his relationship with the Kaiser. Wilhelm respected him as the only man who had succeeded in persuading the Reichstag to start and then increase a world class navy, but he remained Emperor and unpredictable. He was fanatical about the navy, but would come up with wild ideas for improvements, which Tirpitz had to deflect to maintain his objectives. Each Summer Tirpitz would go to St Blasien with his aids to work on naval plans. Then in September he would travel to the Kaiser's retreat at Romintern, where Tirpitz found he would be more relaxed and willing to listen to a well argued explanation.

Three supplementary naval bills ('Novelles') were passed, in June 1906, April 1908 and June 1912. The first followed German defeats in Morocco, and added six large cruisers to the fleet. The second followed fears of British encroachment, and reduced the replacement time which a ship would remain in service from 25 to 20 years. The third was caused by the Agadir Crisis where again Germany had to draw back. This time three more battleships were added.

The first naval law caused little alarm in Britain. There was already in force a dual power standard defining the size of the British fleet as at least that of the next two largest fleets combined. There was now a new player, but her fleet was similar in size to the other two possible threats, Russia and France, and a number of battleships were already under construction. The second naval law, however, caused serious alarm: eight King Edward class battleships were ordered in response. It was the regularity and efficiency with which Germany was now building ships, which were seen to be as good as any in the world, which raised concern. Information about the design of the new battleships suggested they were only intended to operate within a short range of a home base and not to stay at sea for extended periods. They seemed designed only for operations in the North Sea. The result was that Britain abandoned its policy of isolation which had held force since the time of Nelson and began to look for allies against the growing threat from Germany. Ships were withdrawn from around the world and brought back to British waters, while construction of new ships increased.

Tirpitz' design to achieve world power status through naval power, while at the same time addressing domestic issues, is referred to as the Tirpitz Plan. Politically, the Tirpitz Plan was marked by the Fleet Acts of 1898, 1900, 1908 and 1912. By 1914, they had given Germany the second-largest naval force in the world (roughly 40% smaller than the Royal Navy). It included seventeen modern dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, twenty-five cruisers and twenty pre-dreadnought battleships as well as over forty submarines. Although including fairly unrealistic targets, the expansion program was sufficient to alarm the British, starting a costly naval arms race and pushing the British into closer ties with the French.

Tirpitz developed a "risk theory" whereby, if the German Navy reached a certain level of strength relative to the British Navy, the British would try to avoid confrontation with Germany (that is, maintain a fleet in being). If the two navies fought, the German Navy would inflict enough damage on the British that the latter ran a risk of losing their naval dominance. Because the British relied on their navy to maintain control over the British Empire, Tirpitz felt they would rather maintain naval supremacy in order to safeguard their empire, and let Germany become a world power, than lose the empire as the cost of keeping Germany less powerful. This theory sparked a naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain in the first decade of the 20th century.

World War 1 Picture - Alfred von Tirpitz, 1915

Picture - Alfred von Tirpitz, 1915

This theory was based on the assumption that Great Britain would have to send its fleet into the North Sea to blockade the German ports (blockading Germany was the only way the Royal Navy could seriously harm Germany), where the German Navy could force a battle. However due to Germany's geographic location, Great Britain could blockade Germany by closing the entrance to the North Sea in the English Channel and the area between Bergen and the Shetland Islands. Faced with this option a German Admiral commented, "If the British do that, the role of our navy will be a sad one," correctly predicting the role the surface fleet would have during World War I.

Tirpitz had been made a Grand Admiral in 1911, without patent (the document that accompanied formal promotions personally signed at this level by the Kaiser himself). At that time, the German navy had only four ranks for admirals: Rear Admiral, (Konteradmiral, equal to a Generalmajor, with no pips on the shoulder board); Vice Admiral (Vizeadmiral, equal to a Generalleutnant, with one pip); Admiral (equal to a General der Infanterie, with two pips), and Grand Admiral (equal to a Field Marshal). Von Tirpitz’s shoulder boards had four pips revealing and he never received a Grand Admiral baton or the associated insignia. Despite the building program he felt the war had come too soon for a successful surface challenge to the Royal Navy as the Fleet Act of 1900 had included a seventeen-year timetable. Unable to influence naval operations from his purely administrative position, Tirpitz became a vocal spokesman for an unrestricted U-boat warfare, which he felt could break the British stranglehold on Germany's sea lines of communication. Interestingly, his construction policy never bore out his political stance on submarines, and by 1917 there was a severe shortage of newly built submarines. When restrictions on the submarine war were not lifted, he fell out with the Emperor and was compelled to resign on March 15, 1916. He was replaced as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office by Eduard von Capelle.

Fatherland Party

In 1917 Tirpitz was co-founder of the Pan-Germanic and nationalist Fatherland Party (Deutsche Vaterlandspartei). The party was organised jointly by Heinrich ClaxŸ, Conrad Freiherr von Wangenheim, Tirpitz as chairman and Wolfgang Kapp as his deputy. The party attracted opponents of a negotiated peace and organised opposition to the parliamentary majority seeking peace negotiations. It sought to bring together outside parliament all parties on the political right, which had not previously been done. At its peak in summer 1918 it had around 1,250,000 members. It proposed the Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg as 'people's emperors' of a military state whose legitimacy was based upon war and war aims instead of parliamentary government of the empire. Internally there were calls for a coup against the state, to be led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, even against the emperor if necessary. Tirpitz' experience with the navy league and mass political agitation convinced him that the means for a coup was ready.

Tirpitz considered one of the main aims of the war must be annexation of territory in the west to allow Germany to develop as a world power. This meant holding the Belgium ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, with an eye to the main enemy, England. He proposed a separate peace treaty with Russia giving them access to the ocean. Germany would be a very great continental state but could maintain its world position only by expanding world trade and continuing the fight against England. He complained of indecision and ambiguity in German policy, humanitarian ideas of self-preservation, a policy of appeasement of neutrals at the expense of vital German interests and begging for peace. He called for vigorous warfare without regard for diplomatic and commercial consequences and supported the most extreme use of weapons (unrestricted submarine warfare). The policies had a curious mixture of hatred, admiration, envy and imitation of the British Empire.

From 1908 to 1918 Tirpitz was a member of the Prussian house of Lords. After Germany's defeat he supported the right-wing Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP, German National People Party) and sat for it in the Reichstag from 1924 until 1928.

Tirpitz died in Ebenhausen, near Munich, on 6 March 1930.


Honorary Doctorate from the Universities of Gx¶ttingen (16 June 1913) and Greifswald
Honorary doctorate of engineering form the Technische Hochschule Charlottenburg
Freeman of the city of Frankfurt (Oder) (15 January 1917)
The German battleship Tirpitz was named after him in 1939.


The structure of German World Power. Stuttgart/ Berlin. 1924.
German policy. 1926.
Memories, 5 volumes. Berlin/Leipzig. 1927.


Bird, Keith. "The Tirpitz Legacy: The Political Ideology of German Sea Power," Journal of Military History, July 2005, Vol. 69 Issue 3, pp 821-825
Epkenhans, Michael. Tirpitz: Architect of the German High Seas Fleet
Kelly, Patrick J. "Strategy, Tactics, and Turf Wars: Tirpitz and the Oberkommando der Marine, 1892-1895," Journal of Military History, Oct 2002, Vol. 66 Issue 4, pp 1033-1060
Massie, Robert K.. Dreadnought. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-03260-7.

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