End of an era for Germany’s most famous shipyard

The first yard buildings at B + V in 1877. (Note the timber supports holding the walls up!) The first yard buildings at B + V in 1877. (Note the timber supports holding the walls up!)
Industry Database

Quintessentially German Blohm +Voss Shipyard is due to become part of the Au Dhabi Mar Group soon and pass out of majority German ownership - but not presumably German shipbuilding hands - after nearly 135 years, writes Tom Todd.

The sale of an 80% share in the Hamburg shipbuilding giant by current owners ThyssenKrupp will mark the final step in negotiations which have dragged on since 2009. The history of the facility, perhaps the best-known shipyard in Germany, has touched three centuries and included two world wars. It has been often turbulent, sometimes tragic, but always fascinating. During it the Hamburg shipyard has built not only some of the most feared ships in naval history, but also merchantmen of revolutionary design, giant ocean-going liners, fast cruise ships, legendary sailing ships and even offshore oil rigs.

In 1877 Blohm + Voss was just a collection of shacks in water-logged meadowland on Hamburg’s River Elbe. Any dreams of greatness will have existed only in the minds of the two young men who set up the small yard in that year. One was Hermann Blohm, the 29-year-old engineering son of a Lübeck merchant. The other was 35-year-old blacksmith’s son and technical wizard Ernst Voss. The combination of their wide-ranging and forward-looking talents was to have an explosive impact on the future of industrial Germany and shipping world-wide.

Within about 30 years they turned their fledgling enterprise into the biggest private shipyard the world had ever seen. To them also goes some of the credit – or blame if you will - for loosening Britain’s 19th-Century stranglehold on world shipbuilding and for setting up Germany as a shipbuilder with clout and as an envied, and also feared, industrial and military giant.

In the 1870s, England ruled not only the waves but also shipbuilding. Blohm and Voss, who both spent formative years in British shipyards and engineering plants before they met, believed they could end that domination and build their own iron ships complete with engines and boilers.

Customers were however initially unwilling to buy untried German ships while proven British workmanship lay just across the water. German shipowners appeared even more British than the British.

Blohm and Voss borrowed cash and, with a few other like-minded builders kept the young firm afloat with ship repair and built their first iron ship the three-masted barque National for their own account. It was not until 1878 that the first independent order - for a small paddle steamer - was booked, but it was the tiny cargo vessel Burg, ordered later but completed before the other two, that was the first ship launched by B + V.

After 1882, a growing reputation for quality and punctuality along with a boom in merchant newbuilding began to attract orders. The yard invested in Germany's first iron floating dock of 3,000tons capacity, its three sections equipped with steam engines and boiler and pumping plant. Forward-looking plant like this and the division of activity into newbuilding and repair helped overcome the crises of the early years, as indeed it also did in the 1990s, and cement B + V’s reputation. Docks got bigger, but each time the experts wrongly thought that capacity would last a lot longer than it actually did – an experience also mirrored by modern German shipbuilders like Meyer Werft and HDW.

Of the more than 900 vessels built by B + V in its first 100 years nearly 40 were with sail. They ranged from the four-masted ‘Flying P’ barques like Petschili, Pamir, Passat and Peking to the naval training sailship Gorch Fock which is still in service today. Nearly all the B+V square riggers made history in one way or another – like the Laeisz barque Potrimpos, delivered in 1887. She broke every speed record in the book, taking just 61 days to sail from the English Channel to Valparaiso. However, the ill-fated Pamir, a naval cadet training ship and the last of the ‘Flying P’ ships operated by Germany, sank in the Atlantic in 1957 with the loss of 80 lives. Her sister Passat is now berthed in Lübeck as a permanent memorial to the famous Laeisz ships.

In the wake of a boom period in merchant vessel newbuilding at B+V towards the end of the 19th century, came the first of the yard’s big battleships, cruisers and U-boats. Berlin, concerned at dominant British naval power, ordered them for the German Navy. It was a troubled era for the Germans: the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russian-Japanese War and German colonial responsibilities placed increased demands on ships.

The shipyard’s first big warship, the 11,097grt Kaiser-Class battleship Kaiser Karl der Grosse was launched in 1899 and warship construction was to dominate activity until the end of WW1. By 1914, B + V was not only the world’s biggest shipyard, but it had also made technological history with peaceful developments like the first turbine ship and the first double engine plant. The yard also took most of the German honours in the trans-Atlantic liner epoch. When the British started to build giant 45,000grt trans-Atlantic steamships, the Germans replied with even bigger passenger vessels - among them the 54,282grt four-screw, turbine express Vaterland launched at B + V in 1913. Some 300m long and for 4,000 passengers, she was impounded in New York during WW1, later served as a troop carrier and was scrapped in 1938 as the Leviathan. An even bigger passenger liner, the 56,551grt Bismarck was part of German WW1 reparations to Britain. She burned out as the British Caledonia in 1939. It is however the 41,700grt World War 2 battleship that usually springs to mind when the name Bismarck is mentioned. Launched at B + V in 1939, she was sunk by the British in 1941.

Things looked gloomy for Blohm + Voss after WW1. Many of those who had shaped the yard’s first 30 years had gone. Ernst Voss died in 1920 and Hermann Blohm ten years later. But in the inter-war years Blohm + Voss turned out more than 140 ships and even some seaplanes. Many of the ships blazed new technological trails and showed that the yard had lost none of its pacemaking technical spirit or the engineering flexibility of its earlier years.

The 1920s and 1930s were the years of B + V supremacy in spectacular passenger and cargo ships. They included Hamburg-Amerika’s 20,600grt turbine ship Deutschland, another WW2 casualty, Hamburg Süd’s unforgettable Cap Arcona and the popular ‘Monte’ class vessels as well as, of course the fantastic 49,746 grt four-screw Europa for Norddeutscher Lloyd. She won the Blue Riband in 1930 from her sister ship Bremen and it was a miracle she was completed at all. Her keel was laid in 1927 but a shipyard strike delayed building and then a fire left her a buckled wreck. Undaunted, B+V raised and restored the Europa and she was handed over in Spring 1930 only seven months behind schedule. She averaged nearly 28 knots on her maiden voyage to New York the same year and sailed for the last time in 1962 as the French Liberté.

Both Europa and Bremen were worthy successors of the old ‘Imperator’ ships but a new series of liners of that class was soon being planned. Work started at Blohm + Voss on the first, Vaterland 11, but she was never to be completed. The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 ended the project, along with a dream, an era and an entire shipyard.

If there was ever a time when the fortunes of Blohm + Voss were at their lowest ebb, it has to be 1945 – six years and scores of submarines later. The Allies dismantled the heavily bombed yard and blew up what was left. It looked as though Blohm + Voss was doomed, but Hermann Blohm’s two sons Rudolf and Walther stepped in. They restored the shipyard step by step in the 1950s and sent it off into a high-tech future in which it was to flourish again in an era of ever-bigger container ships and complete the world’s biggest boxship of its day, the 58,088grt Hamburg Express in 1972. The yard also blazed specialist offshore trails with oil rigs, pipe layers and crane ships.

Newbuilding, repair/conversion and engineering all remain among its activities today, following restructuring in 1996 into three autonomous newbuilding, repair and engineering companies. Blohm + Voss still handles naval newbuilding and ThyssenKrupp will still have an interest in that when Abu Dhabi Mar takes over the yard. In May the yard started consortium work on the first of a new generation of German frigates. Mega yachts are currently another top newbuilding money spinner.

Blohm + Voss Repair meanwhile, close to closure in the 1990s, has boomed in the cruise ship repair and conversion sector in recent years. The yard’s giant docks go on hosting the biggest cruise ships in the world.

It’s true, times are hard again for Germany’s shipbuilding industry but that’s par for the course at its most famous shipyard – whoever owns it.

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