During January 1938, the pre-WW1 German ex-battleship, now training ship, paid a visit to Port Elizabeth. The young German cadets were invited to attend a party Woodridge School. In retrospect that innocent invitation ultimately became an embarrassment to the school for reasons soon to be revealed. One year and nine months later on the 1st September 1939, this self-same ship would fire the very first shots of WW2.
Main picture: The cadets from the Schleswig Holstein display the swastika emblem over the balcony at the Woodridge school
Ship’s history to January 1938
SMS Schleswig-Holstein was the last of the five Deutschland-class battleships built by the German Kaiserliche Marine. The ship, named for the province of Schleswig-Holstein, was laid down in the Germaniawerft dockyard in Kiel in August 1905 and commissioned into the fleet nearly three years later. The ships of her class were already outdated by the time they entered service, being inferior in size, armour, firepower and speed to the new generation of dreadnought battleships.
Schleswig-Holstein fought in both World Wars. During World War I, she saw front-line service in II Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet, culminating in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May – 1 June 1916. Schleswig-Holstein saw action during the engagement and was hit by one large-calibre shell. After the battle, Schleswig-Holstein was relegated to guard duty in the mouth of the Elbe River before being decommissioned in late 1917.
In terms of the armistice signed at the end of WW1, the Kriegs Marine had to sail all their vessels to Scapa Flow in Scotland where they were surrendered to the Royal Navy. While moored there, the German naval personnel revolted. Simultaneously the crew scuttled their vessels. Instead of the Royal Navy obtaining a whole fleet of new ships, the admirals chocked on their rum, being stymied by the German sailors. The Schleswig Holstein escaped this ignominious end by already having been decommissioned.
As one of the few battleships permitted for Germany by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Schleswig-Holstein was again pressed into fleet service in the 1920s. In 1935, the old battleship was converted into a training ship for naval cadets.
Visit to Port Elizabeth
On Monday 17th January 1938 when the Schleswig Holstein sailed into the harbour, a J. Feldbausch was the commanding officer. According to Margaret Harradine “The German Consul here, H. Wedemann, hosted a ball in the Feather Market Hall and other entertainments were arranged including a swimming gala and water polo match. The midshipmen were also taken to Woodridge where a photograph was taken of them with a swastika draped over the upper verandah. Local families with naval connections acted as hosts to individual youths, friends were made, and letters were exchanged, until the war scattered the correspondents.”
The placing of a huge swastika over the balustrade might have seemed like an innocent activity for the local children unversed in German politics, but given the fact that the Swastika was an emblem of the Nazi Party and not a state or non-political emblem, it was highly irregular for the cadets to place a swastika at the venue of their guests. This is probably indicative of the merger of state and the Nazi party subsequent to their accession to power by the Nazis in 1933. One wonders whether most if not all of these cadets were members of the Hitlerjeugend – Hitler Youth – and whether they were still the crew of the Schleswig Holstein which participated in the bombardment of Danzig on the 1st September 1939.
In all probability, most of the pupils were unaware of the significance of the swastika and what the rise of the Nazis meant to the future of the world.
Service during WW2 and after
.In spite of its age, the Schleswig-Holstein was still capable of inflicting severe damage with her 28cm guns. Under the guise of visiting Danzig, she was accorded Polish hospitality and moored uneventfully in the harbour. It was this outdated warship well past her retirement date that was allocated a special role in WW2. She was instructed to fire the first shots of World War II by bombarding the Polish base at Danzig‘s Westerplatte in the early morning hours of 1 September 1939. During the rest of WW2 she was again downgraded into another non-martial role as a training vessel for the majority of the war. Her fate was to be sunk by British bombers in Gotenhafen in December 1944. After surviving WW1, the Schleswig-Holstein was subsequently resurrected by being salvaged and then beached for use by the Soviet Navy as a target.
- Swastika over Woodridge [Herald]