The opening of the Kiel Canal in June 1895 by the German Emperor Wilhelm II marked an important stage in the growth of Germany as a maritime power. The canal made Kiel one of the greatest naval bases in Europe.
THE Kiel Canal (Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal) links the North Sea with the Baltic, from Brunsbüttelkoog, at the mouth of the River Elbe, to Kiel-Holtenau, in Kiel Harbour. The length of the canal is about fifty-three nautical miles. It is one of the most important strategical canals of the world and its commercial traffic is also important. Operated at sea-level, it has two double sets of locks at either entrance. The canal is owned by the German State and administered by the Reichkanalsamt (State Canal Administration), with headquarters at Kiel.
A typical reach of the Kiel Canal between Rendsburg and the entrance at Kiel. This photograph was taken from the deck of the Royal Mail liner Atlantis. The vessel approaching is the Persephone, 8,921 tons gross. She was built at Kiel by Krupp in 1925 and is 468 ft. 8 in. long, with a beam of 63 ft. 3 in. and a depth of 35 ft. 2 in. The Kiel Canal is 333 feet wide at water-level.
The general direction of the canal from the Elbe is mainly north-east to Rendsburg, where it bends eastwards to Holtenau. There are eleven passing places and four turning places. Pilotage is compulsory, the canal pilots acting as advisers and the responsibility remaining with the master of the ship. The highest speed permitted is 8.1 knots and the lowest is 5.4 knots. Sailing vessels and lighters are towed through by commercial tugs or by tugs belonging to the Canal Administration.
Opened originally in June 1895 by the Emperor William II, the canal was afterwards widened and deepened; it was reopened in June 1914. Under the terms of the Peace Treaty of Versailles (1919) merchant vessels and warships of nations at peace with Germany have equal rights of passage, although as foreign warships thus pass through German territorial waters, permission for transit has to be obtained through diplomatic channels.
The canal is one of the outstanding achievements of modem Germany. Before its opening ocean-going ships had to go out of German territorial waters and north of the Jutland peninsula of Denmark to get from the Baltic to the North Sea ports of Germany. The canal brought the Baltic port of Kiel as near to the North Sea as the great port of Hamburg, on the River Elbe. Kiel is one of the most remarkable modern ports in Europe. The magnificent harbour is deep, sheltered, spacious and ice-free. Yet before Germany aspired to sea-power the place was a sleepy, old-world town. Directly Germany became naval-minded the port grew rapidly into one of the great naval bases of the world and became the Portsmouth of the German Empire. At one time the town was in the Hanseatic League in the duchy of Holstein. Later it became part of Denmark, but the Prussians annexed it when they took Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark in 1866. The population was only just over 31,000 in the early seventies, but by the end of the century, five years after the opening of the canal, it had trebled itself, and in 1917 was over 203,000. The transition from a naval to a commercial port has been accompanied by further growth and the latest figures put the population at over 220,000. In the days of sail the entrance to the Baltic through the Skagerrak and the Kattegat was notorious as “the graveyard of shipping.” Even in these days of steam and oil the Kattegat is an unpleasant place, especially in winter. Navigation of the Baltic is so dangerous, because of ice, shoals and islands, that insurance premiums are high.
The locks at Holtenau, at the eastern entrance to the Kiel Canal. The canal was rebuilt in 1914 at a cost of £11,000,000, and the new locks are 1,082 feet long, 148 feet wide and 39 feet deep. in the background of this photograph can be seen the Prinz Heinrich Bridge for vehicular traffic. The centre span of this bridge has a clearance of 138 feet.
The dangers of the passage round the Skaw (the northernmost point of Denmark) prompted the idea of a canal as early as the fourteenth century. It is said that when Cromwell was interested in Denmark and Sweden he considered a scheme; but nothing came of any project until the German Empire began to seek sea-power after the Franco-Prussian War. Strategical reasons alone made the construction of the canal possible. The builders of the new Germany lacked nothing of enterprise, technical efficiency, courage and the will to carry through any project that would benefit their country. They decided to carve their way out of the Baltic. Those who feared the cost and difficulties due to the marshy and treacherous nature of the soil soon became enthusiasts when they realized what the canal meant to Germany in her quest for a “place in the sun.”
Count Moltke, at first an opponent of the scheme, changed his attitude and wrote, “The Empire itself will be a great gainer by the canal, for the canal will double the strength of our fleet by enabling us, unseen and unmolested by the enemy, to throw our whole naval force into the North Sea or into the Baltic Ocean.”
An artificial outlet from the Baltic Sea. Before the opening of the Kiel Canal in 1895, vessels bound for Baltic ports had to make the long and difficult passage round the north coast of Denmark via the Skaw and the Kattegat. The distance from hamburg to kiel through the canal is only 121 nautical miles, against a distance of 646 miles round the coast.
Marshes and shifting soil were drained and dredged, great embankments were made and road and railway bridges built at high levels to avoid interference with shipping. The high banks of the canal prevent the passenger from seeing the flat, dull country on either side, and in winter, when the wind blows from the Baltic, the canal is bitterly cold. Mariners who have been in the Arctic or the Antarctic and through the Kiel Canal have said that for bitter misery the Kiel Canal is the worst of the three.
When the canal was being built it was called the North Sea and Baltic Canal, but this name was changed when the Emperor Wilhelm II opened the canal in June 1895. He named it the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal, after his grandfather, Wilhelm I, in whose reign (June 1887) the canal had been begun. Wilhelm I died in 1888, his son Frederick reigned for only ninety-nine days, and he was succeeded by Wilhelm II, the son of Frederick and of Princess Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria.
The rest of the world called the canal the Kiel Canal, because at the Baltic end was the rapidly growing naval base. Wilhelm II made the opening ceremony a world event and the occasion marked the coming of age of the German Navy. The original cost was about £8,000,000 but the enlargement, completed just before the war of 1914- 18, cost about £11,000,000 bringing the total to about £19,000,000.
From Kiel to Brunsbüttelkoog, at the mouth of the River Elbe, the Kiel Canal is fifty-three nautical miles in length. There are two double sets of locks at either entrance. The canal follows a north-easterly course from Brunsbüttelkoog as far as Rendsburg, where it turns eastward to the harbour of Kiel. A number of railway and road bridges cross the canal, but vessels 131 feet high to the top of the mast may safely pass under the bridges.
A cruising passenger liner, the Atlantis, alongside the quay in Holtenau lock. The Royal Mail Lines, Ltd., employ this vessel for cruises to Scandinavian and Baltic ports, as well as to many other places. A ship of 15,135 tons gross, she is 570 ft. 3 in. long, with a beam of 67 ft. 3 in. and a depth of 33 ft. 3 in. Ships up to 1,033 feet in length and 131 feet beam can use the Kiel Canal.