Blohm + Voss – 125 Years In The Making

Friday, June 07, 2002
More than 125 years ago, on April 5, 1877, two young and ambitious engineers, Hermann Blohm and Ernst Voss joined together to what has since evolved into one of Germany’s most advanced and largest shipyards – Blohm + Voss Schiffswerft und Maschinenfabrik (shipyard and machine factor) on Steinwarder Island, situated on the River Elbe. Originally formed to build steam ships, the company began to develop into one of the largest closed shipyard site and dock capacity by the beginning of the 20th Century. Throughout its developmental stages, Blohm + Voss profited richly from a favorable economic environment, as well. At the time, the industrialization of the united German Reich was occurring, thus causing the need for a large amount of cargo and passenger ships were suddenly needed. And when Germany began to develop into a major European power, warships became in demand at the yard. Opposite Beginnings Hailing from polar opposite backgrounds, Hermann Blohm and Ernst Voss could not have been more different. Blohm was born into an established Lubeck business family, while Voss was the son of a blacksmith in Fockbeck, near Rendsburg. It was however, their mutual interest in shipbuilding and mechanical engineering that brought the two men together. Following sound training and having worked for German and English firms, both had already tried to start a shipyard with other partners – but did not get very far. Instead, the two joined forces in their own shipbuilding venture – which did not come easily. It was with hard work and strong determination that drove both Blohm + Voss to their successes. The Senate of the Hanseatic City Hamburg reluctantly leased the two men a 15,000 sq. m. marshy site on Steinwarder Island on the River Elbe so that the groundwork could be laid for their shipbuilding enterprise. After overcoming an abundance of obstacles, the original shipyard was created – only after the site was dried out via a complicated method. With machines in place and workers hired, the shipyard opened, only to be greeted with zero orders. Shipping firms in Hamburg were wary of the two young engineers, as well as the workers that they employed. It was general knowledge that it was not an easy task (or demand) for those who had knowledge of iron ships, which had not been run in several years. In addition, the Hamburg firms traditionally ventured to their “regulars” (shipyards located in the U.K.) when they wanted something built. Their reasoning was one that involved staying loyal to the yards they had been working with for many years. The firms in Hamburg just were not about to take that kind of risk – trusting two young strangers to build their vessels. Instead of closing down its doors before they could even be open, Herman Blohm took matters into his own hands by playing door-to-door salesman, so to speak, by building its own vessel that would be funded completely by the yard. Since the mechanical engineering arm of the yard was not completed, Blohm + Voss’ premier vessel was a sailing ship known as the barque National, which the yard managed to sell as Flora to a Hamburg shipping company known as Amsnick.

A Steady Pace Once things began to pick up, a dockyard was created in 1882 to serve the growing need for docking capacities in Hamburger Harbor. Known as Dock I, the dock was designed and built by the yard, thus laying the cornerstone for an additional branch of business, which rapidly expanded throughout the next several years. The high point of Navy shipbuilding before the Great War, in which the structures of Europe were permanently damaged, was formed by the battle cruisers, which put Blohm + Voss on the map as a leading shipyard in this sector. Beginning with Von der Tann, which was delivered in 1910 as the Imperial Navy’s answer to the British Navy’s invincible class, the vessel had a displacement of 21,000 tons; its main weapons consisting of eight 28 cm canons. Von der Tann was followed by Motke in 1911; Goeben in 1912; Seydlitz in 1913; and Derffinger in 1914 – all of which held displacement of 31,200 and 30.5-m canons. During World War I, Blohm + Voss found itself making many fundamental changes, which finally led to its commencement of large scale building of submarines at the insistence of the Imperial Navy Office – even though the yard was designed specifically for building large vessels – as reiterated by Hermann Blohm. But, since current events led to the added demand for submarine construction, there was really not much else to do. A production process to fit the needs of this type of construction was then implemented at the yard – permitting a respectable amount of submarine construction of the UB and UC type. Apart from a few scattered torpedo boats, the only conventional floating ship to built at the yard during this era was the small cruiser, Coln that was delivered in 1918. The time between the two World Wars brought much unrest to the yard, as it was a popular target for communists in the period following the armistice, peace negotiations and Treaty of Versailles. Conditions at the yard went from bad to worse as it was affected by inflation and worldwide economic crisis. The yard was now managed by Hermann Blohm’s sons Rudolf and Walther – who joined the firm as shareholders during the war. WWII And Beyond Following the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, Blohm + Voss once again became a yard that was exclusively dedicated to manufacturing submarines. In fact, two submarines built in 1943-1944 with Walter propulsion were the forerunners of a new submarine age – initially leading up to the large electric boats – type XXI, which were leaving the shipyard on a daily basis in greater numbers. Considering the increase of bombing raids from mid 1943, which then became almost daily: Blohm + Voss built 171 units of the Type VII C alone. And even after hundreds of fire and explosive bomb hits, 17 Type XXI boats were still handed over to the navy at the beginning of 1945. It was also at this time that Blohm + Voss was destroyed when almost 1,200 high-explosive bombs struck the yard. Following the handing over of Hamburg to British forces, the yard is cleared out and by December 31, all work was ordered to cease, thus closing the shipyard. The slipway and fame structures of the yard are blown up in 1946, followed by complete dismantling of the shipyard two years later. Every piece of machinery and equipment – including the pots in the works canteen – are distributed among the 15 nations of the victorious allies. In 1949, the directors and owners of Blohm + Voss stand trial for non-compliance with the dismantling regulations. At the same time the other West German yards begin to build new ships in accordance with the Potsdam Agreement. The 1950’s brought about positive change for the shipyard, when in 1953, permission was granted for ship repair and the construction of coasters – eventually extended to seagoing ships and industrial turbines. In 1955, two floating docks were returned to the shipyard and the establishment of Blohm + Voss AG commences with Phoenix-Rheinrohr AG acquiring 50 percent of the share capital of $9.4 million. One year later, Blohm + Voss constructs a trio of passenger vessels for Hurtigrouten Bergen-Kirkenses, thus signifying its re-entry into the export business. The collapse of the adjacent Schlieker Shipyard offered Blohm + Voss opportunities – specifically within navy shipbuilding. The yard was contracted to pick up where Schlieker left off in the construction of tenders for the German navy, resulting in the yard’s designation as the project shipyard for vessels of this type. In 1967, the yard constructed Polar Ecuador for Hamburg Süd, and also introduced the Pioneer multi carrier system – a uniform type ship consisting of almost exclusively of flat, rectangular surfaces. Overall, the company had a large range of products, which expanded further by a large number of other activities both in shipbuilding and mechanical engineering. Evolving into the containership and cargo ship business was the plan in the 1970s with the yard delivering a second-generation containership Sydney Express for Hapag’s Europe-Australia service. In 1971, Blohm + Voss delivered a trio of cargo ships of 164,000 dwt each, followed by another pair of containerships one year later. The German navy also continued to be an important customer for the yard – primarily for repairs and conversions – eventually branching out to the realization of the frigate program. Blohm + Voss delivered two mainly equipped units of Type F 122 to general contractor Bremer Vulkan. In the following series F 123 and F 124, Blohm + Voss was already established as the leading yard in German frigate consortium and went on to build the first ship of each series. Blohm + Voss again proved its technological prowess in the creation of the hovercraft catamaran MEKAT, which was presented to the public in 1989. While numerous civil and military variants were developed, this type of ship did not catch on, and apart from the prototype built for trials and presentations, no other ships of this kind were created. On the other hand, the development of fast single hull ships was promising. The first success for Blohm + Voss in this area was with an order for two fast 24,000 BRZ cruiser ships by a Greek shipping company. This order was also considered yet another innovation on the yard’s part, as it signified its re-entry into the realm that it had so highly occupied before the war – the passenger shipbuilding business. The order was followed by a contract from Royal Olympic Cruise Lines, which called on the yard to build Olympic Voyager, which has had a successful run since 2000, followed by the vessel’s sistership Olympia Explorer, which was launched recently.

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