In the run-up to World War 1 (1914-1918), Germany and Britain squared off in an arms race to gain superiority where possible. A prime portion of the acquisitions for both sides were in warships of which many types were taken into service and intended to offer the slightest of advantages needed in a future naval fight. One product of the period for the Imperial German Navy became the Helgoland-class, a group of four-strong surface combatants (formally classified as "Dreadnought" battleships) built from 1908 to 1912 and in commissioned service from 1911 to 1920. All four would take part in The Great War and, rather amazingly, all four would survive to see its end in 1918. The ships of the class were SMS Helgoland herself and sisters SMS Ostfriesland, SMS Thuringen, and SMS Oldenburg.
SMS Helgoland was built by the specialists of Howaldtswerke Werft of Kiel and named after the small archipelago of the North Sea - "Heligoland" off the northwest coast of Germany. The vessel saw its keel laid down on November 11th, 1908 with launching had on September 25th of the following year. Commissioned into service on August 23rd, 1911, the warship was ready for action by the time of World War 1 - which began August of 1914.
At the time of their commissioning, the Helgoland-class were the first of the Imperial German Navy to take on the 12" (30.4cm / 304mm) naval gun as main armament and the last "three-funneled" warship group taken into service. The type succeeded the Nassau-class group built from 1907 to 1910 and in commission from 1909 to 1919. Four of this Dreadnought battleship group were completed as well. Taken as a whole, the Helgoland-class was a slight improvement over the preceding Nassau warships - which operated with 11" guns at the main battery.
The complete armament suite involved 12 x 30.5cm main guns, 14 x 15cm secondary guns, and 14 x 8.8cm tertiary guns. 6 x 50cm torpedo tubes were also fitted. Of note regarding the main gun battery was hexagonal placement of the six turrets surrounding the hull superstructure. Two turrets were set to each side of the ship with another seated fore and the remainder aft. Each showcased a twin-gunned arrangement and gave the ship considerable flexibility for engaging targets at any angle.
Power was from 15 x Boiler units feeding 4-cylinder vertical triple-expansion steam engines developing 27,617 horsepower driving 3 x Shafts astern. Maximum speed in ideal conditions would reach nearly 21 knots (20.8 kts) and range while treading water at 10 knots was 5,500 nautical miles (6,330 miles).
Aboard was a crew of 42 officers with 1,027 sailors/enlisted personnel. Armor protection reached 12" at the belt, another 12" at the primary turrets, and 2.5" at the deck. Well armed and armored, Helgoland presented itself as a major foe on the high seas.
SMS Helgoland formed part of the vaunted "High Seas Fleet" of Germany which competed directly against the might of the British "Grand Fleet". Helgoland began service by patrolling across the North Sea and countered the Russian threat in the Baltic Sea for a time. She supported actions at the Battle of the Gulf of Riga during August of 1915 - an Allied victory - which took place from August 8th until August 20th.
The major contest involving Helgoland became the famous Battle of Jutland - the grand engagement of both German and British fleets in what became an indecisive battle claimed as a victory for both sides. The battle took place on May31st through June 1st, 1916 with the British losing more ships to the enemy though the German fleet was now more-or-less contained for the remainder of the war. Helgoland took damage in the action but lived to fight another day.
As with other ships of the German fleet, SMS Helgoland was intended for the final suicidal push against the British Navy to gain better surrender conditions for Germany by 1918. However this assault never took place due to mutiny and sabotage within the ranks - and the end of the war, by way of the Armistice, followed in November of 1918, bringing about an end to the Imperial German Navy threat in the region.
Helgoland joined her three sisters in being stripped of their war-making capabilities and were handed over to the British as prizes. She was removed from active service on December 16th, 1918 and her name was struck from the Naval Register on November 5th, 1919. The British took formal ownership of the vessel on August 5th, 1920 and the hull was scrapped in 1921 - she was gone in full by 1924.